Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mother Divine Passes. . . Understanding

On Wednesday, March 15, the New York Times reported the death of the former Edna Rose Ritchings at age 91.  Born in Vancouver, Ritchings traveled to Montreal when she was 15 to join a family of followers of Father Divine, a charismatic preacher who ran a huge empire of believers during the 1930s.  She took the name Sweet Angel.

She moved to Father Divine's Philadelphia headquarters of the International Peace Mission Movement to meet Father Divine himself--which she did, becoming his personal stenographer.  Father Divine's first wife, Sister Penny, was black and had died, though her death had never been acknowledged by church officials.  Sweet Angel was white, blonde, and about a head taller than Father Divine, who nevertheless took Sweet Angel to be his second wife.  He maintained, however, that his two wives were one and the same person.

Addressing this tricky issue, Father Divine made the following statement, which ought to be mandatory reading in every writing class everywhere forevermore:

"The individual is the personification of that which expresses personification.  Therefore he comes to be personally the expression of that which was impersonal, and he is the personal expression of it and the personification of the pre-personification of God almighty!"

It's good that he clarified that because I was a little confused at first. . . .

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

God, Rituals, and Atheism

The older I get, the less I believe a God (aka creator) can exist.  It’s a pity, of course, but there it is.  It was always a slippery concept to hold on to, little more than a straw to grasp at when feelings of insignificance overwhelm us—as they always do when, for example, we face death and fear an eternity of not being.  Or when we look up into the evening sky lit by countless stars.  There are several hundred million stars in our own Milky Way galaxy and a hundred million galaxies in the universe.  It’s hard to feel specially chosen under the circumstances.  

It may be even more difficult to believe a creator is responsible for our own planet.  What kind of God would put his children in the way of such harm as the tsunami of 2004 in Indonesia that killed about a quarter million men, women, and children—or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that may have killed just as many.  Some four million lost their lives in the 1931 China floods.  Isn’t our creator supposed to be all good and all powerful?  How could he allow such disasters to his children?  Why would he have put us in such a hostile environment?  No, believing in a God becomes very difficult indeed—unless he’s an evil God, and who wants to believe that? 

It may be hardest to believe any God could have created so many beings (in his image!) who are so very evil, like the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center on 9.11.01,  killing some 3,000 people—or an individual like Adolf Hitler, who killed six million of God’s own children in concentration camps.  How can an all good and all powerful God allow such evil to exist?  That is, of course, the age-old conundrum that people of faith, as they are called, have to ignore to sleep at night.

What I do like about believers is that they have created rituals.  I am a big believer in rituals because they elevate the dreariness of daily living, give it a glory and purpose and shine.  And anything that promotes good behavior, civilizing behavior, is good, whether it's a wedding service, funeral rite, or the singing of the national anthem before a sporting event.  Rituals sanctify moments in lives that would be emptier without them.

That said, excesses of the religious spirit promote conversion-furies that cause wars and horrible destruction.  And excesses of nationalism have created nations that embark on ethnic cleansing, a bitter anger directed at minorities who are "threatening" somebody's idea of a cherished bloodline and an idealized "way of life."  Rituals notwithstanding, we have to fight diligently against the religious impulse that leads to Holy Wars and the patriotic impulse that leads to land-grabbing wars.

Which is one reason atheism is attractive.  Atheists behave themselves, promote civilization, stand up for brotherhood,  live the good life, pursue answers to universal questions—all without feeling the slightest need to make everyone else think as they do.  They are actually more moral than religious people because they do all that without the expectation of a reward for good behavior.  Or the fear of punishment.  That is:  they aren't motivated by heaven or hell.  Their belief system is admirable in that sense.  Brave.  Human and glorious.  Good for them.  

Now, if they could just come up with a few good rituals. . . .

Monday, March 13, 2017

An Insight into Compulsive Behavior

Yesterday's New York Times Book Review had a review of Sharon Begley's new book, Can't Just Stop, which has this insight into compulsive behavior:  "We cling to compulsions as if to a lifeline, for it is only by engaging in compulsions that we can drain enough of our anxiety to function."  And further on, this, in the words of the reviewer, Seth Mnookin:  "For someone with a compulsion, the behavior itself is a coping mechanism for anxiety; that's why so many [sufferers] find their conduct comforting while those around them view it with alarm."  So if you have a compulsion like over-eating, drinking, or smoking, for example, Begley's starting point may have the ring of truth to it. 

It also suggests, to me at least, that the compulsive behavior, when it kicks in, allows me to push on with my work--a way for me to get past the anxiety that threatens the project at hand.  I've always liked this adage about writing projects:  Progress begins when the fear of doing nothing finally overcomes the fear of doing it badly.  Now it seems to me that getting started and then seeing a project through to conclusion creates an anxiety that I cope with by compulsive over-eating, my "lifeline" that drains enough of my anxiety for me to get on with the work.  Nice.  The more productive I am as a writer, the fatter I get.  And the reverse is true too:  I lose weight when I'm unproductive.  It's a sliding scale. 

