Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Denver Airport Anthropological Garden

In the middle of a long layover in the United concourse at the Denver Airport, I watch travelers file by as I wait for my flight. What would Hieronymus Bosch do with this scene?

I'm guessing he'd just use a camera.

Such a bizarre panoply of different human shapes and misshapes; different hair colors and discolors, skin tones and bloated legs and bone protuberances and make-up disasters of all sorts. The mix is inspiring and horrifying, by turns.

What can one see here in a mere five minutes?

Hip hop youths of every race jostle cream-colored Michigan retired dentists and their peers; Latino teens stare down overdressed Japanese businessmen. Here's a young Sri Lankan woman who came to to the States to study electrical engineering, and look--she's already found herself a pimply redheaded boyfriend of Irish descent. Behind them, dragging an oversized navy blue tote, comes a pinched, 60-something housewife who's spent her life learning to be polite and is now little more than a bundle of propriety and politeness. She's oddly without her husband this time: visiting a sister in Houston? Right behind her strides a Chinese couple in their late thirties in Chinese-couple traveling garb, the husband sporting an unobtrusive polo shirt and beige golf jacket--yecch!--the wife in the same color scheme but wearing white sneakers and carrying, of course, her LV bag. Then it's a pretend cowboy of about sixty with a huge beer belly and handlebar mustache listening apologetically as his 30-something daughter explains why she's pissed. Next a well-dressed black woman in her seventies, a wise Georgia matron with her middle-aged son, a woman who's stayed the course through thick and thin; and in her son's very features you can see how well she's raised him. Behind them a ragged looking white woman in her early thirties who pushes a baby stroller and drags two pre-Kindergarten keeners in tow. "Keep moving, Justin. Don't touch that." And catching up to the mother and her kids stride two tech guys with tight, focused eyes, heading to a meeting. Behind the techies lopes a grave-faced Rasta exploding in dreadlocks; he talks quietly with a short-haired white man carrying a guitar case. And they keep filing by, in such diversity of size and shape and sartorial foolishness that it's hard to believe they're all of the same species. And off to the side, watching them pass, sits a bemused, scruffy-looking man with somewhat Germanic features. He's in his forties, overweight, and on the seat next to him is a black shoulder bag overstuffed with notebooks and newspapers. His orange and blue sneakers clash with his corduroy shirt and black jeans. He's thinking whether he should write a paragraph in his notebook about the odd caravan he's watching. The people passing don't know it, but he lives in a Chinese-speaking country on the other side of the globe, where every day the city teems with mainly one race of people. Being in an American airport terminal and watching all this human diversity is something of a shock to him (he gets this same shock whenever he returns to America, usually once or twice a year) but this time, in Denver, the shock has almost bowled him over. The mix of races and cultures inspires; the obesity epidemic, on proud display, horrifies. What would Hieronymus Bosch do? Once he finishes his oversized coffee, and his head clears a bit, he'll start writing.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fishing with Split-Personality Disorder


The aluminum hull, 7 a.m., races over cold, choppy water to the whir of an outboard motor. Seated in the front of the hull, the bouncing hurts my breasts. It never used to be like that. But that was thirty years ago, and this is now.

Smashing down against slate-colored waves at the rate of one every two seconds, I wonder for the first time in my life if a bra might not be just the thing.

When we reach "the spot" a small tupperware drum full of frozen specimens of Notropis cornutis is produced, each dead minnow, as they're called, about the length of an adult middle finger. A single Notropis cornutius is separated from its companions and impaled through the brain on an inch-long iron J, which is itself attached to the end of a transparent thread. When this transparent thread, with its brain-crucified minnow, is lowered into the cold water to a depth of 27 feet, a Sander vitreus is supposed to appear at the end within a matter of minutes. Which in fact is just what happens, to the delight of all present. Thus the wonder and pull of Gunisao Lake, the rapidity with which the Sander appears: "Sometimes the minnow isn't even to the bottom and Bang you have one on!"

