On not dying youngish

March 5, 2019

Somewhere sometime in my twenties I wrote that my motto was, “Live fast die young, and leave a pretty corpse.” It seemed cool at the time. When your heroes are dropping off at 27, the romantic exit seems, well, romantic.  Now, not so much. Hitting 90 seems both horrific and preferable.

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This week’s deaths of Luke Perry (3 years younger than me, from a stroke) and Let’s Active drummer Sara Romweber (same age as me, from brain cancer) is a reminder that we continue to shed our peers at a rate that only accelerates. A large percentage of the Gen X elders that I inhabited the world with when I was twenty are gone. My aging icons will leave more rapidly. I’m ready of Bob Dylan and the rest of the lions of my youth to slip from this mortal coil. But so will those younger than me. Kids in tornadoes. Generation Z teens texting while driving, running over millennials talking on their iPhones. Then us.

George Harrison once said that death is like getting out of one car and getting into another. That’s sweet. I had a student who once asked the class what do people remember from before they were born. Silence. “That’s what death is like,” she said. Who knows? Nobody. That includes people who write hokey books about dying on the operating table and coming back to life. People buy that shit up hoping for proof that they well never cease to exist.

Sociologists will tell you that as people get old, they get more religious. I had a professor at Emory, Martin Levin, who called it the “nearer my God to thee” thesis. My father recently told me he’s just coasting into heaven. I hope so, Dad. It sounds so much nicer than just being unplugged by time. All those old friends waiting for you.

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Me, I know that I don’t know. In all likelihood, this is it. No pearly gates, no Casper the Ghost, no singing with Aretha or jamming with Hendrix. (Poor dead Hendrix.) And that’s OK. That means heaven is right here. In the excised Gospel of Thomas, one of the gnostic texts that was removed from the New Testament by the patriarchal church, hipster Jesus told his peeps that the kingdom of heaven is not in the sky somewhere. “Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.” I can dig that. Heaven is in a living room in Portland. Awesome, because I’m already there.

The bottom line is to make the most of the time while you are here. Make the place you are in full of love and light, not anger and darkness. And do it for as long as you can, because there might not be a tunnel to a “better place.” Stay healthy, don’t smoke, get check ups, get off the couch, be kind, and keep the memory of those who have past alive in your minds.

One of my favorite poems is by Liverpool poet Roger McGough, enticed “Let Me Die a Young Man’s Death.”

Let me die a youngman’s death

not a clean and inbetween

the sheets holywater death

not a famous-last-words

peaceful out of breath death

When I’m 73

and in constant good tumour

may I be mown down at dawn

by a bright red sports car

on my way home

from an allnight party

Or when I’m 91

with silver hair

and sitting in a barber’s chair

may rival gangsters

with hamfisted tommyguns burst in

and give me a short back and insides

Or when I’m 104

and banned from the Cavern

may my mistress

catching me in bed with her daughter

and fearing for her son

cut me up into little pieces

and throw away every piece but one

Let me die a youngman’s death

not a free from sin tiptoe in

candle wax and waning death

not a curtains drawn by angels borne

‘what a nice way to go’ death 

Sounds like heaven to me.

 

 

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The Wisdom of Double Nickels: On Turning 55

February 22, 2019

Sometimes I think the whole thing about the “wisdom of our elders” is a lot of poppycock to make the aged feel better about their bodies sputtering out. Maybe among native tribal people, the old lady who remembered what plants not to eat was a needed resource, but now there’s an app for that. Sometimes I feel completely clueless in this fast moving culture. (So I can’t call myself an “ally,” right?) And then I see these Generation Z kids from Parkland, or the ones marching for the environment in Europe today, who seem straight up on top of it. What wisdom do I have to offer them?

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I turned 55 this week. I was born in February 1964 as Beatlemania tried to heal the nation after the JFK assassination. (I was a 6 month old fetus on that dark day.) I was born into the light of the 60s, 1964 being a year when the world turned on a Roosevelt dime. I had a great birthday that started with my 4-year-old singing “Happy Birthday” to me, and included a rare sunny Portland winter day, two lectures on white collar crime, an interview with CNN about women escaping ISIS, an amazing concert by my old college friend Amy Ray (also born in 1964) and ending with a nightcap with my beautiful wife in our favorite local bar. What started in 1964 with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ended with “Life is good but I want to go to bed.”

