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Did Homo Sapiens Make Two Faustian Bargains With Work?

This essay should be read as a work of science fiction or as speculative rumination. The idea, in what follows, is to push the envelope with regard to my thinking about the place and value of work in modern life. Whether many of the claims contained herein are true I really couldn’t say.

A Day of Thinking

I’m trying to gather together a series of insights that occurred to me yesterday, so bear with me here. I had a philosophical conversation with a young Swedish man who realized that he had never found meaning through work and nor, as I suggest, could he because “meaningful work” is impossible. I had a second philosophical conversation with an Argentine man, a COO who observed that the very wealthy, successful, and high-status businessmen he knew, those who put work first, were unhappy. I also read some remarkable essays yesterday. Three are worth mentioning. Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work” reveals a journalist who can’t climb outside the bounds of total work and for this reason is perpetuating some delusions (about which more below). More carefully and provocatively, Marshall Sahlins, in his seminal “The Original Affluent Society,” makes a case for the easy subsistence and relative abundance of hunter-gatherers during the paleolithic period (a view seconded, I think, in some of the pages of Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.) Sahlins’s proposal contradicts the commonsensical view that human civilization was an unqualified good and one that surely brought about immense progress in culture as well as human happiness. The most profound of the three, I think, is Bob Black’s “The Abolition of Work,” a stirring anarchist essay published in 1985 and one that remains both important and prescient today. To round things off, I had a great call with the writer Michael Coren who made me think that the trouble with total work may very well extend back farther than the Protestant Reformation (as Weber seems to have thought). His prodding spurred me to think further.

How can I begin to make sense of all these things? My tentative thesis is that homo sapiens has accepted two Faustian bargains. One occurs at the outset of the Agricultural Revolution, the other at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.

I’ll start with the present context and then tack my way backward.

Total Work Is Everywhere

Total work is everywhere. To work on yourself, you can work out, work through your troubled relationships, or complete Byron Katie’s program of self-inquiry aptly called The Work. All of which would, as it is so often said, be hard work. Weekends are said to be good in virtue of your having gotten a lot done, time off is filled with endless tasks and To-Do Lists, and meditation, itself yet again hard work, is said to make you more productive at work. What’s more, countless apps, time management gurus, and courses in life hacking promise to make you more efficient. Even taking drugs is now work: no longer done just to get fucked up or to have non-ordinary experiences but, as some would say, because ayahuasca or LSD is “the work.” What is going on here?

A lesser-known twentieth century German philosopher named Josef Pieper turned out to be a prophet. Just after World War II, he observed that what could come to pass would be a period of “total work,” a time when the center of our lives would be work, everything else turning around it while slowly, almost imperceptibly turning into it. He noted the dramatic historical reversal evident in the movement from Aristotle’s view that we work in order to embrace contemplative leisure to Weber’s bourgeois view that we live in order to fulfill a “secular calling.”

In the twenty-first century, Pieper’s omen has come true: we live in a time of total work, and we are on the verge of becoming total workers. Each day I speak with people from Scandinavia to Wall Street, from Central America to Silicon Valley who are not overworked but total worked and are suffering deeply as a result. Those 60-100 hours individuals I speak with log each week in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street are, by my lights, not the thing itself, are not just instances of overwork in need of “moderation” but are rather, and more emphatically, symptoms of the hegemony of total work. It’s a deep predicament into which we’ve fallen as well as a historical development I seek to challenge.

Basic Theses

1. The First Noble Truth, according to the Buddha, is that human life insofar as we ordinarily experience it is suffering (dukkha).

2. The Second Noble Truth, as I construe it, is that the cause of human suffering is mental confusion.

3. I used to think that doing the wrong kind of work caused suffering, the right sort of work bringing enjoyment, but in this I now realize that I was deeply mistaken.

4. We are extraordinarily confused about the place and value of work in human life. As I’m now beginning to see, the chief (but not sole) cause of human suffering is work itself, regardless of the kind of work one does. This doesn’t mean that some work isn’t better than others (surely it is), but it does mean that no work is exempt from at least some modicum of suffering and all work requires sacrifice, however small or large. I’ll come to our sacrifices below when I discuss our Faustian bargains.

