Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Here Comes Memorial Day...Again

I published the post below in 2009. I planned to write a new one this year, but when I read the old one, I realized I didn't need to. The old one still applies. Obviously, some of the statistics have changed: there are now more dead, more very seriously wounded, 22 service-men and women now commit suicide daily, veterans still not receiving adequate physical and mental health care, more veterans and their families living in or near poverty, more homeless veterans, and more unemployed and under-employed returning veterans.

As I explain below, many Americans don't know that Memorial Day honors the military dead, while Veterans Day honors the military living. It seems to me that except for waving flags and exclaiming "We support the troops!" most people don't do a damn thing to honor the military, whether living or dead. And I also think the best way we as citizens, and the government that sends men and women off to war, could best honor the dead is by doing a whole lot better for the living. It doesn't matter whether we support current or past wars (Vietnam veterans are still suffering greatly) or even think some of our veterans committed horrific acts. They were either drafted or signed up (a) because they believed they were doing right by the USA or (b) had no where to go in civilian life and thought the military could give them a skill or an education that would prepare them for a productive, self-supporting civilian life afterwards, and in the meantime they were being brave and useful.

This country is severely messed up in a lot of ways and these problems are serious and have no easy solutions. But without a doubt, how/why/when we go to war, then how we treat our returning warriors, is one of the sickest situations we need to deal with. So, on Monday, May 25, 2015, by all means say a prayer or a respectful atheistic thank you to and for the dead. But more importantly, find some time this summer to write to your Senators, Congressional Representatives, and the President and let them know you want to see vastly improved benefits and services of all kinds for living veterans. The dead don't need our showy, basically meaningless tributes. But the living need and deserve our respect, our appreciation, and all practical support and privileges our humongous Defense budget can provide.
Having just watched the 20th annual National Memorial Day Concert on PBS, I feel compelled to say: let us indeed remember and honor those military men and women who died in defense of this country, from the Revolutionary War over 200 years ago to yesterday in Iraq and Afghanistan. But let us also add some genuine meaning to the putrid schmaltz that comprised the majority of this holiday special by creating a new standard for patriotic pride, one that advocates peace and diplomacy, and demands that our government also honor those who fought and managed to survive, by giving them all the medical care & therapy, financial benefits, education & training, housing, family assistance, and anything else they need or want, because no matter how much they get, it’s still much less than they deserve.

I understand that because we are in the midst of active war on two grisly fronts, it is appropriate on Memorial Day 2009 to acknowledge living veterans – particularly those severely wounded and those (largely) intact who have served in our current wars. That said, one of my longstanding civic pet peeves is that so many flag-waving Americans don’t know the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, so let me make that distinction clear for anyone who may be confused.

Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, was first commemorated in 1868 to honor the military dead of the Civil War and continues to be the holiday that honors all war dead, held on the last Monday of May each year. Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day because it commemorated the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, is the day we honor military veterans (war survivors) of all wars in which Americans participated, and it is held on November 11th each year, no matter what day of the week it falls on. For decades, both holidays have been primarily viewed by the oh-so-patriotic populace as occasions to go shopping, and, in the case of Memorial Day, participate in cook-outs and start wearing white for the summer.

My grandfather was a wounded veteran of World War I and received several medals. My father was a Merchant Marine veteran of World War II, during which he survived two major fires on two different oil tankers. My uncle is a WWII Navy veteran who served in the Pacific. And over the years, I’ve had friends who served in the Army, Navy and Marines, including a lesbian who was drummed out of the Navy during a gay witch-hunt in the 50s. I may be a 60s peacenik, but I have never disrespected war veterans, and, I’m proud to say, was never among those who greeted returning Vietnam War veterans with shouts of “baby killers!”

Throughout history, some wars have been morally necessary, others were totally contrived for cynical, often purely economic reasons. But all of them wounded and/or killed persons who (very often) voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way, because they believed they were doing something essential in defense of their country and the values for which it stands. This is true of the military personnel of all countries, whether they’re our allies or our enemies. And for a while, there were Rules of War, a perhaps oxymoronic concept that said “this form of brutality is allowed, but this other form is not.” Among those rules at various times were Don’t Kill Civilians, Don’t Attack Hospitals and Schools, and Don’t Torture Prisoners of War. I think it can be fairly said that the gloves have been off on all those fronts for some years now, and America is hardly alone in this regard.

