Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Happiest Place on Earth

I must say that the timing of my 35th year college reunion was impeccable.  Any excuse to escape Washington DC weeks before this particular election is a good thing.  It’s seems like every week there’s been a new political bombshell – and none of them speak well for our nation’s leaders.   At this point, it would appear that the election won’t be a climax, but merely a prologue, and the story itself will be four (or eight?) years of partisan bickering, relentless investigations, potential impeachments, and total government gridlock.   Yes, it was great to fly 2500 miles away from this city.   The only problem is that my college reunions occur even less often than Presidential elections.   So in 2020, when we’ll probably be watching hidden videos of the candidates in their bathrooms, I’ll be forced to stay in Washington.   

Our Cali vacation began with a day in San Francisco.   My wife and I headed up to the Legion of Honor Museum near the northwest corner of the city, where we saw, among other things, the only Rembrandt painting in Northern California.   Then we headed up to Pacific Heights just to ogle at the homes.   Well, OK, I can’t really say I get “turned on” by residential architecture, but those are seriously the most gorgeous urban residences in this country, and you practically have to drive up and down a roller coaster in order to see them.   While I’ve never had a passion to become as wealthy as a Trump or a Clinton, I have to admit that if ever I were to start building luxury hotels or to charge $500,000 for my speeches, I’d want to spend some of my disposable income on a house in Pacific Heights.  Who needs museums when you can just walk down the street and marvel at the buildings?

After a night of drinking and baseball watching (with depressed Dodger fans), we headed down Route 280 towards Silicon Valley.  We made one stop at our friends’ house in San Carlos, which looks straight onto foothills that always remind me of Tuscany.  From there, our next destination was also our last one for the weekend: Stanford University.   Now I know that Stanford has a certain reputation today as the so-called “Western Ivy.”  I know that a bazillion 10 year old rat racers all over the country are being groomed every year to start building their vocabularies and their math skills just so that one day, they can matriculate at a school like Stanford.   But believe me, when I went there, it was a little different.  For one thing, my classmates hadn’t taken SAT Prep classes.  For another, we hadn’t cured a form of cancer or saved a village in Africa.  We were just regular kids who were more academically inclined than most of our high school classmates.

When I was a high school senior, Yale’s Insider’s Guide to Colleges had the following to say about Stanford:  “With a different student body, Stanford might be truly great.  If there were more students really interested in learning from the fine professors (and equally important, if there were more students from outside the state), Stanford might be on a level with the very best of the Ivies.  Under the circumstances, however, we think you would do well to follow the practice of a number of California families we know: If you want the best obtainable education in California, look at the University of California in Berkeley.  If you want the best education (and the most heterogeneous student body) available anywhere in the country, look to the Ivies.”

That delightful bit of Ivy League snobbery reminds me of the joke about the Stanford and Berkeley students who encountered each other in a bathroom.   The Stanford student sees the Berkeley guy pee at the urinal and not wash his hands.  “At Stanford,” the former says, “we’re taught to wash our hands after we pee.”   “At Berkeley,” the other guy responded, “we’re taught not to pee on our hands.”   I heard that joke from a Berkeley alum.  Honestly, I think they are more obsessed with Stanford than we are with Berkeley.  I had come to think of Berkeley mostly as the place where Stanford students go to purchase bongs.   And besides, who would want to go to a college that consistently has such a lousy football team?  If we wanted to go to one of those depressing schools, why not go to the Ivy League?   

Maybe the Yalies are right that Stanford back in the ‘70s was just a provincial California college, but I tell you what – I sure do like that province!   For one thing, Californians love to laugh.   And whenever I get back to my campus with my old friends, laughter is pretty much all we put on the menu.  I clearly recall that as an undergraduate, whining was not something you could get away with very often.  We were there to have fun and to take advantage of what those great professors had to say about history, philosophy, computers, and all the other stuff that the Yalies didn’t think we cared about.

In actuality, Stanford is a wonderful place to develop intellectuality because we read the best books ever written, hear about these books from some of the nation’s greatest scholars, and think about these books while walking around an incredibly scenic environment in 70 degree weather.  In other words, we come to love learning for its own sake.   Stated differently, when I was at Stanford, I “learned,” whereas when I was at Harvard Law School, I “studied.”  It’s no wonder that today, when it comes time to read for pleasure, I read the kind of books that I fell in love with in college.  