What Is Work?

Work is doing whatever I (or we) need to do in order to survive and to continue to survive. Period. Nothing more and nothing less. Storing and saving will begin to be human inventions after the Agricultural Revolution (which is dated to 10,000-12,000 years ago), and, for us in civilization, it is one way in which we continue to survive. In The Protestant Work Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism, Max Weber observes that a “person does not ‘by nature’ want to make more and more money, but simply to live–to live in a manner in which he is accustomed to live, and to earn as much as is necessary for this.” This he terms traditionalism, and here I wish to draw a generalization based on his vital observation. It is that a human being does not “by nature” want to work more and more just in order to survive (or to accumulate and thereafter invest capital); he simply wants to live “in a manner in which he is accustomed to live” and so to do just enough in order to make this happen.

How did this traditionalist view, this sensible intuition get radically overturned?

The First Faustian Bargain

A Faustian bargain, as I’ll use the term in what follows, means accepting a deal that seems really good to you at the time but turns out, often much later on, to be the kind of raw deal that carries massive unintended, harmful consequences. It seemed like a good idea for Faust to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly power, but it turned out to be a very raw deal indeed.

The Myth of the Fall, as it’s beautifully detailed in Genesis, can be interpreted as humankind’s first Faustian bargain, the one that tracks our moving into an agrarian society some 10,000-12,000 years ago. It seemed like a good idea for human beings to (a) gain consciousness of themselves (upon eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, “the eyes of both of them were opened” [Gen 3:7]) and for humankind to (b) have dominion over all other sentient beings. Yet in exchange for consciousness and dominion, homo sapiens had to work, women henceforth being engaged in “painful labor” to reproduce the species and men henceforth bound to “painful toil” in the fields.

We have enough evidence now to determine that the early neolithic period must have been brutal. As Harari describes it, farming, unlike hunting and gathering, was back-breathing and anxiety-producing. Sickness surely reared up as humans formed settlements, lived in close quarters, lacked proper sanitation, and died young. Agrarian work has caused humankind immense human suffering since.

What seems clear, though, is that this Faustian bargain could be the way in which humankind could achieve dominion over the rest of the world. Perhaps not just the Cognitive Revolution, perhaps not just homo sapiens’ capacity to cooperate, perhaps not just our ingenuity when it comes to making and using tools (homo sapiens as homo faber), perhaps not just these and other revolutions but work itself could enable us to remake the world. We know from reading Harari’s Sapiens, Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction that humankind has grown from a small, unremarkable band to 7.1 billion people at present and, while expanding thusly, has caused animal extinctions and ecological degradation of all kinds while remaking the world. As I see it, this Faustian bargain says, “Thou shalt inherit the earth, remaking it in thy image, yet thy great sacrifice shalt be the extent to which thou shalt suffer in and through thy work. Thou shalt be like gods and like slaves both.” Imagine that: like gods and slaves both. What a strange fate!

The Second Faustian Bargain

What’s encoded in the first Faustian bargain are a few basic ideas about the nature of work. (1) Work is “toil and trouble,” as Adam Smith once wrote, and (2) work is a tolerable necessity. We’re familiar with the first, but only listen to people today for a few precious moments and you’ll very soon hear them say, upon your questioning the value of work, “Dammit, man, but you’ve got to work! You have to work! What are you–some damn hippie?” They are encoding in their knee-jerk statements the idea that work is a necessity. But is it? Must we? And: did it have to be this way?

In any event, up until modernity most cultures reasonably relegated work to the slaves, the serfs, the peasants, and the artisans. Those of noble birth, those in positions of power, and those occupying the priestly class usually saw work as something that was beneath them. In an aristocratic culture, for instance, work was regarded as worthy of contempt. “Let slaves and slavish types work; we would not deign to lower ourselves to do that!” Human suffering through work could be “solved” by distinguishing between those classes of people exempt from work and those not so exempt. Only some bore the brunt of the raw deal while others enjoyed the fruits of the labor, and some such metaphysical beliefs about the precarity of the cosmic order ensured that slave revolts weren’t live options.

