“I Don’t Know! Ask the Horse!”

In Savor, Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung tell the Zen story of a horse and rider: “The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the rider is urgently heading somewhere important. A bystander along the road calls out, ‘Where are you going?’ and the rider replies, ‘I don’t know! Ask the horse!’”

The horse represents our habit energy, “the relentless force of habit that pulls us along, that we are often unaware of and feel powerless to change. We are always running.” I’ve decided that my life depends on understanding my habit energy—the silly, mindless actions and words that litter each day. I eat too fast, drink too fast, drive too fast. I worry too much, talk too much, eat way too much.

Thich Nhat Hanh says I should talk to my habit energy: “Hello, my habit energy. I know you are there.” Plentiful daily siestas and over twenty year’s worth of contemplative prayer are putting me in touch with my silly horse. Writing about napping and other sane practices helps, too.

Last night, as wife Kathy and I walked our happy black dog Watson around the block, we calmed our habit energy long enough to check out little flowers on a neighbor’s fence.

IMG_0303

This morning I prayed in bed from 6:00 – 6:30 and intended to dress and dive into the day—much to do. But oncology-nurse-wife Kathy woke up with a knot in her back, so instead of getting right to work, I did my best to massage away what felt like a concrete ping pong ball beside her shoulder blade. (Masseuses have my respect. Subduing stubborn muscles takes strong hands and forearms.) The delay turned into a blessed twenty minutes. Once the knot was worked out, she leaned against me, and we breathed in, breathed out. The cats relaxed with us.

IMG_0309

IMG_0311

Today’s work includes trying to find good words for someone who lost a loved one to cancer, visiting a woman with lung cancer, and asking prayers for a six-year-old girl who was in an ATV accident a couple days ago and is still unconscious. “Change and decay in all around I see,” says an old hymn. So it is.

When I pray, rest in the afternoon, and—even in this moment—breathe, I can’t help feeling we’re all in a great lap of grace and mercy. All of us. The world’s evidence is against me. Habit energy tells me to clench up, to struggle and strain. No. For too many years my harried horse has been galloping my body and mind where it pleased. Life project: pat the horse on its big nose and train it to carry me slowly through my lovely, crazy days.

Advertisements

What I Almost Hurried Past

James_Wright_(poet)

James Wright (Credit: Wikipedia)

James Wright’s (1927-1980) poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” is a must read for every siesta lover on the path of mindfulness. The poem is short, and the title covers a lot. The speaker of the poem beholds the beauty of the moment: “a bronze butterfly”; cowbells “in the distance of the afternoon”; “a field of sunlight between two pines”; “a chicken hawk . . . looking for home.” Wright’s last line at first seems like a non sequitur: “I have wasted my life.”

I thought of James Wright, whose work I love, this weekend as that last line kept sounding in my head: “I have wasted my life.” I haven’t really “wasted my life.” A wealth of blessings surrounds me, and at fifty-one, I’m bold enough to accept that I’m a decent guy. But sitting in the Coleman family breakfast nook yesterday, I had a moment of awareness–shamatha, if you’ve read recent posts–that has graced my whole weekend. And this grace–what C. S. Lewis might call a mildly severe mercy–has made me wonder how much of my life I’ve wasted.

I’m a worrier. Give me a pimple, and I can turn it into a malignant tumor in a skinny minute. Give me a conflict, and I’ll work my stomach into an acidic lather. I’m better now than in years past, but still, as a wise friend says, I’m great at shoveling smoke. How many blessings have I walked mindlessly past because my guts were in a knot over minutia? Is it an exaggeration to say “millions”?

Yesterday (Saturday) morning, before I rushed off on some errand, words of wise wife Kathy slowed me down: “Did you see the flowers out back?” Of course not. So I went out the backdoor for five minutes and looked.

IMG_0285

IMG_0288

IMG_0292

I have wasted my life. But not wasted it beyond redemption. If I’m lucky, I might still have some great years left during which, like James Wright, I can lie in a hammock, so to speak, and receive the blessings scattered before me like jewels, only more valuable.

Maybe wisdom is settling in. This morning (Sunday) as I was walking to my car, I almost missed these blessings–almost!

IMG_0294

IMG_0295

IMG_0297

Even as I passed through the church office to the Pastor’s Study, I nearly rushed by flowers again. Michelle, friend and Parish Administrator, had these hearty blossoms in a vase:

IMG_0299

As I stood in the Pastor’s Study, I finally got the hang of it–that is, slowing down enough to give thanks for flowers spotted on the way to getting work done.

IMG_0300

Eight-year-old spindly poinsettias in the south window of the Pastor’s Study.

So what is life? I’m not sure, but maybe it’s what I’m hurrying past on the way to making sure my work gets done.

Churchill’s Black Dog and Pink Silk

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the Unite...

