This is the Place – Reflections on the attack at Manchester

I have been avoiding reading about the Manchester attack. I know when I’m too close to the edge to look over, and that’s the way I’ve been feeling since I heard about the tragic event. Today, I looked.

As the saying has it, there are eight million stories in the naked city. Manchester, this time, is that city.

One of those stories belongs to eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos, the youngest of the victims. She was caught in the blast after having become momentarily separated from her mother and sister, both of whom suffered shrapnel injuries.

Another one of the stories is that of Sorrell Leczkowski, 14 years old, who was with her mother and grandmother. She died. Mother and grandmother are still in hospital, recovering from their wounds.

Not all of the names have yet been released. But for each name, there are countless stories. None of them explain. They merely convey. Those who will survive this incident will recover, more or less, from their physical wounds. There is no recovery from the emotional wounds.

“A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.”
“The action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.”

A parent who loses a child to illness, or accident, no matter the age of the child, is a changed parent. There is no returning, though there can be a moving on.

But a parent who loses a child, particularly a young child, to an act of atrocity, and worse – their child was there by their own permission or in fact in their very care – not only cannot return, but can never really regain possession or control. That which was stolen, remains stolen. The fault these parents will naturally assume, whether warranted or not – and here, clearly not – will never let them taste sweetness again without tasting bitterness. All the would-have-been-joyful moments to come will forever be tethered to darkness by the fact of the missing essential element: the child.

There is no justification for what happened. There is no explanation that can complete the puzzle of life for the people who were affected. And we have all been affected. The best we can perhaps hope for is to remember. Remember the path we were on. Remember why we were on it. Remember where we thought we were going. Remember who we were with.

For me, this memory is helped along by “This is the Place,” a poem by Tony Walsh, which he so forcefully read in the aftermath of such loss. I leave you with this thought, in the hope that it helps you to come to a better place, as it did me.

Tony Walsh reciting “This is the Place”Tony Walsh reciting 'This is the Place'

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Knowing a little does not equate to knowing a lot

Demolition of Babri Masjid How many of you know about the demolition of the Babri Masjid? It happened in 1992. Do you know why it happened? Do you know where? Do you know what the outcome was? How many things have been held in the the balance during the 25 years intervening? What is happening now?

I raise this as one issue – a single solitary thing that happened somewhere in the world, a thing that had tentacles of consequences extending in every direction – to remind myself, and anyone else who considers it, just how difficult it is to know what is happening in the world, and why it’s happening. To remind us that when we sit here in the US and believe we know, because of our education, our CNN, our NY Times, our Facebook and our Twitter, our tremendous privilege, if you will… to remind us that we are truly looking at the world from 40,000 feet up. The details are obscured, the actors and participants unknown. We don’t know what happened just before this obscure scene unfolded, or the week or month or decade before, and we don’t know who prevailed, or what transpired, because we’re moving. We’re not hovering.

A little humility goes a long way. Don’t presume that you know the best course of action for someone else. Be intentional with yourself. Be respectful and compassionate toward others. Assume that there is more to the story than you can see or discern. Be a help if needed, but but don’t expect always to lead.

John Bolton explains travel ban’s rationale

Bolton discusses Trump travel ban
I have yelled at John Bolton on numerous occasions before (well, at the TV anyway). I am not a big supporter. He’s a Republican, after all. So please understand this perspective from the get-go as I post this.

That being said, I was tracing certain political contributions this morning and wound up on this site: John Bolton PAC. I read the article. Here, in a few brief words, he has for the first time (to my thinking) made some bit of sense out of restricting travel to the U.S. from certain specific countries.

In the opening paragraph: “Either they [the countries included in the ban] don’t function as governments like Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, in which case they can’t possibly supply credible information about people claiming to come from their country, or they’re places like Syria and Iran where I wouldn’t trust what they say anyway.”

I agree with this. I also agree with his closing statement, that “[The ban] shows a structural defect in the transition because much of this was done in the White House without cabinet secretaries and key departments…”

If Trump would listen to intelligent people from outside his enclave, people who actually have experience in the areas he’s focusing on, he could begin to play a credible role in setting the direction for the country over the next four years. Further, if he would take his presumed role as everyone’s president seriously, and not just the president to his cronies, and actually tried to engage with people outside of his immediate sphere of influence, people who may not at all be on the same page as him, it would go a long way toward healing some of the divides that he himself has instead fomented.

