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We Could Start by Apologizing, and Go From There

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on September 3, 2000.

Now that the Republican Party sees inclusiveness as a valid goal, perhaps American society is ready to consider something for which it’s never seemed quite ready: paying reparations for slavery.

Decades after the U.S. had wrongfully detained Japanese-Americans in World War II concentration camps because of their ancestry, the victims got money, and an apology, for their trouble. More recently, the government of Germany and companies like Siemens have agreed to pay billions of dollars to Jews whose labor they exploited during the Holocaust.

Genuine monetary damages are going to people for actions that are 50 years old. Why not 150?

Does it seem too far back? Does it seem as though it would be too complicated, since we are talking about compensating descendants rather than direct victims? Does it sound like a task that would simply be too massive, bureaucratic and unpleasant?

Maybe so. Slavery itself was certainly massive, bureaucratic and unpleasant, from its beginnings here in Jamestown in 1619 on until the end of the Civil War in 1865 finally put a stop to it. Two hundred and forty-six years of owning and controlling human beings, in a manner sanctioned and enforced by U.S. law.

I think we can all be clear on one thing: Stopping the commission of a crime is not the same as making restitution. If someone takes away your wallet, and then your watch, it is not enough for them to simply stop stealing. At some point, before you can easily look them in the eye, they have to look like they regret what they did, and they have to give your stuff back.

The U.S. can never give back what its people took from Africa. The people of the U.S. can never restore to the descendants of slaves what was ripped away from them all those years ago — we can never return them to their homelands and families and restore their heritage and cultural traditions, let alone return to them their freedom and dignity. But we can certainly say we’re sorry, and we can certainly do better than we have done in making reparations.

The country grew on slave labor

The U.S. economy benefited a great deal from the cheap, forced labor of slaves. If you doubt that, take another look at how hard the states that fostered slavery fought to hold on to that “right.”

Because of television footage and movies, it is relatively easy for Americans today to comprehend the carnage in Vietnam. Nor does anyone who has seen “Saving Private Ryan” have trouble imagining the losses this country suffered during the Second World War. But you’d have to multiply America’s casualties in Vietnam by ten to get an idea of what was lost in the War Between the States.

Now, it’s certainly simplistic to say that the war was fought to free the slaves. The North was never that altruistic. But it’s also simplistic to deny the centrality of slavery to that conflict. “States’ Rights,” to the South, meant the right to buy, sell and control human beings. Georgia did not suffer the burning of Atlanta simply because its people liked the look of confederate money.

Maybe because of the rivers of blood that were shed in that war, and the bad blood that still remains – take the recent fight over the flying of the confederate flag over South Carolina for example – the issue of making restitution to slaves and their descendants has never really gotten off the ground.

Maybe Americans would still prefer to believe that atrocities happen elsewhere.

To cure themselves of this, maybe all of America should visit the Schomburg Center in Harlem.

It’s a good deal smaller than the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and in some ways more difficult to take. But the message is similar: Here is the evidence of evil, made to seem ordinary by its frequency. Here is the evidence that an entire society went about its business while atrocities took place daily. Here is the evidence that people with bodies and brains no different from our own can do horrible things, and tolerate horrible things, without even breaking a sweat. It’s tough to look.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington confronts you with the horror of what humans have done – overseas. If you grew up anywhere but Europe, the revulsion and sorrow you feel are almost pure, in this sense: You feel no personal guilt. You feel little need to deny what you see, because you can tell yourself that your own people did not do this. The U.S. did not acquit itself admirably while the Holocaust was going on; her borders did not open to embrace those Jews who fled. But border policy is a governmental abstraction, one that removes us from the deeds; “visas were denied by the government” is easier on the conscience than “my own family allowed refugees to die.”

At the Holocaust Museum, we see that the Nazi deeds were not inspired by sudden passion. They were premeditated — imagined in advance – and methodically organized. The Nazis carried out their program over a period of years, with great efficiency. They devoted energy and money to extermination that could have helped their military hold off the Allied powers. They killed Jews young and old, day and night, in a way that came to seem ordinary. So ordinary that towns near the concentration camps went about their business, buying and selling and making love and raising children amid the ashes that rose up out of nearby chimneys.

It is the ordinariness of the Holocaust that takes our breath away – the piles of victims’ hair, the collections of childrens’ shoes. It is the organized nature of that horror that makes us feel that some organization must pay.

So, too, with slavery.

A fitting memorial

The Schomburg Center presents Americans with a different problem. Here are the leg irons and the shipping logs; here are the signs demanding the return of “gentle Negroes” who had suddenly stopped coming when they were called.

African slavery has had no “Schindler’s List,” even though the director of that movie tried twice to supply one (with “The Color Purple” and “Amistad”). The African-American community does not resound with cries of “Never again” – perhaps because slavery seems less likely to recur, in our industrial age, than genocide does. A lot of Americans watched “Roots,” and that was pretty good.

But few of us have seen the leg irons up close, have seen the way grown men were clamped together in the bottom of a dank boat, no porta-johns nearby, tied next to men and women from other tribes, carrying diseases against which they had built no immunity. Few have really tried to understand the impact of the Middle Passage on the only American immigrants who did not choose to come here. Or the life that ensued on these shores — generations upon generations of families torn apart, men whipped for trying to see the women they were not allowed to marry, children kept apart from too much learning.

Perhaps because few have seen the evidence of these things, Claremont Professor Elazar Barkan describes slavery in “The Guilt of Nations” as “the most glaring example of an undressed historical injustice in the United States.”

It’s time we addressed it, folks. It’s time we demanded more from the United States, the land that was not always of the free.

Copying Courage — Learning to Walk Like a Man

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on August 6, 2000.

In “Captains Courageous,” Rudyard Kipling tells the story of a spoiled rich boy whose life is saved – not because he falls off a boat and doesn’t drown, but because the Gloucester fishing boat that picks him up also makes him a man.

When I was a semi-spoiled middle-class boy growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., my father wanted me to read this story. I think he figured it was the next best thing to having me fall into the hands of gruff fishermen. At that age – 12 to 16 – I tended to “talk back” a lot to authority figures with whom I disagreed, such as my dad. This did not please him; he also considered sending me to military school.

Given the two choices – read an adventure novel or go to military school – you might think I would crack the book. Sadly, I was as stubborn then as I am now. At the age of 12 or so I agreed to take a look at it. However, when, about four pages in, our hero turned green as the result of some strong tobacco, and fell overboard, the description seemed a little too vivid. The book had done for me what the tobacco had done for young Harvey. So I put it down, and never picked it up again.

Until a few days ago, that is. While visiting my mom’s house, I was hunting for reading material on the way to the can. Squirreled away among her Christian literature and vegetarian tomes I found an old paperback copy of “Captains Courageous.” Soon I had moved through the passage that had stopped me before, and – by now, well off the can – had started to see why my father had liked it.

Come September, I will have lived for more days without a father than I lived with one. I’m late to reach that odd milestone; my younger sisters and brother reached their own such points years ago. My brother was only 11 when he lost his dad, which means that for him, “Captains Courageous” means nothing at all, while for me, it means something complicated. At 32, I’m still looking to see what manhood was for my father, and therefore what it ought to be for me.

Working on the fishing boat gave the formerly spoiled Harvey a sense that he belonged – a sense he had obtained nowhere else. His labor was needed there, and his improvements were noted. An only child, he had previously spent most of his life with his mother, an indulgent, anxious woman who suffered agonies of worry whenever her son so much as got his feet wet, and traveled from place to place in an effort to calm her nerves. His father stayed behind, too busy enlarging his piles of money to spend time with the boy.

For years Harvey had laughed at his mother’s excessive concern, but laughing at her had not made him a man. Although he didn’t know it, what he really needed was the approval of other men. And only hard work and skill could earn their respect.

Studying manhood

Here he is, after more than a month at sea:

Boylike, Harvey imitated all the men by turns, till he had combined Disko’s peculiar stoop at the wheel, Long Jack’s swinging overhand when the lines were hauled, Manuel’s round-shouldered but effective stroke in a dory, and Tom Platt’s generous “Ohio” stride across the deck.

” ’T is beautiful to see how he takes to ut,” said Long Jack, when Harvey was looking out by the windlass one thick noon. “I’ll lay my wage an’ share ‘t is more ‘n half play-actin’ to him, an’ he consates himself he’s a bowld mariner. Watch his little bit av a back now!”

“That’s the way we all begin,” said Tom Platt. “The boys they make believe all the time till they’ve cheated ‘emselves into bein’ men, an’ so till they die – pretendin’ an’ pretendin’.”

What a scene. We can smile at the way the rich boy has learned to imitate the men who are truly effective in his new world. Our smiles may widen when Long Jack the Irishman notes that after a few weeks at sea, Harvey already fancies himself a bold sailor.

But Kipling also wanted the male reader to smile at himself. The old reporter recognized your own predicament. Without meeting you, he knew that you had learned to follow the stances and expressions of your elders, who had picked them up from elders now gone.

Tom Platt is a comic figure in the book, constantly seeking to impress his shipmates with tales of his days on the “Ohio,” a warship he had served on years ago. As you read the book, you learn to tune out Platt’s speeches just as his mates do.

That’s why Platt’s wisdom here catches you off-guard: “The boys they make believe all the time till they’ve cheated ’emselves into bein’ men, an’ so till they die – pretendin’ an’ pretendin’.”

Was my dad always a man?

I saw my dad as a man who had always been a man. I had no idea what he had to go through to reach that point. Still don’t, really.

Part of being young is failing to appreciate that your elders, too, are faking it. As you get older, you start to see the cracks in their facades. Sometimes you may even hate them for their “phoniness.”

But you keep getting older; life teaches you about aging, whether you want to learn or not. By and by, you catch yourself pretending, too. And as you forgive yourself, so, one hopes, you forgive those who pretended before you.

On a ship, there are sing-alongs, and the food tastes good after a hard day’s work. Most of us lack those consolations, as we lack the feel of the salt air and the wiry frames we’d need to climb rigging day in and day out.

But we know what Harvey felt, as he swaggered around with stances copied from the older sailors. And we know what Tom Platt felt, too.

It turns out pretending’s not so bad, after all. It’s the only way up from being a boy.

The Thomas Jefferson I Wish I’d Never Met

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code, July 9, 2000.

Until July 3, I hadn’t realized that I had a relationship with Thomas Jefferson. I must have had one, though, because on that day I suddenly found myself wrestling with it.

Few of us discuss such relationships. I mean, sure, people talk about having a ‘relationship’ with Jesus, and about finding the Buddha in the road. By and large, though, the only people who describe their relationships with non-religious historical figures are those endearingly dotty biographers on PBS.

Yet each of us knows something of what they feel. When Walter Matthau died, for example, most of us felt something, even if it was only the regret that there would now be no one to temper the smarminess of Jack Lemmon.

But here’s a question I’d love to get some email on: What is your relationship to historical personages long dead?

For me and Thomas Jefferson, I not only learned I had the relationship with him on the day before Independence Day, but it forever changed.

I was strolling around Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home – a place I’d heard about for years. I knew I’d only be there for a few hours, and, as if I’d come home for a family reunion and didn’t know when I’d be there next, it seemed awfully important to settle things while I was there.

Nor was I the only one having this problem. Each of the three tour guides my mom and I encountered seemed to be wrestling with it, too, and you could see pensive looks on the faces of the other tourists.

Jefferson and slavery

As children we knew him as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president, and the champion of the farmer; he was easy to admire. As we’d gotten older, the picture had darkened: We learned that he’d owned slaves.

When I’d first heard talk about Jefferson’s slaves, I assumed he’d owned just a few. That wouldn’t have made it right, of course; it was a defensive reaction, an attempt to minimize the damage.

I wanted to admire Mr. Jefferson without reservation. I’d really liked the line President Kennedy had used in addressing a White House dining room full of Nobel laureates: “Never before has this room contained so much genius – at least since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Damn, that was a good line. I didn’t want to tarnish it.

Turns out, though, Jefferson didn’t own just a few slaves. At any given time, he and his family had owned more than a hundred. Slavery fueled the plantation that was Monticello.

And it was real slavery, not just foolin’-around-with-a-couple-of-well-dressed-and-well-treated-house-servants slavery. Dry, hot fields reverberating with slaves — such was the land of the man who gave us a line that was better than Kennedy’s, if not quite as witty: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It was Jefferson who’d given words to an ideal that has become so much a part of America that royalty, a condition that still pervades the Old World and Africa and much of Asia, seems to us silly, even pathological.

To tour Monticello is to rub your face in the fact that the man who had asked us to fight for that ideal did not practice it himself — at least, not in the way that we understand it today.

To him, there may have been no real discrepancy, but learning that only made me feel worse.

Jefferson spelled out his views on slavery in “Notes on the State of Virginia.”

I could have learned of his beliefs before, but I didn’t. I never read “Notes on the State of Virginia,” in which Jefferson had claimed the mantle of science for his assertions that the races were biologically distinct, that the powers of reason and imagination were the province of whites alone, and that any mixing of white and black would produce a degradation.

I learned that from our first tour guide, a white woman. She recounted those words to a group that was largely white, but not quite white enough to keep a small tremor out of her voice.

Our group of roughly forty included four African-Americans, one of whom wore a T-shirt that said “Cornell Law School.” There was a family from India, and a few people who looked Japanese. Three Buddhist monks in orange robes inspired speculation about the Dalai Lama, who had spoken in Washington the day before.

Jefferson the writer was brilliant, but Jefferson the farmer never turned a profit. He could not let go of his slaves and hold his land, so he chose to cling to both. Even with the slaves, he fell deeply into debt; he died owing the equivalent, in today’s terms, of $2 million.

Not that he would have freed all of his slaves, even if the farm had been in the black. Our guide explained that Jefferson saw “piecemeal” freeing as dangerous, in that it could provoke other slaves to get ideas. And then there was the question of what to do with all those former slaves.

Because he was holding people against their will, Jefferson naturally encountered problems of discipline. Our guide described one for us: A slave hit another slave with a rock, breaking his skull. The guide left it to us to figure out what ought to be done, in order to make an example of the perpetrator and prevent a recurrence.

A white man in the group said quickly, “Hang him.”

“Well, you could hang him, I guess,” the guide said. “But what would be the problem with that?”

“You’d be damaging your property,” said the black man with the Cornell Law School T-shirt.

“That’s right,” she said, nodding. “And you wouldn’t want to do that. So he had to figure out something else to do. He was fairly benevolent, as slaveholders went; he didn’t want to use the whip. So instead he told his overseer to sell the man who had done that with the rock: ‘Sell him far away, and it will be for his family as if he was dead.’ So they sold him, and that slave’s family never saw him again; it was as if he was dead.”

The guide had to talk about Sally Hemings, so she did. Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife; they shared the same father, but because Sally’s mother was a slave, so was Sally. Mrs. Jefferson died after ten years of marriage. Thomas never remarried, so when things happened between T.J. and Sally, there was no wronged wife — only a slave woman who could not truly give consent, mixed up with a statesman who had written that it was wrong to mix.

“Interestingly,” said the guide, “since the DNA evidence came out to show that Jefferson was probably the father of Sally’s children, blacks have tended to have no problem accepting Jefferson, with all his flaws. Whites, on the other hand, have had a harder time with it.”

“So,” I thought. “So it’s because I’m a white guy. She’s saying that any trouble I’m having with Jefferson here today is because of the color of my skin, not the content of his character.”

* * *

Well, now, Thomas, you were a great man, and all, but I’m not so sure that the guide’s explanation cleared everything up.

As I walked around your little mountain and saw your lovely trees and objects of art, I sympathized with you. I imagined how hard it would have been for you to give up all that beauty just to free some people who probably seemed to be doing fairly well, for non-whites.

But I also imagined how hard it was for your slaves to see you, the big cheese, relaxing as they worked. Probably you told a few of them how much you loved Monticello – how it gladdened your heart to be home, away from the cares of statecraft. Probably they nodded at you, smiled for you, and doubted they would ever again see the relatives you had sold away.

