May 2009

I Didn’t Have Him Scheduled For Death.

I understand irony is out. The chic of being ironic gone. So yesterday. Poof! I think I saw that in a recent “Times” obit. “And with the death of Sir Reginald Honorable VanCleef IX, irony, a late 20th century fixture of the urbane and privileged sadly died, too.”

In summing up the demise of irony, the Most Reverend Fitzwalter Perriwinkle of the Softsell Baptist Church of New York City, observed, “Irony has died in America. President Bush and Vice President Cheney were constantly pushing the envelope of irony but somehow, someway, it was lost on America. We no longer, as a nation, have the ability to distinguish irony from tragedy (humor?) or even from junior high jokes on “passing gas.”

Some scholars of irony (mostly centered in America’s Ivy league schools, although there remains devoted pockets of “ironics” in the more “rural” parts of Iowa and Central Florida, mostly around Obscure, Florida) trace the beginnings of the loss of irony to the nation’s public school system and the widespread decision in the 1960s to dramatically reduce time spent at “recess” for America’s elementary school children. Retired Superintendent R. Ross “Whitey” Bloke of the Ottumwa, Iowa School District attributes the decision to do away with recess to Sputnik, “The Ruskies were blowing our socks off academically, for capitalism to survive meant more work, less play for our kids. It seemed right at the time. None of us knew the actual “fallout” would be the death of irony just two generations later. It would be tragic except it’s so ironic. We didn’t know. We didn’t know.”

An opposing view traces the loss of irony to more modern forces, particularly the introduction of sildenafil citrate into the, uh, um, American consciousness. Originally conceived as a “wonder” drug for the treatment of brain injuries and diseases, sildenafil citrate was to dramatically increase the flow of blood to the brain but sadly, German scientists confused the scientific objective. Unfortunately they were the unintentional victims of a massive bureaucratic language SNAFU, but to make a long story longer, the technical product assignment (blood to the head) was lost in translation and as a result Viagra was created and introduced to the American market.

Those observing such matters also noted an uptick in suicides for women over the age of 70. Said Ima Overit, “I watched my friend Sally Cenile, have to endure her wretched husband’s “junk” get reinvigorated just when all Sally wanted to do was plant her garden. It was too much, too often, if you catch my drift. I lost Sally to Viagra. It’s tragic. It most definitely is not ironic!”

But ironists were quick to single out Pfizer Corporation’s recent announcement that America’s unemployed males have “long” suffered enough by announcing a national program of free Viagra under the headline, “Hard Men for Hard Times!” Former Vice President Cheney it was noted was being considered as the chief spokesman for the new initiative, “Hard Men for America!” Not even the “Times” commented on the irony of such a spokesman for such a product.

That irony is quickly becoming passée we have to look no further than America’s distinguished Left. Bouyed by the election of President Barack Obama and his pledge to remove troops from Iraq, Liberals were excited by the prospects of no Americans dying in the Middle East, only to then see Obama up the ante of endless war by shifting thousands of troops to Afghanistan.

Noted liberal French commentator Flummox Softée, spoke for many when he observed, “Americans are constantly “bait & switched” by their politicians. They buy peace but get war. We French see the irony, you Americans get hozed and call it a bath. Sacré Bleu!”

The saddest unrecognized irony of the Obama administration has been its choice of economic advisors. What used to be considered “common sense” of not allowing the foxes to guard the hen house has been turned on its head with the economic leadership (and subsequent policies) that are now in place. Again the “Times” see no irony, just fiscal good sense and prudence. Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers, the very same motley crew that created and accelerated America’s financial meltdown now call the shots as to America’s future economic wellbeing. For a “community organizer” such as President Obama to have turned over the reins of America’s recovery to such “noncommunity” types is staggering in its implications. Irony?

In his eulogizing sermon, the Most Reverend Fitzwalter Perriwinkle said of Sir Reginald Honorable Van Cleef IX, “I didn’t have him scheduled for death. Like irony itself. It was so sudden. His passing was so very far beyond our minds. Honorable lived, nay, embraced the ironic life. He even looked for irony in the “Times” crossword puzzle. Mon Dieux!”

“In summing up Honorable’s ironic life I end with a quote by his favorite author, David Foster Wallace, “The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do?”

And the answer is, America? Steady as “she” goes doesn’t cut it anymore, kids.

On Heroes and Heroism

Ten, maybe 15 years ago, I thought it heroic to stick in the trenches and raise a family. So many people, men mostly, opted out of that task that I considered those who “stuck” at it, heroic. In reality women are not so different than men in this regard. There is enough fiction in books or movies to suggest as much, that raising your kids is an heroic endeavor. When, in actuality, it’s merely your job. You signed up for this cruise called FAMILY LIFE, kiddo, now complete it.

