Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Child That Might Have Been

I read today that Ohio legislators want to ban abortions if the reason is the fetus has Down syndrome.

It’s a life after all.

Well, of course it is. A potential life anyway. But aren't there many potential lives? Potential doesn’t mean egg must have met sperm and snuggled up to the swelling uterine wall. Potential as well can mean boy meets girl. Why are those other potential lives not entitled to consideration?

Why make parents have a child with Down syndrome? Why not let them try again? Why make parents have children of any kind, genetically normal or not, before they are ready? Perhaps before they can afford to pay for the child’s care and education. Why not let them choose another time? Another potential life.

What about the rights of those not-yet-conceived children? If their parents are free to make their own choices, they will likely come into the world healthy and normal, born into a family that wants them and is ready for the emotional and financial responsibility of parenthood.

What about those potential lives? What about the parents who will cherish them when their times come?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Civil War II

This year is the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, a great battle fought over the enslavement of blacks. I wonder when we might have Civil War II (at the voting booth, this time) between women and the men who insist upon controlling their reproductive choices.

As long as Roe v. Wade holds, women with money are like black freemen in 1850, not treated equally to men in all respects--there are still widespread pay gaps and glass ceilings--but at least in control of their bodies. But women who are poor are chained to their biology. They need free contraception because they’re barely scraping by to put food on the table. They need abortions to undo a teen mistake or avoid the poverty of an unwanted child, but they might live in Texas or one of the other states that have passed abortion clinic requirements so onerous that all but a few have shut down. They need reproductive counseling and healthcare from Planned Parenthood, which Republicans are determined to deny them.

Women want affordable contraception and gynecological care. They want to break free of unwanted pregnancies. They want to break free of men’s control of their bodies. They don’t want to be told how to live their sexual lives by old white men in Rome or old white men in Congress. Or by the new Hispanic Pope. Or by Marco Rubio. Hispanic male chauvinism is nothing new. Hispanics in a position to make the rules for women are. Still men, though. Always men.

Why do these men care so much about what women do? Religious doctrine commands it, you say. Okay, fine. If a woman wants to be in that church and chooses not to use contraception, that’s her choice. It’s worth pointing out, though, that not many women in America, even those who think of themselves as good Catholics, for instance, don’t use birth control. They’ve made their peace with their religion.

That choice, though, that personal accommodation of faith and practicality, shouldn’t be theirs to make, according to the men in charge. Women must be saved from their heresy by restricting their access to birth control. It’s the same urge behind keeping the whiskey locked up when there are teenagers in the house. No, it’s more like leaving the whiskey within easy reach and then letting the kid rot in jail when he gets a DUI. Do the crime, do the time.

Maybe it’s Puritan morality that beats in the hearts of men who would deny women a right to choose when they have children, but I don’t think so. I think that’s just their excuse. I think it terrifies them for women to be free agents. To be able to say with whom they have sex, and when. 

Too many old white men (and their Hispanic successors) want to keep their women barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen. They don’t want to lose the power over women that pregnancy affords them. They don’t want to lose the dependence of women on them. Like the plantation owners of the first Civil War, they don’t want to free the unpaid servants who’ve been shackled to them by the economics of having a baby.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Rights We Give Ourselves

I’m having a debate with my sixteen year old grandson about gun rights. He’s pro, I’m con. He’s smart and articulate, and he has spent a lot of time reading about the issue. He has his facts about the correlation between gun ownership rates and the incidence of gun violence, and I have mine. We are at something of a stalemate.

On this, as with so many policy issues, though, the debate isn’t really so much about facts, which can be tortured into many shapes—“Lies, damn lies and statistics”—as it is about what we value as a society. Guns kill people. No dispute there. The question is whether having them around is worth that undeniable cost. Gun owners have an interest in being able to own guns, and we all have an interest in not being shot. 

Balancing competing interests is the primary tool on the workbench of a constitutional law scholar. The more fundamental the individual interest (or "right," as we commonly refer to it), the more compelling must be the state's interest to justify abridging the individual interest. The state has to have a damned good reason to censor the press, for instance, because we value freedom of speech so highly.

The abortion debate comes down to the same thing. Science cannot deny that a life, or at least a highly likely potential life, is being aborted any time after conception and implantation. The question is, do the interests of the parents and society in not having an unwanted child outweigh the interest of the embryo. One can reasonably take either side of that argument. It's a question of what you value.

With guns, too, this is the proper analytical approach. How important is the individual interest in owning a gun compared to the rest of society's interest in avoiding gun violence? Like abortion, like free speech, this is a value judgement. For me, guns are unnecessary and ineffective to protect us either from crime or from government tyranny. This is why I support the considered judgment of a community that seeks to limit their incidence, as both Chicago and D.C. did before their local laws were struck down by the Supreme Court.

Frankly, I can't think of an important individual interest that is advanced by forbidding communities to try to keep themselves safe from handguns and assault weapons. That's my value judgment. As a people, collectively, we have to reach our own. 

We have the “rights” we permit ourselves. No others. They are not ordained. They continue by common consent. I have to assume at this point that we have so many guns, and so much gun violence, because that’s the balance of interests we want. If not, we ought to do something about it. What to do is no mystery. Vote for change. It’s not going to happen any other way.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Who are our heroes?

Explorers. Inventors. Jonas Salk. Larry Page.

And what do our heroes all have in common? They open up the future for us. They show us ways to aspire to a better life. Even our sports heroes do that. Wow, if that guy can run the hundred that fast, and look that buff, maybe I should get in better shape.

What else do they have in common? They don’t bring us down. They are never about negativity. They are never about how hopeless it all is. They are the opposite of that. They are all about hope, the dream that we can be better.

Are you with me so far? Do we agree?

Well, then let me ask you this: Why do we support the politicians we do, the ones who want to tear down others, tear up the rights and lives of those who are not like them? The ones who appeal to the opposite of hope. The ones who appeal to fear.

It’s not their fault. They’re like well-trained rats. They’re doing what they have to do to get the electoral cheese. No, my friends, the fault is ours. We’re telling them with our votes and our polls and our rallies what we care most about, and a lot of what we care about, day-to-day, has more to do with not losing what we've got than with reaching for something more: don’t let in those illegal immigrants who will take our jobs; don't ask us to pay more in taxes to support people who won’t work for themselves; don’t attack my religion with your secular intellectualization of rights that the Bible (or the Koran, or whatever) says don’t exist.

So, to ask the question again, but with a slightly different spin: Why are we so afraid? If our heroes look to the future, why do we want to cling to the past? Do we think our heroes are braver than we are? Do we think we could never be anyone’s hero?

It is hard to imagine that you might invent the polio vaccine; or dwarf wheat; or Google. But you don’t have to shoot that high to be a hero. Most of us have a worshipful audience waiting for our wisdom, waiting for our inspiration. Children. Our own, our nieces and nephews, the kids down the block. They’re looking for heroes too. They might not think they can be LeBron James, but they are quite clear that they can be you. You’re just mom or dad, or auntie, or the neighbor. Of course they think they can be you.

