The Pains of Change

Walking down the streets of St. Andrews, one is surrounded by the pains of change.

The martyrs’ monument commemorates those who gave their lives for the difference they wished to make in the world, people like Henry Forrest, who was executed in 1533 by the Catholic Church for owning a bible written in English.

St. Andrews Cathedral lies in ruin, bearing the scars of a revolution. The once grandiose seat of Catholicism was destroyed in the process of the Scottish Reformation.

St. Andrews Cathedral lies in ruins
St. Andrews Cathedral lies in ruins

While the reformation brought universal education and the enlightenment to Scotland, the ruins of the “powers that were” remain today, as a reminder of the ambivalent nature of change.

Revolutions are painful, and leave carnage in their wake, but they are the mechanisms by which our society evolves. The beliefs that John Knox and his reformers fought and died for seem obvious today. Even the Catholic Church has come around to acknowledge that worship and scripture should be accessible in the native tongue, after spilling so much blood fighting the winds of change.

Change doesn’t happen on its own. It requires a brave voice that is willing to go against the grain, one that is willing to accept the wrath of people desperate to maintain their wealth and their power.

The potential for change exists in Scotland today. 97% of the Scottish electorate has registered to vote in today’s referendum, and the political discourse is strong. Whether in a pub, in line at the shops or waiting for a bus, politics and the future of the country is the topic on every tongue. It’s completely inescapable. It’s what democracy would be everywhere at all times if it didn’t always seem so hopeless and predetermined.

I’ve spent 4 months trying to understand this place. From the history of invaders–Roman, Viking or English–to today, Scotland has perpetually struggled for self determination.

While such a short time can never give a comprehensive view, I’ve crisscrossed this wee country, with roughly the size and population of South Carolina, in an effort to understand as much as I can why this referendum is happening and why one would be inclined to vote Aye or Nay.

The Borders are far more pro-union than the rest of the country. This is perfectly understandable as many of these people cross between Scotland and England on a daily basis. What impact would this have on their lives? Would border crossing checks be implemented?  Would they need to exchange currency? Would any benefit be worth the extra hassle?

The area surrounding Aberdeen has similar concerns. Oil workers drive Ferraris through blighted neighborhoods. It’s an eerily dystopian scene, as if you picked up Beverly Hills and moved it to Detroit. While inequality is nowhere more apparent in whole of the UK, those living in splendor as a result of the status quo are far more rabidly eager to preserve their current arrangement.

Demonstrators rally in Glasgow’s George Square and the Edinburgh Meadows, but the discussion plays out everywhere else as well. From Arran to Mull, from Oban to Fort William, the referendum is on the minds of Scots everywhere.

Up and down Inverness’s High Street, “Yes” and “No Thanks” signs hang on every streetlight. Even far off at the Isles Inn on in the harbour village of Portree on Skye, it’s difficult to engage in a discussion that isn’t about the referendum.

The “No” camp thinks the UK is stronger together. They do lack compelling leadership, with most of Westminster ignoring the possibility of a “Yes” vote, only to make a mad rush North at the last minute to save face, making promises to change. These promises would need to be approved by Westminster and many MPs have expressed not only a disdain for allowing such changes to occur, but also a desire to “punish” the Scots for their insolence.

A young man pleads on an Edinburgh street, “We can’t leave the rest of the UK to be ruled by conservatives in perpetuity!”

A young woman replies, “Tell them to move up here and join us in an independent Scotland!”

It’s easy to see how Scots could think the system is broken. They sent only 1 conservative out of their 59 seats in Parliament, but got another conservative government to set the agenda and budget.

Privatization and austerity seem to be Westminster’s mantra, and it doesn’t sit well with the Scots, who see self rule as a solution to end right wing policies in this predominantly left wing country.

There are many questions and uncertainties. The UK government has refused to negotiate any terms regarding independence until after a “Yes” vote. The “No” camp has seized upon that uncertainty and uses it as their main argument.

Westminster has also leveraged many rich English people, as well as world leaders (including President Obama) and corporations to warn Scotland against independence.

Deutsche Bank–who ironically has massive derivative exposure larger than 5x the entire EU’s GDP–this week warned Independence would be too risky, and compared it to Hitler’s rise in Germany, warning that it could start a new Depression.