The reason Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic strikes me as such a profound treatise is that it can be interpreted as containing, as a seed within itself, a novel Faustian bargain, the second one, a bargain that is much more radical and far-reaching than the first. Remember that the first Faustian bargain goes like this: in exchange for consciousness (what Zen might critically call subject-object dualism) as well as, and more emphatically, dominion over the world you shall work. Yet still work was slavish, and no one in his right mind would want to work. It is simply understood that some class of people would need to work for the sake of the rest of us. Capiche?

Something uncanny happens on the road to modernity. Oh, holy of holies, it comes to pass that everyone from rich to poor comes to want to work! Isn’t that a marvel? Is it even fathomable? As I read Weber’s treatise, homo sapiens made a dramatic, and perhaps irreversible (?), turn as we accepted a second Faustian bargain. This one states, “In exchange for (a) greater scientific and then technological domination of the earth (cf. the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions) and for (b) the justification of human existence, you shall put work front and center in your daily life and in human culture, according work near-infinite value.” Work was no longer slavish; work was divinized. Somehow.

I want to dwell on point (b). What I believe is undeniably mind-blowing is that work could come, in modernity, to seem as if it were a justification for a particular human life  as well as for humankind. As one five-year-old American child very recently put it, “I was born to work.” If someone were to ask, “Why is humankind here? Why do we exist? What would enable us to overcome our existential Angst, our anomie, our acedia, our creeping nihilism?,” the second Faustian bargain would seem a great blessing since it would do away with our existential doubts, assuring us that we were born to work.

Delusions

Let me be candid. What makes this brief contrarian history of work of the kind I’ve begun here a dangerous endeavor is that it flies in the face of what we’ve come to learn and to believe. We moderns believe that work is at least a necessity. Is it? But we believe much more than this! Going much, much further, we moderns also believe that work (a) brings us fulfillment and (b) enables us to find, or create, meaning. Does it bring fulfillment? Is meaning through work even possible? Indeed, more than this, we believe that it is our very reason for being.

Our delusions about the place of work in human life and modern culture run very deep. We do not know that work itself, not just this kind or that, is causing us suffering, immense, often unspoken suffering. We should at least ask whether the whole thing has been worth it.

Was All This Worth It?

Was either Faustian bargain worth it? I’m not so sure. In “The Abolition of Work,” Bob Black writes at the outset, “Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost all the evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work.” Was the domination of the earth in exchange for supreme human suffering worth it? I don’t know. Was being able to have a justification for human existence (I’m “born to work,” you “live to work,” we worship work) in exchange for the unfolding of the Geist of total work worth it? I doubt it. Or has the ever-unfolding, possibly inexorable logic of the Geist of total work on the backs of human lives been too high a cost for homo sapiens to pay? I’m beginning to think so. Slaves to work, we suffer mightily our ideas.

Crossroads: A Sanctuary For Spirituality

Upcoming Exhibition

My wife Alexandra Dawn Taggart will be exhibiting at freSH Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from June 8th-June 25th, 2017. “Crossroads: A Sanctuary for Spirituality” is a group exhibition that seeks to embrace religious and spiritual diversity by presenting visual artwork that’s born from an artist’s spiritual practice. The exhibition is hosted by Miri Piri Academy, a private boarding school that was founded by Yogi Bhajan in 1997. Located in Amritsar, Punjab, India, the school is geared toward instructing children and young adults on the importance of Sikh and Khalsa values, kundalini yoga, and academic excellence.

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Painting Descriptions

Title: One Divided Without A Second # 3 (Left, Below)
Size: 24″ x 8″
Medium: Mixed media on wood board
Year: 2016

