Monthly Archives: September 2012

Work, Family, Love, Sex and Surrender: The Five Lessons That Changed My Life; Lesson I

Every time I receive an interoffice envelope, I am convinced that it must be a pink slip.  This is not an idle notion; I have been more or less fired from every job I’ve ever held.  However, in fact my assumption comes from something deeper inside me:  A conviction that I am out of step, unworthy, and in constant peril of being found out.

I suspect that I’m not alone in having these feelings.  For example, when my freshfaced colleagues and I were shown to our first offices in what I now call my “starter law firm,” several remarked that they felt like seventh-graders playing dress-up, who would be unmasked at any moment.

It seems to me, however, that this syndrome has affected me more than most; at least it has been so vivid to me that I’ve noticed it, questioned it, and teased out some unexpected life lessons from it.

But, to understand these lessons (and the other lessons in this five-part blog post) requires some autobiography.  Mine, I’d say, is somewhere between the sympathy-for-the-devil tell-all of Keith Richards on the one hand, and the no doubt insipid rehash that’s about to be ghost-written for Monica Lewinsky, on the other.  (Chapter One:  Where I Bought The Blue Dress).

The unusual aspect of my school years is that I grew up essentially without parents.  My father, a charismatic but self-centered school administrator and dance-band leader, left the family when I was about six.  After a very brief period of visiting us for a weekly outing to a nearby diner, he moved to Oklahoma and broke off all contact with us.  My mother, a drably coquettish combination of Scarlett O’Hara and the Elizabeth Taylor character in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” then turned full-time to the search for a new male companion (though, as a song later put it, she seemed to look exclusively in all the wrong places).  She mostly disappeared from my and my brother’s lives, spending evenings and nights elsewhere, and flitting in and out of child-rearing seemingly as an afterthought.  As a result, we largely raised ourselves, and relied on our grandmother, who lived in another apartment in our Newark apartment building, for meals and a daily fresh set of clothes for school.

My brother and I differ about the benefits of a parentless childhood.  He, the younger and more carefree of us, remembers a Peter Pan life without overseers or rules.  (And, I do remember some of this, including frequent evening gatherings where we and our preteen friends would trash the apartment, without consequence).  But, I was the older child.  Not to be too Freudian, but I remember very distinctly feeling that I was the head of this Lord of The Flies household, responsible to hold it together and, most poignantly, to win my mother back to us and away from her parade of (other) men.  Of course, I failed at this, and that failure left me feeling toxic, impotent, and unloveable.

At the risk of inspiring the strains of violin music, the story actually gets worse.  In a development that would make Tommy Smothers (“Mom always liked you best!”) blanch, my brother eventually found my mother’s affections and was treated like a prince during our adolescent years, while I was shunned.  It was dramatic, and inexplicable.  While I slogged through the barbed-wire, strike-shortened Newark public schools (skipped through the grades repeatedly by administrators who had no idea what to make of me), winding up as a freshman at the Newark campus of Rutgers at the premature age 15, my brother inexplicably was sent to a first-class private high school and then on to Hampshire College, at that time one of America’s most expensive private colleges.

Much later, I learned that in fact we are the sons of different fathers.  I, dark-haired and fat, am the child of the man who left us when I was six.  My brother, blonde and lithe, is the child of one of my mother’s lost loves.  Apparently, this fellow financed my brother’s tuitions, promised (idly) that he would leave his entire estate to my mother, and was curiously invited to my brother’s wedding at my mother’s request.  All I knew as a child and young adult, of course, was that some shameful quality of mine (it was easiest to blame the fat, and to keep the fat on my bones as an easy scapegoat) made me unloveable and disfavored.

Suffice to say that I led the next couple of decades as an emotional cripple – socially awkward, unkempt, abrasive, and clueless.  I had the sense that everyone else had grown up learning a set of social rules that I had never learned; and more, that everyone could sense immediately that I was out of step with them.  What frightens me to this day is that I had no idea that I was any of those things.  This is frightening because, to invoke the philosopher Donald Rumsfeld, I can’t help but believe that there are still things about myself even today that make me unloveable, but are unknown unknowns and therefore irremediable.

