Friday, March 27, 2015

Selfish

I think I'm selfish. I've raised five kids. So that wasn't selfish. I'm not selfish with my partner. (What is the right term, anyway: lover; friend; inspiration; safety net; all of the above? Nothing with the cultural baggage of wife or even spouse. We need a new term. Partner makes it sound like it's not personal, just business. Although I'd gladly kiss her ring.)


So if I'm a decent father and whatever that other role should be called, if I make sacrifices for those I love, why do I think I'm selfish? Because, if I'm honest with myself, that's as far as it goes. At least as to anything like a formal commitment to someone or something else. I give money to charity, to homeless people. I ask strangers how they're doing, and I'm actually interested. But I don't have to. I can skip a charity appeal, a homeless person's plea. I can walk by a stranger and look the other way. No one judges me for any of that. Or I don't know they do. I haven't promised them anything.

I could change that. I could throw myself into a cause--lord knows there are plenty of worthy ones--but I don't want the obligation. I don't want others to depend on me. Like I said: selfish.

I've been a volunteer. I've served on non-profit boards. I didn't mind. Sometimes I even enjoyed it. But I rarely felt like I was adding much. Human effort is like an aunt colony. That's the way it has to be to get anything done. I just don't want to be one of the ants. There are plenty of others, I tell myself. They don't need me.

Maybe they do, maybe they don't. Maybe I'm just rationalizing. Like those (not including me) who don't vote because they are certain that statistically their vote doesn't matter. They are right, of course, as to their individual votes; and completely wrong as to the aggregate effect of all votes. Democracy is the product of the voting ant colony.

If we all stopped voting and volunteering, we'd have tyranny and and an uncompassionate society. But if one of us drops out, no worries, right? It's a form of freeloading. As I said: selfish.

I worked as a lawyer and a businessman for decades. I got stuff done, but I was mainly a cog. If I hadn't done it, others would have. For the money, if not the humanity. There was one business I ran that I tried to remake into a better thing. I got the employees all excited and then couldn't fix the business fast enough to pay for all the debt I took on to try to remake it. Even that was something of a selfish endeavor. I was in it for the thrill of doing something fun and exciting. I was a pretty good huckster, but I couldn't deliver. What is that? Pioneering? Delusional? Generous? Selfish?

I've read The Selfish Gene. I understand what you're thinking about now.

For years now, I've sat on the sidelines of the fray. Kids grown. Partner needing only flowers and champagne. I've been writing because I've convinced myself that if I have something to say I can reach people through novels and essays. More people than I could reach any other way. For longer. Books live on. 

I suppose I've just traded one ant colony for another. There are thousands--millions?--of writer ants out there. We're not working together, so maybe that's why many of us accomplish so little. But we're dreaming together, in that separate kind of way of writers: I know you're out there, and I'm sending out good wishes through writer-ant telepathy. I feel your angst. I'm running around in circles too. You know like those individual ants when you disturb a line of them and the ones who are cut off from the others stagger around like they're drunk. When you see them, you think: they're going to be no good if they don't reconnect with their buddies. 

The difference is they have to be ants, but I don't. Or maybe I do. Maybe I'm just staggering around looking for a line to fall into.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Submission

I've been trolling the darkest corners of the internet--where our most secret fantasies live--and still I haven't decided the best way to proceed with submission. I always open an incognito tab for this kind of research, as would any person who wants to be taken seriously after their online searches are hacked and revealed to a public with an insatiable appetite for the eccentric habits of celebrities. Also to prevent spam.


Should I reveal my fantasies? Or has that been overdone? Become a cliche. No longer a turn-on. Simply boring. Apparently the only cardinal sin is being boring.

Should I beg? That works for some, apparently. Although maybe not the ones I want to attract.

How about being mysterious? Keep them guessing. That could work. Unless they aren't that curious. What if I totally expose myself and they just yawn and walk out of the room.

In an effort to answer these frightening yet scintillating questions, I have scoured websites that offer advice to novices. Here is a sampling:

"Make me unable to put it down." Good. Unless it got tiring. 

"Keep it short." A bit counterintuitive.

"Be original." Really? After all this time, if I've thought of it it's a sure thing hundreds--millions?--of others have already done it. And moved on tho the next new thing. Even though, by this hypothesis, there is no new thing to move on to. Perhaps it's just a matter of offering personal discovery to someone coming of age, someone younger. But not too young, obviously. They have to be consenting adults.

"Set the hook." Apart from sounding painful--which is kind of the point, if we are honest with each other--this is perhaps the most intriguing advice. It implies dangling like a marlin, all sharp spear and glistening body. I'm not sure I'd be into dangling, though. I'm looking to close the deal. 

As you must have inferred by now, I haven't settled on a strategy. Perhaps I am too timid for the game. Perhaps I'll just set my novel aside and not submit it to agents after all.

Monday, March 16, 2015

For Crying Out Loud

It's almost a cliche now: homophobic one moment; son or daughter comes out and suddenly you understand. That's happened to so many people that gay marriage is legal now thirty-seven states. All in the last ten years. You have to call that a tribute to the power of empathy.


It happens anecdotally, on a less pervasive scale, in many areas. Someone you love suffers in the life-saving heroics of dying, and you become an advocate for hospice care. You are close to a woman working three jobs to send her daughter to college, and you become a supporter of education loan reform and free community college. Someone where you work gets pregnant with a child she doesn't want in a state with only one remaining abortion clinic and you write a check to Planned Parenthood.

What's the matter with the religious conservatives who want to defund Planned Parenthood? you might think. Don't they live in the real world? What's the matter with the so called fiscal conservatives who won't expand Medicaid in their states to relieve the suffering of their poorest citizens? Can't they see that people don't heal when their only medicine is a stern lecture about personal responsibility?

The answer is: No, they don't live in the real world. They don't see the suffering every day. They know about it, but they don't experience it. Just like we used to know about gay love when most of us didn't know (or know we knew) anyone experiencing it. Exposure--up close and personal--induces empathy. It's the way we're wired. But if it's not up close and personal, it's just background. Like graffiti. Someone ought to clean that up.

Which got me thinking this: what if the suffering of others was up close and personal for most of us? Would we be a better society? Would we care more? Would we do more to help one another? I think so. But how could we do that, expose more of us in our daily lives to the sufferings of others?

I don't think empathy retreats for government workers are what's called for. Or focus groups. Or sensitivity seminars for politicians. I think what we need to do is emote. Each of us. All of us. Show our feelings. Show when we're sad. Angry. Hurt. Desperate. Take our feelings to work and share them. Make show and tell day every day.

I know what you're thinking: that would be chaos. Maybe. But maybe not. There might be a break-in period, but after a while I think we might get good at sharing our problems. Many hands make light work, the saying goes. Just knowing someone knows your predicament, and cares about it, is almost like having a helping hand. And that person, the one who never dreamed you were having such a hard time, might be in a position to do something about it. Maybe she's your boss. Maybe she knows a social worker. Maybe she knows a state legislator. We like to help each other. It makes us feel good about ourselves.

