Sunday, June 26, 2016

Way Up High

“Prayer is when you talk to God; meditation is when you listen to God.”—Diane Robison

The daring young man on the flying trapeze climbs to great heights, but the show doesn’t start until he lets go.

Letting go has been one of my biggest challenges.

I hold on to negative thoughts, old resentments, ancient anger and all sorts of emotional chazerai that makes me miserable.

I’ve been meditating regularly for the last two years after taking a mindfulness course at the Interdependence Project and I’m very slowly learning the joys and benefits of staying in the present moment.

It hasn’t been easy for me to sit quietly for 20 whole minutes and listen to nothing but my breath. Some days are better than others, but I believe I’m getting better and now my morning meditation is one of my favorite times of the day.

But now I’m taking a closer look at what goes on in my head after the meditation ends, thanks largely to a recent New York Times article entitle “Think Less, Think Better” that described how freeing the mind allows for more creative thinking.

It sounds painfully obvious, but so many of us overload our brains—yours truly especially--and then wonder why we’re not getting things done.

Moshe Bar, the author of the article, said a series of experiments “suggest that the mind’s natural tendency is to explore and to favor novelty, but when occupied it looks for the most familiar and inevitably least interesting solution.”

In the Center Ring

I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t just stop certain thoughts from happening. Resistance just makes things worse.

But lately, when negative thoughts come to mind, I tell myself “let go.”

Notice I don’t say “let it go” because I’m not trying to get rid of one thought. I’m attempting to eliminate entire thought patterns.

There will always be an ugly memory or a misbegotten belief lurking somewhere in my subconscious, so popping them off one at a time is a waste of energy.

I’m looking to dismantle the clanking, rusting machinery in my head that thrives on fear, worry, and rage. I want to get to the source of all these twisted impulses.

And that’s why the acrobat imagery is so important because when my darker side emerges and I tell myself “let go,” the image of a two hands letting go of a trapeze often pops into my head. But I don’t fall to my doom; I rise.

I’ve tried this on several occasions over the last week and every time I do my breath gets slower and my shoulders drop as if I’m releasing a heavy weight.

I did this during my boxing class on Thursday and I was suddenly throwing punches faster during the shadow boxing session and pounding the heavy bag harder than ever.

I’m not promising an overnight transformation. In my experience the only “miraculous” changes occurred only after a lot of hard work.

I know I’ll be struggling with this for a long time, perhaps the rest of my life. I hope not, but I’m ready for the long journey.

The martial art of aikido, which redirects an opponent’s attack, is often described as “the Art of Unlearning” because it turns the idea of conventional fighting inside out.

That’s what I want to do—unlearn all the destructive habits and attitudes and move through my life with the greatest of ease.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Active Shooter

Today is Father’s Day and I’m thinking of my dad, a World War II veteran, who fought to keep this country safe.

He saw men die in great numbers and I’m sure it scarred him in ways I’ll never be able understand.

But after last week’s horrific events at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, after yet another mass shooting in America, I’m wondering what was the point of all that sacrifice and suffering?

The Greatest Generation fought to keep foreign killers out of this country, but today we can proudly kill each other with terrifying weapons that my father and his comrades couldn’t begin to imagine.

So here we go again, another senseless fucking slaughter in the Land of the Free. There will be the usual candlelight vigils, and flowers piled up at the site of this latest abomination, and people will pray and vow that the victims will never be forgotten.

But why? Why bother with all that horseshit when we all know that there’s another mass shooting just around the corner waiting to happen?

Nothing’s going to change. The gun lobby owns congress and they won’t do anything to stop the carnage as long as the money keeps rolling in.

Hell, it was just a year ago that a racist lunatic killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And look how far we’ve come since then….

The Second Amendment imbeciles, led by Donald “Agent Orange” Trump, got hysterical because the Orlando shooter was a Muslim who voiced support for ISIS, conveniently ignoring the fact that the vast majority of mass murderers are not Muslims.

But, hey, why let the facts get in the way of your God given right to be a flaming asshole?

Gun Play

And as far as this guy being a member of ISIS, it’s looking more and more that he was just “a typical mass shooter,” which is pretty sad when such maniacs are labeled as “typical.”

It doesn’t why these people are killing us; it only matters that we’re making it so fucking easy.

There have been so many horrifying images surrounding the atrocity at Pulse, but the one I can’t stop thinking about are the parents, friends, and relatives who gathered outside the nightclub as soon as word got out about the shooting.

These poor people were stranded in the most terrible kind of limbo, not knowing if they’re loved ones were dead or alive.

No one should have to suffer like that—no one.

I would like to see some of the swaggering gun lovers walk up to these people and tell them about the Founding Fathers desire to have us all armed to the teeth.

I want them to peddle that brain dead bullshit to their faces—not on a website, not while cowering in a radio studio or appearing in the Fox News fantasy factory—but out there among the people who are hurting the most.

What a perfect time to prove how brave you are.

If you’re looking for any good news here, forget it. Since the Orlando massacre last Sunday, there have been at least 125 gun deaths in America, including three men who were shot to death over a dispute about firewood.

Police identified the alleged shooter as Erick Shute, a self-proclaimed “sovereign citizen” and apparent non-Muslim.

I’m sure there are many more sovereign citizens out there legally buying all sorts of obscene firepower and preparing to enter a mall, a church, a school or a nightclub and start shooting.

And meanwhile the country my father fought for will rapidly fade away in clouds of gun smoke and gallons of spilled blood.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Atlanta Special

He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.-- Muhammad Ali

Sometime around 1984 I was walking through the mall at the World Trade Center when I noticed this man coming toward me in the opposite direction.

Of course there were thousands of people passing through that mall every day of the week, but this gentleman stood out.

