Snow in Springtime

March 25th, 2023

It’s still rather dark outside, even though it is nearly 7:00 AM. The snow is steadily falling, and the wind is twisting the tree branches, all of which are heavily laden. The limbs on the pine tree out front of the house are bending almost to the ground. It is a heavy, wet kind of snow, more like slush really. We might wind up with five inches or more. Eventually, I will have to clear the driveway. There is no rush. The streets haven’t even been plowed yet.

There are only two weeks until Pesach/Easter. Yesterday, the weather was clear and sunny, and not terribly cold. Our thoughts were of springtime, daffodils and tulips. I guess got our hopes up too soon. The daffodils were just starting to peek out of the ground. Now, they are buried again under all this sloppy white stuff. We won’t see them again until the snow melts away.

I was thinking about going to the synagogue this morning, but I won’t. I’m certain that the roads are nasty and slick. This will be a day to hunker down and stay home. Asher, our toddler grandson, might be able to build another snowman. He’ll like doing that with his mama. My wife, Karin, will most likely spend time in her craft studio, and work on a new weaving project.

I’ll shovel.

Right now, I think I will make a pot of coffee, and then sit in the kitchen to watch the snow silently fall from the sky.

A Leap into the Unknown

March 24th, 2023

Back in January of 2007, there was a large anti-war rally held in Washington D.C. The war in Iraq was raging and the U.S. had been fighting in Afghanistan for six years already. Peace Action of Wisconsin offered bus transportation from Milwaukee to D.C. and back so that people could attend the demonstration. I went, as did my oldest son, Hans. I remember Hans asking to come along with me. Hans remembers being coerced into going. Maybe he’s right. Two years later, he enlisted in the Army, and in 2011 he was deployed to Iraq.

It was a brutal bus ride to Washington. We drove all through the night to make it to the rally in in the morning. The bus was packed with an eclectic population. There were numerous old school hippies, some of whom insisted on showing anti-war documentaries on the bus’s television all night long. There were a variety of college students, one of whom was a Che Guevara wannabe. The people who most impressed me were the Skinheads for Peace. They were three guys with shaved heads, black leather jackets, and combat boots going to D.C. to protest against the mayhem going on in Iraq. I really liked them.

When we got to Washington, the bus driver, named “Coach”, made it abundantly clear to all passengers that he would be leaving the bus terminal to return to Milwaukee at precisely 7:00 PM. He emphasized the fact that it is a long walk back home. He suggested that we get back on the bus a little before seven.

The demonstration was fascinating to me. There was no lack of interesting people there. I heard plenty of politicians, and I saw numerous cops. Lots of signs and banners. I remember distinctly one that said, “Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity”. I stayed and mingled with the crowd. Hans snuck off to see the Smithsonian. That was a smart move on his part.

Hans and I made sure that were back at the bus early. Two of the skinheads showed up a little bit after we did. We struck up a conversation. I asked the two punk rockers,

“Where is the other guy? Where’s your buddy?”

One of the young men took a drag off his smoke and said, “Oh Benny, yeah, well I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

I asked him, “Why not?”

The guy told me, “We don’t know where he is. We got separated.”

Benny didn’t get on the bus, and Coach didn’t wait for him.

Hours later at a rest stop, I asked the skinhead,

“So, have you heard from Benny?”

He replied, “Uh yeah, well, Benny used somebody else’s phone to call us. He lost his wallet somewhere.”

“So, where is he now?”

The guy took puff his cigarette and shrugged. Then he said,

“Benny met some guys from New York. He got on their bus going to New York City. He’s never been there. He thought that it would be a cool trip.”

I was stunned by what he said. Benny was a guy with no money, no I.D., and he was on a bus going to New York with total strangers. That blew my mind. I couldn’t decide if Benny was courageous or batshit crazy, or both. I wondered if I would ever have the balls to do something like that.

Now, years later, I realize that I have done things like that. I went on the Longest Walk in 2018 with a ragtag group of Native Americans, people that I had never met before. I traveled across most of the country with them, going from reservation to reservation, for about two months. I never knew what would happen from day to day. It was like joining a cult. I got home okay, but it was the wildest thing I have ever done in my life.

Going back four decades, I think about when I showed up at West Point at the beginning of July in 1976. I arrived at a place I knew almost nothing about, and then put my life in the hands of total strangers. I gave up what little money I had and got a brand-new identity from the U.S. Army.

