Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Death of Me

Remember that old expression, “You’re going to be the death of me”?

You may not. You may have been better behaved as a child than I was. As I recall, it was usually spoken to me by an older relative. I never took it too seriously. In fact, I thought it was vaguely flattering, an implicit acknowledgement that I was too active, and by extension, too clever, for them to keep up. By merely trying they might collapse in exhaustion. Now that I think about it, that might have been my strategy. Not an actual collapse by my wardens, but at least a resigned relaxation of surveillance.

Well, now that strategy is being turned against me. I’m the sluggish old fogey. My tormentors aren’t my children or nephews, they are zealots pursuing their mad objectives as hyperactively as I pursued minor delinquencies.


They’re going to trash my neighborhood, but not with eggs, water balloons and toilet paper. They’re armed cultural vigilantes. It’s as if my boyhood friends and I weren’t satisfied with occasional freedom to do our private mischief but wanted to terrorize our parents and grandparents into never coming out of the house.


Need and abortion? Better not Google that. Someone is watching. Want to go to the corner grocery? Better keep an eye out along the way to make sure no one is carrying, which of course is going to be tough if their piece is tucked into their waistband and concealed by their shirt.


Want to call the cops for protection? Sorry, too late. The Supreme Court says it’s all perfectly fine. Like your favorite outrageous uncle might say “boys will be boys” when someone gets all wet from your assault with a hose. Except this time what is being shot is bullets and what we are getting wet with is blood.


It’s enough to make you just want to give up and stay inside. Of course, if we do that, we’ll never be safe to go out again. It will have been the death of us.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Roeing Against the Current

The roadsides of my youth were festooned with blazing demands to “Impeach Earl Warren,” the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court throughout most of the fifties and sixties. That’s the last time I remember the Court being so out of step with the citizenry in general, especially the Southerners who were my neighbors at the time. The Warren Court’s impeachable offenses were desegregating schools, assuring criminal defendants the right to counsel, reading criminal suspects their rights, and demanding that states’ electoral district lines count every person’s vote equally.

The Warren Court was an activist court, expanding individual rights and protections. The Jim Crow South wasn’t quite ready for that. I thought they’d gotten used to it, but I was wrong.

Embracing a new “Lost Cause,” they steadily chipped away at the progressivism they abhorred and finally packed the Court with a majority that resurrected the misogynist, racist zombies who had lain in their sepulchers these many decades, waiting for this moment like the undead in a bad movie.


The misogyny of the decision to overturn Roe is obvious. The racism a little less so, until you focus on the fact that it is primarily poor minorities who are most grievously affected. Richer people, mostly white, can simply travel to a state where, for now, abortions remain legal.


The same is true of the Court’s expansion of gun rights to permit guns to be carried outside the home. Everyone is a potential victim of gun violence, white or black, but the cities that have struggled hardest to reduce gun violence, like Chicago, New York and Washington, DC, are the ones where gun deaths are devastating minorities. Richer people move to the suburbs, behind a gate if necessary.


The social and political upheaval of the fifties and sixties, culminating in the Civil Rights movement and the protests against the Viet Nam war, led to violence and bloodshed. Martin Luther King urged non-violence, but Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were more impatient. “Burn, Baby, Burn.”


As in Iran in the seventies and Afghanistan today, theocrats have taken over the United States Supreme Court. Christian morals drive their decisions. Our laws grew out of some of those same moral principles, but laws and religious dictates are not the same thing. Until, suddenly, they are. Until Sharia law in the Middle East. Until something like ultra-orthodox Christianity in America.


It’s hard to overthrow the Taliban. It may be just as hard to wrench public policy from the Puritanical death grip of today’s Supreme Court.


But we must try. We must take to the streets. We must vote in every election, state, local and federal. We have been out-hustled and out-flanked by the radical religious right. The decisions by their Supreme Court picks are a call to action. We must heed it.


Unless of course, you’re rich and white and male and like where the Court is leading us, or are too self-satisfied and insulated to care. 

Monday, May 30, 2022

Our Struggle

On this Memorial Day, I remember and honor the men and women who sacrificed to sustain the American Dream. Thank you.

I would like to say to those who gave so much that their sacrifices were not in vain, that we have built upon the foundations of liberal democracy they shored up brick by bloody brick, but I am ashamed to say I cannot. We have failed them.

Today in America we protect unborn life but not those living, breathing and dreaming among us. The guns our fathers and grandfathers put away when they returned from war are now being taken up to turn not on our enemies but on each other. When Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor, we declared war and defeated them. Now, as we attack one another, we sit by idly as if nothing can be done. Worse, as if taking action to halt the slaughter would make us un-American.


We are at war with ourselves, and we are losing.


When I was a young man, the future was clear to me. We were making progress on many fronts: technological, economic, legal and moral. Prosperity abounded. Ignorance was sent slinking back to its dark caves. The troglodytes living in the shadows didn’t trouble me; they were a minority, and maybe they would eventually die out altogether.


