Newsletter – August 2015












“I wonder where I am,” said Milo in a very worried tone.”You’re . . . in . . . the . . . Dol . . . drums,” wailed a voice that sounded far away. He looked around quickly to see who had spoken. No one was there, and it was as quiet and still as one could imagine.”Yes . . . the . . . Dol . . . drums,” yawned another voice, but still he saw no one.”WHAT ARE THE DOLDRUMS?” he cried loudly, and tried very hard to see who would answer this time.”The Doldrums, my young friend, are where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.”



August Greetings, Dear Friends…

I hope many of you had the pleasure of encountering Norton Juster’s The Phantom Toll Booth and are sharing it with your children and grandchildren, too. But, for old FW, new meaning has emerged in these elder years, meaning that I did not, and could not, guess at earlier.

“WHAT ARE THE DOLDRUMS?” he cried loudly, and tried very hard to see who would answer this time.”The Doldrums, my young friend, are where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.”

How awful! Who could ever stay, much less abide, in such a dismal and motionless place? Certainly not me – at least for my first 70+ years!

But now I  seek and delight in the unchanging, in the unhappening. The earlier me could never have understood nor approved choosing such a life. What’s happened?

It’s too early for me to be sure on my own, but fortunately I’ve had mentors along the way who kept patiently preparing me for this even though I was unable and unwilling to hear then. It was not that this possibility was not presented, just that I was not able to entertain it. And messages like “The Doldrums’ and ‘Is this all there is?” and ‘Use it or lose it’ all kept reinforcing that ‘doing’ and ‘having’ – not ‘being’ – were the be-all and end-all of life in any worthwhile form.

This was my attitude when I brought my dad to live with us in 1984. He was 81 then, four years older than I am now. I wanted him to be engaged in things; I thought he needed to be ‘doing’. So I planted roses for him to tend and walked him to the local book store to get the detective novels he like to read. I wanted him to engage with the family on my terms, not his. How mistaken I was! If any of my children were doing that to me now, we’d set things straight quickly.

But our family is very open and articulate (think ‘Moonstruck’) so communication and conflict are natural to us; we are not shy about telling each other when to back off. The family I grew up was conflict-avoidance central. If my mom’s or dad’s tone became the slightest bit strained at our formal sit-down dinners, my sister and I would put our heads down in our plates and hide. So we never had straight conflict about anything, even mom’s tuna cassaarole (so we had it week after week), and it wasn’t until I was 25 that it occurred to me you could say that the overcooked chicken was ‘too dry’ and nobody would die (thank you Donny L and Family!).

I wish I’d been as ready to find out what my dad wanted as I was to judge it. And I’m thankful our family now is direct. On a tee-shirt they made for me, it says: “Open to socialize 6-8 PM.” And that has become totally accurate for me at 77. My perfect day is solitude – writing, reading and make the house nice to come home to – then wine, fire, dinner and chat from 6-9, wash the dishes, shut up the house and go to bed.

So why these Musings, FW?

Mainly to apologize to and honor my dad; I did not treat him nearly as well as my kids are treating me. And I think a way to honor him is to share my arrogance and ignorance with you and yours…

It’s also to offer a bit of a vision as we move through Third Age – and that is…

When we’re not trying to be some place else,

‘The Doldrums’ are also ‘The Oneness’…

This month’s readings are a bit of a mix; what they have in common is I felt my heart when I read them. These are quotes from them…

      “White privilege is really permission to be ordinary.”

      “…experts debate whether moral injury is a condition unto itself or a subset of post-traumatic stress disorder…”

      “Eventually, all that one has learnt will have to be forgotten.”

Love, FW




FW NOTE:  This is another lesson in maturity and humility for me. Not long ago I could have missed the deeper levels in my psyche that Jared Steele illuminates so accurately in his response to the anonymous customer’s letter…

STL Bkshop 1
Left Bank Books, an independent bookstore in St. Louis, recently replaced its storefront display of novels and memoirs with parallel banks of “Black Lives Matter” signs.

The display, created to honor the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, made co-owner Jarek Steele nervous — nervous about the protests shaking St. Louis, nervous about losing customers, nervous about not giving the great books they sell the prominent attention they need and deserve.

Well, it turns out one of his fears was realized, for the display inspired a customer to anonymously write and object to the bookstore “stoking flames of enmity” before declaring the end of his or her patronage.

Here is the letter in full:

STL Bkshop 2

My heart aches –

Your signs in the window stoking flames of enmity between races. We are to promote peace – how can you do the opposite?

Love your store but will never ever buy another book there. I will tell those I know as well.

Amazon is my new book store. Why are you so insistent on promoting division? Why?

C.W.E. Resident

Upon receiving this letter, and unable to write a personal response given its anonymity, Steele decided to post an open response on his blog. It is honest, piercing and worth reading in full. Here it is, in part, with original emphases maintained:

I’m a 42 year-old white transgender man. My family’s white. Most of my friends are white. I married two white people and gave birth to a white son. I come from a long line of white people, most of whom had white kids, white friends, white spouses and lived in the middle of America in and around a small town whose largest structure is a metal cross erected along one of the two interstates that bisect it.

