Thursday, June 30, 2016

Wide Walkers

On our trips we walk all over the cities we visit, often up to ten miles a day. This has given me a new awareness of certain sidewalk hazards I had not previously considered. If you are out and about, especially in the summer tourist season, here are a few species you'll want to watch out for.

The Phone Talker. Do not assume he sees you. He’s in another world. You're not really in his plans.

The Slant Walker. There is something about a straight line. Once people set out on one, they don't like to vary. If you see someone walking on a slanting vector that intersects yours, be prepared to give way.

The Shop Exiter. This is like being t-boned in your car at an intersection. You're walking past a store and out bursts someone, possibly laden with shopping bags. There is no defense to this. The best you can do is brace yourself in the instant before impact.

The Texter. A close cousin to the phone talker, but without any possibility of seeing you as he is fixated on his smart-phone screen. Nothing to do but dodge.

The Quick Stopper. The only way to avoid this completely unpredictable hazard is to not footgate.

The Fast Weaver. Very similar to his highway counterpart. Frequently followed by another who seems to be making a game of chasing him. Don't flinch. Hope their sense of timing is good and that there is not a Quick Stopper in their path who might cause a pileup.

The Wall Hugger. You're walking on the right side of the sidewalk, and here comes someone toward you on your side. They're hugging the storefronts, usually to stay in the shade or out of the rain. Be warned, they will not veer.

The Corner Hugger. A particularly dangerous breed of Wall Hugger. In effect, a Wall Hugger turning a corner from a perpendicular sidewalk, while hugging. If you and they reach the blind corner at the same time, a collision is certain.

An Umbrella Poker. This is a particularly dangerous species in a very light drizzle, when your umbrella might not be up for self defense. The points of the umbrella are always at your eye-level. Nothing to do but duck. Also a risk on a very sunny day from umbrellas being used as parasols.

The Backpack Swatter. Here are the elements of this hazard: a bulging backpack and a quick, ninety degree body rotation. Capable of completely taking out children.

The Unyielder. This can be a single person, but more usually it is a group of two or three. They are approaching, the sidewalk is wide enough for them, but not you and them. You keep thinking they will give you room to pass, but don't be so sure. This species may be identified by studied obliviousness to your approach. 

Of course it goes without saying that the danger from the Unyielder is at its greatest with large groups, particularly school outings and older folks being led by someone with a flag on a stick. They move as a single organism that is only slightly sensitive to contact with others. There is some danger of actually being swept away by a group like this without their ever realizing you are there.

It's a jungle out there. Good luck. The best advice might be to go out mostly at night, when fewer people are pouring down the lanes and the cities are at their most beautiful. People seem more relaxed at night, perhaps with the aid of a drink or two and no pressure to get to the next must-see monument.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Boy in the Forest

Once there was a boy who was difficult. That was the kindest way to put it. He fused and bit and hit and as he grew older his biting and hitting became a problem. He hurt people. He lived alone with his father, who, in the way of men of his village, was kind but stern. Desperate for his son to change, and not knowing what else to do, the father told the boy he must stop hitting and biting or he would no longer be welcome in his home. 

The boy thought that was fine. Without a word to his father, he went into the forest with other boys like him and lived under a lean-to near a sparkling stream. It was spring and there was fruit on the trees and the water in the stream was clear and clean. His friends showed him how to chew the leaves of a special plant that made him feel happy and lazy, and he spent the spring and summer that way, lost in the sensuality of his freedom and the plant’s relief from his anger.

Winter came. His friends began drifting away. He went home. His clothes and hair were ragged and dirty and his skin was dark from being outside. He walked into the village and no one knew him. When he came to his home, his father ran to him and held him and cried. He took him inside and bathed him and cut his hair and fed him. 

When his son was clean and fed, the father told him that he wanted him to come back home but he must change, and he must ask forgiveness from all those he had hurt and make amends to them. He said that is the way a man behaves. 

The night, while his father slept, the boy went back into the forrest.

The man asked his friends to help him search for his son. Some came with him. Others said it was up to the boy to find himself. 

He could not find the boy, and when he got home after days of looking he went to the the council of village elders and asked them what he should do.

One of the elders said the boy should be punished, that that was the way to show him how to behave. Another said he must renounce the boys who had befriended him and given him the plant that took away his will. The wisest of the elders said simply that the boy was a man now and must make his own way. No one could decide for him.

