Oligarchy 101

How often do we read an article or website and fly through words without really knowing their meaning? Very often. It’s a lot of work to know the exact definition of every word and assess how accurately it’s used in a particular setting. But every now and then, a word pops out at me and I realize—hey—I don’t really know what this means. So, I take the time to ferret it out.

Oligarchy. It’s a Russian thing, no? So it must be bad. Google defines ‘oligarchy’ as, “a small group of people having control of a country or institution.” The Silicon Valley elite includes no implied judgment in its phrasing. Merriam Webster, however, raises alarm: “a government in which a small group exercises control, especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.” Doesn’t that describe Russia to a T!

Searching for one definition inevitably leads to others. Call it the oligarchy variations. Aristocracy (government by noble heredity) is out of favor in a world swirling in egalitarian-speak. Kleptocracy (those in power exploit and steal) is always bad. Plutocracy (government by the wealthy) stings our populist sensibilities. Technocracy (government of technical experts) is appealing in this mechanized age, until one considers Travis Kalanick and Mark Zuckerberg’s recent incompetence. Perhaps a meritocracy (government based on ability) is the way to go, though who establishes merits’ measure? Self-appointed experts, to be sure.

We can ascribe a different slant to these descriptors, but any variation of government by the few leaves a bitter, elitist aftertaste. Unfortunately, words that describe single rule are even more repugnant: absolute monarch, autocrat, dictator, despot, tyrant.

Our spin-savvy age is tuned to terms with a distinct democratic-leaning, especially when applied to ourselves. A republic is a state in which the people and their elected representatives hold supreme power. That would be us, except perhaps for the corporate perks ensured by Citizens United. A democracy is a system of government by the whole population. Surely that’s us, except maybe for discriminatory voting restrictions.

Then there are the various ‘isms. Capitalism is about private ownership; socialism is about shared ownership; communism is about central ownership. What about fascism? Extolling the virtue of the nation-state over the individual, often along racial grounds, has no place in these United States. Except maybe at a rally in Charlottesville.

Examples that reflect every one of these terms for organizing society exist right here in the US of A, often to misleading ends. Undocumented workers, with few protections, are the collateral damage of pure capitalism. North Dakota electric cooperatives are a beloved form of pure socialism in a deep red state. There’s a vast difference between a dictionary definitions and how words are applied in practice.

I could fly to Russia to encounter oligarchy in practice. Or, I can simply take Amtrak to D.C. to witness “a government in which a small group exercises control, especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.”

 

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Hanging Pictures, Hanging Out

When was the last time you went to a barn raising? How about a threshing party? Or even a quilting circle? Coming together for shared work is an idyllic vision of our agrarian past, as alien to contemporary life as a horse drawn plow.

Despite being a total city boy, I can draw examples from my past where people came together for both society and purpose. Growing up, my mother went to a neighbor’s house once a week to ‘pattern’ a young girl. Karen was born with a muscular / neurological disorder treated by a quartet of housewife’s literally moving her arms and legs in sync until, eventfully, Karen learned to walk. After purchasing our first house in Oklahoma City, this fledging architect teamed up with his high school buddy David; we alternated weekends between his 60’s ranch and our 30’s bungalow until we transformed both places.

These days, Karen’s patterning would be coordinated by professional physical therapists, and I hire contractors for my home improvements.

Over the last two centuries, as we moved from farm to city, became more affluent, more specialized, and more litigious, our work lives became segregated from our social lives. After hours, we seek diversion and relaxation rather than shared efforts. Friends are people we hang out with, not people we depend upon in any meaningful way.

I’m pretty good at a lot of things, but I’m lousy at hanging out. I just don’t get it. My body always wants to move, my mind always wants to explore. I’m social enough; I enjoy other people in modest doses. But I prefer focused interactions: a bridge foursome; a thought provoking play; a book discussion. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to hang out, with purpose.

 

Whenever I hear anyone is moving, I always volunteer. Packing boxes, loading furniture, unloading it, unpacking stuff: mindless, physical work best done by a small group. I claim that moving others demonstrates gratitude for the personal blessing of a quarter century at the same address. But in truth, I’d rather do useful stuff with people than sit next to them in a dark movie theater.

