Nov 222014

Ah language. The venerable Chinese custom of applying, to any situation, aphorisms that date back centuries (or at least sound like they do). The equally marvelous American custom of expressing all things in only the most contemporary vernacular. Below is how the NY Times reported it last week:

On Tuesday evening, Mr. Xi invited Mr. Obama to dinner at his official residence, telling his guest he hoped they had laid the foundation for a collaborative relationship — or, as he more metaphorically put it, “A pool begins with many drops of water.”

Greeting Mr. Obama at the gate of the walled leadership compound next to the Forbidden City, Mr. Xi squired him across a brightly lighted stone bridge and into the residence. Mr. Obama told the Chinese president that he wanted to take the relationship “to a new level.”


Aug 122014

If it’s true that Robin Williams committed suicide (and it apparently is), then I guess he felt hopeless. I can imagine feeling hopeless if I was him, if I had achieved the success he had, the artistic realization, all the outward rewards that life can possibly offer, and yet my soul was hurting and I couldn’t see an end to it.

On the other hand, I talked today to a dear friend who was struck last year by a rare and virulent form of renal failure (Wagner’s Disease). He did not expect to survive through last year’s Christmas holidays, and he was grateful when he made it that far. Now his disease, remarkably, is in remission and the doctors just reduced his dialysis schedule from three times a week to two, and he is ecstatic. He knows he won’t be able to work again, and he misses feeling useful, but he’s grateful he can do the laundry and the dishes. Months ago he couldn’t walk or even swing his legs out of bed; now he can walk again and he’s thrilled about that. He used to travel a lot; he accepts he cannot do that anymore. He takes pleasure in reading, gardening, watching shows, being with his family. He told me that every morning he wakes up and feels incredibly grateful for another day. Every day, he said, he feels that way. I could hear in his voice that it was true.

Someone recently warned me not to be “emotionally lazy.” I suppose that (at least for many of us) there is a volitional element to our moods, to our states of mind, even to disease conditions like depression (I sometimes wonder if depression is not—at least in some cases—the result of bad habitual thought patterns). It does take a little effort to remember to be happy and grateful.

That said, I am sure it would have to have been much more challenging (more than i can imagine really) for someone as complex and brilliant and creatively “out there” and deep dark real as Robin Williams and I too grieve him and am grateful for the brilliance he brought to our lives and our collective consciousness.


Apr 012014

Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, recently released a public letter to fans of the team. In response to recent protests over the team’s name, Snyder invokes the longstanding tradition of cheering for the “burgundy and gold,” holding his father’s hand while singing along to the team song at games, and responding as one with thousands of others (the “Redskin nation”) to the excitement of the sport and the sight of the team’s venerable logo.

Snyder argues that the name should not change, as it contains meaningful sentimental value for millions of fans, and it does no harm to anyone. I should also mention that he bolsters his case by citing examples of specific Native Americans and Native American organizations who have stated that they take no offense at the name “Redskins.”

I wonder what the owners of the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves are thinking. After all, if the Washington Redskins are pressured into changing their name, the proverbial foot is in the door and the writing is on the wall. Have you ever seen, on TV, the fans at Atlanta Braves game do the “tomahawk chop” in unison to rally their team? Or the cartoon mascot of the Cleveland Indians, the devilishly grinning warrior “Injun” Chief Wahu?

Once, at a party back in the 1990s, I confronted a Cleveland fan about Chief Wahu and suggested it was demeaning to Native Americans. (This person was wearing an Indians cap with the Chief on it). He responded that Chief Wahu was “a beloved symbol” and a “tradition.” He meant it, very passionately.

Here is what I would say today, both to Dan Snyder and the guy at the party.

First of all, I hear you about tradition. I was a serious sports fan once. There is something transcendent about rooting zealously for a team together with others, something expansive and uplifting about the camaraderie, the community, the powerfully shared experience, the setting aside of differences for the magical duration of the game, the common identity emblemized by a uniform and a name.

But let’s assume, for argument’s sake at least, that there is a critical mass of Native Americans out there who are indeed offended by the tomahawk chop, Chief Wahu, and the Redskins’, Indians’, and Braves’ names. In fact, perhaps even more than offended, maybe even seriously hurt. According to an article entitled “Science of Small Talk” by Sam Sommers that appeared in Pscyhology Today in May 2012, “After reading about mascots (and seeing Chief Wahoo), Native American respondents scored lower on an individual self-esteem questionnaire, as well as a measure of their sense of community worth (i.e., feelings of respect and a sense of value towards Native Americans).”

If you will acknowledge that your team name and/or mascot and/or logo may be problematic for Native Americans—whose culture was, as we all know, decimated by white European colonialism—then you have to ask yourself: Does your right to the unfettered enjoyment of your team’s tradition trump the interests of an historically oppressed ethnic group that feels desecrated and violated by the trumpeting public display of your team’s name/logo/mascot?

You can insist that one has no bearing on the other, that the grand tradition of the team you love has nothing really to do with the sad history of the “Indian wars” and if anyone fails to appreciate that, well, that’s their problem.

And you may have a point. Who can say for certain? The only arbiters are those that reside in the hearts of the Native Americans, the sports fans, and politicians and people like Mr. Snyder, who wield some power. (There may be a Supreme Being who can render ultimate judgment, but that’s another whole epistemological debate.)

But I do not feel it is necessary, or even necessarily desirable, to render judgment on whether a name like the Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians is an innocent expression of a fun and wholesome tradition, or whether it is intrinsically offensive and inappropriate to adopt a symbol of a defeated culture as an emblem or mascot for a sports team.

Much better to simply recognize that changing your team’s name—along with the logo and/or mascot—would extend your tradition, not end it. Like everything else in the world, tradition must evolve. The community of sports fans can be very large-hearted, and (I’m sure) has no desire to exclude any ethnic group. By acknowledging and (at last) honoring the eminently understandable sentiments of Native Americans, you would be extending your community to them, making a statement to the world about your team’s heart and character, and demonstrating that the “nation” of sports fans is, at its core, a good one, a respectful one, one worth celebrating.

