Magical Thinking

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“Magical thinking” has a lot of different specific definitions, but I use it to mean thinking–though it is often less conscious than that–that because one wants something to be so, or needs it to be so, or thinks that it must or should be so, it is so.

I think that much of “blame the victim,” or just generally of placing responsibility for misfortune of any kind on the person who experiences it, is magical thinking. It is thinking that the person must have done something to cause the misfortune, so it can’t happen to me because I don’t do that thing, can’t do that thing, would never do that thing. And the further that person’s circumstances, behavior, beliefs, are from mine, the easier it is to think “I’m so different, therefore it can’t happen to me.”

Besides the overall problems posed by people operating on false premises, I immediately see one bad consequence of this: being irrationally judgmental. People make judgments of others as being careless at best and evil at worst because something bad happened to them. It must have been their fault, because that’s the only way it can’t happen to me. And these judgments become, as I said, easier and easier to make the more different the person is from me. From there it’s a small leap to entire categories of people being careless, or evil, or something in between–a small leap to “that group is like that.”

But the fact is that, in the vernacular, shit happens. Yes, everything has a cause, but the world is complex. Things have many causal factors, or more often a synthesis of them. And all of them–every one–is beyond a person’s control except what that person directly does. That’s very hard for humans to accept, so magical thinking.

Are there careless people? Of course. Are there evil people? Yes, though people have different definitions of “evil.” Do people make poor decisions? Sure. But most of the time, most people are doing the best they can in the moment, under the circumstances. Some actions that have bad consequences are taken to avoid other bad, maybe worse, consequences. There is not always a decision, a course of action, that will make everything work out right. And sometimes the universe messes with what was from the human viewpoint absolutely the best, most informed, most responsible course of action. Again, hard for humans to accept, so magical thinking.

If I have a philosophy of life, it can be summed up as “it is what it is”–“it” being whatever the situation or circumstance is. I may be angry or sad or frustrated at what it is; I don’t deny or repress those feelings. But then I try my best to deal with the situation or circumstance as it is. Being human, I probably fail more than I succeed, but I try.

You can walk a mile in another person’s shoes, but you can never walk with another person’s feet. (OK, that’s ableist, but bear with me.) So if you engage in magical thinking, I will try not to judge you. Maybe you need it. Maybe it’s the only way you can stay sane and functional in your own situation. It has been so overwhelmingly prevalent among humans throughout history that it must serve a useful purpose.

Memorial Day, 2016

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Today I honor the memory of my ancestors and relatives who fought in the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.

Today I remember:
+Two uncles I never knew: Lt. Gerald Kennedy (KIA, WWII) and Sgt. Cecil Kennedy (KIA, WWII).
+My father, Charles, between them in age, who was 4F because of his knees and childhood rheumatic fever; he tried to enlist in every branch and was turned down, and then served as a firefighter at Ft. Lewis, to free others for military service.
+Their brother, my Uncle Larry, who served in the military, came home safely, lived a long life, and is much missed.
+My dear Uncle Don, who served in the military, came home safely, and enriched the lives of all around him, living to age 95.

+I remember–and miss–my brother, WO Dennis Kennedy, 1948-96, who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He lived through it, but I think he left a piece of his soul there.

I think of my many, many relatives, friends, and acquaintances, my peers, who served in Vietnam. Some came back, and some didn’t.
+IC1 James Sampers (KIA, Vietnam)
+PFC Thomas Orr (KIA, Vietnam)
Marc, Jim, Tim, Bill, Steve, Doug …

I grieve for all those lost in our current ongoing wars, and hope for the safe return of the rest.

And so I say “Thank you” to all who have served in our military, and to all who have supported military family members while they did so. I will always respect those who fight because they believe they are defending their own people–even those who fight against causes I believe in. I will always honor those who fight to protect others–even to protect them against “my side.”

As much as I believe in anything, I believe in the utter futility of war, that war is almost never the right course–not absolutely never, but almost never. But with humans being what they are and the world what it is, I do think the U.S. needs a military force. So I thank those who do that job, and I support their being taken care of both during and after their service, including their families’ being supported well while they serve.

If we ever again have a draft, I want it to be absolutely universal but not entirely military, with no deferments or exemptions on any basis other than a disability so great that the person cannot perform any useful function. I was part of a working-class family and a working-class neighborhood during the Vietnam years, and I see the same pattern today I saw then: those in lower socioeconomic groups paying a disproportionately higher price.

Are there things worth dying for? Are there things worth killing for? I am not an absolute pacifist; I think there are. But I’m not easy in my mind about anyone making the decision for another about what those things are—and especially with leaders making that decision for their people, particularly for the ones who will have to do the killing and the dying.

