A Wider Gaze

•March 8, 2017 • Leave a Comment

This post has been a long time in coming, but as is so often the case with writing I needed a good place to begin.  I got it in an email, oddly enough, about topics for a choral program we’re going to be launching— one of the most ambitious programs I have ever been involved in.  In trying to inspire us to think about topics we want to bring to composers we are hoping to engage to write music for our 50th anniversary concert, a list of ideas was sent around, and in that list is a visible rendering of the deepest cultural divides between the United States and the rest of the world that is somewhat or even mostly “capitalist” in nature.

When I moved to the Netherlands, people back in the United States wanted to hear about what is most different about the two cultures.  Part of the problem of answering such a question is that culture itself is so broad.  So the Dutch speak different languages, but Amsterdam is basically a bilingual city: Dutch and English.  Their musical traditions look very different to ours, but the Pop music in every store is American.  Their houses are smaller to conserve space, but their parks in the cities are enormous compared to American parks.  They dress only moderately differently than Americans do, except that they’d never be caught dead outside their home in something like sweatpants or yoga pants.  Five years ago no one wore shorts here, now it’s common to see women and men in the summer donning shorts.  One could go on forever about the ways the Netherlands and the US differ, but perhaps the largest difference I would have to name came in that email: the world-view of a Dutch person is nothing like the world-view of a US citizen.

The theme for our second concert (the overarching theme) in 2018 is “Looking Forwards” (and I’m translating all of that, of course, because the texts and ideas for this are all in Dutch because this is a Dutch choir).  Among the ideas we want to use for commissioning pieces are themes important to the adults of 2017/2018, and the issues they believe the world will have to face together in the next 50 years.  One of our team members drew these inspirations from Yuval Noah Harari’s famous book Homo Deus.

  • What will humanity’s agenda be now that hunger, disease, and war are no longer the perennial foes of our lives?
  • Will we be satisfied with our lives and what humanity has achieved while holding the ecological world in balance against what humankind needs to survive?
  • Or will we seek to overthrow Death in creating cyborg bodies that can be replaced or repaired as we age?
  • Or will we live under a giant net of interlocking intelligence systems that predict our every move from sunrise to sunset, and which, in so predicting, will forecast for us how we should think and feel about given things at given times? (I would make the argument that this is already largely a reality that will only solidify further in the next 50 years.)
  • Or will we seek biochemical solutions to unhappiness so that no human need ever suffer mentally again?

The central premise of Homo Deus is that humanity will exchange their meaningful lives for lives with power, but the search for that power (over death, unhappiness, or each other) comes at high prices and with little hope of success.

When I read this email from my colleague and then read yet another story on 45’s inability to cough up proof for his latest Twitterstorm, that was the moment I realized that Americans see the world from a fundamentally different point-of-view than a Dutch citizen.  Whereas the Dutch would never debate a woman’s decisions regarding her body or her decisions to have or not have children, this is not the case in the US.  Whereas the Dutch take for granted that the world is warming, the climate is altering, and humankind is the cause and, therefore, must also be the solution; in the United States we have members of Congress bringing snowballs into a session to remark that if the world were warming there would be no snow.  Whereas the Dutch are looking to the future, Americans are overly fond of a past that never existed.  “Make America Great Again” is such a deep signal of a pulsing enslavement to a nostalgia so divested from any historical reality that it cannot be ignored.  A human being campaigned and won on longing for a past that doesn’t exist.  Arguably, he won on several other fronts as well (Republicans who voted the party-line regardless of the candidate, gerrymandering, etc.), but that wouldn’t have been possible without a base of supporters to see him over the finish line of the primaries to become a candidate for the presidency.

And I have to wonder how many other countries in the world at this moment are more like the Netherlands or more like the United States?  Do more countries look backwards collectively into an invented history of great deeds and heroes;  or are they looking forwards into a coming reality— one which we all might join hands to shape?

The Dutch elections are approaching.  I have loved that the Dutch take their elections in a very different spirit to US elections.  The control of candidate funds, expenditures, campaigning etc. are far tighter in the Netherlands and so you do not find yourself drowning in political propaganda all day long.  I appreciate that very much.  However, I sense in the posts I do see and in the articles I read, that a collective, national soul-searching is at work here.  I get to vote for the first time as a citizen of the Netherlands.  At stake are principles the Dutch have long held dear alongside a growing fear of losing something essentially Dutch.  So I catch my colleagues, friends and neighbors throwing looks over their shoulders at a past sense of identity in a way that is much more introverted than the grotesquely nostalgic MAGA.  But I still have to wonder, as a cultural scholar, if this identity is not also a present imagination of a past reality?  Are my friends and colleagues, who so bravely turn their eyes to face the future on a regular basis, allowing their heads to be turned by a fiction being peddled by a real hate-monger?

