Breaking News: Overweight Humanism Party is Announced 

We’re forming a new party. It’s called Overweight Humanism. So far, it’s just me and my buddy Bob. But we have big plans and even larger appetites. 

We believe that big is beautiful and that actions speak louder than words. Where we can convince individuals and corporations to actively seek to help solve some of societies issues, we can and should shrink government. 

We believe the Kardashian family should be deported to Alaska where they must live with The Palin family. 

We advocate value added and consumption taxes. Our focus is on reducing corporate tax rates if domestic jobs are created and the return of manufacturing as a percentage of the GDP to 30%. We want the ratio of public to private workers to be reduced by 25% in the next decade. 

Bob and I have also decided to run for POTUS and VIP. If elected to office, we will ensure:

Vin Scully’s photo will be printed on every US five dollar bill 

We will pick three national social priorities and give an unlimited tax credit for contributions to any prequalified federal or community based agency that serves our troika of public need. Tax deductions will continue for other non- profits serving essential needs. Our first three priorities will be unemployment, drug/alcohol abuse including non-violent offender incarceration alternatives and our aging infrastructure. 

The definition of Body Mass Index will be changed to 40 to define obesity. You have to be an ex-POW to qualify as having a normal BMI with your company wellness plan. 

Affordable housing will be a required part of every community receiving any matching federal or state funds with priority will provided to all emergency and law enforcement employees who serve the town. 

Reality shows can only be aired between 1 and 5 am. 

Every kid will be taught the safe word, “Trump” to be used as a social 9-1-1 when they feel threatened. 

Any medical student that choose to study and practice primary care medicine can receive free tuition from their home state medical school — provided they practice and serve an acceptable ratio of Medicaid, Medicare and commercial patients within their state for four years following after graduation. 

Any film starring Pauly Shore or Carrot Top must be destroyed. 

News channels must be reclassified as “Views” channels unless they can meet non partisan reporting criteria

Our Congressional and national election primaries will last two months followed by a four month general election. Overturn Citizens United decision and reduce corporate influence on election cycle. 

Claw back provisions will be built into the compensation agreements of all municipal, state and federal public officials where up to 20% of pay will be forfeited in a subsequent year for their inability to achieve a balanced budget. 

Cargo pants will be outlawed. 

Anonymous comment threads will be considered malicious libel and subject to prosecution. No police blotter reporting for anyone under the age of 21. 

All fines associated with white collar crime will help finance investment in non violent crime alternative incarceration, education and offender rehabilitation. 

The nation’s focus will be on equal opportunities not equal outcomes. 

All states and municipalities must tender a four year plan to balance their budgets and to fund to 80% of remaining pension obligations. This includes a 10% pay cut and hiring freeze until target is achieved. 

All air conditioners will be calibrated to weight instead of temperature with default of 220lbs. 

Division 1 athletes will be eligible to participate in dividends equally to 20% of university income arising from athletics. No more clock stoppage after a first down in college football – except in the last two minutes of a half. 

Prayer will be allowed in all public schools. 

Every national bank will be required to establish a domestic microfinance arm that offers lower denomination loans to underserved communities. Families can also sign up to sponsor tax deductible domestic and immigrant families to support their efforts to assimilate in our communities. 

The corporate tax rate will be decreased for targeted industries such as domestic manufacturers and service based firms employing US workers. 

Medicare will be offered to everyone as a public option in insurance exchanges. Medicare must operate at a loss ratio of 90% to avoid having tax payer dollars underwrite sustained low ball pricing to gain market share and jeopardize the private market. 

Employers can offer incentives to employees over 50 years old to opt out of the employer plan to purchase insurance in public exchanges. 

Every high school senior must read and demonstrate understanding of the following books:

1) To Kill A Mockingbird

2) The Road To Serfdom

3) Chaos Monkeys 

4) The Diary of Malcolm X

5) The Killer Angels

6) The Grapes of Wrath

7) Leaves of Grass

8) A Tale of Two Cities

9) A Confederacy of Dunces

10) Bonfire of the Vanities 

Finally, every student will serve one year between high school and college in public service or a non profit activity. This can be deferred until after college or if the individual has a full-time job. 

 Anyone recieving social assistance in the form of healthcare or economic aid must have at least one annual physical at a primary care providers office and consent to an electronic medical record. 

The Grateful Dead will be inducted into the Hall of Fame and Pete Rose will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

That’s about it. Be sure to write in the Overweight Humanists. Future fundraisers will be held at Krispy Creme and Dunkin Donuts. Our mantra is “overweight humanism and underweight self interest”…

See you on CNN. 

Sharknado 2016 – The Anarchy

I guess it was about 4pm on a humid east coast afternoon when the cop stopped me on Elm Street. It was the day after the GOP convention and I was was talking to myself – waving my arms in what the police later described as someone “engaged in a threatening debate with the an imaginary combatant.” The cop rolled down his window.

“Sir, have you been drinking?”

“Drinking? Hah!” I scoffed. “There’s not enough alcohol to medicate my reality — or yours, Officer…” I walked over and searched his chest for a name tag.”…Officer Blue.”

“Sir, you’re spooking the locals and exhibiting  erratic behavior. It’s bad for business and you’re being a public nuisance. Are you on any medications ?”

“I’m just tired. Hell for all I know, I may have the Zika virus. Feels like my brain is shrinking. Speaking of Zika, the way our athletes are dropping out of Rio, I may be named the third alternate on the US archery team.Actually, officer if you must know I’ve been watching the Republican convention. It’s an orgy of D list celebrities and people who get their instructions from space ships. The only guy they did not trot out to endorse The Donald was Carrot Top.”

He could see I was legitimately troubled. I had been hiding at home for almost a week tweeting inane comments on Morning Joe and The Hill under the name “Carlos Not So Dangerous”.  I had been waiting for some post convention sanity to return like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. The Democratic gathering had not been much better but I had to admit they stayed more on message. The days of civilized debates hosted by a spinsterish librarian from the League of Women voters had been replaced by a Jerry Springer paternity fight  The dignified party conventions of my father had declined into a mud-slinging WWF show-down.

The cop tried to commiserate. “Sir, everyone is upset with the potential that Hillary Clinton could get elected but we can’t act out in public.”

“Hillary?” My head whipped around to confront the young officer. “What about freaking Trump?”

“Well I just assumed if you lived in this town you were a Republican.”

“Frankly, I don’t know what the hell I am anymore. I’m not L,B,G,T,Q…E-I-E-I-O!  I’m feeling kind of left out of the funny farm.”

He looked through his windshield and sighed. “Yeah, I hear ya. Law enforcement can’t trust anybody — our Union or the public officials. They reneg on retirement and benefits commitments. They kick the can down the street and refuse to fund retiree plans. It’s a tough gig being dressed in blue right now. We don’t know who to trust.”

I nodded in sympathy. “Hell, I hear you. There is no worthy Presidential candidate. One is a corrupt, public trough piglet who has fed on the public dole teat for years while the other is a dangerous self promoter who make outrageous statements like he invented the question mark. He gets a permanent get out of jail free card granted by his constituents. I’m in a permanent state of disbelief at what Trump is doing to the electoral process. He has immunity from accountability and says whatever comes into his head. By the way, there’s a lot of room in there for garbage. No one seems to give a shit if he doesn’t make sense.”

The cop tilted his head toward a woman pushing a stroller.

“Sir, your language.”

The officer glanced at his watch and smiled. “You remind me a lot of my old man. He’s retired in Florida. He’s home every day with the TV blasting the Fox Channel while he writes large-font emails to my sister and I and everyone he knows about how the world is going to end. I guess I get it. Listen, why not follow me over to Zumbachs and we can grab a cup of coffee.

A half hour later I was spilling my guts to this thirty something. He could feel my frustration.

I looked out the window as the Metro North blared its ubiquitous horn.

“It’s official. We’re screwed. We’re living in a bizarro world of opposites and doppelgängers. Nothing surprises me. Anything is now possible. In the old days, once you betrayed the limits of authenticity, you lost the People. Presently, I can no longer separate the sacred from the profane, truth from rhetoric or Sunnis from Shias. Truth is optional.”

The officer shook his head. “It’s even worse for us. People are actually shooting us. We are expected to serve and protect. I used to work some tough areas and did two tours in Iraq. I know a lot of about what hyper-vigilance and anger can do to anyone in enforcement. The anxiety and resentment builds and can flare up during a routine traffic stop. Being a cop in certain areas is like assuming the role of a UN peacekeeper. You can’t afford to live where you are policing or you don’t want to. Now, its like we’re soldiers returning from Vietnam. They give us that baby killer look. Hell, I was rescuing a cat from a tree the other day and the kid who called filmed it on his phone and ager said I was rough with the cat. It’s total BS.”

“Tell me about it. My son told me he hated capitalists and then asked me for $100.”

I held up two fingers to Will, the friendly barista wearing the Choose To Be Happy tee short. “I guess the good news is I believe anything now. Halloween and Christmas will be fun this year. It also means 70 % of all TV is now available for my viewing pleasure. Last night I watched Sharknado.”

The cop perked up. “You too? Hell, I found myself crying when Fin jumped into the maw of that cyclone-spun great white to rescue Tara Reid. Man I thought she was a goner. You know she still looks pretty good.  If I wasn’t married…”

I elbowed him as two high school girls walked in. “Sir, your language.”

I laughed. “Remember the scene where Fin used that chain saw to cut his way out of the 20 foot megaladon, it was awesome. You know, I want a chain saw for Christmas.”

The officer sipped his coffee.

“Same”

I perked up. “Megaladon” is actually a perfect portmanteau word to describe Trump.”

The officer rolled his eyes. “I actually don’t know who I’m going to vote for. I think Trump would be better for cops but as a father and citizen, he scares the crap out of me. Hillary’s a dirt bag but she’s just better at corruption than the average official who has long forgotten politics as public service and the art of compromise.”

I smiled.”Look at it this way. The world is a more dangerous and magical place now. We have stepped off platform 9 3/4 and are on a train to Hogwarts. We can now believe in Santa, the tooth fairy, Valdemort, and the lost city of El Dorado. Maybe the next time I go to the market to buy some groceries I’ll meet someone with some magic beans. I’m ready to take on a giant and a beanstalk.

We sat across three more coffees and compared notes on the polluted political process we call two-party democracy. His dispatch called and he sped off to interrogate a man who was arguing with the traffic attendant over using a handicap spot to get a quick latte at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Yes, life had become Sharknado and it was getting more bizarre with each week.

My world is leaching with the pollution drift of dislocated people, terrorists, disease, social fault lines, greed, corruption and demagoguery — and that’s just in youth sports. “Remember”, my friend Carll reassured me. “It is all just the buzzing of flies.” Maybe so but where there are lots of flies, there’s usually a pile of something else.

I am now in mid-life shuffling toward my next doctors appointment and the snap of latex glove. “This may feel a little uncomfortable.” I am searching for a new tribe — Perhaps there is a Facebook page for October Ovines — middle aged smart-aleck, slackers who can’t lose weight and wont watch Game Of Thrones. I secretly want to attend a Day of Rage March so I can rail against the man — even though it is clear that I am now the man. Friends are fleeing our overmatched Governor to new homes in the Carolinas, Florida, Texas and other far off red state economies where the ratio of public to private workers remains tolerable and the fiscal spending is not so disjointed as to portend calamity.

