Spent

At the beginning of this century, I picked up a book by Catherine Ryan Hyde, Pay it Forward (1999, Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books). They also published a young readers edition. In 2000, Warner Brothers released a film of the same name, starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment. Regardless of how well (or poorly) the movie was received, or that Spacey’s career is currently in a tailspin, the movement behind the book and movie has inspired me for nearly two decades.

In the story, a middle-school boy is given an assignment to make a difference in the world around him. What he does would set off a chain of “random acts of kindness.” The idea of “paying it forward” is embodied by the concept that there is greater merit in continuing the

Many of us, I being no exception, would normally go through life expecting that our acts of charity and compassion would come back to us in the form of some reward, karma, whatever you like to call it. Very often we feel compelled to reciprocate when someone is generous with us. The need to pay it back is our natural impulse, knowing that the person who was so kind surely deserves to be repaid. It is difficult to argue against this notion, what with our consumer culture.

However, the foundation, by way of the original story by Hyde and conveyed through their mission, promotes the idea that when someone performs a kindness for you, you should, instead of paying that person back, pay it forward to the next stranger, and keep it going. I get the impression that the original intent was for these acts of kindness to be toward strangers. But it could certainly apply to someone you know. When someone is generous with us, we should in turn do something kind for the next person, continuing a chain of unselfishness.

Every day I encounter situations involving kindness and cruelty. I work with people who will not help you unless there’s something in it for them. Today I talked with someone who felt like there should be some compensation within our volunteer organization. I understand there are limits to what one can give. We can give our time, offer our skills, donate money, cook meals, tutor, anything that may be needed. But we also need time for ourselves. We must achieve a balance, and that in itself is work for which there is no compensation.

I think it’s a good idea to set aside a little for the purpose of giving to those in need. Traditionally, churches have encouraged their congregations to give 10 percent of their income to finance everything from communion wafers to new suits for the TV preacher. It doesn’t have to be money, in my opinion, but if you can do it, there are many organizations (beyond church) that truly need help. You can also “give” talent, for instance if you are very good with finances, you might donate some of your time helping an organization with their books. (You might actually need to be licensed or something, so maybe look into that.) I have computer skills, and it would be “meet and right” for me to give my time repairing and maintaining systems for a non-profit entity. The possibilities are seemingly endless.

I’ve been mindful of Pay it Forward for so long now that I probably don’t think about it consciously anymore. Could I do more? Sure. It is difficult at times. Not everyone who needs assistance is receptive. I run into it occasionally:

“Would you like some help with that?”

“No! I can do it!”

Yes. It happens. Oftentimes, we are confronted with resistance and bitterness when all we want to do is help. If you run into this, move on. There is no reward for you helping; so, there is no punishment either. Just be careful.

As someone who has accepted payment for doing something nice, I can tell you that it feels much better to know – or assume – that that person will pay it forward. And it doesn’t matter if they don’t. You made the difference. And you will continue to do it, because it makes the world a better place. There will be discouragement, and you may shake your fists at whomever created those wretches. But just keep it going as long as you are able. For as much suffering as you will encounter, there will be comforting and joy by your actions. No one will remember where it came from, and that shouldn’t matter. Perhaps it will come back around, but that’s not why I do it. And even if it did, I’d just pay it forward again.

 

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God, the Devil, and a Literary Agent Walk Into a Bar

After watching a Darren Aronofsky movie I often feel the need to scrub with a loofah, sit in the corner of the room holding my knees to my chest, weeping and rocking back and forth. Requiem for a Dream was one of those, and I came away from it feeling grateful for my ordinary, uneventful existence. (I mean, I’m not a hermit, but, you know.) My suburban drudgery notwithstanding, I find some guilty pleasure in the dark and the bleak. I like the show “Black Mirror” on Netflix, although some of the episodes are not so dark.

Recently, I saw Mother!, starring Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence. I have to say I was prepared going in, having read about the symbolism and allegory. I approached it as a moral play, of sorts. The movie takes place all within the confines of the large, solitary house in the middle of nowhere. Bardem is the husband, with Lawrence as his young wife. A series of misadventures and tragedies befall the couple, and the house, all corollaries of creation, life, sin and much more. At times the imagery was pretty heavy-handed, like the blatant disregard the guests have for the couple’s home. Lawrence’s character is constantly being forced to retreat into her inner sanctum, which is nevertheless violated as well. Over and over again, the mistress is intruded upon, succumbing to bouts unidentified illness only to be remedied by drinking some mysterious sunshine-in-a-glass concoction.

