Tell Us How You Really Feel

Phil Robertson, of the Duck Dynasty, and this may be an understatement, is somewhat ignorant about homosexuality.  The only real sin, after all, is hurting somebody.  Nevertheless we want to know what he thinks, about homosexuality and other things, like what makes black people happy, and how all great evils, like the NAZIs and the Japanese, resulted from not being Christian. And let’s be fair, he may have known some black people who were happy despite being poor. Good for them.

Bottom line is we should want to know what he thinks, not so we can punish him, but so we can teach him something.  Whether he chooses to learn or not, others can also share in the lesson. In fact, his statement put the world to listening for a response, and it is the perfect opportunity to craft one.

And should we really blame him for saying what he thinks?  If he doesn’t say it he will never be challenged.  This is true for us as well. If we don’t express what we really believe, no one will ever argue with us and we will lack the chance to appreciate another’s perspective.  We are all ignorant of something.

So, I don’t think A&E should fire him, or suspend him or punish him in any way.  These are his opinions.  Instead they should release a statement, their opinion, which hopefully would go something like this (and just in case they want it I hereby give them permission to use what I am about to suggest word for word):

“The views that Phil Robertson recently expressed in an interview with GQ magazine, that homosexuality is a sin, that it is illogical and equated with bestiality are not shared by A&E.  We consider his statements to be born of ignorance and as a company we stand in support of diversity and of the rights people should have to live their lives as they see fit.  This is not a reproach of Christianity, but to the belief that Jesus wants us to judge homosexuality, a belief that we do not share.  Nevertheless, we do not consider it our responsibility to censure Mr Robertson from expressing his views, but rather would use this opportunity to foster a debate that might change minds.  We consider it our obligation to respond to the statements made by one of our own, to make clear where we stand, and to encourage others to do the same.  In the words of Ira Glasser, former director of the American Civil Liberties Union, “the answer to bad speech is not less speech, but more speech.”

It might piss off some of Duck Dynasty’s supporters, but if Robertson has free speech, so do we all.  That said, the Constitution only protects him from the government.  A&E has no obligation to give anyone a voice, if they don’t think it serves their purpose. They can, if they desire, respect the spirit of free speech, but if the audience doesn’t like what they produce, it doesn’t matter the reason. It’s not their business to lose money.  So I’m not saying A&E has any obligation to do anything in particular, just that I think this would be the best route.

I read the article.  His views were not any different than those we have heard over and over often from political candidates. Are we supposed to pretend they don’t exist by making people like Phil Robertson shut up?  He has little influence to do anything but foster debate, which we can use to turn public opinion.  It’s not like he’s the President, or a Senator, or Congressman, or Governor.  Them we have to be more concerned about.

Phil Robertson makes duck calls and has a reality show.  He’s a character, good and bad.   I was not particularly surprised by anything he said.  Was anyone?

Ireland

Gloria  and I went to Ireland, a place neither of us had been, for our 20th anniversary, and we really enjoyed it.  The Irish are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  And if you tell them that, they buy you a round of drinks (thank you John and Liam Coffey).

There are quite a few things I learned about Ireland, some that I would have realized if I had just thought about it, and others maybe not.

That they were never attacked during World War II, for example.   Well, yeah.  If the Nazi’s couldn’t get past Britain, then they weren’t getting to Ireland.  They never even declared war, though many fought with the British.  That’s one of the reasons there are so many old, and I mean old, buildings still standing.  They’re not Roman, they are Celtic, because the Romans never settled Ireland either.  The Irish believe it was Ireland’s “temperate” weather that kept them away.

The owner of an Irish pub in our neighborhood back in the states told us that when he was growing up in Ireland he thought “temperate” meant that it pissed rain all the time.  Irish weather is wet and cold all year, though not cold enough that you could ever freeze to death, your misery would never end, but I didn’t mind it.  A long sleeve shirt and a windbreaker is all you need.  The Irish made woolen cap I bought there was a help too.  If you need more than that, you duck into a pub at any time for a shot of Irish Whiskey or a Pint of Murphy’s (Guinness, if you prefer).

