Saturday, November 18, 2017

On the necessity of our bastards

I have never been a fan of the gay, right-leaning columnist Andrew Sullivan, although I have read individual things he's written and agreed with him. This is one of them. It's a well-written, well-thought out, well-argued and ultimately disturbing examination of what it means to look past your own blinkers to seeing the timber in your own eye. I'm just as guilty, maybe even more so, as anyone else of counting myself on the right side of history (especially when I admit my liberalism is in some ways a distinct counter to William F. Buckley's definition of conservatism as "stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop").

Of course, it's possible to read Sullivan's column as his own attempt to place himself on the right side of history, since he made his name in the late 90s as a Clinton scold (having been himself, earlier, a Clinton advocate), and the whole both-siderisms of the 2010s leading to the current imbroglio of accusations, denouncements, Me Toos, apologies (and non-apologies) coming together in the wash to give us such an Interesting Time as the contemporary one. His essay was published the day after the accusation made against Al Franken but was obviously written before that, because he makes no mention of it, and it would have been an interesting spanner to throw in the work.

Be that as it may, even discounting every reason he gives for why he comes to the conclusion that he does--"No party, no cause, no struggle, however worthy, is ever free from evil. No earthly cause is entirely good. And to believe with absolute certainty that you are on 'the right side of history,' or on the right side of a battle between 'good and evil,' is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the 'good.' These compromises can start as minor and forgivable trade-offs; but they compound over time"--his conclusion is nonetheless correct. Considering yourself on the right side of history is dangerous precisely because it's so seductive, and because, like evil itself, it's the easy way. 

This is why it troubles me. I hold Trump and Roy Moore in utter contempt for their actions and their allies' easy way of denying, attacking, and ignoring their accusers. I am a little more forgiving of Bill Clinton and Al Franken's misbehaviors because both have since owned up and apologized (in Clinton's case, after far too long a period, during which I found lots of reasons why it couldn't have happened; and in Franken's case, immediately). If I look at these cases objectively, am I any different than the worst of Trump's and Moore's attack dogs?

I don't know. That seems too big a question for me to answer, maybe for anyone to answer. There are certainly important differences, and in my mind those differences lend favor to the Democratic perpetrators. But maybe that's what it means to live in Interesting Times, to have events demand responses that are just too big to try to answer then. 

As if in response, Sullivan writes "No party is immune from evil; no tribe has a monopoly of good. If these bipartisan sex-abuse revelations can begin to undermine the tribalism that so poisons our public life, to reveal that beneath the tribes, we are all flawed and human, they may not only be a long-overdue turning point for women. They may be a watershed for all of us." He is right about that. But there is another consideration.

And that's this. A major difference between the Republican and the Democratic responses is that one side denies that the events happened and that the accusers are in it for the fame, for money, or out of pure evil. The other side admits (maybe a bit later than we'd like) that they did happen and that the accusers have told the truth. There have been well-intentioned calls for Franken to prove Democrats are the more responsible party by stepping down from his seat. The rub in that, of course, that there's no demand by the other side that their offending member step down (although there are some who note that Moore should step aside, mostly to avoid controversy tainting the election). 

The thing here is that this is a purity test, a Shibboleth, that only one Party is party to. Democrats and liberals held their candidates to a purity test last year which is partly why we're in the situation we're in. The opposing side, for all its bluster, for all its talk of American and family values, is not going to withdraw itself from power or influence. To whom might Democrats prove they are more responsible? To future historians? To themselves? Because it is not to the other side, and certainly not to anyone who is somehow undecided between these two parties. 

I had a friend who was a realtor and he was my realtor in two house purchases back on the rim. He had a tendency to bend if not break the rules, to go back on promises he had made that weren't written down, and to find all kinds of reasons for the buyer or seller, whichever he was representing, to receive better deals (and inflate his commission). In one instance, on the morning of our signing, he negotiated the buyer to pay upfront costs, and then had the gall to demand an extra few thousand added to the already negotiated cost. He had talked with us about doing this the day before, saying, "If it works, you're ahead. If it doesn't work, you're out nothing." The buyers, who had already sold their previous home and needed the new place, accepted the new negotiation. We looked like bastards. My realtor friend is a bastard. But he was my bastard. He worked on my behalf. Bill Clinton and Al Franken may be a lot of things, but if they are bastards they are our bastards, and if we are going to admit we are on the right side of history--and a lot of things, from abolition to desegregation to women's rights to gay rights to trans~ rights, are unambiguously on the right side of history--then we need to keep our bastards. It is, as Sullivan suggests, a slippery slope, but sometimes the future requires that you slide rather than march into it.  

Sunday, November 12, 2017


It's fitting I write this post now, the weekend we observe Veteran's Day and nearly a week after the incredible wins by members of the transgender community to important local and state offices.

I was driving between patients when I received an email that we had a new admission to hospice. Nothing struck as different until I saw both that she was nearing the active phase of dying (yes, there is such a thing and it is different from the state we are normally in), and that, while a cousin was her Power of Attorney for Health, there was otherwise no family involvement. It's true some people prefer to die alone but everyone should have the option of dying with someone who cares.

I had a conference call and another patient scheduled for the afternoon, but as the other chaplain covering that area was conducting a funeral, I offered to reschedule the patient. The hospital was 90 minutes from my area, so I listened to my call while driving; my other patient was eager to reschedule as she was feeling ill.

Over the course of the call I found the new admission was transgender, probably the reason for lack of family involvement, and was dying from pneumonia and was MRSA positive. This means gowning and gloves both for our protection and other patients. She was still in the ICU when I arrived and was unresponsive until I sat beside her and touched her arm, at which point she jolted awake. She was bony and angular and her clavicle stood out above her hospital gown.

I explained who I was, touching my ID so she could read if she couldn't understand. She motioned for a wipeboard near her. She couldn't speak any longer. She asked if I could speak up. I said of course. I asked if she was afraid and she didn't respond or look my way, so I asked if she'd like to hold my hand. In response she put her large bony hand in my gloved one, which I then covered with my other hand.

That was the only time I was to see her conscious. She drifted off to sleep a few minutes later and I held hands with her until she twitched hers away. A short while later the nurses came to move her to another room, outside the ICU, and she fidgeted several times in what seemed discomfort rather than pain. I made plans with my family fellow chaplain to relieve me at 9.

Imagine then my surprise when a small woman walked into the room room and said hello. She turned out to be a friend of the patient who was called by the cousin. She had driven from work in Stevens Point, about an hour west, to sit with her for the night. I got her up to speed, contacted the rest of my team, and headed home.

The next morning I called her friend, with whom I'd exchanged numbers, and found her friend had lived through the night. But she hadn't regained consciousness and wasn't likely to. I arranged to relieve her at 1. But when I arrived she had been replaced by another friend who had brought with her a local minister. He agreed to provide a memorial for her. I offered to continue to sit with her but they wanted to remain beside her another few hours.

I sat in the hallway and made phone calls and emails. Eventually they left for food and some rest. I sat holding my patient's hand. I had found things about her in the meantime, that she had been dishonorably discharged from the Navy, she had served during Desert Storm, and had prized the jacket she retained. She had been married and divorced twice, and had done something that put her beyond the love of her siblings and children. There would be no sudden appearance by family.

When I sat with her this last time I told her she was surrounded by people who love her enough to be with her. There might be an afterlife and there might not. But there was nothing she could have done to put her beyond the love of what she might join after her death, God, The Eternal, the universe, whatever it might be. She was as worthy of love as anyone.

Her friend and the pastor returned at six and I made ready to go. Before leaving I held her hands again and repeated her worthiness. She squirmed a little, perhaps saying goodbye. I left while they sang to her. A few hours later I received an email that she had died with her friend at her side.

This is why I do what I do.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Me, too

I want to add my voice to the #MeToo movement (or potential movement), but not in the way of my women friends and my wife and a few men friends. No, I can't identify as someone who has been taken advantage of, but as someone on the other side.

My "Me Too" comrades are Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.

It's a hard thing for someone to admit, that he has been an asshole, pressing someone to have sex. But it's imperative in the Beloved Community that we own our mistakes and own them without pretense. I can't fathom the notion of Weinstein's "That was the culture" excuse, because really, even in the midst of the worst of the excesses of the last fifty years, if we were listening we could hear women telling us it wasn't the role they wanted in the revolution. In that culture there was a resistant strain of American machismo that allowed men to mouth changes for society but still left room for the worst forms of cocksmanship.

