Blog Post, Essay, Personal, Politics

On Civility

On Civility

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

― Henry David Thoreau (“On Civil Disobedience”)

Recently, a restaurant owner politely asked Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave the restaurant because her support of this administration’s homophobic and racist policies made some of her staff feel genuinely uncomfortable. Imagine, after all, hearing your own President call your people “rapists” or seeing his justice department argue in court that you don’t deserve the right to be treated equally in the marketplace, and then having to wait on and clean up after the woman who reports that information to the world.

The backlash from media pundits and republican leaders was swift, and even the President of the United States thought this civil request, following his own Supreme Court majority’s decision to deem it Constitutional for a bakery to refuse service to gay patrons on religious grounds—so despicable as to tweet lies about the restaurant’s supposed dirty/unsanitary conditions in retaliation. In response, Congresswoman Maxine Waters made it clear that any member of an administration that makes telling lies commonplace and that holds equal justice in contempt, should be prepared to face public consequences, such as protests.

Conservative politicians and main stream media, and even many prominent democrats, responded by sharply criticizing Representative Waters’ position and by calling, in some cases genuinely but in most cases opportunistically and hypocritically, for a “return to civility.” Such civility was demonstrated by President Trump and conservative actor James Woods, for example, who responded to Maxine Waters by calling her “low IQ” and threatening that she had better “watch out” (Trump) and by telling their followers to go out and “buy guns” because the war is coming (Woods). Oh, to find such practitioners of civility in our body politic, guiding the way for all of us.

The reality is, this group has no real desire for civility except from and only from the other side. What I mean is, these are the perpetual “victims” who tell themselves, and each other, that they are constantly under attack and therefore it is their right, their responsibility to fight by any means necessary; and yet, when anyone rebuffs them even in the slightest, most harmless sense, they cry foul. These are the bullies. These are the manipulators. These are the people, from Fox News and the Trumps, from the Huckabees to the father of it all, Newt Gingrich, who must have everything their way at all costs, who refuse to acknowledge the valid opinions—even the humanity—of anyone unlike them, and who created and perpetuated our culture of fear and divisiveness and now wish to sit comfortably in their power while claiming continued victimhood. They are, after all, in control of the Presidency, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and more than half of U.S. Governorships and State Legislatures, and yet they think they are being oppressed.

We have seen this kind of behavior in society and politics throughout history. We know that authoritarian governments rise by preying on peoples’ fears and doubts, by othering easy targets, like the Jews, the blacks, the Mexicans, or the gays. They lie about their opponents, usually projecting onto the other political party exactly the kinds of things they are guilty of doing, such as being “uncivil.” Take the anti-choice crowd, for example. They stand outside of clinics terrorizing women and men who are consulting medical professionals, a situation which should be wholly private and safe. They get people like Bill O’Reilly, a man with a massive audience, to denounce abortion-performing doctors by name, calling them “baby-murdering Nazis,” night after night on television, until someone shows up at that doctor’s home—Dr. George Tiller–and murders him. Other right-wing conspiracy theorists on Fox News, Breitbart, and InfoWars, such as Sean Hannity, Steve Bannon, and Alex Jones, spout ridiculous stories like the one about a child sex ring in the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor, and claim that a former First Lady, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate is a part of it. They say it over and over and over again until someone shows up at that pizza parlor with a gun, demanding to be taken to the “baby sex basement,” only to discover the building does not even have a basement. Not only does republican leadership refuse to denounce these things, but instead, people like Steve Bannon become a part of the President’s staff, working in the Oval Office. And people like Sean Hannity speak to the President on the phone every night. Is this civility?

After republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who openly mocked a disabled reporter; when republican leaders and base republicans stand by a President who calls NFL players exercising their first amendment rights to peacefully protest, “sons of bitches”; when republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who calls Mexicans “rapists and murderers”; when republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who brags about sexually assaulting women and using his power to keep them quiet; when republican leaders and base republicans stand by a President who refers to cross-burning, Nazi- and confederate-flag waving, crowd-attacking white supremacists as “very fine people”; when republican leaders and base republicans continue to support a man who insists all Haitians have AIDS, all “black countries” are “shitholes” and all Muslims are terrorists who should be banned from our country; after republican leaders stood by, and base republicans railed about, “birthirism,” called Michelle Obama a “monkey in heels,” performed public hangings-in-effigy of President Obama; and when republican leaders and base republicans say they “don’t care” about immigrant kids in cages, that we should “stop trying to get [them] to cry about” children who have been torn away from their parents by our government, and that the immigrants are “lucky we didn’t assassinate them,” now. . . now they call for civility. Why? Because the President’s mouthpiece, the one who presents all of this to the world, was asked politely to leave a restaurant. That was civil.

