Recently, I decided to re-read You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe’s classic, and as I was working my way through Book VI, where George Webber is preparing to depart and then leaving Germany in 1936, I found parallels to our situation in America.
In the novel, George Webber feels a sense of foreboding, that Germany is on the cusp of something terrible, particularly with respect to discrimination against Jews. What struck me is that Wolfe likely wrote this scene in 1937 and early 1938 before dying in September, almost exactly one year before the outbreak of WWII. It’s in this part of the novel that George Webber realizes that Germany – the country he has loved and almost worshiped – has changed irrevocably. It has in fact disappeared.
All that got me thinking about America today. I don’t think we’re at the same point precisely, but I do get the sense that we’re edging ever closer to a great schism, a time in which we’ll be called to make a stand one way or the other. Do we want to be a nation that seeks its own goals only, the rest of the world be damned, or do we want to strive toward being a global partner, concerned with the whole world’s wellbeing?
I don’t know how we’ll answer that; I don’t think anyone does. But it seems clear that we’ve entered the fray, some of us determined to protect our own, to continue on the course our forebears have plotted for us, while others call for systemic change, believing we should throw out everything we’ve accomplished to this point and start over.
It doesn’t even matter who’s right, who’s viewpoint will be proven by history to be correct. What matters is the rancor and acrimony extant in our civilization now, the inability or at least unwillingness to compromise, practically guaranteeing that nothing will get done.
And compromise doesn’t mean my side giving in to your side or vice versa. It means thoughtful deliberation after examination of all the available evidence. No new taxes and Medicare for all simply cannot coexist. There must be a third way, where some taxes can be raised and a healthcare public option can be created, for example.
But the Manichean voices on the left and right, so convinced of their rectitude, would rather burn the planet down than surrender one inch to the enemy. It’s easy to blame the politicians, but we can’t really do that since we’re the ones who put them there. Nazi Germany, at least had a dictator at the helm. We don’t have that excuse.
So we press on, looking for the glorious victory, heedless of the smaller achievements we might be capable of attaining. We’re not interested in moderate candidates. We don’t want to succeed by inches. It’s all or nothing.
It wasn’t always that way. At one time we understood that you can’t always get what you want. Sometimes you have to take a small win and work to build on that. But that isn’t who we are right now. For us, in these times, the world is black and white. If you believe something different from what I believe, then you’re not just wrong, you’re evil – and compromising with you would taint me.
So where does that leave us? I’m not sure I have the answer. I do know we need to become more thoughtful and less reactive, more willing to consider that we might be wrong and that our initial instincts need to be examined carefully. We need to avoid mob mentality and focus on finding ways to work with those who see things differently.
I’m not sure if that will be sufficient, but the course we’re on now seems dangerous.
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We all want our government to pay for certain things. Those wants are different for different people, but we all want government to pay for something. The problem, however, is that there isn’t enough money to pay for all the things we want government to do.
There’s enough money if we choose to do only what some of us want. For example, some of us want a border wall with Mexico and a strong military, not Medicare for all, not government paying for environmental cleanup, not people getting a guaranteed income. What’s important is projecting strength to the world so that we won’t get taken advantage of.
Some silly people are concerned about wild horses. That was in the news recently. The head of the Bureau of Land Management said that it will take $5 billion and 15 years to get an overpopulation of wild horses under control on federal lands across the western U.S. Should we spend our collective money on a project like that? Some of us are adamantly opposed to culling wild horses from the West while others are passionate about shrinking herds to sustainable levels.
Or what about education and student loans?
A top official in the federal student loan program resigned recently, calling the system fundamentally broken and advocating for the forgiveness of $50,000 in student loan debt for everyone, regardless of income. Some laud his position while others call it foolhardy.
On a more basic level, some think public education is a constitutional right while others believe it ought to be privatized. That certainly benefits some. If everyone were to receive a set amount for vouchers, the middle class could use the money to augment their resources and send their kids to the best schools while the poor would be stuck at failing schools.
