STEVE IS DEAD

This is embarrassing.  I just found out that my old friend Steve is dead.  And has been dead . . . for a decade!  Ouch.  Everyone knows that I don’t keep up much with gossip and societal “stuff,” but that’s beyond any normal sense of awareness.

Steve (nee Doris) Dain was the “man” who opened my mind forever to the exquisite range of sexuality and gender.  The word “man” is in quotes because, though Steve was a male all of his life, his original body parts proffered female.  Despite the narrow hips, broad shoulders and chin stubble as an adult, Doris was to most of us a female for more than thirty years.

Then a newspaper article about the Stanford Gender Identity Clinic got her attention in a way that nothing else could have.  “That’s me!” he recalled years later (you have to watch the pronouns here).  “Once I realized what my circumstance really was, I started to go out into the world dressed as and acting as a male.  That was the most freeing moment of my life, presenting myself as who I really was . . . and being accepted as who I really was.”

Doris-becoming-Steve had problems with some people, as you might expect.  A wildly popular high school teacher, Doris-Steve was eventually fired by a principal who Steve thinks had gender identity issues of his own.

After the required waiting period, Doris began the physical transition to Steve:  bi-lateral mastectomy, hormone therapy and penis construction (with no loss of orgasm, he reported to me with enthusiastic, elated and thoroughly unembarrassed laughter).  When you met Steve, a couple of years after surgery, what you got was a mini Mr. America.  Steve had a hairy, well-muscled chest and bulging biceps.  He wore a thick beard and a quick, warm smile.  Doris had always been the fastest runner and best boxer on her block as a kid; Steve was that and more.  The best of Doris remained; the best of Steve emerged.

What I liked most about Steve was his open and refreshing honesty.  I don’t ever remember a subject that couldn’t be broached.  His dad had a hard time with the transition for a time, but his mother essentially said, “What took you so long?”  Those closest to him knew that there was more to him than Doris.  When Steve came along, all of that potential was realized.

The superficial is just that, the surface.  What lies beneath the surface is almost always more interesting and more beneficial.  Here’s to ya, Steve.  I would have missed you sooner had I known.

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

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COULD JUST AS EASILY HAVE BEEN ME

It could just as easily have been me—or you—that got shot a few weeks ago.  In Florida, Colorado, California, Nevada, or any other of our fifty states.  The guns are out there, and they are as easily available to anyone—let that word sink in, please—who has cash at hand.

There is a nasty, even wickedly delicious irony in the conjoined facts that some legislators wanted to arm teachers—but only if they were licensed and trained to near SWAT capability.  You want to restrict gun availability to those who are clearly on the side of the students . . . but not those actively aiming to put our kids six feet under?  Let that sink in, too.

One of the best, most exhilarating aspects of America’s shoot-‘em-up “Western” culture is its fearless vitality.  There is an energy here that gets things done, at its best.  But it’s the “worst” part that needs to be addressed.  It’s free-wheeling nature fails to consider those who use that license to let loose the worst of their inner natures.

It is that quality that also prevents us from borrowing the better parts of other cultures, where solutions to long-time problems have been successfully implemented.  Other first world countries bring health care to their citizens in an affordable and efficient manner.  Other up-to-date peoples address the problem of homelessness and mental health with care and consideration.  Other modern places have faced the problem of mass shootings and—by implementing common sense restrictions on assault weapons and large magazines—virtually eliminated mass destruction by home-grown terrorists.

It is possible that the kids of Parkland have pushed us to the tipping point on this issue.  Treating guns like automobiles is not so far-fetched a stretch as the money-biased NRA would have you believe.  Basic registration, basic background checks, basic common sense of the sorts of weapons allowed in civilian hands are not unreasonable.

Keep in mind, compassion comes from strength, self-awareness and confidence, while meanness is born of weakness, suspicion and paranoia.

I know, I know.  It’s hard to have a conversation with your “opposite.”  But if the conversation—and the listening that is an inherent part of any true conversation—focuses on common ground, then it is at least possible.  Because none of us wants our children to be vulnerable to random acts of violence.