Having appeared on schedule, that first Sander is brought to the surface of the water by means of a complex mechanical spool attached to a flexible stick along which the transparent thread has been ingeniously threaded. When the Sander reaches the surface, it is taken out of the water, its nature as a Sander vitreus, or walleye, is confirmed, and then it is allowed to go back into the water. After which the process begins again. Another expressly necrotized Notropis cornutis is impaled on the same small iron J, another Sander vitreus is brought to the surface of the water by means of the pulley and stick, is appraised by all present, is sometimes measured, and is again released back into the cold water. In fact this ritual is repeated for eight hours, with, however, an hour break for lunch.

It is important to note that in the course of this ritual several of the largest Sanders are held up prominently and photographed, presumably to prove to any not present that they were in fact Sander vitreus and were in fact brought to the surface by the smiling male pictured. Also: Several of the other walleyes, not the largest and not the smallest, are not allowed back into the water, but instead are attached to a wire chain and suspended from the side of the aluminum hull, later to be eaten in common by the group of smiling males during said one-hour lunch, which takes place on the lakeshore on huge moss-covered rock formations, and during which occasional mention is made of the bear that might possibly emerge from the trees at any moment to attack and consume the fattest or slowest of the males present.

I have forgotten to note that when a larger specimen of Sander is brought to the surface, the flexible stick used to bring it up will typically bend many times and the spool will buzz many times as one or two or three yards of the thread is taken out. This is what is called a "good fight". But really--is there any contest here? Going one-on-one against a bear, armed with only a baseball bat or butcher's knife, now that would be what I'd call a good fight. What's more, after listening to some of the men in the shuttle bus which at five a.m. took us to the small plane that flew us to this remote Manitoba lake, I would quite willingly, believe me, introduce them to this more noble kind of fight. One in particular, named Bjeske or Bjerke, a tall bony man with a near baritone voice who looked like a combination between a Norwegian and a Q-Tip, and who besides dressed the part of the consummate sporty Midwest yuppie--after listening to this male Homo sapiens talk of sport and sporting and sports and credit card perks and the lodge staff at the top of his voice as if he were the only Homo sapiens in that five a.m. shuttle, after listening for twenty minutes straight before I had even had sufficient coffee, believe me: I would willingly introduce him to the nobler kind of fight I have in mind; I'd allow him to choose baseball bat or butcher's knife; I'd maybe even video the event for YouTube, in honor of baritone yuppie eloquence and the Q-Tip brand.

So give me a ring, Bjerke. After all, to judge by your volume and self-importance, a mere Sander vitreus, or walleye, is not up to your dignity. Why not go after something more your size? The black bear native to central Manitoba is acceptable I think, but a grizzly would be even nobler yet. Give me a ring. I'll rent out the racquetball court, bring the bear and your weapons, and even supply the white loincloth you'll wear.

Toward evening we again must race across the choppy water to return to the lodge and meet with other small groups of male humans of different ages, who have like us spent the day extracting specimens of Sander vitreus from the water and then returning them to the water. And at the lodge there will be drinking of beer and boasting as to who brought up either the most of said species or the largest of said species (especially the latter: size matters in this particular sub-culture).

And after dinner and drinking of beer each small group returns to its cabin, builds a fire in a large iron stove, and begins to contend with Culicidae, which one kills to the best of one's ability.

And next day one returns to the lake to hunt the Sander vitreus by the laborious method outlined above. And likewise the following day. And then a third.

Thus are the happenings of a successful fishing trip to one of the best walleye lakes in North America. As one retired surgeon from Michigan put it to me one evening as we stepped from our aluminum hulls and onto the wood dock: "Is there any joy in life greater than this? I mean, really."

I smiled at him in reply, and a rapid series of images, like cards being shuffled, began to rush across my brain pan.


I must admit, though I looked forward to visiting my father this June in Bend, Oregon, where he'd moved with his wife Wendy, that the fishing trip he set up for us, at least while it was being planned, sounded like something of a chore. Yes, I was happy to do it as a way to hang out with my father--like old times, when we'd fish in Canada when I was a teen--but didn't think I'd be much interested in fishing any more. Part of the problem was the weather I imagined we'd get. I was told we needed to have rain gear, warm clothes, waterproof boots; which to me sounded like standing in an aluminum boat in cold rain for three days.