As for infrastructure, pretty much everybody wants roads and bridges that aren’t falling apart and desires government to pay for them. In northern states particularly, government is tasked with snow and ice removal in the winter as well as pothole repair in spring. Few would argue that government should get out of that business.
Police and fire – again, most of us want the government paying for those services rather than letting the wealthy hire their own private constabulary/firefighters while leaving the rest of us to deal with such misfortune on our own.
But there are myriad areas that require some sort of funding – the opioid crisis; mental health treatment; subsidizing housing and sports teams; protecting Monarch butterflies and bald eagles; building floodwalls in low-lying areas; subsidizing coal, solar or nuclear energy; light rail; mail delivery; SNAP benefits; subsidizing cotton, peanuts, sugar or milk. The list is practically endless – and I haven’t even included Medicare and Social Security, two of the biggest drivers of debt.
Obviously we can’t fund everything. There just isn’t enough money, no matter how much you tax corporations and the rich. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be paying a higher level than they currently are. They definitely should. But that’s not enough to solve all our wants.
The reality is that there just isn’t enough money to pay for everything we want. But if we can only afford to pay for some of what we want, what part should we fund? This is the unanswerable question. Why? Because we as a society can’t agree on what our priorities ought to be. Until we can do that (and I’m increasingly convinced we’ll never be able to do that), we’ll never be satisfied with anyone else’s answer.
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There’s been a lot of talk of quid pro quo lately and I think it’s worth discussing because it’s prevalent in our society, albeit rarely formalized. With Trump and Ukraine, for example, it’s pretty clear that there was a quid pro quo even though nothing was written down; no conditions or restrictions were explicitly placed on the prime minister.
Foreign countries stay at his properties or even pay to stay at his properties and then don’t actually stay there (so there’s no wear and tear, or the properties can even be double booked) in the hopes of getting favorable treatment from the administration.
Or look at wealthy donors and universities. Again, nothing is stated as crassly as: “You admit my son and I’ll help build your new science lab.” Instead it’s often: “Let’s admit Mr. Lavish’s daughter because then he’ll be inclined to help pay for a new library.”
You see this in employment situations where Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush get jobs not because of their skills but because of their connections. Even if they have the minimum qualifications, they’re not the most qualified; they’re just the most high-profile.
Wealthy employers often hire the children of their friends or relatives. A Harvard degree isn’t nearly as important as knowing the right people. And if your friend’s child just happens to have a Harvard degree because of that child’s parents’ connections with VIPs from the university, so much the better.
This “nepotism” is always morally questionable and yet remains rampant in our society.
You see it in dating where the person in power uses that edge to get what he wants by implicitly promising something in exchange for sex, which is one reason why bosses should never date subordinates.
People in power have learned to make these quid pro quos implicit. Very few people are stupid enough to say, “Do this for me or else.” Doing it implicitly makes it a lot easier to have deniability. “I never said she had to do this in order to get that.”
But the point is you didn’t have to say it. That was understood from the beginning by both sides. If you have to say it, then you really don’t have the power you or they think you have. In this world, everything is an implicit deal. “I do this for you. You do that for me.”
When everything is a deal, when every transaction is assumed to be some sort of quid pro quo, trust in society breaks down. People assume that there has been some sort of payoff or side deal. Recently, a Democratic congressman resigned from a University of Minnesota paid fellowship (for which he got to write the job description and set his own hours) over questions about how he got the position. He had been hired by a former state senator from the same party.
It’s possible this was a legitimate transaction, but it certainly looks bad. So why do it? Obviously because they thought they could get away with it. They may not even have thought they did anything wrong. And that in itself is a problem. When you can’t recognize the corruption you’re engaged in, it’s harder to ferret it out in others.
Perhaps it’s no worse now than it always has been, but we see it more often now because of the pervasiveness of digital communication. This is a problem because trust in our leaders continues to erode. We now expect them to be cheating us pretty much every opportunity they get.
And when trust dies, society falls.
