An apology straight from my gut

the-garden-of-earthly-delights-1515-8 detail

This was going to be a brief post, because it’s really just meant to be an apology.  As I’ve said before, I intend to write at least one post—preferably one of some substance, if not necessarily any great depth—every week for this, the second and more free-form of my blogs.  However, as I’ve already revealed on my main, eponymous blog*, I had a very nasty GI bug earlier this week that took the metaphorical wind out of my sails…as well as taking quite a bit more out of me in a rather literal sense.  I’ll spare you the details, though I’m sure you can imagine them with a fair amount of accuracy if you’re so inclined.  I’ll simply say that I didn’t have the energy to spare from my struggles to accomplish my daily work to think clearly enough to compose an involved blog post.

This is most distressing because I’ve only recently recommitted myself to writing at least something on this blog every week, for my sake, if for no one else’s benefit.  It seemed unseemly for me simply to seem to let that plan come apart at the seams without saying anything.  At worst, potential followers might decide that it wasn’t worth checking up on this blog on a regular basis, and though I can’t claim yet to have earned a loyal readership, I do want to earn such loyalty and such readers.

Actually, there’s an exaggeration in that last sentence.  “At worst” my failure to write a blog might lead to the destruction of the cosmos and the consignment of all conscious creatures to eternal, maximal torment…Sam Harris’s “the worst possible misery for everyone”.  That seems vanishingly unlikely, though, so I hopefully can be excused for considering—from my perspective—the worst likely outcome as the “worst” outcome.

Probably I’m the only person here who really cares about such pedantry, but I do care about it.  One of the reasons mathematics is so fruitful and so powerful is that it is truly pedantic, absolutely rigorous, and logically defined.  But everything in mathematics can be translated into ordinary language—this must be so, contrary to the statements of some mathematicians and physicists, or else no one would ever be able to be taught how to use it—and ordinary language can, therefore, be used to convey thoughts and ideas with precision and clarity that lend themselves to true logical induction, deduction, abduction, and so on.  And yet, because we use language so loosely and imprecisely—and, of course, because unlike the formalism of mathematics, most languages weren’t invented but merely happened—we arrive at many misunderstandings that contribute to the problems of the world.  I won’t say that perfect communication would obviate all conflicts that exist, but it would help to avoid a great many unnecessary ones, perhaps sparing us more time and energy to deal with issues of greater depth.

Language is crystallized thought.  The sloppy use of language, especially when one really is trying to make a point, is not merely indicative of sloppy thought; the habit of sloppy language can engender sloppy thought.

It’s rather analogous to deciding that you don’t need to use your turn signal every time you turn because sometimes it’s obvious that you’re turning, and sometimes there’s no one else around.  Such slacking tends to become habitual.  People lose their conditioned habits of care—if they had such habits in the first place—and on some occasions, it really matters whether or not a person uses his or her turn signal.  Statistics make it almost inescapably true that this dereliction sometimes leads to property damage, injury, and premature death.

It’s a similar notion to something almost anyone who’s ever been trained in gun safety has been told: Treat every gun as if it is loaded, even if you just personally unloaded it and ensured that it was empty­, so that you’ll never accidentally to treat a loaded gun as if it were not loaded.  Also, never point a gun at anything you wouldn’t be willing to shoot, for similar reasons.

Language may not be quite so immediately perilous as a gun or an automobile, but its power is far greater, and we should treat it with respect…even those of us who can’t help but play with it at times.  We should try to keep the flaws in our personal thought crystals to a minimum, or at least to keep them only where their presence adds to the overall beauty of the structure.

I’m probably stretching that metaphor a bit.

Well, this has been quite a peculiar apology, and I ended up saying more than I expected, but hopefully next week I’ll produce something a little less meandering.  In the meantime, thank you, my readers, for your patience.  And do be careful what you eat.


*Not to be confused with Hieronymus Bosch, though hopefully it is a garden of at least the occasional earthly delight.

You ain’t heavy; you’re my comrades

scales

 

I’ve been trying to decide what to write about this week for this blog post.  Numerous ideas bounce around in my head every day, and I have at least three “quick memo” files on my smartphone full of blog post topics, some of which I’ve already written, but most of which I haven’t.