I have to admit, I have always been reluctant to be uncivil. I try to be a kind person, above all else, which makes the idea of civil unrest and confrontation extremely difficult for me. But I realize now, even though I did not vote for this administration and even though I tried to explain to everyone in my circle of influence why I felt this administration would be a disaster for us all, I may have, indeed, been “too civil” about it. I may have been quiet when I should have spoken. I may have wanted to keep the peace with friends and family, rather than stoke a potentially permanent and irrevocable animus. In retrospect, I think I was wrong. That time is over.

  • I was civil after they called him “Kenyan Muslim.”
  • I was civil after they hung him in effigy.
  • I was civil after they called her an “ape in heels.”
  • I was civil after they murdered a doctor for doing his job.
  • I was civil after they mocked the disabled.
  • I was civil after they cheered a “pussy-grabber.”
  • I was civil after they called peaceful protesters “sons of bitches.”
  • I was civil after they allowed a foreign government to influence our elections.
  • I was civil after they called white supremacists “fine people.”
  • I was civil when they chanted, “lock her up.”
  • I was civil when they inserted religion into the state and elevated just one above all.
  • I was civil when they mocked a dying Senator by calling him, “irrelevant.”
  • I was civil when they cozied up to dictators.
  • I was civil when they called our neighbors rapists, murderers, back-stabbers.
  • I was civil when they walked away from human rights.
  • I was civil when they lied about the disaster in Puerto Rico and continued to refuse aid.
  • I was civil and they gutted healthcare.
  • I was civil and they made corporations “people.”
  • I was civil and they came for social security and Medicare.
  • I was civil and they attacked our free press as “enemy of the people.”
  • I was civil and they threatened to end due process and violate international law.
  • I was civil and the First Lady wore an Italian pro-fascist slogan (“I really don’t care”) on her jacket.
  • I was civil and they stole children from their parents, then lost track of them.

Here’s the thing about “being civil,” my friends. There are two types of people who, in environments like these, respond to basically civil protests with calls for civility and decorum: The first is made up of the type of people outlined above, those who call for civility but who have no intention of ever practicing it. They use it as a tool against the very people who do crave a fair and peaceful society for all. The second group is composed of the type who generally agree that something is wrong, but who do not want to “rock the boat” too hard. These folks, like David Axelrod, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer (all of whom criticized Waters, a black woman, for her call to action), tend to be white, wealthy, and politically privileged. So, while they believe they are on the right side of the fight, there is only so much skin they are willing to put in the game. To do more would be to threaten their own basically comfortable place in the world. I think, also, they have not realized or accepted just how much our body politic has changed and just how irrelevant they make themselves with these attitudes about the resistance, which has been incredibly civil (they lied, we marched. They murdered, we marched. They called us godless, immoral, criminals, anti-American, and we marched).

In many ways, with people like Pelosi and Schumer, I am reminded of the scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone replaces Tom Hagen as consigliere. Michael loved his brother Tom. He respected Hagen, and he knew the man to be brilliant. But Hagen could no longer be effective in the new environment. We need a war-time consigliere. We need to go to the mattresses. Here’s what I believe, now: I can remind kind. I can remain good. But I can no longer continue to be civil in their fashion. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”

I began with a short quote from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,” and I would like to end with one, too. But let us also remember that over the course of history, justice has been won not only by statesmen in board rooms and at tea parties, but by the hard work and persistence of the people. People in the streets. People disrupting injustice. People sabotaging authoritarian plans. People marching, yes, but also people raging, storming, shouting, and standing up, at all costs, until their friends, their neighbors, their co-workers, and the rest of the world could not ignore the cry anymore. Until they, too, recognized the danger and revolted against it. These were people who were told, “if only you could be a bit more civil,” and realized this was a lie.

Bullies will cry foul at the first encroachment into their dominance. If given a concession, they will take more and more and more, until they are stopped. They will not listen to reason because they do not respect reason. They will not be swayed by justice because they believe in only the justice they create and that favors them above others. They will cry for civility because they know the people they are dealing with want civility, desire justice, believe in a moral imperative. But remember: the bully, the dictator, the authoritarian, they do not believe in these things and they will not accept them willingly.

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”  ― Henry David Thoreau

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Blog Post, Personal, Politics

Net Neutrality Is Dead and So Are We

Net Neutrality is officially dead in the United States, as of today. This is a terrible thing. Now, ISPs can charge additional fees for different websites or platforms, and slow down or speed up downloads/streaming in order to charge for higher plans or actively harm competitor services. This is an attack on knowledge and information, and another way to harm the poor, especially. This country is under distress in so many ways. 

