LIES LARGE AND SMALL

Lies are disturbing from the outset.  There is the understandable suggestion that little lies are acceptable, in the sense that small fabrications are executed for some social “good” (i.e. not hurting someone’s feelings).

The problem, of course, is that small fibs graduate into larger evasions.  It is a not-so-funny fact that the larger the lie, the easier it is to sell.  Even if you let it slide as a sort of social grace note, “That dress does not make you look heavy, sweetheart” is clearly recognized as the falsehood that it is.

Perhaps it is because hardwood truths are tough to tackle that we allow the big lies to slide.  When the Bush administration foisted “weapons of mass destruction” on the American public as an excuse to send young men into peril—our young men, our fathers, husbands, sons and brothers, remember—we accepted the lie because we wanted to appear “strong.”  But what sort of strength tosses its scruples aside so easily?  The lack of integrity, the failure to dig up the actual facts hangs around like the worst-smelling albatross and diminishes our standing in the world.

Big lies are perverse.  There are those who would have you believe that Jews own the world, when the simple fact is that they, as a race, hew closely to education, examination and hard work.  Holding on to that big lie takes away from our credibility.

There are those who continue to profess that the Civil War (the “War Between the States” in the Southern lexicon) was about states’ rights and not about slavery.  Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, and holding on to that big lie precludes any hope of reconciliation.

Big lies have big consequences.  In the last national election we gave away our souls so that an insecure, well-practiced-in-the-art, lying misogynist could declare himself a “winner” despite plenty of prominent evidence to the contrary.  And when a sitting United States Senator can get away with flatly stating that abortion accounts for 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s resources—when the actual number is three percent—that ought to be counted as an outrage of the highest order!  The next thing you know, someone’s going to try and tell us that it is to our benefit not to have universal health care.

But little lies have consequences too (not the least of which is that they, eventually, enable the larger ones).  Frank Bidart is a gay American poet who grew up in California during World War II.  Ponder this, from his 2013 poem “Queer”:

Lie to yourself about this and you will

forever lie about everything. . . .

But lie to yourself, what you will

lose is yourself.  Then you

turn into them.

The inability to be open and honest is as debilitating, in the long run, as not eating.  It is a corrosive (and ultimately deadly) tactic.  There is no good that comes from its poison.  When you accept the lie for yourself, as Bidart suggests, you become one with the liar and you move away from your own true self.  There is no greater abdication than to not fulfill your personal destiny, that singular imprint that exists nowhere else in this wide and intriguing universe.  If there is sin in this world, that must be the greatest, the dismissive discard of the individual.

We must not ever let that lie win.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

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ENGLISH IS STRANGE

English is the most expressive language in the world, primarily because we borrow and steal from any place, from any other language.  Such blatant theft adds heft and richness to our otherwise stilted tongue.

This is a language that takes much from the Romance languages—Italian, Spanish and the like—yet has a child-like love of Yiddish, from which we delight in tuchus (butt) and meshuga (crazy).  And we delight in the Yiddish euphemisms for the Johnson, the dick:  schmeckel, shtupper, pupik, schvantz, and, of course, the ever-popular scholong.

We are not proud.  We’ll steal from the Swahili (simba for lion, safari for journey) or the Mongolian (dalai for ocean) just as quickly as from the French (pick any word you like, they’re all beautiful).

What makes English hard for those new to it are the incongruities, of which there are many.  A pair of the most obvious.  What is the difference between irregardless and regardless?  You’d think they’d be opposites, right?  And yet they mean exactly the same thing:  nevertheless.  (For the record, regardless is the preferred usage.)

And then there’s the word cleave.  This is a word that exhibits serious schizophrenia, since it has two meanings . . . that are exact opposites.  Really.  It means to cut in two while, at the same time, it means to adhere closely to something or someone.  So you have to go to the word’s context to figure it all out.  I mean, make up your mind.

