What have we become?

We have traded intuition for mastery
Lost an unshakable feeling of what is,
acquired an understanding of how things work.
We disdain the wild beast and the savage,
but something they have that we have lost,
And in a generation the last of them may be gone.

We can listen to others who describe their visions
and not merely their reasons;
We can pass our days surrounded by nature
until the voices of men fade from our ears;
We can remember, as we make each decision,
how tentative is our knowledge, and how fragile our lives.



International Day of Peace

Human tribes have been warring for at least the last several thousand years. We are descended from the tribes that were able to field the largest and most cohesive armies. That is to say, we all have war in our genes.

But as humans filled the globe and as the technologies of destruction made war ever more deadly, the human race has been gradually coming to its senses. General Sherman taught us that “war is hell”. General Smedley Butler, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history, came later in life to teach that “war is a racket.” And General Eisenhower prophesied, “I think that people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it.”

Nowadays, David Swanson teaches us that every war has been founded on lies. That is to say, if our leaders or our news media were telling us the truth, it would not be possible to brainwash enough people into the insane proposition that they ought to participate in mass murder.

So, what can we do, you and I, citizens of the greatest military power in the history of the world (fact) and the world’s biggest bully (my opinion)—what can we do to promote peace? My belief is that the spiritual truth, “peace begins within you” can be misleading.  Working on ourselves to achieve inner peace is of unquestioned value, but we cannot wait until we have individually tranquil inner lives in order to begin the collective work of organizing an end to war. The few who benefit from war are exquisitely organized, working together in what we might call a conspiracy, if the word hadn’t been discredited by our own CIA. We must be organized. We must take concerted action. We must resist the temptation to wage war in the name of peace. We must be firm in our resolve, but never coercive. We must be persistent in our vision, but not necessarily patient. I think that our cause is too urgent for patience. We should demand peace, now.

Don’t neglect the capitalist connection. The major reason for our country being the world’s greatest war monger is that war is profitable for banks, for defense contractors, for fossil fuel companies. There was a sweeping movement in America of the 1920s to take the profits out of war, culminating in a bill introduced in Congress in 1935 to take the profits out of war, and it nearly succeeded in passing.  In 2007, a War Profiteering Act passed the House, but not the Senate. You can bet your bippy that if for the largest international corporations peace were more profitable than war, we’d have peace.

Get out and organize peace demonstrations. Talk to people you know and people you don’t know. Tell them you think war is insane, even as it is pushed as “normal” by almost every politician and every news pundit. And meditate on peace, pray for peace, visualize peace. Yes, there is real evidence that collective intention has power even apart from its psychological effects on the individuals involved. Go figure.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

United Nations page for International Day of Peace


כָּל נִדְרֵי

I wait all day to fill myself with emptiness
For the silent cacophony of the unseen
If I knew what I wanted, I would not want it
What I must unlearn is unbearable.

Faith is with me yet, undaunted
The bliss that consoles all will make its appearance
Not knowledge, no, but
Release from the need to know.

Even now, all is well.

— Josh Mitteldorf


In evolutionary theory, spite has a meaning not too distant from the everyday meaning of the word.  Classical evolutionary theory says that natural selection works only between individuals, only locally, only short-term.  The name of the game is to get more of your genes proportionately into the next generation, which means that keeping others in the same community from thriving is just as important as thriving yourself. Therefore, don’t just grab more than your share of the community resources, eat all that you can eat, and when you’re done stuffing yourself, destroy as much as you can of the remaining food so your neighbors don’t get it.  Cannibalism is a twofer.

This is the prediction of classical (neo-Darwinist) evolutionary theory, but it is not the way most animals behave in nature.  Spite and even cannibalism can be observed in nature, but far more common is wide-spread cooperation, altruism that goes across families and communities, even crossing species lines.

Among humans, sociopathic behaviors exist, and they have devastating effects for all of us, but most people—like most animals—behave generously.

In my opinion, the greatest danger to humans is not from this handful of sociopaths but from an ideology that grows out of Social Darwinism and laissez-faire capitalism of the invisible hand.  They tell us we should behave selfishly because everyone else is behaving selfishly, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  They tell us that universal selfishness is the foundation of the harmonious ecosystems that we find in nature, while, in fact, ecosystems are stable only to the extent that individual animals and animal species behave unselfishly.

Worst of all, they tell us that when corporations behave like sociopaths that this is normal, and that our collective prosperity is somehow supported by their rapacious greed.  They warn us not to interfere with ‘free markets’ lest we undermine our own prosperity, but we look around us and we ask, ‘What prosperity?’, and a little light goes on and we begin to ask ‘Who is served by this ideology of unrestrained greed?’

Flying Soulo


Five-year-old Josh is watching Sunday morning TV while his parents sleep in. “The Fourth R” is “Religion”, and it is also the name of a program designed in a more innocent age to introduce children to religion, or to indoctrinate young minds into a narrow Judeo-Christian perspective on things spiritual, or most likely the producers of this show have experienced no such conflict because they have not in their own investigations ventured beyond the comfortable religious views that are sanctioned in America’s most complacent decade. Kerouac is not yet on the road, and Ginsberg has yet to begin his howl.  A comforting, grandfatherly war hero is in the White House, and all is copacetic.

