Saturday, July 04, 2015

Reflections on the 4th of July

I’ve had the opportunity over the years to deliver a number of Unitarian-Universalist (UU) church sermons, but last Sunday was the first time I’ve ever been asked to deliver a talk targeted especially for children.  My topic was the relationship between Judaism and Islam, and the “props” that I used were a yarmulke and a Qur’an – two symbols that many of us think of in opposition to one another, but which in fact are actually quite harmonious.

My talk went along fine enough as I explained that “Jews” and “Muslims” were truly first cousins in the family of Abraham.  But I’m not sure that the UU kids were especially riveted by the profound similarities and differences between these two so-called “enemy” faiths.   That is, until I mentioned the holiday of Ramadan.   That holiday is especially noteworthy this year because it started only a few days before June 21st – the date when the period from sunup to sundown is at its apex.   I mentioned to the UU children that during Ramadan, Muslims refrain from all food and all drink, including water, from sunup to sundown for an entire month.  As I explained, the age at which Muslims begin this ritual differs with the person (traditionally, the responsibility commences with the onset of puberty), but some Muslims start this practice at age 10 and it is extremely common to start by age 12.   In other words, I told the kids at the UU church, millions of Muslim children age 11, 12 and 13 are spending an entire month from 5:30 in the morning until 8:30 in the evening not even drinking a drop of water, let alone eating a piece of food.

After discussing the basic facts about Ramadan, I asked the kids a question:  “How do you think the Muslim kids are able to fast for more than 15 hours every day for an entire month?”   I received but one response:   “Magic.”  

Magic, indeed.  It sounds like a silly answer, but what it reveals is no laughing matter.   Here we are, it’s July 4, 2015, and in an increasingly large swath of our society, more and more families are losing their passion for religion, losing their passion for patriotism, and losing their passion period.   In the place of passion, we can tranquilize ourselves with the relaxation that comes from browsing Facebook, binge-watching a TV show via Netflix, or traveling to a beautiful beach resort.  In other words, we can exemplify the perspective described by George Santayana as becoming increasingly dominant in the first half of the 20th century: “the mood of impatience, conceit, low-minded ambition, mechanical inflation, and the worship of material comforts.”

When maximizing creature comforts becomes the goal, passion becomes a nuisance – and the Muslim children’s ability to thoroughly put aside those comforts sounds almost magical.   For many, the passions I have in mind get in the way of what’s really important:  “relaxing.”  If we need exhilaration to supplement our relaxation, we can get that from a bike ride, not a political or religious cause.   From the standpoint of today’s secular hedonist, the idea of parents encouraging their 11-year-olds to deprive themselves of food and drink for 15 hours every day is abusive, if not insane.  And when I put the question at the UU church as to how this feat of starvation was possible, the kid who responded thought first of magic, because the act at issue would either be viewed as superhuman or subhuman, depending on your perspective.  It’s certainly not anything a contemporary secular hedonist can relate to.

July 4th is a holiday that speaks to hedonism – far more than, say, Veterans Day, Labor Day, or Presidents’ Day.   While the Muslims fast, the contemporary American material-comfort-worshipper is literally pigging out on hot dogs and beer.  But of course, this day does have deeper significance for other Americans, including an increasing number of American Muslims.   The 4th calls to mind such statements as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   The 4th calls to mind a bold experiment to introduce a Democratic/Republican form of government that would be hegemonic on a massive scale.   The 4th calls to mind all the successes that have resulted from that experiment – successes such as the elimination of the “peculiar institution” known as slavery, the creation of a vast network of roads and a vast network of land-grant institutions of higher learning, the rise of a huge and fairly prosperous middle class, the use of the military to defeat totalitarian regimes, and the ability to put men on the Moon.  

Oh sure, there have been failures too.   We all know what they are.  We’re constantly reminded of how and where we fall short, including in this Blog.  But one day a year, Americans are permitted to think patriotically and proudly about what we have created and what we have stood for, which above all else can be summarized by the word “Liberty.”  We can, in other words, take immeasurable inspiration from that word and from our collective devotion to it.   And we can be passionate about our need to ensure that it never dissipates from these shores.

