Friday, December 09, 2016

A Turning Point to Tyranny?

One need not be a die-hard liberal to notice an alarming trend as we move closer and closer to a Trump presidency. Neither does that trend rely upon hyperbole in order to be genuinely alarming. The president-elect apparently sees no value in the daily security briefings that every modern president has received, detailing the most imminent threats facing the country. He is more concerned with using his Twitter account to strike back at perceived slights, no matter how slight they might be, from union leaders, comedians, journalists, and anyone else who dares to call him on his fondness for conspiracies, his misstatements and misrepresentations, and especially his outright lies.

His further efforts to do away with the freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment are well-documented: Unilateral actions against all followers of specific religions, his desire to establish and maintain a registry of Muslim Americans, his stated desire to revise libel laws so that journalists and regular citizens who speak out against him can be subjected to litigation - perhaps even criminal prosecution. The list goes on.

Mr. Trump's transition team has circulated a questionnaire to Department of Energy personnel in an effort to obtain the identities of anyone who has worked in support of President Obama's climate change initiatives or attended the U.N. Climate Change Summit. It is not a stretch to assume that the purpose of such a database would be to punish or at least marginalize those whose findings might challenge his industry-centric narrative
In addition, for the first time in memory, the Lincoln Memorial, a preferred site of gatherings and protests, has been designated off-limits to the Million Women's March scheduled for the day after the inauguration, with the only possible explanation being his desire to squelch dissent. And lest one think he is singling out the ladies, the Lincoln Memorial and numerous other public sites are being closed to virtually all demonstrators ahead of the inauguration and for weeks afterward.

I believe that we will see, in the very near future, the tipping point, at which the nation will either remain free or step finally into the brand of tyranny that Mr. Trump seems to be seeking. The Army Corps of Engineers has announced that it will not issue permits to allow the pipeline to be installed in the protested area, citing both the treaty agreement outlining valid Native American tribal claims and the very real potential for devastating ecological impact. It's an impact that could, among other things, poison the drinking water for millions of people, should a rupture occur such as has happened with alarming frequency in recent months and years. In response, the company building the pipeline has stated that it intends to proceed according to plan, ignoring the Corps' denial of permits and paying whatever fines are levied, since doing so wold be more economical than compliance.

It is the government's response to this action that I believe will be the "canary in the coal mine," as my wife describes it, after which we will remain a relatively free state or descend fully into a tyranny. Simply put, will the law enforcement agencies that have been aggressively going after the water protectors/protesters thus far change their focus to the pipeline company employees, whose defiance of the Corps of Engineers and resumption of construction is a clear breach of the law?

If law enforcement enforces the Corps' ruling as one would hope, it would be a very good sign, However, if law enforcement agencies continue to go after the peaceful protesters who are engaging in legal protest, and actually protect the construction workers who are breaking the law, it must be assumed that the march to tyranny has become the official policy of the land. At that point, each citizen must decide whether they are willing to allow the country to undergo a fundamental shift that literally brings to an end this remarkable exercise in democracy that the founders envisioned. If this is unacceptable, the only alternative is to resist in any manner we can.

Our first effort must be to convince our elected officials that allowing such a shift in our political structure is a clear breach of the oaths that all elected officials and military personnel have taken, and to pressure these oath-takers to fulfill those oaths. I'm still hopeful that there is enough love of country to outweigh the partisan pressure and outright manipulation that has become the norm over the last few decades. If that hope proves false, however, each of us must decide whether we are willing to end this experiment.

The choices facing us at that point will be hard, indeed. But democracy, by its very nature, is difficult and messy. I, for one, think it is worth it, and intend to fulfill my oath. I would hope that every other citizen would take that decision into prayer, however they might be inclined, and to seek whatever guidance rings most true to them and choose the path that will best provide their children and their children's children with the same freedoms we cherish, rather than sitting silent and allowing it to slip away forever.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

How Did We Come To This?

In a little over a month, we, the citizens of the United States, will be electing a person to the most powerful job in the world, one that has the capacity to improve lives across the face of the planet, or to set in motion events that could very easily lead to human extinction, all at the stroke of a pen or the utterance of a few words. We will be electing the 45th President of our young country.

What is both sad and truly frightening is that it has become abundantly clear that far too many who have the power of their vote are not taking the heavy responsibility that comes with that power seriously. Too many pay heed only to things that reinforce their heavily biased likes and dislikes, and they ignore even what should be the most worrisome aspects of their chosen candidate’s actions, words, history, and character. No matter how well-proved a concept, or how well-documented an event or statement, the decision is too often made to rationalize, twist, and spin an event sufficiently to reinforce a chosen narrative, rather than consider it on its own merits.

