Category Archives: Life, The Universe and Everything

42, or posts to make you go “hmm.”

Let’s Talk – And Listen

letstalk

Bell began the Let’s Talk initiative in 2010, whereby they would donate 5 cents to mental health initiatives every social media interaction using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag on a given day in January.  That campaign is continuing today, with over 60 million interactions thus far (over $3 million by my quick and possibly inaccurate math).  Whether or not you know it, mental illness has touched your life, as it remains even in 2017 something largely to keep quiet, to manage on your own, to pretend it can be just gotten over with a positive attitude.  So chances are fairly strong that someone close to you is struggling with their mental health, and isn’t telling you about it.  Maybe it’s somebody you haven’t heard from in a while; maybe it’s someone you see every single day.  Maybe it’s somebody lying next to you in your bed, or playing with their toys down the hall.

Maybe it’s you.

The world lost one of its great talkers about mental health when Carrie Fisher passed away just a few weeks ago.  She was never one to bear her illness quietly; rather, she blew the roof off the rafters whenever the opportunity presented.  She refused to fit the metal-bikini-shaped mold of the demure, coy Hollywood ingenue that the public had been conditioned to expect.  The irrepressible light who in a final wink of mirth had her ashes interred in a giant ceramic capsule of Prozac was who she was, and she gave little thought to the upturned noses of others, particularly those who wished, for whatever reason – their own discomfort at the bitter rawness of her truth perhaps – that she could be a little less open about the intimate details of her life.

Carrie Fisher spoke up and spoke out because she had to, because no one else was speaking for people like her.  She never gave people the chance to forget because with mental health, it is all too easy to forget.  When days or weeks slip by without an explosive incident, when a smile is forcibly pasted on to camouflage the pain, when by all rational measure you don’t look sick (the four words no one struggling with mental health ever needs to hear), the natural tendency to want things to be normal again makes us forget about the constant and often brutal fight taking place inside the mind of our friend or loved one.  They may be crying out inside to talk about how they are feeling, but what is just as important is our willingness to listen.

Even the most compassionate can grow desensitized to the suffering of those closest to us, when the rare good days fade from memory and the bad days blur into one long unbroken string.  We want to put it out of sight and out of mind by talking about something else, anything else, thinking perhaps that a series of mindless diversions is what the doctor ordered.  That we can go into ostrich mode and pretend that since we haven’t heard them complain or seen them cry in a while, everything must be okay now.  Without truly meaning to, we close ourselves off, and in doing so we eliminate the most important avenue they have – the ability to keep talking, to keep the conversation going.  Talking is, ultimately, only one half of communication.  Those doing the talking need to know that they are speaking to a receptive ear, and an engaged mind, for even the most precious words are lost in shouting them into the wind.

Most people with mental illnesses won’t be as outspoken as Carrie Fisher was, and millions of important stories will be lost in the day to day noise.  More than simply showing your support by retweeting a hashtag on one designated day, I’d offer that a great way to get involved to help break the stigma of mental illness is to reach out to someone who seems to have gone quiet – someone whose words have grown few because no one is really listening to them.  They may need you more than you realize.  They need you to know that they’re important to you, that you’ve got their back, that you’ll stand with them as they engage in the hardest fight their life will ever know.  Seek out their stories, and remind them that they haven’t been forgotten, that just because they don’t look sick doesn’t mean that they’re not as courageous as someone with cancer.  Ask them to talk – and then shut up and listen.  Listening is the first step to learning, after which comes doing – and that’s when things start getting better.

Orlando

pride

There is no feeling of such spectacular impotence as the one that wilts your heart after a tragedy has occurred and you have nothing with which to respond but a keyboard.

Grieving is not something anyone does well.  It isn’t a skill you can hone.  Emotions churn into a veritable hash of sorrow, fear, despair and unbridled anger, flailing about in wild, unfocused directions. Certainly not with the clarity one needs to assign them into a logical order of words.  There is so much I want to say and writing this post has been an exercise in deliberate procrastination because I feel the thoughts rolling around in my head and I’m afraid of saying them clumsily and badly, in a way that will somehow further tread upon the broken feelings of those who are closer to what happened in Orlando than I am.  Be that as it may, I would like to take a few moments to talk about it.  Every member of the human family needs to grieve, either publicly or quietly.  Callous leaders bought by lobbyists can only offer the oft-repeated, ready-for-prime-time pablum of “thoughts and prayers” to assuage their guilt, to feign the appearance of caring. To mollify the simmering masses in the hope that this too shall pass and they may return to their regular agenda of screwing the people who voted for them with due dispatch – after the duly required moment of silence.

I don’t pray.  So here are my thoughts.

I think about our LGBT friends and family and I feel sorrow.  I think about those 49 people who were at Pulse that night to celebrate life and love in the arms of their partners and never imagined what was to come.  I think about the dozens more who will carry the trauma and scars of that night to the last days of their lives.  It is painful to know that despite recent steps there are still too many human beings throughout the world who have to rely on safe spaces in order to be who they are and to be with the person they want to be with.  As Lin-Manuel Miranda so beautifully put it, love is love is love is love is love.  It is a divine gift, beyond anyone’s capacity to define, and certainly not within anyone’s rights to deny to anyone else.

I dream of a day when queer men and women can live their entire lives without having to ever stop and wonder, even once, if there is something wrong with them.  When a teenage boy never has to feel ashamed about the crush he has on the guy he plays football with; when a teenage girl can easily summon the courage to approach the beautiful young woman she’s written about longingly in her diary.  When a queer couple stealing a kiss in the park is regarded with as much indifference as the sight of a straight couple cuddling on the bench across from them.  When the closet is a long-forgotten memory of an ancient, more primitive era, regarded as foolishly as the time when the earth was flat.  When gender fluidity is merely a fact as indubitable as the turning of the seasons, and never derided by tiny minds as a “lifestyle choice.”

When safe spaces aren’t needed anymore because every space is safe.

Week after week, the people of Pulse had a small part of that world for their very own, until hate stole it away.  I hope that if we reach that world in my lifetime, we will stop to remember those who did not live to see it, and dedicate that future time to their memory.

I think about the state of humanity and I feel fear.  I see the hatred rippling on the edges of the fraying seams of civilization, I see the insatiable greed driving every transaction, and I wonder about the planet my son will inherit.  I see one of the loudest voices in the aftermath of Orlando belonging to a clueless, catastrophically incompetent, badly spray-tanned demagogue who stands within a horrifyingly short leap of becoming the leader of the free world.  A vile ogre utterly bereft of any redeeming features, who draws his support by appealing to the worst of human instincts and who cares little for the consequences of the bile spraying from his mouth wherever there is a microphone within spitting distance.  The idea that after eight years of progressive, steady and sane leadership under President Obama, the American people could swing the pendulum back so hard to put a moron in charge of their nuclear arsenal with the world trending ever more in the direction of powder keg, does little to reassure one’s faith.  I fear that we may look back on 2016 as a relative idyll in the face of what comes next.  I fear that fear will usurp rationality and compassion and that we will begin to regard everyone who passes by or gives us a sidelong glance as a threat to be immediately put down.  I worry about my darling, compassionate son trying to make his way in a world like that.

I worry about watching this unfold with nothing I can respond with but a keyboard.