So what are you showing them? Who do you say you are? What do you say you stand for? They are watching? They are listening. They will take their first cues from you. Will you teach them to be hopeful, to look to the future, to plan for it, or will you teach them to be afraid?

Monday, July 20, 2015

How to Change the World

Once there was a young man who planned to change the world. He could see clearly the things around him that he could improve. He could see bigotry that could be enlightened. He could see hunger that could be served a meal. He could see ignorance that could be educated. He set out to be a doctor, to heal. Or a lawyer, to bring justice. Or a scientist to find new ways of living on the planet without destroying it. He knew he would have to choose. He knew he could not do it all. But he had faith in others. The problems he didn’t tackle others would. Change would come. It was inevitable.

His chosen field had a long apprenticeship. He was good at what he did, and he was flattered and rewarded and coaxed into more and more sophisticated, complicated endeavors. The sense of discovery and achievement was intoxicating. He hardly noticed that he was solving only his employer’s problems, not the world’s.

He found a mate and had children. He saw the world through a child’s eyes again. He explained it to them and taught them what mattered about the way they would live and work with others. He taught them to want to change the world.

His children grew up and left home and left a hole in his heart. He thought that was the pain he felt, but it was more than that. The loss was of himself. He had not changed the world. He would not. He knew that, suddenly, awfully. It wasn’t his fault, he told himself. He had been naive as a young man. The world was as inexorable and immutable as human nature. He would not make a difference.

As he lay on his deathbed, his wife gone before him, his family gathered in the dim room: his son and his daughter, and his grandchildren, two girls and two boys. The young ones fidgeted and exchanged glances and occasional giggles. Their parents shushed them but they could not impose on them their grief and solemnity. The children knew what was happening, and they did not want it, they loved their grandfather, but they could not for long turn away from themselves and what they planned to do next in the world that was opening up to them in the ways their parents had told them it would.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

An Instinct For Bias

Confirmation bias. Apparently we all have it. That doesn’t sound like a good thing. Bias sounds like prejudice. No one wants to be thought of as prejudiced.

I read a piece in the NYT recently about a study that showed how when trying to find answers we look in safe and familiar places. The article had a test as part of it. A set of three numbers. The test was to determine the rule governed them. You could enter other sets of three numbers yourself to test your theory. The second two numbers were each double the one before, so it looked like that was the rule. It was…and it wasn’t. It turns out the rule was each number merely had to be higher than the one that preceded it.

Over ninety percent of those tested (including me), said what they thought the rule was without ever entering a number set that failed, even though there was no penalty for that. In other words, we didn’t probe the edges of what the rule might be, we raced down the first safe path we discovered. 

Gotcha, the article said. You don’t want to be told your answer is wrong, so you only test the rule with safe answers. You have confirmation bias.

The authors made it sound like a character flaw. Like prejudice. What I think it is, though, is a survival  instinct. If you are trying to make a quick decision about what to do, and you’re pretty sure what the safe move is, that’s the one you tend to make. Long ago in our evolutionary development, those who made the safe play lived to play (and procreate) another day. Confirmation bias is nothing more that an adaptive trait that helped the species survive. It doesn’t show weak character, just good survival instincts.

That distinction may sound like splitting hairs, but I don’t think so. The better we understand our behavior, the better equipped we are to modify it. If we think those of us in our red and blue political tribes are preferring to listen to what we want to hear just because we are morons, we miss an important opportunity to break through that evolutionary adaptation and inspire more considered thought, more testing of conventional wisdom, more understanding of what the rule really is. Not just the middle road, but all the possible paths that might lead to common ground.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Happy Father's Day, You Magnificent Bastard

My father was crazy. Literally, I now think. He was also brilliant and charismatic. He saved pregnant women and their babies and slept with every woman he could. He abused his family and bought us all new cars. He made a fortune and died with a big tax lien on the ancestral family home. He taught me to play golf, and that my hunting boot was not a good place to try to hide my high-school bottle of Jack Daniels from him--that or the bottle levitated of its own accord up onto my dresser. Just sitting there. He never said anything about it.

The four Everett McCord Claytons, in 1971, three years
before my father (looming over us all) died
He's been dead for forty years, but he lives on in the purgatory of memory. If you want to know more of the story, you can read my novel Angle of Approach. It's all there. The way I imagine it, which is more true that the way it actually was. Indeed, you can get some feel for his impact on my life by reading any of my five novels (assuming they get published). They are all father-son stories: men searching for their sons, boys longing for their fathers. They are the stories he put inside me, for better or worse.

And still, today, even knowing the full extent of his abuse, profligacy and narcissism, when the sun casts late shadows on a sloping lawn, I am back on our golf course with him. We are walking along talking about the next shot, about whether I can bend it around the old oak tree on number one, or about how close to the hole he plans to hit his four iron. He was a master of long irons. Just one of the many things he did better than I. One of the many things I’m still trying to do well enough to earn his highest praise: "Good shot."

Friday, June 19, 2015

Identifying as Black and Brown

I'm starting to get annoyed with white people. We're sitting pretty--on top of the cultural, educational and economic food chain--and still we can't seem to figure out how to help our black and brown brothers and sisters. We need to go back to kindergarten to learn to share.

Im not talking about the white nutzos, the hate-killers. And I'm not talking about the white folks who are themselves struggling to get by; they've got enough problems of their own, and very little to share. I'm talking about you and me.

When are we going to do more than shake our heads in sadness and disgust when blacks get senslessly murdered? By racists. By cops. When are we going to do more than express dismay over dinner with our friends at the fact that so many young black men are in prison? When is the extraordinary educational achievement of my friend Gabby Aguilar, the first in her immigrant family to go to college, going to become the norm instead of a rarity?

Black and brown poverty is the civil rights issue of our time. Just as voting rights were the issue of a half century ago (and still are today, come to think of it). Martin Luther King knew that. He had just begun his crusade against poverty when he was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson, a son of Texas who would not be welcome today in Rick Perry country, knew it. He tried, but he didn't get far. Since then, it doesn't look to me like we've even been trying.

It's not enough to support social service programs. The problem is socio-economic segregation. As long as poor people--black, brown or white--are effectively ghettoized, they are not going to have the same opportunities as those living together in affluence. We may say we care, but we're not moving into Watts or East Palo Alto. 

I have no idea what the answer is, but I do know this: if we cared more, if we thought of poor black and Hispanic children as if they were our own children, we would come up with something. We're just not trying hard enough.

"In the end," Martin Luther King famously said, "we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Something to Say


Anyone out there?

I wrote a piece a few weeks ago called "The Wolf of Conditional Love," giving my slant on an aspect of parenting. I borrowed the title phrase from a David Brooks column of the same day, with which I took modest issue. This morning I saw a tweet in which both my piece and Mr. Brooks' were listed as among the top five parenting advice blogs of the week. 

