Thursday, May 12, 2016

All That You Have is Your Soul

I heard an old Tracy Chapman song a few days ago. It’s a song I have always loved for its simple message and heartfelt delivery. It could have been cheesy, but instead its simple beauty hits me like a slap to the face every time I hear it. Line after line of truth, followed by the repeated deeper truth of “all that you have is your soul.”

Just before I heard the song, I had heard a report on the local public radio station about a bill in New York that, if passed, would make New York the sixth state in the nation to allow terminally ill patients to end their own lives by taking a prescribed dose of lethal medicine. The reporter interviewed supporters and opponents of the bill and allowed each a few sentences to explain their positions.

If that reporter were to have asked me my opinion of the bill, I would have said New York State should adopt the bill immediately. For my reason I would simply sing the refrain from Tracy Chapman’s song: All that you have is your soul.

It is easy to go long stretches without considering the fact that you yourself will one day die. As a child the idea is so remote and unlikely as to be almost impossible to truly consider. At some point, someone close dies and if we are old enough when that happens for the first time, we can’t help but come around to the thought that one day we will also be dead. But then, if you are like most people, you shove that thought aside and get on with life.

Which is the right thing to do. Living in fear of death as a young person is unnatural.

But then you hit middle age. Maybe a friend dies young and you go to the funeral. Your own inevitable death looms a bit larger, but still you put those thoughts aside. You have work to do, a life to lead. Your own death might become something you start to plan for a bit—you write a will, you look into insurance—but still it is more hypothetical than immediate.

Maybe while lying in bed one night you broach the subject with your spouse. You talk a bit about your wishes—burial or cremation? Big memorial service or small gathering of close friends and family? Heroic measures or pull the plug? But again, you quickly make a light joke of it by calling dibs on getting to go first.  Then you change the subject before turning out the light.

And then a parent dies. It knocks you flat. One, because your mother or father is gone forever. And two, (if you are honest) because your own unavoidable end rises up in front of you in a way you cannot deny. There will come a day when you will no longer be. And your children, if you have any, will feel as lost as you do in the aftermath. As far as we can tell, humans are the only species whose members carry with them an awareness of their own impending death.

Which means we also have the opportunity to plan ahead for our own death.  Of course, many of us die in a way that does not allow for much planning. We have a heart attack; we have an accident; we have a stroke. But a fair number of people die of diseases that kill slowly and painfully over time.  It is precisely circumstances like these that allow for us to have conversations with people we love about our exact wishes. People lie in bed in the dark side by side and say things like “If I ever get to the point where I am being kept alive by machines, I want you to pull the plug.”

And states throughout the country have recognized the power of these spoken wishes time and again.  If we are beyond the help of modern medicine with no signs of conscious mental function and no likelihood of ever coming back to consciousness, our loved ones can ask that our wishes be honored and we be allowed to die.

But what if we are not that far gone? What if, instead, we have a fatal disease and we are taking inevitable steps toward our own death, but we are still conscious and able to feel pain? In five states you would have the option of asking a physician to help you die. In 45 states, you would be told the choice to live or die is not yours—it is the state’s.

And this is where I come back to Tracy Chapman and “All That You Have is Your Soul.” I believe that when you are born there is one thing you own and that is your own self. It can be easy to believe we own many other things as we grow up, fall in love, get jobs, have children, and accumulate people and things. The house we live in, the car we drive, the partner we marry, the children we have----all of these can come to feel like they are ours. But really, they are not. These things come and they go and in the end there is nothing you can do to stop them.

In the end, the only thing that is yours is your own soul. And if you are at the point where medical science is useless and you are tired of constant pain and the indignity of being unable to feed yourself or wash yourself or even get yourself to the toilet and you decide you are ready to die, you should be able to ask a doctor to prescribe you a lethal dose of medicine so you can have one least measure of control over your own life.

The Medical Aid in Dying Act was introduced in the New York State Legislature this week to provide for this very control.  I will write to my state legislators right away to let them know I support this bill. In the end, whose life is it? Mine? Or New York States?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

I Know Why the Wild Chimps Throw Things

Hjalmar S. Kuhl and Ammie K. Kalan have published a paper in Nature’s “Scientific Reports” documenting a never-before-seen behavior among chimpanzees in four West African populations. You can read their report here.  

The authors hypothesize that the behavior they witnessed may hint at the beginnings of ritual and possibly even an awareness of the concept of the sacred among these chimps.  NPR picked up the story and wrote their own piece, titled “Why Do Wild Chimpanzees Throw Stones at Trees?

