Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Trick or Treat

On his first Halloween outing, when he was almost two, our son Chris got a piece of candy and sat on the porch to eat it. When he finished, we went to the next house. He sat on that porch and ate the candy he got there too. At the third house, he sat on the porch with his candy and burst into tears. He must have thought Halloween was some primitive force-feeding ritual.

Chris’s brother Nick, when he was in high school, used to dress up like a dummy and sit on our front porch bench, holding a basket of candy and a sign that said “take one.” He had on jeans and an old sweatshirt and a mask and he sat so still kids big and small thought he was a mannequin. When they came up onto the porch, he would say “boo” and they would scream. His fame must have spread over the years, because by the last year he was home for Halloween middle-schoolers would stand on the sidewalk and toss bits of candy at him to see if he moved. “Do you think he’s real? I’m afraid he might jump at us. I don’t want to be scared.”
For some parents, it’s Christmas that brings on bouts of nostalgia. Others, Thanksgiving. For me, it’s Halloween. All those kids and masks. I can almost imagine my children are in the costumed group I see coming up the walkway. Maybe one of the little ones will sit on the steps and eat the Snickers bar I give him. Maybe an older one will rest on the bench and be so still no one can tell if he is real.
I’ve been through this before. I have older kids who are long gone. But Meg’s and mine, Chris and Nick, are still in the process of leaving. Just out of or just finishing college, on their own but not quite settled in places they are ready to call their new homes. They will both be here for Christmas. I made up their beds the other day and thought about their being back in them, although it’s not quite the same when I don’t tuck them in but the other way around.
We have a double bed that my grandfather made for my grandmother in 1920 as a wedding present. It will make a nice (and badly needed) guest bed in the room the boys always shared. There aren’t that many more times they will both be visiting at the same time, so we’re taking the first halting steps toward dismantling the shrine to their childhood. I put up my grandfather’s double bed yesterday, but I left one of the twin beds set up so that the son who loses the coin toss for the bigger bed will still have a place to sleep.
The new bed looks nice in the room. The smaller twin bed is up against the wall at the foot of the new bed, like something for a footman for traveling royalty. It has the red comforter the boys used for many years and both of the red shams, so it looks plush and cozy. I put away everything last night and turned out the light, but as I passed the room this morning I stopped to look in again at that twin bed with the red comforter. I flicked on the light with the giddy anticipation of those middle-schoolers tossing candy at my mannequin son, afraid he would pop up, afraid he would not.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Taking Sides

Why do we take sides? Friend or foe. Most issues aren’t black or white, but when we line up on one side or the other, often we make them that way. Views harden, Nuance vanishes.

Most of us know we have gaps in our knowledge. To really understand many of the complex subjects debated today, you have to dig into the data. When I ask my son Chris, an economist, what he thinks about some new theory in his field, frequently his answer is “I’d have to see the underlying research.”
Whether we’re talking about climate change or tax policy, most of the time we don’t see the underlying research. Even when we do, even when we understand it, the deeper we look the more likely we are to realize just how little we know.
I love the line from the musical “Wicked” where the Wizard explains how history is written by the victors, so that with a little messaging a brutal conquest becomes a liberation: “There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.”
I suspect there’s a Darwinian root here. Our ancestors who followed strong leaders had the support of the group and were more likely than loners to survive. For their parts, would-be leaders tend to exude moral certainty. Except in ancient Greece, it’s hard to attract a crowd with the Socratic method.
We herd together for survival. For our own good. But what if it’s not for our own good? What if we’re being led astray? How do we know which leaders to follow?
I have a friend who sends me global warming pieces by a writer who is certain that man is not the cause of the problem. I looked up the author. His climate credentials are so thin that I don’t pay any attention to him. Every once in a while I send my friend an article from The New York Times on some subject we are kicking back and forth. The last time I did this, he replied that he feels the same way about the credibility of the Times as I do about that of his climate writer. Fair enough.
But is it?
It makes a difference to whom we listen. We may be drawn to those who are saying what we want to hear, but it is the advice of independent experts that we should prefer. The problem is that people claiming to be experts are a dime a dozen. Some are. Many aren’t. How do we tell the difference?
Sorting out the prophets from the profiteers can be a challenge. When we see a street-corner preacher, we know the source of his conviction. But we may not know that a scientist’s research, which we trust to be objective, is influenced by the industry that financed him. The doctors in the 1950s who were paid by the tobacco industry to reassure us that smoking was perfectly safe betrayed the trust we instinctively place in professionals. Today it might be “climate deniers.” Or “clean coal” advocates. Follow the money, the old saying goes. That’s still a pretty good maxim.
These days, so many are directly or indirectly paid to expound their views that we would do well, I think, to view with skepticism positions that are thrust at us: political ads; talk radio; economic or scientific conclusions at odds with the preponderance of thought in the field.
We need to ask ourselves: Why is this person telling me this? What’s in it for her? If the answer seems to be “nothing,” and if her credentials seem genuine, she’s worth listening too. If not, ask yourself that clich├ęd question: Would you buy a used car from this person?

Even unbiased experts don’t always agree, of course. Sometimes no one knows the answer for sure. But if we’re lining up with a real authority, someone genuinely seeking the truth on the matter at hand, even if there’s a crowd on the other side, chances are that rather than hurling stones across the divide of our disagreement we are going to slowly come together, as our expert and theirs cast about for new ground on which we all can stand.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The (New) Road to Serfdom

I never thought I’d say this: I miss Congress. I miss lawmaking. I even miss the slop trough. It was smelly, but it fed a lot of pigs and kept them in the pigpen. Now a bunch of them have gone feral. They’ve grown tusks and are running wild. The other pigs are afraid to move.