I like Begley's theory better than feeling weak--it avoids all accountability.  It's more or less a physiological matter, bad brain wiring that I shouldn't blame myself for.  Yeah, that's it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On the Trump Presidency

kakistocracy  [kak is TOC ra cy].  Noun:  government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens.  Government by the worst people.

"American democracy is tail-spinning out of control.  The election of Donald Trump has transformed our political system into a kakistocracy."  Alice Dilfdrew, political correspondent of the JBM News Agency.

“Donald Trump is a buffoon and a clown, a sleazy egomaniac who has left behind nothing over the past fifty years other than a bogus university, a meat-market beauty contest, and a television program where he fired people.  And then there's his long and sordid record as a sexual predator.  And his desperate hatred of Hispanics and Muslims.  And his fear of empowered women.  The list of his empty-headed prejudices is long--and frightening.  It's a national disgrace that we elected him.  We are better than that, better than him.  Stand firm in opposition, assert your faith in what makes America great.  Be the anti-Trump.”

December 21, 2016 to April 1, 2017.  I expect to spend the rest of my days registering opposition to the Trump presidency—that is, after all, the responsibility of an informed citizenry.  But two things have lightened the burden.  
          First, I confess to enormous curiosity about the national direction now that we have finally elected a true outsider.  I might have wished the outsider had been someone else, but I have complained about our cozy two-party system for years, the way party regulars have to toe the line and pick up obligations along the way during every election season--just to get themselves elected.  Donald Trump, bad as he is, has given us a presidency that is beholden to no one.  At this stage we all have good reason to be fearful of the next four years, but I couldn’t be happier that politicians on both sides of the aisle are trembling in their boots.  Their own positions are threatened by a man who won’t be playing by the rules.  
          Second, late night talk shows have been spearheading attacks on Trump, who true to his history, has provided wonderful targets for his opponents to attack.  The New York Times has made it their prime mission each and every day to expose every lie and every example of unpresidential behavior of The Donald.  And as far as I can see, every media outlet is having a similarly good time.  So the bad news is we get to read all about The Donald's uninformed policy gaffes, his unpresidential outbursts, his adolescent behavior, and his embarrassing news conferences, but the good news is that it's fun to watch him self-destruct day by day.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Joe Maddon: A Tampa Point of View

A letter to Tampa Bay Times sports columnist Martin Fennelly:

I fully intend to get past this, but here's one last angry flourish.  I don't see how any article you write about Maddon doesn't have the word "abandoned" in it.  "Betrayed" is good too.  I get it:  he took the money.  We're all supposed to say that's understandable, wish him well, and move on.  But if it's understandable, it was never honorable.  He was just another journeyman bench coach until the Rays gave him a chance.  And he shined.  90 win seasons.  Making something of nothing.  And we loved him.  He was the great equalizer.  Within two years after he abandoned us, he has a world championship and we are back in last place.  How can you not be angry?  How can he not be seen as an ungrateful s-o-b?  Sorry to be such a spoil-sport, but it's just hard to get past such treachery.

But I'm working on it. . . .

The back story:  After 31 years in the California Angels organization, Joe Maddon was finally given a chance to manage in the big leagues by the Tampa Bay Rays (then called the Devil Rays), where he achieved the success he had always dreamed about, winning the American League pennant in 2008 and going to the World Series, which the Rays lost to the Philadelphia Phillies.  He took the Rays to the playoffs in 2010, 2011, and 2013 and was Manager of the Year in 2008 and 2011.  He was colorful and endearing as well.  The Senior Citizen fan base in Tampa adored him.  He was the toast of the town. 

Maddon had a strange opt out clause in his contract in 2014.  It was tied to the contract of Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman.  If Friedman were ever to take a job with another organization, Maddon's contract specified that he had a tiny two week window to leave the Rays.  Peculiar as it was, no one has ever explained why such an unheard of clause was put into Maddon's contract.  When Friedman left to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Maddon suddenly found himself a two-week Free Agent Manager, which as far as I know is the only time in Big League history there has ever been such a thing.  The Chicago Cubs swept in, dangled millions of dollars, and closed the deal stealing Maddon from the Rays before the Tampa Bay franchise or Maddon's adoring fan base knew what hit them. 

