Let’s Not Arm Teachers

I’ve rewritten this piece in my mind repeatedly trying to discard phrases like “monumentally stupid” and “moronic”  After all, I know there are some very fine people on both sides of the gun debate, and some friends of mine who I love and respect have expressed that they feel this is a good idea.

Clearly, I do not.  First of all, the shootings at Parkland were horrific, and I applaud the activism that they have spawned.  But, since that horrible day, hundreds of Americans have lost their lives to gun violence.  I fear that the conversation in some quarters has narrowed to school shootings, and that we are in danger of losing focus on the bigger issue of gun violence nationwide.

But let’s look at the school safety suggestion that Trump has championed.  If we are going to give teachers “a little bit of a bonus”, a gun, and a training course, we are going to make a massive, nationwide investment that does absolutely nothing to further the education of our kids.  One estimate suggested that if we selected just 10% of teachers to train and arm we would be talking about 1.4 million educators.  How can we justify the money that it would take to fund such an effort when states, even in a booming economy are not funding schools adequately?

His other proposal is to “harden” school sites making them more inaccessible to active shooters.  Apparently he used the word “harden” over twenty times in one statement although there were no particular details on what that would mean.  Students absolutely need to feel safe, but they also crave a warm, caring environment, not one that feels like a prison.

Here’s the other thing that I can say with some certainty as a former high school teacher.  You can give me a gun and give me some training, but as much as I love and would want to protect my students, I sincerely question my ability to draw down on someone, probably a young person, and execute them.  Clearly in the Parkland shooting, trained deputies had the same problem.  Well-trained and adept soldiers sometimes never recover completely from killing another human being.  I can’t imagine that teachers would be very good at it.

The focus on school shootings, long overdue no doubt, ignores that mass shootings are happening in the streets, in our churches, in movie theaters, in night clubs and at concert venues.  How are we going to “harden” our churches to make them more safe?  Are we going to arm and train pastors, the kid who sells you popcorn at the movies, bartenders, and concert security guards?  Do we really want pistol packing preachers?  Do you want to go to the movies knowing the teenaged usher may be carrying a Glock under his jacket?  We have to think about the problem more globally.

I’m not sure why I would bother to end this by making suggestions of what should be done.  We all know exactly what Congress will do about this issue: absolutely nothing. So rather than reiterate the same proposals that come up after every new outrage (banning assault weapons, limiting the size of ammo magazines, or creating a truly efficient method of background checks) let me suggest just one thing.

Make owning a weapon more expensive.  Slap a 25% surcharge on every gun and every bullet sold in America.  Say to people that no matter what the NRA tells you, no one is coming for your guns.  However, if you really want it, you’ve got to pay more.  The government could collect this surcharge and put it to any number of uses.  We could create a fund for the victims of gun violence.  We should absolutely fund research into gun violence as a national health problem as soon as Congress removes the ridiculous law that bans such funding.  We could provide free gun locks to any gun owner who wants one.  Hell, let’s give every gun collector a free gun safe.  Then maybe we could prevent a few first graders from accidentally shooting their playmates on the playground of their “hardened” school campus.

There is plenty of precedence for this approach.  We do the same thing with tobacco.  If your product creates a burden on society, you have to pay more to help offset that burden.  Tobacco taxes are used to help fund anti-smoking campaigns and study the effects of the way in which tobacco is marketed.  No one is ever going to take away smokes from those who want to use them, but when your pleasure becomes a burden on society, you need to contribute to easing that burden.

Let’s at least try this before we become Fortress America and turn every school into a Green Zone.


Hope and Despair: Ripped From The Headlines


Since the election of November 2016, I’ve really tried at times to insulate myself from the news simply because there seems to be so much happening that tears at my heart when I see the direction in which our country is being led.  That direction seems to be so dedicated to abusing the interests of people in need, the disenfranchised, and the environment that it is painful to read about.

One glimmer of hope is that I know I am not alone in noticing.

So, I have returned to reading the paper with my coffee in the morning and steeling myself against the worst of the news I might face.  Today was a pretty bad day.

