28 April 2013

Bliss Is Hard

In case you do not know, I have been trying a little mindfulness.  That's like the song, "Try a Little Tenderness," but with more thought.  (Speaking of which, whenever I think of that song it evokes a weird and wonderful move, "The Commitments," about an Irish Soul Band.  Check it out sometime.) 

The problem with mindfulness is that it makes you think about the present, not the past or the future.  Yeah, that's the point, I know, but it also means that you realize the border between past and present and future is a creaturely thing.  From a cosmic point of view (if such a thing exists) there is no past or future.  As I sit each day, focusing on now, reveries from memory come up.  I gently set them aside, as the experts say, and attend to the present.  Future things slip in as well, and I gently set them aside, but both past and future ever linger near the edge, as they must. 

This all sounds abstract in the writing, but in the moment it means that anything from any time can grab me.  And like a song that you can't get out of your head, that looseness of time can rear up when you least expect it. 

This morning, before sunrise, the chattering of the birds and the faint aroma of grass swept me back to my boyhood.  Or rather, the psychological space between being 60 and 10 vanished and I was both for a moment.  E. B. White recorded a moment like this is his exquisite essay, "Once More to the Lake."

Those moments come more often now, and are both unutterably precious and dangerously selfish.  At such moments I am envious of those who never moved from their childhood homes, and thus can live past and present all the time.  How I long to go back to Maryland - with its light green grass and the racket of crickets and the smell of mulberry.  Those memories make me wish simply to be alive, 'witnessing to creation,' to paraphrase Annie Dillard.  And isn't that what the whole mindfulness thing is about?

No.  There is work to do.  Even fabled YHWH worked six sevenths of the time.  I weeded my yard yesterday.  My wrist hurts from leaning on it.  Must drop the car at the service center this evening.  My son graduates from college in six days.  And there is church of course.  Good things.  But a few more reveries would not do any harm, would they? 

22 April 2013

Remembering Is a Moral Act

Seeing the story of George Takei going back to Rohwer Camp reminded me of my own connection to that era.  I am too young, actually, but those half a generation older do.  

In my first year of seminary my next door neighbor at Fleck House (a residence for Meadville Students then) was Yoshihisa Alfred Tusyuki.  He and I became friends, though he was a dozen years older than I.  Al was/is a Konko minister, a monothiestic Shinto sect that more aligns with my beliefs than any other group.  That brought us closer, along with a love of ice cream and Basho.  So when I got married, he was a natural choice to officiate, being already ordained at the time.  I can with little exaggeration say that Wendy and I were married by a Shinto priest.  Did not expect that, did you?

Many years later we visited him in Los Angeles, where he grew up.  In fact, his father was the founding clergy of the LA Konko church, and he is the successor.  We had a great visit back then (and have connected up since as well) but in the mid 1990s we had our school age sons with us, so we touristed around.  Across the street from our hotel, the Miyako in the old Japanese section of LA, was the Japanese American National Museum, then in a much smaller building.  It's sole exhibition that summer was about the internment camps. 

Al was interned.  He was quite barely more than a toddler, but remembers going to Utah.  The indignity and oppression were not as evident to him being so young, but it was part of his life. 

I knew Holocaust survivors as well.  My 8th grade homeroom and French teacher was one.  And in seminary I ministered to an American secular Jewish doctor who was among those who liberated the first camps.  I also met two who had actively resisted the Final Solution. 

In the next decade those old enough to remember those crimes vividly - be they Japanese American internees, or Jews from Europe - will be gone.  It will fall to those who knew them to remember them and what we were told by them. 

Some days, too many actually, I lament that my accomplishments have been too few.  if you are a regular reader you know my struggle with the Great Expectations heaped upon me and others of my generation.  Much was expected because we had so much potential.  A few wrote great books or did great deeds or made great gobs of money.  Most of us did not, and a shadow of disappointment falls across us.  But we can still redeem ourselves.

We can remember what those who knew from those awful times told us.  We know it was real because we met them, saw their faces and heard the voices.  I have seen the tattoos on the arms - which ironically marked them for survival; those not tattooed were sent directly to the ovens.  I have seen the faded mementos of the internment camps. 

There have been subsequent horrors, mostly smaller wars in far places that do not touch us unless a refugee arrives - Sudanese Lost Boys, Bosnian Muslims, Cambodian boat people, the Madres de la Plaza.  But a small horror is only smaller, not less horrible.  If you are younger than me, you have met someone who was in the midst of horror somewhere.  Do you remember? 

I think that there are really only two gifts we can give the future - memory and hope.  Now that I am 60, making sure I do that becomes more important every day. 

10 April 2013

"To Be Wealthy, Not Rich"

I said last time that I had an idea where the line between honest reward and dishonest greed lies.  If memory serves, I wrote about this before, but repetition is essential.  Let me repeat that, "repetition is essential."

Rich: When you make in a year what the average person makes in a lifetime. 

You could make the case it is less, but it would be hard to deny that anyone who makes in one year what the typical person makes in a lifetime is rich.  Anything above this is morally questionable because no one truly needs more than a lifetime of money in a single year. 

Oh, you may desire it and all that it can do, and if you get that sort of money year in and year out you may 'need it' to pay for all the stuff you now have, but there is no moral argument you can make to justify getting it in the first place.  By moral I mean you cannot say 'I deserve it,' in any form. 

Now, according to my definition, that means anyone who makes $2 million in a year has forty times the money the average earner does, $50,054.00, and is thus rich.  99.5% of the country earns less, and they would all consider $2 million to be rich.  "OK, that's rich," you're thinking, "but what good does defining it do?" 

First of all, it makes 'rich' not a number but a proportion. In India, many middle class Americans would be rich because the average wage is so much lower.  Rich is always a comparative state.  To be rich is to have far more than others.  Richness needs poverty to be rich, at least relatively poor.  What good is a lot of money if everybody has it, after all?  I repeat, rich requires poor. 

Second, the disparity ultimately distorts a free society. Political giving is one aspect. As we all tend to favor our own interests, the rich will use their power to preserve their power.  Having money, they have greater power than most and thus are more likely to succeed in protecting their advantage.  The rich are a greater danger to our freedom than the poor because of their concentrated power.

Third, by defining rich as an excess disparity of money and power, it tarnishes the patina of respectability that having money imparts. Anyone who has more than forty times the average income is morally suspect not admirable, and their actions deserving of extra skepticism if not outright suspicion. 

Fourth, it sets a moral ceiling on acceptable disparity, as even the best CEO cannot be said to work 40 times harder or better than the average worker.  Yes, we should reward daring and intelligence and other fine qualities, but do we really believe anyone is over forty times better than everyone else?  As the top CEOs today earn over 200 times the average worker, that comparison is even more stark and unbelievable.

I thank Robin Leach, who in the 1980s regaled us with "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," and turned filthy rich into squeaky clean.  I know we shall ever have billionaires amongst us, but by recognizing the reality of the rich perhaps we can lose a little of our fawning reverence for them. 

Now, I must be off.  I have a cold and am just 50 pages into Hugo's novel "Les Miserables" which says all this much better than I.  

07 April 2013

... Something Completely Different...

So I am trolling the NYTimes today and see this article about CEO pay.  (Yes, that again).  Take a look

Now, I get how we should reap what we sow, and that risk has its rewards, and all that.  But something about this rubs me the wrong way.  It started with this:

"As C.E.O. of Hertz, Mark Frissora pushes rental cars, but he racked up nearly a half-million dollars’ worth of personal travel on the corporate jet last year. Marsh & McLennan, the risk management company, doesn’t own its own plane — it prefers holding a fractional share of a jet — but that didn’t stop its chief, Brian Duperreault, from running up $441,875 in private plane travel on the company tab before he retired at year-end.
 
"These highfliers help explain why pay for perks like jet travel and other supplemental benefits including pension contributions and life insurance policies jumped last year, even as overall compensation rose only modestly.
 
"For the 100 highest-paid C.E.O.’s among American companies with revenue of more than $5 billion, the typical 2012 perks package was worth $320,635, up 18.7 percent from 2011, according to an analysis by Equilar for The Times. By contrast, median total pay among the 100 C.E.O.’s rose just 2.8 percent, to more than $14 million."

Perks are fun, I admit.  For example, clergy get to wear funny clothes sometimes and not get laughed at.  Very cool.  If someone curses aloud they get all embarrassed if we are nearby.  We get invited to join charitable boards.  It's a good life. 

Really, it is, but of course my point is that to avoid taxes and other burdens, our big CEO types are riding around in private jets, and...

"Mr. Wynn, for example, enjoyed a villa in Las Vegas that cost the company $451,574 for the year. Greg Brown, chief executive of Motorola Solutions, was honored by his employer with an endowed chair in the neuroscience department of his alma mater, Rutgers University. Mr. Brown didn’t receive the money directly: Motorola Solutions donated $1.5 million to the university, where he is a trustee, but the position will be named for him."
 
Ok, I did live in a parsonage or two.  One was an apartment in a posh building, but the interior was pre-war as we New Yorkers call them.  The other was a farmhouse with barn.  And while I do give to my seminary, it is my money and it could endow a reliable supply of pens. 
 
My point is that somewhere between living in a church farmhouse and a villa, somewhere between a car allowance of 55 cents a miles and nearly half a million in private planes, we move from reward to greed, from earning to exploiting. And I know where that line is.  But this post is too long, so that will have to wait a day or two.