So, to the pink slip.

The interoffice envelope is not the only sort of pink slip that I assume is coming.  I expect that at cocktail parties I’ll wind up in the corner.  I expect that when friends don’t call, I’ve lost their affections (and even that, when Barbara stops getting invitations from her friends, it’s because I’ve become part of the marital package).  I expect that at the office I am considered the odd man out, not welcome when everyone else pals around.

So, to the lesson.

Although I still expect all of these pink slips, I’ve learned over time that my expectation (though I’ve never overcome it) is nonsense.

First, I’m now convinced that every one of us to some extent expects these pink slips.  Few of us feel loveable; no one feels he knows the social rules; all of us twist and contort to shield ourselves from our own feelings of coming short.  In fact, however, we don’t live in a world in which we’re constantly judged and found wanting.  We live in a world in which we’re mostly considered with indifference.  Friends don’t call because their own lives overwhelm them.  Invitations don’t come because people (certainly in their 50’s, as we are) don’t get out much.

Second, this pink-slip spectre can be blown away with one strong puff of breath.  Each of us, in our overprogrammed, isolated, insecure cocoons,  welcomes the attentions of others.  If I feel isolated in my office, I sit down on a colleague’s comfy desk chair and ask about his kids.  If I want my friends around me, I throw a party.

Third, because this pink-slip expectation is nonsense, the cosmos tend to contradict it regularly.  For example, a couple of years back I was suddenly rotated off of a panel of judges for a music industry showcase competition.  I assumed that I’d gotten this pink slip because I’d been too outspoken with the other judges, hadn’t been schmoozing enough at the conference, didn’t have the sunny can-do disposition of the lead judge.  Then, last week, I was called by the same organization to come back as a judge, explaining that they wanted me back because they were always so happy with my work.   Similarly, over the past couple of years I’ve stopped getting assignments from a music magazine to write CD reviews.  I assumed that my writing was not to snuff.  Then, in the last few days, I was told that I am considered one of their best writers, and the issue is purely internal housekeeping.  And finally, at work I was asked yet again last week whether I wanted to be made a partner (I don’t…give that honor to one of the young kids whose careers depend on it).

Jonathan Livingston Seagull of course said, “Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your  true  self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way.  It is the Law of the Great Gull, the Law that Is.”  I haven’t a freaking clue what that means.  So, here is the First Lesson that has changed my life:  We’ve all had rough childhoods; we all doubt ourselves; and that doubt is bull hockey.

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What Barack, Barbara (deWilde), Joe (Varga) and I Sort Of Have In Common: The Surprising Joy of Community Organizing

When it comes to community activism, I am mostly a fellow traveler with Marx  (Groucho) and Lennon (John).   Groucho, because he would never join a club that would have him as a member; and John, because, when it came to revolution, don’t you know that you could count him out?

Just to be clear:  There is plenty for us to be angry about. A perceptive banker, vacationing in the Hamptons this past summer, was heard to lament that if the rich succeed in redistributing another ten percent of wealth away from the middle class, there will be revolution.  And I do understand that community activism can be, as Saul Alinsky (who wrote the book on community organizing), put it, “an abrasive agent to rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; to fan latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expressions,” and then to take action “once such hostilities were whipped up to a fighting pitch.”

But, the day to day of community organizing has always made me agree with David Bowie (via Mott the Hoople ): “What a drag. So many snags!”

It’s always been those snags that have made activism seem tedious and unlikely to me.

First, there’s the rousing of neighbors to donate time, money, or at least empathy, which means the unpleasant calling-in of favors.  Second, there’s the enormous disproportion between effort and reward: So many leaflets, so many social-networking posts, so many bake sales – that is, so much constant dripping just to wear away even the first layer of stones.