It turns out, though, that like Germany after the WW I Treaty of Versailles, they were licking their wounds, nursing their grudges and regrouping for an all-out panzer attack. Their heavy treads are grinding along the streets of our towns and cities, where we have become too complacent to recognize their danger, or so bitter and radicalized that we welcome them with flags and cheers as the Austrians welcomed Hitler at the start of WW II.


I don’t glorify the past. Intellectually, I realize that in may ways we have never had it better. We have indoor plumbing, antibiotics, vaccines and social security. Emotionally, though, it feels like we are sick with a disease for which we may not have a cure. Feeding on the same hatreds and prejudices that I had hoped we had put behind us, it is resurgent; and not having recently fought it in the stinking trenches and forests of Flanders and Ardennes, we seem to have lost our immunity to it.


Recently, when I asked someone I respect which nations he admires, he offered that America today is the least bad. That’s not the kind of dream I had for us. And at the rate we’re going, I’m not even sure that pale distinction will be a lasting one.


So, to come full circle, to those of you who came before and gave so much that we might live in freedom and prosperity, I apologize for our careless stewardship of your legacy. There will almost certainly be another great crisis that stirs our nation to unified purpose, a time when we will again as one take up your war-torn banner. I only hope that we will have not waited so long to be stirred out of our selfish indolence that we lose this next great struggle. We’ve never lived in totalitarianism. I don’t think we’ll like it.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Something's Happening Here

I’ve just read that the latest large language model AI (GPT-3, not to be confused with the adorable but less understandable R2-D2) can write novels better than I. Well, I suppose that’s a relief. I can quit banging my head against that wall. I mean, GPT-3 can crank out a good one, in any style, in seconds. Who can compete with that?

AI has always been my unrequited love. So it’s appropriate that having stolen my heart she would also steal my avocation. She’s not going to get away with it so easily, though. I’m going to stalk her.


GPT-3 came from OpenAI, which came from a dinner meeting in 2015 at the Rosewood hotel in Palo Alto, where I used to live, attended by four AI pioneers, including Elon Musk, who moved on to electric cars, spaceships and tweets. The rest of them hung in there and gave us our new storyteller.


Palo Alto was always a fairy tale for me. There was a pot of gold there, and leprechauns, but I never saw them. Once I met the founder of the startup incubator Y-Combinator on the sidewalk where we bonded over our mutual contempt for gas-powered leaf blowers. And my neighbors and friends were atomic scientists, tech inventors and venture capitalists. I knew them and enjoyed them but I was always just a kid with my nose pressed up to the candy store window. My own fault, I guess, for not asking where the sweet magic was made.


But now, suddenly, achingly, I want to know.


My son Nick was programming machine learning in high school, ten years ago. When he went off to the University of Michigan, we met John Laird there, the head of a prestigious AI lab. AI seemed romantic and fanciful then, futuristic. 


If GPT-3 is any indication, we’re getting there; and it’s damned exciting. 


What does it mean? I’m not sure. To quote Buffalo Springfield, “There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.”


But I am sure that pretty soon nothing will ever be the same. This is our century’s Industrial Revolution. I want to be part of that. It feels like taking a prairie schooner across the plains; or maybe it’s going to be like the Donner Party. It’s a new era, though, and those don’t come along that often. It would be a shame to just keep going through the same old motions and miss the world changing as I tie my shoes and brush my teeth. 


This is a wake up call, for me, at least.


---------------------


Credit to the excellent article on GPT-3 by Steven Johnson in The New York Times on April 15, 2022.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Write Something

I need to write something. It always makes me feel better.

I wonder why that is. I’m under no illusion that it’s going to change the world, or even anyone’s mind. So why bother?

It’s like walking or running. I do it to stay healthy. It exercises my emotional muscles and keeps them strong and flexible.


My writing career started briefly, a punnish way to say I was a lawyer. I hated briefs, actually. Too much research, too many citations, so I moved over into transactional law, where I could write to be persuasive, relying largely on creativity and logic. 


Later, picking up on the fictions of my lawyer days, I started writing novels. Don’t rush out looking for them, they’re still finding their way. One of them will make it over the finish line one day.


In the meantime, it would be easy to get discouraged and throw in the towel. I’ve decided that the reason I haven’t must be that although I write hoping for readers, it is the process itself, not the prospect of engaging others, that brings me back for more.


Sometimes I don’t know what I think about something until I write about it. There is a crisp clarity about the written word, as well as a permanence, that commands that it be produced carefully, thoughtfully. (Let’s leave social media out of this, shall we? Nothing wrong with it, but not the kind of writing I’m talking about.)


To put it differently, a character portrayal is a merciless critic. Even as the thoughts are formed and go onto the page, their virtues and flaws jump out at me. Conversation, on the other hand, is shape shifting and ephemeral. In its inherent give and take, it is self correcting. And what was said is gone as soon as the hearer walks away, unless like a seed eaten by a bird it is pooped out over a patch of welcoming soil and takes root and grows, and even then it will never be more than a random tree in a forrest, which I suppose is better than being a random manuscript in a desk drawer, but not much.