Are there things worth dying for? Are there things worth killing for? Those two are so intertwined. Chicken and egg? But I think it starts with killing. War always starts with someone deciding that something is worth killing for.  Yet no one ever calls someone a hero for saying, “I will kill for my country”; “I will kill for the cause.” Heroes say, “I will die for my country”; I will die for my cause.” But war isn’t about dying, it’s about killing.

Maybe if we were more honest about that, there would be a bit less of it. Maybe.

“I am tired and sick of War. Its Glory is all moonshine. It is only those who
have never fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded
who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is Hell!”
— William T. Sherman

Prepositions: Are They Necessary?

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This weekend, in one of our marathon discussions of life, the universe, and everything, my spouse and I came around to: Prepositions–Are They Necessary?
It started with his bringing up the expression “down to” being used where he would expect “down at”: she works down to the hardware store. He had thought it a U.S. Midwesterism, though I think of it as U.S. Southern, but he ran across it in a British work.
We then went to the observation that prepositions seem to be the most idiomatic words, not just in English but in many languages. When I edit work by authors whose first language is other than English, even those whose other usage is impeccable stumble on prepositions; this holds true, in my experience, for native speakers of European, Asian, and African languages..
For example, the Spanish word de can be translated into English as of, by, with, at, about, out, and probably others I have forgotten. The English word from can be translated into Spanish as de, desde, various phrases, and probably others I have forgotten. Spouse says the same is true regarding French.
From there, we went on to whether prepositions really serve any purpose. In spoken language (at least for people who have sight), in many cases they don’t, we decided, because the meaning is obvious from the visual. If my cat is ON the table, and I say, “Get the table!” to her, the meaning is obvious to a bystander (and to one of our cats, but not the other, but for the latter, a preposition doesn’t help). Even if the person can’t see the visual, if I say, “Cat, get the table!” the meaning is reasonably obvious.
In written language, however, usually a preposition is needed. “Get the table” could mean get off the table, get on the table, get [gather] around the table, get behind the table, and myriad others. With no preposition, it is more likely to be understood as “Go get the table” or maybe in slang, “Wow, dig that crazy table.”
Well, that’s the kind of conversation we have.

The right to die


Upfront: I do not want to have a religion-based discussion. That is another topic for elsewhere. And I will delete any incivility.

I understand, I think, the concerns of people who have disabilities or have loved ones who do, regarding the “right to die” (in whatever guise). But I always come back to this: who has more right to say whether a life is worth living than the person living that life ?

Unfortunately, the only metaphor I have come up with to make this point is able-ist, but because it is based on a well-known saying, I am going to use it here: we may try to walk in another’s shoes, but we can never walk with another’s feet. We can never truly know another’s pain (or lack of it); we can only know what ours is in the same situation (or even more remotely, what we think ours would be in the same situation).

Yes, societal forces can pressure people in making the decision to die. But if the problem is societal forces that pressure a person to die who might otherwise not choose to, is the answer to build societal forces that pressure the person NOT to die, even if it is what the person wants?

Yes, acknowledging a right to die can lead to a slippery slope by which people with disabilities are pressured to die. But does taking away the right to die from those who want to exercise it increase the rights of people who would choose to die because of societal forces rather than personal choice?

Yes, one can view acknowledgment of the right of disabled people to kill themselves as telling others that death is better than disability. But that view is wrong. One person’s choice, even many people’s choices, does not equal universal truth. An individual’s choice is exactly that: one person’s choice, as the person lives an individual life in an individual body.

I don’t understand how anyone can be pro-choice regarding abortion and anti-choice regarding the right to die. For that matter, I don’t understand how anyone can be anti-slavery and also anti-right-to-die. All are about ultimate bodily autonomy.

In a real sense, if society controls my death, it also controls my life.

Roe v. Wade

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Today is the 43rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. I have a lot of mixed feelings on the subject of abortion, but I am pro-choice in the sense that I do not want to see abortion be illegal. Among my fairly close relatives, there are women who have had an abortion; women who have placed a child for adoption–in pretty much every permutation: closed adoption but reunited with the child later, closed adoption but never (to date) reunited with the child, somewhat open adoption, completely open adoption; women who have raised their child alone. We also have family members who are adopted (not just my kids).

I have an abortion story, but it is not mine. However, I have told it once before, to a limited audience, and I think it’s time to tell it again.

She was 15 years old. She lived in a small Midwestern town, in a Catholic family, in the days before Roe v. Wade. The only sex education she ever had was what she saw on the farm. When she had her first period, a couple or three years before, she had no idea what it was and thought she was dying; when she turned to an older girl for help, she learned what it meant and how to take care of it.

When the cute older guy at school asked her out, she was flattered. When he said, “This is what people do on dates,” she went along. When she didn’t get her next period, she was terrified.

