Life Is Too Short

“The Internet can be a hard place to find kindness, maybe especially right now, but I believe it’s worth fighting for because I believe it makes the world bigger and that it eases the hard but inevitable changes that define life.”
John Green

It so happens that I am tired of the things that I’m against, and that are against me. This being-against has come to circumscribe my days and define my existence, ever since the putative election of the Idiot Toddler King five months ago.

The writer John Green refers to a “strange brew of outrage and worry and exhaustion and not being able to look away …” and says, “I feel some vague but nagging obligation to be informed about the events of the day.” I can relate. It feels like I’ve been sucking information from a firehose and that it’s my social obligation as a citizen to go on doing it, perhaps forever. I can’t look away.

trump-baldwinI don’t want this misery; this feeling of being subjected to hypnosis or mind control. The failing landlord has had rent free use of the space between my ears for far too long. I have given him and his minions power over my thinking. That’s the most precious thing I have and worst thing I can carelessly give away. Enough!

I no longer accept the moral obligation to be constantly informed about the minutia of the highest and most profoundly innervating horrors of insensate Power. It’s not my job as a citizen, or yours. If a few of the tens of millions of us who are chronically outraged remember that we still have finite lives and look away for a moment, Trump will not get away with all of his cunning and evil plans.

I want my field of vision back, and the spectrum of my hearing, and the depth of my understanding too. There are still beautiful books to read, and music to hear. There are more important things to think about than what steaming pile of crap The Clown Prince has stepped in today.

I’m not saying I want to stop being well-informed and caring about what’s going on. But being informed doesn’t mean staying lock-step with the nation every day. It’s easy to go way beyond being informed and become obsessed. The traditional news media and countless content sources on the Internet are in the business of obsession. They make a living, one way or another, by getting our attention and keeping it. They manufacture outrage.

I’ve heard there’s no truth in the news, no news in the truth. But even if what they’re feeding us is True, they don’t want us to be merely well informed and say that’s enough thanks, and glance away. The information machine is an all-you-can-eat buffet, an eternal flame raging in a dumpster. Nobody cares if you sit there, in rapt attention, until your background level of stress pegs off the meter.

The problem with living on a daily diet of outrage against the things that we’re against is not just that it ruins your health and happiness. It doesn’t do any good. It never has. No good change in the world has ever come about just because people – no matter how many – were against something and outraged about it. Every time people have succeeded in creating positive change, it’s been because they found something that were for and felt passionate about. They then stood up and fought for that thing and against whatever was trying to destroy it. There’s no use being against something without being for something, is my point.

Anne Lamott has famously written, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Being outraged against The Other Side always results in overblown, inaccurate stereotypes. If everybody over there is evil and stupid and incapable of rational discourse, there’s no hope at all of ever making progress toward solving common problems. We become part of the problem. Believe it or not, cooperation is never optional, and those stereotypes, at some level, are always wrong.

“Now, if you ask me, what’s going on is that we’re all up to here in it, and probably the most important thing is that we not yell at one another. Otherwise we’d all just be barking away like Pekingese: ‘Ah! Stuck in the shit! And it’s your fault, you did this …’ Writing involves seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein. But you can’t do that if you’re not respectful. If you look at people and just see sloppy clothes or rich clothes, you’re going to get them wrong.”
– Lamott

I want kindness to prevail between us, I really do, but it’s going to take time.  If you voted Nazi Stupid in the 2016 election, don’t tell me. I still think you’re a raging fool who should not be trusted with scissors or the care of pets or houseplants. Even if you’ve repented and wish there had been an actual Conservative to vote for, just shut up and keep it to yourself for a while. You are the stereotype, the poster child for bad judgment. Sorry. Let’s find something else to talk about. Not NASCAR or Rodeo. …Movies?

Of course, I still despise Donald Trump. He’s batshit crazy and evil, corrupt, and probably a traitor. But our job as citizens is not just to consume and react, consume and react. It’s to thoughtfully receive information, decide what values we are willing to stand for, and then find a way to stand up for them.

It’s time to cut back on the news. So how often is often enough to check in? Every 10 minutes, every hour, day, or week? Well for me it’s going to be a quick daily dose online. Then I have a couple of nice weekly magazines, TIME and The Nation. I’ll still be outraged but less viscerally so, I hope. If you’re not outraged, you haven’t been listening.

I’m Like

I listen to people. I guess all writers do but I’m not recommending it as a source of inspiration for the creative process. I just find it amusing, sometimes informative.

Crossing a parking lot the other day I listened to a nearby couple in their twenties. I have no idea what the girl was talking about but I decided to count the number of times she used the word “like” in her next sentence. She made it to seven, never as an actual reference to anything’s qualities or attributes, or attitudes or feelings about anything. She was like just like using it for meaningless filler. She meant, “I thought” or “I said” or “she said,” etc.

Am I like becoming an old (middle-aged) grammar cop? You damn kids learn to speak correctly and get off of my lawn! No, I understand that every generation has its silly habits. I say “cool” far more than makes sense.

I could despair for English but I am too well entertained.

The Center of the Universe

And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

– Elie Wiesel
Acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize

The marginalized people of America are afraid, and for good reason.

I am reminded of a story my priest told me once, from Russia in the years before the revolution. In those days, it was common practice for people to travel to monasteries to celebrate feast days and ask advice from monks, especially from certain elders.

On one occasion, a group of people were taking turns speaking with an elder who was giving them advice on keeping the fast – Lent. One by one they went up and ask his blessing – Batyushka Blagoslave – Father, bless me – and he would bless them and help them and send them on their way. He might tell them certain vegetables to eat, or tea to drink, or maybe for health reasons absolve them to eat eggs or cheese on days when they wouldn’t otherwise.

Finally a man stepped up who was very rich and influential; a man who had spent his life amassing a fortune. He asked for a blessing and the old priest, being insightful and wise, took one look at him and said:

Oh you, I know you. Don’t bother keeping the fast; eat anything you want. Just for the love of God stop eating people.

The people on the margins of American society are afraid because they are the most vulnerable to the people-eating machine that our divided and hate-steeped culture has become. I speaking of the immigrants, minorities, LGBTQ, the disabled and sick and homeless, and the list goes on. They know they’re not alone, but it must still feel that way. They don’t know if anyone – the Congress, the Courts, the churches and their neighbors – will stand with them as the machine grinds on.

It is not morning in America anymore; it is dusk. But the lamps are lit and the streets still belong to us. It is for us, every woman and man of conscience, to stay awake and vigilant. And when we hear that grinding sound in the night, we have to go out, and bring our brothers and sisters into our homes. Let no one be left outside. I’m saying we must keep speaking out.

The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.
– Robert M. Pirsig

Sit Down and Shut Up

Sit down and shut up and be glad you live in a country where nobody can tell you to sit down and shut up because we all have freedom. Brave men and women died for your right to stand up and speak out, so long as you do it quietly. And you better not sit down and shut up to do it. By God, we won’t stand for that or take it sitting down. We The People demand you shut up, stand up, and salute. Because, you know, Freedom!

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Goodbye National Geographic

I have the last issue trustworthy issue here on the desk in front of me. We should note the date: November, 2015. Traditional yellow border, image of Earth with the words, “Cool it” across the middle. The Climate Issue.

This week the Society sold the magazine and book elements to Rupert Murdoch and his gang for $725M.

A bastion of popular science is now controlled by a very prominent climate change denier who, despite his company’s assurances of editorial integrity, has spent decades interfering with the independence of his properties. A tabloid king could now apply the values of the New York Post to one of the world’s oldest magazines.
Salon

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When the news of the merger broke, many were, shall we say, concerned about 21st Century Fox founder Rupert Murdoch’s influence over a revered scientific publication.
EcoWatch

Morlach is an Australian billionaire, Prevaricator in Chief of Fox News. He has done as much to teach Americans to hate each other and their country as when Satan mustered his demons at Antietam and Gettysburg.

Merdlump has raised up Fox News as his flagship of disinformation and epitome of Doublethink. He has helped bring about the Rise of the Great American Stupid. His minions wage war on science, reason, and critical thinking throughout the land.

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Of course, the first thing Murdoch of Mordor did was to fire staff. 180 people were gone in a day.

To the board of the National Geographic Society: How could you do such a dumshit evil thing? Better to have let it die in the ebbing tide of print media than to turn it over to a monster of anti-intellectual propaganda.

Goodbye, National Geographic. You were awesome, beloved, trusted, even collected. Beautiful photography, honest and clear writing, uncompromising veracity. All gone now.

Some Damn Fool

An old Irish toast:

Here’s to the general health of the whole world, lest some damn fool take offense.

I used to think it was an amusing exaggeration. Maybe it’s not. I have realized that there are people out there – people of influence or with the capacity for violence – who really will throw a fit if they feel they’re not in control of other people’s minds, and the center of all the attention.

And I remember this thing my elders taught me when I was young:

Nobody has the right not to be offended.

We have the right not to be attacked.
We have the right not to be exploited.
We have the right not to be terrorized.
We have the right not to be robbed.
We have the right not to be silenced.
We have the right not be prevented from worshiping the god of our understanding.

But we do not have the right not to be offended.
And we do not have the right not be ignored.

So are you offended by something you don’t like? Good for you. So what? Who cares? It has nothing to do with the rest of us, whether we like that thing or not. Your reaction has even less to do with the person who created it. Being insulted is an arbitrary, subjective reaction to external stimuli and just one way of finding the stuff that you do like. Good luck with that.

Civilization does not exist to satisfy our tastes and applaud our eccentric little performance. Creativity is the outward expression of cognitive functions which are not subject to community control. We share and publish and react in the hope of finding common ground. Then it falls to each person to find in the society around them a place of belonging and a means of self-affirming expression. The world doesn’t owe anybody a custom-made reality.

Those of us who feel a creative urge owe ourselves a level of honesty and industry. We owe our audience gratitude, and our pledge to do our best to fill the amount of time we have asked them to give with something worthy of their attention.

The Internet and books and magazines movies and TV and music and art, is all practically infinite. If you find something you don’t like, and stop to complain instead of looking for something that seems right for you, you’re simply doing it wrong. If you think you can tell someone else how to express himself to suit your tastes, you’re just a fool.

Oh Good Grief

Funny thing, until this week I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo. I knew there was a little magazine in Europe that pissed off some whacko extremists a while back, but I couldn’t tell you its name or its nation. It only had 30,000 subscribers on a planet of 7,000,000,000 people. The magazine, and its lampooning of religion, got about a megaton of free publicity this week.

I don’t mean that cynically. It’s just ironic that the crazies who hated the innocent people at the magazine, and murdered them, and are now dead themselves, did vastly more to spread the alleged blasphemy than the victims could have ever have hoped to do.

I don’t know if I would like the content of Charlie Hebdo magazine. I’m skeptical that it would be to my taste. The mockery of religion is not amusing to me. Disrespect isn’t funny, though respectable is as respectable does. But that doesn’t make me angry. It makes me a guy who’s looking elsewhere for his reading material.

I believe there is a God, it’s not me, and God can take care of Himself. The God of my understanding is not weak and vulnerable, a easy victim of bad taste, nor does He require human sacrifice. The necessary sacrifice has been made for me, long ago.

Poetry is Industrious

“It’s easier to understand the idea of death than the reality of life, and so we make an industry of waiting, imagining our end lumbering toward our vain and cubicled selves, inventing the selfish moral blank spots we suspect ourselves of being.”

Michael Thomsen on the vanity of the zombie apocalypse. (Paris Review)

Thomsen was writing about apocalyptic games, but that sure looks like I should be able to relate. Death is the greatest common denominator and poets – and artists in general – have never been able to take their eyes off it for long.