We're the descendants of Puritans. We're capable of great humanity, but we're a little emotionally repressed. We have in our DNA that strict Puritan code of self-reliance, austerity and sacrifice. We expect it of ourselves. We expect it of others. But the reason so many of us are here today is that the Plymouth colonists clung to one another throughout those first winters of suffering and starvation. They got through them together. If they had said to each other, "Good luck, everyman for himself," the Native Americans would have been spared the Puritan Plague but the rest of us might be an asterisk in a history book written by another people.

In Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the winters of 1620 and 1621, the suffering of each was painfully obvious to all. In that environment, moral choices that benefited all were made. Now, when the suffering of many is remote to many, different moral choices are being made. We do not think our morals have changed--and indeed, perhaps they have not--but the way we apply them has. Too often now we apply them to principles, rather than to people. Need we be reminded that it's not principles who birth and suckle us? Nor principles who will hold our hand as we die.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Self-Driving-Ambulance Chasers

Two robots walk into a bar...

It won't be long. Or maybe the bartender is a robot. With a breathalyzer built into his nose, which is cute but not so human that he triggers your uncanny valley aversion response. He'll call the self-driving Uber for you if he sniffs more than .08.


Meg and I want to buy a new electric car. She wants to wait to get one that's self-driving. Me too, but I think that's going to have to be in the next round, maybe five to ten years down the road (so to speak), perhaps much longer. I think the technology will get there before the legal liability questions are sorted out. Nothing like the uncertainty raised by a few big class action suits to slow you down if you're a pioneer. 

I'm a lawyer by training, but living in Silicon Valley and having a son who is a programmer have rubbed off on me. I'm much more interested in the technology than the legal questions. The technology is futuristic and fun, and evolving quickly, whereas the law is (sometimes rightly) stuck in the past and evolves at about the rate fish sprouted legs. Still, we need to know who is on the hook when that self driving car runs over someone. We need some new rules of the road. 

I was invited to a lecture at Stanford on this very subject, so I went. It was interesting. It also reminded me why so many of us are not partial to lawyers. Most of us just want to plunge ahead. Lawyers are cautious. Their favorite question is "what if." They can scare you out of doing almost anything. "What if the personal robot that you just sent out for coffee sees what it mistakenly thinks is a robbery in progress and grabs someone and wont let him go? Is the robot your agent, and are you guilty of kidnapping?" That was a question the professor asked me yesterday. Seriously.

He had just finished a thoughtful lecture that applied traditional legal theories to the autonomous activities of robots. He called them APs, for Autonomous Persons. In the law, apparently everyone, even corporations and robots, have to be persons. This is of course because the law was developed for persons and, as to court-developed law, which is much of it, is bound by precedent. Not too many robot precedents yet, so we look to how the law treats people who misbehave and try to apply those rules to robots.

Was the robot a mere tool (think a simple algorithm that performs one function), or did it have enough capacity and independence to be classified as an agent? And when it did the deed that brought it to court, was it acting on behalf of its principal (owner), or had it wandered off the reservation of its job description? What did it intend? What did it's owner intend?

It doesn't take much imagination to see that you can wade pretty deep into the metaphorical weeds chasing these kinds of questions. Right on up to "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that."

I asked the professor why not, at least in the initial stages of big autonomous applications, like self-driving cars, which will certainly result in accidents and damage, apply strict liability. This would mean that if you manufacture an autonomous car and it runs over somebody, you are on the hook. No ifs ands or buts. No questions about who sold you the software you used in the car, no questions about whether you were careful enough when you decided to use it, no questions about what you could reasonably have foreseen (all of which come into play in garden-variety product liability cases), just pay up. You would of course buy insurance to cover this risk. The insurance company would cover you as long as your safety record was acceptable, but if you got careless, it would drop you and you'd convert your assembly lines to making toasters.

The professor said this would change the questions raised from ones of law to ones of economics. Good, I thought. But I don't think he thought that would be good. In his defense, he's a computer scientist, not an economist, and he was lecturing on legal theories at the law school.

I'm not an economist either, but it seems to me this would be a sensible way to allocate the risks of exploring this brave new world. It was pooling of risk, which is the essence of insurance, that made the Dutch East India Company a success. Ships were getting lost on the long journey to trade with Asia. If your ship made it, great. If not, you were wiped out. So the shipping companies banded together. After that, each shipper bore only its share of the risk of one of the fleet going down. They and their British counterparts prospered and opened up not only trade but the world. (Also, abhorrent monopoly abuses and, in the case of the English, slave trade, but that's for another essay.)

The law is elegant and sometimes almost magical. It strives gallantly to equitably allocate responsibility for the way we conduct ourselves. But it is slow, slow slow. Cases take years to come to fruition, and even then they may decide only a small part of the legal question. One piece of the puzzle. It can take decades for the picture in the mosaic to come into focus.

The law, by its nature, follows. Technology, by its nature, leads. I suggest we let the risk-pooling model of the East India Company set the sails of technology explorers. The law will catch up eventually. That will be a good thing. But it doesn't seem to me to be a good idea to put lawyers at the helm of the ship that sets out to discover the new world.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fight or Flight

Well, I won't back down. 
No, I won't back down.
You can stand me up at the gates of hell.
But I won't back down.

---Tom Petty

Stand up for yourself. Don't let them roll over you. Don't back down. 


That fierce self-reliance, that determination not to be bullied, is deep inside us. Deep in our culture, our mythology, our DNA. In the Darwinian past, it was almost certainly an adaptive trait. Who knows today. Does it make us more likely to survive or to be the victim of road rage? Like the woman in Las Vegas the other day who, when harassed by another driver, took her daughter home, got her son (and his gun), and went looking for the bastard. She found him. He killed her.

The desire for revenge is the first cousin to the instinct to stand your ground. Instead of washing over you in a rush of adrenalin, it smolders inside you. Sometimes for a very long time. Years. Why is that? What good does it do? What good did it ever do? Maybe if, when we all lived in caves, you lay in wait for and disposed of the thug who beat you up some time ago, you saved yourself another beating. Nowadays circumstances are almost never like that. There is rarely someone lying in wait for us with murderous intent. We're just mad about some wrong--perhaps just a verbal slight--and we want to get even.

A lot has been written about how our base brains are the ones at the steering wheel, while our frontal lobes watch out the window and try to make sense of the scenery. We know this. We know that many of our atavistic instincts are maladapted to modern life. Yet we seem unable to kick that primitive, instinctive reactionary out of the driver's seat.

There is something inside us, some aspect of our self-image, that has been riding shotgun with that ancient driver so long we can't imagine anyone else at the wheel. If not him, who? And who would I be then? Caspar milquetoast. The skinny boy at the beach getting sand kicked in his face by the muscled hulk with a gorgeous woman on each arm?

