Wednesday, May 25, 2022
Sunday, May 15, 2022
In my first Abortion post, I mentioned that I had been thinking about a post concerning the recent debates surrounding student debt relief.
First, I did some reading from various sources concerning how this situation developed. Also, full disclosure, both my children have student loan debt from attending 4 year colleges from 2010-2017, and my wife and I also have debt from funding these efforts, initially borrowing money through the Parent Plus loan program.
There are a number of factors which have contributed to the current situation which finds over 40 million Americans holding student debt worth over 1.7 trillion (that's trillion) dollars, a number that was just about $500 billion only 14 years ago. All of the articles agreed on some causes, but not on all.
What was agreed upon was that state aid to higher education has been reduced dramatically over the past 20 years causing the need to borrow more. Some of those cuts can be blamed on legislators and governors who promise low taxes to get elected, then reduce budgets to fulfill those promises, the education budget being on the list of popular choices. This is especially relevant to the rising cost of state universities where less public tax money has been available.
Another agreed upon factor is that it is just too easy to borrow money for college, both for students and parents. There are no qualifications, other than filling out the forms. Now, one might say that by making it easy to borrow, all students, even those from the middle and lower economic classes can now have access to college, but it is still true that since the government backs all student loans, there is no incentive to make sure that the money can be paid back. Add to the fact as listed above that state assistance has been greatly reduced, and it is clear that more borrowing, student and parent, is required.
And then there is the skyrocketing cost of higher education which has far outpaced both the normal standard of living cost increases and the wages of pretty much every economic class below the very well to do, who generally don't borrow money for college anyway. (And whose children tend to get into the "better" schools based on legacy and income, but that is another story).
So, you have steeply rising costs, partly attributable to simple supply and demand, as college is still associated with higher future wages, so more applicants mean higher costs can be charged, a sharp reduction in state aid to fund both 2 year community colleges and the 4 year state schools, and am ample supply of loan money.
Also, a factor that I did not mention above, is that it does cost more to run a university, public or private, as student services have become more popular and costlier, educator pay has increased beyond those of other careers, and there is a need for more teachers and support staff than previously.
All those reasons, plus the fact that student loan interest rates are much higher than that of homes and cars. For instance, while the Stafford loans for students, loan that are capped at an amount that has not kept up with the rising costs, are in the 3.5 to 5% range, when my wife and I borrowed money through the Parent Plus loan program, the rate was 7.9%. While it has dropped a bit since we employed the program, it is still over 6.25%, a remarkably high number given the historic lows in interest rates that we have experienced until just recently.
Like any problem, it is important to understand the causes while considering a solution. From that perspective, merely forgiving student loan debt is, at best, a band aid on a limb threatening injury. I don't know if, as part of an attempt to address this situation, there is serious talk about digging deeper to address the root causes, but if not, then this situation will not go away, student debt forgiveness in the short run or not.
That being said, and while I know that my children will benefit from $10K or more being lopped off their debt, I would prefer that the whole idea of student debt forgiveness be rephrased as student loan interest forgiveness. In other words, once a student has repayed the principle of their loans, the remaining interest should be forgiven. This rewards the effort to repay, while eliminating the penalty of all that interest that has accumulated, especially since that money has been generated by what most people might consider higher than reasonable rates. Also, and this is another example of Democrats phrasing an issue poorly, student loan interest forgiveness plays better in the heartland where people can understand their federal tax money being used to reward those who have paid their original debt, as opposed to what some believe is just the elimination of debt without the string of responsibility for paying something back.
This also connects to the idea of a new GI bill that would be created for those who serve, not just in the armed forces, but in the community as well. Perhaps, in conjunction with the "free" community college idea, the free is only free when service is attached; it is earned, in other words. Again, I believe that most Americans would be on board with their tax money used to pay for 2 year colleges for those who give back, whether it be in the military or a local assisted living community, or a school, or any other place where young people can provide support for those less fortunate than themselves. Or, if service without direct compensation sounds too much like indentured servitude, then perhaps most (or all) of the pay would be "paid" in a manner by which the student can choose to take a small portion of the money for living expenses if needed, with the vast majority targeted to their choice of advanced education.
And this idea of service, does not just apply to college. It is very clear that some people prefer to seek their future in ways that do not include college. We need to find a way to provide blue collar skills training, either through an apprentice type program, or some other way that allows for future electricians, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, etc, to get the skills they need through real life experience without being made to feel that just because they aren't attending college, they are less smart, less important to our society, less worth the trouble to help.
It has been proven time and time again, that money spent in early intervention programs, is recovered 4 and 5 times over, sometimes even more. What could be better for our national economy than to have a generation of young people who receive solid career counseling which offers the full gamut of possibilities, whether advice that steers the student to academic or trade options, who are encouraged to be involved in their communities while receiving the benefits of government provided assistance if they need it, then who emerge from whatever path they have chosen, partially or completely debt free with the skills that enable them to begin their life with knowledge and confidence.
And to be that much better positioned to become consumers, if I may be so crass, so that the demand for more goods and services will not be hampered by debilitating student debt first.
An investment in our youth to guarantee a growing economy, a trained labor force, and an educated public (educated defined in both the traditional way and as applied to acquiring life skills).
Ah, but that still leaves the actual cost of higher education. This is where we may need government regulation that freezes tuition costs for a few years, then ties future tuition increases to a rate at or below what the average American worker nets in wage increases. Had even that second part occurred since I attended college in the 1980's then today's tuition cost would not have been such a huge factor in the current debt crisis. For instance, one report I read calculated that college costs since 1980 have risen 213% at state schools, 129% at private institutions. In other words, the days when summer income could pay for fall tuition no longer exist.
Finally, since all the reports I read point to falling education investments on the state level as a contributing factor, perhaps we also need to vote for state legislators and governors to increase (in real dollars) education funding. While higher taxes may be a less enviable choice, a dedicated education tax in combination with some creative public-private partnerships, and an evaluation of where the state tax dollar goes towards prioritizing education, might be worth considering.
As for easy credit, I can't imagine that Americans want their youth tested in high school to weed out those who should or shouldn't be allowed to go to college. Yes, encourage each student and their families to make the choice by providing the full range of options, but we must still provide anyone who wants to the opportunity to attend a 2 or 4 year college. But, with the knowledge that whatever assistance is provided, federal or state, must be repaid through service or money, and that those costs will not balloon above the student or parents ability to pay, and that the reward at the end of the process might be student loan interest forgiveness, but only after the principle is repaid.
Like all of our more complex problems, there are no easy answers, but simple solutions, like student loan debt forgiveness without any further discussion of the root causes of the problem, will not solve the problem. In the end, it is always about priorities. Do we want to prioritize the education of our children, or pretend that without support, financial as well as social, our youth, and consequently our country's future will be assured?
