Saturday, December 7, 2013

On Leadership – From Washington to Mandela

UPDATE: A version of this post also appeared on the Huffington Post website on December 9, 2013, and on the National Review Online website on December 10th, 2013. 

The comments on NRO were often quite vitriolic, and I thought a friend of mine (the same friend who encouraged me to write this essay) had an excellent comment on that fact: 
Mandela is a bit controversial as – much like many of our own founding fathers/icons (Martin Luther King) – he was by no means perfect and did immoral things.   But, like those men, he was also a great leader and demonstrated leadership and vision that most “normal” people can’t imagine/probably aren’t capable of.  For some folks,  the bad erases any good/extraordinary and they can only express that by simple, shallow, insults/name calling that exposes exactly the kind of intellect behind the comment.
***

Having co-authored two books, including one on George Washington titled Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country, I was listening to the tributes to Nelson Mandela upon his death this week, and couldn't help but think of George Washington.

This week, we lost a statesman whose influence and impact stretched far beyond the borders of his own country. When Nelson Mandela died on Thursday at the age of 95, tributes flooded the news and social media.

This was a man who had dedicated his life to his country, and to helping his country to a new future. Through political activism, 27 years in jail, and a studied pragmatic leadership, Mandela accomplished what many thought was impossible: a new democratic South Africa. Getting to that point was no easy feat – cementing that achievement was even more difficult.

Attempting to reconcile decades of white apartheid with newly empowered black activists was incredibly delicate. And yet Mandela accomplished this difficult task by, as journalist John Carlin put it, “doing what defined his leadership: reconciling generosity with pragmatism, finding common ground between humanity’s higher values and the politician’s aspiration to power.”

I read that quote and immediately thought of another statesman whose influence and impact stretched far beyond the borders of his own country: George Washington.

Upon reflection, there are several similarities between these two “founding fathers”. Washington can be described as an astute businessman, great war general, savvy politician, and, most of all, role model for what an American should be. Mandela can be described as an astute lawyer, great protest general, savvy politician, and, yes, role model for what a South African should be.

John Carlin highlights the example of the new national anthem of South Africa after Mandela became president. The new song was actually a combination of two songs, the “anthem” of the black protest rallies, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”), and the old white “anthem” celebrating the European settler’s conquest of the region, “Die Stem” (“The Call”). This was a conscious decision by Mandela to make a peace offering – to offer a clear message of national unity, of magnanimity, of a future without persecution on any side.

As George Washington wrote to the Quakers after he became president: “Government being, among other purposes, instituted to protect the persons and consciences of men from oppression, it certainly is the duty of rulers, not only to abstain from it themselves, but, according to their stations, to prevent it in others.”

Carlin calls Mandela “Africa’s Lincoln” – I would argue that he is Africa’s Washington. It is easy to draw comparisons to America’s Civil War and apartheid; certainly they are both recipes for bitter internal divisions. But we will never know what legacy of lasting unity Abraham Lincoln would have achieved as president. We do know what legacy of unity Mandela achieved.

A legacy achieved through reaching out to all parties to get everyone to “buy in” on this new nation being formed (much like how Washington wrote letters to all the different groups, sects, religions, etc., encouraging them to embrace the new United States). A legacy achieved through understanding that, as John Adams put it, “Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But…I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed.” As General Washington went above and beyond to treat our enemies during the War for Independence with humanity, so did President Mandela. They both understood not just the morality in the issues, but also the strategic message it sent.

They both also understood the strategic message sent about voluntarily relinquishing power, rather than being forced. Indeed, it is clear that both Washington and Mandela were keenly aware of the new experiment they were embarking upon, and the fact that every single step upon the way would be scrutinized, critiqued, and, most importantly, set precedent for the future.

It is not that both were not ambitious men who aspired to power – they both certainly were. It is that they both were leaders who understood that, as Voltaire said, with great power comes great responsibility. And it is that they were both religious men – albeit very privately so – who would know well the Biblical admonition: “And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask more.”

Washington voluntarily turned down absolute power twice: once at the end of the War for Independence, when complete chaos caused many army officers to urge Washington to seize control and become king. Washington not only refused, he was furious. He was also sorrowful: “I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country.”

The second time was when he voluntarily stepped down as President, despite great encouragement to continue on. But Washington was committed to ensuring a truly elected Republican government would flourish after him. He understood his decisions could reverberate for years to come. Clearly, so did Mandela.

In what was considered an incredibly rare event, Mandela also voluntarily stepped down as President, despite great encouragement to continue on. In both eras, this is unusual. Rulers, whether in the 18th century or today, are not known for agreeing of their own volition to go. And knowing when to go is a sign of true leadership.

Leadership in this world of constant partisan sniping seems rare indeed. By the time they came into positions of power, Mandela and Washington both intrinsically understood leadership and what it meant – and what it required. They both had vision – vision that the goal was bigger than the present, was bigger than individual power, was bigger than them; that they, in fact, were peripheral to the goal and to the greater good, which is what made them so critical – which is what made them such leaders. With beliefs grounded in faith, duty, country, generosity, and honor, these were ordinary men who became extraordinary leaders.



Friday, November 22, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

There is a great saying that you never know who your friends are until you find yourself in a foxhole and look around and see who is in it with you. Or, along the same lines, as a friend of mine jokes, until you look around the jail cell and see who is next to you.

In my case, it was when I looked on my Facebook wall recently after having dropped off Facebook for a while, and saw how many people commented or sent me messages worried about me... Hadn't really occurred to me that any one would notice, or necessarily care. In fact, figured folks might be relieved not to have me "blowing up" their newsfeed considering how much time I spent aimlessly surfing and posting! Funny that, here I was treading water, and apparently a lot of the life preserver rings were being thrown by Facebook friends.

Wow. A comfort and an honor and a privilege.

I have previously defended Facebook (read here), and -- karma? something? -- brought that right back to me in spades. As those messages of support and concern were a huge boon to me during a difficult time. Made me realize how much the little things matter, that I wasn't alone, and that, as Genesis, pointed out, "It's Gonna Get Better."

Of course, funny how karma also works, or, as I always like to say, how God loves to laugh at us. No surprise to me, as this often seems my luck, but I had barely begun to think the treading had stopped, and that I was crawling my way out of that dark hole, when suddenly a torrential rain fell making the walls nothing but slippery mud....

Sigh.

A rainfall in the guise of a bad reaction to an anesthetic laced with epinephrine. Nothing like thinking you actually might be dying when you're getting over contemplating it! As nothing like feeling like your heart is stopping repeatedly, trying to gasp breaths, and then having your heart race to restart. Seriously, thank god for a doctor friend who talked me through it and was able to reassure me I was not, in fact, dying or crazy.

Well..... There might be some debate on the latter point.

While I would like to say it was a wake up call, it is more like it threw me for a loop. Perhaps even a loop de loop. As really, if you're supposed to call a spade a spade, then why not call a roller coaster a roller coaster? Still the end result is the same: it made me realize how much of a debt of gratitude I owed to the kindness of strangers.

As I definitely got through the last month or so thanks to the concern, care, and humor of people I didn't know at all, or didn't know very well, or knew well in a distant -- that is, Facebook only -- way. Many of whom may not know that I saw their notes and their concern and their worry even though I did not respond or acknowledge.

Instead, I took lots of hikes, did my best to keep my head out of my ass, cuddled lots with my dog, even shot guns for the first time, and saved what energy I had for the friends who pestered me for daily proof of life.

But a very public acknowledgment now to all of those who have no idea how much their outreach meant to me. A very public thanks for it and a huge smile for the laughs they gave me. Especially for the laughs.  You know who you are!

As I mentioned above, apparently I was correct to defend Facebook a while back.... As for me, it's never been about the seemingly "perfect lives" that so many seem to project. Perhaps I spent too long working in PR type jobs to have anything but cynicism for that. It's all just selective posturing to me, an understanding that everyone -- every single person on this earth -- has issues, problems, stories. They just may not post them on Facebook. After all, not every one posts every single thing going on in their life like me. Instead, for me, Facebook is about making connections ...

And wow. Touched and humbled by those connections now.