The problem--the conscious problem, anyway, the one of which we are daily and painfully aware--isn't just our base-brain instincts, it's our self image. Every time we look in the emotional mirror, we see our weaknesses. We're certain others can sniff them out if we're not careful. We're certain we'll be abused if we don't stand our ground. Doormats, that's what well be. Who wants to be a doormat?

Is that what would happen? We're not fighting for food and mates the way we used to. Life (and gene propagation) is much less a zero sum game than it used to be. We don't have to take from one another. For most of us, there's plenty to go around. And yet we act like every slight must be redressed or we will perish.

What happens when a driver cuts you off and gives you the finger and you do nothing, you just slow down and let him go on his psychotic way? Your heart-rate spikes. You feel a little lightheaded. All that lasts about a minute, and then you start thinking again about what's for dinner. Versus maybe never making it home for dinner again.

Road rage is an easy illustration. It's quick and dramatic. Easy to get caught up in. Also pretty easy to pass up if you try. But what about the thousand cuts of daily life from people you can't avoid, people who won't drive on and be forgotten, people whose very presence daily remind you of the indignity, real or imagined, you have suffered at their hands? Must not they be dealt with?

Yes. But it is not they who must be confronted. It's that little fanatic in the driver's seat beside you. That primitive version of you. We are cruel to one another. Casually. Constantly. If you rise to the bait every time, if you let your un-evolved self pick your route, you'll spend most of your life going in the wrong direction.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Ghosts

When I sit down to write, I am Scrooge haunted by Marley. The sins of my past rattle like a long chain. Sins of both commission and omission. I have left loved-ones behind. I have abandoned them, and they haunt me.


The loved ones in this case are my unpublished novels. I worked hard on them and sent them out to agents and once, through a fine agent, to publishers. I waited with boyish hopefulness that was gradually deflated by damnation with great praise. The writing was wonderful, the story was intriguing, but...

If they had just said, "Are you kidding me, this is crap," it would be easy not to think about the stories that now languish in my metaphorical desk drawer. But they made it sound like the stories were so close that it's hard to not go back and try to make them better, to give them each another shot. Of course, making your work better is what good writers do. Then there is clinging obsessively to a pitiful excuse for a novel. Which is which? How do you know?

Eventually I move on. After a point, I just don't have anything more to give a story. I've said what I wanted to say. Even if no one else will ever see it. It does not make me feel good to keep saying it. I feel like my father giving me lectures. He used to say the same thing a million different ways. It was boring to listen to.

I write to tell some story that's in me and wants to come out. The first draft is the most fun for me. The story exposes itself. I'm like a medium in a seance. I close my eyes at the keyboard and something speaks for me. 

Maybe that's the problem. Maybe I've tapped into the wrong netherworld.

I want to have others read my stories. I want them to be published. But I don't that to be why I write. For one thing, that would make for a lot of frustration. Who wants to do something that just produces frustration? 

When I'm writing, I'm happy in some way I don't even understand myself. I think about those old novels, those ghosts. I've read how others worked on a project for a decade before they finally got it published. I don't think I can do that. A couple of years is enough. Then it's time to move on. To try to capture lightening in some other bottle. To lay down the chain of my past and pick up the story of my future.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Man on the Run

Is something wrong with me? I adore Sarah Bunting, the Downton Abbey class warrior who is a pal of Tom, also a class warrior and the widowed husband of Sybil Grantham, a class-warrior-lite herself.

I have no idea--as many have wondered online--why the Grantham's keep inviting Ms. Bunting to dinner so she can abuse them. She’s relentless in her challenges of their class assumptions and behaviors. And she's not very tactful. Perhaps that's her sin. One should not be rude to one's host. At the dinner table she's like the family teenager who has had her eyes opened to the sins of her parents and feels obliged to let them know how wrong they are, how unfair, how callous.

So why, if she's so boorish, do I like her so much? Well, she's right, of course. About the unfairness of the caste system epitomized by the English aristocracy. If she were alive today (not to mention real), she would be camped out at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration. The target of her scorn, Lord Grantham, like all men in positions they inherited from their fathers, doesn't like being called out. He gets huffy and rude himself, the ultimate sin for a well-bred Englishman. It's fun to watch.

But more than that, I like Sarah Bunting because she's a strong woman. She has the same spirit as the Dowager Countess (played by Maggie Smith), Lady Mary, Rose, Anna, Daisy, Mrs. Patmore, so many of them on the show. I can see Sarah marching with the suffragettes, burning her bra (though that didn't actually happen much), speaking at pro-choice rallies, demanding to know why rape kits go untested. 

Let's face it: we establishment men are slow to change. You have to get in our faces and make us uncomfortable or else we think everything is fine. "They're happy downstairs," Lord Grantham might say, as the men in the American South said about their slaves. We treat them well. They'd be lost without us.

The gutsy, audacious women who have insisted that women be treated fairly--the Susan Caddy Stantons, the Gloria Steinems, the Malala Yousafzais--are all celebrated. Eventually. After time has cooled the passions they inflamed, or when, as with Malala, the flames are not too close to home. It's not always pretty to watch the sausage of social change being made, but what Sarah Bunting is doing on Downton Abbey is mild compared to what so many have done to help remake the roles of women in Western culture. 

Besides, we know how this story ends. Lord Grantham gets to keep his head and his title. He even gets to keep his monarch. But gradually Sarah Bunting and her sisters and like-minded brothers knock him off his pedestal of hereditary privilege. I suppose I like watching the toppling of pedestals of pomp and vanity.

Push, Sarah! Get Tom to help. And maybe Mary's new beau, Charles Blake. He's been suggesting for a while that the manor is unsustainable. Lord Grantham didn't throw him out of the house. Perhaps that was because he was a man.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Good Enough

“Good God, the things you put us through. It's AP classes, it's SAT prep from day 1, it's punishment for less than a 4.0 GPA, and it fuels the tears that put us to sleep at night while you rest soundly.”

    —A Palo Alto High student after the death of another yesterday by suicide.

“A wealthy hedge-fund chief was gunned down by his adult son after he threatened to cut his allowance by a $100 a week and stop paying his steep rent, cops said Monday.”

    —Recent news item, dateline Manhattan.


As a father, I hardly know what to say about the two situations described above. The unspeakable tragedy of life wasted. Was it mental illness that led to suicide and murder? Was it drugs? Was it, in some tormented way, environment?

I can’t imagine how I would feel if one of my children killed himself or herself. Devastated, of course. And I’m sure I would think it was my fault. Or at least that there was something I could have done to have prevented it. Some sign I missed. Some harsh word spoken carelessly.

Nature versus nurture is a big debate. We don’t know the answer. But we do know one thing: after that moment of climax, when sperm meets egg, our part in the nature side is over. From then on, all we’ve got to work with is nurture.

