Thursday, March 21, 2013

Waiting for Godot? Hell no!

In 1953, Samuel Beckett, an Irishman living in Paris, published 'En attendant Godot', and then translated it himself into English,  'Waiting for Godot'.

It was produced in 1955 at a theater in Paris and since then has been performed non-stop at a theater locale somewhere in the world.  It's the only play about which that can be said.  In 1999,  it was named "the most significant play of the 20th century".

For those of you who are  not familiar with the play, it's essentially about two men --  call them rakes, hobos, bums, anchorites, idiot savants, hippies or punks  (if you want to modernize it) -- wandering about the stage not knowing where they are going and just as uncertain as to whether they should keep moving or 'wait for Godot' --whose presence is imminent but who never actually shows up.*[See a sample of the dialogue at the bottom of this blog.]

Of course a play like this -- labelled absurdist, existential, and even nonsensical-- is an enigma that has been subjected to a broad range of interpretations and explanations. Beckett himself said that he wasn't sure what it was about exactly, and that he might have written parts of it while in a 'trance'. 

I saw a production of the play, fittingly enough, on a barge docked along the Left Bank of the Seine River in Paris in 1976. It was a seminal experience in my life. I was 23 years old and had just graduated college. A few days after seeing the play,  while strolling around Paris feeling fancy free, as I was want to do,  I came across the cast of the play having lunch at an open-air table on a patch of grass alongside the floating barge. They appeared to be as flamboyantly rakish and raffish in real life as they had been on stage -- laughing and drinking, and, well, simply enjoying life (Joie de vivre!).

If there had been any corporate inclinations in my 20 year old future perspective on life, they were wiped out in that moment. That's how I wanted to live!

But, in addition to that, having seen the play, I feel, also entitles me to  my own opinion about what 'Waiting for Godot' means: I've always felt that Beckett was warning us against the human proclivity to look for authority figures to tell us what to do. The proclivity must be burned into our DNA because, except for this recent and brief (and still fragile) experiment with democracy, we humans have throughout history fought long and hard to be ruled by some particular authority figure, be it king, emperor, dictator, pope or cult leader.

It's understandable to want things to go right, and to want to put as little effort into it as possible -- after all, don't we elect people and pay them good money to do that for us? But is that realistic? I'd argue no, and I think Beckett might agree with me. 

I think that many liberals, progressives -- whatever they prefer to call themselves these days-- had a 'Waiting for Godot' attitude toward the election of Barak Obama.  They expected that just by the fact of electing him,  that the election in and of itself would change things.

I think it's time to heed Beckett's ever timely and significant warning against waiting for others to do for us what we know deep down we can only do for ourselves.

You can argue how effective, or not, Barak Obama has been as president, but his two terms in office have opened up an eight-year window of opportunity to push a progressive agenda forward without the interference of a reactionary conservative in the White House.

The question should not be about Obama's performance, but our own.  Are we doing enough to advocate  for economic fairness, affordable housing, living wages, banking and financial reforms? 

Pick a cause you feel something about and push for it. If not, don't blame 'Godot' for not showing up.

Please check out my Facebook group, Advocate for Economic Fairness! 

And, if you like, you can also watch this video of me talking about kindness and being homeless -- during which, I must admit, I did feel a little like one of Beckett's untethered waifs.

* Dialogue from Waiting for Godot: “Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for one the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflexion, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in the immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come -- ”

Monday, March 18, 2013

Miplaced Animosity or When Things Turn Ugly

The place where I reside, Ocean County New Jersey, is generally speaking, a comfortable place to live.

It has one major flaw, however, and I'm sure it's one shared  with many other communities like it throughout the United States.

As the United States has become more oligarchical (its concentration of wealth and political power owned by fewer and fewer people) communities by and large have not adjusted to this new reality. In fact, according to a report by the progressive advocacy group Upworthy, the majority of Americans have a very unrealistic and uninformed understanding of what the actual distribution of wealth in America is. To see a video of the report click here.

