Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Only an Eye for an Eye

One of the commonly cited problems with email is how easy it is to misinterpret what someone has written because you can’t hear the inflection of their voice to know whether they’re kidding or not. But this problem isn’t restricted only to email, it happens with every form of writing. If the writer doesn’t go out of his or her way to telegraph to you the fact that they’re kidding or being sarcastic, you may well miss the point. And yet some writers prefer not to telegraph their intentions for fear of insulting the reader’s intelligence.

The problem comes when someone reads that same piece or that same letter years down the line, without knowing the back story, or without knowing the writer’s personality and their relationship with the original reader.

And don’t even get me started on how the meanings of words can change over the years…even simple words that we think we know the meanings of. Take for example happiness. Our 21st century minds think of something much different than Thomas Jefferson did when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. When he wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” he was not talking about the pursuit of hedonism or personal gratification. He had something much more lofty in mind than that. But unless you take the time to study the language, as well as what educated people were thinking during the era we call The Enlightenment, you’re going to think that Jefferson was saying that one of our inalienable rights was to be able not only to chase after, but to eventually get, that hot babe or guy that we’ve had our eye on.

And the problem only gets worse the farther back you go, and the further removed you are from the person who said the thing you’re quoting. Often, it doesn’t mean what it appears to at first blush. This is the case with many well known and perhaps overused quotes from the Bible…the most overused of which is “an eye for an eye.”

Now, I have to tell you, that I get just a little worked up whenever I hear people who claim to be Christians stating that they believe in an eye for an eye…”just like the Bible says.” That’s because if they spent as much time in their New Testament as they want you to think they have, they’d know that in Matthew 5 Jesus said:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
With that in mind, it seems that Christians should be the last people calling for an eye for an eye.

But there’s something that most people don’t get, and that I didn’t get until I stumbled across it a few years ago…the lex talionis (as the eye for an eye concept is known) wasn’t about saying, “You took out my eye, so I get to take out yours!” Instead, it was a limitation. It was saying that if someone made you blind, you only got to make him blind too…you couldn't also torch his village. It was saying only an eye for an eye, and no more. And in a culture where long-running vendettas were common, this was an important change. The lex talionis said that you couldn’t slaughter your enemy’s entire family because he had called your mother’s honor into question. The most you were allowed to do was to insult his mother in the same way.

And then it was to stop.

It’s funny…a lot of people think the world would be a much better place if we all followed the rule of an eye for an eye. I guess I could go along with that…

if we followed it the way it was actually meant.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

You May Be Right - They May Be Crazy…and Armed

OK, before I say another word, let me state right now that I firmly believe that George Zimmerman should never have gotten out of his car. Had he followed the dispatcher’s orders, and just stayed there, we wouldn’t be looking at the situation we’re looking at now, and Trayvon Martin likely would still have been alive.

That having been said, without “blaming the victim,” I can easily see how Trayvon could’ve been alive today had he just used some basic common sense. And I’m not even talking about the well-known advice that many black parents give their kids of “Don’t argue with the police. Just be polite, and call the lawyer when you get home.” Heck, that’s good advice for anyone. It’s what I said to my melanin-impoverished wife when she was pulled over for speeding in a Pennsylvania work zone almost ten years ago. I knew something was wrong with the signs, but I told her that we’d quietly go back and check out the signs after she got the ticket.

No…I’m talking about something more basic, that applies to anyone, black, white, or purple; something that this least street-smart person in the world learned as a kid in Jersey.

What I’m talking about is this: If you think that someone is following you, don’t look back, don’t acknowledge them, don’t let them know that you know they’re there or that you think they’re following you (because maybe they’re not). Just walk a little faster to where you’re going, or to some “safe” place. Do not run, if they are following you, that will just make them chase you. And above all, Do not confront them. People are nuts; you don’t know why they’re following you or what they’re carrying. This is advice that this “least street-smart person in the world” had to follow more than once in his 55 years.

Zimmerman was one of those people, and had Trayvon followed this simple advice, he’d likely still be alive today.

To paraphrase Billy Joel, “You may be right - they may be crazy…and armed.” And sometimes backing down to defuse the situation, even when you know that you’re in the right, is the better part of living to see another day. I worry about some of my young friends, black, white, and all kinds of shades in between, who don’t understand this, and who I can easily see getting themselves killed over a principle, when they could easily have backed down and walked away.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem with being young; you don’t get that. I’m not sure that even I would’ve gotten it at that age.

And once again, I will say that Zimmerman instigated the situation that Trayvon was not experienced enough to know how to handle wisely.