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Weakness as strength is a Taoist thought. Lao Tzu said, “Nothing in the world is weaker than water but against the hard and the strong nothing outdoes it.” And Wang Tao said, “Eight feet of water can float a thousand-ton ship. Six feet of leather can control a thousand-mile horse. Thus does the weak excel the strong.”
We often think of these kinds of aphorisms as cute even if somewhat irrelevant to our lives. Or we consider them semantic games. They’re actually designed to get us to think in different ways, to see the world in ways we hadn’t previously conceived.
But in a broader sense, there’s a lot of truth to the idea that weakness is actually strength. Consider, for example, a sports team. I helped coach a seventh- and eighth-grade co-rec soccer team this fall. We experienced some wins and some losses. And we learned a lot from both.
We learned that we could be successful by utilizing the sides of the field, by switching directions instead of just trying to march straight up the pitch each time we possessed the ball. This was a lesson we learned in both victory and defeat. When we were beaten, it was usually because the other team did that better than we did. And when we won, we generally did it better.
Yet our team struggled with this concept for most of the season. Their first instinct was to play the ball forward, toward the opposing team’s goal, even if they had to fight through half a dozen defenders. Only near the end of the season, after a painful loss to an all-boys team, did they grasp that maybe pushing the ball forward every single time they touched it might not be the best strategy.
Maybe the lesson – that you don’t necessarily want to meet strength with strength – will stick with them.
Palm trees bend with the wind, so they’re often able to withstand hurricanes. As trees go, they’re not particularly strong. Yet by yielding, they survive when stronger trees are toppled. Similarly, when we recognize our weaknesses, we are afforded the opportunity to craft alternative solutions.
This flexibility of mind is a strength. It’s a way of adjusting ourselves or the world around us to achieve a goal despite not being able to do so via the straight path. And sometimes there is no adaptation to be made. Sometimes our strength lies in accepting our weakness.
The athlete at the end of a career. The movie star whose external beauty fades. Too many hang on too long, viewing themselves as strong by putting off the inevitable, not realizing that their actions are causing them to sink into objects of pity and sadness.
But we’re all going to lose in the end. None of us are getting out of this existence alive. Some of us have a better idea of how and when we’re going to be exiting than others, but none of us is ultimately going to win.
Whether enduring an incurable, fatal disease or simply approaching our final exit, we can choose to fight it with fear and anger or face it with dignity. Dylan Thomas wrote: “Do not go gentle into that good night … rage against the dying of the light.”
I get it. I understand the desire for life, for success, for glory, for that one last moment in the sun. But embracing or at least accepting the inevitable, that is real strength.
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When is the right time to give up? When is it okay to stop banging your head against the wall? Well, if you’re literally banging your head against a wall, I’d say you’re allowed to give up pretty much immediately. One knock of your noggin against the old plaster and you ought to have society’s blessing to move on to something else.
But most situations aren’t so clear cut. When should the middle-aged actor/poet/writer seeking to make it in the arts call it quits? What level of success is acceptable and when should one move on to other pastures?
Even with life itself there comes a point where people decide they no longer want to be here. I’m not talking about suicide per se (although I’m including it as well), but rather about old age and infirmity. I’ve known a number of older people who just decided to let go – leaving behind chronic pain and a kind of ennui at the remainder of their days.
Some have faulted them for relinquishing God’s precious gift of life. Others marvel that anyone should judge them for seeking to end their misery. When is it okay for them to quit?
Or consider Florence Foster Jenkins, the socialite who wanted to be an opera singer. (A biopic of the same name starred Meryl Streep.) Although she was a good piano player, her voice never reached those same heights. Was she aware of that? Did she know how bad she sounded or did she delude herself into believing she sounded the way she wanted to sound? The latter seems more likely.
Another example is Fred Astaire. A critic once said of him: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” Should he have given up? Obviously not since he became a Hollywood legend. But how many others who were encouraged to give up actually did so?