I’ll also admit that my blood is usually not stirred by Quixotically fuzzy calls to action.  In my mudgeonly way, I’ve referred to these generic jeremiads as “Power To The People!” causes (almost getting a faceful of Hungarian stew from my labor activist son-in-law Joe for my wit).  Community-organizing messages so often come out as frustratingly blunt-edged and diffuse, like “Respect Our Teachers!” or “War Is Bad For Children And Other Living Things!”  Heck, when Barack Obama was asked by his Chicago friends what exactly he did as a community organizer, all he could summon up was, “I told them it was the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”

All of which is to say, I have recently been (as always) humbled and enlightened by my brilliant and big-hearted wife, Barbara, who has become a community organizer the same way she does everything else:  Confidently, open-heartedly, and with a touch as light as a bird’s wing.

For a few months now, Barbara has despaired of the run-down condition of our local park, the Watchung Plaza Park. This one-block-square bit of green is set in between a busy commercial district and a train station. The result is a neglected park covered with a blizzard of trash and graffiti, which would be difficult for the business owners and township crews to fight even if they were committed to doing so.

Earlier in the summer, Barbara began to organize. She gathered like-minded neighbors. She wrote to township officials. She took on a catchy name, “Neighbors of Watchung” (“NOW”).

And, that’s when the miracle happened. The town councilor immediately came to visit, along with the parks superintendent. They promised mulch, leaf bags, manpower, and supplies. The town newspaper and hyperlocal blogs ran stories. Another neighborhood committee offered funding. And, this past weekend, a gorgeous mob of local homeowners put on their overalls and spent a long afternoon weeding, planting, scrubbing, and thinking about the future of Watchung Plaza Park.

(Missing from this photo: The deliciously-named Wah-Chung chinese restaurant)

During the cleanup, passersby stopped to ask how they could be involved. The business owners offered thanks and promised future help. Some passersby dismissed the work, with some variant on “we pay taxes. You shouldn’t be doing the township’s work.” But, I interpret that to mean that they recognized the value of the work and just wanted to feel justified in not joining in.

And, wouldn’t you know it:  I found myself feeling invested in our community group: visiting the park repeatedly since then to scrub off graffiti and pick up litter.  As we say here in Jersey, I was ready to “have a little talk” with the next guy who dropped a fast-food container on the grass in “my” park.  I’d been organized!  And, I’ll bet that some of the business owners around the park are feeling the same way.

So, I’ve learned a lesson about community activism.  It’s about harnessing something that is all around us:  Responsibility, generosity, righteous anger, pride, and a desire to set wrong things to right.  I am proud of the community organizer under my roof, of our Professor Varga, who militates public employees who are under budget-cutting attack, private employees who earn (as he told a group of Whirlpool workers in one incite-ful speech) “shit wages in hell,” and all whose dignity and livelihood are taken from them.  Even my own trivial bit of community organizing, putting together a community of music lovers and volunteers to present a couple dozen concerts every season, has a lesson in it.  As Pete Seeger might say (if he were from Jersey): if I had a hammer, I’d hammer all over the next idiot who lifts a can of spray-paint anywhere near my freakin’ park.

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These Are The Times That Ignore Men’s Souls: Three False Debates That Divide Us

I hate partisan politics; and never more than partisan politics as it is played now. The wild-eyed brinksmanship. The cynical twisting of “gotcha” quotes. The schoolyard taunts like “Teabaggers” and “New York Slimes.” It’s so damned mediocre and tedious.

And, most wearisome of all, it’s unnecessary.  Almost every one of the hot-button issues that divide us have principled and logical answers. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater’s far-too-candid appeal to our moral compass: In our hearts, we know what’s right.

Here’s a good experiment.  It’s presidential convention season. The parties will go easy on specifics, and instead will tout their principles and values. And, when they do, the parties will sound curiously similar: Fiscal moderation, personal responsibility, patriotism, individual liberty, and compassion for others will surely be among them.   Throw in Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair, and Joe Biden introducing Barack Obama as articulate, clean, and having a big stick, and you pretty much already know what’s coming.

These same upstanding and selfless principles and values have been flogged in conventions, stump speeches, baby-kissing orgies, and Jimmy Stewart movies for generations. Heck, just watch any Aaron Sorkin drama:  Every one of his left-wing heroes from Jed Bartlett to Will McAvoy drips responsibility, generosity, compassion, and courage.  Those are the values that resonate with every one of us.

(Unfortunately, the women of “Newsroom” mostly drip with the values of ditsy hysteria and man-induced Dependent Personality Disorder).

So if, in our hearts we know what’s right, why are we so completely at odds when it comes to how to run our country?

One problem is, we’ve all made up our minds.  Only three percent of Americans say they are undecided about their votes for President, which means that the conventioneers are largely preaching to their own choirs.  The Republican speakers skipped over policy or ideas, and instead treated the convention as a big pep rally for the Elephant team.  Clint Eastwood talked to a chair.  Chris Christie talked about himself.  Paul Ryan told the sort of fish tales that a fella tells only to his buddies who know full well that they’re hearing a pack of lies, but love to hear them anyway.  No doubt, we’ll get something very similar at next weekend’s convention….and on AM talk radio…and on the partisan bickering that dominates cable news programs.

As Thomas Paine put it,”no man is prejudiced in favor of a thing, knowing it to be wrong.  He is attached to it on the belief of its being right.”  We’ve made up our minds, and we just want to hear what we think we already know.

The second problem is, even if all of us have roughly the same moral compass, almost none of our political decisions seems to be motivated by principle.  Not to point fingers only one way, but what moral compass would ever point in the direction of cheering for your own country’s economic failure just so the current administration will fail?  Or, pretending man-made global warming doesn’t exist because carbon limits would hurt corporate profits?  Or, basing the theme of an entire political convention on a knowing misquote of a President’s speech?

Sure, there are some conflicts that can’t be solved by either logic or principle. This is either because they involve rights that are insolubly in conflict, such as abortion rights, or because they come down to fiscal priorities. But, most of the issues that we believe divide us are false, often because they are cynically manufactured by one partisan group or another.

Here, then: Three false debates that can be easily resolved by our gut values.

The First False Debate:  Individual liberty.  The premise of this false debate seems to be that our Founding Principles include the right to do whatever the hell we want.  Drive naked at 100 miles per hour through a bob of baby seals in a 2mpg SUV while blasting Bette Midler loud enough to make the dead rise up and do the Spanish Hustle?  Sure!

But, that’s silly.  We know by logic that freedom is limited by our obligations to the next guy (or, the next baby seal); and we feel better when we “do the right thing” for that next guy, or our neighborhood, or the planet.  Per T. Paine, “When we speak of right we ought always to unite with it the idea of duties; rights become duties by reciprocity.”

Yes, some “individual liberty” “nanny-state” banner-wavers will feel a rush of adolescent bravado by claiming that we all should have complete freedom “to live our lives without interference.” But, in fact, we don’t want that sort of freedom for ourselves, or for the communities we live in.  We want regulation when regulation makes sense to protect the rights of others, and we want to behave in a way that protects those rights. We don’t want to be “that guy.”

The false debate about individual liberty is usually a shill for those partisan interests that want to relieve businesses of the cost of protecting the public. But, this false debate can be resolved easily based on our moral compass. We all feel better when we help, or at least do no harm to, others.  (And, we feel even better than that when no one does any harm to us).  That means we feel better when we have effective workplace regulation, environmental protections, oversight of the powerful, and protection of equal rights.  We resent regulation that protects us only from ourselves. As Tom Paine would surely say, go on and buy that 400-ounce Big Gulp; just don’t throw the empty cup onto the sidewalk.

The Second False Debate:  Personal responsibility.

“Personal responsibility” sounds like a solid sort of value.  When we think of being personally responsible, we think of paying our share, fixing what we’ve broken, taking the blame when we’re at fault, and stepping forward when we’re needed.

Unfortunately, “personal responsibility” has taken on a very different meaning.  In this false debate, “personal responsibility” has come to be used as an argument against giving help to those who need it.

57 percent of Republicans say that people are poor because  they don’t work hard.  In keeping with this logic, 60 percent of them say they do not believe that it is the government’s role to care for the less fortunate.  The poor who are receive public assistance are demonized as slovenly freeloaders who would rather take a handout than work.  As Mitt Romney’s puts it in his bloodlessly patrician way, “welfare without work creates negative incentives that lead to permanent poverty.”

