Friday, May 26, 2017

The Old Jalopy

The president may get some of his brutal domestic spending cuts approved, but we can recover from that if the electorate decides it has had enough. He undoubtedly will set back our global relationships with our most important allies, but we can recover from that too. It is possible he will swagger into a shooting match with North Korea; that would be bad, possibly very bad. Recovering from a nuclear exchange of any kind would be difficult.

Still, I’m hopeful. Partly it’s just my nature to be optimistic. “Someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to.” The three keys to happiness. It’s hard to have number three—something to look forward to—if you're not optimistic.

It’s hard to imagine the apocalypse, so I don’t.

But I will say this: I am alarmed by the way so many of us in America, the land of freedom and opportunity, the beacon of democracy, exercise our right to be part of setting the direction of the country. I know some people are bitter that globalization has left them behind. I know some people are disdainful, and afraid, of the cultural changes they see creeping up on them like slowly rising flood waters. I know many men still think a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Some women too.

But the great thing about our country has always been the promise of freedom of choice. Chose your religion; the government won’t interfere. Chose your partner. Chose whether and when to have a child. Well, I thought we had put that one to bed, but we haven’t. All I have to say on that subject is that if you believe abortion is immoral, as many do, you must also believe that those children you insist be born should have every possible guarantee of food, health care and education.

I grew up in the Deep South. I’ve seen the fire-and-brimstone pulpit from up close. I’ve seen the burning crosses. Even though I grew up with all that, it was like poison ivy in the woods: as long as I didn’t get too close, it didn’t blister and itch.

Now, somehow, the poison ivy seems to have come for me. Its spores are airborne. There is no avoiding it. They are blown across the land by the hot wind of the very institution we treasure most: democracy.

It’s hard to know what people are thinking when they vote. I suspect that like most judgements we make, it’s complicated. I’m willing to acknowledge and indulge that complexity. It’s part of the deal if we really mean to have a society in which everyone gets an equal vote. It used to be just land-owning men who had that power. Now it’s everyone.

The land-owning men of voting rights past used their franchise to protect their interests. Now that we all can vote, we should be doing the same thing, that is voting for policies and men and women we think will do what’s best for us. We shouldn’t use the right to vote, which so much blood has been shed to preserve, as a means of popping off. It’s not a place to register frustration. It’s not a place for snark. It’s not a wise-ass remark at a cocktail party or a barbecue.

If we want to protect our great democracy, we have to respect it. We have to go to some trouble for it. We have to think about what we are voting for and why. I’m not saying this just because I’m not partial to the latest election results. I’m willing to listen. But the more I read about why some people voted the way they did, and their shock that, for instance, they are now in danger of losing their health care and safety net supports, the more I wonder if they were being thoughtful when they voted, or just blowing off steam. 

It’s easy to get frustrated. It’s easy to say, “Screw the bastards.” But that doesn’t get us anywhere. We have to keep our cool. If we want the old jalopy we call democracy to keep running, we have to take care of it. We have to give at least as much thought to the consequences of how we cast our votes as we do to the kind of oil we put in our cars. If we don’t, in both cases, the engine will freeze up.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The View From the Other Side of the Street

I walk a lot. I tend to take the same mindless route, because mindlessness is part of the attraction, letting my thoughts wander who-know-where. Usually they find their way to something I'm writing. Sometimes to DT. Too much DT lately, honestly. Not healthy. Bigly.

But I digress, in a wandering kind of way. What I want to say is that once in a while I walk on the other side of the street. When I do, it’s almost like taking a different route. I don’t do it if I don’t want to engage with my environment, to be taken out of mindlessness, because inevitably what happens is I begin to notice things I’ve haven't before.

The charming second-floor patio on a house on the side where I usually walk, set back too far to see from up close. The broad sweep of an oak tree that I usually am aware of primarily because it buckles the sidewalk where I walk too tightly under it to appreciate its sprawling beauty.

It makes me wonder what else I’m missing for being too close to what I’m used to seeing.

I don’t want to belabor the now clichéd point about being in a political bubble. I am. I took Fox News out of my curated news feed. Too aggravating. 

