Monday, September 26, 2016

Charlotte Burning

The black woman from Mississippi is testifying.

“The deputy took me into a cell and then got two black prisoners and ordered them to beat me. All because I wanted to register to vote.”

The men she is testifying to are the credentials committee of the 1964 Democratic convention. LBJ is desperate to advance civil rights and still hold together his coalition of southern democrats. The woman testifying is trying to get blacks seated in the all-white Mississippi delegation. Mississippi and the neighboring southern states are not happy. 

Johnson strikes a compromise to give the Mississippi blacks one black delegate, but even that is too much for Mississippi and Alabama. They walk out of the convention. Johnson holds the south together by bullying, force of will and an appeal to common decency and secures the nomination to run against Barry Goldwater. (Scenes from “All the Way,” a riveting docudrama.)

Most of us remember Johnson not only because of the Vietnam War (his Waterloo), but also for his remarkable legislative legacy: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid. 

But how many white folks have repressed their memories of Freedom Summer, when CORE and SNCC organized a voter registration drive in Mississippi. Those three boys whose bodies were found in an earthen dam, boys the ages of our college student children, were among the volunteers that summer. A white deputy sheriff arrested them for speeding and held them until 10:30 so he could let his white supremacist friends know when they would be released.

A lot of people died that summer. A lot of churches were burned. All to get a few new black voters registered. It was the beginning of epochal change, but it was only the beginning, and for too many it was the bloody end.

I was nineteen that summer. On my way back to Duke University, where some of my friends were members of CORE and rode with the Freedom Riders. I knew what was happening, but I didn’t feel it. It was almost as if by growing up at a southern country club, where only men could be members and the only blacks in sight were wearing waiter’s jackets or carrying golf bags, I had been inoculated against a harsh reaction to racial prejudice. Like a flu shot: you might get a little queasy when some old fat white guy in plaid pants started telling racial jokes, but you didn’t have to get up to throw up.

For me, that came later. My inoculation wore off in law school and I had to get out of there. When I moved to Los Angeles, I wasn’t running away from the blacks, I was running away from the whites. I still don’t like to go back there. Even mild exposure to that kind of prejudice makes me ill.

If that’s my reaction, as a privileged white man, think what the reaction of a black man or woman must be. 

You are black and you live in a community where the police harass you with impunity. They murder your friends. You may not remember Freedom Summer, but you don’t have to, you are re-living it. The fear is passed along almost as part of your DNA. Don’t talk back to the man. Don’t make eye contact. Step off the sidewalk when he is coming. Remember Emmet Till.

It’s easy for whites to condemn black violence. After all, civil order is the bedrock of democracy. But if you put yourself in their shoes, if you think back honestly to the way they were treated in the old south, the way they are treated even today in many parts of the country, if you consider that the terror of that treatment must live inside them like a vicious parasite, is it any surprise that Ferguson erupted in violence? Is it any surprise that Charlotte is burning?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Where to Watch the War

War is coming. The Donald says so. Any war he starts will be over before you can spread out a picnic blanket and take out your binoculars. He loves winning. Hates losing. Hates it. He’ll wave to his people and say, “Get ‘em out of here,” and that will be that.

We’re already at war with ISIS and several other acronyms that are too hard to remember. Those wars are far away and are being conducted by losers, except for Donald’s pal Vladimir, who isn’t exactly a winner but I wouldn’t call him a loser, at least not to his face, as I’m not ready to be disappeared. Those acronym wars are not really worth watching. They’re depressing, really. Here we are, the mightiest nation in the the world, the biggest badass history has ever seen, and we’re chasing around the desert after people dressed like Aladdin. Kind of like that time we chased around the jungle after people wearing black pajamas.

But war is coming to our shores. I can feel the drumbeat. The cable news talks about it all the time. The people, especially the white men in our country, are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. Who can blame them? They had the power. They had the privilege. Now a bunch of definitely not white men and women—women, for gods sake!—have knocked them off their mountaintop or, in the case of Appalachia, mud hill, and they mean to get those bastards. I think spiking their enemies’ food with oxycontin may be their strategy.

It’s not just the bigots and misogynists who will be taking to the barricades. Remember Occupy Wall Street? (Barely, you say. Wasn’t that a bunch of hippies having a block party?) Remember Ferguson? And Flint? There are a bunch of pissed off people on both sides of the political spectrum. They can’t agree on much except being mad at the way they’re being treated.

It used to be that we worked out our differences through politics. We elected our avatars and they went to the game and fought for us and sometimes they won and sometimes they lost but usually there were scores on both sides. Now the political game has ground to a halt. The Senate has been in full stop for years. The only thing the House votes on is repealing Obamacare.

You know what happens when the political process breaks down: Revolution, baby. Bring it on you lily-livered [fill in the blank for the group you hate].

It would be funny, if it weren’t. 

