Friday, February 27, 2015

On The Passing of a "Friend"

One of my personal heroes died this morning,
Yes, he was "only" an actor.  And the character he brought to life was fictional.
But what a character.
Spock was a product of American pop culture of the 1960's, but he endured through nearly five decades of cultural changes as an icon of courage,  insatiable intellectual curiosity, humor, loyal friendship and peacemaking.  Even as our utopian fantasies degraded through the years into dark tales of a future of anarchy and violence, Spock remained as a symbol of the future we had all once hoped, and many secretly still hoped, awaited the human race as we went out among the stars.   
Of course, Leonard Nimoy was an actor, and a damned decent one.  Taking nothing away from his expertise at his craft, I can hardly think that  he could have played Spock  so brilliantly, so convincingly for so many years unless, at some point along the way, the two were not irrevocably melded into one another.  Nimoy was Spock.  Spock was Nimoy.
The Star Trek franchise has been part of me since I was thirteen years old.  It has grown and morphed, changed and changed back, sprouted ill-advised, short-lived branches; and through it all, there has been Spock.  He even died once, only to come back to life and provide a continuing thread of wisdom, humor and intelligence for three more decades in tales of the missions of the Enterprise and her progeny.
Now he really is gone.  And there is a Spock-shaped hole in the fabric of my life.
Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy.  You will be well remembered by many of us for many, many years.        

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Revisiting Freedom of Speech

I have discovered podcasts!  (I'm REALLY late to this party, I know...)  Among other things I have been devouring while I work my fingers to the bone on a craft project (that promises to bring in actual money this summer), I found this little retrospective on a 2006 IQ2US debate on the freedom of speech.  IQ2US  (Intelligence Squared US) resurrected the 9-year-old debate in order to address the Charlie Hebdo debacle of January 2015. 

The motion put before the debate panel was "Freedom of expression must include the license to offend."  The "arguments for" panel featured, among others, the late celebrity atheist Christopher Hitchens. (Listening to Hitchens act out, merely within the context of this debate, it became obvious why he would lead the charge in favor of a "license to offend."  It seems giving offense was his personal crusade.)

Among the "arguments against" panelists was  Mari Matsuda, currently professor of law at the William S. Richardson School of Law in Hawaii, who, back in 2006, was a teacher and "activist scholar" at the Georgetown University Law Center. 

After consistently rudely interrupting and disrespecting the panelists on the opposing side, Hitchens was given his opportunity to summarize his argument:

 "It is wrong and always has been for churches--powerful secular human institutions--to claim exemption from criticism, which is what's really being asked here.  If there's gonna be respect, it has to be mutual  Does Islam respect my right to my belief?  Of course it doesn't.  Does it respect the right of a Muslim to "apostasize" and change belief?  Of course it doesn't.  I can name now four or five friends...who have to live their lives under police protection for commenting on Islam...  Here is an enormous religion with gigantic power that claims that an archangel spoke to an illiterate peasant and brought him a final revelation that supersedes all others.  It's a plagiarism by an epileptic of the first bits of Judaism and Christianity!  How long do you think I'm gonna be able to say that anywhere I like?  It would already be quite a risky thing to say in quite a lot of places.  I did not come the United States of America 25 years ago to learn how to keep my mouth shut.  I'm here to reject all offers that I change that policy...however simperingly they are put." 

Given her turn to summarize, Matsuda argued thus:

"The "n-word" is hollered out from a passing car, to let a black man know that he is not walking in a neighborhood where he is welcome, or safe.  The speaker knows the effect of that word, and uses it precisely because it terrorizes.  Why is it that we recognize, in American law, that if someone spits on your shoe, that's an attack on your personhood; but we won't recognize words that we know--socially, historically, from the reality of the human lives that we live--have exactly the same effect on your personhood and your ability to move freely?   I am talking about liberty and it's fascinating that we are all coming from the "enlightenment" tradition.  As much as we disagree, I feel affinity with people on the opposing side because we are ALL concerned with losing our democracy, and losing our freedom.  I think there are forms of speech that make us less free because we stop talking to each other and we don't have the conversations we need to survive... 

