caro thinks

What You Make Of It, 2001/05/22:20:28

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open letter

To the President of the United States of America, and the Governor of California

Mr. President, Mr. Governor:

Tear down this wall.

It was easy enough, wasn't it, to tell people in another country to tear down the wall that separated the ideologies represented in East Berlin and West Berlin. The whole world was behind it, the USSR having been demonized in the media for decades.

Not so easy, apparently, on our own precious, exclusive turf.

We don't want Mexicans in here. They are poor. They sell drugs. They are criminals. They take our jobs. They'll make us speak Spanish. It's just horrible, isn't it.

When I first arrived in California in 1996, I didn't know what those black and yellow signs meant. It seemed kind of cute, to warn drivers that people would be crossing the street in a big hurry. Typical California flair and joie de vivre, I conjectured. But it wasn't a street I was on; it was an interstate. The interstate was lined by tall fences with barbed wire--which seemed like a pretty bad idea, when you thought about it, since a stranded motorist would have no way to get off the highway. And there were no residential areas: just ocean to the west, a U.S. military installation to the right. Why did we need pedestrian crossing signs here?

When the full force of it hit me all at once, as I sat behind the wheel headed for the San Onofre spot-check, I cried; and if the checkpoint hadn't slowed traffic to a crawl I would have had to pull off the road to get a hold of myself. The people pictured on that sign were not just any old people. They were Mexicans. A man, a woman, and a small girl with her feet off the ground being literally dragged through the air by adults running at full tilt. What did it mean? It meant that people are so desperate to get away from their own country that they are willing to land boats in our ocean surf just across the highway from our military base and climb over 15-foot fences topped with barbed wire, with children in tow, and race across 8 lanes of 75mph traffic, climb another fence and then somehow find their way through miles of San Diego County desert hills, to someplace, anyplace that was not Mexico, all the while avoiding the eyes of our military, and our border patrol. What they eat or drink on this trip I can't imagine--or rather, I suppose I know, since the news frequently reports that we've picked up another bunch of starving, frozen refuges and shipped them back. Good job. My tax dollars at work.

The people represented in that sign are no ordinary American citizens crossing the street. They are desperate refuges literally running for their lives. When every other black-and-yellow Caution sign in America represents the human form as a featureless, purposeless stick figure, it must have taken one sick sense of humor, or one very honest consciousness, to portray these people this way. And you approved the signs. If you didn't know before, you must have been able to see from this artistic representation what it meant to these people to come into our country. That you didn't insist that the pictures be sterilized indicates that you thought the meaning was important--maybe just to help drivers understand that there really was a danger of encountering pedestrians on this otherwise desolate stretch of highway. I never would have guessed, from stick figures, who it was that you were warning us about. I would have thought that you wanted me to be careful of motorists who had broken down and were looking for a telephone. And though you didn't personally approve the signs at their creation, you implicitly approve them by not having them removed.

You should be ashamed of yourselves. I am. I'm ashamed of you, and I'm ashamed of myself for not preventing it.

Perhaps the signs do help reduce the incidence of pedestrian deaths. But your best bet from every conceivable viewpoint is to reduce the incidence of pedestrians on that highway.

The tv news reported last week that the border patrol at this checkpoint were suspected of racism, because they tended to stop cars full of Mexicans more often than any other car. Racism? Racism?
You instruct the border patrol to apprehend people immigrating from Mexico without your permission, and racism is the only thing that people can think to charge you with? Of course the policy is racist! Of course the border patrol stops people according to race! Why should they stop a car full of white people? You've institutionalized racism, and you pay people to behave in a racist fashion.

Though it's an absurd accusation, I suppose I should be thankful that someone decided to accuse the border patrol of racism; if Mexicans were white we wouldn't have that excuse for attacking this absurd policy. It wasn't so easy in East Berlin; those people are all the same color, east and west.

Solve these problems, Mr. President, Mr. Governor. The people of Southern California will give them jobs, I assure you. They've been hiring them illegally for decades. Tear down this wall, and take down those scandalous signs. Or rather, leave them up as a monument to all the highway deaths and all the more lingering ailments, political and otherwise, that the border policy has caused.
now in bloom on my patio
'Litter' is a funny word to a plant-lover, even one who is in the landscape design business. My clients frequently tell me that they want a tree that blooms but they don't want "litter." By 'litter' they mean that the tree drops bits of itself on the ground. Blossoms on the ground is the kind of thing I barely notice. Right now, with the fuchsias, the feijoa, the impatiens, the freesia, the Martha Washington geranium, the bougainvilleas, the brunfelsia, the star jasmine, and the honeysuckle in full bloom, the cement surface of my patio is as colorful as the as the the plants themselves. But that's how it is. There's no such thing as a blooming plant that doesn't drop blooms. Either you accept the litter as part of the package, or you don't really want a garden.

Showcase idea: Many La Jolla home owners have "gardeners" (aka day laborers)come once a week because they like the neighbors to see that they have lots of people working for them on a regular basis. That makes the idea of a low-maintenance garden seem rather pointless to some people. They allow the day laborers to hack at their plants because it makes them look busy, and the day laborers are happy to do it, again, because they know it makes them look like they are doing something.