Race wasn’t much of a topic of discussion in my life, in that town, in that family – mostly because there were so many white people around us, and it would be easy (and comfortable) if we used that lack of awareness of racial politics to say we weren’t racist. After all, I didn’t beat anyone up because of their race. My dad didn’t forbid me or my sisters from dating Black people. We all went to church and promised to love one another as God loved us. We were kind to our neighbors (most of the time) and worked hard. Worked all the time. Worked and wondered if it would be enough. Worked even though we knew it probably wasn’t enough. We didn’t set out to hurt anyone.

We’re nice people, and when you’re a nice person, it surprises and hurts when you think you’ve walked a good path and then you’re confronted with evidence that you’ve injured someone. You feel that your character has been attacked, and when you feel attacked, the natural thing to do is defend yourself. You point to all of the evidence that you are a good person. A peaceful person.

You use your arguments to defeat this attack.

You have black friends, black family members, black co-workers, black heroes. You don’t need to be told about racism or white privilege. In fact, you might think this whole movement just stirs the pot and creates more trouble than it solves. It makes people angry and falls on deaf ears. Why, you may ask, do we insist upon bringing it up time and again?

Here’s why.

– Because even though I can point to the exact moment I heard my mother use the word bitch for the first time, I don’t actually remember the first time I heard the word nigger. I don’t remember not knowing what it meant and who it was meant for.

– Because that word was (and still is in some places) commonly used as a prefix for words when the action or status was incompetent, unreliable or sinister – __rig, __knock, __rich __lover.

– Because the lone Black kid in third grade only lasted a year before his family moved away.

– Because I can sing the theme songs to Family Ties, the Brady Bunch, the Andy Griffith Show, MASH, the Facts of Life, Friends, Little House on the Prairie, The Lone Ranger and probably hundreds more tv shows beloved to me that featured white families, white friends, white struggles and the occasional black character, but I have to struggle to remember the handful of tv shows featuring people of color.

– Because when a group of black women attended our church for one reason or another when I was a kid, the occasion was so momentous that a photo of them sitting on our couch in our trailer still lives in the family photo album 35 years later.

– Because I had a very real, very enlightening conversation with my brown skinned son as recently as this week about his hurt feelings on account of close (white) family members remarking on his (black) friends and (public) school.

– Because after about 20 years of actively trying to unlearn all of the above, I still make mental corrections, and know that those white people who grew up around me, raised me, were raised by me and wandered in and out of my life do it too even if (especially if?) they are making an effort to be white allies.

My white family, my white friends, white son, white ex lovers are all, each and every one, lovable.

Yes, we’ve loved each other. Yes, we’re good friends. We’re compassionate, funny, smart, daring, hard-working and loyal. And we did all of that in a country where we get credit for being all of those things and doing all of those things and know that those things make our lives valuable. We are privileged to be able to apply for a job, go to college, drive, shop, run through the park, own a firearm, barbecue, apply for a driver’s license, throw a party, swim and be angry in public without representing all white people when we do it. We don’t have to be the BEST athlete, the RICHEST musician, the MOST POWERFUL leader in the free world, the SMARTEST student in the class to justify our place in sports, music, politics and school.

We live ordinary lives and occasionally some of us do extraordinary things, and our lives matter and our right to our dignity is hard coded into our social pact. The pedigree of all of those things is present and unspoken.

As my partner, Kris said – White privilege is really permission to be ordinary.

These are privileges might’ve refused if we had been asked, privileges we don’t feel like we have, resent having, or resent having to defend ourselves because of. But those privileges are still ours. We’re stuck with them.

What I wish I could convey – white person to white person – is that Black Lives Matter does not mean White People are Bad. It never did. Saying someone matters does not mean that nobody else matters. It just says to someone who feels invisible, “I see you and I value you.”


This is a truly remarkable response, and Steele’s final point is one that needs to be reinforced. When black Americans and their allies chant “Black Lives Matter,” there is always an implicit “too” attached. It is a statement that is necessary to be made not because other lives do not matter, but because institutional racism in this country and their deadly effects show that black lives do not matter enough.

It’s a message which needs to be repeated until black lives indeed do matter in America … just as much as white lives do.

David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, recently published by Oneworld Publications.




FW: I found the premise for this debate painfully absurd. How can someone even conceive that ‘moral injuries’ are ‘a subset of post-traumatic stress disorder’ – that moral (or spiritual) traumas are not as significant as physical wounds? What would civilization be like if we believed such as this?
Moral Wound 1
                                                              AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

A psychological wound known as moral injury is gaining attention in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with veterans now being treated for these injuries to the soul – even as medical experts debate whether moral injury is a condition unto itself or a subset of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some questions and answers about moral injury, and how it compares with and differs from PTSD:


Moral injury is when veterans feel extreme guilt and shame from something they did or witnessed in conflict that goes against their values, or may even be a crime. The term was introduced in the 1990s by a now-retired Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Shay, who diagnosed the problem in Vietnam veterans he was treating. Shay has identified two kinds of moral injury: service members blame themselves for something that violated their own moral code, or someone of trust did something that went against a service member’s beliefs.


The symptoms and ensuing behaviors often mirror those of PTSD. Sufferers may experience suicidal thoughts, withdrawal, hypervigilance, agitation and nightmares. Often they are demoralized and behave in a self-destructive way, such as binge drinking, doing drugs and destroying relationships.


