Category Archives: Serious

America (Updated)

(It occurred to me at one point that the Simon & Garfunkel classic “America” could use some kind of revision – an updating, if you will. You may have wondered what happened to that pair of idealistic Midwestern lovers, who took a Greyhound bus from Pittsburgh to New York City… and the existential crisis that was just starting to form in the young man’s mind.

That whole story would be a good basis for a novel… but I had something more specific in mind. So, with all due respect and apologies to Mr. Simon…)

So we became lovers, we married our fortunes together
We took that Greyhound to NYC
Bought a house in Connecticut
Raised some kids, baked some pies
And that was our life in America…

“Kathy,” I said – we were at some convention in Pittsburgh –
“Our life has been such a dream so far…
“But inside I’m still just a poor kid from Saginaw
“There must be more to America…”

So we got back on the bus, went all sorts of places
Big cities, small towns, everywhere in between
Slowly we started to notice that something was missing…

“Hey man, got a cigarette, I’m six months laid off from the factory”
“I smoked my last one two decades ago”
But he thanked me anyway – I read Time Magazine
How the Dow rose over some increased yields

“Kathy,” I said – but she said, “Paul, just shut up and listen –
“You know what’s wrong here and so do I
“Count all the limos on the New Jersey Turnpike
“The rich ones are taking America
“Stealing the hopes of America
“Trying to kill the dream of America…”

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#IAmSorry

OK guys. Time to “man up,” as they say.

You may have been drunk.  She may been drunk.
You might have gotten her drunk, or stoned, or whatever. Maybe deliberately, for one exact purpose.
You may have thought it was harmless fun, some kind of game.
You may have been trying to prove something to your buddies.
Or to yourself.
You might have had a plan, or it might have happened in a moment when you let your gonads overrule your brain.

You might not even be aware that what you did was hurtful.

Doesn’t matter.

You’re still on the hook.

Look back, and think carefully.

And look at how many of the women in your timelines are saying “#metoo.”

Own it, guys.

My name is Skip Mendler, and I owe some women an apology.

#IAmSorry

(And if you’re man enough to do it, take this text, replace my name with your own, and put it where everyone can see it.)

THE TORCH

(This poem, and its accompanying mime piece, were commissioned sometime in the 1980s, I believe for a discussion about what was happening in Central America at the time… I remember exactly where I was when the metaphor came to me, at the corner of Glenwood and Blue Ridge near Crabtree Mall.)

It came to us suddenly from above
Bright and powerful
And it only burned us
Until we learned how not to touch it directly

And the wise ones considered this thing
And decided that its use should be no secret
But that it should be given to all
That its uses should be taught
That it should be kept alive
For if it should ever be lost
Who knew when it would come again

Through winds of malice
And rains of doom
There have been those who kept it alive
And moving through the world
Whatever the costs

For there were always those who could not understand
This thing that was not darkness
And they would lay in waiting…
They would try to extinguish it
To erase it from the world
But somehow it would always be discovered again
Still smouldering…

Sometime it could be abused
What was intended to illuminate
Could be used to make others blind
What was intended to warm and empower
Could be used to destroy instead

But still the torch lives on
Its light is wisdom
Its warmth is love
Its fuel is your very heart and soul
Today the winds gather,and the rains grow strong
But the torch still burns in each of you
And with such keepers…
It will never fade away

JUDGMENT DAY (from the Anticalypse)

(An excerpt from the Anticalypse of Sebastian of Appalachia)

And then behold, I found I sat as in a park, upon a bench, in the shade of trees, and the day was clear and bright. And the pigeons did flock all about, and I heard the barking of dogs, and the laughter of children playing. But I knew that beyond this park, all was discord and conflict and fire, and the destruction of the world continued apace.

And next to me sat an angel, tall, dark-skinned, radiant; but he seemed as a street musician or travelling minstrel; and behold he was garbed all in blue, from the soft cloth hat on his head to the shoes of his feet, and butterflies danced upon him, shining with a light like unto rainbows, and the soft tinklings of bells were heard about him.

“The Justice of the Lord is perfect and absolute,” said the blue one to me, “but His Mercy is also infinite. This is the mercy that I know you seek. But consider, and consider well, for this is the choice to be made, by you, upon this, your Day of Judgment: He can extend this mercy unto you, but if so then He shall extend it to all, even those who have harmed or frightened or angered you, whom you have judged to be evil and worthy of punishment. Or he can exact his terrible justice upon them, and so satisfy your thirst for retribution; but then that same awful gaze must needs be turned upon you, and you know what that means.

“And so, beloved… how do you want this all to go down, hmmm?”

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: HOW ARE WE DOING?

(My column for July 2017…)

First, a quick update: my time in Germany has been fabulous, but is soon coming to an end, for now at least. My next column will be sent from Belgrade, in Serbia, where I will be spending at least the month of August volunteering with a refugee assistance agency called BelgrAid. Check my Facebook account for news as it happens.

Now then…

I hope everyone had a thoroughly enjoyable Independence Day. (I also hope we get to have another one!) The Fourth found me in a nice little Italian restaurant here in Krefeld, with a glass of pinot noir and a yummy plate of pasta with shrimp in cream sauce, thinking about where we are, where we’re going, and the importance of goals.

I got introduced to the concepts of “Total Quality Management” while I worked for a software company down in Stroudsburg back in the late nineties. Many of those concepts had to do with goal setting – everything from determining the overall purpose of a company down to identifying the acceptable error rate for widget production. I learned that goals, to be really useful, needed to be SMART: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-oriented… at least, that was one interpretation of the acronym “SMART.” (There are others – see for instance https://www.projectsmart.co.uk/smart-goals.php.)