So, “personal responsibility,” in this false debate, has come to mean “responsibility for no one but myself.”  Again, it is hard to believe that anyone really believes this bombast.  Sure, the selfish rich get a charge out of blaming the poor for their own poverty.  It’s like Grover Norquist, having a bit of frolic by telling reporters that he wants to “reduce government to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” or that Democrats are like farm animals that must be “fixed, and then they’ll be happy and sedate.”

Nonsense.  Just as with individual rights, our own internal compass tells us the truth about personal responsibility.  That same instinct — the one that makes us feel good about being accountable for ourselves — also makes us feel good about being compassionate, generous, and responsive to the needs of others.  We love stories of self-sacrifice, even if it’s Mitt Romney’s odd and awkward story of transporting all 200 employees of Bain Capital to the streets of New York to find one of those employees’ runaway teen daughter.  We want to help those who need help.

If this moral compass were used to make public policy, we would help those who truly need help.  There would be no talk about balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable.  We’d all pay our fair share.  And, we would be ashamed of anyone who tried to protect his own pockets by arguing that “personal responsibility” means that the lazy, shiftless poor should just work harder.

The Third False Debate: Fiscal Responsibility

When some lucky bastard wins the lottery, he can be certain that the first question he’ll be asked is how he plans to spend the money.  The answer is almost always the same.  As most of 250 high school students said when they responded to that question from the New York Times , the lottery winners all say they plan to give some or all of their winnings to charity.  Now, this may say something very nice about lottery winners (many of whom in fact donate parts of their winnings).  But, it mostly says something about all of us:  We feel it’s selfish to hoard money, and we feel good about being moderate in our spending.  We like to believe that we spend money only when we have to, take only our share, and are sober and modest stewards of our pocketbooks.

Here, also, some wags get a boastful rush from claiming that they are damned well entitled to what’s theirs, and to hell with anyone else.  As for lottery winners, there’s a satiric fake Romney quote going around the Internet now, in which Mitt supposedly says that a lottery winner “doesn’t need to give a single penny to charity, she doesn’t need to share it, she doesn’t need to send her kids to college.  If she wants to spend all of that money on cassette tapes, or Jolt soda pop, or whatever it is young people do with money these days, it’s her God-given American right.”

But, we don’t believe that.  We cheer those who help others, and we have no truck with people who spend their money installing car elevators into their homes (sorry, Mitt), getting $1250 haircuts (now the least of John Edwards’ problems), or paying off their huge lines of credit at Tiffanys (got that, Newt?).

When it comes to governing, whether a small town, a corporation, or a country, there are constant decisions to be made about how to allocate resources.  Is buying up shares of General Motors or AIG, with the hope that they will use the cash infusion to regain their footing and repay the money, worth the cost?  Will cutting taxes now cause a trickle down of spending and capital investment, creating general prosperity and revenue?  Can we afford to be world peacekeepers or regime changers?  Some of these questions are simple economics.  Some are matters of competing priorities.

What is clear, however, is that some economic plans feel wrong.  If “fiscal responsibility” requires selfless sacrifice on all our parts, any plan that unfairly adds to the burdens of the workaday many, while relieving the burdens of the privileged few, feels wrong.  For example, our trash-talking governor Chris Christie had no trouble cutting state spending, mostly at the expense of public welfare programs and the jobs of public employees; but he refused to sign any bill that would raise taxes on the wealthy.  “Fiscal responsibility,” that ain’t.

The Funny Thing

Here’s what’s most curious.

Republicans paint themselves as the custodians of old-fashioned values: An Eisenhower-era world in which we all do our part, help our neighbors, watch our spending, and are mostly left alone to pursue our happiness. And yet, these are exactly the values that are being used now to justify a platform of protecting the rich, denying the poor, and in many ways holding all of us to the meanest interpretations of Christian rules of conduct. On that, we can only hearken to the words of that good old Episcopalian Jew, Barry Goldwater: In our hearts, we know that it’s not right.


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