Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Downton Days

I admit it: I love Lady Mary. And Mrs. Patmore. And Daisy. And Bates. Let’s see, that’s three to one in favor of downstairs. I don’t think I have a soft spot for servants, but the characters who appeal to me seem to be the ones with problems ranked lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I worry more about the struggle to make a living than the quandary over which gown to wear to the ball.

As entertaining as it is, watching Downton Abbey is beginning to annoy me; or perhaps I should say discourage me. Why are we so fascinated with the aristocracy? Why do we care about them at all? Sure, they’re people; they have problems like we all do. Sort of. It’s too bad for Lady Edith that she went from ugly duckling to pregnant pariah without ever passing through the swan stage. But she’s not going to have to work two jobs or queue up for food stamps to get by as a single mother. She’ll board the wee bairn on the estate and go back to afternoon tea served by Carson and that conniving Thomas we all love to hate.

There have always been classes. Some societies—notably Britain and India—formalized them. They didn’t just tolerate them, they maintained that one person’s dominion over another was a natural right. It is less popular these days to codify superiority, but as part of the human condition class is sticky. Even when nations have violently thrown off the shackles of caste—as in Bolshevik Russia and Red China—the ensuing totalitarianism ushered in not an egalitarian utopia but rather a concentration of power and privilege on a lofty peak overlooking a thickening fog of paucity and suffering. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about a capitalist “democracy” like ours is that at least there is no dictator.

It seems odd to me, if perhaps historically inevitable, that a country like the United States, which was founded by hearty individualists breaking free of their feudal fates, has come to look more like nineteenth-century England’s realm of landed gentry than a wide-open new world of prairie schooners and gold rushes. We’ve run out of easily accessible opportunity—land and natural resources—and we are stratifying. Our economic institutions (and, through them, our political structures) are becoming the domain of a plutocracy that is consolidating power and building deregulated walls and untaxed moats to defend it.

I’m not foolish enough to wish for Marxism. I’ve read what Stalin did in Russia. I saw the newspaper accounts of Mao’s purge of China’s intellectuals in his cultural revolution. But still it pains me to see Bates putting on Lord Grantham’s cufflinks. It doesn’t seem right that one group should be subordinate to another. I know how it happens; I understand the driving economic and cultural forces behind it, the apparent inevitability of our tendency to rank ourselves (and our universities) one against the other, but it doesn’t seem right.

Utopia germinates in revolution but always seems to end up being bastardized by political or economic bullies. I suppose I think that, among large pluralistic cultures, the United States still offers the best hope for us to live together in comparative equality. There’s no getting around the privilege of money, but I hope we can avoid the snobbish entitlement that baronies and duchies carried with them in the run-up to Downton Abbey, when a lady of the manor falling for a chauffeur was an epic scandal.

There is an insulation that goes with economic privilege that dehumanizes those of lower classes. They become takers and parasites. Mitt Romney’s forty seven percent. Unworthy even to participate in governance, at least by the reckoning of the rich venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who recently proposed that only the rich should vote. When we look upon one another that way, utopia seems a long way off.

There have always been rich snobs, and will ever be. What I fear now, as we return politically and economically to something like the Gilded Age, is that we are losing sight of the notion that a rich snob is not a good thing to be.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Habit of Achievement

Two of my grandchildren (I know, it's shocking to me too) are competitive swimmers. They swam this past weekend in the Georgia State Championships and did well. I was talking to my son Grant, their dad, and saying how great it was, and he said it was nothing compared to the news that same day from one of my other sons about his grad school plans. Grant was just being generous, and modest, but it struck me that what he said wasn’t true. What his little swimmers were doing in that noisy pool, among the excitement and commotion of parents and peers, was as important as anything they would ever do. They were laying a cornerstone in the foundation of character: the habit of achievement.

The next day I was talking to my oldest son, whose children are budding musicians, one a pianist the other a violinist. He said his daughter’s violin teacher has a patient way of emphasizing a step-by-step approach. It made me think of something a recent Olympic gold medalists (Mikella Shiffrin, as I recall) said about her approach to slalom racing: she focuses on the process, each movement, step and turn. The cumulative result takes care of itself.

