Gay Marriage Considered

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In the last several months there have been several commentaries published in the local paper denouncing homosexuality. I’m not sure what the occasion is, but that’s a sentiment I don’t share, and sometimes I’m moved to make my disagreement known.
The most recent I’ve seen was by a local high school senior, who evidently has taken a class in logic. I took one too, many years ago, but now remember little of the formal classification of various sorts of arguments.
Something of a conversation has formed around these editorials. Each of the denunciations was answered by at least one person, sometimes more than one. The high school senior is criticizing one of these disagreements, under the title of “An Experiment in Logic and Theology.”
Thinking logically is a very useful tool, but to do so accurately, one must be careful not to leave out any of the essential elements of the problem. This, I think, is where the senior’s essay falls down. Perhaps it’s because formal logic distances him from the reality of what he’s talking about; maybe it’s simply that he’s too inexperienced to understand how many people feel.
He begins by saying that the previous authors characterize ALL Christians as cherrypicking texts to support their belief. He’s quite right, in that not all Chrstians do that, and because not all Christians have the same beliefs about homosexuality or anything else.
He goes on to say that homosexuality has been considered a crime in many societies in the past, and if we decriminalize it because gay people can’t help being what they are, why not decriminalize rape and murder too? Maybe those perpetrators can’t help being what THEY are either.
There, I think, is his first error. Rape and murder are crimes because of the damage they cause to individuals and society in general. In order to equate homosexuality with these crimes, he has to show that it is comparably as damaging. This, in my opinion, he’s unable to do.
He says that legalizing homosexual marriage is defining the family as whatever you want it to be. Families have taken a variety of forms in different societies, ancient and contemporary, and a family that one chooses can often be more satisfactory than the family one is born into. I think most of us choose families as we grow up; not only in whom we marry, but with the friends we make. These may or may not have legal standing, but I think they serve many of us as family, however informal. The writer sees this as moral relativism, which he says is “wreaking havoc on our culture today.” Just how it is doing this, he fails to say, though, so we can’t evaluate his conclusion.
Then he reaches the high point of his argument:
“The homosexual community has made it clear in court case after court case that its members are not satisfied with homosexual marriage being merely legal. They want full and equal rights alongside heterosexual couples. Thus we see it is false to say that one’s sexual orientation affects no one but that person. If one is critical of another’s sexual orientation, one is marked as being politically incorrect, intolerant. Tolerance has become the excuse for discrimination.Our culture is tolerant of everything except intolerance.”
He ends by saying that any culture unable to distinguish between good and evil will fail.
The above is quite interesting, employing, in my opinion, the logical error of false equivalence. He’s equating the disagreement with those who condemn homosexuality with the persecution that homosexuals have often experienced. This tallies with the right-wing sense of victimization because they find that many people no longer agree with them. I don’t recall having heard of people who have denounced homosexuality having been physically attacked or killed, as many homosexuals have been.
So I wrote a letter to the paper disagreeing with the student:

I applaud your effort to think logically about homosexuality, but there are some elements missing from your analysis. Since the worst thing you can say about homosexuals is that they want equal rights and this makes them criminal, some questions arise.
Don’t YOU want equal rights? Would you be willing to be a second-class citizen for ANY reason, such as the color of your skin, your political or religious beliefs, or your sexual orientation? Would you willingly consider yourself evil for any of these reasons, just because someone else did?
Tolerance tends to be less sexy than intolerance, but it’s one of the virtues that makes a society work. Intolerance is a means to power. It was used that way against black people in this society and in South Africa (at least), and most notoriously against Jewish people in Hitler’s Germany. Did it make those societies better? I‘d be interested in your opinion on that.
Inability to recognize that members of minority groups are human is what I call failure of the imagination. It’s quite customary to see people who don’t look like us or believe the same things as less than human. That makes it easier to justify persecuting them. Judging from what Jesus said in the New Testament, if you persecute people, you risk persecution yourself, and have also offended against him. Remember that anything you do against the least of people, he said you do against him.
I’d like to encourage you to keep thinking about these subjects, and would enjoy hearing the result of those thoughts.

I don’t know if this letter was published, as I don’t receive the paper at home. My letter could obviously be better, but I think it expresses my main point pretty well. It’s easy to be frightened and angered by people who look and/or behave differently from us. Many people find it easy to justify such fear and the behavior resulting from it, too. Is that behavior truly justifiable?
Many past societies have feared and hated homosexuality, but not all of them. Classical Athens accepted it, and possibly the greatest philosopher in history is thought to have been homosexually oriented. It was relatively accepted during the Italian Renaissance too, when a number of the greatest artists were so oriented. That casts some doubt on whether fear and anger is the correct response to it.
In America we have the right to politically organize. Gay people decided to do so some 40 years ago, determined to obtain both legal rights and wider acceptance, as black people had done before them. It seems to me that this freedom is one of the best things about the American system and ideals. Some certainly disagree, which they are allowed to do. What they’re NOT allowed to do is impose their views on the rest of us. If they wish to voice their disagreement, they must expect to be disagreed with in their turn.
The reason various minority movements have been successful, to whatever extent they have been, it’s because they refused to accept the larger society’s condemnation of them. They asserted that they had worth, and didn’t deserve to be persecuted, often violently, simply because many people didn’t like them.
Some people who condemn homosexual marriage are honest enough to say that we don’t know how it will affect marriage as an institution. What we DO know is that marriage is difficult, and that many heterosexuals have displayed less than wonderful behavior in marriage. Can we honestly say that gay people will do worse at it? Possibly they will, but we don’t know, and it’s difficult to see how.
The question I always want to ask people condemning gay marriage is how homosexual marriage has affected their OWN marriages. When I was married we loaned a lot of money to a gay friend of my wife’s, who then refused to repay us. I don’t think that was because she was gay: it was because she was a thief, who liked to take advantage of people. To say that all gay people are like her would be another logical mistake.
My own mother, now 96, noted several years ago that when people condemn gay marriage she always says, “At least it doesn’t generate unwanted children.” I hadn’t considered that aspect of the question before, and now believe unwanted children, often terribly abused, are a far worse problem than gay marriage is.
I’m glad the high school student is trying to think logically, as I mentioned above. But logic is subject to the same problem as computers: “Garbage in, garbage out.” Without sufficient evidence, the conclusions one comes to are going to be flawed.