So, thank you all -- strangers, friends, bosom buddies, acquaintances, random trollers, loved ones -- one and all. I am a better person for knowing you -- and only hope I can return the favor some day.



Thursday, October 31, 2013

On writing....

I haven't really written in a while. Really written.

The truth is, I always used to write whenever I had to work through something, when things were wrong, when I was depressed, when I was emotional, when I was flummoxed, when I was troubled, when I was happy, when I was sad. The truth is, I wrote. I simply wrote. It was never for anyone else, it was never for any purpose beyond my own. It was simply writing. Simply expression.

And I even originally started this blog as no more than that -- simply expression. I figured I was in a really isolated situation, and it would help to reach out to others. And at first I thought no one would care, would read, would listen -- and was so excited when people did. I felt connected to others. And I loved it. The more page views I got, the more excited I was.

Except then I started writing for what I thought wanted to be read. Not that this made my blog any more popular or any more read, but I suddenly stopped seeing and using writing as a way to express my inner feelings, thoughts, turmoil. It became so much more than that. And so it became so much less than that.

The other truth is, I've actually had a lot of bad shi.... stuff... happen in the last couple of years. And that's actually really flummoxing. As I've spent my life dealing with serious depression. (As if there's a non-serious kind of it.) Which means -- at least for me -- that I've spent a lot of my life feeling like crap despite nothing going on. The odd thing is, a helluva lot has gone on. But the depression in some ways masked this.

As I've spent my days feeling awful no matter what was going on. I could be having a good day, or a bad day, or a fantastically craptastic day, or a fantastically awesome day, and it did not matter. Honestly, nothing mattered. Life sucked -- though actually that is not it, life didn't suck, life just did not matter -- and a spent a lot of time fantasizing about how to get out of it. And learned a lot -- I don't like the sight of blood, I have a really high tolerance for pain, and my high sensitivity to drugs meant that I usually passed out before I could do any damage. Fascinating all. And useless.

The irony of it all? Depression also meant I had a really high tolerance for crap in my life. And a really low tolerance for crap and drama in other people's lives. I mean seriously? You think that (whatever that is) is bad? Try dealing with something actually bad. As a dear friend once put it -- who is actually, let's face it, a dear friend because she relates the same way I do -- "If people even knew or had to deal with half the shit we've actually dealt with in our lives, they would have killed themselves a long time ago -- and yet here they are, bitching about basically a hang nail, and we're supposed to give a damn."

So yeah, I'm sorry, I am a bitch, but you know what? If you want to kill yourself, here's a damn noose, and here's a damn scrip cocktail, and just get it over with already. Because I don't have the damn patience for people who are drama queens (men or women) about their lives. Life sucks, and then we go on. Seriously. I have not just scraped bottom, I have licked it, and critiqued its flavor.

And life goes on. And that's the worst thing. I was that drama queen. I wrote lots of sappy (and sometimes good) poetry and short stories about how awful life was. And then I had a lot of shit happen, and somehow life goes on. Somehow actually hitting bottom means you see that, well, life goes on. Life. Goes. On.

Seriously people. A lot of people have dysfunctional families. Bad relationships. Woe is me. Seriously. Woe is frickin' me. More people than you know have "looked death in the face" -- and, you know what, some of us have laughed. Even when it was not ourselves holding the gun, but someone else. Because you can't fear death when you actually wish for it.

And apparently you can't write when writing no longer is about expressing yourself truly and is about expressing for an audience. Not that I actually have an audience, but that I no longer have an audience of one: me. Writing used to be everything to me. It was the only way I could make sense of, well, anything. And suddenly, it was no longer about me. It was no longer about writing. It was about everything else. A message. A story. A blog post.

And so.... The last few months I haven't written. It's not that nothing has happened. It's not that I haven't had a lot of turmoil. It's not that I haven't had a message, a story, a blog post. It's that I have. And that I've been too flummoxed to make heads or tails of it. Because it was not about me, it was about "what would make a good story to others". Which is.... BS. Yeah, BS. Capital B. Capital S. BS.

So. I've had no ability to write. Apparently, it's that I've started seeing myself through the same eyes I've seen others: "woe is frickin' you." And you know what? Here's a damn noose, and here's a damn scrip cocktail, and just get it over with already. Because I don't have the damn patience for people who are drama queens about their lives -- including myself.

So. I've had nothing to say, because I've been too busy doing what I hate most in others: feeling sorry for myself, instead of realizing that life goes on. Life. Goes. On.





Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Gut and ... Glory

I should have trusted my gut. But after years of being told that because I didn't have kids, I couldn't understand, I couldn't know, I couldn't have an opinion, I didn't trust my gut about kids.

So when I saw the kid sitting on the park picnic table at 11:30 in the morning, my gut said something has to be wrong. It's a school day, he's school-aged, he looks alone, maybe a little scared. Maybe, maybe, maybe. What if, what if, what if. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. I kept walking my dog onward to home.

So when I ran into my neighbor who worked for the local Fire Department that evening, at the same park, as we ran our dogs tired, I guess I should not have been surprised when he told me a little kid reported a kidnap attempt earlier that day, right (he waved toward the picnic tables) over there.

As my heart sank, I asked if it was a boy, light reddish or blond hair, blue tee shirt, maybe 10 years old. My neighbor registered faint surprise as he said, "Eleven." He continued, as I interrupted -- jinx -- "And it was around 11:30 this morning."

I started babbling about feeling guilty, about seeing the boy, and ignoring my gut. About worrying of overreacting. About, about, about...

Laconic as always, he turned to face me straight on, and shrugged. "But...." I stammered. And he shrugged again and turned back to pitching the tennis ball for his dog. "But...." I stammered again.

He eyed me out of the corner of his eye, then finally said: "Look. Don't feel guilty. You clearly saw him right before he was found. And I'm quite sure he made up the kidnap attempt, as it simply made no sense. I'm guessing he was playing hooky, and something happened -- who knows what, but yeah, probably got into some bit of trouble -- and so he got help and made up a story to cover his misbehavior. It's all good. Stop feeling guilty."

He turned back to the tennis ball, and I realized that was the most I'd ever heard him say in one go. And that I was lucky that day, but it was a reminder about trusting one's gut, and -- no matter your expertise or knowledge -- getting involved.

*

How often do we walk by things, ignore things, turn the other way, because "it's none of our business", "we don't want to get involved", "someone else will take care of it"? How often do we miss opportunities to make a difference -- big or small? How often do we close our eyes; practice indifference; play deaf, dumb, and blind? How often?

We are known as one of the most generous nations, quick to open our wallets when tragedy strikes.... And yet we often walk right past the blight in our own neighborhoods, muttering under our breaths about "that damn neighbor".

Our generosity seems to know no limits, either geographically or culturally. Whether it's a tsunami in the Far East, famine in the Sahara, or flooding in my home state, we give with open hearts and magnanimous minds. And yet if it's a matter of what baby carriage a mom uses, someone smoking, a political opinion, or God forbid, a parenting opinion, we give with closed hearts and critical minds.

We are hypocrites who point out the hypocrisy in others with glee.

Biblical admonitions abound, but it's really simpler than that: have charity. On both sides. Instead of criticizing, try listening. And instead of dismissing criticisms, try listening. Listen to what the other person is saying -- listen, truly listen -- and try to understand. Really try to understand. Not dismissively, not based upon what you believe or think. But understanding such that you can see why someone else might say, believe, think differently. Listen to your gut -- listen, truly listen -- and try to understand.

As our gut is critical. Our initial responses are usually emotional, one way or the other. Our gut is the heart and soul of who we are, what we understand, what the appropriate response should be. My gut told me a kid was potentially in trouble -- my emotions told me I had no business thinking anything about a kid because I was childless. My gut called bull sh*! as it does not need first-hand experience to make judgment calls. That's the point of your gut instinct -- it's an instinct, not first-hand knowledge.

It why we all need to learn to trust our guts more, to listen more -- to ourselves and to others.

Once you truly understand what the other person is saying -- no matter the issue -- and you also truly understand what your gut is saying in reply, only then will you know what the proper behavior, proper response is.

Whether it is to smile and nod, to address your flaws, or to go over to a young boy and find out what is going on.



Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Detritus of Death


UPDATE: A version of this post (edited and including reference to the awful shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.) also appeared on the Huffington Post website on September 18, 2013.

***


A friend died of cancer a few weeks ago.

That, of course, in itself is unsettling, heartbreaking, emotional. He was an amazing person, who fought the valiant fight against kidney cancer, chronicling it all with humor, grace, wit, determination, and courage on his own blog, The Kidney Cancer Chronicles.

But I knew almost immediately, that it wasn't just him and his death that swallowed me instantly into a fog; made me want to curl up in a ball; flung me into the dark depths. Though his loss to this world is enough to cause all of those things. Still, I knew that wasn't just it.

Recognition does not mean realization though. After all, recognition is sometimes no more than a nod of the head, a spark in the eye, a distant wave. It can be slight, tiny, barely perceptible, and in no way related to or even hinting of realization.

Realization is a different animal entirely. Realization is understanding. Realization is comprehending. Realization is knowing. Realization is hard -- it can be one of the most difficult things. Especially when it comes to death.

Realization is having to come to terms with the fact that someone you love is gone. Poof. You can't talk to them again, write them, even text them. You can't hold their hand, hug them. You can't share an event, a time, a moment with them. The sun will rise and set, beauty will dawn, darkness will fall, life will continue.... And you won't be able to share any of this with them again.

But realization is not final; call it a process, a dawning, a path. It is not complete. It is never finished. Especially when it come to death.

When I heard that morning about my friend's death, the impact was profound, shattering, devastating. And as amazing as a person as he was, something felt off, deeper, stronger, darker. It took me the entire day to finally put my finger on it: It was only a few days before the anniversary of my mother's death.

Ah.

I used to think that because I was blessed enough to have my mother for most of my life, and that she was blessed enough to live a full life, that her death would not be that hard -- would not, really, be that big of a deal. That once I got through the first initial moments, days, weeks, months, year -- it would get better.

And it does. To a certain extent. Grief and mourning are definitely a process, a dawning, a path. Each moment, day, week, month, year -- it does get a bit better. A bit less acute. A bit less intense. A bit. A bit.

Yet realization is also a process. And as those moments, days, weeks, months, years pass, the realization gets more acute, more intense. That knowledge -- profound, shattering, devastating -- that this person you loved is gone. This person who played such a huge role in your life, no matter what that role was, has stepped off stage. Stage right, lights dim, curtain falls.

But it is not intermission.

And therein lies the rub.

The grief and mourning over the actual death lessen. The pain of human loss lessens, becomes a bit less sharp; the ache lessens, becomes a bit less choking. But the realization of the entirety of the loss only increases. It is no longer about the person themselves -- it is about the events, the moments, that they are missing. That you cannot share with them.

It is about the lack of their presence in every moment of your life going forward.

Even the most joyous of moments are tinged irrevocably. A smear of grey, a whiff of sorrow, a shadow of despair. A brief sense of loss, of something -- someone -- missing. Of incompleteness.

My father once described love as the sense that looking at a sunset is made all the more beautiful by sharing it with someone else, being able to discuss it in the moment, as well as later -- so that the sunset lives on in your minds, by being able to recall it, share it again and again. Shared experiences; shared memory. One plus one does not equal just two. It equals two squared. And removing one from the equation creates zero.

Death is not as simple as a curtain falling, a door closing, a book coming to its end. It is not as simple as turning the page, locking the door, exiting the stage. It is simply not simple. It is complicated and difficult and demanding. It does not go gently into that good night. Perhaps for the dying, but for the living, it is not sweet, nor brings blessed rest. Death is ongoing and never-ending. The body may no longer be present, but the absence of that body is always present.

I always thought death was a "yes" or "no" question. I have realized it is a "present" or "not present" question.

And the "not present" is unsettling, heartbreaking, emotional. It is profound, shattering, devastating. It is incredibly present in its absence. People talk about the sound of silence, but the silence of absence is overwhelming. The absence is overwhelming. It fills, sifting into the cracks and crevices. The loose material that is the direct result of disintegration. The pieces, small and large, that are left behind when something breaks, falls apart, is destroyed, is gone.

The detritus of death. Which is never absent. Which is always present.

Hello detritus, my old friend....



Friday, September 13, 2013

A Father's Lessons

UPDATE: A version of this post also appeared on the National Review website on September 9, 2013.

***

Michael Novak turned 80 on September 9. During his eight decades, he has contributed immeasureably to our society and to our political discourse. His latest book, his political memoir, was released on September 3:


The Saturday prior to his birthday, he celebrated surrounded by family and friends, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Karl Rove, Librarian of Congress James Billington, former Veterans Secretary and former Ambassador to the Vatican James Nicholson, Joanne Kemp, Weekly Standard founder and editor Bill Kristol, National Review editor Rich Lowry, Mary Ellen Bork, Huffington Post editor Danielle Crittenden, The Hill editor Hugo Gurdon, and many others.

I gave the following speech in his honor.


***

My father has taught me many things over the years. Lessons that have stuck with me despite the time that has passed and the geographic distance between us now. Indeed, one of those lessons is from decades ago — and is perhaps most appropriate for this evening...

As one of the things my father taught me was that, as a child, one should be seen and not heard. You all know the classic saying I am sure.

Secretary Nicholson, Suzanne Nicholson & Michael Novak
Apparently, I took this to heart — not surprisingly. I am my father’s daughter after all. For there is a story of one dinner party my parents hosted, where I came downstairs repeatedly, each time in a different outfit. I then proceeded to — silently, of course — twirl about, show my clothes off, and — still completely silently — acknowledge my audience before disappearing upstairs again.

Twirl, acknowledge, repeat.

Letter of the law though: I was seen and not heard . . . and even my father, taskmaster and disciplinarian that he was, had to admit as much. Much to his chagrin!

Supreme Court Justice Clarence & Virginia Thomas
Well, tonight no costume changes are necessary, as I will be heard, as well as seen, though my father might wish the opposite were still true. As, in celebration of his 80 years on this earth, I will share with all of you a few of the many things my father has taught me, such as. . . .

That God made Notre Dame “number one”, and also, seemingly contradictory yet still accurate, that God may not care who wins or loses, but His Mother sure does.

That questioning and curiosity are virtues — unless I’m questioning him too much.

That there is a positive to having determination, and even hard-headedness, but that it’s a fine line that is not always best crossed.
And that it is a “Novak trait” to cross that line.

Joanne Kemp, Librarian of Congress Billington & Marjorie Billington

That criticism — ahem scholarly feedback is I think how he’d prefer it to be noted — is an integral part to growth and development, except when the tables are turned.
(After all, I’m sure most of you have heard his lament about our first book together, and that my “scholarly feedback” was instead the “heartbreaking loss” of page after page of “the most beautiful prose ever.”)


That sports are our religion, our sustenance, and our glory – Alabama’s victory notwithstanding.

That humor should be practiced regularly and implemented frequently; a day lacking laughter is a day lacking value.
Karl Rove

That high standards, ethics, and honor are what make us who we are; without them, we are nothing. (Of course, he plagiarized this from his father, but who’s counting?)

That charm will actually get you everywhere – as will feigning helplessness.

That passion — for work, for others — is the key to a life well-lived and well-loved.

*
When I look at my father, I see a man who has taught me so much.

A scholar who emphasized questioning, challenging, learning. A professor who emphasized constant education.

Susan Kristol, Rich Lowry & Bill Kristol
A sportsman who emphasized the pursuit of happiness in playing or watching athletic endeavors. A zealot who emphasized that God — or at least His Mother — made Notre Dame the best. A believer who emphasized faith, even when his team got rolled.

A witty man who emphasized being quick with a joke and even quicker with a laugh.

An honorable man who emphasized that doing right is not a matter of who is watching. An ethical man who emphasized painting the underside of the stool despite the fact no one sees it. A gentle man who emphasized kindness and compassion. A tough man who emphasized never backing down from a fight, nor from high standards.

Danielle Crittenden Frum
An intense man who emphasized dedication to one’s work, one’s passion, one’s love. A loving man who emphasized the many terms for love in Latin, and strove to achieve them all regularly.

