I have been thinking about those who genuinely find their identites in their work--artists of all sorts, missionaries, people with a calling to heal in some way--versus those who just can't seem to stop thinking about the office and bring it home. Identifying with your job can be dangerous: some people die within months of retiring because of it. Others are just annoying, and my pet peeve here is the professor who remains pedantic in his private life--too close to home for this ex-professor.
So I did some thinking with a pencil and a calculator about just how much of our lives is work. If you are fortunate enough to have a full-time job and also fortunate enough to be able to live on just one job, this is how it breaks down. If you begin full-time work at twenty years of age, work a forty-hour week fifty weeks a year until retirement at sixty-five, and live until you are eighty, you will spend LESS THAN 15% of your time on earth at work. Even if you go to work at fifteen and work until you die, you'll still be spending fewer than 20% of your hours at work. Even in a work year, only 2,000 of the 8,760 hours are spent at work. You are not your job.
Monday, September 9, 2013
“Eddyville Ground, this is Cessna Four Four Romeo Papa with Information Lima at the terminal, ready for taxi.”
“Four Romeo Papa, taxi to Runway Six Right, left on Delta, right on Charlie, left on Foxtrot, hold short of Runway Three Three.”
This conversation uses the communications alphabet, also called the phonetic or radio alphabet, for clear and unambiguous radio exchanges. Hundreds of such exchanges occur every day, and aviation traffic is safer because of this universally understood ABC. But as businesslike and matter-of-fact as the radio alphabet seems, a closer look shows it is packed with history, romance, mythology, literature, and the lure of faraway places.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations, adopted the communications alphabet in 1952. Soon NATO, our own armed forces, and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) also adopted the alphabet. For the U. S. Army and Navy, it replaced the Able Baker Charlie Dog Easy alphabet familiar from WWII movies. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) specifies in Chapter 4-2-7 that the ICAO phonetic alphabet be used by pilots. The version printed there is actually the ITU alphabet, which uses Alfa instead of Alpha (Spanish pilots might be tempted to say Al-pa) and Juliett instead of Juliet (so French pilots won’t say Jool-ee-ay).
Although there seems to be a solid American base to the alphabet, with homely names like Charlie and Mike as well as the patriotic Yankee, we also get hints of the more cosmopolitan. You may be figuring weights and balance in pounds, but Kilo is a reminder that there are other measures—in Lima, for instance, or Quebec, or all over India.
As for history, Alpha and Delta are taken straight from the Greek alphabet, only a step removed from an earlier form of writing using stylized pictures, or pictographs. Alpha, for example, derives ultimately from the Hebrew aleph, which meant ox. Just turn the capital A upside down to see the ox’s head.
Romeo and Juliet, of course, are Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, children of two feuding families in the Italian city of Verona. In the Greek myth, Echo was the nymph who loved the self-absorbed youth Narcissus, pining away until only her voice remained. And could Papa be Hemingway?
There’s a whiff of the getaway vacation in Hotel and Golf, and the alphabet suggests a taste of nightlife: have a Whiskey and dance the Foxtrot. If you can manage the more exotic Tango, you might prompt a “Bravo!” from the spectators.
So the next time you use the familiar letters of the radio alphabet, think of its cosmopolitan cultural background. From its Greek beginnings in Alpha to the African zest of Zulu, this bunch of letters gets past the simple ABCs!
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
The Education of Henry Adams is a terrible book. Like Walden and Emerson’s Essays, it reveals a peculiarly American complacency in its subject, but without the redeeming writing skill of Thoreau and Emerson. Adams is vague and general when he should be detailed and specific, and that’s pretty much all the time. He writes as if his readers had just put down a newspaper covering the events of the period he’s writing about, so that all he need do is allude to people and places.
The choice of narrating his life in the third person is never justified or explained. Perhaps Adams thought it suited his habit of self-deprecation. Unfortunately, the self-deprecation, like most of Adams’s attempts to be humorous, comes across as mere sarcasm, which is the weakest of humor’s rhetorical tools. The book’s conceit, that Adams never gets the education he needs to face the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, is undercut by Adams’s condescension about almost everyone else’s mental powers, including Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Roosevelt, and other American presidents he meets.
Adams, a self-confessed dilettante when it comes to art (though even here he boasts of confounding the experts), is in fact a dilettante in all he tries. He plays at learning law in America and abroad, makes fun of his secretarial duties in the service of his father Charles Francis Adams when the latter is ambassador to England, and when he returns to the States after the Civil War to no prospect of high diplomatic appointment under Johnson, he gives up the idea of diplomacy altogether and becomes a part-time journalist and an unwilling history professor. Meanwhile, he has briefly taken up Darwin without understanding him; he has the mistaken popular, teleological notion that evolution aims at perfection.
In the chapters on Adams’s years in London during the Civil War, the young diplomat bewails his failure to understand what the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Minister Lord Russell, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gladstone are up to. Henry thinks their behavior reflects a wish to see U.S. power divided, since she is a rival nation (and an old enemy). In fact, if their memoirs and biographies written years later are to be believed, they were just reacting to day-to-day changes in the American situation while trying to protect England’s cotton trade with the South.