One of my favorite things is to collect words that just sound beautiful.  Interestingly, many of these are Native American words, like Pascagoula, Chattahoochee, Monongahela, Pensacola, Okanagan, Winnipesaukee, Kilowea, and Haleakala.  But there are some from foreign lands that also ripple off the tongue:  Mesopotamia, Mogadishu, Missalonga.

There are also a few words in English that sound exactly like what they mean, like burble or whimsy or tough.  You could almost not know English, and still have an idea as to what those words might mean.

Foul language is a sticky topic.  Shakespeare was one of the first to use the verb “fuck,” but the word has lost much of its impact by its constant over-use.  Similarly, “nigger” has been so employed so often by comics like Chris Rock that it very nearly has no meaning.  Which, in the end, might be a good thing.  Nasty word, vile implications.

Calling people names has similarly lost much of its impact, mostly because the names we try to call folk are so mundane, dreary.  Try my favorite—“scrofulous poltroon”—on for size sometime and see the reaction you get.  Probably just a puzzled look because they don’t know what it means would be my guess.  Are we that under-educated that do not recognize a diseased chicken when we hear it?

Then, of course, there’s word play.  Give me a word, any word, and I’ll play with it.  There was the linguistics professor who was explaining how the use of the double negative in the Romance languages simply reinforces the negative, while in English a double negative is a positive (they cancel each other out).  “But there’s no such thing, in English, as a double positive,” he finished.  To which a student in the back row intoned, “Yeah, right.”

My favorite in that category, however, remains the bilingual pun that occurred to me on one of my first trips to Italy.  When I learned that vitello means veal or a baby cow and that bue (pronounced “boo-whey”) means beef or a bull, it immediately made me wonder:  Do Italian mother cows tell their little vitellos to eat all their supper so that they can grow up to become big bues?  I’m just asking.  Just asking.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

AL FRANKEN

What surprised me the most in reading Al Franken’s Giant of the Senate—even though I had an inkling from interviews he has given—was his utter commitment to the hard work of being prepared to do his job in the US Senate.  What didn’t surprise me (except for the vehemence he delivered it) was his judgment of Senator Ted Cruz as an utter and complete scuzball.  The more you learn about Cruz, the more despicable he turns out to be.

On the contrary, the most you learn about the former “Saturday Night Live” writer/comedian, the more you hope that he might toss his hat into the Presidential ring come 2020.  His understanding and belief that the politician exists to improve the lives of his or her constituents—and not merely line his own pockets as many in power seem to interpret the job description—is refreshing and worthy of support.  He refers often to his political mentor, the late Paul Wellstone, who said, “We all do better when we all do better.”  Amen, brother.

He is also savvy enough to follow the lead of other great legislators by adhering to the motto “Be a workhorse, not a show horse.”  Though he has a native wit that is utterly and completely irrepressible, he does try to harness that (get the horse reference?) so that his dedication to details shows through in well-reasoned arguments and stances.  He doesn’t just believe that immigrants improve our communities, he knows it by the research he has done and the facts he has uncovered.

He is particularly on the case of distinguishing the differences between “sick care” and “health care,” citing the success of the Mayo Clinic in his home state, where doctors are on salary and do not make medical decisions based on the fact that they own, say, an imaging center on the side.  Health care based on outcomes and not on profit motive is, ultimately, more streamlined, more successful, more cost-effective.

Being an optimist-Pollyanna myself, I am particularly drawn to Franken’s innate optimism in face of the vile man presently occupying the White House.  He points out that, the Koch brothers aside, private corporations recognize that climate change “isn’t just an environmental issue, but an economic one.  There are going to be millions of good-paying jobs created by these new energy technologies.  I want them created here.  These CEOs want them created here.”

I particularly enjoy his calling out liars and their lies.  When Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, in April 2011, suggested that abortion services were “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does,” Franken called him to task (given that three percent is the correct number).  Franken scoffed, naturally, when Kyl’s office said, “His remark was not intended to be a factual statement.”  (Time for everyone to re-read Orwell’s 1984, eh?)

