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Category: Big Picture

Half and Half and Half
A while back, I wrote about an event that struck a deep chord inside me. My essay centered on a news story about a toxic spill. 900,000 gallons of treated sewage, it seems, was inadvertently released into San Francisco Bay.

What was striking about the story was its cosmic balance. The downside was exactly the same as the upside: the 900,000 gallons of spilled sewage was partially treated. At the time, I thought that such occurrences must be truly rare.

I was mistaken. In today’s paper came the story of Michael Orchard, LSD enthusiast and animal lover. While far away on one of his acid trips, Michael was alarmed to see that his neighbor’s residence in Halfmoon, New York was on fire. Summoning his courage, he crashed through a fence in his BMW, broke into the house, and rescued the occupant’s bewildered family dog.

Fido had good reason to be puzzled by this turn of events. There was no fire, and he had not been in any danger. Instead, the inferno inside the house existed only within the borders of Mr. Orchard’s altered state.

“Man Rescues Dog from Fire that Isn’t There.” Like the story of the toxic spill, this one is positive and negative at the same time. Sure, Michael Orchard trashed his neighbor’s property…but at least he saved the dog! Hallucinatory and a hero.

These two reports have inspired me. They have re-awakened my desire to find an all-encompassing explanation for the universe’s capacity for both desirable and undesirable outcomes. Call it a unified field theory of up, down, and sideways. If events can be all three at the same time, there may be a way for me to untangle this timeless mystery.

I’m not there yet. There are still mountains of numbers to be crunched and mind-bending conceptual breakthroughs to be broken through. But hope springs eternal. And that’s a good thing. I think.
Dumb Luck and Wonder
It surprises me a little, looking back, that my parents let me go. I was only twelve, and Hood Mountain was on private land at the time. We didn’t have permission to hike there, much less stay overnight on the peak. But we got the go-ahead anyway.

By some standards, the adventure wasn’t a very big deal, but it has proven to be a turning point for me. The climb itself certainly wasn’t anything special. Hood is 2733 feet above sea level, but it’s a nice, steady grade to the top. Sustained exertion is actually one of the chief rewards of hiking, especially once it’s over. It brings a sense of mastery, even triumph, that comes with the completion of any physical test. There is also the thrill of exploration, of picking your way, pursuing those choices, and ending up in a place very few have had the luck to find. These are among the highest joys that climbing and backpacking have to offer.

But not the highest. The morning after our climb, while my best pals Andy and Walt slept on the hard ground in their flannel-lined sleeping bags, I got up to watch the sunrise. Hood is one of the tallest peaks in the Mayacamas Mountains. It commands a view along the soft outcroppings of the range as it diminishes southward toward San Francisco Bay. On this morning, the coastal fog had flowed up the Valley of the Moon to press against the hills on their west side — just as the first light of dawn touched them from the east. There was a breathless, windless silence, punctuated only by a few tentative birdcalls. Below me the shadows on the hills were blue, shading to earthy purple. The eastern sky was aglow, and the rising sun frosted the rumpled cloud tops with a rosey warmth that receded southward as far as I could see. It was the most beauty I have ever taken in, before or since.

That moment, which seemed to have been created especially for me, has proven to be a seminal experience in my life. Two years later, the three of us (along with Andy’s dad) were standing outside the stone hut on top of Mt. Whitney. We had put in the effort once again (to 14,496 feet this time), we had come to terms with the mountain, and it had revealed its wonders.

Since then, I have spent parts of almost every summer searching for the same kind of awe I felt that morning as a youth. I found it coming in the high back door of the Pioneer Basin, in descending between Scylla and Charybdis into the Enchanted Gorge, and in hunkering down among the Ram Lakes as lightning and thunder resounded along the jagged eastern crest of the Sierra. On one trip I was hiking alone, lost and exhausted, trying to find a way over the White Divide that wasn’t there. By dumb luck, I stumbled on a rock and water dreamscape atop the ridge that I doubt anyone had ever been stupid enough to discover. I am moved even now thinking of the stark, otherworldly beauty I came upon that day.

I think those kinds of extreme experiences are behind me now, even though they are still vivid in my mind. But I know that the beauty and the remoteness are always there. The circumstances might be more modest, as they were on Hood Mountain, but I think I will always be receptive whenever a moment and nature intersect to summon those feelings of awe. Maybe I have my parents to thank for that, and maybe dumb luck, too. I’ll always be grateful for both.
A Day at Peace
Full disclosure: I do not believe in Santa Claus. I also do not believe in Jesus Christ or any of the earthly candidates for godhood. Nor do I believe in God, though I am open to the possibility. I imagine that believing in any of those might help me with what I want to do today, but I can’t help that. I am trying to make today a day at peace.

