February 2006 Archives

Seismic Movement (Encore) genre: Six Degrees of Speculation

Life seems to be a search for meaning and an understanding of the daily events that we encounter. More often than not, days pass without revealing any particular insights. In a world filled with confusion and contradiction, sometimes random circumstances can provide a clarity that can transcend time periods filled with uncertainty and pensive bewilderment. Such are the days that provide the patience to endure future spans of inevitable flat lining. If we are fortunate, the revelations that come in these bursts of insight will provide meaning to a previous string of days, weeks, months or even years and make one feel more awake and aware, if not more connected, to the notes that bring harmony to the composition that is our own unique life song.

Leaving Vienna

My moment of insight began at the end of my stay in Vienna. Vienna was the eighth city in my round the world trip, a trip which I took primarily in search of expanded insight and meaning. My intended itinerary would have brought me next to Tokyo, Hong Kong, and then Bangkok. It was the Tuesday before Christmas when I began checking into a flight to Tokyo on Christmas Eve hoping to lose most of Christmas day in the time change. Nothing seemed to cooperate. As I would find a flight that worked, I couldn’t find hotel accommodations to match and visa versa. After spending most of a day on the internet and on the phone without success I decided to look at altering my itinerary. I first looked at going to Hong Kong, then Tokyo, then Bangkok. The only possibility was to stay four days in Hong Kong, four days in Tokyo, then head to Bangkok. This would mean I would need to learn the transportation systems of two huge cities, try to navigate my way through two languages that I couldn’t begin to speak, and do this all in a time frame overlapping the congestion and confusion of two holidays.

I sat in my hotel room and decided I would look at going to Bangkok for ten days; find a self-sufficient hotel and hole up for the span of the holiday season to recharge my batteries which were now worn from nearly two months of travel. I found a hotel and a flight schedule that matched but the hotel reservation couldn’t be finalized and confirmed until the next day. Happy with my success, I booked the flight and went to bed. I woke up early to check for the email confirmation from the hotel only to find no rooms were available. Frustrated and panicked, I quickly looked again and found an alternate hotel that would achieve the same objectives. Finally I had a plan.

I left Vienna on Christmas Eve and arrived in Bangkok early Christmas Day. Although I had failed to make Christmas Day disappear, finding a destination for a full ten day span seemed a reasonable compromise. As I boarded the Thai Airways plane, the flight staff immediately reminded me of the Holiday as they were dressed in festive outfits with lit Santa hats and Christmas bell necklaces. The staff greeted everyone in the traditional Thai greeting which is a clasping of one’s hands together as if to say a prayer followed by the bowing of the head. This was my first experience with the unwavering hospitality of the Thai people. This greeting is carried out religiously throughout Thailand with a sense of sincerity, pride and purpose not witnessed in any other city during my trip.

The flight to Bangkok was about ten hours and while most people decided to sleep after eating, I wasn’t tired and watched three movies. By then it was early morning and completely dark. As the last movie ended I looked out the window to witness an amazingly beautiful and serene sight. We were above the Indian Ocean approximately two thirds of the way to Bangkok. The skies above were completely clear and the stars were bright and below us was a huge glowing blanket of white that looked like the most peaceful fluffy pillow. It was so enthralling that I pulled my blanket over my head and held it against the window to block out the interior light and get the best possible view. It crossed my mind that other passengers or one of the stewardesses might think I was crazy but I didn’t care. I sat under my blanket for at least five minutes just looking out the window. It was unspeakably peaceful and, sadly, my words fail to provide an adequate description. My actions went unnoticed. Now fully relaxed from the breathtaking view, I napped until being awakened by the serving of breakfast. After a quick meal, we landed in Bangkok.

In Bangkok 

The Thai hospitality continued as we exited the plane. An attendant welcomed me and then personally walked me through customs, the baggage claim, the currency exchange, and finally to my taxi. During the drive, I noticed a large elevated highway overhead that was supported by a single row of columns running down the median of the road. Typical of Bangkok, it was quite hazy. It created an eerie feeling and I found myself wondering if Bangkok was prone to earthquakes. The highway above seemed so imposing and vulnerable. I was tempted to ask my driver but our previous exchanges told me she had a limited understanding of English. I moved on in my head and gazed at the surroundings. I was in my room by 10:00 am. Quite tired, I pulled the drapes and went to bed. I woke up around 3:00, went and had a bite to eat, wandered through the hotel, grabbed a newspaper, then returned to my room.

I read the paper and scanned the local television selections, briefly viewing CNN international. Stiff from the long flight, I decided to relax by soaking in the tub…a rarity for me but it definitely sounded inviting. Soaking in the water, my movements by chance created two wave circles. When they intersected they created the pattern of the stone roads I had marveled at throughout my walking excursions in Europe. An Italian had told me the name of this road design, but I’m unable to recall the name. While still in the tub, I wondered in silence if this particular road design had been created to mimic this pattern of motion…it seemed like a reasonable assumption although one I’ve yet been able to confirm. It kept me amused and entertained while I enjoyed the comfort of the warm water. Once out of the tub, I organized the room, ordered a snack from room service and then went to bed.

I slept soundly and got up the next morning around 10:30. After showering, I turned on the television and saw the news about the earthquake and the tsunami. I rushed to open the drapes and look out the window to see if I could observe any damage in the immediate area. The news indicated that buildings in Bangkok were felt swaying and I questioned if I had slept through any shaking. Everything I could see out my window looked normal. I could see people sitting by the pool so I concluded I was safe. Not far away, the situation would continue to unfold into one of the worst natural disasters in decades.

Being in Thailand during the tragedy was strange and surreal. Life in Bangkok moved on and yet just miles away so many lives had been lost. I was struck by the uncanny timing of my arrival and my weirdly connected thoughts of quakes and waves. I don’t particularly believe in premonitions but sometimes coincidental circumstances can be quite enlightening. I would spend the remainder of my time in Bangkok in the hotel except for a couple short walks. As with 9/11, I was glued to the television and the similar heart wrenching images of photos that had been posted on fences and walls by those in desperate search of missing loved ones. As the days progressed, the news worsened and the stories of loss and devastation mounted.

