Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Secret to Getting Along: Accept the Differences

It was the summer of 1972. My wife, Nita, and I had been married for three years, so we were still learning about each other’s idiosyncrasies. I already knew that Nita was a gentle soul, that she never raised her voice in anger because, well, she was never angry. I knew that she had a fondness for corn tortillas, beans, and rice, a remnant of her youth growing up in Guatemala. What I did not know then—not really—was that our core personalities were wildly different.
We were on a secluded Mediterranean beach in the south of Spain. The water, darkly turquoise, was lapping at the fringe of land in rolling rhythms of rise and recede. The morning sun bathed my bare chest in lavish penetrating fervor like victory or young love or the thrill of art conceived and accomplished. I was enraptured.
“Can you believe this?” I asked. “Here we are in Spain. The land of Queen Isabella, Pablo Picasso, and Miquel de Cervantes.” My voice was starting to rise up in rhythm like a Southern Baptist preacher: “They shall mount up with wings of eagles.”
I couldn’t help myself and why should I? I had dreamed about Spain since I was sixteen—thanks to Ernest Hemingway and his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. And now I was there, smothering in the sweet, venerable sunlight of Iberia.
I was rhapsodizing now to my wife who listened politely, placidly, her head tilted like a French poodle trying to make some sense out of her master’s gibberish. “This is it,” I said. “This is the time of my life—my rebirth, my . . . my . . . my . . .  destiny.”
And Nita said, with all the calm banality of reading a grocery list, “Uh-huh.”
“Uh-huh? What do you mean ‘uh-huh’? I questioned, my voice beginning to squeak. “Aren’t you excited? Aren’t you thrilled down to the molecules of your soul?”
“Of course,” she said serenely—or was it morosely. “I’m really excited.”
It was then that I realized that when it came to expressiveness, my wife and I were measured in a way that was vastly different. On a scale of expressiveness, every human being is calibrated one through ten. But the scale is compressed for some—12345678910—expanded for others—1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10. You see, Nita was at her ten in expressiveness. BUT HER TEN WAS EQUAL TO MY THREE. It’s a hard concept to reconcile when you are in the throws of passion—standing at the water’s edge of a land that is the goddess of passion. Hard to reconcile, yes, but nevertheless true.
Of course, the compression or expansion of a personality scale is not limited to expressiveness. The phenomenon applies to any emotion: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, anticipation—you name it.
Also understand that scalar compression or expansion is not an indicator of goodness—one calibration is no better or worse than the other.  It only indicates a difference in personality. Parenthentically, there is this exception: when emotion is so compressed or so expanded that it places the individual or others in danger, as in suicidal depression or maniacal rage. But those cases are extremes.
When Nita and I were in Spain, my arms were flailing with excitement, whereas Nita may have, in moments of unchecked rapture, blinked her eyes. That did not make either of us better—just distinctive.
Couples who can recognize and live with the differences will survive, just as Nita and I have survived—and thrived—over the last fifty years. And that’s something I can get excited about. YAHOO.
Sorry, Nita; I lost control for a moment.

Friday, January 12, 2018

In Defense of Doubts

As 2017 ticked to a close, a 2004 Pentagon video was published that captured a UFO spotted by Navy fighter pilots. The video went viral among all the credulous citizens ready to believe the next unsubstantiated story about alien beings out to eat us for lunch.
Probably the most grounded wisdom during the heated commotion came from astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, as interviewed on CNN. His recommendation to viewers was to chill out until there was proof. He went on to explain that scientists are right at home with doubts. In his words, "Scientists live in mystery every day of our lives. There's the circle of knowledge that we have, and then beyond that circle is the unknown. As the area of that knowledge grows, so does the perimeter of our ignorance.... Call me when you have a dinner invite from an alien. That's a different conversation."

