Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Being and Somethingness

I’m having a bit of an existential crisis. I attribute it to the fact that, at work, I am sitting next to a guy that got a Doctorate in 20th Century Philosophy. And we get to talking about all sorts of things. Sometimes, I think it is better to surround yourself with stupid people. Or maybe the problem is that I have surrounded myself with stupid people for too long.

See? Existential crisis.

But really, I blame Alex.

I was four years old when Alex was born. And he died young—at 31—from atherosclerosis. Sclerosis—as you might remember—means to scar. And those scars are no better in the heart than they are in the brain. Poor Alex.

Alex may well be remembered among the giants of existential philosophy, alongside Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Sartre. Which is most impressive when you consider that Alex is an African grey parrot, purchased at a pet store by psychologist Irene Pepperberg when he was only a year old.

And Dr. Pepperberg taught Alex (which is an acronym for Avian Language Experiment) to talk. Not just repeat words back to you, but to actually think and then communicate.

Alex could correctly identify 50 different objects, recognize quantities up to six, and categorize seven colors and five shapes. Alex could comprehend the concepts of bigger and smaller, same and different, over and under. Alex could communicate his emotions, such as surprise or frustration. He was able to tell his handlers when he was angry with them. Dr. Pepperberg has even speculated that Alex understood the concept of zero. During one session with Alex, Pepperberg asked him the difference between two identical objects. Alex answered, “None.”

That small grey bird had the intelligence of a human 5-year-old. He had the emotional level of a two-year-old human. So, right there he’s got my exes beat.

Alex knew more than 100 words. But the thing that made him special* was that he understood what he said. He could be shown an object, then tell you its shape, color, and function. And he would say “Wanna go back” when he had enough of humans and needed a nap in his cage. And if his handlers took him anywhere other than his cage, he would give them the silent treatment until they took him to where he wanted to go.

If his handlers became frustrated with him, he would say “I’m sorry.” For those keeping score at home, that makes Alex 2, exes 0.

But this is why Alex ranks among the most interesting philosophers of the modern age. One day, he asked:

“What color am I?”

Making him the first (and so far only) non-human animal to ask an existential question. Even the great apes who have been taught sign language have not asked questions about themselves. In fact, those apes have never asked a question about anything.

Existential philosophy wrestles with the conflicting human (except maybe not so exclusively human) concepts of existence versus essence. Meaning that the most fundamental knowledge of an individual is that she is just that: individual. That is, my existence can be attached to my self-awareness. My essence—the rolls and definitions assigned to me by my society—never can trump my very existence.

Aside: Don’t worry. As I am sure most of you have suspected, I am quite consumed with another Trump right now. But that is a blog post for another day.

Sartre calls the idea of existence versus essence one’s “true essence.” In other words, my actual life, in which I am making countless, daily decisions, is what makes me, well, me. I am not who I am because of what you see. I am not a woman, a mom, a patient, a writer because you choose to label me as those things. I am those things because I create my own values and determine my own definition of the meaning of life. My life.

Aside: One obstacle my brain has with this life philosophy is my very brain herself. I didn’t make choices that manifested into Multiple Sclerosis. Except, maybe I did. I smoked. I ate like shit. I put way too much processed food in my body. None of these things can be directly linked to my MS. But they cannot be eliminated as causes either. So there’s that.

We will now return you to my existential crisis, already in progress.

Learning about Alex has, naturally, got me thinking. What color am I?

Am I green?

I am a Slytherin. Enough said.

By the way, why the fuck is NO ONE surprised to learn that I am a Slytherin? I have kept my Parseltongue well under wraps. But not one person managed to even feign surprise.

Sartre writes a great deal about living in a way that is true to yourself. Living authentically honors the freedom to make choices that we are both blessed with and cursed with. We can choose to be a good, kind, wonderful person. And we can also chose to be a total shitheel. We get to choose how we act, what we do. That is what allows us to feel great when we do something well. It is also why we feel like we got a punch in the gut when we make a really bad choice. And I certainly have made some epic mistakes. Varsity-level bad choices. So, I guess in that respect, I am anything but green.

Mom and Polonius have been telling this to us for years. Just be yourself. It is the only way into happiness.