Whether or not they are citizens, you won’t find Muslims eating hot dogs or drinking beer – not after sunup, not before sundown, not ever.   Observant Muslims, you see, have a whole series of rules that they follow besides simply fasting during Ramadan, and those rules trump the conventions that have come to characterize American life.  But that doesn’t mean that Muslims can’t be patriotic Americans.   In fact, I suspect they can be among our most patriotic citizens – because those same passions that fuel religious faith can also be channeled into fueling wholesome patriotism.   In either case, we’re talking about a deep, enduring love for something that isn’t tangible, isn’t immediately translatable into material comforts or other pleasures, and that is associated in the mind of the lover with righteousness, honor and duty.  

That kind of love can be extremely powerful.  It can move people to accomplish tremendous feats of beauty, just as it can move people to commit horrendous acts of destruction.  When we become people of faith – regardless of whether the faith we have is in God or in the symbols of a nation – we depart from the “mood” that Santayana found to be so off-putting.   Then, even if we are only 11 years old, we can accomplish all sorts of things and feel privileged in doing so.

Don’t take my word for it.  Just ask the next person you see who is wearing a military uniform, or a priest’s collar.  Hell, just find a bird in a nest with five little ones beneath her; if that bird could talk, it would tell you the same thing.

Love and devotion are incredibly potent forces.   Those who tap into them aren’t magicians.  They’re just beneficiaries of that which makes life worth living.   With all due respect to my hedonist friends, you can have your beers and your hot dogs; I’ll take my appreciation for Jefferson’s quill pen and my anticipation for the spiritual bliss that is Yom Kippur (the central Jewish fast, which is just a miniature version of Ramadan).

So yes, Americans have their differences – different behaviors, different philosophies.  But at least on this July 4th, we can all agree on one thing:  thankfully, we can choose for ourselves which path to take.  In the Land of Liberty, there is nothing quite as holy as the freedom to choose.    

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Enjoying the Moment

There are many responsibilities to being an Empathic Rationalist.

You must listen to your voice of reason and honor what you hear.

You must tell the truth – both to others and, just as importantly, to yourself.

You must love the search for wisdom as much or more as the possession of knowledge.

You must open your mind, even when it’s unpleasant to do so.

And that’s just the “Rationalism” part.

As for the other half of the equation, to be an Empathic Rationalist you must be compassionate.

You must never forget when you see someone else who is down on his luck, that the unlucky soul could have been you were it not for the Fates.

You must not harden your heart to the point where you get inured to destruction, death and suffering.

You must keep your heart humble and your hands hospitable.

And that’s just part of what it means to be “Empathic.”

The other part is to rejoice when it’s time to rejoice, such as when your colleagues, your neighbors, or your community is blessed with wonderful news. 

Now is definitely a time to rejoice.

It’s a time to celebrate that, one by one, the barons of the South are deciding to move the Stars and Bars out of the State Houses and into the museums, where they can serve as a reminder of our checkered past.

It’s a time to celebrate that, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, millions of Americans who were once cruelly denied healthcare insurance will now be able to keep the insurance that was granted to them by the Affordable Care Act.

It’s a time to celebrate that, thanks to another Supreme Court decision, millions of Americans who were once cruelly denied the right to marry the person they love are now permitted to take advantage of what, for 26 years, has been known to me as the greatest institution on Earth.  

To be sure, I don’t want to exaggerate what we have accomplished this week.

Empathic Rationalists are forever aware that there is “always work to be done.”

As Rationalists, we tend not to take literally the idea that there will someday come a Messiah who will usher in an era when the good Lord “will judge among the nations and arbitrate for the many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.”

While Rationalists like us are in no position to disprove Isaiah’s prophesies, nor can we count on them coming true. 

Accordingly, we Empathic Rationalists feel duty bound to work ever so hard to ensure that this is a world of peace, justice and universal dignity.

But this is not a weekend simply to work.   This is a weekend also to sit back and rejoice.

Wonderful weeks like this past one don’t come around very often.  When they do, we must allow ourselves to smile about them.

