Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Reply to a Message from Magistrate Zhang - a translation

In these later years, I value silence;
worldly concerns no longer stir my heart.
I now move through the days with no plan
but to retire unencumbered to the woods of my youth,
where pine-scented breezes can play through my robe
whilst the moonlit mountain amplifies the music of my lute.
You ask if there are laws governing success or failure;
I say: Hear the song of the fly-fisher, rising up from the riverbank.

English rendering of this poem by Wang Wei (699–759)

© 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

When The Truth Is Not Enough

This is a story. It happens to be a true story. It could have happened in your community. I hope it did not. I heard this story fourth-hand, and do not know any of the people involved or even where it took place.

The family car was stolen off the street, near the home. The owners filed a police report, while joy riders drove the hotwired car down some byway until it ran out of gas. The place where the car was eventually abandoned was located in another county, whose police found it and traced it to the owners and the filed stolen vehicle report. The auto was duly inspected, towed to a tow yard in the county where it was found. The owners of the stolen vehicle, upon being informed that it had been recovered, dropped their child off with a friend, went to their local police station to handle release paperwork that would allow them to retrieve the car. Thus, the case was closed in the county of residence.

The couple took public transit and a cab to the tow yard in the other county, signed a release form and paid the towing fee. Thus, the case was closed in the county of recovery.

While they were driving back to pick up their child, the wife found solicitation letters (junk mail) wedged in the space between the passenger side seat and the door. The mail was of various shapes, sizes and colors, from various consumer outlets, and addressed to various other people than themselves.

The notion occurred: This must be evidence pointing to who stole the car!

Instead of picking up their child and returning home, the car owners took the mail to the police station and spoke with the ranking officer at the walk-up window. They told the officer their story and showed the officer the mail, saying they felt they were doing their civic duty by reporting this evidence.

The officer listened to the story, but did not touch the mail they were offering.

“Chain of evidence rules and procedures say that we cannot accept this mail; there is nothing that indicates the mail is evidence of any particular thing, per se. It would be best to take the mail to the Post Office.”

The couple was incredulous. They started telling their story again. Apparently, the officer hadn’t been listening closely, and did not understand the import of what they were trying to say.

The officer listened to the repeated story, letting consideration and a silent pause clear the air before replying.

“We have no way of knowing how this mail got into your car or if it was even placed there by the perpetrators of the auto theft. Was the mail put in the car in this jurisdiction, or in the jurisdiction where it was recovered? Was the mail picked up off the ground near the car in the tow yard and just placed inside it on an assumption? These questions do not offer clarity about the mail and do not indicate a link to the auto theft. As your stolen property has been returned to you, the case is now closed. Please take the mail to the Post Office, where they will know how to appropriately handle it.”

The couple looked at one another. Surely, this was wrong. The couple asked to speak with a supervisor. The officer went away, but came back very shortly.

“The sergeants and lieutenant are out on calls. I am the ranking supervisor, at this moment.”

The couple couldn’t believe it. They were obviously being stonewalled. They started again: This mail had to be evidence of whoever stole the car.

“Aren’t you going to do your job?” The couple said.

“I really cannot receive this mail; please take it to the Post Office.”

Back behind the window, co-workers could hear the entire exchange. They looked at one another, over their piles of files and reports. One sighed. Another decided to intervene, so they could all get back to work. That officer silently left the office, circling around to the public lobby, where the couple stood, waving the junk mail and elevating their insistent voices.

“I’ll take it. I’ll make sure it is handled appropriately.” The officer escorted the couple to the station door, waving at them as they left. When the couple was out of sight, this officer walked the mail down the street, and dropped into the mailbox on the corner. At least the addressees will receive their mail; sale ends next week. Upon that officer’s return, the entire office breathed a healing sigh, and resumed their very real and pressing work with relief.

The couple that had brought in the mail later filed a complaint against the officer who told them the mail could not be accepted as evidence. The complaint was followed by an internal procedural investigation.