A charming man who could woo a critic, a stewardess, and an audience equally. A talented man who could compete against the best of them. A generous man who never failed to share the spotlight.

As one of the many recipients of that spotlight here tonight, I should highlight this simple fact:

The public Michael Novak is the same as the private Michael Novak — and all of us are blessed that this is true. As it means all of us can and should learn from him and his example.

So . . .

Thank you, dad, for being such an incredible role model and inspiration — to me and to so many people. Thank you — and Happy Birthday!







Monday, July 29, 2013

Extremes: Introversion vs. Extroversion

It's funny, even though I've been completely incapable of writing for the last month -- mostly because I was simply overloaded with stimuli from being constantly "on" thanks to being surrounded by family and friends while traveling -- it never occurred to me that I might be an introvert.

Sure, I've joked for a long time that I am an "extroverted introvert", but I had actually never looked up what -- exactly -- that meant. Sure, for quite some time, people -- myself included -- had commented on my "extremes": my extreme extroversion, hosting nonstop, socializing nonstop, putting myself out there nonstop; and then my extreme introversion, not leaving my house except to walk my dog, refusing to socialize, barely being in contact with even long-time friends. And yet not once, not once!, had it occurred to me to look up why this might be.

Me! The "Queen of Looking it Up"! Never, mind you, to prove myself right per se, but to find out what was right. But. Look. It. Up. I always did. And yet, and yet. Here I did not. Go figure.

So karma threw it at me. Call it a bitch slap if you will. But a friend posted a link on Facebook today called "Ten Myths About Introverts" (which, mind you, is a re-post of this original post by "Carl Kingdom), and well, slap me silly, call me stupid, mark me dumbfounded. Apparently I actually am an introvert. Who knew???

Hate small talk? Check. I actually got banned by my sorority in college (yeah, I was in a sorority, that's another story) from Rush Week  as I found the small talk so annoying, I would make up bizarre questions to test the rushees. What? You mean asking, "If you were a vegetable, what vegetable would you be?" is not appropriate for a sorority rush?

Not shy? Check. Seriously. Have you met me?

Doesn't believe in social pleasantries? Check. Seriously. Have you met me?

Intensely values the few friends they have? Check. Without arrogance, I can say: test it. Talk to my friends. My true friends. If you've shown you're a person of substance in all matters, you earn my respect, and my loyalty forever.

"Gets it" immediately and needs to recharge? Check. Long periods "in pub-LICK" is not necessary to understand life or anything else. Trust me.

Happy with myself but does actually crave an authentic connection with someone to share things with? Check. Um. Need I say more? Of course I will though! Seriously. A night by myself is one of my favorite things. Even better though is having that one or two people who really get me, and being able to share things with them. My father once explained to me that a beautiful sunset is just that, beautiful. But it is made even more amazing by having someone with whom you can share it -- and with whom you can share the memory with for years to come, multiplying that original experience.

Doesn't make most decisions based upon what is popular or trendy? Is unique? Check. I won't even go into the fun examples, I'll just point out that, why yes, I do still have and wear clothes I owned in high school, and why yes, I did end up never getting a tattoo simply because it became too popular when I was first considering one.

Inner world much more stimulating and rewarding? Check. Seriously. I'm a writer. What do you think???

Not a thrill seeker or adrenaline junkie but instead about home or nature, not public places? Check. Where can I be found most days? Hiking or sitting at home. And I love it. What's better?

Can fix one's self? Well, on that I fail. Not check. I actually have and do try to "fix" myself. It is not that I see introversion as a flaw per se. But I do recognize it in myself and try to, well, force myself to be more extroverted.

Is this healthy? I don't know. I used to think so, as I thought it was "smart" of me to recognize a characteristic in me and work to offer "alternatives". Now? Well, perhaps just read what the article says:
A world without Introverts would be a world with few scientists, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, doctors, mathematicians, writers, and philosophers. That being said, there are still plenty of techniques an Extrovert can learn in order to interact with Introverts. (Yes, I reversed these two terms on purpose to show you how biased our society is.) Introverts cannot “fix themselves” and deserve respect for their natural temperament and contributions to the human race. In fact, one study (Silverman, 1986) showed that the percentage of Introverts increases with IQ.
Hmmmm.

All I know is that extremes are never good. Whether in politics, life or personality.

And God knows that I've really started to notice the extremes in personality. It can't be good to go from being "Ms. Outgoing" to "Ms. Won't-Leave-the-House". So.

So. Apparently Ms. "Queen of Looking It Up" needs to look it up; needs to spend more time reflecting upon introversion and what it means -- and who I am. Odd to think I've lived my entire life without fully realizing that several of my quirks could be related back to a personality division.

Certainly explains a lot!



Friday, June 21, 2013

A Lesson in Catholic Guilt, or on Fathers and Father's Day

UPDATE: A version of this post also appeared on the Huffington Post website on June 17, 2013.

***

Father's Day is yet another of those myriad of holidays that we celebrate as if somehow contributions only matter when we publicly acknowledge them on a single special day out of the year. As if those contributions only matter for one day, or only happen for one day. Of course, why should we let a perfectly good reason for a Hallmark card go to waste? As they say, if you "manufacture it", they will buy it....

It's just as I noted in a previous article, "Mother's Day: A Manufactured Holiday":
The recent reality is that Mother's Day seems to have become nothing more than a commercialized, manufactured guilt fest -- as well as a peer pressured, competitive guilt fest. It's all about how much you can spend to show how much you care -- as if money is the only measure of emotions; it's also all about how much you can talk up your mother as the best of all mothers in comparison to what someone else -- posts on Facebook.
So it is with Father's Day -- and I'll be the first to admit that yes, I did in fact ensure to change my Facebook profile picture on Father's Day to a photo of my father and me. As I am not going to be the one who loses that public guilt fest!

Still, the history of Father's Day is fascinating: as it can seem surprising that it took decades to achieve formal recognition for a holiday that honors fathers, and their influence on society. In fact, the woman most commonly credited with being the driving force behind this holiday started her long crusade in 1910 in Spokane, Washington, and it wasn't until 1972 that it finally became a permanent national holiday when President Richard Nixon signed it into law.

Apparently, Congress was worried it might be commercialized..... [snicker, snort] Apparently, Congress is actually sometimes correct.....

I had intended to mostly ignore Father's Day, and not buy into the commercial frenzy that surrounds it, but my instinctive inability to resist the Facebook guilt fest for most public acknowledgement of one's father made me think about my own father and what I did actually owe him.

As, ironically, it was that very inability to resist the Facebook competition that pointed to one of the greatest things my father gave me / taught me: Catholic guilt. And yes, I don't mean just Catholicism the religion, I mean the very key tenet of the religion, guilt. The self imposed, all consuming, most powerful emotion there is. The one thing that truly separates any one raised Catholic from all others (with an acknowledgement that Jewish guilt is closely related -- but not exactly the same thing).

The truth is, Catholic guilt is very different from all other kinds of guilt. Merriam Webster's online dictionary defines guilt:
1: the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly : guilty conduct 2 a : the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously b : feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : self-reproach 3: a feeling of culpability for offenses
Yet none of that perfectly encapsulates what Catholic guilt is. Heck, if you search, even Wikipedia has a separate entry for "Catholic guilt"! (According to the site, "Catholic guilt is a term used to identify the supposed excess guilt felt by Catholics and lapsed Catholics.")

Thanks to the fact that my father, Michael Novak, is a Catholic theologian by profession, one can say I could qualify as an expert on Catholic guilt. Certainly I was brought up by an expert on the subject! So I can attest, with confidence, that Catholic guilt is indeed far different than normal guilt.

Notice that the Merriam Webster definition uses terms such as "breach of conduct", "especially violating law", "involving a penalty", "committed an offense", etc. All of those are strong, even biased, words that imply serious misconduct on the "guilty" side. Even the secondary definitions refer to "imagined offenses" and "culpability".

As I learned upon my father's knee, it is not about the offense, nor the law, nor the penalty -- it is about what is "appropriate" or not. In fact, it did not matter if something was legal or illegal, wrong or right, it was a simple equation of appropriate or not, period. This may seem at first very confusing, and certainly a difficult standard to apply or even live by, but it's actually quite straightforward.