There are a lot of parenting metaphors. Tiger mom. Helicopter parent. Trump Tower developer (my term for the parent who leaves most of the actual work to nannies and boarding schools). But the one that has always resonated with me is “coach.”

Maybe I like it because coaches can make a big difference in a young person’s life without taking full responsibility for the complete life. A parent’s job is much more hands-on, and much more time-intensive, but in terms of overall influence probably not that much more impactful than a great teacher or coach. Sometimes less so.

Bobby Knight, the mercurial Indiana basketball coach, famously threw chairs at referees and players. John Wooden, the greatest college basketball coach of all time, never raised his voice. Some of his players said he didn’t even talk about winning.

I never threw a chair at any of my children. (I was usually too poor to waste good furniture). I did spank them once in a while until my last child (too bad he wasn’t my first) shamed me out of it. I coddled them sometimes and ignored them others. I told them I wanted them to be the best they could be, but I rarely did more than wring my hands and deliver pithy aphorisms when I saw them slipping off course. I even signed a stack of blank permission slips to miss class for one son in high school. I said it was his choice not to go to class but I didn’t want him to lie about it. (He missed a few more classes that year, but he graduated summa cum laude from college.)

Honestly, to this day, I’m not sure what I did right and what I did wrong. Or at least what I could have done better. I have a mental notebook of well-honed rationalizations for all my parenting decisions. For the ones I can’t rationalize, I try not to think about them; and when I do I sometimes get a little weepy.

Mainly, I think kids need to know that we accept them for who they are: the messy package of conflicting dreams and moods and behaviors that makes them unique. Acceptance which they understand may not reach into every corner of what they are doing at a particular moment, but which they know without knowing is a warm cloak they may put on when they come home from the cold. 

I told my oldest sons not to go to a party once when they were in high school. They went anyway. I slipped over there just in time to drive the getaway car as they came barreling down the street after making some mischief. We laughed. But they were caught. And they knew it. That’s another thing a parent has to do. Be like a motorcycle cop with a radar gun behind a billboard. They never know when you might catch them. It’s easier just not to go too fast.

The world as it opens up to children, especially teenagers, can be scary. And stressful. Home should be a sanctuary. Not another place where they are judged. Not another place filled with people about whom they feel, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “For you my best was never good enough.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Metamorphosis

I'm having a political mid-life crisis. It's like waking up and finding that I'm a bug. Well, maybe not that dramatic. But unsettling.


First, as Paul Krugman would say, some background. I was raised by a Goldwater conservative. For those of you who don't remember Barry, let's just say my father was a compassionate conservative with a big libertarian streak. We argued all the time. In fairness, I would have argued with him no matter what his politics; and he with me. We liked the duel. Then I got married and had children and my political evolution was put on hold while I learned to be a father and a lawyer. I did like Constitutional law, so there was that, but the issues we studied in law school were old and well-settled.

Before I knew it Reagan was president and I was making enough money to think tax cuts were a great idea. My clients were investment bankers and big companies that needed money to buy other big companies. I didn't so much stop thinking about anything else as enter a long period during which I hardly even realized there was anything else to think about. 

One thing led to another and, as if waking from a dream, I found myself sitting on a farm in Baltimore, watching the snow pile up in deadening drifts as I thought about what to do with my life. I started writing then. Kids stories. Short stories. Finally novels. An occasional essay. And a few years ago, this blog, the Dad App, about being a dad and the kind of world I want for my children.

The thing about writing is it makes you think. Sometimes I'm not sure what I think about something until I write about it. Mostly I'm predictable, but sometimes I surprise myself. I'm a big Obama fan, for instance, but I wrote a little allegory the other day in which I almost involuntarily castigated him for turning over the ACA to the insurance industry. Maybe politically he had no choice. Still, we're in the clutches of pirates now, and they're holding our health care for ransom.

But (also as Krugman says) I digress. 

These last twenty years I've become more and more concerned about the poor. Especially the lack of opportunity that is as much a part of their lives as freedom from want is of mine. I have come to see the government as the only institution with the commitment and resources to help the poor. So I have become an apologist for it.

I say apologist, because it seems that is what I am always doing--apologizing, rationalizing, on its behalf. "Yes, the government is inefficient, even a little corrupt, but it's all we have to weave the social safety net." A lot of otherwise charming dinner-table conversations with friends have slipped down that slope.

You know how they say it's hard to hate someone you know. Take gays, for instance. We all have gay friends (or friends we have learned are gay now that they feel safe coming out). They've changed us. They've made us more understanding. Even hard-core anti-gay men like Senator Rob Portman, who did a 180 after his son came out. And good for him.

Recently I've had a couple of experience with local government that have made me see my libertarian, small-government friends in a new light. Like so many of us with gays, I just didn't really appreciate what my Ayn-Rand-groupie friends had been through. I have a better idea now.

For instance:

Not long ago, I was notified of a zoning violation by a local zoning department. I wrote to seek guidance. Twice. No answer. Bureaucratic rope-a-dope. At some (fairly high) cost, I stopped doing what was bothering them, but I still haven't heard from them. I guess they just don't feel they need to explain themselves.

More recently, I gave some thought to adding a second story to a house. I interviewed architects and they all said that getting the plans approved would take six to nine months and would depend on the eccentricities of the particular reviewer. What? It takes as long to approve remodel plan as to have a baby? And it depends on the proclivities of the government employee you draw? The very idea of putting myself in that kind of situation, of giving someone that kind of power over me for what should be an easy process (I mean, the building codes are pretty clear), gives me shivers. The same kind I used to get as a boy when I spotted a police car on the side of the road, even if I wasn't driving too fast.

The truth, I guess, is that I want to be let alone. Let alone to work and live my life. I've been lucky enough, and well-off enough, to mostly pull that off. But then I'm not a small businessman who has to deal with the government at every turn.

I like the idea of government. I like having a coordinated approach to planning and executing infrastructure upgrades. I like having someone look after the underprivileged. I like fiscal stimulus in downturns (although my economist son warns me to be cautious about that). But I don't like being mindlessly told what to do by a bureaucrat who doesn't seem to have a firm grasp on what his job is or how to do it. I want him to keep order, to keep me safe, to keep the trains running, but I don't want him pushing me around in ways that seem irrational and capricious, or worse.

So now I'm a bug. Looking for fellow bugs. It's a strange world out there.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Longshoreman Philosopher

A friend said today that he doesn't have much faith in the reasonableness of people. This is a smart, well-traveled, well-read, sensitive man. He's pessimistic. About what? A lot, I'd say. But primarily our ability to think our way out or our problems. He thinks there are smart people who could do that, but that they are both outnumbered and hopelessly polarized.

"Have you ever convinced anyone to change his mind?" he asked me.

"Not so much convinced," I said, "as found common ground."

