Abandoned World


aw spooky car

(Inspired by the Facebook page “Abandoned Wisconsin” that I stumbled upon earlier tonight. The photos I’ve attached are from that page and are so hauntingly beautiful that I had to share – they were taken by a number of gifted photographers (none of them me) – there are plenty more if  you go there.­­)

Back then, they didn’t tear things down. They’d let them stand until they couldn’t anymore, until they’d collapse broken-backed from under their own weight. These days, as soon as a building goes empty, there’s somebody there to tear down the “eyesore,” the safety hazard, the unsightly blemish to the antiseptic fantasy world we try to convince ourselves we live in. It’s a world where only the present exists. It’s a world where things don’t die and decay, and we strive to remove all traces of the past in the acknowledgement of the fear that time really exists, that what once was and what is to be matters. It’s the inability to see the beauty in decay. It’s the denial that others proceeded us and lived lives here, of the work they did, of the things they built with their hands, with their sweat, the work that kept their hearts pumping, that kept them alive.  And then one day, when the last of their flesh was loaded into an ambulance never to return, there was still a place for them to come back to, a place of heartbreaking beauty, a place as empty and silent as a grave. There they’d be visited by frightened children, ancestral descendants, historians and poets. They’d speak to these visitors in the clues they chose to leave behind, and if the visitors were willing and ready to listen, they’d hear everything they could ever want to know about not just their lives and times, but about everything.  All you could ever want to know about life, about death, about love, about the entire flipping universe, is within the reach of the sagging floor boards and peeling paint of an abandoned farm house or in the dry dust of a collapsing barn. Listen closely and you will hear the answers to questions you were unaware you’d asked, whispered in the cold midday breeze that flutters the torn and tattered shreds of curtains hung against pane-less windows.

Advertisements

Scout’s Honor


It’s been a while since I’ve been around kids. The youngest of my three children, my daughter Hannah, graduated college a couple of years ago, and has started a career while seeking out her Master’s degree in Public Health.  My middle child, Nick, started a year-long contract to teach English in South Korea about three or four weeks ago.  My oldest, Jon, recently celebrated his 32nd birthday, and is working in the corporate world and living in downtown Chicago. I am immensely proud of each of them.

My wife and I have settled comfortably in to the roles of empty nesters. My daughter began college in 2012, so we are coming up on six years since any of our kids have lived at home. However long it has or hasn’t been, it’s been long enough for us to get used to the open spaces that now occupy so much of our house and the blissful peace and quiet that’s replaced the chaos and the sound and fury that once accompanied the presence of three teenagers living under the same roof at the same time. While many times we look back with fondness and affection to our days as younger parents, more common are the times we blissfully go about our lives as a late middle-aged couple (or is it as an early senior-aged couple?)

A couple of months ago, I received an e-mail from a woman named Kathy Whiteside, who was looking for a local writer to help her Girl Scouts troop achieve a “screenwriting” badge. Looking through the materials, it was clear that the intent was to introduce the girls to story-telling concepts and fundamentals than screenwriting specifically, so I was confident that I could help facilitate the session, even though I know nothing about screenwriting.

I was less confident in my ability to get across to kids concepts like character development, rising action, conflict, and protagonists and antagonists. It’d been so long since I coached Nick’s softball and basketball teams, so long since I’d been around kids in any capacity, that I wasn’t sure if I could reach them.  It didn’t help that some professional teacher acquaintances had painted a pretty bleak picture of today’s youth. Short attention spans, feelings of entitlement, and the lacking of rudimentary skills were more the norm than the exception.

So it was that I took my seat in the middle of nine 6th to 8th grade girls with a bit of apprehension. I started by telling them that I am a writer, and the thing I love most about writing is that there are no rules you have to obey; that when I write, I’m free to write whatever I  want to write about. At first, I wasn’t sure they were listening, but when I asked them questions about what their favorite books or movies were, about the difference between books and movies, they all had opinions and were thoughtful and engaged. They’d all read most if not all of the Harry Potter books.

Kathy and I took them through several exercises, with the goal of having a collaborative, group written outline of a story by the end of our two hours together.  We started out with each girl creating a character and assigning attributes like favorite foods (tacos are apparently very popular these days in this demographic), colors, etc. I was surprised when three of the girls wanted their characters to be animals (a couple of cats and a pig, although the girl who wanted her character to be a pig later changed her mind).

Then we had to create a villain, and they quickly decided upon a mean bully need Nate. Whether Nate is based on a real person or someone on television or in a popular movie I can only guess as I am so far out of touch with the mass culture of the pre-teen girl demographic.  They showed a surprising level of sophisticated thinking when they not only described the inciting moment that would kick the plot into gear, but they also came up with a reason for Nate to push poor Romeo into a locker after school. I was surprised that they weren’t just satisfied with Nate being bad; that they felt the need to explain why he was. They also set up a scene for the climax of the story, where the group of “good friends” would meet Nate and his ”bad” friends the following night after school. But that was only the beginning – after that, things got real interesting.