Anyway, what I’m wondering is where to watch the carnage unfold. I want to be close enough to see, but also safe. I think being mobile would be good. I live in Palo Alto, so I can put my house on Airbnb as a dormitory for the cyber warriors. I’m pretty sure cyber war will be involved in this one.

Also, I don’t know where to put my savings to keep them safe. Gold is the traditional haven, but I hate the gold standard—so delusionally primitive. I just can’t make myself go there. Maybe canned goods and shotgun shells, just in case things really get bad. But all that won’t fit in a backpack, and I don't want to dig a bunker in the Rockies. Wouldn’t be able to see a thing from there.

It’s a dilemma. I’ll figure it out, though. I’m determined not to miss the end of our civilization. I’ve still got a couple of months to make a plan.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Put on Your Red Dress, Baby!

You know those maps of the U.S. that show by state our politics, our weight and our drug habits? 

Why is the stuff that’s bad (at least to me, in the case of politics) always red?

Red is my favorite color. I love red sports cars. Now I feel like Rush Limbaugh is riding shotgun.

Is there anything hotter than a woman in a red dress? OMG, am I lusting after Ann Coulter?

“Red, the blood of angry men.”

Well, that fits.

But seriously, blue is cool. As in not warm. Not passionate. Not on fire. I’m a non-beef-eating liberal. Does that mean I don’t have the juice? I don’t wear eyeshades and earplugs to bed, I’ll tell you that.

I want to be red. I want to be hot. I just don’t want to have to move back to Tennessee and vote for Trump to do it.

It’s a dilemma. Hot or cool?

To go back to the Les Miz lyrics:

Who am I? I’m sissy blue.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Tours of the Trump Wall

Mexifornia: 2050

We are now offering exclusive tours of the Trump Wall, which for a time years ago separated us from our ancestral home in the region then known as California. 

The Wall has been fully restored. Throw a wet rag against the high voltage fence and watch it smoke and fry. Toss a melon across the trip-gun perimeter and watch it explode. 

At the Wall Resort and Theme Park, photograph your loved ones in actual burned-out hulks of the Jeeps and SUVs in which Americans who called themselves Minutemen patrolled the Wall. If you are feeling particularly brave, and want the most realistic experience possible, visit the water torture ride, where your boat stops under a waterfall until you push a button indicating that you have had enough. (One caution: it is recommended you stay inside the Wall Resort and Theme Park to avoid the unpleasantness of the white beggars.)

Visit the virtual reality booths to experience for yourself the sensation of the angry mobs in America in 2020, when the Wall was built. Listen to old interviews of our ancestors who were separated from their families. See the agonizing footage of children reaching out to their mothers as the Wall went up between them. Watch old newsreels of The Donald himself touring the Wall, standing on top of it and squinting into our land as he oversaw the construction of the gun towers ordering that the gun towers, remnants of which remain to this day.

Walk across no-man’s land to buy tequila and art at the shops at the base of the Wall. Go to the Museum of Walls to see the history of other famous walls, beginning in China and England and extending into the great walled Italian cities, where the old fortifications are now pleasant parks for Sunday promenades. 

Although the science was not well developed in The Donald’s time, we now better understand the great paradox of his behavior. How could he have thought he would succeed? He had been to the Great Wall of China. He had been to Tuscany. He had been to Berlin. He had seen those quaint artifacts of that barbaric past.

Discover the answers to those questions at the neuroscience exhibit, where you can see holograms of the sections of the brain that control paranoid irrational behavior. See actual scans of The Donald’s brain, which was preserved by our liberators for later study. The gray matter lesions that led to the Wall are easily seen on the scans. 

As a novelty, have your own brain scanned to see if you yourself are at risk of narcissistic   megalomaniacal delusion. Included with the Deluxe Wall Spa Package is a session with a psychiatrist, if you are worried that you might be a threat to anyone.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Come and Show Me that You're Mine

Remember the song Twist and Shout? 

Ah, glorious 1962. About the last year I thought I was a good dancer. After the Twist, it all got too unstructured for a poor white boy with middling rhythm.  

But it’s not dance moves that hearing the Isley Brothers exuberant recording yesterday got me thinking about.

“Come on and twist a little closer now, and let me know that you’re mine.”

I’ve just been in London, where Burkas abound. It’s a little unnerving to see women completely draped that way. 

“Baby I’m yours, and I’ll be yours until the stars fall from the sky,” sang Barbara Lewis in 1965.

Those were years when love meant possession.

My own awakening to the fact that I might be looking at love wrong came in 1974, when I heard Linda Rondstadt sing:

“Love is a rose,
But you better not pick it, 
It only grows when it’s on the vine.
Handful of thorns and you’ll know you’ve missed it.
Lose your love when you say the word mine.”

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard her sing those lyrics (LA, on the freeway, where one tends to spend a lot of time in LA). I had been so indoctrinated by the Isley Brothers and Barbara Lewis that hearing Linda's song was something like realizing for the first time that something I had taken for granted—like Republicans and my father’s immortality—might be wrong.