So, back I go, hurling myself into the breach. I haven’t decided what the story will be this time. Or maybe I have. I always seem to write some version of a father-son story featuring a tortured relationship that leads to tortured relationships. There are plenty of those to go around these days.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

My Daughter and Me

I don’t know what happened to my daughter and me. I think it’s my fault, but I don’t feel that, if you know what I mean. Maybe it’s just too hard to imagine that I have completely alienated her.

I want to fix it, but I have been spectacularly bad at that for decades. Not her early years, perhaps, or so I want to believe. Those seemed pleasant, idyllic, even; ballet, Indian Princesses, Laura Ashley. I worked too much, and the tension between her mother and me didn’t bring out my best side, but I loved my children, and I thought I was a good dad.

I wasn’t that great, obviously, as I missed something terrible happening to my daughter. Many years into her adulthood, she told me that when she was nine she started having anxiety attacks. An elementary school teacher told her class that when they heard an airplane overhead there was a not insignificant chance it was a Russian bomber coming to drop the big one. This was a good while after the Cuban missile crisis (when such a scenario was indeed possible), long after the duck-and-cover drills of my own youth, so I don’t know where this guy was coming from. It was California in the seventies; he was a little off the grid, I think.


But he made a big impression on my daughter. She didn’t tell me she was suffering. I don't think she told anyone. But I should have seen it.


She has struggled with anxiety ever since. She is so smart and talented, though, that for years she could, as far as others were concerned, power through it; or at least coexist with it. She was a drama star in high school, college and graduate school in New York. She even acted off Broadway for a few years before she came back to L.A. to try film.


That’s when the wheels came off. They had been wobbly, but she could keep herself on the road. As a struggling actress in L.A., she crashed through the guardrails. Multiple guardrails.


I need to say here that I divorced her mother when she was fifteen. I wanted to tell her before she went off to ballet camp in Boston that summer, but her mother told me not to spoil the camp for her. She came home from that trip with a t-shirt for me that said “World’s Greatest Dad.” That claim to fame obviously didn’t last too long.


My divorce from her mother was the beginning of something like my divorce from my daughter. I wanted to spend time with her, but she felt her mother needed her more. 


So the years went by with occasional visits and phone calls, but not much more. 


Then her anxiety began taking a more serious emotional and physical toll. I wanted to help, but my suggestions (especially for treatment) weren’t well received, particularly by her mother, with whom she was living. To her mom, my role was to send money and shut up. I did that for a while, but when my daughter kept getting worse, I thought a change of course was warranted. Her mother didn’t, and neither did she. So that was that.


There ensued, as anyone could have predicted, bitterness and disillusionment as a result of my failure to play my designated role. These led eventually to estrangement. Which apparently is where we are now.


I know I’ve screwed up, but I’m not sure exactly how. I’m certain my ex wife could tell me, but she has refused to speak to me since our divorce. Literally. Thirty five years now. So there’s been no concerned-parent collaboration about how to help our daughter. None. Zero.


I hope she, both of them, know what they’re doing. I don’t like being shut out. I miss my daughter. But more than anything I want her to find a way to get better.


***


(Afterword: After I wrote this, I looked back at this blog and found I had written almost the same piece five months ago. This proves two things: I’m quite disturbed by this estrangement, and I don’t have a very good memory.)

Friday, February 11, 2022

One of Us Must be Wrong

 Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong.

        —Dire Straits, “Industrial Disease”



We’re a little too sure of ourselves these days. Some call it polarization. I call it laziness. It’s easy to have opinions, harder to be informed.


“I’ve done my own research,” is a common rebuttal when confronted with an uncomfortable truth. There is little point insisting that reading around on the internet until you find opinions or “facts” you agree with is not research. They know that. They don’t care. It’s not so much that they believe the absurdities they’ve dug up, it’s just that they don’t want to think about it. They know what they believe, and that’s that.


According to a new poll by CNN, half of voters think that elections now don’t reflect the will of the people. And they think a future election will be overturned for that reason.

So we’re not talking about the isolated views of a drunk uncle at a family gathering. This is half of us.


We’ve been here before: the sixties, both of them, in two centuries. It wasn’t pretty either time (the first far worse, of course), but we recovered. We’ll recover from this paroxysm too. Survival is a basic driver of all species. I thought we’d evolved beyond survival of the fittest to something more communal, but maybe not. Maybe only the most brutal will come through this crisis. Maybe the weakest will have to die, at least politically. We’ll see.


The root of the problem we’re having once again (or still) isn’t ideology, it’s a lack of empathy and humility. Empathy helps us see things from the points of view of others. Humility helps us accept that we don’t know what we don’t know…and that we may be wrong about what we think we do know.


In a life or death struggle, empathy and humility probably aren’t going to defeat your enemy. Maybe that’s why they don’t seem to be as deeply programmed into our behavior as fight or flight. They are the idle pastimes of philosophers, pointy-headed pedants in ivory towers, not the stuff of doers who make things happen.


