Monday, 18 January 2016

My Fading Youth

It's been a tough few weeks for those of us of a certain age and generation. The recent and far too soon passings of Natalie Cole, David Bowie, actor extraordinaire Alan Rickman, and now Glenn Frey have left me reeling. It is a strange experience to mourn for individuals whom I have never personally met. And yet....there is such familiarity with these artists and the extensive bodies of work that they left behind, that I feel a chasm has opened in my personal history.

I have always been highly suspicious of public outpourings of grief for celebrities and in fact, I have been rather dismayed at the excessive and exaggerated public spectacles of mourning that seem to regularly occur in the internet age. But now it is starting to feel personal.

These artists weren't merely singers or performers. Their work made up the patchwork fabric and soundtrack of my youth. There were the road trips down to Indianapolis when we rolled down the windows and blasted The Eagles at high decibels. There was the smoothness and soulfulness of Natalie as she reminded us of romance and passion. There were the schmaltzy date nights curled up on the couch watching Mr Rickman's brilliance and marvelling at his ability to get me to cheer for his villains as ardently as I did for his leading men. And....there was Bowie. The iconoclast. The individual. The man who taught all of us freaks and geeks that differences are to be celebrated and never dismissed. They were all there for me during my awkward years, my formative times, my growing pains, my youth.

This fortnight has felt personal because it has felt like my childhood and adolescence are eroding and slowing evaporating into the ether. These recent deaths have brought my own aging and mortality into question. It is difficult to look in the rearview and realize that all of those important artistic touchstones have aged right along with me. We collectively mourn these artists not out of some macabre interest in the details of their deaths, but rather to celebrate and remember the gifts that they bestowed upon us. While nobody can lay claim to immortality, these gifted souls left behind work that will be enjoyed and debated about for years to come. 

My sadness metre is on overload this month. I have lost chunks of my history in less than a month. It is difficult for me to fathom that no new works will be forthcoming from this quartet and that is extremely painful. Nobody, least of all me, likes to come face to face with their own decline. And while there are many more artists for me to discover, and to enjoy, and to revel in, there is still a sense of melancholy in the knowledge that some things will never be the same.

Zichronam Livracha...May their memories always be for blessing.

Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink

I had a Facebook conversation with a dear one the other day about the horrific situation that is continuing to unfold in Flint Michigan. A bit of background is necessary. The water in the city is poisoned with lead, and while this information came to public light in October, it is suspected that officials, including Governor Rick Snyder, have been aware of the situation for much longer than that. As a result of this negligence, (and yes I am calling it willful negligence on the part of some of the powers that be...who exactly is still to be determined) many of Flint's children are now suffering from lead poisoning and the long-term effects of their exposure remain unclear. But lead poisoning in children has been shown to lead to lower IQs, impulsivity, learning disabilities, and reductions in cognitive brain function. Ten people have died from Legionnaire's Disease that might have possible links to the water contamination, and residents have long complained about rashes, hair loss, and other health issues all while city and state officials continued to assert that the water was safe. A nearby General Motors plant even stopped using the water because it was corroding their auto parts. To make matters even that much worse, the city of Flint is continuing to send out shut off notices to over eighteen hundred delinquent customers who refuse to pay because the water is poisoned. Pay for the poisoned water or we will shut off your access to the poisoned water. It's like theatre of the absurd. As Libby Nelson recently wrote in Vox:

"This all came about because a struggling Rust Belt city, trying to save money while under emergency management, ended up failing at one of its most basic tasks: providing safe drinking water. And the problem was compounded by ignoring months of warnings from activists who felt Flint's water was not safe to drink. "

Last week, the Governor finally asked for emergency relief from FEMA and President Obama granted that request on Saturday, but because this disaster is not naturally occurring and rather the result of negligence and political orthodoxy and intransigence, the relief funds are limited. The medical costs and the costs of the cleanup could run into the tens of billions.

The conversation that I had with my dear one was not only about the health and environmental impacts of that which has occurred, but also about looking at this disaster as a social justice issue. It is her contention (and I can't say that I disagree entirely) that if Flint was mostly wealthy and mostly white, this would never have happened. I do think she has a point in that poor, ethnic communities tend to be overlooked and wholly ignored until something disastrous occurs to shine a light on their struggles. (Hello Ferguson?) But, isn't there more to this? Shouldn't the ongoing disaster in Flint illuminate a greater discussion as to the role of government in our lives? Even the most ardent libertarian/conservative has to agree with the premise that it should be within the purvey of governments to provide safe, clean water for its residents. Isn't this a basic human rights issue? How can anything that Snyder's government has done be considered acceptable?

I have been spending a considerable amount of time in the United States this winter, and I have been overwhelmed by the amount of time the news media has devoted to the upcoming presidential primaries. Every channel, every day. Constant barrage. The trivial bullshit that has been spewed by candidates and reported on with great ardor by journalists has been interminable. With the exception of very few in the media, (Rachel Maddow has been all over this issue for months) there seems to be a willingness to bury this story on the back pages of newspapers or at the end of broadcasts. It simply is not as sexy a sound bite as whether Cruz is a Canadian or if Trump can piss off yet another demographic and survive the fallout. There are real people being affected by real government decisions up in Flint. Decisions that were made because of strict adherence to political philosophies, and candidates for the highest office in the country are choosing to ignore it as if it were a minor inconvenience. Where is the debate on this? Don't the people of Flint deserve government officials that act in their best interests and not in their own? I simply cannot understand why this isn't a bigger story.

My dear one called the situation in Flint "environmental racism". I countered with "intentional criminality." And while we both may have been a bit hyperbolic in our descriptions, I think that there is room for both views. Providing clean water and not intentionally poisoning its citizens are basic functions of competent governments. The people of Flint Michigan haven't just been ill-served, they have been the victims of systemic incompetence and they are paying the price for it with their lives. Presidential candidates, sitting politicians, and journalists owe it to these people to do their jobs and fix the problem....NOW.

The Kotzker Rebbe once said: "I do not want followers who are righteous, rather I want followers who are too busy doing good that they won’t have time to do bad." 

Rabbi Ari Kahn interprets him thusly: "People who focus on being righteous can become self-absorbed and self-righteous. While those pursuing good deeds and actions become righteous." 

The people of Flint could use a few of those types in leadership right about now.