Lead us, Not

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A few fighter jets flew over a parking lot at the beach. It happens a lot, and every time I can tell the tourists as they’re the ones running back in a store or holding their hands over their ears. It can be deafening, no doubt, but when you hear them all the time you become numb, complacent, and your tolerance of the disturbing afterburn steadily increases so that you’re aware of them passing more as a passing thought than a shocking revelation.

When I first lived around these jets I was one of those teenagers who tried to be cool, but every single time ran inside to avoid the sounds from cracking my skull and blowing out my eardrums like popping bubblegum. As years passed new people who traveled to the area would question how I could live there. But I’d say, “It’s really not that bad once you get used to it, and they’re usually done by evening.” Eventually I barely noticed the jets at all. I had so adjusted to the disturbing sound that I did not even flinch. My determination at one time to either move or get them moved to another base in another state had been tamed by overwhelming presence. I had gotten used to the sound so that it didn’t bother me anymore.

Always start with the metaphor.

Sometimes we make the mistake of getting used to something that never should have happened to begin with. For instance, the Vatican has overwhelmingly voted to change the translation of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s true, and despite resistance, it is hard to deny the rational decision. The current reading, which has been enshrined since the first English translation, says, “Lead us not into temptation.” Yes, this line always bothered me as well, but I could never articulate why. Well, someone finally articulated it. That line as it currently reads is basically suggesting that we are asking God to not lead us into something evil, suggesting if we do choose something evil, it is actually God’s fault for leading us there to begin with. The new translation reads something to the effect of “Do not abandon us during temptation.” It makes way more sense and is hard, semantically, to not argue is better than what we’ve grown used to and closer, according to experts, to the original intent of the phrase. Still, people will resist, not because they think it through, not because they have theological training, and not because they necessarily understand it to begin with, but simply because it is what they are used to and don’t see any reason to change. This is frustrating when so many people, for no other reason than it is easier to just keep things the same, contradict those with the expertise necessary to make the call.

The change is right, no matter how hard it might be for some to accept.

And on that note, the literal:

When did it become okay to ridicule others? When did we become complacent about harsh personal criticism and blatant bullying? At one point not too long ago most people were taken aback by the rude and unnerving comments which seem to have become commonplace. Are we growing numb to immorality and unethical behavior?

Sometimes we know that, “Something has to change. Things cannot continue like this.” Sometimes we don’t know what’s going to happen next, but we are absolutely certain it can’t be what is happening now.

Accepting change is difficult, both for the better and the worse. Like staying in a bad job, like staying in a bad relationship, like staying in the same place, sometimes it is almost easier to accept the complacent illogical current way of life than to deal with the difficulty which lies ahead during the transition to something better, something, though challenging, with promise and hope. Worse still, though, are the adjustments we make to accept what we have; we get used to the noise which at one time was deafening but somehow became unnoticeable. That is the tragedy; when we fail to recognize the compromised state we are in by the simple virtue of some slow erosion of perspective. It took a while after making a change for me to step back and say, “Wow, what the hell was I thinking?”

I’m writing this the afternoon of Thanksgiving. In the worst of situations over the last few years I still can’t think of anything for which I’m not thankful. Is that a version of “everything happens for a reason”? I don’t think so, particularly since I am a firm believer in the free will to use our God-given decision-making capabilities wisely. Still, I’m grateful so many have the wisdom to know the difference between what to accept and what to change. Like knowing that Thanksgiving should be in October or that we need to stop changing the damn time twice a year. Oh, and the Electoral College has got to go.

But more to the point, it has been two years now and too many people are getting too used to the president’s rhetoric and ways. This week he thanked a country for being our ally whose crown prince ordered the brutal assassination and dismemberment of a journalist, the same week he blamed the forest fires on poor management, the same week he ridiculed the decisions made by federal judges, the same week he said what he is most grateful for is how great he has been for the country.

Too many people have accepted his despicable ways because of a tax refund; they’ve sold out, they’ve been paid off; they’re little more than whores along with the president himself. When did it become okay to act like spoiled children? When did it become okay to advocate policy which we would never tolerate in our adversaries?

Do not get used to the noise. Be constantly bothered by the afterburn of djt’s irreverence. He is leading us down a path toward demise of the U.S. constitution and civic behavior. In our own ways, each of us must not allow the constant disappointment and immoral behavior to become what happens when people start saying, “Well, what else did you expect from him?” That response is a half-step from acceptance. That’s unacceptable.

Change is not easy. Change can be damn near impossible sometimes; especially if we have grown so used to one way of doing things and especially if someone keeps telling us exactly what we want to hear and making promises we want to believe.