I look at the legislative response to this massacre and I despair.  That after much sound and fury, nothing will happen, just as nothing happened after Sandy Hook and nothing happened after any of the mass shootings in the United States that have become too numerous to count.  As encouraging as last night’s filibuster on the floor of the U.S. Senate was to see, I despair that the final votes will fail and that insane, irrational adherence to the whims of the gun lobby will once again carry the day.  I despair that for millions of people, the right to possess a weapon that can shred precious human flesh into ribbons of bloody meat in milliseconds is more important than the rights of others to live their lives without being shot – more important than the rights of the children of Newtown to attend school safely, more important than the rights of the people of Pulse to have a safe night full of music and fun and love.  I despair at the bull-headed obtuseness of gun rights advocates (or ammosexuals, a favorite, well-suited term) bellowing on Twitter that this “isn’t the time” to politicize or even talk about guns, or suggesting that the answer to a gun massacre is always to increase the gun supply.

I despair that certain American politicians and the people who support them are more worried about who goes into a bathroom than the fact that they can do so legally with an assault rifle strapped to their back.  I despair that no number of innocent people gunned down in the prime of their lives will ever be enough to turn back from this escalating path of self-destruction, that the odd mass shooting has merely been factored in as an acceptable cost of American freedom.  I despair that others with hate-consumed hearts will be emboldened by these acts and like an army of Mark David Chapmans, ratchet up the body count in order to secure themselves a piece of infamy.  I despair that what may very well be next is what Salman Rushdie once worried about – a mass shooting in a maternity ward, with calls to arm nurses and mothers and babies in response.

I think about how we’ve arrived at this point and I’m angry.  I’m angry that it’s so easy to murder and so difficult to love who you want to love.  I’m angry at the right for throwing up roadblock after roadblock to gun safety and gay rights.  I’m angry at them for staging empty moments of silence when half of them are probably reciting Leviticus in their heads and thinking that those queers deserved it.  I’m angry at the voters who enthusiastically throw their weight behind unqualified, undeserving lightweights simply because there’s an (R) next to their name.  I’m angry at people who think it’s more important for their frail old grandma to have a handgun to protect her from a possible intruder rather than working to build a more equitable society where the guy doesn’t have to try to break in in the first place.  I’m angry at the uneducated “get your government hands off my Medicare” types who pledge allegiance to Fox News and mindlessly follow the subliminal orders of manipulative billionaires.  And I’m furious at the National Rifle Association for grinding progress to a halt in the name of preserving profits for merchants of death – for ensuring that the owners of Beretta and Glock and Smith & Wesson can continue to sip champagne on obscene yachts in the company of bikini-clad arm candy while the people of Pulse are cut to pieces.

But I’m angry at the left too.  I’m angry at them for thinking that just one vote for Obama in 2008 and another in 2012 was enough to secure salvation.  I’m angry at them for not staying engaged, for not continuing to knock on doors, write letters, start petitions, stay involved at every single level of government.  I’m angry at them for sitting on their hands in non-presidential elections and allowing control of Congress to slip into the slimy hands of a jug-eared empty shirt and a turtle-faced, obstructionist jackhole.  I’m angry that with millions of people of all classes demanding gun control, there’s no massive, well-funded National Anti-Rifle Association lobby to wrest House and Senate seats away from small-penised dipshits who run boastful election ads where they blow away targets with assault rifles that have no purpose or place in civilian hands.  I’m furious at people who say they’re going to either stay home or vote Trump out of spite because Bernie Sanders isn’t going to be the Democratic nominee.  I’m angry at people who say that both parties are equally bad and that meaningful change isn’t possible so why even bother trying.

I’m angry that people don’t understand that apathy lets the other guy win every single time.

And I’m angriest of all at the irredeemable scumbag who did this.  The creature I won’t deign to call a man, whose name I won’t mention lest it grant him even a smidgen more of the fame he certainly must have craved in setting this atrocity in motion.  The hideous, hateful wretch who strolled into Pulse in the guise of a human being, whom dismissing as merely mentally ill is an insult to those who are genuinely mentally ill.  The thing who decided to turn his loathing and bitterness outward and murder everyone in sight, an embarrassment to humanity whose name should be scorned and forgotten, while we remember and celebrate these people forever:

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Stanley Almodovar III, 23
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
Luis S. Vielma, 22
K.J. Morris, 37
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30
Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50
Amanda Alvear, 25
Martin Benitez Torres, 33
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31
Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26
Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19
Cory James Connell, 21
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
Luis Daniel Conde, 39
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24
Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, 32
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
Frank Hernandez Escalante, 27
Paul Terrell Henry, 41
Akyra Monet Murray, 18
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24
Antonio Davon Brown, 29
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25

And yet despite all of this, as I grieve I still feel hope.  I see lines around the block to donate blood for the survivors and I am lifted.  I see tributes offered by all castes of society and I am encouraged.  I watch the rainbow flag flying and see a lasting symbol of resolve.  I know, that as John Oliver said, the perpetrator of the Orlando massacre is vastly outnumbered.  Ultimately, the impotence the rest of us may feel in the aftermath is largely self-imposed.  The possibility of making things brighter awaits, and is a tantalizing prize we should all try to reach out for.

Let’s do it.

I want to close with a simple request.  Remember that tomorrow is promised to no one.  So forgive your loved ones and your friends, be grateful for the privileges you enjoy, and let slights slide off your shoulders.  And don’t let go of the hope that things can and will get better.  Because we’re all we’ve got, and the world will become what we make of it.

Thanks for listening.

The Star Trek Countdown series will return next week.

 

Mosaics on International Women’s Day

mosaics

I am a feminist.

Hardly a stop press moment if you’ve followed my writing for a while.  Still, one that is important to announce from time to time without ambiguity or any possibility of misinterpretation.  International Women’s Day is as appropriate a moment as any.  Yet I don’t put it out there for applause, or to suggest that it is somehow worthy of excessive note.  In fact I would hope, rather, that we continue to evolve collectively as a species toward a place and time where being a feminist is simply a natural component of being a man.  I say “natural component” because at present there are still far too many men in the world – and far too many of them in positions of significant power and global influence – whose factory default setting includes the compulsion to press their boots down hard on women’s throats.

I don’t get it.  I never have.

If I try to boil my feminism down to a single, easily digestible concept, it’s the basic notion that men shouldn’t be dicks to women.  I don’t see why that is so hard.  In the wilds of the Internet you’ll sometimes stumble upon these bizarre misogynist rants and just shake your head and think to yourself, “wow, if he and everyone like him had taken all the energy it must require to remain so hateful on a daily basis and turned it in a positive direction instead, we’d have world peace and eighteen cures for cancer by now.”  Since before recorded history women the world over have paid an unfathomable price for the insecurity and self-loathing of males, for this comical notion that a man’s worth is somehow defined only by how much of his world he is able to dominate absolutely; by how much he can control of the things he fears and does not understand.

We recognize this, we shake our heads at it, and yet it continues, whenever a male-dominated legislature starts introducing bills prescribing what a woman can and can’t do with her uterus.  When males harass women off the Internet with threats of rape just for saying something they don’t agree with.  When women have their personal information made public because they dared challenge males to make the playing field fair.  When a female opinion expressed aloud is met with a torrent of pictures of penises.

When a woman’s pain is greeted with male laughter.

When a lawyer can suggest with a straight face in court that ESPN reporter Erin Andrews wasn’t harmed by having a stalker post online nude pictures of her because her television career has continued to ascend, something is seriously askew.