Zen Buddhist teacher Katsuki Sekida has been a source of great inspiration for me, most poignantly when he writes about “see[ing] things as they truly are.” According to Sekida, what we see is shaped by our mood, the latter serving as the “keynote” or central theme of our existence. Human beings, he asserts, live in their mood for as long as they live. Mood, a result of embodiment, moves beyond the workings of our physical body and the mental activity of the brain as we “mind” or relate to our environment. Sekida thinks that the life of a child is defined rather simply by “two different worlds of mood, one warm, the other cold; one soft, the other hard.” These worlds multiply, become vaster as we move with an increasingly deluded consciousness into adulthood. If I understand Sekida rightly, our deluded consciousness, which develops as we mature, springs from an intellectual awareness of oppositions and discriminations. This kind of intellectual awareness separates our existence from that of other existing things. Desert hills and stars and planets, all of which pass beyond and above, are mere recipients of our conceptual understanding. We are now, as Sekida puts it in an allusion to Heidegger, “being-in-the-world”, which detrimentally alters the mood of existence. What happens to an adult upon their “being-in-the-world?” Sekida’s answer: “vividness of sense and mood has died out, replaced by a conceptual way of thinking. [They are] an intellectual being and [have] killed the precious sense and mood of childhood.” We needn’t despair about his disquieting statement because Sekida reminds us that the mood of a child has never been lost since it’s “preserved” within us. In this mixed media piece, I seek to portray such a preservation of mood. The wandering figure–curious, awe-struck, and open– finds the purified wisdom of his flexible mind, thereby seeings things as they truly are.
FRESH

Title: One Divided Without A Second # 5 (Right, Above)
Size: 24″ x 6″
Medium: Mixed media on wood board
Year: 2016

“We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us.” In his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Belden C. Lane is quoting Andrew Harvey. What inspires Lane is the sense that what ignores him most is the fierce desert landscape where he’s been hiking, climbing, camping, and musing. The desert, he observes, is indifferent to our beliefs, to our needs, ideas, and desires. I experienced something like this, something like the desert’s stoical nature, while living in Joshua Tree, California. It’s difficult to maintain that you’re an important person when there isn’t a soul with whom you can compare yourself or who can think well of you. It’s challenging, not to say foolhardy, to be vain and preoccupied with your appearance when there’s no one there to look at you. Does this jagged desert landscape care whether I have an impressive resume or naturally curly hair? Do these rock-encrusted mountains folding and stretching and yawning in the distance take note of whether I’ve worn make-up today or will shower tomorrow? For now, for the first time, I’m a lizard, a praying mantis, a bud on a fragrant creosote bush: I’m knee-high to a grasshopper, unseen and obscure. As the moon rises, I watch the darkening clouds ignore me, opaquing, thus making room for a primordial take on this the golden world.

Total Work, the Chief Enemy of Philosophy

This piece is an accompaniment to a fiery LinkedIn post I wrote yesterday.

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I used to think that the chief enemies of philosophy were bullshit and deception. Bullshit because, as Harry Frankfurt in On Bullshit argues, it shows a complete unconcern, or lack of care, for truth. The bullshitter advances whatever will make the ruse efficacious, so that he appears to know what he is talking about and that appearing suffices for him to win the day. As I put it elsewhere, he’s skilled at using whatever is at hand–be it half-truths, confabulations, cock and bull stories, chumminess, statistics, faux-neuroscience–to “pull things off.”

Deception is a more recognizable enemy. If philosophy teaches us to care for the truth, then deception, just insofar as it seeks to mislead us, is a genuine opponent to philosophizing. The more we deceive others, deceive ourselves, or are deceived in turn, the less we’re in contact with the truth.

Only recently, though, did it strike me that bullshitting and deception aren’t the chief enemies of philosophy. Total Work is. Let me explain.

In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the German philosopher Josef Pieper foretold a time when “total work” would come to pass, a time when, as I see it, our lives would revolve around work, working, and–most important for my purposes–work-thoughts and work-feelings. To say that our entire lives would be wrapped up in work is to make a profound understatement.

The man in private equity working 80-120 hours per week when in the midst of finalizing a big deal. The female executive in Silicon Valley working at least 60 hours, not counting all the work from home she does. These are far cries from the late philosopher Bertrand Russell’s proposal, published in 1935, for a maximum four hours of work each day. The longer story of how we got here would need to begin with the Bourgeois Revolution. Such a history would seek to illuminate (i) the advent and then hegemony of commercial society together with (ii) the radical transvaluation of values leading to a newfound affirmation of the realm of production (work) and reproduction (the intimate sphere of the family). Today I simply wish to compare “total work” with philosophy.

