Friday, November 29, 2013

Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead

By Bobby Neal Winters
I am in the process of cleaning out my home office.  I refuse to speculate on how long it has been since the last time I did this, though an experienced archaeologist could probably make a guess.  
I proceeded in this enterprise in a methodical way.  I first took everything that had been on the floor of the office and put it out on the front porch, some of it spilling into the yard.  I then took everything that had been on my countertops and put it on the floor.  I then cleaned.
I found the bodies of dead insects;  I found money;  I  found 29 cent stamps.  I found electronic devices, writing implements, and ... cat puke.
Then came the process of putting it all back together, and as I did so I threw things away. And threw things away. And threw things away.
I am on the second day of this, and it promises to go into a third.
It has been an instructive process in discerning the things I toss away versus the things I keep.
I threw away many pounds of computer software that I’d spent a lot of money for.  This is software that I’d been storing reverently for a decade, give or take.  It’s useless now. Progress in computing has shifted it into obsolescence.
I kept DVDs, CDs miniDV tapes, and VHS tapes of family photos and movies.  I can pay people to bring the out of date stuff to the current model.
What is the difference between these two?  The software is a means to an end. The family photos and movies are an end of themselves. They are part of my memory, part of my self that I want to preserve.  In some sense, they are what I am about: my family.  Though, when pressed, I have to admit the means I use is a big part of me as well.
I just finished reading Speaker for the Dead.  It was the sequel to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. I’d seen the movie made from Ender’s Game and it inspired me to get an audiobook of the novel. Having finished the novel I had to rush to get a Kindle version of Speaker for the Dead.
In Speaker, Card continues with Ender has his protagonist.  Ender has started a quasi-religion based on speaking for the dead.  This is not given a eulogy (good word from the Greek) for the dead, but actually laying out the life of the dead person warts and all in such a way that you understood who they really were.
Ender goes through the process of sifting through the garbage of a man’s life and in doing so pieces together who that man was and presents it to the community in such a way that reconciliation is possible for him, even in death.
The novel has many mysteries and surprised that I will not even allude to. There are no spoilers in the sequel.  However, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer up Card for some praise.
Card has grasped in a way I’ve not presently so clearly elsewhere in science fiction the nature of man as a creature of the community.  Our communities create us and if we cannot find a place within them then we suffer.  (The language I grew up hearing to describe this is that we are lost.)
I believe that it’s Card’s experience as a Mormon which has given him this understanding of the importance of community.  He himself seems to have recognized this as a commonality with Catholicism, as the community in the book is a Catholic one.
Card has crafted little presents for those who like to find theological symbols in their literature.  I will not spoil them, but there are prizes to be found for those who know a little theology whether they be Catholic or Mormon.
In the end, whether you share his particular religious views or not, Card is a craftsman with a deep understand of human nature.  If you like science fiction, religion, and good writing, I suggest you give Speaker for the Dead a try.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Old Man in the Cave

