Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Giving...and those that take

Like every major city in the world, Boston has its share of homeless people and panhandlers. And my heart goes out to them. Sometimes I think, there but for the grace of God. Most of us don’t realize the thin line that exists between sanity and the insane, between the good-hearted and the criminal. I’ve seen that line. I’ve been pretty close to that line. I guess I’ve even crossed that line. So a little compassion comes easy for me.

I’ll reach into my pocket, and whatever I have in my pocket I’ll drop in their cup. Nickels, dimes, quarters, guitar picks. Whatever. This seems to embarrass a particular friend of mine. Or it insults him, I really don’t know. While I’m fishing around in my pocket, he’ll keep walking. And when I catch up he doesn’t comment. He just ignores the whole thing.

Another guy I used to know would lecture me that it was wrong to do it. “They’ll just use it to buy booze,” he’d admonish me. It turns out that at a later date in our lives he judged me just as harshly. Judge, jury, and hangman. I guess I had that one coming. Maybe they’ll buy booze; maybe they won’t. I don’t know about that. I know that what I’m giving them is more than a couple of quarters. For a split second or so I’m giving them some respect, some validation that they actually exist on this planet and that another human being noticed them, even if it is for the briefest of time. I look them in the eye and wish them luck. I don’t know if that’s enough; if it will or can get someone through a day, but it’s all I can do.

I guess we all do the best we can. As much as I’d like to help everyone I come across, I don’t have enough money in my bank account for myself, much less the poor I come in contact with every day. As much as we’d all like to help, we just don’t have it, and if for some twisted reason we decided to try to help someone full bore, we’d find that our resources would be drained pretty quickly and we’d be left with as little as the person we originally tried to help.

There are others who don’t drain us of money, but of our emotional reserves. There are people who are just as empty of emotion and feeling as the homeless are of currency. I’ve had the unlucky fate of having had one or two people like this in my life. They’re hard to spot. They present just like everyone else. But they need so much, so much more than we can possibly give, and when we do give attention or energy or even our love and lives to them we don’t see the balance sheet going in the red like we would in our checkbook. They can take everything we’ve got, and when there’s nothing left to give they discard us as they would an empty bottle by the roadside. And if we ask for something in return, they just give us a blank look, because they don’t know how to give, only how to take. It’s survival for them, pure and simple. A selfishness bred from never having had love or tenderness in their lives, most likely when they were children. They are empty inside, devoid of any sense of self, of themselves, of who they are, so they take our sense of ourselves. It's like emotional identity theft. This borderline behavior is as insidious as a vampire’s, and leaves us for dead, as empty as they are.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ya gotta watch the left as much as you watch the right

I learned a long time ago that you have to watch the left as much as you watch the right.

A few years ago I was married to a woman whose sister is a radical lesbian feminist. Once, we visited her and stayed at her house for I think it was for about a week and a half or so. While we were there just as a normal course of the day her friends would stop by for visits, and as you would think they were mostly lesbians. And, as things go, sometimes she’d mention this person or that one, and once I asked if we were going to meet a particular person. Well, we wouldn’t because this person wouldn’t come into the house because I was there. Because I was a man.

Oh, I thought.

And this is what I figured: If her friend wouldn’t have come into her house because I was black or some other person of color, if I had been a Jew, or if they had any other reason like my country of origin or my age, the liberal feminist lesbian would have been all over her like a tall dog. But because I was a man, it was ok.

And that’s wrong.

That’s when I learned that the most liberal people in the world have a lot in common with their conservative counterparts. None of us, no matter how open we think we are, are immune to hate and prejudice.

I understand that politics is how we get things done in our world. But the problem is, as soon as you politicize an issue, there is the danger of polarization. AIDS becomes a gay issue. Domestic violence a woman’s issue. Crime in urban areas is seen as a black issue. These problems cease being human issues, about all of us, men, women, black, white, Jews, Christian, Muslim. Until we see things on human terms, we’ll always fight amongst ourselves.

What to hope for?

This morning at 6:30 my daughter’s friend’s father was having a biopsy on a tumor doctors found in his brain. He had had an “episode”—I love these descriptive medical terms—before Christmas, and they supposed he had had a stroke since nothing showed on a CAT scan. Suddenly, it seems, this tumor appeared.

My friend’s roommate now lies in Mass General, his left side paralyzed after having a massive stroke three weeks ago.

In October, Sue was in San Francisco and called me to ask the name of a restaurant my best friend from high school owned. I quickly Googled the name so I could give her directions. That’s how I learned he had died of cancer three years ago.

No great words of wisdom today. Just feeling a little fragile. And wondering, hoping…well, I’m not quite sure what I’m hoping for.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Today's commuter story

I had ten minutes to pay for parking, walk to the platform, and catch a train. You pay by shoving money--in this case, four dollars--into a slot in a big metal box that has slots that correspond to each parking space.

A man came up to me. I'm used to this. The parking and train situation is a bit confusing, and everyone from the town of Framingham to the MBTA haven't gone out of their way to explain it. So people are always stopping others to ask questions. But today this man wanted to know if I had jumper cables. His car wouldn't start.

"It's a new car," he said, "and I don't know why it won't start."

He pointed in a general direction, but I didn't see anything that looked like a new car. Maybe he bought it used, but it was new to him. I felt bad for him. I wish I could have helped him out. We've all been in tight spots, where things aren't going right, and a helpful hand is always a relief. I would have liked to have been that relief to that man.

I thought for a second, then said, "No, sorry." I could feel his letdown, so I said, "I know they open at 8:00," pointing to the gas station across street.

"They do?"

"Yeah. Good luck," I said, and headed to the train platform.

The thing is, I do have jumper cables. I just didn't have time to help him and catch my train at the same time. It's only later I wished I had just reached inside the truck and given him my cables. Are you thinking that that is going too far in helping a stranger?