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The Mysterious William Shakespeare

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Once upon a time there was a writer called Shake-spear, or Shakespeare. Tradition says he was a middle-class man born in Stratford-on-Avon, but there have been doubts about that since the early 19th century. Charlton Ogburn, in The Mysterious William Shakespeare, tackles the question exhaustively.
First he shows that the William Shakspere (the usual spelling of the man’s name, with some variants) probably had little opportunity to learn the things Shakespeare obviously knew, and quite possibly little interest in those things. Shakespeare knew law, languages, and parts of France and Italy. According to what records remain, Shakspere probably never traveled, except between Stratford and London.
Ogburn also includes the six surviving signatures of Shakspere, and only one is more than barely legible. Could this be the signature of possibly the most fluent writer in history? It looks more like the signature of a barely literate man.
Ogburn also notes that there are few references to Shakespeare in contemporary records. Wouldn’t people have mentioned things about his life, and about meeting him? But the only two pieces published under his name during his lifetime were two narrative poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The plays were published without an author’s name until the First Folio, published in 1623, long after Shakspere was dead.
In the early 20th century a man named J. Thomas Looney (pronounced Loney), after much research, published his nominee for the writer of Shakespeare’s plays and other works: the Earl of Oxford, someone few people not deeply interested in the Elizabethan era would have heard of.
I first was introduced to the controversy in the pages of P.G. Wodehouse, when, in order to get next to a girl, he indicates an interest in Francis Bacon as Shakespeare to the girl’s mother, who is fanatical about the subject. Then I heard about it from a high school teacher, who thought the writer was Christopher Marlowe. Ogburn dispoes of both summarily.
Bacon would seem to have been too active to have been Shakespeare. Marlowe’s candidacy rests on a hypothesis: that Marlowe wasn’t actually murdered at age 24, but fled to the Continent, continued writing, and had his plays smuggled into England to be performed. Ogburn says there are several problems with this.
One is that we have no positive evidence it ever happened. Two, Marlowe was in trouble with the authorities for being an atheist and homosexual. Anyone having to do with his plays would have been taking a great risk. Three, Marlowe used about half the vocabulary that Shakespeare did. Shakespeare had an unusually wide range, not only knowing many words, but coining new ones from Latin.
On reading Looney’s book Ogburn’s parents found they agreed with his argument, did their own research, and wrote their own books. Their son incorporated their research with his own, and tried to make the case for Oxford unassailable. His book was published about thirty years ago, and apparently it hasn’t made any impression on the public. As far as most people know, Shakespeare was born in Stratford.
I read the book the first time several years ago, and found it fascinating. Soon after reading it, I chatted with an English woman who denounced the whole idea when I broached it to her. Ogburn suggests in his book that the idea of Shakespeare being a nobleman may irritate people in this democratic age, but he says that Shakespeare’s point of view was always that of a nobleman, and that a commoner (even one aspiring to the middle class) like Shakspere would be unlikely to be able to obtain such an education. One would have to be a member of the highest class for that.
So if Shakespeare belonged to the nobility, why didn’t he write under his own name? One reason was that, though the nobility enjoyed plays, they thought it was degrading to be involved in the writing or staging of them. Many nobles at that time wrote poetry, but none published it, except posthumously.
There’s a more compelling reason than that, though. Ogburn shows how many of the plays had characters based on people on the highest social levels, whom Oxford knew. Many of Shakespeare’s heroines, especially in the early plays, were based on Queen Elizabeth, whom Oxford knew intimately. Other characters, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, were based on other personages around the court. Malvolio Ogburn says was based on Christopher Hatton, who was in charge of the Queen’s bodyguard, whom Oxford didn’t like. Polonius, in Hamlet, was based on Lord Burghley, the Queen’s most important advisor, and Oxford’s stepfather. Claudius, the man who murders Hamlet’s father and marries his mother, is characterized in the play as being “…a treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain…” Ogburn points out that the character in the play never does anything (beyond murdering Hamlet’s father) to deserve this kind of description. The Earl of Leiscester, however did. His wife had died rather suddenly when Leiscester thought he had a chance with the Queen, and gossip had it that the cause had been poison. Apparently the Earl was also quite sexually active.
Edward DeVere, Earl of Oxford, was born in 1550, some 14 years earlier than William Shakspere of Avon. His family was an ancient one, having arrived with the Normans some 500 years before, and quite wealthy. His ancestors had played pretty significant roles in English history since the invasion, too.
When DeVere was 11, Queen Elizabeth came to visit at the family manor, and he seems to have gotten to know her then. He found her fascinating, not just because she was the Queen, but because they had tastes in common. Elizabeth, like her father, Henry VIII, was both intelligent and attractive. She wrote poetry, she played an instrument and sang, she knew other languages, etc. If she and Edward were thrown together frequently, how could he not have found her amazing?
That was the beginning of a great change in his life. A year later his father died, his mother quickly remarried, and DeVere became a ward to Lord Burghley, the counsellor who had largely engineered Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, and was one of her main advisors almost to the end of her reign.
Note the parallel to DeVere’s life with Hamlet. There will be more parallels with the plays.
As Lord Burghley’s ward, DeVere went to live in London. where he was tutored. He seems already to have begun writing, and Ogburn points out that his tutor, Arthur Golding, published a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses from the Latin. That Golding should have translated Ovid is surprising, because he was a Puritan. He had never been involved in such a project before, and never was again. When we consider that, according to Ogburn, Ovid was by far Shakespeare’s favorite poet, it may become clear where the translation actually came from. Oxford was 17 when it was published, giving some idea of the extent of his ability not only as a translator, but writer.
Oxford seems to have been gifted in numerous ways. He was handsome, he played an instrument and sang, loved to dance, and was athletic. He participated, in later years, in several tournaments in the fashion attributed to King Arthur’s court, and won all that we have records of.
One thing he wasn’t good at, though, was handling his finances. Ogburn thinks that Lord Burghley may have contributed to the money flowing from Oxford’s estate, being known as an avaricious man. This may also have had something to do with Oxford marrying Burghley’s daughter at age 21.
We don’t know why Oxford would have done this. Burghley’s daughter Anne is portrayed as having been a nice person, and may well have been hopelessly in love with Oxford, but she was neither as beautiful or intelligent as many young women around the court whom Oxford could easily have married. Motivation for the marriage isn’t difficult to understand from Burgley’s perspective: he wanted his family to be allied to the nobility, and he wanted to keep Oxford under his control, probably for financial reasons. Why Oxford consented to this is hard to understand. He had had a brother-sister relationship with Anne, and may well have been fond of her, but that wasn’t the basis for a good marriage.
