Monday, December 31, 2012

Goodbye To All That

What if you were afraid and angry all the time? You might have anxiety disorder. Or rage disorder. Or you might just be getting older.

Anxiety in young people tends to be transient. Nervousness about a test, a job interview, a date. There are clinical disorders that make even the young anxious all the time, but they are not the norm.

The same is true of anger. Young people get mad, but they don’t usually stay mad. They are wired to look forward. They are wired to be optimistic. Optimism and anger are not good roommates.

But when we get older, our future shrinks before our eyes. There are no longer endless possibilities. In fact, sometimes it can seem that there are no possibilities at all. Of course we get anxious as we watch our prospects dwindle. Of course we get angry.

The problem is, we also have a culture that reveres the wisdom of elders. Particularly elder men. Just look at the makeup of Congress. These are the old men with low testosterone blues. These are the men of diminished prospects. These are the men desperate to hang onto a world that is slipping away from them.

These are not the people who should be making our laws. We don’t need to ditch our seminal law, the Constitution, as a Georgetown law professor argued in an op-ed piece today, we need to ditch our lawmakers. We need to dump the grumpy old men in Congress who can’t seem to get anything done and replace them with young and hopeful men and women. The young are the ones who believe in the future. They are the ones who will live in it. They are the ones to whom we should entrust it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Supreme Stupidity

In the summers of 2008 and 2010, our national bloodletting got endorsements from the Supreme Court. That’s when Justices Scalia and Alito and their conservative brethren struck down bans on handguns in D.C. and Chicago. The right to own a gun for self defense is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution, the Court said in Heller vs. D.C and McDonald vs. Chicago.

The rulings make serious gun control impossible. Justice Scalia did say recently that the right to “bear arms” means you have to be able to bear them, so laws limiting ownership of canons would be okay. He also said some future Court would have to decide about hand-held rocket launchers capable of bringing down passenger planes.

Today twenty Connecticut school children were shot with handguns in their classroom. I guess you don’t need a canon or a rocket-propelled grenade to do a lot of damage. See also, Aurora, Columbine, etc., etc.

Self-defense. That’s what we need them for. Let’s take a look at that. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that guns on the street and in the home are more likely to be used to intimidate innocents than for self-defense. Few criminals are actually shot by law-abiding citizens.

If you read the Heller and McDonald opinions, one of the things you’ll notice is how much time is spent on what people thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Did they like guns? Did they think it was important to own them? Well, sure. They had just used them to overthrow the English. And it was a wild country for a long time after that. With the nearest sheriff a day away, it made sense to be able to protect yourself.

In his reasoning in McDonald, Justice Alito makes a point of how much the American colonists admired the English laws that guaranteed the right to keep arms. Today, of course, England has the some of the toughest gun control laws (and lowest gun crime rates) in the world. I share the admiration of our forebears for the English approach. Too bad our laws didn’t adapt to changing times as intelligently as theirs did.

When I was a boy, people who didn’t like the views of liberal judges or ivory-tower academics called them “pointy-heads,” meaning they might have a high IQ but they were hopelessly out of touch with the real world. Well, the Alito gang at the Supreme Court certainly fits that bill. We’re no longer a nation of farmers. We’re not civilian revolutionaries. The nearest sheriff is just around the corner.

While our eighteenth-century rights, which we don’t even use much for their intended purpose, are being protected, who is looking out for the children who are being murdered? It’s as if the grizzled old sheriff in a Hollywood Western met the wild, gun-toting cowboys as they rode into town and said: Have a drink on me, boys. Plenty of ammunition behind the bar. Last one alive, turn out the lights.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Girl in the Woods

The President and the Speaker have been locked in the windowless room for forty-eight hours. There are no beds, no chairs, only a small toilet in the corner. Neither man liked dropping his pants in front of the other. The room is close, and a little smelly. They take turns sitting against the wall and pacing. There’s not enough room for both to pace at once. They’ve been told they will be released only when they are honest with each other.

They began by restating their core governing principles. They thought that would be enough, but the door did not open. Within the last hour Speaker Boehner has hinted that he does not want to loose his leadership position. President Obama has conceded that he does not want to be remembered as the one who couldn't get anything done. They glance at the two-way mirror: We’ve admitted our fears, let us out of here. But the door does not open.

Another day and night pass. They have had no food or water. It is hot in the room, and both men have stripped off their shirts. John admits that he did not like the smell of old men and whiskey and urine when he unloaded kegs and swept out his father’s bar. He helped care for his ten younger siblings, but he would have liked not to have been responsible for anyone but himself. Barack says that all the time he was growing up he never felt he fit in. Not white, not black, part of each, not wholly either.

At dawn of the fourth day, the door opens. They put on their shirts and pull themselves together as best they can, expecting photographers. But when they step out of the room, they are not in Washington but in a forest. The forest floor is shadowed. A sun-dappled mist shrouds the high canopy. The birds are just waking.

They walk for a while, hoping to see houses or a road, but there is nothing. They stop and rest and walk again. They lick the moisture off leaves and eat grasses and wild berries. In late afternoon, with the forest already growing dim, they stop to make shelter. They break pine branches for a lean-to. Exhausted, they sleep through the night.

