Monday, December 7, 2015

Playing Against Type

—Jamestown, VA. Winter, 1609. The Starving Winter. 

I have built a sound cabin of logs I cut while the weather was fair, daubed with clay and straw. We have a fire pit in the corner, with a ventilation hole. I can’t call it a fireplace, but it suffices. We are adequately warm and dry, but we, like all our neighbors, have little food. Daily I tramp through the woods and try to snare a hare or partridge. The game is hunted out nearby, though, and I dare not wander too far lest I fall prey to savages and leave my family defenseless. Lately, I have taken to hunting at night so that I can safely range farther. I sit in a snowbank staring into the darkness, my senses as sharp as the cold, and wait.

—Belle Meade Country Club, Nashville TN. 1959. The Summer of White Privilege.

I have played golf almost every day. I am getting better, but not fast enough. To impress my father with my improvement, I sometimes kick a ball out of a bad lie or concede myself a putt that is too long for that, even among boys. For lunch I have round chicken sandwiches on white bread with no crust, served by Pewee or Shorty or one of the other waiters at the club who are at this stage somewhere between my servants and my friends. It is not enough, though, this ceaseless repetition. Golf is challenging, but not a challenge. My survival will not depend on it. I’ve gotten a paper route, getting up at 4:30 to deliver the morning paper. In the afternoons, I’ve started cutting yards. I’m making money. Not my father’s money. I don’t sign a ticket at the club on his account for it. I’m saving for a car, one I will pick out myself.

My ancestors survived that Starving Winter, or ones very like it. I survived—if you will forgive the use of the word in this context—the Summers of White Privilege. The restless need to be doing something to forge ahead is deep in my DNA. When I’m not honoring its imperative, I get uncomfortable. Like I am now. Like I have been for years.

From the days of that first paper route, I loved to work. I loved the independence, the sense of self worth, bestowed by both the money I earned and by the force-field of energy and purpose that was the work itself. I was never happier than when riding through the rain on my bike tossing newspapers onto dry porches with the precision of a big-league baseball pitcher. I was never happier than when doing five deals at once as lawyer, sleepless and exhilarated to be lancing legal judgements through storms of conflict over money and power.

Not everyone has been as happy with my DNA. I was driven. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty if you got in my way. I didn’t spend enough time with my family. No, that’s an understatement.

Then a strange thing happened. I stopped all that restless charging and began writing. I kept it up because I liked the calmer me. I liked being with my children. I nodded to my DNA by making pancakes and after-school snacks, coaching soccer, running a chess club. But that crop of kids moved on. (They all do, let me just warn you.) 

And now, here I am, the new calmer me, writing away, ever hopeful. It’s a better life that daubing the chinks in the cabin with clay and straw as the snow piles up and the children cry for food, but there is an unease to all its ease. Something in me stirs. It is restless. It urges me to do something. I don’t think it cares what, just something, As long as the doing is all consuming. As long as I’m all in.

Does that mean I’m not all in on writing? I think it must. I like it. I am a better man for it. I understand myself better, the world better. But it is a faintly painful kind of better. I don’t think I’m happier. Just better.

I wonder sometimes if my DNA will ever leave me alone. Will it evolve within me (if such a thing is possible) in time for me to be both better and happier. Will it change at all? To be more evolutionarily specific, I wonder what I have passed along. The compulsion to survive, almost certainly. But also the urge to create? There is nothing I would like more than to read this blog by my children or grandchildren when they are my age. To learn how they will feel then. About the world. About themselves.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Remember Me

A pickup truck pulled up in front of the sidewalk table where John was peeling the foil off a burrito as thick as his shoe. The boy who got to with his father had a thatch of dark hair that looked like it had been trimmed with a weed-whacker. He was about five, all arms and legs, the way boys are when they begin to stretch out. He moved cautiously, though, with none of the freewheeling energy that usually comes with that transition from toddler to colt.

At a table near John the boy sat in a chair with a broken weld, and when he began kicking his feet back and forth the chair wobbled like it might collapse under him. John held up one hand to warn him to be careful, but the boy didn’t notice, or didn’t understand. His dad gave John a puzzled, slightly hostile look. John nodded genially—No worries, I’m not some pervert—but this only seemed to irritate the man further. He clamped his hand on the boy’s leg and told him to quit fidgeting. He didn’t say it in a nice way, like “Be careful, son,” but with a harshness that had the dead tone of habit.

John thought: No, why don’t you quit talking to your son that way.

The boy’s quesadilla arrived with two ice-cream scoops of guacamole and sour cream on top. He lifted one side tentatively, as if looking for a prize underneath. The father took another pull on his beer and told him to quit playing with his food. John could see the disaster coming. He made a little involuntary motion with his hand as if to reach out to the boy, but he couldn’t do anything to stop the sour cream and guacamole from plopping into the boy’s lap. 

They were both so still, the man staring obliviously into the street, the boy looking at his lap; it felt like they were controlling John’s breathing. He scooted his chair back and stood up; he should just pay his bill and leave.

“Oh, hell, son,” the man said when he saw what had happened. 

There was a quaver in his voice. Maybe John had misjudged him. Perhaps his wife had left him and he had brought the boy here to tell him his mother was gone. He was drinking to get up the courage.

John was still standing, staring at them stupidly. The man looked over and said, “Piss off.”

“Sorry,” John said.

The boy was watching him, imploring him, he imagined: Don’t mess with my dad, I’ll be all right.

“Come on,” the man said. He grabbed his son by the forearm and jerked him out of his chair.

The boy resisted. “I want to eat.”

As they came toward him, John stepped into their path.

“I told you to piss off,” the man said. 

His freckled cheeks and thick neck darkened. A long strand of ginger comb-over fell across one eye. The boy was practically swinging by his arm.

John said: “Why not let the boy finish his food?”