A staggering 40% of Americans over age 50 have zero saved for retirement and another 20% have less than $100k. I suppose one will work until they die. And in a world where artificial intelligence has jumped from the pages of Assimov to the world of knowledge workers, I’m not sure what dislocated generations of Americans will do for a living wage.

Why is it that the most affluent among us suffer from fear — self centered angst about losing what they have or not getting what thy want. Fear permeates everything these days and makes any optimist look like a buffoon drunk on the nostalgia of some old movie where the bad guys lose and social fractures are healed. Boy gets girl. Kid learns valuable lesson. Clarence gets his wings.

Depend upon it, Sir,” said Dr. Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

I’m focused again but I still can’t believe what I’m seeing. Tomorrow night they are debuting Sharknado 4. Perhaps I’ll be able to find some answers.

To The New Canaan Class of 2014 – Vive Le Difference

my-brain-is-fullIt’s June – a special time of year when we dump three million fingerling seniors into the ocean of adulthood. As graduates of the “we will love you until you learn to love yourself” school of helicopter parenting, you don’t want more advice. But, you’re going to get it any way. Most of you just want to head west or south to find sun and towns with no police blotters or curfews. Good luck with that.

Many of you were born in 1996, the Chinese year of the Pig. This explains the state of your bedrooms, motor vehicles and your penchant to leave wrappers wedged between pillows on the couch.

When you were born, most of us read something by Malcolm Gladwell or an article in Parents magazine telling us that if we desired high performance outliers, we had to hold you back a grade. As a result, your graduating class is an uneven skyline of red-shirted college students and overachieving youngsters. Some of you have been driving since your sophomore year – a few legally.

When we were born before the Civil War, the mid wife gave us a swat to make sure we would cry. It was also a preemptive punishment for all the stupid things we were likely to do. When you were born, swatting was considered child abuse, so the Obstetrician merely asked you how you were feeling. You naturally did not respond and so you got a few free nights in neonatal intensive care and we got a bill for $900,000.

1996 was a wild year. A computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Kasparov later found a website on cheats and shortcuts and subsequently beat Deep Blue. In 1996, a wonderful microcosm of America passed away before you could get to know them. You know their iconic images but you never really felt their physical presence. Gene Kelly was a star who danced while George Burns reminded us that age was merely a number. Erma Bombeck told us never to give the car keys to a teenager and Timothy Leary, well, let’s just say he explored inner space while Karl Sagan came back from outer space to tell us we were not alone. Ella Fitzgerald improvised her way to become the first lady of jazz while militant and talented Tupac Shakur died as violently as the lyrics of his brilliant rap. Tiny Tim was our first trip through the tulips in light loafers.

You were pretty normal. Like all children, you loved the notion of having special powers. We played Pokemon, watched Dragon Tales and Arthur, read Harry Potter and observed you with fascination as you got your first taste of dystopia in The Hunger Games. Up to that point, your idea of dystopia was a house without a pimped out basement and any kind of “because you live here” chores.  A few years later, we all went to Washington DC for a family vacation, and got a real taste of futuristic dysfunction.

We tried to stop you from using violent video games but found them so much fun that we joined you on Black Ops missions. You always shot us in the back. When it came to inappropriate movies, it always seemed that you managed to see gory cinema du jour at someone else’s house. We still can’t figure out whose house because we all claimed that we did not allow blood and guts programming — unless of course, your Mom was out for the night and then we agreed that you would not tell about my smoking a cigar if I let you and your friends watch Jeepers Creepers 4.

For many of you, your biggest problems have arisen out of how to deal with a caste system borne out of prosperity. In life, as in nature, the seeds of true character only germinate during the wet winters of personal crisis. Some of you have already felt the sting of broken homes and tragedy. Green lawns and clean streets don’t immunize us from life. Some of you handled your challenges with incredible grace. Through these challenges, you guys cared for and loved each other. That capacity to put someone or something ahead of you is a sign of great emotional intelligence.

Like all of us you don’t like trials and tribulations. Hell, some of you don’t even like the dentist although it is ten times better now than when we were clutching the chair having cavities filled by escaped war criminals. I digress. The fact is you will need to have your fair share of failures and would prefer to avoid them. Woody Allen once shared “I’m not afraid of dying.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

You are part of a demographic cohort called the “Millennials”. Authors Strauss and Howe educated us that your tribe is characterized by extreme confidence, social tolerance, a strong sense of entitlement and the narcissistic tendency to take photographs of yourself and post them 100 times a day. Like the generations that preceded you, you are regularly accused of being pampered and unprepared. Yet, Strauss and Howe boldly predict that you will become civic-minded and in the face of some yet to be defined great crisis, emerge as a hero generation. It will reassure us if you occasionally start looking up from your phones – if for no other reason than to see the bad guys when they are coming.

We see you seniors like Internet start-ups — full of promise, cool ideas and with a market cap that far exceeds the fact that you still don’t make any money. However, our irrational exuberance for you keeps us investing.

Please understand we do not like regulating your every move as teenagers but we are now being told that we are bad parents if you screw up. The headline seems to now be that life is over if you get caught doing something stupid. Here’s the good news: You’ll recover. America loves a comeback — just ask Bill Clinton who is the only head of state in US history to generate successive budget surpluses, be unsuccessfully impeached, have an affair, stay married, be President and possibly become a First Lady.

You are smart. You adapt rapidly — some of you resemble human thumbs. But please don’t use your handheld devices as an excuse to avoid social interaction. Nothing will ever replace the joy that comes from helping and interacting with other people. Be fearless. The only thing that seems to really scare you is Tony’s Deli being closed on a snow day.

You are a tolerant contrarian bunch that don’t seem to buy into any rigid dogma that excludes others, labels them or requires a greater than thirty hour workweek. You are like the French. You appreciate the finer things in life and prefer to be on vacation when you are not eating, making out or sleeping. You look great in shorts and Capris while the rest of us are putting in 25 watt Blanche Dubois GE light bulbs – ostensibly to conserve energy.

You have a chance to fix the financial mess we have left you but you have to decide between austerity or trying to grow your way out of the hole. Just remember that a strong middle class anchors any society and the true measure of any civilization is how we treat the least among us. Don’t watch MSNBC or Fox, you’ll live longer. South Park is okay. Life outside our bubble is hard – and not every body wants to play by the same rules. Being a humanist is hard. If any of you start a new political party, count me in – especially if it includes eating Nutella crepes and drinking cappuccinos.

Focus on other people because as a rule of thumb, most of you are your own worst enemy. You will spend your lives on a schizophrenic quest for interpersonal unification — trying to merge the tripartite of personalities that is you — the person you project to the world, the person you secretly believe yourself to be and the person your mother knows. The day those three people become one, you will be officially self-actualized or possibly doing thirty days in the can for having the guts to throw a shoe at a public official.

Life is messy, like your bathroom.  You will fail and it will seem weird the first time you don’t immediately hear that familiar whump-whump of the parental helicopter on the horizon. You’ll have your Khe Sahn moments, isolated, no air support surrounded by circumstances that trigger all your self-centered fears. It’s in these moments you will find your capacity to dig in and fight harder. You’ll appreciate everything that you truly earn more than what is given to you.

That sore thing on your hand that you once got shoveling snow is called a callous. It’s a badge of honor suggesting that you worked hard. We can tell when we shake someone’s hands if they have ever met a rake or put in a day’s hard work. Although, be careful being fooled by golfers, they have callouses but tend to avoid late afternoon meetings.

If you choose to attend college, don’t waste your next four years. Get your butt out of bed and go to class. It costs about $2,230 per class so go and learn something. There’s more to life than knowing how to make a mean Mai Tai. To succeed in a flat, competitive world, you’ll need the equilibrium of a jet pilot and the guts of a burglar. You acquire those skills in alleyways, not in your room watching six consecutive seasons of Breaking Bad.

Don’t be a victim. I assure you that whatever higher power you worship has the same desire for you that we do — for you to be happy and to leave the world a better place than when you found it.

Just remember, people are not FTEs or headcount, we are souls on a spiritual journey. Everyone has value. Be a rock of predictability and an oasis of empathy. Never take the last of anything. Make your bed when you stay at someone’s house and strip the sheets. Don’t wear shoes without socks. If your first roommate is nicknamed “Lysol” or “Candyman”, ask for a new one. The semester won’t end well.

Remember Rome was not built in a day and that it rotted from within because of weak politicians, foreign wars and the fact that everyone was inside with their air conditioners on and could not hear the Vandals coming. For that reason alone, always keep a window open.

Be French and live well. Study history and remember the famous line of De Tocqueville, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”

Class of 2014, Vive le difference !

 

If You’re Gonna Be A Jerk, At Least Be Funny

Cover of "The Devil's Dictionary"
Cover of The Devil’s Dictionary

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  Oscar Wilde

Mitch Horowitz recently penned a piece in the NY Times that took a coat hanger to the rear end of the digital age, blaming the rising incivility in our society – at least in part – on faceless emails, text messaging and anonymous social media that allows individuals to engage in “consequence free” on-line hostility.  As I was reading Horowitz’s thoughtful lamentation, I could not help but sheepishly think about the scud missile emails that I have sent over the course of my career (hardly without consequence) and those other misspent missives that still gratefully rest in my draft box like idling ICBMs.   

Email certainly makes it easy to be a jerk.  I don’t have to see the reaction on the other person’s face or deal with their legitimate reaction.  It’s like throwing oranges over the fence at cars when I was a kid.  It also seems to be getting worse. Somewhere along the way, we have allowed ourselves to get gerrymandered into orthodox enclaves of opinion that refuse to even acknowledge the other person’s point of view.  News channels have been replaced views channels and news anchors have morphed into iconoclastic shock jocks who belittle anyone who offers an alternative opinion.  Worst of all, the insults and personal diminishment lack imagination and humorous punch.  They are petty and sophomoric  – much the way a schoolyard disagreement might end with “I know you are, but what am I?”

Acidic discourse is hardly new and uncivilized communication has been a plague on our houses since the first rock was thrown anonymously into the other guy’s cave.  Anger is a manifestation of self centered fear – fear of not getting what you feel you deserve or fear of losing what you have.  While it is natural to become annoyed with those who do not share your point of view, it is also inevitable in a world that is becoming global and more diverse that the odds are increasingly higher that we will encounter people with views different than our own – convictions that threaten our version of what we believe to be true.  We can always choose to respond like Dan Akroyd in his iconic SNL Point/Counterpoint debates with Jane Curtain.  Yet, the basis by which we choose to resolve our differences defines our emotional intelligence as a society.  As we become more transparent in a digital age and become more diverse in a hot, flat crowded world, we find ourselves under siege with change and the conflicting points of view from people who do not share our enlightened sense of what is right.

It takes a lot of restraint to stay open to issues and to resist making up your mind until you have heard all sides.  I remember the sense of injustice I felt growing up in the house of my iron-clad father.  “That’s not fair.” I would complain. 

“I’ll tell you what’s fair,” was always his response.

It made things easier being told what to believe in.  It became more complicated later in life as I formed my own points of view based on my experiences. The internet certainly enables faceless, poison pen snarkiness in a society consumed with schadenfreude, but this is nothing new.  Before the computer age there were Scarlet Letter gossip campaigns that were the centerpiece of small town blood sports. Social media supercharges our innate penchant for self promotion and bold disagreement.  Yet, the internet is merely a new medium for mass character assassination and not unlike a bomb dropped from 30,000 feet, it is deviously impersonal. 