Headline:  White House Proposes $4.4 Trillion Budget

The despair:  There is a lot to hate in this budget.  It seems to slash at the programs that help people the most.  Just to point out two things.  It proposes cutting the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by over 20%–you know, that little department that until recently worked really hard to make sure that we had clean air and clean water?  That ensured that we would move forward toward a future of sustainable, renewable energy?  That we would support world-wide efforts to battle the causes of climate change?  By contrast, the budget increases spending on the military by 13%.  That is a whopping increase, and it is hard to buy the argument that somehow Obama “hollowed out” our military preparedness when the previous budget exceeded the military budgets of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Britain, Japan, and Germany combined.  To help pay for this enormous increase, the proposed budget suggests cutting the food stamp program.

The hope:  Congress has ignored most of the draconian cuts to social programs and even made substantive increases in health care and other services, but they will wrap themselves in the flag and pass the military budget with no questions asked.

Headline:  Transgender Student Protections Curbed

The despair:  Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions are at it again, rolling back protections for trans students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their chosen gender identity.  It seems this decree only helps adults who are made uncomfortable by the existence of trans people and fervently hope they will just go away.  Living in California where gender-neutral bathrooms in most public spaces are becoming the norm, their action does little harm.  However, it once again, codifies this administration’s hostility toward the LGBTQ community.

The hope:  It will take years, as it did for gay marriage, but stronger legal protections for the trans community are coming.  We will have to wait for the Trump aberration to pass and for societal attitudes to evolve, but I believe that I will see it in my lifetime.

The Headline:  Woman, 84, Held Over Gunshot

The despair:  Yeah, just in case you missed this one, in rural Northern California an 84-year-old woman was arrested after she took out her rifle and shot in the direction of her neighbor’s 8 and 10 year-old children because they were being too noisy.  Apparently the kids were riding motorcycles and after arguing with the parents, the woman got her rifle out and took a couple of shots toward the kids.  No one was injured.

The hope:  (Sigh) I’m not even sure what to say.

In an effort to gain some wisdom by stealing from the best, I am currently reading The Book of Joy, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu as recorded and stitched together by author Douglas Abrams.  Abrams poses the question how one should cope with the despair that many people feel with all of the injustice, and pain, and suffering that we see in the world.  The archbishop responded this way:  “Despair can come from deep grief, but it can also be a defense against the risks of bitter disappointment and shattering heartbreak.  Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope.  To chose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”

I like that he asks me to embrace hope as an active, vital, and valiant choice. It is a choice made by a warrior, someone ready for action now, but also confident in the good things that the future will bring.

My Community Service Project: The Trash Man Cometh


Being retired not only gives me more time to become irritated over fairly mundane things (see Grumpy Old Man), but it also provides me the time and opportunity to do something about them.

So, day after day, when I saw a small, dilapidated RV parked along the frontage road that leads to the road that leads to my house, I became convinced that this eyesore was either abandoned or that even worse, someone was using it as a residence.  I contacted the local sheriffs who told me to contact the Highway Patrol whose non-emergency number is always busy.  Somehow, though, when I wasn’t paying attention, the eyesore disappeared.

However, the owners left behind a pile of refuse, and as I looked up and down the frontage road, I realized just how trashy the 150 yards or so that I drive past several times a day had become.  The dirt pathway along a fence that parallels a freeway entrance is a walkway for many middle school kids who frequent the local Starbucks and the convenience store on the corner and leads to two or three apartment buildings down the way.

Initially, I thought I was just going to clean up after the RV dwellers so I grabbed a couple of trash bags, a rake, a pair of gloves and went down to survey the damage.  What I found was that they had jettisoned two wooden valances and an enormous pile of trimmed cactus.  I’m not kidding.  Huge chunks of cacti, all cut and cleaned, were dumped in a muddy pile.  I loaded the mess into the back of my SUV and carted it home  to my trash bins.

But that wasn’t enough for me.  Spending some time down by the fence made me notice just how awful all of that trash looked and how badly it needed to be cleaned up.

I became a man on a mission.  I bought a fresh box of trash bags, spread some plastic down in the back of my vehicle and decided to go to work on the problem. It felt fun to have a project like this.  Smelly, but fun.  I spent about an hour a day for four days to get the area cleaned to my satisfaction.  The typical haul on each day was 2-3 bags of weeds and trash.

The variety of trash was impressive.  I found the kinds of things you’d expect–lots of drink containers, fast food packaging, cigarette butts, and plastic crap of all kinds.  In addition there was clothing, a pillow, many small liquor bottles, and one used condom.  My neighbors are clearly not intimidated by the single sign that threatens them with a $1000 fine for littering.  All in all, I ended up with about 10 bags of trash.