To bring further clarity to this story, you need to know that the couple whose car was stolen was white. The officer they encountered at the police station, when they took the mail there, was a non-Caucasian female, nearing retirement age; she had been training a female cadet at the time of this encounter. The officer who put the mail into the mailbox was a white male who had been a civilian office worker with the department for only a few years.


Appearances are sometimes deceiving, and usually never the end of any story.

When we presume we know better, we are apt to find ourselves in the position of the fool.

The ranking officer had explained the situation, but the couple, who had no law enforcement training, for some reason did not trust her to have appropriate knowledge, did not trust her explanations. What she told them did not conform, either to what they had seen on TV or their expectations of what should be done. They heard what she said, but they didn’t like it. The way they saw it, they had gone out of their way to provide important evidence that would lead to arrest and conviction of the perpetrator of the auto theft.

The well-meaning co-worker de-escalated the situation, but probably should not have; doing so undercut the authority and knowledge possessed by his supervisor in the eyes of the couple. Ultimately, this fueled the couple’s dissatisfaction to where they made the leap that this ranking officer had shirked her responsibility.

The car had been retrieved; the case was closed; the junk mail presumably was delivered to the homes of the addressees. That should have been enough of an outcome for anyone.

The rules are the rules; procedures are procedures. If we don’t follow the rules and procedures, then of what value are they? Can we assume procedures are illogical just because we don’t understand them? Yes, sometimes we do discover that rules need to be changed; by all means, we must review all rules that truly do not make sense, and either repeal them or refine them. Perhaps rules regarding the chain of evidence are not among those in dire need of revision.

That is one issue. More than this, and primarily, I wonder what irreversible damage is done when judgments are color- and gender-coded? Actually, I less wonder than know. The short answer is that citizenship is diminished for All, and this is problematical when All is We The People.

This story, Citizens, is but one example of the struggle we face in our local communities, our counties, our states, our regions, the nation – and the world.

I hope this story provides you food for thought.

(Chew your food well and completely before swallowing, or indigestion is apt to follow.)

© 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Saturday, August 12, 2017

"A Terrible Thing To Waste"

Sporadically, over the course of many months, I’ve been helping a friend to clear her late husband’s library and organize his academic work. I brought home a notebook of his from 2004, because I happened to leaf through it and was reminded, by notations found within, of wonderful, deep and sometimes difficult conversations we’d had over the years.

The library is a mirror to the mind of the man, and yet contains only a fraction of what is in the mind. This individual was a “big picture” kind of person – probably one reason we got on so well – and his lifetime of reading and interacting with his books, colleagues and students is an example of a life well lived, a life of mind well and truly explored. I think he chose the academic life because he loved to read. He was always reading, always writing, notating, diagramming, referring, inferring, questioning. The library, the papers, the notebooks are what is left of a magnificent mind. They are also an example of all that is precious that we lose because we can only hold onto so much, as time moves unrelentingly onward.

The books, what will become of them? He would have wanted them to find good homes; we’re working on that. He was constantly purchasing duplicates of books he thought were important; he knew where to send them, though he didn’t always get around to doing so. Hundreds and hundreds of books; a dizzying array. Book-sellers are difficult to find, apparently, for such a highly specialized, while varied, collection. My friend said, “Everyone is going to the internet, to Amazon, they tell me.”

This was of grave concern to her husband: The retention and the sharing of knowledge. The assumption made by people is that everything is digitized. If one can call up on the computer all the records from the past, who needs a book?

Or, for that matter, who needs a printed sheet of paper? Going through this professor’s teaching materials, I have been finding his own typewritten notes and cards, tying one subject to another like a spider web across a world of thought. I’ve also found photocopied pages from innumerable books that have been out of print, some of them, for over well over a hundred years. Am I confident that the materials I have been letting slip through my fingers into the recycle bin are all digitized?

No, I am not in the least confident. I am quite sure that the assumption of digitization is incorrect, and that things are landing in the recycle bin that will never be seen again. The photocopies are from books that may no longer exist as physical artifacts.

This is how generations lose sight of what prior generations thought about and understood, correctly or incorrectly. Someone decides for us what information is of value, and lets something (or even everything) else go. “Oh, that old thing; Oxford published a modern study last year, we don’t need that one from 1925.” These days, people who write papers now find all their supporting references on the internet, and they do not question these sources. (I know this because I proofread and edit such papers for clients all the time.) My old friend, the departed professor, would shake his head in dismay; the only proper way to interact with your subject is to question everything that is written about it and, further, to question your own thinking about it. Do people question their own thinking, these days? I wonder about that, as he did – he felt that most people believe there is an “inevitability” or “fate” to everything in their lives (“It must be God’s will,” for example).

Nothing is inevitable, but a people that harbors such defeatist thinking is a people that can be easily led, lied to and manipulated, just as the digital data in which they put their faith can be manipulated. The digital world, at the touch of a button, can disappear.

Who gets to choose what we keep and what we let go? Are they authorities on the subjects, or administrators with quotas? What are the criteria for retention? Is access to the resulting digital data free, or available only through privatized subscription portals? As I go through someone else’s lifetime of study and thinking and work, I remember the many discussions we had about this very topic, in light of the trends we were seeing.

Ultimately, there is a price to be paid, a freedom that is lost, when we capitulate to the notion that we don’t have to know and we don’t have to think, and that we can find references on the internet to support our beliefs. There is a price to be paid when others tell us what to think and feel about what is happening in the world around us, and we let them do it and follow what they say, without asking questions and doing our own research.

In the case of this collection of papers, I am mainly the one who is choosing, and I there is so much that am reluctantly choosing to let go.

“A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste,” the slogan of the United Negro College Fund for more than 40 years, popped into my head, as I was sifting through file folders and baskets. My friend worked his mind until it could not work anymore; he was a walking encyclopedia of the history of political ideas, civil society, and collectivism. Every page of the notebook I brought home has a note of something just read, followed by notes referring to other books, articles, podcasts or other media that one needed to review (many authored by colleagues, friends or students), in order to gain a more complete picture of the problem, or a wider view of the question. I could draw Venn diagrams from the notations on most of these pages, Spirographs of overlapping themes and disciplines.

I can preserve the man’s papers, but no matter how much I wish that I could, I cannot preserve the man’s mind.

If I cannot preserve someone else’s mind, I can at least tell you a little of what the person said:

“Nothing is inevitable.”

“Question authority and everything that is illogical.”

“In a free society, there can be no double-standards.”

If these thoughts of my friend are all I manage to carry forward in this world, know that they are his legacy, bequeathed to you.

© 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Thursday, August 10, 2017

So You Bought Yourself A Band…

“Music is a proud, temperamental mistress. Give her the time and attention she deserves, and she is yours. Slight her and there will come a day when you call and she will not answer.”      ~ Patrick Rothfuss

So, you bought yourself a band.

The “consummate businessman” gamboled himself along the garden path into a financial hole, and you were there at the fire sale, cash in hand. What a coup! How cool is that?

Oh, but things haven’t gone so great at the start, though, have they?

First, there was the pesky little detail of the guys who were already the band members; you had to get rid of them. But you couldn’t, like, write them a letter or call them on the phone or speak to them in person sometime during the three or more years in which you’ve been incubating your plan toward hatching point. You had to sue people, some of whom didn’t know anything about the sale of the band, because it was never announced! So, now you are paying a whole bunch of money for a big wheel attorney who can pummel and gag everyone into submission. That was an expense and bother you hadn’t counted on. You made a big splash in the press, though, releasing the detailed legal suit for everyone to see, attempting to smear everyone.

Ham-fisted. Ugly.

You wish that part were over. You’re just itching to get on the big stage. You’ve been practicing and practicing. You’ve now memorized one whole album of the group’s corpus material. You’ve been offering as many gigs as possible in little coffee houses and restaurants and the like, smoothing your stage patter. Your sychoph – er, pals have been telling you how great it all is, how ready you are!

Hmm. One album’s worth of songs is, like, one set. One. Set.

