Musings of a teacher

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams

Why is Robin Williams's suicide so upsetting to so many people?  I look into myself and find that I too am more upset by his suicide than I have been by others.  I'm thinking that the effect comes from Williams' ability to project into any kind of person, so that just about everyone has been moved or cheered by him (for me the moment came when Williams explained why comedy worked to start his career but acting did not: "I'd be auditioning for Hamlet and go, 'To be or not...line?'").

It is just this effect, the identification with the suicide, that makes people angry at suicides.  How could they do this to us?, we wonder.  How could they seem to suggest suicide?

I feel a sort of anger, or disappointment that Williams didn't leave a note, with perhaps some hopeful thought, some indication that he's not mad at us, that it's not our fault, and maybe a reference to what a good life he had.  With this in mind, I read sites that post suicide notes of well known people.  One common theme was aging.  The notes of younger people speak of despair of the moment, with the subtext that, after the pain of youth, rather than some reward for perseverance, there is just a black hole of decrepitude and painful death (per the bumper sticker, "Life sucks, then you die").  In the notes of older people, there is often a reaction to the arrival of that decrepitude.  I found a clip of Williams talking about his recent heart surgery.  Unlike almost every other available footage of him, he was not "on," but appeared sober and humbled, and he talked about being humbled.  Did the prospect of old age do him in?  It's a meaningful question for me, as I am five years older than Williams, and my hip replacement last year, though mild in the panoply of surgical ordeals, was still plenty humbling.  Thus I am searching for my answer to Williams' suicide.

We have no answer to old age.  Some people commit suicide because they can't get a career going, or because someone left them, or because the world looks dark and uncaring.  All of these things can be handled if events take a good turn, but old age cannot be handled.  It's going to happen whether you've been lucky in life or not, whether you played by the rules or not, whether you've been loved or not.

That's not enough, though, to explain suicide- if it were, then everyone would commit suicide, and most people, obviously, do not.  What's the difference between people who commit suicide and people who don't?

I'm thinking that the difference must be one's world view.  If the world appears dark, hopeless and doomed, well then, that on top of growing old would be a tough proposition.  Is there something about the timing of Williams' death that has hit us so hard?  Does the world look particularly hopeless at this time?

I'd say that it does.  The turn to war, or what seems an imminent turn to war throughout the world, is appalling, though no one should be surprised by it.  You could see it coming the moment World War II ended, but now that it's here, looming around us like old age, it's scant comfort to say it was predictable.

What gets me, and I wonder if this got Williams too, is the utter stupidity of what is happening, the lack of human leadership in our own fate.  Is this the best we can come up with?  An endless cycle of prosperity that leads to overcrowding, boredom and anger, leading to a kill-fest to clear the decks so we can start the next cycle?  How does this jive with the high school biology texts that place us at the top of some pyramid?  As if the mallards who land in my yard are beneath us on this pyramid because they didn't invent the car or the cruise missile, or because I can eat them but they can't eat me.  As I argue on this blog ("Pelican and Sardine Mandala," archive, 7/4/06), we have glorified predation and placed us at the top of a "food chain," because we can kill everything before it kills us, while in fact it is the plants who are at the top, needing only to bask in the sun's manna, leaving the leftovers for the scrabbling predators.  The result: we're so busy surviving we don't have time to figure out an alternative to war.

Particularly upsetting to me is the Gaza/Israeli war, because I am a Jew.  I've never before felt such an implosion of values, such paradoxes.  Robin Williams' suicide has brought home to me the need for real civic discourse- not unresponsive crawl text from distant media and officialdom.  I demand sense!  This babel, this war of narratives is not acceptable!  I spent last month with my wife on a European art tour, thinking about Gaza the whole time.  The trip gave me some perspective and a voice.  The next essay on this blog is the result.  I hope it is meaningful for the reader.

RIP, Robin Williams.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Tourism, narrative and the Gaza/Israeli war

Part I part of this essay reviews experiences and thoughts inspired by an art tour of the Netherlands (with side trips to Belgium and London) that my wife and I took this summer ('14).  Part II recounts a theory of social narratives with a perspective on the Israeli/Gaza war.  Part III is a short conclusion.

