Now, Let’s Sit & Talk about This for a Moment

Photo: Long Road 1After the flood of mindless vitriol in our American political scene—yes, an outpouring from all sides and hardly touched by facts and logic or by mere civility as everyone descends to defensive and angry namecalling—I am reminded that this is an age-old problem.

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” – Carl Sagan, astronomer and author (1934-1996).Photo: Long Road 2

More importantly, I recognize that we would not now exist, certainly not as a federation of states we call a nation, but possibly not even as the chaotic, argumentative, and colorful mass of humanity we are, if there weren’t some among us who occasionally do sit down at the same table and work to reason out the complexities that try us all. Only then can anyone come to an agreement that, while it may be deeply imperfect at best, is still genuinely aimed at the longer-term ideal of growing gradually, of improving until it offers a possibility for better health, education, safety, opportunity, and well-being for all, not just for the privileged or noisy few. I hope that the antagonistic tenor of recent times can be put behind us in favor of work and conversation dedicated to nobler causes than self-interest and fear. I hope that we can let go of redefining hot-button words to suit our mood-of-the-moment and that we can reflect on how our own attitudes and imperfections, ignorance of the larger picture or of other people’s experiences, and our own prejudices and deeply held convictions can stand in the way of simply living together. It doesn’t have to mean giving up principles or changing hard-won beliefs if we will honestly examine our shared needs and our commonalities with equal fervor and attempt to find the best ways to uphold and accommodate all of them.

I’m tired of living in a place that could be one of the few on earth these days that’s not an actual war zone, yet feels as though we are all embattled on a daily basis. If even a modest number of us spent the energy we currently waste on perpetual shadowboxing with real-or-imagined enemies and evils instead on reasoning out positive change and growth in ourselves and our communities, what a different atmosphere we’d have. I, for one, am ready to commit to turning down the volume of my critiques, and persevering in sharing what I have that can give others respite, or hope, or a moment of beauty, no matter how small it may be, instead of wallowing in anyone’s bitterness and despair any longer.Photo: Long Road 3

Heroics without the Whiz-Bang

Photo: Wild & SweetDuring my long unplanned sabbatical just now, I had the privilege of going on a true Spring Break expedition with my spouse and one of my sisters. It was as close to a perfect holiday as any I’ve enjoyed, but there were enough imperfections lurking on the periphery of my consciousness to keep me grounded. Food for thought is everywhere, if I’m willing and able to partake of it. The road trip south from our north-Texas home to Texas hill country provided plenty of highway time to remind me with its proliferation of roadside signs and billboards that everybody has an opinion they would be happy to make me—or dare me not to—share. This, in turn, renewed my awareness of the current Presidential candidates’ campaigning, and in further turns, of how the American penchant for debate and individual thinking has moved further and further toward the hinterlands of sheeple-think, demagoguery, and hate speech. I wanted to think of nothing more serious than wildflower peeping, lounging about, and enjoying the quiet of being a slight distance from the cacophony of daily life at home, but the signs sprouting like weeds threatened at times to choke even the hardiest of wildflowers.

Maybe I was just tired at the beginning of the trip, unwilling to do the work of steering my own thoughts elsewhere.

About the time when I’d determined to put that depressing junk aside, I was reminded by some truly spectacular scenery we happened to find that troubles are everywhere. The three of us are masters at getting fruitfully lost, going off with little plan or direction, only to pass through and end up in really magical spots time and again. A side road that caught my partner’s eye landed us unexpectedly on the banks of the Blanco river in Wimberley, where last year’s flood had smashed through and chewed the valley to kindling, taking homes and lives with it. I was admiring the once-again clear and sweet waters and only diffidently wondering at the odd toothpick-scape on their flanks when it finally dawned on me just where we were.

Photomontage: The Blanco in Wimberley

Nothing stands in the way of bluster and violence. Except patience, renewal, and hope. These have tenacity and power, too, only exercising them in more beautiful ways.

