Hope in Human Form

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There I was in a room filled with strangers.  I had come to this church in a van full of other strangers.  I was beaten, tired, confused, and spiritually, financially and emotionally empty.  I hated my work.  It seemed to only add to my depressed mental state.  I no longer had any close friends.  I was barely on speaking terms with anyone in my family – I hadn’t talked to my older sister and two older brothers in years and bitterly resented my younger brother who until recently had been living with me.   I lied as a matter of routine.  I hadn’t dated in years because I pretty much despised who I was.  I was more full of anger and hate than I care to admit.

I was like Gollum in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings  – unloving, unloved, friendless, isolated, corrupted, and slowly going crazy.  That was what had brought me into this room.  It was my first AA meeting.  Alcohol was my One Ring: seductive, comforting, baffling, and powerful.  It was my “precious”.  But it was also killing me.   It was destroying any semblance of who I once was, not only physically, but mentally and spiritually as well.  It wanted me dead.

Earlier that day I had checked into an in-patient rehab facility where I would spend the next couple months.  That night we were driven to a local Lutheran church where they were holding an AA meeting.  It was a lead meeting where someone told their story.   I don’t remember much of what the speaker talked about.   I was fairly numb with self-pity and self-loathing at what the state of my life had become.  I only really remember the sign on the podium that said “Hope is found here”.   I kept thinking to myself, “please, let that be true”!

That was 4 and ½ years ago.  I did find hope – and much more.  I found a life I never knew was possible.  One of the best comments I have heard recently is from a speaker who described AA as “Hope in Human Form”.  I’ve found that to be true.  Hope is embodied in every person in AA that shares their story of misery and transformation.  It is embodied in every former drunk who then helps another learn how they too can learn to live differently.  And since my faith in God was absent and since I knew I was beaten and had no answers or solutions –I clung to Hope.   I prayed to the God I wasn’t certain I even believed in anymore that what they said could happen for me, would happen.  Hope is about the only thing that kept me hanging on long enough for the miracles to happen.  I remember looking around the room and seeing the men and women there were happy, laughing, seemingly serene people.  Hope in Human Form.  There they were- living soberly without alcohol and they seemed happy.  How was that even possible?  I wanted to be able to live like that too.  The alternative was frightening.  I saw where that road was heading.

You may hear people say they are in recovery.  I prefer the idea that I am in discovery with the principles of AA as my guide.  I have re-discovered a spiritual side I had left unscratched.  I have discovered the strength that comes from humility and self-responsibility.  I have discovered the wellness attained from helping others.  I have discovered to better confront my fears rather than hide from them.  I discovered the very Taoist idea that by surrendering completely I have more strength than I ever had from trying to be strong.  I discovered that by admitting my wrongs, recognizing my selfishness, and attending only to my actions rather than focusing on others wrongs, pointing out their selfishness, and worrying about their actions, I am more at peace and have greater happiness.  I have discovered that happiness really is an inside job, but most people are unhappy because they look for an outside fix.   I have discovered miracles can happen.  I have discovered I can trust and like other people again.

I still fail in these pursuits often.  Life is life and my flaws tend to follow me wherever I go!   But I recognize my failures now, and soon try to mend them.  It’s a liberating way to live.  But it takes effort.  Daily effort.  I have to trust in God, accept and admit when I am wrong and do my part to correct those times when I am.

But if you had to sum it up the last 4 years or so – I changed.  Everything.   I changed my sleep patterns.  I changed friends.  I changed behaviors and attitudes.  I changed the things I did and where I went.  I changed my relationship with God.

And along the way I made an interesting discovery –change guided by principle is good!  Change is essential to life. Without change there is no growth, no learning, and no happiness.  Closed unchanged systems die out.  Closed unchanging people wither like unwatered plants.

I changed and I grew.  But I can’t take much credit really.  It was less my own effort than merely allowing the change to happen.  I followed the advice (12 Steps) and examples of those Human Forms of Hope, I listened,  and let God do for me what I never had been able to do for myself which was stop my drinking and live life soberly and as joyously as possible.

All this isn’t to say that life is a bowl of peaches.  It isn’t.  Life is still life and has a way of throwing a series of curve balls.   And this year has been especially tough already.  My mom died.  I’ve moved from one city to another.  I’m starting my own law practice again and my fears about success and money keep rearing their ugly little heads trying to steal the little serenity I manage to hold.  But I know if I honestly try to do what I can and let go of trying to control the results, I will be okay.

But I owe a great debt and have tremendous gratitude to the many people in AA;  from my sponsors, to the friends I’ve met, to the acquaintances I merely see in meetings, to the counselors in rehab-who selflessly gave, shared, cried, laughed, and taught so that I may live a more joyous life.

They were and remain – Hope in Human Form.

The Eastern Sky

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I saw you in the eastern sky

Last Thursday

I saw you on the cover of a Paolo Coelho novel

Last weekend

I heard your voice in the stillness of the dawn

And when Andrea sang Con Te Partiro in Morroco

I felt your presence in the flickering candlelight

When I prayed

The calm warmth of serenity washed me

And as I let your vision, your voice, your presence

Enter me

A moment’s delight and memory’s dance

Lingered

But with courage and wisdom

I also let your vision, your voice, your presence

Leave me

Without regret

Without remorse

Words – Hazelnut Coffee, Hope, and Collateral Damage

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Words.  They can be magic.  One single solitary word can make an incredible difference to another person.  The ability to speak and write to convey our inner thoughts and ideas to another person is magnificent and has been the foundation for the rest of mankind’s achievement and prosperity.  It is easy to take for granted what amazing things spoken and written words are since reading and speaking is commonplace.  But language allows us to communicate our thoughts and feelings which allows for understanding.  Language when used to its best purposes will illuminate us and inspire us to wonderful creativity.  We express our joy and aspirations and use language to share them with others.  Without words and the ability to write our thoughts down we would likely still be living in thatch huts.  We would have no technology, little art, and a much more bleak life.

