Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Better, or Not

  friend:  the pandemic must be over, because the mass shootings have begun. what a fucked up country.

me:  it’s hard to be optimistic right now. but let me ask you this: are people generally better or worse off than 100 years ago?

friend:  well…he says reluctantly and without caps...better. but is that the right comparison?

That’s an exchange I had this morning with a friend. We’ve all gotten a little covid-curmudgeonly, but it's a fair question: are we better off when considered over the span of a century, and is that the right standard?

Most of us want to see progress continue in something like a straight line. That’s what I thought was happening when my friend and I were young. WW II was behind us, Europe was rebuilding; we shucked off Viet Nam and Jim Crow. 

Now I see that our society’s progress is like that of the stock market. The trend may be up, but when you’re in the middle of a painful setback, it can feel like the worst of times.

Jim Crow is back, wearing a suit this time. He’s just as dangerous…or is he? The contempt for blacks in the South of my youth wasn’t spoken in code words, it was right out there in plain language. If you were black, you bowed your head and stepped off the sidewalk when a white man passed.

We didn’t have mass shootings back then, but the violent streak that underlies them was certainly there. Bar fights and the occasional lynching were the outlets.

I just read The Cold Millions, a novel by Jess Walter that paints a frightening picture of labor oppression and police brutality in Spokane a hundred years ago. You wouldn’t want to live through that. Is it worse today on the South Side of Chicago? Maybe, maybe not.

We can’t get away with casual cruelty as easily now as then. There may be just as much of it, but it is called out more often. Racist attacks and sexual abuse, so common a mere generation ago, are less tolerated. Reckonings come more often, and more swiftly.

Maybe the reason things seem so bad sometimes is that we are learning to expect better. We won’t tolerate being kicked around as easily as we have in the past. We have voices. We demand to be heard.

This creates quite a lot of noise, but that’s what it takes to make change. Nothing is gained that is not demanded.

It’s a shame that we never seem to reach our goal of a more just and equal society. We may never. But little by little we are making better communities for ourselves by demanding them. 

It’s exhausting to keep it up, but it must be done.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Pretty Fly for an Old White Guy

I just saw a headline saying President Biden has rolled out the most aggressive climate change agenda of any president. Other headlines have noted his plans to deal with racial and economic inequality. He wants to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure. He wants to rebuild our relationships with our allies. 

If we progressives aren’t cheering, I don’t know why. We may have feared Biden would be a milquetoast, but in his policies he’s roaring like a liberal lion. And he’s staffing our government with experienced, smart people who can make his plans happen. And he’s doing it all fast.

I didn’t even mention his COVID response. He’s doing what the federal government should have been doing all along. It’s just that we got so far off course with you-know-who in charge that ordinary competence seems like a miracle.

It’s a great relief to believe again that our government is doing the right thing.

Biden will be a good technocrat, to use a popular term I don’t particularly like, but I think he’ll be much more than that. In his first week in office, he has shown himself to be humane, determined and decisive. All without polemic. 

Remember the old saying that only Nixon could go to China? (He was on record as strongly anti-communist, so when he traveled to China and restored our relations with it, no one could say he was soft of the Reds.) Well, maybe only a man with well-established moderate leanings could act so boldly now on so many progressive fronts.

It’s early days. Mitch and his gang are still going to be obstructionists. They hated deficits before they loved them, and now they hate them again. Congress will do what it always does when it’s so evenly divided: as little as possible, and that grudgingly. But president Biden is running the Executive Branch, and he will run it for the benefit of all of us, including especially those who have not had their voices heard for too long.

For the first time in four years, I’m going to stop worrying about my government and return to pursuits that are more personal and, though perhaps no easier to achieve, make me feel like I can accomplish something again, and that it won’t be a waste of time because at any moment I might have to flee the land of my birth where for the last four years I'd heard the drumbeats of fascism that Europeans heard in the 1930s as Hitler rose to power and began to marginalize and purge anyone he didn’t like, all to the enthusiastic salutes and rapturous cheers of ordinary Germans seduced by his cult of himself above all else.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Way We Were

I want my country back.

I’ll admit I’m not completely certain what that means anymore. 