But the weather didn't turn out like this. In fact we had the best possible weather: cool, breezy, sunny. And the lake was beautiful, about twenty miles long, with small scattered islands and an unbroken border of pine and birch trees on all sides. I ended up having a good time all round: a lot of joking, fresh air--amazing fresh air--and that vague thrill of not knowing, each time I dropped the line, whether or not I'd land a trophy fish in the coming ten minutes. The angling bug had bitten me.

I didn't end up catching a trophy fish, but so what? I caught a lot of good fish, bigger walleyes than I'd ever caught before, and a few good northern pike too. And while doing so I got to chat with my father on all sorts of things: stocks and bonds of course, real estate, Mader's Restaurant, his friends' escapades, his fishing trips to other locales; Taipei life, cultural differences between East and West, etc. I learned some things about investing. And I also got to chat with our fishing guide, a Cree Indian named Langford York, about his life in the town of Norway House, his ideas on the spirit world and the relations between whites and his people, his girlfriend and their son, etc.

When I left Taipei I'd thought it would just be my father and I going fishing. But in Bend I learned that two of his friends would join us. What would these guys be like? I wondered. My father, after all, had spent most of his adult life masquerading as an asshole, and had become quite a maestro at it. I say masquerading because he means no harm, but provokes people just to get a rise out of them, to invite a counterattack, and is often a riot to be around. His assholism is a mode of comedy. But still, I thought, my father was also a businessman and investor and lifelong Republican, so wasn't it possible that his friends, or at least one of the two, would turn out to be the real deal--a garden variety asshole rather than a joker asshole?

In fact I needn't have worried. Dieter and Mark, I realized as soon we met in Winnipeg, were good guys all round, and what's always a plus, they were cigar smokers too. Dieter came to the States from West Berlin in the 1960s, and has kept both his German accent and gratefulness to America for its sacrifices in World War II and its policies toward Germany after the war--especially the Berlin Airlift, which he remembers. Mark, who now lives in Wisconsin in nearly the same neck of woods where I grew up, is a fervent Christian, like myself, but is well to the right of me in his political thinking. Still, he's laid back and not one to get hacked off in political discussions.

All in all it was a good time hanging out with these four characters--my father the professional smart ass, Langford, Mark and Dieter--fishing and drinking and smoking on that isolated and pristine Canadian lake. I'd do it again if I had the chance, and maybe even must do it again, as I'm the only one of the four who didn't get a trophy walleye. My father, sitting next to me and fishing in exactly the same way I was, got five trophies in the course of three days, which really is hard to figure. So I was one of the few who left the camp a virgin--not having caught a trophy fish, either walleye or northern pike. Do walleyes maybe have a thing for Republicans?

I'm grateful to my father for setting up this fishing trip. We had a good time all around.

* * * SOME VISUALS * * *

No roads reach Gunisao Lake. One has to fly in.

After landing on the dirt runway.

In the main lodge. Unshaven.

Out on the boat. My father and Langford, our guide.

Walleyes to be cleaned and cooked for shore lunch.

Before shore lunch.

Mark and Dieter.

Esox lucius: a northern pike.

Cleaning the fish.

Cooking shore lunch.

One of my father's five trophy walleyes.

Evening fishing.

The cabins we slept in were overrun with mosquitoes. But they didn't bother me much because they were so much slower and easier to kill than Taiwan's mosquitoes. Coming back from the lake on day two, I decided to give myself ten minutes on the clock to see how many I could kill with my bare hands. Nineteen.

Building a fire in the wood stove. The nights were a bit cold.

My best Bill Murray impersonation.

Birch trees near the lodge.

The main lodge.

My father and I fishing, late 1970s.

The Children at the Ball: A Parable for Atheists

Imagine a grand 19th century ball, with the women each trying to make the most striking impression, the men each trying to cut the most dashing figure; that during the ball a fight breaks out between some of the men, a scandalous scene ensues, but finally all is made up and the ball continues for a time, then ends.

Now imagine that for the duration of the ball there were fifty 6-year-olds watching from a mezzanine balcony, fifty children of different cultures, and that after the ball they all went back to their countries and were asked each to draw in colored pencils what happened at the ball.

You would get fifty very different drawings, from artists of very different talents, each doing a drawing focused on the aspects of the ball he or she thought most important.