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and from 1951 to 1955. Deutsch: Winston Churchill, 1940 bis 1945 sowie 1951 bis 1955 Premier des Vereinigten Königreichs und Literaturnobelpreisträger des Jahres 1953. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my recent post on Winston Churchill I listed the contents of his bar during the Boer War: “36 bottles of wine, 18 bottles of ten-year old scotch, and 6 bottles of vintage brandy (a drink he believed was essential to a stable diet).” And this was just a warm up for the drinking he’d do throughout his life. If he were alive, I’d ask him, “How did you excel as a world leader during one of your nation’s most agonizing hours while consuming enough liquor to knock out a team of Clydesdales?” Maybe his systemic alcohol reserve never got low enough for a hangover to set in. And beyond his effectiveness, how did he live to celebrate his ninetieth birthday? Little or no exercise, blubber around his middle, a cigar hanging out of his mouth, and more booze than water in his body: he never should have seen sixty.

Bipolar-lives.com’s Sarah Freeman reports that the Prime Minister didn’t drink only for kicks. Alcohol was also a salve for depression, which he called his black dog:

  • “Churchill seemed to be aware that his depression was a medical condition. In 1911 a friend of Churchill’s claimed to have been cured of depression by a doctor. Churchill wrote about this with some excitement in a letter to his wife, Clementine: “I think this man might be useful to me—if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now—it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.” However, Churchill was writing at a time before the development of effective medication, when the main medical approach to mood disorders was psychoanalytic. Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, wrote a memoir about his famous patient, emphasizing the black dog—it describes plenty of symptoms but no treatment. (Although when Churchill was almost 80, Dr. Moran did prescribe some speed to give Sir Winston enough of a boost to make a final speech in Parliament.)”

    8550347486_a85401d3b7

    (Photo Credit: Henrik Jensen)

Freeman goes on to argue that Churchill suffered from manic depression. I quote and summarize her article here at some length:

  • “Combative in personal relationships,” Churchill also clearly fancied his own voice and could happily hold forth for four hours or longer, with some of this time devoted to sarcasm and bluster (as Lady Aster discovered on numerous occasions).
  • The business of state began around 8:00 a.m. when the Prime Minister awoke and concluded anywhere from 2:00 to 4:30 a.m., when he turned in. Sadly for his staff members, who were understandably put out, he expected them to be available at any time during this long haul.
  • “He worked from his four poster bed in the mornings, attended by colleagues and secretaries. One General described being summoned to a meeting a 4 am where Churchill appeared dressed in his bathrobe. He often distressed his staff by meeting with them while dressed in nothing but the pale pink silk underwear that he had personally tailored.  He would even walk around his house completely undressed or insist on conducting meetings from his bathtub.”
  • “At his death [he] left 15 tons of personal papers. Most of his income was derived from his writing, and he wrote countless articles, and 43 book-length works in 72 volumes.”

(I’m still recovering from the image of the portly Prime Minister in pink silk underwear with a stogie in one hand and a whiskey and soda in the other. It’s a wonder one of his aides didn’t snatch the cigar from his boss’s teeth and turn the lit end on his own eyes.”)

The extent of Churchill’s excess and foolishness, claims Freeman, is evidence of Churchill’s manic depression, as is his alcoholism:

“Research has demonstrated very strong links between mania and substance abuse. Studies show that bipolar people are much more likely than depressed people or the population in general to be alcoholic. Further, alcoholics are more likely than members of the general population to be bipolar. Do manic depressives self-medicate this way to gain relief from the irritability, agitation and restlessness of mania?”

The implied answer is, “Of course.” Freeman speculates that his ravenous consumption of not only alcohol, but “cigars, stilton cheese and rich desserts . . . smacks of self-medication and links Winston Churchill and manic depression.”

112499950_7cbb53f02f

Statue of Churchill in a Straitjacket in Norwich, England (Photo Credit: Glen Scott)

In the end I don’t care what mental health tag gets put on Churchill’s toe. What draws me to him is his blessed oblivion in the afternoon and his feat of containing his weaknesses and cobbling together an incredible life. I also admire how aware he was of his own fragility. “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is coming through,” he once told his doctor. “I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” (The original source for this quote is illusive.)

Churchill survived all his obsessions (you live to ninety doing what he did, you’re the winner!), and the black dog died before he did. I like to think those long naps kept him from throwing himself overboard.

sir-winston-churchill1

Victory! (Photo Credit: luxuo.com)

Why Not Be Kind to the Frazzled Barista?

IMG_0273

One View from My Prayer Chair

For me, a siesta is about much more than sleeping for an hour in the afternoon. A siesta is just one part of a way of life built on stopping, breathing, reflecting, praying, and waiting. Some people who are in constant motion are able to be healthy, balanced, thoughtful, and peaceful. Not me. If I go more than a day without prayerful meditation, mild anxiety sets in. In a few days my chest is full of static electricity. I’m a mess. So I have a choice: either cultivate peace in myself or be miserable and useless.

A couple years ago, while riding Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Orlando, I discovered vocabulary that describes the mind- and spirit-set that now keeps me something-like sane. It’s worth mentioning the purpose of my train ride wasn’t pleasant. My dad, who has since passed, and step-mother were in a synchronized nosedive of dementia, and my mission was to convince them to leave their beloved condo and move into an assisted living facility. They were dug in and defiant, chaining their door against the social workers my brother and I had commissioned to do something—anything!—to dislodge them. Just thinking about that whole time makes me feel cruddy. In the end, my trip was a failure. (Months passed before my dad and step-mother were in a safe place.)

