Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Real Christmas

Every year we hear about how Christmas has become too commercial, about all the wrong things, and every year the evidence of it is all around us. The music starts playing on the radio and in the stores a day or two earlier every year, having long-since jumped Thanksgiving and pushing in on Halloween now, with Labor Day in its long-range plans, no doubt. Retailers place all their year-long fiscal hopes into that final burst of sales, politicians exploit it to fit whatever message they are trying sell, and the rest of us very often allow ourselves to get caught up in all the sentimentality we have come to associate with the season, still missing what the day means at its very simplest, undecorated core. And even when we are stripping away all the trimmings of the season, forming what we think is a more pure idea of the meaning of it all, we still so often miss the mark.
Christmas is not about a cheerful spirit. It is not about family. It is not about giving.

Not at its core, at least.

Instead, Christmas is about redemption. It is about each of us as individuals. It is about receiving.

Was the past year a difficult one, perhaps filled with loss or frustration, confusion or hurt? “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute…” sounds like a nice remedy for it all. Still, it will be as fleeting as the turning of a calendar page if all that Christmas means is to be of good cheer. Instead, there is the hope of The Child, born in the humblest of surroundings and circumstances, showing us that great things come from struggle, and that God does His greatest work in the most trying of times.
Don’t have the family pictured in a Norman Rockwell painting? That’s all right, because the Real Christmas is not about that. It is about the redemption granted to each one of us broken people in this broken world. There in The Child is the humility to forgive others, knowing we are all in need of mercy. There in The Child is the courage to accept forgiveness, helping us become more willing to forgive others. There in The Child is the strength to forgive ourselves, understanding that grace is the greatest of gifts…and there is more than enough to go around.

All the decorations and carols and gifts in the world will not fill the voids within us. But The Child will, bringing gifts of hope, redemption and faith, needing only open hearts and humble souls to make it so.



Monday, December 12, 2011

The Loss of Special

Driving yesterday afternoon, perhaps four o’clock or so, I came to a particularly stubborn red light…the kind that makes you wait for a mythical flow of traffic in the opposite direction that isn’t really there and seems like it never was or never shall be.  But I digress.  You see, almost immediately after I stopped, a big black SUV pulled up next to me, just a few feet beyond me actually, so that when I glanced over I was looking in the second row of seats.  There were two computer-size screens mounted in the roof and they were each playing “A Charlie Brown Christmas” for the two kids harnessed into the back seats with more protective equipment and nylon strap restraints than the Apollo astronauts had to hold them in place.  And I felt sad for those kids, just a little, because I don’t think they’ll get to know what special really is.

Let me explain.  When I was a kid, something like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was what you would call special, meaning that it aired once a year - on CBS, if I recall - and that was it.  If you had the school Christmas concert (back when there were such things) or a CYO basketball game that night, then it was “Wait ‘til next year” (a mantra that would come in quite handy in the life of a Mets fan).  But the absence of DVDs and digital downloads and all things “4G”, meant that there was such a thing as special.  Of course, I sound like a curmudgeonly old man in saying all this, but I heard a U2 song on the local “Oldies” station the other day and I’m pretty sure Turner Classic Movies recently aired “The Breakfast Club”, for cryin’ out loud.  So allow me this rant before I’m put on the ice floe and set adrift once and for all.
Things that used to be seasonal are less and less so in these days of hyper-convenience.  Walk into any supermarket and you can have practically anything you want at any time of year…whatever fruit or vegetable you want, shipped in from halfway around the globe where they actually are in season.  Want to see any movie, listen to any piece of music?  It’s just a download away.  Wait a few minutes (seconds if you’ve got 4G!!), and there it is.  You can watch “Dances with Wolves” right there on your three-inch phone screen.  Or listen to Mozart’s 40th Symphony on the very same device…hell, make it your ringtone while you’re at it!  I suppose the convenience of it is meant to make up for any of the artistic splendor that might be lost in translation.

As a kid, I remember seeing my father reading a book and coming upon a word with which he was unfamiliar.  So he put the book down, walked over to the bookshelves, pulled out this massive unabridged dictionary we had, and proceeded to flip through its pages until he found the word in question.  Then he wrote the definition down on a scrap of paper and inserted it into the book he was reading before resuming.  I guarantee you my father remembered that definition…maybe for the rest of his life.  There was something in the attaining of it that made it a true acquisition.  But such a simple action is already a thing of the past.  And in this Age of Everything, with all the information we could ever want and a thousand times more at the touch of an “app”, what is lost is the very essence of exploration, of learning, of process.  Of special.  And that’s too bad.

For the record, I once saw “Dances with Wolves” at the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C….70 mm of wide-screen magnificence enveloping the audience.  And I once heard Mozart’s 40th performed at the Kennedy Center.  Special.  Like an apple pie in the fall.  Or a peach in summer.  Or “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, once a year.  If you didn’t have a basketball game instead.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Merry Christmas? You Can’t Say That!

Last year on December 23rd, my last day of seasonal shopping (which, as ever, was also my first day of seasonal shopping) the red and green sweatered woman at the register finished the transaction then looked at me with a smile and said, “Merry Christmas”.  Just threw it out there.   Now what the hell did she mean by that?

Bewildered, I fumbled for a response and ended up saying something like, “happy....days.”  I may have even given her a Fonzie thumbs up, I don’t recall precisely…it was quite harrowing, after all.  Clearly this woman had not received the memo, or if she had, she had chosen so brazenly to ignore it.  Suffice to say, this gray-haired, grandmotherly monster must be stopped. 
I don’t know exactly what year it was that the scourge of all things religious was finally removed from the month of December (and November…as previously discussed).  I remember as a kid seeing T.V. station promos along the lines of “Merry C-word to all of your family from all of our family at WPIX”.  Or, “Happy (other C-word…the Jewish one), from all the folks at Channel 5.”  There was even a brief window where you might see a “Happy Kwanza (sorry if I am wrong in writing the word all the way through…I meant no harm) from all of us at WOR.” 

