Friday, January 30, 2015

Man on the Run

Is something wrong with me? I adore Sarah Bunting, the Downton Abbey class warrior who is a pal of Tom, also a class warrior and the widowed husband of Sybil Grantham, a class-warrior-lite herself.

I have no idea--as many have wondered online--why the Grantham's keep inviting Ms. Bunting to dinner so she can abuse them. She’s relentless in her challenges of their class assumptions and behaviors. And she's not very tactful. Perhaps that's her sin. One should not be rude to one's host. At the dinner table she's like the family teenager who has had her eyes opened to the sins of her parents and feels obliged to let them know how wrong they are, how unfair, how callous.

So why, if she's so boorish, do I like her so much? Well, she's right, of course. About the unfairness of the caste system epitomized by the English aristocracy. If she were alive today (not to mention real), she would be camped out at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration. The target of her scorn, Lord Grantham, like all men in positions they inherited from their fathers, doesn't like being called out. He gets huffy and rude himself, the ultimate sin for a well-bred Englishman. It's fun to watch.

But more than that, I like Sarah Bunting because she's a strong woman. She has the same spirit as the Dowager Countess (played by Maggie Smith), Lady Mary, Rose, Anna, Daisy, Mrs. Patmore, so many of them on the show. I can see Sarah marching with the suffragettes, burning her bra (though that didn't actually happen much), speaking at pro-choice rallies, demanding to know why rape kits go untested. 

Let's face it: we establishment men are slow to change. You have to get in our faces and make us uncomfortable or else we think everything is fine. "They're happy downstairs," Lord Grantham might say, as the men in the American South said about their slaves. We treat them well. They'd be lost without us.

The gutsy, audacious women who have insisted that women be treated fairly--the Susan Caddy Stantons, the Gloria Steinems, the Malala Yousafzais--are all celebrated. Eventually. After time has cooled the passions they inflamed, or when, as with Malala, the flames are not too close to home. It's not always pretty to watch the sausage of social change being made, but what Sarah Bunting is doing on Downton Abbey is mild compared to what so many have done to help remake the roles of women in Western culture. 

Besides, we know how this story ends. Lord Grantham gets to keep his head and his title. He even gets to keep his monarch. But gradually Sarah Bunting and her sisters and like-minded brothers knock him off his pedestal of hereditary privilege. I suppose I like watching the toppling of pedestals of pomp and vanity.

Push, Sarah! Get Tom to help. And maybe Mary's new beau, Charles Blake. He's been suggesting for a while that the manor is unsustainable. Lord Grantham didn't throw him out of the house. Perhaps that was because he was a man.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Good Enough

“Good God, the things you put us through. It's AP classes, it's SAT prep from day 1, it's punishment for less than a 4.0 GPA, and it fuels the tears that put us to sleep at night while you rest soundly.”

    —A Palo Alto High student after the death of another yesterday by suicide.

“A wealthy hedge-fund chief was gunned down by his adult son after he threatened to cut his allowance by a $100 a week and stop paying his steep rent, cops said Monday.”

    —Recent news item, dateline Manhattan.

As a father, I hardly know what to say about the two situations described above. The unspeakable tragedy of life wasted. Was it mental illness that led to suicide and murder? Was it drugs? Was it, in some tormented way, environment?

I can’t imagine how I would feel if one of my children killed himself or herself. Devastated, of course. And I’m sure I would think it was my fault. Or at least that there was something I could have done to have prevented it. Some sign I missed. Some harsh word spoken carelessly.

Nature versus nurture is a big debate. We don’t know the answer. But we do know one thing: after that moment of climax, when sperm meets egg, our part in the nature side is over. From then on, all we’ve got to work with is nurture.

There are a lot of parenting metaphors. Tiger mom. Helicopter parent. Trump Tower developer (my term for the parent who leaves most of the actual work to nannies and boarding schools). But the one that has always resonated with me is “coach.”