But day laborers don't know anything about plants, and only make the property look like it's been hacked at by cheap laborers. The solution? Get a lot of plants and trees that bloom all year. Tell the day laborers to leave their sharp instruments in the truck, and only let them bring brooms and rakes onto the property. Since they are in fact day laborers and not gardeners, it won't make any difference to them to spend their time sweeping up blossoms instead of shaving the bushes into awkward shapes. When it's really time to prune (ONCE a year), get a real professional to come in for the day, preferably right before the day laborers come with their brooms. Your neighbors will see that you not only have the most beautiful blooming garden in town, but that you have lots of very busy workers "maintaining" it. And the best part is that, with all that sweeping, they won't have the opportunity to butcher your plants. This way, you can simultaneously have a lush, low-maintenance, colorful garden, AND spend a lot of money on pointless labor!

Just noticed that the tibouchina has fat buds, which I expect will open this month. The rose should probably be moved from its five gallon pot to a seven-gallon. The apartment manager has just warned me that his own day-laborers will be by this month, and, given that they don't understand English, will not be able to follow his directions not to cut down my potted honeysuckle blooming just outside the yard. He agreed to help me move it onto Rosey's patio until the day laborers are gone, then move it back. Last year I raised holy hell when they "trimmed" my magnificent arbor full of morning glory, cutting the vines right in the middle and leaving them hanging brown from the pergola. The day laborers are now terrified of me. But terror alone does not make them understand how to take care of plants; only horticultural education and experience can do that, and that's not likely to happen as long as people continue to hire unskilled laborers to do their "gardening."

Your garden is your public face. Make it good.
Begin comparative study of The Matrix and The Neverending Story.

I don't own many movies. I've considered 3 to be important enough to own. I bought The Neverending Story myself after I'd rented it several times and decided that renting was a waste of money and time. I planned to buy The Matrix but Don beat me to it and gave it to me as a present. The other movie is one that I taped during the initial A&E showing and watched for a couple of years until Farsam accidentally recorded over it; and he felt so bad about it that he bought me the boxed set. That movie is Pride and Prejudice but it's not relevant to the current discussion. The only other videos I have are all MST's that were taped from television broadcasts.

I don't think that art has intrinsic value. I believe that the value of art is objective, a personal relationship between the work and its viewer. The relationship between the artist and the work can and usually does determine how the viewer experiences it, just as my choice of words will to some extent influence how you understand my propositions. But the artist does not determine the entire experience. The viewer must bring a great deal of herself to the work. I can see this clearly in my own experience of the two movies under discussion; as I change, so does my experience of them.

Neither, as far as I know, was written or directed by a classical liberal, let alone an objectivist. Nevertheless, I find the objectivist themes striking and inescapable. Other people seem to be able to escape them with ease, however, thus backing up my hypothesis that art is what you make of it.

Common Themes Between The Matrix and The Neverending Story (hereinafter, 'TM' and 'NS')

  • desperate, impossible odds, a hopeless beginning and a steady descent into ever more hopeless impossibility
  • all hope riding on the independence and ingenuity of a single person
  • the enemy is only imaginary, and can be overcome through sheer focus, acceptance, and knowledge
  • that focus, acceptance, and knowledge is terrifying, and is studiously evaded by almost everyone
  • the horror of the knowledge is partly due to the fact that, once attained, it will result in something close to omnipotence
  • the omnipotence is real, the only kind that makes sense, but it is illustrated through metaphor

    Common Story-Telling and Cinematic Methods
  • main battle ground is a fantasy world
  • the fantasy is a skewed representation of the real world, and in it is metaphorically represented the very real problem of the hero
  • by overcoming the obstacles of the fantasy world, the hero learns the truth about himself, finds the mental wherewithal to live up to his potential
  • on first viewing, the viewer has difficulty distinguishing the real from the unreal

    This last point has been especially troubling to objectivists with whom I try to discuss the movie. I sent a message to the old MDOP mailing list recommending TNS as a children's movie that illustrated good objectivist values; I quickly got a response (from someone who subsequently stopped talking to me when he discovered that I "supported" David Kelley) saying that the person had watched the movie on my recommendation and couldn't figure out how an objectivist could say anything good about it. A, he claimed, was not A, in this movie, there were fantasy creatures and methods that could not exist in the real world, etcetera, et-boring-cetera.

    There are many ways to interpret the statement that art is a selective recreation of reality as it might and ought to be. I don't interpret it to mean that every single item, creature, and method in the work of ought might and ought to exist in just that way. I interpret it to mean that there are elements that are represented and recreated in whatever manner the artist finds stimulating, entertaining, or expressive. The fantastic elements of a movie are always, as far as I can tell, representative of something that happens in the real world: monsters are representative of evils and hard times and self-doubt, for example,and a type of animal or machine is used as the literal depiction; angels and fairies are representative of accidental good fortune or even the benevolence of the universe or the reality of slow and thorough justice, and they are often represented by human-like creatures. Objectivists get themselves all in a knot trying to avoid the appearance of irrationality, when they should be asking themselves what they can get out of the experience that might prove beneficial to them. To suspend disbelief is not to become irrational; it is to take context into account and do the necessary integrations. In the case of fantasy art, these integrations are difficult and demanding, and require intense focus: first, to understand the fantasy as presented; and second, to make the parallels between one's own life and the fantasy.

    There is more to say but I have to pause here.
  • capitalism
    Successful people tell consumers what they want to hear. I'm in the business of telling people exactly the opposite of what they want to hear. What's wrong with this picture? Did I not learn anything from the plays of Sophocles?
    This will necessarily be out of order over a series of entries as I think of important dates and add them. At least I'm starting with some early ones.

    1963 born, Baltimore, Maryland
    1964 parents divorced, moved in with grandmother
    1965 mother bought her current house in Baltimore in a horrid neighborhood on its way down. No girls in the alley, just boys; my strong, energetic athleticism becoming apparent and highly offensive to family. Sister's determined discouragement only partially effective at first, becoming increasingly significant later
    1966 first developed violent fear of the dark, ostensibly in response to casual horror story told by my mother in an effort to control my enthusiastic ebullience
    1967 started kindergarten with Miss Siscovik, didn't like it, had to wear dresses in accordance with mandatory dress code, to the deep offense of my dignity and literal incapacitation of athletic tendencies; the patent-leather shoes didn't help
    1968 started first grade with the hateful and ancient Miss Borns, decided school was the most loathesome place on earth; tried as hard as possible not to be noticed which of course made me the center of hostile attention
    1969 began to worry about my future given my tendency to daydream through class; missed a few days due to illness, was lost upon return to do prior daydreaming and missed days, and vowed never to miss a day again and didn't.
    1969 started singing in choir, which made school slightly more tolerable; sang til graduation

    1975 spent many happy afterschool and summer hours playing in the polluted Herring Run Stream with Andrea making up stories and saying everything in a hick accent
    1976 entered Herring Run Junior High
    1977 learned to ride skateboard; acquired skateboard and promptly broke arm; decided to become a doctor as a result; practiced riding skateboard in living room while wearing cast.
    1978 entered citywide accelerated program, Western High School, Baltimore; played violin in orchestra; rode skateboard between home and bus and between bus and school, with violin when necessary
    1979 took genetics, anatomy, physiology, ecology, as well as standard science classes to prepare for medical career; volunteered as candy striper at local hospital; became disillusioned with medical career idea due to animal experimentation
    1979 summer, casting about for new career ideas, went to forestry camp, discovered that forestry wasn't such a good idea either, though forestry camp was a life-changing experience

    1980-81 studied existentialist literature and a few bits of philosophy in English class; liked it but didn't know what it all was.
    1981 summer, first time away from home; worked in Ocean City, MD, at amusement park, 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, for 3 months; lived and worked with high school friend and fellow orchestra member Cynthia; distinguished sound of harpsichord for the first time.
    1981 fall, entered Hollins College, Virginia, without a clue regarding my career. Started harpsichord lessons, took schedule overloads with a wide variety of courses. Freshman Seminar with philosopher Larry Becker. Suddenly changed mind about school: now it was the most wonderful thing in the world.
    1981 christmas, Mary Ann Allen came to Hollins to apply for the philosophy department tenure-track position, Chairman Larry Becker invited me to attend the lecture and give my opinion. Allen's message was so clear and forceful that after the lecture I went to the registrar to declare my philosophy major.
    How To Make A Sink

    That's right: a sink. What are sinks used for? Getting water into the house in a neat, convenient, and contained manner, and getting dirty water back out of the house. 'Water' is the key word here. Water needs to drain. It tends to be attracted to the earth. You can use this fairly reliable fact to design the sink. There should be a deep pit in which the bulk of the splashing is done. Most modern sinks have this feature. The drain should be at the bottom of this pit, to allow maximum disposal of water with the least amount of effort. Again, modern sinks do adhere to this principle.

    The splashboard--where all the water that doesn't go into the pit will end up--should drain freely into the deep pit. Once upon a time, sinks were designed this way. Not just some, but all. There was drain board that was at just the slightest angle, enough of one to let the water slide in accordance with gravity toward the drain. And the splashboard should surround the whole sink, since the splashes surely will. This feature is no longer included with the modern sink. Why?
    Dreamt this morning that I was bitten by a snake, and an old acquaintance (with whom I had a better relationship in the dream than in real life) sucked the poison out of the wound. There were other people around who allegedly were my friends but I don't know who they were. My theory of dreams is that all the descriptive parts occur once you wake up and start piecing it together; you feel like you dreamt while asleep because there are random neuronal firings and then you try to make sense of them when awake. Similar to the effect that pilots suffer when they've been awake and in the air for too long and the blood vessels in their eyeballs burst, and their brains tend to interpret the disturbances this causes in their visual fields as gremlins on the instrument panels.
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