Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Pause That Kills

I recently realized that I pause before everything that I do. When I have a notion to do something – get out of bed in the morning, speak to a stranger, begin a difficult task, indulge in a guilty pleasure, give aide that’s been requested, push back against an unreasonable demand – I almost always pause a moment to consider.

This was possibly a very powerful insight, because I understood immediately that there are so many things I’d like to do that never get done because of this pause. But it’s only potentially powerful because much depends on what I will do with it.

Pausing is often a very good thing. It can and has kept me from doing irrational, impulsive things. But the truth of it is that pausing mostly keeps me from things I ought to do. It gives me time to consider risks, to count possible costs. It allows me to be ‘reasonable’, which the coaches at Landmark Education were always quick to point out generally means ‘ordinary and safe’.

Pausing keeps me from exposure, maybe from embarrassment and shame, from being overextended. But it also keeps me from putting myself on the line, from pushing myself when I really need to, from just going for it. Pausing has generated so, so much procrastination and delay, so much avoidance.

I need to do away with this always, automatic pausing. I know that there are lots of times I have not paused, sometimes to the extent of surprising myself. I’ll have to consciously try and remember more of those times, because my sense is that they usually led to something very good.

I had another insight many years ago, which ties directly into this one: that most of my life’s regrets are not about ill-advised things I did, but about the things I did not do.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Black Panther is Welcome...But

I'm a lot older than the target audience, so I have the benefit of memory and context and comparison.
I value that so much because I don't allow myself to forget the world my father lived in, and the world of his father before that.

One of the things I'm learning about long life is that it teaches you huge respect for the power of change. It's because we begin to see not that change is possible, but that it's inevitable. For example, I enjoy freedoms now that in the time of my father were very controversial and would have severely limited any social, financial or political aspirations he might have had, and in my grandfather's time would have amounted to a death warrant.

I vote. And I loudly proclaim who I'm voting for, and why, and who I want to see defeated. That's two of those freedoms, at least. Death sentences, had my forebears insisted on exercising them. No need for judge or jury. Oh, and I live with a white woman. Add castration in front of that death sentence.

I would not have dared. I don't have the required courage - which is courage I believe I could only have found when the world forced it out of me.

Context affects the way a thing appears, and how it feels, how people react. And that context changes. Constantly and inevitably. And, like Global warming, it's something that we humans absolutely affect, but what can we, as individuals do to control it. Hard to trust in change. It doesn't come when we want, and it doesn't give us what it's supposed to.

Anyway, I was saying ... about Black Panther.
I'm glad enough to see it, but I harbor old, mixed feeling, too.

I was a Marvel comics reading 12 year old when the original Black Panther appeared. I probably didn't learn of him right away, just as I was also not immediately aware of the founding of the Black Panther Party. But I became familiar with, and a fan of, the real life Panthers awhile before I read about T'Challa, the fictional king of a fictional African country. I wasn't very impressed with the latter.

You see, Huey Newton & Bobby Seale, the founders of the real Black Panthers, dressed all in Black, too, but it was urban guerilla Black: berets and leather coats. And they patrolled the Black neighborhoods of Oakland, California toting pistols and shotguns. The were protecting their neighborhoods against police violence they proclaimed, in accordance with their rights under the second amendment. And they brandished law books too, and cited case law and the criminal code to patrol officers who were still learning about and ignoring Miranda rights, which were just coming into play, following a Supreme Court ruling. Related image

The Black Panthers were real and they were bad-ass, a macho and invigorating alternative to Martin Luther King whose approach of militant but peaceful protest (letting yourself and your mama get beat up) had overtaxed the patience of many. I admired the Panthers, wore a free Bobby button and had a Huey Newton poster on my door. I fantasized about joining up.

I always believed - until just an hour ago, in fact - that the comic was named after the organization, that it was one of those lefty liberal, token gestures of solidarity. It seems so clear now that that would have been impossible. The Panthers were considered so radical by middle America that when they were literally exterminated - via street assassination, imprisonment, and the infiltration and dirty tricks of the FBI, the media and the courts barely batted an eye. Marvel comics on the other hand, was a business that catered to the imaginings and yearnings of adolescent nerds. But I always believed that the comic superhero was an unintentional trivializing and romanticizing of an important social movement. The Black Panther comic has always symbolized for me the softening of the wild 60's energy, the radical activism, the demand for change, that by 1973 had turned into disco glitter.