And which of the children would be right? Which wrong? Only if we'd seen the ball with our own eyes could we have any basis to judge, but still--would it be right to argue which child was "right" or "wrong" in any case? Could we argue for rightness in any absolute sense, given that in each case the experience of the ball was mediated through a drawing?

I'm frequently told that one of the main arguments against religion and the existence of God or gods is that there are so many different religions in the world. That the divine must be an illusion because it has been represented in so many different ways. And I think of my fifty children at the ball. Do their different drawings prove that there was no ball? Is that what you'd conclude after collecting all the drawings in a museum and comparing them? You'd conclude that the ball was all just in the children's imagination?

Knowing children's art, and how radically different one child's perspective might be from another's, and knowing the difference in artistic styles and whatnot, that certainly wouldn't be my own conclusion. I'd feel that something had certainly taken place, and that the drawings I was looking at were different pieces of evidence as to what that actually was. I'd also notice how many striking elements were similar from drawing to drawing, regardless of the striking differences. I would never conclude that the ball hadn't taken place.

Knowing the varieties of religious experience, how often it has been a matter of encountering the ineffable, or sensing the breaking in of another and partly foreign realm, of voices heard clearly or not, I likewise don't think the many world religions are evidence against God's existence.

The inspired prophets and seers of different religions are like children trying to transmit truths they themselves can only partly understand. They do their best based on the acuity of their vision and the modalities of understanding their cultures have given them. They leave us records of something that is real, and we must do our best to seek out which "drawings" most closely correspond to this Real. This seeking out is well worth the effort because in this case it's not simply a ball that is at issue, but the meaning of our lives.

A Man of Action

Taxiing before takeoff, not even on the runway yet, we all heard the dreaded thud. The contents had shifted seriously in the overhead compartment.

The perfectly shaved man in seat 10B, directly above whom the contents had shifted, looked up from his pulp thriller with vague panic in his eye. My God, it's actually happened. The contents have shifted!

Then, just as quickly, his eyes twisted quizzically and I could see him kind of laugh at himself as he realized: So fucking what? I mean--it's just my carry on!

He glanced over the aisle and caught me watching him. His hypershaved face blushed slightly and, annoyed I'd gotten into his head, he turned his eyes swiftly back to his Tom Clancy.

As for me, I took out my own book, another distinguished Jesuit explaining Aquinas. Our plane took off, and after a handful of pages on the Virtues, before we'd even reached cruising altitude, I'd somehow drifted into sleep.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Ever-Predictable Iraqi Debacle: A Father's Day Rant

WSJ reports on the Shia response.

Father's Day, 2014. I'm with my father in Portland, Oregon, and we just left Powell's Books, the largest used book store on the planet. Somewhat amazingly, we didn't buy anything. Though tempted, my father didn't buy Jared Diamond's recent book (Diamond's first big hit Guns, Germs, and Steel is likely his favorite book of all time; he's mentioned it probably every time I've visited him in recent years); and as for me, I didn't find Jabès Book of Questions or either of the other two books I was looking for. I'm disappointed, yes, but still--You gotta love Powell's.

We step through the drizzle to a Starbuck's across the street. My father sees the crowd inside and suggests we grab one of the outside tables under an awning.

"You want anything?" I ask. "Something without dairy? A soy milk cappuccino?"

"OK, whatever. But I need it sweet."

I go in to order our drinks. At the counter I see a sign: We now serve coconut milk.

"Is that coconut milk with coffee?" I ask.

"Yes. You can have it instead of milk."

"Is it good?"

"It doesn't foam as well as milk, but yeah, I think it's pretty good."

"Alright. One coconut milk single cappuccino and one coconut milk double cappuccino."

On my way out with the drinks, I see the Wall Street Journal by the door with headlines indicating that a major Shiite cleric has called on men to take up arms to defend Iraq's Shia community against the the ISIS insurgents now moving southward.

"You know what pisses me off?" I say to my father, putting down the drinks.

"Portland kids who work at Starbucks?"



"This ongoing fucking mess in Iraq, which has been completely predictable from the start. It pisses me off to no end."

"You mean the uprising they're having now?"

"No, I mean the whole thing from the beginning. We should've left Iraq alone and focused on Afghanistan. This has been the most shameful fiasco in our history. It makes the Vietnam War look like a stroke of genius."