I have my own theory about this behavior:

There is a tree in my backyard with a small hole in it. The hole is roughly head-high and about the size of a regulation baseball. Also in my backyard, depending on the time of year, are many heavy black walnuts in their protective green sheaths. When held in the palm of the hand they have a really pleasing heft and they look like this:

As the green coverings split and rot away, the walnuts look more like this:

When these walnuts are on the ground, in either form, I cannot help but pick them up and throw them at the hole in the tree. It would be a waste of time to explain the set of rules that have developed over time for this one-person game. In the end, they are irrelevant. It is just something I do. The action has no religious or sociological meaning. It is simply deeply satisfying on a level far, far below intelligent thought. 

Once every 100 throws or so, I’ll actually get a walnut in the hole.  On those days, life is good.

I also throw rocks at a small circular orange bit of metal set on the end of a steel rod and marking the site of a fire hydrant on a path near Ithaca’s West Hill Community Garden. The metal disc is roughly the same size as the hole in the tree, as you can see here:

I walk my dogs in this area fairly often and by now they have gotten accustomed to waiting for me while I throw three stones—no more, no less—in an effort to hit the disk. Again, over time a set of rules has developed for this activity. And again, it would be a waste of time (and maybe even a bit alarming to you) if I were to explain them here. I have far less success at this challenge than I do with the walnuts and the tree. I have hit the disk a total of two times in hundreds and hundreds of attempts. On those days, life is great.

This feeling is all I need to understand what these chimps are doing.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Here is How Donald Trump Becomes Our Next President

If Michael Bloomberg does indeed launch a third-party bid for the Presidency, Donald Trump may be our next President. Don’t stop reading—hear me out. It really could happen. And the scenario is not all that far-fetched.

Here is how it would play out:

Donald Trump either wins or comes in a close second in Iowa. He then wins New Hampshire. At that point, 5 or 6 of the other Republican candidates (Fiorina, Kasich, Pataki, Paul, Christie, and Santorum) drop out of the race. Marco Rubio, Jeb! Bush, and Ted Cruz all stay in. Cruz takes South Carolina and Trump takes Nevada. Jeb! and Marco Rubio split the “native son” vote in Florida and Donald Trump beats them both in their own state.  All 4 try to hang on until March 1—Super Tuesday. Trump emerges from Super Tuesday with the largest number of delegates and Marco Rubio drops out, figuring he’s young and will have more chances down the road. Jeb! would also drop out at this point, having too much pride to stay in a race in which he is losing to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Trump goes on the win the nomination because Ted Cruz is quite possibly the most unlikeable person I have seen on the national stage since George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, and Antonin Scalia. At least Trump is entertaining—Cruz is just a smug know-it-all whose thirst for power is really off-putting, even to other Republicans.

On the Democratic side, there are several paths that lead to a Trump Presidency. No matter which of the Democrats gets the nomination, you can see the how s/he could lose in November. If it is Bernie Sanders, the Republicans scare the hell out of America by using the word “Socialist” in every sentence they speak. If it is Hillary Clinton, a final report comes out about her ill-advised use of a private e-mail server for State Department business and it concludes that she did indeed keep and send secrets. This plays into the already-common doubts about her trustworthiness and her candidacy is fatally tainted.

At this point, former NY City mayor Michael Bloomberg steps into the race and runs as an Independent candidate for President. He spends a billion dollars of his own fortune and attracts many independents, who make up fully 39% of registered voters in the United States.

On Election Day in November none of the three candidates wins enough states to garner 270 electoral votes.  In this case, the power to chose our next President goes to the House of Representatives. The Constitution states that the House must choose from among the top three vote-getters. However, the way the House chooses matters.

It matters a LOT.  It is not a case of one person, one vote. Rather, each state delegation gets just one vote. The current configuration of the House has just 13 state delegations that are majority Democratic in membership. 37 states have more Republicans than Democrats. So if the 13 states with Democratic majorities in the House all vote for Hillary/Bernie, that leaves a shortfall of 13 Republican-dominated state delegations that would need to vote for Bernie/Hillary to make him/her President.  That would never happen.

Either Donald Trump or Michael Bloomberg would need to get 26 state delegations to vote for him in order to become President.  I cannot imagine 26 Republican-led groups of US Representatives voting for Michael Bloomberg, with his history of vocal and financial advocacy for stricter gun control laws, to be our next President.

Donald Trump would win, pretty much by default.

When The Donald descended on his escalator to the strains of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and the cheers of his (paid) audience of “supporters,” I did not take him seriously. I still don’t, but that does not mean he cannot win.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


It snowed this morning, just a little bit.

Around here the first dusting usually comes a day or two on either side of Thanksgiving, so this was right on time.

It reminded me of my Dad.

Right after college I went to Yemen to teach English with the United States Peace Corps. I lived on the shores of the Red Sea for two years and the temperature never went below 50 degrees. Often it was over 100. I did not see my family once in those two years.

When I came back it was the Fall of 1989 and the Berlin Wall was coming down before our eyes. I lived with my parents in their house in Wilmington, Delaware while I figured out what I wanted to do next. While I figured it out, I took a job working for my Uncle Steven, stripping the finish off the cement floors of his warehouse and then resealing them. It was a job that gave me a lot of time to think.

The warehouse was very near my Dad’s office, so he and I carpooled each day. He drove, I sat, we talked.

My father and I never had much of a problem talking. There was sports. Politics. The weather. My siblings. My mom. His work. But we never went much below the surface. And this was fine with me. I’m pretty sure it was fine with him too. Those rides to and from work were good.

And then one morning in late November we were on I-95 nearing our exit when the radio weatherman said it might snow. I had not seen snow for more than two years. And something about the forecast made me suddenly choke up and almost cry. To cover my embarrassment I tried to say how excited I was about the chance of snow, but it didn’t come out right. My Dad could hear the emotion in my voice.

I snuck a peek at him as he drove. He looked a bit stricken.

Emotion was not something we dealt with very much in the Dawson house. And my father had grown up in a Dawson house, too, so he had even more practice not talking about deep feelings than I did. I could tell from that half-second glimpse of his face that he registered my verklempt-ness. And I could tell from the sudden quiet that he did not want to talk about it.

Or maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe he just didn’t know how to talk about it. Maybe emotions are like spoken language. There is a window of time when we are young where we are able to produce an enormous range of sounds using our lips, tongue, and throat. As we age, we lose the ability to produce sounds we have not heard other humans using. This is one reason learning a foreign language can be so difficult as an adult. We have trouble hearing and reproducing some of the sounds if they are not part of the aural palette of our birth language.

My Dad told many stories of growing up in Wilmington and then moving out to the country in Yorklyn, Delaware as a teenager. I used to think I knew a fair amount about his childhood. Looking back, I was wrong. While I knew a fair amount about some of the things that happened to him growing up---having to hitch to and from school, falling through the hayloft floor as he helped build a new barn, meeting my Mom at a CYO young adult Catholic dance---I can only imagine how he felt about these things.

He simply did not talk much about his feelings. He and my Mom were married for more than fifty years and I did not have access to the things they talked about when they were alone. But to me, there were just a few broad categories of emotion: happy, angry, sad, excited. I never really heard much about some of the more complicated mixtures of emotion that, in my experience, seem to be the stuff of life: melancholy, bittersweet sadness, whatever that feeling is called when you win an athletic contest but your best friend has lost and you feel both thrilled and sympathetic, or the simultaneous pride and bereftness you feel when your teenage daughter needs you less and starts getting along fine out in the world without your help.

So, sitting in my Dad’s car in I-95 traffic that morning I did not know how to tell him about how much I had missed him and my Mom while I was in Yemen. Or about how terrifying it was to hand over my passport at the airport in Sana’a when I had first arrived. Or about my doubts that I could make it through two years in such a foreign place. Or about how thrilling it felt to be walking around a foreign country at 22, speaking Arabic and getting along on my own. Or about the deep loneliness that hit when the only other Peace Corps volunteer in the town of 250,000 where I lived stopped talking to me. Or about my growing certainty that I could not stay in Delaware, even though that was where my whole family lived. Or about my fear that I was 24 and worried that I had already done the most adventurous thing I was ever going to do in my life.

All of these feelings were boiling around in me as we took the exit for D and S Warehousing and I got out of the car, put my bag lunch in the fridge, and got to work stripping away the old sealant. But I couldn’t tell my Dad. We simply did not have the vocabulary to talk about it.

It is now 26 years later. My Dad died of a heart attack last year and I never did tell him about those things stuck in my throat that morning in his car. But over the years my understanding of what was going on in that car has changed. My Dad was a smart and caring man. The things I was feeling would not have been foreign to him, even though the experiences that led to the feelings would have been. I think now that if I had simply started talking, he would have understood. He may have been a bit uncomfortable—especially at first. But he would have understood and maybe even helped me gain some perspective.