Am I longing for the white-male-chauvanist orderliness of my youth? No, we have to get past that, and we are, and of course rearranging our political and social norms on the scale that we are now engaged in is going to upset some people, maybe most people, but we have to persist. The people who have not had a voice must now be heard, and we must listen.

That’s not what is going on at this moment, though. The anger boiling into our streets, and into our Capitol, is not a cry for mercy and justice. It is the death rage of a group who are losing their grip on power and are digging in to keep it. White supremacists is not too harsh a label for them. Not just for the Proud Boys among them, but as well for the huge number of ordinary citizens who have been quick to pour out their hatred on social media and in public squares, who are ready to take up arms to protect their increasingly marginalized place in America.

They have been inspired and encouraged by our president. He is our very own modern Jefferson Davis. 

Without an actual civil war, he has been defeated. But he leaves behind an angry mob that must be sent back home, or if they won’t go home peacefully, jailed.

We have to stop tolerating the hatred our president has encouraged.

He should be impeached. I doubt he’ll be convicted (even though I think he should be), but he should be barred, under the 14th Amendment, from ever holding federal office again.

Those who rioted in the Capitol should be arrested and tried.

The members of the House and Senate who on January 6 challenged the certification of the presidential election, after those results had been certified by the respective states and all judicial challenges dismissed, should be barred from serving in Congress.

Insurrections must have consequences. Any governor and any parent can tell you that.

Social media must stop allowing itself to be a bulletin board for hatred. 

We have to calm down and go back to striving to be a nation of mutual respect and cooperative industriousness.

That’s the country I want back.

Friday, January 8, 2021


When we were in college together, one of my oldest friends and I dated girls in the same dorm. They said they would look out the window and see us coming across the quad, he swaying from side to side as he walked, me bouncing on my toes. They said it was comical.

He greatly expanded my vocabulary and taught me that A-1 sauce is brilliant on french fries. We hung out together, dropped out together, resurrected ourselves separately, lost touch, and finally reconnected a few years ago.

One of my newest friends and I walk together too, or did pre-Covid. He taught me about Asia, both past and present, beginning with my attendance at his defense of his master’s thesis on early trade in China, something he undertook late in life. Such a thing would be way too ambitious for me—I still have test nightmares (see above about dropping out)—but his scholarship introduced me to his deep knowledge of the area and his charming way of imparting it.

So: a much better vocabulary at a young age and an appreciation for the varied uses of A-1 sauce from one friend; knowledge of half the world I knew little about from another. Pretty good bookends for me.

I have other friends I’ve learned from, lots of them, but not many I’ve stuck with. Sometimes that’s just my bad luck. I’ve changed jobs or locations. Sometimes the learning became too tedious.

A friendship is like a good long book. It’s comfortable, you enjoy it, and you learn something every time you pick it up. You need all three elements for it to last.

Good dinner-table repartee can be stimulating, occasionally even exhilarating, especially after a few glasses of wine have fortified your views and loosened your tongue, but it’s not always comfortable for the long term. Indeed, the thrill and tension of it make it a rich emotional diet. It’s a Gran Marnier soufflé: delicious in the moment, but too much trouble to make and too many calories for daily consumption.

I have common ground with these two friends, one old and one new, but we’re not in an echo chamber. They’re curious about why things and people are the way they are. Being curious is pretty much the opposite of being certain.

Sure, we kid around about what morons some people seem to be, especially lately when discussing politics, but they would welcome the opportunity to look into the hearts of those on the other side of any issue. They aren’t afraid of what they might find there.

There’s not a whole lot of looking into hearts going on in broad social and political discourse these days. We’re mostly left to deal in generalities and caricatures.

Friends are the opposite of generalities and caricatures. They are specific and nuanced.

I have no illusion that the way I relate to two friends works on a broader, more anonymous scale. Maybe that’s all there is to it. We learn from and grow with our friends and navigate the rest of the world the way one navigates a mountain trail: watching our footing, alert to danger, enjoying the scenery, but not really anxious to camp out full-time in the wilderness.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Born Again

How about that! 

Democrats stole—sorry, won—another big election in Georgia yesterday. Now we have the White House and majorities, albeit slim, in both houses of Congress. It’s been a long time since we've been in that position.