A friend of mine, an old Cleveland fan, once mused that her team could possibly change its name from the Indians to simply the Tribe, which is their nickname anyway. I thought that was brilliant. In the same vein, what could the Washington Redskins morph into, keeping some thematic consistency with their history? How about the Atlanta Braves?

Why not ask the fans for ideas?


Mar 012014

I don’t go out often to music shows. But last night I went to hear a ten-piece band in Sebastopol perform the entirety of George Harrison’s classic All Things Must Pass album (minus the “Apple Jam” instrumental stuff, which I was never a fan of anyway). The show was brilliant. By the third song, “Wah Wah,” I was in raptures, leaping and dancing about in ecstatic abandon like a teenager on drugs at a rock concert. (I guess one of those three conditions actually obtained.) By the end of “Side 2,” when the band took its intermission, my t-shirt was soaked through with sweat. I went out to my car to grab a fresh one.

By then it was about 10:30 p.m. which is about when, if I DO go out to a show, I usually leave to go home. It’s not that I get tired early, but if I get home too late—say, past midnight—I’m almost always up all night; it’s just hard for me to wind down past a certain point.

But for God’s sake, I had to at least hear “Beware of Darkness,” the first song on Side 3, with which the band opened its second set. They nailed it too; it sounded fabulous; I was thrilled again. I would say, in fact, that I was having a pretty fabulous time all the way through “Awaiting On You All” (the fourth song on the album’s original Side 3), but then the singer was a tad off key on the next tune (the title track, “All Things Must Pass”) and forgot a bunch of the lyrics, which threw my groove off.

A couple of songs later, when the band cranked into “Art of Dying,” the lead guitarist got a bit blustery, the jam went on far beyond album song-length, someone turned the volume way up and, oops—presto changeo!—my ears started hurting and I was (though I couldn’t quite admit it to myself) tired and bored.

I didn’t want to leave though! Not during “Art of Dying”! So for five minutes or so, I’m standing there jumping around, dancing with—I kid you not—my fingers in my ears to alleviate the pain and protect my hearing ability. I only gave up the ghost and slumped through the crowed and out the room when it seemed the band had performed the same 20-second progression about fifteen times and that the lead guitarist—hitherto spot-on with his Eric Clapton and George Harrison licks—was just wanking it, showing off the number of random notes he could play per second.

But here’s the thing—I didn’t leave yet. I sat outside until “Art of Dying” was over, allowed myself to rest through the “Isn’t It a Pity” reprise, and wandered back in for the final album song, “Hear Me Lord,” which was okay and not too loud, but really I was done with the whole business at that point. Still, I couldn’t bear to feel like I might be missing something, and the band had promised “special musical treats” at the end of the album portion of the show. Indeed they did proceed to play special treats, “Here Comes the Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” among them, and the performances were fine but, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy them all that much. Maybe a little bit. But mostly I stayed because my mind was greedy and wanted to catch the whole thing, even if I was no longer having much fun.

So I got home well after midnight and yeah, I was up past 6 a.m. It’s just a thing that happens with me—I don’t have the gumption to go to bed past a certain time, so I stay up and do things like laundry and online chess. (And no, I was NOT on any drugs—not even chocolate!)

I’m happy to say that I slept a solid five hours or so and I feel surprisingly good today, despite not getting enough sleep. I feel very lucky about this. Usually, when I sleep less than seven hours, I suffer. Today I have received an odd sort of reprieve. Maybe that’s got something to do with the spiritual nature of George Harrison’s music; who knows?

Anyway, someone mentioned greed, hatred, and delusion the other day, the “three poisons” that cause suffering, according to Buddhism. I WAS greedy last night. It was most definitely a specie of greed that kept me at that show so far into the second set. If I had been in tune with my body and spirit, I would have left after “Awaiting on You All” or even after “Let It Roll” (one song earlier). Instead, as a result of my mind’s grasping after every last possible morsel of pleasure—and in the grasping itself, of course, the pleasure is lost—I sowed the seeds of my suffering today.

But again, how fortunate I am that I got away with it this time! That doesn’t happen too often.

Jan 212014

Who fans will often think, ‘This is my song, it belongs to me, it reminds me of the first time that I kissed Susie, and you can’t sell it.’ And the fact is that I can and I will and I have. I don’t give a fuck about the first time you kissed Susie. . . . It’s my song. I do what the fuck I like with it.

That was Pete Townshend of the Who in 2002, in a Rolling Stone interview. He was responding to the interviewer’s question about the song “Bargain,” which first appeared on the album Who’s Next in 1971. The interviewer had noted that the song was actually about being “prepared to give yourself up for enlightenment or spiritual satisfaction.” Townshend had replied, “That’s right. Yeah.” When the interviewer went on to express some perplexity—perhaps even dismay—that the song was now being used in Nissan commercials, Townshend responded that he didn’t “give a fuck about the first time you kissed Susie.”

I wonder how Rodger Hodgson might respond to a similar inquiry. Roger Hodgson, formerly of the band Supertramp, is the guy who wrote “Give a Little Bit.”  That song absolutely rocked my soul at age 18—so vulnerable and beautiful were the lyrics and melody, so bravely and unabashedly did it proclaim (and even celebrate) the human need for tolerance, transparency, and tenderness. “Give a Little Bit” is now featured in Coca-Cola commercials.

Age 18 was a long time ago for me, and the song’s importance in my life receded decades ago. Nonetheless, now that it’s used to sell Coke, even my sentimental fondness for it has been stripped away. Listening to it now, I feel absolutely no emotion whatsoever.

Roger Hodgson wrote a number of songs with a “spiritual,” heart-opening sort of theme. A few years ago I youtubed him and saw he was still giving solo shows, reprising his greatest hits, and that he generally wore all white, like some kind of rock and roll elder-saint. Well, what’s an old rock star to do with himself? Anyway, he probably has a kid or two he needs to put through college. Maybe that Coke commercial pays the tuition (and then some, I’m sure).

Nonetheless, it is unquestionably a cynical thing to do—to sell a song of spiritual aspiration to a car company, or a clarion call for compassion to Coca Cola.

Because, make no mistake: It sends an unambiguous signal that the songs were never anything more than a commodity and the sentiments they expressed never anything more than a sales pitch that some of us bought when were young and impressionable. Now that we are older and more sophisticated, we should be wise enough to seal off the soft places in our hearts where we once invested such songs with luminous meaning. It was a put-on from the get-go, and we were hoodwinked if we ever believed differently.

Or were we? Were the songs (and their lyrics) tinged with cynicism from the start, or was the artistic impulse that birthed them as pure and passionate as they were received by millions of young listeners? The sale of “Give A Little Bit” to Coca Cola is—to my 18-year-old self, who still lives in me—equivalent to Walt Whitman loaning a few verses of Leaves of Grass to a Monsanto ad. Quite frankly, I have to believe that 16-year-old Roger Hodgson (he was only 16 when he wrote the song) would have felt exactly the same way.

It is sad that Hodgson, Townshend, and other songwriters arrived at such a place of disillusionment that they sold away, with their songs, their own youthful ideals and their integrity (such as it was) with their fans.

Then again, “There but for the grace . . .” Personally, I can slip into cynicism multiple times a day. Sometimes it takes a miracle, or fantastic luck, or un-ignorable pain, to bring me back to my heart. Not ever having endured the corrupting, corrosive influences of rock stardom (which are quite unimaginable to me), how can I blame these guys?

Jan 182014

Often I’ve enjoyed youtube clips that feature people stating things I already believe in a powerful way.

It is rare, however, to see something that actually modifies my perspective, as this video has:

I have long suspected that reverse racism was a dubious concept, but Aamer Rahman brought it home in a way I failed to understand before. Yes, it would be different—very different—to mock the way white people dance, if white people were a historically oppressed ethnic group, whose native home had been decimated by slavery and plunder over the centuries. It would be cruel and highly insensitive. It would, in fact, be an entirely different thing than what it actually is.

So. Rahman’s point is well taken, and it got me thinking about how all humor is contextual. A joke that goes over well at a wedding could be mortifyingly inappropriate at a funeral. Also, who tells a joke, and to whom the joke is told, are critical elements of context. For example, a black comedian poking fun at black culture means something different—and has a completely different emotional impact—than a white comedian attempting the same thing, even if the “material” is identical.

This issue of context extends beyond humor of course. And here is where it is possible that I might have a small disagreement with Mr. Rahman.

In the video above, in a backhanded, satirical way, Rahman demolishes the concept of reverse racism. But I do think reverse racism exists. The reverse racists I’ve known are white. Again, it’s all about context.

In another one of his comedy clips on youtube, Rahman begins by saying, “I have a question for white people in the audience; it’s a general question that’s been on my mind for a while, for white people. Umm . . . what the hell is your problem?” This lands pretty funny coming from a black guy. From a white comedian, of course, it would make no sense.

Similarly, when I’ve seen dramatic movies or documentaries that illuminate racial oppression in America—and then a white friend says to me something like, “What exactly is wrong with us white people?”—it makes absolutely no sense to me at all. A black person could say that and I would understand. But for a white person to say something like this (and maybe it’s just because I lived in Berkeley, CA for decades, but I’ve heard this kind of talk on multiple occasions), it just strikes me as a peculiar expression of pointless self-hatred.

And that is my definition of reverse racism.


Jan 032014

There’s a certain fellow I often run into at the gym, a very pleasant, intelligent guy. A week or two ago, in the locker room after our respective workouts, we somehow struck up a conversation about Edward Snowden and the NSA. My friend’s opinion was that Snowden’s revelations are proof we need to “shrink the size of government.”

“Well, I’m a liberal,” I said. “I believe in government spending and safety net programs—like food stamps and unemployment compensation. And I’m a big fan of Obamacare.”

My friend chuckled. “I really don’t think the government is qualified to take over one sixth of our whole economy.”

This was my I-wanna-run-screaming-for-the-hills moment.

I’m okay with reasonable disagreement—all for it, in fact. But unthinking stupidity depresses me.

Native stupidity is all right. People are endowed with varying degrees of reasoning power and intellect; I accept that. Also, people have different ways of thinking. I don’t even believe intelligence can really be measured on a linear scale, like IQ.

But what I find inexcusable is that so many people in our society simply neglect to use their brains.

I’m sure my gym buddy is far from the only one quoting the Republican meme about the government takeover of one sixth of the economy. If it was not an effective political message, the Republicans wouldn’t keep repeating it.

But what I don’t get is—does anybody who swallows that line ever stop to think about what a government takeover of healthcare might actually look like?

Is the government socializing all the hospitals? Replacing all private hospitals with new government-run facilities? Are there new government officials in everybody’s doctor’s office? Have new government medical schools been established? Do you now have to go to government-trained doctors and nurses to get care?

I mean, you don’t even have to read the fine print, much less read between the lines to see that the “government takeover of one-sixth of the economy” is horseshit: All you have to do is open your eyes and check.

But maybe the government is taking over healthcare insurance, which is still a pretty big deal.

Except—again—are all the insurance companies now being socialized? Last I checked, under Obamacare, my policy was issued by Blue Shield, not Big Brother.

Blue Shield, Humana, Blue Cross . . . they all offered slightly different policies with slightly different terms. But they are pretty similar! So maybe they’re all a front now for one big government entity . . . ?  Maybe they’ve all secretly been merged?

Does anybody really believe this??

Here again, critical thinking skills would come in handy. People do not even have to read the news carefully to understand that whatever Obamacare is or is not—and regardless of whether it’s a good or a bad thing—it is clearly, indisputably not a government “takeover” of the health insurance industry, much less the entire health care industry of the United States.

To put it in the most general terms possible, the Affordable Care Act is a law that has changed the rules of how the health insurance industry works, by imposing certain requirements on insurers—as well as on the public (to buy insurance).

I could go on and on about why I like Obamacare. But the point is, before the discussion even begins, people have to agree on what they’re talking about. Right?

Unless people don’t really care about communicating. Or thinking.

think think think!

think think think!