In the morning they find pine needles and twigs and flint and they strike a rock against the flint and make a fire. They take turns tending the fire so it does not go out. They find more berries to eat and John walks in widening circles until he finds water. They move their camp to the bank of the stream and drink the water. They catch crawfish under rocks in the stream and lay them on the coals of the fire and eat them. In a deep pool downstream, Barack scoops out a trout with his hands. They gut it and strip a sapling and skewer the fish and cook it over the fire.

They have stopped talking about themselves. They don’t speak much at all, in fact. There is no need to. Both know what must be done.

After days of following the stream, camping beside it, eating its fish and drinking its water, they come upon a cabin in a clearing. They feel they should be overjoyed to have found other human beings, but they are cautious as they approach. John knocks on the door while Barack hangs back. He says he doesn’t want to frighten whoever is inside.

A middle-aged woman with a blue head scarf answers the door. She beckons them inside and gives them hot soup while her children watch from near the fire, an older girl and two young boys. They study the strangers with a combination of curiosity and feral wariness.

The woman says she and the children have been alone for years. Her husband went into the forest one day and did not return. They have a garden behind the cabin and they fish in the stream. The children know how to forage for berries and mushrooms. She cannot leave them to look for a way out of the forest, and she is afraid to take them on a long journey that might kill them.

Her daughter is bright, the woman says. She could learn and do something better with her life if she could find the way out. She asks John and Barack to take the girl with them when they leave. The girl does not want to leave her family. Perhaps she is afraid. Perhaps she is just loyal. But her mother tells her she must go, not just for herself, but for her brothers too.

The woman wraps some berries and vegetables in a bandana and gives it to Barack and John and the girl. It is all she can spare, she says. She stands in the doorway of her cabin and watches her daughter walk off between these men who have come into her life so unexpectedly and to whom she has entrusted the most precious things her in life: her child and her hope for the future.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Tea Party Within Me

When my mother was seventy-eight, she asked if she could give someone twenty-five-thousand dollars. She said this person really needed it and she wanted to help her. She asked me because I was handling her finances for her. She had enough to live on. If she didn’t get some dreadful disease, she would have enough to live out her life comfortably. But if the costs of her care went up in her later years, her financial security was not so certain. I told her she shouldn’t give away that much. She might need it herself.

Over the years she asked me again and again whether she could make that gift. I kept saying no. Sometimes our discussions got a little heated. She wanted to do what she wanted to do and resented being told she could not. I was just being responsible, I thought. I had actuarial tables and the escalating cost of nursing care to back me up. She had only her desire to be kind to someone in greater need than she.

I share this story not to expose my heartlessness--although I regret to this day not letting her make that gift, all the more so since she died with plenty of money in the bank--but to explore why I resisted her request and why, if she were still alive, I probably would still be resisting.

I have a feeling that many in the Tea Party are more like me than I like to think. Whether you are thinking about your aging parent or your country, planning not to run out of money is tricky. The Tea Party doesn’t want the government to spend more than it can afford for the same reason I didn’t want Mom to: they don’t want the burden of the loss to fall on them.

I used to believe it was just plain selfishness that caused some people not to want to help others. Maybe so in some cases, but I think most of the time people are just worried that somehow the whole thing is going to blow up on them and whatever it was they were expecting out of their country and their life is going to be unattainable.

We have this fantasy in America that with hard work and perseverance anyone can do anything. Perhaps I shouldn’t call it a fantasy. It can happen. It does happen. But it certainly doesn’t happen to everyone, not even most. The thing is, we believe it can, and we don’t want to let go of that belief, that hope. It’s our national religion.

Even the heartiest individualist understands that the essential services government provides are the underpinnings of freedom and economic opportunity. But what, exactly, is essential? Police and fire protection? Roads? Electricity? Clean water and air? Most would agree on those. How about day care for single mothers? If you’re not a single mother, and don’t much think anyone should be, that may not be high on your list. Food stamps? If it came to it, you think you could find a way to put food on the table, so why can’t they? If you’re working hard and getting by, it can be difficult to put yourself in the place of someone who has lost his job and health benefits and wakes up one morning to find a lump under his arm that he’d never noticed before.

It’s not naked selfishness that’s behind what we take for a lack of compassion, a flinty ungenerousness, it is fear. Fear that what has made this country great, what has created the opportunity for all who came before, will bleed out of the national body through a million tiny puncture wounds inflicted by sloth, waste and fraud.

December is the giving season, the time we all gather round and watch “A Christmas Carol,” tut-tutting at what a mean and selfish man Ebenezer Scrooge is and smiling approvingly at his post-haunting epiphany. It’s his change of heart we applaud, his moral awakening. It would be a far less resonant story if the Ghosts of Christmas simply shook down old Scrooge for the price of the Cratchit family Christmas goose. Scrooge was a skinflint, alright, but it wouldn’t be right to force him to give to others. For it to be the right thing, for it to be something real and lasting, he had to want to do it himself.

That’s what a lot of people feel: that it’s not right to force them to give to others. Especially people they don’t know, people they suspect could do more for themselves if they just tried harder. They’re glad to give to the charity of their choice, but they don’t like paying taxes for social safety nets.

