Isn’t It Ironic?

So I have almost no voice now. I don’t mean that in some political or existential sense, I mean it literally. I have a polyp on my vocal cords. Yes, the same vocal cords that became inexplicably paralyzed twenty something years ago, a condition which didn’t just change and compromise my voice, but left me with a dangerously narrowed airway. That’s why they can’t simply surgically remove it. So instead I’m being sent for vocal training, to not only reduce the strain but perhaps heal the polyp. There have been so many interlocking ironies.

Up until the laryngeal paralysis I had had two great passions (besides sex, of course), writing and playing softball. I had been writing since childhood, and had been giving readings of my poetry in my early twenties. But writing hardly seemed the basis for a money-making career. (As it turns out, it’s quite the money-killer for a post-retirement second career as well.) So instead I ultimately chose teaching. This in part stemmed from a fantasy I had during the Vietnam era of fleeing the country to avoid the draft and teaching at McGill University in Toronto. What I was at all qualified to teach at the time was beside the point. But I ended up avoiding the draft by having to remain in college an extra semester because my anti-war activities took away from class time. I, a socialist, then found myself working in a financial company down by Wall Street. I also found myself coping with anxiety. It was because of my anxiety that I got into teaching, thanks to a referral by my psychiatrist.

I expected to be teaching kids somewhere in the elementary to pre-secondary grades. But I landed instead in preschool, in part, I’m sure, due to whatever psycho-therapeutic benefits it may have had for me. Years later I would make the transition, almost accidentally, to college teaching, circling back to my initial vision, in order to train new preschool teachers. But whereas I was and am a natural writer, I may have become pretty good at teaching through hard, sometimes self-flagellating work, but I was never a natural. And standing in front of a room of adults would cause consistent performance anxiety and periodic panic attacks. So, ultimately, teaching, which resulted from my efforts to deal with my anxiety, would prove to be the greatest source of my anxiety.

Oh, and then there’s my voice. Every new year of college teaching would bring a temporarily hoarseness in readjusting to lecturing five classes. One year it wasn’t temporary. Doctors at the time didn’t really know much about laryngeal paralysis, and, so, I was sent for some vocal training, which at the time wasn’t the issue, albeit that it now is. I learned to teach with a microphone, which, as I managed to compensate for my loss of projection, became unnecessary in smaller classrooms. There’s no way I could do any of that now. But I don’t have to, since I’m now retired from teaching and focused on writing. So I don’t need much voice, except for the telephone. It would have been a disaster had this come earlier than my retirement date.

However, I do miss being able to sing in the car. I was a really good singer, especially before my voice changed, and, then, before it was damaged. I did learn to compensate for that a bit too, reclaiming some vibrato if not the air to sustain it, until now. I could have pursued singing, too. I even had had a band, for a couple of weeks at least, of which I was lead singer. I could still sing, though my voice had suffered a little from the coming of adolescence, as did many things. We did have a cool name, though: “Topaz and the Chocolate Albatross.” I was Topaz. A psychic later told me to stay away from crystals, but I won’t even get started with the many ironies involved with him. The band disbanded because we weren’t just untalented, we were way too white. Two years later I’d be working with the Black Panther Party, but fortunately not as a singer, although that might have been safer.

And as I had said, I had loved playing softball. I was a horrible athlete as a child, in part because I was quite overweight. It would be a massive crash diet and some resultant anorexia when I had just turned sixteen and was entering college that would bring my anxiety to the surface, leading to the psychiatrist, leading to the teaching, etc. And of course the medication led to self-medication led back to medication. But I was lucky enough to have grown up in a neighborhood of kids my age who played ball every day. So I became competent, and, eventually, a good softball pitcher. It didn’t just keep me in shape, it didn’t just make me a central star without having to stand in front of a room, but the stress of pitching competitive games was actually a perfect outlet for my anxiety… as writing is presently. I’m not sure if I would have stopped playing softball by now, but I had to stop way prematurely. And the rapid weight loss, as damaging as it was to my health, repercussions of which I continue to deal with, did benefit me greatly with that sex thing I parenthetically mentioned. It was also the psychiatrist who inadvertently led me to the singles bar scene. And I got pretty competent at that, too, as I have apparently always been at compensating. But of course then there was that performance anxiety thing that I mentioned, so there you go.

I don’t know if I’ll be getting my voice back. Ironically, it’s not that big of a deal. After all, I’ve got this. I’m probably too old for the softball and maybe even the teaching, and, for that matter, the sexual exploits. But after book number four is published in a matter of weeks, I have a fifth already begun, another short story starting to take shape, and the preschool education book waiting in the wings. And I do have one more thing that I didn’t have before. Not that I’m dismissing what I’ve accomplished as a writer or even teacher, but the one thing that brought the most meaning and value to my life was being responsible for and taking care of my son. He’s now grown. And he’s grown from an autistic child who struggled academically to an incredibly sociable and brilliant young man. But now I have someone in my life whom I am responsible to and take care of and who does the same for me. So as I, in this chapter of my life, deal with my greatest source of anxiety and panic, I know that I’m very lucky. And, you know, I probably always have been.

Hair

My fiancee and I saw a production of “Hair” today at the Cultural Arts Playhouse in Syosset. I was very surprised at how talented the entire cast was and how well it was produced. We had seen “Hair in Concert” at the Patchogue Theater a while back, and not only had we been disappointed that it was presented as a concert rather than a coherent play, but the performances were not nearly as good or authentic. But there was one thing I hadn’t realized.
 
The movie, which I had previously seen, a couple of times actually, and which I just watched again tonight, is completely different from the stage play. I had known the character of Claude Bukowski as an innocent Oklahoma farm boy who was on his way to volunteering in the Vietnam Era army when he met a band of hippies and was changed by their lifestyle. I hadn’t known, when I criticized the Patchogue production, that in the original version he was one of the hippies and was drafted. I’m still considering which is more effective, but that’s not the point of writing this.
 
I realize “Hair” is superficial, but it always affects me emotionally. Each version in its own way could have sent a bolder anti-war message, but each did, nonetheless, send that message. What they also all implied is that the youth are the ones who can save us. In the time of “Hair” I was one of those youth. It was an era when we fought against an illegal war and virulent racism. Youth mobilized and effected change, a lot of its values, opposing war, violence, bigotry, materialism, etc., becoming mainstream in the culture… for a while.
 
Today, the U.S. is involved in 134 wars at last count. Some are outsourced to private or secret armies, and most are hidden from the American public, so as to not fuel another massive anti-war movement. The U.S. has been at war 224 out of its 242 years. And tens of thousands more bodies of young Americans, and hundreds of thousands of civilians of other countries have piled up since “Hair.” Meanwhile, racism has been on the rise again as well. In many ways, from the mainstreaming of White Nationalists to increases in racial inequalities and re-segregation to the tolerated level of bigotry among the populace, we are back in “Great” pre-1968 America. So, ultimately, our generation failed. And it IS up to the youth. Many of us from my generation, including me I’m afraid, are too worn to keep carrying the fight anymore. The world we fucked up is theirs now. 
 
So I do choke up seeing a group of young people passionately singing “Let the Sun Shine In” at the end of the performance, just as I have been inspired to see millions of young people at the rallies against guns, bigotry, misogyny, anti-immigrant policies, war, attacks on the environment, oligarchy and Trump. History seems to move in twenty year cycles. A youth movement got started in the 1980’s but died out. And then an apathy bred of overload and hopelessness overran the natural idealism that society needs from its young people. It looks like that has finally changed, but will it last?
 
In some very real ways we sit on the precipice of fascism, with the electoral process, a free press, an independent judiciary, checks and balances over executive power, civil and equal rights, separation of church and state, marginalization of hate groups and truth all under attack. I hope when those performers I saw today so passionately singing and chanting and waving peace signs and clenched fists took off their wigs and sixties costumes, they went home, watched the news, and prepared to do it for real. Our “dying nation,” as the song says, desperately needs them.

Scratchy (2004 – 2018)

 

My cat died tonight. I hadn’t intended on calling her “Scratchy.” The plan was “Cat Mandu.” But I got her for my son, and he preferred to name her after the animated cat in the Simpson’s spin-off. Funny thing about plans, though. That was the last time he really had anything to do with her. She was my cat, for fourteen years. In the last year she became Marianne’s cat, too. We just buried her outside, under the window she liked to look out of. Let me tell you the story I sometimes shared with students, what I’d come to call “The Story of Scratchy”… or “Cwatzy,” as she became.