Dec 092013

The other day, in a social situation, I was in a conversation with someone whom I’d recently met, and I was about to tell a brief story when our conversation was interrupted by a third person.

I felt a twinge of frustration, but I retained the mild pleasure of anticipation that goes with knowing you have something interesting to say, and you’re about to say it, even if you have to wait a few moments.

In this case, the interruption lasted about fifteen seconds, during which I had time to reevaluate the wisdom of sharing the story I had in mind. Not to be overly cryptic about it; my little story was not gossip, but it did bear on what I presumed might be my listener’s spiritual beliefs.

I realized in those fifteen seconds that I didn’t need to tell the story, and that in fact I didn’t want to tell it, at least not yet, certainly not until I knew this person better.

I’ve experienced this fairly often lately. Not usually as emphatically as I did the other day, but frequently, little interruptions come as moments of grace, spaces of time during which I can reconsider what I’m about to say. Then I might choose not to say it, or at least to say it differently.

Nov 292013

I was surfing facebook the other day and I commented on a friend’s post. A few minutes later I returned to the post and saw that she had “liked” other friends’ comments but not mine.

I had neither seen nor spoken to nor corresponded with this person for years but I felt slighted.

An hour or so later I checked the post again and was relieved to find that my old friend had deigned to “like” my comment too.

See, the thing was, earlier, I saw she had “liked” the comment of somebody who had commented AFTER me, so I had to conclude at that time that she had deliberately declined to like my comment, which she must have seen as well.

Am I the only person who would ever give a second thought to something so patently trival? Somehow I doubt it.

In his essay “Pain Won’t Kill You” (which was also his commencement address at Kenyon College in May 2011),  Jonathan Franzen wrote of “the ongoing transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb to like from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse: from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice.”

I think this is blazingly insightful. Extending the metaphor, if one refuses to “like” you or your comment, then they are not “buying” you, or what you have to offer. No wonder it seems to go deep. Even though it’s not really deep at all. It’s a pathetically negligible matter, these mouse-click “likes.” The stuff of emptiness.

So, a reminder to myself and anyone who can relate: When playing with social media, be mindful of your psychic real estate allocation.

Nov 262013

I often leave flyers out in public, advertising my “wordsmith” writing and editing business. So I receive occasional calls from strangers, some of whom become clients, others of whom are just odd.

A couple of Friday evenings ago there was a message blinking at me on my business line when I got home. I had mixed feelings upon seeing it; I had planned a relaxed Friday evening at home with my books, personal writing projects, and a video or two. For me, even just speaking on the phone with a potential client is a type of work; I have to “present”; it takes me out of my easy zone.

But I can’t ignore potential work, so I listened to the message. The caller said she was looking for someone to help her write a book. I called her back.

I realized very quickly that this was not a potential client. Her voice was unsteady and full of pain. The book she (allegedly) wanted to write was autobiographical, concerning a sequence of devastating events that had unfolded in her life over several years, involving family members, ex-boyfriends, and terrible violence. She felt that her life was currently in danger, but she could get no help from the police. I felt certain she was at least partly delusional; her life might indeed be in danger but the story she told me was as obviously self-deceiving as it was disturbing.

After hearing her out for fifteen minutes or so, I asked her why she wanted – of all things – to write a book. The gist of her semi-coherent reply was that she thought “people would be interested” in her story and perhaps could learn from it not to make any of the same well-meaning mistakes she had made. She also articulated some vague hope that “having her story out there” might afford her some measure of protection that the police were withholding.

I told her I thought she really needed someone to talk to, perhaps a counselor.

She said, “I need to talk to a lawyer! But they all want to charge me money!” She then started to regale me with stories of unsympathetic attorneys, but I stopped her.

I said, “I think what you really need, right now, most of all, is just someone to talk to. Maybe a therapist. Do you have access to computer? Can you google ‘free counseling services Santa Rosa’?”

She did have a computer but for one reason or another, my suggestion wasn’t so simple for her. I was at my computer so I googled it for her, and wound up giving her the name and number of an “SOS” free counseling agency as well as an individual professional who apparently offers free consultations and referrrals. And then I politely explained to my caller that I was neither a therapist nor a lawyer myself, and I didn’t think that writing a book was what she really needed to do, so I didn’t think we would be working together. And I told her I had to go.

She thanked me sincerely for the names I’d found on the internet, and we hung up.

We had been on the phone only about 20 to 25 minutes. I felt my evening was shot though. My pleasant, relaxed mood was broken. I was agitated, unsettled.

I resented it. Why do people like that call me sometimes? (This woman was an extreme case, but I’ve also had other callers – strangers! – who were essentially looking for free therapy, or god knows what kind of advocacy.)

I can’t be the only who puts his phone number out into the world and gets calls like this. I guess there’s just an enormous amount of pain out there. I set up my life in such a way as to shut it out for the most part. But it seems to want to find its way in.

Nov 102013

Today I was awakened by a knock at the door from a Jehovah’s Witness. They usually arrive in small groups, but this divinely appointed ambassador was by himself. He was a portly middle-aged man with a wide mustache, wearing a bright clean jacket, white shirt, and tie. (The JWs always dress to the nines, don’t they?) He held out a pamphlet and said very deferentially, “Hi. We’re here this morning giving these out to you and your neighbors—”

I interrupted him and snapped (truthfully), “I’ve asked the Jehovah’s Witnesses repeatedly not to bother me!” and I shut the door briskly in his face. I saw, through the glass in the top half of my door, that he looked forlorn.

I think it is hugely important to be nice and that it makes a significant difference in the world. “Nice” has acquired connotations over the years of superficiality or even phoniness, but I like it because it’s a simple, unpretentious word. “Nice” simply means being pleasant. The more respectable term today is “kind,” but to me “kind” sounds a little inflated when we’re talking about, say, tipping well or just being polite to various strangers and service people. But niceness is kind, and it’s important.

That said, as I demonstrated this morning to the Jehovah’s Witness at my door, I’m not always nice. There are certain common exceptions to my policy of niceness. For example, like many people, I can be an impatient asshole behind the wheel of a car. If I’m on a two-lane road, and the person ahead of me is driving 10 miles below the speed limit and I cannot pass them due to the blind curves up ahead (this happens a lot in Sonoma County) I often honk my horn, especially if the road has a shoulder where they could easily pull aside to let me pass. At night, I’ll occasionally drive close behind the slowpoke with my brights on (and I might also honk).

I am not nice to phone solicitors. Here is how I handle them. I pick up the phone (I don’t have caller ID) and say, “Hello?” And the voice at the other end says, “Uh, I’m calling for Marc Polonsky.” I say, “That’s me.” The voice says, “Hello, Mr. Polonsky, my name is ______ and I’m calling from ______. How are you this evening, sir?” I say, “Don’t call back,” and I hang up. (It works. They don’t.)

There are also more specific exceptions to my niceness. Probably lots of them and I cannot even recall them all, nor would I enumerate them here if I could.

I’m not saying my (or anyone else’s) lack of courtesy is justified (or not justified). For now, I’m merely acknowledging it, in the context of having begun my day today by being distinctly discourteous, face to face, to someone.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have bugged me for years. I want to throw a bucket of water on them (or worse) when they come to my door in their Sunday best. Back when I lived in Oakland, I put a No Soliciting sign on my door and the JWs  rang the bell anyway. When I pointed to the sign, one of them said huffily, “We are not solicitors!” Oof.

But I understand that their motives are not so terrible really. They don’t want my money. They just want to rescue me from being tortured in Hell forever. I think part of what pisses me off about them is that they’re a little smug, at least in their existential view of things, so secure in their uncomplicated universe. Statistically speaking, at least some of them must be (forgive the term) blessed with native intelligence but (to my view) they don’t make a habit of using their brains, and that annoys me.

That said, the man at my door today was not uncomplicated. I don’t know the first thing about him, but I know this much: He had an intelligent face, a soft and gracious manner, and emotional sensitivity—his feelings were hurt when I spoke harshly and then abruptly shut the door in his face. If he came back again (which he won’t of course) I might take the time to debate religion with him, and question the fairness of the God to whom he devotes his Sunday mornings (and probably his life), this God who abandons so many souls to eternal anguish, and for what? I might probe his concept of sin. It might even be interesting.

Then again, maybe I could just ask him never to come back, but do it more politely, and he wouldn’t have to have his feelings hurt at this particular stop on his journey to the Lord’s kingdom.

Oct 272013

One of the reasons I don’t own a cell phone is that I know I’d become badly addicted to texting. On a recent episode of Bill Moyers and Company, MIT Professor and developmental psychologist Sherry Turkle talked about “the seduction” of “the sweetness of something new that’s coming to us on our phone . . . the neurochemical hit of instant connection.”

Turkle and Moyers also talked about the recent case of a 12-year-old girl who committed suicide in response to being cyberbullied. When Moyers floated the thought that the poor girl could have simply turned off or put down her phone, Turkle snapped, “No, she couldn’t. . . . the phone had become her lifeline . . . being part of her social world meant keeping on the phone.”

Watching the interview, I related to the “neurochemical hit” but not to the vulnerability Turkle described, until a few days later.

I used to send out little essays, similar to these blog entries (and in some cases identical) as an e-newsletter to friends and associates who subscribed through my business website, I sent one out last week, and checked the subscription service a day or two later to see how many were actually opened. To my horror, I saw that four old friends—albeit people I have not seen for quite some time—had unsubscribed  from the newsletter.

It sounds absurd, I know, but I was deeply hurt. Even if these particular friendships were not currently active, why would these individuals choose to reject me like this? Was it so awful getting an occasional newsletter from me, were they so turned off by me that they actually had to click the unsubscribe link?

To my great relief, I discovered that this had not been the case, after I explored the information on the subscription service website a bit more thoroughly. Rather, these old friends had been automatically unsubscribed, because emails to them had bounced. It took me the better part of an hour to ascertain this, and it made an absolutely enormous difference in my day.

Even though I haven’t spoken to any of these friends in months, if not years, and even though the “interaction” that I imagined had occurred was completely cyber—and indirect at that—I had been devastated. Maybe I’m overly sensitive. Maybe this signifies that I DEFINITELY should never get a cell phone. But apart from what it may indicate about me specifically, I believe it underscores Sherry Turkle’s point about the awesome emotional power of messaging technology and social media.

A group of Turkle’s students at MIT even admitted that they texted during her classes. Turkle recounted: “Basically, they said, ‘We are not as strong as technology’s pull.’”

I cannot quite imagine the pain of being an adolescent and receiving a continual barrage of putdowns and insults from my peers through the intimate medium of my personal phone, but I get that it would be utterly overwhelming, and I grieve for that girl.  I understand how she could have lost all perspective on what truly mattered and what possibilities her future might hold.

Just another reminder, I guess, to be kind, even on the keypad.

Oct 222013

Big Shadows

 I recently saw the documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, which chronicles the history of the website Wikileaks; its creator, Julian Assange; and Pfc. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, who sent Wikileaks its most famous (infamous?) mother lode of classified national security documents (and digital video footage). In the end, I felt that in this age of massive information generation and ultra-secrecy, Wikileaks is a critical breath of fresh air. Any counterforce to the abuses engendered by secrecy is a light in a terrifying darkness. (Generally speaking.) I was also struck by how troubled were the main protagonists in this drama.

Manning was a small, effeminate man in an ultra-macho fighting force: mistreated, depressed, “isolated as fuck” as he described it to his cyber-correspondent Adrian Lamo (who eventually exposed him).

Assange, brilliance and boldness notwithstanding, apparently had a mild (at least) sociopathic side. He had fathered children by four different women in various places around the world, and was charged with sexual assault by two Swedish women. He eventually turned on his own Wikileaks colleagues and compromised the Wikileaks brand with his erratic personal behavior and wild statements.

I was reminded of an essay I’d read decades ago in a college psychology textbook, which included case studies of three historical figures who were widely considered “great.” Two of them were Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill; I’ve forgotten the third. The point was that all three of these heroes had appalling, even frightening personal character flaws, and that the people closest to them suffered mightily as a consequence. The essay posed the question: could these people have been equally great without their terrible shadow sides, or does the very quality of greatness entail some manifestation of its opposite?

In other words, can extreme talent or magnificence exist in a person without a corresponding set of obnoxious traits?


My Great Country

 This kind of reminds me of America.

My perspective is distorted of course, having spent practically no time whatsoever outside of this country. Yet here’s how I see it.

It’s a great country. A flawed but real democracy. You can tell it’s a great country by the progress we’ve made over the centuries. Barely 200 years ago, the only citizens who truly had any rights were adult white males. Since then, slavery has been abolished, black people have gotten the right to vote, women have gotten the right to vote, unions demanded and got a 40-hour work week, Social Security and Medicare came into being, civil rights legislation was passed . . . and today we have a black president, as well as gay marriage and legal marijuana in some states, with more to come.

We have virtually unfettered access to information. (Yes, I said “virtually.” I don’t know exactly what or how much is kept from us; I’m sure it’s plenty, and I’ll return to that point later. But what we do have access to is absolutely amazing.)

Say what you will about America being essentially a plutocracy, run by the rich for the rich. I concede the large element of truth in this. But we are also undeniably a living, participatory society, where change occurs not just at the caprice of the powerful (much less as the result of revolution). Remember that rallying cry from just two or three years ago from gays and lesbians all over the country: “Evolve already, Mr. President!” And then the president finally gets on TV and says he’s thought it over and now he supports gay marriage, and shortly thereafter, the states are following suit.

Similarly with civil rights and women’s rights, powerful grassroots forces effected fundamental changes in our culture and in our laws. Similarly, pot laws are finally beginning to reflect the “reality on the ground” of marijuana usage in this country, though (perhaps because pot is an emblem of an entrenched culture war from the 1960s) it’s taken somewhat longer than some of us might have predicted in, say, 1970.

But does America too have a dark side?

Ha ha.

The nature of the dark, of course, is that you can’t see it too well. But thanks to the wonderful quality of information availability I alluded to earlier, anyone who cares to pay attention knows that America enjoys its wealth largely at the expense of peoples in other countries who endure chronic poverty, brutal dictatorships, environmental decimation, and worse—all so that our American businesses and economy may grow and prosper, the ultra rich can remain that way, and the rest of us can live in relatively luxury compared to most places on the planet.

Is it possible to separate America the country from America the empire? To love one, yet be revolted by the other? Or is this a self-deception, an unnatural split, forced by a fundamental contradiction in our lives that’s impossible to resolve?

When We Care to Pay Attention

If we do see what “American interests” cost other peoples throughout the world, this prompts the painful question of how to live an appropriate and ethical life in the face of what we know.

There is a devil’s deal we make just by virtue of being American citizens. We implicitly instruct our government: Do what you have to do to preserve our way of life, and don’t tell us any more than we need to know about how you do that.

Wikileaks tells us (and in some cases—with video—actually shows us) more than we need to know, should we care to know it.

Our Obsolete Privacy

According to polls, most Americans think Edward Snowden did a good thing by revealing the sweep of the National Security Administration’s domestic data collection on American citizens. It was interesting how the PR flaks from the national security sector spun the story. It was only “meta data,” they said on TV. Nothing too personal. Just the where and who and when of all your communications, not the what.

To keep you safe, we will cast a net so wide that none of your activities will be sacred or secret from us. Of course, we are not going to look into your bedroom to see what you are doing there, but we will know you are home. We won’t be listening in on your phone calls; we’ll simply always be able to track whom you called and when and where from, and for how long you spoke. We are not interested in the ‘juice’ of your life—merely the container of your life, the context in which it all happens. We need to know all this to keep you safe. As a condition of your existence, due the fact that there are so many extraneous agents who would harm you and disrupt the life you depend on, we must do this. Therefore, your life unfolds under a constant, invisible bubble of security surveillance.

I believe many people are quite comfortable with this, never wondering, What are the costs?

And if we cannot imagine any costs . . . how scary is THAT?

Let me phrase it another way: What is lost by accepting this arrangement?

(Not even to speak of the inherent dangers.)

Living Under a Cloud

 Meanwhile, in the so-called private (ha ha) sector, many of us now park our information—all the data we generate on our computers—in “the cloud,” which we deem more secure than our fallible physical hard drives.

Of course, “the cloud” is physical too, though the metaphor suggests otherwise and it doesn’t feel physical to us experientially, because we don’t actually see the storehouses of cold computers that actually hold all our trillions of bytes of data, the digital records of our lives, maintained inviolate for us and retrievable on demand.

I personally don’t store my data on the cloud. I feel like I’d be losing something if I did. Then again, the cloud probably tracks of all my keystrokes anyway.

Oct 132013

As I was growing up, I hated family vacations, because they forced me to miss critical episodes of my favorite TV shows. To lose the thread of a TV series was, to me, equivalent to losing some vital connection with the pith of life. (And back then, there was no Internet to access back episodes.) From ages 4 to 12, television was at the very center of my life.

Today, I literally cannot recall the last time I loaned my imagination to the fictional world of a TV series, but it’s certainly been more than 40 years. In the 1980s, many of my friends loved shows like Cheers, Thirtysomething, and Hill Street Blues, but I never bothered with them.

I briefly held a corporate job several years ago, and over the lunch table my coworkers would swap opinions about the various characters on Survivor. That conversation reminded me of elementary school.

 Great New Shows

Dan, the dude who runs my local video store (Occidental Video; Occidental, CA), is a terrific guy. I drop in there mainly just to buy chocolate snacks and banter with him. He tells me that all the best writing these days is in TV, not so much in movies anymore. Having worked in the motion picture industry, he has an informed opinion. He thinks I’m missing out, because I’m not following any of the sophisticated, brilliant modern shows. He has a hundred opinions about which ones I’d like. But I feel like I’m getting the best of them just listening to him, and that’s good enough.

It’s not that I haven’t been exposed. About four years ago, my godson had me watch an episode of The Wire. I found it taut and compelling, and I was so interested in the characters that I youtubed clips of the show later, but I was not remotely tempted to go back, watch old episodes, and fill in the blanks of the storyline. My godson’s girlfriend showed me an episode of Sex in the City; I found it trite and goofy much like the sitcoms of my childhood, except that it contained explicit sexual references and people actually uttered words like “penis.”

More recently, I’ve caught snippets at friends’ houses of House of Cards and Breaking Bad, and I even watched one entire episode of Veep and one episode of Arrested Development. And it’s not that I think these are bad shows or that the writing isn’t clever. It’s just that every time I watch, I am reassured that I’m not really missing anything, and that TV is essentially unchanged from when I was a lad.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is that is so similar—something about a TV show’s rhythms, momentum, character revelation, prolonged facial expressions, progression to climactic moments, setup of conflict, and so on.

 Abstract Mind Realms

When I was a kid, I lived in a TV land in my head. I even imagined theme music demarcating different “episodes” in my life. TV, to me, was ultra-real, more vivid than the life I lived away from the tube. Now, I could glibly say that after all these years I’m still a recovering addict, but it doesn’t really feel that way. I just have no appetite for TV anymore; it’s more of an effort to watch than to not watch. At some point in my youth, I realized, viscerally, that TV was robbing me of something.

Nowadays, I allow other things to rob me, primarily the news, which I read every day online. Today is October 13, 2013; if our politicians can’t strike a deal, the country may default on its debt in a few days, and this really worries me. I’m all caught up in that story, which I have no power over and—whether it happens or not—has no bearing on what I’m doing with my life today, on my responsibilities to myself and others. I am but a passive witness to this drama and, whether or not it “ends well,” it’s sucking away a portion of my life energy, inhabiting far too much of my psychic real estate. I’m not even sure if it’s an improvement over TV. Probably not.

Like a popular TV show, or a major sports event, the news has the quality of a drama in which few of us participate directly but which we witness communally. The national headlines are a shared societal experience, like Breaking Bad or House of Cards. The news also gives strangers something in common to talk about, a universal reference point, like the Survivor characters of yesteryear. (Is that show still on?)

Many people in my vicinity tune out the news because they feel it distracts them from their own lived life. I can understand that. I won’t argue with that.

Sep 302013

Driving my rental car out of the Whole Foods parking lot in Boca Raton, FL, I caught the eye of a woman holding a sign that said “I lost my job.” (There was more, but I didn’t have time to read the entire sign.) She was a young woman with dark hair, and her free hand sat atop the handle of a baby stroller. I knew she was there for money of course, and in the moment our eyes met, we exchanged a dense packet of information, a download of a hundred thousand gigabytes in a split second.

In an instant, I knew this: She was intelligent and decent, she was in profound emotional pain, she knew I’d spotted her and wanted to give her money, and she also knew I would not actually do so.

There were cars behind me and there was no place to pull over. I’m not used to big, busy South Florida parking lots. I felt (or imagined) the pressure of my fellow motorists’ expectations more keenly than the young woman’s desperation as I proceeded out the lot and onto the street, which had no shoulder.

But her eyes stayed with me, vivid in my mind, all the way to the chess club a few miles away.

I did not want to be bothered by guilt. I wanted to play chess. It even occurred to me that the guilt I felt could interfere with my chess game and cause me to lose. I wanted to go back and find the woman and give her five dollars, but there wasn’t time.

I knew that if I had given the woman money, I would have seen some relief in her face, not just at the receipt of a negligible amount of cash, but also at the small affirmation, the gesture assuring her that she wasn’t merely a blemish on the landscape. I’d had that experience before, as the giver of some small amount of money to a stranger, and had always taken away a nice feeling from it. I wanted that nice feeling now. It would have been worth more than five bucks to buy away my guilt.

But the guilt, and the searing impression of the woman’s pained eyes, were the only takeaway I had. I could only pray that some motorist behind me had found it in their heart to stop and give her something, that somebody had offered her some relief.

The guilt was a physical sensation, a little pain in my upper chest. It did not prevent me from enjoying my chess game. I committed an early blunder, but my opponent made mistakes too. The pain in my chest softened me toward my opponent. I sympathized with how he felt after his errors. We had a pleasant exchange after our game was finished.

The pain in my chest increased my appreciation of my old Florida high school friend, who had arranged this chess club interlude to coincide with my visit.

Most of all, the pain in my chest was a vulnerable point, a portal through which a simple fact penetrated: I am a vastly privileged human in a world of enormous suffering, and this is really not okay. There is something really wrong with this picture, and the guilt I feel—that is, the feeling I call “guilt”—is not inappropriate. And this pain in my chest (though it has already faded) deepens my life, and wakes up a part of me that habitually sleeps.


Tomorrow I will be spreading my mom’s ashes at sea, together with my sister and my mother’s long-time caretaker. This is why I am in Florida. My mother, who passed away last March, made no bones about wanting me to feel guilty, often. She did not apologize for inducing, or instilling, guilt. She said, “You call it a ‘guilt trip,’ as if guilt is some terrible thing, but you should feel guilty sometimes.”

I thought my mom was nuts. And I would still contend that guilt is a useless, toxic emotion, if it’s only about “I’m a bad person. Shame on me.”

But the guilt that resolves into simple pain, the guilt that isn’t so uncompromisingly self-referential, the guilt that seems to be a condition of my (our?) existence; maybe that guilt truly isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s healthy. Maybe guilt and compassion can lead to the same place, a place of pain, but not the type of pain that will kill you—rather, the type of pain that will break open your heart and your life.

I believe, in her heart of hearts and in her saner moments, that’s the only guilt my mom truly desired for me. Not a neurotic, personal guilt, but an unavoidable existential guilt that can be experienced as a small physical pain, like a backache that never quite disappears. A guilt that intensifies appreciation for the privileges that have always characterized my gilded American life. A guilt that softens my judgments, and renders my desires a little less urgent.

Sep 212013

I didn’t expect to still be writing about Louis C.K. this week, but a number of people responded to my last post by sending me Louis links they wanted me to check out. Three different people sent me links to the clip where Louis is telling Conan O’Brien about why he thinks cell phones are bad, especially for kids.

I don’t own a cell phone, and my friends correctly anticipated that I’d appreciate much of what Louis had to say on the subject, which was that prolific texting and app doodling are a distraction from our deepest human feelings, particularly existential sadness and loneliness. Or as Louis put it, “Underneath everything in your life there’s that thing, that empty . . .  forever empty. You know what I’m talking about? The knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re all alone.”

He went on to tell a story of hearing a song on the radio that brought up depressive feelings. He reflexively reached for his cell phone to text someone so he wouldn’t have to feel his sadness, but then decided: “Don’t. Just be sad.” He pulled over to the side of the road and “cried like a bitch,” and found that his sadness was in fact a beautiful, poetic feeling, and that after surrendering to the sadness he “had happy feelings, because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has, like, antibodies that come rushing in to meet the sadness . . . with true profound happiness.”

I would agree this is a valuable message, for kids and adults—the message that if we allow ourselves to feel our feelings as deeply and completely as possible, rather than running away from them, we live a healthier, fuller life and more often than not, we even feel better. And also that cell phones and their various features are an addictive distraction from a here-and-now vitally lived life.

At the same time, this all raises a question, doesn’t it? What is the “sad, forever, empty” thing that Louis cavalierly states is at the core of the human condition? Is it really true that “it’s all for nothing and you’re all alone”? I’m not saying he’s wrong; I’m just posing the obvious (I think) question.

And if feeling deep sadness allows “true profound happiness” to arise, is this merely the product of some defensive survival mechanism “like, antibodies” or is the “true profound happiness” as central and intrinsic to our nature as the “forever empty”? Are both of these feelings equally basic? If not, which of them is an illusion, and why does it work that way? Just asking. Anybody out there know?

Sep 162013

Louis C.K. and Me

A number of my friends are really into Louis C.K., possibly the nation’s hottest comedian right now. So I’ve extensively surfed his youtube clips.

I use profanity myself, and I’m no purist. But the man’s sentences are so prolifically seasoned with what’s commonly known as “filthy language” (“fuck” “shit” “asshole” “dick” “pussy” etc.) and so much of what he talks about is so outrageous (shitting in dead people’s mouths, for example) that apart from whether or not he’s even funny, the sheer aggression in his overall routine creates (in me at least) a kind of constant, “what’s-he-gonna-come-out-with-next,” low-level adrenaline buzz, like the after-effect of consuming too much sugary junk food. Even when he is expressing some arguably socially redeeming message—such as the idiocy of road rage or homophobia—he weaves in countless “fuck you’s” and his tone seethes with something like imminent cruelty.

I suggested to a friend that Louis C.K. succeeds by tapping into his audience’s repressed anger and hostility, and that people experience through him some kind of release. She responded that, yes, he addresses what’s repressed, but not only anger and aggression; it’s all the inadmissible emotions, such as disgust for one’s own children, that he blows the cover off of.

Humor Exposes Secrets

This brought to mind Dostoevsky’s protagonist from Notes from the Underground, who asserts that there are three types of secrets. The most superficial secrets are those you share only with your one or two most trusted people in the world. The next level of secrets are those you admit only to yourself. The deepest secrets are the ones you keep even from yourself. Dostoevsky’s character goes on to say that the more “respectable” an individual is, the larger their store of this third category of secrets.

I keep this in mind when I feel disturbed or grossed out by comedians like Louis C.K. Is he abrasive to my heart or merely my propriety? I’m not sure. Sometimes (though rarely) I do laugh at him. Bill Maher once said that laughter is an involuntary response; we don’t laugh because we judge something to be funny; we laugh because it makes us laugh. There is an unimpeachable authenticity about laughter.

On the other hand, I think we become conditioned to find certain things funny, and this is culture-dependent. A few years ago, I played a tape of an interview with a folksinger to a twenty-something friend. At the end, the interviewer says, “Unfortunately, a few days after this interview was taped, David died unexpectedly . . .” and my friend burst out laughing. He found this hilarious. And he insisted it was simply very funny.

My friend has a sensibility—a “funny receptor” if you will—that I lack. He is of a generation weaned on dark humor.

Looking Deeper into Darkness

Another striking example: I once saw a clip of comedienne Sarah Silverman saying she thought it was cool that one of her female Jewish ancestors had been raped by Cossacks, because the Cossack blood in her gave her a kind of “street cred.” Some in her audience were offended; she didn’t care. I wasn’t sure what I thought (though obviously I didn’t find it funny, because I was not moved to laugh).

In the novel The Gates of the Forest by Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor goes on a journey looking for some peace of mind after all the horror he’s seen. He stumbles upon a gathering of Jews, and a rebbe who has them dance and sing devotional, celebratory songs. They are unsuccessful in conjuring any real joy, until the rebbe tells them to do the unthinkable—start singing a filthy Nazi song. At first they are horrified but then they follow the rebbe’s instructions, and lo! after their initial resistance and revulsion, they do actually wind up laughing and singing with gusto, and their dancing becomes wild and spirited. The rebbe’s eyes sparkle as he sees the miracle he has wrought.

So dark humor can offer authenticity, vitality, and even healing. Today’s most popular humor is outrageous; it busts boundaries and violates taboos. This is probably a necessary thing. What remains repressed gathers power. Repression leads to personal rigidity and political/religious fascism.

All the Same . . .

Yet repression’s opposite—an “all is permitted” disregard for mores and conventions of decency—can lead to chaos, moral relativism, and cynicism.

Personally, I cannot and honestly do not judge what others find funny, but I won’t deny that much of today’s “hip” humor strikes me as pessimistic, nihilistic, and unpleasant. If I were to deny my own visceral response, that would be a form of repression too.

And it feels important to be honest about what I really find funny and what offends or disturbs me. Otherwise, oddly, an ethic of blanket permissiveness can turn into its own force of political correctness.