Bardem’s character is not very attentive to his wife, instead turning his attention to his adoring public. His “writings” are cherished by passionate sycophants, who begin to “interpret” them and quickly break off into factions. Allegorical figures with names like “Philanderer” and “Bumbler” enter and leave, returning and reappearing as the scene spirals out of control into madness and chaos. Lawrence’s character is continually mistreated, all the while Bardem and his worshipful yet disturbingly misguided agent (played by Kristen Wiig) float in and out of view. Eventually, Lawrence’s mother earth figure will get her revenge. And it’s not pretty.

Many people hated this film. I think they might have been better prepared if they had read a few works beforehand: Genesis through Deuteronomy and Luke, Paradise Lost, Cosmos, The Divine Comedy, and A Short History of Nearly Everything. To be perfectly honest, I did fine only having read part of the Divine Comedy, and only part of Milton’s magnum opus. You should be okay.

In all seriousness, the film is entirely metaphorical. None of the scenes should be perceived as literal depictions of anything. What starts out as a seemingly innocent visit of passers-by quickly turns into a hideous bacchanal, then a catastrophic breakdown of civilization. The allegorical figures of the Zealot and the Defiler make their appearance. Many, many others soon follow. Chaos ensues, and it gets ugly soon after.

I like dark things. Dark chocolate. Dark beer. Dark roast coffee. And I like the darkness in Aronofsky’s works. I probably won’t watch this one again, however. Not that I didn’t like it. I have only seen Avatar once. Meanwhile, I’ll watch Die Hard anytime. Go figure.

Now to finish reading Frankenstein.

 

You Only Need to Ask

Help.

help

This is one of the most powerful words in the English language. The mere utterance moves people to respond. Shouting it will draw attention, and strangers will spring into action. It inspires us to give. It motivates us to self-sacrifice. The thought that someone needs our help might override our own instincts, for self-preservation, or at least the fear of being hurt or humiliated. And yet, we are often afraid to ask for help, even when we desperately need it. Why, then, are we so willing to offer help and yet not able to request it?

I was shopping for dinner at my favorite market, and I asked the butcher for two things: coarse-ground beef for chili and a cut-up fryer. The young guy had to get his manager because he wasn’t authorized to operate the saw to cut the chicken. I asked him to go ahead and do that for me, if he didn’t mind. He was more than happy to ask, and the manager took care of me without hesitation. All I had to do was ask.

I find myself asking people more and more when I genuinely need help, mainly because I know how helping people brings me joy and makes me feel fulfilled. So I don’t have a problem asking. I don’t take advantage of people. But I know there are things that I would do for someone if it is an inconvenience for that person and especially if it’s a task I enjoy doing or that distracts me from drudgery. On the other hand, I have found great value in saying ‘no’.

‘No’ doesn’t have to be a forceful rejection of someone’s request. I am often asked to do something by a coworker that that person should know how to do, and that is their responsibility in the first place. One of my flaws is that I tend to bend over backward to help people, even when it is an imposition and I should be doing something else. On a rare occasion that I have flat-out denied to do something (I could have been fired), that person has just now started talking to me again after 3 years. I try not to let these things bother me, but averting disappointment is a major motivator for me. I think I am not alone, here.

I hate letting people down, even when I am not at fault and there was no avenue for me to come to the rescue. It is fortunate that my job doesn’t require me to save lives, and that is something I remind co-workers of, that the worst case scenario is that someone will be disappointed, provided no one violates policy or law. At that point, all bets are off.

Asking for help, however, is not as risky as we might imagine it to be. A person can refuse to help, and that is their right. Some people are assholes. But that should not stop us from seeking help when we need it. I learned recently that sometimes you cannot do everything yourself, and you don’t have to be a martyr, trying to take it on all by yourself. But you won’t get help from people by declaring to the crowd, “I need a volunteer!” That moment when everyone steps up simultaneously makes for great cinema, but I’ve never seen it happen in real life. Don’t wait for it to happen magically. Leave that to Disney.

As much as we might think we don’t like being told what to do, most of us will respond to that, at least when it’s a gentle, persuasive appeal. I like the “congratulations! You’ve been chosen to help me…” line. I also used, “good news! We’re going to work together on a project.” You’d be surprised how well a little sarcastic humor is received. Don’t be afraid to be turned down. It’s okay to refuse sometimes. Just don’t be that guy. You know who I’m talking about.