Maybe I like it because coaches can make a big difference in a young person’s life without taking full responsibility for the complete life. A parent’s job is much more hands-on, and much more time-intensive, but in terms of overall influence probably not that much more impactful than a great teacher or coach. Sometimes less so.

Bobby Knight, the mercurial Indiana basketball coach, famously threw chairs at referees and players. John Wooden, the greatest college basketball coach of all time, never raised his voice. Some of his players said he didn’t even talk about winning.

I never threw a chair at any of my children. (I was usually too poor to waste good furniture). I did spank them once in a while until my last child (too bad he wasn’t my first) shamed me out of it. I coddled them sometimes and ignored them others. I told them I wanted them to be the best they could be, but I rarely did more than wring my hands and deliver pithy aphorisms when I saw them slipping off course. I even signed a stack of blank permission slips to miss class for one son in high school. I said it was his choice not to go to class but I didn’t want him to lie about it. (He missed a few more classes that year, but he graduated summa cum laude from college.)

Honestly, to this day, I’m not sure what I did right and what I did wrong. Or at least what I could have done better. I have a mental notebook of well-honed rationalizations for all my parenting decisions. For the ones I can’t rationalize, I try not to think about them; and when I do I sometimes get a little weepy.

Mainly, I think kids need to know that we accept them for who they are: the messy package of conflicting dreams and moods and behaviors that makes them unique. Acceptance which they understand may not reach into every corner of what they are doing at a particular moment, but which they know without knowing is a warm cloak they may put on when they come home from the cold. 

I told my oldest sons not to go to a party once when they were in high school. They went anyway. I slipped over there just in time to drive the getaway car as they came barreling down the street after making some mischief. We laughed. But they were caught. And they knew it. That’s another thing a parent has to do. Be like a motorcycle cop with a radar gun behind a billboard. They never know when you might catch them. It’s easier just not to go too fast.

The world as it opens up to children, especially teenagers, can be scary. And stressful. Home should be a sanctuary. Not another place where they are judged. Not another place filled with people about whom they feel, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “For you my best was never good enough.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


I'm having a political mid-life crisis. It's like waking up and finding that I'm a bug. Well, maybe not that dramatic. But unsettling.

First, as Paul Krugman would say, some background. I was raised by a Goldwater conservative. For those of you who don't remember Barry, let's just say my father was a compassionate conservative with a big libertarian streak. We argued all the time. In fairness, I would have argued with him no matter what his politics; and he with me. We liked the duel. Then I got married and had children and my political evolution was put on hold while I learned to be a father and a lawyer. I did like Constitutional law, so there was that, but the issues we studied in law school were old and well-settled.

Before I knew it Reagan was president and I was making enough money to think tax cuts were a great idea. My clients were investment bankers and big companies that needed money to buy other big companies. I didn't so much stop thinking about anything else as enter a long period during which I hardly even realized there was anything else to think about. 

One thing led to another and, as if waking from a dream, I found myself sitting on a farm in Baltimore, watching the snow pile up in deadening drifts as I thought about what to do with my life. I started writing then. Kids stories. Short stories. Finally novels. An occasional essay. And a few years ago, this blog, the Dad App, about being a dad and the kind of world I want for my children.

The thing about writing is it makes you think. Sometimes I'm not sure what I think about something until I write about it. Mostly I'm predictable, but sometimes I surprise myself. I'm a big Obama fan, for instance, but I wrote a little allegory the other day in which I almost involuntarily castigated him for turning over the ACA to the insurance industry. Maybe politically he had no choice. Still, we're in the clutches of pirates now, and they're holding our health care for ransom.

But (also as Krugman says) I digress. 

These last twenty years I've become more and more concerned about the poor. Especially the lack of opportunity that is as much a part of their lives as freedom from want is of mine. I have come to see the government as the only institution with the commitment and resources to help the poor. So I have become an apologist for it.

I say apologist, because it seems that is what I am always doing--apologizing, rationalizing, on its behalf. "Yes, the government is inefficient, even a little corrupt, but it's all we have to weave the social safety net." A lot of otherwise charming dinner-table conversations with friends have slipped down that slope.

