Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Our Real-Life Actual Fairy Godmother

By the time we moved to town, Pat Briggs had been running the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre for 45 years. Our son Nicholas was bitten by the theater bug when he was four. He was ten when we arrived at our new California home. He’d been in a summer theatre workshop the year before, and when we bought our house, the fact that the storied Palo Alto Children’s Theater was just down the street was a big selling point.

Pat Briggs at her retirement tribute.
Nick tried out for a play not two months after we arrived. Hundreds of kids were at the auditions for “Alice in Wonderland.” Pat and her Assistant Director, Micheal Litfin, a man of comparatively short tenure, only 25 years, ran the auditions the way Mussolini would have if he had been both autocratic and loved children. Pat held court, clipboard in her lap, from a seat in a middle row of the theatre, while Michael, dressed as he almost always was in a yellow cardigan sweater, ran the Dickensian horde through their paces. All children, ages 8-18. No adults allowed in Pat’s and Michael’s productions.

Gulp! This was the big time.

“Remember, there will be other plays if you don’t make this one,” we told Nick.

Mirable dictu, he got a part. He was the King of Hearts. Don’t remember that role? It was big, I assure you. Huge! He snagged it by improvising his now legendary stutter-step as he moved about the stage trying to keep his head.

So began a fabulous five years. Nick was in play after play. Little roles, big roles. Pat and Michael spread the wealth. The kids did it all. Acted, designed and built sets, handled tech. In addition to Pat and Michael there was tech guy to make sure no one cut off a finger sawing a prop, a costume virtuoso, a ticket seller jack-of-all-trades, and hundreds of parent volunteers selling brownies at intermissions and manning the barbecue grill for summer hot-dog theatre shows on the outdoor stage of the Magic Castle, which had been built through the efforts of the Friends of the Children's Theatre, a kind of private fundraising militia that Pat controlled in her casually tyrannical way.

The theatre was built with money from a contribution in 1932 by Lucie Stern. The city paid most of the operating bills of the theatre. Money raised by the Friends let Pat do things like improve the sound system when the city said it could not afford to do more. My wife and I were part of the Friends posse. Everyone was. Pat never said it would be a good idea, if you wanted to see your child in a show, but it seemed like a good idea.

We had a lot of fun. We went to a lot of shows. We waited up late for Nick to get home from rehearsals a lot of nights. We worried about when he would do his homework from school. But there was never any doubt that he was having the time of his life. He did plays, he did “Second-Saturday” shows, entirely directed by him and his fellow players for young children, he interviewed survivors of Nazi Germany for an original play to be written by him and his friends with the guidance of Michael Litfin, who himself had written dozens of the plays produced at the theatre.

It was an unbelievably rich time: rich in creativity, talent, comradeship, empathy and the joy of starting from nothing and putting on a dazzling show.

Just as Nick was making a transition from semi-full-time actor to semi-full-time robotics team programmer, Pat retired after 50 years and Michael died suddenly. He was only 62. One of the last things he said, speaking of his life, was: “It was a great run.”

No one could have said it better.

Pat is not well now. She has moved to Chicago, where one of her nieces lives. I just went by her California house, which is near mine, in the hope of catching her other niece from Colorado, who is in town to help deal with Pat’s accumulations of a lifetime. Like any theatre person worth her salt, Pat was a bit of a hoarder. You never knew when you might need those Valkyrie wings for another production. There are scripts and scrapbooks and memorabilia, awards by the dozen. It’s easy to see in the clutter the benevolent and indulgent temperament that made her so patient and effective with children, that enabled her to guide them in a way that ultimately let them guide themselves.

I did meet her niece, a lovely woman. I told her who I was and asked for Pat’s address so I could write to her in Chicago. I told her that Pat had touched countless lives, including those of our family. I told her we would never forget her.

All writers hope that their words will endure beyond their pitifully short time on this earth. A book can be taken off the shelf and enjoyed decades or centuries later. It’s a form of immortality.