Truth be told, though, my reunions are not typically occasions for deep thinking.  They are times to reminisce, laugh, and avoid taking life (or oneself) too seriously.  That’s why it felt so odd to walk into our Class Panel and listen to a program that brought together speakers from my class who had encountered terrible tragedies in their lives.   The speakers were all excellent.  They shared deeply poignant stories about deaths in the family or crippling illnesses that they’ve encountered, and they told their stories warmly and without even a hint of insecurity.   

And yet, as glad as I am to have attended that Class Panel, I found myself wondering what I was doing there.  After all, those stories weren’t joy inducing.  And let’s be honest, I come to those reunions in order to have fun with my friends, not to reflect on the meaning of tragic experiences. 

At one point during the Q&A, one of the panelists was asked an excellent question.  I would paraphrase it as follows:  “I’ve heard it said that Stanford is the happiest place on earth.  But you all have been talking about some very tragic things that have happened to you.  How did attending this school when we were here – a place where being happy is kind of a religious imperative – how did that prepare you for dealing with these awful tragedies that you’ve had to encounter?”   I was expecting someone to say something like “Actually, it didn’t.   And I kind of wish Stanford hadn’t been so Stepford-like so that I would have been better prepared for the real world.”   Nobody said that, though.  Instead, they were completely affirming about our college experience.  They suggested, in essence, that it is actually a great thing for a late-adolescent to experience joy on a regular basis.  It makes you secure, strong, and ready to tackle what life has to throw at you.  

I agree with that message.  There are plenty of opportunities in life to get depressed.  What I cherish most are those opportunities to have lots of fun.  And when you regularly can have fun in an environment that deeply honors learning ... wow!  You can have that experience at Stanford, Berkeley, Yale, or for that matter, just about any college.  That’s why they tend to be the happiest places on earth.   I sure love visiting mine. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Gone Reminiscin'

Alas, the Empathic Rationalist will be forced to take this coming weekend off.   Your humble scribe will be in the Left Coast, celebrating his 35th reunion with other members of the Stanford Class of 1981.  But before I sign off for a week and a half, let me just say how refreshing it will be to leave Washington, D.C. at this particular moment in our nation’s history.

My city is, appropriately, obsessed with the Presidential Election.  Yet what is so difficult to watch is how so many educated, intelligent people seem utterly incapable of taking both sides of this debate seriously – or even pretending to take them seriously.  By mid-October of a Presidential Election Year, this city becomes infested with spin doctors.  Some are paid, others are not, but spin is the name of the game.  I expect to find more truth watching my old classmates drink to excess and then speak their minds.  Even after a few martinis, their ideas will be more nuanced and fair than those of the most eloquent spin doctors.

Let me now leave you with a quote by a man who may well have been more intelligent and educated than ANY 21st Century D.C. spin doctor.  The man is John Stuart Mill, the quintessential liberal, feminist, utilitarian, voice of reason:

“It might be plausibly maintained, that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied.”

Discuss among yourselves.  

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Experiencing a High on the High Holidays

Last Wednesday, around 1:00 p.m., I was almost literally on Cloud 9.   My daughter Hannah had just finished leading the Yizkor (Memorial) service on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.  The service was so incredible that I found myself fighting off tears more often than not.  The highlight was Hannah’s singing of Psalm 23, the one that Christians and Jews have turned into a staple at funerals.   She was performing a version written by an Orthodox Jewish singer.  Enjoy it for yourself:

Hannah’s congregation is on Capitol Hill, and their services were on East Capital Street.  So when I left the sanctuary, walked onto the sidewalk and headed west, I found myself facing some pretty momentous buildings.  My wife and I had a fair amount of time before services resumed, so we went into the U.S. Supreme Court Building, toured the facilities, and heard a lecture.   It’s an inspiring place for any lawyer to visit, but it’s especially inspiring on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, when you’ve been listening to so many people speak about justice.  In fact, earlier in the day in the sanctuary, we heard the Associated Press’s Supreme Court reporter give a lecture about justice.  As I sat in the Great American Courtroom and admired the friezes on each side, I felt truly in awe.  

What happened after leaving the courtroom wasn’t awe-inspiring so much as surprising.  We went downstairs, to the halls that display portraits of the Court’s alumni, and I found myself staring at the painting of Justice Scalia.  To say that he’s hardly my favorite Justice is an understatement.   But on that day, I was strangely moved to see his face.  I felt more compassion and love for him at that moment than ever before, including the day that he died.   I understood neither the cause of my reaction nor how to feel about it – except to make note of it.   Little did I realize that the explanation for my feeling would soon be brought to my attention very clearly, and I’m not merely talking about the obvious explanation – that the Jewish soul is never as loving and beautiful as it is on Yom Kippur afternoon. 

After leaving the Supreme Court Building, my wife and I continued to head down East Capitol Street toward that other famous office building, the one associated with the legislature rather than the judiciary.  It’s a majestic structure, but I couldn’t help lamenting the fall from grace of the individuals associated with it.  Congress’s public approval rating is the highest it has been in four years – but it’s still only 20 percent.   When I looked up that number, I was surprised it wasn’t even lower.

Walking toward the Capitol Building, I was reminded of my most recent tour of that building, which was maybe four or five years ago.  I recalled seeing a statue of President Reagan, another statesman who I strongly opposed while he was in office, but on that tour, I had a reaction to the statue similar to the one that I had to the portrait of Scalia, only stronger.  Reagan’s statue literally brought me to tears.  And no, despite what this blogpost might suggest, I’m not a man who sheds tears easily.  

Suddenly, I realized why it is that I’ve been having these reactions on Capitol Hill to seeing memorials to powerful right-leaning Republicans when I’m a left-leaning Democrat.  My tears, you see, were tears of joy.  And my joy was based on the recognition that what separates us ideologically is not nearly as important as what unites us.  The fact is that shortly before I saw the Reagan statue I had been contemplating the phrase that until 1956 had been the unofficial motto of the United States -- e pluribus unum (out of many, one).  We all know that phrase from the Great Seal of the United States, but when you tour the Capitol, you are reminded of the importance of the phrase and what it signifies.   Thousands upon thousands of people have given their lives for that idea.  The unity of the American people, whose power rests not in the hands of a monarch or small group of oligarchs but rather in the collective, in “we the people,” is a blessed notion.   It truly should be what Capitol Hill is all about.  

You might be wondering, though, why I would be having my epiphanies while looking at memorials to a couple of powerful individuals if what I was really thinking about is the unity of the American people and the greatness of democratic, republican government.  It’s because, in their own respective eras, Reagan and Scalia had become lightning rods, and people of my political persuasion were trained to dislike or even despise them.  Yet during these moments of clarity, I was refusing to play that game.   I was refusing to buy into the nonsense that “My Party’s public figures are good, whereas the other Party’s public figures are evil.”  I hear that on TV all the time – it might not be said in as many words, but it’s implied.  And it drives me crazy. 

When I was reveling in the memory of a Reagan or a Scalia, I was not so much embracing these two figures themselves but the tens of millions of Americans who support them.  I was honoring their supporters and feeling kinship with them.  And it felt good.

Out of many, one.  If that is to have meaning, I need to feel compassion for right-wing Republicans no less than liberal Democrats.  And Republicans need to feel the same way about progressives like me.  We can’t demonize each other’s leaders.   We can’t assume that our own political philosophy has been objectively verified like it was some sort of solvable math equation; we need to recognize, in other words, that our fellow citizens who support the folks on the other side of the aisle may conceivably be aware of profound truths that we’re not.  

Recognition of uncertainty and nuance breeds humility.  Humility breeds reverence and respect.  And they, in turn, bring love for all of our fellow human beings, whether or not they have memorials associated with them or don’t even know how to spell the word “memorial.”  

When I saw the portrait of Scalia or the statue of Reagan, I was proud of myself for recognizing these truths, and for removing myself from the toxic, political polarization that has been engulfing our nation since at least the early 1990s.  Touring the Capitol or the Supreme Court Buildings can do that for you, especially on days like Yom Kippur.  

Especially given today’s ugly political environment, I felt compelled to remind everyone that there really is more to America than Fox News, Conservative Talk Radio, CNN or MSNBC.   We don’t always need to put on our boxing gloves.  Sometimes, we can just think about phrases like “e pluribus unum,” and remember that what separates us as human beings is of little importance compared to what unites us.  At bottom you see, this blogpost isn’t about America or any form of nationalistic patriotism, it’s about what it means to be a human being.  It’s about recognizing that we’re all in this together. 

Never forget that whenever we see a human face, liberal or conservative, we’re looking at family. 

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Days of Awe are Upon Us

What a weekend this is in the Jewish calendar.  

Last night, Shabbat began.  For me, that meant attending religious services, followed by coming home to watch Stanford lose by 38 points in a football game.  I guess that serves me right for capping a religious evening with football, but that’s how I roll.

Today, Shabbat continues.   In the case of my family, it happens to be October 1st, the anniversary of my father’s death, so part of Shabbat will be spent at the King David Cemetery remembering one of the sweetest, most intellectual people I have ever known.  He would be 104 years old if he were still alive.   But he did live with his brain relatively intact for 90 years.  I’d take that result given the choice.