If what Harari writes is accurate, war is exhaling its last gasping breaths, sickness no longer stalks our lives like a phantom with a vicious scythe, and famine (he makes a very compelling case about 2.1 billion humans being obese as opposed to 850 million suffering from malnutrition in 2014) is going the way of the dodo (and the polar bear).  In this scenario there are two clear options and the United States has a faction— a faction that seems to grow more loud and obnoxious with every passing day— who are going to try to live in the past that is receding behind all of humanity.  We have a president who wants to build up the army, but for a future without war.  We have a loud and vicious group of people who spread hatred against immigrants, but there was never a time in the history of the US (except for those blessed millennia when the Native Americans only had each other to contend with) without immigrant populations.  We have people who say that vaccines cause developmental problems.  Death causes severe development problems, but we can let that pass… In all seriousness, we have a group of people in the United States who stare backwards declaiming a glorious history they wish to return to which means they want to go on dealing with the problems of one hundred years ago… They talk war and death.  They defund education and healthcare, but depend on the minds and bodies of the middle and lower classes to make up their workforce!

Meanwhile much of the world has moved on.  The world examines issues of new vaccines for new diseases, boldly pursuing the ends of those diseases through medical advancement.  The world looks to the plastic in our oceans and demand solutions.  The world agrees to carbon taxes and reigniting industry in sustainable resources while the US strips away the protections of water sources, wildlife and air quality mandates.

It’s like watching Nero and his cronies laugh while putting the first match to the tinder they lined up at the base of your home.

The world-view of a European is a gaze that traces the world, its history, the effects of its politics, the paths leading into the future…

The world-view of an American is a gaze into their television or phone, searching for “information” about the pedantic story they’ve heard again and again, “war, tax cuts, tax increases, healthcare, restrictions on businesses, election cycle, war, tax cuts, tax increases, welfare, immigrant problems, election cycle, war, tax cuts, tax increases, education overhaul, abortion, election cycle, war, tax cuts, tax increases…”

How long can the American population be convinced to keep fighting about the solutions to yesterday’s problems while the world passes you by?



Under the Overpass

•February 17, 2017 • Leave a Comment

In 2008 I made three consecutive trips to Chicago.  I wanted to buy a new violin bow and I knew a shop down there that I trusted. I boarded the train three weeks in a row, early on Saturday mornings, and after getting off at Clybourn, I would walk the two and a half miles to the store.  On the last trip I was feeling joyous because I had tried a new bow for a week and I was going to surrender my old one for them to sell on commission and purchase the new one.  A new violin bow is a lot of money, at least a good one is.  The violins themselves can be more than a million dollars, but a dilettante like me only has a fiddle worth 1.2k and a bow of about the same value… Still, to the average person, a thousand dollars is a lot of money for a stick of pernambuco wood and some horse hair.  To a violinist, it’s a good bow for the level of playing I expected to do.

I got off the train and walked the steps from the platform to the street.  From there I crossed under the overpass.  My first shock came as I was walking (it was still early because I was taking the first train out on those mornings), and as I passed some support girders I nearly jumped up into the platform above from the street.  There was a man sleeping between the girders not 3 inches from my feet!  Startled, I walked a bit faster, and looking around me I noticed something I hadn’t seen the previous two weeks.

There were sleeping bags under the overpass with people in them, and two (Dora the Explorer bags) held children.

I felt my heart lurch seeing that.  I think intellectually we all know that people live in terrible poverty in the big cities of the US, but I think there’s a jaded quality, at times, too to that knowledge.  I have heard people tell me that many of the beggars in Chicago (for example) are “fake” beggars who have real jobs and sit out on the sidewalk in a costume on weekends.  (I don’t actually believe this is true, of course, but this has been said to me in order to encourage me not to give them money.)  I have heard other people scold me for giving my money to them because “that money won’t really help them.”

That’s really the trouble with a society based on rampant capitalism with no checks whatsoever to it, isn’t it?  There’s no amount of money (not really) that a single person like me could throw at a beggar and rescue them from their poverty.  I could pay for a meal.  I could have gone (and thought about doing it) and returned the bow and taken the thousand dollars I was going to pay for it and given it to that family instead.  But what would a thousand dollars be in the regard to the issues facing a family living on the streets in Chicago?  They could have run somewhere with it and tried to get a room, it’s true.  They could have fed their children.

I still wish I hadn’t bought that bow.  I didn’t need it.  To tell the truth, I upgraded a bow that I didn’t need because the bow is nicer, but how often have I used it since to enjoy the quality?  That family could have used my charity far more, but part of me rails at the fact that even a thousand dollars couldn’t rescue that family because their homelessness was likely a symptom of a cycle of joblessness that had taken root.  It might have gotten them a month off the street (valuable in and of itself), but it wouldn’t have secured them against having their babies in sleeping bags under an overpass in late fall.

When people of the United States use the word socialist as an epithet to refer to people like me, who believe that it’s the responsibility of the government to ensure that every citizen has a standard of living that prevents things like what I saw under that overpass, I have to wonder where their priorities are.  Surely these people cannot be happy there are families who have no place to sleep all across our country?  Surely these humans cannot be glad that there is so much poverty that half the children attending school in the US are considered to be living at “poverty level”?

And it doesn’t matter to me that the reason that family was under the bridge might indeed have been because of poor life choices.  I think we have to ask ourselves if that makes it alright that a family should become homeless.  I think we have to ask ourselves if we’re okay with humans having a tough time in life and being made homeless.

