Epitaph

Cover of In The Court Of The Crimson King. Art by Barry Godber

Confusion will be my epitaph. These words, written by Peter Sinfield, and found on King Crimson’s first album, perfectly sums up 21st Century life. All we had believed in the past is now wiped away as society changes around us.

Women being able to govern their own bodies? Sorry, that is now obsolete. It is necessary for the State to coerce women to have children with no options for surgical solutions. See, it is all about saving the life of the unborn. Of course, coming up with solutions to enable         women to combine a working life with a family life is beyond the capacity of any politician, so undoubtedly the result of restrictive abortion laws will be more child abuse, more child poverty, and an increase in those who violate the law coming down the pike in about 16 years.

Confusion will be my epitaph. I believed it impossible for politicians to repudiate their own words caught on tape. That was before the current generation of politicians found it possible to disown their own statements of the recent past. Same holds for commentators on cable news shows who preen to the camera with unparalleled ability to regurgitate positions completely in opposition to what they said a few days or weeks ago. All in order to chase elusive voters or viewers, depending on which profession they practice. In all of these cases, their disdain for the public is palpable, since they believe only their current utterances represent their beliefs. Anything they said in the past is no longer germane, or even rational, and they definitely should not be held responsible for any past comments. And if anyone took their words seriously, and acted on them? Well, the politicians and commentators didn’t actually pull the trigger, so linking their words, and the actions of others is not fair.

I had a faith that the increased ties of commerce would assist in consigning international war to the trash heap of history. That faith was shattered with the invasion of Ukraine. So we are now to believe only in the force of arms which enables those with power to impose their will through the miracle of explosives. We may marvel in the ability of the people of a country to resist overwhelming odds, in order to retain their freedom. Maybe too many of us who marvel, no longer have beliefs we would die for. And no, wearing a surgical mask is not tyranny. An invading army consisting of soldiers who have no compunction against killing civilians is true tyranny.

 Confusion will be my epitaph. I did not hear the words spoken that deemed hatred of others as a Christian virtue. I was not prepared for a society where racism was considered a virtue, fully consistent with Christian principles. I was not prepared for a society where celebrity is worshiped as the only value worth celebrating, and those who have obtained celebrity are incapable of doing bad things, since, after all, they are celebrities. I was not prepared for a society where all values are deemed relative, and only the end matters, especially when it benefits me. I was not prepared for leaders who embodied the worst human attributes, and were proud of those pitiful attributes.

I believed advances in science would always be valued. I had forgotten how bitter the struggles were in the past for new scientific truths to be accepted if they challenged the status quo. I see echoes of Copernicus and Galileo in current issues around global warming, and humanity’s role in altering our planet. I realize now how difficult it is to convince others of facts they cannot verify through their own experience.

Confusion will be my epitaph. When the original Soviet Union fell, I believed mankind had dodged an enormous threat by removing the danger of nuclear conflict. I was not ready for the rise of an autocrat, who could threaten the use of what was considered unthinkable. I now realize that even if we escape this round of conflict without nuclear detonation, it is inconceivable we will emerge from the scourge of nationalism without some exchange of nuclear weaponry. Certainly the political discourse heard in many countries leads me to believe this exchange will happen sooner, not later.

I can go on, raising other issues where the promises of a brighter future now seem dimmed by the intransigence of the human race. But I want to leave the last words to Peter Sinfield, who penned them back in 1969:

Confusion will be my epitaph
As I crawl, a cracked and broken path
If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh
But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying
Yes, I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying

Let’s Focus on Important Things

We are alone. Alone among the vastness of space. You may believe we are divinely ordained to be the only sentient species in our galaxy, and the entire known universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I myself do not believe that, yet I do profess a belief in the organizing entity responsible for the act of creation. But there is no doubt we have not seen positive proof of other species letting us know of their existence through electronic signals. That should be humbling to us on Earth, and lead us to a greater admiration of our uniqueness and an appreciation for our commonality, rather than our differences.

Yet once more, we seem to find commonality with the hordes of different colored ants you can find on occasion battling to the death on sidewalks and in our grass lawns. Long ago when I was walking home from school, I saw one such battle between red and black ants. The combatants were flowing across the sidewalk, each ant playing a part in a war they neither started nor had any opinion about. All they knew was of the necessity of their battle. Knowing what I do now about the mental processing capabilities of ants, I assume they were driven to battle by chemical signals, and there was no conscious thought about why they were engaging in this mortal combat.

Humans have once more shown they are no more than ants, seeking to dominate other territories. Only now we have tools to make the horrors of war omnipresent and impersonal. The days when the horrors of warfare were only visited upon the participants in the battle are long past. Now you can launch precision guided munitions, and lately we’ve seen those weapons used against train depots, apartment flats, and nuclear power plants. So we end up creating generations of ants who will want to battle against each other as time goes on.

We still fight for territory, although we are bound upon a globe which limits our absolute powers. Somehow we are convinced that our differences are greater than our similarities. Who knows if we will grow past our beliefs that no one other than true citizens are able to participate in our piece of the world. All I know is the possibility of a single day bringing our civilization to a close has re-emerged. It has been nice not having to worry directly about nuclear exchanges, although as the years have gone by, it is clear that we as a species will have to deal with this existential menace. For we as a species have not grown past our foolish desires to use these weapons as we feel our options grow more and more limited. And since these weapons have proliferated over time and across nations, it is only a matter of time until such weaponry is used by a non-state actor as a tool to accomplish a goal that is abhorrent to those who believe in the sanctity of life.