As menial as it was, the work was incredibly satisfying.  Every day as I drive by, I survey the work I have accomplished and take note of any new litter that has begun to accumulate.  I suspect I will become like the guy who purportedly used to spend his days painting the Golden Gate Bridge from one end to the other and back year after year.

And while this may be a Sisyphean task, it feels good to see the neighborhood look a little cleaner.  Today, as I was finishing up, two different strangers stopped to introduce themselves and thank me for the work that I was doing.  It was not important to me to get the recognition, but it did let me know that others had seen the problem and appreciated that someone took some action.

While it will take some continued effort to keep it clean, I now feel a sense of ownership.  I’ve started to keep my eye out for other areas nearby that are showing signs of neglect that may need a little love and attention.  If I keep this up, I may need to get a cape and a secret identity–maybe take to cleaning up only under the cover of darkness.

People will wake up in the morning to marvel and whisper, “Trash Man has been here!”


Trying Out Sobriety

My entree into the world of heavy drinking was as slow as my exit was abrupt and unexpected.

I can find notes in journals that go back as far as the 80’s where I was making resolutions to cut back on my drinking, but it wasn’t until the past 15 years or so that I developed into a much more heavy and habitual drinker.

I can’t offer a substantive reason for how it developed, but there was a confluence of events that influenced me.  In 2000, my son left for college, and I felt a seismic shift in my life as I saw my role as “dad” begin to shift and, in my mind, diminish.  At the same time, I discovered the comfort one could find in being a regular at a local pub or in the bar of a local restaurant.  I liked bartenders knowing my name, knowing my drink, making space for me at the end of the bar, fronting me a drink from time to time, giving me attention that I felt, for that brief moment made me special, a friend.

Living in San Diego a new brewery began to open up almost weekly and so frequent trips to visit those spots weren’t drinking; they were research.  It seemed important to have tried the latest beers to keep up in conversations with other beer geeks. Beer festivals became a monthly diversion.

I did not, and do not consider myself an alcoholic, but my habits surrounding my drinking became more and more unhealthy.  Four beers a night felt like my ceiling and I felt cheated when I didn’t get there.  That meant happy hour had to get started earlier on some days, and that, at times, I would ditch my night-time walk to sit outdoors in the cold and enjoy a 22-ounce beer, alone, and content with the isolation and the quiet.  If I was feeling good, I didn’t mind breaking through my self-imposed ceiling.

I told some friends that I was aware that I was “drinking like there was no tomorrow” and I meant that literally.  If I felt good at the moment I was drinking, it was easy to convince myself that an extra beer or two would not hurt me in the morning, no matter how many days I’d wake up with a bad stomach and have to fight through dizziness for most of the day. No matter how many plans I made to cut back, they all failed.  As soon as I began to feel better, I was good to go again.

In the back of my mind the bigger “tomorrow” of how I might be affecting my health always pinged at me too, but to a lesser degree.  I had developed a kind of fatalism as I grew older and seen younger, health-conscious friends and colleagues felled by accident and heinous diseases.  I became convinced that if I was going to get sick or disabled, it was going to happen if and when it was going to happen, regardless of my drinking.  In fact, it was more reason to enjoy what I liked while I could.

What made me change direction was a doctor’s visit that was prompted by increased heart palpitations that I was having.  It is a condition I’ve had for years and I’ve been through every test and monitoring protocol that they offer with no definitive result.  Caffeine and alcohol were certainly potential triggers, but so are dehydration, exertion, stress, anxiety–take your pick–I’m prone to all of these things.

However, I was frank with my doctor about my drinking habits and he just cut through the bullshit and said, “I think you should quit–entirely–so we can see if you feel better without the nightly alcohol.”  I was a little scared at the thought.  I wasn’t sure I could do it.

That was six weeks ago.  Friends and family members had urged me to moderate my drinking for years, but I suck at moderation.  Quitting, it turns out, I can do.  Moderating, not so much.

While I found I did not suffer from any physical withdrawal symptoms, I spiraled pretty quickly into a depression that was full of self-pity and anger–anger at having to change my ways, anger that I hadn’t changed sooner, anger that I might have actually done physical damage to myself that I’d now have to deal with.  I felt fearful that I’d resolve to make this change and quickly slide back into the well-worn ruts of my long-established habits and disappoint myself and the people closest to me.

I felt like by making this decision I had created a void in my life–no more breweries, no more happy hours, no more wine tasting, no more catching the game at my local sports bar.  I couldn’t imagine doing those things as a non-drinker.

I think what hurt the most though was knowing I was leaving behind the thing I liked best about drinking.  It was the sensation that I would sometimes get, especially when I was out somewhere on my own, sitting outdoors on a warm day, that there was absolutely nothing to worry about, that all was truly right with the world.  The hazy, carefree numbness that alcohol gave to me was its greatest gift.  It somehow took away the worries I carry, the sense of always needing to be responsible, the sense of needing to always be doing something.  With a couple of beers under my belt, I could put my headphones on and be thoroughly content–at least for an hour or two.

In working with an addiction medicine therapist to help me navigate this change, I’ve gained a lot of insight. She has helped me to shift my concentration away from what I felt I was losing to what I was gaining.  First off, I discovered that I had not created a void by giving up drinking.  The void had been with me for a long time.  Alcohol had simply helped me paper over feelings of isolation or purposelessness or inadequacy.  Now, I need to confront those feelings for what they are and see what kind of growth can come from that.

I discovered that my denial that drinking had become a problem for me had become a huge burden, one that I could now unload.  I had no idea how exhausting it had become justifying my excesses to myself.  I didn’t realize how much guilt I was carrying around until I no longer needed to do so.

I thought social events would be troublesome, being around so many other who were able to drink with impunity while I was having to walk the straight and narrow, but again I found a sense of relief.  Throughout the night, I didn’t have to think about how many drinks I had consumed, or how many more I might be able to allow myself.  I didn’t have to worry if I’d be OK to drive.  The one down side was that I found it hard to simply relax without the aid of a few drinks.  I guess maybe that will come with time.

It’s only been six weeks.  Six weeks of sobriety after 800 weeks of indulgence give or take.  I honestly don’t know where this all leads for me.  It would be so very easy to slide back into my old habits.  I’m not trying for life of pure abstinence.  I expect that there will be some cheating going on from time to time.

And that seems OK to me.  But for now, I like where I am.  It feels good to be able to change.  It feels good to be on a new pathway. It’s why I liked the quote I chose for the beginning of the post.  I’m not expecting some kind of sudden perfection.  I just want to keep moving forward.

Paying Off The House

I thought there should have been fireworks.

Six weeks ago, my wife and I walked into our credit union late in the afternoon, waited patiently for a teller, and then told her we wanted to pay off the balance of our mortgage loan.

It was not a spontaneous decision.  I had begun planning, over a year ago, to begin making double payments and make a push to get the final payment made in November, thirty-seven years (almost to the day) after taking out our original loan.

I guess the confetti canons and bubble machines were in storage because rather than celebration what we got mostly was confusion.  The young teller had to call over a supervisor.

“He wants to pay off his mortgage.  How do we even do that?”  She was staring diligently at her computer looking for the “paying off the mortgage” icon.  It wasn’t there.

The supervisor only knew that they needed to call the loan servicing department to ask them what to do.  Apparently, this happens so seldom, they just aren’t very familiar with the process.  We finally jumped through all of the hoops and settled up with them.  They were very happy for us and offered their congratulations.  I just had one question.

“Don’t I get something that says that I now own the house–sort of like the pink slip on a car?”

There was a hesitation.  The supervisor jumped in with, “Yes. The loan department will send you something official in a few weeks.  I’m pretty sure.”

I chose not to worry about the details. I had an expensive bottle of champagne chilling at home and was anxious to get back and sip it slowly with my wife and savor the moment.  There was a feeling of satisfaction, something akin to the feeling I had in seeing each of our kids graduate from college knowing that my wife and I had found a way to make that possible without sinking them or ourselves into debt.

Our home is a modest 3-bedroom house in a suburb of San Diego.  We bought it in 1980, a spec home that was immaculate on the inside and barren of any kind of landscaping on the outside.  Getting the yard fully landscaped has been a 37-year pain in my ass that still goes on today as I tackle previously untouched areas and try to revitalize parts that need re-landscaping.

However, every day I can enjoy my three towering pine trees planted early on from one-gallon containers, mere twigs that I stuck in the soil some 35 years ago.

And there are 20 relatively new iceberg rose bushes that now rim our lawn, the same lawn that provided room for softball and soccer practice for so many years.  I visit my vegetable garden every morning, which produces year-round now that I’m retired, and marvel at the beauty of home-grown food.

