Sunday, August 29, 2010

Agreeing to disagree

Sometimes I despair of American culture almost as much as my friend Clifford, though generally for different reasons. My greatest dismay is at the absence of basic civility and tolerance in public debate, at the rudeness and unkindness evident in so many human interactions, from such things as the judging done on America's most popular television show, "American Idol" to the making of comments on blogs.

Those of you who bother to read the (very few) comments that crop of from time to time on this blog, will have seen the several from the gentleman who took great umbrage with my statement that Paul McCartney is not a "strong" singer. While I think our disagreement may very well stem primarily from a failure to define our terms (what I mean by strong may not be what he considers strong), still, I think his comments need not have carried the tone of contempt and disdain that they did. I believe it is nearly always possible to disagree, to point out errors, to criticize an opposing position, while remaining courteous, while exhibiting respect for ones "opponent" as another human being. Certainly when discussing something as relatively unimportant (in the general scheme of things) as a rock musician!

But for far too many people these days, that idea doesn't seem to exist. "I'm right and you're wrong which means you're either evil (in politics) or stupid (in discussions about rock musicians);" that seems to be the operating attitude. If people in the Middle East maintain such an attitude, peace will never happen there. If we do not manage to "win the hearts and minds" of the people in such places as Pakistan and Afghanistan, those who have had such intolerance deeply inculcated will triumph in that part of the world (and then where will we be?)

To me, the very essence of a civilized person is one who is civil to all, until circumstances demonstrate that that is no longer a viable position; someone who is tolerant of those with differing opinions, ways of life, religions (a basic tenant of America civil liberties, that many people are forgetting these days in their blind hatred of all things if all Muslims were flaming, America-hating radicals). But behaving in a civilized manner does not seem to be a high priority with many people these days. The art of putting down others -- especially for the amusement of still others -- seems to be valued more highly than habits of cooperation, mutual information sharing, constructive criticism, and hey, kindness. And I really don't think our country is the better for it.

I did think it was rather nice of the irate Paul McCartney fan to post a bunch of links to McCartney singing. And I also appreciated the fact that he apologized for having inadvertently posted his lengthy comment three times; that was courteous. But when I think how much more effective he could have been if, instead of an attack, he had tried having a dialog...well, perhaps it would have been less satisfying for him; but I'm sure it would have been more interesting for others. Different strokes...

Monday, August 23, 2010

To blog or not to blog

If you regularly check in with this blog, you have un-doubtedly noticed that quite a bit of time has passed since my last posting. Alas, I have begun to have second and third thoughts about this blog business.

Although I've tried to make whatever I've written about interesting, it all comes down to: my activities, my thoughts and opinions, my recommendations, my complaints, my life. And while I know I have friends out there in cyberspace who are at least moderately interested in not only what's happening with me, but what I think about what's happening with me (they are no doubt the "returning visitors" I see on the statistics page); I'm equally sure that most people couldn't care less. Especially since I rarely do anything exciting, don't report on life's little disasters in an hysterically funny way, don't reveal the sordid secrets of my life or of people I know. There are personal blogs out there that have become famous because their producers give an all but blow-by-blow description of their lives, including fights with spouses, medical procedures undergone, bouts of depression, problems or absurdities at work, etc. I'm much too private a person for that sort of let-it-all-hang-out-approach, and although I've made the occasional complaint about work (usually having to do with putting on library programs, which I DO NOT LIKE TO DO), I am much too self-protective to endanger my job by complaining too much, or too specifically.

As a culture we have become obsessed with knowing the inside secrets of other people's lives. Particularly the lives of "celebrities," whose claim to fame may be something as insignificant as having once appeared on one of the ubiquitous, and wildly misnamed, "reality" shows (there is nothing real, or realistic, about those shows. They are as phony as Pam Anderson's breasts.) And at the same time that we devour news on Tiger Woods' marriage or Sandra Bullock's divorce or Lindsay Lohan's latest arrest, thousands and thousands of us eagerly share with a million strangers descriptions of our kids' recent birthday parties, pictures of throw pillows we've crocheted, how our bedroom looks now that we've repainted it, not to mention political rants, religious exhortations and blah blah blah.