His refusal to take these steps or to proceed in a disciplined manner is at the core of my personal resentment and resistance toward everything he has done so far. In international politics as well as domestic affairs, our culture has advanced so far beyond “throwing it against the wall to see if it sticks,” we simply can’t tolerate the President of the United States utilizing this caveman-like “method.” It’s at best an ineffective waste of time, and at worst a total disaster, bringing key systems, relationships, functioning processes and operations grinding to a halt while he figures out that what he thought would work wouldn’t work, didn’t work, and can’t work.

Crisis management in the post-truth era

Keep Calm and Carry On
Anyone who has had to manage a group, a company, a department, a family, through a crisis situation, knows that there are two threads that you have to focus on simultaneously.

First (among equals), get things fixed! Stop the hemorrhaging, plug the dikes. So long as the crisis condition persists, the organizational unit’s prime objective cannot be carried out. In order to get back on track, the thing that is happening must be made to stop happening.

The second, which cannot be separated from the first, is to uncover the flaws in the structure that allowed or caused the crisis to occur, in order to stop it right now or to keep it from recurring.

These two missions may be carried out using completely different methodologies, teams, viewpoints, strengths. But they have to be done with a respect for each other’s validity and each other’s process. Both missions must be mindful of the prime objective and their relation to it.

In much of the current discussion among Democrats and other Trump adversaries, the focus seems to be on figuring out what went wrong. Worse, the language rightly used to “talk among ourselves” in that pursuit is being used to by this B-team to try to fight the A-team battle. We are taking critical, perceptual, analytical thinking, and the language that supports it, and using that mindset and vocabulary to wage attack on our adversary. We continue to point out the duplicity, the contradictions, the bad judgement, the poor taste, the inappropriateness, of the adversary, in public. But these are all the same things that we were doing before, which led up to the crisis we now find ourselves in. If the tools proved ineffective in the fight to win the presidency, what makes us think that they will be effective in our current counter-offensive? They will not be.

In order to fight the A-team battle, we need to use the language and tools of that arena. Those terms are set by the winner, not by the loser. We need to step out of our own comfort zone and look to the language of the arena we are in. We are in the post-truth Trumposphere. We have to stop applying rational discourse on the battlefield. Did Trump win on rational discourse? Did he win on having the best go-forward strategy? Did he win on a consistent message of hope and opportunity? Did he win on truth and honesty? No? Then why are we still trying to win by holding his feet to these fires?

If things are ugly in the outward fight, we may need to get ugly. If there is subterfuge, we may need to apply subterfuge. If there is deceit, we may need to deceive.

Electoral College Abnegates Responsibility

The Electoral College vote has now come and gone. Many of us held out hope – even a 1% chance, as I gave it – that the EC would hear the call and would be our last bastion of defense before plunging the country and the world into the Age of Unreason.

I guess they didn’t really even consider changing their votes, as it turned out. To those few who did – in the right direction – thanks.

I have to wonder though where we would be if other departments and agencies did their jobs the way the EC does theirs. Their one job, their entire reason for being, is to ensure that “the office of president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” That’s it, that’s their whole function.

What if the fire department were called to a house on fire and decided, “Well, we all have to go sometime, and the house was already on fire anyway. May as well let it go.”

Icarus has fallen and Mrs. Ramsay has died.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (Credit: Wikimedia)

A recent BBC article touched on something that I’ve always had a deep connection to: the background details, information, contexts, of our lives. Without knowing where, or when, or under what peculiar circumstances an action is occurring, it cannot deliver the full impact of its message to us. Quite often, in learning a single seemingly insignificant detail regarding a subject with which one may already have a high degree of familiarity, one can be transported to a wholly other understanding.

Alfred Hitchcock (or more correctly one of his cinematographers, Irmin Roberts) shocked us with his visual revelation of this in the dolly zoom (or vertigo effect) he used in a number of his films. By pulling the camera back, away from the subject, and at the same time zooming in on the subject, thereby keeping its size relatively constant, the background seems to come out of hiding, and suddenly dominates the scene. It changes the entire texture of the moment, from an isolated activity, to a part of a puzzle; from the general to the specific.

In the picture above, thought to be a copy rather than the original of Breugel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the background detail of a pair of legs disappearing into the sea, could be all but lost, as we admire the painting’s other qualities of scene, light, movement, activity. But that detail, the fact that it is occurring even as we look on, comes as a bit of a shock to our daily lives, thrusting us into the life of the picture itself.