The Old Man in the Cave

By Bobby Neal Winters
It’s happened.
They’ve taken over.
The computers, I mean.  They’ve taken over.  
I am writing this on a computer, so you might think that I’m being brave to call them out on it, but they are so ensconced they don’t care.  When the Nazis were in Paris did they mind it when the French acknowledged they were running things?  Of course not.  Same with the computers.  When you say they’ve taken over, you’re just giving them their props.
If you admit it early enough, they might let you live.
I’ve known for a while, but spending an hour and a half on Facebook this afternoon drove it home.
Ninety minutes of clicking on “Like” and sharing things my friends had put on their walls that no one I know had originated.  The question came to me whether anyone had originated them or whether they had simply bubbled up from the bowels of the Internet.
We’ve become Facebook fanatics, cellphone slaves, YouTube yutzes.
I am old, old enough to remember Star Trek the original series in new episodes.  There was a character named Harry Mudd who was a bit of a scoundrel.  He wound up on a planet that was populated by robots who were intent on taking over the Enterprise.  When asked how they would do that Norman, who was the robot leader, said, “We will help them.”
Computers are tremendous tools.  
There was a day when I had my lectures on notes and I taught by transferring those note to the board.  Then came PowerPoint and I put those lectures on PowerPoint.  Now I project them onto the screen rather than copy them to the blackboard.
One day I went into the classroom and the computer was down.  My first thought was that I would have to cancel class.  It was only after great mental effort that I was able to remember that I actually know this stuff.  I found the chalk and proceeded to lecture the class.
It was a powerful moment of self-discovery.
We are humans and one of our defining characteristics as a species is that we use tools.  Tools extend our reach.  We organize our activities and this extends our intelligence.  Yet there are trade-offs.
When travelling between airports in Latin America and the US, one notices a difference in the level of organization.  Airports in the US are much more user-friendly.  This is more than just a difference of language.  Airports in the US flow more smoothly from the point of view of the traveller. It is more relaxing because it requires me to use less of my own intelligence to get around.  The intelligence had been taken from the traveller and transferred to the design of the airport.  
This reduces stress, of course, and I am not going to suggest we make our airport less transparent.  But we’ve been giving things we know over to machines and environmental structures for years. We are living in a world where we require machines and organizational structures--that we don’t understand!--simply to exist.
Can you build a computer?  
Very few of you can answer that yes.
I can, but that is only true because others have organized a computers production to be as easy a putting together tinker toys.  
Those who can do that are ever more rare.
Are world is being designed by an elite that is getting rarer and more remote.  Our thoughts, our likes, our dislikes are being monitored, analyzed, and catalogued.  We are just the batteries that are running the Matrix, eh, Coppertop?
In the Twilight Zone, there was that episode about the old man in the cave who told the survivors of the nuclear holocaust how to live their lives.  When it was discovered that the old man in the cave was a computer, there was an uprising.
While that was an insightful series, that ending was false.  We’ve know the old man in the cave is a computer, and we’ve done nothing.

Odds are.  If you are reading this, it is too late.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Grey

The Grey

By Bobby Neal Winters
Mr. Virgil Gantt taught us in high school literature that there were three kinds of conflict: Man versus Man; Man versus Nature; and Man Versus Himself.  One might wonder whether they are all three aspects of the third or if there is a fourth all-encompassing Man Versus God.  Let’s leave that question, at least for now.
The Grey, a movie starring Liam Neeson, portrays all of these conflicts.  While Man does encompass male and female, in The Grey we might well forget that.  In my own personal taxonomy, it is what I classify as a Man’s movie.  
That part of it begins with the cast. Though women are important to the film, there are only two women in the cast who appear other than through memory or anecdote. One is a bartender and the other is a stewardess. The women who are otherwise present are wives, lovers, and daughters.  Their presence is as important to the story as that of the men, but they are present through a man’s perception of them.  They tell as much about the man as they do about themselves.
Liam Neeson plays John Ralph Ottaway whose job is hunting wolves for an oil company in a remote part of Alaska.   He is on the way out of the wilderness with a plane load of other oilfield men when the plane crashes in the mountains.  The group of survivors define axes that illustrate the masculine space: smart/stupid; aggressive/meek; spiritual/godless; wise/fool.
That which follows contains spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.
The could’ve written a movie wherein everyone immediately fell in behind Neeson’s character and after adventures he leads them to safety.  That has been done many times and isn’t bad, but this is not that film.  Most do follow his lead. The ones who don’t die quickly.  Those who do die less quickly.  After a certain point, one realizes that everyone in this movie is going to die. The question is how?
Just exactly like life.
In looking at the group dynamics of the survivors, we are asked to notice how much like wolves they are. They group together to survive; they fight each other for leadership; they establish a hierarchy.  The Romans said, “Homo homini lupus.” Man is the wolf of man.  (They might not have meant it in this sense, but I love the phrase so much, that I am going to keep using it until I use it correctly.)
All of the men carry around the women in their lives with them.  The better the man, the higher he esteems his woman, or is that vice versa?
Neeson’s character is continually flashing back to his wife who we learn through his internal monolog has left him.  We are confused because his memories contain no bitterness.  She is remembered almost as an angel of light and, much like an angel, continually telling him not to be afraid.  It is only in the very last moments of the movie when we see the IV drip and the hospital bet that we understand.
Each of the men meet death.  Neeson’s character the last.
Before his end, he calls to God and curses Him, berating him for a sign, for some help.  This being the movie it is, there is neither.  Neeson gets up then saying, “I’ll just have to do it myself.”
And at that, Neeson meets death remembering a poem taught him by his father, “Once more into the fray / once more into the fray / to live and die on this day / to live and die on this day” and using the skills he’d learned as a man.