Tyson nailed it. Sometimes less informed people think of ignorance as stupidity. That’s wrong. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge. It suggests that one is uneducated on a particular issue. There is no crime in that. Scientists are not embarrassed about their ignorance. That’s why they are scientists: to increase their circle of knowledge, to solve—or at least get closer to solving—the mysteries of the universe.
On the other hand, true believers take a totally different stance. Although often ignorant, they live their lives in full confidence that they are guided by truth. If they ever had doubts, they have dismissed them as unimportant, misconceived, or, worse, evil.
Isn’t that strange? Imagine demonizing that which you don’t understand. In fact, that kind of thinking is medieval and replete with superstition. For example, in the 14th Century, the Black Death was thought to be the work of the devil. Today, we know it was an infectious disease, most likely caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria carried by rodents and the fleas that feed on them. The devil had nothing to do with it.
Lest you think such an example is archaic, keep in mind that today’s televangelists and thousands of their followers claim that the AIDS epidemic is evidence of “divine justice.” That too is medieval thinking.
In contrast, those who are knowledgeable are able to take comfort in what they know and puzzle over what they do not know. More importantly—and this is the main point of my discourse—they refuse to become an advocate, a true believer of that which is still a mystery or, at best, folklore.
On October 20, 1967, two ranchers, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, rode into Del Norte County, California in search of Sasquatch. (That should raise suspicions right away; anyone actually looking for Bigfoot should probably be held in contempt of reason, just as I would be skeptical of anyone looking to find and photograph an aging Elvis Presley—thank you very much.)
Lo and behold, the ranchers spotted a hairy seven-foot entity and filmed the creature as it gambled into the woods. That half-century old, 60-second piece of blurry, low-resolution film from a 16mm Cine Kodak camera is still the best evidence of the existence of the elusive Bigfoot. No one has ever gotten any closer, and no one knows if the hairy beast was authentic or just an NBA basketball center in a gorilla suit.  And, yet, if you like, you can purchase your own Sasquatch T-shirt at the next International Bigfoot Conference at a town near you—as many true believers do.
 Now, just to be clear, I would be happy to sport a Bigfoot T-shirt, but not until I can personally interview the fuzzy creature face-to-face. Otherwise, I’ll let the disciples believe what they will, while I live my incredulous life in the real world.
That takes me to a delicate subject: Religion. When I was a boy, I always admired the committed parishioners in our church—the people I knew and loved my entire young life. I was especially moved when they would stand at the Wednesday night prayer meetings and testify, “I know without a doubt that Jesus Christ is my Savior.”
How I wanted to be like them: to be sure. In fact, I wanted it so fiercely that, at first, I pretended to be a believer. But the pretense gnawed at me like a dog chomping at the morrow in a shank of bone. To this day, those doubts were more psychologically painful to me than anything I have ever experienced. My disbelief was excruciating, but to be a pretender was even more agonizing.
The more I studied, the more my dwindling faith became shrouded in doubt. During those days of incredulity, my believing friends and family would say, “Allen, don’t make it so complicated. Just take it on faith. Besides, the Bible says it’s so, and the Bible is the infallible word of God.”
So, I poured over the scriptures, only to be assaulted with more doubts. The words and deeds of Jesus Christ were not so much reassuring as they were troubling, even frightening. The qualities I saw in the Gospels did not draw me into the fold; they scared the hell out of me. For example:
·         Christ’s jealousy: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25)
·         Christ’s vindictiveness: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” (Luke 10:15)
·         Christ’s sadism: “The Son of man will send his angles, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42)
·         Christ’s curious curse: The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. (Mark 11:12-14)
Increasingly, the loving God my family of believers exalted did not seem at all loving. Scripture might be a political manifesto, I decided, but certainly not the infallible word of a God who loved me beyond all comprehension.
Because I wanted to get it right—or as right as I could—my doubts led me to a scholarly study of the gospels and the historical Jesus Christ. Books that were particularly helpful included Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman, When Jesus Became God, by Richard E. Rubenstein, Zealot by Reza Aslan, and The Five Gospels by Robert W. Funk. Regarding Mormonism, the book that was most insightful—although, not surprisingly, reviled by the church—was entitled No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith by the historian, Fawn M. Brodie. All of these books taught me that there were too many discrepancies, too many questionable motives, and too many political schemes to warrant unequivocal devotion.
In the end, whether the subject is a mysterious UFO, an elusive Bigfoot, or a vindictive God, I will hold out for hard evidence before I commit my life to that which is otherwise pure speculation or wishful thinking. I will always be a doubter—in fact, I’m proud of that propensity—for it is through the careful examination of my doubts that I arrive closer to the truth.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A gift of love: A Helen Marco story