You know how they say it's hard to hate someone you know. Take gays, for instance. We all have gay friends (or friends we have learned are gay now that they feel safe coming out). They've changed us. They've made us more understanding. Even hard-core anti-gay men like Senator Rob Portman, who did a 180 after his son came out. And good for him.

Recently I've had a couple of experience with local government that have made me see my libertarian, small-government friends in a new light. Like so many of us with gays, I just didn't really appreciate what my Ayn-Rand-groupie friends had been through. I have a better idea now.

For instance:

Not long ago, I was notified of a zoning violation by a local zoning department. I wrote to seek guidance. Twice. No answer. Bureaucratic rope-a-dope. At some (fairly high) cost, I stopped doing what was bothering them, but I still haven't heard from them. I guess they just don't feel they need to explain themselves.

More recently, I gave some thought to adding a second story to a house. I interviewed architects and they all said that getting the plans approved would take six to nine months and would depend on the eccentricities of the particular reviewer. What? It takes as long to approve remodel plan as to have a baby? And it depends on the proclivities of the government employee you draw? The very idea of putting myself in that kind of situation, of giving someone that kind of power over me for what should be an easy process (I mean, the building codes are pretty clear), gives me shivers. The same kind I used to get as a boy when I spotted a police car on the side of the road, even if I wasn't driving too fast.

The truth, I guess, is that I want to be let alone. Let alone to work and live my life. I've been lucky enough, and well-off enough, to mostly pull that off. But then I'm not a small businessman who has to deal with the government at every turn.

I like the idea of government. I like having a coordinated approach to planning and executing infrastructure upgrades. I like having someone look after the underprivileged. I like fiscal stimulus in downturns (although my economist son warns me to be cautious about that). But I don't like being mindlessly told what to do by a bureaucrat who doesn't seem to have a firm grasp on what his job is or how to do it. I want him to keep order, to keep me safe, to keep the trains running, but I don't want him pushing me around in ways that seem irrational and capricious, or worse.

So now I'm a bug. Looking for fellow bugs. It's a strange world out there.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Longshoreman Philosopher

A friend said today that he doesn't have much faith in the reasonableness of people. This is a smart, well-traveled, well-read, sensitive man. He's pessimistic. About what? A lot, I'd say. But primarily our ability to think our way out or our problems. He thinks there are smart people who could do that, but that they are both outnumbered and hopelessly polarized.

"Have you ever convinced anyone to change his mind?" he asked me.

"Not so much convinced," I said, "as found common ground."

When I said that I was thinking of dinner-table discussions with my friends, who include not only members of my progressive choir, but also a couple of pretty good libertarian, small-government soloists. It's true that when someone is your dinner guest, or you theirs, and you'd like to see them again, you hold back on the verbal molotov cocktails, but we do occasionally contend ferociously. Every time, I come away thinking we are a little closer on what we agree on. Am I being convinced or convincing? Neither, really. We're like bumper cars: we keep at it long enough, bumping into one another, going nowhere, until eventually, sometimes almost by accident, as if the jostling knocked sense into us, we find a course forward.

Why is that? Am I so smart and patient? (Well, of course.) Are my friends so reasonable? (Now and then.) I don't think that, at bottom, either of those is the reason.

"Remember Eric Hoffer?" I asked my friend, knowing he would. For those who may not, he was the "longshoreman philosopher,” an itinerant and dock worker who read voraciously and published the things he learned about the human condition. "In times of change" he said, "learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

"I believe in the wisdom of the common man," I said to my friend. 

(Thinking about that statement as I write this, that sounds a bit aristocratic, if not patronizing. But I don't mean it that way.)

I told my friend: "I can't tell you how many times I have seen someone in the street interviewed about some hot issue like the shooting in Ferguson, MO or the Charlie Hebdo covers and killings and thought to myself: That's right; that's the way I see it too.

People understand people. We know what's going on. The woman in the street isn't running for office. She doesn't have a spin machine. She says what she feels. And no matter which side of the issue she’s on--pro cops or pro blacks, pro choice or pro life, pro restraint in political or religious commentary or pro blistering satire--I almost always understand where she's coming from. I may not got the distance with her, but I see her point of view. I can feel the root of it.

So if the people are so wise, why is there such disharmony? The answer, I think, is that the intellectual class is letting us down. Rather than seeking common ground, they seek to gain ground.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Intellectual hubris. Political aspirations. Vested interests. These create something like an intellectual conflict of interest. We start out trying to be philosophers, but eventually too many of us settle into being salesmen. And the very nature of selling is to tear down the other guy's product. After a time, you begin to believe your own sales pitch. At that point, new thinking gives way to hucksterism.

The common man may be wise, but he's busy. Most of us don't have time to sift through facts and arguments to decide what's best. And since there's a spin master out there for almost every point of view, when we hear some political or cultural slogan that resonates, we grab onto it and buy the product. Maybe it has been fairly advertised, maybe we get what we thought we were buying, but too often, we do not.

Ad men (and women) know how to pull our strings. Sex sells. Fear sells. Prejudice sells. A lot of political positions today look like 1950s car ads with beautiful women draped over gleaming chrome. Or rugged men on horseback talking about the free range and their favorite smoke. 

We see how well that worked out.

I suppose I agree with my friend in a way. I too am concerned that our national decisions on things like climate change and rising inequality will not be made on the basis of reason. But whereas my friend fears that collectively we are not wise enough to make reasonable choices, I place the blame on the political salesmen who spend more time convincing us to follow them than thinking about where we should go.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Sufferer, the Dreamer and the Profiteer

The tall black man who came to their home would be their savior. Maria had lost her job and her daughter, Sonia, just two years old, was hungry. Maria had gone to the food shelter with Sonia, but she saw the social worker there, watching her, and she did not go back because she was afraid the woman would try to take Sonia away from her if she thought Maria could not care for her.

The tall man had a big smile and big ears. He said he was there to help her and her child. He asked if he could come inside. He asked her to trust him. She gave him the last cup of tea she had. With Sonia playing on the floor between them, he explained that he had a way to help them have all the food they needed. Not fancy food, but healthy and modest food that would help Sonia grow up strong and give Maria the stamina to be a good mother.

He called his idea the Affordable Food Plan. Everyone would all pay small amounts each month, whatever they could afford, based on their income, or nothing at all if they were making no money. As members of the AFP ("YoMamaCare," he called it, chuckling warmly and winking at Sonia), Maria and Sonia would be able to go to a network of places where they could get the food they needed.

The network was being set up by friends of his, the tall man with the warm smile said. His friends ran insurance companies. They would take the money that everyone gave, each according to his means, and they would use it to buy food that they would distribute to places that were convenient to Maria and all the others. He said again that it wouldn't be fancy food, but it would be nutritious.

When the man left, Maria took Sonia to the park. They were hungry, but the warm sun felt good, and the hope that the tall man had given her made her hunger seem bearable. He had said it would take a while for his friends at the insurance companies to set up the networks, but even that did not worry her. She and Sonia would get by until then. They would live on what they could get at the shelters and through the charity of strangers. They would live on the hope the man had given her.

When the day finally came that someone called and told her that the network had been set up and gave her the location of the place she and Sonia could go for food, she washed and dressed herself and her baby in their best clothes. She did not want to look like a beggar. She was not a beggar. She was a participant in the Affordable Food Plan. The tall man's friends had somehow, praise god, worked out a way to feed everyone with each person paying only what they could afford. It was a miracle. Like the Biblical story of the fishes and the the loves that fed the multitudes.

The place she was told to go was empty. There was no food. A man at the door said the food was coming. He told her to check back in a week. She told him they could not wait another week to eat. He just shrugged. She called the person who had told her where to go and got the location of another place. It had only cans of beans. Still, she was grateful for anything at that point. She took the beans home and she and Sonia ate them and gave thanks for the tall man and his friends at the insurance companies.

