Around the Block

Joe Block

I remember September 11.

I had just left the Sauk County Courthouse. The planes hit while I was meeting with the Sheriff. After taking the exam to be a 911 operator, I was doing an interview.

As I drove up Highway 12 to my house I noticed something seemed odd. People were gathered outside the gas station. The traffic seemed slower. I saw someone changing the gas prices.

Stopping in a local store, the television was on and people gathered around. I asked, as many of us did that day, what was going on, and then saw the images. It didn’t make sense to me.

I drove home to my isolated farmhouse, just cattle as neighbors for a mile or two, and spent the rest of the day--and next day, and next week, and next month--watching television.

George W. Bush, one of my least favorite presidents, gave a moving Oval Office address that soothed the nation. The flag went up at Ground Zero. “Ground Zero” became a word we sadly all knew.

Recently a Washington Post article was published featuring nearly all direct quotes from those in the White House during that day, and I gained a newfound respect for George W. Bush. As he was rushed across the country he confided in assistants, the press, and paced Airforce One because he had no control over where he was.

In retrospect, the most striking thing about September 11 is that it brought the country physically together. People gathered in public places to mourn. Ground Zero became a memorial--not a place to gawk--but a place to silently bear witness.

What is happening now is similar, yet entirely different. We cannot come together. We can’t seek comfort in each other in groups. Social media, once a scourge--and still now in certain places--is our virtual gathering place.

While we struggle and endure social isolation, Instagram has become a party of sorts, with artists putting on livestreamed concerts. Social media influencers have stopped selfishly peddling their wares and fame and have instead focused on their followers. Kristen Bell is providing tips on disinfecting everything, Jane Levy is posting dark morning confessionals, and Allison Tolman is entertaining us with her discovery of Instagram filters. For those of us of a certain age, Michael Stipe’s awkward rendition of “It’s The End of the World as We Know It” brought both laughter and solemn reflection.

Hunter S. Thompson, the (in)famous Gonzo Journalist, ripped out a scathing reflection of post September 11 America in the pages of Rolling Stone a year or two after, when things returned to normal--an unfortunate normal. Thompson predicted the politics of the past four years in that essay. It was the kind of thing a journalist writes later in life, when they’re jaded and frustrated and exhausted from the decades of sadness they’ve been witness to. Sadly, Thompson lost hope and ended his life a few years later. His friends did not lose hope, and per his wishes, fired his remains out of a cannon during a wild party in Aspen.

I admit I can be hopelessly idealistic and a Pollyanna of sorts when it comes to what people are capable of. This comes from deep inside me. I think others are capable of so much because I need to. Without that, I fear losing hope.

The next few months will be dark--the data and experts indicate as much. We very well may not see as much of it here in our little rural bubble. But we’re going to see it, we’re going to be affected with it, and we will know--if we don’t already--of friends and loved ones who fall ill, or worse.

Where do we go and what do we do with that?

I don’t know. I certainly have hope. But I honestly don’t know.

Last Friday was a particularly dark night for me. I was emotional--a mix of joy in that I was lucky to have my health and the health of loved ones--and a darkness that comes from the grim press conferences. I thought back to Thompson, a much better journalist who I have terribly emulated. He penned a Superbowl column decades ago during a dark time, and I found myself wanting to shamelessly parrot his style. So I did.

It very well may be shameless vanity to share it, but I’m going to, if only because it captures my hope.


MAZOMANIE--Strange rumblings tonight in Mazo.

I woke to snow this morning and tomorrow will bring ‘60s and thunderstorms. Normal March weather for Wisconsin, but everything now has some hidden meaning.

My voice is gone, having just finished an hour long sermon to the livestock, screaming under the cloudy sky shaking my fists and standing in snow. I took as my starting point philosopher David Hume’s “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” making sure the donkey knew that the human mind could not know, for certain, the connection between cause and effect.

I reached my crescendo with, “We need only reflect on what has been prov’d at large, that we are never sensible of any connexion betwixt causes and effects, and that ‘tis only by our experience of their constant conjunction, we can arrive at any knowledge of this relation.”

The donkey snorted in disagreement.

But isn’t there a connection between the craziness in the world today and Mother Nature’s schizophrenic weather? Doesn’t the weather portend something?

There’s no knowing. Despite the fact that I am a Professional Philosopher, I can’t know the connection. All I can do is drink my rum on the balcony late at night as the loons incessantly call from the river.

Strange rumblings tonight as Hume echoes in my head.

“The sweetest and most inoffensive path of life leads through the avenues of science and learning; and whoever can either remove any obstruction in this way, or open up any new prospect, ought, so far, to be esteemed a benefactor to mankind,” he said.

This, he says, just pages after pronouncing that we cannot know if the sun will rise tomorrow. This--this trust in science, this confidence--from a man who peered deep into our collective knowledge and still, in the end, found certainty. The radical skeptic, in the face of uncertainty, finds certainty.

We should listen to Hume tonight as we wait for more strange rumblings tomorrow. All is uncertain, says Hume, but at the same time we possess the certainty that we need in science.

“Learn from yesterday,” he said, “live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon. We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Science will confirm those strange rumblings are just Wisconsin weather.

Science will confirm that the sun will rise tomorrow.

Science will confirm that this craziness in the world will end as long as we hope.

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