But that’s a different kind of missing. One I’m aware of. One I do on purpose. Every once in a while I visit the other side of the political spectrum, whether by reading or by having my favorite brilliant conservative friend over for dinner and light combat. I know what’s on the other side of that street. I don’t need to be reminded every day.

But this other missing, the one I am not aware of (because, as another cliché goes, we don’t know what we don’t know), is more interesting. What if I could walk not just on the other side of the street, but on the other side of the state, which, in the case of California, would be walking down the central valley. This is our breadbasket, the nation’s breadbasket. During the drought, the farmers were worried about water. They still are, but now they are also worried about who will pick their crops, since most of the field workers are undocumented immigrants.

Or what if I could walk through Kansas? Not drive through those golden wheat fields, as I have many times, but walk, stopping at homes and churches. What are they thinking there? Why are they so worried about their kids learning evolution and attending gay marriages? 

Honestly, these days I think I understand the concerns the Brits who wanted Brexit and the French who are disillusioned with Hollande better than I understand the growing fever of isolationism in America. The Middle-Eastern immigrant surge is huge and up-close and personal in Europe. Not here, though. I don’t think there are any Mexican jihadists, unless you count as terrorists the ones who participate in a-day-without-immigrants boycotts.

Why are Texans and North Carolinians so worried about voter fraud? Are they really? The people, that is, as opposed to the politicians who don’t get votes from the poor.

Do the coal miners in Kentucky really think their jobs are coming back? What if the jobs don't return? What do the people who used to do that work need to survive? How can we help them? Not sell them a fantasy, but actually help them. What do they say? Would they like us to help them pack up and move? No point in sticking around and starving, but moving money is tough to come by. And where would they like to go? Do they have family anywhere? Is there some place they’ve always thought they might like to try, some place where there are jobs. Not mining jobs, but decent ones.

What we have now is an intellectual dual between warring political classes. Bernie Sanders has his solutions. Never mind that few of them have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through Congress, not just this hopelessly screwed up one but any since the New Deal and (almost) The Great Society.

Paul Ryan has his plans. He read them in a book. He’s a policy guy, he likes to tell us. But his economic plans are like Barry Goldwater’s suggestion that we use low-yield nuclear weapons to clear out the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

You can’t see the human cost from the air.

And you can’t keep walking down the same side of the street and expect the view to change. Or expect to learn anything new. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Petri Dish of my Life

I'm sitting on my back porch as I write this. A soft breeze carries the sweet smell of jasmine. The only sound is the chirping of a bird who is excited about something, probably spring. The rest of the world might not even exist.

Not the desolation in Syria, nor the starvation in Yemen. Not the migrants huddled against border fences. Not the refugees clinging to the remains of a boat in the Mediterranean. Not the jobless husband and wife in Appalachia wondering how they will feed their children. Not the cancer patient wondering how she will survive if she can no longer get heath insurance.

There are two worlds: Mine. The rest. 

My world is safe and privileged. Much of the rest is not. I am not rich, but I am well enough off. I was born into a family that was not rich, but it was also well enough off. I went to good schools. My kids went to good schools. My family is like an organism in a petri dish rich in nutrients.

If I had been born in Syria as it is today, what would I have been like? Or paid a coyote to smuggle me across a border? Or climbed into a boat to strike out for safety? Some from those harsh conditions do well; we all know those stories, those triumphs against staggering odds. Most do not.

Success is an accident of birth. I see that now. I didn’t want to believe it. Who does? If you prosper, it implies that you are not as talented as you thought; if you do not, it suggests you never had, or will have, a chance.

So we cling to the myth of individual self-reliance. Mainly, I also see now, it is merely an excuse to look away from the hardships of others. To turn our backs on them.

Most of us would not step over a man bleeding in the street and walk on. Most of us would not ignore a crying child sitting alone on a street corner. We have hearts. We have empathy. But when the suffering is not right before us, we have worked out with our consciences a rationalization that permits us to ignore it. 