The inside of the house seemed firm enough when we bought the place but turned out to have a certain elasticity to it that I could not have imagined back in 1980 when Mary and I moved in.  It seemed huge at the time–3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living, dining and family room with a two-car garage just for the two of us?  Are you kidding me?!

Then in ’82 when Nico was born, it got a little smaller, shrunk a little, now having this tiny person sleeping across the hall from us.  When Emily came along in ’87 our study evaporated and the house continued to contract as the kids grew bigger and simply sucked more air and space out of the house.  We nearly reached critical mass and thought long and hard about moving to a bigger place, but decided to sit tight and wait for the kid’s planned exits to college to give us more space again.

And the magic happened.  Nico headed off to UCSB in 2000 and Emily departed for UCLA in 2005, and late in the night I could actually hear the house give off a sigh as it stretched and once again grew to the size it had been when we first moved in.

So yesterday, when I sat down to do the bills, for the first time since I moved out of my parents’ house in July of 1973, I had no one to whom I needed to give money so that I could continue to live in my place.  It truly was my place for the very first time.

“Retired, Not Dead” Turns 100!  My Ten Favorite Posts: A Retrospective

It never occurred to me that if I just kept writing, I would end up publishing 100 articles in this blog, but this entry will be #100.  For this landmark, I decided to go back and select 10 articles for which I had a particular fondness.  If you are a regular reader or have just accidentally stumbled across the blog for the first time, I hope you will take time to browse a few of my favorites.  Please drop me a comment if you are inspired to do so.  I love to hear from my readers.

My first post was on March 5, 2014.  These are listed from oldest to most recent:

“Thank You, Paul McCartney” recounts my introduction to French kissing and I am forever grateful to the young woman who introduced me to it so kindly.  The moment coincided with Paul McCartney’s song “Maybe I’m Amazed” which is why it is dedicated to him.

“Just The Facts, Ma’am–The Top 5 TV Detectives”  I loved this project.  Once I decided on my list I spent a full day on each one–reading up on them to collect background, watching clips for memorable moments, and at times watching whole episodes each morning.  After all, I was doing research.  Right after lunch, I’d start on the detective’s profile and get it posted by the late afternoon, building the article in serial fashion, posting detective #5 on Monday and #1 on Friday.

“Dish Bitch”  wherein I complain bitterly about being the only member of the family willing to empty the dishwasher and then slowly come to terms with my fate.

“So, Hypochondriacally Speaking…”  This one explores my own paranoia about my health and how I seem to overreact to every odd fleeting symptom that comes along.  I might have picked this one just because I liked the play on words in the title.

“Dude, I Said I Was Sorry”  This one tells the story of my encounter with an angry bike rider who claimed I had almost run him over when I actually had never even seen him.  In this one I played with a technique used by Joseph Heller (Catch 22) where the character’s thoughts sometimes become part of the on-going dialogue.

“Watching Icebergs Go By”  This is a story from my teaching career where I was once again reminded of how little I actually know about the lives of my students.  One particular student makes a heart-breaking revelation in the very last class on the very last day of the school year.

“Competitive Backpacking”  Yes, one would think that backpacking is the ultimate team activity, but when my friends and I were active in the 1980’s there were always contests to one-up each other, sometimes with very funny consequences.

“Men: Why It’s Important To Keep Your Mouth Shut”  The complexities of communication between men and women is a source of constant fascination for me.  Over time, I think I’ve learned when it is most important to shut up and listen.

“A Day In The Life”  I think some people might skip over my blog, assuming from the title that it is a record of the glories of retired life.  However, those kind of entries make up a small fraction.  This one, however, tries to answer the question I get from working people who cannot fathom a life without work:  “Just what do you do to stay busy?”

“Honestly, I Lie All The Time”  Honesty should be simple, but in this one I discover times where I had to evaluate just how often I tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

“Grumpy Old Man”  I’m better now, but I went through a few months where everything seemed to annoy me.  In this one, I describe both my symptoms and a possible cure.

OK, so I picked 11 and couldn’t decide which one to cut.  So, shoot me.  I find that I was much more anxious to reprise articles that made me laugh than the ones that were more serious.  The serious ones are in the archives if you feel like exploring them.

Thank you to everyone who has been so encouraging and who regularly leaves “likes” and comments and to those who pushed me to start off on this journey 3 plus years ago.  I’m looking forward to more writing ahead.

Self Improvement? Do I Have To? Can It Wait Until Tomorrow?

I hate the idea of dieting almost as much as I hate the suggestion that I read a self-improvement book.  It’s not that I don’t need to lose a few pounds, or that I couldn’t learn somethings about my better self through the words of others.  It’s just that remaining in a state of denial and self-loathing are so much easier that the work that one needs to put in to actually make substantive life changes.

Regardless, last week, for only the second time in my life, I began a structured diet plan because I had grown tired of watching the tire grow about my waist and because I had read an article about heart health that made me think that dropping these really unattractive pounds would be good for me.

Since I’m too lazy to do any research on my own and rely heavily on recommendations of people I like and respect, I leaned on the advice of my acupuncturist to guide me into a program that she enthusiastically endorsed. I had her order the shakes, supplements, and other goodies that would see me through an initial two-week cleanse/detox/weight-loss experience.  Last Monday I jumped in.

I discovered that the claims that sold me on the program proved to be true (mostly):

The shakes taste great!

I don’t really ever get hungry!

I have more, not less, energy than ever before!

I have stopped craving the things that are bad for me!

All of the above were true for about 48 hours.  The two daily shakes, which now make up my breakfast and lunch, do not taste bad at all, but are the consistency of wall-patching compound.  I frequently feel like I’m eating the shake, not drinking it.  By the third day, I was really hungry and found the shakes weren’t holding me until I learned a bit more about how to snack effectively.

It is absolutely true that I have more energy that before I started the diet.  The big negative to this development is that it has begun to cut into my afternoon nap time. I’m having to plan more work for myself to keep busy because I’m sleeping more soundly, waking up earlier, and having trouble drifting off in the afternoon.  If this keeps up I might actually finish projects around the house that I’ve been avoiding for almost 30 years, and I find that a bit distressing. It’s always been comforting to know that I’m behind on something

My craving for beer absolutely died for exactly two days.  My enthusiastic resolve to take advantage of the diet plan killed my desire for a brew for 48 hours, and then it came back with a vengeance.  I’m cheating moderately, but it’s OK–I feel plenty guilty about it.  Please don’t tell anyone.

So, of course, given this (mostly) concerted effort, I expect the pounds to fall away precipitously, but then I remember that it took several years to attain this unsightly fat and it might just take more than a couple of weeks to burn it all off.

My highly Puritanical digital scale does not help, especially when I start checking my weight twice daily, expecting quick results.  It is either just highly sensitive or wildly inaccurate.  I swear that if I have a passing thought about eating a donut, the scale jumps a pound or two just as a warning.  However, my clothes are fitting better, I have regained a notch on my belt, and I’ve stopped weighing myself for the time being so I can just focus on how I feel more than the half-pound I might have gained or lost.

Time is another issue.  I have too much of it now.  Having a shake as a meal twice a day really cuts into the amount of time needed for grocery shopping, food preparation, and meals.  I try to take my time while chewing on my shake to really savor all 8 ounces of it, but from start to finish, it’s about a 15-minute process.  And then I stare longingly at last night’s leftovers, the delicious lunch-sized portions of healthy looking soups, stews, and other dishes that my wife so lovingly prepares for our dinners.  I check my watch to see how many hours are left until dinnertime and a real meal.

Today, I am enjoying a “cleanse” day where instead of the shakes, my food intake will be limited to four 8-ounce glasses of nutritious bliss spread out across the day, along with other supplements and a couple of snacks.  It’s easier than it sounds actually.  And, heck, it’s given me time to write this piece.  Who knows, I might even pick up one of those self-help books that people keep giving me and give it a try.


Shakespeare Sunday: Goodbye For Now!

When I started “Shakespeare Sundays” I had this absurd notion that I had time to maybe read a play a week and have a constant stream of great quotes to work from.  After all, I’m an accomplished reader and have plenty of time for reading right now.  I had forgotten a few things though.

Reading an unfamiliar Shakespeare play is hard.  It is beyond time consuming because I actually want to understand the references and the arcane language, so I have to read all of the glossing and the footnotes and the commentary that might go along with a single page.

Add to that, my body, even when well-rested and upright, recognizes reading as a prelude to napping.  Even fast-paced thrillers might last for only a short chapter on a warm afternoon before I’m long gone.  Scholarly close reading?  Fuggiddaboutdit.

Add to that, I’m usually in the process of reading three books at a time.  The good news is that I’m often finding little, non-Shakespearean gems that are very worthy of commentary.  That’s why I’m opening the Sunday feature up to whatever I may stumble across over the course of my reading for the week, including my daily immersion in news reporting and opinion writing.  I still have to figure out a title for this revised feature (suggestions are welcome!).

I just finished reading the densely researched book by John Bohrer, The Revolution of Robert Kennedy.  It describes the personal transformation of Bobby Kennedy from being an often ruthless aide to the hated Joseph McCarthy to becoming a keeper of his brother’s legacy and an even more capable champion of oppressed people, not just in the U.S., but world-wide.  Even after 400 pages, I was disappointed that the work just covers the years 1963-1966.  I wanted to see how the “revolution” continued and formed his campaign for president in 1968.

Two passages stood out because they were familiar.  Many people from my generation will remember Teddy Kennedy’s simple, but eloquent summary of his brother’s life, delivered with a distinct quaver in his voice as he said, “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life.  To be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it…saw suffering and tried to heal it…saw war, and tried to stop it.”

Not much to say about that.  Whenever I see it, or hear a recording of that mournful moment, I’m taken back to the chaos and sadness of that time, that feeling that hope itself had died along with him.

But the words he spoke on June 6, 1966 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa still recharge my faith even in this dark time:

“Each time a man stand up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lots of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Here’s wishing you a peaceful and hopeful Sunday.

Shakespeare Sunday: Everyone Dies

Happy Sunday everyone!  Last week when I wrote about Sonnet 18, I mentioned the irony in how the speaker in the poem brags about the immortality that his poem gives to his loved one’s beauty, when Shakespeare spends an awful lot of time reminding us of our fragile grasp on life.  That brought me back to Sonnet 73. Go ahead and read it again if it’s been a while.  I’ll wait:


That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire

Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Just to bring a little more rigor to Shakespeare Sunday, I actually read some analysis of this poem, but what I was looking for was to see if there was any record of when each poem was written.  I was curious to see how much later 73 was written than 18.  No luck.

However, I did find lots of analysis and deep parsing of this lovely poem which would have completely ruined it for me, but I long ago quit paying much attention to literary criticism.  I enjoy reading some analysis to inform me of just how ignorant I might be when I start writing about literature, but am sometimes appalled at the nit-picking I start to find.  I sure hope that I didn’t kill the enjoyment of the poetry that I read with my students in a similar manner.  I did write about my approach to poetry as a teacher some time ago in a piece I called “I Don’t Hate Poetry.”

One analysis found the three metaphors that Shakespeare uses to be “cliched”–another writer might call them “timeless.”  Regardless, as a teacher it was great fun to play with these metaphors with students because most young people simply do not think in terms of metaphor.  They do not consider that the seasons, or that the cycle of the day, or that the burning of a fire is kind of like the progression of life from youth to death.

I particularly like the first four lines.  I’m not sure you can find a better example of iambic pentameter (just supposing you were looking for one) and they are maybe my favorite four lines of poetry to read aloud.  The image of naked branches as “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” seems just perfect; naked branches “where yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.”

In the following quatrain, the speaker thinks of himself as being in the “twilight” of his life “which by and by black night doth take away.”  I was always intrigued by Shakespeare’s characterization of night as “death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.”  To think of sleep as akin to death seems totally appropriate to me.  It reaffirms my daily response to the overly-cheerful baristas at Starbucks who greet me every morning between 5 and 7 AM with the question “How is your day going?”–just a horrible question to ask me BEFORE I’ve had my twenty ounces of morning Joe.  The only thing I can think of to say is, “Well, I woke up this morning.”

In the third quatrain, the speaker admits he is no longer a bonfire, but just a collection of burning embers, soon to be extinct.

In the final couplet, we come to understand that the speaker seems to be speaking to a younger person and warning or advising him or her that one must “love that well which thou must leave ere long.”  Life is short.  Live long and prosper.

As I was warming up to write this piece (something that goes on all week!), I thought about that scene from “Dead Poet’s Society” when Robin Williams character takes his boys down to view the pictures of long-dead alumni of the fictional Welton Academy and delivers his famous “carpe diem” speech:

“Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You have walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them. They’re not very different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their live even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilising daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, Lean in. Listen… Do you hear it? (whispers) Carpe. (whispers again) Cape. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

Some critics thought this speech sucked also, but I like it.  Any movie that showed a teacher teaching with mindfulness and passion was OK with me.

