Monday, August 30, 2010

#76 - The Trouble With Labels

My wife, Teresa, is a fan of the late Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello. Before his death in 1987, de Mello wrote a number of books and led a number of retreats around the world, one of which was videotaped in its entirety and available for viewing on the Internet.

One thing de Mello said which has resonated with me since I first heard it is the notion that labels are a dangerous thing. As de Mello argued, once you put a label on something all meaningful discussion about that thing ceases. Looking at the current state of affairs today around the world, I would argue he is right.

Labels do not allow us to find commonality with one another; they tend to put us at odds with one another. We have liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, capitalists and socialists, and so forth.

Labels these days tend to produce extremes. Once you are labeled as a liberal, everything you say is suspect in the minds of conservatives. And vice versa. Tell someone you are Muslim and you are immediately a potential terrorist. If you are a Republican, you are suddenly an obstructionist in the eyes of many.

None of these positions are conducive to meaningful dialogue about the problems and the opportunities facing our nation and our world. If we come from a position of antagonism, how can we ever hope to find those areas where we might actually agree?

We are more than the sum of the labels placed upon us. For instance, a conservative friend and I have discussed, even argued at times about the need for health care reform in America. We agreed that certain things could be improved, even if we did not agree on the best approach for doing so. We could not have found any common ground on such a contentious subject had we not been able to get beyond our labels.

The problem is that the labels are reinforced every day by those who would foster divisiveness and dissension and who profit from it. They have no desire to see meaningful discussion on any topic and resort to name-calling and innuendo in order to prevent serious discussion and debate.

The current political climate in America and the lack of meaningful action on many issues in Washington reflects the damage that is done when we allow ourselves to be labeled and we resort to labeling others. The only label that matters is human being. We all of us have that in common, and it is that common ground from which we should begin to approach, address, and debate the issues affecting us and our world.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

#75 - Release the Hounds

About a month ago now, our son Christopher managed to somehow dislocate his knee while getting into bed. Since then, he has been on a regimen of strengthening exercises every other day and instructions to ride his bike every day.

Because of his autism and his tendency to avoid doing things if he doesn't have to, Teresa or I would accompany him on these 10-15 minute rides. Lately, we've both started going with him, and we bring along the fourth member of our family, our beagle Oliver.

The buildup is fun to watch. As soon as Oliver sees us changing or putting on tennis shoes, he knows something is up; the game is afoot, so to speak. Oliver does not act this way in the morning as we are getting ready for work. Somehow, he knows this is different.

Even before we head to the door, Oliver begins to get a little excited. He starts walking faster, almost like an expectant father pacing. The tail starts wagging a little faster. And as soon as we get near the leash, look out.

I take Oliver with me, and Teresa rides along with Christopher. My bike is a Bike E, in its day a sort of entry-level recumbent bike. I describe it to people as sort of an aluminum beam with handlebars, tires, and a seat with a back.

Because of its design, it sits a little lower to the ground than a traditional bike. This gives me a little extra reaction time and makes it a bit easier to get my feet down and prevent falling should Oliver suddenly decide to take off in a direction other than the one I'm trying to ride.

The way it works is that I wrap the handle end of the six-foot leash around my left hand several times - I find I have better control with a shorter amount of exposed leash - and hold my arm out to the side to keep Oliver away from the bike wheels while I steer the bike with my right hand. Not the best approach, perhaps, but it seems to work, and I have yet to think of a better approach.

Once I start the bike moving in the direction we plan to go, Oliver takes off. For a few blocks, my bike is Oliver-powered, I don't have to pedal at all. If I close my eyes (not a good idea on a moving bicycle), I can almost picture myself guiding a sled in Alaska's Iditarod race.

For some reason, Oliver's running - with his body slightly angled as if going around a curve - reminds me of the greyhounds I would occasionally watch race when I lived and worked in Rapid City, SD. But I also see a sheer enthusiasm as he goes all out, running down the street.

Eventually, I have to slow my pedaling down a little as Oliver starts to tire a little. But he gets a chance to get outside, something he loves, and he gets some badly needed exercise. Each time we go, it takes him less time to recover afterward. Plus, there is something really remarkable about the sheer joy and power I see when I glance to my left and watch him running. I see him come truly alive, and sometimes I start to feel that way a little bit, too.

Monday, August 23, 2010

#74 - Getting Off the Political Merry-Go-Round

When I was younger, I used to be very much into politics. As the Editorial Editor for my high school newspaper, I came out in support of the then very real possibility of gas rationing. This was easy for me as I did not have a car. I also wrote about censorship and book burning involving a school board in Kansas.