The Thai Spirit 

Meanwhile, I was witnessing the unbelievable will of the Thai people to help, to endure, and to give selflessly instead of being overcome by their own losses. This unrelenting strength seemed so unexpected given the obvious and absolute poverty lived by the majority of the population. One poignant image stands seared in my memory above all others. While walking, I was preparing to cross a service road when I saw an elderly woman on the opposite side of the street. She was pushing a large one wheeled fruit cart constructed similar to a wheelbarrow. My gaze locked on her face as she came across the street and I was paralyzed by my thoughts of her daily existence. She never spoke but her stoic resolve told me she prepared her cart each morning to go out on the streets and make enough money to feed her family and live the life her circumstances allowed. I watched her face contort as she pushed her heavy cart up on the curb but I was most struck by her more certain look of contentment. Her actions were purposeful, her expressions were peaceful, and I was convinced her life was full. I would see many more examples during my stay.

I became familiar with a number of hotel staff members and without fail they would remember me and greet me like a friend at each encounter. I especially remember New Years Eve. I had ventured to the lounge that afternoon while housekeeping attended to the room. While sitting and having a beer, the band was setting up for the evening festivities and the lounge staff was decorating the tables with party favors and balloons. Given my fondness of live music, I was content to watch the band arrange the stage and test the sound system. I didn’t speak to any of the band members although I noticed their glances as they looked around their surroundings. Aside from brief eye contact, we never met or spoke.

I returned to the lounge later that evening to enjoy the New Years activities. Many of the same staff members were working. We waved to each other and their faces broke into warm smiles. They were in a festive mood with deliberate faces of contentment…much like the face of the elderly woman pushing the fruit cart. As the band began to play, I was startled by loud applause…no whistling or yelling, just rapid and loud clapping. I turned to see a group of staff members standing near the bar who had spontaneously burst into thunderous applause to acknowledge the commencement of the night’s musical entertainment. As I watched them applaud, I again saw the sincerity in the actions of the Thai people. All but one song were sung in English, albeit with more than a hint of Thai twisted phonetics. The vocalists, a young woman and man, spoke briefly in broken English between some of the songs and took requests all night. They had numerous notebooks the size of Denver’s yellow pages and it seemed they were able to play virtually every request. Their will to entertain was matched only by their obvious satisfaction in being able to please the audience. Between sets, the band was seated at the table next to mine and I happened to catch the eye of the keyboard player and he immediately smiled and said “you come to show, you here earlier”. I said yes, thanked him, and told him that they were very good. He clasped his hands together and nodded a few times in appreciation. I reciprocated.

As midnight approached a large number of other hotel staff members dressed in formal and festive clothing converged onto the dance floor and began drawing people out of the audience to join them. The manager asked everyone to come to the dance floor for the countdown to midnight. I remained seated near the dance floor hoping to remain unnoticed. I thought I had maintained my obscurity but just before midnight two sets of hands grasped my arms from behind my chair and pulled me to my feet. It was a familiar waitress along with one of the waiters from one of the restaurants. As I stood they asked me in simple yet clear English to join them in the countdown to midnight. It was shockingly sincere and foreign to most experiences in America and Europe. I’m not certain if it was the fact that it was New Years Eve or their kind and gracious demeanor, but I had to fight back tears as we counted down the remaining seconds. Far from home, friends, and family…in the midst of great tragedy…but surrounded by a magical warmth and sincerity made it an unexpected and unforgettable New Years Eve that I will long treasure.

I can recount many more moments whereby I witnessed the sincerity of the Thai people…the students who traveled to Phuket because they spoke other languages and wanted to help foreigners…the stories of Thai people having lost family members but helping tourists find shelter and search for family and friends while not knowing the fate of their own loved ones…the touching interview in the local English language newspaper with the Kings daughter talking about the loss of her autistic son in the tsunami and the utterly soul baring style that captured loss in it’s most real sense by the writer noting each time the interview was stopped as the princess was overcome by her emotions…the quotation in the newspaper of the Prime Minister whereby he explains that his wife has avoided funerals for years but she told him she had to go help with the gathering of bodies…the nonstop donation requests and events on Thai television that without failure demonstrated sincere people presenting supplies or money in ceremonial fashion with huge smiles on their faces filled with the pride one only sees when people knowingly choose to do the right thing for the right reason. It was truly remarkable and remains a testament to the notion that it’s not only possible, but honorable and commendable, to choose good deeds over self-pity and self-indulgence…a testament to the belief that personal peace and contentment can come from giving…and a testament to the fact that in giving, by its very nature, one will receive returns that are both self-fulfilling and self-sustaining. Enough cannot be said about the spirit of the Thai people!

On To Sydney 

I left Bangkok and arrived in Sydney on the third of January. I was still ruminating on my time in Thailand…assessing what I could take from the experience. Emotionally drained, I concluded I needed an escape from my thoughts and ventured out for some drinks and music. My hotel was near the heart of Sydney. Nearby was Oxford Street, an area with a number of shops, bars and cafes that cater to a mix of straight and gay clientele. I walked to a bar called the Stonewall Hotel…for reasons no one could really explain to me, bars in Australia are called hotels…the best I can ascertain is it refers to a bar much larger than a pub and results from the influence of the United Kingdom. As I looked around the bar, I had a sense of discomfort. In contrast to Thailand, I couldn’t help but notice how many people presented an affected appearance or an inauthentic and accentuated identity. I wondered in my head if the people I was observing ever allowed the person inside the façade to escape or if that was just too frightening and vulnerable. It was a familiar thought but perhaps the contrast to Thailand made me particularly aware of it that night. I had a couple beers and, feeling disconnected, headed back to the hotel. Once back in my room, I thought about it some more but came to no conclusions. In retrospect, I believe my psyche was unable to so suddenly maneuver the contrast thereby adding to my unease.

Over the next couple of nights I remained in my small but comfortable hotel room. In hindsight, I believe even the hotel was contributing to my malaise. The hotel was characterized by Conde Nast Traveller Magazine as one of the coolest hotels in the world. As I’ve thought back about the hotel, I’ve tried to understand the concept of “coolest” but I have been unable to comprehend or conclude what criteria would or should be included in making such a conclusion. I’ve wondered how the “coolest” place should look and what kind of judges might award such designations. In my mind I’ve asked myself how much extra should people be willing to pay for ‘coolness’ and how would anyone make that kind of determination. Is coolness an amenity? I’ll try to answer that a little later.