And I'll admit, I took part in that assumption of male power too. Why not, it often got me laid. Such acts are a giving in to the frailty of our egos and the humbling admission that what we think we deserve we really don't. I didn't have the influence of a Weinstein or Trump, but I was still a man and in this world that's often power enough. There are big holes in my memory, whole years, but I remember two instances when I pushed beyond acceptable flirtation to flat-out hands-on-the-body coercion, and while neither woman actually said "No"--both in fact ignored my clumsy pawing--their body language certainly did, and I plunged on as if it didn't matter. It didn't work in either case, by which I mean I didn't get laid, so there's that.

But I can't apologize personally to either of them because, no surprise, after we parted the next morning we never saw one another again. So if you're out there, I'm sorry I was an asshole. What happened wasn't your fault, but mine.

And this is why I can demand of a Weinstein and a Trump that their excuses, whether held up as excesses of the culture or of locker room talk, are limp and mealy-mouthed. Because there was a third instance. For whatever reason, although I hope it was a growing awareness what other people meant to me, this time I agonized over what I'd done, knowing even as I put hands on her it was wrong, and when I saw her again I apologized in public. In front of friends and strangers I owned responsibility and asked her forgiveness. She gave it and never contacted me again. I did the right thing.

It has to be done. Men who do this, women who do this, anyone who tries and succeeds or tries and fails to take advantage of someone through coercion or intimidation or reliance on being in a more powerful position, are responsible to make amends and apologize to the person they've tried it with. Understand, doing so isn't brave or cleansing. It is embarrassing and humbling, but it should be because what we've done is crossed the line that divides the playfulness of wooing and the seriousness of pressure. To do so, we know, is wrong, and as bad as we might feel in confessing it and asking forgiveness, we should feel worse for having done the act in the first place.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

God doesn't play favorites

If it's true, as Albert Einstein famously observed, that "God does not play dice with the universe"--and I would submit, so far as we can agree on what "God," "play," "dice," and "universe" means, that he was right--then it follows God does not play favorites either. That runs contrary to how we'd like to think it, that America is a chosen land, Americans are a chosen people, and American religious people like to think they are specifically, so far as this is the generation out of the millions and billions of previous generations, that will experience the Rapture, the End of Days, the Second Coming, the Tribulation, the Final Revelation, however we want to think of it, that they are the final, most glorious, most sunk in depravity and thus held highest by God. But it isn't so.

Neither the United States, or Christians, or American Christians--indeed, or Americans or Twenty-First Century peoples or Jews or converted Jews or Muslims or, well, or anyone you'd like to name--none of these are chosen or favorites. When it comes to natural disasters, we all drown or are dashed against rocks and trees exactly the same. When it comes to man-made disasters, we all crumble after being hit by bullets or have our organs ruptured from being trampled exactly the same. The only difference lies in that some of us experience this and some of us don't. But the ones who don't really have no cause to proclaim themselves somehow better than the ones who do, because when it's all said and done, no matter how it comes, death is something we all experience.

So does it mean anything when a middle-aged white man opts to take out whatever frustrations or psychoses or hatreds he may have by shooting at least 550 people, outright killing nearly 60 of them, with whatever combination of semiautomatic guns he could collect and spitting bullets like watermelon seeds into a crowd composed of, mostly, other white middle-aged Americans enjoying a type of music endemic to America while having its roots in African and Celtic sounds? It doesn't. And it does. 

When I say it doesn't matter I mean it doesn't matter that it happened in Las Vegas, Nevada, any more than when it happens in Myanmar or the Democratic Republic of Congo. It often seems as if massacres, the purposeful slaughter of large groups of people by other groups or individuals, is the default setting for humankind. That fact should give us pause.

But when I say it does matter what I mean is that any slaughter of people is reprehensible, and I suspect to God it is all populicide, the killing of people.

It matters too because in Las Vegas, Nevada, unlike in Myanmar or DRC where there are often great, sudden outbursts of violence, often by the authorities, there is no excuse for it happening.