Benny and I have a lot in common.


March 15th, 2023

I used to visit veterans who were patients at the local VA hospital. I talked with one guy. He was telling about his convalescence. At some point during our conversation, he asked me,

“So, have you ever been in the hospital?”


“What for?’

I told him, “I was run over by a forklift.”

The vet’s eyes widened a bit. Then he asked,

“How bad was that?”

I replied, “My right leg got crushed.”

He winced involuntarily. “Damn. That had to hurt.”


Actually, as I think back on that accident, I don’t recall having any pain. I suspect that my brain has wisely chosen to block that part of my memory. I do remember a lot of other things.

The forklift accident occurred on Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009, at 8:30 AM. It was on the loading dock at work near Door 117. It’s funny how I can recall those specific details. Some things are etched into my mind with acid. It was cold that morning (the dock at the trucking company had no heat and the overhead doors were all open so that trailers can be loaded and unloaded). I was supervising the dock operation. Things were busy. It was “crunch” time. We needed to get our drivers out on the street.

A loading dock during crunch time is akin to an anthill. There is a great deal of activity, and it is difficult to keep track of who is doing what at any moment. I had to watch over about twenty guys who were racing around on forklifts trying to get freight out for delivery to our customers. If a person is walking on the concrete slab at that time of day, they need to keep their head on a swivel. Constant vigilance is required.

One of my guys had just popped open the door of an incoming trailer. He called me over to where he was working so that I could look at the load. Whoever had crammed the trailer full at the origin facility had failed to properly block and brace the shipments. Freight shifts inside a trailer as it rolls down the highway, and this load was a mess. There was shit (i.e., “valued customer’s freight”) scattered everywhere. I had to take a photo of this dumpster load to send back to the management at origin so they could “coach” the idiot who packed everything.

I tried to get a clear shot of the scattered boxes and dumped over skids in the trailer. I looked behind me, and I was clear. I friend of mine was picking up a pallet with his jeep nearby, but he had seen me. As I looked through the lens of the digital camera, I saw that I was too close to the trailer door to get a decent picture. I back up two steps.

That’s all it took.

As I stepped backwards, my friend, who had already checked behind his forklift, started to back up. Things happened quickly.

Be advised that a forklift is designed to pick up heavy skids of product. To maintain balance a forklift is heavily weighted in the rear. The back wheels of a forklift, which are generally made of solid rubber, carry about 8,000 pounds of weight. That way, if the operator picks up a pallet of steel castings, for instance, the forklift doesn’t tip forward. This also means that the rear wheels of the forklift will flatten anything they roll over, like my ankle.

Getting hit by the forklift was kind of like being in “The Matrix”, where the action scenes occur in slow motion. I remember it all in slow mo. I watched the left rear tire of my friend’s lift roll over my right ankle as I went down. I remember falling hard on to the concrete floor and screaming.


Everybody in the building heard that.

My friend stopped immediately. He was not parked on top of my leg, thank God. I told him,

“Don’t fucking move!”, as I dragged myself from under his lift.

As with all accidents, a crowd gathered. Dockworkers rode by the scene very slowly to gawk. My friend got off his jeep and asked me,

“Can you get up?”

I said, “No”. I was shaking. So was my friend. The guy’s face was pale. He was horrified.

Somebody called 911. Oddly enough, the hospital is literally across the street from where I worked. It took the paramedics less time to get to me than it did for the call to be made. In the moments that elapsed before the ambulance arrived, my buddy from HR, Terry, came to me to ask questions for the accident report. I asked him,

“Now? You want to do this now? Really?”

Terry smiled and sighed and said, “Frank, it will work much more smoothly with workers’ comp later, if I can just get a couple facts from you now.”

Paperwork always comes first. That’s somehow comforting.

The paramedics got to me and loaded me into the ambulance. I had never ridden in an ambulance before. I had never been hurt before. It was a day of firsts.

One guy started taking my vitals. I looked at his readout and noted my blood pressure: 220/140. Holy fuck. I asked the medic,

“Hey, are those numbers okay?”

He was busy plugging an IV needle into my arm. He momentarily glanced at the screen and said,

“For right now, yeah.”

Once they got me into the ER, things got blurry. Immediately, somebody started a morphine drip. Keep in mind that, although I have a long history of alcohol abuse, I have never used any other drug, not even weed. So, morphine was a whole new experience, another first. I think I would have liked it better if the stuff hadn’t made me nauseous. They eventually gave me a different pain killer. The doctors determined that the dry heaves weren’t going to help my recovery. However, for several hours, I was in morphine heaven.

