Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Tears She Shed to Save Me

My mother died in 1995, after 5-6 years of senile dementia. Had she lived, she would be 88 today.

The most painful period of my life was late in 1994, having to care for my mother alone while my father (usually her principal caregiver) was in the hospital, following quadruple bypass surgery. What giving care to someone in her condition means I won’t go into now—needless to say it involves odious tasks for which I was unprepared, tasks exacerbated by my father’s absence, which caused my mother further discombulation and helplessness.

My work situation and my father’s weakened condition after his surgery forced us to put my mother in a rest home, where she died almost a year later, at age 75.

Even before her final illness, my mother was a troubled woman. At an early age, I became an unwilling confidant as she raged against my father (he was cold, she said; he was cheating on her, she claimed; she would divorce him, she threatened, and then demand that I decide then and there which parent I would choose to stay with). When I tried to defend him or offer an alternative interpretation of the facts, she would fly into a rage against me, slapping me across the face with a belt buckle.

I was an only child, so I got the full force of her adoration at one moment and then the full force of her disappointment and disapproval the next.

Occasionally, fairly frequently, she threw away my birthday and Christmas presents a month after I received them. Once she had a puppy of mine put to sleep, informing me of her decision on a crowded bus, hoping the presence of other passengers would keep me from crying and embarrassing myself and her. I cried anyway. She said I wasn’t taking good care of the dog.

At the same time she exploited my compassion, taking me to pet shops to point out the cute animals in the store windows and complaining that, given the unreasonably high prices, the owners would be unable to sell them and would eventually kill them.

She told me about her past. She had lost the use of her right arm in a drunken automobile accident. All my life it hung limp and paralyzed at her side. She could not therefore pick me up when I was a baby.

One of her brothers had raped her, she said. Her own parents had never told her they loved her, she said, which was why, she said, she so compulsively told me she loved me (even in her dementia, she would repeat phrases like “You’re crazy, I love you”).

She had been a close friend of Hank Williams, she said. In his early career in Alabama, he would get so drunk she had to stand next to him to prop him up close to the microphone.

It was not unusual for me to find my mother alone and crying uncontrollably. In my teenage years I learned to cajole and play the fool to try to break her dark moods.

When we visited her brothers and sisters, my uncles and aunts, typically she got into a teary shouting match with one or all of them. She had little use for her older siblings, whom she felt abused by. And yet she liked to remark on how lonely I must be, as an only child, instilling self-pity, all the more because (I suspect) I was naturally cheerful and self-contained.

In the 1970s, right when I was struggling in private with my homosexuality, my mother joined forces with born-again entertainer Anita Bryant to rid Dade County of its protections for teachers and other county employees, regardless of their sexual orientations. She asked me point blank whether I was gay. I denied it. She said it was a good thing since if she ever found out that I was gay she would put a bullet through my head. Homosexuality equaled murder, in her mind.

It took another seven or so years for me to tell her the truth—and then I did it in a rage of my own, spurred by her heated insistence that AIDS was God’s judgment on the wicked. Irritated that I disagreed with her on this, she asked me again, “Are you gay?” “Yes,” I said. “Then you’re not a Christian!” she said. She literally spat out the words, while she burst into sobs.

To her credit, she eventually came around to accepting me as I am, even referring to Vince, my lover for some time, as her second son.

My mother loved me. I’m not sure she knew how to do this, but she often, maybe too often, repeated the words “I love you” to me. In her crying fits she would tell me that I was the only good thing God had ever given her. Growing up, I felt unworthy of the devotion and tears she spent on me. I was too much the center of her world, the sole justification for her sad existence. Her love for me was both miraculous and scary.

She never left my father, and my father never left her. They needed each other, whether they liked it or not. My friend Luis once remarked, wryly, that his parents had met in church and divorced, while my parents had met in a Miami bar and remained together until death did them part.

When she died, I sobbed uncontrollably—as I had on the crowded bus as a boy. Too heartbroken to be embarrassed by my lack of self-control. I cried because she was dead. Because she had never really had a happy life. Because I had been everything to her and had let her down over and over again. Because, in a way I had never anticipated that I would, I missed her.