I personally know two families right now who would be homeless if not for the charity of their families.  Not every contributing factor in their stories has been bad decisions on their part.  The plain, ugly truth is that it’s very easy to become bankrupt in the United States, and very hard to climb out of that terrible pit if you happen to fall into it.  If you don’t have insurance, you’re just a broken leg away from having another house-worth of debt added to your name.  There might not be debtor’s prisons in the US anymore, but you can lose everything you have to debt.  These two families that I know have been relying on the charity of their family to keep their children under a roof.  If not for their families their children would very literally be in sleeping bags somewhere in the winter nights.

I don’t understand why this is alright, and I don’t understand why the people who don’t believe it’s alright are vituperatively labelled as socialists.

Do you know what happens when you raise the standard of living to a level such that the poorest members of society won’t be homeless?

You reduce crime.
You offer families dignity in the face of hard situations.
You create opportunities instead of statistics.
You give all children a chance at an equal education because homeless children have a far harder time learning anything.
You show that you care about the people around you who live and work alongside you, who share your streets, your schools, and your city.

What is wrong with these things?  What is wrong with asking that our society show compassion for bad luck?  Why should charity be private and not public?

The children in those pink and purple bags are grown up now.  I often think of them.  I think of how I could have helped them.  I wish that I had.  My money was badly spent that day because there were people who needed it much more, and sometimes when I play my violin I think of two girls under an overpass that I walked by on a cold morning in Chicago without stopping.

When will we not leave the poor on the streets in the richest country on Earth?

To Breathe Free

•January 28, 2017 • Leave a Comment
I saw you first at night
Your proud face lifted, and felt my heart
A symbol.
Give me your tired…
Your tears run down my cheeks today
I watch the tattered rags of Liberty
Written away in bold pen
Your poor,
I look at those hands that held a golden door
Your huddled masses yearning…
I watched hate slam the door
To the yearning
Heard it grate shut on
The homeless, tempest-tossed.
Brave lady, how have we so failed?
Your cities grow dim with human tears
Those locked out
Those locked in
I lift my lamp
I wait to catch its rays…
I saw you first at night beside the teeming shore.
A gift to our land
A promise to all who needed shelter
I will fight for that golden door
Your light and my heart
And the hearts of all those whose love
Will triumph o’er fear and hate
Will see the evil of this day

Anything you want to be…

•January 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I am the child of a man who was born in 1928 and a woman born in 1931.  I am not their biological child, but I lived with them, was raised and loved by them from the time I was six months old.

I do not (mentally) belong to my generation in many ways.  I have a world view that often locates me closer to the parents of my peers than to my actual peers in age, and that was noticeable from a young age in me.  One of my teachers remarked at a conference with my parents (when I was in 4th grade) that I seemed to enjoy talking with teachers and adults more than associating with the other children.   Mom and Dad both voiced concerns after that conversation that they were too old to be raising children of my generation because they were afraid that they’d make my sister and I into social misfits.

That said… I have often read about people who talk about so-called “millennials” as having been raised with this cock-eyed optimistic idea that, “they can grow up and become anything they want.”  Well, I am here to tell you that it must have been in the water in the 1980’s and 90’s because my parents both believed that my sister and I could grow up to become “anything” we wanted, and I know they thought that because one day (during the election of 1992) I asked my dad if there were any women running for president.  He almost turned the car around looking into the back seat so quickly at me to ask why I wanted to know.  I just asked because it seemed to me that I’d heard a lot about two guys running for president but no women, and yet I had been raised with very strong women all around me.  A woman was my pediatrician.  Women were allowed to be deacons and priests in the Episcopal church already.  I was an acolyte, and a woman was our organist at church.  My mother was a teacher.  My aunts were both gainfully employed all of my youth.  Most of my teachers were women.  I was surrounded by successful, career-minded women.  It was logical to me that there must be a woman running for president too (behold the child mind that doesn’t grasp the two-party system, and let’s face it, I’ve never grasped it).  I will never forget how slow my father was to answer.

“There has never been a woman president.”

The next question was predictable and inevitable for me.  “Why?”  My father said that he honestly didn’t know why a woman had not yet been elected president.  Finally the last question of the interview was raised and I asked my father if I could some day be President of the United States.  He gave me a broad smile and said, “You can be anything you want to work hard enough to achieve.”

My sister and I were raised by children of The Great Depression, who believed in the power of hard work, and they invested heavily in that concept in their own lives.  They also believed, manifestly, in the idea that a given sex could never bar a human from their chosen aspirations if only they would work hard enough to achieve it.

Which is why, when I look at the following article, I struggle to believe my eyes.  I used to let my students come into my classroom during the lunch period if they wanted because I had prep periods during two of the grade-level lunches.  It was useful at first for helping students through passages, solo and ensemble practice or various other things, but I had a gaggle of kids who just used my room as a hang out during lunch.  During one of these lunch times I had a student  standing next to me at the piano watching me practice, and she could see the top of my head.  She said suddenly, “You have a lot of gray hair!”  I turned to her and remarked that she’s surely the reason my hair was turning gray, and they must’ve matched her mother’s.  This kind of banter was normal for that student and I, but what followed next wasn’t.  She remarked to me that a lot of the students thought I would look younger if I’d wear makeup to school, “You know, like you do at concerts.”  I told her that I didn’t want to put makeup on my face every day because there are known carcinogens in most of it, it’s expensive to own and use every day, and I didn’t want to invest the time in the mornings when I had an infant to get out the door to daycare before work as well.  She asked me what carcinogens were and I said, “Toxins known to cause cancer if the human comes into contact with it frequently enough.”

The next day my bare-faced student came to see me and said, “All my makeup had carcinogens in it. Why do they sell that stuff???”   (I have found out since a few days ago that she has gone on to become a biology major at a UW school.  Maybe this all planted a seed? I wouldn’t know unless I asked her.) My young student found herself, though, in a bizarre double-bind later that same week.  Once again at lunch hour she was standing next to me as I was practicing piano.  I think she stood there watching me because she’d only started piano lessons that year and I have the intuition she was trying to follow the notes.  Just as suddenly she said, “I have to tell you something because it’s driving me crazy.  I can’t put that makeup on my face anymore because I’m scared I’ll get cancer if I wear it every day, but I also hate going without it because I’m afraid everyone will think I’m ugly.”

To this day I get chills remembering that conversation.  She was a gorgeous teenager.  Some teenagers (I have painful recollections of my own years enduring it) have break-outs and a terrible complexion no matter what they do.  Not her.  Some teenagers are already starting to lose the athleticism, flexibility and naturally slender build of childhood, but not this girl.  Some girls have to do amazing routines to get their hair to be just how they want it.  Not my student.  Her hair was long, glossy, and perfect.  She was the kind of student I used to look at with pure envy as a teenager.  There’s not a human on Earth who would have believed this girl’s name and the word “ugly” could be connected.  Not a line on her face, not fully 13, and already my student was a makeup addict.

Makeup does weird things to your brain when you use it.  It evens out your complexion to create the illusion of purely flawless skin.  With makeup you can highlight all the best features of your face and work to reduce to almost nonexistence its flaws.  The problem with wearing makeup every single day is that most people start to lose their perception wearing it.  Many of us know someone or have ourselves been in the position of being the girl whose grip on how our faces look to a stranger or even to our friends has slipped.  Suddenly we start applying more mascara than ever, ever more eye shadow, ever deeper shades of lipstick.  Try scaling it back and suddenly we think we aren’t complete without it.  Try going bare-faced all together and you start dealing with the anxiety: “What if I’m ugly without makeup?”

A beautiful girl had fallen prey to this.  Thousands and thousands of beautiful young women in the US fall prey to this every year.  They start down that path of perceiving how they themselves are perceived (which is normal in the development of both sexes because it is a sign of maturity, the development of true theory of mind), but girls have to do it through a gaze that doesn’t even belong to their peers.  Young women obtain a gaze directed at them that is medial.  Everywhere they walk are images of so-called “perfect” figures, faces, clothes, hair and makeup.  These images have been with them since they could see greater than a distance of 10 feet.  They saw their mother’s face every day, but there were these other faces too: faces on televisions, faces on magazines, faces in movies, faces that are famous, powerful… Too beautiful to be true.  These girls grow older, they hear the comments grown men make about grown women, and don’t you fool yourselves for one moment believing they don’t internalize the messages men hand women about being a “piece of ass” or being “a 10”.  Every teenage girl knows that she wants to be a 10 because all her life she’s seen the before and afters, she has played with her mother’s makeup, put on Mommy’s shoes and dressed up.  She has heard the praise she gets for looking her best, praise boys don’t often receive or with the same intent.  The praise a boy receives for putting on a suit is often that he looks “like a little gentleman,” or “a young man.”  But we tell our girls that they’re beautiful.  We encourage the pursuit of that beauty above and beyond all things, and, yet we wonder how teenagers develop low self-esteems and ever greater reliance on the cultivation of an outer-self as opposed to a necessary focus on the inside.

Which is the reason I started with the idea of “you can be anything you want to be.”  Why are we telling girls that the most important thing they could ever want to be is attractive???  We tell girls and boys they can be what their hearts desire as long as they have the work ethic, but then we turn boys loose on their dreams while allowing it to be reinforced to young girls in every way conceivable that their dreams will come true easier and the rewards will be more fulfilling if they look good on the way.

And while I think that certainly part of the reason for the hard-sell here on attractiveness is cultivating business and economics (how much is the women’s fashion industry worth in yearly earnings?) I believe that we have ancient cultural values as well that we have not yet put to rest.  We have the temerity to say to young girls “go for your dreams”, but we haven’t dismantled the apparatus that still tells her that it’s her body that’s a 10, and not her mind.

And, somehow, it has to stop.

They’re LIES!

•December 9, 2016 • 2 Comments

A friend I have on Facebook (who shall remain nameless) recently had  a series of things plastered to his wall.  The gist of these statements was a refutation of climate change.  This happened multiple times and I watched as my friend gave one word comments that could neither be read as chastisement nor as encouragement.  They were the comments people give when they don’t know what else to say without giving offense.

I had to restrain myself.  I don’t normally write long posts in the comments on Facebook, and especially not on someone else’s page.  This isn’t out of some crazy superfluity of self-restraint, nor from disdain of the opinions of others.  I honestly believe that Facebook is the wrong forum for good discussion mostly because it is an online format.  I feel strongly that face-to-face conversation is a necessary evil to humanity, and posting on people’s threads long-winded discussions accomplishes almost nothing, and that it further invites all the worst in human nature to make its appearance because humans seem incapable of connecting to their empathy when they begin typing to a faceless being thousands of miles away from them.  The calumny that resides in human hearts bubbles too quickly to the surface in this medium and so I eschew it in favor of speaking or in favor of publishing my thoughts in this format: where people come predisposed to digest long segments of words.

But, as I wrote above, I had to restrain myself this time because to use the words Jane Austen put in the mouth of one of her characters, “Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do!” The things I read this person posting on a friend’s wall were horrifying.  This person had crafted an economic conspiracy theory out of climate change, and the reasoning applied to it was such a twisted logic that I was frankly shocked.

I have often thought myself blessed to live in the time I do, and still there are times when I regret that this is the time I live in.  This is the time period that humanity has learned not to question the ivory tower to open it to a wider community of people, but learned to question every piece of science and knowledge that comes out of it in order to justify their culture of rampant, unabashed, disgusting, heinous consumption and greed!   I am watching humans justify the pillaging of the Earth with claims of false science.  We can cut open birds in the Pacific and observe that their guts run with plastic.  We are seeing the evidence all over the oceans of their accelerating acidification because they are absorbing ever more carbon dioxide.  HUMANS are having to pollinate plants by HAND because of the mass die-offs of the natural pollinators on this planet.  The polar vortex is weakening and splintering off to descend on parts of the planet it never inhabited before, and I read the words of people who say that the SCIENCE of climate change is being falsified.

Well this is no longer a simple miscarriage of reasoning as I stated above.  This is a dangerous misapplication of people’s wits because what they are citing are LIES.  Earlier this week a neuroscientist  published a short blog about this, because apparently he and I came to the same alarming conclusions in the same week: we’ve all been too kind about people peddling falsehoods.  For whatever reason, we’ve all become too complacent about RIDICULOUS lies circulating, and instead of refuting these claims POINT by POINT we have allowed LIARS to say that science is wrong.  We have permitted conspiracy theorists, politicians, and a variety of other sources (some of them foreign governments) license to publish whatever falsehoods they desire, and instead of calling these things out as lies, we permit these things the same air-time as actual science.  We have allowed straw-men fallacies to stand-in for reasoning.  This planet (you know, THE ONE WE ALL LIVE ON) faces real challenges that we are all going to have to face NOW by altering our lifestyles, demanding access to the answers, creating markets for better alternatives to our throw-away endless consuming cultures.  No.  Instead of doing that, we allow politicians to hire CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS as the heads of important government bodies.  It shouldn’t surprise me because we elected this person.  We permitted our friends and neighbors to vote for a person with no experience of governing.  We did it because we wanted to keep our relationships with them uncomplicated.  We didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings.

We (those of us who fear for the planet we will leave to our children) allowed LIES told by profiteers to be held up as a body of knowledge as legitimate as the science that has been on-going since prior to the mid-sixties.  The research behind climate change is more than fifty years old.  It is not new-fangled, recent, under studied or under challenged!  It has NOT been one-sided research.  It is research that has been undertaken and tested by most of the universities on this planet so it is not research tied to a single government or a single nation.  It IS peer-reviewed, and it is science that has been SMEARED and CHALLENGED and SILENCED from every side.  It is ironic to me (deeply ironic, in fact) that many of the people spreading lies about the science behind climate change will gladly pop pills in their bodies that are less well-studied, less peer-reviewed than the science underpinning the studies of climate change and what it has done and will do to the planet we live on.

The world can change.  We can change.  We can alter our lifestyles.  I have lived the last five years of my life without a car.  It’s not hard.  It’s good for my body, it’s good for the world.  We recycle our garbage.  Our house is an energy neutral home.  It IS more expensive to build homes like that, but it’s worth it.  But I am part of just one household.  The WORLD needs to cooperate in this if we’re going to start slowing these things down, and we can’t rely on politicians to do this anymore.  They’re some of the worst ones for peddling pure lies, and we let them.  It has to stop.

We have to stop letting lies live alongside science and give them EQUAL voice, and while we DO need to break open the ivory tower so that university faculties will someday reflect the diversity of the world in which we live, we cannot break down the pursuit of knowledge itself.  We have to find our courage again, and we have to make bargains with ourselves that relationships with people are going to grow complicated as long as some people are content to believe in and circulate actual lies.