Oh, the horror of it all.  Such gratuitous disregard for the potential damage these words could cause.  Thank Go-----…that is, thank goodness, that we, as a society, have come to our senses.  (I do apologize for the near slip with the G-word…..and when I say “thank goodness”, please know that I do not venture to define goodness in any way, nor do I necessarily espouse goodness over so-called “badness” or anything in between.  I am quite neutral on it.  Really.)  Fortunately, we’ve moved past all those once-upon-a-time relics of infernal religiosity, and have evolved as a society to the point where no one has to be subjected to such hateful words.  But of course, there is more work to do. 
For starters, there should be some form of punishment for mavericks like that elderly woman at the store.  Perhaps I could file a suit against her, and the store, while I’m at it (‘cause at minimum wage and social security, it’s not like she’s got much money to pay for damages).  But besides that, don’t we realize all the other potential disasters waiting to happen?  Newscasts callously cover “Black Friday.”  Radio stations insist on playing “White Christmas.”  Excuse me?

Santa Claus keeps getting all kinds of press in the last two months of the year.  And exactly what holiday is he supposed to be connected to?   And if you’re OK with that, you’re clearly an insensitive Neanderthal.  (My apologies to all Neanderthals and descendants of Neanderthals.  I meant nothing by it.  I love Neanderthals….some of my best friends are Neanderthals!)  And what of the fascists at Rockefeller Center?  Sixty-five feet of bathed-in-light, trauma-inducing, Douglas fir smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.  And an ice skating rink right beneath it?  Really?  Like we need to be reminded the polar ice caps are melting. 
Anyway, Rhode Island has now joined the flood of municipalities across the country callously putting up “Holiday Trees”…as if we don’t know what they’re doing.  Oh, and what “holiday” might that be?  Even the expression “Happy Holidays” reeks of insensitivity.  Holidays, plural, implies what?  New Years and take your pick…the C-word, the other C-word (the one Adam Sandler made a cool song about…unless that offends you, in which case it is an awful song), or perhaps the K-word (just playing it safe).  And are you really comfortable with wishing someone a “Happy New Year?”  As if the Gregorian calendar is the only calendar anyone could follow.  And happy?  Why must it be happy?  What of those suffering from depression…as if they need to be reminded of it.

Yes, the world is still a cruel and dangerous place indeed.  But this December 23rd…..or 1 NivĂ´se CCXX, if you choose to follow the French Revolutionary calendar, which is your right, of course…anyway, on that day, I will take my cash (focused only on the front of the bills lest I be subjected to the “In G-word We Trust” sprawled across the back), and I will walk back into that same store.  I’m sure they will be playing Johnny Mathis blurting out “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” insulting the entire non-chestnut-eating population, as ever.  And I will seek out that horrible woman all decked out in red and green with the little jingle bell broche her granddaughter made for her out of construction paper and popsicle sticks pinned right there for everyone to see.  I will smile at her, all the while secretly filming our transaction (got to get me one of those 4G gadgets)…and when she inevitably blurts out the C-word again, visions of zeros on my settlement check will be dancing in my head. 
Happy Days, indeed.  (Unless you were a Laverne and Shirley fan, in which case, my apologies.  I meant no offense.  Really.)  

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Faith and Religion in the Modern World

So after delving into the world of politics for a couple of posts, I figured I’d tackle something less-controversial this time around...faith and religion.
Please don’t tell anyone, but my book is actually about faith.  It is the first of a trilogy in fact, with the other two book themes being hope and love (if you’re gonna “borrow” ideas, might as well “borrow” from some of the best, no?).  Anyway, I say don’t tell anyone because I don’t really think the modern world has any idea of the difference between religion and faith.  And true to form in this ten-second sound bite world where our limited attention spans require quick and precise categorizations, any people who speak of faith in this country are automatically lumped together. 
So by my mere mention of faith, I would be put in the company of say, Tim Tebow, kneeling on the sidelines of a football game as if summoning the Almighty to lead the Broncos to victory.  I was not aware God was a Broncos fan, but apparently He is, since Tim is so quick to thank Him after every victory and the team is 5-1 since Tim took over as quarterback.
Or perhaps then, I would be put in the category of the Pat Robertsons or Jerry Falwells, spewing what seems to me to be anything but what faith is all about.  Or throw me in with those who talk about what devout Christians the Founding Fathers were when in fact so many of the most prominent among them had a particular distrust of religion. 
But I am not any of these people, nor do I espouse their ideas of what faith really is.  I do not see faith as a competitive endeavor.  I do not see God standing behind one segment of His creation enabling them to smite or exclude another part of it.  Not in war.  Not in society.  And sure as hell not in a football game.
I believe that faith is of God’s creation, and religion is of man’s creation.  People have been slaughtered and cast out in the name of religion for thousands of years.  But faith does not lend itself to anything of the sort. 
I believe that faith can reach the soul in many ways...perhaps in hearing a sermon, perhaps within the structure of religion, but in other manners as well.  The character of Micah in my book is the one whose journey towards faith is most pronounced, most clearly defined.  And like myself, when he demands the answers from God, he hears only the reverberating sound of his words, and nothing more.  But in the quieter times, when we remove ourselves from the “discussion” as much as possible, faith comes.  That’s how it did for me, anyway.
So yes, my book is about faith.  It does not carry with it the message that “everything happens for a reason”, but rather “everything happens”.  And all of it is part of life, threads intertwining in a vast tapestry, the good along with the bad, usually right alongside each other, it seems.  And faith is about seeing the entirety of it for what it really is, or at least accepting that we will one day be able to see it as such.  That is what I believe.  That is my faith....my faith...and though it may be too little for some of you and too much for others, that does not matter.  That is between me and God. 
The book is meant as an expression of that faith...not evangelization, not with a mind towards convincing anyone of anything.  Indeed, you’ll have to look closer than most of the people who’ve read it so far to see the supportive strands of faith running throughout.  But they are there.  Softly.  Amidst the quieter moments.  The way faith so often is.  