I read a piece in The New York Times recently that, in the old debate over nature vs. nurture, came down on the side of nature. Recent studies suggest genes are destiny. Which leaves me with mixed feelings: oh, good, I couldn't have screwed them up too badly by denying them video games and dispensing occasional ranting lectures; vs., what was the point of all that diligent parenting, anyway?

Well, it was fun. That's one thing. I know that because I miss them. And when they achieve something cool, I, like presidents and governors, always give myself a lot of credit, even though I know I don't deserve it. I know this because I never even did their homework for them. But now I've come up with something to hang onto, something that, now that I consider it, I wish I had thought more about before: my pack-mule role in helping my children develop.

Achievement is up to the child, but enabling and facilitating a habit of achievement is something a parent can do. It's something we do out of love and perhaps some kind of instinct, like a mama lion teaching her cub to hunt for food. We get up early to take them to swim practice; we hang around soccer fields and chess tournaments; we go to their plays and concerts; we remind them to practice; we tell them not to give up when they get discouraged. We help them get started, and we help them persevere. Sometimes it takes a while for them to find the thing that lights their fire, but we keep taking them back to the metaphorical activity store. We rent pianos and saxophones, we buy balls and rackets of all types, we hire coaches and senseis.

Do you remember the feeling of realizing for the first time that you were good at something? Anything. It doesn't matter. Sports. Spelling bees. Magic tricks. Do you remember how empowering it was? Hey, I can do something, and do it well. It makes you proud. It makes you confident. It makes you willing to try other things. It makes you willing to take risks.

DNA may be the car, but it needs a driver. It's not going to go far with one who is too cautious, too unconfident. And it's likely to crash with one who lurches from point to point without mastering driving skills along the way. That's what achievements are: driving skills. Although, I kind of hate to think of it that way when I remember my moments terror as I taught them actual driving skills and tromped on the brake that did not exist on the passenger side of the car.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Why Learn?

My grandfather was one of the smartest men I ever knew. He was an academic with a photographic memory. He lived to be ninety eight, and I remember thinking when he died that his death was a waste of a lot of knowledge and wisdom. My father was a doctor. He was a restless man and a restless learner. He did the first intrauterine fetal transfusion in the South, to save babies whose blood cells were being attached by their mother’s antibodies. He died at fifty. All his skill in saving babies, all he had learned about a possible cure, went with him.

So it goes. Collectively, we pass along our knowledge, but individually each one of us more or less has to start over. We are born clean slates, waiting to be marked on. For a while, it is others who draw our lines, but it isn't long before we take over the effort ourselves. At that point, our life-long quest for things we want to know begins.

We build skills. We build understanding and reasoning. We go out into the world and use what we have learned to make money, make love, make art, make bridges and mobile apps. In our prime, we are machine learners, applying our CPUs to the task of learning what we need to know to do what we want to do; doing it, learning more, refining our skills, learning still more, becoming accomplished.

At some point we slow down. We make enough money. We tire of a passion and get antsy for change. We move on. We learn again. We do again, or maybe we just keep learning, not altogether certain what to do with the knowledge we are gaining, yet still as thirsty for it as one too long in a wasteland.

I found a new science feed for Flipboard, and you would have thought I discovered electricity. I'm not going to be a scientist—I suppose I have to finally admit that—but wow, is there ever a lot of cool stuff out there. The great thing about being a writer is that I can rationalize that anything I learn might be useful to my writing. I'm no longer limited in time or interest to “useful knowledge,” like the corporate tax and securities laws I had to study back in the day. Anything I want to know now, however arcane, is fair game.

Of course, I made better use of my narrower field of inquiry when I was a lawyer. Everything I learned had a purpose. I was like a giant processing machine: laws and regulations in the hopper, loopholes and evasions in the output tray. It was obvious to me why I was learning then. But why now?