Monday, November 23, 2015

You've Got to Know When to Hold 'Em

Remember that old Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler"? It was running through my head this morning as I was thinking about my children, who are all grown up, all launched. But as anyone who has lived past thirty knows, there's not one launch in life, but many. A pogo stick might be a better analogy than a rocket.

Here’s the shocking truth I offer all parents of young children: when they grow up, they’ll be the same as they are now. One thing will lead to another. The difference is that you won’t be there to guide them.

I remember as clearly as if they were still towheads each passage of each of my children: first lost tooth, first stitches, first misdemeanor, first cap and gown. Those early years of parenting are so close, so intense, it’s hard to back off when the time comes. My kids have generously helped me by moving away. It’s a good strategy on their parts. Out of sight, out of nag.

Yet, still there are times when I feel like that father I used to be, kissing a hurt, wiping away a tear. Children heal faster than adults. Maybe that means adults need even more care when they take a tumble, not less. But how to deliver it is complicated; the old routines aren’t available.There’s no hot chocolate, no cozy bed to tuck into, no familiar picture book to read out loud. Where’s Spot? Is he behind the clock?

You want to do more for them than you would for a friend—more than a pat on the shoulder and a “You’ll be fine”—but children never really get over the reflex to break free of parental control, so well-meant counsel can go bad pretty easily, and then you’re left feeling like a failure as a parent and having even less idea about what your child is going through. 

I suppose adult children aren’t that different than toddlers. They want love and approval, without strings. That’s easy when they’re very young, when there’s no conflict between approval and the instinct to keep them safe. If a five-year-old resents being told he can't do something dangerous, he forgets about it in an instant and launches into some other only slightly less dangerous activity. 

A grown child doesn’t want to be told not to play in traffic, though. Like a toddler, an adult child doesn’t want to be told what to do at all. So, as when they were young and too high on the monkey bars, you bite your tongue, maybe look the other way, and cross your fingers.

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to scold ‘em,
Know when to walk away,
Know when you’re done.

You never count yourself finished,
When they’re making it on their own,
There’ll be time enough for finished,
When your race is run.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bringing Home the Beds

Meg and I are selling a vacation home that we bought when our sons were young. We spent many happy summers there wth them and, after they went off to college and got too busy for summers with Mom and Dad, we went for weeks at a time throughout the year. I thought that without the boys I wouldn’t like going there, but we loved it: walks on the beach with our golden retriever, who loved that beach better than anything, candlelit dinners on the patio, long soaks in the spa under the stars. And for some reason we both wrote well there. Maybe it was the absence of the distractions of everyday life. So we kept the house and rented it to others when we weren’t there to make it affordable. Recently, the city banned vacation rentals and our beloved old dog died, and now, with no boys, no dog and no income, it’s time to move on.

As part of fixing up the house for renters, we took out a double bed my grandfather made a hundred years ago as a wedding gift to his bride and replaced it with a modern queen bed. We put my grandfather’s bed in the bedroom in Palo Alto that the boys shared growing up, thinking it would be nice as a guest room. But when they both come home for a visit, we had to set up another bed for one of them, one of the kids beds that was part of a bedroom playground set. And with my grandfather’s bed in there, it didn’t look like their bedroom anymore. It was disturbing, really, for a sentimental slob like me.

In their room at our beach house, we had two lovely camp beds made by a local furniture maker as prototypes for a summer camp. They are simple, handsome beds for boy or man, so we are bringing them home to our sons' old room in Palo Alto and putting my grandfather’s bed in the attic. If we have guests who are also lovers, they can push them together.

I am unreasonably happy about this. I imagine it as kind of an aesthetic blending of their bedrooms in the two houses, the best of each, the best of my memories of the times when I tucked them in, read to them, checked to see if they were sneaking time on the Game Boys after bedtime, picked up after them, washed their sheets, opened the windows to let in fresh air.

They won’t be there in those beds, or not that often anyway, but my memories of them will be. I don’t want to sound too maudlin; they’re not dead, just off in their lives, for which I couldn’t be happier. Just like my three older children. Just like Meg and me. But I was a father to young children for so long that it’s an old sweater I still like to pull out of the closet when I feel a chill. It’s worn and ratty, and I don’t wear it often, but it still makes me feel warm and happy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Only Human

Meg and I were walking on the beach and came upon a young seabird in distress. He was staggering around and didn’t seem to be able to use his wings. We called a local wildlife rescue line and left a message. Later that evening, June called us back. It was probably a young grebe, she said. They aren't meant to walk on the beach; they’re water birds. If he was on the beach, he was probably in distress.

June called Jim who called me and asked for more precise directions to where we had seen the bird. He said he would go out and try to rescue it when he got off work at eleven. June had given me her home number and Jim gave me his cell phone, for next time. They also told me where in the future we could take birds in distress.

Meg and I walked that same beach the next day and didn’t see the bird, so here’s hoping Jim helped him. Thanks, Jim. Thanks, June.

Jim and June are amazing, but not extraordinary. We humans do this kind of thing all the time. We rescue birds and whales and sea otters. On other days we (presumably not the exact same people) behead infidels or shoot at a car that has cut us off on the road and kill the toddler passenger.

It’s enough to make you ask: Who are we? Are we Jim and June or ISIS and road-rager?

Both, is the obvious answer. But why? Why aren't we one or the other, preferably the nicer one? How can both our kindness and our anger be so intense?

Evolution, you say. As a species we needed both to survive. I suppose. But I don’t think anyone is going to attack June or Jim for helping stranded birds. They don’t need anger to protect themselves. 

We could learn a lesson from them, a prescription for a better life: Walk along a dark beach at eleven at night, after a long day of work, to find a frightened and helpless bird, wrap it in a blanket, keep it warm and feed it, and when it is strong enough let it go.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Waste Not, Want Not

“But this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.”

—David Brooks, writing in the NYT about the governing incompetence of the far right.