I frequently find myself referring to a brilliant passage, written by Kurt Vonnegut in what is, for me, his seminal work, “Breakfast of Champions.” In the passage, the book’s protagonist, Kilgore Trout, describes the absurdity, the dangers, and in the final analysis, the futility of ideas in our modern culture. I offer the passage here, for your review.

And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges on friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.

The ideas Earthlings held didn’t matter for hundreds of thousands of years, since they couldn’t do much about them anyway. Ideas might as well be badges as anything.

They even had a saying about the futility of ideas: ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’
And then Earthlings discovered tools. Suddenly agreeing with friends could be a form of suicide or worse. But agreements went on, not for the sake of common decency or self-preservation, but for friendliness.

Earthlings went on being friendly, when they should have been thinking instead. And when they built computers to do some thinking for them, they designed them not so much for wisdom as for friendliness. So they were doomed. Homicidal beggars could ride.

Over the course of the last decade or so, we have not only programmed our machines so as to reinforce our “badges,” we have taken to structuring our approach to governance and even our closest relationships in like manner. We have no qualms about berating friends and loved ones for not wearing our chosen badge, and have shown an escalating willingness to abandon even those ideals we claim to hold dear if those ideals are actually demonstrated by someone with a different badge. Too many people bellow their patriotism at the top of their lungs, even as they demand that the core principles upon which that patriotism is supposedly based are discarded and damned.
A twice democratically-elected president is reviled, disrespected, and sabotaged, even in the House and Senate, by those who have taken oaths to fulfill the responsibilities of their offices, to work in tandem with fellow officials who may or may not share their political or religious ideologies. They demand that the will of the majority be ignored, and the laws they have sworn to uphold be broken, rather than work with a man they didn’t vote for.
They do everything in their power to discredit, delegitimize, and even destroy a politician they do not like, even threatening to imprison or kill her, should the voters decide that she is their preferred candidate.
They bloviate about their commitment to a Constitution most have never read, yet pick and choose which aspects of that Constitution they are willing to acknowledge. They demand the right of mentally unstable citizens to purchase weapons of destruction, but demand the silencing – or the heads – of journalists who seek the truth. They scream about what they perceive to be government overreach and tyranny, yet clamor to the side of candidates who profess their desire to be unencumbered by any laws or Constitutional limits.
As we near the day of the election, I cannot help but wonder what lies beyond. I sense that a cataclysmic sequence of events is all too possible, no matter which way the election goes. If a tyrant is elected, we will almost certainly lose most of our allies around the world, and will definitely lose their trust. At the same time, our enemies will be emboldened, knowing that they no longer face a united front consisting of all rational nations and their leaders. Actions once considered unthinkable are now very much a part of the debate. Torture, genocide, and nuclear holocaust are considered by the worst among us to be viable tools for achieving our goals, and the kind of rhetoric we as a country and a world rejected over 80 years ago has become mainstream and deemed worthy of consideration. And if the tyrant loses, a significant number of his supporters - self-described as "patriots" - threaten to overthrow the government to which they so loudly and proudly proclaim their allegiance.
I think we all need to listen to our own words, and ask ourselves, Is this the kind of country and world we want to leave our children and their children? Are the lessons we are teaching them really consistent with our proclaimed values as Americans? Or do we want to leave our children a world in which they can feel valued and safe from rage, both within and beyond our borders? If nothing else, do we really believe our children will look upon us with pride if we leave for them a world – or a country – always on the brink of war, over badges? And what if you learn that your children choose not to don the badges you prefer? What then?

Friday, August 26, 2016

Womens’ Equality Day

August 26, 2016 is the 96th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, granting women the long-overdue right to vote. This date was officially designated as Women’s Equality Day in 1971. It is, I think, only fitting on this day that we commit ourselves to making women’s equality a reality, rather than just the reason for yet another designated “special” day. That reality will naturally mean different things to different people, but there are a few core precepts that deserve a place on anyone’s list.

  • – For the abrogation of both “men’s rights” and “women’s rights,” replacing both with “human rights” that are acknowledged irrespective of gender. Rights exclusive to one group or gender cannot exist without denying those rights to the other.
  • – For ideas to have value on the basis of their logic, benevolence, and integrity, rather than being accepted in spite of or because of their having been put forward by a woman or a man. The first step toward the realization of such a goal is for both men and women to set aside defensiveness when considering a perspective that appears different on the surface that our own, and to recognize that using dismissive terms like “womansplaining” and “mansplaining” fail to further the dialog, much less the understanding or changing of others’ perspectives.
  • – To recognize and address sexism when it taints a discussion or behavior, but to not strive to brush aside every point of disagreement or every personal dislike by deeming it an example of sexism. Men and women are genetically and culturally-inclined to perceive some things differently, and while the cultural imperatives can be revised over time, genetic conditioning is the product of many millennia, and therefore slower to be revised. Both are better discussed and understood than attacked, if one’s commitment is to achieving gender cooperation and consensus.
  • – And ultimately, to strive to be respectful and fair in one’s dealings with others, including those with whom we disagree. Just as a true friendship cannot be based in absolute agreement, neither must enmity be based in different points of view. By granting to others the benefit of the doubt until such time as it proves unwarranted to do so, we enhance the likelihood that other people’s understanding will grow more sophisticated and accepting of us. It is only through such mutual understanding and respect that we can hope to transcend the ugly realities of sexism, misogyny, and misandry and enjoy living in a state of genuine rather than forced or feigned equality.