Why does it have to be this way?

Misogyny is a bloated, slouching, Hutt-like beast relentless in its pursuit to crush out every light and smother every voice with its oozing, pustulent folds.  Its faces are disappointingly legion, and united in the horrific tenet that apparently, women should exist solely for the purpose of making more men.

We don’t have colonies on the moon yet because too many men are too busy working at grinding women into the dirt, whether their names are splashed across international headlines as they pursue the Republican presidential nomination or cried out only by the woman who begs them not to hit her again.

We should all be ashamed.

How different might things be if men made a conscious decision to learn from women rather than treating them as chattel?

I was asked by a friend to review the first volume of a short story compilation out today called Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women.  The book brings together twenty female authors of diverse origins offering short stories, poetry and essays on the subject of femininity.  Profits from this book are to be donated to the Pixel Project to End Violence Against Women.  The pieces are by turns challenging, enlightening, magical, gritty, heartbreaking and always provocative.  One that stood out for me was P.K. Tyler’s The Book of Lilith, which recounts the legend of Adam’s first wife in the Garden of Eden, and presents the story of the first woman to have her uncontrollable spirit condemned by the (literally) prototypical man.  I was struck also by Tonya Liburd’s Adventures in Gaming, which shines an important spotlight on the positively ghastly misogyny infecting the world of online games.  While these two stories are stylistically quite removed from one another, the theme is the same:  a woman who would like to experience the world on her own terms and is slapped back hard by the rigid male-dominated status quo.  And despite what men’s rights types would immediately suggest when presented with such a collection, these and the other stories contained therein are not voices that are haranguing, propagandizing or spewing misandry – they are merely voices asking to be heard and inviting you to listen, because they are as worthy to be heard as any other.

I read on, and I nod at the lessons learned and admonish myself for not seeking out more female perspectives in the works I choose to read.  Truly, the gender of the author has never factored that much into the stories I seek out, but maybe it should.

Maybe I need to listen and learn even more.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a piece in The Globe and Mail today.  The entire piece is worth a read but here’s the passage that really strikes home:

Every day, I meet incredible women who inspire me to be a better feminist and a better person. Women can do (and be) anything they want. But powerful cultural change cannot happen when only half of the population works toward that change. Men need to act, set examples and be role models.

I was raised by an incredible woman, I am married to an incredible woman.  I work with incredible women and I am friends with incredible women.  I have learned something from every single one of them, and I continue to look to their wisdom and their experience to guide me.  I do what I can to encourage and promote them as well, because when women do better, we all do better.  And to the prime minister’s last point, I try to impart the importance of doing so to my teenage son, in the great hope that one day we may simply breed the hulking beast that is misogyny out of existence.  That future generations may regard the concept with as much uncomprehending disdain as we reserve for people who insist the earth is flat.

The old way ain’t working, folks.  Dedicating themselves to abusing and demeaning women with each breath isn’t making that portion of the male population any happier.  What if instead, one of these men chose to lift a woman up instead of pushing her down?  Isn’t a smile more of a balm for that terribly fragile ego than a shiver of terror?  Isn’t it better to court a woman’s respect than to stoke her fears?  Isn’t it fundamentally just better to be kind – to say “way to go” instead of “get back in the kitchen”?

Isn’t treating women with their due respect what makes us better men?  Isn’t celebrating their achievements our duty – not just as men, but as human beings?

Isn’t that what we mean when we say, I am a feminist?

Mosaics is available through Amazon.

 

That Voice

rickman

Not been a great week, folks.  I saw a tweet this morning that suggested we should call an early end to it and head over to the pub to drown our sorrows.  The news of actor Alan Rickman’s passing from cancer at the age of 69 has left me inclined to agree.  Between him and David Bowie earlier this week, we’re losing too many of our heroes.  People we were never going to meet and who never knew of our own existence but still occupy that special place in our hearts reserved for family.  Alan Rickman was a compelling actor for whom no one ever seemed to have a bad word, either in regard to his work or the man himself.  And yet it’s surprising to know that for someone who provided so many indelible, endlessly quotable screen moments, he was never nominated for an Academy Award, never broke out of the character actor mold for a really meaty lead part, never achieved the level of stardom someone of his talents really deserved – although by the reaction seen on social media this morning, it’s clear that he was considered something by millions that many more “famous” actors can only dream of being:  a treasure.

I did not know the man, I have no personal anecdotes about chance encounters with him to share.  I have only what most people have:  his legacy.  Few on this side of the pond had heard of Alan Rickman when he signed on to star opposite Bruce Willis in 1988’s Die Hard.  In retrospect it seems hard to imagine how risky a gamble that movie was considered at the time:  an expensive action picture with an untested TV actor in the lead and an even lesser known British stage veteran as the villain.  Yet it’s almost a perfect piece of cinematic entertainment, and so much of its success hinges on the strength of the two men pitted against one another.  Rickman, with his singular, resonant, sepulchral tones coiling themselves lovingly around clever, sophisticated, literate dialogue with the slickness of an eel drenched in light sweet crude, crafted the perfect foil for the wisecracking, blue-collar Willis, and established a standard for memorable villains that led every single movie casting agent to burn through their Rolodex hunting for the next Shakespearean Brit they could pluck from obscurity to face off against the mumbling American action star du jour.  You could argue that without Alan Rickman in Die Hard, there would have been no Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, no Jeremy Irons in The Lion King, no Gary Oldman in… pretty much everything.  And there certainly would have been no Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, emoting to the rafters about calling off Christmas and carving out innards with a spoon because “it’s dull, it’ll hurt more.”  Rickman became so identified as the prototypical villain that it’s interesting to note he never played another straight baddie after that.  (Your daily trivia:  the villain in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fourth-wall busting Last Action Hero was written for Rickman, literally – the script features the movie’s young hero calling him by name – but after Rickman begged off, Charles Dance took the part and wore a T-shirt to the set reading “I’m cheaper than Alan Rickman!”)

Wary, perhaps, of being relegated to what might have in fact been a profitable career of snarling and firing guns every few years, Rickman stepped back into smaller features, deploying his talents instead in period pieces and romantic films, and when it suited him, riffing on his own pop culture image.  He was brilliant in Galaxy Quest as a character inspired by Leonard Nimoy, a classically trained stage actor typecast as an alien in a cheesy sci-fi show and reduced to spouting his tired catchphrase at department store ribbon cuttings.  (His best moment in the movie:  challenging co-star Tim Allen to find the motivation of a marauding rock monster and accusing him of never being serious about “the craft.”)  And perhaps no one else could have so beautifully captured the hilarious over-the-top melancholy of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the underappreciated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy either – one cannot help but smile when Marvin first descends from the ceiling warning everyone in Rickman’s voice that he’s feeling very depressed.  Our instinct to immediately love an Alan Rickman character worked against us in Love Actually when we couldn’t believe what a heartless prat he was being to his adoring wife Emma Thompson, but our faith that there was more to him than the obvious notes was rewarded when we saw at the end that he was clearly trying to atone for his terrible mistake for the sake of their family – just as we hoped we would under the same circumstances.