In the meantime, I watched three movies on the World Movie Channel, a channel in Australia that exclusively plays foreign films. I don’t recall having such a channel in the states. Perhaps I’ve never noticed one since I tend to avoid the chore of subtitled films. Regardless, I was glued to the hotel television like a chain smoker to a fresh pack of cigarettes after a long smokeless flight. Contradictions were apparently my companion for this portion of my trip. I’ve concluded that being on the road in a number of foreign countries apparently has a way of breaking barriers and obstacles that one wouldn’t anticipate. In some strange way there was symmetry to my watching foreign language films while on a trip around the world trip in search of meaning, however at that moment it escaped my awareness. After watching the last of three movies, I lay on the floor and wept uncertain tears.

The last movie was an Italian and German collaboration called Solino. It was about an Italian family that moves to Germany after the Second World War to open an Italian restaurant. They have two young sons and when a movie producer comes to town to make a film about Nazi Germany, the youngest son becomes impassioned with filmmaking. I won’t rehash the film but suffice it to say I liked it a lot as it had all the components of a good movie…suffering, passion, steadfastness, humor, deception, betrayal, compassion, forgiveness, redemption, acknowledgment, acceptance…all the elements of life conveniently bundled into a compressed snapshot of time that in reality would take years of searching and struggling to understand.  Movies are perhaps like recipes. Unlike the uncertainty of daily living, they take many familiar life ingredients and in roughly two hours bake this unbelievably complex yet comprehensible story that can be followed and experienced in safety from conception to consumption. They are thus the ordered pictures and words of the stories that comprise the chapters of the characters lives. We’re likely drawn to them for the comfort and consistency this neat and tidy formula provides. It seems to me that perhaps in life we’re all trying to produce, direct, and act out the movie that is our own story…all the while trying to know and understand the ending before it arrives.

An Awakening 

By that Friday I decided to go back out for some music and drinks as I was still feeling unsettled but I needed to step away from my thoughts. After a beer and probably an hour of muddled observations, I went to the bathroom (which has a significance I will later explain) and then to the bar to order another beer. In watching the crowd, my reflections were the same ones I noticed on my prior visit and I began to question if I really wanted to stay but I did as I was determined to push on in the hopes of breaking the logjam in my head. While waiting in line to purchase my beer, I began thinking about what its like to be waiting ones turn to make a purchase or to check out when there isn’t any formal line that can be determined. Everyone’s been in this predicament and knows how it feels when someone is waited on out of turn or maneuvers their way into being in front of you after you’ve been waiting much longer. I usually try to notice if anyone might have been waiting ahead of me since I don’t want to do to another what I dislike being done to me (is that a commandment?). If I find a bartender or clerk beginning to wait on me out of turn, I usually try to defer them to the person who was there before me. As I approached the counter, there was a guy to my right who had been there before I got to the counter. He was standing in the right area to order a drink and it was clear he was there for that reason. The bartender walked past him and asked what I wanted to drink. I pointed to the other guy and said “that guy was here first”. The bartender looked a little surprised. The other guy, who was watching what was happening, and I’m sure frustrated at being overlooked, saw me point to him and a huge smile came across his face and he mouthed the words thank you while nodding his head in appreciation. Almost immediately, my mind was released from its paralysis. All of a sudden my thoughts jelled and I was filled with a sense of awareness and resolve. I finally understood. I had a pen with me for such moments of enlightenment and as soon as the bartender returned and took my order I asked him for a couple extra napkins. With a huge smile on my face I began to write down a number of notes. I quickly transferred my thoughts to two napkins and then went to the dance floor alone, which I’ve come to enjoy, upon hearing a good song. I danced for the better part of the evening awash with the relief that comes with long awaited insight.

Returning to my trip to the bathroom, all the pieces begin to fall into place. There is a phenomenon in men’s restrooms that has always made me laugh. It’s especially noticeable to me in gay bars but I’ve found it’s true anywhere you find crowded men’s restrooms. A surprising number of men are unwilling to use an open urinal and will therefore defer to others while waiting longer for a private toilet stall (in gay bars some of these men will just wait in line for the women’s restroom). In so doing, I'm often told to go ahead of the person in front of me. I’ve always found it strange but I’ve never stopped to explore what it meant. As I thought about it, I realized that many of the people who deferred to another in the bathroom line were also the same ones who never deferred to anyone in line at the bar…regardless of who might have been in front of them. I wanted to understand why. When the two events merged in my head at the bar, it triggered a waterfall of connections and understandings.

Here’s what I concluded and wrote on my two napkins. Our world is nothing more than the collective choices of the people we encounter in an existence we rarely control. Simply stated, right choices make a right world; wrong choices make a wrong world. Anyone can make what appear to be right choices…but awareness is required to make the right choices for the right reason. Doing so allows the individual to live a deliberate life. The bathroom example demonstrates people making the right choice but not for the right reason in the same way the line at the bar demonstrates people making the wrong choice for the wrong reason. Both are deliberate but neither is properly motivated. At the same time, when someone does something right, regardless of the reason, motivation, or intention, there is the possibility of real benefit. Acts of courtesy and kindness almost always bring smiles and often disarm indifference. They can promote the awareness of our common struggle and enable empathy to surface and self interest to subside. But unless acts of empathy are conscious and deliberate, chaos and inconsistency flourish and deliberate living is derailed in the rush for a better place in the line of life.