Don’t be surprised when someone offers to help you. Most of us are looking for opportunities to be of some assistance. There’s something ingrained in us that makes us crave it, that satisfaction we get from helping another person. Actually, other creatures don’t seem to share our values. (I think polar bears kill their young or something like that. That’s probably something to do with food supplies and the wilderness, which we don’t run into much in the US.) all that being said, I’m still not sure what most of us are afraid of. I think I’ll make it a new year’s resolution to ask for help more often.

Media, George Carlin, and Change

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or has read some of my posts that I am not a fan of Facebook. Social media sites like Facebook have converted our would be electorate into a bickering mass who have resorted to proliferating misinformation, selling out for clicks and likes. We have allowed our voices to be drowned out; and, due to conniving and conspiring by foreign governments (and possibly our own), we have adopted a currency that is this illusion of security and community. We sit in front of keyboards or with devices in our hands, pretending to be connected to the world, but really making us more isolated than any generation has ever been. Meanwhile, we are fed lies and fear and distortion of the facts, made to look like truth, and we wonder what is wrong with the world.

I took a “media holiday” recently. For the entire week of Thanksgiving, I refrained from checking Facebook, viewing news stories, listening to talk radio. I listened instead to classical music. I played video games. I enjoyed people’s company. I felt like this was a good thing. I admit it felt odd not being “connected” as it were. Ironically, I was better connected to people when I was not looking reading their posts, rather looking them in the eye over lunch. It was liberating in a way. After a week, and after the kick-start of the American capitalism festival that is holiday shopping season, I reconnected with the world, catching up on the news, looking through scores of missed Facebook notifications, and scanning Twitter for juicy updates from all our favorite celebrities.

While I actually still recommend an occasional break from the unrelenting tide of news and information that has replaced our own original thought, I’ve reconsidered my position on Facebook’s – and all social media’s – role in our lives. Before 2003, when both Myspace and LinedIn were released, social media consisted of message boards, user groups, and group emails. There was nothing like what exists today that allowed for so many people to join together for a cause, or to organize and collaborate, or that would cause anything to “go viral”. It’s hard to believe that the state of media ubiquity is still in its infancy. Looking at the early days of television compared to today’s live streaming and video-on-demand, the possibilities for the future of mobile internet and its potential effect on the human race are astounding and terrific. If you are not frightened about this future, you should be.

Alarming and dystopian though this may sound, and inasmuch as I get the whole “don’t have the player, hate the game” sentiment when I complain about people taking selfies in front of a location where a tragedy occurred, I can safely say that people are the problem, but the internet plays some part. The internet – social media, email, SMS text, all of it – is a tool that people use for good, for profit, for self-indulgence, for pleasure, and for evil. By comparison, with a hammer you can build a house; with it you can also break into a car. This is a rather simplistic analogy, and it can be said that the internet is much more powerful and complex than a hammer. I agree. The internet, not just the web, but all parts of it, is vast and decentralized, which makes it beyond the reach of government. Governments can restrict access to it, but no one owns the internet.

This brings me to my caveat. While the internet is this wonderful and dynamic force that could be used for good, it can also be used to deceive and control people. We’ve been fed a steady diet of misinformation and outright lies for many, many years. We’ve all been led to believe many half-truths and falsehoods that we were convinced were true, because those who perpetrated them will have you see what you want to see. Some lies might have a nice crunchy shell of luscious truth, but at their heart are untrue. Those are the worst kinds of lies. For instance, studies in food safety will often be funded by food manufacturers themselves. Russia may have actually bought the 2016 US election. Urban myths and legends, mostly false, have been promulgated across many forms of electronic media since the 1980’s. As a result, sites like Snopes.com, Politifact.com, and others have arrived on the scene to help debunk all the misinformation we’ve been digesting all this time. What is the antidote?

In 2004, George Carlin gave an interview on Fresh Air following the publication of his book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? About 37 minutes into the interview, Terry Gross asks him quite directly about his decision not to vote. Carlin’s response – flavored by the cynicism of his generation – is that he believes that the “ownership of this country” doesn’t want change to happen. Yes, we go to the polls every two years in an attempt at peacefully overthrowing our government, but as Carlin puts it, it’s like rearranging the furniture. The “ownership class”, as he puts it, really controls everything, and we voters are under the illusion that we can make a difference. This seems possible, even likely to be true. However, what about we take over ownership? What would that look like, and is it possible?

Social media might eventually change. Myspace might still be in use, and it doesn’t compare to its larger cousin, Facebook. Strangely, Google+ never really took off. But they haven’t been around long, and the way people use these sites has changed significantly over the 14 years they’ve been around. What if social media became a place to share ideas, to pursue understanding, to engage in civil discourse? What I mean is, what if we used social media in a way contrary to the way it is being used today? I like to imagine Facebook users sharing factual information, personal stories, truth. A Google search for “lies on…” will result in auto-recommendations, the top choice being “lies on Facebook.” Those hits are mostly links to sniveling and shaming retorts toward inaccurate posts. No big whoop, as it’s said. But polarizing memes, divisive language, hate speech, and utter bullshit have escalated all over the internet. People who believe the earth is flat have never had a larger audience. This despite the fact that scientists have known for thousands of years that the earth is not flat. Some of my friends and family members have shared posts that were clearly inaccurate. The misinformation was staggeringly obvious.

Why do we do it? Why do people continue to spread false information? How would we restore integrity to this medium? Even established news organizations have fallen to the trend of perpetuating rumors and hearsay. On the other hand, there are plenty of hard-working journalists who want to print or voice only the truth. Why couldn’t all media work for us rather than against us? The free flow of ideas doesn’t have to be constrained. We can still post videos of kittens. We can still take selfies. But my hope is that we would want more from ourselves. In my vision of the future people’s comments would be thoughtful and insightful. Social media would be used to call people to action. We could share ideas. We might organize change in our communities, our nations. We possess great power with this invention. Imagine what the great minds of the past would see in its potential. Maybe I don’t agree with George Carlin’s philosophy. Our world is not for sale. I believe regular people have all the power. I believe action and dedication can overcome any amount of money. I believe we are on the cusp of some colossal change in the world. When we have the sum of all knowledge ever collected throughout history, how can we not take advantage to educate ourselves and promote new, original thought? The human race needs to advance. We need to get past our petty squabbling and get to the business of healing our nations – all nations. We need to care for one another. We need to be invested in the future of humanity.

 

 

 

What You Find in the Garbage

A little over 25 years ago, I saw a movie called The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Mercedes Ruehl, and Amanda Plummer. Perhaps you’ve seen this film. In it, Bridges plays Jack Lucas, a radio talk host whose bravado and hubris come to a head when he makes an off-hand remark, as these personalities are wont to do, but his tirade inspires someone to go on a mass shooting rampage, killing many. One of those killed is the wife of Parry, played by Robin Williams.

To me, by way of the many times I have watched it – studying it, actually – the themes in Fisher King revolve around the simplicity of baser aspects of human nature, but intertwined with the unsightly, the lovely, the agonizing, and the superb qualities of the human condition. “The Fisher King” explores our callousness and compassion, our lack of mercy, and our need for redemption. It reminds us that we make alliances among most unlikely of people. Parry (Williams) is rendered destitute after the death of his wife, and leads a small army of the disenfranchised through the uncelebrated streets of Manhattan. Lucas (Bridges) also hits bottom, and finds a savior in Parry, who in turn needs saving from Lucas. Their symbiotic relationship makes each one stronger, allowing them to forgive themselves and each other.

Robin Williams at one time mentioned this was one of his best roles to perform. It’s difficult to nail that down, because he had so many great performances (Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, Good Morning Vietnam, and Dead Poets Society). But he seemed to express some real admiration for this project during a brief and somewhat disappointing interview with one Jimmy Carter (the other one). Carter asks Williams about his role and about the themes in the film, or at least a single dimension of the film, not getting too deep (it was only seven minutes in length). It is cringe-worthy, especially when Carter insists on doing a “video greeting card”.

“The Fisher King” was directed by Monty Python’s Flying Circus alum Terry Gilliam. Gilliam’s other features include Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, to name just a few. The style of Fisher King is typical of Gilliam’s other films, where we see a grittier, less sanitized world, making it look almost alien and unsuitable for human existence. Color is an important

Parry to the Recue
Parry (Williams) saves Jack (Bridges) from an attack.

part of the scenes. Red symbolizes the heart, complete with passion, agony, and love – romantic and otherwise; the Red Night, the cabaret singer played by Michael Jeter, the Chinese restaurant. The light in the Grand Central Waltz scene is both eery and magical. Figures glide in small circles, while Lydia (Plummer) sails amid the dancers, followed unbeknownst by Parry.