Part I.  The art tour

Our tour was lead by the wise and knowledgeable art historian JP Thornton.  Its focus was the Dutch and English masters of the last five hundred years.  The focus on art was overlaid with news of war, which was continual from the morning we assembled in the Tom Bradley Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport for our departure.  One week earlier, a civilian Malaysian airliner, originating from Amsterdam- our destination that day- had been shot down in an apparent act of war over the Ukraine.  We spoke little of it, but in our minds we were pondering the odds: the monstrous act had occurred, therefore, statistically, a similar act was not likely to take place a week later.  In another dark vein, we considered how the Malaysian airliner attack happened in the environment of the fast erupting Gaza/Israeli war, which itself occurred in the context of increasing tensions almost everywhere in the world, leading to a feeling that just a few more attacks on civilian travel in formerly safe venues would be enough to put a serious curb on world tourism.  As it was, we felt we might be taking one of our last relatively worry-free trips for a long time.

It was fitting that our quest began in Amsterdam, the center of a culture unique in the world, encompassing unusual extremes of good and bad, which the Dutch juggle continuously and very well.

The Dutch first appear in history as a Germanic tribe, the Batavians, under threat from the Roman Empire.  With great foresight, political organization and skill, they chose a swampy land deemed undesirable by the Romans (and difficult to attack), drained it and over a thousand years turned their land into a rich and powerful country.

The Dutch were pioneers in banking and investment, and their eye for commerce continues today with the startlingly open Red Light District and marijuana “coffee shops,” which attract tourism of all ages and serve to make prostitution and marijuana use (relatively benign in the spectrum of human vice) safer.

This is the country that saved much of world Jewry by inviting in the Sephardic Jews of Spain after they were threatened with extinction by the Spanish Inquisition, a process that included formal expulsion in 1492 (an easy date to remember).  The Netherlands placed a smart bet on the Jews- the collaboration brought prosperity.

Our travel group had chosen the lens of art through which to view history and politics.  JP planned an itinerary that led us directly to the 17th Century Dutch “Golden Age," with masters like Rembrandt and Rubens, where we beheld a culture that, unlike most around it, valued beauty that could extend to “commoners,” real looking countryside, and even, in the case of Breughal and Bosch (of the geographically superimposed Flemish tribe) to the inner processes of the human psyche, in ways missing from conventionally prized classical art.

Speaking of which, at the Rubens house in Antwerp, JP spoke of Rubens' practical aesthetics, his clear, almost commercial colors, designed to attract patronage, and his skill in money management, contrasted with Rembrandt's more earthy and eccentric appeal, and the lack of money sense that left him destitute in old age.  I asked JP if Rubens was perhaps more superficial than Rembrandt, less devoted to an inner voice.  JP responded that our current concept of "selling out" was unknown in the 17th Century, when patrons were held in high esteem, for class reasons if no other. Etymology would seem to bear this out, as the word "aristocrat" means literally, in Latin, "the best power," denoting government by the best people.  Negative views of the rise of capitalism and the bourgeoise gave "selling" and "selling out" their bad connotations, but at least we don't assume our leaders to be, by definition, "the best."

Returning to an assessment of the Dutch, they have their problematic side, of course.  Their aggressive colonialism contributed greatly to the inequality and chaos of today’s Indonesia and South Africa.  Our stimulating and informative French/Dutch tour guide, Marie, told us that the throngs of Arab and African immigrants now arriving throughout western Europe want to take back what they perceive was stolen from them, and they see the old European colonial cultures as their rightful candy store.  I know the feeling: When the Spanish expelled the Jews, ostensibly a result of Spanish preference for Catholicism, what they really wanted was to steal Jewish property and cancel Jewish debt.  I've fantasied about whether the Jews, as some sort of coherent body of creditors, could collect.  It wouldn't work for me: my ancestors were Azhkenazi, from the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, who had nothing to do with Spain.   Damn!

As we ponder today's precarious world and assess its viability, the selfish and short sighted aspects of colonialism certainly appear culpable, but there are cracks in contemporary civilization that require scrutiny.  Marie pointed out to us the highly destructive subway project in Amsterdam,  featuring cranes and piles of dirt that have been congesting the canals and streets for ten years, costing billions of dollars and achieving no subway, as the medieval houses along the construction zones tilt ominously from the undermining of their soggy foundations.  Such depredation of the past is familiar to people in Los Angeles, where "the past" is in short supply anyway, but it was shocking to see in old Europe.  The long lived, art-based ancient civilizations like the Mayan and Egyptian knew a secret we have forgotten: beautiful cultures last longer than ugly ones.  The desolate boxes we churn out for dwelling and commerce are eroding our commitment to our own civilization.

We noticed too, in the three countries on our itinerary, an inability to fix seemingly fixable problems, like those involving traffic flow.  In Amsterdam, due to an infatuation with bicycle transportation in the ‘70’s, it can be life threatening to traverse a sidewalk to the curb, because on many streets a throughway for bikes occupies half the sidewalk, on the curbside, with no clear understanding of right of way, so that crossing a street involves, not just waiting for a green “Walk” signal, but agility in navigating the sidewalks on either side.  Hundreds of injuries a year occur from this ill-thought out system (a lady in our group was struck by a bike as she stepped from the bus to the curb), with no apparent attempt to figure it out.

