A better word than hope?

Soon after I began writing my third novel, I realized that it was going to center around the theme of hope. I’d already gone with such lofty themes as peace and joy in my first two novels, so when it came to the big words in life, I felt like I was on a roll. It helped that my protagonist was an aging athlete, and I wanted to him to find the one thing that I’d noticed aging robbed humans of most often.

But hope wasn’t quite the word I meant, any more than peace and joy had been with the first two books. I was trying to talk about refusing to let go of fears and animosity from the past, and refusing to give others a chance based on old experiences. And I was talking about the belief that humans cannot change, that they cannot learn to be, or choose to be, better.

Having already written two stories that took place on opposite sides of the globe, I decided to place this third tale more or less halfway in between. That took to me to the southern reaches of North America; to Belize, Guatemala and Southern Mexico. It also to took me to my own home in Houston. “Hope” looked to be a perfect theme as my research led me to the history of the civilizations and their clashes in this heated part of the globe.

By now, I knew I was doing a rainbow with my books. This was fueled by my love of physics and my fascination with light (or more correctly the electromagnetic spectrum) and I was already planning to give light waves a starring role in this third story. The fact that rainbows had been used over the years to symbolize racial harmony, and LGBT acceptance, was an added plus.

The rainbow thing meant that this book had to be yellow, which was perfect. Yellow is for bright sunshine breaking through on a cloudy day. Yellow is for the first flowers poking through the winter snow. My book was bright yellow for a word that means

the belief that the ills of the past are not an inevitable part of the future, and the knowledge that life can be better, and will be better, if we do our best to make it so.

We do need a word for that.

 

(For more thought on words we need, see A better word than loyalty?, A better word than peace?, A better word than joy? and A better word than courage?)

 

Have you ever broken a law?

I used to teach a class in ethics as part of a training program for my company. My co-instructor liked to start off with this question. Have you ever broken the law? Most people would shake their heads.

Didn’t borrow any of the down payment for your first house from you parents? Never tried recreational drugs? Underage drinking? Never saw any of it occur and failed to report it?

By this point much of the class was shrugging or looking sheepish.

guidelinesNever ran a stop sign? Crossed the street on a red light? Exaggerated the value of your clothing donations on your income return?  Never double parked or jaywalked or even drove a single mile over the speed limit? Ever?

She had their attention then, and we generally went on to have a pretty lively discussion about what it means to be a law-abiding citizen. I liked to talk about Jack Sparrow’s famous quote that his pirate code was really more of a “guideline.” The fact is, we all consider some laws to be guidelines, particularly when we believe that consequences of our breaking them will not hurt anyone. The perception of which laws this applies to changes over time

In this class we talked about bank robbery versus littering. When I was young my parents would never have considered robbing a bank, although they did habitually take towels from hotels, assuring me that it was included in the price of a room. I later learned otherwise. My parents certainly considered laws against throwing trash out of the car to be a suggestion, along with any requirement to wear a seat belt. Like I said, times change.

Laws change, too, as do penalties and enforcement. When society begins to deem that “this law is serious” the hope is that the increased scrutiny and greater fines are made public first, not used as gotcha fundraising, and that the changes are uniformly enforced among all income levels and ethnic groups. (I know. That’s the hope.)

insider-tradingMuch of the purpose of our particular class was to end up in a discussion about business ethics. My company worked with many different countries, all of which had laws against bribery, but many of which had cultures that considered those laws as guidelines. We also talked about insider trading, and how its acceptability has changed over time. I like the example from the 1980’s movie The Big Chill, when Kevin Kline tries to help his close friend William Hurt by tipping him off that a company is about to be acquired and its stock will shoot up. A friendly gesture? Or ten years in jail? You be the judge.

nutshell I’m remembering those lively discussions and wondering how my former co-workers back in the Houston area are feeling about illegal immigrants. It’s an emotional topic, today more than ever. Because z2 is partly about immigration, I did a fair amount of research on the subject as I wrote. My main source was a wonderful book called “Immigration Law and Procedure in a Nutshell” by David Weissbrodt and Laura Danielson, which used humor and antidotes to help illustrate the changes in both law and perception over the decades.