Monday, November 28, 2011

I Am Not the 1%

See, now I went and did that thing so many teachers (or ex-teachers I guess, too) do when discussing a particular topic.  Call it playing Devil’s advocate, call it discussing rather than pontificating, or call it downright annoying (I’m going with the last one), but there are always at least two sides to every debate.  So all you One-percenters out there (Does anyone actually in the 1% read my blog? And if so can you recommend a better accountant...preferably one without “dot-com” in their name?), or you wannabe, someday One-percenters, you’re not getting off so easily.  Not if I can help it.
Perhaps, as children, the One-percenters were regaled with different folklore than most.  Instead of coal in their stockings at Christmas if they were naughty, perhaps they were threatened with tiny replica windmills or mini solar panels, instead.  Instead of monsters under their beds, there were the ghosts of Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin.  Instead of being taught to share their cookies, perhaps they were taught to hide them away in tax free, high-yield cookie jars. 
Whatever it was, they see Socialists around every turn.   And radicals.  And environmentalists.  Oh my!  And their over-the-top fears of populist revolution, as well as their skill at employing just the right code words, do more to stifle actual discussion than the Occupiers could ever hope to do.
I believe our higher education system should more closely resemble that of most European countries, where education through the university level is contingent upon one’s ability and hard work, not one’s (or one’s parents) bank account.  European students do not come out of college with the equivalent of a mortgage’s worth of debt strapped to their back.  But many, many American students do...and if we want to keep up with the rest of the world, well then, there's gonna have to be considerable government assistance in all this.  Of course, by suggesting this, in fact the mere mention of the European manner of doing anything has the One-percenters shouting, "Socialist!"  as if they were the long lost children of Joe McCarthy himself.  But I believe it all the same.
I believe that laissez-faire, completely unregulated capitalism is unjust and inhumane.  It's a nice sounding idea to people who think their taxes are too high, that the government is too big, and such, to suggest removing the government almost entirely from daily life.  But suggest to the One-percenters that government has an important function beyond assuring the security of the country and protecting property and out come the code words...liberal, radical, socialist. 
I believe that global warming is real, and that oil is not our future unless we want to one day make the Kevin Costner movie "Waterworld" into reality.  And considering what a god-awful movie that was, why would we subject our descendants to such a thing?  Of course, to most One-percenters that makes me a tree-hugging, hippie, environmentalist.  In truth, I have never actually hugged a tree, and I don’t (and never will again, I’m afraid) have the requisite hair to be a hippie.  But feel free to call me an environmentalist.  I can live with that...even if you mean it as an insult.          
So many of the One-percenters can be just as wrong and counter-productive as the most radical element of the so-called Ninety-nine percent.  Anyone who refuses to, or will not engage in, rational discussion on these most serious matters, is little more than an angry child stomping their feet in the hopes they will get their way eventually. 
The Occupy movement failed because it lacked any sort of real direction.  I drove past the “occupiers” of downtown Savannah a few weeks ago and amongst the two or three dozen there (and I’m being generous in that estimate), there were not two signs that spoke to even remotely similar points.  They just looked like a bunch of angry folks with nothing else to do than stomp their feet.
And the One-percenters do the same.  Only instead of stomping their feet they draw lines in the sand, refusing to entertain any sort of compromise and clinging to their code words, as ever.  They scare enough folks (those who would never be confused with the One-percent) into thinking that a tax on millionaires is the equivalent of the British Tea Act of 1773.  So those folks go and dress up like angry colonists and do the One-percenters' bidding.  Funny thing is, the actual American Revolution was quite liberal for its time.  Radical, you might say.  
So no, I am not the One-percent...and having more money will not make it so.  Nor do I believe that the so-called Ninety-nine percent is represented by the Occupy folks.  I am somewhere amongst the grown –ups, the people willing to have rational, spirited debates with an aim towards reasonable compromise and practical solutions.  And I do not believe I am alone.  

Of course, that doesn't make for very good content in the 24 hour news cycle, so don't expect this movement to be covered.  Perhaps that's for the best though.    

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tis the Season?