This is our life on earth, this constant juxtaposition of impression and reality, of the beautiful and the ugly and the beautiful yet again. I thought again of the bullying, anger-fueled tone of the signage and the politics it represented from all sides, and remembered that the present is not really so much worse or better than the past, one point of view not so patently more or less perfect than another, as it is our willingness to look more clearly and carefully and patiently at what is around us and even, if we are truly courageous, to learn from it all and admit to our imperfections both before and after.

Anu Garg, master of that delightful etymological publication empire Wordsmith, has an email-subscription publication called A.Word.A.Day, where I get to learn, along with the multitude of other subscribers and visitors, the origins and meanings of marvelous words and how shape, and are shaped by, our existence. Every AWAD post ends with a Thought for Today, and these are as scintillating and demanding and fulfilling as the rich tillage of the language in each individual word explicated in the posts.

Today, as is often the case, I found the closing quote cause for both self-examination and rumination on the current polarized state of my country. So few on either side of the vast divide defining nearly any aspect of life here can evidently allow that anyone else could possibly have an iota of access to intelligence, let alone truth. And perish the thought that we ourselves could conceivably be wrong! Some days it seems to me that there are no tenable middle points of anything at all anymore, only I’m Good and You’re Evil. It frightens and saddens me more than I can say. But Thomas Szasz seems to have spotted one of the pivotal causes:

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.

Thomas Szasz, author, professor of psychiatry (15 Apr 1920-2012)

This is why my heroes tend to be among the perpetually curious, the skeptical, and those who are fearless about questioning anyone’s tastes, hopes, beliefs, and even hard-won knowledge—most especially their own. Those who never hesitate to admit when they are or even might be wrong, to negotiate the murky waters of faith, fear, and certitude to see what is further in the depths regardless of the potential for personal revolution, and who will always challenge any who make fixed claims to examine those under the light of reason, debate, logic, and yes, compassion. Because some things that nearly every living person would agree to be absolutely true are neither fair nor desirable, but ought to be brought into the cold light of day precisely for this purpose: to drive the challenger, and anyone around who dares to agree, toward positive change.Digital illo from a photo: Choose to Grow

For the highest purpose of all knowledge is not merely self-congratulation, though it may admittedly keep one warm inside; it’s growth that can be shared by any others who will listen and learn as well.

When such central concerns of the communal life as politics, social policy, religion, law, science, health care, ethics, and education have become mere arenas for every hateful phobia or ism to express itself through opinionated pettiness, self-indulgent hissy fits, screeds and screaming matches, name calling and mud-slinging and other misbehavior that would shame anyone under two years of age, I begin to despair of our future. All I can think to do is start the revolution at home, and by doing my own homework. I must try to emulate my heroes better: fearlessly ask questions, practice due diligence to support my claims, and listen calmly to all points of view with the same healthy blend of openness and skepticism. And I’ll leave the mantle of noisy self-righteousness and impossible claims and promises stashed deep in the archives of disproved history where it belongs.

Photomontage: Bluebonnets for the Win

Turns out, the wildflowers grow and proliferate, whether the area has been punctuated with political pickets, paved over with freeways, flooded, neglected, or subjected to any number of indignities natural or otherwise.

I Never Talk about It…

…at least, I generally avoid talking about politics as thoroughly and avidly as possible. But of course, the presidential election coming this fall means we lucky Americans have already been inundated for months with campaign wackiness as candidates pile into and out of their respective parties’—and non-affiliated, independent organizations’, whose candidates are not necessarily immune to the disease either—clown cars.

Photo: Just Nuts

Honestly, we’re all just nuts when it comes to politics, anyway.

Apparently when there’s nothing left to say, that’s when I can’t help saying something.