Pat Briggs has left her theatre family, the children and families of fifty years of plays, a dozen a year, year after year, her own special kind of immortality. She will live on in thousands of young hearts as long as memories are revisited around dinner tables and in quiet moments of reflection about what she and Michael taught us about stories, and about ourselves.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Goodbye, and Good Luck

I am as mortified by the notion that Donald Trump will be president as the KKK was by a black man in the oval office. How the hell did that happen? we both asked. I don’t plan to hang Trump in effigy, or burn a cross in front of the Trump Tower, but I understand how white supremacists felt. This can’t be my country.

During my lifetime, the arc of the moral universe in this country has, as MLK predicted, bent toward justice. We have steadily improved living and working conditions, steadily expanded voting rights and civil rights, steadily opened the doors of equality to women.

Now we have lurched into a major correction. A bleak recession may follow, one in which hard-won civil liberties and economic opportunity may be pushed back toward where they were before I was born.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I never imagined we would take giant leaps backward. Sideways, sure, little half-steps to the rear now and then, but not this. This is wrong. And, frankly, it’s frightening.

I know the theories of why Trump was elected. I understand the plight of the unemployed in the rust belt, the shrinking economic circumstances and self-respect of the white men who used to rule the roost, the fear of immigrants hijacking our jobs and our culture, the fear of women being liberated from their male masters. I just didn’t think there were that many people who felt those things. However understandable, they are bitter and unworthy feelings.

I have always believed in the wisdom of the common man, something I would call common-sense decency. Decency has taken a back seat to something ugly, though. Several ugly things, actually: racism; misogyny; tribalism of the kind that fosters genocides.

I don’t want any part of what’s going on in much of the country now. Love it or leave it, my old Southern redneck friends would say. They had it on their bumper stickers. They had it on their gun racks. Maybe that should have been a warning to me.

I’m not going to leave the country. We have been occupied by a foreign enemy. I will be part of the resistance.

I’m not yet sure what form my resistance will take. Lately, there are days when I’m sorry that I, in a moment of Lennonesque idealism, had my old shotgun melted down.

I do know this is serious, though. This is a categorically different menace than we have faced in my lifetime. We must resist. Our way of life is at stake.

See you at the barricades. For now: Goodbye, and good luck.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

For Whom the Bell Tolls

“What am I going to do with a horse?” Anselmo says.

His comrades in arms are trying to get him up the hill to a horse that could take him to safety. He knows he’s too badly wounded. He will surely die, and he would only slow them down as they retreat. They leave him a bottle of whiskey and a gun. He promises to kill the enemy, but we and he know the last bullet will be for him.

So it goes in war. Some make it, some don’t.

We are in a new kind of war now, one no less devastating than the epic battles of the Spanish Civil War of which Hemingway wrote and the world wars of that century. Ours is an economic war that here in the US will leave many to die in the pocked landscapes of abandoned coal mines and rusting assembly lines. Elsewhere, it will leave many more to die in the steaming jungles of Africa and the harsh deserts of the Middle East. The idled coal miners and factory workers will die of despair. Around the world, millions dispossessed by global warming and nationalistic strife will die of hunger and thirst, and worse.

But take heart: to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of economic development is long, but it bends toward prosperity.

On the whole, the world is better off today than it has ever been. There is great economic inequality, but the lowest on the ladder have better lives than those before them. The economic wild kingdom is not fair, but it favors survival of the species. Predators kill and others feed off the leftovers. From an economic standpoint, there is more killing and more leftovers than ever.

We no longer live in Feudal times, though. We have awakened to our humanity, and our inhumanity. Survival of the fittest is no longer a sufficient guiding principle. We want to take care of those left behind, or at least give them a better chance to make something good out of what they have, even if that doesn’t include stock options.

Full employment has been the way we meant to create opportunity for all in the U.S. As technology advances, though, robots are taking more U.S. jobs than the Chinese. Robots are taking Chinese jobs too. No less an authority than economics Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton said recently that he doesn't think “globalization is anywhere near the threat that robots are.”

Worldwide, free trade has lifted millions from ignorance and paucity. But nationalism gets in the way of free trade from time to time. And trade alone is not enough to help the millions of refugees from Syria and other devastated countries. Trade alone will not topple despots.