518454141_ee41efad6c_m

Thich Nhat Hanh (Photo Credit: Dang Ngo)

But the train ride itself was fine, accompanied as it was by Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lillian Cheung. Not too many pages in, the famous Buddhist monk and the dietician were offering up words and images that had me pausing to digest with every paragraph. The audience for Savor is largely folks who want to lose weight, but the book’s application is universal.

The first word that hooked me sounds as though it could be a name for Siesta’s twin sister: “The Buddha teaches that change requires insight, and insight cannot begin until we stop and focus our attention on what is happening right in front of us. This stopping, or shamatha, allows us to rest the body and the mind. When we have calmed ourselves, we can then go on to look deeply into our current situation.”

2158255532_d4f21fec54

(Photo Credit: plentyofants)

Shamatha: from the moment I said it in my head on the Silver Meteor it’s been a mantra. Ironically, the practice of stopping hasn’t slowed down my gluttony much, but it’s helped me to be mindful in other ways. Walking from the car to the house, why not stop, look up at the stars, take in a draught of cool air? Sitting with wife Kathy at the end of a tiring day, why pass along the news story I read about an abused child left for dead or the absurdity du jour from Washington, D.C.? What good will it do her to know that mess? Why not be kind to the frazzled barista? Why drive 70 mph in a 55 mph-zone on I-79 as I think of a steaming, bitter, sweat Americano? Am I really in a hurry? Wouldn’t it be better to glance along the way at the pale gray trees not yet budding and give thanks? Shamatha.

IMG_0279

Shamatha to her twin sister Siesta: “You sleep, dear. I’ll watch for traffic.”

Right now I’m actually sipping one of those Starbucks coffees and getting ready to head to the church. Breathe in, breathe out. The sky’s cloudless. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have stopped to notice. Today Siesta and Shamatha are my wise twin sisters, taking my hand and teaching me to be gentle and patient.

Stay tuned for more good words from Savor.

I Was Napping When Napping Wasn’t Cool

I’m fighting off a little resentment here. In 1981 Barbara Mandrell sang, “I was country when country wasn’t cool.” After noodling on Google for half an hour this morning, I want to sing, “I was napping when napping wasn’t cool.” One website I visited, visual.ly, promises to give [me] all the factoids about napping [I] could ever want” in a “beautiful infographic.” The graphics are slick, but I’m grumpy from the start because the only difference between a fact and a factoid is the latter sounds cooler. Some might argue that a factoid is a wee-little fact, but please. To borrow from Dr. Seuss, “a fact is a fact, no matter how small.” The present movement to replace switch with switch out rubs me the same way, a factoid that proves that I’m about as interesting as comatose bison.

3663752833_9ba22b7055

Photo Credit: Doug Clemens

Moving on. Drawing from multiple sources, visual.ly gives some solid information on napping, which you can look up if reading this blog isn’t tedious enough for you. The resentment I mentioned comes from somebody who—identifying the somebody is difficult because the sources aren’t linked directly to the facts—presumes to label naps of various denominations. Here’s a quick run down, with my praise and complaints in parentheses:

“The Nano-Nap: 10-20 seconds,” as when you “nod off on someone’s shoulder on the train.” (First, if the nodder and noddee are strangers, yuck. Second, I’m not in favor of calling 10-20 seconds of oblivion a nap. This is like adding a two-meter race to track meets.)

3632321433_3c3132b4d6

Photo Credit: BradKellyPhoto

“The Micro-Nap: two-five minutes”; “surprisingly effective at shedding sleepiness.” (The first time I encountered the term micro-nap was in reading about Swainson’s—or the olive-backed—thrush, which takes hundreds of 2-5 second naps per day while in flight. More on naps in the animal kingdom some other day. A 2-5 minute nap for humans? Breather or rest fits better, if you ask me.)

585587155_5998f8b522_m

Photo Credit: Kiran Pilly

“The Mini-Nap: 5-twenty minutes”; “increases alertness, stamina, motor learning, and motor performance.” (The term fits. As mini suggests, 5-20 minutes of sleep is at the low end of the spectrum; not a full nap. Like a kiddie soft-serve ice cream cone, two scrawny bites for an adult.)

2909270687_d542a06299

Photo Credit: Photofreaks

“The Original Power-Nap: 20 minutes –“; “improves muscle memory and clears the brain of useless built-up information.” (I was under the impression that a power-nap was 20 minutes long, 30 minutes max. Anything longer constitutes a conventional nap, but that’s just my amateur opinion.)

159832857_1a941c9f16_m

Photo Credit: Kranzelic

The Lazy Man’s Nap: 60-90 minutes”; “includes slow-wave plus REM sleep; good for improving perceptual processing; also when the system is flooded with human growth hormone, great for repairing bones and muscles.” (Since this is my preferred napping range, I resent the label. With all the benefits listed, this sounds like The Smart Person’s Nap—why be exclusive?)