They took x-rays and an MRI. I laid partially upright on a bed. The PA came in with his pictures. He asked,

“How are you doing?”

Why do people ask that? He probably already had a good idea of how I was. My foot and ankle were swollen and looked like a pink bag of gravel.

I mumbled, “Yeaah, fine. I think I sprained my ankle really bad,”

The PA gave me a bemused look. Then he looked at his photos, shook his head, and said,

“Well, the good news is that the bones are all going pretty much the right direction.”


They kept me in the hospital that night. They wanted to watch for possible blood clots. The building actually housed two separate medical facilities. The entire second floor of the place was an orthopedic hospital, not connected with the rest of the operation. I was on the second floor. It was strangely convenient.

My surgeon popped into say hi. He had just finished doing a procedure. He looked at the right foot and grabbed my big toe. He asked me,

“Can you feel this?”


“Good. Good. I don’t think you have any nerve damage, and the skin isn’t broken. Come to my office in two days. We will do the surgery on the 10th.”

Then he smiled and left.

My wife took me to the surgeon’s office. I sat quietly while he looked over my x-rays. He gave me a wry smile and said,

“You must have a million tiny fractures in that leg.”

I made whimpering animal sounds.

The doctor got serious. He said,

“Well, maybe there aren’t a million fractures, but that foot and ankle are shattered. We are going to do our best to rebuild all that, but it will never be the same, and you will feel it every day for the rest of your life.”

Fair enough.

I asked the surgeon about the operation.

“So, do you do this with a local anesthetic?”

He laughed, and asked me,

“Have you ever been put under?’


“You will be.”

On the day of the surgery, as I was being prepped, the nurse told me,

“While you are under, we will put a tube down your throat. When you wake up, your throat will be really sore, and you will be thirsty. We can’t give you water right away, but we can give you ice chips.”


I remember when they laid me on the table. The anesthesiologist told me that the drug might cause a slight burning sensation, but I would be asleep soon. She was right. As she administered the anesthesia, I started counting, and then I was gone, as in nonexistent.

I wonder if death is like that. What if death is just like being put under? There is nothing and nobody there, and there is really no “there” for anyone to be. That is somehow appealing in a twisted sort of way.

I was out for 2 and 1/2 hours (so I was told). As I returned from the void, I heard the distant voice of an angel. She was asking me,

“Would you like an ice chip?”

I whispered hoarsely, “Oh, fuck yeah.”

One Day at a Time

March 17th, 2023

“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!” 

“The real joke is your stubborn, bone deep conviction that somehow, somewhere, all of this makes sense! That’s what cracks me up each time!” – Heath Ledger, as the Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’

I know an old man. He’s a bachelor and he lives with his brother. I used to visit the two guys at their home, the same house where they grew up. Upon my arrival, I would ask what I always thought was a normal question. I would say,

“What’s new?”

The old guy would snort and shake his head. Then he would growl,

“What’s new? What could be new?”

What indeed?

These two old men have always made a point of living simple, uneventful lives. For the most part, there never was anything new at their house. Each day was basically a repeat of the previous one. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a quiet life. I have come to the conclusion that excitement is overrated. I wouldn’t mind a few days of boredom.

Alas, the does not happen at our house. We exist in a perpetual state of barely controlled confusion. My wife and I are retired, and often retired people have humdrum routines. We don’t. Part of this is due to the fact that we the primary caregivers for our two-year-old grandson. Toddlers, like the Joker, are agents of chaos. If you need to watch over an energetic and clever little boy, don’t make any other plans for the day. Your schedule is full.

There are other factors that play into all of this mayhem. There are other wild cards in the deck. Suffice it to say that my wife and I do not know what will happen from one day to the next. Maybe nobody really knows that. However, other people act like they can plan for the future. We don’t even pretend to do that anymore.

I know a young man at the synagogue. He’s a good guy, and he has been in recovery for eight years. He is big into 12-step programs, and he likes to tell me,

“One day at a time, one day at a time.”

I’m not really a big fan of 12-step, but I wholeheartedly agree with that mantra. The best I can do is live one day at a time. Sometimes, I have to narrow the focus to one hour at a time, or even down to one minute at a time.

