Friday, February 14, 2020

The Enthusiasm Gap

A friend and I have periodic email exchanges about politics. He’s conservative but smart. We used to have these discussions over dinner, but the cost in broken plates was getting too high. 

Yesterday, he wrote to ask whether, given the struggle among Democrats to generate broad-based enthusiasm for a candidate, the “Anybody but Trump” sentiment will be sufficient to turn out voters to beat him.

It’s a good question. Here’s my reply.

Being against something usually evokes less enthusiasm than being for something. Unless the something we oppose is perceived as a big enough threat. German occupiers in WW II roused the resistance, as did the English colonization of India. Our instinct is to throw off the yoke of foreign occupiers. Some of us would put Trump in that category.

There is plenty of enthusiasm for Sanders, and not just among the young. He is currently the only ascendant candidate generating much passion. But most of us don’t want socialism and don't believe the country wants it. If we're right, Bernie will lose, probably badly.

So we cast about for someone we think can win. For someone who, other than Bernie, can generate the kind of enthusiasm that gets people out to vote, as Obama did. 

I don’t know if we will settle on such a person, or who it might be. If our nominee is uninspiring, whether Trump wins will turn on how badly non-supporters want to get rid of him.

That depends, in my opinion, on how well people focus on the danger he poses to our democracy, environment and opportunities for anyone not rich. Those are seen by many as either abstractions or problems for the future, and we’re not so great at focusing on problems that aren’t right in our faces: see, eg, climate change.

The anticipated benefits of a Trump presidency are not panning out for many of his supporters, despite the roaring economy. Coal has not made a comeback, nor rust-belt manufacturing. Healthcare is getting more and more expensive for, and less and less available to, people who are poor or of modest means, many of whom are also waiting for the revival of their industries that Trump promised.

What is unclear to me, still, is how strong Trump’s cultural appeal will be in this next election. A lot of people, for over-diagnosed reasons, are racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and want to keep the little woman barefoot and pregnant. Trump's rhetoric tells them that he is too. Will they continue to be led by those prejudices, or will they realize they’ve been following a con man? We’ll see.

Of course there are plenty who think they have a legitimate self-interest in having Trump in office. Certain well-off segments of society, fossil fuel businesses, Second Amendment die-hards, Christian fundamentalists. Personally, I think his policies will backfire for even those groups, or many of them. Climate change will hurt their businesses. The huge deficit will beggar our infrastructure and leave us handcuffed to respond to the next downturn. Cutting off immigration will turn us into Japan, given our slowing population growth rate. Huge class divides are not good for anyone’s business, long term. Consider what happened in France about the time our little country was getting started.

Then there’s the war risk. Trump is brutish in his approach to other nations. That worked for the Romans and the Vikings, but it’s not a good strategy in these days of nukes rattling around the world.

I used to think Trump was the problem. Now I worry it is us. Who are we? What do we stand for? I was surprised when he got elected. I blamed him. If he gets re-elected, there will be no one to blame but ourselves.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Cold Fusion

Today I read that the Chinese are about to harness the sun in a fusion reactor. I also read that artificial intelligence is better at reading mammograms than expert radiologists.

Ain’t science great. All that cool math. The stars are literally the limit.

My two youngest sons were just home for the holidays. They’re math types. One is teaching his artificial intelligence algorithm to design women’s clothes in flattering styles based on body shape; beyond the runway and into everywoman’s closet. The other is developing the theoretical math to support an idea for a better way to keep international banks out of trouble, to sidestep future financial crises.

When I talk to them, I come away brimming with pride and hope. Pride in them, and hope for humanity. They’re just two young men, but they have their sights set high, and they’re going to do some good in the world. Many many others like them are out there now, dreaming of a better future.

Meanwhile, though, while the Chinese are cooking up controllable fusion, they are also refining the facial recognition and surveillance technologies that let them keep an eye on all their citizens. They plan to give each a citizenship score. I’m sure they’ll only use it to make people happier.