6154261813_8f7063bb0f-2

Photo Credit: Justin Rahme

These napping terms are arbitrary and, in the case of Lazy Man’s Lap, judgmental. Lazy is to nap is the same as crazy is to therapy—not helpful! Still, visual.ly is behind the cause of midday oblivion, and for that I’m grateful.

Napping is so cool now that a University of Texas at Austin website, healthyhorns.texasu.edu, devotes a full tips page to the subject. Why should a college student nap? “Increased alertness and focus,” “higher energy levels throughout the day,” “increased motor performance (such as reaction time) and reduced mistakes and accidents,” and “decreased moodiness.” Churchill and Thatcher, Reagan and Clinton, and millions devoted to taking siestas have known of such benefits long before scientists got tenure publishing the proof.

What makes healthyhorns.texasu.edu novel, however, is a Healthy Horn Nap Map that lets students know where to crash and how to do so safely. The Alumni Center has “comfy, leather furniture,” and the Turtle Pond has grass and “shady spots.” Campus-wide you can find sixteen sleep-friendly spots, but do practice security: “keep your eyes on your stuff” and wrap “your arms around your backpack.” Copy that.

All this napping awareness is good, but only two years ago, Ray Lahood, unenlightened head of the Federal Aviation Administration said, “We’re not going to pay [air traffic] controllers to nap.” They were so tired that they were orchestrating near-misses, but never mind. Naps are bad! Period! Harrumph!

5577544519_6d17602229

Photo Credit: Bicycle Transportation Alliance

Fortunately, in 2013 science so confirms the wisdom of napping that the tough-guy response to incorporating rest into company time sounds ignorant. But nappers aren’t generally the type to say, “Told you so.”

Weak Beer Out of a Wine Glass

I’m sitting in the breakfast nook, looking out as day turns dusk and watching micro-bubbles rise to the top of my Labatt 52, which hardly qualifies as beer.

IMG_0260

Wife Kathy is in the dining room, making new pillow covers for her econo-redecorated study she now calls the lounge.

IMG_0262

Son Micah downs a bottle of Bolthouse Farms Green Goodness, which looks like pureed spinach. It tastes good, though, and he deserves it after power washing his grandmother’s basement.

IMG_0266

Dog Watson is flopped by Kathy. Cats Baby and Shadow are hiding somewhere. On the radio, Sheryl Crow sings, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”

IMG_0263

Why are you taking my picture?

In another song, from the year I got my driver’s license, Lionel Richie said he was easy, “easy like a Sunday morning.” Sunday mornings aren’t easy for me; they’re the 100-yard dash of my week; Sunday afternoons lately have been consumed by a nap that—as Will Ferrell said in a George W. Bush spoof—deserves a commemorative plaque. Today’s edition came in two volumes: 2:15-3:30 and 3:45-5:20. Wacky? Or sane as it gets? The latter, I’m pretty sure. After a morning of trying to say something authentic and useful to a bunch a wonderful Lutherans, baptizing a cool kid, and putting too many peanut butter cookies and fudgy no-bakes into my diabetic body (at the kid’s reception), the sanest thing to do was sit propped up in bed eating a lunch of whole wheat pasta with homemade marinara sauce, skimming Parade Magazine, and falling asleep.

It’s 7:59 right now, and I might still be asleep if Kathy hadn’t sat on the bed beside me at 5:20 and asked, “You know what time it is?” I’d been out for two hours and fifty minutes, but I bet I’ll still go to bed at 11:00 without any problem. While I snored, Kathy, who naps only when staggering with fatigue, tamed and contained a winter’s worth of compost. I do a lot of cooking and hope an avocado tree someday springs out of the mix.

IMG_0269

Doesn’t look like much compost. Don’t be fooled.

Just now Kathy and Micah headed out on a quick errand. She left the radio on and Stevie Nicks is singing a hard-driving song with words I’m not catching—all I’m getting is “stand back” and “it’s all right, it’s all right.”

It is all right. Easy like a Sunday evening. I love my family. Leftover soup—chicken vegetable in a cardamom and lime broth—awaits when I’m hungry. Truth be told, a couple more beers are in my future. I’m more refreshed than any person deserves to be, thanks to that ridiculous nap. I breathe in, breathe out. Everything around me is common, nothing remarkable, but it all seems crazy good—weak beer out of a wine glass.

The Monsters, the Lunatics, and Me

Blogger’s Note: Winston Churchill sang the praises of blessed oblivion (a nap) in the afternoon. Of course, not all oblivion is blessed. Some oblivion is deplorable, and some naps are a dereliction of duty. Some naps are insanity. Yesterday the United States Senate proved that it continues to be taking a long, nightmarish, irresponsible nap when it failed to pass even the most timid gun control legislation: tightening of background checks and limits on high capacity magazines. I finished the essay that follows about two months ago. It articulates my frustration with what I see as a root cause of America’s growing litany of massacres. What I have to say doesn’t deal with napping. I’m talking about sanity and our national inability to practice it.