As a case in point, just now, I had to stop writing because little Asher woke up from his nap. I had to soothe him for a while to get him back to sleep. I live with interruptions that are interrupted by other interruptions.

I know an Afghan refugee family. They fled from Kabul in August of 2021. They spent months living in absolute uncertainty. They didn’t know where they would sleep at night, what they would eat the next day, or where they would eventually end up. They are okay now, starting a new life, safe in a new country. My troubles are trifling compared with the terrors they had to face. I have to put my level of chaos into perspective.

Still, I sometimes find it hard to deal with not knowing what to expect. I find it hard being unable to make sense of events that are apparently irrational. I find it hard to find serenity amid all of the noise and commotion. It can be maddening.

So, one day at a time.

Stand for Peace

March 3rd, 2023

I got a notice from Peace Action Wisconsin, the local anti-war organization. Tomorrow, they are holding another one of their hourlong peace demonstrations in Milwaukee. This one is of interest to me because it is the twentieth anniversary of their first “stand for peace” event. If I remember correctly, I was standing with the people from Peace Action at the first one back in 2003.

That first action was held just weeks before the United States invaded Iraq. Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney were gearing up to go after Saddam Hussein and his stash WMDs that apparently never existed. Despite months of protests in Milwaukee, and in many other parts of the world, the attack on Iraq took place on March 20th. I remember the date because it is my birthday. The invasion was an unwanted and unnecessary gift to the world.

I had been standing in the cold on street corners holding signs to protest the upcoming invasion for weeks prior to the attack. Once or twice, I took along my oldest son, Hans, when I went to demonstrate. Hans wasn’t really interested. He just wanted to get out of the wind and the snow and go home. He was almost sixteen at the time. He thought I was crazy, and he was probably right.

The war in Iraq initially seemed to be a smashing success. There was shock and awe, and George W. standing in front of the banner that proclaimed, “Mission Accomplished”. Then it wore on. The blitzkrieg against the Iraqis was successful, but the follow up was not. With each passing day, I worried more about Hans getting sucked into this conflict. There were murmurings of a military draft.

When he turned eighteen, Hans needed to sign up for the Selective Service. I attended a lecture at the local Quaker Meeting House about how to convince the Selective Service that a young man is a conscientious objector. To do that, there has to be a paper trail showing that the eighteen-year-old is against all wars, not just any current mayhem. I worked with Hans to establish some evidence of pacifism. Hans once again wasn’t interested. He just went along with his father’s ravings. To this day, I still have some of the paperwork that Hans and I put together to keep him from getting drafted. It was all rather pointless.

In the autumn of 2009 Hans enlisted in the Army, knowing full well that he would be going to war, either in Afghanistan or in Iraq. I know why he joined up. He did it for the same reasons I did back in 1976. The irony is bitter and sometimes overwhelming.

Hans was deployed to Iraq in the summer of 2011. He survived, but much of what I feared came to pass. He came back damaged, and for what?

The twentieth anniversary edition of the Stand for Peace is tomorrow at noon. I will know people there. Some of them will be folks who stood with me back in 2003. They are overwhelming opposed to the use of any nukes in Ukraine. So am I. Oddly, this time they will mostly be protesting against the involvement of the United States in the war in Ukraine. Somehow, they figure that the U.S. and NATO are driving the world into a nuclear war. Perhaps they are right, but they ignore the fact that Russia lit the fire.

I was opposed to the Iraqi war because I believed, and still believe, that the invasion was illegal and immoral. The protesters at that time, including myself, thought that the war would all be the fault of the U.S. It was. Many years later, other people in the United States have come to the conclusion that the war in Iraq was a mistake, but they don’t usually consider the moral aspects of the war. They generally look at the war as a strategic failure. The sin was not that we invaded Iraq. It was that we didn’t succeed.

Many, probably most, of the people at tomorrow’s demonstration are convinced that once again this war is the fault of the United States. Actually, they believe that almost all of the wars on the planet are caused by America. I got one email message that quoted a peace activist, Caitlin Johnstone. She blames the “American Empire” for the devastation in Ukraine:

“Empire apologists will frame this trajectory toward global disaster as an entirely one-sided affair, with bloody-fanged tyrants trying to take over the world because they are evil and hate freedom, and the US-centralized alliance either cast in the role of poor widdle victim or heroic defender of the weak and helpless depending on which generates more sympathy on that day.

These people are lying. Any intellectually honest research into the west’s aggressions and provocations against both Russia and China will show you that Russia and China are reacting defensively to the empire’s campaign to secure U.S unipolar planetary hegemony; you might not agree with those reactions, but you cannot deny that they are reactions to a clear and deliberate aggressor.”

What bothers me most about Johnstone’s diatribe is that she doesn’t mention the real victims of this war: the citizens of Ukraine. What about them? Don’t they have a right to defend themselves? Are the Ukrainians somehow the aggressor here?

Yes, there are self-loathing Americans, and I know some of them. Maybe I am one. The United States has numerous black stains on its record. As a nation, we have committed some heinous crimes. It is wrong to whitewash our history. It is just as wrong to blame ourselves for everything. We did not start the Ukraine war. Russia pulled the trigger on this one.

I probably won’t be at tomorrow’s protest.

Nation Building

March 4th, 2023

Before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, he asserted that Ukraine had always been part of Russia, and that, in effect, Ukraine isn’t a real nation. He emphasized the shared history and culture of Russia and Ukraine. There may have been a time when Putin’s words were at least partially true. After all, Kyiv is the birthplace of the first Russian state back in the 9th century. However, that was a long time ago and things change.

I have a friend from a synagogue that I attend. My friend is an old man, pushing ninety, and he came to the United States with his wife as political refugees after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The old guy is a native of Kyiv. He left Kyiv when Ukraine was newly independent, a time when chaos reigned. He and his wife had already decided to leave Ukraine when they had an unexpected visit. My friend often tells me the story. In his thick Slavic accent, he tells it to me like this:

“My good friend, one day a group of armed men came to my house. They were part of an ultranationalist Ukrainian militia. They wore camouflage uniforms; you know what I mean? The one man he talks to me and says,

‘You must leave. Ukraine is for Ukrainians. We don’t need no Poles or Moscow people. And we don’t need no Jews!’

I ask him, ‘What if I don’t leave?’

He says, ‘If you don’t leave here, your life won’t be worth one kopeck!’

My wife and I left, sooner than planned.”

My friend from the synagogue is very interested in the war currently ravaging the Ukraine. He and his wife watch Ukrainian newscasts. He said to me,

“My friend, I watch the news from Ukraine. It is all different now. They show on TV two Ukrainian soldiers together. One speaks Ukrainian, but the other is from the east, and he speaks Russian. These two soldiers are friends. They fight alongside each other. They are comrades; you understand what I mean?

Now, the people in Ukraine they don’t argue about who is a true Ukrainian. They don’t argue about western Ukraine and the east. It doesn’t matter anymore if a person is a Jew or not. The old Ukrainian nationalists, the fascists, are no more. It is a whole new generation. Ukraine is united!”

Is my friend right about the “new” Ukraine? He might be. He knew the old Ukraine intimately. He sees a great change from thirty years ago.

It is ironic that, even if there was a strong connection between Russia and Ukraine in the past, it no longer exists today. Putin’s goal was to extinguish the budding Ukrainian national identity. If anything, the Russian invasion has made Ukrainian pride incandescent. He has effectively united Ukrainians in a way they never were before. Putin has inadvertently done some nation building, and he has created an implacable enemy on his border.

After Twenty-Five Years

March 1st, 2023

February 21st was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of my brother, Marc. He was killed in a car wreck. Marc was twenty-eight years old at the time. He left behind a young widow and two little girls. His fatal accident was a total shock to everyone in our family. The effects of his death still echo in our lives.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to recall much about my brother. As time has gone on, my memories have slowly slipped away. Maybe that’s blessing in disguise, because it’s hard to grieve for someone you don’t remember. I don’t know. It just is.

I can remember Marc’s voice. It was distinctive. I can remember his laugh. It is strange, but when I think about a time when we were together, his face is not visible to me. I can conjure up an image of his face, but it is always something I remember from a photograph of him. I can’t seem to find a memory of his own living face. It’s like I can recollect his voice, but it’s a disembodied voice. Marc himself in the shadows somewhere, and I can’t find him.

I remember the last time I saw Marc alive. I had driven down to where he lived in Texas to drop off a Nissan Sentra that I had sold to him. He worked at Texas A&M, dispatching buses. He went into work very early. On the morning when I was going to fly back home, he woke me up. It was dark in the room. I think I had been sleeping on his couch. I reached down to where I was lying and shook my hand. I remember the feel of his firm grip. He said goodbye to me. There was a smile in his voice. I sleepily mumbled reply to him. He let go of my hand, walked out the front door, and he was gone.

The next time I saw Marc was when he was lying in a casket at the funeral home with a rosary clutched in his hands. At the end of the viewing, people walked up to the casket to say their final farewells. I stooped over his body and kissed his forehead. I have never felt anything so cold as when my lips touched his skin. Then I knew for certain that he was gone. Marc wasn’t really in that coffin. That body was just a shell he had discarded.

When will I see his face again?

My Brother’s Keeper

February 10th, 2023

 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field”. While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know”, he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Genesis 4:8-9

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Luke: 10:25-29

Above are two questions that have echoed through the centuries. Cain and the pharisee are alike in that they are both asking a question for which they already have an answer. They are just hoping to get a different one. They know that they bear some responsibility for the wellbeing of other people, but they want to know where they can draw the line. How much responsibility or how little?

The two questions are found in the Bible, but they are applicable to any person regardless of religious belief. They were pertinent twenty centuries ago, and they are relevant now. The people who wrote down these sections from the Bible lived in cultures that had strict rules concerning what each individual owed to his or her community, whether that community was their family or their tribe or their nation. In our own culture the guidance is not so clear.

In our day and age, who is my brother or sister? Who is my neighbor? Am I required to help only family members? Are my neighbors just the folks who live nearby? What about people who speak a different language or have a different skin color? Am I obliged to assist only those who share my beliefs? Do I need to care about people who live far away in distant lands?

A few weeks ago, there was a devastating earthquake on the border of Turkey and Syria. My wife, Karin, and I know a young man, Hussein, who is from a family of Syrian refugees. His family lives in the local area, but they have many relatives living in southern Turkey. These members of Hussein’s extended family have suffered enormously from the earthquake. Some of his relatives have died, and others have lost their homes. Karin and I gave Hussein as much money as we could spare to send to his relatives in Turkey. Why did we do that? Are these people in Turkey our neighbors? Is Hussein my brother?

I have a friend, who I know from the synagogue. He has a son who served in the Soviet Army and fought in Afghanistan in 1983. The man’s son was the sole survivor of an IED explosion. For forty years, my friend’s son has suffered from PTSD and alcohol abuse. My friend confides in me, partly because I have a son who fought in Iraq and came back damaged. He understands that I understand.

My friend asks very little of me. He only wants me to listen to him. The man worries constantly about his son. He has watched his boy struggle for four decades. My friend tells me about his son every time we meet. He always tells me the story of his son’s troubles, and he often repeats himself. That is not a problem for me. My friend needs to express his suffering. That eases his pain. I listen to him, and I suffer along with him.

My friend is Jewish, and I am Catholic. My friend is much older than I am. He is from Kyiv, and I am from Milwaukee. His mother tongue is Ukrainian, and mine is English. In some ways, we are very different.

I love him anyway.

He is my brother. He is my neighbor.

AI Angst

February 23rd, 2023

“Art and science are both uniquely human actions, outside the range of anything that an animal can do. And here we see that they derive from the same human faculty: the ability to visualize the future, to foresee what may happen and plan to anticipate it, and to represent to ourselves in images that we project and move about inside our head, or in a square of light on the dark wall of a cave or a television screen.” – Jacob Bronowski, from his book, “The Ascent of Man”

I have been reading articles about artificial intelligence (AI). For the most part, the content of the essays is scary, but then that is what hooks the reader. The newest invention is the chatbot, a kind of generative AI, which can come up with completely innovative answers to almost any question. This cutting-edge type of AI is based on a neural network, which operates a bit like the human brain. In short, a generative AI tool can learn new things and be creative. Apparently, a chatbot can also fall in love with or threaten a user. That’s the part that gets disturbing. Add to that the notion of the “singularity”, a future point in time (possibly in the next few years) when technological advances will be unstoppable, and our machines will be smarter than all of us put together.

Science fiction has for generations been filled with stories about the dangers of AI run amok. Isaac Asimov wrote his “Robot Series” of books. Frank Herbert frequently mentioned the “Butlerian Jihad”, a war against thinking machines in his “Dune” novels. Arthur C. Clarke had the hostile computer HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. In film, there was the “Terminator” series of movies.