Those who study moral injury, including Shay and military trauma expert and clinical psychologist Brett Litz, say that PTSD is fear-based, stemming from a life-threatening event, while moral injury is rooted in feelings of shame and guilt. With PTSD, loud noises or chaotic crowds may trigger a flashback. With moral injury, veterans engage in self-torment, punishing themselves with constant self-recrimination.


While the idea of warriors feeling remorse over battlefield horrors is not new, moral injury has gained more attention in recent years. Some mental health specialists point to it as a reason why veterans aren’t improving with PTSD treatments. The VA website includes a page dedicated to moral injury, and the Navy now runs one of the military’s first residential treatment programs that addresses the problem.


No. The mental health community has not developed an official diagnosis for moral injury. As a result, there is no set of clinical practice guidelines specifically for the condition. However, mental health providers often address moral injury when treating PTSD. Some believe moral injury is a subset of PTSD. Others say it is a separate mental injury that should be clinically defined.


Because there is no clinical diagnosis for moral injury, the military and VA do not track moral injury cases specifically. Most service members who are being treated for moral injury have been diagnosed with PTSD. More than 390,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have sought help through the VA for PTSD.


The treatment differs from that for post-traumatic stress. PTSD sufferers can find relief with prescription drugs and private counseling that encourages reliving the triggering incident to work through fear. That’s not the right approach for moral injury, the experts say. Treatment for moral injury focuses on acceptance and forgiveness. One aspect of it is “adaptive disclosure therapy” – which involves asking patients to reveal their triggering incident to other veterans also seeking to recover.


The Navy offers a two-month residential treatment program for active-duty service members who have not found success with treatment for PTSD. Called Overcoming Adversity and Stress Injury Support, or OASIS, patients stay at a Navy facility in San Diego, where they participate in group therapy, learn coping skills and may partake in yoga, meditation, volunteer work. The therapy includes writing down and sharing with others what triggered the trauma, writing a letter of apology or reconciliation and crafting a letter to a benevolent figure. Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, runs the Soul Repair Center, which is researching methods to assist chaplains and other religious leaders in how to address moral injury.

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.




FW: While I believe ‘moral injuries’ are experienced in endless contexts, Sgt. Powell’s personal story makes the reality of the wound palpable far beyond the physical…

Moral Wound 2AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

SAN DIEGO (AP) — “It was just another day in Mosul,” the soldier began, his voice shaking. Sgt. 1st Class Marshall Powell took a deep breath. He couldn’t look at the other three servicemen seated around him in the therapy session.

He’d rarely spoken about his secret, the story of the little girl who wound up in his hospital during the war in Iraq, where he served as an Army nurse. Her chest had been blown apart, and her brown eyes implored him for help. Whenever he’d thought of her since, “I killed the girl” echoed in his head.

Powell kept his eyes glued to the pages he’d written and tried to steady his nerves. He cleared his throat.

He recalled the chaos after a bombing that August day in 2007, the vehicles roaring up with Iraqi civilians covered in blood, the hospital hallways overflowing with wounded and dead. The air had smelled of burned flesh. Around midnight, Powell took charge of the area housing those with little chance of survival. There, amid the mangled bodies, he saw her.

She was tiny, maybe 6 years old, lying on a blanket on the floor. Her angelic face reminded him of his niece back home in Oklahoma.

Back in the therapy room, saying it all out loud, Powell’s eyes began to fill just at the memory of her. “I couldn’t let her lay there and suffer,” he said.

A doctor had filled a syringe with painkillers. Powell pushed dose after dose into the child’s IV.

“She smiled at me,” he told the others in the room, “and I smiled back. Then she took her last gasp of air.”

Before the war, Sgt. Powell’s very core was built on God and faith and saving lives, not doing anything that could end one. He lost his purpose when the girl died, and he found himself in a nondescript room on a naval base in San Diego trying desperately to save his own crumbling existence before it was too late.

Surrounding him that day were other veterans who had suffered as he suffered: An Army staff sergeant who stood frozen in shock, unable to offer aid to a soldier whose legs were severed in an explosion in Afghanistan. A Marine whose junior comrade was fatally shot after he’d convinced him to switch posts in Iraq. A Navy man who beat an Iraqi citizen in anger after a boy who appeared to be the man’s son opened fire on his squad.

Like Powell, they’d spent years torturing themselves over acts that tortured their conscience. “Souls in anguish” is how some experts describe this psychological scar of war now being identified as “moral injury.”

Unlike post-traumatic stress disorder, which is based on fear from feeling one’s life threatened, moral injury produces extreme guilt and shame from something done or witnessed that goes against one’s values or may even be a crime. The term was introduced in the 1990s by a now-retired Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Shay, who recognized the problem in Vietnam veterans he was treating.

While the idea of warriors feeling remorse over battlefield horrors is not new, moral injury has gained more attention following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as mental health providers point to it as a reason why veterans aren’t improving with PTSD treatments. More than 390,000 veterans of those conflicts have sought help through the VA for PTSD.

The VA website includes a page dedicated to moral injury, and the Navy now runs one of the military’s first residential treatment programs that addresses the problem – the one that Powell found.

