Wednesday, February 15, 2006

They Grow Up, Don't They?

At Grandma's, 1991One day you come across something that makes you realize your child is not just your child anymore; he or she is a thinking -- and thoughtful -- questioner, a person on his own quest to make sense of things.

Each increment of growth is a surprise; even as you imagine your child into the next phase, when he arrives, seemingly spontaneously, you stand in awe; you let go a little more.

The following essay is a recent post from the Baron's Boy's blog, stuck in between analyses of "Firefly" adventures and random thoughts on the vagaries of women:
Today in my Middle Eastern Archaeology class the professor talked about the origins of agriculture from two points of view: the natural forces hypothesis and the cultural change hypothesis. Put simply, these two notions cover the fundamental question of what man is: a creature of action or reaction? A creature who shapes his life or is shaped by it? The natural forces theory holds that man is controlled by his surroundings, a puppet jerked around by the strings of climactic change and environmental factors that are beyond him to predict or explain. On the other hand, the cultural change theory tends to look more at the synthetic aspects of man's existence, and how man-made things--agriculture, industry, and so forth--shape him, just as they were shaped by him.

I'm not sure if this is an already-posited theory, but it seems to me that man is no less a product of the environment than the environment is a product of man. For lack of a better word, I'm going to call this the Inflection Point Hypothesis. Imagine this: a lowland river valley in a fairly temperate zone, with mountains sloping up from both banks of the river. The fishing is good, and the land is suitable for subsistance crops of various sorts. The people of this valley survive mainly on rudimentary agriculture: wheat, barley, maybe rice if it's wet enough. Perhaps there's limited domestication of pigs, dogs, and goats. However, the flood plain is fairly wide during the colder, rainier seasons, and there's already been significant erosion of the villages around the river, to the extent that the people are moving farther and farther up the slopes of the valley. Now, here's the eponymous "inflection point": the people can either attempt to dam the river and alter its course and flooding pattern, or they move away from the valley floor, into the mountains. If they dam the river successfully, they've set the stage for continued settlement in the valley, which I believe would significantly affect the course of history in that area. If there's continued settlement, there is the possibility of an enlarged cultural sphere, perhaps even the foundation for a civilization. A continued settlement will build walls, establish trade routes, and serve as a nexus point for travel, warfare, and other forms of human interaction. However, if they move into the mountains and beyond, the people will come into contact with other groups. Maybe they will assimilate these groups, or be swallowed up by them; maybe they will fight and conquer, or be conquered. The point is: in either damming the river or moving away, they have already set into motion things both within and beyond their control. There is no one governing factor above all others in the course of these events. There are actions under our control, and there are things that follow from human actions that shape both what we do and how we do it.

There seems to be one critical mistake with both the cultural change and the natural forces hypothesis. They both give the impression of accounting for fluidity in human action, but stay rooted in the static mindset that seems to accompany ancient historical study. There is nothing static about human interaction with the environment. Every action brings new change, and every new change brings newer action. We cannot shape our world without it shaping us...and it cannot shape us without being itself shaped. Heisenberg, I think, would not disagree.
I couldn't have said it better myself. In fact, I wish I had said it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Saint Valentine's Day the latter part of the third century A.D., Claudius was Emperor of Rome — Claudius II, that is. In what has to be one of the dumbest edicts ever devised, Claudius decided to outlaw marriage, thinking it would be more efficient to raise troops if he didn’t have to tear them away from their families.

On paper, this decree must have looked good to Claudius, and it’s doubtful anyone was willing to tell him how sand-poundingly stupid his idea really was. After all, what happens when you outlaw normal human behavior? Of course: normal human beings sneak around the corner and do it anyway.

Thus, young couples started showing up at the Bishop’s house — this was in Interamna, now Terni, Italy— asking to be married. The news quickly spread and Valentinus was called before Claudius to explain himself. At the time, Christians were not considered persona grata, so Claudius wanted to deal: if Valentinus would renounce his faith and his bishopric and stop this marriage business he could escape unharmed. Needless to say, Valentinus wasn’t having any.

Claudius ordered the Bishop to be martyred in three stages. I will spare you the details. While awaiting execution, it is said that he fell in love with his jailer’s daughter and that his love cured her blindness.

There are at least two martyrs named Valentinus, so parts of the legend probably have some fact. One of them is buried on the road to Rome, and one of the smaller gates leading into the city was called for many centuries St. Valentine’s Gate. It has some other name now.

Eventually — about 200 hundred years later, a brief period in ecclesial time — Valentinus was canonized. He was made the patron saint of lovers, of epileptics (he perhaps suffered this disorder), and a regular grab bag of other ailments or past times. He is, for example, the patron saint of beekeepers — no doubt because of pressure from the beekeeper’s lobby.

Saint Valentine is not only the patron of lovers, originally he was appealed to as the savior of troubled love. The old people swore he could save marriages. Hmmm...

Maybe when it ceased being Saint Valentine’s Day and just became candy and flowers…maybe then, the divorce rate began to rise?

Save marriage — put Saint Valentine back on the calendar!

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And for my beloved Baron, a quote from C. S. Lewis, that man most surprised by love:

Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives.

The Baron would probably say that the other tenth of our durable happiness comes from sharing a good meal.

Happy Saint Valentine's Day, dear BB.

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So...waiting in my mailbox this morning was a card from the Baron.
Rebus Love
Why, of course I can!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Is That A Fact?

A panel of linguists met to decide which new word best describes 2005. The word is truthiness.

This neologism was chosen by The American Dialect Society, winning out over other contenders that were some version of the terms which have been affixed to the posterior of Hurricane Katrina, henceforth known as “Katrinagate.” Obviously, when the sufix “-gate” is pasted onto a word, it means someone is convening a congressional investigation and someone else is about to be chosen – eeny, meany, miney, moe — as the fall guy for that particular gate to hell.

One of the specialists in lexicology said that truthiness means “truthy, not facty.” According to this group:
"The national argument right now is, one, who's got the truth and, two, who's got the facts," he said. "Until we can manage to get the two of them back together again, we're not going to make much progress."
Sounds like Dan Rather Redux to me...these guys must be sharing the outter darkness with ol’ Dan, swearing that the National Guard memo was truthy as all get out, even if it didn’t have any facts to back it up.

Creepy. This must be a bunch of academics, gathered together to hoist a few and write it off as a departmental expense. If this is the case, we know which point of view – “truthy” vs. “facty” – they subsribe to.

Makes you wonder: do they consider the laws of gravity to be true or to be factual?

And what do they have to say about how many angels can dance on the head of a lexicologist?

Needless to say this group convened in Albuquerque, not Minneapolis. It is February, after all.

And that's the truth.