And as fast as my son works out better banking protection, thousands of others as energetic and purposeful as he are developing crypto currencies and shadow banking systems that are wide open in terms of risk because no one can really anticipate what might go wrong. It’s like the first time someone poured baking soda into a bottle of vinegar. Wow, that was unexpected…but pretty cool! Let’s do it again.

And while my other son is developing the programs to give women the power to design what they want to wear, the commercial engine of our culture—kicked into warp speed by the internet—is shaming them for being normal. Not too thin, not too fat, just normal.

And never mind about the hackers all over the world who are staying up nights to figure out how to steal our identities and shut down our power grids.

Tech is there for us. It’s a tool. Like the clubs that the chimps in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Odyssey” picked up off the ground and began raging around with.

It’s pretty obvious that our tools are by now a long way from those simple clubs. I wonder, though, how evolved we, as humans, are from those chimps. I see today the same rage in us. Not all of us. Some of us are working to making the world better and safer and healthier. But the ones who just want to pick up a club and bash someone are still among us. And they may be a larger segment of humanity than we’re comfortable admitting.

So what happens when our tools become so powerful, as they perhaps already have, that a few of those rageaholics can do unimaginable damage with them?

We tell who we are with our stories.

I think of “By the Waters of Babylon,” by Stephen Vincent Benét, about simple people living in a wilderness on the edge of what had been a great civilization, the forbidden Place of the Gods. The adventurous protagonist ventures along the broken and deserted highways—the “God-Roads”—into the empty shell of New York City, destroyed by some force not known to him, or knowable by him.

I think of William Golding's “Lord of the Flies,” of the shockingly quick descent of normal adolescents into primitive rage. “Kill the pig, cut her throat, spill her blood.”

And when I do, I’m afraid we can't trust ourselves with our toys.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Man on the White Horse

Britain is headed for the exits. It’s harder to imagine where our country is going.

America is still the global power Britain imagines itself to be, even though lately we seem to have wearied of being world leaders.

It’s no wonder. Leadership is hard. Mostly people and nations don’t follow, so you have to be thoughtful and clever, as well as compassionate and understanding. I don’t know what you think, but we seem to me to be a little short on those qualities lately.

Some of us are tired and beat-up by globalization and upset about the way our communities are changing, so we’re acting out a fantasy not unlike the one being indulged in Britain now. We can go it alone. We don’t need outsiders telling us what to do.

The thing about friends is that if you don’t keep up your relationships, one day you look around and there’s no one to help you load the U-Haul when it’s time to move, no one to bow her head and stand beside you when a loved-one dies. Being alone is fine, until it isn’t.

I suppose if you have enough money, you can buy what you need. You don’t have to depend on others. But that’s not most of us. Most of us need help from time to time.

With the changes in the economy washing over the land, some of us have become so desperate that we’ve lost faith in the ability of our friends, family and communities to support us. We’re looking for a savior. Someone who promises to give us what we need.

If you’ve worked to get where you are, you’ve probably never put much stock in the idea that someone is going to ride in on a white horse and just hand you what you want, certainly not some rich guy from New York who made his fortune on your gambling habit.

So why do you think that’s going to happen now?

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Virus

My first day of school was in 1951, in Jacksonville, Florida, near the Naval Air Base where my dad was stationed, serving in the military that paid for him to study medicine. I took a yellow school bus. I remember it vividly, and the uncertainty I felt about where it was taking me. My last day of high school was in 1963, in Nashville, Tennessee. I left in my embarrassing 1953 Plymouth and headed for our graduation party, where Billy Buist, drunk as a skunk, stood on a table and announced that he and his sweetheart Brenda were married.

During those years, I learned about how organs work, which made me think I wanted to be a doctor, like my father, I ducked and covered under my school desk to practice surviving a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, I ducked and covered under the hay in the eighth grade with Jane Sanders (uneventfully, sadly) and the next year determined, with what little consciousness remained after I tackled someone much bigger than I, that I was not meant to be a high school football player.