Still, debate persists over whether moral injury is a part of PTSD or its own separate condition. There is no formal diagnosis for it by medical professionals, and no one knows how many veterans may suffer from it.

Research into moral injury “is a work in progress,” said Dr. Matthew Friedman, a senior adviser to the VA’s National Center for PTSD.

Some contend the military is reluctant to more formally recognize the concept because doing so could mean sweeping changes in training and culture.

“Disobeying legal orders perceived to be immoral could be permitted in some circumstances. Dehumanizing our nation’s enemies could be discouraged,” said Army Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, a military intelligence officer who writes about moral injury to raise awareness. Pryer himself suffers from the condition, feeling he did not do enough to protect soldiers injured by a blast in Iraq.

Shay and other psychiatrists who have treated moral injury believe it has contributed to the suicide rate among veterans, who account for 1 out of every 5 suicides in the United States. And they see danger in ignoring it because its treatment is distinct.

PTSD sufferers can find relief with prescription drugs and private counseling that encourages reliving the triggering incident to work through fear. But if the person considers what happened to be morally wrong, reliving it may only reaffirm that belief.

Counselors have found the self-punishment stops when veterans learn the deed does not define who they are. Veterans, the experts said, find comfort in sharing with each other, because only those who’ve experienced war can truly understand the complexity of morality on the battlefield.

“A psychiatrist may say they understand, but they don’t really,” said Elvin Carey of Murrieta, California, whose fellow Marine died after the two switched places. “We’re comrades with a mutual suffering, a brotherhood. The pain brings everyone together and creates a bond that no one can break.”

Sgt. Powell is a friendly man with a warm smile who finds peace working the land on his family’s farm outside Crescent, Oklahoma. He said he wanted to share his story because he hoped it might prompt other veterans to seek help before it’s too late.

And while he had always blamed himself for the girl’s death, three toxicology experts interviewed by The Associated Press said the amount of Demerol and morphine that he administered to the girl – 20 milligrams altogether – is not unheard of in caring for dying children. Her injuries, not the drugs, likely caused her death, they said.

By the time he arrived in San Diego in February 2014, Powell was on therapist No. 5 and contemplating suicide. His wife, also a soldier who served in Iraq, had received treatment for PTSD and couldn’t understand why her husband wasn’t better. Neither had heard of moral injury. Powell, then 56, knew only that the beliefs that had shaped his life were shattered.

He was raised on the idea that God has a reason for everything. It was the mantra his family drew strength from in the face of poverty and racism in rural Crescent. The old slave songs sung at the clapboard Zion Baptist church spoke of it, too.

“When a man’s down, if he stays down, he done lay down,” Powell’s older brother, Bob, said once when young Marshall flopped down on the porch, upset over being called a racial slur at school. “You need to get on up from there.”

He learned to pick himself up from even the darkest depths. After Bob died in a car accident, Powell, then in the Air Force, started using drugs, quit the service and wound up sleeping on the streets of Dayton, Ohio. He returned to Crescent and to Sunday services, apologizing to the pastor for having only a dime to drop in the basket. The reverend gave it back, along with $43 in donations, and told him to keep his faith. “God hears you,” said the pastor.

The next day, Powell joined the Army and later signed up for the nurse corps. “I didn’t know I had that much compassion until I got into nursing,” he says.

But the girl was something he couldn’t get back up from. Months after her death at the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Mosul, Powell was sent back stateside to Hawaii. Soon, she was appearing in his dreams – back on the hospital floor, her eyes pleading.

Her death left him questioning God, and himself most of all. Powell started drinking heavily and sought help for PTSD, seeing a therapist weekly for months. He was prescribed pills for insomnia, depression and anxiety. But, he says, “I couldn’t beat it.” After six years, a therapist recommended the program at Naval Medical Center San Diego.

Called Overcoming Adversity and Stress Injury Support, or OASIS, the program started in 2010 with the aim to help service members not finding success with PTSD treatments. Three years later, therapies addressing moral injury were added after clinicians determined it was a leading reason why the troops were still struggling.

During the program, veterans get one-on-one counseling and sleep therapy to deal with their PTSD. But to address the soul wounds specifically, therapists use what’s called “adaptive disclosure therapy” – which involves asking patients to reveal their triggering incident to other veterans also seeking to recover.

Seven other servicemen were part of Powell’s 10-week session. At first, they kept to themselves. Then one afternoon, as part of an exercise to build trust, they had to pass a ruler while balancing a marble on top. Soon they were cracking up.

After that, the therapists stepped back and let the service members mostly lead the conversations. After the second week, the veterans were asked to put in writing what had triggered their moral injuries. It took Powell two weeks just to get it all down.

The men had known each other for a month when they were divided into two groups to share their stories. They vowed not to lie.

When Powell was finished, the men in the room were silent at first. Among them was Carey, who, listening to Powell, felt a real connection to someone for the first time in years. Steven Velez was there, too, flashing back to his time as an Army staff sergeant in Afghanistan, when he was too traumatized to help his comrade. He stood and shook Powell’s hand.

“You did your best,” he said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

The others told Powell the same. Unleashing the secret was a turning point.

In the program’s final weeks, Powell and the other men were told to write a letter of apology or reconciliation as a way to finally find self-forgiveness. Powell addressed his to the little girl’s parents. He’d never met the couple or knew if they survived the bombing, so the letter went nowhere. But it helped to put down the words and read them aloud to his fellow veterans.

“I want you to know,” he wrote, “your daughter has been in my heart each day since that night.”

A year ago April, Powell left OASIS with new tools and hope and friends he could always lean on. He was honorably discharged from the Army last August, an “Army proud” vet with a Bronze Star for serving as the only medical provider at an outpost in Afghanistan. He’d been deployed there in 2012.

After his treatment ended, he tried nursing again, taking a job at a home for the elderly in Crescent. He quit two months later after a woman he’d grown close to died. He realized he no longer had it in him to do the job he once loved. Now, he’s pursuing a degree in industrial engineering.

He also finds ways to give back to his community, which helps him feel better about himself. To give dignity to the dead, he’s been cleaning up a weed-covered cemetery where former slaves, including his great-great-grandmother, are buried.

Powell’s wife, Arasi, says he has stopped drinking and seems different.

“I notice a change,” she said recently as she watched her husband cut brush on the family’s farmland. “I think if he don’t work, his mind is … I don’t know.”

Whenever he can he heads to those fields, in his family since his great-great-grandmother arrived in Oklahoma to start a new life after being freed. Sometimes, he talks to God as he clears the brush around the walnut trees.

“I feel peace, redemption when I talk to him out there,” he says. “I know he forgives me.”

Powell has finally forgiven himself, too, but he knows he’s not entirely healed. When his self-doubt returns, he runs down a list of “challenging questions” he brought home with him from OASIS: Is your belief a habit, or based on facts? Are you taking the situation out of context and only focusing on one aspect of the event? Are your judgments based on feelings rather than facts?

He still takes medication for anxiety, depression and insomnia. But more than anything, he leans on the seven men who went through treatment with him. “My brothers,” he calls them. Their cellphones have become a lifeline, with daily texts and pleas for help that come at all hours.

“At least I’m not alone,” Powell texted one sleepless night.

Often Powell, the father figure of the group as the oldest member, is the one giving the advice. Helping them helps him, because he sees that he can still heal others.

The AP shared with Powell the medical experts’ opinions that the girl’s injuries, not the painkillers, likely caused her death. Said one, Bruce Goldberger, professor of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine: “What he did probably was relieve the pain like they do in hospice care.” His comments were echoed by Dr. Erica Liebelt, professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Dr. Richard Clark, director of the division of medical toxicology at the University of California, San Diego.

Hearing that brought relief for Powell. “It’s something I’ve been carrying on my back for so many years, that guilty feeling,” he says.

The girl still comes to him at times in his dreams. Not long ago, he envisioned her running through a pasture. Powell yelled at her not to leave.

But he can put a distance between who he is now, and what happened then. And when his heart races and the anxiety returns, he stops to remind himself that he’s not a bad person; it was just a bad situation.

“It will never go away,” he says. “Now, I know how to deal with it.”

Follow Julie Watson on Twitter at

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.




FW:  My children and I all grew up with Sesame Street, and I find the reality of its gentrification sad…


Sessame Place 2

Photo by: ( AP/Sesame Workshop/Richard Termine)

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but it’s time to admit that like every other trendy NYC neighborhood that gets spotlighted on a TV show, “Sesame Street” has succumbed to gentrification.

I admit I haven’t been a regular viewer of the program since I hit puberty, having long ago familiarized myself adequately with the alphabet and basic shapes and colors for the sake of my career goals.

But I don’t know what else you can call it when the show will be delivering its new season as an exclusive for HBO, a premium cable channel that makes it notoriously difficult to view its exclusive “prestige” content without a pricey subscription.

Apparently some annoying right-wing prudes at the Parents Television Council provided an easy strawman for HBO apologists by saying the problem with this move is that there’s lots of “offensive” content on HBO–“Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Girls” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” They say that “Sesame Street” has damaged its wholesome brand by associating itself with these programs.

Well, I have no problem with graphic violence and sex and profane bons mots from John Oliver’s filthy, clever little mouth.

I do have a problem with the fact that the fans of “Game of Thrones” and Lena Dunham and John Oliver–affluent hipsters and yuppies like me–are the people whose children are in the least need of “Sesame Street.”

Tom Scocca at Gawker has already pointed out that this move is a betrayal of “Sesame Street”’s mission to provide open access educational materials for all kids, one that takes the viral support of PBS and “Sesame Street” as a democraticizing cultural force from the 2012 election and throwing it back in those supporters’ faces.

But he doesn’t go into detail about just how big of a shift in priorities for “Sesame Street” this is, and how long it’s been coming.

I’m going to play hipster here and say that “Sesame Street” was a very different show back in the old days, “before they got big.” “Sesame Street” was originally not just radical but downright culturally utopian. “Sesame Street”‘s parent organization, formerly known as the Children’s Television Workshop (now the Sesame Workshop), was born of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society culture in the 1960s; the driving force behind the CTW, a woman named Joan Ganz Cooney, came to children’s educational TV after a background in activist documentaries and televised “teach-ins.”