A Major League Baseball investigation concluded it was all on the up and up, that there had been no tampering even though baseball observers across the country still think the whole affair smelled bad.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Handicapper's Nightmare: The 2016 Election


No matter who wins, we lose.
Hillary Clinton is widely despised across the board.  Men and women of a certain age remember her as a pushy, overstepping  First Lady with a health-care agenda no one was ready for.  There were rumors of high-handedness, which is the most generous way to put it; at worst she was said to throw her weight around the White House.  She was entitled and wanted to be co-president—or so people thought.
            Then there was the Clintons' Whitewater fiasco, a seemingly endless parade of land purchases, bad loans, and illegal proceedings.  Deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster committed suicide, federal investigations began, and various people went to jail.  But not Bill or Hillary, who were stained by the scandal but not taken down.
            More recently we have seen her as Secretary of State squirming to explain the attacks on the Benghazi embassy that left the Ambassador and his Information Officer dead.  And thousands of her official and classified emails were sent on her private account rather than the government's official one.  Very messy.  Very questionable.  Very unpresidential.
            And what kind of woman "stands by her man" when he's getting blow jobs in the White House bathrooms?  And when the ensuing scandal occupies most of the four years of her husband's second term?  She should have kept her own dignity by dumping her philandering husband.
            Fact is, nobody likes Hillary.  Not much anyway.  And many despise her.  Who could possibly vote for her?
            Well, me for one.
            The reason of course is the moronic Donald Trump, the most epic, self-promoting egotist to cross the national stage--maybe ever.  He overcame big odds in the Republican primaries because he stumbled onto political gold, the fertile valley of middle-class, racist, anti-immigrant, flag-waving, empty-headed American men.  He's convinced them they're going to make America great again--on the backs of blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, women, and gays.  He's the billionaire who has convinced American men that he's just like them.
            Hillary has left a trail of questionable decisions, but The Donald has no public record at all--except for five years on a reality television show, which made him a celebrity in the most celebrity conscious country in the world.  National politics has given his monumental ego what it most wants and needs.  Every breath he takes is recorded by the media.  He has Secret Service protection.  He roars, points his thumbs up, and waves the flag.  And he struts around on the biggest of stages, the American presidential sweepstakes.  He's an absolute fraud, an intellectual lightweight.  For years he has gone on talk shows and been laughed at.  He's a clown after all, a buffoon.  Letterman loved skewering him.  It was almost too easy.
            It hasn't dawned on his supporters that their rich leader is using them, tapping into their insecurities and fears--that his money will separate him from them inescapably and forever.  Which he's happy about.  The last thing he wants is to rub elbows with the men and women voting for him.  This is not a man of the people.  Unless, of course, you mean rich people.
            But through the long campaign season, Trump's shoot-from-the-hip style, his take-no-prisoners rhetoric, his talk-fast-think-later approach to debates and stump speeches has struck a chord with middle-class American men.  They've been humiliated by eight years of a black Democrat, and Donald Trump has turned out to be the anti-Obama.  That's what American men like about him.  The billionaire will make America great again by grabbing presidential power on behalf of the common man.  He says he can kill someone and still be elected.  He couldn’t be a greater embarrassment.
            Trump's brand of Americanism isn't new, though.  It's called "nativism," and it has emerged sporadically in our history, most notably in the 1840s and 1850s when "native" American white men were threatened by Irish immigrants, who were taking jobs away from "real" Americans and threatening American Protestantism with their report-to-the-pope Catholicism.  Nativists came together as the national American Party, which was widely called the Know Nothing Party, and they stood for hatred--of blacks, of immigrants, and of Catholics.  Donald Trump, exploiting popular prejudices and widespread fear, is the newest Know Nothing.  He’s an anomaly, a blip on the radar tracking the upward climb of American democracy.   
            This isn't a case where voters can choose the lesser of two evils.  Our candidates are both bad, both seriously flawed.  I’m going to hold my nose and vote for Hillary—at least she’s a serious leader, while The Donald will never be anything more than a scary clown.  

Election Night:  Trump wins.  The actual numbers are still uncertain and no news source is announcing that Trump has won, but he has.  I had it all wrong.  I figured the GOP blew the election by putting up the one candidate Hillary Clinton could beat.  Turns out the Democrats blew it by putting up the one candidate Trump could beat.  But as I said at the outset, no matter who wins, we lose.  So brace yourself America and buckle up.  We're about to experience some serious turbulence.

            Two weeks after the election, November 22:  According to USA Today, Trump won the electoral college vote, 290-232 (270 are needed to win), but lost the popular vote by some 1.7 million votes.  Votes are still being counted, but the newspaper estimates Clinton’s lead will continue to grow, but the electoral college vote will not change.    

Three and a half weeks after the election, December 2:  According to Editor William Falk in The Week, Hillary Clinton decided "to virtually ignore 'safe' Wisconsin and Michigan in the final weeks,” a bad decision considering that she lost both states “by 0.3 and 1 percent, respectively.”  Shades of the election of 2000, when Al Gore lost the presidency to George W. Bush because he couldn't win his own state of Tennessee, Bill Clinton's state of  Arkansas, or traditionally Democratic West Virginia, any one of which would have given him enough electoral college votes to win the election.  Instead, we got Bush Junior—and lived to tell the story.  Now we have The Donald—and somehow the country will survive him too.