Thanks to the events of the past week, in the state houses of all 50 states, the Confederacy shall forever come to be associated with the institution of slavery, which is understood to be an abomination.   The opponents of Obamacare will recognize that if they want to improve that law, they can’t do so by stripping away people’s rights to healthcare.  And last but not least, there will never again be a time in America where the government will deny the right of two consenting adults to fall in love, make a pact to defeat loneliness, and spend the rest of their lives together – ever supporting one another, ever building a friendship, ever enjoying one another in body as well in mind.

The Empathic Rationalist salutes the forces of progressivism that for years have fought to make this week possible.  And the Empathic Rationalist salutes also those forces of conservativism that, grudgingly or not, are allowing our society to enter the 21st century.  May we not despair in the fact that progress has been slower than we might have liked it to be.  May we simply smile at what we have accomplished and at the fact that more accomplishments are surely in our future.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Tiger Woods Meltdown

A lot has happened in the past week.  For example, we’ve been treated to the image of a white woman who has pretended, successfully, to be black.   We’ve also been treated to the image of a white man who didn’t just pretend to have a blackened heart, but took it upon himself to destroy nine lives in a house of worship for the “crime” of being black.   I’d like to claim that I was shocked, shocked at these events, but that wouldn’t be true.   Lies and killings have become commonplace.  That is why so many of us love to escape from the “real world” and go to sporting events, theaters or museums.  We get tired of thinking about bad people and the seemingly intractable societal institutions that enable them to do damage.   We want to see great performers and artists and admire their genius.    Stated differently, if we’re going to be powerless to change the world very much, we might as well lie back and enjoy it.

For years, Tiger Woods was one of those great performers who provided us glimpses of true genius.  His accomplishments on the golf course had never been seen before.   Yes, Jack Nicklaus was great, but not even the Bear in his prime won with the frequency of the Tiger.   Nor did Jack have Tiger’s flair for the dramatic.  The old Tiger would bomb his tee shots way further than his competitors.   He could frequently hole out from off of the green.  He would sink 30 foot, winding putts.    He would win the U.S. Open while playing, essentially, on one leg.  And whenever something good happened, he’d treat us to one hell of a portrait.  There was the intense, fist-pumping Tiger.  And then there was the understated, “I can’t believe how freaking good I am” smile.  We’d often see those as well, especially when Tiger was way ahead of the field and a fist pump seemed inappropriate.   

In his prime, Tiger redefined his craft.  He turned golf from a game into a sport.  You could still be overweight or undersized and compete on the PGA Tour.  But if you wanted to be “the Man,” you had better be physically sculpted.  What’s more, you no longer had to be lily white.  Tiger was just the opposite.   Mick Jagger might have described him as being “like a rainbow.”   But Tiger referred to himself as a “Cablinasian” -- part Asian, part Black, part Indian, part Caucasian.   In him, you could find so many of the races of humankind put together in the body of a world class athlete and with a mind that came to be associated with total concentration and resolve.   My fellow alumni of Stanford University were proud to claim “El Tigre” as one of our own.  

As we say in Passover, if that was all we could say in praise of the old Tiger Woods, that would have been  “Dayenu” – meaning “enough.”  But the legend of Tiger was far bigger than that.  Tiger, you see, also came to be known for his eleemosynary pursuits.  The Tiger Wood Foundation was created in 1996, one year before its namesake won the first of his major tournaments.  It went on to establish numerous programs designed to enhance the living conditions of children throughout America.   Tiger also went out of his way to honor our troops.  I remember going to a Tiger-sponsored tournament in Bethesda, Maryland in which members of the armed forces were allowed in free of charge.   Tiger’s father, you see, was once a member of the Green Beret, and Tiger seemed to be deeply respectful of his service, just as he seemed to be deeply respectful of all the golfing greats who came before him.   The image of Tiger Woods, circa 2008, was one of a family man, a patriot, a lover of history, a student of his craft, and a legend in the making.  He was Madison Avenue’s dream.  And he was golf’s savior.