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Getting Old

Today I find myself enjoying becoming an old man. Reading Wordsworth, puttering about the apartment, affectionately knuckling my dog’s bony ribs, eating rolled oats with butter.

It’s a good thing.

This morning I’m re-embracing my adolescent love of solitude and independence—not to be equated with isolation or social phobia.—but neither calculating how to adjust to current trends nor agonizing over how to build an identity of my own—not terribly concerned with preparing for my future or reading the beads of my past. I’m kind of settling in today to the self that I have built up for the past half century.

It’s comfortable—and just my size.

Last night I corresponded at length with an old friend from over 30 years ago and in the process discovered that I don’t miss my youth at all. It was, of course, fantastic while it lasted—if I wasted some hours of it along the way, and I did, I like to think I wasted very few. I had adventures, revelations, excitement, laughter, passion, friendship, and sex with precisely the people I wanted to—what more could I ask for?

This friend found me through Facebook, as have a few others recently. He knew me before I announced my homosexuality, back when I was in the closet, trying to sort some of the affections and affectations acquired secondhand in the preceding years, namely my evangelical Christian faith. He, on the other hand, has happily married, adopted two children, now grown, and built a career teaching religion at a midwestern seminary. He, too, seems at peace with his life, different from mine as it is. He wrote me a lengthy message. I wrote a long message back—celebrating my own memories and fondness for the time we spent together as friends back then, also speaking frankly, yet kindly, I hope, about how life has so far removed me from all that now. What his response to my message is, I have no idea.

So today I’m getting old, really getting it.

I’m not nostalgic. I’m both deeply in tune with my present situation—this now—and aware that all of this unfolded over decades—and continues to unfold—for how much longer? Less than the journey’s already been, that’s for sure.

Outside the cicadas sound their science-fictiony hum, in overlapping percussive waves, and my trousers tumble rhythmically in the dryer, zippers ticking erratically. The light in the venetian blinds is gray-green—autumn is coming. My toes are cold in thin socks. My cock strikes a different pose in my Polo Ralph Lauren briefs as the eroticism of my body, gray, palely age-spotted, and going to flab, becomes a conscious thought. I smell the salt of my skin.

I’m not becoming complacent. I hope not. I’m still well aware of the millions of things that need to be done to make the world a better place. I am not resigned to death—though today it doesn’t worry me. I can still imagine tomorrows that I would like to experience. I am not claiming any kind of wisdom here. This is not the end of the book—but it is a point where you can sort of see the end coming.

Friday, August 29, 2008



Do something special
Anything special
And you'll get better because
Come on and just do mimic
When you gotta gimmick
Take a look how different we are!
--lyrics, Stephen Sondheim (GYPSY, 1959)

The choice of Palin suggests that McCain saw the Obama and Clinton candidacies as only parlor tricks--which he has managed to mimic without the sense of magic ... or the substance.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bush Screws McCain

John McCain failed to beat George W. Bush’s sleaze machine in 2000 (when Karl Rove and the Bush camp spred the rumor around South Carolina that McCain’s adoptive Bangladesh daughter Bridget was in fact his biological daughter by a Black prostitute).

So he joined it.

Gradually over the last 7 or 8 years, McCain, once a self-professed straight-talking maverick, became the unofficial megaphone for the Bush White House’s trumped-up war in Iraq. He proudly claimed authorship of the 2007 “surge” of US troops in Iraq and long beat the drum for its neglected (or negligible) successes.

As a Presidential candidate, he repeatedly criticized his opponents (especially Democrat Barack Obama) even for thinking in terms of setting a timeline for pulling US troops out of Iraq, famously dubbing such a move as “legislating defeat.” In June of this year he appeared on The Today Show to say that withdrawing troops was “not too important.”

For some Americans, Iraq was one issue that gave McCain an advantage over Obama—expressing the hawkish sentiments that play well with a lot of the Home of the Brave.

So ageing fratboy Bush must not be able to stop himself from punking McCain, because yesterday the White House announced an agreement with Iraq to pull US troops from Iraq by 2011.