My father once gave me the example of painting a chair: the underneath of the chair will never, or at least rarely, be seen. The additional effort to paint that section, and to take the same care there as with what is easily visible, adds up to a lot of extra work and time, especially considering it will never, or rarely, be seen by anyone. So it is easy to justify skipping it, or at least covering it quickly, without any special attention or care. Yet in reality, one still must paint that section -- and must with the same amount of exacting detail and care as the rest of the chair -- because God will see it, even if no one else does.

This is why it is not about what is legal or illegal, what is right or wrong, or even necessarily moral or immoral, as the issue of the chair and its underside being painted or not is none of those things. What the issue of the chair is, is about what is appropriate or not. What we should do, not just what is the legal or moral thing to do.

Understanding this is key to being Catholic; is key to understanding Catholic guilt. Frankly, for me, is key to being a better person. I may not always live up to my standards, but I do my best to aim for them all the time -- and have one helluva dose of guilt always lingering over me to enforce those efforts! Thanks to all of that, I know I can say I am always striving to be better. Maybe not actually achieving it, but trying. To take a few liberties, the important thing is not whether you fall off the path, it's whether you keep on the right path.

My father's lessons on always keeping in mind what is "appropriate" as a much higher standard than simply what is illegal or immoral has made all the difference in my life. Folks may joke that being raised Catholic comes with a high therapy price tag thanks to the guilt, but that's merely misunderstanding the powerful tool they were given. It is not about "excess" guilt or emotional trauma, it's about having been taught how to always strive to be a better person. How to find the narrow path to not just heaven, but also to a better life.

From Matthew 7:13-14,
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
So, to me, Father's Day isn't just a manufactured holiday that requires a Hallmark card and a Facebook profile picture of my dad -- it's a day to be reminded of the critically important things fathers give us. The lessons and tools that my father -- that all fathers bestow upon their children -- provided that will help me, help all of us, to be better people. The lessons and tools we cannot live without, and can never repay.

And that's not commercialization.... That's, well, Catholic guilt.



Insights on One's Self

A little while ago, I was asked to try to describe myself as best as possible...and so I did. In re-reading my copy of it just now, with a similar recent question, it seemed rather fascinating -- and certainly insightful.

At least to me... [ahem]

So. Here is my best as possible description of myself (with just a few tiny edits from the original).

... If you had to describe yourself as best as possible, what would you say?

***

I always used to joke that Meredith Brooks' one hit could be my anthem. (*See below.) I don't wear make up because I never learned how - tho friends have gotten on my case about it and are trying to teach me how to use it. I don't think it's because I need it necessarily - I think it's because people just consider it "appropriate". My nickname when I worked in Congress was "surly", and I was banned from the phones. Probably the only staffer allowed to skip that part. Truth is though that I'm very kind and thoughtful - in fact, a friend, rightly, criticized me this fall as being "too nice". And yes, that is a criticism. But I do get impatient and short with people. Partly it's a "Novak trait", but nothing excuses it. I prefer company, but definitely need solo time to recharge. I've always joked that the only use I would have for a large home is to be able to know someone was there, while still being able to be on my own. Silence used to make me nervous, and can still sometimes when I'm in a new situation. I tend to be too snarky and sarcastic, as well as loud and obnoxious, especially when drinking. I love books and writing, but have struggled to do both in the last few years - hence my present "sabbatical", where I am succeeding more with the writing than the reading. I am a homebody who loves to go out. I have always had a secret desire to rent an RV and spend time traveling around the US. Spain and Portugal are on my bucket list. Love Italy and London, not a fan of Paris. Would love to see Eastern Europe (have only spent 72 hours in Prague) and Scandinavia, yet don't really have a huge travel bug. Love animals and still deeply regret having given up my cats because of my ex; got my dog to help me thru my separation and divorce. Get bored easily and yet love routine. Used to wish for happiness, and now wish for "peace". Still wish for true love though. Musical tastes are varied but actually not that into music, so more often than not will just find the best top 40 station [and yes, I can hear the horror in many people's minds right now] and turn that on, as I usually only listen in the car, and I like "hyper" music while driving. Once hoped to be a songwriter (and still someplace have tapes of me singing my lyrics), but of course also once wanted to be a bus driver as I planned to have 19 kids (I'm nothing but practical) - and you can see how both turned out [they didn't]. And yes, there is regret on both. On that note, I'm probably far too practical, far too "in my head" and not enough "in my mind", and have been working for years on my control issues. I'm very competitive. I love to cook, but only for others. I will not live without a housecleaner, and will cut TV and phone before I cut that (and have done so in the past). Happily lived without TV until NFL season started and I discovered I couldn't access games online. Love sports (I am my father's daughter), some live, some TV, some both. I'm an introverted extrovert. Or an extroverted introvert. Depending on the day. I love the theater, especially musicals. Any and all (even watched the cheesy movie Pitch Perfect the other night and loved it). My favorite movie is "Sliding Doors" for the concept behind it (I've written several times on this concept on my blog, such as this one). I can be frustrating, but am fiercely loyal. I have ridiculously high standards for myself, which I try not to apply to others. It both devastates me and entertains me when I fail my own standards. After all, if you can't laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? My favorite saying is: "Prepare every day as if you are going to live forever, but live every day as if you are going to die tomorrow." I originally thought that meant getting out there and seizing the moment constantly. I then realized it must be defined for each person individually, and each day individually. (Hmmm. Sounds like another blog post!) Monty Python; as that's self explanatory. I spend way too much time on my computer, and especially on Facebook, but have been rewarded 10 times over for that in reconnecting with old friends. Kindness is a given, intelligence and humor is key. Wallace and Gromit. Still hoping to write the Great American Novel, but a little concerned I may have to go on a bender to do it: I seem to do my best novel-writing while drinking. In fact, my "simpatico" friend, who is 13 years sober, has dared me to do just that. But first I need to do a better job of prioritizing the writing.... Obviously.


*******

* To understand my statement about Meredith Brooks' hit, you must read / know the lyrics:

"Bitch"
By Meredith Brooks

I hate the world today
You're so good to me
I know but I can't change
Tried to tell you
But you look at me like maybe
I'm an angel underneath
Innocent and sweet
Yesterday I cried
Must have been relieved to see
The softer side
I can understand how you'd be so confused
I don't envy you
I'm a little bit of everything
All rolled into one

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover
I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I'm your hell, I'm your dream
I'm nothing in between
You know you wouldn't want it any other way

So take me as I am
This may mean
You'll have to be a stronger man
Rest assured that
When I start to make you nervous
And I'm going to extremes
Tomorrow I will change
And today won't mean a thing

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover
I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I'm your hell, I'm your dream
I'm nothing in between
You know you wouldn't want it any other way

Just when you think, you got me figured out
The season's already changing
I think it's cool, you do what you do
And don't try to save me

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover
I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I'm your hell, I'm your dream
I'm nothing in between
You know you wouldn't want it any other way

I'm a bitch, I'm a tease
I'm a goddess on my knees
When you hurt, when you suffer
I'm your angel undercover
I've been numb, I'm revived
Can't say I'm not alive
You know I wouldn't want it any other way



Wednesday, June 5, 2013

In Defense of Facebook and Social Media

UPDATE: A version of this post also appeared on the Huffington Post website on June 5, 2013.

***

Social media is spending a lot of time getting beaten up lately. Expert after expert warns about "social isolation" and "fraying community ties" all due to too much time spent on "social media" and not enough time spent on "social connections".

In fact, I just googled "negatives of social media" and 3.22 million results came back within less than half a second. Of course, the concern is that social media allows people to feel like they are making "social connections" while never leaving their own homes. It allows people to abdicate their responsibilities to be a functioning member of society -- and not just functioning, but someone who takes on responsibilities, period.

For example, it used to be second nature that neighbors looked out for one another, and yes, knew each others' business even. If you think back to the dawn of telephones, there were no private lines at all, let alone private mobile lines, you had to speak on a "party line" at all times.