The basis of Ganz Cooney’s famous “little dinner party” where a small group of TV executives and developmental psychologists came up with the idea for “Sesame Street” was a simple formula–poor kids watch more TV than rich kids, thanks to poor kids having busy parents and being more likely to be “raised by TV.” Poor kids get less education than rich kids. Make TV that’s educational–good TV that’s educational, TV that was “addictive” in the way successful shows are rather than the crappy low-budget afterthought TV that most children’s programming was back then–and you might level the socioeconomic playing field.

The idea has its obvious flaws, which were criticized at the time. (Doesn’t all of this just train kids to watch more TV? Doesn’t the constant need to entertain necessarily distort your message? Neil Postman, etc.) But the mission is undeniably noble and shockingly radical even for today.

“Sesame Street” was never “culturally neutral”; “Sesame Street” was, in its original conception, specifically aimed at reaching the American underclass, the urban poor. (Ganz Cooney originally conceived of “Sesame Street” as being set in the Alphabet City area of the East Village, hence the name of the parody “Avenue Q.”)

The original setting revolves around 123 Sesame Street, a brownstone whose smallest apartment is a basement studio (inhabited by unemployed bachelors Ernie and Bert) and whose largest is a cozy, modest two-bedroom inhabited by Gordon and Susan (who are the building’s live-in landlords). The neighborhood kids hang out at a simple playground next to 123 Sesame Street that consists of an asphalt lot with a slide, a jungle gym and a chalked-in hopscotch court.

While it would be a stretch to say that Oscar the Grouch directly represents a homeless guy (as Dave Chappelle postulates), it’s true that the overflowing trash can and pile of discarded lumber Oscar lives in (with a giant bird’s nest in it) evokes a downscale neighborhood. The first episodes of “Sesame Street” contain a delightfully dark, cynical take on the daily frustrations of life as an urban subway rider that would never make it on the show today.

As a somewhat coddled child of the suburbs, watching “Sesame Street” in the 1980s and 1990s meant being plunged into a foreign environment–watching without really understanding why the kids’ playground was so barebones compared to the one at my school, seeing professions like “local grocer” and “taxi driver” and “lunch counter server” that were meaningless to me in my neighborhood of supermarkets, universal car ownership and chain restaurants.

It was a big deal that “Sesame Street”’s human actors were a white-minority cast, and that the show regularly included Spanish lessons as part of its curriculum. It was a big deal that the show recruited real, non-actor kids from the inner city as its child cast–taking a page from Cooney’s earlier “Poverty, Anti-Poverty and the World,” which forced government officials to confront real poor people affected by their policies. (The first child actor wouldn’t be hired until they cast Desiree Casado as Gabi in 1993.) It was a big deal that they did a segment about a white kid visiting his black friend’s home in an “ethnic” neighborhood that frankly addressed feeling culturally out-of-place but overcoming difference–something I didn’t appreciate the significance of at that age.
Sessame Place 1

At its best, “Sesame Street” was a show defiantly for and about the urban poor, demanding that the rapidly growing demographic of middle-class suburban kids who watched it–kids like me–adapt to that culture, rather than adapting itself to us. This message was most explicit in “Sesame Street”’s first feature film, “Follow That Bird,” which is–seriously–about Big Bird being taken off the mean streets by a meddling social worker determined to place him with a nice family in the suburbs.

It was a great vision. I would argue, despite my lack of familiarity with 2000s-era “Sesame Street,” that it’s persisted, even if it’s been diluted by the merchandising and consumerism that have kept “Sesame Street” going all this time. I’m okay with spoiled suburban kids’ parents shelling out ridiculous sums for Tickle Me Elmo dolls if it kept “Sesame Street” free for the rest of the world.

“Sesame Street” held out a long time. It survived the ill-conceived attempt to gentrify the street with the 1993-1999 “Around the Corner” set, adding upscale locations to the street like the Furry Arms luxury hotel and a big new park and playground. It survived the slimy businessman “Ronald Grump” attempting to buy out the property to build a luxury hotel in the 1994 25th anniversary special–a joke that, given this year’s events, seems less funny today.

But now “Sesame Street,” facing a revenue crunch, has given in and welcomed the hipsters in.

Yes, I know, HBO isn’t the bad guy here. The episodes will still be available to poor kids for free, just on a nine-month (!) delay. It was this or watch “Sesame Street” go off the air completely.

But it still stinks, especially because it reflects the degree to which times have changed. “Sesame Street” was able to raise $8 million in funding from donors–in 1969 dollars–back when it first started, fully half of which came from the federal government and its newly created Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A while ago Twitter was passing around a video of Fred Rogers testifying to the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969–his recitation of the lyrics to his “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel” so moved the committee that they immediately approved a grant to PBS for $20 million.

For a while, out of the 1960s came a burning belief that the media and its effect on our children mattered, and that giving children alternatives to exploitative commercial schlock was a worthy use of the public purse.

But by 1999 that money had dried up. “Sesame Street” broke one of its original cardinal rules, to never accept direct corporate funding—the joke behind its “Brought to you by the letter Z” tagline–and started airing commercial messages from Discovery Zone, which Ralph Nader called out as the beginning of the end for the show’s integrity.

“Sesame Street” is still around for now. But the HBO deal means it now exists at the sufferance of affluent families, families nothing like the ones “Sesame Street” portrays–people who are, even if they don’t acknowledge it, slumming it. A good percentage of HBO’s predicted viewership might even be young childless millennial assholes like me who will be watching the show ironically.

And that’s the way all children’s TV seems to be going. Ganz Cooney created “Sesame Street” to end inequality; Jim Henson frankly stated his goal in putting “Fraggle Rock“ on HBO way back in 1983 was to “save the world.” When Fred Rogers testified in defense of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” he testified to starting out with a budget of $6,000 per episode to make his show–a paltry sum even in 1969, as he says, enough to pay for less than two minutes of a typical cartoon–but he felt it was worth it to provide children with an “expression of care.”

Where’s that utopian idealism today? That iron-willed determination to find the money in order to make good TV for kids, rather than to make good TV for kids in order to make money?

I’m not saying today’s shows for kids are bad. A lot of them are excellent. But they’re also generally very clearly entertainment products, made with turning a profit in mind, and aimed at affluent kids who make good consumers. I’m as happy as anyone that LeVar Burton revived “Reading Rainbow,” but it says something that the only way he could make it sustainable was a subscription-based freemium app for iPad and Kindle Fire. (Thankfully, there was a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to bring it to other platforms and waive the subscription fee for underprivileged classrooms.)

Despite what marketers would have you think, not everyone has an iPad or a Kindle. Not everyone has cable TV or HBO. Hell, not even everyone has Internet access.

The vision behind “Sesame Street” was once specifically to reach the kids that couldn’t be reached any other way, kids who had over-the-air TV and not much else–households that still make up about 15 percent of America.

Now, the first thought everyone turns to when trying to fund a kids’ show is to get on a specialized cable network for kids, to Nick Jr. or Sprout or Cartoon Network–or better yet to make a smartphone or tablet app that can be monetized directly. Now it’s pretty much assumed that you’re going to go after the kids whose parents can afford to keep your show going.

Plenty of good work still gets done. Plenty of kids are still helped. But the kids who need help the most generally aren’t. We can’t afford to do it. No one’s willing to make the multimillion-dollar grants to do so, the financial sacrifice to reach out to our nation’s neediest and most vulnerable.

If anything it’s the opposite–the trend has been for the most successful kids’ shows to end up “gentrified,” to be appropriated by hipsterish young adults, and for the grownup fans with the disposable incomes and the social media megaphones to take up all the attention from the show’s original purpose.

Again, not that that’s bad. I cop to being one of those adults–I’m a huge fan of “Steven Universe.” But I don’t need children’s shows to appeal to me. I have plenty of shows that already appeal to me. Every time I see something else tailored to appeal to me and to people like me–educated, well-connected 18-35-year-olds–I wonder what invisible impoverished kid some marketer decided to ignore.

Absent the will to make financial sacrifices to make quality products for the poor, the poor get cheaply made dreck. In 1961 television–the preferred entertainment of the poor–was condemned by FCC chairman Newton N. Minow as a “vast wasteland,” a race to the bottom of violent spectacle, shitty jokes, exploitative manipulation and crass commercialism.

If there’s an Internet equivalent to over-the-air TV, it’s YouTube–the totally-free, watchable-from-anywhere alternative to the Kindle apps and HBO Go walled gardens of the Web. If I had to guess where the kids whom Ganz Cooney wanted to reach in 1969 are hanging out online, it’s randomly browsing YouTube videos, not using the Reading Rainbow app or streaming episodes of “Sesame Street” through the official PBS app.

And no one has bothered to replicate Ganz Cooney’s heroic efforts to establish an oasis in the wasteland. When it comes to free, easily accessible content on the Web, it’s a wasteland so vast and so blighted as to make the quiz shows and Westerns of the 1961 TV listings seem like paradise–an endless torrent of cat videos and porn and screaming racist rants.

I have a couple of friends–who are affluent enough to afford an HBO subscription and iPad apps and all the rest of that jazz–who tell me stories about how their kid’s favorite thing to browse is YouTube streams of people playing video games, and how they’re getting worried because the vast majority of these streams are peppered with profanity and racial slurs that he’s getting old enough to understand.

I’m only 31, but I’m already deeply worried about Kids These Days. I’m worried that nobody my age seems to really give a damn about kids, that the mercilessly efficient logic by which the post-Mr. Rogers media runs leaves kids out of the equation entirely. I’m worried about 14-year-old kids whose formative learning experiences apparently came from deranged bigoted dudes ranting into the camera about feminazis, because that’s a huge portion of YouTube’s content base thanks to being a great way to make click-based revenue.

In “Sesame Street”’s 25th anniversary special, Ronald Grump comes in vowing to bulldoze Sesame Street and build something more profitable in its place, saying that as a hardnosed capitalist he won’t let any question of sappy sentiment stand in his way. The tearful pleas of Sesame Street’s residents leave him stonily unmoved.

Who saves the day? Oscar the Grouch, who is the only one who’s enough of an asshole–enough of a grouch–to openly defy him, to tell him that it doesn’t matter how much financial sense it makes, he can take his plans to “improve” Sesame Street and shove them.

One of the lessons I learned from “Sesame Street” is that ornery grouches have their place in criticism. And when it comes to the ongoing segmentation of our media–our children’s media–into premium content for the affluent and trash for everyone else, I’m very grouchy indeed.




