Tuesday, January 14, 2014

#142 - When Explanations Fail

The world is a crazy place these days. Perhaps it has always been so, and we just weren’t aware of how crazy the world really was until we launched into the continuous 24-hour news cycle in which we now live.

Case in point: A Florida man is dead, another Florida man is in jail as a result of a shooting in a movie theater apparently caused by texting. As the story was reported, the dead man was shot after he refused to stop texting during the screening of a movie preview – not even the movie, mind you. The apparent fact that he was texting his three-year old daughter was not enough to keep the alleged gunman, a retired police officer, from pulling the trigger.

After reading the story on BBC News, several thoughts ran through my mind, most of them having nothing to do with gun control or the debate that is sure to start anew with some in the wake of the shooting.

Instead, my first set of questions is: Would this have played out differently, say, five or ten years ago? While texting has been around a while, it is only in the last several years that is has become widespread to the point where laws are now enacted in states banning texting while driving. Prior to the advent of texting, people might have been asked to lower their voices if talking during a film or a preview, but would they have been shot if they failed to comply?

My second set of questions: What in the world was a three-year old even doing with a cell phone, presumably how she was receiving the texts? Was it her cell phone – if so, why does a three-year old need, let alone have a cell phone? Was it the babysitter’s phone? If so, why was the father texting to that number?

My third set of questions: Have we become so cocooned in our technology that we no longer recognize or worse, no longer care when our actions negatively affect another person? Have we reached a point of being so hostile to authority that we ignore rules we don’t care for? (Presumably at some point before the movie previews began, the ubiquitous request to turn off cell phones went up on the screen.) Perhaps in this instance, the shooter and victim took their cues from the dysfunctional hostility that passes for government these days in Washington, DC.

My last set of questions hit a little closer to home for me: Who is going to tell the three-year old daughter, now without a father, what happened? How will she grow up? How will she cope without her father? Although the circumstances were different, my father went out of my life at age five, not so far removed from age three. I was not told then or later what actually happened. I only finally heard a story that made sense nearly 50 years later. In between, I had no explanation and had to guess.

I don't know what those closest to her will tell this little girl or when, but they should make sure they don’t wait forever. Whatever they tell her, it is going to hurt. But not knowing hurts a lot more.

Monday, January 6, 2014

#141 - Shock and Awe

I saw on the CNN website that the so-called “Tiger Mom” had come out with a new book. “Tiger Mom,” for those who don’t remember, is Amy Chua, the Yale Law School professor whose “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” was seen as claiming that Chinese parents (and by extension their children) are the best and also as advocating a very strict style of parenting. The book at the time caused a huge debate over parenting and child-rearing.

Chua’s new book, “The Triple Package,” co-written with her Jewish husband alleges that certain groups are superior and that the rest are contributing to the cultural and economic decline in America. The merits or lack thereof surrounding Chua’s book are beyond this post as I have not read the book and likely will not do so anytime soon. However, the news that such a book had come out reminded me of the old tactics of saying something for its inherent shock value and also of saying something “to get a rise” out of someone.

Both are things most of us have done at one time or another over the course of our lives. Speaking for shock value is something many outgrow by the time they become adults. Others at least reduce their tendency to try and shock. Saying something “to get a rise” out of someone is usually only done on occasion and is even done to sometimes make a point.

Then there are those who never seem to outgrow this desire to shock and awe, as it were. Chua may or may not fall into this category; I will leave that conclusion to those who have read her books. If, however, she does fall into that group, I can’t imagine she would conclude that those with whom she would share such a classification are doing much to effect the cultural and/or economic advancement of America.

From where I sit, such a group would include Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh. Both may have entertainment value for some people, but neither as far as I can see is doing much in the way of being uplifting. Stern is perhaps the original “shock jock” of radio. He certainly perfected and came to embody the term. Limbaugh could be argued to have taken the “shock jock” classification to the next level, going beyond the desire to shock simply for the sake of making people uncomfortable to trying to shock people in order to make them angry, either in support of or in opposition to whatever viewpoint he espouses.

I don’t listen to or care for either Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh. I don’t find Stern funny or provocative, merely juvenile and offensive. I also don’t find Limbaugh thought-provoking or insightful, merely hateful and divisive. The former viewpoint comes from having lived long enough to be exposed to a variety of humor styles, from one-liners (Henny Youngman and Milton Berle) to racy and controversial (Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor) to topical and insightful (George Carlin). I don’t find Stern to be good or funny in any of these.

My views regarding Rush Limbaugh come from my own political leanings, which I describe as being slightly left of center. However, I don’t think any but the most myopic of people can consider Rush as anything but divisive. The clips I’ve heard in the past seem to me in no way intended to unite or bring people together in this country. Talk radio hosts from both sides of the political spectrum, the new “shock jocks,” could be considered equally to blame for this division in America if not for the fact that the so-called “liberal media” in America features far more such programming from the right than from the left.

Regardless of whether mainstream media is liberal, I see little call from either end of the political spectrum for collaboration, cooperation, or compromise. I believe that in ability to at least occasionally meet in the middle, Amy Chua’s arguments notwithstanding, is what is truly contributing to the cultural and economic decline of America.

Friday, January 3, 2014

#140 - BFF (Best Friends Forever) or BFFN (Best Friends For Now) – Thoughts on Friendship

As we begin 2014, my 58th on this planet (God, am I really that old?), I find myself doing some looking back and reflecting. I don’t know if that because looking back and reflecting is something many people do as they end one year and prepare to begin the next or because I am simply “at that age.” Regardless of the reason, I’m doing it.

Of course, for me, looking back at the past and reflecting on it is nothing new; it is something I’ve done quite a bit over the years. Some of those around me would likely argue I spend too much time dwelling on my past, and they would like be correct. However, there is one area of my past I’ve never spent as much time thinking about, and that is the friendships I’ve been part of over the years.

Perhaps that is because I’ve never considered myself as someone who has had a great many friends in my life. I’m not an easy person to get to know, and I may be an even harder person to get to like; I’ll let my friends (if any are still speaking to me after this) reflect on that. Still, I have had some meaningful friendships in my life, as well as some meaningful gaps in friendship.

The first real friend I remember having was George. George and I were best friends in elementary school for three years. Before we met, I don’t really remember having any friends; there was constantly trouble at home, and I put a great deal of energy into simple survival. There was a girl named Marsha that I played with, but I don’t remember us really being friends, although to this day I still remember her full name, the fact that she had blond hair, and that she wore blue horn-rimmed glasses. Not to mention that she was as tough as any of the boys.

George and I became friends when my mother, my sister, and I moved back into town from the small former mining community in which we had lived. The town was Rosamond, California. It wasn’t really notable for anything, except its relative proximity to Edwards Air Force Base. In the late 1960s, the town made a few headlines because of the uproar over the fact that the new north-south freeway (now known as the Antelope Valley Freeway) being built was possibly by-passing Rosamond, with the nearest on and off ramps set to be located several miles away in either direction. (We moved north before construction was completed, and the plans appear to have later been changed.)

George and I remained friends through fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. I don’t remember ever going to his house or him coming to mine, but we spent all of our free time at school together. We ate lunch together, cut up together, got in trouble together. I remember him having a flat-top haircut, a fairly popular cut for boys in those days.

We were thick as thieves, until the day in 1968 when my aunt loaded my sister and I into her Pontiac station wagon and moved us north to Seattle. (My mother would join us several months later.) We promised to stay in touch and did, in fact, trade a couple of letters, but by the start of 1969, the childhood friendship was over, victim of a trait I have been known to exhibit throughout my life, a failure to follow through and a willingness to cut ties and move on.

After another move a few miles south to Kent, Washington, I made a new best friend, one with whom I would navigate some of the difficult waters known as high school. Wally and I spent a lot of time together in the five years we were in junior high and high school. I don’t remember a lot from those days, as I continued to have my own battles for sanity and survival at home. But I do remember us walking through downtown Kent with two other friends in the dead of night, looking (unsuccessfully as I recall) from some place to get a pizza. I also remember one Fourth of July, one of the few times Wally came out to my house (we lived on the outskirts of town, a mile or so from the nearest residential neighborhoods), when he nearly blew off his fingers when a firecracker with a short fuse went off just as he was throwing it. My right ear rang for three days.

When we graduated from high school, Wally and I drifted apart, each of us off to different colleges. I saw him again a few years later when I received a surprise wedding invitation, then lost track again for a number of years until I talked him into attending a high school reunion. (I still don’t know if he’s forgiven me for that.) I think of us as still friends, though we have each built our adult lives separate from one another and have little contact with another aside from the occasional e-mail or Facebook post.

It would be another ten years before I formed any new close friendships, each lasting a few years at most. I’ve heard it said from time to time that people come into your life for a reason then leave when that reason is no longer valid or that need is no longer present. Looking back from this stage of my life, I can see that is probably true. The few friends I had growing up provided a lifeline that helped save me from the continual turmoil I felt in the family home.

Oddly enough, though, I suspect technology has altered that philosophy and will continue to alter the nature of how friendships build and are maintained. Case in point: fast-forward to 2008. I was taking a job with a grocery chain in its division office. The person coming in to train was the person whose place I was taking. She was not retiring or leaving the job voluntarily; she simply had no desire to move out of state. What could have been awkward turned into something special as we developed a rapport born out of humor, simply political views, and experiences to which the other person could relate.

Heidi and I have been what I consider best friends ever since, despite the fact that we have only seen each other on three separate occasions in the intervening five and a half years. A friendship such as ours would have been difficult, to say the least, five years ago. It would have been impossible, I suspect, before that. Technology has made our friendship possible and has allowed it to thrive.

Most of our friendship has played out via e-mail. I suspect we both communicate better through writing (I know I do), and I feel able to say things I might not otherwise share if not for e-mail. In the past, some of those messages have been lengthy tomes, as one of us would be dealing with something painful, and the other would offer words of encouragement and support. Some of the messages have been no more than a line or two, asking the other if he or she had big weekend plans. They are the kinds of conversations friends have, only in writing and conveyed electronically rather than in person and face-to-face. In a way, I suppose our friendship harkens back to the heyday of pen pals except that our friendship via electronic correspondence might be likened to pen pals on steroids.

Life is sometimes referred to as a race, one long lap in which you strive toward the finish line and your place in the hereafter. With the advent of e-mail and especially Facebook, which have allowed me to build new friendships and reestablish old ones, I feel as if I am getting to run a second lap. Thanks to technology, I am not “living in the past,” as Jethro Tull once sand. Instead, I have brought my past into the present and have worked to balance then and now. The journey continues.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

#139 - Goals and Hopes for the New Year (or is that the other way around?)

Since everyone else tends to make their New Year’s Resolutions and voices their goals for the coming year on either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, I thought I would buck the trend, being the procrastinator I am, and post my goals for the coming year on January 2. I will also share some of my hopes for 2014.

One of the hopes I have is that somehow, someway, people – especially those holding elective office – can find some way to return to some semblance of meaningful discussion and debate in 2014. Facebook and Twitter, while great for keeping in touch with family and long-lost friends and for spur of the moment comments and conversations, seriously suck as platforms for intelligent and meaningful discussion.

One line comments like “Obama is a socialist” or “Bush was a war criminal” or “[insert favorite topic/group to hate] should rot in Hell” do little to address issues facing our nation and the world as a whole and do even less to kick-start any meaningful conversation on said issues. One place to start this process would be to realize, as Thomas Merton wrote, that “no man is an island.” The actions of one city/state/nation do affect what happens in another city/state/nation, even if indirectly.

Nature does not recognize lines drawn on a map, and neither should we, at least not when it comes to environmental issues. If nothing else, we have to recognize and accept that what we do today will have an impact on tomorrow and that there is no way of predicting every possible outcome, especially if we only consider the immediate and short-term benefits.

Do I expect to see the quality of discourse and the level of civility reverse decades of decline in 2014? No, but a man can dream.

Another hope I have for 2014 is that the debate over gay marriage moves one step closer to being resolved once and for all. I think the tide started to turn in 2013, and I personally hope the momentum continues in the new year. I know there are those who argue that allowing gays to marry is an attack on traditional marriage and on traditional religious values, but I only see an attack on discrimination. As a heterosexual who has been married for 20 years, I’ve never understood how allowing two gay men or two gay women to marry threatened my marriage. There are plenty of other things that could threaten my marriage first, second, third, fourth, and so on, and gay marriage just doesn’t register on the list of potential threats.

I also don’t understand the religious argument against gay marriage. Some Christians say gay marriage goes against their beliefs. I accept that. However, their beliefs are their beliefs, not necessarily someone else’s. The Constitution forbids the establishment of a national religion, and imposing the beliefs of one group onto the nation as a whole goes against that. Of course, there are those clever wits who argue that the reverse is equally true. Not really. Whereas making the views of some opposing gay marriage the law of the land prevents some loving couples from marrying (much as earlier laws forbidding interracial marriage did), allowing gay marriage does not force two people of the same sex to marry one another.

To me, this is a Civil Rights fight, pure and simple. Of course, nothing is ever pure and simple in a nation of so many diverse peoples, cultures, and beliefs, so I expect this fight to continue for at least another few years. However, I think I will see gay marriage as legal in all 50 states in my lifetime.

Now that I’ve dealt with a few “political” topics, let me turn to some personal goals for 2014. In the coming year, I hope to take further steps toward improving my health. For me, that means continuing to improve the way I eat, lose some more weight, and – here comes that dreaded word – exercise. I have a few minor health issues to deal with first, namely some problems with my left shoulder, but I plan to begin working on this as soon as the doctors allow.

Even before the weather begins to warm, my mind is turning to thought of taking out our fifth-wheel. 2013 was a bit of a slow year for us in terms of getting out with the trailer, and my shoulder will keep us from getting off to a quick start with the RV in 2014. Still, I hope to improve on the number of nights we went out with the trailer in 2013. We have one trip booked so far and another one planned, so we are getting the ball rolling.

Going out with the RV allows me to do the only real exercise I enjoy – hiking. I want to do more of that in 2014 and perhaps find more hiking venues in and around Boise. Getting out of town with the RV also gets me closer to nature and, by extension, to God, and that is a good thing as it re-creates balance in my life. Although pronounced “rek-ree-ay-shun ,” recreation can also be seen as a re-creation of the self, and I certainly plan to approach it that way every chance I get this year.

My third goal for 2014 is to do a better job of staying in touch with friends and family. This blog gives me the opportunity to share with them and anyone who happens upon these pages what I’m thinking, feeling, and dealing with in-depth. I will work to make better and greater use of it this year. Facebook has been wonderful for helping me to reconnect with friends and family and has allowed me to engage in the banter that used to take place face-to-face. So I will continue to make use of that technological outlet. Twitter, not so much. One look at this blog should tell you that I would struggle with the 140-character limit on tweets imposed by Twitter. Only simple statements can made in short, simple sentences, and I don’t find those of much interest in terms of carrying on a conversation or a relationship.

The third outlet for staying in touch with friends and family comes courtesy of a cousin who, for several years, has graciously opened his home each summer for several days to a gathering of family and friends. My family and I have been lucky enough to attend the last two years and hope to do so again this year. Thanks, BJ!

Although there will, undoubtedly, be unforeseen things come up, the above list should be enough to keep me busy in 2014. May each of you also have a busy and productive year.