Joe Biden is no firebrand progressive, but he’s the right man for the task before us. He’ll make a sincere effort to heal divisions. If there is anything everyone agrees on about him it is that he is empathetic and sincere. He won’t try to use his congressional majorities to adopt sweeping liberal policies. He’ll be moderate. We need liberal policies for the future, but right now we have to restore faith in government. Half the country voted for Trump and his stingy, nativist platform. We’re not going to win them all over right away, or even ever, in many cases—there are plenty of folks still fighting the Civil War, or the “Lost Cause”, as they call it—but we can do better than Trump did at bringing the country together.

There is so much hard work ahead that we will do well to just make a start on the things that most of us, even most Trump supporters, know we need. Infrastructure repairs, for a start. The economy runs on roads and bridges. The electric grid runs on wires and generators and software. Our water supply runs through underground pipes. All of those are out of date, some dangerously so.

The other area where most of us, as individuals, feel the need for better protection is healthcare. Repairing the Affordable Care Act will be a good start. If we get a chance to do things like add a public option to Medicare, or reduce the age of eligibility, to test how well those kinds of expansions work, so much the better. State aid to the poor through Medicaid expansion is still missing in many states; that is literally killing a lot of people. The Supreme Court ruled that Medicaid expansion under the ACA had to be voluntary for the states, but maybe there is something we can do with a change in the law to push, or coax, reluctant states to get on board.

There are plenty of other sensible and humane policies that we can move forward on now, like immigration reform. Not to mention the power of the President to restore our place in the world as a policy leader and beacon of hope.

I had become a little cynical and pessimistic watching Trump and McConnell and their followers run roughshod over the country. I don’t like that in myself, so I am relieved to feel a new lightness of being, a new hope. 

One might say I am born again. 

I never thought Jesus was a white man, being from the Middle East and all. And now I know he isn’t even a man. With her resurrection of the black vote in Georgia, the role of our savior is now being played by Stacey Abrams.

Monday, December 28, 2020

You’re Right, You’re Right...

One of my favorite movie lines is from “When Harry Met Sally,” when Carrie Fisher’s character realizes (over and over) that the married man she loves is not going to get a divorce: “You’re right, you’re right, he’s never going to leave her,” she tells her long-suffering friends, who never thought he would.

I think of that line often when watching the world. For all my life I’ve been as certain as Carrie Fisher was that things would change for the better, that we would make progress against problems like poverty and its kissing cousin, racial inequality. 

We don’t casually lynch blacks anymore; now police simply shoot them. We don’t have open sewers in our cities; we have sidewalk homeless encampments.

I’m not saying things are as bad as they were a hundred years ago. Most of us have electricity and indoor plumbing now. But those represent technological progress.

Progress of the spirit, of character, has been more elusive. Racial hatred is as white hot now as during Reconstruction. Stinginess and indifference to the economic suffering of others is as hardened as it was in the Gilded Age.

The internet promised to usher in a golden information age. It did, but it also spawned Facebook and Twitter, where facts compete with cons on equal footing. With no trusted guiding light, no Walter Cronkite assuring us “that’s the way it is,” we are in something like darkness. And, as the Phantom of the Opera put it, “In the dark, it is easy to pretend that the truth is what it ought to be.”

Enabled by fake facts, Trump rode a wave of belligerent, aggrieved populism to become a modern George Wallace on a national scale; while Mitch McConnell played Machiavelli to the corrupt princes of what is still called the Republican Party, but which bears a greater resemblance to the white Citizens’ Councils of a century ago.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Our clothes are nicer now, our cars fancier; we have iPhones and YouTube. But we’re still the same as we ever were: tribal and driven by Darwinian urges. Scratch our pretty surface with a crisis or a grievance and you find base metal.

Our unchanging basic nature does make stories from the past relatable. I totally get how Ulysses felt when, after a perilous journey home from war, he found suitors to his wife lounging about his home. The Guillotines of the French Revolution, too, make bloody sense. It doesn’t take that much stress to jolt us into our own episodes of Breaking Bad.

My epiphany is not depressing to me. I wish we could improve (and maybe we have a little), but acknowledging that fundamentally we don’t seem to be able to is empowering. We might as well forget about enlightening our base brains and instead concentrate on how to enlist them to the causes our cognitive lobes find to be just.

