Closed dream, open letter.

14 02 2010

I dreamed of you last night. Surprising because we’ve not seen each other or even spoken in 10 years, and then only in passing.

The circumstances don’t seem to matter. Anyway, I can’t recall them much. But we were younger, like we were then, though our personalities were modern and up-to-date. I saw you with my eyes that I used to see you with, and you me. Though I knew all that has happened and not happened, the world was green and new. Summer was everywhere and forever. It could never end, and the shining plans we all had would never happen, and it did not hurt us to think that.

We were together like we never were, like I’d always dreamed, and I lost myself for hours in your eyes. Your voice still sparkled for me. Still? I had only just come to know its melody. It rang clearly for me and only for me. And when I held you close — so close we breathed once for both of us — you held me back, and I knew the heavy buzzing of lying on the edge of a longed-for sleep from which I ached never to awaken.

We spoke endlessly and excited, your eyes laughing and your smile warm and most of what we said was unspoken and understood long before we thought of it. You loomed larger in my vision as you did then, a promise of my future and past at once, a pledge that I was right and so was the world, and you carried inside you the promises I’ve kept already, like my fate sealed and delivered to me before I lived it.

When I woke I was smiling, and I grasped at the last strands of fog in your shape without knowing what I reached for. It was some time before I knew who I was loving from so far away. It was some time swimming up to wakefulness before I knew it was you. It was you.

I remembered then all that was wrapped in that time, in that era that you defined for me without ever raising a finger or letting fall a word. The lush green of high summer and the wind in the trees, the electricity before a storm and the promise of a life about to be lived without safety devices or guides. The rich beauty and lustre of something that could not last but was made of forever. All that I was then, and all I hoped to be, I found in some way wrapped in the soft curls of your hair, of the dance in your eyes and the dangerous allure of your confidence. To hold you completely was my only wish for eternity, and in it I saw all I might need or desire. I longed to be lost in you so badly, I loved you so desperately, I wanted to love you so much more, the pain of not being close enough to you was, in itself, a precious treasure.

It has been so long since I thought of you, really. It has been far, far longer since I dreamed of you. And when I dreamed, it was of me. I dreamed of who I was and what I lost. Because you were never there. You never held me. You never smiled only for me. You never held my dreams as your own. It was me. I did. I held myself. And the dream was not of you or where you are, but of me, and where I am.

Last night I dreamed of you. I dreamed that I loved you. Because I did.


Ginger Ale Toothpaste

21 12 2009
ginger ale
In honor of Solstice, I present the 2009 Revised Edition of an original story. We embrace the darkness, we welcome the light, and we celebrate the cycle and the turning of the seasons. May the return of the light be a herald of peace, joy and prosperity for you all.

The multi-colored Christmas lights he’d strung around the window cast a buoyant light around the room. Generally, they didn’t shed much light, but because of their large number they were sufficient to write by. Besides, they made the otherwise small, base apartment look better. Everything looked better under Christmas lights.

To most, the task of writing Christmas cards was normalized; one viewed as more of a necessity, a price to be paid for holiday mirth, than a pleasure. But for some, like him, who were doing it for the first time, it was every bit as much a pleasure as anything else. He liked the feeling of writing Christmas cards. It made him feel somehow closer to the rest of the world, as though he finally belonged. To need to write Christmas cards was an achievement.

He put down his pen and looked at it fondly. He had bought it on his second trip to the city. It was of the finest quality and had served him well over the years. The pen was one of the old, familiar things that he counted on to always be there. Shifting his gaze from the pen to the stack of cards before him, he began to place them in envelopes and label them. When he was finished, he rifled through the stack, mentally noting each to be sure he hadn’t forgotten anyone. He sighed as he came to the last in the stack. The envelope had a name, but the card inside was blank. He’d saved this one for last on purpose. This one would require a special touch. This one was for her.

He picked up the Waterman fountain pen and uncapped it. Its shiny gold nib was lightly spotted with indigo ink and reflected the twinkling lights. The reds and greens, blues and ambers of the lights seemed perfectly at home against the glow of the gold. He paused. The pen hung, poised above the blank surface of the card for several minutes. This particular print of Christmas card had been chosen very carefully. Cheerful, warm, but with a touch of humor, and of course printed on 100 percent recycled stock. This card reflected him, in a way, and the wishes he sent with it.

The nib hung in space, expectantly. A quiet ache in his back brought him out of the warm daze he’d been in. Relaxing his stiff posture brought an admonishing creek from the desk chair and he recapped the pen and returned it to the desk’s surface. Rising, he stepped to the window, still half musing on partially digested thoughts. The window pane was cold despite the comforting warmth of the apartment. Seizing the moment of inactivity, a thought escaped from his brain. “It would feel warm to someone out there in the cold,” he said in a murmuring voice even though he was alone.

“What a bizarre world this is,” came another muffled declarative.

Outside, the turbulent winds sent snowflakes swirling around in a chaotic, wintery dance, always on a steady descent to the ground below. “Funny,” he said to the glass, clearly this time, “that snowflakes melt on a cold sidewalk, even though they thrive in the cold.”

A man stood on the curb below. He wore a long, black overcoat that flared in the cold wind that lashed through the dark city streets. No matter how many lights came on, the city always seemed dark. The man’s collar slapped against one side of his face, instigated by the wind, though he didn’t seem to notice. He looked lonely and concerned—or maybe a little anxious. He stood with the city’s darkness around him, seemingly oblivious to the wind and bitter cold. Finally, after several minutes the cruelty seemed to reach him, and the man pulled his coat around his chest and shoulders, and tried to hide from the wind in it.

He turned from the window and surveyed the apartment. It radiated warmth and welcome. It had taken a long time for this place to feel like home, but now it finally did, it was all worth it. He thought back, before he’d moved into the apartment, before he’d moved into the city. He thought back to college and then before college. He thought back to his friends. Where were they? What were they doing now? He missed them. He’d spent the best years of his life with them. But they’d made their decisions, and done what they had to do. It seemed so long ago, and so far away. He hadn’t wanted to go through it alone, but he’d said that he would—that he could—and he had. Certainly, there had been new friends, new memories, but never the same closeness. Never the same magic that they’d all shared. He’d made this life. His life. The way he wanted it. But there was no one to share it all with. Except maybe for her. When he’d met her, he’d caught an echo of those feelings—the closeness and the warmth. It seemed possible, anyway.

Breaking suddenly from the fit of nostalgia that clenched him tightly, he turned again to the window. The man was still there, standing in his place on the sidewalk like a sentry at his post. He hugged his arms close against his body now, as the wind lashed into him. Cars drove by, and as they passed, the sentry studied each one, expectantly. People hurried past on the sidewalk, taking little notice of his determination.

Minutes passed. Just as began to turn from the window and go back to the Christmas cards, something changed. It was a subtle change most would have missed. The man’s demeanor and stance changed. His grip on his own chest relaxed, and his head rose as he straightened his neck, giving up much of the protection his collar provided from the wind. His face lightened. An instant later, a taxi came into view and pulled up alongside the curb where he stood. His face lit up with a warm smile. He reached for the rear door of the cab but before he could grasp the handle, it flew open. A woman burst from the backseat, chestnut hair flashing elegantly under the harsh glow of the street lights. Her gray, flowing overcoat and silk scarf seemed forgotten in the moment, as did his own coat. The coats and the cold and the cab and the whole of the world seemed simple ornament, as she leapt from the taxi and they held each other, frozen for a moment.

He turned from the window again, and sat down in his desk chair. He did not look back to his work though. Instead, he glanced around the apartment and mused. “Everything looks better under Christmas lights,” he said to the night. The Christmas lights’ reflection in the bathroom mirror drew his eye. From his chair he looked in upon the sink and noted the tube of toothpaste resting there. The same kind he’d used since he was a kid. Looking at the tube felt the same as the clean, new feeling it left after he brushed. Nothing special about it. But it was pure and simple.

As he shifted his gaze, it caught on the corner of the desk. Once more, the Christmas lights directed his vision. The light they threw caught on a glass of ginger ale, and danced among the rising bubbles. The colors of the lights bounced around and diffused into the gold in the glass. The crisp, old-fashioned flavor drifted across his tongue. Simple. Pure. His eyes fixed upon some other object briefly, and then snapped back to the glass. The way the bubbles danced and sparkled reminded him of her laugh and how her soft brown eyes danced when she did. On his face the smile faded with the distance of the recollection, but inside it grew and his heart beat faster because of it.

“Wouldn’t life be a grand thing, if you could customize it, fill it with just the things you loved most? Just the things you loved the most,” he said to the lights.

The smile returned to his face. He could explain it later, but for now it would do. The pen rose in his hand once more, and the gold nib glided across the card stock on a trail of ink.

“How does ginger ale toothpaste strike you?”

by William Murphy

It doesn’t have to be that difficult.

15 12 2009

With the holidays nearly upon our merry little heads, people around me seem to be succumbing to seasonal stress. The shopping, the spending, the cooking and planning, wrapping, eating, attending parties, sending cards, making travel plans—in short, there’s a lot going on this month.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice that while everyone finds a busy schedule to be more stressful than a relaxed one, a lot of us (meaning, a lot of you) are making things much harder on yourselves than is necessary. Life simply doesn’t have to be as difficult and complex as many people choose to make it. Get some perspective. In all situations, stressful though they may be, step back and get some perspective. They will still be stressful, and you will still have to act and make uncomfortable decisions. That’s life. But most things needn’t be quite so bad. For example:

  • You don’t have to tend to the baby every waking minute. Is he crying? Or is he talking to himself because he likes the sound of his own voice? Is he sitting happily nearby, playing with a block, or watching the cat walk around? If so, you don’t need to entertain him. You don’t need to pick him, move him to another room, rock him, or feed him. Babies are people, and people enjoy brief periods of quiet, calm, and relative solitude. 10 minutes of prattling away happily in the crib will neither harm your child, nor get you arrested. Enjoy the 10 minutes off and stop acting as though the umbilical cord is still intact.
  • Every meal does not have to be shot for the Pottery Barn catalog. Watch Gordon Ramsay. Watch Emeril. Watch Bobby Flay. Watch Martha. What do they all emphasize? Fresh, local, simple, wholesome. Did you get that third one? Simple. Each food on the plate does not need 7 spices and a flavor-infused oil. Farmhouse tables, diners and the most popular “American” foods all share one thing in common. They’re simple. Food should be nourishing first and enjoyable second, and that’s it. If preparing a meal gives you cold sweats of anxiety, you’re trying too hard and defeating half the purpose of cooking it at all. Relax the standards on presentation a bit and enjoy a little more.
  • Stop dousing every object and body part in anti-bacterial agents. The bacteria living in and on your body outnumber your own cells by about 10 to 1. Your immune system learns how to fight off infection through practice, not manuals and classroom training. Coming into contact with low levels of relatively benign bacteria actually strengthens your immune response. Wash your hands, avoid touching your face especially when you’re outside your home, blow your nose, try to avoid contact with things like door handles, faucets, etc., especially during cold and flu season. Hydrate, eat right and get plenty of rest. Beyond that, there’s no need to turn into Howard Hughes with rubber gloves and surgical masks and hosing off with Purel 18 times a day. The typical flu virus, in particular, is an outstanding piece of natural engineering. It is as insanely good at getting people to catch it as our species is at surviving its onslaughts (we’re made for each other). Chances are, it will find you at some point. Minimize your exposure, maximize your defenses, and quit being a germaphobe already.
  • People are difficult. Whenever possible, give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume people have good intentions and that they have faced challenges and obstacles in their day that have worn down their otherwise good manners and behavior. That doesn’t mean you should let yourself be steamrolled, but what do you gain by making a preemptive strike on someone, especially someone who’s already in a bad frame of mind? Take care of yourself, but bear in mind that verbally clobbering someone will probably not improve their behavior  towards you, which is what is upsetting you in the first place. A little diplomacy and kindness likely won’t cost you anything and may get you a lot further. It will also make you feel better about your own behavior.
  • Recognize that your actions may have unintended consequences. Sure you’d like to pull into the garage so you can stay out of the rain. But if someone has to move 2 cars and lawn equipment in order to make it happen, maybe you could just grab your umbrella. If it’s once a month, it’s a reasonable request. But if you’d like valet service 5 days a week, think about the toll you may be taking on someone else. Sure you might be frustrated that you haven’t gotten to making a decision yet — but are you holding up someone else in the process? You may both be impatient. Taking a breath and working it out helps you both, rather than venting your frustration.
  • You can’t and don’t have to solve every problem. Think about how many people you encounter each day. Now add in how many situations you deal with where you have to make decisions. Driving, shopping, work, dinner, laundry, etc. How much control do you honestly have over all of that? Not much. So why expect yourself to solve problems whose factors you can’t control? Give yourself permission to say “I can’t fix everything.” Do what you can without bankrupting yourself (mentally, emotionally or financially) and accept that. You can control how much food you buy, or (maybe) which store you shop at, or whether or not you answer your phone. You cannot control the weather, your supervisor’s mood, the economy, whether or not you get a cold, or how other people feel. So relax and stop thinking you can direct or fix the world.
  • Participate. This is easier said than done. How often do people answer a question with “Whatever. Either way.” If everyone does this, nothing gets done. If everyone in the room is totally complacent, stand up and make an executive decision. “OK, let’s get Chinese.” One of two things will happen. Everyone will agree because they really are complacent, or someone will chime in with “oh, I don’t really want that” which means they were just pretending not to care, and now you’ve got something to work with. Either option is better than a group of people sitting around being indecisive in the fear of making a choice everyone is not behind 100%.
  • Level with people. This may not always work with strangers or loose acquaintances, but it should with the people close to you. If something isn’t working, if you need something, if you can’t solve a problem, level with people. If you need something, ask. Don’t guilt people into doing it for you. Ask. Don’t make up stories or excuses, don’t obfuscate. Be honest, be open, and ask for help. If the people around you won’t help after that, then part of your problem might be your support system.
  • Stop working. Humans created things like art, music, improvements in technology, complex writing systems, because they had time to spare from survival. If you work all of the time, what are you working for? Sure, the house will be spotless, the recycling sorted, the hearth swept, the dishwasher empty, the wood stacked, your clothes ironed, the baby food sorted by color, consistency and fiber content — but at what point will you enjoy any of it? At the end of the holiday, for example, you will have missed your favorite treats, or that holiday movie you love so much. You will have drunk no eggnog, sampled no cookies, not enjoyed the sound of your friends and family around you—but your sink will look nice.

Slow down, people. Take a breath. You can have some order and planning in your life, but you don’t have to micromanage the universe, nor do you have to have a spotless, picture-perfect existence. When you’ve grown old and can no longer take out the recycling or sweep the floor, or shop and cook for 50, your sink, your gift list, and your achievements in dish management will be poor company. Your family, your friends and your memories of a warm, rich life, however, will stick by you. For my part, I intend to continue to make time for the following, some on daily basis, some whenever conditions permit.

  1. Grind, brew and really taste good coffee in the morning.
  2. Watch my children’s faces light up at their favorite holiday events.
  3. Stand outside and listen to the quiet of a dark night with snow on the ground.
  4. Watch the dog experiment to see if snow by the fence tastes the same as snow near the barn.
  5. Determine if classic, golden or vanilla eggnog is the best.
  6. Actively experience the comfort of falling asleep under the weight of the feather bolster on a bitterly cold, crisp night.
  7. Do as much as possible by the light of the Christmas tree. Everything looks better under Christmas lights.
  8. Read “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Repeatedly.
  9. Laugh with people.
  10. Sit by the window and watch the snow fall.

Good luck.

Health care. Because dying is not that great.

23 11 2009

Now that I’ve addressed the media, education and childhood, I figure it’s time to whomp something out regarding health care. Conveniently, I have some recent, relevant experience with the current state of health care that might inform the debate a little. Or not. But I’m going to discuss it anyway.

Early in 2006, Massachusetts hammered out a state law requiring every resident – even college students – to have some form of health insurance. At the time, proponents declared it would save taxpayers huge amounts of money in the long run and provide everyone with access to quality, needed health care. Opponents retorted it would increase government control, add to the ugly spectre of socialism, and stifle innovation and enterprise. Largely, these are the same views echoed in the debate over health care reform on a national scale.

It’s really too soon to tell, with any certainty, who was right or wrong about what, and how right or wrong they were. I don’t pretend to have data of that scale or focus. What I can offer is some good, old-fashioned anecdotal evidence, and a dash of what us Yankees like to call “common sense.”

I have completed a journey through the new, statewide, universal health care system, knuckling under to the law that threatens to swipe my tax refunds if I don’t. Not that I expect to see much refund, but I try to land on the friendly side of the law wherever possible, so I dutifully showed up at appointed dates and times, confirmed my lack of private insurance, my lack of access to private insurance, and offered up some pretty basic evidence. I gave my name and address, shared my DOB and SSN (all information the state already has,) and submitted the necessary paperwork. In this case, all they were after was a proof of income (easy enough, and also already known to the IRS) and proof of citizenship (birth certificate. Again, freely available from the town where I was born).

I went to my doctor’s appointments, had my maladies treated and tests examined, all without demand for payment or promise of payment. I filled out my forms and waited. A few weeks later I received a notice in the mail. I did not, in fact, qualify for the state’s standard, top-tier insurance plan because as, wretched as I am in the grand scheme of things, I actually needed a great deal more wretchedness to qualify. This was both disappointing, to know that I was not close enough to the bottom to  qualify for something, and heartening, to know that things could be worse.

I did, the letter informed me, qualify for a different program for people truly wretched, but not quite on their last legs (I’m on my second-to-last legs). The plan provided me with a full range of health care options, access to many doctors at hospitals and health clinics, a prescription plan, access to specialists, even extras like discounts on health club memberships, classes about diabetes, help to quit smoking, etc. All of this provided at a cost, not that most people can afford, but that I can afford. Actually taking into account my real-world ability to pay. I’ll stay covered under this plan until my income places me out of it, or until I get access to other insurance (like through an employer).

As a result, I will see my doctor if I get sick and it doesn’t go away on it’s own. I will continue to get medications and tests I need to stay healthy. I will not need to wait until a problem becomes a costly emergency. Apart from my own welfare and well-being, I will actually cost society less and contribute more.

So far, the system works. For people unable to pay for the plan I’m enrolled in, there is another tier that is available at zero cost. That’s right. Free. No premiums, no-copays, no costs for medications, no bills at all. Granted, the criteria for that plan requires a dire situation, and the bill is footed completely by we, the general, tax-paying public. But I can’t imagine there are many people who would WANT to be the situation it calls for. Even fewer who are able to scam the system very well for very long. And compared with the number of people this helps? This is a no-brainer.

I can’t see how expanding this to a national system is anything less than a no-brainer. Sure there will be problems. And sure, there will be costs. But what else are we going to spend it on? Another war? More subsidies and tax breaks to grow and build things we don’t need? Another pittance refund check in the spring? I’m not saying I don’t care about the (enormous) cost of this effort. But I do wonder aloud “how much more will it cost us, in dollars and in quality of life, if we don’t do this?” “What do we have to spend it on that’s better?”

Keep people healthy, keep people safe, give them enough to eat, and you’ll find they’re willing to do quite a lot for you. Educate them well, and they’ll go one step further and start doing things for themselves AND for you. Food, health, education, safety. This is one of the four cornerstones, and I see no reason to ignore it because it’s going to cost something.

I’m open to suggestions. Anyone who can show me a viable way to get everyone insurance, cut down on the costs, and realistically pay for it has got my attention. Two caveats, though: Please do not suggest tax cuts and incentives to private providers.

Incentives are like pouring water into a sinking boat, in the hopes that the weight of the water will squeeze it out the holes in the bottom. Health care and insurance cost too much, partly because of the providers themselves, and paying the people who are overcharging us so they’ll overcharge us less is an obviously stupid idea to anyone old enough to count with both hands. So forget “incentives.” The system has no desire to cut costs because that also cuts profits. If the system was willing to reign itself in, it would have done so long ago of its own accord.

Tax cuts are like using Tylenol to treat a broken leg. It will make us feel a little better, but the leg is still broken and we’re still gonna die if it’s not treated. I’m all for cutting taxes, to a point. I like my money, and I’d like to keep more of it. But, dear elected officials, you don’t charge me enough in taxes to pay for the care I need and everything else you’re supposed to provide. Give me back $12,000 a year in taxes and I can pay for my own health care. Mind you, then the fire department will have to take a credit card number before saving my house, the police will need an account in good standing to patrol my street, and you’ll pester me about joining the state militia to protect our borders. Pointless. But I’ll have total control over my private health care, for which I will pay not what’s fair, not what I can afford, but “what the market will bear.”

Take, for example, a $200 stimulus refund check. Do I like getting my money back? Sure. Would I enjoy an extra $200? Yes. Did it make any lasting difference at all in the economy? Not a bit. Because $200 will not fix my problems. $200 will not get me a month ahead on my bills, fix the brakes on my car, pay for my uninsured ER visit (easily a few thousand dollars without tests) or pay my credit card bills down (average outstanding credit card debt for American households that have a credit card was $10,679 at the end of 2008). And as our elected officials learned, when faced with disappearing jobs, shrinking income, rising housing costs, rising food costs, soaring fuel costs, soaring health care costs and rising credit and bank fees, if we get $200—or even $600—we’re going to save it, not go buy a new purse or a digital camera. Even $600 each, while a big help, is useful mostly for our personal economies. While reducing debt and increasing savings are good long-term strategies, neither will kick start the largest economy on earth, and the money is not enough to make a lasting difference, even individually. I liked the $600, but in the end the projected $152 billion cost for 2008 of the whole plan might have been better spent.

Health care costs too much. We all have a personal responsibility to help provide for ourselves, but much like credit, the current system is stacked in favor of those who already have it, and against those who need to get it. Communism and socialism are not the only alternatives. We do not all have the right to champagne, luxury cars and 4,000 oil-heated square feet. We do all have the right to food, shelter, safety, education and having injuries and illnesses treated and—where reasonably possible—prevented. We can do a lot to level the playing field without privatizing business and without redistributing wealth. Making health insurance, and as a result, health care, accessible and affordable—actually affordable, not just slightly cheaper—is a great way to start.

We need smarter people.

20 11 2009

I am allergic to stupidity. There’s an awful lot of it around these days, which makes going out and engaging with the world a hazardous thing to do for me. Nevertheless, I keep trying. At the moment, the greatest threat to my personal health, with regard to this allergy, is Sarah Palin. In the world of public stupidity, Sarah Palin is Ebola.

Reviews of her book have been consistently unfavorable, including this one from NPR. For the record, I don’t have a problem with Sarah Palin because she’s a Republican, because she’s conservative, because she likes guns or hockey, or because she says things I don’t like. As a moderate, I tend to agree with some of almost everyone’s views. I do have a problem with her because she is after jobs for which she has demonstrated near total incompetency, and because she seems to believe that we are all as utterly stupid as she’d like to think we are (Re: Winking during a vice presidential debate. This is not a Nancy Drew mystery, Sarah. Get some Visine and knock-off the sideshow act). But I’m actually grateful she’s around. See, here’s the great thing about Sarah Palin: She shows conservatives, liberals and moderates how much we all have in common, and she helps us find the fringe element, because they’re the angry ones who scream about what an awesome leader she is. She’s like a portable nutball detector.

Ultimately, though, the power to do much of anything rests not with politicians but with the people, right where it belongs. Sarah Palin is not important. The people who rave about her are. And this is where things get scary: Many of the people are too stupid to understand either the choices before them or the stakes.

In the last few months, even Republicans who once favored Palin have begun to distance themselves from her increasingly erratic behavior and ever-narrowing viewpoint. So why is she still around? Who are the people still howling about the rest of the world “drinking the Kool-Aid” and following the “liberal media” and running from the power of Sarah Palin’s righteous message? Well, to be honest, it’s mostly the dumb ones. I allow that there are some thoughtful, intelligent people flocking to her banner, but I’m going to chalk those people up to them sharing some of her exclusive attitudes (unequal rights, codifying her personal beliefs as law, etc). They know she’s nuts, but they like where she’s driving, so they’re content to ride along. For now.

But how about the rest of them? Most often I think you’ll find these people are the under-educated, over-worked “average” American looking up to her. Note, now, that I’m not taking a cheap shot at people without a college education. This is not a put-down of blue-collar life. There are loads of very smart working class people. But more education leads to a more powerful, less easily-led population, and that’s not the group that likes Palin. She seems, on the surface, to be so plain-spoken and up front about everything, they can’t help but look up to her and feel like finally, here is someone who looks, speaks and thinks like us, despite what everyone else says. If someone like her (read that “unqualified”) can rise to take a shot at the vice presidency, than surely someone ringing the register can become store manager some day, so goes the thought process.

The sad part is one skill our schools (and society) have failed to teach or value over the last 30+ years is critical thinking. It appears that many Americans just don’t know how to think critically. They accept what they’re handed, and the only time they are critical is when someone tells them to feel critical. They love to latch onto to large, simple, brightly-colored phrases like “the liberal media” and “Washington insiders” and “keep drinking the Kool-Aid” (which is historically inaccurate, by the way. It was Flavor-Aid). Not that there aren’t real examples of liberal media bias or insider politics. But not ALL politics are inside, not ALL politicians are corrupt,  and not ALL media lean left. Kind of like infants, they look at whoever jumps up and down the most and screams the loudest. So tantrum-throwers like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck get the spotlight and adoration of these people. And Palin.

And while we’re on that topic:

Fox News is an oxymoron of the first order. Fox news presents largely conservative political and social views in all of its programming, often to extremes. Witness Glenn Beck, Bill O’ Reilly, etc. As a moderate with persistently open and accepting views of things, I tend to disagree with, on average, 99%+ of the conclusions drawn on Fox. But differing opinions are allowed in my world. Moreover, as a trained journalist, they’re necessary. Without differing opinions there can be no open, robust public debate, and without that debate, there can be no democracy. This is not my problem with Fox.

My problem is that they do a shoddy job. The main focus of Fox News is pundit-based shows like Glenn Beck and his ilk. Beck, O’Reilly, CNN’s Nancy Grace, et al., are entertainers, nothing more. They are Howard Stern without nudity. Their popularity is based on two least-common denominator principles. First, take extreme points of view that upset most people and juice up the fringe element. Second, scream. A lot. All the time. That’s it. That’s their only contribution to the discussion.

In another shining example of how the media continue to tarnish their own image, and simultaneously showcasing Fox as the reigning “Worst of the Worst”, here’s a nice piece on them using year-old footage to suggest millions of people lining up for a Palin book event.

So what’s the solution here? The same solution to drug use, teen pregnancy, overcrowded prisons, much crime, and more. It’s also the one thing we are least likely to use public funds to pay for and the same thing we are most likely to pay most dearly for in the private market.


Smarter people see through statistics, ignore sound bites, listen carefully, and think critically. They take things seriously when they understand the stakes, and they take time to find out what the stakes are. Smarter people are not necessarily people who go to college, either. There are plenty of people in colleges right now who don’t belong there. They lack the motivation, the interest, the ability, to make use of the opportunity. Smarter people can happen without everyone going to college. Schools should be fully funded, teachers better paid, and attending and excelling in school should be the priority of every parent in every family everywhere in our country. High school coursework could, should and once upon a time was equivalent to the sort of thing people learn in their first two semesters of college. Most important, though, is an individual commitment to think, act, and be smarter. With all the information available to us in American in 2009, the greatest obstacle to us becoming a smarter society is our own internal lack of motivation.

If we returned to that commitment to quality and attention, we would make smarter people. Smarter people would have and raise smarter children. And smarter children would think critically, ask questions, do rigorous mental work, and put entertainers on news networks out of business, send Sarah Palin back to her seat, and make better choices. Like teaching their children to be smart.

On Future Memories

10 11 2009

I spend a good deal of time driving in the dark, lately. I’ve been doing the driving for months, but the switch back to standard time added the dark element. It hadn’t occurred to me until tonight, but I was doing the very same sort of thing at this time four years ago. Then, as now, I stepped out into the dark, after dinner, and started up The Venerable Subaru (yes, she’s still alive and kicking). Then, as now, I packed the girls in the back, though now they handle their own seatbelts and bags. And then, as now, I plugged in the iPod, fired up a playlist, and we struck out for the other side of the mountain.

Back then, when we three merry travelers made our trip, it was REALLY dark. There’s very little south of Acadia National Park that compares to the Northeast Kingdom for winter dark. It’s not quite so dark now, and unlike those drives, we don’t usually have the road to ourselves. And instead of me firing up my white iPod, either I plug in my Touch, or one of the girls snaps their Shuffle into place.

Something interesting happened tonight that brought it all back as though we’d never stopped our trips. The playlist, loaded up from a bright pink Shuffle, contained a half-dozen or so songs that used to be on our old playlist. And then, as now, they both began singing along (and so did I) to each of those songs. I was particularly proud when, with one too young for school yet, they both knew all the words and timing to Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.’s duet of “Fly With Me.”

And they still do.

We covered that one and a few other favorites, and I think we all shared the sensation that we were on an old familiar path, and it’s one where we belong.

I couldn’t help but zone out for a few minutes, as I tend to do regularly, and see a few things that have not yet been. This moment, repeated anew after years of being just a memory, spanned many more years ahead. I wondered where these songs might find us all in the future, and what else they’ll recall to us. I snapped out of it after being implored to keep up my end (“Dad! Keep singing! C’mon! Sing!”)

The experience of songs holding the key to moments in our past is pretty nearly universal. If you are reading this, and there is not one song, not one melody, that transports you back to another place and time, you’re missing a key part of the human experience. Humans are built to reminisce. It’s one of our most charming features. Personally, I have such a deep catalog of songs that call up a moment, a face, a feeling, a smell, for me, it’s literally impossible for me to recall them all without some kind of help. Letting iTunes shuffle the songs in the library could quite seriously turn into the soundtrack to my life.

At a table in the Cock and Bull, during an evening in which I would forget to close out my tab and suffer the “convenience fee,” a friend of mine, Brian Hughes, asked an excellent question to those present. He wondered if we still made strong connections to songs like we did when we were younger. Linking songs to other events seems to peak in the teenage years—after all, nothing aids poignancy like hormones and bad skin (I know something about both). I replied at the time that I do still form such bonds with songs, but not quite as frequently as I once did.

I stick by the answer, but tonight I discovered a whole new aspect to that process. Tonight, I discovered that it’s possible to form a bond with a song without accessing that until some time later. Call if forming future memories, if you like (I do, that’s why I named the post this way). I didn’t realize at the time, but that duet of “Fly With Me” was going to pop back up four years later. I have a feeling that many more years from now, that song will arise again in our lives.

There are plenty of things that I can’t share with my traveling companions yet. I’m looking forward to it all quite a bit. It took several years to reach the point we’re at now, and we’ll get to more good stuff as time goes on. As I drove, and sang, and listened, in the dark tonight, I thought of another song that they’re not ready for just yet. But it’s one that’s stuck in my mind since 1998 when it first arrived for me. For me, those are halcyon days, sepia tone memories tinged with golden halos, music and laughter echoing throughout, with nothing to see but the faces of some of the finest people I will ever know, places with memories so thick they litter the ground like autumn leaves, moments and stories when all sang the chorus on key and every glass was forever full. One day I’ll share that with my traveling companions. That too, is a future memory. But for now, I’ll share it with you. Courtesy of Grooveshark, and dedicated to all those who raised a glass, told a story, and scratched on the eight ball at 855 Ostrom, and to all who would have been welcome (which is all of you). To Future Memories, my friends.

A circle, in more ways than one.

On words.

6 11 2009

Words are my subject tonight. Words, and perhaps moreover the feeling of words. So many thoughts, fleeting, come to me this time of year. It’s hard to separate them all, moving together the way they do, going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Tonight, in the relative dark of a room lit only by the fire, I heard Pablo Neruda’s words.

This is unusual.

Long ago, someone brought Pablo Neruda to me, assuring me that these were great words and were worth my attention. I had little ear for poetry then and even less use for it, though I hardly realized the latter at the time. I read them without seeing, heard them without listening. It wasn’t intentional. It was all I could do at the time. Still, I think I was grateful then for a gift I knew was meaningful, even if I didn’t know why.

Tonight I know why. Somewhere between the heartache of never having loved, and the scars of having lost, I gained an ear for poetry. I’m not sure just when or where, but a few years ago reading the words of Robert Frost became an incredibly important ritual to me. Somewhere in the rambling depths of my own annals, I wrote the words “I think today calls for a little Frost” and I have not found a day since that does not match those words. Not long ago, having misplaced my now-treasured collection of Frost, I picked up a beautifully bound edition of Leaves of Grass. If you don’t know, the similarities between Frost and Whitman are as follows: Both are American poets. That’s it. The free verse was too free for my taste at the time, and I read a handful pages without ever absorbing a word.

Not so the second time I opened the book. With each small blade I picked, a new, richly illustrated picture opened before me, and I found that though I had never read them before, the words all felt familiar. Leaves of Grass has taken its place beside the Complete Works of Robert Frost. Neither is a substitute for the other, but they make glorious companions.

Tonight, reaching across years and worlds so broad and vast that my own memories of them seem alien, 7 words spoke themselves in my head.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

I knew them before their echo died in my head, though I did not know what came next, and had to look.

Write, for example, the night is shattered and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.

The night wind resolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

I loved her and sometimes she loved me too.

It’s worth pointing out that I’m not sad. But the closeness of Neruda’s words matches the closeness I felt in the moment. Something hushed, like dimly lit rooms on a bitter cold night, and quiet music. Like the sound of a library, late in the afternoon, on a rainy day. Like a big building with many doors and few people. A closeness with no echoes, no distractions, where the space of an eternity might pass between breaths or between your face and a page. Or very blue eyes you seem to recognize from out of time.

In those moments do we remember something missed from our past? Or do we remember something lost of ourselves?

Reprinted below without permission of any kind, is Pablo Neruda’s “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines.” I post it to everyone, and to myself.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example,’The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.’

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another’s. She will be another’s. Like my kisses before.
Her voice. Her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.