When I said that I was thinking of dinner-table discussions with my friends, who include not only members of my progressive choir, but also a couple of pretty good libertarian, small-government soloists. It's true that when someone is your dinner guest, or you theirs, and you'd like to see them again, you hold back on the verbal molotov cocktails, but we do occasionally contend ferociously. Every time, I come away thinking we are a little closer on what we agree on. Am I being convinced or convincing? Neither, really. We're like bumper cars: we keep at it long enough, bumping into one another, going nowhere, until eventually, sometimes almost by accident, as if the jostling knocked sense into us, we find a course forward.

Why is that? Am I so smart and patient? (Well, of course.) Are my friends so reasonable? (Now and then.) I don't think that, at bottom, either of those is the reason.

"Remember Eric Hoffer?" I asked my friend, knowing he would. For those who may not, he was the "longshoreman philosopher,” an itinerant and dock worker who read voraciously and published the things he learned about the human condition. "In times of change" he said, "learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

"I believe in the wisdom of the common man," I said to my friend. 

(Thinking about that statement as I write this, that sounds a bit aristocratic, if not patronizing. But I don't mean it that way.)

I told my friend: "I can't tell you how many times I have seen someone in the street interviewed about some hot issue like the shooting in Ferguson, MO or the Charlie Hebdo covers and killings and thought to myself: That's right; that's the way I see it too.

People understand people. We know what's going on. The woman in the street isn't running for office. She doesn't have a spin machine. She says what she feels. And no matter which side of the issue she’s on--pro cops or pro blacks, pro choice or pro life, pro restraint in political or religious commentary or pro blistering satire--I almost always understand where she's coming from. I may not got the distance with her, but I see her point of view. I can feel the root of it.

So if the people are so wise, why is there such disharmony? The answer, I think, is that the intellectual class is letting us down. Rather than seeking common ground, they seek to gain ground.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Intellectual hubris. Political aspirations. Vested interests. These create something like an intellectual conflict of interest. We start out trying to be philosophers, but eventually too many of us settle into being salesmen. And the very nature of selling is to tear down the other guy's product. After a time, you begin to believe your own sales pitch. At that point, new thinking gives way to hucksterism.

The common man may be wise, but he's busy. Most of us don't have time to sift through facts and arguments to decide what's best. And since there's a spin master out there for almost every point of view, when we hear some political or cultural slogan that resonates, we grab onto it and buy the product. Maybe it has been fairly advertised, maybe we get what we thought we were buying, but too often, we do not.

Ad men (and women) know how to pull our strings. Sex sells. Fear sells. Prejudice sells. A lot of political positions today look like 1950s car ads with beautiful women draped over gleaming chrome. Or rugged men on horseback talking about the free range and their favorite smoke. 

We see how well that worked out.

I suppose I agree with my friend in a way. I too am concerned that our national decisions on things like climate change and rising inequality will not be made on the basis of reason. But whereas my friend fears that collectively we are not wise enough to make reasonable choices, I place the blame on the political salesmen who spend more time convincing us to follow them than thinking about where we should go.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Sufferer, the Dreamer and the Profiteer

The tall black man who came to their home would be their savior. Maria had lost her job and her daughter, Sonia, just two years old, was hungry. Maria had gone to the food shelter with Sonia, but she saw the social worker there, watching her, and she did not go back because she was afraid the woman would try to take Sonia away from her if she thought Maria could not care for her.


The tall man had a big smile and big ears. He said he was there to help her and her child. He asked if he could come inside. He asked her to trust him. She gave him the last cup of tea she had. With Sonia playing on the floor between them, he explained that he had a way to help them have all the food they needed. Not fancy food, but healthy and modest food that would help Sonia grow up strong and give Maria the stamina to be a good mother.

He called his idea the Affordable Food Plan. Everyone would all pay small amounts each month, whatever they could afford, based on their income, or nothing at all if they were making no money. As members of the AFP ("YoMamaCare," he called it, chuckling warmly and winking at Sonia), Maria and Sonia would be able to go to a network of places where they could get the food they needed.

The network was being set up by friends of his, the tall man with the warm smile said. His friends ran insurance companies. They would take the money that everyone gave, each according to his means, and they would use it to buy food that they would distribute to places that were convenient to Maria and all the others. He said again that it wouldn't be fancy food, but it would be nutritious.

When the man left, Maria took Sonia to the park. They were hungry, but the warm sun felt good, and the hope that the tall man had given her made her hunger seem bearable. He had said it would take a while for his friends at the insurance companies to set up the networks, but even that did not worry her. She and Sonia would get by until then. They would live on what they could get at the shelters and through the charity of strangers. They would live on the hope the man had given her.

When the day finally came that someone called and told her that the network had been set up and gave her the location of the place she and Sonia could go for food, she washed and dressed herself and her baby in their best clothes. She did not want to look like a beggar. She was not a beggar. She was a participant in the Affordable Food Plan. The tall man's friends had somehow, praise god, worked out a way to feed everyone with each person paying only what they could afford. It was a miracle. Like the Biblical story of the fishes and the the loves that fed the multitudes.

The place she was told to go was empty. There was no food. A man at the door said the food was coming. He told her to check back in a week. She told him they could not wait another week to eat. He just shrugged. She called the person who had told her where to go and got the location of another place. It had only cans of beans. Still, she was grateful for anything at that point. She took the beans home and she and Sonia ate them and gave thanks for the tall man and his friends at the insurance companies.

As the weeks went by, other food came to the places in the network. There was little variety, though, and the food was all very basic. Beans and rice, potatoes. There wasn't much milk for Sonia. Not much fruit. The people at the network stores told her that what they had was all the insurance companies would give them. The insurance companies said they could not afford better food or more variety.

As the years went on, Maria thought things would get better, but they did not. She got odd jobs now and then, but she couldn't work much because she had nowhere to leave Sonia except in the charity day care run by her church a few days a week. They lived on the food from the Affordable Food Plan network. The people there told her the insurance companies were giving them less and less. Sonia was surviving, but just barely. Maria was sure her little girl wasn't as big as she should be for her age. Sometimes Sonia seemed so listless that Maria just held her close and cried, as if her tears might somehow give her daughter strength.

She passed a tavern on her way home with Sonia one day and saw a television over the bar with the tall man speaking. Someone was asking him about the Affordable Food Plan. He said his enemies were working to undermine its funding. Someone else asked him if his enemies were the insurance companies, the ones he used to say were his friends. Maria could not hear his answer, for someone jostled her on the sidewalk just then and Sonia called out and threw her arms around her neck and said she was hungry.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Wondering

I've been thinking about Greece lately. I always dreamed of going there, of visiting what remains of that glorious ancient civilization. The prospect of that isn't so appealing just now. The Greek economy is where the U.S. was a few years into the Great Depression: staggering unemployment, soup lines, hopelessness. They got themselves into this mess with years of profligacy and corruption. When the government spent and borrowed unwisely and the rich refused to pay taxes and hid their money in Switzerland, the country stopped being able to borrow money to pay its debts. The price of a bailout, exacted by the Germans, was austerity. But four years of belt tightening has just made things worse. The people--the ordinary people--are suffering.