In Germany, by the way, they also have ruins.  A German cousin of  mine once showed me a Roman wall, and I said, “so it wan’t destroyed in the war?” and he said, “yes it was.  We rebuilt it.”

But the Irish ruins only need renovation sometimes, there are so many that people sometime live in them, and then there are those, that are “as is” and pretty good for climbing and imagining what it was like to be there thousands of years ago, looking upon the same stone.

I also never understood why Catholics and Protestants couldn’t get along, but I got some insight to that during our trip.  As it turns out, It’s not religion, per se, but because the two groups were segregated into classes for political purposes.  The Irish Catholics were oppressed by the English who were protestants. And the Irish Protestants were favored and taught to think that the Catholic majority were a threat to them, which, of course they were, but not because of their religious differences, because they were a different class.  Ireland has many large fantastic churches, but they’re all protestant, even though Catholics have always been the majority.  Catholics weren’t allowed to have big churches in Ireland.

And did you know that English is not the Irish language?   Call me ignorant, that’s why it’s good to travel.  In parts of Ireland they are not even allowed to have official signage in English.  That said, the Irish language is barely spoken and for all intents and purposes it is dead.   We learned from a tour guide that the potato famine killed it.  During that time parents would only speak English to their kids because it gave them a better chance for immigration to America.

The consequences of the potato famine were quite complex and interesting in other ways as well, according to the Trinity College historian who gave us our walking tour in Dublin (recommended).   For example, the extreme poverty of that time resulted in fewer marriages because the first sons had to wait for their parents to die to inherit small plots of land, and only then would they marry a younger woman who would outlive her husband by so many years that their first son would again be quite old before he could inherit any land and marry.  Opportunities for employment were scarce, too, so men went into the priesthood.  The combination of a society with limited marriage potential and the watchful eyes of a growing population of clergy, resulted in a much lower rate of procreation and a sharp decline in population.  During this time, there was also a rise in mental illness among the unmarried, leading to the conclusion that marriage correlates to mental health.  My wife looked at me in surprise and said, “so we’re keeping each other out of the nut house?”

“Hard to believe, isn’t it?” I said.

It was a very nice trip, like a retirement that probably won’t ever come if we keep taking vacations like this.

And now it is back to the routines of every day life, work, exercise, yoga, writing, feeding the kids.

But when I close my eyes I still see mountains, castles, and sheep.  I see the Cliffs of Moher, and I can’t get that song out of my head about the boy who never left home that we heard in the pub where we met the Irish Coffey’s who kept paying for Gloria’s Irish Coffees and many many pints of Guinness between the three men.

“Sonny don’t leave me, I’m here all alone, your father went sailing and never came home.”

We drove a VW diesel from the wrong side of the car, round around in turnabouts until we felt like we knew what we were doing.  We ate Guinness beef stew and drank beer, at least a little, every night.  We climbed a mountain, the morning after drinking with the Coffey cousins.  We found a beach and the  sun came out just for that.  We eavesdropped on conversations between Americans staying out of it, because we were in Ireland, and they were Americans.

When we returned to Dublin from our drive, we got to see it on a Saturday night.  The people were out, and so were the winos  (I’m going to call them that, because they actually had wine which they periodically pulled from their coats and passed around) and we watched scenes unfold from where we ate (and drank) in Temple Bar.  The winos even seemed to own a little alcove across the street, right outside our window, and to their right a young guy played the bagpipes for money.   I gave him money before we went in, and saw others engaging him in conversation and giving him money while we ate.  He was very good.  When I gave him the change that I originally intended for the young woman begging on the half penny bridge, who was no longer there when I circled back money in hand, he showed me his braces. I wondered how he could afford braces, but maybe he wasn’t necessarily there for the money, or maybe Ireland has national dental care. He seemed friendly with the three winos.  The nice thing about European restaurants or bars is that they never rush you, so I watched the scenes that unfolded outside the window long enough to see the bagpipe boy leave, and to satisfy my curiosity about whether he would have to pay rent to the winos (he did not).