But he will die, the father said. He has the years of a man, but he is still a boy. I see it in his eyes. I see the fear. He will not say it, but I see it.

One of the elders was a shaman. He suggested that the boy might be ill. He recommended leeches to draw out the ill humors that possessed him. 

He will not submit to leeches, the father said.

Well, then, the shaman said, there is nothing more we can do. His life is up to him.

The father left home that afternoon and went again in search of his son. It is not recorded whether he found him or whether the boy stopped hurting people or whether he hurt his father again, for he had done so before. Neither one of them was ever seen again.

A few years later the village moved to a new valley. The story of the boy would have been forgotten if it had not been written down by the shaman. He had thought the leeches might work, and even though he had not been permitted to try them, he recorded the story so that over time others might learn from it what they could.

Two hundred years later a modern shaman, Maia Szalavitz, has written in The New York Times about new ways to help boys and girls like the young boy from the village. Boys and girls who are self destructive and angry, who are abusing drugs or alcohol, who have exhausted the patience of their family and friends and become isolated. Boys and girls who are in danger of disappearing into the forest.

Surveying emerging understanding of the brain chemistry of addiction, Ms. Szalavitz  hypothesizes that addiction is a hijacking of normal brain circuitry for unintended uses. Like OCD, which amplifies fears so that mundane concerns become matters of life and death, addiction corrupts the pleasure-reward paths of love.

This is especially tough on adolescents, whose cognitive moderators of their intense desires have not yet fully matured. Think of the passions and deaths of Romeo and Juliette. Half of adolescent addicts will grow out of their addictions by age thirty. But the other half will not. And even for those who do, there are lost opportunities and derailed lives. One day you’re graduating from high school, on your way to college, the next you’re thirty, a single parent with no advanced education and ten years of wasted life.

Like those village elders of two hundred years ago, we have not advanced much beyond chastising and punishing bad behavior and insisting that the addict find it within himself to change. We do have AA now, and programs like it. But taking the twelve steps doesn’t help most people.

“Addiction is a learning disorder,” Ms. Szalavitz suggests, “shaped by genetic and environmental influences over the course of development.” 

Addicts have learned to love the wrong thing.

“The implications for treatment are profound,” she says.

She sites a meta-analysis of dozens of studies over four decades that found that “empowering, empathetic treatments like cognitive behavior therapy and motivational enhancement therapy, which nurture an internal willingness to change, work far better than the more traditional rehab approach of confronting denial and telling patients they are powerless over their addiction.”

“If addiction is like misguided love, then compassion is a far better approach than punishment,” Ms. Szalavitz concludes. “This makes sense, because the circuitry that normally connects us to one another socially has been channeled instead into drug seeking. To return our brains to normal then, we need more love, not more pain.” 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Toss 'Em Out, They're Robbing Us Blind

I only thought the Jews in Venice had it tough. Yes, their forced isolation gave us the term “ghetto,” but there weren't so many of them and they got to stick around better and longer than in Vienna, where I am now. Here they have been expelled at least three times. The first was in 1421. A hundred eighty years later, the emperor let them back in because he needed their business acumen to finance for the Thirty Years War. He put them in a ghetto, though, in a flood-prone area near the Danube.

Part of "The Gates of Violence," by Alfred Hrdlicka, Vienna.
Having Jews around wasn’t working for Leopold I, so in 1670 he expelled them again.

By 1848, enough Jews had returned and prospered that the issue of their civic equality boiled over.

“There can be no mistaking the partiality of some Jews for a republican government form so as to come into unlimited possession of all civil rights (emancipation) and hence to achieve all the more certainly the most complete domination over you and an even greater control of the state treasury and of the more lucrative positions.” (The words of a denigrator at the time.)

In response, Emperor Franz Joseph stripped them of their rights to own property and join civil service. He let them stay, though, and eventually they earned something close to equality. 

Until 1938 and the years of WW II, when they they were not only expelled but murdered en masse. Sixty-five thousand of them.

What strikes me about the story of Jews in Vienna is not just that they were persecuted, but that their tormentors took not only racist pleasure but also practical delight in what they were doing. Local burghers happily admitted they wanted to be free of commercial competition from Jews.

Every time I go to Europe, I end up face-to-face with the marginalization, abuse and murder of Jews. It’s sickening. It makes me ashamed for all of us.

But that’s not the end of the story. Indeed, the problem is that the story doesn’t end. Even as I write this, we’re doing it again. No, continuing to do it, would be a better way to put it.