Monday, July 18, 2016

News In A Post-TMZ World

I watched a couple of on-air interviews yesterday, with George Stephanopolous interviewing Donald Trump and his campaign manager, and Leslie Stahl, interviewing Trump with his running mate, Pence. When Trump's campaign manager told George that "Hillary created ISIS," George started to challenge the accusation, to which the surrogate said, "I'm not going to go down that road with you." And the subject was dropped. And when Stahl tried to press on one of Trump's many accusations of Hillary, he merely talked over her, and she allowed the subject to be changed.

 I worry as much about the decline of real journalism as I do about the rise of bullies who would lie, threaten, bully, and frighten their way into public office, because journalists who are brave enough to demand truth are our single best weapon against tyrants.

 I worry that younger generations have never seen the likes of a Walter Cronkite, or seen a reminder of what freedom of the press is supposed to stand for. I wish we had someone like Edward R. Murrow, who dared stand up to Joseph McCarthy - my generation's Trump - and expose him for what he truly was. As Murrow said:

 “It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.

 Next time you're asked to sign a petition, consider instead starting or signing one that will *not* fall on deaf ears, directed to those media owners and executives who control what will be covered, said, and accepted as truth. Because the harsh truth is that your viewership means infinitely more to media bigwigs than your vote means to elected officials. And that desperately needs to be reversed.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

I've seen this collection of whines on Facebook a number of times, and decided it was about time to offer what I believe to be a reasoned, more educated response, regardless of the flames it might elicit among the members of the fringe right who can see my timeline.

  • Deriding everything a mixed-race president says, does, or tries to do might not make someone a racist, but it sure acts like one.
  • Threatening bodily harm against someone who doesn't share your ideology - particularly threatening "2nd Amendment solutions" - does constitute terrorism.
  • Understanding the Constitution rather than bending it to match one's politics is an essential element in defending it. Teabaggers don't even know or acknowledge the agendas of those who fund and orchestrate the movement.
  • When "speaking your mind" becomes an attempt to silence others and abandon basic American values such as "innocent until proven guilty," it constitutes a national security threat greater than that which jihadists present.
  • One who rejects clear and well-proven answers to questions, simply because they don't conform to their own preconceptions is a troublemaker, operating from a place of cognitive dissonance at best, and willful ignorance at worst.
  • One is a birther when... well, just read the item immediately preceding this one.
  • Nobody has claimed that exposing corruption on "the other side's" part while condoning, denying, characterizing, or ignoring corruption on "your side" constitutes treason. Lying (or blindly accepting lies) accusing political enemies of corruption in an effort to undermine the orderly, legal fulfillment of governance can rise to the level of treason (or sedition under Logan Act definitions). Ignoring corruption on one's own side at the same time isn't treason; merely hypocrisy.
  • Conspiracy theorists rely solely upon "facts" that support their preconceptions. See cognitive dissonance / willful ignorance, above.
  • The Teabaggers are the primary group that claims a failure to toe the (TEA) party line constitutes un-American behavior.
  • Those who support rushing into wars for economic reasons, yet fail to support measures to support and provide care for troops who are damaged or killed in those endeavors are worse than war-mongers. One who lies to justify a war is clearly a war-monger.
  • Anyone who demands the benefit of all the perks of a developed society, but refuses responsibility for contributing to the development and maintenance of those perks IS a greedy capitalist. Or a spoiled child.
Take pride in working to improve the country, rather than trying to blame others for things the country does in your name and with your at least implicit support.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Conversations With Mama Squirrel…

So, I’m outside smoking a cigarette this morning, and chatting with Mama Squirrel as she partakes of the buffet I set out for her every day. I tell her how glad I am that she is enjoying her breakfast of sunflower seeds, and every now and again, she looks up at me and says “Thanks” in her silent squirrel tongue. I respond with a “You’re welcome” in my own crude attempt to mimic her clarity.

As I watch her eat, it occurs to me that I wish the whole of my life could be defined by little acts such as providing her with a meal every day. Not by the hurtful things I’ve done and said; not by the illusion I try to maintain about and even to myself. Not about the sadness that sometimes fills me, but which I cannot bear to express. And not about the many times I’ve failed those who should have been able to rely upon me. Unfortunately, that wish is beyond my reach, as I have been and still am too often unkind. Still cling to and share silly self-illusions. Still feel the need to be – or at least appear – centered, grounded, and filled with only joy. And still sulking at the things I should have done, should have achieved, and the trusts I should have never betrayed.