My moment of understanding brought me back to some of my other thoughts. In recalling my earlier visit to this gay bar, it struck me that our common struggle for acceptance into the larger social structure should make the gay bar a much more cohesive and considerate environment. Nonetheless, the behaviors people exhibit in order to elevate their often fragile self-esteem’s are troubling as well as destructive to the very people who have the most capacity to exhibit understanding. This behavior often involves labeling or the delineation of differences that are then used to degrade or denigrate. While there is beauty and benefit in our differences, our true uniqueness is an internal reality and not an external creation and yet this is often overlooked. Valid connections come from the reality within and not through external contrivances or manipulations. This brings me back to another point. Trying to be seen as the hippest guy or girl is not unlike wanting to be known as the coolest hotel in the world. It’s an intangible notion that cannot be sustained unless one is content to remodel the visual self like they do the aged and dated décor of yesterday’s coolest hotel. In this construct, the individual then needs to spend untold capital to promote a renovated yet superficial identity in a world where only a limited number of winners can emerge. This may suffice in the hotel business but is this how we want our lives to exist? How can this be a reasonable choice? Is our existence the equivalent of an inanimate object measured by some magazines coolness criteria? We can’t all be the first served or the hippest or coolest. The latest and greatest merry-go-round still only turns in circles…it goes nowhere. It’s comparable to a pyramid scheme run amuck such that everyone thinks they need to be Britney Spears to be acceptable. Striving for excellence is noble. However, when the drive for excellence becomes a necessary, narrowly defined, and scripted path for the achievement of self-worth and validation at all costs, the pursuit of excellence has become an obsession for a feigned and false identity.

Conclusions At Home 

Since my return to the US, I have been thinking a lot about the notion of equality…a word often spoken yet seldom understood or properly measured. The way we measure success, value, and worth has a direct impact on the notion of equality. Equality walks the fine line between celebrating differences and practicing discrimination. The equality template should include the broadest definitions of success, value, and worth and should be predicated upon honoring human dignity. When the measurement of success, value, and worth becomes too narrow, equality diminishes. Worse yet, when individuals succumb to such narrow standards, inequality and a lack of self-worth become endemic and self-perpetuating. If individuals cannot discern their own worth apart from such narrow guidelines, then the individual is not capable of recognizing worth in others beyond these same narrow guidelines. When all is said and done, equality invariably must rely on the individual’s perceptions and choices. The equality we receive is thus directly related to the equality we give.

You can draw a number of parallels between the concept of being coolest, first, best, or number one with the nuclear arms race of the Cold War era. During the Cold War the superpowers couldn’t stop building more, bigger, better bombs to be able to ‘win’. Similarly, many people think they need to be more, to be bigger, and to be better to win. Many of the weapons were nuclear and just as the compression and concentration of molecular material create a weapon of shocking destruction, the singular, myopic and narrow pursuit of being first, best, or number one is equally destructive. Huge amounts of money and energy were spent during the Cold War to create enough bombs to destroy the world numerous times over just as there seems to be no limit to the money, time and effort individuals spend trying to be this narrowly defined notion of first, best, or number one. At their extremes, both are deadly. In the Cold war, people were apt to be literally killed. In this ‘coolest’ construct, people succumb to the fate of the walking dead. The solutions to both dilemmas are metaphorically the same. Ronald Reagan said it best when he so aptly stated, “tear down that wall”. In order to do this, there has to be a way to establish trust. With people, it usually begins when we risk the vulnerability of exposing our true identities and intentions. This can only happens when people value themselves as well as others. I’m convinced, that if pushed, people would admit that what they are really pursuing through their misguided efforts is to be appreciated, acknowledged, and loved. Wrapping paper is used to conceal a gift. Only when the paper is removed can the gift be revealed and received. A room full of unopened pretty packages is nonetheless an empty and lonely room...despite its coolness quotient.

Events like 9/11, the tsunami and Katrina have the potential to help people let down their guard and provoke empathy. Such events are so inescapable that people are forced to ponder and acknowledge the true worth of others as well as confront their own subdued, if not suppressed, fear of mortality. Like the urinal example, these events push people to confront their fear which can then trigger amazing acts of giving and sacrifice. When this happens, people connect. Even though survival and self-preservation are innate to all animals, these tragic situations make people aware of their vast similarities while allowing them to set aside their differences and self interest to act collectively. This doesn’t mean our self-survival instincts are bad or should cease to exist. It does mean we need to redefine success, value, and worth and how we measure each. When the individual’s goal is a narrowly defined objective that only measures worth, value, and success as being coolest, first, best, or number one, people conclude that not winning means they are unacceptable, unlovable, or worthless. People who think like this can rarely offer acceptance, love, and worth to others. When this negative paradigm exists, the awareness needed to promote empathy and make right choices remains suppressed and out of view until the next disaster. Our ability to think past innate, outdated, or faulty constructs is necessary and possible. In reality, we usually dominate our environment because of the collective achievements of numerous people with widely varying abilities. When humanity recognizes the need to expand the measure of success, worth, and value, we will recognize the unlimited potential of diverse individuals cooperating to achieve mutual benefit.

I often ask myself what I think would happen if our planet were threatened by a civilization from another solar system and in answering my question my point is made. Similar to World War II, people would be willing and able to acknowledge and appreciate the many ways each person can contribute to the effort to save the planet. Humanity would band together to save itself and our differences and disagreements would be insignificant. Diminishing or defeating ones neighbor or another country would no longer be our focus. By broadening the definitions of success, value, and winning, the self worth of individuals will grow and hence equality will expand. When equality expands, society’s abilities expand and humanity’s future is assured. As long as our daily objectives are primarily singular, we will continue to only demonstrate our humanity when calamity occurs. Unfortunately, it shouldn’t take a 9/11 attack, a tsunami, a Katrina, or an invasion from outer space to bring the needed cooperation and awareness to the forefront. I concluded my thoughts by realizing that the spirit of the Thai people is built upon a greater awareness, a greater acknowledgment, and a greater affirmation of the individual’s responsibility and ability to choose to act collectively by doing the right thing for the right reason. By doing so, I’m convinced it produces stronger, more centered individuals which makes for a stronger, more resolute, and more cohesive society.  