This is basically the premise of capitalism. Let everyone pursue their own self-interest, and Adam Smith’s invisible hand will spread around the benefits. Even Smith’s invisible hand, though, is guided by base instincts now and then, routinely shoving more of its benefits toward the side of the table where the masters sit.

So we have taxes and regulations to try to smooth that out. They work okay, better than most other approaches, until the people making the rules are permitted to make them mainly for themselves. Elections are supposed to be a check on that. 

We’re having a little trouble with elections lately.

Which is why what is happening in our democracy at this moment is so threatening. If we don’t have a practical way to throw out those who abuse their position in government, there is no invisible hand of equity. The only hand we’ll be left with is the one reaching into our pockets.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Depending on Others

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much we depend on others. Overall, we’re a self-reliant lot, but we need each other’s cooperation and support more than we like to admit. “You didn’t build that,” Barack Obama famously said in 2012. He was talking about how public infrastructure gives each of us a leg up when we want to start a new enterprise.

His point almost seems quaint now, at a time when for most of us starting a new business is taking a back seat to staying alive. The essence of his thought, though, is more important now than ever. To stay alive in a pandemic, we have to depend on one another.

On our families, friends and neighbors to wear masks and be sensible about where and with whom they gather.

On our legislators to rush emergency aid to those caring for the sick and those who have been forced out of work and can’t afford to put dinner on the table.

On our fellow citizens to pull together, to do the equivalent of buying war bonds, for this is indeed a war.

So, how’s that going?

Don’t want to wear a mask? Grab your assault rifle and surround the home of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. Or if you’re not into that level of militant vigilantism, just have family and friends over for the holidays, because, you know, that’s what you’ve always done. 

Maybe you’re a Republican in the Senate, considering your political future, which seems to occupy much of the time of many senators. Get behind Mitch McConnell’s opposition to giving aid to suffering state and local governments. Why should you help those wasteful Democrat-run blue states? What did they ever do for you?

You’re not a fancy politician, you say, just an average Joe. Don’t despair. Go to Facebook and troll those vote-stealing, socialist Democrats. You’ll find plenty of company.

We’re an independent lot, we Americans. We don’t like to be told what to do. We’re reacting to Covid restrictions like we do to soda bans.

We’ve always been free to eat unhealthily, and we’re seeing the result of that in staggering obesity rates. Many are insisting on being free to gather and not wear masks, and we’re seeing the result of that in staggering Covid infection and death rates.

You’d think we’d figure out that we’re only hurting ourselves. Maybe we’re slow learners.

All this leaves me wondering about my place in a society that seems hell-bent on libertarianism.  No matter what I think is best for the public good, if we won’t cooperate with each other, at some point it gets down to every man for himself.

Billionaire preppers have escape bunkers in New Zealand. Survivalists of more modest means have mountain redoubts stocked with shotgun shells and canned goods.

Maybe I should reread Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road for clues about how best to get through this.

Friday, December 11, 2020

The Downswing

After the Civil War, Reconstruction brought economic and political progress for former slaves, only to have both crushed by Southern white backlash. That same one step forward, two steps back happened again after decades of racial progress in the first half of the 20th century came to a halt following (ironically) the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The culprit, according to Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett in their book The Upswing, was again white backlash and a societal shift from communitarian values to selfishness. 

When we pull together, we all prosper; when we don’t, the disadvantaged get left behind. The course we take depends on the threats we perceive. When they are external, as they were in WW I and WW II, we put aside our differences to defeat the common enemy. If we see them as internal, however, from those among us who are not like us, for instance, our instinct is to weed them out. One might call the last four years under Gold Logo Man an attempt at a “Great Weeding Out.”

The thing about weeds, is they are persistent. Long term, it's hard to see how privileged gardeners can do much more than carve out small botanical sanctuaries for themselves.

What they are fighting is not weeds, but the diversity of our species, the very thing that enables us to survive plagues and pandemics, both viral and economic, that would wipe out a more homogeneous group.

Climate change is an existential threat, but it is not the only one. If we don’t nurture the diverse members of our society who give us the strength of heterogeneity, then even before the swollen seas of climate change swallow Miami, a great upheaval of the kind that inevitably follows the egocentric reigns of monarchies and despots will wash over us, leaving in its wake economic and political wreckage scattered over the landscape like the debris of ruined huts and foundered boats on a tropical beach after a tsunami.

