Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sunday Reading

Ford Had a Better Idea — Matthew Rozsa in Salon on the differences between Gerald Ford and Mike Pence.

As Democrats focus more and more on the possibility that President Donald Trump has committed impeachable offenses, many are also asking whether they should place the spotlight on Vice President Mike Pence. After all, Pence has so far joined the rest of the Trump administration in defending the president despite the numerous scandals that swirl around him and continue to get worse. Wouldn’t that undermine his credibility if Trump was forced to resign in disgrace and Pence became the 46th president of the United States?

I am reminded of an anecdote by the only other vice president to find himself in this position, Gerald Ford.

Like Pence, Ford was heavily criticized for his public defenses of President Richard Nixon at a time when the walls of the Watergate scandal were starting to close in. Yet when Ford slipped up and told a reporter that he believed Nixon would have to resign but he didn’t want anyone thinking he (Ford) had contributed to that resignation, he immediately panicked and realized that he had to keep a lid on his moment of unintentional candor.

This is as good a place as any to examine the similarities and differences between Ford and Pence. Both men are Midwesterners (Ford from Michigan, Pence from Indiana) with extensive political experience and a reputation for being cool-headed and affable. Each one is definitely “establishment” in terms of their standing within the institutional Republican Party itself, and both have avoided developing too many deep personal enmities despite their extensive political careers.

On the other hand, Ford was an ideological moderate (arguably the last GOP president deserving of the term), while Pence was the most right-wing vice presidential nominee in 40 years when Trump picked him. Ford had a squeaky clean reputation, while Pence has a major corruption scandal in his own past and owes his very selection as Trump’s vice president to the intervention of former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has since been disgraced (Ford didn’t even become Nixon’s vice president until Nixon’s initial vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned).

All of this means that, while Ford was well-poised to heal the nation upon inheriting power in 1974 (and his approval ratings were quite high until his controversial decision to pardon Nixon), Pence would likely face more of an uphill battle.

While I have no idea whether Pence, like Ford, believes that his boss is doomed, I suspect that he shares Ford’s trepidation about being perceived as adding fuel to the fire of the president’s scandals. The reason is obvious: He’d be the major beneficiary if Trump left the Oval Office.

Is Pence in the right for doing this? Maybe.

While it’s valuable to not be viewed as a Machiavellian schemer, Pence risks swinging too far in the other direction and being perceived as part of the same set of problems that are being created by Trump and Trumpism. If Trump needs to resign, Americans will have to turn to Pence to restore faith in the American government. That will not be possible if Pence is viewed as an extension of the corruption that took down Trump, rather than an antidote to it.

When it comes to avoiding that outcome, Pence may be running out of time. Although he has not been personally implicated in any of Trump’s scandals, a point is being reached in which continuing to lie on behalf of this president will seem not only willfully obtuse, but downright complicit. One of the reasons Ford was such a great president (an opinion that many historians do not share) is that he was able to set a good example with his personal character. Trump, by contrast, is a president whose personal character is appalling, regardless of whether one believes he engaged in criminal activity — you don’t have to think he committed sexual assault to be disgusted by his willingness to brag about it, or to think he means what he tweets to think his incessant online sniping is beneath the dignity of his office.

The president is supposed to do more than craft policy. He or she is also supposed to be a role model, someone that we can say embodies the basic decency that we expect from every American citizen. Ford had that quality, even when he was trying to publicly avoid believing the worst about Nixon.

If Pence has that same characteristic, he needs to start showing it — and soon.

How Roger Ailes Degraded America — Stephen Metcalf in The New Yorker.

What surprised me most about Gabriel Sherman’s excellent 2014 biography of Roger Ailes—who died on Thursday, at seventy-seven—was how much of Ailes’s upbringing was a gift of America’s postwar social contract. He was born in 1940 and raised in Warren, Ohio, a town with a beautiful post office, adorned with W.P.A. murals, that was built by the New Deal. His father was a union worker in the nearby Packard Electric plant, and retired with a pension. Ailes idealized growing up in Warren; he thought of it as the real America, which had been degraded by the eggheads and the snobs. When he created his own production company, in 1990, it was named after his childhood street.

He was a hemophiliac, and as a boy often stayed home from school. He grew up a loner, absorbing hours of daytime programming and, in the evenings, sometimes, beatings from his father. The portrait Sherman draws of Ailes’s father is of a man who felt thwarted by the very things that made and sustained him: marriage, a labor union, suburbia. Unable to see the glory in any of it, he took to abusing those around him who couldn’t defend themselves. (A court later found him guilty of “extreme cruelty” to his wife.) Once, when Roger was small, his father told him to jump off a top bunk into his arms; his father let him crash to the floor and said, “Don’t ever trust anybody.” (As Jill Lepore notes in her review of the Sherman biography for this magazine, a man who worked with Ailes in the nineteen-seventies called this Ailes’s “Rosebud story.”)

Having been a student of both his father’s mood swings and televisual technique, Ailes, unsurprisingly, became, in Sherman’s words, a “big fan” of Leni Riefenstahl. At virtually every point that television played a role in degrading American life, Ailes was there: the repackaging of Nixon, the destruction of Michael Dukakis, the hyping of the Lewinsky scandal and the Iraq War, and on and on. He was less a right-winger or believer in family values than a hustler and an opportunist, and, from the evidence Sherman assembles, a badly damaged human being. But he was a consummate talent. You’d have to be to turn Nixon into a likable man, or Dukakis, with his easygoing manner and charming immigrant backstory, into a race traitor and backstabbing Fifth Columnist.

The outsized profits that Ailes created for Fox came from doing something he instinctively understood: simultaneously alarming and comforting people who were home alone watching television. To justify himself to himself, he had to believe that “real” journalism, with its supposed canons of “objectivity,” was dishonest, self-serving, slanted. All he was doing was issuing corrective after corrective to a world vilely corrupted by liberalism. But this was less partisan politics than the strategic use of misanthropy to hide from one’s own self-hatred—or at least that is the overwhelming impression given by Sherman’s book.

Prior to cable, television news had been regulated by the standards of William Paley, the founder of CBS, and by the fact-finding probity of his first breakout star, Edward R. Murrow. It was this legacy that Ailes set out to destroy. Television produces simultaneity but at a great distance; intimacy but—at low levels and at all times—feelings of alienation. The genius of Paley, as expressed by Murrow to Walter Cronkite, was putting forth figures that soothed the alienated response, allayed and minimized it, in favor of an elevated idea of both the country and the medium. The genius of Roger Ailes is that he intensified and played upon that alienation, and then, as it shaded into paranoia, channelled it against his enemies, or anyone who dared tell him that his childhood was a lie.

But perhaps it was. Throughout his childhood, Ailes was told that his paternal grandfather had been killed in combat in the First World War. In fact, as he discovered only later in life, his father’s father was living a few towns over during Ailes’s childhood and was a “a respected public health official with a Harvard degree.” Ailes’s father was the son of a proper Wilsonian, an accomplished and credentialed public servant.

There was a time in my life when, every so often, I would watch Fox News for hours at a time. My wife and I used to fly through Atlanta and into the rural airport in Dothan, Alabama, to visit her grandparents. If her grandparents were religious, they kept it quiet. There was no Jesus in that house, no Bible, no devotional materials of any kind, no crucifixes or homiletic asides, nothing. The absence was explained once, cursorily, by the story of how Grandaddy, at the age of ten, had been forced to go to church wearing shorts. He hated wearing shorts, and never went to church again. He had been a cook in the Navy, and was the kind of quiet man who refused his shore leave. When he retired, he promised himself he would never cook again, and never leave his cattle farm.

He would wake up early and work outside before the heat descended, then recline on his sofa and watch soap operas. He gardened, he whittled, he pastured cows, and he almost never spoke. After the soap operas, he would turn on Fox News. Every year, the television got a little louder. It was on these annual visits that I came to understand that Fox News, for all its outrageous excesses, is a low-level inflammation-delivery system, the real effects of which are felt only over time.

The day my wife was born, her grandfather bought a cow in her name, and used the money from selling its calves to put her through college. He once said, with a conviction so total I have never forgotten it, that he didn’t mind the Wall Street bankers and their bonuses because “they don’t have anything I want.” Deep into his eighties, his convictions seemed to shift in both direction and ferocity. He believed that the subprime crisis involved only public housing, the malfeasance of the government, and unqualified minority borrowers. Only in retrospect did I align a growing coldness in his manner toward us with the milestones of Ailes’s later career: the launching of Fox News, in 1996; its deepening paranoia during the Obama years. I saw up close how Roger Ailes implanted beliefs in people that were beneath their good character.

I would distill Ailes’s genius down to the following formula: There is a person at a great distance from you who, simply by existing, insults your existence; therefore, that person does not have a right to exist. Ailes did more to degrade the tone of public life in America than anyone since Joseph McCarthy, and, even the day after his death, it is a struggle to write about him without borrowing from that tone.

The Rituals of Spring — Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald.

I’ve been meaning to write this column for years.

The inspiration will invariably come some warm May evening as I am standing in the lobby of a downtown hotel and, suddenly, a limousine sweeps up and disgorges these boys in crisp tuxes, these girls in sparkly dresses, T-shirts and hoodies abandoned for the night, looking handsome and gorgeous and startlingly adult as they seek the ballroom where the prom is being held.

Or the inspiration will arrive on a June afternoon as I am passing a chapel where some poor photographer is wrangling children, flower girls and ring bearers much more interested in frolicking on the grass than in posing for posterity, as groomsmen and bridesmaids arrange themselves just so while the newly minted Mr. and Mrs. beam, having just vowed to face together whatever comes.

Or, the inspiration will show up as it did a few days ago when I served as commencement speaker for Willamette University. The stately strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” rang in the damp Oregon air, then bagpipers played and cheers rose as a procession of black-robed young people made their way forward to meet a moment many years and tears in the making. And I heard a familiar whisper.

It said, You really ought to write a piece celebrating the rituals of spring.

I’ve toyed with the idea many times. But invariably, the notion of some such languid meditation is burned away in the fire of more urgent news.

It almost happened again this year. Lord knows there is no shortage of urgent news. Did you hear about the president blabbing classified intel to the Russians? Did you see where he apparently asked the FBI director to back off an investigation? Did you know about the appointment of a special prosecutor?

The guy who promised to “drain the swamp” is snorkeling in it. The president — and, thus, the country — lurch from crisis to crisis like a drunk on the deck of a ship in high seas, and there is a queasy sense of America unraveling.

What are a prom, a wedding, a graduation against all that? These are not special things. These things happen all the time.

But that, of course, is precisely what makes them special. These things happen all the time.

Or, more to the point, they have happened, always. In the years when men went to war wearing pie pan helmets, during the gin and jazz of the ’20s, the brother, can you spare a dime of the ’30s, in the blood and sacrifice of the ’40s and the rock, riot and political murder of the ’60s, through gas lines, Max Headroom, and the meaning of is, through upheaval, change, and all the unravelings that have come before, certain things have always happened.

Fumbling fingers have always pinned corsages to girl’s dresses. Nervous couples have always pledged themselves one to the other. “Pomp and Circumstance” has always heralded the graduates.

I think that’s why, when you witness spring’s rituals, you almost always smile. Who can help smiling as some girl goes tottering on skyscraper heels into her prom or some graduate pumps his fist as he crosses the stage?

You smile, remembering. You smile because these are signs of continuity. You smile because they are acts of faith.

Yes, the president lurches. Yes, one feels an unraveling.

But the bride stands beneath the garland clutching her bouquet, as brides always have, the students move the tassel from right to left as students ever will. There is renewal in these rituals of spring. They allow you to remember that even now, some things are still good.

And to believe they always will be.

 Doonesbury — Niche market.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

I Wish I Didn’t Care

I wish I didn’t care about things like climate change, civil rights, marriage equality, and a woman’s right to control her own body; about public education; about caring for the disabled, the sick, the mentally challenged and the poor; about the casual racism that seems to permeate nearly every thread of our lives; about religious intolerance that goes by the name of “religious freedom,” and all the other little things that make life hard for some and therefore make it that much harder for the rest of us.

I wish I could just watch my TV, read my books, drive my car, write my plays, go to work, collect my paycheck, and live in my neighborhood without caring about all of those things.

But I do.

We Will Survive

I don’t have anything wise or cogent to say right now except that I can think of some pollsters and sure-thing prognosticators that will be out of work or unable to get a date for a while.

I will have some thoughts later.  I’m not sure when.  But the world will keep turning and we have work that needs to be done.  Sitting around being shocked and sad isn’t going to make anything better.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Fifteen Years in Miami

Fifteen years ago today I loaded up the Pontiac with my plants, my computer, and Sam. At 6:30 p.m., in a driving rainstorm, we left Albuquerque following the Bekins moving van on our way to Miami and my new job. We drove until midnight, getting to Pecos, Texas, where we spent the night. The next morning we got on I-10 and cruised across the Lone Star state, catching Houston at rush hour, New Orleans in the dark (I took the detour through the city so I could say I’d been there), and finally stopped for the night somewhere on the Mississippi/Alabama border. Finally, forty-eight hours to the minute after leaving Albuquerque, we arrived in Miami… in a rainstorm.

Fifteen years later, I still have the Pontiac and the plants. Sam is gone, and the computer — a Gateway PC — has been replaced three-fold. I don’t have the same job I did when I came to Miami, and I’m living in my third residence. I have made a lot of new friends, renewed some old ones, and maintained contact with the people I left behind in Albuquerque who still mean as much to me now as they did then.

Fifteen years is the longest I’ve lived in one city since I graduated from high school. My current job is the longest I’ve worked in one place at basically the same job; it will be fourteen years in October. For someone who is staring down the barrel of his 64th birthday in six weeks, that probably makes me sound like a flake; I know people who are my age who have worked at the same place since they graduated from college and I’m being invited to their retirement party hosted by their grandchildren. But I wouldn’t trade my life experiences for anything. Yeah, there are some things I could have done better, and I have a few regrets, including my failed relationship with Allen. But even there, we had fifteen good years and wonderful memories — and a lot of growing up for both of us — that can’t be discarded because we’re apart. Although I’m not doing exactly what I planned to do with all those years of studying theatre, I am very proud of the work I do, and I feel like I’m making a genuine contribution to the education of the 340,000 students of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. I owe a lot of that to the experience I gained working in Albuquerque and Michigan. As for the theatre, moving to Miami gave me the inspiration to write the play that gave me my first New York production in 2008, and I’ve written a few more that have been produced here by my new friends. So all in all, life is in balance.

In a way, it’s hard to believe it’s been a decade and a half that I’ve been back in Miami. In a lot of ways I still feel like a newcomer. I still have a strong connection with New Mexico, including being the defender of New Mexico Spanglish among a lot of other different accents and dialects. I still miss the glory of the mountains and the spectacular New Mexico sunsets, and I still have yet to find a place in South Florida that does huevos rancheros the right way. But I’m glad to be here and able to look back at all the amazing blessings that have come my way.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Thursday, March 17, 2016

When Nature Calls…

Flowering Crabapple Tree 05-10-13First it was the peacocks making mating calls at all hours of the day and night.  Now it’s the trees and other flora bursting forth with their come-hither scents and dispersal of pollen that give me all the signs of a cold without actually being sick: a scratchy throat, unwanted moisture exuding from the nose, and explosive sneezes that make the dog next door bark in alarm.

It’s more annoying than anything else.  All other systems are functioning within normal parameters, but I get why the pharmaceutical industry is able to make a fortune on selling little allergy pills that suppress the symptoms — and give off unanticipated side effects like bleeding from the ears — so that the American public can go through life with a dry nose and liberation from operating heavy machinery for four to six hours at a dose.

I took a couple of leftover Nyquil tablets from my last cold last month and went to sleep early.  It helped.  Now if only those damn peacocks would get a room…

Friday, December 18, 2015

Friday, December 11, 2015

Close Call

If I had left my house five seconds earlier this morning, I would have been the guy that got T-boned by a large van at the intersection of Old Cutler Road and SW 152nd Street in Miami. Instead, it was a white Honda. I stopped to call 9-1-1, got the intersection wrong in my initial rush, and by the time I had clarified the address, they said that they’d already gotten the call.

I’m sure there’s someone who will tell me that God saved me from the accident, but that means that the Sky Faerie had it in for the guy in the Honda.

I hope everyone’s okay.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Short Takes

Is Joe Biden out?  Analysts think Hillary Clinton’s debate performance made it harder for him to run.

Israel stepped up security in light of attacks by Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

U.S. to send troops to Cameroon to stem off Boko Haram.

Nurse with Ebola complications said to be “critically ill.”

New York restaurant chain ends tipping.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sunday Reading

The Act of Forgiveness — Matt Schiavenza in The Atlantic on how an act of grace leads to healing.

“I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” a daughter of one victim said. “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive,” said the sister of another. “I pray God on your soul.”

Given the heinous nature of the crime, the willingness of Charleston’s survivors to forgive was remarkable—and earned particular praise from President Obama. But the act of forgiving is more than just an expression of grace toward a wrongdoer. It’s also an effective tool in helping individuals and communities touched by tragedy accelerate the healing process.

In March, the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan profiled Everett Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University whose mother was brutally murdered in a 1995 burglary. As it happened, Worthington’s own research examined the effects of forgiveness. So in the days after his mother’s death, he decided to employ a five-step process he had previously devised:

First, you “recall” the incident, including all the hurt. “Empathize” with the person who wronged you. Then, you give them the “altruistic gift” of forgiveness, maybe by recalling how good it felt to be forgiven by someone you yourself have wronged. Next, “commit” yourself to forgive publicly by telling a friend or the person you’re forgiving. Finally, “hold” onto forgiveness. Even when feelings of anger surface, remind yourself that you’ve already forgiven.

Worthington found that his approach worked—and that other examples confirmed his intuition. Studies have shown that forgiveness aids mental and physical health, while the opposite reaction—holding a grudge and harboring resentment—has the opposite effect. This can also be applied to entire communities touched by mass tragedy. In 2006, 32-year-old Charles Roberts stormed into a one-room schoolhouse in an Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten girls, killing five before turning the gun on himself. Despite enormous shock and grief, several of the victims’ family members appeared at the killer’s funeral just days later. When Roberts’ aggrieved mother then announced plans to leave the community, relatives of the dead persuaded her to stay. Seven years later, CBS News reported that the elder Roberts had become the primary caregiver for a girl her son had wounded in the attack.

“Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?” said Roberts.

An individual or community’s gift of forgiveness, however, does not obviate a society’s demand for justice. In a 2014 case described by the Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen, a Colorado prosecutor seeking the death penalty for a prison inmate charged with murdering a corrections officer engaged in a contentious dispute with the victim’s parents, who opposed capital punishment. After months of back and forth, the prosecutor finally agreed to forgo the death penalty. The defendant, whose attorneys believed him to suffer from mental illness, ultimately pled guilty and is now serving a life sentence.

In the wake of the Charleston murder, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said that the state would “absolutely want” the death penalty for Dylann Roof. Even Roof’s own uncle said he would support his nephew’s execution, telling reporters that he’d volunteer to “be the one to push the button.”

Several months—at the very least—will pass before a judge determines Roof’s fate. But the decision of the victims’ relatives to forgive may ease some measure of their pain.

It’s Not About Mental Illness — Arthur Chu in Salon on copping out on the real problem behind mass killings by white men.

Dylann Roof is a fanboy of the South African and Rhodesian governments. As horrific as Roof’s crime was, the crimes that occurred over decades of apartheid rule were far, far worse, and committed by thousands of statesmen, bureaucrats and law enforcement officials. Were all of them also “mentally ill”? At the risk of Godwinning myself, John Nash wasn’t the only person to think the Jews were a global demonic conspiracy out to get him–at one point in history a large portion of the Western world bought into that and killed six million people because of it. Were they all “mentally ill”?

Even when violence stems purely from delusion in the mind of someone who’s genuinely totally detached from reality–which is extremely rare–that violence seems to have a way of finding its way to culturally approved targets. Yeah, most white supremacists aren’t “crazy” enough to go on a shooting spree, most misogynists aren’t “crazy” enough to murder women who turn them down, most anti-government zealots aren’t “crazy” enough to shoot up or blow up government buildings.

But the “crazy” ones always seem to have a respectable counterpart who makes a respectable living pumping out the rhetoric that ends up in the “crazy” one’s manifesto–drawing crosshairs on liberals and calling abortion doctors mass murderers–who, once an atrocity happens, then immediately throws the “crazy” person under the bus for taking their words too seriously, too literally.

And the big splashy headliner atrocities tend to distract us from the ones that don’t make headline news. People are willing to call one white man emptying five magazines and murdering nine black people in a church and openly saying it was because of race a hate crime, even if they have to then cover it up with the fig leaf of individual “mental illness”–but a white man wearing a uniform who fires two magazines at two people in a car in a “bad neighborhood” in Cleveland? That just ends up a statistic in a DoJ report on systemic bias.

And hundreds of years of history in which an entire country’s economy was set up around chaining up millions of black people, forcing them to work and shooting them if they get out of line? That’s just history.

The reason a certain kind of person loves talking about “mental illness” is to draw attention to the big bold scary exceptional crimes and treat them as exceptions. It’s to distract from the fact that the worst crimes in history were committed by people just doing their jobs–cops enforcing the law, soldiers following orders, bureaucrats signing paperwork. That if we define “sanity” as going along to get along with what’s “normal” in the society around you, then for most of history the sane thing has been to aid and abet monstrous evil.

We love to talk about individuals’ mental illness so we can avoid talking about the biggest, scariest problem of all–societal illness. That the danger isn’t any one person’s madness, but that the world we live in is mad.

After all, there’s no pill for that.

Nice Work — Christine Porath in The New York Times on how civility — and the lack of it — is damaging the American workplace.

Why is respect — or lack of it — so potent? Charles Horton Cooley’s 1902 notion of the “looking glass self” explains that we use others’ expressions (smiles), behaviors (acknowledging us) and reactions (listening to us or insulting us) to define ourselves. How we believe others see us shapes who we are. We ride a wave of pride or get swallowed in a sea of embarrassment based on brief interactions that signal respect or disrespect. Individuals feel valued and powerful when respected. Civility lifts people. Incivility holds people down. It makes people feel small.

Even though a growing number of people are disturbed by incivility, I’ve found that it has continued to climb over the last two decades. A quarter of those I surveyed in 1998 reported that they were treated rudely at work at least once a week. That figure rose to nearly half in 2005, then to just over half in 2011.

Incivility often grows out of ignorance, not malice. A surgeon told me that until he received some harsh feedback, he was clueless that so many people thought he was a jerk. He was simply treating residents the way he had been trained.

[…]

Civility elicits perceptions of warmth and competence. Susan T. Fiske, a professor at Princeton, and Amy J. C. Cuddy, a professor at Harvard, with their colleagues have conducted research that suggests that these two traits drive our impressions of others, accounting for more than 90 percent of the variation in the positive or negative impressions we form of those around us. These impressions dictate whether people will trust you, build relationships with you, follow you and support you.

The catch: There can be a perceived inverse relationship between warmth and competence. A strength in one can suggest a weakness of the other. Some people are seen as competent but cold — he’s very smart, but people will hate working for him. Or they’re seen as warm but incompetent — she’s really friendly, but probably not very smart.

Leaders can use simple rules to win the hearts and minds of their people — with huge returns. Making small adjustments such as listening, smiling, sharing and thanking others more often can have a huge impact. In one unpublished experiment I conducted, a smile and simple thanks (as compared with not doing this) resulted in people being viewed as 27 percent warmer, 13 percent more competent and 22 percent more civil.

[…]

Civility pays dividends. J. Gary Hastings, a retired judge in Los Angeles, told me that when he informally polled juries about what determined their favor, he found that respect — and how attorneys behaved — was crucial. Juries were swayed based on thin slices of civil or arrogant behavior.

Across many decisions — whom to hire, who will be most effective in teams, who will be able to be influential — civility affects judgments and may shift the balance toward those who are respectful.

Given the enormous cost of incivility, it should not be ignored. We all need to reconsider our behavior. You are always in front of some jury. In every interaction, you have a choice: Do you want to lift people up or hold them down?

Doonesbury — She’s not a scientist.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Seven Years In One House

This weekend marks the seventh anniversary of living in my present house.  It’s also the longest I’ve lived at one address since I left my parents’ house in Perrysburg.

Here’s what the place looked like when I first saw it in June 2008:

1. FrontAnd here’s what it looks like today:

001The foliage has been filling out nicely.  I have a natural sprinkler system — the clouds — which explains the somewhat parched lawn.  Now that it’s the rainy season it should perk right up.

It’s a nice place and I plan to stay for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tech Support — A Short Play

Scene: An office. Lights up on the cube farm. Me at my desk; Co-Worker at another.

Co-Worker: Oh, the internet’s down! Bobby, can you help?

Me (after wondering why people think the only guy in the office magically knows how to fix computers): What’s on the screen?

Co-Worker: “Internet Explorer cannot connect to this page.”

Me (getting up and going to Co-Worker’s cube and seeing a webpage in all its glory on the screen): Looks fine to me.

Co-Worker: But when I enter the address, I get the error message. (Co-Worker types in address. Error message pops up.) See?

Me: That’s because you’re typing the address into the Search box.

Co-Worker: Oh! Really?

Me: Yeah.

Co-Worker: Ha ha! How funny! Thanks!

Me: You’re welcome. (Goes back to his desk and looks for something to open a vein with.)

END OF PLAY.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Reading

How Al Franken Won — Patrick Caldwell in Mother Jones reports on how running with your party can make you a winner.

One evening a few days before the midterm elections, Sen. Al Franken stood on a low raised platform at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s St. Paul headquarters, addressing a few dozen loyal supporters. Chris Coleman, St. Paul’s mayor, had introduced the freshman senator by telling the crowd that Franken had fulfilled the legacy of the late progressive icon Paul Wellstone, whose Senate seat Franken now holds. “Thank you for saying I’ve been your Paul,” Franken replied solemnly. “There’s no higher compliment.” Then he dove into a Wellstone-esque speech selling progressive policy ideas in simple, everyman terms, spelling out exactly how he’d raise taxes on Minnesota millionaires to help students refinance their loans. “We up here believe that the economy—and not just our economy, but our community and our state—it works from the middle up,” he said. The speech exemplified how Franken campaigned—and why he won.

When Franken first ran for office, in 2008, he beat Republican incumbent Norm Coleman by a scant 312 votes—and only after a recount that delayed his Senate induction for six months. Republicans naturally saw Franken as vulnerable heading into the 2014 midterm elections. But Franken defied those expectations. He won re-election by 10 percent in a state where most voters disapprove of President Obama’s job performance. And he pulled it off by bucking the trend. Across the country, other Democratic Senate candidates distanced themselves from President Obama and the Democratic Party platform. Mark Warner, who squeaked by in Virginia, preferred to talk about how he’d tweak the Affordable Care Act than his vote for the bill, while arguing that he hasn’t actually voted with President Obama all that often. Mark Udall in Colorado decided he didn’t want to be seen with Obama. Challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky wouldn’t even say if she voted for Obama in 2012—after serving as one of his delegates to the national convention.

Franken took the opposite approach. Instead of running away from the progressive accomplishments of the Obama era, he embraced them, railing against bankers, advocating for student loan reform—even defending the Affordable Care Act. Franken ran as an Elizabeth Warren-style Democrat, running a populist campaign that didn’t shirk discussion of the specific policies Democrats could pursue to help the middle class. And voters rewarded him. “This wasn’t a safe seat,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in an e-mail. “He earned his victory by being a proud populist Democrat for six years and inspiring voters.”

Whole Foods’ Labor Pains — Michelle Chen in The Nation on the work environment at the grocery chain.

With its dazzling array of exorbitantly priced eco-friendly products, Whole Foods Market fosters a love-hate relationship with customers who’ve gotten hooked on its cornucopia of guilty-liberal indulgences. But the company’s labor relations are even more sour, as workers grow increasingly frustrated that their workplaces aren’t nearly as progressive as the green-branding rhetoric.

Going beyond the usual grumbling about hipster commercialism, some rank-and-file workers are challenging the management to live up to the company’s purported values when it comes to treating its workers fairly.

Last week, dozens of Whole Foods employees in San Francisco partnered with the radical union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to protest a labor system that they say degrades workers while catering to wealthy consumers, and contributes to the city’s economic polarization. This Friday, they are taking their grievances to the regional corporate office in Emeryville, California. Their demand is simple: “a $5 an hour wage increase for all employees, and no retaliation for organizing their union.” Their message for Whole Foods—to live up to its brand’s much-hyped enlightened capitalist values—is more complicated.

The campaign kicked off at the South of Market Whole Foods, where workers rallied and presented a petition, signed by about fifty employees, demanding better working conditions. Like other retail workers, they say that their earnings, at $11.25 to $19.25 per hour, lag behind the exploding cost of living (about $30 an hour is needed to afford a regular one-bedroom apartment in the area). Today, they plan to threaten further job actions if the management did not heed their concerns.

Whole Foods declined to comment to The Nation. But evangelically libertarian CEO John Mackey has historically taken an anti-labor stance, comparing unions with “herpes.”

Campaigners say that while sustainability is on display on many of the store’s labels, it’s in short supply for employees whose wages cannot provide for their basic needs, even as the company champions green capitalism as a path to prosperity for workers and consumers alike.

Tracking Down the Past — In The New Yorker, Allen Kurzweil goes in search of the boarding school bully who tormented him forty years ago.

In 1971, I met a boy who changed my life forever. I was ten and he was twelve when, for a few indelible months, we roomed together in a British-style boarding school perched on an alpine meadow high above Geneva.

None of the schools I had previously attended—two public, one parent-run, and one private—prepared me for the eccentricities of Aiglon College. Early mornings were given over to fresh-air calisthenics, cold showers, and meditation. Afternoons were reserved for skiing and hiking. A retired opera singer with ill-fitting dentures taught elocution. A Second World War fighter pilot—shrapnel lodged in his shoulder, Bible quotes lodged in his brain—served as the interim headmaster while Aiglon’s founder, a frail vegetarian bachelor drawn to Eastern religions, undertook a rest cure.

A wildly favorable exchange rate made it possible for my mother, recently widowed, to send me to a school far beyond her means. My dormitory housed a Bahraini royal, the heir to a washing-machine fortune, and an Italian aristocrat whose family tree included a saint, a Pope, and several princes.

To neutralize the income inequality of its charges, the school prohibited parents from sending their sons and daughters spending money. That was just one of the dozens of directives and restrictions detailed in “Rules and Ranks,” a thirty-six-page handbook that all students were required to memorize. Minor delinquencies, such as tilting back in chairs, flicking towels, or the failure to wear one’s rank badge on the “left breast at all times,” resulted in fines deducted from the pocket money doled out each Wednesday afternoon. More flamboyant insubordination (“being slimy,” “wolf whistling during meditation,” “loutish behavior”) would lead to “laps,” punishment runs to and from a stone bridge up the road.

Yet none of these gaudy particulars can explain the plastic milk crates filled with documents that litter my office—the physical evidence of a fixation tethered to my fleeting co-residency with a burly Filipino boy, two years my senior, named Cesar Augusto Viana.

How does a middle-class Jewish kid from New York end up at a fancy Christian-inflected boarding school in Switzerland? The truth is, I campaigned to attend Aiglon. The school was situated a snowball’s throw from the chalet inn where my family had vacationed each winter while my father was alive. (A Viennese émigré who had relocated his wife and children from New York to Milan under the Marshall Plan, he died, of cancer, when I was five.) I associated the locale with a bountiful time unburdened by loss.

I had my first noteworthy encounter with Cesar Augusto not long after I dragged my brass-cornered trunk to the top of Belvedere, a dilapidated hotel that the school converted into a dormitory in 1960. Cesar, a returning student with an easy smile, a husky build, and an unruly mop of black hair, took an instant interest in me.

“You know what that tree is used for?” I recall him saying as he pointed at a towering pine out the window of our penthouse room. “If there’s a fire and we can’t use the stairs, I’ll have to throw you into that tree. But don’t worry,” he added. “The small branches at the top will break your fall, and the bigger ones down below will catch you.”

The nightmares started a few days later. To stave off the panic that accompanied lights-out, I took to staring at the comforting glow of my Omega Seamaster, a watch that I had inherited from my father.

There’s no mystery to why Cesar held certain Belvedere boys in his thrall. He knew the ropes. Moreover, he was rumored to be the son of Ferdinand Marcos’s head of security. His name, his size, his command of the school’s pseudo-military regulations, the accuracy he demonstrated when strafing enemies with ink from his Montblanc fountain pen, enabled him to transform our dorm into a theatre of baroque humiliation. Nor is it hard to figure out why he singled me out for special attention. I was the youngest boy in the school. I was a Jew (one of a handful). And I bunked a few feet away.

Up in our room one evening, several weeks into the term, I watched Cesar roll bits of brown bread, filched from the dining room, into pea-size balls. As I remember it, he then lined up the pellets on a windowsill and saturated each with hot sauce. After lights-out, he approached my bunk, cupping the pepper pills in his palm.

“Eat it, Nosey,” he commanded, curving his thumb and index finger around his nose to reinforce the ethnic slur that would become my nickname.

