Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nothing Left to Lose

Where do you stand on consequences? As in suffering the consequences for our choices. Does your answer depend on who is doing the suffering? For most of us, I think the answer is yes. The closer to home, the harder it is to resist stepping in to save the imprudent one.

Oh, Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
Our children are the best examples, of course. We keep them out of trouble for so long that it becomes a hard habit to break. We know they can’t grow and learn fully without making their own mistakes, but still… Fortunately for domestic tranquility, about the time they become the most reckless they go off to college or run away from home so we can’t see what they are doing. Thank goodness for that.

But what should a parent do if a child who is no longer a child never quits making bad choices? Should we make up his bed in the spare bedroom? Should we drive him to detox? Should we pay for it? And does the answer depend not just on how much we care for him but also how hard we think he has been trying?

Those questions can be tough to answer when the reckless person is someone you love. What if you don’t even know her? Should you care if she drinks herself to death or abandons her children or lives on the street?

What made me start thinking about this (again) is an email debate I was copied on about whether it would be a good idea to make social security optional. The first question that jumped to my mind was: What do we do about the people who opt out and end up destitute? Do we just let them suffer? Tough luck, mate. You should have been wiser when you were young.

Sometimes it seems we are in the middle of another American Revolution. A surprisingly large number of people despise the government. They long, in Grover Norquist’s words, to shrink it down to the size that it can be drowned in the bathtub. They even call themselves the Tea Party.

Our last revolution (not counting that little squabble over slavery) was to rid ourselves of an exploitive monarch. This uprising feels more like we’re trying to toss out Mary Poppins. Instead of “No Taxation Without Representation,” the rallying cry is “No Nanny State.”

What would we do if we got our wish? Without all those tacky taxes, we’d all have more to spend on our favorite charity: ourselves. Then what? Some of us would be fine. Many would not. Are they just lazy and shiftless? Will they just be getting what they deserve?

The healthcare debate raises the same issue. We hate the mandate, but if we don’t all pay into the kitty there won’t be enough to take care of everyone. Is that okay? Is survival of the fittest really what we want?

So many young people love Ron Paul. That shouldn’t be a big surprise. They are breaking away from their parents. They are libertarians to their cores. They aren’t unkind, though. They help old ladies across the street. They wouldn’t ignore a plea for help from a man who had been stabbed and was bleeding on the sidewalk. What would we think of them if they would? That they were heartless and cruel. Maybe sociopaths. No one steps over a dying man and keeps on walking.

All over the world there are people who are starving and sick. Maybe we can’t help them all, but if we are to call ourselves a nation and have that mean anything it seems to me we must help our fellow countrymen. Does it matter how they came to their misery? How can we know whether they have made poor choices or just had bad luck? How can we know the life of another? We only know what we see, and when we see suffering, if we are to retain our humanity, mustn’t we act to relieve it?

We yearn to be free. Of parents. Of government. Of lovers sometimes. But, as Janice Joplin told us (in Kris Kristofferson’s words): Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. That’s about as nice a turn of phrase as I’ve ever heard. It’s wistful and sad, but it’s also inspirational. Without our ties to one another, there’s not much point to living.

And those ties don’t stop with friends and family, even if we’d like to think they do. They extend to those farthest away from us, to the weakest among us. We are all our own children. Sure, we may get frustrated with their bad behavior, disgusted even, but can we walk away from them? Do we want to be that free? Do we want to have nothing left to lose?

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Truth About My Father

Meg pointed me to a lovely piece in Sunday’s New York Times by Colm Toibin, in which he said, quite beautifully, that of course we write about our families, and of course we embellish them to make them fit into our stories. They say Hemingway had to get a new wife for each new book. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz said, “Once a writer is born into a family, that family is doomed.”