And, despite the fact that I have endeavored to make my observations, and even my complaints, interesting, as well as something that at least some people might be able to identify with, I feel I am doing the same thing as all those other bloggers out there: saying 'look at me, listen to me, pay attention to me.' There is surely something vaguely sad about that.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Giving, in a time of crisis (or anytime)

I was just trying to find out what, if anything, one of my favorite charities, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), was doing to help those affected by the recent flooding in Pakistan. The CAI, for those of you who don't know, was started by former mountain-climber Greg Mortenson, after he was rescued by villagers in the high passes of northwestern Pakistan. While he was recuperating in their village of Korphe, he learned that the children had no school and, impulsively, he promised he'd build them one. He spent the next three years trying to fulfill that promise, and found himself, in the process, falling into his life's work: getting schools built, supplies purchased, teachers trained, throughout northwestern Pakistan, and eventually northeastern Afghanistan.

Mortenson has written about his experiences and his mission in, first, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time, published in 2006, and later in Stones into Schools, which covered the expansion of his efforts into Afghanistan. Mortenson's story is truly inspiring, proof of what a single person can accomplish if he or she is sufficiently motivated. (It also illustrates how much energy, perseverance and sacrifice are involved in bringing about a miracle.) And it provides a shining example of what the United States should be doing, in our efforts to "win the hearts and minds" of the people in that part of the world. Mortenson's organ-ization is determinedly apolitical; it is not trying to foist American ideology onto the locals; it is completely respectful of the Islam religion. It is just trying to help these very poor people obtain what they want, which is education for their children. The one stipulation the CAI insists upon is that girls must be educated, as well as boys. And in almost every place they have sought to build a school, this requirement has presented no problem.

But to return to my original impetus for this posting: what, if anything, was the CAI doing to help in the current crisis? I was especially wondering because back in 2005, when there was a major earthquake in north-eastern Pakistan, the CAI was flooded with questions from regular donors as to what the organization was doing, or was going to do, to help. After much soul searching, the CAI decided it would not try to do any-thing in the way of immediate-emergency-response. They felt there were other organizations better equipped and trained for that sort of thing, and that what they should concentrate on was exploring the area for damaged or destroyed schools, to see how they could help rebuild those. And this actually proved of enormous psychological help, during that very stressful period, because going to school every day gave the children a sense of security, and normalcy. Also, the CAI was able to provide wages for teachers in that area, some of whom hadn't been paid for months.

My guess is the CAI will maintain the same policy in the current crisis, even though one of the areas most severely hit was where much of the school-building of the past 15 years has taken place. Quite possibly some of those schools have been destroyed, along with the villages they were in. Which means the CAI will have its work cut out for it once more. I would like to have seen some mention of this, of the crisis in general, on the organization's web site, or that of its founder, Greg Mortenson. Nonetheless, I do consider this a charity worth supporting -- can anyone doubt the positive effects of making possible a balanced, as opposed to extremist, education amongst people who would otherwise continue living in abject poverty and ignorance? Leaving their young people ripe for the picking by Muslim extremists? I've added a link to the CAI's web site, for anyone who might like to learn more about it. And I urge you to read Mortenson's books. They are fascinating, and make you feel good about the good people can do.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A few moments of peace

Last Sunday afternoon I drove down to a favorite spot of mine on the river. It's at the far southern end of South Gardiner, which is an unprepossessing spot in the road a few miles south of the real Gardiner, where I live. There's a fork, where you veer slightly to the left, rather than staying on the highway that curves to the right. This puts you on a road with, first, an old church, and then several large old houses on your right, the river on your left. I drove down to my favorite large old house, which has a wonderful front porch, with both a swing, and rockers, for sitting and staring out at the river across the road. I always park on the grass verge there, across from this house that I'd live in in a moment if I had someone to live with me (I get too afraid living in a big house by myself. Crazed ax murderers, you know.)