We all know the story. Daedalus, inventor, fashions a pair of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus, to escape from Crete, where they have been imprisoned by King Minos (something about Theseus, and the Minotaur, but that’s beside the point). Daedalus cautions Icarus to fly “at a middle height.” Too low, and the sea water with soften the wings. Too high, and the sun will melt them. Ahh, impetuous youth. Icarus gets carried away with himself, flies too high, the wings melt, and he plummets into the sea, to his death.

And in the painting, this has just happened! Nobody knew it was going to happen. No one was prepared for it. They were just doing what they always do. The ploughman, plowing. The shepherd, shepherding. The angler, angling. Ahh, but there, Icarus falls! In an instant, an ordinary day has become extraordinary.

In her 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf spends the entire first chapter of the book, by far the longest chapter, telling the story of the Ramsays, on a visit to their summer home in the Hebrides, mostly as it relates to Mrs. Ramsay. It’s a lovely story, exposing the details of peoples’ lives with the deft hand of a master.

The bridge between that visit and the next (in the world of the novel, at least), is a chapter of a mere 20 or so pages, titled, Time Passes. Within this already slender chapter, bracketed at the end of section III, almost as a footnote, is this:

[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

That’s it. That’s how we learn that this woman whom we have gotten to know so well in the whole of everything we know about this family, has died, and we only learn of it, literally, in passing. The shock of reading that sentence in that way, in that part of the story, remains with me 40 years on, so far. An ordinary story of an ordinary family, became extraordinary in that moment.

All of these examples serve to reinforce the importance of what’s not talked about, what’s not planned, what’s not provided for, in determining our entire relationship with the things that actually happen in our daily existence. In today’s world, it could be argued that the background is often deliberately obscured by the current events made to swirl around in front of it, serving as a smokescreen, trying to keep us from noticing it. It is there, however, and it is an actor in the events transpiring center stage. Our ability to detect it, or not, may not in any way change the outcome of what actually happens in that particular moment. But in seeing it, in witnessing it, it may indeed have a profound impact on what happens for each of us, as we move off-screen, to enact our own next scenes.

Is Trump really the Republican candidate?

Trump - Branson - Clinton
A recent Dailykos article captured Richard Branson’s reflections on two meetings, one with Donald Trump, and one with Hillary Clinton (Richard Branson: Trump said he would destroy those who wouldn’t help him after he went bankrupt). Very telling contrast, which we’ve seen over and over again over the last year. Well… most of us have seen it. There are still those who – bizarrely – fail to recognize Trump for what he is.

I do think however that it is counterproductive to refer to the two individuals (as this article did) as “the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and the Republican nominee Donald Trump.” While Hillary may well be the Democratic nominee, the Republican party (those that have balls), and almost all of the died in the wool Republicans that I know, feel that Trump has usurped the Republican party for his own platform. He has taken the name and run with it, neither understanding nor respecting what the party grew out of.

Sadly, the Tea Party did the same thing previously. Both of these movements have left the Republican party in tatters. It can’t even recognize itself any more, let alone have a commanding presence in the political arena.

I am a Democrat. A sort of independent-Democrat. But I totally depend on there being at least two parties in the national conversation. Without that, we’re too often talking to ourselves, patting ourselves on the back, thinking we have all the answers, and yet leaving wide swaths of answer undelivered.

There are always different viewpoints. The bell curve keeps coming up time and time again because on almost any subject, there’s a mass of people clustered around the middle, with fewer and fewer outliers in either direction. If the goal of a political party is to garner as much support for its position as possible, it would seem that a Democratic party that’s one standard deviation to the left of the center, and a Republican party that’s one SD to the right, would be about the right place to be.

As both parties – but particularly the Republican party – pick themselves up and dust themselves off after this election, it is my greatest hope that the leadership of both parties will consider this reality and try to position themselves once again to be strong, identifiable, cohesive forces, each with an agenda, but not so far apart that they cannot possibly reconcile on the issues before them.

From this perspective, we might still achieve much of the kind of growth the Republicans seem bent on, without losing the care and egalitarianism focus of the Democratic party. In the real world, we can’t afford to have clear winners, because that entails clear losers as well. We must always strive to do the best we can, for most of the people, and not leave any to be sacrificed to “progress.”