Ultimately while this is a man’s movie about men and being a man, it is also about the struggle of life.  There is only one way out.  How do you face it?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Yerba mate

Yerba Maté

By Bobby Neal Winters
The mortar and pestle pounding the maté sounded like horses’ hooves on cobble stones as we walked past the corner and crossed Avenida Estigarribia. We then turned and headed east.
This is our last full day. Tomorrow we began travel home. As my cousin Mary told me, "No hay lugar como el hogar."  There is no place like home.
Asuncion downtown wakes slowly. This is the tropics, and the length of day and night vary only a little from season to season. We are still in winter, but the daily high is already in the 90s. At night it cools off a bit. At night you can move without the burning sun staring down at you. During the afternoon you retreat into the dark buildings with their high ceilings. At sundown, after six, you can emerge from protection and live again.
The morning is pleasant. There is a nice breeze and we try to stick to the north side of the street where the shade is. We are south of the equator and must adjust to our new reality.
Others do the same. And everywhere there are men with their guampas and bombillas drinking maté.  
Maté is made of herbs and drunk in a tea.  It is medicinal. It is ubiquitous. It is Paraguay.
We go to the sidewalk market around the Plaza to buy souvenirs. Jean gets a purse for herself and I get a mortar and pestle. We step out of the shade of the market and there is a teenage girl with a mortar and pestle crushing herbs into maté.
We walk past the fancy pharmacy with a large contingent of rent-a-cops and cross the street heading east. On the sidewalk in front of a fancy clothing store, there is a man sleeping in his own vomit on the sidewalk. No one seems to notice. No one seems concerned. None of the rent-a-cops are rousting him. Who is my neighbor?
We go on past.
We ultimately walk past him several times over the course of four hours.
We go to Plaza de Uruguayana and visit one of the bookstores there. We walk out the south side of the park and--of all things--there is a man with mortar and pestle grinding maté.
It is approaching noon now, we are getting hungry. We go seeking a place to get a lomito and succeed. It is good. It is a restaurant and so the lomito is not as good as the ones you get from street vendors who sell them. My rule of thumb is that if you are not a bit scared, then the lomito won't be as good.
We start back to the hotel and pass were the man had been sleeping. He is gone, but I know it's the right place because the vomit is still there.
We come back to the hotel, where the maté man is gone from his corner, retreated into the cool of some dark building.
We do the same.

Monday, September 09, 2013

On the Road

By Bobby Neal Winters

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath's as hard as kerosene
Townes Van Zandt

I've been on the road for a couple of weeks. First Brazil, now Paraguay. Along with my wife, we are living out of suitcases. The hotels have been nice, so this has definitely not been a canoe trip down the Amazon, but when you are a homeboy, life on the road is a stress.
Currently the contents of my pocket is a mixture of dollars, reals, and guarani. In Brazil, pricing something was the exercise of dividing by two. Here in Paraguay, it means dividing by 5000. The rhythms of the road are different from place to place. Practices which are the law in the states might very well get you killed either here or in Brazil. You must keep you head about you.
In Brazil, the people on the street did not speak English and outside of airports and other tourist centered places, there was very little English; some in Brasilia, but it's a government city. If you know a little Spanish in Brazil, the best strategy is to extrapolate Latin from your Spanish and then imagine how the Portuguese ruined it. It also helps to imagine they ruined some things differently just out of spite. For example, they pronounce the letter r at the beginning of a syllable like an English h. So Renaissance sounds like Henaissance. This is so silly, you begin to think someone is just playing a trick on you, but they are deadly serious. When the plane landed in Río, they said welcome to Hee-oh. So if it is a trick, they really care about it and it's best not to call them on it.
Santo from Spanish is São in Portuguese. They say it is pronounced sow, but it you say sow they will shake their heads. The one thing I know from my reading is that it's not pronounced Say-oh, but if you pronounce it Say-oh, they are happier than if you say sow.
As I said above, there are different rhythms. They eat late here. When we eat ate American times, 6:30 or 7 pm, we have the restaurant to ourselves if the restaurant is even open. In Río and São Paulo, the student fairs went to nine, so we put off supper until then. We felt much less out of place, but eating that late is not really conducive to sleeping well for us.
We've had this weekend off in Asuncion, and I've taken a siesta each afternoon. I've been amazed at how easily that has come to me. The days have been hot, in the nineties. We've walked in the mornings, found lunch at noon, and then come back to the room to crash. It has been a glue that has held me together.
Today I have business. I need to be sharp. Tomorrow the same is true. Then the trip home on Wednesday. Students to teach, students to help, grass to mow, and my own bed.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Game of Life