Sometimes, I wonder (only in my most private thoughts, and never aloud) whether I might actually be a sociopath, striving to manipulate my universe and everyone in it for my own benefit. It is within that wondering that I perceive my greatest failure.

But as I continue to watch Mama Squirrel enjoying her meal, the only feelings that I can sustain are those of gratitude that she trusts me enough to continue eating, altogether unconcerned by my presence. She doesn’t know that I’ve killed and eaten many of her kind through the course of my life, and enjoyed the acts. She doesn’t see my failures, my unkind moments, my illusion, or my betrayals. She sees only that large being who provides the food, and poses no threat.

And in this brief moment, my wish is fulfilled, for she doesn’t see the selfishness, the deceit, and the rage by which I sometimes define myself. She sees only love, kindness, clarity, and all those other things that are easier to behold when one’s belly is being filled. And in this moment, the love, kindness, and clarity are all there is to me. Not the product of any enlightenment on my part, but rather the gift, given by a trusting creature, as thanks for a simple act. I came out here to feed her, but it is I who have been most nourished. Perhaps the ugliness inside me is only a part of the illusion I paint of myself, borne of and perpetuated by the illusion that the ugliness is what defines me.

I’ve come to realize that if I were truly a sociopath, I wouldn’t be worried about it or feel regret. I wouldn’t care whether I had been unkind, unjust, deceitful, or even cruel. I would simply continue being those things, giving thought only to whether they were serving my needs. Those things are still within me, and rear their heads more often than I’d like. But so long as I can win the trust of one who is not inclined to trusting, and yearn to be ever more worthy of that trust, I’m not really a lost cause after all.

Mama Squirrel is finished with her breakfast now, and rushes to return to the sanctuary of her nest in that single oak in the north pasture. She scurries along the ground, stops, and turns to look at me. I like to tell myself that this is her way of leaving a tip, of acknowledging the kindness of her meal. But in truth, her wordless trust is all the thanks I could possibly need, and falls far short of the debt I owe her for simply allowing me into her little circle. For telling me that the shadows and demons are not the whole of who I am. And, in these brief moments, for granting me my single greatest wish.

Thank you, Mama Squirrel. I'll see you tomorrow. Same time, okay?

Monday, May 04, 2015

Old Farts and Their Insistence Upon Giving Advice...

When I was young, I usually resented it when some old fart insisted upon offering me their sage advice. It seemed that very little of the advice actually applied to my life in any way, and looking back, I can still say that some – but certainly not all – of that advice was really an attempt to get me to agree with their own mindset. Therefore, it is with no small measure of hesitation that I offer my own “sage advice” to younger folks in general, and to one young friend of whom I am particularly fond. So here goes…

First of all, I make no claim to being “wise.” To be honest, during the course of my life, I’ve screwed up and failed at far more than I’ve gotten right, and I don’t kid myself into believing that I’m finished screwing up. Any “wisdom” I might have achieved has occurred out of attrition, rather than mindful discovery, and reflects my attempt to be honest about my many failures. So take anything I say with a grain (no, a pound) of salt.


I’ve done some pretty ugly things in my life, and have to acknowledge that if Karma is absolute, I’ve got at least a couple more really virtuous lives to live before I can work it off. That being said, my deepest regrets as I move closer to my departure from this life than to my emergence into it are not for the things I’ve done, but rather for the things I haven’t done because I was afraid or felt I was unworthy. I need to say that again, because it’s emerged as a really important truth for me.

I regret the things I haven’t done, much more than any of the things I have done.

I am unworthy. The first girl I ever really loved was a neighbor girl down the street. She was a beautiful girl, and a genuinely good person, and therein lies the reason why I never even told her I cared about her. See, I was bad. Far too bad a kid to be deserving of a good girl. Most of the grownups knew how bad I was (I somehow offered them proof on a regular basis), and didn’t really hesitate in reminding me of that fact. They were adults, and I took their judgment very much to heart. Ironically, the little girl’s mother – Joy – was one of the few who didn’t despise me. But then again, I wasn’t going after her daughter.

I am afraid. While I was in college, there was a girl I used to hang out with – let’s call her Susie Homemaker –whose friendship I really enjoyed. We didn’t always agree about everything, but enjoyed our disagreements as much as our agreements and our shared experiences. We’d hang out all the time, and frequently tell each other how fortunate that we were to stay friends, and not screw up the friendship by being romantically involved with each other. We’d each date other people, and tell ourselves and each other that those relationships didn’t have any bearing on what we shared.
Everything was cool for a few years. That changed one night, when I was about to go into the Navy, and she was moving to Alaska with her then boyfriend. We were partying really hard that night, and I was incredibly high when it hit me: we were saying goodbye to each other, probably for keeps. And that scared me far more than I could have expected. Through the haze of my drug-addled brain, I realized something I’d hidden from for years: I’d been in love with her for a very long time, but had been afraid that revealing my true feelings would scare her away.

