Sunday, January 3, 2021

READING THE TEA LEAVES

For as long as I can remember, likely most of the 50 years of our life together, I have been up early to brew a wake-up cup of good, strong English tea for Ellie and myself. Well, the brand has changed. Nowadays it's Yorkshire Gold; for a long while, it was PG Tips. But the ritual has been the same. Rain or shine, as they say. And this morning as I popped the tea bag into the pot it came to me that tea bags had not yet been invented when I was young. You'd heap a good measure of tea leaves in the pot, add boiling water and let it stand to brew, then you poured your tea from the pot directly into your cup. When you drank the last drops of tea from your cup, presto! Tea leaves, left clinging in strange, unpredictable patterns to the curved porcelain depths, just waiting to be read. 

You needed, of course, a trained eye to read the tea leaves. It was not something anyone could do. It was a way to foretell the future, like a crystal ball, or a tarot pack, or the palm of your hand. The phrase remains, an oddity in the language, to remind us of a different, perhaps more innocent, perhaps more trusting time. A time when the future might have seemed steadier, more stable, easier to rely on, even when it showed up in the form of random tea leaves at the bottom of your cup. 

Today's world is much different. It merits a more Buddhist mistrust in any kind of certainty. It has always been the reality, of course, that no one can predict what might happen from moment to moment in our lives, that the only thing that's certain is change itself. Still, I believe that we have lost even the illusion of security at an accelerating pace in the past century. Two massive and ruinous world wars have done their part. Life itself seems less secure. But in the past few years particularly, with our country and the world at large perpetually in a state of cliff's edge torturous suspense, unpredictability has become the norm we have to learn to live with. 

So I have no leaves in my morning cup of tea this New Year. I made our tea in the convenient modern way: with a tea bag. The bag, once used, goes down the garbage disposal, chewed up and lost forever. Even if I had the skill, I have no tea leaves to read; and that leaves me feeling more than a little sad for a past that's also lost forever. 

Please be well, everyone. Be sane and hale. And be as safe as possible.

Monday, December 21, 2020

PANTOMIME

A mention in a newspaper article this morning reminded me of our family tradition, when I was growing up, of going up to London's West End for a theater event. There was always Peter Pan, of course, with Tinkerbell and the pirates and the family of boys who lived underground. And the crocodile, and the ticking clock. Magical. But there were also the pantomimes, with British humor at its most raucous and absurd. They were mostly spoofs on fairy tales--Cindarella, Red Riding Hood--and the main antagonist, the villain or the antihero clown, was invariably a man dolled up in outrageous drag. We children must have missed it in all the antics and the slapstick humor, but the adults must surely have been seeing it quite differently than we children, having endless fun with the coarse, bawdy humor and the (to me now obvious) sexual overtones.

It seems to me that what we're living through today is a kind of nightmare pantomime. Everything has the same air of unreality. Everything is wildly exaggerated, a Goon Show enacted in real life. The lead character has all the appearance of an overblown clown, with his protruding belly, his ridiculous hairdo, his overlong red ties, his absurd behavior and his outrageous dialogue. Trouble is, it's not being acted out on the stage for the benefit of a rapt and hugely enteratined audience. It's happening in real life, and there are real consequences to this melodrama. People are truly suffering as a result of his behavior; they have nothing to keep them "rolling in the aisles."

Post-war London needed a good laugh. We need one now. But now I long for the curtain to come down on this endless pantomime. There will be no applause.

Friday, December 11, 2020

IN EXTREMIS

After 17 years without a federal execution," according to a report in The Guardian today, "the Trump administration has executed nine inmates since July, and plans five more executions before Joe Biden takes office on 20 January. " The execution, this morning, of Brandon Bernard, is yet another instance of the spirit of vindictiveness and cruelty that characterizes the man who occupies our Oval Office, along with his administration and the millions of Americans who will continue to cheer him on--despite, or because of this act of "civilized" barbarity. Even more than the loss of a single life, I mourn the growing absence of civility and compassion in my adopted country. I watch in grief and horror as humanity itself is led toward the execution chamber.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

MY SECRET WISH

I am not proud of a secret wish I have, that some close associate of those in high power in this country should experience a truly serious (but not fatal!) case of the virus whose effects, to the great harm of all, they continue to minimize, ignore, or outright deny. There is, I admit, some less than noble part of me that wants these people to "be taught a lesson" they can't ignore. 

It appalls me that in this wealthiest of all countries in the history of the world, politicians persist in squabbling over helping those millions who are suffering, whether from the disease itself or its effects: loss of income or employment, eviction, hunger, or the pain of loss of loved ones. The "both sides" argument on who deserves blame does not wash with me. There is only one side to blame in this--the side of those in power: the president and his fumbling, corrupt administration, and senators on the right side of the aisle whose refusal to negotiate for appropriate aid amounts to nothing less than cruelty.

My secret wish is not for their suffering but their awakening, and it seems there is no other way. Their removal from the reality of others' pain is such that I see no other way for them to learn than to experience it firsthand. The immunity afforded them by rank and privilege seems impermeable, and is itself protected, with cruel irony, by those who stand to suffer most from their neglect. 

So when I hear of the Covid-19 infection of a prominent member of that team of powerful people indifferent to the suffering of those they are supposed to serve, I find myself wishing, secretly, for some serious learning opportunity to take place. It's a kind of desperation, I suppose. In normal circumstances I like to think that I would not wish anyone ill. And as I say, I am not proud of that secret wish. But there it is. The circumstances are far from normal. And, like it or not, the wish arises in my mind.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

OP-ED

Am I to "understand" and respect the opinion of someone who believes the earth is flat? 

Two columns of letters published in today's New York Times editorial page led me to this question, many of them insisting that those 74 million who voted for the current occupant of the Oval Office to remain there for another four years should be listened to, sympathized with, understood--as though they were children whose selfish needs and misinformed opinions must be addressed in order to maintain household peace. No matter that their opinions may be based on a demonstrably false set of facts, they must be respected.

There's a difficulty here, and one that presents a serious threat to the future of our country. To come to agreement on the solution of a problem, any problem--and no one can surely doubt that we have many of them--requires consensus on the underlying facts. If one who represents an opposing "view" that climate change, for example, is a hoax when the vast majority of the world's best scientists agree that it's a reality, there's really no basis for an exchange of thoughts on a solution to this global threat. If a person is led to the unshakeable belief contrary to all evidence, that the recent election was rigged, there are no reasonable grounds for discussion or argument.

I come from another culture, whose tradition is that of the European Enlightenment. Many of my fellow citizens today have been brought up since kindergarten to believe their personal needs and opinions deserve respect, no matter how misguided--or disrespectful of others--they may be. Does this make of me an "elitist"? An intellectual snob? Is it purely academic to insist that certain objective facts exist, that truth matters, that these are essential to find common ground in the pursuit of values that we share?

The problem that plagues us is not a political or even a cultural one. It's epistemological. It has to do with the difference between knowledge and belief. That distinction has been blurred--and to such an extent, it's hard to see how we shall ever return to the common sense--the common sense--required to return not only to efficacy in government but to simple sanity. It appalls me, in all honesty, that a newspaper with the standing of the New York Times should even think to publish such unserious "discussion".