The Everett McCord Claytons, I-IV
For years now, in my writing I’ve circled my father like a reluctant jackal, at first timidly nudging his lifeless flesh, lately tearing into it with what others might call savagery but to me feels like love. What other than love could explain why I would make him the starting point for a character in a novel with whom I live for hours every day? Perhaps it is a form of masochism. Or perhaps I long to understand him. Still. After all these years. Even as I am no doubt concurrently creating psychological mysteries for my own children to unravel after I am in the grave.

Toibin suggests that I torture my father for the sake of truth. Is that why, when I can speak so precisely about the gap in his teeth or the way he laughed as if he were sneezing, I swerve from reality and have him do something horrible he would never (I hope, but am not entirely sure) do? Toibin says such twists of actual truth are in service of the more universally understandable truths we are trying to tell with our stories. Not moral truths, but truths about how we are, how we behave. Each of us takes what we will from the behavior of others. One man’s truth is another’s blasphemy.

If you had known my father, you would say the man in the novel I’ve just finished is him. And you would say: Damn, I never knew he did all that awful stuff. The poor bastard. I’ve twisted him and tweaked him and made him party to outrageous behavior. A lot of what I say about the character that starts with him is total fiction. “And if I am lucky,” as Toibin says, “what comes into shape will seem more real and more true, more affecting and enduring, than the facts of the case.”

There is truth to that high-toned rationalization, to the hope that my story will resonate and endure, but it does not fully explain why I write about my father. There are obvious reasons, of course. I write about him because it amuses me, because I like to think back on our times together, good and bad, because I’m still trying to understand him and myself. But those tepid explanations do not go to the heart of the matter. They do not account for my continuing fascination, both loving and morbid, with a man who died forty years ago.

No, the real reason I write about him, I think, the reason I hold him up before me and by the light of the window examine him from all angles, like a butterfly specimen on a pin, is that it keeps him alive in me. It’s almost as good as actually having him around. Better perhaps, because I always get the last word.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Not Like Me

My grandson Miles is a clone of his dear old granddad. His other granddad. He doesn’t look a thing like me. And that’s not the only way in which we’re not alike. At age seven, he’s a kid triathlete. My other grandson, Tim, is a dead ringer for his maternal granddad too. He likes to fence (whereas I only like to sit on them) and play the piano (on which I might eke out chopsticks on a good day…after a lot of practice).

I’ve always wished I'd gotten my grandfather’s photographic memory and my mother’s lovely singing voice. Alas, I was blessed with neither. I see the memory trick in my children, though, and a couple of them sing like angels. Luck of the draw, I guess.

Traits I can identify and admire, wish I had, hope my kids do, are only a small part of who we are, though. I used to think our children are a kind of continuation of ourselves, if not clones at least Darwinian conduits. Perhaps they are in some ways, but I now understand that, in terms of how we think of ourselves, when sperm hits egg and all those genes are up for grabs, what is produced is a whole that is different than the sum of its parts. Gait, eye color and chin cleft may be passed along, but the individual is distinct.

I don’t know why this should surprise me. I never thought I was my father or my mother. I never saw any of them in me. Why then should I expect to see myself in my children? Vanity, I suppose. But Mother Nature is not vain; and she apparently believes that to be anything other than an apple orchard, we must not only be a little different, but we must think we are a lot different.

We all feel this individuality within ourselves. We feel unique, set apart from others. This strong sense of self gives us the courage to chart a course for ourselves in a confusing and difficult world. Eventually we may come to realize that we’re not really that different, that we’re more like apples than we’d like to admit, but certainly for the first half of our lives we think we’re special, that we can make a difference. Most of us think we know best about most things. You need that self-confidence to boldly go.

Our questing, our dreaming, has been the source of our collective strength, with each of us functioning like individual genes to make up a dynamic organism. Nature’s little practical joke, though, is that all that self-confidence, all that knowing we are right, all that pursuing our own truth, makes it hard for us to get along. In a world that is no longer uncharted, in which we are so crowded together that cooperation has become an essential survival skill, the egocentricity that made us great explorers is getting in the way of our becoming good collaborators.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Watch This!