Hope you’ve had a great week.  I promised my mid-week piece would be a check in on “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse” and I will try, but “Retired, Not Dead” will be on the road to Seattle, WA for a well-deserved vacation,  and I may just be having too much fun to write about politics.

The Continued Relevance of “1984”

When 45 was elected there were lots of postings on Facebook about the uptick in people purchasing and reading or re-reading George Orwell’s 1984.

I did not rush out and get a copy because I was already depressed enough and revisiting what I remembered of that grim world that Orwell first wrote about in 1950 did not appeal.  I stayed away from it until a former student reached out on Facebook, and we decided to create a two-person book club. After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, we decided we would take on 1984.

As I read, I was surprised at how straightforward the narrative was, and while I could see some parallels to the political climate that we have been plunged into since the election of 2016, it wasn’t until half-way through the book that I came across some passages that really resonated.

I’m sure that some writers and thinkers have done much more work on this than I’m willing to so I will stick to a couple of parallels that were particularly striking.

Overall, I do not believe that 2016 looks like the world envisioned in 1984.  After all, we are a vibrant and diverse culture. Personal liberties are mostly still intact.  Their is robust political discussion, conversation, and protest that seems unending. The judiciary and individual states have managed to blunt some of 45’s excesses, and many of us are counting the days until the 2018 elections when some of our diffuse outrage might be turned into significant electoral action.

However, there are a few haunting similarities.  Just as Orwell envisioned the ministries of Truth, Peace, and Love that were all dedicated to their opposites, 45’s cabinet-level nominees seemed to have been hand-picked to destroy or work in opposition to the very principles of their departments.  The department of Justice under Jess Sessions is devoted to rolling back any initiative that was dedicated to advancing civil rights, and is working hard to find ways to increase voter suppression.  The Environmental Protection agency is being gutted by Scott Pruitt, and it appears as though every effort to protect our air and water that has been implemented over the past 10 years is going to be eliminated as a sop to coal and oil interests just at a time when many states are surging forward with innovations in renewable energy.  Just today, 18 states sued Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of the Department of Education, for trying to stop regulations that would protect students and parents from being defrauded by private, for-profit colleges.

The odd part for me about all of this is that the partisan divide is so deep that even though these policies hurt everyone, the polling seems to show little change since the election. 45’s base voters are as rabidly enthusiastic as ever although there has been movement among independent voters.  There continues to be a solid majority that are unalterably apposed to the man.  Of course, that was true on election day also.

The second parallel that was most striking to me was how the government of 1984 saw the power of re-writing the past and continually revising history in order to manipulate and control the masses.  Winston, of course, knows this because he works in the Ministry of Truth where he is continually making changes to history books and historical documents to make them align with the Party’s changing positions.  He tries to impress the enormity of this mass manipulation to his lover, Julia with an impassioned explanation: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered.  And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute.  History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

He is disappointed when his young lover shows little interest.  She is so jaded that Winston’s news does not surprise her, just confuses and bores her a little.  Of course the government lies. Yes, people are “disappeared.” Orwell describes her condition by saying that, [o]ften she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.”

Trump and his minions unapologetically spew out lies and contradictions at such a dizzying pace that I fear the populace has become anesthetized.  The New York Times has compiled an impressive list of lies (“President Trump’s Lies, the Definitive List”) that Trump has foisted on America since his inauguration and despite the enormity of it, or maybe because of it, the populace seems to have grown numb.  Thirty-five percent of Americans believe him or believe it doesn’t matter that he lies, and sixty-five precent have come to not believe anything that he says.  All investigative reporting is quickly branded as “fake news” and the White House is always able to present “alternative facts” if asked.  The deliberate confusing of all of the narratives surrounding the enormity of the scandals that are emanating from this administration has left many people unsure of who to believe.

Winston still has the capacity for outrage and the desire to join what he perceives as the resistance while Julia has accepted the duplicitous nature of the world she lives in and rebels through hedonism and other small defiances.

Seems like such a short time ago, we had a devout interest in protecting the environment, furthering the cause of civil rights, and working to provide for the good of all Americans.  We had a president who most Americans trusted and who seemed to be trying hard to maintain a the kind of sense of dignity and decorum that we used to expect of our presidents.

We aren’t in the world of 1984 yet, but we certainly have moved closer to it.