Example: I did not want to purchase a cable television package through our local ISP, AT&T (one of only two options in my region — another major problem, considering the argument on the other side was that the “competitive marketplace” would actually make prices better; we saw how well that worked for health insurance!); so, we got Hulu Live television. Until now, our ISP was required to give us the speed they promised and access to anything/everything on the internet. Now, because Hulu is a competitor service owned by Fox, Time Warner, and Disney, AT&T can say: Hey. If you don’t buy OUR cable television, we are going to charge you an extra $10 (or whatever) per month to access Hulu, or we’re going to slow down streaming speeds on it.

So, what do I do? Try to watch television with old dial-up speeds? Pay more for this one service on top of what I already pay for internet? They could then go ahead and do the same with anything else – another $10/month for Netflix. Another $10/month for Amazon Prime videos. On and on. And don’t get me started with phone services — want Twitter? Add $3/month. Want Snapchat? Add $5/month! And on and on and on….

This is the world we’re allowing? Year after year after year, since the 1980s, we’ve been standing by and letting these major corporations (which, with “Citizens United,” the Supreme Court has mystifyingly classified as “people”??) rob us blind and take advantage of us. I mean, seriously, what the hell are we doing? Americans have been so duped into thinking that everything must be a competition and that there is only “so much” to go around, that we’re starving ourselves and each other. We no longer believe in a living wage, let alone a thriving one (which should be our right!), and instead gleefully watch as all our money is sucked up by the same few families and companies. The American narrative that “anything is possible,” while originally an inspiration to immigrants and the poor, has been masterfully usurped and poisoned by the powerful few. Our body politic is diseased. 

We’ve been duped. We’ve been psychologically and emotionally manipulated. We’ve bought into a powerful but ridiculous “self-made,” “independent,” “bootstrap” mythology that these plutocrats have spoon-fed us for decades. This is a lie. It always has been. For decades, we have been told that demanding a better life for ourselves and out neighbors is “selfish” and “entitled.” Instead, these elites have convinced us that, if we really want it, we should work harder for it. So, we do. As each year passes, we work longer hours. We take on a second and a third job. We de-unionize because we believe the companies that tell us unionizing caused the problem. We keep medicine privatized because we believe them when they say universal healthcare is too expensive. We educate ourselves, taking on crippling debt in the process, because we believed them when they said a higher education would lead to that elusive, better paying job with “benefits” like a week’s paid time off and, if we’re really lucky, health insurance and maybe a couple of weeks off for maternity leave. We’re told, oxymoronically, that our societal problems are the result of a “destabilized family structure,” all the while we’ve been convinced that we have to spend more and more time at work, which leaves less and less time for family. Wages go down. “Right-to-Work” turns us into a labor class fighting against itself for the least opportunity, not the best one. Housing prices skyrocket.

We were told it would all trickle-down, eventually. But “eventually” never came. We’ve convinced ourselves to believe all these lies, to work “hard” and guard our “benefits” selfishly because there might just be enough for me. Because it feels right–feels American–to work ourselves to death. We listened to their lies. We keep listening. And we’re killing ourselves because of it. Literally. “Someday” will never come.

The corruption running rampant through our government, and our willingness to allow it, could very well be the end of the United States as we, and the world, has known it. How will history look back on all of us? On these days? 

“Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.” — John Adams

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Blog Post, Personal, writing

Martin Luther King’s Last Vision

Today is my birthday, and I spent the early part of the morning reflecting briefly on my life: friendships, accomplishments, goals, marriage, and family. But I’ve also been thinking a lot this morning about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was fifty years ago today–April 3rd, 1968–that he delivered his final sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.

The opportunity must have seemed both ideal and disconcerting to King, who had spent so many years tirelessly marching forward in the struggle for racial equality in the United States, only to see so little progress. At this point in his life and career, the attention of major news outlets had turned away from his leadership, which must have seemed stalled, in favor of reporting on the more dramatic activities of the black power movement, which was also doing good work and heavy lifting, but in a more obvious way (and as we know, the media loves spectacle).

So, King had turned his attentions to issues of poverty and to supporting the poor and working classes in America. For this reason, I think being invited down to Memphis to speak to the Sanitation Workers in support of their strike for fairer wages and work conditions, must have been promising. But King had another relationship with the city of Memphis, and he surely knew it would not—or could not—be another Selma. Still, he went and, apparently without notes, delivered one of his most powerful, memorable, and moving sermons. The one that would be his last.