(Not that, in recent weeks, McCain hasn’t backtracked a bit on this issue himself. Just a month after his Today Show appearance, he stated that 16 months would be a “good timetable” for removing US forces from Iraq—this, six days after Iraq PM Nuri al-Maliki expressed support for Obama’s withdrawal plan—which was, um, to remove the troops within 16 months.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008


The one good thing you can say about ignorance is it offers freedom from confusion. And few Americans suffer from confusion about ethics.

Take the issue of evil, for instance.

Yesterday, my officemate Jim brought up the topic in response to minister Rick Warren’s questioning Obama and McCain about their views of evil. I didn’t see the program or the subsequent clip, but apparently Obama gave a long, nuanced explanation of his moral views. When asked what he thought should be done about evil, McCain simply responded, “Defeat it.”

Unlike my officemate, I think evil exists—in a sense. Suffering, deliberate cruelty, and hypocrisy are obvious examples of it.

But I admit it’s an abstraction—and a relative concept. Even suffering can have its good points—it may even be a necessity. Virtue depends on evil—defeat evil and there’s no more virtue either. The concepts are meaningful only in relation to each other—sort of like “cheap” and “expensive,” nonsense as absolute values.

In fact, I don’t think evil can be apprehended … or defeated. To the extent that it has reality, it’s a part of the world, an unpleasant fact we have to accept as part of existence and do our best not to contribute to it.

But I bet more Americans respect McCain’s answer than Obama’s. This is part of America's perception of itself as innocent—or, less flattering, naïve, even willfully ignorant.

McCain cannot really hope to defeat evil, any more than he could stop a tornado hurdling towards a bus full of children by charging it with a revolver. Not only Americans see the good-heartedness of such a gesture, but apparently only Americans fail to register its numbing stupidity.

And possibly its hypocrisy, too, since I’m convinced that McCain and his supporters would do all kinds of bad things—torture, falsify, kill—in the interest of defeating evil.

Thus, some of my fellow Americans find my nuanced moral viewpoint unnecessarily vague. Theirs is much neater and clear cut. No confusion whatsoever. Evil wears the black hat and rides the black horse. Evil is the dark-haired one with the scar. Shoot it. Defeat it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone (Blaise Pascal)

Sometimes I just have to get away from the music.

My appreciation of music (although I took college courses called Music Appreciation and History of Music) is limited—eclectic, occasionally ecstatic (I used to go into a trance on the dance floor—and I am still apt to lean forward and tap my toe during a classical concerto, in contrast to the staid reserve of season ticket holders), but still it is limited.

As a rule, I don’t surround myself with music—and the free iPod I got with my MacBook I gave away to a friend more likely to use and enjoy it.

I’m just as likely to soak in (and feel deeply) regular environmental noises as to play CDs or listen to the radio.

As I write this, the rain is hitting the branches outside my window. My dryer is whirring and rhythmically clunking with a load of bath towels. My dog is sniffing and licking his teeth. The neighbors are opening and shutting drawers. I hear my own breathing, and now and then hear (or just almost hear) the sound of my heart beating.

Lao Tzu says silence is a source of strength. Rarely do I experience real silence—absolute quiet is impossible, I guess, short of the grave. But moments of silence, fleeting and imperfect, can sometimes be (to speak prettily for a moment) lovely as melodies and bracing as drums.

Friday, August 15, 2008


This morning I had a sensation I haven’t felt since (I think) childhood.

Playing hooky from division meetings at work and recovering from something I shouldn’t have eaten yesterday afternoon, I was reading chapters out of several books, when I attempted and immediately succeeded in replicating the sense of a vibration under the skin—all around the body—almost like the feeling of the sun lightly and pleasantly on the skin, only in this case felt on the hidden side of the skin.

Physical (or almost physical), not imaginary (or, at least, not entirely imaginary), not exactly sexual, but exciting—like the feeling of excitement, a bright, clean feeling.

Hard to explain.

When I was in elementary school, I had this feeling when people borrowed something belonging to me—a pen or a pencil, say—and as they handled it or used it I would feel a bubbling sensation, as if (I imagined) they were somehow touching me—but it wasn’t that exactly, the sensation was all inside. Later, as an adult, I remembered the feeling, but thought it might have been a symptom of pre-adolescent pansexuality.

