Another Month

The pod arrived last month – a giant white box that held our worldly belongings while we were traveling. Jo had filled it with what she hadn’t given away to Goodwill. Then a storage company carted it away to a climate controlled building. Last month, like a boomerang, it came back to our driveway. I unlocked it, raised the shutter in the back and took a look at what we had lived without for the last year. By weight, it is mostly books. We’ve moved the boxes from the pod to the garage. But the poor White Wooden House needs some tender love and care before we unpack the boxes.

Something broke in the kid’s bathroom flush and flooded Evan’s bedroom. The floor had to be ripped out and new one installed and then the rest of floors refinished. The paint needed touching up. A new bathroom flush finally got here after a transatlantic voyage but the delivery guy dropped it on our driveway and another one is on order. The flush sits inside the bathroom wall, so the wall has been torn out. We need a new kitchen oven. Two of the air-conditioning systems broke over the same weekend. One was easily fixed but the other will be replaced along with ducts in the attic. The internet works intermittently. The refrigerator is on the blink. But bit by bit the house is being put back together, mostly by Gunaraj. Having things is complicated. It was certainly easier to live out of backpacks in hotels and other peoples’ homes. But ready or not, here we are, back in Austin.

The kids have settled back to school pretty seamlessly. Evan’s school alternates between a week of online and a week of in-person classes. He has rejoined his soccer league and is enjoying playing. So far they haven’t lost a game – which has caused a serious case of swollen-headedness. Speaking of heads Vivian has colored hers flaming red. The procedure was performed by another 13 year old – what could go wrong? She is back in school, and is ecstatic to be back with her friends. She and a friend joined a kids’ running group at Town Lake.

Jo and my return to Austin has been more uneasy. We had excuses. We couldn’t let Ouiser trample through the white wooden house till the newly-refinished floors had a chance to properly cure. Then the cats needed to be micro-chipped before letting them loose in Austin. Now is seems like we are using the Canyon Lake house as a mid-week refuge by turn. With the rains from tropical storm Delta, everything is green and blooming. Ouiser likes to frolic through the tall grass stems when they sway in the breeze. In the middle of last week I sat outside and enjoyed the day and smoked two pork shoulders and a rib for eight hours while Ouiser licked the dripping grease off the smoker. I found this giant moth with eye-like markings on its wings and intricate feathery antennae.

Outside our little privileged town and country bubble, the dumpster-fire-train-wreck that is 2020 rages on. While I would rather rub my eyeballs with a dull cheese grater than see Trump debate, friends from around the world had plenty of funny things to say about it. And a handmaid has joined the alleged rapist (make that two) who will together write majority opinions at the supreme court for the remainder of my life. People agonized with why Mitch McConnell would ram through a lifetime supreme court nomination days before a presidential election after adamantly opposing a previous similar nomination because it was only six months away from the 2016 presidential election. Shankar Vedantam has an answer. In a recent podcasts of The Hidden Brain, his guest, psychologist and professor Linda Skitka, explained it this way.

If you like cheese on your pizza and I like pepperoni, we can both live with that. We can be friends. We are even okay with being each other’s children’s teachers and coaches. Because differences in preferences are okay. If you don’t eat beef and I don’t eat pork, we can still be friends. Differences in normative conventions like driving on different sides of the street in different countries and conflicting religious dietary rules are also okay. But if you support systemic racism and I don’t, we have a difference in moral convictions. Everyone is sure of their moral convictions. They are therefore also sure that those who oppose these views are immoral and wrong. We achieve a 2+2=4 type clarity and certainty about things that are often not objective and therefore subject to multiple opinions.

Jo summed up her feelings about racism this using a popular meme about pizza toppings (credit to funny.co for this version). A few years ago, someone I know who is against abortions invited his friends on facebook to de-friend him if they felt otherwise – and many did. There is almost nothing that can change a moral conviction I hold because I feel it in my bones. And as it requires no evidence, no evidence can shift it. Two years ago on Valentine’s Day, a shooter armed with a semi-automatic rifle shot and killed 17 people at the Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. If you are a staunch 2nd Amendment supporter and worry that “the government is coming for your guns”, that’s one thing. But if you morally believe that anyone should be allowed to own guns and ammunition without restrictions, your choices are limited when you learn that a troubled underage youth is able to legally buy a semi-automatic weapon that he then uses in his rampage to kill 14 year old students at a school. One option you do have is to dive into a wild conspiracy theory conveniently provided to you. Instead of admitting that some gun purchases may be dangerous you are willing to accept a theory that the whole school shooting is an elaborate hoax put on by parents, school administrators, hospitals, doctors, nurses, funeral homes, students, the police, and journalists who are doing all this just to make your god-given right to bear arms look bad. This suddenly gives you the license to become the enraged victim and to rail against the devastated parents who are grieving the sudden violent death of a child. People who feel this way are extreme but not rare. The force of a moral conviction is strong among us all, even if we all don’t go as far as these people do.

Enter a culture where issues are moved into the moral realm to manipulate us. Guns, belief in systemic racism, abortions, climate change, immigration, and even mask-wearing have become morally right or wrong. These issues – some of which are scientific truths or untruths, and hence not subjective in the first place – become battle grounds for good versus bad in our souls. Once we take a stance we are stuck. The only way out is to face massive internal cognitive dissonance and who wants that. This means that politicians and preachers are free to harvest the benefits of having voters ignore policy by keeping us permanently locked into our silos of moral rights and wrongs. While it may be too late for us to extract ourselves from this moral tarpit, we must teach the next generation to be critical thinkers. To stop and put issues in their place before issues put them in their place. To be immune to psychological manipulation.

I went to a secular school growing up. We took that definition to mean all religions and beliefs are okay. Our principal read a prayer or a thought every morning at assembly from an assortment of religions and philosophies. But this is the one (by Rabindranath Thakur) that I and most boys from the Hyderabad Public School remember the best and can recite from memory forty years later:

“Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high,
where knowledge is free.
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.
Where words come out from the depth of truth,
where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection.
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost it’s way
into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.
Where the mind is led forward by thee
into ever widening thought and action.
into that heaven of freedom, my father,
let my country awake!”

Yesterday a certain 10-year old in an online zoom class was asked by his teacher to find an example of a fact and another example of fiction. He picked the general theory of relativity and god. Dare I hope : – )

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