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.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The United Cities of America

In a four-hour stretch, Meg and I flew out of Detroit, into Chicago and out again, and into Philadelphia. Amazing cities, one troubled now, but even that one an important part of our economic and cultural past. Think about all the great cities in America--Houston, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York, L.A., on and on. No country in the world has more big, vibrant cities than we do. No one else is even close.

No disrespect intended to our agrarian roots, but our cities are where the action is: the jobs, the arts, the innovation, the craziness. All that land outside our cities and their suburbs is dedicated mainly to feeding us and giving us places to escape from ourselves once in a while.

It makes me wonder whether the way we govern ourselves still makes sense. Why shouldn't the cities make the local laws rather than the states. When our current law-making patchwork was sewn, most of the population lived in the country. States were big boundaries drawn around collections of farms. Today, eighty two percent of us live in cities or city suburbs.

As we moved off the farm and into cities, rural areas ended up over-represented in state legislatures. In the nineteen sixties, the Supreme Court forced the states to reapportion, so that all citizens in a state would have an equal voice in state government. I wonder, though, whether that is enough.

Urban and rural dwellers have very different concerns. Consider the issue of gun control, for instance. Many city folk would be happy if they never saw a gun. Outside the city limits, people like to hunt. They like to be armed. I think isolation increases the instinct to want to be able to defend yourself.

Even though the residents of cities get equal weight for their votes, they may be in a state with many rural citizens. So when the vote for gun control comes up in the state legislature, the urbanites get out-voted. (Let's leave the Second Amendment out of this for now. There are plenty of other issues on which city dwellers and rural folks have fundamentally different points of view.)

Why not let the cities vote on city laws and the rest of the state vote on rural issues? I know, I know, there is the little matter of the Constitution, so I guess I can't be seriously proposing this as a political reform. But it's something to think about as our society evolves. Ultimately, the way we govern ourselves must reflect our local interests and concerns. Just ask King George III.