Monday, May 30, 2011

In Memory: A Letter to my Children

Meg and I flew the flag today. Every week we watch the end of the PBS News Hour, when they silently share the names and photographs of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan that day. Most of them look like my children. It's hard to know how to pay tribute to those men and women and to all the soldiers who came before them. War is an inevitable and sometimes necessary burden, but lately, beginning with Vietnam, it has not seemed that the wars we have fought have been  either inevitable or necessary.
After 9/11, I was as pumped up and ready to strike back as any testosterone-raging male. Looking back, I guess taking a swipe at the Taliban in Afghanistan was defensible, but I would say that we have little hope of nation-building there now. Iraq was at best a mistake, at worst a crime. I believed it when Colin Powell told us that Saddam was about to gas or nuke us. He (and perhaps even I) should have known better. Meg was skeptical. She would not have invaded Iraq, and she turned out to be right. Considering President Bush's other policies, it's not surprising that we were betrayed by him. Presidents have agendas and egos that can lead them (and us) astray.
Still, I am frustrated by frustration. What good does it do to sit in a corner and grumble? For my part, I have decided to be more active in supporting policies that I think will reduce the risk of pointless wars. I believe this is the greatest tribute I can offer in memory of those who have died for our country: a hope that none will die again for a cause that is unwise or unnecessary.

In fighting terror, I think we need more intelligence assets and fewer carriers and fighters. So I will support, by petitions, letters, etc., steering our defense spending in that direction. To reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil (which many think is the real reason we are fighting over there), I will similarly support investments in alternative energy.

As the Egyptians who filled Tahir square have reminded us, we are not powerless. And our voice can be heard more often than once a year at the ballot box. Many in the House and Senate are public-opinion windsocks. We can be part of the freshening breeze.

If you too are moved to be more active (in whatever way, and for whatever cause you think best), remember this: with every petition you sign, every letter to the editor or to Congress you write, I will be there with you.

Love to you all on this difficult day.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Hunt for Lost October

The Internet is a family killer, right? Kids won’t come out of their bedrooms, locked in World of Warcraft. Dinner, when the family is together at all, is a sulky time of furtive peeks at text messages.

If you have a home like that, populated with e-buzzed teens, take heart. Today’s enemy will soon be your friend. When hell freezes over? you say. No, when they go off to college.
run silent, run deep
Our youngest took off last fall. The break is dramatic. You really start to feel it in October, as you go from heavy daily contact (at least visual sightings) to nothing. Nada. Zilch. It turns out they’ve been waiting for this for a long time. A bird flown from the cage. It’s impossible to get them back in, even if you wanted to (and after years of changing the cuttlebone and the newspaper at the bottom of the cage, let’s face it, there is some relief on both sides).

You hate to call them all the time, but waiting for the phone to ring can be pretty unrewarding. Despite what they suspect, you don’t want to know everything they are doing, at least I don’t. Just the opposite, in fact. I don’t think my heart could take the full details. Ignorance is bliss.

For a while anyway: eventually, too much ignorance spawns worry. And then the delirious projections of your own youthful transgressions begin: He hasn’t called because he hasn’t been to class in three weeks. He hasn’t called because he has gone off with friends on a trip he knows he shouldn't take. He hasn’t called because he fell and hit his head while running and didn’t have an ID and the hospital doesn’t know who he is.

You get the idea. As a dad, I just want to know that my sons in college are engaged with their schoolwork and are making friends. That they are happy. The rest will follow. They are on their own now. Which means that although I no longer get to nag I still have the joy of worrying, indeed the heightened ecstasy that comes from fretting about something you care about but are powerless to affect. After a while, we let go of pointless worry---it’s that or go crazy---but in transition, you need some way to stay in touch.

The telephone is great, of course, but in our family a phone call is a big event. At first, while they are breaking free, it’s tough to get them to call at all. And even when they take pity and call once in a while, the loss of a child’s daily presence is palpable. This is why Al Gore invented the Internet, so parents would have email and instant messaging.

Email and IM restore a sense of amiable, unobtrusive presence. Hitting a few keys on the computer is almost like calling up to my sons’ bedroom that dinner is ready, even (or especially) when it elicits the same silence, the one that means I know they have heard me and they know I know and all is right with the world.

One of our sons is an emailer, the other an IMer. For whatever reason, neither one seems to respond to the other medium. As far as I know, emails to the IMer go into a black hole. And I never see the emailer online in a way I could IM him; I think the IM program calls it “hiding.”

I stay in touch with the emailer in the current-events chatty kind of way we enjoy. We send each other notes about politics and economics and share links to stories and opinion pieces we think are thoughtful or outrageous. Not only is this entertaining, but it gives me a window into his state of mind: as long as he and I can share a joke about Donald Trump, I know his emotional reserves are intact.

Instant messaging is a terser medium, so with that son I have to be more of a cryptographer. I’ll see the little green light in a chat program that means he’s there somewhere and I’ll send him a “Hey, how are you?” I usually get a word or two in response within a few minutes. “Great,” means what it says. “Good house” (for a Men’s Glee Club performance) or “Only one more final,” is code for “perfect.”

