Freedom of the Will: Reason, Dualism, and Choice

My title here, as you might surmise, is, in part, a nod toward my hometown preacher, Jonathan Edwards, who thought and wrote about the issues mentioned, nearly 300 years ago (in 1754).

An essay in The Atlantic issue of March 2014 by Paul Bloom has a more modern view, and also reveals that the controversies surrounding these issues have not been satisfactorily resolved.

I found the essay to be a fair treatment of Blooms’s own work and the opinions of others, with many citations of views that are contrary to his.

I don’t have the expertise to add much, so I’ll simply report on what I have learned, or at least my reactions, from reading Bloom’s piece.

My first takeaway relates to the issue of modern brain science discovering that many decisions that people report that they are making (exercising their free will) have actually been presaged in the brain, suggesting that, in reality, we have no free will (at least over some things), but are simply reporting on decisions that our brain has made for us.

I think this is an overly aggressive and somewhat narrow view of the processing involved. I question, for example, the brainscan studies that purport to measure the sequence of events; they seem to rely on self-reporting, which is problematic.

Building on that, and perhaps of much more consequence, is my second reaction. An idea that Bloom hints at (though I think does not fully articulate) is that our choice (free will) is predicated on a large database of experience.

What this means, in practical terms, it seems to me, is that our actions at any moment in time will reflect not just a split-second decision, but a culmination of a long process (over our lifetimes) of values and beliefs that we have developed, based on our experiences.

Thus, for example, when we decide whether or not to have a cookie or a dish of ice cream, our brain may appear to make that decision prior to our conscious knowledge of the outcome, but the brain has been cued up for this by our prior beliefs about if and when, and under what circumstances, the action in question is good or bad for us.

Of more pragmatic significance, perhaps, are those decisions we make (or at least think we make) in response to warnings from the limbic part of our brain. In evolutionary terms, this warning system far predates the advent of humans. I see it in my horses, for example, when we are out riding and they see something novel; an object that has been moved to a new location, or one they’ve not seen before. They visibly react with caution, sometimes even with fear.

So, too, we humans react, when we encounter something or someone strange to us. As self-aware individuals, though, we have the ability to override our limbic warning system. The failure to do so, in fact, may be the root of all prejudice. We can evaluate a situation based on its own merits, in light of our experience and beliefs, and come to a decision about how to act.

Yes, I strongly believe that we, as individuals, have Freedom of Will, and that we can improve our decision-making as we acquire knowledge and wisdom. A civilized society is enhanced when its members exercise their ability to make decisions based on such learning.

Mohican History Walking Tour of Stockbridge

This post is an abbreviated version of a longer page on “Native American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic River Valley” by the Housatonic Heritage organization. Here, I cover only the portion that relates to a walking tour of Main Street in Stockbridge Massachusetts called “Footprints of Our Ancestors” – providing links to 12 short videos.

Here is a map of the eleven stops along the tour (there is also an introductory video).

In the list that follows, the title of each video is given, along with its duration, and a link to its YouTube presentation (accessed by clicking at the beginning of each line). You may have to endure an advertisement on the first one you see, but (in my experience) the rest follow without ads.

Introduction – Mohican Walking Tour (2:16)

Stop 1 – 50 Main Street Town Offices 7 18 20 (4:56)

Stop 2 – 47 Main Street Chief Konkapot’s Property (3:55)

Stop 3 – 46 Main Street Library and Archives 7 18 20 (3:36)

Stop 4 – 39 Main Street Captain Naunauphtaunk Home (2:35)

Stop 5 – 30 Main Street Red Lion Inn 7 18 20 (2:37)

Stop 6 – 23 Main Street Jonas Etowaukaum Home 7 18 20 (2:41)
Stop 7 – 18 Main Street Umpachenee’s Wigwam (3:24)

Stop 8 – 19 Main Street The Mission House 7 18 20 (3:04)

Stop 9 – Across from 4 Main Street, Town Cemetery (2:58)
Stop 10 – 4 6 Main Street Meeting House 7 18 20 (3:59)

Stop 11 – West of Congregational Church, Main St Burying Ground & Wnahktukook 7 18 2020 (5:33)

Joy and Sorrow: Reflections on the Loss of a Beloved Cat

Joy and Sorrow

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

Barack

My 17-year-old cat Barack met his end peacefully.

