Sunday, January 27, 2019

All the Other Things That Have Happened Lately

Sometimes the world spins too fast for a writer to keep up. Not that we have to have an opinion on everything, but we get overwhelmed and hardly have time to ponder the events of the day in a thoughtful manner. Take the government shutdown, that Gillette razor ad on television, and the death of Mary Oliver for example. Each deserves its own moment of silence, perhaps, before we open our mouths.

Mary Oliver, 1935-2019

It is difficult to find anything good about the month-long shutdown of the federal government. After all, most of the meaningful aspects of government were profoundly compromised. Not that the executive and legislative branches aren't meaningful, but the services that affect us day-to-day, the ones we take for granted, were damaged severely. The one thing we can hope for is that we now have greater empathy for federal workers, many of whom are living just like us, paycheck to paycheck, putting up with constant customer complaints, and still doing their jobs to the best of their ability. They do their work regardless of which political party is in control of what, and face the same economic challenges the rest of us do. "Thank you" is what our collective response should be. Naturally, this scenario could be repeated in another three weeks if....Well, you can fill in your own narrative.

A television ad, presumably run on cable networks since many people only learned about it over social media, caused an uproar for suggesting that men who shave should think about policing each other in matters of bullying, sexual harassment, and other forms of "toxic masculinity." Complaints ran the gamut from assertions that Gillette charges women a higher price for "pink razors" to opposition to the idea that a corporation has any say-so in our personal behavior. The sheer diversity of opinions was staggering, but thought-provoking when expressed in a polite and thoughtful manner. If only the posts and comment threads on social media were more than mere rants. One of the overall undercurrents (yes, I love mixing metaphors) appears to be that men are uncomfortable yielding power to other men, women, pretty much anybody.

Men brought on this revolution themselves, it is safe to say, through their insistence on power as expressed through dominance, oppression, and rigidity of gender roles. Perhaps men fear either a future where they are treated the same way by women, or that "strength" will somehow be feminized and therefore weakened. Male power has been about an obsession with control and wealth, and protection of self above all else. My personal observation is that female power stems from a desire to protect others, that power is achieved through empathy and assertion, not dismissal and aggression. Sure, there are exceptions, but I believe I will personally prosper more under a feminine definition of power. Heck, even the men we hold up as heroes generally demonstrate a concern for others, sometimes sacrificing their own lives in the process.

The gender gap was brought to the fore in another event, the passing of poet Mary Oliver. It was embarrassing for me to admit I had never heard of her, or at least would not be able to name her as a fundamental figure in poetry, writing, and the environmental movement. Friends, most of them women, suggested it was no accident, that even among scholars there was a bias against women in literature and they took a back seat to their male counterparts. That is the real tragedy, that important voices are diminished when they are needed most. Oliver's voice is heard again now in the sense of epitaph, but I hope it echoes widely in the coming years and decades as we struggle with our collective sense of place in the natural world. May she rest in peace, as she has brought peace to others through her words.

What stands out to you in this schizophrenic beginning of 2019? Are you hopeful? Despondent? Share your thoughts in the comments, if you will. We all stand to be better informed by each other's observations, viewpoints, and experiences.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

What You Say Versus What I Hear


What we have here, in our personal, social, political, and other relationships, is a failure to communicate. We cannot possibly know the life experiences of others, or how they interpret our words, and sometimes they do not know why they react the way they do, either. Should we not say anything then, for fear of hurting or insulting each other? No, but we may want to search our own heads for why certain things set us off.

Case in point. When I was younger, people would tell me that "you need to go back to school and finish your degree!" I found myself angered by this advice for the longest time. Then it dawned on me that what I heard was "you have no right to succeed unless you do so the way everyone else does [has to]!" From that point on I was no longer angry when someone made the suggestion of returning to college, I just ignored it.