We need to start by taking care of business at home. But we need to be sensible about it. Protectionism won’t keep out the robots. The coal mines and the steel mills aren't coming back. And the people who worked them aren’t likely to be retained as software engineers. No matter how prosperous we get, we probably aren’t going to be able to find jobs for those who are rotated out of employment by immutable changes in their industries. We need to help them the old fashioned way: the equivalent of a sandwich at the back door, a place to stay in the garage. We need to give them the money they need to live. They can’t earn it. We might as well face that.

As to the world, there is less we can do. But we must not look away. We must not say to ourselves that their problems are not ours. Even if we didn’t think it was immoral to ignore their suffering, from a practical standpoint it is unwise. They will hate us. They will attack us. They already do. They already are.

How to help them is not clear. We can’t offer them a minimum income, as we can our own citizens. The best we can do, I think, is to engage with their leaders to encourage democratic governance and equal rights. Those conditions are not sufficient for economic opportunity, but they are necessary. We and they will have to rely on human ingenuity and ambition for the rest.

The old model of liberal economics called for the free flow of goods and services in a capitalistic economy to provide the greatest overall prosperity possible. I don’t think we have come up with a better model. But we have begun to realize that there will always be losers in that system. As the distance between us shrinks, both at home and in the world, we can see our neighbors more clearly than ever. We can see the want on their faces. We can see their sorrow and desperation. And we can see that their circumstances are most often not their fault. It has gotten too hard to keep looking the other way.

A bottle of whiskey and a gun may have been what was needed for poor old Anselmo, but we owe more to those among us who have been left wounded and crippled by the very economic system that has made the rest of us wealthy.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Truth, the Brand

When Pinocchio lied, his wooden nose grew longer. He had some ups and downs on the Island of Lost Boys, but got to be a real boy in the end. Charming story. And the source of the Pinocchio award for not telling the truth in politics. Earlier this week, Donald Trump earned four Pinocchios from Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post for falsehoods about unemployment rates. 

I doubt anyone noticed.

Rick Perlstein had a nice piece on Meet The Press last week about the current dysfunction in journalism. Journalists are trained to see and report both sides. In the run-up to the last presidential election, this resulted in an avalanche of what in common parlance has become known as false equivalents. We all know about this. We all have our own opinions about what is false and what is equivalent. I won’t bore you, or try your patience, with mine.

But I will suggest this for your consideration: Truth, the brand, is losing value at an alarming rate. If I were in charge of making money selling truth, I would be panicked. I’d be calling in consultants. I’d be looking for a new marketing strategy. Truth has become dull. No one wants it anymore.

I went to a holiday party recently that was given by a Knight Fellow in Journalism at Stanford. Her home was full of practicing journalists who are serious students of journalism from all over the world. I didn’t talk to them all, but I found a consistent theme that was both inspiring and depressing: The job of journalists is not to take sides. It is to search for the truth in a professional, evenhanded way.

Good luck with that. The other team, Liars Inc., is not shackled by the ethical constraints of professional journalists. The noise they make drowns out the truth. The truth isn’t sexy. It isn’t sensational (not when presented responsibly). It rarely makes you want to turn to your friends or spouse and say, “See, I told you there was something funny going on there.”

Or, if it does, the immediate reply is, “Yeah, that’s what they say, but you know they are in that candidate’s pocket. You can’t trust them.”

Think of the truth as the organic cereal in a plain brown box at the end of the grocery shelf, hardly noticeable among the brightly colored boxes of sugar pops and fruit loops. The organic stuff even tastes like its box. Eating it is a chore. You think its good for you, but it’s no fun. Funny, how that box of flax-seed granola lasts so long in the pantry as the boxes of frosted flakes come and go.

Good journalism is consumed at about the same desultory rate as organic cereal. It’s there, in the same old Gray Lady packaging, but fewer and fewer reach for it.

Good journalism is in danger of becoming irrelevant. It doesn’t have our attention anymore. We’re not all listening to Walter Cronkite on the evening news. We’re reading and watching what we want to. We’re self-selecting, living in our own echo chambers. We’re not hearing the truth. It’s not even clear we want to.

So, if you’re peddling the truth—and let’s face it, even journalists and their editors have to sell their stories or there is no way to keep producing them—you’re in trouble. You’re revenues are shrinking. You can see the day, perhaps not too far off, when you won’t be able to keep speaking.

