Fanning the Flames

On my next birthday I will turn 73, though I prefer to think of that age as 65 plus shipping and handling. Harry Truman was president until I was six years old, and a dozen others have held that office since. I began voting in the 1968 election and have observed, with almost clinical interest, the triumphs and shenanigans of our leaders since then, including Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. For the first time since that debacle, I feel as though our nation is resting uneasily on a vast but thin sheet of ice above a wide and bottomless abyss.

There seems to be no such thing now as compromise or any middle ground that might suggest a balanced view of what we as a nation need. I mean it’s nothing new that the scales are tipped in favor of the rich and powerful, but vast numbers of voters seem to have been beguiled into believing that this is perfectly all right. The division is so devastatingly complete, that the words Democrat and Republican don’t even come close to meaning what they once represented. Rather, the words have become insults for one group to another, far worse than any other vocabulary we can summon.

I would love to blame this terrible separation and divisiveness on the Russians, the extreme stubbornness of both political parties, the death of Mr. Rogers, toxins in our drinking water, climate change, or the hard-edged humor of our current family sit-coms, but I’m convinced that our political climate is based, more than ever before, on a mentality that fears losing ground as in a soccer game or some other sport, only with actual death, an obliteration being the consequence of not “winning.” Our political landscape has become rather like a huge sports arena, with rabid fans screaming from both sides, as though everyone on one side will perish if the other side wins in any way at all.

Insults abound, not as simple badinage, but rather as weapons in a life-death struggle for power on the world stage, one result being that politics has become snide and back-biting, with each insult and innuendo wearing down a little further that protective shield we used to honor in the shared quest to do what was right for the entire nation, not just one group or party.

I don’t blame the President alone for this erosion of trust, dignity and decency. It began, really, in the 1980’s with ravenous fear-mongers like Newt Gingrich, who didn’t know the meaning of the word compromise. It was a true introduction to political tribalism. The hole in the dyke since then has become too large to be plugged by an index finger from either party, the middle finger usually having replaced the other three (physically as well as figuratively) as the prime symbol of “winning.”

At the risk of switching metaphors yet again, I have to say that remembering the theatrics of the Tea Party, I hardly think that the label of “mob mentality” describes only the Democrats, any more than the mob actions last year of the White Supremacists should describe Republicans. Name-calling solves nothing and serves only as a distraction from facts and genuine needs. Both parties are expert at trimming facts to suit their individual desires, regardless of what the nation needs.

I remember the Hale-Bopp Comet incident of 1997, when thirty-nine otherwise “sane” people were convinced to commit suicide at the time when the comet would be closest to earth, so it could be the “vehicle” (Heaven’s Gate) to paradise. Each of those gullible people also paid $10,000 abduction insurance. It was perhaps a kind of group hypnosis, but what I recall most clearly is a group photo of the believers listening raptly to their leader, Marshall Applewhite. Their smiles suggested to me that the group was in some kind of shared euphoria, where such facial expressions suggested anything but what was actually going on. That recollection haunts me even now when I see television coverage of some political rallies across the country, and all those faces in the background smiling thoughtlessly as though from some comfortable coma.  JB

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Remembering Bedford Falls and George Bailey

      

During every Christmas holiday I can remember, Frank Capra’s film, It’s a Wonderful Life has been a part of the season for me. The movie is filled with the wonderfully gooey sentiments that many of us eschew during the rest of the year, but the fundamental values it espouses – family, friends, loyalty, generosity, fair play, honesty, inclusion and charity are ideals that for the first time, at least in my memory, seem to be dividing rather than uniting us as a nation.

I’m going to assume here that anyone reading my little essay has seen the 1946 film at least once and will recall George’s enlightenment about the value of his own life, even with all its annoyances and setbacks. That epiphany helps him to stand back enough to see and appreciate his own existence for the transcendent gift it really is, right down to the petty aggravations with which life is also dappled (for all of us).

For reasons that remain a mystery to me, America has, over the past couple of years, changed so dramatically that I feel like a dazed tourist, a stranger in a strange land. Perhaps the angst I observe has always been there, bubbling under the placid surface of our fictional world from TV of the 1950’s, but it has, in any case, come into the open to divide almost as intensely as it did during the American Civil War, which ended supposedly in 1865.

It’s a Wonderful Life shows us two different worlds, one inside the other. Mr. Potter (the “richest” man in town) is almost Dickensian in his “Bah, humbug” view of the world through his utter contempt for a humanity he has cheated mercilessly to achieve his extraordinary wealth. His sneering view of other people is based upon his conviction that anyone who is not financially “rich” must be a “sucker” and stupid into the bargain. George Bailey, however, is Potter’s antithesis in every way.

Recently when I quoted words from the Emma Lazarus poem on The Statue of Liberty, an acquaintance of mine immediately bristled with a contempt for anyone coming into our country “to steal what is ours.” It was a blanket statement on his part, not one that distinguished between legal or illegal entry. I reminded him that few among us were Native American Indians, and that we were immigrants too. That made him even more hostile, as though America were something locked in some kind of vault, and that immigrants were simply breaking into it for selfish gain.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

If you, dear reader, have seen It’s a Wonderful Life, you may recall that hypothetical future of Bedford Falls, that had George Bailey never been born, would become Pottersville, a grubby, vulgar place of shabby crime and suspicion. Now, as I look back at that scenario, I’m struck again by the image of the two, opposing Americas the film represents, the latter a place that somehow we seem to be embracing as our new identity. Political wrangling (from both parties) has embraced a new level of being snide, mean-spirited, and greedy that neither the fiction of Charles Dickens nor Frank Capra could probably imagine.

America has always been “great.” That word “again” on the red ball cap adds nothing but discord and the malevolent, divisive fiction that somehow we had lost our way. The result is that now we are living in two essentially separate nations, one a kind of Bedford Falls…and the other an ever-growing Pottersville.

The next national election may determine which will become our prevailing identity for the next few years, whether we will barricade “the golden door” or lift a lamp beside it, whether we rescue public education (including science) or allow it to crumble into profit-mongering charter schools, whether we ramp up care for the elderly and afflicted or encourage tent cities for the poor while the gluttonous One-Percent drains the last drop of the nation’s blood through misinformation paid for by the unlimited and now private (secret) money through Citizens United.

But despite such scenarios, I still believe we have a chance to survive in an America that belongs to us all and that something from that old spirit of togetherness and national pride can yet unite us so that not even Russia can hinder our continued progress and spirit.   JB

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Being a Teenager

Though now in my seventies, I remember what it was like to be a teenager. Also, I taught high school students for thirty-five years and was able to observe all over again, on a daily basis, that glorious and degrading period of being in one’s teens. They still have my sympathy and admiration for their living in a world that is changing even faster than it did when I was an adolescent.

  

Teenagers, as they stumble through the vast maze of learning the social graces, can be, in turn, both infuriating and hyper-sensitive.  They don’t always learn good behavior at home, so we have to remember that they remain sometimes for long periods in a state of trying to imitate what they think is currently “cool” and that a confident and comfortable individuality, coupled with a true social conscience can take many years.  What we like to call “grown up” behavior can often go on hiatus during parts of adolescence. A teenager’s world is often a fragile place with erratic extremes of inappropriate boldness from a fearless belief that there are no consequences worth noting, to feelings of terror at doing the wrong thing, taking the wrong step. 

Our egos as teens are as delicate as they will ever be, assaulted on all fronts to grow up, be responsible, do homework, keep up grades, respect elders, choose better role models, wear the right clothes, fit in with peers, be more independent, and to address romantic yearnings without going too far.  Boys are taught to take chances and then criticized if they fail.  Girls are encouraged to play it safe by not taking risks.  As teens we always like to believe that we know more about ourselves and the world than we actually know. Our confidence can shrink and immobilize us at parties or in classes where we are terrified of blundering and being overwhelmed by our greatest fear of all, not fitting in with our classmates.  Or, we can delete common sense at times to soar in a dizzying but very temporary, wild abandon before being hurt or humiliated in our early encounters with cars, alcohol, or the opposite sex.

As teens we often feel the world’s critical and suspicious eye and the likelihood that we will not be respected or even tolerated for what we think.  Not being taken seriously is the worst curse of being a teen.  Adults often see us merely as hormones with shoes.  Maybe that’s why finding a personal talent for doing something well means so much to us at that time of life.  Sports, music (even our personal choices of music), clothes, are all elements of a teenager’s quest for personal identity, that terrible need to fit in while holding tightly to whatever turns out to be what makes us unique individuals, even if it turns out to be tattoos, spiked blue hair, nose rings, or other piercings or body modifications that at age forty will look absurd and regrettable.  It is that ephemeral little world that teens inhabit, rejoice and suffer in, and spend all their adolescent energies trying to escape.    JB

 

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A Fictional Dating Profile…(Satire)

I’ve known people who admitted to their having exaggerated their own good qualities on dating websites, and I’ve read enough of these fictionalized rhapsodies to find them quite entertaining.  I decided to create one based upon a made-up person named Gwendolyn Glossup.  I feel tempted to post it on one of those dating sites, like Match.com or E-Harmony, but I doubt that it would be worth the money to have it rejected by the sites themselves.  Still, I wonder if Gwendolyn would receive any takers, were her profile to be posted somewhere. Exaggeration is the key to the unintended humor of such websites.

                                                                     Gwen as a child

                                                                 Before facial surgery

                                                          After winning the Nobel prize

                                                                               Sex?

Screen name:  The Purple Sex Kitten (Gwendolyn Glossup)

Age…….39 plus

Married….four times

Height…5’7”

Body type…A bit of this and a dab of that

Religion….Unorthodox.  Worship in the pastry section of Treasure Island Foods

Music…New Age and anything else I can roller blade to

Eye color…violet (left eye), green (right eye)

Dislikes:  cilantro, cracked pepper, people who use their cell phones as substitutes for real human contact, George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Peewee Hermann, and people who leave their shopping carts blowing around the parking lot

Hobbies:  Collecting shrunken heads and potatoes that look like shrunken heads

Pets:  Two goldfish named Laverne and Shirley

Politics:  Independent (Republicrat)

Exercise:  Are you kidding?

Children:  Something will have to freeze over first

Ethnicity:  Hawaiian/Dutch/English

Education:  Diplomas and degrees from matchbook cover schools

Drinking:  Like a fish

Hair color:  Mauve and lavender

Smoking: Only Cuban cigars

Income:  Occasionally

Favorite pastime:  Trying to put my feet up over my head while watching OPRAH

About my date:  Someone with arms and legs, who enjoys watching reruns of THE LOVE BOAT.  A very special turn-on would be if he looked like Floyd the barber from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW or Eb from GREEN ACRES.  Otherwise I’m not fussy and will date anyone who is not currently in an oxygen tent or iron lung.  XOXOXOXO

 

 

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Our American Fire Storm

I can hear and smell the flames daily in the political climate that has become the basis of casting blame for what seems to be the second of two civil wars in our nation.

The embers of hot, glowing coals of politics are all around us these days, and a tremendous adrenalin rush for many comes from throwing the gasoline of self-righteous indignation onto those embers. The results are explosions of varying levels of terror and hate mongering. Vindication seems no longer to come from bridled and reasonable discussion but rather from name-calling and pre-packaged insults that we as a nation seem more and more to see as strengths, instead of the weaknesses they really are. We have forgotten the psychological truth that greater weakness lies within the bully, not the bullied. Every tenet we once honored from profound and timeless messages like the ones from Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. have been sacrificed upon the altar of power, money and simply “winning.”

We have stereotyped the once meaningful ideals of the Republican and Democratic political parties to the point at which neither is any longer recognizable. We have only to use one of those two labels in order to stir up anyone who uses the opposing word. Of course, both parties have always been opponents, as should be expected in a democracy, but it seems that opposition used to be more of a yin/yang relationship that somehow, even with some rancor, achieved things for the good of the country as a whole, not just as in some child’s game, where one side wins and the other side loses.

I have a deep desire (call it nostalgia if you must) to see people of both political realms actually listening to each other once in a while and seeing a wider view that goes beyond mere political points. Money and power have always been impediments to mass progress but are not the only difficulties.

It’s almost as though we have, as a country, divided ourselves in a way that has perhaps been building up slowly since 1865, so that we are almost two nations at war once again. Daily I see people who are otherwise loving parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, and citizens throwing gasoline on those embers of political mistrust and discontent, as the flames grow even greater on television (which rather than always informing us, divides us still further) through “information” empires like Fox News and MSNBC (the two extremes that provide more emotional gasoline than OPEC ever did).

Though the adrenalin rush of indignation may feel good temporarily, it doesn’t seem to be helping our wonderful nation achieve again the oneness upon which we were once founded. We seem to have forgotten the word, “United” in our very name.

So the next time the temptation arises to toss a cup of gasoline upon a political ember, think about what it might impede or even destroy, more than the temporary adrenalin rush it may give to self-esteem. Have your say without resorting to cheap insults, and above all, listen without insisting that the result be achieving more game points for your own ego.   JB

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Some of My Published Books…

Here are some of my books available in paperback or Kindle at Amazon…and paperback at Barnes & Noble.  JB

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Sweeping Grief under the Nearest Rug

I’m growing more than a little weary of guns being the prime dividing factor in American culture. The Second Amendment, which I will quote here: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of  free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” has broad ramifications and possible interpretations, depending upon personal views of what it means to protect oneself and one’s family. Two centuries later, we are no longer an agrarian society loading our muskets to shoot turkeys, each shot requiring rather a long loading time. Now weapons of war are available with not enough restrictions to halt the continuing mass murders that have the rest of the world looking at us in disbelief. If any mental virus by an enemy nation could have been created to invade reason, compassion, and a true sense of “safety,” it would be the one created by, endorsed by, and sold by the NRA, which only relatively recently made the second amendment the holy grail of its platform. We’ve made seriously dangerous weapons easier to get into schools than peanut butter sandwiches.

One of the problems for me is that the 18th Century had no AR-15’s, nor other weapons that could obliterate a staggering number of enemies (or innocent victims) in just minutes. Such gun owners today are not the martyrs of any mass conspiracy to snatch their weapons away and leave them unprotected. The martyrs are the dead, who have been slaughtered, those young and old, who might have been spared in at least some of the cases by universal background checks and more care being taken in the hierarchy of law enforcement to take purchases and thefts of such artillery more seriously.

No one is asking that all guns be outlawed and seized by the government on any level, though this is the childish drama played out all too often. Law abiding citizens have the right to have guns, whether for hunting or for personal protection. That too is a very broad statement with enough details omitted that it sounds cozy and comfy. There is a middle ground, which we have not yet approached in creating safety for EVERYONE. All those deceased victims of gun violence had rights too, but we forget that fact in the mad rush to blame not having enough more guns to stop the murders. Those victims are not just abstract statistics. They were human beings, whose families will never really heal from the diabolical losses they suffered.

There has been pontificating on both sides of this issue, but if we give up and simply say nothing is going to change…without even trying…then we are certainly doomed to experience again and again the horrors of mass shootings, followed by the sickeningly sweet and prayerful regrets of gutless politicians still under the thumb (in the pocket) of the NRA.  If we as a nation are not all on the same team in our attempts to curb or eliminate such crimes, we are indeed at war with each other every bit as much as we were in the 1860’s. Splitting hairs along with pointing fingers has not worked. I dread opening the newspaper and watching the evening news these days, waiting for the next massacre, replete with all the phony rhetoric and silly posturing that more guns are the only answer to the gun issue. I’m still waiting for a balance between compassion and common sense to prevail. I applaud all those who marched everywhere in our nation. I am seventy-two years old, but the young have inspired me and given hope that our tolerance level for murder has shrunk as much as it did after the gangster era in big American cities replete with machine guns (later outlawed) and Al Capone.  JB

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When Reason Evaporates

I live in Broward County, where the school shootings occurred yesterday afternoon. We’re all in shock down here, but I think that the rest of the nation is grieving too over such a senseless and violent act. Our country is ailing from a core of rage and mental (spiritual?) instability that has been going on for some time. There are people who believe that weapons can solve every problem and grudge….and we provide the weapons to almost any crackpot, who wants them. I’ve been looking at statistics of other nations and their issues with gun violence. We’re not alone, but we are the slowest to come up with effective, sensible solutions. Excuses abound, while members of our own government are in the pockets of the NRA. We also perpetuate the popular myth that guns represent our most important and irrevocable freedom, even above that of life itself. All our weeping and grief have yet to become legislation that will curb a level of public and private aggression that has the rest of the world seeing us as savagely backward in our values.

Please pray for the victims and their families and for our country. This heartbreaking incident is another in a series of horrific tragedies that should be shaking the stone foundations of those elegant buildings in Washington from the cost of human lives we continue to pay with every tragic reoccurrence. My only other request is that people not provide stupid arguments that we need more guns. The platitude of “People, not guns, kill people” is sickeningly inept and moronic. No more. This isn’t a high school debate anymore. This state of crisis doesn’t need more arguments. It needs action…and right now. 

Also, it isn’t as though we’re asking for all weapons to be confiscated. The guns of the 18th Century, when the Second Amendment was composed, were still rather slow-loading weapons akin to old muskets. Also, the motive of maintaining a “well-regulated militia” in case of foreign or domestic aggression was quite different from a mentally deranged teenager toting a semi-automatic AR-15 to mow down seventeen innocents in one session. I know and respect many friends who own guns for protection, but those weapons aren’t meant to obliterate human lives with speed and efficiency as in a huge abattoir. See the difference?

It occurs to me that we already have laws on the books that are being sloppily enforced. Too many mass shootings have loopholes or openings through which criminal or unbalanced minds have managed to navigate. There should be accountability for those who allow the checks and balances to be compromised. The last two mass shootings show that, had others been doing their jobs with more care, the shooting might not have occurred. Consequences for such sloppy work on the part of those who were supposed to be more vigilant may need to be sharpened too. Even if we enforced with more vigor the laws we already have, things might improve, but we have a long way to go.   JB

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How Far We Have Come

My father’s family came to America during the 1800’s from Germany, and my mother’s family came from The United Kingdom during the same century. They were all refugees, who wanted to begin a new and better life together in “The Land of the Free.” They were poor but shared an ambitious energy to work hard and succeed. They did succeed in working, worshipping, raising families who contributed to the beauty and economy of the nation, my father and uncles also serving during WWII in the United States Navy and the United States Army until after the war. I can’t imagine how things would have been different for all of us had there been some sort of wall to block our becoming citizens of this great nation. I wouldn’t have been a school teacher here, and the gifts of my other relatives in serving this country would have been unrealized or been fulfilled instead in Germany, Ireland, and Scotland.

It frightens me that so many refugees now coming to America are often clumped together into unfair and incorrect stereotypes of  job-thieves, low-life criminals, rapists, terrorists, etc. The fear-mongering and insults about “foreigners” have been successful only in creating suspicion and terror that ignore the wider view of poor but capable, ambitious, honest people, who are not stealing our rights and privileges…but sharing them and contributing to the strength and compassion of Lady Liberty’s wide and generous embrace. The purpose of all this seems to be creating the false impression that we have a protector, who is looking after our rights as citizens of The United States of America. We need to look more carefully at that “reality” to see what motives lurk behind it. There are people like us, with the same hopes and dreams of a better life for themselves and their children, waiting to pass through the “Golden Door.” Not all are “worthy,” but I have the feeling that most are just like us in their quest for better, safer lives that include freedoms that we too often take for granted. I have only to read again the words of Emma Lazarus (from her poem on the Statue of Liberty) to remember that we’re somehow all in this together.  JB

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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No Middle Ground

I spend a few minutes each morning looking at Facebook posts from a wide variety of friends and acquaintances, along with their political diatribes, which some may even call “convictions.” I’m reaching a point at which I’m skipping over any posts that even hint at a righteous (and too often snide) sermon on how stupid or evil the “other side” is. The problem is that there seem to be only two sides nowadays when it comes to politics, two extreme viewpoints.

Had any foreign power actually plotted to pit Democrats and Republicans against each other (which seems more and more to be a reality), the result could never have been more successfully vile than it is right now. That foreign power would be sitting back, gleefully watching us go for the throats of what we have been trained (at least subliminally) to see as the enemy. Commentaries that one sees on the extreme political edges of Fox News and MSNBC masterfully stoke the flames of righteous indignation, that yield what may well be akin to the rush of a highly addictive drug. Blame has become almost our national sport, filled with artful malice. No accusation can be too hideous or vile, as long as it’s cloaked in an American flag, biblical verse, or photo of some poor vagrant struggling to find his next meal. Guilt is of prime importance. Fact checking is too dangerous in risking ratings that fire up our anger or sympathy and, thus, our complete attention, loyalty, and patronage. Maintaining our righteous rage as an emotional high is the goal, not what’s necessarily right for the country.

There is no middle ground anymore, where one might find reason. This has brought me to the point at which I trust almost no one in Washington any further than I can throw a Volkswagon. Personal agendas, fear of losing wealthy donor support and power can purchase brilliant propaganda that seems to be providing an entertaining and riveting “duke it out” display daily for the rest of the world. Also there is our human weakness of believing pretty much anything that we want or need to believe. Hateful sarcasm seems to have become our political face on the world stage.

I love America too much to renounce my citizenship, but the vulgarity, lies, and vanity from both political parties have become too black and white. The nuance that comes from stepping back to view all the shading of a wider view has been sacrificed for the self-congratulatory smugness that I don’t remember ever seeing before, even during the Nixon era. We have come to love that adrenalin rush of righteous indignation, valid or not. That means we’ve sacrificed something else…the responsibility of honesty (even when it hurts our own causes), fairness in an attitude of give-and-take, and giving up the megalomaniacal rush of eviscerating the opposition as entertainment for political points.

I wonder, with much trepidation, what the world and history itself will see when they look back at our current political landscape. The arrogance and cutthroat maneuvers on both sides make me wonder daily who we really are as a nation and what we’re about. The words to our national patriotic songs seem a bit off key right now to the point that our ideals are either blurred to the point of absurdity or given an almost religious reverence not borne out by our actual behaviors.  JB

 

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