Maybe you’ve been in one of those annual performance reviews – where you and your manager sat down, looked at the goals you’d set last time, compared them to actual performance, and talked about what had worked well and where improvement was still possible. Properly handled, such talks can be immensely useful, both for employees and management.

Well, we have goals as a country, you know. They’re in the Preamble to the Constitution. (Test yourself! See how many you remember before reading the next paragraph!)

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Now, of course the Founders didn’t have TQM, or the idea of “SMART goals,” so perhaps they can be excused for setting some pretty fuzzy and difficult-to-measure goals. Just what did they mean by “a more perfect Union,” say, or “the Blessings of Liberty”? Heck, judging from the state of the healthcare debate, we can’t even seem to agree on what is meant by “the general Welfare.”

But here’s another important thing to remember about goals: they are not carved in stone. Situations change, and goals can change with them. Some might not prove to be realistic; some might not go far enough. The process of goal-setting can lead to some pretty serious self-examination, and also encourage some audacious visions.

So here’s your opportunity to engage in a little exercise – I’ve set up a survey called “Progress Towards America’s Goals” on the SurveyMonkey website. Go to https://www.surveymonkey.de/r/MCKVFVM, and have at it. It should take about ten to fifteen minutes to complete, maybe more if you want to get really thoughtful about it. In a couple of weeks, I hope to have enough responses to generate a kind of report card, which I can then share with you. Thanks in advance.

 

 

 

 

 

RUMBLINGS (2011)

(My “Peace and Justice Files” column from March, 2011, recently unearthed.)

Has the earth shifted under your feet yet?

No, I’m not talking about Christchurch, New Zealand, which was recently hit by its second major earthquake in less than six months. I’m not talking about Arkansas, where a recent increase in seismic activity has been linked to the “fracking” process for extracting natural gas. And while I am speaking metaphorically, I’m also not referring to the political changes that are still reverberating across many Arab countries as I write, “earth-shattering” though those changes certainly are.

It’s tempting, to be sure, to paint what’s going on in places as diverse as Libya and Wisconsin – and here around us in the Upper Delaware Valley, for that matter – in terms of grand tectonic movements, to think of massive historical forces grinding against each other, sending out shock waves as old forms are destroyed and new ones created. But my concern at the moment is more on the individual, personal level.

Namely: what do we do when our old stories, our tried-and-true ways of seeing the world, become obsolete? These stories – or “narratives,” as I’ve been referring to them in the last couple of columns – help us comprehend what is going on around us. What happens when they are taken away?

We spend the first parts of our lifetimes learning how to see, how to categorize the flood of sensory data we experience, how to evaluate patterns, and how to sort out real dangers from illusory ones. We learn what others expect from us, and what we can usually expect from them. We learn to predict, and generalize, and navigate our way through the world. We learn the rules, and the exceptions to the rules.

But sometimes the rules change. They change when personal tragedy strikes, when disasters hit, when conflicts erupt… or when the existing order of society becomes no longer sustainable.

And when that happens, the disorientation can be gutwrenching. Like a neophyte on a bad LSD trip, one can find things that should be solid, that have always been firm and reliable, become fluid and changeable, or disappear altogether. Suddenly one doesn’t know what to do, or how to react, or exactly what is really happening. Things normally benign can take on threatening aspects, or one can unwittingly throw oneself into harm’s way.

At such times, the very ground we stand on no longer seems steady. With nothing to hold onto, nothing to guide us, our own sense of identity can itself be shaken, possibly even shattered.

This is what I mean when I speak of feeling the earth shifting beneath our feet – the awareness that a transition, a basic and profound change, is bearing down upon us.

I do not think it is overly alarmist to suggest, as gently as possible, that it may be time to begin preparing for such a moment. Fundamental institutions – like the fossil-fuel economy, for example, or the idea of Western hegemony in world affairs – are nearing the ends of their natural lives, and their replacements are not yet born. We can feel the early rumblings, the harbingers of the shocks to come.

How can we prepare? Among other ways, by finding our place within larger stories. We can connect more deeply to our communities; we can reinforce our bonds both with those who surround us now in physical space, and those who come before and after us in time. We can connect more strongly to ourselves, through spiritual disciplines, mental practices, or creative activities that help keep us centered. And we can keep reminding ourselves that these changes are part of a natural process, part of the ongoing development of life.

 

 

Who are we as a country?

we the people

A Facebook friend, no doubt looking forward to July 4, recently asked: “Who are we as a country?”

Here’s my response:

Well, that is indeed the question, isn’t it? The Founders set up a system that (eventually, after a few tweaks and a couple of rough patches) made it possible for practically anyone to join in and be known as “American.” What unites us (or rather, what should be uniting us) is not genetics, or shared faith, or language, or even cultural heritage, but allegiance to, belief in, and support of a certain set of values. Justice, respect, and equity before the law are some of the values that are supposed to be in that package. Unfortunately, our history shows that we haven’t always done the best job of living up to those values. And our present situation shows that some of us are still quite willing to jettison or sabotage some of those values if there is money or power to be gained.

So, who are “we” as a country? A diverse collection of human beings – fallible, flawed, imperfect – looking to create something that isn’t finished yet, not by a long shot. Something that has never really existed before. What is it that we have been trying to create? A “more perfect union”, with established justice, domestic tranquility, and common defense, that promotes the general welfare and secures the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

Not a divided society of haves and have-nots, of different groups eyeing each other warily across increasingly broad chasms, of people in conflict at home and abroad. That wasn’t supposed to be the idea at all.