I like this statement, too:  “It turns out that being a good senator—working hard, sweating the details of legislation, staying focused on the issues that matter to your state, looking for ways to find common ground with the other side even as you stand your ground on your core principles—is good politics.”  Who knew?

In the end, I’ll stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a man who suggests that we deserve leaders who “knew what they were talking about and were curious about the stuff they didn’t know yet, and who they could count on being dedicated to reaching decisions based on mastery of the subject matter.”  Curiosity, hard work and the openness to know what you don’t know.  Isn’t that the sort of legislator/President you want?  Yeah, me too.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

LISTEN UP

It’s as factual a notion as any that exists:  You learn more with your ears open than you do with your mouth open.

Here, then, an eye-opening exchange between the legendary Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman and the iconic Green Bay Packers’ football coach Vince Lombardy.  Dr. Z was asking Lombardy in 1970 (three months before Lombardy’s death) about how he felt about the campus unrest of the times.  He was flabbergasted at Lombardy’s response:

“They’re showing an awareness of things; they’re making themselves heard.  They have a right to say what they want, and it behooves us to listen.  I don’t know . . . my own lack of awareness. . . .  In my own little sphere, maybe I didn’t see the things I should have.  My kids tell me things, and sometimes I have trouble understanding them.  Well, I’ve got to learn.”

Vince Lombardy, the toughest of the tough:  “It behooves us to listen.”  Oh, yeah, baby.  It certainly does.  Listen to the “dreamers,” young people who have made the most of the opportunity given them to live, study, work and thrive in a nation not beset by war (in the sense of bullets flying daily in their direction).  Listen to our Black brethren, who fear driving an automobile in plain sight.  Listen to the transgendered, whose obvious sexual identity is, well, not so obvious.  Listen to our distaff sisters, who face subtle slings and arrows that hurt nearly as much as those more obvious.

Someone recently made the observation that, when we’re infants, we’re encouraged to stand up and walk and talk.  But when we’re older, we’re told to sit down and shut up.  The curiosity therein, of course, is that we learn a lot more when we do the latter.  We can only expand our mental horizons when we open our ears to new information, to new insight.  Can’t learn a damn thing with closed ears.

It is the natural curiosity of the young and impetuous that defines them, and it is horrifyingly shameful when we, as adults, come to the point where we lose our native curiosity.  The trait may have “killed the cat,” but it has also solved problems large and small and enhanced our lives beyond all reasonable measure.

It is one of the things that I most admire about the Judaic religion, that internal sense of curiosity that drives their scholars to constantly question and reevaluate their beliefs.  Most religions are, in that respect, more like cults, in that they insist on compliance with group thinking, they inculcate a reliance upon a single leader, they devalue and dismiss outsiders and outside influences, and they do everything possible to avoid dissent within the ranks.

Those are, to me, the unhealthiest characteristics possible.  Stultified thinking only results in smaller, less-informed minds.  And less-informed minds make bad choices.  Ask those who followed the “Reverend” Jim Jones to poison-laced Kool Aid.  Ask anyone who gives up his or her identity to be “a part of something greater.”  Such promises are almost always empty and de-humanizing.

I’ll stick with Samuel Johnson, who says, “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.”  That fits right in with my “four selves” theory, which suggests that a fully functioning human being only achieves that status by having four fit and healthy selves:  mental, physical, social and spiritual.  If you’re not working on four fit cylinders, you’re missing out on the whole experience of life.  So get curious, ask questions, and listen closely to the responses you engender.   You might learn something.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

CURTIS & HANNAH: ADVICE

Robert Louis Stevenson defined marriage as “a sort of friendship recognized by the police.”  I just like the off-the-rails characterization of that.

In a Spanish novel there is this comment:  “Matrimonio es el viaje mas maravilloso . . . “  Okay, the full sentence, in English:  “Marriage is the greatest journey any man and woman can ever undertake—two strangers, not knowing each other, but yet still willing to join together in heart and soul—hoping, guessing on which star that might land as they cross the heavens, hand-in-hand like two clouds gliding in the winds.”