I wondered if I would have the guts to do that. To leave love on the vine. I wasn’t even sure what that meant, but it sounded wild and free and desirable in that way of things you want but can’t be sure you will get.

Music stirs the soul (and often other more clinical parts). It moves us like nothing else. In that way, it teaches us. There is no curriculum. No common core. You can hear what you want to. Learn what you want to.

In matters of love, the course catalogue is varied, but it tends to focus on sex and passion. There is an obsessive and possessive aspect to love. Nature arranged it that way, for the perpetuation of the species. But that primitive urge to possess someone has outlived its usefulness.

Woman power has been rising in the charts lately. Chrissy Hynde, Pink, Beyonce. These women won't be possessed.

The misogyny of rap is a troubling holdover. Really, we need to drop that whole violence against women thing.

When my sons Chris and Nick were very young, I used to sing them to sleep. One of our favorites was a Bette Midler song that I thought I liked just because it was a nice song. But I see now that it talks about love the way I would like my sons to think about it.

"When the night has been too lonely
and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only
for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun's love,
In the spring becomes the rose."

Monday, August 8, 2016

How I Spent My Summer

Summer is the growing season. On the earth, and in an individual life. Spring pokes up the fragile green shoots that by summer become robust. If they’re going to grow to the sky, summer is when they’ll do it.

I spent my summer hoeing and planting and watering, with hardly a moment to spare to consider whether I was working the right plot. I had my 40 acres. I worked them hard. They were fruitful. And when I wiped off the sweat as the fall came, I surveyed what I had done with some satisfaction.

Then the cool winds began to blow and the leaves tumbled out of the trees onto the lumpy ground that now lay fallow, or if not exactly fallow, dormant, waiting for a new farmer. I had time to look around and see the other plots like mine, all waiting to be tilled, and down the road, farther than I could see, I knew there were others like me, their work done for now, resting, waiting.

Tending that plot enabled me to raise my family. That is our Darwinian imperative, and so by that primitive measure I have been a success. But as I look out over the ground I have no further wish to till, I am not exhausted, and I think there must be more I can do. Surely survival, as important as it was, as it is, is not now the end of our quest.

We evolved brains that give us the power to move mountains, to erect skyscrapers, to make breathtaking art and music. These are more than survival skills. These are the power to create new realities. But individually, we all start first on the journey of mere survival. Find a job, a mate, raise children. 

Some of us end up, by design or by chance, in fields where what we do helps others. Medicine, science, etc. I often wish I had been one of those, working on cures for disease instead of corporate tax loopholes and ways to raise capital to expand a business.

I understand that we, as a people, as a society, are the sum of our parts, and that the part we each play in that arithmetic is important. And it is true that over time the ant hill of humanity gets generally bigger and stronger, and that it could not without the individual contribution of each of us. Still…

Since I’m unlikely at this point to discover a cure for cancer, I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help us do more than survive, or at least survive better. Perhaps it’s just the current political season, or the immigration fears in Europe, but it seems to me that one thing in particular stands in the way of humans living peacefully and prosperously together.

What is it? A lack of empathy.

Not for your children (well, not most of the time), not for your immediate neighbors or family, perhaps, but beyond that, in varying degrees, pretty much everyone else. Certainly we have no empathy for the bastard who cuts us off on the freeway (even though he may be rushing his son to the hospital). No empathy for the suicide bomber in the Middle East (even though he has come to believe that his martyred death is his holy duty).

The better we know people, the more we are able to see things from their point of view. The obvious difficulty is that we just don’t have time to get to know one another, especially not someone from another culture halfway around the world.

Stories can introduce us, though. The characters in our stories show us what they want and the difficulties they face. That understanding opens the door to empathy, and empathy to tolerance.

If we had that—tolerance for our rich diversity and common humanity—we could all go back to tending our plots and taking care of our families, secure in our personal safety and dignity.

I may be tending a different plot now, but I’ll always be a farmer. Telling stories calls upon the same faith and optimism as tilling the soil and waiting for the rains to come. Will the seeds dry up and blow away, or will they bear fruit? We’ll see.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Familiarity Breeds Contednedness

I grew up on white bread. My favorite sandwich was called a “round chicken.” It was white breast meat with white mayonnaise on white bread cut in circles. No crust, not a speck brown. Even the iceberg lettuce was white. The bread was so soft that it held the impression of your fingers when you put it down between bites. Most often it was Shorty who served me those sandwiches. He was a black waiter at the club. I could see he was black, but I hardly thought about it. He was a nice guy. I was thirteen.

That was it in my hometown: white and black. Mostly the blacks waited on the whites. I didn’t know any Jews, or if I did I didn’t know it. Mexicans were good-natured movie sidekicks, Pancho to the Cisco Kid. All I knew about China was what I read in The Good Earth. 

Gradually, my horizons expanded. I met Hispanic people in Los Angeles when I lived there. They were nice. They were gardeners and nannies, serving me like Shorty had, but I was different by then. I was no longer thirteen and thinking only of myself, and I began to see that if you spend enough time with someone, you get to know the person behind the role. You learn their joys and hardships, their politics and religion, and you come to realize that they are more like you than different.

