Who, What, Where Am I?

We all look for answers to the eternal questions. Perhaps some of them lie in the titles of popular songs. One of the advantages of having a very large library of music is that it can provide a dose of oracular wisdom if called upon. Here, in alphabetic order, is what the gods of music have bequeathed to us as the answers to the question(s) Who or What or Where am I.

I’m A Believer
I’m A Dark Pill
I’m A Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas
I’m A Fool To Want You
I’m A Gangsta
I’m A Good Old Rebel
I’m A Good Woman
I’m A Happy Man
I’m A Jazz Vampire
I’m A Little Bird
I’m A Lonesome Fugitive
I’m A Long Gone Daddy
I’m A Machine
I’m A Man
I’m a Memory
I’m A One Woman Man
I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man
I’m A Woman
I’m A Woman But I Don’t Talk Too Much
I’m Alive
I’m Alive, Don’t Bury Me
I’m Allergic To Flowers
I’m Alone Today
I’m Alright
I’m Always Touched By Your Presence Dear
I’m Amazed
I’m Back To Stay
I’m Bad
I’m Bad Like Jesse James
I’m Beginning To See The Light
I’m Blue
I’m Bringin’ Home Good News
I’m Burning Inside
I’m Burning Up
I’m Called Little Buttercup
I’m Calling
I’m Comin’
I’m Coming
I’m Coming On
I’m Confessin’
I’m Counting
I’m Counting On The Stars
I’m Dead
I’m Deranged
I’m Doin’ That Thing
I’m Doing All I Can For My Lord
I’m Done
I’m Down I’m Down
I’m Dreaming Of A Dream
I’m Electro
I’m Falling
I’m Feathering A Nest
I’m Feeling
I’m Flying
I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles
I’m Free
I’m Frightened
I’m From Nowhere
I’m Getting Too Young For This
I’m Giving Up On You
I’m Glad There Is You
I’m God
I’m Goin’ Away In The Morn
I’m Goin’ Down
I’m Goin’ Upstairs
I’m Going Down
I’m Going Down To Have Myself A Ball
I’m Going Home
I’m Going In
I’m Going on an Adventure!
I’m Going To Haunt You
I’m Going To Make A Cake
I’m Gone
I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Some Day
I’m Gonna Be Loser Again
I’m Gonna Beg the Moon Each Night
I’m Gonna Die
I’m Gonna Follow You
I’m Gonna Get You
I’m Gonna Jump
I’m Gonna Leave You
I’m Gonna Live Anyhow
I’m Gonna Live Forever
I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little Bit More
I’m Gonna Love You Too
I’m Gonna Make You Love Me
I’m Gonna Make You Mine
I’m Gonna Run to the City of Refuge
I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down
I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry Over You
I’m Good, I’m Gone
I’m Happy
I’m Here
I’m Hot Hot
I’m Hungry
I’m Hurtin’
I’m In Here
I’m In Love
I’m In Love Again
I’m In Love With Vienna
I’m In Love With You
I’m In Space
I’m In The Mood For Love
I’m Into You
I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead
I’m Just A Country Boy
I’m Just a Lucky So And So
I’m Just Crazy
I’m Just Wild About Harry
I’m Knocking at Your Door
I’m Learning About Love
I’m Leavin’ Now
I’m Leaving
I’m Leaving Home
I’m Leaving You
I’m Listening
I’m Lonely
I’m Lonely And Blue
I’m Lookin’ for Someone to Love
I’m Looking
I’m Looking Out The Window
I’m Losing My Grip
I’m Lost
I’m Mad
I’m Missing You
I’m Movin’ On
I’m Moving To England
I’m My Own Grandpa
I’m Never Gonna Call You
I’m No Angel
I’m No Sun Expert
I’m Not A Woman I’m Not A Man
I’m Not Afraid Of You
I’m Not Alone
I’m Not Awake, I’m Not Asleep
I’m Not Calling You A Liar
I’m Not Crazy
I’m Not Done
I’m Not Drinking For Christmas
I’m Not Dying
I’m Not Going Home
I’m Not Going To Fight
I’m Not Human
I’m Not Human At All
I’m Not In Love
I’m Not In Love With You Anymore
I’m Not Lonely Anymore
I’m Not Okay, Now
I’m Not Sick
I’m Not So Tough
I’m Not Sure
I’m Not That Girl
I’m Not The One
I’m Not The Only One
I’m Not Your Boyfriend
I’m Not Your Cup of Tearrrrs
I’m Not Yours
I’m OK
I’m Old Fashioned
I’m On A Plane
I’m On A Roll
I’m On Your Side
I’m Only A Woman
I’m Out
I’m Over You
I’m Parkër
I’m Ready
I’m Really Concerned About Dying in the Fire
I’m Sam Bell
I’m Sam Bell, Too
I’m Satisfied With My Gal
I’m Satisfied With You
I’m Scared Too
I’m Sitting In A Room
I’m Sleeping Under The Dead Tree
I’m So Afraid Of Losing You
I’m So Excited
I’m So Glad
I’m So In Love
I’m So Into You
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
I’m So Sorry They Done This To You
I’m So Thankful
I’m So Tired
I’m So Young
I’m Someone Who Dies
I’m Sorry
I’m Sorry But…
I’m Sorry, I’m Lost
I’m Spider-Man
I’m Stickin’ With You
I’m Still A Queen
I’m Still Betting On Love
I’m Still Here
I’m Still Sleeping
I’m Still Waiting
I’m Still Young
I’m Super
I’m Taking My Audition To Sing Up In The Sky
I’m Taking Over
I’m That
I’m The One
I’m The One Who Knocks
I’m The Only One
I’m The Rain
I’m The Singer, You’re The Song
I’m the Truth
I’m The Way, The Truth, The Light
I’m The Zydeco Man
I’m Thinking Of You
I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes
I’m Tired
I’m Waiting For The Man
I’m Waiting For You
I’m Waiting Here
I’m Walkin’
I’m Walking
I’m Watching You
I’m Weak
I’m Willing
I’m With You
I’m With You Tonight
I’m Working On A Building
I’m Writing A Novel
I’m You
I’m Your Brother
I’m Your Cowboy
I’m Your Girl
I’m Your Man
I’m Your Sacrifice
I’m Yours
I’m Yours Tonight