I spent the afternoon in the Rodin Sculpture Garden at Stanford a few days ago. Courtesy of Gerald Cantor, there are twenty Rodin bronzes displayed in a charming garden reminiscent of the crushed stone promenades of the Tuileries. They are all just sitting out, open to the sun and the moon and the touch of anyone who wants to place her hands on the graceful and powerful nudes to try to imagine how the artist created such beauty.

On a bench near me, three young men sat sketching the statutes (inspiring my scribble). Families and couples came and went. A large group of young school children wearing identical yellow t-shirts played among the sculptures, touching the bronzes, flitting on and off a low landscaping wall like canaries.

It’s amazing to me that we have such a gift. I’ve been there dozens of times, mostly with Meg, mostly in the moonlight, and I’ve never seen even a candy wrapper on the ground. There are no guards to speak of. The garden is open to everyone, all the time, day and night. In this world of graffiti tags on every public place, such completely accessible pristine beauty is something of a miracle.

I always learn something when I go there. I never tire of contemplating The Gates of Hell, for instance. Whatever your religious views (or not), the downfall of man is a fascinating subject. Here’s what I learned on my last visit:

1.     Rodin was an ass man. I knew that, but I was especially taken by the feeling this time. Beautiful smooth curves for the women, powerful haunches for the men.

2.     Kids are lucky. Those yellow-breasted schoolchildren were completely absorbed in the experience of being there together. Nothing existed for them but their group in that time and place.

The older one gets, the harder it is to recapture that feeling. Sex produces it, but it’s hard to sustain that for a whole afternoon in a crowded garden. Alcohol (and no doubt other substances) produces something like it, but not the real thing, something synthetic that is more like alert dreaming, a kind of self-conscious unselfconsciousness.

Watching those children, I did not feel the loss of their heedless innocence so much as the loss of my mother, who died four years ago. I’ve been wondering lately why I miss her so much. We were close near the end of her life, but not unusually so. My father was the one I idolized. When he died, forty years ago, I missed him but somehow not as much as I miss Mom now. Why is that?

My grandparents lived to be almost a hundred. Even after Dad’s death, his father and my mother’s father were there for me, along with my mom and both my grandmothers. By the time Mom died, though, she was the last of those who came before me. The last of those I knew would save me from myself. The last of those I could call out to as I jumped from the base of a Rodin sculpture I shouldn’t be climbing and say, “Watch this!”

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Lonely Boy

I’m just a lonely boy. Lonely and blue.
I’m all alone. With nothing to do.
--Paul Anka

Love songs are always like that. Love lost. Glorious suffering. We love them. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we’ve all been there and, mostly, we’ve all survived. Don’t worry, bro, you’ll find another.

But what if instead of love it is your job that you’ve lost?  Nowadays it’s not so clear that another one is going to come along. Or if it does, it’s not likely to be as loving as the one that got away. There’s no more company man. You can’t just be loyal and put in your time and expect a pension and a gold watch. Those days, and those jobs in the manufacturing sector that built America in the twentieth century, are gone.

Public sector jobs have taken up some of the slack, but now they too are under pressure. Local, state and federal governments can’t afford all the workers they have hired. And they really can’t afford the pensions they have promised them. A tectonic shift is underway. When the plates come to rest again, many will look out over a landscape they no longer recognize. The places they used to work will be gone. The loyalties they had will mean nothing. It’s like waking up and finding a note of goodbye from your lover. Sure, you knew some of the old passion was gone, but you never expected to be alone.

I once read that we need three things to make us happy: someone to love; something to do; and something to look forward to. The last two are closely related, of course, at least on the downside: if you don’t have work, it’s hard to see what you have to look forward to.

Country songs are full of men moaning about how their lives are over because their babies have left them. They’ll drown their sorrows for a while, maybe take a long drive in their trucks, and someone else will come along to mend their broken hearts. That’s not happening on the jobs front, though. And it doesn’t look like it will for a while.