The poor should use the money that they spend on cell phones for health care instead. They shouldn’t be buying potato chips with food stamps. If they really wanted to work they could find  jobs; they’re just lazy. These are the kinds of things we, even the best of us, sometimes tell ourselves.

That’s not the way it is, though. That’s not the truth. And deep down, we know it.

I’m drinking tea with cookies and cutting roses for the dinner table because of where and to whom I was born. I have no moral superiority. I have no claim to greater virtue. I was just lucky.

Does that confer upon me, and all those in government and industry who like me were born into nutrient-rich environments, an obligation to help those who were less fortunate? For instance, by making sure that at least in our rich country no one is denied decent health care? 

The question, when asked honestly, answers itself.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Bring on Your Wrecking Ball

Bruce Springsteen predicted Trump would be president four years before it happened. Listen to Bruce’s 2012 grammy winning album “Wrecking Ball” and see if you don't agree. I’m a big Springsteen fan, but somehow I missed “Wrecking Ball” when it came out. The title song popped up on an Apple Music radio stream recently, and I was hooked.

The album is about the ruin wrought by, among others, the fat-cats of the financial crisis. The lives they ruined. The people out of work, desperate but proud. There are gospel influences. We shall overcome. But what grabbed me amidst all that desperation was this voice, rising loud and strong:

“Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you've got, bring on your wrecking ball.”

We’re not pitiful. We’re not long-suffering We’re not waiting for our reward in some promised land. We’re pissed off.

“Hold tight to your anger, and don't fall to your fears.”

That was the mood in the heartland in 2012. Bruce knew it. Why didn’t we?

Slave spirituals, Woody Guthrie’s hard-times songs of the Depression, Pete Seeger’s anthems of the working man. Music that comes from the ground up tells us what people are feeling. We only need listen to know.

In 2012 people were hurting, and they were mad as hell. Bruce told us.

What did we do? And by we, I mean Democrats and progressives. Well, we tried to give them the security of health care. We did okay on that, considering the Republican opposition, but now that’s about to be undone. Why? Because the people we were trying to help weren’t the ones who were so angry. 

We tried to help the poor, the sick and the aged. This is what Democrats do. We’re regular bleeding hearts. I don’t say that derisively. We mean well. And certainly those people needed help with health care. It was a noble cause.

But it did not speak to the anger that Bruce sang to us. The fat cats were getting richer, and people had no jobs. That anger.

So along comes Trump and tells the angry folks what they want to hear: You've been screwed by the elite who have sent your jobs to China. You have every right to be pissed. They didn’t put you first. They put themselves first. I’ll bring back your jobs. I’ll put you first.

Pause here for the irony. He’s not putting anyone but himself first. He’s not bringing back any jobs. All he’s going to do is undo the one good thing that anyone has done for them in years: given health care to the needy.

“Hold tight to your anger, and don’t fall to your fears.”

That was his anthem. His voters marched to it. Honestly, when was the last time a policy white-paper stirred your blood? Trump gave them simple answers to complex questions. He honored their anger. He lit their torches. He said the monster lives there, burn down her house.

And they did.

Listen to Bruce, people. Stop overthinking this. Get down on the level of that despair and that anger and confront it. Deal with it head on.

And then, in the 2018 mid-terms, make the refrain our own. Show what we’ve got. We’re committed to making our home better for all of us. We aren't afraid of nihilists. We aren't afraid of those who would tear down civil society. We aren’t going to give in to our fear of bigotry, xenophobia and ignorance.

“Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you've got, bring on your wrecking ball.” 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Unacceptable

How many times have you heard someone say, “This is unacceptable”?

Parents say it to their children: “That is unacceptable, young man.”

Politicians say it to the public: Kids killed in school: “Unacceptable.” Obamacare: “Unacceptable.”

If the thing that is unacceptable involves spending public funds, like Obamacare, it may also be in a “death spiral.”

I’ve told my kids plenty of times something they were doing was unacceptable. I haven’t tried death spiral, unless that was what they heard when I added, “One more time and you’re grounded. For life.”

When a parent tells a child something is unacceptable, the child knows what he is supposed to do (eg, stop yelling, hitting his sister, peeing in the wading pool). When a politician announces that something is unacceptable, he almost never suggests what might be done to produce a different result.