Am I blue?

OK. We are going to get a little dark here. Dark blue.

I think we have all read the story of Sisyphus at one point or another. From Greek mythology, Sisyphus is punished for his deceitfulness by having to push a large boulder to the top of a hill, to only have to watch it roll back down. And he is condemned to do this for eternity. We can see that metaphor all over art and literature. It is the story of futility.

Aside: I think it also functions as a happy thought when we imagine the people who have lied to us suffering the same fate. I might need to have a chat with Zeus…

The Myth of Sisyphus is an essay written by Camus, where he shares his philosophy of the absurd. He postulates that this world lacks any eternal truths or human values. This guy might need some balloons. Maybe a piƱata.

Camus tells us that we need to stop trying to find any meaning in life. He says that our goal is not to get the boulder to the top of the hill. The act of pushing that rock is enough to fulfill us. He writes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

That’s pretty bleak. From Camus, it isn’t a long walk to get to existential despair. A general loss of hope. But, to be fair, his essay was published in 1942 France. They weren’t exactly singing La Vie en Rose right then.

Am I pink?

In the crayon box of my head, pink is the color of a newborn baby. New life. Skin that has never seen the sun.

At the root of any philosophical idea, there must be a person. A person is very necessarily the starting point. In order for a philosophy to take hold, it needs a human subject that can not only think, but can feel. A philosophy requires a person to take action within it.

For an existentialist, the default is the feeling of disorientation and confusion from within a meaningless, absurd world. That world is no place for a newborn. But Kierkegaard has a better philosophy. Or at least one more suited to me. He says that each one of us is solely responsible to giving meaning to our life. Not society. Not religion. Not Fox News. He says we all must live authentically, passionately, and sincerely.

I like that one. A lot. Maybe I am a little pink. And maybe, just maybe, I am a tiny bit P!nk.

Am I black? (In the Sith kind of way, not the Rachel Dolezal kind of way)

Have you ever stood on the edge of a canyon next to someone and had the thought that you could easily push them over the edge? I have. With some people more than others…

Anyway, that feeling is existential angst. It the idea that nothing is really stopping you from doing something bad. We have that freedom. Of course, there are consequences to all of our actions. Because, while we do have freedom, we also have responsibility.

Like Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, with great power (or freedom, as the case may be) comes great responsibility. And the existentialists contend that is this very freedom that causes our angst. Every time we interact with the world—even in the minutest of ways—we experience the consequences of our action.

That would put anyone in a black mood.

So, what color am I? I don’t know. And I’m not sure it even matters.

*There is no evidence to indicate that Alex’s language and thinking abilities were unique to him. It is very probable that all parrots—and probably many more birds—can be taught to communicate from within a human framework.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Of Danger Mice and Men

I was never in a sorority back in college. For several reasons, really. The combination of my aversion to paying for friends, my going to a very small liberal arts college, and having known way too many frat boys made a sorority very unlikely for me.

And, here I am, days away from turning 43, and I have found myself in a sorority. As it turns out, we have chapters across the United States.

Some might try to describe our growing roster as a support group. And we do support each other, whenever we are needed. With the severity of the damage inflicted upon us, we certainly need the support.

So--while our core purpose, our charter, or raison d'etre is to indeed offer each other support--I prefer to call us a sorority.

Because we are sisters. We are Earthquake survivors.

Pulling yourself from the rubble crashing down on you can feel like a Sisyphean task. But we--as a group of amazing, intelligent women--are developing our course on Earthquake survival. And, with every addition to our ranks, we are perfecting and sharing the syllabus.

Let me share with you all one of the best Earthquake survival tips that I have learned.

There will be days--I still have days--where it will feel like I will never be happy again. Sometimes, it is mired in nihilistic struggles of existential angst. Or in other worlds... Why does terrible shit keep happening to me? I'm a good person. I am a fundamentally righteous person who does not intentionally inflict harm to the people I care about. Why do I always run headlong into people... OK, let's be real for a moment here... Why do I always run headlong into men who are intent on doing me harm?

There will be days that you will wonder if you will ever find happiness. Find Joy. And here is the secret to feeling happy after the Earthquake:

Schedule some Joy. Put some Joy on your calendar, then circle that Joy in red and draw little hearts and stars and diamonds around it.