Successful living is ultimately about the symmetry that comes with a consistent and constant spirit. In the simple act of always clasping their hands together and bowing theirs heads, the Thai people prove the power of this point. In the people of Thailand and on the face of an old woman I saw a true demonstration of the conscious and deliberate living of this principle. Perhaps it’s the difference between a flash in the pan and a candle…in life long after the brief bright flash stops…darkness remains…while the candle persists in providing enough light to continue finding one’s way. Life’s events are random and at any time our world may inflict devastation. There is little we can do to change this but when we cultivate and nurture an enduring spirit, both the individual and humanity maintain and prevail in the face of adversity. That which was beauty outside the window of my plane in the early morning hours over the Indian Ocean turned into horror and destruction that killed without regard and yet if our spirit is true and resolute the beauty that I witnessed will persevere and return. Life is a series of waves and earthquakes. Sometimes we are prepared for them, sometimes they take us by complete surprise. Wisdom comes from knowing that more of each is coming. Living is the act of preparing for the next one to arrive and living well is being well prepared. To be well prepared we must be both able and willing to diligently make right choices when confronted by opportunities to make wrong choices. When great power destroys only great spirit overcomes. Each day, not just each disaster, met with the resolve to do what is right will move humanity forward and reaffirm and renew the spirit. The connecting of unwavering spirits will keep us alive, but more importantly, actually living.
 
One night, nearly three years ago, while out with friends and in a ponderous mood, I wrote down the words “I walked away from myself so I could see who was behind me”. Today I better understand my words. When we step away from ourselves we see the world and ourselves more clearly and awareness grows. What is in all of us, what is beside us, what is in front of us, and what is behind us is the power of the human spirit. Faith in this spirit must never be abandoned. Without fail, the constant and conscious spirit gives deference to humanity and in so doing faith becomes fact and fear and doubt are conquered. Right choices will right the world. Its time we step away from our coolest hotel model…our cardboard caricatures and decide to be true humans…not rarely, not sometimes, not even usually will suffice…we must be vigilant and deliberate “always” humans. When we all do so, we are all sustained. This means we have an obligation to look to see if someone has been waiting ahead of us…this means choosing to wait one's turn...this means consciously choosing to defer to that person because it's the right thing to do. The gift of choice is the essence and the blessing of the human spirit. It has great power. There is nothing stronger. Making right choices is our obligation and our salvation and is the song that soothes the soul. When we live this deliberate existence, we can move land and sea.

Daniel DiRito | February 12, 2006 | 10:23 AM | link | Comments (0)
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The Message is 'King' genre: Polispeak

Before Coretta Scott King was able to reach her final resting place, comments made at her funeral upholding the underlying principles of non-violence, that were the hallmark of the King legacy, were being characterized as rude by those who, in contrast, routinely acquiesce to politicking and force when confronted with opposition. In true form, it took only moments for these privileged polibots to attempt to diminish the message and the messengers. Those who sought to pay homage to the King’s, spoke words that captured the essence and the purpose of their lives. Apparently, many Bush supporters felt those remarks were inappropriate and an affront towards the President. To criticize and call for the silencing of such remarks, made at a funeral for a woman who had lived a life of socio-political commentary and engagement, is tantamount to calling for surrender. Excuse me, but it is the invited guests and speakers that determine the decorum of a funeral. This was a funeral of choice, not an accident. The message intended was the message delivered.

Those who spoke this truth could have paid Coretta Scott King no better tribute.

The King’s and other icons of civil rights and social justice had no armies. Their weapons were their words…truth spoken to hypocrisy…truth spoken to indifference…truth spoken to bigotry…pure…simple…spoken truth. Hence, despite the feigned protestations and assertions of bad manners, those who spoke this truth could have paid Coretta Scott King no better tribute. Her death, rather than the natural silencing of a cause, was a call for a recommitment to the cause. It was a call to arms…a war with words as weapons spoken to restate the message of non-violent, yet unwavering objection to a status quo that divides, diminishes, and disenfranchises.

Day in and day out, Americans, who disagree with the policies of President Bush, see him make speeches to partisan crowds that are screened for dissenters and armed with softball questions meant to magnify the intended message of this President. Protestors have been removed from such events. In fact, at the State of the Union address, a message on a shirt led to the removal of Cindy Sheehan and the wife of a Republican congressman. Network apologists routinely excuse such practices stating that this President isn’t comfortable in an informal setting and isn’t an adept conversationalist. Is his Karl Rove strategy more acceptable because it’s deliberate but unspoken? Is a sincere message spoken in full view more insidious than a crafted one designed to diminish accountability and discussion?

Yesterday, there was also criticism of former President Jimmy Carter when he left the dais and walked past President Bush without an acknowledgment. Not one analyst brought forward any plausible explanations. It was simply viewed as a snubbing. It could have been a simple oversight or it could have been a response to the snubbing administered by President Bush when he bumped President Carter from the contingent attending the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Instead Kate O’Beirne is allowed to screech her hyperbolic assertion that President Carter is perhaps a worse former President than he was a sitting President. Apparently, decorum should be dictated by detractors but only when applied to Democrats. Nonetheless, despite this display of bad manners and poor judgment, the King family saw fit to invite President Bush to attend and to speak.

President Carter’s invoking the face of Katrina and domestic surveillance was also roundly criticized as inappropriate. Perhaps I’m biased but the contrast between the lack of response to a dead black woman in a wheelchair left seated outside the New Orleans convention center for days and attending Coretta Scott King’s funeral cannot go unmentioned. Are we to believe this President makes no political calculations? He may have found himself surprised and uncomfortable at the funeral but the stark comparison to the indignity of being left dead for days is all the perspective I need. Please, tell me which President represents the causes of African Americans? Isn’t it time white America stop offering condolences and apologies and begin to offer something tangible?

Pardon the indignation but George Bush cannot cater to wealthy white America for five years and expect Democrats to stand by and accept the outrage when he is criticized for the inherent hypocrisy found in his attending the funeral of one African American icon. I’ll even grant him the sincerity he seemed to exhibit at the funeral but that doesn’t change the fact that his deeds do a disservice to those who the King’s sought to support. Pointing out this disconnect is not only reasonable, it’s necessary. To the critics, the Bush apologists, and Karl Rove I say, “We accepted the politicization of Ronald Regan’s death with dignity and respect. Please withhold your privileged objections and keep your lily white pedicured paws off of our icons. Many of our messengers may have passed away but their message lives on loudly and clearly and we won’t apologize for repeating it. If you don’t want to hear it anymore, do something…or until then, please…spare me, save it, and SHUT UP!"