If you’re spreading lies, I’m not going to restrain myself anymore.  I’m going to call you on it.  I’m going to point you to the resources that are probably as old as you are (or older), and then you can try to put your head in the sand on climate change, on pollution, on racial crises and identities, on misogyny, and on the need for real change in our societies, but I am going to persuade whoever I can with whatever language is at my disposal that we all are running out of time.  No more lies.

Where to begin

•November 18, 2016 • Leave a Comment

It’s ironic that the last post I wrote was about the incredibly personal visits of Triumph and Disaster, and that just after came the US election results which have left the popular vote feeling one way, and the rest who were given the president they chose feeling the other.  But the feelings that this election has conjured for so many in the “Disaster” category are hard to define because, as I have read repeatedly this week, it encompasses so much more than simple “disappointment”.  I think the shocks that traveled around the world were also the shocks that such a vast swathe of the country had chosen to vote for a man whose words on the campaign trail were horrifying to so many and in so many different ways.

But we have to take this experience like any other and we must learn from this, and learn to read this election in what it is signalling to the world and to our country.

To begin with, I greatly enjoyed listening to Jon Stewart’s take on what transpired because it was a reaction grounded in being understanding as opposed to being devastated.  “Let me not so much seek to be understood as to understand.”

We’re in danger of becoming obsessed with the metrics dividing our country.  Is it important to recognize that Donald Trump won the presidency of the United States by convincing a mess of people to vote for him?  Yes.  This is important, but an equally important question to ask is “does this make our country irreparably divided?”  It is tempting to feel that way, but then we’re guilty of the monolithic gaze Stewart mentions.  I, too, know good and loving people who cast a ballot for this man.  They made their decisions in agony, but another important metric to take into account is that Trump captured 209 counties that voted for Barack Obama in both his elections, and these were counties in key states!  Those counties, those ballots turned the states from blue to red, and those flips are how he won this election.  These people are not racists, and defining them by the worst of Trump’s rhetoric will only harm the people we know (emotionally), make us guilty of lump-summing our neighbors because they chose someone we didn’t, and widen the divide already present.

A simple syllogism lays out the logic those of us who voted for Clinton have been struggling with in the last days.

Donald Trump says racist, homophobic, and misogynist things.  

Some of Donald Trump’s supporters are racist, homophobic, and misogynist.

Some of my friends voted for Donald Trump.


It’s easy to see from the syllogism that coming to that conclusion is hard not to do, but there is a better fitting syllogism for the current circumstances: a better reading of the signal amidst the emotional noise.

Donald Trump says racist, homophobic, and misogynist things.

Some of my friends voted for Donald Trump.

Some of my friends heard these things, and still voted for him.

Now, please, make no mistake, I know that there are racists, misogynists, and homophobic people who voted for Donald Trump.  Some of them voted for HRC too, I imagine.  I know of Dems who are racists, homophobic in their behaviors, or misogynist in their attitudes.  Being a certain party does not preclude you from hate and viciousness, so take your white hats off you liberal ninnies, your party isn’t the party of goodness and light while the other party is the party of death and doom.  Which brings up my next point.

I am interested in another metric, which Stephen Colbert talked about recently.  Half of the liberals out there are scared of the policies of the right.  Half of the right wing are frightened of what the world will look like if the left stays in power.  So half the country, effectively (excluding those who were not polled and did not vote), is scared of the people around them.  That’s a lot of fear, and I bet we’re all overreacting to a certain degree, and given the media coverage that we keep hearing, I am not surprised about the overreactions.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that our consuming habits in media are driving the panic because we’re being told to panic.  We’re being told to panic about the right, about the left, about the corruption, we’ve got false news sites galore publishing utter bunk, we have levels of inequality and impoverishment that haven’t been seen in a century, and we’re seeing problems in the world but instead of coming together to solve these problems we’re being told to be afraid of the problems and especially afraid of those guys and gals who don’t agree with us because they’re wrong, in power, and they’ll push their agendas through at the expense of our freedoms, money, country… The list is endless.

The overreacting has to come to an end so that we can begin to resolve these differences.  So racism, misogyny and homophobia were not barriers to the presidency.  Neither was a complete lack of experience or a dearth of adequately elaborated policy.  Ladies and gentlemen, a true dark horse sits poised to ride into the White House and that didn’t scare enough people to make them not cast that ballot, and I can guarantee that this is not because every single voter was a racist, a misogynist, and homophobic.  This is because the people who voted for Donald Trump were more afraid of voting for the establishment than voting for the unknown!  This is a momentous occasion when enough people are more afraid of the known than the unknown and they would choose en masse to defect.  Those news outlets reporting that this was a stunning rebuke of the establishment have read the signal correctly.

But where do we begin putting together our nation?

To begin with, we liberals who were comfortable with Clinton need to stop emulating the epithet so often thrown at us (“bleeding heart liberals”).  The time for whining and crying is over.  The time for disappointment has passed.  The time for shock and fear is long gone.  This is the time when we need to look this in the face, and we need to reach out to our neighbors who voted for the Dark Horse not because they’re racists and misogynists, but because they were more afraid of leaving the status quo in power than they were of a man who believes that climate change is a hoax.  We cannot sit here whining and accomplish anything. We need to get OUT OF OUR HOMES and TALK to people.  We need to ask them about how our communities, the communities we all live in TOGETHER, can be improved and what concerns in our immediate locations are on our hearts.  We need to start showing up at school board meetings, at the voting booth for all the elections in our towns, at local government hearings etc.  We need to know who is running in our districts for judgeship and sheriff posts.  We need to ask questions about the people campaigning to be county clerk.  We need to stop taking for granted that we believe one way (because we don’t all believe one way, there’s no party that represents all my views) and we need to discuss with one another how we might alter the current climate in our land.  We need to be less gullible and less panicky and more stubborn about fighting for our rights which means writing letters and emails to our representatives.  We need to start actually protesting, not the legal process by which the candidate we didn’t pick won, but protesting when we feel the system isn’t fair to us either.  No one ran out protesting when the Republicans wouldn’t even meet with a candidate offered by a sitting president for the Supreme Court.  Where was your fire when the status quo sat there telling you THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO DO THEIR JOBS????  Instead you decided to throw things through windows and burn buildings because someone had fairly won the election.

I think your priorities are a bit mixed up.

You post in anguish about an election fairly won, but I don’t see your posts on the non-competitive districts, or the gerrymandering present in EVERY state in the union!  I don’t see your anguish about a lack of proportional representation in our government where only two highly corrupt parties control seats.  I see no calls for more voices in our government by including other parties.  You want to throw out the establishment?  Let’s knock them both down and fight for a fairer system!  We need to stop grieving and start working for the things we believe in in our communities.  Racism is not simply images, effigies, and a voting booth.  Racism is a systemic practice enforced through housing covenants, de-funding of education, hiring policies that are unspoken, and attitudes that people act on in their everyday lives.  It cannot be defeated or sustained by a single vote in a ballot box, but by people everywhere, all day long.  Racism is an attitude, not a candidate.  Misogyny is similar, as is homophobia.  Misogyny and homophobia are attitudes which can be built on or torn down by legislation, but as a practice in every day life by ordinary people these things matter more.  “Trickle down” attitudes and life choices are not more effective or pervasive than “trickle down” economics.  The only thing that really works by trickle down principles is the flooding of your basement when you have a leak in a pipe somewhere!

Does this mean I don’t have to hold my friends and family accountable for his racist crap?

Why wouldn’t you hold the people around you accountable?  I can tell you from my own experience, that it’s far harder to hold the people around you to a standard you believe in than it is to hold strangers to that standard.  When is the last time you faced down a family member or a friend for their off-color jokes or disgusting behavior?  Have you ever stood a stranger down for something similar?  Just tell someone you don’t appreciate that kind of humor and be done with it.  Seeing someone being homophobic?  Tell them.  Tell them you don’t agree with their point of view.  Discuss it.  Just as I feel that the people who sat out this election forfeited their voice by doing so, (and therefore should not be rioting), I feel that if you are someone who has had it with misogyny, racism, and ugliness in society, that you should be fighting against those things in your every day life, and that means being actively involved in your local government, in your local schools and in your community as a voice of equality.   If we are not, as a group of people, willing to work together for a better world then what hope do we have of ever achieving it?

The bottom line is this: if we want change in society, whatever change that may be, then we have to be willing to get off our rear ends and do something to accomplish it.  The Civil Rights Movement was not won through people sitting at home whining.  They MARCHED on places, they sat in, they were jailed for their principles, and, yes, they were attacked, and ridiculed, and beaten with sticks, but because they believed so strongly together in the need for change, they withstood all of this in order to GET SOMETHING DONE.  This is what it takes to move our society because political change is not a vote in a ballot box.  Political change is when huge numbers of people work together to accomplish things.

That work is unfinished in our society.  Who believes that equality has been attained?  I do not believe that.  I believe there is more to be done, but if I am not willing to do the work, what right have I to complain that it is unfinished?

We have much to do in our land, and we can begin by joining our hands and showing our elected officials that Republicans and Democrats reach across this imaginary chasm every day to be the every day greatness that is our United States.  I am not afraid of the other side.  The other side has my friends on it, and I know those people.  Casting their ballot didn’t change who I know them to be, but it changed how much work I thought I had left to do.  It’s like cleaning your house: you thought you were done until you opened a door in the basement… Sometimes you turn around and go back upstairs to rest, and sometimes you roll up your sleeves.  The time for turning around died somewhere in the 1900’s.  We have to roll up the sleeves, and if your sleeves have been torn off from all the work you’ve been doing, well, at least they won’t get dirty.  But for the rest of us, it’s time to go to work.

It begins with US.

When life steals all your words

•November 6, 2016 • Leave a Comment

There are sorrows in life for which there are no words.  There are griefs that become unspeakable because there aren’t ways out of the pain through words.

There are joys too for which there is no speech.  Inexpressible moments which take you beyond yourself in emotions too powerful to be held down with words.

The months of September and October were full of these moments for me, and it was in these months, but principally in October, that I learned (at long last) the meaning of a couplet I often quoted to myself, and yet struggled to fully understand.