Horowitz points out that while disagreement is a natural part of intelligent discourse, distain is destructive and dismissive.  It’s as cancerous today as it was when citizens had no internet and wandered the streets looking for somebody different to lynch.

As a writer who trades in the currency of sarcasm, I have to admit that the Horowitz article got me thinking.  Growing up in an unfiltered home whose patriarch routinely eviscerated anyone whose views were different than his own, I became somewhat desensitized to those that were ridiculed for their obvious lack of understanding of the issues. As I grew up, I was drawn to society’s cynics and iconoclasts who found humor in magnifying imperfection.  Yet, the best of these curmudgeons taught me to first laugh at myself before everyone else.   

Ambrose Bierce is among my favorites – a scathing critic, writer and all-around troll.  The impossible author wrote the quintessential primer on sarcasm known simply as “The Devil’s Dictionary”.  He became synonymous with mordant commentary and serial disregard for society’s conventions and institutions.  He lived a difficult life having survived the Civil War and the suicide of his own son.  Some of his more deliciously acerbic quotes:

 “History, n.  An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

“Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.”

“Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision causes him to see things as they are, not as they ought to be

Bierce disagreed with people early and often.  He was his generation’s literary angel of death.  To William Randolph Hearst, he once retorted,”  “Mr Hearst, I collect words and ideas. Like you, I also store them. But unlike you, I keep them in the reservoir of my mind.  I can take them out and display them at a moment’s notice. Mine are eminently portable, Mr. Hearst.  And I don’t find it necessary to share them all at the same time.”

Another one of my favorite snarks, was Richard Blackwell, aka Mr Blackwell whose annual list of worst dressed celebrities became a brutal primer on sartorial misadventure.  His legendary insults on wardrobe malfunctions included:

“She looks like two small boys fighting under a mink blanket.” (Liz Taylor)

“She dresses like the centerfold for The Farmer’s Almanac.” (Martha Stewart)

“Stretch pants on angel food cake.” (Jane Fonda)

 “She looks like a gypsy abandoned by a caravan.” (Meryl Streep)

Okay, Okay…It’s a tad mean but you have to admit it’s funny.  I suggest if you insist on being critical, at least make it clever.  Sure, there’s lots to be mad about – deficits, low growth GDP, a declining middle class,  class warfare, unemployment, foreign wars and the incredibly hateful and uncivilized comments that often weave their way anonymously into the Internet.  Remember our kids don’t do what we say but certainly emulate what we do.  We don’t want to leave these open-minded millennials  “a coarsened and crippled way of interacting” that will handicap them well into the next generation.  We must try to find a starting point, preferably a funny one, to lead us out of the polarizing desert of dissent and toward a more civilized detente. 

If you are going to be bitter, lampoon yourself first.  Show you can take it as well as give it. Lurking like a spider across an endless web of comment threads is the realm of the petty and the reptillian.  Resist the temptation to take pokes at someone who is down or who can’t defend themselves.  Any bully can toss a rock through a window and drive off in the night.  Anonymity might mean you never get caught by other people.  But remember, someone did see you.  You did.  And I guess if you still believe that nobody saw you, well that would make you….

…a nobody.

Go East Young Man

Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Ma...
Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Manhattan at Night, NYC (Photo credit: andrew c mace)

 New York Taxi Rules:
1. Driver speaks no English.
2. Driver just got here two days ago from someplace like Senegal.
3. Driver hates you.

– Dave Barry

My first trip to New York City was in 1987.  I was 26 years old and had only known the Big Apple from gritty 1970s R rated movies like Shaft, Serpico, Death Wish and The French Connection.  (The fact I was able to see these movies with my father when I was still in elementary school is the subject of another story.) The urban citadel of New York was depicted in the flickering darkness of antiseptic California cinemas as a playground for misanthropes, heroin addicts, the criminally insane and corrupt financiers that sat firmly latched like ticks to the neck of the American economy.

Woody Allen and a few urbanized aesthetes attempted to reintroduce the perfumed notion of New York urban romance in films like Annie Hall but as far as I was concerned, the five boroughs comprised one giant petri dish overflowing with the germs spawned from an unscrupulous and unwashed humanity.  I had met kids from New York that had travelled West to attend my college.  They were infinitely more sophisticated having emerged from an entirely different elementary education.  I recall my first New York City roommate showing up with his strange music, turned up Izod collar, pink pants and penny loafers.  One spring afternoon I noticed him wearing a suit and tie one and asked him if someone important had died.  In California, neckties were only worn to church and funerals for heads of state.  He informed me that he was interviewing with Goldman Sachs for a summer internship.  I asked him why he would want to work at a department store.  I only now recognize the withering look of distain that I received.  It is a vintage eastern look that is both an intellectual rebuke and a simultaneous entreaty to God that he cull his human herd of another cripple.

My flight to New York was a seminal event to attend my older brother’s wedding.  He was, ironically, working at Goldman Sachs – presumably selling men’s clothing.  This made sense to me as he did seem to dress well.  I was alone as I lugged my massive garment bag out of Baggage to be assaulted by a gauntlet of gyspy cab and ronin limo drivers. I felt only slightly more confident than a third grader at his first sleep away camp.  I stood in a queue long enough in Los Angeles to qualify for a movie premiere. A half hour later, I was in a suspicious looking cab with a North African driver with blood-red qat eyes. Having mastered the annoying California habit of excessive friendliness, I peppered the poor cabbie with personal details and a stream of nervous questions.

“This is my first trip to NY.”

“How far is it to West 79th Street?”

“My brother’s getting married.”

I glanced at his license, a jumble of vowels interspersed between the letters “k” and “w”.  He appeared to have just walked off the set of The Naked Prey as a co-star with Cornell Wilde. I assumed his “home” must be some obscure nation in Africa.  I had been brought up in the provincial Eden of Los Angeles where Mexico was Tijuana, Canada was viewed like an unused garage apartment and the rest of the world was organized like the board game of Risk.

“So what country are you from?”

“Queens”

The cab swerved across three lanes of Van Wyck expressway brake lights moving on to Rockaway Blvd and a peristalsis of lurching commuters.  I surveyed the gated yards, orange glow of cigarettes and shadowy people tucked in among dilapidated homes and barred windows.  We were moving slowly.  I could easily be pulled from the cab and savaged by an angry mob. I felt my head retracting into my neck as I slumped down below the window.

The driver skirted a traffic jam, honked his horn and swore in a foreign language as he ran a red light.  He turned right away from Rockaway Blvd. and moved slowly down a chain linked side road.  I muttered a silent Rosary.  So this was it.  While my brother’s friends would be inquiring, “Tom, where’s your little brother?”  I would be in a garage in Queens being cut into small pieces and fed to pit bulls.  I briefly contemplated diving out of the taxi to hide in one of the canyon-sized potholes that the vehicle kept pounding across.

“Are we? I mean, is this the best way to the City?”

“Traffic’s bad.”

The lights of New York suddenly appeared to the West shimmering in the haze of the August summer night.  An hour later, I was sitting in my brother’s air condition-less Upper West Side co-op that was only slightly larger than a microwave oven.  He was exhilarated by his Lilliputian lifestyle.  I sat terrified as he described our need to take the subway to meet friends in the Village. The last movie I had seen that involved riding on the NY subway resulted in Charles Bronson shooting a car full of street thugs.

We walked down a stuffy hallway to wait for a coffin disguised as an elevator.  The lift could comfortably accommodate one person.  I hesitated as the door opened to two people.  My brother vacantly smiled and wedged in between the man and woman.  I followed, apologizing as I pressed against the young mother. She seemed nonplussed by the fact that we were practically conjoined.  I was certain when we exited the lift I would be wearing her blouse.

The doors opened and we spilled out into the hot breath of a foyer.  The doorman had his back to us watching a homeless man berate a four foot mountain of trash that was accumulating from a recent garbage strike.  August heaved up from the subway grills.  It seemed even the air had left the City for the Hamptons.

The night was an endless bachelor’s party blur of crowded nightclubs, silk dresses, shot glasses, kaleidoscope lights, superficiality and a wad of AMEX receipts.  I do remember being asked by every woman what I did for a living.  As I soon as I shared “insurance”, it was if someone had pulled a fire alarm. With each cocktail, my apprehension of New York City melted.  The mean streets slowly morphed into a neon adult playground of temptations.  I was Pinocchio running with a gang of financial Lampwicks on Pleasure Island.

The following morning, I awoke in the fetal position on floor of my brother’s dressing room apartment clothed only in underwear and dress shoes.  Aside from the roto-tiller grinding through my medulla, I noted the constant thrum of motor vehicles.  On my run through Central Park, I seemed to fixate on the mentally ill and a breed of elite, skeletal mannequins who jogged as if they were starring in an exercise video.  At that moment, I made a life pact that if I survived this dystopian weekend, I would never again cast my shadow east of the Mississippi.

God and life love making lemonade out of sour pledges.  One’s best thinking always becomes fodder for irony.  27 years later, I would find myself living in CT and commuting into New York City.  I was now jostling in the belly of an iron beast ready to be disgorged into the stale underground of Grand Central Station.  It seemed a lifetime ago that I could drive fifteen minutes from work to Newport Beach, run along the strand and then body surf for an hour before returning home to my young family.  It had been months since I had actually seen the ocean, the sky and or a star in a night now awash with light pollution.

Fast forward ten years and I now find myself walking happily up Madison Avenue passing a mélange of restaurants, shops and businesses.  The streets teem with diversity, a giant Masai Mara of heterogeneous souls coursing across a concrete veldt.  It is early fall and a perfect ambient temperature. Everything is bathed in a soft, sequined light.  The City prefers to walk on a day like today.  A car is a burdensome utility in a place like this.  It is a racehorse or vacation property – an impulsive and underutilized possession that must be housed and boarded.  Unlike the love affair we enjoyed with our four-wheeled deities in my native California, there is no value in driving.  To park anywhere is to squeeze into a postage stamp stall deep in the bowels of a urine fragranced car park, or hand $55.00 and one’s keys to a Tunisian parking attendant who has not smiled since he immigrated to the US in 1997.

There is no place to hide from life in the City.  It finds you. Everything is shared.  I often return to the City after dark to attend a dinner, a concert or social event.  Coming down the Hudson or FDR, the city lights are strung like pearls and as with most great works of impressionism, it reveals aspects of itself only when you step back to appreciate it in its entirety.

I visit an organic juice bar for a drink that has more vitamins than five heads of raw broccoli but tastes like battery acid.  A giant rat is inflated in front of an adjacent building that is clearly engaged in behavior that a local union does not find acceptable. A poor demented soul stops to rebuke an invisible demon then attempts to make eye contact with a jet stream of bowed heads and averted glances.  In one block, I pass a lifetime of humanity – all moving with urban determination to a destination that rests like a Hobbit’s hovel somewhere tucked inside a concrete mountain.

The City will change with the seasons.  No day is guaranteed.  The weather and unforeseen disruptions will alter our routines and push us into cabs and underground.  NY is no longer a Broadway beauty or a faded actress, it is a million faces and places hiding in plain sight.  It is a midnight piano bar, a Soho nightclub or the sad saxophone of the Blue Note.  It’s a Central Park autumn jog around the reservoir and a post theatre cappuccino at the Monkey Bar.   It moves and swirls like a holiday dreidel that will not stop.

As I approach my office, I overhear a familiar conversation as a New Yorker offers directions to JFK to a man and woman.