Let’s be honest: you have to change. Your journalistic standards are no longer enough. Not enough people seem to care about them, or even to trust them. You’re going to have to become guerrilla warriors for truth.

To that end, as a loyal consumer of what you are in the business of producing, I offer these modest suggestions (framed in the context of an election, since that is still seared into our psyches):

Deal with a lie the way you would a libel: Newspapers are legally liable if they repeat a libelous statement. So they are careful to independently confirm the truth of the statement. If they can’t, they don’t print it. This would be a good rule to follow when a candidate makes an outlandish claim.

Call out lies for what they are: Even if you aren’t publishing the lies, someone else will. At that point, it becomes your job to report that the candidate is lying. To ask why. To ask whether he can be trusted.

The assertion isn’t the news: There is a school of thought that the very fact that someone running for office says something is news. The idea is that if the statement is farcical, the candidate will be shown to be unserious and unworthy. But lately, that’s not the way the public is taking things. A disturbingly large percentage of the population wants to believe anything their candidate says. By repeating his (or her) every utterance, the press is not showing him to be a joke, they are giving him a megaphone.

Study the enemy: How do unreliable news sources spread their lies? Study their techniques. Emulate them. Get the balanced truth out there side-by-side with the lies. Don't relegate it to the fusty corners of small circulation newspapers and public radio.

Co-operate with other reliable news sources: Competition makes us great. But in war, we need allies. Election misinformation is war. Share sources and leads. Like an army, make yourself stronger by having more specialists and more running shoes on the ground.


Shake off your reticence. Don’t sit back and be overrun by fake news and lies (not to mention the Russians). This is a fight for survival. Not just for journalism, but for the Republic.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

False Positives and the Law

When that spot on your mammogram turns out to be benign, that’s called a false positive. When a blood test shows your PSA level to be normal and you later learn that you had prostate cancer all along, that’s a false negative.

In the law, we rely on evidence to judge guilt or innocence. Was the fingerprint at the crime scene a false positive? Was the alibi a false negative? Doctors ultimately learn the truth about whether their tests were giving them correct diagnoses: their patients develop cancer…or do not. Legal guilt or innocence is almost never known with such certainty. Many a man has gone to the gallows proclaiming his innocence.

A guest lecturer at Stanford Law School recently suggested that the law should try to evaluate legal evidence the way medicine evaluates blood tests, using the theoretical framework of false positives and false negatives. When asked in the Q&A about how to go about that, he said his interest was in posing the questions, and that someone else would have to provide the answers. (Insert your favorite lawyer joke here.)

What if we, unlike the reticent professor, wanted to wade into the murky swamp of evidence? How might we test its reliability?

The clues are stored on ruled-and-numbered legal sheets in gray courthouse filing cabinets and in countless post-trial jury interviews. But they are so scattered and inaccessible that they have not been of much use. Enter the digital wizards of Silicon Valley. With today’s learning algorithms to sift and make sense of vast amounts of data, perhaps the secrets in those dusty tombs can now be unlocked. 

For instance: In how many cases did an eyewitness provide what was apparently the key to conviction? And in how many of those was the defendant later convincingly exonerated by DNA evidence or the confession of another?

What do juries say about what influences them? If we asked them in a systematic way over the course of thousands of trials, and made their answers searchable, what would our artificial intelligence programs tell us about what evidence is most important? And what would we say about that? Is the evidence that convinces juries of a kind we are comfortable being the basis for life or death judgments?

The law has a horror of false positives. A jury’s verdict is not a guide for treatment that can be given and withdrawn, it is a binary final determination: guilty or innocent. William Blackstone, the famous eighteenth-century English legal thinker, said: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Our legal system relies on our humanity. Its foundation is our earnest desire to judge one another fairly. There is a mass of data on how well we do that to be gathered and scanned and looked at from all sides. On questions of the quality and reliability of legal evidence, artificial intelligence could help us get better at passing judgement on our fellow man. Far from being the threatening overlord of science fiction, it could strengthen an essential element of what makes us human.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Prayer to You

I have a friend who calls himself a non-theist. I think that means the same as what I am, an atheist, but without the baggage that atheism has picked up over the years. In some circles atheism is a kissing cousin of Satanism. Certainly we atheists are utterly lacking in morality.