No, you see, those cables were given to me by, well, I don't know who she was; she wasn't a girlfriend. I'm still not sure what she was, but she gave them to me for a Christmas present, and the moment she handed them to me I realized they were an obligation present. You know the kind: One not given from the heart, but given only out of a social obligation. Her manner, her faked concern that it was the wrong gift told everything. And I remember sitting on the floor of her living room feigning delight, but inside knowing she couldn't have cared less. Just one more way she lied. Some might say the cables were even Freudian, an attempt to jumpstart a dead relationship. Or a symbol of the dead relationship itself. But I don't think so. Frankly, I don't have use for symbols in my life any more, Freudian or otherwise.

I've thrown away everything she ever gave me. It's the most cleansing feeling in the world, so freeing to purge the things associated with a person who caused so much pain in your life and was cruel for no other reason except for her own selfishness. To destroy not all memory because that is impossible, but as much rememberance as I can. To strain and push back time to a point where she wasn't in my life. When these things didn't exist, when I did not own them, or they me.

But this morning I realized I still had one more thing she had given me: the jumper cables shoved and forgotten behind the seat of my truck. It would have meant nothing to me to give them to that stranded man this morning, no more than it meant to that woman on that Christmas morning. And my action might have changed a bad memory into a good one. My action could have made two people feel better--the stranger and me. But I wasn't thinking. Like that woman, I was too intent on my own selfishness to do anything good or kind. And I missed my chance.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Well, I guess ya gotta make a living...

...but Joan Jett shilling for Cadillac? That hurts, man. It really hurts.

Man, what was the Pilgrims' problem?

It is freakin’ cold today in Boston. Right now it’s nine degrees Fahrenheit, up seven degrees from when I got up this morning. And my question is this: When the Pilgrims landed here in New England, why didn’t they turn around, get back on their boat, and go south?

The weather here sucks big time. There is no spring to speak of. It’s usually cold until the middle of June when it suddenly gets hot and sticky. The summers are either rainy or hot and muggy, depending on the weather gods. Fall is gorgeous, to die for, but then you got winter, which usually extends well into May.

So what was the problem with the Pilgrims? They had the boat. Obviously they knew navigation and geography so they must have known that they if they just turned around and hung a right they’d be in warmer climes in no time. What was it? Were they simply masochists and said, “This hurts; give us more”? Or did something go down on the boat that we just don’t know about? Maybe one of them suggested the very thing I am saying right now, and a bunch of them said, “No way. We're not getting back on that boat. Not after what happened. We don’t care how bad it is here. Nothing’s worse than that boat.”

Maybe that’s why today New England isn’t in Florida.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A month after Christmas

A full month after Christmas, my tree is still up. It sits on the window seat in my kitchen, fading, dropping needles. It's like the backpack that sits out long after you've returned from a trip, getting in the way and getting moved from couch to floor back to couch again, and it would be the simplest thing to put it away but for some reason it never gets done. Then one day, inexplicitly, you pick it up like it's nothing and throw it up on the shelf in the closet and it's gone. That's when you realize the weight the backpack had on your mind, because now it's not the backpack that's gone, but the weight.

When someone remarked about it the other day, the fact that my Christmas tree is still up at this point in the year, I said, "Yeah? So?" The tree will come down when something inside me tells me to do it, and not until then.

The Road to Ensenada

Listen to your heart that beats
And follow it with both your feet
And as you walk and as you breathe
You ain't no friend of me
You ain't no friend of me
You ain't no friend of me

Lyle Lovett’s haunting lyrics broke through the fog in my head this morning while I was waking up. It’s a hard lesson to learn, to know who your friends are. And it’s an even harder act to deal with people who you thought were your friends, people who told you they were your friends and you believed them. Who knows: maybe they really believed it themselves. Maybe they didn’t mean to lie; they couldn’t help themselves. Maybe they needed a friend themselves.

It’s not an easy thing, for me at least, to write people off. Some people can discard people as easily as taking out the garbage. Like they’re throwing garbage overboard, off a boat. Never look back, and the person sinks beneath the waves and under the water forever while the other person blithely and happily sails on their merry way. I can’t do that.

But we have to protect ourselves. There’s no such thing as a friend who doesn’t want something in return. A friendship is a selfish thing.

I think friends are like lovers, and the best ones not only make us better people, but together two friends can make the world a better place. In the same way a quarterback leads a receiver with a pass, throwing the ball not to where the receiver is at the time of the release of ball, but where the receiver will be when the ball arrives, friends—real friends—take us where we want to be. Where we should be. Where we were born to be.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Two commuting stories

It was one of those mornings. No matter that I gave myself plenty of time to get ready, I was still racing around because I simply am horrible at time management. An extra cup of coffee, a little something to eat, take the dog out, spend a little time with Sue before we both got shot out of the cannon called daily life. When I was tearing across the orchard I noticed the clock in the truck said 7:45 which means it really was 7:40, and I was trying to make the 8:00 train. I did make it in time to board the train waiting on the platform in Framingham. I found a seat, pulled out my book, then reached into my back pocket for my wallet where I keep my train pass. The little plastic card wasn't in my wallet. I knew where it was: it was in the pocket of the shirt I wore yesterday, which was lying on the floor of my closet where I threw it when I got home. To top it off, the fare is $6.25, and all I had was a five and a one. I looked at my watch and realized I didn’t have time to get off the train and go to the bank. I didn’t know what else to do, so I looked for a conductor and threw myself at his mercy. I explained the situation, telling him all I had was the six bucks. He mumbled for me to take a seat. When he came to collect tickets and I handed him the six dollars I had, he said, "I thought you said you had a pass," and I said I did but not on me. “Just make sure you have it tomorrow,” he said, and moved on. I settled back with American Fuji, feeling a little less pressured thanks to the sympathy of the conductor, who could actually have made my life pretty miserable at that point.