Sunday, November 1, 2020


I remember when my father died as if it were yesterday. It was almost fifty years ago. I stayed in his hospital room for the last two weeks of his life, sleeping on a cot restlessly, waiting. 

When he was gone, my mom needed help, and I gave her all I could. I wound up Dad’s affairs, paid his back taxes, found a smaller house for her. My much younger brother could have used some help as well. I wasn’t much good to him, for which I am sorry to this day.

I went back to my life in another state, with my wife and three young children. There wasn’t much time in those busy days to think about what it meant to lose Dad, but I think I understand it better now.

Dad had his problems. He and I argued about everything, but we loved the things we did together, even the arguing. And he had my back, which needed cover more often that I liked to admit. When he was gone, I had to have my own back.

I was young and cocky, so I didn’t think there was a problem with that. It’s a funny thing, though, to lose someone like that. I missed the love, the times with him, but there was another loss that I didn’t understand. Even now it’s hard to describe what it was like to leave his hospital room on that final day and walk into my life without him. “Unprotected” is the best I can come up with.

Waiting out the current presidential election has been a little like staying in Dad’s hospital room. I’m afraid something is dying. Worse, like Dad in his last days, hooked up to a respirator and unresponsive, I’m afraid it’s already dead.

My country? Is that what I mean? 

I don’t think so. I’m not much of a nationalist, never have been. I like America, and I respect our achievements over the past century, but, like Dad, our country is deeply flawed, and a little too sure of itself.

No, what I think I am already beginning to morn is the loss of protection. Not for me this time, but for the millions in our land who need our help. The kind we can only give collectively and broadly through government.

We’ve so markedly and willingly withdrawn our protection from those most in need that, even if we change the head of government, I don’t know if we will ever offer its warmth and succor freely again. We’ve never been great at what people call welfare; we all suffer a bit from the myth that we are self-made, that if we can do it everyone should.

But we used to try.

LBJ dreamed of the great society. Barack Obama summoned our empathy.

We’re not dreaming now. And empathy has been smothered under the crushing burdens of resentment and selfishness.

Dad is dead, and we have to look after ourselves now. I’m not sure we’re up to it.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

I Didn't Realize You Felt That Way

I’ve been with someone for many years, and we’ve had a big falling out. One of those where things are said that can’t be un-said, or un-heard. The kind of falling out that makes me think: If that’s how you feel, we don’t have anything to talk about.

Fortunately, I have not fallen out with my romantic partner, or one of my children. Or even a close friend.

It’s both not that bad, and worse. I’ve fallen out with my country.

I grew up in the Jim Crow South, so nothing said today by the proud boys or men toting assault weapons as proxies for burning crosses is new to me. I heard it all in the fifties and sixties in redneck bars and the men’s grill at the country club. It’s just that until the last few years I had thought that kind of racist, misogynist thinking was, if not completely behind us, at least receding in the rear-view mirror.

Now it’s painfully obvious that it has not been receding at all. Like locusts, it has merely been waiting in the dark earth for blood and soil to call it back to the surface. Its terrifying husks of rage are swarming again.

There’s little chance of reconciliation. No one is listening. We’re way past that. I live in coastal Northern California, which is something like living in blue Stepford. It’s fine, but I feel isolated and confined.

I don’t like the tribal solution: I stick with my peeps, you with yours. That just makes things worse. And I can’t look away from the hatred. I see it on faces in the news every day.

I have no illusion that there is a paradise of sensible thinking and tolerance to which I can relocate. The hatred is everywhere, not just in our country. Something has happened to us, as a people, and it’s ugly.

Climate change and the deprivations it will bring, is bringing, are only going to make it uglier. I don’t want to run. I don’t want to march. I just want us to settle down and live our lives with respect and empathy for others.

Maybe the current election will bring kinder people back into government. Maybe they can help us learn to care about one another again. Maybe they can help us heal.

If not, I’m afraid this relationship is over.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us *

  Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Becalmed, we are. 

No wind in our sails. Scanning the horizon for help. Glare on a broad flat expanse that is so empty we can see the unflinching curve of the earth.

So we row, and we hope. We are still alive, while many are not, so we are the lucky ones.