Daniel DiRito | February 8, 2006 | 1:36 PM | link | Comments (0)
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Halliburton, HIV, & Hypocrisy genre: Little Red Ribbon-Hood & Polispeak

In the run up to the election of George W. Bush, he was touted by his handlers as a compassionate conservative. He vowed to be a uniter, not a divider, to oppose nation building, and to restore integrity to the White House. As he enters his sixth year in office, many see this President as a study in contradictions. There are numerous examples to demonstrate this assertion. Two are particularly well suited. One is the result of a war of choice in Iraq and the other is a war of necessity in the battle to combat HIV/AIDS. Both have far reaching consequences for the people they impact. Exploring the political calculations is essential to understanding the contradictions that surround this President.   

Since the fall of Baghdad and the initiation of the rebuilding of Iraq, the company with close ties to Vice President Cheney, Halliburton, through subsidiary Kellog, Brown, & Root (KBR), has been awarded contracts worth in the range of $10 to $12 billion. Approximately twenty-five percent (25%) of this amount was awarded as a no-bid contract. The bulk of the remaining contracts were negotiated as cost-plus contracts which guarantees a profit margin regardless of strict and effective cost management and oversight. Halliburton has been under intense scrutiny and criticism for accounting errors and other questionable appropriation procedures. The government in 2004, under intense pressure from Halliburton critics, also withheld the payment of $186 million in payments for food services in 2004 after accusations that the company had billed more meals than actually provided. The company was also fined $7.5 million in 2004 by the Securities and Exchange Commission for failing to disclose a change in accounting practices. It was reported in January 2006 that Halliburton intends to sell a minority share in KBR through a stock IPO. News of the reported offering sent share prices up nearly 5 percent to slightly less than $80 dollars per share.

The program to rebuild Iraq has garnered extensive criticism from political opponents of the President and Vice President, but also from lesser sized contractors who felt shut out of the process. Iraqi contractors also voiced concerns. Local companies, with Iraqi employees in need of work after the fall of the Hussein regime, were often excluded from the contracting process, thereby limiting the amount of reconstruction funding available to actually impact and improve the devastated Iraqi economy. The administration has maintained that very few contractors were equipped to take on the significant tasks needed to rebuild Iraq. Further, they argued that KBR, by taking on the projects, was working under extreme conditions at great risk to their employees which warranted monetary consideration under the contracts. Consequently, the vast majority of contracts were awarded to KBR while most of the remaining awards went to a handful of large American companies.

During this same time frame the President announced a $15 billion dollar initiative over five years to combat HIV. The program has been slow to mobilize and received international criticism when far short of the expected first $3 billion was allocated during the first year. The administration defended the slow funding, contending that a network to provide services and distribute medications needed to be implemented before the money could be used effectively. Many in the HIV funding and services community disagreed with this assessment but, aside from criticism, little could be done to accelerate the administrations position. Funding has since accelerated in the subsequent years, albeit not to the levels anticipated when the program was announced, however the criticism has shifted to a new front. Critics now contend that the administration's focus on funding abstinence programs rather that condom usage, coupled with the preferential awarding of contracts to religious groups, has the potential to limit the effectiveness of the much needed resources.

The Associated Press reports some interesting data that provides a glimpse into the administrations efforts to target awards to lesser known and established, as well as nontraditional aid providers. An aggressive effort is underway to find new religious and church based partners that share the administrations message of abstinence. Awarding money to new groups with little AIDS experience has been met with skepticism by a number of the larger, secular, and more established providers. Awarding money to new groups with little AIDS experience has been met with skepticism by a number of the larger, secular, and more established providers. Currently, nearly a quarter of the funding is going to these smaller fledgling organizations and experts warn that their lack of AIDS experience and expertise may diminish the impact of long sought and much needed funding dollars. There are indications that the administration, rather than considering these concerns, intends to expand their directive. The New Partners Initiative has earmarked $200 million for church and community groups. Some of these groups have experience in Africa but not necessarily with HIV and others have no governmental grant history. While the results of this AIDS initiative remain inconclusive, it's undeniably an important and significant effort in the fight against AIDS. Progress has been made and few would assert that the program is failing or will eventually fail. However, there are many AIDS experts who contend that the abstinence emphasis doesn't address the social and cultural realities of many of the regions receiving such assistance. This criticism is muted by the fact that any funding is seen as an improvement.

The rebuilding of Iraq and the Global HIV/AIDS Initiative offer two examples of the Bush administration that demonstrate the frustration many feel when trying to distinguish fact from fabrication. The discordance in the approach to these two issues leaves one questioning the motivations, intentions, and sincerity of an administration that likes to portray itself as steadfast in its principles. One program rewards experience and proven abilities; the other program discounts experience and ability. One program consolidates services in a few large corporations; the other program seeks numerous small service providers. Both programs appear to show favoritism...one to well connected business associates...the other to ideological partners. This President likes to say that he doesn't concern himself with polling data. He asserts he's going to do what he believes regardless of its popularity. That strategy has been a Republican mainstay since it began directing this brand of criticism towards his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Republicans found that accusing the President or other Democratic opponents of shifting their positions dependent on polling data made Republicans appear principled while painting Democrats as vote chasers and panderers. This administrations calculation has long been to determine a salable set of principles, then stay on message regardless of the degree to which they adhere or deviate from that message in actual policymaking.

Karl Rove, the 'architect' and a brilliant strategist has been successfully championing one simple hypothesis...the voting public is lazy. Here's the equation...people are busy...both parents work in most households...they get their news in thirty second sound bites...they attempt to distinguish integrity and principles from the consistency of a politician's message...if you craft a message that appeals to a majority constituency and then repeat that message religiously...you will keep those voters even if you don't deliver so long as you keep saying that you want to and you will. This works because simultaneously they begin to point out the opposition's complex message. Democrats, albeit with good intentions, believe that if they can just get the public to listen to the details, they can demonstrate that the opponent isn't sharing all the facts...that issues have nuances and if the public will take the time to educate themselves, they will see the merits of their nuanced positions. This fails miserably despite being rational and reasonable...and it fails because they don't understand the voters.The 2004 presidential election is a perfect example. Rove instinctively found John Kerry's vulnerability..."I actually voted for it before I voted against it"...an indictment of only ten words. If that isn't enough convincing proof, look at the debates. One could quibble over whether Kerry won two or three debates but one can't argue that Kerry didn't win. The problem is that he won on detail and depth which takes time, attention, and can't be sold in a thirty second sound bite. The best analogy may be 'you don't sell ice to an eskimo.' The Republicans then 'swiftboated' Kerry's primary appeal in well timed spots and the race was over. Democrats will continue to struggle so long as they refuse to acknowledge this counterintuitive, yet fully real, construct.

