Monday, March 23, 2015

Boston 2024: Thrill of Victory or Agony of Defeat?

Meh (slang: adjective) 1.Expressing a lack of interest or enthusiasm; uninspiring; apathetic            --Oxford English Dictionary

Boston Summer Olympics 2024! Ready, set, GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

C’mon people! Get psyched for the Olympics, THE OLYMPICS, right here in Beantown! Athletes from around the world.  Our fair city showcased in splendor for all humanity to see!  Massachusetts, a true Hub of global sports competition in less than ten years and counting!  Basketball at the Hall of Fame in Springfield! Golf in Brookline! A brand new 60,000 seat Olympic Stadium in South Boston!

It’s time to get the bandwagon rolling!!!

(Cricket sounds…..)

I’ve tried but I just can’t get excited about the possibility that the Olympics might land here in 2024.  I’m supposed to get pumped up and filled with civic pride. That’s what the Boston 2024 Organizing Committee wants us Bay Staters to do. But our hearts are not in it, not even close.  The collective response thus far to Boston being selected by the International Olympic Committee as the United States’ candidate for 2024? Meh. In a recent WBUR poll of 504 registered Massachusetts voters, support for the Olympics is at 36 percent and falling. Fifty-two percent oppose the games, a bronze medal at best.

Why the big collective yawn? 

It could be that the Olympic cheerleading committee is not exactly stocked with a “who’s who” of recognizable people, unless you’re inside the very inner circle of eastern Massachusetts politics and influence. The Chair is John Fish, head of Suffolk Construction. A very competent guy, great at what he does but can he whip up support among the citizenry? When Boston 2024 did finally bring in a “big name”, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick as an “Olympics Ambassador”, it made the disastrous public relations mistake of deciding to pay him $7,500 a day as a traveling consultant. Patrick now says he’ll work for free but the damage is done. For such a potentially huge public-private enterprise, this lack of high profile leadership is troubling. Where’s the current Governor? Our Congressional delegation?  Local sports stars? Are any of them on board?  

Our Olympic apathy might be the product of still digging out from the record breaking winter of 2015.  If you had the misfortune in the past seven weeks of trying to ride the “T” or the commuter rail, you’re right to ask how these aging and suspect transportation hubs will do in 2024, moving tens of thousands of athletes and fans around the region.  Ever been on the Pike on a rainy Friday night or Route 128 at rush hour?  Can we really handle the huge strain the Olympics will place on our transportation system? Maybe we first need to figure how to make sure that next winter, the trains run on time.

Perhaps our Olympian malaise is born of legitimate fears about how much recent Olympic Games cost, like Beijing, China (summer 2008, $44 billion) or Sochi, Russia (winter 2014, $51 billion). It helped that each country’s autocratic governments were able to bully through the Games, public input dismissed. Staging the Olympiad is not some amateur operation. (Ironic, huh?) It’s big, big business and big, big money. The 2024 Committee has proposed a budget of $9.1 billion, and promises that it will come from corporate sponsors, developers, broadcast fees, ticket sales and the federal government.  Can the Olympics really be staged at Building 19 prices? Will the numbers hold true for the next decade?  Can anyone say “Big Dig”?

I hate to be a kill joy. The Olympics are an entertaining diversion for two weeks every other year.  And I do love Boston, my birthplace, the regional gem of New England, a cultural and economic center for innovation, higher education, the arts, professional sports, and health care.  Boston is a world class city, and with much effort I suppose we could stage the Olympics.  But no one’s asked or answered the most obvious question. Should we go for gold?

Is this Olympian effort worth it? How about we organize an Olympic level brain trust to tackle issues which really matter to Boston and the region: growing income inequality, or the lack of affordable housing for the poor, working class and young professionals? Where’s the Olympic fanfare to fund and fix our roads and bridges, which are among the worst in the country? Where are corporate and civic leaders to rally around boosting public education? That would be a real victory, far beyond fourteen days of fun in some far off summer.

The Olympics in Boston…it sounds like a good idea, in a press release or at a press conference or on a flashy website, but the reality? For this loyal Bostonian, I hope the 2024 Olympics end up happening somewhere else.  That would be a real victory.


Monday, March 16, 2015

The Importance of Saying Good Good-Byes In This Life

“To say good-bye is to die a little.”    --Raymond Chandler, “The Long Good-bye”

I hate saying good-bye.

I relearned that hard truth this past week at a going away party for a friend, whom I’d come to really cherish in the past few years, a fellow singer in a community choir and my teammate for Sunday night trivia at a local restaurant. A new job opportunity came up for her, and so this week Becky will pack up all of her belongings, get on a plane and then land in sunny California 3,000 miles away, to begin a new chapter in her life. Yes: I know that we’ll stay connected over Facebook and even see each other again when she comes back east to visit family, but the truth? 

Good-byes in life are just hard. 

I know in my head that good-byes are a given; that the risk we take as humans, always, in connecting to other people, caring about them and loving them, is that all life eventually changes.  Life moves along at its own unstoppable pace and inevitably, surely, at some point, life shifts. Life turns. Life is altered by circumstances beyond our control. People and places and realities that are here today, are gone tomorrow. A friend moves. A favorite town landmark closes its doors.  A loved one leaves or we leave them. There is nothing we can do about these endings. 

Good-byes are life.

Doesn’t mean we have to like them.  As a good-bye averse soul I’ve developed strategies over the years to avoid final farewells.  One of my standbys is making an early exit from a party to escape the last teary hugs and heartfelt reminiscing. “Where’s John? I wanted to say good-bye to him.” There’s the avoidance route, out of sight, out of mind. I still take a wide berth around the town where an ex-girlfriend lived. Don’t want to relive that awful adieu. It was five years before I gathered up the courage to finally visit my father’s grave, a simple granite stone, planted in the ground, on a windswept hill at a cemetery on Cape Cod.  That was a really difficult but tender good-bye, one we both needed to make.

The spiritual cliché might argue that love means never having to say good-bye. That though people are physically gone from our lives, they still live on in memory and stories, in faded photos and yellowing letters from long ago, in “remember when”.  There is a deep truth to this, a transcendence in still feeling the echo of an old friend or lover or family member, who is present to us, if only in our hearts.  No denying this.  As William Faulkner noted, “The past is never dead.  It is not even past.”

But still, some good-byes are good-byes: final, clear, and undeniable. We may try to wish these away or turn these away or deny how much they hurt. Yet I don’t think I want to do that anymore, run away from good-byes. Instead I want to face into all my good-byes in a new way, and first with gratitude. The best farewells remind us of the importance of telling the people that we love how much of a difference they have made in our lives. Maybe even worse than saying good-bye, is failing to thank someone before they leave. “If only I’d told them…” We take for granted how fleeting and fragile this life is. In facing into good-bye with grace and care, I want to say “I love you” and ‘thank you” much, much more to the people I share the world with, because who knows what tomorrow will bring? 

More good-byes.  More hellos too.

For a good good-bye also teaches me as a person of faith, that just as God brought a wonderful friend into my life who then moves on, God will also bring new relationships to me. If I believe that God was good and God is good, I’ve also got to have the trust to believe that God will be good too. After all, God is at the heart of all our good-byes.  The original meaning of “good-bye” was “God bye”, as in God go with you. 

So good-bye Becky. God go with you. You’d better to say in touch! I know you are absolutely going to make some amazing new friends in L.A. Get ready for the hellos! Thank you being my friend and thank God for the courage to say good-bye with gratitude and trust. 

Maybe good-byes aren’t so bad after all.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

When It Comes to Life, There Is No "Them" or "They": Only Us.

They (plural pronoun) 1. people in general                --Random House Dictionary

Have you heard? Have you seen?   “They” are taking over. Increasing in numbers. “They”. No, really.   “They” are, and it’s only a matter of time before me and mine, my way of life, my clan: we won’t matter anymore. We’ll lose power. We’ll fade away, get pushed to the side.   And why? All because of   “them”.   The ones who look different than me and speak a different language than me and have an accent I just can’t understand. “They”: who worship a different God than I do, a God I’ll never understand.   “They”: their family certainly doesn’t look like mine, not even close.   “They” don’t love how I love. 

They.  They.

Who is “they”?   Take your pick.   A race different than your own.   A faith different than your own.   A culture different than your own.   A lifestyle different than your own.   The key descriptor is always the same: “they” are different, and therefore they are less than and therefore they are a threat and therefore they need to be stereotyped, categorized, lumped all together, and most important summarily judged and then dismissed.   But thank God we’re not like that anymore.

For the social myth is that in 2015 we’ve somehow finally gotten beyond such ugly, ignorant characterizations, that our nation is on the way, maybe even now, colorblind, faith enlightened, and diversity accepting.   Kum Ba Yah… were it only so. Take a recent New York Times story about a debate which happened in a setting we’d like to think is enlightened, a college campus, the University of California at Los Angeles.   On February 10th, a student there, Rachel Beyda, by all accounts a smart and committed young woman, stood for election to the university’s Judicial Board. No problem, right?   But then it was time for questions from her fellow students.

From the article: “’Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community,’ Fabienne Roth, a member of the Undergraduate Students Association Council, began, looking at Ms. Beyda at the other end of the room, ‘how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?’ For the next 40 minutes, after Ms. Beyda was dispatched from the room, the council tangled in a debate about whether her faith and affiliation with Jewish organizations, including her sorority and Hillel, a popular student group, meant she would be biased in dealing with sensitive governance questions that come before the board, which is the campus equivalent of the Supreme Court.’”

To Beyda’s fellow students, I guess she was apparently just one of “them”, in this case one of “those” Jews bringing all that baggage and bias to the board.   It got worse. The board voted to reject her appointment.   Later the students reversed their decision and Beyda was elected.   But the damage was done.   And a veil had been pulled back revealing a conversation about “them” which still happens every day in places like that college campus.   Or in a corporate board room.   Or a high school locker room.   Or at a polite dinner party.   Or when sharing a beer after a neighborhood softball game and someone cracks a joke about “them”. 