It’s a strange feeling to have to stay away from people. We are lucky if we have that option.

Isolation is probably not evolutionarily adaptive. So we poke our heads out when it seems the danger must have passed, even though it has not.

I don’t know how long we, individually or collectively, can keep it up, or what will happen as we let down our guard, as we already are. We don’t want to believe this is real, so many of us refuse to. We are not a nation of natural mask wearers. 

The pressure to get back to normal is enormous. Both psychologically and economically. But this is a more formidable pathogen than we have faced in living memory. Maybe we’ll get a vaccine. Maybe it will save us. If not, we are going to lose a lot more friends and family before this is over, if indeed it ever is.

How will we handle that? That is the question on my mind lately. Will we pull together or apart?

The conventional wisdom is that a common enemy unites us, but that’s not what is happening this time. We are at war not only with the virus, but with ourselves. 

If we continue that way, we will certainly lose.


* Walt Kelly, in a Pogo strip

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Time to Rebuild

I’m starting to feel embarrassed about what I have that others don’t. I’m part of the crowd that just keeps getting richer while so many others are getting poorer. 

I’m not doing anything special to deserve that. 

In my working prime I made money and invested it. I sent my kids to public and private schools and took advantage of good healthcare plans. Now I’m riding a wave of passive capital appreciation at historically low tax rates.

I make charitable contributions, but they don’t even make a dent in the problem.

The problem, of course, is systemic inequality. Inequality in income and opportunity. Inequality in buffers for unexpected job loss or bad health. So much inequality, covering every aspect of life. 

It’s not just a few people who don’t have enough to live on, who can’t afford to go to a doctor, who can’t see that their children get good educations. It’s most.

American society today is as stratified as it has been since WW II. After the Robber Barrons, after the Depression, we made progress. Now we’re slipping back into a new Gilded Age. Our stark class differences would seem familiar to Charles Dickens and Marie Antoinette. Indeed, scenes from the barricades have been playing out these these last few nights in fiery protests in so many cities.

I'm ashamed of how we have abandoned so many of our citizens. I want to aid them through an institution that I no longer trust: the United States government. Only government—federal, state and local—can put in place the health, education and economic infrastructure to support its citizens more equally.

Not this national government, though. Our federal government needs to be rebuilt with wise, trustworthy people who care about others. Then it needs to collect sufficient taxes from me and others who are well off and use that income to support those who are less well off.

It’s that simple, really. As simple as pulling a lever in a voting booth this fall.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Those Who Made My World

May 8 is VE Day, the day in 1945 when the war in Europe was won. I was born six weeks later. I was two weeks old when America incinerated Hiroshima and then Nagasaki with atomic bombs. Three weeks after that, Japan surrendered. So I was born in the middle of the end of the last world war.

I only knew about it from a few family stories and history books. We rebuilt Europe with the Marshall Plan and righted the global economy at Breton Woods. I grew up in the sweet suburbs of those victories and the prosperity they ushered in. 

I knew about the Korean War, because my parents told me about their friends who died there. I knew about the Red Scare. I ducked and covered under my desk in grade-school nuclear drills. I didn’t like the war in Viet Nam, but I had been raised on the need to fight communism, and I wasn’t yet wise enough to recognize a far-away country’s internal struggles as being no threat to us and none of our business.

I grew up with American right and might. When we turned our national attention to our racial injustices, it seemed natural and proper that after fighting so many foreign wars to insure our freedom we would take steps to better secure that right for all our citizens.

I don’t idolize the men and women who built my world, but I respect them. I respect their ability to dig in and get the job done when called upon. They had a big bacchanal in the 20s, and a big economic hangover in the 30s, but they sobered up and rolled up their sleeves when it was obvious they had to. Yes, they didn’t do it until then. They didn’t want to get into another world war. Who could blame them? But when it came to them, they did not hesitate or stint. They cranked out bombers and tanks and they bought war bonds. They saved the world that became my world.

Now we are faced with another great war, this time against a deadly virus, both real and metaphorical. The real one is killing us. The metaphorical one is destroying who we are.