After hearing my friend's views on how we should be treating one another in a pluralistic world where cultures and religions constantly collide, I pronounced him a humanist. He seemed to like that. What he is worried about is not an afterlife, but this life. Not an ideal of virtue, but tolerance of imperfection. Not a Pontiff’s golden robes, but Mother Theresa’s mud spattered hem.

The problem with being a humanist is that we’re not very organized. There are no churches where we meet regularly and talk about things that concern us. Atheists have been organizing recently, but our main concern at this point seems to be to be permitted to emerge from the shadows of opprobrium, to convince theists that we are not the devil offering them apples of hedonistic shame.

We can do better.

There is a humanist church to be formed: The Church of You and Me. You pray to me, I’ll pray to you.

Now, hard as it is for me to admit it, I’m not omnipotent, so you may wonder what good praying to me might do. My first response would have to be: what good has praying to The Big Guy ever done? That’s a little snarky, so let’s put that aside and see if we have common ground.

It’s not omniscience we will be hoping for when we pray to one another, it’s an open mind. We will pray that we do the things we think must be done. We will encourage one another. We will reassure each other that we are listening. 

Instead of praying to a deity to hold back the flood, we can organize relief efforts on Facebook. Instead of praying for our daughters to be cured of mortal diseases, we can ask each other to donate to research for cures. Instead of thanking god for “these thy gifts we are about to receive,” we can talk about where our bounty really comes from and what part we might play in sharing its with others.


Thank you my friends who will be seated around my Thanksgiving table. Thank you for blessing me with your love (or, in some cases, at least your patience). I pray you show that same kindness to those among your family and friends who have become estranged. I pray you show that kindness to strangers. I pray you bless them with your love.

Monday, November 14, 2016

I'm Sorry, America

You’re making bad choices, my peeps. I’ve seen it before. Running away from home. Sleeping through classes. Depressed. Trying a little weed. Maybe something stronger. Living on the street. Paranoid. Angry. Self-righteous. Delusional.

And those were just family members.

Now the sickness has spread to the point that we have elected our drug dealer, our enabler, our pimp, as President.

Every time someone close to me starts making terrible choices, I try to steer them in a better direction. It never seems to work. Sometimes they get better and say that I should keep trying, that those voices of encouragement stay in their heads, even though it may not seem like it, that they hear those voices even as they make more bad choices.

They also tell me that there is basically nothing I can do. That they have to figure it out themselves. That change has to come from within them. I usually keep trying. I do it for me as much as for them. It’s hard to stand by and do nothing while someone destroys his life.

Sometimes they change, many times not. When they do change, it is usually long after I have given up. Not on them, exactly, but on convincing them. They change because they convince themselves. They hit bottom, as they like to say. Sometimes hitting bottom kills them, but sometimes it is the painful catalyst for rebirth.

And so it is with my country now. We are making bad choices. It started with the Tea Party. I thought we went to rehab for that, but it seems we have relapsed.

At each mile on the road, I have talked myself blue. If my voice is being heard at all, it’s not influencing behavior. I’m talked out now.

Like any addict, we have excuses and rationalizations for our bad choices. Blame the enablers. Blame the technocrats, the bureaucratic overlords. Blame the snobby elites. The drug dealer is the only one who understands us.

I would blame myself, but I reserve that special hell for bad things that happen to my children. I don’t feel responsible for the bad choices we are making now. Over and over, I’ve warned that we should not do what we are doing. Now I guess I’m going to have to do what I inevitably end up doing when someone I love goes down this rabbit hole despite everything I’ve tried to prevent it: cross my fingers and hope they figure it out before they do too much permanent damage.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Those People

Those people are stupid. They’re lazy and ignorant. A lot of them are addicts. They spend a lot of time making excuses for themselves, but they are mainly responsible for their own situation. If they want to have better lives, they need to try harder.

Who are those people? 

Not blacks or Mexicans. For me, those people are what we might call Trump Whites: white men with education that stopped in high school, down on their luck because the jobs their fathers did are gone, discouraged, tribal…and mad as hell about it. Burn baby burn!

My attitude toward them, I’m ashamed to admit, has been no better than their opinions of minorities. You know: leeches on society, we’d be better off without them. 