The girls had to explain why there were two cats among the friends who went to school together. It turns out, that, unknown to one another, they discover that night that they are “shape shifters,” and all have the ability to transform into animals.  They agree to arrive at the fight the next night all in their animal forms.

Imagine their surprise when they all show up the next night as animals only to be met by Nate and his friends, who have all also shape-shifted into animals. Stunned by the knowledge that the two groups have more things in common than they don’t, the fight is averted, and new friendships are forged.

It’s a pretty slick little story, if you ask me. Beyond that, for me, it was as much fun as I’ve had in a long time. Watching the different personalities and how they interacted brought back memories of my children at those ages, and of the softball and basketball teams I coached. The girls had all of the same pent up winter energy that my basketball teams used to have, and they laughed at the same in-jokes that only friendship can provide.

I was delighted to see that kids haven’t changed. We live in terrifying times, with ugly mean-spiritedness dominating our politics, and with a President that seems hell-bent on starting another war, whether in the Middle East or the Korean peninsula.  It’s difficult not to become overwhelmed with cynicism.  Being around these kids for just two hours was the antidote to what was ailing me, and restored my faith in humanity.  These kids were smart and well behaved. After only a few minutes, I could see them focusing, getting into the story and feeling the rush that only creativity can bring. They collaborated beautifully, they were respectful and considerate with each other. It was obvious to me that they came from good homes.

The night also shone a light on the fact that storytelling is at the core of being human. It’s what separates us and makes us the dominant species on earth. It’s how we make sense out of the cold randomness of existence, and in these times of divisiveness and fear, it’s our only hope for bridging the gaps between us. Like in the story the girls invented, at the end, all of the shape shifters discovered that the things they had in common were greater than the differences.  It’s a moral that their parents’ generation would do well to recognize.

As I drove home, it occurred to me that if we’re ever going to dig ourselves out of the mess we’ve made of this world, it’ll be by the grace of children and the art of storytelling.  And there, on a cold Wednesday night in a Girl Scout meeting room in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I witnessed the intersection of these two forces of nature, and I was humbled by the profundity of the truth it revealed.

 

gsa.jpg

First Snowfall


Last Saturday I completed my 59th year on this planet. Now, about a week into my 60th year, I know that I am no spring chicken. I’ve been an adult, chronologically at least, for forty or so ears now. So I really ought to know better.

I ought to know that the season’s first snowfall is nothing to get excited about. I ought to know better than to marvel at the sight of snowflakes parachuting down and invading streets and sidewalks. I ought to know that the thin white blanket that now covers the ground is just the beginning of back aching shoveling and scraping that will soon become tedious and tiring, and the white streaks on the roads will only become slippery and hazardous in the weeks and months to follow.  More than anything, the cold that I so enthusiastically bundle up for today is here to stay for what will soon feel like an eternity, and  daylight will diminish and fade as the days grow shorter and the cold bleak blackness of winter tightens its grip on the landscape. To quote William Butler Yeats and Cormac McCarthy (both out of context), winter is “No country for old men.”

Yet, here I am, in my office, looking out my window and watching the snow fall, feeling none of the cynicism that time and experience have informed my life with. Instead I watch the snow through the wide eyed lenses of my youth, and I see once again the full scope of infinite wonder that a young child views the world through. It’s hope and possibility. It all comes back to me, like warm air being pushed through furnace vents.

There will be plenty of time for the oppressive forces of winter to exert their gloom. Today I am content, for at least the eternity that exists in the time it takes for a snowflake to melt after hitting a city sidewalk, to rediscover just one of the unexplored worlds that were revealed every day when I was very young.

Numbers Game


I made the mistake tonight of reading some Facebook comments on the Las Vegas shooting. They all kind of bleed together, so I can’t remember the name of the one troll whose comments stuck with me or the article he was reacting to (I’m pretty sure it was a Washington Post article, but damned if I could find it again). The general gist of his arguments is that the 59 dead and more than 500 injured, let alone the 948 total victims of mass shootings over the past fifty years, represents a “statistically insignificant” percentage of the total population and therefore is not deserving of legislative attention.

