Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Losing people close to us.

We pulled up to the marina and started carrying all our gear down the plank onto a large taxi boat for the short jaunt to an island that inexplicably bore the name "Goat Island," even though there wasn't a single goat in sight.  We didn't really know what to expect; but we rarely do, as we've learned through the years that spending time and energy on anything other than a few particular logistics details is a waste. The philosophy of "we'll figure it out when we get there" is the only thing that constantly works for us anyway.  But we did know that this was a party for our friend, Keith Routh, who passed away suddenly on a scuba diving trip this winter, and that is all that really mattered.

We started setting up on a small Tiki stage, while the organizers of the party, Keith's close friends, kept busy setting up food, drink, and shade stations, in the sandy area that served as a yard to the small monolithic 3 story, 3 room house the landowners stayed in.  No pavement, no cars: just a canopy of trees, running water, power, and lots of sun on this warm Sunday. 

As the boat taxi made runs, people started walking down the long single walkway pier that connected the land to the water over the marshy mud that was ruled by the tides.  I noticed that everyone seemed to be a lot younger than Keith, which didn't surprise me at all.  Keith was full of life and an existential energy that was unusual for someone of his age, so him running with a younger crowd just made sense. 

It has been several months since we lost Keith, so the shock and sense of sudden loss had passed, and today was all about celebrating the fact that we were lucky to have known him.  Many "Keith stories" were shared, but a constant theme of the day was "He would have loved this."  A small sunny island filled with all his favorite things: friends, beers, and music from one of his favorite bands.  I'm sure at some point we all had the exact same vision, of him actually being here with us and enjoying it, raising his beer and giving that huge smile he was known for.  I couldn't help but wish there was a way we could have these types of parties before we lose our friends and loved ones.  A way to actually show them how much they mean to us before we/they check out.  Maybe the lesson is to make that message more of a daily action than a one time shot. 

There is a song that Flatt and Scruggs used to play called "Give me my flowers while I'm living."

Won't you give me my flowers while I'm living
Let me enjoy them while I can
Please don't wait till I'm ready to be buried
And then slip some lilies in my hand

In this world is where we need our flowers
A kind word to help us get along
If you can't give me flowers while I'm living
Then please don't throw them when I'm gone

I have experienced the opportunity to do just that for my Grandma Swenk after she had a heart attack and a stroke.  The Swenk side of the family has always been very close, with lots of cousins, so we all dropped what we were doing and came from all points on the east coast, and spent a weekend in Sparta celebrating someone who was still with us.  It was one of the most beautiful weekends our family has ever had and nobody will ever forget it.  Nobody had any idea that she would hang tough for several more years.  Swenks are a stubborn bunch.  

But life is temporal and tender, and we just don't get that opportunity every time.  When the time comes we do the best that we can, but I do think that we are in a position to rethink end of life ceremonies and allow them to evolve out of the Middle Ages superstition-based rituals that are still so prominent.  Why would we want to do that? Because these ceremonies are for the living, not the dead.  Personally, I've seen both ends of the spectrum--from ones so beautiful and heart-felt to one so impersonal that I wanted to just walk out. 

Through the eons of humans trying to understand the idea of life and death, most rituals were created to help the spirit or soul a passageway to some particular place --  the ceremony was for the dead, not the living.  But we've evolved past that and now most of us can agree these ceremonies are for the ones left behind. 

Several years ago I had two different experiences that affected me profoundly and have always stuck with me.  My Grandma Swenk moved to Sparta when I was young and lived within a short bike ride, so she was a daily influence on my life.  I've never lost someone who I've been so close to.  As we made our way down to Florida for her funeral, I knew it would be a pretty strict Catholic funeral with mass, which I've been through before.  But I wasn't ready for the reality of the experience.  The best way I can describe it that it was like sitting through a 60 minute infomercial for Catholicism, getting pounded with all the reasons why Catholicism is the only true way, and all the reasons why anyone with any sense should be a part of it.  The few brief personal moments came and went so fast you almost missed them: she loved UNC basketball, North Carolina mountains, and her grandkids.  Here was woman who was the pillar of a very large, tight, and loving family and yet the personal details acknowledged didn't even set her apart from any other loving Grandma.  There was one brief moment where I was able to feel a connection to the process of losing someone you love so much, and that was when the grandkids served as pall-bearers and walked the casket out.  I left thinking to myself, "we--the living and the dead--deserve better than this."