"There IS hatred of Islam in this country, and it's not a healthy thing.  There is also ignorance, and we need to open a space where we can talk to each other, disagree, criticize and learn; and that space closes when people are allowed to assault." (Emphasis mine...)

Listening to these snippets, I had a couple of off-the-bat impressions.  Hitchens struck me as an egotistical ideologue hell bent on winning converts to his philosophy through shaming and offending anyone who had the audacity to disagree with him.  Matsuda seemed to take a more reasoned approach, appealing to the listeners' sense of humanity and fairness to make her point.  And, for the record, I agree wholeheartedly with Matsuda's argument that there are, in fact, forms of speech that make us less free, because they inhibit our ability to talk civilly to each other and "have the conversations we need to survive."   If I had to choose whose kool-aid I would drink, it would definitely be Matsuda's.  But I'm pretty sure that's because Matsuda's argument appealed to my feminine sense of what constitutes effective persuasion, more than Hitchens' in-your-face, derisive, distinctly male style of argument. 

But neither of these panelists really addresses the issue.  In fact, the issue doesn't address the issue.  Because the issue is not that freedom of speech doesn't exist, or that it exists in some modified form that allows you to say anything you want as long as you don't hurt anyone's feelings.  Charlie Hebdo would not have been able to draw itself into hot water with Muslim extremists if there was not freedom of speech in France.  Salmon Rushdie's Satanic Verses  would not have been published if Great Britain didn't have free speech.  Christopher Hitchens would not have been allowed to be so publicly offensive to any and all institutions to which he was opposed if freedom of speech did not exist in America.

 In all these instances, the governments in question did not step in to prevent anyone from saying, writing or drawing whatever they damned well pleased.  What they did not do--at least, not to the satisfaction of all the folks crying "The sky is falling!  Free society as we know it is in danger!  Rights are being violated here!" -- was protect the speakers/writers/artists from the consequences of their speech.  The question is not, should government have the right to deny free speech.  Freedom of speech was not denied here.  The real issue is, how far does government need to go to protect free citizens from the consequences of the choices they make?

Is it the responsibility of government to expend resources to protect those who would use their "rights" ill-advisedly?  Is that what we're calling for?  People should be able to spout whatever nasty, untrue, racist, hate-filled, antagonistic or inflammatory crap that enters their minds, and the state then bears the responsibility to protect them from whomever they decided they needed to piss off?  How exactly do we reasonably put that assumption into practice?  It's relatively easy (though not free)to call out the cops or the National Guard when a hate group applies for a permit to assemble or march on public property.  But what are the logistics of, say, protecting the writers/artists at a publication like Charlie Hebdo, who insisted they had the right to publish cartoons they knew were inflammatory and objectionable to a dangerous subset of humanity?  Does the state take on the cost of 24-hour-protection for folks who intentionally choose to become terrorist targets?

In my opinion, we're all missing the point here.  Those of us who have enjoyed the concept of "inalienable" human rights for a couple of centuries seem to have tired of merely resting secure in the knowledge that we are guaranteed certain freedoms, should we need to call upon them. we're casting about for what kind of mischief we can get into with them.  Like two-year-olds, we're testing our boundaries.  We're actively engaging in more and more outrageous, dangerous and  aggressive behaviors, just because there's not only no law against them, but they enjoy the legal protections of "rights."  We'll walk up to a bear and slap it on the nose because we can; we'll stick our foot out and walk  off a cliff into thin air because we can;  we'll strap ourselves to a ballistic missile because we can;  we'll hoard the crumbs that would feed a starving neighbor because we can.  And then we'll wail about  "our rights" when the government has to swoop in and bandage our boo-boos, catch us before we hit bottom, scrape up the pieces and try to put them back together, or find food to keep our starving neighbor alive.

