Annual Pose

Okay, so maybe this is going to be a thing. I think I put my vanity in a box and on a shelf because I don’t wish to be vain. I am, somewhat. I am saved from being an ass about it by being basically too lazy to really  attend to it, at least to the extent of making myself an object of derision. But it’s there, I admit it.

Most of my vanity has to do with the interior. I want to be a certain kind of person. I wish people to see the kind of person I’m trying to be. And I want what they see to be genuine. Maybe “vanity” is the wrong word, since too often it attaches to matters of surface only. And maybe I use that word to caution myself to pay attention to what matters.

In any case, I work at maintaining certain standards, both physically and mentally. I am not as successful at any of it as I would like to be, but it’s the journey, right? Whatever.

I turned 63 this year. I cannot quite get my head around that. In another generation I would be two years from falling into an actuarial expectation of being dead.  I would be spent, replete with health problems, fading.  When I was a child, 65 was the age at which people died.  Today?

But that’s not even the weirdest part.  The weird part is the history that I have personally lived through, knowing it as history, and being in a position to represent some of that history.  The other weird part is that, intellectually, I still see myself as somewhere around the mid to late 30s.

As I say, weird.  However, I’ve been posting annual updates like this–not as regularly as perhaps I should, but I see now that it might be a useful thing.

So. This morning, after coming home from the gym, I asked Donna to take a couple of pictures.

 

 

I’m weighing in at round 160.  I no longer bother getting on a scale.  I go by how well my clothes fit and how out-of-breath I get running down the street.  (Yes, I occasionally break into a sprint when I’m walking the dog, just because.  I can still do three blocks at a good run.)

The hair is thinner, grayer, the wrinkles a bit deeper, especially when I’m facing into the sun.

I feel tired a great deal of the time.

But aside from working out regularly, I work a full-time job, still play music, and I’m still trying to make the best-seller lists.

And chores.  Don’t forget chores.

But–most importantly–I still feel like I have options.  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A writer.

A photographer.

A musician.

A friend.

Someone people might possibly be glad to know.

 

The thing is, how to know when or if any of that is achieved?  I have to be comfortable in my own skin first.  And my skin is…

Well, not, perhaps, for me to say.  But I have every intention of sticking around long enough to find out.

So this is 63.

Let me post another photograph, to follow, of something maybe a little more interesting.  (Remember, one of the things I want to be is  photographer…?)  And leave off with something more abstract to contemplate.

Thank you all for putting up with me all this time.

 

 

 

A Picture Instead

The last several weeks have been alternately nerve-wracking, inspirational, depressing, too-cool-for-school, enervating, elating, and disappointing. The drain on resources has left me unable to judge overall.  Consequently, I’m being very chary what I write here.  So I’m going to put what energy I have into some fiction.

In the meantime, here’s a new picture.  Enjoy.

 

Cops

The protests in St. Louis over the vindication of yet another cop in a seriously questionable shooting have been dealt with by outrageous police tactics. Protests are met, broken up, people are arrested and abused, and the justification is some broken windows, most of which the vendors suffering the damage have come out to say has been worth it to support the point being made.

So the question is—since the people the police claim to be protecting are repudiating that protection when it entails martial-law-style crackdowns—just what is it the police are serving?

I think this is thoroughly misunderstood. You see emblazoned on police cars, held up as motto, proudly owned by the men and women in blue:  To Serve and Protect.

But when the majority of a community is in profound disagreement over what its police do, just what does that mean?

It means what it has always meant. The police exist to protect and preserve one thing:  Order.

Often, even usually, protecting the public and serving the people is congruent with preserving order. You can’t, usually, have any kind of peace of mind when order breaks down.  You can’t defend something in the midst of riot.

But when the issue involves political and judicial incompetence, corruption, or malfeasance, the police are put in a quandary. What are they defending and protecting against what? They can’t take sides.  So the default is—order.

Now, whose definition of order I will let you figure out.  Obviously there are distinctions.  A bunch of sports fans trashing cars after a Big Game doesn’t get the same kind of crackdown as a phalanx of peaceful protestors clogging a street. (Hint: the fans aren’t challenging authority.)

Get people off the streets, reestablish the appearance of normality, make it easier for the police to seem to do what everyone thinks they’re supposed to do (which they often, even usually, do).  But when it comes to a break-point over principle, as in this case, as in the case of Ferguson, as in so many cases of late, they will default to establishing and preserving Order.

I point this out so there can be less failure to interpret actions that defy expectations.

Holding the police department up to ridicule, recording them doing clearly unjustified if not illegal things in pursuit of this function, further erodes their mission—to preserve ORDER. Respect or at least fear is essential for that, because if no one believes the police are working for them, why should anyone do what they say?