November Seventh.  Two-thirty in the afternoon.  A new record, for me at least.
That was the moment I heard the first Christmas Carol of the “season” played on the radio.  Somehow, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” didn’t have the same impact amidst a South Carolina 82 degree day as it used to have back in New York.  But it’s not the weather so much as the moment...I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.  And you can blame it on that greedy, king of all capitalist pigs, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Well, sort of.
In 1939, with the nation still lingering in the later stages of the Great Depression, Thanksgiving became an issue of great political, social, and economic contention.  See, it so happened that there were five Thursdays in that particular November, and ever since Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863, the national day for giving thanks had been the final Thursday of the month. 
But back then, Thanksgiving was an actual barrier to all things Christmas.  It was tacky, even disrespectful, for stores to get all decked out with trimmings of the “most wonderful time of the year”...“the hap-happiest season of all”, and whatnot.  But seven days less of selling Christmas wares did not sit well with retailers or with a president overseeing a still-sluggish economy, so F.D.R. declared that Thanksgiving 1939 would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month rather than the last.
Only half the states followed the decree, with the other half sticking to the last Thursday.  Texas, never one to be messed with or outdone, celebrated both days.  Then, in 1940 and '41, when the President declared that Thanksgiving would be on the third Thursday (out of four), the states split in roughly the same manner.  It was only in 1942 when things got mostly straightened out, with Congress establishing the fourth Thursday of November as the day of National Thanksgiving. 
Still, the floodgates of commercial enterprise had been let loose.  The damage was done.  So next year, when TBS broadcasts a “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” marathon on October 29th, or you walk into your friendly local Walmart looking for Halloween candy and hear Johnny Mathis singing about “Jack Frost nippin’ at your nose”, or when you’re watching the World Series and a Starbucks commercial comes on announcing that their KandyKane-cinna-mocha-frappa-latte-cino is now on sale, well, I want you to stop right where you are...perhaps drop whatever you’re holding and clench your fists, shaking them above your shoulders and looking out into the vast beyond, and I want you to shout in your greatest Howard Beale voice of righteous indignation, “F.D.R., you greedy capitalist son of a bitch!”   (Google Mr. Beale, kids.)
But there is another tack, you know...one that originates from somewhere deeper than the mere exoskeleton of our environments.  For thankfulness emanates from within.  As does every other sentiment associated with this season...love, generosity, compassion, joy...no matter how they may be marketed and twisted and associated with all manner of things material.  Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation came near the end of the bloodiest year of our nation’s history to date.  But it asked us to see the blessings amidst the ravages of the storm. 

And truth be told, it wasn't really Mr. Roosevelt's fault.  During World War II, Korea, and Vietnam the holiday "season" got moved up in earnest when folks on the homefront had to do their shopping early to send their gifts to the men and women serving overseas.  So, not such a diabolical plot after all.  I guess I can handle a little Johnny Mathis in November.     

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I Am Not the 99%

OK, so ever since this new vogue term came into play in the political world, dividing the richest 1% from the remaining 99%, I always assumed I knew where I fit in the equation.  My car has 140,000 miles on it.  I pay rent, not a mortgage.  My accountant’s name is Turbotax.com.  I have never eaten sushi.  All of these, I would imagine, are automatic disqualifiers for membership in the 1%.
Clearly, I surmised, I must be part of the 99%.  After all, I do love to camp...granted, not usually in urban areas, but the principle is the same.  But watching coverage of the various Occupy movements, the 99%, as they say, I am beginning to wonder if I fit in this new pie chart at all. 
See, these “99 Percenters” seem oddly like the folks who are banning dodgeball and other such neo-fascist games from playgrounds all across the country.  I doubt they ever rode their bicycles or roller skated without helmets and knee and elbow pads.  And that is a shame, because scraped knees and elbows, even the occasional dodgeball to the face, are part of learning to deal with the mini-tragedies of childhood, thereby developing the ability to survive the real tragedy that is adolescence.  And adulthood is a whole lot easier to handle when you’ve had that kind of training.
Then there was this post, taken directly from the Occupy Wall Street website forum:
“The problem in society is income inequality. So the ONLY solution that will fix it is income equality.  We produce $15 trillion in income each year which is enough to make every worker wealthy. If that income was allocated equally, for example, it is enough to pay every full time worker $135,000 per year.
If we allocated income democratically, which gave every worker a minimum income close to the $135k average as a right, everyone would have enough income to solve every problem that exists - home ownership, poverty, education, bad neighborhoods, health care. It would give everyone access to the best of what society has to offer as a right.”
Hmmmm.  I’ll bet the person who wrote that grew up in a time and place where every kid got a trophy just for playing Little League baseball or Pee Wee soccer...that is, if they hadn’t already banned such life-threatening activities.  See, we didn’t get trophies just for playing.  Not even for finishing second.  But I think it taught us valuable life lessons...chief among them, that the kid stacking the shelves at Waldbaum’s did not deserve to earn the same amount as a surgeon, or a teacher, or an electrician. 

I used to be one of those kids stacking the shelves at Waldbaum's,
when the minimum wage went up from $3.35 to $3.45 an hour.  After our next paycheck, my fellow beleaguered, downtrodden workers and I joked about how we were moving up in the world.  I was seventeen then.  And I'm sure none of us ever imagined that we might one day make 135K a year just by working any old 40 hour a week job.  I guess all that fascist playground indoctrination we’d been subjected to, being hit in the head with dodgeballs and whatnot,  had turned our brains to mush.  Otherwise we might have thought to declare such a thing as our right, too.  Of course, our parents and grandparents, people who really knew what it was to struggle and pay dues, might've had something to say about that.  
While I don’t have much of anything in common with the 1%, I do thank them for at least not speaking on my behalf, not the way the Occupy folks claim to speak for everybody else.  I do find that rather off-putting.  Anyway, they can claim to speak for me as much as they want, but it has become clear to me that I am not one of them.
It’s a shame, actually.  I really do love camping.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gadget Envy and the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

In Alberta, Canada there is an interpretive museum called Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, one of the most appropriately (if not succinctly) named places I have ever beheld.  Dating back to pre-historic times, it is one of the locations where the Blackfoot tribes used to hunt buffalo, quite ingeniously really...though in a manner that would surely make the PETA folks shudder, to say the least. 