What kernel of wisdom should be gleaned from all that in-between? What have I learned in those over 20,000 days? Lots, especially about race, gender, and the privilege I hold. But there is a newer insight born of the news cycle that I think my younger friends don’t know yet.

Empire Cast Member Attack, Chicago, USA - 21 Feb 2019

The Jussie Smollett story is heartbreaking. Lying about being a victim of hate crime to advance your career hurts every single legitimate victim of hate. The incident on the Washington mall with the Native American protestor and the MAGA-wearing hat boys was confusing. Those kids seemed like entitled little pricks. Here in Portland there is a scandal involving a police officer who was texting the leader of an alt-right group which has been frustrating. It sure seems like the cops were cozying up to the fascists.

Not so fast. Just not so fast to any news story. People were CONVINCED Smollett was an actual victim. They were convinced the MAGA kids were harassing the Native elder. Here in Portland they are convinced the police are in bed with Neo-Nazis. There is a rush to judgment when a news story fits our pre-existing narrative. It’s proof! We’re right! Just click this link!

So at 55, I’m pledging to reserving judgment until all the facts are in, even if it reduces the ammo for my side. My radical take on things will survive even if Smollett lied about his attack, the MAGA kids were not being malicious to that Native American, and the Portland officer was just conducting standard crowd control procedures. (He also texted an antifa protestor – gasp!) 

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Portland recently had another little drama with the city council deciding whether or not to stay on the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The JTTF emerged after 9/11 as a way for local and county law enforcement to have a relationship with the FBI on terrorism issues. The city has been on and off it depending on the political winds of the day. The task force doesn’t have a lot of success to boast about. There was a 2010 arrest of a Muslim kid who had been lured into a fake plot to blow up a downtown Christmas tree lighting. Last year a former FBI investigator testified to city council that the JTTF infringes on civil liberties, including of Muslim Americans. Seems like a mess.

A local paper called me for my opinion and I said I had no position on the matter, contrary to my left-wing and right-wing community members who definitely have an opinion. I just made the case that the “threat (of white extremism) is real and the Northwest has long been a center for that thinking. … There is a value in keeping the channels of communication open (between agencies) about what the real threat is.” But I was clear that I had no official position on Portland’s place on the JJTF. Well, that didn’t stop a city commissioner from claiming that I endorsed the city staying on the JTTF. So more kerfuffle for me! Yeah! There are already a host of left-wing activists who are convinced I’m a police collaborator. I had to laugh.

My seasoned perspective is now to resist the temptation to jump into the fight, even when it feels like I am being forced to pick a side. I’m a social scientist. We like as much data as possible before we decide there if is evidence to demonstrate support for a theory. Scientists never prove anything. Never. We know reality is complexity and the only certainty is chaos. The simplistic “us vs. them” narratives on the left and right make for great protest posters, but the truth is that we’re all in this mess together. It’s worth taking a beat to get all the facts. Anyone who is 100% cocksure of their position is a fool. I’m a radical agnostic. I defend my right to say that I don’t know.

Older and wiser but still radical. I still want to transform the misogynistic, ableist, white supremacist foundation of all reality as we know it. But I’m going to lay back a bit and let the fuller picture to come in to focus. I still have time for that. When I was younger I thought anyone who didn’t immediately man the barricades was an enemy. There is another route to the same goal. Take a breath.

 

In My Time of Dying

November 9, 2015

I’m just back from a trip to Georgia with Cozy and Andrea. I was invited to do a presentation to the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on hate crime. The trip also doubled as an opportunity to introduce my wife and child to the places where I grew up. Anyone who knows Atlanta knows that you can leave it for five minutes and come back to a completely different city. To be from that area means you have to be willing to let go of the things you loved. Those great woods I rode bikes in in Stone Mountain have been five different shopping plazas since then. That historic bar in Poncey-Highland is being bulldozed for condos. Just let it go. At some point all of us are dust.