For many government is like a parent, and those people lined up to collect welfare are its children run wild. But what if one of them was your son? Would you turn your back on him? Probably not. Perhaps, though, neither would you rush in with an open checkbook every time he slipped. You’d want him to work it out himself if at all possible.

We’d all have a lot more confidence in government if we were sure it was operating this way. We’d be happier to trust it with our money. Let’s face it, we just don’t think government, particularly the federal government, is a very good parent. It’s too inattentive, too indulgent. We all know how kids of parents like that turn out.

Government has to regain our confidence. It’s not enough to say you want to help people in need, you have to show you know how to do it. You have to show you can tell someone who truly needs help from a charlatan gaming the system. Government hasn’t done enough to gain our confidence that it can do that. It has been aloof. It has been imperious. It has been wasteful. For proof, one need look no farther than the current Congress. Few among us any longer trust those gridlocked, preening pontificators to look after our common welfare.

Government needs to learn to be a better parent.  It needs to explain its decisions. It needs to make us feel they are fair and evenhanded. It needs to be a parent we can respect. Otherwise, the children are going to keep running away from home.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Time To Dry Our Tears

Tomorrow is the forty-ninth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I was walking across my college campus when I heard the news. I don’t remember if I heard it called out from a dorm window or in sobs under a gothic arch, but in an instant it was the only sound, the only thought.

Our country was reborn in the fires of World War II. After the prosperity of the fifties, JFK was elected by a nation brimming with adolescent vitality. Then, in the sixties, we lost our new-found innocence.

I was fifteen at the dawn of the decade, struggling to break out of the confinement of my Dead Poet’s Society high school, where the goal was to make me a “gentleman, scholar, athlete” at a time when it seemed like “none of the above” was a better choice for me. By the end of the sixties I was twenty-five and married with two children.

The day Kennedy died I was in the process of a sort of metaphorical dying myself. The torpor that had hold of me induced an academic sleepwalk from which I woke, dazed, in academic rehab, cold sweats and all, with stops along the way to register for the draft, walk down the aisle and, twice, pace the floor of the new fathers' waiting room (as close as they let men get in those days). It’s hard to imagine now how much happened to me and the country during that decade.

Meg and I are in Mystic, CT now, waiting for our sons, Chris and Nick, and my first son, Cord, and his family to join us for Thanksgiving. On our way here, we spent a few days on Cape Cod, including a visit to Hyannis Port, where the “Kennedy compound” is located. We walked down a little lane near the water and there it was, white clapboard and shingle sprawled along the shore just the way we’ve all seen it in so many photos and newsreels. One of the adjacent houses said “Kennedy” over the front door.

All around Hyannis there are poster-size photographs of Kennedy and his family, often sailing. That lost smile. That lost promise. In the oldest wing of the Hyannis Public Library, dating from before we were a nation, a small portrait of Kennedy hangs on the wall. It’s a photograph of a painting done by Jamie Wyeth in 1967 at the request of the Kennedy family, some of whom are said to have disliked it because of what they saw as doubt or indecision in Kennedy’s expression. I’ve read that Wyeth tried to portray the young president early in his term, when the burdens of office were new and heavy.

I don’t see the doubt others do, but it’s not the big smile we all remember. Kennedy seems pensive, perhaps even brooding. Something in his expression reminds me of myself. Something in it also reminds me of my father, who was close to Kennedy’s age. I can see the appraising look my father sometimes gave me in those moments of quiet in his stormy life, a look that was somewhere between judgment and acceptance. I see my own uncertainty as I stood before him, wondering what he was seeing in me, wondering sometimes whether there was anything there to see at all.

I was born just after Victory in Europe Day, a few weeks before we vaporized Nagasaki and Hiroshima, giving birth to another creature of life and death that has now grown old and dangerously senile. The fifties were our childhood, the nation’s and mine. We grew strong and confident. Our cars grew flashy tail fins. We smoked and drank. We were invincible.

The voice of the country that elected Kennedy was the voice inside me. The old generals were stepping aside. A new hope, a new humanity was rising. Kennedy started the Peace Corps. He brought Martin Luther King to the oval office. He said we would go to the moon. Bob Dylan sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and no one sang along louder than I. I even journeyed to the Bitter End Café in New York to look for him. That was just a few days after Kennedy was shot.

I don’t think Kennedy’s assassination had anything to do with my personal decline that followed, but you couldn’t help feeling that something more terrible had happened than just the murder of a president. MLK and then Bobby were soon dead too. Vietnam raged. Lyndon Johnson’s plan for a Great Society was shelved. We entered the seventies chastened, as if we had been scolded for being foolish dreamers.

In the decades that followed, the nation and I put our heads down and put one foot in front of the other. There were periods of peace and prosperity, but they were just decades. There was never another sixties. There was never again, for me anyway, that sublime moment of hope and optimism.

The old wing at the Hyannis Public Library needs a little TLC. The outside paint has all but peeled off the windows and the foundation is rotting. I have no idea whether Jack and the other Kennedy boys lurked there under the stern gaze of the librarian of their youth, Ora Adams Hinckley, but I like to imagine they did. And I like to think that if they were alive today they would give money to refurbish the old place, or maybe even come by with a bucket of paint themselves.

