An Affliction

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Of course, when the night of the recital came, there was no thought of him actually attending–at least, not for his parents.

For the last six weeks whenever his scheduled session with his instructor had come near, he had buckled over with sharp, piercing pain in his abdomen. The first night they’d been sympathetic. It had been so sudden that they had had no time to call off the lesson. They politely met his tutor–a matronly crone with an unmoving face and a sterling reputation on the Upper East Side–at the door with her requisite fee in hand and a mouthful of apologies. “Too ill to practice?” she had said dubiously, but they assured her that they would make sure he did practice on his own as soon as he was better.

But the second time this occurred, they forced him to endure the lesson anyway, with disastrous results. “Now, Michael,” they said–and actually failed to finish the sentence. They simply set up his sheets on the piano and poured his tutor the glass of water with no ice that she always expected waiting for her.

Michael marched up to the ivories with a grimace and sat down for his lesson. They left the room, convinced they’d done the right thing.

Fifteen minutes later, however, the tutor summoned them. With the same didactic tone they heard echo through the hall while she instructed the boy, she told them to tuck him into bed and to monitor his temperature carefully and not to let him drink for at least an hour and which name-brand soda to give him when he finally was ready. Then she left, the lesson incomplete. To her credit, she did not insist on payment that time. She did though say, “Not to force the boy to endure something like this again.”

So when the next week came and Michael once again complained about his stomach, they placed a hasty phone call to the tutor and, with quick glances at one another, said they would take him to the doctor and let her know when he could resume his lessons.

The doctor, though, seemed unnecessary. By the morning, he was spritely and game for adventures in the tiny garden behind their brownstone or a romp over to the park. They thought they had his number pretty squarely down at this point and decided that, admitting defeat, they might as well just pay out the rest of the contract with the tutor and not renew for the next year. The piano, after all, had been mostly a decorative item before they’d thought to have him instructed on it; it could be simply that again.

But on the night of the big recital, Michael dressed himself and came downstair two hours before, nervously flexing his fingers and bobbing his head to an inaudible melody.

“What are you doing?”

“It’s the recital.”

“But Michael, you haven’t practiced in weeks. You’re not ready for the recital?”

“You didn’t tell Mrs. Gerbacher to take me off the program, did you?”

“No, but we…”

So they dressed and caught a cab to the recital hall.

And he played beautifully, growing greener with every strike of the keys, and just before the end of the second movement, he vomited upstage and finished the piece with an orange smudge on his shoulder.

Woe is American Foreign Policy in the Middle East

If you look carefully, you’ll see I have created a new category for this post.

I had begun a post on the situation in Iraq. I’d titled it “R.I.P. The Bush Doctrine 2001-2014,” and I began it like this:

And so now, with a rapidity that should make the US intelligence community question its commitment to reading everybody’s e-mails and start paying attention to the world outside of cyberspace, the new, twenty-first century Iraq that America bought with so many billions of dollars, thousands of dead and even more scarred and broken former warriors is torn asunder.

A new Al Quaida-ish refuge has been created with the capture of Mosul, except this new Afghanistan has much more oil wealth and much greater potential to disrupt the Middle East.

I’ll refrain from saying “I told you so,” since that would feel like the hollowest possible victory.

But you know what, I can’t refrain. Anymore than the confederacy of dunces responsible for this ill-advised war and occupation can refrain from pretending they were not responsible for the situation.

Dick Cheney–DICK FRICKING CHENEY–had the nerve to write in the Wall Street Journal that, “Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.” And he thinks THAT president is Obama? The man with the unenviable task of trying to clean up the mess that he and his president left of the country and the world?

It’s not just Cheney, though. All the Iraq war cheerleaders–Wolfowitz, McCain, Graham, oh my!–are out in force denouncing the president’s weakness. Few are getting as specific as Cheney, who actually bothered to name one thing he thinks the president did wrong.

He did not negotiate a treaty allowing us to stay in Iraq. Now, wait, we were there, Dick, so why is it we would need a treaty? Oh, right, because we had already signed a treaty under Bush saying we would leave! YOU’RE BLAMING OBAMA FOR NOT BEING ABLE TO SUCCESSFULLY REVERSE THE TREATY YOUR PRESIDENT SIGNED!!!

These men are callow and cowardly. When the world has presented exactly the sort of scenario that they ignored in their foolhardy invasion of Iraq, they are despicable enough to point fingers instead of accepting responsibility. It should not surprise us, though. They did not accept responsibility when their casas belli, weapons of mass destruction, failed to materialize. They did not accept responsibility when the Iraqi people neglected to universally embrace us as their liberators and heroes and instead launched into a difficult and painful insurgency.