I don't know the answer to that. This isn't one of those essays with an answer. The question is more or less its own answer I suppose. Or is that just the lawyer in me peeking out, offering a clever but meaningless aphorism?

I seem to need to learn in the same way I need to exercise. In both cases, I feel crappy if I don't. In both, the effort is exhilarating and frustrating. Too late to be a Nobel scientist. Too late for the Olympics. But still I love the effort. I even like the frustration. When I can't run as far as I want to, it just makes me want to try harder. When I see a policy issue that I think is getting mangled, it makes me want to write an essay. I'm not racing anyone but myself at this point, but still I put in the miles.

We're a curious lot, we humans. Both figuratively and literally. We're capable of great kindness and cruelty, great art and ugliness, great discovery and, now and then, especially when we don’t like what we hear, stubborn ignorance. It is our curiosity, though, that has gotten us where we are. It propels us. It is our heart. It keeps pumping until we die. And the parts of us we pass along to our children pump in them, fueling the unbroken quest that is our humanity.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hooking Up the Freight Trains

Meg and I have these friends in Santa Barbara who are like Russian nesting dolls: you keep opening them up and finding more surprises inside. Melodie is a successful mystery writer, but in another life she was a dazzling actress. She even starred with my hero (as a cowboy, not a politico) Clint Eastwood. He was a little stiff, she said (no doubt struck speechless by her beauty); she told her husband, Bones, she didn’t think Clint would make it as an actor.

Bones is a drummer for occasional gigs in Santa Barbara, but in those days he was a renowned music producer. At their house his gold records are hung inconspicuously in a hallway, but his Grammy for producing the Fifth Dimension’s “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” is in the living room. He said it isn’t the original Grammy; that one was made of pot metal that fell apart, so they replaced it for him. It’s not that big, about the size of a water pitcher, but it is stunning. I asked him to tell me the story of how the song was made.
He was working with the Fifth Dimension at the time, and they told him they wanted to record “The Age of Aquarius,” from the rock opera “Hair.” He went to see the show, but when he heard “Aquarius” his reaction was that it was only half a song. He didn’t see how it could work. The play went on, and after a while a guy swings out over the audience on a rope (probably naked, like most of the cast was), singing the opening of “Failures of the Flesh,” which ended with the repeating chorus of “Let the Sunshine In.”
That chorus stuck with him, and after the show he got the idea to make it the missing second half of “Aquarius.” How can you fade them together? someone asked. “I’m not going to do that,” he said. “I’m going to hook them up like freight trains.”
They recorded in several cities, including Las Vegas, where the Fifth Dimension was opening for Frank Sinatra. The studio was near the train tracks, and their session was interrupted by an actual freight train. While they waited for it to pass, singer Billy Davis Jr. started riffing over “Let The Sunshine In.” “Save that,” Bones told him. “We’ll add it in later.” And he did.
The record company, when they heard the song, said, “This is going to be number one.” Bones told them he’d been around long enough to not make that kind of prediction. He said he just did his best on each song and whatever happened happened.
The song was Billboard’s number one for six weeks, won a Grammy for Song of the year and is, by Billboard’s reckoning, the 57th greatest song of all time.
I love this story because of its glimpse into the craft, creativity and serendipity behind artistic success. “Hair” was a transformative musical. The Fifth Dimension was a wonderful group. Bones married them for the ages. “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” defines the era of my wannabe-but-too-conventional-to-take-a-chance bohemian youth.
We had dinner with Melodie and Bones that night. Melodie had offered beef stew or coq au vin. We said the chicken sounded great, but that we’re a tad allergic to tomatoes. The dish was delicious, but Melodie teased us all night about how lame it was without tomatoes. When I wrote her afterwards to thank her for a lovely evening, and to ask if Bones would mind if I posted the photo I had taken of his Grammy, she said he would consent “only if you put a tomato in the horn.”

And so I did. Who am I to argue with creative genius? As much as his talent, I admire Bones’s advice for making art: Do your best every time and whatever happens happens.