I’d like to see the poll that tour guide took — the one that showed that it’s only whites who have an issue with you, Mr. Jefferson.

When it comes to brilliance, accomplishment, heart and influence, T.J., my inferiority to you is so great as to make me tremble. But I was created equal to you, so I guess I have a right to say my peace.

Although it sounds foolish to say it, my relationship with you is not what it was.

I realize, of course, that your relationship with me has not changed a whit: You didn’t know me then, and you don’t know me now.

So maybe I shouldn’t worry about it at all. And frankly, since I left your plantation, I pretty much haven’t. Pretty much.

The Dark Side of Sunny Holidays

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on June 28, 2001.

“Ha-ha,” said Eeyore bitterly. “Merriment and what-not. Don’t apologize. It’s just what would happen.” — A.A. Milne

For those who have lost a parent, whether to death or to abandonment, sentimental holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can seem like personal insults.

The marketing of those days by greeting-card companies, florists, tie salesmen and retailers of all sorts can spark a resentment deeper than that felt by single people on Valentine’s Day.

This doesn’t happen to everyone, of course. Some people have fond memories of celebrating the day with their departed parent, and they dwell on those memories rather than on the absence. Parents may focus on the joy of receiving gifts from their kids.

For others, though, especially the newly bereaved, the anger and sadness sparked by the marketing of these days is even less susceptible to humor than the emotion felt by single people on Valentine’s Day. Otherwise, though, the feelings are similar. Just as on Valentine’s Day, single people tend to notice only happy couples, on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day children who have lost their parents sometimes imagine that all the other children have both parents and love them both, and that all parents love all of their children.

These ideas are not true, of course. We know that, if we stop to think about it for even a moment. But maybe we don’t want to think about it.

So many gifts are given on these days and so many phone calls placed amid so many smiles that it is easy to believe that the happiness we see on other faces is there all the time. The child within us believes it. And even if it is not true, we don’t care that it’s not. We miss the happy, intact family we don’t have, even if we never had it in the first place.

We know that the marketing blitzes are not directed at us personally. We know, if we think about it, that not every member of an intact family is happy to be there. We even know, if we think about it just a little more, that we are not alone – that many thousands all around are just like us – also with absent parents, also feeling insulted and self-conscious. But sometimes we don’t want to think about other people. We just want to feel what we feel.

Have you called your…

We feel it when our friends start to say, “What are you giving your . . .” or “Have you called your . . .” and then stop themselves, feeling embarrassed. Even if they don’t start sentences that way, we are aware of the possibilitythat they want to talk about how their father or mother felt about the gift given, the call made, but that they may stop short to avoid the awkwardness. We may sometimes ask them if they called Mom or Dad, and may even show interest when they discuss it – and may even feel interest, especially if we know their parents or would like to know them. Other times, though, we do not ask. It’s not that we do not care about our friends, just that we do not want to remind ourselves of our pain.

Some of us plan outings on that day, so that we will be out of the house in places where there are likely to be few happy families. Satisfying both goals is not as easy as it sounds. We learn that it’s best to avoid Sunday brunches and church services in May, and red-meat restaurants and sporting events in June.

Others of us go right at the problem. We visit the cemetery for a few moments of silence, and then head back home to figure out what errands we can run or movies we can see to make the day pass.

It’s an amazing thing, really. Before the loss, we had never looked at these holidays as possible sources of pain. Annoyance, maybe — but not pain. In all likelihood, we had never really given the days much thought at all, except as two more days of obligation. We knew we had to give gifts and express gratitude, even if we did not feel particularly generous or grateful. (Even now, generosity and gratitude may not be the first feelings that occur to us when we think of our missing parent or parents. Yet even that does not make us feel better.)

In years past we may have made fun of the days that Hallmark seems to have created, but we did so lightly, unaware of the implications all that marketing had for the many millions of people who had no one to give to.

Then one year, we joined those millions, and the holiday changed for us, just the way our birthday changed and, really, all holidays changed.

A constant reminder

The difference was that this change was specific. Most holidays are general enough that almost anyone can find something to celebrate, even if it’s only the day off from work and a department-store sale. On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, though, most people would have already had the day off, and there isn’t much to buy – just the constant reminder that you have no one to buy for.

This is especially true for those whose job it is to market to these holidays. Many of the folks at Hallmark writing those sentimental poems, the florists and restaurateurs have lost parents, too – but they know they can benefit from those who haven’t, so they keep selling. Probably most of them wall off the conflicted feelings from awareness as best they can, smiling through the day, getting the job done. At least business is good.

At some point we realize that, although we may come to enjoy other holidays again — the family gathering, the food, and the football games can be at least as fun with new people as they were with the originals — unless we have children of our own, we may never quite enjoy Mother’s Day or Father’s Day again.

And if we do have children of our own, and they give us nice things and treat us well, the day will still remind us that we have no mother or father, and that someday our kids won’t, either.

Oh, well. At least it’s springtime.

How to Really Prepare for Retirement

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on February 25, 2002.

We’ve all seen ads and read headlines about the importance of preparing for retirement.

Few of those ads feel the need to spell out what they mean by “prepare.” The ad makers assume that when they say, “Get ready for retirement,” their target audience will hear, “Make sure you have enough money.”

They then tell you that if you follow their system, you’ll have enough. Enough so that you can ‘enjoy retirement.’ To illustrate this, the ad will show good-looking, healthy silver-haired couples laughing together on a cruise ship someplace – the earthly equivalent of heaven.

I wonder if the ads would be more effective if they showed a silver-haired man cavorting with a raven-haired woman, or a gray-haired matron flirting with a young blond buck. Hmmm . . .

Anyway, the point is that if you took all of your cues from ads, you might conclude that the only thing old people worry about is money. (And arthritis.)

I suppose that’s true in some cases. A man who finds himself in a poorly heated Chicago apartment at the age of 79, down to his last few tins of tuna, is likely to be pretty focused on money. On that day, he might really wish he had put more than 1percent of his paycheck into that 401(k).

When you’re running out of money and your joints are too old to let you work, the food isn’t too good. The shelter’s weak, too.

Most Americans won’t end up that way, but the fear hangs in our minds. We know our companies won’t seek us out then in an effort to give us a helpful bundle of dough. We know we may be divorced by then, or widowed, and our kids may live in different states and visit us rarely if at all.

Every country is a hard place to grow old. In others – India, much of Africa – food and basic amenities are a problem. Here, we can probably count on those things. But the threat hovers – and right behind poverty is the threat of loneliness.

As men, we may hope that as long as we have money, our kids and spouse will find us worthwhile. We may wonder if our wallet is really all we’re worth – just as it’s all a john is worth to a prostitute – but we may not want to dwell on that idea.

The commercials for financial institutions do not encourage such thoughts. They focus on the “independence” money supposedly gives. The “freedom.”

In the ads, of course, that freedom is often symbolized by a beautiful woman. Money gives you the freedom to sleep with a beautiful woman. And it gives your kids a reason to stay in touch.

If we buy into the myth of money, we will feel a constant sense of not having enough. After all, no one has “enough” money.

Thus empty, we will continue to work and strive and fight our way to the top of whatever heap we happen to be stuck in.

Value beyond that paycheck

And all our work will ensure that we are not home enough to show our families, or ourselves, that we have any other value beyond that paycheck.

We may think that if the check is big enough, this problem will no longer feel like a problem. And maybe we’ll be right, for a few years. Maybe even all our years. Money can paper over a lot of personality flaws. It can make a boorish man seem witty, just as beauty can make a narcissistic woman seem fun.

But it’s sad to base a life on ads for Merrill Lynch.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time with older folks – folks who get by on small, fixed incomes. And I have to say that while money tends not to disappear as an issue, it’s hardly ever the biggest thing on their minds.

Now, I’m talking about a select group of older folks: The ones who had, when I met them, six months or so to live.

Many of them used to worry a lot about money, just like the rest of us. Then they got the news that almost all of the sand had fallen from their hourglass.

One man in his early fifties put it this way: “Bill, for the last thirty years, all I cared about was working and fucking. Suddenly I got this disease. Now I know I can’t do what I wanted to do.” He started to cry. “I wanted to build a school, you know, down in Mexico. Something that would have my name on it. People would go there, poor kids – kids who couldn’t go to such a school otherwise.”

But it was too late for that now, and he knew it. There is no such school there with his name on it. The kids who live where he wanted to build it pass their days as if my friend had never lived.

There’s something about a terminal diagnosis that lets you know you’ve done just about all the earning and donating you’re going to do. All the fucking, too. Time’s almost up. How do you want to spend your last six months?

Kind of puts a new spin on that Microsoft tagline, doesn’t it? ‘Where do you want to go today – keeping in mind that you don’t have many days left?’

Seems easy

It may seem as though such folks have it easy, in a way. When you know you only have six months or so left, after all, you worry less about money because there isn’t enough time for you to run out of it.

But how do any of us know that we have even one month left – let alone six?

I’m not saying that people should not save for retirement — only that we should always keep in mind that retirement may not be in our cards.

A literary agent I met recently said that in the wake of September 11, he doesn’t work as hard as he used to. “I try to leave by 6 each night now,” he said. “I never used to do that. And when I’m home, I try to be there – not reading, or on the phone, but really there.”

Why does he do that? Because he suddenly realized that his kids won’t be young forever, and neither will he. In fact, he, or they, could be gone before the end of today. Realizing that has snapped him out of his habit of working, working, working, with the idea that someday, he could relax. Once he was “secure.”

There are few ads that stress the importance of relationships. Oh, sometimes you’ll see one from the Mormons, or the Foundation for a Better Life, whatever that is. (What is that organization, by the way? They advertise in movie theaters, but their Web site only adds to the mystery.)

The reason there are few such ads is that there is little money to be made from our personal relationships. Except when you get married, of course. Then there are oodles of money to be made, by photographers, caterers, dressmakers, ministers, banquet halls, hotels, and on and on.

No wonder we so often hear about the glories of wedded bliss.

In general, ads are set up to convince us that we will feel happy if we buy the product advertised. Our fears will vanish in a blissful smile, a peck on the cheek from an attractive loved one.

Life isn’t like that, of course. No amount of money can make us truly secure. That’s just the way it is, and at some level, most of us know that. If Paul McCartney’s money couldn’t save his wife from cancer, then we know that our own pitiful fortunes aren’t going to save us, either.

So what do we do? Pay attention to the people in your life. Listen to them. Get to know them. Appreciate them. Donate money to build them a school. Treat them as though you and they will not always be here. That’s the best way to prepare for the ultimate retirement — yours and theirs.

This message has not been brought to you by Merrill Lynch.

The Emptiness

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on January 22, 2002.

Take a moment now and listen to your insides – the place where your soul may be, in the event that you have one.

Does it seem empty in there?

Does your life, or life in general, sometimes seem hollow – less substantive or fulfilling than you had hoped?

If not, God bless you. You can skip this essay altogether.

If you do feel it, though – and if you suspect that others feel it as well — how do you deal with it?

And while we’re on the subject: Do you think people today are emptier than they used to be?

Jack Finney thought so. The late author of the wonderfully scary “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers” also left behind the sweet, nostalgic “Time and Again” when he shook loose this mortal coil. I just read the latter book, and it got me thinking.

At first Simon Morley, the narrator of “Time and Again,” takes the emptiness in his life for granted. When a man from the government asks Si to consider putting his life on hold in order to join a grand experiment, Si contemplates the friends he has, the woman he’s seeing, the occasional idle evening he spends. He thinks about his work as an illustrator at an ad agency, and concludes that it “wasn’t precisely what I’d had in mind when I went to art school in Buffalo, but I didn’t know either just what I did have in mind then, if anything.”

As he considers the offer further, he decides that, “all in all, there wasn’t anything wrong with my life. Except that, like most everyone else’s I knew about, it had a big gaping hole in it, an enormous emptiness, and I didn’t know how to fill it or even know what belonged there.”

Si finds an unlooked-for cure for all that emptiness in the past – not by dwelling on it, but by actually going there. He travels in time back to the New York of 1882, and he sees faces that are alive with anticipation.

“Today’s faces are different,” he insists, and by “today” he means “New York at the end of the twentieth century.” “They are much more alike and much less alive. On the streets of the [1880s] I saw human misery, as you see it today; and depravity, hopelessness, and greed; and in the faces of small boys on the streets I saw the premature hardness you now see in the faces of boys from Harlem. But there was also an excitement in the streets of New York in 1882 that is gone now.” You could look at people’s eyes, he said, and “see the pleasure they felt at being outdoors, in the winter, in a city they liked.” The men moving along may have been greedy or anxious like the men of today, but “they weren’t bored, for God’s sake! Just looking at them, I’m convinced that those men moved through their lives in unquestioned certainty that there was a reason for being. And that’s something worth having . . . “

Losing the certainty

Have we lost that certainty in our day?

Did we get some of it back when the World Trade Center towers went down? Did that extra layer of terror and grief restore to us a sense of purpose, in addition to patriotism?

I think it probably did. Whether it will last is, of course, not for me to say.

In America we have the luxury of disconnection. We don’t need to be attached to a religion or a group or a leader if we don’t want to be. That’s nice in many ways, but the lack of connection — aka freedom — can also lead to a seemingly endless number of empty moments.

Richard Ford notices them, too. In his novel “The Sporstwriter,” protagonist Frank Bascombe keeps track of empty moments the way gamblers keep track of cards. Toward the end of the novel, Bascombe finds a temporary cure, which is apparently all that he, and we, can hope for.

The cure becomes evident as he waits for a young woman, a stranger, to join him for a sandwich.

Frank’s been married and divorced, lost a son, and just went through a breakup with a woman somewhat older than the young thing for whom he now waits. It’s not at all clear what will happen with this one, but he hopes something will:

“I hear her feet slip-skip down the carpeted corridor . . .” he says. “And there is no nicer time on earth than now – everything in the offing, nothing gone wrong, all potential . . . This is really all life is worth, when you come down to it.”

For her part, Carly Simon complained of too much anticipation. She said that a habit of looking always to the future instead of the present was making her late – that it was keeping her way-ay-ay-ay-yeah-ay-ee-ting.

Finney sought salvation in the past. Ford says we can find it in the future, if we look hard enough and keep our expectations low. Simon is sure that we can escape our emptiness by living in the present — just now, right this moment — if we can just figure out how to do it.

By now it’s probably obvious that this essay isn’t saying much, really. Just trying to fill an empty moment with ruminations about empty moments. Thinking about people who try to beat the emptiness with the past, the future, and the present.

Who’s right? Only time will tell.

And now, back to you.

Let Cooler Heads Prevail with Pot

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on January 2, 2002.

The U.S. government recently gave final approval to experiments that will help determine whether smoking marijuana can help AIDS patients and people with multiple sclerosis, according to the New York Times.

This marks the first time in nearly 20 years that the federal government has allowed anyone to study the drug’s possible benefits.

About time, isn’t it?

Anecdotal reports about the benefits of marijuana for sick people have been piling up for decades. I heard a few of those anecdotes seven years ago, when I visited Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyers’ Club in San Francisco.

Operating like a speakeasy on Church Street, Peron’s club provided fresh, uncut marijuana at a decent price to visitors who carried notes from their doctors. I met men and women with AIDS and cancer, sweet people with sores on their skin, people who were in terrible pain. The pot and the friendly atmosphere – people conversing amid oriental rugs and jazz – gave them a few doses of joy on the way to the grave.

What’s wrong with that?

They told me how grateful they were to Peron, a longtime dealer and political activist, for helping them. They said the pot reduced their nausea, restored their appetite, and just generally helped them feel happier than they had been feeling.

The government’s will to stamp out this sort of thing confused me then, and as time passed it made less and less sense.

If another substance had the ability to provide this much relief, some drug company would have lined the campaign coffers of enough congresspersons to get federal approval for it years ago. By now, the stuff would be available at Walgreen’s.

But noo-oooo – this substance is marijuana. In addition to our history of hysteria about its effects – the government used to tell the public that pot swells the ranks of communists and gays, among other groups that no longer scare most of us – pot comes from a plant no pharmaceutical company can control. If it became legal, there wouldn’t be much money in medicinal marijuana – so there’s no pressure from drug companies or other capitalists.

And so the slippery-slope argument prevails – i.e., “If we allow sick people to use this drug, the next thing you know, they’ll be serving crack in school cafeterias.”

But the tide seems to be turning. Extremist efforts by some conservatives to clamp down on pot by imposing mandatory-minimum sentences on first-time offenders – 10 years in prison for simple possession — have led to a counterreaction that is all to the good.

A little more than a year ago, more than 60% of California voters said yes to Proposition 36, which mandates treatment instead of prison for nonviolent drug offenders until their third conviction.

Californians have watched their state spend more tax money on prisons in recent years than on higher education, and they are apparently ready to try another approach.

Dismissive as usual of California’s efforts to determine its own fate, the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug – the category for potentially addictive drugs with no redeeming value. In other words, the government continues to behave as if marijuana were more dangerous than alcohol.

If only that were true. If only drinking caused less damage than smoking grass – to users and those around them – how much happier would the history of America have been.

The harmful effects of alcohol

Our proud nation would have been spared the carnage of millions of alcohol-related deaths, from auto accidents and cirrhosis, from crimes of passion and ordinary barroom brawls. (These days, the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency attributes 105,000 American deaths to alcohol each year.)

Our families, including a number of my Irish-Catholic relatives, would have escaped the devastating shame and loneliness and anger – the ruined holidays, the disruptions to career and home – that come of living with an alcohol addict.

Yes, it would be lovely if alcohol were less harmful than marijuana. But it’s simply not the case.

When I was a senior in high school an underclassman drank himself nearly to death. A nice kid, possibly depressed, he upended a fifth of vodka down his throat. Fearing punishment, some of his drinking buddies left him passed out on a rock near a bay. Fortunately someone thought to bring him to the hospital in time to have his stomach pumped, or my high school would have lost another son.

In the 15 years since I left that school, alcohol has contributed to a number of similar incidents there, just as it has done at countless other schools across the country.

However paranoid it may have made people over the years – however many bad pizzas it may have induced them to eat – there is no evidence that marijuana has ever, of itself, brought anyone that close to death.

It has occasionally caused people to do a fatally poor job of driving cars or operating other machinery. But even then it has a very long way to go before it can challenge the number of fatal accidents that have been traced to booze.

After college I worked in a psychiatric hospital in New Mexico for three years, during which time I knew a number of patients who smoked more pot than was good for them. While hospitalized, they naturally missed their favorite drug – but not a single one of them needed medication to keep him or her alive in its absence. For alcoholics who checked in, the story was very different, as anyone can attest who has watched someone cope with delirium tremens. Untreated d.t.’s can kill.

Later, in California, I was assigned a hospice patient who was dying of cirrhosis. Alcohol had ruined his liver and kidneys so that he could no longer process the day-to-day toxins that the rest of us hardly notice. Poisons built up in his system, bloating his stomach until he looked like a victim of famine. He vomited a lot and he smelled bad and his skin turned yellowish-green and he tottered when he tried to walk. Mostly he sat in a wheelchair and waited for death. When it finally came he was 37.

A healthy teenager who drinks too much in five minutes can die. An alcoholic who is suddenly deprived of his drug can end up just as dead. An alcoholic who has access to all the alcohol he wants can also die way too young.

None of those outcomes occurs with marijuana. Too much at once does not kill, and neither does sudden deprivation. Nor does chronic use measurably shorten a life. And it need hardly be said that marijuana does not generally incite its users to violence, the way alcohol so easily can.
All things in moderation

Now, I’m no teetotaler. I appreciate the way that alcohol, when used as directed, promotes relaxation. I know what one of America’s greatest psychiatrists, Harry Stack Sullivan, meant when he suggested that without alcohol, Western civilization might have collapsed long ago.

Nor am I an advocate of the recreational use of marijuana. It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve used it. I believe the evidence is solid that chronic use impairs short-term memory, dulls the ambition and in other ways addles the brain. It’s not great for the lungs, either.

Marijuana is not a harmless drug – just one that causes a good deal less harm than alcohol.

Let’s think this through

So let’s be reasonable, shall we? Allowing scientists to study the beneficial effects of marijuana for sick people is a step in the right direction.

We should also look into those mandatory-minimum sentencing laws – the ones that force judges to throw first-time offenders into prison for ten years, regardless of the judge’s assessment of extenuating circumstances. I was lucky not to be caught during my “experimental” years, and so were many of my currently productive friends. It would seem as though our current president was lucky, too.

But our own good fortune should not cause us to simply avert our eyes from those who were less fortunate. Californians have reacted against these excessive laws. The rest of us should, too.

Check out this Web page:

The signers of this request for a more rational drug policy are not wild-eyed hippies bent on destroying the soul of America. They’re smart, sober people. We should listen to them, and we should support their efforts to bring sanity to our nation’s drug policies.

More Songs About Buildings and Loss

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

(Originally published in October 2001.)
On the last day of September I met a woman who lost her 40-year-old niece in the World Trade Center. She described the last phone call the niece made – the way she told her mom that the smoke was everywhere and the walls were collapsing and she didn’t think she would make it.

The woman said that her niece’s funeral had been beautiful. Her niece had never married, so her brother had said, “Let this service stand in for the wedding she never had.” They released a bunch of helium balloons and three white doves. The doves were trained to come back, but only one did.

The woman commented on how nice New Yorkers were being, in the aftermath of the attacks. Many people have noticed that. You hear fewer honked horns, fewer expletives. “This horrible event has really brought us closer together,” she said.

Another woman said, “Yes, but let’s hope nothing else happens that would bring us even closer.”

* * *

Even people who don’t know much about Nietzsche, and don’t like the little that they do know, like at least one of his sayings: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”

We say it to each other and to ourselves when things are tough. It’s a nice consolation for suffering. But is it always true?

On September 11 I learned that dealing with old grief does not necessarily make you feel strong in the face of new grief.

More than 17 years ago my father died suddenly, and since then I’ve thought a lot about death and read a lot about death and talked a lot about death. For the past five years I’ve worked on a regular basis with people who are terminally ill. I get to know each one for a few months and then they, too, slip away.

So: Suffering and death are not strange to me.

Nonetheless, in the face of the losses on September 11 my knees went soft, my stomach seemed to want me to cry, and my mind pretended that all it wanted to do was critique the way the networks covered the event.

The losses were so big and close and frightening that I could not feel them all. So shocking that I could not make sense of them. And so ominous that I could not even concentrate on mourning what had just happened – it was already time to worry about what might come next.

Our mayor, Rudy Giuliani, said it well that day: The losses were “more than we can bear.”

That was just right.

Many people liked the way Rudy seemed to be everywhere during those first few days – wherever the need was greatest, there he was.

What I liked most was the way he admitted, during that first day, that the loss was more than we could bear.

George W. Bush’s handlers decided we needed a President who sounded like he was in charge, and they reportedly didn’t want us to see him until he could give a decent impression of being in charge.

Maybe they were right to do that. Maybe that is the President’s role.

But I think we also needed someone in authority to tell us the truth – that this was beyond his coping skills, as it was beyond all of our coping skills.

Pretending that we already knew who had done this damage and how we were going to fix it – the kind of pretending George W. was doing – wasn’t really what most of us needed. We are not fools. We knew there was no way to fix the damage that had just been done to so many thousands of families, and to our collective psyche. You just don’t ‘fix’ stuff like that.

We needed honesty and humility, and we got them from our mayor.

Rudy lost many trusted friends that day, and you could feel it as he spoke. He nearly lost his own life when the first tower collapsed. He was awed by this event, as we all were, and he helped us to admit and express our awe, our horror, our feeling of devastation.

Rudy was a lame duck when he told us this, and that was part of what we liked about his presentation. We couldn’t see how he might benefit from our adulation, so we gave it to him freely.

His ambitions kicked in quickly, of course, convincing him that we need him to stay right where he is for an extra three months – even though we really don’t. Regardless of what he ends up doing next, though, what he did those first few days was great.

* * *

My brother works a few blocks from where the planes hit. It hurts to write, “from where the Trade Center used to be.” So anyway he works a few blocks from where the planes hit, and the shock wave from the impact shook his office hard. Many in his high-rise thought their own building had been hit. He was up near the fiftieth floor, and he ran down the stairs with everyone else.

He sent out a Blackberry pager message saying that he was out of his building and was standing at the end of a pier. He wrote that it was hard to breathe but he was okay. When the smoke cleared he planned to walk uptown to his home.

Not long after he sent that message the towers collapsed. The TV cameras showed black and gray smoke enveloping all of lower Manhattan. I pictured him coughing, unable to get enough good air.

Commentators speculated that a bomb might have caused the buildings to collapse; information was sketchy. No one could be sure that the attacks were over. Maybe other poisons would be released. No one knew.

Even as I felt the massive loss of life from the towers, all I could think of was Colin. I kept telling myself he was okay, but as I watched the coverage it was clear that nothing in that area was okay.

Hours later I spoke with Colin’s wife, Kara. She had just spoken with him. He had walked home and was safe in his apartment. I was so relieved. Now I could focus on the loss of the strangers.

Two days later Colin and I talked about survivor guilt. He said he felt some guilt at the speed with which he had run down the stairs of his building. He wondered why it had not occurred to him that others might need help.

I wanted to take away his guilt – tell him that our brains sometimes crowd out everything but their own survival – but I couldn’t, really. We can’t take away someone’s guilt. We have to just accept them as they feel it, and hope they get over it.

Having watched the footage of all the destruction and seen all the suffering, he said that some part of him felt guilty that he hadn’t been hurt more. I nodded.

“You want to hear something really sick?” I said. “I feel guilty that you weren’t hurt more, too.”

He looked disturbed, and a little hurt. “Why?” he asked.

I hastened to explain. “Don’t get me wrong, Col. I’m so glad that you’re not hurt that I can’t even express it. I was so worried, all that day. But I know that in the days to come I’ll meet people who have lost people very close to them in this disaster. And they may ask me about you, and I’ll say ‘No, he was far enough away, he’s okay.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s good, that’s very good.’ And they’ll mean it. But their eyes will show their wish that their own loved one could have been far enough away, too. And I’ll feel lousy because of their loss, the way a rich kid may feel guilty about being rich at a time when his friend can’t afford to buy lunch.”

“Oh,” he said. He still looked a little hurt.

* * *

At first all I wanted to do was spend time with Colin and Kara, talking this thing over and watching CNN.

But after a while I wanted to do something. I didn’t know what. But you could smell this thing everywhere, all over town, and the smell only reinforced the feeling of helplessness. Burning plastic, burning paper and burning bodies. The flames and smoke kept going up, just a short distance away, as we tried to go about our lives.

My mom told Colin that she wanted to see us – just look at us and know that we were okay. And he and Kara thought that was a good idea. They wanted to head up to Schenectady, our hometown.

I didn’t feel ready to go. I wanted to help move rubble, or something. I thought that leaving would feel disloyal. And I didn’t want to let terrorists drive me from my home, etc.

Colin and Kara and I walked to the Red Cross headquarters. They didn’t need any more volunteers. On our way home we passed a firehouse that had lost five firefighters in the collapse. We saw the candles, photos, letters from grateful children and so on. So much sadness, everywhere we turned.

I decided to go with Colin and Kara to Schenectady, after all. I still wanted to do something, but there was nothing to be done.

As our cab pulled up to Penn Station, I suddenly felt a strong urge to leave. Now that I was actually leaving, I felt like I couldn’t get out of the city fast enough. It was as if my fear had agreed to keep quiet as long as I could do nothing about it, and now that I could act on it, it was coming up like bad food.

Anxiety stayed high in me until the train left the station and glided north. The sight of the calm Hudson River out the windows on our left told me I could be calm, too.

Our mom picked us up at the train station. She hugged us and we drove away.

It was nearly 7 pm on Friday evening. Apparently people had planned to light candles everywhere and have a moment of silence at that time. My mom had bought candles for the occasion.

Now she pulled off the road in a poor part of town and we stood near the car and lit the candles. We had nothing that could protect our hands from the dripping wax, so we tilted the candles in various directions and giggled at our clumsiness. Down the street some other people had lit candles and were standing near the flag on their porch. We prayed. It felt so nice and so useless, all at once.

I still felt guilty for leaving. That night I called some friends who live near the Fulton Fish Market. From their apartment, they had seen a number of people jumping from the Twin Towers. My friends’ building had lost electricity and phones that day, and had not yet gotten them back.

I reached them by cell phone. They were doing okay, they said. Not great. But it was clear that I could do nothing for them, either. I wished them well and got off the phone. I told myself I’d visit them more when I got back.

The next morning I walked the fifty minutes it takes to reach my grandmother’s house. The sky was sunny and clear. The suburban streets were quiet and peaceful, the trees looked healthy and comfortable, the grass was neat and pleasant.

Schenectady used to be the home of General Electric, and therefore of GE’s atomic power laboratory. The nuclear threat was real to us there. It seemed likely that Schenectady was the target of at least one Soviet missile.

But GE has moved away, and few people worry about Russian missiles anymore. The only thing most Americans know about Schenectady is that it’s hard for them to pronounce. Consequently, fundamentalist Islamic terrorists would find no symbolic value in destroying it.

I felt so safe there that weekend that I wanted to send an email to Thomas Wolfe. I wanted to tell him that in some cases, you really can go home again.

* * *

Not long after Amtrak took us back to Penn Station, a friend in San Francisco asked me how we’re doing out here.

“Oh, we’re fine,” I said. “Just waiting for anthrax.”

“What makes you think you’ll get hit again?” he said.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I’m just going on recent history.”

“What makes you guys so special?”

“What, you’re feeling left out?”

“What’s wrong with us?” he said. “What’s wrong with San Francisco? Aren’t we good enough?”

Even as I laughed, I wondered how many Americans might share his feelings.

Our town has certainly gotten a lot of attention these past few weeks. Washington lost 190 people at the Pentagon, more than Timothy McVeigh killed at Oklahoma City. Nonetheless, most of the press coverage I’ve seen has focused on New York.

There are good reasons for that – 6,000 people is a hell of a lot of people – but it makes me wonder if there might be a little resentment brewing out there. The young sisters and brothers of a child with cancer sometimes resent the attention their sibling gets. They know they’re not supposed to feel that way – it makes them feel guilty – but still, they’re human.

Most Americans probably feel glad they don’t live in a likely target. But undoubtedly there are others – residents of L.A., perhaps, or Chicago – who feel insulted that New York and Washington were hit first.

“Why is it always them?” they may ask. “What’s wrong with us?”

Few people admit to such feelings, so they’re hard to prove. But you know how people are.

The corollary of that is that when some New Yorkers talk about the tragedy – particularly those who lost no one in their immediate circle, and who don’t live too close to where the planes hit – you can sense their pride at living in a target.

No one admits to this feeling, of course. But you can sense it, the way you can sense the excitement some TV correspondents feel when they report from a war zone.

Nothing proves your importance like a position at the center of the world’s attention. That’s true even if the only reason the world is paying attention is that your city was attacked.

Of course, if New York does get hit again, many of those proud peripheral people will move. Just as celebrities sometimes crave privacy, even New Yorkers sometimes want to feel safe.

Not completely safe, mind you. Not as safe as they might feel in, say, Schenectady. But just, you know, more safe than they’ve felt recently. Is that so wrong?

Nah. It’s not wrong.

Originally published by The Guy Code on October 18, 2001. 

The Presidential Speech I Wish We Heard

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

I wrote this in late September, 2001. I’ve learned a bit more about history since then, and would write it differently today. But some of it still stands, and I can’t see the point in changing it now:

If it’s true that “Only Nixon could go to China,” then maybe only George W. could give this speech:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President Pro Tempore, Congressmen and women, and my fellow Americans,

The losses this nation experienced on September 11 were incalculable. My heart, as all of our hearts, goes out to the victims, who did nothing to deserve the fate they endured. Nor did their loved ones deserve this horrific loss. I’ve directed a number of people, inside and outside of our government, to help those families every way they can. We’re going to help to educate the victims’ children, feed them and shelter anyone who needs it. We’re going to provide counseling for all who want it, and provide it as well for all of the workers who labored to rescue people from the site of the worst disaster I hope most of us will ever see.

The victims of those vicious attacks did nothing to deserve what happened to them. But I have to tell you the truth, my fellow Americans, and I hope you’re ready to hear it: The victims did not harm the Arabic world, but most of them were citizens of a nation that did. Our nation did not harm the Arabic world out of malice, but some of our actions have led to real pain there, and we need to look at those actions closely now if we ever want to be safe again.

Looking at our own actions does not in any way absolve the terrorists of their guilt. What they did was evil, plain and simple, and we will bring their leaders to justice. You can count on it. America will not be terrorized!

But the evil came out of a context that we must study, with humble hearts, if we are to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

Our military is strong, but our military was unable to prevent what happened on September 11. Obviously, we cannot rely on it to prevent future attacks, either. The existence of chemical and biological weapons means that no one’s military is strong enough to keep its people safe.

And so, as our hearts erupt with shock, sorrow and anger at our losses, we must also keep and use our heads: We must ask ourselves what we may have done, as a nation, in order to incur the wrath of so many of our fellow humans.

In the initial days after the attack, I told you that the people who attacked those buildings did so because they wanted to attack “freedom” and “democracy.” That’s what I really thought, at the time. But I’ve been learning a lot since then, and without getting into too much history, it looks like there’s a little more to it. I’d like to explain a little bit about how we got ourselves into the world we are now in.

I can explain it best by means of an analogy, so I’ll ask you to bear with me until it becomes clear:

In the interest of stability, the National Forest Service used to suppress as many of this country’s forest fires as it could. Seeing the destruction fires cause, our rangers believed that they needed to prevent all such fires, in order to maintain our forests’ overall health.

The rangers did this in good faith. As time passed, though, they began to learn that occasional fires are actually good for a forest. They’re part of nature’s plan. Some plants don’t grow unless a fire makes room for them, and causes their seeds to open. Some animals can’t thrive without the invigoration of a few flames.

Moreover, the rangers learned that if they suppressed a region’s natural fires for too long, then eventually so much dry tinder built up that a tiny spark could make the region explode in a destructive inferno.

As I have been learning recently, the U.S. may have done something similar in some Arabic lands. In an effort to maintain stability, we helped to prop up some repressive governments. We helped to keep down the fire of the people’s will.

Now, America didn’t used to do this sort of thing. Our nation used to mind its own business, more or less. But after the Cold War began in 1945, as we faced the threat of an expanding Soviet Union and possible nuclear annihilation, we began to use new methods to protect ourselves. Whenever it looked as though communism might be gaining a foothold, the U.S. acted to stop it. Sometimes that meant that your government would actively suppress revolutions in parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

That policy may have helped save the world from a corrupt and unworkable system. But it’s important for us to recognize that it also led to a lot of damage. And when I say “damage,” I mean that it led to the displacement and killing of a whole lot of innocent people. We need to acknowledge that our government contributed to those things. It accepted those killings as the necessary price of containing what it considered to be a greater evil: communism.

During that fight, in the nation of Afghanistan, the U.S. and Osama bin Laden fought on the same side. Our nation helped him expel the Soviet Union, as it helped Saddam Hussein’s Iraq fight against Iran. In those two cases, at least, our policies of interference led to no gratitude on the part of those we helped. Instead, we helped strengthen our future foes.

By the time the Cold War ended, our nation was in the habit of interfering in affairs far from its borders. And our citizens didn’t want democratic freedom only. They were also hungry for oil.

So our government did a number of things to try to maintain a supply of cheap oil.

Sometimes that meant suppressing movements that might have resulted in unstable governments. When fundamentalist Muslims sought power in a country like Iran, for example, support from the U.S. helped that nation’s ruling class stifle the fundamentalists. As we have seen, stifling them did not make them go away. Instead, their resentment grew, until they overthrew the Shah and took U.S. hostages as punishment.

Now, the action of taking U.S. hostages was obviously wrong. Those hostages, like the victims of the attacks on September 11, were innocent pawns in a larger game. But it’s important for us to understand that the hostages were taken in a context that we did not always explain very well to the American people.

By propping up royal families in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, we suppressed the will of the people. We discouraged the people of other lands from choosing their own leaders – an ability that we value so highly here at home.

And by suppressing the will of the people – the small fires of democracy – the United States helped to frustrate many, many people. It helped to prevent many, many people from gaining the opportunity to thrive.

Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and others see those people and want to use them. They want to be the sparks that will set off a fire the world cannot control. They know they have the raw material – thousands upon thousands of Muslims who feel a burning and sometimes justifiable anger toward America. And they have fueled that anger with lies and propaganda that made America’s guilt appear to be much greater than it actually is.

We will not let bin Laden or Hussein or anyone else start that fire.

In the short run, we will continue to work with the world community to isolate bin Laden and Hussein and their immediate followers, because it is toward them that the evidence points. We must isolate them to prevent their sparks from catching.

But we must do this carefully, so that we do not further anger those parts of the Islamic world that some of our policies have inadvertently harmed.

No matter how carefully we do this, though, containing this threat is likely to prove costly. We will probably lose American lives, and we will almost certainly take the lives of some of their followers and maybe of bin Laden or Hussein themselves.

Most of the world recognizes our right to do this. We simply cannot allow anyone to terrorize our people. We will not allow bin Laden or Hussein or anyone else to turn our world into an inferno.

In the long run, though, I’ve instructed my advisors and the State Department and the CIA to allow more small fires of instability to go through oil-producing lands. This nation will no longer suppress democratic or other movements just because they are likely to drive up the price of oil.

My fellow Americans, we will continue to engage and work with the rest of the world. But we will no longer seek to control it.

Sometimes, our new policy will mean that the people of other nations will choose rulers who don’t like Americans very much. Some of those nations will seek to hurt us and enrich themselves by raising the price of oil. In that case the price of oil will go up, and we’ll just have to live with it.

For too long, America has treated cheap gasoline as a fundamental right. It is no such thing. And beginning with my administration, we will no longer sacrifice the rights of other human beings to keep our gasoline cheap. Doing so has already cost too many lives – and it’s ruining the Earth, besides.

This may sound surprising, coming from a Texan who got most of his money from oil — a man whose Vice President used to run an oil company. You might have expected Dick Cheney and I to continue the U.S. policy of putting oil first.

Well, I have to admit, it surprises me, too. But when my advisors explained the connection between U.S. policy and Arabic anger, I saw little choice.

The images of the victims from the September 11 attacks are still fresh in our minds. We must not let them become stale without taking steps to ensure that there are no more victims like them. If that means that the U.S. should stop supporting undemocratic governments, then that’s what the U.S. ought to do. After all, the Cold War is over. Policies of interference that may have helped us then are certainly hurting us now.

I’ve directed the State Department to re-examine our policy on Iraq, as well. It may be time for us to remove the sanctions that have contributed to the deaths of so many thousands of innocent children in Saddam Hussein’s land – while leaving Hussein himself in power. Our sanctions have had ten years to work – yet they have not done so. We need to reassess our strategy there.

We need to stop contributing to the deaths of those children, because America believes in the rights of children. And if the rights of those children are not enough to convince us to stop, then our own self-interest also urges us to stop. After all, if we maintain our current policy, then the brothers and sisters of those dead and dying children will grow up to hate Americans the way so many Americans now hate Osama bin Laden for killing our fellow citizens. The world is too small to make unnecessary enemies.

These words, too, may sound strange, coming from a man whose father once counted the Gulf War as one of his proudest victories. But my conscience compels me to say it. Because as I contemplate the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I wonder if the U.S. can consider the Gulf War a victory anymore.

What did we win? We killed thousands upon thouands of Iraqis – soldiers and civilians – more than the U.S. lost in all its years in Vietnam. We pushed Iraq back out of Kuwait. And we earned what may be undying enmity on the part of many of our Arab brothers.

Why did we do it? Were we promoting democracy? Containing communism?

No. We were doing neither of those things. Kuwait, the land Iraq sought to reclaim, had never been a democracy in the first place, and is not one now. We put many American soldiers at risk in order to reinstall a royal family. Some of those American soldiers died. Our government told us that they died to stop a new Hitler. It did not tell us that they died for oil.

As a nation we supported our troops, and we thought we had won. Our victory came so quickly and easily that we did not ask ourselves what, exactly, we had won. Nor did we dwell on the many thousands of Iraqis we had killed. We accepted those losses because they were not our own — and because we felt so strong. We didn’t worry that anyone would dare to take revenge.

But others, those related by blood or religion to the dead and injured Iraqis, did not accept those losses. They knew their weapons were no match for ours, but they plotted revenge anyway. Without knowing it, our “victory” had put thousands of American civilians at risk. Now, ten years into the future, we may still be paying for the Gulf War.

And the continued presence of our troops in Saudi Arabia, which began during the Gulf War, has apparently inflamed not only Osama bin Laden but also thousands of his followers – the throng whose hidden existence makes America feel less free now than it has felt in a long, long time.

My administration will take another look at the need for American troops in Saudi Arabia. We will never allow terrorism to push us out of our own land. But neither will we let a misguided machismo keep our troops in lands that are not ours.

I am my father’s loving son. But my responsibilities now go well beyond preserving my father’s image. My primary responsibility as your President is to keep all of America safe. I cannot do that unless I help you understand why the world has become so dangerous for Americans.

Unless we understand how we have contributed to this problem, we cannot begin to solve it. In the days since the attacks I have heard rash proposals to bomb people who may have had nothing to do with the attacks. I have heard people talk as if America were utterly innocent, minding its own business, and then, out of nowhere, we were attacked. I have heard the Rev. Jerry Falwell blame the American Civil Liberties Union for the disaster.

My fellow Americans, America did not get into this trouble because it protected individual liberties here at home. It got into this trouble, in part, because it diminished such liberties in other lands.

We will not withdraw entirely from the Middle East. The U.S. has strong ties to Israel, and those ties will remain strong. Let no one mistake this reassessment for weakness on the question of Israel.

But as America goes forward, even as we devote ourselves to capturing those responsible for these heinous crimes, we will continue to seek ways to bring Palestinians and Iraqis and our other Arabic brethren into the world community. We will provide economic aid to make that happen, and we will ensure that such aid goes to the people, not into the pockets of their undemocratic leaders. By promoting prosperity for others, we will promote safety for ourselves.

We will live in a way that will make us proud, as we defend a country that believes in freedom not only for itself, but also for others.

We will live in a way that will make prospective followers of men like bin Laden and Hussein think twice before signing their lives away. There will always be madmen in the world, and we will always have to guard against their attacks. But by our own behavior, we can minimize the likelihood that others will find common cause with such madmen. That much, at least, is within our control.

The course ahead is uncertain. We do not know what will happen to the Arabic world if the U.S. stops trying to control it. But we are about to find out.

May God, who is also known as Allah, bless us as seek the right path.

Originally published by The Guy Code, September 25, 2001. 

Working From Home

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

There are a number of aspects to this Earthly existence of which we are aware, at some level, but about which we don’t tend to think too much.

One of the obvious ones is our own personal mortality. A lot of ink’s been spilled on that one, though, and I’m not in the mood for it today anyway. Probably you aren’t, either. So let’s move on, shall we?

I’d rather focus on another tidbit: one that’s equally out of our control, and almost as unsettling: None of us ever really knows how other people feel about us.

We have friends and lovers, parents and spouses and children, co-workers and bosses and therapists of various kinds and distant relatives and acquaintances. And all of those people relate to us the way they do out of a self-interest that may shift over time without our awareness. Or it may turn out never to have been what we thought it was in the first place.

Of all the people we know, only a few value honesty over politeness – and even they don’t say everything that occurs to them. Sometimes those who love us most hold the most back.

We know they probably talk about us sometimes behind our backs. We know this because we sometimes talk about them behind their backs. But we don’t know how often they do it, or what they say. Not really. We get hints sometimes, but those usually come long after the fact. We’re almost never up to date on our own gossip.

Sometimes we learn exactly what people we trusted have said behind our backs, and it stings. We dwell on the injury. We may never quite trust those people again. We may treat them as if they are the only people who have ever had negative thoughts about us. And yet, what are the odds of that?

Gossip from others

Moreover, when someone tells us what a third party said behind our back, we never know what our reporter said back to the speaker. Probably he or she went along with it to a certain extent, the way we have sometimes done, when we’ve heard gossip from others.

After all, agreeing up to a certain point is the only way to get most speakers to keep going. Defend a target too soon, and your well of gossip will dry up, never to be replenished.

“If everyone knew what others said about him, there would not be four friends in the world.” That’s Pascal.

Of course, the population has grown some since he wrote that in the 1600s. If everyone knew what others said about him or her today, maybe there would be 15 friends. I think I’d have three of them; I’ll leave the rest to you folks to sort out. And I’m sure I’d have a few things to discuss with even those three.

It’s possible that this issue is on my mind more than usual because for the past two weeks I’ve been working out of my kitchen. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

I’m working out of my kitchen because the magazine for which I work has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. I’m part of a skeleton crew. From 180 employees a few weeks ago, we’re down to 16 or so.

None of that matters for the purposes of this essay except that — by working out of my kitchen — I’ve become a little paranoid.

No one to say hello

At first I wasn’t sure why. Now I think it’s because I’ve lost all the people who used to say hello to me in the morning. The people who affirmed that I was not a ghost are now ghosts themselves, reaffirming the existences of strangers somewhere else, and most of my contacts lately come through e-mail and the disembodied voices of the phone.

It’s a weird existence.

Some people enjoy working from home, and seek out ways to make it happen. They like the freedom from oversight, the absence of office politics, the relaxed dress code, the easy commute.

And those things can certainly be nice.

But the oversight I had was generally friendly. Our office politics, such as they were, could be entertaining. Our dress code was already relaxed. And my commute was fifteen minutes on an uncrowded subway train and fifteen minutes of walking, each way. Not so bad, really.

I miss the feedback – the people whose smiles told me I’m not quite as bad a person as I tend to think I am. I don’t even run into the Irish guy who sweeps the sidewalks at the school next to my apartment anymore. I could easily walk to where he is, and talk with him about the Mets as I used to do, but there is no other reason for me to be there. When we finished talking, I’d have to turn around and head back inside. That would feel awkward, even the first time.

How all this relates to the theme at the beginning of this piece – that none of us ever really knows how other people feel about us – is that the usual way we figure out how they feel about us is by seeing them and talking to them.

All we have

It’s not a perfect system – people can deceive us, even then, and for long periods – but it’s all we have. As we look at people, and listen to them and talk to them, we can check out how we seem to be coming across. If they react to us in the usual ways, that tells us something, and if they don’t, that tells us something, too.

If we have to base the whole assessment on how quickly they return a phone call or an e-mail message, then our imaginings fill in the gaps. Someone may simply not be home, or may be busy, but may still like us just fine – or, in any event, about as much as they liked us before – but we are no longer able to tell, because we can’t see them.

Without the cues we get from really seeing people and talking with them face to face, we fall back on our reserves of self-esteem.

Even if our account is in good standing – even if we’ve been careful to diversify our sources of self-esteem – we may miss the regular infusions we used to get from outside. We may wonder how long it will be before our account dwindles, and we turn into one of those guys who writes angry letters to the editor, or picks fights with the neighbors, just to feel alive.

Given the recent layoffs in the technology sector, we’ll probably see an increase in that sort of behavior, as well as a few things we haven’t seen before. So let’s be careful out there.

Originally published by The Guy Code on September 11, 2001.