The contradictions in the management of the rebuilding of Iraq and the Global HIV/AIDS Initiative are apparent and legitimate indictments of this administrations incongruent and inconsistent actions. However effective the data, it is an impotent weapon in the political battle to defeat this administration. Granted, the data tells a story and, at a minimum, points out the discrepancies in the oft spoken sound bites that have become the hallmark of this Presidency. From these examples, one can make the case for a number of conclusions...this President demonstrates blatant cronyism, there is a predisposition to work with connected insiders and manipulate contracted arrangements, they are burgeoning theocrats who have blurred the lines between church and state, their actions are incompetent, bias is being institutionalized, their actions are corrupt. At the very least, something is wrong...and yet in the absense of the ability to tailor the message to the political terrain, Democrats will continue to win the battles but lose the war. It's the message, stupid!

Daniel DiRito | February 7, 2006 | 9:58 PM | link | Comments (0)
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What Would Bill Buckley Say? genre: Tongue-In-Cheek

"What Would Bill Buckley Say?" is a recurring posting here at Thought Theater. The intention of the category "Tongue-In-Cheek" is to provide some comical thoughts that might elicit a laugh or two. I've always found it fascinating to listen to William F. Buckley speak. Much of what he says, for me, walks the fine line between intellectual genius and laugh out loud temerity. Given the breadth of his intellect, I've often wondered how often he's made comments simply for the sporting value they might afford. Regardless, this category will attempt to mimic his expansive use of language to satirize current news and events.

This first entry involves an internet flame war that took place last November. The background involved one blogger's participation in a discussion at another blog about the Alito nomination and abortion that spiraled into accusations of trolling, libel, and lawsuits. Paul Deignan of info-theory.blogspot.com, the party accused of trolling and the party bringing forth the potential lawsuit against a pair of Professors, including Wallace Hettle and the owner of the other blog, bitchphd.blogspot.com, became the object of intense debate. His unyielding litigious pursuit of what many felt was merely a common occurence of heated internet banter inspired this tongue-in-cheek entry:

What Would Bill Buckley say about the Deignan, Hettle, Bitchphd flame war?:

Cognizant of the machinations of the psychosocial continuum, I would ask the cynic citizen to consider the juxtaposition of the ephemeral and the esoteric when analyzing Mr. Deignan in the abstract.

Daniel DiRito | February 6, 2006 | 1:16 PM | link
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Merry Mary genre: Rhyme-N-Reason

The category "Rhyme-N-Reason" is intended to be a place to share poetry that stimulates thoughtful reflection. For me, writing poetry is cathartic. It's a way to encapsulate a group of feelings or thoughts that might be on my mind such that when I'm done writing, I experience a level of resolve that is both comforting and motivational. It has the same effect for me as listening to a song with which one has a significant connection. It takes you somewhere you've been or to something you've felt or experienced and allows you to further interpret the intended meaning or the lesson learned. Hopefully this can be a place for readers to pause and reflect on their own thoughts and feelings. Your comments are welcomed as well as any poetry you might want to share.

The first entry is a poem I wrote called Merry Mary. I've written about Holidays before and I think this poem is about another aspect of Holidays that has always captured my attention. It seems particularly around Christmas that I notice so many unhappy and lonely faces. You see them in the car next to you at a stoplight or in line at the grocery or department store. I used to try to ignore what it made me think and feel but I recently decided to embrace and explore it further. So much effort goes into Christmas that it seems to become synonymous with the expression - the anticipation exceeds the actual event.

The effort and the pressure to make one day so meaningful seems to discount the days spent toiling to get there. It never seems like a reasonable trade off and I'm convinced it's what I see on the faces of so many. Our preoccupation with big events like Christmas, the Super Bowl, Valentines Day, Mothers and Fathers Day, and so on diminishes the value of the 'any old day'...those many nondescript days when a phone call or an email might be exactly what one needs but its not given or received because we no longer seem to find time to celebrate those we know and care about except during the big events...if at all. Merry Mary is about someone in need of one of those phone calls.

Merry Mary

Hey Mary its Christmas night
Not gonna make it, are you alright?
Let’s get together, I have your gift
Can’t wait to see you, you’re really missed

Nutmeg drinks and soda pop leaves
An ornament hangs upon the tree

Pass the glass of bubbly potion
The redeye flight to her emotions

Chinese lanterns light the mantle
Hollow days make tabloid scandals

Hey Mary its Christmas night
Not gonna make it, are you alright?
Let’s get together, I have your gift
Can’t wait to see you, you’re really missed

Wet the ice and roll it twice
Candy canes are sweet tonight

Empty juice cans fill the aisles
The auto pilot pushed the miles

Smokey water and blackened ash
Find your floater before the crash

Hey Mary its Christmas night
Not gonna make it, are you alright?
Let’s get together, I have your gift
Can’t wait to see you, you’re really missed

Push some snowballs in the snow
Snowman’s eyes are made of stone

Shoot the eight ball, solids or stripes
Fasten your seatbelts, its time for flight

Another one way trip, it’s such a downer
No fog on the mirror when they found her

Hey Mary its Christmas night
Not gonna make it, are you alright?
Let’s get together, I have your gift
Can’t wait to see you, you’re really missed

Maybe New Years, let’s make it happen?
Drinks and dinner, lots of laughing

Mary won’t be coming, her party’s over now
Mary’s Christmas cheer, hung on a heavy bow


Daniel DiRito | February 6, 2006 | 12:14 PM | link | Comments (0)
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The Chick Flick Trick genre: Gaylingual & Uncivil Unions

Much has been written about Brokeback Mountain and the reasons that a large number of heterosexual men might criticize it or decide against seeing such a movie. There is a contingent that argues homophobia guides many of these men who avoid seeing Brokeback Mountain. While this may be a partial explanation, I would argue that a larger construct is at play. This argument has its origin in the notions surrounding the label ‘chick flick’. That term has always troubled me and I’ve often wondered who coined the phrase and when it was adopted as a valid explanation of male movie watching preferences, let alone descriptive of some inherent male characteristics.