 

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15 Ways to Know If You Are a “Femme Fatale”

Men are powerless around you and other woman are homicidal.

 by Peter B. Miller, author of Céline

 15-1

1 – In 15 minutes at a bar, 20 men offer to buy you a drink. A fight always breaks out.

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2 – You have a special email folder that only contains suicide threats from former lovers and death threats from their girlfriends.

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3 – The guy who does your hair starts to sweat and shake and has to excuse himself after 10 minutes for unexplained reasons. 

15-4

4 – You’ve been offered a bounty to join Tinder.

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5 – The spy services of Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela have tried to recruit you.

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6 – You hired a world-class hacker to erase your presence off the Internet.

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7 – You know how to clean a silencer.

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8 – None of your banking statements are in English.

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9 ­– Two of your former boyfriends fought a duel.

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10 – You have elbow-length black satin gloves.

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11 – You own a floor-through penthouse condominium in the newest building on the water in Miami.

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12 – Men who get to sit next to you on a plane immediately start to think about the lies they will tell their wife.

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13 – Every six months, a new package of expensive custom-made lingerie arrives from Europe.

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14 – You wear sunglasses in the shower.

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15 – Scarlett Johansson crosses to the other side of the street when she sees you.

15-16

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My Second Act

In his novel The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald opined that “There are no second acts in American life.” This has been variously interpreted, depending on the one’s perspective. It could mean that we are given one main chance in life. Miss that and the curtain comes down never to rise again. It could also mean that each person has a unique destiny. One follows the path that leads from its inception until the end of the road is reached. When you run out of road, you are finished, for better or worse. And perhaps in a time when life expectancy rarely if ever reached 65 and when the constraints of custom, class, geography, and gender formed an iron cage, this sentiment was true. Today, the game has changed and changed radically. A wise older man from my twenties told me that the difference between his time and mine was that when he was young no one expected to be happy or thought it was their due. However, even when my generation reached retirement age, that expectation was still there. Perhaps this was the underlying motivation for the choice I eventually made.