Disenfranchising blacks. Marginalizing women. If our right-wing has it’s way, expelling Muslims.

But wait, there’s more. And from places you might not associate with the contemptible behavior of racists and anti-semites. The Viennese abhorred the financial power of the Jews. Know anyone else railing against the moneyed oligarchy? Do you find it ironic that Bernie Sanders is Jewish? Shouldn’t he know better than to speak in categoric denunciations? Does he have no memory or understanding of where that leads?

We don’t need more revolutions. Not Bernie’s kind or any other. The quest for equality is an enduring struggle, not a war. We don’t need to throw out the bankers, we need to work with them. After all, we may end up like that Austrian emperor in 1600, the one who needed the financial mavens of his time to raise money to fight a real war.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Trump Ghetto

The sun is going down, and the young man looks up at the darkening sky and hurries home from his job in the city of Venice, Italy. He is Jewish, and in his time, five hundred years ago, he and all Jews had to be within the confines of their island ghetto by dark. The doors to the bridges over the canals that surround the ghetto were locked. Venetians patrolled the canals throughout the night to make sure the young man and the other Jews in the ghetto did not come out before morning.

One entrance to the Jewish Ghetto in Venice
Jews came to Venice beginning in about 1250. They came to escape persecution. They were allowed to stay, but only if they wore clothing that identified them as Jews: a yellow hat at first, then red, then yellow again. They could only work as money lenders or pawn brokers, or in textiles or as doctors. In 1516, the ruling council of Venice met to decide whether to send the Jews away. They let them stay, but nighttime confinement in the ghetto was the condition they imposed. 

The lodgings the Venetian Jews were forced to accept were in an area of foundries, the word for which was getto. This is where the term ghetto, as we use it today—a place of poor living conditions in which people are crowded together—originated. 

Unlike sixteenth-century Venetian Jews, residents of today’s American ghettos are forced to live there by economic circumstances, not by government edict. Soon, though, if Donald Trump has his way, we may return to the original meaning of the term. It would not be Jews who are forcibly segregated this time—at least Trump has not yet proposed that—but Muslims and undocumented Hispanics. 

He plans to round up both groups and deport them. He’ll have to have somewhere to keep them while they are being processed. We don’t have canals, but we could throw up some walls—he loves walls—and have white supremacists in pickup trucks patrol the perimeter. They’ll be carrying, of course, because this is America and we all carry, or want to carry, or should want to carry if we weren’t loser gay sissies. 

Ethnic cleansing is a go-to tactic for paranoid autocrats. We know that. We remember that. I mean, it hasn’t been that long. We know what it will mean if we go along with Trump’s plan. We know what it will mean if if we put him in office to carry it out. We know what we will be approving.

The Jews hung in there in Venice for a long time, but gradually most moved away. When the Holocaust came, the number of Jews in Venice was down to twelve hundred. Of those, over two hundred were shipped off to extermination camps. But the city had marked them and segregated them and humiliated them for hundreds of years by then, so I imagine it was an easy enough thing, a kind of natural and inevitable progression, to send them off to death camps.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Making of Brock Turner

Brock Turner is Donald Trump. A poor example of the kind of person we hope our young men will become. Spoiled, entitled and crass. Not someone who, to say the least, treats women with respect. In denial about the kind of person—I am not willing to say a man—he is. 

The Republican establishment is horrified that Donald Trump is their nominee. Their’s is a disingenuous revulsion. They got what they encouraged. They created the conditions of bigotry, sexism and aristocratic entitlement that gave rise to his political ascension as surely as if they had sent him off to terrorist training camp. 

Just as Donald Trump was suckled on the xenophobia and misogyny tolerated by his party, Brock Turner was nurtured by a culture that indulges and exploits portraying women as the rightful province of men.

Women are marketed as possessions of men. In seductive ads for jewelry, purses and perfume, they wear nearly nothing, while the men remain fully dressed. The women are submitting. They are being bought for the price of a handbag. The men don’t even have to remove their jackets.

In a train station I just passed through, a huge Armani poster shows a sensuous young woman—she might be sixteen or seventeen—alone, looking directly into the camera with defiant provocativeness. “You don't deserve even to look at me,” she seems to be thinking. “Not unless you’re man enough.”