Saturday, May 14, 2022
Since the leak of the draft opinion that would overturn Roe V Wade and send abortion rights back to the states to control, there has been numerous protests by Americans who are pro-choice. While I am not a fan of people gathering outside the homes of some of the Supreme Court Justices as I would prefer that they confine their voices of protest to the workplace, in this case the Supreme Court Building, I support their right to advocate for their beliefs, and hope that those who choose to exercise their right to peaceably assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances (that would be from the First Amendment of the Constitution), focus on the word peaceably, unlike those who chose to assemble outside Congress on January 6th, but then went further, attacking the Capitol police, breaking in windows and doors, chanting various threats concerning the elected officials within, and vandalized various offices and public areas of our Capitol building.
A riot which injures over 140 police officers and damages public property in an effort to delay the peaceful transition of power, a tradition which is one of the main differences between our democracy and those countries which have weaker versions of democracy, is not even close to "peaceable assembly". So again, I cannot emphasize the importance of those who are engaged in protesting the loss of a right, the first time in our history that such a loss might occur, do so peaceably. If we (those who believe in a woman's right to choose to bear children or not) do anything less than this, if some among us choose to fall to the depths of those who attacked our Capitol and our hallowed tradition of a peaceful transition of power, then we are no better than they are, and can not pretend that we honor the rule of law.
At this point, most reporting seems to indicate that this opinion will stand. There has been some rumors that Chief Justice Roberts would prefer a less aggressive ruling, perhaps some type of compromise that maintains a woman's right to choose within the framework of a reduced time constraint, perhaps something similar to the laws of many of the European countries, maybe 15 weeks (like Mississippi's law which is the basis of this SCOTUS hearing), but that seems unlikely unless one of the 5 who have signed onto the current opinion choose to recant.
I don't think it is untrue that the viability of a fetus outside the womb has been altered over the past 50 years due to medical advances. Still, according to most medical research, babies born less than 22 weeks after conception have very little chance of survival. And, of course this number drops to virtually zero percent, once we get below 20 weeks.
Yet, the idea shouldn't be that if a fetus cannot live outside the womb, it should be eligible to be aborted. Clearly, the fetus is alive, a future human being, and we should acknowledge that, and not pretend that a future person can be destroyed for any reason. It is this callous thinking that gives fuel to those who are anti-abortion. By recognizing that the fetus, even at 15 weeks, is a life, we can find common ground with the anti-abortion advocate, then attempt to make our case that the woman is not merely a vessel carrying this life, but also a person who has rights to make decisions about their future as well.
As I said above, I believe there is a middle ground in this controversy. Not that I think that a compromise will satisfy 100% of the people; that is not possible in any difficult debate, and not something we should expect to achieve. That is why I am aghast at the possibility that more than half of the states might have abortion bans by the end of summer. But I do believe that the majority of Americans, if asked by binding referendum at the 2022 November elections, would vote to:
Alter, if you like, Roe V Wade to allow abortions for any reason up to 18 weeks, and to terminate a pregnancy as decided by the mother and her doctor, for rape, incest, threat to the life of the mother, and clear indication that the fetus is medically compromised.
Again, I know this does not satisfy everyone, but it does maintain the right of a woman to choose within reasonable constraints, while providing for the protection of a fetus from a capricious decision to cut its life short.
That being said, it would be irresponsible of me not to say two things. First, I am a man, incapable of bearing and birthing a child, so I would defer to a woman who believes my proposal needs tweaking. My goal is to present a compromise position that enables America to move past this controversy without exposing us to a restriction of other rights which are not mentioned in the Constitution, especially those rights related to privacy such as birth control and marriage.
Second, it is critical that we address the issue of lack of access to health care for far too many Americans. I mentioned in my first post concerning abortion that, while the abortion rate in America has fallen dramatically since the 1980's, there are many countries in Europe, especially the Nordic countries, that have far lower incidences of abortion. A main ingredient in that result, and remember, the foundation of preventing abortion is to prevent unwanted pregnancies, is sex education, easy access to birth control methods, and a concerted effort to treat sex as a recreational act as opposed to a procreation act. To eliminate the deep root of puritanism that views sex as a behind-closed-doors, necessary evil to keep the flock growing, as well as a way to punish and control woman who dare to engage in pre-marital sex, despite the fact that every pregnancy requires a man to participate.
This issue, like so many of the issues of today, needs real debate, a bit of compromise from both sides, and a decision that reflects the majority of Americans, not that of one side or the other. Like all issues being debated today, we are all Americans, and should remember that, especially in light of the horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the atrocities occurring all over the world where democracy is under threat from autocrats and dictators. Those kind of people thrive where there is confusion and doubt concerning the institutions of a nation, doubt that they first sow, then take advantage of by providing an easy scapegoat and simple answers to complex problems.
Living in a democratic country is much harder than under a dictator because there are no hard choices to make, you just do as you are told, no questions, no debates, no input. Wouldn't it be refreshing, and empowering, if America could come together, fashion a compromise concerning abortion, and move on to the next big issue. It certainly would show the world how strong is our democracy, and how better it is to live in a country that respects all opinions while fashioning laws that are acceptable to the majority even when grudgingly accepted by a minority that had some hand in the creation of those laws, those compromises.
Friday, May 6, 2022
In my last post, I expressed my opinions on the recent disclosure that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe V Wade and return the abortion issue to the states.
In this post I would like to offer comments on what my research has shown in terms of preventing abortion, and why banning it is the least effective method.
But first, the Leaker!
I believe that, in general, those who leak information about how our government acts, or will soon act, is not in the best interest of our country. There are some things, such as information relating to specific instances of our military involvement in the Ukraine war, that is better left secret until it makes sense to release it.
However, I must also state that there is far too much secrecy taking place in the halls of Congress, the White House and other federal agencies that should not be "classified", just because a government official thinks so, as too often this justification is not for overriding security reasons but more to hide some type of nefarious activity. That is why the existence of government watchdog agencies, both within the government such as the GAO, and without, need to be allowed to do their work, without threats or recriminations from those we elect. It is why I was so appalled at the former president's statements regarding former US Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman who revealed his astonishment at the attempts to link arms to Ukraine for dirt on a political rival.
In this vein, I truly hope that the Leaker of the abortion opinion has multiple statues dedicated to him or her, especially if it turns out that it is someone from the left who is appalled at both the opinion, its harsh comments for the Supreme Court justices who first created the Roe V Wade guidelines (it was a 7-2 decision, for those who forgot, with 5 of the 7 being Republican nominated judges), and the strong possibility that other non enumerated rights related to the right of privacy may also be "returned" to the states, such as marriage (interracial or gay), and birth control. Not to mention any rights for the trans and LGBTQ community that have been recognized in the last decade.
This is a monumental ruling, the loss of a "right" for the first time in American history, and frankly, if it has been decided, should have been released immediately upon its adjudication. There is no reason, certainly no national security reason, for a decision like this to remain outside public knowledge for more than a few days, let alone months.