“Could confiscation be so unfathomable? And once confiscated, will the government transfer that wealth, or keep it. I think we both know the answer to that........It all starts by assigning too much virtue to the political classes.”

—David Clayton (my brother), worrying about the long (redistributionist) arm of the left.

It’s official. We’re polarized. A good thing in sunglasses. Not so much in politics.

Compromise is a thing of the days of the arm-twisting of Lyndon Johnson and the Irish bonhomie of Ronald Regan and Tip O’Neill. No more. Shut her down.

The source of our current sorry state has been probed ad nauseam. But it’s not complicated: we don’t trust each other. The left thinks the right is a bunch of selfish libertarians who are happy to play Hunger Games. The right thinks the left is a bunch of lazy takers who want to feed out of the public trough.

Both sides have their points.

The problem with trying to compromise in this overheated and moralizing environment is that it’s just not gong to happen. Not on the issues before us: health care, welfare, taxes. The battle lines are drawn. No one is coming out of their foxholes.

What is needed is compromise of a different kind: A new platform for going forward. A new OS, to use a tech analogy. The old code of government bureaucracy is corrupted. We need to start over. 

Remember the ACA website? So well intentioned, so badly designed. The whole thing had to be thrown out and re-coded by people who knew what they were doing. Now it works great.

The right doesn’t trust the government with their money. They’ve got a point. The government is hugely inefficient and not a little corrupt.

But the left doesn’t have any way to achieve its redistributionist agenda except through the taxation and spending power of government.


There’s an easy way out of this. Easy conceptually, anyway. Make the government more accountable, transparent and efficient. 

That would mean a lot of changes, a lot of upending of entrenched bureaucratic interests. Government is our Augean Stable. 

Could we clean it up? I think so. We brought in the tech wiz kids from Silicon Valley to fix the ACA website. Why not do something like that for the whole government? The secret to accountability, transparency and efficiency is data. We have to know what’s going on to monitor it and make it more efficient (and less corrupt). That sounds like something for the same folks who fixed the ACA site. Set up a dashboard, monitor the systems, report what’s happening, repeat.

We spent a lot of money fixing the ACA website. It was worth it. We would have to spend many times that to achieve the broader objective of streamlining the entire government and making it more transparent and accountable. But that would be worth it too.

So I say this to my fellow progressives, to Democrats of all stripes. Let’s open up the books. Let’s let everyone (including ourselves) see what we’re doing with their money. In something like real time. Without bookkeeping mumbo jumbo or hocus pocus.

Maybe then we could earn the trust we must have if ever we hope to come together on the great issues facing us. I don’t think many on the far right are cruel. I don’t think they want to see people go without enough food or education. They just don’t trust us to spend their money wisely.

Let’s do something to earn that trust. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Too Wise

That’s not possible, right? To be too wise.

Apparently it is.

I read a comparison recently of the differing approaches of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Kerry rushes in where Obama is, if not afraid, reluctant to tread. The president is comfortable assessing a situation as one that U.S. intervention would only make worse. Kerry sees a problem and attacks it with the good-old American bias—some would say hubris—to engineer a solution.

That same day I read another piece about why homo sapiens are the only surviving species of the genus Homo. There were once several human-like species, now there is only us. The last to survive, Neanderthals, were brilliant at what they did, which was mainly killing big game with efficient stone weapons. They had an ax, it worked, and they stuck with it. But as the climate changed, and the forrest where they hunted thinned, they needed different weapons for smaller game. They didn’t develop them, and you know the rest of the story.

Our homo sapien ancestors constantly tinkered, though. Even when they had a weapon that worked, they developed others. They experimented. They innovated. And they were the first to communicate through symbolic art. This led to the ability to pass along knowledge broadly and enhanced the formation of social networks. Those are apparently the big three of our success as a species: innovation, art and social networks. (Page, Rodin and Zuckerberg) 

We’re restless. We don’t settle for the status quo. We’re constantly looking for something better. Sometimes it gets us in trouble (examples to numerous to enumerate), but apparently it is the secret to our survival. So you have to give it some respect. If you like survival.

Temperamentally, I’m a mix of Barack Obama and John Kerry. I don’t like mucking about in situations I don’t think I can influence, but when it comes to matters close to home—family, career, neighbors in distress—I have to do something. I can’t stand by and say it’s out of my hands. Maybe it is, but I never think so. I try to do something. I have to. It’s just the way I’m wired. Ask any of my grown children.

I don’t think about what I might be able to do about Syria. Too big and too remote for me to have an impact. But it’s the job of our president and our secretary of state to do so. I think I agree intellectually with the president that what is needed over there is about a thousand years of their learning to live together in pluralistic societies. But if I were in John Kerry’s job, I’d be wading in diplomatically, as he is, trying to get them there faster.

The Neanderthal experience offers the cautionary note, of course. They had a big ax and that’s all they used. In the long run, that didn’t work out so well for them. We have a big ax too, but it would be good to develop other tools for situations like Syria. That is, if we want to survive.

Monday, September 14, 2015

One Gun at a Time

All along the sidewalk on that bright California morning armed men were gathering. They carried pistols and rifles and shotguns. I don’t mind telling you they made me nervous. Some of them looked like they were just stopping to chat with friends on their way to knocking off a convenience store. I imagined I saw Charlie Manson.

There were police on the grassy lawn between the sidewalk and a government building. They were there to keep an eye on the crowd, but they were also there as buyers. The East Palo Alto Police Department was buying guns for a hundred bucks each, no questions asked, and from all over sellers were lining up.

I was there with my sweet little Smith & Wesson twenty gauge. In its case. Trigger lock in place. Barrel oiled from the last loving cleaning I’d given it years ago. I hadn’t shot it for more than a decade, but still I hated to give it up. My oldest son and I had shot doves and skeet with it. Now he wanted to give it to his son, who had become an avid skeet shooter too.