Some people, upon hearing what I’ve just said, tell me that there’s no guarantee that Zimmerman wouldn’t have killed Trayvon Martin even if he had acted calmly and wisely. I can accept that. You never know what might have been.

But had Zimmerman still shot him anyway, the evidence against him would be even more damning.

So please, take a little advice from this “least street-smart person in the world;” if you think you’re being followed, don’t look back, don’t acknowledge them, don’t let them know that you know they’re there or that you think they’re following you. Just walk a little faster to where you’re going, or to some “safe” place. And above all, Do not confront them.

Oh, and by the way, cell phones are wonderful things. Use them to call for help.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Putting Her to Bed

Two and a half years ago I wrote in my post The Half-Life of Grief that maybe 100 years after some great tragedy, after anyone directly involved would’ve long been dead, as would most people directly affected by it, we should have one last observance, and then put it to bed.

This coming Saturday will mark the 100-year mark of what is probably the most famous peacetime maritime disaster: the sinking of the RMS Titanic. And fitting with what I’d previously said, the youngest, and last survivor, Millvina Dean, died in 2009 at age 97. The only people left now are those with indirect ties; people such as Robert Burr, whose grandfather was a steward who went down with the ship, or Philip Littlejohn, whose grandfather left the ship in Lifeboat 13. People who weren’t there, but were told the story by people in their families who had actually been there on that night to remember.

And in a move that was seen as some as tasteless and tempting fate, the MS Balmoral left Southampton last week, as a 100th anniversary commemoration cruise, following the same course that the Titanic had intended to take.

Yes, I can see how some people might think that this was in terrible taste. I did when I first heard of the plans to do it a few years ago. But when I read the article about it in the Daily Mail, I changed my mind. This was to be no simple “party cruise” for people who had gotten “Titanic-mania” after seeing James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster. This “Titanic Memorial Cruise” was to feature meals from the original menu, a five-piece band playing music from the era, and lectures from historians and experts. It would also stop, on April 14th, for a memorial service at the site where the ship went down. Later on it would stop at Nova Scotia, where some of the bodies were buried, before finally continuing on to New York.

If you still think this is crass, and that the people who spent up to $9500 for tickets are trading on the sorrows of others, let me ask you about the many history buffs who visit places like Gettysburg or Normandy or Auschwitz every year. Aren’t those people, especially the ones who go “dressed for the occasion,” doing the same thing?

And what about the people like Burr and Littlejohn, descendants of passengers and crew members, who have decided to make this anniversary voyage, and successfully complete the trip that their ancestors started out on? Are they tasteless gawkers too?

I don’t know. I guess that 100 years later, when everyone involved would’ve been long dead anyway, is a pretty good time to put it to bed, and to do it in a grand way. I guess also that when you consider that the Titanic was built in Belfast, they’re putting it to bed in the grand tradition of the Irish wake, combining both the joy and the sorrow.

So let’s raise a cup to the Titanic and the 1514 people who went down with her.

And then let us say “goodnight.”

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Not Quite According to Plan

It was a very simple plan. Six weeks after Cheryl and I started seeing each other we figured that it was inevitable that we were going to marry each other; but we also figured that our friends and family members would think that we were absolutely out of our minds to announce that so soon. So the plan was that we would officially announce our engagement in July, on the first anniversary of our first date, and plan to get married a year later, as close to our second anniversary as possible.

That was the plan. But I was a little impatient. I knew she was going to marry me…actually, she had brought up the idea first…but I couldn’t tell anyone outside of a few trusted very close friends. I had to wait until July before I could announce to the world that I was going to marry this wonderful person…and that seemed like waiting forever.

Every now and then I’d look at her and say, “So…will you marry me?” and she’d smile and say “Not yet,” or “Yes, but you can’t tell anyone yet.” Both of those answers made me absolutely crazy. Like I said before, I knew what the deal was, but I wanted everyone else to know the deal too.

The months seemed to go by very slowly. December to January, January to February, February to March, and it was the same thing each time. I’d ask her, and she’d tell me that she couldn’t give me an official answer until July.

And then April came, and one evening, after watching TV together, I turned to Cheryl and said, “Marry me already.”

To my surprise, she said, “OK.”

“Really? Officially? You mean like this counts, and we can tell people?”

She smiled and said “Yes.”

Why am I telling you this? Because this week is the 25th anniversary of the day that Cheryl finally said that we could officially tell everyone what a lot of our friends had already figured out…that we had decided to get married.

What about the rest of the plan? Well that went just as we had laid it out in the first place; we got married on July 16th, 1988, just three days shy of our second anniversary.

And quite frankly, I think things have worked out just fine. And I’m still as thrilled to tell people about Cheryl now as I was then.