When I separated from my son Randy’s mother, in 2001, I gave up our house and moved to an apartment. Wanting to make sure he was as comfortable at my small place as he was at his mom’s, I tried to think of something special I could give him for us to share. That explained the Gameboy. But I also wanted him to have a pet. As some of you might remember, he was autistic, and animals are supposed to be good for that, right? But what kind? My first thought was fish. I had never had fish, so this was something we could discover together. I took him to several pet stores to get him excited about our new roommates. Finally, we bought three fish. They weren’t tropical fish, but they were pretty fish: a tricolor this, a neon that, a rainbow the other. Now I knew nothing about fish care, but I read the instructions carefully, then shifted the water to adjust the temperature, and finally slid them in. One came to the surface and took its last breath. One lay in a coma like driftwood until the morning. No one had told me that if you don’t know anything about fish you start off with sturdy ones. So that left Brendan, brave Brendan, the survivor, for whom Randy drew a tributory crayon picture. But he was all alone, and that’s not what we wanted. So I went back to the pet store, only to be told that we couldn’t add more fish then because of the ph balance and all, that the water would have to recycle to make it habitable for anyone but Brendon, who was used to it, and with only one fish that would take a long time. Back in the pet store, browsing fish for the future, I was told that goldfish are strong fish and can survive anything, but I didn’t want to put in any old fish, I wanted our aquarium to be special and pretty. Although by that point, Randy lost all interest.

 

Meanwhile, my ex had bought three fish to surprise us with, and left them with the downstairs neighbor. When we got home we were sure surprised. I knew that putting them into that tank would be like immersing them in soup, and Randy had witnessed quite enough carnage already. I remembered we had a lake nearby, which I knew they wouldn’t survive, but Randy wouldn’t know that. But no, I didn’t do it. I realized we had about fifteen minutes to return the fish to the store before it closed, so we grabbed the bag, hopped into the car, and drove French Connection style, making it just in time. So at least some fish made it out alive. But I was still sad (Randy couldn’t have cared less) that Brendon was alone. So I was in another pet store, seeking a different answer, whereupon I was told that there was this pump that could oxygenate the water and speed up the cycle. Exactly what I wanted, right? Well, I read all of the instructions, screwed it onto the glass, plugged it in, turned it on, bubble bubble… Brendan came to the surface, took his last breath and expired. We buried Brendan in a matchbox behind our apartment. No more fish.

So now I thought… hamsters. I always had hamsters when I was a preschool teacher or director, and I never killed any of them… except for the one that had gone missing and we found filled with maggots behind the soda machine. But that hadn’t been my fault. Really. So now I had to get Randy on board. We went to the pet store again, now to look at the cute and furry little hamsters. I finally got Randy somewhat interested, so to seal the deal I bought a rocketship habitrail. And when he was ready, we went rodent shopping. I had always had teddy bear hamsters. They’re very tame and friendly… except for the albino ones, which are vicious. Anyway, Randy became interested, instead, in the somewhat bigger, three times more expensive, cousin of the teddy bears, a black bear hamster. Well this was for him, right? So we bought him, took him home and introduced him to his spaceship. Randy named him “Jimmy” and drew another picture. And Jimmy was a fine hamster, playful and friendly, he would sit on your hand or climb up your shoulder… until tragedy struck maybe a couple of months later and Jimmy died, from what I don’t know. So we buried him next to Brendan, waited a respectful amount of time, and then went to get a new one.

Randy picked another black bear, whom he wanted to name “Jimmy.” But I explained that there was only one Jimmy, so he said, “Okay, James.” Fine. I had scrubbed the cage thoroughly to make sure there was nothing to harm James, and brought him home in one of those little black boxes, you know, the coffin-like things. It must have been a bumpy ride… no, he didn’t die. But once we got him home and put him in the cage he became completely uninterested in human contact, except for biting. I tried. Meanwhile Randy had lost all interest again. But we finally had to take him back and explain we needed a people-friendly, specifically child-friendly one instead. And one was brought out and placed into the palm of my hand. He was so sweet and cute and cuddly… except that I had forgotten that hamsters tend to be nocturnal, and he was that way only because he was half asleep. I had even brought the cage, so as to avoid the coffin-like journey home, but when he awoke he was no more sweet and cute and cuddly than James had been. Plus, Randy had grown tired of the Jimmy/James paradigm, so named this fellow “Darth Maul.” Thus, Darth had a monstrous reputation to live up to. I didn’t want to keep replacing hamsters. I mean, what kind of message was that for Randy. So I tried to live with and, over time, civilize Darth. But he would have none of it.

 

Then one day we were in another pet store, probably fondly watching fish, when I saw three baby black bear hamsters in front. They were awake, playing with one another, and seemingly very different from our previous ones. We were told that they had been hand raised and, so, quite people friendly. I asked the girl if they would allow an exchange, even though I hadn’t even gotten Darth there, and after going back to ask the manager, she said okay. So, with Randy’s okay as well, we jumped in the car and drove, French Connection style, home, scooped up Darth, cage and all, and headed back to the store. The girl said she would take Darth out of the cage, but I thought it was only right that I do it as a goodbye. And as I did, he bit the hell out of me. There bleeding, I knew, first, that he was sending me a message, and, second, that I had made the right move. So we brought Kibby, or Kib for short, home, and he was great, living an almost complete hamster life in our care… well, in my care. Randy had lost all interest.

One day while driving I realized something pretty amazing. When I was young I didn’t have hamsters, I had parakeets. The first one was Spotty. Spotty was a friendly bird; he would sit on your shoulder or head… until tragedy struck and he flew out of a window left open. So we waited a respectful length of time and got our second, whom I wanted to name “Spotty,” but I was told that there was only one Spotty, so I dubbed him “Spotty #2.” But he wasn’t very friendly, flying up to the top of the door frame and keeping away from us, except to nip. So we exchanged him for another, whom, having gotten over the Spotty paradigm, I called “Jet.” But Jet was another ornery bird. We tried to keep him, so as not to send me a bad message, but finally gave up and got Tiny, the friendliest and longest lasting parakeet of all… the same exact pattern. Bizarre, huh?

At that point, I was ready for a cat again. I had had cats for most of my adult life. My first was a beautiful black cat I named “Blake.” Then there were orange tabbies called “Steppenpussy” and “Fetchitini” respectively. After that was a wonderful Siamese I named “Muse.” I had Muse for somewhere around 17 years I think, into my marriage. Unfortunately, my wife at the time had OCD and didn’t want to touch the cat or touch anything that I touched after touching the cat. So I probably  neglected him in his later years and have regretted that. After he died, some time passed, and when we bought our first home we got a kitten, “Catrina.” Many of you know that that house was burned down, and Catarina was lost in the fire. So I think it took me a while to want another cat, but now I was ready. Except that Randy didn’t want a cat. My ex and I had ended up with another cat after Catrina, “Catarina” (of course), but she was a bit overwhelming and crazy and Randy was kind of afraid of and didn’t much like her. I acknowledged this and told Randy that I really wanted the cat for him, that I thought it would be good for him, but I wanted one for me too, so this one time I would do something for myself anyway. This was an unfamiliar stand to Randy, so he had to draw his own line in the sand, too. “As long as it’s a boy,” because Catarina was a girl and because he was going through a major boy thing at the time. I assured him that that would be my intention.

I wanted a Siamese again. They’re really unique, mellow and friendly. So I answered an ad from someone who lived in a ritzy area. He led us down into his basement, where there were three kittens running around. Randy quickly looked at the cats, then cast his gaze on the man’s pinball machine, and that was the end of his inspections. I found a playful male, and showed it to Randy, who nodded between balls (no pun intended). When we were getting ready to leave, young Randy asked the question that I should have been considering, “How much?” I’m an old hippie, so I don’t think of such things. I believe the man said $500, to which I responded “okay, thank you.” He told us we could get kittens at the local animal shelter, and we drove right there, but there were only a couple of cats, no kittens and no males. However, the person there overheard our conversation and told me that Randy was right, males are friendlier. Okay, I told Randy, don’t worry, we’ll find you a boy.