Unfortunately, as my friends have gotten older—and richer—they hire movers. This has prompted me to augment my offerings. These days I suggest helping friends hang pictures in their new place. Given my design skills and engineering accuracy, I’m pretty good at it.

Among my cohort, moving means downsizing. This translates to years of accumulated art on fewer walls. In response, I’ve developed a signature approach to hanging pictures. Instead of centering a print or a painting on a wall, we aggregate related pieces into collage.

I’ve hung art in apartments all over Boston. Last week I expanded my territory; I hung pictures with a friend who just moved to Manhattan. This was, perhaps, my first trip ever to The Big Apple without seeing to a show or frequenting a club. Still, Dan and I enjoyed arranging, measuring, marking, and hanging. We chatted as we worked. He treated me to a sumptuous meal, more than adequate payment. When we were finished, we shared the satisfaction of making his apartment his home.

 

Hanging pictures may not be as elemental as building a barn or bringing in the harvest. But it provides deeper satisfaction than just hanging out.

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The Primacy of Horizontal Space

How far will you walk over rather than down? How much farther will you walk over rather climb up?

 

As an architect who designed large, multi-story buildings, I learned early on to locate physical spaces that have important connections next to each other rather than above or below. Why: because people prefer to walk horizontally rather than take stairs or even elevators. This preference for horizontal travel is irrational. Most everyone will opt for 100, 200, even 500 feet horizontally over 15 feet vertically. I accepted this quirk of human nature, and laid out spaces accordingly. But recently came to appreciate it in a deeper way.

 

I have a cursory curiosity about most everything with an engineering temperament to match. Math and science are tools I use to affect the world, hopefully in a positive way. But I am more adept at connection and breadth than rigorous depth. My friend Bob, on the other hand, is pure scientist, a geologist by training, curious about the natural world without pesky regard for how we might manipulate it. Recently, Bob stayed with us. During back-to-back dinner conversations, unrelated to architectural design, he gave me unexpected perspective on why we humans have such a strong preference for horizontal space.

On a pleasant Saturday, Bob and I rode our bikes out the Minuteman Trail to Concord’s Old North Bridge. Which, having been replaced five times since ‘The Shot Heard ‘Round the World, is actually not very old, but I digress. The sixteen-mile ride is a lovely trek on a spring day. The trail, on an old railroad grade, has scant vertical rise, though on a bicycle you notice even one percent grade.

 

That evening, Bob was in geologist mode. He talked at length about the earth’s crust, and the Magma that we more of less float upon. The distance from the Mariana Trench to Mount Everest, the deepest and tallest extents of our crust, are a mere 12.3 vertical miles. We estimate the crust itself is up to thirty miles thick below continents, as little as three miles thick under the oceans, which means an average thickness of about sixteen miles, or the distance from Cambridge to Old North Bridge. Yet we have not actually gotten to the bottom of the earths crust; the deepest hole ever dug, the Kola Superdeep Borehole in Russia, goes only 7.5 miles below the surface.

The next day was rainy; Bob spent most of his time reading Jeffrey Kluger’s Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon. Therefore, most of our dinner talk centered around space. Sixteen miles above the earth? That’s about twice the distance beyond the limits of our atmosphere.

 

Taken together, I realized what a thin slice of space we humans occupy. We occupy a 25,000 mile circumferential sphere that we can wander upon with relative ease. But we really don’t know much about eight miles below us, and we are dead eight miles up. Suddenly our predilection for moving horizontally does not seem irrational; it seems downright instinctual.

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Update from Mildred, Fresh Pond Owl

Location. Location. Location. The real estate attribute so dear to humans applies to us owls as well. Less than a month ago I hooted the advantages, and annoyances, of nesting at Fresh Pond. Now I find myself indebted to that ultra touchy/feely species of urban animal lover: the Cantabridgian.

Jake, my mate, is a terrific guy. His majestic wingspan still quickens my birdy pulse. Yet, every creature has his shortcomings. Turns out Jake’s nest building skills are a bit shaky. Though I raved about our tree fork location and his expedient construction, a series of late winter storms and persistent high winds took a toll on our home. When Hector, our owling, leaned against the edge of the nest in concert with a strong wind, the structure weakened. Out fell our offspring.

