Monday, December 8, 2008

Solving Alyosha Karamazov’s Conundrum

Dostoyevsky asked in the Brothers K, essentially, would you kill a small child if it meant ending all suffering in the world?

This sort of literary hypothetical evokes the type of learned blah blah blah that drives NASCAR fans batty.

“Split selves, son, what in the name of all that’s holy are you talking about. Do you see more than one self here?”

This perception, my perception of the average American, not the average American’s actual perception of his own self is the real problem, as I see it.

No one can know their own soul better than themselves.

Soul, psyche and body are locked in a long embrace, Alyosha, Ivan and Dmitri are connected for better or worse, and there has been no better communication of this dilemma than that done in the Brothers K.

Dostoyevsky took the ideas of Ginsburg and Diderot and presented them in a way large numbers of people could understand. Unfortunately, he was Russian. (Well, he never could have done it if he hadn’t been, so maybe “unfortunately” is the wrong word. It was fortunate for Russians, unfortunate for post-1917 Americans. As soon as we were made to fear the spread of communism the majority of the country lost real access to the Russian soul. We threw the baby out with the bathwater).

Even attempting to explain what’s in my brain calls into question every preconception I have about the average American voter. I fear the sheer quantity of syllables in the names Carlo Ginsburg, Denis Diderot and Fyodor Dostoyevsky will make their eyes glaze over with confused apathy.

This is exactly what Bush and Kerry think, too. The world can only hope we’re all wrong. For if we are to believe the NY Times, the fate of the entire civilized world lies in the hands of the NASCAR dad.

Swing voters, like swing thoughts, effect reality. They change reality. They don’t merely affect it, they effectively affect it. This sort of inane hairsplitting is exactly the type of rubbish that we think goes over the head of every American.

So, politicians and entertainers aim for the gut (occasionally slipping below the belt) and hope for the best.

How do you relay complex ideas in this milieu, (without using the word “milieu” for starters, idiot). We are talking about killing people! Murder! American tax dollars, money everyone contributed to in one degree or another, have paid for the bombs and bullets used to conduct “preemptive” war.

This was done in full knowledge of the fact that Alyosha Dostoyevsky’s hypothetical child (a real Iraqi child) would die (discounted as so much collateral damage by the powers that authorized it).

We all bear a portion of the guilt associated with this crime, because we paid for it and because we have not acted fast enough (or effectively enough) to stop it from happening again.

Distance does not absolve us.

It may diminish our guilt, but once we enter into a discussion of degrees of guilt we start walking on thin ice. How heavy must the weight of our guilt be before it sends us plunging into the icy water.

If we think we are doing something bad, we are doing something bad. At the top of your backswing, even considering you’re doing something wrong is enough to cause you to do something wrong.

To what lengths must we go to achieve moral perfection (if such a thing exists)?

Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer in the world, the greatest golfer I’ve ever seen, and I’ve studied the game for almost a quarter of a century. Even what I consider the closest to golf perfection makes innumerable mistakes in a round.

The trick is minimizing those mistakes, making them less damaging.

Personal morality may not be any more complicated than your own golf game. The repercussions, well, that’s a different story. Breaking 80 and breaking the will of an entire people are two entirely different things.

Who bears the burden of guilt? Who is walking on the ice? Are Putin and Bush walking alone on one big frozen lake, or are all Americans and all Russians walking alone on our own frozen ponds?

Leaders can only lead those that want to be led.

I’m tired of being asked to walk out on thin ice because my pond is precarious enough.

I feel a responsibility for that Iraqi child’s death, not as much as I bear the burden of responsibility for the bump on my own child’s head, but turning my back for a moment when he fell and turning my back on this whole dilemma are equally easy.

We do as much as we can, and that is all we can do. If we see leaders attempting to dupe us onto thin ice we can not vote for them, we can complain, and we can try to get other people to complain and not vote for them and stop being duped.

My morality then becomes tied to yours.

I’m responsible for my actions, yet I must accept some responsibility for my inaction, as well.

Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King.

More syllables and more preconceptions.

You must do what you think is right.

If this is true, then what is George W. Bush doing?

Is he listening to his heart, his mind, or his belly?

Alyosha, Ivan or Dmitri?

Is this even comprehensible?

I hear a man say he can think of no mistakes he’s made, and I hear a man who says he does not like to argue with himself, and I can only think that this is a man like no other man I know.

Which leads me to two possible conclusions, either this man truly is like no other man, or he merely thinks he is.

My money’s on the latter.

Yet, I fear the ability of his people to convince those swing voters of the former.

So, this becomes a battle for the hearts and minds not of Iraqis but NASCAR dads.

I must admit I know each equally well, that is to say, not well.

I read Ann Coulter and I think, wow are there really people that believe this?

I hear what al Jazeera says and I think, wow are there really people that believe this?

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter what people believe, it matters what they do.