Scottish independence would be exceptionally risky, but as “Yes” voters see it, that’s entirely the point.

It’s the idea of starting something new, examining how society is constructed and rebuilding it to be more fair and equitable. While it may be painful, and scars may be left behind, just as at St. Andrews, it’s the belief that things will eventually get better that motivates “Yes” voters in the face of such uncertainty.

I have no vote, but I do feel envious of the Scottish people. Today they have the chance to cast a ballot that could actually change the world, something that very few people get the chance to do in a society so enamored with maintaining the status quo for fear of taking a risk.

Explaining Scotland: Education

With less than a  month to go before millions of Scots make what may be the most important political decision of their lives, it’s important to take a look at the political and ideological realities that have brought this country to the point where it asks itself whether it’d be better off going it alone.

To some Americans, the concept of Scottish independence seems a single-malt-induced folly, one based in a stilted, kilted nationalism.

This view however, is as unrealistic and two-dimensional as most other American attempts at depicting Scotland.

Braveheart comes to mind, which had excruciatingly little base in historical fact and was shot predominantly not in Scotland, but in Ireland, which gives lucrative tax incentives and allows the use of their army as extras.

The argument for Scottish independence, like the Scots themselves, is far more nuanced than meets the eye. One the most compelling and immediately obvious ideological differences between Scotland and its neighbors lies in the prioritization of free and universal education.

In the first televised “Yes”/”No Thanks” (it’s a polite discourse) independence debate, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond (the de facto head of the “Yes” campaign) hailed the invention of universal free and open education as the greatest contribution Scotland has ever made to the world.

In this video Salmond addresses students at Harvard in 2008 discussing education in Scotland.

On my first trip to Scotland, I met a young lady named Roberta who attends the University of Glasgow. Most Americans would be shocked as I was to discover that after nine years of college, she will graduate as a licensed dentist, without a single pound of debt.

Roberta is not the recipient of a lucrative scholarship due to high scholastic performance, nor is she the benefactor of some generous philanthropist.

The concept of free and universal higher education may seem completely alien to a citizen of a country which has crippled its youth with over $1 trillion in student loans to be paid back with interest as ransom for the privilege of being permitted to educate themselves, but tuition fees were not implemented in the UK until 1998, when a £1000 per year charge began.

The Scottish government, which had recently been given some control of its own country back from Westminster in the form of a devolved parliament, was less enthused about the plan. In 2001, they created an alternative by which Scottish students, and those from the EU, would pay a flat £2000 fee at graduation rather than the annual upfront tuition. Their counterparts from the rest of the UK would continue to pay tuition fees as prescribed outside of Scotland.

In 2008, a law was passed in Scottish Parliament abolishing the graduation fee altogether, effectively making higher education once again completely free in Scotland.

Today, tuition fees in the rest of the UK have risen to £9000 per year (a 900% increase in just over a decade) while Scottish citizens attend university for free. (usually in 4 year programs, compared to the general 3 of their English counterparts)

There is much grumbling at the fact that residents of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland still have to pay their £9000 to attend Scottish universities, but the blame for thisrequirement lies upon the funding realities of an increasingly austere government in Westminster rather than some perceived Scottish xenophobia or nationalism.

Salmond’s claim that Scotland “invented” universal education is not unfounded.

During the 16th century, Scotland was gripped in the throes of a religious revolution known as the Scottish Reformation. Inspired by humanism and the theories of Martin Luther, backlash against the role of the Catholic church in Scotland resulted in major reforms in Scottish religious life.

The battle was hard wrought, was full of intrigue, and is quite fascinating to learn about if you’re so inclined. The leader of the movement was a preacher by the name of John Knox, who, among other reforms, advocated for the use of English rather than the traditional Latin in religious ceremonies and studies. He felt every human should be educated enough to read the bible, and have the opportunity to do so in their native language.

As a result, Scotland became one of the first places on Earth where education became a universal right. Long the province of the wealthy elite, education had been (and in some places still is) used by the rich and powerful to remain the rich and powerful through maintaining exclusivity.

Universal education for every citizen led to a great period of Enlightenment in Scotland, earning Edinburgh the nickname “The Athens of the North.”