I read a lot—I always have—and I listen to podcasts and to audio books during my commute, at least when I’m not listening to music or just letting my thoughts meander like that restless wind inside a letterbox, as John Lennon so beautifully put it.  I even keep vaguely abreast of current events.  Because of all this, and because of the excitable nature of my mind, a great many ideas keep popping up, of varying quality and interest.

Unfortunately, as my life currently stands, I have very few—zero counts as few, right?—people with whom to have deep intellectual discussions…or even shallow intellectual discussions.  This is part of what drives me to want to make Iterations of Zero more active, so that at least I can feel that my thoughts are getting out there and bouncing around the world rather than just around my head.

I greatly admire the speaking, and especially the writing, of the late, great Christopher Hitchens; his rhetoric was certainly of the highest order.  When considering my own non-fiction writing, I’ve occasionally felt envious of and even aspired toward, that harsh, biting style of commentary that he and those like him often used, and my ambitions sometimes drive me to seek that manner of presentation.

In my more serene and sedate moments, though, I realize that such a style is probably not merely “not my cup of tea” but is possibly counterproductive.  There’s enough hostile, accusatory, derisive and derogatory interaction in the world.  There’s too much, in fact.  When explorations of ideas are approached as contests, with the implicit goal of scoring points—or worse, as wars—then the only likely place to expect intellectual growth is among disinterested spectators, and even they are apt to be persuaded more by cleverness of style, by skill with a cunning insult, than by depth of argument, quality of ideas, and consistency of logic.

I can’t endorse this as a way to explore truth.  I don’t have much interest in “debate” as a competition.  I’m much more interested in discussion, in conversation, where there is no shame in being persuaded by the legitimate arguments of one’s interlocutor.

This notion was brought home to me strongly by a recent conversation I had with my brother.  He and I have some minor political disagreements, but neither of us is fanatically committed to them.  We were complaining to each other about how frustrating Facebook in particular is, precisely because people there seem to have so much trouble being civil, if they even try.  With that preface, when our conversation came to areas on which we had some disagreement, I felt the knee-jerk urge to be biting, but it was easily curtailed.  This was my brother, after all.  We shared a room for the first decade and a half of my life, and we are trained, practiced, and naturally disposed to get along with each other.

My brother is not as “formally” educated as I am, but I also know that he is a much more positive person.  I, on the other hand, possess a vastly greater store of inherent malice—which, because of my awareness of it, I’ve trained myself to resist—so it’s easy for me to see, to know, that my brother is as far from being my enemy as it’s possible for someone to be.  I know from literal lifelong experience that his intentions are positive.  Good intentions may not be enough to ensure good outcomes, as the old cliché reminds us, but they do matter, and they certainly say important things about a person.

Because of that conversation, I reminded myself to fear the trap of thinking that those who disagree with me are my enemies.  They are not.  Quite the contrary in most cases.  The very fact that they care about the state of the world and about what’s true means that, at some deep level, they are my allies.

Now, of course, if someone refuses to listen to those who disagree with him, but instead merely insults and even assaults them, that person is not an ally of truth.  But to the degree that people are, at least in principle, open to argument and evidence, they are my brothers, my sisters, my comrades, in the quest better to understand the nature of reality.

Of course, I need to practice what I preach.  I’m a strong advocate of striving to be more reasonable than others, if you want to promote reason and to seek truth.  Obviously, this doesn’t mean conceding what you think is an important point about which you’re convinced you’re correct.  But it does mean recognizing that your opponents are not demons but are people , trying to make their way in the world, trying to figure out what they ought to do, and trying to find the will to do what they ought to do.

It’s a big old universe, and we haven’t been given an instruction manual to it.  No one understands it in its entirety.  And, contrary to the general tone of much of Facebook and Twitter, we can be pretty sure that only a small number of people are willfully—or even willingly—evil.

So, I’m going to try not to take a biting or combative or snarky tone in my writing here; I’m going to try to avoid being derogatory to anyone but myself (I’m the easiest target, anyway).  I’m going to pursue conversation as I would with a brother, a sister, a comrade…which includes accounting for the fact that an interlocutor might not see themselves as such, and so might feel defensive and threatened and even frightened by those with whom he or she disagrees.