Lacking horses or any sort of modern weaponry, the natives had to rely on their knowledge of the buffalo themselves, their grazing patterns and social behavior, and such.  They would drive them, instilling fear by dressing as wolves or coyotes, and then guiding them along a path bordered by stacks of small stones called cairns.  At the end of the path was a small cliff, not much more than thirty feet or so, and thus not so easily distinguished from the flat earth behind it, at least not in the confusion of a virtual stampede.  Inevitably, the first few dozen amongst the herd would be driven right over the edge onto the large rocks below, and...well, the name of the place can fill you in on the rest of the story.  Only the slacker buffalo in the back of the herd had enough time to stop.

And in a completely unrelated matter...
The other day I saw a commercial for AT&T.  There are two guys tailgating at a football game, sitting in lawn chairs and staring at their phones...and by the way, is it still called a phone?  Perhaps I should play it safe and call it a gadget.  Anyway, these two guys are flicking their fingers around the gadgets as other men come up to report a stolen tiger mascot, an injured player, or asking how to post a video amongst all the essential bits of data that must be brought into the constant stream of information in the modern world.  And the two men, apparently possessing this technological giant's superior technology, mockingly inform the men who approach that their news is "so twelve seconds ago"...or in one poor sap's case, a full twenty-seven seconds ago.  Sucker!  And these other men, obviously from the Stone Age, are left to stare in wonder and awe at the "4G speed" of this new technology.

I imagine the intended effect was for me to feel the same sort of gadget envy.  But little did the folks at AT&T know, they had lost me at "4G"...leaving me in a technology-induced state of idiocy, blabbering aloud "Oooh looky there, a tiger!"  and pointing at the screen.  (O.K., I exaggerate...I didn't actually point at the screen.)  And then a short while after that, wallowing in my utter shame and technological emasculation, I thought of a t-shirt I once saw:




The problem is, I do not particularly feel the need to know what "4G" means...or for that matter, to know what Snooki just tweeted, or to have all the news of the world in the palm of my hand...(I'd probably only ever check on the Mets score anyway, and why spend all that money to inflict only pain?)  I guess you could say I was dragged into the 21st Century rather reluctantly.  I do have a cell phone.  It is a phone.  I know that, because I speak to people (who are not in the same room as I am) on it.  Unfortunately, I will have to get rid of it shortly and replace it with a new one because the battery is dying out and my phone is practically pre-historic...a 2006 model...the horror, the horror!!  (As I type, my head is hung low in appropriate shame, I assure you.) 

See, the last time the battery died was about a year and a half ago, and when I brought it in to get a replacement the man at the counter snickered as if I'd just asked him where they kept their 8-track tapes.  Then he shook his head in a pitying sort of way - sort of how the two "4G" men in the commercial did at those "so twelve seconds ago" fools - and he told me they didn't make that model anymore, nor the batteries for it.  But then the assistant manager came up with a box of old exchanged phones tossed in with all the care reserved for single shoes without a mate, and the word "orphans" inscribed on the side.  The two of them fished through for a few moments until lo and behold, there was one that matched mine exactly, bravely providing an organ donation of its still-functioning battery.  I don't suppose there will be any such orphans around when I go back this time.  So I will have to leap forward a few more years...at least phone-wise.

Lately there has been much technological progress in my life.  Two years ago I didn't really know what "blog" meant as a noun, and now I know it as a verb.  As in, "I blog".  ("Oh, so sorry to hear that...is it treatable?")  I am on Facebook, too.  I even have a website (forgive me Walt Whitman). 

So added all together, I figure that brings me up to sometime in 2008 or so, technologically speaking.  (See those "links" I included up above?  Yeah, I did that.).  But I hope it isn't much beyond that.  In fact, I have no interest in being any less than three years behind on this particular stampede...errr, technological advance.  Sure, the scenery is always the same, but how else is a slacker to know when it's time to stop?

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Importance of Being Uppity (Conclusion)

What uppity-ness this writing a blog on a single idea stretched out over three entries and fifteen days!  I mean, who the hell do I think I am?  But this is the last I will have to say on the matter until I say something more on it, I promise…really.
In July of 2009, two years into this odyssey of writing a book, I had what I thought was a finished product.  Just needed a couple of days running the old spell check through the whole thing, and off to prospective agents.  But then an idea popped into my head…an already shaky proposition as my recent history had proven, but this one was really dangerous.  As in six more months of work, dangerous.  As in six more months falling deeper into debt, dangerous.  As in practically rewriting the whole book, dangerous.
I was harmlessly reading aloud from the first chapter, to myself…which is more sane than it sounds, I think.   I hope.  And since this chapter was the story of Ethan starting out in Ireland during The Hunger, I slipped into a bit of a brogue while reading the dialogue…then eventually while reading the prose, too.  And it just sounded right, for Ethan to have his own natural voice like that.  And if Ethan merited it, then so did the other main characters…Mary would have several voices actually, depending on the situation, having to be a chameleon between southern belle and field-hand dialect and everything in between…Marcella would be proper nineteenth century but with attitude, two-thirds Elizabeth Bennet and one-third Gloria Steinam…and Micah would be reserved, withdrawn, speaking only when necessary and only what was necessary, like three old men I overheard having coffee one Sunday morning at the Nice n’ Easy in Holland Patent, N.Y., never using five words when three would suffice.
Soon these voices were all I could hear when I went back over what I had spent two years and my life’s savings on writing.  And I knew that this was a way to make the book better.  I felt it was good enough to get published right then, but this was better.  And what good is all this uppity-ness if in the end it settles for good enough?  How many endeavors end up on the virtual scrap heap of good enough?  And I don’t mean the sort of thing that we pour everything into and come up short, but the sort of thing we grow tired of, lose confidence or desire, and put aside.  I know that defined my entire life to that point…a long history of inspired beginnings, earnest efforts to a point, and then the slow fade into good enough.        
But there was something different about this particular endeavor.  Perhaps it was something as mundane as being on the north side of forty by then.  Perhaps it was having come so far…two years without two consecutive days away from it, dreaming of the book, having it a constant presence in my waking thoughts.  Perhaps it was feeling that I owed more, everything I had to give, to these four people I’d created and followed around for two years (and I don’t really mean metaphorically followed around…yes, it does sometimes walk a fine line between creativity and madness).  Or perhaps it was just being so tired of good enough that it had to eventually inspire either quitting entirely, or straining to the “last full measure of devotion”, to quote Mr. Lincoln.
Six months later, I’d completed it.  Then came rewrites after feedback from my new agent.  Then came more rewrites from my editor’s feedback.  And more rewrites.  And more rewrites.  Until, about three weeks ago, I spent the better part of a twenty minute phone call with my editor’s assistant deciding whether to keep or drop an “s”, a single “s”, from a particular colloquial expression.   Just over four years on this journey, more rewrites than I ever imagined I’d do when I first started out (and if I had known, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so eager to write a book)…and one final “s”…and then it was done.
And one last bit of uppity-ness by way of summation: the book is perfect…for me.  By which I mean that I would not change even an‘s’ or an apostrophe in it.  It is the completeness of my present abilities.   Of course nobody else will see it that way.  But they’re not supposed to…remember, this is my verse.   Some may like it, some may hate it.  None of that is for me to control, or to cater to, lest it become less my verse and more theirs.  And besides, it’s rather nice to linger in this feeling for a few weeks, having given everything I had to give to one thing, for once in my life.  I smile now just writing those words.  I wish the same for all of you.
May the road rise up to meet you…but even if it doesn’t, a little uppity-ness will get you through.  



Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Apology Long Overdue

Tomorrow is Veterans Day, of course.  And perhaps the only good product of the modern day political climate is the way politicians trip over each other to be first in line to praise and thank our troops.  It is only fitting that they do this, that we do this, and not just every November 11th.  But they (the politicians) and we (the public) are hypocrites, complete and inexcusable HYPOCRITES, until we at least attempt to fix a decades-long injustice…one that harkens back to a time when nobody was tripping over anyone to welcome home or even passingly thank the troops.   
This year is the 50th anniversary of the following quote:  “Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.”
Those words were spoken by President John F. Kennedy shortly after a disastrous meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in June, 1961.  See, Khrushchev, a schoolyard bully if there ever was one, had just pushed around JFK for most of their “summit” in Vienna.  And Kennedy, in need of a face-saving course of action, set his sights on Southeast Asia.  That same year, 3,000 military advisors were sent into Vietnam, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara actually recommended 200,000 troops be sent in not far behind them.  Perhaps the proverbial Rubicon had been crossed a few years earlier when the first military advisors were sent in, or perhaps it came later when the massive deployment of troops actually began.  But 50 years ago, the whole point behind the war was clearly defined…we were not going to be pushed around!  Escalation led to escalation and so on, and on, for nearly a decade and a half, leaving behind it an immeasurable human toll.
Two and a half million American troops served in Vietnam.  More than 58,000 died.  And those who did get to come home weren’t welcomed with parades, yellow ribbons, or even a fraction of the gratitude they deserved.  Instead, they were ridiculed and chastised by prominent political wannabes and now-apologetic celebrities.  Their friends and neighbors often responded with pity, or treated them with a sort of hands-off confusion.  And by many others, those amongst the protesters of the war who let their fury govern their emotions, the returning troops who had served in Vietnam were spit upon or called “baby killers”.  Then they were left to re-assimilate into the world they had left behind, having only a grossly underfunded Veteran’s Administration to appeal to for any trickle of assistance in dealing with any physical and/or psychological fallout from all that they had been through.  They were effectively told by society, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways alike, to be ashamed of their service. 
We applaud the brave men and women who sign up to serve on our behalf today, and rightfully so.  They are portrayed in popular culture as ordinary human beings placed in harm’s way and responding heroically by doing what they have been trained to do.  That is as it should be.  But thanks to the popular culture that educated anyone born after 1965 or so, those of us too young to remember anything of the Vietnam War itself, well, we’ve seen and heard something quite different.  In movies, Vietnam Vets are portrayed as either reluctant draftees or crazed killers who volunteered out of some deluded sense of patriotism.  When they returned home from the war, they became recluses, criminals, drug addicts or homeless, according to pop culture, anyway…certainly anything but productive citizens who raised families and lived “normal” lives.  Think of the image of those who served in Vietnam as presented in some of the most popular movies on the subject: "Apocalypse Now", "Platoon", "The Deer Hunter", "Born on the Fourth of July", "Full Metal Jacket", or “Rambo” (for cryin’ out loud!)…just to name a few.  And it matters, you know, that sort of cultural “branding”. 
At the last school I taught in, we organized a student-run Veteran’s Day Tribute Dinner every year.  There would be upwards of 50 or 60 veterans in attendance along with their families.  And I could often see the difference in the reactions of the students to each veteran, those from WW II or Korea or The Gulf War or Iraq or Afghanistan were safer, somehow.  The students felt more comfortable asking them about their experiences, more comfortable being around them, even.  The Vietnam Vets were a different story, at least initially…until actual contact, actual interaction, disproved the “education” the students had received. 
Well, it’s time to change what fraction of that might possibly be changed.  It is time for the United States Federal Government, in some capacity, to issue a formal apology on behalf of the entire nation to those who served in Vietnam.  It should be an apology for the way in which they were treated when they returned home…for the ingratitude, the misunderstanding, the lack of consideration for what they had done.  Perhaps then we will remove the metaphorical asterisk somehow attached to those who served in Vietnam. And for once, FOR ONCE…to simply say, “Thank you”.
The time has come…for that much, at least.   