In 1940, Helen Marco, a dark-eyed Greek girl with coarse black hair, slipped in and out of the rooms of the Brooklyn Kallman Home for Orphaned Children. Entirely independent, she moved like a cat who owned the place. She had no distress, other than concern for one of the younger girls who had whooping cough and heartache for a preschool boy who cried out of loneliness.
Helen was only sixteen, but she “owned” the orphanage, feeling that she was exactly where she needed to be. When the snow fell, she played with her “brothers” and “sisters”—wallowing in the frigid days as though they were a warm blanket. On the long, sunny days, she would walk down the street on her way to school with her head down in hopes of finding a nickel or a dime, which would be enough for admission to a movie starring Clark Gable or Katharine Hepburn.
On Saturday night, it was time for everyone’s weekly bath. If she was lucky, she was third or fourth in line before the water turned murky from all the sweat and dust and grass stains from the girls who bathed before her. But, frankly, that didn’t bother her all that much. She loved her sisters—she even told them so when the lights were low, and she was feeling sentimental.
When summer arrived, she—along with nearly one hundred other Kallman Home orphans—would go to a camp near Spring Valley, New York for six sun-drenched weeks. When she was younger, she was a camper; now, at sixteen, she was a camp counselor.

She was in charge of a cabin full of nine-year-old boys.  Right at home, she thought of them as gamboling puppies—full of life and wonder and affection. But the boy who made her sigh in tender anguish was Hermie—a handsome, but gangling boy, with round tortoiseshell glasses and a crop of unruly dirty blonde hair.
He was an awkward boy, as the first afternoon on the baseball field confirmed. A step slow and a little afraid, he was likely to swing and miss at a pitch that was too high and outside. So, late in the game, when Hermie was at the plate for the third time, his teammates started making fun of him.
“Come on, four eyes, hit the ball for once in your life,” one boy shouted, his hands framing his mouth. But the worst insult was leveled from the spry and wiry shortstop: “Wormy Hermie, taxidermy,” which made no sense, but still made the boys laugh and punch each other on the arm.
As Helen listened to the barrage of jeers, she could see Hermie’s eyes darken and his complexion turn ashen. When the boy had struck out for the third time, he walked back to the bench, his shoulders rolled over his ribcage, his bat tracing a line in the sand behind him.
When the boy squatted at the end of the bench away from the rest of the boys, Helen sat down beside him and put her arm around him. “That’s okay, Hermie,” she said. “I’ll teach you how to swing before the week is up.”
At first, Helen thought that the boy cringed under her embrace, but when he looked up at her, she saw only admiration and a hint of confusion. She was too meek to imagine what he was really thinking: Why would such a beautiful, grownup girl be so good to me?
Helen just smiled and then pursed her lips and whisked her hand across this lawless hair.
That night, after bows and arrows, after washing the dinner dishes, after a campfire marshmallow roast, Helen led her troop of boys to their cabin.
They brushed their teeth and scrubbed the dirt from their faces and, for a few, from behind their ears. Then they were off to bed.
“It’s been a good day,” Helen announced. Then she recited a bedtime ditty that her house mother had taught her when she was six or seven. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite. If they do hit ‘em with a shoe, that’s what my grandma used to do.” She chuckled, kicked off her tennis shoes, and slipped into her bunk at the door.
There was a rush of whispers and giggles, which made Helen grin with languid satisfaction. She rolled to her side to face the boys and soon was fast asleep.
Across the room, Hermie was still stinging from the snipes on the baseball field. He sure didn’t want to be the camp goat. He wanted to be one of the guys—to laugh with them, roll in the dirt with them, and come out pals.
But Hermie had a problem—a big problem. And what made the mess unbearable was his total helplessness. He’d slam a sledgehammer on the back of his hand if it could make the problem go away. But it couldn’t; nothing could. In the middle of the night, when he was in his deepest sleep, he would dream about swimming, and in that swaddle of water, he would relax everything until the urine drained. And then, the slow release, the sweet surrender would suddenly turn into horrifying panic and shame as he awakened knowing that he had done it again. He had wet the bed, and he could die.
But not this night, not the first night of camp. He had a plan that he had hatched when he was still at home. He was sure it would work; it had to work. He reached into his pocket and drew out a thick rubber band and wrapped it once, twice, three times around his penis. He was surprised; sure, it felt a little strange, but it really didn’t hurt all that much.
He was on his back now, looking straight up at the slats that ran across the bunk above him. He let out a long, slow draft of breath and finally fell asleep.
The moon waxed and waned.
Hermie was awakened—not by the sun or the cawing ravens—but by his throbbing peter. He picked at the rubber band, but in the night his penis had engorged with blood and urine, and the band was stretched to its limit. He groaned—first softly, hesitantly, and then louder and louder until his agony irrupted into a scream.
Helen threw back her blanket and dashed to the boy’s bedside. “Hermie, what is it?” she asked, her eyes big, searching for understanding. “What’s wrong?”
Hermie reached out, laced his fingers around Helen’s neck, and drew her ear to his mouth. “It’s my weiner,” he whispered.
By now, a half-dozen boys had surrounded Hermie’s bunk.
“Everyone go back to bed,” Helen said with authority. “This doesn’t concern you. Now get.”
The boys scampered back to their bunks.
Helen turned to Hermie and smoothed two fingers over a bulging vein at the boy’s temple. “I need to look, Hermie,” she said as softly as a prayer.
The boy pulled the blanket to one side. His shorts were rolled down below his knees.
Helen’s eyes narrowed. She was not embarrassed. The patch of red that crept across her neck was not out of modesty or shame, but pure empathy for the tormented boy.
The rubber band had held its ground, but the flesh on both sides was red and purple and grotesquely swollen. “Don’t worry, Hermie,” Helen said, whispering into his ear. “We’ll take care of this.”
Helen rushed to the first-aid kit that was stowed under her bunk, grabbed something, and bolted back to Hermie’s side. But when she revealed what was in her hand—a gleaming pair of surgical scissors—Hermie howled. “NOOO, DON’T CUT OFF MY WEINER.”
A wave of boyish laughter rolled and crested within the cabin walls.
“No, no, no, no,” Helen assured. “I’m going to cut the rubber band. Not you. I promise.”
The boy rounded his mouth and blew a steady stream of air.
Helen carefully, meticulously edged the tip of the small scissors under one loop of the band and snipped the very edge of the elastic, then a little more, until the band finally sprung loose.
“Oh, thank you,” Hermie said as in a gushing tribute to someone who had just slapped down death. He wrapped his arms around Helen’s neck and pressed his face into her chest. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, and then added with conviction, “I love you.”
“You’re welcome, Hermie,” she said, embracing the boy with all the compassion her spirit knew. “I love you, too.”