I live in Palo Alto now, where many of my kids’ friends and a fair number of mine are Asian. They aren’t serving me, they are inventing the future. If anything, with my obsolete low-tech skills, I should be serving them. They are nice to me anyway. When I’m out of the room, I don’t think they make jokes about how clueless I am.

Over all these years, as I have moved deeper and deeper into the polyglot of humanity, one thing that stands out is that if you get to know people they’re almost always nice to you. And you to them. Friendliness and respect are like benevolent viruses passed along by close personal contact.

One of the problems we’re having now—and a reason for Donald Trump’s ugly success—is that many of us don’t know the people we are being told to fear. Take Muslims, for example. To a Westerner, Islam can seem like an exotic, dark religion. Often the women are forced to cover themselves. The young men are told they get virgins in heaven if they martyr themselves by killing infidels. The Koran is not widely understood and (like the Bible) is frequently misused.

I’m not sure what we do about all that. Have “Take a Muslim to Lunch” days? Are there even enough Muslims to go around in Kansas? Or will we just end up with a few fat Muslims?

The other approach, the one Trump wants to frighten us into, is to keep them as far away from us as possible. That will work for a little while, in some parts of the country. But obviously not forever.

The world’s population is growing, and migrating. Like it or not, we are on a collision course with diversity. Our choice is to try to understand and steer carefully through the change, or to try to run over it. If you think of us as something like the Titanic in a sea of icebergs, it’s pretty obvious which course is wisest.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Colossus

Depending on how you look at it, I’ve been away from home for either forty-five years or seventy-five days. The home I’ve been away from for so long is Nashville, Tennessee. The short-term absence is from the United States of America.

The Colossus of Rhodes, as imagined in a
16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck
In Nashville I was raised in privilege. I was a doctor’s son, a country-club brat and an all-boys prep schooler oblivious to the pervasive wickedness of Jim Crow. The black people I knew were caddies and cooks. They were all nice to me. I thought it was because they liked me.

By the time I finished law school and moved to Los Angeles my eyes had opened to racial discrimination, so that when I left, I was fleeing not only it but my own shame that my life had condoned it.

I returned to Nashville many times over the years, once even to live for a few years, but I was always a visitor. It wasn’t my home, and I didn’t want it to be.

I live in Palo Alto now, and have been in California most of my adult life. California has always seemed like a dream to me, an island of lost children. There are dark fissures, but sunshine and surf and vineyards are diverting. Of course I’ve learned gradually, almost reluctantly, that we in California have our own Jim Crow tendencies, with Hispanics playing the role of blacks, picking strawberries instead of cotton.

Like the African American caddies and cooks of my boyhood, my gardener and my children’s nanny seemed to like me. I know Sonia loves my sons.

I was shocked when California passed Proposition 187 to deny welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. It was overturned in court, but our ugly side had shown itself. Then we passed Proposition 8, banning gay marriage; and again the courts gave us a second chance. It has taken me a while to accept that California has bigots, just like the South.

California’s response to its own ugly instincts has been more hopeful than that of Southerners in the fifties and sixties to the elevation of blacks to full citizenship, at least in the eyes of the law. Not as much anger and hatred. Gradually we have accepted and embraced our large Hispanic population, even those who arrived illegally. We give undocumented residents driver licenses and welcome their children into our universities as residents.

California is investing in its immigrants. Not only because it is the moral thing to do, but because they are our future. Hispanics now outnumber whites in the state.

And these investments are paying off. Our economy is strong, we are innovating, and we have budget surpluses. Whereas the economies in states like Kansas, which have refused medicaid expansion, cut taxes on the rich and slashed social service spending, are struggling.

California is not perfect, but to me it is a model for how diverse people can come together in tolerance and mutually supportive enterprise for the benefit of all.

Which brings me to that other, shorter time away from home. I’ve been traveling in Europe for two months. You can’t go to Europe with your eyes open and not be struck by mankind’s ancient need to build walls and moats to protect itself from the onslaught of the other. 

Once again Europe is dealing with a surge of refugees, most of whom just want to be safe, but a few of whom are dangerous. When I visit Europe, I feel like a history student on a field trip. The beauty, banality and bestiality of mankind over the centuries is laid out in palaces, cafes and fortresses.

America is a young country, and I was young when the walls of segregation were being torn down by the Supreme Court in the fifties and Congress in the sixties. The fact that the popular legislative will followed, almost obediently it seemed, the moral dictates of the courts made it seem to me that freedom and fairness and equal opportunity were bright suns burning away old mists.

Now, at least at the Republican convention, those suns have set again, and the dark mist is creeping back in. I want to scream the way I did as a boy when a hapless fool in a Wolfman movie walked into a London fog: “No, don’t go there!”

