Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat


Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down 
Sit down, you're rockin' the boat 
Lyrics by Frank Loesser  from “Guys and Dolls

My husband and I have different memories. My memory was never good.  I can’t remember proper nouns, including people’s names.  I can’t remember dates.  He remembers both names and dates and stories as well.  I remember pictures and songs. 

I have been thinking recently about this great ship we call America and how it seems to be buffeted about recently by a lot of forces as well as strident voices from both sides.  That brought to mind the song “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” which in turn brought back long forgotten memories of when I was in India years ago. 

I was part of a group of eight that was visiting several orphanages in Andhra Pradesh.  One of the closest towns was Narsapur and we journeyed there several times.  Narsapur sits on the Western bank of the Godavari River, the second longest river in India, and at the time of our visit, there was no bridge from the Eastern side where we were located.  We would take a ferry, which was no more than a rather primitive flat bottomed wood boat powered by oars, from shore to shore. Several in our group hesitated, but after making the trip several times, we became accustomed to the river crossings.

Then, one day, we were asked to visit a village south of Narsapur, considerably closer to where the Godavari empties into the Bay of Bengal.  When we arrived at the shore, there was no ferry.  It was obviously a place where the local fishermen set out as there were large circular fishing nets spread out on the nearby grass to dry and a number of primitive boats resembling very large wooden canoes resting on the shore.   As you would imagine it was a picture out of biblical times, the type of boat the disciples were in when they cried out in fear for Jesus to calm the waters.

Godavari River - Rajamundy, Andhra PradeshGodavari River - Rajamundy, Andhra Pradesh

Augustine, the head of the mission orphanage where we were staying, commandeered one of the fishermen and convinced him to take our group to the other side.  The river was much swifter as it was meeting the currents of the Bay of Bengal and much wider at that point.  It was so wide in fact, that you could barely make out the opposite shore. It was with much trepidation that we all climbed into the boat.  We had not even left the shore before we realized that this was not going to be your typical ferry ride.  The boat rocked back and forth as we clambered in and tried to take our place.  As I recall, there were no seats, so we had to make ourselves comfortable sitting or kneeling on the ribs of the boat. 

Before we had even gotten in the boat, Augustine told us that we could not stand up once we left shore, we had to remain seated.  That was fine until the boat actually moved away from the shore and into the current.  The further from shore we got, the more frightened we became and eventually, one then another tried to stand up.  That did not help.  In fact, it made matters much worse and the boat rocked even more violently.  Even Augustine began to panic and he kept yelling at us, “Sit down, sit down.”  And, I would have added if I had not been too afraid to open my mouth, “Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat.”

We eventually made it past the deep part of the river into more shallow and calm waters.  And there, for me, was the most amazing part of our journey.  In the shallows, we saw several fishermen, throwing their nets into the water.  It is very hot in that part of India as it is so close to the equator, so they were scantily dressed with only a white cloth wrapped around their lower half like a pair of tighty whities.  There was one fisherman in particular I will never forget.  He was the most beautiful being I have ever seen.  Very dark as most natives of that part of India are, but with the most beautiful features and stunning blue eyes.  He put Paul Newman to shame. To this day, his face is engraved in my memory.

The trip back to the other side was fairly uneventful.  We must have learned our lesson, that fear often causes us to take actions that put us even more at risk.

When I think of all the protests from both sides that is going on in our great nation today, I recall that boat ride.  It’s not that I don’t think we should all stand up for what is right.  I think we have a moral obligation to do so, but we must also heed our surroundings and the impact of our actions.  If all of this standing up hurls us towards anarchy, we will all be the losers.  It’s one thing for a boat to rock a little in shallow waters, but when it gets too deep, we have to sit down.  Who knows, in doing so, we just might get a glimpse of something beautiful, beyond our imagination.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Celebrity

I’ve been thinking a lot about celebrity lately; about how many of us aspire to be like them and how many of us let them determine our views on a myriad of subjects.  We let them determine how we believe without taking the time to form our own opinions.  It’s as if, because they are celebrities, they are wiser and more knowledgeable than we are.

I thought of this while I was stirring the peanut butter this morning, mixing the oil which had separated back into the ground peanuts. I was thinking of the Women’s March in Washington and all of the celebrities who attended and made speeches.   My first thought was, “I wonder if Madonna has ever stirred peanut butter for her morning spread on toast?”  My guess is not.  I doubt that she cooks her own eggs or pours her own milk very often. 

Regardless of your political leanings, you have to admit that celebrity is how we ended up with Trump for president.  When the original show “The Apprentice”, which featured ordinary people vying for a job failed to amuse people any longer, the show became “Celebrity Apprentice”, with contestants who were celebrities competing for contributions to their favorite charities.    Of course, many of these so-called celebrities were already has-beens, having had their day in the sun, but being unable to fade gracefully into the sunset, they were willing to play for the camera once more.
It is the almighty camera that all celebrities are vying for.  It’s almost as if the camera has become their god.  They will gain fifty pounds in order play a certain role and then turn around and lose a hundred for another.  There is very little real about all those we consider celebrities.  They have whatever they need at their disposal to make them more attractive than the average person:  Botox, liposuction, makeup artists, hair stylists, wardrobe specialists and Photoshop if all else fails.  But they are smart.  Somehow they have convinced us that their life is real and ours is not.  They’ve convinced all of us that our lives are shallow compared to theirs, that their concerns are more valuable than ours, and that their lifestyle is to be envied and emulated above all others.
 
That’s not to say that throughout history there haven’t been persons who deserved our admiration, but they were never movie or television stars.  When I was in college, my friends were astonished that I was not afraid of growing old.  “Why should I be?”  I would ask, “The only women I have admired throughout my life have all been older women.”  I was referring to my grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Theresa, none of whom would have been considered beautiful by our standards today, but all of whom possessed an inner beauty that was unmistakable and unavoidable.  The real women of celebrity were the “Rosie the Riveters” who kept the airplane factories running during the Second World War.  They were and are the nurses that hold the hands of a dying patient and the teachers who make a difference in the life of a child.  The real celebrities are the waitresses who serve cup after cup of coffee in the local diner or stand on their feet for hours on a factory assembly line in order to support their family.

And, true celebrity is not limited to women.  There are the police and firemen who risk their lives daily in order to keep us safe.  There is the local pastor who spends his days visiting the sick in hospitals.  There are the postmen who deliver our mail come rain or shine and the guys who stand on the back of the trash truck in the most bitter weather to pick up our excess.  There are the farmers and ranchers who maintain our plentiful food source.

All of these men and women, who labor to make our lives better, are those who should be admired.  They are just as bright and accomplished as those we hero worship.  They have wisdom to impart and many do so on a daily basis.  Although the world doesn’t pay much attention to what they have to say, they are the ones that keep this great nation running.  They are the ones we need to survive.  Unlike many of the present day celebrities who have been enticed by the organization that calls itself “Refuse Fascism”, these men and women are able to think for themselves.  They are not trying to win a popularity poll.  They are just carrying out the most mundane tasks of life, like mowing the lawn or making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their kids to take to school for lunch.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Much Ado About Nothing

I feel like I’m living in a Shakespearean play, but rather than being the husband who was cuckolded by his wife (or vice versa) we’ve been duped by the weatherman.  More specifically, the National Weather Service and the Weather Channel convinced us that a catastrophe was upon us when I’ve seen more ice accumulate in my freezer with the door open.  It was supposed to arrive on Friday, then Saturday and finally on Sunday and it did for some, but not here in Emporia.  I watched the radar for two days and what was heading for Emporia never materialized.  In fact, it looked like the Red Sea parting for the Israelites.  There was freezing rain and sleet to the west, south, east and north, but we survived reasonably unscathed.

The question is, for all of us who rushed to the grocery and/or hardware store to stock up for the promised impending disaster, how could we be so gullible?  Like most of those living in the forecasted extreme danger zone, we spent the last two days rushing around buying flashlights, batteries and silicone to keep the ice from freezing the car doors shut.  We rushed out to the grocery store, unstocking their shelves.  We covered our car with tarps and spread ice melt over all of the sidewalks.  At least we made the local merchants happy.   How did we get to the point where we let the weather prognosticators determine our future?  What happened to one, being prepared all of the time and two, dealing with emergencies after they happened, not before?  When did we start turning all of our decision making powers over to those with little more expertise than we have ourselves?  I used to be able to look out the window and make a determination as to whether it was safe or not to venture out.  How could we all fall for these so-called expert pronouncements and assume them to be one hundred percent reliable? 

Then I check those thoughts at the door as I recall some of the outrageous posts on Facebook that we’re supposed to believe are real.  The most recent one I came upon reported that all of the Hollywood celebrities were going on strike and are not going to be making any movies as a response to Trump being sworn in as president.  If I believed it was real, I would ask, “How soon and for how long?”  But I don’t think we’re that fortunate.  My guess is that they all know that the movie industry is hanging by a thread and most of us could care less if they stopped making movies altogether. If they did, the world would not stop.  In fact, the world might become a better place.  The same could be said for all of the reality shows and fake celebrities.

I ask you, would John Wayne have quit movies just because he didn’t like the person who was elected president of the United States?  Or Jimmy Stewart or Lauren Bacall or Donna Reed?  In those golden days of movies, the stars knew what they were, and what they were not.  They didn’t pretend to control our thought processes or even want to.  They knew that they were just entertainers, like the court jesters in medieval times, and that their livelihood depended on pleasing their audience.   Now celebrities think that the will of the people has to bend to theirs.

We are all being cuckolded to some extent.  Both sides of the political spectrum feed us half-truths.  It’s almost impossible to separate out all of the lies and fabrications from the truth.  Sometimes I wish that the entire top layer of society would disappear down a giant sinkhole.  The politicians, the elites, the celebrities, the media, the weathermen, the statisticians, and prognosticators are all feeding us junk food and we’re starving for truth because of it.  I’m sure they feel powerful because they can push us around and force us to do things we would not do in our right minds, but I’m tired of it. 
It’s wistful thinking on my part to hope that after Friday, when Donald Trump will be sworn in as the next president of the United States, things will return to normal; we will all come to our senses and stop being manipulated one way or the other by the media.

But back to the weather situation.  As I write this, I am sitting here with one of the cats, enjoying the open window.  It’s not close to freezing outside and the third floor, where I do all of my writing, heats up on days like this even when the sun is not shining.  I watch one of the neighbors sweeping leaves out of the gutter and realize that life goes on, with or without the weather forecasters.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

“Annus Horribilis'

In November of 1992, Queen Elizabeth gave a speech marking her 40th anniversary as queen.  In that speech, she referred to the passing year as “Annus Horribilis” which means “Horrible year” in Latin.  “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” She said.  “I suspect that I am not alone in thinking it so.”

I think that many of us would echo those sentiments for the year that has just passed.  With the exception of 1968, there is no year in recent memory that can come close.  It’s interesting, of course, that both years happened to be election years.  What is it about the presidential election that seems to bring out the worst in all of us?  I suspect a lot of the angst is a result of expecting perfection from flawed human beings, and we will always be disappointed.

But, as tragic as the results of the presidential election were for some, just like in 1968, there was much more that contributed to this horrible year.
 
1968 began with the Tet offensive in Vietnam which resulted in the deaths of many U.S. servicemen serving there.  That was followed by the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and riots in the streets of several major U.S. cities and finally the riots at the Democratic party convention in Chicago.

One of the primary differences between 1968 and 2016 was the primaries.  The New Hampshire primary, which is always the first in the nation, took place in March as opposed to the beginning of the year as was the case last year.  Bobby Kennedy didn’t even announce his intention to run until March. In 1968, one did not have to endure an entire year of campaign robo calls and media advertisements.

Another big difference is that with the exception of a couple of crazies, we were not killing each other in 1968 as we were in 2016.  The past year set a record for killing of police and each other.  In Chicago alone, there were 972 homicides.  We had kids killing each other, police shooting citizens and citizens shooting police.  Between the vitriol launched by politicians against their opponents and the constant reports of shootings and massacres, our limit on how much violence we could absorb was exhausted.

We can only stand so much pain, but we always seem to take stock of the year by the celebrity deaths.  Last year had more than it’s share.  There were rock stars, politicians, actors, and true heroes who were lost last year, although the media seems to obsess over stars and musicians the most.  Much was made of the deaths of musicians David Bowie, Prince, George Michael and  Leonard Cohen while some of the more notable in my opinion such as Leon Russell, Merle Haggard and Glen Frey made their exit to much less fanfare.  In the world of politics, we lost Janet Reno, the first woman to be U.S. Attorney general and Justice Antonin Scalia increasing the consternation surrounding the election and who would replace him on the Supreme Court.  We lost religious figures like Mother Mary Angelica and Tim LaHaye and two incredible writers, Elie Weisel and Harper Lee.  Some of the deaths were truly tragic like the shooting of Christina Grimme, while others like Nancy Reagan and John Glenn succumbed to old age after living to their nineties.

There seemed to be no end to the bad news, culminating with the deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds within one day of each other.

The media would have us believe that all of these deaths touched us in some way, that they were all heroes, or people to be admired and loved, but they’re wrong.  The true heroes, those we can really love, are those who impact our lives every day.  As I reflect on the year just ended, I was most impacted by the death of one of my childhood friends from the neighborhood where I grew up in Kansas City and a local man, Jeff O’Dell.  I did not know him well, but he was my neighbor’s constant companion.  My last glimpse of him was on Thursday, as I watched him walk down the street after leaving Sally’s house.  Jeff was not famous, but he was loved and admired by many and his death leaves a significant gap.  Perhaps that’s all we should strive for, to entwine ourselves in the lives of those around us so as to leave an impression on others.

Perhaps, as Queen Elizabeth stated, we cannot look back on last year with undiluted pleasure, but we can cherish the memories of those that we cared for who have been lost.  The rich and famous are not the only ones worth remembering as the year ends.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Peace on Earth


On Christmas day, 1863 during the height of the Civil War, William Wadsworth Longfellow, the most popular poet of the day and the author of such famous poems as Evangeline and Paul Revere’s Ride, found himself in Washington, DC.  Longfellow was both sad and tired.  His wife, the love of his life, had died two years earlier and Longfellow still bore the scars on his face from the burns he suffered in his futile attempt to save her.  The country was in the midst of the brutal Civil War that pitted friends and neighbors, fathers and sons against each other.  Finally, on November 27th, his oldest son, Charles, was wounded in a battle of the Mine Run Campaign in Virginia. 

Longfellow was in Washington, DC to meet his son who had been transported there.  It was uncertain if Charley, who had been wounded in the shoulder with the bullet passing very close to his spinal cord, would be paralyzed as a result or even survive at all.

Imagine the pain and uncertainty Longfellow must have been experiencing at that time.  Things were uncertain not only in his own personal life, but the future of the nation was at stake at well.  Yet, in the midst of the chaos surrounding him, Longfellow heard the ringing of bells, and he was once more reminded of the promise of the season. 

"I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

In addition to the verses that are normally sung at Christmas time, Longfellow’s poem included two stanzas referencing the war with the south and how the cannon sound was drowning out the sound of carols, which led him to become bereft of any hope.

"And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

 I don’t know if Washington, DC was in the throes of ice and snow like that the nation is experiencing this year, but the future at that point in time appeared to be very bleak and dreary.  Eventually however, his thoughts of despair were replaced with the promise of this season.   

"Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Here we are at Christmas, over a hundred and fifty years later and we find ourselves once again surrounded by hopelessness and despair.  Anger still festers from the results of the election, the uncertainty of a new president hovers around us while the thoughts of the refuges from the war in Syria are not far from our hearts and minds.  But just as in Longfellow’s time, hope is still to be heard.  Hope is heard in the bells of the Salvation Army, collecting funds to provide food, toys for children and gifts for shut-ins.  Hope is heard in the many organizations and businesses that provide gifts to families that would otherwise go without.  Hope is heard is the CASA volunteers, in teachers who make sure that their students are taken care of and in the organizations that make sure that children have a safe environment.  Hope is heard at Auspision, Hetlinger, and all of the other organizations that provide services for those developmentally challenged. 

Look around you and you will see that the bells are still pealing out the song of “Peace on Earth, good-will to men”!

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Excess of Christmas

It’s that time of year again, when the mailboxes and e-mails begin to fill up with catalogs of all the things we can’t live without.  I confess that we get more than our share of catalogs and I cannot resist perusing them.  Sometimes I see things I would like, but never anything that I need.  There are catalogs with holiday dresses that belong at a fancy dress ball, something I won’t be attending soon, catalogs for foodstuffs that no one in my family would eat and catalogs for hundreds of gifts that are not only impractical, but not even attractive.

 Most of the time I am amazed at what is available and at what price.  The copywriters keep producing copy to convince you that there is an item that you absolutely cannot live without.  How about a personalized cutting board for $159, or a popcorn bowl with kernel sifter for $75? 
Then there is the Restoration Hardware catalog that we received for some unknown reason.  It is 664 pages thick and weighs three pounds.  I really apologize to the postman for that one.  It is filled with items I could not afford even if I wanted them:  an Italian leather chaise lounge for $4395, a dining table reduced for $4995, or a reclaimed beam coffee table for $3995 (member price $2996).  I can’t figure out how I became a member, let alone how I would pay for anything I might purchase from that catalog.
 
This is Christmas, guys.  Come on!  We’re celebrating the birth of a baby born in a stable to a poor unmarried mother.  What does a $30 journal of “My Life Story So Far” have to do with what we are celebrating.  We have taken what was a somber, yet joyful occasion and turned it into a wintertime Mardi Gras, celebrating all things excessive:  eating, drinking, and dancing.

Even the Christmas movies, if they should even be called that, are filled with a lot of colorful frou frou, but little substance.  Somewhere along the line, we have lost our way.
 
I keep thinking about my favorite movie this time of year, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  In my opinion, none of the Christmas movies of the past years have come close.   There is no elf, substitute Santa, or toy that can provide the same depth of character as Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey.   It is fortunate that many of the great movies of the past were made in black and white.  There is something more concrete and lasting about those images, as if the truth is more obvious because there are very few distractions.
 
Where would someone like George Bailey fit in with all of this excess.  George was tempted like all of us are, by everything he could not have.  He wanted to travel, he wanted to see the world.  He wanted to be part of something big, not stuck in a dumpy old town for the rest of his life.  But in the end, he ended up with the woman he adored, spending their wedding night in the broken down old house with the leaky roof.  All they needed was a warm fire, some posters of where they might have gone, and friends who made sure that they had everything that money could not buy.

The world is intent on selling us something and unfortunately, we have bought into it lock stock and barrel.  We have mortgaged ourselves to a lender who cares for noting but the almighty dollar.  We try to satisfy ourselves with $1000 pre-lit Christmas trees or $500 pajamas as if any of that could buy us peace, happiness, or contentment.  Rather than being content as George Bailey eventually was with a leaky old roof, a wife and family that loved him and friends and neighbors who loved and supported him as well, we’ve all become miniature Mr. Potters, willing to sacrifice all that is good for one more dollar or possession.

Of course, a lot of good is also being done this time of year.  There are many charitable organizations that collect money, food or clothes for the poor.  There are many organizations, like Angel Tree, that provide gifts, so that those less fortunate, especially children do not have to go without during this season of abundance.

I don’t know how to stop the marketing, the Black Friday sales, the catalogs, or the TV ads, but I can change my perspective.  I can concentrate on how I can give, not get.  I can keep myself from being tempted by all of the beautiful pictures of an unrealistic life style.  I can appreciate what I have and those I have around me.  If I could, I would lasso the moon for those I love, but I will not tie them down with mere trinkets. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Serenity


We’re back after almost two weeks in Spain, at least our bodies are, I’m not sure about our minds.  Spain is a thrill for the senses.  The colors, the music, the food and drink, even the smells bear witness that you are not at home.  There is something exciting and at the same time challenging about being in an environment so different from that to which you are accustomed.  It makes you feel more alive and when you are brought back to earth, gives you a different perspective on your normal surroundings.

Of course, coming back to the United States through JFK always brings you back to reality.  We deplaned at 3:00 pm, the stated arrival time.  Then, we stood in line without moving for almost an hour.  Apparently the computers for U.S. Customs at JFK decided to quit just as our plane arrived and there was no alternative.  Having taken the leap into the computer information age, U.S. Customs felt no need to have a manual back-up plan in case something went awry.  So, we stood and waited as other international flights landed, creating an immense backlog, that once the breach was repaired, resulted in chaos of a magnitude not seen since Katrina.  Everyone was running for a computer terminal that worked, customs officials were trying to tell everyone where to go to no avail, and most of us were wandering around trying to make sense of it.
 
Our itinerary allotted two and a half hours in JFK before our flight out.  As it was, we made it to the gate as the plane was boarding, reminding me of the time I expressed concern to the rental car agent in Dublin about our ability to navigate the roads of Ireland.  “Well”, he said, “Let me put it this way.  There are thousands of tourists in Ireland this week.  Someone has to get through.”  That’s the only approach one can take to getting through customs when arriving through JFK.  Someone has to get through.  Fortunately, this time, we were the ones to ‘get through’.

We already knew that we would be coming back to some form of controversy since we left prior to the election.  I was pretty sure that, regardless of which side won, the other side would not let go of the fear and animosity without some form of protest.  It’s a shame that so few of us these days know anything about taking the moral high road.  I was pleased to see that Mike Pence at least took that tone when the cast of Hamilton felt that they had to sound off as he attended a performance with his family.  “This is what freedom sounds like,” the future Vice President elect stated.  “I wasn’t offended by what was said.  I will leave to others whether that was the appropriate venue to say it.”  Hopefully, with the passing weeks, the furor will die down and we can resume somewhat normal lives.

Tinker the stinker
Unfortunately, that was not the only chaos that we returned home to.  We have a new kitten.  We are suckers for abused and neglected animals, so another one found its way to our door.  She was found suffering a pretty nasty wound to the face as if a dog tried to tear her ear off.  A friend kept her while we were gone and her wounds are healing.  She is going to be a survivor just like Gracie, the best jumper in the house, who came to us unable to walk after being hit by a car.  This kitten now has the chance to grow up in a safe environment.  Of course, we will have to live for a few weeks, with a couple of very put out cats, who are fighting with the kitten and if they cannot make her leave, will at least try to make her life miserable.
  
Adversity, not chaos, makes us stronger.  It is all in our response.  When things go wrong, do we accept the circumstances and try to get better through them, or do we magnify the situation, creating an even more chaotic environment that is a threat to everything around us.
 
I am reminded of the serenity prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”  We live in a world that is crying out for peace, for serenity, but we can’t expect it from someone or someplace else.  It is ours alone to decide if we want to be surrounded by peace and calm or chaos.

We intentionally planned to be in Spain over the election, to seek some sanity, some relief from the histrionics.  Now that we’re back, perhaps things will settle down, if only the household cats will do the same thing.