The one thing I never did, which never even occurred to me as a possibility, was worry about being shot in school.

During those school years of the 1950s and early sixties, in the United States there were nine school shootings involving students, not counting a few accidents. 

One third the number killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. About half the number killed last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglass. One fewer than were killed later that same year at Santa Fe High School.

I don’t understand why this is happening. Honestly, no one seems to. There are more guns now than ever, but there were always plenty of guns in the South, where I grew up. You didn’t need an assault weapon. You could do plenty of damage with a couple of semi-automatic shotguns loaded with buckshot.

Killing kids, or being killed by them, just wasn’t a thing in those days. We were plenty nasty. You didn’t want to cross the wrong people. But the worst you got for it was a bloody nose.

WW II wasn’t long behind us, and Korea was still a fresh wound. Maybe we had just had enough of killing for a while. Eisenhower was President for much of that time, then Kennedy. We were building the interstate highway system and going to the moon. We had beaten our swords into plowshares.

We had something of a hatred relapse when we killed JFK and his brother, and then Martin, and a further bout of global paranoia when we went to war in Vietnam, but for a long time we seemed to calm down and embrace bareknuckled capitalism as an outlet for our aggressions.

Then, slowly, like the return of a disease we thought we had beat, we started marching again to the drumbeats of war. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, mired in the sands of the Middle East, trying to defeat those who hated us (and get their oil, while we were at it), only succeeding in making them hate us more, just as we had in Vietnam. 

The wars after WW II and Korea didn’t pull us together, they drove us apart. We began to direct the hatred we felt for others at ourselves. Coincidentally, the Internet let us do that better than ever. Something like a civil war broke out in cyberspace. It’s raging hotter than ever.

Growing up in the South, I heard story after story of how the Civil War divided communities and families, sometimes even pitting brother against brother. It was hard enough to understand how that could happen then. I certainly didn’t expect ever to see it happen again.

But here we are, as angry and divided as I imagine the North and South were in 1860. The only thing to our credit this time is that we aren’t all shooting at each other, just some of us, notably the ones killing kids in schools and worshipers in churches and synagogues. But in our national discourse we have picked up the cloak of hatred and are wearing it proudly.

Our president isn’t building roads like Eisenhower. He doesn’t exhort us to go to the moon. He’s bribing foreign governments to investigate his political opponents, and that’s just fine with his supporters in the public and in the Senate. It’s even fine with his attorney general. There seems to be no common ground here, no neutral zone for peacemaking. You’re either with him or against him.

The national virus of hatred and violence, almost eradicated, I’d hoped, is resurgent, and spreading wildly. It will not be denied. More lives will be lost. Something close to the catharsis of war will be needed to let it feed until there are no hosts left for it. Until it is forced by our regret and sorrow into dormancy once again.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

River île

We call our evening walk “River île.” The river is the Seine; the île is the île de la Cité, where Paris was born.

River île takes us down the stone stairs at Pont Marie to the broad walkway along the Seine where a jazz saxophonist plays pied piper. We stop and listen for a while and watch the people on the party boat and at the riverside tables, couples like us strolling hand in hand among the bicycles and scooters slipping around them. 

We wander along the river to Pont Neuf, the bridge of masks, and up another stone stairway and across the bridge to the tip of île de la Cité where a courtyard park of cafes and restaurants is tucked in so discretely that in our early visits we often stumbled upon it afresh, as if a new discovery. We watch the bocci ball players, who are charmingly competitive and slightly tipsy, and then walk back along the other side of the river to Notre Dame. 

Viewing the grand old lady now means peering through construction barriers to follow the progress of her restoration after the fire that almost brought her down. France will bind her wounds, we know that, and viewing that patient and deliberate work is a different kind of pleasure than listening to Gregorian chants in her cathedral, but one no less moving in its own way. 

Our last stop is Pont île St. Louis, where buskers play among an eddy in the flow of lovers and children lapping against the low curbs and clinging to the railings of the bridge and to each other, listening to the music and watching the sun set orange and gold over Hôtel de Ville.

We have other walks with names: Louvre, Luxembourg Gardens, Place de Vogue. Pont Des Arts is still our favorite romantic retreat on a sultry Paris night, where we snuggle together and watch the people and the sparkling lights of the Eiffel Tower while the glittering water courses beneath us like the hot blood pumping though our hearts.

Ah, Paris. Where we go for love. Where we go to forget, to clean the slate, to start over. 

To get out of a rut, some might say, and it is that, but it is also more. Something more like rebirth. For those months in Paris, we are new. Not merely renewed as some form of our old selves, scraped of accumulated barnacles, but transformed into something else. The world looks different, both closer and more fragrant and more distant and beautiful, a crowd in the Tuileries, blue marble earth.

In Paris, we are just us. There are no others. We write and walk and eat and touch and stay up late like misbehaving children to slip out after dark into the reflection of the lights on the river. We are never alone, but there is only us.

It’s a mystery to me why we can sustain that way of being for months at a time in Paris and not for more than a few days at home in California. The natural beauty is here. The climate is mild. The sea is nearby. But it’s not the same. I don’t know why.

The reason certainly has more to do with us, or me, perhaps, than with geography. It’s more than wanderlust. I don’t get restless to be somewhere else when I’m in Paris. I work, but I don’t feel driven, or judged. The work is the thing, not the evaluation of it. Like a fresh baguette, it is something to be enjoyed daily, for it will be hard and stale the next day, when more words will be written and more bread bought at the end of the day of writing and carried home, partially consumed along the way, warm and fragrantly irresistible.

It is as simple as biology, and as complex as bread and wine and writing and love. Perhaps I am a lost wine grape of France, one that only flourishes in that terroir with the patient and loving tending of the winemaker of my life.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Wall of Our Time

I was born a week after the first atomic bomb was exploded in the New Mexico desert, a few weeks before it was used to incinerate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My second child was born as people behind the Iron Curtain struggled for freedom in the Prague Spring of 1968 that was crushed by Soviet tanks. My fourth came into the world as the Berlin Wall came down, the end of history, some called it.

People want to be free. China is going to have to face that eventually, and North Korea, and the ruthless oppressors cloaking women in the burkas of sharia law.

Even in the West, liberalism has taken a bit of a hit lately. Despite our recent flirtation with something close to fascism here in America, we are still free. Free to choose. Our wall is one we have erected ourselves. Sure, we have been exhorted and exploited by cynical politicians, but we have laid the bricks with our own hands.

Our psychological wall is built on fear and resentment, but its physical manifestation is not guard towers and barbed wire, it is social media. Where the news is as unreliable as it was in Pravda at the height of the Cold War. Where the guards are internet trolls and bots. Where the head of the politburo inside the Kremlin is Mark Zuckerberg, guarding his commercial interests no matter the cost to informed democracy as ruthlessly as any Stasi guard.

On this thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the question for those of us who still live in the land of the free is this: As the digital wall of false reality is built between us, will we stand by in shocked incredulity like the Berliners who in 1961 watched their wall divide them, or will we be the ones who tear it down?

Just Me

Oh, my goodness, the world is so messed up. It’s enough to make me want to go off somewhere and forget about it all.

I can do that now. The work I do is portable. I could live at the beach or in a mountain cabin. No one would care.

That may sound like the musings of someone who is a little depressed, or of an old guy viewing his mortality. They’re kind of the same thing, I think.

I wonder how I made it this long without getting discouraged. The world isn’t objectively worse off now. Were not in the middle of the Depression or WW II. There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of economic inequality, but by and large more people around the world are better off than ever. Climate change is coming at us like the asteroid at the dinosaurs, that could be worse.

When I was young, two things were different—about me, not the world. First, I was boundlessly optimistic, on behalf of myself and mankind. Second, I was busy. Working, raising a family, all that nose-to-the-grindstone stuff. I took Watergate and Reagan in stride. When the Berlin Wall came down, I said, “Of course it did. That kind of repression never lasts.”

But some kind of repression is always with us, it seems. I don’t need to give you a list. Everyone has their own. We are beleaguered by the Democrats or the Republicans, the right or the left, corruption or political tyrants. 

The world is the same, but I’m different now. I want to be hopeful, but I’m chastened by the realization that human nature, in all its glory and greed, is unlikely to change. And so the world, fundamentally, is unlikely to change.

We are born egocentric. It’s the way we survive. It’s too bad we have to grow up. It was a lot cheerier in that long-ago world of just me and endless possibilities.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Birds in a Gilded Cage

We arrived in Paris this Spring with the Birds. And the Limes, and the other brands of electric scooters that swarmed Paris since our visit this time last year. There were none then; there are 20,000 now.

During our first weeks on this visit, which began at the end of May, they buzzed us on sidewalks, in parks and at the pyramids at the Louvre. They were fast and close and dangerous. They lay strewn across our paths wherever we walked, and a few unlucky ones glinted up at us from under the sparkling waters of the Seine.
Shortly after our arrival, I read that the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, found all this freewheeling chaos unacceptable and was taking steps to restore order and public safety by insisting that scooters be ridden in bike lanes and left in designated areas. There would be fines for scofflaws.

Whatever she did is working. Now, after two months, we hardly ever get buzzed on sidewalks, and we’re starting to see scooters neatly parked together, rather than left wherever the rider abandoned them. All this improvement in such a short time is impressive. Don’t let anyone tell you France always gets bogged down in bureaucracy; not Paris, at least, not Mayor Hidalgo.

Merci beaucoup, Madame Marie. Bravo. We will always return to Paris, and your dedication to keeping it charming and beautiful, and safe, is one of the reasons.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Certain Result of Uncertainty

I grow old… I grow old… Do I dare to eat a peach?
—“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot


Get a grip, people. You’re not growing old, you’re growing soft. You’re wishy washy. You’re indecisive. Oh, my, you just don’t know what to do.

Well, this is your lucky day. I’m here to tell you. Get out and vote.

This is not the time to be worrying about whether a peach might upset your digestion. You’ve got cancer. You need to cut it out. Or it will kill you. Do something about it or sit around wringing your hands and die. Those are your choices.

I don’t have to tell you what the cancer is. We all know. Some of us think it’s the political left, some the right. I know what I think, but I’m not going to try to convince you. I can probably count on one hand the number of people whose opinions I have been able to influence in the course of my life. I have five fingers and five children. I got them young, like the religions do, so that was a big advantage. I overplayed my hand occasionally, but mainly I’m happy with the character and intelligence they have as adults. They were my disciples. Pretty much no one else has ever listened to me unless I had something they wanted and they had to put up with me to get it. And once they got it, they reset.

We have crises in this country in the form of political and cultural clashes all the time. Some of them have been pretty nasty. Burning witches (ok, not technically America then), slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights movement. There was a rough ten-year span when I was young when we killed JFK, MLK and RFK and damn near burned down the country over civil rights and the Viet Nam war.

Maybe I’m just getting old and overly sensitive (although I love peaches), but this time feels very bad. Civil War bad. Jim Crow bad. You may think it feels more like the fear of communism in the fifties, with socialism standing in for the hammer and sickle. I don’t want the state to take over the means of production either, but I think there’s room for us to do more to help one another without running the risk of becoming Venezuela.

But if you disagree, I’m not going to convince you, so I’m not even going to try.

What I am going to tell you is the same thing I want to tell everyone. Vote.

Let’s all put it on the line and see just who we are. 

And don’t waste you vote on something you call principle. In 2020, a vote for anyone but the Republican or the Democrat is a wasted vote. It will count exactly the same as if you don’t vote at all.