Donald Trump has put on the tyrant’s epaulets. Only he, he says, can save us from the horror of dark-skinned people who want to kill us and rape our women. His harangues would be laughable, like a Saturday-Night-Live parody of a banana-republic thug with ridiculous hair, except that people are listening. Not just a few people. Enough that he is tied in some polls in the race for the presidency.

I did not think this was possible. I thought we had put our white robes and hoods and burning crosses in museums and taken our own pledge of “Never Again.” 

But I was wrong. And now I feel vaguely sick to be going back to America. Sick with apprehension and dread. Sick that my country could ignite in its own Holocaust.

My physical home is California, but my existential home is America. From a political and social standpoint California is a fair proxy for the way I might hope the country will go as it moves forward on its journey toward greater inclusiveness and equality of opportunity.

Donald Trump stands across that path like the giant Colossus he would have us believe he is, created in the image of Helios, god of the Sun. The ancient Colossus of Rhodes was erected to celebrate a great victory against invaders. That is Trump’s call to us. Repel those who would destroy you.

He is right in his prescription, but he has singled out the wrong threat. It is he who must be repelled. It is he who would destroy the very idea of America. It is he who would leave us no better off than all those European hill towns with crumbling walls that could not hold back the inexorable progress of man out of the darkness of bigotry and hatred.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Planked

I’m here in Cleveland, getting word of the Republican Platform as it is being forged on planks from trees that are up to six thousand years old, as old as the earth itself.

The big takeaway is that religion must be our polestar. The Bible should be taught in public schools because a good understanding of its contents is “indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry.” 

The Bible offers helpful everyday advice on subjects like what to do about your adulterous wife (kill her) or your homosexual neighbor (kill him too). Also important scientific facts, like the age of the earth (six thousand years, as noted above).

Some of the lesser, but still fine-grained, dense and hard as nails planks are:

Pornography is “a public menace.” This is generally understood to encourage seeking out pornography to destroy it, but only after making sure it’s really pornography, which might mean looking at it for a few seconds…or minutes…or hours. Better safe than sorry. You can never be too sure.

Judicial appointments should go only to judges “who respect traditional family values.” This plank was a big favorite of the divorce-lawyer lobby. Also supported by the DUI-attorney lobby.

 “Natural marriage” between a man and a woman is most likely to result in offspring who do not become drug-addicted or otherwise damaged. Because that’s been working out so well.

“Man-made law must be consistent with God-given, natural rights.” Showing that Republicans, while serious and god-fearing, still have twinkles their eyes, this dictum is widely known as the skinny dipping plank.

We’ll be interviewing presumptive nominee Donald Trump later to get his views, but his staff has hinted that since his name is not mentioned once, how good can it be?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Poker Down the Hall, Donald is Bringing the Beer

When I was in college, I used to play poker with a couple of friends whom I loved but who didn’t seem that smart. One of them always brought a few of his football buddies. I figured I couldn’t lose. But I did, almost every time. Turns out I have some compulsive need to draw to inside straights. Especially after a few beers. My friends always brought the beer. I guess they knew.


So that was an expensive lesson in not being as smart as I thought I was.

I learned it pretty well: I almost never play poker.

I fear that our country is about to repeat my mistake. We think we’re down a few chips but we can make it up with a flush named Donald Trump. Let me just tell you: not going to happen, the make it up part. If he gets elected, it’ll be like we have to suit up and go into the huddle with the New England Patriots: we’re going to get beat up pretty bad.

I drew to those inside straights because I wanted to believe in a miracle. Anyone voting for Donald Trump will be doing more or less the same thing. The odds are impossibly long, but maybe he can bring back our manufacturing base, bring Putin to his knees, deport the people living in your town you don’t like, never liked, make your son respect you and your lover give you…well, you know, whatever you've been missing.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton just wants us to take our medicine. We may know in our heart of hearts that it’s good for us, but we don’t like it and we’re sick and tired of being told to take it…especially, let’s face it, by a woman.

To put this election in historical perspective, Eisenhower was Clinton, and George W. was Trump. Boring and steady versus macho and disastrous. Ike plodded to prosperity and interstate highways. W. swaggered his way into the worst foreign policy mistake (Iraq) ever. W. didn't take anybody’s advice but his own, either. Sound familiar?

Sometimes we’re just itching for a change. This is one of those times. But we’re going to end up in a disastrous affair that ruins our relationship with one another if we take a room in the Trump Tower. And that would be the best outcome. The worst would be cities in nuclear ashes.

I’m sympathetic, as I said. And one reason is that it’s hard to tell from news reports that Trump is as big a liar and idiot as he is. 

I have this to say to the men and women in the media; Grow a pair.

It’s up to you to tell it straight, but that doesn’t mean parroting everything a candidate says. If “When did you stop beating your wife?” gets asked and reported often enough, a large number of people are going to be pretty sure wife beating has been going on.

Hillary is no saint, we all know that. The FBI said she was careless with her emails. The House spent a long time trying to prove she was careless with embassy lives in Libya. But she served well in the Senate and Barack Obama made her Secretary of State and sings her praises for the job she did.