When I refused, he motioned to his sidekick, the lantern-jawed son of an American banking heiress and a Hungarian cavalry officer (and the biggest of our three other roommates), to pin me down. Only after I had swallowed three or four of the fiery pellets did Cesar permit me to rinse my mouth. The force-feeding left me with a bitter taste for days.

[…]

Despite the daily torments, I never complained. Aiglon placed a premium on stoic self-reliance, a code of conduct that was clarified during the first week of school, when my housemaster forced another lowerclassman, bedridden with the flu, to clean up his own vomit.

Only once did I acknowledge my roommate problems. Toward the end of the first term, my mother visited and noticed that I wasn’t wearing my father’s watch. I tried to convince her that I had left it in my room, but she pressed for the truth. I finally told her what happened: One day, after showering, I went to retrieve the watch from under my pillow, stowed there for safekeeping, and discovered that it was gone. I became hysterical. The more upset I got, the more Cesar and his confederate giggled. I pleaded for the watch’s return until Cesar silenced me by making the “Nosey” sign.

Within the week, his henchman admitted that he’d hurled my watch off a balcony on a dare. I ran down the stairs, dashed outside, and dug through knee-deep snow until my fingers turned white and tingly. The watch never surfaced. The loss left me more than bereft. I felt annihilated.

Not long afterward, the sidekick was asked to leave the school, and Cesar disappeared—quarantined, I learned, years later, by a case of measles. I finished out my year at Aiglon without incident—in fact, I loved my final months at the school—and moved back to New York.

It didn’t take long to shed the habits I’d picked up in Switzerland. Plimsolls, anoraks, and rucksacks reverted to sneakers, parkas, and backpacks. The crossbars disappeared from my sevens. Yet reminders of Cesar kept popping up: while watching “Tom Brown’s School Days,” a BBC serial packed with boarding-school abuse; while reading novels for literature classes. (Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin is subjected to cold showers and gymnastics in an alpine sanatorium.) I composed a list of dictators who endorsed the benefits of a Swiss boarding-school education (the Shah of Iran, Kim Jong-un). I found myself wondering, Was Darwin’s theory of natural selection inspired by the adversity he faced at Dr. Butler’s school? Would Orwell’s world view have been so Orwellian had the headmaster of St. Cyprian’s resisted the impulse to break a bone-handled riding crop on the student’s buttocks?

In 1991, while promoting my first novel in Italy, I found myself with a few days off and returned to Aiglon. Much had changed in the twenty years since I’d left. No more laps. No more cold showers. No more rank systems. One thing remained, though—my sense of dread. Looking out the window of the room I had shared with Cesar, I experienced a wave of nausea so intense that I had to sit down for a few minutes with my head between my knees.

The following day, I interviewed a veteran housemistress named Mrs. Senn, a marvel of institutional memory, who diverted me for hours with recollections about the year I spent at the school. One student lost the tips of two toes to frostbite. Another almost died when he fell head first into a seventy-five-foot-deep crevasse. A third was permanently disfigured on the local slalom course after she took a bamboo gate too closely. (“Poor girl. The doctors did what they could, but her nose was never quite the same.”) Mrs. Senn also informed me that my closest friend at Aiglon, Woody Anderson, had tumbled backward down a dormitory stairwell a few months after I left. “Poor, poor Woody,” she said. “He was dead by the time he hit the ground.” When I asked Mrs. Senn about Cesar, she drew a blank. And no one else at the school seemed to remember the boy I couldn’t forget. The visit yielded nothing more than Cesar’s 1973 mailing address in Manila, c/o the Realistic Institute.

Back home, I found a Manila telephone directory at the New York Public Library and discovered that the Kissingeresque-sounding Realistic Institute was actually a “vocational school for hair and beauty culture.” (So much for the family’s connection to the Marcos regime.)

I decided to give Cesar a call. After some dithering—should I start with small talk or get right down to the business of the whipping and the watch?—I dialled his number. Following a few rings and some long-distance static, the line went dead, and with it died the search. I directed my energies toward more pressing matters: writing, marriage, fatherhood.

I started thinking about Cesar again in 1999, soon after my son, Max, turned five. In the middle of a school holiday pageant, a dispute over a Pokémon card incited a boy known around the jungle gym as Thomas the Tank Engine to throttle Max with a necktie.

“How do you deal with bullies?” he asked me that night as I was tucking him into bed.

I didn’t know what to say. Max was looking for counsel from someone who was demonstrably unqualified to provide it. Eventually, I found an answer of sorts; I wrote a children’s book, “Leon and the Spitting Image,” in which a boy battles a thuggish composite of the real-life goons who had terrorized us. When the book was released, in 2003, I visited classrooms around the country and discovered that bullying had become a topic of national discussion. During the Q. & A.s, each time I mentioned that the antagonist in my book was inspired by an actual nemesis, hands shot up: What was the worst thing he did? Did you tell on him? Where is he now?

Read the rest of the story.  For those of us who endured such torment, it leaves a permanent mark.

Doonesbury — the danger zone.