Underlying the term ‘chick flick’ is the insinuation that men prefer to avoid emotions and relationship movies that are considered primarily appealing to women. Supporting this contention is the widely held belief that numerous men prefer that women refrain from initiating discussions about emotions and feelings. The question is why? Some might argue that there is an innate male struggle with intimacy. In order to fully understand this phenomenon one has to search for a more fundamental truth. If one were to simply accept this notion, one might wonder why any man would ever get married or settle down with a wife and children. Doing so would obviously be contrary to this relationship and emotion averse paradigm. To unearth the questionable attributions that belie this rationale, one needs to look no further than any group of unmarried heterosexual male friends. Routinely, as these men marry, they begin a process that appears contrary to the group mantra of male independence and detachment. Slowly, over time, the entire group ends up married and often without any real discussion of the process or its motivation. If one were to fill in the unspoken blanks, one might conclude that these men, while denying their interest in emotions and relationships, have a real and powerful predisposition for that which they routinely ridicule...emotions and relationships. That would be an easy answer but one lacking sufficient review. The essential question is what motivations lie beneath these apparent contradiction...or more importantly, why can't these simplistic attributions be applied across the board?

If one were to assume that men as a group are relationship and emotion averse, one must also hypothesize that women, in their desire to have a relationship, reconcile to select men regardless of obtaining a satisfactory emotional connection. What else could account for the prevalence of marriage given this purported divide? At the same time many religious types (where most ministers and preachers are men) sing the praises of family and fidelity while readily affiliating with this group of ‘chick flick’ naysayer’s. How can these disconnects be explained? It can’t if one subscribes to the fundamentals of honesty. Pushing on, it might be worthwhile to explore if this ‘chick flick’ phenomenon actually explains what is lacking in many heterosexual relationships. This would mean that women, in the absence of a satisfactory emotional connection, find movies an outlet to experience the level of intimacy and vulnerability they cannot obtain with their spouse. Whatever your conclusion, the commentary on the unspoken mechanics of the institution of marriage is unmistakable. If you pursue this argument, it begins to unravel the societal dilemma that remains the silent ‘gorilla in the room’. Spoken in unmitigated terminology, a misogynistic hierarchy is still alive and well.

The marriage of George and Laura Bush exemplifies this assertion. George Bush, with low popularity, serves as the leader of the country. He’s an avowed evangelical with a dubious self-confessed ‘moral’ past but he routinely promotes the notion of a conventional family which includes his clear opposition to gay marriage and abortion. His wife, Laura, highly popular, with an arguably preferential moral history, who favors choice, sits powerless and secondary to the political positions her husband champions. In essence, her husband seeks authority to determine what defines a marriage and what his wife does with her body. The conventional explanation of the ‘chick flick’ theory fails miserably to expose the subplot of this dynamic. He and many men are not averse to movies with subject matter that centers on emotions and relationships due to some inherent male trait rendering them uncomfortable or unable to experience intimacy. Rather, it’s about understanding that giving priority to emotions and relationships would undermine the ability to exert power over others and satisfy their more fundamental desire…obtaining unchallenged male authority.

To further examine this theory, one might also look at the disconnect that exists between the prevalence of infidelity in men and the predominance of men in positions of religious authority. It’s not difficult to observe the frequency of indiscretions and infidelities amongst primarily male cleric and clergy. The fact that numerous scandals involve men in positions of political authority and religious deference is not by accident. Regardless, these men remain in charge of both institutions despite consistent demonstrations of failed stewardship. The objective and the spoils of politics and religion are thus synonymous…unchallenged male authority couched in moral platitudes and obtuse rhetoric.

Coming back to Brokeback Mountain, I would propose that the ‘chick flick’ aspersion, offered by a number of men, simply demonstrates a more heinous incidence of male insincerity and deceit. Only when men and women decide to dismantle the flawed constructs that typify these types of heterosexual relationships will there be any serious illumination of the misguided motivations that perpetuate such vernacular. Many men want power and authority and the clearest obstacle to that objective is acceding ambition to emotions or relationships. Therefore by allowing women the pleasures of a ‘click flick’ seems a small price to pay for the real prize…the uncontested pursuit of power and position while still retaining a more or less on demand access to female genitalia.

With Brokeback Mountain, one man ‘submitting’ to another man is not only absolutely anathema to the ascribed structure…it undermines the entire construct. To further demonstrate that it’s also not simply about homophobia in the context of homosexual sex, but more about a societal hierarchy, one need only look at many men's fascination with two women engaged in sex…lesbianism…although they rarely verbalize it as such. For these men, two women together does not threaten the model but two men together most certainly does. The ‘fag hag’ phenomenon, whereby a heterosexual woman finds a relationship with a gay man more fulfilling of her emotional needs despite the absence of sexual contact, offers additional support to this argument. Succinctly, homosexual relationships threaten the entrenched heterosexual societal hierarchy of this powerful group of men.

Brokeback Mountain can be allowed to assuage female emotional connections as a ‘chick flick’ but it cannot emerge as social commentary such that it exposes and threatens the status quo. Homosexuality, in and of itself, is not the issue. This subtle distinction is the essence of the issue. An ironic yet poignant aside is that in this movie, the women characters experience these same unfulfilling relationships and lack of emotional connection. Nonetheless, many women viewers, whose husbands remain detached and at home, praise the movie as they find a kinship with the two male characters and their real, yet unachievable love. Sadly, it unintentionally and counterintuitively serves to bolster the assertion that unchallenged male authority approaches a fully accepted and ingrained status.

Framing this struggle in moralistic doctrine is merely a continuation of the practices employed by religious institutions for centuries whereby that which threatens the established order must be condemned. Its no surprise that a growing alliance to oppose homosexuals is being forged between religious institutions and political movements…both seeking the same outcome…power and control that is beyond question or criticism and clearly seated in the heterosexual male. The employment of this 'chick flick' ideology is akin to the wolf in sheep’s clothing. For these men to retain dominance, Alpha must defeat Lambda.

Daniel DiRito | February 3, 2006 | 5:45 PM | link | Comments (0)
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