And then, of course, there is the cherished Severus Snape in Harry Potter.  However well-intentioned or made, the movies simply can’t capture the intricate details and backstories provided in the books, and so we rely on the performances to fill in the blanks.  In the early films Snape always seems to be a character very much on the periphery, vacillating between heroics and villainy, and, atypically for Rickman, rather understated.  In a few of the early movies you almost forget Snape is there, so minimal are his contributions to the plot.  In the first film Rickman’s presence serves as an efficient red herring, so focused are you on the notion of this blatant bad guy that he distracts you completely from the true puppet master.  From then onward, he lurks about in the background, and yet, because it’s Alan Rickman, you know there will end up being a deeper story to this man than the one you’re seeing on the surface.  You can’t ignore what’s going on behind those dark eyes, and in that basso as it intones “Mis… tah Pottah.”  The stage is carefully set over the course of eight films for the revelation of Snape’s complicated yet ultimately noble soul, and one doubts whether or not an actor other than Alan Rickman could have pulled it off, with the patience and the skill to weave together a character one tiny, almost unnoticeable thread at a time.  Millions of children (and children at heart) will forevermore read those books and picture Rickman speaking the lines, a special kind of immortality after which many can long and few will ever achieve.

Like David Bowie, it is strange to contemplate the notion that there will never be another Alan Rickman movie.  That no lucky screenwriter will ever again have the privilege of hearing that utterly unique voice giving life to their lines.  But he leaves behind a rich body of work of which he could be proud and of which many of his generation of actors and those after him will be envious.  Though he often played intense characters, he was not off-puttingly intense himself.  He did not mouth off to the press or pretend that his chosen calling was somehow divine.  He was never one to embrace the culture of celebrity or push himself into the tabloids with scandalous affairs or nasty comments about his peers.  He was a good man, who did good work, always brought his best game, and possessed that endearing, ever-so-British trait of being able to take the piss out of himself every once in a while (watch his final appearance on the Tonight Show as he and Jimmy Fallon inhale helium balloons.)  And millions of people loved him for it.  Little gold statuettes are no substitute for the echo of applause that lingers long after the final curtain has come down and the stage lights have gone out.

Our ovation for Alan Rickman will go on for quite a while yet.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

bowie

You think some people will be around forever.  Children of western civilization grow up with the perpetual presence of our idols in the background of our daily tribulations, and we come to rely on them as permanent fixtures.  Even if you weren’t the world’s biggest David Bowie fan (full disclosure:  I wasn’t) he was an undeniable pillar of the strange and constantly changing edifice we call popular culture, one that he carved himself to his own unique specifications – as though before him there had been a David Bowie-shaped hole that only he could fill.  There was a reassurance to be found in knowing that he was always there, continuing to make challenging music and appear in quirky movie roles and push the boundaries of expectations in art, and while maybe nine-tenths of those projects would pass by unnoticed, one standout here and there would pique your interest, and it would be a singular David Bowie creation.  It seems odd to think that Bowie’s life’s work is complete and there won’t be anything else from him.  (Listening to “Lazarus” from his final album Blackstar this morning is a bit of an eerie experience.)

More musically literate scribes than myself will pen paeans to his aural masterworks.  I come not to reel off deep album cuts but to offer only feebly-worded praise to the same great Bowie tunes that everyone else likes:  “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars,” “Fame,” “Under Pressure,” “Let’s Dance” to name a mere, mere few – not to mention that wonderful annual Christmas oddity of his duet with Bing Crosby on “Little Drummer Boy.”  But I always liked David Bowie best as an actor.  The profession suited him in a way it did few other musicians-turned-thespians, likely because his talent for reinventing himself was a perfect match to the art of screen performance.  He wasn’t the glamour boy ported in for a high-wattage cameo struggling to deliver his lines; in every role you could see the thoughts going on behind the mismatched eyes, the true character emerging from beneath the natural “Hey!  It’s David Bowie!” reaction the audience would be expected to have.  He elevated anything he was in simply by choosing to take on the part, on occasion braving the essaying of historical figures such as Andy Warhol (in Basquiat) and Nikola Tesla (The Prestige), turning them into memorable, magical fusions of his own persona.  He didn’t just show up and expect adulation – he acted.  He earned it.

His appearance as Pontius Pilate in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is my favorite Bowie role, brief as it is, and coming towards the latter half of what isn’t easy Saturday afternoon viewing.  Befitting a musician’s approach, Bowie’s Pilate is a melody of complex notes:  rational, reasonable, world-weary and oddly sympathetic, and one cannot watch the prototypical pop culture chameleon and author of “Changes” tell Willem Dafoe’s Jesus that “it doesn’t matter how much you want to change things; we don’t want them changed” without a wry grin.  I’m certain Bowie himself was fully aware of the many levels of irony at work in that scene.

I don’t think I’m necessarily qualified to say anything more about him; I leave that to those who were more invested in his career, who knew all the Bowie trivia, who looked up to him as a role model, who scored their lives with his music and waited breathlessly on each new iteration of David Bowie.  It’s perhaps enough to leave on the note that Bowie’s passing is a reminder that life is truly a matter of turning and facing the strange, that evolution is the modus operandi of our tragic and beautiful limited existence.  That there will always be changes, and how we adapt ourselves to the inevitability of such changes is a measure of how well we live our life.  The man born David Robert Jones seems to have managed it exceptionally well, and one can speak best of a man by being able to say at the last that he left the world a little better than he found it.

If he has to be gone now, then let us accept and embrace the change just as he would have.  To paraphrase David Bowie, we don’t know where we’re going from here.

But we can promise it won’t be boring.

Fire and Rain and all that jazz

I heard through social media a little while ago that a friend from high school days had passed away.  Her name was Kim.  While we had never been the textbook definition of close, we would chat from time to time through Facebook about family, parenting, and the course of our respective lives.  She wasn’t someone I went out of my way to keep in contact with, and yet, when we spoke online, I was amazed at how her innate brightness would gleam through the flying bubbles of text, and how genuinely interested she was in what was happening with me, despite her really having no obligation to be.  You meet way too many sorts who vibrate visibly with the itch to dispense with the perfunctory required questions about how the job’s going and how the kids are doing so they can start prattling on about the heaps of awesomeness that have fallen into their own precious laps; Kim was most definitely the opposite, remaining private about her own problems while always offering up receptive, sympathetic ears.  That we were friends at all spoke to the depth of her character, in many ways a complete contradiction of what you’d expect.  Someone like her could easily have been Regina from Mean Girls, blessed as she was with talent, popularity and beauty, but instead she saw people for who they were and not where in the social order it was their fate to be pecked.  She cared, with an honesty that could not be faked.  And she’s gone now, a too short 40 years of age, and I wish I’d made a point to talk with her more often, because a special light has gone out.

I met Kim when we were both involved in the production of our 1993 high school musical, a staging of Chicago.  I was the backup drummer in the orchestra pit, hidden at the back of the stage behind a black scrim, while Kim, a year older, was bold and brassy belting out “All That Jazz” as the lead, Velma Kelly.  (Ten years later, sitting in the theater watching Catherine Zeta-Jones have a go at the same part, I couldn’t help smiling and thinking that Kim had done a better job.)  Our school had a reputation for the quality of its productions; we dared to mount elaborate, challenging, Broadway-level material whose raciness gave our more conservative principal his fair share of headaches.  They were great social levelers too:  you could come in to work on them whether you were jock, nerd, princess or bespectacled wallflower, and find yourself among fast friends.  The denizens of the elevated echelons that you wouldn’t dare approach in the halls were throwing their arms around you at the frequent cast parties.  Somehow the social hierarchy that mattered so much in the day-to-day got tossed in pursuit of the grand goal of creating a singular night on the stage.  Kim was a big part of ensuring that happened, and some of my strongest memories of that experience are chatting and sharing jokes (and flirting a little, clumsy as I was at it back then) with her.  One might logically expect the show’s diva to be dismissive of the little people in the back, but Kim didn’t go in for that sort of nonsense.  Instead she made everyone want to up their collective game.  You wanted to work harder and play better because that was a friend up there on the stage counting on you to have her back.