Also, just to emphasize how damaging this ruling could be, and using Justice Alito's own words in which he claims that a right must be "deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition", it is not hard to imagine any right that is less than 120 years old, a time frame that would certainly not qualify as "deeply rooted", might also be returned to the states. You know, trivial things like a woman's right to vote, civil rights, and even the right to travel, the right to a fair trial and the right to trial by your peers, all not specifically enumerated in the original constitution (if at all), but which we all believe are sacrosanct. In other words, all the rights fought and died for by people not born white men.
Ok, enough of that.
So, let's assume that most Americans, while not necessarily eager to exercise their right to an abortion, understand that such a difficult decision should be left to those involved and their physician, but who also would like to reduce the incidence of abortion. In other words, most of us would like to see abortion continue to be on the decline, as it has been in America since its peak in the 1970's and 80's.
What does the research show?
First, here is a link to a reasonably recent study on when, where and why abortions happen. What I learned from this report and other things I have read, is that abortions do not stop happening just because they become illegal, they just become more dangerous for the mother and fetus. But, once legalized, abortions are not only safer, (we are concerned about the mother, right?), but they tend to decline over time when combined with increased education about birth control, better access to health care services, and other support from the various institutions that are involved in a person's life (political, social, religious, family) which empower woman to take control over their reproductive life. In other words, if we teach women they have the ability to decide for themselves (along with their partners) when, and how not to become pregnant, we reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, hence the number of abortions. There is no doubt. Sex education (which certainly can and should include abstinence emphasis for those under 18), an understanding of and access to birth control methods, affordable access to health care services for all women, and the understanding that punishing woman for having sex does not prevent abortion, will reduce its incidence. Anything else is ineffective, and dangerous.
To put it simply, we need to devote our energies into strategies that prevent unwanted pregnancies, which means providing all the methods which enable sex to occur without conceiving. Yes, I said it, sex is not just to procreate and any remaining vestige of that concept that still permeates our religions and culture is itself, one of the obstacles to reducing abortion.
Speaking of sex, why is it that so much of the responsibility of these unwanted pregnancies, hence abortions, lie at the feet of the woman. As far as I know, it takes a man's participation also. Where are the accompanying laws banning abortions that require paternity to be determined and for the male to be at least financially responsible for the care and upbringing of this mandated life? Or are the legislators from Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, etc, setting aside state money to pay for these mandated children? Oh, sorry, I forgot, they only care about the fetus, the baby is not their concern.
Finally, and speaking of Louisiana, I see that there is a law cruising through their house and senate that would declare a fetus a person upon fertilization, thereby placing a woman and her doctor who participate in an abortion subject to a murder charge.
There is just one little thing wrong with that idea; a number of widely used birth control methods (probably used by those very same legislators and their children), prevent a fertilized egg from implanting, such as an IUD. In other words, this method of birth control would immediately become illegal, a grandfather amendment would have to be passed to allow those who have an IUD inside them to retain it (I guess they will have to be issued an IUD passport so they can't be arrested, although I am not sure what kind of search and seizure procedure would be initiated for those without such a permit), and, I guess, any doctor or pharmacist or health care provider who talks about an IUD could be charged with conspiracy to murder. But hey, maybe those good old boys who are pushing this law through their hallowed halls aren't up to date on how IUD's work. Or they just don't care.
Because you see, that is what this is really about; men controlling women. I wrote a story a while back called The Switchback. It is not about abortion, but about an event that causes a whole bunch of people to wake up a different gender and sex, how laws were suddenly altered to reflect the new "face" of those now in charge, and what happened when the effect switched back just as suddenly as it had occurred. You can read it by clicking the link below, if interested.
Along those lines, can you imagine how the abortion issue would change if men could become pregnant? I would imagine that not only would abortion be legal and that all health care plans would include this service, but that there would be TV ads for abortion medicines. Kind of like all the ads we see for boner pills for men, but meant to restore a guy's ability to get back in the saddle once that little "problem" is resolved, discreetly and over the phone, arriving in the mail in a brown paper bag.
As I said in my last post, ask all candidates for their stance on abortion and if they do not support a woman's right to choose:
#Against abortion rights, take a hike
Wednesday, May 4, 2022
I had been contemplating a post about the student debt controversy for a week or so, but will put that on pause for a bit in favor of some comments on the recent revelation that the Supreme Court will be gutting Roe V Wade and putting abortion laws back in the hands of the states.
Surprisingly, I found that I had not labelled any of my past posts with the term abortion, although I did find (3) concerning sex and contraception in which abortion was either prominent or implicit in the posts. Here they are, if interested.
Like a majority of Americans, I believe that abortion is a complicated issue, just as Justice Alito states in his opinion. But this complication is not centered around the idea about it being legal, but more about the concern that abortion should be safe and rare, and that while a majority of Americans may believe that they may not access this medical service, they are empathetic enough to realize that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is an extremely personal one, between those involved and their doctor, and should not be controlled by the government. I dare say that with this ruling, tens of millions of American women (and their partners and families) will now be faced with a mandatory pregnancy, should a situation arise in which they find themselves with an unexpected or unplanned event.
Seems odd that the party that made all kinds of noise about mask mandates, would now be more than OK with a pregnancy mandate, but I guess that is what makes the idea of freedom so strange.
It is as if personal freedom, for some, only extends as far that person's particular beliefs, regardless of whether someone else's freedom is compromised or limited in some way.
So, because some people have decided that abortion is not only wrong for them, but for everyone, it won't matter if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incense, a faulty condom or IUD, or even if the mother's life may be in danger if the pregnancy is carried to full term, or if the child's quality of life is determined to be very limited due to deformities. Of course, some of those states with trigger laws all ready in place may decide to evaluate those laws in time, but since so many of our states' legislatures our controlled by the GOP, this process may take a while.
For instance in the state where I live, Pennsylvania, the current governor has already vetoed a few anti-abortion laws which have been put forth by the GOP controlled legislature, despite the fact that most polls show that Pennsylvanians support some form of legal abortion by about 3 to 1. In other words, despite what most Pennsylvanians think about abortion, just as despite what most Americans think about abortion, there is a strong possibility that abortion will be illegal in my state next year should the governor's mansion be occupied by a republican.
Even worse, Alito's opinion clearly states that the court was "egregiously wrong" in not only the original Roe V Wade ruling, but in the Casey vs Planned Parenthood ruling that upheld what was then believed to be a constitutional right to abortion.
Curiously, the main reasoning behind this new ruling appears to lie in the fact that the Constitution does not specifically grant this right, despite the understanding that the 9th Amendment to the US Constitution recognizes that certain unenumerated rights for the citizens of our country should also be held as sacrosanct. To me, it was an amendment that says, hey, just because we didn't comment on things that either don't exist or aren't a thing in the late 18th century, doesn't mean that there might be other rights that are implicit in the rights that are specified. The danger here is that federal laws related to gay marriage, birth control, interracial marriage, the internet, cars, virtually anything that is not directly detailed in the Constitution, could also be returned to the states for control, even if most people believe that without the right to make decision about one's own body, who to marry, how to plan for a family, etc limits our freedoms.