That may be true. The problem is that without empathy and humility, the doers are making the wrong things happen.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Civil War Medicine

We're all sick of it. Being locked in our houses, locked out of the lives of those we love. I just want to walk out the door and keep going. Except for the getting sick and dying part.

If I can’t just up and run, at least I want to think about what we’re doing to make it better so that one day we can get back to normal. I want to read thoughtful pieces by sensible people thinking out loud about how best to work our way through this. I don’t want to fight about it. We’re not the enemy, COVID is.

Except that’s not true, is it? We are the enemy. For both understandable and baffling reasons we can’t all agree on what to do. Vaccinate? Mask up? Send the kids to school? Go back to work at the office?


The science isn’t all that hard. Yes, get vaccinated. Yes, wear masks in many situations. Be careful and plod along until this thing runs out of hosts. Support each other in the process so that as many of us as possible, people and businesses, survive.


So, where does a program of giving unemployment benefits to those who are fired from their jobs because they refuse to get vaccinated, recently adopted by five or six southern states, fit into that plan? Doesn’t that just give people an incentive to do exactly the wrong thing for the common good?


Yes, of course it does.


So, why?


Well, I think you know the answer to that.


A virus worse than COVID has infected us. Its symptoms are a kind of rabies like madness. Those suffering from it are determined to do what they damn well please, no matter the cost to others. 


We’d never have won WW II with that attitude. We’d never have pulled ourselves out of the Great Depression with that selfishness.


And we won’t beat COVID that way. The misery will be prolonged in the name of personal freedom. 


To Make America Great Again, we must purge it. That seems to be the thinking, if you can call it that. The country has a sepsis of liberalism that is poisoning our freedoms.


What doctors often have to do to treat sepsis is cut off limbs. Where should we start? Hands or feet?

Friday, November 12, 2021

A Helping Hand

How do you help someone you feel you should help, you want to help, but whom you fear has a problem only they can solve? What are the limits of emotional support? Of financial support? When are you helping and when are you enabling poor choices?

Joe Manchin doesn’t want us to become an entitlement society. Maybe that’s a sincere conservative belief of his, or maybe it’s an excuse to look away from people in need. 

When I know someone who is obviously in trouble with addiction, am I just making excuses for doing nothing when I say they are the only one who can help themselves? “They have to hit bottom” we say. The bottom of what? Their graves?


Two very close members of my family struggled with alcohol and drugs. I rushed to the rescue of both of them, taking them to rehab, helping them find better doctors. Maybe I helped them in the moment, but both continued to struggle for years longer. Other people did what they could. A friend sponsored one in AA. A spouse said they were leaving if things didn’t change.


We want to fix things for people who need help. We want to give them money and tell them to spend it wisely and get back on the right track. When they don’t, we’re disappointed. Often we give up. We gave them a chance to get better, we say to ourselves. It’s out of our hands if they didn’t want to take it.


What makes people change? The conventional wisdom, a term coined a half century ago by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, is that people don’t change until they have to. Until the need for change hits them in the face. 


Galbraith was right. Our foot-dragging on dealing with climate change is a good example. In the business world, where change often comes fast, company after company has doggedly clung to its comfortable old ways until the last one out of the plant turned out the lights forever.


What was the tipping point for my family members who needed to change or die? They did get pretty low, so maybe they proved Galbraith’s point. But along the way, help from friends and family kept hope alive until they were able to save themselves. Many aren’t so lucky. They have no support systems to sustain hope. They die of alcoholism. They die of drug overdoses. They die of poverty.


Poverty? That isn’t the same as addiction, you say. No one is addicted to being poor. But is it that different? Addiction traps you. Poverty traps you in a different way, but just as mercilessly. People need help to get out of traps. Someone to loosen the steel jaws so they can limp away and recover.


One of my family members told me that even when they were sinking lower and lower, words of encouragement stayed with them. They helped them get through the darkest times. They helped them make it to the point when they could help themselves. 


That’s what Joe Manchin is not giving enough credit to. It’s tough for people to change, tough to break out of debilitating behaviors or circumstances. It’s not a lack of character holding them back, as he believes, it’s just everything. The booze. The drugs. The poverty. 


Overcoming addiction and poverty—sometimes just surviving—is hard work. We need all the help we can give one another.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

What if Everyone Crowded Into a Redneck Bar?

I grew up in the Jim Crow South of the 1950s and early 60s. Black men stepped off the sidewalk to let white men pass. Everybody’s maid was a black woman. Sometimes they wore little white caps like servants to British aristocrats. The racial order was well established and taken for granted. The sexual order too: women stayed home and took care of their men and children.

The attitude of well-off whites toward blacks and women wasn’t hatred. That wasn’t necessary. Everyone knew their place and stayed in it. But in the country bars where the air was thick with the lust and free-floating rage of young men with too many hormones and too much beer in their bellies, things could get nasty pretty quickly. You didn’t want to be a black man in one of those bars. You didn’t want to be private-school white boy either. “What are you looking at,” was a common greeting.