On the complete other end of the spectrum, I was able to attend an end-of-life ceremony for my girlfriend's step-dad around that same time.  Avi was a large man in every way, both physically and mentally.  He looked like Jerry Garcia with his white hair and beard and easy smile, and his temperament and doctorate in psychiatry gave him a serene, calming presence that listened more than spoke.  I don't know where Avi fell on the religious spectrum but I always had the feeling that he studied Buddhism in his younger searching years, and it affected him greatly.  His ceremony did not have many religious undertones, but instead focused on his presence on this earth and everyone he affected.  There were readings from family members, as you would expect, but the last half of the ceremony opened the floor for anyone who wanted to get up and talk about Avi.  We heard story after story of how he helped people through their darkest times.  Even though I had only been around Avi a few times through the years, I left that ceremony with one of the strongest senses of peace and comfort and love that I have ever known. It was everything that an end-of-life ceremony could and should be. It not only acknowledged our sense of loss, but more importantly it focused on how Avi made our lives better by knowing him.  Is there any better way to honor someone who has passed than that?

We don't know what happens when we die.  If you say you know, then you're confusing the words "know" and "believe."  (How many world problems could be solved if we just stopped confusing those two words!)  But people die, and the living are left to deal with a great sense of loss and confusion, as well as many great memories.  Some of us choose to anesthetize our grief with believing that we will all be connected somewhere else in a big huge party.  Who knows?  Maybe we will or maybe we won't.  But what I do know is that these people made our lives a little bit better; and even though their memory won't live forever as we like to think, it will live with us, in our hearts, for all of our lives--and I think I can get along just fine knowing that.  

Here's to ya Keith, and Grandma Swenk, and Avi.  Thanks for making our lives a little bit better. 

A picture collage of Keith 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Confused about the NSA collecting our phone records? This might help...

The NSA phone records whistle-blower issue is an intellectual buffet of ideas that we haven't seen in a long time.  The reason this one issue is so different than everything else we get bombarded with is it doesn't allow us to follow our normal pattern of opinion forming, which is to land on the side of people that we've already decided we trust.  For example, if you trust Obama then you are for healthcare reform; if you don't trust him, then you're against it--pretty simple.  We all function this way, no matter how actively engaged in current debate issues we are.  I trust the journalists Matt Taibbi and Chris Hayes, and when they present an opinion on an issue that I don't know anything about, it is easy for me to adopt their views on the issue.  I don't blindly go about this, and I'm not afraid to disagree with them, but they are two people with whom I have developed a deep sense of trust in how they approach complicated issues.

So here we have this issue that nobody really knows how to feel about.  I've seen very few opinions from my conservative friends and relatively few from my liberal friends--most of which are just along the lines of "Snowden did a good thing." This says nothing about the deeper issue at hand, but even more fascinating is where the political superstars are falling on this issue.

Snowden is a criminal and should be punished, and this spying program is what we need.
President Obama
Lindsey Graham
Al Franken
Peter King

Snowden is a hero and should be celebrated, and this spying program goes against who we are
Al Gore
Rand Paul
Glen Beck
Michael Moore

When will we ever see these guys agree on anything again? There is no other issue that will divide these players into these group, and that is just one of the things that makes this so fascinating.   On social and environmental issues I'm very liberal, so I do have varying degrees of trust in both Obama and Al Gore.  But I can easily place Lindsey Graham and Glen Beck in the "I do not trust at all" category.  So I, and most all of us, are in brand new, uncharted territory of having no guiding lights with this issue, and we haven't even gotten into the particulars of the main issue at hand.  I love this!  This is the intellectual equivalent of our own version of "Survivorman:" being thrust into the wilderness and having to make every decision with only a modicum of information.  If you like intellectual adventure, this is it.