To do that, we must all make ourselves open to random acts of compassion, gun proponents listening to the victims of violence, victims listening to the legitimate concerns of gun fanciers.  Progress only comes from a healthy give and take.  Both sides have arguments worthy of our respect.  But we do have to listen.  That is the first step.

And remember, always:  It could just as easily have been you.  Or me.

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

SIZE AND NATURE

Two articles on the front page of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat vied equally for my attention last Friday.  They were seemingly disparate pieces, and yet they both had something to do with the amplitude of our lives, the “size” of the way we live.

One was about the exquisite possibility of a walking trail along the railroad right-of-way from the San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay (which would include the dramatic, wildlife-filled Eel River Canyon along the route’s northernmost stretch).  State Senator Mike McGuire justly referred to the proposal as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a world-class experience in our own backyard.”  Only problem?  A price tag that might approach one billion, as in dollars.  This does not make the Sierra Club clap with glee.  Yikes.

The other was about the consideration of high-rise housing near transportation hubs, an idea that would ease gas-guzzling commutes and lower greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.  On the one hand, taller buildings contribute to crowding and, occasionally, more difficult living circumstances.  On yet another hand (how many hands we got, here?), cutting commute hassles increases the quality of life immensely.  Immensely.  Just look at Windsor’s new downtown.  People living where they work.  Literally.  Excellent.

Says state Senator Scott Wiener (the sponsor of a bill to allow the taller apartment buildings), “We can have all the electric vehicles and solar panels in the world, but we won’t meet our climate goals without making it easier for people to live near where they work, and live near transit and drive less.”

The simple fact of the matter is that folks who live in more compact city environs have a smaller carbon footprint than those who live in urban sprawl or in the suburbs.  Couple that with the fact that, with the advent of hybrid and electric autos, people now drive more.  Just as dieters drink increased amounts of “diet” beverages!  All emotion, no logic or science.

I have long been a fan of E. F. Schumacher’s thesis, in his book Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, that our quality of life is better when people live within walking distance of their workplaces.  It’s an argument for scale, for the appropriate “size” of things.  It has to do with organically “fitting into” Nature, rather than trying to “dominate” Nature.  The bigger entities are, the less human we become interacting with them.  And, the more we walk, the better our health is.  Those go hand-in-hand.

And, of course, we must note that walking is that much better when you’re walking hand-in-hand with someone whose company thrills you.

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

MADNESS, INDEED

March Madness, the much-viewed annual NCAA basketball tournament, has just completed its first weekend, and already the upsets are mounting up.  Two number one seeds fell—one to a sixteen seed!—and all of the top four are out in another bracket.  I’ll keep rooting for two of the best-coached teams in the tournament, Duke and Gonzaga.

That said, I’d like the whole thing to just go away.  Our country’s colleges and universities have no business—add a stress to the world “business”—acting as a minor league, or “developmental” league, to professional sports.  None.

Professional baseball began developing its farm system in the 1930s, when Branch Rickey—then the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals (he later became G.M. of the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he was responsible for breaking baseball’s “color line”)—recognized the need to assure his team of well-trained, well-prepared younger players.

Today, our institutions of higher learning have been co-opted into providing a steady stream of partly-seasoned athletes, ready to move on to the professional ranks.  The only problem is . . . that’s not their calling!  Their entire job is two-fold:  one, teach kids to acquire and access information; two, teach kids to process that data, to turn that information into a useful format so that employers will pay them for their skill set.

That’s it.  Train their minds, not their bodies.

A subset to this problem of disparity of goals is this:  my favorite coach, Duke’s “Coach K,” is paid nearly nine million dollars a year to coach basketball in college!  Alabama’s football coach is paid more than eleven million!  Let that sink in.  More than their state’s governor.  More than their college’s president.  More than our country’s president, for crying out loud!  (When Krzyzewski was first hired at Duke, the student newspaper’s sub-headline read, “This is not a misprint.”  Ha!)

Last year, the NCAA allowed more than 800 players to transfer schools.  Why were these kids transferring?  To find a better physics prof?  Nope.  They were looking for a better, more amenable coach, more playing time, and/or a better platform from which to secure a higher draft pick status (and more money, upon signing a professional contract).  There is also the cruel, mean irony that coaches—many of whom routinely skip out of their obligation to a school for another school’s higher salary—equally routinely pooh-pooh or prevent their own players from transferring to a better situation.  Never mind the FBI investigations into corruption, payoffs and prostitutes in college sport.