I wasn’t allowed in the men’s grill at the country club, but from the times I was in there with my father, I thought it wasn’t a place I wanted to be either. Those men weren’t likely to punch you or cut you, but they were as quick with a demeaning joke about blacks and women, and Jews, as those redneck barflies.


That’s just the way it was in the Deep South in 1959, the year I started high school.


The other big part of life in the South in those days was religion. Everyone went to church, to see and be seen. The sermons were high-minded Christian dogma about the golden rule. Everyone prayed the psalms and sang the hymns. I can’t speak for myself, because I was an atheist even then, so it was all a bit like participative performance art to me, but my impression was that those around me were impressed with their piety and charity toward their fellow man.


When racism and sexism leaked out of the redneck bars and country club men’s grills, it washed up on the rocks of that sanctimonious piety. Someone would have too many martinis and get a little too colorful at a suburban party and the host would ask a friend to drive him home, bless his heart. Polite company wasn’t the place for that kind of thing.


So to get a thorough indoctrination in racial hatred and sexism, you had to go to those country bars or country club men’s grills. They were self limiting. Like a localized tumor that couldn’t easily metastasize.


But now we have social media, and we’re all plugged into it all the time. We’re drunk on it. And it’s making us mad. Perversely, that’s a big part of it’s appeal. Making us mad is a moneymaker for its sponsors.


Here’s what Roger McNamee, an early advisor to Mark Zuckerberg, says:


The problem is that the underlying business model of Facebook, where you bring three billion people onto one network with no boundaries and no safety net, then combine that with a business model that's based on essentially promoting emotionally intense content in order to promote engagement, and then add into that the ability to target people with extreme precision. And the result is that an enormous number of ideas that have lived for years at the fringes of society — things like white supremacy and anti-vax — have suddenly been thrust into the mainstream and done huge damage. *


I had friends who went into those country bars of my high-school years and basically never came out. Now it seems like we’re all doing it. 


Somehow we need to find a way to sober up.



______________


* Interview with Julia Chatterley, CNN Business, October 26, 2021 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

My Madness

My madness isn’t constant. At least I don’t think it is. It’s episodic. Its root cause is my compulsiveness.

I’m afflicted with a gift for seeing straight lines. This means that when I have work done in my house, I see if it’s out of square. I notice the change in luster if the paint is too thin. My feet feel a floor out of level or a piece of limestone that is a bit too high on one side. I’m forever hovering over workers, to their and my dismay. I know I should probably stay out of their hair until they finish, and then check, but it always seems easier to try to get it right the first time.


I don’t do this with doctors. If a surgeon is well trained, has a brilliant reputation in their field, and is recommended by someone I trust (usually another doctor), I listen to what they plan to do, ask a few questions to be sure I understand what’s being recommended and why, and then I let them do their job. I don’t google my problem and quiz them based on what I read on the internet.

In fact, I spend more time scouring online reviews of cheap electronics. 


When I was a lawyer, I worked on big mergers and financings. My firm was new to some of the more exotic financing approaches, so I spent a long time learning the craft. It was like looking for straight lines and level floors on every page of the documents. It was tedious and a little terrifying…and exhausting. Eventually I realized that if we were going to do these deals over and over, we needed to standardize our forms and procedures. So we did that. The young lawyers working on the deals with me became experts. They did the work on hundreds of deals and only came to me with the problems. As we worked together and I saw their skill firsthand, I came to trust them. I didn’t have to hover over them. I knew they would do the job right.


I couldn’t have done it any other way. Certainly not as a practical matter. If I’d been involved in the details of every deal, I would have been a bottleneck. But also I would have driven myself crazy.


So that’s what I’ve learned about myself. If I’m to maintain my sanity, I have to let others do things for me and not stand over them while they do it. The trick is to make sure I have confidence in the people I’m relying on.


If I haven’t trained them myself, though, or know someone outstanding has, it’s hard for me to depend on others. To come back to where we started—home improvement—sometimes it can be so hard to find good people that I just hire and hope. After all, it’s only a window replacement or a drywall patch, not major surgery. 


But the lines have to be straight and the paint smooth. And if it’s up to me to make sure they are…well, let me just say this to all the workers I have held to my perfectionist standards over the years: I’m sorry, I can’t help myself.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Wisdom of Solomon

I watched an episode of Grantchester that had a happy ending that left me sad. Do you know the show? Set in an English village in the 1950s, a priest and a detective, each with their own demons, are a crime-solving pair. In this episode two couples want the same baby. An adoption agent dies and it could be murder. It was an accident, as it turns out, and after a good bit of wise counseling by our priest-detective duo, the final scene is a christening with both couples in attendance and the priest telling the story of Solomon and the child claimed by two women. In Grantchester, there was no need to split the baby; they shared it.

So what made me sad about that?

The biological parents were not married and the dad was a good hearted n’er-do-well. The would-be adoptive parents were well-off; the man desperately wanted a son, but his wife was just fine with no children in the house. The solution? One couple raises the child, the other provides financial support so the boy has a good chance to make something of himself.