What is scary is that this sounds to me like America's version of the Taliban. Laws based on a religion followed by the minority of the people. Seems like the antithesis to the whole idea of our American experiment in democracy, and especially the concept of separation between church and state.
It also shines a stark light on the idea that our "rights" come from our creator, not government. Yea, as long as that government respects the rights of people who disagree with them. If not, as we can see from the current state of freedoms in Russia, some of our "rights" may not be recognized if you live in a state which determines that right to not be appropriate and legal.
Not to mention Mitch McConnell who orchestrated the stealing of 2 Supreme Court spots, first by not allowing even the consideration of the nominee of Barack Obama, the twice elected president of the United States, only to have that seat given to Neil Gorsuch, one of the alleged majority in this horrendous opinion, and the second by slamming through the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett just a few weeks before the 2020 election, who appears to be another justice in the majority. And, of course, Brett Kavanaugh who pretty much lied to a number of sitting Senators (as well as the American people) when he stated, under oath, that Roe V Wade and Casey V Planned Parenthood represented established laws and precedents that should not be overturned.
Lastly, for now, it might be important to understand just how discriminatory this ruling is against women, an assertion that Alito conveniently doesn't understand, despite the simple fact that only women can become pregnant, and how hypocritical. It only takes a little time to research poverty rates, maternal death rates, child support collection rates, and any other measure in which the quality of life for children after birth might indicate to see that the states with the most restrictive abortion laws are generally the same states with the highest maternal death rates, highest child poverty rates, and lowest child support collection rates.
Righteous indignation about abortion followed by policies that result in the death of the mother forced to carry a pregnancy to term, and the malnutrition and death of the baby once it has left the womb.
At this point, I implore my female readers to make this their one and only voting issue. Fix this in the November election to limit the damage, and to retake the basic right for you to decide when and how you will have a family, not to mention who you might choose to marry to help raise that family. The Democratic party is far from perfect, but in this one issue, there is no debate who supports your right to choose and who is more than happy to legislate it away.
And if anyone would like to use it, you have my permission to use the following phrase as often and as loud as possible in response to those seeking your vote.
#Against abortion rights, take a hike.
Tuesday, April 26, 2022
Monday, April 18, 2022
My daughter (Rachel) and daughter-in-law (Abbye), as well as Rachel's dog, Piper, visited us for the last 10 days. It was a wonderful visit, full of good times, love and laughter. I continue to enjoy the freedom that retirement has brought, able to entertain without concern of having to go to work, able to be spontaneous during visits from my children without concern for responsibilities that could occur if still tied to a job.
During their visit, I read my first graphic novel, Punk Rock Jesus, written by Sean Murphy, which I borrowed from Abbye. Not sure how representative of the genre is this book, but the graphic novel is certainly a different form of literature, a different way of expressing ideas and messages, as compared to what I am used to, and especially different from the recent books I read by Vera Brittain and Dorothy Lessing. Still, if retirement is not an appropriate time to seek out new forms of art, then what is the point of working all one's life if not to expand one's experiences rather than seeking a comfortable bubble.
Anyway, reading a graphic novel strikes me as taking some practice; I am afraid that I most likely did not get all the meaning behind the book as desired by the author as the pictures tell as much or more of the story than the words, and I am more used to seeking meaning in words primarily. I would imagine that were I to start reading only graphic novels, then over time I would be able to retrain my mind to seek substance in the pictures first, words second, but since I needed to be conscious of this process, needed to make myself look at the pictures more intensely than I usually do, it made the process of reading the book more labored. This is not to say I didn't enjoy it, I did. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that even after taking lessons in a foreign language, the experience of reading a book in that new language would be similar in that the process of converting the new language to your native one would most likely interfere with the story.
Before I get into commenting on the book, I glanced through some previous posts which touched on the topic of religion. This first one, linked below, was written in April 2017, and discussed the never ending battle between science and religion. I wrote it after reading about Galileo in one of the Lapham's quarterlies that I love so much.
The second one is from January 2016, called the Intermixing of Religion. It was inspired by 2 separate articles in the Smithsonian Magazine, one concerning the search for historical Jesus and the other about his mother Mary.
OK, so what is Punk Rock Jesus about? Well, yes, it is about someone called Jesus who joins a puck rock band, but that happens far into the book. Much of the story involves the process, and how science and religion react to such a possibility.
In a nutshell, a company called Ophis led by a man named Slade creates a reality show based on the idea of cloning a genetic Jesus from the Shroud of Turin, called the J2 project. Simply put, the virgin mother to be is watched live on TV throughout her pregnancy, as is the birth and early life of the new Jesus. While it is certainly a dark novel, with all kinds of negative viewpoints of science, religion, god, and people in general, and features an ending for the cloned Jesus not unlike that of the original Jesus, it does not reflect pure hopelessness, or at least I didn't take it as such. I though it more a lesson in how most people have good and bad in them, even someone purportedly cloned from Jesus. And, while our suspicions that the whole J2 project is contrived merely for TV ratings are realized in the end, it is still interesting to see how an ideologue, whether controlled by science or religion, can be blinded to do, think or justify almost anything.
From this respect, even the character of Jesus becomes a victim to the extremist type of thinking that complete devotion to a belief can often lend itself to, as he completely rejects the notion that he is Jesus, turning to purposeful chaos and self destructive acts to vent this reaction.
I know this sounds a bit far fetched, perhaps even blasphemous to those who consider the original Jesus to be the actual Son of God, but I think by remembering that this person was not really cloned from Christ's DNA, it might be easier to accept such a reaction. To me, remembering the day when true believers in American democracy attacked the officers stationed at the US Capitol building to interfere in the peaceful transfer of power from one president to another, due to a misguided belief in a man rather than our country, should remind us that such blind devotion can lead to all sorts of actions, sensible or not.
I imagine that the tension between science and religion will be with us for quite some time, Star Trek not withstanding. While we are at least not arresting scientists in the name of God, I do fear that there are those on the far right who may not stop at just disagreeing with Fauci and his attempts to help us handle Covid should they gain power in our government this fall.
And, of course, which particular religious tribe you belong to will also continue to cause violence and death in our world, which reflects again on our vulnerability to words which inflame our differences, even though those words are supposed to be a reflection of god's representatives, words which if they really were "of god" would certainly not encourage prejudice, distrust, hatred and violence.
In the end, I don't know enough about the author, Sean Murphy. Don't know how much of my own philosophy I am projecting onto the lessons of his novel. But I am glad that I had the opportunity to encounter Punk Rock Jesus, and that Murphy chose this particular topic for his book. It offers a unique view of religion, something we need, will continue to need for the foreseeable future.
Thursday, April 7, 2022
I caught the end of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty yesterday. As it ended, I was struck with an idea about writing a blog concerning the topic of Ego and selflessness. I assume that this thought came to me due to the scene at the end of the movie. For those of you who have not seen this movie, I will not detail it here, but instead recommend you watch it when you get a chance.
The reason I thought a topic such as this might be interesting to explore, is that, as a writer (so proclaimed), it is difficult, if not impossible to separate one's ego from one's literary efforts. After all, just the fact that a writer deems his/her ideas to be of enough significance to put them to paper, to attempt to not only share them with others, but to fashion in that attempt a message or specific meaning, is an exercise in letting loose the ego.
While I imagine that it is possible for someone with low self esteem, or low sense of their own value, to write, or engage in any type of artistic endeavor, it takes a more developed sense of ego to share that work with others, to put it into the public arena, for good or bad.
Ego is often ridiculed in association with those who act or assume they are better than most everyone else. There has always been a disdain by the everyday person for those who don't do the hard work that keeps society functioning, who exist in a world where the sheets are always clean, the food always hot and plentiful, the money always available to satisfy any whim, even though all those amenities and advantages are just there, with no effort. To those of us not born in the lap of luxury, there is sometimes solace in believing that those people blessed with winning the birth lottery that provided for them most or all of their material needs, would not be able to survive the "real world", if not for their inherited advantages.
Yet a strong ego is also necessary to help drive those who innovate, those who think outside the box, those who fight against conventional thinking to create something novel. Is it not partly ego (along with patriotism) that drives the Ukranian people to fight against overwhelming odds to remove the Russian army from its soil? Not to mention, anyone who takes a scalpel in hand to operate on someone's brain.
Ego as defined as a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance, seems a critical attribute for an advancing society to desire in at least a reasonable percentage of its citizens. We want to nurture that sense of self esteem in our children so they will see no obstacle as insurmountable, and in our nation as a whole so together we can solve any problem.
Did it not take great faith in our collective abilities, or at least of those who worked for NASA in the 1960's, to believe that we could send a manned rocket to the moon when, at the time, we weren't even sure of the math to make the physics work?
Yet, it is just as clear that ego without a portion of selflessness, can be a negative. While we might admire a privileged person who volunteers in a soup kitchen, or who knows the first names of their employees, and those of their spouse and children, our admiration can be extinguished for those who have exchanged their humanity for money and possessions, for those who have long ago jettisoned the understanding that it is only when people as a whole benefit from great achievements that great ego helps mankind. It does a country little good when a resurgence of national pride comes from the subjugation of the citizens of another nation, or the dehumanization of certain minorities within that country.
Whether you are Vladimir Putin or those legislators who are proposing laws which isolate the LGBTQ and transgender community, actions driven by an ego that has lost touch with its sense of humanity, or dare I say it, with the unfathomable creation plan which has generated the myriad of species, and variations within those species for us to experience, are actions that betray the very foundation of ego and self-esteem, by destroying that very same sense in its victims.
I have had a number of conversations with friends and family concerning my belief that 5% of people are assholes. Often the discussion begins with a debate on that percentage, but I stand by that number, for now. Unfortunately, assholes come in all shapes and sizes, all genders and races, all socio-economic levels, although I have a personal belief that as income increases, especially into the percentile of the richest 5%, the chances of one being an asshole improve dramatically. Generally, discussions along this line lead to a debate of how many of those assholes are born that way (nature) or created through experience (nurture), but we always agree that if not for that 5%, life would be so much easier for the remaining 95% of people.
Is this the true challenge for humanity as given us by the creator? To figure out how to handle the 5% who are assholes while still living positive lives individually, and leaving the world a better place, collectively?
Also, not only are there assholes all around us, but each of us behaves like an asshole, from time to time. It is as if we all have the gene, and it can rear its ugly head on occasion, but happily it remains recessive most of the time, in most people. Yet, like a virus, it can spread quickly among us when the conditions are ripe.
For instance, these past 6 years have shown just how quickly a spark can release the gene within us. Who could have thought 6 years ago, that so many people would let their selfishness shine so much, would demonstrate against learning the facts of our national history, or against wearing a mask during a pandemic? Yet that is what we see all around us, as the result of that great orange asshole we once called president. Someone whose ego is so lacking in selflessness, that he is willing to sacrifice our country's democratic principles to prove that he could not have possibly lost an election. As if making America great again can be achieved by rampant selfishness when it is genuine selflessness as demonstrated by those brave Americans who gave their lives, literal and figurative, to the causes of freedom and equality.
Hopefully, just as McCarthyism, which brought out the asshole in so many Americans in the 1950's, we will soon see the end of this particular era, either as people realize the damage their inhumanity is causing, or open their eyes to the danger that an ego without selflessness can cause to our democracy, and to each other.
And, as for my struggle with controlling my own ego while still expressing my opinions, I will allow my occasional readers to judge how I am balancing the two.
Tuesday, March 29, 2022
If you are like my wife and I, we have been watching the nightly reports from Ukraine and find the scenes of death and destruction heart rending. The horrors of this invasion lend themselves to sadness, even tears if one imagines such an event happening to one's own family. It is these kind of scenes that are being suppressed within Russia, and are most frequently removed when the reports of war are broadcast to the invading country.
While in America we have a history of journalists who cover war in all its gory, and in fact, sometimes leads to protests against wars we have waged, such as the details of atrocities that were occasionally committed by US soldiers in Vietnam to name, perhaps, the most vivid experience that the American public had to face, it is also true that even here, the details of the murder of civilians in those countries which we invaded, Iraq and Afghanistan being the most recent examples, were far too often watered down or outright hidden from the nightly news reports.
My point here is that war is brutal, always has been, always will be, and regardless of the patriotism of a country's justification for sending troops to another country, woman, children and the elderly are always victims, unintended or not, of such invasions. In the end, it doesn't matter if a bomb hits a home by mistake or on purpose, in either case, noncombatants are maimed and killed, and families are destroyed.
As such, these kinds of stories generally lose their luster. After the initial interest, sort of like the tendency to look out the window as we pass an accident, looking to see if there is a body, while hoping not to see one, coverage of wars begin to alter. More stories of hope amidst the turmoil emerge, or even stories depicting some kind of normalcy returning bit by bit. For good or bad, we stop tuning in to see bodies and to hear about death statistics. And that is good, in a way, as it demonstrates that most of us do not seek destruction, do not believe that violence is a preferable path to peace and prosperity. But it is also bad, because just because we stop looking, it doesn't end the destruction. The horrors of the war continue, we just stop paying attention. We become numb to avoid the tears even though the tears continue to run from the eyes of war's victims.
And so, in the face of a choice between acknowledging that war is never good for the civilians of a country, but wanting not to see it when we wage war against the people of a country whom our leaders have designated as evil or bad or even just not like us, how does one stay happy? Maintain a positive outlook?
I have posted twice on this topic in the past. The first was written in June of 2019. In it I discuss that one could argue that up until just very recently in human history, the pursuit of happiness did not exist, at least not as we know it today. And, more importantly, how our current definition of happiness seems inexorably, and most detrimentally, linked to material possessions. The link is below.