I watched Hector descend. Owls do not fall fast; we are mostly feather. Motherly instinct impelled me to fly after him. He bumped off a few branches. But prudence intervened. In disaster, time stretches to the limits of endurance. He landed in a pile of storm soaked leaves. I could not save him mid-air. Owls fall softer than humans. And he would need me, even more, on the ground.

The man with the tripod and telescopic camera recorded it all. I was annoyed at him for digitizing my owling’s trauma, until I realized these owl-crazy locals would be essential to Hector’s salvation.

 

Indeed they are. Hector has been on the ground for a week now; it will be several more weeks until he’s capable of flying. Even then, the usual strategies of coaxing him onto a branch and enticing his first leap from a distance will be useless. Unlike other owlings, Hector has learned to walk. He’s covered several hundred feet, heading west, as if he wants to go to kindergarten in Belmont.

Jake and I do what we can: bring him food; hoot off dogs and coyotes. We are stretched beyond our normal capacity, staying close to the ground, flying in bold daylight, coming closer to humans than we ever dared before. But Hector’s survival depends just as much on them. Every dawn the bird lovers arrive with yards of yellow caution tape. They mark a new zone around Hector. The city has posted signs for folks to leash their dogs. People we once considered curious distractions are now our protectors. The more humans congregate around Hector, the more attention they bring to his condition, the less likely a single unleashed canine will bring his doom.

So many things can go wrong. Even if Hector survives on the ground, we have no idea how he’ll learn to fly. But no matter what happens, Jake and I are grateful for everything the humans have done. In tragedy, we need all the friends we can get.

 

 

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Individual Responsibility / Societal Responsibility

There’s a passing quote in Rachel Aviv’s recent article “The Edge of Identity” (The New Yorker April 2, 2018) that stopped me short.

In 2008, Hannah Upp, a vivacious, engaging woman, experienced a dissociative fugue. Fugue is the medical/psychological term for an extended, complete identity lapse. Hannah ‘disappeared’ in New York City. She triggered newspaper headlines and a widespread search, her image popped up on several retail video cameras around the city, and she was finally ‘discovered,’ twenty days later, floating in New York Harbor.

Four years later, in Kensington, Maryland, Hannah ‘disappeared’ again. Another search. This time she was found in a creek.

After Hannah’s second fugue, some wondered if perhaps Hannah might benefit from wearing a chip implant; the Maryland police suggested an ankle bracelet similar to the ones designed for people under house arrest. Hannah did not want anything like that and her mother, Barbara, honored her decision. “She’s living it, and she needed to have the freedom to make choices.”

 

That’s the quote that gave me pause. Really? A young woman who has endured two disappearances, suffered personal danger, and caused all sorts of heartache among family, friends, and emergency personnel, can decide against identifying technology that could assist in another fugue simply because she needs the freedom to make choices? If Hannah can choose not to take precautions against another fugue, do we—society—have a responsibility to intervene and require her to do so? If she refuses reasonable safeguards against a foreseeable disaster, are we responsible to sound the alarm and search for Hannah the next time she goes astray?

Which, of course, she does.

Hannah’s third fugue occurs on St. Thomas, just after Hurricane Irma hit in 2017. Her third search includes three Coast Guard helicopters, several boats, and extensive human resources, conducted amidst the chaos of disaster relief. Her official search gets called off only as Hurricane Maria approaches. But her mother Barbara moves to Saint Thomas indefinitely and continues to look for a daughter who has never been found.

Where do we draw the line between people who blamelessly deserve societal support, and those who contribute to their own downfall?

Surely we should provide support for children with Type I diabetes. How about adults with Type II diabetes exacerbated by poor diet?

We should rescue scientific expeditions on Mount Everest that encounter extreme conditions, but should we rescue clueless day hikers who wander beyond their abilities?

How about my friend Bob, who endured a brain tumor that left his balance precarious? He’s fallen several times in his apartment, even blacked out, yet he refuses to wear an emergency call button. When he inevitably falls again, are we compelled to expend unlimited resources to his resuscitation, or are we allowed to hold back, since he shuns reasonable precautions?