“Now forget everything I just said. You can avoid all dat garbage by taking the downtown and Far Rockaway-bound A train. Don ‘t get on duh god damn Lefferts-bound train.  Go to the Ozone Park-Airtrain station that connects you to JFK.  It leaves da same station as da E train, but youse gotta use a different subway platform. The E and A trains have da dark blue soy-culls. Same price, the freaking A train never runs to Rockaway as much as the E to Jamaica, but it’s always good to have dat as an option.” I smile, grateful for my simple suburban commute, the NY Times crossword and the Whitestone Bridge.

I miss California the way I long to be eighteen again.  I recall the West the way a person gets nostalgic for all the firsts that come with adolescence.

Soon, it will be cold.  I am content to see each season come and am always grateful to see it go.  I endure winter to get to summer.  Spring is a myth and autumn is a joy. It is the East and it is home.

 

Okay Dad, Hand Over The Credit Card!

English: Federal Debt Held by the Public by U....
English: Federal Debt Held by the Public by U.S. Presidents and party control of Senate and House, 1901 to 2010; source for debt data is Congressional Budget Office, “Federal Debt and the Risk of a Fiscal Crisis”, July 27 2010, http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/116xx/doc11659/07-27_Debt_FiscalCrisis_Brief.pdf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The front door slams and a man with graying hair looks up from his book over rimmed glasses as he sits in an adjacent room. A young woman in her early twenties drops a duffel bag on the wood floor of a well-lit foyer.

Father: You’re home! How’s grad school?

(The girl looks irritated and says nothing)

Father: What’s wrong, baby?

Daughter: (The girl hesitates and then holds her hand out in front of him) Okay. Hand it over!

Father: What are you talking about?

Daughter: The credit card. You and your kick-the-can-down-the-road generation have bankrupted my future. (The girl drops a NY Times on the coffee table and becomes sarcastic) It says in here that the Fiscal Cliff has been averted. Ha! They might as well have announced that the Easter bunny is real. I just finished Michael Lewis’ Boomerang and Strauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning and I’m depressed.

Father: Haven’t got to those books yet. Since November, I have turned to Merlot and escapism. I’m reading a bestseller about the 16th century. (Pointing to the newspaper, smirking) Cheer up! The Paper reports that the fiscal cliff is a bunny hill and Paul Krugman says spending our way out of the deficit is the only path back to prosperity. I hear Barney Frank may come out of retirement.

Daughter (looking incredulous): Are you kidding me? They only agreed to delay the debt ceiling discussion for 60 more days. Then they are going to ask Congress to raise my credit card limit. Even if the president got all the taxes he wanted, he’d have raised what, $80B of revenues? Where’s the other $15.92 Trillion going to come from? Government made a bunch of promises back in the 1960s in the form of Medicare that they no longer can keep. We’ve known it for a while, but we are hiding it like Enron. If the US government was a public company, the executives would be in jail for accounting fraud and the country would be in receivership. In the real world, you don’t pay as you go! There is bi-partisan dishonesty about the budgets and how dire our situation is. There is a deficit, all right. It’s a deficit of honesty, vision and courage in our public officials and it’s a deficit of public willingness to accept responsibility for managing a problem that has landed in their laps. Winter has arrived and you jerks keep spending the next few generations’ money to avoid a few cold nights.”

Father: It’s not us. It’s that damn Obama. He has created more debt in the last four years than all the Presidents that preceded him. He passed socialized medicine and now he wants to raid Medicare to pay for it. He’s added at least $7B of public debt and he wants to raise the debt ceiling and spend more money. He’s never worked a day in the private sector and can’t balance a lemonade stand.

Daughter: Dad, get real. The guy inherited a nightmare and a constituency that can’t face reality. This is about facing the fact that our healthcare system is broken and literally sinking the country. At some point, no one will lend you money. Congress and the White House have never shown fiscal discipline. We have recorded a budget surplus just five times in the last fifty years. Four of the surplus years came together from 1998-2001, President Bill Clinton’s last three years in office, and President George W. Bush’s first year in office. By the way, our publicly stated debt counts only current cash obligations. The real debt we are facing is more like $75 trillion dollars because we’re not adding in $45T in underfunding for Medicare. Every politician knows this but it is a radioactive secret. Both sides keep up their “Medi-Scare” rhetoric because they want support from retirees who fear they will lose benefits. Face it, Medicare is the biggest single drain on our budget and we have to deal with it.

Father (getting mad): There’s no damn way I’m going to let them raid Medicare to pay for nationalized Obamacare.

Daughter (smiling condescendingly): Dad, Medicare is unmanaged, fee for service, nationalized healthcare. The government controls Medicare costs by rationing reimbursement to doctors and cost shifting to the private sector. It’s the greatest generational rip-off from young to old in the history of the country. Medicare was established when there were 16 workers for every retiree and the average life expectancy was age 68. In 2030, we will have only two workers for every retiree and will have 80 million retirees, four times as many as today. The math does not work. Social Security is not the problem. We have to cut Medicare and make some tough decisions about how we deliver care in the last few months of life.

Father ( getting angry): Oh, now you want to euthanize me and your mother? This is not about Medicare. It’s about a socialist President who wants to redistribute wealth. We need to elect some fiscal conservatives. The Dems won’t make tough decisions. They are give-away artists who pander to Unions, illegal immigrants and anyone who feels they have gotten a raw deal. The GOP needs to win back the White House.

Daughter: Dad, don’t hold your breath. Try running on a platform of fiscal austerity when the new majority is being told that there was a big party from 1998-2008 that they did not attend but that they must now pay for. The demographics in America are changing and a large enough percentage of the GOP’s base has seen their standard of living decline that they have begun to identify with moderate Democrats joining an increasingly heterogeneous group of pro-Democratic voters. The GOP has not been able to convince non-Caucasian voters that they would benefit under their leadership.

Father: Jesus, you’re depressing. Do you have any good news to share?

Daughter: I’m taking Mandarin and I have a summer internship with an Indian microfinance firm that is trying to expand into China and Africa.

Father (trying to appear encouraged): Well, that’s great. Although it sounds like you are going to have a hard time finding a good cheese burger. (Looking bemused) My kid’s going to have to immigrate to another country to find a decent management job.

Daughter (hugging her father and laughing): Not necessarily. We just have to show the resolve to confront healthcare spending and the weight of our entitlement obligations. If we do that, we can be competitive as a country. The way I see it, we have four choices: default on our debt, raise taxes that only delay the day of reckoning and slow down our economy, create a centralized rationing regime in the form of a single payer healthcare system or migrate to a defined contribution premium support model where people receive help buying public or private insurance. I don’t think we want number one or two. So that leaves three or four. We’ve got to get honest – fast and (looking stern at her father), we have to cut up your credit cards.

Father (grabbing his daughter’s bag): How in the hell did you get so smart?

Daughter (smiling and putting her arm around her father): Four years of economics. I have your ear for BS and Mom’s ability to balance a checkbook.

Father (nudging daughter with shoulder): So, you going to tell me who you voted for in the elections?

Daughter (grinning): Ron Paul, I wrote in

Father (making a face) : That was a wasted vote

Daughter (pretending to look offended): Hey, last time I checked, this was still a Democracy.

My Heroes Have Always Been Screw-Ups

Pete Rose at bat in a game at Dodger Stadium d...
Pete Rose at bat in a game at Dodger Stadium during the 1970s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The true hero is flawed. The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles – preferably of his own making – in order to triumph.”
― Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain

I just learned last week that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter. I was not upset.  Personally, when I saw Honest Abe wield his silver forged axe in Tim Burton’s revisionist film, I was impressed.  Sadly, critics and historical experts derided Sir Tim’s turn of the screw treatment of our thirteenth president, questioning how a great American hero could have found the time to rid the South of slavery and defeat the undead at the same time. I kept an open mind.  I’m used to finding out new and disturbing things about those I admire.

We live in a fiber optic era where it has become in vogue to demythologize everything.  We worship perfection producing dysfunction-free digital vacation photographs, buy genetically modified pets and cosmetically alter ourselves seeking to avoid the indignity of imperfection.  Despite our lust for perfection, we love to tear down the pedestals that elevate others.  We secretly long for someone worthy to follow but now are able to get so close to one another that we resent the blemishes and imperfections that we inevitably find. We are in search of the perfect hero but cannot find them.

The age of ten is innocence’s high water mark for any adolescent boy.  When you are emerging from the chrysalis of childhood into the world of men, you are tribal and look to attach yourself to things – movements, ideas, teams and if you are really lucky, a thirteen year old girl.  In the early 70’s, my wellspring of passion was overflowing with the need to define myself beyond my white picket world.  I followed professional sports teams and players – flashing statistics and personal insights like a switchblade.  Like Thurber’s Walter Mitty, I daydreamed  about meeting one of my sport’s heroes, perhaps even rescuing them from a burning car wreck or insane fans.

“Hey, Wilt, quick! Get on the back of my bike.” I would begin to pedal furiously as the seven foot Laker star grabbed my waist. Soon the throng of adoring women would be a distant memory.  (Years later, I would learn that Wilt had actually been running towards the women, not away from them. But, hey, this is a family newspaper.)

My idols in the summer of 1972 overflowed from a generous cup of amateur and professional athletes and beloved public figures.  I cheered for gold medalist swimmer Mark Spitz, and yelled for the underdog USA boxers who were taking on the dreaded Communist elite from Eastern Europe and Cuba in the Munich.  That baseball season, I followed the every move of Pete Rose, the hyperactive Cincinnati Red known as Charlie Hustle.

Weeks later, I declared to my father that I would be an astronaut  but was secretly uncertain whether I could hold my bladder to the moon and back — as the idea of peeing in my spacesuit was too gross to consider.  Years later, Tom Wolfe would infer that at least some of these astronauts indeed had zippers. I switched gears and decided to become a cop. I shivered with delight at the notion of carrying a 44 magnum like Dirty Harry, resolving society’s problems and ridding my community of the social weeds that grew between the cracks of our fractured moral foundations.  I admired my father for his strength and creative profanity and for a brief period decided advertising would be fun –especially if they let you curse at work.

Years later, I would be subjected to kiss and tell biographies and that would deconstruct my idols into troubled souls and demagogues..  While they accomplished great things, life often proved to be a zero sum game where public accomplishment masked personal failure.  When we learned that our Gods were merely mortals flying to close to the sun, we became despondent and cynical. We were obsessed with learning the truth and felt cheated for having held a mere human in such high esteem.  We watched with Schadenfreude fascination the painful character autopsies of our icons.  Camelot was indeed polluted and Eden was, in fact, corrupted by man and his appetites.  We were all mortal, put our pants on the same way, and in a few cases, took them off in public.

Personally, I refuse to live in a godless, dystopic society.  I appreciate heroes because they are flawed.  They are human.  They rise above others simply by getting up and dusting themselves off.  My heroes are measured not by where they have ended up but by how far they have come.  I have come to appreciate that how winners achieve their success is as important as how much they actually achieve.   Those I admire take risks and are unwilling to allow someone else’s opinion of them to define them. They are mothers and fathers.  They are cops, soldiers, teachers and executives. They are divorced. They are single.  They look for opportunities to be of service and defend those who cannot protect themselves. They suffer from bouts of self-pity and vanity and like all of us, vacillate between self-loathing and self-worship. In the end, they come to recognize that they have a higher purpose and their acts of humanity shine brighter than their own self serving shadow.