But to return to the purpose of Memorial Day: one of the great ironies of modern warfare is that battlefield medicine has been so enormously improved, many of those who would have died of horrendous injuries in wars gone by are now patched up sufficiently to make it home, only to endure countless surgeries, tortuous physical rehab, and existence of either lifeless vegetation or grossly limiting disability. Is this progress or torment? I imagine that those with severe, lifelong injuries have different opinions; unfortunately for them, many of them can't tell anyone what their true wishes are.

It’s worth noting here that (as of April 2009, per 4,278 military personnel have so far died in Iraq and Afghanistan; and 31,215 have been wounded, most of them severely and 20% with completely life-altering brain or spinal injuries. reports that 30% of returning troops develop serious mental/emotional problems within 3 to 4 months of their return, and 140 veterans of the Army alone have committed suicide – a trend that is increasing by all accounts. It is also worth noting that through mid-2009, $800 billion has been spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and President Obama recently requested another $76 billion. It costs over $300,000 per year to deploy one soldier. All facts worth remembering this Memorial Day.

One of the few musical moments in tonight’s concert that didn’t prompt me to roll my eyes with nausea or despair came from country music singer Trace Adkins. He sang a beautiful, plaintive song called “`Til the Last Shot’s Fired,” the chorus of which says: Say a prayer for peace/For every fallen son/Set my spirit free/Let me lay down my gun/Sweet Mother Mary, I’m so tired/But I can’t come home/`Til the last shot’s fired. Let’s honor the war dead – and the war survivors – by finding a way to fire the last shot; to finding new and better ways besides war to stop tyranny and other ills in their insidious tracks.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Goodbye and Thank You, William Zinsser

There are people who like to look up and those who don't – which is to say, those who take pleasure in admiring/respecting/appreciating truly special people, and those who relish looking down on everybody.

My dear mother, who taught me to love language, also taught me to look up. I rant on this blog so much you might not think of me as someone with heroes, but I have quite a few. I like to look up. There are many writers I look up to. But above them all, my favorite teacher of writing was writer and teacher William Zinsser, who just died at age 92.

I’m not sad; he had a long, productive, and apparently rewarding, happy life. He also helped countless writers and teachers of writing with his great book, On Writing Well. I’ve read it through several times over the years and still refer to it often. If you are a reader, a writer, or just a lover of language used splendidly and you’ve never read On Writing Well, I heartily encourage you to pick up this slim, fulsome paperback.

And for your reference, here’s Zinsser's New York Times obituary. Doesn’t he sound like someone you’d like to know? I’m sorry I never got to meet him. But I got to learn from him, and for that I’m grateful.

Monday, May 04, 2015

More Than Just a Number

When it comes to aging, many people like to say “Age is just a number,” by which they mean they’ve reached a certain number – say 60, 65, 70 – and they’re still healthy, fit, and strong and don’t want to be written off as old. I get that. Old is a dirty word in our youth-obsessed, youth-oriented culture.

If you’re 60 or older, have you noticed that most of what’s on TV (shows and commercials) and in movie theaters isn’t directed at you? Are you finding it difficult to find clothing that (a) fits and (b) doesn’t look ridiculous on you? Do you find yourself not understanding the social references made by young comedians? Is it harder to find music on the radio that you like? And if you’re not super-tech-savvy (or inclined to be) do you feel out of place in the new high-tech normal? Aging isn’t about numbers. It’s about how you feel in society – and how society feels about you.

In other cultures – not many – the aging and the old are revered: for their knowledge and wisdom; for the roles they’ve long played in society and their families; and because they represent the value of the past. That’s not how it works here, or in Western countries in general.

In the marketplace, you’re over-the-hill in your 40s. In your 50s and 60s you’re viewed as essentially worthless, and unless you have your own business you’re virtually unemployable. In your 70s and beyond, you’re resented because you get government “entitlements,” or are just regarded as a drain if you’re ill, at which point your loved ones (if you have any left) might warehouse and largely forget about you.

“Age is just a number,” both as an idea and as language, makes as much sense as “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Age is an important factor in our lives throughout our lives. As kids and teens we can’t wait to get older, because older means grown up and freedom. You can legally drive, vote, drink, have sex, and ignore your parents at assorted youthful milestone ages.

During our 20s, 30s & 40s, we feel we’re in our prime. After that, whether we’re in good shape or not, things begin to change. We reflect on our lives, careers, personal choices, finances, in a way we may never have before, because we know we likely have less time ahead of us than we do behind us, and there’s no way of knowing what condition we’ll be in as time marches on.

Circumstances and relationships change. People (family, friends, colleagues) relocate or die. There are friends we get rid of or who get rid of us. For lots of folks – especially women who were beautiful in their younger years – appearance becomes an issue. Teeth become troublesome, hair turns gray or falls out, gravity takes its toll on your whole body, joints hurt, your body may not tolerate the same foods.