The Game of Life

By Bobby Neal Winters
They do therefore not deny that every man may follow his own interest; but they endeavor to prove it is in the interest of every man to be be virtuous.
--Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America
Do you want to win?
You might think that’s a silly question.  Of course you want to win.  Winners are where its at.  Losers are, well, losers.
But even in sports there have been contests in which those involved glory in the level of play to the point of either forgetting who the final winner was or saying that it didn’t matter because the reward was being able to participate in something that was that good.
Sports provides a metaphor for American society.  There is achievement; there is teamwork; there is competition.  But, as Americans, we also believe we should vote on everything.  In addition, we have a self-image of valuing fairness, with “fairness” not necessarily being well-defined.
I would like to explore these notions using Arrow’s Theorem (a mathematical result in economics) and Sid Meier’s computer game Civilization.

Fair Elections

Suppose that you’ve formed a club of eleven people and are holding elections for president and vice president of that club.  If Andrew and Barbara are nominated to run, then the process is straightforward.  Ballots are distributed, each voter marks a preference, and the votes are tallied. The one who gets the most votes wins and the one who comes in second gets to be vice president. (I made the club have eleven people so as to avoid the question of ties which is not germane to my point.)  
Suppose, however, that Charlie (or Charline) enters the race.  Here the situation becomes more complicated.  There are many schemes that can be proposed regarding how to handle this.  I suspect each reader has a way and many of them are different.  The question that arises is: Is the scheme fair?  
One interpretation of fairness is that the voting scheme must have two properties:
(U)  The result of the election must respect the unanimous will of the electorate.  This is to say that if everyone prefers Andrew to Charlie/Charline, then Andrew must be preferred in the election.
(IIA) The relative preference of a third party to two alternatives should not affect how they are ordered with respect to each other in the final ordering.  This is to say whether Barbara beats Andrew should not be affected by how either of them compare in the ratings of the voters to Charlie/Charline.
It is here with introduce Arrow’s Theorem.  Arrow’s Theorem states that when these two conditions are in place in a system with N voters, there are exactly N votings schemes that work.  This sounds promising, but wait, there’s a problem.  In each of these schemes exactly one voter is getting his way in everything and no other vote matters.  While fairness might be slippery to define, it would seem safe to say having one arbitrary individual override the will of all others is not within its parameters.
This becomes somewhat more disturbing when one moves from choosing officers to run a club to the right ordering of principles to run a society.  How to the issues of education, the right to life, and the right to own a gun rate with respect to each other? I have an opinion and so do millions of other voters.  And forget about how complex it is to deal with even one of these.  Arrow’s Theorem gives us little hope of coming to a common consensus on which we should even talk about first.


I have whiled away many hours playing Sid Meier’s game Civilization. In the beginning of a game, various civilizations are seeded on an earthlike planet.  They then begin gathering knowledge, creating farms, making mines, putting  together military units, and trading with each other.  In playing the game, you the player assume the role of dictator in determining your civilization’s values. Those of the other civilizations are determined by other players or by the computer.
The game provides several venues to victory: domination, building a spaceship, culture, etc with the appropriate measures for each of these.  It is not simply a shoot-em-up video game, but while the game is not about war per se, war is certainly a part of it and cannot be ignored. A civilization that values culture, religion, and science will be a tempting target for a militaristic society if it makes no provision for its own protection. This comes at a cost and acts as a drag on other areas.
The game is structured quite nicely to illustrate the interplay of competition and cooperation.  This is done most visibly through the exchange of knowledge.  In the game, knowledge once obtained can be traded as a commodity.  It is an interesting commodity in that one can trade it, but still possess it afterwards. Once everyone has it, it is no longer tradable.
Each civilization has certain innate strengths which encourage developments in particular directions.  Each civilization can, within certain limits, choose to pursue knowledge of a particular type.  The greater variety of knowledge produced gives more opportunity for exchange.  More exchange creates a more robust environment for everyone and history progresses quickly. One can have the Apollo Program in the nineteenth century.
By way of contrast, when there is little cooperation in the game, history progresses much more slowly. One might arrive at the 20 century with a level of development more appropriate for the time of Caesar.
In looking at this, one is faced with the question of whether one would rather be ranked first or for the whole milieu to be farther advanced historically.  The answer may well be different depending upon whether you are simply playing a game or whether we are talking about real life.