How is any of this relatable to the goals and precepts of higher education?  It isn’t.  Not at all.  Arizona State University’s President Michael Crow recently spoke out against college as a developmental league, suggesting that sport in college return to just that:  intramural college sport.  “I’m a big believer that people coming in from high school should really focus on learning to be a student, and then developing their athletic ability to a higher level,” he told the Arizona Republic.  “We shouldn’t be a place where somehow we’re a semi-pro, half-college this, half-college that. . . .  It’s college basketball.  There’s a deep fundamental problem that we have to solve.”

Crow pointed to the fact that, out of the more than half million college kids who participate in collegiate athletics, only a few hundred are ever paid to play professional sports.  It is not now, nor should it ever be part of an institution’s job description to spend the billions that are currently outlaid to the sole benefit of so very few (especially the one-and-done players, those who play just their freshman year).  It is neither economically sound nor is it morally right.  Which should be all that you need to know.

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

ONE OF THE GUYS

I had the most extraordinary experience a couple of weeks ago, and I’m just now processing the fullness of its effect on me.  I get giddy and delirious just thinking about it, recreating it in my mind.  It was a wonderful acceptance of sorts, and that’s all one really wants from life isn’t it?  To be accepted, to be taken in, to be embraced.

I got into a five-on-five basketball game on a gorgeous hardwood court at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center’s recreational facility.  I haven’t played five-on-five since college intramurals.  Our court at the YMCA—where I play virtually every Monday-Wednesday-Friday that I am alive—is only sixty feet long.  (A regulation basketball court is ninety-four feet, baseline to baseline.)  So, at the “Y,” we play four-on-four.  There just isn’t room enough for the real thing.

So, back to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a pick-up game, and most of the guys are in their twenties and thirties, with a couple of fellows maybe forty-ish.  So, I stand out a little, as I am going to turn 72 next month.  And, worse, I don’t have good-grip basketball kicks on, or even tennis shoes.  I’m wearing slip-ons.  Because that’s all I’ve got.  So I’m a little tentative on my wheels.

Long story short, I miss a right-handed hook shot from the low right post, but it’s a good effort and smooth, and I feel that the guys can intuit that I know what I’m doing.  On the next play, I get a rebound and put in a difficult reverse lay-up left-handed from just under the backboard on the left side.  After that, I hit a tough twelve-foot step-back jumper off the dribble and then a three from the top of the key and—in an instant—I’m just one of the guys.  No better, no worse, just . . . accepted and symbolically embraced, as an equal in the brotherhood of basketball.

This was, forgive me, utterly glorious.  I am still giddy with it.  There is no other word for it.  It is glorious to be just one of the guys.

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

A GOOD DEATH

As our society ages, those of us in the Boomer demographic are being increasingly drawn into the discussion as to what constitutes a “good death.”  We instinctively cotton to the notion of a pain-free death with dignity.

What does that mean?  Oregon led the way in allowing citizens to have assistance in ending their own lives.  British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, in his recent book Admissions, writes movingly about having the burden of caring for patients for whom euthanasia would have been a blessing . . . and a legal nightmare, with probable prison, for any kindly attending physician with the guts to assist in the transition from life to death.

“I see little merit or virtue,” he writes, “in the physical indignity which so often accompanies out last few days or weeks of life, however good the hospice care which a minority of us might be lucky enough to receive. . . . [I] hope that in future the law in England will change—that I might be able to die in my own bed, with my family beside me, as my mother did, but quickly and peacefully, truly falling asleep, as the tombstone euphemisms put it, rather than incontinent and gasping with the death rattle.”

An admitted atheist, Marsh says, “I do not believe in an afterlife—my concern is simply to achieve a good death.  What the time comes, I want to get it over with.  I do not want it to be some prolonged and unpleasant experience, presided over by terminal-care professionals, who derive their own sense of meaning and purpose from my suffering [italics mine].  The only meaning of death is how I live my life now and what I will have to look back upon as I lie dying.  If euthanasia is legalized, this question of how we can have a good death, for those of us who want it, with pointless suffering avoided, can be openly discussed, and we can make our own choice, rather than have it imposed upon us.”

Hamlet refers to death as “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”  I don’t know what is on the other side of this life, and no one else does, either.  Oh, there are hucksters a-plenty out there ready to sell you everlasting life on the cheap.  You don’t even have to look for them; they’ll find you.

But what they’re selling is our collective insecurity, and many of us are willing to splurge on the “protection” they’re selling.  That’s what it is, really, isn’t it?  A “feel-good” bit of insurance against our own weaknesses.  I’m not buying.  You?

Whatever the reality, I am slowly coming to terms with my own death.  I try to keep my mental, physical, social and spiritual “selves” in good shape so that I can continue living well and attentively if those selves so allow.

But I am also preparing myself to accept the inevitable when it happens.  It has become exponentially easier to do so knowing—as I do now—that both of our children have worked their way into satisfying work and extraordinary relationships whereby they share lives with people they can carry on a fruitful conversation with for decades to come.  So, I’m good to go.

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

LANGUAGE IS ATTITUDE

Don’t kid yourself.  The words we choose drive the attitudes we adopt.  If you choose proactive words, you are almost forced to move forward with positive attitudes.  It is that wonderful concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy:  When you prepare yourself for success, good outcomes follow.

The great St. Louis Cardinal and Brooklyn Dodger general manager Branch Rickey—he’s the one who prepared Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s color line—always said, “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom.”

Whenever I am about to run into someone—in the supermarket, on the street—my automatic utterance is, “Fake left, go right.  Sometimes that works.”  Invariably there is a smile of recognition.  Yes, that would work. When we invite people over for dinner they often ask if they can bring something.  My response is, “Wit, charm and appetite.  Or the best two of the three.”

Baseball plays big part in my life and, as I get older, I spend a little more time playing first base.  When an opposing runner reaches that bag, like as not I’ll playfully grab the sleeve of his jersey and yell to my pitcher, “I’m holding the runner!”  Almost always that elicits at least a grin.  But once, a no-nonsense opponent swatted at my hand as if I were holding him for the constabulary.  Geez.  Get a life!  (And when I come to bat, I often ask the pitcher if he’s got a hanging curve he needs to work on.)

People who take life too seriously forget that most of life is practice.  We’re just trying to get a little better at each task.  And science if proving, rather conclusively, that if we take the practice a little more lightly . . . that we’ll live longer and happier lives.  A current Yale University study showed that even those who carried the gene variant linked to dementia—but also had a positive attitude about the aging process—were 50 percent less likely to develop same than a similar group who faced aging pessimistically.

When someone phones for my wife and asks if she’s around, I often say, “No, she’s a trapezoid.”  Which gets, in return, either a stunned silence or rich merriment.  I prefer the latter, don’t ya know.

If you don’t have a quick response to a question or comment, I find that there are two responses that you can almost toss in at any point in a conversation.  “That’s what she said, too” is one.  The other?  “A lot of people think that . . .”  Universal retorts.

I choose words that put a positive light on things, most often looking for laughter as Nature’s palliative.  When I approach someone walking a dog, after first asking permission to pet the pooch, I always thank them for a moment of “free pet therapy.”

When I see someone walking with a child (and or a pet), my instinct is to note that, “It’s getting harder and harder to go anywhere without a consultant or two.”  That almost always gets at least a smile, if not an outright chuckle.  Or even a chortle.  Better, a guffaw.

On the tennis court, I often make note of the old bromide, “The Lord giveth and the net taketh away.”  Most people don’t know that one, but there you are.

The takeaway from all this is that I see life from the optimist’s point of view.  I’m an optimist-bordering-on-Pollyanna.  The alternative—that carping, negative view of life—is wasteful and, worse, fruitless.  When people ask me how I am, it’s either “If I were any better I’d be hard to live with,” or “As good as a coyote during Spring lambing!”  Go for the laugh, go for the positive, always and always.  It’s lots more fun, you’ll live longer, and you’ll feel a whole lot better for it.  Ha!

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle