Monday, April 25, 2016

I Will Never Lie to You About Having Sex With That Crook

“I am not a crook.” Richard Nixon.

That has always been one of my favorites. He was of course. But that was the least of it. He was also a paranoid bigot.

After Tricky Dick we had a bit of a backlash to presidential dishonesty and elected Jimmy Carter, who promised, “I will never lie to you.”

All that moral integrity turned out to be too wimpy for our taste, though, so we tossed the peanut farmer from Plains for a movie cowboy with barely credible black hair and a twinkle in his eyes who promised a new morning in America. If you weren’t poor. Or a woman (he killed the ERA). Also he didn’t fund the Contras in Nicaragua with secret illegal arms sales to Iran. Reagan’s defense when he came clean was that he didn’t know the details. At least that was credible. He never knew the details.

“Read my lips, no new taxes.” George H. W. Bush. Oh, except those new taxes. Had to do it. Wouldn’t be prudent not to.

“I did not have sex with that woman.” Well, not that kind of sex, at least not with that one, but close enough. (And, on that subject, let’s not even get started on Kennedy. Which one? Any of them.)

And the saddest, to me personally, uttered by my latest hero: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Oops, there it is, right there in the Syrian sand, a red line. Imagine that.

I’m not saying politicians are congenital liars. They’re just…well, politicians. Sometimes they just get carried away telling us what we want to hear. Othertimes they get caught at some Machiavellian skulduggery or taking a wide stance in the men’s bathroom stall. So they duck. Backpedal. Lie. Cover up.They’re like toddlers caught doing something they know they’re not supposed to. It’s kind of amusing, really.

Amusing! You’re shocked, you say, that I find humor is such grave breaches of public trust. It’s not that, honest. It’s just that I find humor in human nature. Look at your kids. Look at yourself. See what I mean? Really, is it reasonable to expect more from our elected officials? (Other than Jimmy Carter, who was so humorless we got bored with him.) They are only human, after all.

So if trust is not the proper yardstick, what is? The answer is simple: policies.

But if we can’t trust them, how do we know they will flow through with their policies?

Good question. We don’t, not entirely. But there is a momentum to policy. There are a Congress and a Cabinet. A lot of people get behind policies. The president is the leader, but he or she is leading a big herd. The herd is going to keep going, even if the president suddenly decides he or she wants to go the other way. Herds have momentum. And ultimately a collective mind of their own.

So who do you want to be your wrangler? That’s the question you have to ask yourself. Do you want the herd to go east or west? Who’s mapping the route to green pastures and who’s asking Siri for the location of the nearest slaughterhouse? Maybe the candidates want the job for the wrong reasons. Maybe they were thrown out of the last town they were in. Maybe they hit the bottle a little too hard. But whatever their honesty, or your impression of it, they aren’t going to get the herd where you want it to go if they set off in the wrong direction.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Good Taste and Terrorism

Raise your hand if you love “rose gold” (the newish color for Apple products). Me, not so much. I don’t know why. I just don’t. Maybe because it’s ugly.

But wait. I can’t say that. Not about an Apple color. Not me, one of their die-hard fan-boys. Besides, it sells like crazy. Could I be wrong?

Where I grew up, in the South, good taste was a matter of high snobbery, an ineffable mark of good breeding and class. It was like blue eyes or a great physique, except for people who had neither. “Yes, she has a certain animal appeal, but her clothes are so common.”

We used to call bad taste “tacky.” Too bright. Too showy. Of course, we were Puritan stock, so sartorial modesty was deep in our DNA. I remember the first time I went to an Indian wedding after I moved to LA. All those bright colors. I was new to learning about the world and it was at first hard to reconcile my “ bright is tacky” heritage with my affection for the father of the bride. A similar internal conflict arose within me when my grandmother returned from five years in Bangkok with a closet full of Thai dresses. I think we gave them all away when she died; no one in our Southern family wanted them. I was an idiot then. I admit it. I have purged most of those biases. All but rose gold.

Go with me now as I wander down a similar path to the Stanford Mall. I’m sitting at an outside table, eating a sandwich and working on a story, when a person-sized robot rolls by. It has cameras all around it and it emits an eerie Twilight-Zone music (presumably so you’ll know it’s there and not bump into it). Once in a while it announces that it is a security robot. 

Okay, a little creepy, but fine. As I sit there, though, it comes back by a half-dozen times. I begin to imagine that it is focusing on me. I wonder if I fit some security profile. I’m a white man out in the middle of the day. Out of work? Disaffected? I have a black backpack with me. I think about giving it the finger. I wonder what it would do if I put black tape over its cameras.

I do not like to be surveilled. I moved all the way from Nashville to Los Angeles specifically to get out of reach of my father’s surveillance network. Anonymity has always offered me a kind of private bliss. As I imagine religion might offer others.

That same day, I read about a PhD student at Berkeley who was escorted off a Southwest flight and questioned by the FBI for three hours because he was speaking to his uncle on the telephone in Arabic. “Inshallah,” he said at the end of the call. Big mistake. Everyone who has watched thrillers knows that’s what the bad-guys say right before the bomb goes off.

So what does that have to do with rose gold? That color (or choose one you don’t like) is the other. Those people (speakers of strange languages) are the other. We don’t like them. If prompted, we fear them. Enter the flight attendants who ask you to leave the plane. Enter the security robot at the mall.

I admit to internal turmoil. I want us all to be left alone, but not so much so that we kill one another. There’s an inherent conflict there. I know that.

All this got me wondering, again, why I don’t like rose gold. There’s the raised by Puritans explanation. I do favor black and white. But it’s more than not liking rose gold: I think its ugly. Why do I take that step? Wouldn’t it be sufficient to say (which I do, except in meditations like this), hey if you like it, great. But secretly, some part of me feels, hey, if you like it, there’s something wrong with you. Definitely not raised by Puritans.

I’m civilized enough not to say these things out loud. “Nice, phone dude,” is what I say. But why do I feel that tiny frisson of disgust? What part of evolution has brought that on?

It’s adaptive, I suppose. The other might kill you. Whether it’s the guys in the next cave or the mushroom you have never seen before. This is the root of taste as a matter of survival. That and middle school.

We want pluralistic societies. We want tolerance for differences. Indeed, we must have those things if we are to survive as a species as we wash up over one another in the rising tide of humanity. Eventually, with exposure, we get used to the differences among us. It seems to take a lot of exposure, though, and a lot of time. I hope we get there in something faster than the speed at which we learned to walk upright.

And maybe by then I will think rose gold is beautiful. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Man for Another Season

I mourn Antonin Scalia, the man. He was, by all accounts, a man of intelligence, humor and charm. But I will not miss Antonin Scalia the jurist. He had a pinched view of the Constitution that was for another time.

He was a textualist, by which he meant that a law says what its plain language states, not what the people adopting it meant. Unless the people adopting it were the founding fathers, in which case the law (the Constitution) means what they meant it to say. He called that approach being an originalist. I call it expedient.

Enough has been written about the state of politics, suffrage and slavery at the time of the founding of our country that it need not be repeated. Suffice it to say that under those circumstances the Constitution is an amazingly democratic and pluralistic governing credo. Which is why it has endured.

Our society is very different today than it was then. We have adapted to tremendous shifts in economic, political and cultural norms. This is why we have endured. No organism, amoeba or nation, can survive and flourish if it fails to adapt to a changing environment.

The founders did not contemplate today’s conditions. They could not have. To try to gather their views, as if by seance, to inform decisions about how we should live together today, is folly. Most of us aren’t even interested in our father’s or grandfather’s old-fashioned opinions about how we should live our lives, never mind Thomas Jefferson’s.

Justice Scalia took pride in saying that he did not let his personal views inform his judicial judgements. I do not believe that.

He was unabashedly homophobic. He did not advocate protecting women’s reproductive rights. He thought it was fine for us all to carry arms, no matter the gun violence in our cities. He said once, only half joking, that he might draw the line at shoulder-held anti-aircraft weapons.

He was, in his devout adherence to his Roman Catholicism and to his personal views about what is socially moral and acceptable, a man of an earlier time. He did not like the cultural changes the were thrust upon him. And he did not like expanding the interpretation of the Constitution to accommodate them. He fought back by saying those expansions were not part of the plain text, were not part of what the founders had in mind, and so were illegitimate.

He did not like the right to privacy found in Roe v. Wade. He thought the concept of substantive due process was an oxymoron. He did not think Brown v. Board was well decided. He thought it was not a good thing, through affirmative action, to let blacks swim in educational waters that he thought might be too deep for them.

He was an eighteenth-century man railing against the modern world. Women, gays, blacks. He resisted change, but change we must.

So long, Antonin. My condolences to your family and friends (among them your ideological opposites, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elena Kagan, which says a lot about you as a friend). I’m not religious, but you were. I hope you’re up there in heaven with Jefferson and Adams slapping you on the back, welcoming you home.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Woman of a Certain Age

Judi Dench for President. She wouldn’t take any crap off Putin. Or Bond. Or any of the boys she regularly keeps in their place.

Or Helen Miren.

Or Gloria Steinem.

Maybe we could have a seance and see who Eleanor Roosevelt would favor.

Strong women one and all. 

The question today is this: are we ready to go beyond the strong women of film and the lionesses of feminism and elect a woman as president? 

I hope so. Not just because I think it would be the same kind of breakthrough as was electing a black man, one that offerers a role model to girls and women, one that gets the rest of us used to the idea, but because I think a woman might do a better job than a man. I’m quite certain that Hillary Clinton would do a better job than any of her rivals.

Bernie Sanders has good ideals, but no way to get there. The Republicans, by and large, don’t even have good ideals. It’s hard for me to imagine why any modern, self-respecting woman would vote for any of the current crop of misogynist Republican contenders.

As to Bernie, he’s the Ralph Nader of this go round. He has broader support, but the same flaws. He’s rigid about what he sees as right and wrong. If you don’t agree with him, he doesn’t want to talk to you. He wants to lead a revolution, not a discussion. His revolution isn’t going to happen in our country any time soon. And, as far as he is concerned, neither is a discussion of alternatives.

These things seem so obvious to me that I am struggling to understand why Hillary Clinton isn’t the landslide choice of anyone, man or woman, who wants the country to be the land of opportunity for all, not just the wealthy, but who also understands that the animal spirits of capitalism are why our economy leads the world.

Hillary Clinton takes on her adversaries forthrightly. She scolds when she thinks someone needs it. She fights back aggressively when attacked.

Kind of reminds one of “M.” We all love M. But the Bond films are just movies, and a man is the star. 

We admire the strong women of film. We admire pioneers like Roosevelt and Steinem. Somehow, though, we are having a hard time going from them to a woman president.

We are emotionally conflicted when it comes to women. We admire strong women, but they scare us a little. Most of us have been raised by and around women in more traditional supporting roles. It’s a little weird to think of them leading us the way men have in the past.

Rather than admit that very natural reaction to cultural roles in transition, we come up with excuses in the specific case to put off the day of reckoning. She’s too shrill. She’s too bossy. Sure, a woman would be fine as president, just not her.

Many say that women have had to be tough to get ahead in a man’s world. The implication is that, yes, she’s disagreeable but she had to be. I don’t buy that. I don’t think the women who are rising into leadership roles are any different than the men they are replacing. They are as tough as they need to be. It’s just that we’re not used to seeing that from women.

We need to get used to it. There’s nothing wrong with them. The trouble is in the eye of the beholder.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Is Sexy Sexist?

Is sexy sexist?

On either side of the gender line?

It will be a great day when women and men are treated equally. It will be a sad day if we lose sexy in the process.

I believe we can have our cake and pop out of it too. 

Here are some ideas for how:

Objectify money, not women (or men). Objectify fame. Objectify private jets and Pulitzer prizes. Objectify anything but each other. All those other things are things. We are not.

No article of clothing is “asking for it.” Still, there are horses for courses. Dress for the way you plan to work or play, and don’t mix up the two.

Gender equality begins at home. Do for one another the things we know make us feel good, and the things we don’t really want to: Examples in category one: compliments (even when a bit of a stretch); opening doors; random flowers (for men or women); making dinner. In category two: cleaning the house; staying home with the sick kid; visiting his or her family regularly; giving up some of your career to make his or hers better.

Gender equality means fantasy equality. Do what turns the two of you on. That’s a different thing than all the rest of life. You may not think you can turn fantasy on and off like a light switch, but trust me, you can. Really, it’s more like striking a match.

And lastly, in this time of transition for women from fifties wives to tech warriors, and for men from Don Draper to Mark Zuckerberg, don’t gender stereotype your children. What you teach them before they know anything else can take a long time to unlearn. Teach them to see themselves the way you want to be seen.

I love a powerful woman (both in principle and in real life). I love a sexy woman (ditto). Make something like that happen in your own life (with the gender of your choice). Believe me, it doesn’t get any better.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Spreading the News

The Good News came to Iowa last night. Good news for Cruz, Trump, Rubio and their large blocks of evangelical supporters.

What does that mean for the rest of us?

The English word “evangelical” comes from “euangelion,” Greek, meaning “the good news.”

So far so good.

According to the website of the National Association of Evangelicals, “The evangelical faith focuses on the ‘good news’ of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.”

Okay, not too bad. A little specific to that one prophet, but I grew up around Christians and they seemed harmless enough at the time. This was after the crusades and witch burnings, so I never felt any fear other than of having to sit in church and listen to some guy tell me that pretty much my whole plan for the next week was going to send me to hell. I even liked singing bible songs around campfires. (The s’mores were a big inducement.) Here’s one song I remember:

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red, brown, yellow
Black and white
They are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children
Of the world.

The song was written by C. Herbert Woolston of Chicago, who was said to have been inspired by Matthew 19:14, where Jesus says, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.”

So that’s good, right? The good news according to Jesus is to welcome all the little children, regardless of color.

But wait, not those Muslim kids. He couldn’t have meant them. And surely not the Mexicans and Central Americans. There were no Muslims or Mexicans nearby when Jesus uttered those welcoming words.

Maybe what Jesus urged us to do must be construed in the context of his time. Maybe evangelicals are originalists, like Scalia on the Supreme Court.

There were Egyptians nearby in Jesus’s time, but nobody is talking much about Egyptian immigrants just now. Syrians were all over the place then. They’re trying to get in now, but the darlings of the evangelicals—Cruz, Trump and Rubio—don’t want to let them in because they might be terrorists. Maybe that’s a distinction an originalist evangelical can hang onto. There were no suicide vests in Jesus’s time, so no worries about welcoming a few Syrians in those days, but now…  

I have to say, what evangelicalism seems to me to boil down to is rejection of anyone who is not a Christian. As far as I know, Iowa’s evangelicals haven't suggested dealing with heretics the way as ISIS does—I haven’t seen any images of bloody heads rolling down snow-covered Iowa corn rows—but they make me nervous nevertheless.

I’m not a Christian, but that’s not supposed to matter in our country. Remember us, the nation founded by people fleeing religious persecution?

Elections have consequences. This isn’t about a constitutional interpretation by the Supreme Court, which tries with varying degrees of success to balance our two pillars of religious liberty, the establishment and the free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment. This is about the will of the people. Whom do we want to lead us? What principles do we hold most dear?

Are they exclusion or inclusion? Are they fear or hope? Will we help others, as Jesus and the Golden Rule exhort us to, or only those who look like us and share our faith?

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Life Out of Focus

The first images of the movie have the jumpy, chaotic gaiety of a home video. The girl, age five or six, is at a family gathering, smiling and miming. Everyone is smiling and laughing in that too loud, too good-natured family-get-together kind of way. The adults are sunk deep into couches and the kids are roiling about and the film washes out now and then with the glare of backlighting and then zooms in on the faces one at a time to save this moment for each person to be able to see how they were then.

You think: This is so ordinary. Where is it going? Your attention drifts to the others in the theatre. You wonder why such obvious sentimentality holds their attention.

When you look back at the screen, the images are unsteady. The hand that is holding the camera is shaking, or maybe the children are shaking the whole room. The girl is more aware of the camera than the others, was even in those first scenes, you now realize. She is hamming it up, almost flirting, even at nine or ten.

There is another jump-cut of time passing. The family is not in the scene now. The girl is alone in a park at twilight. She has a cap pulled low over her forehead. She seems to be looking for someone. Before we see if she finds him or her, she wanders into darkness.

You can see from the reaction of people around you that the abrupt change of mood has gotten their attention. They are not unwrapping candy wrappers. They are not slurping sodas. 

Now the on-screen images are of the girl in her teens and she is running. We can’t see from what, but she seems afraid. She is stumbling. Her mouth is open and it looks like she is screaming, but there is no sound. Then we see others behind her. We don’t know who they are, or whether they are chasing her to save her or harm her. She glances back at them and keeps running.

A man in the row ahead of you whispers something to the woman he is with, and they get up and leave.

The girl, older still, is in shadows. Wandering. We can see her face but not what she is thinking or feeling. She is expressionless. She drifts in and among people and speaks to them but we cannot hear what she is saying. She takes a paper bag from a boy who looks older than she and moves off into the shadows again and when the camera finds her she is lying on the ground, a coat pulled up over her. It looks like she is asleep. She might be dead, she is that still. That alone.

The rustling of people getting up catches your attention, and you see that many are leaving the theatre. The movie doesn’t seem to be over, but it is over for them. Maybe they just don’t want to see what is going to happen to the girl. They should stay, you think. It can’t end this way.

The scene shifts to a diner. The girl is in a booth. She is painfully thin and pale. She has a plate of french fries in front of her, smothered in ketchup. Someone is in the booth across from her, but we can’t see who. It seems that her unseen companion is speaking to her. The girl glances up now and then as she eats the french-fries and the ketchup reddens her mouth, but we cannot hear what is being said. She finishes the food and gets up and leaves. The camera follows her out into the bright afternoon. She walks along the sidewalk, weaving slightly, and gradually the camera pulls back and we can see her approach a group of people paused at a stoplight to cross the street. She stops at the back of the group and when the light changes the group crosses the street and spreads out and it becomes difficult to pick her out of the crowd.

There are only a few others left in the theatre now. No one is getting up. They seem as stunned as you. Why have we been watching this? you want to ask them. Why would someone tell a story like this? It is not a story of redemption or triumph. There is not a happy ending. There is no ending. We have no idea what will become of the girl, but we are uneasy for her, afraid for her. She is on her own, choosing her own path, but we wonder if it was not somehow chosen for her, if she was not propelled along it by those earlier scenes that were so blurry and out of focus, or by some blurriness inside her that kept what she was seeing as distorted and elliptical as the scenes we have been watching. We wonder what we are meant to learn from them. How we are meant to feel. Where, when we leave the theatre and go out into the bright afternoon, we are meant to go.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Playing Against Type

—Jamestown, VA. Winter, 1609. The Starving Winter. 

I have built a sound cabin of logs I cut while the weather was fair, daubed with clay and straw. We have a fire pit in the corner, with a ventilation hole. I can’t call it a fireplace, but it suffices. We are adequately warm and dry, but we, like all our neighbors, have little food. Daily I tramp through the woods and try to snare a hare or partridge. The game is hunted out nearby, though, and I dare not wander too far lest I fall prey to savages and leave my family defenseless. Lately, I have taken to hunting at night so that I can safely range farther. I sit in a snowbank staring into the darkness, my senses as sharp as the cold, and wait.

—Belle Meade Country Club, Nashville TN. 1959. The Summer of White Privilege.

I have played golf almost every day. I am getting better, but not fast enough. To impress my father with my improvement, I sometimes kick a ball out of a bad lie or concede myself a putt that is too long for that, even among boys. For lunch I have round chicken sandwiches on white bread with no crust, served by Pewee or Shorty or one of the other waiters at the club who are at this stage somewhere between my servants and my friends. It is not enough, though, this ceaseless repetition. Golf is challenging, but not a challenge. My survival will not depend on it. I’ve gotten a paper route, getting up at 4:30 to deliver the morning paper. In the afternoons, I’ve started cutting yards. I’m making money. Not my father’s money. I don’t sign a ticket at the club on his account for it. I’m saving for a car, one I will pick out myself.

My ancestors survived that Starving Winter, or ones very like it. I survived—if you will forgive the use of the word in this context—the Summers of White Privilege. The restless need to be doing something to forge ahead is deep in my DNA. When I’m not honoring its imperative, I get uncomfortable. Like I am now. Like I have been for years.

From the days of that first paper route, I loved to work. I loved the independence, the sense of self worth, bestowed by both the money I earned and by the force-field of energy and purpose that was the work itself. I was never happier than when riding through the rain on my bike tossing newspapers onto dry porches with the precision of a big-league baseball pitcher. I was never happier than when doing five deals at once as lawyer, sleepless and exhilarated to be lancing legal judgements through storms of conflict over money and power.

Not everyone has been as happy with my DNA. I was driven. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty if you got in my way. I didn’t spend enough time with my family. No, that’s an understatement.

Then a strange thing happened. I stopped all that restless charging and began writing. I kept it up because I liked the calmer me. I liked being with my children. I nodded to my DNA by making pancakes and after-school snacks, coaching soccer, running a chess club. But that crop of kids moved on. (They all do, let me just warn you.) 

And now, here I am, the new calmer me, writing away, ever hopeful. It’s a better life that daubing the chinks in the cabin with clay and straw as the snow piles up and the children cry for food, but there is an unease to all its ease. Something in me stirs. It is restless. It urges me to do something. I don’t think it cares what, just something, As long as the doing is all consuming. As long as I’m all in.

Does that mean I’m not all in on writing? I think it must. I like it. I am a better man for it. I understand myself better, the world better. But it is a faintly painful kind of better. I don’t think I’m happier. Just better.

I wonder sometimes if my DNA will ever leave me alone. Will it evolve within me (if such a thing is possible) in time for me to be both better and happier. Will it change at all? To be more evolutionarily specific, I wonder what I have passed along. The compulsion to survive, almost certainly. But also the urge to create? There is nothing I would like more than to read this blog by my children or grandchildren when they are my age. To learn how they will feel then. About the world. About themselves.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Remember Me

A pickup truck pulled up in front of the sidewalk table where John was peeling the foil off a burrito as thick as his shoe. The boy who got to with his father had a thatch of dark hair that looked like it had been trimmed with a weed-whacker. He was about five, all arms and legs, the way boys are when they begin to stretch out. He moved cautiously, though, with none of the freewheeling energy that usually comes with that transition from toddler to colt.

At a table near John the boy sat in a chair with a broken weld, and when he began kicking his feet back and forth the chair wobbled like it might collapse under him. John held up one hand to warn him to be careful, but the boy didn’t notice, or didn’t understand. His dad gave John a puzzled, slightly hostile look. John nodded genially—No worries, I’m not some pervert—but this only seemed to irritate the man further. He clamped his hand on the boy’s leg and told him to quit fidgeting. He didn’t say it in a nice way, like “Be careful, son,” but with a harshness that had the dead tone of habit.

John thought: No, why don’t you quit talking to your son that way.

The boy’s quesadilla arrived with two ice-cream scoops of guacamole and sour cream on top. He lifted one side tentatively, as if looking for a prize underneath. The father took another pull on his beer and told him to quit playing with his food. John could see the disaster coming. He made a little involuntary motion with his hand as if to reach out to the boy, but he couldn’t do anything to stop the sour cream and guacamole from plopping into the boy’s lap. 

They were both so still, the man staring obliviously into the street, the boy looking at his lap; it felt like they were controlling John’s breathing. He scooted his chair back and stood up; he should just pay his bill and leave.

“Oh, hell, son,” the man said when he saw what had happened. 

There was a quaver in his voice. Maybe John had misjudged him. Perhaps his wife had left him and he had brought the boy here to tell him his mother was gone. He was drinking to get up the courage.

John was still standing, staring at them stupidly. The man looked over and said, “Piss off.”

“Sorry,” John said.

The boy was watching him, imploring him, he imagined: Don’t mess with my dad, I’ll be all right.

“Come on,” the man said. He grabbed his son by the forearm and jerked him out of his chair.

The boy resisted. “I want to eat.”

As they came toward him, John stepped into their path.

“I told you to piss off,” the man said. 

His freckled cheeks and thick neck darkened. A long strand of ginger comb-over fell across one eye. The boy was practically swinging by his arm.

John said: “Why not let the boy finish his food?”

Monday, November 23, 2015

You've Got to Know When to Hold 'Em

Remember that old Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler"? It was running through my head this morning as I was thinking about my children, who are all grown up, all launched. But as anyone who has lived past thirty knows, there's not one launch in life, but many. A pogo stick might be a better analogy than a rocket.

Here’s the shocking truth I offer all parents of young children: when they grow up, they’ll be the same as they are now. One thing will lead to another. The difference is that you won’t be there to guide them.

I remember as clearly as if they were still towheads each passage of each of my children: first lost tooth, first stitches, first misdemeanor, first cap and gown. Those early years of parenting are so close, so intense, it’s hard to back off when the time comes. My kids have generously helped me by moving away. It’s a good strategy on their parts. Out of sight, out of nag.

Yet, still there are times when I feel like that father I used to be, kissing a hurt, wiping away a tear. Children heal faster than adults. Maybe that means adults need even more care when they take a tumble, not less. But how to deliver it is complicated; the old routines aren’t available.There’s no hot chocolate, no cozy bed to tuck into, no familiar picture book to read out loud. Where’s Spot? Is he behind the clock?

You want to do more for them than you would for a friend—more than a pat on the shoulder and a “You’ll be fine”—but children never really get over the reflex to break free of parental control, so well-meant counsel can go bad pretty easily, and then you’re left feeling like a failure as a parent and having even less idea about what your child is going through. 

I suppose adult children aren’t that different than toddlers. They want love and approval, without strings. That’s easy when they’re very young, when there’s no conflict between approval and the instinct to keep them safe. If a five-year-old resents being told he can't do something dangerous, he forgets about it in an instant and launches into some other only slightly less dangerous activity. 

A grown child doesn’t want to be told not to play in traffic, though. Like a toddler, an adult child doesn’t want to be told what to do at all. So, as when they were young and too high on the monkey bars, you bite your tongue, maybe look the other way, and cross your fingers.

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to scold ‘em,
Know when to walk away,
Know when you’re done.

You never count yourself finished,
When they’re making it on their own,
There’ll be time enough for finished,
When your race is run.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bringing Home the Beds

Meg and I are selling a vacation home that we bought when our sons were young. We spent many happy summers there wth them and, after they went off to college and got too busy for summers with Mom and Dad, we went for weeks at a time throughout the year. I thought that without the boys I wouldn’t like going there, but we loved it: walks on the beach with our golden retriever, who loved that beach better than anything, candlelit dinners on the patio, long soaks in the spa under the stars. And for some reason we both wrote well there. Maybe it was the absence of the distractions of everyday life. So we kept the house and rented it to others when we weren’t there to make it affordable. Recently, the city banned vacation rentals and our beloved old dog died, and now, with no boys, no dog and no income, it’s time to move on.

As part of fixing up the house for renters, we took out a double bed my grandfather made a hundred years ago as a wedding gift to his bride and replaced it with a modern queen bed. We put my grandfather’s bed in the bedroom in Palo Alto that the boys shared growing up, thinking it would be nice as a guest room. But when they both come home for a visit, we had to set up another bed for one of them, one of the kids beds that was part of a bedroom playground set. And with my grandfather’s bed in there, it didn’t look like their bedroom anymore. It was disturbing, really, for a sentimental slob like me.

In their room at our beach house, we had two lovely camp beds made by a local furniture maker as prototypes for a summer camp. They are simple, handsome beds for boy or man, so we are bringing them home to our sons' old room in Palo Alto and putting my grandfather’s bed in the attic. If we have guests who are also lovers, they can push them together.

I am unreasonably happy about this. I imagine it as kind of an aesthetic blending of their bedrooms in the two houses, the best of each, the best of my memories of the times when I tucked them in, read to them, checked to see if they were sneaking time on the Game Boys after bedtime, picked up after them, washed their sheets, opened the windows to let in fresh air.

They won’t be there in those beds, or not that often anyway, but my memories of them will be. I don’t want to sound too maudlin; they’re not dead, just off in their lives, for which I couldn’t be happier. Just like my three older children. Just like Meg and me. But I was a father to young children for so long that it’s an old sweater I still like to pull out of the closet when I feel a chill. It’s worn and ratty, and I don’t wear it often, but it still makes me feel warm and happy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Only Human

Meg and I were walking on the beach and came upon a young seabird in distress. He was staggering around and didn’t seem to be able to use his wings. We called a local wildlife rescue line and left a message. Later that evening, June called us back. It was probably a young grebe, she said. They aren't meant to walk on the beach; they’re water birds. If he was on the beach, he was probably in distress.

June called Jim who called me and asked for more precise directions to where we had seen the bird. He said he would go out and try to rescue it when he got off work at eleven. June had given me her home number and Jim gave me his cell phone, for next time. They also told me where in the future we could take birds in distress.

Meg and I walked that same beach the next day and didn’t see the bird, so here’s hoping Jim helped him. Thanks, Jim. Thanks, June.

Jim and June are amazing, but not extraordinary. We humans do this kind of thing all the time. We rescue birds and whales and sea otters. On other days we (presumably not the exact same people) behead infidels or shoot at a car that has cut us off on the road and kill the toddler passenger.

It’s enough to make you ask: Who are we? Are we Jim and June or ISIS and road-rager?

Both, is the obvious answer. But why? Why aren't we one or the other, preferably the nicer one? How can both our kindness and our anger be so intense?

Evolution, you say. As a species we needed both to survive. I suppose. But I don’t think anyone is going to attack June or Jim for helping stranded birds. They don’t need anger to protect themselves. 

We could learn a lesson from them, a prescription for a better life: Walk along a dark beach at eleven at night, after a long day of work, to find a frightened and helpless bird, wrap it in a blanket, keep it warm and feed it, and when it is strong enough let it go.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Waste Not, Want Not

“But this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.”

—David Brooks, writing in the NYT about the governing incompetence of the far right.

“Could confiscation be so unfathomable? And once confiscated, will the government transfer that wealth, or keep it. I think we both know the answer to that........It all starts by assigning too much virtue to the political classes.”

—David Clayton (my brother), worrying about the long (redistributionist) arm of the left.

It’s official. We’re polarized. A good thing in sunglasses. Not so much in politics.

Compromise is a thing of the days of the arm-twisting of Lyndon Johnson and the Irish bonhomie of Ronald Regan and Tip O’Neill. No more. Shut her down.

The source of our current sorry state has been probed ad nauseam. But it’s not complicated: we don’t trust each other. The left thinks the right is a bunch of selfish libertarians who are happy to play Hunger Games. The right thinks the left is a bunch of lazy takers who want to feed out of the public trough.

Both sides have their points.

The problem with trying to compromise in this overheated and moralizing environment is that it’s just not gong to happen. Not on the issues before us: health care, welfare, taxes. The battle lines are drawn. No one is coming out of their foxholes.

What is needed is compromise of a different kind: A new platform for going forward. A new OS, to use a tech analogy. The old code of government bureaucracy is corrupted. We need to start over. 

Remember the ACA website? So well intentioned, so badly designed. The whole thing had to be thrown out and re-coded by people who knew what they were doing. Now it works great.

The right doesn’t trust the government with their money. They’ve got a point. The government is hugely inefficient and not a little corrupt.

But the left doesn’t have any way to achieve its redistributionist agenda except through the taxation and spending power of government.


There’s an easy way out of this. Easy conceptually, anyway. Make the government more accountable, transparent and efficient. 

That would mean a lot of changes, a lot of upending of entrenched bureaucratic interests. Government is our Augean Stable. 

Could we clean it up? I think so. We brought in the tech wiz kids from Silicon Valley to fix the ACA website. Why not do something like that for the whole government? The secret to accountability, transparency and efficiency is data. We have to know what’s going on to monitor it and make it more efficient (and less corrupt). That sounds like something for the same folks who fixed the ACA site. Set up a dashboard, monitor the systems, report what’s happening, repeat.

We spent a lot of money fixing the ACA website. It was worth it. We would have to spend many times that to achieve the broader objective of streamlining the entire government and making it more transparent and accountable. But that would be worth it too.

