Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holidays: Old Farts Style

Holidays are always an interesting time, as in the interesting times that are either a blessing or a curse, depending upon your cultural horror scope. But what makes them even more interesting is when you strip away the ordinary layers of family, food, and community, and discover there's something underneath the tinsel and tears that hangs on long after the final glass is wiped dry and placed back in the cabinet--an introspection that takes root only after being thoroughly fertilized with festive manure.

Traveling through the insightful landscape can be triggered by drama, trauma, or simple family and/or community dysfunctionality. There's nothing like the festering stench of unresolved issues to propel you forward into the clear insight of putting never again at the top of your New Year's resolutions. Holidays remind you that time doesn't wound all heals; sometimes it sits you across from them at the dinner table and forces you to confront them along with your own demons.

There is also the horrible loneliness of trying to celebrate a holiday when there's missing friends and family. No matter how big the party is, no matter how much time has passed, the places at the table filled with different people will always serve as a reminder of those no longer with us, whether by death, divorce, or choice. And the longer they've been gone, the more sainted or evil they become, which leads to the person occupying their former seat inheriting the will never be good enough tag or the impossible expectation of will always be better so you better not screw up tag. And there will certainly be at least one person, if not several, who see you as seated in one of those preconceived chairs, no matter how much you try and deny it.

The best way to get through the holidays is to constantly remind yourself that this too shall pass, and in the morning the blinding hangover will be worth an evening of blocking out grandpa's annoying new trophy wife, the cousin who chugged the good brandy, the ex who either shot if looks could kill glances your way all night, or worse yet, came on to you after draining the liquor cabinet, and the people making polite conversation with you so they can gather enough dirt to gossip about you later.

Or you can take complete charge of your own life and happiness and celebrate the holidays with only those you choose. No relatives you'd have nothing to do with if they weren't family, and especially none of the obligatory serial spouse acceptances that comes with that familial baggage. No monster ex's tolerated for the sake of the children. No neighbors who annoy you 364 days of the year but then you have to both pretend that's okay for the sake of the holidays. No hordes. No crowds. No drama. No hysterics.

But truthfully, we're not that brave so the option left is to wait until old age decides for us. At some point in our lives we look around and realize that the herd has been drastically thinned by time. We no longer have to get together for the sake of the kids, because the kids are too busy getting together for the sake of their kids.  The relatives are either dead or are playing weird grandparent to their own children, and our friends become those who have endured the cruel tricks of time with us, and yet are still around to share memories and insights it takes years to develop. Occasionally, all those various spokes get together in one wheel called "the family reunion," but more accurately known as the yearly Championship Drinking and Perpetual Regret Event.

For most holidays, old age happily determines the guest list. One of the best ways this delightful reward of finally being able to choose your own holiday company was illustrated in my life by  two separate recent events. The first one was a conversation with a man ten years younger. From the beginning, we failed to agree on the concepts of generosity, compassion, and the unyielding (to me, anyways) obligation to help ease the suffering of those less fortunate. After several days of futile arguing, I realized we were living in different worlds.

 His was a world of things, and mine was a world of people. His was a world where looks still mattered, the inner world was simply icing on an attractive package, and mine was a world where we're all starting to look the same: old, gray and wrinkled with only the inner world having special value. His was a world of grudges and resentments, and mine was a world of not having time for that useless crap because there just weren't enough years left to let it take the place of more important things to focus on. I never managed to explain to him that when you're looking at a life span that could be measured in years instead of decades, perspective changes drastically.

There are crucial decades in life where being separated by them can be an insurmountable wall and I'm convinced, with rare exceptions--usually musicians and other artists who know what it means to struggle and sacrifice and need help from others to practice their art for the enjoyment of others, the decade between being fifty and sixty is one of them. I  no longer try and argue with those in that age gap. I know what's coming for them and all I can do is just whisper under my breath: just wait, you arrogant little twit. One day you'll understand. It's amazing how satisfying that is.

But the second event really brought it home for me. I was walking on the beach and saw a group of four people, all at least seventy if not in their eighties. They had that feeling of longtime friends who knew each other so well, they walked as one being. One of them bent down to the water and picked up a flat rock, and then he flung it with expert ease so it skipped gracefully across the water. Then another one followed until they were all standing there giggling, skipping rocks, and being the little kids again they obviously were many decades ago together. Sure, their bodies didn't move as easily or gracefully, but the ease of friendship, the smiles, and the ending and walking away together in unison more than made up for it.