When I first joined Facebook there were quite a few people from the old high school that I made a point of looking up.  I don’t recall Kim being one of them, but as degrees of separation would have it she popped into my news feed after commenting on someone else’s post, and at some point I must have sent her a friend request – or maybe she did for me.  I didn’t put much stock into it other than “I kind of remember you and you’re a decent sort, let’s be Facebook friends, ignore each other’s updates and send half-hearted birthday messages every year when it reminds us to.”  I was content to leave it at that until Kim started messaging me periodically to say hello and see how I was doing.  She was the only one of my 131 connections to do so.  I wondered why.  This may come across as false modesty, but I honestly did not believe I deserved the attention, given that I hadn’t exactly made keeping in touch with her a significant or even a minor priority.  It wasn’t as though we had a rich personal history to look back upon either, just a few shared experiences when we were teenagers, a few chance encounters on the street in the years that followed.  But I was moved by her warmth and the sincerity of her outreach.  After my wife and I adopted our son Kim would check in every few months to ask how things were going.  I’d tell her a little about his history and how he came to be with us, and in her words back to me I could see and feel the opening of a tremendous heart.  I would ask her how she was, and though she was guarded about the details, I could sense that that heart had been wounded many times and was battling on regardless, through illness that had landed her in hospital far more often than she deserved.

Then, after a while, the conversations stopped.  She didn’t reply to the last message I sent, though I did get a note that it had been seen, months later.  Kim tumbled from my consciousness.  Caught up in the ins and outs of my own day-to-day as weeks slouched into months it did not occur to me to check in with her.  It wasn’t a deliberate choice, it just happened, through indolence and preoccupation rather than intent.  When another friend broke the news to me by the cold means of Twitter direct message, I felt my entire body sink as though someone had just doubled the gravity in the room.  It was a twofold reaction:  shock, obviously, coupled with a tremendous gnaw of guilt.  I knew she had been sick, and as I scrolled back through our history of Facebook messages, trees of text bubbles preserved there as though set in digital amber, I could detect hints that things had been far more serious than she had let on, hints that I had let go out of respect for her privacy.  Kim would pivot when I would ask about her illness, assuring me that she was strong and that she was an adult.  She would rather talk about me, this blog, and how I was finding life as a father.  I didn’t push.  I suppose it would have made little difference if I had.

In his classic ballad “Fire and Rain,” James Taylor makes what for me is the quintessential statement about our relationships with our friends and how little time we truly have to celebrate the fortune of their presence in our lives.  In writing this post and thinking about Kim, I echo his sentiment.  I didn’t continue the conversations with Kim because there was always more time.  I always thought that I’d see her again.  That late one night, barred from sleep by lingering traces of the day’s caffeine intake I’d be scrolling through Facebook, smirking at cat videos and pictures of other people’s kids being silly and re-posted rants about the government, and the notification tab would pop and I’d see her name and “Hey Graham, how are you?”  I’d been conditioned to expect that and I never believed it would stop.  Now it has.  There will be no more messages from Kim.  “All That Jazz” will forevermore have a hint of melancholy when I reflect on one very irreplaceable Velma.

By no means do I claim a monopoly on grieving her loss.  I know that I wasn’t her best friend, or a member of her family, or someone with any deep, lasting connection with her but this:  Kim meant a great deal to me for the simple reason that in a world with more than its share of awful people, she was one of the good ones.  I’m glad I got the chance to tell her as much during one of our late night chats.  I’m sorry I couldn’t have said it more, and that I won’t get the chance to get to know her better.  That she won’t get the chance to meet my son whom she enjoyed hearing about.  And I’m sorry that she won’t have the long and happy life that should have been her due.  It has brought into sharp focus the notion of mortality and that we cannot count on any of us being around for as long as we once thought we would be.  The invulnerability with which we greeted the days back then is a fleeting wisp lost on the wind.  And while we may feel as though we are more connected with our friends because of social networks like Facebook, we can’t let those algorithms diminish the value and the reality of the people on the other side of that coldly curated news feed.  We need to talk more.  Really talk, about our hopes and our dreams and our fears and the world we want to leave in the glow of our tail lights.  We need to seek out the good ones that are already in our lives and latch onto them and laugh with them until our sides ache, and weep until we’re all utterly spent of tears.

We always think we’ll see each other again.  Sometimes we won’t.  So let’s see each other as much as we can, while we can, while every precious moment of this life remains available to us.  I’m going to close now by offering a suggestion.  Today, think of someone you haven’t spoken with in a long time and send them a message.  Doesn’t have to be anything elaborate.  Just say hello and let them know you’re thinking about them.  See what happens next.  I think you’ll find the very tiny expenditure of your time bearing positive emotional returns the extent of which you can’t even imagine yet.

Goodbye, Kim.  You were one of the good ones.  And all that jazz.

I have been, and ever shall be…

Nimoy

Our sky is a little dimmer today with the loss of someone who expanded the meaning of stardom out beyond the final frontier.  Leonard Nimoy, gone at 83, was an actor, director and photographer by vocation but at heart a storyteller and shaper of one of the most impactful fictional characters of our time, who helped remind millions of us feeling like aliens walking an often confusing planet that we were human after all.  And more than that, in an entertainment landscape overrun by buffoons and simpletons elevated by ratings popularity to aspirational figure(air)heads, Nimoy made smart and logical the coolest thing you could hope to be.  With his portrayal of Mr. Spock, Nimoy gave the pursuit and value of intellect a mysterious and, dare-one-say-it, sexy side.  He gave hope to those of us more comfortable with a math book than a bench press.  He showed that brain could be more magnetic than brawn.

When I first watched Star Trek at the age of 10 or so, Spock was the character I was most drawn to.  Sure, Captain Kirk was the swashbuckling hero and Scotty had a cool accent, Dr. McCoy was full of Southern charm and Lieutenant Uhura was simply stunning to behold, but Mr. Spock was, if one will pardon the pun, fascinating.  A teenage kid struggling with hormones and the associated emotional imbalance, particularly in the wake of the passing of his own father, will naturally find himself captivated by this unflappable figure who sets that troublesome turmoil aside and approaches each problem from the standpoint of clear and logical analysis – while never forgetting the all-important human equation, even if he hasn’t quite figured that out yet.  I wanted to learn more about Vulcans and try to emulate their approach to life, even if I didn’t think I would ever become a scientist.  More importantly I wanted to figure out if it was actually possible to neck-pinch someone into unconsciousness – would have helped with bullies back in the bad old days.

