Who Mourns for Sweet Lou?

Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.  I haven’t yet read one tribute to the life and times and art of Lou Reed, but I expect most of them will focus on these three things.  Likely, Reed will be remembered mostly for his gender-bending Transformer album, his unabashed romances with heroin and other drugs and his unapologetic anthems to good times, altered states, hard rock, punk, and casual sex.  Unfortunately, these will comprise the legacy of Lou Reed according to most media coverage of his passing.

But Lou Reed was so much more.  I have often said that if there is a wake for me, I want Reed’s Magic & Loss album to be played at it.  But, hell, I’ve changed my mind.  If I get a chance to lie in a deathbed I want Magic & Loss to be played then.  What good is a great album if you’re too dead to hear it?

Sure, I spent a lot of time listening to Reed’s early counter-culture ravings, and I enjoyed them immensely.  As a singer and guitarist I loved to cover “Walk on the Wild Side.”  Few musicians wouldn’t.  It’s a joyous romp that embraces the forbidden, calling us to cast off stuffy social regulation, and it includes politically incorrect and vulgar verbiage to boot.  Nice riffs, too.  Fun stuff.  But, as Reed matured, so too did his themes.

It was with New York from 1989 that I really started to pay attention to Lou Reed as a modern-day philosopher.  This is an angry album, loaded with biting contempt for the enduringly lazy and stupid American.  His “painter friend” John Mellencamp once said, “Stick a fork in their asses, turn them over; they’re done,” and Reed cleverly works this line into one of the songs.  With New York, Reed places himself in the middle of politics, and his stance is well outside any mainstream.  Of course.  Where else would Lou Reed stand?  The album laments our maddening love of guns and bombs and prejudice, our callous disregard for the environment, and the sub-human behaviors that perpetuate vicious cycles of violence, addiction and misery.  Still, decades ahead of most of the rest of us, Reed exalts gay pride through an inspirational homage to AIDS victims and patients in the simultaneously celebratory and funereal “Halloween Parade.”

The album that really blew me away came just a few short years later: Magic & Loss.  It is a tribute to a friend who dies the slow and painful death of cancer helped along by modern medicine.  And so the album, a daring piece of experimental work, can be painful to listen to as well.  Yet it manages to resonate with sober conclusions which affirm life and laud man’s redemptive capacities while deftly balancing despair with hope: “There’s a little bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out” is the album’s final line.

The most penetrating song on Magic & Loss is the jaunty number that asks, “What’s good?”  Reed posits that though there are an awful lot of things in life that are not good, life itself is intrinsically good.  “What good is cancer in April?” he asks.  “No good, no good at all,” he answers.  After asking about many such things in life that turn out to be no good, Reed arrives at and repeats the refrain, in his signature sing-speak vocal style, “Life’s good, life’s good, life’s good, life’s good” before reminding us that “life’s good, but not fair at all.”

This unusual compilation of blistering guitar tracks blended with blue-hued explorations, jazzy exhortations and dark revelations courtesy of rock both soft and hard, New Wave synth rhythms and disturbing death dirges, featuring Reed’s trademark gritty urban perspectives (“Last night on 33rd Street I saw a kid get hit by a bus,” “They said at the end the pain was so bad you couldn’t stop screaming,” “The cold black sea waits for me, me, me, the cold black sea waits forever”) is a lot to handle, but we owe Sweet Lou the effort.  He provoked us for a long time, helping us to overcome taboos, and along the way to dispense with some of our most primitive manifestations of stupidity.  He transformed suspicion and revulsion into tolerance and acceptance, a truly herculean achievement.  He reminded us that life deserves many massive bear hugs, not just a few innocent chicken pecks, from all its participants.

I shall remember these monumental accomplishments as I mourn the loss of Lou Reed, one of the 20th century’s foremost “warrior-kings.”