Tomorrow, Rosh Hashanah begins.   And again, for our family, it will be a special Rosh Hashanah.  My daughter Hannah will be leading services and my wife and I will be heading down to Capitol Hill to be in attendance.  We’ve seen her lead High Holiday services before, but this is her first permanent pulpit position.  Hopefully, my spirituality will exceed my nerves.   If not, I’ll have even more atoning to do during Yom Kippur.

Any weekend that contains both a Shabbat and one of the High Holidays is a special week.  For those who aren’t familiar with my faith, Shabbat always comes around on Friday evenings and lasts an entire day, but Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can take place any day of the week.  Sometimes, one of them can coincide with Shabbat; sometimes, neither coincides with Shabbat.  But this year is the perfect combo – first Shabbat, then a one-day breather, and then Rosh Hashanah, followed a week later by Yom Kippur.  It’s a period marked above all else by contemplation.   We contemplate the past year – the things we should have done better, the feelings we shouldn’t have felt or should have felt more, and the ways in which we did ourselves proud.   And in each case, I do mean “we.” At this time of year, the Jew speaks primarily in the first person plural, not the first person singular.   

This is also a time to contemplate the future.  Are we hoping for more of the same and fearing that things can only get worse?  Or can we actually summon the dream of a better time and place? And if so, will we (and now, I’m speaking in the first person singular) have made part of the difference?
I love this time of the year because I’m encouraged to do something that feels very natural: beat myself up.   There, I said it.  How unenlightened, right?  But there’s something very enlightened about knowing yourself, and frequently feeling guilty is how I roll.   

But my life consists of far more than watching football and being disgusted by my ample inadequacies.   For example, I also spend time envisioning peace, working for peace, and enjoying the company of peacemakers.  I do thank God for those impulses.  And this week, they impel me to contemplate the life and passing of the great Shimon Peres.  Perhaps more than any other Israeli leader, he envisioned a time when Jews and Palestinians can work together, learn together and love together.   And yet, like me, he was also a staunch Zionist.  He recognized that every family should have its own “home” – and because the Jews are folk as well as a faith, they deserve their family home as well.  But that doesn’t mean that families can’t break bread, join hands, and commune with other families.  Nor does it mean that the Jewish “family” can justify seizing and retaining substantially all of the land that comprised historical Palestine.  Peres understood that.  

Quite simply, Shimon Peres was one leader of the Jewish Tribe for whom the ethic of tribalism gave way to that of universalism.  This weekend and throughout these Days of Awe, I intend to celebrate his example, his accomplishments, and most of all, his dreams.

And yet, I cannot ignore how far those dreams are from our present reality.  The current Prime Minister of Israel has never demonstrated Peres’s passion for peace with justice.  In his eulogy, Bibi said that Peres, “soared to incredible heights. He was a great man of Israel and a great man of the world. We find hope in his legacy, as does the world.”   But truly, how many of us are convinced that Bibi even shares Peres’s vision of two states for two peoples?  Bibi presides over an Israel that, with respect to the Conflict, seems to be moving further and further to the right.  For me, as for Peres, that movement is for the wrong.     

And let us not forget that many of Peres’ “partners” for peace haven’t exactly helped him clear a path.   Thankfully, his old friend, Abbas, was at the funeral, as were certain other Arab leaders.  But the reaction to Peres’s death among certain other precincts was anything but warm.  Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said that "The Palestinian people are very happy at the passing of this criminal who caused their blood to shed...Shimon Peres was the last remaining Israeli official who founded the occupation, and his death is the end of a phase in the history of this occupation and the beginning of a new phase of weakness."   An obituary posted on the website of Hezbollah’s TV station, Al-Manar, added that “To the West, Shimon Peres is the ‘Nobel laureate’ and the ‘tireless dove’ who has been widely respected for his ‘achievements’ regarding the peace in the Middle East.  However, behind this image Peres, who died on Wednesday, represents the real face of the bloody and colonial policies adopted by the Zionist regime.”

The moral here is that peacemaking isn’t easy.    Living a Jewish life – or for that matter, a Christian or Muslim life -- isn’t easy. In fact, as I learned last night, even being a die-hard football fan isn’t easy.  Perhaps all this is best summed up by saying that being a passionate person isn’t easy.  There will be plenty of pain, for you can’t hope to enjoy the ups in life unless you’re prepared to endure the downs.

But that’s OK – especially now.  Because during this time of year, many of us have institutional support for relaxing, contemplating, and praying for a more enlightened mind and a more enlightened world. 

From the Empathic Rationalist to all of you, may your year be filled with health, happiness, hope, wisdom, strength, and love.