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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Muhammad Ali, The Greatest

This past weekend mourners came from across the globe as thousands from his hometown of Louisville Kentucky lined the streets of his funeral procession. All paying tribute to Muhammad Ali.

Ali universally is recognized with the appellation, “The Greatest”. Years ago, while travelling in London a Pakistani waiter, in difficult-to-understand English, inquired where in America we were from. Upon telling him we lived in Louisville, the waiter immediately replied, “Ah …Muhammad Ali, the Greatest Boxer.”

Muhammad Ali won Olympic Gold in 1960 as the light heavyweight and won the world heavyweight championship in 1964, 1974 and 1978. He was a hero to many and went on to far surpass the realms of boxing.

He also was a poet, recognized for his spoken word albums with two Grammy Award nominations, a humanitarian and a man of religious convictions. Numerous LGBT athletes praised Ali for his authenticity and activism. 

In Louisville, Ali also was a person you might run into on the street or at an ordinary restaurant.

In the commemorations of Ali’s life as we mourn his passing at age 74, there are a couple of significant aspects that are glossed over in all of the hoopla of this celebration of a life cut short too soon.

The first elephant in the room we seem to be unable to see is how and why Ali went from heroic, to vilified, to now sanctified.

There’s no dispute about the facts. Ali was a complicated, multi-faceted man and his life was not without controversy. In 1964 Ali changed his name to Muhammad Ali from Cassius Clay, what he referred to as his “slave name”. That and his membership in the Nation of Islam or Black Muslims, as it was sometimes called, and his outspokenness in the Civil Rights movement resulted in a host of very negative reactions.

He later converted to mainstream Sunni Islam. Ali, of course, also attracted wide-spread attention when he sought conscientious objector status. He eventually received that designation but not until after he was arrested and fought his conviction all the way to the U.S Supreme Court for his refusal to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.  Although Ali remained free, he was stripped of his title and his boxing license suspended. As the comedian George Carlin intoned, the government had decided that if Ali was unwilling to kill people in war they weren’t going to let him fight people in the boxing ring.

When Ali boxed, he was celebrated by white and black folks alike. But when he spoke, his words elicited hatred, derision and denial from wide segments of America.

During this time, while the media readily referred to actors such as Rock Hudson and Doris Day by the names they had chosen, most of the mainstream media for many years did not show Ali the simple respect to recognize his name change to Muhammad Ali.  

I am old enough to vividly remember the hatred and slurs, the only one I will repeat here, “draft dodger”, that were directed at Ali because of his stance on the Vietnam War and his embrace of minority rights and a religion many didn’t understand.  

Interestingly, the embrace of Ali by mainstream America seems to have coincided with the time, early in his career, when he was just boxing and not yet fully vocalizing his beliefs. And then again in his later years when Parkinson’s for the most part had silenced him. In the early 1990’s one could encounter a mostly silent, shuffling Ali in Louisville, a sad shadow of the proud, strong, outspoken young man he had been.

Today we again are hearing and seeing the same hatred of foreigners, those of another religion, race, sexual orientation, or ethnic group. We are left to wonder what Ali thought about the resurrection of the same ugly hatred that had been hurled at him during his days of speaking his truth to power.

Ironically, the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Trump, the mouthpiece of much of today’s hatred, chimed in to mourn the passing of this boxing legend, barely pausing for breath as he spews forth hatred of everything Ali stood for.  

Another elephant in the room that everyone tiptoes around is the likely cause of Ali’s Parkinson, the disease that robbed him of speech and easy movement for more than the last two decades and that caused his early death.

I recently have heard and read medical experts interviewed about the type of Parkinson’s Ali had. They say they are trying to find ways to help those with Parkinson’s. As one expert put it, scientists are nowhere close to a cure. Instead they are poking at the edges, trying to find drugs that might lessen the impact of dopamine which treats some of Parkinson symptoms but causes difficult side effects all its own.

