Archive for the ‘America’ Category

America, land that I love

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

A few people have asked me recently why I love America and why I want to live there – given that I have (several) other choices. It’s a good question, and recent events such as those unfolding in Ferguson give it more weight.

Fundamentally, I believe that despite the problems, the basis on which the country is formed – a secular constitution with a legally binding commitment to equality and freedom – is a good one. That it doesn’t work in practice, or that there are many clear problems caused by the failure to actually apply that equality to all, simply makes me wish to be a part of changing that.

There are those who say they want to “take back America”, and sadly they tend to twist the meaning to be “take it back to the 1950’s where everyone knew their place and good men where white and women cooked and cleaned” (I’m paraphrasing).

But the real America has never been lost – they would not be taking anything back, they would be stealing it. Stealing it from those who fought so hard for civil rights. Stealing it from the LGBT communities who have fought for the justice the constitution promises them. Stealing it from those, like me, who have come for the economic or employment opportunities, made their homes, raised their families and paid their taxes here.

The real America is sometimes obscured by the fog of political partisanship and the failure of the media to do its job of objectively reporting news. It is obscured by greed, and big money, and by those who would wish to control the bodies of liberated women. It is stained by poverty, a failing educational system and a systemic disdain for science and reason. It has been clouded by the injustices that indeed are often too real and continue to affect the daily lives of black, latino and LGBT youth. It is scarred by racism, religious zealotry and xenophobia. It is obscured right now by tear gas and burning buildings in Ferguson.

And yet, the real America persists, and it drives forward. It is revealed in the solidarity shown to those in Ferguson in cities across the country. It is revealed in the Pride marches that every year grow and gain wider acceptance. It is revealed in the votes against punitive sentencing for minor drug offenses. It is revealed most of all in the lives of ordinary Americans who care for our homeless and our downtrodden, despite the barriers that society presents.

A year ago, I could never have believed that more than 30 states would have marriage equality, with more likely to follow soon. I would not have dreamed that California would start the slow process towards ending the hopeless and utterly destructive “war on drugs”. The American dream is tarnished but it still exists, and I am still dreaming it, despite the efforts of some to turn it into the American nightmare. It’s a country I love deeply, with an ideal of a classless meritocratic society based on secular ideals of equality, liberty and justice for ALL.

The words of the Reverend Martin Luther King are still absolutely relevant today, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”” Dr King died in the pursuit of that dream, but he was not, and is not alone, and there are some dreams worth dying for.

America can’t be taken back, only held back.

Mental Health: A plea for understanding

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Someone, let’s call her Sally, once said to me: “Andrew, it’s your mind that’s the problem; you think too much”.

I’ve never forgotten that. Not just because it seemed like a really stupid thing to say (who wants to live in ignorance?), but because there was an element of truth in it.

Sally was wrong in her meaning and the context, but the truth is, my mind – more specifically, my brain – is a problem.

It’s not that I think too much – sometimes I try not to think at all. Actually, thinking is very much affected by the functioning of my brain. On a good day, my thoughts will be clear, rational, and likely to do me very little harm. On a bad day, my thoughts will be clear, rational and likely to do me a lot of harm. You see, mental illness is not about how much or how little we think. It is about the conclusions that our brain suggests as a result of the thought processes within it.

Sally’s comment was made publicly in the context of a religious meeting. We’d been discussing our Christian lives, and I happened to say that I often struggled with doubt and feelings of self-loathing. I wasn’t able to consistently believe in a God who cared about me, or the rest of the world, yet wouldn’t help me to deal with the mental health issues I struggled with. I shared it with the aim to try to help others who I was sure might have experienced the same. I went on to say that I choose to believe, as I hope that God will one day help my unbelief.

I had been, since my late teens, taking medication to control severe clinical depression, and any time this was brought up in a church context, someone would inevitably offer to pray about it, or would offer some religiously based advice, but always with the implication that the fault was with me. At times, there would be a suggestion that ‘sin’ in my life was the root cause of the depression, and that if only I would ‘get right with God’, then it would all clear up. Please, bear in mind that I was devout since a young age, I was in a leadership position within my church, I spent more time reading and studying the bible than almost anyone I knew, and I spent a lot of my time being involved with the church and serving however I could.

I was not a ‘nominal’ Christian, I was a fully fledged, born again, bible believing, servant of the Lord. More than that, I desperately wanted to believe, not only to believe, but truly experience God for myself. That I could not only made my life more hellish, and I truly believed the problems were with me, and with me alone. That I could not reconcile my belief with my inner thoughts, desires and experience was beyond awful, and yet all these other Christians seemed to be living wonderful lives of peace, joy and harmony.