I wrote in my Guatemala essay that cultures that can’t deal with prosaic, mechanical problems like traffic flow are likely entries on the doomed civilization list.  The Netherlands is not unique in its offense.  South Korea suffers from a treacherous system in which motor-scooters drive on pedestrian sidewalks, robbing walkers of any sort of peace of mind (in all fairness, they have the best airports in the world).  In London, cars- especially taxis- roar around corners as confused tourists run for their lives (it suggested to me a fury with people who choose to walk rather than pay for a cab).   Those who have driven in Mexico and experienced left turns from the far right lanes know the chaos accepted there, and let’s not forget L.A., where the automobile- although surely soon to go extinct as a primary mode of transportation available to the masses- rules as if it's eternal.  We like to fret about foreign invasion, drought and famine, but it is the inability to solve everyday problems that dooms a civilization- the wars are just a distraction from the crumbling structures within.

Part II.  Narratives of war

To call wars a distraction may seem counter-intuitive, but that is my contention.  War was certainly a distraction on our art tour, as the news was dominated by the Gaza/Israeli war.  Many of our group were Jewish, and a lively discussion of the events in Gaza persisted among the art discussions.  Marie and JP shared their opinions too, so that we had a dual identity of art tour and political discussion group.  There was much to ponder regarding conflicting narratives, in particular as Jewish passengers shared stories from "alternative" news sources, often with unfamiliar names.  These stories gave meaning to apparently missing elements in the mainstream news articles, filling gaps in the narrative.

The narrative of history is written not only after events, but before, as I learned when I lived near UCLA in the '70's, in the years leading up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.  I would read the L.A. Times in the morning, then walk to the research library and read the English edition of Pravda.  What I found was that each story in Pravda that involved the Soviet Union in conflict with Afghani peoples was re-written with an antithetical narrative in the Times.  In Pravda, Soviet forces were depicted assisting Afghani victims of Afghani oppressors, while in the Times those same "victims" were depicted as barbaric monsters doing unspeakable things to their "victims," (the erstwhile "oppressors").  Both accounts sounded convincing, and there was no way to tell which was true.  The narratives presented in the mainstream press of each country were almost universally accepted by its citizens as truth, while the narratives of the other country were either unknown or perceived as blatant lies.

The fallout from such manipulated hostility can persist for years, and it persists today as the Afghan fighters we armed and supported against the Soviets developed, after we left, into the Taliban.

There is nothing new in the practice of manipulating news to instill people with warlike emotion.  Before invading Poland, Hitler proclaimed that, "Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes."  This view was supported by his loyal media, and the German people clove obediently to it.  Of course the allies' narrative was that Hitler attacked Poland because he was a homicidal megalomaniac bent on empire.  Although I view the latter narrative as the more likely, my point is that narratives drive wars, and narratives are unreliable.  Thus, while we read that Ukrainian separatists cruelly shot down the Malaysian airliner, Russians read that no one knows who shot the plane down and that the whole thing is a plot to destabilize the Ukraine and turn it against Russia.  The truth?  Who knows?  All we know for sure is that we are being manipulated by narratives.  

In this context I come to my reaction, as a Jew, to the Gaza/Israeli war.  What am I to make of the stories about Israeli jets blowing up hospitals and homes?  In a poignant twist, a stream of stories about Israeli attacks on Gaza appeared on the day we visited the Anne Frank house and toured the old Jewish neighborhood of Amsterdam, which had existed for five hundred years, since the Spanish expulsion.  The Nazi army rounded up all the men, women and children in this neighborhood and sent them to camps where they attempted to kill them all.  How could they do this?  Because in the Nazi narrative the Jews were a powerful force that threatened to destroy Germany.  Roaming the old neighborhood lined with plaques and museums about the horror, I was reminded of why, since I first studied World War II, I have believed that the Jews need a state.  When I use the term "state," I mean a powerful state, one with military force, so that when the next Hitler comes, and there always seems to be a next Hitler, the Jews, instead of walking like sheep to the slaughter, can turn on the aggressors and bring them down.  It's a natural response, is it not?  And is there not some truth to it?

