Somebody Elsism

It’s 5:30 a.m. the day after Memorial Day and I’m out jogging.  I go out at this time because there’s not much likelihood of encountering many other people.  Oh, I know others are awake, but few are out on the trail at this time of morning.  I’m made a bit sad by the amount of trash I see along the path.  Yesterday turned into a pleasant afternoon and I suspect lots of people were out here then.  I even find the remains of some kind of homemade fireworks launcher, reminding me that it was supposed to be a patriotic holiday.  I’ve seen an uptick in Trump signs around here and I wonder if it has anything to do with the rampant somebody elsism that I see strewn along my jogging trail.

Somebody elsism is the attitude that I can make a mess of things and let somebody else deal with it.  (It’s my right as an American!)  Maybe you’ve seen it too.  The doggie doo-doo bags that are filled and left beside the trail for somebody else to pick up and dispose of.  It’s my right to own a dog, and although I may feel compelled to bag its leavings, somebody else will have to throw it away.  The idea’s pretty rampant.  I’ve even found such things on my front sidewalk.  I suspect this is a chapter in the myth of rugged individualism.  I have a right, but somebody else has the duty.

Life itself is like this, I guess.  We have to leave wills to help those left behind sort out the various messes we’ve made in our lifetimes.  Still, the Trump administration has all been about somebody elsism.  There is no such thing as controlled chaos.  The coronavirus should have taught us that, if we hadn’t figured it out long before.  Living together with other people requires a commitment to some basic things.  As much as I dislike yardwork, you can’t own a house and let the plants take over.  Your wild growth will seed somebody else’s weeds.  I’d rather be sitting inside reading.  It’s a holiday weekend and I have so little time to read during the week.  Won’t somebody else take care of the grass that has been loving the rain and warmer temperatures?  If only.  So I’m out jogging early, but I have to wait until it’s light.  There are so many things you can’t see before twilight kicks in, and unless somebody else picks them up I’m bound to step in them.

Remembering Cautiously

Memorial Day has a special poignancy when thousands of people are needlessly dying from a disease.  As the unofficial kick-off to summer, the holiday also marks the loosening of restrictions (most likely prematurely) and we can only wonder how many more will die when our usual carelessness resumes.  I’m not alone, I suspect, in hoping that this crisis will have brought some permanent changes, such as thinking about others.  It’s almost impossible to hope that such consciousness will rise to the level of government, of course, but if we the roots of the grass care for one another won’t that care naturally grow to a national level?  Americans have long loved the myth of rugged individualism.  There may have been a day when that was plausible, but we are now so interconnected that anyone considered successful has become so only because of considerable support of others.

This holiday is all about remembering.  Unfortunately remembering our war dead hasn’t done much to prevent wars.  If they’re not the acting out of our fears (as every belligerence since World War II seems to have been) then what are they?  Phobias of communists, terrorists, and assorted “others” lead us into mass killing, often for economic gain.  What if we were to put those vast military resources toward fighting a deadly disease?  What if we had a national will to take care of our people rather than to enrich ourselves?  Wouldn’t we be all the richer for it?  Instead we face more needless deaths, more people to remember on the next Memorial Day.  Maybe the sun will be shining then.

Those of us non-essential workers who’ve nevertheless been working remotely these past two-and-a-half months have a day off today.  Many will want to gather, but we know it’s not really a good idea.  We know the way infection works.  We have no battle plan against COVID-19.  We’re chomping at the bit for economic vitality, forgetting that those who are on the front lines are continuing to get sick.  It’s strange to have a holiday under such circumstances.  The warmer weather invites us outdoors while the plague drives us inside.  There’s a place for bravery, but when bravado masks itself with foolishness there will be a price to pay.  It’s Memorial Day and we can honor our dead by not rushing to join them with unreflective premature relaxing of safety measures.  Let’s stay safe this holiday by remembering what we’ve learned.

Time Off

Perhaps you’ve noticed it too.  Time away from work has an utterly different feel from time on the job.  Those rare individuals who really love their professions probably feel differently about it, but a timid free spirit since childhood, I’ve always noticed a difference.  And it has become more pronounced as time’s gone on.  Recently I cashed in a vacation day near a national holiday (Memorial Day) so that I could drive across the state to see my mother without feeling utterly wiped out from a twelve-hour drive on a regular weekend.  As I slipped back into work mode on Tuesday the change was palpable.  Time was no longer my own.  I tend to work well over eight hours daily—the telecommuter must prove his/her worth—and something about the quality of the time itself was decidedly unlike that of the previous four days (two of which had been spent driving).

That quality, of which we’re not encouraged to speak, is the feeling of freedom.  More precisely, auto-determination.  Okay, I’ve read enough philosophy to know this is just an illusion, but work with me here.  Few and exceptionally fortunate are those who find careers they love.  What the rest of us love is time off work.  Time when we can decide what to do.  How long to sleep.  When to cut the grass rather than waiting until the bell rings at 5 p.m. and the inevitable afternoon rain begins.  Perhaps best of all is going to bed knowing that the next day you don’t have to get up and report for duty.  I’m not dissing employment here, I’m just noticing something.  What I’m reaching toward is a concept of sacred time.  Unstructured time in which creative types thrive.

Early in life the concept of summer was instilled in my soft and malleable psyche.  It said once May was over you have three months to do whatever before facing regimentation again.  I grew to appreciate this schedule.  To love it, in fact.  It was part of why I decided higher education was the best vocational fit for someone of my particular disposition.  Every year when June rolls around I still feel it, like a migratory bird.  The reality, however, is the quality of time changes on Monday morning.  It slows down and feels more like sandpaper than silk.  I can see there’s a holiday just a month away, if I can only reach it.  And it is, perhaps with a dose of unintentional irony, call Independence Day.

Day of Memorials

I admit that I’m as guilty as the next guy of thinking of holidays primarily as a day off work. A boon from the gods of capitalism so that we can come back to the job rejuvenated and more productive than ever. It doesn’t matter the occasion—I don’t have time for things like haircuts and dentist appointments with the usual round of early to rise, early to work. Holidays become islands of blessed respite in an endless ocean of labor for the man. So I wanted to take a moment to reflect on Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have died—grandfather, grandmother, America. We take a moment to consider what we have lost. Then it’s back to business as usual.

My father was a veteran. He died many years ago now and I don’t write much about him because I really didn’t know him at all. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to please him. Any boy wants to make dad proud. I tried the hard work route, and even gave Boy Scouts a try. The things of my youth have been slowly dying. Democracy is merely the latest victim. I shouldn’t be surprised—when it no longer becomes profitable, even the least offensive system of government can be bought and revamped to fit the needs of the greedy. Never mind the will of the masses. They’re the ones who lie under the gravestones for which today stands. No one can be rich without great numbers of poor against which to measure himself. Remember that; it’s Memorial Day.

Since Memorial Day doesn’t lend itself to commodification—let’s face it, outside Halloween death’s a downer—we can make it a day of sales. While you’re earning money without working, why not spend some of it? We seem to have lost the gist of holidays. Those who’ve died in vain believed in a democracy that their heirs have thrown away in scorn. If that for which we say we believe has become moribund, it appropriately becomes the focus of Memorial Day. My grandparents lie buried far from here. They were Evangelicals who wouldn’t recognize their faith reflected in those who still cling to the brand. I remember grandma sending money to Oral Roberts. She didn’t live to see him claim God would take him unless he had even more money. Now we hear the same thing from Pennsylvania Avenue. And tomorrow we all go back to work.

Holiday Weekend

John Seward Johnson II is a sculptor whose work is instantly recognizable by a number of people. Realistic, life-size bronze castings of people doing everyday things, some are painted so as to be difficult to distinguish from quotidian humans. Others are left more abstractly colored or sized so as never to be mistaken. They are, in many ways, explorations of what it means to be human. One of Johnson’s statues, “Double Check” presents a business man sitting on a bench, checking his briefcase. It is most famous for having sat near ground zero and having confused rescuers as a real person traumatized by the events of September 11. Memorial Day seems like a good opportunity to revisit the statue that many thought was human, and which many people still adore.

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While perhaps the most obvious question a sentient being can ponder, what it means to be conscious (and in our case, human) is without an easy answer. We are animals aware of our own mortality in a way that causes many of us angst, or even terror. Humans (and perhaps other conscious animals are) notorious anthropomorphists—we think of other creatures, and even inanimate objects as being like ourselves. We can mistake statues for real people. All too often we treat others as if they were made of cast bronze. Memorial Day is for remembering, but the fallen haven’t only been the victims of the madness we call war. Violence done to others for one’s own gratification is an act of war on a personal scale. Individuals who destroy many others need to stand long before a statue and ponder.

“Double Check” has become an icon of sorts. People left gifts and remembrances for the victims of the attack on the statue. When the real thing isn’t there, sometimes a statue will do. This can teach us something about being human. As we die, at least in this culture, we are buried and a headstone becomes our statue. Our representation for the world to remember that we were here. Our progeny may lay flowers on our grave on this date some day in the future while statues that look just like humans will remain largely unchanged, asking those who remain alive to check again. To think, what does it mean to be human? And when any of us may be tempted to harm anyone else, perhaps we should gaze at a statue and consider the implications.

The Land of Who?

“Parochial” is a name we small-town types dread. Growing up with television, which gave us a magical view into New York and California, as well as other cosmopolitan locales, we could easily feel the accusations of being small-minded and unsophisticated. Although I never wanted to move to the New York City area, I did decide to get away to Boston, then Europe, to be educated. I didn’t want anyone accusing me of being an intellectually challenged rustic, just because of where I happen to have been born. People around my home town, however, aren’t as closed minded as portrayed. Well, not always. You see, apart from conferences where some institution or corporation foots the bills for hotels, I tend to stay in more reasonably priced places when I travel. Even on the road I can’t sleep in, so I find myself chomping at the bit for the breakfast area to open in the morning. Sometimes I’m the first one there.

On a visit to my hometown in the not too distant past, I happened into a breakfast conversation in media res. A local back in town for a holiday weekend was vociferating his views in stentorian tones that could be heard down the hall. The television in the breakfast room, as always, was on. Apparently a story had been shown that teed this old-timer off. His daddy had been a local policeman and he just couldn’t understand why blacks were rioting about unfair treatment at the hands of the police. I cringed as I filled my coffee cup. “They ought to be gassing them and reading their rights later,” he lamented. An older couple, also returning to the area from their home in Baltimore, seemed to agree. I tried to find a corner out of earshot. Unsuccessfully. I could barely hold in my indignation. We were all Caucasian here—what did any of us know of racial profiling, deep-seated prejudice, or being prisoner in our own country? “Why don’t they just stay home?” he said. Home, ironically, of the free.

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I could see that he was elderly and afraid. The media—likely Fox news—had instilled a kind of terror in him that could only be assuaged by reliance on force. The world his daddy knew. I was also reared here. It was pretty much a white town, but some of my best friends growing up were the few African-American kids in my school. My small-town mother taught me not to judge anyone by the color of their skin. The hotel I’m staying in is run by an Indian family. The local stores now reveal a healthier mix than that in which I grew up. I wanted to tell this fellow parochial patron that we need not be afraid if we only seek justice. The region in which I grew up has become more homogenized, and I believe we’re all healthier for it. Until, however, civil rights are truly rights for all, we need to stand with those who’ve been clearly wronged, even if at personal cost. That’s something I learned growing up in this small town.

The Price of Flags

As a child, Memorial Day signaled the start of summer. Most of the time it announced that the obligations of school were nearly over and that was sufficient cause to celebrate. It was not until well into adulthood that I realized the holiday commemorated those who’d died in the armed services. I’d noticed the flags in cemeteries, of course, and we often visited the graves of civilian ancestors buried close enough to reach. The message did not penetrate my head, however, that all of those little flags should be telling me something. I grew up not knowing my father, but I did know he was a veteran. When all his children gathered for a (mostly) impromptu picnic yesterday, for the first time in well over thirty years, I realized how much of a mystery he was to me. At his funeral the flag on his coffin was presented to my older brother as part of military tradition, although he had died in peacetime, and pretty much isolated from all his progeny. It is a somber thought even now, although it was eleven years ago.

I have been a pacifist since my youngest days. Sure, I played with toy guns and G. I. Joe, but that was the culture of kids growing up during the Vietnam War. Only vaguely did we realize the actual horrors that were happening daily thousands of miles away. In my mind there was no reason to go to war. In Sunday School we were taught to settle our differences nicely, even if it meant that you had to be cheated or take less for yourself. This always seemed the central tenet of Christianity to me, and I wondered why the most conservative of Christian presidents seemed the most hawkish, the most ready to sacrifice the fathers, sons, brothers, and now mothers, sisters, and daughters of others for so little. The number of flags even in that little country graveyard where my grandparents were buried haunt me.

We still have members of the armed forces over seas. The military budget of one of the most prosperous nations on the planet is astronomical. We can now kill with drones so that we don’t even have to see the carnage we create. When did the lives of young adults become small change? I know it’s idealistic of me, and probably terribly naive, but I still can’t make sense of our cultural perception of how cheap human life can be. Maybe I’m just a little overly sentimental about a father I never really knew. But looking over my siblings, I see that he produced some nice, generous, and peace-loving children over half a century ago. And while we have our picnics and enjoy a rare day off of work or school, thousands of silent flags will be flapping in cemeteries all across this country reminding us that better ways exist to resolve our differences. If only we could take a holiday from war and violence we might see fewer flags and even more holidays.

Photo credit: Remember.

Photo credit: Remember.