This morning, I was able to maintain the feeling while continuing to read and do various tasks around the apartment. I sense it even now as I write, to varying degrees.

It’s somewhere between a sense of temperature (hot/cold) and a different consciousness, perhaps a deeper than usual awareness of being—mindfulness or heightened presence in the senses.

I wonder how long I can keep this up.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tropic Thunder (a review)

I found myself smirking more often than laughing at Ben Stiller’s new movie Tropic Thunder, and I don’t mean that as damning faint praise—the film is satire, not comedy, so it doesn’t mainly divert and try to pander to an audience’s feelings like a traditional comedy. You have to think while watching this one—and try not to get your feelings hurt in the process.

The movie, cowritten by actors Stiller and Justin Theroux and writer Etan Cohen, focuses on the shooting of a war film in Vietnam—with evidently deliberate parallels to Apocalypse Now, Platoon, First Blood, and Born on the Fourth of July. But the film, like Altman’s The Player in 1992, aims higher—skewering not just Hollywood excess and superficiality but also the culture the movie industry represents in miniature. The title may or may not be meant to “rhyme” with Desert Storm, and the incompetence and venality of the movie people portrayed here can be equally tagged to Washington and any boardroom in America.

The movie’s edginess and unevenness stop the audience from ever feeling entirely relaxed. Like Pineapple Express, the movie has unexpected gore. It tramples on people’s sacred cows—already individuals have protested the frequent use of the word “retard,” but clearly they miss the point—all kinds of thin skin (about race, sexuality, drugs, children, not to forget the continuing raw nerve of Vietnam) have a moment on the hot seat.

The film involves an ensemble of actors—a technique usually more successful with US audiences on TV than in movies. It works here, I think.

Stiller, buffed up as an action star whose biggest hits are behind him, is great here in an over-the-top performance reminiscent of Zoolander. Jack Black is funny as a chubby comic actor struggling with heroin addiction, whose whole career has thus far been established on fart jokes. Brandon T. Jackson plays a hiphop artist making the crossover into action—brandishing a phony credibility of his own, while serving as a foil to Robert Downey Jr, playing an A-list Australian actor who has undergone pigmentation treatment to play a black character in the film within a film. In some respects, each character is a caricature of some other actor who is actually in the film or of aspects of the actor playing the character. Good sports, every one.

Tom Cruise plays a ruthless middle-aged studio exec, fixated on money and ego. Matthew McConaughey plays an agent, who hammers down details while missing the overall point. Nick Nolte plays the veteran GI whose bestselling memoir is the basis for the production. Steve Coogan plays an inept, first-time director. Jay Baruchel is the ingénu, a young actor getting his big break, who is better prepared and more professional than his costars.

It’s Downey and Cruise here who mainly worked for me. Downey gets across a sense of panic and world-weariness underlying his character’s polish. This is Downey’s year, it looks like—this film being a great follow-up to his triumph in Iron Man. Cruise seems to relish the opportunity to be an actor, rather than a celebrity/Scientologist. This film is a reminder to us than he can act and raises the question of why he doesn’t do so more often.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul. / And sings the tune / Without the words, / And never stops at all.*

I plan to vote for Obama in November. I have said this already, haven’t I?

That is, I do if he survives such scandals as popularity in Europe and a vacation in Hawaii (which, to judge from some commentators’ recent alarm, is no longer a part of the USA and may somehow be aligned with the Axis of Evil—clearly he should have paid his respects to China** as all good patriots must).

Ordinarily I would say that, Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t deeply matter which side gains the White House.

Both sides heel to the wishes of Fortune 500 corporations and pay only lip service to the social and ethical concerns the masses naively cling to, evidently only dimly aware that what’s good for Dow Jones is good (enough) for America.

On these social and ethical concerns, the public accepts the candidates’ differences on faith—not fully grasping that both McCain and Obama have all but identical views on most issues—the separation of church and state, the importance of mass media to American “culture” (i.e. collective unconsciousness), the death penalty, the Patriot Act, public education, global warming, same-sex marriage, illegal immigrants, and global free trade.***

So, in general, I agree with Gore Vidal, who states that America has only one political party, with two wings.

