Monday, May 3, 2021

Interlude for Anger; May Day Memories of Hard Labor

What is a wasted life? To a Christian, it is a life not devoted to Christ. The penalty is eternal damnation, perhaps. I was told in no uncertain terms on entry to Yale and upon presenting to my advisor my list of courses, which was slanted toward what I lacked, which was humanities, that I was wasting my life. Later on, when I discovered the limits of the scientific method by way of the remove of Chinese culture, I encountered genuine anger among graduate students in physics, as though I were some kind of Mormon missionary.

Now that Christianity and Science; natural law and interior definitions for personhood and all the other triumphs of Western Civ have been bound together in no uncertain terms, at least to my satisfaction, I hope and pray that I never exhibit the temerity to disclaim a wasted life to anybody. Have I said that right? I hope that someone else's beliefs cannot anger me. I hope that I can grow beyond such anger.

There is a brand of Rioja Spanish wine - made from the Tempranillo grape - that I've always liked. Returning now to Buffalo in old age, I was heartened to find it still on the shelves at Hodge Liquor around the corner from me. That liquor store has legitimate claim to be the oldest continuously running liquor store in the country, (re?)-opening as it did on almost the very second that prohibition was repealed.

First taste upon return was refreshing in many dimensions. Now I feel a little disappointed. My daughter tells me it's not as good as her first taste either. Have my tastes changed. Sure my Spanish friend with the multi-million dollar wine cellar felt the need to remind me when I served it on his visit long ago, that it wasn't necessarily the best Rioja one could buy. 

Well, I knew that. I was doing the best I could. In any case, the integrity of a brand must be less consistent even than personal integrity, one hopes and supposes. Especially a brand of wine, which rises and falls with the weather.

My (honorary) presiding over a wine and food club with national repute has done nothing for my tastes. Dang! My mind is too loose that way. I have yet to find any person or activity or body of knowledge already established, apart from my daughters of course, worthy of devoting life to. This is, alone, my shortcoming, and no shortcoming in what may have been objects of my more permanent attention.

I suppose that's as good a definition as any of a wasted life. Except that I do remain devoted to a Truth that I once uncovered. It has no good disciplinary provenance. It provokes no religious devotion, especially not for me. And it has zero practical application, as far as I can tell.

My trouble is that I can't seem to muster the energy to get beyond the bland metaphors: Gravity is love. Digital machinery leaves behind the lived connection to random. The accidents which drive evolution define love. Emotion is as primordial as elemental force. God is not apart from us. Mind was always part of matter.

Back in the day when I lived around a different corner, the owner at Hodge liquor would advise me which vintage to buy. Now the Spanish wine is the bargain wine near the door, and no advice on offer. It would be hard to know if I have reason to be disappointed, or, frankly, if I even am. What is it that I think I once tasted? What I taste now is plenty good enough for me.

I watch Eric Schmidt on YouTube talking about "blitzscaling." Along the way, he disavows his choice of Novell for his first CEO adventure. He disowns primary responsibility as well, for Novell's failure, mentioning cooked books and incompetencies that he should have been alert to before he took the position. Only later does he speak of Microsoft, which I'd thought just simply destroyed Novell. 

It's easy for him to say that Steve Jobs had to be right in his massively unlikely (re)coup at Apple, since look at Apple now! A true believer in capitalism has only one true measure. 

I did once work on a workable strategy to unseat Google. Our problem, or at least my problem, was that I wasn't motivated by riches. I thought Google had become evil, and that Eric Schmidt was the face of evil, based on some terrible animosity toward Bill Gates. That's how devils come into being, after all.

Christ and Einstein were both great disrupters. Now the capitalists own that phrase, and it is thought a force for good. The thing I really want to do is to be a disruptor of capitalism's evils. Where money accrues to the winner of some Monopoly game, and wealth concentrates at some remove from local, and especially from places like Buffalo. 

Search, I believe, along with Clarence Thomas (horrors!), apparently, should be a public utility. But the Yahoos! of tech don't believe that government is capable of innovation or disruption, unless in the manner of Chairman Mao, whom we, in our ignorance, have the audacity to peg as Stalin-esque megalomaniac, responsible though he was, in large measure, for reversing China's poverty as judged by the same historic methods that valorize Steve Jobs. Neither was always a savory soul, though only one was a shameless womanizer as far as we know.

