Lord of the Flies Redux…

I’ve been feeling nostalgic for the spring and summer of 2012. M and I were living and working in Saigon, far away from the bickering and embarrassment of the Sarah Palin/Tina Fey show. Obama looked like a shoo-in, though it was likely his second term would be handcuffed by Mitch McConnell and a Republican Senate. The campaign was in full swing, but we were on the sidelines an ocean away. If we wanted to know what was happening, we bought the International Edition of the New York Times. But even that was rare. 

Now we’re back and times have changed. The bickering and posturing of 2012 seems quaint by comparison and nostalgia is a totally inappropriate response. The 2020 campaign is in full swing, and we, the American people, are in a mano a mano for our democracy. For historical perspective, the 2020 presidential election may be as consequential as the election of Lincoln in 1860.

At the moment, the Democratic hopefuls are mud-wrestling for the nomination. Bernie is ascendant, but no one has demonstrated star qualities. No matter who the eventual nominee is, he or she will be carrying the future of the country on his or her shoulders. Those of us who are passionate about denying Trump another four years need to focus. It is inconceivable that the America we grew up in is now under the thumb of a president whose sole governing principle is the consolidation of personal power.

In 1776, the founding fathers had no template for a new nation-state, but all of them – Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay – had ideas about what they did and did not want their government to embody – ideas generated by extensive reading in the philosophy and literature of the social contract. They knew Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau. 

When independence was declared, the organizing principles were still being debated. England had the Magna Carta but it was an unwritten constitution and the seceding Americans felt the need for a founding hard copy document. In 1781 Articles of Confederation were ratified, but by 1783 it was obvious that something more comprehensive and cohesive was needed to hold the new nation together.

How it all came together is complicated, devious, serendipitous, mysterious and inspiring–just like the end product. Madison did the basic homework (study) and drafting. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison argued their theories and competing points of view in The Federalist Papers. Franklin and Jefferson weighed in with their diplomatic experience as French and English ambassadors. State legislatures added their input and on June 21, 1788 New Hampshire became the 9th of the 13 states to ratify and make it the governing document. By 1790 all 13 of the original states had ratified and it was unanimous.

Two hundred and thirty years later as we look back we might imagine it was a seamless process, but the truth is those early days were just as chaotic and divisive as the ones we are living through now. Democracy is messy. The rosy pictures in our high school history texts hid that truth.

Once again, we are perilously close to either a Nietzschean Will to Power totalitarian moment or a Lord of the Flies unraveling where we lose our way and begin eating each other. If you need something visual, just watch a Trump rally on the same night as a Democratic candidate debate. Trump is a Mussolini-like caricature who can’t get enough of the carefully choreographed adulation while the Democratic hopefuls interrupt and demean each other about Utopian healthcare and the politics of the 70s.

In Lord of the Flies William Golding asks us to consider just how thin the veneer of civilization really is? Left alone on the island without a leader, the boys in the story revert to a primitive survival-of-the-fittest state. Is that us in 2020? At the beginning of the current campaign there was consensus among Democrats – defeat Trump – but the situation has changed. Today the goal remains, but there is no consensus on the who or how. Are we morphing into the same rudderless selfish state as the boys in Lord of the Flies?

In the wake of his impeachment, loyalty to the Bully-in-Chief has become the White House litmus test. His truth is the truth of Narcissus. He lies at every juncture. He’s made the rich richer and the poor poorer. The homeless are everywhere. The country is in deep debt. Mean-spirits dictate policy and the Attorney General sees no limits to executive power. We have abandoned our friends and alliances in favor of an isolated nationalism where inequality is exaggerated and opportunity denied those who need it most.

It feels odd to be so overtly political. I was always happy to enjoy the ride as a privileged American. I paid attention but didn’t wade in the deep waters. It even seems odd to frame these remarks as political. I love American history and this seems more like an historical moment than a political one. The 2020 election will be a turning point. Will we recommit to the framers’ democratic ideal or let tribal rivalries dictate our future? Either way, it’s a reminder that democracy is messy. There are no Jeffersons or Adams on the debate stages today, but the principles they argued for are the same principles I hope will define America’s future – fairness, honesty, good intentions, and the welfare of All our citizens.

Weather and Creativity…

This is the bus I take from home to my downtown “office” on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Marilynn comes with me every Thursday. She hates the bus but loves me, so she bites the bullet and rides along. I love both her and the bus… in that order.

Over the years I’ve made a number of friends on my bus commute – all women. I got to know two of them well enough to have an occasional lunch with them. One, Mary Lou, lost her husband Bob unexpectedly and her confusion and grief were palpable. Not long after Bob’s death she moved away and we no longer share the bus ride. I often wonder how she’s doing? The younger one, Linda, has two children in Middle School. She’s married to Mark, a former airline pilot. He flew for Aloha and commuted to Honolulu. It was the job he’d always dreamed of but after two furloughs he gave it up. Now he drives a bus for King County Metro just like the one I ride to work. It pays well and he has a stable life with Linda and their kids. No more white scarf and leather flight jacket glamor but a healthy family life.

I find the bus commute endlessly interesting. Sometimes I listen to an Audible book. Last week it was James Taylor’s autobiography “Break Shot” about his first 21 years. Fascinating. If you read this blog often you know how much I like James and his songs. On other days, I check out the riders or hunker down as the rain splatters the windows. Usually I count the number of passengers who are staring at their phones and calculate the percentage of phone addicts. Today, of the 11 passengers I could see, 9 were staring at their phones. There was a time…

I finished Break Shot over the weekend, so this morning I started a new novel by Jenny Offill. Weather is short and oddly aphoristic. Vignettes. Musings. Jump cuts. I don’t really have time to read another novel; I’m in the middle of two other books but Weather was very seductive. Two weeks ago it was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and again in the New York Times Magazine. I’d never seen that much positive attention devoted to a new novel by a mostly unknown writer. Granted, American Dirt, the story of a Mexican immigrant family by a half-Puerto Rican woman novelist, has been sucking all the politically correct air out of the book reviewing business, but Weather is not in the news because it’s controversial. It’s just good creative literature.

I’m not quite halfway through but I’m awestruck by how simple and complicated it is at the same time. The paragraphs are short little chunks of a bigger story about Lizzie, a grad school dropout, her son, Eli, and her grad school professor/mentor, Sylvia. In less than 200 pages the author takes us on a sweeping journey from Eli’s preschool to global climate change, alt-Right and leftwing politics, a peek inside Lizzie’s head, and back to the Help Desk at the university library where she works.

Good writing is always about the story. It might be told monumentally, as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or in short curt passages like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It might be a graphic novel about mental health like Marbles or a children’s book like Goodnight Moon. A good story is a good story, but as a writer I especially admire those who bring something new to the craft.

I was married to a visual artist who maintained she could teach anyone to draw. I disagreed but wasn’t willing to test her belief. On the other hand, I understood her point; a skilled draftsman is not necessarily a creative artist. Visit any art fair and you will see drawings and paintings that catch your eye for their realistic depiction of a scene, but the creative process is something more. Whether it’s a painting or a novel, the creative artist delivers his or her material in a different consciousness raising way.

We live in perilous times. Science tells us we are destroying the planet and may soon pass the point of no return. Both sides of the political spectrum are weighing in – and testing extreme positions while those of us in the middle struggle to find a reasonable way to address the Doomsday scenario. Weather addresses these issues in fiction. Many of us have little Eli’s in our family and wonder what the planet will look like when they are our age.  Here are two of mine in the Paris catacombs.

We can’t let them down. We have to act; to affirm the science, combat atmospheric emissions, keep the busses running, cultivate friendships, keep writers writing, painters painting, and work to assure our kids’ futures. Thank Jenny Offill for reminding us.

Q: What is the philosophy of late capitalism?

A: Two hikers see a hungry bear on the trail ahead of them. One of them takes out his running shoes and puts them on. You can’t outrun a bear, the other whispers. I just have to outrun you, he says. (Weather, p.44)

The Legacy of Icons…

It’s easy in the later stages of life to look back at memorable events, performances, and personalities encountered on our journey and lament the loss of those who still seem very much alive because of the way they and their art affected us.

Last week M and I spent an evening with Sam Shepard at the Seattle Rep and he was very much alive during a performance of True West, his rollicking roller coaster ride of a play where the audience is pulled into the action as two very different brothers trash each other and their mother’s home on the stage in front of them.

My first memory of Sam Shepard is Shepard the actor and his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983). I only knew him as a playwright then, but he nailed Yeager and soon after that he was everywhere. Over the years I watched him play a series of laconic film heroes and saw several of his 44 plays, including Fool for Love, True West and the Pulitzer-winning Buried Child.

I always admired Sam Shepard the movie-star hero and even more the creative director, screenwriter and award-winning playwright who was sharing a life with the equally private and talented Jessica Lange on a small ranch somewhere between Mill Valley and the ocean in Marin County.

Shepard died, as he lived, very privately at his Kentucky home on August 1, 2017. The cause of death was complications from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a diagnosis he kept from all but his closest friends and family, but in a passage from The One Inside, a novel written before his condition was known, his character explains his condition,

“Something in his body refuses to get up. The appendages don’t seem connected to the motor — whatever that is — driving this thing. They won’t take direction — won’t be dictated to — the arms, legs, feet, hands. Nothing moves. Nothing even wants to. The brain isn’t sending signals.”

My good friend, Hugh, was diagnosed with ALS in 2018. He might describe his own condition exactly that way. When M and I visited him recently, he told her that every morning he’s a little weaker but looks forward to every day. Shepard continued to work daily despite his illness, and, with Patti Smith’s help, published Spy of the First Person posthumously.

Getting old is cruel enough without the humiliation of a neurological breakdown. So far, M and I are doing OK. Parts are wearing out but not entirely giving up. Last year the Social Security Life Expectancy Calculator estimated that I had 8 years and 7 months left. Today it told me I have 7 years and 6 months. Time flies but I’m still right on schedule. We all like to imagine ourselves unbound by the laws of nature, but, as we approach the end, normal starts to look like a good deal.

When I started working for Pan Am I was hungry to see and do everything, and on every layover I looked for something special to see or do. In the late 60s I had a trip to Amsterdam and Jacqueline Du Pre, the prodigiously talented young cellist, was performing that night with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I don’t remember what she played but I was swept away and fell hard for her and her cello.

Then sadly, by 1973 as fast as it had begun, her career was over and in 1987 at the age of 42 she was dead, a victim of MS (multiple sclerosis). I don’t have her recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, but I think of her whenever I listen to the Yo Yo Ma version. She made it famous and Iike to think I’m listening to her when I hear it.

Both Shepard and Du Pre will live on in the artistic record they left behind. We’ll be able to see the Shepard plays and movies and listen to the Du Pre recordings, but this morning I heard that Cathy Marston is bringing Du Pre back to life in The Cellist, a new mainstage commission for London’s Royal Ballet. 

In Marston’s imaginative retelling of the Du Pre story, she is played by a ballerina while a male dancer performs the role of her cello. The audience is transfixed as the two lean into each other as the music merges with their movements.

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to the talent of an artist than the creation of new work based on his or her legacy. We can see a Shepard revival or hear a Du Pre recording but there is something special about a new work. Kudos to Cathy Marston and the Royal Ballet. I have my fingers crossed that Pacific Northwest Ballet will bring her celebration of Ms. Du Pre to Seattle.

There is something particularly poignant about vital, energetic artists like Sam Shepard and Jacqueline Du Pre being brought down by nasty debilitating diseases. My heart goes out to my relatives and friends who are dealing with MS and ALS, all of whom maintain positive attitudes and gratitude for the lives they’ve lived and are living.

Memory is tricky… We tend to remember the highlights. I remember seeing the strings of Issac Stern’s bow flying wildly during the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and hearing Janis Joplin’s Southern Comfort laced voice with Big Brother and the Holding Company at a bar in Huntington Beach. I love movies, but there is nothing like a live performance – music and/or theater. Great art and artists live beyond their work, and we remember them through it. Today, I’m grateful for my time with Sam Shepard and Jacqueline Du Pre in the past but look forward to my next encounter with greatness in a live setting. I feel lucky to be alive and able to experience the legacy of iconic artists – living and dead.

The Way of the Dodo?

Here’s what’s happening in the world – natural and unnatural. 

  • Planet earth is losing flora and fauna species at an alarming rate. Extinction is a phenomenon that occurs naturally, but the main cause of the current extinctions is the destruction of natural habitats by human activities, such as cutting down forests and converting land into fields for farming.
  • Scientists estimate we are currently losing species 1,000-10,000 times faster than normal attrition, which means that literally tens of species are vanishing from the face of the Earth every day. (worldanimalfoundation.com)
  • Across Africa, the U.N. estimates that 23.6 million people are facing food shortages due to the worst locust infestation in 70 years followed by torrential rains. (WSJ, Jan 31, 2020)
  • Australia is, after a month of wildfires that burned 12.35 million acres and killed as many as one billion animals, experiencing unprecedented rains and floods – 15.4” in 4 days. (AP)
  • Worldwide, 65.6 million individuals have been forcibly displaced because of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations, per the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR 2017).
  • Arctic and Antarctic ice caps are melting at an astonishing rate. On June 13, 2019 Greenland lost more than two billion tons of ice in one day. (nationalgeographic.com)
  • In Brazil, between 15 and 17 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been lost, and if the amount of cleared forest land reaches 25 percent, there won’t be enough trees cycling moisture through the rainforest. (vox.com)

Why? Well, it’s complicated…but at its root it’s because we, as humans, haven’t been good stewards of each other’s welfare or the planet’s. It’s clear now; we have hard evidence that if we are to survive – if the planet is to survive – we need to make an urgent course correction. Instead, America has gone tribal, ignoring the evidence and doubling down on fossil fuels, extractive industries, unsustainable agribusiness, military industrial power, and isolationism.

Elizabeth Kolbert describes the crisis in her bestseller, The Sixth Extinction. She explains that the five prior extinction events, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs, were the result of extreme natural events like an asteroid striking the earth or massive volcanic eruptions but that human behavior is on the verge of causing another mass-extinction—the sixth in the history of the planet.

I’ve always thought of myself as a short-term pessimist and long-term optimist, but it’s hard to see any silver lining as we hurtle toward our own extinction. As Nathaniel Rich pointed out in a series of articles in the New York Times in 2018. 

“Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. The main scientific questions were settled beyond debate, and as the 1980s began, attention turned from diagnosis of the problem to refinement of the predicted consequences. Compared with string theory and genetic engineering, the “greenhouse effect: – a metaphor dating to the early 1900s – was ancient history, described in any Introduction to Biology textbook. Nor was the basic science especially complicated. It could be reduced to a simple axiom: The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet. And every year, by burning coal, oil and gas, humankind belched increasingly obscene quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

There is a part of me that would like to blame the current White House for the whole thing. After all, of the 175 signatories the United States is the only one to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. We may only have been nibbling around the edges, but in the last three years this president has rolled back whatever gains we made in recent years. There’s an echo of Nero fiddling while Rome burns in almost everything Trump does, but we’re all complicit. We’re burning up the planet.

I want to believe in evolution. Silly me. I should have known when we began designing nuclear bombs that evolution was a hoax. But, Iike my climate denier friends, I kept thinking this and other human foibles were anomalies–until a set of recessive genes took over the White House and showed us how wrong we were.

Still, there must be a soupçon of hope in human DNA that keeps the dream alive. I know we can do better. I want to die believing my children and grandchildren will be part of a grand turn-around. “Hope is an optimistic state of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes with respect to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large.” (Wikipedia)

Count me in for the positive outcome, but first we need to rid ourselves of The Denier-in-Chief and his 40 Thieves. They’re driving the bus that’s hurtling us toward the Sixth Extinction, so let’s take the steering wheel back and turn this thing around. We may be beyond the point of no return environmentally, but let’s leave a positive note for the next iteration of human life so they won’t judge us too harshly.

Isn’t it a lovely ride?
Sliding down
Gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It’s just a lovely ride
Now the thing about time is that time
Isn’t really real
It’s just your point of view

The Secret of Life – James Taylor

                                          Remember him? Are we next?

Gaming the System…

The foundation of the American system of criminal justice is the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial and the best defense available… but justice is not always blind. Race, wealth, age, prior history, and the integrity of the lawyers can all skew those principles and affect the outcome.

Standard 4-1.2 of the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Standards for the Defense Function, paragraph (b) states:

Defense counsel have the difficult task of serving both as officers of the court and as loyal and zealous advocates for their clients. The primary duties that defense counsel owe to their clients, to the administration of justice, and as officers of the court, are to serve as their clients’ counselor and advocate with courage and devotion; to ensure that constitutional and other legal rights of their clients are protected; and to render effective, high-quality legal representation with integrity.

Last week, the United States Senate sat as a jury to hear House managers present the case for Donald John Trump’s impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Yesterday he was acquitted by a narrow 52 – 48 margin.

To defend himself, Mr. Trump had assembled a made-for-TV legal defense team. None were established criminal defense standouts but two were TV courtroom veterans. The first, Kenneth Starr, was Special Counsel and prosecutor in the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton and the second, Alan Dershowitz, a former Harvard Law professor famous for representing such unsavory characters as OJ Simpson, Claus von Bulow, and Jeffrey Epstein.

Starr, it would seem, was window dressing at the impeachment trial, there to pronounce that “we are living in the age of impeachment”and to ask, “How did we get here, with presidential impeachment invoked frequently in its inherently destabilizing as well as acrimonious way?” As Vanity Fair noted, “For those of you who synthesize information best through historical antecedents, this is like Jeffrey Dahmer lecturing his peers for eating people. Or Adolf Hitler asking, “How did we get into this predicament where people don’t care for the Jews?” His Starr-turn was disingenuous, and he was quickly replaced in the lineup by the much more nefarious spin-ster, Mr. Dershowitz.

It was performance art on a grand scale. First, he introduced himself not as friend of the president, but as a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton–appearing for the president only to clarify the constitutional imperatives in question. But, if he’s a Democrat who voted for Mrs. Clinton, isn’t it odd he was invited to Christmas Eve dinner at Mar-a-Lago by a president famous for his hatred of Crooked Hillary?

Regardless, the Dershowitz spin went like this: “A president cannot be impeached unless he has committed a crime and no crime is alleged in Impeachment Article #1” and “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” 

Incongurously, during the 1999 Clinton impeachment both Starr and Dershowitz argued that it was not necessary to allege or prove a crime. What’s different? Well, this time it’s not a cringe-worthy sexual act in the White House–it’s the president requesting a foreign government to interfere in our 2020 presidential election. Big difference.

The chutzpah is astonishing and legal scholars, including Lawrence Tribe, the Harvard Law School professor and foremost constitutional law scholar in America, were quick to point out that almost no one accepts the Dershowitz argument. As a lawyer, I read the testimony several times and couldn’t understand the circular, Byzantine reasoning or how he arrived at his conclusions. But I’m not alone; when real scholars challenged him he walked it back by claiming his remarks were misrepresented and throwing up a barrage of legal chaff based on “motives”, “mixed motives,” “matters of degree,” “preposterous examples,” and “complex issues the framers did not intend for impeachment.”

It was dazzling judicial theater, intended to conflate and confuse rather than convince, and I was reminded me of an article by Molly Roberts of the Washington Post written just after Jeffrey Epstein was arrested and jailed in 2019. What Alan Dershowitz Taught Me About Morality is her retelling of an experience as a Harvard student in a Dershowitz seminar in which he asked her the question “Where does your morality come from?” 

Dershowitz has made a name for himself as an “intellectual provocateur.”  In her article Ms. Roberts suggests that he has lost sight of the principles he originally championed, i.e. safeguarding civil liberties. Rather, he has made a name for himself gaming the system.

As Ms. Roberts points out, “Principles are important, but they can also be a distancing mechanism that permits us to maintain an aura of rectitude even as we go around behaving in ways that aren’t right at all. They can allow us to absolve ourselves for our actions by claiming they’re in service ot some metaphysical lodestar that supersedes any effect on real people in real life. Sometimes, we’re simply wrong—not just constitutionally, or legally, but ethically, too.”

Yes, every defendant is entitled to the best defense available, but as the professional standards state “Defense counsel have the difficult task of serving both as officers of the court and as loyal and zealous advocates for their clients…with integrity.” Given Mr. Dershowitz’s history, particularly his recent history as an advocate for Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump, it is arguable that principles have been sidelined and, like President Trump, gaming the system to win no matter the consequences is now his “lodestar.” Dershowitz once told The New York Times he regretted taking the Epstein case but told Ms. Roberts “I would do it again.”

Harking back to her seminar at Harvard, the Roberts Op-Ed ends with the following sentence, “There’s an answer to the question none of us students could reach all those years ago: Your morality comes from what you do.