The well-mannered child waits for Mommy and Daddy to wake up, but not a moment longer. He climbs onto the edge of the bed and “What’s a soul?” he asks.
Daddy is caught off-guard. Home for the weekend from his job as a traveling salesman, he has proudly mentored his precocious son through the wiles of Mr Wizard and the subtleties of fourth-grade mathematics, but he is utterly unprepared for the boy’s interest in metaphysics.

He gently pinches the boy’s arm. “If I pinch you here, that’s not your soul. If I pinch you there, that’s not your soul. It’s part of you, but it’s not anywhere on your body.”
The boy is abashed. He is accustomed to expect lucid explanations from his Dad, and he usually catches on quickly. But this time, he has no idea what Daddy is talking about. He doesn’t want to let on, for fear of appearing slow-witted.

“Oh” says the boy.

Secretly, he wonders, when the boys at the bus stop ask him whether he believes in Guard, what is he expected to say? What is the answer that will conceal his ineptitude in this matter and buy some time for him while he figures it out. He imagines a crossing guard who protects all the students by stopping cars in the street. He wants to be a policeman when he grows up, but he knows that the Guard on Sunday morning TV is much bigger than policemen, and he is embarrassed that Nicky Fisher and Robby Rosenthal seem to have some familiarity with this Big Guard that he lacks, and maybe that is why sometimes they don’t invite him over to play Calling All Cars or build a secret clubhouse in the woods on the other side of Stronghurst Avenue.

Already, the boy has amassed some confidence in his ability to figure stuff out, but not much confidence that other kids are going to want to play with him, especially the boys from the other side of 229th Street. He senses that this business of Souls and Guards is too important for him to betray his ignorance, so his plan is to keep his ears open, to try to hear what the other kids say, and use their clues to figure out the right answer.

Josh’s brain is what he has learned to rely upon to get him through the perils of embarrassment and ostracism. His ability to figure things out has won him the praise of his parents and teachers, and a new Erector Set from his Aunt Tillie. There are other aspects of his experience which he doesn’t talk about, and which are already half-walled off as a secret, inner world. His deepest secret has to do with the warm, tingly feeling he gets when he thinks about a blond-haired girl named Michelle who walks with a brace on one leg. He knows that it would be all over for him if boys started whispering that Josh Likes Girls.

A lesser secret has to do with a sense he has had sometimes when he is lying in bed or sitting in the bathroom. This one doesn’t seem perilous, exactly, but he has no language with which to talk about it. “I am Josh” he says to himself, and he just feels like—no, he knows—that that just isn’t true. I am these thoughts. I am the experiences and the experiencer. I am the one watching all this happening. I am the one figuring this stuff out. Josh—Josh, on the other hand, is this body that’s sitting here on the toilet seat. Josh doesn’t seem to be bound so tightly to who the boy is, who “I” is. The boy has this recurring experience, but he does not relate it to the puzzle about the soul, or the part of the body that can’t be pinched. The question of the soul is something he’s just going to have to figure out logically, by thinking. It seems hard, but it can’t be that hard, because grownups seem to know. He’s just afraid that he doesn’t have much time.  He can’t afford to wait until he’s grown up to figure it out.


Exquisite Etude

A “suspension” is a musical device in which a change in harmony happens but one note is left behind, usually one too high (occasionally one too low) and it falls into line on the next beat. While it hangs suspended, the note stands out as dissonant, and then when it falls in line there is a satisfying feeling that harmony has been restored.  Suspensions became a favorite during the 16th century, and they’ve never gone out of style since.  By the early 19th century, Chopin could write into this etude one suspension leading to another to another, so that we listen with a sense that just as one note is resolved, there’s another that’s hanging.

An etude is a study piece, presumably meant more for a student’s learning experience than for an audience’s listening pleasure.  Chopin wrote 27 etudes, (Op 10, Op 25, and three more after he was dead, which is a good trick by any stretch) and — just to make a point, I think — he included some of his most beautiful melodies in the etudes.  I think he was sending a message, “just in case you think this is a boring student piece…”

I fell in love with one of the posthumous etudes last week, and spent a few hours learning to play it.  The melody is simple, based on notes repeated 2, 3 or 4 times each.  The interesting thing is that as the melody notes repeat, the notes underneath are subtly shifting.  We say the “inner voices” are moving even as the melody and bass, which you hear most prominently, stay constant.

One more feature in the composition of this piece that adds tension and interest is that the left hand is written 4 eight notes to the measure and the right hand in 6 eighth notes, with the result that alternate notes of the base fall in between melody notes.

I had trouble finding a recording in which you can really hear the inner voices moving, so I tried to make one myself, by playing more slowly, slowing imperceptibly before some of the inner voice changes, and playing the inner voices a little louder than they might otherwise be played.  I count the experiment a failure–I like Edna Stern’s recording far better than my own, even after I allow myself a few gaffs and goofs.  Stern, by the way, is playing on a Pianoforte styled after one from the early 19th Century, such as Chopin might have played.  The tones don’t resonate as long and the overtones are less rich than a modern piano, so it sounds just a bit plinky.

Here is Stern’s version,
and here is mine.