To take a liberty, there was no business, like your business. Privacy was a concept, but not always much of a reality. Certainly there were negatives to this situation as well, but the positives are well known: a sense of community, of shared responsibility, of looking out for one another, caring for one another, stepping up in a crisis to help, having one another's backs.

These are definitely wonderful attributes, and even critical attributes. Society as a whole cannot function if these attributes don't exist in some small amount on some small level. And the corollary is that society as a whole functions much better when these attributes exist in large amounts on all levels.

Just consider some of the recent big domestic news stories: tornadoes (repeatedly) causing death and destruction, three women rescued after a decade in captivity, bombing at the Boston Marathon, and more. All of them are large-scale tragedies that require not just large-scale responses of donations and support from across the country, but also small-scale responses of friends, family, and, yes, neighbors pitching in to help those affected.

In fact, in many news stories, it often comes to light that it was the a neighbor's involvement -- or lack of involvement -- that made all the difference. Clearly, community ties and a societal fabric matter a great deal.

For these reasons, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit and more receive such bad press. They are constantly hammered with accusations of increasing people's isolation, allowing people to choose not to participate, not to get involved, and not to, well, "be in other people's business."

And yet. And yet. Reddit users not only tried to "social medialize" the hunt for the Boston bomber, but immediately set up platforms to offer virtual "lost and founds" to help tornado victims recover precious belongings. Twitter "social medialized" sympathy, grief, shock by providing a platform to #PrayforOklahoma and be #BostonStrong. Facebook, meanwhile, straddled both forms of "social medializing" by providing pages for virtual lost and founds, as well as a community of support and sympathy.

For that matter, many people -- especially in younger generations -- report finding out about most breaking news via social media. I know that I almost always get more information more immediately by checking out a tidbit of news via Facebook and Twitter. Far faster than the television news -- even the 24 hour news channels -- can respond.

Granted, this opens up potential for serious errors -- reporting made too quickly to verify facts and information. Yet it also provides quick feedback on rapidly unfolding situations. Not to forget tragedies like the protests and crackdown in Turkey right now, where a news blackout in the country means only social media is capable of providing the gritty details on what is really happening on the inside.

Even more important though, is that social media does actually provide a community -- and not just an online one. It is easy to spend hours alone on one's computer or mobile device sifting through one's Facebook News Feed, for example. As a friend points out, it is an incredible time suck. Certainly I'm guilty of wasting hours in this way.

At the same time though, many of these social media platforms also provide a way to create what is first simply an online, virtual community, but what eventually becomes a real, in-person community.

For example, Facebook specifically has brought me closer to people. Thanks to being connected via Facebook, I have multiplied my friends -- real, not just perceived. I have visited with in person -- in many cases, repeatedly -- friends from decades ago that I would never have seen, spoken to, or been in touch with in any way, shape or form were it not for Facebook. I have made new friends with people who previously were merely acquaintances, work colleagues, or friends of friends.

Especially during my time living all by myself in my isolated mountain home, Murphy's Cabin, with limited connection to the grid, my occasional ability to be in touch with the outside world via Facebook made all the difference. I was no longer quite so alone, quite so isolated, quite so without a community. I had friends -- people who worried about me, paid attention to my business -- despite being, in many cases, thousands of miles away. Friends who were not just the wildlife that regularly strolled by my door.

We made a connection on Facebook, a connection that became a friendship. A connection that caused us to decide it was worth spending the time, effort and money to connect in the real world as well. And this is not just true for me.

Granted, I haven't done a scientific study, but in my anecdotal discussions with the hundreds of folks I know on Facebook, certainly the majority of those who are regularly active on Facebook report having made friends (or re-made friends) through Facebook with whom they followed through to a face-to-face meeting. Many of those meetings then led to an ongoing and enriching connection and friendship.

In the same way, but in a lesser, less deep manner, the virtual communities that spring up after tragedy via hashtags or News Feed postings offer an enriching connection as well: a way to express solidarity and sympathy -- yes, express community -- after such an awful event.

So, the critics be damned: certainly any form of "virtual" interaction can lead to more isolation not less -- more social fabric fraying, not less; more broken community ties, not less -- but not all the time. Many times, virtual interaction can lead to the exact opposite: less isolation, more social fabric, more community ties.

And in that, social media like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and more have an important role -- one which we should defend, not just attack. Let them "social medialize"!


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Knots and loose ends...

Sometimes it's hard to tell when or what or why or wherefore. It is almost always hard to understand when or what or why or wherefore....

Life has been, well, complicated lately. Heck -- it's been complicated for going on four years now. The truth is, life just is complicated. For all of us, a lot of the time.

We like to think that "at some point in the future", things will get easier, smoother, more understandable, less complicated. That "After all.... Tomorrow is another day" as Scarlett O'Hara so famously put it:



Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is easier, smoother, more understandable, less complicated. But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it gets harder, rougher, less understandable, more complicated. And sometimes it simply remains the same, flat-lined, no change. Neither easier nor harder.

Those times are usually the worst. Somehow, a seemingly unending landscape of nothing different is far more difficult to face than one that has hope -- or even despair -- at the end. Monotony is a killer; it strangles any thought of change. And you must believe in change to be able to have hope....

It might seem funny to say that remaining the same, flat-lined, monotony is so awful; that it's worse than things getting harder, rougher, less understandable, more complicated. Yet, at least for me, I can see hope still in challenge. I can see triumph in tribulations. I can see the mountains because of the valley I am in....

The Bible tells us:
And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation
worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope
maketh not ashamed; ...
From Romans 5:3-5
Granted, when you're in the midst of the valleys -- in the midst of the tribulations and woe and pain and hurt -- it's not exactly easy to look up and see the mountains, and certainly not easy to appreciate them. But they are there none-the-less.

It's why the unending landscape of nothing different is so much worse. For you end up with no valleys, and so no mountains. There is nothing to even try to force yourself to look up at; nothing to force yourself to appreciate after a while. It becomes ongoing, nonstop sameness.

You grasp at strings in the hope of pulling yourself out of the monotony of despair, only to find that the strings are tangled in a huge knot that seems impossible to undo. The "Gordian Knot" of life. It is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" as Winston Churchill put it about Russia back in 1939.

You find that you no longer know which string goes back to which problem; which problem is why you find yourself in this desolate landscape. So many things tied into one knot that because you can't tell which string is which any more, you have no idea why the end of one string makes you cry, because you don't even know what the beginning of that string is....

Nothing makes sense any more, nothing is logical, nothing is understandable. It is neither easier nor harder, smoother nor rougher, more understandable nor less understandable, less complicated nor more complicated. It just is. 

So you cry, or feel depressed, or wallow, and pick the best "excuse" among your strings as the reason, even if it may not have anything to do with it at all.... And this is because despair is better than monotony -- so having a reason to cry is better than staring blankly out a rain-streaked window at nothing.

It's why the knots and the loose ends are so awful. There's no end, no beginning, no Alpha, no Omega, no here, no there, nothing. It's just what seems like thousands of strings tied in thousands of knots, beginning with the one in your stomach.

Fortunately though, there is actually an end, though it never seems like it. [Much like driving through Kansas on I-70.] There is, eventually, a horizon. A horizon that can and will be reached. 

The truth is, Scarlett was right; as was Annie. The sun will come out tomorrow. But so was Henry Drummond in the brilliant play, Inherit the Wind, when he argues:
Then you interpret that the first day as recorded in the Book of Genesis could've been a day of indeterminate length.... It could've been 30 hours, could've been a week, could've been a month, could've been a year, could've been a hundred years, or it could've been 10 million years!!
So the knots, the loose ends, the desolate landscape will eventually come to an end. We don't know when it will happen or what will happen or why it will happen or wherefore it will happen (unfortunately), but it will happen.

And yes, it often takes figuring out one string from end to start, through the Gordian Knot of strings, problems, issues -- but just one is enough of a start.

And no, the end will not suddenly make life easier, smoother, more understandable, less complicated. But it will make it less hard, less rough, slightly more understandable, and slightly less complicated...

It will allow the sun to come out, so that you can face life -- and it's ups and downs, mountains and valleys -- with renewed energy. It will allow the sun to come out so you can see those mountains, see those valleys, and see that horizon right in front of you, beautifully highlighted by the fingers of golden light bathed in hues of brilliant colors...