I’ve talked with any number of WWII veterans, savvy, salty dudes who never fired their guns during the war and the last thing they consider themselves are heroes. Of any sorts. They laugh at my question(s).

Recall Captain Richard Phillips who was recently captured by Somali pirates. He was rescued when SEAL snipers from the complete safety of the USS Bainbridge put bullets through the heads of his three captors. Three shots three dead pirates. On board, in front of cameras, Captain Phillips characterized his “liberating snipers” as heroes. Hmmm?

I’ve watched any number of golf tournaments and I have been struck by the easy characterization of Tiger Woods as heroic. He plays golf. In all probability, he’ll be the first billion-dollar athlete. What exactly is heroic in any of that? Oh, some will say, he played hurt and won the U.S. Open in excruciating pain. He was what? Uh, playing. Golf.

The idea of what is heroic and who are heroes is, no doubt, an ever-changing concept. I was taught Christopher Columbus was a hero for not turning back when others had. That America’s Founding Fathers were heroic for signing the Declaration of Independence, that if the war were lost they’d have been hung for treason, their families impoverished. That America’s pioneers were considered heroic for settling unknown lands whilst surrounded by “savage” Indians. That the soldiers of Pickett’s Charge, even though they were Confederate Virginians, were heroes for marching straight into certain death.

I consider the early suffragettes as heroes for enduring the slings & arrows of abuse, both verbal and physical. Rosa Parks strikes me as heroic for not taking it anymore. Same goes for the black high school students who were the first to integrate Southern schools in the 1950s and 60s. Talk about scary. The Freedom Riders of the same era, heroic, too.

Hero’s and hero idolatry are an integral part of the human story. Ever since “Ogg” went over the hill and came back with food under particularly trying circumstances and later recounted his horrendous ordeal (the terror) to family and friends around the shadowy circle of a smoldering fire, heroes have “forever” fueled our imaginations with deeds of sacrifice and glory. For the greater good, I go forth.

That is the implication of what it means to be heroic, for the greater good, I go forth. Into uncharted seas or unknown lands. To battle. To forage for food. To secure safety.

Joseph Campbell, a scholar of mythology, believes that the qualities of a hero have their roots in most myths. In his 1988 book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell identifies a number of necessary characteristics (steps if you will) to being a hero: “A hero gives his or her life to something bigger than him/herself, to some higher end. A hero performs a courageous act, either physical or spiritual. A hero is usually someone from whom something has been taken or who feels there’s something lacking in the normal experience available, or permitted, to members of his society. A hero embarks on a series of adventures to recover what is lost or to discover some life-giving information. The hero usually moves out of the known, conventional safety of his/her own life to undertake the journey. The hero undergoes trials and tests to see if he or she has the courage, the knowledge and the capacity to survive. A hero has to achieve something. A hero’s journey usually consists of a departure, a fulfillment, and a return.”

With these qualities and characteristics identified as “necessary” to the historical idea (ideal) of a hero, is it any wonder that we are confused today as to what constitutes heroic and what is merely aggrandizement of our mundane day-to-day life and routine? Adding to the confusion over what represents heroic behavior is an insatiable media that constantly demands (and provides) the novel and new. It finds. It hypes. It finds. It hypes. Ad nauseum.

But that doesn’t excuse us from trivializing the heroic by the exalting the commonplace (including excellence on the links). I’m not minimizing parenthood but it’s the job a lot of adults take on and have the “moral” responsibility to fulfill. Are you acting honorably? Yes. You bet-cha. Heroically? I don’t’ think so. “It’s my yob,” as my father would jokingly say in a Scandinavian accent.

Same goes for the snipers who recently “executed” their day jobs. And sorry, I do not ever consider professional athletes as heroic in any sense of the idea. I choke on the word every time I hear some inane TV sportscaster assert as much.

Warfare becomes a more challenging category for me. Because my country wars does not mean (to me) that the wars are automatically just or even in the nation’s best interests. Nearly all are not. What then to make of the servicemen involved? Are they heroic for merely enlisting for/in folly? Service in and of itself is not heroic. But they can find themselves in circumstances where they are, indeed, heroic. I would not serve in a war I did not think was necessary to the survival of America. In the 20th century, WWII is the only conflict that meets my condition of a “just” war. The remaining conflicts were the results of imperialism, greed, stupidity, corruption, bureaucratic bumbling, manipulated fear, and/or jingoistic insanity.

We’ve lost track of the meaning of heroic, perhaps because our everyday lives have become such a bland soup of striving for creature comfort. Understandably, justifiably so. Conceivably that is a measure of our culture’s success that our heroes are so lame or false. They are comic book creations, momentary media sensations (illusions) or some glorified characterization of the “common” man and woman.

Life is more the slog than the heroic. We live one and romanticize the other. But let’s not cheapen the currency of heroism because we lack historical perspective or intellectual curiosity.

On A Life Before Death

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” David Foster Wallace

I tend to be a hot reactor. No doubt about it. What I have been able to achieve over the decades is to dramatically reduce the flaming intensity of a hot moment from minutes to seconds. If I can overcome my initial flash of mental heat, I’m finer than frog’s hair. Mythologist Joseph Campbell said it best, “Let it go.” Oh, I try, I do. I do.

A challenge for me is I have strong opinions on just about everything. On how long it should take someone to double park or to order a cheese burger, to morbidly obese folks expecting taxpayers to foot their health bills after a Chips & Dip lifetime of donning the ol’foodbag, to folks having babies while on the public dole (think: OctoMom!), to bailing out sleezeball bankers or building private basketball arenas for billionaires with scarce public dollars (Welfare for the wealthy?).

Minds are a wonder. We can process anything and everything nearly simultaneously. But we don’t consciously do that. We learn to filter out the tangential from the essential with varying degrees of success. That has been my challenge. If, as a hot reactor, I’m steamed over a few seconds “lost” waiting for some dufus to ineptly park his car or for Ms. Porkchop to count out 67 cents in pennies and nickels to finish paying for her cheese burgers, cheese burgers, Super-sized fries and large Coke, well, I’ve taught myself to “let it go” and to immediately shift my focus elsewhere.

Part of the problem is human ego. I get a kick out of the scientific discussion regarding the location of the center of the known “universe.” Kids, when dealing with the actual physical location of the universe, look no further than the universe between each human’s ears. If there are 6 billion plus human beings on Ol’ Mother Earth, well, there are six billion universes. We, each of us, are the absolute center of the universe. The human ego is categorically bigger than any known universe. That is the undeniable reality of our existence. It’s a blessing. It’s a curse.

My father had an expression (frequently addressed to a teenage Christopher Robin) that sums-up a human challenge, “Who died and made you Pope?” I am confident the more perceptive and reflective reader will see the applicability for such a query? But we are all our own Popes in the Most Holy Church of Self. Genuflect now.

Life is about where you spend your mind (time). It is. At its most essential it is no more than that. I mentally ask myself, “Chrissy-boy, are you gonna get your cerebral undies in a bundle over some person slowing you down because for whatever the reason they are having issues parking their car or they order food and only then think about paying? I don’t think so.

I once-upon-a-time didn’t so much suffer “fools” (my 20s for sure). “You think/believe WHAT!?!” And we were off to the races, so to speak. Hot reactor that I was. Vietnam. The brilliance of Ronald Reagan (Astoundingly hard to imagine isn’t it?). Abortion rights. The “TRUE” nature of God. Not so much today. In my own way(s) I am as much or more the fool than anyone I’ve ever “debated” the issues.

My tendency today is to avoid “regular” contact with fools who embrace a “radically” different silliness from my own foolishness. We all do that. We do. By the churches we choose to attend, the friends we associate, our business colleagues, our drinking & fishing buddies, our book club membership to our, well, you name it, we are all pretty much self-selecting. If given the choice.

Where do we spend our mind (time)? It might be we spend more of our minds opening our hearts to our fellow “fisheys.” Some may recall that my favorite quote is, “The cowards never started and the weak died on the way.” At a certain simplistic level that is undeniably true. But not everyone who doesn’t start is coward and what does it say about the rest of us when the weak die along the way?

The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out. David Foster Wallace

All of us employ “attention filters.” We screen out the inconsequential, the unimportant, the expendable, the impoverished, the nuisance, the inflammatory, the stupid, the ignorant, the mundane, the boring, the tedious, the slovenly, the unclean, the irreligious. We do so at our own peril—as individuals and as a community.

The water in which we all swim is humanity. The mundane—the day-to-day human routine—the regular current.

Filter out humanity and you risk filtering out your humanity. Beware.

Doubling Down Republicans

A long time ago but not in a galaxy far, far away I grew up in a Republican household. We laughed at Jack Kennedy (rich boy pretender, silver-spooned papist), disdained Franklin Roosevelt (betrayed his class) and thought Dwight Eisenhower (the General) about right. We didn’t think about social issues because in Iowa in the 1950s there weren’t any social issues. Any remaining Indians were in Nebraska and those few in Sioux City were essentially (invisible) drunks on Fourth Street. We had maybe 50 black families in a town of 125,000. In the 50s a black girl was elected to my high school’s prom court. No epithets were hurled in Sioux City, no white person felt so threatened. It was the daze of Ozzie & Harriet.

We didn’t go to church, none of my friends did (save Eddie Gregori, the Episcopal minister’s son). Alcohol was the only drug. If you didn’t make a public display of your drunkenness, you could walk the alleys of my town any time of the night totally juiced, laughing with the boys about girls and love and stuff you knew little to nothing about. Marijuana came to my high school the year after I graduated. In hindsight, I am grateful for that.