But it was here, in this Dutch neighborhood evoking the humiliation and death of Jews without a state, that we read stories of the current Jewish state and its actions in Gaza.  Something seemed missing in the narrative.  Would Israel bomb refugee centers without a supportive narrative?  It seemed impossible, and indeed there was more narrative to be found.  We received a steady diet of it from members of the group who were finding stories on their tablets and mobile phones that filled in the blanks: Civilians in Gaza are instructed by Hamas to claim militant casualties as civilian, grossly inflating the civilian death count. The tunnels were purposely built close to civilian areas so that attacking them would kill civilians and provide propaganda coups for Hamas.  Why bomb the tunnels and provide Hamas with the propaganda?  Because the tunnels in Gaza extended far into Israel, under Israeli towns, where they were filled with powerful explosives which were to be detonated during the High Holy Days in September, when Israeli families come together, killing up to 50,000 Israeli men, women and children, in an attack meant to dwarf 9/11.  What is the Hamas narrative?  Well, of course, it is that none of this is true.  Which narrative is the truth?  How should I know?

What, then, are we supposed to believe?  The answer is clear: We are supposed to believe the narrative of whatever group we are a member of.

Such thoughts did not resolve the problem for me, but they did relieve the burden of wondering if Israel is the moral monster, while Hamas is the virtuous victim.  Hamas deserves every bit of the world-wide condemnation that Israel is currently receiving- because of the narrative it is writing.  After the killing of the three Israeli boys that inflamed Jews around the world and ostensibly started the war, all eyes turned to Hamas for its comment.  That comment was that, while Hamas had not ordered the killings, it condoned them. There was no reported protest to this statement.  What can be gleaned from this is that Hamas' constituency, the people of Gaza, accept killing of Israeli children as part of their narrative, because that narrative depicts all Jews as evil and deserving of death.  That is not a morally convincing narrative to me, so at the very least, although I do not hold up Israel's behavior as blameless,  I reject the Manichean dichotomy of "Israel bad/Hamas good."  And with the loss of this distinction, I retain my conviction that the state of Israel has as much moral right to exist as any of the other flawed nations of this earth.  When Hamas ceases to play the game of righteous narrative and righteous death, then we can talk about a moral distinction.

Returning to the idea that war is a distraction, I don't mean this in the sense that, as one narrative has it, the downing of the Malaysian airliner was a distraction from the Gaza/Israeli war, but in the sense that all the wars on earth, with the hatred of perceived enemies they entail, are distractions from the real enemies of our species.  These enemies include ineptitude at solving the mechanical concerns of civilization, like the traffic problems mentioned above, but they also include, at least potentially- and I realize this requires a new essay- the coming biological and cybernetic revolutions, through which we will recreate our species, redefining everything it has meant to be human for the last two million years.  If we're busy fighting each other, we won't see those revolutions coming, and we won't have a say in how they play out.

Part III.  Conclusion

The trip was a blast!  The company was great and we had a valuable prism for viewing the world.  Hopefully tourism will survive another few decades, so that we can continue to enjoy the balm of travel and the perspective it inspires, as our new history unfolds.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

$6.99 is too much to pay Time-Warner for a rental

That's what I'm sweating in my living room tonight- I've got the house to myself and I'm looking at this potentially interesting movie but when I see it costs $6.99 I get upset. On the one hand I could spend the evening pondering all the ways we're soon to go extinct: nuclear war, bioterror, climate change, the genetic engineering of our replacements, boredom, anger- but none of this tonight, at least for me, is able to compete with my rage at Time-Warner for charging $6.99 for a movie I don't even know if I'll like. What does it mean, this preference for the passing peeve over the great DOOM? Does it mean that the truth is so sickeningly awful that we can't actually think about it for very long, or....stay with me it because, just maybe, it really is terrible that Time-Warner would charge, well, anything to rent a movie. I already paid the bastards, now they want more for this over-hyped stuff? Before going any further I want to mention- what the reader may well have noted- that I'm using a standard s.o.c. (stream of consciousness) style, and also that I've decided to write, for now, without paragraphs. This last might sound odd from a former English teacher who enforced on generations the solemn duty to write in paragraphs, but it's just the way I feel. I realized I don't always have to give the reader such a blatant signal that I've shifted focus. You, the current reader, can tell already when I shift focus, can't you? Not that I claim to be doing this as a great artist would. As, for instance, Cormac McCarthy did when he stopped using quotation marks, and then he stopped describing his characters' physical selves. The difference between me and McCarthy is that he never said, "Hey, look, I stopped using quotation marks," while I felt the need to announce my experiment, as if in fear of reprimand for breaking rules. That's what happens when you give up fiction and sign-on for the literal, where rules are rules. And when you retire from English teaching, you say to your former students, "Consider this: you have to know about paragraphs before you can stop using them." You have to know about anything to stop doing it, otherwise you don't know what you stopped doing, or why you stopped. This gives an insight into original sin. It's said that we don't have to have bitten the forbidden fruit ourselves to have, more or less, virtually bitten it, and to decide, again, not to bite it. But, as noted, you can't stop doing something unless you are first doing it. The resolution, I think, is that we bite the apple (as popularly conceived) when we first achieve consciousness. Then we see ourselves, what we are made of, our appetites, our actions. Then we see other people, and note similar patterns. Not only does the apple not fall far from the tree, it grows on the tree. In the Wizard of Oz when the apple trees, under the influence of a witch, pick their own apples and throw them at Dorothy et al, they are throwing knowledge at them, packets of understanding that the innocent travelers are not ready for, one of many assaults during their quest that lead Dorothy to choose the drab plains of Kansas over the sensuality and vivid life of choose Auntie Em over the Wicked Witch. I'd like to see a movie about that, but I'm still not sure I'd pay $6.99 for it.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