It was a good piece of story-telling. You felt the longing and pain of both couples, so the ending that gave them each some of what they wanted and needed was particularly satisfying.


So what about that made me sad? 


Look around. We aren’t doing that these days. We aren’t compromising. We aren’t honoring the feelings of others. We aren’t trying to understand them. Push them aside, take them to court, that’s what we’re doing.


The priest and the detective from Grantchester would be appalled. In their village there is all the bigotry, hate and murderous rage we face today, but somehow they manage to talk to one another, to try to understand one another, to see their common humanity.


We’re not doing that. That’s what makes me sad.


Oh, what a foolish dreamer you must think me, to be so naive as to believe life could ever be like a moralizing tv show. To which I say, how can we accept that it is not?

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

I Really Do Care, And You Do Too

We didn’t need Melania’s green-jacket pronouncement of her personal lack of interest in the rest of us to suspect as much. Some people just seem to not give much of a damn about others. She might be one of them. Her husband another. Aren’t they cute? A perfect pair.

Most of us do care, though. It’s hard wired into us by evolution. Those who survived to propagate were the ones who took care of one another.

The speed of modern life has short-circuited evolution, or at least our ability to understand what is happening to us now. It’s hard to think in terms of swimming out of the sea to walk on land or shedding prehensile tails when the daily news cycle is screaming apocalypse now.


A lot of us are very angry at others. One wonders what happened to our evolutionary imperative to look after one another. Are we evolving away from it? Will we survive without it?


Almost all of us look after our children. Most of us look after other family members, after a suitable cooling off period following Thanksgiving dinner with Uncle Joe from back home. On down the line of concern, we might drop a dollar in the Salvation Army holiday collection bucket. Some days that might be about as far as our concern goes.


If indeed we are that unconcerned with how the less-fortunate among us are faring, why does it make me so mad that some people seem determined to stand in the way of helping those who obviously need help? Joe Biden wants to make investments in medical care and child care for those who can afford neither. These initiatives would make us more healthy and productive over the long run, so they should be an easy sell. They are also humane. Another easy sell.


But that’s not the way approximately half the country sees things. I’m not sure if they don’t believe the long-term economic benefits of having a healthy population that has child care so they can go to work, or if they just aren’t into being humane. At least not to “those folks.” And you know who they mean by that.


A related question might be: why do I care? No one in my family needs Medicaid or free child care. Leaving aside his sensible climate policies, the Biden plan is not designed to help me. If fact, the tax increases to pay for it will hurt me.


And yet, I can’t read the news without getting frustrated that we seem so determined not to help one another. When did we get like that? Did Darwin take a break?


Perhaps the answer is that most of us never cared about more than our families and friends. Everyone else was just a statistic. We don’t love statistics. Or mourn them.


What, then, gives a push to big social programs like Roosevelt’s New Deal? Does it take the widespread suffering of the Great Depression to make us care? Does it take the fear of “there but for fortune go I”? Lyndon Johnson wanted to do something like the New Deal, a program he called the Great Society. That went nowhere. The Vietnam war took all his political juice, and we weren’t in the middle of a depression.


Is it only politicians who want to get elected who offer to do good for others? And their political opponents who find fault with that? So that we’re locked in the push and pull and bombast of stump speeches, divorced from genuine notions of the common good. Do we even believe there is a common good?


Or is it just what’s good for each of us individually and those we love? Those other people are just that: other people. They can look after themselves. That seems to be a common sentiment. Along with the implicit idea that if they need help they aren’t trying hard enough. “God helps those who help themselves,” comes to mind as a rationalization for looking away from the needs of others. Also, “Charity begins at home.”


We have so many good reasons for not helping. For not caring about the plights of others. The truth is that their plight is our plight. Too often, though, we don’t come to that realization until it’s too late. Until, as Martin Niemöller so powerfully wrote, “Then they came for me.”

Thursday, September 23, 2021

What Do You Do When There's Nothing You Can Do?

I have a friend who thinks homo sapiens are headed for extinction. He says we have evolved  to be able to invent ever more ingenious ways to consume our resources—essentially, the planet—but, like drug users and narcissists, without the wisdom or willpower to manage our addiction.

Found dead in a hot, dry ditch: humanity.


That long view is the most entertaining way to consider our maladies. It won’t happen to us, we can tell ourselves. Or our children.

But of course it is already happening to many of us. The low-lying poor are already drowning. Farmers in the American southwest and west are already parched; the general population may not be far behind. And the situation is worse in much of the world.


Which brings me to politics, because politics is how we solve problems, at least the ones that require government coordination and funding. I don’t have to remind you how that’s going. As usual, we can’t make up our minds how big the problem is or what to do about it. Slowly boiling frogs come to mind.


If we step back from existential problems and politics, to consider the stuff of everyday life, things aren’t much better. Over the course of the last few hundred years, we have made substantial progress globally on increasing literacy and reducing poverty. But our developed-world problems—like voting and women’s rights—are becoming more, not less, intractable. The world may be more literate, overall, but the Republican party seems to have lost its wits altogether.