This isn't another anti-gun or anti-weapon or even anti-Second Amendment diatribe. We've all heard those and we fall on one side or the other often depending on our use or non-use of those same weapons. What it is is an observation. As others have pointed out, Americans decided gun control was a non-issue when we decided (and we did decide, make no mistake, we decided as firmly as if we'd fired the shots ourselves) that 20 grade school children were a tolerable sacrifice to have greater access to guns than at any peaceful time in history. We will bury our dead, we will cry and lament over them, and then we will pretend to be shocked when it happens again, bigger, louder, with greater loss of life and perhaps with our own children or parents or cousins or friends among the dead. We will go on as if we have no more determination than the dice in Einstein's quote.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

"Simply being present"

The past month and change has been one of deaths, some personal, some better known, some metaphorical and emotional. Thus, this seems a perfect time to post this reading from Parker Palmer's A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.

When we sit with a dying person, we gain two critical insights into what it means to "be alone together." First, we realize that we must abandon the arrogance that often distorts our relationships--the arrogance of beleiving that we have the answer to the other person's problem. When we sit with a dying person, we understand that what is before us is not a "problem to be solved" but a mystery to be honored. As we find a way to stand respectfully on the edge of that mystery, we start to see that all of our relationships would be deepened if we could play the fixer role less frequently. 
Second, when we sit with a dying person, we realize that we must overcome the fear that often distorts our relationships--the fear that causes us to turn away when the other reveals something too vexing, painful, or ugly to bear. Death may be all of this and more. And yet we hold the dying person in our gaze, our hearts, our prayers, knowing that it would be disrespectful to avert our eyes, that the only gift we have to offer in this moment is our undivided attention.
When people sit with a dying person, they know that they are doing more than taking up space in the room. But if you ask them to describe what that "more" is, they have a hard time finding the right words. And when the words come, they are almost always some variant on "I was simply being present." 
We learn to "practice presence" when we sit with a dying person--to treat the space between us as sacred, to honor the soul and its destiny. Our honoring may be wordless or perhaps mediated by speech that the dying person cannot hear. Yet this honoring somehow keeps us connected as we bear witness to another's journey into the ultimate solitude. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

My John Ashbery Story

Lost in the bustle yesterday of both Labor Day weekend and Walter Becker's death (and that is tragic; I am a closet Steely Dan fan) was the death too of American poet John Ashbery. Ashbery is eulogized quite nicely by the New York Times but I want to add my memory too.

My friend Rick Robbins has a collection titled Famous Persons We Have Known and I've often thought about writing a book with just such a title. My John Ashbery story would be one of the best, in my opinion, because I've rarely met anyone as full of grace and politesse as John.

In the late-80s, between my divorce and last marriage, I spent a lot of time spooning with many, many people (sorry, none of them were famous), and one of them was Shelley. I've spoken a little of what's become of her since but she's not the focus here. Anyway, Shelley came from money and she knew a lot of moneyed people, most of them through her dad, a nutrition guru. One day she was driving me back from somewhere up north we'd gone, Vermont or the Adirondacks, and we passed through the town I'd grown up near, Hudson, New York, in those days just becoming a tourist mecca, and as we drove down Fairview Avenue, the main drag into town, she pointed at a pretty, older home  and said, "My friend John lives there. Let's go see him."

Now, keep in mind two things. While I had grown up near the town I knew almost nothing about it or the more well-heeled people who lived there. And that this was 12:30 at night and we had been drinking wine since probably 3 the afternoon before.

Shelley swung into the driveway--there was almost no traffic on the street--and we noisily got out of the car and giggled our way to the door, where she rang the bell. The bell's sound was mellifluous, less like a buzz summoning the host and more like a relaxed chime saying, "Hello, I've come to see you." A light came on in the hallway and the curtains covering the window on the door parted a bit to admit a white, questioning face, that became more questioning as it recognized who had rung the bell.

The door opened and John Ashbery asked, "Shelley? Is something wrong?" And she said quickly, "No, we just dropped by so I could introduce my friend Bobby to you." I was a dabbler in poetry then, writing some and reading more, and while I hadn't read any of his work, I had heard the name John Ashbery, so I knew if I'd heard it then it must have been a well-known name. We shook hands and he said, "Well, come in, please." He led us to a small cozy room that I could probably remember if I'd been more sober, but I was not. He offered us something to drink, and we wisely asked for water as we had at least an hour's drive ahead of us.