However …

No, much bigger: HOWEVER …

The last 8 years have seen what looks to me like a deliberate dismantling of American defense, social services, food and fuel supply, environment, and economy … along with the now five-decade trend to expand Presidential powers royally (i.e. to turn the position to that of a monarch elected by the Supreme Court).

The founding fathers’ principle of “balance of power” has been, for some time now, effectively dismantled—now it’s just a phrase you have to learn if you want to become a US citizen.

Who can offer the leadership for Americans to restore and replenish America’s defense, social services, food and fuel supply, environment, and economy? Who has the will to do so? Who could rescue civil liberties before they vanish from the nation?

Obama, I think.

Most definitely NOT McCain—the candidate (among both Republicans and Democrats) receiving the most support of special-interest lobbyists and (of the two front runners) the candidate less able to motivate a nation, inspire global support, control his temper and tongue, and (let’s speak frankly) walk steadily (in both physical and metaphorical senses).

Sure, I get the joke “Change You Can Imagine”—and I agree with its subtle point—a platform built on hope is just the foundation for a castle in the air. And I can’t swallow supporters’ positioning of Obama as some kind of holy man or even as the Great Black and White Hope either.

Still, if the possibility remains that America can be saved from its willful ignorance and worst instincts, it will have to be someone like Obama (or, already I hear hissing, Ralph Nader), who can imagine new directions for the nation to take and (here Obama outweighs Nader) can persuade Americans to do what it takes to repair the damages of the last 8 years …

Because …

No Dark Knight is going to fix things for us. The real billionaire playboys have no mandate to make society better for anyone but themselves. We the people are going to have to make hard decisions, set priorities among needs and issues too numerous to count, and make sacrifices for the good of each other, ourselves collectively as a nation. Bush’s plan to halt terrorism through shopping and vacationing was a plain and simple ruse.

Or have we become too accustomed to our powerlessness?

This morning I awoke to NPR. An elderly man whose old neighborhood is systematically being dismantled by developers (I’m aware of the oxymoron) pointed to a squirrel scampering across power lines and said that the squirrels used to have the ground to walk on, but they have adapted to change, and so must we.

NPR heard the old man’s words as a wise insight, an expression of “hope.”

I heard his words too as insightful, but as an expression of resignation—an acceptance of his own powerlessness to make things any different from what more powerful forces have already determined they should be.

Resignation is anything but hope. But it’s our only option if the greedy and the power-mad continue to whittle down American democracy through redefinition, jingoism, and evaporated funds.

Frankly, I think it may be too late for hope, but I’m still going to vote against resignation.

* Emily Dickinson

** This morning I experienced double waves of nausea. Waking to NPR, I heard not only the old man’s pitiful squirrel koan but also Juan Williams practically teary-eyed over the warm, enthusiastic reception the Chinese were giving Henry Kissinger and George H.W. Bush—too bad the welcome wagon I would have ordered had already thrown himself off the Drum Tower.

*** The differences appear in their views on Iraq, medical marijuana, the privatization of social security, and taxation of the wealthy.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Double Standard

A David Rees strip in the Aug 21 issue of Rolling Stone magazine deftly points up the double standard between Democrat and Republican—a character mentions that McCain criticizes Europe for hating America and then criticizes Obama for being loved in Europe, while, truth be told, if McCain could get 200,000 Europeans to cheer for one of his speeches, the right-wing media would be cumming in their pants. makes a corresponding point about Bush’s recent appearance at the Beijing Olympics, distractedly slapping his knee with a small American flag, noting that had Obama done the same thing … well, Fox News no doubt would be shouting for an apology, if not incarceration.

Republicans can do things the Democrats can’t (like kowtow to communist China the way Nixon and Bush have done, or slash benefits to military personnel as Reagan and both Bushes have done)—while even Democrats’ most remarkable accomplishments (Obama cheered in Europe, Kerry acting bravely and selflessly in Vietnam, Gore winning the Nobel Prize) get pissed on and derided.