It turns out the Party and the Comic were formed entirely independently of one another, during that same summer of 1966 when the Miranda rulings were handed down, and that the identical naming was purely coincidental. Unless Huey or Bobby got the idea from the July '66 issue of Fantastic Four. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed two months later.

So now, because of the hype around this movie, and because I was motivated to air my dormant sense of injury about an old (but oh so contemporary) injustice, I was motivated to do a google search that corrected an erroneous belief I've carried all this time. I stand corrected, I guess. I will persist in wondering how much of our yearning for social justice, our anger at the havoc caused by greed and the lust for power, in drained off, quieted, sated or distracted by the overwhelming allure and catharsis of the Movies.

Sure ... see and celebrate this film, its mostly Black cast, and the if-only-it-were-so depiction of a proud, powerful, never conquered, and accomplished African nation. But let's not forget the real history, the context and the reality of what The Black Panthers were in America's tortured and limping walk toward Freedom.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

When I'm Sixty-Four

I'll be 4 cubed soon. Yes: 4 times 4 times 4 years of age.

It's not important, just a curious little detail. I like numbers. I play little games with the numbers on license plates while I drive, like finding two that add up to a thousand. And I look for patterns in dates and phone numbers and addresses. I've lived at addresses 111, 22, and 333, and if I'm ever house or apartment hunting in the future and come across a 44 or a 444, I'll probably want to take it, for just that reason, which is no reason at all.

There's no significance to turning 64, or that 64 is 4 cubed, except that it's mildly interesting, to me anyway. I was once 1 cubed, then, just a short while later I managed 2 cubed, and less than twenty years after that, I was 3 cubed. But that was 37 years ago, and it's not likely at all that I'll reach 5 cubed. And that's not because I'm slowing down. That's just the way numbers work.

Actually, I am slowing down, but time isn't. I think that's the cruelest joke of getting older - that time just keeps moving faster, when it should move slower. That would be kinder. It's when we're young that we can't wait for things to happen, for next week and next year to get here. And so of course it drags. Now, I mostly want to just hold on to what I have, to enjoy it. So time moves fast enough for me to start experiencing the end of something almost from the moment it arrives.

Apparently, Einstein once explained Relativity by referring to the difference between the hour you spend waiting for your lover, to the hour you spend with your lover before you part. That's a good one. Who can't understand that.

But I'm exaggerating. There's lots I still look forward to. New things as well as familiar things. And there is the positive side of the time warp: waiting isn't nearly so hard anymore. And I'll add that there's also the kindest joke about getting older, which is that, in the most essential ways - the ways of spirit - you don't really get older, anyway. Isn't it odd - and wonderful - that being in my sixties doesn't feel anything as bad, as boring, as I-might-as-well-be-dead as I thought it would?

So I have big plans for sixty-four. I intend some big changes. And you know, it's as exciting and as scary contemplating this change as when I left home for boarding school when I was fifteen and realized that my life would never be the same again. I'm exaggerating again. Not quite that excited, or that scared. But I'm reminded of something - something pointed out to me by my track coach, Ralph Lovshin, a few decades ago. He helped me understand that I underperformed during track meets because I treated excitement and fear as invasive parasites that I had to overcome. Instead, he told me, treat them as allies that arise from within, preparing me for whatever challenge I'm facing. And you know, it worked. I became a much better shot putter and discus thrower after digesting that lesson.

Change. Fear. Fleeting Time. Come on with it. I'm ready for you!

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Growing, Shifting City

I am watching Toronto grow and change. It is happening under me, around me, even through me, and has been for twenty-five years. That’s how long I’ve lived in this city. It’s longer by far than I’ve lived anywhere else.

I’ve drifted a lot through my life. It began with following my parents, as we moved from Detroit to New York when I was five, then to Berlin when I was eight, and back again to New York before I turned eleven. Then, on my own, I moved to Exeter, New Hampshire for three years when I was fifteen, then to Cambridge Massachusetts for about eight years, broken up by short stays in Atlanta, San Francisco, Norfolk Virginia, and even my home town, Detroit. Then, it was Kansas City for a year, Seaside, Oregon for another, then to Seattle for a long, twelve year stay, much longer than I’d been anywhere else.

I came to Toronto when I was going on forty, not knowing that the show would stop here for so long. A quarter century!