Today, by the way, is December 23rd. I had been thinking about an Eagblog for Christmas and in particular a meditation on “peace on earth and goodwill toward men,” but I found myself focusing too much on the things that make that so difficult. It seemed the wrong way to think about the subject. So, after waking up this morning from a pleasant dream, I decided not to think about it at all. Instead, I want to just do it.

I’m not vowing to do it because the taking of vows sounds somehow unpeaceful. Too religious, I guess, too concerned with something outside myself. I’m not promising to report back on how it went, either. I don’t want any self-imposed commitments about this day to get in the way of the day itself. In fact, if I find myself being made unpeaceful by the goal of having a day at peace, then I will stop right there. I have no idea how to go about this, but I will say that I am already enjoying it. I see that as a hopeful start.

Punch Out
Garry Trudeau called out the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo recently for the offense of “punching down.” It was particularly tough criticism, especially when you consider that those he charged had already been massacred for their sins.

Trudeau, of course, is a cartoonist himself (or at least a cartoon “creator” — others do the actual inking these days). His comic strip “Doonesbury” has won the Pulitzer for political cartooning along with many other awards. His remarks about the Hebdo cartoons, in fact, were delivered at a ceremony in which he was honored with this year’s George Polk Career Award for Journalism.

Trudeau argued that the cartoons in Hebdo were meant to mock the religious faithful, particularly the Islamic faithful, and that targeting such people amounted to hate speech toward a disenfranchised, less privileged segment of society. That’s the “punching down” he talked about. Satire is more properly used to “punch up” toward the privileged segments and to afflict the comfortable — not those already afflicted. He didn’t say the cartoonists had it coming, exactly, but he seemed to imply that they were asking for it.

There was a flurry of response on the right. David Frum of the Washington Post suggested that delineations between the privileged and underprivileged were not so easy to draw in our complex world. Frum also took his opportunity to trash liberals for their self-congratulatory righteousness. I won’t blame him for that; there are many privileged folk on the left who need to be punched at.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times pointed out that the powerless become powerful when they pick up a gun. That is true, obviously, but that rationalization could be used to justify saying anything to anybody at anytime. I just can’t bring myself to be that much of an absolutist about any right. All rights come with duties attached, and the challenge is to sort out what those duties are.

Of all the topics I have touched in my political cartoons, none has ignited my readers like religion. That, I believe, is because matters of faith are among the most personal, fundamental, and noble of human feelings. Religions, whose main power comes from the harnessing of that faith, are among the most powerful institutions in human society. They can move the hearts and minds of millions almost at will. In that capacity, they can be the most despicable abusers of the powerless. If satire is to be true to itself, these are just the kinds of institutions it should be punching at. The difficulty comes in how to target religion without mocking individual faith at the same time.

Even though I’m not a fan of Charlie Hebdo’s tendency to mock simply for its own sake, I can’t bring myself to side with Trudeau’s over-simplified rejection of their style. Religion is simply too powerful not to have its absurdities called out, frequently and with gusto. The leaders of these institutions, at all levels of church hierarchy, are fair game for lampooning. The possibility that some of the powerless might have their feelings hurt in the process should not deter us.

Even the most disenfranchised individuals make decisions and take actions based on their faith, and those decisions affect all of us. Society and satirists therefore have a right to respond to religion, and no one is entitled to a free pass just because they cry “blasphemy.” The question, I think, should not just be who is privileged and who is not, but whether a cartoon, or any form of satire, is effective. Does it expose hypocrisy and stupidity and vice, does it shame society into improving, does it help? Neither Frum nor Douthat addresses these questions. They’re arguing about politics, not satire.

It is hard to be sure, from what I have seen, in which direction the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are punching. Much of their work seems to be composed of wild haymakers directed at the silliness of whole idea of sacred people or objects — and of sacredness itself. There may be, as Trudeau suggests, an element of meanness in their motivation. Mean-spiritedness tends to undercut the effectiveness of satire, and it always carries with it the possibility of a mean response. It is wise to be careful about that, if only for your own safety.

You can question sacredness, however, without being mean. Perhaps they are just anarchists, taking a whack at what they see as stupid. If that’s that’s case, I say keep punching.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee