The Honorable Act of Protest

Students who walked out of their Montgomery County, Maryland, schools protest against gun violence in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque – RC164B322F90

The student walkout last Wednesday presented an excellent parenting opportunity. Sadly, a significant number of parents failed to recognize the opportunity. Instead, many of them sided with authoritarian school boards who insisted that any student who walked out of class in honor of the seventeen students killed at Florida’s Parkland high school should receive disciplinary action for his/her outrageous rebellion.

Parents had the choice to support this, to teach their kids about the history of protest that forms the foundation of our nation. Our country began as a protest. Important change over the subsequent centuries occurred due to protest, not quiet little acceptable moments condoned by the powers that be, but full-bodied march-in-the-streets, dump-your-damn-tea-overboard protests. This was a chance for parents and community leaders to demonstrate a true understanding of what protest means to our nation.

And to our future.

It’s sad to see that so many don’t understand, tragic that so many accept the conditioning to stand quietly and wait for someone to tell you what to do, what to think. It bodes ill for our future that what we seem to be teaching in our schools and homes today focuses on doing what we’re told instead of what is right. Sit in your assigned desk. Don’t talk. Remember to bring a pencil. Stand quietly in line.

This is training for lock-step corporate workers, not the thinking adults needed to guide our nation forward in a time of great global change. Where is the critical thinking, the understanding of history, that education is supposed to instill?

Yes, the need to stand up for the right thing may have consequences. Many of the students who walked out of class despite draconian threats of suspension and other disciplinary action understood and stood up for their rights anyway. This alone should cheer us all with hope for our collective future.

The acceptance and embrace of authoritarianism raised its ugly head last week, a fitting reminder of the mindset that allowed Donald Trump to become president. Above all else, his election to the highest office in our political system reflects this pervasive eagerness for an authority figure who claims to know the right path. This world view reflects the fear of so many who can’t catch up with the times,  with a world going too fast for their 19th century brains to understand what is required of them. They don’t like change. So the solution is a strict set of simple rules enforced by a blustering promise-maker.

These kids aren’t having it. Thank you, kids.


Those Pesky Emotions

Upon waking, I had thought to visit the library in search of more books by John Banville, a particular author who inspires me with his style of writing. I am currently halfway through one of his books and have periodically laid the volume aside to hack again at a long labor of mine, alternately caressed and despised, for nearly fifty years. This memoir relates a seven-year period of my life, if it ever sees print, both gut-wrenching and pathetic, a lament, self-aggrandizing, a confessional if you must.

Banville’s style is similar to my earlier writings, what came out of me in those days before I had published anything. My technical articles had seen print, and even essays on various personal topics—dreams, remembrances, all of it boiling with emotion. But after that first book, my writing wasn’t my own. I felt watched, self-conscious, fully inadequate to create anything of merit. What did I know, anyway?

Since then I have detoured into historical accounts of one thing or another, not anything to be ashamed of but nevertheless not of any emotional import. My slim efforts at fiction, where in theory emotion must reign supreme although within the harness so eloquently described by Frost, have failed to engage me—or readers. I have been terribly disappointed in that effort, as it seems I am unable—unwilling, in fact—to express or convey emotion because I steadfastly refuse to experience emotion. This failure is, as one of my characters says in a flash of fury, a response to the reality that emotion leads to pain.

Not just any pain, but a deep intractable burn that settles in the bones and leads like a labyrinth to all the many experiences of pain that I have swallowed down in the years of my life. Why should I willingly lay myself open to examine those hopeless dead-ends and hidden mortuaries? It’s not as if a re-examination will make anything change. I can’t excise the pain like a surgeon removing a misshapen, hidden tumor. Looking at and expressing it does nothing to ease its ability to wound. And re-wound.

But yet, as a writer, I must create stories that convey the experience of pain, of sadness, loneliness, despair, and all other human torments (alongside joy and pleasure, the light part of duality, the yin-yang) in order to give readers what they want. There’s some sickness in that formula, that readers seek new sources of pain in order to exhume and then exorcise their own long-hidden suffering. Is it that we don’t know we have pain? That we must cast our eyes along the pages to learn what we’ve hidden from ourselves? Is it that in living through fictional pain, distant as we are from any personal experience of it, that we can set aside the dragging fingernails of our own grief?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer. I only know I that must write, and in so doing, I become caught up in the expectation that what I write will have some meritorious impact, and in that I will gain not only self-respect but also some small congratulation even if only from a few. And so I daily strive, like today, to expand my understanding of how and why people read. I endeavor to learn more closely the peculiar ways in which successful authors manage their craft. John Banville wields words like an expert swordsman and inspires me to take a fresh look at my memoir in the belief, perhaps delusional, that if I can only find the right words, a more musical phrasing, a more authoritative approach to my efforts, I might then be able to invoke the appreciation Banville has garnered.