A better, and infinitely deeper assessment, comes from the Austrian lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  Says he:  “A good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude.  Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky.”

Witnessing love bloom is the most life-affirming thing there is on this planet.  To see care, concern and compassion work its way into a default setting is infinitely satisfying.

One of the best pieces of advice on marriage came from former First Lady Betty Ford.  When asked if she and Gerald had a fifty-fifty relationship she replied, “No, we have a sixty-forty relationship.  Sometimes he’s the sixty; sometimes I’m the sixty.”  The message is clear:  Each of us has strengths; each of us has weaknesses.  Best to play the strong suit when you’re facing an occasionally hostile world.

A big part of life has to do with coming to grips with why we’re here in the first place.  Tom Morris, in his book If Aristotle Ran General Motors, puts it this way:  “The meaning of life is creative love.  Not love as an inner feeling, as a private sentimental emotion, but love as a dynamic power moving out into the world and doing something original.”

So, in closing, allow me to give you two the same admonition I gave Tamara and Kyle when they were wed almost a decade ago.  Every couple will fall into disagreement now and again.  Hey, it happens.  But when you do, you must commit every reserve you have to fighting to learn, not to win.  Let me repeat that:  Fighting to learn, not to win.

Here’s the thing.  When you fight to win, one of you wins and the other loses.  Not a useful outcome.  But, when you fight to learn—really go at it, hammer and tongs, to see what you both can get from the exercise—then you both come out winners.  What could be better than that?

Why, you ask, am I allowed to pass on this hoary, time-tested piece of advice?  Because I have had the privilege of learning an immense amount from my lovely bride over the course of more than forty years.  And I can faithfully report back from the front lines that we have both been blessed to learn much from one another over that seemingly vast expanse of time.  Mostly, I just try to raise a giggle from Bev’s lips, because that’s the most beautiful sound in the universe to my big ol’ ears.

So here’s to your coming career in the ring.  May you learn lots and prosper in the presence of each other.  Two can learn much together, much more than any one of us can learn alone.  That’s why we get together, after all, to expand our baseline of experience and our theater of learning.  Be original, you two.  Guard your solitude and learn much under Rilke’s “wide sky,” you two.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

GRIST FOR THE MILL

I am going to guess that most of my younger readers are not familiar with the phrase “It’s all grist for the mill.”  In olden days—days well beyond my many years—towns would each have a mill, whose water-powered grindstone would separate the wheat from the chaff.  Chaff was the useless, wasteful part of the wheat, whose kernels would make the flour that was baked into our “daily bread.”  Not only was the bread of those days the sustenance of life . . . it also tasted really, really good.  (Compare it to the artisan breads of today.  Expensive, but worth it.)

So, when we use the phrase “It’s all grist for the mill,” it means that you need all of the grist, the useful and the useless, to get to the desired end:  flour in the case of bread-making, the polished end product as separated from the dreck.

This phrase came to mind the other day when I was reviewing my first marriage, which ended after a mere three months.  Once we realized that there were inherent problems that we hadn’t quite taken into account, a visit to a marriage counselor confirmed that we were not really “meant for each other.”  So ended our fairy tale.

That was a sad time for both of us, and for the longest time I routinely chalked the experience as a life failure on my part.  But, upon further reflection, I have come to look upon that period as the necessary grist for my mill.

Without that experience Linda probably wouldn’t have been ready to make the most of her relationship with Jack, which has lasted more than four decades.  And I know for certain that I wouldn’t have been capable of fully cultivating my relationship with Beverly, which will reach forty-three years this coming December.

You see, what Linda and I had—however brief, however unsuccessful separated from all else—was a period that it was necessary for each of us to get through to become the people we are today.  So, no, it wasn’t a failure, in the long term.  It was a needed interlude that prepared us for the next step in the process of life.