"Yeah. It seems even worse over there now than it was under Saddam. They're all killing each other."

"What's infuriating is that it was all foreseeable. Even before we invaded it was clear toppling Saddam wouldn't result in a stable democracy. Even I--and I'm not by any means an expert on the Muslim world--even I could see it'd only bring chaos. The people that knew the territory, the experts on the region I mean, already in 2002 they were pretty much describing the exact conflict that's now raging. At the time of 9/11, al Qaeda wasn't in Iraq. Now, thanks to our invasion and post-invasion policy, they're all over the place."

"It was mismanaged, and the whole thing wasn't about al Qaeda anyway," my father says. "It was all just for oil. Even Greenspan, a lifelong Republican heavyweight, came out and admitted it."

"And did we get our oil? No. We got fucking nothing. We took out Saddam and the inevitable civil war broke out. On our penny."

"We've spent a trillion dollars there," he says. "Probably mostly wasted."

"Absolutely wasted. Iraq is divided between three ethnic groups that hate each other: the Shia in the south, the largest by population; the Sunni in the middle; and the Kurds in the north. They hate each other. Probably the only thing they have in common, except for maybe the Kurds, is that they hate us even more than they hate each other. Fertile ground for Western-style democracy, hey? And for us to be the ones who try to set it up. It's a pipe dream."

"And Syria's right next to Iraq, and there's war there too now. Is that also Sunni versus Shia?"

"Basically yes."

"So it's the same mess in two neighboring countries. Why don't these people ever stop killing each other?"

"Well, Christians have a long history of sectarian wars too. Look at Europe after the Reformation. It was brutal. And it continued until recent times. The Muslim world just still happens to be of a mindset that the West has more or less grown out of."

"So you don't think it's because Muslims are more warlike than Christians?"

"I think there's definitely something to that claim, sure. The Koran is full of calls to take up arms for Islam. If one group of Muslims sees a different group of Muslims corrupting what they see as the truth, they must take up arms to defend 'true Islam' from the corrupting influence of heretics. Thus the Sunni have little patience for Shia, and vice-versa."

"And you think Iraq avoided civil war in the past only because of Saddam's iron fist keeping the conflict down, is that what you're saying?"

"Saddam was a brutal dictator whose regime committed horrible atrocities. Don't get me wrong, as if I'm saying anything good about Saddam. What I am saying is that it was naive of our leaders to assume Iraq would stay in one piece after he was gone. That you could go and just have elections and everything would work out. It was nonsense. The line the Bush administration was pushing--Everybody wants freedom; we'll be welcomed with open arms; it'll be a cakewalk--it was all utter bullshit. Everybody wants freedom? Yeah, right. The Shia want freedom to get revenge for being crushed for decades under Saddam's Sunni thugs. The Sunni, for their part, want freedom to ensure the Shia never get the upper hand in government. Because they know they Shia will get revenge. So, sure, everybody wants freedom there, no shit, and for just that reason, Mr. Rumsfeld, it will NOT be a cakewalk."


"And lo and behold, as soon as Saddam was out, a low intensity civil war began, day fucking one. And once the American troops were out, the civil war could quickly shift into a more high-intensity mode, which again is just what has happened. And what pisses me off is that all this was obvious before we even went in. It was clear as day that we were only kicking a hornets' nest."

"We should have probably sent in a larger invading force," he says, turning back.

"I think it wouldn't have made much difference. Iraq's a powder keg, and it isn't our responsibility to keep a lid on it. Look what it has cost us. Let the Iraqis manage their own differences."

"By killing each other."

"Look, in a very real sense there's no such thing as Iraqis anyway. It's a fake country. The borders were set up by the British in the 1920s, and they intentionally kept these ethnic groups together under one government. It's an old imperialist trick. It's easier to control a state made up populations that don't get along. They're less likely to come together and organize resistance that way. Iraq has been a fake country from the start, designed to fall into civil war if the government were ever overthrown."

"That's pretty well put--the fake country part. You should write it down. A lot of people don't know anything about it."

