Wednesday, November 7, 2018

United

In the wake of this year’s US mid-term elections, the pundits seem to agree that the country is more divided than ever; a New York Times headline today reads, “Unusually high voter turnout illustrates the intensity of divisions in the era of Donald Trump.”

And while it’s by no means inaccurate to point out that Americans hold strongly opposed views on any number of issues, I do think we all still have a lot in common.  Policy, positions, and politicians may divide us, but what we care most deeply about unites us.  Consider these seven values that all Americans share, regardless of demographics, political affiliations, or even favored NFL team.
  1. Fairness: Everyone agrees that everyone should be treated fairly.  We disagree on what fairness looks like, hence the debates over immigration policy, social security, and so on.  But all Americans believe that people should get what they deserve and deserve what they get.
  2. Liberty: Liberty is different than freedom; not everyone agrees that everyone should be free.  But we all value the right to live our lives as we set fit to live them; whether you’re a gun-totin’ pickup-drivin’ Nascar-lovin’ redneck or a chardonnay-sipping, Prius-owning, yoga-doing liberal snowflake, we all want the liberty to be who we are.
  3. Winning: Americans love to win.  Unfortunately, where there are winners, there are losers and that’s where the disagreement and divisiveness comes in.  But if the winners remember that without the losers, there are no winners, then perhaps shared value is easier to come by.
  4. Loved Ones: Everyone loves their loved ones; in most, if not nearly all cases, these loved ones are family, but it’s an overstatement to say that, as Americans, we uniformly share a love for family; lots of people don’t even like their families, but we all like the people we like.
  5. Courage: Courage is a particularly American virtue; we all hold in great esteem those whom we identify as courageous.  Again, we disagree over what actions count as courageous, but we are brought together in our shared appreciation for courageous actions, whatever they may be.
  6. Ingenuity: This is another characteristically American quality of character.  All our national heroes, whether on the right, left, or in the middle, were individuals who figured something out for themselves in order to make life better or easier for other people.  “Good old-fashioned American ingenuity” is really a thing and a thing that we all really value.
  7. Security: Even the most contentious issues of the day, like gun control, for instance, are really disagreements over the shared value of security.  Above all, Americans (and probably, people everywhere) share a desire to live safely, free from fear, and secure from attack and persecution.  If only we could keep in mind that the surest way to establish and maintain security in our lives is to recognize our shared values and establish a greater sense of unity and harmony among us all, a unity and harmony that really is there if only we stop arguing long enough to see it.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Nuance

Famed 20th century journalist, H.L. Menken, wrote “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

We see the truth of the “sage of Baltimore’s” words every day these days as the Executive Branch of our national government offers yet another simple—and erroneous—fix to an incredibly complex and bedeviling challenge facing our country and the world.

Take the so-called “zero tolerance” approach to undocumented entry by non-citizens into the US…please!

Seriously, if there’s anything we ought to have “zero tolerance” for it’s the idea that there is a single one-size-fits-all-no-compromise way of dealing with immigration policy, especially one that results in the moral horror of children being separated from their parents who are simply doing what good parents have always done: taking whatever steps are necessary in their minds to provide a better life for their kids!

Instead of examining the root causes of why so many people are willing to make a treacherous journey from their home countries with the slim hope of finding safety and security in a foreign country that, ironically, was built on this very promise (but now, is rejecting that heritage out-of-hand), America’s demagogic “leader” proclaims that there is one and only one way to deal with the issue, as if simplistic stipulations alone were enough to solve problems whose causes are a result of myriad factors and forces with historical, economic, and social dimensions.

Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them;” that would be particularly apt in this case, except that it’s not obvious that any thinking whatsoever has been employed in crafting this “solution” to the problem.

Remember nuance?  Remember how authentic leaders like Jimmy Carter or Vaclav Havel or even, believe it or not, George H. W. Bush, recognized that sophisticated problems require even more sophisticated responses?

Nowadays, of course, “sophisticated” is a pejorative; oddly enough, a rather nuanced judgment in itself.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ascetic

Humanity can be divided into two categories: people who wear hats and people who don’t.

Point being: generalizations are arbitrary and not all that illuminating; you can divvy up the world into any number of binary distinctions; the differences will allow you to sort, but the sorting won’t really tell you anything of substance.

Nevertheless, there may be something of value to take from noticing that people’s tastes and inclinations do fall, more or less, along a continuum between asceticism at one end and hedonism at the other.  There are those, in other words, who are disposed more towards self-denial and those whose preference is for self-indulgence.

This is not to suggest that one approach is superior to the other; it is, however, to acknowledge that, given a choice of dinner entrees, some percentage of the population will order the full meal, while some other faction will decline to put in a request at all.

I believe I lean towards the ascetic side; it’s not that I don’t take pleasure in pleasure; rather, it’s that, to some extent, my most pleasurable experiences are not those that produce the most pleasure.  Of course, if that’s the case, then those that don’t do, thereby revealing the contradictory nature of this state of affairs. 

Suffice it to say, I’ll happily take an unpeeled carrot and a shot of rye neat; save the ortolan and Singapore Sling for that outgoing person at the other end of the bar.

The late great Anthony Bourdain embodied the attitude and behavior of the pleasure-seeker; it’s harder to find cultural archetypes of the ascetic sensibility; maybe the Dalai Lama qualifies, but I’ll also take former supermodel, Kate Moss, whose famous quote, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” seems like it captures the paradoxical quality of asceticism’s appeal.

It also highlights the key point that asceticism is different than self-denial; ascetics don’t not do what they want to; they just don’t do what they don’t.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Comments

From time to time, and always against my better judgment (which clearly is the smallest part of my overall judgment), I read the “Comments” section of articles on the online versions of various news sources I frequent. 

Naturally, the opinions expressed routinely make my blood boil, so it’s puzzling as to why I subject myself to them.  Do I really need to know what some guy in his underpants thinks about Black Lives Matters or bicycle infrastructure?

I know I should talk, given that I’m running my own mouth here, but it does seem strange to me that so many people feel sop compelled to post their two cents about so many issues and articles.  It’s not as if it makes any difference, or indeed, that anyone really cares.  Do people posting their comments really imagine that they are fostering understanding or contributing in any meaningful way to the public discourse?

I’m just glad that there weren’t online comments throughout the course of history.  Couldn’t you just see people responding to the Gettysburg Address, for instance, with observations like the term “four score and seven” being too fancy or the claim that the “government or the people, by the people, and for the people” SHOULD perish from the face of the earth?

The comments that really chap my ass are the ones that attempt to personalize world events like when, in response to say, a terrorist act in France, the commenter writes that they visited France just last year and were shocked to see armed guards outside the Louvre.  Or the person who commented on an article about Hurricane Harvey that it was sunny and clear outside their kitchen window.

Obviously, the only person who cares what the commenters think are the commenters themselves—and perhaps, sometimes, someone like me, who against their better judgment, reads those comments and gets all burned up about them.

The solution is simple: stop reading the comments, no further comment required.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse

I like the part that, for a couple of hours at least, I got to be reminded that we are tiny little organisms in a great big solar system where celestial events happen in spite of any sort of human activity whatsoever.  And it was cool to be able to see the moon moving in front of the sun in real time.

All that was mitigated slightly by the hyping of the “Great American Eclipse” as if somehow the US of A is special just because a swath of the country fell into the “zone of totality.”  But, I guess if there’s money to be made, why the hell not?

The most visually interesting part of the event, for me, was the way we got little crescent shadows through the leaves and the curtains; tiny pinhole cameras abound.  Also, though it may have been my imagination, it did seem cooler when the peak of the event occurred.

The problem now that it’s over is what to do?  For a little while this morning, I got to pretend that it mattered what I did, even if that was just being an observer of an unusual event.  Now, I’m faced with the difficulty of making meaning in a meaningless universe again; too bad there isn’t a lunar eclipse to look forward to in half a month.

Also, what are we going to do with all these eclipse-viewing glasses?  I suppose I could hang onto them until 2024, when an eclipse next visits the US; perhaps they’ll be “vintage” by then and will command a premium price.  In all likelihood, however, they will go into the kitchen “junk drawer” where they will languish until I experience a fit of cleaning frenzy and toss them in the trash, probably around next summer. 

That sort of activity may not be as predictable as the transit of the moon across our star, but based on well-known cycles of activity, it’s a sure thing.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Memory

Often when I’m stoned, I have brilliant insights into the human condition that allow me to be more forgiving and compassionate towards my fellow human beings.  Unfortunately, those revelations are ephemeral and by the time I might get around to writing them down, they’re gone.  Consequently, I find myself just as clueless and misguided as I was before I got high and no more considerate towards mankind than I ever was.

So, fuck all of you SUV drivers, Trump supporters, and Baltimore Ravens fans. 

Ah, that’s better.

Just kidding! 

Actually, I love you all, and I don’t need drugs to remind me.  (What I need drugs for, as a matter of fact, is to lessen the pain of human existence and also to make bike riding easier and more fun; also, to encourage me to swim in the lake and to make reading fiction more enjoyable; oh, and because it keeps me from wandering around the house eating everything in sight and additionally, since it eases some of the nagging pain I feel in my knee and my neck.  And, of course, because weed smoking makes me cool.)

I recall the first time I ever got stoned; it was the day after Thanksgiving, 1972; I was in the third-floor poolroom of our house in Pittsburgh; Val Hornstein, whose older brother was an authentic hippie, as evidenced by his dog-eared copy of Be Here Now, had a joint of “Acapulco Gold” procured from said sibling.  We smoked it and walked around outside in a snowstorm that was so beautiful and quiet that it’s no wonder I’m still a pothead almost fifty years later.

One of the things I like about weed is that it makes the simple complex and the complex simple.  Big issues, like how to prevent nuclear war with a madman for President slide away, and you get to focus your attention on whether to wear sandals or Converse.

At least, that’s how I remember it.

Monday, August 7, 2017

To-Don't

I’d like to be a better procrastinator, but I never seem to get around to it.

The number one item on my “to-do” list is to make a “to-do” list.

You can’t really waste time if anything you might do is pointless; the key to being efficient is never having something to do.

I realize I am incredibly privileged to be in a position of such freedom; essentially, that position is prone, on the couch, napping.

I spend most of my time, riding bikes, smoking weed, and reading fiction.  The rest, I squander.

I’m starting this business where I will take money to be lazy in your name.  Busy professionals, don’t have time to smoke wees and go swimming in the lake?  No problem; I’ll do that for you; I’ll even upload a Selfie so you can see how much fun you’re having!

I start to feel a little guilty at being such a bum; but, thankfully, it’s too much effort to keep that up.

I’ll be busy enough, soon enough, so I may was well enjoy this while I can; but if I don’t enjoy it, that’s even better since it means I’ve even wasted the time I could have spent wasting my time.

When I’m dead, no one will complain that I’m not working hard enough.  So, see, I’m just preparing for the inevitable here.

I’ve read that our hunter-gatherer ancestors typically spent only a few hours a day in procuring food.  The rest of the time, they hung around chatting, did art, and played games of chance.  Fuck the “Paleo Diet;” I’m going for the full Paleo Lifestyle!

I’ve even given up shaving for the next few weeks; so much better to save five minutes on my morning ablutions when I have a mere 23 hours and 55 minutes to fill before tomorrow.

I think I’ll go the library now; or maybe I’ll just put that on my “to-do” list for another summer day.