A storm raging outside, thunder and lightning crashing in the background, and rain pummeling the tin roof, set a kind of wild and natural rhythm. King stepped up to the podium and addressed a sea of people who had been calling his name: “The nation is sick,” he said. “Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.” I can only imagine the feeling in the room right then. Here came a group of workers looking for support and leadership and encouragement from one of the world’s greatest inspirational orators, and this is how he begins?

But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.

But King seemed to know that all of these American problems were related. The struggle for racial equality and worker’s rights. The struggle against poverty and the struggle for peace. Vietnam continued on, and more and more young people died for reasons that were muddy at best. The rich and powerful got richer and more powerful on the backs of laborers and with the help of investments in the military industrial complex. And segregation and its legacy were still pressing issues. Still, King looked at all of this and remarked that he was happy to live in this time, because “we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it.” He believed that the time was now, that it was “no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” He was throwing down the gauntlet.

Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity.

I look at the world around us today, at the rise in racist and homophobic and anti-Semitic, and transphobic hate crimes, and I wonder, did Dr. King think we would have come together by now? Solved this by now? And why haven’t we? And where is our Dr. King these days? I think about how Dr. King, in that last sermon, chastised the press for only dealing with surface issues and consider what that means today, in this new age of for-profit news driven by monopolies like the Sinclair group which orders its 200 affiliates around the country to read a script about “false news” on the very news stations so many people watch, and trust, because it is their local station.

I look at the world around us today, at our declining status in the international community; at our collective disdain for facts and education; at the anti-intellectualism that folks like Stephen Hawking have been warning us about; and at the bridges, real and figurative, we have been building around our own little bubbles to insulate us, with the help of social media algorithms that keep us locked into our tunnel vision, and I wonder when, or if, we will ever be able to come together and see and think and feel as a people again.

Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be.

It seems to take more and more effort to be positive today. But even in his last and perhaps most painful speech, Dr. King looked up and forward:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

The very next day, Dr. King was assassinated outside his hotel room in Memphis. There couldn’t be a more startling juxtaposition of hope and despair. Who could continue to march forward when the very voice of faith had been extinguished?

Except, it hasn’t been. We still remember that voice and look to that voice today. And when I ask myself, where is our Dr. King, I have to admit that I’ve been blind. I’ve been taken in by Twitter-storms and negative media reinforcement and “fake news”, and I have overlooked the people.

I look now and see the men and women marching for women’s rights.

I look now and see the teachers marching for their students’ rights.

I look now and see the students marching for their lives.

I look now and see that “in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath).

So, on my birthday this year, I have just one wish. Perhaps we can all be a little bit more like Dr. King. Despite our fears and doubts and despairs, perhaps we can look to that Promised Land. Perhaps we can open our eyes and our hearts and our minds and our ears; we can listen to each other and look to each other again, not through these arbitrary lenses shaped by ideological forces outside ourselves, but with our own vision. And perhaps we can accept and applaud and champion the voice of Dr. King that still resonates through our youth, the new leaders of our day.

I see and I hear 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, who stood in front of a crowd of 800,000 people to say, “I am here to acknowledge the African American girls whose stories do not make the front pages of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.”

I see and I hear 18-year-old David Hogg when he says, “The cold grasp of corruption shackles the District of Columbia. The winter is over. Change is here. The sun shines on a new day, and the day is ours.” And I believe him.

I see and I hear Edna Chavez when she cries, “It was a day like any other day. Sunset going down on South Central. You hear pops, thinking they’re fireworks. They weren’t pops. You see the melanin on your brother’s skin go gray. Ricardo was his name. Can you all say it with me?” And I say it: Ricardo.

I see and I hear Emma Gonzalez’s silence, and I respect it.

We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point . . . [w]e’ve got to see it through.

There is a future. That future is always to be determined. My wish this year is that our future will be shaped by the rejection of fear, the embracing of love, and a new determination to succeed together in this great human experiment.

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Personal, Stephen Hawking

“Out, out, brief candle:” An English Professor and Stephen Hawking

Credit: NASA/Paul Alers

The death of Stephen Hawking struck me with an unexpected intensity. I spent an hour online, just before bed, trying to determine whether or not this was one of those “celebrity death hoax” things. And then I spent the rest of the night staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, listening to my husband sleeping and wondering to myself, “what now?” A literature professor devastated by the loss of a theoretical physicist. Some things really are stranger than fiction.

Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.

I’ve wrestled with my emotions these last couple of days, trying to decide whether or not to write about this. I feel like an imposter. An interloper! I’m not a scientist. Still, I’ve always been fascinated with it. In high school, I took every class in the sciences that I could, from earth and planetary sciences to medical chemistry, from animal behavior to human physiology. I even started college as a biology/pre-medicine major and explored courses in geology, physics, and astronomy. But, I have never been “good” at science. I failed my first year of college chemistry because, when the professor started lecturing about “moles” and “imaginary numbers,” I got up and walked out of the room, never to return. (Okay, I retook the course a semester later and did alright). I love the word “quark,” but don’t ask me to explain what it is. I only remember that “mitosis” is a thing because it’s a word in one of my favorite songs, “Imitosis” by Andrew Bird.  

I did end up becoming a doctor, after all, but with a penchant for philosophy rather than physics; and despite my personal difficulties with the subject matter, I have always considered myself a fan of Hawking’s. I’ve read some of his books, watched the recent biopic The Theory of Everything a few times, and always found him a welcome, quirky addition to any television show where he appeared as special guest. Yet, despite my being interested in his life and work, I didn’t expect to respond as intensely to his death as I have, with this deep sense of loss. It feels like a dear colleague, even a family member, has passed, and unexpectedly at that.

However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.

Of course, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS in the 1960s and lived on, actively, for an incredible 55 years. He was also in his 70s when he passed away, so he lived a full life despite his disease. His death, then, should perhaps not have come as such a shock, and yet it feels shocking. Somehow, as nonsensical as this sounds, I expected him to live forever. He was Stephen Freaking Hawking, after all.

As I’ve thought about his passing over these last 48-hours, I realize that part of my shock and grief must come from a sense of severe disappointment that it has happened now. I feel we are living in a particularly dark, cynical, and mad age. Our society has fallen prey to forces that aim to discredit facts, create prejudice against science, and reject the virtue of honesty. Ignorance, bias, anti-intellectualism, and a gleeful embracing of actual “fake news,” has become a rallying cry and a way of life for much of our population.

And in the midst of these attacks on education, on invention, and on truth, we lose a man like Stephen Hawking, who devoted his life to seeking and spreading knowledge, and who did so in a way that embraced the reality that people approach science from different perspectives and backgrounds, and at varying levels of preparedness. He was a people’s scientist, a brilliant mind guided by a simply human heart, and a man whose voice and conscience we need more of now. The void he leaves behind seems impossible to fill and makes that darkness seem even more impenetrable and unavoidable.

I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.

So, it is loss and sadness that I feel, yes. But more than that, it is despair. These unrelenting attacks on common sense become harder and harder to bear every day, especially to someone who devotes his life to the pursuit of truth and to equipping others with the tools they need to think for themselves, and to appreciate that ability. This is a great burden to lay upon the death of one man, I know. And in spite of my melancholy, I do want to remember Stephen Hawking for the good he has done for the world, and for me.

Hawking the Writer

I first encountered Hawking when I was a senior in high school. I had completed all four years of my diploma requirements by the time I was a junior, so I was able to take whatever extra electives I wanted in my final year. One of the classes was “Independent Reading” (shocker!) I’ve always been more of a fiction reader, but I took the opportunity in that class to read a lot of non-fiction, everything from a biography of Harry Caray (“Hooooly Cow!”) to Hoyle’s Rules of Games. Another book I remember was Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I’m sure I only understood about 34% of that book, if I’m being generous. But it blew my mind anyway, and it led me to The Universe in a Nutshell, and A Briefer History of Time, and On the Shoulders of Giants.

Reading Hawking also led me to Carl Sagan (thanks to a friendly librarian who understood card catalogs better than I did). I read Sagan’s Cosmos, Contact, and The Demon-Haunted World. Sagan led me to other books, such as Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys, which led to movies like October Sky, Space Camp, and the like. So, Stephen Hawking literally opened up an entire universe to me, a kind of intellectual quest that was and continues to be nearly spiritual in its own way, and a genre that, otherwise, I may never have explored. Most recently, the road from Hawking has led to my reading books like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry and Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science. Had I not been a wandering, wondering, lost-but-eager 17-year-old kid who just happened to stumble across Hawking at that one opportune moment, I don’t even know what kind of reader, or person, I would be today.

Hawking the Human Being

Since first reading Hawking’s works, I’ve learned a lot about him as a person. According to his family, Hawking once said, “it would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.” To me, this sentiment expresses the type of person Hawking was, at least as I’ve come to know him from afar. He had his human faults, like anyone else, and these have been expressed in biographies written about him, in the latest film about his life, and by Hawking himself, who despite his rare brilliance was also humble and self-aware. Still, to me, Hawking has always balanced an appreciation for the everyday human experience and human needs, with the genius required of him by his pursuits in theoretical physics. It seems to me a rare ability to be able to live with one foot in the “real” world and another planted firmly amongst the stars.