This is all I need. Just the ability, or the illusion of the ability, to reach out and touch them. Years of Tom Clancy novels have caused me to think of my college boys as great nuclear submarines gliding gracefully through murky depths. Rigged for silent running, but detectable by a ping from the heart.

Friday, May 20, 2011


What if Thag had looked out from his Stone-Age cave at the volcano erupting in the distance and thought, “Wow, that’s cool,” instead of, “Son of a gun, I’d better appease that sucker?”
Nature's fire and brimstone.
Neuroscientists tell us that belief in god is a default setting for humans. Why that is is an interesting question. Maybe it’s because there is a god who programmed us to believe in him or her or it. Or maybe we grow up looking for replacements for our parents. Perhaps having shared religious beliefs helped us form the cohesive, supportive groups that behavioral evolutionists say had the best chance of survival. The debate is ongoing, passionate and, at least as far as proving the existence or not of a deity is concerned, an intellectual dead end.

But thinking about why we believe in god got me wondering this: What if we didn’t? What if no one had ever believed in any god of any kind? What would our species be like? What would our morals be, if any? Would we have evolved in anarchic chaos, or are our customs for treating one another well what led to our survival, and our civilization?

Recent psychological experiments have revealed that many basic norms of behavior, what we call morals, live deep in our base brains, alongside sex drive and fight-or-flight. Actions triggered there happen before we think about them. The explanation for why we have reacted instinctively as we have is the result of the cognitive lobe’s subsequent musings. In other words, good behavior gave rise to morals, not the other way around.

In this line of thinking, Jesus and Mohamed merely picked up where our reptilian brains left off, articulating and encouraging our more altruistic instincts. Which raises this question: Have their religions, or any others, been worthy custodians of our moral beliefs?

A weakness all religions share is that their earthly leaders are men, not gods. Like CEOs of businesses or rulers of nations, religious leaders seek to expand the influence of their sect, to spread the word, as it were. Religious missions are a form of spiritual colonization.

Expanding market share takes money, and so, from Aztec priests demanding gold and virgins to appease the gods to modern church leaders, religions have sought sacrifices and tithes from the faithful. And more than occasionally, the weakness of men has resulted in corruption in dealing with all that wealth. One of the Medici Popes was even a pirate, literally, not metaphorically.

Expanding market share also requires…well, expansion. With no religion, we would still have fought over land and women, but not for the right to hasten the heathen's descent into hell. If the morals that bubbled up from our evolutionary development had served only mankind and no “higher” purpose, there would be one less reason to detest one another.

But have a little graft and a few crusades and inquisitions been worth it? Have our religions made us more likely to be good people? Put in the most basic terms, is fear of eternal damnation a more powerful motivator than fear of social ostracism?

Now that we are living longer than in the Middle Ages (when you might have met your maker any day), the notion of going to hell (or wherever damnation takes you) is comfortably abstract. Eternal damnation is like global warming: In our daily lives, most of us just aren’t that worried about it. It’s not going to happen to us, that’s those other guys. And anyway, it’s a long way off.

On the other hand, if Facebook is any indication, our level of caring what others think of us is on the rise. In a purely humanist moral system, the approval of others would be what would guide and constrain us.  Maybe if that were all we had, we would be better behaved, not worse. If our sense of our own goodness were measured by how others judged us, we could not put off the day of reckoning.

If every day, not just on some distant Judgment Day, we had to account to others for who we are, perhaps we would work harder to mute the clamor of striving for self to better hear the ancient voice of our altruism.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Racing the Train

Am I the only one who does this? I’ll be walking along a sidewalk and a bicyclist will come down the street toward me and there will be a tree between us and, because of our relative speeds and distances from the tree, the bicyclist will seem to disappear behind the tree and I’ll try to time my pace to keep him hidden as long as possible, as if he had gone through a magic portal that took him somewhere else entirely. Sometimes I even imagine his wonder at being whisked into another dimension.

Local variation in Oxford, England: "Beat the Boat."
Or, when I was a boy and a train would be passing close by, I would make a game of trying to run to a fence post or a stop sign before the train got to the trestle. I did that all the time. I had a couple of close friends in grade school and we played a lot of games together. When they weren’t around, I would still play the games with them, but I would take their parts. I’d toss a ball up on the roof and stand where I couldn’t see it rolling back down, to make it harder to catch, and I’d take turns for each of us, and keep score. I tried as hard as I could each time. It wouldn’t have been fair otherwise.

Are these signs of some mental illness? Should I be worried?

Part of it is just the normal, healthy desire to compete, I suppose. Darwin would approve. And if there’s no one around for the contest, make someone up, or race a train. The practice keeps you sharp.

But what’s up with that bicyclist behind the tree trick? Do you think it means I have a subconscious desire to imprison people, or to send them off to other universes?

I don’t fantasize about sex much. I can call up an erotic memory with the best of them, but mainly they’re memories. I talk about sexual fantasy, little jokes all men share, more than I engage in it. But this business of racing something, or competing with an imaginary or even inanimate opponent, grabs me like a pretty woman and pulls me under.