Dim Sum
Parry, Anne, Jack, and Lydia

The film is full of strange moments and a bit of insanity, mostly on the part of Parry, who is being pursued by his own demons, manifest in the form of the menacing Red Knight. At times, Parry seems to be in control, especially when Jack is with him. Other times, the knight chases Parry mercilessly. Eventually, Parry must face the demons from his past and attempt to make his way back from his own personal hell. Is he allowed to move on after the tragic death of his wife. Can he forgive Jack for his incendiary comments that may have led to the tragedy? Can Jack forgive himself? Redemption plays a big part in the relationship between the two men, and their relationships with Anne and Lydia, respectively. How do we count ourselves worthy for any love or kindness that comes our way? The answer to that question might be that we deserve nothing. We should never consider ourselves entitled to anything. Meanwhile, any gifts offered to us should be received with gratitude. We should not be above asking for help. And we should not debase ourselves with self-loathing, instead allowing others to come into our lives.

What I take from Fisher King mostly is that we are our own worst enemies. We beat ourselves up for offenses others would forgive. We deny ourselves joy and fulfillment. And we reject people who want to be with us, both out of longing and out of compassion and charity. At one point in the film, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) finally tells Jack how much she loves him. You can see the pain in her expression, probably because she knows he does not love her the same way. Parry is motivated by is erstwhile unrequited love of Lydia, and as soon as he confesses his long-time obsession, here comes the Red Knight. Tragedy and heartache seem to follow immediately after finally letting down their guard, exposing their vulnerabilities. It’s a jagged pill to swallow, but baring your soul is often the most painful thing you will do. Broken ankle: sure, that hurt. Oral dry socket: hellish. Revealing your inner self, this is the riskiest move you can make.

I find myself quoting Fisher King all the time with my wife. We’ve seen it so many times, we can and do recite dialog from memory. But more significantly, we find ourselves comparing the movie’s themes to our own situations or something we have seen or heard. It is for us one of the best films we’ve ever seen. Not everyone agrees, but even though Roger Ebert in 1991 gave Fisher King a negative review, he later reconsidered the merits of the film, shortly after Williams’ death in 2014. Robin Williams was in rare form for this movie, and he is sorely missed. His on-screen lunacy brought energy to what otherwise might have been a dull movie, Jeter’s Gypsy rendition notwithstanding.

If you have never seen “The Fisher King”, give yourself permission for the indulgence. The soundtrack is a nostalgic romp, and there’s this sense of the 80’s coming to a close, complete with land line phones and video rental stores. You will probably find yourself at least humming “How About You?” and shouting “yo, Lydia!” as a result.

As the four main characters are walking to dinner, Parry picks up something from a trash heap, and Jack attempts to correct Parry’s apparent habit. A moment later, Parry presents a delicately rendered tiny chair out of a champaign bottle cage, explaining to Lydia that you would be surprised what you find in the garbage. In other words, maybe something people thought was worthless is perhaps a treasure.

Flawless

For most of us, practically all our lives, we’ve been told repeatedly how imperfect we are. We may have been admonished for being flawed, shamed for being mere humans. Teachers and pastors surely reminded us that nobody’s perfect. Countless times, to be sure, everyone has been reminded that we are anything but perfect. They may have even gone so far as to tell us that we are unredeemable piles of human refuse. This is at least the impression I got from adults when I was young. We were told that no one was perfect except God. Who could argue with that? God, who made the universe and all its atrocities. God, who created smallpox and puff adders. God, who caused the great flood because, “the Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth…I will wipe from the earth the human race…”

When I was a kid, and I went to Sunday school to clear my mind of all the evil worldly thoughts filling my head, I began to question certain principles. Namely, that no one could be perfect. Believing oneself to be perfect was aligned with the sin of pride. How dare we claim this for ourselves? At the same time, it was impressed upon me the absolute necessity for me to strive for perfection. Grading systems were designed with an ideal to be made manifest. There is a “perfect” GPA. Baseball has a perfect game. A perfect storm. A perfect day. While we’ve been told there is no such thing as perfection, we certainly throw that word around a lot.