Helen Marco was an extraordinary teenager. She did not possess the self-doubts of most young people her age. She was honest and true and strangely aware of the emotional condition of others. I should know. Helen Marco was my mother, and from my birth in 1946 to her death in 2008, I inhaled her unconditional love every day from beginning to end.
When she first told me Hermie’s story, her words were soft and tinged with sadness for a boy who struggled to be accepted in life.
I like to think that Hermie was influenced, maybe even transformed by my mom’s tenderness, by her gift of love.
I know Mom has greatly influenced me. For example, I’ll never forget my adolescent days when Mom would leave a grocery or department store, walk a few paces down the street, and then splay her fingers and let the change from her purchase jingle-jangle to the ground.
“Why do you do that?” I once asked.

“Because it will make a child’s day,” she said without hesitation. Then, putting her arm around me, she added, “Besides, we have so much, don’t we Son? We’re the lucky ones. We have each other.” 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Dataism: The Next Religion

My mother kept a diary when she was growing up in a Brooklyn orphanage. For three years, my wife recorded her thoughts in a journal when we lived in France and Algeria. Today, keeping a diary or a journal seems quaintly old-fashioned. What rules the world now is dataflow and exchange. For example, we take an uncensored, unedited notion, download it to Facebook, and then check every two minutes to determine how many “likes” we’ve received. For what good is a thought if it is not published, if it is not shared on the world-wide-web, over which all may fawn and marvel?
This is my point: We are all moving from humanism (which teaches us to look inward to discover truth) to dataism (which attributes meaning to the algorithms that manage data).