The line was long and slow, and I felt too restless to say in it. In part because all those guns on a city sidewalk made me nervous, and in part because I hated to let the gun go. I hated to disappoint my son and grandson. I figured if I stayed too long, I might change my mind, so I found a policeman who was monitoring the line and told him I had to go and asked him to please turn in the gun. I told him to donate the hundred dollars to the police auxiliary.

That was three years ago. In the last few months my grandson, who is sixteen, and I have been having an animated discussion about gun control. I didn’t know it until now, but he has become an avid gun rights advocate. I sent him the famous studies done at Harvard by David Hemenway and he sent me studies he had that pretty much said the opposite. Apparently there are enough facts to go around to satisfy every point of view.

The Supreme Court has ruled that we have an individual right to be armed. Never mind if your community suffers with horrific gun violence and you and your fellow local citizens say enough is enough, we’re going to do something to get guns off the streets. The Court will not, in my opinion, stick to its current position. Over time, as it has so many times in the past, it will catch up with the cultural norms in the country and permit some kind of local rule on gun control. That may not happen for a while, though. Racial segregation was approved by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and was the law of the land until it reversed course in Brown v. Board in 1954.

About a third of Americans own guns. Who knows what kinds of guns, or why, but I suspect that many are in the hands of people who use them rarely. It seems funny that our laws so strongly support a right that seems important to so few but harms so many. As I say, ultimately the law will catch up with the culture. America isn’t the Wild West anymore.

Martin Luther King advocated, indeed demanded, non-violent protest against racial discrimination. There were risks to that approach. It got him killed. But it worked. There may be risks to disarming, but I don’t think so. The police protect us. All the studies show that as a practical matter personal weapons are remarkably ineffective for self-defense. You are not more likely to be killed by a gun if you are not armed. Just the opposite, when you take into account accidental death and suicide.

My sensitivity to guns is like an allergy: I was exposed for a long time with no bad reaction, then one day I began breaking out in hives. Maybe its myself I fear, the me of my killing days, the me in others. As much as I love my son, as much as I enjoyed our days in the field together, I couldnt bring myself to send him my gun. There are too many guns, doing too much damage. I can't get rid of them all, but I got rid of one.

Monday, September 7, 2015

216 Avery Street

Meg was at the Decatur (Georgia) Book Festival this weekend. I started looking at Google Maps while we were talking and told her she was only a couple of blocks from 216 Avery Street, the house where my mother grew up. Oh look, I said, there’s Winona Park school. That’s where she went to elementary school. How do you remember that? Meg said. I didn’t. I saw the name on the map and the memory shimmered back into focus. Not just that she went there, but that it was up the hill from her house and when she came home each day, her father, a history professor at Agnes Scott college, just around the next block, was there, usually on his way to play tennis with one of his pals. 

Mom’s father, the historian, lived to be almost one hundred. He wrote a history of our family that is engagingly packed with births and deaths and life passages. I know, for instance, that I am a distant relative of Colonel John Page of Colonial Virginia and of Judge Alfred Foot of New York and his wife, Jane Campbell Foot, for whom my mother’s mother was named. I have silver spoons and whatnot from generations of Foots and Pages and Davidsons.

But I don’t know why my mother, who died almost exactly seven years ago, at age eighty-four, was the way she was. Some things about her don’t need explaining: her kindness, her wisdom, her gentle spirit. But as to others, I just ask myself, man, oh, man, how did she get that way? The trouble is: I didn’t ask her. 

I know so little about what happened when mom got home from those days at Winona Park school. Did her father sit on the porch steps with her and ask about her day before he went off for tennis? Did her mother have a snack waiting for her? I know she played piano beautifully and that when her piano teacher said she was good enough to play in concerts she stopped playing rather than go on stage. Was that the first sign of the anxiety that would plague her all her life? Did her parents know? Did they understand how bad it was, or was it a secret she kept? Did she tell them she was just tired of piano?

Her father moved from Agnes Scott to Vanderbilt University and Mom met my father there. He was charming and mercurial. Maybe bi-polar, I now think. Or perhaps he had narcissistic personality disorder. That’s popular now. All I know is that by the time I was paying attention, he was alternating between acts of extravagant generosity and marathon scoldings. Mom was in the background. Like a frightened villager at the foot of a smoldering, belching volcano. That’s the way I remember her in those days: in the background. Later I came to understand that she was being driven underground to an emotionally subterranean place where she could survive.

And survive she did. My father died at fifty and she lived another thirty-four years without him. Alone. But maybe that was better for her than being with him. Gradually she came back to herself. At the end, she was the mother I remember from my early childhood. Sweet and kind. Still anxious, but not truly afraid.

When you’re a kid, everything is about you. Your parents are something to be dealt with, not understood. When you’re an adult, especially near the end of an aging parent’s life, everything is about them. Day-to-day, that comes down to what you need to do to help them. Which is just another version of everything is about you, I suppose.

I did a lot for Mom near the end of her life. For ten or fifteen years, I was the parent and she was the child. You know how it is with children: you want to understand them, but most of your time is taken up keeping them safe and making sure they eat right. You try to amuse them too. That’s they way it is with aging parents. I kept Mom safe, made sure she had good care when she needed it, and tried to amuse her. I tried hard, but to this day I don’t think I did enough for her. Not a day goes by when I don’t wish I had done more.

And now I’m beginning to realize I have yet another regret. I wish I had tried harder to understand her. Not who she was. I could see that. I could see what needed treating. But why she was that way. Were her parents emotionally aloof to that little girl who went to Winona Park school? Did she never feel good enough for them? I could see my father’s rages, but what did they mean for her? When did they start? Did she, like a battered wife, feel they were her fault?

Some families may tell those stories. The whys, not just the whats. They’re hard, though. Hard to ask. Hard to tell. We fill in the blanks as we need to. In real-time, we do more coping than understanding. But later, after someone is gone, the longing to understand begins. Without the press of everyday events, there is time and space. And there is guilt. Guilt is a great catalyst for the desire to understand. Maybe in the hope that you’ll discover that it wasn’t your fault. That you couldn’t have done more. That nothing you could have done would have made a difference.