A study in 2011 by sociologists at the University of Buffalo found that “the portrayal of women in the popular media over the last several decades has become increasingly sexualized, even ‘pornified.’” A 2014 study by Dr. Linda Papadopoulos found that viewing sexually objectifying images of women in mainstream media increases acceptance of violence towards women. 

Whatever their parents are telling them, the broader culture is saying to young men and women that women are for sex. 

When they go off to college, young men and women are invited to fraternity parties (like the one where Brock Turner met his victim) that are too often alcohol-soaked, testosterone-spiked venues for sex trolling. This is not an environment that is emotionally healthy for young men and women out on their own for the first time. Just the opposite. 

A 2009 study in the journal of student affairs professionals found that fraternity members are almost twice as likely to binge drink as non-members. A 2007 study by the same group reported that fraternity members are three times more likely to commit rape than non-members.

If we want our young men not to grow up like Brock Turner, we have to show them the proper way to treat women. We have to speak out against the objectification of women in advertising and in institutions like college fraternities. If we do not, just as Republicans must acknowledge their role in creating their frankenstein, we must accept our share of responsibility for the sexual aggression and abuse of women our culture breeds.

Individually, we are responsible for our actions. Collectively, we are liable for our silence.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


It begins with a toddler’s first giggling dash away from an anxious parent. “Must be free,” as one of my sons puts it, speaking of his own son. There is never a lovelier moment of that feeling, the wild rush of excitement, the certainty that no harm will come to you, as none ever has.

Then we go off to college. And, as Mark Twain said (more or less), “By the time a boy reaches eighteen, his father is as anxious for him to leave home as he is to go.” But that feeling doesn’t last, from the parent’s standpoint, at least. We begin wanting them back almost immediately. For a few days at a time, anyway. They are different people by then. No longer our responsibility, no longer anxious for our guidance. Entertaining to grab a pizza with, but less and less fun as their laundry piles up and they go out for the evening just as we are turning in.

It's a bit ironic: We try to show our children something of the world when they are still young, but as often as not they see more of their smartphones than the Grand Canyon or The Louvre. It’s not that they don’t want to see. They just don’t want to be shown. Not by us, at least. They want to find out for themselves.

And so they begin, our journeys of discovery. We leave the nest and fly away. Some farther than others, but in most cases—economic necessity provoking certain exceptions—the old homestead seems hopelessly quaint and boring. It represents who we were—a person we are not even all that comfortable with—not who we want to be. Not the bright, shiny creation of our ambitions and daydreams.

It is a journey that for many of us lasts a lifetime. My mother no longer chases after me to catch me by my arm and pull me to safety—although now and then I wish she could—but still I run. Less from the strictures and constraints of childhood—although there is some of that—and more toward a new inchoate freedom I imagine for myself. There is the metaphorical running of a constant (and constantly unsated) need to know who I am, and there is the physical running, the exploring the world.

I’m on a physical exploration now. Most call it a holiday or vacation. But for me it’s a kind of work, one that is not as structured , or sometimes as satisfying, as the jobs that make us useful. It’s an effort to understand myself by understanding the past. Why did we wall our cities? Why did we pour so much of our energy and resources into cathedrals? Who made the first path between two small coastal towns; and why?

There are many on the journey with me. Tourists we are called, implying that we are little more than trifling sightseers. We take photos and sip wine and cappuccinos and munch overpriced croissants at tables looking out on the throng of others like us. Sometimes it is hard to work my way down a quaint old street because it is jammed with so many others like me. Sometimes I imagine I hear the lowing of livestock being herded to slaughter.

But we are not cattle, not me, and not my anonymous fellow travelers. I feel certain that when they visit places they have never seen, they are thinking about the same things I am: Who did this? And why? What does it mean? 

One obvious, and slightly depressing, thing it means is that in the great sweep of the journey of mankind, our time on our own path is insignificant. Our lifespans aren't even long enough to build a middling pyramid or mosque.

But the other thing it means is that we are connected, one to another, all the way back to those first journeyers, those first explorers, that first teenager to leave the cave: “Really, Mom and Dad, I love you, but I’m sick of this smokey hole in the mountainside. I’ve got to see what else is out there.”

When someone bumps me as we pass on a crowded path, or another looms over me on a packed train, when I have to wait in line to see an old painting that is nothing like anything I would want in my living room, I don’t think to myself, “Why the heck am I spending all this money to sleep in lumpy beds in strange places?” 

Instead I think: “Grazie for passing the light to me so that for a little while I may hold it up to my world, and to myself, before I pass it along to another.”