The second was written in September 2019 and the link follows. In that post, I am more specifically commenting on the concept of seeking and achieving personal happiness while acknowledging the global anxieties that surround us. I end the post on a positive note, a positive conclusion, with the decision that not only can both exist, personal happiness and global anxiety, but that perhaps, both should exist in all of us. That by recognizing the reasons for our own happiness, our privileges us well as our achievements, we become more able to address the situations and circumstances of those who reside in other parts of the world, become more able to turn our empathy for their hardships into actions which might help them alleviate those obstacles. That perhaps we can only be better world citizens if we are happy people.
I am not sure how getting older is effecting my relationship with happiness and tears. Certainly, I am feeling more satisfied with my current life. Being retired has removed a considerable amount of stress from my world. Having the luxury to sit and read whenever and for however long I wish, or to just take off and visit friends or family without juggling work schedules is liberating. But as we age, the passing of friends, family, or even just names which remind us of our youth or good times of the past, bring all the more reasons for tears. Add to that the inevitable tendency to see our past through rose colored glasses, and it can be hard not to feel nostalgia for times past and dissatisfaction for today's changes.
In the end, I guess it is best to relish the happiness in our lives while evaluating the sadness that permeates the world so as to be able to distinguish between tears we should shed, and tears we should work to eliminate by extending some of our personal happiness into the world at large, and the lives of others less fortunate.
Wednesday, March 23, 2022
I have posted two essays on this blog along the theme of thanks to Donald Trump. The first was on November 2, 2020, just before the presidential election. In that post, referenced below, I praised Trump for energizing the electorate as no one had done for quite a long time. I had stated that there was a good chance that we would see over 60% turnout in that election; as it turned out, percentage of the voting age population (VAP) who voted in 2020 was about 62%, the highest since 1960. And if you use a different metric, voting eligible population (VEP), turnout was just shy of 67%, the highest on record by more than 7% since that particular measure was instituted in 1980. Now, one might say that still means that 3 in 10 Americans who are eligible to vote did not, and that in terms of world ranking, we are far down the list of most active citizens participating in national elections, but still, that this was the first time we broke 60% since 1968, and only the 5th time we surpassed 60% in the last 32 elections, we should celebrate progress. If you click on the ink below, you will also read that I retracted some of my praise for Trump by detailing all the ways he was leading to doubt in the veracity of mail-in ballots.
The second one was posted on December 6, 2020. In that one I recounted the events from election night to a month before 1/6 (of course I did not know at the time what would occur on 1/6). I detailed how, once he lost the election, he showed his true colors by actively fighting the peaceful transition of power through his false claims of massive voter fraud, baseless lawsuits, illegal attempts to sway various state election officials and legislators to "find ballots" or send bogus electors, all of which was capped off by his open request that VP Pence ignore the US Constitution and not verify the election results. Still, in this post, I assumed that Joe Biden would be sworn in as President on Jan 20, 2021, and I felt confident that while bent and abused, our experiment in democracy will have survived Trump's inability to accept that he lost. In other words, I was thanking Trump for showing just how strong our democracy was, just how resilient the institution could be in the face of a direct attack by a former president.
So that brings us to today's post. Why on earth would I possibly be thanking Vladimir Putin knowing that he has openly challenged the sovereignty of another country, has sent his military to assassinate its elected leaders, kill its soldiers and slaughter those citizens who stand against his horrific actions?
For one, it appears that Putin may have under estimated the strength and unity of NATO, in that for the most part, the NATO countries are united in their condemnation of this invasion, and in making some economic sacrifices to send a message that this attack will not go unpunished. Certainly, there is debate as to how aggressive we should be in our reaction and there is clearly no taste for actual boots on the ground. But, all in all, NATO has shown that the organization is viable, that it's existence is important. While I think it is safe to say that Putin also under estimated the fight and will of the Ukrainian people, that he may have thought that they would capitulate more quickly, I also think he perceived the West to be in enough disarray due to the effects of the pandemic, the ongoing rise of populist leaders who espouse a dangerous me first mentality, and the simple fact that he has been successful in his misinformation campaign to weaken democracy as a whole. In other words, it seems that he over played his hand, over estimated the strength and effect of his ongoing attacks against governments who choose free and fair elections over autocracy and dictatorships, and for that we should be grateful that he has reminded us that democracy, for all its missteps and occasional backsliding, is far better than what Putin and his ilk represent.
Second, and perhaps a bit more subtle, I hope this ongoing crisis reminds us that might does not make right. Just because a country can invade another sovereign nation, either directly through the military or indirectly via covert operations that assassinate and replace its leaders, it should not be tolerated in a world that values freedom, not just for our own citizens but for those who reside in countries that have different cultures. Putin's invasion reminds us that there is a huge difference between having a strong military in order to defend one's country, as compared to using it to subjugate the citizens of another. I truly hope we remember this lesson the next time we, the Untied States of America, decides to use our military to invade another country. I say this, not just because, no matter what excuse we embrace, putting our soldiers in another country without their consent, is an invasion, but because recent history, whether it be Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the current experience of Russia in Ukraine, teaches us that it is improbable that the citizens of another country can be convinced, through force, that the values of the invading country justify the killing of those being invaded.
Everyday for the past month, we have seen atrocities being committed, hospitals, schools, shelters being bombed, citizens being killed in the street, cities being starved of its resources, food and water. And, while these sorts of actions that demonstrate how cruel Putin is being to Ukraine, and how brutal those individuals who are executing his commands are being to people, who, while residents in another country, have a very similar culture and background, we must remember that these horrific events are not unique. All wars, whether they are called operations, or police actions, or military engagements, all wars create refugees, all wars create dead mothers, children, the elderly. Even those America has waged in the past 50 years. Perhaps we will remember the nightly pictures from Ukraine the next time we advocate for military intervention by our own armed forces against another country. Perhaps we should save those images and play them the next time we are ready to perform a knee jerk reaction in the name of revenge or nation building or the halting of an ism different from our own, so that at least we can be honest with ourselves and not pretend that all military violence creates the very same results that we are seeing on TV today.
A third thing that came to my mind, similar to my comments about NATO seeming to find a new sense of unity, is the thought that perhaps Putin's invasion will begin a sea change in perception that we need to act even more in concert with our fellow countries, not less as our former president seemed to believe. (I personally don't doubt that Putin was all too happy that Trump did his dirty work for him by casting doubt on the necessity of NATO). Don't get me wrong, I am all for reducing military expenditures all around the world. I feel 100% that we spend far too much money on "defense", money that could be used to provide all sorts of comforts and opportunities to everyday people. But in terms of alliances like NATO, or any other that encourages group participation and cooperation, I have no doubt that just the fact that Putin wants us to be less committed to Europe and other like minded countries, means we should be doubling down on these type of associations.
I can't imagine that there are not many people out there who have not experienced being bullied. And how to bullies thrive? By breaking off the weak from the group, and by making the group hesitate to act in fear that they might be next. Putin is a bully. His attack on Ukraine illustrates the first tenet, attack the weak. His goal of breaking up NATO, illustrate both his desire to separate other countries from the group, and his belief that the weaker the group, the less inclined for a group reaction to his attacks.
Toward the idea that so often in human history, it has taken the recognition of an outside threat that spurs action, especially coordinated action, I had hoped that the pandemic might inspire global unity against that threat. Unfortunately, it did not, which makes me less encouraged to think that Putin will be evaluated as the next big threat to the globe. This idea, that it will take an external threat to unite humanity, is what motivated me to write The Archives, for which there is a link below. It recounts a future where the globe is united against a threat from outside our solar system.
Lastly, and again, this is a lesson i hope we garner from this atrocity, I hope the energy crisis that Putin's actions have exacerbated, will teach us once and for all that we need to wean ourselves from our addiction to fossil fuels in general, oil in particular. As has had happened every time in the past when prices at the pump rose precipitously, the drill, baby, drill mantra has raised its ugly head. As if any of the other jumps in gas prices were solved by drilling for and pumping more oil!
It reminds me of the concept that more guns will make us safer. That if more people had a gun, there would be less gun violence, even though there are reams of statistics that show that countries with the most guns have the most gun violence, those with the least, have the least. To me, drilling for more oil will never address the main issue, that we need to revise our energy policy to encourage energy sources that do not require us to be vulnerable to any reduction in oil production, whether that reduction comes from OPEC, or a nation which becomes economically isolated due to its violation of international norms, or because it is a finite resource, or because the profit margin had dropped below that which renders new drilling sites a poor return on investment.
Or because the drilling, production and transfer of fossil fuels continues to add to our attack on the environment! Yes, that old problem which, year by year, brings us closer to what may truly be the outside force that brings humanity together.
It is always good to look for a silver lining in all things unpleasant. Wouldn't it be wonderful, if, in 20 years, President Putin will be thanked by history for bringing to light the necessity of strength among the democracies of the world, for giving new life to the global need to reduce oil and fossil fuel consumption, for encouraging diplomacy first, second, third, and fourth before turning to armed conflict to solve our differences, and for giving new life to the need for global cooperation in the fight to combat climate change.
Thursday, March 17, 2022
Just finished reading the last of the four books which I purchased for Nora this past Christmas. The Testament of Friendship was written by Vera Brittain, and is the 2nd in her trilogy, the first being The Testament of Youth which I discussed in a post about a month ago.
..Friendship continues the story begun in ..Youth, yet focuses entirely on Winifred Holtby, from her birth to untimely death at the young age of 37. It is a remarkable story, both in its execution and its lessons and its humanity. And, again, it is from the perspective of a woman, something, as I have just (sadly) learned these last few years, that is far too rare, far too neglected in the annals of history, both actual history and literature itself.
My first impression of Brittain and Holtby, is that women like this do not exist today. This is not meant to be a slight against the modern woman, but more a reflection of the incredible obstacles that women born in the late 19th century had to overcome. The fact is that the vast, vast majority of women from that time period did not attain the achievements of these two pioneers, not because there wasn't talent, ambition, intelligence, strength in abundance possessed by the women then, but because there was so little opportunity to demonstrate such traits. They were in the minority simply because the norms of the times changed by infinitesimal gradations, and on the backs of those few individuals, some men, but mostly women, who were willing to sacrifice for the causes of equality, the right to vote being at the forefront.
Even something as simple as friendship between 2 women, a friendship born out of similar interests, and one which led them to live together at various times, combining their various incomes to be able to live independently, a rarity for women of the time, led to the always present side glances and rumors concerning their sexuality, such was the strictures that they faced, and, for the most part overcame.
So yes, while 100 years after woman's suffrage first became law in America, there is still work to be done towards true equality of opportunity for the female of today, it was women like Brittain and Holtby (and so many unsung others) who fought the battles, suffered the many losses, and resigned themselves to the often 2 steps forward, 1 step back pattern that historic change often follows.
What also struck me throughout the book was Brittain's ability to, not only convey the amazing woman she thought Holtby to be, but to make the reader believe that we know Winifred, and that her loss is not just the loss of a character in a story, or a wonderful and lifelong companion, but as a friend in our own lives. We exalt in her triumphs, are saddened by her losses, and cry as her life comes to a premature end, wondering, just as Brittain did, if we could have done more to encourage her through life's challenges, or ease her pain as she bravely fought the disease that would cause her death.
For me, the book doubles down on my recent resolution to reach out more often to friends and family, reconnect with those from my past who are interested, and, in short, take action to, not only be a better brother, father, son, spouse, and friend, but be more cognizant of the short time we have in this life to not only be the best version of ourselves as possible, but to strive to encourage those in our lives to do the same.
It also makes me wonder if, despite the progress, whether the kind of tribalism that placed the needs and thoughts of the male above those of the female for most of history, is experiencing a revitalization today in the rise of nationalism, partisan politics, race relations, and most egregiously, policies concerning gender identity and sexual preference. Is this the natural pendulum backwards bump that often happens in times of great social upheaval, or a more insidious trend to revert back to the days when certain types of people knew their place?
It seems so simple, the concept that all men are created equal, and that friendships between people, between groups of people, perhaps between planets of beings someday, is the positive driving force that can provide the greatest opportunity for all, the greatest chance of peace. One thing I know for sure is that anyone who can inspire such a book as Testament of Friendship, or write one for that matter, makes the world a better place for having done so.
Friday, March 4, 2022
Death and Friends
Mike tossed his reusable grocery bags into the passenger seat, plugged his phone into the charger, and displayed the Google map for directions to the church. He checked the ETA to confirm he would arrive in time for the service, then backed out of the side parking spot onto the main driveway, and headed toward the street.
The text message he had read the week before, was the 2nd notice of a friend's death he had received in the past month. The first, about the aunt of one of his longest and most dearest friends, was not unexpected, but still struck him deeply. The news about his friend, the one whom he would soon see in a coffin, followed that very same path of hurt, creating a deeper, wider feeling of loss and disbelief, as this death was very unexpected.
As Mike drove, his mind floated back to those days of youth and promise during which he first met Elizabeth. He was madly in love with Ann, as we all think we are when teenagers, and had been introduced to many of her family during those few years they dated. Elizabeth was Ann's aunt from her mother's side. Mike was immediately struck by her energy, intelligence, distinctive laugh. Of course, she was at least 10 years older than Mike, and that age difference, and his intense feelings for Ann, eliminated any thoughts about her. Still, he had found that she was fun to talk to and be around on those occasions when Ann invited him to attend various family gatherings. The fact that Elizabeth was a teacher also made her an interesting person with whom to speak, as Mike's nascent curiosity in regards to a teaching career had recently entered his consciousness.
As occurs in most teenage romances, time, along with Ann's college enrollment and personal growth which outpaced Mike's slower, and different path, brought an evolution to their relationship, producing a friendship that, while perhaps less passionate than Mike envisioned in those early days, was far deeper and as treasured as any in his life. And so, as Ann's life moved forward without him, Mike's wandered to and fro, at one point bringing him back into contact with Elizabeth.
Mike parked in the street a few blocks from the church, put his phone in the glove compartment, and walked across the street and up the sidewalk. As he approached the church, he saw a few people with whom he had worked, some who had worked with him and Irene. While no one knew the details of Irene's death, all agreed that it was tragic, surprising, hard to fathom. Inside the church, in the vestibule, Irene was lying peacefully in the casket, a single rose in her hand. Mike greeted and expressed condolences to the family members, all who were clearly in shock at the reason for the gathering. He found a place in one of the pews towards the back of the church, and let his mind float into the past, towards the memories he had of Irene.
Mike and Irene had worked for a large retail organization, one in which people often transferred between stores, sometimes for proximity to home, sometimes for promotion, sometimes just for a new environment. When they first met, Mike was part time, working nights and weekends. He was immediately drawn to Irene, amazed at how much laughter could fit into such a small frame. It was only later he would learn the details of her life that made it even more impressive that she exuded such happiness. But in those days, there was a lot of cooperation, a lot of camaraderie among the staff, full and part time alike. It was Irene who called him Mikey, a moniker that only she and a few of his fellow employees of that time employed.
But, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and for that crew, at that store, the end began with the death of the GM, the eventual transfer of some of the crew, and with the 2008 economic meltdown, Mike's need to become full time, which took him out of the district for his first promotion. It would be 5 more years until he was reunited with Irene, only this time he would be a GM while she remained a clerk.
It was at that store, in that situation, that Mike began to learn about Irene, began to understand just how amazing she was, how her outward appearance of gaiety belied the obstacles she had faced, still faced, the sadness of her life that almost forced her to smile and laugh, rather than acknowledge the pain. Years later, after their communications slowed, she found true love, found a man with whom her laughter could be shared in its truest form, and not just as facade to hide the sorrow.
Mike's fascination with Irene became more apparent to him during that time. When they worked together, the atmosphere was light, stress free, yet as he learned about her, as she opened up a little here, a little there, their friendship blossomed. So, when she was forced to leave her pretty little apartment and move in with her mom, they spent those last few weeks, cleaning, moving her stuff, reminiscing. And, these visits continued once she was ensconced at her mom's, sometimes featuring a beer on the deck, sometimes a snack after work when he would drive her home. Mike never fully understood what this time together meant for Irene, he always assumed she valued his friendship, needed someone to chat with, but when that time ended, Mike realized that she had taught him how to be friends with a woman, how to flirt a bit knowing it was just a way to make each person feel good, but to never cross the line, never risk the friendship for more than a hug or peck on the cheek.
As time passed, their communications gradually dwindled to emails to say happy birthday, happy holidays, or a quick what is new. He couldn't remember the last time he saw her, heard that crazy laugh. As the service ended, family and friends moved through the church, some to the graveyard, some home. Mike walked slowly to his car. It seemed surreal, that Irene was gone, that he would no longer receive any emails from her, no longer wonder if there might be a chance encounter, or perhaps even, a planned visit. He had often thought of inviting her and her partner to visit, especially since his recent move to a new home, but COVID had squashed so many of those kind of plans. As he pulled out into the street, he tried to convince himself that it was the pandemic that prevented him from reaching out, suggesting a visit, and not just complacency.
Driving home, Mike's awareness flitted back to Elizabeth. He had spent some time with her during those years when he temporarily jettisoned college for "life experiences". He remembered going to a hospital with her to visit a sick student of hers, recalled that giving part of her personality, the smile their visit created on her student's face. He remembered visiting her home which was already starting to show some of the signs that would lead to an unhealthy tendency to save things. He remembered one particular letter he had written her in which he had offered to resolve an issue she had longed complained about, although in retrospect, he wondered if that offer was rejected due to its lack of clarity or her disinterest in a change to their casual friendship.
And he thought about the gap that marked their communications, a gap that was suddenly ended one day, 20 years at least since they had last spoken, when Elizabeth came in to shop at the retail store he was managing. Mike had walked past her, not noticing, until he heard her speak to the clerk at the register, and instantly recognized her voice, her tone, a small sample of her laugh. As she walked to the exit, he approached her, confirmed that her name was Elizabeth, and asked if she knew who he was. When recognition swept across her face, she moved towards him, hugged him, her shock at seeing him quickly replaced by a big smile. He walked her out to her car, where they agreed to meet for lunch in the near future.
Mike met Elizabeth 2 or 3 times for lunch in the next 6 months. She was still quick witted, although suffering from the occasional loss of the right words that can be evident as age and mileage takes its toll on all of us. They squeezed a lot of catching up after 20 years into those few meetings, plus spoke on the phone a half dozen times. Mike never quite felt the moment was right to ask her about the past, specifically about that letter. Now he wondered if it was because he was more afraid she would say she didn't remember, or would dismiss it as no more than a crush without revealing how she felt at the time. He had not spoken to her for almost 4 months before hearing of her death, although he did leave a few voicemails in that time, without response. As he arrived home and pulled into the driveway, Mike felt some tears welling in his eyes, wondering why he didn't try harder, especially as he now understood that her declining health was most likely the cause for her silence.
And, as with Irene, he felt a stab of guilt that the death of friends, even those from the past, often engendered more regret than sadness, as if some type of closure for those now gone and those still remaining would have softened the depth of feelings.
As time passes, as COVID recedes from our consciousness or transforms to an endemic disease as many predict, many stories will emerge concerning the tragic loss of life, tragic loss of friendships, contacts. For Mike, the two friends he lost during the 2nd year of the pandemic reminded him that friendships of the past are nice to remember, but new friendships and the reconstruction of old ones keeps life fresh, can keep the weight of life's trials and obstacles at bay.
Mike knew that some of his sadness over losing Elizabeth and Irene was partly due to his regret that he didn't try as hard as he could to stay in touch, stay aware of their joys and sorrows. He even thought that perhaps he could have provided a smile or chuckle for each had he contacted them one last time, perhaps could have provided one or both of them with a bit of comfort as they faced their final destination, even though he also knew that there was no real reason to suggest that he could have provided either of them something more than their own family and friends had furnished.
He also knew that every death reminds us of other people we have lost, other regrets we might be carrying for things we didn't say or do before losing our parents, siblings or friends. For Mike, his dad's death already 9 years past, stabbed his heart the most in regards to words he didn't say, hurts he didn't apologize for, love he didn't fully express. Its a sad lesson, that we relearn with every funeral, every death notice, every loss. If only we could be more attentive to the people in our lives that we love, those who bring joy to our lives, who support us when we need it, push us when required, love us with few conditions, that sad lesson may not need be learned so often.