I wrote a novel that fictionalizes some of my life. Mom is in there. In the novel I explain her. I fill in the blanks. Now, years after her death, and a year or so after that novel, I have trouble remembering what was true and what I made up. Maybe I didn’t make it up. Maybe it was in there on some subconscious level, waiting for me to reach some place of peace and release that would permit it to show itself. 

I was at dinner with a friend last night who is making arrangements for the last year or so of his mother’s life. He’s a good son. She has been living nearby and he’s been good to her. Now he is considering having her move to be near his sister in another state, where care is much cheaper. He feels conflicted, ambivalent and, already, guilty. He wants what’s best for her, but he can’t help wondering if he doesn’t also long for release from day-to-day responsibility for her. I told him we all go through that. I told him he’s a good man. I told him that whatever he does he’s going to feel guilty about it. When she dies, he’ll wish he’d done more. No matter how much he does, he’ll wish he’d done more.

I’m going to see him this afternoon. We’e going to the driving range to hit some golf balls, something I used to love to do with my father. I’m going to tell him the other thing I’ve realized: when his mom is gone, not only is he going to wish he’d done more for her, he’s going to wish he’d asked her more about herself, about the person who was inside the woman he knew as his mother. 

Maybe there’s still time for him to avoid that second regret. I don’t think so, though. Our parents’ lives are only truly mysteries after it’s too late to ask.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Child That Might Have Been

I read today that Ohio legislators want to ban abortions if the reason is the fetus has Down syndrome.

It’s a life after all.

Well, of course it is. A potential life anyway. But aren't there many potential lives? Potential doesn’t mean egg must have met sperm and snuggled up to the swelling uterine wall. Potential as well can mean boy meets girl. Why are those other potential lives not entitled to consideration?

Why make parents have a child with Down syndrome? Why not let them try again? Why make parents have children of any kind, genetically normal or not, before they are ready? Perhaps before they can afford to pay for the child’s care and education. Why not let them choose another time? Another potential life.

What about the rights of those not-yet-conceived children? If their parents are free to make their own choices, they will likely come into the world healthy and normal, born into a family that wants them and is ready for the emotional and financial responsibility of parenthood.

What about those potential lives? What about the parents who will cherish them when their times come?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Civil War II

This year is the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, a great battle fought over the enslavement of blacks. I wonder when we might have Civil War II (at the voting booth, this time) between women and the men who insist upon controlling their reproductive choices.

As long as Roe v. Wade holds, women with money are like black freemen in 1850, not treated equally to men in all respects--there are still widespread pay gaps and glass ceilings--but at least in control of their bodies. But women who are poor are chained to their biology. They need free contraception because they’re barely scraping by to put food on the table. They need abortions to undo a teen mistake or avoid the poverty of an unwanted child, but they might live in Texas or one of the other states that have passed abortion clinic requirements so onerous that all but a few have shut down. They need reproductive counseling and healthcare from Planned Parenthood, which Republicans are determined to deny them.

Women want affordable contraception and gynecological care. They want to break free of unwanted pregnancies. They want to break free of men’s control of their bodies. They don’t want to be told how to live their sexual lives by old white men in Rome or old white men in Congress. Or by the new Hispanic Pope. Or by Marco Rubio. Hispanic male chauvinism is nothing new. Hispanics in a position to make the rules for women are. Still men, though. Always men.

Why do these men care so much about what women do? Religious doctrine commands it, you say. Okay, fine. If a woman wants to be in that church and chooses not to use contraception, that’s her choice. It’s worth pointing out, though, that not many women in America, even those who think of themselves as good Catholics, for instance, don’t use birth control. They’ve made their peace with their religion.

That choice, though, that personal accommodation of faith and practicality, shouldn’t be theirs to make, according to the men in charge. Women must be saved from their heresy by restricting their access to birth control. It’s the same urge behind keeping the whiskey locked up when there are teenagers in the house. No, it’s more like leaving the whiskey within easy reach and then letting the kid rot in jail when he gets a DUI. Do the crime, do the time.

Maybe it’s Puritan morality that beats in the hearts of men who would deny women a right to choose when they have children, but I don’t think so. I think that’s just their excuse. I think it terrifies them for women to be free agents. To be able to say with whom they have sex, and when. 

Too many old white men (and their Hispanic successors) want to keep their women barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen. They don’t want to lose the power over women that pregnancy affords them. They don’t want to lose the dependence of women on them. Like the plantation owners of the first Civil War, they don’t want to free the unpaid servants who’ve been shackled to them by the economics of having a baby.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Rights We Give Ourselves

I’m having a debate with my sixteen year old grandson about gun rights. He’s pro, I’m con. He’s smart and articulate, and he has spent a lot of time reading about the issue. He has his facts about the correlation between gun ownership rates and the incidence of gun violence, and I have mine. We are at something of a stalemate.

On this, as with so many policy issues, though, the debate isn’t really so much about facts, which can be tortured into many shapes—“Lies, damn lies and statistics”—as it is about what we value as a society. Guns kill people. No dispute there. The question is whether having them around is worth that undeniable cost. Gun owners have an interest in being able to own guns, and we all have an interest in not being shot. 

Balancing competing interests is the primary tool on the workbench of a constitutional law scholar. The more fundamental the individual interest (or "right," as we commonly refer to it), the more compelling must be the state's interest to justify abridging the individual interest. The state has to have a damned good reason to censor the press, for instance, because we value freedom of speech so highly.

The abortion debate comes down to the same thing. Science cannot deny that a life, or at least a highly likely potential life, is being aborted any time after conception and implantation. The question is, do the interests of the parents and society in not having an unwanted child outweigh the interest of the embryo. One can reasonably take either side of that argument. It's a question of what you value.