While this was going on, Sue was having her own little commute from hell. After the conductor told me to sit down, I called Sue to see if she was still at the apartment and could check to make sure the pass actually was in my shirt pocket. At $210.00 a month, the pass is something that I like to know I won’t have to replace. She, however, was on Summer Street, stuck behind a man driving a car with the trunk filled with boxes and going, according to Sue’s speedometer, 12 mph. Sue had to be in court in Barnstable on Cape Cod at 9:30, an hour and a half away, and this guy seemed hell-bent on making sure she wasn’t going to make it. We’ve all driven behind a joker like this. We’re in a hurry, life’s pressures are encroaching, and the person we’re following is aware of that fact and passive/aggressively controls the situation and the people around them by impeding them. Yeah, maybe Sue was driving a little close to his bumper, but who wouldn’t at 12 mph? And, as a line of cars grew and crept along behind this guy, instead of pulling over and letting people pass by, he hit his brakes and drove even slower.

It’s not about you and your low self-esteem, mister. It isn’t about you having to cry out to the world, “I’m a human being, too, damnit, and I want to be noticed.” It’s about you being a controlling jerk and selfish to other’s lives around you. Get over yourself.

Two people having a tough time getting to work. In the first case, someone had the power to make someone's life just a little easier, and chose to do that. In the second, someone took the selfish choice.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

John Prine take me home

I can feel the craziness already. I can feel it in my bones.

The 2008 Democratic presidential candidates are all setting up in the gates, and for all intents and purposes the bell has sounded and the most ludicrous joke of a horse race in our country has commenced. And they’re off.

And in my case, music most definitely soothes the savage beast. In this case, I reached for John Prine and his namesake album, CD, whatever from 1971. Prine is a poet and a troubadour who writes songs so simple they’re complex, then sings them in a twang that’s reminiscent of my homeland. He sings about the people that all of these politicians are going to woo, but I’ll guarantee don’t know the first thing about. He sings about the kind of people I grew up with, in a voice that sounds like home to me, and that’s why I know these politicians don’t understand the heartland because when I listen to them they sound insulting and a little stupid, to tell the truth.

Last time I checked my bankroll, it was getting thin//Sometimes it seems like the bottom/Is the only place I been. That’s taken from Illegal Smile, Prine’s tribute to the lower classes who need to escape from time to time.

And what man can’t identify with: Well I sat there at that table/And I acted real naïve/For I knew that topless lady/Had something up her sleeve. The singer eventually blows up his TV and moves to the country with his exotic girlfriend.

In Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore Prine sings: And Jesus don’t like killing no matter what the reason for. That’s perty plain, now ain’t it?

Prine’s beautiful, haunting Angel From Montgomery, could have been my house and my father when he sings: How the hell can a person/Go to work in the morning/And come home in the evening/With nothing to say?

When things start to get crazy the best thing to do is go back to your roots.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The suburb's dirty little secret

There’s a big story in the news today that there was a huge marijuana bust in a quiet suburb in southern New Hampshire. It seems the pot farmers bought up a bunch of houses in New Hampshire and Massachusetts to cover up their operation in quiet neighborhoods. This bust took in enough plants that would have been worth $42 million on the street.

Who would have bought all this pot?

It’s one of the suburb’s many dark secrets that a lot of those nice, middle-class folk can’t get through the day without a toke. They need it like the Leave It To Beaver Generation needed a martini (or two or three) handed to them at the door by June after a hard day at the office. Pot is the drug of choice for all of those aging boomers at the end of the day, for those stay-at-home moms when the kids have gone off to school, and to cut loose with their friends on a Friday night.

I’ve always wondered what would happen if legalization actually got on the ballot. Would these middle-age, middle-class stoners vote with their hearts or their heads? Here’s the answer. If they turn their kids on to it and if they smoke it out in the open in their homes they’d vote yes. If it’s their dirty little secret they’ll keep it that way.

Friday, January 19, 2007

There always will be fear

I know this is going to sound a little weird, but hang with me. Okay?

I got this dog, okay? Now wait! I told you this was weird; just hear me out, that’s all I’m asking.

So, I got this dog, right? And like all dogs, he can’t see colors. But just because he can’t see colors doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Of course they exist, right? You and I can see them everywhere. His species just isn’t advanced enough to see them. Give dogs thousands of more years, eons, I don’t, whatever it takes for dogs to advance enough to see colors—or maybe more since they’ll have to stop a lot to pee on everything—give them enough time to trot down the old evolutionary pathway and eventually they’ll sniff their way to colors. Right now they’re Cro-Magnon dogs. But with a little luck and some Darwinian hocus-pocus maybe someday they’ll be Homo sapien dogs, capable of seeing colors, owning credit cards, and forming governments. So, my question to you is this: What if we’re the same way? You and me. People. What if there are things, just things, anything, like colors are to dogs, that we can’t see because we’re not advanced enough as a species to see them?

Okay, let’s take it a bit farther. Let’s say you’re a guy and I’m a guy and I see you coming down the street, unaware, happy, and defenseless? Maybe you are in love, and you’re thinking of your sweetheart and how you’re going to see her tonight. And what if, then, I grab you and drag you into an alley and start hitting you? What if I make my hand into a fist and punch you as hard as I could, right dead center in your face and break your nose, and then I hit you some more, harder and harder again and again so I blacken both your eyes and knock out your front teeth and break your jaw and make your ears bleed? And what if when you fall down from me beating you, I start kicking you, in the ribs, in the stomach, wherever I can reach you? And what if I keep going? What if I pick up a garbage can and empty it all over you. And when it’s empty, I throw it at you, and hit you in the head with it, knocking you out?

What if I did all that to you?

First, you would feel pain. Lots and lots of real physical pain, and probably for quite a while the pain would be a large part of your life. And because of the injuries I inflicted on you, you wouldn’t be able to eat, or smile, or talk or walk or move for a long time without being in pain. But you would heal, sort of, eventually. You wouldn’t look the same, though. Your nose would be bent, your teeth capped, scars would line and pucker the skin on your face. Maybe you could never smile quite right again—it might be slightly crooked, one side never really working because of damage to the nerve. Maybe you’d have an underlying, nagging pain in your hip every time it was going to rain. Or maybe you would be numb, and not feel the way you did before you encountered me. And you would be very leery about walking down the street alone, maybe for the rest of your life.

