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.