The Game of Life

We want to win the game of course.  The game is a way to distract and entertain ourselves for a few hours at a time.  It gives us time to think.  There are times, in fact, when it is incredibly therapeutic to drive our electronic enemies into the dirt at the price of virtual apocalypse.
But that is all make-believe.
We would rather, in general, have our material needs taken care of and be living good and fruitful lives in last place in the game of life that living in poverty, death, and disease in first place.  
Consider the arts, for example. Lovers of the arts might initially insist giving arts a priority over all else.  They are an important part of human life.  However, even artists have to eat.  There must be farmers, processors of food, truck drivers to get it to market, etc.  Insisting that the arts take priority over everything else might create an economy in which very little art is produced.
In Paradise Lost, Lucifer famously says that it’s better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.  We can’t agree with this.
The framework for Arrow’s Theorem is wrong-headed.  Being high-ranked does appeal to our very real ego-need for status, and filling ego-needs is very important, the fact is that by the very nature of the things very few can be ranked high enough to gain the ego-benefit of it.  The probability of a given individual being one of the high-ranking winners in the game of life is small.  I am better advised to cede a bit of my rank to raise the level of common good.

Monday, July 29, 2013

One More Round

One More Round
By Bobby Neal Winters
He was born last Thursday.  Eight pounds two ounces with a head of hair and his mother’s eyes.  I got to hold him in my arms when he was only a few hours old.
Little babies are scary. They are small and fragile.  You  are so afraid that you will break them.
But you don’t.
Grandbabies, first grandbabies I think especially, by their very existence, transmit a message to you with crystal clarity that the universe has been trying to convey to you but that you’ve been purposefully not hearing.  My grandson was a mirror in which I saw the face of my own grandfathers and met an eternal truth.
I am going to die.
Don’t worry. This is not news; it’s just the one thing we know for a fact since the day we are born. This is a mathematical truth and not a statistical one.  The reckoning of the date is uncertain and has a margin of error, but the fact that the date will come is as certain as anything there is.  We know this rationally, but that’s not the same as knowing it in truth, knowing in our bones.
He lay there asleep on my arm with a look of peace on his face and the truth seeped into my body like rain on a garden.  It rose to my ear like a whisper.
You are going to die.
They would like us to think that we are a product of our genes, a product of our educations.  They would say that we are bags of mostly water, that we are just combinations of atoms and information.
We are made of dust to be sure, but also from the breath of God who blew into Adam’s nostrils all that long ago.  The breath has blown down to use through our parents, our grandparents, and so forth.  There are currents and eddies within it.  We are a product of our parents genes, yes, but make from their experience and all they ever encountered.  Our foundation is our parents love and all who loved them.
And so, I am going to die, yes. Yes. Okay.
But there is another soul breathing in the world today.  God voted that the world should have another spin.
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
It’s okay.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Welcome to the New Age