Republicans like McCain, Dole, Giuliani, and Gingrich can complain about the collapse of marriage and family values till they are red in the face—and nobody dares to mention that they dumped their first wives—in a wheelchair, on her deathbed, in a string of affairs ending in a new divorce each time—and in McCain’s case remarried the very next month—while Hillary Clinton is suspect if she sticks by her husband after Monica-gate.

Four years ago I said that had Bush done the Howard Dean yell, Republicans would have patented it and sold it. I was right.

Republicans shit all over America and call it patriotism—and hardly anyone ever calls their bluff.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Shame Shame Shame

Former NC Senator John Edwards’ admission today that he had an affair with video director Rielle Hunter in 2006 is today’s news.

Expect more commentary on this affair in the days, weeks, perhaps months to come. It won’t be over until all parties show up on Oprah or Leno or The Real World to weep real tears before the public.

Let me just briefly express my sympathy for the Edwards family, Ms Hunter, and whoever else may be hurt or even inconvenienced by media maggots picking over this story till it is dry as bones. Take heart, folks, the silver lining is usually a fat book deal down the line, if not a major motion picture.

For a few moments here, though, count me as an unpaid freelance maggot, with few readers.

Rich, famous, and powerful men frequently cave in to the temptations available to alpha dogs. Whether these lapses get covered in the press or not, they are seldom if ever really newsworthy, and the amount and duration of the coverage have no bearing on their actual importance.

Infidelity is sad, sorry business. So is lying to the press—though arguably it’s worse to lie about the nuclear weapons capacity of a foreign power than to lie about what one’s doing with his privates.

The timing of Edwards’ confession is unfortunate—coinciding with (and probably obliterating forever from public consciousness) the urgently needed push for Congress to investigate and pass judgment on the unconstitutional behaviors of the present administration.

America loses its innocence year after year as each new scandal is treated as unprecedented and shocking.

Perhaps we crave the sensationalism because we think it wipes clean our own small failings to meet unrealistically high standards of behavior—it is for this hypocrisy, by the way, not for our purported permissiveness and license, that the rest of the world derides us Americans.

We "strain at a gnat and swallow a camel" (Matt. 23.24).

We are a nation of busybodies incapable of preserving its founding principles, which slip away while our enquiring minds peep through the drapes of the Beverly Hilton.

Your Call Is Important to Us

Dear friends, I am sick of it, so just stop. It’s bad enough I have to put up with this when I’m there, it’s work then, but for Christ’s sake why call me at home and do it? You know I can’t see over the phone, so I don’t know what you’re talking about half the time, and then you act all hurt because I sound bored. Well, yeah, I am. Sue me. Call me an asshole. When you ask, “What’s this?” or wonder aloud, “Well, that shouldn’t be there,” are you even talking to me? You say I don’t sound very interested, but, let’s put it this way, what the exact fuck are you trying to say? It sounds like you’re brushing your Bluetooth every time we talk, and every time I reply, I hear it echo back to me, only all distorted like I’m Stephen Hawking playing Batman. Am I on speaker? God, I miss the days of black bakelite phones with cords and rotary dials, when we didn’t spend half the conversation talking about the connection, which, no, frankly, is not good, but, hey, let’s spend an hour hearing our voices click on and off. Thought I just lost you. Or let’s just call each other up, tag-team style, leaving terse pissed-off voice mails and spend 25 minutes just to establish whose phone is fucked up worse. This is supposed to be cutting-edge 21st-century tech, yet it’s like adjusting the rabbit ears to improve reception on the Flintstones. Half my neighbors hold half their phone conversations outside in the parking lot. Zombies. It’s a fucking hazard. And could you, just for five minutes, put down whatever it is you’re doing, and focus on the conversation so we can get this the hell over with asap? Half the time you sound like you’re hacking through virgin jungle with a machete, only it turns out you’re just salting a lamb chop. If you (one) have nothing in particular to say and (two) are busy doing something else anyway and (three) can’t be bothered to narrow the scope of your attention—Good boy. That’s my dog. No! No! No!—to try to establish some actual communication with the person (me) you just speed-dialed, why the fuck should I pretend thrilled-ness at hearing your staticky, pulsating voice choosing between paper or plastic? You know I hate these things anyway. With pure Dorothy Parker-grade venom. For all the times I use them I’d be better off with a payphone in my apartment—even at 50 cents a pop I’d be paying tops $15 for all my local calls. And Verizon, Christ! for every six days I get a dial tone I have four without. Are you drinking? Are you drunk? Are you stoned? Fucks sake, man, fuck. No it’s me. Me. Fuck.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

How I Understand the Greeks

Philosophy is know-how. Practice, not preaching, is at its center. Philosophy is to seek the path towards who we want to be—through self-discipline, not through belief.