I sat there for about half an hour, watching the occasional boat go by on the beautiful, serene river. The Kennebec is everything a river should be: wide, but not too wide, gently meandering, with the occasional small, tree covered island in the middle of it. The banks are heavily forested. Indeed, looking across the way from where I sat, and down in either direction, I could not see a single sign of humankind, just a mass of green trees. It undoubtedly looks exactly the way it looked when the Indians were creeping around searching for dinner.

I love living close to this river, driving beside it every day on my way to and from work. A beautiful river is a gift from the gods. Like ripe nectarines, beautiful music, and great sex.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

If you stick around long enough...

The other night I watched part of the program on PBS honoring Paul McCartney (officially Sir Paul McCartney, but please), as he received the third annual Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress. The program took place at the White House, with President Obama and family in the front row. McCartney and other performers did a selection of his songs. I missed most of the other performers, except for an all-right version of Baby, You Can Drive My Car, by the Jonas Brothers -- a very young group, with whom I am totally unfamiliar -- during which I was completely distracted by the lead singer's hair, which literally covered practically his entire face. I know that some of the time he was singing with hair in his mouth, which could not be pleasant.

But anyway. Listening to McCartney sing, I was reminded that he was never the strongest of singers, and his voice hasn't gotten any stronger with age. This guy is no spring chicken -- he was born in 1942 -- but there he is with brown hair. I've complained before (Note of June 13, 2008) about the double standard that forces women to color their hair, while men are allowed to grey naturally. But in the world of rock music this is obviously not so. Two of the Rolling Stones -- who are all well into their 60s, and looking genuinely old -- also "still" have brown hair. Their peers -- we baby boomers who may be aging but still love rock and roll -- might accept them with grey hair, but presumably not the young whippersnappers who buy the records and go to the concerts.

While watching the PBS program, I was also reminded of the book I recently plowed through (it's a BIG book): The Beatles, by Bob Spitz. In it, McCartney comes across as the most traditionally ambitious of all the Beatles, the most realistic, the best at ingratiating himself with people. This tribute at the White House is surely an illustration of all of these qualities serving the man, and providing him with those things he wanted out of life.

The book provides a fascinating portrait of the "four lads from Liverpool," who really did change popular music dramatically (I can hear my friend Clifford saying, "Not for the better!"). This relatively restrained Beatlemaniac (see Note of Nov. 30, 2009 for my version of Beatlemania) was surprised to learn about all the unpleasant realities that she was totally unaware of, during that time when she was busy thinking of the Beatles as so cute, funny, talented, and different. They were all of that, but as four very young, unsophisticated men who suddenly found themselves a totally unexpected wildly successful (originally their ambition had been to be the best rock band in Liverpool) they didn't lose any time immersing themselves in sex, drugs and rock and roll. Indeed, I had no idea that drugs played such a huge part in the lives of all four men, but especially John Lennon, who resorted to LSD frequently, once he'd been turned on to it, and was even addicted to heroine for a while. Apparently during many of the later recording sessions drugs both played a big part in the interesting sounds and effects they created, and in the rapidly disintegrating relations among the four men (in particular Paul and John, who were always in a kind of competition for leader of the pack).

I was surprised to learn what a nasty piece of work John Lennon was in general. He always hated the jolly, clean-cut, well-dressed image that Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, insisted they adhere to. That image worked magnificently, but John chafed under it. He was the original "angry young man," and his preferred persona, which he adopted when he first started playing the guitar at 15, and formed his first band, was that of what the British called a teddy boy, what we Americans would call a punk. Tight jeans, leather jacket, hair slicked back in a duck tail, cigarette hanging out of his mouth (all the Beatles were heavy smokers). When the Beatles went into their psychedelic phase, in the late 60s, and dropped the neat (if long) haircuts and buttoned-up suits, John became truly shaggy and scruffy looking. He was always wanting to shock people, shake 'em up, while Paul wanted to make them happy, give them what they wanted.

And you see who got the prestigious Gershwin award, even though there is no question that all of McCartney's best work was done with John Lennon. Of course, Lennon was shot to death at the tragically young age of 42, but I can't see him ever doing anything so main-stream as appearing at the White House to accept an award from the Library of Congress. But...we'll never know.