Edward Snowden
One thing I do know is that this is not about Edward Snowden, in the same way that the WikiLeaks case is not--and should never be--about Bradley Manning.  Fox news and other so called news outlets go straight for the dirt and try to drudge up these guys' personal lives and cast them as fractured and deceptive beasts.  If you see this in the news don't fall for it.  It is the laziest and ugliest form of journalism and embarrasses the entire industry. Manning and Snowden knowingly and willingly broke their employer agreements, believing the consequences were worth the risk, and they will face those consequences.  But demonizing whistle-blowers and allowing the bigger issues to take a back-page into the nebulous unresolved ether is not how we should deal with these situations. 

The lens that this issue should be viewed through is how we want our government to function in today's information age, and there is no easy black and white answers here.  Most Americans don't want the NSA compiling all of their personal information in a huge database, but then most Americans are ok with the NSA using phone records to track terrorists.  So it isn't an easy issue, and I have a hunch that this is only the beginning of revalations about secret NSA tactics.

The NSA headquaters even looks ominous.
But I think I can give you a few specks of light for your lens.  It may seem like this is a brand new information age issue, but it really isn't, and we do have some historical perspective to help us.  Our massive intelligence-gathering industry was developed during the Cold War, for good reasons.  We were in a nuclear standoff with Russia, and there was really other no option to protect ourselves.  But after the Cold War wound down, we were stuck with this massive bored but aggressive gorilla in the room, and this is what we have to be cautious of.  What started as a positive thing for our country quickly turned onto our own citizens--most importantly the leaders of the civil rights movement.  This is the most perfect example of how something that can be seen as useful and positive one second can be turned against us the next.  As the civil rights movement heated up, our government and CIA turned the huge angry gorilla of intelligence industry onto the leaders of this movement, and we saw how quickly things can turn sour when the powers that be are challenged.  So we don't have to look far to find our government and intelligence industry being on the wrong side of history.
King leaving the FBI after questioning.
Partisan rhetoric and Tea Party notwithstanding, you might be surprised that most everyone in the upper levels of politics does trust Obama on this matter.  Remember that Lindsey Graham and Peter King are on his side.  This is not about our current administration abusing these powers; what we are all afraid of is if we somehow get stuck with a truly bad administration that will use these powers for nefarious purposes.  We have to decide these issues not just on what is best for us now, but what is best for us in the future under less than ideal leaders.
Joseph McCarthy
The other side of this issue that I believe has created a numb confusion on this issue is the knowledge that all of our information is always being collected by the Googles and Facebooks of the world.  We are aware of this and are mostly comfortable with it, since we still use Gmail and Facebook; so hearing that our phone records were collected by the government didn't create the immediate visceral outrage that it would have a decade ago.  We've already given up so much of our sense of privacy, so why should we care if the NSA is using our phone records to track the evil people that want to kill innocents?  The simple answer is that Google and Facebook don't have the power to arrest you, ruin your life, and break families apart on erroneous and scattered information.   None of this matters when you are Lindsey Graham, a rich white southern man, who will never be profiled.   But we aren't all rich white southern men, are we?  In fact, I met an Iranian man the other night at Foothills Brewery who was amazingly fascinating and intelligent and is someone that I want to stay in touch with.  He lives in England and comes to NC often for his work.  If he and I stay in touch will that put me on a watch list?  Other than the red-neck banjo player watch list, of course.  You can see how easy these issues that at first seem non-tangible to us can digress into something very real.