Wisdom is an idea. Philosophy is a way of life designed according to how we define that idea.

To claim to have achieved wisdom is unwise. To claim wisdom or goodness as an accomplishment or a received gift is a delusion. To be good means only to strive for what is best.

Becoming, not being.

Good intentions have value, whatever their outcomes, which may not turn out to be good—such are our limits as mortals. Good intentions are good because they imply that we are willing to act.

One should focus on good practice, living in the present, rather than on outcomes. To focus on good outcomes is to hope. Hope is a natural, often harmless impulse, but it has no moral value. Hope is magical thinking. In contrast, goodness and wisdom are matters of action and the practices we follow.

Hope is destructive when it blocks the willingness to act. In the conduct of our lives, excessive focus on hope stunts our progress, leads to self-deception, and justifies inaction.

The proper conduct of our lives requires us to focus on those practices that help us to become who we want to be.

Plato saw humanness as an accomplishment—through discipline, education, and exercise—not as a state of being. We are not born fully human. Discipline is to control or manage the self (or the soul). Education is to broaden the self by acquiring know-how. Exercise is to practice good conduct in life.

Plato taught mathematics and logical argument as two practices capable of transforming who we are. He also encouraged his students to contemplate death and the transcendence of the universe as a way to develop their humanity.

Plato’s main purpose was political, to transform society—through individual transformation—and he defined humanity in terms benefiting the transformation of society.

On the other hand, Aristotle reversed Plato’s direction—viewing the improvement of society as a way to improve the individuals within it. Aristotle evaluated politics according to how well it permits citizens to transform themselves.

Aristotle taught his students to analyze the world around them scientifically—to categorize and dissect—to experience their surroundings in a deeper, more exact way—to develop technology—in order to improve society.

Later, the Epicureans and Stoics established communities based on shared practices and life conduct. The Epicureans sought to control their desires and actions to achieve a consistently pleasant life. The Stoics sought to control their desires and actions to achieve harmony with nature. Like Plato and Aristotle before them, both philosophical schools sought the know-how to transform themselves to who they wanted to be.

Greek philosophy is separate from Greek religion, though of course both are culturally related. Philosophy involves ideas, but almost no mythology (narratives designed to explain or simplify cause and effect). Philosophy promotes practice and know-how, but not ritual and supernatural power. Philosophers contemplate death, but seldom concern themselves with an after-life.

Later, philosophy became the academic study of texts, rather than the practice of consciousness-expanding exercises. What Plato meant came to be more important than what Plato did. By the twentieth century, academic philosophy was more or less linguistics, not the practice of self-discipline and personal transformation in the conduct of one’s life.

According to Pierre Hadot, upon whose understanding of Greek philosophy mine is largely based, Christianity killed off classical philosophy by marketing itself as a substitute. Christianity combined philosophy and religion. It taught its followers how to conduct their lives and explained where the world came from and how it came to be the way it is now, as well as predicting its ultimate destiny.

Christianity is, then, a kind of supermarket for ideas, one-stop shopping for the mind. Also, unlike Greek religion or Greek philosophy, it is dogmatic—demanding belief (and a particular set of beliefs) in exchange for a one-size-fits-all life in eternity. Rather than attempting to improve life in the present, the goal of Christian transformation (rebirth) is to ensure good seats in the hereafter.

In time, what Jesus meant came to be more important than what Jesus said or did. The theology of Jesus as God has all but eclipsed the reported teachings of Jesus. (For instance, few Christian pastors teach or practice Jesus' instruction to give away all one's possessions to the poor ... or to turn the other cheek when attacked. Jesus may have been God but he said a lot of things that are apparently practically useless to modern Christians.)

