Thursday, January 21, 2021

Good Morning

It feels different already.  When I wake up, I turn on the radio next to my bed and listen to the BBC World Service, which is the overnight broadcast from the local NPR station.  For the last four years I’ve been hearing from them with their patented British understatement what’s been happening overnight, often leading with something Trump did or said that made me want to roll over and put the pillow over my ears.  But this morning…

Things are happening.  Good things.  Xenophobic and regressive policies are being rolled back.  Covid-19 is being taken seriously.  A press secretary at the podium in the White House briefing room is actually answering questions instead of making shit up on the fly.  People are smiling; you can see it under their masks.

It’s not just about policy, either.  It’s just a feeling that the confrontations, the bullying, the lying for the sake of one-upping, the brutal glare of petulant score-keeping even on those rare occasions when things go well, is now in the past.  The adolescent tantrums are being replaced by the steady hand of maturity and grace.

My jaw isn’t clenched.  I am still aware of the dangers of the pandemic, of those forces inside and out who are against us, but at least I don’t feel that we are teetering on the edge of a cliff.

I know that the euphoria won’t last, but now we can at least get back to work.  We have too much to do.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Friday, October 30, 2020

The Uncertainty Principle

Listening to the polling on NPR, the experts are telling me that Biden has a very good chance, but there’s still room for Trump to pull off a win.  It all depends on how the votes are counted, even if they are counted, and because of the overwhelming number of mail-in ballots, we won’t know who wins Tuesday night.

I know that’s probably the smart way to think, but at a foundational level, I don’t like not being certain about an outcome, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people don’t either.  And nothing has defined this year more than uncertainty.

Everything has been touched, magnified exponentially by Covid-19 and our inability to control it or even know to initially respond to it.  Add to that the politicization of it by Trump, who thrives on uncertainty because he’s uncertain himself and only succeeds by making others uncertain, and you have a toxic mix that stupefies and calls everything into question.  The mind-boggling quotient is that in what we used to nostalgically call “normal times,” choosing between an incompetent and thoroughly loathsome narcissist and a calm, competent, and compassionate challenger would lead to a very certain outcome: the buffoon would have been drawing single-digit poll numbers before Labor Day, and even allowing for the standard warnings about complacency and in-utero barnyard fowl tabulations, it would be a landslide of epic proportions.  But… too much is uncertain.  Will the votes be counted accurately without interference or injunction?  Will the Postal Service deliver?  Will the asteroid hit?

News outlets and print media count on uncertainty; it sells ad space and newspapers.  And by all standards of decency and journalism, they have a duty to report the news and the prospects of various scenarios, be it the election or Covid-19.  But the one thing they cannot control is our own feelings of queasy uncertainty, and that filters down into our everyday lives.  Will my office be open; will I even have a job?  Will my kids be able to go to school, and what dangers do they face when they’re there?

We all want this to be over, some to the point that they don’t care about the outcome.  Well, I do care about the outcome, and I’ve done what I can to ensure it comes out the way I hope it does: I voted, I took my two Covid-19 tests (both negative, thank you), and I went to work to make sure that my school is running for the kids no matter if they’re in class or on line.  I think that’s the only way we can deal with uncertainty: be certain of the small things that touch your life — your family, your work, your friends.  As the Serenity prayer says, we all need the strength, the courage, and the wisdom.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

How Are You?

The 2020 William Inge Theatre Festival was supposed to start today.  At this hour — 6:00 a.m. — I was supposed to be boarding a flight to Dallas and then on to Tulsa for my 29th trip to Independence, Kansas, where the festival would honor the memory of the playwright who gave us “Picnic,” “Come Back, Little Sheba,” and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” among other works including the screenplay for “Splendor in the Grass,” for which Inge won an Oscar.  The festival was planning to honor playwright Lynn Nottage with the Distinguished Achievement in American Theatre award in the name of William Inge, and I was going to present a paper for the scholars conference on the role of mothers in Inge’s plays.  We would also do what we do best at theatre festivals: make friends, read new plays, and eat a lot of good comfort food.

That’s not happening.  I’m sitting in my study at home in the eighth week of stay-home isolation, and the Inge Festival has been postponed for a year.  So has the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference, the Midwest Dramatists Conference, all the remaining car shows, and my summer camp reunion in Colorado.  The warnings from the smart people who are speaking out beyond the roses-and-rainbows forecast of the idiots in the White House are dire if we don’t pay attention to the real science, and we are all hoping against hope that by January we’ll all line up for vaccinations against the virus.  Maybe a year from today I’ll be finally using that ticket to Tulsa, along with the upgrade that came with it.

These are the things that occupy me right now, along with the health and safety of my friends and family.  I can hear about the global impact of the virus and the devastation it has caused on so many levels: physical, emotional, economic, and all the collateral damage that comes with it.  It can be overwhelming, and the urge to turn it off and tune it out is strong.  That would explain why the subscriptions to Netflix and other streaming services (and of course, porn, or so I hear) are through the roof and why everyone is now learning how to use Zoom for everything from doctor’s visits to play rehearsals and performance.  We are learning to cope — I found the New York Times crossword puzzle archives to be a godsend — and we are learning to turn our energy to other outlets.  For instance, I have written ten new plays and completed a novel since January, which means that I’ve done more playwriting in the last five months than I did in the first forty-three years since I had my first play produced.  And some of them are pretty good, if I do say so myself.

So, how are you doing?  How are you coping?  How’s your family?  Your friends?  Your pets?  What have you learned about yourself and your loved ones?

Friday, February 14, 2020

Happy Friday

And happy VD (Valentines Day) if you celebrate.  Otherwise enjoy the day watching other people get absolutely goopy over candy kisses and Vermont Teddy Bears.

Friday, October 4, 2019

One Day

Facebook is reminding me of memories from the past few years when around this time I noted that Allen and I went through what became known as The Lost Weekend.

We were living in Petoskey, Michigan, and on Friday, October 2, 1992, Allen attempted suicide by driving his car at a high speed, planning to crash it into the woods. Fortunately the engine blew out, and when I got home he was curled up in a ball on the couch. We tried to get him to the rehab center in Traverse City, but they didn’t do intakes on the weekend, so for the next two days we lived in that murky haze of trying to come to terms with our mutual problem: his excessive drinking and my enabling of it and my own borderline excessive consumption.

I don’t remember much about that weekend except that he spent Saturday in bed and I sat on the couch and on the phone, and on Sunday we switched places. I convinced his employer to give him a 30-day leave, and on Monday I bundled him into the Pontiac for the 50-mile drive to Munson Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center. I went home, cleaned out two full garbage bags of empty vodka bottles that he’d stashed throughout the house, threw out any form of liquor in the house, and that night went to my first meeting. I got the little “One Day at a Time” book and inscribed my name and the date: “5 October 1992.” I haven’t had a drink since that weekend.

Allen came home three weeks later. Life was different after that weekend. It still is even though we separated six and a half years later and we moved on apart. But this time of year I remember that weekend as if it was yesterday, knowing that it could be tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Good Morning

Technically I’m on vacation through the end of the month, but for all intents and purposes, I’m retired from Miami-Dade County Public Schools as of yesterday afternoon.

It was a normal day at the office.  I got in at my usual time, caught up on a few e-mails, did some budget transfers and uploads of new entries, and sat with one of my co-workers who will be picking up my programs.  At noon we had a little pizza party in the conference room as one last excuse to party due to my departure.

But in a fitting bit of what goes around comes around, I spent part of yesterday afternoon searching our old FileMaker Pro database for information on a program that we had not had since 2003.  As it happens, my computer was the only one in the office with the old system still installed.  So I spent the last hour writing up the procedure for accessing a database system that had not been used since 2010.

I drove home — I’d driven the Pontiac because I had boxes to take away and I thought it would be a fitting closing of the circle to drive the same car I’d driven to my first day on the job — and put the boxes in my home office.  Just another day.  But this morning it feels a little different.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Going On

This has been a hell of a weekend in every conceivable way.

To quote Lanford Wilson, “[He] didn’t believe in death and I don’t either…. There’s no such thing. It goes on and then it stops. You can’t worry about the stopping, you have to worry about the going on.”

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Week Ahead

This is going to be one of those truncated weeks again for me as I get ready to head off to Independence, Kansas for my 26th trip to the William Inge Festival.  This year I’m standing in for a friend as host of the scholars conference, so I’ll get to see most of the events, including the New Play Lab, without having to prepare much or be nervous about a production of a play of mine.

In all the years I’ve been going, I’ve always found it both calming and enlightening to go to this small town in the prairie (about ten miles north of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “little house on the prairie”).  It reminds me of the place I grew up, and even if we are poles apart politically, the people are friendly and welcoming, and far more willing to welcome the eccentricities of big-city folk than if the tables were turned.  They do more than tolerate the visitors; they’re actually happy to have us, at least for a little while, and even if they may feel that our values don’t match theirs, I’ve never felt as if it was a zero sum game.  There is something to be said for mutual respect.

I know that it’s trendy on TV to pit one group against the other; that sells papers and boosts ratings.  And I know that it’s easy to say “both sides do it” and “don’t bother to argue with them.”  Rather, I’d like to think that the impression I leave on the people I meet there is that while I may be a lily-livered liberal snowflake faerie and they’re right-wing nutsery, we can still occupy the same space at the same time for four days and still come home with the feeling of having learned more than just something about theatre history.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Day Off

I need to take care of some stuff that’s come up so I’m taking today off.  I’ll check in later this morning.

Friday, December 22, 2017

On This Date

December 22, 1988 — I graduated from the University of Colorado with my PhD.  I am sure there were a lot of impressed — if not surprised — people, including my teachers in high school, including one during my tenure at St. George’s who informed me that I could only aspire to being an auto mechanic.  I suppose to him that represented the dregs of society, but I know a number of them and they are some of the smartest people I know.  So, thanks, Mr. Sykes (with your M.A.) wherever you are.

I initially set out to become a professor of playwriting and dramatic lit, but life has a strange way of refocusing the best intentions.  While I didn’t end up as a member of a theatre department on the hunt for tenure, I did find a very good career in education administration helping a large school district get and administer grant funding.  So in one way or another, my work has touched the lives and improved the education of every student in the fourth-largest school district in the country.  And when I’m not doing that, I get to write and share my work on stage.  So I think it’s worked out pretty well.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Jury Duty

I get to spend today as the guest of Miami-Dade County waiting to be called up for jury duty.  I’m going to take my laptop and Kindle so I am not stuck in the room with nothing to do but watch Sandra Bullock movies.

I do not mind doing it… except for the Sandra Bullock part.  (It’s not her; I’m sure she’s a fine actor and given the choice, I’d rather watch her than Adam Sandler.  But how many times can you sit through “The Blind Side”?)  I think being called up is a part of the deal of being a citizen, and I’m happy to do it.  They let us bring books, food, and computers into the waiting room, they give us free parking, and for people who have to take off from work, they require my employer to pay me while I’m sitting reading, writing, or watching.

This is my third time being called up.  I have yet to make it to actually sit on a jury.

Monday, October 2, 2017

For The Record

Today, October 2, 2017, marks fifteen years with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and twenty-five years of sobriety for me.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Comparative Silence

As of this morning I still don’t have landline phone, internet, or cable TV at home.  And I really don’t miss it all that much.  While the power was out I read several books, including “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and an unauthorized biography of Broadway producer David Merrick, who was basically Donald Trump without the charm.  When the sun set, I went to bed.

Now the I have power, I got some writing done last night and watched some episodes of “The West Wing” on DVD on my computer.  But being without the electronic links — or leashes — to the outside world has its advantages, and while I’d like them back sometime soon, it’s not like I’m dying for a fix.  I have a lot more books I can read for the first time and I can enjoy, as Lawrence and Lee noted in “Inherit the Wind,” the charm of distance.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

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