(By way of putting this into action, I have written a statement below that can be cut and pasted into an email to your local U.S. Representative or Senator.  I would encourage you to take a few minutes to do this much…or better still, to compose your own words.)
Dear (Congressman/Congresswoman/Senator…)
The time has come for the United States to offer an official apology to its Vietnam Veterans for the treatment they have received since returning home from service.  It is an apology owed on behalf of the American people, but one that should be offered with the authority of the U.S. Congress behind it.  I am asking you to introduce such a resolution into Congress as soon as possible.  Thank You.
   
Here is the link for the directory of contact information for U.S. Senators:
http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm

And for members of the House of Representatives:
http://www.house.gov/representatives/

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Importance of Being Uppity (Part Two)

So what then of all this newfound uppity-ness?  I mean, there are, at the far end of the spectrum of self-confidence, countless examples of ill-conceived uppity-ness…Jerry Springer and his flying circus, all things Kardashian, or practically anyone on “reality” television, for that matter.  No, no, no…this is not just a bumping up of one’s self-esteem, which can often be nothing more than an artificial sweetener for the ego. 
This is something more substantial, fluid, and dangerous even...compared to the status quo, at least.  It is the true belief and application of Walt Whitman’s answer to the seeming meaninglessness of existence, and the question: “What good amid these, O me, O Life?”  With his answer placing that responsibility right back upon ourselves, reminding us: “That you are here, that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”
What a burden that is and yet, a treasure, too.  It compels each one of us who ever gets bored with our daily lives, each one of us who points fingers at this person or that, this unfortunate reality or that, making them somehow the source of our doldrums…well, look no farther for the source than in the mirror.  For it is our verse, after all, and no one else’s…not even our spouse’s or our children’s or our parents’.  But ours.  Individually.  This verse…with others closely intertwined, to be sure…but ours alone, in the end.
After a year and a half of writing, my once-upon-a-time 401 K ran dry.  Of course, the Global Economic Collapse hadn’t helped matters much.  And I spent more than a few self-pitying days feeling almost as if God had done this just to prove what a fool I’d been to take such a leap.  Self-doubt and regret threatened my newfound uppity-ness on a practically daily basis.  But I’d gone so far by then that going backwards wasn’t an option, and standing still was practically a prison sentence. 
So what was the answer?  Press on, of course.  But I’d learned something new in that time of apparent crisis…that truly tapping into that sense of the importance of my “verse” wasn’t enough.  That was just the revelation part of it.  And revelation, though we can often think of it as the end in and of itself, is usually only the beginning.  Then comes the hard work.  And work.  And work.  Akin to going to college, to grad school…and maybe beyond, even.  And then graduating, standing there in cap and gown and feeling as if you’re standing on the mountain top…only to find out it was just a foothill.  For now comes the really hard part.
But that is the beauty of it, you see.  The opportunity. 
There is this, from the brilliant baseball movie “A League of Their Own”:
Dottie Hinson (explaining why she was quitting the team):  “It just got too hard.”
Jimmy Dugan:  "It's supposed to be hard! If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great!"
There comes a point in any verse when we are challenged to put our money where our mouth is.  Or, if we are broke (as I was just then) to put our work, our hard friggin’ work, into it.  And not just for a day or a week or two years, even…but for as long as it takes.  ‘Cause being uppity is just the beginning.  And the powerful play demands more of us than that.


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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Mammies, Uncle Toms, & Fr. Paddy McIrish

As a kid growing up one of my favorite holiday movies was “Holiday Inn”.  It had the original version of the song “White Christmas “ sung by Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds, a cool tap dance number from Fred Astaire…and did I mention Marjorie Reynolds?  Anyway, it was on every year on Channel 5 in New York and when we finally got a VCR as a family Christmas present, it was the first movie I ever taped on it.  Some years later, in the age of DVDs, my father bought a copy of it and my old VCR tape, complete with commercials from Christmas night circa 1982, was officially retired.
The thing was, the DVD had the complete movie, unlike what Channel 5 had shown all those years.  And the complete movie included a what the hell were they thinking routine with Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds in blackface!  I had seen the movie at least fifteen times by then but this was the first I was seeing of this routine that Channel 5 had always cut out.  Now, the movie was made in 1942, a time when black characters in Hollywood movies were horrifically stereotyped if they were present at all.  But this seemed particularly egregious, and Holiday Inn has never had quite the same luster for me ever since.
Of course, times have changed.  They had even changed enough by the late 1970s that Channel 5 saw fit to cut that scene from “Holiday Inn”.  But how much they changed is certainly open to debate.  Take books/movies like “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Mississippi Burning” and more recently the uber-popular “The Help”.  Their portrayal of black characters in the Civil Rights Era wasn’t offensive in the blackface, old shuck and jive manner of early Hollywood, but the themes were all the same: oppressed black folks, helped out by heroic, non-prejudiced white folks.  As if the real faces of the Civil Rights movement looked like Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, or Emma Stone.
Now, I’m sure down the road I’ll take some politically correct criticism for endeavoring to write from the perspective of two slaves in my book.  I heard Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, interviewed on the radio and the first question the host asked was whether she had worried about writing in the voices of two black maids.  She said she had, and having seen the movie, I suppose I understand why.  But I was not worried…am not worried.  And I think the difference came from what was triggered in me by the beginning of my research, when I saw puffed-up gasbag historians like G.M. Trevelyan treat the Irish “Famine” as an unfortunate incident at worst, and a convenient way to lessen the surplus population at best. 
Mad as hell, it wasn’t too long a journey to see all my characters through a similar looking glass.  I’d always despised the “Gone with the Wind” ridiculous portrayal of the Old South, complete with Mammies and Uncle Toms just pleased as sweet ‘tater pie with the life they had on good ol’ Tara.  But now I was able to draw some greater connections.  Practically every Irish person in the old movies was either walking a beat as a cop, or was a gangster, or wearing a priest’s collar, or passed out drunk…maybe two or three of those all at once, come to think of it.  Just as practically every black person in the old movies was either a maid, or a chauffeur, or a criminal, or a musician, or a buffoon…and maybe a few of them all at once, too.  Ignorance is ignorance, after all, and Hollywood doesn’t discriminate…when it comes to that.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Importance of Being Uppity (Part 1)