We utterly reject the concept that "rights" come with "responsibilities;" that freedom is downright dangerous when it is not accompanied by self-restraint.  The moment freedom causes harm or anguish to another person is the moment the alarm bells should start to go off.  We should know when to hit the brakes...we used to know, I think.   But in our "freedom"-obsessed twenty-first century society, we've forgotten the meanings of the really  important words:  Empathy.  Conscience.  Self-restraint.   

To my mind, there's one rule--one very simple rule--that should come to mind every time one considers exercising the rights we enjoy as a free society in America today. 

Just because you can do something...

...doesn't mean you should.                 

Thursday, February 19, 2015


This morning, as I sat facing the sunrise (or where the sun would have been rising, if it had not been hiding behind clouds), I thought of Dad.  Not really with sadness that he is gone (though I am) or wistfully missing him (though I do)…  It was more in the way of thinking about who he was, why he was who he was, and what his legacy was to me and my sisters. 

Growing up, among us multitudinous baby-boomers, it became fashionable to hate, disrespect, and/or break completely with one’s parents.  I don’t know if every generation experiences this…I suppose, in some ways, it’s a universal concept of coming of age.  But, rebellion was pop culture back in those days, so our teen-age years were particularly anti-parent.  There wasn’t one among my mostly comfortable, middle class friends who didn’t loudly and roundly talk trash about their folks.  Except me.  I never did.  Because Dad’s basic goodness, decency and quiet dignity just could not be denied or disrespected. 

In those changing times, our parents had it rough.  How difficult must it have been, really, for a generation to queue up and die by the thousands in the name of preserving global freedoms, then come home, settle down, and have your kids reject you and all you stood for twenty years later?  There was a lot of “my way or the highway” going on then.  Kids rebelled, parents threatened, and many families were blown apart…scattered to the four winds. 

Dad never participated in that kind of drama.  He was not the kind of person who could not or would not accept what his children did.  Because his own life had been drastically altered by that very attitude.  His mother was what my parents might have called “a pill” (we have a different word for that, nowadays…)  She so stubbornly and steadfastly stood against the choices her children made as they gained adulthood that my dad and his sisters flew as far away from the nest as they could get, as fast as humanly possible.  Within a decade after the war, Dad had settled in Chicago, his oldest sister in Florida, and his other sister was in California, leaving their parents with a painfully deserted nest in Oregon.

One of the greatest regrets of my life is that Dad didn’t talk much about his growing up years.  I suspect that his recollections swirled with conflict and negative emotion—two things that were anathema to him.  We heard one or two of his favorite stories…but, living so far away from his people, we never got a good sense of where he had come from or what his life had really been like.  We did know that the infrequent interactions between our little family and his parents were always tense and nerve-wracking for him and my mother.  I don’t know about the rest of my sisters, but I grew up petrified of my paternal grandparents, for no other reason than that you could cut the tension with a knife any time you got my mother and my grandmother in the same geographical vicinity.   

Grandmother’s overbearing disapproval of Dad’s choice of wife tainted every visit…though harsh words were never spoken.  I don’t think she really hated Mom…she never got to know her, really.  And I strongly suspect she would have found some reason to reject any woman my dad brought home.  But she hated the idea of my mother.  She never softened her attitude over the twenty-two years her life overlapped with my parents’ married life, and never let anyone forget it.

Having suffered the pain of a rigid, judgmental parent, Dad would never become one.  Perhaps his experience made him a little too lenient with us, but we certainly weren’t spoiled, and we were never out of control.  He led by example; let us know how an adult was expected to act by being the adult he wanted us to be.  There was nothing disingenuous or false about him.  There was nothing of “Do as I say, not as I do.”  He was never effusive with praise or condemnation.  He simply walked the walk and expected us to follow. 