However, the morning nearly gone and having attended—shall we say deviated from my original intent?—to various uninspiring tasks and only just now trying again to read for inspiration, I am distracted by my plan to visit the library. I am only halfway resting in my chair, so urgent is my sense of duty to get in my car and go.

Which makes no sense because I have a half book left to read and therefore no urgent need to visit the library. I have business at the bank and mail to drop, but that’s only side dressing to my actual underlying urgency to visit the library this very moment. It’s not that I wouldn’t like a couple more Banville books in order to compare his style from one work to the next. Of course I would. The real underlying truth is, I want to escape this duty and secure a stack of romance novels to get lost in, to vacate any responsibility to learning or writing, and simply disappear into a fictional world not of my own making.

This leads me to suspect that if I was able, theoretically, to set my emotions free from their harness to run rampant across the page, I would be confronted with feelings I might not want to hear or see and be forced to start cudgeling them back like the wild beasts they are. Or, as I once understood it, I might start screaming and not be able to stop, embarrassing me, my pets, and the neighbors.

The Kiss

I mostly don’t remember my dreams anymore. When I was younger, dreams wound out in vivid detail, some of them becoming stories with strange twists and turns. I regret the loss of that talent or torment or interface with other worlds.

Last night I dreamed a dream I remember intensely. Sadly much of the detail melted away as fast as I dreamed it. But what I remember echoes through me, a repeated experience of great emotion and yes, questionable meaning. I had arrived in a place not familiar, a small wooden frame house with a high porch that I entered as if someone welcomed me there. I stood in the narrow living room, well lighted in the afternoon sunshine, facing a man I once loved.

I still love him, love him in that way we can with those we never completely knew, never joined in the flesh or struggled through the ups and downs of an intimate relationship. I can’t actually discuss all the ways I did know him because how we met and what discourse we participated in over a period of years actually would identify him and would undoubtedly create problems.

Not for me. The situation for me was entirely different than his and even more so now. He’s still married, still in a position of importance in his profession, and esteemed by a great many people. And justly so. He is a truly Good Man.

But then, of course he is. He’s made it the objective of his life to be a good man, and has done admirably well in such a difficult pursuit. In my most fevered moments in our acquaintance, I highly resented his determination to be good. I was not then and am still not, a ‘good’ woman. I’m also not a ‘bad’ woman, but that’s beside the point. And another story entirely.

In the dream, he stood before me in this small well-lighted room, a place with pale blonde  furniture, what there was of it scattered around the place. Behind him, a small table built of a light colored wood sat surrounded by its four chairs. A patterned cloth draped over the table at an angle so that the cloth corners dropped onto the chair seats on each side leaving the table corners bare. The cloth pattern featured faded yellows and greens on a cream background, and these were the same colors as the upholstery on a small couch near us in the living room and perhaps an overstuffed chair, although these were items that I didn’t examine closely.

And why would I? The object of my attention, my full and astonished attention, was him, this amazing good man who for reasons never made clear in the dream, welcomed me into his arms. Whatever I had been carrying, if indeed I carried anything, dropped from my hands as I accepted his invitation.

His chest felt warm and strong as he pulled me into his embrace although now, in trying to remember, I can’t envision how his chest looked or what he wore. Perhaps a dark suit over a white shirt with an open collar. The image seems to have evaporated into a misty phantasm so that nothing below his neck remains concrete in my memory. I regret that this is so, because in real life his chest like the rest of him satisfied, even more than satisfied, the requirements of robust manhood. Not overly muscled. But lithe. Strong. Pleasing.

Tight against that chest, I felt his warmth and his affection. That he grasped my face with his hands and lowered his mouth to mine surprised me, pleasantly so. I had longed for him to kiss me almost as long as I knew him, and it was an act that had always been refused on the grounds of his marriage and his fidelity to his role as a Good Man. The kiss rapidly kindled a deep need, apparently, in both of us, and the gentle touching of lips transformed to a passionate embrace of open mouths and tongues.