My heroes are Republicans, Democrats, hail from every ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and creed. They include Mohamed Yunis who won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his concepts promoting micro-finance and community banking and was also accused of being a loan shark and political opportunist.  They were peace makers and diplomats like Gandhi and James Baker who were accused of everything from megalomania to closet imperialism.  Some are politicians.  Lincoln and John Adams were both maligned in their time and paid heavy prices for their convictions in their personal lives.  They are ex-boozers like Bill Wilson who started Alcoholics Anonymous and saved a million lives and Lt Mike Murphy, medal of Honor winner who died while serving our country in the Kandar Province of Afghanistan.

If you dig deep enough, you find heroes everywhere.   They are all around us. And, they have big noses, flawed resumes, scars and can’t fit into size 38″ trousers. We are preprogrammed to lie, covet, gossip, err and lose our way. Yet, heroes overcome their poor choices and circumstances to achieve greatness across a range of professions.  They are mirror reflections of what is best and worst within each one of us, reminding everyone of our incredible capacity for good and our potential to be change agents in a society that desperately needs role models.  My heroes never left.   I left them.  Sinners, some say, make the best saints.

And yes, even after learning that Lincoln lied about moonlighting as a vampire killer, I still admire the guy.

It’s Okay, You Can Breathe Now

William H. Schwab Center for Information Techn...
William H. Schwab Center for Information Technology at Norwalk Community College’s, West Campus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. – Socrates

It was a steamy Saturday summer afternoon in 2003 as we drove home from Rip Van Winkle Lanes where I had treated the kids and their friends to bowling and pizza. As turned north off the Post Road, my daughter shouted to the car, “We’re passing the cemetery; everyone’s gotta hold their breath.” I had a rare epiphany that it would be a bad idea for me to take part in this game as my lung capacity had diminished since my days of holding my breath through the entire Santa Monica tunnel in the West Los Angeles of my youth.  I would have a hard time explaining to my wife and auto insurer how I passed out and drove into the living room of a residential home.

On this particular afternoon, I breathed through my nose and inched ever so slightly over the speed limit to allow the children to avoid a haunting. Every adolescent exhaled at the exact time as we reached Norwalk Community College. One breathless little girl confidently informed the car, ”Guys, always remember if you can make it to NCC, you can breathe.”

I would pass our local community college a hundred times over the next nine years – never understanding or appreciating that it  was a place where oxygen was flowing back into the lives of individuals who had held their own breath – delaying dreams under the burden of poverty or circumstance. In the last twenty-four months, I have watched NCC transform through its capital campaign and expansion, reaching towards an even higher purpose – nourished by a community, its own selfless faculty and the NCC Foundation, a non-profit seeking to ensure that where ever there is a will to learn, we will always find a way to accommodate it.

Two weeks ago, Norwalk Community College’s respiratory nursing program graduated 34 students. Their average age was 32 years old. They were a diverse group, hailing from fifteen countries and speaking eleven languages. They had overcome incredible odds, difficult curriculum and their own doubts. They beamed and exhaled – understanding that they had achieved another milestone in their climb to greater opportunity and an improved standard of living. The graduates pulsed with a life-force guided by an urgency to give back to a community that had offered them a hand as they lifted themselves above their own situations. They were eager to help fill the void that will widen in the next twenty years as a percentage of an aging Boomer population succumbs to respiratory conditions common to the elderly –chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia.

My friend, Mike Hobbs and Jane H. Kiefer, Executive Director for the NCC’s Foundation had arranged for me to meet a cross-section of current nursing student and recent graduate nurses. I met Tashia, a single mom and fourth year student who returned for her degree at age 34; Maria, a nursing graduate and veterinary oncologist researcher; Nick , a new father and former IT employee who felt a deeper calling to serve in healthcare, Elizabeth , a nursing graduate whose calling was fueled by the energy of her faculty; Eliana, a respiratory care graduate who was racing to get her diploma before delivering her own baby; Victoria, a respiratory care student who was driven by desire to make a difference; Grace, a determined and inspired mother of five who overcame barriers that would have defeated anyone with less conviction about her own potential and Dorcas, a mother of three, who had to defeat language limitations, and the strong gravitational pull of obligations that prevented her from rising above her circumstances. In her journey from minimum wage to graduate, she made a $ 6.10 wage stretch far enough to ford a river of doubt – fulfilling her dream to be a nurse and serve others.

In many instances, the NCC Foundation and NCC faculty combined to provide support for these students helping them through challenging course material, life events and circumstances that would have caused others to let go of their dreams. The heroes in this story are real people – the students and those teachers that would not let them quit. For some, it is a hard to believe chapter in a fairly tale written by countless Fairfield County families whose contributions to the Foundation helped underwrite the dreams of these students in a time when budget deficits threaten to condemn more to lives that fail to reach find their potential.

As we sat in the soft breezes of a perfect spring day, I was moved by their quiet determination and personal pride. I sat next to Tashia, a single mother who recognized that she alone held the key to her own future. An honors student from Westport, Tashia was the first in her family to attend a four-year college but after three years of college, she ended up pregnant by a high school sweetheart and was unable to continue school as a single mother. She needed to go to work and recognized that she had to subordinate all her dreams to provide for her child.

As Tashia focused a new career as mother and wage earner, she became critically ill – ending up in and out of the healthcare system. It was a chance encounter with a nurse that she changed the course of her life.

“At one hospital, a nurse took an interest in me and told me I should go to become a nurse myself. She just looked at me and told me “I can see you doing this, it may be in your soul”…She asked me questions, got to know me and I began to trust her. Knowing how much she impacted my life, I wanted to do more with mine.”

The road to a new career in nursing as a working single mother seemed impossible. But she was not to be deterred. A will to fulfill her purpose was burning and the naysayers, who told her she had one too many obligations to change lanes to a new life, only reinforced her determination.

“I was told it was impossible. However, I didn’t listen (to the critics) because I had no choice. I was determined to finish nursing school and work full-time while being a single mom to a preteen. Doing it any other way wasn’t an option. I worked extremely hard so (my employer) would not let me go. Luckily, I have an amazing boss that has done everything she can to keep me on as full-time. I remember it was about this time that I discovered the movie “The Secret”. It was where I was inspired to maintain positivity in my life. When I spoke about school, I never said ‘if I pass’, I always say, ‘When I pass’.”

She took one class each semester while working full-time. She had to delay her own gratification. Life was about making sacrifices and earning the chance to take another class. I thought of my own community and felt so inspired by a woman who wanted to work so hard for the opportunity to work harder. The ambition to be a nurse could only be accomplished one step at a time and there was no way of finessing the vertical difficulty of her climb.

“I began with Humanities ( and earned a chance at ) to Chemistry to Anatomy and Physiology I and II while working full-time as a supply chain manager at a growing local company. Work was just as stressful as schoolwork but I somehow managed to finish up my prerequisites. I nearly (ended up) homeless. Out of the graces of God, I found a home. I had to complete this program. There were tears, fears, life changes and incredible setbacks, but with the help of my classmates and the help of the school resources – supportive nursing staff, the wonderful women from the FE$P (NCC Foundation) program etc., I was able to succeed. This year I was nominated by a nursing chair for an award, ‘Women of Promise and Distinction’. It was a proud moment and it made me understand that it had all been worth it. I was incredibly honored and surprised! My motivation is my daughter. NCC has given me many things but I believe the biggest (life lesson) has been (to never give up) hope. I now have a future.”

Tashia is just one of thousands of continuing education students attending NCC each year. The leaders I met did not claim to be extraordinary; but treasured their accomplishments and the commitment they demonstrated to improve themselves. They understand that everyone does not succeed and that having a chance to take part is merely table stakes in the game of life. They don’t feel anyone owes them anything but they understand the obligation they have to make something of themselves to repay the acts of unconditional support that were provided at critical times of their journey.

For anyone who cynically still wonders whether the support for community based organizations makes a difference in people’s lives, they need look no further than the intersection of Richards Ave. and West Cedar Road. It is the nexus of will and willingness. It is where an entire community of souls can exhale knowing they have made it past the graveyard of dreams.

I have already come up with a new tag line for NCC: “Norwalk Community College – It’s Okay, You Can Breathe Now.”

A Prayer for Chuckie

Charlie Sheen does the Sunday Comics
Image by susie.c via Flickr

“With the disappearance of God the Ego moves forward to become the sole divinity.” -Dorothee Sölle

Over the past weeks, I have watched with Jersey Shore fascination the spectacular melt down of actor Charlie “Chuckie” Sheen.  Sheen’s death spiral is a B movie script for Schadenfreude genre junkies and self-mutilation fans.

Chuckie Sheen is hardly the first to stagger down the timeless and well-worn path of narcissistic sabotage.  He is neither unique nor worthy of our attention. He is simply –- sad and pathetic. Yet, for some reason his self-immolation has struck a chord with America.  In his recent week-long campaign blitz which presumably arose out of his desire to tell “ his side of the story”, Sheen conducted a series of bizarre and angry interviews.  Not unlike the slasher movies starring “Chuckie”, the knife-wielding doll, we are getting treated to a horror show of hubris. Within 24 hours of his CNN interview and his joining of Twitter, his real children were taken from him but he gained over 1mm surrogate dependents –which according to Guiness is a social network world record.  It seems the world cannot wait for his next 140 incoherent characters.

Growing up in LA in the 80’s and 90’s, it was impossible not to follow the exploits of the infamous “Brat Pack” of Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Nicholas Cage, Rob Lowe, half brother Emilio Estevez, and Sean Penn. Aside from their routine violent encounters with paparazzi, sex tapes, break-ups, accidental gun shot wounds (Sheen accidentally shot his girlfriend, Kelly Preston) and misdemeanor arrests, Chuckie and his poison pals demonstrated a penchant for sybaritic sideshows that made Caligula look like Cotton Mather.

No one is quite sure why the quiet kid and star pitcher from Santa Monica High permanently went off the rails.  Perhaps his father, Martin, was chained to the rails trying to stop a nuclear waste shipment and there was simply not room enough for the both of them.  In LA, celebrity children grow up quickly and Chuckie was a model student. He quickly discovered the seamier side of LA and started attending Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss’ tupperware parties. His “little black book” was eventually confiscated by the Center for Sexually Transmitted Diseases and the FBI.  Charlie did not know what all the fuss was about.  He was an artist and in his own words, a “ rock star” of partying who could go days without sleep and still rally to portray a twenty-something innocent trapped in circumstances beyond his control.  As is so often the case with Hollywood, art imitates life. Yet, unlike movies where redemption and self-awareness rescue the fallen man from the abyss, the fallen angel on Sunset Boulevard is often in hell and never knows it.

Sheen’s lust for life has turned him into an angry force of nature. His jet stream lifestyle and his low-pressure passions have joined to create a perfect storm of self-interest run riot. It seems wherever Hurricane Chuckie goes, wreckage and misery is not far behind. Over the years, Chuckie’s venal appetites led him into the  company of LA’s lost souls and golden calves – – adult movie stars, call girls and high-priced prostitutes.  Apparently, he had inherited his father’s intensity but seemed to have been on a ciggie break when they doled out the moral compass.