Schoolyard killings are unacceptable. But gun control? Well, not so fast.

The fight over Obamacare has highlighted the idiocy of this ceremonial breast-beating. For five years and over fifty votes Republicans have screamed that Obamacare is unacceptable. Now they are struggling to come up with a workable alternative. So far, no one likes their plan. In fact, more people like Obamacare.

Calling something unacceptable is not a solution. Yet many politicians seem to think that if they just say that they are off the hook. “Hey, I’ve condemned it, what more do you want?”

Well, what we want are solutions.

What is wrong is often easy to spot. Republicans are good at that. So was Bernie Sanders. But he didn’t have a practical way to make his utopian dreams come true, and Republicans don’t have a viable health care alternative.

Condemnations and false promises, from left or right, are not leadership. Leadership is concrete plans. “If we do this, this is the benefit we will get. And here’s the research to back it up.”

Research. Remember that? We don’t do that much anymore. The Republican leadership is pushing their Obamacare alternative without any determination by the Congressional Budget Office, or anyone else, about what their plan would do to enrollments and costs.

You can tell a toddler something is unacceptable and expect him to stop. When a child gets older, though, and her behavior and its consequences become more complex, she may not know how to change. The choices are no longer binary: stop/don’t stop. They are nuanced, and the outcomes are not certain.

In that situation, a parent does her best to come up with advice that is practical. Our politicians need to do the same. Otherwise, they are treating us like toddlers.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Will Trump Surrender Power?

Washington DC, January, 2021:

Donald Trump has lost the presidency, but refuses to concede. The election was rigged, he maintains. He was the victor, as the investigation he has ordered will confirm. In the meantime, he will not surrender the presidency. To do so would be undemocratic, he says. It would thwart the true will of the people.

His administration has not cooperated with the transition team of the president-elect. In a hastily brought lawsuit, the Supreme Court is considering the matter, but Trump says this is not the Court’s decision to make. It is the people’s decision. And the people have re-elected him, as his investigation will show. In the meantime, there will be no transfer of power.

He has ordered the military to cordon off Washington. As a precaution, he says, to prevent agitators and terrorists from trying to thwart democracy. The White House is surrounded by tanks, guns pointed out toward the sparse clumps of people who have dared to gather. Some carry placards denouncing Trump. News video, taken clandestinely, shows protesters being hauled away by uniformed men.

Couldn’t happen, you say.

Are you sure?

This is the man who said he might not accept the election results in 2016 if they didn’t go his way. The man who is signing executive orders to wall us in and to deport those he doesn’t think belong here. The man withdrawing support for reproductive health care for women around the world, threatening to withdraw support for our allies in NATO, openly admiring a ruthless autocrat. The man who brazenly claims to have won the 2016 popular vote because there were millions of illegal votes, who tried to pressure the Park Service into supporting his patently absurd claims about crowd size at his inauguration, who sends his senior counsellor out to meet allegations of lies with “alternative facts.” This is the man who's chief strategist thinks the media is the opposition and that it should "keep its mouth shut."

Is he delusional? Or is he just a coldly calculating tyrant? Does it matter? 

When we consider how fast and ruthlessly he is acting now, can we even imagine the scope of his power, and the threat it will pose, after four years?

What can we do?

First: acknowledge that the threat is real. This is not politics as usual. Our democracy and the rights of all citizens are in jeopardy.

Second: resist. Now. Not later, when it may be too late. Resist every single step he takes toward making himself a dictator. Call him out. March against his usurpation of power, his perversion of rational thought, his lurid appeals to fear and anger.
Don’t stand by and watch it happen. As citizens of the world’s greatest and most enduring democracy, this our crisis, our problem, not someone else’s. Get involved. Go into the meeting halls and streets of America and raise your voice for what you know is right about the way we should treat one another: with deference, with respect, and with optimism.

Risk your comfort and tranquility.

