Monday, January 14, 2019

Who's to Blame for the Shutdown? Ask an Ideologue.

Ideologue (noun) 1. an adherent of an ideology, especially one who is uncompromising and dogmatic.        

Whose fault is the federal government shut down, now the longest in United States history? 

Is it the fault of an intractable President, unwilling to budge one inch from his position that he must have a border wall and it must be fully funded? Is it the fault of a newly elected and energized left, who insist that the wall is "an immorality" and not one dollar must be devoted to its construction?

Who is to blame?

That's the main political parlor game playing out these days as "Closed Until Further Notice" signs hang on locked office doors throughout the federal government at agencies and commissions and branches that are supposed to do basic things for you and I and others, citizens of the United States.  You know, like...distribute food stamps to hungry people. Ensure that the person next to you on an airplane is not a terrorist. Patrol our borders, land and sea, to keep us safe from outside threats.  Make sure that our air is clean and our waters are without toxins. Collect enough taxes to fund services for veterans and housing for the homeless and health care for our aging parents. 

Just who is to blame?

For the truth that right now, all those governmental functions either are not happening or might soon come to a screeching halt?  Who birthed this current mess, this embarrassment to our republic, this pathetic and shameful example of how we Americans seem incapable anymore, at least in Washington, D.C., of even being able to govern ourselves, keep the lights on, run the government, carry out the most basic of civic work?  To legislate. To pass laws.  To oversee with care and commitment the collective life of 325 million Americans.

I think what most amazes me is how unashamed both sides act in the midst of this disaster.  One side tweets away and spends most of its energy posturing and pontificating, pointing fingers and acting like petulant children. The other side stakes out what they are convinced is an unwavering "moral" position, preaching from on high about how they are completely correct, and then they get in their limos and go home for the weekend.

Just who is to blame for this train wreck?

The media? Somewhat. Yes, some among the fourth estate report about the real negative effects that are beginning to be felt because of the shut down.  Long lines, even cancelled security lines at the airport. Mortgage applications that can't be processed.  Scientific research that has ground to a halt. I can't imagine being one of the 800,000 federal workers who worry about how to pay the mortgage or make the rent or fill a needed prescription because their bosses are so inept that they could not even pass a budget. 

But in much of the media, the shutdown is reported as some kind of glorified political wrestling match. Talking heads from both sides yell at each other on split screens. Countdown clocks tick away at how long Uncle Sam has been absent.  Polls about blame are trotted out as the next Presidential election cycle begins. ARE YOU SERIOUS? Didn't we just have an election!!! UGH!

So who is to blame for the mess we find ourselves in? 

Here's an unpopular opinion. I think we are. We, the American people. We who elected these folks, these ideologues, these politicians who are ideologically pure on the left and right but who have forgotten how to govern.  How to meet an opponent half way on their demands.  How to "get" in negotiations but also how to "give".  How to compromise.  How to remember that the good of the country always, ALWAYS, trumps the good of any political party, either party, both parties.  We voted in leaders who seem much more concerned about getting re-elected, or elected, than actually doing their jobs.  We worship before the TV screens of Fox and MSNBC, eating up news that tells us just what we want to hear, news that neatly fits our political ideology, no other views needed.

Where's the good news?  Maybe, just maybe, stateswoman and men, true public servants,  might emerge from the fray and teach us all again about good governing and the practical and pragmatic art of politics.Politics as the art of the possible. Politics as a place not just for ideologues, but for legislators and lawmakers too. Folks who actually get stuff done. Who govern.

That's my prayer. That's my hope.


Monday, January 7, 2019

Singing Saves the Soul and Soothes a Broken World

"Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone's very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food."           
 --Anne Lamott, "Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith"

My name is John and I love to karaoke: singing in public accompanied by a pre-recorded song, the louder, the better.

There: I admit it. I absolutely love grabbing a microphone at a house party or a local bar, picking out some moldy golden oldie from the past, preferably the nineteen seventies, and then singing out at the top of my lungs in front of a crowd, whom I hope will also join with me in singing and bringing joyful life to a tune, a song.

I wasn't always like this. For years I was a karaoke hater, which is pretty common. As the comedian Tom Dreesen notes, "Karaoke bars combine two of the nation's greatest evils: people who shouldn't drink with people who shouldn't sing." The world is basically divided into two camps: those who cannot stand karaoke and those who see it as an ultimate way to celebrate and have fun. Think the divide between Republicans and Democrats is a wide chasm? Try talking someone into singing karaoke if they just do not want to: it's basically impossible. Anti-karaokers would rather get a root canal without Novocain or watch a Presidential debate or sit through hundreds of YouTube cat videos than actually sing in public.

I get that fear. For a long time I didn't want to sing because I worried I would embarrass myself. It made me feel self conscious. I didn't want to sing because to get up in front of others and try to carry a tune is potentially very, very nerve wracking.  Glossophobia, fear of public speaking (and singing) is a phobia that upwards of 75 percent of folks suffer from. Many folks can't or won't sing because somewhere along the way in their lives some unthinking or clueless person--a music teacher, a parent, a sibling, a friend--told them that they had a bad singing voice. Then we go mute, sure that our out of tune crooning is somehow causing others to suffer.  

But still I challenge you to consider singing in this brand new year. Make it a resolution.   
It doesn't have to be at karaoke. Try singing in the shower or the car. Sing in church or a house of worship with a chorus of many others. Sing a hymn that you know by heart, a sacred song that moves you to tears. Sing while you clean the house or ride your bike or take a walk. Because singing: it always makes us feel more alive somehow. It opens up our lungs and our hearts. It stirs the soul and taps into a part of our brains that produce endorphins, hormones that flood our nervous systems and give us a natural high.  No drink or drug needed. 

Sing in a choir and the effect is multiplied. As the tall guy in the back row of the bass section in a local community choir these past eight years, I can truly say that some of my most life happy moments have come when I joined with 30 or 40 other folks and created music.  Even if you are not a singer now, I'll wager you can think back to moment in your life, perhaps as a child, when you did love singing, when singing was not about performance or judgment but instead just fun. Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream....

Just sing.

Given the current state of our world--the chaos, the cruelty, the division and the pessimism--it seems to me that singing out and singing loud and singing true and singing proud is as a good an antidote to hopelessness as any other activity.  Singing can and does actually change the world. What would the Civil Rights movement have been without "We Shall Overcome"? Singing brings beauty and art and truth to Creation.  Singing taps into a primordial urge within all humans souls. As long as we have been living as species we have also been singing.

To quote the philosopher duo of Karen and Richard Carpenter, "Sing, sing a song. Sing out loud. Sing out strong. Sing of good things not bad. Sing of happy not sad....Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing, sing a song."

And yes: that would probably make a great karaoke song.

Just saying. Just singing.



Tuesday, January 1, 2019

No One Knows What the New Year Will Bring. That's the Adventure!

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."   --Yogi Berra

Here's my one solid prediction for 2019, for the new year that has just begun. Ready? After much research and thought, this is my conclusion. I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen in the next 52 weeks. Not a clue. Not a hint. I got nothing.   

Okay, I do predict that the sun will come up every morning and then set at night. I do predict that the year will contain exactly 365 days, not one more or one less. I do trust and pray that most all of us, me included, will still be around in early January 2020 to look back on a year just finished. 

But what exactly will happen in 2019? We'll know next December 31st.

That's the only definitive thing we can declare about this twentieth year of the twenty first century. Not that some won't try their best to predict the future, to look out into the mists of time and imagine that if only they are smart enough or wise enough or lucky enough or prescient enough, if they can crunch the statistics and numbers just right, they will be able to envision with accuracy all of our tomorrows. 

But most of the time our human predictions are wrong.

The website, the most famous and infamous of predictive enterprises these days, declared last March that the Boston Red Sox had a six percent chance of winning the 2018 World Series. Oops. That same site of predictors said Hillary Clinton was a lock for President and had a 71.4 percent chance of winning on November 8th, 2016. Well that was bit off.  Or think of us Patriots fans, we who were absolutely sure our hometown team would just crush the underdog Philadelphia Eagles in last February's Super Bowl.  The betting line in the game had the Pats winning by at least five points.  Millions of dollars were lost and thousands of hearts broken, all in making a wrong assumption.

Because we don't know what we don't know. 

I get why we want to, even need, to try and predict the future.  We want to be in control. We want to know what is coming before it arrives, to prepare ourselves. We want to believe that chaos and random chance finally are not in the fabric of the universe, that there is instead an underlying story about the world and our lives that's already been written. We just have to figure it out what that is. Some even imagine that the greatest super power to possess would be to know the future, to see what's coming before it comes.  Anybody up for playing Powerball?

But not me.  I don't want to know, or even care to predict what is to come this year, even though the future sometimes scares me with its unpredictability. Yet the future also excites me with its unpredictability too. Sure, bad things will happen but good things will happen as well. Where is the adventure in a life, if not in the living out of life day to day? Putting forth all of the personal effort, the energy, and the dreams and hopes and work of shaping our own destiny for the good? Even when we fail, even when life throws us a curveball, would we really want to know the outcome before it happened? How boring life would then be. 

And so a new year beckons, a year that's never, ever been before. Like a blank canvas it stands before us, a gift from God, who challenges us to embrace with gratitude the whole year, to make it all our own: all the joys, all the sorrows, all the challenges, and all the passion yet to come. 

Yes: we have no idea what is coming and we cannot predict the future that tomorrow holds for us. Thank God. I'm psyched for 2019. Who knows what it will bring? No one. But I still say, "Bring it on!" 

Happy New Year.