The Hyannis library is missing the Kennedys, and so is the country. Barack Obama wants to give us hope, but for some reason it seems harder for him to deliver than it was for Jack Kennedy. Blame it on Obama’s diffidence. Blame it on the Republicans. Whatever, it’s not the same. Maybe it is we who have changed. Maybe we are too old now to be inspired. Too cynical to be hopeful. Too jaded to dream.

When I was in that old library wing, looking at JFK gazing out at me in that pensive, slightly troubled way, I wondered what he might see today. I wondered what he might say to us. What moon he might exhort us to travel to. What duty to our fellow man or to our country he might invoke.

We all cried on that day forty-nine years ago. For a man. For a dream. Perhaps now, remembering the young president who urged that nothing was beyond our reach, it is time to dry those tears and come together to patch up that old library and the nation that houses it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Happily Ever After

“He’s just hard-headed.” That’s what my grandfather used to say about me when I was a boy. For instance, every time we played golf together, he would tell me to slow down my golf swing. I never did. Well, not until about ten years ago. I wish he’d been alive to see it. It produced such miraculous results that I’m now searching my memory for other bits of advice he gave me. Maybe it’s not too late to become frugal and modest too.

My fast golf swing in those days was just one symptom of who I was. Everything I did was too fast. I didn’t need to stop to think. I just acted. If I had a rare moment of reflection, it was to brood about why some cretin was obstructing me.

Eventually I grew out of all that certainty. In a way, I’m sorry I did. I know too much now. I hate realizing that not everyone lives happily ever after. I hate seeing that some problems are as stubborn as I was as a kid.

There was poverty when I was young, but it seemed like the past, not the future. They were the falling-down porches and peeling paint of shacks out in the country, but I didn’t see new blight being created, so I suppose I thought the earth would reclaim those hovels and the future would be as bright and new for everyone as I was sure it would be for me.

Like an overview scene in a movie, my internal camera gradually pulled back from my family and my hometown, and I began to see that those dilapidated rural shacks were the least of the world’s troubles. Even then, the squalid, desperate conditions in Africa and Asia, in so many parts of the world, felt to me as though they existed on some other planet. It was a long time before I realized—no, until I accepted—that those same dehumanizing conditions were commonplace in my beloved America.

I remember when Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty. I thought: Good. At last we’re going to take care of that. Even if we can’t solve problems halfway around the globe, we take care of our own.

But we haven’t, have we? After sputtering along for decades, the poverty rate has climbed steadily in the last ten years. I didn’t feel responsible for the shanties of my youth. I didn’t feel we would allow them to persist. But even as the rich have gotten richer, we have let those shanties fall into greater disrepair and forced more people into them.

Why is that? It can’t be childlike naiveté. In this age of so much information, no sentient adult can possibly be unaware of the facts of poverty in America. No, I fear that those who ignore the suffering of our fellow countrymen are exhibiting that other trait that was so prevalent in me in my childhood: stubbornness.

Poverty so systemic that it is insurmountable by willpower and character alone does not fit the American myth of self-reliance. For some, it is simply easier to look away from the uncomfortable facts. What other than willful self-delusion else could explain wanting to cut programs that help poor kids get enough to eat and a decent education? Programs that help parents find child-care while they work to support their families. Or that create training programs that offer the skills necessary to find a good job in a world where technology and globalization have fundamentally altered the employment landscape.

To those folks living in that state of denial about the dire circumstances afflicting so many of our fellow citizens, I offer this advice: Listen to my grandfather. Don’t be so hard-headed.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Wasted Time

Remember that Eagles song about love ending and one lover feeling it has all just been wasted time? You go along doing something for a while--being in love, working at a job--hardly thinking about putting one foot in front of the other, and one day you wake up and think: Where am I? Is this where I was going?

Dancing Through Life
Meg and I had dinner recently with a couple who are the kind of friends you can talk to the way you did in college and they won’t laugh at you. Are there alternate universes? What is the meaning of life? You have to have time on your hands to have those kinds of conversations. As I said, not since college.

My own college days of existential angst were unsatisfyingly brief. I had barely sobered up from celebrating my liberation from my father when I found myself married with a son of my own. I chose what I wanted to do--practice law--but not really. I didn’t want to be a doctor, like my father, and in a family of doctors, lawyers, preachers and academics, the law seemed a respectable alternative. I was semi-idealistic at first. I refused to represent air polluters.

Soon enough, though, I fell in with a fast crowd of finance and merger lawyers and got hooked on Ferragamo ties and Ritz Carlton suites. My group of fighter pilots flew cover sorties for investment bankers and went to closing dinners in silk flying scarves and bragged about our kills. It was fun and exciting, but one day, like that wistful lover Don Henley sings about, I began to wonder if it wasn’t all just wasted time.

When I turned to writing, one of my practical friends said: Mac, many are called, but few are chosen. Maybe I should have listened.

All my fiction seems to be father-son stories. I think what’s happening is I am writing the same story over and over again until I get it right. Meanwhile, out of necessity, I’ve come to love the process of writing, the way it makes me think about who and how we are, the quiet place it makes for me.