Joy, it seems, has much in common with Lucky Charms.

I've scheduled my next Joy. In March, I will be going to a women's writing workshop in Cork. I am headed to Ireland for 20 days of castles and cliffs and writing and stones. I will visit Guinness, and Waterford, and Claddagh, and pub after pub after pub. I will visit art museums and maritime museums, then spend five intense days working on the novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo. After that, I will hop on trains and buses to see the Trinity Library and St. Patrick's Cathedral. And speaking of St. Paddy, I will be spending March 17th in Dublin.

Such, such Joy.

I do have to attach one small warning to the Schedule Joy plan. If you plan to include someone else in the Joy, you have to be able to Know--capital K Know--that the person you choose as someone to share the Joy will not be taking a big shit all over it.

The person with whom I am sharing this next Joy with is one of my favorite people in the world. She is one of the handful of people to whom I would give both of my kidneys if she needed them. She will make my next Joy an amazing, shit-free journey. She will be by my side as I am working though the most difficult parts of my book. My book--a memoir disguised as a novel--has not seen much attention in the last little while. It's difficult subject matter. But like a splinter, I need to let it fester out of my system.

I need to finish the book because--if for no other reason--it probably should be added to our syllabus.

And I need to read it myself from time to time. Just to remember.

A little while ago, I was talking to my Earthquake sister Melanie about the men in my life and their escalating degree of injury they cause me. I posed the question: How do these men keep finding me? Melanie had an interesting insight. She postulated that once you have been the victim of one bad man, you are more likely to encounter more bad men. It's like getting a concussion. Once you get one, you are susceptible to more concussions. And they build and compound on each other. They just get worse and worse.

After all this time, my Earthquake concussion is still making me feel injured and vulnerable. I need my sorority sisters for support, for camaraderie, for a sanity check. The Earthquake sisters lean on each other. We serve as one another's Jiminy Cricket, sitting on each other's shoulders and giving gentle reminders that "something about this dude doesn't feel right."

There is only one issue that remains. What should we call ourselves, this growing sorority? Maybe we should call ourselves I Eta Pi, and we can plan retreats every March 14th. Well, except this next one. I'll be in Cork.

Welcome to all of our many, many sisters out there in the world. We are here for you when you are ready. We are your support. We are your safe place. We are ordering jackets.

They will have a silver linings.

Friday, July 3, 2015

I Write Less When I'm Happy

I am quickly closing in on another birthday. And another prime number. But, for the first time in a long, long time, I am feeling...

I have a hard time identifying what I am feeling. Hopeful? Energized? Could it be? Could this be what it feels like to be happy?

One thing that is contributing to this foreign sense of smiley-ness is that I am loving my job. I love it. It engages every part of me. My analytical side, my creative side, and even my anal-retentive side. I get to make art and checklists. I get to work along side some truly brilliant people, building things for hugely important companies.

I don't remember ever liking my job like this before.

And one thing I get to do a lot in this job is write. Lots of different writing about lots of different things. I do think that is the source of my extended blogging vacation. So I owe you all a nice, long blog post.

And I will continue to owe you that. But here is one big brain dump. We can unwind it together later.

Since we last talked, I have been to San Jose, New York, and Orlando. The first two for work (but I got to visit friends in both places!). The last was for a family vacation. Which was both hugely fun, debilitatingly exhausting, and the last time that I will ever cross the Mason-Dixon line between them months of February-December. So I owe you a travel blog post.

Here is a little list of the other posts I owe you, complete with an executive summary of each:

Gay marriage: I am so happy that--for once--this Supreme Court is on the right side of history.

Obamacare: Those Supremes were on a roll!

Confederate flags: You don't have to agree that displaying this flag is racist. But you have to admit that it takes a very special type of asshole to want to fly the flag of the losing side.

Twitter improving my writing: Something about summing up a thought in only 140 characters is really making my writing tight. Twitter is a bit like a puzzle. And it is also an exercise in letting go the rules of grammar, if only for 11 seconds.