But where are the experts or opinion leaders calling out for changes in our sports, our culture, our humanity so that young men can become “The Greatest” without engaging in sports resulting in head blows which in turn result in brain damage? Damage that diminishes the quality of and shortens their lives. Boxing, like some other sports with high risk of head trauma, long has been a ticket out of the ghetto for men of color.

Shouldn’t we recognize they have become gladiators who pound each other for our amusement and entertainment? And shouldn’t we do something about that?

Ali was one of the greatest boxers. Maybe the best ever. But he was much more than that. Ask yourself--would we ever have known him if he had not first made his name as a boxer? We all know the likely answer to that question. And when will we live in a sufficiently  evolved society  where we can appreciate the worth of people without having them first engage in activities, for our viewing pleasure, which shorten their lives and rob them of even a middle age with an intact  body and brain.

We will be a truly great nation when we create paths for all of our citizens to achieve their full potential and greatness without destroying themselves or others to please the crowds.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Our Common Humanity

This is a follow up to my last blog. Two commenters have suggested I should have mentioned the sexual orientation of the victims. And one friend strongly reacted to my failure to focus on the fact most of the victims were gay and were targeted while they were at a gay night club.

Let me first say I am sorry for any offense to my friends and readers. I meant no disrespect to the LGBT community in not addressing the sexual orientation of many of the victims. I strongly believe all people regardless of their sexual orientation, race, religion, gender or other characteristics are entitled to the same respect and full human and legal rights.

I also agree the Orlando mass murders were a hate crime. But I need to add--so was the mass murder of African-American Christians in Charleston, South Carolina. And what about the mass murders of kindergarteners and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut? Was that not some type of hate crime?

I won’t list all of the mass murders in the U.S. There are too many and too many supposed reasons. All mass murders are hateful abominations we should try to prevent. We all bleed and die when shot by automatic weapons. We all grieve when our loved ones are killed. 

I reject the analysis that the murderers’ rationales, and thus the identity of those who were killed, should be our main concern. Just as I deliberately do not mention the mass murderers’ names, I think focusing on the possible motives of mass murderers’ gives them too much attention. And is not the most useful way to prevent future such attacks.

Trying to make sense of crazy is a waste of time. The Orlando mass murderer claimed allegiance to ISIS. He is reported to also have claimed he was connected with al Qaeda and Hezbollah; he said he hated Americans, Blacks, gays, women and Jews. 

He apparently cased this gay nightclub and also Disney World. One survivor with multiple guns shot wounds said on the evening news that while she and others were trapped in a bathroom with the shooter he asked if anyone was Black. She then repeated his words, “I wasn’t trying to shoot anyone who was Black. They’ve suffered enough already.”  The survivor who was shot three times appeared to be African-American. Even the FBI has noted the contradictory nature of the shooter’s statements.

One of the many unfortunate results of the Orlando mass shooting is that it has made the LGBT population, like other groups targeted by hate crimes, feel even more vulnerable. But I think we do all of the victims and ourselves a disservice if we allow these mass murderers to divide us into insular groups. We should respectfully mourn all the victims and try to help the survivors. We should also reject any aspect of a religion or ideology that lessens the worth of anyone because of their identity.

Any of us could be in the next nightclub, movie theater, mall, school, medical clinic, government office, or place of worship. If we want to try to stop the next mass murderers, focusing on their possible motives is not nearly as useful as focusing on how they get their weapons, usually military-style assault weapons.

Let’s make military weapons unavailable to civilians. And let’s insist our government make reasonable efforts to keep all guns out of the hands of terrorists, domestic abusers, and crazies.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Love and Hate in America

Just this past weekend I started out writing about how amazing it was to see celebrities and average people come to Louisville, thousands lining the streets, to mourn the passing and celebrate the life of Muhammad Ali. Ali, an African-American man and a Muslim. And a man of peace.

But then real life and tragedy intervened before I posted that essay. Now we are dealing with the aftermath of the largest mass shooting in American history.