Our popular culture contains an infinite assortment of characters whose adventures and traits resonate within our collected consciousness long after they have exited the stage.  With respect to his successor Zachary Quinto, few characters and performers are as inextricably fused as Nimoy and Spock.  Surprisingly, or not, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s initial description of the USS Enterprise’s Vulcan science officer was the very definition of “broad strokes,” a sketch that could have applied to any generic alien from any cheesy science fiction program of the last century:

…Probably half-Martian, he has a slightly reddish complexion and semi-pointed ears…

As most fans know, NBC was so unimpressed with Spock as he appeared in Star Trek’s first pilot that dumping him was one of their conditions for agreeing to finance a second.  Roddenberry refused, of course, and over the original run of 79 episodes, Nimoy took those pencil marks and began to infuse him with depth, gravitas, and even a dose of Jewish mysticism (the source of the famous split-fingered Vulcan salute), creating a lasting icon.  As the Star Trek canon became ever more robust, Nimoy seemed to get its characters and the reason for its popularity more than the behind-the-camera talent did.  Blossoming into a fine director, he took them helm and helped guide Star Trek on its cinematic journey, and those times where it stumbled were those in which his voice was left unwisely on the sidelines.  It would seem strange to wish to try and do anything with Star Trek without the input of Mr. Spock, but so goes the human arrogance that Spock himself would rightfully disdain.

Like so many of his Trek co-stars, Nimoy the actor wrestled with the issue of typecasting.  In the 1970’s, he suffered through a bout of fan misgivings after the publication of his autobiography I Am Not Spock, proof that even before social media the public was apt to overreact to things not worth getting upset about.  Such was the loyalty to the character he had etched into so many millions of hearts.  (Sure enough, when rumors began circulating during the pre-production of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that Spock was to die, a most illogical wave of threats began bombarding that movie’s producers.)  When he wrote his sequel I Am Spock so many years later, Nimoy reconciled with his alter ego and with the fans who wanted to see him as nothing else, perhaps recognizing that if one is to be known for just one achievement in one’s lifetime, the definitive portrayal of a character who inspires millions of people is not such a bad legacy to leave.

In his twilight years, as he explored his passion for photography and made the occasional TV or film appearance, Nimoy seemed settled into the idea of himself as elder statesman and philosopher.  A few days ago, after he was admitted to hospital, Nimoy’s Twitter account posted several moving messages about life and memory, perhaps from an accepting sense that the days were growing short.  It was, in effect, communicating a final wish to the world that it live long and prosper, as he did.  In the final scene of Star Trek II, the dying Spock’s thoughts and words are not for himself, but for his ship, his captain, and his friend.  “Don’t grieve,” he says.  “It is logical; the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

In the end, Leonard Nimoy is that rare man who can move on from this life with no task left undone and no ambition left to prove.  It can truly be said of him that he left things better than he found them – we could wish no more for him, or ourselves.  And perhaps as his captain might have put it, “of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”

Seven things learned from seven years of marriage

Mickey and Minnie pancakes

A week ago I celebrated my seventh anniversary of life as a married man.  Truthfully, if you’d approached me around the time George W. Bush was accepting his re-nomination for a second term and said that ten years hence I’d be happily settled with a wife and a teenage son, I’d have inquired, pointedly, as to the quality of the copious reams of narcotics you were obviously inhaling.  Yet here we are in 2014 with seven years of the formalized partnership at our backs and by all indications prospects for many decades more – in an age where divorce is increasingly common and societally accepted, tipping from “end of the world, what will the neighbors think” into “no big deal, plenty of fish out there.”

What makes a marriage work?  Hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest have been whacked to print books and articles by experts, both credentialed and self-proclaimed, identifying specific strategies by which every marriage should endeavor to function – in effect, taking the complex, evolving narrative that is the relationship of one human being to another and putting it in the more digestible language of business; boiling it down to key messages primed for PowerPoints and pie charts.  “Do these five things every day and your marriage will always be happy,” and the like.  Rather than rehash the bromides of Cosmo articles past, like “communication is the most important thing” or “make time for intimacy,” instead I’m going to share what I’ve observed these past seven annums, and you, dear reader, may take or leave as you will.  Nor will I dare to suggest that I get these right all the time, or try to hold myself up as exemplar of the ideal husband.  As always, they’re just my thoughts for your consideration, and maybe somewhere amid the flotsam and jetsam of our mutual experiences we’ll locate the truth of things.

1.  There is no such thing as a successful marriage.  Why?  Because “success” implies something you’ve finished.  The goal of a marriage should be like that of the U.S. Constitution:  forming a more perfect union – but – you need to know from moment one that you’ll never actually get to “perfect.”  And why would you want to?  There would be nothing left to do; nothing left to learn from one another, nothing left to share.  You’d be ready to move on to the next one.  Accepting that you’ll never achieve “success” is not an excuse to throw up your hands and stop trying, it’s a reminder to get up each day and keep working on it, keep thinking of ways you could improve your relationship, keep doing the little things that make yours a true partnership.  Marriage is not a destination where once arrived you can kick up your feet, crack open a brewski and watch the game.  It’s more like acquiring the world’s most awesome traveling companion for the road ahead, and she knows all the best places to see along the way.

2.  Write things down.  When you’re first with someone you document everything; souvenirs from every restaurant or movie or concert or stroll along the beach you experience together, chronological photo albums with the story of your courtship captured to the very minute.  The longer you go on, the more settled you become, you find it less necessary to take the camera when you pop out for a drink after work on a warm summer night, and she looks amazing, and you share a belly-aching laugh over something trivial, both little realizing that in a month, that precious slice of life will be lost in the background noise of daily drudgery.  You will come to regret not being able to remember so much of what reminds you how much you love her.  I know exactly where we went for dinner on our first anniversary:  TAO Nightclub in Las Vegas.  I ordered grilled ahi tuna.  But I’m pained to recall what we did for our second, third, fourth.  I know we didn’t sit around doing nothing, but because I didn’t write it down, I have no trigger with which to activate those memories.  There’s a balance to be found before you start needing terabyte-capacity external hard drives to store all your selfies, but even a few spare details jotted in an easily accessible notebook will be enough to activate your recall and let conversation provide the rest.

3.  Always get out of bed first on weekends.  It’s the smallest gesture, but it shows that you respect your partner’s time, are aware of what needs to be done around the marital residence and are taking initiative on getting to it instead of giving in to the temptation to be lazy.  We all love curling up underneath the covers as the sun pours in on a Saturday morning, especially after a long, cold work week, but getting up first is giving the gift of rest to another and proving that you’re taking charge of the day and not expecting to be waited on.  It’s simple math, really – an extra half hour of sleep or a happier spouse for the whole day?

4.  Don’t take the day for granted.  It is far too easy to get lulled into the repetition and sameness that can plague domestic married life.  Get up, go to work, come home, eat a dull dinner, pay bills, clean bathroom, watch a few hours of TV, go to bed.  Repeat ad nauseum.  And yet you should still pull yourself out of the complacency for a few moments each day and remind yourself of the fortune that has favored you with health, stability, security, and an irreplaceable partner.  Because on the morrow something may happen that will upend everything and you’ll find yourself longing for the predictability of routine.  Even a boring day is a day that you are alive and safe and free to choose.  And it’s one more day spent in the company of the greatest person you’ve ever met.  Not bad at all, really.