The machine begins to show its wear and tear. And to lesser or greater extents, so does the mind. You remember less. You’re confused more often. Things just change – more for some, less for others, but change is a universal reality and that’s not about numbers, it’s how life works.

At the end of March I had a bad fall and I’m still more debilitated by it than I already was. Now I have one of those “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” medical alert devices – sensible, necessary, and I don’t really mind. But it doesn’t exactly represent vitality.

More importantly, one of my dearest, longtime friends, a man I knew for over 40 years, died last week at age 66. Too soon, too soon. He knew he was sick and was willing to fight. He never got to wage that battle. And I have a sad void within where a bright light used to be, the light of someone who loved me, who remembered my parents and my youth, who shared many of my values and opinions, who was generous and supportive. 

When we lose such people, we lose the witnesses to our lives. I don’t have that many witnesses left. No, age is not just a number, especially as we get older. Among other vital things, it’s time to assess/reassess who and what is important in our lives. Maybe there is some “human deadwood” we should shed. But it’s time to treasure everyone and everything we care about. Because it can all slip away in a New York minute.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Bad Karma, My Ass

I’ve always liked Shirley MacLaine. I like her as an actress; as a woman who gained the respect to be treated like one of the boys instead of a bimbo in Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack; and I like her interest in other cultures, distant lands, and spiritual/philosophical ideas that make a lot of people think she’s wacky. She doesn’t care if people think she’s a New Age nutjob and I like that, too.

But Shirley crossed a line when (as reported this week) in her new memoir, What If... (she’s written enough autobiographies for several lifetimes), she wrote: “What if most Holocaust victims were balancing their karma from ages before…The energy of killing is endless and will be experienced by the killer and the killee.” Shirley isn't the first person to suggest this connection. She’s just the first one to do so whom I like.

And not for nothing, but: killee? This is not a word. The word is victim. Not used in a sentence, one might say: “The Nazis killed more than 12 million people, half of them Jews, the rest: homosexuals, the aged, anti-Nazi political activists, the mentally ill and retarded, the physically disabled, and everybody they caught trying to help such people.”

The notion of karma – which is the Sanskrit word for action, human behavior – has been a core religious and philosophical concept since the days of ancient India and remains so today in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Taoism.

Unfortunately, in the sense that Shirley means karma, it's bad karma and punishment in this life for crimes, sins and other really bad stuff one did in this or a past life. But the repercussions of bad karma are a small part of the larger wisdom of karma. In all the traditional schools of thought and faith there are The 12 Laws of Karma, and they are focused on how one should behave in this life in order to learn, grow and make the world a better place. (Give it a click, it’s a good read.)

Nowhere in karmic creed does it say it’s permissible for someone to deliberately harm or kill another as punishment for that person’s “bad Karma.” But, not surprisingly, western New Agers have grabbed on to a piece of a concept that appeals to them, in this case the idea that “you’ll get yours,” even if it distorts the context of the larger laws of karma. Think of it as The Cliff Notes of Enlightenment On My Own Terms. 

Which is why I have never liked the concept of what-goes-around-comes-around bad karma.  And I think it’s no accident that this aspect of karma was so fervently embraced in Asia, which for many centuries has contained styles and levels of poverty, starvation, cruelty, official punishment, criminal violence and abject suffering that are particularly (if not uniquely) horrendous, overwhelming, and seemingly beyond defeat. It’s much easier to watch a paraplegic six year old drinking out of a mud hole, or listen to the screams of a 12 year old being gang raped when you believe it’s their bad karma come home to roost.

The idea of retribution for bad karma is very dangerous right now. It places a tidy, comforting, blanket of righteous cosmic justice on the unspeakable as we move further into an era defined by terrorism, war, human trafficking, a desperate lack of the basics of survival (food, water, shelter, the usual) in many places, a lessening of human rights and an increase in oppression – especially of women and girls – along with extraordinary poverty, the ravages of climate change, and the dark side of new technology (signs of which are already apparent to some, but not to most).

I haven’t read What If..., which includes many other questions.  So, to give Shirley the benefit of the doubt, what if she was just posing a spiritual question about the victims of the Holocaust? The problem with that question is the inherent answer – which many people find insensitive and insulting – is that the victims’ bad karma would make the Holocaust comprehensible and okay. It is neither. And to possibly suggest so is a form of Holocaust Denial: yes, the Holocaust happened, but it was for a sound spiritual reason. 