Have you noticed how it's always the ordinary people who suffer? They didn't bring this on themselves, their leaders did, but they pay the price.

Take a look at Gaza. Two million people caged in hopeless conditions, with no chance to better their lives. Caged by their own leaders as much as by the Israelis. Just like the Russians, after throwing off the Czar, were caged by Stalin. The North Koreans by Kim. The Iraqis and Afghans by al-Maliki and Karzai.

All of which makes me wonder: how did we in this country get so lucky? Why has America had two hundred years of political, social and economic stability? (There was that little hiccough called the Civil War, and maybe we should have just let the South go, but like the boys who fought on both sides we stitched ourselves back up and marched on.) Is it our Pilgrim roots? Those modest toilers in virtue. Is it our passion for capitalism and the enterprise and growth it brings? Are we just smarter and better than most?

I think we are a lucky mutation. Like a gene that pops up along the evolutionary trail and turns out to be highly adaptive. Our mutation was spawned in the heat of our revolution and imprinted on the DNA of men like Washington, Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson. Ours was no Bolshevik revolution. Our founding fathers were landed gentry, classically educated men who were committed to throwing off the shackles of monarchy and guarding against its resurrection in their midst.

Ours was the perfect place for such a mutation to flourish. We are isolated but have abundant natural resources. The first gave us space and time, the second gave us means. The other element of course is our system of government. It's hard to say why one so progressive, balanced and ultimately pluralistic was adopted in Philadelphia all those years ago. The men who wrote the constitution were both idealists and pragmatists. They fought it out on those two fronts and came up with something that, frankly, has been a little magical.

Britain has done more or less the same thing. It threw off it's monarchy internally, gave up its colonial ways (if somewhat reluctantly), and settled down to being a steady and inclusive democracy. Not too many other countries have pulled off our magic trick, though. I've thought about why and don't have an answer.

Well, I sort of have an answer, but it's a bit depressing. It's not gong to help Greece or Gaza, North Korea or North Africa. Political leaders seek power. When they get it, they work hard, often abusively, to keep it. The democratic mutation in America and Britain, and in some parts of Europe, has so far kept political megalomaniacs in check by elevating institutions above individuals.

We have our demagogues here in America. They are sometimes laughable, sometimes scary. So far, though, none has seriously threatened our democracy. How long will that last? I don't know. Maybe we should ask the ancient Greeks.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Life on the Edge

The poker game was at our house last night. Six young men and one woman who have been gathering to make trebuchets, perform in and attend plays, design robots and play trash-talking Texas Hold Em for at least ten years. One of them said last night, referring to a wimpy bet by another: "We're not sophomores in high school anymore."


Indeed they are not. They are studying for graduate degrees, acting in England, re-inventing internet marketing, programming for startups. When they are all in town, as for the holidays, they get together for poker, and to me it's just like old times. As Meg and I sit reading in another room, we overhear their happy banter, which ranges from just what is covered by the fourth amendment to the fallacy of sunk cost (as applied to betting, in this case) to the Simpsons. 

I remember the parties my grandfather used to have during the holidays. He would make a beef tenderloin and cheese grits and pound cake and after he made sure everyone was served he would stand by the sideboard and watch as his large family chatted happily. I asked him once why he wasn't joining in, and he said it gave him more joy just to stand back and watch his family enjoy one another so completely.

I didn't understand then, but I do now. When those first poker games started, we were, as parents, still striving to make sure everything went well for our children. We took them places, we worried about whether they were happy, and when their friends came over for poker or to go to one of their plays, or just for anything, we were so happy for them. They were making their own friends, pursuing their own interests, but somehow I still felt responsible for their happiness. I understand that I wasn't, but really, when you're driving to another event or suggesting yet another activity, you begin to think you are making a difference in how well they are adapting to life. You are and you aren't, I suppose.

But now, it's all them. All I have to do, all I can do, is sit back and watch. It's nice, really. Just as my grandfather said. Liberating in a way. They are happy. They are doing it on their own. I don't have to worry. I can go back to just thinking about myself (and Meg) if I want to. I can worry about my novel instead of my children. In fact, given their successes, maybe I should turn my novel over to them.

When the poker games first started and it seemed there would always be children in the house, I would ask them to hold down the volume when I went to bed while they were still playing. I couldn't sleep in those days unless the house was dead quiet. Maybe that was some kind of alert system working within me: only quiet meant everyone was safe. But last night, the laughter and chatter that filtered up to the bedroom felt like my mother's lullabies singing me to sleep, reassuring me with that soft melody that all is well with those I love.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tear Down the Baby Ivies

One of my sons is looking at private schools for his ten-year-old son. The elementary school the boy has been attending has been fine, but in the city, where they live, the quality of public education begins to slip in middle school. They can move to the more affluent suburbs for a good public school, or they can go private. For $25,000 per year. Gulp.

If you can afford private school tuition, or the the price of a house in a rich public school district, you and your children are in luck. In not...well, your kid’s not out of the game, but she can't be average, in motivation or intelligence, if she hopes to compete for college spots with the rich kids. They might not be brighter, but they've got money, and all that money brings: a stable and supportive environment, parents and teachers who have high hopes and expectations for their students.

There was another op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday about how segregated public schools have become, particularly in Ferguson, Missouri, and how tough it is for the black kids there who are offered a substandard education compared the their richer neighbors. (“How School Segregation Divides Ferguson—and the United States.”) Here in Palo Alto, California, the public schools are first rate, but right across the freeway, not a mile away, the largely Hispanic East Palo Alto schools struggle for resources and achievement.

Vignettes like those make it sound like racial discrimination is afoot, but if it is it is only indirectly. The problem is not fundamentally one of race, but of economics. According to the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of white families today is thirteen times that of black households, and ten times that of Hispanic’s. There are plenty of poor white families too. And most of the children in those poor families—black, white and brown—aren’t getting the education they deserve. Not because of the bigotry that oppressed blacks in the Jim Crow South. Because of money. 

Have money: get a good education, breed, repeat. Have no money: go directly to the daily struggle for existence from which you and your children have a hard time looking up.

There have always been classes, likely always will be. But lately we’re making class differences worse, not better. It’s not right. And it’s not smart. A large, undereducated population is not going to help us innovate and thrive. If only out of self-interest, we desperately need to offer everyone good public education.

The problem is, the people who can fix the problem have only that abstract long-term incentive to do so. We’re not good at abstract long-term incentives (see, e.g., global warming). We get to work when we feel the pressure, when we’ve got skin in the game. So how to give the ruling class skin in the game. Get rid of private schools. At least up through high school.

The notion is positively un-American. I know that. But what’s happening is un-American too. The rich are packing up and leaving the rest behind. For the workers who build our houses, who used to build our cars, who came here from all over the world seeking opportunity, the ladder is bing pulled up. That’s not us. At least I hope it’s not.