At about this time he seems to have had a very close friendship with the Queen, which Ogburn suspects may have resulted in a child. Because Elizabeth never married, it was a conceit that she was a virgin queen, but it’s hard to imagine a daughter of Henry VIII, especially one with the gifts Elizabeth had, being content to be a virgin. This involvement would have caused Anne a good deal of pain.
Oxford also wanted to go abroad. He was always thirsty for knowledge, and that was the best place to obtain it. He had to wait for permission from the queen, but finally got it. He traveled through France to Italy, after a side-trip to Alsace to visit a local scholar. Ogburn points out how many of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Italy, and show an intimate knowledge of the cities portrayed. Oxford was intent on gathering knowledge, and Italy was perhaps the most cultured area of Europe, since Greece would probably have been unavailable to him, since it was dominated by the Turks.
It was on his way back to England, when he was in Paris, that one of his traumatic experiences happened. He received word in September that his daughter had been born in early July, and at first was quite happy about it. But two of his companions asked why it had taken so long for the message to get to him. Had the baby been born in September, he realized that it must have been someone else’s child.
His reaction to this seems to have been mixed: he probably felt jealous rage, but also that this was a chance to get out from under the thumb of Burghley. Obburn believes that the two companions who informed him of his wife’s possible infidelity may have been the basis for the character of Iago. He finds Oxford’s treatment of his wife paralleled in Shakespeare’s plays too, probably most famously in Hamlet’s behavior towards Ophelia. Oxford treated his wife badly, but seems also to have excoriated himself about it in the plays. He spent the next five years living apart from his wife.
At this point, by the early to mid-1570s, when Shakspere was still young, Oxford seems to have pretty definitely committed himself to literature. Ogburn dates his earliest plays to the early 1570s, The Merry Wives of Windsor being one of the first. Ogburn thinks this makes better sense than the much younger Shakspere suddenly writing masterworks before he’s had a chance to experience and write apprenticeship plays. Oxford, being 14 years older, had time to develop his craft and his genius.
During the 1570s and early 80s he arranged, through Burghley, to sell many of his properties, because he was spending too much money, and had debts to pay. Burghley didn’t like Oxford’s associates: actors and writers whom he both inspired and helped support. Much of his money must have gone for this.
But as the decade of the 1580s continued, Oxford wrote historical plays that stimulated Engtlish patriotism, and led to the Queen granting him a yearly stipend of one thousand pounds, a huge amount for that time. The stipend came with strings attached, though: Oxford wanted to make a contribution as a soldier, and was allowed to do little of that. But Ogburn thinks Philip II of Spain was infuriated by the play Othello, because he thought he was the model for Iago. It seems the English at the time frequently referred to the Spanish as Moors, since the Muslims had been expelled from Spain less than a century previously. That may have had something to do with Phiip’s determination to send the Armada when he did, which turned out to be a disaster for Spain. The war between the two countries continued, but the failure of the Armada gave the English an advantage. Much of Queen Elizabeth’s foreign policy had been designed to keep the Catholic powers of Europe from uniting against England. That danger was beginning to be over.
It was probably in the 1590s that he finished some of his greatest plays: Macbeth,
King Lear and Hamlet. By this time he seems not only to have been maintaining a company of actors, The Lord Chamberlain’s men (Oxford was one of two Lord Chamberlains), and if Ogburn is right, also maintaining several writers and inspiring them, including Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe. But we hear little of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men after the early 90s, Oxford remarries, and mostly retires from the court. We don’t know much about his life then, but Ogburn hopes that his second wife was more suited to him than his first, and his retirement would have given him more time to work on his plays.
Hamlet, says Ogburn, seems to have been begun when he was a young man, but finished when he was much older. He considers this (and isn’t alone) the most autobiographical of Shakespeare’s plays–the most complete portrait we have of the man. It’s a very long play. Uncut, says Ogburn, it would run about five hours. And it has the previously noted parallels between both Oxford’s early life and his life at court.
Ogburn points out Hamlet’s desire to find out if the new king, Claudius, really had murdered his father, as the ghost had accused him. His way of doing so was to present a play that shows the situation. Ogburn also points out that the directions Hamlet gives the actors are not necessary to the play, but seem to be a glimpse of the dramatist’s real life. There seem to be a number of these scenes among the plays.
He also quotes Frank Harris, the late 19th and early 20th century writer, whom he says seems to have had sound intuitions about Shakespeare, though he believed in the Stratford man as the playwright. Harris also thought Hamlet was a selfportrait, but sees this self-portrait in other plays too: Romeo is a younger Hamlet, Macbeth is a Hamlet who makes a disastrous mistake. Lear may be the poet dispossessed of his masterpieces, which have been attributed to another man.
Oxford seems to have known about Shakspere, to have written about him in The Tempest (as Caliban, with the author as Prospero), and may even have been distantly related to him. The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play.
Lord Burghley had died about 1600, Queen Elizabeth in 1603. King James had come south from Scotland to inherit the throne, and people were generally pleased about that. He also treated Oxford well, renewing his annual stipend, and otherwise honoring him. But Oxford didn’t survive Elizabeth for long. He died in 1604.
An edition of his sonnets came out in 1609, and the First Folio in 1623. A memorial was made to Shakespeare in Avon in that year (William Shakspere had died in 1616), and the people in charge of the memorial couldn’t seem to find anyone in the area who remembered Shakspere as having written anything. He had been modestly successful financially, perhaps in part because he was given a large amount of money for being named as the playwright. But no one remembered much else about him.
I’m not familiar enough with Shakespeare or the Elizabethan era to know the truth about the authorship, but Ogburn seems to me to make a strong case for Oxford. He seems to make sense as the playwright, both in his education and general knowledge, and in the parallels of the plays to his life. No matter how great a genius, no one can invent valid knowledge, and it certainly seems that Oxford had access to that knowledge, while Shakspere did not. Whoever really was Shakespeare made use of broad and deep knowledge. Oxford had experienced trauma, if not outright tragedy, at least some of which must have been the genesis for some of the most memorable characters in literature. Many people still know the characters, whether they’ve seen or read the plays, or not.
England was growing as a culture at the time, and Shakespeare may have been the main person to make it so distinguished an era. There were many poets, and several playwrights at the time, but none gave him real competition. He was far and away the best, and has remained so, despite some great modern playwrights. His life may not have been entirely happy, but it wasn’t so very unhappy either, considering his accomplishments (though the wrong man still seems to be credited with them), and that his later life seems to have been more tranquil than his early life.
The Mysterious William Shakespeare tries to set the record straight, while celebrating the author’s greatness. It’s a very high-level mystery, and not least the mystery of such deep and far-reaching creativity.