One stopped a young couple that were walking by.  The boy wore a long black coat, and a black rimmed hat, and a black satchel.  The satchel had a satanic star on it, but upon closer inspection I could see that two corners of the star rounded to form a heart.  It appeared that they were talking about the boy’s outfit, until finally the wino asked for money, which he received. The one wino that didn’t have his own wine bottle slept through most of the fun, but eventually they woke him up gave him a sip after which he stumbled and fell before waking up completely.  A girl and a guy  came out of the bar and stood not two feet from these guys, something which stuck me as strange.  In the US, I think people would stand away, uncomfortable with engagement or possibly to avoid the smell (these are Europeans, Gloria said).  They lit a cigarette and that’s when the wino on the wall clamored for their attention.  They spared him one, gave him a light and shook their heads “no” to some other request.  Then they remained, flirting, until a friend of theirs came out of the bar with a beer glass in hand and ushered them back in.

I wish I had been able to take some pictures of this scene, but you know how they always say the best pictures are the ones you miss?  For example, that first weekend that we were in Dublin I missed a great picture.  We walked by a bar and sitting with his back to the window was a medium heavy guy showing not only his underwear but his butt crack to everyone on the street.   I turned to Gloria and said “I did not need to see that,” but very shortly afterwards regretted that I had not taken a picture of it.  I wish I could share it with you.

How to choose a religion

I don’t know how most people think they choose a religion. Maybe they think they choose to believe what is true. Maybe they think they are lucky enough to have been taught the truth.

But if you’re looking to be more spiritual, and thinking about going back to church or to find God for the first time, I have some thoughts on the topic.

I sometimes make a distinction between Religion and Spirituality, because you can be spiritual without going to church and you can go to church without being very spiritual.  But for purposes of this piece I will make no such distinction and define religion as any belief in life after death.  Isn’t that the bottom line?  Because even if God created us, if we cease to exist when this life is over, then why care?

It might be nice to live forever, right?  Or is it?  A belief in an afterlife can cause stress as much as comfort.  You might worry about being judged, certainly, and about whether you will measure up.  Or you might hate life, there are certainly people who want it to end.  What if it can’t?  Or you might feel great knowing that there is a world of spirits to help and love you, and that you will someday have relief from any physical, and maybe even emotional, pain.  Ultimate wisdom may be yours, after you die, and even a doggie treat.

I believe in reincarnation.  Some think I’m crazy, and they could be right (not just because of reincarnation).  I justify this belief with evidence, not proof, but also by reasoning that even if I’m wrong, as long as my belief system provides an incentive to do the right thing, as defined by objective measures, then there’s no down side.  And that’s what I want to talk about.  That’s your safety net, your hedge.

I knew a guy once, he was born Jewish, but he didn’t believe in it.  Yet he said that when his mother died, he would follow all the Jewish customs, not because she would have wanted it, and that it’s a good way to honor her and her beliefs, but just in case she was right.  He wanted to cover all his bases.  But what if the Christians are right?  What if Muslims are right?  You can’t cover all of your bases, when they contradict each other.  The best angle to cover is to act in such a way that any reasonable God or mortal would say you were a righteous dude.

If your belief encourages you to do that then you become someone everyone can be proud of, including God, if he exists, and assuming that he is good – which is an assumption, after all.  Might as well assume that God is good though, because if he isn’t then we’re all fucked.

Here is an example of a particular religious interpretation that doesn’t do that.  My wife once overheard some people talking at the Gym about inviting the children of non believers (in this case it was Christianity) to a movie, without telling their parents that it would be at church, to work on converting the children without their parent’s knowledge.

Of course that sounds unethical, right off the bat, but let’s be honest.  If you really believed, as is common in many Christian denominations, that whoever didn’t accept Jesus would burn in hell for all eternity, then wouldn’t you have to do something?  You would also have to believe that these children, and their parents, would thank you in the end.  How could you not try to save them, by any means necessary?

But if you don’t believe that, and I don’t, or if it turns out to be wrong in the end, then this is clearly unethical, and you would have to conclude also that the particular belief encourages people to do something that is wrong.

Here’s another example.  Let’s say that you believe that a deathbed confession can save a person no matter what they’ve done.  That they would go to heaven if they just repented or accepted God’s love.  I know a lot of people who are for the death penalty, despite professing to follow a religion that commands, “thou shall not kill.”   The way that’s phrased, does not seem to allow for exceptions, though, I would hope to be able to kill in certain circumstances, self defense, for example, or a justifiable war.  But I am against the death penalty.  I am against it because I think it is barbaric to kill, when you don’t have to, and that it turns us into that which we profess to reject.  It’s worth considering also that mistakes have been made, the wrong people killed, and that it has always been applied disproportionately based on race, in this country.  These aren’t religious reasons, they are more objective reasons.  But I’m also against it because I don’t believe in death.  I believe that we come back.  I believe we live again, to face whatever challenges we didn’t overcome the last time.  And that would make it counterproductive to free someone to begin again, until after they had “repented,” or said another way, “learned” something, so that they could change.  My religious belief, if you will, is in line with more objective, more universal, values.

The Catholic Church is against the the death penalty as well.   It’s their official position.  It’s part of God’s commandments after all.   But a lot of the Christians that I know (most are protestants – but they have the same commandments) are for the death penalty.  I think it’s because despite what God said, the system they believe in doesn’t seem right.  I think it’s because they want certain criminals to burn in hell.  If they are given time to repent, their religion says, they will enjoy the same reward as anyone else.  AFTER WHAT THEY DID!?!?!

If you believe a person deserves to be punished, you will support policy that will make sure that happens.  Killing them before they repent provides recourse, maybe even revenge, and the system they believe in leads them to that position, even it they have to go against their God to make sure it happens.

I like reincarnation because I think it encourages people to act in ways that we should act whether we believe in reincarnation or not.  It does not work against good values, but encourages them.  For example, if I believe I’m coming back, I might want to make the world a better place for the future.  I may have the courage to risk my life for what is right.  And I will favor rehabilitation over revenge.

Anyway does it seem fair that based on a blip of time on earth, each of us, born into a variety of circumstances and influences, should be rewarded or punished for the rest of eternity?  Doesn’t it make more sense that we should continue to grow, and live long enough to break bad habits?

People might even be less inclined to commit suicide, if they believed it wasn’t possible.

I’m not saying you should believe in reincarnation.  Any religion can be interpreted in different ways, and reincarnation isn’t even inconsistent with other religions, though it may not be part of their mainstream dogma.  The Jewish Kaballah references it, and some people believe that the early Gnostic Christians believed in reincarnation.  All I’m saying is ask yourself what you want to believe.  And when you choose a belief, think first about how it will make you act.  Do your beliefs encourage you to be the person many religion supposedly ask you to be, non judgmental, peaceful, stuff like that.  Or does it encourage the opposite?

Ask yourself what people who don’t believe the same thing (and are therefore objective) will think of you and what kind of example you’ll set.

Connecticut

Sometimes talking to your children really helps you to see how they see things. Like when my daughter explained to me what she likes about Connecticut.

My parents have a house there near the beach, but we hadn’t been there in three years.  She’d like to go again, she says, and we say maybe.  The summers are always so busy, some of it is because there are other things that they want to do, like the Spanish Immersion program my oldest daughter went to in June, and some is travel that we like to do because, well, because we can.   I only have so much vacation.  But it bothers me that the kids don’t get to go to Connecticut to see my parents at their house, near where I spent almost all of my summers when I was growing up.

She wants to help her Grandma in the garden, she says.  She’s worried that her siblings will interfere with that.  They won’t, I tell her.  How do I know?  I visualize it.  That’s also how I know we’ll have world peace someday.  And though faith does not play a roll in my spiritual beliefs, it does here.  She loves that the house is so open, she tells me, and how it feels to shower all the salt and the sand out of her hair, and the ping pong table in the basement.  Is it still there, she asks.  Probably not, she says.  Why wouldn’t it be, I say (it wasn’t).  My brother’s bicycle from when he was a kid is still there, I say (it wasn’t either).  She remembers all of that and misses it.  She wants to do it again.

I want you to do it again, too, I say.  Let’s make it happen.   Thank you, for getting through to me.  I didn’t say that part.  I just thought it.

I Have Found My People Here

If someone starts up a competitor for facebook, I think they should call it “The Woods.”  Because facebook is like a forest where you meet up with people you used to know who may or may not remember you. And then, because you are older perhaps, or because time has proven to you that whether these people like you or not isn’t really going to change anything, you are more honest with them than you ever were before.

I recently reconnected with another old friend, in the woods. I didn’t know her very well then, even if I thought I did, but we had shared something formative.  We were in a play together about children in a concentration camp called I Never Saw Another Butterfly.

Ronald Reagan once said that he had helped to liberate a concentration camp, but he had only done it in a movie. That’s kind of sad, but I also understand it.  I sometimes feel like I was there too, and I still empathize with the characters we pretended we were.

“Hi Honza, it’s Raja,” she says, using our character’s names.

“Raja,” I say back. “How have you been?”

And after 35 years, we’re talking about that play, what it did for us and how we still feel about it.

I am surprised to find out that she, who was always so quiet, was the black sheep of her family. She went to “City As,” an alternative school in New York, for troubled kids, at least that’s what I always thought it was.  Even so it sounded so much better than real school to me.  I just wasn’t screwed up enough to go there.

And she was in a drug program before she was 16 (this would have been after I saw her last).

She tells me she was probably too young for that play and it manifested in wacky ways back at home.  She’s now an herbalist living an ordinary life, by her own account, and I’m an accountant, writing on the side, I tell her, and trying to be un-ordinary.

She asks me if I have a blog.

“As a matter of fact I do.”

I’ve even got some poetry on there, I feel compelled to tell her.

I sometimes tell people that I think I write good poetry, an irrational conceit, really, because I don’t even particularly like poetry.

Then it dawns on me where I picked up what love I do have for it.  In Terezin.  I Never Saw Another Butterfly was a poem before it was a play.  It is a play about children who drew pictures and wrote poems on contraband pieces of paper which they then buried so the Nazis wouldn’t find them.  I get to wondering to what extent my poetry was influenced by theirs.  One of mine:

It’s my winter now
Cold so long my toes feel numb
My head swims in blood thick
And my bones have frozen
I keep thinking about my toes
And then I dream
About friends who don’t remember me
And wake to work done at a desk
My thick blooded head
and stiff neck and shoulders
Move in shudders only and yawns
And I can’t get warm

One of theirs:

He doesn’t know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and doesn’t go out.
He doesn’t know what birds know best
Nor what I want to sing about,
That the world is full of loveliness.

When dewdrops sparkle in the grass
And earth’s aflood with morning light,
A blackbird sings upon a bush
To greet the dawning after night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.

Hey, try to open up your heart
To beauty; go to the woods someday
And weave a wreath of memory there.
Then if the tears obscure your way
You’ll know how wonderful it is
To be alive.

–Anonymous 1941

Isn’t it interesting that mine is kind of down and theirs is so uplifting?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Makes me feel ashamed for writing stuff that’s so depressing.

She tells me that she appreciates the honesty and candor in my writing.   But I often think that I am not as honest as I should be.

Years after we performed that play, I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, and I remember being struck by how free he really was after it was over.  He had lost everyone, including his father only at the very end.  This was freedom to the extreme.  You wouldn’t have to worry about who you might hurt by anything you could possibly say, because everyone you cared about was dead.

“Goodbye,” Raja said in the play.  “It should have been posted at the entrance instead of that lie that greeted newcomers, ‘work makes us free.’  It was goodbye, not work that made us free.  What did we have to fear when we had said goodbye to everyone we had ever loved.”

I didn’t have to look that up.

This one I did:

For seven weeks I have lived here
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court
Only I never saw another butterfly

Pavel Friedman 1942 died 1944 at Auschwitz.

Something About Panama

When I say the word Panama, now that I’ve been there, I hear it differently than I did before.  I used to emphasize the first syllable, and now emphasize the last, if any, trying to simulate the way they say it in Pa-na-ma.   Panama is the first central American country I’ve ever been to, and I really did enjoy going there.  I enjoyed Boquete in the mountains, and I liked what little I saw of Panama City, though I wouldn’t feel the need to stay there long. The Bus Rides You can take a 7 hour bus ride from PC to David for $15 a person.  They are not quite as good as the overnight we took from Buenos Aires to Iguazu in Argentina, but that one cost over $200 per person.  At stops along the way independent venders come on board to sell you banana chips or ice cream or churros.   They played us a bootleg copy of the Fast and Furious 6.  I know it was a bootleg not just because the movie is still out, but because the view often zoomed in and out from letterbox to full screen, would sometimes shake and on a few occasions the shadow of someone’s head would block the film.  Once or twice the policia come aboard to check ID and passports, I still don’t know why they do that.   On the way back we stopped for 30 minutes at a place for lunch.  It cost about 14 bucks for us all 5 of us to eat. What to do in Panama if you don’t watch TV. While in Panama I finished a book.  Praise the lords that I’m reading something.  It wasn’t great literature, but it was on par with the likes of shows that I watch on TV, shows like Falling Skies, for example.  It was an easy ready, and actually enjoyable.  It was a book my middle child wanted me to read so she could share her enthusiasm for it, the first in the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.  Much better than anything I’ve ever read by Stephanie Meyer, though I’ve only read The Host. Security The Panamanian equivalent of TSA stole Gloria’s tweezers.   Not sure what she could do with tweezers that she couldn’t do better with an ink pen, or her razor, or nail clippers, all of which they let her keep.  They searched every single bag of every single passenger prior to boarding, and didn’t allow liquids over 3 ounces even if you bought it at the terminal.  They didn’t actually open the bag with all of my dirty laundry, in which I could have easily hid tweezers, though they did, apparently, take out all of my 11 year old son’s, which included his smelly socks which I can tell you from experience is a greater weapon than any tweezers.  My wife told me that the woman searched every hidden crevice in his bag, an 11 year old, blond haired blue eyed american, returning to his own country, because she presumable thought that he might hate America so much as to bring down an airplane.  Then she found something that could have made the entire plane pass out, his socks, and let him on anyway.  My wife, after her own grand theft tweezers, stood by and watched the security woman struggle to repack every piece of dirty laundry he had and didn’t lift a finger to help.  We all got patted down, too.  In America, they always make sure you are patted down by someone of the same sex.  In Panama the officers are all women, which I think makes more sense.  Most women would prefer to get patted down by a woman, and so, too, would, I think, most men.

Jet-setting Monsters

A lingering regret of mine is that I didn’t travel more when I was younger.  The one big trip I took, when I was 20, driving cross country with my best friend for was it 5 or 6 weeks, I can’t remember, is still legendary in my mind.  It was almost 30 years ago.  A month that I took with my girlfriend (wife, now) by train around Europe years after that was also amazing.  I never run out of stories to tell when something reminds me of one of those trips.

So, I wanted to instill this love of and comfort with travel in my kids, so that they would see the value that I didn’t see while they were still young.  We took them on a couple of trips to Europe, and of course, they’ve been to NYC, my home town, many times.  And since I started working for one of the major airlines we’ve taken advantage of the flight benefits to go to Belgium, Argentina, Ireland (actually that one was without the kids) and California.  They have also been to Las Vegas and Utah and Arizona with their mother.  My two oldest have taken to it.  My youngest pretends not to like it, he’d rather stay home and play minecraft, but he likes it too, I can tell.

Recently my oldest daughter convinced us to let her spend a month in Panama to study spanish.  She babysat and saved up money to pay for it herself, and the flight benefits made that a little bit easier.

We all took a mini-vacation to go pick her up.  But we hadn’t even returned and they started talking about visiting their grandparents in Connecticut.  “Can we just hop on a plane the minute we get back, since we’re already packed, and go without you?’

“Well, that is efficient, I guess.”

Jet-setting monsters.