Fear of new technology is probably as old as humankind. I am willing to bet that among our distant ancestors there were some who were leery about that new thing called fire. Technological changes have generally moved forward throughout the history of our species. Seldom has that trend been stopped or reversed. When technology has been lost or forgotten, it has usually meant bad times for a long time. Think about the Dark Ages in western Europe after the fall of Rome. Certainly, during the last few centuries, science and technology has advanced at an ever-accelerating speed. Each major advancement has terrified people (e.g., the discovery of nuclear power and the subsequent use of that power at Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Somehow, we adapt to even the most radical changes. That flexibility is what allows humans to survive.

There has often been a desire to go back to the “good old days”, a simpler time that has a golden glow around it. Peter Maurin, one of the founders of the Catholic Workers, wanted to get people to go “back to the land” and live communally on farms. There are active Catholic Worker farms in the United States (my wife and I have visited three of them), but the people living on them are a part of a rare breed. They still use modern technology, but they eschew some of the conveniences that most folks take for granted. Most of us do not want to go back to a simpler age if that means we have to give up the things that make us comfortable. I don’t.

Are the fears about AI overwrought? Will the intelligent machines kill us all? Who knows?

In a way it doesn’t matter. There is no stopping this technological train. AI is not coming. It’s already here. One way or another, we will get used to it, unless, of course, humankind goes extinct. Then it still won’t matter.

I think that the new AI gives us an opportunity that we have never had before. One of the fundamental questions has always been: “What does it mean to be human?”. We tend to define something by contrasting it against what it is not. Up until now, we have had no way to contrast humans with any other sentient life form. AI, as it grows faster, smarter, and more complex, will give us a mirror in which to gaze. We might not like what we see, but we might answer the question:

Who are we really?


February 21st, 2023

How many people do I actually know? I mean really know. I’m not talking about “friends” on Facebook, or any of the other social media. I am talking about how many people are there in my life that I truly understand. I would have to say that there are very few of those people, in truth, perhaps none at all.

We live in a society where people are very busy. I’m not sure why that is. We generally work too many hours, and we long for leisure time. Then, when we do get a break, we completely fill the empty time with activities. We are perpetual motion machines. We never sit still. We can’t quiet our minds. We are unable to truly observe the world around us. We don’t know how to listen.

The fact that I do not really know many people is partly due to this incessant busyness. To learn about another person requires time. When I use the word “time”, I am not talking about a few minutes, or an hour, or even an entire day. My wife and I have been married for almost thirty-nine years. I still don’t know all that I should know about her, and she doesn’t know everything about me. A human being is a mystery. A person may be like an incredibly deep well, or like an onion with an endless number of layers. You can never get to the core of the individual, although it might be worthwhile to try.

I don’t think that we even try. I think that we often go with a first impression of another person, and promptly slap a label on them. We are willing to accept a one-dimensional understanding of the man or woman. After a short conversation with someone, we might think to ourselves, “He’s just a damn liberal”, or “She’s not too smart”. We find a pigeonhole for a particular individual and stuff them inside of it. Once we’ve done that, we can safely ignore them and move on to the next person. Sometimes, we don’t even wait for the first impression. We judge somebody on hearsay and have them in a pigeonhole before we ever lay eyes on them or hear them speak.

I have found first impressions to be notoriously inaccurate. I remember the first time my wife and I attended a Bible study group mostly made up of Evangelicals. When we got there, I already had an idea in my head of what these people would be like. My first impression of the group confirmed that notion. Karin and I participated in the Bible study every Saturday afternoon for years. Slowly, I came to realize that each person in the group had their own unique history, and their own quirky behaviors. One older gentleman was a German immigrant. His father had been a soldier in the Wehrmacht in WWII and had been a Russian POW until 1955. The old guy in the Bible study was a pacifist because of his father’s trauma. There was a woman in the group who was a single mom, struggling to raise her teenage daughter. The group’s host was a management type in an airline. One guy had been an Army platoon leader during the Vietnam era. Each person at the Bible study had their own story. It took me a long time to understand that fact. It took me even longer to get to know them as individuals.

It takes time to get to know someone. It also takes work. To understand the various participants in the Bible study group, I had to listen. That’s hard, at least it is for me. Active listening is a skill that requires patience and focus. I always wanted to analyze, judge, and then reply to the other person. It was often a struggle to actually hear what they were saying, and just take it in.

I still pigeonhole people sometimes. Sometimes I am busy. Sometimes I am just lazy. It’s never fair to the other person when I do that. It makes them less than human. It isn’t even fair to me because I am cheating myself out of an enriching experience, and perhaps a friendship.