Still More About My Friend

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I learned this weekend that my friend had suffered more than I knew. I knew he had suffered: he’d told me about it, but in such a way that it sounded as if the suffering was in the past. From others of his friends I found out it HADN’T been past.
Once the bipolar diagnosis was made, he was put on medications, and from what he told me, I assumed they worked. That turns out to have been stupid and naive of me. The medications sometimes stopped working. From what his friends told me, he couldn’t immediately go on a different medication. He had to let the old medication pass out of his body first, so that he wasn’t on ANY medication until that happened. Maybe a month or so? I don’t know. He always smoked a lot of marijuana and cigarettes. He tried several times to quit smoking cigarettes at least, but when the medications repeatedly failed, he smoked again because he had to have SOMETHING. That directly implicates the bipolar disorder in the COPD that caused his death.
To be fair, he always had smoked a lot, so maybe he would have gotten COPD anyway, but the bipolar disorder caused him to smoke a lot more than he otherwise might have.
Both in drama and in life we frequently see people consciously on some level or other, to some degree or other, destroy themselves. The disorder he had wasn’t like that. He had almost NO control over it. It came every winter (I’d like to believe there might have been a few winters it didn’t come, but don’t know) and it was so severe that he apparently couldn’t tell himself it would end.
I just heard a story on NPR that some women get a similar depression with their periods. One of my friends when I was in my twenties told me that it had taken her until age 25 to realize that when she had her period she didn’t HAVE to continue to be depressed. Apparently he had no such reassurance that his depression would end in a reasonable time.
One friend told me she had gone to see him because local friends had to be away and were worried about him. They’d been leaving food outside his door for him, and he hadn’t been eating it. They gave her a key, with which she let herself in, and found him lying on the couch. She said she realized he was trying to starve himself to death. She said inspiration brought her the correct thing to say: “You don’t deserve this.”
Many of our problems come from incorrect choices. This is one of the exceptions. He really DIDN’T deserve it, as far as our human perspective can tell. And it’s amazing too that he didn’t allow his suffering to turn him evil, as many might have. When he came back from his depressions he was a loving person who generally enjoyed people. In previous posts I’ve said that I think his greatest strength was his ability to make friends. On the one hand, his depressions could (and at least part of the time did) isolate him from people; on the other, knowing suffering enabled him to see it in others, and to treat them kindly. Many people loved him, and and I believe his acquaintence with suffering was not an insignificant reason why.
He had a lot of qualities. He was intelligent and industrious, could build and fix a wide variety of things, and was an artist. One of the speakers at his memorial recalled many things he’d made for her that she still had.
It made me think of his first marriage (at which I was an usher) which was held outside in lovely weather, and at which point the future looked clean and promising. His enemy sabotaged him, though. The marriage didn’t last, though thank goodness the friendship did. He did marry once more, but that didn’t last long at all, and I think in that respect he was usually alone most of the rest of his life. Perhaps he compensated for it in friendship.
During the service one of my poems was read, which I had written earlier that day. Most of the service I kept telling myself that I had quite enough recognition, that I didn’t need to speak in the service too, but I changed my mind.
I had earlier thought of a quote that reminded me of him, and during the service it came to me that it might contain an important point. Someone, when asked about one of his long absent friends, had said “What makes your friend special? He’s special because he’s special…” I think we loved the man not because of his good qualities, which were abundant, but because he was a real friend. A friend to a lot of people, and a friend to each person. That’s the man we cared about. His other talents (if we can call friendship a talent) were beside the point.
I don’t think that’s a bad epitaph.

