February 26, 2013

Living In The Moment

This is my mom. She'll be 79 years old later this year.  She's had a pretty good life, I guess.  She had an idyllic childhood growing up in the San Joaquin Valley of California.  She was married to my father for over 50 years, and raised six kids who all grew up and managed to stay out of jail.  She's lived in nice houses, travelled a fair amount, read a lot, and had a lot of cats over the years.  She and my father worked hard and invested well, and now she's well into a good retirement.

Mom came of age, intellectually, when existentialist thinking was vogue.  She always told us six kids we are  individually responsible for what we are and what we become.  She told us we were free to go and do what we wanted to do, free, even, to be failures if that's what we wanted to be.  She didn't believe we were "called" to be any particular thing, and conversely she believed that the sum total of our lives, and whatever meaning our lives have, would be what we made it to be.

Existentialist writer, Richard Dawkins, put it this way:  “There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”  Famous existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, put it more directly: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”

It's funny what you can remember about your past.  I have a distinct memory of my mother waving us off to school every day, and every day calling out her mantra to us:  "Learn something new today."  Mom was very smart and she was a voracious reader and learner.  She went back to college when I was attending Reedley Junior College and we took some classes together.  She always got the top grade and kids my age resented her for upping the curve.  Mom was a learned lady who knew a lot about a lot.

Mom's life of learning and her philosophy of self responsibility for what you become seem a little ironic when contrasted to mom's life now, and to what she has become.  You see, mom has Alzheimer's Disease. She lives in a care facility for people with memory deficits.  If ever there was a world where life is lived in the present moment, and only in the present moment, it is mom's present world, and mom's current life.  She literally cannot remember the past, and can't hold a thought long enough to contemplate a future.  She doesn't even remember who her kids are, let alone what she did yesterday, or even two minutes ago.  She got put into the "lock-down" side of her facility because she embarked on a walk to somewhere, but by the time she got two blocks away she couldn't remember where she was headed to, nor where she had come from.  The police, responding to a confused person call, found a card for her facility in her purse or she might still be out there somewhere.

But that's not to say there is no joy in her life.  Mom is a happy person by disposition and training.  I always look at older people and think, "this person has spent her entire life training to be the kind of person she is now." 

Mom lives her life now completely in the moment, and she seems content.  She likes to wander around, or just sit, and admire and enjoy the things she sees -- the yards, the people, the flowers, the trees, the clouds, the cars, the buildings.  She likes the settings in the facility where she lives, which is a good thing.  When I brought her back from a visit to the dentist last week she paused and admired each sitting area in her facility, where she has lived for several years, as if she was seeing it for the first time.  Mom is in the latter stages of Alheimer's Disease decline, around stage 6 of 7.  Every day is a new day, every face is a new face, and nearly every thing she encounters is something new.

But I wonder: If "(m)an is nothing else but what he makes of himself," as Sartre says, then what is my mom?  What has she made of herself?  And is she solely responsible for what she has become and for the life she now lives?

All I know is, if you want your own life to be full and meaningful and wonderful, you ought to get on with it and make it that way today.  For a lot of possible reasons, waiting for tomorrow might not be a good bet.

November 14, 2012

The Sky is Falling Again

On November 9, 2012, it happened.  Skyfall, the 23d installment of the James Bond movie series fell upon us.  I haven't seen the movie yet, but I assume the Skyfall movie, like the 22 other Bond movies, is about an imminent threat to the free world, and only Bond can eradicate the threat and save us all.  Presumably he does, and he gets the girl, too. 

Skyfall, or more correctly "the sky is falling" has also been a predominant theme of the recent elections - - i.e. there is an imminent threat to the free world as we know it and that only "insert your candidate's name or political party affiliation here" can save us from the threat. Ho hum. Yes, I voted and I care about the future of our country.  Still, I am tired of hearing the refrains of political hacks and their misinformed adherents that "the sky is falling." Really?  It's an old and worn-out political clarion call theme that sort of grates on me like a cell phone ring that's too loud and shrill.  Come to think of it, the Bond movies follow an old and well-worn theme too. I think I'll wait for Skyfall to make it to the Comcast free movies list before I see the movie. 

Adele sings the Skyfall title track, appropriately titled "Skyfall," and the words of the chorus go like this:

     "Let the sky fall, when it crumbles
     We will stand tall
     And face it all together
     Let the sky fall, when it crumbles
     We will stand tall
     And face it all together
     At sky fall"

[Aside: I like Adele's music, and you can hear Adele's Skyfall theme song on YouTube.]

"The Sky Is Falling" is a familiar phrase to those of us familiar with the story of Chicken Little (aka Henny Penny, aka Chicken Licken). The Story of Chicken Little is an Americanized version of a 25 centuries old folk tale. The gist of the folk tale is that the characters are given and believe some bad information, and then, overcome with the mistaken belief that disaster is imminent and driven by paranoia and mass hysteria, they are swept up into saying and doing ridiculous things. As I listened to the media blitz leading up to the election, and the post-election media banter, I could clearly hear the refrain "the sky is falling." No need to read it between the lines of some of the nearly hysterical commentaries; It was right there in bold print: "The free world as we know it has ended."  Talk about paranoia, it's out there, man. Can't you hear the refrains of Adele singing: "Let the sky fall; when it crumbles we will stand tall and face it all together at sky fall."

Here is something I find ironic:  On November 9, 2012, four days after the election and the exact same day as Skyfall was released, Steven Spielberg released the movie Lincoln.  If you are any kind of familiar with American history, you will recall that before, during and after the American Civil War there were shrill and passioned clarion calls of warning, from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, that freedom, and the free world as it was then known, were being destroyed.  Finger pointing and blaming and the sky is falling hyteria led to the most bloody, brutal struggle in American history.  Americans still feel the pain of the Civil War.  Lincoln, the movie, focuses only on the the furious power struggle over the fate of our nation during the last four months of Lincoln's life, before he was assassinated.  The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, the American Civil War finally ended, and President Lincoln was killed.  What did we learn from all the blood, sweat and tears?
For futher irony, Steven Spielberg is also the producer of the new sci-fi television series, Falling Skies. The Falling Skies series is about an alien invasion of earth that destroys the world as we know it, leaving only a remnant of survivors to resist the invaders. While the prospect of aliens taking over our world is terrifying, there are more real and imminent threats to our well being -- stuff like Hurricane Sandy, the economic recession, love lost, broken hearts, and cancer. You can insert the name of your own most-local natural disaster, your own economic crises, your own stories of broken relationships, or your own most pressing health concern. You get my drift: We don't need aliens to invade us, nor election results not to our liking, to be at risk of having the world as we know it turned upside down.  It's happening all around us now, and the threats are common, insidious, costly, emotionally rending and potentially lethal.
Our elected political leaders have often let us down -- that's for sure.  They've taken us down roads, and are taking us down roads, which are not in our individual or our national best interest.  We know this now, and we've always known this.  This problem is as old as man, and much older than this relatively young country.  I think the whole tendency for that kind of self-destructive conduct started in the Garden of Eden.  But really now, are the problems of this nation problems that one political leader foisted on us?  Don't be ridiculous. The problems of our nation, and they are many, are systemic, and they are driven by the "me, me, me" voice in every one of us.

One of the common "sky is falling" themes I have heard and read a lot recently is about how the Democratic party is a party of "gifts" and how the Democrats have been giving away the so-called store in the form of entitlements to woo voters, and how the country is falling apart as a result.  It almost certainly is true that America, or anyway the American economy, is suffering greatly because of our entitlement program spending.  In 1960 entitlement spending comprised less than one third of total federal government spending, but by 2010 entitlement spending constituted about two thirds of total federal government spending.  It is nearly universally agreed that we cannot sustain the current course and growth of our entitlement programs much longer without facing serious economic consequences.  But what may surprise you is that entitlement programs and entitlement spending have historically grown more during Republican administrations, and that the so-called "safety net" entitlement programs, i.e. the welfare programs, currently comprise only about a third of the total entitlement spending of the government.  The vast majority of entitlement spending in America is from Social Security and MediCare. The statistics I am quoting are gleaned from a very interesting Wall Street Journal article by Nicholas Eberstadt titled: "Are Entitlements Corrupting Us? Yes, American Character Is At Stake."  I found the article fascinating, and I strongly encourage you to read it.

My friend, Brent Auernheimer, pointed me (and others) to this article in a blog post or facebook post.  The gist of the article is that there are a lot of Americans from every walk of life and every economic strata (i.e. it's not just the poor people) on the entitlement take from the federal government.  As a nation, we no longer have that gritty "I don't want no handouts" self-reliance of early Americans.  We, and really I mean all of we, want the federal government to take care of us; we want what's due us, and the hell with how we pay for it.  We're all on the dole somehow, and we like it.  If you read this Wall Street Journal article, you may come to think that the sky really is falling, but not for the reasons most vociferously cited leading up to and following the recent election.  The problem is that there are a whole lot of corrupt people on the take in this country and low and behold, it's all of us!

Forget Adele. Now I can hear Gomer Pyle saying: "Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!" So do I think the sky is really falling?  No.  Not yet.  Even Nicholas Eberstadt, who wrote the entitlements piece for the Wall Street Journal, concedes that there is enough wealth in America to continue our absurd entitlement spending for a while yet. 

Contrast all of this "sky is falling" bad news to the message of our pastor, Jeff Leis of Yosemite Church, on Sunday.  Speaking on the subject of "good news," Pastor Jeff noted that we all tend to define it differently.  After the election, he noted, some woke up happy and some woke up sad.  This is the way it always is, whether you are talking about elections, sporting events, the grade curve, the weather, or nearly any other subject.  The outcome is good news for some and not good news for others.  One universal bit of good news is that, even though we have screwed things up terribly, and even though we have piled up debts impossible to repay, God has made provision to cancel the record of our debts and to reconcile the whole world to himself.  So it isn't James Bond, after all, nor Lincoln, nor Chicken Little, nor all the modern-day chicken littles, who will save the world, but God.  And according to the good news book, God offers his debt-cancellation grace to people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, and irrespective of political party affiliation.  In light of that good news, it should be kind of hard to continue to hate your neighbor, irrespective of how he voted.

October 25, 2012

A Walk With The Woods

"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. "

Henry David Thoreau

October is a good time to visit Pennsylvania.  Cheri and I went out to visit her son, Gary Wood and his one-year-wife, Jessica Wood.  Among other things we did in the week we were out there, we took a few walks in the woods with the Woods.  As H. David Thoreau taught, the woods can teach us much about life and living.  This walk is at Beaver Creek State Park, which is actually just over the western border of Pennsylvania in Ohio.

"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. "

John Muir

We drove up to Cleveland, Ohio, to visit the zoo there.  Pittsburgh also has a zoo, but Gary and Jessica think the zoo in Cleveland is nicer.  Cheri wore her leopard rain coat for the occasion.  There is always a chance of rain in Pennsylvania and Ohio in October.  Sure enough, we got a few sprinkles at the zoo.

This is the view behind the house Gary and Jessica recently bought in Ohiosville, Pennsylvania.  The red tool shed is behind their house.  It's all very nice and peaceful and beautiful.  Life is good with the Woods.