And, for the most part, we did.

Like all young people, our lives were very much trial and error.  Maybe, in fact, we had more opportunity than most to experience trial and error, because, rather than demanding that we never, ever, indulge in this or that kind of activity, Dad let us make our own mistakes.  We had a strong concept of right and wrong, we always understood there were limits to decent or accepted behavior.  But once in awhile, we’d step out and do something dog-ass stupid.  And Dad would always be there to pick us up and dust us off, or welcome us back when we came to our senses.  And if we brought a friend home—be it boy or girl—even if the person was obviously not the best choice of companion, that person would immediately become beneficiary of Dad’s quiet, dignified acceptance.  Dad would treat any mutt we brought home like a papered pedigree.  Which was actually a pretty effective means for chasing off the unworthy, and polishing the rough diamonds—though I don’t think that was ever Dad’s actual agenda.

Earlier this month, the sixteenth anniversary of Dad’s passing came and went.  I didn’t dwell on it, this year.  Didn’t let it make me sad.  I think I’ve come to terms with his having walked on.  I find it does more good to cherish the memories and the legacy than to waste emotional energy dwelling on the fact of his death and the family turmoil that followed.  I think I understand, now, that Dad was such a huge part of our lives that it was inevitable that we suffer major trauma when he left.  I’ve often said that he was what was good and true about our family…he WAS the glue that held us together.  And when he left, it took us a long time to figure out how to keep ourselves connected without him. 

But we did figure it out, eventually…largely because of who he was and what he left behind—the ingrained knowledge that family is always there, it never falters, it never deserts, it always forgives.  Without that, I honestly don’t know what would have happened to us after he died.

I love you, Dad.  And though I miss your physical presence, I understand that your essence will always be with us.  That you will always be one of the best and finest parts of me.  And I hope, even though I don’t have children of my own, that I can somehow pass your legacy to someone else who would thrive under it and cherish it, before I walk on. 


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Post-Valentine Treatise on Love...Sort Of

Lately, I’ve come to realize two things: 1.) The internet gave me a miraculous forum through which to finally get my writing out of my head and in front of the eyes of actual other human beings; and 2.) The internet completely killed the possibility of my ever making a living off my most cherished innate talent.

If I had never ventured into AOL J-land 11 ½ years ago, I would never have understood the depth of my passion for writing as communication with other people.  And I would never have discovered that I could write for an audience, and be successful at it.  Granted, it was a small audience of people mostly a lot like me…but it was an audience.  And I loved it.  I thrived.

But fast-forward a decade, and the ether is clogged with wannabe-writers.  Everybody wants into the act.  All you have to do is look at the restaurant critiques on Yelp, or product reviews on Amazon, to realize exactly how many folks out there fancy themselves clever enough with written language to qualify them to splatter their judgments all over the internet.  There are so many voices out there…so much noise.  It’s hard enough to break through all that clamor (witness the tanking of my blog-hit numbers), much less find a forum that might actually pay for my writing.  I wonder how many of the writers for Salon or Huffington Post or Daily Kos (and some of the writing on Daily Kos is dreadful!) are indeed paid for their work?  I mean, they have bylines and websites and blogs and “followers” and twitter accounts…but is that how one measures writing success in the 21st century?   What do they use to pay the bills?

Still, I’m addicted to floating around the internet and delving into “magazine articles” that catch my eye.  I do this with a certain amount of curmudgeonly envy; I like to keep tabs on what kind of pieces are getting the nod from internet “publishers” like Huffington Post.   And from time to time, I come across relationship “how-to’s” like this one:   

The writing is decent.  It reads like a (overly lengthy) Valentine card, or a speech out of Don Quixote. 

“What you deserve is someone missing you the moment you walk out the door, even if you’ll only be gone a moment.