So the three of us sat there in his little sitting room in the town near where I'd grown up, the so-famous-I'd-heard-of-him poet, the drunk girl from money, and the drunker me who didn't need fame or money. The two of them carried the conversation, which was good, because it mostly revolved around Shelley's family and other wealthy people they knew, and my head was reeling at the recognition we'd just rung the doorbell of a famous person and waltzed in during the middle of the night when by rights we should be sleeping our drunks off and he should have been let alone. His water I can describe in detail: It was wet and cold, probably Poland Spring and doubtless kept cold in the refrigerator, and the glass, which was the same heavy, dull glass my parents had, sweated in my hand. It tasted lemony and clear, not like the water I'd grown up with around there. John asked me some polite questions--"What do you do? Where do you live? How do you know Shelley?"--none of which really had the sorts of answers I wished I could have told him.

But I mentioned his politesse and I can describe that, if not as completely as his glass of water, then nearly so. The word I would use about him was attentive. I felt as if he was completely there in the room with us, which again remember were two people who had invaded his home in the middle of the night for no better reason than an introduction. That he should be that way with Shelley, the daughter of a friend, didn't surprise me. But that I should be treated the same way did surprise me. I remember thinking, "This man is paying attention to me, an overfed, long-haired hippie who showed up on his doorstep out of nowhere to drink his water and take up his time, and who really has no claim on that time beyond sharing his sitting room for a little while." (This is in retrospect. I think I thought more in pictographs back then as I was rarely coherent enough for words.) I never felt, either, that I was being watched closely because of what I might do or break or steal--a sort of watching I was very familiar with in those days--but because this was how he sat with everyone. This attention I think came from his being at peace with himself and with the world, an impression that he knew what his place in life was and how he was to live it. I have since tried to emulate that peace, and if I have, it's a tribute to how well John Ashbery treated me.

After about 20 minutes, he said, "Well, if it's all right with you I would like to go to bed," which sounded from him less like an invitation to leave and more a straightforward telling us of his plans. I drank the rest of my water--Shelley had gulped hers down in a quick, impulsive way, the way she did everything--and we stood up and he walked us back to his porch and bade us goodnight. We got back in the car and drove the rest of the way talking about mundane things. At one point she asked, "What did you think of John?" and I said, "I liked him. I really liked him. He was a real human being."

Here is a poem by Ashbery. I like to pretend he might have written if he'd known what my meeting him had done for me.

"My Philosophy of Life"

Just when I thought there wasn't room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
call it a philosophy of life, if you will.Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude.I wouldn't be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I'd sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I'd stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him--not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between.He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle's Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on.Not a single idea emerges from it.It's enough
to disgust you with thought.But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read--it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone.

It's fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler.Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they'd do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again.Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought--
something's blocking it.Something I'm
not big enough to see over.Or maybe I'm frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise--I'll let
things be what they are, sort of.In the autumn I'll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won't be embarrassed by my friends' dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that's the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn't even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he's
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him--
this thing works both ways, you know. You can't always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time.That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don't know.
Still, there's a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That's what they're made for!Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don't come along every day. Look out!There's a big one... 

Friday, August 18, 2017

The liminal redemption of Donald Trump

I believe strongly in redemption, the idea that anyone can redeem himself or herself with the good of society no matter what evils he or she may have done. Anyone. This includes racists and Donald Trump.The things we do, little things that we may not think about, big things we give a lot of thought to, affect other people and radiate in ways we don't understand fully. We call such things liminal, the confusing, often unconscious transition point between acting and not acting, a doorway between "Someone should do something about that" and "I am someone."

Can this liminal redemption happen? I don't know, but the butterfly effect is real. It's given us the ends of the Soviet Union, American institutional slavery, and South African Apartheid. It's given us smaller, more personal things like the cousin who checks in to make certain you're okay, the employer who gives you a second chance, the busy driver who helps you cross the street. These small acts of compassion demonstrate our humanity. They are what we must do to build us up against those who would tear us down.