What the report essentially says is that of the 54 trillion dollars of annual wealth the United States creates, the wealthiest 1% of Americans own 40%. And it does not trickle down evenly or equitably from there.  The bottom 80% own only 7%, and the lowest 20% -- our poor -- own none.

It's not always been this way. In 1976, the top 1% owned 9% of the nation's wealth. (That's still a lot of wealth owned by relatively few people. But, evidently, not enough.) 

My point here is that economic reality in America has changed (radically) but peoples perceptions, for the most part, have not adjusted to it at all. (We can get together and drink and sing Kumbaya all night long and wish back the 'good old days' -- but they are gone, at least for right now.)

Which brings me back to the subject of this post: the present reality and 'Misplaced Animosity'.

In the charming sounding County of Ocean, there is not a single shelter for people and families that have become homeless and destitute in this 'new economy'.

As a result of this, the local homeless have taken it upon themselves to provide their own shelter . They created what has become somewhat infamously known as 'Tent City', a cluster of about 80 individuals and families. It's 'infamous' because I have heard reports about it on National Public Radio (NPR) and The British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Like the protestors who occupied Wall Street last summer, Tent City has become something of a dramatic symbol of the direction the US has chosen to go economically.(The 1% and the rest of us.)

Well, that's the way it's perceived from a safe distance. Right here at home, in lovely Ocean County, it has become a contentious (and vitriolic) issue, bringing out the best, and worst, in human nature.

Last week, a judge ordered the residents of  'Tent City' to evacuate and that the state would then provide them with a year of housing.

Some people saw this as simply a humane solution to a vexing and intractable problem.  But just as many, if not more people, resented the state for providing them with housing.


The 'new American economy' has not only increased the number of Americans living in poverty, but it has also taken a significant amount of wealth away from those living in what used to be called the middle class.  In real, everyday terms, it means that more and more people are struggling financially, and as their frustration grows, so does their anger, which needs a target. Unfairly, in my opinion, that animosity all too often gets misdirected at the poor. 

It is very understandable that when you are struggling to make ends meet and you hear about some one else getting a 'free ride' you are going to feel slighted and get angry about it.

But pick the right target for that well-deserved anger. The poor receiving assistance are simply the most visible and easy target.  And, in truth, what state and federal governments pay out in assistance to the poor is miniscule when taken in context to the economy as a whole.(The poor in America are, quite literally,  subsisting off of the crumbs that somehow manage to find their way to the bottom.)

I'm not advocating 'blaming' anyone for the present state of the economy. But  if you want to vent your anger and frustration about it, then how about directing it at the exorbitantly wealthy and the milquetoast politicians they so easily manipulate and control? (By the way, the recent surge on Wall Street added over 100 billion dollars to the economy. 'How did that affect your wallet?'  If you still believe in 'trickle down', then God bless you?!)

So, besides armed insurrection, what can one do about this blatant monopolization of wealth and power?

I wish I had an answer

All I am calling for here  -- until the answer reveals itself -- is to not make the poor the brunt of our collective anger and frustration over the present state of the economy.

They don't deserve it, and it's a waste of  our time and energy to misdirect it at them.

I've initiated a petition to address one important aspect of this problem, insuring that there is housing assistance available to those Americans who need it.  Here's a link to the petition.

Please, in turn, let me know what you are doing about this growing problem of economic inequality in America -- besides fretting about it and cursing the poor.  

Please send your comments and suggestions to my Facebook group, Advocate for Economic Fairness!

In the meantime, Que vaya con Dios!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Predicament of Impoverishment in America

In 1968, CBS aired a documentary called Hunger in America. It awakened many Americans to the fact that a very large number of their fellows citizens were underfed and malnourished. 

This led to significant legislative initiatives aimed at combating poverty and hunger in America during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Then, in 1976, came this ditty: "She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000."