This is a time when for many, their first acts are nearing an end. While it is rare, I do know people (primarily academics) who are finishing their career in the same place they started. The word “emeritus” now decorates their escutcheon. Some have moved on to consult in the same field, others are pondering where they will go. Not a few people are worried about how they will survive financially or about their health. Hip replacement has become a phrase that is becoming a more common parlance with some of my acquaintances. I am reminded by my more scientifically minded friends that our body’s warranty is a limited one and that we can expect the parts and pieces that have faithfully served us for sixty or seventy years to finally sigh and say “enough!” While this is not true for everyone (and luckily not for me) it is something we all eventually must contend with.

My career trajectory started at the beginning of the ‘60’s in high school when I saw my first IBM computer. It filled a room and had (gasp!) 2,000 storage locations. I wrote programs for it on punched cards. Since that time I have seen four or five generations of computing devices (depending on how one reckons these changes): mainframe, minicomputer, personal computer, portable, and mobile. In my first full-time job after college, I wore a white lab coat and was part of the priesthood that tended the behemoths that lived on raised floors in sanitized rooms. In my last position, I was involved in designing ‘apps’ for mobile devices that live in one’s unsanitary, un-airconditioned pocket.

In 2011, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area while still doing some consulting in health information technology, but wondering if the stars had finally come into a new alignment. It turns out, they had. I started writing a blog that was well-received. In 2012, I woke up one day and a novel appeared in the theater of my imagination. I started taking dictation from the characters and within nine months, it was finished. While I had always suspected that a writer was lurking within me, he had finally emerged. Was this the second act of my life I wondered? Almost.

In going to various writing workshops, I found something unexpected. When I walked into a typical one, I thought I would be bombarded with bad prose about growing up in either a dysfunctional family or a sociologically undesirable location. I was wrong, very wrong. What I heard shocked me. Much of the writing was good, very good. The prose was clean and the insights sharp. I also heard stories of how difficult it was to get published, how finding an agent who would take on someone new was nearly impossible, and how self-publishing seemed to be the only alternative. The final push came from a published writer who is also a good friend. She bemoaned the fact that her publisher could (or would) not help her market her books. Only top-selling authors get any direct support from their publisher (which of course they don’t really need).

I reasoned that a modern publishing & media company that embraced social media and related technologies and exploited all the potential of every property could succeed. My entrepreneurial spirit took hold at that point and decided that this would be my second act. I started a publishing company, Incanto Press.

My former technology friends thought I had developed a defective decision module and suggested that I should go in for a round of debugging. “Are you crazy?” was a typical response. I calmly assured them that, no, my CPU (Central Processing Unit) was still in good shape. The years of working in start-ups was my secret weapon. I knew how to recruit a great team and how to develop a business plan that made sense. Out of this Incanto Press emerged. Having never done anything like publishing before, there was a steep learning curve (which I’m still climbing). I had to learn the fundamentals of book production, printing, distribution, and publicity as well as the editing cycle and publishing contracts. Once I had made the decision to go forward, however, I was mentally prepared to master what I needed to know.

I used my network to find our initial books and then, as if by magic, the word started to spread and soon, other manuscripts started to appear. Our first books – four adult novels (Céline, Duet, Lost in Montreal and Perverse Wonderland) were published in July of this year and are available on Amazon, in Barnes & Noble and many independent bookstores. New books are in the pipeline, including our first illustrated children’s book (Lady Emma In Her Land Of Wonder, published in mid-August) and the first in a series of books about personal journeys (Letters from the Way, to be published later this year).

I’ve always loved books. I have a large library and my favorite places on earth are large, old-fashioned book stores. Being a publisher made me feel like a producer and not just a consumer. When I went into a book store, instead of simply browsing, I looked at books as something that was actually written and produced and studied them carefully.