One day there will be no need for truck drivers or welders or even doctors and lawyers—all the data that is swirling around us will be captured, collated, and conceptualize more accurately than any human brain could ever imagine. You will not need a doctor for a diagnosis or a treatment plan. You will only need to consult with IBM’s Watson—or another database yet to be conceived.
The algorithms of data will know you better than you know yourself. For example, already Fred Meyer sends coupons to my wife for the items she most often buys. She no longer has to recall what she needs; the data programs from her favorite grocery store will do it for her.
Likewise, I have no need to remember my interests. The Google algorithms are configured to tell me what I desire. I don’t have to remember what I want. Google will happily remind me—not to suggest that Google is a person; it is not; it is an algorithm.
Some may be thinking, “Hold on there, Merry Sunshine. I still keep a diary, and I never buy anything online.”
Yes, everything conforms to a normal bell curve. There are always a few outliers at a minus three or plus three standard deviations from the mean. If that is you, congratulations, but you are in a meager minority. When you die, no one will replace you.
Moreover, it takes time for change of this magnitude—sometimes hundreds, even thousands of years. For example, it took a few millenniums for the polytheistic religions of Mesopotamia and Egypt to evolve into monotheistic religions as transcribe in scriptures. It took a few more millenniums for scripture-based religions to evolve into the independent will and self-consciousness of humanism. But today, the evolution to dataism is on a frenetically fast track. We are no longer talking a millennium. In some cases, we are talking a few decades, even a few years.
As we study human history, we see that our religious inspirations have evolved: from the sun to god to humanism to the sifted data ushered into the temples of Google, Amazon, and ChoicePoint. Evolution does not reverse course, and the current course is data on steroids.
Can we put the brakes on this transformation? In a word, no. But in our lifetime we can choose to be religious rebels. Just as there are still people who worship the sun, you may choose to cling to your faith in Christianity or Islam or Judaism or humanism, rather than be swept up by the tide of dataism. You may make that choice now, but be assured that the choice will be exceedingly less likely for your grandchildren.

But wait. There may be another alternative. Perhaps you can stand planted with your right foot in one world and your left foot in another. Perhaps you can hold to the antiquated custom of writing a journal and publishing your words in the realm of dataism—just as I have done today.   Consider this a thought for the day from one who is edging—kicking and screaming—into the murky and mysterious matrix of algorithms.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Mindfulness separates fiction from reality

            What stories should we believe? Does the beguiling co-ed really need to wash her hair on Saturday night? Is scripture really the infallible word of God? Did Russia really collude in the 2016 election? All tough questions. So how do we separate fiction from reality? How do we cut to the truth?
Fiction versus reality
            Fiction is about the stories we spin to inspire and motivate people to action. That’s not always a bad thing. Good stories are needed to kindle any noble mass movement: equality, liberty, and fraternity—to name three.
            Reality may be defined as the consequences of stories. Stories in themselves are innocuous fairy tales. But a duplicitous storyteller can whip up an audience into a frenzy of discontent. And that discontent can end in suffering, which is the evidence of reality.

            In the 11th century, Pope Urban II spun a compelling story—that it was time for Christians to recover the Holy Lands from Islamic rule. The reality of that story resulted in the death of an estimated 1.7 million soldiers and civilians over two centuries. That suffering was real.
            Given the reality of suffering, it is critical to recognize the moral and physical consequences of our stories. A well-crafted tale may rally the troops, but if the consequences are immoral, we have been gravely deceived by the storyteller—just as crusaders were duped by the “glorious emancipation of the Holy Lands,” and, 900-years later, Americans were deceived by the egregious hawking of the invisible “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.
The mindfulness of humanism
            I believe that humanism is essential in cutting through the ethical questions that arise out of fiction. In its purest form, the humanist looks inward for guidance—beyond the dogmas, beyond the slogans, beyond the political spin. She seeks to be fully mindful.
            To adapt a formula from Homo Deus by the renowned historian Yuval Noah Harari, the humanist is guided by this formula:
Mindfulness = Experience x Sensitivity
            The humanist sits quietly in a room and recalls all of her experiences—all that she has seen, heard, or read that registered as moral or immoral, ethical or unethical. She then multiplies that knowledge by sensitivity—that is the probability for suffering. Only then she makes her decision.
            For example, imagine that our mindful humanist is deciding who to vote for in a presidential election. She must first consider all she knows about the candidates: What do they stand for? How grounded is their character? How solid is their competence? Then, she must multiply that evidence by the potential spike in suffering. Who will suffer financially? Who will be unable to afford health care? How will our planet fare?
            To address the last question, she might recall her reading on global pollution. She’ll remember that pollution is a scourge that kills fifteen times more people than all the violence in the world—including wars. In fact, she will remember that nine million lives are lost each year through pollution. The magnitude of so much suffering is unconscionable. What candidate cares about this issue?
            And then she votes.
My last word
            We must never allow fiction to dilute reality. Despite the blaring trumpets, patriotic hymns, and waving flags, despite our urge to turn up the volume on Fox News and breathe in all the red herrings that distract us from the putrid scent of duplicity and greed, we must cut through the fiction. A good place to start is to remember the words of the famous scientist and theologian Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