After the war Adams remains in England at loose ends, taking up Darwinism and becoming a dilettante and an art collector in a small way. When he returns to the country he can expect nothing from the Johnson administration—the southerner Johnson was anathema to the old Free Soilers (Sumner, Charles Adams, and the other men who formed Adams’s political consciousness). He had been publishing, sometimes with his identity concealed, in various stateside papers since his work for his father in the Congress, so he ended up going to Washington to try to break into a journalism job, ultimately in New York.
He supported Grant but soon discovered what a mistake that was. The Jay Gould scandal came less than a year into Grant’s presidency. Adams first turns down and then accepts a job to teach at Harvard and edit the North American Review.
After the death of his sister in the early 1870s there is a hiatus in Adams’s account: He tells us nothing about his marriage or his wife’s depression and suicide, and he leaves out any account of the years from 1872 to 1892, when he retires and begins a period of travel with various friends. Altogether I find the book unsatisfactory as autobiography or as a picture of the times Adams lives through.
Sunday, December 16, 2012
It’s time for those of us who enjoy shooting to lead the push for sensible gun and ammo and magazine laws, for closing loopholes, and for more energetic enforcement of existing gun laws. For too long there has been no debate about guns in this country. That was allowed to happen because people were choosing sides and thinking the other side was unreasonable. Those who wanted more control thought of gun owners as holding the view that no laws should ever be passed restricting gun access in any way, period. On the other hand, gun owners and users have looked at those wanting some controls as if all they wanted was to take everyone’s guns away.
We’ve got to stop the us and them thinking, friends. The real situation of real Americans is much more complicated. The fact that my father was shot to death with a Saturday-night Special does not keep me from enjoying target shooting with handguns and rifles of all calibers. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords owns a Glock that looks very much like the one Gerald Loughner shot her through the head with.
More gun owners are the victims of accidental and deliberate gun violence than non-owners. Everyone has a stake in this and it’s an enormous problem that has to be addressed on all fronts.
It’s people who pull the triggers, so it’s important to figure out how to deal better with the beginnings of domestic violence and mental health problems. This means more resources but it also means changing some attitudes and removing the stigma of seeking help for rage and other pathologies. It needs to be easier and more common to refer and recommend mental counseling, and even to require it.
Most gun violence isn’t in schools or malls but in homes where guns are accessible to children or to family or friends who shouldn’t have them at that particular moment or perhaps ever. Cheaper and easier gun locks and real education for all members of gun-owning families can help here.
We can’t stop all the killing by renewing the law banning assault weapons, but it would help. Yes, two or three clips will kill just as many as one big one, but Gerald Loughner was tackled while he was reloading. Everyone agrees that the Brady Act hasn’t solved all gun violence problems, but it has helped, and yet we ignore the enormous gunshow loophole in background checks.
We need to talk. Gun owners could reassure their elected representatives that they won’t lose votes by sponsoring responsible gun laws. Trying to understand someone else’s point of view is never easy, but we’ll have to do it to stop the bleeding. Those who want some regulation need to try to reassure gun owners that no one intends to take away their three hundred million guns. It is not a matter of loving guns or hating them. It is not us and them. We need to talk.
Monday, December 3, 2012
Coming down the King’s Canyon trail near Tucson, I found myself thinking of a line from Kipling: “And you may hear a breech-bolt snick, though never a man is seen.” That canyon, aside from its saguaro and prickly pear, probably looks a good deal like some of the terrain in Afghanistan. I was thinking what a shame that we didn’t learn anything from the British experience there, or the Russian. Even supposing we had to eliminate the Al-Qaeda camps and destabilize the Taliban for a while, we could have hit them hard, chased them up into the high mountains for a while, and used what time we had to train ten thousand Afghans to be drill sergeants, and then GOT THE HELL OUT, leaving a trail of money behind us, and sending more unless and until the Taliban took over again. Ten years. Alas. With the number of dead, limbless, or brain-damaged only a small part of the ongoing cost of mental derangement and suicide. When I got home I looked up “The Ballad of East and West” and found that I’d had the line almost right. It’s really: “And ye may hear a breech-bolt snick where never a man is seen.” Those poor guys are still being ambushed, even after they get back to the States from their third or fourth deployment.
Saturday, October 13, 2012
One day there showed up in our house a little book called Folk Wisdom of Mexico: Proverbios y dichos Mexicanos, collected by Jeff Sellers. We read a few aloud and within minutes Matt and Dan started on a riff of invented dichos. We found my stepfather’s favorite one, Menos burros, mas elotes, and Dan immediately topped it with Menos Sanchos, mas Quixotes. Various proverbs about the troubles of the rich and the consolations of the poor, as well as a rise in the silliness quotient, evoked Matt’s La tortilla es la toalla de los pobres.