The Monsters, the Lunatics, and Me

In late January of this year, a boy’s stunned, pale face greeted me on msn.com along with this headline: “Teen: horror movie inspired crime.” “Here we go again,” I thought, but clicked on horror anyway. If you don’t want to feel sick, don’t read on.

2816552392_4b046dfef6_z

Photo Credit: jiji-bean

On October 3, 2012, Jake Evans (17) killed his sister Mallory (15) and mother Jami. In a four-page confession, Jake explained that he’d watched Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween several times earlier in the week, and the movie got him thinking. “While watching it I was amazed at how at ease the boy was during the murders and how little remorse he had. Afterward, I was thinking to myself it would be the same for me when I kill someone” (dailymail.co.uk). He planned to use a knife, but he thought some more: “If I were to kill my mom and Mallory, I wouldn’t want them to feel anything, so I decided to kill them both with the .22 revolver I stole from my Grandpa.”

Since Jake’s aim was sloppy, his sister died hard. He told the 911 dispatcher, “This is really going to mess me up in the future” and “I’m really worried about, like, nightmares and stuff like that. Are there any times [sic] of medications, and stuff?” Jake ends his written confession by summarizing all his stuff: “I know now though that I’m done with killing. It’s the most dreadful and terrifying thing I will ever experience. And what happened last night will haunt me forever” (dailymail.co.uk).

Jake still has family left, though he doesn’t want to see them. His father and two other sisters weren’t at home at the time of the killings. Red-headed Mallory looked like a cross country runner you’d see featured in the hometown newspaper. Jami appeared precisely forty-eight years old, probably wished God had given her more or a chin, and like many of us in middle age, carried a few surplus pounds; same with her husband. Jake looks like a lanky kid who’d help push your stalled car to the berm and say, “No problem.” His surviving sisters look like peas from the family pod. In short, the Evans were normal-looking, well-groomed white folk from the affluent Fort Worth suburb of Aledo.

Of course, something was amiss, with Jake if with nobody else. He had breathtaking mental illness. And yet, his 911 call and the last lines of his confession demonstrate a mindset that’s yanking America along as if by a nose ring: shooting his mother and sister was “dreadful and terrifying” for [Jake]; his sister’s screaming is really going to mess [Jake] up in the future; the experience “will haunt [Jake] forever.” The kid’s narcissism is glaring, but if we think the germ that was lethal in him isn’t making America sick, we’re kidding ourselves.

Eric_Harris

Eric Harris’s Senior Picture (Photo Credit: wikipedia.com)

Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Sueng-Hoi Cho, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold: the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre isn’t the only American who’s called them monsters and lunatics. It’s hard to blame folks for using these words, resonating as they do with our collective rage and dismay. The trouble with such labels, however, is they provide cover for us law-abiding citizens as we ignore our own inconspicuous lunacy. If we can put all Auroras at the feet of sick monsters with assault weapons, the rest of us can give ourselves a clean bill of health. Right?

I don’t think so. We Americans are rights junkies. Not all of us, of course, not even most of us, but the news is packed with stories of people who do lousy things simply because it’s their right. Many would argue that this addiction is healthy, even patriotic—Don’t Tread on Me! But rights, like all wholesome things, are best consumed in moderation.

28812440_44660fc4ea

Pizza! (Photo Credit: John Xydous)

Admit it: American’s don’t do moderation very well. We binge on practically everything. According to theweek.com, Americans consume 36,500 acres of pizza each year—that’s 1,327 Ellis Islands of pies; solutiondown.com spins the numbers differently, allotting each of us 23 pounds of pizza annually; we like fries even more, 29 pounds yearly. And we can’t get enough of ourselves either.  Smartmoney.com notes that in 2010 Americans spent $33.3 billion on cosmetics and other beauty products; oprah.com has us spending $10,677,415,674.00 on cosmetic procedures that same year. It’s an odd curse: we eat like pachyderms, but can’t stop looking in the mirror. Is it fair to say we Americans can be stuck on ourselves?

In The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude, Dr. P. M. Forni of Johns Hopkins University explains what happens when stuck on myself evolves into sucks to be you: “When the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization turns into self-absorption, other people can lose their intrinsic value in our eyes and become mere means to the fulfillment of our needs and desires.”

Jake Evans’ confession and 911-transcript are part of the story of extreme mental illness, but his me-me-me thinking poses questions to the rest of us garden-variety neurotics: Has “the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization” in America turned into “self-absorption”? And have other people lost “their intrinsic value in our eyes”? I think so and suggest that our narcissism has combined with a lust for individual rights to create a super virus. What we the people are allowed to do with constitutional protection has become what we should to do with a clear conscience. The result: our sense of individual rights has become perverted.

Most of the studies I’ve come across on the rise of narcissism pin the problem on young people, which may explain why some of the mass murderers of late are committed by males in their teens or early twenties. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, which received lots of attention when it came out in 2010, claims that narcissism is as prevalent among college students as obesity. And according to the American Freshman Survey, published yearly by the Higher Education Research Institution at UCLA, narcissism among young people is at a fifty-year high (dailycaller.com). Like Dr. Jim Taylor, however, I think our problem cuts across age groups. In “Narcissism: On the Rise in America?” he writes, “The indifference, egotism, disrespect and lack of consideration that are central to narcissism are also reflective of the increasingly polarized and vitriolic tone of our current body politic, recent unethical corporate behavior, the rise in cheating among students in school and the gamut of bad behavior among professional athletes” (huffingtonpost.com).