But thankfully, for this, I could be arrested and put in jail so I would be separated and not able to do this again to someone else, and I would be labeled a thug and a criminal because this is something we, this advanced species that we are that can see colors, have said we can’t do to each other simply because we are indeed an advanced, civilized species.

Now what about this. What if you’re a woman and I’m a man and you see me walking down the street. And let’s say you noticed I was a little down, a little depressed and so you smile at me to cheer me up. And then I smile back at you. And then maybe we started talking, just small talk, and found it was enjoyable, and one was enjoyable to the other. And maybe one night, a kiss was stolen, and then another and another. And at some point you told me you loved me and never wanted to leave me. And you told me I was the handsomest man in the world. That you’ve never met anyone like me. That you’ve waited all your life for me. And what if I believed you all of this? What if all of this was as real to me as the color red?

And what if you wrote me pages and pages of love letters, single-spaced, double-sided, no cross outs, and called me your love, and your darling, and your soul mate, how you wanted to walk with me hand in hand together for the rest of your life, and you sent these letters to me at my office so my wife wouldn’t see them, and saying all of that again and more in email, like what you think and feel when I’m with you?

And because of all of the things you said and did, for all that, I completely changed my life. I quit my job, left my family, moved to another city, and spent all my money to be with you, tens of thousands of dollars.

And what if, after me believing you, what if suddenly, for no apparent reason, you took away everything you had said and done. What if you strung me along for months, knowing how I felt about you and you not feeling the same but just continuing on. You’d mete out a little affection here and there. Just enough to keep me alive. But my soul, if you could have seen it, would have been just skin and bones. My heart barely beating.

What would happen? What would I be like?

You know what I’d be like. You would know because there’s a very good chance something like this has happened to you. Maybe not to this extreme, but something like this has happened to just about all of us. Every one of us has been beaten up emotionally, sometimes very severely. Every one of us has had someone treat us as if we were nothing more than garbage. Something that once was something good, then something to be thrown away.

Friends would tell me to forget about you, just like that, as if nothing ever happened. They would say, move on. Be a man. But you, you reader, you know I couldn’t. Because somewhere, some part of us we can’t see right now would look just like the way I left your physical body in that alley: hurt, broken, covered with garbage, left for dead. I would be feeling real physical pain, as much as you felt after the beating I gave you. I would barely be able to move. And I might heal, sort of, eventually. But I wouldn’t be the same. I wouldn’t be able to love the way I did. Or trust. Or feel. There are things that I might not ever be able to feel again. I’d never believe again. And there always would be fear.

But even though we can feel real physical pain and all the signs tell us that indeed there is something there that has been badly if not mortally injured, this is not deemed a crime because we can’t see physical damage of the assault. We still can’t see the part that got hurt just like a dog can’t see color. But just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean there isn't something there, some real piece of us, that got mortally wounded.

You would not be arrested for cruelty and brutality. You would not be considered a thug or a criminal. You would be allowed to wander among your fellow creatures and do this again and again and again. And there is a very good chance that you would continue to do this again and again, because just like the common criminal lives to commit crimes, beating people up emotionally is what you live to do.

I’m wondering if eons from now and with a little Darwinian hocus-pocus, if there will be a world where dogs can see colors, we’ll finally be able to see this part of us, and the likes of you would be deemed the criminal and thug that you are, and punished accordingly?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

When a man turns fifty...

The idea for this post came to me as I was approaching my fiftieth birthday. Oh, I groaned to myself, I’m getting old. You can’t help thinking that as you approach your half-century mark. No matter how many times you tell yourself that you’re only as old as you feel or that age is just a state of mind, there’s no getting around it, the years are creeping up imperceptibly. No matter how much I didn’t want to admit it, the signs were all there: the failing eyesight, the creakiness in the limbs upon rising in the morning, the helpfulness of a nap in the afternoon.

It’s worth noting some dialogue from Ernest Thompson’s endearing play, On Golden Pond, when Norman, who is turning eighty, and Ethel, his wife of forty-six years, both sense their mortality. Ethel has just told Norman about a couple she met in the woods that has invited them over for dinner.

They’re a nice middle-aged couple. Just like us.

If they’re just like us they’re not middle-aged.

Of course they are.

Middle age means the middle, Ethel. The middle of life. People don’t live to be 150.

We’re at the far edge of middle age. That’s all.

Well, there you are. While I wasn’t verging on eighty, there’s still no denying it: Fifty is getting up there. People don’t live to be one-hundred either, or most of us don’t. So I’m coming up on the far edge of middle age, too.

Still, to some grand, aged people, fifty is just short of being a whippersnapper. And it’s not like I look that old. While I have friends whose hair turned salt-and-pepper in their thirties, my temples are just beginning to turn gray. People tell me, shocked when they learn my age, that I don’t’ look older than say, thirty-seven. Looking almost fifteen years younger is something. Chalk that up to good genes. When I was in my teens and twenties and loathed my boyish looks, I was told that someday I would treasure my youthfulness. Those people were right.

Nor do I act that old, either. I think that’s one key to staying young. When people learn my age and seem a bit uncomfortable, as if they were in the presence of some freakish Dorian Gray, I try to lighten things up by telling them that the secret to looking young is to just act like a juvenile delinquent. But, I do prefer the company and conversation of younger people. Once I was at a neighborhood party standing with a group of men—all of us the same age but for some reason they looked so much older than me—and they were discussing the importance of using fresh gasoline in their lawn mowers. I remember thinking to myself, God, please take me now. Much more intriguing to me are the moral discussion of teenagers who are so intent on sorting out right from wrong and black from white, or the wonderings of a child intent on choosing his or her favorite color (this is more important than we realize!) or wonder why the ocean just doesn’t drain into the ground. Sometimes I think these are better questions to ask presidential candidates than the ones fielded by today’s candidates. “Mr. President,” I wish the pundits and good-looking television reporters would ask, “can you please explain why the ocean doesn’t just get soaked up by the ground, and if you can’t, what gives you the idea that you know anything about foreign policy?”

