Thursday, December 17, 2015

Who’s Your Daddy?

If you don't get why Donald Trump is increasingly popular with many Americans of diverse stripes, you’re not seeing the big, emotional, nasty picture.

Trump supporters have endured nearly eight years of a black president. And not just black but a liberal pussy who favors diplomatic outreach instead of circling the wagons; doesn’t hate enough; doesn’t express things with enough passion or clarity; doesn’t understand the danger posed by immigrants; has no solution to terrorism; and, all-in-all, is the key reason America isn’t great anymore. Eight years! Black!!

Conversely, Donald Trump is, first and foremost, white. He’s also very rich, which means he must be smart and know how to get things done right. He says whatever he wants, often with anger and meanness and couldn’t care less what “those other people” think; and believes we should be giving everyone here and abroad a good fight.

Essentially Trump is a thug who personifies America at its best bad-ass self: completely confident, totally comfortable with bending (and breaking) the rules, and the John Wayne-style protector you want to have your back. And did I mention he’s white?

Donald Trump is the Daddy that tired, broke, frightened people want. And there are a lot of people out there who are scared shitless – without the courage that sometimes comes from being afraid but having the character to think well and take appropriate action anyway.

Even so-called smarter, economically stable Americans are weary and wary and want someone they think will take care of them, love them, and make it okay again to hate bad guys and the “wrong” people. When he’s ranting and not offering any true solutions to a bushel of serious, complicated problems, Trump is making folks feel that he’s personally giving them a big bear hug while whispering “Who’s your Daddy?” in their fearful ears.

Some folks know they’re embracing a wild teddy bear with severe ego and anger issues, but they don’t care. They want to feel good again. Much of America wants a Big Daddy President who will show the world who’s boss. Many of them don’t care what he thinks or believes.

And they sure don’t want a woman at the helm. Especially Hillary Clinton, who is not only a Clinton but a former member of the Obama administration with significant sins to her credit. Are we supposed to just forget about Benghazi and her e-mails? Besides, how much more change can a tired country take? We can’t go from a black man to the first woman in one fell swoop (even if she is white). She’s not even a Comforting Mommy. Come on, now.

I, like many liberated, independent women, have moments when I long for a big strong man who will love and hold and soothe me and say “It’s okay, Daddy’s here. Everything’s gonna be alright.” We resist it. Indeed, we often deny it. But I gotta tell you, the older and more tired and lonely (and broke) I get, the more I secretly wish a big strong man would come along and rescue me. I don’t mean a sugar daddy, although all gifts and contributions willingly/gratefully accepted. Just someone to lean on (and who knows how to fix things!).

Alas, Donald Trump is not the political or personal Daddy I want. But for many folks, he fits the bill perfectly. He’s not to be dismissed or taken lightly. He could genuinely end up being the official Republican candidate. And Hillary will have a harder fight on her hands than she or we may think. Although she should know better. After all, despite all of Bill’s foibles, she still wants her Daddy.

So, who’s your Daddy?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Amazing Grace

If you did not see or read President Obama’s eulogy for Rev./SC State Sen. Clementa Pinckney on Thursday afternoon, you missed something unique and magnificent. The perspective of the President’s language was very Christian because he himself is very Christian and he was offering a eulogy about a minister, so that’s not surprising. But his tribute was particularly eloquent and filled with messages of basic humanism, the possibility for the evolution of human kindness, historic truth, common sense, and social and political necessity, all of which was entirely appropriate in the context of the eulogy and the time in which we live. If you missed it, I encourage you to click on one of the links above.

The President’s core message was that we are blessed by God with grace – the grace to be good people; people capable of love and forgiveness even in response to the most vile wrong-doing and the most heart wrenching grief; and that if we can learn how to live our lives and view others with a more open heart, anything and everything good is possible. Even if you take God out of that scenario and simply view the capacity for grace as something that is a central part of our DNA which we can choose to cultivate or ignore, the message still rings true and is worthy of contemplation and discussion.