There is now a Hofbrauhaus in Buffalo. My daughter rode my old and still hobbled (from travel) bike, which fits her much better than it ever fit me, and my son-in-law rode a newly refurbished bike from my daughter's nicer uncle - nicer than me. Among her uncles on my ex's side, we've been trading bicycles, and the one that I got back, refurbished by the refurbishing uncle and given back by the one I gave it to after he got a better bike - the one I attempted to ride across Canada in my youth - is exiled in Canada now, grace Covid.

And I'm the one who's been a professional bike mechanic! Dang! I do believe that I may attempt a return to that fine profession, if any shop will have me. God knows I can't live on my retirement savings forever. Well, you know what I mean. I just mean that I don't have enough to squander any against the statistical likelihoods about the time of my certain demise. Self-driving life in the digital age.

So when I saw the Bavarian-style house band assembling in the crowded beer hall, I somehow knew that my old buddy Mitch would be major domo. It had to have been over thirty years, but we seemed still fresh in each other's memory. As fresh as the beer brewed right there on the spot and tasting the same as it did once in Munich, alone on Easter, back in my extreme youth. Here I ordered a full liter, for nostalgia, or perhaps by the accident of enthusiasm. I've never tasted better beer. 

And I'm a craft-brewed IPA kind of guy. I'm practically a beer connoisseur. Dang! I don't like big brands, even if they do go back to the sixteen hundreds.

Mitch and I delivered beer kegs together while I was in transition to marriage and more gainful employment. My best buddy owned the place. We sang full-throated along our sprawling route, from city to country, and accepted beers sometimes upon our delivery, as was then the custom. Like drinking beer with lunch for auto-workers in Germany, back in the good old union days. 

Never tipsy, we sang off the alcohol. Once - or was it often? - at the girlie bar featured in Buffalo '66, where the girls warmed up on our behalf. Hangover from the steel plant days, folks drank early around these parts. Closure mandated only three hours a day between four and seven AM. Remembering their graveyard shifty ways. Not like London was when I tended bar there six days a week for full shifts that took twelve hours from any day I might have had. Who the more civilized, I ask you!

I ride home to settle the liter and remember that this month's Yale Alumni magazine featured on its cover my family doctor's family story. They descend, in a way, from China. Young Ben is now principal of a school in Shanghai. I was his first teacher of Chinese.

I feel like a celebrity at just a slight remove from accomplishment! I take some burnish from my daughters, each truly accomplished in their own ways. I never am. Never have been. I've always been a has-been, almost right out of the gate when Mom slammed the door on the doctor making a house call for my scarlet fever. I've bit it several more Christmas eves since then. Shouldn't there be celebrity in that?

It's just how I'm built is all. Dang!

I hardly ever read the Yale alumni magazine. Still they follow and find me, and there's a kind of loyalty in that. I did donate at first upon graduation when I had no money at all. With compounded interest, it might even mean something to somebody. And then my alienation from the place hardened and I repudiated the brand. It seemed silly to give money to such a rich man's club, which gets so much from taxpayers by way of deductions. I've only earned deductions during the brief married part of my life. The rest of the time any deductions I might have had have been swallowed by the "standard." Anyhow, I never felt quite at home there.

I'm a pretty standard guy, truth be told. I've never aspired to whatever it is that Yalies evidently aspire to.

I remember the wealthy and careless prep school boys, then the majority, who got all the fine women, and who knew how to get drunk and stoned without damaging their reputations. I was far more Allie Fox, dropping out and changing majors serially, until I had contact with hardly anyone I'd started with, living off-campus with the finest woman of them all, and in contact only with my diminutive pool of pals studying Classical Chinese.

Dang! What good would that ever do me?

I did nearly contribute to the Billion Dollar Fund at the University of Buffalo, in my reduced state last night, where I feel warmer ties. But that would have been a dangerous manic act which would have put my life in danger, if I ever do make it to older age.

I am, of course, equally disappointed with brand America, as I am in myself, and full of angst about our future. We seem to have lost our originating spirit. And yet, in some sense, we are the same as ever. We've never ever come any closer to our ideals for ourselves, and we sure have more integrity than we did in the age of (literal) slavery. I identify with and as America. We approximate the same integrity.

I still like that old Rioja just fine, and it remains within my budgetary range. I still love this country and will fight for it if I have to, against the Trumpers if I have to, until we figure out that we are and always have been on the same side. Dang!

As much as I would like to correct the Trumpers, I would like to correct Americans who have the wrong ideas about China. I have no proper loyalty. Dang!