On the other side is the gross mishandling of cases like this one where prosecutors aimed for an impossible target.  I’m not saying the charges brought against Stockley were wrong, only that, on a practical level, they were not achievable.  (The Justice Department—Obama’s Justice Department—knew this and decided not to prosecute.  Frustrating, but there it is.)  First degree murder is difficult to prove and get convictions on at the best of times.  With an officer-involved-shooting, you might as well send  Bilbo into the case without a ring and nothing but a slingshot.  The lesser charge brought, Armed Criminal Action, was more likely, but since they were bundled together the judge was able to vacate both at once.

But even before this, there seems to be a dearth of more ground-level legal actions that ought to take place before something  like this blows up into a media circus.  Something simpler, seemingly innocuous, something that might get a lot of folks to say “Well, what the hell does that do?”

Like passing an ordnance requiring police to apologize when they get something wrong.

Yeah, I know, doesn’t sound like much.  But it would begin to lay the foundation of a kind of community-responsive accountability that would eventually lead to a healthier relationship between the community and its police.  Because when they bash in the wrong door, arrest the wrong person, abuse someone illegally, without an apology we tell them that they’re doing what we want them to do.  When some cop shoots someone’s dog “just because” and no apology is forthcoming, we tell the police they are above civility. Outside community.

The second thing I think should be done is reinstate the requirement that cops must live in the community they serve.  Allowing them to live elsewhere severs connection and ultimately accountability. You might as well call them what they are, then: hired guns.

These smaller things may not seem as significant as convicting a cop who steps so far over the mark that it makes national news, but without them, going for the gold ring with a murder conviction is made to fail and bring out the divisions on the street and promote the ugliness of realizing, if we did not already know, that the police, at the end of the day, are not there to serve Joe Smith.  They serve The People. But what does that mean?  Its means a vast aggregate that is faceless, unindividuated, impersonal, something that once you are separated from it and become an individual, you no longer are the subject of their service.  The People is a useless concept on the street, because The People aren’t there when the shit goes down—just some poor human being and an armed representative whose basic mission is and always has been to preserve ORDER.

Which kind of makes a community into a giant classroom and the citizens students who are required to sit quietly at their desks and maintain the illusion of conformity so the teacher can appear to be doing a Good Job.

 

The Persistence of Civilization

I wanted to get this down before the thoughts and feelings of yesterday fade and I start to over-intellectualize everything.

Civilization did not end yesterday. Just in case anyone failed to notice. Nibiru did not slam into the Earth as some predicted. We did not throw down to North Korea (yet). And there remains football.

And though here in my hometown, the local politics have of late been strained, to say the least, we are not descending into mindless brutality.

Let me offer the picture of two throngs of people gathered to make cultural statements.

Yesterday the first of what we all hope will be an annual event occurred in the Central West End of St. Louis.  Bookfest.  A section of one street was closed off, there were vendors on the street, a stage where live music was performed all day, and author events held in a number of local establishments. The whole thing got started Friday night with a presentation by Sherman Alexie at the Sheldon Theater in our theater district. It continued then with events for kids, teens, and adults of all ages, featuring over forty of the best writers currently working. Poets, novelists, essayists, we had them all.

And people came.

Hundreds. Venues were filled to listen, to partake, to soak in the rarefied and uplifting gestalt of written arts, performance, and conversation.

We unveiled a new commemorative statue in front of Left Bank Books to William S. Burroughs, completing the four-star authors corner which already included Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, and T.S. Eliot.

People came to hear writers talk about craft and content, tell stories, read from their work, engage in the carpentry of culture.

In other words, Making Civilization.

It was amazing.

In other parts of the metropolitan area, others gathered, as they have been gathering since last week, to protest injustice. The response has been considerably different, and some people see this as evidence of the end of our civilization. Maybe not totally, but protest to them is viewed as cracks in the dam, as if civilization is a pool that must be contained by thick walls and held in place, immobile. Immaculate.

I humbly suggest that the protests and our gathering to celebrate the literary arts are manifestations of the same work—making civilization.

Gathering decorously to listen to speakers and then sagely nod, basking in the gloaming of nuanced cultural expression is fundamentally part of angry protest condemning abuse of power and a demand for justice. You cannot, ultimately, have one without the other—that is, Civilization without Justice—and you can have neither of those if people will not show up to build them.

I participated in yesterday’s festivities, I was on the agenda as a writer, but I also work for Left Bank Books and spent a good part of the day doing the business of facilitating the events.  I am now adding what I can to the holism that must be felt and recognized in order for our civilization to grow and become better and richer.