As my regular readers know, I embody a great deal of anger, cynicism, and hardcore judgment about things and circumstances I don’t like. I apply this rancor to all the subjects this blog is primarily about: politics, contemporary culture, new technology, and the ruination of the English language. I try to reveal the sense of humor I have that keeps me relatively sane and has so far prevented me from committing acts of violence. But I’ve also discussed my considerable depression and misery.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve twice watched the President deliver the eulogy and read the text once. Besides increasing my respect and affection for him, I’ve thought a lot about the lack of grace I’ve cultivated within myself and wondered (1) if I have the ability to do so and (2) if even the effort would give me a greater sense of inner peace if not outright love, happiness and joy. I don’t know the answer, but I admit that I fear the process, not because of its difficulty, but because I’ve clung to these feelings like a teddy bear for decades.

Indeed, they remind me of a great Robin Williams scene in Moscow On the Hudson, in which he plays a foreign musician and he’s just jammed with a blues band and is talking to one of the American musicians: “When I was in Russia, I did not love my life, but I loved my misery. You know why? Because it was my misery. I could hold it. I could caress it. I loved my misery. You know, I have a whole family I will never ever see again. You see? Now you see. You know it. There it is. Now you know that the saddest thing in the world is life. Yeah, man. Now you see. Thank you. Thank you for a wonderful night. Boy, I feel great. Take care. I love you.”  “If that was wonderful, what happens when he hits deep depression?” 

The murders in South Carolina filled me with a hopeless sadness and fire-breathing rage. The ability of a number of family members of some of the victims to confront the killer in court and express their grace and forgiveness filled me with humbled awe. The President gave me a whole lot to think about. And the Supreme Court’s affirmation of national marriage equality gave me happy hope – and the sense that enough of the Justices had been blessed with true grace.

I don’t know what the lasting impact of the diverse events and language of the last couple of weeks will be for me – or others. I don’t know how I’ll feel or think or what tone my writing will take, especially as the 300-year campaign of the 2016 election moves glacially along. But whatever people’s different feelings about all this may be, none of us can deny that something extraordinary has happened. And that in itself is amazing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Calling a Spade a Spade

For the last few days, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and soul-searching about Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black people during a bible study class at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, last week. First, I will not do what I’m still hearing the media do: call Roof a “suspect” or say that he “allegedly” carried out this massacre. There’s no suspicion or anything alleged about it. This sick ticket told friends he was going to do it; wrote a manifesto about it on his website; and confessed to police that he had done it. We know who’s dead, we know who killed them, and we know why.

The other thing I will not do is call this incident an act of terrorism. That word has other connotations and we as a nation have become comfortable with it – albeit in a frightened, unsettling way. This was a plain, old fashioned, act of American racist murder. And the word we no longer want to say is racism.

There are supposedly intelligent people out there who think racism is over because we elected a black president. On the contrary, the deep core of racism that still exists in this country – but which a lot of people had been keeping quieter about with the passage of time and the undeniable strides of the Civil Rights Movement – has been surging upwards because of President Obama’s election. What do you think the Tea Party types mean when they say “We want our country back”? Who do you think they think took it away? How do you think they feel when they see an increasing number of black people in other significant positions of authority in government and in business?

What else explains the fact that quite a few of the 684 Republicans trying to run for president said of Dylann Roof that we’ll never really know why he did what he did. Really? He made his reasons pretty clear. He said black people were “raping our women, and taking over the country. They’ve gotta go.” That clear enough for ya?

I also want to add here something I was saving for after the 2016 election. I do believe that many Republicans and Conservatives in both houses of Congress were genuinely concerned that President Obama would attempt to do all sorts of radically liberal things; after all, he had campaigned so vehemently about “change” and “it’s our time” and all that. But the reality turned out to be that his governance has been remarkably centrist, even right of centrist, in a determined effort to work cooperatively with the opposition.

But no matter what he did or didn’t do to try to reassure them, their response was to not work with him at all! Instead, they gave obstructionism powerful new meaning. They actively disrespected him to a shocking extent. They questioned his citizenship, patriotism, college record, honesty, and said he was not a “legitimate” president. And in so doing, they riled up white supremacists like Dylan Roof and, all puns intended, showed their own true colors.

What’s hurt me most about the behavior of those who call themselves members of The Party of Lincoln, is that it clearly never even occurred to them (1) how much this milestone meant to black Americans and (2) it would have been a real gesture of human kindness and political decency if they really enhanced their efforts to treat him with extra respect and work with him especially cooperatively. They had the power to make sure he didn’t do anything too liberal. So why didn’t they do anything like this? Because it makes them crazy to see a black man in The White House. 