We eventually got away from our fellow partiers, and the truth burst out of me in a way I never allowed anyone to see. I broke down in tears and told her how I really felt, and she responded in kind. Seems that she had long felt that way about me, but figured those feelings weren’t returned. Turns out that she was afraid, just like me. But now, we’d cast our respective fates to different winds, and it was too late to change course. We hugged, cried together, kissed for the first and last time, and said our goodbyes. And we never saw or heard from each other again.

I don’t regret that she isn’t in my life now. Not really. I’m with a woman I love with all my heart, and have no desire to replace. In all honesty, even if Susie and I had followed our hearts, we’d have almost certainly ended our relationship after awhile, and it probably wouldn’t have been a particularly gentle parting. I ultimately learned the hard way that I wasn’t ready for a real relationship back then. She didn’t know the demons that dwelt in me, hidden away from everyone. Demons that would grow more virulent before being (hopefully) vanquished. But I do regret that we denied ourselves the opportunity to share something that could have been beautiful, even if only for awhile.
What is left from both these experiences is a hard lesson. I’ve never been afraid to confront others, but sacrificed things I cherished, simply because I was afraid of being hurt, of being discovered for the unworthy person I felt myself to be. The advice I would offer, to you, my young friend, and to those who, like me, are no longer young, but still have that frightened child living inside, is that love is the one thing that you should never turn away from, because you will regret doing so for the rest of your life. Better to “get the shit kicked out of you by love*” than to someday find yourself shadowed by “what if” and haunted by “if only.”

My next bit of hard-earned “wisdom” is one that most of us learn too late, and that applies to every aspect of our lives – our religion, our politics, our profession, and most certainly, our relationships.

 If any aspect of your life doesn’t make you feel like a better person, and inspire you to want to become a better person, it is a waste of your time.

 We’ve all had jobs, relationships, and life circumstances that we figured were good enough, for now at least. I’ve learned, through repeated and often harsh examples, that “good enough” is the most insidious drug we can ever take. It is the active acknowledgment that we’ve given up, at least for the time being. We get comfortable.

Jobs. The job you have might be mind-numbing and frustrating, or even a lot of fun, but not be getting you any closer to where you dream of being. But hey, that regular paycheck sure takes the worries away, and your job title might make you feel important. Comfortably numb and effectively head-patted. Until you start getting accustomed to that paycheck and job title, and figure you can spend more, buy more, do more, and further burnish your badge of honor résumé. And like a drug, it eventually takes more for you to feel comfortably numb, even as that sense of yearning for what you really want keeps rearing its head. It’s a vicious cycle. This isn’t implying that you should blare the song, “Take This Job and Shove It” and walk immediately away. But look clearly at what your job, career, and even profession really provides for you, and if it isn’t serving to make you more like the person you dream of being, be open to clues that lead you to the job, career, or profession that does, and follow them as if your life depends upon it. And always know that you are far more than just your job title.

Relationships. To settle for a relationship that is good enough for now is to state that you don’t deserve or won’t find anything better. It is a surrender to the notion that you are less than what you really are, and acceptance of the notion that you’ll never have the love you dream of having. Unfortunately, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your eyes are tightly closed, you will never see the sunshine, never revel at the wonder of a rainbow. And if you accept the comfort of a relationship that doesn’t serve to spark your passions (and not just sexual), dispel your fears, and help you realize your goodness as a person, while making you hunger to be an even better one, you won’t be able to see such an enriching relationship when it does come your way. And it will.

Get a better mirror; one that reflects more than your imperfections. One that also reflects the real beauty that others see, but that you don’t let yourself observe and acknowledge. Don’t rely so much on other people’s opinion of you, because they will often have their own agendas .For all your perceived flaws and shortcomings, there is a beauty in you that shines clearly for those who are capable of looking and seeing, and that far outshines any of those flaws. But you cannot show that beauty to those who don’t yet know you unless you begin to recognize its presence. Listen to those of us who truly love you, even though we seek nothing from you. We are there, all around you. Not looking to judge your fashion sense, but being touched by your heart. Open your eyes enough to consider that what we see must actually exist. We aren’t stupid, we aren’t blind, and we’re not trying to trick you or use you. We only want you to feel the joy that we know you deserve.

Life in general. Everyone’s life is a collection of countless details, some the products of our decisions, others existing by default. These include our geographical location, the hobbies and interests we pursue, and the many things we acquire as the years pass. Far too frequently, we simply accept without question or even much thought the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Just as frequently, we choose our circumstances based not upon what will make us better people, but rather upon what is simple, or worse, what helps us avoid things we find uncomfortable. Things that we fear.