You have to ask yourself, what would you rather have: a little careless, a little paranoid, but experienced and steady; or a big fat liar with no judgement and no understanding that he has no judgment?

This is serious, people. This is not the time to draw to an inside straight. Donald is buying the beer, and he’s telling the press stories about all the poker hands he’s won—he’s a big winner, huge—and there are reports that he took home the crown at the World Championship of Poker, which was solid gold, by the way. He says can teach us how to win too if we put him in the Oval Office, which would make a perfect place for a few craps tables and a roulette wheel.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Wide Walkers

On our trips we walk all over the cities we visit, often up to ten miles a day. This has given me a new awareness of certain sidewalk hazards I had not previously considered. If you are out and about, especially in the summer tourist season, here are a few species you'll want to watch out for.

The Phone Talker. Do not assume he sees you. He’s in another world. You're not really in his plans.

The Slant Walker. There is something about a straight line. Once people set out on one, they don't like to vary. If you see someone walking on a slanting vector that intersects yours, be prepared to give way.

The Shop Exiter. This is like being t-boned in your car at an intersection. You're walking past a store and out bursts someone, possibly laden with shopping bags. There is no defense to this. The best you can do is brace yourself in the instant before impact.

The Texter. A close cousin to the phone talker, but without any possibility of seeing you as he is fixated on his smart-phone screen. Nothing to do but dodge.

The Quick Stopper. The only way to avoid this completely unpredictable hazard is to not footgate.

The Fast Weaver. Very similar to his highway counterpart. Frequently followed by another who seems to be making a game of chasing him. Don't flinch. Hope their sense of timing is good and that there is not a Quick Stopper in their path who might cause a pileup.

The Wall Hugger. You're walking on the right side of the sidewalk, and here comes someone toward you on your side. They're hugging the storefronts, usually to stay in the shade or out of the rain. Be warned, they will not veer.

The Corner Hugger. A particularly dangerous breed of Wall Hugger. In effect, a Wall Hugger turning a corner from a perpendicular sidewalk, while hugging. If you and they reach the blind corner at the same time, a collision is certain.

An Umbrella Poker. This is a particularly dangerous species in a very light drizzle, when your umbrella might not be up for self defense. The points of the umbrella are always at your eye-level. Nothing to do but duck. Also a risk on a very sunny day from umbrellas being used as parasols.

The Backpack Swatter. Here are the elements of this hazard: a bulging backpack and a quick, ninety degree body rotation. Capable of completely taking out children.

The Unyielder. This can be a single person, but more usually it is a group of two or three. They are approaching, the sidewalk is wide enough for them, but not you and them. You keep thinking they will give you room to pass, but don't be so sure. This species may be identified by studied obliviousness to your approach. 

Of course it goes without saying that the danger from the Unyielder is at its greatest with large groups, particularly school outings and older folks being led by someone with a flag on a stick. They move as a single organism that is only slightly sensitive to contact with others. There is some danger of actually being swept away by a group like this without their ever realizing you are there.

It's a jungle out there. Good luck. The best advice might be to go out mostly at night, when fewer people are pouring down the lanes and the cities are at their most beautiful. People seem more relaxed at night, perhaps with the aid of a drink or two and no pressure to get to the next must-see monument.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Boy in the Forest

Once there was a boy who was difficult. That was the kindest way to put it. He fused and bit and hit and as he grew older his biting and hitting became a problem. He hurt people. He lived alone with his father, who, in the way of men of his village, was kind but stern. Desperate for his son to change, and not knowing what else to do, the father told the boy he must stop hitting and biting or he would no longer be welcome in his home. 

The boy thought that was fine. Without a word to his father, he went into the forest with other boys like him and lived under a lean-to near a sparkling stream. It was spring and there was fruit on the trees and the water in the stream was clear and clean. His friends showed him how to chew the leaves of a special plant that made him feel happy and lazy, and he spent the spring and summer that way, lost in the sensuality of his freedom and the plant’s relief from his anger.

Winter came. His friends began drifting away. He went home. His clothes and hair were ragged and dirty and his skin was dark from being outside. He walked into the village and no one knew him. When he came to his home, his father ran to him and held him and cried. He took him inside and bathed him and cut his hair and fed him. 

When his son was clean and fed, the father told him that he wanted him to come back home but he must change, and he must ask forgiveness from all those he had hurt and make amends to them. He said that is the way a man behaves. 

The night, while his father slept, the boy went back into the forrest.

The man asked his friends to help him search for his son. Some came with him. Others said it was up to the boy to find himself. 

He could not find the boy, and when he got home after days of looking he went to the the council of village elders and asked them what he should do.

One of the elders said the boy should be punished, that that was the way to show him how to behave. Another said he must renounce the boys who had befriended him and given him the plant that took away his will. The wisest of the elders said simply that the boy was a man now and must make his own way. No one could decide for him.