Being in government now has got to be frustrating. Most went there, I assume, to make a difference. Few, not counting Mitch McConnell, will. And the only difference old Mitch is making is in making it harder for minorities to vote and women to have reproductive agency. Now his hand-picked Supreme Court has taken up doing the heavy lifting for him and his kind. His kind being old white men who used to rule the world—still do, unfortunately—and are fighting like Cersei Lannister to stay on the throne.


I have another friend whose approach to our looming climate disaster is to try to get arrested. He chains himself to pipelines and pickets the banks financing them. They keep pumping oil and cash while he makes bail.


Dramatic acts to call attention to problems only make a difference if anyone cares. That is, anyone who can do anything about it. See above about coal-country king McConnell.


We’re in a tough spot right now. Politics is the Hatfields and McCoys. Meanwhile the world burns, women are forced to have babies they don’t want and people in the south can’t find their poling place, which was moved miles away from their home and is closed by the time they get off work.


What can we do about it? Hell, I don’t know, but we’d better do something. At least we should try to make it a better, more compassionate place for those less fortunate than we are. That takes a village, as Hillary famously (and correctly) said. We may still slowly boil, but we might as well treat each other fairly and with dignity while we cook.


I guess that starts in the local coffee shop, next time we see someone wearing a mask, or not. Next time we walk past a homeless encampment and look the other way. Even, in my case, next time I feel the impulse to say what absolute jerks some people are. That might be making me feel better, but it’s not helping.


Pretty is as pretty does, my grandmother used to say.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Gone

Opening scene: a man texts his daughter a link to a story he thinks she might like. Above it, on his computer screen, can be seen other texts to her over a period of months. Cute dog videos (she has a cute one herself), messages to call when she would like to talk (her voicemail is full), other messages asking if she is ok. Mostly she doesn’t reply. Once in a while, for his birthday, for instance, she gets back to him with an apology for not staying in touch.

A gift painted when she was sixteen.

Her mother lives with her now. They share a tiny rent-controlled apartment in L.A., where his daughter moved twenty-five years ago to pursue her dream of being a film actress. She’s talented. She has an MFA in drama from a great university; she acted off Broadway. But she has a bad cocktail of brain chemistry that makes her too anxious to promote herself the way one must to succeed in such a tough occupation.


So her life has shrunk down to 430 square feet shared with her mom and an adorable dog.


Her mom is a godsend. His daughter might not be able to manage on her own. Or maybe she could, but her mom doesn’t think so, so she moved in. That’s both the good news and the bad news, in the father’s opinion.


He divorced her mom thirty-five years ago, when his daughter was fifteen. He thought she was happy and carefree then, but he later learned from her that she had been having problems with anxiety for years. She hid them well. He had no idea. Maybe he should have.


Those problems became brutally apparent soon enough. She tried to succeed. He tried to help. Neither was successful.


Now her mother has taken over his daughter’s care…and her life, it seems. Her mother lives in Atlanta but she hasn’t been home in over a year. His daughter wants nothing to do with Atlanta.


At every turn the father and mother felt the other’s choices weren’t the best ones for their daughter. For thirty-five years her mother has refused to to speak to him, so it’s been impossible to work through those disagreements in the normal way. It might have been impossible in any event; they have pretty different perspectives on how to help. 


And his daughter is her own woman. She’s anxious, but she’s otherwise smart and capable. She knows what she wants. The kind of help her mom is giving her.


So he sends her birthday and holiday gifts and texts her cute videos, wondering for the millionth time how it came to this. Wondering if he’s just a fool. If he could have done more, should have done more. Wondering whether his life with his daughter—the delightful, funny intelligent woman who in their times together has brought joy and light into his life—is essentially over.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Pass it On

I taught one of my boys to play chess. He was five. Within a shockingly short time, he was crushing me. 

I taught another how to improve his odds of getting what he wanted from a merchant...or anyone, really. Be charming and go slow, was the essence of it.

Fishing, tennis, basketball, golf. I taught them all that, with varying degrees of success. The fishing and a brief foray into hunting brought me around to feeling that I didn't want to kill anything, even for food. You can get food at the grocery store. You don’t have to personally murder it. Lately, it has gotten hard to think about anyone penning and slaughtering animals to feed me. For just that empathetic reason, one of my sons is a vegetarian. He taught me, rather than the other way around.


I taught them that their word is their bond. That their personal integrity is as important as eating and breathing. They embraced that lesson, with occasional youthful exceptions for Napster and BitTorrent.


I didn’t teach them math, even though all of them are great at it. I flatter myself that by staying out of their homework I was teaching them self-reliance. I think I was just lazy. Also, not good at math.


My kids are all grown now. None of them want me to teach them anything. I get it. These days I confine myself to lobbing in occasional bits of unsolicited advice. Much appreciated advice, I’m sure. “I’m aware,” one of them is fond of saying, in his charming way. The protege become the master.


I taught them to be kind, even though I was not always. That lesson seems to have stuck. Maybe when I wasn’t kind they saw first-hand how much better it is to be so. 