Eventually I left the church, not wishing to be a hypocrite. I had to first admit that I simply did not believe, and then act on that disbelief. I couldn’t stay in a leadership position and claim those beliefs. That meant I lost, quite literally, all of my friends. I eventually let my family know too. That, to this day, still causes me stress and grief. Some of my relatives live in a very cloistered bubble of evangelical Christianity, and I (and my siblings) are no longer a part of that world. However, this post is not really about that, maybe another time.

This post is about the stigma of mental illness.

And, there is a lot of stigma attached to mental illness.

I am no longer in the church, and for that I’m grateful. I have since been able to accept many things about myself and have in turn become a more accepting person.

But, I am in a similar environment, ironically.

I am now in a business community, where I am a fairly well respected and known expert and CEO. You might be frowning a bit, what has business to do with the church? (Unless you live in the USA, then you’ll fully understand). In business, particularly in the USA, weakness, vulnerability, and emotion are not seen as strengths. If you meet another business leader at an event, you’re unlikely to hear much negative about him/her or the business. The mantras of business are strength, improvement, growth. Winners only need apply.

But, ask yourself, how likely is it that these very successful people are all having as great a time as they claim?

Dig deeper, you’ll find high rates of stress related illness, alcoholism, obesity and other addictive behaviors. High. Fucking. Rates. Yet, just like those outwardly happy Christians, they’ll all claim to be 100% awesome. The distance between me and the overweight alcoholic in a badly fitting suit is approximately 6 months.

Not being able to show weakness or vulnerability to your colleagues, your employees or your peers in other businesses means that there’s once again an artificial situation in which one must exist. You’ve always got to be a winner. Always be the best. Always be out in front. There are no support structures for CEO’s as such. We’ve got to be the strong decisive ones. All. Fucking. Day. Long.

Except, except for my brain. It just isn’t. Won’t be. Can’t be. IS ONLY BECAUSE I MAKE IT SO. I choose. But, oh, do I struggle to choose. Every. Single. Day. I struggle to choose.

There’s nowhere to turn. You’re the leader, you’re responsible for millions of dollars, and hundreds of employees. Thousands of customers depend on you. Yet, some days, you can’t move, you can’t even manage to eat, it’s just not worth it. You just want to pull the cushions from your sofa and build a pillow fort, and live there forever, with your cat and a tub of ice-cream. And those are the good days.

The bad days…you don’t want to know about the bad days.

And, yet, I choose, because the other choice is, well, nothing. There’s no other choice. You live or you don’t. And, you try to recognize when your brain is screwing you over.

The problem is that it’s your brain. That cold, rational brain that works really well. It’s a convincing little bugger. When it speaks, you listen. That’s what it does, it thinks for you. But, some days, what it thinks is, “You’re worthless. You’re shit. You’re the little piece of detritus that was farted out of the asshole of the universe, and you suck, worse than the suckiest person on earth”. And you believe it. That’s what mental illness does for you.

I do not want your pity, or your condescension, nor do I want your helpful advice on how to be more cheerful. I know my life is great. I really do!

I have so much to be thankful for, I have a great job, a wonderful family, I live in a country that is by and large easy to live in, and I have friends who care deeply for me. Compared to 98% of the world, I’m rich. I travel widely, I eat in fantastic restaurants, I drive nice cars and buy nice clothes. But, today, that means nothing. Nothing will convince me that my great life is worth shit.

On a good day, I will be proud of everything. My ideas will be great, and everyone will love them. The next day, the same idea sucks, even if you tell me it’s great.

It will suck so much I won’t even write it down. I can’t tell you how many times I have destroyed work or abandoned personal projects, because they … just … suck.

Depression is not about being a bit sad sometimes, so that a quick pep-talk and a cup of cocoa can ‘snap you out of it’. It really isn’t.

Depression is an ongoing battle to work out which of the things your brain is desperately trying to convince you of are not going to kill you. I can know rationally that everything is good, I can sit and list those things on a piece of paper. I can sit with a friend and explain how great everything is. My brain will not be convinced. In my mind, there is a raging beast that is able to chew rational thought into small pieces and spit them contemptuously onto the floor, as if to say “There you are, fool, see what your rational thinking is worth”, and I will believe it. I will coldly, and rationally, know, with a force and desperation that is overwhelming, that I am utterly worthless.