 

We humans are expert at destructive habits. What is our responsibility to treat addicts who relapse after multiple rehabs? Heavy smokers? Chronic gamblers? The dividing line is rarely clear. Most misery istriggered by a combination of personal action and cultural conditions. Folks with Type II diabetes are not 100% responsible for their condition; they may be unaware of better dietary choices, and healthier food is both more expensive and more difficult to access.

Americans hold individual freedom paramount. We may restrict individuals for the stated objective of protecting others (we require parolees wear an identity bracelet), yet we don’t demand that individuals protect themselves (Hannah was not required to wear one). We establish certain obligations that serve everyone’s health and safety (drivers license and insurance to drive a car), yet are lax on others (user ID on hand guns). Our fixation on so-called individual rights over societal responsibility is so strident as to become self-centered, borderline narcissistic.

Hannah’s story is tragic; her condition arbitrary as it is bizarre. The article focuses on her deep empathy and caring. Yet it doesn’t even mention the obvious flip side. By refusing to do whatever she could to minimize the impact of her fugues, Hannah brought all manner of distress on others. We will never know, if Hannah had agreed to technical monitoring, whether it would have helped us find her when she went wandering on St. Thomas. We only know that her third fugue was predictable, that she did nothing to mitigate it, and that society condoned her decision.

 

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The Curious Case of the Benefits Bestowed by Failed Technology

The chasm between technology’s glittering promise to liberate humans from drudgery and the more commonplace reality of technology rendering us incompetent in our objectives through opaque algorithms or mis-struck keystrokes, is simply too commonplace to deem blog-worthy. We all feel humbled, inconvenienced, misunderstood, and annoyed by technology every day. Some days, we feel it all day. So imagine my surprise—joy is not too great a sentiment—when a recent experience in failed technology blossomed into personal good fortune.

I belong to that long gone epoch of humanity who find satisfaction and security in paper. I print out theater tickets, bicycle maps, and airline boarding passes. I understand, in theory, that these scraps are redundant. My phone preserves all necessary e-documents, and despite my care in recycling, the paper consumed drains our natural resources. Yet I remain attached to the superfluous ‘stuff’ of printed forms.

Recently, upon a visit to Atlanta, I mentioned to my beloved daughter that I was compelled to check in for my return flight and obtain an e-ticket, since my AirBNB did not contain a hard copy printer. Being young, and lacking my affinity to parchment, she laughed that I ever printed such things. Twenty-three hours before flight, I checked in online and followed all prescribed steps until a bright red box proclaimed, ‘Check-in Complete’. Then I let my phone go to sleep.

In the meandering queue at TSA ATL, I awoke my phone to retrieve my electronic boarding pass. Alas: several emails, myriad instructions, yet no actual boarding pass. I shared said phone screen with the TSA officer who, nice as could be, directed me to the Delta ticket counter for the express purpose of obtaining a paper boarding pass. A second gracious agent guided me out of the security area. Most everyone knows that Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is the busiest airport in the world; many fewer acknowledge it to also be the friendliest.

Cinisia, a Delta agent with a big smile, even bigger hair and bewilderment that matched my own, was incredulous that my e-boarding pass shot deep into cyberspace without successfully landing in my phone. She printed me a reliable paper copy, trustworthy as currency, beyond its weight’s worth in gold. Then she added, “The flights to Boston are all delayed; severe weather up that way. I’m going to register you on standby for an earlier flight that’s been delayed.” She handed me my pass and added, “Proceed with all haste to Gate A6 by four o’clock. I am resolute that will welcome you aboard.” Her exact words perhaps mirrored a more contemporary jive, but her meaning was clear.

I relished the joy of a second return trip through the TSA Security maze—not. Yet my snail’s crawl was peppered with an enjoyable encounter with another lovely officer, this one monitoring the bins. “Have you got any food in your backpack?” “Just a Power Bar.” “Only one? We’ll let that slide.” “You can have it if you’re hungry.” “No thanks, I’ve got a salad waiting for me.” “You eat better than I do.” Officer Jacinta smiled and waved me through. I arrived at Gate A6 even as my deadline loomed. The efficient Delta team directed me to one of the few remaining seats on the delayed flight, held in my name. All hail Cinisia! She reserved for me a window seat of my own.