There is a profound sense of excitement when I read a new manuscript. It can disappoint of course and many do. But when I find a work that is exceptional, what appears is a vision of the not-too-distant future, when that manuscript mutates into a book and that book becomes available to readers. That is the principal satisfaction of being a publisher, along with positive reviews, of course. It is not unlike being a developer who works on a new app and finally sees it perfected, debugged and for sale in an on-line app store. Apps come and go and their shelf life is limited, but a book can last for a long time. Even if it goes out of print, copies are still sold in the secondary market.

Incanto is still in start-up mode, but our momentum is building. We hope and expect at least one or more of our books to sell well. Our focus is now on publicity and marketing instead of just acquisition of new properties. We are also hopeful that we can exploit the film rights. Our business plan is to be a full media company starting with publishing but expanding from that to other media.

So, am I happy to have made the decision to become a publisher? A resounding Yes! I knew that I should not start a new venture unless I was willing to learn everything I needed to know (so I would not blind-sided by the unexpected) and I was willing to put in the effort to make it a success.

To all those who know that their second act is waiting, I say take a copy of The Last Tycoon and rip out the page where Fitzgerald suggests that you repair to the golf course or to a round of ocean cruises. Let your dream rise to the surface and let it take you step-by-step into your second act.

Peter B. Miller is the President & CEO of Incanto Media, Inc. and Publisher of Incanto Press. He celebrated his 70th birthday in May.

 http://incantopress.com/

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Taking Up the Cudgels

For followers of this blog, the last two months have been a dry river bed. The explanation is simplicity itself. Once more in my life, I’ve taken up the cudgels of commerce (although leavened with some artistic yeast) and started a business which has almost wholly occupied my time and “mindshare”. Last year for various reasons I decided that I would try my hand at being a publisher.  Books have been my second skin since I was five. I thought it was time to “give back” as they say in the philanthropic reaches of Silicon Valley. I devised a unique business model for a “21st century integrated media and publishing business” and started to acquire properties.  This summer, the first four books will appear from Incanto Press (incantopress.com).  Immodestly, a reworked and reedited version of my own novel will be one of them.

Almost everyone I know has written, is writing, or plans to write a book. It makes sense on some level – the aristocratic has become the demotic in almost every endeavor. Music, painting and sculpture require a certain talent and training.  Writing does not. Words run around our brains like drunken monkeys and surely each of us must contain somewhere between fifty to eighty thousand words which have some lasting value. The estimate is that the number of blogs now exceeds the population of most European countries. Words, just words. Or are they?

Poetry and personal memoirs are particularly tempting to the amateur.  Poetry requires a few well-crafted lines, some unexpected metaphors and a modest soupçon of personal angst drawn from contemplating the wonders of nature or, in tenebris, the immensity and uncaringness of the universe. Memoirs are like milk spilling out of a ruptured carton.

A novel is more difficult. There must be a story that makes sense and is compelling (at least to the writer). Observations of life, both minuscule and grandiose, must be liberally sprinkled around. Sentences must erupt from the page like well-timed land-mines.  It’s a good hike up a challenging mountain.

Non-fiction, however, is where the sheep and goats look each other in the eye and part company. No amateur writer ever contemplates writing a significant biography (at least 3-5 years of dogged work). History is terra incognita. There are always political polemics, however. If a person can work themselves up into a year-long snit, then something passionate (if not necessarily coherent) can emerge.

I decided that Incanto would start with novels – both written and graphic – and move into certain areas that draw out a writer’s passion(s) without exhausting their energies. I call these “personal journeys.” They range from challenging physical expeditions that push a person to their limits, to inner voyages whose purpose is to discover the wellsprings of one’s own psyche.

Children’s books are another domain we will colonize. They have exploded in the last ten years partially as a counter-revolution against the dominance of electronic gadgets. Parents want to read with their children and not simply watch them tinker with an iPad. And next year, Incanto will move into books that are strongly rooted in particular geographies and especially cities. Travel and guide books are thin gruel for someone looking for depth. We will explore the well of being that is the Geist of special places.

Being a publisher requires working with writers. (Really?) Writers have souls that resemble Rubik’s  cubes. A lot of twisting and turning is required to get them in order. But once that order is reached, a satisfying harmony results.  Having known many writers over my life, I can say that there is nothing more pleasing than sitting around a table during a dinner and listening to their conversations. Words bounce around, pinging off the walls, finally coming to rest  in some utterly unexpected country.  No sports, no weather, no real estate prices, no politics, no decorating, no clothes, but rather something else. Something magical. There is often a moment when the word minuet is joined by all and we all feel transported. Pure joy.

I took up the cudgels because I still believe in the power of words. Remove the tweets and the posts and one can still find perfectly crafted sentences that can illuminate a room and even a whole civilization.  We will always return to the word because that is what our souls are made of. If we lose the ability to sculpt with words, then we are lost.

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Diminishing Returns

One of the aspects of human nature that history and literature demonstrates is responsible for much geopolitical as well as personal misfortune is our inability to understand and apply the law of diminishing returns.  This is the official definition from Wikipedia:

The law of diminishing returns (also the law of diminishing marginal returns or law of increasing relative cost) states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant, will at some point yield lower per-unit returns.

A more common way to say this is that to obtain a percentage equivalent increase of something, proportionately more effort is required. The asymptotic curve perfectly expresses it:

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At the start of a process, a unit of S (input) will produce a significant gain in R (result). As we move down the curve towards the right, it takes increasingly more units of S to gain an equivalent percentage gain in R. When we are close to the asymptote, it becomes prohibitively expense to produce any perceptible gain in R.

How does this phenomenon play out in human nature? Actually, in almost everything we do.  When you are hungry, the first few bites of food creates a flood of pleasure (and relief). However, as you continue to eat, the pleasure diminishes proportionately. [This is probably not a good example because the curve can  actually turn downward and yield less pleasure as we become bloated.]

This law was at the core of Epicurean philosophy: nothing in excess, everything in moderation.  Most commonly, I see this law playing out when people acquire wealth or become food or travel fanatics. After experiencing the ‘simply good’, the seeker must go after more and more exotic tastes and locations. There is now a growing industry of chiefs and restaurants that cater to the search for novel eating experiences. Trading up in houses can also produce an initial swell of pleasure that can quickly diminish. And, if you have unlimited money to spend, you can build or acquire more and more impressive properties. A look at Larry Ellison’s real estate and property portfolio is certainly a convincing example.

And Ellison is a good transition to the political and world historical. Alexander the Great wept because he had no more worlds to conquer. The first few conquests of any world beater (Tamar, Genghis Kahn, Napoleon) taste sweet indeed. But they must be followed by ever greater conquests to obtain the same thrill (anyone for invading Russia?)

It is the confluence of the law of diminishing returns with the bottomless well found in damaged individuals that invariably leads to the immiseration of  all who have the misfortune of being involved with them.  Narcissistic leaders can never feel a sense of inner well-being no matter how many millions cheer them.

The brain has a marvelous dampening mechanism that lets normal people know when they have reached a critical point on the curve of diminishing returns. We run out of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. A prudent person recognizes this condition and curtails or cuts back their efforts at obtaining pleasure until a new reservoir is built up. However, there are a considerable number of people who double and re-double their efforts (more drugs, faster & louder music…) in order not to experience the down that invariably comes when there is no more dopamine/adrenaline available.

A wise person acts carefully to shepherd their inner resources to delay reaching the critical point of diminishing returns. They eat at a two or three star restaurant most of the time and save the four star one for rare occasions. When I had the opportunity to take a gourmet tour of the French Rivera, by the second week I was so sick of the rich food that all I wanted to do was to walk into a dive and order the French equivalent of a burger and fries.

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Bottomless Wells

All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room. —-  Blaise Pascal

I have been reading a wonderful new book by Peter Watson, The Age of the Atheists – How We Have Sought To Live Since the Death of God. It is a meditation on what happened in the 19th century when the intellectual elite of the time decided that a belief in God (and all religions arising from this belief) was irrational and demonstrably false. Since man cannot prosper in a vacuum of meaning, modernity was born. Modernity was the attempt to fill the void left behind by what Matthew Arnold described in his poem Dover Beach:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Modernity has had many expressions and has gone through many transformations since it was born in the poetry of Byron and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra electrified the creative class by announcing that God was indeed dead but that there was a path out of the slough of despond that had opened up and threatened to swallow all of the West. Instead of a transcendent realm in heaven, it was now up to superior men (“Übermensch”) to create one here on Earth on their own.  Wagner attempted to lay down a path in his volkish music dramas – the way of the hero.

Another stream of radical transformation that promised earthly transcendence was socialism and especially Marxism.  The Marxist meme took up residence in countless intellectuals and has, like a robust virus, survived and multiplied. As Leszek Kołakowski says in his magisterial three volume work, Main Currents of Marxism, it can be damned-up, contained, and drained but human nature guarantees that the socialist well will always fill up again.

In the early 20th century, in response to Nietzsche’s challenge, a group of artists and dancers found their way to Ascona, Switzerland, to a place they named “Monte Verita” – the Hill of Truth.  There, they gave themselves over to their primal Dionysian urges and “let it all hang out.” A time-traveler from a 1967 San Francisco Be-In would instantly recognize them as being from the same tribe.

The American intellectual response started in the 1830’s with Emerson and the Transcendentalists of New England and spread to William James and John Dewey. It took a particularly American form: pragmatism. The essence of this philosophy is that, for the most part, philosophy (and especially Kant and his followers) is nonsense. There is nothing transcendent, only what we create here on this planet.  The believed that there was no fixed human nature. They believed that the purpose of life was to enable progress towards Goodness. Pragmatism was the seedbed from which all of progressivism and modern liberalism was born. Since there is nothing “up there” and life must have some purpose, that purpose must either be to create a better world “down here” or, alternatively, as George Santayana thought, to live in a creative/poetic reverie inspired by aesthetic beauty.

A bottomless well was opened up almost two-hundred years ago. The attempts to fill that well have been successful only if one considers the endless stream of bodies that have been dumped into it by well-intentioned dreamers, schemers, and revolutionaries a worthy measure of success. If there is a single nugget of wisdom that an intellectually honest person can discover post their callow youth, it is that collective action motivated by the entirely comprehensible human yearning to fill the well of meaning will almost always result in an increase in suffering and misery. Rather than going out and shaking the world in rage and despair, it is almost certainly better (as Pascal advises) to sit still alone in one’s room and learn to live with the silence and approaching darkness without despairing.

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Rites of Passage

He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.
– Talleyrand

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), perhaps the greatest diplomat and certainly one of the wisest men of the last three hundred years, understood that every social upheaval has a price. In a revolution, what is old is abolished and replaced by a new regime and order of things. Such a transformation is always claimed to be done in the name of what conservatives call with a contemptuous sneer, “progress.” And if one is not overly cynical one can actually see progress in some dimensions. It is human nature and certainly the inclination of the young, to wipe the old off the table as quickly as possible, lest it return in some menacing form to reclaim the ground from which it was expelled.

The years from 1963 through the present have seen the unfolding of a set of slow-motion revolutions that has so morphed the consciousness of people that revisiting the past in any form can induce vertigo. The memory hole is well named. In my lifetime I have seen a virtual mountain of objects, customs, pastimes, and mores disappear into its maw. And yet human nature remains fixed. Our instincts, emotions, thought patterns and perceptual machinery have not changed in thousands of years, much less in fifty.

It is often in the rituals and daily patterns of life that change is most manifested. Because these changes happen slowly, they are not often noticed until a transformation is completed.

When I was ten years old, my father owned a late model 1950’s car he kept parked in a rented space two blocks from our apartment house. He and I would take some tools from the large metal toolbox he kept in our front closet and we would walk over to the car and ready ourselves to do ‘work’ on it.

My father explained to me exactly how the engine and each part of it worked. He would open the hood and proceed to remove the top of the carburetor to check the air filter to see if it needed to be changed. Then out came the socket wrench and each of the sparkplugs was removed. As he removed one, he handed it to me. My job was to clean the business end (the one that went into the engine block). I would also check the ‘gaping’ to make sure that it was correct and was delivering the requisite spark to ignite the air-gas mixture and force the piston down. If necessary, I would adjust it. He cleaned the distributer head and checked that every wire that led to the sparkplugs was solidly placed. Next we checked the ‘timing’ to make sure that sparkplugs fired at exactly the right time. This was critical because if the timing was off, the sparkplug would not fire when the piston was at its fully up position. We checked the fan belt to make sure it was taut enough so that it wouldn’t slip and, therefore, not cool the engine correctly. Finally, we checked the oil level to determine if we needed to add more. My father then closed the hood and we walked home.

This was only one of the many rituals that together formed a rite of passage for many boys my age. Later in life, I met men who grew up in the South who were given their first rifle when then turned eleven. It was a defining moment of their lives. It said to the young boy ‘I trust you with something that can injure or kill.’ Often accompanying this gift was camouflage clothing to wear when hunting. The men I met could hardly keep from tearing up when they described the first time they went hunting with their fathers with their own rifle. It was not uncommon to see these rifles lined up in the back of a schoolroom in order for the boys to use them after school during some improvised target shooting of rusty cans or bottles.

Boys and girls who were raised on family farms quickly and abruptly learned the facts of life. They saw both ends: insemination and whelping. Increasing responsibilities started at a young age, typically with milking the livestock. Each year would bring a new task that required more strength or other physical skill. But it was tacitly understood that the first time they stepped into the barn to work, that they had gone through a critical rite of passage.

I’m certain women of my age underwent similar rites of passage in their lives with their mothers (and older sisters): the transition from a play stove to a real one, the handing down of precious recipes, the first dance and ‘sweet sixteen’ party. Some girls so inclined also went hunting (or fishing) with their father but it was not as common.

Boys and girls had their own rituals that did not require the presence of parents (and most likely would have suffered if they had been there). For me, it was learning to use a pocket knife and challenging my friends to see who could use it most effectively in games such as carving up the ground we stood on (to see who would not have enough land to stand on). Adults would pass us by as we played this game and said nothing. They understood that young boys need to push and test themselves and sometimes that might involve some danger. This is almost inconceivable to today’s parents.

Not only did I play with a pocketknife, but along with a few friends I scurried over rooftops putting up amateur radio antennas. We built and experimented with our own radio equipment and quite often I was flung across the room when I touched the wrong wire at the wrong time. I traveled on the New York City subways along with my friends. None of us was older than thirteen. With one friend, I visited every station in the city in order to get the timetable associated with that station.

Gone. All of it.

Today, boys (and especially girls) are kept in protective cocoons lest they are stalked, molested by some pervert, or bullied by a more aggressive peer. There really are no more meaningful rituals that take place with a father or mother. In addition to the loss of these rituals is something as important: the development of mastery.

I learned how radios worked from the top to the bottom. I understood how vacuum tubes, resistors, condensers, coils, and transformers worked. I could follow a signal through a superheterodyne radio and fix it if necessary. In fact, I developed quite a following as a boy who could fix any radio (or television). Today, video games and other electronic toys are poor substitutes. The insides of the objects we work with are opaque and unknowable except to a technological elite. This induces a kind of passivity and disconnection. It creates users but not masters.

Finally, it was the games that we played as young boys that made us face up to our abilities and our limits. There were no adults hovering over us as we took a broomstick and a red rubber Spaulding ball out to a vacant lot or to a street intersection. There were boys who could hit that ball easily for long distances and some who couldn’t (me). We understood quickly that we were part of a hierarchy and each of us had a place within it. We might excel at something else, but we always knew that we could never be as good as another boy in an activity or game that was important to us. This developed a sense of respect and admiration for those who ‘could’ and a sense of disdain for those who couldn’t. Unfair? Prejudicial? Absolutely. But at least we lived in a world that made sense and where we knew our position. We knew that some boys led and some followed.

By removing risk and adventure, by creating an anodyne world with few challenges and few ways for young people to really test themselves against others, we have removed one of the essential elements of becoming an adult. And that is one of the reasons we are a society of perennial children and overgrown teenagers. We are living on the accumulated capital of previous generations and it is about to run out.

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