I’ve always known that, while I was experiencing something wonderful that fed my spirit through my many moves, I was also missing something. I had friends who spoke about growing up in a hometown and going through all the stages of their growth with a single familiar and familial backdrop. I came to think of it as a layered experience: living in and moving through spaces serially, in childhood, then adolescence, through early adulthood and so on, forming different relationships, associations, going behind different doorways, and travelling the streets with entirely different aims and purposes.

I knew that it must be something very different than my experience. For me, the shifts in time have always paralleled shifts in space, and more importantly, shifts within me. Detroit shaped my first years in ways that life in Manhattan made mutant, and the world of Berlin broke dimensions of language, food, culture that I hadn’t known existed. I remember realizing, shortly after returning to New York – to within ten blocks, yet an entire neighborhood away – that I was changed in ways those third grade friends I’d left behind could never understand, which I could never fully communicate. And by the time I left there again, I knew that I’d never be able to return, because if and when I ever did, I wouldn’t be the same person who’d left.

I came to Toronto in my late thirties and marveled at how diverse it is. Yes, I know that New York is a melting pot, but the ingredients in the stew of Toronto are fresher than I ever experienced on the Upper West Side. In Manhattan, my schoolmates’ parents or grandparents were from Greece and Puerto Rico, Italy, England and the Dominican Republic. But in Toronto, I lived and worked with people almost newly arrived, relatively – from Ghana, Iran and Jamaica, from Poland, Palestine and Fiji. It possessed a different kind of layers, and also such a variety of dynamic and healthy neighborhoods that I knew I wouldn’t grow out of it. Yet, I didn’t imagine I’d live here so long.

And this city is growing so fast, building and shifting and evolving so quickly, that I’ve finally had a sense of a place growing new layers over old ones. This is most apparent for me in Regent Park, and surrounding Cabbagetown and Corktown, and the area below Queen St., west of the Don River. When I first came to the community, it was dominated by a sixty year-old public housing project, and by the row houses and the dilapidated industrial shops and storefronts. It’s all been torn down during the last decade and a half, and replaced by blocks of concrete, steel and glass, glass, glass. Stale poverty has given way to slickness and style. The old neighborhood feel has gone the way of brick stoops and dusty furniture stores, the old playgrounds, schools and community centres. But the new pool and park are sleek and neat, and the art splashed upon the walls and highway archways is dazzling and bright.

The entire city is bulging with construction, and the streets increasingly clogged with traffic. But while to my old eyes it’s invasive and shocking, newer eyes take it all as given and register no surprise. They comprise the new layer, but are not the last. Time stretches both forward and backward from here. I continue my beginning to know the place.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Time On The Road

                It was an almost spontaneous, Thanksgiving road trip.

                First, a weekend at home, just to settle from the work week, slowly pack, make a couple of calls that we’re coming. Then, Monday afternoon, Ponczka and I are in the car. It’s an easy first leg – Hamilton to Detroit, less than four hours.

                A visit to my Aunt Irene. She’s 94 and living alone in a comfortable little apartment, and managing well. I don’t visit her often enough, but this is my second visit this year, and she’s glad to see us. It’s our first visit since her brother, my dad, passed away a couple of months ago, so we speak of him. He was a lively man who enjoyed satisfying his appetites, and was just a year her junior. And one of the things that both I and my Aunt Audrey enjoyed was that she was one of the few who could talk him down out of his easy-flowing brashness. It was something that brought out the little boy that remained of that old man, right into his last year, when he seemed finally sated with life. And speaking and laughing of it, brought out the young woman that remained in my aunt.

                On Tuesday afternoon, Ponczka and I start on the long leg of the trip, heading to Atlanta for the holiday with my brother. But first, we tool around Detroit a bit – the hometown I’ve loved but never missed. We survey the mansions along Boston and Chicago boulevards, then the mangled ruins just a few blocks beyond, and into the remade downtown, almost a different city entirely. There’s a kind of benevolent gentrification happening – the hipsters and the young entrepreneurs, the new construction alongside the refurbished remnants of last century’s glories. Gentle, yet still a broom, sweeping away the old. And Detroit, an almost entirely African-American city for a short-long while, is being reclaimed by the children of those that abandoned it.

                We’re on the road for only a few hours, through the rush hour and along interstate 75, down into Ohio. Toledo and Dayton, around Cincinnati and into Kentucky. We find a Microtel in Lexington and I go for some take-out chili from a nearby Waffle House. Why is it so wonderful, this taste of the nomadic, the very ordinary disguised in slightly shifting regional accents, the gradually warming air, different signs and license plates along the highway? It feels like easy adventure, but it’s really only a flip of the channel to some easily remembered yesterdays, with accents and jabs coming from unexpected places.

