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?

Empathy over Courage

Bravery is a rare commodity. Many people who think they’re being brave only dare to do so from within a like-minded group, however small in number, and when they are genuinely in the minority spend more energy on protesting that the majority from which they’re excluded is unfair and unjust than on doing anything useful to change it. It may be true—knowing human nature, often probably is true—that one’s opposition is no exemplar of justice and fair-mindedness. But we’re seldom willing or able, ourselves, to make a cleanly balanced assessment and especially, to act wisely and compassionately on it either. We’re generally convinced that anyone else having anything good means less goodness for ourselves, and that that is a terrible thing.

What impresses me more than bravery, real or imagined, is seeing anyone express real empathy for others through their own beliefs, lives, and actions. I tend to doubt that we’re capable of doing or even wanting very lofty things, but I also think that small doses of empathy will go ever so much further than any amount of derring-do and action-figure heroics in bettering the world and the human condition within it. Daring to let another person be richer or more privileged than me or to have the last word, even when I’m fairly sure I’m smarter, closer to correct, or more deserving requires quite a different sort of courage than running into danger in anyone’s defense or their stead.

But treating others with such respect seems to me far more likely than argument and defensiveness, self-protection and fear, to get anyone to trust and respect me in turn. So shines a good deed. The unselfish willingness to accept another person’s reality as valid even when it might cost me something significant is a kind of courage I dream of having, hope to learn.Graphite drawing: Reach Down to Raise Up

We were So Civilized

Digital collage: We were So CivilizedNo matter where I am on the Fourth of July I am likely to think about the country in which I was born and have lived all of my life thus far: the United States of America. The Fourth is the official birthday of the nation, though many of the current states joined the union long, long after that July in 1776 when it was established by its founders. Like so many nations around the world, this country and its history are a tremendously complicated and varied patchwork of fact and fiction, hope and fear, two steps forward and one step back. Over and over and over again.

Imagine this: a pack of refugees from religious persecution left their homeland and sailed into the unknown across an ocean of which they also knew very little except that their passage across it was dangerous and miserable and killed plenty of them before they hit the new shore. When they landed, to their surprise there were already plenty of other people living on that new turf, and did that stop the interlopers from moving in, too? Of course not. I don’t expect it ever occurred to them, to be honest, that there wasn’t room for everybody or that if they took a ton of the resources around them that might just mean there were fewer for the previous residents of the land, folk who had, indeed, already long established a very different relationship with the continent.

That the illnesses and diseases the newcomers brought with them from Home would endanger and kill many of their new unwitting and unwilling neighbors could never have entered these interlopers’ minds, when they were so preoccupied with not only their current survival but their escape from the hardships and sorrows back in their own homeland. That they themselves would suffer privation, fear, danger, loneliness, and the loss of their lifetime homes, belongings, families and friends across the vast ocean they had crossed was a stark enough reality that perhaps they willed themselves not to think too hard about all that they faced next also affecting the long-tenured native peoples across whose lands they moved like human bulldozers.

The establishment of this new home was far from smooth and easy too, as anyone could probably guess, though I wonder if any of them really considered that the goal as much as simple escape from what they’d known before. Still, none of those inhabitants of North America—invaders or original denizens—could possibly imagine at the time, I suspect, quite how vast the whole continent was and what that meant in terms of creating new colonies within it, let alone new nations. In the years that followed, the westward migration confirmed the existence of innumerable tribes and clans of people not before known to the new arrivals, but also of wild creatures unimagined, of terrain unlike any they had dreamed possible, of climates that had been the stuff of legend until then.

In those many decades of carving out new paths and territories, it was inevitable that, just as it had been with the foregoing generations of various indigenous peoples, there would be struggles over who had access to what, who could live where, and who belonged together with or as far as possible away from whom. No surprise that this led not only to separated towns and enclaves and ethnic, religious, political or philosophical communities but also, in turn, to a wild array of accents and ideas that might as well have been different languages and different species altogether.

Amazing that all of this could remotely possibly coalesce into what is known as the United States of America. Today’s states are still so diverse, even sometimes from county to county or one side of the railroad tracks to another, that it’s nearly laughable to call them United. We fight like pesky siblings with each other all the time; it’s a miracle, in my book, that the so-called Civil War, one of the most uncivilized events in the country’s history, hasn’t simply continued from its beginning to the present day. It does, perhaps, at subtler levels. Just because the invasion of the continent by a bunch of frightened Pilgrims who only thought themselves seeking freedom from tyranny didn’t destroy the whole land and kill every one of them off outright, and because the various internal skirmishes that led to, but were far from limited to, the Civil War didn’t complete that annihilation doesn’t mean we’re not still perfectly capable of incredible incivility at every turn. We try, we fail.

On the Fourth of July, I think of how astounding and—generally—good it is that this messy nation has managed to survive this long without self-destructing. But I can’t help also thinking this of most of the rest of the world. Humans just plain are messy. We form and break alliances; we argue over being Right instead of being compassionate or practical, let alone pursuing justice. We blunder around, hog resources, ascribe privileges and powers to ourselves and our chosen comrades that we willfully deny others, or just pretend the others don’t exist, and thanks to our weirdly, wonderfully diverse array of accents, when we do get around to discussing the least of these things, even those who ostensibly share a language can’t understand each other half of the time anyhow.

Just possibly, our life form may have been civilized at a few choice moments. There is plenty of potential in this odd species of ours, I like to think. Even we Americans aren’t entirely irredeemable; we keep bothering and beating up on each other like so many brothers and sisters, and yet most of us still manage eventually to just agree to disagree and, in moments of precious lucidity, even to see each other’s point of view and operate in an environment of respect and hope. As rotten as we can be to each other, we care enough to wrestle it out and try to find ways to go forward. Together, even. If that isn’t a family worth saving, I guess I don’t know what one is. Happy birthday, USA. Go forth and get a little more civilized, if you can.

Seasonal Allergies

Can political correctness kill a holiday spirit? Oh, yes, it can. We’ve all seen it. There are times and places when and where we have to tread so lightly around people’s tender feelings regarding their special holiday or occasion–or someone else’s–that it’s hard to believe that any of us retain those passions and beliefs after a while. It’s as though we’re allergic to each other’s seasonal happiness. All the same, I do understand that we ought to show reasonable forbearance regarding others’ dearly held views, no matter how far from our own they may be, so long as those views aren’t harming anyone else. And so very, very few of them are, to be fair.

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Remember to tread lightly on others’ ground!

But if others want to celebrate things I’m not so attached or attracted to myself, who am I to stand in the way?  I like holidays, parties and celebrations very well. I may have even occasionally co-opted others’ holidays just because I think they’re wonderful excuses for enjoying the great things about life and history and happiness. Whether I do or not, I am happy to see my own holiday leanings in any odd spot that inspires me at any moment.

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Ho-ho-ho, happy people, whoever you are!

I’m from a pretty common kind of American, Protestant, middle class background myself, so it won’t surprise anyone that I grew up surrounded by the trappings of the middle class, Protestant American version of Christmas. Won’t even shock anyone that after my decades of being surrounded by it, I grew more than a little jaded at the horrendously fat, greedy, commercialized version it morphed into in the public eye and felt shy of celebrating Christmas in that atmosphere. But there’s that sense of tradition and family tied into it as well, and the knowledge that the origins of the holiday and the celebration of it are worlds removed from those crass retail versions of it that irritate me so. So when I see the famed color combination so associated with Christmas in this my home culture, I think I am in a more forgiving mood toward the genuinely human and sometimes very foolish ways that others spend their celebratory energies, and maybe even toward my own.

I wish you all a happy holiday season, whether you celebrate any particular occasion or just enjoy seeing others revel in theirs. There should be plenty of pleasure to go around!

Just a Different Stripe, or a Horse of a Different Color Altogether?

Does it really matter whether our differences make us varied members of the same family or citizens of separate countries entirely? At the bottom of it all, we remain genetically bound to each other as disparate parts of the same species. What we choose to do with and in response to that simple truth is what really defines us as individuals and as parts of the human family, not how different we are from one another.

Working for respect, kindness and peace toward and among all the people whose paths cross mine in life seem to me like perfectly viable ways to respond. That’s the choice I’m going with, and I hope that it will be seen as defining my true colors always.

digital illustration

Our differences may be subtle or they may be tremendous, but they’re still contained in remarkably similar packages.

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It’s a gift and a privilege to see the beauty in those of a different stripe than ourselves.

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What, are you really so concerned about the cut of my hair or the color of my hide?

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I should always try to get a leg up on what challenges my expectations, whether it’s my nearest neighbor or someone from worlds away.

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After all, some of my best friends are zorses….

My Relationships are an Open Book

photoA recent Wall Street Journal article about couples finding the re-jiggering of their relationships around retirement quite complex amused me a bit. The general theme of the article was that most modern retirees, those from in-home jobs and those from outside employment, come from a world where they have established fairly separate-but-equal lives and find it a challenge to spend so much more time directly with each other, doing things together. I’m so happy that my partner and I are not like most. In my book, there’s no need to be that different in retirement if you’re secure in your pre-retirement life. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that we won’t face nearly the same sorts of questions or find many of them nearly so daunting as this newspaper item intimates they could be. Despite a hectic daily life, we apparently live together like retirees already in some ways. After all, modern retirees are among the busiest, most active class of people I know.

There are a number of reasons I don’t worry about our transition. Working as we both have in art-related fields (and both of us in academia and elsewhere), where schedules and projects and income and venues and so much more have always been in flux, means that we’ve both dealt with fallow times, whether job-induced or voluntary, wherein we were responsible for directing ourselves and choosing what to pursue next and when. That means each of us has taken the lead occasionally in having the more fixed schedule, project, income or venue and left the other either more freedom or more angst about how to fill the void for the moment. We are both artists, yes, but of slightly different sorts (his the musical kind and mine the more visual/verbal); these don’t compete or conflict with each other, so no ego is at stake should either of us be hung up on that kind of thing, but rather our artistic views are complementary; both draw on similar resources of effort, inspiration, creativity and skill, so we can speak the same language even when the details differ widely. As it is, our core life-values are pretty similar, so we don’t have much reason to go far afield for purposeful or enjoyable conversation. We have a whole library of possibilities from which to choose.photoWe have, in fact, worked side by side. Not only did our relationship start when we taught in next-door buildings at university, but I was already good friends with and had even collaborated with some of his colleagues on combined recital/art show projects, a sort of classical-based performance art, perhaps. As members of the same faculty, my future partner and I ended up at plenty of the same meetings and events over time, while both still having our own tracks of need and interest. Since our pairing, I have had the privilege of collaborating with him artistically as well, and his music provides a great deal of the soundtrack, live and recorded, of my life, working or otherwise, while he lives at home and work surrounded by my art and reads my writing. We are lucky in simply relishing time together, whether to Do Things or do nothing at all in companionable silence.

But we are neither conjoined twins in tastes and wants and needs nor dependent on each other for a primary sense of identity. He inhales reads books as quickly and easily as though it were breathing, and I labor through them; his reading ranges from professional interests to serial mysteries and thrillers and more, and mine, when my dyslexia forbids the time and attention required for favorites like SJ Perelman with his dazzling wordplay, or Charles Dickens and Robertson Davies, is devoted more to blog articles and short-form works; I read and write fairly constantly, but it’s a slow-moving river indeed. My Foodie Tuesday posts here will tell you that our preferences in dining also differ widely, if not wildly. Sometimes it’s tricky finding a meal at home that will satisfy both of us equally, given the limitations of our common subset. As for movies, he’d happily be in a theatre watching the latest offerings on the big screen, but he opts to stay home with me where I’m not troubled by the overwhelming noise and the overpowering intensity of on-screen action that were intolerable to me in my anxiety-ridden days and remain somewhat unappealing even now. He still watches a lot of stuff that I have no interest in watching or even hearing, but then I’ve learned that an evening in front of our own big screen makes a great time for me to install a good pair of earplugs, rev up my trusty pencil to draw or my computer to work on blogging, photo editing, magazine proofreading and correspondence. I still get to spend time in his company and swap intermittent witticisms with my favorite companion, and we both get to do what’s more appealing to each of us.

I realized long ago that I have a different attitude about relationships in general than many others, and I know that my attitude differs greatly from my own when I was younger as well. Now that I have a number of years of marriage under my belt (no comments from the cheap seats about ‘love handles’!) I am even more baffled by the people who harp on about what constant hard work relationships and marriages are and how difficult it is to keep them operational. Seems to me that if they’re consistently hard work, they’re not really relationships other than perhaps in the form of a slave/master sort. If it’s really high maintenance, it’s a job, not a relationship. Any that are one-sided because of abuse or complete conformity or any other sort of enforced imbalance cease to be viable or valid in my eyes. Only when both parties have something to contribute that is genuinely respected and appreciated by the other does it seem purposeful and potentially joyful, and if neither of those aspects is in the equation for any length of time at all, it is based on something far different from a relationship in my book.

At the same time, if we thought in perfect synchrony and had no differences of opinion or thought or preferences, it seems to me there would be no point in the relationship either. It would be pretty much the equivalent of marrying oneself, and idea that is both ridiculous and more than a little creepy. Narcissism is inherently the inverse of relationship-ready.

Apropos of this: both my husband and I had spent a fair amount of our adult lives single (he, divorced and I, unmarried) when we first dated, and both of us were fairly certain that we would remain single for the rest of our lives–and most importantly, both of us were okay with that idea. We were whole, functioning, socially active, happy individuals with full lives and immersed in relationships with great companions of all sorts. We think it’s part of what made us ready to slide into a life partner, love relationship with very little adjustment at all. Our cosmic crash into each other was instead a landing beautifully cushioned and protected by the remarkable net of many of those other relationships of ours, almost as much as by our personal contentment, mutual attraction and shared interests. Seems to me entirely noteworthy that a strong and happy relationship was founded on and remains supported by a network of other relationships.

This, too, is significant in protecting us from the dangers of too much intermingling of lives in retirement. We already share a lot of time together that we really love. And we already share so many great friends and loved ones that it’s far from essential that all of the newly acquired ones be mutual. He knows and enjoys the company and support and good humor of plenty of friends and colleagues, many of whom I know only as names or email-senders or office acquaintances or voices on the phone, and I have my own contingent of blog friends, expedition companions, collaborators and mentors as well. If every part of life were spent together, what would we have to talk about at the end of the day?

There are so many aspects of our marriage that make it pretty easy for me to avoid worry about what-ifs when retirement comes, I almost feel guilty. But not! I appreciate that we like to do things together as often as we can, daily, hourly, and that we have a life that allows us to take advantage of it. When we worked in side-by-side buildings in years past, it meant we could meet for lunch or stop by each other’s offices or for any number of other excuses quite conveniently; now, when I’m homemaking and blogging, I have the flexibility of schedule to take the shuttle over to the campus where he now works and grab a quick supper somewhere nearby with him before a tightly scheduled evening recital or concert, or sit in on a rehearsal of one of his choirs, or tidy up his files before sitting down to write and draw while he studies a score for the next choral-orchestral extravaganza. If I’m able to get a job again, I’d like to make sure that it still allows space for our interaction, however different that will be, because we really do value time spent together, however it’s spent.

If that makes ours a little unlike the average relationship approaching retirement age, I’m just sorry for all of those out there making up the bulk of the average, let alone any who remain under the mark for any reason. I’d much rather be novel in this respect.photo

So Much Better than the Alternative

photoPatina

I know I’m rough around the edges, what with age and wear and rust,

But I like the character antiquity imparts; it must

Seem strange to you who have such beauty, youth and grace, you smooth of skin,

Bright of eyes and freshly laundered whippersnappers–my sole sin,

If sin I have, is being ancient and well-lived and storied; still,

I think your sympathies will shift as you get older. And you will.

If you don’t, rough luck, poor suckers, and I pity you the trust

You had in your youth and beauty, come the day you too will rust.

Better to have aged and crumbled, to have faltered, dim and grey,

Than to croak and to have tumbled. ‘Old’ beats ‘finished’, I would say.photo