The Shutdown and What It’s Leading To

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As the government shutdown continues we’re seeing a lot of articles about the radical Republicans and why they’re doing this. I think the answer is because they believe it’s the right thing to do. Not all of them. Some are totally cynical about it, but a lot are true believers.
Dualism is seeing the world divided between good and evil. Some things absolutely good, others absolutely evil. It’s not hard to fall into that mindset, and some subcultures absolutely require it, but it’s not a very accurate way to see things. There are many ways to see the world, some with little truth to them, some a lot. Comparing different views can be a real learning experience.
To those of us of a liberal persuasion belief in a God who punishes people for being homosexual, for abortion, for wrong religious beliefs, for having dark skin, is foolish. It isn’t foolish for the people who really believe those things. They may not be able to explain WHY they believe them, and some of them may be persuaded otherwise, but a lot of them really do believe, and feel threatened when anyone disagrees.
One of my acquaintences at work is like that, though he doesn’t believe in all the things mentioned above. He’s a strong Christian, though, veering into the fundamentalist way of seeing things, and sometimes feels threatened by my views, though I try not to make them threatening.
I’ve written in a previous post how I asked him to read a science fiction story that I thought was Christian in the best sense. He didn’t like the idea of reading a science fiction story, so I suggested he read the post I’d written about it. He did do that, and found something to take offense at.
The story is set in the far future, when servants are artifically made from animals. They look like humans, and act like them, but don’t have the privileges “real” humans do. The story was published in 1965, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, so it’s obvious what it’s about.
The story is also a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. What my friend took offense at was that the Joan in this story was made from a dog, and called d’Joan. He said that meant she was a bitch, and the author was thus disrespecting her. The author died not long after the story was published, which my friend took to be punishment for this disrespect. I didn’t see it that way, but my friend wasn’t listening to what I said about it.
There are a lot of people like that in this country, and with a lot more distasteful views than my friend’s. Many people equate Christianity with hating Muslims, people with dark skins, homosexuals, and etc. They see the election of President Obama as the end of power for white people, which is why so many fear and hate him.
Henry Giroux, in an article, The Ghost of Authoritarianism, also says this is what many people believe, and that they’re willing to back what the radical Republicans are doing, and to go to extremes to end the current government, and put a different one in place. Religion, says Giroux, has become part of the political landscape, and we’re unlikely to change these people’s minds about anything. Fundamentalist religion instructs them not to believe what anyone from the mainstream says, and they don’t. They believe Fox News, and all the other conservative outlets. So they’re willing to buy into the narrative that the poor and unemployed are just lazy, that concern about the environment means the loss of jobs, and that they are being oppressed because everyone doesn’t agree with their views. This is going to be part of our political landscape for a long time to come.
So what do we do about it? I don’t know that I have specific remedies, except that we have to work harder to get our message about the value of individuals, no matter their religious beliefs, sexual orientation or color of skin. We already have powers that care nothing for any of that, the powers that allow us to be watched by the NSA and other agencies, the powers that authorize imprisoning people in other countries, the powers that allow industries to exploit the earth and anything and anyone that they can profit by. Profit has become the only value, and anything that threatens it will be dealt with harshly.
So no more unions, no more defense of free speech, no more Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Big business doesn’t like those things, and enough people in big business are aligned with the radical Republicans that those things won’t be allowed anymore.
It would probably be tempting to use the tactics that extremists would use on us, that are already being used on people called terrorists, whether they really are or not. But that would make us just as bad as the extremists. If they successfully tempt us to do things we disapprove of, like having secret police hunt down the extremists we disagree with, they’ll have won, because we will have compromised our principles.
So the things we can do is work as hard as possible to realize the things we think most necessary. Give people wages they can live on. Clean up pollution. Work on changing from petrochemicals to renewable energies. Make justice more equal, along with income. Give EVERYONE a chance to be a productive citizen, not just those we happen to agree with, or those the extremists do.
Giroux says the shutdown may fail at what those driving it have aimed, but it’s just a rehearsal for an actual coup to take this country over. That’s what all this really is about, and “Obamacare”, though the activists don’t like it, is really little more than an excuse. You and I might see the shutdown as irresponsible, but it’s not from the view of the people running it. They feel no loyalty to the present government, and are actively trying to get rid of it. They don’t care about doing it Constitutionally. They just care about ending it.
Giroux quotes Theodor Adorno in saying that National Socialism and other forms of fascism didn’t die with the end of the Second World War. He expected other antidemocratic forces to threaten democracy–not that they’d be exactly like Nazism, but would threaten individual freedom and that of groups those in power disapproved of. We have to realize that what Adorno prophesied has arrived. Not that our government is perfect, but its adversaries, most publicaly the radical Republicans, really are trying to overthrow it.
The leaders of the shutdown don’t have much to worry about, even if the USA does default. They either have money already, or access to money, so they’ll survive, and will likely be paid well by the Koch brothers or someone else, for services rendered. The people who have to worry are the ordinary people, who don’t have access to much money, and who do depend on government services because they can’t make enough money to support their families. In the extremist narrative, they’re “lazy”, or otherwise evil, so it won’t matter if they suffer or die. The Republican elite won’t suffer, and neither will other elites. It’s the poor and helpless who will.
P.D. Ouspensky, one of George Gurdjieff’s more famous students, witnessed the takeover of Russia by Communism. He said that the Communists promised things not only they, but no one could deliver. He also said that a society’s potential for destruction grows along with its creativity, and one destruction gains the upper hand, the result is horror.
We saw what happened in the last century when fear and rage overcame whole countries, and broke out into war that left very few parts of the world untouched. The thing we thought could never happen here has begun. We have to find a way to stop it, if we want any of the good things our country stands for to survive.

More About My Friend

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Human beings are mysterious. Over the past hundred years or so we’ve learned more about hidden motivations than most knew before, and there seems to be a general agreement on what constitues evil behavior, though there’s a lot of argument about the details. I think there’s less agreement about what makes a person good. There doesn’t seem to be a checklist of unequivocally good qualities, perhaps because on the level we usually live most things are ambiguous, depending on context as to whether they’re good or not. One’s greatest strength can also be one’s worst weakness.
I think about this as I review what I know of my recently departed friend’s life. He didn’t accomplish a lot of the things most people associate with being a good person. He was never rich or famous, his two marriages didn’t last, he never had children or a successful career. He had artistic talent, but I don’t think he developed it as much as he could have. Of course in his later years illness prevented much of that kind of work.
Not fulfilling his potential in these ways might be considered tragic, or even a punishable offence. I’m not sure it was either.
What was it that made so many people care about him? Essentially, that he was a nice person, and I don’t know how much more deeply I can analyze what that meant in his case. I compare him, though, with the man who ran for decades the farm owned by the Quaker school many of us attended. I don’t remember him ever saying anything profound, but I had no doubt he was among the best of the faculty and staff there, someone I always felt comfortable with, though I never spent a lot of time with him. The details of his life were much different from my friend’s. He accomplished a lot of the things my friend didn’t, but I think they had at least one thing in common: you could find few people who would ever say anything bad about either.
So why did people care about him? The question reminds me of Paulo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello, in which the main character tells her lover, “I don’t know why I love you, and I don’t care.”
The other quote I’m reminded of is from Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, when he was asked about his friend and bandmate, Ron McKernan, who had died young. The interviewer wanted to know what was special about McKernan.
Garcia replied, “What makes your friend special? He was special because he was special…”
That implies subjectivity, that friendship or attraction is a purely random thing, which somehow feels not quite right. It seems less random when a lot of other people are attracted to that person as well, but that can be pretty random too, as with music and movie stars. People feel they have a personal connection to them without ever having met them.
I think he made his world a little better as he passed through it. That impression has been confirmed by what some of his other friends have written since his death. One friend wrote that you could be yourself around him, and that she’d seen a lot of people with tensions between them at his place not being tense there. That suggests the acceptance and attention he gave were objective to some degree. He didn’t feel he had to like or dislike anyone because someone else did.
He may not have made dramatic differences in his world, but I think he made a difference in the small ways that add up. I think his greatest strength was his ability to make friends and be a friend, and I don’t know if that can be quantified. He wasn’t able to give people much in monetary terms: he only had much money once (that I know of), and that was quickly spent. So he couldn’t, and didn’t try to, buy people’s friendship. The friendships he had were freely given, and given because he was giving something back, however indefinable that may be. If he had charisma he used it in a low-key way, to draw people to him that he liked. That was his criterion, and he liked a wide variety of people.
He was hospitable. I stayed in his apartment while visiting a number of times, and I suspect a number of other people did too. His apartment was the place to go after festivities at the Quaker school many of us went to were over, but it wasn’t only for graduates of the school. He had quite a number of local friends too, and the circles overlapped.
It’s as if he used his abilities in friendship to create a place in the ecosystem for himself. He didn’t do it for money, but for a different kind of nutrition. He needed people, and people needed him too. I don’t think it was desperate, rather, as someone said, the place and the person where and to whom you could talk about anything. People need that. He gave space for people to get it in part because he needed it too.
His friends will miss him. Now we have one less place to go where we know we’ll be welcome. I’ll mourn for him for my own selfish reasons, but I’m also glad he’s not suffering anymore. That’s the part about death I always dislike: the suffering leading up to it. I prefer to see someone go quickly and easily. It took some time for him to leave, and he may have been frightened before he did, but I hope not.
One of his friends suggested that he chose to leave when no one was around, and that maybe he could already see friends on the other side. I hope that was true.