She couldn’t tell her parents. The boy never spoke to her after that first date. She had nowhere to go.

I don’t know who told her about someone in town who took care of this problem for unmarried women (and, I’m sure, for some married women whose health or finances couldn’t withstand another child). She didn’t tell anyone about her problem, but that name undoubtedly was whispered among the girls and young women of the town, as such names were in small towns and big cities throughout the country. Fortunately, this name belonged to a real doctor. And so she had a safe, but highly illegal, abortion.

Later she married and had children. She always felt guilt, but she never felt regret, for the abortion. “What else could I have done? What would have become of me?” Certainly she would not have married the man she did, and therefore she would not have had the children she had.

She never, in her whole life, told anyone this story–except me. She’s gone now. Everyone who knew her then is gone. I’m not sure there is no one who will judge her, if they read this story. But [before the one time I shared it] I kept this confidence for nearly forty years, and it’s time the story was told.

She was my mother.


What I really want is changes in society so that–just for starters (not in order of priority): (1) no woman or girl (because I don’t care if she can physically get pregnant, most 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds are still “girls,” and some who are older as well) is stigmatized because she is pregnant; (2) families are more fluid, so that open adoption is common; (3) resources are available for a woman or girl to raise a child on her own, and to continue her education if she chooses; (4) birth control is easily available, and its use is the norm among sexually active people; (5) people with disabilities are fully accepted members of society, and families with a child with a disability get the help and support they need. Those changes would go a long way in reducing the number of abortions.


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I’ve been trying to think of a way to say this that doesn’t sound smug and doesn’t offend people who aren’t as fortunate. I don’t know if I have succeeded, but here it is:

I am grateful beyond description to the universe, to fate, to any power that might have had a hand in it, for giving me the family I have today.

My family of origin was not a happy one, for reasons that need not be repeated here, but when I hear of the circumstances of some others’ growing-up years, my family looks–especially for its time and place–not so bad at all. As my father, then my brother Dennis, then my mother passed, I was on good terms with all of them, and I miss all of them. And despite our having some political differences (though we have far more core values in common), I have a close relationship with, and much admiration and respect for, my brother Steve and his daughter. I have solid contact with my great-niece and her adoptive sisters, with one nephew’s family, with another nephew.

Jonathan and I see his sister and brother-in-law far too seldom, but we are all compatible and (to the extent I can speak for the others) enjoy each other’s company. My mother-in-law and I are of very different personalities, but we like and respect each other; I felt honored when she once asked me to be the one to accompany her on a short road trip.

In parenting, we seem to have avoided repeating our parents’ mistakes (though we have undoubtedly made our own new and different ones). I am so happy to see that many of my extended family have also done so; some cycles have been broken.

There is no one in his or my extended family that we would not be glad to have a visit with. He has few cousins and I have many, but we would enjoy time with any of them. Sure, there are some we have more in common with (and a few we definitely can’t talk politics with!), but none we don’t want to have contact with. Our kids have friendships with their own cousins and some second cousins.

And closest to home, we have great relationships with our kids, and they with each other.

How did I/we get so lucky? Yes, we try to do our best, and if I may say so, we are good people. But that’s true of many.

I am the most fortunate of humans, and I want to remember that every day.

“Agitated with pain”

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In conversation with my spouse this weekend, I came up with the word for what I have been feeling.

Distraught: “agitated with doubt or mental conflict or pain” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary).

Mainly the pain part.

Nearly fifty years ago, when I was wearing my Another Mother for Peace medallion to work every day, writing my antiwar letters to periodicals, and sending cheerful chatty letters and care packages to the guys I knew who were in Vietnam, I thought that Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon were the worst mainstream presidential candidates I would ever see. Now I can only wish that the Republicans would once again give us someone as decent and intelligent.

In my worst nightmares or my wildest imaginings, I did not foresee, could not have foreseen, that nearly half a century later a mainstream presidential candidate–the frontrunner!–would feel free to publicly make racist remarks about Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, that he would speak favorably of identity badges for members of a religious group and of torture as a tool. That a physician candidate, a highly educated surgeon, would spout anti-scientific nonsense. That a candidate who is the son of an immigrant who fled a repressive regime would oppose allowing in refugees fleeing oppression and war.

How have we come to this? My younger self, who thought my generation (at least parts of it) would lead us to a better world for everyone, who thought that by the time I was almost 70 the U.S. would be living up to the best ideals of every generation from the founders forward, simply could not have believed that we would come to this. I could not have accepted that we would have learned nothing, nothing, from history.

I remember that somewhere in the intervening years, a friend, in speaking of Nazi Germany, challenged me: “You think it can’t happen here.”

“No,” I said. “Not it can’t, but it won’t. We have seen, we have learned.”

And so I am distraught.

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