5.  You don’t have to have the same taste.  When my wife and I are having trouble figuring out a movie to watch, I find myself envying those couples who have found each other through a shared love of geek culture, particular sports franchises, Mesopotamian basket weaving, what have you.  There are times, in fact, when it seems like we have very little, if anything, in terms of common interests.  But in many ways it’s been a blessing, as it’s given us the chance to discover the other’s passions, and find commonality we might not otherwise have noticed had we just stuck with the same interests we brought to the relationship.  I spoke a bit back in my A-to-Z series about how meeting my wife deepened a love of jazz and the Great American Songbook – would I have had this were she just a Beatles and U2 fan like myself?  Though on much of the cultural zeitgeist we still do not agree (after nine years together she remains unconvinced of the merits of the Lord of the Rings franchise and spectacularly indifferent toward James Bond) our connection remains solid and strong.  Common interests answer the question of what to do on a Saturday night, but they’ll never be the foundation of a lifelong relationship.  A genuine caring and admiration for each other is what’s needed.

6.  Spontaneous musical numbers are always in fashion.  We aren’t the first to joke that the world would be a much happier place if people on the street and in the malls would break out in impromptu singing and dancing more often.  Short of the arrival of that demon from that Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode a few years back, I’m afraid it’s left to us to bring the Sondheim, and most folks would rather guest lecture on macroeconomic theory at Yale in their birthday suits instead.  It’s truly a shame that this potent arrow in the human mirthmaking quiver doesn’t get strung and loosed more often, as few moments of melancholy can’t be improved by even an off-key rendition of the perfect chorus.  Whether it’s in the proscenium of the kitchen as the pasta boils or the grander scale of the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, pull your sweetie in for a rumba or a cha-cha whenever you get the chance.  And if you can throw in a few half-recalled verses of a Tony-award winner or even Weird Al’s latest – onwards, musical soldier.

7.  Never underestimate your spouse’s ability to surprise you.  As I mentioned earlier, routine and complacency are two of the greatest adversaries of marriage, inasmuch as they dampen the spark that is needed to maintain a human being’s interest in anything over a long period of time.  But if you’re with the right person, those nemeses won’t even get to step onto the field.  There have been many moments when I’ve found my spirit beaten down by the unfairness of things, by reversals of fortune and bleak prospects for progressive change (both in my own life and in the world at large), and my wife will go and do something utterly unexpected, reminding me of the innate wonder and capacity for good that lies at the heart of humanity.  It doesn’t even have to be anything particularly grandiose – it can be as little as a smile found amidst heartbreak.  There is one moment in particular that I will share.  One cold January night I found myself, after a brutal phone call, jobless, rudderless and not sure how to get through the next hour, let alone commence the next phase of my life.  My wife offered some words of comfort, but I wasn’t in the mood to have it, brushing her aside with a half-hearted “yeah.”  I stepped outside for a few minutes to take the trash to the curb.  When I turned back to our front door, she was standing in our foyer looking out at me.

Dressed as Minnie Mouse.

She was wearing the ears with the red and white bow, waving with the oversized white gloves and doing a better than average impression of Minnie’s giggle.  I don’t know how she’d managed to gather those up and don them so quickly, but in an instant the storm within me broke, I laughed, and I knew that things would be okay, because she was with me.  It’s a gift I’ve never forgotten; a memory that I can dig out of the box and hold whenever I need it.  And tomorrow she’ll come up with something even more spectacular.  It’s who she is.  An inexhaustible reservoir of strength, kindness and generosity, with a heart as big as the moon, a singing voice to shatter the stoniest facade, and a positively contagious laugh that makes the corners of my mouth inch up even to think about it in passing.

There you have it, for whatever it’s worth.  Nothing earth-shattering or life-changing, just a few simple truths that help me find my way on the long road.  Above all else, seven years of marriage have taught me to be excited about what I’ll learn over the next seventy years, and to be grateful for the journey I chose to take and for the amazing woman who agreed to come with me.

Keeping the faith

jamaicasky

There is a melancholy to the world right now.  I’ve been sensing it for some time, but it crystallized this morning when I was driving my son to camp and we had the radio on.  BBC News was informing us in mellifluous London tones about the sum total of horror and death experienced on planet Earth in the last 24 hours.  The boy was nervous about his first day and a story about three people burned alive in their house wasn’t helping matters.  I switched to the classical station and made some comment about how, “you know, about 95-96% of all people everywhere are basically good, decent people going about their lives; dropping off their kids, going to work, coming home at the end of the day and eating dinner with their family.  It’s not ‘newsworthy,’ but it’s important to remember that when you hear the bad stories.”  He nodded and continued staring out the window in silence at the rain streaking past the glass.  When we arrived at the camp, he perked up in the presence of other kids and jubilant counselors eager to get started on what promised to be an exciting week.  The downpour outside would not dampen those moods.   I was envious, but I had to leave; work awaited.

Humanity, ever the walking contradiction, is remarkable for the limitless reach of its imagination and its capability to accomplish jaw-dropping feats given enough drive and cooperation, tempered by an equal and sometimes overpowering capacity to shoot itself in the foot.  Every time we think we’re finally on the right road, someone veers us back into the weeds and we take another couple of decades to dig ourselves out.  Lately it seems that the foot-shooting faction has the loudest microphones (and the biggest guns, for that matter) and one is given to muse whether all those popular dystopian novels are merely prophetic.  What do you do to get through the day and hope you’re never faced with the choice of whether you want to be Abnegation, Erudite or Dauntless, or with your kid representing your district in a fight to the death against other kids and holographic monsters?

Some trust in the unseen hand of a deity.  But that is a path I strayed off a long time ago.

A child is not born believing anything (one could argue it is our most spiritually pure state, but one would prefer to save that lengthy discussion for another time); its exposure to religion comes entirely through the actions of its parents and family, whether enforced strictly – regular memorization and expected flawless recitation of critical verses under threat of withdrawal of dessert – or the more lackadaisical approach my clan used:  remember to say grace at dinner and be sure your plaid clip-on tie is pressed for this Sunday’s service.  (I did grow up in the late 70’s/early 80’s, after all.)  I was, in point of fact, the rare sort who hated decamping to Sunday school mid-sermon to make paper cut-outs of Noah’s Ark when I preferred to stay to listen to what the pastor had to say, and looked forward to the day I could be exempt from the childish frivolities.  I think it was more that I enjoyed the idea of not being confined to the kids’ table anymore.  But I didn’t take any of what was being said to heart.  At the risk of sounding like one of these literary rejection letters, the material simply wasn’t a good fit for me.  Being smacked with a series of tough losses as I encroached upon and waded through my teenage years, increasingly inured me against what was being offered from the altar.

To make a potentially lengthy digression rather short, I have always had to find a different source of faith, a different path to spiritual realization.  I’ve always felt a bit like a human Play-Doh set, you know the one where you shove a misshapen clump in the hole in the top, press on it with a plunger to push it through a mold, and out comes a star-shape or a crescent moon or what-have-you.  I take in whatever’s available, run it through the dusty old processor upstairs and spit out some semblance of conclusion, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s some variation of crap.  It’s an answer, but not THE answer.  It never adds up to 42.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s simply too much raw material being crammed into the Play-Doh hole (that sounds a lot filthier than it’s meant to).  My wife and I were talking about this on the weekend – actually she did most of the talking since I’m a decent writer but a piss-poor conversationalist – about the value of simplifying and unplugging.  FOMO makes you clench up at the first sounds of that, but then again, what is it that we’re fearing missing out on?  Clickbait articles about celebrity breakups?  Trending hashtags, affirmation-seeking selfies and endless navel-gazing ramblings about the nature of the universe?  Um…

Anyway, the point, one supposes, is that letting yourself get overwhelmed by the noise means not appreciating the value of what is right there in front of you.  One of the hardest things about success is accepting that it’s not what you think it is.  Jealous hackles raised at somebody else’s million-dollar book deal obstruct the pride you should feel upon being presented with the crude pencil drawing your son just did for you.  Slumped shoulders at the unaffordable month-long island getaway enjoyed by your more affluent acquaintances rob you of the serenity found in the chirping of the birds in your backyard.  Ironically, moaning that everyone other than you is getting everything they’ve ever wanted in life is ignoring that some of those people are thinking the very same thing about you.  More doesn’t mean better.  Mo’ money mo’ problems, as a noted poet famously once said.  What difference do all those externalities make once you’re done strutting and fretting your hour upon the stage?