We’ve all been taught at various times that to be shown to be wrong, or to admit to being wrong is to fail.  We should really be taught that to be wrong is how we fail…but that the remedy for that is to expose our understanding, such as it is, to well-meaning (and sometimes even not so well-meaning) exploration and criticism.  This is one of the most crucial arguments for freedom of speech, even speech that we find reprehensible.

If I fall short of the above ideals in the future, I beseech you, my readers, to take me to task.

But do try to be polite.

Breaking Me Down (rebuilt)

(c) 2019

Words and Music by Robert Elessar

Produced and performed by Robert Elessar

I sit alone at home sometimes and want to go berserk
But doing that just never seems to work
The shelves are stacked with books but I don’t feel that I could read
While all around a thousand phantoms lurk

I drink a little wine; I eat a little meat
I wonder why I’m shivering in such infernal heat
I feel a little tired; my head’s a little light
I wish that I could close my eyes and block my inner sight.

If you could see me now, you’d probably wonder where I’ve been
But I stand and I fall
And I listen for your call
While hiding out inside the dragon’s den.

I wander ‘round through my internal night
I travel back and forth throughout the town
But if you ask, I’ll tell you I’m all right
My nervousness is just breaking me down.

I listen to the sounds of everybody having fun
I can’t join in ‘cause I don’t have a gun,
They’re scattering their ashes all along the motorway
Then scampering like rabbits on the run

I bounce off all the walls; I turn out all the lights
I always want to hit someone, but I never get in fights
I feel a bit confused; my thoughts are incomplete
There’s tingling in my fingers and there’s swelling in my feet

If you could hear what I hear you would deafen both your ears
But I can’t, and I know
That no matter where I go
I’m followed by the grinding of my gears.

I stare around in paranoiac fright
While grinning at my heartbreak like a clown
So don’t come in, and don’t turn on the light
It’s just my past mistakes breaking me down

I look at all the colors of the pictures in my mind
They’re all so dark, I might as well be blind
The path laid out ahead of me is so filled up with smoke
I think that I’d prefer to just rewind

I roam around the house; I drive around the town
I don’t know if I’m back and forth or if I’m up and down
I dive into the sea; I look into the sky
I try to understand them, but we can’t see eye to eye

If you could see inside my head, your own head would explode
But I nod, and I grin
At the end where I begin
And I smile, and I wave
When I pass an open grave
And I slump, and I sigh
When we have to say goodbye
I’ll see you at the ending of the road

I wander through the wasteland struck with blight
I make my Hell to wear an earthly crown
I smash all mirrors, I can’t stand the sight
Of everything that is breaking me down.

FedEx Screwed Over My Disabled Housemate

My housemate is a disabled American who, among other things, has a prosthetic leg and multiple neck and other spinal injuries from a past motor vehicle accident.  He is also a highly skilled guitarist and a craftsman of the instrument, assembling top quality replicas of classic electric guitars that match the performance of the best examples of the original products.  I’ve purchased one of these guitars from him, and it’s as good, and as beautiful, as any I’ve ever played.

My housemate sells the guitars he makes, often through E-bay, for the cost of materials plus a very modest markup for his time and effort, which are not insignificant matters for him given his physical difficulties.  For quite some time now, he has used FedEx to ship these guitars to their purchasers, and in the past, he has apparently had few complaints.  However, the quality of FedEx’s shipping and service is, apparently, not what it used to be.

My housemate recently sold a replica Les Paul model electric guitar.  He took the guitar, in a case, to the local FedEx office to have it shipped.  There he paid for insurance for the full price of the guitar, and he also paid extra to have FedEx pack the item themselves, so there could be no question about the responsibility for any inadequate packing of this expensive and fragile item.  Speaking of fragility, he also specifically requested that the item be marked “Fragile,” “Handle with Care,” and so on.  This latter request was not fulfilled, as is demonstrated by photos taken by the purchaser of the guitar when it arrived.  These photos also showed creases and indentations in the packing materials of the shipping container, including a long crease along the mid-section of the box.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, given what I’ve just stated and the title of this post, that the guitar arrived damaged, with a crack/break at the base of the neck.  As someone who was partial witness to the assembly of the instrument, to the work it entailed, and to the wonderful sound of the finished product, I find this damage heartbreaking.  The guitar had obviously been subject to incautious packing and shipping that allowed leverage to be applied across the middle of the box.  That leverage was not enough to break the case—which is somewhat flexible, and was not designed to protect from such external torques but from minor bumps and bangs while being hand-carried—but enough to strain the weakest point in a long, wooden structure such that it cracked.

