Mendel Letters 58 — Patterns

Young cowboy in the Bronx

December 18, 2021

Dear Mendel,

This letter is a little different than many of the others. We never really talked about these things.

I fell in love with the music of Simon and Garfunkel when I saw the movie The Graduate in May 1968 with a woman who would become my first serious girlfriend. Over time Simon and Garfunkel, The Graduate, and the young woman kind of merged together in my mind. I bought all of their record albums after seeing the movie and I still have a Simon and Garfunkel station on Pandora. Pandora is an online music station. You listen on your computer and get to select your favorite performers. You would love a Tony Bennett station.

S & G had a song “Patterns” on their 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. A number of the lines from that song still resonate with me today. “There are patterns I must follow, just as I must breathe each breath . . . Like a rat in a maze the path before me lies . . . My life is made of patterns that can scarcely be controlled.” I am actually listening to the song while I am writing you.

Sometimes I felt condemned to see patterns. Let me explain.

The best thing about the Bronx High School of Science was the other kids and our “talks” on the subway without meddling interference by teachers or other adults. There was this one guy, Eugene, who must have being going through a bout of religious skepticism at the same time as me. We wanted to know “the truth” about the world and “all the fish” (a side reference to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams), but we were unable to accept the religions we were raised in. He was Roman Catholic, but rejected the existence of a God based on faith without some kind of empirical evidence.

In high school, I started to feel cursed that I was smart enough to have questions, but not smart enough to have answers, and I thought there were some people who were. At City College I took a course on the Intellectual History of the European Enlightenment from Newton through Hegel. Newton and the others were trying to uncover the laws that govern the universe and human existence, pretty unsuccessfully I thought. David Hume argued there must be a God because every clock has a clockmaker. He never seemed to wonder, where did the clockmaker come from.

As I became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement I wanted absolute first ideological principles. Kant, who I tried to read while riding to CCNY on the subway, claimed there was a categorical imperative; some predetermined truth that everything grew out of, which seemed like a weak substitute for religious belief based on faith. I always felt I was missing something in Kant, but eventually decided the problem wasn’t me, it was that Kant didn’t make sense.

My friend Martin and I use to discuss existentialism. We decided that even if there was an absolute truth imbedded somewhere in the universe, we, human beings, were incapable of knowing it. All we could do was come to the best understanding available to us based on our experiences, make the best choices we could, and lead our lives based on those decisions. Life is an experiment and you never know how it ultimately turns out.

I’ve been a leftwing political activist since college. I see patterns, patterns that other people don’t necessarily see. I try to research and write about them. I draw connections that other people don’t want to make, conclusions about history, contemporary society, climate change, and the roots of injustice. In classes, I tell students they are not required to agree with me. How could they? I often don’t agree with me. But I am really being a little disingenuous. I do agree with me about the patterns that I see and the connections that I make, they just don’t have to agree.

I read a science fiction short story by Ted Chiang about a man who received an experimental hormonal treatment after an injury that left him brain damaged and suddenly his brain neurons began to repair themselves. After the first treatment he started to see patterns and draw connections about everything. After the second treatment and third treatment he discovered underlying universal truths. But it was only a science fiction story.

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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Mendel Letters

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