Thursday, December 30, 2010

From Boychick to Man

"In a place where there are no menschen,
you be a mensch."

In the past several years, the boy I called Boychick here on my blog has been busy growing up.

After acquiescing to his request to go to high school, I have not featured him here very much, preferring to give him his privacy as he went about this business of learning to be a man. In the process, he went from being my Boychick--my favored (and only) boy-child, to being the Rasta Jew--who was quite enamored with Reggae music and then with trucks and the Dukes of Hazzard.

From the beginning, high school has been a challenge to my young man, who has found great difficulty with academics, and who's talent lies in hands-on subjects such as music, art and sports. And yet he has perservered, and despite finally receiving a formal educational diagnosis of Autism and Specific Learning Disability, he has also made numerous friends who accept his ways as a given. Kids these days do seem to be much more accepting of differences among themselves, even as they navigate a world that seems less and less accepting of them.

From last March until now, as the Engineering Geek and I have been putting into place our plans for Going Galt, the Rasta Jew has been considering his own future as well. It took a good deal of courage to tell me, his scholarly mother, that university studies were not part of his plans.

And it has taken some work on my part to let loose the apron strings and let him dream his dreams. And yet, at the same time, it is immensely satisfying for me to see the changes that his choices has wrought within him. On his IEP in the spring of his freshman year, he said that he wanted to be a Rock Star when he grew up. This seemed like the same kind of starry eyed ambition as the first grader who wanted to be an astronaut or a fireman. But in the past six months, the obsession with trucks has become an obessession with engines and now they work--an obsession that includes a great deal of work and study to understand them in great detail.

When we closed on the ranch in Catron County in August, we began to plan in earnest for the EG's retirement, and for the move. At that time, I gave the Rasta Jew a choice. He could either stay at East Mountain High School and we would make arrangements for him to stay with his sister or friends, or he could move down with us to the ranch. At the time this choice was presented, our young man had seen the ranch just once, and although he loved it, the whole project was not real to him and he seemed inclined to stay at East Mountain. But starting Labor Day weekend, we began spending two or three weekends a month at the ranch, and he began spending time with a genuine Cowboy, Mr. H., and learning some of the skills we all needed to know. He repaired fencing, put in line, chopped wood, built fires, and learned to rope. And his plans began to change.

At the same time, the Junior level curriculum at his college prep high school was becoming quite a challenge. A month in to school, it was recommended that he drop German Language and add a Structured Study Hall in order to focus on two academic courses, as well as his beloved music class, World Rhythm. He still struggled both with the kind of writing that was being demanded in his humanities, as well as with the pace of the work, as well as in math. He began to realize that his talents and the skills he was developing did not lie with academic work in the classroom, but with his ability to take things apart and put them back together in order to get them working--whether it was an electric guitar or a drive-shaft that fell out of his truck.
So in October, when we visited Quemado High School in Catron County, he was far less interested in the Calculus class being taught to students in classrooms in three different schools across 100 miles through the magic of technology, than he was in the fact that the school has an excellent wood shop, metal shop and welding program. Such opportunities are now almost non-existent in the urban schools as kids are pushed toward college whether they have the talent and the inclination for it or not. A discussion of the FFA program and 4-H, both of which take place during the school day, got the wheels turning in his head, and a few weeks later, with the help of his very special Special Education coordinator at East Mountain, he announced that he was going to move with us to the ranch.

Since then, we have seen remarkable peace and purpose descend upon him; he has a vision for his future, and it is very specific. He wants to learn welding and auto-mechanics, and plans to attend a trade school for those skills, and then he wants to open his own business in Catron County, and live at the ranch. A rancher needs to be a master of many of the trade skills, plus animal skills, and the Rasta Jew's ambition is to take over the ranch from us one day. He loves working the cattle, and gets up without complaint of a snowy morning to bring them feed and get wood ready for the fire.

He has begun to study the things he will be learning to fulfill his plans. He has been reading up on horses, to better care for his horse, and he spends as much time working his saddle as he does playing his guitar. He keeps Faye E. Ward's The Cowboy at Work by his bed, as well as the Horseman's Almanac. And he pores over the technical manuals for his Jeep, and has developed innovative ways to replace parts that can no longer be found. Thus has the Boychick cum Rasta Jew become the Cowboy in Training (CIT).