So, I’m getting old. Well, older, and I began wondering when I’d start displaying some of that wisdom for which older folks are known. It hit me then, that if it was going to happen—and I emphasize the word, if— if I was going to turn into a wise old man, it wouldn’t happen overnight. It would be a gradual process. There would be a general grouping of experiences that merge into knowledge that eventually would coalesce into wisdom. Given that, I surmised that some of this wisdom should already be present, and so I began jotting down things that I’ve learned in my life. I was looking for real knowledge about life that came from my own experiences, not clichés or notions that could be boiled down to a bumper sticker. I was looking for the kind of wisdom I could impart to a grandchild sitting on my knee, or one of my daughters, grown and married, talking to me long-distance about her life.

Just so you don’t get the idea that I’m so full of myself, a lot of what I’ve learned throughout my life didn’t come about because I think I’m so smart. A lot of what I know came through mistakes. Big mistakes. Trial and error is a great learning tool that maybe we should begin utilizing in our schools.

I have to admit that the thought crossed my mind that perhaps what I began writing down—thoughts, notions, values, lessons learned—was pure drivel. Who would care, I asked myself, what some schmo could have learned in his paltry, uneventful life that would be worth anything to anyone? I think that’s a trap that we all fall into. I think we depend so much on the so-called experts in the world, that we have lost sight of the fact that we—everyday people who get up every morning, make a cup of coffee, and take it from there—know a heck of lot more than we’re ever given credit for.

We depend on experts to tell us how to raise our kids, our dogs, and our flowers. After we watch the president give a speech, or watch a major event in the world unfold in the news, there are always experts, many times men in a very expensive suits and nice hairdos, “analyzing” what we just saw and heard with our own eyes and ears. It’s as if the network executives think we are the most dim-witted lot they’ve ever run across. Do they honestly think that we are incapable of not only understanding complex issues, but also drawing our own conclusions? Nothing could be further from the truth, and for the life of me I don’t understand why we continue to let this go on.

When you think about it, there seems to be an expert for just about every aspect of our lives. My goodness, we even have so-called experts to tell us how to decorate our houses and cook a Thanksgiving turkey!

And sometimes the so-called experts are so dead wrong that their actions have catastrophic results. For a time I served as a speechwriter for the president of a mid-size computer company. The company was doing very well and had quite a bit of money in the bank. So the executives decided that maybe they should use the savings to make the company even more successful, including making some acquisitions of other companies. Good idea, so far.

Now, speechwriters, if allowed, will pretty much act like their client’s bartender, barber, and therapist, and at times I found myself sitting in the president’s office just listening. And what I heard made my eyes bug out. One transaction sticks out in my mind. The company was going to purchase another company worth eleven million dollars for fifteen million dollars. Everything was above board; I’m not accusing anyone of any shady dealings, but already you’re asking yourself why would anyone pay three million dollars more for anything, much less a company? You wouldn’t pay more for anything—a car, a suit, a candy bar. What’s the adage of buying stock?—Buy low and sell high? You don’t have to have an MBA from Harvard to figure this out. Long story short, a year later after a string of other decisions, the company was going down with all four engines on fire. There were massive layoffs of people who had performed their jobs beautifully but were no longer needed, and the executives—the same ones who made the catastrophic decisions in the first place—stayed on to continue running what was left of the company. This is a story that’s been played out time and time across the United States. The experts, the people in charge, did nothing illegal, unless defying the laws of common sense constitutes a crime.

But one wonders what would happen if the leaders of our country or our large corporations asked the everyday person on the street what he or she knew or would do about what was facing the country or the competition. Or you wonder what the chairman of the board of the likes of General Motors or IBM would learn if they went down to the assembly lines and shipping docks of their companies. Maybe nothing, or maybe it would be earth-shattering. The point is they don’t do it because many people in charge think they are in charge for the same reason the medieval kings thought they were rulers: Many think their positions came through divine right. Our egos are incredibly seductive, aren’t they?

We do see some politicians make a stab out of running around their constituents’ backyards, eating common food in diners, walking door-to-door soliciting votes, but most of the time it’s just for the television cameras. The only politician who I can think of in the past twenty years who really did that was the former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil. The third most powerful politician in the country would go back to his old neighborhood in East Cambridge, Massachusetts and talk and listen. And he was voted repeatedly back in office, serving in the House of Representatives for 33 years.

I also think we are way too enamored with the rich and the famous, and more dangerously, the semi-famous or popular. We assume there is nothing in our everyday, humdrum lives that could possibly compare to the experiences of a Paris Hilton or a Donald Trump. We look at our neighbors and friends and think, if so and so is so smart, how come they’re not rich, as if the amount of money a person has acquired has anything to do with intelligence, and nothing to do with say, ethics, experience, morals, or common sense.

At times like this I think of my mother. Mom was the original day-care provider. When my sister and I hit our teen years and didn’t need all of her attention, she started babysitting other people’s kids. Times were tough for the family and raising kids was the one thing she felt she knew how to do, although there were plenty of other talents she had, she just didn’t realize it. Professional women started using Mom to take care of their kids during the day. And these professional, college-educated, successful women started seeing how Mom handled their kids, and at times I remember them asking her advice. So here was Mom, with her eighth-grade education, advising these other mothers with the knowledge and wisdom she had gained through her life. They saw Mom as an everyday expert based on her everyday experiences, and I defy anyone to say that she, or the millions of other loving parents in the world, can’t be considered experts in raising kids. I use to tell her she should write a book on raising kids, and she’d just laugh and smile.