I’ve learned – as always, the hard way – that personal security notwithstanding, fear is quite often a signpost that lets us know we’re going someplace new and unfamiliar. My own hard lessons have been the result of turning away from something new, only to later embrace the same experience and wish I hadn’t passed it up the first time around. On the other hand, I’ve found that the most wondrous times in my life came to pass when I faced my fears and followed a new path anyway. I stubbed some toes along the way, but learned that the bruises – even the worst of them – always heal, while the memories and lessons stay with me. And in retrospect, even situations that I found upsetting – even frightening – have more often than not turned out just fine.

Sometimes, the things we gather around us begin to define us. That’s not inherently bad, but we are best served if we recognize when that is happening, and consciously decide what to hold onto and what to set aside. My wife is admittedly obsessive about her huge collection of books. Where she has thousands of books, many of which she’s never read, she has a tough time bringing herself to get rid of any. I, on the other hand, have only a few that I keep, despite having bought many more throughout my life. Those that I particularly enjoyed, I passed along to others. Yet it is not my place to pass judgment on her decision to keep so many books. They are important to her, and besides, I have my own collectible fetishes, like the drawer full of knives I own, most of which I never carry, but enjoy nonetheless. In addition, I act on my own personal nature, which, while different than hers, is not necessarily better.

My core attitude toward things and circumstances in general is that everything in my life either serves me or is served by me. If something doesn’t really make me a better person or genuinely enrich my life in some way, I ask myself how much energy I use storing, protecting, and caring for it. If serving something in my life takes more energy than the pleasure it brings can justify, I set it aside or send it on its way to someone whom it will serve. This has definitely not been a wise investment strategy, but as anyone who knows me will attest, my preferred investments have always been in experiences, rather than things. I’d no doubt be better off financially now that I’m semi-retired, had I followed a more conventional strategy, but the experiences I’ve had are far more rewarding to me than a fat portfolio could ever be.

I’m not suggesting that anyone adopt my overly casual approach to circumstances and material things. Doing so would drive even some of my dearest friends crazy. That’s what happens when you try to do something that is contrary to your true nature. But once in awhile, it might be good to ask yourself whether the minutiae of your life is serving you, or if you’re serving it. Then give some thought to whom you’re in this life to serve. You might be surprised at the changes in your priorities..
The one way to break the good enough for now cycle is to realize that now is all you’ve got, and to stop wasting it. Repeat that phrase:

Now is all you’ve got.

 Your past is nothing but memories, and your future is a crap shoot. Learn from one, and consider (but don’t obsess upon) the other. Don’t let your future be defined and limited by your past. You are so much more than the sum of your mistakes or your victories. Stick enough of your Now into the Good Enough jar, and your future will be filled with so many regrets that there won’t be room for those most cherished memories. Better to devour and be nourished and thrilled by that Now, and add it to that store of moments you cherish. You’ll enjoy it more, especially when you grow so old that your memories are your most reliable companions.

The next time you find yourself saying the phrase “good enough” in describing some aspect of your life, realize that you may actually be prefacing it with the belief, if not the words, “I’m not.” Learn to accept that the people who truly know you and love you know better. You don’t have them fooled. So quit fooling yourself, especially with self-doubt and recrimination.

Well, that’s about all the advice I feel qualified to give. I don’t delude myself into believing that my advice is infallible, much less a guaranteed key to unlocking the joy that life has to offer you. Nobody has such a key, and besides, the door doesn’t even have a lock. All I can state with any conviction is that while I certainly haven’t found the path to enlightenment, I have spent enough time and energy on the path to sadness to ensure that I know it very well. My “advice,” then, is offered to help you avoid a path I followed for too many years, which brought me far more regret than happiness. To be better than I’ve been, with far fewer regrets. You deserve nothing less.

* – Tip of the hat to the delightful film, “Love, Actually.”

Friday, May 30, 2014

I am the problem....

The horrific events at Isla Vista hit me particularly hard, albeit probably not for the reasons they should have. My brief visits to that college community left me with an idyllic sense of peacefulness and joy. The time, on my first visit, spent with my best, lifelong friend and his lady. The relaxed pace of the town (at least in the early ‘70s). The sense of freedom on another visit as I scrambled down the paths to the water, pulling my clothes off as I ran, only to be joined by joyously friendly college students, who were thankfully unaware that I was a member of the reviled military. These were sweet memories, a detailed picture in my mind. But now, the images are bloodied. Isla Vista has, in my mind, become part of a brutal world, tainted by something that my nostalgic memories cannot abide.