So monotony and knots be damned, desolate landscape and nothingness be damned, I-70 in Kansas be damned. Grab a string and start pulling!





Thursday, May 30, 2013

A bit of poetry: Samples from University 3

So, since I have declared May my personal poetry month, I will be posting some of my "found" poetry throughout the month (I've written very little recently unfortunately).

You may read earlier posts on poetry here and here and here.

And, as usual.....

For your entertainment or potential edification, a few poems of mine from the early 1990s. Which, yes, means I was very young. Very young.

This poetry -- be forewarned -- is a sampling of some of my more "intense" writing.

*******


Nonexistence...
-- February 20, 1991

I grasp the shattered fragments of reality.
      - But are shattered fragments true?
      - Can bits of reality be reality?

I have lost my delusions.
      - I have lost my illusions.

My mind no longer wanders down the beaten path.
      - The path trod down by imagination
      - By the figments in my mind.

The plain is free, wide, open, expansive
      - There is no end
      - There is no beginning
      - Only space.

                  Space            Space

      - The heavens of infinite width, length
      - No point of return; for nothing exists.

Existence? Once I had the question formulated....
      - There was a worn grassy path.

......Dirt scattered and trampled weeds......

A grey stone - no markings; round, smooth
      - a marker; a marker to existence.

- I kicked the stone aside before.
      I wanted to uncover the truth.

There is no truth.

There is no longer a path.
There are no longer any paths.
They've all disappeared...raked over to fresh unmarked earth.

      I am lost again.
      In Nothing.
      In Space.

In my wide open expansive field. My mind roams, no sense, no direction. Only shattered bits of the stone as simple ironies. Mocking. Marking the nonexistent path...(to nowhere).


***

The Fly
-- February 21, 1991

I know an old woman who swallowed a fly
I don't know why
            she swallowed that fly.
I know a little girl who burned her arm
Why would she harm
            her own tender arm?
I don't know why
            she swallowed the fly.

                  The fly didn't do any harm
                  So why did she burn her arm?

            I don't know why.             I don't know why.
                        So stop asking me why.

                  The fly swatter was not to be found
                  So how else can a problem be got around?

I know an old woman who swallowed a fly
I don't know why
            she swallowed the fly.

      Physical pain is so much easier to solve and deal.
      A dab of neosporin, and a bandaid seal.


I know a little girl who burned her arm
Why would she harm
            her own tender arm?

      The emotional side of her was in shambles,
      Her heart nestled in the thick brambles.


I don't know why
            she swallowed the fly.

      Outside, the girl is the woman, strong and tall.
      Inside, the girl is the fly, trapped and small.


Why would she harm
            her own tender arm?

      The fear, the blackness, the other within her: so meek.
      Now there is a door, an opening, a small tiny leak....


I don't know why
            her own tender arm....



Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tragedies, Prayers, and What Really Matters

UPDATE: This post also appeared on the Huffington Post website on May 22, 2013.

***

Tragedies happen every day, whether here in the United States or across the world. The tragedies may be small (such as one person shot dead) or mid-sized (such as tens or hundreds killed in a plane crash) or they may be huge (such as thousands killed in a terrorist attack) -- but whatever their size, they are an awful and emotional situation for at least one family.

From the "outside", it can be difficult -- actually impossible -- to know exactly what to do. We watch, dumbfounded, and it's hard not to feel helpless; it's hard not to feel that we must do something. The question is, what?

The latest tragedy is the monster tornado that hit a small town just outside of Oklahoma on Monday, May 20, 2013.

I watched the horror unfold in Moore, Oklahoma, the way many of us do these days: via social media. As soon as I heard even the trickles of news, I immediately started (obsessively) checking Facebook, Twitter and "trending news" on Yahoo online. I got to a television as quickly as I could, and then couldn't stop watching -- my cell phone in one hand, so I could still monitor Facebook, Twitter and "trending news" on Yahoo online. One source was not enough.

I am not alone in being glued to the news when something awful happens. Perhaps its because we think the outcome will change if we watch; more likely it's because we cannot fathom the horror, and have to watch again and again, ad nauseam, in order to make it real to us.

It is so easy, in this age of incredible Hollywood special effects, to find reality impossible and unbelievable. It's funny, the more special effects become real, the more reality seems false. We watch a movie, thoroughly involved and suspending any disbelief, hooting and hollering at even the horrible scenes -- we watch the news, and stare slack-jawed in horror, mumbling, "It can't be, it can't be."

Tragedy is just that: incomprehensible. It leaves us dumbstruck, wringing our hands, certain we are useless. It is as if we can do nothing more than watch the news, out of some sense of "solidarity"; some sense that just by watching, we are helping -- we are ensuring the tragedy is not lost in the constant hum of nonstop information.

After all, far too many tragedies are lost, whether not covered at all or simply drowned out by the ongoing rush of stories or, self-centeredly, not in our own country. That in and of itself is a tragedy. Unfortunately though, the likelihood of that changing is slim: it is the "local" that we focus on, and the unfathomable that catches our attention; the unbelievable, the bewildering.
(In its special coverage on Tuesday, May 21st, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams opened the show by saying something to the effect of, "There is no place sadder or more destroyed than here tonight..." Ummmmm. With all the wars, famine, pestilence and such going on around the world -- you so sure of that Brian?
And it is the very unfathomableness, unbelievableness, bewilderingness, that leaves us feeling so helpless. We can give money -- and so many do and immediately did here -- but that still leaves us feeling unsatisfied, with the helplessness a bitter taste still in our mouths. It is why we reach for prayer -- even if we're not the praying type, and may not even know what that means. It is why the hashtag on Twitter for this incident quickly became "#PrayforOklahoma".

Yet just as quickly, the naysayers -- the nattering nabobs of negativity as U.S. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew put it -- jumped on the hashtag and on the people repeatedly using it, repeatedly saying "pray". Many huffed, "I hope you're actually praying, not just writing it." Many sniffed, "What does prayer have to do with it?" Many snarked, "If God couldn't stop the tornado, what makes you think He can help now?"

All I could think at the time -- all I can think now -- is, "Seriously??? Because prayer is somehow inappropriate right now? Now of all times?" As that's just it: even if one doesn't pray; even if one doesn't truly pray when you write that you are; even, for that matter, if you don't even mean it at all -- this is a case when the thought truly counts.

For (many of) those who are impacted by a tragedy, it can be comforting, meaningful, helpful, reassuring, heartwarming to know that others are praying for them -- even if they are not religious or people who pray themselves. From personal experience, it doesn't even matter if the prayers are not "sincere" -- as I am not going to judge another person's sincerity during these sorts of times. Whether it's just a word or actual spirituality, the point is that another person is thinking of you, is worrying about you, is wishing you the best.

And that matters. A lot.

So when something is incomprehensible, unfathomable, unbelievable, bewildering -- tragic -- do not hesitate to pray. Whether you know how to, or not: pray. Whether you truly do it, or not: pray. Whether you mean it, or not: pray. It will make a difference. Both to you, and to the people you are praying for: It will make a difference.

And that matters. A lot.


*******


Of course, you may (and should) also give money:
Red Cross: Text REDCROSS to 90999
Salvation Army: Text STORM to 80888
And find more options in this article here
.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A bit of poetry: Samples from University 2

So, since I have declared May my personal poetry month, I will be posting some of my "found" poetry throughout the month (I've written very little recently unfortunately).

You may read earlier posts on poetry here and here.

And, as usual.....

For your entertainment or potential edification, a few poems of mine from the early 1990s. Which, yes, means I was very young. Very young.

*******

Words
-- November 26, 1990

Words have always been so inadequate.
It is easy to forget, but true.
They can never express the real emotion,
or explain exactly what color's blue.

Usually words have the habit,
of just getting in the way.
They don't seem to accomplish much,
but to let people have their say.

They just trim the tree of life,
they never quite reach its core.
They can only make a study
of black on white -- nothing more.

I used to believe in the power
of the spoken word.
The magical influence it had
on everyone who heard.