His final day was December 28, 2020, a month after I had written a heartfelt tribute to his extraordinary life.

As I mentioned in that post, Barack had been diagnosed with terminal lymphoma, and much of my emotional energy over his last few weeks had been devoted to his care. He remained beautiful, elegant, and peaceful until the very end.

Now that he is in his final resting place on my property, Barack has a connection with the fields, the woods, and the mountains that he loved.

Barack’s long life was marked with much joy and much sorrow. Both his and mine. The joy he brought to me was always tinged with the sorrow of how he came to me, after the loss of my dear friend Lori. His sickness and death brought me much sorrow, not just because of losing him, although the impact of that was paramount. My sadness was magnified by echoes of grief; losses from times long ago.

Barack loved much, and he loved well. In his final days, all he wanted to do, besides getting enough to eat, was to be with me. His departure has left a huge hole in my heart, which I know will heal because of all the affection he showered on me over the years of our friendship. I will forever miss him.

I’m sad, of course. I’m also comforted by having lived so long with the words from The Prophet I cited here (and in my tribute). I know that my sorrow is the mirror image of the joy I have known from having had Barack in my life.

…you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

I have lived with many cats, since early childhood, and Barack certainly ranks right up there in the top tier of affectionate ones. I had a long hiatus with no cats when I lived and worked in Manhattan and Boston in my 30’s and 40’s; and now, I am experiencing the first interval in which I’ve been without a cat in more than 20 years.

The story of Barack’s arrival, and of his departure, is indeed one of joy and of sorrow, and also of the resilience of the human spirit. I have learned, through many periods of sorrow, sometimes descending into depression, that “this, too, shall pass.” In my case, I believe the autistic nature of my reactions brings me to extremes that most people do not encounter. Other than the intensity, however, it is likely that my suffering is not different from that of most people. We all learn that sometimes we must walk through the dark valley in order to reach the sunshine on the other side.

And yet, there are those echoes, coming down through the years. Losses of pets, and of people. I have never been quite able to forgive my grandmother for leaving this world. And I still grieve for Lucifer, my feline friend who helped me through a very difficult period in my life. And Grace, a childhood friend who departed in circumstances eerily similar to those of Lori’s passing. And there are many others.

My heart has been broken many times, in many ways, and those wounds are still there. Somehow, though, all of that sorrow never reduced my capacity for loving. Perhaps my inner being had to grow larger to contain that sorrow, and, in so doing, create space for love and for joy. The human capacity for recovery, optimism, and triumph ofttimes seems boundless.

Some Memories of Barack

Barack came to me in 2008. I had been working on the Presidential campaign of another Barack (Obama). Lori was one of my many compatriots in that effort.

Corinne and I were the co-coordinators of the Obama campaign for Western Massachusetts. At one point, I had several thousand email addresses to which I was sending regular emails, announcing bus trips to New Hampshire for canvassing, and other campaign events. While I handled the tech side, Corinne did personal outreach and brought people together for campaign activities and socializing.

One day, in June of that year, Corinne held a party at her house to benefit a candidate running for local office. Lori was there, in an upbeat mood, chatting and joking with all of us. At one point, she asked to see my new Prius. It’s the same as yours, I said, just a different color – you don’t really need to see it! No, no, she said, let’s go take a look! So we did.

That day was the last time any of us ever saw Lori.

After Lori’s memorial service, I contacted her friend Brian (who was also her veterinarian – she called him “Doc”). He was looking after the cats she had left behind. I asked if I could take Taffy, a beautiful calico who had always been friendly with me when I visited Lori’s house. He agreed, and she came to live with me and my two other calicoes.