“Us” talking about “them”.   “We” judging “they”.

When I read such stories, hear others tales of the same ilk, I wonder what it is about the human condition which causes us to so often see anyone different than ourselves as a threat; to view diversity not as a God-given gift to be celebrated, but as an obstacle to be somehow overcome. I wonder what it is like to be stereotyped as one of “them” like Beyda was, how heartbreaking and frustrating it’s got to be: to be judged on a regular basis because you do not somehow fit in with the majority. 

Gender. Race. Religion. Sexual orientation. Ideology. Class.   I’ve never experienced any prejudice for who I am or what I believe in or how I live.   That’s hard to confess but true.   But this I do know and believe.   When God finished creating the world after six days of hard work, the Bible reports God’s delighted response to the diversity which marked and marks Creation.   “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good.”   Not just ok, or fine, or passing or even good but very good, and not for its singular sameness but instead for its declared diversity. All of it. Very good.   Whole, as is. Every last person, every last living thing, blessed, because the Creator made it so. Seems to me that may be a good place to start in figuring out just how we can get along with each other. 

There is no “them” or “they”. There is only us.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

You May Say I'm a Dreamer, But I'm Not the Only One: Farewell Mr. Spock

Captain Spock (dying): The ship...out of danger?
Admiral Kirk: Yes.
Spock: Do not grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh...
Kirk: The needs of the few.
Spock: Or the one.
--from the 1982 film, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"

Dystopian science fiction--tales about a human future gone very, very bad--has been all the rage in books, movies and TV lately. Think “The Hunger Games", "Divergent", "World War Z", or "The Walking Dead", all stories which imagine human life in the future as pretty depressing. The world is ruled by totalitarian governments. Humans are transformed into rampaging flesh eating zombies because of government science experiments gone horribly wrong. Society is radically stratified between the few who are very rich and the many who are very poor.

This dystopian premise is always the same: the outlook for our species is not good. Humankind is not destined to morally or socially evolve upwards into a better world, but instead is doomed to spiral downwards into chaos and violence. This narrative sells a lot of books and movie tickets, drives millions of us fans to "showverdose" on our favorite tales of woe on Netflix or Amazon or Hulu.  But this fascination with doomsday scenarios wasn't always so.

Just ask a "Trekkie", like me.

Trekkies are fans of "Star Trek", one of the most popular and long lived of science fiction series, set in a hope filled future time. "Star Trek" was TV show that ran in the mid nineteen sixties and then became the granddaddy of popular science fiction, birthing four more TV series and twelve feature films. Unlike its dystopian cousins, "Star Trek" was and is always utopian. That's why I love it.

Utopian.  “Star Trek” imagines that the world will become better in generations to come. War on earth will cease as humankind unites.  Money is irrelevant. All human needs are provided for: shelter, food, education, health care, and work. Institutionalized religion fades as humans internalize a compassionate ethic towards each other. The pursuit of knowledge and the adventure of "boldly going where no man has gone before" is the one goal which ties all humanity together.

Imagine that. That's a future I can believe in, want to believe in.

So last week, when original "Star Trek" actor and Boston native son Leonard Nimoy (who portrayed Spock) died, his demise made me think about utopian ideals, the belief that somehow, some way, the world will become a better place. Humanity is evolving morally, ethically, and socially. We are not destined to continually wage war with one another as we selfishly cling to our favorite ideology or theology. The world will one great day recognize that the earth contains all the natural resources it could ever want or need and then some.  Humans will figure out how to care for every last human, equitably and justly.  We will awaken to the truth that we are put on this earth not to oppress one another, or accumulate so much stuff for ourselves alone, but instead to live in peace and generosity together in Creation.

I know.  It is easy, far too easy, to dismiss such a utopian vision, especially in 2015. Too many religious movements devolve into petty factions, use fear and violence to hurt those who have a different idea about God. Look at ISIS, any religious fundamentalist, so arrogantly sure he's got a solo ticket straight to heaven. Political leaders don't engender much hope.  They can't even agree to fund, for more than one week, the United States’ government agency which is supposed to protect us. There's Ebola. Vladimir Putin and his fascist land grabs.  Etc., etc, etc....

But me? I just refuse to buy into such a sad, seemingly inescapable narrative, even as it undergirds our culture's current obsession with all things dystopian. I confess. I want to believe, I need to believe, I do believe in a "Star Trek" future, where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of few, the one. Preach it Spock! 

Call me a geek.  Call me a dreamer.  Call me a naive utopian who refuses to see things as they are. Yet the best of our shared cultural stories, like "Star Trek" and other utopian fiction; like religious faith which calls us to be our best; like the highest of political ideals which ask us to sacrifice for the common good: these narratives always call us to better days. To have hope. To imagine a world of tomorrow which is getting better. 

Farewell Spock.  Thanks for the utopian vision.  We'll keep on trying.  Live long and prosper.