In the dream, I worried that his wife would see us and be unhappy about our transgression. He looked away without letting go of me, as if peering out the bright window to see what he needed to see, and then returned to me with his hazel eyes crinkling in a smile, that reassuring smile I’ll always remember, to say I shouldn’t worry. Then he kissed me again, this time softer, more reassuring, more comforting than erotic, and for a long time I marveled at the sensory wonder of that touch of lips, how soft his were, how deeply my lips buried against his.

I can see his face, still, and his wavy hair and the crinkle of his eyes when he smiled. He had a terrific smile, which would have been even more wonderful if it had been reserved for me, but of course it was not. It was his professional smile, probably not simply reserved for his many acquaintances and clients in his work, but his smile for everyone. Probably even the smile he gave to his wife and child. But I wanted it for myself. I wanted to be special, not an acquaintance or a client but me, a unique and mysterious element of his life that set me and us apart from the rest of his life.

Maybe I was. He told me, more than once, I was special. To him. That he loved me. But it was agape love, not physical. Transcendent. Nothing infuriated me more, that he insisted on that. Only once did he let that curtain slip, if it was a curtain. Maybe it was only once that he lost control. Or only once that he felt anything more than his perfect good acceptable kind of love.

He did kiss me. We embraced over the console of his sports car, a fevered touch of lips and then more until we were both sinking into the erotic in ways that I had come to expect in my life, ways of freedom and basic human honesty and pleasure. I don’t know what he expected, whether he planned that moment as a brief ration of the forbidden or if it caught him unawares in the midst of trying to help me, pull me back from the brink of despair. I don’t know if those few moments, really only a few, of what some might consider an almost innocent touching of lips, and then slightly more as the kiss deepened and our tongues spoke the silent language of desire, whether those were the only moments in his entire good life that he deviated from his intended path.

In the dream, he wasn’t troubled by the kiss. He was fully in the moment, focused on me, on holding me in his arms and savoring what we exchanged. His objective, it seemed, was to reassure me, convince me of something important, that he cared, that he had always cared, and that what we had would never be diminished or lost.

I don’t remember anything else, and it seems this must have been the main event of this longer scenario that faded into mist like the yellow and green patterns on the tablecloth. I woke up telling myself to remember it, afraid that like most of my other dreams it would slip away into nothing and that when I tried to retrieve it, it would vanish from my fingertips. By some miracle, the memory remained. And even now, as the day drifts again into the early gray evening of a rainy late February day, the image of him, of his hazel eyes and the curl of his hair and the angle of his jaw and the sensual curve of his lips, remains clear in my mind.

What I feared most when I woke up, when I showered and dressed and made my tea and sat at my desk, was that somehow this dream marked his death. That in the night as I slept, he had passed into the ether and from that brilliant space had joined with me for one last moment of expressed affection. I searched the internet for news, hoping that surely if he had died, there would be an announcement, a notice, for he was well known. There was nothing of his death, only other news of his accomplishments, press releases, his position on boards of directors and other such ephemera.

Perhaps he did not die and the dream rose from the depths of my memory, my loneliness, if indeed I am lonely, for I do not consider myself lonely except in the strictest terms of that condition. Yes, I am alone. I am not lonely. Perhaps something of my current endeavors or books I’ve recently read have opened a path to that phase of my life so that all the unresolved angst of my desire and his restraint has found a path to my present. It’s been forty-five years, but then, some things are never forgotten.

Or perhaps he did die and this morning was too soon for there to be obituaries and notices and mourning. I will watch and wait.

And I will savor the dream.

Greetings from Utopia Park — A Review

Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood by Chaire Hoffman

If you plan to read this book, be warned there are spoilers ahead.

This book was hard to read in places, not because of poor writing. If the writing had been less skillful, I wouldn’t have been able to read it at all. It was hard to read because I kept having an intellectual argument about how people could be so stupid.

The transcendental meditation movement, in particular the cult following of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, never made sense to me. I had carefully extricated myself from another cult, that of the Church of Christ so fully embraced by my parents, so I never remotely entertained the idea of allowing another rigid structure to sit on my head and eat the days of my life.

I get that some people want to run and hide inside concepts like this, like someone has figured shit out and if you just listen to them and do what they say, you’ll see the light. Sorry, but it really doesn’t work that way. You can’t find nirvana on someone else’s path.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the entire problem with all religions. Somebody has an epiphany and tells others about this amazing understanding. They they decide to start spreading the word — what the person was doing/eating/wearing when the epiphany occurred, what he thinks the epiphany means, and then creating a set of rules on how to live and what to believe in order to duplicate that epiphany.

What you get that way is a life of servitude to someone else’s explanation of what they saw/heard/believe all while guaranteeing that you will not ever experience an epiphany of your own.


So this story of a woman’s growing up years with an alcoholic father and a mother who took refuge in TM rubbed me completely the wrong way. Even more upsetting was the author’s failure, after living through this and theoretically reaching adulthood able to think for herself, to ultimately call BS on the whole process.

Yes, maybe meditation is a useful practice. I choose not to waste my time that way, but if it works to bring relaxation and peace of mind to some, that’s fine. It’s your life. But nowhere in this book does the author really come out and say that TM under the Maharishi was a bucket of warm spit engineered with his personal satisfaction and enrichment as the goal. She doesn’t say that her mom, herself, and all the other people she knew were suckered into feeding this weasel’s grandiose scheme.

She does manage to accurately report the ultimate scandal resulting from media exposure of his scheme and share with readers the timeline of his rise and fall. That’s valuable. And it’s valuable that she acknowledges the time and effort it took for her to distance herself from the cult aspect of his teachings.

What disappointed me so greatly was her inability to disavow TM and its impact on her life. She never criticized her mother for being a gullible slave to the Maharishi and for dragging her children through the poverty and deprivation of a cult family. There’s still a lot of introspection due this author which, hopefully, might lead to a later work with more anger about what was inflicted on her.

For me, the book was an eye opener, yet another one, on the subject of how deluded people can be about issues of religion and spirit. Very depressing.

A Day Without Music

One day. That’s all I ask. One day for us to recognize how much we’ve come to depend on and simultaneously disregard music. And to think about life without it.

One day without music in the doctor’s waiting room, the supermarket, the car repair shop. One day in silence while driving, while eating lunch at our favorite café, while having our hair cut. One day to live without a buffer against other people’s conversations, without music’s unique ability to suspend us in our own cocoon while noises of our increasingly crowded world batter us on all sides.

Think about television shows and movies without music to hype the suspense, give us auditory clues about what might happen next and what to feel about the images we see.

Like the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt, music has become so pervasive that we don’t even notice it anymore. Don’t notice, rarely appreciate, and generally don’t support in all the ways that are necessary for it to continue to be a viable art form.

Observers in the business world have warned us. Forbes published an article last year discussing how the music industry is putting itself out of business. Another commentary appears in a short documentary “that reveals the dramatic collapse of the music industry and the unintended consequences the internet revolution is having on creators of all kinds.” The warnings are out there.

Musicians don’t just pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and magically start producing music. As any parent determined for his/her children to learn piano can attest, years of hard work precede the success of most musicians—learning the names of the lines and spaces, the rhythm designated in key signatures and variously shaped notes, the harmonic requirements in melody and supporting cast of chords in certain sequence.

Aside from the basics of learning to read music, there’s the even more challenging work of learning to express music through voice or an instrument. Applying all ten fingers in opposing motion to a keyboard with 88 keys. The difficulty of reeds and mouthpieces. The fingering of certain saxophone keys to produce an “A” versus an “F”. Mastering intonation—is it sharp or is it flat? Singing for hours a day without destroying our vocal cords. Keeping a steady rhythm, something we depend on drummers to do with both hands and both feet at work.

Do we appreciate musicians? We think we do. We watch the Grammy’s. We listen to the results of their long labor. We might spend a few bucks for a CD, but more often we’re eager to download music for free. We might spend a few dollars for concert tickets, but really, how often do we attend concerts?

Not so long ago, we might have routinely paid a modest sum to enter a club offering live music. Once inside the venerable establishment, we would have kicked back, welcomed a few friends around the table, and eagerly awaited that first slam of the snare, the reverberation of a guitar. Music would flood the room, its driving rhythms and wild harmonics hitting us in the gut and transporting us to a place outside of time.

Now clubs mostly don’t pay bands to play. They say patrons don’t want to bother with a cover charge, don’t expect to hang around for long. Patrons are about their phones, texts from friends who want to meet somewhere else. They’re not invested in a band or a place. Anyway, they can get music free whenever they want.

Where do they expect that music to come from? Bands don’t form out of thin air and suddenly play a big hit. Bands need instruments and they’re not cheap. Bands need places to practice which usually involves paying rent for rehearsal space. Bands need venues where they can offer their performance, feel the audience’s response, and go back to the practice room with a better idea of how to do better. Any climb up the charts is a path of trial and error—better bass lines, a more unique guitar riff, more compelling lyrics. Even touring to build audience rarely pays for itself. Hauling a trailer full of gear and finding a place to sleep for two or three months on the road is a towering success if it breaks even.

These are musicians at work, learning how to express an intangible idea, a heartfelt emotion, how to draw audiences into a new vision. They are participating in an art form older than history, universal among all races and cultures, key to exploring the mysteries of creation.

My concern is not just about popular music. Much of what we hear in movie soundtracks and even in television commercials is ‘serious’ music. Like, violins and trombones and percussion. Symphonies are slowly disappearing from our communities. College music departments continue to shrink. If we just removed ‘serious’ musicians from our daily diet of music, big gaps would open up in our need for constant sound.

Do we need constant sound? What is so terrible about pushing a grocery cart down a store aisle without music in the background? Would it wreck our day if we jogged without earbuds? If we drove to work in silence?

Is it fear of overhearing other people talking? Is it really that we need to be constantly entertained in ways we only dimly acknowledge, if at all?

Is it the need to stamp out the ongoing dialogue with our inner self, to block our feelings, to ignore the warnings and expressions of our subconscious?

How did we migrate from worshipful attention to musical performance  to this ho-hum disregard?

Why do we need music?

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” ― Albert Einstein

“Music is the shorthand of emotion.” ― Leo Tolstoy

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” ― Maya Angelou

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” ― Aldous Huxley

“Where words fail, music speaks.” ― Hans Christian Andersen

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” ― Arthur O’Shaughnessy

“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” ― Confucius

If you ask someone what music does for them or why they like music, no doubt you’d hear responses like some of these cited above. Yet how does that appreciation manifest today? Audiences talk through performances. Amplified music aids and abets this disregard by blasting out sound louder than the crowd murmurs. The routine background music in elevators, stores, cars, and every other possible venue leads us to assume that we’ll always have a soundtrack for our lives.

We take music for granted. We pay little attention to the very real struggle of musicians. We expect to flip a knob or press a key and have instant, free music. We have no idea how our lives would be different if we didn’t have music.

So let’s turn it off. One day without music. Let the silence echo through.

Then let’s pay attention to what we need to do to ensure that music regains its respected and vital role in our society.  Let’s have more silence instead of constant soundtracks so that when music appears, we pay attention. Let’s make sure our children learn music in school even if we have to sacrifice part of the athletic budget. Let’s patronize clubs that host fledgling bands and welcome the opportunity to pay a modest cover charge. Let’s attend local band and symphony concerts and donate to their organizations. Let’s be willing to pay more for our Pandora or other streaming services and discourage our family and friends from free downloads.

Otherwise, we might wake up one day and find there’s no music to be heard.


I kind of quit smoking when I was 33 after having incessant heart palpitations. I think the actual trigger had been the exhaust we breathed stuck in traffic the night before after watching fireworks at the mall. Plus I’d had a lot of dental work done which involved repeated doses of ephedrine. Whatever. The doc looked at my EKG and said I had to quit smoking. And drinking caffeine.

I loved smoking. Maybe I imprinted on my father’s lifelong relationship with Winstons. Maybe I was just a natural addict. Maybe the boost I got from nicotine helped me jumpstart the confidence I so badly needed.

Pretty much within the first several weeks of college, I bought Winstons and started smoking. I learned how to French inhale. I learned how to flip ashes and thump butts out of car windows. After a year or so, I gave it up temporarily because my soon-to-be husband didn’t like me to smoke and I wanted him more than I wanted cigarettes.

For a while.

I could write an entire story about my life with cigarettes, about the on again, off again drama while married to him. About the shift to Kools after I met a particular man who was my lover for three months. One spring night as a thunderstorm raged outside, I ran out of Winstons. He offered me a Kool and that was that.

Smoking felt even more exhilarating with Kools, the intense menthol burn on the inhale, the slightly sweet smoky exhale. I loved each new pack in its clean white and green colors, the ceremony of tapping the pack, of pulling the little cellophane thread that opened the top, the careful tearing off one side of the foil interior wrap and the skilled thump on the side of my finger to knock the first lovely white cylinder loose. These were gifts, objects of beauty. That first puff felt wonderful, but it was the second hit that filled my lungs and my body with the full tobacco experience.

If anyone ever wanted a hit of my cigarette, they did not get the second hit.

Cigarettes were my best friend. They were there for me when the rest of my world dissolved into runny shit. In lonely moments, in anger, in grief, I turned to my faithful companion. In the dark of night, I relied on the warm cheery glow of a cigarette’s lit end. In hunger, in drunkenness, in the hours of tripping my brains out, the cigarette was there, centering me, reminding me of myself. Being the lighthouse in the storm.

With my first pregnancy at age twenty-seven, I bravely stopped smoking. Time slowed to a crawl. I so wanted to do right by the future child growing inside me. Then one night my husband and I had a vicious fight. I leapt into the old Ford 150 and drove to the nearest gas station where I purchased a pack of Kools. Then I drove to a vacant parking lot and lit that old friend and sat there crying and smoking. I subsequently smoked through all three of my pregnancies.

I required a cigarette when on the telephone. Otherwise I might leap out of my skin in annoyance with yet another incessant nonsensical blathering about whatever, or another tale of romantic angst, or whatever the fuck it was someone else had to tell me and I thought I had to listen as the minutes of wasted life ticked by. Without cigarettes, I finally learned to just draw my line in the sand and make whatever excuse was necessary to end the call.

After the doc said I had to quit and pointed out that I risked having some other woman mother my young children because I could fucking die, I stumbled out of the building into the glare of July sunlight and sat in my blazing hot car with the windows down while I smoked my last cigarette. I cried. Deep body shaking sobs. Then I drove up North Street, finished the last drag on that luscious Kool then tossed the rest of the pack out the window. Yes, I looked back. The little green and white pack lay forlorn on the pavement.

That wasn’t the end of my smoking. I went through a period where I’d meet a friend for a beer and she smoked my brand and I’d luxuriate in the pleasure of ‘just one.’ Only I never could smoke just one. ‘Just one’ after weeks or even days of abstinence resulted in dizziness and nausea. I had to smoke more often if I wanted to tolerate the effects. And I did smoke more. I stopped and started smoking so many times I lost count. The craving would get so bad, I’d buy a pack, smoke one then throw the pack away. Then I’d buy a pack, smoke one, and keep the pack in my glove box until the next insurmountable craving forced my hand.

It took nearly ten years before I really quit. I’d have dreams of smoking, feel the pleasure of smoke curling over my tongue, drawing deep into my lungs, brushing past my lips as I exhaled. In the dream, I’d panic that I’d started smoking again, that I’d never be free of it, that I’d always be tortured by an addiction I couldn’t beat. Even now, nearly thirty years later, I sometimes have that dream. In recent years when the dream occurs, I know in my dream that it’s a dream. For years, though, I’d wake up not sure if I had started again.

Side note: Maybe I have this dream often. I don’t know because I mostly can’t remember my dreams anymore. Why is that? My life is crumbling away before my very eyes.

I understood my thing with cigarettes was a real addiction. To me, addiction is the ability of a chemical to make a place for itself in the recesses of a human brain and take up residence there. A more refined understanding is that it isn’t the chemical itself that takes up residence, but the effect that chemical has inside the body. The whole endorphin receptor thing. The euphoria that results from those effects will live forever inside me, always ready for that moment when I might finally lay down my guard and say ‘why not?’ and bring flame to the tip and inhale.

Knowing that, I sometimes lament my father’s last request for me to bring him a cigarette. Or, more accurately, I lament my response.

We all knew he was dying. Eighty-five years of life and Winstons finally came to collect its debt in atrophied heart muscle and congested lungs. He spent his days and nights those last weeks in a hospital bed in the family room, unable to walk and perhaps in pain. But he never said he hurt. He didn’t complain.

On one of my last visits before he died, he held my hand and asked if I’d get ‘the old man’ a cigarette. I said no, you know you can’t smoke, you’re on oxygen. But later I thought, what the hell was I thinking? I could have turned off the oxygen. I could have bought a pack and wheeled him to the porch and watched him enjoy the hell out of that damn thing.

It would have been the rational, kind thing for me to do. He hadn’t smoked in nearly a year at that point, so I’m not sure how dizzy it would have made him. Maybe it wouldn’t have been the joyous sensation he expected. Maybe he would have coughed or choked. But he was dying anyway.

I should have done it.

U.S. Budget — Military and Social Security

Deceptive and Counterproductive.

Discussion ebbs and flows on the topic of U.S. spending. Of particular interest to several of my liberal friends is military spending. Frequent Facebook posts on this subject claim that military spending consumes over half the budget.

I agree that the military is not an ideal place to invest so many billions of dollars. I also agree that the U.S. has a history of blowing money on weapons and aggression. Further, I question whether the U.S. uses military means when a better, longer-lasting path to peace and stability in troubled parts of the world would be investments in education, infrastructure, agriculture, and commercial development.

All that said, I have to protest the continuing use of incorrect data in arguing against military spending. The cause for less military spending is not enhanced by presenting incorrect information. Just the opposite.

The accurate 2017 budget breakdown:

Please note that the portion designated military spending occurs in the lower left  of this pie chart and as such does not constitute half of the U.S. budget. It’s important to discriminate between a breakdown of discretionary spending and overall spending. Discretionary spending is one category of overall spending. It’s within the slice of pie of discretionary spending where we see the big bite that goes to the military:So yes, military spending within its slice of pie of discretionary spending, is over half the budget. And there’s no limit to the close examination this distribution of funds deserves. But please, let’s make our arguments based on the actual facts.

A second realm of considerable error by liberals calls for a shift in U.S. spending to better honor social programs like Social Security. A popular mantra on social media these days mistakenly claims that we ‘own’ our retirement funds because we paid into them. The following discussion spells out the facts:

“It’s My Money” [WRONG!]

* A common perception about Social Security benefits is: I am entitled to the money. It’s my money. I’ve saved it.

* Social Security is mainly a “pay-as-you-go” program. This means that it pays most of its benefits by taxing people who are currently working.

* Per the Social Security Administration: The money you pay in taxes is not held in a personal account for you to use when you get benefits. Your taxes are being used right now to pay people who now are getting benefits. Any unused money goes to the Social Security trust funds, not a personal account with your name on it.

* From the start of the Social Security program in 1937 through the end of 2016:

  • 94% of all Social Security payroll taxes were spent in the same year they were collected.

  • 13% of Social Security’s total income (including payroll taxes, taxes on Social Security benefits, transfers from the general fund of the Treasury, and interest on the Social Security Trust Fund) has accumulated in the Social Security Trust Fund.

* Per the Social Security Administration: Since the Social Security system has not accumulated assets equal to the liability of promised future benefits, the social security wealth that individuals hold represents a claim against the earnings of future generations rather than a claim against existing real assets.

* After the federal government pays back with interest all of the money it has borrowed from Social Security, the program’s current claim against the earnings of future generations is $30.8 trillion. This amounts to an average of $132,914 for every person now receiving Social Security benefits or paying Social Security payroll taxes.

* Per the Social Security Administration: There has been a temptation throughout the program’s history for some people to suppose that their FICA payroll taxes entitle them to a benefit in a legal, contractual sense. … Congress clearly had no such limitation in mind when crafting the law. … Benefits which are granted at one time can be withdrawn.…

* In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (5 to 4) that entitlement to Social Security benefits is not a contractual right. [emphasis added]

[For more discussion of Social Security taxes, allocations, and projections, visit the Just Facts page.]

So let’s get our heads screwed on straight, fellow progressives. While a large chunk of U.S. tax dollars go to military expenditures, it is NOT consuming over half of our tax dollars. Our Social Security and Medicare funds are NOT held for our future use like individual savings accounts, but rather are spent immediately in payouts to persons currently receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits.

If we expect to prevail in directing our nation toward a more equitable and socially conscientious future, we need to be well informed and make our arguments for social justice in ways that make sense and align with the facts.

That is all. For now.