Reading about young Ben's ancestors in China back before the empire fell, the government was behaving toward them much the same way as what we now blame on communism. Great great grandpa was among a privileged delegation sent to study in the US. His restraints from China back home seem utterly familiar, knowing something about the highly intelligent students from China who disrupted my daughter's "Free Tibet" gathering at Vanderbilt. The brilliant Chinese students that you really can't talk to about Xinjiang now.

The elder Lee's life was not very settled. He makes no hero for any story. And yet there is greatness in that family. Good for all mankind. It really does matter where and how you look, and what you look beyond.

It is not comfortable for me to drop names like Yale and Vanderbilt (liar liar, pants on fire), and indeed I'm only scratching the surface. But I have to make peace with all the brands I'd like to repudiate; which have disappointed me. I seem to befriend people, sometimes, who find license in my manner to abuse me. I seem to accept a level of abuse that is surprising to those closer to me. But it must be that I dish it out as well. People don't get angry over nothing do they? Well, I do have one friend who does. But he also has his own familial reasons.

And so here in Buffalo, which is, they tell me, the hottest spot for Covid in the State, I may still enjoy life in relative safety, and travel by bicycle absolutely everywhere with a smile on my face for the beauty. Perhaps you wouldn't see it the same way. Perhaps you'd only see Buffalo for what it's not. Or what it once was and blew. But the president of Yale who practically invented emotional intelligence went to highschool 'round these parts I just now discover. I'll bet he doesn't boast about it, though.

No matter the number of grey and chill days. No matter the closures and restrictions on dining out (we sat outside at the beer hall, to watch our bikes and to be Covid responsible, and couldn't watch the band playing the crowded beer hall inside. Less crowded and more airy than it wanted to be, and we were completely vaccinated, but still . . . .) there is plenty of life in this city yet!

India, Brazil, Turkey, Iraq (or is it Iran?) are all aflame now, and maybe they always shall be. Maybe this sort of virus is the new normal, and of course I am destined to be privileged no matter how I rail against privilege. I'm nervous now about returning to China. We don't seem to like one another anymore.

Was it despite our missteps that we seem to be coming out OK? Or is there something left of good ol' Yankee spirit? Trump has been familiar since before the days of Melville's Confidence Man. Twain's riverboat hustlers, though less of a religious charlatan (he farms that part out). As familiar as we are in the eyes of, say, the Chinese. Don't strangers always know us better than we know ourselves?

There will always be Mitch McConnels and Eric Schmidts taking charge of something at such remove from the ordinary realities that they destroy. They are part of our brand. And they must seem so perfectly nice up close and personal, I'm sure. 

It just scares me when "machine learning" promises to attach itself to capitalistic megalomania which sees unbridled "success" as inevitably good. Even when machine learning leads to a chain reaction in the noosphere no different and in not just a metaphorical relation with a nuclear chain reaction.

So all of us on every side are disappointed and hurt and anxious. Someone somewhere is trying to wreck what we think we almost have. And yet I don't wish for anything better than that fine Rioja wine. I bought a case for Dad one birthday back in the day when I was relatively solvent. We enjoyed it well. There could have been no better wine across so many dinners.

I can't seem to hold on to anger for anyone or anything. Dang! 

Maybe that's the nice part of getting old on the days when you don't feel cranky. Brands disappoint, but it's still comforting when they remain familiar. My old Buffalo home, sung to the Kentucky tune in full throated irony. I liked Novell back in my UB days, when I labored in the galleys of network engineering, and so maybe I understand what happened to Schmidt's Teutonic soul.  I like Harleys and the folks that ride them, and so maybe I understand what they're afraid of too. What makes them angry.

I've ridden both sides of right and wrong, and I can indeed lose track of which is which. I try to stay clear of the kind of anger which coals you or flips you off when you're in the way of their pickup truck on your bicycle. That just seems unnecessary. I just don't have the energy for more than a smile in return. I was never that kind of hothead, even in my youth. But then I had no reason to be, did I? There will always be something to sing about, eh Mitch?

There is nothing that I fear more than recognition. Perhaps you require some difference in learning profile to want it. We'll have to ask Amanda and Greta, or are we the ones who have the need to impose that diagnosis? We who claim the standard? For ourselves? No, Amanda and Greta and April, this young black county legislator for my district in Buffalo, are my standards now.

Anyone want to join me in disrupting Google? I might be talked out of bike mechanics, if so. The privilege of old age is to work for honor and honor alone, and despite what all those hepped on money Ivy kidlets think, we can work just as hard as they can for even better motivation. Now where can we find the venture seed.

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