Friday, June 26, 2009

How We Failed Michael Jackson

He was five years old when we began to pay attention to him, and we’ve been paying attention to him ever since.
That about sums it up.

Could you live to fifty with that kind of constant attention? Sure, the lonely, isolated, and eventually pathetic man that had become Michael Jackson craved the attention, he sought it out, he even orchestrated much of it, but every parent knows that the best way to kill the purity of a child, the good nature of a developing human being, is to either smother him with adulation he could never live up to, or to constantly reinforce negative behavior with undeserved praise and reward. We have, as a culture, been complicit in raising Michael by that same toxic formula.

But, obviously, that’s not all there is to say about Michael Jackson’s tragic life, and not too surprising death. We love our entertainment royalty in this country. We like to discover them, particularly when they’re still children, or adolescents. We like to build them up, we like to watch them succeed, and then, we like even more, to watch them fall, to fail, to eventually self-destruct, burdened by the weight of our impossible and unrealistic expectations. If that self-destruction culminates in their premature death, we then glorify, and deify them for all the ‘joy’ they’ve given us through their own miserable lives, and diminishing work. It, somehow, helps us feel better about ourselves. It’s twisted, I know, but nevertheless, it’s how things happen.

I am one who has always been opposed to ‘blood-line’ royalty, like they have in the U.K. But it seems to me that, since we create our own royalty in the U.S. anyway, we might be better off following their lead, appointing a royal family who would succeed one another by birth, a family upon which we would place no expectations except to exist as figureheads. It would satisfy our need for idol worship, and spare the truly talented artists, writers, actors, musicians, and entertainers the worship and adulation that eventually kills them.
In a perfect world.

As a child Michael Jackson was trained by an unscrupulous father to please you and me, to capture our attention, to reach into our pockets, take our money, and bring it home to papa, much like an organ grinder’s monkey collecting dollar bills from people on the sidewalk. (Please, no racial accusations. You know what I mean.) Michael performed, and he performed well. We lapped it up. We loved him, and yes, we gave his father our money. It soon became apparent that Michael’s talent no longer required the controlling strings of his father. He hooked up with powerful entertainment executives, and the mega-producer Quincy Jones, to develop his talent, to forge his own identity, to make his own money. We followed him through the transition, supported his creativity, took pride in his development like we would one of our own children, and watched his success skyrocket like no other child/young man before him. We loved his music, and he became an entertainer extraordinaire, perhaps the greatest entertainer ever. He made us feel good inside. He made our entire culture want to dance.
But something disturbing was happening with Michael Jackson.

Michael was changing. His voice was changing, his appearance was changing, and his behavior was changing. We found it fascinating. We talked about it. In fact, we could not stop talking about it. Michael, the peculiar and eccentric entertainer. We were enthralled. Cosmetic surgeries began molding him into the frightening image of a confused adolescent. But he was a grown man. Michael had the money to do whatever he wanted, and he’d chosen to re-construct his own face. He sculpted his nose to look like Peter Pan, he cut his lips off in denial of being a black man, and he even began to bleach his skin to emphasize the point. Michael was self-destructing before our eyes, his self-loathing had reached a dangerous level, and we loved every minute of it. He was dressing like Royalty, with his white glove (s) and regal jackets, his puffy shirts, and his medallions. He named himself the King of Pop. We were fascinated, and we began to kiss his ring at every opportunity.
We ‘smothered him with adulation, and reinforced his behavior with undeserved praise and reward’.

Michael Jackson married Priscilla Presley to bolster his position as music royalty. He married (hired) a woman to bear his children, and then made it impossible for her to see them. Michael began making performance commitments, taking the money up-front, and then canceling the tours after the promoters had spent millions of dollars on the endeavors. He was becoming unscrupulous. Michael had become a full-fledged pill head, unpredictable, and untrustworthy, and we, as fans, continued to prop him up at every opportunity.