Despite all the racial violence we’ve recently witnessed by white police against black citizens; and despite all of the incredibly racist connections that exist in relation to poverty, hunger, disproportionate incarceration, education, unemployment, income inequality, etc., etc, etc., there has also been heartening progress in other ways. And oddly enough you see it more in the south than you do in the north. A lot of white folks who were raised in a climate of racism have matured out of it. It’s why I chose the photo shown above, of a white man grieving at the gate of the South Carolina church. 

And then there’s this. Many atheists think anyone who is religious takes a moronic, literal, evangelical view. Not true. Most look to their faith for strength, courage, basic values to live by, wisdom, patience, and the capacity to love and forgive, even when such feelings would seem impossible. As a secular Jew and Interfaith Minister of Spiritual Counseling, I admit, to my chagrin, that I haven’t found within myself the capacity to love or forgive Dylann Roof – not yet. But I’m paying attention and trying to grow. And at the very least, speak truth to power and weakness. My own and others. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Hue and Cry

As an extremely white-looking biracial person who was raised by my biological white mother and black father to “think of myself as” Colored, Negro and Black (the words changed over the years but the idea was the same), color me bemused and fascinated by the “racial scandal” surrounding Rachel Dolezal. She’s the woman who until a couple of days ago was a highly effective NAACP chapter president and is now a subject of curiosity and scorn, because she’s white (according to her white biological parents) but self-identifies as black. We might consider her transracial: a black woman who believes she was mistakenly born in a white woman’s body.

Ms. Dolezal is accused of doing some odd, even duplicitous things, including attending then suing Howard University (one of the country’s most famous black colleges) for racial discrimination because she’s white; assuming guardianship of one of several unquestionably black children adopted by her white parents; ticking several racial categories on official documents; marrying a black man (to whom she’s no longer married, but I don’t know why); and giving birth to a biracial child (biracial if indeed she’s white) who apparently looks unquestionably like a person of color.

Ms. Dolezal looks like a white woman with a tan and a ‘fro who says with no clear explanation that she identifies as black. Some black people resent this because they feel she has no personal knowledge/understanding of the black experience. But what is the totality of the black experience? American blacks come in a variety of hues because of the long history of the rape of black women by white men from Slavery until now, because there’s still a racial component to some rape.

Low self esteem still exists within the black community – less now, since some measure of civil rights success. But most people (black, white and “other”) know about the old paper bag test (if you’re darker than a brown paper bag you’re too dark); if you’re very light-skinned you’re “high yaller” (yellow); and there is still a measure of antipathy between dark and light skinned blacks, although with an interesting twist. Up until the 60s, light skinned blacks felt superior to their darker kin. Since civil rights that’s somewhat reversed. And now that there are an increasing number of biracial people there’s just a whole lot of racial confusion.

Race and racism are about color. It’s ironic but true that in many parts of Africa, American blacks aren’t considered black, because our historic coffee has been diluted with so much cream. “Pure” African blacks are black, what’s still called here “he’s so black he’s blue.” Whereas here, the economic construct of Slavery came up with the notion of the One Drop Rule (“one little drop of niggra blood and you’re a niggra too”). This made it easier and cheaper for Slave owners to acquire, even breed, more Slaves, rather than buy them fresh off the boat. It’s also true that there are millions of “white” Americans who have “black blood” in their family histories and don’t even know it!

But to get back to the beleaguered Ms. Dolezal: I personally feel a great sense of sympathy for her, as well as a kind of reverse empathy. Sympathy, because there’s obviously been a considerable amount of racial weirdness and confusion in her life and I think she does have a sense of the black experience. She grew up with a number of adopted black siblings, went to a black college where she majored in black studies, married a black man, has a “colored” child, and apparently did considerably beneficial work for the NAACP. If we accept (even if we don’t quite understand) that people can be transgender, is it really so hard to accept the concept of transracial?

My sense of “reverse empathy” comes from being told to view myself as black but my mirror told me I was not. It seemed insane that I had two parents of different colors and was told to identify with the one I didn’t look like. I had no problem seeing myself as  racially blended, but in my youth we didn’t have the terms “mixed race” or “biracial.” And when I gleefully discovered the word mulatto, which is a Spanish word for exactly what I am, I was told it was a derogatory term. I was basically told that my very being was an insult! I’m 63 goddamn years old and I still haven’t truly come to terms with my racial identity. And I think that says more about American society than it does about me.