And of course, anyone who goes through the Catholic school system knows that nuns have a way of hammering dictums into the supple minds of their young charges, and I was no different. Forty- some years later I can still hear a nun saying to me that there is a reason why God made me a person and not a chair. I’m not sure which commandment I had broken at that particular moment, but the outcome has stuck with me this long. Open your mouth. Speak up. Speak out. Do something. Don’t just sit there.

A lot of us have forgotten that we all are unique and therefore has experiences and knowledge and wisdom that no else can claim. Don’t we have some sort of responsibility to pass that along? It’s a stretch, but it’s like that business about how a butterfly alighting on a flower can ultimately cause an earthquake. What if one of us actually has knowledge that might actually affect the outcome of something important. That “something important” could be a historical event with worldwide ramifications, or a human being kept out of trouble.

I have worked as both a columnist writing about the exploits of being a father and a contributor on the op/ed page of the MetroWest Daily News since 1990. In both jobs there were times when I wondered just who the heck I thought I was to have the audacity to think I actually had anything to say to people about subjects ranging from politics to the weather. And, on occasion, I probably was completely justified in wondering that. But there were times when I’d get one or two calls or emails from people who said something to the effect of, “I’ve thought about that, too” or “Thanks for writing.” As human beings, that business about not being an island is true. We have shared experiences. Actually reaching out to one another, even if it’s only to one or two others, is something that, personally, I believe is a responsibility we all carry.

So, I’m a middle-aged man, or rather, a man on the far edge of middle age, who has both won and lost at love, had it easier than some and harder than others, been lucky at times, been successful at work and hit bottom and had to start all over. I’ve had dreams come true and some just fizzle. I’ve experienced the joys of my two daughters, and the grief of burying both my parents within the span of three years. Because of my Catholic upbringing, the practice of which I’ve since discarded, I stubbornly insist on the inherent good in all people despite what my eyes tell me almost daily. I believe in a Creator, simply because I see no proof otherwise. Those are just the highlights. Simple logic tells you if I have half a brain I had to learn something through all that.

I would urge anyone to do what I did. Sit down and write down everything you know. Take stock. See what you got in your brain and in your heart. It’s no different than taking stock in any other possessions; you’d be surprised to know what you have, how wealthy you really are. If that’s all I’ve done for you, well, frankly, I’d say that’s enough. You can stop reading here.
But if you’re interested in the shared experience of our lives, read on. The following is what I’ve learned so far in my lifetime. There are no guarantees here. I just happen to believe there is a reason God made me a person, and not a chair.

Most people are just doing the best they can.

Believe what people do, not what they say. People will tell you anything, but actions cannot lie.

Ninety percent of the population is waiting for the other ten to tell them what to do. You might as well be part of that ten percent.

You never know how you’ll react in an extreme situation until you’re in it. You’ll hear people say that they’d never do something—break the law, cheat on a spouse, run from an accident—but the best we can say is, “If I’m ever in that situation I hope this is what I’ll do.”

Just because a dog can’t see colors doesn’t mean that color doesn’t exist. In the same way, there may be other dimensions, other worlds, and our senses just aren’t developed enough to detect them…yet.

People will tell you, “it’s never too late,” but sometimes it is too late. You can only go back so far in time. Things—people, relationships, situations—change. Seize the moment. Seize the day. Don’t put off. Say you’re sorry. Climb that mountain. Take that trip.

Misery loves company, and I’ve never been able to understand why. It seems to me that if someone suffered, that person should do everything he or she can to ensure no one suffers the same way. But people aren’t like that. If they walked two miles in the snow, then you should, too.

You will have days or even longer stretches that will absolutely stink.

Every day do three things: Do something for yourself, someone else, and the world.

If you don’t treat yourself well, why should you expect it from anyone else? Respect starts with self-respect. Once you respect yourself, you’ll demand it of others.

Work to live, and not the other way around.

Most people can’t stand their jobs. Blessed are those who like their work.

We basically trade our time—our lives, really—for a salary. Figure out how much money you make a year, and that’s what your life is worth to your employer.

Business is not war. It’s business, and anyone who tells you differently is an idiot with some sort of Napoleonic complex.

Sometimes you’ll meet people who scare or intimidate you. Most people you’ll meet aren’t as tough as they want you to think they are. If they really were as tough as they thought, they’d be mercenaries in a war zone. However, if they really are mercenaries, look out.

Encourage your spouse in his or her passions. They might even leave for a while. But if you don’t, they will leave for good.

Partners should laugh together. It’s a serious warning sign when you cease seeing things together as being funny.

Opposites may attract, but there has to be something in common to make the attraction last.

Dreams can come true. Just don’t give up hope.

Read the New York Times every day for a year. After the year you’ll be a different person than when you started.

Our society puts way too much emphasis on a formal education. Travel and experience are better educators than any school. But you need school to fill in the blanks.

It really always does come down to money. That’s the way our society is set up. But wouldn’t it have been nice if another standard had been chosen? Think of where we’d be today if a person’s health or education were more important than the hospital’s or university’s bottom line.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We put way too much emphasis on success to the point where people are afraid to fail. But sometimes failure has a way of putting us on a different track, or getting us to look at a problem or life from a perspective that we never thought of before. Mistakes and failure as just part of the process.

Good leaders also know how to follow, and they should never give an order that they wouldn’t do themselves.

Success in life comes from knowing what you want. Living is like sitting next to river and watching stuff float by. Only by knowing what you want will you know when something important floats by, and you should swim out for it..

Don’t give up your idealism, even though people will tell you to grow up. Once you’ve dropped your vision of what life or the world should be, you’ve pretty much resigned yourself to the status quo.

Everything is top-down. Whoever is at the top sets the tone, whether it’s the president of the United States, the head of a corporation, or the leader of any small group.

Don’t be afraid to play dumb. Our natural inclination is to show others how smart we are. That’s ego at work. But if you act as if you don’t know something, people sometimes will tell you more than they intended. You can learn a lot by acting like you don’t know anything.