Each of the four main characters I wrote about in my book is what you could call uppity.  They don’t know their own place, or even knowing it, and being reminded of it, they choose to go beyond what is expected of them.  I didn’t realize at the time that my characters were a product of my own audacity.  But it is obvious to me now.
There was first “the leap”.  For each of my characters it was there, boldly stepping out into the unknown in one way or another.  And for me it was leaving teaching after fourteen years with just the vague promise to myself and others that “I’m going to write a book”.  I remember students saying, “Oh, I guess we’ll be seeing you on Oprah when she selects your book for her club”, and it had the ring of similar statements we, as teachers, might say to students as they headed out into the world.  The talented actor or singer might be told, “See you on Broadway”.  I remember saying to students from the Communications Club, “See you on CNN.”  And it was always meant by way of encouragement, of course, but did any of us really believe it was possible, those doing the complimenting or those being complimented?
I know when I started writing this book, all I initially aspired to do was to write it, and if I had to self-publish a few dozen copies to hand out to friends and family, well…that would be enough.  Even as months rolled into a year and more, and the story began to take greater shape, as my characters began to take those leaps, there I was, still setting my sights relatively low.  In talking about it with family, I’d sometimes make reference to writers who were influential to me, or how they did a certain thing and I was building on that…and it would always be followed with the statement, “not that I’m comparing myself to them.”  It was an involuntary reaction, you see, as in strike patella tendon with triangular rubber hammer and watch foot kick.  “Not that I’m comparing myself to them” became such an overused expression that it became understood…‘til then it went mostly unsaid, being understood and all…‘til then I stopped thinking it entirely. 
And somewhere between the start of that second year and the end of it, I began to truly aspire.  Aspiration, I came to understand, is a wonderful thing.  Something changed in me during that second year of writing.  I became uppity, no longer bound by the restrictions I’d placed on myself or allowed others to place on me: doubts, and what-not….the sort of “that stuff might happen to other people, but not to me/us” mentality….and the granddaddy of them all, the Irish Catholic imperative to be humble that can become so entwined in one’s DNA that it makes that reactive “not that I’m comparing myself to them” become every bit as real and involuntary as the patella tendon reflex.  They all started to fade away in that second year.  The bar was raised higher.  And I allowed myself to dream…for me, this time, and not just “the others” who that stuff was always happening to.  And nothing would ever be the same again.    
(Continued next Monday…tune in Thursday for a culture/society/history reflection.  That’s what I think this blog will be: Monday mornings for inspiration, Thursday afternoons for reflection.  And if you like what you read, and are not being tracked by the FBI and need to stay off the radar, well…maybe you’ll consider following this blog…takes just seconds, I promise.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"History" My Ass!

So in the process of writing this novel there was a great deal of research, of course.  I began with what I thought was a good idea of the history of the Irish, but was (and still am) shocked to discover what I didn't know.  Seven of my eight great-grandparents were from Ireland.  I was a history teacher for cryin' out loud!  And still, what I didn't know about the "Famine", about the plight of my ancestors, actually led me to tears when I let it enter my creative soul.  And then I got mad as hell, and still am! 

I offer only "exhibit A" by way of explanation:

The title of the book is The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland.  I bought it as a teaching tool, I think when I was already teaching at Kellenberg but perhaps before that, when I was teaching in Brooklyn at Our Lady of Refuge.  It's 400 illustrated pages, so...good for middle school and early high school, which is what it was meant to be.  Only here's the problem: a story on Josiah Wedgewood entitled "Vasemaker General to the Universe" merited 415 words of text and two pictures.  Wedgewood lived in the mid-18th century, and like most Brits at that time defined "The Universe" as essentially the equivalent of Europe and the British Empire as it then existed.  But my problem with Mr. Wedgewood is not about his delusions of grandeur (since that is a title he gave to himself), or even with the Brits of the mid-1700's.
No, my problem is with the bastards who published this "History of Britain and Ireland" in 1996.  And why?  Because the entirety of the Irish "Famine" in the 1840s merited just 316 words of text and one illustration.  A hundred words less than the so called Vasemaker to the Universe.  And even then, the incompetent fool who wrote the description of the "Famine" focused on the British Corn Laws which kept tariffs high on imported corn even after the first thousands had died from starvation.  And the incompetent fool who wrote this text simply addressed the human toll of this "Famine" with a SINGLE SENTENCE......"But the repeal (of the Corn Laws) came too late to save the 800,000 people who died in Ireland."

I guess that's the Oxford way of saying...."Whoops, our bad.  Now let's talk about pottery."

Bastards.

And why do I always write "Famine" with quotation marks?  Because it wasn't a famine.   Because there was plenty the land produced besides the blighted potatoes.  There was wheat and corn and all manner of livestock...the bulk of which was put on ships bound for Merry Old England. 

So yeah, I got mad.  And I still am.