It has been a wonderful transformation to watch, as his purpose unfolds bringing with it a new maturity and sense of responsiblity.
No longer a Boychick, he is becoming a man, and is beginning to show the purpose and the promise that comes when a boy puts away childish things, in order to create a life that satisfies his own desires and understandings. For to be a mensch--a real man, a real human being--is to become a person who does not do what is expected, but what is right. And he chooses his own path, putting away the childish desire to do what he thinks his parents want, or to be like others. And with that choice comes a new sense of purpose and a new responsibility to make of his life something he can truly love.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Yule: A Week Out of Time

Yule, that's what this week is. Since we don't celebrate Christmas, I had not thought of it this way before. But in the days of the Old Religions of Europe, people took this whole week surrounding the Solstice out of their calendar completely. The days were not part of any month, and they had no number except Yule 1, Yule 2, and so forth. It was literally a week out of time. And peculiarly, this week feels much like a week that has been yanked out of the normal flow of time for us, because we are non-celebrators. All of our normal routines and interactions are blown to the wind, and we have no special rituals to replace them.

This year, the sense of dislocation is even greater. The Engineering Geek retired from his employment at Sandia National Labs on December 23, and we are starting a new adventure in independent employment, Going Galt, as it were, and moving down to our ranch in Catron County. And the move is coming soon, as the Catron Kid (a.k.a. the Rasta Jew) will start his new school on January 5.

Never have I been less prepared for an imminent move.

This year, at Erev Shabbat Shemot (Christmas Eve to much of the rest of America), we had a cake and poured Champagne to toast the Engineering Geek's retirement. And the Engineering Geek was finally entirely happy to have retired. And he has finally developed the energy to begin preparing for the move, energy previously being used to reflect on the work he has done and the disappointments of his career, as well as to do the work of actually finishing that work. Although exciting it is also an emotionally laden time.

We went to bed Friday with visions of the work ahead dancing in our heads. On Saturday, however, we woke feeling the need of a leisurely day, for Christmas for the rest of the country is truly a day out of time for us. It is our custom to go to a movie and then have a Chinese dinner. (
A movie and Chinese is the American Jew's way of coping with a day in which everyone else is celebrating and almost everything is closed). This year, December 25th fell on Shabbat, so we stayed home and watched The Frisco Kid with Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford and had homemade stir-fry and egg rolls for Seudah Shlishi --the third meal of the Sabbath, usually eaten as night falls).

But this feeling of time out of time, of dislocation, and the short, winter days all mean that we have not been diligent about getting ready, about packing, about all the repairs the house needs so that we can move. Although we are all exciting about the move, there is some trepidation about the challenges of beginning a new life--at our age!--again. And there are the good-bye's to say, the inevitable sadness and sense of loss that accompany such great change.

All of this together has made the 2010 week of time-out-of-time particularly strange. We are all walking around laughing one minute and nearly in tears the next. Moments of panic are interspersed with these other emotions for me, as I look around my house and contemplate just how unready we are to make this move.

Fortunately, for me, when I come back to even keel, I realize that since the house has not yet been sold or leased, and since we want to leave most of our furniture in it while we prepare the house at the ranch for our move, I have some time to get it all going. I really can RESUME. BREATHING. NORMALLY.

Change. It is wrenching, even when it is eagerly anticipated. The adjustment will be made. What I need to do is just allow the whole month of January being about the move.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Solstice: Of a Dark Time and of Clinging to the Edges of Civilization

Today is the winter solstice. Today, in the northern hemisphere, the sun crosses the sky at the southernmost arc, making this the shortest daylight of the year.
We did not see the sunrise, the morning was gray with cloud and white with snow, subdued, except for the stark charcoal bare wood, and the muted ever-greens of the pines and cedars. A rare day in New Mexico, without the southering winter sun in a crystal blue sky, the light, the feel of the cold air, the smell of thawing wood brought me back to my Midwestern childhood. It reminded me of high school, and brought me back to choir and Miss P., who taught us history through the classic Western canon, through the music.

I learned most of my European history through music. I sang in choir and played the flute in band and orchestra. There was something about the music that set the mood of the days and centuries that happened in another place, and another time. I am grateful to this day for this learning of history as part and parcel of the culture of the West.

"Imagine," said Miss P., "That you are an Irish monk, living in a monestary north of 50 degrees latitude, somewhere near the sea. It is December, and it is dark most of the time, and during daylight, snow, fog and clouds make the light gray, and the sky translucent. It is cold, it is dark, and you wonder if the sun will ever return, if the days will ever lengthen, and if you will ever see the light and the growth of spring again. Even though you know it will come, it is hard to imagine it."

And I could close my eyes and see it, feel it, and be there. That imagining let the Senior Choir bring the mood to the music, and to hear the echoes of another time and place, very different in mood and sense from our here and now.

This was one part of European history that I had just learned about that year. After the Roman Empire fell, during the dark ages in northern Europe, when peoples were on the move, and when people exerted all of their energy just to keep the wolves away from the door. And who made sure in those dark times, over those dread winters, that the remnants of that great classical civilization were preserved? In the north, all that was left of the writings of the West was kept by the Irish monks--the ones who in that dark time illuminated the Book of Kells.

And in their religious tradition, they saw themselves as the "remnant of Israel", in exile among the nations, clinging to the edges of civilization. And at this time, during the eight days leading up to the festival of Christmas, their celebration of the return of the light and warmth in the dark, cold of winter, they would gather for Vespers--the evening service--and the hymn chanted then was Veni, Veni Emmanuel. In that dark, cold time of the year, and in those dark and desperate centuries when civilization was nearly lost, they were captive Israel, longing and looking to the light. Waiting for Emanu-El (Hebrew: G-d within us). Here is the hymn, sung acapella, in Latin. (It is here arranged in harmony, not the original chant).

Today, on the Solstice, note especially what is sung here as the third verse that requests the return of sunlight, and the dispelling of shadow and darkness:
"Veni, veni O Oriens,
Solare nos adveniens,
Noctis depelle nebulas,
Dirasque noctis tenebras;"

In English:
"O, Come thou Daystar--come and cheer
Our hearts by thy advent here,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadow, put to flight."

The Latin is simpler, but the sense of it got to the English, though somewhat forced into the rhyme.

If, as a Jew, I would be inclined to see this hymn as another expression of Christian triumphalism, the doctrine of supersessionism writ large, I remember Miss P.'s history lesson, and understand it differently because of her lyric and imaginative telling of the tale. I remember it is not that; it is the same longing that Israel felt, captive in Egypt, remembering and reaching for light in dark seasons and dark times. And that sense come through, down the years, to this American, living in a culture that has little sense of dark centuries (G-d Forbid!). But we do know here the dark of winter, and desire for the warmth and light of spring, and the reasons that people--in their various ways--celebrate the rebirth of the sun, and the turning of the year during the dark season.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Owning Oneself and Loving Life

"Every dollar in your bank account came from some individual
who voluntarily gave it to you--who gave it to you in exchange
for a product he judged to be more valuable than his dollar.
You have no moral obligation to "give back," because
you didn't take anything in the first place."
--Yaron Brook & Don Watkins,
The Guilt Pledge (in Forbes)

When I was a teacher of the intellectually gifted, I used to hear comments about the kids I taught from time to time that implied that because my students were geniuses they therefore had some extra responsibility to "give back to society", a responsibility that did not belong to those blessed with a more ordinary level of intelligence. This well-meaning but poorly thought out type of statement was usually said in order to justify the education dollars spent on special services for the intellectually gifted. But it has a rather ominous ring to it, as if the children I taught had some a priori moral duty to unspecified others because of their intelligence. It was but a small step to saying that highly intelligent children have no right to establish their own life's purpose, and no right to the pursuit of their own happiness.

Recently, I posted a quote from ARI's Yaron Brook on my Facebook Status, a quote that a collectivist FB friend took exception to, and in a series of comments, he tried to show that Yaron was wrong. This man is somewhat of a second-hander, as are most political hacks--their side is right because it is their side--and he is certainly no match for Yaron Brook. But in the course of reading his comments, I found that he promotes the same idea about those who have created great wealth, as people did toward my gifted students. In very nearly the same paragraph that he claimed that the authors of "the Giving Pledge" did not believe that people should do what they do for the sake of others, he also said that "to paraphrase Spiderman, with great wealth comes great responsibility."

The first question that came to mind about this statement was, "Responsibility? To whom?"
I didn't ask it in my reply though because I know the answer would have been that great modern glittering generality: society. But even as I wrote a very short reply, I was thinking about how much that statement echoes the ones I was constantly hearing about my gifted students. And both imply that in some way the success of extraordinary individuals is an unearned gift from society. That somehow, the successful entrepeneur, or the academically successful gifted student both took something from others who are not successful, and that now they owe those people something in return. In fact, in his FB comment, my FB collectivist friend not only implied it, he said it:

"After all, success in business doesn't occur in a vacuum and always depends on the community to some extent. Warren Buffet, Paul Allen, Michael Bloomberg, George Lucas and others know that they would not be where they are today without some pretty significant assistance from others."

"Well, no," I want to reply, "success in business does not occur in a vacuum." But my FB collectivist conveniently ignores the fact that the successful businessman paid those who "assisted" him for that help, and that he earned the money--as Yaron Brook says above--by producing something of value to those who were willing to pay for it. Something of value that those who work for him, and those who benefit from his work did not create. In fact, quite often, the kinds of breakthrough technologies and efficiencies created by the work of entrepeneurs is far more valuable than what people actually pay for them. This is so because technologies and efficiencies cut down on work, and multiply both the power of a person to apply their efforts elsewhere, and they also multiply time. (These concepts: work, power and efficiency are real physical entities that can be calculated). In this way, the entrepeneur has already benefitted others--even those who do not buy his product--through his pursuit of his own happiness. What Yaron Brook was saying in the essay is that this productivity is in itself a great moral good, and it need not be justified by whether or not it benefits others who are not as productive, even though it does that too.

And demanding that someone who has already produced something of value, something others are willing to exchange their own work to procure, must also be responsible to some vague collective (the community, society) for a value so vague that it is essentially a blank check is exactly what that statement from Spiderman means. And it is but a small step from that idea to the idea that individuals do not own themselves and their work, but that they are slaves to some collective--whether that be "society" or some supreme soviet state--and that the harder they work and provide value to others, the MORE they owe the collective. And it is but a small step further to make the claim that a person's existence can only be justified by their use to others, rather than by their ability to provide for themselves and their own happiness. And in the bloody 20th century, we have seen all too often where this leads. Even before the Nazi genocide and Stalin's purges, the Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw said these words on film in the Soviet Story:

"You must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can’t justify your existence, if you’re not pulling your weight in the social boat, if you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yours." (Emphasis added).

The point that my FB collectivist friend evaded, the point that brings the whole house of socialist cards down is that socialists believe that they--by some magic endowment--are the sole arbiters and deciders of the worth of every human being. And as Shaw candidly admitted earlier in the same film: "I don't want to punish anybody. But there are an extraordinary number of people whom I want to kill."

Chilling words, those. And those are the words that will eventually come out of the mouths of those who believe that people owe something to some amorphous "society" beyond the ordinary good will that comes as each individual pursues his own happiness and his own benefit, and in so doing--as an unitended side effect--benefit others as well.

I will take C.S. Lewis over George Bernard Shaw any day. Lewis wrote:

"It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects --military, political, economic, and what not.But in a way things are much simpler than that.The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life.
A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub,a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden --that is what the State is there for.And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments,all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time."-- C. S. Lewis

Oh, the collectivists sound like they have the moral high ground, until one considers where such thinking has led throughout time. The Fabians, the Communists, the National-Solcialists--make it sound as if we will all live our lives with great and sacrificial purpose, or we shall not live at all. And they made damn sure that billions didn't.

But I'll take the chat by the fire, that game of darts, that book and that garden--ordinary as they may seem, over all of the high and awful purposes on earth. For they are all symbols of the pursuit of happiness of many people over the generations. They are the more ordinary expressions of the extraordinary pursuits and great achievements of entrepeneurs who have created such value that others willingly exchange their work for that greatness. These are all, great and small, expressions of human individuals loving life.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hanukkah: These Lights We Kindle

These lights we kindle are set apart
for the miracles, the wonders,
that you made for our ancestors
in those days, at this season . . .
--HaNerot Hallalu, Talmud Tractate Sopherim 20:6

"A candle, a flame--
Mirror of our life from within,
Can you see it as it flickers in the wind?"
--L'Eyla (words by E. Barenboltz)

"For all the eight days of Hanukkah, we set these lights apart; we do not use them to illuminate our work, but we gaze at them to remember the miracles and the wonders, the deliverances and the great battles you fought through our fathers and mothers in those days at this season . . ."

We recite the words above, each night as we light one more candle, increasing the light within, even as the darkness outside grows greater as the moon wanes from last quarter to new, and as the earth turns us toward the dark of the winter solstice.

What memories, then do those little, flickering lights evoke? They bring back to us a time when the mighty power of the Syrian Greek Empire under Antiochus attempted to erase an exceptional people from the earth, blurring our unique identity, and forcing us to conform to the sameness required of all the people in the remnants of the Empire created by Alexander the great.

They bring us back to a time when the priests and leaders of our people in Jerusalem were willing, for momentary gain and power, to let go of our exceptionalism, and were only too eager to aid and abet the Empire in its purpose of rendering the whole world as they knew it to sameness and conformity, the better to rule us all, to make us slaves to some higher purpose outside our own.

Who then, would stand up to the tyrants and say, "Thus far shall you go and no further . . ."?

It was also a priest, but not one who stood too close to the dark brightness of the power of Antiochus, who called himself a god. It was Mattiyahu, a priest of the village of Modi'in and his sons. And it did not happen at the beginning of the tyranny. For first they said, you must pay your tax to the Emperor. And then they said, you must be like all of the others in the Empire, and go to gymnasium on the Sabbath. And then they said, no longer will we permit you to study Torah. And then they said, and now you must sacrifice a pig upon the altar of the temple, and swear allegience to Antiochus Epiphanes (a god made manifest). You may not circumcise your sons, or in any way set yourselves apart. This that those Jews at that time could not make themselves holy, for separateness is the meaning of holiness.

And with each step by which the unique identity of the Jews in those days was removed, the High Priest and his sons, and his courtiers in Jerusalem told the people that each step toward total subjugation and the loss of identity was a small sacrifice to make in the name of peace and unity in the Empire. And so the people, lulled by their leaders, almost allowed the light within, the flickering flames of their unique identity, to be extinguished in the name of a unity for which there were no shared values and principles. In the cities, they participated not in high Greek culture, but the debased culture of the eastern edges of one of the three empires left over from Alexander.

But the moment came, when in the small town of Modi'in, when one man, a priest, found the line he would not cross, and developed the spine to stand up as a man for the sake of his identity and his exceptional inheritance. That man was Mattiyahu, and when he was required to sacrifice a pig to Antiochus Epiphanes, he drew his sword and refused to sacrifice anything to Antiochus Epimanes (the fool), for he know it was foolish indeed for a man, a tyrant to present himself as something that he is not, and in the name of that lie, to force him and his sons to give up their identities.

In the face of the Syrian Greeks, Mattiyahu and his five sons and their followers fled to the forests, the deserts and the swamps, and fought a desperate guerrilla-style war against the armies of Antiochus' empire. They were hopelessly outnumbered, and out-classed with respect to fighting skill and weaponry, but they had something else: a belief, a conviction that the unique flame that burned within them could not be allowed to go out, and that they would fight to last breath to defend their right to be Jews. Their rallying cry was: "Not by might and not by power, but by G-d's spirit, shall we prevail." (This echoes the verse from Zechariah that was read this morning as the Haftarah for the Shabbat in Hanukkah).

For three long years, the war between an Empire and some guerrilla upstarts went on. In the course of those years, Mattiyahu and some of his sons were killed. But the banner was picked up by the youngest son,Judah the Maccabbee. And following the end of the war, Judah went up to the Temple in Jerusalem and cleaned and purified it for the unique purposes of the Jewish people, and having missed the eight-day festival of Sukkot in the fall, instituted a festival of rededication that we now celebrate as Hanukkah. And in the dark of the sun and the dark of the moon, we light our lights and remember the miracle of our unique identity that shines forth from the flames.

And we are here to remember because one man, a hero and a sage, took up the challenge to protect who he was, in order to pass that exceptional identity down to his children and his children's children, and finally to us, living in the United States now, during the beginning of the 21st century. And so we celebrate Hanukkah, our rededication to our right to be who we are.

The story of Hanukkah, always compelling, is even more so at this time to us as Americans. For we live in a time when there are those who wish to erase American exceptionalism, the unique identity we have, a nation founded on the idea of individual rights. There are those in the world who see our uniqueness as a barrier to a world government to which they desire to enslave all of us to work to fulfill their purposes. They tell us that it is a small sacrifice to make in order to foster peace and unity for all the world. And they conveniently forget to remind us that a sacrifce is always destroying a great value for the sake of something lesser. And we have our leaders and trend-setters isolated in Washington D.C.--that great city--who are only to eager to sell the flame of liberty out for the sake of the idol of peace and unity.

Like the Hasmoneans of Modi'in, we are being asked to give up our rights, our Constitution, and our very identity as a free people, small infringement by small infringement. And like Mattiyahu and his sons, Eleazer, Shimon, Yochanan, Yonaton, and Judah, it seems that we are reaching a point where going along to get along will no longer be an option should we want to retain our unique identity and calling in the world.

Once again, we need a hero and a sage, to cause us to look deep within and see that the same fires burn in our own selves; we need to decide where our lines are, and where our resistance begins. For as our own American hero and sage Thomas Jefferson said:

"Resistance to tyrants is obedience to G-d."

He knew what Judah the Maccabee knew. He knew what we must know: that deep within each of us burns a flame, that flickers in the wind, but that is as mighty and powerful as a star. That flame is the the flame of liberty. And our unique identity is that of a free people who once formed a government not based on power, not based on blood and soil; rather ours is based on the Rule of Law, and the principle of individual rights. Can you see it now?

Keep that flame alive.