8571641645_8f5c00c871_m-1

Senator Dianne Feinstein (Photo Credit: SS&SS)

The statistics may say that young people are this country’s leading narcissists, but as Taylor suggests, you need only look around to see that all generations are getting in on the fun. And by fun I mean, morally scurvy behavior that’s technically legal. The United States of America is by definition a country of freedom, which means that people who exercise their rights without a sense of responsibility are protected. So be it. Telling a child he’ll never amount to anything is free speech. I don’t think you’re legally bound to correct the waiter or waitress who leaves that shrimp scampi off your bill. You can invest in a company that makes life a misery for its employees—it’s probably profitable. We can’t go ten minutes without tripping over a right.

Nancy Lanza was within her rights to amass the arsenal that her son put to sinister use. So were the Pennsylvanians who, according to pennlive.com, responded to Sandy Hook by purchasing 133,241 firearms in December of 2012 (versus 84,486 in December of 2011). No law stands in the way of Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. Interested in making a great deal of money? Market a video game like Activision’s Call of Duty.

5248895990_584803d369

Call of Duty (Photo Credit: Farazsiyal)

There’s no proof that repeated viewings of Halloween enticed Jake Evans to kill his mother and sister. And while pilots frequently hone their skills on flight simulators, nobody can prove that Adam Lanza’s endless hours spent in his boy cave pretending to cut enemies down in Call of Duty had anything to do with his massacre of the innocents in Newtown (nypost.com). If you believe Wayne LaPierre, the solution to gun violence is more guns; all teachers ought to be packing.

Of course, in the middle of acres of rights exercised out of simple greed and selfishness, serious artists take heat for legitimately challenging us. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was protested by theologically constipated Christians, but I found the film thoughtful and daring. Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photography unsettles me, but I suspect that was part of his purpose. Defending his “Piss Christ” photograph, Andres Serrano challenges Christians to consider the full horror of the crucifixion (guardian.co.uk.com). Anne Sexton’s poetry is graphic, but if ever I trusted that a poet was burning to get human beings to acknowledge her particular experience, I trust Sexton.

3054083307_4b2d2fc02a

Barbara Hershey and Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ (Photo Credit: terminator)

I trust the authenticity of Scorsese, Mapplethorpe, et. al., but I don’t trust those who accept no responsibility in consideration of their right to free speech. That doesn’t mean I’m about censoring them. But trust them, respect them? No. (Point of clarification: if you could walk into a movie theater, kill twelve people and wound fifty-eight others with a poem, I’d favor some poem control. But the poets and serious artists I know aren’t the shrill voices in America’s rights-binge debate, and Mapplethorpe’s photographs, as far as I know, never led anyone to massacre others with whips and fists.)

8455616819_c1f2209026

Hadiya Pendleton (Photo Credit: treal magazine)

For reasons I don’t understand, reading about Mallory and Jami Evans so soon after Sandy Hook has proven my tipping point, my enough moment of dismay. Since I first saw Jake Evans, another young face has looked out from msn.com. Somebody please show me a sweeter-looking kid than Hadiya Pendleton, the fifteen-year-old Chicago honor student who was shot and killed days after performing with her school band at Obama’s inauguration. Michael Ward (18) and Kenneth Williams (20) apparently thought Hadiya was part of a gang trespassing on their turf, so Ward fired into her group of friends huddled in a bus stop, and Williams drove the getaway car (usnews.nbcnews.com).

It’s actually odd that these gangbangers were caught. According to nation.time.com, “In 2012, 506 people were killed in [Chicago]. Only 25% of those murders were solved.” Obviously hundreds of people with faces less lovely than Pendleton’s are being cut down, plenty of them kids who aren’t in school bands. And the trouble is, so many are dying coast to coast that we the people are at our wits’ end. It’s been about three months since Adam Lanza opened fire, and slate.com estimates that another 2,605 people have been shot and killed. (Update: as of April 19, 2013, the number stands at 3,526.)

The Violence Policy Center, a pro-gun control organization, notes that in 2012, there were “31,326 gun-related deaths nationwide” (slate.com). That’s 10.9 of every 100,000 citizens. So what explains the roughly 1,119 Sandy Hooks of various denominations we had in the United States in 2012? Nobody seems willing to contemplate, much less admit, any personal responsibility for or even indirect participation in the carnage.

Don’t blame the NRA. Wayne LaPierre and company are only protecting Americans’ Second Amendment rights. In 1999, the NRA ran an ad in USA Today stating, “We believe it’s reasonable to provide for instant background checks at gun shows, just like gun stores and pawn shops.” Now it’s Charlton Heston all the way: you can have my gun when you pry it “from my cold, dead hands.”