I mean hardly anyone would use the word “lugubrious” in a conversation when the easier spoken terms gloomy or mournful or dismal are sufficient.  Saying “I’m rather lugubrious today” would likely make your friend laugh at you rather than offer sympathy.  But in a book and in the right context it is a much more intriguing word choice.

Think of how sometimes a single word can evoke such a depth of feeling.  Like HOPE.  A standard definition would say that hope is the wish for something to happen or be true, but for me it is grander than that, more powerful.   I always think of the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” when I think of hope and how hope forged a friendship and allowed men in horrible conditions to persevere.  It encompasses my dreams and deepest desires when sometimes it seems the entire world stands against me.  I think Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the soundtrack for hope.

Courage.  Serenity.  Compassion.  Triumphant.  Exultation.  Adoration.  Liberty.  Faith.  Love.  Elegant.  Independent.   Prosperity. Wisdom.

I love all these words.  They are more than single words.  They are the genesis of memory, they conjure whole images.   These kinds of words make us feel and think.  I could spend a whole day looking at quotes and ruminating about them and the choice of words used.  I see the word elegant and my mind pictures a beautiful night in Rio de Janeiro and a woman in a stunning black dress.  I see the word serenity and my mind goes to a trail of bluebonnets in the forest with not another soul in sight. 

But words are also important for clarity and for understanding.  For instance a thesaurus will give about 20+ synonyms for the word “surly” (good word).  But picture a close friend in a bad mood – are they being boorish or curt or gruff?  Or maybe they are just sullen or grouchy or merely disagreeable?  Rude?  Each term makes you think something slightly different.  At least they do for me.  I’d much rather deal with a friend who is just being curt than one that is being an ill-tempered grouch!

But on the flip side of the wonderful utility of words when used for precision, transparency, and comprehension are those people or entities that use words to obscure meaning, to hide truth, to make us think and feel something else than what really is being expressed.

For example a government doesn’t want its’ citizens to think too deeply or clearly when it blows people up that it disfavors.  So  “accidentally” mutilated people become “collateral damage”.  Much nicer, but means nothing – which is the intent.  You can’t think poorly of “collateral damage”, or at least you have to take the requisite mental steps to make the connection of that term to death, dismemberment, and gore.

Another example is how something like “quantitative easing” substitutes for monetizing debt or creating inflation.  We all know that printing money backed by nothing devalues all the existing currency and such activity is counterfeiting and thereby illegal and immoral –except government exempts itself and calls it something else.   I can call a donut a hammer, but I can’t pound a nail with it no matter what I call it.  So if you say the Federal Reserve is counterfeiting (printing money) and causing inflation, people might question that – hence “quantitative easing”.  Such a term obscures what is really happening and doesn’t create the same mental picture in a reader’s mind.  Another example, The State’s agents don’t “torture” – that’s much too gruesome.  They practice “enhanced interrogations”.   The State doesn’t kidnap and unlawfully imprison people – it engages in rendition and prolonged detentions.  Less clarity with relatively innocuous mental images associated with those terms.   The agents of the State don’t engage in highway robbery – they practice “civil forfeitures”.   But they still take your property, money, and assets without ever charging you with a crime and keep it!  The State doesn’t covet your land, steal it, and give it to a favored developer – it uses its’ power of eminent domain.  All nice and neat.

Ahh, so even words and language have their dark side I suppose.  It really comes down to the people using them and the intent behind their use – to obfuscate or to enlighten.  To create understanding  or to destroy it.

Well I still like words even if some use them to distort and to lie.  I think I’ll go have a cup of hazelnut coffee – two of my favorite words.

Solace

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The raindrops wash away my tears

 

Or masks them

 

Maybe that’s the solace I find in storms

 

The jokes and anger can hide what was

 

Time eases the pain and the sorrow

 

But still you remain

 

An unfulfilled promise

 

An unrealized union

 

Such desperate love

 

The tears, the kisses, and remorseful laughter

 

The tension of our illicit affair

 

So many labels

 

Yet one remains

 

Love

 

Without care

 

Without cost

 

A love I risked

 

And knowingly become a fool

 

For a love so irresistible and embracing

 

Was a fool’s errand

 

And leaves only those drops that remain

 

Long after the rain has ended

 

Mutant Mosquitoes, Rod Carew, Buffalo, Badlands, and Bingo: The Family Road Trip – 4800 miles in a 1970 Ford Maverick.

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In a contest between a 1970 Ford Maverick and an adult bull bison – Bet it all on the buffalo.  I can tell you from the perspective of sitting inside that 1970 Ford Maverick that this is not a contest.   They both weigh approximately 2000 pounds.  The maverick stands about 53” tall (or 4 ½ feet).  The Bull tops out between 72” to 78” (or 6 to 6 ½ feet tall).  I would have said 8’ if you had asked me at the time but that was only because from a sitting position inside the car, the darn thing seemed as big as Godzilla.  I’m pretty sure we all held our breath as he walked out into the road in front of our car.  The giant swiveled his head and looked at the four of us with a gaze that seemed to say “I’ll move when I’m good and ready, don’t piss me off and I won’t smash your car into tin cans”.  I was 10 years old and that buffalo was one of the coolest and scariest animals I’d ever seen.