The problem with knowing when to give up is mostly in the timing. Van Gogh was encouraged to quit painting many times in his life, but he kept working at it through failure after failure, and he finally began experiencing a modicum of success just prior to his death.
The Astaire and van Gogh stories compel many of us to stick with our dreams long after we should walk away. Yet there are also many of us who quit too soon, after a few negative comments or a handful of obstacles.
I’ve heard people say, “If only so and so had stuck with the piano (or their relationship or college), their life would have turned out so much better.” And I’ve heard people say, “If only so and so had quit that job (or football or their horrible marriage) sooner, they would have been so much happier.” Yet we can never know the truth of those statements. We can’t know for certain whether quitting is the right choice.
So, when is the right time to give up? Obviously, it’s a personal choice, unique to each individual. Some people’s tolerance for pain is greater than others’. Some people’s passion or dedication runs hotter and requires more in the way of obstacles for them to surrender.
It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and judge, to say Amy shouldn’t have given up while Joe should have, but the reality is that none of us has the right to say when someone else should quit.
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Which begins at the edge of the parking lot
Easing me into wilderness
Conveying me from almost prairie
Into something like wooded seclusion
Where I’m surrounded by oak and ash and maple
sunlight dappling the ground
Viceroys commingling with grasshoppers
Flowers of yellow and purple and white
Spread into my path and merge with my thoughts
Compelling me to notice them
While the temperature drops ten degrees
The humidity rising
And the glandular trichomes spray out
Esters and ethers, terpenes and carbonyls
Aerosols that fly hundreds of miles
Or at least as far as their neighbors
Far above my puny understanding
Warning each other of intruders and enemies
Yet unable to adapt to the greatest threat of all
Sitting yonder at the edge of the parking lot
Where I now exit the trail
And spot the newfoundland nosing its way around the corner
Looking for the briefest of flashes like a bear
Until my brain recognizes the gentle giant
Connected by a leash to its owner
And my heart returns to its normal rhythm
I step toward my car
Not far from the yellow beasts that await their orders
The name upon their sides suggesting innocence
Invoking images of butterflies and milkweed
For the last time I depart this haven
Spending one final glance through my rearview mirror
At the Caterpillars.
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We are all capable of great goodness, and yet we are all complicit in the killing of our neighbors. Everything we do, in some way, harms the world and the people around us. We buy soap, which contains chemicals that are harmful to the environment, hurting algae or bacteria, which then hurt other life forms and still other life forms.
Up the ladder we go, every action ultimately contributing in some tiny way to the premature death of someone or other. Yes, it’s usually a minuscule fraction. When a non-smoker dies of lung cancer, we don’t automatically assume we are partly to blame.
We assume the poor person got exposed to secondhand smoke or just got unlucky in the gene pool. We don’t reach back to actions we took – mowing the lawn or driving a car or buying a T-shirt or a cup of coffee – that added microparticles of pollution to the air. And we probably shouldn’t.
How would we be able to accomplish anything if we worried all the time about the effect our actions had on the planet? We would be trapped in a stasis of inaction, barely daring to breathe, sipping only water drawn from a well dug in the backyard and eating dandelion greens and acorns.
I don’t write this to make anyone feel bad. I’m not accusing anyone of murder. But some of our actions are more harmful than others. Some demand that we contemplate the ramifications of the fulfillment of our desires. There are small steps we can take to minimize the harm we cause.
We can’t stop living our lives, but we can live them more introspectively, more frugally. By cutting back on consumption, by using less energy, by choosing better options (like glass over plastic or wearing those old pants for another year even though they’re not in fashion anymore), we are preparing ourselves for the changes that must inevitably come.
Obviously, they’re not enough by themselves. But if we can be an example to our neighbors as well as to ourselves of what is possible, we can more quickly attain that tipping point that will allow us en masse to demand our leaders do what is necessary.
It’s a long road, of course. Look, for example, at background checks on the sale of firearms. Approximately 90 percent of the US population wants universal background checks and yet nothing happens because of the power of the NRA.