So I say this to my fellow progressives, to Democrats of all stripes. Let’s open up the books. Let’s let everyone (including ourselves) see what we’re doing with their money. In something like real time. Without bookkeeping mumbo jumbo or hocus pocus.

Maybe then we could earn the trust we must have if ever we hope to come together on the great issues facing us. I don’t think many on the far right are cruel. I don’t think they want to see people go without enough food or education. They just don’t trust us to spend their money wisely.

Let’s do something to earn that trust. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Too Wise

That’s not possible, right? To be too wise.

Apparently it is.

I read a comparison recently of the differing approaches of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Kerry rushes in where Obama is, if not afraid, reluctant to tread. The president is comfortable assessing a situation as one that U.S. intervention would only make worse. Kerry sees a problem and attacks it with the good-old American bias—some would say hubris—to engineer a solution.

That same day I read another piece about why homo sapiens are the only surviving species of the genus Homo. There were once several human-like species, now there is only us. The last to survive, Neanderthals, were brilliant at what they did, which was mainly killing big game with efficient stone weapons. They had an ax, it worked, and they stuck with it. But as the climate changed, and the forrest where they hunted thinned, they needed different weapons for smaller game. They didn’t develop them, and you know the rest of the story.

Our homo sapien ancestors constantly tinkered, though. Even when they had a weapon that worked, they developed others. They experimented. They innovated. And they were the first to communicate through symbolic art. This led to the ability to pass along knowledge broadly and enhanced the formation of social networks. Those are apparently the big three of our success as a species: innovation, art and social networks. (Page, Rodin and Zuckerberg) 

We’re restless. We don’t settle for the status quo. We’re constantly looking for something better. Sometimes it gets us in trouble (examples to numerous to enumerate), but apparently it is the secret to our survival. So you have to give it some respect. If you like survival.

Temperamentally, I’m a mix of Barack Obama and John Kerry. I don’t like mucking about in situations I don’t think I can influence, but when it comes to matters close to home—family, career, neighbors in distress—I have to do something. I can’t stand by and say it’s out of my hands. Maybe it is, but I never think so. I try to do something. I have to. It’s just the way I’m wired. Ask any of my grown children.

I don’t think about what I might be able to do about Syria. Too big and too remote for me to have an impact. But it’s the job of our president and our secretary of state to do so. I think I agree intellectually with the president that what is needed over there is about a thousand years of their learning to live together in pluralistic societies. But if I were in John Kerry’s job, I’d be wading in diplomatically, as he is, trying to get them there faster.

The Neanderthal experience offers the cautionary note, of course. They had a big ax and that’s all they used. In the long run, that didn’t work out so well for them. We have a big ax too, but it would be good to develop other tools for situations like Syria. That is, if we want to survive.

Monday, September 14, 2015

One Gun at a Time

All along the sidewalk on that bright California morning armed men were gathering. They carried pistols and rifles and shotguns. I don’t mind telling you they made me nervous. Some of them looked like they were just stopping to chat with friends on their way to knocking off a convenience store. I imagined I saw Charlie Manson.

There were police on the grassy lawn between the sidewalk and a government building. They were there to keep an eye on the crowd, but they were also there as buyers. The East Palo Alto Police Department was buying guns for a hundred bucks each, no questions asked, and from all over sellers were lining up.

I was there with my sweet little Smith & Wesson twenty gauge. In its case. Trigger lock in place. Barrel oiled from the last loving cleaning I’d given it years ago. I hadn’t shot it for more than a decade, but still I hated to give it up. My oldest son and I had shot doves and skeet with it. Now he wanted to give it to his son, who had become an avid skeet shooter too.

The line was long and slow, and I felt too restless to say in it. In part because all those guns on a city sidewalk made me nervous, and in part because I hated to let the gun go. I hated to disappoint my son and grandson. I figured if I stayed too long, I might change my mind, so I found a policeman who was monitoring the line and told him I had to go and asked him to please turn in the gun. I told him to donate the hundred dollars to the police auxiliary.

That was three years ago. In the last few months my grandson, who is sixteen, and I have been having an animated discussion about gun control. I didn’t know it until now, but he has become an avid gun rights advocate. I sent him the famous studies done at Harvard by David Hemenway and he sent me studies he had that pretty much said the opposite. Apparently there are enough facts to go around to satisfy every point of view.

The Supreme Court has ruled that we have an individual right to be armed. Never mind if your community suffers with horrific gun violence and you and your fellow local citizens say enough is enough, we’re going to do something to get guns off the streets. The Court will not, in my opinion, stick to its current position. Over time, as it has so many times in the past, it will catch up with the cultural norms in the country and permit some kind of local rule on gun control. That may not happen for a while, though. Racial segregation was approved by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and was the law of the land until it reversed course in Brown v. Board in 1954.

About a third of Americans own guns. Who knows what kinds of guns, or why, but I suspect that many are in the hands of people who use them rarely. It seems funny that our laws so strongly support a right that seems important to so few but harms so many. As I say, ultimately the law will catch up with the culture. America isn’t the Wild West anymore.

Martin Luther King advocated, indeed demanded, non-violent protest against racial discrimination. There were risks to that approach. It got him killed. But it worked. There may be risks to disarming, but I don’t think so. The police protect us. All the studies show that as a practical matter personal weapons are remarkably ineffective for self-defense. You are not more likely to be killed by a gun if you are not armed. Just the opposite, when you take into account accidental death and suicide.