With all this shit swirling around like so many toilet bowls, it’s easy to assume that our teachers, parents, middle school bullies, swim coaches, and youth pastors were all right when they emphasized how we are all imperfect. Most of us were told to obey authority; and, therefore there was no reason to assume everyone was wrong. But they were. Not only is it possible to achieve perfection, I believe each that of us is already a perfect being. Before you start enumerating my many flaws, let’s first deal with that pesky issue of defining perfection. What does perfect actually mean?

The Greek philosopher Plato maintained that not only is our world imperfect, but it may not even exist. Plato held that the constantly changing world was only a copy of the ideal, the perfect and constant vision only attainable in human thought. A perfect circle, for example, might be conceptualized, but could never be physically produced. Indeed, even modern machines can render a near-perfect circle, but our even more advanced measuring equipment may now detect the smallest imperfections. And so it continues. In our minds, we can identify the ideal, but is that ideal based on something we were taught, or is it a universal, collective vision of perfection?

snowflake

For many of us, we have an idea of what perfection means. For example, we like to point to snowflakes as perfect units. But notice something about these? They’re all different. In fact, every snowflake is unique, each one different from the next. If a snowflake is perfect, then all of them are. But any difference, according to Plato, would in essence be an imperfection. But what is the ideal snowflake? How could there be just one perfect one? How could all copies of the ideal be considered less than perfect? In the world where we live, we are not afforded the opportunity to contemplate the ideal, the snowflake Form; we only have the real, the physical. All snowflakes, therefore, are perfect. And so is every potato, for that matter.

As for me, I know I am more complicated an organism than a potato. But I see wonders every time I check in on things around the world. For instance, there are sea creatures that do everything from change color to emit light, to name a few. Human beings might appear less significant in the grand scheme of things, if we’re going for existential despondency. I mean, we’re more than just animals, even though we are classified as primates who have simply evolved. The very act of my writing this indicates that there’s something more going on. Therefore, here we are, each of us, contemplating our existence and our place in the universe. Meanwhile, we’re still basically controlled by our basic urges and needs: sleep, eat, fuck, survive.

Now that I’ve established that I am ordinary, it makes my perfection argument a little easier. If we were as simple as dogs or grasshoppers or potatoes, how could anyone dispute that any of us were anything less than perfect? Naturally, there are those who might judge. The Westminster Kennel Club holds an annual event to decide which dog breed is superior to the rest. This is highly subjective, and the results should never be construed as to mean there is any one dog that is perfect. Really, aren’t they all?

The thing about perfection – a human preoccupation – is that there really is no such thing. What I mean by that is there is no one ideal of any item, person, or situation in our plane of existence. That “perfect storm” we keep hearing about is actually a confluence of forces or elements crossing a threshold, arbitrary perhaps, where conditions may be just right for the worst case scenario. This term is almost always used as a metaphor to describe some social or work situation where things go horribly wrong. Shit happens, but I wouldn’t call this perfection.

Perfection is kind of an illusion. Except that here I am trying to convince you that we are all perfect beings. What makes this impossible to accept is that we’ve been told how imperfect we are our entire lives. But I maintain that we are all perfect and essential. We’re like cogs in the intricate machinery of the universe, to use a hyperbole here for a moment (if Plato can do it, well…) Perhaps we are perfect in that we are precisely where we need to be for the cosmic algorithm to function. What if we are all exactly where we’re supposed to be? Can’t we be perfect in the place we find ourselves?

I admit, my previous notions of perfection were rooted in that latent Catholic school guilt and self loathing, where we lesser things cannot possibly approach perfection. One of my instructors was wrong about many things; it stands to reason he was wrong about this, too. Maybe I am perfect. I’m not without fault, but my perfection may lie in the niche I fill. For my wife, I am exactly what she needs, or so she tells me sometimes. Am I the perfect husband? Perhaps for her. I might be the perfect employee for certain needs of my company. I might have been the perfect student, not because I made A’s, but perhaps because I made my teachers think or because I made them work harder. I may never know. But my point is that I believe we are all perfect beings.

In a sense, we are more than all the cells and plasma and elements in our bodies, the electrical impulses between our nerve endings, or the chemistry in our brains. We’re beyond the body and the physiology of the human animal. There’s no proof that we have souls or spirits, but there’s a lot we have not discovered about ourselves. There might be something perfect within all of us. Maybe our struggle, our suffering, is simply our souls colliding with our human instincts and emotional pressures. Is music a transport vessel for the soul? Is art another? What about acting or stand-up comedy? Or writing?

In claiming my perfection I am not placing myself above other people. On the contrary, I make no statement to that effect. I am not better than anyone else. But that’s not what I mean by perfection. I don’t mean to say I am flawless. But as Confucius said, it is better to be a diamond with a flaw than to be a pebble without one. In other words, being perfect may not be what it’s cracked up to be. Perfection might equal banality in that scenario where the world is populated with pebbles, or potatoes, or snowflakes. One’s  perfect state might be typified by his or her nonconformity or eccentricity. Where there is a “perfect” field of snow, the perfection we possess might be the footprint that provides dimension. What was seen as a flaw is now perceived as absolutely essential. In a word, it’s perfect.

 

The New World

This year, Thanksgiving in the US is on Thursday, 23 November. I have always enjoyed this holiday, mainly because the day itself has escaped a lot of commercialization that other holidays in the States attract, like Christmas and July 4th. Most of the time, holidays are simply an excuse to spend money on things we either do not need or can’t afford. The Lexus December to Remember campaign, while very effective advertising, reveals a very materialistic world, where getting what you want is automatically assumed. Christmas, therefore, is all about what’s in it for us.

With companies working so hard to get our attention, advertisers have ignored Thanksgiving. Well, not entirely. But somehow, Thanksgiving has managed to stay pretty much on course as a celebration of this country’s blessings, rather than being used for marketing purposes. For many of us, we remember being taught that in 1620, “pilgrims” came from England to Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts to establish an American colony in the new world. These undocumented immigrants arrived and immediately ran into trouble. They were only saved by the help of the native-born people of what is now Massachusetts. A Patuxet man by the name of Tisquantum, or “Squanto”, was instrumental in assisting European settlers, really keeping them alive amid hostility by the Patuxet and Nauset people, the harsh winter, and unpreparedness of the pilgrims.

The real first Thanksgiving has been so romanticized that we could hardly recognize the reality if we were actually able to witness it. This event has been depicted so many times in film and literature that it’s nearly impossible to replace those images of the Native Americans, or Wampanoag, and the English settlers gathering at a large outdoor spread, complete with roast turkey and cranberry sauce. We can see women in their white bonnets and aprons, and men with tall black hats and buckled shoes; and the “Indians” in their buckskins with fringe hanging from their sleeves. These images are almost certainly false. Be that as it may, Thanksgiving has become a truly unique American holiday.

These days, Thanksgiving is celebrated in as many ways as there are families celebrating it. My personal preference has always been to serve a roast turkey with Better Homes and Gardens Harvest Stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and homemade croissants. Others might choose a picnic (in warm climates), or traveling to New York City to witness the Macy’s Parade. American Football is also a huge part of the Thanksgiving tradition. I spent one Thanksgiving playing halftime at an NFL game. But that’s a story for another time.

The main reason for the holiday, according to Abraham Lincoln, who first declared it as a national holiday in the height of the Civil War in 1863, is to set aside a day for giving thanks for what we have. In Lincoln’s time, as in times thereafter, we see trouble in our midst, as did those first European settlers; but we must pause to be grateful, to recognize that we have more than we deserve. Many people are going hungry tonight. There is great need out there, and yet we live in one of the richest nations on earth. Perhaps while we are giving thanks we could also think about giving of ourselves.

Maybe that first Thanksgiving wasn’t only about the Pilgrims being grateful for what they had relative to the loss and the suffering they had endured. For the Native people who assembled that day, they might never have known the fate of their civilization at the hands of European encroachment. For them, that event might only have represented the feelings of brotherhood, of sharing what they had so that others would not starve. Some Europeans (Thomas Hunt) did not treat them with as much love and respect. And hostile feelings persisted between some tribes and the English settlers. Tisquantum’s Patuxet village, the entire tribe, was wiped out by the plague, to which Native Americans had no immunity.

Thanksgiving is therefore a more complicated day than we usually consider. The classic* American image of the feast, as the Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom from Want” depicts, may be far removed from anything seen in modern times. Then again, most holidays are not celebrated with any historical accuracy. Christmas, for instance is an appropriated pagan winter festival, and Jesus was most likely born in April, not December. Saint Patrick would probably be abhorred if he saw what they do in his name. Yes, Thanksgiving is now what we have made it. Maybe there will be no turkey. Maybe there will be no dinner at the table. But Thanksgiving is not going to be removed from the calendar where it sits, on the fourth Thursday in November. It’s there. Why not take the day to celebrate something?

freedom-from-want_3_5

white, privileged, middle-class