But he will die, the father said. He has the years of a man, but he is still a boy. I see it in his eyes. I see the fear. He will not say it, but I see it.

One of the elders was a shaman. He suggested that the boy might be ill. He recommended leeches to draw out the ill humors that possessed him. 

He will not submit to leeches, the father said.

Well, then, the shaman said, there is nothing more we can do. His life is up to him.

The father left home that afternoon and went again in search of his son. It is not recorded whether he found him or whether the boy stopped hurting people or whether he hurt his father again, for he had done so before. Neither one of them was ever seen again.

A few years later the village moved to a new valley. The story of the boy would have been forgotten if it had not been written down by the shaman. He had thought the leeches might work, and even though he had not been permitted to try them, he recorded the story so that over time others might learn from it what they could.

Two hundred years later a modern shaman, Maia Szalavitz, has written in The New York Times about new ways to help boys and girls like the young boy from the village. Boys and girls who are self destructive and angry, who are abusing drugs or alcohol, who have exhausted the patience of their family and friends and become isolated. Boys and girls who are in danger of disappearing into the forest.

Surveying emerging understanding of the brain chemistry of addiction, Ms. Szalavitz  hypothesizes that addiction is a hijacking of normal brain circuitry for unintended uses. Like OCD, which amplifies fears so that mundane concerns become matters of life and death, addiction corrupts the pleasure-reward paths of love.

This is especially tough on adolescents, whose cognitive moderators of their intense desires have not yet fully matured. Think of the passions and deaths of Romeo and Juliette. Half of adolescent addicts will grow out of their addictions by age thirty. But the other half will not. And even for those who do, there are lost opportunities and derailed lives. One day you’re graduating from high school, on your way to college, the next you’re thirty, a single parent with no advanced education and ten years of wasted life.

Like those village elders of two hundred years ago, we have not advanced much beyond chastising and punishing bad behavior and insisting that the addict find it within himself to change. We do have AA now, and programs like it. But taking the twelve steps doesn’t help most people.

“Addiction is a learning disorder,” Ms. Szalavitz suggests, “shaped by genetic and environmental influences over the course of development.” 

Addicts have learned to love the wrong thing.

“The implications for treatment are profound,” she says.

She sites a meta-analysis of dozens of studies over four decades that found that “empowering, empathetic treatments like cognitive behavior therapy and motivational enhancement therapy, which nurture an internal willingness to change, work far better than the more traditional rehab approach of confronting denial and telling patients they are powerless over their addiction.”

“If addiction is like misguided love, then compassion is a far better approach than punishment,” Ms. Szalavitz concludes. “This makes sense, because the circuitry that normally connects us to one another socially has been channeled instead into drug seeking. To return our brains to normal then, we need more love, not more pain.” 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Toss 'Em Out, They're Robbing Us Blind

I only thought the Jews in Venice had it tough. Yes, their forced isolation gave us the term “ghetto,” but there weren't so many of them and they got to stick around better and longer than in Vienna, where I am now. Here they have been expelled at least three times. The first was in 1421. A hundred eighty years later, the emperor let them back in because he needed their business acumen to finance for the Thirty Years War. He put them in a ghetto, though, in a flood-prone area near the Danube.

Part of "The Gates of Violence," by Alfred Hrdlicka, Vienna.
Having Jews around wasn’t working for Leopold I, so in 1670 he expelled them again.

By 1848, enough Jews had returned and prospered that the issue of their civic equality boiled over.

“There can be no mistaking the partiality of some Jews for a republican government form so as to come into unlimited possession of all civil rights (emancipation) and hence to achieve all the more certainly the most complete domination over you and an even greater control of the state treasury and of the more lucrative positions.” (The words of a denigrator at the time.)

In response, Emperor Franz Joseph stripped them of their rights to own property and join civil service. He let them stay, though, and eventually they earned something close to equality. 

Until 1938 and the years of WW II, when they they were not only expelled but murdered en masse. Sixty-five thousand of them.

What strikes me about the story of Jews in Vienna is not just that they were persecuted, but that their tormentors took not only racist pleasure but also practical delight in what they were doing. Local burghers happily admitted they wanted to be free of commercial competition from Jews.

Every time I go to Europe, I end up face-to-face with the marginalization, abuse and murder of Jews. It’s sickening. It makes me ashamed for all of us.

But that’s not the end of the story. Indeed, the problem is that the story doesn’t end. Even as I write this, we’re doing it again. No, continuing to do it, would be a better way to put it.

Disenfranchising blacks. Marginalizing women. If our right-wing has it’s way, expelling Muslims.

But wait, there’s more. And from places you might not associate with the contemptible behavior of racists and anti-semites. The Viennese abhorred the financial power of the Jews. Know anyone else railing against the moneyed oligarchy? Do you find it ironic that Bernie Sanders is Jewish? Shouldn’t he know better than to speak in categoric denunciations? Does he have no memory or understanding of where that leads?