Thinking About Death

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We know much less about death than our ancestors. A hundred years ago most deaths and births took place at home. Few couples had all their children survive childhood. Death was commonplace, and not yet exiled to hospitals and nursing homes.
I recently read an article by a woman whose mother had seen her husband kept alive through heroic means and subsequently lived a miserable life until he was able to die. The wife decided she wasn’t going to allow her life to end that way, and made legal preparations. She might have lived longer, but she died still experiencing a fairly high quality of life. Without such preparations, and even sometimes with, many people die miserably, experiencing pain in bodies that no longer work, often confused, and frequently miserable. Our high tech approach to the end of life often doesn’t serve people very well.
But that’s the view only of this side of the river. We have little knowledge of the other side.
There are near-death experiences, which are fairly common, and have been studied. Probably most people have heard the common description of the dying person going down a tunnel, at the end of which is joy and light. Some, having experienced this, don’t want to come back. But that’s only the beginning of what happens after death.
Having worked in nursing homes for a good many years, I’ve seen a good many deaths, but only from the outside. Some of what I’ve seen seems instructive, but I can only infer what the person dying is feeling. I can’t experience his or her emotion.
Some just slip away quietly. Others struggle for that last breath. Some approach the end with quiet dignity, others with fear.
One man I knew had become a state policeman during the Great Depression, and had made that his entire career. He’d been married a very long time, lived a few years without his wife, attained the age of 100, and shortly after died with members of his family around him, alert and able to speak coherently almost to the end. That seems like a pretty ideal way to go, but a lot of people can’t manage it.
Another man was upset when he became incontinent, saying he couldn’t live that way. Being incontinent is inconvenient and humiliating, but it seems a rather frivolous reason to want to die, and that was how he seemed to be approaching it. He did die relatively soon thereafter.
A woman who spent time in a nursing home I’ve worked in impressed me in another way. She was terrified. She couldn’t sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, and kept insisting she was a good person, as if we were accusing her. I think she was accusing herself, of what I don’t know. One night before I started working she was restless, and at a friend’s suggestion, I tried reading poetry to her. She took the poetry I read as a personal accusation too. I heard second-hand that whe was a member of an important family and knew a lot of important people, but it seemed very clear that something had gone badly wrong in her life, and that she was in agony about it.
But what DOES happen after death? Outside of the studies of near-death experiences, we don’t have much approaching the standard of scientific data. We have beliefs in heaven and hell, plus purgatory, which adds a little sophistication to the concept. We also have beliefs in reincarnation, and that after death there’s nothing. But does anyone actually know before dying?
I suspect that one’s experience may be deeply influenced by cultural beliefs. Belief that one is among the Elect may lead to a happy experience. Belief that one is irretrievably damned may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, a person might be completely surprised, positively or negatively, by whatever happens.
A Grateful Dead fan who had taken a lot of LSD believed that we’re each a drop of water, and that when we die we reenter the ocean. So we become part of a greater organism that includes every experience of every person. He found comfort in that idea, and professed to no longer be afraid of death. The author of the book recording his opinion found the idea of a saint and a serial killer being treated with absolute equality rather disconcerting. Someone with much experience of LSD may have more insight than most, though.
George Gurdjieff, the spiritual teacher of the last century, said a number of things about death, but didn’t go into the subject in great detail in most of the things I’ve read, though I believe he did in his Tales of Beelzebub to His Grandson. But a number of people who wrote about Gurdjieff told some curious stories.
When Gurdjieff was beginning his teaching in Moscow and St. Petersburg he told the group he’d gathered around him that there was no use talking about reincarnation because of all the things that had been said about it already. Apparently anything he could say about it would have been misunderstood. So he said little or nothing.
P.D. Ouspensky, perhaps Gurdjieff’s most famous student, had an almost obsessive belief in what he called Eternal Recurrence. He believed that we live the same life over and over again, and can’t progress to another level until we remember enough from previous lives to keep from repeating mistakes. He said that Gurdjieff had told him that what he believed wasn’t far wrong.
Another story, this one told by a young teenager living at the Institute Gurdjieff set up in the 1920s in France may partially confirm this. Gurdjieff had had an almost fatal auto accident in 1924, and took a long time to recover. Not long after he discovered that both his mother and his wife were terminally ill. He later said that his mother’s death didn’t disturb him too much, since she had lived a full life. His wife, though, was only in her thirties or forties. He told the young teenager, Fritz Peters (who wrote about it many years later) that he was trying to keep his wife alive as long as possible (which may seem an odd way to treat someone with terminal cancer) because she was an “old soul” and had the possibility of going completely beyond the world, presumably to whatever was the proper next stage of her development.
More that twenty years later, another of his students, J.G. Bennett, told how Gurdjieff asked him about his dead mother. His mother had died several years earlier, Bennett had been with her, and had had a strong impression that she was confused and disoriented, that she had put her faith in the wrong things, and didn’t know what to do. Bennett said he had no idea how to help her.
He told Gurdjieff this, and Gurdjieff said that he could help her through his own mother, who had died more than twenty years before. Apparently Gurdjieff had some kind of contact with his mother, even though she’d been dead so long. He gave Bennett and exercise of bringing the two women together. Bennett said he spent an hour a day for about six weeks concentrating on pictures of the two women. For a long time nothing seemed to be happening, then he began to get visions of the two, but his mother’s face was turned away from that of Gurdjieff’s mother. Eventually, he was able to get his mother to turn her face, and after that, he said, was never able to perform the exercise again.
A lot of these two stories seems to contradict one of Gurdjieff’s main assertions: that humans are not born with souls. They have the potential to develop them, but that depends on “consicous labor and intentional suffering”. He said that humans have a “certain something” that survives for awhile after death, but not forever, unless they’ve gone to the trouble of constructing a soul, which can be effectively immortal. But he still had contact with his mother some twenty years after she died, and Bennett’s mother’s “certain something” had survived for several years after her death. We’re not getting a full picture here, and can’t really judge if the evidence is contradictory or not.
Another story was told by Fritz Peters, of a time just after World War II when he went to visit Gurdjieff in Paris, where he’d lived throughout the war. He noticed a number of apparently impoverished older people coming to visit, and that Gurdjieff would spend time with them, and give them food or money. Peters asked him why he was wasting time with these people.
Gurdjieff replied that no one who hadn’t been in Paris during the war could imagine what it was like. He said he hadn’t cared which side won, as both sides had their ideals–and killed millions of people. So he made deals with the police and the Nazis, and supported himself and his brother’s family. (His brother had died, either before the war or in its early stages).
These older people had no families, and no one else to help them survive in these very unusual times. Gurdjieff compared himself to an old woman without much money who goes to the park every day to feed birds, because she loves birds. He said, though, that he was more honest than the old woman, because he admitted that he also enjoyed doing it. And then added that without him, these elderly people would have no chance of learning how to die properly.
Dying properly was a great concern of the ancient Egyptians, though their concern was largely limited to the afterlife of the Pharaoh. Their conception of the afterlife was complex, with many dangers, and the Pharaoh had to be warned of how to respond to each one. He was expected to eventually become a star in the sky, but the various dangers could prevent that. That was what the Egyptian Book of the Dead was for.
The Tibetans wrote a book of the dead too, about which I know much less, though I gather it was instructions to the dying person of how to meet death and avoid various dangers. I gather that it was meant to instruct more than just royal personages, though.
But in modern times I think we’ve largely lost touch with most ancient traditions, as well as our custom, at least in this country, of shutting death off from the rest of life, as if it were something contagious or unnatural.
In the case of epidemics, it may actually be contagious, but of course it’s hardly unnatural. We may not like to think about it, feeling (as with many things) that if we ignore it, it’ll go away. That’s an unrealistic and hardly healthy attitude.
J.G. Bennett, observing Gurdjieff’s body after he’d died gave his impression that the man had entirely finished his business on earth, and had gone elsewhere. Bennett at least strongly implied that this can’t be said for most of us.
The idea of the Hospice movement used to be (I get the impression that it’s less true now) not only to make the dying person as comfortable as possible physically, but to help them take care of the unfinished business of their lives. Often this has been unresolved issues with other family members that the dying person can’t feel comfortable with. Bringing the unhappy people together and helping them to talk about the reasons of their unhappiness is probably, for most people, more difficult than physical care of the dying person. Emotional wounds can be as deep and persistent as physical wounds, but going into death with a clear conscience must be a great relief for someone who has carried an emotional burden, in some cases for his or her whole life.
Since my friend died I’ve been thinking about what I know of his life, and about death. I had never really pondered my own mortality until about three years ago, when I wrote a poem I called “Getting Ready”, which I hope to publish whenever I can bestir myself to put a book together. But now I think of death more often. Although my health is still good, I’m getting to an age when that can change suddenly, and I doubt that I’ve made many of the preparations I ought to.
Gurdjieff quoted his father as saying, “Obviously, a man should live in such a way as to have a happy old age.” Someone explained this as meaning that each of us has a debt to pay for life, and that the sooner we do that the happier we can be when we’re old. I have had to accept that I put off a lot of things for way too long, so that I have to pay my debt now, as best I can. Whether the things I’m now doing will be adequate to pay the debt remains to be seen. Probably the emotions I felt at my friend’s passing have a lot to do with my own death, coming inevitably, whether sooner or later.
But it also had to do with my feelings for my friend, wishing him to be able to go quickly and easily without any unnecessary suffering. I still wish I could have helped him from his bedside, which my training and experience as a nurse would have enabled me to do. I tried to tell him helpful things from a distance, and can only hope that they really were helpful.