The 'she' is the infamous 'welfare queen' and the person making the lumpen remark would become president of the United States in 1980.

Words matter. And the remark marked a significant turning point in American attitudes toward their fellow citizens receiving financial and/or food assistance from the government.

This is the way things bounce in American politics and American peoples' opinions.  It's a democracy; things should bounce and change.

In the meantime, though, the problem of poverty and hunger in America got worse: The percentage of Americans living in poverty, in real terms (adjusted for inflation) has increased from around 11% in the 1970s  to 15% now. That's a lot of people. This took place while at the same time our national income per person is now more than twice as high as it was in 1970.

So what's up? (And down?)

A couple of things: one, there's a recognition, based on statistics, that many of the 'anti-poverty' programs of the 1970s did work to reduce poverty and hunger. And two, our attempts to deconstruct these programs in the name of improving them has failed -- failed to reduce hunger and poverty, which is the only yardstick I'm interested in here. (If it makes you feel better knowing that government cuts increased the number of your fellow Americans living in poverty and going hungry,  well that's another gauge for someone else to measure -- perhaps your shrink or pastor.)

The point is, we already know how to reduce poverty and hunger in this country because we've done it. (Was it perfect -- yeah right, tell me what is?) But instead of learning from those programs how to make them better, we've taken a step back and made things worse.

Like I said in the middle of this essay, we are a democracy, and democracy's bounce.

So let' s bounce. 

Please read and consider signing the petition below that seeks to protect housing  assistance from budget cuts:


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

How the Hell Have We as a Culture Become so Inauthentic

This does, of course, beg the question,''What do I mean by 'inauthentic'?'"

Being a story-teller, I prefer to answer the question this way. There was, once upon a time,  an infamous  gun-slinging Western cowboy who became so vexed with angst, so desperate, so fraught with anxiety, that he sought out the counsel of an American Indian healer, or Shaman.

The Shaman wanted to help him, deeply, but had to turn him away saying,  "Son, you have gotten so far away from who you really are that I don't think I can bring you back to your self."

Did you know that in the 19th Century our first 'psychologists' were know as 'alienists'? They defined themselves that way because they felt they were treating people who had become alien to themselves.

Okay, so to my point here: we are presently living in a culture that not only supports being inauthentic (or being alien to oneself) but promotes it.  Not to shoot at sitting ducks, but have you watched morning TV talk shows lately? It's a competition among the hosts as to who can be the  more superficial, inauthentic and unengaged in any real way with either the news they report or the guests they interview. Not actually being there is evidently more charming, interesting, and profitable, than being there with the people who have done something in order to get on the show. (Sorry, but I only recently learned how much money these a-list, a-holes earn.)

But in a larger sense, I feel, these kinds of goings on are a reflection of who we are and what we are becoming: alien to who we really are; and no longer fully  engaged in our own experiences.

Seeing that, as a result of recent experiences, I have become a defacto spokesperson for the neglected, downtrodden, homeless -- pick your epithet -- I would like to point out that we as a society  have our least authentic relationship to these people. We fear them, label them, ignore them, (alienate them), do anything but engage with them personally (authentically).      

Therefore we exist, culturally, in a 'Make Believe Ballroom', in which all the guests come to the party on equal terms and everyone gets their fair shake. Would be nice, if it were true. But we don't all come to the party in the same shape; though, with help, we can all learn to dance -- at least adequately.

So enough with the metaphors. We are living in a society that has become alien to itself as a people, as an organic entity  in which all persons depend on and nurture one another for the greater good of the whole.   

Pollyanna? Maybe. But ask yourself this: Do you feel more authentic when you feel connected to your fellow citizen, or when you feel alienated and separated?

It's a choice; and a choice that makes a big difference in the lives of many people living  in America who are feeling alienated from their own society and nation. 

It's not necessary; it's inauthentic.

(Please check out the petition below. Stop Sequestratian cuts to Housing Assistance.)


How the Hell Have We s a Culture Become so Inauthentic