Even by saying you don’t believe in God is acknowledging that God exists. The simple act of denying something is saying that you believe it exists.

To believe that the world was built in seven days or not believe in the fossil record is denying the Creator’s greatness. To reduce the universe to terms that a common person can understand is reducing creation’s beauty. There is nothing wrong with saying, “We don’t understand.”

To say you hate gay people or Jews or black people or any other human on earth is as ridiculous as saying you hate trees. The Creator made everything. Ours isn’t to judge. Ours is to marvel.

Prayer works. Don’t ask me how, but it does.

The Western world has done remarkable things with technology, but at the expense of our spiritual side. Remarkable is the person or the culture or even the product that can meld both technology with the spirit.

The only real sin in world is to try to become the very best person the Creator intended you to be. It’s a sin to not use your talents to their fullest.

Our very survival depends on qualities like hope, love, and kindness in the true Darwinian sense. Just as the polar bear developed its heavy coat to protect it from the snow, so have we developed personality characteristics that will ensure our survival. We are the only species capable (and sometimes it seem, intent) of destroying ourselves. Without these qualities to temper aggression, we’d surely destroy ourselves.

Give your teenager every opportunity to say, “No.” Can I help you? Can I take you and your friends to the mall? Do you want to have dinner? It gives them the control they’re looking for in their lives, but lets them know you’re still there if they need you.

Kids don’t have the right to privacy. Look through their rooms when they’re not there. Read their journals. Eavesdrop. You’re the parent, you have the right to know what they’re doing and if they’re in trouble. You’d be shirking your duties as a parent if you didn’t do otherwise.

No one’s parents were perfect and we all blame them for their mistakes, sometimes justifiably so. But eventually it reaches a point where you can’t keep blaming your parents and you have to take responsibility for yourself.

Every person alive wanted something from his or her parent that the parent wasn’t capable of doing or giving.

No one knows you like your mother. This isn’t to say she knows you best, just like no one else.

And no one can hurt you like your kids.

Teach your kids how to live by living your own life. In the “olden days” if the parents played golf or sailed a boat, the kids usually followed suit by becoming golfers or sailors. Somehow this got turned around.

Sometimes the sin isn’t in the sin, but not trying to fix it afterwards.

It goes completely against our nature, but learn to forgive.

Hate eats the hater alive, not the hated.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Quiz: Is this a Democrat or a Republican?

I keep saying you can’t tell the Democrats from the Republicans anymore. Freshman State Rep Pam Richardson, in the Commonwealth of Taxachusetts who has a “D” listed after her name, filed a bill in the Legislature to combat the underground economy. The UE comprises people who are paid cash under the table and don’t pay tax on the income. Around this neck of the woods in Massachusetts, that’s code for the Brazilians who work for landscapers and contractors, but let’s not drag this down into the mud and turn it into a racial issue. It’s not, although it would be an easy crack to make that Richardson’s wealthier and whiter Northside constituents are coming down on their poorer and browner Southside neighbors. But we know there are assorted contractors and the like who live on that side of Framingham who surely take a payment or two under the table. It’s really a class issue, once more highlighting the growing gulf between those that have it, and those that don’t.

It’s just a little funny to see a Democrat trying to take money from a worker’s pocket. It used to be Democrats understood the working man and woman’s plight and did whatever they could so people could hang on to what little they had. Outside her district, there are a lot of people who are really struggling and do whatever they can to make ends meet. I mean, by many standards, I make a pretty good wage even as a lowly writer, but I still have to do a little work on the side and I still don't always make ends meet. (Note to Rep. Richardson: I do pay taxes on my freelance work.) Maybe instead of trying to take money, it might be more helpful if Richardson would either a) use her brain and influence to help people earn a better living, and b) use the aforementioned characteristics to reduce the reasons for the underground economy. Here are just a few suggestions.

Work on making housing affordable. Forget the cost of a house, has anyone looked at the cost of renting an apartment lately? Rent can be more than a mortgage, and that's without utiliites.

How about focusing on public safety? This goes hand-in-hand with housing. Funny how it works, but the most affordable housing tends to be situated in the most unsafe part of town.

How about working on the cost of commuting to our jobs? Can we get a break on car insurance in this state? Or how about more, meaning better and cheaper, public transportation? Train fares just went up, so to get to my job in Boston I take three hundred bucks right off the top of my monthly income just to park and ride the train. It’s still cheaper than driving and parking in Boston, but just so you know, I didn’t get a raise to cover this.

Richardson’s background is all in education. That cute picture on her Web site shows a couple of kids. Does she know what the cost of education is? I’m not talking college. Wait until one of those kids wants to plays sports in school. Or needs a calculator the size of an IBM computer for algebra. These are the sorts of things that keep working parents up nights.

How about tax reform? Or at least better use of our taxes. People really hate to see their taxes wasted. Richardson’s answer to solving the UE is to put together an 11-member task force. Billed to the taxpayer’s, I’m supposing. Let me get this straight: She’s spending our money to figure out how to take even more? Nah, she’s not going to last. In four years she’ll be out of a job without a steady paycheck, and then maybe even Richardson will be working under the table.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Running with Scissors

Alice says that you need more than tea at the end of a day. With a horse-laugh and a wink, and a feathering adjustment to some internal throttle to rest her wings, she then says with a grin that splits her face as wide as an open book that what you need is Scotch.

Alice is the bantam book-loving head of the bookstore at the Centerville Public Library on Cape Cod. At 76, Alice runs the couple of rooms down in the basement of the library with equal parts efficiency and unrestrained enthusiasm, keeping the till in a Glenfiddich tin on the little desk by the door. Blatant promotion, she calls it. At 76, she has stopped time as if on a page of one of the books she sorts. In her twenties she could have been a WAVE or a WAC, though WAC would have been the more fitting profession for Alice. She recalls a time when real living required a certain extra something from a person, whether that something was humor or tenderness or style and grace or a kind of bravery that could, if one wasn’t careful, lead to remorse and regret.

Books in the library bookstore are all donated, and hardbacks are sold for one dollar while paperbacks are fifty cents. Sue introduced me to Alice. Sue loves books and I love books, too. The thing is, we don’t have a lot of money for books. The thing is, Sue and I don’t have a lot of money period. So Sue and I go through the bookstore with a budget of say five dollars, totally up our choices, ruthlessly culling our pick. Wait, I have a copy of The Idiot, you can read mine, and look, the pages of this collection of Conrad’s short stories are printed in columns to save paper, should we get it? We do this while Alice yells across the way, wondering if we’ve read this or that. That day, The Idiot still made the cut, while Conrad’s gimmickry was left on the shelf.

She told us about Running with Scissors, the crazy, twisted memoir by Augusten Burroughs. It chronicles Burrough’s growing up gay with a bi-polar mother and living with her psychiatrist’s family to whom he was handed off while his mother’s life disintegrated. It is graphic and at times definitely X-rated. It is, in a word, hilarious and it took a different kind of bravery to write it. It wasn't written with the kind of bravery from Alice's time. It's the kind of bravery we have today, laced with irony and humor, a naked bravery devoid of compassion. Alice was mystified that a patron thought that it was depressing and couldn’t finish it. “What planet do you live on, lady?” she wondered.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Newsflash: We're not all Beautiful People

The real question is who’s going to read any of this? Who really cares what I have to say? It’s the perpetual writer’s anxiety, that what he has to say is just drivel. That he’ll come across as an idiot. Or worse—boring. And the Web compounds the problem because the Web does seem to multiply exponentially the onslaught of self-indulgent people with their mean little lives that plague our lives. Do I really want to be a part of this? I mean, does anyone really give a shit that lately I start my morning by jumping into my white trash pickup, plugging Green Day in the CD player, bombing across the orchard with American Idiot full volume, then go careening around the back roads to the train station terrorizing the good people of Sherborn while screaming the lyrics along with Billie Joe Armstrong and playing air guitar as I head off to my job as a copywriter on the Buick account?

Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the alien nation.
Where everything isn't meant to be okay.
Television dreams of tomorrow.
We're not the ones who're meant to follow.
For that's enough to argue.

Well, you’re still reading, so I guess that answers my question.

Does anyone really give a shit about what I have to say is a question that has plagued me my entire life, but that’s a blog for another time, isn’t it? Suffice to say for the 16 years I wrote newspaper columns every so often someone would write a letter to the editor either praising or vilifying me, or they’d take the time to pop me an email. Someone is reading this swill so I’ll do it for another day.

That said, I would never defend everyone’s right to voice his or her opinion. Somewhere along the line, I believe it was somewhere in the sixties, we got the notion that we were all Beautiful People. That we all have something to offer and that we’re all pretty inside. Newsflash: We’re not all Beautiful People and there are even some of us who are as cold and black and unfeeling as a lump of lead on the inside. There are loads of people, some of whom I know personally, who should never be allowed to open their mouths. Their opinions are based on prejudices, tight-fisted, cold-hearted morality, or just plain ignorance and the real sin of our nation is that these people actually are allowed to vote.

But of course, you and I know we’re not part of that group, right?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Who the heck is Action Bob Markle?

Bob Markle is the title character of a novel I’m working on. He’s an almost over-the-hill, almost jaded copywriter in the firm of Busby and Associates owned by Oliver Busby. Ollie was a writer, but his writing career was cut short when his father, the real Busby in Busby and Associates, up and died and left the whole shootin’ match to his son. Ollie actually brought the firm to national prominence due in large part to the creative work of Markle, whose cynicism and unwavering belief in his fellow human beings kept the firm honest and on track during its early years.

Why blog?

Why blog? I think the bigger question is why post thoughts and opinions on the Web?

For 16 years I wrote op-ed columns for the MetroWest Daily News, a daily that covers the suburban towns west of Boston. My first column was written from a little cabin way north in Maine where I could get only one radio station on my car radio and that was from Canada, and the only newspaper was the Bangor Daily News from the previous day. The U.S was about to invade Iraq for the first time, and I wrote about forming an opinion without the aid of television commentators and analysts, the way Americans used to do it back when the front porch rocking chair, the barber shop, and the wood stove in the general store were our society’s CNN.

Since then I wrote about everything from politics to bird feeders. But I hit a point where I just felt I wasn’t doing a good enough job, where I wasn’t able to talk about exactly what was slowly eating me up inside. There was a point, right around the Clinton administration, where I started to notice that it was getting harder and harder to tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican. I was getting older, crankier, and a bit morose, to tell the truth. I realized Clinton was someone I wouldn’t have hung out with in high school, and since then I felt myself moving farther and farther to the fringe of American politics, so today I can’t think of a single elected official who I feel stands for me and what I value.

Who am I? I’m a middle-aged man who has won and lost at love, had it easier than some and harder than others, been lucky at times, been successful at work and hit bottom and had to start all over. I’ve had dreams come true and some just fizzle. I’ve experienced the joys of my two daughters, and the grief of burying both my parents within the span of three years. Because of my Catholic upbringing, the practice of which I’ve since discarded, I stubbornly insist on the inherent good in all people despite what my eyes tell me almost daily. I believe in a Creator, simply because I see no proof otherwise. Those are the highlights, but frankly it’s the grey area in which I revel.

And, obviously, I’m a writer. I believe in sharing the experiences that we all have in this reality that we call life, feeling that we’re not alone in any of this, that we truly all are linked together somehow, and for the most part we’re all doing the very best we can, considering the circumstances. I believe we can learn from one another.

And being a writer, despite a growing cynicism that I think is simply a logical reaction to the world, I have this burning desire to write and get out what’s inside me. What eats me up. What gives me joy. What makes me smile, laugh, cry, and yell. It’s in the bible: Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket.

So that’s the reason for Action Bob Markle. Got a comment, compliment, gripe, or just feeling like shining your light a bit, leave a comment.
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