Then came the fire hydrant.   It was November 27, 2009 at 2:25 in the morning.   Tiger was trying to escape from his picture-perfect blonde wife, who recently had discovered some (but hardly all) of his infidelities.  She chased him with a golf club.  He got behind the wheel, drove the car into a fire hydrant in front of his Windermere, Florida home, and proceeded to hit a tree.   After the accident, Tiger was physically injured, but from those injuries he would recover.  What would never recover was the reputation damage that ensued from the newspaper reports about his lifestyle.   This wasn’t just a man who played around, this was an animal who played around.   Women came out of the woodwork to report on their episodes with the golfing great.   Some of the stories were seedier than others, such as the report that he slept with his neighbor’s 21-year-old daughter and with another woman in a church parking lot.  It wasn’t long before Tiger did a press conference where, instead of talking about golf, he was talking about rehab.   And the jokes just kept on coming.  There’s only about a million of them available on the Internet.  Some of the jokes don’t even have the word “hole” in them.    And others are attributed to celebrities, like this one from Chris Rock:   “Tiger’s gonna win the Master’s and then rape Phil Mickelson.” 

Once, it was time for Tiger Idolatry.  Then, it was time for Tiger Ridicule.  And now?  We’re just left with Tiger Pathos. 

The truth is that Tiger has won numerous PGA tournaments since the fire hydrant.  As recently as a couple of years ago, he was arguably the best player on tour.  But since the hydrant, not one of his victories has come at a major tournament.  Golf is defined by four events – the Masters, the British Open, the PGA, and the U.S. Open – and when it comes to those tourneys, Tiger has remained stuck on the same number (14) since June 2008.  

Still, until very recently, Tiger’s fans have held out hope.  As one of those fans, I’ve long stopped thinking about Tiger breaking Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors, but at least I’ve been assuming that Tiger would return to some amount of greatness and win another major or two.   In other words, I took for granted that he would at least be able to compete on the PGA Tour.  Then, Thursday night happened.  At prime time, on network TV, at the United States Open, Tiger simply imploded.   He completely lost his game.   At one point, he accidentally lost control of his club and launched it 40 or 50 feet down the course.   His final tee shot was a ground ball – the kind that I hit on one of my bad holes.   And at the end of the round, he was ten over par – worse even than the 15 year old who was allowed to compete at the Open, not to mention all but one of the 150+ other golfers who teed it up that day.  Tiger didn’t look like a professional golfer.  Hell, he didn’t even look like a rank amateur.

Tiger has had bad rounds before, but this one was different because it was no longer an anomaly.  In his prime, he went over one thousand rounds of golf before he’d shoot a round in the 80s.  Now, he’s shot in the 80s in three of his last 16 rounds.   Worse yet, his problems can’t be attributed to any one or two causes.  His drives fly in all sorts of directions, and he can’t even trust his formerly devastating three wood.  He has the yips when he puts.  He plays much better in practice than when it counts.  In short, his game is a total train wreck.

During Thursday night’s telecast, the announcers were commenting about how the fans at the tournament were literally laughing out loud at Tiger’s travails.  And I’m sure that those laughs were nothing compared to the reactions in homes all over America.   Just as Tiger has had legions of fans, he also has had legions of haters.  People hate him for all sorts of reasons.  The infidelities are the most obvious cause.  Golf purists hate him for cursing and otherwise looking ornery on the golf course, rather than showing the kind of gentle spirit in which the sport prides itself.   And even his fans, let alone his haters, don’t appreciate his reluctance to speak candidly at press conferences.   In the past few years, whenever a major tournament has come and gone and Tiger has remained four wins away from tying Jack’s record, millions of Americans have smiled at his frustrations. 