The moral of the Rachel Dolezal story – like the moral of the Caitlyn Jenner story – is that identity is a personal and complex thing. Neither science nor sociology have a true, full understanding of human sexuality, or an explanation for the need for strong racial distinctions in a racially mixed society. What we have in both areas is ignorance, fear, polarization, habit, meanness, exploitation, and plain old stupidity. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see this stuff straightened out – and, for the record, it’s made much of my life miserable.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Plea To Public Television

I love public television – commonly known as PBS. I’ve been a viewer (and inconsistent member, I’m ashamed to say) since the 70s and The Great American Dream Machine. I worked on staff at 13/WNET New York for a year and when I later went into business full time as a freelance writer, WNET was my client for ten years. My cable system offers three PBS stations and they are the channels I watch most. All that said, they are driving me insane with their Pledge (fund raising) periods, which have become longer and more tedious with every passing year. And because I care so much about the importance of public TV, I fear their fund raising tactic may be their undoing rather than their salvation. I find that a disturbing prospect indeed.

Perhaps for your edification (not everybody knows this), PBS is not a television network in the way that CBS, NBC and ABC are networks. They are still The Big Three networks on broadcast TV (vs. cable or anything else) and their “local” stations – the ones that begin with “W” in the east and “K” in the west – are affiliates directly responsible to and controlled by the primary network powers that be.

In direct and critical contrast, public TV stations are independent, self-supporting, local channels. PBS – the Public Broadcasting Service – produces and/or acquires many of the programs seen on public TV nationwide. But there are several other significant program services, and, a number of the larger stations – such as those in New York City, Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco – also produce major programs with and without an assortment of production partners, that are also seen nationally.

There are around 300 independent public TV stations and the organization that to some extent unites them is APTS (the Association of Public Television Stations), which functions as a kind of union capable of standing up to PBS, which has been known to be a little grandiose and overbearing, however well-intentioned they mean to be. At least this is how things worked in the 90s, which is when I was last privy to the inner workings of public television; some important things may have changed that I’m unaware of.

But there are two changes of which I’m very cognizant. The first is that public stations now refer to themselves as PBS stations. I can’t tell you how vigorously this used to be fought against. Stations were passionate about trying to make the public understand that they were independent and their independence was critical to how they were funded, as well as their very reason for being: stations that produced/acquired numerous programs that specifically served local and regional communities in ways the Big Three affiliates never did and still don’t. But the “We’re not PBS message” was too difficult to explain and never got through, so it looks like the effort was finally abandoned.

The second change is how much they Pledge. There used to be three (and only three) key Pledge months: March, August and December. And pledge periods lasted for only one week in each of these months. Now, these three months are virtually consumed with Pledge, and in addition, other Pledge periods of varying lengths pop up throughout the year. This is no doubt happening because government funding, philanthropic funding and corporate funding have been in perilous decline since the 90s. So has individual viewer membership, which for most stations is where the bulk of their funding comes. As a result, some stations have folded. Some have joined forces. But all of them are hurting. Fiscal crisis is a constant in public TV.

The problem with Pledge as it’s currently conducted is that special “Pledge Programming” is broadcast, much of it provided by PBS. New programs are presented here and there, but most of it is very old, and it’s re-run countless times. How much of the same New Age self-help, music from the 60s, financial advice, and classical tenors is a person supposed to sit through – Pledge month after Pledge month, year after year? I watch little or no public TV during Pledge because my favorite programs have been replaced with the same Pledge shows that have been on for a decade or more! (They’re still showing Motown 25 and Motown is now over 60!). 

I’m not angry with public television for the volume of its Pledging; I know they need the money. I’m irritated with their lack of creativity – and very possibly financial effectiveness – in how they’re doing it. I urge public TV to abandon Pledge months and tired Pledge programming altogether. Instead, fund raising should be constant. Some short, some longer breaks between every program for a start. And, since the non-commercials are looking more like commercials anyway, have real commercials, just don’t interrupt programs and don’t have them between every show and don’t run more than one or two in a row. I could also live with a short crawl at the bottom of the screen once during a program, but not necessarily every program. Thinking outside the box might help you dig yourself out of your financial hole and stop torturing those of us who love you.

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.