I grew up knowing better than to make eye-contact with certain men in rural bars in the south. Rednecks, we called them. After a few beers, it seemed like a fair percentage were mean as snakes. “What are you looking at, son?” My cue to slide out of there.

It was hard to develop sympathy for someone like that. Fear, sure, but not sympathy. They were to be avoided, not aided.

But times have changed. And maybe even I’ve changed.

Much has been written about the white men who are flocking to Trump. He’s their beacon of hope. Or that’s what they think. And the likely reason they think that is that they haven’t seen any other beacons lately. For the last few decades, progressives have been focused more on poor minorities. Minorities need help, no doubt, but it may be time to take a fresh look at the needs of poor whites.

In some ways poor and formerly middle class whites are as trapped in their circumstances as blacks in Detroit or on the south side of Chicago. There’s not much opportunity for them in their communities. Steel is gone. Coal is going. Plants are rusting. 

And yet, their homes are there. Their families and friends are there. Even if they wanted to pick up and move, where would they go? Where are there jobs for them, with their poor education and outmoded skills? They feel hemmed in and abandoned. They’re pissed off and looking for someone to blame. And for someone to lead them out of the wilderness. If a real prophet isn’t on the scene, a false prophet, like Trump, will do.

I think those of us on the left had better figure out a way to be that prophet. We can’t do it by patronizing them. We can’t do it by looking down our noses at them. We can’t do it by being angry at them. Or afraid of them. We have to figure out how to help them.

Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s in our collective self-interest. We’re not going to be able to get anything done politically in this country until we find ways to improve the prospects of these folks, and their faith in the rest of us.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Apologist

I had a Facebook exchange yesterday with a friend about the relevance, or not, of Donald Trump’s tax returns. My friend said the one leaked so far doesn't show anything illegal. I said that what I would be interested in is whether his returns show him to have been untruthful about his wealth, income and charitable generosity, all important parts of the persona he strives to project.

My friend’s response: 

“Will you be happy or sad to learn that his charitable contributions were less than he has implied? I suspect you will be happy to learn that they were less and that he is not a generous man. Then ask yourself why you feel that way?”

Why? That’s easy. Because I want him to be totally discredited as a presidential candidate before the country makes what I believe would be the worst mistake in our history of choosing presidents. My friend knows all too well how I feel. 

So why is he asking me to look within myself to see why I wish for Trump to be exposed as a fraud?

I think what he means to be saying is this: “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.” (Mathew 7:5, King James Bible)

I never thought of wishing Trump to be exposed as unfit to be president as being a character defect of mine. The notion seems to be that if I were a wise and generous human being, I would feel differently about Trump’s lack of generosity. I wouldn’t feel something approaching elation that he might be proved to be a skinflint. Apparently, that kind of feeling is unworthy.

I’ve known about Donald Trump since he and I were both trolling Wall Street, he for money, I for clients. During all that time I never gave a thought to whether he was a generous man. I knew about his deals and his bankruptcies. I suppose that if I had thought about his generosity I probably would have thought he should repay his debts before giving his money away.

But he wasn’t running for president then. We must judge him now by more rigorous standards. We must try to get the facts about his character and decide what they say about his fitness.

Which makes my friend’s rhetorical jujitsu all the more interesting. It strikes me as a form of preemptive shaming: If the facts turn out to be bad, why did you wish for that? What’s wrong with you that you long for the debasement of another?

I don’t know. Call it terror. When faced with a mortal threat, as far as I am concerned no sanctuary is too base, even (or especially) stripping away a false mask of morality worn by someone who is rotten to the core.

So, what’s behind my friend’s attempt at deflection?

He said he decided a year ago not to vote for Trump. What he’s troubled by is that “the rhetoric against [Trump] has been conclusory and bordering on hysterical…[T]he voting public has been dragged down into the mud during this campaign…”

Nobody wants to be thought to be hysterical. Nobody wants to admit they might have been dragged down into the mud. But what do you do when one of the candidates has been trucking in dirt and irrigating it with a firehose?

It seems to me that our first job as voters in this election is to come down off our idealistic high-horses and deal with the clear and present danger before us. There is always mud in politics, but this is a new level of slime. We need to dig our way out of it, or risk going under.

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.