At that dinner with the friends from the alternate universe, after a couple of glasses of wine (that sweet lubricant of epiphanies), I said I thought the most important thing any of us can do in life is make a difference. Not everyone has to develop dwarf wheat to feed the world. It is enough to write computer code that makes life easier for some or work on education programs for children in need, as my friends do. It is more than enough to write stories, as Meg does, that let women see they have one another’s backs in the struggle to find their places in a world that is slowly opening up to them but remains unwelcoming and even hostile in some quarters.

For myself I harbor the hope, renewed daily, that I will write a story that helps a father see that he is not alone in his self-doubt, a son understand that sometimes the only thing you can do is love and hate your father at the same time. If I can do that, I think I will feel I have not wasted time.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Mule and the Two-By-Four

You know those times when you’re talking to someone and you just know they’re not listening? Vacant eye contact, I call it. Whatever is going on in his or her brain has nothing to do with what you’re saying. If you haven’t had this experience, you have never had teenagers. Or tried earnestly to persuade someone in your circle of family or friends of the wisdom of your political views, which you are quite certain they would embrace if they could just understand them.

I think of myself as having achieved a measure of wisdom because I join those battles less frequently. For one thing, all my teenagers have grown up. For another, I have come to realize that some people just can’t be reached with the logic that seems so impeccable, so unassailable, to me.

But here’s a disturbing question: What if it’s not them? What if it’s me?

Why is it so hard for us to change our minds about some things? I think I’m open-minded, but perhaps what I really mean is that I listen politely while waiting for the other person to take a breath so I can jump in with my point of view. It’s not that I’m not listening. Somehow I’m not processing.

There are a couple of possibilities here: One, implicit in my self-regard, is that I have the answer figured out and further processing isn’t necessary. Maybe some tweaking at the margins—an intellectual bone or two to throw the dog holding a contrary view—but no wholesale re-evaluation needed. The second possibility is that something unfortunate has happened to my neurological wiring that has rendered me unable to accept competing inputs.

Why would that be? Is there some evolutionary imperative at work? Is intellectual ossification adaptive? Cling tightly to the views developed over a lifetime. It’s too late now to re-open all those boxes. It took too long to pack them in the first place, and you might get eaten while sitting there going through old points of view like so many old family photographs.

John Kenneth Galbraith, who coined the term “conventional wisdom,” said we don’t change our points of view until incontrovertible facts hit us upside the head, like the two-by-four in the old joke about the farmer and the recalcitrant mule. (“Why did you hit your mule in the head with a two-by-four?” the city slicker, aghast, asks the farmer. “Just getting his attention,” says the farmer.)

Societally there is ample evidence of the phenomenon Galbraith described. The crash of 1929 (where rampant stock speculation was ignored), the crash of 2008 (same thing, different securities), global warming (that crash has not come yet, so we’re still at the stage of the frog in the pot of water slowly heating on the stove).

Plenty of people understand what Galbraith taught us. And the reason we behave that way--vested interest in the status quo--is easy to understand too. I’ve always thought I was one of the ones not so indebted to how things have always been that I was unable to imagine how they might be.

But I wonder. Why don’t I change my mind more often? Am I just rarely wrong? Or has that two-by-four just not yet hit me upside the head?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Weight of Expectations

I remember when I found out my father was a philanderer. I was twenty-eight. He had just died. I thought: Not cool, but there was a lot of good in him, and he was my father and I was both better off and worse off for it, but mostly, I thought, better off.

I did not have sex with that woman.
If one of my children takes a wrong turn, I think of it as that, a wrong turn, not a character failure. He or she is still the person I know to be thoughtful and kind and to share the values I have about how we should treat one another in this life. I know that if they have made a mistake they are feeling the pain of it more acutely than I, so I offer encouragement. I don’t say: Man, you really let me down on that. Why didn’t you do better?

President Obama feels like one of my children to me. As best I can tell, he thinks the way I would have raised him to think (even better, no doubt) and feels the pain of others the way I would have encouraged around the dinner table. He is the kind of man I would be proud to call a son. Or father. He is the kind of man I would be proud to be myself.

So—I just have to say this—I’m tired of hearing people in our national political family carping about him. He didn’t do enough to sell his message, they say. He wasn’t tough enough in dealing with Republican intransigence. He was naïve.

Well of course he was naïve. Who could know what being president in a time of national and global crisis would be like? And you don’t have to be Pollyanna to have nurtured the hope, the expectation, that in those dark days it would be possible to sit down with the opposition and make a plan together to get the country back on its feet. Only the most deeply cynical could have predicted Mitch McConnell’s single-minded commitment to making Mr. Obama’s a one-term presidency, even at great cost to the country---or, as some suspect, even hoping for great cost to the country that could be blamed on the president.

When Bill Clinton was caught cavorting with a long list of women both in and out of the Oval Office, I thought: Too bad about his uncontrollable libido, but it's not that relevant to how well he governed. I looked at it the same way I (and perhaps most others) did Kennedy’s womanizing and Franklin Roosevelt’s affair. These are men, not more. They have flaws. The question is not whether they are paradigms, but whether their policies are good for the country.

It doesn’t seem likely that we are going to find anyone other than Michele in Barack Obama’s bed. But he shares a vanity with Clinton, Kennedy and Roosevelt: an abiding belief that he can bend the world to his thinking. He can’t always. They couldn’t either. Remember Clinton’s 1994 Congressional mid-term slaughter? Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs? Roosevelt’s failed attempt to pack the Supreme Court?

We elect a man (and, one day, a woman) to the presidency. Not a saint. Not a sorcerer. We elect a person no more perfect or effective than our parents or our children. Sure, we have high hopes for him. Yes, we are disappointed when he stumbles. But that is exactly the moment when he needs our support, not our scolding. If we believe that President Obama is smart and empathetic, that he will continue to do his best to achieve the things we believe in, that he has likely learned a little something about being president after four years, this is most certainly not the time to abandon him.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Family Man

There once was a man with five children. He adored his first son, the one with sunlit curls and blue eyes who came along when the man himself was still young and full of hopes and dreams for the future. He sent the boy to the finest schools, bailed him out when he got into a little mischief now and then, introduced him to well-connected friends who helped him get a start in business. That boy is still his pride and joy. To this day he gives him little gifts to let him know he is cherished.

The father tells himself he loves his other four children. He says so to his friends. As the years passed, though, he began to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility for so many lives. And as he has got older, and saw more of life, he began to realize that it was they, not he, who were responsible for their successes and failures. He even convinced himself that they would be better off if they were not raised in privilege. So he did not send them to fine schools or help them get starts on their dreams.

The family moved around, and some of the public schools attended by the other four children, two boys and two girls, were decent. Some were places where you could get a good education if you applied yourself and didn’t get distracted by the kids who weren’t ambitious. Good discipline, he thought. But even he realized that other schools, like the ones in the heart of one big city where they lived for a while, were not. That urban school was rough, even he had to admit that. He told himself his two sons who were in high school there would benefit from the gritty experience. He said it would make them tough, prepare them for life.

What it did was prepare one to be a drug addict and the other to drop out and go searching for himself, like he was some new-age Woody Guthrie or Steve Jobs or something. Both are still looking for work. For now, at least, Medicaid is paying for rehab for the one who made bad choices that started with hanging out with stoners. The father tried to warn him, but the boy wouldn’t listen, and after all a man can only do so much with a headstrong kid.

That was all years ago. He hasn’t seen either boy in a while. He’s closer to his girls, at least one of them. The oldest seems to be turning out all right. She’s a model of some kind. He thinks she’s in L.A., although she doesn’t stay in touch as much as she used to. It’s too soon to say about the princess, which is what he calls the youngest. They’ve moved back to the suburbs now, so the school she attends isn’t rough or dangerous. She wants to be a doctor, she says. She’s a serious little thing. He thinks the state college has a decent pre-med program, but she has her heart set on going to a fancy school, like her oldest brother. He says he can’t afford that kind of spending anymore. She’s determined, though. Maybe she’ll get a loan or a grant. Or maybe she’ll be a nurse.

He’s not that religious. He goes to church and he puts up Christmas lights, but he doesn’t believe anything is God’s plan. He might say he does when trying to comfort someone to whom something terrible has happened, but he doesn’t believe it. He believes in self-reliance. He’s tried to raise his children that way, at least that’s what he tells himself.

Once in a while, when his daughter who is still living at home, the one who wants to be doctor, gets upset about something and asks why he did so much more for her oldest brother than for the rest of them, he says that he had more money then. What about the country club you joined last year? she demands. He tells her that’s for business, but she acts like she doesn’t understand. Then he tells her that even if he had gone to public school her brother would have come out on top. That’s the kind of man he is. So can you, he tells her, and he believes that, even when she gets upset, kind of hysterical, if you want to know the truth, and won’t speak to him for long periods. Maybe she’ll find a good husband is what he usually thinks at those times. That would be the best thing for her.

So that’s the story. Now that you’ve read it, I have a question: Would you like for your children to be raised like that? One given so much, the others left to fend for themselves? Maybe not, I’m guessing. Then how about all the children in the country? Is that the way we should be raising them?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Man's Choice

I know plenty of men who had to get married. We had a little epidemic among my friends in the sixties. Abortions weren’t legal. You did what you had to do.

Then came Roe v. Wade, and I thought: Thank goodness. We can make a mistake and get a second chance. We can have a choice about whether we are ready to be fathers. A choice that doesn’t involve putting a child up for adoption and feeling guilty about never seeing him for the rest of your life, for not doing your duty as a father and a man.

I’ll admit that abortion is an easier choice for a man than for a woman. When I was a young man, in the years when Roe was decided, I didn’t fully understand the psychic cost for the woman, or at least many women. I see better now that some women who have abortions live for the rest of their lives with that same guilt I would feel about abandoning a child to adoption. There are no easy answers here. We’re talking about the beginning (or end) of life. The prime directive for the species. There is nothing that is more important, or evokes more emotion.

But when a child is conceived by a man and a woman who aren’t ready for it, choices must be made. Make a sharp turn on the road of life or leave the baby behind. It’s easy (for me) to see how terminating an early pregnancy could be seen as the best among bad choices.

Abortion is seen as an issue for women. Their bodies, their choice. But it is an issue for men as well. Most young lovers, after they recover from the shock of the positive pregnancy test, sit down and talk about what to do. Before Roe, that meant, from the man’s perspective, either doing the honorable thing or in effect telling your girlfriend good luck with that. Roe gave men and women another choice, one that, while it shuts the door on one potential new life, re-opens it for two others.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Myself, My Mate, My Life

I found myself wondering the other day about the Darwinian roots of self-esteem. Why are we self-aware? And why does our self-image matter so much? My guess is that we developed our neurotic self-focus for our personal entertainment: otherwise Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld would be just a couple of nice Jewish boys looking for work.

A cursory survey of the scientific literature indicates that high self-esteem is adaptive, that it helps those who have it be the ones who spread their genes. If you think well of yourself, you go after the most desirable mate. If you think you’re up to them, you take on the challenges that lead to success.

It’s sort of like nature’s vote for the football captain for prom king. That might be fine if we had not somehow convinced ourselves that the prom is being held not just once a year for a couple of years in high school but every day. Each morning we awake to another day of not being prom king, of perhaps not even having a date for the dance.

I hate my hair. I hate my neck. I’ll never be as good at that as she is. Sometimes the result of all this angst is comic, sometimes tragic. My question is this: is it worth it?

Sure it is, you say. You don’t want humans in the next evolutionary cycle to be a bunch of homely losers, do you? I don’t know. Maybe. Or perhaps better put: why should I be miserable just so the species can advance? Hell, what with global warming and deforestation, we’re not going to have a home for the prom king and queen of the next millennium anyway, so why get all twisted up with self-doubt just for their benefit.

What would we be like if we didn’t worry so much about what others think of us? The first consequence might be that we would quit worrying so much about what we thought of ourselves. Where would that leave us? Would we become unwashed slobs? Would we lose all ambition? Is there a way to stay clean without having to choose from among a hundred humiliating shampoos, none apparently intended for the mousey, thin, frizzy hair we see in the mirror?

I don’t have to tell you about the collateral damage of the self-esteem wars. The drinking, depression, anger, despair. It seems to me that the many are paying a high price for the benefit of the few, the grown-up prom kings and queens. High school is forever, it turns out.

I have a feeling, though, that even the prom kings and queens feel inadequate. There’s always someone prettier or richer or smarter. Looking out into the world and comparing yourself to what you think you are seeing is like looking at a photograph of a poor boy and his mother and thinking you understand what is in his head or hers. You might be right about a small slice of it, but there’s no chance you’ll get most of it.

And you’re not any more likely to be right about what others think of you. Not even people you think you know well. Not even people you think you can trust. Tactical deceit is also adaptive.

Within the bounds of courtesy and propriety, then, perhaps it’s best not to worry about it. Not obsessing about what others think of you is a different thing than not caring about what you think of yourself. How others see us and how we see ourselves may be linked in our evolutionary biology, but one thing our adaptations have given us is an ability to know that and to separate the two things.

We are the only ones who know ourselves: the ornate richness of the grand aspirations we want to share; the blackness of the thoughts we want to hide, the ones we hope are nothing more than nightmares. Amid the daily cacophony of slights, snipes and gripes it is easy to get caught up in the terror of self-doubt. At those moments, a graceful retreat from the field of combat may be in order. A withdrawal to a place quiet enough to hear what the Bard meant when he said: To thine own self be true.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Staying Alive

My brother David called a few days ago to say we buried our father thirty-eight years ago that day. David is a sentimental guy, and he knows I am too. We talked a little about what it might be like if Dad had lived a full life (he would be eighty-eight now), and how we might be different if he had. Then David told me this story:

As close as we're likely to get to the Gates of Paradise
Earlier that day he had taken his new driver to the driving range to hit a bucket of balls. He was terrible. He hit hooks and slices and shanks and worm burners. Not a single good shot. He thought to himself: I can’t quit on this note. I’ve got to get a few more balls. He marched toward the place where you buy balls, but on the way he saw a half bucket of balls that someone had abandoned. So he hit those. And he hit every one perfectly.

So he says to me: “Anniversary of burying Dad. Me hitting terrible shots. A half bucket of balls appearing magically for me to try again. Coincidence? I don’t think so.”

And I don’t think so either. Dad was forever tossing a ball down for us and saying hit another. I can see him now emptying that half bucket of balls out for David and standing back to wait for him to try again. David said he could see it too, and in his version Dad had a little half smile.

I’m not a big believer in ghosts, or anything supernatural, but I believe in the healing magic of memory. I believe that a warm touch from someone we love stays on our skin for the rest of our lives. Are they looking down from heaven or out from within us? Does it matter? The important thing is that they are still there.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Farming Crops, Tending Sheep

My mother went to her grave wishing her children would get along better. There were times when she gave up on our being friends and would have settled for a truce.

We weren’t close in age. In some ways we had different childhoods, almost different parents. The one thing we shared was growing up in the court of a king by divine right, our father. We never knew whether a day would bring feast and finery or a trip to the Tower. Looking back, one thing I regret is that I left home and saved myself and left my brother and sister tiptoeing around the castle.