From philosophers like Hume and Adam Smith, to writers like Robbie Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson,  open education allowed brilliant minds in all subjects to contribute thoughts, philosophies, writings and inventions which still affect us all today.

It’s important to remember that Scotland is a country with roughly the same size and population as the state of South Carolina. The impact this wee country has had upon the rest world and toward the advancement of humanity at large is incomprehensibly disproportionate.

Anesthetics, antiseptics, air filled tires, Capitalism, Dolly the sheep, fax machines, golf, hypodermic needles, the Kelvin scale, logarithms, penicillin, Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes, the steam engine,  the telephone, and even television are just a few of many creations that have roots in Scotland.

Even Harry Potter was written here in Edinburgh, admittedly by an anti-independence English woman.

No one in Post-Reformation Scotland knew just what would happen if every citizen was guaranteed access to education. It’s easy in hindsight to see it was a brilliant idea, and likewise makes for compelling evidence at the necessity of continuing the tradition today.

Many Scots believe that their voices will be lost in the discussion, and their hands will be forced to make cuts as Westminster continues its march toward austerity and privatization.

Hume wrote:

Every wise, just, and mild government, by rendering the condition of its subjects easy and secure, will always abound most in people, as well as in commodities and riches.

Indeed a sense of government’s role in bettering the lives of its citizens is central to the ideals of many Scots today.

Those that advocate independence believe that having the decisions that bind them made here, by themselves, in Edinburgh, rather than in London at the rest of the UK’s discretion, will help their government to better serve its purpose, and consequently render their lives more easy and secure.

The Free-Book Shelf

Or hear me read it so you don’t have to:

As I sunk into my middle-seat prison, I watched my new kiwi friend add movies to her in-flight playlist the way I accumulate books which I “plan to read” from the free-book shelf at work.

Sleeping pills, and those Asahi’s were fading me as a little plane jerkily traversed a map across the screen in front of me.  I returned to the opulence of my seat mate.

Racking up a bill in my head, I started to have to carry ones.  Those movies had to be what, at least 4 bucks a piece?

I ordered the coke, which I hoped would be free, and was surprised when I received the entire can.  My seatmate ordered red wine. It struck me odd that the attendants refilled her glass, not even asking.

She turned and offered me her extra pair of deluxe headphones.  I had earbuds, but, not being one to refuse a request with a pleasant accent,  I accepted.

She said she was from New Zealand, and had flown from Auckland to LA, and now on to London.  I asked how long a flight that was.  We did some math, and while I don’t precisely remember, there was multiple blood clot potential.

She inquired as to my itinerary.  I explained my plan to spend two days in London and fly off to the Highlands.  She asked why for only two weeks.

“Two weeks a year.” She cringed.

She runs a software company, leading a team from wherever she wants, and is flying back for her twice a year London visit to spend time with her husband.

Contemplating the intricate mechanics of her story, I reclined, but I noticed her turn back.  She smiled. “You’ll be happier when you work for yourself.”

She fell asleep somewhere between the first two Harry Potter movies, her playlist chugging furiously in vain.

I thought about the kind of money my new friend must make to enjoy vacation time and bottomless airplane merlot. I began to reconsider public radio life.

Around the time we crossed into Canada, I discovered said movies were, in fact, free.  The screen informed me that the vino was gratis tambien.

I had free access to the same luxuries I’d been ogling for hours, and was now thrust into a moment of self awareness.

When had I been nickeled and dimed into submission?

Why am I conditioned to perpetually expect less for more?

What is this machine we feed, and why are we so convinced we can’t do any better?

Existential, I put on Frozen and repeatedly fell asleep trying to watch it.  I have no idea how many times my seatmates sat through “Let it Go”, but I believe I saw the vast majority of the movie, cumulatively speaking.

As an eleven hour blur drew to a close, my neighbor wished me a “Great Holiday,” and deplaned. A man to my left tapped my shoulder and stopped me before I could get up.

I hadn’t looked at him throughout the flight, but he was older, and he spoke in a thick Brogue.

“You’re headed to Inverness?  You must go to Culloden.”

“The battlefield?” I recalled, scouring the annals of half-asleep BBC documentaries I’d watched in preparation.