My one grandfather was brought here at two years old and never knew the country of his birth. I’m pretty sure that all eight great-grandparents of mine arrived from Russia with no paperwork; some of them didn’t even know what country they were going to. Half of one family ended up here, half in Argentina. Oh well, at least they weren’t in Russia, where authorities were cracking down on them for having immigrated from Germany a century earlier.

taboojive2You see, at one time the world was a place where people fled danger, hoping and expecting that those elsewhere would allow them to start a new life if they just worked hard and didn’t make trouble. Paperwork was a guideline. As long as they didn’t hurt anyone, it was really okay.

We live in a different sort of world now, but not everybody has caught up. We have people who were brought here as children by well meaning parents who didn’t think they were doing something that awful. We have those who came here even recently believing that the worst a generous and kind country like ours would do to them would still be far better than what they were facing from tyrants where they were.

We have every right to make our borders completely non-porous today if we so choose. Cost versus benefit, compassion versus safety; these are debates worth having. But when it comes to how we treat those already here, it would serve us well to remember.

choicesThe text we used for our ethics class was a wonderful  book called How Good People Make Tough Choices by Rushworth Kidder. It talked about the main ethical dilemmas facing moral people. Loyalty versus truth. Short term thinking versus long term thinking. Individual rights versus social responsibility. And my personal favorite, mercy versus justice. Our most passionate discussions were about this last one, as we tried to get our participants to understand how often we as humans want mercy for ourselves, our loved ones, and those like us, and how stridently we demand justice for everyone else.

I’ve been thinking about that class a lot these past three weeks, and wondering if I could try just teaching it to passing strangers on street corners. Would anyone stop to listen?

Does Marvin Gaye know what’s going on?

I’ve enjoyed blogging about each of the forty-five songs I refer to in my five books, and today I am writing the last of these posts. For no particular reason, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” has that distinction. It occurs near the end of z2, when much of the group comes together for New Year’s Eve, and the words to the song provide impetus for solving part of the puzzle of the mysterious Maya artifact.

cmkqowgweaeubypIn fact, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is a song about hope. Written in 1966 by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, it became a hit in 1967 when it was recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. It basically says I’ll be there to help you , because no force is big enough to stop me. It’s the last part of the that message that gets my attention; the idea that nothing can be so big and so bad that it can’t be overcome by someone who wants to make things better. I’m not feeling terribly hopeful these days; I guess I really need to hear this sort of thing. I must not be the only one, as I and over a hundred thousand other people have enjoyed this simple and classy early video posted a few years ago.

Looking up more information on Marvin Gaye (who is usually associated with the song) I found a wonderful fan page for him and learned that in the tumultuous year of 1969 he became frustrated with the type of music he was writing, wanting to turn towards topics that were more socially relevant.

The timing makes sense. In 1968, twelve elections ago, two fairly unpopular presidential candidates ran against each other while their policies sharply contrasted with a controversial war and a good deal of racial and political unrest. I would guess that Marvin Gaye didn’t want to only sing happy, hopeful songs for lovers. He wanted to weigh in on the social issues of the day.

According to the fan page

… in 1971 What’s Going On was released; the first song Marvin Gaye produced himself. The album explored topics such as poverty, discrimination, politics, drug abuse and the environment. Barry Gordy was reluctant to release the album because he doubted its potential commercial success. Despite the reservations, What’s Going On was an instant hit and groundbreaking work in the soul music genre.

It’s easy to see why. In a unique sweet and sour style, the title song contrasts a cocktail party sound with harsh words about the times. The song opens with … (From Metrolyrics)

Mother, mother there’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother there’s far too many of you dying

Let’s face it, these are apt lyrics for today, and they got me thinking about how much 1969 and 2017 have in common. They had an unpopular war, we have unpopular wars complicated by global terrorism. Racial tensions then had grown out of the fight to eliminate legal segregation, today many of us of all colors are reeling from a plethora of incidents with the police that make us question how far we have really come towards racial equality. Two high profile assassinations, police brutality during the 1968 democratic convention and the sight of 250,000 war protesters marching in Washington left the people of 1969 angry and confused. Today, we face the inauguration of a president whose election was aided by a longstanding enemy nation and fueled by groups chanting about building walls and talk of registering members of a minority religion. Times change, but sometimes they seem to circle back around, and revisit the feel of a bygone era.

I sought out a video of “What’s Going On” and found this one which has been enjoyed by almost NINE MILLION people recently. I guess I’m not the only one who thinks that Marvin Gaye understood something about the problems of 2017.

Father, father we don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer for only love can conquer hate

Of course, he went on to write and perform many more songs before his tragic death at age forty-five, and he left a wide and varied legacy in R&B, soul, funk, jazz and pop genres. As I enjoyed researching and learning more about him, I realized that I like all of his music, although the hopeful song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and the wisely prescient “What’s Going on” are my two favorites.

You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

As the background characters say in the video, “right on.”

I see ghosts.

I like to find the ghosts when I travel, and learn what I can from them. They’ve always come to me, not as shivers in the nights, or flashes of fear or wails of terror. Rather they waft gently into my imagination, almost always in the daylight, often becoming characters standing in a queue in my brain, waiting to tell me their story.

img_3260The ghosts I see are often tired, sometimes sad, but seldom angry and never at me. Not once have they made me afraid.

“Listen. This is how it happened,” they begin. And if I am lucky and have some time alone to live within my head and listen to them, they tell me their stories. What they describe often surprises me, and I know from somewhere deep inside that I am not making up these tales.

I must work to hold on to what they say, because their words quickly become mist in my brain, disappearing as soon as I turn my attention elsewhere. Their stories are much like the memory of a dream, fading quickly as one wakes. If I manage to remember one or more of their narratives, inevitably that day will be one of the best days that I have on my trip.

img_3283I started out this journey in Marrakesh Morocco, one of the many places in the world where the ancient and the new co-exist peacefully. My lodging is inside the Medina, a medieval walled city in which the buildings blend together into a continuous whole with a maze of narrow roofless hallways and short tunnels providing access. Some of the walls nearest to my Riad, or place of lodging, exist in various stages of decay or demolition, giving this part of the Medina a touch of post-apocalyptic style.

Other tourists make their way through the maze, along with Moroccan men of all ages. More of these Moroccans are young than old, most are clad in jeans, often talking and joking with friends. There are less Moroccan women to be seen. The older ones move quietly with their eyes down, often wearing flowing clothes and traditional head coverings. The younger ones are more of a mix, sometimes blue jean clad and bareheaded, and laughing with friends of both genders. The ghosts of these walls are quiet, at least as I make my way through the crowds in the middle of the day. I wonder if there is too much noise and activity here for them to be able to make themselves known.

The Medina itself is so confusing to the uninitiated that an entire cottage industry arose provide guidance to lost tourists. Helpful, hopeful men will ask anyone looking foreign and vaguely confused where they are going, and then will proceed to direct them towards it and ask for payment. Some are more persistent and demanding than others, so the savvy tourists now keep their eyes firmly on their smart phones, following their own blue dots while they wave the entrepreneurs away.

img_3322Inside the buildings are ornate tiles and woodwork that reflect centuries old crafts from this region. Often the most beautiful of these are saved for the lovely courtyards found in the center of most buildings. Visitors quickly figure out that not only is the courtyard the most pleasing place to sit, it generally has the best internet reception, too. We fill the pretty courtyards in the public places, and the ghosts stay silent here as well. Now I wonder if maybe there are simply too many of them here for any one of them to make themselves known.

It is not until I and my travel companions are on the road, driving through the coastal dessert between Agadir and Essaouira, that the ghosts finally find me. As I stare out the window at the desolate landscape that reminds me of Western Kansas where I was born, I feel their gentle tug.

img_3366See us, they say. I look at the scraggly argan trees scattered around the rosy beige rocks and hard mud and I see a robed figure moving in the distance. I squint to see better, blink in the bright sun, and it is gone.

I look for more like it. None appear, but I’ve opened my mind now and I hear them in my head and feel their presence.

“We are the soft people, ” they say as I feel the flow of their movements, their clothes.