Lori had left four cats, and Doc took the other three into his care. A few weeks later, Brian called me, and started the conversation with “I know you have a lot of room in your house…”

Uh oh, I thought.

He went on “… so I was wondering if you might be able to temporarily take in the two boys.”

It seems that shelters were full, and not accepting any more animals; the financial crisis (now called the Great Recession) had forced many folks to give up their pets. So Brian was having to pay someone, to privately board the two male cats.

I couldn’t say no, and so Stanley and Spunky came to live with me. They were almost completely feral, and did not want to interact with me at all. Every day, I had to go into the guest room and look under the bed to be sure they were all right. It was the only time I ever saw them. They would come out at night to eat and use the litter box, and I suspect they avoided the female cats as well.

This situation persisted for many weeks, and Brian came once to give all five of the cats their shots and exams. He still had not been able to find a place for the two boys.

Weeks turned into months, and gradually the two shy cats began to venture out in plain sight. Before you could shake a stick at them, they had displaced the girls on my bed at night. They became more and more friendly, and I realized they were not going anywhere. (I’m not sure I would have let Brian take them away at that point.)

I felt that they deserved more elegant names. So the tabby Stanley became Tigger, after one of my favorite childhood characters, and Spunky became Barack.

I had already used the obvious black-and-white names for cats who came earlier in my life (such as Puss ‘n’ Boots), and I was mentally casting about for a suitable name, when my aha moment arrived. Lori and I had been working together on the Obama campaign, and our candidate was black and white.

Lori’s daughter Kristina and I have remained friends over the years, and I was recently telling her the naming story. I also told her what I remembered of Lori’s account of how she found Barack. Kristina filled me in on more of that, since she remembered going with her mother to the abandoned building where he had been found.

It was on, or near, the UConn campus in Storrs, where Lori had been working on a consulting gig. Kristina described it as the “spookiest” place she had ever been. The space had not been used for a long time, and there was abandoned equipment that suggested it might have been used as a medical center; perhaps as housing for mental health patients. Lori, an animal lover, had been alerted to the presence of several feral cats, and went in to rescue them. One of them was the cat who would become known as Barack.

Now that Barack is gone, I of course miss him, but there is more to it than that. I am fond of the Jewish saying, “May his memory be a blessing.” I will forever remember him fondly.

I am creating what I feel is a fitting memorial to Barack and also to Topaz, whose story must be told elsewhere. The two of them were reluctant companions from the time Barack arrived until Topaz departed “On the Trail Home” as the Mohicans phrase it. They were never really friends, but they tolerated each other, respected each other’s space, and shared the food and other services offered by their human.

My friend Lucy has crafted lovely grave markers for the two of them, who are now buried next to each other in a spot they both loved to view from their perches in the windows of the house. When the world thaws out at the end of this long winter, I will create two side-by-side cairns, made of Alford marble, in their memory.

Grave Markers
Grave Markers created by Lucy

My Early Experience as a Student of the Western Abenaki Dialect

I began my language studies of Western Abenaki (one of the many Algonkian dialects native to the Northeastern part of Turtle Island) in late 2019. I live in the homelands of the Mohican people (Muhheconneok), but at that time all Mahican classes were being conducted in Wisconsin.

I had met Jesse Bruchac at a story-telling event in Turners Falls on November 6. I was enchanted with his stories and songs, and bought several books and CDs from him in order to learn more about his work. I signed up for a weekend seminar, billed as an introduction to the Abenaki language. The Ndakinna Center in Greenfield Center, New York is only a bit more than an hour’s drive from my house in Alford. When I got there, I discovered that many of the students were not exactly beginners, and I felt like a fish out of water. Still, everyone was welcoming, and I enjoyed the experience enough to come back two more times before the pandemic hit and closed down in-person classes.

Since then, all learning has been via Zoom. Like everyone else on the planet who has an internet connection, I have become a Zoom expert, from being a student, a consumer of presentations, and an instructor for OLLI.

I have been more interested, quite frankly, in learning about the language than I have been in learning the language itself. It has been a wonderful window into a culture and peaceful way of thinking that is hard to imagine in today’s frenetic world. Still, despite the Colonists efforts to wipe it out, that culture persists and is being reinvigorated at a time when we desperately need its wisdom.

As an aside,  during my years as a disability rights advocate,
I became acutely aware of the power of language to shape and reflect our values .
I have written elsewhere about those experiences;
by studying the history of the mistreatment of Native Americans,
I had the feeling I had seen this movie before.

Recently, I have become more serious about acquiring language skills. For most of last year (2020) my learning had been confined to what I could pick up during the class time. I did not do much studying outside of that narrow framework, but my focus has now broadened.

One of the resources that Jesse has recommended (and has had a hand in constructing) is the memrise website. I’ve found this to be lots of fun. It also has a competitive element, which appeals to me. My general approach to competitive events (such as running races) and websites is to try to better myself. Many years ago, I ran quite a few half-marathons, and my goal was never to win, but to do better than I ever done before.

When I saw that memrise has rankings for the week, month, and “all time” I started to keep track of where I rank, not with the idea of ever becoming #1, but of improving my standing. When I started, in the middle of January, I found that, after a few online sessions, I was in 6th place for the week, out of 34 participants, and, for the month, I was 14th out of 62. All time found me at #88 out of 294. After not quite a week on the job, I move up to 5 out of 37, 8 of 63, and 63 of 295.

Lord Alford

When I created a memrise account, I chose a handle that I have often used in the past, without giving it too much thought. I later realized it might seem out of place in my pursuit of Native American knowledge and wisdom. So let me explain.

Lord Alford is an honorific bestowed upon me about 30 years ago by my German friend, Ralf Conen. In those days, I was working in Boston, but when Ralf and I first met, he was a newly-minted PhD, and I was working on Wall Street, helping him, as a client of mine, get his career off the ground. He was very appreciative of my efforts, and we became good friends. I spent a lot of time in Europe, often staying at his home near Frankfurt rather than use my expense account to stay in some posh but impersonal hotel.

Not very long after I met him, Ralf and his wife Mary produced a baby boy. One summer, after I had moved from New York to Boston, Ralf asked me if the three of them could come and stay at my weekend house in Alford for a week or two. Of course I was delighted to have them as guests, although I had to spend most of the week in Boston.

On the Friday after they settled in, I told Ralf I’d be arriving for the weekend around six o’clock. When I pulled into the driveway, the clock in my car said 5:58. Ralf came strolling toward my car, making a big show of looking at his watch. “You could be German!” he proclaimed (a high compliment, coming from him).

During the time he knew me on Wall Street, Ralf was aware that folks (mostly men, in the sexist culture of the day, which probably hasn’t changed much) who were part of my speciality (quantitative analysis) were being labeled as the “Lords and Masters of the Universe.” After seeing my place in Alford, Ralf decided he would call me “Lord Alford” and that label stuck.

When I use the alias “Lord Alford” I do it with a bit of a smirk, but also with affection, as a tribute to a wonderful friendship. It is not, as some might suspect, an affirmation of my Colonial heritage, though there is that. I am actually quite proud of my forebears, many of whom were on the correct side of the social issues of their day. All of that is ASFAT, as I like to say (a story for another time).

A Tribute to (my cat) Barack

Barack has been diagnosed with terminal lymphoma. The story of how he came to me, and how he received his name, is for another time. For now, I have been reflecting on our friendship of more than 12 years. As I write this, he is still vibrant, active, and loving. I know his days are numbered. Here are some reflections I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and two photos of him from earlier this month, not too long after his diagnosis.

Barack purrs on the edge of sadness,
His swelling illness cannot dim His regal bearing.
Miss Fortune has stalked and found him,
Emaciating his body but not his soul.

He came to me in sadness, after we lost Lori;
He has lived with me in splendor, never losing his feral self.
I’m told I have given him a good life. I have tried,
and he has returned my affection 100 times over.
It has been a wonderful friendship.

It is said that all good things must end.
However true that may be, it is never easy.

Barack lived long enough to bridge the gap
between the promise of Obama and the new promise of Biden.

Barack’s time will come to an end soon.
I hold on to a wish that he die naturally, without a struggle
but I know that I may be called upon to be God
and be the one to determine when his life must end.
Being God is not for wimps.

As I contemplate his burial site and shroud
I am reminded of how he came to me, and how he huddled
under the bed in the guestroom, not emerging except at night
for six months or more, sleeping on the bathrobe of Lori’s on which he arrived.
He will go out in the same way, in a spot along my fence
where I can see him and Topaz, reunited in my mind and affection.

We have had some time to share some sadness
but he is not doing his part; he purrs and I cry.
I would not be so sad except for the joy I have known.
Barack has been a special kind of companion for all these years.

Joy and Sorrow have been my constant companions throughout my life.
And the words of The Prophet echo in my mind

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Or the other way around: the depth of my sorrow is a reflection of the joy I have known.

As Barack grows weaker by the day, I come more and more to realize how much I will miss him.

Abenaki Language: My Presentation

During August, I took a fairly intensive beginner course on the Abenaki language. For the last class, our instructor, Jesse Bruchac, at the urging of some of his TAs, requested that all the students perform a one-minute recitation, in Abenaki, of a poem or story of their own choosing.

I composed a short introduction to an aspect of life in my paddock; the interaction of the horses and turkeys. It’s all in very basic (“baby talk”) language; present tense, singular — which is all we’ve learned so far. I plan to continue my studies; partly because it’s just plain fun, and also because it gives me insight into Native American culture.

Here is what I said, in Abenaki. The pictures shown here were screen-shared in our Zoom session from this file as I told the story. In another file, I have shown the English translation, if you are interested in knowing the meaning of the Abenaki words.

Awani na?
Stewart na, na ases.
Awani nihi wd’asesoma, Stewart?
Stewart nihi nd’asesoma.
Stewart nidômba.

Awani na?
Spot na, na ases.
Awani nihi wd’asesoma, Spot?
Alice nihi wd’asesoma, Spot.

Stewart ta Spot wli widôba.
Stewart idam, “Spot, nolidahôzi aian.”
Spot idam, “Wliwni, nolidahôzi aian, achi.”

Nôneweji nahamak miji malomenal.

Awani na namihok?
Nahama nihi w’migwenoma.
Nahama idam wliwni, ta adio.

Page 2 of a letter

I found this page floating around. I think I must have pulled it from a file to share a copy with someone about my time in Japan. Now I don’t remember if the “2” at the bottom of the page is really an indication of this being the second page of a letter from my father, but maybe someday I’ll find the rest of the letter, if there is more. The paper itself is European-size, not US letter size. So he probably just yanked page 2 of a handout I had sent him, and filled in the blank space with his own commentary.

In any case, it’s a good example of the correspondence we carried on for many years. By this time (late 1980s) he must have been living with my sister Terry, and before I gave him my old typewriter (which had a different font). As you can see, his notes are full of sarcasm and humor. Tidbits of this and that, with a couple of clippings pasted on the sheet. All of this seems to run in the family; his mother was a clip artist, too. As am I; though in recent years that activity has become digitized.

To answer his question (Who is Val?): VAL was my valuation trademark, back in the day. I invented a measure of stock valuation and named it VAL because catchy; I think it stood for Valuation Attractiveness Level or something like that — after all these years, I’d have to look at some of my old work to see if I’m remembering correctly.

Dad was a huge jazz fan — many stories go with that (going with Barbara to the Blue Note in the Village and having him connect with the cat who was playing there; his record collection that I gave to the Trinity College library; and so on). Jimmy Guiffre was a good friend of his; they used to play together at the Stockbridge Inn, long before it became Michael’s Restaurant. Dad was a talented keyboard player (and composer), but with Jimmy he mostly played the sax and clarinet.

Alford 2020 Annual Town Meeting

Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Town of Alford
Town Moderator
Michael F. Wilcox
mfw {at} mfw(.)us

Alford Town Meeting 2020 Advisory Committee

In Formation as of May 8, 2020

I have begun the process of forming an advisory committee to assist me in my role as Town Moderator. I will need the help of many people to plan for and then to execute our Annual Town Meeting (ATM), which, as we all know, will be held under unusual circumstances.

Our Select Board has postponed our 2020 ATM from its originally scheduled date of May 12th to June 23rd.

There are several scenarios as to how the ATM might be conducted, and these will be discussed at the Select Board meeting of May 11th. I expect that the first meeting of this ad hoc Advisory Committee will be held via the Zoom platform sometime later in that week.

I welcome the participation of community members. Anyone interested in helping out can contact me at the email address given above. As of this date, the following people are among the folks who I think would be helpful. Some of these people have already accepted my invitation to join this effort, others I have not yet heard back from, and still others I have not yet been able to contact.

  • Charlie Ketchen, Chair, Select Board
  • Peggy Henden-Wilson, Town Clerk
  • Roxanne Germain, Treasurer and Tax Collector
  • Monty Green and/or TJ Horrigan, Highway Department
  • Tim Roy, Alford Police
  • Joan Rogers, Chair, Finance Committee
  • Jayne Smith, Public Heath Agent
  • Steve Berkel and/or Joe Morandi, Fire Department
  • Tim Ortwein and Jim Hall, AlfordLink Commission
  • Jeff Blaugrund, School Committee Representative
  • Shirley Mueller, Community Volunteer

Any other suggestions or volunteers are welcome.

Protected: A Moral Dilemma

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Resources for OLLI Course: “A Walk Through Berkshire History” Spring 2019

Here is a list of links to the slides I used in my classes, as well as various blog posts, articles, and other resources that have been referenced during my lectures, or mentioned in my emails to the OLLI students, or that came to mind as I was preparing this list.

Background

Here is a brief introduction to the course.

Please note that nearly all of the material here is copyrighted, either by me or by my sources, and is intended to be used solely for educational purposes. I have tried to acknowledge all the help I received, from my students and others. Apologies to anyone I may have inadvertently failed to thank. The course turned into a larger undertaking than I had originally envisioned, and I probably learned more than my students did, since I sorted through an enormous amount of material before deciding how to condense it into class presentations.

Slides

  • Session One [Mahican-Mohawk Trail]
  • Session Two [Ice Glen and Laura’s Tower] (some overlap with Session One, since the discussion of the Mahican-Mohawk Trail continued in Session Two, before taking on the Laurel Hill Association properties in Stockbridge)
  • Session Three [segue from Stockbridge to Monterey] (again, some overlap and review, since the discussions of properties didn’t fall neatly one into each session, and there was more interest in the Mohicans than I had anticipated)
  • Session Four [Bidwell House]
  • Session Five [Alford Springs and Parsons Marsh]
  • Session Six [Keystone Arch Bridges] plus some review, additional information, and answers to questions raised in prior sessions

Articles mentioned and Other Resources that might be of interest

Other related (and somewhat more personal) information:

  • Land Acknowledgement: the idea for this came from Simon Winchester, who did a similar thing in Sandisfield, where he is the Town Moderator. My specific application to Alford was informed by the research I had done for the OLLI course.
  • A little humor to avow My Disqualifications: I wanted to be sure my students knew I didn’t take myself too seriously. I’m not an historian, and I relied on the work of others to provide the information I conveyed.
  • And just in case you think I’m being too modest and don’t know how to brag, this (partial) list of my accomplishments should disabuse you of that notion!
  • My rather verbose introduction to myself and the course.
  • Edwin Curtis Bidwell, my grandmother’s grandfather.

I’m sure there are more items, so I’ll add to this list from time to time, as I notice them. If you have any questions about anything here (or that I omitted) feel free to contact me. Those in my course know my email address, others can leave a note here.