It was one of many memorable moments from one of those grueling (but fun) family summer vacation car trips that my generation remembers so well.  I don’t think many families take these kinds of vacations anymore, where the kids are packed into a car and you just set out to see America.  Driving hundreds of miles between destinations with no apparent agenda (at least one Dad would ever tell us), cooking on a Coleman stove, camping in a tent, and eating Spam seem to be by-gone relics of family travel.   But maybe this is where my affinity for agenda free travel was born.

In 1975, my Dad, my younger brother Ted, my older sister Kathy, and I set off from Columbus, Ohio on one of these types of trips.  I was 10.  We were taking my Dad’s 1970 hideous orange standard drive Ford Maverick.  No air-conditioning.  No FM radio.  Black vinyl seats that became the temperature of molten lava after an afternoon in the sun.  I don’t think my dad had any particular itinerary other than he wanted to drive into Canada and around Lake Superior and then go to Iowa to visit our Grandma Lois.  Everything else was going to be the whim of the moment and a matter of what struck his fancy when looking at the map in the morning – and how far he and my sister could drive without tiring.

First up was about a 500 mile leg to Mackinac Island and crossing the amazing Mackinac Bridge. At the time it was one of the longest bridges in the world. We then found a campsite somewhere in Ontario past Sault St. Marie with its large system of locks (pictured below).  These locks enable ship travel between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.   The entire area is beautiful.

Driving such distances in a small car with kids ranging in age from 17 to 6 presents its own challenges, especially in an era before electronic games, music, and video – not even an FM radio.  But we passed the time with reading, watching the countryside roll by, the famous “Yes and No” invisible ink game and quiz books, trying to keep track of license plates from the different States (parked cars don’t count), and “20 Questions”.  Of course annoying your little brother is always a spectacular way to pass the time – at least until your dad blows his lid.

We next traveled around Lake Superior to Thunder Bay, Ontario where we visited Kakabeka Falls briefly  and then went on into northern Minnesota to camp.  I don’t remember exactly where that was, but that’s because the gigantic swarm of mosquitoes that descended upon us as we set up our tent made me forget everything but escape.  It was like something out of the movie African Queen.  There were not only millions of them, but they came after us relentlessly, like a clan of starved vampires.  They drove us into the tent, without any dinner, where we remained until morning.  The mosquitoes filled every screened window and door-flap and nearly drove us insane with the constant buzz.  It was bizarre.  I’ve never seen anything like it since.

Off again! We were headed for a stay in Minneapolis to catch a baseball game.  That was one of the other great things about those car road trip vacations.  My dad loved baseball and would take us to a game if we were going to be near a stadium he had never visited and the team had a home stand.  The Twins were at home so we went.  I don’t remember who won or who the Twins played.  That’s because I was too excited about getting a ball fouled off by the Hall of Famer Rod Carew who in 1975 was probably the best hitter in baseball.  My brother was quite jealous.  For years that ball was my most prized possession.

On to Iowa and grandmother’s house we go.  A couple of the things I do remember during this extensive car trek was listening to Paul Harvey on the radio and his captivating “and now for the rest of the story” stories and the fact that Glen Campbell’s song “Rhinestone Cowboy” was a huge crossover hit that summer.  It seemed like we must have heard that song 100 times over those few weeks.  Good thing it was a pretty good song.  I still know the lyrics.

Well the visit to my Grandma was fairly typical of any family gathering, although I did manage to hit a financial bonanza for a 10 year old.  One night we drove to some tiny little town in South Dakota for Bingo.  My grandmother was a Bingo fanatic.  She would play 15-20 cards at a time – chain smoking away the whole time.  Nobody cared about smoking around kids in the 70’s.  She bought each of us 4 cards to play and wouldn’t you know it I won the “Blackout” game where you have to be the first to get every number on your card.  I was so excited I yelled “Blackout” instead of Bingo.  The winnings were $150.  For a 10 year old in 1975 that might as well have been a million bucks.  I thought my brother was going to collapse in jealousy.  First the baseball, now a fortune.  Life seemed very unfair to him.  Well, he need not have worried too much – my dad only let me keep $20 and made me put the rest in the bank.  Funny thing is I still have an account at that local Farmers State Bank in Hawarden, Iowa – started with that Bingo money.  There’s not much in it today and I’m not sure why I keep it – nostalgia I guess.  The other nights in Iowa were normally filled with playing cards – Fan tan (a betting game we played with my grandma’s jars of pennies) and Mary Widow were family favorites.  Back before cable TV and video games families seemed to play interactive games with one another.  I loved it, although we got NO mercy from Grandma when it came to betting games.  She had no reservations about taking pennies from her grand-kids!

After several days in Hawarden we took to the road once again.  It seems we just had to go to the internationally known Wall Drug – the famous store in Wall, South Dakota.   Anyone who has travelled by car anywhere west of the Mississippi has probably come across the Wall Drug signs on the side of the road stating how far it is to the store.  The signs are everywhere.  But frankly the store itself, while enormous, is a bit disappointing.  A huge tourist trap.  But it’s like a train wreck – you just have to go/watch.

One other event of note happened in South Dakota on the way to the Badlands.  My brother and I had made “forts” in the back seat by stringing up blankets.  At some point we needed some gas and a restroom break so we stopped at a service station along a fairly isolated stretch of highway.  My dad preferred the smaller highways – the scenic routes.  It was one of those stations where you had to get the restroom key from an attendant as the toilets were out on the side of the building and usually smelled like they hadn’t been cleaned in a decade.  I went and did my business and returned the key only to find the car (and my brother, Dad, and sister) GONE!  I wasn’t sure what to think and alternated between worry and anger, but after 20-25 minutes I began to get scared.  They really had left me!  Little did I know they had thought I was back under my “fort” in the backseat and took off down the road.  It wasn’t until my brother went to hit me (as brothers do) that they discovered my absence.  Well they turned around and found me by the side of the road and when I saw them laughing, I was certain in my 10 year old head they had done it on purpose!  What a**holes!  I gave the all-mighty silent treatment as long as I could to show my displeasure – which meant I probably pouted for an hour or so.  My brother and sister still laugh at my expense at that memory.  I do too – NOW.

The Badlands was our next destination and they are amazing.  They look like they are the landscape of another planet.  In my youthful ignorance I foolishly  went and kicked the side of one formation thinking it was sand.  It’s not!   Although my sore foot was better than my brother’s whole body – He jumped on the side of the one I was kicking.   I couldn’t help but wonder what could possibly live in those barren hills, but it looked like the perfect hideaway for outlaws or renegades to my 10 year old brain.  It was very exciting.  On the way out of the Badlands National Park is when we across the extraordinarily large Bull Bison I mentioned at the start of this article.  We still laugh about how damn huge that thing was.  I can’t imagine what a herd of a million of these magnificent beasts must have looked like.  One of the largest recorded herds was from 1871.  The recorded account described a herd of over 4 million buffalo that was 50 miles long and 25 miles wide!

We made our next stop at the Mount Rushmore monument with the carved faces of President’s Lincoln, Roosevelt, Washington, and Jefferson.  While I thought it was inspiring and the history of how it was made was interesting, I was much more interested in getting to the nearby Custer Battlefield as it was called then (now more appropriately called the Little Bighorn Battlefield).

Since I loved the history of the plains Indians, especially the Sioux Indians, I found that part of the trip very memorable.  What 10 year old wouldn’t be excited by a great Indian battle?  We walked along the exact fields where Custer and his command were wiped out by the Sioux and Cheyenne led by the great Sioux leader Crazy Horse.  Today the Sioux nation is carving a monument many times the size of Mount Rushmore as tribute to Crazy Horse which will be the world’s largest monument if and when it is completed.  I remain fascinated by this man to this day and have read several biographies about him.  But back in 1975 it was the best part of the trip for me to be walking on such famous ground.

It started a true love affair for me with the western United States.  The sky seems endless.  The beauty and grandeur is stunning.  The history is fascinating.

All in all that summer the four of us traveled almost 5000 miles in that small Ford – each day picking out some place within a few hundred miles that we could go see and camp nearby.  I loved seeing new places as a child.  I love going to new places still today.  Some of the most amazing things can be found right in your own home country.  World travel is wonderful, but local and regional travel can be adventures just as satisfying.  I would recommend to anyone wanting to see western United States to take a car trip (although maybe one with a better radio and some air-conditioning) and let your imagination and curiosity lead you in finding your own wonders.  Leave the electronics at home.

Presidential Hit Lists: Is it okay to kill “bad” Americans?

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Less than a year ago something very significant occurred in this country but it was almost a news footnote.  Most Americans cheered when it happened.   But was this event also another nail in the burying of our Constitution.  Did another blow to the ideas of liberty over unrestrained power occur and people just yawned?  On September 30, 2011 President Obama had Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, assassinated.

I think many Americans fail to recognize the horrific nature of the power (and the consequent erosion of every American’s liberty) Obama asserted and acquired in the office of the President by claiming the right to order and cause this killing.  I also think Americans have uncritically accepted the assertions (or rather propaganda) provided by the government on this issue.  Maybe this is because many are fearful of Muslims, or they believe this is revenge for 9/11, or they unquestionably believe that America is always on the side of angels, or they love the military and cannot bring themselves to question its acts or morality, or they just want to feel safer – even it that safety is an illusion.   But Americans accept without question far too much.  And without critical thought and questioning of authority – liberty can be (and is) sacrificed to all our detriment.

A brief history lesson is useful.  Most people should know most of this, but a refresher is in order.

The United States of America was formed from rebellion.  The essence of the American struggle for independence was the belief by our “freedom fighters” that the King of England (the State) had exceeded his authority and power (of course if the colonists had lost they would have been declared traitors to their lawful government and executed).  The government of the King of England had become intolerable to the American colonists, and they declared war by issuing the Declaration of Independence (a list of grievances justifying their action and articulating their beliefs).  This document had two essential points that were groundbreaking and formed the basis for revolution:

  1. People had rights that were inherent.  They were the gift of God or were “natural rights”.  They existed no matter what government asserted dominion over them.  They existed in the absence of government.
  2. Government is instituted to protect these rights and only derives power from the consent of its people.  When it fails to recognize and protect these rights (and correspondingly recognize the limits of State power), it is the right of the people to alter, abolish, and institute a new government.

This was a radical philosophical departure from every known form of rule on earth.  Before the American Revolution (and before the signing of the Magna Carta), the citizens (or rather subjects) of any nation/king were almost without recourse to the whim of whomever ruled or exercised executive power whether that be a Sultan, a Czar, a King, or a legislative body.  Law was whatever the person(s) holding the reins of power said was Law and limited only by their power to enforce it.  In essence each person was the “property” of the State/King/Leader.  Often a single person’s authority was the LAW.  There wasn’t a law which applied to all.  Rule of Men, not Law prevailed.  Against these principles the colonists rebelled, fought, and won.  A new country founded by the principles of liberty, not power, was born.

After we won our Independence, and after the failed Articles of Confederation, the “founders” sought to better organize a system for a federal government.  This gave us the Constitution, and significantly, the Bill of Rights.

But it is ESSENTIAL to understand what these are and what they are not.  There was much debate on whether to include the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.  Many argued they were superfluous, that of course we had these rights because the Constitution was a document of LIMITED governmental authority.  These people argued that whatever was not specifically granted was supposed to be prohibited to the federal government and retained by the people.  But others argued that these rights were SO important they had to be specifically pointed out in order they were protected above all else.

But central to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is a fundamental belief in natural, inherent rights of all mankind and the danger of unrestrained government power, ESPECIALLY executive power (the police powers).

These principles of natural rights (despite the hypocritical treatment of slaves during the first century of our existence) that so many blithely assume are the natural order of things today, were radical and unheard of anywhere else in the world!  I think these principles (something so many people and politicians casually dismiss as impediments to the “real world”) are the true reason this was such a great country and how we BECAME such a great country.

In case you do not recall them, listed below are a few of the Bill of Rights applicable to the Awlaki assassination.  Again, remember that these are prohibitions against the exercise of government power.  The rights these Amendments are concerned with are explicitly protected because the colonists that recently won their independence were quite cognizant of how central governments tend to usurp power and infringe upon the natural rights of their citizens.  The guiding principle is the protection of a person’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (economic right) from infringement by the State.

  1. Fifth Amendment.  “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury…..nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” (this is a partial transcript, but the omitted parts do not change my point)
  2. Sixth Amendment:  “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

I would argue the 7th and 8th Amendments are also impacted: Right to Trial by Jury and Prohibition against cruel and inhuman punishment.

What do we know about the Awlaki case?  First, no matter how bad a person Awlaki may have been, he was an American citizen and therefore supposedly entitled to the protections of our laws, including his rights guaranteed in the Constitution.  He was living in Yemen, a country led by an American puppet who would obey any request made by our government.

The U.S. government has somehow created a secret presidential panel that reviews evidence in secret and determines if someone, including an American citizen is a “threat” to “national security”.  Awlaki was determined by this panel to be such a “threat”.  This panel and the President provided NO evidence to the public, a court, or any other government entity to support the accusation.  There is only the accusation and secret assessment.  Based on this determination, without any independent finding and without being subject to review or oversight by any other branch/body of government, the President ordered an American citizen killed.  We have been given NO proof he even did what he is accused of doing.  And even if he HAD, our form of government does not provide the President the authority to kill someone just on his decision that person is a “threat”.  In this nation I didn’t think we killed people for their thoughts (or their actions until they were tried, convicted, and sentenced by an impartial authority)?  At least in theory this country is one where the rule of law applies, not the wishes of one man or group of men.

Questions I propose to you and all those who would cheer for the exercise of this power by Obama.  What did Awlaki DO that made him subject to assassination?  We are told he constituted a “threat”. The News says he was involved in planning operations against the United States.  Who says?  The government?  Forgive me of the purveyors of the WMD lies (among 100’s of others through the years) aren’t on top of my most trusted list.  What proof do we have?  Why were no efforts made to secure his arrest with the help of a compliant Yemen government?  Why should we believe the story told by the government?  Considering the people were lied to about WMD, enriched Nigerian uranium, about the nature of hundreds of Guantanamo prisoners, about torture and Abu Ghraib, and countless other things just in the last few years, why should we believe this story about Awlaki?

But the bigger and more fundamental issue to me is this:  We created a nation of limited government.  We held and believed that certain rights are inalienable.  We believed that certain rights are SO important that we created a Bill of Rights to specifically prohibit the government from infringing upon them.  These obstacles to arbitrary and unchecked executive power are what make us American.  Innocence is assumed.  Guilt must be proved.  Accusations are insufficient.  Because government always abuses its’ power – ALWAYS – we must guard against arbitrary exercise of power.  This is the foundation of what it was to BE an American – we were a nation of laws and PRINCIPLES.  We were not a nation ruled by the unchecked authority of one man or group of men.  And these rights are sometimes inconvenient to government.  They cost us in resources.  They are MEANT to be inconvenient.  That is their value.

If ONE man (President Obama – and his successors) can decide life and death over an American citizen and decide without accountability, oversight, or challenge – then we are no longer ruled by law, but by man.  That is dangerous to everyone.  That is dangerous to our rights and liberties and eventually our life.   It changes what this country IS.  And don’t say it’s just this one example.  A genie doesn’t go back in the bottle willingly.  The government has admitted there are others on a secret “list”.  If history has shown anything it is that if you give a government (or a man) the power to do something, they will eventually use that power.  You see what is happening with protests in this country and around the world.  When the next crisis happens here in the United States, and it will, do you feel better that we now have carved out a presidential authority to execute American citizens he deems a “threat” and that we have ignored the Constitution?  Will OWS protestors become a threat to economic stability?  Is that a national security issue and hence could some of these people land on a secret list?  Will Tea Party activists become a threat?  Homeland Security has already listed Tea Party activists as potential domestic terrorists.  Heck Ron Paul supporters were listed as possible “threats”.   Could supporting liberty and a restrained government land you on a secret list?  The Patriot Act provides for the President declaring martial law in a whole host of circumstances.  Obama just signed an executive order allowing him to take over the nation’s food, energy, and water supply – even in peacetime!  This new unchecked power of killing by secret determination and decree by the president provides precedent for further “threat elimination” and unchallenged it weakens further our Constitutional protections.

I see a nation becoming more politicized with fervent nationalistic patriotism on the rise.  This nation is economically collapsing and on the verge on bankruptcy.  Military adventurism is increasing.  The increasing power of the State and disregard of individual liberties continues unabated (Right to kill an American citizen is just the most recent and egregious, but erosions to the 4th Amendment have been pronounced.)  Historically, very terrible things tend to happen when a great power/nation sees all this occurring at the same time.  Oppression domestically and/or war abroad is the typical result.

We think of all the wars in the 20th century.  And millions were killed in those wars.  But what people should remember is that governments killed multiple times (150-200 million in the 20th century) the number of battlefield deaths of their own people.  Think Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, China’s cultural revolution in the 70’s, Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Vietnam, the repressive dictatorships of Africa and South America.

People have been at more risk historically from their own government than any invading army.   Our founding fathers understood this.  They tried to form a government of limited enumerated power.  We have witnessed the erosion of this principle and these essential truths since that time.  But at least we continued to pay lip service to the rule of law and individual rights.  When the leader of a government declares the unrestrained, unreviewable power to kill his own citizen – how are we different than all those places that murdered millions of their own people.  It is the PRINCIPLE that matters.  No man, no government should have this unchecked power.  America was founded on this PRINCIPLE.  When you toss out or forget these principles, the historic results have been horrific.  All empires flourish and fall, ebb and flow.  To think America is immune to the dangers of totalitarianism is to ignore the history of mankind and I say we sow the seeds for a more dangerous form of government each time we choose expediency over principle; State power over individual rights.

But I am called the radical?  I accept that designation…..IF…. If you mean that I think that 200 years ago our nation’s initial leaders came up with brilliant ideas on the nature of man and the nature of government – call me a radical.  People are blind to what is really happening around them.  The chains are being tightened and liberty eroded, but all they see is “dancing with the stars”.  A nation where the citizens don’t zealously guard their liberty and rights will eventually lose them.  They will lose them to some charming man with plausible explanations of the “need” to protect them from their own freedom and rights.  But it’s only some disaffected Muslim American we killed – a “bad” American…..so I’m sure it doesn’t matter much.

It wouldn’t happen to us “good” Americans….right?

Lost Within

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Where have I gone?

Did I end?

In the days after you left

Am I merely a ghost?

Forgotten in a land of mysticism

Where no one really lives nor dies

The dreams that were

Are not what we thought

Not mine at least

For mine are merely fading memories

And not visions of the future

I am somewhere, but not where I was

And where I was

An illusion

Trying New Foods: Hot Dogs, Whale Steak, and “Guacamole”!

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I love trying new foods.  Sometimes I have to work up the courage, but I will usually give almost anything a try.  This was not always the case.

When I was a kid, I was about the most finicky eater imaginable.  My dad loves to tell the story of how when I was about 3, he had a two hour battle of wills with me to try a hot dog.  For years I wouldn’t eat pizza because I thought it looked gross and the name seemed funny to me.  I hated soups because I couldn’t always tell what was in them.  Brussel sprouts were little balls of hate.  Green peppers smelled funny.  And stuffing them with something else was NOT an improvement.  Lima beans were formed paste.  Chunky peanut butter felt weird.  Lobster (and shrimp) looked like a giant insects – pass.  Liver and Onions?  Be serious!

Every new food was a way to find a creative way not to try it.  I was a constant source of irritation and frustration to my parents.  And I remained that way until I turned 17.  I was willfully oblivious to the culinary wonders and delights available.  However, that summer I went to Europe for the first time and ate certain foods I would have bet a million dollars would never pass my lips (another great reason to travel).  Maybe that’s because after England I was desperate for something different and flavorful.  Fish, chips, and peas got old.

When we went across the North Sea to Norway, we went out for dinner in Oslo.  My Dad ordered a whale steak.  Yes, I know – don’t kill the messenger!  For some reason my curiosity was aroused more than my disgust and I tried a bite.  Whale.  I ate whale.  Well it was good.  And before I get crucified by anyone reading this, I wouldn’t eat it again.  I really do think the whaling industry is barbaric.  But at 17, it wasn’t a concern on my radar.  In Sweden I tried some indescribable yoghurt looking glop they put on cereal.  Not my favorite, but I tried it. What was happening?

In Germany I tried veal for the first time.  Wonderful.  And yes I know what they do to make veal.  I don’t care.  It’s too delicious to care.  How do I reconcile that with not being willing to eat whale anymore?  Well veal is much better tasting than whale for one.  And cows are bred for food, whales aren’t.  Not a very satisfying answer I know.  But the real wonder and change came in France when I was tricked into eating escargot.  I may have been branching out, but there was NO WAY I would have put a snail into my mouth.  But my dad had ordered some (without telling me what escargot was) and it smelled delicious in that garlic butter.   He lied about what it was.  So I ate one, then another.  Those little things were fantastic, I told my dad.  When he broke the news I was initially furious, but I think that was also the moment I lost my unwillingness to try new foods.  If something like snails could mentally be so disgusting, but tasted like a celebration in my mouth – I wondered what else I had been missing out on.  So from that time I was much more willing to try anything new, including some things in Hong Kong that I don’t want to know the name of.

This brings me to a funny moment that happened years later when dining out with some friends.  I had been to Europe a few times by then and had tried many different foods.  I didn’t think I was a culinary moron.  While perusing the menu I saw an Ahi tuna tartare appetizer.  I figured I loved steak tartare and this sounded very interesting, so I ordered it.  When it came out the tuna was diced and sitting on some lettuce with little dollops of guacamole surrounding it.  The tuna was also accompanied by little toasted rounds.

I took a piece of the toast and scooped some tuna on it.  I spread some of the guacamole on top and took a bite and started chewing when suddenly I felt like my tongue and my entire face for that matter was about to burst into flames! HELP!  My eyes watered.  My nose immediately started running and I grabbed my water glass and chugged it down!  What the hell was THAT!!!  The whole table was laughing in an uproar at my rookie ignorance.  That wasn’t guacamole I was informed, but wasabi!  And you aren’t supposed to use it like a cheese spread I was told.  A very little amount is sufficient.  NOW you tell me, I thought!  Well the good thing is that the hotness of wasabi doesn’t last as long as the hotness from most peppers and I was able to enjoy the rest of the appetizer – and dinner.  And I both learned a new food – and lesson, but also provided much amusement to our dinner companions.  All in all, not a bad night.

So I encourage people to try new foods.  You might get pleasantly surprised when you get past your mental objections.  And if nothing else you might amuse the hell out of your friends.

Fear, Faith, and Gratitude – a lesson from Thailand

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I don’t see things as they are; I see things as I am.  When I am not tuned in spiritually and I am wrapped up in myself, I tend to be restless, irritable, and discontent.  When my concerns are only about myself, fear can be dominant in my thinking.

The difference between an adventure and a disastrous crazy risk is often my attitude – and judgment.  What I take away from any particular experience is similar.  I of course often fail to keep that child-like attitude of gratefulness, openness, excitement, faith and wonder and am instead filled with fear, worry, and skepticism.

A lot can be missed in life when you are filled with the wrong thoughts and emotions – like fear.

I recently wrote about a crazy road trip I took from Bangkok to the beach with a whole neighborhood of local Thais. There is one other crazy adventure I took while I was there.  I think of it often for much different reasons.  There were so many things that COULD have gone wrong or COULD have happened.  Fear could have kept me from being compassionate.  Fear could have kept me safe in my hotel room.  Fear could have made me miss the chance for one of the best memories I have.

I thank God for allowing me that night to make a choice from an attitude of compassion, wonder, and excitement and not from fear and doubt.  Because I was in a good place spiritually, I made a decision not from fear, but from possibility and from trusting my judgment.  It is too much to say that the little excursion I am about to describe changed my life, but I did learn some important things about life, other people, and myself.

It was about 3am and Koi and I were whispering to one another in the moments after.  She grew quieter and suddenly told me she missed her son, her family.  And she wanted me to meet them.  What??  I didn’t know she had a son.  She told me she wanted to go see them (someplace many hours outside of Bangkok) but didn’t have the money for the bus trip and didn’t want to travel alone. Hint. Hint.  She also wanted to leave that morning – in about 3 hours.  I was suddenly very awake.

A million things passed through my mind in those few seconds it seemed.  Nobody will know where I am.  I won’t have time to tell anyone where I am going and that’s not a good idea when travelling in a foreign country.  What if this is a trick to steal from me or kill me? – I barely know this girl really.   What if the bus crashes and I get hurt?  Will there be a hospital anywhere near where we are going?  I like this girl, but c’mon now – this is too risky!  It’s crazy what you will think when someone proposes an action that makes you uncomfortable and has uncertain outcomes.  Fear is powerful.  And yet sometimes some fear is a good thing.  I’ve done some unbelievably stupid things when I haven’t properly assessed reasonable fear.

But I had spent 7-8 days so far with Koi.  Did I really think she wanted to harm me?  Usually you can tell if someone really cares about you if they get mad at you.  Anger can go hand and hand with love at times.  So, the book she chucked at me the other day during an argument was a good sign really – right?  And the reasonable side of my brain said if she had wanted to bump me off or steal from me, she wouldn’t have been so Machiavellian as to be with me for a week to trick me with a tale of missing family so she could lure me in off to some remote Thai jungle and have me killed.

In any event, I searched my heart and what I really believed I knew about this girl.  I could see that she was truly missing her family and son.  I didn’t believe it was an act.  I trusted her story.  So I did a quick prayer to God to guide me through this by helping her.  I made a judgment based on my experiences and interactions with her that this trip would be okay.  I put my trust in my higher power that by being of service to Koi, I was doing the right thing.  I still had some nagging worry, but I went ahead anyway.  We headed for the bus-stop and set out.

I honestly have no clue where we were going.  I gave her the money and she bought the tickets.  North of Bangkok is as much as I can tell you.  We travelled about 3 hours I think as it was early morning when we were let off on the side of the dirt road.  It was rural and a little hilly and there wasn’t anyone around.  I had to fight hard to find the beauty in the scenery around me.  Some concern returned that I was like Cary Grant in North by Northwest let off next to a cornfield and soon a crop-duster would come by trying to kill me.  What the hell was I doing!

But soon a couple teenage boys came by on motorbikes and she told me to hop on.  Ok God, I thought, you’re really testing the limits of this faith thing!  And so was she for that matter.  But I did as she asked.  And we went off into the jungle-like hills down dirt paths until we came to a clearing.  There stood a few stilted shacks/houses.   This was her home.  (These pictures are not her families, but they are close approximations of what they looked like).   I knew she was poor.  But this was semi-mind boggling.  There was one single electrical line coming to ONE of the houses.  To add to the surreal nature of what I was experiencing, I heard, in the middle of nowhere hours outside of Bangkok,  Michael Jackson’s “The way you make me feel” from his Bad album playing in the house with the electric line.  Unreal.  No plumbing or running water.  Chickens were running around in the dirt.   A hundred yards or so away was a river that was their water supply. The “boom box” playing the music was one of their only modern electric appliances/devices.   I asked about the stilts and learned that flooding was so common, the “houses” had to be built this way.

I knew immediately I had done the right thing.  I was in no danger except from my shock at the poverty.  I knew I took so much for granted as an American, but this was eye-opening.

Koi made introductions.  I had learned to say “hello” and “thank you” and a few other basic Thai phrases, but mostly I just smiled and tried to play with the younger kids while Koi reunited with her family – and her son who was only a year old. Her father was not present.  Nobody else in her family spoke English, so gestures and actions had to suffice.  After a while she asked me for some money to buy some food and drinks, which the boys on the motor bikes would go, get (from where I don’t know) and bring back.  An hour or so later the boys came back and Koi, her family and I sat on some crude chairs and stumps and ate.  They all treated me with polite kindness although communication was obviously difficult – Koi did her best to translate.

As I spent the day there, I felt humbled with how lucky I was to have so much when someone like her had so little.  I realized that I was incredibly grateful for this reminder of just how fortunate I am.  I was even more grateful that I had had just enough faith that God had removed my fears of taking this trip and that I was able to bring to Koi the joy of being with her son and family.  I was very blessed.

As we prepared to leave, her father was walking down the trail with a goose.  Road kill.  But the family was very excited for this unexpected bounty.  I had to inwardly shake my head, not in disgust, but disbelief and yes, pity.

I think of that day now and then.  I think how my faith and trust in a God of my understanding overcame my fear.  I allowed my desire to be kind to someone else override my fear.  As a result I learned some wonderful things about myself and about life.  When things seem tough and I’ve had a “bad day”, I sometimes remember that beautiful girl and her family in stilted shacks, no running water, and a dead goose and I reacquire gratitude for the gifts in my life.  For even problems can be gifts.

How I almost got married on a truck in Thailand. Part II of why the best way to travel is with a minimal agenda

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There I was, packed in what can best be described as a surplus army troop transport truck circa 1945,  and smashed in alongside Jeff and another 20 or so locals from Bangkok.   It was a flatbed truck with canvas sides and two small benches along the sides.  Metal frames that held the canvas came up on the sides and back and gave people something to hold on to since most were standing.  The number of people in this truck and in all the vehicles in our little caravan far exceeded anything remotely “safe”.  Some of the teenage and young adult men practically hung from the back of the truck – and it was a 4-5 hour trip to the beach.

I had met Jeff while studying in Hong Kong for the summer.  I had planned to do a 2 week internship at a  Hong Kong law firm after the end of classes.  But after two days at the firm it was obvious they had nothing for me to do.  So I took Jeff’s advice and headed to Thailand.

Jeff had visited Thailand for 5-6 weeks before our summer study program began and even better he had met a local girl, Mayura, who really helped him, and later me, navigate the bustling world of Bangkok.  I had decided to travel to Thailand on a whim and had no idea what I would do once I arrived (other than try and find the hotel where Jeff was and to get a room).  For a couple days Jeff and I went and saw some exotic temples and colorful outdoor markets, but I soon met a tiny and beautiful Thai girl named Koi while out shopping.  Somehow we really hit it off and I asked her to dinner that night.  She was fiery and kind and exotically irresistible.  For the next 10 days and Jeff, Mayura, Koi, and I were close companions travelling around Bangkok and beyond.

Jeff’s girlfriend lived in a neighborhood of very modest means and one day she informed us that her entire neighborhood was going to take a trip to the beach that coming weekend and she wanted us to go along.  It sounded like a wonderful opportunity to see the country in a manner most foreigners never would.  And it would have been impossibly impolite to refuse.

I was certainly right.  What a trip.  An unforgettable trip.

The weekend came.  We arrived at Mayura’s neighborhood where about 30-40 people were packing travel bags with some snacks, liquor and other drinks, and various odds and ends for the trip.  There were a couple beat up vans and the aforementioned truck as well.  We loaded up and set off.  Thailand in August is hot.  Very hot.  Many Americans might have found the conditions on the truck too uncomfortable, sweaty and crowded.

Jeff and I were having a ball.  It didn’t hurt that we both were with women that spoke English and could translate when necessary. But most times it wasn’t even needed.  Although I rarely understood a single word others said, one of the great things about traveling when you are open to the new and unexpected and are friendly to everyone is you get by.  You manage to communicate enough without words to still have a great time.

Soon the drums were beating, the liquor started flowing and someone was playing a flute-like instrument.  The group started singing and laughing as the truck bounced along the highway.  Despite the heat, the crowded conditions, and general discomfort – everyone seemed happy.  After a while I noticed they were singing and pointing at me and Koi, with gestures to my ring hand.  Jeff encouraged them in my embarrassment.  It’s hard to say if they were singing a betrothal song or something more bawdy because I don’t speak Thai.  And as much as I adored Koi, I didn’t think I could return home and tell my dad I married a Thai girl on a truck!   So I shook my head NO when they next pointed at my hand and they laughed at me.  But whatever they were singing they did it with great cheer and merriment. They even got Jeff and I to sing some American songs which they cheered despite the fact I can’t carry a tune at all.  Unfortunately, since every reasonable song left my head, I found myself singing “Puff the Magic Dragon” to a truckload of Thai people who thankfully had no idea what a stupid song I was singing!  I guess it didn’t matter since it wasn’t the words but the spirit of the moment that mattered.

Along the way we made a couple stops at some Buddhist temples   so people could pray and then finally arrived at the beach where our time was much too short before we had to make the return trip home.  The trip back was much quieter and subdued as everyone was tired from the morning’s trip and hours in the sun and ocean.  On arrival back in Bangkok, we all clapped shoulders and shook hands.  Jeff and I thanked them all for inviting us and sharing their trip with us.  It was special and an unforgettable journey.

And it would never have happened if I had laid out an agenda for my two weeks.  By just exploring without a plan and being receptive to whatever opportunity arose and to whomever I met – I met some amazing people and saw a Thailand most tourists will never experience.

A final note.  I was smitten by that girl.  Koi and I promised to stay in touch when I went home, although letters were going to be difficult because although she spoke English, she couldn’t read it.  And I was hopeless either speaking or reading Thai.  But I knew the owner of a Thai restaurant who had grown up in Bangkok and I went to see him.  He volunteered to translate our letters both ways for us.  How exceptionally kind!  And so we both wrote for 5-6 months before things faded away like difficult love affairs will.  But I regret not a moment.