Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The view from 58

I turned 58 today. I distinctly remember my fourth birthday party, at my paternal grandmother's house at 1243 Azalia St. in South Memphis.

As I commented to one of my cousins, I am the age my maternal grandfather was when I was 12, in 1964. He always seemed "old" and "dignified" to me; I have to wonder now if he too thought of himself as basically the same person as the boy had had once been, only with gray hair and not-quite-so-good eyesight.

In another month, I plan to drive to New Jersey for my 40th-anniversary high school reunion. I hope to tour Gettysburg where, as I hear, you can hire a private guide for a couple of hours, and I expect to definitely pick his brains!

The same grandfather I mentioned related to me how, though he didn't remember the man's name, he once sat as a child in his one-room rural school house in West Virginia as the children were addressed by the elderly John McCausland Jr., brigadier of the Confederacy, the last Confederate general to die, which he did on his farm near Point Pleasant, in 1927. McCausland had burned the town of Chambersburg, PA in retaliation for Union depredations in the Shenandoah and, so my granfather told me, spent the rest of his life unwilling to have his back to a window, for fear of a revenging gunshot.

Here is one of my favorite quotes, from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, even though I've never really lived up to it:

From Maximus I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I observed that everybody believed that he thought as he spoke, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his vexation, nor, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do acts of beneficence, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he presented the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right, rather than of a man who had been improved. I observed, too, that no man could ever think that he was despised by Maximus, or ever venture to think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way.

That is certainly Stoicism at its best, and if anyone ever really lived that way, he was admirable.

Here are some thoughts on life that I posted recently on an online message board:

1. Don't ever "settle" in a relationship. You may lie down by yourself at night, but you can still have your dignity and your peace of mind.

2. Sit down quietly, even for half an hour a day, and read something that has nothing to do with finding a mate, getting your next promotion, or improving your investments.

3. Get in the habit of saving, even if it's only $10 a paycheck to start. If you don't, when you reach 40, you'll wish you had.

4. As you approach the age for which Viagra was invented, remember that the most potent sex organ is the brain.

5. Exercise, even if it's nothing but a brisk, half-hour walk each day.

6. Try not to reach age 50 and have to say, as Samuel Johnson did, that he had known about as much at 18 as he knew when he reached 50.

7. At least once a month, turn off the phone, the computer, the TV, and any other electronic devices and live all day without using any of them.

8. Do the same with your car.

9. Realize that you may think you're hot stuff now, but one day, there will be people who seem to you about 15 years old, who will be sitting in business meetings with you and barely concealing the fact that they think you're an old fart.

10. If you're a parent, no matter what your kids do, you can't stop loving them. Even after they are grown and gone, you will think about them every day.

11. If you are religious, be very clear as to why you believe. Try to be sure it is your belief and not merely a legacy from your parents and grandparents that you kept following from nothing but habit.

12. If you are not religious, be very clear why you don't believe. Don't be a skeptic for no reason than that you are still mad at your Sunday school teacher of 40 years ago or from a secret fear that the Deity wouldn't approve of your private life.

13. Set some outrageous goal, like climbing Kilimanjaro at 60. Whether you realize the goal or not, the mere fact of trying seriously to make it come about may take you to interesting places.

14. If you have a remarkable ability of some kind, or a notable achievement, accept any recognition for it graciously but always be ready to give as much credit as you can to those who worked with you.

15. Don't engage in idle flattery, but try to make others feel important and appreciated, as much as you honestly can.

16. Don't tell your kids how you walked 2 miles to your violin lesson when you were their age. Even if it's true, they either won't believe you or won't find it relevant to anything they're interested in.

17. Every so often, ask yourself, if you knew you would die this week, what estimate you could make of your own life.

18. Don't give advice that you either haven't followed or wouldn't care to even now.

Another one I thought of was "From time to time, ask yourself, 'If I went missing, where would they look for me?'"

And finally (from the same message board—something I wish I'd said but didn't): "In any compromise between good and bad, bad is always the winner." How true!

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The truth will out

The cancellation of a planned raid by the Israeli Army after a soldier posted the details on FaceBook goes under the headings of "something you couldn't make up" and "why does this not surprise me?" It reminds me of an observation by William F. Buckley, Jr. that I read long ago, about Phil Donahue interviewing Geraldine Ferraro and asking, what was still considered a little tactless even in 1984, what it felt like to be confronted by the revelations of her husband's venality.

Buckley commented that Ferraro regarded Donahue, "Who probably would have asked Christ on the cross what it felt like to be crucified" in dignified silence for a moment and then said "Phil, some things are personal," which, as Buckley observed, "to Donahue, was like the revelation to physicists at Los Alamos in 1945 that E does, indeed, equal MC squared."

The foolish Israeli soldier who betrayed his battalion's plans was removed from combat duty and imprisoned for ten days. Had he been sentenced to serve his time in offices of the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles, he could at least have pondered his folly in silence, after the DMV canceled its subscription to Muzak, following numerous customer complaints. That's a start, certainly, though it's less certain how to cancel boors who sit down near you and start loud cellphone conversations. I'm hoping that Sharper Image will eventually start selling a jamming device that you can activate silently from your pocket in such an event.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bitten by bytes

It appalls but does not completely surprise me that a 3-month-old Korean girl slowly starved to death while her feckless parents haunted a nearby internet café playing computer games; the horrible irony is that the game that addicted them was a simulation in which they raised a virtual child online.