The farmer has noticed. He doesn’t want to go near the pigpen either. He’s giving more attention to the other animals. The pigs are so busy terrorizing one another, or being terrorized, they don’t seem to notice that the farmer has gotten tight with the cows and horses. Wait, listen… Is that the pork slaughterhouse truck I hear coming?
Michael Lynch, a philosophy professor, wrote in yesterday’s New York Times that the gridlock in Congress is fraying the democratic fibers of our government. As Congress becomes less effective at managing government, the executive branch will fill the void. People may even applaud this at first, seeking action over political chaos and stasis. This is how the military in Egypt justified its recent overthrow of democratically elected President Morsi.
Friedrich Hayek warned that socialism, which concentrates power in the state, initially for the common good, leads to totalitarianism; and ultimately, Hayek maintained, totalitarian governments defend their rights and privileges at the expense of the people.
There are many roads to autocrats: Communism (Stalin and Mao). Military might (Egypt, Syria, much of Africa). Mass bribery of the upper class (Saudi Arabia, the Old-World monarchies). Now perhaps we will offer up a new path: voluntary abandonment of a centuries-old democracy.
By and large I believe government can be a force for good in a society. I have no illusions, however, about the character of humans. For the most part, we are like water: we flow downhill and seek out any crack or crevice. We are equally capable of high ideals and low behavior. Our Constitution enshrines our lofty ideals. It is the job of Congress to protect those ideals (and us) from our baser instincts.

Even the nuttiest members of today’s Congress were elected by their fellow citizens. Congress is the vehicle through which we, as a large and diverse citizenry, shape our government. If we lose that ability, or sit by insensibly while it is abdicated by the men and women we elected to exercise it for us, we will be reduced to turning out for presidential elections every four years to elect our monarch. Of course those presidential elections will be free and fair. Just ask those who voted for Saddam Hussein in his day. Or, for that matter, Vladimir Putin last year.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Surprise, Honey...

I took out the trash. Scrubbed the skillet. Left you a full pot of hot water when I heard you get up and knew you would be coming down to make your coffee.

I courted her with champagne and flowers. She brings me tulips and little forbidden tarts. She gave me a car for my birthday once, but that was years ago. Now she moves the family car when it’s behind my little two-seater and she knows I’m thinking it might be a good night for us to sit in the Rodin Sculpture Garden at Stanford with thermoses that look like they are filled with coffee. I wax her red 1970 convertible. Just because I like the way she looks in it, top down, sunglasses. She gets spontaneous marriage proposals from men in SUVs when she drives it. My wax jobs are my bragging rights.
I was listening to Click and Clack on “Car Talk” the other day. They were talking to a woman whose husband had searched high and low for a 1963 Dodge Dart (pushbutton automatic) and surprised her with it. It brought tears to her eyes. One of the Car Talk guys said that was the best gift ever, one that he assumed won her undying gratitude. The other said he had read in “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” (or a book like it) that men think that way---that a big, showy gift is good for many good-dead credits---but that women view each gift as one credit. Take out the trash (which he said brought his wife to tears when he did it), one credit. New car, one credit.

I doubt that, but I do know now that the best gifts are the little, every-day ones. Not best best, but best for keeping love alive. You can’t buy each other new cars every day. Or even flowers and champagne (although I tried that for almost a year before I landed her). But you can put a dish of apple slices or a cup of tea on her desk while she’s working. You can pat the back of his hand while you’re reading together and say, I think you’re wonderful.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Forever Ours

Meg and I have these two friends in Santa Barbara who, just by being their irrepressible selves, got me thinking about stories and history and the past fading like an old photograph. They are old in years and experience, but not in attitude or outlook. We go to breakfast at the beach with them every time we are in town. We always have the same thing to eat.

One of them is an early riser. The other gets up much earlier than he does normally to come to breakfast with us. We’re his eight o’clock class, but it is he who is the professor and we the students.
Our friends are men of the arts. One was a publisher in New York. The other is a writer (books, movies, television) and raconteur. He is Felix to the other’s Oscar. They are both perfect gentlemen. Without fail they ask about us and our children. They remember all our interests and endeavors.
But when the formalities of civility are complete, the sport begins. If there were an Olympic event for competitive storytelling, they would both be multiple gold medalists. They know (or knew, or knew of) everyone in the arts in America and Europe for, as best I can tell, about the last hundred years.
One will be discussing and old film or Broadway show and the other will jump in with “Not many realize that the producer of that show also was the man who wrote Guys and Dolls.” Or, “You know, of course, that actress was from Bulgaria, where she was married to a count who was a perfect beast. When she left him, she took nothing but her suitcase.”
It’s entertaining hearing them one-up one another, but also a little sad. They are the last men I know who know these things. Their knowledge will not be lost to humanity when they die (there are archives and libraries, and Google, of course), but it will be lost to me. The life of it. The spontaneity. The savoir-faire.

We sit at a table on the edge of the sand looking out at the ocean as we eat banana-wheat-germ pancakes made by Francisco, the cook who now owns the beach grill where he started as a busboy thirty years ago, and these men carry on a lively banter that Meg and I enjoy the way one does watching children on the playground, all that joy and laughter. I told them when we were last together that I should be recording their exchanges for posterity. What I think I meant was that I should try to stop time, with the gulls circling over the sand and the beach crowd ambling by on the walkway as our friends tell their stories and make me feel that their time, and mine, will never be old.