The guitar purchaser was quite polite about all this, and my housemate is going to replace the guitar with another one that he has made—and into which he has put his time and his very limited money—but he obviously asked and expected FedEx to live up to their agreement and reimburse him for the price of the guitar.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that my housemate paid for insurance and also paid to have FedEx pack the guitar and to mark it as fragile, and despite having seen photos of the damage to the instrument and the surface of the box (I’ve seen these photos, as well), FedEx claims that their investigation finds that they were not responsible for the damage and they are not going to pay.

Let’s think about that.  My housemate paid for insurance and for FedEx to pack the item, and it arrived with damage.  It was not damaged when it was sent, I’m personally able to attest to that, since I was there when my housemate took it to FedEx, and I saw (and heard) the finished product, which was exceptional.  To have FedEx say that their investigation has cleared them of wrongdoing is rather like having Vladimir Putin say that his investigation has revealed that his government has never carried out any operations to influence the elections of any other countries, or to have Bernie Madoff say that he’s looked into things and found no evidence that he’s ever been involved in any kind of “pyramid scheme”.

Why would FedEx ever want to find themselves responsible for such damage?  Only because not to do so would hurt their reputation, which has—in the past—been important to them as leading figures in the world of high-quality, fast shipping.

Now, though, it seems that the formerly mighty have fallen very far indeed.  FedEx is perfectly willing to charge a disabled person extra money to pack the instrument he is—as a loyal, long-time customer—shipping with them, and they are also willing to charge him for “insurance” against damage accrued during shipping.  But it seems that, when such damage really occurs during shipping, to a fragile, expensive, fine quality musical instrument, which FedEx was paid extra to pack, the company does not live up to their end of the bargain, but instead forces a disabled craftsman and musician to try to satisfy his buyer out of his own, very shallow, pocket.

My housemate is not a man of words, and he is not especially internet/social media savvy, but words are my life blood.  In addition, as a musician myself (of sorts), and as a friend, I cannot bear to have the Philistines at FedEx carry out this double-cross cheat of my housemate without at least making public—as loudly as I’m able—the fact that they have done so.

I encourage all of you who might consider using FedEx’s shipping services to engage other providers, such as UPS, or the United States Postal Service, or G.O.D., or some similar organization.  There may have been a time when FedEx was the best at what they do, and when they stood by their services, but it seems that time has passed if they willingly cheat a disabled craftsman out of insurance coverage for which he paid to compensate for damage for which FedEx is responsible.

I’m sure that FedEx puts a great deal of money into marketing their services, including their shipping insurance.  Apparently, their budget—both financial and ethical—for actually fulfilling the promises they make is simply too small.  If that’s the case, maybe it’s time they got out of the shipping business entirely.


ADDENDUM:  Here are a few pictures of the damage to the box and the instrument as they were when they arrived.  It may not look like much, but musicians will know that it ruins the sound of the instrument, and it certainly is NOT the way it was when shipped.

 

 

Breaking Me Down (a song)

Words and music by Robert Elessar

(c) 2019 by Robert Elessar

All rights reserved

Performed by Robert Elessar

 

Okay, here it is, my new song, on which I’ve been working for some time now.  Technically, I’ve been working on it for thirty plus years (not without interruptions) since I first composed the melody and most of the words back when I was in college.  I never did anything with it until now, but obviously I hadn’t forgotten in, since this all came out of my memory – I haven’t seen the original words since I graduated from college, and I never wrote the music down.

I hope you enjoy it.  I think I’m getting a little bit better at the mixing and whatnot.

Audio Blog #2: No More Facebook Debates (for me)

In this, my second audio blog, I explain why I intend no longer to get involved in discussions of consequential topics on Facebook, not because I don’t think such discussions are valuable, but because of how I react to them.  I also talk about audio versus writing a bit more, and grammar, and various other random thoughts.

 

Audio Blog #1: Thoughts Meander

In this, my first impromptu audio posting, I muse on random thoughts including (but not limited to) rationality, politics, the pros and cons of audio versus written posting, the irritations of social media, and probably other topics I’ve forgotten.