Saturday, August 25, 2018

When Drool Really Becomes Cool

When, at the age of 30, I became a parent, I felt prepared.  It wasn’t so much that I knew what to do, but what NOT to do.  I had a role model in that regard – a female friend I hung out with in my early 20s.  I had always enjoyed her company ... and then she became a parent.  Immediately, her entire perspective on life changed.  Everything in her universe revolved around her child.  That kid became her alpha and omega.  Cute.  Adorable.  Scintillating.  Not since “God” has someone been treated as so omni-excellent.  

Candidly, my friend bored me to death.  I couldn’t have cared less about her baby, but that baby was the only thing she wanted to talk about.  From then on, I determined that if I were ever fortunate enough to have children, I would live my life and they would live theirs. 

Once parenthood happened, I realized that my resolution was a bit extreme.   Who doesn’t want to leave their mark on their own children?  And who doesn’t feel wiser than a four-year-old or for that matter a 14-year-old when it comes to making responsible choices?   So yes, I tried to exercise some control over the lives of my kids.  But I remained determined not to let them control mine.  Most specifically, I didn’t want them to monopolize my interests.  I still wanted to live my life as an independent adult who realized that there are few topics more boring than somebody else’s kids, so I tried not to talk about my daughters too much to other people.  And frankly, I realized that the best way to raise interesting children is to model what it means to be an interesting adult, rather than simply parent your children 24 hours a day. 

That realization hit me even harder as my children grew up.  We raised them, you see, in the affluent, status-conscious Petri Dish known as Bethesda, Maryland.   Now I noticed a new set of child-obsessed adults.  This time they weren’t talking about how adorable little Johnny was in the way he drooled down his face.  They were fixated instead on little William’s excellent grades, or his exploits on the soccer pitch, or on whatever other ways he could become the Bethesda equivalent of a “Made Man.”  (I’m talking about getting into an elite college, what else?)   The piece de resistance was when my kids enrolled in the County’s Magnet International Baccalaureate program.  It sounded to me like some of these mothers would sit next to their kids, year after year, and check their homework on a daily basis – from arithmetic, to algebra, to geometry, to trigonometry, to calculus, to ordinary differential equations....  I say this because I’d have to watch the crème de la crème of these parents launch Jeremiads at the heads of the IB program complaining that the school didn’t offer math classes advanced enough for the kids’ capacious minds.  This was a public school, and yet some of these parents were still outraged.  How is your kid supposed to get the jump on his classmates at MIT if he isn’t being challenged in high school?

Thanks to these role models on how not to parent, I got through that stage of life well enough.  My kids grew up, warts and all, and I entered middle age without developing a child-centric view of the universe.  Then, a few months ago, something happened for which I was ill-prepared: I became a grandparent.  The problem, obviously, was that I lacked negative role models.  I didn’t recall any grandparents who had driven me crazy in that role.  In fact, every time I had noticed grandparents in the past, they were either ignoring their grandkids (their loss) or were loving them in a healthy way.  I never saw the kind of obsessive, obnoxious behavior that has so often come to characterize what happens to perfectly pleasant adults when they become parents.

Lacking the proper role models, I just winged it.  And the first thing I noticed was that I was starting to take on some of those same “Isn’t my baby’s drool cute?” behaviors that turned me off back in the early ‘80s.    You can’t possibly convince me that there is a baby alive who is one-hundredth as cute, adorable or scintillating as my grandson.  And yes, I know that I’m being an idiot for thinking that way, but it’s not my fault.  Grandparenthood snuck up on me.  

The thing is, though, feeling that way about your grandkids is harmless because you don’t see them enough to obsess over them.  You dote over them, they make you smile, you make them smile, and then you go to your home and they go to theirs -- for days, or weeks, or (in the case of some families) months at a time.  This relationship is truly blessed because it always leaves everyone wanting more.  And there is enough distance and freedom baked into the cake that neither side is overwhelmed with too much guilt, dread, sense of responsibility, or any of those other feelings that prevent parenthood from being pure joy. 

Grandparenthood, from what I can tell, is pure joy.  And it is one of the very few things in life that can meet that standard.  Another candidate that comes close is dog ownership.  And let me tell you, if you really want to have a good time, get your baby grandson together with your dog and watch them interact.  Now THAT is truly cute, adorable and scintillating.  But it does come to an end soon enough.  Either the baby or the dog gets bored.  And when that happens, an independent-minded grandfather like me can stop focusing on those beautiful little creatures and think instead about other topics.  Like the fact that the former wife of uber-progressive California politician Gavin Newsom is now dating Donald Trump, Jr. (that’s just weird).  Or the fact that at the same time Jr’s father is obsessing about “rats” who are six-feet tall, the President’s city is literally being overrun by rats that are eating our garbage and carrying disease (DC is now the second most rat-infested city in America, with over 700 complaints for every 100,000 residents).  Or the fact that our nation is now considering relaxing restrictions on dirty coal plants (because, after all, the one thing that has held America back from being great again is the lack of toxins in the air). 

Yes, my friends, there are too many interesting things going on in the world to justify obsessing about any one topic.  And there really is no topic less interesting than someone else’s kids.

But don’t tell me that your grandkid is half as adorable as my baby Julius.  I simply can’t believe that.   My rationalism doesn’t extend that far. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Pennsylvania’s Pedophile Priests ... and You

In my part of the country, whenever a mass shooting occurs, we always hear a single explanation: lack of gun control.  In fact, however, these shootings have many causes, lax gun laws being but one of them.  Let’s not forget the pathetic way that our society deals with mental health – stigmatizing, rather than treating it – or the extent to which the “entertainment” industry floods the market with violent video games, TV shows and movies.   The truth is that it takes a dysfunctional village to continually ignore the scourge of gun violence, and no one single industry (or political party) is to blame.

Similarly, whenever we encounter yet another exposé of Catholic priests sexually abusing children, most of us turn to the same explanation: the requirement of priestly celibacy.  Personally, I’m no more a fan of that antiquated rule than I’m a fan of assault weapons.  But once again, priestly celibacy is not the sole culprit here.  There are far more pervasive and profound issues at play, and what they tell us about the human condition is sobering to say the least.

To understand my point, ask yourself this question: what troubles you the most about the Pennsylvania Catholic Church abuse scandal – the number of Catholic priests who are alleged to have sexually abused children or the way the Church elders repeatedly covered up this conduct?  For me, the cover-up is far worse.  That was the responsibility of the entire Church leadership, not simply the actions of a minority of priests.  Moreover, if it weren’t for the cover-up, the problem of sex abuse would have been addressed early on.  But because the Church leaders consistently chose to bury their heads in the sand, they enabled countless lives to be ruined in state after state, country after country, decade after decade.  So much for the “holiness” of organized religion.

You can lay much of the blame of the sexual abuse itself on the requirement of forced celibacy.  But that doesn’t explain the cover-up.  Indeed, I don’t think it’s fair to lay the fault of the cover-up on the Catholic Church or, for that matter, on religion generally.  The real problem is that we’re dealing with the species known as homo sapiens.  Whenever that species is involved -- regardless of whether you’re talking about Catholics, Jews, Muslims, atheists, men, women, tall short ... -- it’s the rare specimen who is willing to stick his or her neck out and blow the whistle.

This latest scandal is, above all else, simply a reminder that Catholic clergy form a clan.  Like other clans, the members take care of one another.  Call it clan loyalty.  You see it whenever you deal with families (“What kind of father would call the cops on his own son?”), or with corporations (whose employees often tell the same exculpatory story even when the documents suggest something more sinister), or with political leaders in a polarized, lemmings-like environment.  It would appear that we the people would rather lie and cover up a clansman’s problems than serve as the “rat” who brings him down and brings dishonor on the clan. 

If you disagree with that analysis, perhaps it’s because you see something uniquely debased about the Catholic leadership.  It is, after all, chic in some contemporary circles to point to clergy (Catholic or otherwise) as being especially egotistical and power-hungry, and thereby unwilling to put their own good names at risk for sake of principles like “justice” or “universalist ethics.”  Maybe there’s a bit of truth to that explanation, maybe not.  But I’ve seen enough in my life to realize that whether we’re talking about the most narcissistic clergyman or the most modest corporate employee, you won’t find many heroes.  People tend to look out for their own personal reputations and the well-being of their friends, co-workers and family members.  And when you weigh those factors against “the greatest good for the greatest number,” I think we all know what is likely to prevail.

These days, we hear a lot about the need for educators to improve so-called “STEM” instruction, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.  Ironically, though, we already have plenty of stem instruction.  By contrast, we have precious little values instruction.  And I suspect we provide virtually zero education about the paramount importance of whistleblowing to any civilized society.  Supposedly, our obsession with the GNP doesn’t allow us to waste time teaching our children that the real “rats” among our species are the ones who sit in silence or in perjury to hide the abuses of their pack, rather than to stand up and toot their horns for the sake of truth and for the good of God.

Really, if you want to know who is most responsible for the Pennsylvania Catholic Church abuse scandal, just look in the mirror.  We’re all to blame.  For we all live in societies where tax dollars are being used to teach our children far more arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, biology, chemistry and physics than what we Jews call “menschkeit,” which means how to live with a noble, dignified character.

The recent Pennsylvania scandal effectively indicted the leadership of the Catholic Church for their lack of menschkeit.  But to be fair, I think any of us would be hard pressed to find many organizations that would hold up very well according to that standard.  We simply don’t expect that from one another. We consider it to be supererogatory – above and beyond the call of duty.
So yes, let us pray that the Catholic Church does away with the policy of forced celibacy for their priests.  But let us also pray that the schools around the world start giving values instruction its due.  And if and when they do teach values, let us pray that they talk about whistleblowing as the solemn duty of all ethical human beings, and not merely the province of heroes ... or rats.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Road Trip

Every summer, my wife and I take a road trip.  Our path goes from Maryland, to Pennsylvania, to West Virginia, to Ohio, to Indiana, to Illinois, and finally to Wisconsin – that’s five Trump states and two Hillary states, if you’re scoring at home.  Personally, I enjoy the opportunity to see cows and corn fields and hear from folks who aren’t politics-addicted progressives like yours truly.  What follows are some of my observations from this year’s trip.

Segregation:     Years ago, I was told by a white Midwesterner that “When one black family moves into your neighborhood, you embrace them.  When a second black family moves into your neighborhood, it’s time for you to move out.”   I knew immediately that the statement was not made in jest, and on this past trip, I could see the fruits of such thinking on display in one community after another.  Every hour, we would stop to stretch our legs, and I would check out the people around us.  Invariably, they were either all dark (black or Hispanic) or all white.   The only thing “mixed” were the bags of nuts in the road-side stores.    

Keep in mind that 64 years have elapsed since we struck down Brown v. Board and 54 years since the end of Jim Crow.  Yet, here we are – our President talks about how he wants fewer immigrants from “Shithole Countries” and more from Norway, and our communities separate the darks and the lights like we’re one big laundromat.   Clearly, Americans like to associate with their “own kind.”  I suppose we feel less cognitive dissonance that way and therefore less discomfort, which is the ultimate goal of any consumerist society.       

Demonization:  In and around the Washington Beltway, Donald Trump’s popularity is not exactly at a historic high.  But I swear to you that if you think Trump has his detractors here, you should check out Hillary’s popularity in the Midwest.  Whenever her name came up, someone would rip it to shreds.  Even those who dislike Trump speak out vehemently against Hillary.  I’m no fan of hers, but even I was appalled at the ubiquitous vitriol aimed in her direction.  She’s Hillary Clinton, not Genghis Khan.  On the positive side of the ledger, she is bright, engaging, deeply concerned about public policy, legitimately public spirited, and highly respected among foreign and domestic leaders with various political perspectives.   Why then is she so unbelievably despised in the Heartland?

There are several reasons.  But one seems to be especially important -- the Republicans are incredibly good at demonizing their opponents.  Their attack machine is focused, relentless, and ruthless.  They worked their magic successfully with Michael “the Tank” Dukakis, Al “Bore” Gore, John “Swift Boat” Kerry, and “Crooked” Hillary, and they tried valiantly with “Barrack Hussein Al-Obama”  and “Slick Willie” Clinton.  Now, they’re turning all their attention to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.  That’s right, Virginia, the GOP wants you to vote for your local Republican nominee out of spite for Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. 

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t understand what is so loathsome about Pelosi and Schumer.   I know that one is 78 and the other is 67, and that it would be in the best interest of their political party if their leaders were younger.  So yes, criticize them for letting their personal ambitions get in the way of their judgment. But are they so despicable that it makes sense to cast a vote, say, against the local Democrat candidate in Des Moines, Iowa because that candidate is in the same party as Pelosi and Schumer? 

As a Jewish man whose parents were both graduates of Brooklyn College, I must admit to being especially struck by the GOP efforts to show off Schumer’s face as if he is some demonic figure.   He’s a Jew with a New York accent.  I get it.  But he doesn’t have friggen horns on his head.  What has he done to deserve anyone’s demonization?  

Clearly, the GOP is playing to the attitude of its base that whoever doesn’t talk or dress like you is your enemy.  It’s just the kind of attitude you want in a country whose motto is “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one). 

The Democrats’ Challenge:  In my D.C. Bubble, I hear about how the Democratic Party is resurgent and how all the party’s new ideas are coming from its progressive wing.  But in the Midwest, I heard about how the progressives have “nutty” ideas and how the Democrats need to find some moderate voices if they want to regain power.   Bernie?  Nut.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?  Nut.   Hillary and her mostly-moderate, “superdelegate” supporters?  Crooked cronies. 
So tell me, my Midwestern friends, what are the Democrats supposed to do, nominate God?   The last time I checked, s/he isn’t running.  The people who are running are either the centrists, who are blasted for being phonies and opportunists, or the progressives, who are blasted for being wingnuts.  Talk about a Catch 22.

A few weeks ago, I recommended a pathway for the Democrats: Unify (your party), Simplify (your message) and Defy (the Republicans).  I stand by that approach.  To unify, the party will have to embrace a combination of progressives and centrists, though the progressives need to watch out for being excessively zealous and knee-jerk in their progressivism (in other words, show a little restraint) and the centrists need to avoid simply putting their finger in the wind and always supporting the middle ground (in other words, take a courageous position every now and then and go all-in for it).  

Then, once the party unifies, it might want to simplify its message by focusing on two or three reforms that nearly all Democrats can embrace and bringing out memorable slogans in support of these reforms.  Wonkish Hillary never made a clear and simple case for what changes she would bring if elected; Dems can’t make that mistake again.   Finally, to “defy,” the Democrats need to fight fire with fire.   If the GOP brings rhetoric and the Dems bring reason, the GOP will win.  So ... let’s see some hard-hitting rhetoric.  Don’t be afraid, my little lambs.  The Republicans have it coming.

The Republicans’ Punch Line:  On a humorous note, I was also moved by the number of times I encountered GOP partisans speaking about “fiscal conservativism,” as if any objective observer seriously thinks their party stands for budget frugality. At the state and local level, they can indeed balance the budget by gutting infrastructure, education, or the social safety net.  But that doesn’t mean they care about red ink – they just hate certain types of spending.  As we have seen, at the federal level they love to throw all sorts of cash at weapon systems or provide corporate welfare for affluent or politically-important constituents.   Honestly, if you like the national debt, vote Republican.  It works every time. 

So there you have it, a few reflections from my trip to the Heartland.  I had a great time, but I’m happy to be back in a community where I can walk outside every morning, pick up a copy of the New York Times and the Washington Post from my driveway, and not feel like an oddball.  I hate DC’s traffic congestion and will miss not being to look out the window and see a lake.  But I love living in a place where so many people seek out the best news sources on a daily basis. Our President may call it the “Swamp,” but I’ll put up with shitty weather, corrupt politicians, and even the occasional neo-Nazi march if it means getting to hang out with so many committed, knowledgeable, and publically-spirited citizens.  Besides, we have the Stanley Cup Champions. 

The best slap shots and the most public service.  You can’t beat our nation’s capital.  It’s good to be home.