In response to the Coronavirus Pearl Harbor, our president has not roused our nation to common purpose and sacrifice, he has said it’s up to the states to tackle this enemy. It’s like saying some of them should make tanks, some fighter planes, some bombers, and they should figure it out and compete with one another for the materials to do their work. If Roosevelt had taken that approach, we’d all be speaking German. Or Japanese. Or, as Philip K. Dick imagined in The Man in the High Castle, both.

Roosevelt exhorted us to pull together. Trump incites us to attack one another. Roosevelt gave us Social Security. Trump is doing his best to kill off the Affordable Care Act.

Can you imagine Roosevelt addressing the nation the way Trump does? Can you imagine Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, the reporters we listened to and trusted to tell us the truth, on Fox News?

The men and women running our national government today are not making a world we want our children to inhabit. Are we going to do anything about it? Or are we going to continue basting in our provincial certitudes and hatreds until the world made for us with such purpose, strength and determination after World War II is gone?

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

When Dad Left and Didn't Come Back

I still remember when Dad abandoned us.

He was a salesman, and a good one, the kind who could sell ice to Eskimos. He would put on his suit and tie and go off to big sales meetings and come home with a big smile and a pocket full of money. This one time, though, he didn’t come back.

We lived in a big rambling house out in the country. There were a lot of us, siblings and cousins. When he left, it was just like always at first. Some of us went wild. Some of us stayed in our rooms. Most of us did a little of both. 

He called about the time he would normally come home and Alice talked to him. She told him we were running low on food. He said he was sure he had left the pantry stocked. We didn’t hear from him again.

At first we fought over everything, but when it became clear that Dad wasn’t coming back and there wasn’t enough to go around, some of the cousins said they were leaving. They thought they would be better off making their way on their own. The rest of us started dividing up what was left and trying to think up ways to get more.

We weren’t too successful. We borrowed from neighbors, but we were out in the country, and our neighbors were far away and didn’t know us well, and I don’t think they trusted us. We took turns going into town to try to do odd jobs for food, but there wasn’t much to do. We ended up stealing canned goods from the backs of shelves, so they wouldn’t be missed.

That was a tough time. We survived, all but Joey, who got a terrible fever and was gone before we could do anything. We buried him in the back yard as best we could.

We didn’t have a mother. I don’t think a mother would have left us. I say that because who saved us was a nice woman from social services. She said our dad wasn’t going to be our dad anymore. She got us some food and clothes and school books.

When we got old enough, we all moved away. I was the last one to leave. I haven’t been back to the old house since then. It’s probably falling down by now, with no one to care for it. That’s what happens when you abandon your home.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The World on Fire

How do we think about this time? What do we say about it, to ourselves, to others?

Writers, especially, are prone to think about the details of what is happening to each of us. “Sit before that tree until you can describe how it is different from every other tree,” goes one piece of writing advice. Everyday ordinariness is our stock in trade.

There is nothing ordinary about a pandemic. It sweeps away normal life, or obscures it in fog. The virus now afoot ravages our imaginations in much the same way it does our bodies. We are as agitated and distracted as a wounded animal. Survival has become our principal focus.

And yet, even as distracted as we are, even as desperate to survive, unless we are actually sick, we are becalmed. Forced into unnatural isolation. Into contemplation, for the mind seeks, always. Even, or especially, when it is forced to be still.

In such times, it seeks to know why, to understand what it means for the future. We live in the future, even though it is only in our imaginations. We get ready for it by stocking up on flour and eggs and making plans for taking care of those dear to us.

Planning is not a choice. It is hard-wired into us as a highly adaptive evolutionary trait. Our stories are about grasshoppers and ants and little pigs who build their houses out of bricks.

In real time, planning is nothing more than living. We do it moment-by-moment, instinctively, until the moments add up and we see that our plan was good or bad and, if it was bad, we change it. We know there is a long term that we must prepare for, but we plan mainly in small, immediate ways. Another carton of eggs, another bag of flour. Mend the broken roof tiles. If there is some spare cash, set it aside in the children’s education fund. If not, do our best to teach them the things we know they will need to succeed: kindness, empathy. These more than the Pythagorean theorem (which we’re a little vague on anyway, so how important can it be?).

This why we write about everyday life. Because it is where life lives. It is where the species survives or dies. The details of how we live tell us who we are. So that others may know us and themselves, those are the stories we share, even when it seems the world is on fire.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Man Who Didn't Cry Wolf

Once upon a time there was a man who thought only of himself.