Skin in the game means the well-off have to send their kids to public schools. And not just good ones. Somehow, perhaps with a lottery system, we need the movers and shakers to think their kid could end up in any of one of several schools in their area. So it wouldn't do to fix up one school and leave the others in disrepair. Your son might end up at any of them; better make them all good.

As for getting private schools in the first instance, well, that’s a tall order. High taxes on them might be a good starting point. The rationale would be like any tax meant to deal with a negative externality (e.g. a carbon tax), with the negative externality in this case being the education safe havens for scions of the elite, safe havens that leave their influential parents with little incentive to improve public education.


We can do anything. We know that. We do it all the time. But we have to care. And the lesser education opportunity of others just doesn’t seem to be stirring enough of us. We need to bring it home. We need to make it about our kids. Then we’ll get to work on the problem. Our kid will get a good education, and so will everyone else’s. That’s opportunity. That’s why we all came to America. That’s what will keep it the place everyone wants to be, a shining example to the world of what we can do when we pitch in together. Even when we’re only doing it because we have to.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Think I'll Go For a Ride

I heard a nice song on the radio (remember the radio?): "The Ride," by Luka Bloom, an Irish singer. "When the head spins and there is no joy, put me up in the saddle, I'm just a little boy." My son Cord gets the same exhilaration from biking, so I sent him the song. Most excellent, he said. Nice that someone tried to capture the feeling.


Cord lives in Philadelphia, right in the middle of the city. On long rides he breaks free, but he has to get in and out of town. He says it's a bit dodgy on city streets for a biker. It's not that anyone wants to hurt anyone, it's just close quarters with two-ton cars and even bigger trucks and busses. Not to mention the rail track slots that his front wheel slipped into one time. One moment he was gliding, the next he was sitting on the pavement, shaking his head, wondering what happened.

I love to ride too. If I don't get out enough--a few miles to a coffee shop, nothing too serious--I get a little wiggy. Like Cord, I took a tumble off my bike once and got a free ride to the emergency room. More drama than damage, but it makes you cautious.

So I was exercising that caution as I biked home the other day. A long stretch of the street had no bike lane and there were cars parked on both sides. It was comfortable to pass another bike going the other way, or even a small car. But with one coming at me and another coming from behind...gulp. I was glad when the road neared an elementary school and a wide bike lane began. I'd just gotten comfortable in my own safe zone when I had to go around a pickup truck parked in the bike lane. Most people are pretty good about not doing that, but there was a guy in the truck eating his lunch, and as I went by I said, mildly, I thought, "You're parked in a bike lane." I didn't get ten feet before he shouted back, "It's a truck lane too!"

Well, actually it's not. It's only three or four feet wide and it's clearly marked as a bike lane. It's not like he didn't know all this; he was parked right under a sign that said "no parking anytime." I went back and, pretty calmly when you consider that he looked like he was about to have a coronary, I asked him why he was so angry. "I hate bicyclists," he said. "Why?" I asked. "We don't pollute, we aren't noisy. We don't take up much room."

"Because you're all assholes," he said. 

My first experience with lifestyle profiling.

I said, "Look, you're huge (meaning his truck), and I'm little. I just want the buffer zone that a bike lane is meant to provide."

He was seriously red-faced by this time. He said he didn't like being talked down to. Then he repeated that bikers are all assholes, threw his boxed lunch on the seat beside him, and drove off swearing.

When I was a boy, just learning to drive in Tennessee, people used to talk about games involving driving close to groups they disliked--blacks, gays, Jews--and knocking them over by opening the car door as they passed. Bicyclists were sometimes on the list of candidates for roadside mayhem. Having just graduated from a bike, I didn't understand the enmity. I haven't thought about it in years, but apparently it's not just a Southern redneck thing of days gone by. Here was a guy in Palo Alto, not some KKK member, spouting vitriol that would have made those of the white robes and hoods proud.

This story doesn't have a moral. Well, perhaps it does, but I'm not courageous enough to speculate about what it is. Draw your own conclusions. And be careful who you assume doesn't want to hurt you.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Some Assembly Required

I'm putting together the bed again. For Chris and Nick. They're coming home to visit for the holidays. It's one of a pair of simple pine beds they slept in all their childhoods. It's a devilish contraption.


We bought the beds when they were toddlers. They were their first beds after cribs. Lovely polished pine planks that were part of a bedroom playground, part of our fantasy for our sons' boyhoods. Chris started out in a room with a mural of a castle with a prince looking out the window at rabbits and squirrels gamboling among tulips. That's what we wanted for him, for both of them. The beds joined together with a platform that had a wooden ladder and a slide. Over the years, we left the castle mural and the ladder and slide behind as we moved here and there, but we kept the beds, carefully disassembling and reassembling them with each move.

What's the big deal about taking them apart and putting them back together, you might ask. Let me tell you. When the bed is made, the design is elegantly simple: long knotty pine side rails with curved edges and matching rails for the head and foot boards; it looks like it was designed in Sweden or Norway. But, when you take off the mattress, you expose the infernal inner workings. They are as beautiful as the exterior, until you take them apart and try to put them back together. Fifteen perfectly bowed, slightly springy struts to hold up the mattress, laced together with lovely red nylon straps. The struts fit into red end caps (thirty of them) that nestle in the side rails. It's that nestling that's the problem. You can't put the bed together and then insert the struts. They won't flex that much. You have to put them into their little red end caps on one side, where they arch to the floor like half a rib cage of a very symmetrical beast. Then you have to slip them into the other side rail as you hook it to the head and foot boards via wooden dowels and beautifully fitting recessed bolts. 

Well, it can't be done. Not by me, at least. I never get more than a couple of struts hooked up to both sides without end caps beginning to rain down onto the floor like red tulip petals (maybe that was the true castle mural metaphor) and me throwing up my hands and, after a few failures, I confess, uttering language I still don't like the boys to hear from their sainted father.

Meg to the rescue. Every time. She's the one of us with the engineering genes. She has a nifty way of sliding the struts on one side partially into the end caps and then fitting them into unattached side rail and carefully lifting and attaching the rail as the struts slip entirely into the caps. It's magic. I never remember it. I never even remember that she can do it. She always just comes to my rescue, as if it were the first time. She's good at helping the males in her life without our realizing how much she is doing. The best kind of love.

We got the bed together last night. Just one. In their old bedroom (which is, in the way of childhood bedrooms, morphing into a guest room) we now have a double bed where one of the boys can sleep. We set up the old boyhood bed in Meg's office. I used the headboard from Chris's bed and the footboard from Nick's. I know which is which because they have plaques on them ("World's Greatest Chess Player," "Star of Stage," etc.) that one of Meg's cousins who is in the trophy business gave them many years ago. That was after castle and slides, in the days of school newspapers and robotics tournaments.

Maybe I should call cousin trophy czar and get updated plaques for the boys. "Start-up Programmer" and "Economics PhD Student." Just thinking about that, about how far they've come (and gone), makes me wonder how they feel about returning to sleep in their old bed. Do they fear some spirit of Christmas Past will possess them when they lie on the mattress on those carefully interlaced struts? Do they look forward to it the way they used to? How does it feel to come home?

I remember going home as a young adult. I think I was like many of us: I looked forward to it in the abstract, loved it for a short time and then pretty quickly got restless to get back to my life as myself, not my parents' child. Do they feel those things? Most likely. For my part, now on the other side of the bargain, when I lace those struts together with those sturdy red nylon straps, struts that are still as taught and polished and lovely as ever, I am lacing together our lives.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Jose's Excellent Adventure

I have some casual pals at Starbucks, where I like to write. One of them is, like me, a father and a grandfather. He reads my blog once in a while and we talk about our kids. Not much. Just in passing. Today he told me that one of the baristas, Jose, is about to become a father. Jose was behind the counter and my friend said loudly, in that jovial way of comradeship, that he and I should take Jose under our wings and give him the benefit of our combined wisdom as fathers.


I had a kind of instant flash through all the things I might say and what came out was "Run." Jose, going along with the laughter, said that occurred to him, but he stayed. His baby is due in June. He's in for a ride, one we've all taken, as parent or child, or both, and yet one that is unique to each of us. Call it the ride of life. After all, what is life all about if not perpetuating the species? Today we don't use such a clinical phrase. We say life is all about family. Certainly it seems to get that way from time to time, especially those times when you would rather be alone. Maybe just to have a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom without being on high alert for incoming.

Of course I was kidding when I suggested that Jose run. It's a male cliche. A mandatory joke about the yoke being slipped over his young neck. Fatherhood changes you forever, no doubt about that. Most of us say the change is for the better, but maybe Darwin makes us say that. Maybe we don't have any real choice in how we feel about being fathers. 

So now that I'm not joking around with Jose, terrifying him, what would I say to him or to any new father.

1. Join a feminist group. Be active in feminist causes, especially workplace equality and childcare. The main thing you have to do as a father is be there. Nature takes care of a lot of the rest. You can be there more if your partner shares roles with you, both work and child-care. This has the added benefit (which pays off in numerous ways) of making your partner happy. Indeed, as things now stand in our culture, you will be seen as a saint. Try not to abuse your halo.

2. Take a deep breath. The biggest mistakes of fatherhood are made when we're angry. Go for a walk. Cool off. You can't teach a child to be loving and patient by being the opposite.

3. Let him fail. Follow the maxim of the technology world: "Fail early and often." Techies know we learn from our mistakes. Tech venture capitalists don't even want to invest in someone who hasn't failed. Children are the world's best at making real-time course corrections. But you have to let them make mistakes for them to learn. Don't expose them to danger, but don't be overprotective. And start young, when the failures don't mean they won't get into college. By that point, they will have learned the lessons failure teaches and you won't have to hire a tutor to write their college essays.

4. Be there. I said that already, but it bears repeating. All the rest will come naturally. You'll give her what you have to give and she'll know she's loved. That's the foundation for everything. Your job is to get her ready to go off on her own. She needs to feel safe and valued, respected and loved. She'll figure out the rest. You can teach her. You can tell her stories. But mainly she'll figure it out herself as long as she knows she's on solid ground at home.

That's all. The rest is just the way we live. Be a soccer dad if you want. Camp out. Take him to ball games. Whatever you want to do. What you do with him doesn't matter. It's the doing, the being there, that makes all the difference. 

How do I know all this? What makes me such an expert? Simple. Look down the list. I've done every one wrong. I've learned from failure. Maybe that's the only way. Or maybe Jose will be spared the big mistakes and only have his own small ones to look back on with regret. That would be my last bit of advice, I suppose. What I tell myself anyway. Do your best and don't look back. Don't beat yourself up when you slip. Get up and keep trying. That's one of the best lessons you can teach.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Intellectual Blood Sport

When I was a boy, my father used to lecture me. They were pull-up-a-chair-and-get-comfortable-this-is-going-to last-for-a-while events. He would repeat himself over and over, as if I were deaf or insensible (which, a short time into the ordeal, I usually was), or as if by sheer repetition I could be made to see the wisdom of his point of view. I don't think I ever did--see the wisdom of his views--which is my loss, to some extent. He died when he was fifty, and I twenty eight, and still, decades later, not many days go by when I don't wish I could revisit some of those debates. I don't know whether I want to say "I understand better now, Dad" or "You understand better now, don't you Dad?" Probably both. It's likely we would pick up right where we left off.


In fairness to Dad, his lectures, the real stem-winders, were usually saved for my teenage-boy transgressions, not politics. He was a brilliant doctor and a libertarian. When he died, he hadn't managed to pay a good amount of back taxes. I don't think he thought he government was really entitled to them. Those were the ninety-percent-marginal-tax-rate days, and at those rates, he was probably right. But whatever your father's politics, most boys have to go the other way. At least ones like me. It's all part of breaking free.

I went to law school at Vanderbilt and we kept up our debates until he died, not long after I graduated. He told me once (the nicest compliment he ever paid me) that he wanted to go to law school so he could better argue with me. He may have admired my sophistry, but I don't think I ever convinced him of anything. Except maybe that it was fun to spar around about big issues.


Flash forward. I'm at dinner recently with my father. A kind of second-coming of him, anyway. Same boyishness. Same charm. Same good humor and parrying wit. Same bedrock conservatism. This friend and I have been going round and round for a few dinner parties on the usual political flash points. He's socially liberal, like Dad was, so it's mainly fiscal issues and the proper role of government that we wrestle over, just like Dad and I. And like Dad, this friend is polite enough that from time to time I actually think I'm bringing him around. The dinner table is no place for a fight and the wine lubricates the discussion, but then I send him an email link to a column by Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman or some other redistributionist and my friend bares his teeth. Oh, dear! He does have big teeth.


He thanked me recently for not giving up on him, which was a charming way to ask why the hell I am so stubborn. Good question. Why indeed? I told him I learned persistence from my father. My father's political views don't live on in me, but his ability to cling to them doggedly, to rationalize them, to see the facts that support them and not the ones that don't, to say the same thing over and over, certain that the cretin to whom I am speaking will eventually have an intellectual epiphany, does.


Talking to my friend is enough like talking to Dad that I love it. Occasionally hate it. Love it. It's sport. And not. When I was a boy, when my father was alive, the issues we discussed were still abstractions to me. Now that I see the consequences, in human terms, of the choices we make as a society, it's getting harder to to enjoy the sport. I feel an increasing need to slay my gladiatorial opponent. The trouble is, he's as fit and well armored as I. What does that mean? Am I doomed to ceaseless combat, or should I exit the coliseum and just let everyone else get hopelessly bloody in what seems to be a never-ending conflict, our country's version of a religious war?