When I turned 14 my parents gave me a volume of poetry inside of which was a poem that altered my understanding of life: If—, by Rudyard Kipling.  After reading the poem, I realized that the words described the human I wanted to become someday “when I grow up”.  So here I am at 33 finally understanding one of the last stanzas that defied my reasoning for all the moments, days, breaths, hours and experiences from that first impression to this past week.

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;

The first two lines of the stanza are fairly straightforward, but for years I would recall these words to heart and take comfort in their familiarity without being fully consoled.  There remained for me the tension of an unresolved entity.  How could one meet with both Triumph (which makes one feel so much joy) and Disaster (which makes one curse one’s very existence at times) and treat them as equals?  For the last few years I thought that the answer had to lie somewhere secreted in the idea that both are illusions in life.  We don’t live our lives in either status completely: life isn’t a series of home runs or a series of setbacks, but all the experiences in between these two polarities.  And still my heart told me there was more to this stanza.

Which is when I remembered (very recently) that Kipling knew what it was to lose a child.  Many who know of Kipling’s life will think I write here of his son, but in reality it’s his daughter, Josephine, who would have taught him this lesson long before the terrible loss of his son in 1915.  He buried his six-year-old girl after losing her to pneumonia.  So it was that 11 years later he sat down and wrote a poem that details all the things a human must learn before they can ‘ascend’ to full humanity in the poet’s eyes, and one hundred and one years later the meaning of these words has brought me a better understanding of so much.

One cannot meet Triumph and Disaster with the same aspect, but you can treat them the same in the end, which is actually that you learn to let them go with the same dignity.  This completion of the cycle of human emotion is the key to having a heart filled with peace rather than emptiness or perpetual pain.  I think about Triumph and Disaster and I realize that, as humans, we can hang on to both these fickle characters rather fiercely.  I have memories in my childhood of listening to various people detail long-ago adventures in which they were the principal and triumphant character.  The only reason for telling the story was to relive the moment of triumph.  Similarly, how many of us know someone who has seen melancholia disperse the meaning of their lives because Disaster was never shown the proverbial door?  Part of my earlier reasoning was correct: these two polar identities of the human experience are illusions of life.  In some ways these are the moments which feel the most real because their intensity fills every gasping instant with emotions beyond the reach of language.  But, in truth, these are the briefest episodes of life.  Do they, therefore, become the moments which decide what the rest of life’s moments should look like?

While October began for me in a sadness that has become a ghastly familiarity to me over the last 9 years it was filled with much more than the disaster of ending a pregnancy.  It was filled with gestures of kindness, solidarity, love, compassion and generosity.  It was filled with family and friendship on both sides of the world.  I was embraced and loved through all of this by my husband, by his family, by my family, and by my friends in two continents.  And, lest I forget to say it, I was shown love and compassion by the people who cared for me in the hospital.  By nurses who wiped my tears and held my hands, by doctors who came to look in on me and who took my hand because they didn’t want me to sit there without knowing they cared.  I experienced compassion and kindness of great depth at our choir retreat.  In pauses between rehearsals no one left me alone.  One would think that would be hell for an introvert like me, but the spontaneous hugs, the conscious efforts of my friends in song to just be there and to demonstrate that presence was of such immense help to me.  I realize, looking back, that it’s not Triumph to be surrounded all the time by people who care about you, to be in a place of stability in our worlds, to have material security, or to have meaningful occupation, but these are the things which help us to let go of both these images which invade our worlds.  The standing ovations after a concert, the races you win, the articles you published that got rave reviews, and so on and on and on… These are the illusions of greatness we’re taught to strive for, and I think that these are the things we spend our time fighting for: hours of rehearsal, thinking ahead, planning, studying, writing, and training.  You do it all in order to triumph, right?  Or are you doing it because you love the doing?

I have learned that it’s both.  You do these things because you love winning, but also because you love the process, otherwise there would never be a victory that felt like victory— just an empty phase in the next part of grinding your way into the reward you hope will feel like a reward.  “The cup that has no bottom.”  But the Triumph of the finished product is another part of the process, and it’s one that is let go in due time in order for the next process to begin.

I have learned that grief and despair, Disaster, by another name is yet another of these who have a time limit in the human experience lest it too becomes all-consuming.  Disasters are not forgotten, but they are let go of.  You let go of the wounds you took, the pain you carried.  You let go of the anguish and the willingness to experience it again and again, and you recommence the process that led you here.

I have learned that true courage is letting go of both these “imposters” who darken the doorsteps of life when they’ve been unmasked.  It’s good to know them both, to see them through the inexpressible hours, take their lessons (joyous and bitter) and return to living with the changes they wrought on your life without letting their lessons convince you to rewrite your life only to keep giving them houseroom in your soul.  While I’m not at a point where October’s grief is gone, I do see the way ahead.  I see it in the everyday, in the love of the people around me, in the calm, steady march of time, and I see it in acceptance that the inexpressible is also ephemeral.  The deepest beauties of life fade and die, the deepest joys can wither, the deepest anguish can heal, and the worst injuries can be overcome.  All that seems to write so deeply upon our lives, in reality, is what is certain to fade away—

Given the chance.