My old desk

Old School

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 2 Jan 2022

The book that led me to many others.

I’m about as old school as they get at 67 but I feel like I’m 27, in health and mind. I worry about what’s to come, not in a few decades but in the next few years, and not for myself, (since I’ve enjoyed a rich slice of life) but for my son, 34, who hasn’t, and all the younger writers here on Ox.

I’m gratified that some of my viewers belong to younger generations. I’ll keep posting one or two pieces a week. It’s easy from all the journals I’ve kept. They’re just excerpts that some book or experience proved to be thought provoking. So I wrote them down, beginning about the age of twenty five. I make a few edits and add comments on current affairs. It takes only minutes. I’d keep posting regardless of any notice, because I enjoy the task, and being retired any pleasant occupation is a valuable thing. Besides that, I have valuable knowledge to impart that you’ll probably never come across, because it’s hidden in very old books, or, in less dignified words, ‘obscure’.

When the first three Eskimos were brought to England and presented to the king, George the third, through an interpreter they were asked a few questions and at one point the word gold was mentioned, a coin of great value, that could buy anything, and that one worked hard for. They couldn’t seem to fathom this notion, knowing only barter for for food and furs. Then one of them ventured, trying to imagine something beyond the simple items: “can it buy me occupation”?

The people in the hall giggled, thinking he had it all backwards, that gold was paid for work, or ‘occupation’, not the other way around.

But he wasn’t. Occupation is a valuable thing, especially to Eskimos who have so much free time on their hands in the winter months, or old retirees like me, without much purpose, year round.


I was already thinking about mankind’s fate forty years ago. A book came out called ‘The Population Bomb’, around my university years. It was troubling. Herbert Marcuse, with 'One Dimensional Man' was troubling, ‘Understanding Media’ was too. Some lyrics from the ‘Doors’ and ‘Dylan’ were even apocalyptic in nature.

This all affected me deeply as my maturing brain began to seriously reflect on my future when I began university in 1972. The fact that I was at Berkeley, around many other informed youths reading the same books, and dropping acid almost weekly, only amplified the idea that most of society was blind and didn’t realize the troubles we were collectively mired in, while the media was trying to hoodwink the few who saw.

That year was also interesting in that it was the last of the riots there. Along with most other students on my dorm floor I joined in the few night street marches, breaking a few windows, (the businesses we thought the most capitalistic, and Fascist, like the Bank of America and Tower Records). We also raided and took over the law building, Haviland Hall, for two days, and a few other acts of civil disobedience.

These experiences turned me from respecting the law and society’s norms with sheep-like servility. It made me question things, which in turn led me to the wider reading I began, unrelated to classes, starting with books of rebels which my dormmates gave me, like Hunter S. Thomson and John Brinnin’s ‘Dylan Thomas in America’, ‘Steal this Book’ by Abbie Hoffman and Carlos Castaneda’s colorful tales.

I found them interesting but far more intriguing were the books I found on my own, leafing through the shelves of used book stores. They were far older works, Montaigne’s Essays and La Bruyere’s Characters were the first, which pierced right through the thin veil which society dons, like some royal cloak, pretending dignity.

And the older the authors I found, the greater the honesty, as if civilization only slowly developed the capacity to disguise and lie about itself.

So I learned Latin and Greek, because by then I couldn’t trust a translation, suspecting more lies. And even then, I sought out the oldest editions I could find, from the sixteen hundreds, because they weren’t adulterated or ‘Bowdlerized’.

Did you know that every modern edition of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography was ‘abbreviated’ by his son, the omissions never mentioned. Those missing segments contained some radical and interesting views on sex. Go find any pre-1818 edition.

But back to the salient issue here, the possible impending demise of civilization. I don’t want to depress younger people with a full life ahead, I want them to take guard, take notice of the slight changes in society and media in the broadest contexts, and then take action where necessary.

I always remember the anecdote from the movie ‘Dante’s Peak’. If a frog is thrown into a vat of boiling water it jumps out immediately. But if it’s set in lukewarm water, and that vat very slowly heated, it just sits there until it boils to death.

I think many don’t realize the heat we’re in. They don’t have the perspective of what we’ve already lost because it was gone before they were born. You can’t miss what you don’t know existed. I’m talking about the finer parts of the human character at its best, honor, dignity and the huge amount of study and knowledge and self control that merits such pride, where many professions involved craftmanship with simple tools and your hands and reflected your skill, which translates into self-pride and dignity.

We are bombarded with lies, every day, and so often we are used to them and do nothing about it, maybe a sigh, as we take in another deep breath of polluted air. We are mired in mud.

I offer my perspective from my life’s history, which I know is radical and tainted in parts, but a life lived that way because I knew society was in part a sham, and shambles, its institutions, employments, dehumanizing factories and machines, Wall Street, wealth inequality and now computers. Read the first page of the life of Timoleon in Plutarch. He wrote it around two hundred A.D. and says his greatest pleasure is recording these lives of noble Greeks and Romans who lived hundreds of years before him because we are now entered upon degenerate times, where high ideals and venues for nobility of soul are gone. He wrote this in 200 A.D. so it's nothing new. That says it all, heroes are dead. We’re facing drones and cameras and microchips, and they surround us.

Consider these lyrics from 'Black Hole Sun' by Chris Cornell, and look at his end.

Cold and damp
Steal the warm wind
Tired friend
Times are gone
For honest men
And sometimes
Far too long
For snakes

I realized early on I could never happily participate in such a dead-end, dehumanizing life, walk sedately down a path to future doom, on a ‘ship of fools’. I gave in at thirty six, to regain my son into my custody after divorce, and continued for twenty years as a union electrician, all for a paycheck, a pension, the acceptance stub into society, conformity and a comfortable house with all its sensual, mindless rewards, helping pollute and heat the planet to death, throwing one more zip-lock baggie into the garbage can each day as I ate my bland sandwich in some neon lit cafeteria of a refinery or steel mill, with a T.V. blaring on the wall to distract me and my companions from reality. I wrote very little during those years.

I realized early on this included almost every professional career, in some disguise or another. So I quit academia, ignored degrees and took the most opposite direction possible, the bohemian life, still with my collection of pocket size dead authors, because they were pure and good, not only that, my mentors and best friends. And they all fit neatly into my backpack.

As far as following in the footsteps of one of these heroes I wished to be and whose lives I read so much about, I began to see, in my ragged jeans, I was more like Don Quixote, out of place and out of time.

But I’m still here, with a satchel full of anecdotes, perhaps with something to teach.

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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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