We don’t need more revolutions. Not Bernie’s kind or any other. The quest for equality is an enduring struggle, not a war. We don’t need to throw out the bankers, we need to work with them. After all, we may end up like that Austrian emperor in 1600, the one who needed the financial mavens of his time to raise money to fight a real war.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Trump Ghetto

The sun is going down, and the young man looks up at the darkening sky and hurries home from his job in the city of Venice, Italy. He is Jewish, and in his time, five hundred years ago, he and all Jews had to be within the confines of their island ghetto by dark. The doors to the bridges over the canals that surround the ghetto were locked. Venetians patrolled the canals throughout the night to make sure the young man and the other Jews in the ghetto did not come out before morning.

One entrance to the Jewish Ghetto in Venice
Jews came to Venice beginning in about 1250. They came to escape persecution. They were allowed to stay, but only if they wore clothing that identified them as Jews: a yellow hat at first, then red, then yellow again. They could only work as money lenders or pawn brokers, or in textiles or as doctors. In 1516, the ruling council of Venice met to decide whether to send the Jews away. They let them stay, but nighttime confinement in the ghetto was the condition they imposed. 

The lodgings the Venetian Jews were forced to accept were in an area of foundries, the word for which was getto. This is where the term ghetto, as we use it today—a place of poor living conditions in which people are crowded together—originated. 

Unlike sixteenth-century Venetian Jews, residents of today’s American ghettos are forced to live there by economic circumstances, not by government edict. Soon, though, if Donald Trump has his way, we may return to the original meaning of the term. It would not be Jews who are forcibly segregated this time—at least Trump has not yet proposed that—but Muslims and undocumented Hispanics. 

He plans to round up both groups and deport them. He’ll have to have somewhere to keep them while they are being processed. We don’t have canals, but we could throw up some walls—he loves walls—and have white supremacists in pickup trucks patrol the perimeter. They’ll be carrying, of course, because this is America and we all carry, or want to carry, or should want to carry if we weren’t loser gay sissies. 

Ethnic cleansing is a go-to tactic for paranoid autocrats. We know that. We remember that. I mean, it hasn’t been that long. We know what it will mean if we go along with Trump’s plan. We know what it will mean if if we put him in office to carry it out. We know what we will be approving.

The Jews hung in there in Venice for a long time, but gradually most moved away. When the Holocaust came, the number of Jews in Venice was down to twelve hundred. Of those, over two hundred were shipped off to extermination camps. But the city had marked them and segregated them and humiliated them for hundreds of years by then, so I imagine it was an easy enough thing, a kind of natural and inevitable progression, to send them off to death camps.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Making of Brock Turner

Brock Turner is Donald Trump. A poor example of the kind of person we hope our young men will become. Spoiled, entitled and crass. Not someone who, to say the least, treats women with respect. In denial about the kind of person—I am not willing to say a man—he is. 

The Republican establishment is horrified that Donald Trump is their nominee. Their’s is a disingenuous revulsion. They got what they encouraged. They created the conditions of bigotry, sexism and aristocratic entitlement that gave rise to his political ascension as surely as if they had sent him off to terrorist training camp. 

Just as Donald Trump was suckled on the xenophobia and misogyny tolerated by his party, Brock Turner was nurtured by a culture that indulges and exploits portraying women as the rightful province of men.

Women are marketed as possessions of men. In seductive ads for jewelry, purses and perfume, they wear nearly nothing, while the men remain fully dressed. The women are submitting. They are being bought for the price of a handbag. The men don’t even have to remove their jackets.

In a train station I just passed through, a huge Armani poster shows a sensuous young woman—she might be sixteen or seventeen—alone, looking directly into the camera with defiant provocativeness. “You don't deserve even to look at me,” she seems to be thinking. “Not unless you’re man enough.”

A study in 2011 by sociologists at the University of Buffalo found that “the portrayal of women in the popular media over the last several decades has become increasingly sexualized, even ‘pornified.’” A 2014 study by Dr. Linda Papadopoulos found that viewing sexually objectifying images of women in mainstream media increases acceptance of violence towards women. 

Whatever their parents are telling them, the broader culture is saying to young men and women that women are for sex. 

When they go off to college, young men and women are invited to fraternity parties (like the one where Brock Turner met his victim) that are too often alcohol-soaked, testosterone-spiked venues for sex trolling. This is not an environment that is emotionally healthy for young men and women out on their own for the first time. Just the opposite. 

A 2009 study in the journal of student affairs professionals found that fraternity members are almost twice as likely to binge drink as non-members. A 2007 study by the same group reported that fraternity members are three times more likely to commit rape than non-members.

If we want our young men not to grow up like Brock Turner, we have to show them the proper way to treat women. We have to speak out against the objectification of women in advertising and in institutions like college fraternities. If we do not, just as Republicans must acknowledge their role in creating their frankenstein, we must accept our share of responsibility for the sexual aggression and abuse of women our culture breeds.

Individually, we are responsible for our actions. Collectively, we are liable for our silence.