I looked closer to make sure that I wasn’t imagining things and turned to a guy walking behind me.

“Is that Ali?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.

It was indeed Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight champion of the world, walking with another man, his hands in his coats pockets, avoiding eye contact with any of the scores of people who were gaping at him in disbelief.

He was so unlike the brash braggart I was used to seeing, the man who roared at the world “I am the Greatest!”; who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee; and who gave us the rope-a-dope and the Ali shuffle.

It was a meeting of two icons: Ali and the Twin Towers. I thought they’d both last forever and now they’re both gone from this world.

Ali’s health problems were just going public then and when I expressed interest in taking boxing lessons, a coworker said to me, “you don’t want to end up like Muhammad Ali, do you?”

A decade or so later, a much weaker Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony in Atlanta, a city I visited for the first time last week while covering a conference for work.

Before departing, I told my boxing coach that I was going to miss Tuesday’s class and when we squared off for a round of mitt work, he advanced on me with a twinkle in his eye.

“I’m going to give to you the Atlanta Special,” he said, before wailing the tar out of me and giving me a chance to demonstrate boxing skills that would never be mistaken for Ali’s.

Maybe I should keep my travel plans private.

I had been dreading the trip to A-Town, worried about flying, fearful I’d miss my flights; and concerned about being able to pound out news stories on tight deadlines, which I frankly hadn’t done in a long time.

Puttin’ on the Grits

But I think it worked out all right. I covered several breakout sessions, cranked out my stories, and managed to have a good time in a new place.

I also ate grits for the first time in my life.

I also met some pretty nice, including the limo driver who picked me up at the airport.

He had moved to Atlanta from Nigeria many years ago and he proudly showed me a cell phone picture of his son, a cadet at West Point; and he told me about his daughter, who is graduating from Harvard.

There was a lovely young waitress at the hotel restaurant, who did everything she possibly could to get me to order dessert. I’m watching the calories now, but she did give me a free oatmeal-raisin cookie on my way out.

“It’s healthy,” she said.

On my last night in town, one of the hotel employees greeted as I was leaving the building.

“How’s it going?” he asked, sporting a genuine smile.

“Fine,” I told him. “I’m going back to New York tomorrow.”

“Oh, well,” he said, “enjoy yourself in the Little Apple before you go back to the Big Apple.”

The only real attraction I saw during this trip was the World of Coke exhibit, a kind of shrine-museum-commercial dedicated to the world-famous sugary beverage.

The only thing I found interesting were the vintage Coke posters from around the world, including one that featured Muhammad Ali.

My driver for the trip back to the airport was a young man who had grown up in Washington Heights. We talked about Ali and his connection to Atlanta and he told me about his girlfriend who had recently left him to go back to her ex-husband.

He believed she would be return to him and I gently encouraged him to consider other options.

One the flight back from the Little Apple, I got sudden bout of Xanax panic and popped a second little blue pill, even though the flight was only two hours long.

I was completely unconscious when the planed landed and the woman sitting next to me was loudly clearing her throat to get me to wake up.

And that was it. I was back at work in no time and on Thursday my boxing teacher gave me another furious beating. It wasn’t the Atlanta special but it was good enough.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Bystander Effect

Winston Moseley knew no one would stop him.

“I knew they wouldn't do anything,” he told police after his arrest. “They never do.”

Moseley murdered Kitty Genovese in Queens in 1964 in one of the most infamous murder cases in modern times.

The horrific crime gained worldwide attention largely because of a New York Times article that said “38 respectable, law-abiding citizens” did nothing while Moseley attacked Kitty Genovese on three separate occasions.

The story sparked worldwide condemnation and provided material for writers and composers, including the Phil Ochs song “Outside of a Small Circle Friends.”

There was talk of the Bystander Effect or the Genovese Effect and the words “I didn’t want to get involved” summed up life in the big city.

The Kitty Genovese case is the subject of a new documentary called The Witness that explores the mythology surrounding the murder. The film features Kitty’s brother, Bill, who was 16 years old at the time of his sister’s murder.

Bill Genovese has said in interviews that he wants his sister to be remembered as more than just a victim, that she had a life before her death.

Subsequent investigations found that many people didn’t hear Kitty Genovese’s cries for help and very few saw the actual attack.

There were two attacks, not three, and rather than dying alone in a hallway, a neighbor came out and held Kitty Genovese in her arms until an ambulance arrived.

Facts and Fiction

I’m a reporter and I can certainly see how the initial story got turned around. There’s the pressure of making deadlines and nailing a scoop that can often outrun the facts.

At first I wondered why it took five decades for the truth to come out. But then it’s nearly impossible to unring a bell.

People will believe what they want to believe even if you grab them by the scruff of the neck and shove them face first into the facts.

I remember when news of the Genovese case first broke. Or maybe I don’t. I’ve heard the story so often for so long that I really don’t know if my memories of the crime are real or not.

Fordham University psychology professor Dr. Harold Takooshian, who holds symposiums on the case, spoke about the murder on the public television Metrofocus and he noted the story is more exaggerated than false.

“Whether or not it was 38 or 8 witnesses,” he wrote in an article for Psychology Today, “Ms. Genovese felt horribly alone, and would have survived if inactive neighbors responded to her cries.”

Takooshian listed several other recent incidents where bystanders failed to help crime victims. He also staged fake muggings on city streets to see how people would react. All too often, they did nothing.

The murder is credited with helping to develop the 911 emergency call system and Good Samaritan laws that give legal protection to people who help those in trouble.

Winston Moseley died in March and Takooshian observed how chilling it is that a sociopath turned out to be a better judge of human character than psychologists.

The story is fascinating and I’m sure people will be discussing the Kitty Genovese case 50 years from now.