This place matters

This place matters

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Juxtaposition

When a parent slaps a helpless child, it's called discipline. When someone slaps a tough, armed police officer, it's a felony.
I'm not condemning spanking or condoning cop slapping, I just find it strange.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday Morning Message - First Things First

These are my notes from the service I led at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Canton this morning. I emphasize the word notes here - more and more I have been speaking extemporaneously, writing down a skeleton to start from and then adding, subtracting, or modifying as I speak. I've heard really effective speakers preach without so much as a note card, and I think it would be great to get there, though I'm nowhere near.
I tend to get anxious about and make excuses for my work the more I care about it.


I am a member of Generation X, the name given to people born between about 1965 and 1982. There was a lot of talk in the early 90s about our generation. We were the “whatever” generation, the “slacker” generation. We were cynical, apathetic, depressed and jaded. Our mantra, it was said, could be summed up by the lyrics to a song by the famous Gen X rock band Nirvana. “Oh well, whatever, never mind.”
These were generalizations, of course, but there was no denying that we, as a whole, seemed a whole lot more morose than generations before. We were the children of the Baby Boomers. Most of us weren't old enough to remember Vietnam and none of us came of age under the threat of a draft. We were more likely than other generations to have moms who worked outside the home, and we were more likely to have been raised by television. That's what Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain was referring when he composed the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which contains the lyrics mentioned above. Teen Spirit was a deodorant brand, and commercials for it inspired Cobain's anthem that, if you could understand the lyrics, complained of the way in which advertisers were trying to force a special kind of consumerism on young Americans. “Here we are now,” the song said, “entertain us.”
Generation X is all grown up now, and the voice of our generation is dead. And I think that the problem of apathy isn't, and never really was, specific to us - I think our artists were just louder about it.
Apathy is indifference, but I don't think it comes from truly not caring. Maybe it comes from caring too much about too many things.
The reason we spend time on things that we consider a waste of time, I think, is because we're so overwhelmed by all of the Important Things we want to do, so disappointed in ourselves over what we haven't yet done, that our inclination can be to say “Oh well, whatever, never mind.” At the end of every work day, I think of all the possibilities that the afternoon holds. I want to go out and take pictures; I want to work on my novel; I want to, I don't know, finally scrape that schmutz out of the inside of my microwave. But then there's the iPad and the TV and all those cat videos... and the thing is that writing is hard and I'm not even sure it's going to work out. And the microwave? What's the point of cleaning out one appliance when the whole house looks like it's been ransacked? Trying and failing is hard. Succeeding at not trying is really, really easy.
I think that's why it's so easy to let your financial priorities get screwed up too. It's not that you don't want to donate to charity, save for retirement, help keep the church up and running. It's that when I donate an extra ten bucks to church, it doesn't even buy a hymnal. When I spend an extra ten bucks on a fast food dinner I'm at least full for a couple of hours. 
And that's the whole problem in a nutshell. When we see the enormity of all the things we want to do, of all the things that need to be done, it's just so easy to say never mind. I'll sit this one out, thanks. I'll just watch this Law & Order marathon today, and I'll go to the Canton Sunday picnic next week. I'll make a big old donation to my favorite charity after my tax return comes. I'll take a class next semester. I'll write that novel after I retire.

Oh well, whatever, never mind.