I think all of us can agree that we have fought hard over the years to protect our right to vote. So use it. Go to the polls and vote the way you would go to the doctor and take the cancer treatment she said could work. Don’t take some homeopathic cure that doesn’t have a chance of helping you. And don’t lie in your bed curled up in a fetal position hoping it will just go away. It won't.

What will go away is the way of life you would choose but are too lazy or frightened or cynical to speak up for.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Flyovers

Donald Trump rolled out the military hardware for his July 4 celebration. I hated it.

I’m in Paris now. It’s Bastille Day. I walked with Meg to the Pont des Arts to watch French fighter jets stream les tricolores over the Louvre as part of their military parade. I loved it.

Why is that?

Am I just so anti-Trump that anything he does, even in the name of celebrating our founding, rankles me? Probably. I wish he would test me by doing something good—you know, humane—but I’m not holding my breath.

Maybe it just that the French, unlike the U.S. under Trump, seem relatively harmless. Their parades are like the ones in small towns with fire engines and kids pulling red wagons with puppies (credit to one of my sons for that charming image).

The French have learned to live in peace as part of the world community. They are still in the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal. They are loyal to NATO and the European Union. They have their problems domestically, but no one feels threatened by the French.

Not so my own country under its current leadership. We have become international bullies. We’re bullies on matters of defense (pay your NATO dues or maybe you can’t count on our help when you get attacked), bullies on trade, bullies on climate, bullies on immigration. Bullies against women. Bullies against our own citizens who aren’t white. Even the white ones who, along with everyone else, want decent health care.

It’s discouraging, and embarrassing. When people here ask me where I’m from, I say California, not America. Like the charming woman Meg and I met at a tiny neighborhood wine tasting on Boulevard St. Germain who is British but has lived in Paris for twenty years and considers it home. She hopes Macron can succeed with his economic reforms—she had several amusing stories about frustratingly desultory navigations through French bureaucracy—but she loves France and is worried that after Brexit she might not be able to stay. She visibly relaxed we we mentioned were weren’t Trump fans.

There are many reasons to love Paris. The food, the wine, the Seine, the shopkeepers, the markets. America grew up on the road, so we have McDonalds. The French staked out their way of living hundreds of years ago. Localvore has always been in here. It’s just a different sensibility.

It’s not as dynamic as Silicon Valley, where we live. It isn’t cutting edge. America does that better than anyone. Still. 

We are the best at so many things, we don’t need to keep reminding the world of that. We don’t need to threaten. We don’t need to bully. We don’t need to be the boor raised in privilege with no conception of the moral responsibilities that go with that birthright.

To anyone who might now be thinking of telling me “America, Love it or Leave it,” I say this: I don’t want to be an expatriate. I just want my country back.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Birds in a Watery Grave

They’re all along the Seine, gleaming under the surface, these birds. Not finches, not girls of sixties English slang, but electric scooters. There are many more to splash down, I think, cast into the river by revelers or scooter vigilantes.

Perhaps they will become fresh-water reefs, hatcheries for fish or snags for fishermen. Perhaps they will become art, underwater Watts Towers. 

The Seine has survived worse. Floods, droughts, Marly’s diversion of her water to the fountains of Versailles, which at one time received a greater share of her beneficence than all of Paris. Let them eat cake, and wash it down with wine.

The lovely old river that gives the City of Light much of her allure and romance doesn’t deserve this latest assault. 

And neither do we, the happy, hapless daydreamers who stroll along her banks. It’s hard to let your mind drift to your lover or your novel when you’re in danger of being bashed to the ground by a speeding silent predator with the mass of a careless human.

Electric scooters from Bird, Lime and others have migrated to Paris. They’re more like locusts than cheerful swallows. When we were here a year ago, there were none. Now there are thousands. 

The city is busily considering regulations to control them; to force them off sidewalks and onto bicycle lanes, for instance. Where that means going in the streets with cars, I fear for the safety of the parents and children I see riding together, two to a scooter. They go as fast as bicycles. No one wears helmets.

I’m sure scooters could be good for the environment as carbon-free transportation. But from what I’ve seen, they are used less as an alternative to cars than for tourist joyrides. Like the family I saw today buzzing around the pyramids at the Louvre, weaving in and out of the crowds of people who were holding hands with their lovers and children, taking photos of the fountains and generally basking in the majesty and tranquility of the architecture of French emperors and I.M. Pei—and who certainly weren’t expecting to be buzzed by a scooter.

There is a place for wheeled sport, like bicycle lanes and skateboard parks. City sidewalks jammed with walking wanderers who just want to relax and enjoy the beauty of this amazing place, are not among them.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Keep Him High, Sell Him Again

Here’s how it happens. 

A teenager is a little wild and rebellious. Maybe her parents are too strict. Maybe they just don’t care that much. Or maybe they care a lot but don’t seem to be able to get their child back on track. The kid tries a little alcohol, a little weed, then harder stuff. The people he meets in the land of lost boys introduce him to helpful dealers who give him free samples of the good stuff. Pretty soon he’s a full-blown addict.

There follow the lies, the fights with family, the stealing, more lies, more fights, more stealing, and pretty soon the kid is on the street, either by choice or by eviction from a home that doesn’t understand, can’t understand, what happened to their little boy. 

He has to want to change, they say. He has to hit bottom.

But bottom is rock hard, and it hurts.

Even if the kid wants out, even if he goes into rehab, the permanent exits are guarded by his addict homies, his dealers and, as it turns out, even the recovery system. He becomes a body for the body brokers who sell him to the highest bidder in the detox-sober-living system. The fees for his recovery are collected from health insurance plans he has or ones the body brokers enroll him in. He lives in a sober living house that often isn’t sober at all. 

Keep him high, keep him addicted, sell him again, and again, until there’s nothing left to sell.

This is what addicts and their parents are fighting. Recovery is tough enough, but nearly impossible if the game is rigged. Like those milk bottles at the state fair. No one can ever knock them down. Still they keep trying. 

And still the barker puts the money in his pocket.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

My History Lesson

When I was a boy, history was ancient. Greeks and Romans. Even further back, Egyptians and mummies. 

As I got older, I learned that it wasn’t just the ancients who fought epic battles. Skirmishes great and small happened all the time, more or less continuously. Except maybe in the Dark Ages. I was never very clear about what happened in the Dark Ages, apart from plague and misery. In the Renaissance, though, the histories of battles resumed. The Catholic Church got in on the wars among the Italian city states. All across Europe, Kings warred. 

This territorial and ideological push and shove endured with little remission until, and culminating in, the great World Wars of the twentieth century. I was born at the end of the last of those, and so, apart from provincial skirmishes like Korea and Vietnam, it seemed to me as a young man that the world had calmed down. There was the cold war with Russia, mutually-assured-destruction and all that, so I guess my sanguinity was technically unwarranted, but I was young and optimistic. Of course we would, as a civilization, make progress now. Why else was I alive and part of it if not for that?

My wife, Meg, is a novelist, and lately she has written historical fiction set in and around WW II. We go to Europe and see the places that suffered in that great war and the one before it, and the people, and I think about the rise of Fascism, the almost hypnotic rage it provoked in otherwise ordinary folk, and I wonder at how it happened. What were people thinking? Hitler? Really?

Since WW II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam, we have taken up global meddling again, like a medieval king or pope. We’re currently up to our necks in the quicksands of the Middle East. A close look at the sects that are at each other’s throats there, and have been since long before we got involved, has opened my eyes to a sad fact: I’m not living in a special time. The years of my time on this earth are no more transformational than the millennia that came before. Engineering has raised skyscrapers and science has vaccinated us against the diseases of early times, so we live longer, but we don’t live much differently.

We still fight about everything. We still raise the banners of religion and nationalism to rally ourselves to vanquish the other. Our weapons are more fearsome, and one day we may wipe ourselves out, but in the meantime, nothing else about human interaction is fundamentally different than it has ever been.

And now, once again, not in some ancient time, not in the last century, but right now, in this decade, we are falling for demagogues and autocrats again. Trump. Putin. Bolsonaro in Brazil. Orban in Hungry. What the hell? Didn’t we learn anything from Hitler? Didn’t we learn anything from ourselves?

William Faulkner famously said: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” I always thought that sounded terribly clever, but, honestly, I never understood what he was trying to tell us. 

I do now.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Brownies for René


René is our mailman. I don’t like the mail, but I like René, even though he mostly brings bills and junk. I’ve almost switched all the bills to electronic. Less luck with the junk.

When we travel, I have to have the mail held, or, if we’re going away for more than thirty days, forwarded to incurious friends. Sometimes substitute carriers leave it in the mailbox anyway, where it sits until we return, announcing our absence. I tried to stop all mail once, but the post office wouldn’t let me.

René is sympathetic. He says the post office is a mess. He seems cheerfully abashed to be working at a place where his personal standards aren’t matched by those of his employer.

I’ve waved and nodded to many mail carriers over the years, from many homes in many states, but René is the first one I’ve known by name. He’s also the first one I know for sure loves brownies.

When our sons went off to college, Meg began sending them brownies now and then. “Brownie Love,” she called it. A small, flat-rate mailing box is just the right size. Sometimes they were still warm when she put them in the mailbox.

It wasn’t too long before I’d see René (whose name I didn’t know then) on his rounds and he’d say those brownies smelled so good he couldn’t guarantee they’d make it to the boys. After that, with the boxes she mailed Meg often left a little plastic bag with a brownie or two, tied with a ribbon. “Protection brownies,” you might call them.

As the years went on, René met our dog and our sons when they were home from school, and when I walked in the neighborhood I would see him on his route and make a joke about him being disloyal, taking care of other customers.

Then, last Fall, I didn’t see him for a few months. I thought maybe he’d retired. I mentioned missing him to our new mailman, and he said René was on a medical leave. When René came back, he said he’d been away “kicking cancer’s butt.”

Since then he has gotten thinner and a little slower, and he misses a week now and then, but he keeps coming; and Meg keeps making brownies. Our boys have been out of college for a while now, but as long as René comes to our porch with the mail, a living symbol of the strength and optimism in tough times that is the best of us, they’ll keep getting brownies in the mail.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Now is the Time

Today is the day we celebrate the life and vision of Martin Luther King. When my youngest sons were growing up, we played his speeches on this day every year. Listening to them through a child’s ears, I literally shivered with pleasure and pride. Barack Obama was president. 

Dr. King urged us to march. “Now is not the time for the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” he said.

I don’t think Dr. King would be as shocked as I am that a racist is president, and that racial hatred is openly abroad in the land. He grew up in the Jim Crow south. He faced down George Wallace. He watched Klansmen ride out of Stone Mountain in Atlanta in white robes and hoods on their way to light the burning crosses of racial terror. He was willing to sit in jail in Birmingham.

Most of us are not selfish. We are willing to share what we have with others in need. The greatest thing we Americans have to share is our freedom. Our instinct, or at least our moral aspiration, is to lift our lamp beside the golden door.

But Trump has made us afraid, or some of us anyway. He has appealed to the basest side of us, the side of which we should be ashamed, and of which, in private, we are ashamed. But in a mob…well, we all know what mobs are capable of, whether Southern lynch mobs or Nazi brownshirts.

Now is the time to stand up to the Trump mob.

If we do not, will we suffer? Will we, as they say, get what we deserve? 

No, most of us who read and write these kinds of thoughts won’t. But millions of our fellow citizens, our fellow residents, our fellow human beings from all over the world, will. And when they are brought low and we are walled off in our elite white utopia, what will we be?

What is any man or woman who hears the suffering of others and turns away?