Then, there is this little problem: At those venues that are already booked, they are waiting for those other guys to show up. The publicity is already out; it’s been out for months. In many cases, tickets have already been sold for some of those events. I guess your premise is that it doesn’t really matter who shows up to load in, as long as there are the requisite number of guys on stage doing the songs. When were you going to tell the presenters to expect you, instead of the other guys? Didn’t think about that as being your obligation, did you? You thought your “business partner” was supposed to do that? It’s you, now, man; it’s you! You wanted it, you got it! I mean, if you want your “partner” to do that stuff, you might have to whip out that attorney again.

I guess you’ll now start thinking twice about your business “partner” and how you do business together as time goes on; there’s a good idea.

You’ve got a computer. You’ve got a phone. You’ve had a bunch of time. It’s not just about playing the instruments and singing to audiences. The way you’ve “played” your hand thus far means you’re going to have to deal with a website and bookings and presenters, airline tickets, hotel room bookings and rental cars. Or, conversely, you might have to hire a competent staff person to do that for you, if you are too busy; another expense. But these are business decisions, right? You own those, now, too, I guess. Don’t you? (Did your contract talk about that? Did it stipulate who was responsible for these things? Did an attorney ever look at the rag before you signed it?)

Symphony gigs. I guess there will never be another one of those. I mean, you don’t know anything about a symphony, do you? Never worked with a conductor, I’m thinking. And I’m guessing you don’t have the arrangements. First off, there is something called a “cue” that is not associated with the word “pool.”

Summer clinic. Gone. You’re into jamming and schmoozing and having fun, but you can’t teach and you can’t coach. That’s not what you’re interested in, anyway. You want to market and promote yourself, and sing on the big stage. Those old fans simply aren’t as important as the new ones you’re planning to pursue. (I wonder if you did a market study?)

Got rhythm? Not so much? Maybe lose the drum, then. Or hire a drummer. Oh, but that doesn’t fit the tradition, does it? Cuts into the bottom line, as well.

Technê (craft) and epistêmê ( knowledge). Epistasthai (knowing how) and gnôsis (understanding). Émpeiros (experienced; practiced) and artios (ready because prepared). These are old Greek words about art and artistry; do you see yourself in any of them, or is it just Greek to you?

You can buy the band, but you can’t wear it like a suit. You don’t put on a shirt and magically become the fantastic musician with the hot guitar licks and the honeyed voice. Your money can’t endow you with talent the likes of the people you’ve supplanted, in order to fulfill your fantasy. But, get this, talent is what the audiences in the big halls expect! That’s what they pay for! Can you deliver that? (Will a letter from your “partner” to the venues, saying you’re “great guys,” make it so?)

This business is bigger than you are – way, way bigger than you realize. All by yourself, you opened Pandora’s box, and you sent the word out there. The industry feeds on gossip, and you gave out a whole lot of innuendo for people to chew on. Your stunt with the media puts you in as much questionable light as the people you tried to smear, the very people you did out of decent jobs. You can gag some of the people, but not all of them. You’ve already disappointed and disgusted longtime fans with your actions. You can create a back-story, but what will people believe? (You never made a press release, introducing all these changes to the world. What were you thinking? What were you waiting for? What were you trying to hide?)

I wonder if others in the business will want to work with you, share a stage with you, stand next to you, after the stunt you pulled. They’ve earned their fame; you’ve merely “purchased the rights” to it. Don’t look to DNA for rights to respect; any actor’s kid knows you have to show four times the talent to get anyone to even look at you.

Okay. So, now that you “own” it, the big question is “Can you deliver?” And, boy, oh, boy, you’re going to have to answer that one sooner than you think. Are you ready to ride the rollercoaster of your own making? Whee!!!!

A lot of people, these days, speak of karma. “Karma’s a bitch,” they say.

Oh, but karma’s got nothing on Nemesis. Do you remember who Nemesis is? She is the Greek Goddess equalizer, the righter of wrongs; she is an aspect of Justice. She addresses the hubris of small humans and big gods in the most appropriate manner, by revealing the truth of what they are.

Nemesis, the cold light of truth, awaits you, in every seat, in every concert hall.

Entertain me. Make me smile.

Nemesis is waiting to see and hear what you will deliver.

© 2017