For the Greek philosophers, good conduct makes us good people. Right practice is better than righteousness achieved.

Good conduct for Christians does not make us good or even better people, though it does please a potentially irate God.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

10 Movies That Should Be on DVD

The Window (1949)
—Truly scary boy-cries-wolf story about a habitual liar who thinks he witnesses a murder in his working-class tenement

Circus World (1964)
—Story of economic and familial hardships of touring circus life in Europe, featuring a thrilling sequence in which an ocean liner capsizes

Crack in the World (1965)
—Mix of special effects and stock footage portrays a reasonably plausible end of the world

Taking Off (1971)
—Episodic, offbeat tale about middle-aged parents who find their own liberation when their hippie daughter runs away from home

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)
—Technically flawed, but intriguing head game about reincarnation, set in the sex- and demon-obsessed 70s

Fellini’s Casanova (1976)
—Extravagant, elegant, pessimistic, and confrontational biopic that says goodbye to both free love and the golden age of Italian cinema

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
—Kathy Bates, Sandy Dennis, Cher, and Karen Black stuck together in a hot Texas roadside diner

L’Argent (1983)
—Quietly shocking depiction of the soul-killing effects of money and injustice, based on a short story by Tolstoy

Dreamchild (1985)
—Sympathetic and touching portrayal of author Lewis Carroll, but the real subjects are loneliness and the nature of ideal love

The Long Day Closes (1992)
—Nostalgic period film blending bubbly pop standards and dreary slice-of-life scenes of postwar England

Saturday, August 2, 2008

$14 Million

Value to People magazine of photos of Brad and Angelina’s newborn twins

Estimated street value of 7250 marijuana plants uprooted in Los Padres National Forest, California

Five-year salary for Aqib Talib to play football for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Amount of US Department of Energy’s grants to develop solar energy

Amount of NIH grants to Harvard researchers to study tuberculosis

Minimal cost of raiding polygamist compound in Texas

Winning bid for United Arab Emirates vanity license plate with simply the numeral “1” on it

Production budget of Brokeback Mountain (2005)

. . . . . . . . . . . .;jsessionid=2F92E5B3E0538A2D0AD1EF4065BFB28C?id=09000d5d80983dfe&template=with-video&confirm=true

Friday, August 1, 2008

It's Barack, Bitch!

McCain is proud of his campaign’s new anti-Obama ad that compares the Democratic presidential candidate to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

And perhaps he has good reason.

It’s the most effective jab yet against Obama—and whether its attempt to make Obama’s almost universal popularity into an Achilles’ heel will stick in voters’ minds remains to be seen.

It’s a charge—i.e. Obama’s celebrity is proof of his shallowness—that Obama may have difficulty refuting. What’s he going to say? “I am not well liked and admired around the world”? And to affirm his obvious appeal worldwide is going to sound like arrant egotism.

When Barack responded yesterday by stating that the much-publicized ad shows that his ascent to power is different in form and content from the usual Presidential career path, the Republicans gleefully pointed out that he is playing the race card and that sudden undeserved fame has gone to his head.

Now Barack Obama has to prove his humility. Checkmate. You can’t topple the guy face on, so you force the guy into self-deprecation. Let him do the work for you.

Of course, the obvious is that there is no such thing as the race card—at least no more so than there is a POW-in-Vietnam card. Facts are facts—and to criticize Obama for ever (albeit rarely) referring to his African heritage is to push American politics even further towards the abstract, the vague, and the make-believe, right where mainstream politicians like it.

And what candidate for the US presidency has not possessed a larger than average ego? Frankly, Obama has struck me as almost Gandhi-like in his balancing of celebrity and self-effacement.

If he’s managed to get the coolest rock stars on his bandwagon, is that really worse than boasting blood ties to European royalty (true, according to, of every US President to this day) or claiming, like Bush, that God has personally appointed him to be President?

So McCain seems to have hit on something here. If Obama is too famous to be President, perhaps next it can be charged that he is also too competent, too smart, too probably effective as a world leader?



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...