Chuckie refers to his female companions as “the goddesses”. I am not sure the ancient Greeks would appreciate his misappropriation of a term that describes iconic female deities.  However, Chuckie may be on to something.  In today’s tinsel town age of mores looser than Mama Cass’ sundress, hanging out with adult film stars, and showing up to your pal’s dinner party with Snookie are lauded as forms of self confident expression. Everything and everyone is out of the closet.  One cannot really think of any social stigma that is left except perhaps those sad unfortunates still terrified to admit that they voted for President Obama. We have become so tolerant of the highly flawed human condition that we no longer recognize it. And we always love a comeback, especially after spending four very public weeks with Dr Drew in Celebrity Rehab.

Yet, it seems that all this “coming clean” is taking its toll on popular culture.  With the closet now clean and all of our ugliest blemishes in full view on MSNBC, A&E, MTV and TMZ, some are contemplating diving back into that dark space and locking the door.  One feels so dull if they cannot confess to some kind of psychological addiction.  Others scream “just make it all go away” and dive into the now empty closet rocking gently, humming their favorite nursery rhymes. In fact, Charlie Sheen has come out and shared that he really likes his current trajectory and you should too.  He is a “winner” with “tiger’s blood”.  He does not have time to be admired or put on a pedestal. He is quick to remind us that if we are misguided enough to look up to him as a role model, we should  shift our telescopes toward the Milky Way.  It is a more reliable celestial body, predictably in the same place each night and will not disappoint you.

For those of us who have studied the astronomy of self-destruction , Chuckie is simply another fallen star in a galaxy filled with dark matter.  He will probably never make the Hall of Shame – populated with the likes of heavy weights John Edwards, ex-South Carolina governor Mark Stafford, Richard Nixon, and histories liars, cheats, and deceivers. Yet, Chuckie’s stats are impressive – – multiple marriages, five kids from three different women, myriad addictions, lawsuits, an accidental shooting, arrests, hernia and a deviated septum.  If he ends up getting picked up in his underwear fighting imaginary dragons with a trashcan lid, he will officially hit for the cycle.

Chuckie is now wandering across a wasteland of spiritual emptiness.  Despite a net worth of an estimated $ 85mm, Chuckie will be denied the things that matter most – his family, respect, peace of mind and soon, perhaps his sanity.  While his “goddesses” and enablers cling to him like ticks, he will descend into the inferno of self-obsession. His insanity will be fed by an endless negative loop of ego that feeds on its own dark thoughts.  The worse one feels about their circumstances, the more they seek lower companions and other sycophants incapable of helping him divine just how far off course his life has gotten. The self-destructive person perpetually offends their own sense of right and wrong and produces the toxins of guilt, remorse and self loathing – – poisons that can only be medicated by more obsessive behavior or by a spiritual intervention.

Unfortunately, we have seen this “Chuckie” movie before. It is a predictable script starring a dubious roster of castaways who mess up their lines and their lives.  They read and believe their own press releases and succumb to the notion that they are the star of their own movie.  Their needs must be prioritized above all others.  Their dressing room must always be filled with green M&Ms, Badoit water chilled to 10C and pan flute music by Zamfir. Their movies always end the same with the anti-hero getting smashed, burned, broken, beaten, crushed or incarcerated.

Perhaps our fascination with Chuckie Sheen goes deeper for some.  Perhaps there is a little “Chuckie” in all of us.  We sometimes mistake the notion of living in the moment for living as if there is no tomorrow.  We deceive ourselves into thinking we deserve “this” or should be able to have “that”. Our conceit and ego assures us that we know what is best for us.  We grab the steering wheel, seize the rudder, dismiss our co-pilots and forge ahead into a storm in a boat that has been ripped from its moorings.

If we are lucky, we later find out that our own best thinking is flawed and that decisions made in fear, anger or in self-pity are often disastrous.  We understand that fear and faith cannot occupy the same place.  We realize that self-loathing is a self-inflicted condition that can be cured and the most polluted garret can be transformed into the most sacred of temples.

So I say we all say a little prayer for Chuckie.  He told me (and about 290m other Americans ) that he does not need our help. He and his goddesses are doing just fine.  His movie will end just like he has planned it.  He is, after all, its director and star.

In my movie, there are no goddesses and there is one God and I have been told that I can never play that role.  I have tried out for it several times but have been permanently relegated to the role of a servant.  I sometimes critique his work and suggest that I could do things better. Fortunately, no one listens.  It’s steady work and I always seem to get what I need.  Occasionally he laughs when I tell him what I want.

For a guy that understands all about wanting to direct and star in his own film, Sheen’s latest celluloid: “Chuckie X – Winner Not Whiner” is hard for me to watch.  I keep covering my eyes, wanting to the scream, “Chuckie, watch out.  Don’t run with that knife.  Just check in somewhere and talk to a few people who can help you learn how to once again be a supporting actor. ”

With a little help,  Sheen may find that his next sequel is a love story, and not the final act of a horror film.  It may star a humble guy named Charlie, not a self obsessed psychotic slasher named Chuckie.

Now that’s a movie I’d pay to see.

And Along Came Twitter

The Internet is the most important single development in the history of human communication since the invention of call waiting. – Dave Barry

My compulsive personality is a double-edged hatchet that is impossible to conceal.  My ever-present caprice always seems to catch the bright glare of fads and new crazes. Fortunately, middle age, lack of stamina and a shrinking attention span have hobbled my propensity to chase popular culture like a dog behind a mail truck. I have left the pressure of keeping pace with social phenomena to the young and un-medicated.

Every now and then, a highly viral fad infects my judgment and I become a slave to a new master. In the last few years, the corrupting siren has been technology with her buxom applications and seductive promises of increased productivity, diversion and global access.  I am hardly a techie but I am a fast follower with a highly addictive brain that becomes almost bi-polar with a new toy.  To my spouse’s chagrin, I will disappear like an addict, staying up until all hours gorging on my fascination du jour until I literally become physically ill with its consumption.

It is bad enough when she is forced to physically disconnect the computer from our children who lack the maturity to know their boundaries.  It is quite another thing to lose your partner to the same malady. In her mind, technology has turned our home into a veritable den of iniquity with video games serving as gateway drugs to more potent preoccupations such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, instant messaging and blogging.  The computer, she has decided, is one massive crack pipe.

I started with Web surfing and moved quickly to Amazon and EBay.  These Internet applications are the cigarettes and malt liquor of cyber-life.  They are not very good for you but it would take years of daily abuse before these portals could bring you to your knees. At my most abusive point of EBay use I was a two purchase a day user.  It began with innocent acquisitions like baseball cards and nostalgic talismans from my childhood but moved on to useless flotsam like maritime clocks, antique jars filled with air from the 1870s and a Halloween mask of Bart Simpson.  I hit bottom when I mistakenly bid on an item that I had posted for sale two months earlier.

My passion for military history took me off the Internet and on to PC gaming.  I became a WWII armored division tank commander in Panzer General and a combat avatar in Battlefield 1942 and Call of Duty (COD).  I graduated from the PC battles to Xbox 360 sports games and literally spent one winter disabled in my leather chair playing Madden Football until my fingers would cramp from the incessant tapping of the X, Y and Z keys.

Along came Halo and COD 4.  They were higher end, designer narcotics combining historical gaming and the Internet.  They are the opiates of video games.  COD Modern Warfare has actually infiltrated our town at every level. I have it on good authority that a certain local celebrity routinely roams the fractured buildings and broken roads of Mogadishu searching for insurgents, doing his best to help make the world a better place.  I am pleased he is out there, helping my son and others get out of tough firefights with all our virtual limbs in tact. Yet, on the anniversary of my being killed for the 1,000th time on a virtual battlefield, I drifted back to the Internet – aimlessly following blogs, EBay auctions and The Onion. My fascination shifted to social networking.

As I approached my 30-year high school reunion last summer, I was urged to join Facebook (FB). I joined, posting the best, non-air brushed photo I had of myself in an attempt to torment any girl that ever said “no” to me to go on a date.  I dove headlong into serial posting and irreverent commentary.  Each day I would dredge up some old shoe from the muddied gray waters of the Class of ‘79.

FB gave me a chance to reconnoiter ahead of the reunion and to reconnect faces and names, safely determining who had completely lost their marbles and who had stayed reasonably normal. Life had thrown a few high hard ones to some folks and FB became their confessional and catharsis.  I avoided anyone who made entries to FB between 1am and 6am.  Social networking is like automobile driving.  The police allege that as many as 70% of the drivers on the road after 1am are under the influence of a mind altering substance. My reconnaissance proved invaluable at the California reunion as I successfully dodged someone on parole, two ex-girlfriends in the middle of strained marriages and one shady character interested in raising money for a hedge fund (hold that thought, Jim, I am just going to get a diet coke – – back in Connecticut)

My spouse sees the Facebook messages flying across our screen and is bemused. More private than me, she views FB as the equivalent of running my underwear up some narcissistic flagpole every day and waiting to see who notices. The web is like the atom – a scary unharnessed power that could easily become a WMD if placed in the wrong hands.  It is a neighborhood prowled by out-of-control teens, pedophiles and lonely hearts. Social networking is something one might find in hell — a veritable 24/7 virtual den of paparazzi where exhibitionists, garrulous wall flowers and curious voyeurs can safely post and be posted.  I pooh-poohed her conservative concerns and regularly checked my postings and blog site for comments from old friends and faceless strangers.

I was surprised one day to get a FB invite from the actress Elizabeth Shue.  There was a part of my brain that wanted to embrace Ms. Shue’s invitation to be ” friends” as validation for my rapid virtual social climbing. I had my own blog. I was a regular on FB. I had affiliated with other groups such as Linked In, Propeller and EBlog. It was apropos that a celebrity would want to network with me.  Yet social networking, like nostalgia, is a deceptive liar and you soon feel with so many friends, contacts and followers that you are ready to start your own religious denomination. You start looking for cheap land in Texas. Perhaps Elizabeth Shue would be my spokesperson.

I then got another invitation from a 28-year-old girl in Richmond whom I had never met. Her photograph was, how shall I say, a tad risqué. My immediate reaction was that she must be the daughter of a friend, and as a parent, I wanted to ask him why his daughter was sending invitations to come visit her on Tart Island. I surveyed her “friends” looking for a familiar face and it became very clear that she was only interested in meeting men – men between 40 and 80. The pathetic roster of friends was a dubious yearbook of every delusional, mid-life crisis male between Santa Barbara to Stamford. I was expecting to see Tiger Woods.  There was not a single woman.  The invitation cooed, “Hi handsome. I wanted to connect with you and be friends.”

As I scrolled the men who had consented to befriend this flattering FB figurine, I saw a friend of mine from California.  I immediately pinged him and asked him what he was doing consorting with what was most likely a Russian prostitute born when we were in our junior year in high school. He pinged me back almost immediately and sheepishly confessed, “She seemed vaguely familiar.” Yes, men are pigs.

And along came Twitter. Twitter allows you to post in 140 letters or less a daily message to those who choose to follow your “ tweets”. I cannot even use the restroom in less than 140 letters.  Twitter is all about brevity and sound bites.  Perhaps Twitter will cure my verbal incontinence. However, most tweets are inane mental droppings from celebrities and narcissists.  Rapper Ray J wants to know: ”what’s love got to do with it?” Um, ok. What does intellect got to do with it either? Miley Cyrus: “Party in the USA -I need expresso.” Good for you, Miley.  You almost spelled espresso correctly.

Social networking has created a new fifth dimension to interact and merchandise anything – a product, an idea or one’s self.  However, it is a slate gray 24-hour landscape where interaction is mistaken for intimacy.  As this sterile, achromatic vegetation spreads across our lives, perhaps it is time to turn off the computer, take a walk, say hello to Charlie and Karen next door, write a letter on my stationary and actually mail it.  Perhaps I will go meet a real friend in town for a hot cup of Zumbach’s exotic coffee.

Perhaps my next twitter should read, “ Gone to Z’s for a cup of Joe. Must recapture my mo-jo.  Say goodbye, cruel cyberspace, I’m off to join the human race. “

18 letters to spare.  Not bad.

Dude, Where’s My Party ?

They say women talk too much.  If you have worked in Congress you know that the filibuster was invented by men.  ~Clare Booth Luce

I just renewed my license at the DMV and was once again asked to register to vote.  I reviewed my two choices – – the party of Pelosi, “we’re all going to get free healthcare” and “look, there’s an investment banker, get him!” or the party of Sarah “ run Nana, there’s a death panel truck” Palin, dyspeptic John Boehner – (actually can you even name five Republicans ?) and Blackwater. I checked the box marked: “Independent”.

Yes, I know that raising politics in a small town is tantamount to taking enriched uranium yellow cake out of your pocket and saying,  “check this out Bob, look what I made in my garage.”

The dictionary defines politics as “ the art and science of administration of government.“ It seems no one disagrees on the serial blunders of W (for some it takes several drinks) whose administration seemed to employ neither art nor science.  Somewhere along the way, compassionate conservatives became passionate conservatives.  (Where did the “com” go?) I still have close friends who stick by the Grand Old Party even though they are disgusted by the party’s state of affairs.  They act like someone whose family member was found to be a convicted serial killer, “ yeah, I know George killed 12 waitresses.  But hey, he’s family.”

Some could take it no longer and moved left into a new protectorate – one that talked of social equity (higher taxes) and tough love (higher taxes).  The migration away from the conservatives led to the election of a new President and some freshman blue dog legislators.  We tossed out a few tired, pieces of aged red and blue cheese who had been sitting on the Congressional counter too long. When the dust settled and the echoes of “yes, we can “ faded, suddenly Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were in charge.  Some intoxicated by the possibility of a course correction had not read the fine print that indicated these ardent ideologues came with the package.

Many moderates were drawn to the charisma of Obama and the possibility of change.  For others, it was less about moving toward something as it was the need to distance themselves from an ethos that had lost its allure. With the exodus of many Moderate GOPs to Blue Dog Dems, the Conservative Caucus lost critical mass and its chorus was diminished of gentler voices.  The former chorale suddenly screeched with bellicose arias and exaggerated solos of the party’s more hyper-orthodox prima donnas. When I now drive by the Grand Ole Party I see an angry lynch mob.  The GOP is spending less time telling me what it stands for and more time acing like Nostradamus portending our imminent doom.  It is not a party to which a Moderate would want to return.  It’s like seeing your former neighborhood go to hell.  The GOP that I knew – is gone.

My conservative friends regularly remind me that my move toward the left will expose me to a dogma that I never experienced in my moderate greenbelt.  And to a degree, they are correct.  I admit I do not feel at home among the Democratic Caucus.  My GOP pals smile assuming I am having second thoughts. My liberal friends encourage me to give it time. Like a child at his first sleep away camp, perhaps I am just homesick for my mother’s cooking.

I understand the Democrats anger and zealous desire to move with lightening speed to enact legislation that reverses, in their minds, years of great social inequities, visited by a testosterone charged administration that overspent and under-regulated. Dems know that 2010 midterm elections may swing the political pendulum back toward the middle – reducing the chances to pass health and immigration reform, tax increases and the expansion of entitlement programs.  Their clarion cry for equity and moral responsibility falls unevenly on a population that is suffering from a massive case of economic uncertainty.  We see an estimated $9T in public debt and a future where our children’s inheritance is a massive promissory note to foreign investors. It scares us to spend more.

After a year of hanging out with the Southpaws – I feel disingenuous. I do not track with all the high-fiving and grand plans for massive social change.  When we speak of focusing more on those who can’t help themselves and my need to pay higher taxes to finance vital repairs to a ragged social safety net, I am very supportive.  Yet, when the conversation turns to the cost of financing a dramatic transformation of healthcare, education, economic stimulus and immigration, I start to get a little uncomfortable.

My days of Macro and Micro Economics 101 flash back and I can not see how a fragile recovery can shoulder more public debt, higher taxes reaching into the middle class through pass through assessments and a continuation of “put off until tomorrow” monetary policies.  No one is talking tough choices, personal responsibility or austerity.  I start to get nauseous and leave the Donkey’s lair to get some air.  Nobody really notices I am missing.  So what do I stand for?

I subscribe to the ancient Greek saying, “the mark of a great society is when old men plant trees that they know they will never rest underneath.” I believe if you do not have the money to buy what you want, you must pull in your belt and purchase only what you need. I think everyone should have a roof over their head but not everyone should own a home. To quote one pundit, ” if 15% of Americans were homeless, we would not solve the problem by putting the other 85% in Federal Housing.”

I believe “a great society is defined by how it takes care of the least among them.”  The dividends of free market capitalism do not fall evenly on all heads like soft rain. When people fail they do not always reinvent into better versions of their former selves. People don’t “go out of business”, they need a hand up or become wards of a system – a criminal justice or welfare system.  When the economy tanks, it is often the most vulnerable among us that suffer. Its up to us to decide what kind of system we can afford to offer and how we can finance these vital entitlements with a dollar for dollar reduction in non-essential government spending.

If we do not make some tough choices, we could end up with sustained double-digit unemployment, hyperinflation and social unrest. Many politicians simply lack the political will to acknowledge this dangerous climate change.

The best domestic and foreign policy is to create a viable consumer class.  A rising tide of prosperity lifts all boats and drowns out the bellicose extremists that seek to advance agendas ranging from authoritarianism, communism, social Darwinism -any theology that divides people while centralizing power.  Americans are spoiled.  They do not take the time to learn the facts and want rapid resolution.  We don’t live well with pain. We gorge on the empty carbohydrates of TV and radio sound bites.  Charisma and character are often confused.

I am ticked off at Republicans and Democrats for so completely abandoning a doctrine that promised reduced deficits, effective regulation and social investment that expanded the middle class.  We were not supposed to preside over a period where the economic chasm between those at the top and the bottom of society exponentially expanded.

So who do we hold culpable? The Dems want their incumbents (rap sheets and all) reelected.  Meanwhile, the Party of W presided over massive increases in our public debt and now suffer from collective memory loss saying its all Obama’s fault.  A few are even showing grainy photos of what looks like the President firing RPGs with Osama Bin Laden while on holiday in Karachi.   If it were up to me, I would toss the lot of them out on their ear.  Who is buying this garbage?

As someone who still clings to aspirations to leave the world a better place than when I came into it, I am flummoxed. I scan the political horizon line for fresh faces that attempt to honestly frame reality while at the same time having the political courage to attempt to change it.  It’s grim.

Am I a Libertarian? A Populist?  A Demoindependican? My political meandering seems to piss everyone off. I have been accused of being a bleeding heart liberal, an idealistic windsock, a Republican in sheep’s clothing or a political ronin – you name it. Most are usually quick to tell me why an idea won’t work but tend to stumble when asked to offer a viable solution.  It isn’t easy stuff.  Is Obama really a closet socialist hell-bent on massive income redistribution or is he a neophyte liberal politician with incredible charisma whose desire for greater social equilibrium is running into a two party buzz saw that categorically refuses to split the solution down the middle? Is he in control of a headstrong Democratically controlled Congress or is he painfully learning on the job?  Is he Valdemort or Voltaire ?

So here I sit – an Independent.  Do we Independents have a mascot? May be we could choose an eagle – strong, resilient and self-sufficient.  Are eagles taken? Are they, like the Independent, still endangered? Other than Joe Lieberman, I actually don’t know any Independents.  Where do they hang out?  Do we have a convention? Or at least a clubhouse with a small gym?

As I sit with my chin in hand on the proverbial curb, the great red and blue political machines churn, polish, manage and crank out Teflon candidates to challenge one another’s incumbents.  And I can’t find a single member of my new tribe.

Dude, where’s my party?

Cat’s Cradle – Untangling the US Healthcare system

cats_cradle_article_by_mike_turpin_march_20081

A Writer At Rest

A Writer At Rest

 

And another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market-the quips, the witticisms, the slant adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears, their warm pooled breath in and out with your heart beat, their response and your performance twinned. The jokes over the phone. The memories packed in the rapid-access file.  The whole act. Who will do it again? That’s it: no one; imitators and descendants aren’t the same.  Perfection Wasted — John Updike

 

My hero John Updike died last month of lung cancer at a hospice in suburban Massachusetts. A master narrator, he was a skilled oarsman meticulously ferrying his passengers across a dark river to wander the dimly lit bayous of Middle America.

He prowled the back streets and alleys of Anglo-Saxon America for five decades – gently tending the fires to illuminate the unfulfilled underbelly of small towns and small thinkers. He once told Life magazine that his subject “ is the American Protestant small-town middle class. I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”  His magnificent writing existed in that rare literary greenbelt that separates poetry and fiction.  His characters were often flawed Greek tragedies – mortals stumbling through a universe of moribund marriages, failed dreams, invisible constraints and electric sexual tension.

 

To a young English major who could not yet properly identify the profound that lay hidden within the prosaic, Updike was an inspiration.  He had been to the mountain top and descended with a stone tablet that deciphered the strange alchemy of the human condition – a mixture of larceny and compassion, adultery and dogged faith, black desires and noble aspirations.  In the Rabbit series of novels, Updike injected the genomes of human frailty into a small town, former basketball star named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom whose serial restlessness and inability to understand his deepest needs condemned him to a potholed road of detours, disappointments and desperate liaisons. Yet, Rabbit captivated us and was Updike’s foil to simultaneously cuff and embrace the American way at the same time.  James Woods described Updike as “ a prose writer of great beauty…that described the aching gap between God and his creatures”.

 

Critic Adam Gopnik related, “ Updike’s great subject was the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. He documented how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation. For Updike, this effort was blessed, and very nearly successful. Unlike his European contemporaries, who saw the same space and the attempted filling as mere aridity and deprivation, Updike was close enough to, and fond enough of, the source of postwar material abundance to love it fully, and for itself. (And he knew enough of the decade of deprivation that preceded the big blossoming never to be jaded about plenty.) He viewed the material culture of American life with a benign, appreciative ironic eye. But he had no illusions, either, about its ability to cover the failure or wish away mortality.”

 

While he viewed America through a sober lens, he never stopped loving it.  It was as if he saw the nation for what it was – a stumbling adolescent whose life lessons must be learned the hard way and whose serial inability to learn from the past would condemn it to center stage as an endearing moral and social recidivist. Updike once barked that “ most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.”

 

Updike offered conditional emancipation for Middle America tangled in lives of self -righteousness and repressed temptation.  His liberation was not in the condoning the behavior of his conflicted protagonists but was instead expressed in the absence of formal reproach.  He was our mirror and cheerleader.  Instead of whisking his readers to far off places populated by strange characters and imaginary misfits, he drove us right back into our own neighborhoods, peering through silk drapes and the soft light cast from other rooms to gaze on souls leading lives that fell into the unimaginative seams that separated the uninspired and the inspired. He offered us a life that was an uneven box, deep and dark with broad possibilities but never tied neatly with a bow or wrapping. He celebrated our “enigmatic dullness”.  He was our champion and our critic all at the same time.  Updike became the treasured spokesperson for the Silent generation who grew up unevenly under the repressed, filtered light of Depression maturity only to burst into the wild excesses of an adolescent society in full rebellion.

 

In his Bech series of books, he created his own alter ego – a cynical Jewish American novelist who stumbles through amorous liaisons and the thick twisted forest of the literary world.  Bech offers us a glimpse into Updike and his unforgiving patriotism, sardonic sense of humor and relentlessly delicious need for venal satisfaction – revenge, sexual desire and love. 

 

He won two Pulitzer prizes – only one of three American authors to ever achieve such an honor.  He loved golf and endlessly pursued the redemption that could only be found pushing a dimpled ball recklessly along green manicured fairways. He advocated for human rights and helped America come to grips with its own shadows.  He was our burning bush.  Ever the optimist, Updike’s characters muddled through every possible storm that life could throw at them.  They weaved their way across life and were celebrated if for no other reason than for just being.

 

“We do survive every moment after all “, he said ” except the last one.”

 

 

Answer The Question

Answer The Question, Please!

 

In a past life, I briefly served as a senior executive in an industry that was a favorite scratching post for the media.  Having spent over twenty years as a consultant – – writing and speaking on a range of radioactive topics,  I was naturally impervious to media trickery and was put off when my new employer suggested I go through training.  “ I have been doing this for many years.” I mused to the HR rep who was attempting to penetrate my calendar for a four hour session with a media consultant.  “ I really don’t need this.”

 

My boss called and gently suggested I indulge my management and attend a one on one coaching session.  The day arrived and I was directed to a nondescript office suite in New York where I was sequestered to an equally unimaginative conference room to await my training.  I sat impatiently alternating between my Blackberry and my watch.  I literally was getting out of my chair to return to work when the door burst open.   The room filled with a cacophony of bright lights and noise as a female television reporter rushed in followed by her cameraman with lights blazing and camera filming.

 

“ Mr Turpin, is it true that you have been CEO during a period of time where your firm was being investigated for irregularities in your operations? “  Before I could even answer, she continued to attack.  “ So when did you stop beating your wife?”

“ What,” I said, “are you serious?”  She went for the jugular, “ I am sure it’s hard to remember many of these things.  But how does it feel to preside over a business that is so indifferent to the needs of the consumers it serves.”  At this point, I began to piece together words but it came out as babbling gibberish .  She thrust the microphone in my face as I stuttered an unconvincing, defensive response that seemed to suggest that I was hiding something – – perhaps weapons of mass destruction or institutional malfeasance.   All the time I was answering, she was making incredulous faces, mocking my responses

 

The reporter lowered her microphone and mercifully switched off her 300 watt light.  She shook my hand and introduced herself as my media coach.  “ This is why you need media training.  In the next four hours, we will learn how to stay on message and to position yourself for the camera to appear credible, confident and compassionate”.  Over the next several hours, my coach who had made a career advising politicians and CEOs, walked me through the art of deflection.  Like a martial arts instructor, I was taught to move with the momentum of the attacker and never allow an interrogator a direct hit.  I watched video tapes of oil industry executives who had credibly appeared to defend attacks about egregious profits and watched as less effectively coached executives and politicians squirmed and were reduced by the media to shifty Simon La Grees who had  widow’s fund money in their pockets and larceny in their hearts.

 

I was getting a deep whiff of the carcinogenic air of Nick Naylor, the teflon sociopath spokesperson for big tobacco created by Christopher Buckley in Thank You for Smoking.  My consultant impressed on me with relentless repetition.  “ Don’t get charmed by the reporter.  Stay on message.  No matter what the question.  You come back to the key messages that we want to underscore as a company.  No matter what they ask you, segue back to the message.  Do not answer the question.  You do yourself no favors answering the question.  They are all set ups.  Stay on message.”

 

I have recently watched the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates with an even more jaundiced eye.  At times, I want to scream, JUST ANSWER THE DAMN QUESTION!” and then I realize, they will never answer the question because they are staying on message.  John McCain’s message is “ My opponent has a liberal voting record, is naïve with no experience and consorts with radicals.”  Obama’s message is “ John McCain equals George Bush.  McCain’s experience is not an advantage but a pathetic resume of failure and cronyism which is rife in Washington DC”.  You could ask them any question you want, you will be waiting a long time for an answer unless it relates back to these talking points.   It has been made abundantly clear to me that these debates are than honesty around the issues. 

 

I just want someone to answer my questions.  I have several that are weighing on my mind:

 

1)   Senators, do any of you know what a credit swap is?  Do you know there are $ 55 Trillion dollars of CDOs still in the market?  Did you vote for or against the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act which deregulated these financial speculation instruments? Can you explain why our economy is still cratering even after a $ 700B bail out package and a coordinated cut in the lending interest rates by several country’s central banks?   How do we arrest this crisis of confidence?  It’s not about liquidity, it’s about trust and there is none.

2)   Senator Obama, you have a very liberal voting record which indicates a desire for higher taxes, increased government and entitlement programs. Herbert Hoover ushered in the Depression when in 1932, he further suffocated consumer spending by passing the largest marginal tax rate increase in history at the very time that taxes should have been held firm or decreased.  Please tell me how history won’t repeat itself? 

3)   Senator McCain, you are a Republican.  The Republicans have presided over record deficits, eroded international credibility, deregulation that led to intoxicating excesses and crippling energy dependence at the hands of powerful petro authoritarian governments who hate the US.  Cab you fault anyone for thinking a Democratic Whitehouse could not be any worse than what we have endured these past eight years?

4)   Who was minding the store at Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac?  What do you think about Barney Frank and Chris Dodd and their oversight of the quasi –governmental agencies that gave out sub prime loans to individuals who could not afford them? 

5)   I believe the next credit crisis will be consumer credit?  Do you agree and what do you propose to mitigate the coming days of reckoning as people default on their credit obligations?

 

I have lots more questions , Senators.  However don’t bother getting back to me.  I know McCain is an unpredictable, hawkish, Bush crony and Obama is in inexperienced uber liberal.  Yes, I know your records.  Yes, I know what you think of one another. 

 

But can someone just please answer my questions?

 

America’s Ex-Wife

image1The number of American presidential candidates varies with the sunspot cycle and the phases of the moon. Being a Republican, I’m backing Hillary Clinton.  Because she could lose.  The reason is not that she’s a woman.  The reason is that she’s the particular woman who taught the 4th grade class that every man in America wished he were dead in.  Hillary Clinton is Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown.  Hillary Clinton is “America’s ex-wife.”  ~PJ O’Rourke

 I have to sheepishly confess my petty satisfaction when Obama garnered the democratic nomination for President.  It was pure schadenfreude for many watching Hillary Clinton cede her manifest destiny.  I am still not entirely sure why she bugs the hell out of me.  I begrudged her candidacy each painful step of the way.  It was the first time I felt like voting against someone instead for someone.  And yet, on the day it became clear that Obama had the mandate from his party, I felt a twinge of guilt.  Was it me?  Or was it her?

Many may vehemently disagree with me, but I have concluded that Hillary Clinton was perhaps the most qualified in the field of presidential nominees – both Democratic and Republican.  Wait, wait, don’t roll your eyes and groan.  Even my father, an ardent anti-Clintonite, agrees with me that as president, she may have very well turned out to be the most balanced – tough, focused and as a beltway insider, perhaps most bipartisan.  I have no doubt some of her policies would have had impact on those already concerned about being in too high a tax bracket and given shivers to those laboring in industries that would prefer less regulation and government intrusion.  Yet, curiously, our aversion to Mrs. Clinton seems to be driven less by her policies and politics and more by her persona.  It seems we focus less on what she is saying because we’re so focused on how she is saying it.  What is it about Hillary that gets so far under our skin?

I asked a psychologist friend to help me deconstruct my visceral reaction to Citizen Clinton in hopes that I might come to grips with my Hillary heartburn.  After hours of analyzing my misspent youth, relationship with my mother, ex-girlfriends, conservative father – all the while having me play with a GI Joe to get in touch with my inner child – he offered several theories..

1)    Latent Misogynist – This suggested that I secretly hated all women, particularly women who possessed intellect, confidence and ability.  Given that I married a woman who brought many of these attributes to our relationship, I could confidently say I was not harboring a secret nostalgia for the good old days “whar’ women folk was in the kichun’ bar’foot and pregnunt.”  I actually loved the fact that my teenage daughter had a role model who was cutting a path all the way to the White House.  Just why did it have to be Hillary?

2)    Clinton Hatred – I voted for Bill Clinton – twice.  He did a good job as President.  I recognize he was helped by a Republican congress that would not let him drift too far left.  Bill was and is a charismatic windsock – blowing in whatever direction the breezes of public opinion direct him.  However, he made you feel like you were important and possessed a great ability to motivate people into action.  I also spent several years living overseas and witnessed the incredible surfeit of goodwill the Clinton presidency accumulated for America, which the Bush administration has now overdrawn like a profligate teen.  Hillary was there every step of the way – physically, emotionally and intellectually.  And, if Primary Colors is to be believed, the woman some have dubbed “Lady Macbeth” had a lot to do with Bill’s success, including sweeping up behind his many personal transgressions.

3)    Clinton Conspiracy Theorist – What really happened to Vince Foster?  What about the mysterious deaths befalling the state troopers who had provided protective services for Bill during his alleged extracurricular activity?  Is Hillary really Jimmy Hoffa?  Oliver Stone, is there a grassy knoll here?

4)    Xenophobia – From the moment Hillary “took on healthcare” during the ‘80s, I was annoyed at her gall to tackle something as complicated, dysfunctional and profoundly in need of change as the US healthcare system.  Besides, she was proposing changes that would effectively mess with my industry’s mess…and my livelihood.  I mean, how dare she?  It didn’t matter that our efforts to date had done nothing to really fix the problems.  Who was this presumptuous interloper talking about healthcare purchasing cooperatives and increased regulation?  The male chauvinist in me wanted to yell, “Hey, lady, I smell something burning in the White House kitchen!”  It did not matter to me, or Harry and Louise for that matter, that much of what she was saying had merit.

5)    Political and Economic Mistrust – I was genetically programmed from the time of conception to distrust anyone who espoused the 3 R’s: regulation, redistribution or redistricting.  The road to serfdom is carved by politicos who enjoy spending other people’s money advocating collectivism and a massive centralized government.  Hillary scared me on several occasions with her bellicose rhetoric against business and free market economics.  She had a penchant for distorting issues that I felt did not inform the public’s IQ around energy, healthcare and foreign policy.  Here’s the problem: we are in the midst of a Republican presidency that has presided over historic deficit spending and its own dubious distortions.  So how can I hammer Hillary when the neo cons have led us so deep into a quagmire of self-inflicted decline.

At the end of our session, my counselor said he was pleased with my progress but that my recovery would still probably take years.  He recommended that I repeat over and over “Kenneth Starr swims out to meet troop ships” while walking around the house wearing Ilsa, the She-wolf, pumps.  We agreed that I should continue my therapy as one thing was for certain: Hillary Clinton is a fixture in American politics and will be a constant storm on the horizon.  With our country’s never-ending jet stream of social, economic and political crosswinds, she will remain an omnipresent low pressure system drawing purpose and strength from inequity in America.

Yes, Hillary has been voted off the island. But don’t count her out.

She’ll be back….