My new best friend Rosie O'Donnell: Anyone who is a woman and anyone who loves a woman should find an hour of time to watch her HBO Stand-up Special. She talks about the symptoms of a heart attack for women. I absolutely know that she is saving lives with this information. Oh, and she follows me on Twitter.(Spoiler alert. Rosie does not yet know that we are besties. But I'm sure she will be exited about it.)

Shaving my head (Half of it, at least):  I'm trying to figure out the best way to stay cool this summer. My mother commented that I looked "tough." I'm pretty sure she meant lesbian.

Another summer with MS: It is so fucking hot. I am spending my free time shopping for property in Alaska.

The stupid fucking Duggars: I don't believe in hell. But stories like the one of Josh Duggar molesting children make me wish I did.

Harry Potter World: It's like stepping right into the books. It is truly magical.

And just so you know that my blog has not been hijacked by some spliced together version of Pollyanna and Ellen Degeneres, I am fully anticipating that my grasp on this small slice of happy will soon slip through my fingers. But, what the hell. For now? Drinks are on me.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I Will Never Understand Us

My best friend is waiting to hear if she has breast cancer.

In the last few months, people very dear to me have been forced to stare down their own mortality. Heart attacks. Heart valves. Neonatal units. Rehabilitation centers.

Every six months I have to record magnetic images of my brain to count the holes forming among the lobes. All I can think of as I am slid into the MRI machine is, "This is probably what a coffin feels like." Which is why I will someday be cremated.

Life is scary. And dangerous. And random. And fragile.

So why do we humans insist on doing things that threaten our tenuous grasp on life? I will never understand that.

In 1997, I read Jon Krakauer's book detailing what was--at the time--the most deadly climbing season on the Earth's tallest mountain. At 29,029 feet, the summit of Everest reaches as high into the stratosphere as a commercial airliner. Reading that book was the catalyst to my ongoing Everest fascination. I have memorized posters detailing the routes up the mountain. I have read books, watched documentaries, attended lectures. All because I just want to understand.

I do not possess even the slightest desire to climb Everest, although I would someday like to see it, if only from a distance. The story of Everest is a fascinating one. The history is the stuff of Arthurian legend. But that is not where my fixation is rooted.

I will never understand why someone would risk everything they are, everything they have, everything they hope to be to stand on a 3 foot by 3 foot square piece of rock that cuts into the sky.

I don't get people. I don't get this impulse. But not for lack of trying to understand.

Straddling the border between Tibet and China, Everest is the elder statesman of the Himalayas. And until 1953, that mountain bested every attempt to climb her. Then New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay stepped onto her summit.

That climb I understand. There had been several attempts on Everest before Hillary and Norgay conquered it.

Aside--Neither Hillary or Norgay ever disclosed who actually was the first one of them to step into that last foot of the 29,029 they had taken. They knew that it was only by combining efforts that they could reach such heights. I have to wonder... Would that level of nobility and teamwork have been possible today? Or are we now living in a world where the first to post a photo to Instagram wins?

In 1924, an attempt on the summit was made by British climber George Mallory. Mallory will live forever in our lexicon because of his answer to a reporter's question about why he was going to climb Everest.

In response, he famously quipped, "Because it's there."

Indeed it was. It still is.

Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine were last seen from a Base Camp telescope, about 800 feet from the summit. Mallory's body was discovered on the mountain in 1999.

I think I understand Mallory, Hillary, and Norgay in the same way that I understand Armstrong and Aldrin. We went to the moon because it was there.

But I just can't wrap my admittedly mottled brain around why humans are still climbing Everest today.

These days, for the sum of the average middle class annual income, you can pay to be guided to the summit. You will be shepherded up the southeast ridge, hooking your climbing line into ropes that have been fixed by Sherpas prior to your arrival. You are lead over aluminum ladders pre-placed over great cracks in the icefall. Your Sherpa will haul your tent, your gear, your supplemental oxygen as he climbs by your side up the steep rock faces and through the dangerous, hovering seracs.

These days, you can buy your way to the top. But even though you have parted with $50,000 and have taken two months from your work and your family, you still have no guarantee that you will make it to the top. And even if you do, there is certainly no guarantee that you will get back down. At least not before you sacrifice a couple toes to frostbite.

I know that the adrenalin rush is real. That is why we bungee jump or sky dive, or SCUBA deep into sinkholes. I know that there is no feeling quite like conquering your fears. I know that there is a power in belonging to an elite group of people that share a common experience. I understand that. I get it.

But here is where you lose me. Doesn't the brotherhood of Everest survivors become diluted with the growing foothold of Everest tourism? Has a novice climber, who was pulled up the mountain, truly earned his way into that fraternity?

Everest has been conquered. At this point, the summiting of Everest has become--if not quite routine--within the grasp of a mere mortal, given enough disposable income and free time. Over 3,000 summits have been recorded. And more than 250 deaths. The number of dead Everest climbers is greater than the number of summits of Everest's sister mountain, K2. That peak, reaching 28, 251 feet, has claimed 55 climbers. Are those K2 expeditions not somehow more noble than the guided tours up Everest?

And then there is Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan. That 24,836 peak has yet to record a successful summit attempt. Isn't that mountain the embodiment of "because it's there"?

I just don't get it.

Aside--I am perfectly aware that there are similar risks in other extreme pursuits. In 2004, technical diver Dave Shaw became one of 11 people to have reached depths of 800 feet using SCUBA gear. In 2005, he died at that depth in Bushman's Hole, South Africa while trying to recover the body of another diver who died trying to reach that depth. But for reasons I haven't quite defined, I don't feel the same puzzlement about these divers. Perhaps only because the deaths from these adventures go relatively unnoticed and therefore not sought after by those seeking no more than bragging rights?

For the last 15-some-odd years, I have been following the annual May pilgrimage up the face of Everest, noting the success-to-death ratio. It isn't morbid curiosity. Or, at least it's not only morbid curiosity. I just keep trying to understand this amazingly human--and oft-amazingly stupid--quest.

There is a line of demarcation marking the breathable (although painfully thin) air below 8,000 feet above sea level and the deathly lack of oxygen beginning at 8,001 feet. They call it the Death Zone. Nothing living exists there. At least not for long. No birds. No insects. Not even vegetation. The longer you are in the Death Zone, the greater your odds of remaining there forever. Because, as it turns out, getting up above 8,000 feet is the easy part. Coming down from that height alive is where most of the danger is found.

And if you do suffocate or freeze or fall into a crevasse at that altitude, your body will lay there for all eternity. The air is too thin to allow a helicopter to maintain flight. No one will risk their own life in the Death Zone to bring down your lifeless body.

I don't understand it. To reach the summit of Everest, you very literally have to step over the bodies of fallen climbers.

Take Green Boots, for example.

Green Boots is a nickname given to the unidentified corpse of a climber that died curled up in a slight alcove that had been eroded into the mountain. Since his discovery in 1996, Green Boots has become not so much as a cautionary tale, but a mere trail marker on the path up Everest. Climbers trudge past his frozen body both on the way up and on the way back down from the summit.

Of the more than 250 Everest casualties, approximately 200 of their bodies are still up on Everest.

I just don't understand it.

Since I first started to learn about how the desires to climb Everest can overpower caring about the dangers involved in that act, I have thought that urge to be not-just-a-little crazy. But since last spring, I have realized that it is also not-just-a little selfish.

2014 was--to that point--the most deadly year in the history of the mountain. In an avalanche, 16 Sherpa guides were killed. Here is why I find that is so troubling. These Sherpas are not men that have giant bonus checks or can take work sabbaticals. These are the workers that are risking their lives to make going up the mountain more attainable for the people actually on sabbatical.

And these Sherpas earn only a tiny percentage of the fee a client pays to be guided up Everest.

But this year's climbing season has already dethroned 2014's Deadliest Year title. The devastating earthquake in Nepal triggered violent avalanches that swept through the camps of the climbers. So far, 18 climbers have been confirmed dead. Between 20 to 30 more are missing. And dozens have been injured.

This is the selfishness I mentioned before. Because, now, these climbers who, very deliberately, put their lives in danger are using valuable time and resources being rescued. While there are still victims buried under a crumbled brick temple or flattened schools and shops. The climbers on Everest are not victims. At least not in the sense of the people of Kathmandu, who are being pulled from
the rubble. The climbers aren't victims, they are volunteers.

I think that part of the social contract that should be agreed to before anyone straps crampons to their hiking boots is that they waive the right to be rescued. Climbers need to agree not endanger another person who risks his own life to extract that climber from a situation that they very purposefully put themselves in.

I just don't understand people.

Isn't life dangerous enough? What are we trying to prove? And to whom are we trying to prove it? Can anyone explain this to me? Please?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Something or Nothing

I have got to quit watching the news. It has become an exercise in frustration. For that matter, I need to stay off Twitter too. I have to make myself stop checking the trending #Blackfish tweets. I have to accept that I can't free the orcas. I can't make Israel deal with Iran. I can't prevent tornadoes in the Midwest and I can't keep Chris Christie from tossing his extra large girth into the next Presidential election.

But two news items--running in strangely parallel tracks in my (admittedly perforated) brain--are occupying more that a fair share of my thoughts today.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Michael Slager are both facing the death penalty. The Boston marathon murderer and the cop that shot Walter Scott in the back eight times might both be on that Green Mile in the very near future.

I can't think of another issue that I feel so equally passionate as I do impotent. But we need to stop allowing our government to kill its citizens. You know what other countries have the death penalty? China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen. Aren't we in good company?

Aside--To those people who claim that they are restricting women's rights in the name of the sanctity of life, you better drag your ass out to protest the next government-sanctioned execution in your state. Because a life is a life, no matter how small. Right? Isn't that what you keep screaming in front of woman's health clinics?

Now, hear me out on this one. Let's knock out a couple of the common arguments for those that support executing the worst criminals.

Logistics: It costs the government exponentially more money to shepherd a felon through the appellate process than to house him for life. And speaking of him, capital punishment application has huge disparities when it comes to race or gender. If you are a black man who kills a white woman, you can count on a death sentence.

And then there is the lethal cocktail of drugs that are used to end a convicted felon's life. They must be concocted by compound pharmacies. These drugs do not exist in a single shot or pill. They must be brewed up from a combination of drugs invented to serve other purposes. Invented to benefit humans. Not to kill them. And as it turns out, these compound pharmacies are no longer eager to serve as the mixologists to the prison wardens. We are, very literally, running out of lethal injections. It's back to firing squads and electric chairs. Personally, I think we should return to the days of public hangings. I think we should all have to see what we, as a society, can do.

Ethics: Studies show that the long legal battles granted to a death row inmate will, very likely, extend the suffering and grief of the victim's family. And many families report that, after witnessing the execution of the felon that victimized them, they do not find the immediate peace or closure that they anticipated.

Study after study have also confirmed that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent. In one survey published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology reported that 88% of criminologists do not believe that capital punishment serves as any form of disincentive. So once again, I am pleased to report that George W. Bush was wrong again. The death penalty does not save lives.

I think the death penalty is only a few steps beyond catching a child hitting his sister and spanking him while you are telling him not to hit.

Mistakes: It must be the very definition of hubris to think that our legal system makes no mistakes. We have, in fact, executed men who were later exonerated. Since the early 1970s, more than 150 people have proven their innocence and were released from death row. Our justice system--while being the best in the world--is still susceptible to the very human condition of occasionally making mistakes. Mistakes happen. But should we, as a country, be meting out punishments that we cannot undo or make right?

And none of those things are why I am against the death penalty. It's because of this:

There are only two things that can happen to us when we die. There are only two things that can happen to the criminal after we execute him. Only two. It's a binary state. Only one of two things can ever happen.

Something or nothing.

Maybe something happens to us when we die. Maybe some form of a soul or spirit can leave this world and move on. To whatever on that might be. Maybe all of our energy floats away into the stratosphere and we dance in the stardust until what's next. If that is the case, why are we so eager to release the souls of forces that do humans so much harm? What is the rush to grant them release?

Maybe we have a soul that gets measured and judged based on what we do as we occupy our earthly bodies. Maybe those people who irreversibly harm other people will be plunged into an eternally fiery pit. Here's the thing about eternity. Eternity minus 50 years is still--magically--eternity. So what is the harm of letting a murderer sit in a prison cell until he dies from some reason other than a lethal injection.  Let him sit on his metal toilet, thinking about what he has done, until he is an old man.

Maybe nothing happens after we die. Maybe we are just gone. And if that's the case, are we not cheating victims, families, and society of the knowledge that the perpetrator that caused us harm has been spared the remaining years of his punishment?

Tsarnaev and Slager are both monsters, in their own ways. But what will we serve by executing them other than a fleeting feeling of vengeance. Are we really that small?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sands and Hourglasses

OK, so I finally power watched the new season of House of Cards. Some call that binge watching--when you don't leave the couch until all 13 episodes have been consumed. But I prefer to classify it as an exercise of endurance. It takes real strength to ignore the dishes stacked in the sink with every fork you own buried somewhere under that mess. It's not easy to ignore the loud ding of the dryer when it begs you to remove your clothes before those sweaters become irreversibly wrinkled. Thanks to my dedication and years of training, I made it through Season 3 in one weekend.

There was one tiny thread of a story line that caused a flood of memories for me. Don't worry, there are no spoilers in this post. (But what the hell are you waiting for? Watch the damn show!)

One episode featured a group of Tibetan monks creating a sand mandela in the halls of the White House.

If you haven't seen one of these masterpieces up close, you should most certainly put it on your bucket list. Watching the monks create this magnificent display of colorful sand quite literally a few grains at a time is really something to see. Witnessing the process draws you in with a kind of hypnotic calm.

This Tibetan art is called dul-tson-kyil-khor and it takes these monks weeks of bending over a table to fill in the geometric shapes and religious symbols. Each monk holds a metal funnel called a chak-pur in one hand and a metal rod in the other. He runs the rod down the funnel, which causes the sand to flow out like ink.

But here is the most amazing part of the creation of a mandela. Shortly after the monks complete their masterpiece, they destroy it. They carefully sweep together the sand, mixing the colors into indistinguishable mounds. They collect the sand and take it to a river, where they release it back into the world.

Because the monks know this. They embrace this. Nothing in life is permanent. Everything is transitory. And the more that we accept that, the more at peace we can become.

When I saw that mandela being created in House of Cards, I had such a flood of memories. I once had a very close encounter with this intricate sand art.

When I was a senior in college, back in the Grunge Age, I got an amazing internship with the public relations office of the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office. It was filled with experiences like nothing in my life would ever match. I saw my first dead person. I was held out the side of the Snowbird Tram by some members of the SWAT team so I could take photos of them doing their free rappelling drills. I was working there when they lost an officer in the line. And I was running information between the command center and the press when Lloyd Prescott happened.

In 1994, the Sheriff's Office was located in a building adjacent to the Salt Lake City Library.  Lloyd Prescott was off duty that day, only in the office to catch up on some clerical work. Someone ran into the Sheriff's Office frantically yelling that a man was in the library with a gun and a bomb and was taking hostages. Then Officer Prescott did something quite amazing. He ran into the library, in his plain clothes that hid his service weapon, and joined the group of hostages without the man waiving a gun taking notice.

Officer Prescott waited with the group of terrified hostages for more than 5 hours. He was afraid to take a shot on the chance that the dead man's switch being held by the gunman was really connected to a bomb. As Hour 6 approached and the gunman told the hostages to draw straws to see who would be shot first, Officer Prescott decided to risk the bomb detonating because he saw that there was a thick wooden table between the bomb and the hostages. He shouted to the hostages to drop to the floor as he pulled his gun and shot the man who was--in one way or another--changing all of our lives. If you are curious, here are more details of the incident.

As the dust of this event was settling, I was tasked with fielding the press inquiries, which included the LA Times, Good Morning America, and Newsweek.

But the thing I remember most about those couple days is the mandela. You see, in the library when this hostage crisis began, there was a group of Tibetan monks meditatively vibrating their chak-pur to fill in the intricate design they had laid out on a table. None of the monks were taken hostage. But they all had to flee the building.

If the story had a different ending, maybe the monks wouldn't have returned to finish and then dismantle their mandela. But it didn't end differently. And only hours after the SWAT team had cleared the building and allowed people to re-enter the library, the monks went back to work on their mandela.

I was lucky enough to observe how those monks--after being interrupted by a frightening, life-threatening situation--returned to their art. All the while reaffirming that all life is transitory. I think everyone involved that day came a bit closer to learning that for ourselves.

It was such a gift.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Because It Still Matters

I have been in a bit of a blogging slump in the last couple weeks. So I was feeling quite good that I had not one but two great ideas for posts. But those got bumped when I heard a news story today. So Tibetan monks and beating the chimps will have to wait.

I’ve pretty much decided that I am an atheist. I guess I just need to emerge from the atheist closet and be out and proud. But strangely, I find the need to label myself an Atheist Jew. Because being Jewish is deeply rooted in my genes. I have people who share my DNA that died in concentration camps. I am in a great deal of karmic debt to those relatives.

I guess I am Jewish in my heart and Atheist in my head. This news item certainly struck both heart and head.

Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich died yesterday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Last month, Schweich announced that he would seek the GOP nomination for the 2016 Missouri gubernatorial race. Before taking his life, Schweich had been talking to a reporter, alleging that Missouri Republican Chairman John Hancock was telling Republican primary voters that Schweich was Jewish. Although Schweich had Jewish grandparents, he himself was Episcopalian. In his final message to this reporter, he asked that someone come to his home for an interview. In his message, Schweich says, “To me, this is more of a religion story than a politics story, but it’s your choice on who the reporter is.”

It is a religion story.

Why would Hancock be telling people that Schweich is Jewish? Because he is a political rival of Mr. Schweich. And there are only two reasons to mention someone’s religion in anything other than a first date situation: to assign it as an asset or attach it as a liability.

Why would Schweich care? Because he knows that being labeled as Jewish—whether true or not—will impact the votes of many of his constituents.

Because—still today—being Jewish matters. It’s a religion story.

In elementary school, my sister lost a perfect attendance award because she missed a day to attend Rosh Hashanah services. (I was never in danger of receiving a perfect attendance award at any point in my life.) I've been called a kike a few times in my life. My aunt once told me that I should take a beautiful stained glass Star of David from my front window so strangers wouldn't vandalize my house.

I took the stained glass down. But I have a mezuzah on my door. I had a Jewish wedding. In fact, I had a Jewish divorce. I take buckets of plastic dreidels to my son’s school Christmas party. I have already started fretting about that kid’s Bar Mitzvah. Oy gevalt. It’s in two years!

I did none of those things because of any sense of faith or belief. I did them from a strongly-ingrained sense of solidarity. From an obligation to every person that ever died because he or she was Jewish. From a stubborn tenacity to shame anti-Semites as the racists they often tell themselves that they are not.

Hancock, the originator of the “whisper campaign” that Schweich was alleging, has stated that he only mentioned that Schweich was Jewish as a fact similar to “he was from St. Louis” or “he went to Harvard Law.”

Here is the thing, though. Schweich was running for Governor of Missouri. So being from St. Louis is important because he grew up in the state he wanted to govern. Having gone to Harvard Law School speaks of an important credential of any elected officer.

How does “being Jewish” fit in? Don’t spend too much time thinking about it. Because it doesn’t fit in.

I hated Mitt Romney’s politics and choice of a running mate. I couldn't disagree with him more when it came to most of the things that came out of his mouth during his Presidential run. I was (and still am) a fervent supporter of Obama. And every time I saw or heard someone bring up Romney’s religion, I cringed. If I could, I replied. As often as I could, I would loudly shout (in all CAPS if necessary) that his religion doesn't matter. His qualifications matter. His plans matter. His politics matter.

While Romeny’s Mormonism certainly and necessarily shaped his thoughts in secular life, they did so with no more strength than any other person and any other person’s thoughts. If I were somehow miraculously elected President, my atheism would most certainly influence my thinking. We all have some form of framework for our ideas to build on. But that is all that it ever is. A latticed scaffold erected to stand upon as we build ourselves.

Aside—If I did somehow get elected to anything, I think I would have to assign that victory as a burning-bush-level miracle. Which, I would imagine, invalidates my atheism. Ahhh…. irony….
If you don’t think that anti-Semitism is still deeply rooted in our society, read the comments section of this People magazine article about Tom Schweich’s suicide. In those comments, no one gets called a dirty Christian.

Stay tuned for monks and monkeys.