As the weeks went by, other food came to the places in the network. There was little variety, though, and the food was all very basic. Beans and rice, potatoes. There wasn't much milk for Sonia. Not much fruit. The people at the network stores told her that what they had was all the insurance companies would give them. The insurance companies said they could not afford better food or more variety.

As the years went on, Maria thought things would get better, but they did not. She got odd jobs now and then, but she couldn't work much because she had nowhere to leave Sonia except in the charity day care run by her church a few days a week. They lived on the food from the Affordable Food Plan network. The people there told her the insurance companies were giving them less and less. Sonia was surviving, but just barely. Maria was sure her little girl wasn't as big as she should be for her age. Sometimes Sonia seemed so listless that Maria just held her close and cried, as if her tears might somehow give her daughter strength.

She passed a tavern on her way home with Sonia one day and saw a television over the bar with the tall man speaking. Someone was asking him about the Affordable Food Plan. He said his enemies were working to undermine its funding. Someone else asked him if his enemies were the insurance companies, the ones he used to say were his friends. Maria could not hear his answer, for someone jostled her on the sidewalk just then and Sonia called out and threw her arms around her neck and said she was hungry.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


I've been thinking about Greece lately. I always dreamed of going there, of visiting what remains of that glorious ancient civilization. The prospect of that isn't so appealing just now. The Greek economy is where the U.S. was a few years into the Great Depression: staggering unemployment, soup lines, hopelessness. They got themselves into this mess with years of profligacy and corruption. When the government spent and borrowed unwisely and the rich refused to pay taxes and hid their money in Switzerland, the country stopped being able to borrow money to pay its debts. The price of a bailout, exacted by the Germans, was austerity. But four years of belt tightening has just made things worse. The people--the ordinary people--are suffering.

Have you noticed how it's always the ordinary people who suffer? They didn't bring this on themselves, their leaders did, but they pay the price.

Take a look at Gaza. Two million people caged in hopeless conditions, with no chance to better their lives. Caged by their own leaders as much as by the Israelis. Just like the Russians, after throwing off the Czar, were caged by Stalin. The North Koreans by Kim. The Iraqis and Afghans by al-Maliki and Karzai.

All of which makes me wonder: how did we in this country get so lucky? Why has America had two hundred years of political, social and economic stability? (There was that little hiccough called the Civil War, and maybe we should have just let the South go, but like the boys who fought on both sides we stitched ourselves back up and marched on.) Is it our Pilgrim roots? Those modest toilers in virtue. Is it our passion for capitalism and the enterprise and growth it brings? Are we just smarter and better than most?

I think we are a lucky mutation. Like a gene that pops up along the evolutionary trail and turns out to be highly adaptive. Our mutation was spawned in the heat of our revolution and imprinted on the DNA of men like Washington, Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson. Ours was no Bolshevik revolution. Our founding fathers were landed gentry, classically educated men who were committed to throwing off the shackles of monarchy and guarding against its resurrection in their midst.

Ours was the perfect place for such a mutation to flourish. We are isolated but have abundant natural resources. The first gave us space and time, the second gave us means. The other element of course is our system of government. It's hard to say why one so progressive, balanced and ultimately pluralistic was adopted in Philadelphia all those years ago. The men who wrote the constitution were both idealists and pragmatists. They fought it out on those two fronts and came up with something that, frankly, has been a little magical.

Britain has done more or less the same thing. It threw off it's monarchy internally, gave up its colonial ways (if somewhat reluctantly), and settled down to being a steady and inclusive democracy. Not too many other countries have pulled off our magic trick, though. I've thought about why and don't have an answer.

Well, I sort of have an answer, but it's a bit depressing. It's not gong to help Greece or Gaza, North Korea or North Africa. Political leaders seek power. When they get it, they work hard, often abusively, to keep it. The democratic mutation in America and Britain, and in some parts of Europe, has so far kept political megalomaniacs in check by elevating institutions above individuals.

We have our demagogues here in America. They are sometimes laughable, sometimes scary. So far, though, none has seriously threatened our democracy. How long will that last? I don't know. Maybe we should ask the ancient Greeks.