"Pssh! People have been writing it down since before we even went in, better writers than me, but what difference did it make? Nobody pays attention to intelleckchuls when America wants to go to war. No, it's all anger about 9/11, Colin Powell, Dick Fucking Cheney--that's what people will listen to. After the Twin Towers went down, we Americans--who have enormous resources for understanding the world but really hardly know shit about it--we just got this idea into our heads that we had to go kill us some Muslims. And voila, there was Bush and Co., more than willing to point to Iraq. It had what Cheney called 'worthwhile targets'."


"And Dubya and his inner circle didn't know anything about Iraq and didn't try to learn anything either. When the State Department presented them with 4,000 pages of detailed contingency plans should the US decide to go in, plans written by the people in our government who had expertise on the region and the cultures involved--what did the Bush team do? They refused even to read the plans! Nope. Everything's gonna be alright. Shock and awe 'n all. We're goin' in. It's all documented. They refused even to look at them. They'd somehow gotten it into their heads that once Saddam was taken out, Disney World would forthwith erupt in the Middle East. It was absurd. I'm thinking Paul Wolfowitz deserves blame for a lot of it. In any case, we were drawn into a war that lasted a decade, got 4,400 Americans killed, cost us a trillion of dollars, and offered us nothing in return. It's criminal ineptitude at the highest level of government. And now the Fox crowd is trying to blame Obama that Iraq is still in chaos! Which is ridiculous for the simple reason that there is no fucking way Iraq wouldn't be in chaos. Because the so-called country Iraq is basically a recipe for chaos. Add three parts Shia, two parts Sunni, one part Kurd. Stir in massive oil revenue. Bring to simmer, then remove lid. Watch mixture explode in your face."

My father is laughing.

"But the current civil war only started because Obama withdrew our troops too soon, no?" he says. He's trying to provoke me.

"Withdrew them too soon? That's a funny one. This Iraq mess has already gone on longer than World War II! Think about it. And what can be done given the facts on the ground? Leave our troops there forever? The shit is going to hit the fan sooner or later, and the longer we stay there, every American life lost is another life wasted just kicking the can down the road. I'd say we should do our best from the outside. Dubya decided to take out Saddam, now we're stuck in the middle--between brutal Sunni militias on the one hand and Iran-backed Shia on the other. And when I said earlier I was pissed, and though I've gone on for half an hour about it, the truth is I haven't even gotten to the thing that pisses me off the most."

"What's that?"

"It's this ISIS uprising, and how it reveals what hypocrites our leaders are when it comes to dealing with al Qaeda. ISIS is basically another flavor of al Qaeda, the group basically morphed out of a Qaeda in Iraq, the Syrian opposition and other linked groups. And what pisses me off is that John McCain, erstwhile American war hero become loudmouth ass-clown, last year made a surprise visit to Syria to meet with some of the fighters in that Syrian opposition, because, you know, we also don't like the Syrian government."


"And McCain's argument, critical of Obama policy, was that we should be arming and funding these Syrian 'freedom fighters'. My own attitude was that we should stay out of it, but McCain, you know, never tires of trying to push us into new military conflicts. The man never saw a war he didn't like. I shudder to think what would have happened had he become president."

"I voted for him," my father says.

"Well, then maybe you'd have liked what you got. In his first term he opens three new US fronts in Arab countries, then the pressures of office and the chorus of boos from Americans who think we've messed around enough in the Middle East starts to get to him, he suffers a heart attack, and Palin is the new American president. Your son, the day after she's inaugurated, fulfills a barroom promise and burns his passport."

"Hah hah. Anyhow, even if that moron Palin did become president, she'd just be a puppet of the people really calling the shots."

"To some degree yes, but the fact is that the president gets to choose who he or she listens to. Look at Bush. And I'd hate to see Palin's lineup of policy advisors. A few Duck Dynasty faces, Rush, her Wasilla high school math teacher as Federal Reserve Chairman. . . ."

"You think McCain's an idiot because he doesn't know how to use the Internet."

"Absolutely not. I think he's an idiot because some of that same bunch of fighters he posed with just last year, that Syrian opposition, is now part of ISIS. In other words, your party's candidate for president was basically suggesting we arm al Qaeda. It's despicable. Back in the Reagan years we had the excuse that we didn't quite know what the Taliban were capable of. In those days bin Laden was helping us fight the Soviets. But now we've got no excuse. We know very well who these people are and what their long-term goals are. But here's your party's main man smiling and shaking hands and saying we should actually start to arm them again!"