2707889907_40c6fbdacb

Charlton Heston (Photo Credit: devora.z)

Don’t blame James Wan, director of the 2004 film Saw. (In one scene, a young guy has sixty seconds to dig a key out from behind his eyeball or a mask of nails called a Venus Fly Trap will snap shut, with unfortunate results; I won’t ruin it for you.) Don’t be too hard on Tom Six for his 2009 First Amendment tour de force, The Human Centipede. (How are the three humans in this bug sewn together? Imagine the worst.) Rob Zombie was only commenting honestly when he said in a vanityfair.com interview, “I don’t think my movies have a lesson. Or if they do, I guess it’s that it’s a f—ed up world and you’re probably f—ed too.” Nobody in this genre of the film-making industry is at fault; watching folks lose their intrinsic value in tormented, demeaning ways can do viewers no harm.

Don’t blame Rockstar Games for producing Grand Theft Auto or Activision for Call of Duty or parents for letting their kids play with these killing simulators. The latter’s Modern Warfare 3 grossed $775,000 in its first five days on the shelves—that’s over ¾ of a billion sweet expressions of free speech (guardian.co.uk). And about the former, one video game enthusiast tells me that you—you being, say, an eleven-year-old boy—can hire a prostitute, have your way with her, shoot her, take your money back, then speed off to other adventures. No matter. The Entertainment Software Association assures us that “years of extensive research . . . has shown no connection between entertainment and real-life violence” (newyork.newsday.com). (So you don’t think I’m pretending to be guiltless, I’ve let violent games and movies into my home. I regret that.)

6249884153_abffe520c9

Photo Credit: Phil Renaud

Don’t blame citizens who reject outright the possibility that even the most miniscule limitations placed on weapons and magazines might save a life or two. Restrictions only punish law-abiding gun owners. Besides, any more gun control measures will shove America down a slippery slope, resulting in the Second Amendment falling off the constitutional cliff.

In short, as long as my DNA isn’t on the AR-15, I’m acquitted. As long as nobody can put me at the scene of the crime, I’m behaving like a responsible citizen. This is the epidemic logic of our time. It’s also the self-absorbed reasoning of a rights junkie.

It should not, however, be the reasoning of unselfish citizens of conscience. When deciding whether to exercise a right, I should consider how my constitutionally protected words or actions might impact others, whether I know them or not. Rights and responsibilities have to be held in healthy tension.

Bud McKelvey of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, strikes a nice balance. His February 7, 2013 letter to the editor of the Erie Times-News, two excerpts of which I share here, is encouraging: “When I bought my first pistol, I was told that there was a five-day waiting period before I could get my gun. The five days were to check my background. The exact words I told the gun dealer were ‘I don’t care if it takes you a month. I have nothing to worry about.’” And “I’m a firm believer in the Second Amendment, but when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they didn’t have weapons that could fire 600 rounds a minute, and at the time, the British had their soldiers quartered in the colonies. Naturally, they wanted everyone to be able to keep and bear arms. They didn’t mean for people to be able to slaughter their neighbors and groups of people.”

3339268221_5d35c3174b

AR-15 Variants (Photo Credit: Arvin Banag)

Bud McKelvey understands that, to paraphrase an old high school Problems of Democracy teacher, his rights end where his neighbor’s nose begins. “And who is my neighbor?” It takes only a small leap of compassion to recognize that my neighbors live not only next door, but in Newtown and Aurora and beyond. “Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper?” Bloody right I am! I envision the faces of my many friends and family members whose spiritual beliefs are all over the map, and while they may not agree entirely with my argument here, I bet they’d answer Cain’s question as I do. Most Americans probably would, too: I am my sister’s and brother’s keeper. If I have to ask whether somebody’s my neighbor, I already have the answer. Most Americans, not necessarily those with the loudest voices, know this.

At last, then, I land in a naïve, idealistic place. No matter what legislation sneaks through Washington, our body count will be disconcerting until our national rights binge abates. Before speaking freely, I ought to wonder whether my message might unnecessarily harm others. Before demanding unlimited access to weapons with frightening power, I could acknowledge that some limits are reasonable. It wouldn’t make for safe and sane roads if I could put a GE90-115B jet engine in my Mazda 4×4; a magazine with a 100-round capacity poses the same kind of hazard. Before doing anything at all, I should ask myself if my words or actions are in any way helpful, challenging, or constructive.

8654794043_abea5bafac_m

Patriotism (Photo Credit: TallestAmerican)

In land of the free and the home of the brave, our greatest patriots are often those who decide, for the sake of the common good, to refrain now and then from exercising their constitutional rights.

Profiles in Napping: Winston Churchill: Part I

English: Sir Winston Churchill.