Let us consider another example. I am not religious, but my in-laws are. When they say "we pray for you," I know that what they are saying is that believe that my soul will go to Hell because I do not accept Jesus as my savior and I therefore cannot possibly have a relationship with God. This comes across to me as a superiority complex, and the remark as terribly condescending. They are entitled to their beliefs, and I accept that, but I do not believe they respect my beliefs, and that is disheartening. I could also be wrong in my assertion of their intent. The fact I recognize internally how I am interpreting their words makes it vastly easier to tolerate and I shrug it off.

The idea for this blog post came about after the conclusion of the National Football League championship games, and a friend on social media tried to joke by implying that she did not know one sports team from another and could care less. Her intent at poking fun at her "own ignorance" as she explained later, did not translate well and I called her out (perhaps improperly) for her arrogance because the implication I heard was that "better" people choose to ignore team spectator sports all together. "We just can't be troubled with something so insignificant" is the sentiment that was ringing in my ears. We remain friends and just agree to disagree on this one admittedly trivial aspect of life.

My parents divorced when I was eleven years old, after a two-year separation. Back in the 1970s there was no blueprint for how to have a civil divorce, not that legal nuances change the behavior of the parties involved, but I recall how bitterly disappointed I was that the decree did not end the conflict. The phrase "best interest of the child" became a joke to me. It is not sufficient for one spouse to be the best thing for the child, the other parent must be portrayed as the worst thing for the child.

Here is a less personal example. I read recently an article on "Five Ways to Make the Outdoors More Inclusive". One of the people involved, Carolyn Finney, said this: "The term ‘outreach’ should be obsolete because it’s a one-sided term. It says, ‘I get to show my power, and feel good about it, because I reached out to you, and I brought you to my table. I didn’t have to change anything, I just had to put a chair at the table.’ People don’t want to give up their power. The question is what power are they willing to give up? If you say none, then that’s where we’re different. Then nothing changes.”

A friend's Facebook post relating to gender identification sparked many heated responses, but one of the minor points that I thought was a profound commentary on gender was my friend's use of "ovaries" and "testes" instead of "vagina" and "penis." That simple change removes all overtones of sex and power from the conversation. Brilliant.

The point is that we can all be guilty of manipulating others with our words. Sometimes we are well aware we are doing so, and sometimes we are not. The challenge is to be more self-aware, and to call others out when they are abusing us or others verbally. Yes, we may be wrong in our accusations, but then we at least have an understanding and can apologize. It is worth the investment of our time to do this, and it increases our sphere of interpretation from that point forward.

Please consider sharing your own examples of misunderstanding or misinterpretation in the comments. I am certain we can all relate and learn from each other.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

How Much More?


The story and image of the day in social media on this Saturday, January 19, 2019, is of a smirking teenager in a "Make America Great Again" ball cap harassing Native American veteran of the Vietnam War Nathan Phillips as the elder was engaged in the Indigenous Peoples March on the mall in Washington, DC. Every time an incident like this happens, I hope against hope it is the final straw, that the country will finally come to collective agreement that this kind of hatred is wrong and must end. I am now at the point where I have nearly given up on that prospect.

I do not want to ever reach the point where I am immune to the pain and suffering of others, deaf to the news no matter how horrible and unjust, but I am running out of energy to fight it. It is daunting, it is incredibly fatiguing physically, psychologically, emotionally. I feel splintered as basically everything I hold dear is under assault by a government that is supposed to protect those things, those ideas, those ideals, those...PEOPLE. You call your senators and representatives about one issue today, and another fire flares up the next day.

I try and do the things that are expected of me by my spouse, my employers (when I have them, I work mostly on contract these days), and myself, and lately it may be a major accomplishment to go for a walk and get a load of laundry done. I feel largely defeated, depressed to a point where I am surprised to find I am functioning at all. Guilt consumes me that I am not doing more, and it feeds into the weight that has me at a standstill. I find myself falling into bad habits to numb my brain. It is not healthy.

Meanwhile, I keep waiting for friends whom I know voted for Trump to finally say something, anything. You can admit you were wrong, that you blinded yourself to the horrors on display during the campaign. You can be forgiven for wanting something and someone "different" for a change. What you cannot be forgiven for any longer is your acquiescing silence. The brutality is all around you, eroding those values and interests we share in common. Stand up for what you hold close to your heart. Do it now. We'll take you back. In fact, we never left, but you are on the verge of being someone that we used to know. It is not about you being wrong and me being right. There is nothing right about what is transpiring among the bigoted citizenry who has been empowered by our government leadership (and I use that term loosely). We should be able to agree on that.