Pronouncement Announcement
If the prevailing attitude
should still allow me latitude,
I will ignore the platitudes
that beg to disagree,
Since all but mine is foolishness,
the opposition, ghoulishness,
and though it might sound mulish, this
is clearly about Me.
Say what you will, I’ll stay the course,
and only change my route or horse
if made to, for unless perforce,
no reason can I see:
Demand no ideology
of logic, for phrenology,
leavened with some astrology,
is good enough for me.
The running of our nation
is based more on desperation
—and a plague of perturbation—
than on brains;
Elective coronation
of our leadership’s a ration
of reminders a vacation
is required, or what remains
Of sane deliberation
and of civil conversation
will go, sans meditation,
down the
ever-loving drains.
And on that note, pretentiously,
appallingly sententiously,
and would-be president-iously
as anyone can be,
I remonstrate with all you twits,
vulgarians and feeble-wits,
that, politics or other, it’s
forever about Me.Digital illo: My Candidacy

I Wish…

If you spend any time here, you already know how I fear any political, religious, social, or philosophical position that claims to have all of the concrete answers about who we are, what our purpose is for existing in the first place, and how we are supposed (or not) to accomplish it all. I, limited in my capacity as I will readily admit to being, cannot fathom how there would be any point to having invented creatures with brains and character like ours let alone the will and sense of individual privilege and/or responsibility that we humanoids have, if the astonishing Force that invented us didn’t expect us to actually use all of those incredibly complex and admittedly imperfect attributes to find our way forward from birth to death, from initiation to completion. That we are here as a hugely diverse populace rather than as one or two measly individuals says to me that it takes a whole colorful, widely differentiated, bunch of us to have any hope of getting the job done. Whatever the job really is.

I long for the day when the wider world will get tired of telling each other how a “normal” person must look, feel, and think, or what is “natural” and acceptable in one’s sense and definition of self. These judgements are based on generalizations that fit remarkably few with exactitude; the Sun King‘s male courtiers and any number of Victorian era boys grew up wearing frilly little white gowns very like their sisters’ and were no less, or more, likely to be LGBTIQ as a result; high heels and cosmetics and elaborate jewelry and clothing haven’t been exclusively feminine accoutrements from very early recorded history onward, any more than it was ever true that only men could build houses or repair cars, or farm, hunt, and fish. No gender or sexual orientation predetermines what one loves or is good at doing or automatically consigns the person to any magically specific role in the universe, any more than there is any clear rubric in any of the literature, scientific or religious, that I’ve read or heard discussed that proves to me with any conviction that our bodies are and must remain our destinies.

While not a scholar or living exemplar of Christianity by any measure, I did grow up in a mainline Christian household and do a reasonable amount of reading and study over the years, enough to convince me that anyone claiming to be a Christian but promoting the idea that any race, sex, age, intellect, or social status confers special Goodness and sanctity (or the reverse) upon anybody has conveniently forgotten that, according to what Biblical and historical records anyone has, Christ was not white, clean-shaven, conformist, English-speaking, well-behaved (according to the standards of his day and community), immune to anger and other human failings, or unwilling to consider the value, even the occasional urgency, of change in the longtime beliefs of his compatriots. I certainly didn’t see any injunction of his to Go Forth and Hate Others.

While not willingly a declared member of any political party—I suspect lots of politics have little or nothing to do with the good of the ruled masses—I consider myself a very tiny step left of center. Yet I don’t doubt for a second that anybody who assessed my lifetime’s voting, let alone the details of my actual personal views, would gladly challenge my self-definition, thinking themselves obviously more liberal, more conservative, more centrist, or more what-have-you, than I am. I don’t find much use in any of the labels so often applied for political recognition these days, any more than I do religious ones, social or cultural or intellectual ones. We are who we are, and I can only imagine we’d do best if we simply acknowledge it, try to keep learning, and move forward.

What a lot of pointless, counterproductive hangups and sorrows we design for ourselves. I think, wish, and hope we can, could, and should instead be experiencing the true Normal and Natural of differing and disagreeing without hatred, uniqueness without fear, and love and compassion without boundaries. Including the bounds of my own shortcomings.

Digital illo: Psycho-delic

Somewhere, rainbow or no rainbow…we might find a meeting point in a better place in human history. We’re wonderfully, wildly different. But different can be a great thing, if you ask me.

I Hate Politics

There. I just came out and said it, right in front of everybody. Do I need to be clearer? I’ll say it again, more slowly this time: I…hate…politics.

Photo: Wisdom Sleeps

Is it my imagination, or has wisdom gone to sleep?