Girls got pregnant and went away or to the unwed mother’s home at 27th Court Street. But none of the girls I knew had “that” problem. The Catholic girls seemed exotic times seven. They went to Heelan, a large Catholic high school always surrounded by beefy Catholic boys. No surprise there. They wore those blue plaid short skirts (not too short), white blouses and knee high blue socks and loafers. Oooooh, my. I lusted longingly after the Catholic girls.

I delivered the Des Moines Register newspaper for five years and one evening while collecting my paper route I stopped at a Catholic family’s home and as I looked through the screened door there stood the virtually purrrrfect teenage daughter on a small step ladder. She was on tippy-toes framed by dappled light, so beautiful (beatific?) a vision (think Jennifer O’Neill perched on that ladder in the “Summer of 42”) that I nearly swooned. I did. The light shown through her clothing. She might as well have been naked. “Uh, uh, uh, I’m collecting.” Memories. God does provide. I became a believer. For a day. Ha! Seriously.

The only cloud on the horizon of my sheltered Iowa life, at all, was Vietnam. I remember watching Walter Cronkite with my dad when the Marines landed in 1964. My father thought they’d be home in a matter of months, he so misunderstood the dynamics of that war. But not for long was he confused. My dad was the toughest man I knew. He was big and broad. He had elegant composure, a boxer’s face and pile-driving hands. The only way I would have ever fought the man was if armed with a two by four and I was able to blindside him with a blow to the head. And only, only if he was 80 years old. And this tough guy very quickly said, “Vietnam was 1.) none of our business and 2.) unwinnable.

I fawningly mirrored my father’s Republican values like any dutiful, respectful son. We both liked Goldwater. But parted ways with Goldwater on Vietnam. For my father, the Republican Party stood for two things, 1.) low taxes and as little government as required to maintain basic services (roads, water, etc.), and 2.) freedom to do your own thing whenever you wanted to do it. Period. End of story.

By extension, what was accorded him, he accorded you. Advice columnists Ann Landers and Dear Abby were talented Jewish girls (the Friedman sisters) who grew up in Sioux City. They went to high school with my father. Dear Abby summed life up well when she coined the expression “Mind Your Own Business.” MYOB. That was once a policy of the Republican Party. Seemingly.

I left for college and was introduced to a life that wasn’t lily white, middleclass, inherently conservative and privileged (Privileged? If growing up in ol’ Iowa can ever be thought of as growing up privileged which I do but not for reasons associated with class). College was a party. You partied Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. It was like high school only much better. You arranged your schedule so you had classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Occasionally, you achieved a Tuesday/Thursday schedule. Nearly perfect! I never had a problem getting up for a 7:30 a.m. class, no matter the night before. I read a lot. I learned a little. I learned that girls want the same things guys do but differently. Laughter and kindness will get you around the bases and gloriously home. Slow is infinitely better than fast as in, “What’s your hurry, boy?” Indeed.

I observed. I read. I listened. And I gave up the simplicities of the Republican Party as I saw a different America for the first time in my life. We senselessly warred while America’s cities burned. Women wanted the freedom that men had. Blacks had legitimate grievances. Poverty is more complex than merely not having enough. It can infect your mind and devour your spirit. It destroys whole communities and will bring a nation down. We are either all in this together, we are TEAM AMERICA or we are something far less.

So with the 2009 Republican Party on the ropes, vanquished by their own ineptness, humiliated by their hypocrisy (think: criticizing Obama for unbalanced budgets. Who are they kidding!?!) and legitimately tarred as idiotic war mongering fools (with cowardly Democrat acquiescence), they urgently search for a new message. This economic debacle is largely a Republican creation (again with cowardly Democrat acquiescence). Deregulated capitalism will consume itself and us (America) with it. And the goofballs on the Right continue to say, “Let the markets speak.” They are too funny. Except they aren’t.

What do the village idiots better known as the National Republican Leadership decide to do? They’re doubling down! They are betting the future of the Republican Party that you want the government managing your daughter’s or wife’s uterus, that MYOB issues of privacy are somehow imaginary rights and that national security is a higher priority than economic security. Oh, and turn up the FEAR! Cue Fear Now!

Are there any MYOB Republicans left who place the economic “welfare” of the entire nation first and foremost? Who understand America is a diverse nation with monumental challenges requiring imagination not the insipid retardation of empty, divisive rhetoric, failed policies and limited vision. Any? That’s what is left of my father’s Republican Party.

“A foolish consistency,” Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Maybe that should be the party’s new slogan: Today’s Republican Party: For America’s Little Minds. Call 1-800-IAMDUMB.

Ya think?