Or risk your freedom.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Our Real-Life Actual Fairy Godmother

By the time we moved to town, Pat Briggs had been running the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre for 45 years. Our son Nicholas was bitten by the theater bug when he was four. He was ten when we arrived at our new California home. He’d been in a summer theatre workshop the year before, and when we bought our house, the fact that the storied Palo Alto Children’s Theater was just down the street was a big selling point.

Pat Briggs at her retirement tribute.
Nick tried out for a play not two months after we arrived. Hundreds of kids were at the auditions for “Alice in Wonderland.” Pat and her Assistant Director, Micheal Litfin, a man of comparatively short tenure, only 25 years, ran the auditions the way Mussolini would have if he had been both autocratic and loved children. Pat held court, clipboard in her lap, from a seat in a middle row of the theatre, while Michael, dressed as he almost always was in a yellow cardigan sweater, ran the Dickensian horde through their paces. All children, ages 8-18. No adults allowed in Pat’s and Michael’s productions.

Gulp! This was the big time.

“Remember, there will be other plays if you don’t make this one,” we told Nick.

Mirable dictu, he got a part. He was the King of Hearts. Don’t remember that role? It was big, I assure you. Huge! He snagged it by improvising his now legendary stutter-step as he moved about the stage trying to keep his head.

So began a fabulous five years. Nick was in play after play. Little roles, big roles. Pat and Michael spread the wealth. The kids did it all. Acted, designed and built sets, handled tech. In addition to Pat and Michael there was tech guy to make sure no one cut off a finger sawing a prop, a costume virtuoso, a ticket seller jack-of-all-trades, and hundreds of parent volunteers selling brownies at intermissions and manning the barbecue grill for summer hot-dog theatre shows on the outdoor stage of the Magic Castle, which had been built through the efforts of the Friends of the Children's Theatre, a kind of private fundraising militia that Pat controlled in her casually tyrannical way.

The theatre was built with money from a contribution in 1932 by Lucie Stern. The city paid most of the operating bills of the theatre. Money raised by the Friends let Pat do things like improve the sound system when the city said it could not afford to do more. My wife and I were part of the Friends posse. Everyone was. Pat never said it would be a good idea, if you wanted to see your child in a show, but it seemed like a good idea.

We had a lot of fun. We went to a lot of shows. We waited up late for Nick to get home from rehearsals a lot of nights. We worried about when he would do his homework from school. But there was never any doubt that he was having the time of his life. He did plays, he did “Second-Saturday” shows, entirely directed by him and his fellow players for young children, he interviewed survivors of Nazi Germany for an original play to be written by him and his friends with the guidance of Michael Litfin, who himself had written dozens of the plays produced at the theatre.

It was an unbelievably rich time: rich in creativity, talent, comradeship, empathy and the joy of starting from nothing and putting on a dazzling show.

Just as Nick was making a transition from semi-full-time actor to semi-full-time robotics team programmer, Pat retired after 50 years and Michael died suddenly. He was only 62. One of the last things he said, speaking of his life, was: “It was a great run.”

No one could have said it better.

Pat is not well now. She has moved to Chicago, where one of her nieces lives. I just went by her California house, which is near mine, in the hope of catching her other niece from Colorado, who is in town to help deal with Pat’s accumulations of a lifetime. Like any theatre person worth her salt, Pat was a bit of a hoarder. You never knew when you might need those Valkyrie wings for another production. There are scripts and scrapbooks and memorabilia, awards by the dozen. It’s easy to see in the clutter the benevolent and indulgent temperament that made her so patient and effective with children, that enabled her to guide them in a way that ultimately let them guide themselves.

I did meet her niece, a lovely woman. I told her who I was and asked for Pat’s address so I could write to her in Chicago. I told her that Pat had touched countless lives, including those of our family. I told her we would never forget her.

All writers hope that their words will endure beyond their pitifully short time on this earth. A book can be taken off the shelf and enjoyed decades or centuries later. It’s a form of immortality.

Pat Briggs has left her theatre family, the children and families of fifty years of plays, a dozen a year, year after year, her own special kind of immortality. She will live on in thousands of young hearts as long as memories are revisited around dinner tables and in quiet moments of reflection about what she and Michael taught us about stories, and about ourselves.