English: Sir Winston Churchill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Winston Churchill was probably slow of body. His favorite cigars were Cubans, Romeo y Julieta and La Aroma de Cuba, so reports Cigar Aficionado. He kept 3000 – 4000 on hand in carefully labeled boxes and smoked up in two days the equivalent of his valet’s weekly salary.  The Prime Minister’s alcohol consumption also must have held him to a sluggish pace. Science writer Chris Woodford reports that Churchill’s drinking started in 1899 when he was sent by the Morning Post to cover the Boer War. Out on the front his stash included “36 bottles of wine, 18 bottles of ten-year old scotch, and 6 bottles of vintage brandy (a drink he believed was essential to a stable diet). Clearly Churchill had better access to alcohol than most people on the South African front: his stores were also said to contain ‘many bottles of whisky, claret, and port.’” Churchill’s consumption continued briskly until retirement, when he apparently set out to finish off his liver: “One visitor from the period noted: ‘There is always some alcohol in his blood, and it reaches its peak late in the evening after he has had two or three scotches, several glasses of champagne, at least two brandies, and a highball … but his family never sees him the worst for drink.’”  Multiple sources attest that Churchill held his liquor exceptionally well.

Six to ten 8 -10 inch cigars a day, gallons of drink, and a portly body: slow of body certainly, but quick-witted. Two of his best-known exchanges with Lady Nancy Astor are wicked—if they’re true:

Astor: “If you were my husband, Winston, I should flavour your coffee with poison.”

Churchill: “If I were your husband, madam, I should drink it.”

And . . .

Astor: “You, Mr. Churchill, are drunk.”

Churchill: “And you, Lady Astor, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning.”

Churchill 2, Astor 0. If you could have taken getting stung with repartee and didn’t mind constantly being tempted to binge drink, Churchill would have been a lively companion—except for a couple of hours in the afternoon, when he would have been unavailable.

Churchill was a steadfast napper. He undressed, put on pajamas, and got between the sheets, not for twenty or sixty minutes, but for an hour and a half to two hours. He insisted that this habit helped him “get two days in one—well, at least one and a half, I’m sure.” World War II was obviously taxing, and, writes Joseph Cardieri, the siesta enabled Churchill “to carry out—until the wee hours of the morning—the business of defeating the Axis powers.” The alcohol’s numbing effect must have been therapeutic without extinguishing all of the Prime Minister’s brain cells, for he knew in the 1940’s what science would prove today. “Nature had not intended mankind to work from 8 in the morning until midnight,” Churchill wrote in The Gathering Storm, the first in his six-volume memoir The Second World War, “without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”

Stay tuned for Part II of Churchill’s profile and learn about his Black Dog and love of pink silk.

Rest in Peace, Martin Richard

Some days I nap because the world is too much to tolerate. The count now from Boston is 3 dead, at least 144 injured. Eight-year-old Martin Richard was waiting with his mother and two siblings to give his old man a hug when he crossed the finish line. Problem was, the shrapnel went out close to the ground, so adults lost legs. I don’t know the specifics with Martin, but he got killed. His mother and one sister were seriously injured.

8655592161_2e2b66aa96

Martin Richard (Photo Credit: bostonpeter7)

One of television’s talking heads mentioned yesterday that you can go online and watch videos on how to make bombs. And this is okay? America continues to reduce the First Amendment to an absurdity.

John Coffee in the film The Green Mile speaks for me this morning: “I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time. Can you understand?” I don’t feel stabbed in the head, just tired. “Awful tired now, boss. Dog tired.”

Bombing at the Boston Marathon

3:30 p.m. was siesta time, but for a while I sat on the bed and watched the relentless loop of footage ABC News was showing of the bombing of the Boston Marathon: the pavement covered in blood, barricade fencing twisted atop injured splayed on the ground, workers in yellow vests sprinting in and out of camera shots, weary runners weeping. Again?

Of course again. This year’s race, held on Patriots’ Day, was dedicated to the Sandy Hook dead. As I postponed sleep and took in the spectacle, Zoloft kept the lump in my throat from turning to tears. After half-an-hour, I realized Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos wouldn’t be able to tell me anything new for a while, so I set my alarm for 5:05, turned the volume down so I could pretend to listen, and closed my eyes. I fell asleep—for a little bit, I think. Lovely day in Erie, Pennsylvania. Windows open, breeze coming in. At 4:50, neighbor Joy hollered up: “Get down here, Flanders.” (She’s nicknamed me after the dork on The Simpsons.) Her kids were playing outside, and she was summoning me for happy hour.

Of course I went out. She, her husband Kevin, and I sat on the porch and had a couple beers as her meatloaf finished baking. Kevin, one of the smartest guys I know, thinks those bombs were planted by some domestic crazy. The reason: seasoned terrorists time a second bomb to coincide with the arrival of first responders. Joy’s adding random bombs to her worries about North Korea. So we sat, tried to enjoy the clouds passing across the deep blue sky, and sipped.

When wife Kathy got home from work, we took dog Watson for a walk around the block, then drove here to Starbucks for an Americano. After I glanced at the newspaper, I checked msn.com. Mistake. So far two innocents were killed in Boston. One of them was eight years old. At least a hundred were injured; some went to hospitals without their legs.

We’ve got enough violently ill souls in this country that it feels like we’re tearing ourselves apart. I’m afraid there’s no decent answer. For now, my personal choice is to breathe, step outside the insanity for an hour each day to rest my body and heal my mind, and in prayer invite compassion to keep me gentle and steady.