We can promise ourselves this with certainty: if things don’t change, they stay the same. As obvious as that seems, we don’t always understand the often dire consequences of familiarity.

He’s got to go, we know that. The real danger is the numbers of people who are getting used to him and his childish behavior.

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Of Things Unseen

 

Here in Prague, I didn’t get to see a few things.

I wanted to visit Terezine again; the museum which was a Jewish Ghetto in which the subject of my reading, Arnost Lustig, had been interned as a teen. It is an hour north of the city by bus, and I simply didn’t plan on it.

Also, I wanted to see the ballet. I’m not a big ballet fan, to be sure, but I am a music fan, and one of my favorite pieces, Swan Lake, is playing at the theater here, but I opted on a symphony at Dvorák Hall. I’m not complaining; there simply isn’t enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them, as Jim Croce pointed out.

Then there are the things I didn’t get to see because they can no longer be seen. For years when I came here, statues of Golem were everywhere. Golem is a mythical character in Prague Jewish folklore, and it is a long story but the cultural result was statues everywhere–in front of bars, restaurants, and for sale in small form in shops throughout the city. The history of the character goes back to the Talmud, which mentions a man-like creature created by rabbis to use as a servant. Up until recently you couldn’t take a picture without finding one in the frame. I even have a photo of William Hurt standing next to one from my first trip in 2000. They’re all gone. It seems commercialism created a battle over who owns the rights to use the image, and Old Golem has gone into hiding, except for one in the Jewish Quarter.

Worst of all the things I didn’t see is my tea room at Nerudova 19. This quaint shop had seven tables, soft music, a wide variety of herbal teas, amazing strudel, and inspiration. It had been there for decades and decades. Milos Foreman shot several scenes from Amadeus inside. I used to go there every single night on every one of my trips and order a pot of Irish Creme or Apple spice tea and, sometimes–often–strudel. I wrote the draft of Penance over the course of eight evenings at a table near the window, and it was my safe place. No matter how well you know a place, it is nice to have somewhere familiar–a tea room, a pub, a small shop–to go to so you can regroup, get centered to face another plethora new experiences. In Prague, Nerudova 19 was that place for me. It is an ice cream shop now. I asked the owner what happened and he shrugged and said, “Same thing happening everywhere. Technology. People like you used to come here to do work but you always ordered more food, more tea. You understood it wasn’t a rest area. In the last few years people came with laptops for the wireless and order only one cup of tea and sit for hours and hours. I had no turnover. I started asking people to leave after thirty minutes if they didn’t order more, but then word spread you couldn’t spend time here unless you bought something and they all went to Starbucks. So, ice cream. You’re welcome to stay at a table as long as you like you know!” He still has a copy of Penance near the register. I bought a double-size cone of ice cream and left.

The excitement that was Prague during the Havel presidency is gone; the folk scene is tucked away past the university instead of along the banks of Kampa Island. Even the guitar player near the Lennon mural didn’t know the words to “A Day in the Life.’ So sad.

Things change; I get that, and so much here is the same, the deep art culture, the thriving literary scene amongst all age groups, mulled wine, beers at the Golden Tiger, and apple strudel. And music, which pulsates beneath the streets of Prague and moves through her people like plasma, as if the Velvet Revolution was personified and moves about the city as a shadow, like a new mythical creature, hiding–yes, but present just the same, making everyone move through the streets with some unknown energy.

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The Outrageously Overrated Act of Remembering

Summer memories

I was never good at remembering names. This isn’t new. Through thirty years of teaching college, some students’ names stuck; either from their attendance in multiple classes or their outstanding work, or, of course, from throwing desks and calling me an asshole. Still, even with students sitting in front of me two or three days a week for sixteen weeks, the names remained allusive. Face? No problem.

Numbers, also, no problem. I remember all the phone numbers I’ve ever had; license plate numbers, even an old friend’s social security number—it just stuck. It must be a different part of the brain; or, more likely, interest. No offense to the college-age kids but I never had a reason to remember their names. I taught, we talked, I read their papers, we talked some more, I turned in their grades and they moved on. So did my mind.

I guess I was distracted. Yes, that is it. I was distracted. After all, through those years I had incredible numbers of students, credit hours, a son, a house, writing projects, extensive travel; so of course I only filed away information my brain deemed necessary for future use. Besides, all the information retreats to yesterday quite quickly. I learned to live in the day, focus on the moment. Isn’t that good? I think that is good.