Some of the most impressive and personally meaningful things I’ve learned about Hawking include his support of women, both in the sciences and in general. He called himself a feminist and supported equal pay and opportunity for women, something the sciences and academia still struggle with despite our supposed “progressive” cultures. Hawking was also a champion for truth. He is famous for his statement that, “the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” This message resonates strongly today, in an age that celebrates personal opinion above objective fact, an age that suggests we should all be free to abide by our own perceptions of truth rather than challenging us to aspire to creditable fact.

I’ve tried to recall all the times I saw him on some television show or another. I can distinctly remember him appearing in Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory, although I know that’s not even close to a complete listing of his presence in pop culture. That desire and willingness to reach out to popular audiences always impressed me, and it is something I see in upcoming scientists. I know they, too, must have been inspired by his desire and ability to bridge that sometimes ominous gap. Hawking also had a great sense of humor. He joked constantly about himself and his “grand” pursuits and gave of his time rather freely for someone who must have been incredibly busy. And finally, his philanthropy efforts, both with his own foundation and with other charitable events and organizations, are just another reason to respect him as a human being, one who cared deeply for the human race and who seemed to genuinely worry about our future together.

Hawking the Marvel

Of course, what most impresses me about Stephen Hawking is simply how impressive he was. Intellectually and physically, he was a mystery and a marvel. The more I learn about Stephen Hawking, and the more I try to decipher his work (only the mass audience stuff, as I’m not nearly capable enough of reading his academic work), the more I realize how little I know about life, the universe, and everything. That kind of thinking used to leave me feeling depressed and desperately anxious. Will I have enough time to learn everything I want to learn? To do everything I want to do? To begin living the kind of life, and being the kind of person, I want? My stoic teachings have helped me learn to stop questioning and start doing, but Hawking’s life demonstrates this philosophy in action.

I look to Hawking and other personal heroes, now, and find some of that anxiety, thankfully, has dissipated. I’ve learned to understand these women and men as human beings, too, with their own struggles and challenges. Hawking certainly lived a life filled with challenges; yet he refused to let them stop him, as many of us would. He also found time to spread positivity and passion and encouragement to the millions of people around the world who needed to hear the purest of messages: you can do it.  

Hawking once said, “my goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” I think he must have come closer than anyone else in living memory to achieving this. His appreciation for the simple facts of life, his understanding of the bigger mysteries, and his joy in the mundane, must have made the experience of life the greatest event of all. I can only hope to achieve an ounce of that kind of perspective, that kind of drive, and that kind of focused passion. An ounce of the Hawking model would be a dream to me.

So, farewell, giant. May we build upon your shoulders.

And may we prove ourselves deserving of your legacy.  

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Blog Post, Personal

My Word for 2018

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Zundert 1853–1890 Auvers-sur-Oise)
Road in Etten, 1881. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.774)

I noticed a trend this year, one that apparently has been around for some time but which I have either missed or ignored, wherein people choose one word to make their “word of the year.” The idea is to start the new year with a single focus, a word that can inspire a philosophical perspective, an emotional change, some kind of personal growth or achievement, etc. I decided, considering I’m continuing my stoic journey this year, and with much more focus and intention than I have given it in the past, this “word of the year” might be a beneficial opportunity.

My word for 2018 is: SEE. To see. To notice. To be attentive.

In 2018, I’m continuing a path that I began a few years ago, around my second year of doctoral studies, toward outward living; toward charity, kindness, and compassion, and away from non-essential distractions. This has been a very slow process for me, not helped at all by the tumultuous last couple of years. I have been wholly consumed by politics and global affairs, much of which I have very little control over but which has “demanded” my attention, my energy, my words, my time. I haven’t been able to see clearly enough how deeply all of this has influenced my mental, physical, and emotional health, and how little it has helped my relationships with other people (in some cases, it has actively hurt them).

So, in pursuing a much more intentional stoic course of study and commitment this year, I want to embrace this word, see, in a variety of ways, and allow it to help me achieve a stoic way of living, which is to say, a life free from unnecessary distractions and a perspective that allows my attention to be drawn only to those things over which I have control.

This year, I want to see my surroundings. I moved with my husband to a new state, a new region of the United States, four months ago. We have found time to explore some new-to-us things, and to take an adventure or two, but I want to do much more of this in the coming year. I want to put away my “smart” phone, to step away from social media, and engage with my new city, with a new community, and all the new goals and opportunities they might bring. There is, for example, a group in the area that meets weekly to discuss science and philosophy and art, and all sorts of interesting things. I located it before we even moved here, and yet every week goes by without my even attempting to drive over and sit in on a meeting. These are the sorts of opportunities I see as valuable, and so I want to begin engaging with them.

I want to see my husband more clearly, and help him see me more clearly as well. Again, stepping away from these digital devices and spending quality time together will go a long way in helping us do this. I want to manage this, too, in a budget-conscious way and find ways for us to be together without the stress and strain of financial burdens. Part of stoicism is breaking free from financial debts, as well as embracing what is good for me.

To that last point, I want to see ways of politely but effectively saying “No” to what I do not want to do, and see ways of saying “Yes” to those things that I do. I am often mistaking these two things and, instead of embracing the things I am genuinely interested in, the things that will help me live a better and richer life, and become a better person, I say “Yes” to the things I think I should do, whether because I’m worried about what people will think of me if I say no, or of disappointing someone, or of looking bad at work. I hope to see more clearly the paths that will lead to “Yes” and to accept those that are truly right for me. This also means saying “No” when I already have enough to do.

“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements — how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!” — Seneca, “On the Brevity of Life,” 3.3b

I want to see the people in my life for who they are, not for the ideals I hold them to, and then respond accordingly. This means seeing my family, friends, and colleagues more clearly and completely, and either deciding to accept them without judgment or to move on from relationships that are not positive ones. This is a path I began to take years ago as well, and most of the negative influences have, I think, been removed; but I also want to be an authentic friend, brother, son, cousin, uncle to those I am keeping in my life, which means seeing who these people are, truly, and how they affect me, and allowing myself to be seen by them.

Finally, I want to see my priorities clearly and objectively. I want to learn how to acknowledge the difficulties in front of me so that I can better plan how to accomplish what I want to accomplish and achieve what I want to achieve. To this end, I have cut my reading goal for this year nearly in half, so that I can instead spend more time writing. I will be working on major projects, such as ongoing preparations (a years’ long project) for academic tenure; writing, preparing, and submitting work for publication; and attending academic conferences for professional development, personal fulfilment, and networking. I need to see how important these activities are to me and begin a true pursuit of them, rather than limiting myself to a perpetual state of “eventually.”

We are just a few days into the new year, but already I have noticed a distinct change in my perspectives. I hope seeing my plans and goals, strengths and weaknesses, successes and struggles, more clearly will help me to grow as a person, a writer, a teacher, a spouse, a friend. This might sometimes mean accepting that I am not who I thought I was to someone else, that I cannot always be what and whom everyone wants me to be, and that I will sometimes be a disappointment. Again, over others’ perceptions, I have little control, and so I need to let that go in order to focus on the things that I actually can do, and the things that will make my daily life richer and more meaningful, and perhaps even more peaceful.

Most importantly, as I work my way slowly through stoic readings, I plan to incorporate daily reflective writing; and as I work my way slowly through a literary reading of the bible, I plan to incorporate weekly and monthly reflective writing as well. In addition, I am keeping a personal journal and will be writing on the blog, as well as working on my fiction and non-fiction. My final hope in all of these writing exercises is that I will begin to see myself more clearly. I ask my students to see their progress through reflective journaling about their own work over the course of a semester; it is time that I see my own forward—and backward—motion in the same way.

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Blog Post, Personal

What a Year for a New Year

So, here we are on the cusp of another new year. I don’t quite know how to feel about this new year’s eve. I didn’t know what to expect of 2017, and I feel somehow even less sure about 2018. 

Of course, every year brings its ups and downs. I know there will probably be some good things in 2018, just as there were in this last year. In 2017, I finished my PhD, achieved my second publication, and accepted a faculty position in a new state. I know there will probably be some bad things ahead, too, just as 2017 had its share of difficulties. This past year has been a real struggle, psychologically, emotionally, and financially. And I know that the good and the bad, though they come every year, are not always fairly balanced. 

But stoic teachings remind me constantly that, while I can’t always control what happens to me, I do have control over how I respond. So, I’ll try to respond to the good and the bad in the same way, with patience, acceptance, and maybe even a bit of levity. And while I enter the new year without any expectations, I do have one wish: that you will find health and happiness in the days ahead. That you will find genuine friendship, be treated to happy surprises, and experience many more ups than downs. I wish that, on the inevitable bad days, you will find strength and support, and the empathy of others. 

They say nature abhors a vacuum. After a year such as this, I think it’s important to remember that hate, as a force of nature, will try its damnedest to seep into every crack and crevice, at every opportunity. In 2018, let’s insulate ourselves with love and let it be our impenetrable armor; let it fill us to the brim so that there are no cracks, no crevices–no vacuums–for hate to enter; let us live our days with decisions made of love, in everything from our driving habits, to our patience in the grocery check-out line, to the way we treat our co-workers, friends, and family; let’s love so hard and so long that we become exhausted with it, and then take a nap and carry on. 

This year, if we could all accomplish one thing, let it be that we love until our spirits feel truly warm, and safe, and bright, and until hate has been left out in the cold for good. Let’s make 2018 a year of love.