I do not have many regrets in my life. Very few, in fact. But that car ride is one of them. I blew the chance to open up a whole new relationship with my Dad. The story I have told myself over the years is that he was just too uncomfortable with talking about emotions.

But seeing the snow this morning and remembering that ride, it has become clear that it was my discomfort that stopped me from saying anything. We had a few conversations that strayed into risky emotional territory over the ensuing years, but then we would retreat to the old standby topics of sports and politics and the weather if things seemed to be heading somewhere neither of us was willing to go.

This Thanksgiving brought a real stew of feelings: pride in what I have made of my life, wonder at who my daughter has become, thankfulness for the love of my wife, guilt about not going to Delaware to be with my Mom and siblings, and one huge dollop of regret that I did not trust my Dad and myself enough that morning in the car to turn and say, “Can we just park here and talk for a few minutes?”

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Donald Trump for President

Maybe it would be a good thing if Donald Trump were to win the Republican nomination for President of the United States. It would certainly make things clear to all just what sort of country we want to be.

It would not matter if the Democrats chose Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Martin O’Malley—in all three cases the differences between the Democrat and the Republican would be clear and vast.

All three of the Democratic candidates have a working knowledge of how government works. They know that passing laws and enacting policies is messy and hard and requires more than a strong wish and forceful words.

Donald Trump does not know this. He really believes that he could order a round-up of all of the people in this country illegally and that it would actually happen. What—exactly—would that look like? I would like Mr. Trump to explain the details of his plan. How much would it cost? Who would do the work? Who would guard the border while every single officer was busy catching and deporting people? Who would pick the fruit and vegetables when it was harvest time? Who would do all the jobs Americans don’t do any more? Would the children who ARE citizens be left behind without parents? If so, how would the US pay to take care of these young, parentless citizens?

Donald Trump says he would build a secure wall between the US and Mexico and make the Mexicans pay for it.  What—exactly—would that look like? I would like to hear Mr. Trump explain the details of his plan. How would he convince Mexico to pay for a wall they don’t want or need? Would he start some sort of economic war with the US’s second biggest trade partner?

Donald Trump says he would place a 20% tax on all imported goods. Let me repeat that: Donald Trump says he would place a 20% tax on all imported goods. I am no economist, (then again, neither is Donald Trump), but I can see that that would make everything more expensive. It would also cost millions of American jobs. Every other country on Earth would feel justified in matching our tax and American companies that make goods for export would be forced to lay off workers and/or close up shop.

Donald Trump says that climate change is a hoax. He knows this because of his many years studying the complex systems that make the Earth’s climate? No. He knows this because it still gets cold in the winter sometimes. He also says that the hoax of global warming was invented by the Chinese to take our economic advantages away.

 Donald Trump says that vaccines cause autism. He knows this because he saw it happen to a kid once.

So, if Donald Trump wins the GOP nomination for the Presidency the choice before the American people will be obvious. Are we the sort of country that wants our President to govern from his gut without regard to science, military or economic reality, or the Constitution? Are we the sort of country that is fearful of everything foreign? Are we the kind of country that is willing to bleed the Earth dry and further pollute the air and water and raise long-term temperatures and sea levels just so we can keep our cheap oil prices? Are we a country willing to raise an obvious bully to the highest position in the land?

I do not think we are that sort of country. Let Donald Trump win the nomination and then watch as he collects 35% of the vote. At least then he and his supporters will realize once and for all that they are the minority and their policies and beliefs are rejected by most of their fellow Americans.

Donald Trump is giving voice to people who are mad and scared—he is their id and he has a big microphone. We certainly cannot simply sit back and let him spew his lies unchecked. We need to do what Chuck Todd of NBC News did last weekend and push Donald Trump when he lies. But in the end we need to have faith that the US is not the country Donald Trump thinks it is and the American voters are not the frightened selfish bullies he thinks we are.

We need to keep the words of Molly Ivins in mind: "When politicians start talking about large groups of their fellow Americans as 'enemies,' it's time for a quiet stir of alertness. Polarizing people is a good way to win an election, and it is also a good way to wreck a country." We will not let anyone like Donald Trump wreck this country. And to prove it, I hope he wins the Republican nomination so we can once and for all reject what he and his supporters stand for.