the harvest

Here’s a short story I wrote in college; the assignment was to write about death for a younger audience.

Copyright 2012 Cian FentonAs Kevin stepped out of his family’s two-story Victorian home on Auburn Street, bright red maple leaves were soaring across the blue October sky like sparks from a roaring campfire. Kevin felt a tinge of sadness on this crisp Saturday morning. Although he enjoyed the colorful shower of leaves, he knew that it would soon give way to the bland skies and bleached earth of November.

After strolling seven blocks down Auburn, he turned right onto Melrose Avenue. The public library, a red brick building with a large clock tower, sat comfortably upon the curb of the avenue two blocks ahead. It was almost nine-thirty. Remembering that the weekly puppet show began at that time, Kevin quickened his pace and soon found himself inside the library’s main entrance. As he stepped inside, he noticed an unusual silence. Much to his surprise, the children’s corner of the library was vacant—no puppet stage, no puppets, no people. He hurried to the librarian’s desk.

“Where’s the puppet show today?” he asked anxiously.

“There is no puppet show today,” explained the librarian in an even whisper. “We have puppet shows all summer, but not in the fall. They’ll start up again next spring.” She smiled apologetically.

Disheartened, Kevin turned around and slowly headed home, kicking leaves off the sidewalk and secretly wishing it were summer again.

Suddenly, his eye caught sight of several orange pumpkins peeking out of a lush garden on the corner of Auburn and Melrose. An elderly man in red overalls with a white baseball cap was milling through a jungle of squash vines. There were many other vegetables in his garden—tomatoes, corn, cabbage, carrots, peas and potatoes—but Kevin’s eyes shot instantly toward the large pumpkins resting in the shade of their vines.

Pumpkins fascinated Kevin. Every October, his father would drive him and his sisters to a roadside stand outside of town to find pumpkins for Halloween. Without fail, Kevin would search out the largest and roundest pumpkin available.

The old man in the garden waved to Kevin and, noticing the boy’s interest, motioned to him to come into the pumpkin patch. Kevin was overjoyed.

“Hello, young man,” said the gardener, removing his cap to wipe some sweat from his brow.

“Hi,” said Kevin in a distracted tone of voice. “These are the hugest pumpkins I’ve ever seen. Did you grow them yourself?”

The old man smiled warmly. “Not really,” he replied. “I planted them, weeded around them when they were small and watered them, but God did the rest.”

Kevin stood in silent admiration of the pumpkins. Finally, he could contain himself no longer. “Can I have one?”

Laughing softly, the old man replaced his cap. “Sure. They’re not quite ready to be picked yet, though. In another couple of days they’ll be ready. Come back sometime next week and I’ll let you choose one.”

“Thanks! I’ll stop by after school sometime,” replied Kevin as he turned back toward the road.

The old man called after him. “If I’m not in the garden, I’ll be up at the house. My name’s Sidney.”

Kevin turned toward Sidney. “I’m Kevin. See ya later, Sidney.”

The days flew past like migrating geese and soon it was Wednesday. When class was dismissed that afternoon, Kevin hurried home to his garage, padded his wagon with some leaves and headed toward Sidney’s.

When he arrived, Sidney was out in the garden picking squash. The garden had changed drastically since Saturday. All of the vines had wilted into limp brown clumps and the colorful squash sat exposed atop the withered foliage. Kevin was horrified by the change.

Sidney stopped his work and greeted the boy. “Hi, Kevin.”

“What happened to all the vines?” asked Kevin. He surveyed the garden with knitted brows.

“We had a hard frost last night. The vines can’t handle that kind of cold weather. The chilly nights are right on time; they always arrive just when the pumpkins are ready,” said Sidney.

“You mean it’s meant to happen like this?”

“Yep. Every year it’s the same. God has a pretty good plan for growing things. He waits for the plants to finish their work and then he puts them down to sleep.”

Kevin thought about this for a moment. “It’s sad, though, isn’t it? I mean, the dying plants and the falling leaves.”

“It all depends on how you look at it, Kevin. Look at this pumpkin here, for example. The pumpkin seed I planted last spring had one thing in mind when I put it in the ground; its task was to grow into this pumpkin. All summer long, it grew into vines to absorb the sun and water so that it could produce a pumpkin. Then, when the pumpkin was ready, the vine was no longer needed. So the cold weather came and took the vine away so that everyone could see the beautiful pumpkin. So it’s not really sad, Kevin. The vine did its job and the pumpkin is the result of its hard work.”

Kevin thought he understood what Sidney was saying. He had another question, though. “But why does the vine have to die?”

“Vines aren’t meant to last forever. Although they grow and spread through the garden, they’re mostly interested in making a pumpkin. That’s the important thing. When the pumpkin is ready, the rest of the plant isn’t needed anymore.”

Satisfied with this answer, Kevin began to survey the pumpkin patch. He soon discovered his favorite pumpkin; naturally, it was the largest. Sidney helped him twist the pumpkin from its vine and put it gently into the wagon.

“You sure know how to pick ‘em,” said Sidney. “Why don’t you come inside and have a cup of cider and some cookies? Then you can meet Judy, my wife. I told her you were coming, and she baked a batch of cookies yesterday so I’d have something to give such a hard-working pumpkin picker.”

Kevin had no objections. As they entered Sidney’s house, the aroma of cinnamon and apples wafted through the door to greet them. Judy, a kind woman with a face full of smiling wrinkles, greeted them as well. The old couple chatted with Kevin about the garden and the neighborhood and pumpkins. “If you’d like to help me plant my pumpkins next year, I sure would appreciate the help,” said Sidney. Kevin thought it was an excellent idea.

Soon, Kevin remembered that he had homework waiting for him. He thanked the old couple for the snack and stepped out onto the porch. “Stop by any time,” Sidney offered. “Enjoy your pumpkin.”

As autumn turned to winter, Kevin made regular visits to Sidney’s house. Sidney and Judy treated Kevin like a grandson; they had no grandchildren of their own, so they always enjoyed his company. Whenever Kevin visited, Judy would bring out a set of finger paints and then Kevin would create a masterpiece for the front of their refrigerator. By Christmastime, the refrigerator was covered with his artwork.

One day in February when Kevin stopped by, Judy came to the door and told him that Sidney was sick and couldn’t get out of bed. Kevin asked if he could see him. “Well, since he’s not asleep, I don’t see why not,” replied Judy.

Kevin entered the bedroom quietly. “Hi, Sidney.”

“Well, it’s Kevin!” Sidney exclaimed weakly. “It’s nice of you to stop by. How are you?”

“Okay,” Kevin replied. “Are you real sick?”

Sidney smiled. “Oh, it’s not so bad. I went out to get the mail without my coat on last week and I think I just caught a little cold. If I rest up, I should be healthy again in no time.”

“You look awfully white, Sidney. You sure you’re all right?”

“I think so. I went to see the doctor yesterday and he’s supposed to call me if it’s anything serious. Hey! Guess what? I’ve got a surprise for you,” Sidney said, reaching for a small wrapped package in the top drawer of his nightstand. He handed the present to Kevin.

Kevin unwrapped the present recklessly. Inside, he found a package of pumpkin seeds. “Mammoth pumpkins!” Kevin exclaimed after examining the label. “Wow, I bet these’ll be huge!”

“I guess we’ll find out next summer,” said Sidney. “I’ve never tried that kind of seed before.”

After visiting for a little while, Kevin returned home. He could hardly wait for the arrival of spring when he could plant the seeds. Arriving in his bedroom, he stowed them safely in his sock drawer.

Later that week, Kevin went back to visit Sidney again. This time he brought some of his mom’s chicken noodle soup. Judy greeted him at the door. She took the soup graciously and gently placed it on the stove. Her wrinkles looked different today, Kevin thought—they were stretched more tightly, almost stretched into frowns.

Sidney was still in bed, and he wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, he told Kevin that the doctor had asked him to go to the hospital where doctors could take better care of him.

Kevin sat in frightened silence for a moment. “Are you gonna get better?” he asked with a quivering voice.

Sidney paused for a moment. “I’m not sure,” he said softly. “I’m getting pretty old and I don’t fight off sickness like I used to. I’m sure they’ll take good care of me at the hospital, and maybe I’ll be coming back home real soon.”

Kevin winced, trying to hold back tears.

“Kevin, it’s okay if you want to cry. I cry sometimes too.”

Kevin was sobbing now. Sidney reached out to embrace him.

“You know, I’m not too worried about going to sleep and not waking up again. You know why? Because I’m kind of like that pumpkin plant I was telling you about. God planted me one day and has taken care of me for seventy-five years. While I’ve been here, I’ve branched out to see many things and meet many people, including you. I think maybe God’s getting ready to harvest me, though. He’s been waiting a long time for me, and I think maybe I’m just about ready.” Sidney chuckled gently through the tears that were now in his own eyes. “When I am ready, God will take me to his house for all time. So I’m not worried about dying.”

“I’ll miss you if you go,” Kevin blurted out between sobs.

“I’ll miss you too, Kevin. But we’ll be together again one day. Someday you’ll be ready and God’ll pick you and bring you to his house too. Until then, though, enjoy being like that pumpkin vine.  Bask in the sun. Drink in the rain. Spread out your branches—meet other people and enjoy the things around you, and never forget that God awaits you. It’s an exciting thing, growing up. Scary, sometimes, too. God will be watching out for you and one day you’ll be with him for always.”

Kevin sat back and wiped the tears from his eyes.

“I want you to promise me something, Kevin. If God harvests me before next spring, I want you to go ahead and plant those pumpkins anyway. You’ll do a terrific job. Is it a deal?”

“Deal.”

Kevin continued to stop by Sidney’s house to see Judy and bring drawings for Sidney that he had made at school. One day when he arrived at Sidney’s house, Judy didn’t answer the doorbell. Turning back toward the street, he saw a car pulling slowly into the driveway. It was Judy.

As she approached on the sidewalk, Kevin noticed a thin smile on her face. “Hello, Kevin. Have you been standing here long? I’m sorry. I just got back from the hospital. Come in.”

Once inside, Judy brought out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk, without saying a word. Kevin knew that something was wrong.

“Is Sidney okay?” he asked anxiously.

“Kevin,” she said quietly, “Sidney didn’t wake up today.”

Kevin didn’t know what to say. He felt his stomach plummet—the way it would in a car speeding over the top of a steep hill. Staring blankly at the refrigerator with all of his paintings on it, he started to cry.

Judy followed his eyes to the refrigerator. “Those are some beautiful paintings,” she said. “You know, Sidney’s just like one of those paintings. God painted him one day and put him in the world to dry. It took a long time, but God was really patient. As soon as the paint dried, God wanted to put him up on his refrigerator so he could see him all the time. And you know what? I think Sidney’s pretty happy there.” A tear slowly worked its way across her wrinkled face.

Kevin nodded in agreement.

On a crisp Saturday morning in late May, Kevin went over to Sidney’s old garden and planted his pumpkin seeds with Judy’s help. He took his gardening seriously: as soon as he had planted the seeds, he went directly to the library to check out a book on growing pumpkins.

Kevin visited the garden at least twice a week during the summer to water the vines, to weed around the plants and to spend time with Judy. The vines spread from one edge of the garden to the other, meeting the fence on one side and embracing the rock terrace on the opposite. One pumpkin grew to be especially large. Since it was Kevin’s favorite, he decided to name it Sidney.

Before long, the maple leaves were once again dancing through the autumn breeze like blizzard-driven snowflakes. Kevin watched vigilantly for the first frost to steal its way across the neighborhood, and when it had, he padded his wagon and headed down to the garden. After enjoying some cookies with Judy, he picked the pumpkins and gave them all to her—all, that is, except one. Kevin picked up one enormous pumpkin and put it in the back of his wagon.

As he hauled the wagon down the driveway toward Melrose Avenue, he waved toward the bay window where Judy stood watching him. Then, surrounded by a flurry of red and orange leaves, he turned the corner onto Auburn Street.

“Come on, Sidney,” he said to the pumpkin. “You’re coming home with me.”

the first casualty of war

Screen Shot 2020-08-26 at 6.52.13 AMI remember one of my high school English teachers explaining to us that truth is the first casualty of war.

Sacrifices during wartime make sense. But if a government makes serious miscalculations about the nature of an enemy and the extent of a threat, and then refuses to face the data, soldiering on with measures that trample over the lives of its citizens, one could be justified in asking if we are being compelled to join in a false crusade with grave consequences to the human family.

If you haven’t yet watched the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, it’s incredibly relevant to this moment.

There are manifold ways to mislead others. One is by understating a threat, and another is by overstating it. Still another is by refusing to change course when the truth appears down an unexpected road. But once the truth reveals itself, and you insist on keeping it concealed: look out. The truth has no regard for your attempts to suppress it. It’s a losing battle every time.

May our first fidelity be to the truth, discovered along the pathways of humility and generosity. Let us be convinced that only on that basis can we serve the common good. All other paths lead to deadly illusions.

oxymorons and the science of being human

2020 is turning out to be the Year of the Oxymoron:

Flattening the Curve.
Social Distancing.
The New Normal.
Fake News.
Social Media.
Supreme Court Justice.
Artificial Intelligence.
Political Discourse.

If I were a Hollywood studio exec, I’d say this would be the time to re-release Romancing the Stone.

But in all seriosity: One oxymoron in particular deserves our attention.

We asked people to engage in disengagement, coining the oxymoronic phrase social distancing.

The compliance has been remarkable.

I’m not sure why we are surprised by the destruction of other people’s property, violent speech, and other threatening and egocentric behaviors.

Most of the appeals to science were appeals to technology, and very little attention was paid to the science of human behavior. We are social creatures, and we were being asked to violate our nature in the pursuit of some greater good (putting aside the question of whether science suggested that the good in question was achievable or even beneficial). I’m not sure why we expected that to come off without some serious repercussions.

To quote C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

I know there were appeals to altruism in the lockdown (“do it for your neighbor” or “we’re all in this together” or even “you’re not pro-life if you don’t comply”). Instead of appealing to people’s reason, however, or their better instincts, in many situations a play was made to activate a sense of shame in those who asked for a rational discussion. I think that’s a trend that, if not put in check, does not bode well for the future of social change.

“There is a great temptation to say, ‘But there is so much suffering in the world! — let’s suspend the question of truth for a while. First let’s get on with the great social tasks of liberation; then, one day, we will indulge in the luxury of the question of truth.’ In fact, however, if we postpone the question of truth and declare it to be unimportant, we are emasculating man, depriving him of the very core of his human dignity. If there is no truth, everything is a matter of indifference. Then social order swiftly becomes compulsion, and participation becomes violation.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One)

 

on living in a COVID age

Screen Shot 2020-08-08 at 8.04.22 AMIf C.S. Lewis were alive today, I think he’d write an essay something like this:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the coronavirus. “How are we to live in a COVID age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the coronavirus appeared: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by a virus, let that virus when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about infection. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

—  based on the essay “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Dr. Robert Epstein’s 2019 testimony about Facebook

Almost exactly a year ago (July 16, 2019), Dr. Robert Epstein testified before Judiciary Subcommittee SD 226 about Facebook’s undue influence in US elections.

Unfortunately, I have not seen evidence that any of the concerns raised by Dr. Epstein have been addressed as we speed toward the November 2020 presidential elections.

I didn’t post this on my blog last year — I think I only shared it on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn — but since its relevance remains, I’m posting it here today.

SPEAKERS:
STC – Senator Ted Cruz
DRE – Dr Robert Epstein

FULL TRANSCRIPT (with timecode)

STC: As I understand your background: you’re not a Republican and nor are you a conservative. Is that accurate?

DRE: That would be an understatement.

STC: And indeed you’re the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.

DRE: Correct.

STC: So you’re a respected academic. You testified before this committee that Google’s manipulation of votes gave at least 2.6 million additional votes to Hillary Clinton in the year 2016. Is that correct?

DRE: That’s correct.

STC: And I want to make sure I understand: you personally supported and voted for Hillary Clinton.

DRE: I was a very strong public supporter of Hillary Clinton. Yes.

STC: So you’re not dismayed that people voted for her, but your testimony is that Google is — through bias in search results — manipulating voters in a way they’re not aware of?

DRE: On a massive scale. And what I’m saying is that I believe in democracy. I believe in the free and fair election more than I have any kind of allegiance to a candidate or a party.

STC: And looking forward — if I understood your testimony correctly — you said in subsequent elections, Google and Facebook and Twitter and big text manipulation could manipulate as many as 15 million votes in a subsequent election?

DRE: In 2020, if all these companies are supporting the same candidate, there are 15 million votes on the line that can be shifted without people’s knowledge and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace.

STC: Now you described the “Go Vote” reminder and you said it wasn’t a public service announcement but rather manipulation. Can you explain how? I’m not sure everyone followed the details of that.

DRE: Well, sure. If, on Election Day in 2016… if Mark Zuckerberg, for example, had chosen to send out a “Go Vote” reminder, say just to Democrats — and no one would have known if he had done this — that would have given that day an additional at least 450,000 votes to Democrats. And we know this without doubt because of Facebook’s own published data… because they did an experiment (that they didn’t tell anyone about) during the 2010 election. They published it in 2012. It had 60 million Facebook users involved. They sent out a “Go Vote” reminder and they got something like 360,000 more people to get off their sofas and go vote who otherwise would have stayed home. The point is I don’t think that Mr. Zuckerberg sent out that reminder in 2016. I think he was overconfident. I think Google was overconfident (and) that all these companies were. I don’t think he sent that out. Without monitoring systems in place, we’ll never know what these companies are doing.

DRE: But the point is: In 2018, I’m sure they were more aggressive. We have lots of data to support that. And in 2020? You can bet that all of these companies are going to go all out and the methods that they’re using are invisible. They are subliminal. They’re more powerful than most any effects I’ve ever seen in the Behavioral Sciences, and I’ve been in the Behavioral Sciences for almost 40 years.

STC: You know our Democratic colleagues on this committee often talk about what they view as the pernicious effect of big money and big corporate dollars. What you are testifying to is that a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires and giant corporations are able to spend millions of dollars — if not billions of dollars — collectively, massively influencing the results of elections, and there’s no accountability.

STC: You said we don’t know… We have no way of knowing if Google or Facebook or Twitter sends it sends its Democrats or Republicans or how they bias it, because it’s a black box with no transparency or accountability whatsoever. Am I understanding you correctly?

DRE: Senator, with respect, I must correct you.

STC: Please.

DRE: If Mark Zuckerberg chooses to send out a “Go Vote” reminder just to Democrats on Election Day, that doesn’t cost him a dime.

STC: Fair enough. Do you happen to know who the Hillary Clinton campaign’s number one financial supporter was in the year 2016?

DRE: I think I do. But please remind me.

STC: The number one financial supporter of the Hillary Clinton campaign in the 2016 election was the parent company of Google — Alphabet — who was our first witness. They were her number one financial donor. And your testimony is: through their deceptive search methods, they moved 2.6 million votes in her direction. I would think anybody — whether or not you favor one camp or another — should be deeply dismayed about a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires having that much power over our elections to silently and deceptively shift vote outcomes.

DRE: Again, with respect, I must correct you. The 2.6 million is a rock-bottom minimum. The range is between 2.6 and 10.4 million, depending on how aggressively they used the techniques that I’ve been studying now for six-and-a-half years.

STC: Wow. Could you just say that again, please?

DRE: The 2.6 million is a rock bottom minimum: The range is between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes, depending on how aggressive they were in using the techniques that I’ve been studying, such as the search engine manipulation effect, the search suggestion effect, the answer bot effect, and a number of others. They control these and no one can counteract them. These are not competitive. These are tools that they have at their disposal exclusively.

STC: If any headline comes out of this hearing, that should be it.