Welcome to the New Age

By Bobby Neal Winters

I’m waking up
I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my systems blow
Welcome to the New Age
--Imagine Dragons, Radioactive
Many of my friends have been confused as to why zombie movies and literature are so popular.  I’m not. The human race has been fine-tuned to look for apocalypse. Disaster to the point of near total destruction has been an ongoing theme in history and prehistory.  There’ve been plagues, wars, and famines taking us to the brink.
The Zombie Apocalypse is simply another metaphorical vehicle in which to carry the theme along.  Near-total destruction of the human race is a theme going back at least as far as the story of Noah and the Ark. We see apocalypse covered of course in the Apocalypse of St. John, also known as the Book of Revelation. We get the metaphor of the Four Horsemen: Conquest, War, Famine, and Plague. One could view it as the ravings of a madman or one could view it through the lense of what happened as the Roman empire eventually fell in the West and was conquered in the East.
Within the literature, within the stories we read in books or watch at the movies, there is usually some core of survivors. Noah’s family survived. Those whose name were written in the Lamb’s Book of Life survived.  There is a prize set of traits that help survival:
Rule 1: Cardio
Rule 2: The Double Tab
Rule 3: Beware of Bathrooms, etc.
Those who don’t pick up on these rules are selected out, winnowed like the wheat from the chaff. This brand of literature tends to focus sharply on survival.  I was deeply affected by wanting Steven Spielberg’s version of The War of the Worlds. It’s not a zombie movie, of course, but it is an apocalypse. Humans are faced with beings who simply want them dead. There is no misunderstanding; there is no negotiation; the aliens are using humans as fertilizer for their own alien flora.  Gardeners don’t typically negotiate with fertilizer, either bone meal or blood meal.  That presented the issue with a razor-sharp edge.
Rarely in life are issues presented with that sort of focus. In this genre, it is clear what is at stake and the stakes are high indeed: personal survival and the survival of the species. In the modern West, we are rarely allowed to see anything with this sort of clarity.
For example, currently one in five babies conceived will be killed before they are born.
I put that last sentence in a paragraph by itself to make it hard to miss. I leave out the absolute numbers for now because they are so large.  Stalin, the antichrist that he was, said the death of one person is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic. Twenty-seven people, twenty of them children, were killed in the Sandy Hook school tragedy. On that same day, a couple of thousand--yes, thousand--were aborted in the United States. That happens every day. The same people who are up in arms about Sandy Hook, don’t breath a word against abortion.  There are people who won’t eat chicken who will fight to the last to preserve a woman’s ability to kill a child up until the point it’s born.
But one in five children conceived will be killed before they are born.
If this were a disease killing that many people, we would be up in arms, and, indeed, many people are. The irony is that so many of the people who support abortion rights are otherwise gentle souls: they take good care of their pets; they are very fastidious with regard to the ethical treatment of animals; but the slaughter of the innocents, even when carried out on a truly apocalyptic scale, goes under their radar.  
No, that’s not true. It doesn’t go under their radar. They will spend their money, their intellect, and their time to maintain a woman’s ability to kill her unborn baby.
What hurts is that I was once on that side. Then, somewhere along the way, the scales fell from my eyes. My eyes opened, and I could see.
Blindness that is a good metaphor.  Or, better yet, think about I am Legend. The lone hero in the city doing his work in the light, while the vampire/zombies flee the light.  Of course, they do kill him eventually.
I see nothing that can change the current situation quickly. The apocalypse comes and there is a great dying.  The survivors struggle on afterwards because those who die take so much with them when they go: art, literature, and various other pieces of civilization.  Civilization does require people to keep it going.
But the survivors do emerge afterward, stronger.  Those who survive a plague will carry some sort of resistance. Those who survive a disaster carry some sort of knowledge of survival techniques.  Presumably those who survive a zombie apocalypse would take good care of their cardio and praise the value of the double-tap.
Those who survive the current apocalypse will also come through changed.  The culture will be changed. But the bulk of the apocalypse is ahead of us, and we must first survive it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