Small things, though, stand out as blank spots. I can never remember what you call the matting for a frame. For some reason, “matting” is just out of reach. And I am absolutely certain I ate dinner last night but please do not ask what it was. Salad I think. Yes, salad. I’ll go with salad.

A friend posted a meme which read, “I’m more likely to remember song lyrics from the eighties than why I walked into the kitchen just now.” Man is that so true. Lyrics relentlessly stick to my brain, but not items I’ve read. I’m rereading a book from my youth, Dove, about Robin Lee Graham’s solo voyage around the world. I’ve read it a half dozen times, but each time there are parts I completely forgot as if someone added them later. This is normal, a friend tells me. But he’s old and he is just projecting, I believe.

In his later years, my father had aphasia, where you simply can’t recall a particular word, though you know exactly what it is you want to say (like the matting problem I have). I read recently in an article that stress, major changes in life, and even raised blood pressure or bad diet can affect retention and recall. But, and I’m not trying to be funny here, I can’t remember what journal that was in. So somewhere it says in a place I can’t readily recall that my not recalling that very thing is normal for the way my last year has been. The thing is, this year is going swimmingly, and I read the piece this year. So does that mean that part of the brain was already gone? I have no idea.

Well, to be honest, I hope so. There’s so much I remember which is already enough to be grateful for in a hundred lives. I remember my first slurpee at the 711 in Massapequa Park on Long Island when I was barely more than a toddler. And I remember nearly every inch of Heckscher State Park out on the Great South Bay. And Eddie. And Steve. And Captain Cooey who sat in a wheel chair at the other end of Church Road and told me about his days as a tug boat captain in the twenties. And these memories are very visual; I have a better memory for things I see than things I read. Again, the senses dominate my recall. 

I remember summers mostly, and nearly every single day I have spent with my son. I remember the visceral experience of walking The Way, and the people, and the towns and food, though I need to look up the names of some villages. I recall the dates we walked through each of the places, no problem. And crossing Siberia is etched in my memory, though I’m fuzzy about some details. I could list the fine memories of my life for a thousand blogs and never get it all down. For some reason I can better recall things which have ceased happening (or people who are no longer with us) with more accuracy than the persistent events or people still in my life.

But…

I was going through some files of mine of previously published work for an anthology and I found some I don’t remember writing. I mean, the style is mine, the digression, and according to the bi-line and bio, I wrote the damn things. But, well, I must have been listening to some music.

I don’t mind forgetting; it helps me prioritize things in my life. I have one friend I remember every single moment together; another I can barely recall knowing at all. I just left a job after nearly three decades and it seems more like a character in a movie I once watched.

I took one of those memory tests and I passed. I think. And I have an incredible sense of direction. I need only travel somewhere once and for some reason for years I can recall exactly how to get there. But sometimes a student will say, “Did you get my email?” and I can’t remember if I did, what it might have said, or who the hell she is to begin with to be able to answer. Someone once said I have “Selective Memory.” Perhaps. Most of my life has been chiseled down to the simplest form of being, and I prefer it that way. When I walk in nature, along the ocean or through paths, I remain completely present. I have no need to remember, or plan for that matter. My son knows the names of all the birds and trees; I don’t, and it must frustrate him that I keep asking the names over and over. I don’t even know why I ask, as if at some point it will “take.” It won’t.

I can remember things if I can touch them, if I can feel it on my skin and under my fingers. I can remember things if they bring my senses to life, if they stimulate my enthusiasm for being alive and make me thank all the powers that be that I am living and breathing at that moment. I can remember things if remembering is all I have left, when the desire to pick up the phone is quickly followed by the realization someone is gone, and then it is quickly followed by sharp recollections of conversations and laughter, the way we planned or hoped or absorbed each other. I am glad for that.

I learned recently through my brother of something called “Muscle Memory.” I am sure the brain does the same thing; we’ve long known that repetition aids recollection. Maybe that’s my issue: I simply have no need to remember most of the minutia, the passing deluge of the common occurrences. But when something stimulates my brain, it grabs hold, and later I can at least salvage the finer moments of my life. And to be honest, how many fine memories does one need? I’ve decided if I can keep track of five fine memories as I grow older, I’d already be a lucky man. The balance of this, of course, is the five bad memories that must remain as well.

It is interesting how all ten of those events can be so related.

I remember when a bolt went into my son’s skull; I remember how brave he was as they stitched his head. I remember a summer of blisters covering my feet; I remember when we climbed the Pyrenees together. I remember the unparalleled excitement of a friend’s plans to travel; I remember how he never came home.

I remember how excited I was to finally graduate from college; I remember the finest days of my life were at college.

I remember the last conversation with my father; I remember the last conversation with my father.

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