I’ll believe it, and sit there and cry into my coffee and be convinced that the great leader I’m supposed to be, who can speak to an audience of hundreds, or stand up and play guitar in front of a crowd is the most hated fucker on the planet, who should just fucking die. And, I’ll hate everything. Nothing will be good enough. Nothing will be right. No-one will be doing a good job. You could offer me the nobel prize for awesomeness and I would think you were an idiot. I’ll just give up. I’ll decide nothing is worth doing. I’ll call people and tell them I quit. I’ll delete files of work. I’ll send weird messages to social networks. I’ll drink myself stupid. All the while, I’ll know I have a great life.

I’m typing this in a hotel room in Singapore. I’ve spent the day hating this place. Resenting the fact that I’m 2 long haul flights away from home, in a country that’s too hot and doesn’t have adequate taxi service.

I’ve spent the day in business meetings meeting people who I’ve needed to convince of my usefulness, and the worth of my company and colleagues. And I did it. I did it fucking well. And then, I came back to my hotel and cried.

I’m typing this fast, because a friend on Twitter (and you should be following @francosoup, because she’s awesome), managed to say the right thing. Because, she just wrote “I hope you’re Ok mate”. And, I wasn’t. I was broken.

I’m not going to edit it. I’m going to post it, because, in the morning, I’d probably just delete it. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll be proud of it. Who the fuck knows?

I just want you to understand that just as you would go to the doctor if you have bronchitis, or a broken arm, and you would not in the least bit feel embarrassed to do so, that if I have to do the same because my brain is broken, then that should be ok.

If I have to admit that I’m not the strong, together person you thought I was, it doesn’t mean I’m not capable of doing my job. In fact, I’m good at my job because, you know what? I think too much. I think until it’s all thought out. Then I plan for failure, and think some more. And I make sure things can happen, because if you don’t plan for those days when you simply can’t move, you’ll screw everything up.

So yeah, Sally, my mind is my problem, but it’s also my strength. Because, if I can convince myself that today is worth it, then I can do anything today. Anything.

If you know someone with mental health issues, please understand how strong they are to just be out of bed, and just try to be understanding. Just. Be. There.

Ask, “Are you ok mate?”. And don’t judge the answer.

A ray of light in a dark sky: Why I still have faith in humanity

Friday, April 19th, 2013

There are few words that can describe how I feel about the tragic events in Boston last week. As a runner but more importantly as a human, I just found the emotion overwhelming. I hope that the police will quickly end the situation that continues to unfold even as I write. So much has been said that I don’t want to add to the noise too much. I’m glad of what #RunChat has been doing via their page and a group of us will be wearing race shirts and going for a group run on Monday to show solidarity. We must not let fear conquer love.

On that note, this was also a week where I saw many of the most moving and inspiring displays of spontaneous humanity – from first responders and bystanders rushing in to help to so many opening up their homes to stranded runners. But, one other thing happened this week that moved me tremendously – New Zealand passed their Marriage Equality law, and what happened next is truly beautiful.

Watch this amazing video – on hearing the vote response the gallery spontaneously bursts into the most beautiful rendition of a traditional Mauri Maori love song.

It is these things that we should cling to in times like these. It is all too easy to despair and to believe that things are getting worse and that we’re all doomed, but it’s just not true. There is still great beauty in the world and people are still capable of incredibly acts of self-sacrifice, of love and of understanding.

I hope that our reaction to the tragedies will not be based on fear, but on the determination to make this world better for all of its inhabitants.

Run for fun!

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

So, it’s been a very long time since my last post, but there’s a reason. I started running. Over the next few posts, I’ll share my journey from couch to runner with you.

In February of this year, I decided that, since I wasn’t getting any younger, those dreams of one day doing a marathon would fade fast, unless I got off my butt and did something about it. Having drifted into middle age and a sedentary lifestyle, I’d almost resigned myself to buying new pants every couple of years as my waistline grew, and to being less able as more and more of my body parts gave out on me.

A visit to the doctor for a physical (yes, that one), and a poor showing on my cholesterol levels convinced me that if I didn’t want to add taking statins to the list of ‘stuff that you have to do as you get older’, and staring at 200lb  (90 kg) on the scales I knew it was time. So I started to run – it was the only thing I could think of that would really work, and I’d always had that dream of doing a marathon.

So, I did the typical geek thing – bought some apps for my iPhone, bought some hi-tech shoes and a bunch of running gear, got some sport headphones, and got myself down to the treadmill. I nearly died. I couldn’t run for a minute at a time. The app I chose seemed incredibly optimistic – with wildly outrageous schedules, but I stuck to it. Within a few weeks my endurance improved, and I signed up for a run (the Bay Bridge Navy run in San Diego) – 4 miles of nightmare with a mile of steep uphill in the middle. I’d done the same run the year before, with literally no training, and barely made it – walking most of the way on the hills, and barely jogging the rest of it.