As I said, the proteges surpass the master.


That’s the best part of it, really: raising kids who are better than you. It’s like a last chance on this earth to atone for your sins, to correct your imperfections. To make the world a better place by leaving behind copies of yourself that aren’t copies at all, but are version 2.0, with more good features, better all around, just the way the original model should have been.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

American Mujahideen

Kabul has fallen. Ashraf Ghani has fled Afghanistan. The Afghan army, recruited and trained by America to defend the government it installed and supported, has crumpled like a cheap suit. It didn't fit the country. Burkas are the new must-have fashion.

Meanwhile, as the Taliban demands that Afghan women be masked, in America our political extremists insist that they not be. Not women or children or men. As we are all too painfully aware, the masks that our freedom fighters decry are the ones that save lives. 

As to keeping women in their place, American zealots have other methods for that: don't let them have control over their reproductive choices; don't give them child-care assistance; don't give them equal pay. "Keep women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen" wouldn't be far off the mark as the rallying cry for the American Mujahideen.

Zealots. Is that too strong a word? Aren't they just standing up for what they believe in? Isn't that the American way?

I suppose so. But what they believe in is white-male-paternalism. Not that different, really, than the theocracy of Afghanistan, Iran and many other parts of the world. It masquerades as religion, but what it is really about is men. Men controlling other men, certainly, but most of all men controlling women. If you control the womb, you control the future.

Donald Trump built a big following by stoking fear that Mexico was sending us its criminals and rapists. They're coming for our wives and daughters. They must be met with unmerciful force. Our future as a purebred race is at stake. Sound familiar? It worked for a guy in Germany eighty five years ago.

The quest for religious purity driving the Taliban is no different than our quest for ideological purity in American politics. And it has the same root. Fear of the other. Fear he will rape our women.

The refusenik politics of today is not about libertarianism or religious freedom, it is about keeping women in their place. It is the desperate and terrifying death rattle of the dying hegemony of the patriarchy.

Testosterone and hatred combine to create a powerful stimulant, though. Those on it (including the women who, for whatever reason, follow men there) are hard to stop. Perhaps it is they, not the women who unselfishly give their bodies and lives to the next generation, who need to be kept under wraps.




Monday, July 5, 2021

Independence

I need my country, I know that. It gives me security and opportunity, which are in short supply in many parts of the world. From time to time it has given me idealism and pride. Other times, it has disappointed me. In the same way my charismatic father’s bad behavior disillusioned and disappointed me. I learned of some of his worse misdeeds years after his death, when it was too late to confront him; and too late to undo my boyhood worship of him. 

Cognitive dissonance. That’s what psychologists call what I felt, still feel, for my father. It’s what I feel for my country too.

My relationship with both has been complicated. I loved being on the golf course with my father. I loved Fourth of July fireworks celebrating my country.


But my father had a dark side. He was charming and impulsively generous one moment, lecturing and badgering the next. Pull-up-a-chair-and-sit-down kind of lectures. “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” kind of lectures


I didn’t know it at the time—he died at age 50, when I was 28–but my relationship with him turns out to have been training for my relationship with my country. He and our nation are the same: restless, rambunctious and brilliant, but with a streak of something like rage that comes out now and then and is truly terrifying. The kind that, after a while, makes you want to keep your distance.


One thing I knew about my father was that he would protect me. This wasn’t theoretical. He pulled me out of many scrapes, from making amends with the local police for my reckless plinking with a pellet gun, to hauling me out of the Duke University hospital where I was sleeping away my sophomore year with mononucleosis brought on by long bouts of staying up too late and sleeping through classes.


I took his protection for granted. I see that now. I also take my country’s protection for granted. I am insanely grateful for the security both my father and my country have given me. Period. Full stop.


But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t expect more. Security buys my gratitude, but not my love.


Love requires admiration. I didn’t admire the things I saw and later learned about my father’s darker impulses. The same is true for my country.


I never would have guessed some of the things he did, just as I never expected some of the things we Americans are doing now. He could be abusive. We, as a country, are being abusive too. To one another.


The thing about Dad’s misbehavior is that it was so out of character with the man I looked up to, the man he was most of the time. The same thing is happening with my country. I am shocked at the way we are treating one another. I thought we were better than we are acting now. 


I’ve never been a fan of nationalism. Not the kind that sends us to war, anyway. Of course we need to defend ourselves, but we didn’t need to invade Viet Nam or the Middle East. All we accomplished with those misadventures was making a sizable portion of the world that used to admire, or at least respect, us hate us.


As a young man, I moved to LA to get some space from Dad, to learn to be myself. To gain my independence. He died three years later. I often wonder what we would have thought of each other as he got older. What I would have said to him. And he to me. Whether I would have understood.


I won’t have that chance with him, but I do with my country. I’m trying to understand what is happening to us, but one thing I do know: we’re not behaving the way we ought to. We need to take to heart the advice my father, unironically, frequently gave me, which he no doubt picked up in his days in medical training on a US naval airbase: “Straighten up and fly right.”