Our amply crowded plane grumbled away from the gate and loitered on the ground while the captain explained the intricacies of Air Traffic Control flight allotments. We sat; buckled into our metal tube baking on the sunny tarmac, warm as fresh bread, stinky as aged Stilton. Shared distress bonds the common folk in economy class. Each shared his personal tale of woe and delay. Except me, who had suffered no delay he could heartily relay. All found comfort in cursing circumstance beyond control. Except me, who was running ahead of schedule and is too well-bred to gloat.

We took off in a mighty tail wind. I nestled into Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, an author of infectious language. Boston came fast upon us, before poor Tom, hindered by the eighteenth century limitations of muddy roads and wobbly carriages, had reached even halfway to Brighton. Our weary band of travellers descended through sunbeams slanting against candy cotton clouds. Light refracted in fantastic colors until it gave way to a sordid, solid grey mass beneath. High winds, scattered showers, nature’s cruelty spit upon New England’s drab spring. What horrific sins these Puritans must have committed to deserve such fury. The pilot guides our fuselage out of aerial danger. The assembled applauded the captain’s tricky landing; relieved all, to finally arrive.

Instantly, everyone fingered their phones, texted their loved ones. They were all running late, but at least they were safe. Expectations and plans got jimmied accordingly. I sat alone in my contentment, having arrived at my destination an hour early; thanks to the necessity of a boarding pass printed upon paper.

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The Prodigal Son

It’s been eight years since I attended a Sunday mass, with my daughter Abby during junior year aboard in Paris. She suggested that we go to mass at Notre Dame, more for the pageant than the message. Still, I was wary.

I am both suspicious and envious of cafeteria Catholics: folks who can pick and choose aspects of the religion to suit their taste. Strict Catholicism coursed through my youthful marrow. Intoxicating incense, a clean soul, and the righteous warmth of ingesting Christ’s body and blood were permanently affixed to mandated stands against sexuality, abortion, and divorce. As a child, the prohibitions seemed a fair price to pay for a comprehensive and comforting worldview. But once my thinking mind kicked in, and I realized how much Catholicism served power and privilege rather than people, the cost-benefit nose-dived into deficit. It never occurred to me that I might negotiate a selective faith. Once one foundational principal faltered upon another, the whole thing crumbled, and so I left the Church.

For Abby, raised on Unitarian relativism, visiting Notre Dame during mass simply ratcheted up the tourist appeal. I was the one who had to assuage demons.

There we sat, under the buttressed arches, the filtered light from the famous rose window dancing on our shoulders, streams of yellow, green and blue. The opening procession was pageant indeed: a parade of gold vestments, the familiar clank of the thurible; its aromatic smoke wafting up, up, to Gothic heights. I can enjoy this, I thought. It’s just a show.

 

Until we got to The Gospel: Luke Chapter 15, Verse 11. “A man has two sons…”

There are few stories I dislike more than the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son,’ a disdain rooted in my own experience. I identify with the older son: a guy who steady toils without complaint. His anger at the extraordinary bounty bestowed upon the prodigal’s return seems justified.

But my reaction to ‘The Prodigal Son’ goes deeper. For instead of seeing the parable as a tale of forgiveness, I believe it exalts one of humanity’s least noble traits: to celebrate drama over constancy, to herald the extreme rather than acknowledge the dependable. Why do we gush over the recovered addict but don’t recognize the perseverance of the woman who shuns drugs from the get-go? Why do we applaud the man who loses 50, 100, 200 pounds but never give a passing comment to the guy who’s maintained a healthy weight throughout his life? Why do we consider success all the sweeter when it rises out of a stumble?

A person who overcomes an adversity or addiction demonstrates worthwhile discipline and fortitude. But it is no more admirable than a person who has the discipline, the constancy, to avoid life’s temptations in the first place.

The parable of ‘The Prodigal Son’ elevates human hunger for drama and redemption, when the message that a productive, stable society needs to convey is: we need people who shoulder on. A person who falls and then finds his footing is surely stronger than the person who cannot recover; he is stronger still for changing his course. But let’s not forget, and celebrate, the people who keep on keeping on. They provide the backbone that steadies our course.

 

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