                The next day, we’re back on the road. We finish off Kentucky, and get down Tennessee. Hills and deep valleys, roadside venues selling barbecue and fireworks, Knoxville and Chattanooga. We hit unexpected congestion more than once. The license plates from more than a dozen states remind us that others are travelling too – Virginia, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania; occasionally a New York, Florida, even less Texas, Nevada, Arizona. Seeing them connects me, in memory, in yearning, in rewriting my history over the coming shrouded days. We finally hit Georgia and the last hundred or so miles are less interesting because we’re tired. Even so, Atlanta springs up like an ornament, with sparkling new buildings we don’t remember from our last visit four years ago. Cities loom like sculpted fantasies, like those teasing visions that come in movies, in dreams, like boasts and other tall tales.

to continue…

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Slow Burn

I’ve been contemplating the nature of Burn Out, because I’ve been suffering from a hard case and have not been able to cure myself but for brief days at a time. But the nature of these respites is shedding some light on the nature of the condition, and seems to offer a potential way out.

How to describe burn out? Extreme disinterest? A loss of capacity to apply oneself to a job? A State of being over-exposed to / satiated with an unappealing, even repulsive, set of conditions? Or maybe, coming from another direction, an absence of energy and vitality, resulting from having been drained or overworked? I’ve heard burnout described all of these ways, and a few others. But there isn’t often much talk about what the condition is. When someone declares that they are burnt out, it’s usually accepted, without any close diagnosis. It’s similar to when someone comes into the office and says that they caught a bug or a cold, and others immediately exclaim, “Oh, THAT! I had it too”, as though there’s no doubt that they suffer from a malady that is closely related, if not the same.
Of course, the other thing that burn out shares with the ‘bug’ is that half the people who pronounce their sympathy, and their allegiance to the cause of worker self-protection, don’t really believe that you have anything at all. Which doesn’t necessarily diminish the sincerity of their sympathy, since they probably don’t believe that they have anything either.
A key part of both the seasonal something and the case of burn out is just feeling bad, or not feeling right, along with a sense of helplessness, rooted in the inability to feel better.
I’m not a disciplined person. I’ve always found my motivation to go to work in either a desperate need of a paycheck, or a degree of passion about the work. It’s the main reason I’ve rarely stayed in a job more than three years. I’m not the sort of person able to go to the same place, at the same time, and do essentially the same thing, month after month, year after year. As much as I try to recognize the benefits of the sameness – the relative facility of doing something I’ve done so many times before that I hardly have to make an effort – that’s actually the source of the trouble.
Because it’s inattention, it’s not having to look very closely or carefully at something, that I’m beginning to belief is the source of burnout.

I’ve noted, you see, that the times I begin to come out of burnout are usually times of high focus, of close attention. It’s times I’ve taken something on, or had something thrust upon me, when I’ve had to force my attention to the details of a matter, and then to deal with them one by one, that I’ve found myself getting better.
Is laziness a factor? Maybe so. When I become used to a situation, I give it less of my attention. I begin to take shortcuts, assuming some of the details, rather than identifying them one by one. I let myself go with the general, rather than seek out the specific. It’s quicker, easier. It requires less time, effort and attention. And before long, that familiarity becomes a kind of weariness, then boredom. And gradually, what was an interesting and demanding task has become painfully dull.
But what came first? Did becoming used to a situation precede taking the cognitive short cuts, or was it the shortcuts that began to generate to sense of sameness, that led to the adaption of a formula, a pattern, that slowly squeezed out difference and uniqueness and whatever novelty might be in the matter?
My meditation practice touches on this. The practice involves giving close attention to minute details of sensation. And one of the things I’ve learned from the practice is that attention enlivens. I was never aware of the energy constantly coursing through my body, until I took up meditation and learned to be sensitive to it. And I’ve developed a curious relationship to physical pain. Instead of turning my attention away from it, I now focus on it. Because attention lessens pain, sometimes dissolving it entirely away. Because, when I examine it closely with my attention, I have to recognize what a gross, generalization the notion of pain is. In fact, what passes as pain is usually an accumulation of lots of sharp, tiny sensations. And sometimes they are unpleasant, but often they are not. And if I’m willing to be with them, well, often they turn out to be not nearly so overwhelming or uncomfortable as I feared they would be.
So now, I’m turning my attention to the burnout. Instead of staying with that label, I’m trying to do that diagnosis that I referred to earlier as hardly ever happening. What is it exactly that I’m experiencing? What precisely am I feeling, and why? And I’m very curious to learn where this exploration takes me.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A New Political Party?

How have we come to this? How have we Americans created such a dysfunctional government, and come to this point where we can’t even agree that it’s dysfunctional? If you listen to CNN, then switch to Fox, you would think that two entirely different realities are being described.

I am a lifelong, left-leaning voter, who can’t remember ever voting for a republican. I was a supporter of Bernie Sanders and have never for a single moment given Donald Trump any credit or respect. Yet, I know that a lot of Republicans – even some of those who haven’t given up on Trump – are reasonable, caring citizens who want the best for our country. Some of them have probably never voted for a Democrat in their lives, and yet, we could probably agree on a number of things, like, for example, that everyone should have access to decent health care, and the ability to send their children to a school in which they have confidence. And yet, the politics of our time has turned health care and school choice into wildly divisive issues on which it seems nearly impossible to arrive at consensus.

Why is this? And why – despite how inflamed and partisan and sensationalized politics has become – do most eligible Americans not even bother to vote anymore? And why – out of desperation – have we turned our government over to a man with no political experience, whose substantial short-comings even his supporters acknowledge.

Increasingly, I’m beginning to wonder if the United States might manage what the French have somehow managed – to create and put into power an entirely new party.
Today, I was exposed to three individuals, who identify as either Republican, or conservative or both, whom I would gladly support as active partners in reshaping our country and government. Not because I’d agree with them on specific political measures that are currently on the political agenda. But because they each expressed powerful and reasonable ideas about our current predicament and what will be necessary to move us in a better direction.

I heard a bit on NPR this morning about Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, who has written a book about “The Vanishing American Adult”. What I heard from him that I liked are his thoughts about how our culture undervalues work and struggle, and how these things serve to build character and develop self-reliance. I liked hearing this because, as a lifelong social service worker, I have seen how our programs and institutions sometimes provide support and assistance to the needy to a point beyond where it actually helps them. It’s true that policies sometimes encourage dependence and discourage individuals from developing a healthy sense of responsibility for their own outcomes. The trouble is, in the language of our politics today, one is either for social services or against them. It is hard to find a middle ground that one can hold. Because our politics is so much about spin and over-hyping our own partisan position while totally discrediting the views of the opposition.

The second conservative voice I heard, was that of Peter Wehner, of the Ethics and Public Policy center, also on NPR. He argued that in the public/political forum, we’ve lost our respect for objective truth. We manipulate, we countenance lies and distortions, and we refuse to hold to a standard of truth for those we are allied with, nor to respect the truths of our opponents.

The third rightist voice I encountered today was that of Ohio Governor John Kasich, in a live debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders on CNN. Another voice of reason, Kasich argued that we must be willing to listen to, respect and consider the views, values and concerns of our opponents. He spoke of the pounding he’s received from fellow Republicans for failing to stand behind Donald Trump, but said, quoting John Kennedy, that “…sometimes, your party asks too much.” I love what Bernie said tonight, of course, but he spoke more directly to the hot-button issues that are so inflammatory these days: the total economic dominance of the 1%, the incompetence of Trump, etc. Kasich spoke more broadly about the divide, and how to bridge it, how to get people communicating with their opposites, to overcome the extreme partisanship behind our current crisis of government.

There was some mention at the end of the CNN “debate” of Kasich and Sanders sharing a ticket in 2020, and of the failure of the current two parties to meet the needs of the citizenry. I love that idea. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a Congress where debates took place with an eye toward finding the common ground for including the concerns of the opposition, rather than simply winning a vote? Wouldn’t it be fabulous if all the lying and accusing and spin that dominates Washington was replaced by dialogue aimed at cutting through rhetoric to get at the shared needs and values of the vast majority of us who simply want to live well and support others in doing the same?

How to bring such a state about? I think a big part of the answer must lie in directing less attention at the politicians and more at becoming responsible voters. We have to reject the politicians who seduce us into their zero sum games of good versus evil, us versus them, destroy or be destroyed. And we have to shut down the politicians who make prolonging a career more important than serving, not just their constituents, but the entire, diverse communities they are part of. We voters have to hold ourselves more accountable. We created this mess, and only we can fix it.