In general, I would like to never even think of myself as a person who Hates anything, but of course, that’d make me more than human, and I’m not. I certainly prefer not to be a person who dwells on my hatred of anything, let alone advertises it, but lately I’m finding it more difficult than usual to show that kind of restraint. A large part of my resolve (and I’m confident that this is a relatively common trait) is highly susceptible to external cues. I prefer to keep my head in the sand about things I don’t like, disapprove of, and fear, but that’s easier to do when those things aren’t pouring down on me as though run through a hose, and let’s face it, sand is water-permeable. The omnipresence of political nonsense on the American scene these days is drowning me.

Contemporary America is a highly politicized land. Everything is treated as political fodder and the subject of constant shouting, most especially those ideas to which we impute moral or ethical value, and the number of such ideas seems to grow exponentially by the minute. Additionally, we allow less and less room for anything other than Right and Wrong, Yes and No; everything worth discussing is a matter of polar opposites, and if Your answer is not like My answer, then it’s not only an obvious falsehood but patently evil and an attack on my person. Probably on my race, my culture, my sexual identity, my religion, my favorite football team, and my country. This is the environment in which all discussions must be arguments, and all arguments, wars.

If it weren’t real, it’d be hilarious.

The way we treat each other over differing viewpoints is bad enough. The way we treat each other over differing beliefs is worse. So if what began as a discussion about fiscal responsibility gets turned instantly into the idea that ‘Your Party’s thoughts on what’s wrong with the national economy and what would be better are Evil and My Party’s are Holy’—which has nothing to do with the demonstrable facts in the matter, let alone with either side offering any suggestion of how to fix what both could have agreed were the biggest problems—then why not just skip the discussion and appeals to reason, and get right on with punching each other’s lights out? And what should begin with the recognition of each other as fellow humans, all susceptible to our imperfections yet all, potentially, respected equals if not allies or friends, instead starts out with an assumption of all others as our inferiors, as damaged, or as willfully wicked. Even some of the most well-meaning politicians and their supporters often cross the line between being opposed to a practical, legal, or political precept and condemning all those who fail to fully agree with or support them as being immoral and/or stupid.

Photo: Masked Marauder

No matter how we may try to mask them, our true natures come out when politics get going.

I understand about passionately held beliefs and feelings. And I understand that many people in my country equate their passionately held beliefs and feelings, since these have often been arrived at by means of heartfelt thought and study or even, frequently, by what they are sincerely certain is some form of direct communication from a Higher Power, also know in their hearts and minds that these must be the governing directives of the nation. But as much as they might love to live in a theocracy, this country is officially not that, and in fact was founded in fear of and opposition to the idea that one specific religion should not only dominate but control or outlaw all others. As much as those whose beliefs and feelings tell them this should be officially a godless country might wish it so, that too would oppose the founding precept that one’s religious inclination, or leaning entirely away from religion, was not the defining factor that should govern the nation. I don’t hate religion or religious people, nor agnostics, nor atheists. What drives me crazy is people who confuse or conflate their moral systems with the functions and dysfunctions of American law. And that it gets in the way of what could so often be less hostile, more productive discourse.

Along with deistic religions and anti-religions, we are a country full of secular religions, which in my view (!) comprise not only the commonly referred to ones like ‘alternative belief systems,’ say, non-theistic philosophies, but also major social and educational and fiscal ideologies, and most especially, the pursuit of power and wealth. Whether the latter two come through the romanticized American ideal means of being honest, hard-working, and clever or by means of being successfully manipulative and lucky may again be the matter of much debate, most of it driven by our own takes on morality. But we give great leeway to those who achieve one or the other, and most of all, to those who garner both. And then we revile them for having risen too high.

Photo: Not to be a Big Pig about It...

I can’t help feeling like we’re a bunch of wild pigs, and I, the worst bore among them.

So we find ourselves in the throw-hat-into-ring stage of pre-election politics, as we get to do every four years in this country, and are more than ever inundated with that outpouring of purulent political sputum and venom that makes us all resemble some kind of hideous mutated hybrid, Homo sapiens Ultimate Fighting x Grand Theft Auto, rather than reasoning rhetoricians in debate and the pursuit of a nation’s better future. I suppose that it’s only natural we Americans should so commonly say that candidates for public office here have thrown their hats into the ring, given the phrase’s pugilistic origins. But it’s an unpleasant characteristic of ours, to say the least, that we seem to prefer combativeness to dialogue and action to diplomacy or contemplation.

We’re even expert at redefining all sorts of things; it makes it easier to take sides when we make sides. So not only do we have a supposed bipartisan political system—a concept problematic enough, if anyone actually intended to encourage and support any attempt at accurate representation of a wholly diversified national population—but the reigning parties are called Republican and Democratic. At face value, sensible enough, considering that this country is theoretically a constitutionally limited democratic republic, by definition. Yet neither party’s identity is fully congruent with the concept for which it’s named, nor perhaps was it ever so. The present version of each party is dramatically different from its own historic identity in many ways, too, because the national population’s majority and minority concerns and desires have continued to change over time. And don’t get me started on how different, how varied, are the definitions both parties and individuals give to words like Conservative and Liberal in pursuit of political ends. No worries; masses of us who are too lazy or foolish to examine the evidence or question the sources will simply fall into line and start passing on the same stuff as though it had any validity, spreading it on thickly and dispersing it far and wide.

Photo: All We, Like Sheep

Follow the herd, or you’re un-American!

What it all means to me is that my normal level of intense distaste for all things political ratchets up higher and higher with every moment that puts us closer to any election, but especially, to presidential ones. Every day seems to add another clownish, insecure, angry, prejudiced, reckless, self-aggrandizing, high-powered fool of one sort or another happy to thoughtlessly throw gasoline on the fires with word and action, without regard for all of us other clowns. Keep a good thought for all of us: this country, that we might somehow rise above all of our petty normalcies, and yes please, for me. That I don’t just go crazier than usual myself before all of this quiets down a bit again.

Photo: It's a Real Head-Scratcher

Am I crazy, or is this whole thing just a serious head-scratcher?

10 Terrible Words that Shouldn’t Exist in Any Language

Digital text-illustration: 10 Terrible WordsOne person who hates is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. One who cares and shares? Perhaps the only antidote.

As I recently said to my friend Maryam: poverty—both of concrete, material resources like food and shelter, and of intellectual and ephemeral resources (education, spiritual enrichment, the arts, community engagement, etc)—seems to me to be perpetrated and perpetuated more by selfishness than by an actual shortage of any of those resources. The rich and powerful always want more riches and power, and what they do have makes them able to afford and acquire more and to keep their feet firmly on the backs of the have-nots. Plenty is never enough. The resulting imbalance is as old as history, and rotten as ever. Only those who will speak up and resist entrenched inequities and injustices will have any hope of making change.Photo montage: Wolverine & Badger

The badger and the wolverine have a reputation for being among the most tenaciously savage brutes of all the mammals. Yeah, Honey Badger even has his own meme to show for it. But let’s be honest: no beast of earth, air, or sea has a capacity for vile, rapacious cruelty rivaling that of the human animal. Even creatures of the natural enmity of predator and prey compete, fight, kill, and are sated. They have little apparent ideation of hatred and war to match people’s. A wolverine or badger will fight to defend, or to kill for food, but unlike the human, doesn’t seem inclined to attack indiscriminately outside of its primal needs for safety, shelter, and food; when the skirmish is done as efficiently as possible and the need assuaged, the sharpest of tooth and reddest of claw among them doesn’t do an end-zone dance to celebrate its pleasure in winning but will usually depart the scene or go to rest for the next time of need. The remaining food and shelter and other resources stay in place for whatever creature comes next, hunter or hunted, cousin or not.

Can we humans not learn from such a thing? I’m pretty sure that if we destroy each other and ourselves in our constant self-righteous, self-congratulatory belief that we deserve everything we can get our hands on, Honey Badger won’t be the only creature that doesn’t care.

PessimOptimism

Graphite drawing: Self-Inflicted“Prepare for the worst but hope for the best.” It’s part of my credo, I guess, and may well have been aided in its development by doing those hilariously futile duck-and-cover atomic bomb drills of the Cold War era. And the air raid drills—we lived in a Ground Zero area near several military bases, strategic coast, and a handful of Nike missile sites in those days—fire drills, earthquake drills, tsunami drills, and later when we lived in the midwest, tornado drills. You’d think we’d all have grown up incredibly paranoid after such stuff in childhood. But I think that besides being remarkably resilient, kids use logic on such daily puzzles far better than they remember how to do when they hit adulthood and have been taught their prejudices, and are much more easily distracted and blinded by grey areas.

I don’t remember ever believing that crouching under a flimsy little wood-and-steel desk would save me even from the shrapnel of shattering windows and imploding walls in the event of an attack or large-scale disaster, particularly since I imagined the desk itself would become shrapnel along with everything else in the atomizing roar of a bombing. Little and naïve though we were, we had gleaned hints of the enormity of such things from our beginning school studies of the world history of war (skewed to our own culture’s view, of course); no matter how grownups think they’re shielding kids by sanitizing and limiting the information the wee ones are allowed to see and hear, children are quick to notice the blank spaces where redacted information interrupts the flow of facts, and no adult is more curious than a child to hunt for clues as to what was redacted. Frankly, if there really is any use for an institution like the CIA in this day and age when practically anyone can find out practically anything with the aid of easily accessible tools like the internet, cellular phone, and, apparently, privately owned drones, along with all of the more traditional tools of spy-craft, I suggest that the crew best equipped to uncover any facts not in evidence would probably be a band of children all under the age of about twelve.

Meanwhile, we still have large numbers of people who think it prudent to withhold or skew the information passed along to not only kids but even fellow adults, giving out misguided or even malevolent half-truths or remaining stubbornly silent and in full denial about things considered too dark for others’ knowledge. And what do we gain from this? Are there truly adults among us who still think that even smallish tots can’t quickly discern the differences between a fable or fairytale, no matter how brutish and gory it may be, and the dangers and trials of real-world trouble? Does delusion or deception serve any purpose, in the long run, other than to steer us all off course in search of firmer, more reliable realities?

As I just wrote to my dear friend Desi, it seems to me that the majority of humans always assume a fight-or-flight stance in new or unfamiliar circumstances before allowing that these might be mere puzzles to decipher, and more importantly, we assume the obvious solution to be that whatever is most quickly discernible as different from self IS the problem. Therefore, if I’m white, then non-white is the problem; if I’m female, then male. Ad infinitum. And we’re generally not satisfied with identifying differentness as problematic until we define it as threatening or evil. This, of course, only scratches the surface—quite literally, as the moment we get past visible differences we hunt for the non-visible ones like sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, and so on.

Unless and until we can change this horribly wrongheaded approach on a large scale, we’ll always have these awful problems, from petty playground scuffles right into the middle of the final mushroom cloud. The so-called justice systems of the world are set up and operated by the same flawed humans who make individual judgements, so the cycle is reinforced at all levels. Sometimes it truly makes me wonder how we’ve lasted this long.

Can we learn from kids? The younger the person, the more likely to blurt out the truth, whether it’s welcome or not. The subtleties of subterfuge are mostly wasted on children, who unless they’re engaged in happy storytelling for purposes of amusement and amazement, would rather be actively puzzling out the wonders of life than mucking about in search of evasive answers and duck-and-cover maneuvers. We might gain a great deal by reverting a little to a more innocent and simplistic view of the universe, one that blithely assumes that others are not always out to get us, that direness and doom aren’t lying open-jawed around every blind corner, and that the great powers of the internet and cell phones might just as well bear cheery tidings of goodness and kindness, and drones be removed from deployment as spies and weapons to work instead at delivering birthday presents to friends and packets of food to hungry strangers.

I’m not fooled into thinking any of this is easy to do, any more than any savvy kid would be, but I’m willing to believe it’s possible if more and more of us will commit to such ideals.