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Goodbye, Jim

After eight years trying to become only the third manager in MLB history to win a World Series in both leagues, Jim Leyland, manager of the Detroit Tigers, has decided to retire.  Speaking as a fan and an admirer, I say, “Farewell, Jim.  I will miss you.”

“This job entails a lot more than people think,” was one of Jim’s comments at the press conference where he announced his retirement.  That tight, quintessentially understated Leyland statement probably sums up the reasons for his departure as much as anything I could write.

No joking around, Jim has a lot of detractors.  Disgruntled Tigers fans find it easy to point their fingers at him for the team becoming a powerhouse and then not living up to expectations.  It’s easy to blame Jim.  It’s easy and it can be done without thought, which is how most people live.  But people forget that before 2006, Detroit was the American League laughing stock and that in six of the eight years with Jim at the helm the Tigers went to the post-season.  During that span, the team won the American League pennant twice but lost the World Series both times.  Only one season was the team entirely out of contention.

Jim Leyland, known affectionately to his workers (which is how he regards his players) as Skip, is a beloved manager.  Sure, he’s crusty and ornery at times, clipped with the press, abrupt and brutally honest.  But so what?  No one can manage anything, especially not a professional baseball team, without being a bit impatient, irascible and thick-skinned.  But Jim is really a big softie underneath his gruff exterior.  Don’t tell the line, “There’s no crying in baseball,” to Jim.  With only two players still in the lineup from the 2006 World Series team, Jim became the heart and soul and face of the Detroit Tigers.  And that face was not afraid to cry tears of joy, gratitude and love.  He felt the pain of the fans, especially the economic pain in hard-luck Detroit, keenly.  He wept a lot, when the team lost or, as he would say, “when we let our fans down,” and when the team won or, as he would say, “when we lifted the spirits of all these wonderful people.”  He was grateful to the fans for the love they showed year after year, for their loyalty through all the disappointments, and even for their criticism, which shows just how closely people keep the Tigers in their thoughts.  Expressions of gratitude, love and respect were often accompanied by tears.  That’s how seriously Jim took the game and his job.

If the Tigers have let a lot of us down over the past few years, there are plenty of folks to blame.  How about bone-headed General Manager decisions to pay big money for big bats while decimating the team’s defensive capacity?  How about subpar performances from such big names as Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez?  How about superstar Miguel Cabrera’s offense mattering hardly at all and his and Fielder’s defense stinking up the corners of the infield?  Could Jim do anything about these things without being General Manager himself or overstepping his bounds?  Not likely.  Besides, ultimately baseball is a team game and everyone bears their share of the blame.  That’s what Jim says.  He said, “We did it collectively; there’s no one culprit.”  Again, his short sentence sums it up pretty damned well.

I wanted Jim to win it all this year.  I wanted Jim to join his friend Tony LaRussa in retirement as the two living managers who have won the World Series in both leagues.  I wanted Jim to go out of the game on a winning note and, after fifty years of devotion to the game, finally spend a summer sipping a few beers while going fishing with LaRussa.  Maybe he’ll do that anyway, but baseball is a terrifically difficult game and Jim, as much as anybody, knows these harsh realities.  We only get three strikes per at-bat.  We only get twenty-seven outs per game.  We only get nine innings to bring in the harvest.  In Detroit, Jim decided he only got eight years to get it right.  Oh, he says he’ll stay with the team in some capacity, but don’t all retirees say that?  I am just grateful for how hard he worked managing “my” team for those years.

It’s with a tear in my eye that I say, “Thank you, Jim.  May you enjoy your golden years.”

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Lessons from Sandy and Sandy Hook

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has written a book called A Nation of Wusses.  I haven’t read it, but I know what it’s about because I’ve heard him speak about it many times.  It is a lamentation that our nation seems to be stuck in a paralyzing malaise, immobilized by a victim mentality, frightened to do much of anything, let alone anything great or courageous or unprecedented like traveling to the moon or building infrastructure systems that span a continent.  We can’t even muster up the political courage to raise taxes. 

I think this mentality of moping around in moroseness is a residual effect of the events of September 11, 2001.  I think, too, that we are still traumatized as a nation because our prize city and our capital city were both successfully attacked.  And, because we are still traumatized, we still feel vulnerable and terribly, terribly anxious.  Our nation has not yet healed.  If we were Japan, having had our capitol firebombed into oblivion before seeing two of our industrial cities nuked, or if we were any of the European countries that have seen the barbarity of war played out in their backyards for centuries, we would have gotten over 9/11 by now.  But we still quiver in fear because 19 religious lunatics with box cutters attacked New York and Washington, DC with our own airplanes and killed three thousand civilians.  Despite the sprawling homeland security apparatus that has proliferated since then, we remain a trauma victim, and fresh tragedies have the effect of compounding a collective national sense of vulnerability.

This traumatized and vulnerable mentality that keeps us frozen in fear has become vividly apparent during the two most recent American national disasters: the striking of Hurricane Sandy and the latest mass murder at a school.  The latter of these is the most recent in what has become a veritable epidemic of school shootings, this one at an elementary school named, weirdly and congruously, Sandy Hook, in Newtown, Connecticut.  20 little kids, as well as seven adults, were shot to death.

To help raise relief funds for victims still suffering through the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a collection of some of the greatest living rock stars assembled for performances at a benefit concert entitled 12/12/12.  It was the kind of thing we have seen before, like George Harrison’s Concert for the Benefit of the People of Kampuchea in the 1970s, like Bob Geldof’s Live Aid to raise money to get food and medicine to the victims of famine in Africa in the 1980s, and like the Amnesty International Human Rights concert tour to help raise awareness about government brutality in the 1990s.  Surely, 12/12/12 was historic, but not for the reason that it brought together the remnants of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band on one stage; it was historic because it raised the question of why in hell it was deemed necessary to hold a relief concert to benefit people of the United States, the wealthiest country on the planet.  Sure, the conditions and prospects that victims of Sandy are facing are rough, but this is the United States.  This country has been building various eighth wonders of the world for over a century now.  Can’t we take care of these survivors?  It’s not as if they are facing down a government dedicated to purging all elements of modernity, including independent thought, from the ranks of the population like Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge government tried to do in Kampuchea, more commonly known as Cambodia.  It’s not as if the United States, the most obese nation on Earth, is enduring a food shortage as a result of Hurricane Sandy, a common enough after-effect of typhoons in financially poor nations like, you guessed it, Cambodia.  And it is not as if the United States doesn’t enjoy a long democratic tradition, free from monarchs and dictators and tyrannical governments that slaughter and make enemies out of its own people like the old apartheid regime in South Africa.  No, it’s just that many people in pockets of New Jersey and New York are still without electrical power, many have lost their homes and need help rebuilding, many more need warm and dry places to stay, and the provision of basic services which people in wealthy nations take for granted, like public schools and hospitals and fire departments and waste disposal and collection, remains broken down.  Is the United States really so “poorly,” as Charles Dickens often described his characters, that it needs world-renowned rock stars to come in and hold a benefit concert to make it all better?  Further, Sandy didn’t blindside us.  Climatologists have been warning us for a long time now that elevated ocean temperatures will cause more severe weather and that climatic changes will require localities that are unused to such natural disasters as hurricanes to learn how to experience them, endure them and deal with their after-effects.

Speaking of not being blindsided, the repetitive refrain about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School is that the whole world joins with Newtown in feeling its sense of shock and horror.  Really?  I must not be part of the world because in a nation which incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other, in a nation where there are more guns than people, where it is easier to get hold of guns than it is to own a car, indeed much easier to obtain a gun license than a driver’s license, I simply do not find it shocking that some deranged dude decided to go on his shooting spree down at the playground.  Horrified?  No, again.  Immunized would be a better word.  Or perhaps hardened or numb.  It happens so often in these United States that it is difficult to feel horror unless we are personally involved.  The previous mass shooting incident had taken place just two days earlier at a shopping mall outside of Portland, Oregon.  A complete list of the mass murders by gunfire that have occurred in the United States over the last two decades would require far too many uncomfortable pages.  Obviously, these occurrences are more than a problem; they have become the normal state of affairs and people are not shocked and horrified by normal states of affairs.  Some say that the fact that most of the victims of this shooting were small children makes it more shocking than a disgruntled worker shooting up his workplace and killing adults.  But this is not true, for when children are killed one at a time in routine outbursts of domestic violence, or as innocent bystanders in gang-related shootings, or in the senseless violence that plagues many impoverished urban areas, no one talks about such events as shocking.  Tragic?  Certainly.  Shocking?  Not so much.  The estimate of the number of people killed by guns in the United States each day is 30, some of them children.  But when those people die, no national attention is afforded them.

And what about places where death and violence and bombings and shootings are daily experiences?  If the whole world is indeed sharing in Newtown’s grief, why do we not weep for the children of Somalia, a place that can only laughingly be referred to as a country, a place where civilization has reverted to barbarism, run by gun-toting thugs willing to do anything simply to survive?  Why do we not cry for women in Islamist cultures whose existence is tolerated only because they can produce more men?  Does anybody still grieve for Honduras, which in 1998 suffered Hurricane Mitch which wiped out 80% of that country’s entire economy and whose recovery was forecast to take decades?  And doesn’t it seem like we have forgotten about the tsunami that devastated coastal areas of Southeast and South Asia, killing over a hundred thousand, and the later tsunami that smashed eastern Japan like Godzilla, killing tens of thousands and causing a nuclear accident on a par with the Chernobyl disaster?  What about those who have been killed because they were inadvertently caught in the civil wars and religious strife between various factions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or in the American bombardment of those countries?  What about the genocidal horrors that take place in Darfur and Rwanda and those central African countries whose names keep changing because their momentary leaders keep offing each other in unending cycles of revolution?  What about the deprived people of guns-not-butter North Korea, who are ordered to cheer upon learning that their paltry national resources have been expended trying to send rockets into space rather than filling their bodies with nutrition?

When we look upon the world from this kind of perspective, the murders of 27 people in Connecticut, however unpalatable the manner, and the travails of survivors of a hurricane that should have been predicted, take on a hue of insignificance.  What is truly shocking and horrifying is that this nation, with all its resources, feels a need to indulge in mourning, grateful to be joined in that mourning by the “community of nations.”  Why don’t we do something about these matters?  Signing the Kyoto Protocols and agreeing to stop belching so much carbon into the atmosphere would represent a start.  Standing up to the gun rights lobby and calling out its operatives as the small penis syndrome sufferers that they are would represent another good start.  This country needs to stop wallowing in self-pity and self-absorption and start proactively addressing its problems.

In the early 1980s, the punk band known as The Dead Kennedys told the privileged American classes that what they needed to add some much-needed perspective to their lives was a “holiday in Cambodia.”  Privileged Americans in 2013 are in need of such perspective, too, and a similar holiday, maybe this time in Somalia, would provide it.  Back in 2002, Aaron Sorkin wrote a scene for TV in which a psychologist for a fictional American President told that President that the reason for the President’s inability to sleep was that he was afraid to do what was right if it might cost him Michigan’s electoral votes.  This was ten years ago, and this purveyor of what we call pop culture, even as cocaine-addled as he may have been, knew what was wrong with America, he knew what we needed to do to fix it, and he showed us the way.  But still here we are, led by politicians who fear gun lobbyists, who doubt the veracity of climatology research and who cower in dread about the repercussions of raising taxes, enacting sensible gun control laws or making genuine efforts to do what we can to foster peace and justice in the world, efforts which involve more than just throwing bombs at problems.  We face a “fiscal cliff” and a “debt ceiling” but our leaders are so gripped by fear that they cannot bring themselves to do what is quite obviously necessary to solve these problems – raise taxes.  Tax revenue is what built this country into a superpower, what rendered it the place where millions of dispossessed people around the globe aspired to go, what allowed it to become the nation for which no feat was impossible.  When we went to the moon, Mars was next but, instead, something new to America, fear, began to guide its actions, or rather, its inaction.  Sadly, we have lost our courage and we now prefer to succumb to emotional turmoil and display for the world sorrowful tears over whatever unfortunate event comprises the tragedy of the moment.

Aw, you are sad that some people died and that some other people are suffering.  Well, welcome to reality, America!  Face up to it, behave like a responsible adult rather than a sniveling adolescent, show some grit and deal with the problems like we used to do, by raising the necessary revenue and then setting to work to craft unprecedented solutions.  If we do not do this, we will deserve the derisive description, or worse, the embarrassing epitaph, of America as “a nation of wusses.”

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Right to the Moon!

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, in apparent desperation, resorted to the JFK playbook when he said that by the end of his second putative term as President, the United States would have a permanent base on the Moon.  I laud the sentiment, even though Gingrich provided no details about how such a venture would be funded.  This is of particular importance here because a central element of the old House Speaker’s “Contract with America” was to cut government spending, not to expand it, a policy platform that has by now become so rote that it is always spoken, but rarely upheld, by politicians of the Republican brand.

Still, as a society, as a culture, as a nation and, most palpably, as a species, we need to do precisely what Gingrich proposed.  The late popular astronomer Carl Sagan argued that a return to the Moon would be an unwise expenditure of resources.  His opposition was based on his well-informed opinion that the Moon offered little of practical value.  Instead, Sagan argued, the benefits of space science could be derived from orbital stations which would also serve as platforms where space vessels could be built in zero gee and from which eventual robotic and manned missions to Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and to the asteroid field could be launched.  These worlds, Dr. Sagan argued, contain more clues to the origins of our solar system and the nature of the universe, and more opportunities for discovery, of extraterrestrial life or other wonders, than does Earth’s closest companion.  But Dr. Sagan died before we learned that there are great quantities of water on the Moon, in the form of ice that can be formulated to fuel spacecraft.  A permanent base on the Moon might yet make sense, not for Gingrich’s stated nationalistic purposes (space travel should unite our species, not further divide us), but as a nearby low gee location for spaceship construction and as a logical place to begin what will forever be the necessary human undertaking of extraterrestrial colonization.

Looked at in this light, cost becomes irrelevant.  As a nation, the United States invested enormous human and financial capital in the 1960s to win the space race with the Soviet Union, to fight a futile war in Southeast Asia, and to transform the cultural landscape of America’s domestic front.  Do not decisive steps toward the assurance of the survival of our very species deserve such investment as well?  Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, thinks so.  In addition to the impact that a healthy focus on what he calls “the ultimate frontier” would have on the American imagination, Dr. Tyson adds that the human race is in desperate need of an infusion of wonder, of an audacious vision, of a grand mission forward into a glorious future that would stimulate invention by promoting great new strides in education, industry, engineering, the sciences and high technology.  To literally reach for the stars, especially during dubious times of economic uncertainty, political upheaval and ecological revolt, can reignite the spark of human imagination and motivate us to work together like no other endeavor.  The dream of being able to live and thrive on another world can move us to create the means to make that dream a reality.

The human race must pursue this dream.  As the sheer numbers of humans expand beyond this planet’s sustainability threshold, we will eventually have no choice but to spread to other worlds.  Perhaps a more crucial consideration is the fact that Earth will not remain forever habitable, that a cataclysmic event resulting in our extinction is possible even in the not-too-distant future.  Our species, uniquely so in the universe as far as we know, has risen to a point at which it can imagine leaving the planet of its birth, colonizing other worlds, and voyaging among the stars.  It would be a disappointment of cosmic proportions if that dream were to be left unrealized when it rests so tantalizingly close to our grasp.

To the Moon, then, and beyond!

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Grand Misdirection

Starting on January 3, and now for the rest of the year, the news media will have us focus on this cycle of Republican Presidential primary elections.  It will tell us that this run-up to another general Presidential election is crucially important.  It will tell us that this is a decisive moment in our history.  It will tell us that if we citizens do not participate that we are somehow un-American, that we are neglecting our civic duties.  But, since first voting in 1982, I find that these elections have become more and more farcical and less and less relevant.  What really matters to Americans is not politics, but economics.  And American capitalism is all about the bottom line and little, if anything, else.

In a recent interview, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm summarized the situation this way: “Corporate leadership does not feel a responsibility to the nation; they feel a responsibility to their stockholders.”  I said these exact same words to an Australian economist fifteen years ago and the man thought I was off my rocker.  He could not conceive of what I called “stateless” corporate entities with loyalties to transnational markets, boards of directors and stakeholders.  To my Australian friend, the political economy is similar to what I have written about Canada.  There is in his mind a keen sense of Australian common purpose, a feeling of responsibility for each other, that they are all in it together, so there is perhaps a more compassionate dynamic at play in Australian capitalism. 

Certainly, because my Australian banker friend works in East Asia, he is aware of how capitalism in THOSE cultures is suffused with a great deal of national loyalty from top to bottom.  Few Koreans buy non-Korean products.  The chaebol (massive corporate conglomerates) are 100% loyal to their nation and to the people and to the workers.  The same can be said about Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, China, and probably India, Indonesia and Malaysia.  (Singapore and Thailand are different in this regard.)  And the result is that, unlike the United States, these countries protect their industries.  In return, industries are loyal and don’t ship their jobs overseas.  Often, businesses are so fiercely protective of their local workers that they supplant the State when it comes to commonweal.  These are cultural dimensions of capitalism as it is practiced in that part of the world.  Meanwhile, in the United States, outsourcing, binge spending and being broke become fodder for sit-coms instead of serious matters worthy of critical thought.  Maybe my Australian economist friend has learned in the years since, as he has become more familiar with American capitalism, that what I said fifteen years ago was not so crazy after all.

And this leads to my point that politics, in the end, is really rather a sideshow in America.  How has my life changed under an Obama Administration rather than a Bush one?  To be honest, it’s a lot worse.  But I am just one person.  Still, this illustrates my point that it is not so much our elected leadership making the decisions that impact our lives most profoundly.  Those decisions are made in corporate boardrooms, by government procurement task forces, by groups of deans sitting on steering committees for efficiency and streamlining, and even by foreign institutions and governments.  This is another harsh truth about the American political economy – democracy is not even a part of it.  The media highlights the sideshow, telling us that it is the center ring at the circus.  While the perpetual Presidential campaign holds our attention, real public policy is made virtually anonymously.  This renders democratic processes and institutions in America increasingly irrelevant.  What is happening to America’s vaunted Constitution?  I thought we had the right “peacably to assemble.”  But protests against this state of affairs, one in which unimaginably wealthy entities and individuals are afforded one set of lax rules while everyday working people are subjected to a much more restrictive rulebook, have been quashed.  People remain bitter, and they will vote, but it won’t make a lick of difference.  The voting booth is but a pacifier.

I experienced the most freedom and the most prosperity of my life while living and working outside the United States.  I know my perspective is colored by this fact.  But I think the reality of the current state of affairs is well worth thinking about here, in these United States of America, where assumptions about superior freedom and prosperity are so deeply entrenched that few of us ever question them.  Let us no longer allow ourselves to be swindled by such misdirection.  Let us indeed pay attention to that man behind the curtain.

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Christmas, We Hardly Knew Ye

Surely, I am not the only one who feels, more than a fortnight out from one of the world’s most celebrated holidays, that it has already come and gone.

Admittedly, this observation is grounded in the life of a person who relies on TV as his window on the world.  Sure, most of the bevy of sickeningly repetitious commercials are still for Christmas-related items, but not all of them, not like before Thanksgiving.  The networks, both broadcast and cable, are already telling us what to look for on the idiot box after the Super Bowl in February.  February?  We just turned the calendar to December, we just set out our seasonal decorations, we are just putting up our trees and wreaths, just filling our homes with the aroma of apple cinnamon.  The Christmas cards are just beginning to arrive.  Gingerbread cookies, egg nog and fruit baskets still await us.  And the magical, holy, silent night itself remains distant.  Yet, somehow, it feels like the celebration has come and gone.

As with most everything else, this is because of money.  There were more commercials about Christmas between Halloween and Thanksgiving, instructing obedient consumers to come on down to the stores on Thanksgiving night or in the still-dark early morning hours of what some twisted mind coined “Black Friday.”  We were beseeched to shop locally on Small Business Saturday.  Cyber Monday was promoted for the more online inclined.  On Thanksgiving Day, Christmas references reached their peak, and newscasters as well as advertisers squirmed in anticipation of imminent shopping sprees, as if the next morning heralded Christmas Day itself.  I am no Christian, but I still think the holiday deserves better than to be relegated to a Madison Avenue mass consumption gimmick.  It’s a special time of year, even for secularists, but it has become tarnished by excess, reduced to a time when exorbitant sales figures are expected to surpass those of the previous year.  This cheapens the holiday, transforming it into a spike in the inexorable march of the business cycle.

Where is the meaning?  The well-loved Christmas specials have already aired.  Some guy sang about mistletoe and Saint Nick, holly and yuletide, Oriental kings and what came upon a midnight clear a couple of nights ago.  Hold your horses!  It’s not here yet.  By the time it does get here, we’ll have been so saturated with Christmas marketing for so long that we won’t really enjoy Christmas Eve or Christmas Day; we’ll just be glad to be getting it all over and done with.

The reason that the arrival of Christmas is rushed is so that more people will have more time to buy more stuff.  And they are whipped into frenzies over it.  Every year, we hear about shoppers hurting or killing at least one of their own, accidentally or purposefully, amid mad dashes to acquire, to possess, to consume.  It’s shameful, really, downright shameful, sad and disheartening, anathema to what Christmas is ideally all about: peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.  Isn’t our civilization better than this?

It is, but we see it only in pockets of isolation.  Families holding fast to old-time traditions.  The faithful attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve.  Sparkling eyes at ceremonial lightings of municipal Christmas trees.  An annual recitation, by an honorable elder, of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Recalcitrant old codgers refusing to watch Rudolph, the Grinch or Charlie Brown until Christmas Eve, dusting off their VCRs to play old videotapes of those precious Christmas yarns.  Me, I like to sit in the quiet of the night, listen to the silence, watch the flame of a candle dance, inhale the pure scent of pine and nip a little nog before listening to the fine jazz sounds of the Vince Guaraldi Trio performing their renderings of Christmas favorites old and new.

If there is a lesson in all this, it is that the Christmas rush behooves us more than ever to slow down and appreciate some of the fine things about life — good music, treasured tales, once-a-year flavors and gaudy decorations that please the eye if only for a couple of weeks.  Let the sheeplike shoppers scuffle, shove, shout and race their ways through this wonderful season without stopping to savor it.  It’s their loss.

A wise man once told me to stop tightening up my gut for tomorrow’s travails today.  “Life,” he reminded me, “is to be enjoyed.”  I think we’d all be a lot happier and healthier if we took this simple advice, especially at Christmastime.

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Prison for Paterno

Foreword added January 23, 2012:

Since the man is dead, there is no point in arguing for prison for him for being an accessory to rape after the fact.  Despite all the acclaim that is being heaped upon his legacy, much of it having to do with how much good he did for the young men on his football teams, the fact still remains that he didn’t do much good for little boys who trusted one of his own assistant coaches, of whose crimes Paterno was aware.  None of us is perfect, granted, and forgiveness is divine.  But let’s keep the truth in mind before we go about lionizing this man.

To say that I am deeply disturbed by the heinous acts of sexual molestation perpetrated on little boys by a football coach at Penn State University is an understatement.  I feel much more than disturbed.  I am repulsed.  I am sickened.  I am angry.  And I feel adrift.  Where did my country go?

The statement made by head coach Joe Paterno just after he was fired makes me see red. This football icon, a man who is virtually single-handedly responsible for the financial wealth of his community, and therefore the most powerful man in that same community, abided a pedophile in his midst.  But, upon being fired, he talked first about his own troubles, about how he would have to get used to not being a football coach.  Oh, poor Joe!  Only as an afterthought did he tell the news media and the gathered crowd to “pray a little” for the victims.  Pray a little?  Joe Paterno was in a position, for more than a decade, to do a hell of a lot more than just pray for the victims.  He was in a position to do something about it, to help the victims, to prevent more victimization.  But he chose, instead, to place the interests of his football program ahead of the interests of young boys who were being sexually exploited.

Joe Paterno could have stopped his assistant, Jerry Sandusky, from committing any more sex crimes.  All he had to do was refuse to be associated with a child molester, a pedophile who had spent a lifetime maintaining a so-called charity for underprivileged kids so that he could prey upon them.  He could have turned Sandusky in as soon as he learned that Sandusky had sodomized at least one little boy in Penn State’s football locker room.  He could have had campus police jail Sandusky.  He could have had a local prosecutor take Sandusky to trial, convict him, and throw him in prison, leaving him for the biggest and strongest inmates to do with as they pleased.  True justice!  Perhaps only Joe Paterno, with his godlike status in central Pennsylvania, was in a position to put an end to Sandusky’s sex crimes against children before the lives of who knows how many more were damaged.  But, instead, Paterno took the easy way out.  He followed the law, yes, by reporting the incident up his chain of command to his ostensible supervisor, the university’s athletic director, and then he confiscated Sandusky’s locker room keys.  But Sandusky continued to serve Paterno as an assistant coach.  Didn’t the very thought of a child rapist on his sideline make Paterno sick?  Did he and the athletic director and whoever else decided to take Sandusky’s keys really think that was sufficient punishment?  Men do not rise to power and responsibility by being ignoramuses.  There was surely a cover-up, a desire by Paterno and others to prevent a scandal from sullying their vaunted football program.  Such lack of ethical perspective, such aiding and abetting of a child molester, should land Paterno, along with all the other authorities who covered for Sandusky, in prison themselves.

But such harsh punishment is not enough.

President Obama called for national “soul-searching” over this outrage.  It’s about time.  Ours is becoming a culture where the buck stops nowhere.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to get responsible authorities to take responsible action.  And when action is taken, no one is held accountable.  Everyone covers their asses and passes the buck.  Bureaucracies in institutions both public and private are designed this way.  We are told, “That’s not my department.”  Or “That’s above my pay grade.”  “My supervisor is unavailable.”  “Visit our website to lodge a complaint.”

As a reporter, I once had to get a court order to find out who at the Michigan Department of Transportation was responsible for the procurement of property.  It was a minor matter compared to child molestation, but someone had screwed up, perhaps even committed a crime, and that person was being protected.  This is now the status quo of American culture.

As I noted, this does not feel like my country.  I was raised by people who admired President Harry Truman’s motto: “The buck stops here.”  In order for imperfect people to form a more perfect union, individual accountability and transparency are necessary for the establishment of the public trust.  But in today’s “pass the buck” culture, there is little for the public to trust.

This must change.  In the meantime, I hope more than a little prayer is done for the victims of Penn State University’s moral ineptitude.

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