With guns, too, this is the proper analytical approach. How important is the individual interest in owning a gun compared to the rest of society's interest in avoiding gun violence? Like abortion, like free speech, this is a value judgement. For me, guns are unnecessary and ineffective to protect us either from crime or from government tyranny. This is why I support the considered judgment of a community that seeks to limit their incidence, as both Chicago and D.C. did before their local laws were struck down by the Supreme Court.

Frankly, I can't think of an important individual interest that is advanced by forbidding communities to try to keep themselves safe from handguns and assault weapons. That's my value judgment. As a people, collectively, we have to reach our own. 

We have the “rights” we permit ourselves. No others. They are not ordained. They continue by common consent. I have to assume at this point that we have so many guns, and so much gun violence, because that’s the balance of interests we want. If not, we ought to do something about it. What to do is no mystery. Vote for change. It’s not going to happen any other way.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Who are our heroes?

Explorers. Inventors. Jonas Salk. Larry Page.

And what do our heroes all have in common? They open up the future for us. They show us ways to aspire to a better life. Even our sports heroes do that. Wow, if that guy can run the hundred that fast, and look that buff, maybe I should get in better shape.

What else do they have in common? They don’t bring us down. They are never about negativity. They are never about how hopeless it all is. They are the opposite of that. They are all about hope, the dream that we can be better.

Are you with me so far? Do we agree?

Well, then let me ask you this: Why do we support the politicians we do, the ones who want to tear down others, tear up the rights and lives of those who are not like them? The ones who appeal to the opposite of hope. The ones who appeal to fear.

It’s not their fault. They’re like well-trained rats. They’re doing what they have to do to get the electoral cheese. No, my friends, the fault is ours. We’re telling them with our votes and our polls and our rallies what we care most about, and a lot of what we care about, day-to-day, has more to do with not losing what we've got than with reaching for something more: don’t let in those illegal immigrants who will take our jobs; don't ask us to pay more in taxes to support people who won’t work for themselves; don’t attack my religion with your secular intellectualization of rights that the Bible (or the Koran, or whatever) says don’t exist.

So, to ask the question again, but with a slightly different spin: Why are we so afraid? If our heroes look to the future, why do we want to cling to the past? Do we think our heroes are braver than we are? Do we think we could never be anyone’s hero?

It is hard to imagine that you might invent the polio vaccine; or dwarf wheat; or Google. But you don’t have to shoot that high to be a hero. Most of us have a worshipful audience waiting for our wisdom, waiting for our inspiration. Children. Our own, our nieces and nephews, the kids down the block. They’re looking for heroes too. They might not think they can be LeBron James, but they are quite clear that they can be you. You’re just mom or dad, or auntie, or the neighbor. Of course they think they can be you.

So what are you showing them? Who do you say you are? What do you say you stand for? They are watching? They are listening. They will take their first cues from you. Will you teach them to be hopeful, to look to the future, to plan for it, or will you teach them to be afraid?

Monday, July 20, 2015

How to Change the World

Once there was a young man who planned to change the world. He could see clearly the things around him that he could improve. He could see bigotry that could be enlightened. He could see hunger that could be served a meal. He could see ignorance that could be educated. He set out to be a doctor, to heal. Or a lawyer, to bring justice. Or a scientist to find new ways of living on the planet without destroying it. He knew he would have to choose. He knew he could not do it all. But he had faith in others. The problems he didn’t tackle others would. Change would come. It was inevitable.

His chosen field had a long apprenticeship. He was good at what he did, and he was flattered and rewarded and coaxed into more and more sophisticated, complicated endeavors. The sense of discovery and achievement was intoxicating. He hardly noticed that he was solving only his employer’s problems, not the world’s.

He found a mate and had children. He saw the world through a child’s eyes again. He explained it to them and taught them what mattered about the way they would live and work with others. He taught them to want to change the world.

His children grew up and left home and left a hole in his heart. He thought that was the pain he felt, but it was more than that. The loss was of himself. He had not changed the world. He would not. He knew that, suddenly, awfully. It wasn’t his fault, he told himself. He had been naive as a young man. The world was as inexorable and immutable as human nature. He would not make a difference.

As he lay on his deathbed, his wife gone before him, his family gathered in the dim room: his son and his daughter, and his grandchildren, two girls and two boys. The young ones fidgeted and exchanged glances and occasional giggles. Their parents shushed them but they could not impose on them their grief and solemnity. The children knew what was happening, and they did not want it, they loved their grandfather, but they could not for long turn away from themselves and what they planned to do next in the world that was opening up to them in the ways their parents had told them it would.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

An Instinct For Bias

Confirmation bias. Apparently we all have it. That doesn’t sound like a good thing. Bias sounds like prejudice. No one wants to be thought of as prejudiced.

I read a piece in the NYT recently about a study that showed how when trying to find answers we look in safe and familiar places. The article had a test as part of it. A set of three numbers. The test was to determine the rule governed them. You could enter other sets of three numbers yourself to test your theory. The second two numbers were each double the one before, so it looked like that was the rule. It was…and it wasn’t. It turns out the rule was each number merely had to be higher than the one that preceded it.

Over ninety percent of those tested (including me), said what they thought the rule was without ever entering a number set that failed, even though there was no penalty for that. In other words, we didn’t probe the edges of what the rule might be, we raced down the first safe path we discovered. 

Gotcha, the article said. You don’t want to be told your answer is wrong, so you only test the rule with safe answers. You have confirmation bias.

The authors made it sound like a character flaw. Like prejudice. What I think it is, though, is a survival  instinct. If you are trying to make a quick decision about what to do, and you’re pretty sure what the safe move is, that’s the one you tend to make. Long ago in our evolutionary development, those who made the safe play lived to play (and procreate) another day. Confirmation bias is nothing more that an adaptive trait that helped the species survive. It doesn’t show weak character, just good survival instincts.