But one thing is certain. The individual approach won’t continue working forever. We need collective action by the vast majority of us. Sure, there will always be a few radicals who are only interested in themselves, our progeny be damned. Yet, if we figure out a way to act together, we can make our future (and our children’s future) better.
Shared sacrifice is coming. We can either embrace it soon or be dragged into it kicking and screaming in the decades to come. I vote we try the former.
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What does it mean for something to be good? It seems pretty simple on the surface. Everybody knows what “good” means, right? Except that it’s actually a pretty difficult question to answer. Philosophers have struggled with it for centuries.
The first thing that often comes to mind when we think of something being good is that we like whatever that thing is. It has the qualities one expects of that particular thing. For example, a good tree is one that we like, one that provides the proper amount of shade or lumber or windbreak.
Or if we’re referring to people, we think a person is good if that person does things society approves of: selfless, generous, kind and honest. But it gets complicated pretty quickly. Someone can be good most of the time but do things that many of us consider bad once in a while.
For example, we generally think of an honest person as good, but when that person says something cruel (however honest) we tend to be critical. Take abortion (or any other political hot potato). Most folks feel strongly about it one way or the other, so those on the opposite side have to reconcile their views on the matter with their views of the person who sides against them.
If you strongly believe in a woman’s right to choose, you might have difficulty accepting someone like Pope Francis as good given how he feels about it. Or consider the Second Amendment. You might have a hard time thinking of someone as good if they strongly believe in the right to bear arms, including semi-automatic weapons.
You can pick virtually any issue and find “good” people on both sides of it, even something as mundane as artwork. I know several people who think Jackson Pollock was a terrible painter. They look at his abstract work and think anyone could spatter colors around like that. Others find deep meaning in his paintings. They consider him a good artist.
So it turns out that “good” is difficult to nail down precisely. One way to determine what is good is to examine one’s visceral reaction to it. On an instinctive level, we can often tell what is good and what is bad. Snakes may be good snakes but we still generally consider them to be bad for us. Same for spiders.
Most of us don’t like either of them regardless of how good they are for the environment. And even though we’ve largely come to like bees because they do so much pollinating, most of us don’t want them living in our yards or near our homes.
As for people, we have to employ a different system. I think we only need to consider two things: truth and generosity. First, truth. Without it, there can be no trust. If people lie to us, we don’t know what to believe. So truth is vital. And truth means more than just speaking truth; it also includes living truth, being true to oneself and to others. Spotting what is right and fighting for that.
Second, generosity. People who are generous lift us up. They make us more inclined to like them and the world around us. They make us want to be generous too. That doesn’t mean we should give away everything we have, but we shouldn’t be parsimonious either.
There are other qualities, like fairness, loyalty and humility, that people often cite. But those qualities, it seems to me, are subsets of truth and generosity, so I would define a good person as one who is true and generous. Now if only I could tell who was honest and generous at a glance. 😊
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You might not believe this but I found a gold doubloon the other day – an old Spanish coin dated 1537. It had been dented by a musket ball fired at Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. How do I know that? Well, again, this is somewhat unbelievable, but the doubloon was sitting atop a document detailing its provenance.
This coin is priceless. And I just happened to stumble across it in a wealthy neighborhood a few blocks away from where I live. Actually, it’s more of a gated community a few miles away from where I live.
I enjoy going out late at night to exercise, avoiding the heat of the day. I sometimes climb a fence and explore the rich part of town, keeping to the shadows as much as possible so that the residents won’t freak out if they see me, a stranger, moving through their fiefdom.
And I don’t just walk or run either. I like to vary my gait, sometimes sauntering along, other times sprinting. It’s well known that exercising in this fashion is more effective than simply going at the same pace all the time.
They call this kind of movement a fartlek, which is Swedish for “speed play” and just means that you intersperse quick movements with slower movements. It looks weird, however, so that’s one of the reasons I do it at night.
Another thing I do is work on my upper body. I bring along a rope and a grapnel folding anchor that I sometimes throw into tree branches, whereupon I pull myself up, working my shoulders, arms, hands and chest muscles. It’s great exercise.
But cops, even private ones, frown on this behavior. They assume you’re a criminal just because you like to engage in activity that isn’t the norm. I happen not to like softball or swimming or tennis so I do unusual athletic activities. What’s so strange about that?
At any rate, I left home shortly after sunset and drove to this neighborhood where I’ve been exercising recently. I climbed a fence – well, more of a ten-foot wall – using my grapnel anchor and rope to haul myself over. Tucking that into my backpack, I began a slow jog down tree-lined streets.
I ascended a few trees and edged across a sturdy branch onto one roof, where I noticed that an attic window had been left open, so I decided to be helpful. After I closed it, I departed the scene. But my thoughtful gesture must have triggered a silent alarm because within just a few minutes, several cop cars appeared, searchlights detecting my presence almost immediately.
I know what you’re thinking but no, they didn’t find anything on me. What am I, a common criminal? I surrendered without incident, explaining my exercise routine, and after eight hours of questioning and a fruitless search of my person, home and vehicle, I was released with an admonition never to return to that community.
But old habits die hard and a couple weeks later, I found myself back there, up a tree, near the very top, where few would ever dare to climb. And there, to my surprise, I discovered the doubloon and its provenance beneath a black backpack containing a grapnel hook and some rope. Since they didn’t seem to belong to anyone, I liberated them and took them home with me.
I don’t think I’ll be returning to that neighborhood again.
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Most of us believe strongly in either God or Science. A few of us believe strongly in both. That ought to be a comfort, but it really isn’t.
Christians see the world through the framework of the Bible, Muslims through the Koran, Jews through the Torah. Same God, different books and beliefs. There are many other religions with many other devout followers, each ascribing meaning to the world through the lens of faith.
They believe God (or Gods) will ultimately act to save the world and them. Whatever mistakes we make, God can fix, so we needn’t worry too much about the vicissitudes that alter our reality.
This is the kind of thinking that leads to thoughts and prayers following mass shootings, for example. If we just think and pray enough, God will make everything better. We simply need to put ourselves in his hands and let him heal us.
Science births a different kind of faith – that we can understand the world and ultimately master it. So far, this has generally proven to be true.
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, warning that hundreds of millions might die of starvation in the 1970s. And in that decade, China instituted a one-child policy. But advances in fertilizers and agriculture allowed for greater efficiencies; we were able to produce more produce on fewer acres. The crisis was averted.
Or look at the “ozone hole,” which was reported in 1985 by Joseph Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey. Their work showed that CFCs were to blame. CFCs were eventually banned, and the ozone hole (which protects us from deadly radiation and makes life on land possible) began to heal.
Whenever there has been a life-threatening challenge, we have been able to overcome it, so we begin to feel like that will always be the case. But decay doesn’t always happen in a linear fashion. You get a few small earthquakes, and then a few more, and then one day you get a massive temblor, causing horrific destruction.
But we don’t expect that. We don’t really plan for the worst-case scenario. We assume science will find a solution when we need one. So instead, we march on like we always have. We give ourselves permission not to act because we believe we’ll ultimately figure out a way to fix whatever breaks.
We continue to engage in industrial capitalism, striving for exponential growth. We decide that we can manage the side effects of our current lifestyles with future developments like geoengineering.
If the world warms too much, we’ll just build a shield in space to deflect some of the sun’s rays. If the water rises too high, we’ll just construct a better dam and levee system. If more and more wildfires occur, we’ll just invent better fire-resistant buildings. And ultimately, we’ll move out to Mars and beyond, where we’ll be able to survive even if Earth becomes uninhabitable.
We presume we can keep living the way we have for the past few centuries, making more stuff, taking more resources, excreting more waste. Technology will save us from ourselves, we think. So we don’t change. We don’t pull back from our acquisitive hedonism. Full steam ahead. We’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.
And if it’s too late then? Well, we tried. We gave it our best effort. Except, of course, that we didn’t.
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