Friday, September 22, 2017

White privilege and the wisdom of age

One day last week I was looking for a new TV show to watch and I came across something called Atlanta. I'd never heard of it but the picture of three young black men with peaches in their mouths was weird. It intrigued me so I took a look.

Here's how the log line describes the show:

Two cousins work through the Atlanta music scene in order to better their lives and the lives of their families.

The Atlanta music scene means nothing to me but I was curious and tired of clicking the Roku. I punched PLAY.

I was taken to a world I've never known, where everyone is black and speaks street slang in a dialect that was difficult for me to follow. I turned on captions and it helped but I still struggled a bit to understand what was being said and what it meant. Finally, I just sat back and let the characters develop. Before long I was drawn in.

I'm a white man in my middle sixties. 

I've never felt any racial animosity but I've always been cautious of cultures outside of my personal experience. We all are. That's just human nature.

Atlanta is just a TV show but in the comfort and safety of my white middle class family room it admitted me to a world I've never known and can't visit in real life.

I watched all ten episodes of the first season and I'm all in. I care about the characters and their relationships. I like them. I want them to succeed. I love seeing their world through their eyes. It has opened mine.

But this isn't a TV review. Here's the point:

At 66 I think I am finally coming to grips with the fact that my youth is all in picture files and shoe boxes now. There's no point in missing it. I can't go back but I can enjoy and learn from my memories with newly earned insights .

Each segment of our lives is a series of doors leading from one place to the next.

At 66, I'm allowed to ease off the pedal. Fewer doors, fewer choices, no hurry.  I don't have to immerse myself in long term obligations. My kids are grown and raising their own families. My career is achieved and I can stop reaching for the next rung on the ladder.

In many ways I'm just starting to live life on my terms for the first time. I'm learning to let go of insistence and think about what I want to do just because I want to.

Lately I've enjoyed stocking bird feeders and watching finches jostle for position.

I find myself saying hello to strangers with greater regularity and sincerity.

I leave home for a few days alone to talk with my smarter self and write down what I learn.

If you've not reached this point you have an exciting time of life ahead that you're probably dreading because you think getting old means wearing out. Here's the thing:

Getting old means getting free.

When it happens you'll be amazed by how it clarifies your thinking.

Atlanta is just a TV show but I love it because my eyes are opening to a view of the world I have never seen or imagined before.

In one scene Alfred, aka the rapper called Paper Boi, explains in a moment of frustration why he needs to be successful in music so he can stop selling drugs for a living.

“I scare people at ATMs," he says. "I have to rap."

That hit me like lightning. I've never scared anybody by my mere existence. I've never had to think about how the world might fear and maybe even hate me as a stereotype.

This is what people mean when they talk about White Privilege. I didn't get it until now because I've only heard that term from other white people in my own world who were trying to teach me something. It smacked of condescension and shaming. It made me defensive.

"I scare people at ATMs."

That's when I got it.

Like it or not, I have white privilege.

It doesn't mean I should feel guilty about it. It's not my fault and nobody can tell me it is. It's just sad and wrong. Maybe in some small way my understanding can help fix it.

If I don't resist an idea just because it's new to me it might smooth the road a bit for younger people who don't have old ideas but are looking for new solutions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


This  morning I talked on the radio about a village in India where people are terrified to walk the paths between their town and those of their neighbors. When darkness falls they huddle in their homes, fearful for their lives because a leopard has  been stalking and eating humans, twelve victims in the past two years.

Can you imagine having something  like that to worry about?

My partner, Amy, and I also talked about the Islamic terrorists in northern Iraq who have been slaughtering Christians and beheading babies. By comparison that village in India seems like Disney World with a plumbing problem.

In Africa people are dying by the thousands of Ebola, which is highly contagious, rarely curable and never satisfied to simply snuff out lives. It insists on doing so in a long, drawn out, fevered, hemorrhagic horror.

People in their Ebola death throes sweat profusely as their eyes bleed and their minds scream for deliverance.

Here in America, meanwhile, we're all wound up about two very wealthy young athletes who both have apparent tendencies to snap and hit people they love. So far none of the people they love have been seriously hurt and are defending their attackers.

In our house, our dog Amelia has an intestinal virus but the vet gave us some medicine and says she'll be fine.

Carolann and I are also trying to figure out how to save enough money to buy Christmas presents for our family in California.

We're healthy and happy but we do stress about our weight a bit.

Sometimes we're annoyed when the WiFi doesn't work right.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Robin Williams

Robin Williams ended his life this past week and after all the talk of alcoholism, drug addiction, clinical depression and the early stages of Parkinson's -- as we struggle to understand how a man so rich with joy that he can share with the entire world yet be tortured enough to take his own life -- I have finally reached a conclusion:

I don't and can't and will therefore never get it.

Maybe Robin's gifts so isolated him from lesser beings like ourselves that we drove him mad of boredom.

Or maybe the cacophony of noise inside his unfiltered creative genius drove him to throw the off switch just so he could get a night's sleep.

Maybe a lot of other things.

I don't spend much time on questions that have no answers for me. But I think I owe Robin the gratitude and respect of not assuming he is to be pitied.

Enough of the "tortured soul" stuff.

I choose to think Robin Williams was called home because his work here was finished. And his work should never be minimized by the superficial arts of critics and students.

Academics, as Robin showed us time and again, are merely sign posts to self discovery. And unless we are instinctively inspired by a higher source, as he apparently was -- we need to just dive in and live our lives.


Friday, February 7, 2014

People who kill themselves

A very famous and talented actor died this week.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was discovered on the floor of his bathroom with a needle in his arm and a lot of heroin nearby.

His body was found when he failed to pick up his three kids from their mother.

Five days later the media continues to pick at the story like flies on a carcass while hailing Hoffman as one of the greatest actors of his time; a wonderful man and father. Our cultural loss is apparently immeasurable.

Avoidable death is always tragic. Beyond that, I don’t know what to think.

I understand that addiction is an insidious disease that claims many innocent victims. On the other hand, this guy left three young children to grow up without their father.

I had a treasured friend named Fred who killed himself a few years ago. He put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. His son found him a couple of days later.

I still love Fred and but I also hate his guts for what he did.

As the media fawns over Philip Seymour Hoffman I find myself curiously unmoved.
And, I’ve decided that’s okay. There are some things I just can’t figure out.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I got nothin'

I write less than I used to. As time goes by I am becoming convinced that I don't have anything original or interesting to say.
When I was young I was much smarter. Wisdom came to me so fast I couldn't explain it all.
But, over the years I've come to realize the older I get and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.
That was an original thought when I thunk it. Nobody enlightened me. I had never heard or read anything like it. I thought it was a brilliant original epiphany. But now we have the Internet and ego crushing reality is just a search away.
A minute ago I typed "The more I learn..." into Google and here's what popped up:
The more you learn, the more you know. The more you know, the more you forget. The more you forget, the less you know. So why bother to learn? -- George Bernard Shaw
The more you know, the less you understand. -- Lao-Tse
And the real stunner:
The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know. -- Socrates
Socrates had my original thought some 2,400 years before I did and said it more crisply!
AND, in ancient Greek!
Worse yet, I'll bet he wasn't the first guy to figure this out, either. He just had a tremendous publicist.
I suppose having an idea expressed by one of the great thinkers in history come to me all by itself is cool but there's no point in my passing it along. It obviously occurs to everybody eventually.
Plus, if we all ran around regurgitating every brilliantly mundane original thought we have what would become of the poor philosophy majors who have nothing else to do with their educations?
The other reason I don't write much anymore is because Americans don't read much anymore.
We don't consume information, we spew it.
We Tweet. We text. We spend our days expressing every banal thought that crosses our mind in such a way that we don't have to bother hearing or reading a response.
I could be wrong about this. Or, maybe it's a trend that will reverse itself.
Maybe, but how can I know?
I've learned so much, so fast, I'm rushing toward total ignorance.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas in perspective

A message has been making the rounds on Facebook lately urging people to remember the less fortunate at Christmas. You've probably seen it. It was one of those, “if you agree, post this to your timeline for at least one hour” messages. Like all of those posts that insist you “share” the message I found it annoying. Many of them say something like, "We'll see how many people have their hearts in the right place. I'll bet 97% of you won't re-post this."

You win. I won't.

In this case I “liked” the post because I like the poster but I but didn't share it. Aside from my personal annoyance, like many social media notes it attacked a huge issue with cursory, superficial and ignorant observations.

That's how we roll in 21st Century America.

This particular message was well-intended but not very well written. It not only urges us to think of the hungry, the homeless and those who are facing great physical or emotional challenges and to count our blessings, it kind of makes you feel guilty for being happy.

That's a uniquely American social problem right now. But, I digress...

The message did make me think back to Christmas seasons in my life that were less than completely joyous. There was one in particular.

December 1981: My first wife and I had split up less than a month earlier. I didn't want the divorce but I had to move out of our home, away from the life I still loved and our four-year-old son. I spent that Christmas in an apartment more alone and lonely than I had ever been in my life. I wasn't hungry, homeless or without friends but I was a young man who had always been blessed with a large, loving family, and now my immediate family had splintered. It was not the Christmas I had always been promised.

I was shattered.

Time, as they say, heals all wounds. It also gives us perspective. That lonely Christmas 33 years ago taught me the most important lesson of my life:

Happiness and misery are transitory. Neither will last forever.

In December 1981 I learned that we don't live in a Norman Rockwell world. Christmas isn't filled with nonstop love and joy. Most of us don't have movie-beautiful homes in a soft snowfall with Grandma and Grandpa arriving on the front porch, smiles on their faces, bearing beautifully wrapped gifts and warm hugs.

Some Christmases are happier than others. Some are tragic. Mostly, they are times in our years when our exaggerated expectations fail to meet reality, and yet, we still love them.

As long as a child lives in you there is hope and happiness.

Help the needy when you can. Pray for the less fortunate if you are one who prays, but never let despair or guilt of your blessings mark your joy.

If you agree, share this message. 

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good life!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

I need a break

You ever get tired of yourself?

We get tired of constantly being around other people. Not always or often, but just occasionally we all need a break from even the people we love most in life: our spouse, our kids, our best buddy. They're not doing anything wrong or bothering you. You love them more than life itself but still, occasionally, you just get a bit weary. We all do. I'm no psychologist but I'm absolutely sure that it's normal and healthy and nothing to worry about. After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? Or, as Dan Hicks put it in his song by the same name: How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away?

Have you ever wondered how you can go through your entire life without feeling that way about yourself?

Geez! Everywhere you go, there you are! You wake up and you're there. You go to bed and you go with you. You know everything you're thinking and everything you're going to say before you say it! Doesn't that make you just a little crazy every once in awhile?

You understand yourself better than anybody else. You talk to yourself but you never, I mean NEVER, have an argument. You like the same foods, watch the same TV shows, laugh and cry at the same things and you love the same people.

I swear, sometimes I just need a short break from me. I need to send myself away or take a short vacation and be somebody I never met before.

Admit it, the thought of being with me 24/7 for 62 years is unimaginable, right? Sure it is! You couldn't do it, so why should I be expected to?

I know what you're thinking and, NO! Both of me assures you emphatically I am not having a break down or bordering on being dangerous to myself. I love every moment of this glorious and divine gift we call life. Why would I kill myself? I love me!

Still, sometimes I begin to have a thought and then cut it off with, "Yeah, I know, I know."

Ever feel like that?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Miley Cyrus and Sgt. Carter

I find the public reaction to the Miley Cyrus performance on the Video Music Awards Sunday night both, hopeful and fascinating. Hopeful because it seems we might finally be getting to a point where even the target audience for such acts is getting annoyed, and fascinating because Americans still don't seem to understand why this story lights us up.

In the past couple of days I have seen hundreds of negative reactions to Miley's writhing and grinding and a handful of of opposition postings on Facebook asking why we can't pay more attention to wholesome news, like President Obama's awarding of the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Ty Carter for heroism on the battlefield in Afghanistan. (For the record, we at KLIF in Dallas did talk about Sgt. Carter and his amazing story of bravery but it wasn't an easy story to stumble across. On the other hand, Miley's flesh colored bikini and giant rubber finger was absolutely everywhere.)

From where I sit, Americans have a pretty good handle on what matters in their personal lives and know when their families are under assault. Sgt. Carter is protecting us while Miley is violating our collective sense of decency.

Sgt. Carter stands for the best of all things in this country. He's the latest in a 250 year heritage of heroes we've learned to count on to protect our families and the freedoms we cherish. That's not to say he is taken for granted. He will tell you himself he was doing a job that was expected of him. And he knows we love him for it.

Miley is another matter. She, too, is the latest in a long string of Americans standing up for freedom but the freedom she has embraced is one that threatens our instinctive human modesty. Parents and grandparents see this sort of thing as an assault on the values they've accepted from their own ancestors and are trying to pass on to the next generation. Chief among those values are personal dignity and respect for others.

Sunday night Miley Cyrus tried to advance her career at the expense of little American girls everywhere, teaching them that their primary personal value lies below the waist and between their legs.

I know I sound like my own parents' parents when Elvis first shook his hips onstage in the fifties. My mom and dad had the same problem with the Beatles' outlandish shaking of their famous mop-tops. (It was just their heads, for heaven's sake!) The annoyance of parents is a social tradition. The problem is, as performers push that envelope to more blatant sexuality in order to outdo Gaga and Madonna, as we allow the margin between self respect and self abuse to be blurred, we are allowing one person's freedom of expression to set the tone of acceptability for an entire society.

These days we sometimes forget that freedom of speech includes the right to stand up and say, “Enough!” 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The death of a word

I'm one of those word nerds who drives his family crazy by correcting their speech and writing. I do it to be helpful, I really do. I've learned to lay off my friends in public because people are embarrassed if you point out an error in spelling, punctuation, pronunciation or word choice. They protest, "You know what I mean!", but they're really just embarrassed by their ignorance.

Why, then, are dictionaries enabling rather than challenging them?

English is said to be the most difficult language in the world to master. But, for its complexity it is also the most glorious. There are no true English language synonyms. Every word that essentially means the same as another has its own unique feeling and implication. These implied emotions and judgments allow really good writers to write between the lines, to manipulate perspective and emotions by inference rather than directive.

The best writers never tell you what to think or how to feel, they merely lead the way and allow you to discover yourself in their path.

That's the power of the language. 

Words are my business. I talk on the radio for a living and write a bit on the side, so this stuff is a big deal for me. I don't expect most people to understand or care about the subtleties and nuances of the language. I don't point out slightly off target utterances, not even to my wife, just the ugly errors that may lead people to misunderstand or misjudge her. But I do ask English speakers everywhere to join with me in protest of officially redefining perfectly good, very specific words simply because so many people are too lazy to learn to use them correctly.

The Oxford English Dictionary has thrown in the towel and declared that the constant misuse of the word, 'literally' is now acceptable. It can mean literally or it can be used for emphasis as in, "It was literally raining cats and dogs."

These horribly conflicting definitions are 180 degrees out of sync. The word "literally" is effectively dead.

Education is apparently no longer the Dictionary's purpose. The arbiters of our language seem to have decided it is nobler (and perhaps, more politically correct) to reflect rather than guide communication. In doing this they leave it to the reader or listener to determine if cats and dogs are actually raining down from the sky or if it is 'literally', meaning figuratively, raining cats and dogs.

And what difference does it make, you may ask? In this example, probably none but it does empower hyperbole in ways that make purists like me panic for our sudden blindness.

If I can't trust you to say precisely what you mean or to understand what I'm saying, what is the point in either of us saying anything at all?

These days we're all giving up. We shrug and say, "Whatever." Even the Dictionary is doing it.

We all suffer when our ability to communicate with specificity and clarity is eroded.

I understand that language is fluid and always evolving. I embrace that. I ply my trade using colloquial English and I adore slang, it's the spice that enriches the language but is useless by itself.

Definitions can't be allowed to contradict themselves just because people are lazy. 
At this rate, in a couple of generations communication will have devolved to grunting and pointing at things.

(That's neither literally nor figuratively literal, it's just sarcasm.)

© D.L. Williams, August 16, 2013

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

King George VI

A new heir to the British throne was born yesterday. Today his royal parents revealed his name:

George Alexander Louis.

When most of us select names for our children we consider honoring our own parents or grandparents, we think about how the full name sounds in a rhythmic, musical sense. But mostly we just look for names that sound good.

I wonder if Prince William and Princess Kate talked about calling the baby Rory, Jake or Elton? I doubt it. They don't sound royal, do they? No, they certainly had to take the big picture into their thinking.

King George VI does sound richly historic. It gives the modern British monarchy the serious stature of a traditional storybook kingdom of yore.

The cynic in me wonders if William and Kate ever had a real choice at all or if royal scholars brought pressure to bear on naming the new Prince of Cambridge.

Certainly they child has no choice but to live in a fishbowl his entire life.

On one hand I love the fairy tale representation of the British royal family. But from my own, limited, American perspective, I also find it very sad.