It is easy to watch the news and perhaps think maybe fleeing to the country, stockpiling for the coming Dark Age, fearing the people two blocks over who we’ve never met are all rational responses to a process of inevitable decay.  It’s a very myopic response.  Because while the one goes on, the other things continue and grow and make us better. We are not one thing, even if  we are all in this together, and when someone says we have a right to assemble to buy books, listen to music, and enjoy the arts but not to condemn injustice, then a major truth is being overlooked.

Or never recognized in the first place.

I was part of the discussion on science fiction.  My copanelists—Charlies Jane Anders, Ann Leckie, Annalee Newitz—all spoke to the life-affirming, onward-building, ever-optimistic nature of science fiction, which says tomorrow Will Be and more often than not Will Be Better.  But it’s not just SF—it’s the fact that people came to drink from the font of art all day long. That people showed up who not only knew who Sherman Alexie is but also who William S. Burroughs was and who responded to the resonance we all create by the work we do.

The world is not going to end.  We’re in an awkward, in many ways ugly and incomprehensible period right now, but in the mix we have light and joy and deep connection.

Celebrate.

What Happened?

Hillary Clinton has a new book coming out. It discusses what went wrong in the 2016 election.  Already it’s stirring the ashes, raising ires, resparking blame-laden conversations.

One thing I recall. It was a vague disquiet during one of the debates. I had a sudden sense of foreboding, watching the match.  For a couple of minutes I kept thinking “She’s going to lose.”

Why? Because she was talking policy.

As I watched, listening, I saw one candidate fully prepared to step into the office ready to do the job and explaining that fact in clear, lucid, surprisingly informative terms. I have rarely seen a candidate hold forth in one of these at this level.  The other candidate had no plan, didn’t care, and wasn’t about to engage in a policy discussion on any level.

I had a creeping sense of doom, watching that.  Because I knew then that the only way Hillary was going to win would be if voter turnout was high. Very high.  Otherwise he was going to win. (Later, I erased that impression, because it was unbearable, and I found myself reassuring people who apparently had experienced the same sense of dread, but what is it they say about initial impressions?)

In retrospect this seems absurd.  She was dealing with the realities of the office, laying out her programs, displaying an astute grasp of the issues, the problems, and showing that she understood how all this works and could do the job.  All he did was hammer on “We’re gonna do things” and “She’s a nasty woman.”

He appealed directly do people who (a) were never going to vote for Hillary to begin with, (b) had no fucking idea what she was talking about because, frankly, they neither care nor have taken any time to educate themselves about such things, and therefore (c) saw her as an elitist snob talking down to them.  All this plays well in a traditional political theater.  It’s not the first time.  In modern history, pretty much the same thing happened to Adlai Stevenson.

Who?  He ran against Eisenhower in 1952.  He was a technocrat, a highly educated man, a career public servant, and he had more brains than the next five people in any room.

But he lost because he refused to play the game according to the demands of the audience.  Truman kept telling him to stop sounding so high and mighty and educated, but Stevenson maintained a persistent faith in the savvy and comprehension of the average American.  He refused to “dumb down” his message because he thought it would be insulting to voters.

He didn’t stand a chance against “I Like Ike.”

So while most people probably agreed with Stevenson, they voted for Eisenhower.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, this is not the fault of the candidates.  This is symptomatic of people who have been taught to want a cheerleader instead of an administrator.  This is the fault of people who don’t really give much of a damn about the details of policy or the intransigence of global politics or the intricacies of an  ever-shifting landscape.  This is the fault of people who have been raised, by various means, to mistrust intellectuals.

They are not in the majority, but there are enough of them that, in the hurly-burly and tumble of national elections, they have an impact all out of proportion to what is really true of the general population.

We have gerrymandering, we have niche news sourcing, and we have an economic environment that keeps people off-balance.  Added to that we now seem to have had a huge influx of foreign “fake” news that lit a fire under a near-boiling pot.

When Bill Clinton ran, the motto of his campaign was “It’s the economy, stupid!” And he spoke to that.  His people spoke to that.  Perversely, given everything that’s happened since then, George H.W. Bush looked like the elitist intellectual by comparison.

A telling lesson.

I do not believe the majority of American voters are in the camp that responds to the kind of simplistic breast-beating Trump voters did.  But many of those Americans did not vote.

But there in the debates we saw one of the chief problems:  Hillary mopped the stage with him, won all three debates hands down…and lost the election.

Yes, she garnered more popular votes, but in the electoral races it was the other camp that dictated where those votes would go.  And they don’t like smart people.  It was too close a race for nuance and intellect to overcome carnival showmanship.

I’d like to be wrong.  I put this out there purely as one idea.  But during those debates I saw it—the power of dumb trumping brains.