The next day I answered an ad for Russian Blue kittens that had been brought to a pet store in Nassau county by a rescue organization. Cool, I thought, Russian Blues (as opposed to Russian Oranges and Reds, like Trump and his Republicans) are supposed to be beautiful, and getting a rescued cat even better. We drove all the way there, only to find out that they had no knowledge of such an event. I didn’t see any kittens in the store, until we started leaving and Randy spotted a house-like section with three exotic kittens. “How much for the male?” I asked. “$750” the clerk replied. “Thank you very much,” I muttered as we quickly exited. On the drive back I continued to reassure Randy that we would get the cat he wanted.

The following day I did what I should have in the first place, I looked in the paper under “FREE kittens.” I found one ad from someone in the neighborhood who had three kittens for adoption, one of them male. So off we went. When we got there, the woman told us that one had been adopted, but that she still had the male. She brought out a really pretty and sweet white one. I played with it a bit while Randy, disinterested, played with her grandson. Then I lifted it up. Nope, female. So she brought her in and got the male, who was the runt of the litter, but still very sweet and playful. And home we went… with Scratchy.

At home and after naming Scratchy, Randy fed and took care of and proudly carried around his new buddy. He even had me call his mother so she could come over and see him with the cat. After a while she took him, leaving just me and Scratchy. I was writing at the computer with Scratchy on my lap when, while petting her, I made a discovery. Scratchy was a she. The first cat the woman gave away must have been the male. Oh, no, I thought. I hesitantly called Randy. The conversation went something like, “You know how much you liked Scratchy, how you named and fed Scratchy, and how good that seemed to make you feel. Well, I just discovered something. Scratchy’s actually a girl. But it really doesn’t matter, Scratchy is the same cat you liked so much.” “Take her back.” “But Randy, she’s really a sweet cat who liked you and I think in time….” “Take her back.” “Okay, I promised you….”

At that very moment, I swear, Scratchy leapt from my lap and dashed into the closet. I called the woman, who said she’d take her back, managed to get her out of the closet, carried her to the car as she clung tightly to me, drove to her former owner’s house, pried her from my shirt, and sadly drove away. As I drove I called Randy and told him I had brought Scratchy back and we would find the boy cat he really wanted together. I arrived home and returned to the computer. At almost nine the phone rang. It was Randy. “I want the cat. Even though it’s a girl I want the cat.” It went right to my heart. He was feeling guilty. I quickly called the woman, who told me she had already gotten rid of her. After a pause she said she was teasing me and to come get her. And so I did, and after a happy reunion we drove home. I swung by his mom’s house so he could see the cat and get to sleep. Randy never showed any interest in Scratchy again. Part of it was wanting Scratchy declawed, as he was still skittish about cats. And part of it was, well, Randy.

I know I’ve been avoiding what has just happened. I felt this was all part of the story that I wanted to share, but now that I’ve reached this point the sadness has returned. She was my companion for fourteen years. She was born on July 4, 2004, at least that’s what it says on her carrying case, whether by knowledge or estimate. She was a beautiful long haired cat, white with grey spots, and a really pretty face that looked almost human, especially when she was a kitten. She had a cute, light, squeaky “mew,” really more of a “mouw,” that sometimes we would exchange in conversation. She liked to be sung to, and would mouw back. And she had a very feminine, butt swaying walk. She definitely had a cat personality. She was insistently independent and things had to be on her terms… just like Randy. She purred contentedly when she was being held and petted, but jumped off as soon as the grasp was loosened, as if to imply that she had only pretended to like it and had just been doing me a favor. No matter how many little beds or houses or cat trees I got her, she would never go where I suggested, she preferred to lay on paper. She would come, or jump up on the bed, when she felt like it, as long as I didn’t reach out so that she would have to admit she had done so, but she would always be at the door when I got home… then turn her back. And she would show affection, particularly when she wanted to get fed. Come to think of it, she was like a lot of women I dated, too.

She would never go outside. But we had to move a few times, from that apartment to the coop I bought, then upstairs to another coop briefly, and then to the condo I’m renting now. And when I’d put her into the carrier she would scratch and scrape at the bars, the first couple of times until she had cut herself up. She was definitely a homebody, like me. And she was probably afraid of being taken to the vet or maybe even given back again. The last trip to the vet was particularly depressing, because she was too weak to fight and it was so traumatic for her that she never recovered. She just wanted to be home. Fortunately, for the last year she’s had a bed buddy, my fiancee. I’m a light, sometimes hesitant sleeper and never liked to sleep with cats, which might have accounted for some of her distance. But with Marianne, the first living thing besides me she ever got close to, she would come and jump up on the pillow next to her and sleep beside her, on, as she claimed it, a real human bed of her own. I’m grateful that she had been lucky enough to have that experience, and a loving mother figure in her life. The way Marianne responded to her in her final days, how she cleaned and took care of her, how upset she was as she declined, how she stayed up at night to check on her, how she held her for hours in her last hours so she wouldn’t feel alone, how she cried when she died, was so touching for me and only further reinforces how lucky I am.

I was there when Scratchy took her final, labored breaths, her eyes widened and blind. I tried to pet her, she tried to purr but choked instead, and I couldn’t watch anymore. I came upstairs, and soon Marianne came up crying to tell me she was gone. We dug up a spot under the window she used to look safely through at the outside world, buried her, and transplanted a rose bush over her. I watered it, took a picture, and then we went inside, just the two of us. Goodbye, Scratchy.

 

Trump and Kim: Face to Face

Okay, I know a lot of liberals are tripping over themselves to give Trump some credit for the seeming breakthrough with North Korea, so they can show how non-partisan they are. But before we do so, let’s look at this objectively.

Yes, Kim has said that he will come to the table and meet Trump for direct negotiations. Now, why? Well, certainly the sanctions had something to do with it. The sanctions have existed for some time, by the U.N. and previous Presidential administrations. The Trump administration apparently ratcheted them up, hurting the North Korean people. But Kim supposedly doesn’t care about his people, right? So we move to factor number two, Trump’s threats.

Trump promised “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The world has already seen Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust and the Crusades, napalm and cluster bombs and Shock and Awe. So what monstrosity could Trump have been alluding to? And would any result justify it? He essentially said he would wipe out the North Korean people. So if Trump, whom we know admires dictators and dictatorship, actually believed what his spokespeople have been saying about Kim’s treatment of his own people being a justification for our opposition to his regime, how would wiping them out free them?

Now, who initiated this peace initiative? Well, clearly President Moon of South Korea was the main catalyst. He was elected on a platform of peace talks with the North. He secured the invitation of North Korean athletes to the Olympics. He met with them. Only then was there any movement. One has to also assume that the Chinese had something to do with this, as they have the greatest sway over North Korea. Undoubtedly there were other actors involved behind the scenes, maybe Americans. But, so, why does Kim want to meet with Trump? Why, in fact, can’t and shouldn’t the South and North work things out between themselves, why does the United States have to be the final arbiter at all? What’s our business there?

For dictators, whether it be Kim or the Donald, most everything is about saving face. Trump wants to look tough and successful, although in reality he’s a coward and failure. Kim wants to look like he won something rather than conceded. It was the same with Hirohito, who had essentially acquiesced to the same conditions that ended World War II and just wanted to save face before we dropped two nuclear bombs on Japanese civilians. So Kim gets to be seen on the world stage as someone of equal weight and legitimacy as the President of the United States (as if that’s a compliment). But I suspect there’s more to it.

Kim has seen how impulsive and ignorant Trump is. Will Trump, in the very few months before this summit, rigorously prepare? Will he bring along experienced and expert advisors (instead of another real estate conman who also happens to know nothing but who also happens to be his son-in-law)? Kim undoubtedly believes he can get Trump to unwittingly agree to things no other President ever would. Right now, all North Korea is offering is to freeze their nuclear program, not to dismantle it. Sure, sane people would see that as an accomplishment worthy of meeting half way. But Republicans militarists are hardly that sane, and wouldn’t accept it, so we’ll end up with another fiasco wherein Trump will have to back away from whatever deal he said he supported, like with guns, and the United States will be made to look like liars and hypocrites (you know, like our fearless leader) who don’t really want peace. In fact, they might already be backing off the summit as this is written.

And what is it that we would have to give up in order for the North Koreans to agree to freeze their nuclear efforts? We’d have to agree to respect the territorial integrity of North Korea and not invade it or try to overthrow its regime. Um, isn’t that part of the United Nation’s charter anyway? We’d also probably have to agree to halting our war maneuvers with South Korea. In other words, all North Korea has really ever wanted is, if you leave us alone and don’t threaten us we’ll leave you alone and won’t threaten you. But that’s not easy for America. We play by special rules.

Remember the Cuban missile crisis? Why did the Soviet Union send nuclear weapons to Cuba? Maybe it was because we had already invaded Cuba and tried several times to kill their President? Maybe it was because we had nuclear weapons aimed at the Soviet Union from their doorstep in Turkey? The Soviet Union had to publicly back down. But privately, Kennedy promised to stop invading Cuba and to dismantle the nuclear weapons threatening the Soviet Union (one of the reasons, some think, that he was assassinated). Why is it that the United States gets to make up all of the rules? We have nuclear weapons, in fact we are the only country on the face of the Earth that has actually used them against human beings. How did we become the moral arbiters?

If the invasion of Iraq taught the world anything it’s that countries on America’s radar had better develop nuclear weapons and quickly if they don’t want the same fate. You know, it’s the nuclear deterrence (what’s politely known as “mutually assured destruction”) that we get to talk about. We didn’t hesitate to attack Iraq twice, but blinked when it came to North Korea, resorting only to sanctions and, with Trump, what has clearly shown itself to be empty, albeit dangerous, bombast. But what if countries do decide that they have to defend themselves against such threats? Well, now we have been given the justification for attacking them, a neat little no-win trick. We proclaim that they can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons. That’s true, but can we? We always make rulers of countries we want to blockade or invade appear crazy. We did it with Qaddafi, going so far as to doctor a photograph of him in a dress, when that was in fact considered “crazy” by Americans. I don’t claim to know whether the claims about what Kim has done to his people are true, anymore than we know about the claims that were made against Saddam. Trump isn’t the only one who makes convenient shit up. But the offensive use of nuclear weapons is, itself, clear insanity, just a different kind, a kind that we have no right to be preaching about.

Is a denuclearized Korean peninsula a good thing? Sure it is, if they’re thereafter left alone. But will Trump promise that? And even if he does, if we don’t like their ultimate solution or if they suddenly find oil, what guarantees do they have? I mean, don’t we talk about guarantees when it comes to other countries? We didn’t like that the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese would have voted for Ho Chi Minh (Eisenhower estimated it at 80%), so we stopped the election, put up a puppet dictatorship in the South, then killed and replaced them with a more useful puppet, then virtually obliterated the country. Ah, exporting democracy indeed. So, while I’m thinking it will be nice to get Trump out of the country for a few days, I’m just not quite ready to start doling out credit for anything. We’ll see.

Aim Both Barrels At the NRA (a timely re-post)

Aim Both Barrels At the NRA: A Radical Perspective on Gun Control

 

There was yet another school shooting yesterday, at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where ten students have died.  This is the forty fifth school shooting this year alone.  When is enough enough?  How many children have to be sacrificed to the gun lobby?  How much blood money in the coffers of the gun manufacturers, in the salaries of their puppets in the NRA leadership, and in the pockets of the politicians they’ve bought is each child worth?  Forget all this crap about “sensible” gun control.  What we need are radical measures, like those in all other of the industrialized countries, whose gun deaths combined don’t equal ours.

Okay, let’s start where all unfanatical and uncorrupted people would hopefully agree.  Ban semi-automatic weapons.  One doesn’t need an AK-47 to shoot Bambi.  People who argue against this conjure images of a slippery slope.  So if we have an uninfringeable right to “bear arms,” why not let everyone have atomic missiles for recreational use?  The slippery slopers, and they are awfully slippery, make the same argument against limiting the number of rounds per marketable firearm, despite the fact that the mass murderers have generally been caught while attempting to reload. So enough bullshit.  And that goes for their other arguments, too.

How about we look at the Second Amendment and read what it actually says?  My copy of the Constitution reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Come on English majors, what does that actually say?  The sentence is governed by the premise of “a well regulated Militia.”  This is what guarantees the right of “the people” to security.  No “strict constructionist” alive can offer proof that it has anything to do with each individual citizen’s rights.  Why is there a comma before “shall not be infringed” if that related directly to some universal “right?”

And if one is not a strict constructionist it’s even easier.  When this was written, people had one shot muskets that had to be painstakenly reloaded with gunpowder.  People needed to hunt for food.  The union, on the heels of a revolution, was shaky.  We actually had a popular militia.  Could the authors of this amendment have had even an inkling of the completely different realities of today’s society, and don’t we in other areas, such as equal protection and the right to privacy, interpret the Constitution based on projecting its principles to today’s circumstances and knowledge?

Today few people have to hunt for food or clothing.  Those who do can be otherwise supported in their need.  Hunting now is done for sport or tradition.  Sorry, but that’s not good enough.  Personally, I think that killing animals for sport is a sickness, not unconnected to why we have so many killings of people.  And past cultural customs often have to give way to the general mores and welfare of the society as a whole.  But even if one can justify hunting, is that “thrill” worth parents having to bury their children?  Can’t people find another way to satisfy those alleged primal urges for adventure, perhaps by using it toward some form of freeing or rescuing rather than stalking and destroying?

So if not for hunting, what about for protection?  More bullshit.  Guns in the home are thirty four times more likely to result in unjustifiable homicide, suicide or accident than in any protective action.  Gun owners are forty three times more likely to kill a family member than a dangerous intruder.  People with guns in their possession are four and a half times more likely to be killed by gunfire.  Those with guns in the home are at three times greater risk of being killed.  And those guns are at least twice more likely to be used by the intruder against the homeowner than vice versa.  A hundred children a year die from accidental gun deaths.

One hears, in response to a massacre like yesterday’s, that if only someone there had been packing it could have been averted, that we need more guns not less to prevent tragedies.  More bullets flying “old West style” would make bystanders safer?  Does anybody see a problem with putting guns in the hands of school personnel, mall guards or theater ushers and hoping they stay cool under pressure, aim well, judge clearly, guard them safely, don’t ever have any mental episodes, don’t ever inaccurately interpret threat or self-defense, and haven’t evaded anything in their background checks?  We don’t even have reliable background checks as it is, now we want to use our schools and public places for such a social experiment for which we can’t call on a single one of those cases where it’s been successful?

There’s only one argument that, in my opinion, has any reasonability, although it carries its own kind of dangerous irrationality.  It is the fear of having an unarmed population.  If we give the government the right to disarm us, we potentially enslave ourselves.  Okay, but even considering the high unlikelihood that we’ll be facing outright fascism here in the foreseeable future, if there were armed insurrection we’d be massacred.  And considering the political mentality and insight of the average American and how much more likely, in that eventuality, they could be driven by politicians and media to turn on scapegoats and each other than on the government and plutocrats, are we really safer with, say, a well armed North Dakota or Texas, or will we have to shoot it out with them first?  Yes, police brutality is still alive, but we saw what happened when the Black Panthers asserted their right to bear arms: they’re not.  And this is all gross speculation.  Meanwhile, real children, seven a day in America, are dying.  You know how they say that regardless of laws criminals can always get guns?  Well, in the midst of an outright revolution, desperate insurgents can always get guns, too.

But let’s examine that mantra about gun control taking guns out of the hands of “the good guys” while the “bad guys” can always get them by virtue of being “bad guys.”  In this context, what exactly are “good guys” and “bad guys,” other than comic book caricatures?  They tell us we need to focus on “sick people,” not guns, because “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  And of course we need to devote more money and care to people with mental illness.  But those with pre-diagnosed disturbances make up only a tiny percentage of armed killers.  Most gun deaths are not premeditated or motivated by some ascertainable “evil,” they occur in “the heat of passion” or rage, during some kind of unpredictable psychotic break, in some irrational perception of self-defense, unintentionally or accidentally.  But even if we tightened background checks, which we of course have to do (and the NRA fights even that), even if we had the best system of mental health care in the world (instead of one of the worst), it would only begin to chip away at the epidemic we face.  If guns are available, they’re more likely to be used, it’s as simple as that.

When the victim of bullying starts to seethe, when the depression of the teen starts to deepen, when the man thinks he sees his wife with another man, when the spousal abuse begins worsening, when the fight continues to escalate, when the immature fool wants to show off, what does common sense say about whether it makes a difference whether a gun is readily available or not?  If they even first had to go out and get them, how many lives would be saved?  How many more would be saved if they couldn’t?  We see this phenomenon in research.  Those with guns are more likely to taunt and bully, to engage in road rage and reckless behavior, to escalate and not back down.  So how the hell do they make us safer?

We need a war on guns.  Bottom line: they have no place in a civilized society.  Gun violence is a national health and child welfare emergency.  We talk about it for a couple of days after a tragedy like this most recent one and then let it die, just like we let the next group of kids die.  A new study by the Boston Children’s Hospital confirmed that the states with the strictest gun control measures tend to have the fewest gun fatalities, as if that wouldn’t be self-evident. But then there’s that pesky problem of neighboring states.  In the news just today, surveillance tapes were released capturing a gun runner bragging about how he had bought an arsenal of weapons down south, in states with weak gun laws, and then sold them on the streets of New York. We need to expose the many politicians, more than half in Congress as of the last accounting, who put their NRA contributions before common sense and common decency.  We can disagree about how far to go, although how far is far enough when it comes to our most vulnerable and precious resource?  But at very least, it’s time we stopped talking, and then stopped stopping talking, and began to act.

P.S. It has just come to my attention that the reason the Second Amendment was drafted had nothing to do with the individual right to bear arms. It was written to protect the slave patrol militias in the southern states. That’s why it reads “State” and not “Country.” So, like everything else, from the National Anthem to Trump, it IS about race.

Taking a Knee

Colin Kaepernick is a trailblazer and a hero, and I’m waiting for some team to have the the integrity and balls to break the ironically dubbed “blackball.” But he certainly wasn’t the first to not stand for the National Anthem. With the exception of a brief time when my son was young and I didn’t want him in uncomfortable situations, I, for one, have refused to rise my entire adult life. For the record, I don’t salivate on command either. There are those who call such defiance disrespectful to the principles that the flag stands for, to our military and our way of life. This charge is usually met with knee-jerk (pun intended) denial and deflection. I stand, or, rather, sit, guilty as charged.

It only came to my attention during this current debate, although it should have been no great surprise, that the National Anthem was written by a proud slave owner. In fact, one of the original stanzas applauds the death of slaves fighting to free themselves. This issue is about denial, but not the pressured denial of those who protest. It’s about the denial of our history and present, the denial of life and liberty, and the denial of the right of free thought and expression that, among its stains, the flag allegedly stands for.

The Anthem is a celebration of war. As detestable a human trait as I believe war is, I don’t dispute the existence of just wars. There are times, when all else fails, that call for self-defense or the defense of others against tyranny, invasion or genocide. It’s just that I have seen no such American wars in my lifetime. Wars to install dictators or puppet regimes that will serve American corporate and geopolitical interests, whether in Latin America, Southeast Asia or the Middle East, simply don’t count. And as for the others, could we have become free of England without massive bloodshed, like the Canadians for example, and was the Revolutionary War all that freeing for African or Native Americans? Could we have avoided armed conflict and virtually indiscriminate bombing in Serbia by supporting the strong non-violent resistance instead of some shadow army likely CIA-connected, and have we stemmed the tide of terrorism through our wars throughout the Muslim world, or, rather, created, armed, inflamed and perpetrated it?

We are told we must “support the troops.” To the extent that “the troops” is defined as the collection of individual soldiers, the reply should be to stop waving the flag and bring them the hell home. But an ex-serviceman who visited our College a number of years ago made a more precise distinction. He said he does not “support the troops” because that implies supporting the mission. Rather, he supports the soldiers individually and selectively. Some perform acts of heroism, some atrocities, many just survive. In general, though, he offered, they are not heroes as the chicken hawks in high places like to call them, they are not villains as some of us during the Vietnam era treated them, they are victims. They are victims, often, of a system that has given them no better means to pursue the illusion of the American dream by being able to afford College and earn a decent living. And they are victims, too, of the incessant indoctrination they have been subjected to, by self-serving politicians and the controlled media, and through the imposition of “The Pledge of Allegiance” on captive audiences of children and “The National Anthem” on unquestioning audiences of football enthusiasts.

To remain seated, or kneel, or raise a clenched fist, is defiance against hypocrisy. It is an act of the free and a stance of the brave. It’s a response to the legacy of denial of freedom to African Americans, from historic slavery, Jim Crow and lynchings to modern racial injustice, police killings and bigotry used as a political wedge issue, and to the moral cowardice our society continues to show in being unwilling to face, acknowledge and end it. Protest has always been attacked, regardless of the form or timing. Lest we forget, as so many prefer to, in his time Dr. King was vilified and punished, ultimately lethally. Any attempts to dismantle, or even discuss White privilege is seen by the majority as a threat against something God-given and unquestioned, to be met with denial, of its legitimacy and its right of expression. Yes, regardless of what too many owners and millionaires now feel compelled to say, this is indeed a protest against what the flag has, in reality, in too many people’s realities, stood for. And that’s why we must continue to kneel, especially us White folks, until all can rise.

Athletes take a knee when they are hurt and tired. We should all be.

 

Let Me Tell You About Kenny White

Last night I went to see Kenny White perform in Manhasset. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve seen him. He is one of my favorite musical performers, and in my opinion one of the best singer-songwriters alive. And you haven’t heard of him (unless you’d seen my previous blog), right? I wish I could explain why. He’s very well respected in musical circles. He’s produced Peter Wolfe’s albums, has worked with David Crosby and has toured around the world. His albums have received spectacular reviews, as they should. So why is he still playing small venues and has he struggled so much for air play?

I think the only explanation is that his music isn’t commercial, which is ironic since he began his career writing musical commercials. Not only doesn’t he write and perform the kind of standard ditties that have two, maybe three verses with repetitive choruses, he actually wrote a song, “Gotta Sing High,” which parodies such a non-artistic approach. His songs are stories, laden with poetry, humor, emotion, politics, romanticism, vulnerability and genius, touching inner truths. Amidst the drek of much of today’s music scene, how about a lyric like, “Even shards of glass can pass for diamonds in the sun?” On top of it, he’s a brilliant musician, especially keyboardist, his melodies spanning from folk to jazz.

I’ve emailed and spoken with him a number of times. He’s also one of the nicest, humblest people I’ve met. And maybe that, mixed with his penchant for generosity and charitable performance, and what I have come to assume are some experiences with insecurity and pain, could be involved, too. (Our pains do seed our artistry after all). I say “assume” because, while I don’t really know him or his non-musical story, it seems like I, along probably with many others, can know and relate to him on many levels through his music. But who wants to say something so cliched and creepy-sounding to a celeb?

My history with Kenny White is another story, or should I say several. The first time I was introduced to him by way of his performance was on a pseudo-date. I had met this woman on a dating site and we had gone out once, but it was not a match, made in Heaven or “Cyberspace” (one of the best songs on his new album incidentally). For some reason, months later she contacted me and told me she had bought two tickets to an expensive benefit for the Japanese Tsunami victims, and asked if I’d like to accompany her. I could hardly turn that down, right? But I would have to buy her dinner, right? We were to meet by Penn Station, and I figured a local Chinese restaurant would be fine, but she really wanted to go to a favorite of hers across the street. I checked it out before she arrived. It was in a hotel, and when one walked in one confronted a bar teeming with loud businessmen coming off work. Pink neon lit my way to the back, where there was an ultra-pretentious little restaurant whose menu was so overpriced that I met my companion at the door and tried to block entry, ready to offer other suggestions. But she slid through, and proceeded to order the most expensive thing on the menu, filet mignon. I was going to ask if they had melba toast and water, but I figured, why deprive myself just because I couldn’t afford this? So I went for something I had seen on Gordon Ramsey and had enjoyed once before, Chilean Sea Bass. Mmmm…. Only this one wasn’t nearly as good as the much cheaper one I had eaten before, and it was accompanied by some tasteless asparagus and a little pancake of unknown composition. And then, after plunking down about a hundred bucks, we were off to the show.

As we were walking we passed an Applebee’s, and I commented that I remembered it, that I had taken my son there. She scoffed and replied with something like she wouldn’t be caught dead in such a place. When we turned the corner and headed up Eighth Avenue, we passed a row of parking lots, inviting desperate cars to rest awhile for about $70 a second. I was beginning to realize why I could never move back to New York and why I had never anticipated reuniting with this woman. We came to a side street, and then to a basement door painted black. When we entered, I was thrust into a Woody Allen movie. The night-crawling New York nouveau riche were out in force, basking in yet more neon and pretentiousness. There were to be some musical acts and an auction, so we took our seats. The first act was promising. It was someone who had crafted and played his own African-style instrument, but he only did one number. Following him were two forgettable acts, except for their awfulness, who were allowed two and three respectively. And then someone appeared at the piano, and within minutes I was writing down his name: “Kenny White.”

Following his three song performance was the auction. Two women took the stage and unintentionally brought back memories of an old Saturday Night Live skit involving two shills on the Home Shopping Network who were clueless about their lack of humor. They were auctioning off autographed guitars, one signed by Eric Clapton, one by Will Lee, the head man of the “Faux Four,” a Beatles knock-off band who were the headline act and the reason for my companion wanting to come, and the rest by cousins-in-law of other celebrities. Sitting two rows in front of us was someone who was obviously in the Russian Mafia, who had brought his arm candy, for whom he would bid on everything. But he had competition, a woman sitting on the other side who had apparently decided that her precious little daughter deserved not one, but two ultra expensive autographed guitars. I continued to squirm in my seat. When that was over, out came the Fab Faux, or whatever they were called then. And they were terrible. By the third song I was ready to leave, and asked my “date” if she wanted me to walk her to the train. She decided to stay, and I left, with distasteful memories, but for that slip of paper with the name “Kenny White.”

The next time I saw Kenny White, intentionally, was in a library auditorium in Westchester. This library ran Wednesday afternoon events for the seniors, so I was there, at what I seem to remember was also a benefit for something, seated in the front row and surrounded by people who had no idea whom they were about to listen to. There were two highlights of that day for me, which would be one more than on the previous occasion. First, I had the opportunity to make a request, “Out of My Element,” which he accommodated, even switching from guitar to piano for me. The other was when I gave him the “White Diamonds: The Greatest Hits of Kenny White” CD, which I had compiled and burned, for him to autograph. He didn’t even know he had a greatest hits album, as he commented.

I could swear I saw him another time between then and last night, but what I do remember were two near misses. The first was when he finally returned again to his home town, where he was playing in this fancy joint that he had told me he felt as out of place in as I expected to be. At the time I was pseudo-dating someone, formerly a supervisor and flaming hot redhead from a quarter century in the past, whose birthday was the same day. I had arranged for a ringside table and orchids to be delivered… but I got sick. So did the relationship. (God, I hope these women aren’t reading this. Nah, no one does.)

The other time was January of this year. Kenny was playing in Massachusetts, and I got tickets and a HomeAway rental to surprise my now girlfriend, not even telling her where we were headed or why. When we left, the weather report called for a dusting to three inches of snow. When we reached the ferry it was three to six inches. As we drove through Connecticut to Massachusetts it became six to nine, and by the time we were watching the TV in the bar-restaurant I had unfortunately picked out for brunch it was “run for your lives.”  I have to add that while she ordered sensibly, I never miss an opportunity to try something new, so I partook in their “Dad’s Favorite,” which turned out to be a greasy burger patty with a hunk of canned chow mein buried in crispy noodles. Mmmm….

Hoping for a miracle, we returned to our rental, a beautiful little house which was recessed a mile in from the road. The concert was scheduled for the next day, and we were starting to wonder if, a., we would die in the snowstorm, as no one would be able to reach us through a foot and a half of snow along a narrow mile-long path in the woods, b., we would die trying to make it to the concert, or, c., worst of all, the concert would be cancelled. I won’t bore you with the details of the dinner fiasco (you can read about that in a previous blog), but when we returned in the evening I finally checked my not very smart phone for any email updates. Going backwards chronologically, I ran my eyes over one from Kenny White, which started, “hope the postponement wasn’t too big a drag for you….” Then I ominously went further back and came upon one that had been sent at the precise moment that we had first set foot in the house, informing us that the show had been cancelled. If I had only checked, or if my damned phone had notified me, we could have turned around and driven back in the light of day, while the snow hadn’t accumulated much. As it was, we decided to wake up really, really early (and no, that wasn’t noon, as “really, really early” means to me now) and catch the first ferry back, blowing the vacation stay and losing another opportunity to see him perform, which we finally made up for last night.

Anyway, my reason for writing this is obvious. If you insist on not buying my books (ahem), at least buy his CD’s. I promise you that you won’t be sorry, unless, of course, you don’t have a particular fondness for music, poetry, humor, pathos, politics or love. I’d put up a portion of one of his songs, but I don’t think that’s up to me to do. So here’s a link: kennywhite.net. And no, I don’t get a commission.

Heal Persona

This will likely be the strangest blog I’ve written to date, so strange that I’m not sure even I believe the words I’m typing. My acupuncturist earlier today said about this that I shouldn’t try to rationalize it, I should just be it, or something like that. So I’m immediately ignoring his advice by writing this piece. I mean, It’s what I do, I write. The question is, is there something else that I do? So here goes….

A number of years ago, a colleague of mine with whom I’d had somewhat of a friendship suffered a massive heart attack. In fact, he died seven times on the operating table. When I found out, I felt that I had to do something. Knowing that he was the Coordinator of Multicultural Affairs at the College and very interested in the cultural roots of himself and others, I found, called and made an appointment with a small store in Manhattan specializing in African and Indian artifacts. After much exploration, I settled on and bought a small Ethiopian medicine bag. The next day, I took a trip to the Bronx, to see my mother and then have her drive me to the hospital in which he was struggling to survive, and, with my son, sneak up to his room and leave the charm. He has largely recovered and is back to work. At first he was confused because he had once bought himself one identical to it.

I had a student who was nodding off and falling behind. When I talked to her I found out why. She was on pain killers because of the cancer that ravaged much of her young body and the treatments she was undergoing. She fell into my arms sobbing. When she told me that she was a Buddhist, I knew what I had to do. Since I had begun seasonal pilgrimages to my home away from home, Woodstock, anyway, I quickly planned one, with a certain peaceful Buddhist store I had previously visited in mind. I bought her a healing Buddha, and, to her great surprise, gave it to her after class at our next meeting. She came up just short of completing the semester, but I gave her a B+, as I remember, one of only two times I have ever given a student a projected rather than realized grade. The other one had been posthumous, and it seemed that this student’s fate would soon be the same. She wrote me a beautiful letter, which I still have, and then disappeared, and since I found myself unable to contact her for years thereafter I assumed the worst. Recently I made brief contact, long enough to find out that she is alive and healthy and happy, and still has the Buddha.

I also had a colleague, a friend whom I became very fond of, and who (spoiler alert) will probably be reading this. She was diagnosed with M.S., and after struggling for a few semesters with her memory and balance, this wonderful teacher had to reconcile herself to the fact that she could no longer teach. She would be moving to the West Coast to be near her sister, and a going away party was arranged in her honor. I knew she had a fascination with things Medieval, so I found a small Celtic statuette which I presented to her in private. I think she may have misunderstood the intention, as I discovered that she was using it to protect her garden rather than, as was my purpose, herself. Nonetheless, although I haven’t asked her about her health, she is, now many years later, most often the first one responding or reposting when it comes to my many political diatribes on Facebook, and appears to still have that sense of humor and force of spirit that endeared her to so many colleagues and students here.

And then there is Anthony Colletti, Sr., the late Anthony Colletti, Sr., my would-be father-in-law, who died this past week. Tony lived his life in pain, but the previous time he was in the hospital he was going downhill. After a little research, I decided on an Italian horn pendant, and got one for him. His daughter, my girlfriend, who is much more open to spiritual possibilities than I have been, swears that he began to recover soon after putting it on. Unfortunately, or at least that’s how I feel, he wasn’t wearing it this time. It seems to be hiding somewhere, and I hope we can find it so I can give it to his son, who is, to be blunt, slowly killing himself, while there is still time at least for his rescue.

As many of you know, my son was diagnosed as a toddler with Classic Autism. I did my best to give him supports, advocacy, dedication, fumbles in the dark and love. Since the whole matter of Autism is still so misunderstood, it is impossible to say that he is mostly “cured,” but he is both the most social and the most brilliant person I know, with limitless potential for unimaginable success. And, along the way, I’ve picked up some “wounded birds” whom I’ve tried to heal, most notably one who, a decade and a half ago, staggered into, of any place she could have chosen, my office, asking me to help her not commit suicide. She credits me with saving her life three times over the years, and even though, when her self-destructiveness turned from suicide threats to cutting to anorexia, there was nothing left in my arsenal anymore but to distance myself so as to not be an enabler, she is still alive and, inexplicably, relatively healthy.

So what does this all mean? It’s probably all coincidence, right? Why do I have this urgent call to some mysterious action when someone is sick? And where did these ideas about what to get come from? Is it merely the kind of “magical thinking” I teach about in child psychology, while never considering the possibility that such thinking might not be the undeveloped, unreal state of cognition that Piaget claimed it to be, that maybe magic in some form and universe actually exists? And Physicists and Buddhists agree, at least to my limited knowledge of both, that reality is only a matter of perspective anyway, don’t they? I try to apply my middling knowledge of psychology to “fix” people, with or without their consent, isn’t that what my son says? When ego or lust or pettiness didn’t get in the way, didn’t I, more often than not, leave the someone with whom I had a relationship better than before we met, or would I just like to think so? I could be working on my latest novel, but instead find myself morosely addicted to political Facebook exchanges because I have to do something to miraculously heal the world of its bigotry, injustice and war, don’t I? Is all of this wishful thinking inwardly or outwardly directed? Is it all delusion and self-aggrandizement, or is something more afoot? “They” say that we have a purpose in life. I’ve always thought we should find purpose, but never quite believed “them” that we are given it, so is the ability to heal others inherent in all people, or in none, or is it a special gift? And if it is a gift, why did it take until I am so old to unwrap it, and what would I do with it now?

Perhaps my acupuncturist is right, and since he’s been waiting patiently for the latest blog, that’s the least I can concede. Maybe expressing all this changes or even disempowers it. Maybe parallel realities are supposed to stay that way. You see, I’m slowly catching on. It’s clear I don’t know what to think, and maybe that’s the clarity. Or is this, instead, all a bunch of wannabe Jew-Bu bullshit and I’m just trying to find a different way of rationalizing irrationality. So let’s drop this for now, and we’ll see what happens next time. I already suspect whom the next trinket will be for, but won’t give any thought to what it will be until called upon, whether it be by practicality or destiny. After all, purpose or not, gift or not, reality or not, if one could, who wouldn’t want to be a healer?

What I Didn’t Do On My Winter Vacation

Last summer I discovered a website called “Home Away,” on which are listed rental homes throughout the country and world that are often not priced greatly more than a hotel room. What a nice way to spend a vacation, I thought, in a peaceful place with amenities, perhaps like a hot tub or Florida room or fireplace, with woods in the back and lots of wood in the interior, a place in which we could cook, explore and de-stress. So, for my latest pilgrimage to Woodstock, I secured such a place for us, and off we went. An hour out of Woodstock, the skies opened up and thundershowers obscured the road. We checked the weather forecast, which told me: thunderstorms today, thunderstorms tomorrow, thunderstorms until you leave, you idiot! That sort of put a damper (no pun intended) on the outdoor hot tub and barbecue. So we had to call and cancel, sacrificing a fairly large deposit, decided to drive into Woodstock anyway, to introduce my hippie retreat to Marianne, get something to eat at Joshua’s, and meet briefly with my friend Nathan, whom we were supposed to hang out with the next day but was busy on this day conducting a tour of his Woodstock museum. And then we began the long journey home. We checked the traffic report, which, of course, told me that the Thruway was blocked solid until the next exit, and the one after that, and all the way down to close to where you would be exiting, you idiot! So we took the winding southwesterly, southeasterly, southwesterly, easterly, spiraling, non-progressing turnpikes, through  floods and virtual invisibility, for hours upon gruesome hours. And that was our first vacation.

Try again, why don’t we, I thought. So I arranged for a surprise mini-vacation up to Massachusetts, again using “Home Away” for our stopping point. But the real reason for the trip was that a brilliant singer-songwriter, Kenny White, whom I’ve gotten to know a bit, was finally touring in the area. So we got in the car, with Marianne having no idea of our destination, and drove to the ferry, and, once across to Connecticut, up to Swansea, Massachusetts. “A dusting of snow, maybe one to three inches” was the forecast for the next day, the day of the concert, but that we could brave… um, except that one to three soon became three to five, or possibly more, but it was still within reason, right? The weather on this day was cold but beautiful, so maybe we’d get lucky this time. (And maybe Donald Trump will turn out to be a fine President.)

We finally found the narrow back road that led to our “home away,” an endearing chalet, beautifully decorated, filled with labeled instructions, shelved with a wide diversity of books, and stocked with foodstuffs from a world of cuisines. It was owned by a wonderful man, Gary White (no relation), who was generous and accommodating almost to a fault, even offering to jeep us to the concert should the snow become too intimidating for my old car. Anyway, I didn’t feel like cooking, and had prepared a list of local restaurants, the brunch one being what turned out to be a pub called “Simply Simons.” Now Marianne chooses carefully, way too carefully. I, on the other hand, go for the gastronomic gusto, so how could I resist the “Dad’s Favorite?” (That should have been a rhetorical question, but, unfortunately, it was not.) So I chowed down on a greasy burger patty with a hunk of canned chow mein buried in crispy noodles, while we watched the doomsday weather predictions on the bar TV. By now, various websites were anticipating anything from six to nine inches up to twelve to fifteen, or possibly more. Well, what was there to do but return to the house, obsess about tomorrow, and make sure that at least we wouldn’t die, cut off from civilization by an unplowed, mile long path in some old woods that would have been fun to explore in the damned summer, even in the rain.

Now had my smart phone not been so stupid, it would have informed me, at, ironically, the precise time of our arrival, of an email sent by the venue informing me that the performance had already been cancelled. We then would have followed our ritual, and returned home on the same “vacation” day as we had left. Instead, that evening we got to hunt good old Swansea for a dinner restaurant. Marianne is allergic to seafood. Massachusetts is swimming in seafood. So I had my handy list, but even the one restaurant that served other things and didn’t appear to be a risk for cross-contamination didn’t seem particularly appealing. So we resorted (again, no pun intended) to the internet, and found a little Chinese place that seemed fine and welcomingly inexpensive. It had dumplings AND shumai, and the neon sign outside advertised sushi rolls. So I was set. Unfortunately, the menu inside bore no mention of shumai and the universally Caucasian staff at the counter knew nothing about any sushi rolls. So out we went, ultimately resigned, after much over-consideration, to go to that place on the top of my list after all. But then, on the way, we saw another Chinese place, one that actually looked like a quaint little restaurant, and u-turned to give it a try. As we opened the door, the Asian appearance on the outside gave way to the reality of a bar and pool hall with some booths and, yes, another all Caucasian staff. (I must have missed the century old sign, “No Chinese allowed” at the entrance to Swansea.) Oh, what the hell, we figured, let’s just eat here. That was until we saw the menu, which included the likes of eight dollar dumplings, something I had never seen in fancy, make that real, Chinese restaurants even in New York City. So out we went again, off to the restaurant I had intended from the beginning. It was kind of all right, and we took left-overs back (which might have been part of the reason I got so sick upon our return).

When we arrived “home away,” I finally checked my emails. And soon I came upon one from Kenny White, reading, “hope the postponement isn’t too big a drag for you.” (I had told him we were coming up. Marianne, on the other hand, still didn’t know what the hell we were doing there.) Uh oh, I thought. I quickly scanned down the email list in reverse chronology, and there was the announcement from the early afternoon. Was it better that they had cancelled than that I lose my advance payment in snowbound regret or my life trying to make it there… yeah, probably. Anyway, now seemed just the perfect time to make my own announcement, letting Marianne know why we had been up there. It was nine thirty, too late to catch a ferry back. So we decided to get up really early (you should know that these days, in retirement, “really early” generally means about noon to me, but here we were talking about rooster time) and hightail it back to Long Island before the storm hit. The flakes starting falling just as we reached my condo. And that was our second “vacation.” I’m pretty sure the Gods of Weather, working through this taunting website, are having a good laugh, literally at our expense.

I have been apprised of another, similar site that the young folk use called “AirBnB,” and I’ve perused it. But I’ll be damned if I let “Home Away” beat me. Someday we’re going to have a vacation that lasts at least twenty four hours! Meanwhile, my son is away on yet another ten day cruise, since my ex found herself a rich boyfriend. It hurts me that I can’t do more for him, but a combination of health and money issues make it very challenging. Maybe someday for that, too. Meanwhile, Spring Break is practically around the corner. And what kind of impending disaster could be left to mess with us? Oh, wait, I forgot, by then Trump will be President. Hey, staying in bed hiding under the covers is a pretty good way of getting away, too.

P.S. This was the very night of the postponed performance. Kenny White promised he’d do “Cyberspace” for me, and that he’d let me know when he’ll be back home performing in New York. I highly recommend his new album, “Long List of Priors.” With Leonard Cohen gone, we need to hold onto and support all the genius songwriters we have left.

Jews and Muslims and Blacks, Oh My

 

Okay, so now we find ourselves all essentially in the same boat, and “the ship be sinking.” The question is whether we will continue to struggle with each other until we drown or struggle together against “Trumpism.”

I have basically had to take a break from Facebook because of all of the anti-Jewish attacks and myths perpetrated by not just the right but by disturbed corners of the left as well, not just by those whom I have argued against but by those whom I’ve argued for when it comes to attacks and myths propagated against them. I am not religious, but I have come to be proud of my Jewish cultural heritage, the tradition of helping, of questioning and debating, of the valuing of facts and knowledge, of social conscience born of history and guilt, and, most of all, of siding with the “underdog.” Yes, I’ve seen in my lifetime too many Jews diverge from the direction their moral compass was pointing, out of both the typical paranoia suffered by most oppressed groups and their attempts to assimilate into White culture. But what still distinguished them… us… was that there was usually a wall that kept our missteps from reaching the depths to which members of most other White ethnic groups could sink, and that there were still many of us, disproportionately more in fact, that could never abandon our progressive roots. Where once we were the staunchest allies of African Americans in their struggles for civil rights, we allowed, and were substantially responsible for, a bitter schism to develop. And though we shared so much kinship and pain with Muslims, we are not only at odds, we are at war. And all the time, those who rule the world laugh at the success of their divide and conquer games: at the belief that it is “Zionists” and not corporatists that hold their seat of power, at the belief that it is Islam and not imperialism that is the principal and true source of terrorism, at the belief that it is the scapegoats, immigrants or Blacks or poor people or “political correctness” depending on the election season, that are the enemies of angry working people and not them, and at the belief that we, Jews and Muslims and Blacks, whatever our misunderstandings, are not natural and necessary allies in a battle for our mutual survival.

Once upon a time, Jews were not only active partners but in leadership positions in the civil rights movement. Many had commitment and courage enough to be beaten, and some, like Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, famously, to be lynched alongside their African American brothers and sisters. For decades, surveys of different ethnicities found Jews far and away the most supportive of African American rights. But in a racist society, it’s hard, even among the well intentioned, to avoid absorbing some of its prejudice, and many Blacks felt that the Jews who were supposed to be supporting them were actually more paternalistically trying to lead a movement that should be self-determined. In addition, as the Black Power movement grew and anger against Whites started to be freed, Jews became a particular target. I think this was because of two visibility factors: that we were the last White ethnic group to escape segregation and poverty and leave the communities that Blacks were moving into, with some remaining in the capacities of landlords and shop owners, and because of the tradition of serving in the helping professions, making us the teachers and social workers that Blacks were, not always pleasantly, dealing with. Unfortunately, for some African Americans, ranging from the Nation of Islam to, at one time, Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, the anti-Semitic stereotypes cast onto Jews coming from within other White ethnic groups that were nowhere to be seen seemed too tempting not to embrace. And many Jews, who couldn’t or didn’t want to understand this dynamic that was unfolding or the role of some of their own in its percolation, reciprocally turned their own backs on their former allies, albeit still not as much as those who had never been sympathetic in the first place.

Meanwhile, we have the greater mutual hatred centered in the Middle East, between Jews and Muslims. We should see this as fratricide. Jews and Arab Muslims are bound together as Semites, “the seed of Abraham.” Both claim the bequeathing by God of the “Holy Land” to them, and not coincidentally. Now, being non-religious, I would have found it more politically practical and morally justifiable if the subdivision of Germany had been for the purpose of creating the Jewish State rather than it being a plaything for imperialists. I am not a Zionist in the sense that I am not a nationalist and have no allegiance to Israel, especially given its reactionary and oppressive policies. But unlike too many, I understand what Zionism is, and is not. Zionism is not some conspiratorial international power elite of bankers and merchants, despite the ravings of neo-Nazis and people who have chosen, intentionally or defensively, to believe them. Zionism does not control America or Britain or any country other than Israel; the tail does not wag the dog. It is hard to blame Jews fleeing pogroms and gas ovens and millennia of other inventions of extermination to want a homeland of their own, again. Some of the leaders of their movement were imperialists, sure, but most were survivors who, like Moses, were trying to lead their people toward their prophesied salvation. Some really believed that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land,” and some clearly knew otherwise. It’s not very different from the “manifest destiny” that led victims of religious persecution in Europe to the alleged “New World.” The moral questions arise once each group arrived and (pardon the expression) “discovered” that there indeed was a people already settled there and for a long time (for those who believed that time is relevant to their “eternal God”). What followed were displacements and massacres. In Palestine, Jewish terrorists (yes, we can use that term, too), the Irgun and the Stern Gang, were ruthless in the colonization, and the rest of the immigrants either tacitly approved or looked away. The intention, even after the partition imposed by the Western powers that saw the remaining Arabs getting the least desirable and cultivable of what had been their homeland (since, like the Native Americans, they didn’t know what to do with the land anyway), was clearly to take over all of “Eretz Israel,” which has become reality with the support of those Western powers. And why did they provide that support, and those arms and vetoes? Not because “Zionists” control anything, but because having a “friendly ally” in an area where their control was shaky at best was and is good politics and business, hence the propping up of other “friendly” regimes, from that of the Shah of Iran to the current government of Iraq. Even Westerners ranging from neo-Cons to neo-Nazis who otherwise hate Jews as much as, if not more than Muslims support Israel, for reasons political, economic and/or religious.

Anyway, the “anti-Zionist” sentiment of Palestinians, fellow Muslims, and their supporters, who in America, again and ironically, happen to be disproportionately Jewish, is more than understandable. But sadly, beginning with the collaboration between the Nazis and some Arab leaders, and continuing as too many Palestinians, from their vantage point, started seeing Israel and Zionism as a multi-tentacled giant that embodied and confirmed the historic stereotypes of Jews rather than just one of hundreds of governments that oppress their minorities, “Zionists” became a code word. This further provoked the paranoia and tightened the blinders, very typical of “post-oppressive syndrome,” of many Jews internationally, who already believed themselves “chosen” and carried their own horrible myths and stereotypes about Islam. And now we live in a world of lies and self-fulfilling prophesies, and we Americans are facing a regime made up of racists and of anti-Semites in the fullest sense of the term. Trump supporters are celebrating a victory for White Christian America, with, by now since the election, over a thousand cases of harassment and assault against Jews and Muslims, African Americans and Latinos, and the spray-painting of swastikas and “KKK” next to “Trump” in schoolyards and dorms and on people’s cars and homes. White supremacists have been fueled and emboldened, and a White nationalist/anti-Semite has been appointed the chief Presidential advisor by a President-elect who used neo-Nazi sources of “information” for his campaign, picked someone who was too racist for a Republican Congress to approve for a federal judgeship to be our Attorney General, and still talks about a registry for Muslims. So I am reaching out to my Muslim and Black brothers and sisters. Can we afford to be divided anymore? Does it even matter “who started it” when the specter of someone else “finishing it” hangs over our collective heads? In the face of “divide and conquer” we have to unite, and finally understand now that it is undeniably clear that an attack on any of us is an attack on all of us and requires that we stand and fight back together, as we should have all along.