If you'd had a brain scan of my delight, you'd have thought I won the Pulitzer Prize.

I started writing about my experiences with my children as soon as they were all gone, when the last one left for college. Is that ironic, or is it just the way my writing mind works? Putting my thoughts, and feelings, on paper helps me sort them, make sense of them. In the case of some feelings, it may be the only way I can consciously access them. And the process seems to work best with distance. My understanding of what is going on inside me is like cask of wine that should not be opened before it has aged. Until then it's just sweet grape juice.

I've branched out from my children to the world I want for them, which is my excuse to write about politics and social issues. As with my my feelings about being a father, sometimes I'm not that certain what I think about an issue until I write about it. Intuition and bias are vague and sloppy things. Reason is the order that writing imposes on them.

My blog has been for me. It has helped me learn about myself and understand others better. It has helped me grow. But I would be a liar if I didn't admit I want to reach others. Touch them. Persuade them. It's vanity, I know, but there you have it. It's more or less what we do as a species. Communicate. Understand. Persuade.

Who knows what most readers think of what I write. I get comments of support now and then, but mainly from people I know. I wonder sometimes if anyone else is paying much attention. And then, suddenly I've written a piece someone puts in a top-five list. Someone I don't know. 

To paraphrase Miss Marion, the librarian from The Music Man: "Thank you, my someone."

Monday, June 8, 2015

Your House is on Fire, Run Away Home

Angry. ANGRY!

Maybe I need therapy. A little Prozac.

I think what I need is to disengage. But I don't know how to do that.

I've spent all my life solving problems. How to earn a living. How to raise children. How to be helpful to those around me. As the needs of my family for me have become less pressing, I've turned my thinking to the wider world. What about all those people who I haven't been thinking that much about?

Turns out, they're not doing so well. So, lets talk about that. What can we do?

Talk I have. And written. Both have revealed many things to me. One, how much I don't know. Two, how ready others are to cure my ignorance. I have a few very smart friends and family members who are much more fiscally conservative than I. No nanny state of sloth enablement for them. I see their point, but really, do we think people want to live in paucity and hopelessness? Food stamps are not an education. They are not opportunity.

Some people say opportunity comes to those who work for it. If you miss out, you must not be working hard enough. That's certainly true in some cases, but not, in my view, most. Poverty is a pathology. Tough love is leeches.

The problems are huge. The solutions are not obvious. That is a little depressing, but does not make me mad. It makes me want to look harder for the answers.

What makes me mad is that while thoughtful people, more thoughtful than I, are sifting data and trying hard to understand what is happening and what to do about it, their voices are being heard mainly by themselves and a few others of like mind. Those who disagree are listening to themselves and their tribe. Those who aren't thinking that hard at all are emoting off the cuff. Political discourse, where the solutions ultimately must be forged into governing consensus, has devolved to a herd of wildebeest ranging across an intellectually barren land, spooked by every primitive stimulus, careening en masse this way and then that, with pastures and watering holes nowhere in sight.

It's just stupid the way we do things. We don't act until there is a crisis. This seems to be how evolution has wired us, but the habit of tending only to immediate needs has ceased to be adaptive. If we are to survive, we have to plan for the long term. We have to make sacrifices today to provide for the future. Parents are good at doing that for their children. Otherwise, as a species, we suck at it.

Global warming. Water shortages. Power shortages. Nuclear proliferation. Poverty, poverty, poverty. These are problems that have to be worked on over decades and centuries. I wonder if we have it in us.

Here's a concrete example of a looming problem that is painfully obvious and easy to understand, yet largely ignored: unfunded pension liabilities. Boring, right? It won't be when cities and states can't honor their obligations, when retired teachers and policemen and others don't have a retirement income. It's a huge problem. Everybody knows it. Not many are doing anything about it.

Why? Same reason we don't do anything about so many long-term problems. The consequences of our failure are not immediate. We don't feel threatened. Maybe they won't happen. They're too hard to think about.

The people who should be thinking about them, in the case of unfunded city and state pensions, are the public officials who are trying to get re-elected. Their next campaign is their time horizon, not some retiree's problem in twenty years. So they kick the can down the road.

One way to solve the pension problem would be to change accounting standards to record on balance sheets the present value of the future cost to cities and states of their large unfunded liabilities. If you did that, many cities and states (and companies) would be insolvent. They wouldn't be able to borrow to finance their operations. They'd be Greece. 

Politicians don't want to hear it, and accountants don't want to get fired. So they all look the other way and do what we all do: hope something will happen to make everything work out.

As parents, when we see a child doing something stupid or harmful, we intervene. A childhood of such interventions is what parenting is all about. It ingrains habits that our sons and daughters take with them and live by. Not always, but most of the time.

We're not doing that now. We're being bad parents to our earth, to our fellow man. If I saw a parent negligently ignoring a little girl wandering from the playground toward a busy street, it would make me mad, but at least I could take that child's hand and lead her back to safety. But there are too many small hands to take and keep safe. And while we gather smugly and self-righteously in our homogeneous intellectual cliques, they wander closer and closer to danger.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Mad Faith

We had some friends over for dinner last night, and somehow the conversation segued from how computers work to religion. Surprising myself, and with the benefit of only a single glass of wine, I launched into a blistering rebuke of religion of all stripes. We'd be better off without them, was the gist of it. This morning I wrote a contrite note to one of our dinner guests who I thought I offended, apologizing for my intemperance. I do know better. My mama didn't raise no rude hosts.

So I told myself: stop railing against religion. Then I amended my admonition: stop doing it over dinner; it's no aid to digestion. But rail in public I feel I must.

I've written a few times about how much I admired my grandfather, a man of great intelligence and faith. His was the tolerant and giving religion I was raised with. I admired it, even though I never believed in its god. Live and let live, was my approach.

No more. Take a look around at what is happening in the name of one religion or another. ISIS beheadings and oppression of women and girls. Sunni and Shia suicide bombings. Boko Haram kidnappings of girls. Evangelical Christian and Catholic opposition to women having free access to birth control.

I defy you to name a religion that does not subordinate women. Maybe that was okay once, in a different time and culture. It is no longer.

There have always been religious wars. That, for me, is reason enough to get rid of religion. But the seemingly united view of religions around the world that women are less than men is the last straw. Maybe I just woke up. But I'm awake now.

We cannot and should not tolerate this. No matter what benefit you get from your faith, or what benefit you feel it bestows on others, if it oppresses women--and in one form or another they all do--you should renounce it. Maybe a new religion will be born out of that, one that puts women and men on equal footing. I prefer none, but if there must be faith, I want the dignity and equality of women to be upheld as part of it. 

Come to think of it, just that step might go a long way toward bringing religion back to the way I saw it as a boy: a personal choice that comforts in times of trouble and extends a helping hand in times of need.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Parent Bonus

What if you got rewarded at work for being a good parent?

Your daughter reports that you inspired her to tutor a struggling classmate: here's a bonus of a week's salary. Your son tells us you're never home for dinner: we're going to have to dock you for that.

Good parenting skills and good work skills share common attributes. Good coach at home, good coach for the work team. Inspirational at home, inspirational at work. Realistic goal setting at home, realistic goal setting at work. A Career Builder poll timed to coincide with Mother's Day this year found that 69% of employers see work benefits in parenting skills. High on the list, as any parent knows, were multi-tasking and conflict management.

When I was a lawyer, we billed our time by the hour. The firm's managers, not surprisingly, gave the highest financial rewards to the lawyers who worked the most hours. I don't have to tell you that among a group of highly competitive, ambitious young lawyers, that was a prescription for missed family dinners and soccer games and pretty much everything else but major holidays, and then only for a half-day. The managing partner of my firm, the one who was prodding us all to work harder, once told me late in his life that his only regret was not spending more time with his family.

There was a time when people worked closely together and knew each other's personal circumstances. The wife is sick? Take off as long as you need, family is the most important thing. But for a long time now, the opposite has been the norm. Don't bring your personal problems to work.

That's ridiculous, of course. You can't check your personal problems at the reception desk. They are with you always. And if you can't deal with them in a satisfactory way, they eat at you. They degrade your work performance. Eventually they can cost you your job. Or your family. No one should have to make that choice.

For reticent employers, here's a modest beginning: Tell your people to take all their vacation days or you'll reduce their pay. Take all their maternity leave. Fathers too. No overtime over a certain limit. Tell them you don't want to see them in their cubicles at all hours of the night on a regular basis. Tell them you'll pay them less, not more, if you do.

This is a gender-equality issue. Not just for women, for men too. Women don't want to be forced onto the mommy track. And men don't want to miss all the soccer games. Even if a man wants to be an equal partner in parenting and housework, employer expectations do not accommodate that. "He's not a fighter pilot. I don't want him on my team." I used to think that way myself.

In too many jobs, the path to success does not run close to home. Men and women who climb the competitive ladder by giving it all at the office may be happy for a while--or think they are--but many end up with same regrets as my old managing partner. As Rabbi Harold Kushner famously said: "Nobody on their deathbed has ever said 'I wish I had spent more time at the office.'"

Of course the biggest benefit of rewarding workers for being good parents will be the joy it brings to children everywhere. “Mom and Dad, I’m not sure my evaluation of your parenting this quarter is going to be so good. I think a trip to the ice cream store might be needed to boost your ratings."

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Lazy Days

What's worse: being bored or being busy at something you don't want to do? Are those the only two choices? I hear you asking. I don't know.

On again, off again I've been busy at things I wanted to do. Legal work was fun (hard to believe, right?). Trying to make a tired old company into something new was fun. Even failure was a kind of bitter tonic, a shocking, smelling-salt reminder to pick yourself up and go on. Writing is fun. And it comes with a lifetime supply of that bitter tonic I just mentioned.

Here I am, picking myself up again. Actually, it's a kind of anticipatory pickup. Eyore-like. I wrote an oped piece I like and sent it out. A couple of agents are reading my new novel. In the timeless words of the world's most famous stuffed donkey: "Oh, well, I don't suppose anyone is going to like them anyway."

I need to start a new novel. That's fun. In the same genre as considering a cluttered attic or garage, dreading moving that first ratty cardboard box or rake even as you begin to imagine a glittering new space that will bring pleasure to so many...or at least to you.

I could go play golf. I love golf. The problem is, I can't play it with my dad or my sons. I like playing alone. Sometimes. But that leads nowhere. I'm all about going somewhere. I don't even know why. My DNA won't leave me alone.

I suppose I've answered my own question. Busy is better than boring. Not busy for the sake of being busy (although it sometimes turns out that way), but busy in the hope of getting somewhere I know I want to go, even if I don't know precisely where that is.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Wolf of Conditional Love

           The wolf of conditional love is lurking in these homes.
            --David Brooks, NYT

In his column yesterday, "Love and Merit," David Brooks warns us not to link our love for our children to their achievements. On the most obvious level, few would argue. A few examples of bad parenting:

"A minus! A minus! You are no son of mine." 

"If you marry that girl, you are dead to me."

"Say that again and I'll smack you."

So, we all agree on that. What Mr. Brooks is talking about is more subtle. He says:

"Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is meritocratic affection. It is intermingled with the desire to help their children achieve worldly success.

Very frequently it is manipulative. Parents unconsciously shape their smiles and frowns to steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement. Parents glow with extra fervor when their child studies hard, practices hard, wins first place, gets into a prestigious college."

Guilty! And proud of it. Indeed, I would be even more proud had I used only smiles and praise to reinforce behavior I valued, as opposed to the odd threat or swat on a young bottom.

Let's examine the words that strike such terror into Mr. Brooks' timorous heart: "the wolf of unconditional love."

Wolf: a fierce and cunning survivor. Raised Romulus and Remus.

Conditional: You can have this if you do that. Examples: you can stay at the dinner table if you don't throw food at your brother; you can have your allowance if you take out the trash; you can not be grounded if you come home on time.

Love: In the case of children, affection and protection.

Of these three, love is the trickiest. It has taken on so much secondary meaning that it is hardly recognizable. Boiled down to it's Darwinian basics, it means this: In the case of lovers, lust that morphs into affection. In the case of parents, protectiveness that morphs into letting go.

Letting go means releasing children to survive in the wild. It's hard to let go. Terrifying. But all of us know that our job as parents is to prepare our children to live on their own. Keeping them out of traffic in the street morphs into keeping them away from drugs, which morphs into making sure they can get a job to pay their own rent. A Nobel Prize would be good, but probably not absolutely necessary.

Brooks concludes:

"Parental love is supposed to be oblivious to achievement. It’s meant to be an unconditional support — a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of the meritocracy, the closest humans come to grace."

That sounds great, but what does it mean? Most households don't live in states of grace. They live in lightly controlled chaos. Parents are not saints. They are guides. Loving, nurturing guides, to be sure, but first and foremost guides. That's their job. Anyone can hug a child. A parent has the harder job of helping him become a well-adjusted, high-functioning adult. Unconditional love is a nice concept, but in practice, it is baloney. Hugs are not love. They are comfort. Frowns at bad grades are not a withholding of love, they are guidance. 

Love for your children is what you feel inside. It is the flood of joy when they run to greet you. The ache when they are gone. The fear that you have not done your best. Self-doubt in the parent/child relationship goes both ways. It's just a fact of how we are wired: a parent's protectiveness colliding with a child's need for independence. Both parents and children feel a little guilty now and then about how they navigate these emotionally treacherous waters. The answer isn't to shy from the conflict but to contend with it vigorously, rowdily, flexibly, messily, empathetically. This is what makes us strong. As parents and children. As people.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Storming the Castle

My father sent me off to college with plenty of money. What he wouldn't give me, his executive assistant (called a secretary in those days) did. She wrote all his checks. Apparently I wasn't ready for all that freedom, personal and financial, because it wasn't long before I found myself wandering through a variety of academic institutions on my way to entering law school with a wife and two kids. By then, I think Dad had decided I needed some skin in the game. So I wrangled a little scholarship money and about twice that in student loans and rolled into L.A. for my new job at a law firm with fumes in the gas tank and plans to feed my family at all-you-can-eat buffets until my first paycheck.

My kids also went off to college with plenty of money. I'm happy to say that none of them wasted their time the way I did. I don't know why. Good mothers, I think. So my personal experience teaches me little about the virtue of struggle, or the curse of wealth. Some of us try harder. Some of us find ourselves sooner rather than later. I know of plenty of wasted lives at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum.

It is with this in mind that I have been lately thinking about income inequality. The rich have a head start. No doubt about it. That seems unfair, and in some general way I suppose it is, but it's not a sin that can be preached out of us, it's just a fact. 

It bothers us, though, and lately we are again wondering out loud whether inequality threatens our way of life. Can we be the America of our collective mythology, the land of opportunity, if we have such an un-level playing field, if the bottom rung of the ladder of opportunity has been raised out of reach of most?

We don't seem to think so. Although it's worth pointing out that there was a lot of immigration to America during the Guided Age. So opportunity is relative.

But the Gilded Age is not a time we long for, or not most of us anyway. And now that economists like Thomas Picketty and Joseph Stiglitz are writing that we are headed back in that direction, it has become popular to talk about beefing up that old by-product of the Gilded Age: the estate tax.

I believe in robust social welfare programs. To a point, I am a redistributionist. But I'm also a capitalist. I believe that free enterprise is the economic engine of increasing productivity and broadly improving living conditions. The estate tax is like a narrow wall I walk along from which I see below on one side green fields and plenty and on the other fallow land and scarcity. The trouble is, I'm not sure which side is which. I'm not sure whether the estate tax helps or hurts in achieving our objective of a just society with opportunity for all who are willing to do their parts in making successes of their lives.

There are generally two stated objectives of the estate tax: raise money from the rich to fund social welfare programs; and prevent political domination by plutocrats. I'm not sure it does either very well.

Inherited wealth gets wasted quickly: seventy percent by the second generation; ninety by the third. This has been true for so long that many cultures have an expression for it: shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations; clogs to clogs; barn to barn; rice paddy to rice paddy.

Two or three generations isn't long for a political dynasty. Plus, Bernie Wooster didn't care about politics any more than any other rich wastrel. And as to helping the poor, if the rich are plowing almost all their inherited wealth back into the economy in two or three generations, that's a pretty good economic stimulus program.

There are other ways to raise tax revenues to support social welfare programs. Income taxes have been much higher in the past. Dividends and capital gains today enjoy almost hallowed low-tax status. We don't need the estate tax to fund the government; last year it contributed less than one percent of federal tax revenues.

There is a lot of Puritan in our DNA. And we love Pete Seeger songs about labor unions. The rich are an easy target. But what do we get for going after them? What are we saying about the kind of people we want to be, the kind of state we want to have?

Class warfare is not a good idea, going in either direction: see, eg, slavery on the one hand, the French Revolution on the other. But the national psychological problem with the estate tax is even deeper. You can't be a nation of great opportunity if you don't let people keep what they earn. In that scenario, we are all only renters. (Which may be true philosophically, but we're talking economics here.) 

I don't care how much you want to help others, the notion that the government is going to take a big chunk of your property when you die grates. That's what dictators do. Communists. We rebel at that, even if we aren't the ones being looted. It goes against deeply ingrained views of property rights and justice.

The other thing is that many of us don't have much confidence in government to be a good steward of the money it confiscates. Government may have good intentions, it may be the only practical resource for helping many of the poor, but it is not that good at it. It's inefficient in the best of times, corrupt and wasteful in the worst. So when it proposes to take money from someone who has proved to be just the opposite, someone who has been efficient and productive in amassing her fortune, it seems a particularly foolish policy. Maybe the heirs will just blow the money, but that's not a good reason for the government to take it. Indeed, it's good reason for it not to.

As to the political dominance of the plutocracy, the estate tax is a sledgehammer when only a scalpel is needed. We don't need to dismember estates, or metaphorically chop off heads, we need to keep their money out of politics. Having money is not a sin; using it to buy political influence is. That is the problem that should be addressed. The fact that we have failed to do so, at all levels of government, including the modestly paid Supreme Court, apparently means we aren't serious about it. Maybe we secretly like being told what to do by men like Lord Grantham. Who doesn't like a man who is so nice to his dogs?

In Baker v. Carr the Supreme Court established the principle of one man one vote. If we're standing around letting rich men and women essentially buy the votes of others, we have some collective soul searching to do. But I don't think it's necessary to burn down the castle.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Things I Didn't Do For My Mother

I didn't fly back to be with her in her last days. I shipped her off to another state when she needed skilled nursing care. I didn't let her lend my sister twenty-five thousand dollars. I made her do what I thought was best for her. I was like my long-dead father in that way, minus the yelling. Okay, maybe I even yelled once.

It's complicated. 

Maybe it's not complicated. Maybe it's just me that's complicated. Fucked up also comes to mind.

When I was a boy, Mom was, how shall I say it, vaporous. My father was El Jefe. He brooked no dissent. My solution was to escape to California. Mom could not do that, so she escaped to within herself, an anxious place of fierce imaginings. She and Dad were fifty when he died. A psychiatrist treating her, with Thorazine, so that I hardly recognized her on the phone, said I just had to accept that she would never be normal.

So, one good thing about me, I'm not so good at accepting hopelessness. I flew back to Tennessee and got her a new shrink and she began her long road back, a road she walked alone. Her parents lived in town nearby, she had friends, but in a way that is hard for anyone who hasn't survived it to understand, including me, she was profoundly alone.

But she was strong. She did crummy jobs just to have something to do, and to make a little money, since my dad left her without much. She came out to see me once in a while. We had nice visits, but she always seemed emotionally shaky to me. I worried about her, but I didn't know what to do for her, so mostly I did nothing. I wouldn't say I avoided her. But that might well be the truth.

Then events took me back to my hometown, the one to which I had sworn never to return. Thus began my reintroduction to my mother. She was her old self by then. The person I remembered from my early childhood. She was still anxious, a condition I had only vaguely sensed as a young boy, but all the gentle wit and wisdom had come back to her, like a spring bloom. For eight years I breathed in the scent of her blooms, smiled at their beauty, wondered now and then how they had survived her long winter.

That was a lovely time. She got to know my wife and young children, and they her. They loved her gentle kindness. I got to know her too. You don't know your parents when you are a child. When I got to be with her day in and day out as an adult, I understood so many things so much better. Among those, frankly, was what a bastard the man I adored, my father, was. He was a revered doctor. Everyone loved him. He saved some dark side of himself for my mother.

When I moved to California, I sent Mom to a retirement home near my sister in Virginia. That didn't go well. For one thing, Mom said she never fit in with the other women at the lunch tables. They dressed up. They had to invite you to sit with them. It was like middle school. She and my sister had a few issues too, for which neither was really to blame. It was too much change for Mom. Within six months, she was heading back down the rabbit hole of xanax and klonopin. After a phone call that reminded me of Thorazine days, I moved her to California. In a matter of days. Like a rendition.

We had a good five years together out here. At least I want to think they were good. She said they were. We had some fun. I saw her often. She came for Sunday brunch most weeks. But she was lonely. I knew that, but I didn't know what to do about it. I told myself I was doing as much as I could. Thanks to a bequest from her parents, she had enough money to almost certainly live out her years comfortably, but I had heard the horror stories about huge medical bills in the last years of life and I was obsessed with not letting her run out of money.

So I didn't want her to lend money to my sister. She didn't really need it anyway, that's what I thought. But for many reasons, Mom wanted her to have it. It was just a financial decision for me, but I understand now, and maybe even did then, that for her it was like I was telling her she couldn't love her daughter. 

When the time came that assisted living couldn't meet her daily needs, when she needed skilled nursing care, the only places I could find nearby that were remotely affordable were ones where she would have had to have shared a room. A curtain might separate the beds. Bring three comfortable outfits, sweatpants kinds of things, from Target, one told me. That was all she would need. No more family portraits. No more antique furniture and silver. Just sweatpants.

In my brother's hometown, Louisville, KY, I found a wonderful place with reasonable prices and spacious private rooms. She'd love to have some time with my brother, Mom said. When I flew her there, even though I knew my brother would be good to her, I felt like I was abandoning her in the woods.

Over the course of the nine months she lived there, I went to see her a few times, the last a few weeks before she died. On that trip, I authorized hospice care for her. I feared it would be our last visit. The day the nursing home called to say she had died was a Sunday, the day we had shared so many brunches. In what struck me as a horrible, deliberate neglect, when the phone rang I was walking in the door from brunch with my wife's parents.

I'd like to think I was a good son. I'm certain I could have been better. Even as I was doing what I did for her, I wondered if I was doing all I could. Was I being selfish not to visit her more often? Should I lighten up on the financial frugality? Was I treating her like a child? The way my father had.

Scott Simon has a new book out now about the time he spent with his mother in her last days. He tweeted lovingly, achingly, from her bedside. I didn't do that. The last time I saw Mom I pushed her around outside in her wheelchair and talked about the birds that we saw. We listened to their songs, even sang ourselves. But I didn't sit by her bedside for weeks. I went home. 

And now, seven years later, not a day goes by that I don't wish I could hold her hand one more time.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Working Capital

Everybody needs working capital. That's not something you build up on your resume, it's the term businesses use for cash on hand to pay bills. Many a business with a bright future has failed because it couldn't meet payroll or pay for its raw materials. The business world is pitiless.

In that way, in that vulnerability, everyone is a business. Working families have to have cash on hand to buy groceries or the kids go hungry. Up and coming young adults have to pay the rent or they end up on the street.

When businesses run low on working capital, they borrow from banks. For six years now, the Fed has helped them by cutting interest rates to zero. This has enabled many businesses to weather the tight times of the Great Recession. Not only did they survive, but they grew and added jobs and helped the economy get back on its feet. Had it not been for the Fed's making money easy to get, we might still be in recession. Certainly many small businesses, and some big ones, wouldn't have made it.

Families and individuals haven't been so blessed. The easy money for businesses did not trickle down to personal loans. Banks, still feeling the (somewhat self-inflicted) pain of sub-prime mortgage defaults, did not make credit broadly available to individuals. Bushinesses were put on Fed welfare, if you will, while individuals were forced into austerity. Like Greece. 

When they run out of money, many working people turn to payday lenders. These are the Shylocks of the lending industry. They'll give you what you need to carry you through until your next paycheck---$100, $500, $1,000--but they charge such high rates of interest that if you fall behind you might never catch up. A payday loan can sink you. And even if it doesn't, it takes an obscene cut out of your income.

Elizabeth Warren made her bones railing against this practice and others like it. Nobody likes payday lenders, but like cockroaches they manage to survive extermination. Part of the reason is that they provide, even though at an exorbitant price, something people desperately need. Unless the Fed can figure out a way to make banks pass along to individuals with less than sterling credit histories the easy money it gives them, or government shuts them down, payday lenders will continue to be a last resort for struggling families and individuals.

Many of us give to charity; and there are many good causes deserving of generosity. I've begun to wonder whether increasing working capital for hardworking people living paycheck-to-paycheck might not be another good cause. I think of micro loans in Africa, where investors with a charitable bent go into a village and identity the woman (and it's usually a woman) who is something of the village matriarch and give her small amounts of money to start local enterprises: weaving; water purification; whatever the village needs that human capital can leverage if it has seed money.

Micro loans are meant to make money, but at their heart they are save-the world projects. Catalysts for entrepreneurship. Grease to lubricate the potential of people. 

How about grease for the working-capital needs of workers living on the edge? To keep them afloat. To keep them productive. Like African micro loans, that kind of investment would be meant to do good, in that it would help people, but it would also be economically farsighted, in that people would stay productive and benefit the economy in general.

Donors would identify a person in a struggling community--East LA, Southside Chicago, Ferguson, MO, plenty of towns in the South--and give him or her a small amount of money to lend to people in need for very short periods: a week or two, maybe as much as a month. No interest, the borrower would be told. Just pay it back. If times get better for you, maybe you'll put a few dollars in the pool so others can benefit as you have.

What do you think would happen? How many would pay back their loans? How long would the pool last?

Those are good questions. The pessimist in me thinks this is a really stupid idea that will result in free money to a few and a lending bank account that drains as fast a backyard wading pool with a hole in the side. Maybe. I'm not sure how much good a lot of my charitable contributions do in any event. To me, they are more like hopes. Hopes that my donation might help a little, even though the problems we try to address this way are vast and perhaps intractable. Still, we try.

But what if my pessimistic side is wrong? What if our local godfathers and godmothers have the moral suasion within, and practical knowledge of, their communities to keep the money going out and coming back in. Think of the good they could do. They would be the neighborhood Fed, increasing the money supply, but not just for businesses, not just for the well off. For regular folks working hard to make ends meet. For most Americans.