Michael began to whisper, he began to speak like a child, he began to act like a child, and he began to sleep with children not his own. Michael began to pretend that he did not even understand common adult concepts, or concerns. He professed a childlike innocence, and ignorance, relating to any behavior that raised the eyebrows of even the most casually concerned among us. Over time, Michael morphed himself into a modern day Pied Piper. He built Neverland while we watched, and wondered. He gathered children around himself like the ice-cream man, and we dismissed it all as the benevolent actions of a sensitive, caring, if misunderstood soul. Michael was becoming, before our eyes, deceitful, disingenuous, and possibly dangerous, to children, and to himself. We continued to observe things from a distance, but disregarded our own suspicions while Michael hid his own perverse behaviors in plain sight. When things got too hot for him, when even a minimal degree of accountability was required of him, he would become sick and check himself into a hospital. It was a pattern he repeated over and over throughout the past ten or fifteen years. Juries would also refuse to hold Michael responsible for his behavior. All accountability would, ultimately, be dismissed on the heels of our sympathy.
He was, after all, a product of our own creation.

Michael’s journey reads like a Greek tragedy. It is rife with joy, and with despair. It is a story replete with Michael’s darkness, and with the darkness of our own hearts as well. We are the same person. It is a morality tale, lacking only in morality. It is the story of a crippled man, of a broken, lonely man, isolated by the adulation of his, otherwise, well-intentioned, fans. It is a lesson for each of us to take to heart, to consider how we relate to those who move and entertain us.

I only hope there is peace now for this intensely talented, but profoundly, and perpetually troubled man.

Because there has not yet been an autopsy, we don’t know specifically what killed The King of Pop.
But really, I think we do.
Personally, and as a culture, we have failed Michael Jackson.

‘He was five years old when we began to pay attention to him, and we’ve been paying attention to him ever since.
That about sums it up.’

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fear Of Our Own Defense

Our relationship to the idea of guns, and gun ownership is shaped, at least partially, by the stories the media chooses to disseminate. If a man with mental problems shoots his wife and children anywhere in the U.S., or a disgruntled worker, or student, shoots up a job site, or school, it ends up on the front page of every paper, and is a headline on every Internet News site. And in the aftermath of such an occurrence it is always the same, a renewed push for the elimination of gun ownership among private citizens, as if the men would not have obtained guns illegally to harm their families, co-workers, or fellow students.
The hard facts of these situations are that, had someone else in the workplace, or school had a gun, the loss of life would have been minimized, or even eliminated. And if the prospective shooter knew that many of his fellow students, or co-workers, carried guns he would probably not have put himself in the situation to begin with. As our culture has become a ‘Gun Free Zone’ for good guys, any idiot can surmise that if he wants to do someone harm, he can feel fairly assured that his would be the only gun on the scene.

A host of news reports about a school shooting in which several students were killed decried the fact that the killer used a gun, but made no mention of the fact that an off-duty policeman in the vicinity of the school, hearing the shooting, ran a hundred yards to the campus and killed the assailant before he was able to take the lives of even more students. No one on that campus, including campus security, carried a gun. I said, “No one on that campus, including campus SECURITY carried a gun.” Essentially, they were all victims. The off duty cop was a hero, he saved many lives with his bravery and quick response, but in the vast majority of major news outlets there was virtually no mention of him having come to the aid of the campus. Why do you suppose?
Well, let me take a guess. Because it demonstrated, in quite a dramatic fashion, the importance of citizens being able to protect themselves, and others, from the actions of a demented few? Prior to the off-duty cop’s arrival on the scene, everyone on that campus was at the mercy of one deranged individual. The only reason we ever heard about this cop is that he and his family began speaking out about the importance of law-abiding citizens being able to protect themselves. It was reported as a minor detail in the initial story in the local paper, and was intentionally overlooked in the national media.

For every sensational shooting there are a thousand instances of people having been protected, or saved, by a gun owner. You will never hear about those people. It just does not suit the agenda of those wishing for you to remain powerless, subservient, and dependent upon them for (the illusion of) your safety. It is much more newsworthy (sensational) to read about an individual getting murdered by a handgun, than it is to read about someone preventing a murder, a robbery, or an assault, with a handgun.

You may be opposed to private citizens carrying guns, because that’s what you’ve been conditioned to think, but if someone walked into your office and started shooting up the place, you’d kiss the shoes of the guy who pulled a weapon out of his desk drawer and stopped the carnage before it got around to you. Where the rubber meets the road, that’s how we know what we really believe, regardless of what we may profess. The rest is just psycho-babble.