That distinction may sound like splitting hairs, but I don’t think so. The better we understand our behavior, the better equipped we are to modify it. If we think those of us in our red and blue political tribes are preferring to listen to what we want to hear just because we are morons, we miss an important opportunity to break through that evolutionary adaptation and inspire more considered thought, more testing of conventional wisdom, more understanding of what the rule really is. Not just the middle road, but all the possible paths that might lead to common ground.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Identifying as Black and Brown

I'm starting to get annoyed with white people. We're sitting pretty--on top of the cultural, educational and economic food chain--and still we can't seem to figure out how to help our black and brown brothers and sisters. We need to go back to kindergarten to learn to share.

Im not talking about the white nutzos, the hate-killers. And I'm not talking about the white folks who are themselves struggling to get by; they've got enough problems of their own, and very little to share. I'm talking about you and me.

When are we going to do more than shake our heads in sadness and disgust when blacks get senslessly murdered? By racists. By cops. When are we going to do more than express dismay over dinner with our friends at the fact that so many young black men are in prison? When is the extraordinary educational achievement of my friend Gabby Aguilar, the first in her immigrant family to go to college, going to become the norm instead of a rarity?

Black and brown poverty is the civil rights issue of our time. Just as voting rights were the issue of a half century ago (and still are today, come to think of it). Martin Luther King knew that. He had just begun his crusade against poverty when he was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson, a son of Texas who would not be welcome today in Rick Perry country, knew it. He tried, but he didn't get far. Since then, it doesn't look to me like we've even been trying.

It's not enough to support social service programs. The problem is socio-economic segregation. As long as poor people--black, brown or white--are effectively ghettoized, they are not going to have the same opportunities as those living together in affluence. We may say we care, but we're not moving into Watts or East Palo Alto. 

I have no idea what the answer is, but I do know this: if we cared more, if we thought of poor black and Hispanic children as if they were our own children, we would come up with something. We're just not trying hard enough.

"In the end," Martin Luther King famously said, "we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Something to Say


Anyone out there?

I wrote a piece a few weeks ago called "The Wolf of Conditional Love," giving my slant on an aspect of parenting. I borrowed the title phrase from a David Brooks column of the same day, with which I took modest issue. This morning I saw a tweet in which both my piece and Mr. Brooks' were listed as among the top five parenting advice blogs of the week. 

If you'd had a brain scan of my delight, you'd have thought I won the Pulitzer Prize.

I started writing about my experiences with my children as soon as they were all gone, when the last one left for college. Is that ironic, or is it just the way my writing mind works? Putting my thoughts, and feelings, on paper helps me sort them, make sense of them. In the case of some feelings, it may be the only way I can consciously access them. And the process seems to work best with distance. My understanding of what is going on inside me is like cask of wine that should not be opened before it has aged. Until then it's just sweet grape juice.

I've branched out from my children to the world I want for them, which is my excuse to write about politics and social issues. As with my my feelings about being a father, sometimes I'm not that certain what I think about an issue until I write about it. Intuition and bias are vague and sloppy things. Reason is the order that writing imposes on them.

My blog has been for me. It has helped me learn about myself and understand others better. It has helped me grow. But I would be a liar if I didn't admit I want to reach others. Touch them. Persuade them. It's vanity, I know, but there you have it. It's more or less what we do as a species. Communicate. Understand. Persuade.

Who knows what most readers think of what I write. I get comments of support now and then, but mainly from people I know. I wonder sometimes if anyone else is paying much attention. And then, suddenly I've written a piece someone puts in a top-five list. Someone I don't know. 

To paraphrase Miss Marion, the librarian from The Music Man: "Thank you, my someone."

Monday, June 8, 2015

Your House is on Fire, Run Away Home

Angry. ANGRY!

Maybe I need therapy. A little Prozac.

I think what I need is to disengage. But I don't know how to do that.

I've spent all my life solving problems. How to earn a living. How to raise children. How to be helpful to those around me. As the needs of my family for me have become less pressing, I've turned my thinking to the wider world. What about all those people who I haven't been thinking that much about?

Turns out, they're not doing so well. So, lets talk about that. What can we do?

Talk I have. And written. Both have revealed many things to me. One, how much I don't know. Two, how ready others are to cure my ignorance. I have a few very smart friends and family members who are much more fiscally conservative than I. No nanny state of sloth enablement for them. I see their point, but really, do we think people want to live in paucity and hopelessness? Food stamps are not an education. They are not opportunity.

Some people say opportunity comes to those who work for it. If you miss out, you must not be working hard enough. That's certainly true in some cases, but not, in my view, most. Poverty is a pathology. Tough love is leeches.

The problems are huge. The solutions are not obvious. That is a little depressing, but does not make me mad. It makes me want to look harder for the answers.

What makes me mad is that while thoughtful people, more thoughtful than I, are sifting data and trying hard to understand what is happening and what to do about it, their voices are being heard mainly by themselves and a few others of like mind. Those who disagree are listening to themselves and their tribe. Those who aren't thinking that hard at all are emoting off the cuff. Political discourse, where the solutions ultimately must be forged into governing consensus, has devolved to a herd of wildebeest ranging across an intellectually barren land, spooked by every primitive stimulus, careening en masse this way and then that, with pastures and watering holes nowhere in sight.

It's just stupid the way we do things. We don't act until there is a crisis. This seems to be how evolution has wired us, but the habit of tending only to immediate needs has ceased to be adaptive. If we are to survive, we have to plan for the long term. We have to make sacrifices today to provide for the future. Parents are good at doing that for their children. Otherwise, as a species, we suck at it.

Global warming. Water shortages. Power shortages. Nuclear proliferation. Poverty, poverty, poverty. These are problems that have to be worked on over decades and centuries. I wonder if we have it in us.

