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."

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Lazy Days

What's worse: being bored or being busy at something you don't want to do? Are those the only two choices? I hear you asking. I don't know.

On again, off again I've been busy at things I wanted to do. Legal work was fun (hard to believe, right?). Trying to make a tired old company into something new was fun. Even failure was a kind of bitter tonic, a shocking, smelling-salt reminder to pick yourself up and go on. Writing is fun. And it comes with a lifetime supply of that bitter tonic I just mentioned.

Here I am, picking myself up again. Actually, it's a kind of anticipatory pickup. Eyore-like. I wrote an oped piece I like and sent it out. A couple of agents are reading my new novel. In the timeless words of the world's most famous stuffed donkey: "Oh, well, I don't suppose anyone is going to like them anyway."

I need to start a new novel. That's fun. In the same genre as considering a cluttered attic or garage, dreading moving that first ratty cardboard box or rake even as you begin to imagine a glittering new space that will bring pleasure to so many...or at least to you.

I could go play golf. I love golf. The problem is, I can't play it with my dad or my sons. I like playing alone. Sometimes. But that leads nowhere. I'm all about going somewhere. I don't even know why. My DNA won't leave me alone.

I suppose I've answered my own question. Busy is better than boring. Not busy for the sake of being busy (although it sometimes turns out that way), but busy in the hope of getting somewhere I know I want to go, even if I don't know precisely where that is.