Not soft, I think. Not the way that soft implies weak, at least. My brain searches for a word that better translates what it is feeling. The gentle people? No, they are strong, surviving in an unforgiving environment. They are soft only like a well rounded rock that pounds the grain into flour, as opposed to the blade of a knife that cuts the meat. They are the “not sharp” people, except that sharp has other nuances related to intelligence in my native tongue. I search in vain for a purer word, one that only has the meaning that I seek, but the best I can come up with is the feeling of something hard that has been worn smooth by the very harshness in which it survives.

img_3346I ask them to tell me their stories, but they are beginning to fade already, much too soon. Perhaps it is because my concentration has wandered, seeking the perfect word, or maybe it is because my two travel companions in the front seat have begun to talk, bringing me out of myself. Or maybe these soft people have no words for me. Maybe with a language and culture so different from mine, they don’t even know how to start.

As they dissipate into the warm sun-filled air, I feel them go, a presence lighter than air as they move over the dessert ground.

“Your world may be harsh, but you are not mean people at all, ” I think. One, an old man who hobbles and is the last one left, turns to look straight into my eyes. He answers me clearly.

“We have no use for the mean people either,” he says. Then he too is gone.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetMy Way, That’s Why you Make the Trip and It’s an angry world in some places on my other blogs.)

 

Don’t shake Nixon’s hand

There is picture of me shaking hands with President Nixon. I’m sixteen and in a skirt so short it should be illegal. He is looking right at the camera, with the frozen smile he made a hundred times that day as a selected slice of the citizenry of Kansas was paraded before him. I’m looking away. In spite of the honor of meeting a U.S. president, I already do not like this one and I will come to like him even less as we both grow older.

Richard Nixon, three days after resigning on 9 August 1974My parents could not have been more proud. Much to my embarrassment they hung the photo in the front hall of our house, leaving me to shrug and smile lamely whenever my own friends saw it. Then it got buried in a box for a few decades, and emerged here in my home a few months ago.

The decades make you more philosophical. This is a piece of my personal history, I thought.  I should embrace all the oddball steps along the path I’ve trod. So up went the photo, albeit in a far corner of a room upstairs.

Now, let me be clear. I think Nixon was a frequent liar, who tried to distance himself from a my-wining-justifies-any-behavior scandal called Watergate to which he had no moral objection. I know that he was foul-mouthed, rude and paranoid. This might describe a lot of politicians to some degree, it is true, but I think Nixon was on the far end of that spectrum and I don’t like him for it. I don’t think he was a nice or an honorable man.

Vietnam_WarWhat is worse, there is some evidence that he worked to derail the Vietnam peace talks in order to get elected in 1968. This would make him indirectly responsible for thousands of deaths and an uncountable amount of human suffering. Again, one might argue that many leaders could be accused of such. With great responsibility comes large consequences for poor decisions. But derailing peace talks to get elected? That has to be on the very low end of poor decision making.

Then, we get John Ehrlichman’s revelations from this past week. Nixon hated the hippie movement. In fact, it was his comments about such that turned me off so thoroughly the day the photo was taken. I don’t doubt that he was racist (and probably everything else -ist). The virtues of tolerance, diversity and inclusivity never appeared to be part of his make-up. He may or may not have specifically designed the war on drugs to target blacks and anti-establishment youth, but at the very least it was a bonus to him. This story has the ring of truth to it in that he was notably pragmatic as regarded his own political career. Not only did he not like either group, he also recognized how unlikely either was to ever vote for him.

IMG_2180So I look at the photo and consider taking it back down. These recent revelations stir up the anger and frustration I used to feel, and explain why a younger version of myself thought a man like Gerald Ford was a big improvement. It turns out that I wouldn’t dislike another president so vehemently until Ronald Reagan got elected. Mercifully, I don’t have a picture of me and Reagan to agonize over.

There is something to be said for keeping your own history, honoring your own memories and what those moments meant to you. There is also something to be said to for deciding “I have heard enough about this clown, I don’t ever want to see his face again.”

Which emotion trumps?  Oooopppps, bad word choice. My subconscious must be doing a little free association. Let me rephrase the question. Do I ban his image from my home? Or maybe I should just cut out the part of the photo containing Nixon, and leave my sixteen year-old-self shaking hands with an unseen apparition?