Here's a concrete example of a looming problem that is painfully obvious and easy to understand, yet largely ignored: unfunded pension liabilities. Boring, right? It won't be when cities and states can't honor their obligations, when retired teachers and policemen and others don't have a retirement income. It's a huge problem. Everybody knows it. Not many are doing anything about it.

Why? Same reason we don't do anything about so many long-term problems. The consequences of our failure are not immediate. We don't feel threatened. Maybe they won't happen. They're too hard to think about.

The people who should be thinking about them, in the case of unfunded city and state pensions, are the public officials who are trying to get re-elected. Their next campaign is their time horizon, not some retiree's problem in twenty years. So they kick the can down the road.

One way to solve the pension problem would be to change accounting standards to record on balance sheets the present value of the future cost to cities and states of their large unfunded liabilities. If you did that, many cities and states (and companies) would be insolvent. They wouldn't be able to borrow to finance their operations. They'd be Greece. 

Politicians don't want to hear it, and accountants don't want to get fired. So they all look the other way and do what we all do: hope something will happen to make everything work out.

As parents, when we see a child doing something stupid or harmful, we intervene. A childhood of such interventions is what parenting is all about. It ingrains habits that our sons and daughters take with them and live by. Not always, but most of the time.

We're not doing that now. We're being bad parents to our earth, to our fellow man. If I saw a parent negligently ignoring a little girl wandering from the playground toward a busy street, it would make me mad, but at least I could take that child's hand and lead her back to safety. But there are too many small hands to take and keep safe. And while we gather smugly and self-righteously in our homogeneous intellectual cliques, they wander closer and closer to danger.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Mad Faith

We had some friends over for dinner last night, and somehow the conversation segued from how computers work to religion. Surprising myself, and with the benefit of only a single glass of wine, I launched into a blistering rebuke of religion of all stripes. We'd be better off without them, was the gist of it. This morning I wrote a contrite note to one of our dinner guests who I thought I offended, apologizing for my intemperance. I do know better. My mama didn't raise no rude hosts.

So I told myself: stop railing against religion. Then I amended my admonition: stop doing it over dinner; it's no aid to digestion. But rail in public I feel I must.

I've written a few times about how much I admired my grandfather, a man of great intelligence and faith. His was the tolerant and giving religion I was raised with. I admired it, even though I never believed in its god. Live and let live, was my approach.

No more. Take a look around at what is happening in the name of one religion or another. ISIS beheadings and oppression of women and girls. Sunni and Shia suicide bombings. Boko Haram kidnappings of girls. Evangelical Christian and Catholic opposition to women having free access to birth control.

I defy you to name a religion that does not subordinate women. Maybe that was okay once, in a different time and culture. It is no longer.

There have always been religious wars. That, for me, is reason enough to get rid of religion. But the seemingly united view of religions around the world that women are less than men is the last straw. Maybe I just woke up. But I'm awake now.

We cannot and should not tolerate this. No matter what benefit you get from your faith, or what benefit you feel it bestows on others, if it oppresses women--and in one form or another they all do--you should renounce it. Maybe a new religion will be born out of that, one that puts women and men on equal footing. I prefer none, but if there must be faith, I want the dignity and equality of women to be upheld as part of it. 

Come to think of it, just that step might go a long way toward bringing religion back to the way I saw it as a boy: a personal choice that comforts in times of trouble and extends a helping hand in times of need.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Parent Bonus

What if you got rewarded at work for being a good parent?

Your daughter reports that you inspired her to tutor a struggling classmate: here's a bonus of a week's salary. Your son tells us you're never home for dinner: we're going to have to dock you for that.

Good parenting skills and good work skills share common attributes. Good coach at home, good coach for the work team. Inspirational at home, inspirational at work. Realistic goal setting at home, realistic goal setting at work. A Career Builder poll timed to coincide with Mother's Day this year found that 69% of employers see work benefits in parenting skills. High on the list, as any parent knows, were multi-tasking and conflict management.

When I was a lawyer, we billed our time by the hour. The firm's managers, not surprisingly, gave the highest financial rewards to the lawyers who worked the most hours. I don't have to tell you that among a group of highly competitive, ambitious young lawyers, that was a prescription for missed family dinners and soccer games and pretty much everything else but major holidays, and then only for a half-day. The managing partner of my firm, the one who was prodding us all to work harder, once told me late in his life that his only regret was not spending more time with his family.

There was a time when people worked closely together and knew each other's personal circumstances. The wife is sick? Take off as long as you need, family is the most important thing. But for a long time now, the opposite has been the norm. Don't bring your personal problems to work.

That's ridiculous, of course. You can't check your personal problems at the reception desk. They are with you always. And if you can't deal with them in a satisfactory way, they eat at you. They degrade your work performance. Eventually they can cost you your job. Or your family. No one should have to make that choice.

For reticent employers, here's a modest beginning: Tell your people to take all their vacation days or you'll reduce their pay. Take all their maternity leave. Fathers too. No overtime over a certain limit. Tell them you don't want to see them in their cubicles at all hours of the night on a regular basis. Tell them you'll pay them less, not more, if you do.

This is a gender-equality issue. Not just for women, for men too. Women don't want to be forced onto the mommy track. And men don't want to miss all the soccer games. Even if a man wants to be an equal partner in parenting and housework, employer expectations do not accommodate that. "He's not a fighter pilot. I don't want him on my team." I used to think that way myself.

In too many jobs, the path to success does not run close to home. Men and women who climb the competitive ladder by giving it all at the office may be happy for a while--or think they are--but many end up with same regrets as my old managing partner. As Rabbi Harold Kushner famously said: "Nobody on their deathbed has ever said 'I wish I had spent more time at the office.'"

Of course the biggest benefit of rewarding workers for being good parents will be the joy it brings to children everywhere. “Mom and Dad, I’m not sure my evaluation of your parenting this quarter is going to be so good. I think a trip to the ice cream store might be needed to boost your ratings."