Nein, Shirley. Such a conclusion would be dishonest, dishonorable and disgusting. I don’t know if you’re wacky, but you need to realign your chakras or dye your aura or change your mantra or something, because you’ve got it all twisted. You’re 80 years old. Where’s your common sense, personal growth and sound wisdom? Just asking a question.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Je Suis Martin

For nearly two weeks – which in today’s 24-hour-news-cycle essentially makes the horrific events in Paris old news – I’ve been trying to write my “Je Suis Charlie” post, but it just wasn’t coming out right. I knew Je Suis Not Charlie, but I couldn’t properly explain why.

Of course I’m an ardent supporter of free speech even (sometimes especially) when it offends some people, and, I’m as sickened as anyone else by violent, self-righteous, self-serving Islamist Extremist terrorism. I also completely understand why millions of people in France and millions around the world wanted to express their outrage with a spirit of “Je Suis Charlie” support.

Still, however symbolic rather than sincerely specific that battle cry may be, I just couldn’t and still can’t get with it. But when I awoke today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day (for some a Day of Service, for others a Day of Shopping; yes, there are now King Day sales), I knew I had the right words within me.

I am infuriated that The Whackjob Brothers believed they had the right to murder the staff (and others) of a satirical newspaper for the “crime” of disrespecting the Prophet Mohammed and equally infuriated that their brother-in-arms felt entitled to invade a kosher supermarket and kill people for the “crime” of being Jewish. I’m glad they themselves were killed by police and I hope when they reach whatever afterlife they were so looking forward to that the Prophet Mohammed screams “Not In My Name!” and banishes them somewhere for eternity before they get to defile their quota of 72 virgins.

What Je Suis is opposed to hateful, violent intolerance. Je Suis also against religious and atheistic orthodoxy, and not knowing the difference between sophomoric, vulgar insult and sophisticated religious/political satire. Have you seen any quantity of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo? Take a look. For the most part, they’re disgusting and say nothing. The French have long been regarded as the global arbiters of style but nobody’s perfect. Let’s not forget that several generations of them adored Jerry Lewis and we have them to thank for the endurance of post-WWI mime.

People have the right to be disgusting and say nothing, and nobody has the right to kill them for it. Still, it’s worth noting that before the terrorist attack, Charlie Hebdo (which has been disgusting and saying nothing about all religions and politics since the 1970s) had a niche readership for its weekly print run of 60,000 copies. The issue published after the attack sold six million, obviously out of free speech solidarity. You gotta love the irony of that.

Quotations by smart people are one of my favorite things. Two at the top of my list are: “Who would you be and how would you behave if there were no praise and no blame?” (Quentin Crisp, about how he shaped his identity), and, “You can’t fight fire with fire, you have to fight fire with water,” (Martin Luther King Jr., on why he believed non-violence could triumph over violence).

Terrorism shows us the darkest side of who people are willing to be and behave if they don’t give a damn about what anyone thinks of them (especially when they're certain they're right). Terrorism also makes us wonder if the calming water of non-violence really has the power to defeat the scourge of terrorism. I think it may if an assortment of non-violent actions are employed.

For starters, the U.S. should get out and stay out of Muslim countries and let the chips fall where they may; our military presence helps nothing. Second, France and other countries with marginalized Muslim communities must bring them into the national fold through vastly improved education, economic opportunities, and the removal of discriminatory laws. If Muslim women want to wear their headscarves, let them. That's hardly the same thing as trying to impose Sharia law.

Most important, the vast majority of moderate Muslims who are also the vast majority of Jihadist victims must find the courage to stand up and speak out and, as they did in Paris, tell their crazies “Not In My Name!” until it finally sinks in. The world community must identify and remove Extremist sources of funds, weapons and day-to-day survival. Public relations (propaganda) on a massive, cooperative scale must counter recruiting and radicalizing efforts. Last but not least, the world community must use its best information technology to cut off the information technology of terrorists. And when/where necessary, spies and intelligence services everywhere should covertly kill terrorists. A little violence will, unfortunately, be necessary. It's like with Nazis. The water of non-violence will get you just so far.

Before ignorance, hatred, fear and violence took Martin Luther King Jr. from us all, he was beginning to talk about the undeniably connected dots of racial oppression, exclusion, poverty, ignorance, addiction, nutrition, anger, despair, injustice, and a huge rift in communication between disparate communities. On this day of celebrating his work, hope, dreams, and faith, it would be very helpful if we could enlarge our own capacities for those same strengths. That is what might ultimately defeat American racism. And maybe it can play a major role in defeating international Islamic terrorism, too.

In my best moments, Je Suis Martin. May we all be Martin together.