These men no longer have the capacity to behave responsibility. Everyone of them still in office should be impeached and drummed from public life under a cloud of shame.

Instead, they babble on.

Meanwhile, the grownups left in the room (few that they are) have to try to figure out what to do with the mess in Iraq.

Well, gather ’round my little ones. I have a course of action for us. It will cost billions, maybe trillions in the long run, but it is the only sane course left:


Let’s go all in on local energy. Wind farms. Solar panels–EVERYWHERE! Let’s float those wind buoy things all over the dang place. We’ve got majestic shores all over the place, let’s invest in tidal power. Let’s fix things so that not one drop of oil needs to pass into this nation from outside our borders. Hell, I’ll even endorse fracking (with a heap of regulations that if written out would stack to the moon) if it means getting us off foreign oil.

Because ultimately, what is this region going to do when the world no longer needs that black sludge hiding under their sands? They will be left in the dirt with only their backward, feudalistic version of their religion and nothing else–nothing to fund their mania with any longer.

I’m not the only one thinking this. I’m just putting it a bit more crassly than most. The bottom line is that this region has only been strategically important because of oil. We know now that this very resource that has dragged us into quagmire after quagmire is also eroding the planet’s ability to support our civilization. Global warming is ruining the globe. We might as well just make the call now and call the Middle East its first real victim. (Okay, so they’re not.)

It may sound cruel or callous to say that we should abandon all those innocent people in ISIS’s wake to their savagery, but what else can we do? Literally, the only crazy-ass option to try to protect these people would be to invade their countries and try to force them to live like members of the civilized world.

And thanks to delusional pinheads like McCain and Cheney who dragged this country on just such an errand more than a decade ago, we already know that won’t work.

On coincidentally completing both Snow Crash and Lexicon on successive days…

This happened by accident.

I finished Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash yesterday. Then today, I first tried out a preview for a book called Codex, but it didn’t catch my interest. So I loaded a sneak peek of the next book down on my Amazon wish list (which is really, really long by the way) and it happened to be this book Lexicon by Max Barry. (Also coincidentally, both of these books found their way onto my wish list via recommendations/interactions from different and unrelated Facebook friends.)  It was interesting, so I bought the whole book. Then I just kept reading.

It turns out that central to both books is the idea that there is a root language that is so primal, so essential that it can directly “hack” the human brain. There’s a language beneath all language and if you knew these words then you could literally rewire or control human beings.

So Babel was real. It was something that happened.

Stephenson takes the time to really develop the software/hardware analogy in Snow Crash. This ancient/primal/metavirus language in our brains is like the BIOS in our mental computers. Our other languages and everything else we have running is just software. But this BIOS is the core machine language of the human brain. If you could speak directly to it, then you could circumvent all the rest–go right to running the hardware.

Of course, I don’t buy it. But it made for a great story. Well, two great stories.

The larger point, though, is whether the hardware/software analogy has broader application. Joss Whedon had a show called Dollhouse not long ago in which human beings could have their software rewritten–in which people could be programmed with different personalities, different identities.

Scary, but true shit: There are people working on that sort of thing in labs right f’ing now.

Western thought has always grappled with the question of our essential nature–of what cogito ergo sum really means for us in practical terms–and we, lucky us, are on the verge of living through the time when we will have that all worked out, down to a science. The implications are, well, obviously dangerous.

In Lexicon and Snow Crash, (spoiler alert!) the genie is shoved back in the bottle and civilization is saved from the madmen who want to use the uber-word to enslave mankind. The world of Dollhouse, not so lucky. In that story, human civilization has a slight case of Armageddon before destroying the unfortunate technology behind the global mind-wipe.

That’s not the scariest scenario, though. At least, I don’t think so. If our minds can be rewritten–and I guess based on recent science there’s no reason to believe that, given enough computing power and the right tools, they can’t be–then what value is there in our minds, really?

Isn’t it possible that one mad genius could use something (an all-controlling bare-word, a meta-virus mind-hack, a brain-wiping doll-making techno-blaster, what-ever) to enslave the rest of mankind to cater to his every whim, to truly be the Alpha and Omega of all Homo sapiens sapiens.

Then, as he looks down from atop his pyramid of orgiastic self-worship, might he not–in a soul-crushing moment of self-insight–realize that his desires, his wants, his megalomaniacal need was no more significant than all the thoughts he wiped out of the minds of the rest of us.

Maybe it’s like the end of Oldboy (look it up, if you dare). Maybe that’s why Babel happened–happens in myth after myth after myth. Because ultimately, it’s better to just be confused and aimless.