The Art of Politics…

The Middle East is a stewpot of millennia old resentments – tribal envy, ethnic animosity, and territorial covetousness – historic sites, beautiful people, extreme poverty, oil fortunes, and political intrigue with an underlying stench of greed and desperation.

The grisly, murder, dismemberment, and disposal of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is the latest iteration of this ages old situation. It usually takes years to give us distance from real life events, like the Saudi murder, in order for them time to become the subject of artistic expression. Such is the case with a play now on stage at ACT Theatre in Seattle. The issue is still current, though the play is about a 1993 attempt to address the “Palestinian problem.”

Last weekend, M and I saw Oslo,the Tony Award-winning play based on the Oslo Accords – a most unlikely subject for live theater. The play chronicles the back-channel effort by two low ranking Norwegian diplomats to engineer a solution to the problem of Israel and the 700,000 Arab/Muslim people displaced during its formation. It was always difficult to imagine Israel and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) coming together to craft a solution, but the Oslo Accords nearly pulled it off. If Itzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres representing Israeli and Yasser Arafat and Abu Ala on the Palestinian side seemed like intransigent foes, think of today’s protagonists – Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas – finding common ground.

The drama is Shakespearean in scope and intensity. Would that Shakespeare could have stuck around to distill its essence and bring its players to the stage? J.T. Roger’s Oslo is an ambitious three-hour attempt to give us a metaphor for what’s wrong with the world today. Envy, greed, hatred, distrust, ambition, subjugation, lies, courage and cowardice are all part of it.

The play is a cliff-hanging depiction of the conflict. Its locus is the Holy Land—the intersection, two-thousand years ago – of the world’s three “great” religions. Today, our myopic focus views the problem’s origins in the founding of the Jewish state in 1948 and the resulting expulsion of 70,000 Palestinians from their homes. The real origins and resentments go back to the time of Christ, the founding of Constantinople and the Eastern Orthodox church, the Crusades and their failure, the coming of the Ottoman Empire in 1299 and its breakup at the end of World War I and its subsequent artificial boundaries established by colonial powers. Each period gave way to a rival ideology – Judaism to Christianity to Islam to secularism – and the bastardizations that resulted when sacred ground became the disputed currency of their respective geopolitical units.

In 1972 Beirut was an overnight stop on Pan Am’s famous Round-the World flights (001 and 002), and one night on the way to the luxurious Phoenicia Hotel our crew bus passed the Shatila refugee camp (above), home to thousands of Arabs exiled from Palestine in 1948. As we passed the camp, the Captain and I wondered aloud how long this explosive sub-human situation could continue. Two nights later, terrorists were foiled in their attempt to hijack a Pan Am airplane on the tarmac at the Beirut airport, the first of several such attacks. Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East, was about to become a war zone.

In 2019 the Shatila camp will be 70 years old, and the UN reports that despite the Lebanese civil war, an Israeli invasion, Hezbollah uprisings, and recurring Israeli air strikes, the camp remains home to 9,842 Palestinian refugees.

But first it was the Jews that were displaced and dispersed. The “diaspora” which began with the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, spread Jews and Jewish culture around the world – but their ongoing hope was always to return the Chosen People to their Biblical promised land. The Jews of the diaspora were admired and reviled in life and in the arts. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens all had despicable Jewish villains. On the world stage, depending on the viewer, they were seen as successful bankers, generous patrons of the arts, greedy money changers, and Christ-killers until Hitler established them as the perfect foil for his genocidal misanthropy and all that was wrong with Germany post WWI.

The fortunes of Israel since 1948 have been as tumultuous as its larger historical legacy. Following the genocidal events of WWII there was considerable sympathy and good will supporting the establishment of a Jewish state. For decades following its formation, talented diplomats attempted to thread the needle with an indigenous Arab population that outnumbered the new nation’s Jewish immigrants. Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Itzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres all were conscious of the tightrope they walked and the need to find a solution to the growing upset of local Arabs and the displacement of thousands of other Palestinians.

A two-state solution i.e. the creation of parallel Jewish and Arab states, had been proposed as early as 1937 during the British Mandate of Palestine, but following the foundation of Israel the local Arab population and displaced Palestinian refugees could never muster enough support to counter the growing power of Israel.

This is the background for the “Accords” and Oslo, the play by J.T. Rogers. An earlier attempt at resolution, the Camp David Accords (Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin), failed when Yasser Arafat refused to buy-in and Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian leader was murdered. With that in the background, it seemed unlikely that a back-channel attempt by two Norwegians would be successful. Starting low on the diplomatic totem pole, with non-governmental representatives from both sides, the Norwegians coddled, complimented, cajoled, (and fed) the participants until the higher-level government officials were reluctantly coaxed into participating in the negotiations.

The play runs three hours with two intermissions. It’s a hard slog at times on a Friday night after cocktails and a pizza, but it’s worthy of the Tony it received in 2017.

Needless to say, the unimaginable Oslo Accords arrived at by the Israeli and PLO representatives ultimately failed, but not because of disagreements between the parties. They had found agreement and comity among themselves – a tribute to the value of face to face negotiations between antagonists. No, in the end, it failed because the agreeing parties couldn’t convince their constituent populations to let go of their hatred and ages-old resentment. First, Itzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister was murdered by one of his own and in the aftermath Arafat couldn’t control terrorist bombers blew up civilian busses and cafes in Tel Aviv. The hostilities escalated from there.

Today, a solution to both “the Palestine problem” and the broader Middle East disequilibrium seems out of reach despite earlier efforts like the Camp David and Oslo Accords. For a moment, in 2011, the grass roots movement of the Arab Spring challenged totalitarian regimes across the region and held out the promise of democratic change, but chaos and suppression took the air out of the movement and blocked its chances.

In Israel, the hard right-turn of the government, and its aggressive, unauthorized building of settlements on the West Bank, combined with the Trump administration’s provocative Embassy move to Jerusalem and withdrawal of financial aid to the UN Palestinian Refugee Fund and Gaza to put an end to talk of a two-state solution. It’s difficult to imagine two self-dealing heads of state like Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, both under investigation for corruption by their own governments, making any effort to help the Arab and Palestinian populations take a meaningful step toward statehood. And, with a rank amateur like Jared Kushner in charge of Middle East policy it’s a setup for even greater tragic error.

The stewpot continues to simmer in the Middle East and, as the Captain and I agreed driving by the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, the situation is a powder-keg ready to blow again if regional powers don’t find a solution.

The play we saw last week was a lesson in hope…failed hope but hope nevertheless. Unfortunately, the Oslo Accords were unsuccessful, but the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were also unimaginable – examples of how seemingly intractable political adversaries could achieve extraordinary results…when the will is there and the parties show courage above self-interest.


Tangled Roots…

Do you ever wonder about your ancestry? Do you know how and when your family came to America? Is there any strange fruit hanging on your family tree? Einstein? Al Capone? Sarah Bernhardt? What do you really know about your family’s history?

Are you a true American? Probably not; Elizabeth Warren’s recent DNA test confirms that she is, because her ancestry links back to those who inhabited North America before 1600. They’re the only true Americans. The rest of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Even Donald Trump’s tangled roots are buried in one of those “shithole” countries in Africa he likes to disdain.

Like most Americans, I didn’t know a lot about mine–when did the first Bernards arrive in America, where did they come from, or how to find the answers to these questions until recently. I hadn’t really thought much about it until I was living in Berlin and a friend questioned me about it. When I told her I didn’t know much, she was stunned and walked me over to a framed picture hanging in her entrance hall. It was a drawing of her own family tree dating all the way back to 1500. I learned later it was common for Germans to build those family trees – true or false – because the Nazi’s were always checking for genetic purity. Nevertheless, her question piqued my curiosity.

My own parents, like many American parents, seemed reticent to talk about family ancestry. I didn’t understand it, but it didn’t seem that unusual. My mother was an only child of older parents and I sensed her childhood was an unhappy one. My father was the youngest of five siblings, 17 years younger than his next oldest and raised mostly by his older sisters. Neither my mother nor my father offered me information about our lineage and I didn’t press them for it. To be fair, they might not have known much. In the early days of the republic and the rush westward to a better life, a lot of family histories were lost or forgotten.

I accepted the conventional wisdom that immigrant families were anxious to assimilate and distance themselves from their foreign roots and chose not to pass on the story of their origins. I had no reason to believe that about my family, but there was an absence of information so it made sense.

Because my parents didn’t talk about it, family history didn’t seem important. At one point, to fill in the blanks, I concocted a story about a French heritage, plausible in my own mind because Bernard is a French surname and I’ve always been a Francophile. But it was bogus, and I started to unpack the family history when my mother died and a distant cousin sent me information she had uncovered about our family’s roots.

Since 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick broke the code – literally broke the code –and discovered the structure of the DNA molecule (double helix, below) it’s become increasingly easier to trace ancestry. Genome scientists have expanded the decoding and today ordinary mortals can send a saliva sample to various commercial enterprises such as 23 and Me or and unlock the door to their genetic provenance.

Recently, with information from 23 and Me, I discovered that Bernard ancestors, mostly Irish and Scottish in origin, settled in Virginia before America became nation. We weren’t fugitives after all, and from a farm near Thomas Jefferson’s estate at Monticello in the 1700’s the family slowly moved west over the next 200 years.

My favorite Bernard story, maybe a metaphor for the whole clan, involved two distant cousins. Uncle Sam and Uncle George who had reached Colorado just before the Gold Rush at Cripple Creek. In 1892 they opened a grocery store to supply the miners, and according to “The Ghost Towns of Colorado,”

Sam took over William Shemwell’s half interest in the Elkton claim for canceling Shemwell’s $36.50 grocery bill, and Uncle George paid Sam Gee, a “colored ash-hauler,” $50 for his one-eighth interest. George then financed the development work for two years until he was just about broke and the Elkton was about to be abandoned. Then they hit pay dirt–$40,000 in the first week. Eventually, the Elkton produced gold worth $16,000,000. Later Sam Bernard got control of another rich mine, the Beacon Hill El Paso—an $11,000,000 producer.

The Bernard boys took their millions and more or less retired from mining in 1902. George bought a huge ranch north of the Springs and raised blooded cattle. Sam went in for trotting horses. But, George died practically penniless in 1933. Sam died in ’37 an indigent patient at Colorado State Hospital (the state mental hospital).

As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.” The Bernards and their money are soon parted, but it’s a good story and we like good stories. Thanks to DNA science and the expansion of genomic and genealogical resources, we can all learn more about our families.

In the past, I’ve asked myself “Why is family history important?” I still don’t know the answer, but as the last remaining member of my generation it “feels” important. Of 5 uncles and aunts and 10 first cousins I am the sole survivor. Ancient cultures have always had a tradition of passing their ancestry information to succeeding generations. At this point, I wish my parents had talked more about it.

The more I learn about my ancestors, the clearer the picture of the American timeline becomes. Pre-revolutionary immigration, the acquisition of land, the establishment of homesteads, child mortality, hard farm labor, the halting trek West, education as a way to a better life (my uncles and aunts were all college graduates before 1920), and improvements in the quality of life. My father was born the year the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, and 55 years later I flew an airplane at 1000mph.

America is a land of immigrants and opportunity. Mr. Trump wants to close the door, pull up the ladder and dump the people of color overboard. My family would probably pass the Trump test, but I have grandchildren, close friends, and neighbors who would not. We can’t let him close the door. Immigrants and diversity have made America as great as it is. Embrace it. I’m glad to have learned more about my ancestry. I plan to learn more. The information is out there, but sometimes it takes a little digging to untangle those roots.

The Act of Becoming…

Today, I’m sitting in a book-filled room at Folio, the membership-based, non-profit library that’s been my writing home for the last two years. Every Tuesday and Thursday I ride the bus from home in Kenmore to downtown Seattle and settle in, free of homely distractions, for a day of writing. No dishes to wash, mail to retrieve, rugs to vacuum, trash to empty, or decks to sweep.

For the past nine years I’ve tried to approach writing as a full time job. Try is the key word. Even here at Folio there are distractions. I sneak looks at Facebook, peak at incoming email, or dreamily watch the Bainbridge ferry crossing to the island. Writers have always complained about how difficult it is to concentrate. Joseph Conrad had his wife lock him in his bare bones study until his allotted writing time was up. Good for writing but hard on the marriage.

Folio was created “as a gathering place for books and the people who love them” in rooms full of them–floor to ceiling bookcases, hallways lined with them, big rooms, small rooms, and alcoves full of them–and being here reminds me of a story I wrote years ago about an introverted bachelor lawyer who loved literature, as I do. He felt compelled to write, but as he sat in the library looking at thousands of volumes lining the walls he had an epiphany – there were so many, most unread and collecting dust – and he willed himself to write anonymously to avoid adding to the glut.

And, this was his passion for the next 50 years. He wrote after work. He wrote on weekends. He wrote novels, short stories, histories, and biographies that, when completed, he stacked neatly in a closet in his San Francisco Victorian. He showed them to no one. Then, ironically, following his death the cache was found by a relative sorting the estate out and the work was offered to a publisher. Only then, through this chance discovery, did he become famous and widely admired for his prose style and innovative treatment of subject matter. 

It’s a long-standing debate; is it the product or process that is most important? For many I suppose it’s both. For the bachelor lawyer it was the process. I think that’s true for me as well, although it’s always flattering to receive a compliment on the product.

I recently exchanged emails with a talented young writer I knew long before he was a successful writer. Now at age 40, he’s published three novels and a number of short stories. I’ve known several authors and been impressed by how hard they work and how difficult it is to make a decent living from the craft. Several teach. It’s a growing field, but what they really live for is writing.

In my early thirties my wife, Abby, and I lived in a small French town for nine months. It was my try out year as a writer. A local office supply store rented me an old typewriter, and learned the French keyboard – another challenge – but after a week or so of that my life as a writer began.

This is Rue Jean Aicard in St.Tropez, where my French typewriter and I lived and wrote.

For almost a year I labored at writing fiction with no one but my wife to read it. I had no one else to show my work to and I wasn’t another Conrad, so in the spring, I wrote to San Francisco State, one of a handful of colleges that had a creative writing program and asked if I could take a few courses when I returned. I wasn’t interested in another degree, but they told me the only way I could take classes was to enroll in their MFA program. So, I did.

I spent almost a year at SFSU where my advisor, Kay Boyle, a novelist and Lost Generation colleague of Hemingway, Beckett, and Joyce among others. The stimulation and contact with other writers was just what I what I was looking for, but I was transferred to New York in the spring and didn’t complete the program. Now, years later I’m writing again. I wish I had been consistent over the years but wishing doesn’t get it done.

Whatever happens next, I feel good about what’s happening now. My friend, Bob Gandt, wrote a book called Mastery in which he suggests creating a new mission for ourselves when we escape from the daily grind. Mine is to be a better writer. In the end, like my bachelor lawyer character, what I’ve written may be discovered by my children. Maybe they will learn things they didn’t know. I’ve had an unusual life, much of which they haven’t been part of. Being their parent has been an important part of my life but not the only part. I hope they appreciate the first part of that and enjoy the second.

Am I a Racist?

I can predict the responses when I, a white male, criticize a person of color. “That’s so racist.” “You sound like a closet racist.” “You don’t understand the culture of race.” “You haven’t experienced what he or she has.” “You don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color.” “You can’t understand because of your ‘white privilege’. ”

Almost from the beginning of these conversations I’m on the defensive. I say I’m not talking about race. I explain that I’m talking about a person or a behavior. I’m expressing my opinion that the behavior is unacceptable, or that the person is acting like a jerk or simply out of line, but inevitably I have to defend myself against a charge of racism.

Am I a racist? Am I blind to my own prejudice? Maybe. I’m certainly aware it’s a possibility. I’m white. I grew up white. My parents were white and it’s possible I’m simply unaware of my racial bias? I sometimes ask myself if my criticism of someone is well founded or whether it’s because its object is a person of color? I could be wrong, but isn’t that kind of criticism of me just a racist trope, accusing me of racism because I’m criticizing a person of color? Am I supposed to limit my social commentary, especially negative commentary, to white folks like me?

The dictionary defines racism as the belief that a particular race is superior to another, that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and the differences produce the inherent superiority of a particular race.

So where am I coming from? What’s this really about? It shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s about Serena Williams, that never-ending lightning rod for racial controversy.

The greatest woman tennis player of all time? Yes. 23 Grand Slam titles? Yes. Rises from the ghetto in Compton to become a champion? Yes. New mother? Yes. Poor loser? Yes. Bad actor? I think so.

Last weekend, down 2-6, 3-4 in the US Open Women’s Championship match  she lost it – the match and her emotional cool. After being outplayed by 20-year-old Naomi Osaka for almost two hours Serena had a meltdown that cost her (1) a warning for a coaching violation (2) loss of a point for breaking her racquet and (3) loss of a game for verbally attacking the chair umpire. With the score then 3-5, Osaka finished off the match to win the championship. The final score 6-2, 6-3. It’s worth pointing out that in their only other meeting, at the 2018 Miami Open, Osaka beat Serena 6-3, 6-2 to win that championship too, making it two wins to none for Osaka in head to head matches with Serena.

In the interest of full disclosure, despite her unparalleled achievements as a tennis player, I’ve never liked Serena Williams. Never – but it’s not about tennis. I see her as a hypocrite and sore loser. She may be the greatest woman tennis player of all time, but I don’t think she’s an admirable person. I respect her sister, Venus, but think Serena is an insincerely modest winner and a sore loser – blaming anyone but herself when she loses.

Over the years she has had a series of incidents that reveal a pattern of self-destructive meltdowns. At match point, during the 2009 US Open semi-final against Kim Clijsters, an Asian lineswoman called a foot fault, that caused Serena to threaten the woman with, “If I could, I would take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat.” That outburst cost her a point, after moments earlier being warned (a precursor to the penalty) for throwing her racquet (eerily like last weekend). The penalty point cost Serena the match (again, like last weekend).

And, last week’s dust up is not the first time Serena has taken the shine off an opponent’s US Open victory. In 2011, she lost the championship to Samantha Stosur, but sucked all the air out of the room by throwing a fit mid-match, berating the chair umpire, and refusing to apologize. Like her behavior in the Osaka and Clijsters matches, she was being badly beaten but created a firestorm that took away from her opponent’s well-deserved celebration.

That’s three notable instances of losses at the US Open in which her own churlish, out of line behavior diminished the achievements of another player. After last Saturday’s match the internet was alive with the Serena story, and many of my African-American and Asian friends came down heavily on Serena’s side, something I hadn’t anticipated and which added to my self-questioning. Am I being racist? Or sexist? I don’t think so, but I’m on the inside looking out.

It’s arguable that behavioral rules and penalties are subjectively applied in tennis. Serena argued forcefully that penalties are imposed more often against women than the men, but an article in today’s New York Times shows that to be false.

I’m a huge tennis fan. I play 3-4 times a week and spend hours watching the Grand Slam events. I get up at 2 a.m. to watch the Australian Open, 5 a.m. to watch the French Open and Wimbledon, and have attended all of them. I’ve also been a player for over 60 years.

I don’t think of myself as racist, but I’m obviously bothered by the criticism. I’ve been a civil and voting rights advocate since the ’60s and have a wide circle of friends who are also active, but I’m reminded of the old saw about “Some of my best friends are black (or Jewish).” I don’t think I’m like that, but we all see ourselves through self-serving lenses.

Having acknowledged my concern, I can say honestly that my all-time idol, regardless of race, is Arthur Ashe–not just in tennis but in every way. He was a trailblazer in America and challenged apartheid in South Africa. He died of AIDS but faced it with courage and dignity. His autobiography,“Days of Grace” is my favorite of the genre. He happened to be black and a tennis player, but those are not the attributes that made him admirable. It was his humanity and courage in the face of real adversity that made him great. I see a similar quiet dignity in Naomi Osaka, the 20-year-old mixed race (Haitian/Japanese) woman who defeated Serena last weekend, and I look forward to seeing a lot more of her in the future.

I realize that my criticism of Serena is a no-win situation. Last year I wrote an article called “We’ll Never Get Over Slavery. I sincerely believe that to be true, but I try every day to live as if it isn’t and to emulate Arthur Ashe. I wish Serena would too.


“So It Goes”

On September 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, there were huge victory celebrations across the country (Seattle above).

It was the end of WWII, and Americans saw it as the triumph of democracy over fascism and good over evil. The nation was ready to party on one of the most important of days in American history. My parents were excited and wanted me, their 7-year-old son, to see and feel its importance too, so late that afternoon we hopped a bus to join the melee in downtown Seattle. My blurred memory of the scene is chaotic. The streets were a teeming, noisy, confetti-filled sea of humanity, and I remember watching it all from under the awning in front of Byrnie Utz Hats, Seattle’s iconic purveyor of men’s hats.

In the years since that night, I’ve changed a lot, but Byrnie Utz Hats managed to stay pretty much the same. The steel-gray art-deco storefront looks exactly as it did then–familiar but not flashy – and it still occupies the same space at 310 Union Street with its original Borsalino/Stetson signage and tiger-oak interior furnishings. Byrnie Utz Hats was only 4 years older than I was on that night in 1945.

Two weeks ago, after 84 years, Byrnie Utz closed its door for the last time. I didn’t know Byrnie or his successor, Paul Ferry, so it’s reasonable to ask why I’m upset or think the closing of a men’s hat store in downtown Seattle is worth noting.  I don’t wear hats, and until two weeks ago I had never been in the store, but after 84 years I think Byrnie Utz Hats deserves a proper eulogy.

When I returned to Seattle after years away, I was surprised to see Byrnie’s right where it was when I left – rare in these days of retail turnover. But, I was saddened when I recently heard it was closing, marking the end of an 84-year cycle and the imminent demolition of a Seattle landmark building. Byrnie’s demise is a melancholy reminder of times past, overlapping eras, our changing city, and my own mortality.

Yes, times have changed, and it was widely noted that men stopped wearing hats when President Kennedy appeared hatless at his January 1961 inauguration. I’d argue that they didn’t stop but styles did change after the hatless inauguration; gone was the felt fedora my father wore, and in its place came the ever present baseball cap of my sons and grandsons.

In 1964 the Seattle Times noted in a headline that “Hatter Holds on During Bare-Head Trend.” That article was written 54 years ago, and yet 54 years later Byrnie (and Paul) were still in business at 310 Union Street, maintaining their thriving business in hats until an out of town real estate developer, not a lack of customers, brought about their closing.

Byrnie Utz Hats never compromised its belief that hats make an important statement about a man’s style. Byrnie did not adapt to changing fashion by selling baseball caps. Instead, he doubled down and stocked the store with handmade Panamas, wool berets, porkpies, and ten-gallon Texas-style cowboys.

During its last week in business, when I went in to check it out there were dozens of customers still willing to pay $200 for a handmade straw or felt porkpie. Yes, there is still a market for a well-made, handcrafted gentleman’s hat. Byrnie’s closing was not a fire sale, but it was the end of an era, and Mr. Ferry presided over it with dignity and good spirits.

In his 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut used “So it goes” as a marquee phrase to mark a death or noir invocation and show us how tragedy has been normalized, trivialized, or randomized after sad or horrific events. It seems appropriate to mark the closing of Byrnie Utz Hats with a nod to Vonnegut.

“So it goes.”

My dad always wore a hat. It was part of his “kit.” He didn’t feel dressed without it. In Marine Corps parlance, his uniform was incomplete unless he was “covered.” Marilynn regularly comments on my need for a hat since I’ve had a number of serious skin cancers. My father had none, so she has a point. I do need to protect what skin is left on my crusty, leathery, freckled, shaved head.

With the closing of Byrnie Utz, it’s clear I’ll have to go elsewhere to get “covered,” but I like to think, had he stayed in business, I would have found the perfect Panama-straw there – when I felt it was really time to man-up.