Looking at my initial reaction, I have to recognize and admit how profoundly shallow it is, particularly in the face of the lives ended. But what of the collateral damage, the lives permanently scarred, in Isla Vista and beyond? Sadly, the scars aren’t merely the result of one brutal attack, an attack that is but a footnote on a tome beyond measure. The greater story is one that is lived out by every woman, yet denied, dismissed, or distracted by most males. It is the legacy of misogyny that pervades every culture, and that has done so for time beyond measure or memory.

Looking just a bit below the surface, I observe my own lifelong behavior and attitudes, and have to be honest with myself and admit that I have been and to an extent continue to be part of the problem. Through the course of my life, when I looked at a female, my immediate internal reaction has been to view her according to her value in my own life, not as an equal, but as an accessory, a possession. My initial evaluation had little to do with whether she might provide intellectual stimulation or challenge my emotional limitations. I’d look at her and immediately size her up as a potential sexual partner, as something to elevate my esteem in others’ eyes, or even as a vehicle to assist me in reaching some goal I had set for myself.

There have been women in my life who have transcended that evaluation, but even they had to pass a certain set of criteria in order to be considered worthy of the time it would take to discover their more esoteric qualities. And I am ashamed to say that there have been any number of remarkable women whom I’ve encountered and walked away from, simply because they weren’t pretty enough, were too fat, didn’t find me charming, or in some other way, didn’t “fit the part.”

Does that make me a misogynist? An abuser of women? I think it goes deeper than that. It makes me an abuser of not only women, but of my own humanity. In the course of my “disqualification process,” I have hurt some women, and left them feeling less interesting, less intelligent, less attractive, and ultimately, less worthy. That I felt – in varying degrees – a sense of guilt, of shame, and of unworthiness myself as a result of my behavior is ultimately my one saving grace. Had I not felt that guilt and shame, I would have been a sociopath, rather than just an asshole. Asshole, I can live with (under the right circumstances, anyway). Sociopath, I cannot. I have to believe that there is kindness in me, beyond any selfish motive. Missing that kindness, I would be less than human, the very thing I so despise.

Sure, I became incensed when I worked on a book that described firsthand the horrors that women in Muslim countries routinely experience – having acid thrown in their face by their own fathers for merely looking at a man, being set afire simply for speaking their mind, being killed for the crime of not accepting a marriage proposal. But these were a world away, and nothing like we have here in our “civilized” country. At least, not until we look at attractive women being shot because a man – to stretch the term – hadn’t been able to convince any other women to have sex with him. Or at the many comments posted in sympathy for his pain. It is here. Everywhere. And it always has been.

The dialog that has arisen from this latest tragedy has forced me to look honestly – perhaps for the first time – at how insidious the objectification of women really is. Perhaps the most powerful information I’ve gotten was from a blog post that told us men to just shut up and listen, something I’ve rarely been known to do. But when I did finally listen, I was literally pummeled by a truth that I had never heard, much less, considered. It was both the truth of what women – all women – experience, and the illusion with which we men respond to that truth.

#YesAllWomen versus #NotAllMen

Every woman, no matter where she lives, has felt objectified by men. And while I had known this intellectually for a long time, it never really sunk in until recently. Women, because of their own personal experiences, have to view men in the same way most people view snakes. Until they’ve seen enough to identify a specific one, they have to assume it is venomous. Why? Because they or someone they know has had an encounter with a guy who seems nice, interesting, and normal, but ultimately ends up being abusive, controlling, condescending, and possibly even violent. Statistics say that one in four women will be the victim of a sexual assault in their lives. One in four. How many men would rush to pick up a snake they didn’t recognize if they knew that one in four of them would get bitten?

Another analogy that’s been going around the last couple of days (probably much longer, but I’m new at looking at this, remember?) describes a bowl of M&Ms™, where ten percent of the candies are poisonous. How eager would you be, knowing this, to grab a handful and partake? The most frequent male response to the analogy has been to deny that the percentage of abusive men is much lower than ten percent, and that they (the responders) aren’t abusive in any way. Okay, let’s drop the percentage of poisoned M&Ms / abusive males to .1 percent – one in a thousand. Only one candy contains deadly poison, and one guy in a very crowded club is potentially abusive (and that is giving us guys a bigger benefit of the doubt than our behavior would warrant). Would it make sense to go ahead and grab a handful of M&Ms and chow down, or for a woman to take the guy who approaches her at face value? Think about it.

To make it as simple as possible, imagine as a man, walking alone at night, and seeing a group of women approaching. Our normal first response is to check the women out, see which of them we find most attractive, and perhaps consider what our chances are of having a relationship – even a brief sexual relationship – with the hottest one. Our very first reaction is to assess an opportunity. If it feels right, or if one of them acknowledges or smiles at us, we might make small talk – any overture to enhance that opportunity.

Now, imagine being a woman, also walking alone at night, and seeing a group of men approaching. The first response is to assess the group, but for a wholly different reason than opportunity. Do any of them look threatening, angry, or, for that matter, too interested? Will I be whistled and cat-called at? Will I be grabbed as I try to pass, raped and left for dead, or worse, murdered? Each reaction is very real, and each is justified by our own previous experience. There is very little chance that a group of women will attack – much less, rape and kill – a man, but in the women’s experience, there is a very real likelihood of her fears being realized. Women are aware of the reality, and we men need to be aware, as well.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve heard guys try to argue the statistics of misogynistic behavior, as if those statistics could somehow disprove what every woman on earth has experienced and continues to experience. They try to reassure women that they’re “different,” and that there is no reason to lump them in with “a few bad apples.” What they fail to realize is that by attempting to dismiss women’s experiences, they actually promote and protect those “bad apples,” and by extension, join forces with them. Perhaps the guys would do well to understand that a misogynist would not be likely to identify himself as one. He’d do his best to appear charming, endearing, and entertaining, at least until he had the woman in the position he desired, or realized she wasn’t going to go along with his idea of a “relationship.” And we saw, all to graphically, how the latter scenario can – and too often does – play out.

It’s not who we men are, it’s what we do.
The one, we can’t change. The other, we can and must.
And no excuses are acceptable.

I was raised primarily by my mother, who was by any measure a strong and independent woman. She demanded my respect, as well as that of everyone she encountered, and God help the person who failed to show her that respect. Looking back, however, I have to acknowledge that she was born into – and on some levels, accepted and unknowingly perpetuated – the age-old notion that a woman’s “place” was supposed to be subservient to a man’s, and I suspect that on some level, she resented the fact that she was required to be the dominant partner in her own marriage. Her (perhaps unconscious) acceptance of “a woman’s place” was manifest in many ways, some so subtle as to be easily overlooked, at least by myself, and I suspect by society at large.

For example, I lived under a very different set of rules than did my older sister. My mother accepted my smoking cigarettes for years before my sister was allowed to smoke. I cannot remember ever washing dishes after a meal, while my sister did so quite frequently. Neither can I remember my sister ever being expected to do yard work. It was a “man’s job.” Even in our schooling, my sister was pressured by expectations that I never really felt. As a result, she strove to do well, while I coasted all the way through high school, completely apathetic about my education.

I can remember going out to dinner with Mom, and her discretely passing money under the table, so I could be the one to pay. Her gesture meant a lot to me when I was young and poor, but I grew uncomfortable with it as I matured (if indeed I have ever done so). Looking back, I can’t help but wonder whether the gesture was as important to her as she felt it was to me; that she would have preferred to be in a more traditional “woman’s” position.

Just to be clear, I in no way blame my mother or any other woman for the misogyny that is so pervasive in this and so many other cultures. Only to acknowledge how, even with the best of intentions, she may have perpetuated a mindset that was fertile ground, and in which insecure and frightened little boys learn to embrace and twist “traditional” roles into justification for dismissal, objectification, and abuse of women.

But in the final analysis, I don’t give a damn how we men got to where we are, because that is not the issue. The issue is not what we are, what kind of environment we lived in, or any other factor that we might cling to in our attempt to explain, justify, or defend what we do or explain how “we’re different.” All that matters is what we are doing now, and what we choose to do in the future. And the best – no, the only – way we can make a good choice is to begin by shutting up and listening. Really listening to what women have known for thousands of years, but have been too frightened to discuss. If we’re trying to explain or defend our own behavior, or to insist that we be judged by who we are, independent of and vastly different from “those other guys,” we are missing the point altogether. We are denying a pervasive reality, simply because we haven’t experienced it ourselves. By doing that, we allow that ugly reality a safe place to continue. We are the problem, until we make and follow through on the decision, not to make some grand gesture, but simply to change how we look at women and how we behave toward them. And just as importantly, to clearly express our disapproval when we see others behaving badly, because a person who is weak enough to need to dominate women will always look to other males for support. Only when that support is denied, and the behavior clearly rejected, will there be any possibility that the abuser will look at and possibly try to change his behavior.

We are the problem, and always have been. Not the only problem, and not every problem, but we are this problem. And now, we have two very clear choices: we can either choose to continue to be part of the problem, or choose to be part of the solution. To shut up and listen. To empathize without trying to defend. To recognize the women we encounter as humans every bit as intelligent, complex, and worthy as we would like to think we are ourselves. And to recognize and acknowledge that what they have experienced is every bit as real and valid as our own experiences. If we can manage to do these simple things, we will discover a richness in our relationships that soars beyond our wildest imaginings. If we don’t, “the bitches” will just keep on “playing with our heads” and rejecting us. We get to choose. And we will make that choice, every day, every hour, and every moment of our lives. We’ll choose badly at times, but we will have the opportunity to choose well the next time. We have to try, for the women’s sake and for our own.
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