The problem was, my shins hurt. Badly. So badly, that I sometimes couldn’t walk afterwards. Three weeks before the bridge run, I was out. I simply couldn’t run anymore. No way I could train. I took almost 10 days off while my shins recovered. I bought new shoes with custom fitted insoles with extra arch support, as apparently my feet were ‘over pronating’ and compression sleeves for my calves.

A week out from the race, I was worried whether I’d even be able to complete it. I avoided the treadmills (one of humanity’s most boring inventions) and hit the roads, running gently in the beautiful city of San-Diego. I managed a 3 mile training run, just.

The shin pain was better with the new shoes and compression sleeves, but still not great – I did the run, but didn’t achieve the time I wanted. I went out too fast (a symptom of rarely running on the roads and not being experienced with setting my pace) and was winded after the first mile – just before the bridge climb. I had to walk most of the way to the summit, then managed to run the last 2 miles – encouraging a straggling colleague on the way. I sighted the finish line, but had nothing left in the tank for a final push, so just kept going and jogged across. I’d beaten my previous year’s time by around 3 minutes. But, I’d finished, and I knew I could do better.

I went back to basics, and I learnt a lot – the next race would be better – but that’s for the next post!

The app I used to get to 5km.
http://heavydutyapps.com/5k-runner/

A little about the Coronado Bay bridge:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Diego-Coronado_Bridge

It’s over, it ain’t going any further: marriage in the future is for all.

Monday, January 16th, 2012

If you are still thinking that somehow you can reverse the tide and that ‘marriage’ will go back to being to something that you’re happy to define as between a man and a woman, you’re wrong. You’re out of time. The argument is over. What’s happening now is just the cleaning up. Marriage is for all, and the only future is to watch that freedom to marry spread throughout the free world.
Of course, you might want to cling to your theology – your unchangeable holy books that state that homosexuality is a sin – but you’re wrong there too. Eventually, your religion will catch up, or it will be sidelined.

You see, it’s already happened. Things change, laws and countries move on, and mainstream religion follows.
Decriminalization is now much more widespread than ever,, as is the recognition of civil unions and married rights equivalency laws, so it’s just a matter of time before permission to marry is given.
So much has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. This issue is not going away, and it’s certainly not going to be shouted down by the forces of conservatism or the religious.

Slavery still exists today (actually, some sources say there are more slaves now than at any time in history) but that doesn’t mean that the argument over whether it’s right or wrong isn’t over, and every country now outlaws it. It took hundreds of years for slavery to become completely outlawed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolition_of_slavery_timeline). While it was still legal, it was justified by the major religions as being acceptable.

For Christians, the Apostle Paul refers some of his comments to slaves e.g. 1Ephesians 6:5,  Timothy 6:1-2 and Jesus clearly acknowledges slavery (and doesn’t reject it as wrong).
Also for Christians, and for Jews, the ‘Old’ Testament / Torah is full of references to slaves e.g. Leviticus 25:44-46, or this nice one covering the rules for a man selling his daughter as a slave: Exodus 21:7-11
For Muslims, Islamic scripture (both the Koran and the hadiths) is actually very good to slaves, treating them equally as regards to religious freedom, but still recognizing that slavery is acceptable, while encouraging the praiseworthy act of manumission.
However, Islamic states were some of the last to finally outlaw slavery, with Saudi Arabia (1962), Yemen (1962), UAE (1963), Oman (1970) and Mauritania (1981) being the last five countries in the world to allow slavery.

The point of all this is that, eventually, the religious arguments follow the law of the lands. It is unlikely you will find a modern, mainstream Christian leader in America or Europe who would advocate the return of slavery.
You’ll still find pockets of extremism, but then, you still find people who protest abortion clinics…and that too shall pass.

So it will be with the issue of allowing homosexuals to marry. It may take many years, but the argument is already lost, and eventually, your future co-religionists will simply ignore these parts of your holy books, as they do so many other parts today.

There are more and more countries allowing the free right to marry to all citizens, and while there are some bumps in the road (e.g. California flip-flopping on the issue), the tide cannot be turned back. Eventually, all countries will allow it, and then, so will all the major religions. (Of course, some religions already do!).

Conservatives and liberals will move on to arguing about new things (when was the last time you had an argument about slavery?), and everyone else will be able to get on with marrying who they like. The truly anachronistic ideas about homosexual marriage are just like the ideas people used to hold about slavery.