I just wonder how these haters felt about Thursday night.   What we have now is no longer a Rembrandt, no longer an over-dog.   He’s not even a typical PGA tour professional.  Tiger is 39 years old, which means that he ought to be within his prime as a golfer, but what he resembles instead is a 39-year-old heavyweight prize fighter  -- a washed-up, punch-drunk guy who never learned when to quit.   Sports fans have vivid recollections of Larry Holmes extending his arm so that his fist was practically touching Muhammad Ali’s puffed up face, all the while pleading poignantly with the referee to stop the fight before he kills his old idol in the ring.   You’d have to be a sick person to take joy at what had become of Muhammad Ali that night.  Clearly, his career was finished and he had nothing left in the tank.   But did he retire from boxing?  Of course not -- he went on to fight Trevor Berbick a year later and looked even worse against Berbick than he did against Holmes.   Perhaps the same indomitable spirit that made Ali great in the first place made him incapable of knowing when to quit.  Willie Mays was another example of a man who didn’t know when to say when, but at least the Say Hey Kid fell apart playing a team sport, where a fan only had to spend a few seconds at a time watching his demise.  At least he wasn’t out there alone, on an island, like Ali.  Or Tiger.

Am I suggesting that it’s time for Tiger to put away his golf clubs for good?  Not at all.  Golf isn’t boxing.  You can be old and relatively obese and still enjoy a day on the course.  But what I am suggesting is that it’s time for Tiger to stop drinking his Kool Aid and start facing reality.   Perhaps, he might even try something really revolutionary – giving a truly candid press conference in which he lets everyone in on what’s going on with his golf game.  After all, we fans have directly or indirectly paid him half a billion dollars or more to hit around a golf ball and smile at a camera.  The least he can do is tell the truth to us … and to himself.

Right now, Tiger flat out stinks as a professional golfer.  The only thing keeping him in the top 200 is golf’s arcane system of counting tournaments from 23 months ago as much as tournaments from one month ago.   In actuality, he’s probably not one of the best 300 or 400 players in the world.  That’s how bad he looks.   Tiger needs to make a renewed commitment to the sport if he wants to return to greatness.  At a minimum, that will require playing as many tournaments as his other competitors, something he hasn’t done for years.  And he needs to seek out advice from different corners, because his current brain trust surely isn’t getting the job done.

Mostly, though, Tiger needs to get his head straight from whatever has plagued him since the fire hydrant.   I have watched this guy from the time of his college days at Stanford, and I have no doubt that with all his knee problems, back problems and wrist problems, his biggest problems are between the ears.  That’s why he’s done better in the minor tournaments than the major ones and why, allegedly, he does better in practice than when it counts.

Perhaps it’s hard to shut all your demons out when you know that there are so many haters pulling for you to lose the grip of your club, or miss a short putt, or hit a ground ball from the tee.   But that’s what Tiger will have to do if he wants to be a great golfer again.  It might help for him to remember that, at this point, those who enjoy watching him struggle have issues of their own.   

After all, no matter what you think of Tiger’s sex habits or his press conferences, there’s no denying his former genius.  If Rembrandt, in the prime of his life, had started to make god-awful paintings, that wouldn’t be funny to watch.  So why is it funny to watch a 39-year-old Tiger Woods lose to 15-year-olds at golf?   Maybe for one tournament, we can laugh at the shock and slapstick of it all.  But if it keeps happening, and Tiger keeps denying what it signifies, we’ll all be witnessing a Greek tragedy.   Only morons laugh at those.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

A Short Note from a Proud Papa

In a letter to Hugh L. White in 1810, Thomas Jefferson suggested that a university should best be fashioned so that “the whole arranged around an open square of grass & trees would make it, what it should be in fact, an academical village.”

Tomorrow morning, I am going to get in my minivan and drive to a true “academical village,” otherwise known as Carleton College.  I can’t think of a term that better describes that place than the one coined by Jefferson.  Carleton is in a remote location (an hour south of Minneapolis), is itself tiny (the school has about 2100 students), and is a breeding ground for intellectuals.   Every time I’ve gone there, I’ve been so impressed with how the kids are intelligent and thoughtful without being obnoxiously competitive.   It’s a wonderful environment to learn values and to wrestle with ideas.

I am thrilled to say that one member of the Carleton College class of 2015 is Rebecca Kathryn Spiro.   She has always made her parents proud for so many reasons, and it will be an honor to see her graduate this Saturday.   

So here’s to you, Rebecca.   And here’s to all the other graduates of the class of 2015 – no matter what school you go to, take a bow!  The Empathic Rationalist salutes you.