It doesn’t happen all the time. I bike alongside a Cal Train most days, and the longing rarely stirs. It pops up randomly, unexpectedly, unconsciously. Suddenly I’ll be walking or pedaling faster, then sprinting. I always feel a little rush of elation if I win.

Sometimes I adjust the marker I’m racing to if I have no chance in the original contest, but a win in that case is not satisfying. It’s more like a training run. Practice for next time, whenever that might me. Whenever the little boy in me whispers "Go."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gypsy Writer

I've written so many novels in Starbucks that, as my stack of unpublished work has grown, I’ve moved from including them in the acknowledgements in a sophisticated, light-hearted way (Gracias Baristas) to dedicating my work to them with the kind of passionate gratitude usually reserved for lovers. Lately, I’ve been looking for poems about coffee that I might use for an epigraph.

Picasso au lait
Hemingway had the cafes of Paris. I have Starbucks. Maybe that’s the problem. There is a regular at one of my Starbucks who is a pretty good artist (he paints watercolor portraits with coffee). And we have our share of intense revolutionaries, although it is the social network, rather than the social order, they plot to overturn. The Google campus is our Gertrude Stein salon.

Going to Starbucks is like going to work. It gets me up and out the door. I commute by bike, so it’s a bit of exercise as well. Mainly, it’s a place with a lot of people coming and going. Home should be a perfect place to write---quiet, spacious, my own coffee maker---but it’s not for me. When Meg is working, she can’t be my playmate, so I spend a lot of time with my nose pressed up against the window glass.

There can be annoying distractions in a public place, true, someone talking too loudly on a cell phone, that sort of thing. And sometimes it’s hard to get a table, since as near as I can tell everyone at the coffee shop is doing the same thing I am: using the place as their office. Starbucks is a laptop farm. Sometimes I worry that we are being unfair to our benevolent host. I have a friend in the restaurant business who used to tell me about the importance of table turn. I don’t think the table turnover rate is very good at Starbucks.

When I settle into just the right table, maybe in a corner, where I can see the people passing in the coffee line and hear the coffee orders called out, I can feel something change in me, almost as if I had been transported to a place where I am completely unknown, a visitor from another time. The white noise is a river down which my imagination drifts. I watch the people come and go without watching. I listen to conversations without hearing (except for tuning in the occasional bit of salacious gossip or tech insider talk). My mind wanders free as scenes and characters float by, inviting me to visit.

So I’m dedicating my book to Starbucks. At this point, they can have their choice of several. Maybe I’ll even give them a sliver of the royalties to make up for only buying small coffees and not venti frappuccinos. My acknowledgments will mention Maria and Jose and DJ, who were friendly and gave me stories to go with the coffee. Some of them asked me what I was doing, pounding away on the keyboard. I would tell them a little about what I was writing, but it’s awkward talking about your own work, and it's fiction after all, whereas their stories were their lives.

Over the years, I’ve seen complete staff turnovers in several Starbucks. Sometimes I wonder where those people are now. Did Sophie make it into nursing? Did Carla find a good school for her son? Did Juan get his car back? One thing I learned from them is that your story doesn’t have to be published to be real. It can be moving and uplifting even if you are the only one who knows it.

Still, I want my story to be like the Good Samaritan, the quiet man who no one knows until he performs some act of extraordinary kindness or heroism that is an inspiration to all the world. Finding the way to tell that story is the tricky part. I told a little of it to Maria. A little to Jose. We shared our stories. That’s how it begins.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dress Code

Barry Sanders taught me what a Full Cleveland was. He was the toastmaster at my old law firm’s annual self-congratulatory dinners in the 1970s, back when all the lawyers and spouses fit into one banquet room. A Full Cleveland was a burgundy leisure suit (remember those?) worn with white shoes and a white patent-leather belt. A Full Dayton was the same thing, but in blue.

Getting in step with the crowd
(photo courtesy of Daniel Hartwig)
We all chuckled smugly as Barry, a bit of a dandy himself, worked the crowd with sartorial slights that implicitly linked self worth to conventional good taste. The unspoken truth behind the joke, the whiff of xenophobia, was that the firm was growing so fast in those days that it was losing its clubby homogeneity. Next year there might even be someone in the audience from Cleveland or Dayton.

Humans are not the only species that is self aware, but I’m pretty sure we’re way ahead of dolphins in narcissism and neuroticism. When we're not gazing at our reflections in the pool, what is it we are obsessed with? What others think of us. Am I as wonderful as I think? Really? You too.

Pulled by cultural gravity, we are attracted to like bodies of behavior and thought. Once wrapped in a cocoon of comfortable uniformity, there can be little need to think outside the dress code.

And what then? Are we individuals, or building blocks for some edifice or another: a business, a religion, the minutemen of Arizona, an eco-terror cell?

Aware of the power of peer influence, we warn our children to be careful who they hang with. Perhaps that is a warning we should give ourselves as well. It can be pretty cozy in our self-selected tribes, among all those coordinated suits and ties or matching t-shirts and hoodies. Sometimes it’s worth wearing something that isn’t part of the uniform, just to see how others react. Or to see how their reaction makes us feel about who we are.