"What do they say about the enemy of your enemy being your friend? Sometimes politics is like that."

"Sure. But I think there's a limit. And in the Muslim world we frequently cross that limit. And we get burned in the end. And in any case the people with power to make policy should at least know something about what they're advocating for. Bush obviously didn't. McCain has the same kind of cowboy recklessness. There's plenty I don't like about the Obama administration, a helluva lot, but at least his people aren't full-out psychos."

"Let's get out of here," my father says. "It's getting cold. And enough politics. Talking about stocks is more interesting."

I make a yawning gesture.

"You know politics, I know investment. Politics don't interest me. From now on we talk PE, shorting, bonds. I'll explain shorting to you again."

"How was the cappuccino?"

"Nothing special. Should have been sweeter."

"Alright, let's hit the road."

Eric Mader

My father and I near Bend, Oregon.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

This young Irish fellow is going to be the end of us

Paul Wylie

Or, as I see it, he may become part of the new beginning I have in mind.

I know three or four of you who read this don't agree with me here, and think besides that my prevarications serve no purpose. But as I've explained to you before, in weightier correspondence, my purpose is clear enough for me: it's simply a long way down the road.

So the prevarication will have to go on.

Young Wylie and his mysterious female accomplice have cracked the ciphers of the posted Internal Correspondence . The deciphered texts, most of them, have now been published in book form. Today I'm posting this to give them my congratulations.

What worries me slightly, at this point, is that Wylie may figure out what is serious in my initial announcement, and that if he does, he will insist on divulging what he finds. I say it worries me slightly; I know it worries some of you quite a bit. In fact I don't think there's much danger on either score: 1) that he will figure it out; 2) that he would divulge anything without warrant. Either way, you four will have to put up with the slight jeopardy you see.

He's very young, yes, but we need youth, no? We're old; getting too old for our own good.

He's very young, yes, but I think he's playing for the long game. He didn't publish Letter 17 after all.

So congratulations, Wylie. I'm hoping your name turns out to indicate what I think it does.

For you others, who dissent, I know I'll be hearing from you soon. As always, I'll listen carefully to any concerns you have. I'm confident you'll see eventually that my reasoning on these issues is sound.

From game to gunm,
From dog to doggerel,
Yours truly,

Eric Mader

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Are atheists mentally ill? (Revisited)

A ever-growing number of scientific studies comparing religious people to atheists find that religious people live longer, suffer fewer illnesses (including mental illness) and recover from illness faster than their non-religious peers. This is true even after adjustments are made for smoking and other health-impairing habits. Religious people are also found to be happier than atheists.

I'm thinking about these striking findings again after reading an article titled "Are atheists mentally ill?" by British writer Sean Thomas that appeared in the UK's Telegraph last year. Thomas' article was written to provoke, but the question is a valid one: Why does study after study find these disparities in health and happiness between believers and non-believers?

The answer, I believe, is that religious people are in touch with something real in the universe. They make their connection to this spiritual reality via a sixth sense we humans all possess, a faculty that is variously developed in different individuals and cultures. And yes, I think of this faculty as literally a sixth sense.

As with most mammals, we humans have five senses--sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste--that tell us facts about our environment. In addition to these five, however, we also possess a sixth sense that other species lack. In religious people this sense is more developed, while in the non-religious it remains latent. Some people in the modern West (dogmatic atheists) even do their best to keep it as dormant as possible, but of course the fact that it is there in the first place suggests it is not best left dormant. Why after all do we have this sense?

Advocates of a narrowly materialist empirical science (among which the New Atheists) have proposed several evolutionary explanations. Most of these explanations relate to religion's advantages for group cohesion. I find the arguments unpersuasive, but especially worth noting is that they all take for granted that what is being felt or experienced by religious people is purely illusory--i.e., in the case of this particular sense, unlike with our other five senses, the reality being perceived is asserted to be necessarily false. To this I would simply say: Science offers no final ground for making such an assertion.