It’s probably too early to know what motivated the shooter. He was Muslim and proclaimed he was a supporter of ISIS. He had been on the terror watch list. He also was a domestic abuser with anger issues. And he had easy and legal access to military-style weapons.

So the hate-monger who goes by the name of Donald Trump, who ironically also claims to have been a friend and supporter of Ali, has renewed his call for banning all immigrants who are Muslim. As Trump spews forth his gleeful hatred—tweeting that thousands have congratulated him for “being right” (another lie—fact checkers found only a handful of such tweets) Trump uses this tragedy to sow fear since he believes fear “helps his numbers”.  Trump’s behavior and rhetoric are so eerily reminiscent of nationalistic fascism that it should be making our heads reel.

But no, Trump is not done with his fear mongering and pandering to the worst demons amongst us. He also says he plans to meet with the NRA to find ways to keep Americans safe. There can be no doubt what the NRA’s answer is—more guns in the hands of anyone with the money to buy them.

Appealing to Americans’ fear of those who are different and fear of having their guns taken away, Trump hopes to pull in more votes and more NRA money.

Of course, he ignores the fact that more guns will not keep us safer. But we should not ignore the facts. The myths the NRA relies upon to reap blood money for the sale of weapons are completely rebutted by facts.

1)   The NRA and its ilk like to say, “People not guns kill people.” But in fact, guns, particularly assault and automatic weapons, are extremely effective at killing lots of people. A person with a knife, a baseball bat or a brick can perhaps kill one or two before someone can stop them. A crazy person with an assault weapon can kill dozens or more in the same time.

2)   The NRA is looking to put more guns in the hands of “good guys” who can stop mass shootings. In the real world, an untrained “good guy with a gun” is totally ineffective at stopping a mass shooter.

3) We need to use mental health resources to identify crazy shooters in advance. Sure, many of the mass shooters are crazy. But we have no reliable way to identify who is both crazy and likely to become a killer. So, while efforts to provide mental health services are a great idea there’s no indication that’s likely to prevent the next mass shooting.

4) “The Second Amendment prevents any restrictions on guns in America.” Baloney. Without a long legal dissertation, it should be recognized that the Second Amendment, like all of the Amendments in the Bill of Rights, is subject to reasonable restrictions. For example, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently recognized, there “is no Second Amendment right for members of the general public to carry concealed firearms in public.”

The last thing we need are more guns. There already are as many guns in the U.S. as people. Americans die by guns at an unparalleled rate compared to any other rich, western country.  All those guns have not made Americans safer.

“In the United States, the death rate from gun homicides is about 31 per million people — the equivalent of 27 people shot dead every day of the year. The homicides include losses from mass shootings, like Sunday’s Orlando attack, or the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting last December.” 
No other equivalent country comes anywhere close to the U.S. in the loss of life from guns.

In the aftermath of the Orlando tragedy we need to hear all the voices for peace and love rather than this hate-mongering fascism. We particularly miss the voice of Muhammad Ali, a Muslim and man of peace to rebut the hate-filled fear mongering that is alive and prospering amongst us.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Road Trip and TangentialThoughts

We were driving back from the Nowhere Else music festival in Ohio last weekend. One could go to  many tangential places, real and imagined, with that thought—where do you go when you are leaving Nowhere Else? But that’s too easy a prompt so I won’t go there. But we did take some tangents, at least in thoughts, along the way.

Of course we played music from a variety of the musicians we’d heard. But a car road trip is also a  particularly good location and time, conducive  to chatting and tangential thinking. Why else do so many movies and novels make use of the road trip to move the conversation and dialog along? 

Such plot devices and the movies and novels that utilize them would be a good topic of conversation if one ran out of thoughts. But we had no such dilemma. Close proximity, time, nothing to do but drive and talk. One idea just leads to another. Some are on straight lines, some are tangents.

We talked about the concert highlights, the songs and groups we’d particularly loved. The additional ones we wished we’d heard. How one song leads to thoughts of another  song or another musician. The brain seems to want to flow from tangent to tangent.

How interesting the Nowhere festival had combined art and music.  We contemplated how much fun it would have been to stay another day, join the nature walk with Linford, the song-writing workshop led by Joe Henry, the drawing workshops, and then stay for another afternoon and evening of music. Too bad we hadn’t planned for that extra day.

But there we were in the car heading home through Ohio to Kentucky. And we had our share of tangents of thought. We had seen a rainbow after the skies had cleared following Lucy Wainwright Roche’s performance during the thunderstorm. The last music festival we’d attended had been in Maui at World Whale Day. Maui is famous for spectacular rainbows and we’d made a habit of counting how many we’d seen. Rainbows in Ohio are no doubt rarer but obviously still occur given the right conditions and a little magic.

Which made us think of Joe Henry’s mention of magic at his recording studio in the basement of his home in California. He referred to his home as the “old Garfield house”. Neither of us knew anything about the Garfield house other than to assume he wasn’t talking about “Garfield the cat” of the comics. I speculated the Garfield to whom he referred was the actor John Garfield since houses in California often are named for the famous actors who built or lived in them. My spouse said he’d been thinking of  President James Garfield, though neither of us thought he’d had any connection to LA.

So, we consulted that miracle of modern life.  Even when you have just left nowhere and still aren’t anywhere, you can research almost anything. I typed in “Garfield house” and “Joe Henry’ studio” on my smart phone and learned my husband was closer to the right answer than I. 

The Garfield house, where Joe Henry’s magical studio is located, is so named for Lucretius Garfield, the widow of President James Garfield. The house owned by Joe Henry is listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places and features a basement studio where a mind-bogglingly diverse collection of artists have recorded a dazzling array of hits.

If we were keeping score I’d have to give my spouse one point for making the President Garfield connection. But we weren’t keeping score, just passing the time and the miles.

At that point I’d looked up Joe Henry, his studio and the Garfield house. But somehow we circled back to John Garfield the actor, my wrong guess. John Garfield  has his own mind-boggling list of movies to his credit. 

My spouse suggested John Garfield was the actor who played Nick Romano in the Humphrey Bogart movie,  “Knock On Any Door”. I’d had the advantage of seeing a photo of John Garfield whose ruggedly handsome face was not the pretty boy actor who had played Nick—his  most memorable line was “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.” I would get one point if we were playing for points as it was John Derek, not John Garfield, who played Nick Romano; he who lives fast, dies young and leaves a good-looking corpse at the end of the movie.

We continued to chat about what we thought were some of the highlights of the festival. The unique blend of voices, different musicians and singers, each bringing something special to the day and evening. Birds of Chicago still resonated in our minds and the car stereo.  Then we changed to Over the Rhine and the Band of Sweethearts. Though we’ve heard them a number of times, they are always  a particular delight: the magical quality of Karin’s vocals blended with the mix of songs she and Linford have written and the solid musical performances of the entire group.

We found ourselves laughing about Karin’s encounter onstage with a June bug, one of a few large insects that had joined the celebration under the tent after dark. 

My spouse said he thought there was another name for this type of flying beetle that we’d used back in Missouri where we’d both grown up. Again I researched on my smart phone.  June bug, of course, is a cute name for a menacing-looking bug. I learned the so-called June bug is from the genus phyllophaga. I found lots of other names for June bugs, such as May bugs, New World Scarab beetles, and June beetles. But I could not find a name that rang in the hidden recesses of recognition from our Missouri childhoods. But it didn’t matter. 

June bug research also reminded us of the little  2005 movie of the same name, without the space between the two words. “Junebug”, and the rave reviews from critics like the now passed Roger Ebert,  propelled Amy Adams to the “A” list of actors. Thus, we were able to digress into Amy Adams movies, movies about insects and lots of other only tangentially-related topics. A great way to pass the miles and the time on a summer road trip.

If you happen to know any other names for June bugs, the insect not the movie, or grew up in Missouri and recall what name they were given in that part of the country, please add in the comments. Or share your own tangential thoughts. Happy road trips.