Total work is always on the clock. Ever behind, always in a rush toward, or just behind, an approaching, encroaching deadline. Philosophy occurs when clock time falls away. It seeks to put us in the presence of eternity.

Total work assumes that the logic of the market must penetrate into all aspects of life. A man a cofounder and I interviewed yesterday asserted unequivocally his view that all human relationships are transactional. Philosophy denies the logic of the market, opening up a space defined by the gift.

Total work is the latest, and most potent, assertion that the vita activa is first, last, and everything. Philosophy is one such proponent of the view that the vita contemplativa must come first. It is out of thought (whether considered or, later on, spontaneous thought) that good action arises.

Total work is solipsistic. The entire world, it believes, turns around it. It is so wrapped up in itself that there can, in its eyes, be no other. Philosophy privileges the two, even more so the other who speaks. Philosophy opens up time, eternal time, for the other.

Total work is ferociously hegemonic. As I wrote yesterday,

  • The Centrality thesis [the view that total work is that around which everything else in life turns] goes hand in hand with work’s imperial colonization of the rest of our lives. For instance, it’s nearly impossible to think of what is not work without thinking (a) of not-work in work-derived terms (I rest from work; I have a weekend; I am taking a short break from work; I am taking time off from work; I spend time away from work; etc.) or (b) of what is non-work in working terms (“Oh, I have X number of tasks to do on Sunday.” “We need to work on our relationship.” “I’ve been very busy during this holiday.” “We got a lot done on Sunday.”)

Philosophy, like art, welcomes new concepts, fresh perspectives. It doesn’t wish to get bogged down in one way of seeing. Indeed, philosophy is especially focused on changing our perspective on the world and in this it is like art at its best.

Total work denies thought–specifically, thought about First and Last Things. Philosophy embraces thought.

I see that while these points and counterpoints bring out their differences, this approach fails to reveal why total work is such a horrible monster. So, let me come to the heart of the matter. Total work utterly and completely refuses the most basic metaphysical assumption that I believe is true: that life in general and human life in particular is a mystery. Carelessly does total work destroy, even before it begins, the very possibility of questioning what we most basically, fundamentally, ultimately care about. The horrible consequence is that, falling prey to total work, we can live our entire lives without ever having investigated why we’re here. I’m saying that our blind embrace of total work is the culprit, and I’m struck by how modern American culture is one. big. delusion.

Campus Wars: A Culture of Decadence?

By now, most of us are familiar with the controversies, starting back in the fall of 2016, surrounding gender and race on college campuses in Canada and the US. One fairly recent incident bears mentioning: the conservative political commentator Heather Mac Donald gave a speech at Claremont McKenna College. The site where the speech was to be given, the Athenaeum, was obstructed by protestors, and the speech was ultimately given before a small audience presumably consisting of members who were able to make it inside. Protestors outside claimed that she was racist while Mac Donald insisted that her right to free speech had been violated. Other incidents, I suggest, would follow logic that closely resembles this one.

What are all these heated incidents about? Those to the right of center frame the debate as pitting the apologists for free speech against the PC police and social justice warriors (or SJWs). Meanwhile, those to the left of center construe these events as a conflict between the forces of hate (hence calls for hate speech as well as the penchant for shaming) and the claims of justice and respect. Who is right?

As things stand, they could, if viewed from a distance from those of us who are independently minded, appear to be what the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard called a “differend”: the sort of conflict in which the vocabulary of group X is not only heterogenous but also unintelligible to group Y. Both, speaking two different languages, are also, and necessarily, speaking past one another.

Calling this a differend invites us to go further still in our thinking. Suppose we were to take an aesthetic interpretation of these ongoing events. Then what might we notice? One would be the farcical quality of the phenomena. Somehow, the magnitude of the matters under debate is exaggerated by the feelings associated with those matters. If the word farcical seems inapt, then sentimental could be a good substitute. It’s hard to see, provided one remains rather literal-minded about the whole thing, why everyone is so charged up to such a feverish pitch. Another would be the accumulative tedium of the back and forths, of the protests and counterclaims, of the campaigns and counterattacks. One not so involved can’t help feeling rather weary with all of it. So, one might reasonably feel that there’s something farcical about this ongoing controversy, only then to feel a sense of tedium set in, only then to return to sense of its being farce, and so on.