What did Jacob say to God?

Tell me about the last vision,
After the last
Reductio ad absurdum
-before the animal sleep sets in-
When the eye
Expanding beyond light
Sees its own context,
Just for a moment.
I want to see it now!
so that
I do not need death
to be alive.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

If I could write....

...I would write about an older guy who, at his wife’s behest, cleans out his closet of items that can go to Goodwill, but as he takes long un-worn garments off the rack and gazes at them, opening unaccustomed windows of memory, he is overcome with emotion.

…I would write about the same guy doing the same thing with his old clothes a week later and not giving a shit.

…I would write a story about how last week an asteroid struck the earth and destroyed it, but we don’t know because we're an afterglow.

…I would write about a man who suddenly discovers that he has aged.

…I would write about a young man who wishes he were older.

…I would write about a man who wonders what it would be like to be a woman. Would it be easier, more powerful?

…I would write about a woman who wonders what it would be like to be a man. Would it be easier, more powerful?

…I would write about tardigrades, animals the size of pinheads who live everywhere on earth, in space and at the bottom of the oceans, and all over our bodies.

…I would write about what would happen if you tried to kiss a tardigrade (it would eat your face).

…I would write about a man who inherits his son’s dog when his son goes off to college. This man only liked cats, but now he has a dog.

…I would write about the same man with the dog, who realizes that he loves the dog but would rather have a cat. “What are the ethics of this?” the man wonders.

...I would write about a high school English teacher who, for years, wondered, “Is there value to what I teach? Will this 14 year old boy who wiggles in class and dreams of freedom on the bonny green be nurtured and guided by 'Great Expectations'?” “Why not?” the man concludes, “It’s as good as anything else.”

...I would write about the same high school teacher thinking about the earlier years when he taught elementary school. “Am I as useful now as I was then,” he wonders, “I taught kids to read and do arithmetic. Now what do I teach them?” The man answers his own question: “I teach them what it’s like to be 68 years old.”

...I would write about a man who wanted to be a novelist and one day he has an idea about why it never worked out: His thoughts are most comfortable when expressed in short outbursts, rather than ongoing narrative. “I don’t have enough to say to fill a book, “ the man thinks.

…I would write about this same man whose friend told him that in heaven he would be talking forever, because he likes talking so much, this man who does not have enough to say to fill a book.

…I would write about the sister of my friend, a professor of rhetoric, who used to tear out pages of books after reading them. She did this in the front row of her university classes, letting the pages drift down before the professor. I would write that my friend’s sister was a Zen master.

…I would write about enlightenment, without a capital “e," and I would write, “All humanity is waiting for it,” with a capital “A.”

Sunday, March 02, 2014


My grandfather left you after you cut his father down
What do you want now,
why have you come around?

He came to New York then Bismarck and sold liquor.
The Sioux and Germans came to buy in World War II
but World War II was quicker.
My dad quit the town- the city slicker!
And then I came, I saw, I begged to differ.
Los Angeles!

What a haven from Ukraine you’ve been,
You let everybody float, we think we win!
Oh Ukraine, they even let us sin!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Lasken pieces on other sites

Discussion with Dr. Cheryl Lubin, host of "In Our Times," on internet radio, go to, click on July 11, 2014 show.
"The pragmatic case for Kashkari," Flashreport,
"Tax Day- how we were sucker punched":
"Drug research and a viable candidate for CA GOP Governor,"
"The merry-go-round in San Francisco,"
"CA GOP needs pro-gay marriage candidate for governor," Flashreport,
"Can the GOP learn from Democrats' history," Flashreport,
"Leggo my ideology,"
"Bad Words,"
"Memory mandala,"