Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Holocaust - To Remember And Never Forget

January 27 was Holocaust Memorial Day. It was a sunny but cold day where we live, perhaps not unlike the weather in January in 1945, when the camps were discovered and liberated by American and British and Russian troops. Perhaps it is not unlike the weather on many days before the liberation, but weather six million didn’t experience on this day in 1945.

Over the years since then, in countries around the world, memorials of one kind or another have come to mark that terrible tragic time for the Jewish people, and for others like the Gypsies, who somehow were conceived as a threat to a powerful madness emanating from the minds of the National Socialist party in Germany. What happened to these human beings was the party’s answer to problems the Nazis themselves helped create.

If you look about you, you will find books, pictures, films and paper records that display the true and documented account of what happened to six million and more, when the rest of the world stood by and did nothing. There were those who did something, of course. In Denmark, in Poland, even in Hungary and Austria and Germany and other places. Many of those who stood up have been called the Righteous, have had their names recorded along with the history of the Holocaust. Their stories have been researched and documented and proven. The stories of the survivors have been recorded and documented, too. Soon those people will be no more amongst us as age and aging capture them forever.

And yet. And yet there are those who say it didn’t happen. They are often found among those who say it didn’t complete the task Hitler set for his people. They would like to see it finished. They would like to see the world free of those they consider unfit, unworthy of life: the Jews, the Gypsies, the non-Aryans.

The Holocaust hasn’t really ended. Around the world acts are performed almost daily, aimed at finishing the "Final Solution." It can be finished, if the righteous fail to stand up again. But it can also be finished if those who believe the world doesn’t need, and can’t withstand a "final solution." Anti-Semitism, anti-anything that is not what you are or believe yourself to be, is certainly a final solution in the making. There is a larger question, though: who decides who should live and who should die?

I don’t think that is a question for one person to answer about another. It is a question that can be answered by hunger, by disease, and all-too-often, by war. Any one of these can occur naturally, and in the process of playing out, create the other two. The history of life is filled with examples. We don’t need to look far to find them.

We don’t need to look far for examples of holocausts in the making. Nor does a holocaust need to affect six million people. It takes only a religious or political philosophy that says there is only one true path, one single light and that all those who do not follow it do not deserve to live, that their lives can be destroyed and no one will notice or care. It can be something as simple as the color of a persons skin, or the country where they were born or where they live. And it takes a majority of the people nodding their heads, closing their eyes, turning their backs.

Only the Righteous can stop it from happening; those who look, and see, and call out, "This shall not happen - - - again!"

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Stopped By Snows On a Woodsy Morning

I have always loved the woods. As far back as I can recall (and that’s a long distance, now), the woods have been the place I turn to for the things I need most: peace, solitude, protection from emotions and acts that are not always easy to understand.

As soon as I could be on my own to amuse myself and to occupy my time, I turned to the woods, to trees, to the streams that cut through and to the rocks and meadows that completed the scene. I was fortunate to grow up in a time and in a place where woods were safe and nearby. Trees and hills and meadows were all around the neighborhood, and I only had to cross the quiet street to be where I wanted to be.

For the last twenty-plus years, I have been fortunate enough to live in the woods, and to begin most days walking and meditating, often generating an essay or a story or a concept to work on later. Not today.

The snow began about four in the morning, according to the weather report. It is near noon as I write this, and the accumulation continues, closing on four inches with more to come tonight. It is beautiful, and from any window in the house I can enjoy the serene monochrome of trees and ridges, and to the south, fields; all contrasts of white and brown. What green there is has been obscured by the white weightlessness of the snow. It is beautiful I know, and I appreciate it, that’s true. I am not going out in it though, except to tend the outdoor wood-burning furnace. At some point before dark, I will clear off the truck I parked in front of the garage last night. Equipped with chains and a snow plow, it will move what has accumulated on the driveway down to the road, where the professionals will finish the job. I may have to do it more than once, and again tomorrow. It isn’t a hard job. I’m inside the cab, heater going full blast, and it only takes about 15 minutes to open the drive. Tomorrow, when the sun comes out, I might use the little tractor to clean up the tighter corners, but that will be about all I will need to do.

I miss my time outdoors. I live in the woods, but it isn’t the same as walking the trails or climbing the rocky ridges. I know that. Teddy and Buddy, the companions on my morning walks know that. We are here, where the neighbors are about a mile in any direction, and the trees are my companions as much as the dogs. We have the woods, but our next walk will just have to wait.

With a nod to Robert Frost, I was stopped by the snows on my woodsy morning walk.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Where There's Smoke

Fifty years ago, on the 11th of January, Surgeon General Luther Terry released a report that would change the habits and lives of all of us. The report on smoking and health, the result of a long and deep study of the effects of tobacco, stated unequivocally that smoking, especially cigarette smoking, was hazardous to our health. Later reports would improve on the breadth of the study, eventually culminating in the smoking ban now in effect in public places, and reduction in smoking related health issues, such as cancer, emphysema, pneumonia, just to name a few.

I was born in a town that depended on two industries: textiles and tobacco. And like most people I knew, cigarettes were socially acceptable in restaurants, stores, homes and cars. There were exceptions, of course: public transportation, movie theaters, the public library were some of the very few places where "No Smoking" signs were found. Generally, though, people smoked everywhere without censure. Oh, there were some folks who didn’t smoke, and would ask that you not smoke in their homes, but they were the exception.

Like most of my contemporaries, I picked up the habit when I was about 17 or 18. It was "cool" and pleasurable (once you learned how to inhale). Movie stars and industrialists and even doctors recommended smoking for all kinds of reasons and, truth to tell, it was just something one did in those years.

Fifty years ago I was still smoking, though the report did give me something to think about. I had been a pipe smoker since college (writers and pipes seemed to fit each other), and when the report came out I did pay attention. I didn’t smoke cigarettes nearly as much as most people, but there was always a pipe in hand or mouth, and a lot of stuff in my pockets or on my desk to support it. For several years I shared a writing office with two others. One was a health addict, but Judy, whose husband had been a heavy smoker before his early fatal heart attack, was a smoker, too. (For a while, just because she was that kind of person, she would sit by the window smoking cigars, more for the effect on people outside at the bus stop, than anything else.) Over the years I nearly stopped cigarette smoking altogether, preferring the aroma and aura that seemed to surround the writer image. I had a special pouch that carried two pipes and tobacco, cleaners, tools and so on. I rotated through my collection, selecting three different ones for each day, and I spent a fair amount of time cleaning them. It was more ritual than habit by then.

Time passed, I wavered between giving up all tobacco, smoking cigarettes more than the pipes and even (for a short time) cigars. I traveled a lot in those years, and airplanes and some of the places I went, like Viet Nam, weren’t compatible with the ritual or the practice of pipe smoking. I held on, even though I had, by the late 60s, made a career move that involved writing and producing films focused on health care and medical research. After all many, if not most, of the researchers with whom I had daily contact, were still puffing away.

I no longer recall the justification I used to continue the habit, but I do remember when I decided to quit. Our daughter and so-in-law had stopped by after dinner to tell us that we were going to be grandparents! I sat there, listening to the happy talk about the future. It came to me that one thing I wanted was be to around to see this child-to-be, grow up. I can still picture the setting, the scene, and see my hand reach out to the package of cigarettes on the end-table beside my chair. There was one left in the pack. I thought that maybe now was the time. I put the pack back on the table and decided that I would "save it for later," as a first step in assuring my presence when that grandchild was growing up. Six months later I threw the pack away. And I’m glad I did. The youngest grandchild is now a woman in her late twenties, and by some good fortune, my health shows no effects of the tobacco years.

Happy Anniversary, Dr. Terry. And thank you.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Old Enough

I have friends ten to twenty years my junior who seem obsessed with age. They are the ones who send emails containing cartoons and jokes and other pieces that bemoan and belittle and seem to believe the myth of aging and that they are old. None, so far as I know, are crippled by diseases of age, or have lost their memory, or require round-the-clock assistance to live their daily lives. And I wonder.

I wonder what seems so attractive to people about aging and about being “old” the way we thought of old people when I was a teenager, for instance. We saw “old folks” as limited in movement, forgetful, amusing others with tales of looking for lost glasses that were perched atop the head, and forgetting where they parked the car, or even if they had parked the car. They were always wizened, or corpulent beyond the limit imposed by ready-made clothing or full of food that could be eaten without teeth. Perhaps that is what drove us to reject aging in the first place.

And of course science and knowledge and the glimpse of a worthwhile future have improved the looks, if not the intelligence that match the happy old couple, secure in their cured erectile-dysfunction-future, laughing and romping with (one supposes) great grandchildren as the sun slowly sets and the romantic moon rises over the pristine lake that fronts the old folks’ condo.

It ain’t so. Nor is it funny. We seem to be following two masters (or mistresses in today’s “we’re all alike under the skin” world - - - which we aren’t, of course): one is the idea that old folks shouldn’t be admitted to the world of activity and growth. The other is that you can still run five miles without your bones turning to splinters or (more importantly) you are open to knew ideas or changing points of view.

Frankly, I only think about my age when I would rather be doing something other than what I think I must do, because, after all, I’m not some kid with a future to make. I’m this old guy who should be able to stop worrying about tomorrow and focus on today. And sometimes I just put the chain saw down, shut down the log splitter, put the truck back in the barn and go have another cup of coffee.

Perhaps the real issue is finding that as we age we move from being truly productive, and instead find that we have time on our hands; time that isn’t being put to good use. Most of us, at least in my generation, were brought up believing that “idle hands are the devil’s playground,” or some such homily that propounds the “dignity of labor.” I’ll not deny that I have very strong feelings about being useful and productive and at work at something. It is almost as if I must earn the right to live, to be a part of civilization. There isn’t anything more rewarding to me than taking on a task that needs to be done, figuring out what that means, finding and applying the solution and resolving the problem. Sometimes the pleasure comes in just identifying the problem and knowing when I need someone with more knowledge or skill to do the work. That isn’t a function of age, except that age should bring wisdom, and knowing when a job is beyond my skill level is, I believe, definitely an indication of wisdom.

What it comes down to is this: experience should provide the bed on which you lay your head, resting in the certainty that you are still part of the living. If you can do that, it’s okay to take a nap now and then, but you shouldn’t sleep the clock around.

You are only old when you think you are.