Later, after the monarch died, his emotionally battered queen limped along as best she could. For my part, I stayed away. I should have done more to help her, and when, in the last years of her life, I did do more, my brother and sister no doubt saw my swooping in and taking over her financial affairs as a metaphorical killing of the fatted calf for the prodigal son. Or maybe it was worse that that: maybe to them it seemed like the return of the despot king.

The first man born of a woman murdered his brother, they say. I see sibling anger everywhere, but I’m not sure I really understand it. Our brothers and sisters are the people we first love. What goes wrong? Perhaps the demon that possesses us is the obvious one: jealousy. Perhaps it is simply the natural order of things, especially among men, to want to knock off the competition for mates. Whatever the cause, there is a stubborn durability to problems among siblings. In some ways it is that resistance to healing that, like a festering open wound, does the greatest damage.

Mom has been dead for four years. Lately a kind of gentle, defenseless peace has settled over me and my brother and sister. I am grateful for that, and for their forgiveness. I am sorry that Mom is not alive to see it, but perhaps the last parent has to die to free the children from the competition for her love.

My sister tells me about her career plans and how my niece and nephew are doing. My brother tells me about the new golf driver he’s thinking of buying. We talk about how they’ve changed the golf course we grew up playing. He’s the only one I talk to who knows how hole number three used to be laid out. I can tell him how I remember hitting the big tree on the far side of the driving range and know he can see its spreading limbs as clearly as I do. Somehow that reassures me that it really happened, that it’s not just another of so many things I wish had happened.

They say that when we get older we begin to journey back through our past. My brother and sister are the last people alive who know my past almost all the way back to its beginning. If I don’t have them to talk to, I’ll be making my journey alone.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

You Like Me, You Really Like Me

I saw a nice quote from Pablo Neruda today and, of course, I posted it on Facebook. I did it because I wanted to share the love (which is what it was about). At least I think that’s why I did it. After checking my Facebook page a few times since the post, and smiling to see that others liked it, I wonder now about my motives. Was I sharing the love, or seeking it?

Meg is out of town. I’m home alone. I don’t do alone well. I don’t exactly feel lonely, just unconnected. It’s as if someone unplugged me. There’s no one in the next room to talk to. But there is Facebook, which is kind of like talking to someone, even though it’s hard to tell if anyone is listening. Like talking to your ex, perhaps, or maybe your teenager.

For Facebook, the possibility, the eternal hope, of connection with another is a business model. For me, it’s starting to feel like an unsatisfying faux reality. Like going out to a bar alone and drinking too much and waking up feeling worse than the hangover.

I have realized all this gradually, vaguely. Like an alcoholic, I think I have to hit bottom to admit my problem. Repackaging someone else’s wisdom and passing it along like an eager student hoping for a teacher’s approval may not be the absolute bottom, but it’s getting close. Good taste in quotes is a useful skill for a designer of greeting cards or a chiseler of epitaphs.

So will I go on the wagon? Yes, of course. I'm going cold turkey...right after I post this on Facebook.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

America (a novel)

I remember the first time Meg and I went to the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. We were with Chris and Nick, who were teenagers at the time. It was exciting to be able to show our sons such an engaging depiction of the birth, infancy and adolescence of our country. Look at our fascinating history, boys. Look at the funny hats and muskets from that long time ago.

Meg and I were back in Philly a few days ago, and we went again, just us this time. It’s a different thing looking at our country’s history through my own eyes rather than my children’s--as a part of who I am, not just a history lesson.

The program begins in a theatre in the round, where an actor takes you through the revolutionary war and the uneasy alliance of states that followed. When the lack of cooperation among the states began to make them easy prey to other countries, they convened the Constitutional Convention and hammered out something of a political miracle.

It's impossible to sit through that dramatization of our ideals and aspirations and come away cynical. I'm not embarrassed to admit I had a tear in my eye. For eight years we fought bravely for our freedom and then, after we had won it, we bickered among ourselves for another dozen years. When at last we came together to forge our constitution there were great differences among us, on great subjects. We did not storm out of the room, though; we did not shut down the government before it even got started. We persevered. We found common ground. If I could, I'd send our current crop of politicians to that dramatization of how those first Americans worked out their differences.

The points of contention at that first convention--the balance of power between the states and the federal government and, at the federal level, among the three branches of government--continue to divide us passionately. We fought bitterly over them in the Civil War. They were at the heart of the populist revolt against the Gilded Age. They inflame today’s Tea Party. I don't think the Tea Party is on the right track for where we are now, but after seeing again how the clashing of our antagonistic founding principles has made us stronger, I appreciate the reminder that when the first shots were fired at Lexington we were all libertarians.

We have some tough issues before us today, but here are a few things we don't have: slaves; women who can't vote; working conditions from Dickens’ England; water too dirty to drink; air too smoky to breathe. There is more to do, much more. We should not rest until all of us have a realistic chance to escape poverty, until all our children can get first-rate educations, until no one dies for lack of food or health care. But we are making progress. One cannot look at our society today and compare it to any other time in our history and not think we are better off.

America is a long story. We are still in the early chapters, I hope. We think we know the plot, but new characters keep getting introduced and, as they say, character is plot. There are surprising twists and turns, and cliff-hangers, but the story goes on. Like every great novel I've ever read, I don't want to put it down, and I don't want it to end.