These are the real issues here.  It is not about the whistle-blowers: it is about the type of society we want to live in, and the powers we want to grant our government to keep us safe.  So for once we can't just fall in line with whatever side the conservatives and democrats decide to fall on.  We have to think about this for ourselves, and I am glad that we have this opportunity.  If we had more of these opportunities maybe we wouldn't blindly side with whatever talking points are rammed down our throats by the powers that be, which have been rammed down their throats by the real powers that be: the corporations.  Americans having to think for ourselves--I'm all for it. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

If I gave a commencement speech, I might say this...

Have you ever wondered what you would say if you were invited to give a graduation commencement speech?  I've been wondering about it lately.  Could I look back on everything I've learned and all my experiences and come up with something both unique and personal, yet universal enough to connect deeply with so many different types of people?  As I was thinking about that question, it hit me - isn't that what art is? Finding something that is unique and personal, but also universal?  So a great commencement speech is very much a high form of beautiful art.   

There are three speeches that have stuck with me through the years, and they are all completely different.  The first is about seeing past the social construct of reality, the second is about mortality, and the third is unlike any other speech ever given, as the writer wants us to not only see the everyday reality that nobody wants to talk about, but embrace it and make it your own instead of being trapped by it.  

The first was by the genius author Tom Robbins (read everything by him, trust me).  This speech did two things for me: it showed me the possibility of the experience, if it is approached from the passionate place of the heart;  it also ruined 99% of all commencement speeches for that very reason.  I printed this speech out and passed it around to my friends I was sitting near when we graduated from Appalachian State.  I will bet a bottom dollar that nobody remembers what our actual speaker said, but everyone who read Robbin's speech remembers that.  

Here's the link to that speech.  (Notice this site says "This may have been Tom Robbins commencement speech."  There has always been some confusion on this speech, but I've read enough of Robbins to be pretty sure that these are his words.) 

The second is the famous speech given by Steve Jobs as he was facing his own mortality in his fight with cancer.

The third is by David Foster Wallace.  The genius in this speech is that it is so original and brave that I can't imagine anyone else even attempting it, much less succeeding on such a beautiful level.
So what would I say?  After thinking about it for a while, I think the best advice I could give anyone, regardless of age, is to break out of the passive consumer habits and lifestyle that our society works so hard to keep us in--and the earlier you do it, the better. Our society is based around the few producing for the masses.  Hollywood makes movies and the masses watch them, famous authors write stories and the masses read them, colossal agricultural corporations produce food and the masses buy it, world famous pop superstars recreate songs written by hit-making producers and the masses listen to it, tech giants produce electronics and the masses buy them.  The few produce, and the masses consume.   Imagine the breakthroughs we would have if the masses started producing. 

The earlier you can break that habit and start producing/creating/building the thing you love the most, the better chance you will have at being paid for doing what you love. Read the bios of people you admire, and the one thing they have in common is when they found something they loved, they didn't settle for just passive entertainment: instead they started making their own, whatever it may be.  It's never too late to change that habit either.  It will take you out of your comfort zone like a rocket through the sky, but you know what - fuck your comfort zone.  That comfort zone is like a prison cell.  Trust me when I say this - the very worst thing that can happen is that you develop a much deeper appreciation of what you love.  Write five songs and you will go back and hear Bob Dylan with completely different ears.  And yes, you'll feel a little dumb and small when comparing your songs to Dylan, but remember what we said about your comfort zone?

The best case scenario in this endeavor is that you will open up an entire new chapter in your life.  You will create what you love and I can't even begin to tell you how amazingly fun that is.  It may take many years before you feel like you're making something good, but who cares?  You love whatever you're doing, so what does time have to do with anything?

Maybe that isn't the most exciting speech ever given, but I think it is the best advice I could give at this point in my life, as well as the best advice that I should continuously take throughout life. 

There's another quote, by my hero Ira Glass, that I always think of when people are starting new endeavors.  He really nails it with this one.

If you only remember one thing from this: Fuck your comfort zone!