The secret behind successful marketing is making you, the potential customer, feel terrible at what you don’t have.  And we are all doing it to ourselves.  Inadequacy is an emotion entirely self-imposed, and like interest, it compounds.  Like a particularly insidious virus it begins to infect your worldview.  You gravitate toward the morose; confirmation bias leads you to seek out only those stories that reaffirm this concept that the world is an irredeemably terrible place.  Consequentially, your personality starts to change.  Laughter certainly, but even smiles begin to grow rare, and what once moved you now leaves you stone and still.  Something is missing, you feel, and you rush to fill the void with more stuff instead of stepping back, taking a breath and saying whoa, things being as they are, I actually have it pretty darn good.  Till the day your friends and family question what ever happened to the vibrant sort you used to be – and you don’t have an answer for them.  You kind of stand there, struck dumb, fumbling for a rationale that remains elusive.  You can’t trace events from point A to point Z, you know only that it happened, and a lot of irreplaceable time was spent on a pointless journey into the ditch.  You loaded the bullet, cocked the pistol, and fired into your foot over and over again, and now you can’t explain why it’s bleeding.

Where the idea of keeping faith enters the frame is learning, upon crawling up from that ditch, to find the value of holding faith in the faces and hearts of those who are closest to you.  Because getting out of bed every day is itself an act of faith; a choice to take what comes at you instead of hiding under the covers.  You wouldn’t do it at all if you didn’t know, innately, beneath the layers of insecurity and/or bravado, that you have got this.  So do those 95-96% of people in the world who spend their days beneath the radar of the news, doing good, pushing humanity forward against the tide that seeks to roll us back into the sea of ignorance and stupidity.  We will never hear about most of them – but we can keep faith that they are there, just as we can keep faith in the friends and family whose paths cross ours.  And thank whatever god or goddess you believe in – or thank nothing at all, if that’s your preference – that they are.  And learn to smile about it.

Maybe it’s not THE answer, maybe it’s not even the answer you wanted.  For the moment, it answers enough.  When I pick my son up later today, when he bounces into the car whooping and hollering about the amazing time he had, today’s act of faith will have been rewarded.  I knew that he’d have a good time.  Beneath his nerves, so did he.  The storm shall indeed pass, the clouds will open, and the light will shine through.  We will go on.

Have faith.

People, Not Property

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Something horrible happened a little while ago in a place with the deceptively idyllic-sounding name of Isla Vista.  In the aftermath and the weeks since we’ve tried to process it, to assign a specific and preventable cause to the motivations of the perpetrator in the hopes to avert a similar future occurrence, and solutions vary, predictably, according to the broad swath of the ideological spectrum.  If we are each to weigh in, as the current state of our discourse seems to demand, what can I say that’s different?  What can I contribute to actually make things better, instead of just bouncing around the echo chamber – scoring accolades from admirers and suffering barbs (or worse) from the other side – before the storm dies down and we return to talking about box office grosses?  It seems that at times we’ve become a civilization whose talents are geared largely towards commenting rather than fostering true progress, and I struggle with this in the composition of this entry.  Truly, my words won’t bring the victims back.  They are but shouting into the wind and the rain for the briefest of moments.  But I’m going to shout anyway.

Reading the tweets shared under the #YesAllWomen hashtag was heartbreaking, and sobering.  The shiny, bauble-bedecked veneer of First World existence blinds one to the deeply ugly undercurrents of our nature, the river of misogyny that touches each aspect of interaction between the genders.  This idea that men have been sold – yes, sold, because so much of what is wrong with how we behave can be traced back to the concept of one person convincing another to buy something they don’t need – that women are a commodity men have a divine right to possess, instead of independent human spirits meriting respect and the freedom to determine their own futures, is stomach-churning when laid bare, but laced so insidiously into our culture that we are happily swallowing the lie several times a day without even realizing it.  The woman is always positioned as a prize at the end of the quest, something to win.  Any time a man is tasked with self-improvement, be it in the form of career, health, spiritual fulfillment or putting on a superhero costume and going out to fight crime, the implicit reward is getting laid, and any other end is mere frivolity.  It’s all meaningless, the zeitgeist conspires to tell him, unless you’ve got that “perfect ten” hanging off your arm at the gala premiere.  Elliot Rodger certainly thought so, and his self-perceived inability to live up to this ridiculous standard led him to lash out and take six innocent lives with him.

It’s deplorable that as a result, women should be forced to be ever vigilant, but as the #YesAllWomen tweets prove, it’s an attitude born of a shared experience, and one to which men cannot really relate.  In this metaphor, men are the customers, not the goods, and we can’t understand what it’s like to be thought of as property to be acquired until we are ourselves put up for sale.  When I’m out for my morning run, and I see a woman further up the sidewalk on her morning run heading towards me, my first thought is not going to be, this is a potential assailant, maybe I should cross the street.  It’s never been suggested that I should tone down how I dress or do my hair differently lest I not be taken seriously by my work colleagues, or receive unwanted advances from strangers.  I’ve never had someone try to grope at my crotch on a crowded streetcar, I’ve never been screamed at because I refused to give a woman my phone number, and I’ve never had to worry about leaving my drink alone at the bar lest someone slip roofies into it and I wake up bleeding on a filthy bathroom floor.  And these are just a very small sampling of some of the stories that were shared online.  There are thousands more, and to our shame, an equal number of sarcastic, sneering responses fired back.  As was pointed out elsewhere, these types were seemingly angrier that the stream of stories was gumming up their precious home feeds than at the fact that these things were actually happening to women everywhere.  When you can’t refute the argument with logic or reason, just tell the woman to shut up, and go back to watching the game.

Words may sometimes be lost on the wind in the storm, but often they’re the only thing we have.  In and of itself, a hashtag isn’t going to change the world, but the camaraderie those shared stories can engender – pun intended – is a step toward creating the empathy we need to help make the storm stop.  To help fathers teach their sons that women are not property to be coveted and acquired like the mindless deluge of merchandise that flashes across our Internet browsers, assuring us that the void in our souls can be filled with the simplicity of a single click and a valid credit card number.  Respecting women unconditionally; judging them by their principles, their accomplishments and the many facets of their personalities, instead of how they look in a bikini and how willing they are to jump into bed with you; casting forever aside the juvenile notion that a woman owes you a single thing by mere virtue of your passing interest in her; recognizing that fundamentally, misogyny comes from a place of deep dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of oneself as a man, and that those shortcomings can only ever be remedied by one person – the man in question – that is how things begin to improve.

None of us are property.  None of us are each other’s property.  And the human soul is not something to be traded on the free market; its value is far greater than that.