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I flew out a few days early with Cozy since Andrea was working at the law firm. Yes, I flew across the entire country with a toddler by myself. The reason for this insane act was the chance to spend some extra time with my father who recently had some pretty epic back surgery and is looking at six months of recovery. He had’t met his granddaughter yet (or Andrea) and who knew when I’d next be heading to Georgia.

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It was a great meeting, even if Cozy was a little unsure of who this guy was who looked a lot like me. (The irony was that the first seconds after Cozy’s birth I thought how much she looked like my father, but then all newborns sort of look like old men.) Cozy and Dad did high fives and stared at each other a lot and I thought about this genetic connection that links over 70 years before it blasts backwards into time.

But the whole thing transpired not at my dad’s home in Alpharetta but at the recovery center in Marietta, where he is doing rehab from the surgery. It doubles as an assisted living center for elderly medical patients which meant the place reflected the best in geriatric medical care and the worst in what we do to the senior members of our families. While not a hospice, my dad was sharing the space with folks who probably didn’t have that much time left to live.

It’s now common knowledge that 30% of our medical expenditures go to end of life care. We spend billions each year to keep our grandparents alive for just a few weeks more. Why? Is it for them? For us? For the pharmaceutical industry? We ship our seniors off to cold care facilities where they share rooms with other old-timers and we bill the insurance companies to pay for staff that treat them as humanely as possible until they drop dead (well you don’t drop in a bed hooked up to machines) and the next old-timer can be moved in to wait for the Grim Reaper.  It’s quite bizarre when you think about it.

Other cultures bring their elderly close in to garner as much wisdom from them while they are still on this earth. We warehouse our aged far out of sight in nursing homes so we don’t have to witness the reality of our own eventual fate. I don’t know what’s to blame for this: patriarchy (Goddess cultures generally revere the elderly), capitalism (“eldercare” is a booming industry), or just our own stubborn refusal to acknowledge the we are not here forever.

It’s a uniquely American problem. (USA! USA!) Andrea’s grandmother lives in a village in Mexico surrounded by five of her eleven children. Her wit and wisdom are a part of their lives. Grandchildren come to help fix things and keep her company and great-grandchildren run around her wheelchair (and she sneaks some of them beer). It’s so different from the great charade we play with our elders. Dying at home? How barbaric!

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So it was really hard to see my dad in this setting. He’s only 73, the same age as Mick Jagger and the eternally touring Paul McCartney. Folks in my family live well into their 90s, and that was before people discovered that you shouldn’t have lard as a primary component of your diet. So Dad has at least a few more decades to share with us. If this was 300 years ago, he would be Methusala, but the life expectancy in this country keeps expanding. There are plenty of centenarions down at the Zumba class these days.

My dad will get better and be back on the golf course in no time. I took him skydiving for his 70th birthday and I want to take him diving with sharks for his 80th. But being in the setting of good folks who are just watching the clock to death really shook me. What happens when I hit that age? Am I going to spend my last days drooling and watching Wheel of Fortune? I can do that now!

It reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Liverpudlian Roger McGough called, “Let Me Die a Young Man’s Death.” Here’s a stanza:

When I’m 73 & in constant good tumor

May I be mowed down at dawn

By a bright red sportscar

On my way home from an all night party

I’m ready to stick around as long as possible but there are only so many trips around the sun left. When Cozy graduates from high school, I’ll be 68! (I’m going to encourage her to skip a few grades.) When I’m my dad’s age she’ll only be 23 and facing the issue of an aging parent that so many of us are now dealing with. (C’mon fetal stem cell research!) Hopefully, I’ll be the old wise man of the village with lots of kids on my lap and not in some sad “managed care facility.” When I go, let me die in my footsteps.

My mother likes to say, “When I get that old, just shoot me.” While I’m not willing to go to prison for homicide, it does make you think it would be so much better to go out in a blaze of glory than peeing on yourself in a hospital bed. Let me die a youthful death. I’m going for moshpit mishap at 98.