The article from the Guardian Online cited yet other instances of the same social evil:

A 22-year-old Korean man was charged last month with murdering his mother because she nagged him for spending too much time playing games. After killing her the man went to a nearby internet cafe and continued with his game, said officials. In 2005 a young man collapsed in an internet cafe in the city of Taegu after playing the game StarCraft almost continuously for 50 hours. He went into cardiac arrest and died at a local hospital.

Admittedly, distraction from the obligations of the immediate was not born with the Internet. In Gulliver's Travels, Swift satirized absent-minded thinkers who needed minders to follow them around through the day and periodically tap them on the shoulder to remind them where they were. A guilt-ridden Mark Twain confessed in his Autobiography that his oldest son's death was his fault; sunk deep in thought as he took a carriage ride one winter day with the toddler, Clemens did not notice that the blanket had slipped off the boy's bare legs; his son caught a chill and died shortly after.

Perhaps the difference with the Internet is that it is interactive and that there is an immediate payoff; this, plus the distraction from tedium, must be among the reasons that people text while driving. As long as people are obsessed with the world online, they could do worse than to spend their time addressing one of the next great issues in national security: the ease with which unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, can be assembled, chillingly detailed last week in Newsweek by P.W. Singer:

At least 40 other countries—from Belarus and Georgia to India, Pakistan, and Russia—have begun to build, buy, and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, showcasing their efforts at international weapons expos ranging from the premier Paris Air Show to smaller events in Singapore and Bahrain. In the last six months alone, Iran has begun production on a pair of weapons-ready surveillance drones, while China has debuted the Pterodactyl and Sour Dragon, rivals to America's Predator and Global Hawk. All told, two thirds of worldwide investment in unmanned planes in 2010 will be spent by countries other than the United States.

When we invaded Iraq, I explained to my worried son, then 14, why Saddam couldn't send planes to bomb us as we could bomb Baghdad. Times are changing: Singer's article mentions that a 77-year-old blind man in Canada designed a drone that flew across the Atlantic to Ireland. These home-made gadgets actually gain from being less advanced than the machinery of our current defenses:

Smaller UAVs' cool, battery-powered engines make them difficult to hit with conventional heat-seeking missiles; Patriot missiles can take out UAVs, but at $3 million apiece such protection comes at a very steep price. Even seemingly unsophisticated drones can have a tactical advantage: Hizbullah's primitive planes flew so slowly that Israeli F-16s stalled out trying to decelerate enough to shoot them down.

According to a robotics expert cited in the article, an amateur could build a machine for less than $50,000 that could shut down Manhattan. Actually, our own government nearly achieved that when some nitwit let Air Force One fly over the city for a photo opportunity last year, panicking thousands.

Getting back to UAVs, the "Popular Mechanics" aspect isn't the only problem; even worse, it seems that overlooked and easily exploitable security flaws aren't limited to the Giant of Redmond:

More recently, The Wall Street Journal reported, the U.S. ignored a dangerous flaw in its UAV technology that allowed Iraqi insurgents to tap into the planes' video feeds using $30 software purchased over the Internet.

Until this Terminator-like future arrives, one can still take refuge in the quiet pleasures of an art museum (though the guard at the Phillips Collection in Washington nearly assaulted me last year when my flash went off as I photographed Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party), but according to Newsweek staffer Jennie Yabroff, art appreciation can have its own hazards:

Stendhal syndrome isn't included in the draft version of the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, released last month, but with proposed additions including "apathy syndrome" and Internet addiction, it's probably only a matter of time. The affliction takes its name from the 19th-century French writer, who was overcome after visiting Florence's Basilica di Santa Croce. In 1989 an Italian psychiatrist named Graziella Magherini published La Sindrome di Stendhal, describing more than 100 tourists who suffered dizziness and heart palpitations (some requiring hospitalization) after seeing the Florentine sights. According to Magherini, great art can make you sick.

Yabroff cites Stendhal's own account of the experience that caused Magherini's diagnosis:

Stendhal visited Florence in 1817: maybe he was suffering Grand Tour pressure to have a properly edifying travel experience. But what actually happened? He writes, "On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall."

I doubt that any age has ever equalled ours for discovering previously unknown disorders and tagging them with clinical names, but I think there may be something to this. What happens if a work of art really grips you? If it is sufficiently powerful, it may affect the viewer, on a smaller scale, like the feeling described in Sylvia Plath's poem, "Mystic":

Once one has seen God, what is the remedy?
Once one has been seized up

Without a part left over,
Not a toe, not a finger, and used,
Used utterly, in the sun’s conflagrations, the stains
That lengthen from ancient cathedrals
What is the remedy?

How many transformative experiences can one endure in a single day? As my son wisely observed after we had toured the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, "I think I'm all museumed out for now."

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.