So to Mr. Troll, whoever you are, from a fellow numbers guy, here are my immediate reactions:

  • 948 is equal to or greater than the population of thousands of U.S. towns.  I gave up trying to get  a number, but look at this list from Wisconsin to get an idea of how many towns this small there are just in my home state   http://www.city-data.com/city/Wisconsin3.html  Ask any resident of any of these towns if their entire population was murdered or injured if they’d consider that to be ”insignificant.”
  • The number of dead and injured in Las Vegas is greater than the total number of players in the NBA. Imagine if the entire National Basketball Association was wiped out in one event.  It’d be quite an impact on local economies – stadiums and restaurants and television. I’m sure its economic impact would rise into the statistically relevant range. But economics isn’t even the most important impact ….
  • Looking at the wrong numbers. To me, the most heart breaking of all mass shootings remains the twenty first graders killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. I still have trouble wrapping my head around this one, let alone the horrible treatment of the victims’ families by those sub-human “conspiracy” morons. But let’s play Mr. Troll’s numbers game for a moment – the number of victims, twenty children (not to mention the seven teachers who were also murdered), is microscopically low against any national number.  But when we count the years lost, by subtracting the victim’s average age of six years from the average lifetime (75), you end up with 69 years lost for each of the twenty victims, and you get a total of 1,380 years lost, and about 20 spouses and 40 children and 80 grandchildren and 160 great grandchildren and so on.  In just three generations, that comes to 21,000 years of life lost. And who knows what contributions those unborn children with their unrealized potential may have made to our society.  We may have lost a cure for cancer, or the next Einstein or Martin Luther King, or who knows who.

 I think it’s time we look at all shootings in this context. How many years of life are we losing, how much potential is being lost, and how much damage is being done to our psyche? How many concert or dinner or movie dates are being cancelled from the fear these incidents plant in us, how deadly is the distrust they instill in our hearts and minds? How many family members and friends are waking up every day for the rest of their lives without someone they loved? How do we calculate the damage to our souls, the value of the innocence lost?

I don’t profess to have any answers or solutions.  I have no idea where to even start. Maybe a good place to start would be to reject terms like “statistically insignificant” and agree that not everything needs to be politicized, and condemn the horror we all recognize the loss of innocent lives to be.

Proof Through the Night


I still remember a dream I had when I was about five years old. In the dream, I was floating in the sky, and I came upon a cloud, white and fluffy, with an American Flag somehow planted in it.  Seeing the flag confirmed in my mind that I was in fact in Heaven.

That was about fifty five years ago now and I’m struck by how powerful, even at that early age, the image of the stars and stripes was.  These days the flag and its meaning are being debated, as links between sports and politics have blurred, and the right to protest the flag is being questioned.

To those who say politics don’t have any place on a football or baseball field or basketball court, answer this one question:  why does every sporting event, from high school on up, start with saluting the flag and singing the anthem, if politics have no place there? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to these things. It’s just that the flag is a symbol, a very powerful symbol that evokes strong, politically charged responses in everyone in attendance. But why are they even a part of the event?  We don’t play the anthem and salute the flag in a movie theatre, for example.

Inserting the flag into an event instantly politicizes that event. Taking a knee or clenching arms or raising a fist to the flag does not disrespect the flag, rather, it strengthens what the flag really stands for.

One of the things that always set us apart from extremists in other cultures was that in America, we hold principals in higher regard than symbols. No one is supposed to suffer punishment in America for drawing a cartoon, for example.  Or for, no matter how repellent the sight might be, burning an American flag.  It’s our constitutional right to free speech that we obey, as well as it’s the right of others to decry such activities. But we don’t have the right to discriminate against those we disagree with.

In America, we are allowed, even encouraged, to think for ourselves.  So when we see our flag, it’s only natural, and downright patriotic, for different people to think different things. Imagine if we were all forced to think the same way –imagine the ramifications of that.  Who would decide what we have to conform to? Or what the punishment would be if our thoughts strayed?

There’s no denying the strength of the flag as a symbol. I understand the power of the meaning it has, especially to our military.  But to truly appreciate the complexity as well as the power of the symbol is a bit more difficult. If you want an idea of how, even among the military, the flag can have different symbolic meanings, all you need do is google Ira Hayes.

Hayes’ experiences after returning home from World War II, where he was one of the marines who famously rose the flag at Iwo Jima, add a level of complexity to the simplistic symbol of the flag. This is inevitable with symbols – the more they are universally embraced, the simpler their meaning becomes, despite the fact that symbols are by nature inherently complex.

What makes the flag such a complex thing is part of the very foundation our country was built upon: liberty, freedom and justice for all. It’s the great American experiment, and it’s what sets us apart from every other country in history:  that we are guaranteed the right to say what we want, think what we want, worship whatever god we choose. All men are created equal and self-evident truths and inalienable rights. It was all incredibly audacious and radical and idealistic, and the flag came to symbolize every bit of it – all of the purity and sincerity of those ideals, as well as all the times we fell short – because only if we recognize battles lost and not just celebrate those won will we ever rise up to the lofty heights our founding fathers envisioned us one day approaching.  I think they probably knew we’d never reach them all, that that would be impossible, but hoped that we’d fight with every breath in our resolve to at least try.

That’s the fight and the struggle that the flag is symbolic of.  It flies as high as the surface of the moon, but we still have a way to go before we reach the unreachable, until we plant it in the fluffy clouds of a child’s dream of Heaven.

What We Now Know


Here we are, three weeks into the Trump administration.  What we now know:

The right-wingers are hypocrites:  Classified information leaks and private servers and botched rescue missions were grounds for countless investigations and imprisonment when Hillary was the alleged perpetrator, but not an issue when Trump invites Putin in to hack the election, or when it’s revealed that several senior members of the Trump admin are using private servers, or when inadequate planning and preparation results in a failed mission in Yemen. There were also the unfounded accusations of pay for play funneling of contributions to the Clinton Foundation while Trump has yet to divest himself from his business interests and is actually funneling tax payer dollars into his family’s empire. The only sound more deafening than the hysterical calls for investigations into “crooked Hillary’s” alleged wrong doing is the silence of the same Republicans as Trump openly and brazenly engages in the same behavior and worse.

Trump is Putin’s puppet:  Trump is quick to criticize the U.S.A. and our allies but still has not said an unkind word about Putin.  Today it was reported that contrary to what he indicated before, that during the transition period, Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had conversations with Russian contacts about the sanctions President Obama was planning on implementing. Earlier this week, the Washington Post and New York Times printed stories that intelligence investigations into the dossier filed by an English intelligence agent about leverage Putin has on Trump  have so far been verified to be true. So far they haven’t checked out the more salacious details in the dossier, and I personally doubt their veracity. What does seem obvious is the fact Putin has something on Trump, and if we ever want to find out, somebody’s going to have to subpoena Trump for his tax returns. But even if we never get to see the tax returns, there’s still plenty of other evidence of Russian ownership of Trump – take this quote from his son in 2008:

“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008, according to an account posted on the website of eTurboNews, a trade publication. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Trump is to be taken literally: This was one of the stupidest rationalizations for Trump’s insane rhetoric on the campaign trail, that when, for example, he spoke of “banning Muslims” from entering the country he was somehow speaking metaphorically.  We know now what was obvious all along – the man is too much of a moron to master such nuances as subtlety and context, and the reason for all the bat shit crazy things that leave his mouth is that he is in fact bat shit crazy. How bat shit crazy is he?  Crazy enough to think that more than three million illegal immigrants committed voter fraud, and that every one of them voted for Hillary, but not in key Electoral College states.  Crazy enough on the day after the inauguration to send his press secretary to angrily scold the press that the crowd that showed up to Trump’s inauguration was “the biggest crowd to watch an inauguration ever. Period.”  Never mind that this was patently false, it was also completely irrelevant. The ravings of lunatics shouldn’t be taken literally … that is, unless that lunatic is the most powerful man in the world, in charge of a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy the world several times over.

Flooding instead of draining the swamp – The aggregate wealth of the twenty four people who serve on Trump’s cabinet is more than that of the bottom 100 million, or about one third, of the American population. And what a bunch: The new Secretary of Education has been the leading advocate of eliminating public school systems; the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency has been the loudest proponent of eliminating the EPA and has several open law suits against the Agency, the Secretary of State, the former CEO of Exxon, has implemented complex business structures in Russian oil that have helped make Vladimir Putin possibly THE wealthiest man on the planet. And in the ultimate “fuck you” to the American people, Trump has put the one man in the country who might be even stupider than himself – Rick Perry – in charge of the Department of Energy. Perry is a knuckle dragging climate change denier who now has responsibility for the safe and effective maintenance of our nuclear arsenal.  Traditionally, the post has been manned by individuals well respected in the scientific community.  Perry would be over his head in your four year old granddaughter’s wading pool let alone the department of energy, a department he once almost suggested shutting down, if only someone in the audience hadn’t waved something shiny in front of him, causing him to forget the name of the department.

The Republican Party has no interest in governing – and they haven’t for the past sixteen years.  They do have an interest in maintaining power.  Why?  So they can complete their fire sale of everything of value in this country to their rich and powerful donors and cronies.  They want to privatize social security and Medicare, not because these institutions are at risk, but because there is money to be made.  They want to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, even at a time when oil spills and sinkholes and tainted drinking water are impacting more and more people. They want to sell off the National Parks to mining interests and real estate developers.  They want to privatize public schools and prisons.  They want to repeal banking legislation that was passed to prevent the predatory practices that nearly destroyed the global economy in 2008.  They want to eliminate all federal funding of the arts, because artists rarely vote for them.  They want to eliminate the minimum wage, paid overtime, even child labor laws.  They want to repeal regulations ensuring workplace safety.