FW:  As I move further through my Third Age, the nature of reality is shifting radically for me. Notions of ‘doing’ and ‘having’ become fuzzier and fainter as their pulls evaporate into mists of simply ‘being’ part of the whole – and I feel what Maharshi is saying…

Realities Master
Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi was arguably one of the most esteemed Indian sages of the 20th Century. Born Venkataraman Iyer in 1879 to a middle-class family in Tiruchuli, Tamil Nadu, South India, he stands as a rarity among enlightened individuals due to his relatively minor interest in spiritual matters prior to his awakening at the age of 16. Undergoing an episode that he would later refer to as “sudden liberation”, Venkataraman suffered an attack of sorts in his uncle’s home during which he became convinced he was going to die. Laying himself down and awaiting death he endured a terrifying “process of self-inquiry” which resulted in the ultimate and permanent loss of the fear of death as well as the dissolution of the ego in a “flood of self-awareness”.

After earnestly attempting to continue with his regular life of school and family matters for six weeks, Venkataraman finally slipped away, unbeknownst to his family members, travelling to the holy mountain of Arunachala, Tiruvannamalai, where he would remain until his death in 1950. After his arrival he is said to have lapsed into a period of prolonged silence, often remaining completely inert for days at a time. No thought to food or water was given and his body would soon become emaciated and develop sores due to non use. If not for the attendance given him by others there — he often had to be shaken by the shoulders in order to accept food and water — he very well may have perished. Though he would gradually rise out of this state and be given the name Ramana Maharshi by one of his devotees, it would be another decade before he would begin answering the questions of the throngs of people who flocked to see him. Even after this, it is said that silence remained his greatest teaching.

Here, then, are 20 quotes on the nature of reality from one of the great masters of modern times.

Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.

Nobody doubts that he exists, though he may doubt the existence of God. If he finds out the truth about himself and discovers his own source, this is all that is required.

There is no greater mystery than this, that we keep seeking reality though in fact we are reality. We think that there is something hiding reality and that this must be destroyed before reality is gained. How ridiculous! A day will dawn when you will laugh at all your past efforts. That which will be the day you laugh is also here and now.

There is nothing like ‘within’ or ‘without.’ Both mean either the same thing or nothing.

‘I exist’ is the only permanent self-evident experience of everyone.  Nothing else is so self-evident as ‘I am’. What people call self-evident, that is, the experience they get through the senses, is far from self-evident. The Self alone is that. So to do self-enquiry and be that ‘I am’ is the only thing to do. ‘I am’ is reality. I am this or that is unreal. ‘I am’ is truth, another name for Self.

Relative knowledge pertains to the mind and not to the Self. It is therefore illusory and not permanent. Take a scientist, for instance.  He formulates a theory that the Earth is round and goes on to prove it on an incontrovertible basis. When he falls asleep the whole idea vanishes; his mind is left a blank. What does it matter whether the world remains round or flat when he is asleep? So you see the futility of all such relative knowledge. One should go beyond relative knowledge and abide in the Self. Real knowledge is such experience, and not apprehension by the mind.

Become conscious of being conscious. Say or think “I am”, and add nothing to it. Be aware of the stillness that follows the “I am”. Sense your presence, the naked, unveiled, unclothed beingness. It is untouched by young or old, rich or poor, good or bad, or any other attributes. It is the spacious womb of all creation, all form.

Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to prevent it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to remain silent.

Why should you trouble yourself about the future? You do not even properly know about the present. Take care of the present, the future will take care of itself.

Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.

No one succeeds without effort… Those who succeed owe their success to perseverance.

Correcting oneself is correcting the whole world. The Sun is simply bright. It does not correct anyone. Because it shines, the whole world is full of light. Transforming yourself is a means of giving light to the whole world.

The explorers seek happiness in finding curiosities, discovering new lands and undergoing risks in adventures. They are thrilling. But where is pleasure found? Only within. Pleasure is not to be sought in the external world.

When one remains without thinking one understands another by means of the universal language of silence.

We loosely talk of Self-realization, for lack of a better term.  But how can one realize or make real that which alone is real? All we need to do is to give up our habit of regarding as real that which is unreal. All religious practices are meant solely to help us do this. When we stop regarding the unreal as real, then reality alone will remain, and we will be that.

“Heart” is merely another name for the Supreme Spirit, because He is in all hearts. The entire Universe is condensed in the body, and the entire body in the Heart. Thus the Heart is the nucleus of the whole Universe.

There are no impediments to meditation. The very thought of such obstacles is the greatest impediment.

Silence is most powerful. Speech is always less powerful than silence.

Your duty is to be and not to be this or that. ‘I am that I am’ sums up the whole truth. The method is summed up in the words ‘Be still’. What does stillness mean? It means destroy yourself. Because any form or shape is the cause for trouble. Give up the notion that ‘I am so and so’. All that is required to realize the Self is to be still. What can be easier than that?

Eventually, all that one has learnt will have to be forgotten.

~ A Wisdom Pills Original Article







© Copyright 2015, by William R. Idol, except where indicated otherwise. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprint only with permission from copyright holder(s). All trademarks are property of their respective owners. All contents provided as is. No express or implied income claims made herein. We neither use nor endorse the use of spam.


Leave a Reply