Clearly this sixth sense we have is somehow connected to the human phenomenon of consciousness, but how it is connected we can only speculate. In any case I believe that it is literally a matter of perceiving the presence of a realm (the spiritual) or a reality (God) that does exist. It is a bridge allowing us connection to a power that begins to complete us once connection is made.

Why, then, the skeptic will say, are there so many different religions? If humans are, in religion, perceiving and reacting to a reality behind things, why do they react in so many different ways?

The wide variety of religions over history doesn't trouble me in the least. In fact I consider it just more evidence for my thesis. That humans perceive the divine somewhat differently from culture to culture is just what one would expect. The interesting thing is that they DO perceive the divine. It is something that is there, but that is perceived "through a glass darkly", as Paul puts it in the context of Christian faith.

Again: Evolution has brought us to a state where this connection is possible. Those who allow the narrow interpretation of science called "scientism" to shut them off from making it are, not surprisingly, suffering from their choice. Because it is part of our humanity to reach across the bridge to that partially revealed reality on the other side. This is what the studies tell us. Meanwhile the dogmatic atheists keep insisting it's religious people who are mentally ill.

Debating with atheists, I've often been struck by the feeling that sitting before me were people who lacked a part of the sensorium. As if we were tailing about a complex piece of music and he or she simply couldn't hear two of the seven instruments being played. It wasn't at all a matter of disagreeing about science--the disagreement was rather over whether science was fitted to tell us about the whole spectrum of sound we're capable of hearing. My ears pick up something that the atheist's do not. And the little meter he carries around in his bag (call it empirical science) simply doesn't have the range to deal with the music in question. Which is not surprising. Though science tells us much about the intricacies of the physical universe, it can tell us precisely nothing about why the universe exists in the first place.

It is clear that developing our connection to this spiritual level in the universe--which religion helps cultivate--is good for our being: it makes us healthier, more resistant, happier. There is an energy that sustains us and adds life to us. Anyone who still cares to doubt it can just look at the evidence.

The linked article is provocative, yes, but I think just this kind of provocation is needed at present given the aggressive tactics of the New Atheists. It is they who are misleading us as to what we are and what the universe is. And they are misleading themselves too. Which isn't doing them much good, is it?

Eric Mader

(Sean Thomas' article is at Thanks to the bloggers at the Freedom from Atheism Foundation for bringing it to my attention.)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Natural Pedagogy 自然教學方法

Unshaven, still drowsy, I lock the door to my 5th floor Taipei flat. I check my watch as I wait for the elevator, realizing I'll likely be late for class. When the elevator door finally opens, after an annoyingly slow descent from a floor high above, I come face to face with some upper-story neighbors, a mother and her young son. The boy is four or five and carries a huge slice of watermelon covered in clear plastic wrap. I notice the yellow of the melon perfectly matches the yellow of the bicycle stenciled on his teeshirt. The mother, as usual, has way overdone her makeup, and is carrying an oversized Louis Vuitton bag. The boy smiles at me, but the woman keeps her gaze on the floor.

Then, as the doors close, she suddenly whacks her son sharply on the head and snaps in Mandarin: "Stop touching the melon! You'll ruin it and no one will want to eat it! It's like butterfly wings. If you touch them you ruin them!"

I watch the boy's reaction in the mirror as the elevator begins to descend.

"Do people eat butterfly wings?" he asks her after a few seconds.

She makes a scoffing noise and says just a single word: "Stupid." She clutches her bag closer.

As we near the ground floor, I catch the boy's eye in the mirror. He's clearly upset to be hit and insulted in front of the tall foreigner. As the elevator slows to a stop, I smile at him and say: "We eat them in my country."

And just before the doors open, he looks up at his mother and defiantly says: "He eats them!"

As I step out of the elevator, I catch the mother scowling at me. But the boy is happy. I know in his mind he's already picturing foreigners munching on yellow butterfly wings.

That I'll be late for my class matters little now. I step out into the rain, hoist my flimsy umbrella, and head to the subway. I'm glad I caught them on the elevator. One must always try one's best to get to children when they're young.











[四十多歲小孩寫的文字。 謝謝我學生畢莘幫我改我的錯誤,但她應該太有禮貌, 應該還有怪怪的地方。]