The “evangelicals” are a bunch of narrow minded hypocritical assholes who believe in only one thing – that abortion should be illegal.  Although I am pro-choice, I can understand why someone might be pro-life.  But I can’t understand how that can be the only issue a person might vote on.  Even if access to abortions was wide spread and open (which it is not), only a relatively small percentage of the population would be ever impacted by the issue.  But the evangelicals gave their votes to Trump because he changed from being pro-choice to being pro-life during the campaign, despite all of the unholy vitriol he espoused, from his many disrespectful remarks and misogynistic language about women, to his advocacy of torture and killing innocent family members of terrorists, to his open mocking of disabled people to his open courting of racists and overt espousing of racial sentiments. Any true believer would have trouble reconciling such an amoral narcissist with the values they claim they hold dear.  So if you voted for Trump, you’d do well not mention Jesus to me anytime – no candidate in my lifetime has ever been the antithesis of everything Jesus of Nazareth stood for as Donald Trump.

After three weeks, anyone who voted for Trump and still enthusiastically supports him is an idiot. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but how much more egotism and incompetence will it take to admit you made a mistake?

All of the anti-Trump protesters had better be ready for the long haul, because it’s going to take a lot more than waving a sign for an hour or two to create change.  Right wing nut jobs have taken over all branches of the federal government, they have control of more than 35 state governors and legislatures, and they have all the money.  And the Democratic Party is in shambles.  I have no idea how to best fight this, but I think the first step is to take an accurate and honest inventory of where things are and how much ground needs to be made up.

This is not and never will be normal. We cannot accept what’s going to happen, inevitable as some of it might be, as the way the system works, because our system has been taken over. Where we are now is not a function of American democracy, rather, it’s the result of a slow and eroding occupation of our country by a rich and powerful and radicalized minority, while the majority, fat and lazy, slept.

Don’t look to history for comfort – This has never happened before, at least, not here.  There have been similar Fascist take overs in the past in other countries, but never in the world’s greatest and dominant super power, never with these armed forces and this nuclear arsenal, never in the age of information, of the internet.  We’re heading into unchartered waters.

So, to quote that great political philosopher Bette Davis, “Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

 

Hidden Things


Tonight my wife and I went to see the film, Hidden Figures, the true story of three brilliant African American women and how they overcame the institutionalized racism and sexism in their workplace, which happened to be NASA in the days of the pivotal launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. It’s a wonderful and inspiring film, straight forwardly and honestly told.  And while it celebrates the triumph of the women over the intolerance of the time, there is one major problem – not with the movie, but with how white audiences will react to it.

That problem is that it is the type of story that a white man like myself can too easily feel comfortable watching.  It pushes the right buttons, the “boy, it had to be rough to be a black woman in the south in the sixties,” which, to borrow from the mathematics that is at the heart of the film, can lead us to the incorrect conclusion of “we sure have come a long ways since then.” This isn‘t the fault of the film – it tells a story that needs to be told in a way that will reach the most people – rather it’s the fault of the audience and the nature of institutionalized racism, that it’s too easy for those of us in the majority to assume we have any idea what racism is, what it must feel like, and oversimplify the incredible complexity that makes racism the tangled web that it is. Ultimately, Hiddem Figures has the unintended effect of making us more comfortable with the deeper prejudices that remain undisturbed and unchallenged deep inside.

Again, this isn’t any fault of the film – to shine a light on these brilliant and hitherto unknown women is inarguably important.   The film does have a couple of incredibly powerful moments which I won’t divulge any details about so as not to spoil anything for those yet to see it. It is a very moving and thought provoking film.

Yet something still gnaws at me. It occurs to me that though I walked out of the theatre moved and touched by the story of the women, I really didn’t learn anything new about myself in the process. This is what great art and great films do to me.  For example, after watching No Country for Old Men or There Will be Blood, I felt drained and in some unidentified way, changed. Those and other  films I’ve seen burned themselves into my psyche, became a part of my subconscious, and a part of the internal vocabulary  that I’ll use to describe the world from that point on.  That Hidden Figures doesn’t do that isn’t meant as a criticism; few films have that effect on me.  It’s an inspiring and well-made film, but don’t count on it to blaze any new ground or illuminate any new truths about racism.

I guess what it comes down to is that Hidden Figures shows us three exceptional African Americans trying to overcome obstacles and succeed in the white workplace.  And while I don’t for a moment doubt the veracity or accuracy of the film, I can’t help think that too many people who look like me will walk out of the theatre with the wrong reactions: one, that if these women can overcome such obstacles, there’s no reason others can’t roll up their sleeves and make it, too, and two, that white culture is superior to black culture and is a goal that all African Americans should aspire to, should assimilate themselves within, and be measured against.

These are both widely held tenants that are at the heart of our institutionalized racism. For example, I live in Wisconsin, and I am a Green Bay Packers fan.  About thirty five years ago, I found myself watching a packer game on television with a bunch of blue collar white guys. The packers weren’t very good at the time, and their star player was a Stanford educated African American named James Lofton.  One of the guys watching had a second home in the Green Bay area, and knew a lot of residents of the small town and how they frequently interacted with the players. “They all say what a great guy Lofton is,” he said, “and how well spoken and articulate he is.” It was funny to hear, because I’d known this guy for some time, and never once heard him use terms like “well-spoken and articulate” to describe a white man. But here he was, trying to show off how open minded he was by paying what he thought was a compliment to a black man, while instead revealing the depths of his ignorance and intolerance in intimating that most black men didn’t speak well and were inarticulate. You hear the same logic in the stories of other African-American sports stars who overcame incredible adversity growing up in the inner city to make it big in the NFL or NBA, leading to the next logical statement, “if they can overcome that, why can’t the rest of them?” forgetting what rare and exceptional physical talents anyone has to possess to make it to the level of professional sports. It’s the old, “why can’t they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make something productive of themselves?”  (By the way – a major clue in identifying whether language is racist or not is the frequency of the words “they” and “them.”)

The second tenant, that white culture is superior to black culture, that the suburbs are superior to the inner city, is a tougher egg to crack. As one who’s lived most of his life in the quiet comfort of suburbia, I recognize that I probably believe this.  But I also recognize that I have no proof to base this belief on, because I simply don’t understand African American culture. What I have to work on is resisting the urge to assume because I understand white culture and don’t understand black culture that white culture is inherently superior.

I am a fifty eight year old white male who’s lived his entire life in the small towns and suburbs of Wisconsin. Growing up, all I knew about black culture was music, Motown and blues, and sports stars. The first books I read were about Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, both favorite baseball players of mine, and both men who’d grown up in low income, inner city neighborhoods.  Reading their biographies made me sensitive to their backgrounds, but it didn’t really give me much more than a snapshot into what African American life was really like.  And to this day, I still don’t know.  I don’t understand hip-hop or rap – I’ve tried, I know it is a legitimate art form, but I just don’t get it. It just doesn’t sound like music to the cranky old white man I’ve become. I don’t understand the clothing or the jewelry or the language. But then I realize, how could I understand these things? I’ve never spent a minute in anything except for white skin – and even if I could, that minute spent in black skin would mean nothing without possessing an ancestry of hundreds of years of being black.

When I wonder what it must be like to be black, my best-intended liberal fantasies take hold, and I try to imagine being stopped by police for no reason, or white people reacting with fear upon the site of me, or being discriminated against looking for employment or advancement or whatever.  Of course, there is no way I can know what these things feel like, but when I really think about it, I realize these are the wrong things to try to imagine, that they are clichés and stereotypes that are just as broad and racist as the myths perpetuated by white supremacists.  We need to understand that the heavy baggage of racism is buried deep within each of us, and we have to learn how to best react when this baggage surfaces, when it is exposed.  I know, for example, that the term “inner-city” immediately conjures up images of drug deals and gang shootings in my head, because that is about 90% of what I hear and read about it entails. The truth is that families and hard work are probably just as much a part of the fabric of life in the city as it is in the burbs. In fact, statistics tell me drug use is more prevalent in the burbs – yet still the images of needles in the gutters fill my imagination of inner city life.

This is where art can come in – it can shine a light on unpleasant and unexpected truths and make us react and maybe even change us.  There are two examples I can quickly think of that exposed some small but elemental truths to me – one was the Spike Lee film, Do the Right Thing, particularly the moment when Lee throws that garbage can through the plate glass window, and the second is in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck decides that he will accept going to Hell rather than turning his friend Jim in.

While Hidden Figures doesn’t fundamentally change my perception of things the way those two moments did, it’s still an excellent film that I’d strongly recommend everybody see.

Ostriches


Today, January 27th, 2017, was International Holocaust Remembrance day. It also happened to be the day that President Trump signed an executive order shutting the door to the United States on all refugees from all countries.

Trump is an incompetent madman, and his die hard supporters are morons.  But as bad as they are, they are not the worst.  The worst are those who accept all of this madness as a new normal, who dismiss the discourse as nothing more than the usual partisan bickering.  Admittedly, often times the dialogue fails to rise above the lowest levels.  But the stakes are so much higher now. There are literally lives at stake.

Trump’s decision today violates the best interests of both American values and American interests. It violates the values of freedom and compassion that we’ve tried to live up to ever since they were written into our constitution, and it goes against our interests in that it will only give rise to the very extremism the order is intended to protect us from.  Of the thousands of people we turn away and condemn, it’s inevitable that hatred for America and Americans will rise. American people, soldiers and tourists, Republicans and Democrats, will become targets of retaliation both at home and abroad.

To those of you out there in Facebook land who are tired of all the political posts, who wish that social media would get back to just being pictures of cute little kitties and the such, to those of you who are sick of all the hate and think you’re above all of the fray, go ahead and stick your head in the sand.  You won’t be the first ones to tune out the cries of innocent people dying.

Today is a reminder that we have to remember the Holocaust because we can no longer hear the crying of six million innocent lives. But if you listen closely, you can hear the same silence that emboldened another small man who become the architect of the perversion of another great nation in 1933.  It grows louder with every order Trump signs, and the shadows of guilt spread over the souls of those who remain silent like a cancer, black and bitter and cold.

Those Awful Millennials


Once again, it seems that the generation known as “millennials” is getting bashed and beaten on social media and other forums.  A short video clip featuring some guy named Simon Sinek going on and on about why the millennials are basically fucked up has gone viral.  While he makes one or two somewhat valid points, most of what he is saying is pure nonsense, and it’s only eleven minutes in to his self-important rants and raves that he only superficially touches on a couple of valid points.

Let me summarize my take on the millennial generation:  the primary problem they have is the shithole that their parents, the baby boomers, my generation, have made of the world that they will be asked to save.  It’s the baby boomers (my generation and parents to the millennials), inheritors of the greatest economy in history (post world war two America), who have made such a mess of things.

Let’s look at some of the “problems” that are associated with millennials:

1)  They are lazy.  Parents and grandparents have been attaching this label to every younger generation since the beginning of the industrial revolution. What they are reacting to is progress and automation.  None of us have to work as hard for our basic survival as our ancestors did, while most of us are engaged in some kind of work that they couldn’t even imagine.

2)  They lack patience and have short attention spans. This is true, but not just of millennials, but of pretty much all of us who have been raised in the ages of television and the internet and the dreaded cell phone.

3) “Participation awards” – This is the most often and perhaps most ridiculous reason cited for why the millennials are so awful.  Why is this ridiculous? Because for every municipal co-ed “just for fun” softball and basketball leagues that give these away, there are a half dozen or so “travelling” teams, baseball and basketball teams that travel from tournament to tournament around the country, and operate on  a year round basis. These teams pray upon the fathers out there who have failed at their own unfulfilled impossible dreams of sports stardom and projected them onto their children (mainly their sons), whom they are convinced have a real chance of signing that million dollar NBA or NFL contract one day.  Well, sorry, it’s simply not going to happen – there are currently 450 active players in the NBA and 1,696 in the NFL.  That’s a whopping 2,146 job openings out of a population of 318,900,000 (which is just the USA population and doesn’t factor in the growing international candidates), or .0000067294 of us who make a living as a pro football or basketball player, which is getting into the odds of being struck by lightning or winning the lottery. I’d argue that these organizations and the time demands they place on not just the children but the entire family cause more harm than the rec-leagues that are open about the fact they are more focused on developing social skills than the next Lebron James.

4) Their parents taught them they are “special” when in fact they are not.  I don’t know how to react to this one.  Are they saying that we (the boomers) were the first generation of parents to tell our children they are special (we weren’t), or that they (the millennials) were the first generation to believe it (they didn’t any more than their parents did when they were told the same thing)? But let’s assume for a moment that they really did believe it when they were told they are “special.”  Is that such a bad thing? A little bit of self- confidence?  Maybe they’ll stand up for themselves and not swallow the shit sandwich employers all too often fed their parents.  “Paid overtime? Affordable health insurance? Family friendly policies?  What, do you think you’re special or something?”

This is where the real difference in the millennials and the boomers manifests itself.  The millennials have seen their parents work obscenely long hours only to be replaced by someone or some machine that works cheaper. They’ve grown up in an environment where mom and dad not only both had to work, but more than likely had to change jobs more than once.  So of course they don’t treat the work place with the same respect their parents did – they know all too well that they are commodities, and they’ve seen the lack of respect granted their parents by employers.

The truth is that the work place is changing forever, in fundamental and profound and unpredictable ways.  This transformation will make the industrial revolution seem like child’s play.  All of the current forms of the employer-employee relationship will be affected, from where the employer works to how health care is funded to how the employee is compensated, etc., etc.

The transformation is going to be difficult and painful and unprecedented, but the nature of the conflict between youth and experience will always remain.  We among the experienced laugh at how little the youthful know and their naïve idealism, while they see bitter and jaded cynics who view the world through cynical and narrow lenses.

I’d strongly suggest that Mr. Sinek and Mike Rowe, and all of the other social critics out there who are piling on the Millennials take a moment or two and read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.  You’ll find that Willy and Biff  Loman are dealing with the exact same issues parents and young adults have always grappled with:  change, disillusion, shattered and false dreams and expectations.

I’ve seen hundreds of Wily Lomans out there.  I’ve been Willy Loman.  Who is Willy Loman?  He’s every hard working guy who’s put in 50, 60, 70 hours a week to please his managers only to be replaced by a foreigner or a machine that will do the same work for a fraction of the expense. He’s every guy who’s filled his children with their own failed impossible dreams – the same guy who yells at the umpires in little league games or signs his kid up for the year-long travelling baseball or basketball team and spends the rest of the year driving around the country. He’s every guy who’s bought into the false American dream of position and conformity and materialism, who’s worked tirelessly for the corner office and the house in the suburbs and the S.U.V in the driveway, only to end up in the trash can with the rest of the burned out and discarded human waste that the corporate world chews up and spits out every single day.

In Death of a Salesman, Biff Loman is guilty of all the offenses Mr. Sinek charges the Millennials with, but some sixty years prior.  Arthur Miller was a brilliant artist, but he wasn’t Nostradamus. He was writing about what he saw, the truth, and it was just as true in 1949 as it is now – the conflict between fading and emerging generations has always played itself out against a backdrop of change, and has always been the conflict between idealism and cynicism, between youth and experience.

It’s time we the older generation step aside and let the young ‘uns figure things out.  After all, here about three weeks before President Trump takes office, do we really think they could do any worse?

 

A Hard Rain


So Bob Dylan won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. There’s been a lot of controversy about whether a songwriter is really a creator of literature, but I’d argue that there have been maybe three or four artists who have consistently written lyrics that are worthy of being classified as literature, and of those, only Dylan would qualify for consideration of a Nobel Prize.

Dylan has long been a personal hero of mine.  Above all, it’s his songwriting and his performances that I’ve admired so much.  I’ve also admired his eccentricities, his I don’t give a fuck if you think I can’t sing or I’m weird or whatever.  Dylan has always done what Dylan wants to do, and he’s remained relevant and vital and enigmatic for more than fifty years now.

Dylan didn’t attend the Nobel conference, but he did pass along a warmly worded note expressing his respect for the institution and his sense of honor for winning.  Best of all, they got the great Patti Smith to perform “Hard Rain” on his behalf.

It was the perfect selection of singer and song.  “Hard Rain” is even more relevant now than it’s always been before, given Donald Trump and the threatening cloud of nationalism that is advancing across the world.  The horrors of Syria and the atrocities occurring in the Philippines along with tumult in Gambia and the specter of Russian aggression all portend the eruption of those dark clouds into maybe the hardest rain the world has ever seen.  And even when Smith bungled a couple of lines in the middle of the performance and admitted her nervousness, it seemed right, that even a poet and songwriter and singer as great and formidable as Smith could be humbled in the presence of Dylan’s work.  That she recovered and was still able to get to the emotional core of the song is testament to the greatness of both artists.

“Hard Rain” is Dylan as prophet.  In the song, the singer’s “blue-eyed son” has returned from a long journey that can only be interpreted as a trip into the future.  He describes the sights and sounds and the people he encountered there as nothing short of apocalyptic.  In the first verse, he describes the physical landscape in terms that become increasingly horrific, culminating in “dead oceans” and “ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.”

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son
And where have you been, my darling young one
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The second verse describes the people and cultures that dominate, and again, the images are so clear and concise and horrific. From a “newborn baby with wild wolves all around it” to “a black branch with blood that kept dripping,” there’s a sense of abandonment and isolation. Nearly fifty years before Sandy Hook, Dylan wrote about what at the time would have been unthinkable:  “Guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.” And the “ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken” seems accurate, too, as there is so much hysterical and vitriolic and ineffective talk from both sides but no real communication.

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son
And what did you see, my darling young one
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Then he describes what he heard.  Note that as the verse goes on, the sounds become quieter and more personal, ranging from the roars of thunder and tidal waves to the cry from an alley.  This apocalypse is more than the death and destruction of the masses, it is also the end of individualism.

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The next verse is the most conflicted, as the dark imagery (“a young child beside a dead pony”) is somewhat balanced by shred of hope and beauty (the young girl who gave him a rainbow.) He meets two wounded men, one “wounded in love,” one “wounded with hatred.” This is the line in the song that I have the most trouble interpreting.  It’s also one of my favorite lines.  Is he saying that in the end, love and hate are equal in their ability to inflict hurt?

Oh, what did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And finally, what is the prophet to do with the knowledge he gained from his journey?  He’s “going back out before the rain starts falling” to “tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it.”  This last verse is incredibly powerful and beautiful.

And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

 I don’t know how anybody could deny that “Hard Rain” is literature.  The raw beauty and power and emotion captured in these words are undeniably great.  “Hard Rain” highlights the humanity, the unshakable integrity and profound genius of a true prophet.

Ever since the election in November, I’ve been unable to express the feelings of overwhelming dread and loss that I’ve been experiencing. Believe me, I get no pleasure in being right about things that are so wrong, and if I am proven wrong about how bad I think things are going to get, I’ll be unapologetically glad. I’ve been looking for something to describe what I’m feeling and fearing, and have been unable to articulate it. Then I returned to “Hard Rain,” and realized that it perfectly summed up what was going on in my head and my heart. And this is what great literature has done for me time and time again.  Whether it was “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers or “Big Two Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway or “Two Soldiers” by William Faulkner, it’s shone a light into the darkest recesses of my soul and helped me walk out. More than anything, it’s made me realize I am not alone.

Congratulations, Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize winner.  You know your song well, and thanks to your amazing gift, so do I.