Simply spending your life in splendid isolation does not absolve you, it does not absolve me, from responsibility. If I feel a moral imperative to speak out I must speak out. What comes from such speaking out is the result of accident and incident beyond calculation.

My place of birth, my education, my family, and my determination all factor into how much I can accomplish.

Does Jon Stewart have the power to influence more people or does Leonid Parfyonov? Si, pero quien is mas macho? They are silencing Parfyonov (Google him), but is Stewart silencing himself?

These are all pretty thoughts, I trend towards Alyosha, but when we start thinking about what is actually possible (hello Ivan) we ultimately end up on the couch, beer in hand, watching baseball (Dmitri, my old buddy!)

I can only console myself in thinking I still have time, there is tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day. And, if I can do anything to make myself stop feeling guilty for contributing tax money to an administration that will consistently choose to kill the child, I simply must continue to do it.

Unless that means turning my back on my own child, which reminds me, where did that little munchkin go?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Moon-Shakes - Chapter 1 - Which Ones Are Cedars?

We needed to get the hell out of Belmont. The tech boom busted for us and we could no longer afford the San Francisco Bay Area. The details sound more depressing than they actually were: lost jobs, mortgage payments we couldn’t pay (did someone say “sub-prime?” Golly, that sounds keen), and months of fruitless job-seeking and soul-searching (wait, this does sound kind of depressing). Faced with the option of moving into a mobile home off Highway 101 or moving on, we opted to trek towards cheaper pastures. Billy Shakes was packing up the bus and moving the wife and little one north. We had taken our shot at Silicon Valley fortune and like hapless prospectors of old, ended up with a pan full of sand.

Selecting our destination required one map of the continental United States and one dart. Although not entirely that random, we were fairly open when addressing the question of a new address. We were not entirely destitute, our years of panning left us some flexibility, but we became increasingly less so.

The wife (who I should properly introduce here as Ms. Soo Moon) shot down my idea to move to Nepal and become shepherds (“cliché”, she said). We were fairly certain we’d stay within these United States. We are both Californians, so weren’t particularly interested in Northeast and Midwest winters. Not to mention a rabid, though ill-defined, distrust of what I’ll just call the “Old States.” The demographics of the Southeast (to say nothing of its track record on integration) made that region a no-go, not only for the comfort of my Korean-American wife, but for our collective peace of mind in regards to the formative years of our Amer-Asian boy.

The Southwest was enticing, particularly LA since most of our families still lived there. However, employment opportunities, the desire to try someplace new, and all the reasons we left LA in the first place led us to rule out LA in the end. AZ, NV, NM, UT, etc…were never seriously considered. That left us with the Northwest, which held a certain mystical attraction, a gauzy gray-green fecundity, someplace where we could grow, raise the boy, you know the American Dream and all that.

The Las Piedras Island part was Soo’s discovery. It seemed ideal…an island, not far from Seattle, but far enough so we could rent a cheap place and still be able to get to jobs in town without a crazy commute. Assuming we would find jobs in Seattle.

That is the key phrase, we are still assuming we will find jobs in Seattle. In the interim, to keep me busy, to entertain friends and relatives, and to provide a record for all posterity, I give you this collection of words and thoughts.

The title of this chapter comes from a conversation we had with the rental agent regarding the property boundaries. It was the first time we saw the place, and we were walking in the backyard. She started pointing out the perimeter and said, “The other marker is behind one of those two cedars.” Soo and I looked at each other, I stayed silent preferring to remain quietly ignorant rather than speak out and prove it.

Soo, however, couldn’t resist, “Um, which ones are the cedars?”

A fair enough question. It’s not like we saw a lot of cedars growing up in LA, or even in the Bay Area for that matter. We fancied ourselves as, if not city slickers, at least sophisticated citizens of the world. The occasional camping trip did little to transform our decidedly un-pastoral purview, founded as it was in SoCal suburbia and augmented by San Francisco urbania.

Our feeling of utter rural ignorance was made more pronounced when, from a distance, we heard a cow lowing and Soo asked, slightly shocked, “What was that?” After recovering from the news that our potential neighbors had cattle, we grew to like it. Then came the clucking of chickens, a rooster crowing, and indications that other less domesticated animals frequented the joint.

The deer fence around the garden, for instance.

The prospect of living in our own little rural park became irresistible, images of the local fauna nibbling flora accompanied by gently lowing cows filled our brains. And then there was the rock work. Fantastic rock walls and a dramatic stone staircase that descended to the back yard, leading into the forest, like a path to dark discovery. We felt a sense of liberation and a growing comfort, we had found a refuge at the edge of the country, and renting felt like a good thing. No more mortgage hanging over our heads.

We liked the fact that we were secluded, down a long dirt road away from the civilization. So what if we couldn’t pick a cedar out of a lineup of trees to save our lives. There was something about the place that we just liked, it felt like our destiny, so we took it.