Even as stubbornly optimistic as I am about the economic future of America, it’s hard to see where the new jobs are going to come from. In manufacturing, we are aiming higher, trying to invent new, more highly skilled processes. Those aren’t going to result in Henry Ford’s mass production lines, not anytime soon anyway. In the public sector, we are cutting back, making do with less government. That may be a healthy thing in some ways---unless you are one of the government workers who loses your job.

It looks like we may be looking at a long period filled with a lot of lonely people with nothing to do. They are going to be depressed. Their health will suffer. Their home lives will suffer. Their children will suffer. My question is this: What does that mean for the rest of us?

One thing it means, of course, it that it will be harder for the overall economy to start growing robustly again. Two thirds of our economy derives from consumer spending, and those folks who are out of work aren’t spending. So we’re all going to have to adjust to that new reality, at least for a while.

But what about the personal cost to others? What is our collective responsibility for that? What a pal loses his girl, we might try to fix him up with someone. At least we can buy him a few beers while he looks for himself. You can live without a girlfriend or boyfriend longer than you can live without a job, though. A few beers isn’t going to solve the jobs problem.

Maybe there is nothing we can do. Maybe this is just one of those times of great change and dislocation, like when the country went from agrarian to industrial. But in the past, except for the depression, we have always been growing. There has always been the hope of upward mobility.

In the 1930’s, when the economic tragedy was at its worst, Roosevelt put the nation to work building roads and dams and parks. There were bread lines. There were soup kitchens. There were hobo jungles. It wasn’t pretty, but we seemed to care about one another. We seemed to want to help one another.

Perhaps because this period of job loss has not been as bad as it was in the depression, we seem not to have been jolted into that same broadly felt empathy. Or maybe we think the people who are suffering are mostly illegal aliens who should just go home. Or gay men who should just go fuck themselves.

Tough times can be when our national character shows its strength, but the political season seems to bring out the worst in us. We’re all feeling beat up by the long years of economic torpor, and we want to blame someone: the government, Wall Street, taxes, loss of moral character. There is blame enough to go around, but the truth is that there have always been business cycles. We have always gone on periodic credit binges. We have a bad hangover this time.

The people who are not to blame, however, are our neighbors who are out of work. They deserve our help in whatever way we can give it: private charity; public works projects; unemployment benefits; taking our old clothes to Goodwill. The one thing they don’t deserve is to be ignored while they wake up each morning with nothing to do.

Monday, July 2, 2012

There Ain't Nothing Like Her Nowhere

There was the time we came home from work at two in the morning in separate convertibles, tops down on a hot L.A. night, riding side by side on the deserted freeway, giddy with our work and each other, teasing off ties and bows, acting out a Randy Newman song that we were writing for ourselves: “I Love L.A.” meets “You Can Leave Your Hat On.”

There was the time we hiked in the woods together and fell into each other’s arms in a bed of poison ivy that we had to treat for weeks with daily doses of champagne. There were the flowers from Milo Bixby that we gave each other, outrageous spring extravaganzas that Monet would have died to have painted. There were the twenty-four hour trips to Laguna Beach that felt like weeks in paradise.

There were days in hospitals with babies who were too young to have to be there. Nights of too much work, too much pressure, too much success, too much failure. Just too much. Days on the farm swimming in the pond, feeding cows, beginning her first novel as the snow hushed the land and the wood stove warmed her. Years more of hacking a winding path through one wilderness or another to be able to write and be with our boys.

And now, as our sons make their way into the world, trips to Paris where the light on the Seine at dusk is almost as beautiful as her face, uplifted to me as I hold her in my arms and wonder if Randy Newman knew when he wrote those songs what he was offering to someone like me, someone who wanted to live them and never stop, who had a woman who made that possible, a woman who made everything possible.

Roll down the window, put down the top
Crank up the Beach Boys, baby
Don’t let the music stop
We’re gonna ride it till we just can’t ride it no more.

Happy anniversary, lover.