I Ate a Butterfly

By Bobby Neal Winters
Howard Wolowitz is a character on the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory.  Howard is over-parented, over-sexed, and in over his head when he applies to be an astronaut on the International Space Station.  Before he can go up on the ISS, he has to go through survival training.  After undergoing the grueling experience of living on his own in wild, he skypes his girlfriend and is obviously the worse for wear.  Trying to be stoic, he speaks to her of the rigors of the training and the discomfort he’s had to endure.  Then he utters a non sequitur.
“I ate a butterfly,” he says.  “It was so small and so beautiful,  but I was so hungry.”
In spite of his appearing to be totally unsuited to any sort of adventure, he has been pushed to his limit and has found his strong core that does not want to die.  There is a fiber within him that will not break. It wants to achieve its goal.
It wants to live.
It has been written that nature is red in tooth and claw.  I don’t purely adhere to that; there is much else.  However, it does point to what might be termed as the great competition of life.  Carnivore eat herbivores; herbivores eat plants. Plants vie with other plants for their share of sunlight and water.  Species compete with other species within a particular niche.  Within species, individuals compete with other individuals.   Life itself is the impetus.  Without this competition, there is death--or maybe not even death.
Maybe there is nothing.
But in addition to the competition there is altruism.
Much has been written of altruism and I have no need to reproduce it here. Individuals can sacrifice for the sake of the group. We are in general for it.  Our sacred texts, myths, literature, movies, and songs are full of stories in which an individual gave his very life for the same of the group.  We honor this in every aspect of our culture from Jimmy Dean singing “Big John” to Good Friday services at church.
But it can be taken to an extreme. One heroic individual walking out into the blizzard to that the rest may have enough provisions to make it until help arrives is heroic.  The sacrifice of three hundred can save western civilization.  Everyone doing it is just stupid. It’s like O. Henry’s  “Gift of the Magi” without the implied sex at the end.
But the stories of everyone going out into the blizzard just don’t happen.  They don’t happen because within us we have a core.  There is something that says “I am!”  It is the will to live.
It is within us, at least in healthy individuals.
I chose to say “I am” on purpose.  In the Greek it is “ego eimi.”  It occurs within the Gospel of John for profound theological reasons beyond the scope of the current piece.  But that word ego is my real focus.  
We don’t like ego.  We talk disparagingly of those who have big egos, and often with good reason. Some ego is necessary, however, or we would just lay down and die.
Ego is to a human as patriotism is to a country. It can be overdone, but for continued existence it is absolutely necessary.
I say with no originality at all that it is a matter of balance.
Where do we find the fulcrum for the balance?

Grab Her Bootie and Pinch

A few years back I taught College Algebra.  This is a general education course that attracts students with a broad range of preparation. On one hand, there are the students who’ve successfully mastered the material in high school, and on other other hand, there are the students who’ve been exposed to it four times in high school and are now taking it one more time at four times the pace.
In this particular course, there was a young man who sat in the middle of the front row.  His face was round, and he sported a baseball cap atop his head. To his credit, the bill was oriented correctly.  His upper torso had the shape I’ve learned to associate with young men who are not unacquainted with beer, and he wore t-shirts.  One of them was a spoof of the Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirts. It said, “Grab her bootie and pinch.”
I am not very easily shocked, so it didn’t bother me.  More importantly it didn’t bother the young women who sat beside him who, by all appearances, seemed to appreciate the sentiment. He was regular in attendance and ultimately received a good grade.  
This is not what I remember about him.  I remember him because one day I was walking past the Newman Center and saw him in attendance, attired more or less as I’ve described.
My department chair is Catholic, so I related this story to him complete with character description.  This caused him to related a story the priest at the Newman Center had told about one of the young men there.
The priest had been warning the young man about premarital sex, and the young man had replied.
“This isn’t premarital sex,” he’d said. “I’m not going to marry any of these girls.”
My chair opined this was probably the same guy. Surely there couldn’t be two.
Surely not.
Regardless, the character is consistent.  
I bring him up in this piece because, whether he realizes it or not, the nothing less than the species desire to survive is housed within him and is driving him. Finding the right fulcrum of balance for that desire will be very important to his living a good and happy life.  In some manner--either through birth, seeking, or maybe just dating a Catholic girl--he has found a place that teaches a way to find that balance.

The School of Reality

I began with a story about Howard Wolowitz of The Big Bang Theory.  His character, not unlike the butterfly he ate, has undergone a metamorphosis. At the beginning of the series, even though he had the technical expertise of an engineer, he was very much ignorant of anything to do with real women.  This was in spite of a great curiosity about certain aspects to say the least.
This is being remedied. He is receiving an education in this area, as most men do, from a real woman, his girlfriend, Bernadette.
Tradition has a way setup for this education to take place.  The first step is to be born into a home with loving parents from which one can learn the roles of the sexes and how they interact with one another. One is then taught a framework about courtship, marriage, and fidelity.  Howard is missing big parts of that framework. His father left the family so he didn’t have a model to follow.
But, regardless, nature has driven him out of himself and to a real woman who is by no means a doormat.  This is important. Iron sharpens iron as they say.  While a marriage shouldn’t, by any means,  be a continual battle neither should one spouse simply be a ditto stamp. That core within Bernadette, that “I am” she has that matches his is helping him to become a full human man as opposed to the mockery of a man that he had been.