“…You deserve every birthday remembered and every holiday embraced. You deserve effort behind any gift, even if it’s a flower picked up from the sidewalk on the way home…

“…You deserve to be held with tenderness. You deserve that earth-shattering kiss; the one that you need to stay alive and the one that is your sole nourishment for survival…

“…You deserve to be introduced to friends as if you were the rarest thing on earth. You deserve to be brought into a room with pride in hand that he is so blessed to be standing beside you…

“…You deserve a thought behind every word, especially when saying goodbye. You deserve letters, notes and Post-Its that remind you how special you are to him on any given day…”

But the sentiment! Oh my god, get me some insulin!

Putting aside the sappiness of the whole thing, I had to wonder if there are girls/women out there who might actually take this missive as gospel, and do their lives some irrevocable damage.  Because this isn’t just a fantasy or a case of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.  It goes way beyond that; it crosses the line into toxic bullshit.

I know.  I am one of those who used to believe in this kind of fairy story.  I honestly thought that there was such a thing as a long-term relationship that would function on this level forever…and I believed my marriage was one of the rarefied few.  I believed that religiously…for about two years.  Then I got a sense of what everyday marriage is about, when the rubber hits the road.  I started to get an inkling of the stark differences in the ways men and women perceive the world.  After about five or six years, I realized that if we were going to make this marriage thing work, it was going to entail a whole lot of modified expectations,  balancing “must haves” against “likely to gets,”  and choosing what to fight for and what to let slide.

Still, I believed for many more years that our marriage was one of the better ones.  But despite all of the accommodations I believed I had made, the expectations I thought I had adequately modified, the epiphanies I was convinced I had absorbed and put into practice in our lives, our marriage went through some very dark times, and nearly ended more than once.  All because I had never really let go of the image of our relationship as being somehow…above all that.  Some part of me still shrugs and sighs in disappointment that our lives haven’t quite measured up to that cherished Impossible Dream.      

Only now, nearly forty years in, am I coming to understand that the real beauty of an enduring long-term marriage lies in its ability to bow to the differences that are guaranteed to produce rocky roads, to weather the inevitable storms, and to embrace and celebrate the slightly crumpled, soot-smudged phoenix that rises out of smoldering ruins.

I’m afraid that anyone who holds fast to the standards set forth by the author of the article above will never really know married love, in all its forms, colors, and reincarnations.  Never experience the amazing process of the agony of defeat being gradually replaced with the victory of endurance.  Never be able to appreciate the magnitude of two hands reaching out to grasp each other after being held apart for a really long time.  Because, let’s be honest; all of those things so poetically put forth in the article—the birthdays remembered, the earth-shattering kisses, the letters and post-it notes reminding you of how special you are—are just…fluff.  Trappings.  Actions that anyone could do; and then drop you like a hot rock at the first sign of trouble.

In fact, if love is a matter of “deserving” all this fine and special treatment, will there come a point at which you no longer deserve it? Suppose that lightning strikes, and you DO manage to find yourself in a relationship that functions on that level to begin with.  What if you fuck up?  (And you are going to fuck up…trust me.)  What if you make some kind of huge blunder, and your significant other no longer thinks you “deserve” to be treated like fine treasure?  What if YOU no longer feel you deserve it?  What happens then?  Do you re-invent yourself, wriggle out of the relationship and go out in search of Lightning Strike #2?  Or #3?  Or #4? 

So for all her lofty, poetic, high-minded exhortations…this author’s view is really the equivalent of the relationship third-rail.  If you ask me, this very concept is at the core of the critically rising divorce statistics.  If we hold the very human beings to whom we join ourselves in everlasting love to an impossibly inhuman standard of behavior, we can never be satisfied.  It’s a sure-fire recipe for spending your life lonely and frustrated.

Yet, Huffington Post published the article.  I have a feeling that if I sent THIS essay to Huffington Post, they’d laugh me out of the “office.”  Because no one has any interest in the relationship perspective of a battle-weary, childless baby-boomer who has negotiated the minefield of a four-decade marriage and lived to tell about it.