“Aye,” he replied, “The dream died there.  You must walk the ground.”

Amused, for reasons I didn’t quite yet understand, I hoisted my backpack from the overhead compartment.  Feeling its weight hit legs which may or may not have been suffering from deep vein thrombosis was startling, but I recovered quickly. Strapping all that I had around my chest, I lifted with my shoulders. I stood tall, fighting the weight of my baggage.

Pondering Culloden, it struck me that life is a lot like that free-book shelf at work.  I can take books, or be given them. I read them or they gather dust. I create exactly the experience I want. I just knew that I was glad I had not made plans, and I’d read whichever book grabbed me.

Departures

Wolfgang Puck Express burnt my $13.50 personal sized pizza.

I’m okay with that.

I’ve been throwing back Asahi’s on draft.  I have no idea how much they cost, but I’m sure it’s ridiculous.  I find solace in the fact that I haven’t had Asahi before–yet another new experience.  They’re starting to really accumulate.

There’s a box of Unisom sitting on my passport.  I bought it from a gift shop here at the International Terminal because there wasn’t a drug store between my work and the airport.

The active ingredient is Diphenhydramine HCl.

That’s Benadryl.

Give something a new name, a new color, and tack the word “Sleep” on the box, and you can create something new out of the otherwise mundane.

I winced forking over $8.65 for 8 pills, knowing that could likely buy me a dumpster of Benadryl from Walgreen’s.  Even the expensive Walgreen’s by my house in Echo Park.

I’m going to miss Echo Park.

image
The view from my balcony

Los Angeles is a lot of things, but there’s no denying it’s beautiful, or at least it used to be.

My life here is wonderful.

A year ago today there is no way I could have said that.  What’s the point of all of this?  Why bother when human nature is destructive and the universe is dying a slow death to entropy?

Today I’ve found peace, acceptance, and meaning.  Yes it’s possible to imagine things being even more amazing than they are now, but when I look back just 4 years ago, sitting around my parents’ house in my underpants–underemployed, World of Warcraft obsessed, persistently drunk and high, and worst of all living in Toledo, it really gives one perspective.

The idea of taking a 17 day voyage across a foreign country would have terrified me a year ago.  If I’m being honest, it still does to an extent.

Day to day life is on autopilot for me.  I wake up, get to work 15 minutes late, leave work 15 minutes late, get home, waste my life away on the internet, and then walk down to the taco truck for dinner.

Even with the joy and frustration of being in a relationship, and as things change and minor crises unfold, I’m somehow both over and underwhelmed with  a perpetual feeling of serenity and control.

I sometimes feel like Krang from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Simply a brain pulling levers to control a robot body.

I suppose this sojourn into the unknown is a bit of a test for myself, and I’ve admittedly stacked the deck.

In 12 hours I’ll land in London.  I’ve planned to meet a friend in the city center when I arrive.  I’ll meet up with a different friend the next day.

I don’t have anywhere to stay.

Monday morning, I’m flying from Gatwick to Inverness in the Northern reaches of Scotland.

I have no place to stay there either, and no itinerary for the rest of my trip.

I made the joke a couple months ago that I thrive amidst chaos.  If my self assessment rings true, I’m throwing myself right into my wheelhouse.

I’ll see things I never imagined, run out of time and miss seeing the things I hoped, meet countless people, drink in dozens of pubs, and hopefully learn something that will change the way I think about the world.

I’ve got nothing with me but a backpack:  2 t shirts, a pair of jeans, 3 days of socks/underwear, and a rain jacket.

My tablet lets me travel even lighter than usual.  A bluetooth keyboard makes writing bearable.  My new Canon 7D means I can take some amazing photos along the way.

Chaos and disorder are calling my name, along with my third beer, which is slowly getting warm.  Perhaps I should get used to it as I head to a land rife with warm beer.

How long before my flight do I take these renamed Benadryl?

I’ve got to hit the ground running, and I can’t afford to be jet lagged.

A Eulogy for My Mom

I remember many nights sitting on the floor with my mother while she read the newspaper.  For whatever reason, she would always turn directly to the obituaries, which she’d then read out loud.  Every single day.

When we were preparing her obituary on Monday morning, my dad asked if we thought that we should include a picture of her.  My sisters and I laughed in unison, explaining that she would never have permitted such a thing, having not been proud of her appearance as of late, and having always complained “It says they’re 86, their picture looks like they’re 20!”

Buddha explains that unhappiness is merely the difference between reality and our expectations, and while it’s tempting to dwell on the past and wish things could have turned out differently, there is obviously no way to go back and change any of it.

Similarly, whitewashing the past serves no purpose, but to erase its lessons for us–especially when there is no longer face to be saved, nor pride to be maintained.  Like the teenaged pictures of deceased geriatrics, were I to stand here and describe a life of rainbows and unicorns, I know my mom would be rolling her eyes at me wherever she is today.

It’s easy to feel cheated by a life cut short.  I got to spend 30 years with my mother, but that time could have easily been twice as long.  For years I blamed her and wished I could change the choices she made, or somehow convince her with words to overcome her human faults, however the only true peace lies in understanding and acceptance.

While I’ve learned to accept my mom for exactly what she became, it’s certainly preferable to reflect on the early days.

I remember a mother who was intensely proud and loving.

I remember her sewing me a dinosaur costume for Halloween.

I remember a mom that until the day she died called me “Be-Bop” “Ray-Ray” or countless other nicknames.

I remember her close relationship with her parents, who had just as big of a hand in raising us as she and my dad did.

I remember her love for her brothers and their families, and the times we’d spend together and play together.  It seemed back then that our lives would be inseparable, we were a family that loved unconditionally.

I remember a mother who even in the darkest times never hung up the phone without saying I love you.  And meaning it.

I remember staying up late playing video games with her.  I wanted to follow in her footsteps so badly that at 3 years old I tried to play Dragon Warrior like she had been.  Every time I spoke to a character, I’d call her into the room to make her read me what they had said.

After about a day and a half of constant interruptions, she told me that if I wanted to keep playing the game, I’d have to learn to read.  So I did.

She held us all to the highest of standards.  An A- was failure.  A simple baking soda volcano was nowhere near an acceptable science fair project.  Instead, my mom would have us growing bacteria in petri dishes and seeing which antibiotic killed them best, or combining samples of each others’ blood to measure antibodies’ effects on coagulation.  This was Junior High.

I was never, under any circumstances, allowed to stay home from school.  Even if I vomited, she would tell me “It’s all out of you.  Go to school.  If you vomit again, they’ll send you home.”

I can count on one hand the days I’ve called off of work or school in the last 20 years, and whenever my dependability is noted, I speak highly about the influence my mother had on me.

I remember staying up late watching Quantum Leap together, and I remember coming home from church every Saturday night.  Each of us kids had to clean one of the bathrooms, and after, we’d all gather at 8 o’clock to watch her favorite show, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

By this past November, things started to look pretty dire.  I borrowed a reporter’s kit from work and flew home.  I sat down to record a final interview with my mother, to give her a chance to set the record straight, and to give me the chance to be able to hear her voice anytime I needed to for the rest of my life.  

I asked her what she liked most about herself.  She immediately replied “I don’t like anything about myself.” but after further prodding, she told me that she took pride in the fact that she would do absolutely anything within her power to help anyone who needed it.

I can’t begin to count the number of times that she went way out of her way to lend even the smallest hand to someone.

I also asked her what she hoped 15 years from now would remind me of her.  She said. “When your kid goes to shop class.”

She always was in her element with a tool in hand, creating something out of wood, in fact she spent many years as the only female cub scout den leader that I ever knew.  My fellow scouts would come over to our house to hear my mom explain how to build bird houses or carve soap.  

She was her happiest interacting with children.  Over the past few days I’ve constantly heard my dad say “She really loved babies.”  During the 4 hours we talked on tape last month, we tackled heavy hitting issues, ranging from being abused to addiction to whether she still had the will to live, to what she would tell her kids were they listening back to the recording 15 years in the future.

While it was certainly very emotional from time to time, the only point at which she lost her composure was when I asked what she’d tell her grandchildren that she’d never get to meet.

She broke down sobbing and immediately blurted out “Are they coming?”  The rest of the discussion, she continued to tell me how desperately she wanted to hang on, so she would be able to hold her grandchildren and tell them she loved them.

We grew up just a few houses down from my grandparents, and my mom considered them her best friends.  After they both passed away in 1997, she was a changed woman.  Withdrawn, missing so much of the joy and exuberance I’d grown to know  in my youth.

During our interview, I asked her why it was she took her parents’ deaths so hard.  She replied that she had never really felt like she had many friends, she had never really felt like she belonged, and that her parents were the closest friends she’d ever had.

While I was in town, I interviewed several other friends who turned to substance abuse to deal with their problems, but were able to recover. I heard echoes of my mom’s story everywhere.

Depression, isolation, feeling like an outsider, feeling like she didn’t belong to something bigger than herself.

Depression amidst isolation is easily understandable from an Evolutionary Psychology standpoint.  Our brains are wired to thrive in a tribal setting.  Roughly 30 people we know intimately and are invested in.

 

There are many ways we fill this natural psychological void, from extended family, to church to sports teams, to clubs, even work, where it is that I find my “tribe.”

While there are numerous solutions, the result of not finding one is almost always identical: a gradual descent into depression.

In hindsight, I can easily see my mother was depressed.  She stopped wanting to leave the house.  It was hard for her to get out of bed in the morning.  She retreated inward socially. Her personality and thoughts started to drift toward the negative.

I recently wrestled with depression myself, and through acknowledging the problem, seeing a therapist weekly, yoga, meditation, and a lot of effort, I have been able to fight it, although the fight still continues each and every day.

My mother’s advice for anyone in her position was very clear.  “If you feel depressed, find a doctor.  Talk to someone, take medicine if you have to, but don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

She also felt desperate anguish for the pain she caused others.  Listening back to her voice last night, I found comfort in hearing her say, “I’m sorry.  I thought I was only hurting myself,” and knowing that beneath the facade of rationalization and face saving was the woman who unconditionally loved me and loved her family, just out of control, unable to be the mother, wife, and sister she honestly wanted to be.

Addiction robbed me of my mom far too soon.  It broke down my faith in humanity, shattered my concept of unconditional love, and at times completely broke my spirit.

It destroyed my home as sanctuary, pushing me to find support and peace of mind in the kindness of a cadre of surrogate parents who helped me try to piece my life back together.

It left a path of destruction in its wake I can’t even begin to fully describe, and left much of my family depressed, watching our lives turn into mere echoes of what might have been.

It took a lot of thought, acceptance, and appreciation of the beauty of life to build it all back up again.

I eventually fled.  Distancing myself from the situation finally gave me the objectivity to come to terms with all of what transpired.

Now, when I drive around this town, I see ghosts everywhere.  The people that showed me the world, taught me to be human, loved me for no other reason than that we were family and that’s what families do–they’re mostly gone now, by death or by choice.

I still remember them.  I could never escape them.  And while it’s sad and it points to the ephemeral and transitory nature of this whole strange consciousness experience that’s slowly playing out, it also elucidates what after years and years of deliberation I have come to accept as the entire point of all of this.

Immortality lies in the imprint we leave on those we love.  My mom, grandparents, aunts, uncles–there is no “me.”  There never was.  I’m merely the amalgamation of those who came before me, a product of their love.   

My family has been tempered by fire.  We’ve seen what happens when someone is ostracized and we realize that even when we really, really do not like each other, or find it hard to understand one another, we will always love each other.

I will desperately miss my mom.  I accept her and love her unconditionally, and not a day will ever go by that I don’t think of her.  Not a thought will cross my mind that wasn’t shaped from her love and instruction.

This is a day I’ve contemplated for years.  And a day that is bittersweet to say the least.

I hope that this is a day of rebirth.  

I hope my dad can find peace and happiness, and find a way to rebuild his life now that she is at peace.

I hope my brother, sisters and I can forge ahead, with each others’ unconditional love as a scaffold on which to construct our own futures.

I hope her brothers can forgive her and can find peace with what she did, and can someday remember her fondly.

But most of all, I hope it’s a day of rebirth for her.  Free from the prison of her human condition, her spirit, wherever it may be, can simply be the silly, loving, nurturing being I know.  

I love you mom, and I hope that someday, somewhere, our paths may cross again.

Rest in Peace