            Don’t be duped by the story. Keep your eye on reality. And always be mindful.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Americans are the victims of their own fantasies

“May I tell you something about Americans that you may not like to hear?”
The provocative question was asked by a French friend, Pierre, as we sipped wine in the warm sun outside a Mediterranean café.
“Of course,” I said honestly.
“It’s this,” Pierre said. “We love Americans, but they are incredibly naïve—almost like children. Americans will believe anything.”
Pierre and I had that exchange fifteen years ago, and I am still haunted by his words. The more I thought about it, the more I suspected that Pierre was right. Kurt Andersen—the American novelist and host of NPR’s Studio 360—sealed it for me in his 2017 exposé Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.

In the first chapter, Andersen wrote:
“ . . . Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking . . . and belief in fanciful explanations . . . that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”
Magical thinking is nothing new in America. Salem Puritans executed twenty witches and sorcerers (and two satanic dogs) four generations before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
But don’t fool yourself. Fanciful thinking is not a forsaken, archaic American custom. In a 2010 Pew Research poll, 41% percent of those surveyed said Jesus would return before 2050. (On a personal note, in 2008, the pastor who conducted the memorial service for my mother said, “Don’t worry about Helen’s passing. Jesus will return within the year, and we’ll all see her again.”) 
In the same Pew survey, 25% of the respondents believed in astrology (including 23% of Christians). Reincarnation was equally popular (23%), while 29% said they had been in touch with the dead. In fact, 18% reported that they had seen or been in the presence of ghosts. But, ironically, only 32% believed that evolution was true. In contrast, Norwegians either fully agreed (59%) or somewhat agreed (24%) with evolution. Even in Mexico 64% of the respondents believed “humans and other living things evolved over time.”
Popular culture reflects and intensifies our affinity for magical thinking. Consider the five biggest box office movies of the 21st century—their earnings converted to 2017 dollars:
1.      Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) $969 million
2.      Avatar (2009) $857 million
3.      The Avengers (2012)  $758 million
4.      The Dark Knight (2008) $608 million
5.      Shrek 2 (2004) $573 million
All fantasy movies. And lest you think I’m cherry picking, the next ten highest grossing films are also pure fantasyland, including two Spiderman flicks, two Star Wars blockbusters, two films from the Harry Potter series, and sundry movies about Caribbean pirates, Hobbits, talking toys (Toy Story), and teenagers fighting to the death (The Hunger Games).
As you might guess, the 21st century best-selling books followed the same cultural propensity for fantasy:  Harry Potter, Robert Langdon, Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
Of course, the influence does not stop there. You can attend one or more of twenty-five conventions across the nation whose themes are the supernatural, Vampire Diaries, and Star Trek. You will be among 10,000 other attendees, all vying for a glimpse at one of their fantasy heroes.
Or maybe you would rather be a star yourself. You’re in luck. In 2000, the first reality TV show, Survivor, aired on CBS. Today, there are 400 reality shows, all designed to make you the star you always fancied.
If you don’t want to wait for your big break, sign up with “Celeb-for-a-day” and be a grand celebrity with six personal paparazzi, one bodyguard, one publicist, one limousine, two-hours of non-stop action, and your own magazine cover—all for $1500, plus your flight to Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Manhattan. However, it may not happen right away; there’s currently a long waiting list.
The degree of passion around so much make-believe is astounding. I remember meeting a young cashier who had a tattoo that ran the length of her arm. It looked like Chinese characters, so I asked, “What does your tattoo say?”
“It says ‘Glory, power, and destiny,’” she murmured, her eyes all dewy with emotion.
“Really. What language is it?”
“And what is that on your other arm.”
“It’s the English translation.”
Believe it; Americans are swirling in a vat of fantasies. These are a few of the cultural influences that have seeped into our national consciousness in my lifetime: Bewitched, The X-Files, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the World Wrestling Federation, survivalists, fantasy football, LSD, Playboy Magazine, Las Vegas, Reno, Disneyland, state lotteries, James Bond, super heroes, Life After Life, Chariots of the Gods, The Late Great Planet Earth, Jim Jones, David Duke, Rush Limbaugh, UFOs, alien abductions, gangster rap, McCarthyism, the domino effect, white racial victimhood, Breitbart News, birtherism, and alternative facts.
Some may be thinking, “Well, so what? What’s wrong with a little fantasy?”
I’m glad you asked. If we are mindlessly preoccupied with the insidious distractions of fantasies, we are less likely to notice or even care that politicians are stealing elections, that wars are being orchestrated, that health care is skyrocketing, that the world is warming, that 43 million Americans are living in poverty, and that CEOs are earning 400 times the salary of their employees.
So, in the name of reason, do not stand idle. Teach your children and grandchildren to be fiercely discerning about what is real and what is make-believe.

As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If we plod numbly, insensibly from season to season—unaware of the fantastic follies that are festering and searing our souls—we are no longer the masters of our own destinies. We are the victims, and the villains . . . are us.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Commitment powers our most pivotal life decisions

This is a memoir of two tales separated by ten years, yet linked by a single powerful quality.
1958: McLoughlin Junior High school. Age twelve.
            When the quarterback called the play, I cinched up my helmet strap and took in a deep breath. The ball was coming to me. I stood—butt down, my hands on my knees—just behind and right of the field general.
            “Ready, set, hut, hut, HUT.”
            The ball was snapped. The QB turned and jammed the pigskin into my gut. I took two steps, maybe three, when the biggest kid on the defensive line slammed me to the ground like a bag of wet cement. Certain that my ribs were rearranged and my teeth reshuffled, I tried to recall what planet I was on.

            At that moment, my world changed. Before then, I considered myself an athlete. After that single play—even before the stars stopped swirling around my head—I decided to become a scholar.
1968: Kelso, Washington. Age twenty-two
            After graduating from college, I taught English, drama, and speech at Kelso High School. It was where I wanted to be, but the nights were lonely. I loved teaching, but I wanted a soul mate.
            In the beginning of the school year, I spotted a stunning blond at an all-district faculty meeting, and I instantly felt woozy. She wore a lemon-yellow mini-dress over fishnet tights. Her name was Nita, and she was drop-dead gorgeous.
            I summoned all my courage to introduce myself to the beautiful woman in yellow. A first date was set in mid-October; a first kiss sealed my love; and on Christmas Eve, we were married. I still remember our vows: “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”
The link: Commitment
            We all have had pivotal moments in our lives: the times when the very next decision will change our destiny. Those moments are simple. What is hard is preserving our commitment.
            When I was flattened on the gridiron, I decided to become a scholar. At that age there was nothing scholarly about me. I was a C- student who had never read a book. I never quite understood fractions, not to mention algebra. And I rarely did homework.
            All that changed. I had a new routine. Right after school, I rushed home, walked directly to my bedroom, and started studying—night after night. By the time I graduated from high school, I was an A student. At my college commencement, I graduated with honors. Let’s be honest; I was no world-class savant. But, damn it, I was as scholarly as my finite intellect would allow.
            Then, in 1968, I was married. Once again, my commitment was on the line. How loyal would I be? Let me put it this way:
            A year ago, my wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an incurable neurological disorder that has touched 2.5 million Americans.
            At times, friends ask me how Nita and I are dealing with the disease. My answer is always the same. “My wife and I see Parkinson’s as part of the natural cycle of life. There are challenges that come and go—and, yes, some linger. But despite the adversities, we never choose to be victims; we move on.
            “But there is something else that is even more important. Nearly fifty years ago, we made a covenant to love each other in sickness and in health. That covenant is as real and dear as the day it was pledged. Our love will never change. That is sacred, immutable ground.
            “And when days become more difficult—as they likely will—love will anchor us. Love will carry us through.”
            Why am I saying all this? I have learned that a few crucial, pivotal moments in our lives are transformational and not to be taken lightly. Those who are sloppy about their personal missions are not living; they are sleepwalking. And, to make things worse, they become easy prey for imposters seeking feckless followers. As the adage goes, those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.
            I could never be a true athlete. I never had the strength, the agility, and, more importantly, the passion. But I could be a scholar. I could buckle down and dedicate myself to life-long learning.
            Nor could I ever be a loner. I am, by nature, too social—one who longs for community and craves intimacy. But I can commit to the woman who has been my life’s partner. I can wake up in the morning, see the sunlight streaming across her beautiful face, and say, “Nita, I will always love you—in sickness and in health, now and forevermore.”

            And to those who think that, like Delilah, my wife has sheared my hair, you may be right, but it is so much sweeter than having my teeth reshuffled.