Happy New Year. I’ll see you on the other side.

(P.S. To most of the world who are ahead of us in time zones, I know you’ll get to the new year first – but no spoilers!)  

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Personal

Happy birthday, darling.

Artist Credit: Brian Andersen

This is the first day of my life. Swear I was born right in the doorway. I’ve always been a wanderer at heart. As much as I like the idea of settling down, burying roots in the ground, and becoming an integral part of some place—some home—I realized at an early age that new places and experiences were even more important to me. New Mexico. Arizona. Florida. New York. Pennsylvania. California. Nevada. Always on the road, on the go; always believing in tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. I thought I would feel torn by these two desires for the rest of my life: a need for place and a need for space. It was an impossible dichotomy. Until the day, eleven years ago, when you came into my life and bridged the divide. With some surprise, I realized home is not a place. We’ve buried our roots in each other so that, now, when every day feels new and every decision seems to lead through a new door, I’m always and ever at home with you. You are the roots that sleep beneath my feet and hold the earth in place.

Artist Credit: Brian Andersen

I went out in the rain, suddenly everything changed. They’re spreading blankets on the beach. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of life’s events. As the years have passed, we’ve been witness to new births and new marriages. We’ve seen lives end and begin, relationships start and fail. We’ve cried with friends, fought with each other, and persevered in the face of those who would prefer we didn’t exist at all. So many times, our sunny days have become stormy and dark; and more often, our cloudy skies have been pushed away by the winds of love and laughter. After more than a decade together, if I’ve learned anything at all, I’ve learned this: we’ve never been great at predicting the future, but we’ve got a perfect record of facing it together. And all the roads we have to walk are winding. And all the lights that lead us there are blinding. But after all, you’re my wonderwall.

Artist Credit: Brian Andersen

Yours was the first face that I saw. I think I was blind before I met you. The perpetual bachelor. That’s how I saw myself. I had no dreams or illusions about finding that “someone special”; in fact, for a long time, I convinced myself that that kind of life, that kind of romance, was antithetical to my personality, and that I would be better off alone. But one late-summer day, you walked into my bookstore, of all places. You were wearing a tie someone else had tied for you, fashioned with spiky, gelled hair and a perfect, beautiful smile. You were loud and you were shy; you were flirtatious and affectionate; you were naïve and romantic. I hated every bit of it. And I fell madly for you. Once, so arrogantly, I thought I knew it all. In that moment, I realized I had never known anything. The idea of soul mates is still a strange one to me, and I continue to be embarrassed by public displays of affection. Maybe some things never change, but since I met you, I’m open to every possibility. Take me by the hand and tell me you would take me anywhere.

Artist Credit: Brian Andersen

I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where I’ve been, but I know where I want to go. I’ve never been a very good planner. As each year comes to an end and a new one begins, I tell myself that I will do a better job of it all: planning, scheduling, budgeting. Making lists and checking boxes. Keeping in touch with old friends and family, and spending time appreciating the now. But I’ve never quite managed to follow through. In one way, though, I think I’ve figured things out. Even if I can’t quite plan for the future, I know there’s a bright and beautiful one ahead. There’s adventure to come, new sights and sounds to experience, and new people to meet. I also know that, before you, my heart wasn’t in it. I was a kind of dead man walking, going through the motions in a haze of superficiality. You inspired me with the courage to take the first step, and it has been you in every step along the way. So, put your body next to mine and dream on.

Artist Credit: Brian Andersen

But now I don’t care, I could go anywhere with you. And I’d probably be happy. I tease you about turning thirty and about getting older in general. This is easy for me, considering I’m 4 years older than you. And you’ll probably hate me for making this whole thing public. For both of these things, I’d like to apologize. I can’t help being a little bit selfish today, on your birthday, in sharing my love for you with the world. If something were to happen to me, what I would most hope the world could know about me, is you. My hopes and my dreams, my ambitions and successes, are wrapped-up in the wildness and the balance and the inspiration of you. Remember our proposal video, and the story that I wrote? The final scene shows us together, well-aged in some far distant future, but together. I know you feel anxious about getting older, but I’m so excited for it. I was a simple blank before you, a man standing alone in the wind, pretending that was his destiny. A man with goals but no vision; a man with desires but no drive. You made me come alive. And now, I’m so alive. If growing older means one more day, or ten thousand more, of being alive like this, with you, then bring on the future. And when one or both of us is gone, then I believe the fierce energy of us will burst into the atmosphere and live on, playfully, in the love that surrounds everything, in the love that lives in everything, and in the love that makes worth it, everything.

Happy birthday, darling.   

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