My sensitivity to guns is like an allergy: I was exposed for a long time with no bad reaction, then one day I began breaking out in hives. Maybe its myself I fear, the me of my killing days, the me in others. As much as I love my son, as much as I enjoyed our days in the field together, I couldnt bring myself to send him my gun. There are too many guns, doing too much damage. I can't get rid of them all, but I got rid of one.

Monday, September 7, 2015

216 Avery Street

Meg was at the Decatur (Georgia) Book Festival this weekend. I started looking at Google Maps while we were talking and told her she was only a couple of blocks from 216 Avery Street, the house where my mother grew up. Oh look, I said, there’s Winona Park school. That’s where she went to elementary school. How do you remember that? Meg said. I didn’t. I saw the name on the map and the memory shimmered back into focus. Not just that she went there, but that it was up the hill from her house and when she came home each day, her father, a history professor at Agnes Scott college, just around the next block, was there, usually on his way to play tennis with one of his pals. 

Mom’s father, the historian, lived to be almost one hundred. He wrote a history of our family that is engagingly packed with births and deaths and life passages. I know, for instance, that I am a distant relative of Colonel John Page of Colonial Virginia and of Judge Alfred Foot of New York and his wife, Jane Campbell Foot, for whom my mother’s mother was named. I have silver spoons and whatnot from generations of Foots and Pages and Davidsons.

But I don’t know why my mother, who died almost exactly seven years ago, at age eighty-four, was the way she was. Some things about her don’t need explaining: her kindness, her wisdom, her gentle spirit. But as to others, I just ask myself, man, oh, man, how did she get that way? The trouble is: I didn’t ask her. 

I know so little about what happened when mom got home from those days at Winona Park school. Did her father sit on the porch steps with her and ask about her day before he went off for tennis? Did her mother have a snack waiting for her? I know she played piano beautifully and that when her piano teacher said she was good enough to play in concerts she stopped playing rather than go on stage. Was that the first sign of the anxiety that would plague her all her life? Did her parents know? Did they understand how bad it was, or was it a secret she kept? Did she tell them she was just tired of piano?

Her father moved from Agnes Scott to Vanderbilt University and Mom met my father there. He was charming and mercurial. Maybe bi-polar, I now think. Or perhaps he had narcissistic personality disorder. That’s popular now. All I know is that by the time I was paying attention, he was alternating between acts of extravagant generosity and marathon scoldings. Mom was in the background. Like a frightened villager at the foot of a smoldering, belching volcano. That’s the way I remember her in those days: in the background. Later I came to understand that she was being driven underground to an emotionally subterranean place where she could survive.

And survive she did. My father died at fifty and she lived another thirty-four years without him. Alone. But maybe that was better for her than being with him. Gradually she came back to herself. At the end, she was the mother I remember from my early childhood. Sweet and kind. Still anxious, but not truly afraid.

When you’re a kid, everything is about you. Your parents are something to be dealt with, not understood. When you’re an adult, especially near the end of an aging parent’s life, everything is about them. Day-to-day, that comes down to what you need to do to help them. Which is just another version of everything is about you, I suppose.

I did a lot for Mom near the end of her life. For ten or fifteen years, I was the parent and she was the child. You know how it is with children: you want to understand them, but most of your time is taken up keeping them safe and making sure they eat right. You try to amuse them too. That’s they way it is with aging parents. I kept Mom safe, made sure she had good care when she needed it, and tried to amuse her. I tried hard, but to this day I don’t think I did enough for her. Not a day goes by when I don’t wish I had done more.

And now I’m beginning to realize I have yet another regret. I wish I had tried harder to understand her. Not who she was. I could see that. I could see what needed treating. But why she was that way. Were her parents emotionally aloof to that little girl who went to Winona Park school? Did she never feel good enough for them? I could see my father’s rages, but what did they mean for her? When did they start? Did she, like a battered wife, feel they were her fault?

Some families may tell those stories. The whys, not just the whats. They’re hard, though. Hard to ask. Hard to tell. We fill in the blanks as we need to. In real-time, we do more coping than understanding. But later, after someone is gone, the longing to understand begins. Without the press of everyday events, there is time and space. And there is guilt. Guilt is a great catalyst for the desire to understand. Maybe in the hope that you’ll discover that it wasn’t your fault. That you couldn’t have done more. That nothing you could have done would have made a difference.

I wrote a novel that fictionalizes some of my life. Mom is in there. In the novel I explain her. I fill in the blanks. Now, years after her death, and a year or so after that novel, I have trouble remembering what was true and what I made up. Maybe I didn’t make it up. Maybe it was in there on some subconscious level, waiting for me to reach some place of peace and release that would permit it to show itself. 

I was at dinner with a friend last night who is making arrangements for the last year or so of his mother’s life. He’s a good son. She has been living nearby and he’s been good to her. Now he is considering having her move to be near his sister in another state, where care is much cheaper. He feels conflicted, ambivalent and, already, guilty. He wants what’s best for her, but he can’t help wondering if he doesn’t also long for release from day-to-day responsibility for her. I told him we all go through that. I told him he’s a good man. I told him that whatever he does he’s going to feel guilty about it. When she dies, he’ll wish he’d done more. No matter how much he does, he’ll wish he’d done more.

I’m going to see him this afternoon. We’e going to the driving range to hit some golf balls, something I used to love to do with my father. I’m going to tell him the other thing I’ve realized: when his mom is gone, not only is he going to wish he’d done more for her, he’s going to wish he’d asked her more about herself, about the person who was inside the woman he knew as his mother. 

Maybe there’s still time for him to avoid that second regret. I don’t think so, though. Our parents’ lives are only truly mysteries after it’s too late to ask.