This isn't a money-maker, so private capital isn't going to be interested. Maybe there is a way for government to help, but I don't think so. Government, even at it's best, is inefficient; at it's worst, corrupt. There is so much room for corruption and abuse here, that I think government would almost certainly fail to pull this off. It would take people finding the people they trust, people they believe have the respect of their community. Those personal connections are what would make this work. Maybe that means it could never get to be very big. Or maybe it just means it would have to build slowly and carefully. Not a bad thing. Quick solutions are almost never durable

I have a friend who would be a great candidate to be one of the people to look after and dispense this kind of funding. She came to this country with little and is now a citizen who runs a licensed day-care business in her home and has raised three wonderful children, two of whom will be the first in their family to go to college. She and her husband work hard, not just two jobs, but many jobs. She says she doesn't know why everyone comes to her to resolve their problems. But I do. It's because she is, in Sonia Sotomayor's words, a wise Latina.

I asked her what she would think if I gave her $1,000 to lend to people in need, people she knew and trusted. She said people in her community do that. They always ask for a little interest, she said. "You borrow $100 for a month, you pay back $110."

That's 120% a year, I told her. She understood the number, but not the point. It's just the way they do things. And maybe that's best. Maybe you need the interest to keep people serious and responsible. Or maybe if you're lending out of your own pocket you just need to make it worthwhile. "Everyone's got to make money," she said.

I asked her if she thought she would get the money back if she lent it at no interest. I asked her if it would be too much trouble, too much pressure, to be the one to decide who would get money and who would not, and to make sure it came back. She was enthusiastic, if somewhat incredulous. I'm not sure she thought I was serious. Or that anyone would be serious about such a thing as free loans.

Little wonder. In the world of predatory payday lenders, when even your pals charge 120% annual interest, free money, on trust, just because you need it, would take some getting used to. Like clean water and electricity. Like so many of the things introduced in the last century that we now take for granted. The fact that we take them for granted, that one day we might take these kinds of community lending pools for granted, does not diminish their importance to making us a prosperous country where individual effort is rewarded, and where a helping hand is there when we need it. Not just when the Fed cuts rates for the financial industry. For everyone. For the people who do the work and pay the bills and buy the products that make our economy work for all of us.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Man Seeking Woman, Have Dishwasher

Like a frog in slowly heating water, I've just realized that I'm a fully cooked feminist. Thank you corporate America. Thank you Planned Parenthood haters. Thank you religion. Thank you ISIS. All of you had your hands on the heat controls of my simmering awakening. And thank you most of all to my lover, who was patient with me and didn't laugh at me as I groped my way.

I've also realized that the other thing that has been warming in my slow pot is my interest in evolutionary psychology. I don't do field studies, only thought experiments and a lot of Googling, but for a while I've been fascinated by the possible evolutionary roots of our behaviors. Particularly the terrible way we treat women. 

In much of the world, women are still little more than property. Even in developed countries, they don't have the same opportunities as men. Here in Silicon Valley--even here, in the land of the bluest of the blue--women in tech can't get a break from the men who control the industry.

What I did not know until recently is that those two warming parts of me, feminism and evolutionary psychology, have at times enjoyed an uneasy co-existence. Some feminists don't like it when evolutionary psychologists trace the roots of bad behavior in men to evolution. Their complaint is that such explanations may be seen to let men off the hook: "Hey, baby, my genes made me cheat on you."

Not that men would take such a cheap way out. Would we? 

One article I read recently, "Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism" (Buss and Schmidt, 2011), answered the feminist concern this way: "Is" does not mean "ought." No matter the origin of bad behavior, the question must be, "What can we do to change it?"

One evolutionary theory of patriarchy--men's dominant control of resources--is that women preferred men who could take care of them. So an adaptive mating strategy for men became competing with other men for the resources that would make them attractive to women. This resulted in men duking it out and ultimately controlling virtually all resources. When they favored women with them, this made the mating relationship essentially transactional: resources (home and comfort) in exchange for sex. Little wonder that, in that environment, men began to think they owned women. And women began to feel like property.

So what do we do about that now? How can we use this understanding of how we evolved to help us go in a different direction. Evolution doesn't preordain an outcome (well, not a behavior), but it strongly favors it. Often without much conscious thought on our part. Once we realize what's going on, what can we do? Is there an antidote for evolved traits?

Yes, but it's not fast acting. The antidote is awareness and commitment to change. In this sense, the evolutionary psychologists have to pass the baton to activists. Both groups can see the problem, the bad behavior. One group has come up with theories about how we came to behave like that, but it falls to the other, and to all of us of like mind, to call out the misconduct and insist it not be tolerated. To say, "Genes be damned, this is wrong."

The evolutionary psychologists also hope that in tracing behaviors back to their roots, clues can be found about how to change them. I'm a little less certain about that when it comes to mistreatment of women. Could women just say, "Baby, I don't want your money, I just want you to do the dishes."? 

That works with me, even though soapy hands and dripping plates aren't fantasies of mine. But my lover and I live in a resource rich environment of equal opportunity. I don't know how much of a dent that approach would put in the way ISIS and other crazy fundamentalists (including some none of us like to mention: you know who you are) treat women. We'll have to go deeper for that. And there is a chance, one that should not be completely dismissed, that armed with an understanding of how we how we picked up our worst habits, we can devise new ways to break them.

Saturday, April 4, 2015


He came into the school, and he could not understand anything they were saying. They weren't speaking a foreign language. He recognized the words, but he couldn't make sense of them. They came to him and left as quickly, without making an imprint on his consciousness. He had had a cold and he thought maybe his ears were stopped up and that was upsetting his equilibrium. He went into the bathroom and blew his nose and splashed water on his face. He could hear the splash of it on his hands and in the sink, a sound as recognizable and familiar as ever. He went back out into the hallway.

The kids were going into classrooms amid a clatter of squeaks of rubber soles on waxed tile and banging door bars. He heard and understood those sounds, and he heard the words they were saying to one another, and the tone of them, light and joking, too loud in that high-school way, but he did not know what they were saying. 

He sat on a bench and watched the hallway clear. In the classrooms, behind the closed doors, he could hear teachers and students speaking. The sound was muffled and far away so that he wouldn't be expected to understand what was being said. It was comforting to hear and not understand when he was not meant to understand. He thought that when the doors opened and the kids came back out, as they got closer, he would be able to understand them again, as anyone would in such circumstances.

He heard the sharp footsteps and looked down the hall and saw the woman approaching. He just watched her. She came to where he sat and stood looking down at him, as if deciding whether to offer him a dollar or two, the way you would a homeless person.

"Are you hear about the janitorial job?" she said.

He was so surprised to know what she said that he did not answer. He might as well not have understood. Perhaps he didn't. He decided to wait to see if she would speak again.

"The job?" she said, quite clearly. 

"Yes, ma'am. That's right." 

He tried not to let the relief show on his face. She would ask him what had been the matter. If he told her, he surely wouldn't get the job. She would think there was something wrong with him. Or maybe that he was crazy.

She showed him the janitor's closet and told him that the principal would tell him more about the job later but for now could he clean up around the picnic tables in the courtyard. The kids had left it a mess after lunch. She'd told them and told them to pick up after themselves, but they were a bunch of spoiled rich kids and thought they didn't have to do anything they didn't want to. He got the broom and mop and she took him outside and left him.

It wasn't too bad. There were a few sandwich wrappers and napkins up against the fence and some soda cans on the tables. Someone had left an apple. He put it in his pocket for later. In a spreading oak tree a gang of blackbirds was making a racket. They sounded just like the kids. He recognized their sounds but could not understand their meaning.

He got the area cleaned up and sat at one of the tables. The woman had not told him what else he was to do. The class bell rang and he could hear the kids inside the hallway. The door to the patio banged open and a half dozen came out and sat at the tables nearby. He did not get up. He felt invisible.

"Can you believe it?" one boy said to another.

Oh, thank god! He could understand him. Whatever it was had passed. He watched the boy gratefully.

"That old fool assigned a term paper the same day we have our AP mid-term. He acts like his is our only class. They all do."

He felt uncomfortable listening to them complain, even though his presence did not seem to bother them. They didn't even seem to notice him. He thought he'd better find the woman and find out what was expected of him. It wouldn't do to be sitting down on the job on his first day. He went back inside and found the principal's office.

"I've come to see what I should do next," he told the woman behind the desk. She had a heavy face a red eyeglasses. She said something he did not catch.


She spoke again. He thought he heard the word “work.” The others words were there and then they weren't, as if blown away by a wind as they came to him. He couldn't very well say he didn't understand her. She would think he was stupid.

"Can you tell me where I can use the bathroom?” he said. 

He knew where it was, but he thought if he paid close attention to how she told him he could learn to decode her speech. She said something he did not understand and pointed back out into the hallway. He nodded as if he had understood and bowed his head and said he would be right back. The way she watched him as he left made him uncomfortable, but he could hardly blame her.

There were two boys in the bathroom. One said something to the other. He could not make it out. He pretended to use the urinal and waited for them to leave. He looked the same in the mirror. His eyes did not look cloudy. There was no swelling in his face. His ears were not filled with wax. There was nothing to say he could hear but not understand. He returned to the principal's office.

"The principal will see you now," the woman with the heavy face and red eyeglasses said.

This time it did not shock him that he could understand her. He went into the principal's office. She was talking to a man dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. He wasn't even dressed well enough to be a janitor. He must be a teacher, the janitor thought, surprising himself. Only a teacher could get away with looking like that. Teachers couldn't be fired. He'd heard that and he believed it, especially looking at this one.

"We can't be expected to do this," the badly dressed man said to the principal. “That goddamned website is a nightmare. The extra work isn't in our contract."

"It's for the kids," the principal said. "Give it a try, please."

"No promises," the man said.

He walked past the janitor as if he weren't there.

When they were alone, the principal sat behind her desk. She did not say anything.

"I'm here to see about what you want me to do," the janitor said.

She just looked at him. Maybe she couldn't understand him. Maybe his words were coming out like gibberish.


"There's a teachers’ union meeting down the hall. I want you to go run them out of here?"

Well, he heard that. 

"I could sweep them up," he said. 

He thought it was nice little joke. She smiled.

“You ever know someone who won’t listen?" she said. "No matter what you say, no matter how reasonable you are?”

“I had a dog like that once.”

She smiled again.

“What did you do with him?”

“I just left him alone. He was no good, but he didn’t hurt anything.”

“What if he’d been pretty good, but every once in a while he bit you? What if he was a little lazy and when you tried to get him to do what he should do he sometimes growled at you and you thought he might bite you again.”

“I might take a dog like that for a long ride and let him out to sniff new territory. If he didn’t get back in the car right away, well…”

She had closed her eyes and was either about to go to sleep or cry. He felt sorry for her, although he wasn’t quite sure why. He didn’t know her. Maybe she was the problem. Maybe those teachers were meeting down the hall about her. Maybe she was the dog who bites you once in a while.

She opened her eyes and said something, but she did not get up.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, although he had not understood what she’d said. Not a word.

Some of the kids were in the hallway again. In front of a row of lockers, one girl was getting out her books. Her pale cheeks were splotchy and the skin around eyes was red. A friend had hold of her arm, as if to help her stay on her feet. 

“It’s okay,” the friend said. “We’ll talk to Mr. Travis.”

The girl just shook her head. “I can’t do both. I’ll do bad on one of them.”

“No you won’t.”

The janitor was feeling self-conscious standing there eavesdropping. He went to the janitor’s closet and got the mop and brought it back to close to where the girls were standing and made out like he was mopping up a spill.

The girl who had been crying was leaning back against the lockers now. She looked like she was about to slide down to the ground. The janitor had half a Snickers bar in his pocket. He wondered if she would like it. Everything looked better after a Snicker’s bar.

“Wasn’t it on the assignment website?” the friend said. “Didn’t he see it. He knows you can’t do both.”

“He told us he doesn’t have time for that. He says our schedules are our own problems.”

The janitor heard himself speaking before he even realized he was formulating the thought. “You can’t work for two bosses,” he said.

The friend looked at him. She seemed a little annoyed.

“When that happens,” he said, “it ain’t your problem, it’s theirs. You got to tell them to make up their minds what they want you to do. Then you’ll do it. But nobody can do two things at once.”

The friend took the crying girl’s arm and led her away, as if to get her out of danger. The girl who was so upset looked back over her shoulder at him and he nodded to her and she held his gaze as her friend led her away.

He’d been on the basketball team in high-school. The teachers hadn’t cut the team much slack, and neither had the coach. You couldn’t study for a test while you were playing a game in another county and didn’t get back on the bus until after midnight. He did the best he could, which wasn’t good enough. When he left school without graduating, he didn’t have any way to get by that was legal and he ended up in jail. When he got out, he had a rough time, some dark thoughts, but he wasn’t drinking as much now. And he had this job.

He went down the hall to where he thought the teachers the principal had been talking about might be meeting. He didn’t knock. He just opened the door to the classroom where he heard the sounds of their voices. It was the same again. he saw their mouths moving, heard their words, but couldn’t understand them.

“I’ve got something to say,” he said.

They stopped talking and looked at him.

“Ya’ll need to take care of these kids. They’re depending on you. You can’t give them more than they can do. That won’t help nobody learn anything but how to be angry and sad.”

They were staring at him. They were not speaking.

“You understand me?”

A couple of them looked down into their laps, as if they were ashamed to be lectured by a janitor.

“You pay attention to what I’m saying,” he said. “You’ve got those children’s lives in your hands.”

One of the teachers put a cell phone up to his ear.

“You need to send someone over to the high school,” he said in  a low voice, almost a whisper. “There’s a man here talking nonsense.”

He paused, looking up at the janitor, then spoke into the phone again.

“No, literally nonsense. We can’t understand a word he’s saying. The sounds make no sense. He’s upset, though. Agitated. I’m worried he might be a danger to the kids.”