These reflections lead me (aesthetically, not necessarily in strict logical fashion) to think about what these “campus wars” (as I’ll now wryly call them) may be signs of. And I want to suggest, in a word borrowed from Nietzsche, that they are signs of decadence. One of the things that concerned Nietzsche about modernity was that after the death of God there would come, as he saw in the German culture from which he was alienated, a culture of decadence. This culture would be unable to create life-affirming values, to say yes to life. If one were such as “diagnostician” viewing matters from Nietzsche’s perspective, then such a culture would appear as if it had lost its vitality, its creative potency, its ability to say yes and to herald and shepherd the new.

My view, then, is that the farcically feverish and tedious pitch of these campus wars–whether it is the right’s version or the left’s–provides evidence for the decadence of college culture at this stage in history. Both sides are weary, are tired out of ideas. Classical liberal defenses of free speech stretch back to the eighteenth century. Do we really need to make such an Enlightenment-based defense today? Isn’t this old hat? The voice of the left could be traced, at least, back to the birth of the New Left of the 1960s. Is the defense of a small set of unrecognized groups really cause for such vociferousness and, in some cases, physical violence? Are these not signs of things having grown comfortable, too comfortable, too–bourgeois? 

Where, in brief, is the energy associated with creating life-affirming values? Where the breath of natality? Perhaps we should turn our attention away from institutionalized education and look elsewhere–in educational experiments existing at the margins, in artistic and entrepreneurial pursuits springing forth from out-of-the-way places–to find vitality, verve, struggle, real heat, heart. Somewhere earnestness, wholesomeness, and affirmation of life must dwell. Somewhere… Somewhere… Elsewhere…

Being an Odd Ball

I am an odd ball. Hoinacki, Ivan Illich’s buddy:

I suspect that to enjoy this quietly exciting and ever-changing contact with reality, one needs to seek some kind of marginality from the mainstream: physical places in which to drop out, psychical realms in which to dwell apart, spiritual disciplines through which to reach and practice a healthy detachment. Perhaps one should look into vocations to foolishness, to being an odd ball, to living queerly. (Stumbling Toward Justice: Stories of Place, 90)

In the opening line, Hoinacki is referring to a simple, farming life (“quietly exciting and ever-changing contact with [sensuous] reality”) anchored in a specific place, a life outside of the institutions–schools, universities, the market system, modern medical care, the nation-state, plus certain kinds of technology–that define modern society. He argues for “dropping out” and “dwelling apart,” for a kind of detachment from it all.

His beef, like Illich’s, is with institutions. Why? Institutions deform and dehumanize human beings in many ways, yet one of these ways, the one I shall touch on here, is subtle and less often remarked upon. Each institution operates according to a set of concepts and categories that work by distinguishing between what is countable and what is uncountable and, in so doing, the institution must necessarily violate the supreme singularity of this fleshly human being, not to mention other kinds of sentient beings. This becomes especially visible–to the odd ball himself for sure–in the case of the odd ball. The odd ball as odd ball cannot find a home there for such is, by definition, impossible.

For an institution must make illegible or unintelligible the existence as well as the claims of the odd ball. It does this either by forcing the odd ball to shoehorn himself into a category that inaptly fits in order for him to have some chance of existing inside the margins of this institution or else by rendering him or her invisible and–worse–mute. Her kind of speech cannot be heard because it is absolutely unhearable. Must he make himself speak theirs, or shall he continue with his foreign poetry?

The odd ball, as odd ball, cannot register her sense of difference for difference is precisely what is impossible in the eyes of the institution. The reign of sameness is evident in the subsumable under the ready-to-hand concept (X is subsumable under concept P) or in what is assimilable according to analogy (X is like enough to concept P).

What is left for the odd ball but a positive affirmation of life apart–for a kind of mock foolishness (relative to the eyes of the institution) and for a pleasant, natural oddishness that suits him or her very nicely. The odd ball must learn to hang his hat on a tree bending over the river into which he has happily plunged his bare feet. Maybe he shall find roaming odd balls in yonder woods and maybe together they shall knit together words, ones they can sing by.