Now I hold on to the one idea
that can keep me sane,
and will help me to accomplish
much, with my brain:

That words are not everything.
They don't make the sky blue,
or the simple birds sing,
But they let me say: I love you.

***

Something to Believe In
-- December 9, 1990

I need something to believe in,
I need something to have faith in,
And it's hard to remember
That it may not be what I want.

      The leaves are all gone,
      They are lying dirty and brown,
      On the cold, wet cement.
      The brisk air is forbidding,
      Yet the room is so alone.

I need something to believe in,
I need something to have faith in,
And it's hard to remember
That it may not be what I want.

      Relative truths are so unsure,
      They are often just fa├žades
      Of blatant lies or falsities.
      The truth is forbidding
      Yet the untruth is so cold.

I need something to believe in,
I need something to have faith in,
And it's hard to remember
That it may not be what I want.

      Absolute truths are ludicrous,
      There is no black and white
      Except on the objective paper.
      The conclusion is forbidding
      Yet the absolute is so distant.

I need something to believe in,
I need something to have faith in,
And it's hard to remember
That it may not be what I want.

      Inanimates are so solid,
      They are real and concrete,
      And can be held on to.
      The unreal is forbidding
      Yet the concrete is so removed.

I need something to believe in,
I need something to have faith in,
And it's hard to remember
That it may not be what I want.

      People are mostly variable,
      They change from time to time,
      As the seasons change.
      The changing is forbidding,
      Yet the solitaire is so empty.

I need something to believe in,
I need something to have faith in,
And it's hard to remember
That it may not be what I want.

      Love is very fickle,
      Its arrow strikes where it goes,
      And hits to the heart.
      The love is forbidding
      Yet unlove is so unfulfilling.

I need something to believe in,
I need something to have faith in,
And it's hard to remember
That it may not be what I want.

      The choices are innumerable,
      Knocking down my door,
      Clamoring to be believed in.
      The crowd is forbidding,
      Yet ignoring it is so unsteady.

I need something to believe in,
I need something to have faith in,
And it's hard to remember
That it may not be what I want.

      And so the search continues...



Manufactured Holidays

UPDATE: This post also appeared on the Huffington Post website on May 16, 2013.

***

This past Sunday was Mother's Day in the United States (it is celebrated in other countries, just on different days). It certainly is a lovely thought (according to Wikipedia):
Mother's Day in the United States is an annual holiday celebrated on the second Sunday in May. Mother's Day recognizes mothers, motherhood and maternal bonds in general, as well the positive contributions that they make to society. Although many Mother's Day celebrations world-wide have quite different origins and traditions, most have now been influenced by the more recent American tradition established by Anna Jarvis, who celebrated it for the first time in 1907, then campaigned to make it an official holiday. Previous attempts at establishing Mother's Day in the United States sought to promote peace by means of honoring mothers who had lost or were at risk of losing their sons to war.
Absolutely lovely sounding.... Sounding.

As the recent reality is that Mother's Day seems to have become nothing more than a commercialized, manufactured guilt fest -- as well as a peer pressure competitive guilt fest. It's all about how much you can spend to show how much you care -- as if money is the only measure of emotions; it's also all about how much you can talk up your mother as the best of all mothers in comparison to what someone else -- posts on Facebook.

(And yes, I am absolutely guilty of all of the above.)

In all that, it is not actually lovely. It's frustrating and annoying and depressing. And it's all that several -- and several more -- times over if you've lost your mother.

My mother, the artist Karen Laub-Novak, passed away on August 12, 2009. A week before my birthday, and two weeks before her own birthday. She lost to cancer, but the cancer never won: until the very end, her humor remained -- always one of her best characteristics.

It was her belief and humor that first turned me off to Mother's Day. While we would still acknowledge it, her attitude to me was that we did so, "because why not take advantage of an excuse to go out to dinner?" Not because she cared about it. She once snarked to me: "What? I need a day to remind me I'm a mother? As if the pain in the ass that you can be, doesn't remind me all the time? A day -- one single day out of 365 -- to thank me and show appreciation for all I do? As if I'm only a mother for one day, not on the other 364?"

That's just it. It's lovely to think about making a point of acknowledging mothers, but we should be doing that every day, not just when Hallmark -- or Congress -- says that we should. Just like every other "manufactured" holiday, such as Valentine's Day. We should be acknowledging our love every day, not just on one day.

So while I greatly appreciate all the friends who reached out to me on Mother's Day, I have to point out that I think of and miss my mother every day. If there are days that are especially hard, it is not when Hallmark says I should feel bad, it's when I do: my birthday and her birthday.

To be honest, Mother's Day is meaningless to me, representing (obviously, since I'm in the middle of a rant about it) nothing more than forced, false, money-purchased emotion, rather than the real thing. I am happy to acknowledge it and celebrate it for others, but I can't help but want to say (scream) "What? I need a day to remind me how important you are? A day -- one single day out of 365 -- to thank you and show appreciation for all you do? As if you're only important for one day, not on the other 364?"

So I try to spend every day thinking of and feeling grateful for the amazing people in my life. No, I don't send gifts to them every day or take them out to nice dinners every night or even talk to them every day -- or post on Facebook about them every day.

But I do try to think of them, to reflect upon what they mean to me and what they have done for me, and say some little murmured words of thanks. Nothing major or impressive or even Hallmark-worthy. Yet still worthy, vey worthy. The best part? How great I feel when I do this.

Try it. You'll like it.

Which means: know what these manufactured days are for in my mind? Beyond a reason to pull out my soap box yet again? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

And that is actually lovely sounding.



Monday, May 13, 2013

A bit of poetry: Samples from University

I missed the official poetry month, which is April, but as I recently seem to be repeatedly stumbling on old poetry of mine, I have decided that May will be my poetry month.

Today I came upon a very fat folder filled with what appears to be just pages and pages and pages of neatly typed up poetry I wrote a long time ago. All of the poetry would be prior to 1992, as I vaguely remember interning in the Vice President's office (yes, of the United States) and using the down time after the election loss to type up pages of hand-scrawled writings....

I had always assumed I had lost these writings, as there was no digital version, and I hadn't seen the folder in, well, decades. Apparently I did not.

So, for your entertainment or potential edification, a few poems of mine from the early 1990s. Which, yes, means I was very young. Very young.

*******

Life
-- December 10, 1990

Sometimes life seems so meaningless,
It comes and goes,
In an endless circle of continuing questions.
It never really reveals itself,
It remains hidden,
In the recesses of greater minds.

Sometimes life is so complicated,
It twists and turns
With neverending choices and problems.
It is always a different shade of grey,
Never black or white,
Only understood by the gurus on the mountaintop.

If life were an easy task,
So many wouldn't have died in the search.
So many wouldn't still be searching,
For the meaning of life.

Black and white without different shades,
Is boredom.
The complications, the confusions are the spice,
In an endless pot of variety.

Time will iron out some of the wrinkles,
But new ones will always be formed.
A smooth sea signals a monsoon;
Troubled waters can make the adventure.

***

Cold Fear....New Tomorrow
-- January 23, 1991

Cold fear
Tightening its steely claws
      - grasping my heart.

Hold dear
The songs of our yesterday
      - within your heart.

Gasp
Short breaths struggling to be free
      - releasing the pain.

Clasp
Near to you that which is.
      - forget the pain.

Yesterday
To remember but never regret
      - the loneliness.

Today
Is the future to erase
      - the loneliness.

Think
Of the love of a foreign heart.
      - near to you.

Drink
To the dreams of a new tomorrow
      - close to you.

***

Sleep

To sleep or not to sleep.
That is the question.
For it is not for nobler minds
To waste upon an afternoon's nap
But to be profitable -- to be awake.

To sleep perchance to dream.
Of a faraway place.
A land of exoticness
Where silence can be interesting
And the profit lies in the illusion.

To dream perhaps to dream.
Is it a love that never occurs.
An emotion too unreal to be felt
An insanity to believe in
But to profit the sane.

To dream perhaps of sleep.
Not of the darkened eyes
But the smoldering flames.
To lavish within another's arms
Profiting from another's love.

To dream, sleep
And to sleep, dream
The insanity of sanity
Which keeps the notion of love alive.

***