But they should.      

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

No, I DON'T See..

I hate our national anthem.  Actually, I hate the concept of national anthems in general.  Nationalism is just one more social disease that the human race has chosen to inflict upon the world (actually, I’m not entirely sure the human race isn’t itself a social disease…).  In the early days of the human race, I’m certain our social tendencies—the herding instinct by which we understood that there was safety in numbers—not only kept the species alive but allowed it to thrive.  It didn’t take long for us to take that instinct and kick it up a notch.  We were surviving on an acceptable level, so the focus turned toward domination. 

Well, we have thrived plenty, thank you very much.  And I think it’s safe to say we dominate the globe, and the instincts that led us to collect and defend ourselves in groups have, unfortunately, thrived apace.  But human beings, in our “our brains are too big for our thoughts” way, have taken those instincts to a very dark place.  We murder each other for pleasure.  We torture and kill others of our own species because we can.  Those who embrace such blood-thirst use it as a control mechanism over the rest of us. 

In the 21st century, we have nations—political divisions of every scrap of land on the planet.  Theoretically, the governing bodies of those countries craft means to improve the living conditions of all the peoples living therein.  But, primarily, the nations are merely overgrown tribes.  Warring tribes that can’t seem to ever trust other tribes, and always seem to think they don’t have enough of something, so they go out and raid another tribe’s territory to get it.  And the cycle of grouping, domination and killing never stops.  No matter what “modern” name you choose to give it.

It’s a modern tradition that every nation have an anthem:  A song that declares allegiance to a particular tribe, incites tribe members to loyalty and demonstrates to all who hear that members of this tribe will “defend” it against all comers.  Quite primitive, really…like the territorial vocalizations of any animal on the planet, from laughing hyenas to screaming eagles to chest-beating gorillas.  I don’t know…shouldn’t we have outgrown that at some point?

Let’s for a moment concede that we have to have countries, and that the countries have to have national anthems.  Then can’t they be about peace and plenty?  About beauty and largesse?   Wouldn’t those be greater concepts to embrace and sing about?  Wouldn’t they be safer, given the human race’s present capacity to make itself extinct?

I’ve never been able to understand why we’ve chosen to elevate Francis Scott Keyes’ poem, crafted during a minor battle in a redundant war and set to the tune of an 18th-century British glee-club song, over the lovely and lofty America the Beautiful.  Though the two songs were written almost 100 years apart, the US didn’t adopt a national anthem until 1931—so both songs were out there for consideration.  But Congress and the President chose this sentiment:

          “…And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air
          gave proof through the night that our flag was still there…

over this one:

          “America, America, God shed his grace on thee
          and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”

Saying nothing about the pure war-hawkishness of the first,  it seems more invested in elevating a scrap of fabric to the level of an object of worship than in waxing emotional about the country over which it flies.  Where the second at least manages to put forth a mention of the nation itself. 

So with this backstory on my feelings about the national anthem, perhaps you can understand my reaction when I came across this Facebook post yesterday:

And my subsequent exchange of words with another commenter who did not, to put it mildly, share my feelings.   

What is it about some people that they cannot deal with opinions opposite of their own?  For that matter, what is it about some people that they can’t abide a negative word about anything they believe to be sacred?  Or, that if you speak negatively about one aspect of a complicated conglomeration of concepts—such as our nation, its government, its wars and its “beliefs”—you  have thrown the whole conglomeration under the bus and need to be horse-whipped (verbally, at least.)

Why is hating one crappy song turned into a transgression on the order of treason?

I am grateful for this exchange, though.  If for no other reason than that it clarified some things in my own mind.  Like the true “patriotism” of the concept of an “Independent Voter.” 

You’d think if someone was so attached to the concept of war, he would get the connection between those wars and one positive thing we might have won through at least one of them. 

Independence, my friend. 

Get some.