I suppose it’s a sort of “bottom line” thing:  Building a brick wall doesn’t start with the last brick you lay, but with the first . . . and the hundreds or thousands you lay between brick one and brick last.  When Thomas Alva Edison set out to discover what sort of filament would work for the incandescent light bulb, he was not deterred by the thousand failures he encountered before falling onto carbon.  No, he figured—logically, it turns out—that each failure propelled him closer to what would turn out to be successful.

As Duke University’s head basketball guy, Coach K (who can spell Krzyzewski?) says, “Failure is not a destination.”  One might amend:  It’s not a destination unless you allow it to become a destination.  So don’t.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

[When Mike Krzyzewski was initially hired as head basketball coach at Duke, the student newspaper’s headline read, “This is Not a Misprint!”]

FOUR DECADES IN THE WINE GAME

I spent four decades writing about wine.  Well, not “about wine,” but rather about wine people.  If it had only been about tasting and reporting on the wines I would have quit a long time ago.  As good as wine is—and, let’s be clear, a glass of wine with dinner is a health-enhancing practice for most people—that would not have been enough to sustain my interest.

I explain my love for wine folk this way:  With most people, once you get them off their area of expertise, the waters tend to run shallow rather quickly.  But the wine gang, these are interesting people because they are interested people.  They are, in a word, multifacetic.  (I know that’s not a real word, but you know what it means:  many-faceted.  My first college roomie, Jorge Grunblatt, made it up.  His mom was a Peruvian Catholic, his father a Russian Jew.  See?  It makes sense.)

The point is, wine is, by its nature, a cross-cultural enterprise.  It is an agricultural business at its base, but it also encompasses the spiritual, the mechanical, the wizardry, the scientific.  And because it starts with the earth, it is exceedingly well-grounded.

One of my favorite tasting room signs hangs in a small winery near Yountville.  It reads “It doesn’t take a NASA scientist to make great wine . . . but it doesn’t hurt.”  You see, great winemakers are scientists, lawyers, doctors, farmers (the very best), accountants, businessmen, and a whole host of other wildly diverse occupations.  It is because of this eclectic grounding that we see so wonderfully wide a range of styles and permutations in the finished product.

Another favorite story is Dennis Groth, the former head of Atari who has been making scintillating wines in Oakville for decades.  I wrote a piece about him in a modest little Midwestern magazine called Business Ethics, where he talked about the widely divergent ethos between tech and wine.  “At Atari, you couldn’t even have lunch with business adversaries, and all information was closely-held, closely-guarded,” he told me.  “Then I came up here to the Napa Valley.  I’m having lunch with Justin Meyer of Silver Oak Winery, sitting on his porch in front of his fish pond.  And he’s openly telling me how he makes his Cabernet Sauvignon, what works and what doesn’t.  It was amazing.”

It was that sense of cooperation, of course, that vaulted American wines atop the world stage, the 1976 Judgement of Paris being a pivotal moment.  All of a sudden, French and Italian winemakers—great winemakers, by the way—began sending their children to UC Davis and Fresno State, or to do internships at Mondavi and Beringer.  By sharing information the quality curve took a sharp spike upward.  I like that about the wine business.  It’s the Three Musketeer philosophy:  “One for all, all for one.”  That’s how progress works best.

Someone asked me the other day that, if I could only partake of wine from one winery for my remaining days, which might that be?  Easy call:  Marimar Torres, right here in Sonoma County.  First of all, her Pinot Noir is one of the very best from my favorite Pinot Noir place on the planet, our Russian River Valley.  (Her Pinot Noirs, by the way, happily satisfy Hinkle’s Second Wine Law:  Great Pinot Noir inspires one to create new sins . . . and wish to commit them!)

Second, she has a scintillating white wine—no, not her fine Chardonnay, but the delicate-yet-spritely Albariño, a Spanish variety that can sustain a wide variety of subtle cuisines.  Even more importantly, Ms. Torres is a great story all by herself, having come from a notable wine family based near Barcelona and carved out a most impressive career in a culture that tended to dismiss talented women.  She is also a gifted chef.  But the main thing is, simply, that she’s a really neat person.  Which is enough for me.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle