The Beat Goes On

My last blog post was a bit of a downer, so this morning I am going to try to turn that around. I tend to be a glass half-empty person, so when the news bombards me with one bad thing after another, it is all too easy to succumb to depression. When I fall into that unhappy state, I find it difficult to even move, though I know movement is what I crave most. Some of the remedies available to cure my depression have disappeared with the self-quarantining and social distancing brought about by COVID-19, but if I catch myself in time, I can exercise, stretch, watch an uplifting video on YouTube, or read…anything to snap my mind away from darkness.

If I don’t catch myself in time, I can still pull myself out of the hole with even a very simple movement. A micro-movement. This is a trick that is talked about in self-help circles. When the big jobs seem too big, break them down into manageable chunks. When the road seems too overgrown to be passable, just take one step at a time. (I think of the great song “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” from the holiday special Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.)

NOTE: If you suffer from depression, even just little bit, even just once in a while, do this: Find the number of a helpline and program it into your phone. Write it on a notepad to keep by your bed, by your chair, wherever you think you might need it. Do this now so it will be there and handy and waiting for you if you ever need it.

So here are a few micro-movements that can get me moving when I sink into a funk. Corny? Simplistic? Yes, that’s the point. They have to be so easy that I have no excuse to not do them.

  • Smile
  • Life my arms
  • Stretch my legs
  • Go get a glass of water
  • Make a funny face

Again: If you are in a seriously bad spot, seek help.

If you are not depressed, but just need a way to feel less hopeless and helpless in the world, try one or more of these:

  • Make a phone call
  • Write an old-fashioned pen on paper letter
  • Go online not to argue but to spread some joy. Say “hello” to someone. Like someone’s cute puppy picture. Compliment somebody.
  • If you can afford it, donate to a good charity or buy a creator’s artwork or craft.

Corny? Simplistic? Easy? Yup. But I’ll try to follow this advice next time I’m blue, and I hope you will too.

 

 

So We Beat On

To call 2020 a dumpster fire feels like a drastic understatement. It’s hard not to feel disgusted with…well, just about everybody these days. I’m disgusted with bad cops abusing their power, but I’m also disgusted with demonstrations that turn into property-destroying riots. I’m disgusted with racist politicians and the racist constituencies that keep reelecting them, but I’m also disgusted with calls for anarchy because that’s no solution at all. I’m disgusted with “open the economy now” protesters who gather in large COVID-19 spreading groups, and I’m disgusted with “justice for George Floyd” protesters who gather in large COVID-19 spreading groups. I’m disgusted with a president who is more interested in protecting his own ego than with the well-being of Americans, but I’m also disgusted with “clicktivists” who Like a few select FB posts and pretend they’re done with their civic duty.

No doubt I will wind up disgusted with myself for posting this, as I historically have been every time I post anything remotely political online and find myself embroiled in an ugly comment battle. I wish I had solutions. I wish I knew how to stay informed without going absolutely f***ing bonkers. (“I wish a lot of things!” – Cinderella. Sorry for inserting a music theatre reference in the midst of all this.)

I do know something that won’t work: Doing nothing. It has become commonplace to blame God for the situation (“It’s God’s will,” “God is punishing us for [insert pet prejudice here]”) and then dump the whole mess onto God’s lap to solve (“It’s all part of God’s plan,” “God will provide”). I don’t think it’s God’s plan for us to be lazy or to abdicate our responsibility to take care of each other and the planet we live on.

So what’s the right thing to do? We make ethical calls all the time; we have to. Failure to make an informed ethical decision is just a bad decision. (“I know what my decision is, which is not to decide!” – Cinderella again.) Sometimes we’ll get it right, others times not. I’d like to end with the famous final line of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” But I don’t think that’s the right message either. We’ll beat on, boats against the current, all right, but let’s not try to recreate an imagined perfect past. Let’s go forward.

(NOTE: I intended this to be a relatively short Facebook post, but it somehow expanded. Thanks for sticking with me.)

Today I stopped to get gas…

Today I stopped to get gas. While filling my car—okay, I confess, it’s an SUV—I was not alone. The pumps were all occupied, and the convenience store at which I was stopped seemed to be doing a good business. Of all the people I saw, I was the only one wearing a mask.

Back on the road, I couldn’t help but notice how much more traffic there was this week than there had been last week or a month ago. Restaurants with outdoor seating were hopping. Parking lots were full. Groups of people were gathering with circles of tight radii. Anywhere I looked, social distancing was not to be found.

Iowa is open for business. Is it too soon? Only time will tell. What is not debatable is that a lot of people don’t seem to care whether it is or isn’t premature. Many folks obviously aren’t concerned about what health officials and disease experts have to say.

I too am anxious for a return for normalcy. I too am going somewhat stir crazy. I too am concerned for the economy. But I am not willing to put of my fellow American at risk because I want a haircut. That’s not an exchange I’m willing to make, and the chance that reopening at this time might turn out fine is a gamble I’m not willing to make.

In lieu of any clear message from our leaders, it is up to each of us to make wise decisions. We—all of us—need to put the greater good first. We—all of us—need to exercise good judgement and caution. That means seeking out reliable information and acting from a place of knowledge. It means basing our decisions on concern for others. Anything less is foolish, selfish, short-sighted, and potentially dangerous.

Here’s one YouTube channel I have found helpful: Healthcare Triage.

In down-to-earth language, Dr. Aaron Carroll explains what’s going on in today’s health news, and answers some of the questions surrounding COVID-19. Am I suggesting you take every word he says as gospel truth and end your search there? No, but this is a good place to start.

Be safe. Be kind.

Everything Old Is New Again

I wanted you
And I was looking for you
But I couldn’t find you
I wanted you
And I was looking for you all day
But I couldn’t find you
I couldn’t find you.

– Laurie Anderson, “Walking and Falling” from the album Big Science (1982)

I first heard Laurie Anderson during my freshman year of college. I was at Northwestern University, suddenly out of Iowa and into the Big School in the Big City. I grew up in Des Moines, and compared to the rest of Iowa, we were the big city. I never thought my myself as a small-towner. Quite the contrary! I found Iowa outside of Des Moines to be painfully hick. Those farmers talked and looked hick. I was not like them; I was from the big capitol city of Des Moines!

Then I got to college. Northwestern is in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. Suddenly I was competing with folks from Chicago and New York and Philadelphia and Boston. I was now officially the hick. And I had never heard of Laurie Anderson.

I fell in love with her on first hearing. Her Big Science album was artsy and weird and quirky, and even though I thought I had fairly wide-ranging tastes, I had never heard anything quite like it. Since then, I have seen her on film, in concert, and hosting art shows. I’ve bought her books and her albums, then her cassettes, then her CDs.

But it was only a few days ago that I made a connection: Her lyrics remind me of Biblical poetry with its stairstepping lines and repetition.

Compare the above lyric to this, from the Old Testament:

Upon my bed, night after night,
I looked for the one whom I love with all y heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.
I will rise now and go all around the city,
Through the streets and the squares.
I will look for the one whom I love with all my heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.

– Song of Songs 3:1-2

It was while reading this latter passage that the theme of looking and not finding jumped out at me, and only because I had just recorded a video in which I quoted the Laurie Anderson lines at the top of this post. But then I realized that it wasn’t just the theme that was similar; it was the writing style. Anderson uses this sort of building repetition frequently, as does the Bible. Consider these rather graphic verses:

She struck Sisera;
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his skull.
At her feet he sank, he fell, and lay flat;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell—dead.

– Judges 5:26-27

I love making connections between two things that you wouldn’t think shared something in common. The passage from Judges is part of “Deborah’s Song,” and is one of the very oldest pieces of writing in the Bible. I don’t know if Laurie Anderson deliberately borrowed her lyric style from ancient Hebrew poetry, but I’m happy to have spotted a similarity. Everything old is new again.
Continue reading Everything Old Is New Again

Trump

I confess; I once wrote a fan letter to Donald Trump. It was 1987-88. I had a First Edition copy of The Art of the Deal, and was just starting back to college after being out of school for four years. I was a Finance major at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. I subscribed to Money and Fortune magazines. Donald Trump fascinated me. Even at the time, he was famous primarily for being an egotistical blowhard with little skill, business or otherwise, but a great deal of chutzpah—enough to make him an interesting character and to make himself a lot of money. I regarded him as a modern day P. T. Barnum.

In The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote about his plans to develop a large spot of land on the west side of Manhattan, the site of a former New York Central Railroad yard, into something called Television City. It was typical Trump: an audacious idea with an equally outrageous name. In my fan latter, I told Mr. Trump that I hoped to be one of the development’s first residents. Television City never happened. The project eventually morphed into Riverside South on a much smaller scale than the original plan, and was sold to various investors including some from Hong Kong and China. I do not live there.

I followed Trump for years, buying his other books as they came out, and reading about him in financial magazines and newspapers. I enjoyed watching him in interviews. He was larger than life, the embodiment of so many of the traits Americans highly prize even if we don’t want to admit it: abundant self-confidence, an unapologetic hunger for money and power, and an overwhelming sense of American exceptionalism. The late 1980s was the era of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street, and the hero worship of financial wizards like Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, and Peter Lynch. Okay, so some of them landed in jail, but the main thing was they made a lot of money!

When Trump threw out the idea of running for president in 2000, I initially thought he would be a strong contender. His stated views at the time were relatively moderate. Then when he made another short trial run in 2012, an online “Which candidate do I agree with most” survey told me Trump should be one of my top picks. Again, he seemed reasonably moderate…for a while.

Then he stated on the birther thing, insisting that Obama was not a natural born citizen. I started having second thoughts about Trump. By the campaign leading up to 2016, Trump had clearly decided to court the extreme right, including white supremacists. He ran a shock campaign, employing all the spotlight grabbing tricks he had learned over the years. His successful “reality TV” career had taught him that outlandish behavior and inflammatory pronouncements garnered impressive viewership ratings. The Donald Trump who had amused and entertained me was gone, and in place of that over-the-top but still likable character there was this repulsive bully spouting hatred and playing to the lowest common denominator.

I hoped the other Donald Trump was still in there somewhere, and that this new guy was just playing a game to get attention. I was wrong. His Republican rivals underestimated him, but the Democrats made a much bigger mistake. They assumed that since Trump had basically been laughed out of the election process early in the game in both 2000 and 2012 he was easily beatable. They were horribly wrong.

The letters I have been sending my Senators (Grassley and Ernst) and the White House lately have not been fan letters.

Cats

Basie in Bobos box

This morning my cat, Basie, got me up at 4am, incessantly meowing, crawling all over me, poking me in the face, and generally being a nuisance. As he gets older, and especially after our other cat, Lena, died, his nighttime behavior has become increasingly obnoxious. He also tends to climb on my laptop as I’m trying to write, likes to flop on top of whatever book or magazine I’m trying to read, and has a dangerous habit of being directly underfoot in the kitchen.

Basie can be annoying, but I love him. Sometimes his antics infuriate me, but I like having him in my life. I’ve almost always had cats in my life. Two years after my parents got married, they got a cat, Sam. Two years later, they had me. Sam was there throughout my childhood and school years. The family joked that Sam was my older sister. I can’t imagine what growing up would have been like without her. She died just a few months after I left home for college. Basie looks a lot like Sam.

It has always bugged me that Hollywood finds it acceptable to hurt or even kill cats as means for a laugh. I’ve seen movies and TV shows where cats have been thrown, sat on, run over, and kicked—always presented as something that is supposed to be funny. You would never be able to get away with that with a dog. I’m not anti-dog, but I strongly anti-anti-cat. As a kid I could never watch Tom and Jerry, and in fact a recurring dream I had involved me heaping revenge on mice on Tom’s behalf. (These days I’m not anti-mouse either. In fact, my wife and I have rescued more than one mouse from Basie.)

Much more than dogs, cats polarize people. So why is it cats have become such internet superstars? I think it is precisely because of their mystery and unpredictability. (I think the brief trip inside the mind of a cat in the movie Inside Out explains cat behavior better than anything else I’ve ever seen.) Cats are eccentric and ever-shifting. One moment they can be the very picture of soft, purring comfort; any time advertisers want to make something look especially cozy, they add a cat to the picture. But the very next moment, without warning, that demure bundle of fluff can switch gears and become an insane wildcat. A special I once watched about cats said, “To have a cat is to invite a little bit of the wild into your life.” I couldn’t agree more.

Thoughts on VEDA

VEDA 2020

Today I recorded and posted my final video for VEDA (Video Every Day in April) 2020. Sharp eyes will notice that April ended 7 days ago. Yes, I got a late start on the project and spilled over into May, but I at least fulfilled the spirit of the thing by releasing 30 videos in 30 days.

I enjoyed doing it; in fact, I plan to do it again in August. Why not? The acronym still works: Video Every Day in August. Between now and then I have a few months to review what I’ve learned and assess where to go from here. I know there are many areas that need improvement. At a bare minimum, I can become more familiar with the video functions of my smartphone.  Then bring myself up to speed on some basic video editing software.

Of course all the software skills and tricks in the world can’t overcome dull content or a poor on-camera persona. For all of these VEDA clips, I just rambled into the camera with only the vaguest notion of what I was going to say. A little (a lot) more preparation would lead to a much more professional presentation. So would speaking more clearly, with less stammering and fewer “uhs” and “ums.”

Many years ago, I first toyed with YouTube by uploading some hastily made videos I made with iMovie and featuring some of my original music. Then I basically ignored the platform for a few years except as a frequent viewer, but not as a creator. It was John and Hank Green (VlogBrothers, SciShow, CrashCourse, OursPoetica, Journey to the Microcosmos, etc.) who inspired me to once again try my hand at making my own videos. Hank just posted an excellent interview with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.

I had intended to participate in VEDA last year, which is the first year I knew of its existence. (Apparently I am quite late to the party; VEDA is already old news to avid YouTubers.) Though my YouTube channel has almost no subscribers and has garnered only a tiny handful of views, I still feel proud at having completed VEDA 2020. I have a bad habit of making big plans then not following through. Also of not finishing those projects that I do start. So this one is a victory!

DFTBA

 

War On Whatever

The latest issue of The Christian Century arrived in my mailbox today. In it is an article that ties in nicely with my blog post from yesterday: “Are we really ‘at war’ with the coronavirus?” by Jason A. Mahn.

“War language is the language of power,” writes Mahn. I share Mahn’s misgivings about using war language to describe the current situation with COVID-19. As I mentioned yesterday, war rhetoric without a clear enemy is dangerous, because the passions ignited by such rhetoric can be too easily aimed in the wrong direction. When Trump calls COVID-19 “the Chinese virus,” the target becomes not the disease but an entire body of people. Furthermore, by painting Chinese people as the enemy, Trump also inadvertently (or not?) lumps all Asians into the same boat, because many xenophobic Americans see all Asians as Chinese, including Japanese, Korean, Thai, etc. In other words, Trump’s racist portrayal of COVID-19 incites further racism and stereotyping.

Beyond the possibility of misdirected anger, war language can hurt us all by encouraging false bravado. After the Boston Marathon bombing on Patriots’ Day, April 15, 2013, the phrase “Boston strong!” rang out not just in Boston, but throughout the country. The slogan initially instilled a warm feeling of community solidarity but very quickly evolved into a cry for bloodthirsty revenge. I’m all for patriotism, but rallying around “My country can beat up your country” jingles is not always healthy.

What would be a better way of talking about COVID-19? Well, for starters, let’s not pin the blame on a nation or an ethnicity. Let’s focus on solutions and working together for the good of all. Let’s make sure the public is informed, not misled. Let’s stop playing war games.

Humans are resourceful and resilient. We can get through this, but let’s try to get there in one piece.

9/11 and Other Catchphrases

 

I mentioned 9/11 in yesterday’s post, so let’s continue with that. My wife and I were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time. Her boss at MIT was supposed to be on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center (He had a change of plans, so missed the flight.) Just a couple weeks before the attack, we had gone to New York and seen the towers. I’d been there many times. It was my wife’s first and last time seeing them.

I was at home that morning, when she called to tell me a plane had run into the World Trade Center, and I should check out the news. I flipped on the TV just in time to see the second plane hit. That made it clear we were not dealing with a freak accident. I’m not a big TV watcher, but I was riveted by events as they unfolded. When an on the spot reporter at the Pentagon broke off suddenly, yelling something about being under attack, I called my wife back to fill her in on the latest. She came home, and we both just sat in front of the TV, stunned.

Early that afternoon, I went to my volunteer job at CCTV, the local cable access station. The mood was apprehensive. It still wasn’t entirely clear what had happened, or why, or what it might lead to. After my shift in the computer lab, I met up with my wife again and we had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, a relaxing Tibetan place called Rangzen.

After supper, our neighbor Carl, from down the street gathered a few of us together for a quiet vigil. We sang a few songs, including “With a Little Help From My Friends,” then slowly drifted apart to head either back to our respective homes, or to go join other gatherings taking place across the city.

The wave of patriotism initially felt good. I was proud to live in the United States, happy to live in the land of the free, the home of the brave. But then the phrase “war on terror” started being batted around. That didn’t bode well. It was not only too militant; it was far too vague. I wanted revenge on whoever had done this too us too, but I didn’t want WWIII. I also didn’t want to fight an undefined enemy that could mean a hostile country, a terrorist cell within the US, a foreign visitor, suspicious citizen, or anyone the forces in charge found inconvenient.

Now a similarly nebulous war is being fought, but without provocation. This time the enemy is COVID-19. Or immigrants. Or anyone Donald Trump wants to finger for whatever personal vendetta he’s currently nursing. The tagline this time is Make America Great Again, which means even less than “War on Terror.” It behooves us to remember history, to guard the present, and to plan wisely for the future. A catchy slogan can hide a dangerous agenda.

 

Critiquing Myself

It’s very easy to criticize, to point the finger, to be the armchair quarterback. When I read an essay or article, there’s a little part of my brain that always wants to be an editor, finding fault with the author’s phrasing or choice of words, spotting typos, and suggesting improvements. Today I thought I’d do a bit of that with my own writing. One of my recent blog posts had a simple message: Don’t blindly follow whatever religion you are hand by your parents, society, or anybody else. I fleshed that out with 300+ words, and in the end, I wasn’t very happy with it. So let’s put on our editor hats!

These people say God, the Bible, and their Faith are the most important things in the world for them—that their religion is, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich (although most of them wouldn’t know Paul Tillich from Kim Kardashian), the “ground of their being.”

The first problem is that in an essay in which clarity of meaning is a theme, I don’t do a good job of distinguishing what I mean by “faith” and “religion.” Then I somewhat inappropriately drag Paul Tillich into it. To compound my error, I make a crack about Kim Kardashian that sounds clever but makes no sense.

Did you choose your religion, or was it chosen for you? … What do you really know about your own religion? About other religions? Why is it important to you? How is it informing your actions?

Too many rhetorical questions!

I don’t mean we should ignore everyone and stick entirely to our own counsel; we have a president now who tends to do exactly that, and it’s not pretty.

I probably should have left politics out of the discussion. That’s just opening a can of worms that needn’t  be opened in this context.

We owe it to ourselves and to posterity to be broadly informed. BROADLY informed.

The repetition might work in a speech, but it flops in print.

Choose wisely, because how we decide matters.

At the conclusion of my post, I wanted to add, “Make sure the ground of your being isn’t shifting sand.” I thought that line tied in neatly with the Tillich quote at the top. Wisely, I opted against doing so; it was a cute line, but only confused what I was trying to say. As Stephen King says in his excellent book, On Writing, “You must kill your babies.” If a sentence doesn’t fit, throw it out, even if it’s your favorite.