But it isn't enough. Much as we'd like to, we can't absolve ourselves of our responsibilities - to our own lives or to the web of all life - by just not caring - or pretending not to care. It didn't work for the voices of Generation X. The surviving members of Nirvana have gone on to become dads and philanthropists; they recently performed in a benefit for the survivors of Hurricane Sandy. Fronting the band in place of Kurt Cobain was a performer whose band's message was antithetical to Gen X's old mantra - Sir Paul McCartney. Instead of “never mind,” the Beatles told us to go out there and DO something. They told us, “There's nothing you can do that can't be done.” 
The reason, I think that Generation X was so full of ennui is that, try as you might to give up caring about anything, you must care about something in order to survive. Nazi death camp survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl speaks of the sickness, if you will, that results from a lack of meaning, which he calls give-up-itis. He says it is as true in normal life as it was in the death camps - that when a person loses his or her sense of purpose - whether because the task became too hard, or they lost the tools to complete the task, or just because they got too exhausted to carry on - they lose their reason to keep on fighting. Frankl says that people who “have enough to live by and nothing to live for,” have means, but no meaning. He says that this condition, then, results in depression and, eventually, in the losing of the will to live.
Frankl says that the only way to handle this is to find meaning. For this, he says, there are three main avenues. The first is by doing work or completing a deed. The second is by loving - that loving others alone can be a reason enough for going on. The third, he said, is by turning tragedy into triumph. This, he says, can counteract “unhealthy trends” in the culture, where a person who is suffering is given no opportunity “to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading...” That the culture, too often creates a situation in which those people who suffer from a loss of meaning are made to feel guilty for being unhappy. 
I think that's incredibly true. Look at the way so much of society looks at people who are poor, people who are unemployed or under-employed. Society calls them lazy, treats them as if they have no worth because they are not producing something, not contributing something. But the ability to keep a strong sense of self during hardship is a contribution in itself.
And I think that's the struggle we're all in today. The reason it's so much easier to watch TV than to do the things you genuinely want to do with your life. We think that unless we're producing something, unless we're doing something Important, our lives lack meaning. But I think in order to produce things, in order to do something Important, we have to first have a sense of meaning.
For the first time, I'm starting to understand what Paul meant in his letter to the Corinthians when he said that if we are smart and wise and gifted and do great things, but have not love, we are nothing. I think the first step toward finding meaning, is finding love. 
I sometimes get stuck on this notion that in order to love myself, I have to make myself worth loving. If I volunteer more, write more, am a better wife and a better friend, then I will love myself more because I will have earned the right to do so. I just realized that that's pretty silly. Do you require your children to earn your love, to make themselves worth loving? No one would say to a person with Down's Syndrome, “Why don't you get a job? What have you done to make the world a better place?” One doesn't need a resume to be worthy of love.
 And so the idea of earning the right to love yourself doesn't make a lot of sense. Love, real love, is unconditional.
So I guess what I'm saying is that maybe the first step to losing the ennui and becoming enthusiastic again is not working harder or finding new behaviors to justify your own existence. Maybe the first step is to understand that you don't need to justify your existence with good deeds and hard work. You become a being who exists to love. You learn to love yourself unconditionally, and then you become aware that you are capable of anything. And if you're capable of anything well, then, your life's work isn't so much work as just an extension of self.
When Sir Paul McCartney was asked what he thought the lasting legacy of The Beatles was - what the most important message they gave to the world was, he said without pause, “all you need is love.” I think that the opposite of apathy isn't... “pathy.” It isn't caring either. I think that the opposite is apathy is love. I think that living in love, bathing ourselves and those around us in love, not only makes it easier not to give up. I think it also makes it impossible to say those words that were once the legacy of my generation - “oh well, whatever, never mind.”

Monday, January 21, 2013

I Still Have a Dream

To say that the city where I went to elementary school was racist is an incredible understatement. The city of Euclid, Ohio was experiencing the first flickers of racial diversity and a lot of my white classmates (or more accurately, their parents) saw this as a direct threat. Some kids used the "N" word just to mean "black." The term was so ubiquitous in their homes that they didn't even realize it was a slur. I had a classmate who wasn't allowed to watch The Cosby Show because they weren't allowed to watch "them n-word shows." As some of my classmates' parents saw it, black people were creeping in and threatening every white person's peaceful suburban way of life. Oddly, the city seems just as racially diverse as anyplace else nowadays. I'm not sure if the racism has gone underground, if people have changed their hating ways. I know all that hate doesn't just dry up in a couple of decades, but I've got no idea where it went.
Anyway, I can remember some families at my school complaining one year that the students were given Martin Luther King day off and not Columbus day. MLK day, you see, was a racist holiday, meant only to put white people down and flagellate them for their racist past. 
I have to assume that the folks who said these things had never actually read a word that MLK had spoken, or at the very least hadn't listened to it. The legacy of Martin Luther King wasn't one of blame and guilt, it was one of love and unity. That crowd that marched on Washington wasn't an angry black mob meant to crush whitey - it was people of every color and faith joining hands and singing songs and inventing a more loving and peaceful world for their children. While race wars raged all around, King was the voice bringing us all together. He wasn't just reaching out to black people, and he certainly wasn't berating white people. He was sharing a vision for the America in which we live. 
In an address at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he said the following:
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. 
The truly impressive thing is that he wrote those words while he was in jail for an act of peaceful civil disobedience. I cannot imagine how bitter I would feel in his shoes; how hateful and how hopeless. Hard as I try to be good and fair and magnanimous, I can't imagine thinking about forgiveness and love at a time like that.
And that was the message King was giving to us - to all of us. Not that white people are bad or deserving of contempt. His message was that "hate is too great a burden to bear." His message, as he put it in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. 
Martin Luther King day is no more a "black" holiday than Presidents' Day or the 4th of July is "white." It's a holiday honoring a man who was, in many ways, a beautiful product of the America our founders dreamed of. And he called all of us, black, white, and in between to be the same.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Crazy

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school has left me conflicted. I know I've got opinions about everything, but I really don't know whether this shooting was the fault of too many guns or too few, too many video games or too little parental involvement. I don't think an assault weapons ban could prevent future shootings, but I also don't think that lifting bans on weapons in elementary schools is a good idea on any level. 
Yet, in all the debate following the shooting, there is one thing that all people can seem to agree upon. We need to keep guns out of the hands of "the mentally ill."
The thing is, "the mentally ill" had nothing whatever to do with this shooting. Shooter Adam Lanza was never, to anyone's knowledge, diagnosed with a mental illness. Yes, reports are that Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. However, Asperger Syndrome is not a mental illness; it's an autism-spectrum disorder - a developmental disorder that is not associated with violence in any way, shape, or form. In addition, Asperger Syndrome does not have any symptoms that would make someone with the disorder less qualified to wield a gun than anybody else. Well, aside from the fact that people with Asperger tend to be very clumsy, so I guess they've got, maybe, a slightly higher risk of dropping the gun.
Folks from the president of the United States to the president of the NRA seem to think that a national database of "potentially violent" mentally ill people would make the world a safer place. I think that a national database of mentally ill people will do little more than discourage potentially violent mentally ill people from getting treatment for their conditions.
Yes, there is a modest link between some types of mental illness and violence. Among people with mental illness, the likeliest by far are people with active drug or alcohol addictions, according to research summarized in this National Institute of Justice publication. Also more likely to commit murder are people with active psychosis, such as that associated with schizophrenia. About 35% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to this National Center for Biotechnology Information study, have had one or more violent episode. However, only 1% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia have ever committed acts of violence severe enough to even warrant hospitalization. According to this study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, only about one in every 20 violent crimes is committed by a person with psychosis. 
In simple terms, the vast, vast majority of people with mental illness are as harmless as kittens. And in saying all this, I'm not making the case that arming the mentally ill is necessarily a good idea; I'm merely making the case that all this talk about keeping guns away from the mentally ill is based on a fundamentally incorrect assumption. All these folks talking about how we need to keep guns away from the nutters are buying into and then perpetuating a stereotype that has almost no basis in fact. 
And all of this perpetuation of the myth that we're a threat to others' safety has consequences reaching much further than the debate over gun violence. We're stigmatized, trivialized, and marginalized. One woman with mental illness gives this account of this sort of stigma in one Time Magazine article
I was diagnosed with schizophrenia just a month after Steven Kazmierczak (quickly identified as “schizoaffective”) shot six people to death on the campus of [Northern Illinois University] … Undoubtedly primed by this shooting, wary, uncertain, without enough time to think, my doctoral adviser suspended my graduate assistantship, banned me from the university, and alerted all faculty, graduate students and staff to forward all emails [from me] to her and, under no circumstances, respond.
I think most people with mental illness live in fear of this sort of thing, so they hide in the closet and feel ashamed of a condition that's in no way their fault. They avoid getting treatment because they're afraid of being branded forever. And that's just no damn fair.
Want to blame someone for the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School? How about blaming Adam Lanza?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Defender of men

First, things first, congrats to Charles and Megi who have just created life. Or, I suppose they created life 9 months ago and life finished its fetus phase and has begun it screaming, pooping, and drooling phase. Baby Alexander is absolutely beautiful and has the great advantage of having been born to amazing parents.
The name Alexander comes from the Greek name Alexandros, for defending men, from the Greek word alexo, to defend. We are not, under any circumstances, to call him Xander
Xander is a nickname for Alexander that was quite uncommon before the show Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. While the name doesn't even rank on most popular lists before 1997, when the show premiered, it's now the 205th most popular boys' name in the US, according to BehindtheName.com
Which amuses me, considering the character Xander is, well, kind of a weenie. Which is precisely why Charles banned the whole Xander thing. I mean, the kid is being born to two of the biggest geeks on earth; he'll have enough bullying to deal with even without being named after a weenie. 
My name, by the way, enjoyed a brief heyday in 1966, when it was the 981st most popular name in the US, after which it ceased to even be a blip in the rankings. I am named after my mom's dad's mom who was not, I'm assured, a weenie.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

... and we're back


Last week I had a dream about Hugh Jackman. No, not that kind of dream. Well, unless you were thinking about the kind of dream in which I lecture Hugh Jackman about his destroying the character of Wolverine. In that case, it was exactly that kind of dream. I was very polite and reasonable about it; I just felt he needed to understand that Wolverine does not wear a tuxedo, sing show tunes, or host the Tony Awards. I don't know if it sunk in or not, but he at least seemed receptive.
A couple of days later, Hugh Jackman totally redeemed himself with his performance in Les Misérables. I had no idea a person could be such an incredible badass while singing notes most women can't hit. 
The conventional wisdom is that no movie can capture the energy and passion of a live performance. Having seen the stage play four times, once on Broadway, I have to say that there's at least one huge exception to this rule. 
The film version of Les Misérables was amazing. I wasn't a huge fan of Hugh Jackman (see above) or Anne Hathaway, but I certainly am now. Lots of times, Hollywood musicals suffer because producers know that they have to get famous names to get people into the seats, but the actors attached to those famous names don't often have the vocal chops to do a role justice - case in point, Johnny Depp in Sweeny Todd. Hugh Jackman, on the other hand, has chops and then some.
Vocal chops and mutton chops 

Hathaway - every time the woman opened her mouth she blew me away - and blew Patti Lupone out of the water (oh, I said it).
On top of which, she is rocking the hair

This isn't to say that the musical performances were pretty and polished. They decidedly weren't. They were raw, sometimes even ugly. The vocal performances were recorded live - in most movie and TV musicals, the performances are recorded in a studio and then the actors lip sync while they record the action. In this film, when the prisoners are standing in the water doing manual labor, the music is recorded while the performers are standing in the water singing and doing manual labor. When there's singing during a riot, the performers are singing while rioting.
 

Not all the performers were as amazing as others, and I thought there were a couple of questionable casting decisions - Samantha Barks as Éponine, for instance. In the book, Éponine is described as a waif with a sallow face, bad teeth, and a raspy voice, the product of living in poverty with a family of neglectful itinerant hucksters. This Éponine,  Manx musician Samantha Banks, looks and sounds as healthy as my obsession with the black death - this despite the generous application of dirt smudges to her face. You'd think they could at least have made her go on some kind of Tom Hanks diet and had her start smoking 2 packs a day. She just wasn't believable as a tragic street starfish urchin. 
What kind of message is this man's
obvious eating disorder sending
the boys of our nation?

Then again, though it pains my inner teenager to say so, one of the strengths of the film is that it overcomes one of the great weaknesses of the stage play - the way the stage play lets the Thénardier family run away with the show. While Éponine and her villainous parents are audience favorites, stripping away some of their prominence makes room for things more central to the story, like the great life-and-death struggle between the classes for which it is named. 
And that, I think, is what I love most about this film. In so many other retellings, the June Rebellion element serves only as a convenient vehicle for pathos, a backdrop for all of the separate love stories coming together and resolving. To be honest, by the time you get to the Rebellion in the book, you've slogged through so many history lessons, out-dated social commentaries (like the several pages dedicated to complaining about people giving their children stupid names like Éponine), and 800 word-long sentences, it's hard to really appreciate the significance of the skirmish. The June Rebellion at the heart of this novel's climax lasted only a day and was totally unsuccessful, and that's always bugged me. What, then, was the point of all these young people dying, and why would Hugo choose such an ultimately insignificant skirmish to act as the centerpiece of his great epic? Somehow the film, without adding any extra dialogue to do so, brings the significance of the event - then as well as now - into stunning clarity. Somehow, the characters in the film, unlike their stage counterparts, aren't dying for nothing anymore. 
In completely unrelated news, I just woke up from a nap in which I dream I was dying. I milked it for everything it was worth, and I was like "Nobody's going to call me on it; I'm dying." Sleeping Brigid really is just an endless source of entertainment.  

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