We do not have the luxury of being spectators, waiting for the results of the Mueller investigation that, to my present understanding, has our President as one of several targets in its sights on an international scale of organized criminal activity centered around control of fossil fuel industries. We need distractions here and there, but we cannot allow ourselves to be consumed by mindless entertainment, the lure of drugs and alcohol, and the escapism of our own fantasies of an idyllic personal life, much as they tempt us.

Our best weapon right now is empathy: feeding each other compliments, supporting each other emotionally, financially, however we are able given our own flaws. Facebook and Twitter only go so far. We should probably start visiting each other in person, carpool to the next march for peace and justice, share a conversation over coffee afterwards. Stop sharing other people's memes. Make your own. Do art, do poetry, make music. In essence, use your talents to provoke in a good way. We can take turns so that while some of us are re-energizing, others can take their place.

Let's overwhelm the flood of crap out there with a wave of empathy for everyone from Native Americans to out-of-work federal employees. How much more disappointment and frustration and hurt can we take? How much pushback and solidarity from their victims can they take? We are far more creative than they are. We can be victorious in spite of them. Our heroes are bigger, better, and far more numerous than theirs are. You can see one of ours in the mirror.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Empty Hourglass and the Boomerang Curve

The extremist ends of our two dominant American political parties might best be illustrated by a couple of familiar, if not ancient, objects. How we decide to address the problems and predicaments presented therein will determine the future of our country and our world.

"Time is up" describes not only the assertiveness of women and the renewed feminist movement, but also the growing urgency in addressing climate change, labor rights, consumer protections, universal healthcare, civil rights for all ethnic populations and all categories of gender and sexual orientation. These are timeless issues that have advanced only incrementally even when the Democratic party has been in power. The sand in the hourglass has been wasted by previous centrist democratic leadership seeking to appease Republicans who lean slightly left. The exhaustive effort to convert centrist Republicans has sucked all the energy out of the rest of the party. Change has been at a snail's pace; and that same impatience in the far-right has resulted in great leaps backwards as current administrations dismantle existing protections for all but the wealthiest of individuals and corporations.

The trajectory of the Republican party is best described by the path of a boomerang, originating from the point of absolute White Privilege, and seeking to return to that point, albeit in a form that does not resemble original slavery. "Reactionary" is the word that was once used to describe this desire for a return to the "good old days," but now we just call these people what they really are: racists, bigots, homophobes, and misogynists, to name but a few. They are not interested in the prosperity, or even the survival, of anyone but themselves, and they define prosperity only in monetary terms.

The two parties have always been similar, starting to diverge only when the democrats began realizing that there were constituents to be mined from the feminist and civil rights movements. Later, they embraced gay and lesbian issues, but mostly to again swell their voting rolls. Democrats have, to put it bluntly and cynically, recognized minority populations as a means to advance a tamer form of White Privilege. Yes, dear Blacks, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, and transgendered, and disabled and discriminated, we are reaching out, we are giving you a seat at the table, just not any power to enact significant changes that require sacrifice from White men.

Ideally, we want the trajectory of our political party to steadily increase, with no setbacks, instituting changes that are perceptible but tolerable to all, assuming that our motivations are clear and in the best interest of our constituents. The curve of that pursuit over time represents a graph we can comprehend easily, a smooth climb of idealism.

The Republican curve has become a boomerang arc, a "fool you" curve that turns back on itself in trying to reassert White male privilege, with increasingly hostile legislation and policy, more distractions for the gullible, and no apologies to the disenfranchised. The Democratic curve, on the other hand, is more schizophrenic in its ascent, and the leading edge has become a splintered rainbow of constituencies, each with its own overriding agenda, and the upper layer (Democratic National Committee) still being White male interests. Guess what? A rainbow has no white light. That is the whole point, in fact. You address the white light by embracing whole-heartedly the colors behind it. Raise the profile of each color and you lift up the whole radiant beam.

How do we prevail as a just and equitable society, then? We need faith. White democrats need faith in leadership that does not look like us, that came from a different culture and different circumstances. We have to lose the fear that by electing and supporting leaders from disparate enclaves we are turning power over to people who will try and oppress us as we have oppressed them, historically.

Do we deserve to be punished for our own version of apartheid, our prior collective hate crimes? Sure. Personally, I don't see vindictiveness in our diverse and newly-elected federal representatives. I see an energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to making our country better for all, including White people. We should be grateful for the strength and forgiveness of those we have suppressed and neglected and waged war on. Let us begin the road back by letting them lead on the road ahead.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

I'm on the Edge....of Irrelevance

I happened upon a recent Wired article chronicling the writer's self-imposed demotion from a smart phone to a flip phone, and it got me revisiting my own philosophy of technology, which is a product of both intent and financial hardship, with a dose of reluctance for good measure.

I wrote about some aspects of technology in this post, but let me speak more personally as to why I draw the lines where I do. My first reaction to the Wired piece was that it was a flawed experiment in that the writer was regressing from a smart phone to a "dumb phone" as opposed to never having had a smart phone in the first place, which is my situation.

I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the cell phone era. The breaking point came the nth time my flight was delayed or cancelled and I had no way to reach my party on the receiving end to tell them I would not be arriving in a timely manner. I was still reluctant to make the expenditure for a phone, battery, and calling plan, but it was getting embarrassing and impolite to beg the use of a stranger's device. Consequently, I purchased the cheapest phone, and a pay-as-you-go service.

To this day, I run out of "service days" far more regularly than I run out of minutes. Our household still has a land line, with unlimited long distance (no "roaming" fees), that I rely on for the overwhelming majority of telecommunication aside from e-mails. I briefly flirted with an upgraded phone that had an uncovered keyboard, but after I accidentally pocket-dialed a friend in Massachusetts, I went back to a flip phone and here I am.

One Christmas my wife got me a tablet as a gift. After the futility and frustration of trying to scroll and accidentally connecting to unwanted website after unwanted advertisement, and the aggravation of automatic word suggestions while texting or posting, I gave up. That was about three days in. I am all thumbs when it comes to anything smaller than a full-sized keyboard.

There are many benefits to having sub-forefront technology. The greatest of these might be the deterrent to theft. If a burglar had ever entered my prior residences, he or she would have taken a look around and screamed something to the effect of "Are you KIDDING me?!" and maybe an expletive, before storming out. Had they managed to haul off the television, recovering the unit would be a simple matter of calling around to hospitals to see if anyone had come in with a severe back injury. My laptop is so outdated that even I no longer use it. My desktop is over seven years old, and the various cords too tangled for a hurried criminal to untangle. I am still running Windows 7. This is all exactly how I like it: Technology that gets me through, is still supported and serviced, and not new enough to be attractive to thieves.

Another benefit to not carrying a smart phone or tablet or notebook or whatever they are calling the latest thing is that I am forced to unplug when I am out of my home. I am compelled to interact with other people in the flesh, pay attention to my surroundings, and experience the unadulterated reality of the here-and-now. Yes, sometimes it is boring. So what? If you have to be entertained all the time or, increasingly, feel obligated to entertain others via social media, then you might want to re-examine your life. Take a breath. Smell the flowers. People-watch. Wildlife watch.

I can assure you I do not relate any of this to paint myself as superior, or inferior, or out of touch with the realities of the digital universe. Indeed, I find this Age to be a wonder, but I also wonder whether we are losing sight of things that truly matter, whether we are still engaging one another in meaningful relationships, and whether we are losing touch with the natural world. I am fortunate enough to know people who balance flesh-and-blood and digital worlds perfectly, so I have hope. Meanwhile, if you need to reach me on my travels, good luck. I use Tracfone, and isn't that everyone's punchline for any joke about irrelevance?