About My Friend

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One of my longtime friends died the morning of October 3rd. I guess that’s something I’ll have to get used to in years to come. We met because we both attended a Quaker private high school in southern Ohio, and both loved it there. I may have come by that more naturally, since my parents were Quakers, and my father and his brothers had attended the school, while my friend’s background was entirely different.
He really enjoyed people, and was a lot of fun to be around. He had a lot of friends, who are now mourning him. One thing that showed his love for the school he’d attended, and the people he’d met there was buying a building in the nearby town. Whenever there were gatherings that was one of the main places people would meet outside of the more official meetings on the school campus. He loved to party and socialize with just about anyone. He wasn’t exactly an intellectual, but he wasn’t stupid either. When he worked for a Quaker conference center near Philadelphia a visiting oriental gentleman was interested to discover that a maintenance man was interested in the ideas of George Gurdjieff.
Partying was part of his downfall, though. He always smoked a lot of marijuana and cigarettes, which led to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which eventually killed him. As much fun as he was to be around, his life had a darker side too.
Part of that was bipolar disorder, something he never realized until relatively late in life. It made him restless when he was manic, hitch-hiking all over the country in early adulthood and sometimes running out on relationships that could have been meaningful to him. And people with that disorder frequently self-medicate. It’s not a pleasant thing.
He was an artist, and I think a pretty good one, though he wasn’t extremely prolific. For awhile he made his living at that, though a lot of what he did was painting signs for people, and putting pictures and lettering on T-shirts, but after the bipolar diagnosis the medications he had to take prevented him from working, though he WANTED to work. Once he was describing his symptoms, and I said it seemed almost as if the cure was worse than the disease. He said, “No, it isn’t.”
He told me about how a particularly crippling depression led to his diagnosis: he’d been feeling suicidal, and probably would have ended it all if he’d been able to find his gun. The father of his ex-wife found him, took care of him, and got him into treatment. Part of the treatment was medication, part was psychological therapy. He didn’t go into great detail with me, but it sounded like he came from a very unhappy family. He said his memory didn’t go back much further than age 12, which surprised me, as mine goes back to age 2 or 3. That suggests a lot of repressed memories, which probably didn’t make bipolar disorder any more pleasant to experience.
From the outside he didn’t have a very successful life, but that perspective isn’t the only one. Ask his friends. Ask his first wife, who divorced him, but remained close friends with him. She and his roommate were the two people who provided or arranged for most of his care the last several weeks of his life. I think their post-divorce friendship was admirable on both their parts. And I particularly feel for her right now, since he was such a big part of her life, and she had to expend so much energy and time, out of a busy schedule, caring for him. He was lucky to have her. I think she may feel she was lucky to have him too.
As I said above, he wasn’t particularly prolific as an artist, as far as I know. But he showed me a painting that really struck me, perhaps about 15 years ago. It shows the tearful face of a person behind bars peering out into a mirror. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more succinct or accurate depiction of the loneliness of depression and being trapped in your own small world. I’ve had my own experiences with depression, but never as deep as what he told me about.
Another, which I think was a self-portrait, showed the subject oddly shaped and colored, which may have reflected his feelings about himself. Perhaps he felt like a square (or hexagonal) peg trying to fit into a round hole.
Every time I came to town I would visit the school and anyone I knew there, but then would go to hang out with him. Sometimes I used to stay at his place, other times not. But I last got to visit him two years ago, because other things intervened, so didn’t see his health further deteriorate as it did.
He’d told me about the diagnosis, I’d been shocked and unhappy about it, and expressed that to him. We had never been BEST friends, but I didn’t want to lose him. The last time I saw him he said that he’d made his last arrangements and was okay with everything. I’m sure there were times when he WASN’T so okay, but he also said that he accepted what he’d done, that it had all been part of what had put him where he was, and I don’t think he was agonizing about bad choices or luck anymore.
That year I got the strong feeling that he needed someone to help him prepare to die. I knew I couldn’t do it, having little knowledge to share, but anyone else I’d known who I thought might be able to help was no longer around, so I didn’t do anything about the thought.
He’d told me he might have to go on oxygen, and eventually he did. He’d been spending winters in Florida with his brother, who I think was his only remaining family. When he returned last spring he said on Facebook that it was the last time he’d visit there. Of course I hoped that wasn’t true, but I guess he was beginning to know time was running out.
Not many weeks ago his friends on Facebook got the message that he’d been in the hospital with bronchitis, and wasn’t in good shape, that the end was coming soon.
That’s when I decided to write to him. I wanted to be as positive about it as possible, so I told him that it was good he would soon be rid of the body that was causing him so much misery, and wishing him the best. I didn’t get an answer from him. He probably wasn’t able to use the computer anymore.
I worried that my message had been inappropriate, but felt it was from my heart. I also got concerned when I heard that he was restless and disoriented, and wished I could be there to help. I’ve spent a lot of years working in nursing homes, frequently with dying patients, and could have helped with his physical care, and maybe even have helped him to be more calm. But he lived in another state, and I have responsibilities that prevent me from traveling now, much as I wish I could have. I expressed that to his ex-wife, and she said he needed to hear from old friends and have their thoughts and prayers. So I decided to write him again.
His confusion and disorientation could have been the result of insufficient oxygen reaching his brain, but I had the feeling a lot of it was fear. Our bodies want to survive, no matter what our consciousnesses may think. We’re habituated to them, so it’s hard to imagine how to exist without a body. And our culture has legends about death that few can validate. If we believe in a punishing God instead of a merciful one, that may make death that much more terrifying.
So I told him I thought he was probably frightened, and that I expected to be too, when my time comes. I told him that he had so many friends who cared about him because they saw something positive in him, and that he should believe they were right; that all of us make mistakes, none of us does all we should, but that God understands that much better than we do.
I wrote the letter Wednesday night at work, and sent it online to his ex-wife the next morning. Unknown to me, just as I was typing and sending it, he was either dying, or already had. I hope he had some consciousness of what I, and his many other friends, were feeling for him.
I think his friend’s reactions were probably more sadness than shock. Those of us who knew him at all well knew this was coming. My attitude about death at work is what I felt about his: I prefer to see people go quickly and easily, and not hang on suffering for days or weeks. Death is universal, and who can say who’s best prepared to face it?
He had a life not entirely happy, but his unhappiness wasn’t constant either. His background seems to have been difficult, possibly even tragic, but he still achieved some happiness. Maybe it was a mistake for him to have remained tied so closely to his old high school, and the friends he met there. He told me at least once that he’d like to live in an artistic community (which the small town he lived in was not) such as I think he’d seen in the area around Vancouver in British Columbia, but that never worked out.
But if that was a mistake, he still made a lot of people happy with his company, and I’m glad his last days were there, where he had people to care for him and make him as comfortable as possible.
I suspect his strongest talent was for making friends. He made a lot of them, and all will miss him. Maybe few of us ever gave him back all we could or should have, but enjoying his company wasn’t the worst thing we could have done. I think and hope he enjoyed us too.