“You should think of others,” someone must have told him once, perhaps when he was young, when it was still safe to tell him things he didn’t want to hear.

As he grew older, when he was told something disagreeable, he just refused to believe it. 

“That’s not true,” he would say. If he was told again that it was true, he got angry. No one wanted to be around him when he got angry, so his circle narrowed to those who always told him what he wanted to hear. Which was only good news.

Naturally, he believed them. And because the news was always good, and told to him, of course he began to see that he himself was the cause of the good news. Over time, it became an article of faith to him that bad news would mean he had failed, unimaginably, to cause it to be good news.

No one wanted to tell him he had failed, so no one told him bad news.

Bad news was not only withheld from him, he was protected from its consequences. He had a huge staff of servants eager to do his bidding, because he paid them very well. They made sure he never heard the bad news, and that it never hurt him.

The bad news did hurt others though, and they threatened to tell him about it. So his servants had to work especially hard not only to not let the bad news be conveyed to him, but to convince anyone who might tell him that it wasn’t bad news at all, it was good news, and they should be thankful that he was the source of it. 

If anyone wasn’t thankful, they were dealt with. Many of them were deported or otherwise banished from his presence. The ones who couldn’t be deported or banished, at least not yet, were discredited. They were called out as heretics, and the faithful, the true believers, turned on them and silenced them.

He began to believe he was not only infallible but also invincible. He ordered his servants and all others who came in contact with the public to humiliate and destroy anyone who opposed him.

One day, the wolf came. He had not cried wolf, like the boy in the story, because he did not believe wolves existed. No one had dared tell him they did. So when the wolf cornered him in his bedroom, he was completely unprepared. He was defenseless. 

It’s not known whether he put up a fight. There was nothing left of him by which to judge whether he had been valiant or cowardly. He had had no practice at being either, shielded from reality as he had been all his life. 

His remains, such as they were, were found in a corner, regurgitated by the wolf, which had apparently found him unappetizing. Of course, were he still alive, no one would dare tell him that.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Day 5

We have been on lockdown here in the San Francisco Bay Area for five days. That sounds like the beginning of a story about the Donner Party. Meg and I were in Truckee just last week, so the Donner Party is on my mind. We haven’t turned to cannibalism yet, but it is hard to get groceries delivered. Still no toilet paper. Now wishing I had saved those cloth diapers from when my kids were babies.

The rest of the state has joined us on lockdown. And New York and Illinois. Most of the country may not be far behind. The rough economic patch that began with the sub-prime loan meltdown became known as the Great Recession. This one may be called the “Great Grinding to a Halt.”

It is very strange to sit in your house all day. We’re not used to that. Who knows when we might turn on each other. “The Shining” comes to Palo Alto.

This is more than Day 5. We’ve all seen it coming and gradually cut back our activities. My last trip into the wild was to pick up something at a store on March 3. Since then it has been nods from six feet. So, by that reckoning, this is Day 17.

We go out for walks, but we walk across the street when we see other walkers coming toward us, or they do. We all smile and wave, but we keep up a steady pace. Ever since I read that the virus hangs in the air for a bit, I have tried to avoid walking behind people, to stay out of their vapor trail. I think of the jets I see going overhead and I imagine a virus contrail.

I don’t have any heartwarming stories of neighbors selflessly helping others. Mostly we are all keeping to ourselves, as we have been ordered to do, and as is sensible. A very few idiots seem to think the rules don’t apply to them, or their gardeners, but by and large, we all seem to be playing ball. We’re trying to flatten the curve so that when we do get sick, as most of us will, there will be ventilators for everyone who needs them.

The alternative of rationing medical care based on some judgment of who should live and who should die doesn’t seem attractive.

We talk by phone to our children, all grown up and far away, and wish we could be there to keep them from being lonely. I suppose we imagine playing games with them like when they were young. Probably their worst nightmare.

We’re all a little stoic, and a little scared.

And we have a long way to go. This is only Day 5 of likely a hundred or more, off and on. I would say that, with all that time on my hands, all my clutter will be organized by the time we come out of this. But probably not. Right now, my mind is more cluttered than my drawers.