There’s a lot of work still to do, but the main war is over…and to finish the paraphrase of Leonard Cohen in my title …”It’s over, it ain’t going any further, I’ve seen the future, baby, it is marriage.”

Today 16th of January is, in the USA, Martin Luther King day. This incredible speech is a reminder of how that great man inspired change that brought freedom and civil rights to African Americans, who although they had been freed from slavery, still lived under segregation and institutional racism. I share his dream of the day when we are all truly free from injustice, discrimination and the hatred of bigots.

Sometimes change is just not fast enough

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Today brings the terribly sad news that, once again, a teenager has taken his own life because of bullying about his sexuality.

http://www.shewired.com/soapbox/2011/10/17/gay-teen-jamie-hubley-commits-suicide

So much has changed in the last 50 years or so; we’ve moved (here in America at least) from a country where slavery was legal and black people were considered sub-human, to a better world where slavery is a receding memory and we can have an African American (in the truest sense of that descriptor) president. That is not to deny that, sadly, racism is still found in some measure.

However, we still have so far to go as a society (globally) in our acceptance of diversity. We need teachers and schools to adopt a positive attitude towards LGBT individuals, and to help them support such young people as Jamie (whose lives are hard enough just with going through their teens). We need to be tougher on bullies, and we need to teach more positively around homosexuality.

But, school reflects society as a whole. Children have all the biases of their parents, in concentrated and unfiltered quantity. Therefore, a big part of the change that is needed is going to have to be the decline of traditional religious attitudes towards homosexuality. Teachers can only do so much, but much more needs to be done in churches, synagogues and mosques around the country (and world), to help to build a more tolerant and accepting environment. Parents need to teach their children that slurs like ‘faggot’ are simply unacceptable, no matter their private beliefs about the subject. Surely if you truly believe in ‘god’s love’ you should teach your children to love others without judgement – lest you be judged yourself?

Of course, I’d rather that nobody felt the need to cling to any religious dogma at all; particularly where it impinges on the freedoms and safety of others; but recognizing that many people of belief are essentially good, and sincerely believe while wishing no ill to others, I have to accept that change will be slow, and that perhaps it can only come from within the belief systems themselves. Most ‘true believers’ will not accept the pleas of an atheist, but perhaps if their pastors/rabbis/imams and other leaders begin to teach a more welcoming religion, one tolerant of the natural diversity in our society, then perhaps there will be hope that we won’t have to see another Jamie.

My sincerest condolences to Jamies friends and family, he was a truly brave young man.

Penn Jillette

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Penn & Teller are my favourite magicians. I love many magicians, especially Derren Brown (ok, so he’s more of a mentalist, but whatever), Lennart Green, Jerry Sadowitz and Paul Daniels, but Penn & Teller are my absolute favourite. I’ve seen their show in Vegas live more times than I care to mention and I’ve watched almost everything they’ve ever done on TV (Collection of some rarities here).

So what? Well, it just so happens that Penn & Teller are also well known for their atheist (anti-theist?) stance. Penn, the larger and louder half of the two (both by volume), is especially outspoken on the subject, and has now written a book “God, No!” which is doing very well in the NY Times bestseller list. It’s on my Kindle, along with about 5 other books I’ve yet to get to, but I’m saving it, like leaving the best part of a meal until the last moment.

However, Penn also writes on a more ad-hoc basis on the subject of atheism and religion. As I live in America (but am not yet a citizen), I have noticed the increasingly bizzare antics of American politicians (not just on the right), who constantly ‘namedrop’ god. Penn’s latest article is a really excellent examination of why it is that, since Carter, almost every presidential hopeful has had to have god on his (or her) campaign trail.

I agree with many of his points, and would only add that it seems pretty likely that politicians are also reflecting the national mood of worry about identity and the threat of terrorism (the new communism). People, when they are scared, flock to the familiar, retreat in into xenophobia and nationalism, and the familiar arms of a comforting religion where no thought is necessary. That, coupled with the rise in scientific thinking, the increasingly vocal atheist community and a suspicion of all things middle eastern and Islamic, has brought out the very worst in the religious right – a large and motivated portion of the voting population. Expect things to get even stranger from here out.

By the way, if you’ve never heard Penn in full flow, you should check out this appearance on PBS some years ago. His incredible oration and flawless delivery is really wonderful to behold. He’s a giant of a man, and has a brain to match. Did I say that he’s half of one of my favourite magical duos?

Sorry if I’ve neglected Teller in this post…I’ll make up for that in a future blog, he surely deserves it!