Friday, December 30, 2016

On Death and Dying

It feels like the Grim Reaper has been working overtime in 2016. It seems like every day there is an announcement of the death of some famous person.

Many are feeling like we are in a foot-race with Death – who will be next? – If only we can make it to January 1st, we’ll be safe.

You’ve probably already heard about the GoFundMe account set up to protect “America’s Favorite Grandma”.

No, not Steven Tyler. I’m talking about Betty White.

She’s 94, after all.

But the Captain wants to know, is this year’s celebrity death toll any higher than usual?

To get to that answer, the first question we must ask is, where does one draw the line? Who is a “celebrity” worthy of being on the list? Worthy of being lamented on Facebook?

For example, Victor Gavrikov died in 2016. He was only 58. He was the Lithuanian-Swiss cheese Grandmaster.

But I didn’t hear about his passing on Facebook.

Curious. Don’t you people like cheese?

So let’s briefly look at some of the celebrities who passed in 2016.

-Boxer Muhammad Ali. We remember him like this:

But his last bout was December 11, 1981 - 35 years ago! - which he lost to Canadian Trevor Berbick. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984 (most likely related to being struck in the head too many times), and has been in questionable health in recent years. He died this year at age 74.

-Actress Carrie Fisher is best known for her iconic role in Star Wars (a role she often regretted later in life), which opened in theaters in 1977 - almost 40 years ago!

Sure, she did other stuff after that (including a couple sequels), but that’s the role most people remember. Fisher died following a heart attack, on December 27th. She was 60.

-Actor Gene Wilder is best remembered for his role in “Willy Wonka” in 1971 and “Blazing Saddles” in 1974.

He, too, did other stuff, but that’s what most people remember him for. He died at the age 83.

Hmmm. The Captain is seeing a pattern.

These folks were old!

Nonetheless, some people deemed a lot of the 2016 deceased as “untimely deaths”. Let’s test that.
     -Actress Debbie Reynolds (mother of Carrie Fisher) was 84.
     -Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was 79 and working in a high-stress occupation for the past 30 years.
     -Golfer Arnold Palmer was 87, as was concentration camp survivor Eli Wiesel. Actor Fyvush Finkel was 93; actor Abe Vigoda (I loved him in “Barney Miller”!) was 94; astronaut/senator John Glenn was 95; and socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor was almost 100!

Do you see what the Captain is getting at here? Not to be cruel, but how long did you really think these people would live?

Okay, singer David Bowie was only 69, but death at that age is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Now, one could argue that singer George Michael’s death was untimely. After all, he was born the same year as your Captain… which makes him incredibly young!

Such a tragedy!

And singer Prince’s accidental drug overdose at 57 was unexpected, perhaps even “untimely”.

Captain’s Note: As a reminder that life is not fair, Keith Richards’ sorely-abused body miraculously continues to function at age 73, as does Mick Jagger’s (also 73), who just two weeks ago became a father again for the eighth time!

The youngsters on the Wikipedia list of notables (of which there were only a few) include actor Anton Yelchin, who died in a freak accident at age 27, and Brazilian soccer star Celber Santana, 35, who died in a plane crash in November.

And then there was Amber Rayne, a porn star who died of a drug overdose at 32.

Betcha didn’t hear about that one on Facebook!

A quick glance at Wikipedia (I know, it’s not scientific) would suggest that ever year hundreds of notable people around the world meet their Maker. For a select few, infotainment/news shows and social media magnify their accomplishments as well as their passing, also magnifying the grief that ordinary people – for no known reason – come to feel about these deaths.

Did you ever stop to think about it? Why does the death of actress Patty Duke (69) bother us so? Frankly, the Captain did not know Patty Duke personally; we never met. So why should her passing be any more relevant to me than that of Donald Henderson (87), an epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox?

While I’ve seen Patty Duke on television – in re-runs – I don’t “know” her. And the same can be said for all the others on this year’s list.

Nonetheless, my newsfeed on Sunday was an uncomfortable imbalance of Christmas wishes and news of the death of singer George Michael. Tuesday’s newsfeed was blasted with heartfelt laments for Carrie Fisher. Last night it was all about Debbie Reynolds.

Few noticed that Richard Adams, Rick Parfitt, Liz Smith, Vera Rubin, Ashot Anastasian, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Gregorio Conrado Alvarez, and Michel Deon have also died since Christmas Eve.
Look them up yourself if you don’t know those names.

The Captain had to.

Here’s what the Captain thinks is really going on.

Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers thought we would live forever.

No. Seriously. Look at all the home exercise equipment and gym memberships that promised us health. Look at all the health food stores with their organically-grown food that promised us longevity of life. Look at all the miracle drugs that promised us… longevity.


So the death of those who have become cherished household names to us over the past 50 years simply remind us that life is fragile. There is no guarantee.

And that scares us. As our childhood idols slip away one by one, we come to realize that we, too, will one day die.

And we grieve.

…for make-believe characters and the people who portrayed them, none of whom we ever knew.

And for ourselves.

In writing this, the Captain does not seek to diminish the accomplishments of any of the people mentioned. Nor do I want to diminish the fact that each of these persons was somebody’s child, perhaps somebody’s sibling, perhaps even somebody’s parent.

And somebody should grieve.

Just not necessarily me.

But while we’re talking about deaths in 2016, let’s not forget that 3,954 people have been killed in the Syrian War during the month of November alone, of which more than 1,200 were civilians.

Didn’t see that on Facebook either, did you?

Unfortunately, we will never know their names. Or their occupations. Their faces will not grace the cover of PEOPLE magazine or be hailed on Zoey Deschanel’s Facebook page.

But each of them was also somebody’s child, perhaps somebody’s sibling, perhaps even somebody’s parent.

And somebody should grieve for them too.

Will you?

The Captain’s wish, in these waning days of 2016, is that we will cherish and celebrate all life, and we will work diligently to bring to an end the senseless deaths that occur daily around the world.

All of them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A New Year

“So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun…”
-John Lennon & Yoko Ono (1971)

“What have you done?”

That’s a really good question. It seems like 2016 began just a few days ago.

No, no. They say time moves faster as you grow older…

Wait… Shut up.

Actually, “What have you done?” is a question usually asked by my District Superintendent at Charge Conference time.

But in more recent years, most of the traditional Charge Conference reports have been trashed (because no one ever looked at them anyway) and what happens now at Charge Conference resembles nothing like the annual accountability meeting it was originally intended to be.

But I digress…

The question remains: what have I done in 2016?

-I preached 150 times.
-I presided at 3 funerals and two weddings.
-I sat by the hospital bed of countless church members, and even a couple family members too.
-I listened with compassion as more than 200 members of our community came to me seeking help with overdue utility bills; and most of them were helped. (This is made possible by the cooperative work of several churches in the community.)
-I guested on a weekly Christian radio program 8 or 10 times.
-I supported the local chapter of Special Olympics, and donated both time and money to several other worthy causes as well.  
-I managed to get in three weeks of vacation – two to Southern California and one to Pensacola Beach, FL.
-I watched as Kerri Walsh Kennings and April Ross brought home a bronze medal in beach volleyball from the Summer Olympics.
-The First Mate and I got to see the newly-declared Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan live in concert.
-I bought a new (to me) car.
-The First Mate and I lost our two feline companions of 12 years, but we have adopted two kittens to fill the quiet spaces, and to shred the furniture and drapes.
-Somehow we elected Donald Trump to be the next President of the United States – a reality that is still difficult to accept and understand.
-Throughout the year we mourned the death of dozens of actors and musicians we thought would live forever.
-And we managed to empty countless bottles of Southern Comfort, rum, tequila, vodka & gin, as well as enough wine to make us honorary citizens of Napa Valley, CA.

But John and Yoko’s question goes beyond just an accounting of work and pleasure and the destruction of the Captain's liver.

Here’s the back story to their song.

As most people know, John Lennon and Yoko Ono worked for two decades opposing the Vietnam war. In 1969, the couple even purchased billboard advertisements in major cities around the world, declaring, “War is over! If you want it!”

Two years later, they used this poignant phrase for the now-popular Christmastime song, “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)”.

Not surprising, you don’t hear many war protest songs around Christmas. Lennon admitted he wrote it as a Christmas song because he was sick of hearing “White Christmas”.

When paired with “War is over! If you want it”, the question “What have you done?” becomes more specific.

Do you want to end war? Then what have you done?

Sadly, in 2016 the once-outspoken Captain did very little in that regard.

But since November, our President-elect has cozied up to President Putin of Russia, has pissed off China, and has re-ignited the fuse on the nuclear arms race, insisting that more nuclear weapons will help “Make America Great Again”.

World leaders are rightly anxious about what this new President will do.

After decades of world leaders working to reduce the world’s nuclear stockpiles, Mr. Trump has re-opened Pandora’s Box.

Even before being officially sworn into office!

In fact, last week a fake news organization published a story in which Israel’s former Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, threatened that Israel would “destroy” Pakistan with nuclear weapons if that country sent troops into Syria. The real prime minister of Pakistan, Khawaja Asif, believing the fake news story to be real, reminded Israel that “Pakistan is a nuclear state too”. 

Yes, that was a very real threat!

Caused by a fake news story.

So here’s to 2017!

A year shaping up to have great potential for working toward peace, in a world that the Captain fears is quickly becoming unraveled.

I want it!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Cheer

Merry Christmas! 

from the Captain & Crew
Banana Winds!