When I was young, it was the heyday of space exploration. We as a species were able to place our marker upon another celestial object. Looking back, it seems the accomplishment was more an opportunity to display the superiority of one nation state over another instead of an effort to expand the bounds of our species. For nearly 50 years, we have rested upon our laurels on celestial exploration. Only recently have we developed a sub-species of humanity with the means and desire to resume human exploration of the cosmos. Vast egos of individuals have combined with the vast fortunes brought about through globalization to create a new era of exploration in space. Yet even if we are successful in placing our marker on Mars, we still are barely extending our little toes beyond the Earth. Only when we can envision exploration beyond our solar system will we begin to place our imprint on the galaxy.

All of this will come to naught if we are unable to rise above the ants and eliminate our species innate drive to conquer other ants and take their things. The Drake equation describes the number of intelligent species in our galaxy which are detectable by our species. During my lifetime we have made great strides in establishing bounds on some of the variables in that equation, like the number of stars with planets, and soon we will have estimates on the number of planets that show marks of life (an atmosphere with oxygen). Yet the one variable in the Drake equation we can only slowly work on is the last one, the length of time a civilization is able to send signals into space where it can be detected by other civilizations. We have only our own example to extrapolate from, and the nearly 100 years we’ve transmitted electronic signals from our surface is dwarfed by the age of the universe. Small wonder we’ve not discovered other civilizations, and also it is no surprise we’ve hungered as a species for confirmation we are not alone in the universe.

Many of our species do not care about such questions. They are content to be bound by their belief system into worrying only about their own nation’s or religion’s status. I myself hope we can actually detect another signal coming to us during my lifetime, and such a discovery can serve as a unifying occasion for our species. Before we end our time as one of those who are sending signals out into the vast cosmos we inhabit.       

Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood

I’m not a normal American. I know that. I always have. Ever since I was in the first grade, and I stated my strong preference that it was a big bang that created the universe, not a steady state universe. Maybe I thought explosions were cooler, but that’s what I thought. In first grade!

I thought I could be a great athlete as a kid, but didn’t have the fast-twitch muscles needed to be good at any sport. No, I found plays and musical theatre as an outlet for my energy. That, and choral singing. The latter I still do at age 66, which is one way in which the pandemic has robbed me of a creative outlet.

I fancied myself as a potential novelist, but when I tried it, my dialogue came out like stilted lettuce. I found my real skill early on, when I competed in Informative Public Address in high school forensics. One time, when visiting my high school, I realized that a trophy in a trophy case was partially due to my efforts. It made me realize that I hadn’t wasted my time back then.

I really diverged from being normal when I went to college. Majoring in Chemical Engineering, I toured all of the hard sciences and math courses. I had to add in one choral group each year in order to maintain my own sanity by sustaining a creative outlet. Looking back, it was amazing that I didn’t end up in legal trouble in those days, due to a certain prohibited substance that is only now gaining legitimacy in many states.

When I got a job after college, I moved away from Nebraska and moved to Memphis. A bit of a cultural shock, I found a niche and not only grew at work, but also continued with musical theatre. The one show I was in at the premiere theatre in Memphis where I did a month with 7 shows a week (matinee on Sunday) and still maintained my work showed me I did not want to do this sort of thing for a living. Not that I had the talent for it, but there are plenty of opportunities for us abnormal people to find creative outlets if you let yourself open to those opportunities.

The opportunity came for me to transfer to a sister plant in West Virginia. Despite all of the stereotypes about hillbilly culture, the capitol city of Charleston offered very good cultural fare. I continued to seek out opportunities for musical theatre, and was rewarded with a leading role (for a male) in what is really a tour de force for the female lead (Sweet Charity). I met my wife during those days at a cast party. She was in the orchestra, and at that time I played as a table in Evita (along with many other chorus roles). After we got married, I had one last opportunity with the local theatre group, and can say that I was in a show with Jennifer Garner when she was in high school.

Children came along, and the time to take to rehearse and perform theatre went away. But it was replaced by singing in church choirs, and in a select choral group. It was through doing these abnormal things that I had opportunities to sing in churches in Scotland and Yorkshire, and perform multiple times at Piccolo Spoleto festivals in Charleston, SC. Later as our children grew and performed in vocal ensembles, we accompanied them to Europe and Hawaii. All of these opportunities came about because we were not normal, and never could accept being merely passive consumers of mass culture.

So, since we are both a bit iconoclastic, we’ve been a good match. We both are liberals in this most conservative state in the nation. Fortunately we’ve found an Episcopal church that believes in social programs, and we lend our support to those.

But we’ve become aware of just how out of the mainstream we’ve become. We don’t do Amazon. We don’t shop at WalMart. We don’t watch reality TV. We don’t stream. New forms of social media are created, flower, and die before we even become aware of them.

We try to keep our cars for 15 years. We’ve never owned a SUV. Commercialism is lost on us, though we’ve plenty of disposable income. If the economy had to depend upon consumers like us, there are entire industries that would become a tiny fragment of their current size.

What’s really important, is that we believe it is of utmost importance to use creative talents to entertain others, rather than always have the cultural exchange be solely one way. We find it difficult to live in a society where so much of your “worth” depends upon how much of your net worth you are willing to flaunt. And we especially find it difficult to live in a world where the definitions of Christianity are perverted into displays like the prayers offered by the QAnon shaman on the floor of the halls of Congress.

We know that we will never be pacesetters in the world. But by being consistent to ourselves, and continuing to create through instrumental music, choral music, quilting, and writing, we may serve as examples for those who also wish to tread a path less traveled. A secret here – often the path that is used less has softer grass growing underfoot. It makes it a more pleasant journey as compared to the thoroughfare trodden by the masses.