Sunday, January 31, 2010

Death and Dignity: The Peter Barton Story

Book Review

Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived
A Memoir by Peter Barton
with Laurence Shames

Peter Barton was an accomplished man. So much so, I had trouble relating to him at times throughout his story. But he and Laurence Shames collaborated so well on this memoir, I was moved to tears as I struggled to get through the final compelling pages.

From moderately privileged roots, Mr. Barton started out as a political advisor in his twenties and moved on to a career—short-lived though it was—as a virtual titan in the world of business and entertainment. At a moment as unpropitious an any, and in the prime of his young life, Barton discovered he had cancer. Before long it was evident his disease would pose the kind of challenge he believed he wasn't prepared for. That is until he resolved not to let his illness define who he was.

The co-authors deftly weave their contributions into the emotional fabric of the memoir, at one point sharing their story about the time they challenged each to tell the other why they were "doing this" at all. When Shames asks Barton this very question, Barton's answer is pointed: "I'll tell you, but first I want your answer to the exact same question." Shames then went on to describe his own emotional experiences involving the deaths of both of his parents over a recent eight-month span. The grief, the reflection, the introspection—all things it seemed as though Shames needed to revisit in order to qualify him for the task at hand. Ultimately, answering each other's challenge brought the two men closer together, which benefitted the telling of the story immeasurably.

We clearly get the picture that Barton was the kind of guy who always jumped into things with both feet. Whether it was the Green Truck cross-country journey to the Rocky Mountains of his adventurous youth, the danger flouting of his acrobatic ski-jumping days, or his many forays into business. Barton was someone who had no qualms about getting hurt, doing it wrong, or failing completely; one way or the other, he was at least going to try.

Barton draws on his experiences as a sometime, carefree nomad of yesteryear to psychologically manage his advancing illness. He makes no secret of—or apology for—the value living in the moment can have in both the best of times and worst of times. In fact, with a sort of joyful eeriness, Barton takes us on his voyage of worldly descent with amazing alacrity, describing in sublime detail how the past, present and future are all becoming one the closer he gets to the end.

And the end of the Peter Barton story is superbly told by Barton himself, sharing what he now sees as something possessing a "richness" and "texture" he didn't expect. So close to death, yet full of life, Barton confesses he did not find the calm he is now feeling. It found him.

I got through this book in a day and a half, unable to put it aside. And the next time I find myself wrestling with my own mortality, if it becomes too difficult, I'll just read Not Fade Away all over again. It is sure to replenish my courage.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tradition—The Emptiest of All Reasons

Aside from the more dogmatic proponents of religious faith who not only openly advocate for a Christian theocracy in America, but who also subscribe to every tenet of their faith, there are many who seem less rigid, almost innocuous, in the way they live out their faith. When pressed, however, they are quick to affirm their belief in God out of what appears to be little more than a sense of tradition.

It is a fair bet that many Catholics don't really believe the host they consume during the communion ritual is in fact the body of Jesus Christ as church doctrine tells them, or that Jesus was actually born of a virgin. To these softer theists, a less rigid faith conspires with the institutions of family, community and ritual to provide a sense of comfort and belonging—a place where family and friends can gather and commemorate the milestones of life. In and of itself, this seems a harmless practice.

Going along to get along, and not wanting to rock the religious boat that keeps afloat one's sense of belonging is not without consequence, however. Blindly affirming the legacy of religious conformity at the expense of one's uniqueness is a compromise of abhorrent dimensions. This assumes, of course, that there is some semblance of intellectual autonomy left at all after being subjected to the immoral practice of religious indoctrination in the first place.

The marginalizing—and alienating—of anyone with a potentially dissenting mindset in the midst of religiously conforming family and friends is a vile practice carried on without subtlety. To be fair, acceptance is much more likely and evident from the younger, more liberal-minded among them. But still, these are often the same people who seem to consent to religiosity out of little more than a sense of duty or obligation, as though the mere appearance of rejecting their religious heritage would be construed as an act of betrayal.

For myself, I don't see the sense in perpetuating the cruel hoax that is organized religion and will not be a part of it. That being said, there's just as little to be gained by engaging in mere mockery. But when an honest attempt to respectfully partake of a religious tradition is met with alienation and rejection, it's time to ask myself, Is this worth it?

I played religious charades for years. Not any more. Not when my self respect in on the line.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

What's So Complicated About Derivatives?

I don't know about you, but I am sick to death of hearing from hyper-educated economists, self-serving politicians, and filthy-rich Wall Street executives just how complex and misunderstood were the factors that nearly pushed the world's economy into the abyss.

One thing that is commonly misunderstood about the study of economics is that it is a social science. That is to say it is the study of human behavior as it relates to resources, their scarcity and, by extension, their cost. Once this axiom is understood, it becomes clear that little more than membership in the human race is required to offer valid or ample insights on the subject.

The 'Maul Street' gurus who survived the cataclysmic meltdown better than anyone else, however, are trying to convince the rest of us that despite this recent little hiccup—okay, near catastrophe—the management of risk is best left to the so-called experts who, conveniently, would be they.

For many years now, Wall Street firms have been hiring young Ivy League mathematicians for the sole purpose of devising new and imaginative ways to increase investment returns. Once upon a time, investment banks were content to put their monies into the kind of financial infrastructure that at the very least had a plausible connection to entities which actually produced goods and services. This, along with conventional banks' old stand-by, housing mortgages, made for a fairly stable banking contingent. Somewhere along the way, however, the concepts of moderation and enough were raped into oblivion, and the worst of human nature became the driving force in the minds and methods of those wielding the most influence.

So what about those pesky derivatives? Forgetting what we already fail to understand on their terms, a derivative is a financial instrument whose value is derived from the value of something else. It is decidedly not something whose value is meritoriously derived by its own intrinsic ability to create honest wealth. Like a pyramid scheme, there must eventually be big losers in order for the short-term-minded prostitutes to prevail. Those who contrived this scheme wanted to reap only the benefits of risk, perverting the much more legitimate practice of chancing modest amounts of capital as a hedge against uncertainty.

Derivatives are only as complicated as we allow those who devise and misuse them to convince us they are. I may not fully comprehend the function of the Federal Reserve, but I know enough about the seamier side of human nature to know that some of us will take what we can and screw then next guy every time, unless of course, we are constrained to do otherwise.

Wall Street: go find your conscience. President Obama: grow some balls. Congress: stand up and change campaign financing laws. American people: nap time is over. Remind these people that the power they derive by the consent of the governed is the only kind of derivative that makes any sense at all.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cow Towing: Penance for the Persnickety

Someone once said to me, "Billy, if you were wrong about it, you could never have been certain of being right about it."

Oh, the perils of perfectionism! It's one thing to inexcusably rely on a spell-checker to perform substantive editing tasks; it's quite another to think yourself invincible when it comes to the literal.

For quite some time, I've had a gnawing feeling in my stomach over letting stand—without double checking—my use of the word kowtow. Yep. You guessed it. While the context is not important, the point is I wrote that someone I knew was "cow towing" to the wishes of someone else! To those of us who are sticklers about proper word usage, this is blasphemous—to say nothing of hilariously stupid! I stand defrocked as an aspiring perfectionist of word use and now assume my much-deserved assignment as a dictionary dolt. My shame is boundless!

As penance, I will rent a tow truck, borrow a cow, tie the cow to the towing rig, drive around my neighborhood and offer myself up for derision. What the hell. It sure beats having to say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

They Can't Say I Didn't Try It

Every once in a while, the van I drive at work to make my flower deliveries needs to be serviced. On those days, I use the boss's car. It's a nice car, and it works out well as a stand-in delivery vehicle. But, every time I turn it on I am treated to something—however briefly—that makes my spine tingle, and not in a good way.

The radio in Bob's car is always tuned to our local 500 million-watt, conservative, AM talk-radio station. Now Bob's a really great guy and more than fair as a boss, but he does present a minor challenge to my liberal-leaning, City-by-the-Bay type mindset. Not because he amuses himself with Rush Limbaugh and the EIB, or as Rachel Maddow might say, the Excellence In Bullpucky network, but rather because I'm afraid our political differences will one day come between us.

The way things are these days can be described as a sort of ideological dètente, wherein Bob and I quietly agree to disagree about whether or not all illegal aliens should be kicked out of the country, or about whether President Obama really is destroying America with his "socialist" agenda. But truthfully, I think Bob cares more about my not screwing up any deliveries than he does about which end of the political fountain I drink from, which is as it should be.

Today I had to use Bob's car because the key to the van broke off in the ignition. (Yes, it was that cold.) When I noticed the radio tuned to its usual 'conservadial' position, I thought to myself, Oh just listen for a few minutes—it won't kill you.

Well, it didn't kill me, but it wasn't long before I was reminded why Public Radio is the only thing I listen to while I am driving around delivering flowers. The question of the hour was, Should the detention center at Guantánamo Bay be closed? Caller One: "No. They should keep it open. And they should keep torturing those terrorists in there for as long as this war is going on—even if that's twenty-five years." Okay. Strike one. Caller Two: "The president should not close Guantánamo. In fact, they should keep it open just so that Obama can go down there at night and fluff their pillows for them when they go to sleep. Why not? He's doing nothing but coddling them anyway." Now we're getting somewhere. Strike two. Caller Three: "Look, if they are not wearing military uniforms, and they try to kill Americans, then they are spies and they should be shot!" Strike three! NPR here we come.

Ten years ago checking in with conservative talk radio for an hour or so just to see what conservatives were thinking wasn't all that unusual. Back then, Rush Limbaugh's ego hadn't quite imploded yet. But nowadays, El Rushbo has gone over the edge and is colluding with other ultra-conservatives like Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and others to annihilate whatever is left of the moderate and constructive forces of conservatism. Even conservative writer David Frum has pointed out that Mr. Limbaugh's language is not that of politics, "it is the language of a cult."

Maybe Bob hasn't noticed that I tuned one of the presets on his radio to NPR  When I am finished for the day, I sometimes forget—unintentionally on purpose, of course—to change the station back to WTPN (the Tea Party Network). Who knows? If Bob happens upon it, maybe he'll even give Public Radio a listen for a few minutes. As for that that bumper sticker I got the other day that says, I'm In Love With Glenn Beck, But I'm Not Gay, I've decided to hold off on affixing it to Bob's rear bumper. That would be dangerous. I kind of like my job. And besides, he is after all—the boss.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

War: The Ultimate Expression of Failure?

What is war? The standard definition goes something like the following: a conflict carried on by force of arms as between nations or parties within a nation. There are, of course, many variations and manifestations of the war paradigm, all of which rely upon the worst instinct humanity has to offer—the propensity for violence.

If it truly is a native human instinct, are we condemned to resorting to violence whenever the stakes are perceived to be too high to leave to the powers of reason and negotiation? It is often noted that what sets man apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is precisely this ability to reason—to employ the intellectual assets of logic, inference and persuasion for the purpose of advancing the most morally enlightened position.

Problems arise, naturally, when each side to a conflict believes their position entitles them to operate from the moral high ground. Logic dictates, however, that opposing forces cannot both command the moral high ground simultaneously. Put another way, if man's voice on the most important moral issues of the day is truly enlightened, singular and unambiguous, then one party will necessarily be operating from a higher moral ground than the other.

Can war sometimes be a moral choice? Pragmatists would assert that violence in defense of a higher moral order is justified whenever violence is employed by others to promote a lesser moral order. Nazi Germany, they would argue, was not likely to be persuaded to renounce genocide by any other means than violent military intervention. Thus, man has ingeniously conjured what appears to be moral justification for employing the tools of war and violence: the defeat of evil.

Historically, acts of violence and war have been answered with even greater acts of violence and war. The syndrome of escalation is usually inescapable. Only when casualties are deemed too great to sustain any further are parties to a conflict moved to employ negotiations as a means of resolving their conflict. And on at least two occasions, the measure of casualties inflicted was horribly extreme. Note: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, 1945. One of the greatest moral questions of our time is whether the United States was justified when, using nuclear weapons, it incinerated nearly 100,000 people in the combined attacks. The paradox is that the obscene assaults ended the war.

So costly is the escalation syndrome in war, that fully automated, i.e., unmanned, machines are now being utilized to avoid having to pay the human price that war normally extracts. But just as electrocution as a means of imposing the death penalty has been replaced by the more ‘humane’ method of lethal injection (in many places) so, too, does unmanned warfare appear to be little more than a veiled attempt to sanitize what is arguably the most unsanitary act—the intentional killing of another human being.

It can be argued that war only ever comes about as the inevitable consequence of repeated and escalating prior moral failures. Could the invasion of Afghanistan have been averted had Al-Qaeda operatives working out of that country not conspired to attack the World Trade Center killing nearly 3,000 people? Would the attacks on the World Trade Center ever have occurred had the United States not had a history of global imperialism and native subjugation for over 200 years? Could the police officers’ shooting of the deranged suspect have been averted had the suspect not been moved to extreme anti-social behavior brought on by repeated violent abuse during his early life? In each of these cases, acts of seriously questionable morality are perceived as justification for responses which, in and of themselves, are of dubious morality at best.

Perhaps the most important kind of failure war has come to exemplify is failure of the imagination. If the peaceful processes of reason and negotiation are to make any difference in the face of unreason and those unwilling to negotiate, more so than the might of arms, creativity and imagination may be the most potent tools in the human arsenal. The uniqueness of conflicts demands the road less travelled—or never before travelled—be examined in the full light of day.

And what about pacifism? Is pacifism in the face of violence and evil ever the right response? Will the only eventuality with the power to obviate the need for war and violence ironically be the unequivocal renunciation of war and violence themselves? Sam Harris argues in his book The End of Faith that pacifism in the face of precisely such evil and violence is itself acutely immoral. The clear implication here is that war is sometimes justified.

It appears achieving the ability to reason represents merely a starting point from which man can endeavor to overcome his baser impulses and learn to resolve conflict without resorting to violence. At which point—it is hoped—a peace paradigm will emerge and become the guiding force in both interpersonal as well as international relations.

The question is, If two wrongs never really do make a right, is war truly—the ultimate expression of failure?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Joel Osteen: Closet Atheist?

The amazing popularity of mega-pastor Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, has for some time now been giving more traditional, conservative Christians a kind of mega-headache.

Mr. Osteen is not one to strictly conform to the evangelical playbook. As with most mainstream Christian denominations, the theological center of this playbook asserts unequivocally that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ: knowledge of, acceptance of, and commitment to Christ is the only way to redeem one's existence and thereby qualify for a life of eternal bliss in heaven.

Mr. Osteen, however, has let it slip—on more than one occasion—that only God can judge the heart of another human being, and that it is not his place to condemn, or disqualify from salvation, others just because they may be Jewish, Muslim or Atheist. This does not sit well with the powers that be among mainstream evangelicals, most of whom are given to judging others at the drop of a hat. Some have even referred to his sermons as "heretical."

What does the popularity of Mr. Osteen's message say about religious faith and its standing in the world? Could it be that popularizing a watered down of version of Christian dogma is but a first step on the long road toward a pantheistic or deistic worldview where God is little more than a metaphor? Dogmatic Christians suggest precisely such an eventuality if those like Joel Osteen aren't called out for their blasphemy and appropriately marginalized. On this point, it seems we atheists are in agreement with the Christian dogmatists. We would assert, however, that this is something humanity should strive for—not wish away.

It's also possible Mr. Osteen is taking a page right out of the religious playbook of Barack Obama, who I believe is in fact a closet atheist. Acting as a virtual double agent, the president persistently panders to religious interests for no other reason than to placate and mislead them, all the while surreptitiously working against their interests behind their backs. Employing these deceptive tactics, the president is managing to slowly empty the world's immense ocean of religiosity one small teaspoon at a time.

The question is does Joel Osteen possess this kind of duplicity. Or is he, in the end, just a little wishy washy about God? One can only wonder.

Friday, January 1, 2010

It's the Effort That Counts

Okay. So some things don't always work out the way you plan them. What's important is that we give it the old college try. (I have no idea what that means, as I am a tenth-grade dropout.) Anyway. . . I just got back from Dunkin Donuts. Yes for the second time today! Alycia and I were on our way back from Best Buy where we bought a new external CD/DVD drive for her laptop. As soon as Jami goes to sleep tonight, we'll sneak it in from the car.

Oh the humanity! For some of us, apparently there is no hope.