I suspect they were childhood friends who moved away, raised families, lost touch, mourned and grieved so often they no longer could say how many they lost without stopping to think. As old age crept up on them,  they retired and then eventually reconnected on a beach filled with other people who were in the same stage of life, and once again they became the children who set the first stitches of those bonds many years ago because being old allows you the freedom to be young again.

As I watched them walk away I understood that what I wanted to say to the young fool ten years younger than myself was that the middle years really don't count. They're simply a way of passing time until we can grow old and return to something very similar to those early years, only this time with the friends and family of our choice.

I want him to know it's a special time when we don't have  to explain or defend the path that brought us together. We already know it led us to a time of life when we have to support each other unconditionally because society has long written us off as useless and in the way and our bodies no longer allow us such things as fresh starts. We're all we have because we know friendship means depending on each other and the older we get, the less guilty we feel about it and the more willing we are to help each other without expecting anything in return.

My poor acquaintance has long forgotten and has yet to remember once again the value of a simple rock skipping across the waves and the memories it awakens in an aging body. He can't understand yet why the older you get the more you're willing to help other people who have less, even if it means sharing your last piece of bread. He hasn't gone through the decade yet where you begin to understand you're on your own because the young don't care about you, and you see them always finding new and more selfish ways to turn away from the old and elderly.

But most of all, he doesn't know that as we aged and experienced this, we vowed  never to treat each other that way, that we knew our survival depended on being able to give and receive love, compassion, generosity, and the help of others. He doesn't understand that true freedom means letting go of the need to define everything from a material perspective and learn to define wealth as true, unbreakable friendships that endure beyond time, money, and material wealth.

But most of all, he  can't understand until he has lost nearly everyone in his life and is left with just a handful of cherished and handpicked friendships, that we would easily give up every single possession we had just to spend one more day with a beloved friend no longer with us so they could skip rocks on a beach and sigh happily with the contentment of a life time friendship. He just has to wait and get there himself once he crosses that last bridge of things and appearances. Only then will he understand that it's the very young and the very old who possess the keys and tools to create a better, more compassionate world.

We just have to get the middle  to understand this before they've lived the lessons that will teach them this valuable and cherished truth because our planet cannot handle more selfishness and greed. We have to move toward generosity. We have to learn how to give without expecting anything in return.

But it can't come from the old or the young. No one takes what we have to say seriously enough to make any major changes. It has to come from the few and rare exceptions, the true givers, the truly unselfish, the amazingly kind and loving human beings within their own generations. That is the only way we will ever have a better world because change must come from inside us, from our own circle, from our own peers who have the wisdom to see beyond their own time and place. Other than living long enough, it just can't happen any other way.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

A story from Christmas 1989

Maria sent me a huge zip file of old emails, stories, ramblings, musings, and astonishingly perceptive writings from  Anna when she first moved to Bellingham in 1989 and we became friends. I've been reading them over the last few weeks and continue to be astonished at her ability to both sum up and accurately describe people and events. She could spend five minutes with someone, or read a few pages of their words and then describe them to me so accurately I was often left speechless and unable to respond to the accuracy of her insight. My favorites were what she called her "immorality tales." Here is one for you to enjoy. She wrote it about this time of year in 1989. I remember it as being a bitterly cold winter, her last one.

TWENTY THOUSAND POUNDS OF ORANGES, an immorality tale by Anna Winston, December 1989.

Once upon a time there was a man who thought his life would be oh so much better if only he could magically make all his debts disappear and have extra left to live easily without working. He was sure he deserved this because he helped people all the time and told himself he did it because he was a good man and didn't want anything back.

But it wasn't true he didn't want anything back. He wanted something back. He wanted proof that his goodness wasn't just for the sake of being good, that it would reward him for being good. He didn't want to work for it and he wanted people to think of him as a good person. He wanted to be rewarded for all the times he gave. He wanted his giving to be an investment in his goodness. There was nothing free about it. He expected payment, but was too ashamed to admit it. Besides it did not fit his image of being good for goodness's sake.

As he sat around one day contemplating how to get rewarded for being good and feeling sorry for himself because everyone he was good to was taking so long in being good back to him, another friend offered to sell him twenty thousand pounds of oranges for hardly any money as he was desperate to save his home where the oranges grew wild and free.

Our young man negotiated for the oranges. He knew how much he had to pay in order to turn a nice profit that would allow him to live comfortably without working. It was less than his friend wanted, but his friend was desperate and really, whose fault was it that his friend was desperate? Surely not our young man's fault. He had done nothing but good for people. His karma was pure. He told himself he deserved to pay less so he paid less. His friend's distress was not his fault.

So he ended up with twenty thousand pounds of oranges,more than he could eat in a lifetime. He carefully sat down and figured out the maximum he could charge for the oranges and it was a lot because there were no other oranges and he knew people needed oranges to be happy. He convinced himself he was selling happiness so he asked the most he could get.

It was predictable that hardly anyone bought the oranges, but soon word got around that he had the only oranges in town so the community selected one person to go ask him if he would sell them the oranges at a discount so they could go to the next town that was out of oranges for a lot longer and were more desperate to buy them at any price. Then they could take the extra and buy oranges for themselves too.

Since some of the oranges were starting to rot and he wasn't anywhere near his goal of living without working, he agreed to the discount, which wasn't really a discount since it was a whole lot more than he had paid for all the oranges. But he told himself it was his good fortune to have all the oranges, that he had helped so many people and received nothing in return, that he deserved the riches that came from others desperation.

At first it worked out well. He sold enough oranges to pay off his initial investment and soon it was all profit. He was on his way to his goal of living without working. But then he ran into a problem he never anticipated. The people he had helped, the ones he ended up selling the oranges to, found out how much he really paid for the oranges. They were angry and upset and felt horribly used.

It wasn't that they believed he deserved no profit at all, but that he wanted excessive profit as payback for being a good person. He had invested his goodness and expected it to pay off or why be good? This is what hurt them deeply, that his giving came with a price, that his help was not from the heart but from his ledger book where he kept careful track of what he gave and how and if it came back to him enough to make it worth it.

Many of his friends quit selling his oranges for him and made the choice to give up all oranges since now they tasted bitter with  betrayal and usury. Our young man's oranges began to rot and he began to panic . It didn't matter that he had already earned more than he paid. It wasn't enough that he had made a lot of money without working. He wanted more. He wanted full payment for all the good he had done. He wanted to be rewarded for being a good person.

But he didn't understand that people aren't good because they expect a reward. They are good because it is who they are and instead of expecting a reward, they assume from the beginning that their giving is reward enough. He would never understand this because deep inside of him he was not a good person. He was a greedy person who gave to get.

When his oranges rotted away unsold and uneaten, he told himself he was victim of other people, that he would never help people again because it didn't pay off. He locked himself away from everyone and began to hate the world for not rewarding him for being good.

He blamed everyone for taking from him and never giving back. Soon everyone that he originally gave freely to became in his mind, people who took from him. It was so easy for him to make this leap, this huge jump from altruism to unsatisfied greed because he was raised to believe only things had value.

He died a miserable and lonely old man who stank of rotted, uneaten oranges. But he died with a lot of things. A whole lot of things. Much more than he could ever use or appreciate in a lifetime. It was his reward for being a good person.

With his final breath he cursed those he gave to who never had enough things to give back. Their friendships meant nothing to him. Their love and loyalty meant even less. Those weren't things to him. They were excuses. All that mattered was that he died with the most things and they didn't get his oranges.


Friday, December 16, 2011

RIP Christopher Hitchens

He was maddening at times, but I always went back for more because he was a mental drug I needed in a world that oftentimes seemed dominated by the idiocy of  the Palins, Bachmanns, Perrys, Trumps, and other members of the terminally stupid club. I knew that even if I completely disagreed with him, as I did many times, especially over the Iraq War,  the way he presented his side of the story was always a satisfying and  infuriating read. He was able to do something many people who feel passionately about a subject were unable to do: he was able to engage those who thought differently in the conversation. That is what made his intellect so addicting in a world increasingly populated by morons who wouldn't give an inch and expected you to swallow the whole mile.

But one area where we completely agreed was Atheism.  There was no maybe there. There was no taking the side of it with one hand and holding out skepticism with the other. He brilliantly described what I always knew about religion, that it flourished by destroying individual freedom, that it grew by creating followers instead of leaders, that it destroyed the humanity in people because it gave them an excuse to be evil. He saw religion as a wedge to divide people, a tool to control and manipulate them mentally, and a weapon to use on them if they dared to stray too far from conformity.

He took on Mother Teresa,  a woman who horrified my sense of decency when she stood outside the chemical plant in Bhopal and screamed for the world to forgive them for poisoning and killing all those people--while the bodies were still warm. He rightly attacked her for supporting the thieves and thugs in the Keating Scandal, for taking the side of the ugly underbelly of corporate greed over the innocent victims of that greed.

MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. READ MORE

I continue to profoundly respect  his courage in taking on the ultimate sacred cow and exposing her for the self-serving and religion-addled tool that she was. And it gives me great pleasure knowing that he outlived her, that he was able to dig deep into the roots that created her and educated many in the world about the dangers of being a tool for the ultimate wealthy and uncaring corporation: the Catholic Church. And while it is probably true that George Bush's disgusting use of religion to perpetuate his sadism and ignorance on the world created a backlash that converted many people to Atheism, and exposed Christianity as just another political tool, I am profoundly grateful to Christopher Hitchens for giving Atheism a validity it very much needed to counteract the ignorance and danger of that kind of  blind religious fervor.

May the worms nibble gently and may we all learn from the legacy of his maddening, intellectually satisfying assholiness. His life was worth the space it took on the earth. Not many can die with that accomplishment as their legacy.


Thursday, December 08, 2011

War of the Classes

Maria and I have been exchanging emails on what Anna would have thought about the Occupy Wall Street movement. On the surface, when you measure the response against how she lived her own life, how she gave away her own wealth to help others, it seems something she would have embraced wholeheartedly.

But, as I wrote to Maria today, Anna was much more complex than that. She detested simple categories and would have peeled back current events with the precision of someone peeling layers from the last onion on the planet, because she detested one class more than she detested the wealthy life of privilege she was raised in, and that was the middle class.

She believed everything about the middle class was fake and that it didn't really exist. It was an invented category to keep people working at jobs they hated,  a myth to keep them chasing a carrot on a stick that would always be just out of reach, and it forced people to live on credit to make up for the lack of decent wages and benefits they needed to support a middle-class lifestyle. It was all on the surface and there was no depth to it. It was a bridge built over someone else's dream.

I hate their perfect teeth, their boring clothes, their shallow friendships that ask only what you can do for them. I dislike their horrible little spoiled children they're inflicting on the planet, she wrote me when I asked why, as such a devout Marxist, that she detested the average person just struggling to get by.

Anna believed the middle class was actually the servant class putting on airs of superiority to hide the fact that everyone was their master, unlike the poor who knew they could always get another shit job, and if that didn't work out, they could find another one and other one. There wasn't any shortage of shit jobs, she always said, and being able to walk away from one was a freedom the so-called middle class has long forgotten existed. The middle class couldn't walk away because all that mattered to them were things and more things. They could care less about people unless those people bought them new toys that were bigger and shinier than their neighbor's toys. They were owned by their things. People didn't really matter much. They could always be exchanged for someone new if the old friend or lover didn't work out.

But she also knew it wasn't always this way, that there was a time when people could work and not need credit just to survive. It was when jobs came with union wages and benefits. The tax base was strong because  the jobs were there to pay into it. That meant roads were fixed, bridges kept in repair, and schools well-funded.

We had many discussions about this because she was the ultimate realist and saw deep through the superficial perfection of the time. Yes, it was a better time in that way, but it was also a time when racism was considered normal, women who wanted something more than marriage and a family were considered psychologically ill, and when the kind of small town mentality that festered under the guiding hand of some unholy intermediary preaching fear from the pulpit, made the churches of America the most segregated buildings in the country.

Anna was an Atheist but she truly believed Ronald Reagan was the devil because it was under his presidency that the real decay started. She had a magazine cover from one of the subscriptions her father read religiously. It was right after Reagan was elected and it had a woman in a mink draped over an expensive sports car and the headline said it was okay to be rich again. That's when the war really started. And it was a war against those who were poor, those who thought that if they worked hard enough, they could reach the mythical middle class that awaited them just beyond the horizon.

For Anna it was a war that became extremely personal. She never thought much about the source of her family's considerable wealth. She grew up with the children of other wealthy parents. She went to the private schools they all went to together. She described her early life as uneventful.

What changed it for her was an internship she did for her PhD that sent her into poor sections of the country. She didn't know poverty like that existed in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. She was ashamed for America, embarrassed that so many of its most vulnerable citizens, the young and the old, were forced to live in conditions unheard of in many parts of the civilized world.

Shortly after this experience, her grandfather died and while going through his journals and translating them, she discovered he'd been a Nazi and the source of the family wealth more than likely came from unsavory business dealings he made during the war in Germany.

You would have had to know Anna to understand how this devastated her, how completely it destroyed her emotionally. This was a woman who was kind, generous, compassionate, and didn't have a bigoted bone in her body. The realization that this man's blood ran through her own veins horrified her so much that she had nightmares of draining all the blood from her body and replacing it with someone else's. The self-hate was so thick it filled the room with her agony. Everyone was afraid she would kill herself to escape the pain.

But Anna didn't die right away.  I'm convinced it was during this time that she became an addict because nothing else numbed the pain. She went through rehab three times but each time the pain would win, the emotional devastation would keep her from being able to get out of bed in the morning. But one day she woke with a sense of purpose, a desire to make up for the harm her grandfather had inflicted on humanity. It gave her enough strength to crawl out and then spend the next two years undoing what her grandfather had spent decades putting together.

I will never know the complete list of places that benefited from her generosity, but I do know that many domestic violence shelters received anonymous donations, usually in small towns she had traveled through on one of her extended backpacking trips across America. I know that some promising, but poverty stricken young women, found themselves with hefty college funds. On a personal level, I know that a very large medical bill I had suddenly disappeared one day. She never admitted it but there was no one else who had that kind of money and wanted to just give it away without expecting anything in return.

One of the most important things she did was train a group of colleagues in Europe on how to work with children of Holocaust victims and the children of those who put them there. She believed if the hate was stopped at the children of war victims, then maybe there was hope for peace on the planet, so she worked on teaching them how to forgive, how to move on, how to stop letting the past cripple them emotionally, while at the same time never forgetting the evil that had caused it.

She was fairly controversial in her methods because she blamed wars and the hate they spawned on the greed of the wealthy and the lack of honor and ethics money inflicts on people. In this she was inflexible. She truly believed you couldn't be both a good person and wealthy because what made you good was destroyed by the greed that takes root when you have so much wealth. She said it was like drugs, that you wanted more and more and more because it was never enough. And like drugs, it made you not care who you stepped on and what you destroyed in order to get more wealth.

In the last year of her life Anna became rigidly inflexible in how she perceived the influence of the rich and powerful on the world. She refused to meet any of my friends who had trust funds or who had inherited more than a few hundred dollars  from a dead relative because she believed inheritances planted the seed of greed in them, that they would someday sprout that seed over some money issue.

The poor, she wrote me once, they forgive you not having money. They understand when you can't pay back that twenty dollars. But those little trustafarians, they'll cut the friendship off if you don't pay them back their dollar. And the wealthy, they'll make you sign a note and charge you interest and if you don't pay them back, they'll take something from you, like your house or your car. Like gangsters. Or drug dealers. Or bitter exes.

Anna did a lot of good with her wealth. She spent it well. She gave it freely. She washed the blood from it and made it work for good instead of evil. And one day, it was gone and she was living on the proceeds of her cabin she sold the winter before, in a tiny studio apartment with a computer and two cats. We had spent the winter on her final project helping women from the Bosnian war learn skills to teach them how to survive on their own after losing the breadwinners in the family to genocide. She helped children of war find homes where they would hopefully one day heal from the wounds of hate.

Maria was one of those children and when I think of Anna, I think of Maria and her sisters and countless other children. I believe Anna would be out there with the Occupy movement because there is no more middle class. There is rich and poor. There is ruling class and working class. The world she always told me really existed beneath the facade has come to pass and she would be the first one out there telling people to wake up, to take back their lives, to value each other, to honor friendships, to forgive but never forget, and most importantly to never forget the power of love because it can't be bought, it can't be traded, it can't be lost. In the end, it is all any of us ever have that truly matters.

Starry Night print
Starry Night by orsobear
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