Saturday, October 18, 2014

...degrees of separation

The Back Porch
I awoke early this morning. As much I have enjoyed my peaceful pre-dawn hour of candlelight and meditation, I am equally certain that a nap will overtake me at some inconvenient moment later today. For now, however, the quiet is deep, not even the gulls have awakened. If anything is happening outside, I don’t know and the little statue of St. Francis on the porch isn’t talking.

Peace is truly beyond understanding...a peripatetic state of being, absent in mundane moments, then then present in heaping helpings during a crisis. I like that word, peripatetic. Once applied it to an art history professor at UGA who strode back and forth across the auditorium’s lecture stage with an energy that brought his subject to life. His contagious enthusiasm, however, quickly morphed into cynical, mean-spirited tirades, fueled, we were to discover, by his liberal pre-class infusion of crack cocaine. 

But I digress. After an hour of quiet, I began to read the morning news. Ebola. More Ebola. And a third helping of - you guessed it - Ebola. My son has two inter-woven theories about the decline of modern civilization. According to Patrick, air conditioning and the twenty-four hour news cycle are the culprits. Before AC, people sat on porches in the evening. Families talked. In town, neighbors called out to each other and children played hide and seek across the span of several yards. In the country where my grandparents lived, the Milky Way sparkled against the dark velvet night sky. I learned about Orion and the Dippers while curled up next to Papa in the porch swing. Echo, the steel balloon passive communications satellite, periodically passed overhead and the mystery of the cosmos draped over us. Now, cut to the news. Enter Ted Turner, stage right. The problem, Patrick says, with twenty-four hour news is that the network has to fill twenty-four hours. Slow news days are unbearably repetitive. Fast news days are insidious. Vetted, in-depth reports? Who has time for these, except maybe Bill Moyers and PBS? Wait. Moyers has announced his retirement and the Kochs are investing heavily into PBS.

Back to Ebola. This virus endemic to the forests of equatorial Africa has the potential to strike, go into hiding and, when stirred by humans, return. There are more of these beasts out there than we like to consider. If you are a glutton for punishment and want to stay up nights, consider this from a National Geographic article*: “Our safety against the menace of killer viruses can never be an absolute safety. There are too many of them, lurking within reservoir hosts amid distant forests or closer to home...viruses such as Nipah in Bangladesh, Marburg in Uganda, Lassa in West Africa, Sin Nombre virus in the American West, all the new influenzas coming out of southeastern Asia, plus many others that haven’t yet been identified and named.”

Even more disturbing than the news reports are reader comments. My personal choice for the Crying Fire in a Crowded Theater Award belongs to the hordes of conspiracy theorists whose accusations and posts replicate faster than multi-resistant staph.  Next up are the more innocent but no less troublesome Chinese Menu Posts. These are the outgrowth of Googling...pick one from column A and one from column B. These random factoids pulled from the ether, posted out of context, are misleading at best and dangerous at worst.

For a bit of perspective, however, consider this:

In 1918 between forty and fifty million people died during the Spanish Flu pandemic. My grandparents survived horrendous bouts as their infant son crawled around a small barricaded space where they could see him. The black couple who lived on the next farm cooked cornbread and chicken soup and left it on the front porch. My grandfather crawled to retrieve it after they were a safe distance away. Later the neighbors caught the flu from a visiting relative. My grandmother, now recovered, baked the cornbread and made the soup and my grandfather delivered it. Of these four, all survived but other friends weren’t so lucky.

In 1957 over a million people died of Asian flu and the number of deaths from the1968 Hong Kong flu ranges from one to three million...impossible to attribute the exact number because of reporting difficulties from remote areas. More recently in 2009, The H1N1 Flue pandemic killed thousands in the U.S., up to 200,000+ world wide.

Disease kills. Before Obama and after Obama. An immutable fact. Yet, this latest virus has become a hateful tool in the war against an administration. Put aside the crazy conspiracy nuts. Seemingly normal, over-degreed people I’ve known since childhood are convinced that this President is engaging in germ warfare against his own citizens in order to establish martial law and call off the 2016 election. Want to wander in What-If Land? How about threats of a far-right-fueled military coup? It's all out there.

So you know what really disturbs me? The things we can do something about...for starters, problems such as Ebola that start elsewhere and kill strangers. We humans have a common proclivity for avoidance. Until a sneezy, wheezy, vomiting person sits next to me on the plane, it’s not my problem. Until my child is shot by an open-carry nut. Until the Twin Towers fall down. Until. Until.  If we’re not careful, we are all going to be “untilled” to death. The U.S. military is better equipped than any force on earth to deploy quickly and do good. Check out their record in Haiti, for instance, and countless other places. Instead of a rush to send hordes of our youngest and best to wars that will serve to create more wars, we could use these resources for the greater good in countless scenarios. Proactively. Offshore even. Send money. Do good for the sake of doing the next right thing. (Oh, there I go, being liberal.)

And how about those hunger statistics that are numbing? You know the ones, those numbers (21,000 deaths daily, one death every four seconds) that experts quibble over, parsing the difference between starvation and the long-term effects of severe malnutrition while people are dying in droves? Well, consider this, deaths from world hunger were dropping regularly UNTIL 2001. The UN reports that, from 2001 until 2010, deaths related to malnutrition and starvation rose. Let’s see now. What happened during this period? 

Back to hunger. The numbers stagger. A recent U.N. report states that 805 million people continue to struggle with hunger every day. 1.2 billion people still live in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 per day. (Stop now and look at a picture of a child - yours or someone else’s - then read on.) Each year, 2.6 million children die as a result of hunger-related causes.

Leave out the “shiftless/lazy/no-good/pick a judgmental adjective” adults. Stare at  this statistic: 2.6 million children. That’s what keeps me up. That’s what makes me passionate about the potential we have to do good.

2.6 million children. THAT’s sin. So is denying citizens the right to vote. Scrapping law that undergirds the greater good so that a few can live in luxurious denial. The list is long. Add your own to the mix.

If I’ve learned nothing else in my lifetime, I know that reason trumps sensationalism and allows truth to surface....and truth, even when ugly, sets me free. In my finite days on this earth, I hope that I will always be disturbed by those 2.6 million children. If that number drops by half, I hope that 1.3 million will disturb me. A little perturbation is a good thing when it leads to less selfish choices.

This poem of John Donne's that I memorized in high school keeps returning. In September 2002, the front of my home collapsed in a storm. As I stared at the gaping hole in my yard, Donne's words washed over me.

No man is an island entire of itself. [Each of us] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend's or of THINE OWN were: any man's death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Forgive me if I seem cavalier about Ebola. I'm not. Not my family, please. Not Bill, please. Not my friends, please. But since "thine own" took root, I know I don't have the luxury of six degrees of separation. Here or there, every death diminishes me. And until the "least of these" is counted, statistics lie.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014 the wake of

San Francisco Bay with Angel Island and Raccoon Straits in the background, 9.5.2014

"The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea.
Vladimir Nabokov

We headed toward the slip last Friday with Angel Island in our wake. The wind was steady and strong, the sky blue...a day made for sailing. Bill (with a little help from the crew) tacked and jibed and let the wind carry us home through a clear channel. The wake we left was populated with good memories of friends and food and beautiful surroundings.  

A boat can't sail directly into a headwind. She moves through the water by a series of those tacks and jibes, maneuvers that position the sails, typically with the boat steered at right angles to the wind (a beam reach) or with the wind coming from behind the boat at an angle (a broad reach). As my captain pointed out, this is a paltry "reach" list but you get my drift. (Never could pass up a good pun. Or a bad one.) NOTE: When running before the wind (or downwind), the wind is coming directly from behind. This can be problematic in the event of an accidental jibe. I dislike anything with the adjective "problematic" when I am on a boat. Ergo, I have a "no downwind" clause in my crew contract.

Storms are another matter altogether. Navigating in heavy weather requires special tactics. One of the most effective is heaving-to. The boat is positioned close to the wind and the sail is trimmed to bring the boat almost to a stop.  A breaking wave is less likely to roll her over...or to break on her.

There's much more to moving the sloop through the waves but I've already told you more than I know. From these few methods, however, life parallels can be found. Remaining still in a storm is often the best choice. Running head-on results in no gains. Changing course - wisely - is a winning move. And the wakes we leave are best populated with good will and care.

Much of life is lived in the wake of...after and because of some event.  Unlike last Friday, events can roll over us with the killer tenacity of a tsunami and their leave-taking is long and painful. So have we all lived, first in the wake of 9/11, then in the wake of our responses to that day of horror. Out of the dust and blood, anger and fear rose - from the streets of New York City, from the desert sands of Afghanistan and Iraq - and birthed a monster.

Nabakov is right. 
One event does not explain the whole anymore than a group of extremists defines a culture. 
The stark images of 9/11 haunt us just as war destroys and rips the souls of people worldwide.
As Bill says, this is a time for measured response, not kneejerk reaction,
for thoughtful engagement,
for moving forward. 

We fill our sails with purpose
Find direction in the stars
Pray the dark and deep won't hurt us
And sail with open arms
Part of us would linger by the shore
For ships are safe in harbor
But that's not what ships are for.

From "Ships" by Michael Lille and Tom Kimmel

Friday, August 15, 2014

...the thing I can't abide

Great minds discuss ideas
Average minds discuss events
Little minds discuss people

Attributed to
Eleanor Roosevelt, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover,
and that ever-wise Anonymous

Overheard, a conversation between two women, their voices unmodulated. Perhaps they thought - mistakenly - that the modern light fixture overhead was some new-fangled cone of silence. Hapless dining neighbors tried not to hear as the pair picked clean the bones of their mutual object of scorn. Once the cadaver was sent to the Morgue of Dead Conversations, the next person was rolled out. This second conversation was less attacking...along the lines of "bless her heart, you know that her husband..." What ensued was a second/third/fourth-hand public discourse on a family's sorrows.

What satisfies us, temporarily but often, to discuss/diss/diminish our fellow travelers? For starters, I don't have to look too closely at my own issues if I focus on yours. Or perhaps the dishee du jour echoes some personal unhappiness...a loss, a struggle with another's problems, a broken relationship. What remains unhealed within me festers and I'm left to pick at the scabs. I've been on both sides of the conversation and hear me: well-intentioned or satisfying know-it-all words have serious repercussions for all involved. Listening to gossip but not "participating" is akin to being a little-bit pregnant. I now say, "I"m uncomfortable with this conversation since I don't know the facts." Because a better person than I told me to say this.

Whatever sins had been committed by the lunch subject, gossip was never mentioned. Practiced at their table with pleasure and skill but never once called out as a deadly scourge. Given the proximity of the nearest table, I can attest that much of the information passed back and forth at full volume fell under dubious source headings..."so and so's neighbor heard", "my cousin's yardman said", and the ever-popular "I just bet..." and "No one has to tell me. I know..." Dicing and slicing, hashing and re-hashing, they were still at it when I left.

Now gossip has gone viral. The social media is an unholy cutting board. Lies are spread. People dissected. The old-fashioned folded newspaper has unfolded into an e-format with outrageous comments by anonymous forum trolls who attract offensive followers. How vile the creature who sent Robin William's daughter Photoshopped pictures of her father supposedly lying on a morgue table with bruises on his neck.

Words hurt. And wounded people wound. Even when I know the speaker is a damaged soul, the ripple effect of the gossip - the pleasure others take in listening, passing it forward and preaching - impacts me. Or my family. The choices are to participate or ignore. The first is just plain wrong and the second is hard. Forgiveness for all involved takes time but if I don't, the result is more pain. Your opinion of me is none of my business. You're entitled to your feelings. I'm not responsible for any one else, thank heavens. I have enough trouble with my own character defects. Here's my litmus test. When I feel compelled to go out of my way to convince others, I ask myself "Why?" If, when I'm confronted repeatedly, I ask "Why would hearing this give me pleasure?"

Is the impact of gossip worth a few minutes of malicious pleasure? Do I pass on an earlier layer of loose talk in order to justify my dislike of another person or ignore my deficits and chance that my source is as wrong as my own oh-so-good but, in fact, spiteful intentions? What am I trying to fix...and what might I ultimately destroy? Whatever personal experience exists, none among us can know the full story of another's life or the depth of someone's pain or fears. A careless chatfest is the first cousin of character assassination and lying. Oh, what a tangled web...

If I can't communicate honestly and civilly with others, if I don't demand media standards and dedicated moderators, if I seek out the lowest-common-denominator sources because they tell me what I want to hear, I'm part of the problem.

...from a United Methodist minister:
If every detail of every life were known, we could hate no one. 

But some of the hateful words I see and hear daily make this a challenge as never before.
I do know who said this...a good beginning and solid advice.

Clean around your own doorstep.
Granny and Mother

Leave the world a little better.