All these wealthy ‘progressive’ politicians, and social engineering phonies who want to take your rights and leave you unprotected? Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret; they own guns. That’s right, folks; they own guns. They’ve got one in every desk and on every night stand in their house. The Dianne Feinstein’s and Barbara Boxer’s of the world? Politicians who not only support, but push, agendas to disallow your ownership of guns? Well, what a surprise, they just happen to be registered gun owners. They understand the importance of self-protection. They just don’t want you to have the same rights they do. Imagine that, politicians practicing a double standard. Who would’ve thought? I’m not making this up. Check it for yourself, it’s on record. Are their lives any more important than yours?
Gavin Newsome, the mayor of San Francisco, the guy who tried to make San Francisco a ‘gun-free zone’, do you actually think he doesn’t own one? Several? He’s not an idiot. He knows that the guy that breaks into his house is going to have a gun, and he knows he better have one too. Is his life any more important than yours?

And we wonder why the bad guys dominate our society like they do.
We wonder why we feel so powerless.
It’s like if we chose to surrender our nuclear weapons, but China, North Korea, and the Russians, got to keep theirs.
How well do you think that would work out for us?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Being A Father

Being a father is something it would be good to have a trial run at. Unfortunately, whoever designed the rules for life didn’t build that option into the equation. You are either a father, or you are not. It’s not like the Olympic time trials, or anything like that. They don’t give you a qualifying meet, or a practice run to hone your skills, your timing, or your understanding of the event. You’re just not a father one moment, and then you are. It happens that quickly. Oh sure, some men practice by getting a dog, or by sitting for an hour with a friends baby while she gets her hair done, and that’s helpful, but lets face it, that’s not even pretend fatherhood. That’s really just pet ownership, and momentary baby watching.

But, although there is no real substitute for actually being a father, there is a School of Fatherhood. It’s called ‘the experience of your own father’. Problem there is, you’ve got to be discriminating and choose the school very carefully. Like with communities, there are some good schools, there are some bad schools, and there are some really bad schools. Some people move their families miles away from their active lives just to live in a district where there is a really good school. Because, the thing is, whichever school you end up attending, you’re going to learn something there. You’re going to learn some really good things in a good school, and you’re going to learn some really lousy things in a bad school. Sure, you might learn a little bad from the good, and a little good from the bad, but the over-riding influence is going to coincide with the nature, and character, of the particular environment. There’s no way around it.

And so it is with ‘the experience of your own father’. There are some good ones, and some bad ones. There are some loving fathers, and some brutal ones. There are complete fathers, and some broken ones. Some are well meaning, while some are rife with indifference. There are those who do the very best they can, and those who gave up that struggle a long time ago. A child who wakes up daily to a good, loving, well-meaning, and motivated father is going to have those qualities instilled in him/her from an early age. I think we all know that. And, unfortunately, the converse of that is equally true. The experience of one’s own father is one’s primary education in fatherhood. It is both one’s training, and one’s blueprint for actually being a father himself. Those who have been fortunate enough to have good fathers need only make minor adjustments in the practice of fatherhood to be equally successful in the role. However, those who have grown up with fathers battling personal demons, driven by ambition, crippled by alcoholism, or beaten down by life, are likely to spend many years, as young fathers, just trying to sort out what being a father actually means. That’s a lot of negative reinforcement to get past in order to get to the magnanimity of fatherhood. Yes, magnanimity. In my mind, it is the best conceivable definition of fatherhood. Magnanimity: ‘Great generosity or noble-spiritedness’. Magnanimous: ‘Very generous, kind, or forgiving’. Qualities that actually contain most of the other character traits a child would want in a father.

It seems to me that children absorb their mothers, but tend to study their fathers. I know, that can be construed as a really sexist, and controversial, statement, but that opinion does not make it any less true. The image I have is of a child breast feeding (absorbing his mother), while looking across the room at this strange man (studying his father), wondering who he is, and what he’s doing here. All the while, the child thinking, “I better keep an eye on this guy.” And he/she continues to do that throughout his/her development, and throughout the father’s life. The mother, being more accepting by nature, is generally more accepted and embraced by the child for just being mom. That’s what the child has learned. But dads become more the standard by which children measure themselves, and the example (positive or negative) through which the child sees the world. And I AM going to say something controversial now. I believe the same is true of the male, and of the female child. I believe that children expect, and most often receive, acceptance from the mother, but seek approval from the father. With the incredible absentee rate of fathers in the home today, is it any wonder that so many young females are growing up to be personally, and socially, out of control? Being out of control has long been the semi-exclusive domain of boys, and young men, who have imitated irresponsible fathers, or who have failed to receive the approval necessary for their development as men, and potential fathers themselves. Girls, and young women, however, seem to be rapidly surpassing boys, and young men, on the recklessness chart.

Fathers Day is a good time to, not only honor your own father, but to reflect upon the kind of father you would like to be. It is a good time to give pause, to consider the particular School of Fatherhood that you attended, the impressionable experience of your own father. It is a good time to commit to the example set by him, were he a good one, or to reject the model he may have created for you if he were not. Take portions of who he is, and discard others, if that is what works for you. In any event, there are fathers in, or around, your life who may not necessarily be your own, but men you can emulate, men you can know will enable you to be a father of profound, and honorable, influence for your child.

And that is what’s important.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sake's Bones

I dug up my cat’s bones yesterday. His name was Socrates. I called him Sake. I’d buried him a couple of years ago, a few feet from the place where he died. He’d gotten too old to defend himself against the pack of dogs that had hounded him for years. Sake was not afraid of them, but they were always afraid of him. Sake slept in the sun with one eye open, while they never quite mustered the courage to get too close. But finally, in his weakened condition from age and arthritis, the dogs ended their long and frustrating struggle wrestling with the bravado of their own nature. They moved in like a carload of gang bangers. They killed my cat, and left him laying there, their compulsive mission finally accomplished.

Sake wanted to be napping in the sun, and he knew the risks. I knew the risks as well, but it was clear, Sake would rather die on his own terms than live in confinement under someone else’s. It’s a choice we both made. The dogs were not going to go away, they were a permanent part of the rural environment. We knew that very well. All things considered, the outcome was inevitable. We had sixteen good years together though, Sake and me.

I’d buried him in my T-shirt, the one I was wearing when I found him. Digging him up a few days ago was actually a joyous moment in time for me. I brought him to our new home, his new home, and final resting place. I brought the rock I’d found that was the exact shape of his body when I found him lying on the ground. I placed it over his resting place. And I brought the 150 lb. rock I used for his headstone. They will remain with him. It is both the completion, and a continuation, of his unusual life.

Our lives together began when I was working as the Senior Counselor at a substance abuse rehabilitation clinic in San Francisco. One of my clients brought a little three-week old kitten into my office and said she found him in the street. His whiskers were burned; he was disheveled, cold, and abandoned, much too young to be without his mother, in desperate need of a surrogate. I told my client I’d keep him. Because he could not be left alone, I brought him to work with my every day. I fed him milk from a bottle. He lay quietly in my desk drawer during counseling sessions, snuggling my unlaundered T-shirts to bond with my scent, and he lazed on my desktop between sessions. Ultimately, he proved to have a tremendous humanizing affect on my clients. I named him Sake, and it seemed as if almost everyone on my caseload was anxious to keep up on his progress and development. Sake served as a mirror image for many of them in many ways, and he gave them something outside of themselves to care about and make an emotional investment in. As they participated in his gradual recovery, they experienced their own as well. Those days were filled with small miracles, prompted by an innocent, abused, and abandoned little kitty.

As Sake grew older I began to leave him alone at home during the day. He acclimated to my apartment, and enjoyed his afternoon naps on the sunny deck. I fixed him up with a litter box made out of a large skylight. It was more like a sandbox than a litter box, with sand I’d collect from Ocean Beach. It took up most of my bathroom, but I didn’t care, he was deserving of a royal sandbox. He had a pretty rough beginning. I later taught Sake to use the toilet, but that lasted for only a couple of months because, with my increased need to be away from the apartment, I became lax in the supervision. Anyway, he was a pretty damn smart cat.

Since back in 1973 I’d always worn a small gold hoop earring. Sake and I were partners, of sorts, and he wore a small gold hoop earring to match my own. I did the piercing myself, the old fashioned way with a needle and a potato. No squirming, whimpering, or complaining from Sake. Not a shiver, and not a sound. He trusted me implicitly. The earring immediately became just part of who he was. I can’t really explain it. Those who knew him understood that. It was just Sake. It was just him.
Sake was also a retriever. I can’t explain that either. I built a ramp for him from the floor to the ceiling, against a wall in my small apartment, with a series of switchbacks and landings. Something for him to play on, to get some exercise, and help him to keep from being bored indoors. Sake would run up and down that ramp. I’d throw something up to one of the landings, or all the way to the top, and he’d run up to retrieve it, bring it back down, and drop it in my hands, or at my feet. He always preferred retrieving bent up pipe cleaners to anything else. It was a pretty remarkable thing for a cat to do, but again, it was Sake. It was just Sake.

Later, when I lived in Glen Ellen, in the Sonoma Valley, a rural area north of San Francisco, I built another ramp for him from the window to the ground so he could go in and out of the house on his own. Sake was an independent cat. “Independent Cat” sounds like a redundancy, but he really was his own creature. He rode on my motorcycle with me, enjoyed canoeing with my wife and I, camping, following me on walks, the whole gamut of life that you would not necessarily associate with a cat.

I have a fond memory of one morning when my wife and I were beginning a trip down the coast for a stay at Pismo Beach, before going on to San Clemente for a family visit. We were in the car, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, about an hour from home, when we heard a faint sound coming from the rear of the car. It sounded like a whimper, or a cry, just barely audible. In fact, it was so faint that we each questioned whether or not we’d actually heard anything at all. But as we listened more intently we heard it again. My wife reached around to the back seat, and pulled open the little seat divider that allows access to the inside of the trunk. I was watching in the rearview mirror as Sake, looking both relieved, and embarrassed, shyly poked his familiar face through the opening to announce that he was going to Pismo Beach with us. Watching us pack, and knowing we were leaving, he’d jumped in the trunk just before we closed it up for the trip.

He wanted to be with us.
That was Sake. It was just him.

I can see the rock outside my window.
The one under which he now rests.
A comforting reminder, a strong sentinel,
guarding Sake’s bones.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The View Is Different

Well, it's been a while, and I hope you haven't yet forgotten me. I'm finally moved, but still only partially settled. The process has been grueling, and quite demanding mentally and physically, but well worth the toll on my not-so-quickly-recovering body. In any event, I've been finding some moments in the very early morning to begin to get back to my writing.

The view is different from here. Not just the external view, but the internal one as well. Geography does change things. We bring ourselves along wherever we go, but we mix with a new setting to form a different dynamic within ourselves, one that has never been formed before. It is true wherever we go, wherever we are.

The stress level alone, for example, increases, or diminishes; depending on the particular environment we might find ourselves in. For me, in this one, it has already begun to decrease dramatically. When I leave my home now, the route takes me down, and along, a beautiful meandering mountain road six miles into town. I do not have to drive through traffic and congestion to get someplace, nor do I on the return home. There are lakes near by, there is the river, and there are the creeks. There are trails for walking and riding. Unlike in the urban, or suburban centers, there is a natural order of things here. There is a sense of peace, of tranquility, of oneness with myself, with my own soul. There is a sense of being here, a sense of permanence, rather than the feeling of being waylaid on the way to someplace else.

Different environments create different responses in different people. This setting creates an optimistic one for me, and a thankful one. The happiness quotient is at optimum. I can breathe here, I can think, I can hear the proverbial sounds of silence. And when the silence is gone, it is only because the birds have joined together in song. A natural choir, in perfect harmony, and in perfect pitch, unlike my feeble efforts at communicating my own songs, there is no struggle in their sound.

I can walk with my wife, and with my dog, Chica, on my own land, on the trails that run from the house, past the barn, by small green meadow’s, through lush and beautiful forest, connecting me to earth, and sky, like tall pines have connected the two for ages. I wish each of you could share this with me.

The view is different here. From inside myself,
and through my own window.