I would often play devil's advocate; it rarely mattered the subject. I enjoyed the exchange, the banter, the give and take. It made me feel alive.

I say all of this as prelude to discussion of some of my recent experiences on Facebook. I have one Facebook friend, a former colleague in another life and another career who often posts political items, items that to me seem incendiary and designed to arouse anger, passion, and debate. All too often, I take the bait and find myself arguing as one self-proclaimed progressive against a wall of conservative thought.

Every time I allow myself to get sucked into one of these debates, I tell myself it will be the last time. I find myself exasperated that they won't even listen to or consider an opposing view, and I am sure they feel the same way about me.

So why do I continue? I suppose it must be the remaining idealist in me, though these opposing and often intolerant voices are slowly beating that idealism out of me. They aren't changing my views merely helping me to realize that politics is ultimately all a game.

I am rapidly concluding that governments - Republican, Democrat, or even Communist or Socialist - don't really care about me. Governments are about two things, when it comes to it - power and control, and they cater to those who can help them get it and keep it. If it were different, the rich would not be getting richer while the poor get nowhere, and corporations would not be seen as having the same freedom of speech (backed by 1000s of times the money) as  individuals.

This realization is likely why many argue for term limits in government. Sadly, I think all that will do is increase the number of people who grab for more power in a shorter period of time by creating a bit of a revolving door effect.

None of this is helped by the fact that the two major political parties seem unable and certainly are unwilling to work together to accomplish anything of major benefit or importance. I believe this will only get worse after the November elections. Since the minority party typically gains seats in midterm elections, I think we can all look forward to two years of infighting, back-biting, and legislative stalemate.

So, I am going to try to give up what has long been an intellectual passion of mine: politics. For me, it may well prove to be as difficult as giving up smoking is for others. But I managed to do that once upon a time, so this may not be as hard as I think.

I have reached the conclusion that life is too short, and there are other things I'd much rather be doing that arguing with people I often don't know and usually don't agree with. Listening to music, for instance. Solving a challenging crossword puzzle. Reading a good novel.

Top of that list would be taking the trailer out for a weekend somewhere, anywhere. Besides, I feel much more alive sitting outside my trailer in a campground overlooking a river or a lake than I ever feel arguing political points on Facebook. I challenge anyone to prove otherwise.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

#73 - Sensory Overload

I'm sitting here after an evening at Chuck E. Cheese, and the noises are beginning to recede from my head. On Facebook, I half-jokingly posited the question as to what a visit to Chuck E. Cheese would be like for someone who was ADHD. I can't imagine it would be good.

Everywhere you turn you are bombarded with lights and sounds. Upon our arrival tonight, the noise level was almost akin to being in the front row at a rock concert. Mercifully, someone turned down the sound about 15 minutes or so after we arrived.

But those 15 minutes were an experience for us with Christopher. Because of his autism, he is already somewhat susceptible to sensory overload. (Bright fluorescent lights in particular - like those we find at Costco - seem to have a powerful effect.) Couple that with having gone several hours without eating, and it isn't a pretty site. (At that point, Christopher gets what a bit squirrely, as Teresa has termed it, and he does remind one of a squirrel, scurrying here and there.) Christopher was holding tight, first to Teresa, then to me, hanging on for dear life, and it was touch and go whether we would stay.

However, once Christopher had a little pizza in him, things improved and we were able to somewhat enjoy the rest of our stay. The pizza was okay, but a bit lacking in the sauce department. At one point, I held up a piece with visible sauce and joked to Teresa that I had gotten the slice with all the sauce.

Chuck E. Cheese also seems to spare all expense when it comes to beer selection. The two, count 'em two, taps said "Beer" and "Beer". Turns out that Beer 1 is Bud Light and Beer 2 is Budweiser. I guess they don't want to overwhelm customers any more than they already are.

Obviously, children are Chuck E. Cheese's primary demographic, and they reel them in with all sorts of games - from simple games for the youngest to military strategy games for teens and beyond. Games, are also where I suspect the Chuckster makes most of his money.

You spend $5.00 or $10.00 or more for tokens in hopes of winning tickets that you then redeem for prizes that are worth less than the money you spent on tokens. No matter how good you are at the games, judging from the prize selection I saw, Chuck is in no danger of losing money on a single customer.

Still, I suppose it is a pleasant enough diversion for families, although I don't plan a return visit any time soon unless invited by someone else (which is how we came to be there in the first place). For some families, I suspect a trip to Chuck E. Cheese may be the only family interaction they have and then, perhaps, only long enough for their pleading son or daughter to beg then to buy more game tokens. As for me, I'll take a weekend with the family in our fifth wheel over a visit to Chuck E. Cheese every time.