Basic Mismanagement

One of the few lessons I learned in all the years I held even minor management positions is basic to human psychology. People are inconsistent, emotionally. Not that most circumstances will reveal that, but when you push something it comes out. This is fundamental and in order to navigate life beneficently you need to understand this. You also need to understand the process of what I call Issue Transition.  That is, you begin with a situation that constitutes an Issue. Depending on how you respond, the next step often becomes a completely separate issue.  But because it stems from the initial issue, it can appear to be the same issue. If you don’t recognize that it is not, the next several steps will carry you so far from any possibility of resolving that initial issue as to define Sisyphean.

Why is this important?

Trump just dressed down his chief of staff. In front of an audience.

The one thing I learned, as mentioned above, is that you never, ever do that.  If you’re going to chew someone out, take them to task over something, or otherwise express your displeasure with something they have done,  you do it in private!  You take them to a space where you can close the door and be alone. This is vital in human relations.

Why? Because if you do in front of others, you have just created a whole new issue, supplanting whatever problem you thought you were addressing in the first place. Because now you have humiliated that person in front of others, some who may be his or her subordinates who will have to work now with a damaged relationship.  By upbraiding that person in public you have fractured their ability to retain respect.  Either with their subordinates, certainly with you, and probably between you and their subordinates.  By keeping it private, you have the best chance of keeping the issue on topic and resolving it.  Sure, things could still go wrong, but you have not embarrassed them—or yourself—in front of others.

That embarrassment is a whole new issue.

And if you blithely go on as if it isn’t, the problems will compound.

Disciplinary action must be kept to a minimum.  No audience.

This is basic, unless your intention to begin with is not discipline but to undermine that person’s ability to function effectively, thereby setting them up for further such moments in the future, leading to eventually dismissal.

It’s a good way to make people quit.

But it’s also a good way to cause people to retaliate.

If there is one thing that tells us this man is unsuited to being in the position he holds, this is it.  He’s a lousy manager. This has been out there to be known all along, but in the private sector, while it can cause considerable collateral damage, we don’t usually see the entire country suffer as a result. That is no longer the case.

This is simple.  You have an issue with someone, anyone, you take it up behind closed doors.  Otherwise you will create worse problems which people will mistake for aspects of the same issue.

As for Issue Transition, we see examples of that all the time.  Depending on our biases we may not acknowledge them as such, but there it is. It can be a very expensive blindness.

I’m Sorry, But Your Friend Is An Asshole

One of the problems with bullies is all the people around them who claim to be their “friend” who won’t call them on their bullying. The bully therefore has support, tacit or otherwise, and can then pretend that what they do meets with approval. The victims not only then have to deal with the bully but with the social problem of the bully support network.

When adulthood is reached, something like this continues on in certain arenas, and we’ve just seen another example of it, leaving many people, both victims and victim advocates and people who are just repelled by bullying dismayed and feeling as if their actions to deal effectively with bullies are thankless, sometimes hopeless, causes.

The president pardoned Sheriff Joe.

I’m not using his last name, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, I hope you enjoyed the extended vacation on Mars from which you have just returned.  Catch up.

The Toughest Sheriff in America was a bully.  You can dress it up any way you like, that’s what he was.  And that “toughest” appellation? That’s the kind of cinema-myth crap we need to get over if we’re ever going to deal effectively with the job of building an actual civilization.  “Being tough” is one of those things which we claim, as a culture, to admire, but seldom recognize as the excuse for behavior we wouldn’t tolerate in our own neighborhood or from a family member for a minute.  It is characterized by a reduction of everyone to an algorithm of Sameness that says “You have no special cause to complain and if you do you’re just trying to get something you don’t deserve.”  It then proceeds to mete out stringent behavioral modification as if people were cattle and fear and physical coercion must be applied to keep them “in line.”  We claim to admire tough guys.  But what really is it we’re admiring?

An inability to listen, an unwillingness to rethink stereotypes, and an assumption that the way you think things should be is based in some kind of moral absolute.  It then comes with a ready willingness to beat people up to make them conform to your standards.  Because the people you mistreat have no real voice, all the rest of us see is a surface quiet and a false dignity and a jovial facade that says “I’m keeping you safe! Thank me!”

We’re admiring a bully.

Tough is not the same as disciplined.  We mistake them all the time.  We used phrases like “hard-nosed” “tough-minded” or “no-nonsense” to describe what we assume we’re seeing, but when you go behind the facade and look at what is actually going on we are often appalled.

Sheriff Joe was a repository for all the fears of his constituents who were terrified they would be robbed, raped, or murdered in their beds unless someone was willing to truncheon the faceless hordes of brown people just itching to run riot in their communities.  The same people who cut their grass, fixed their roofs, ran their errands, and generally did many of the jobs their young adult to college-aged children think beneath them. The same people who make a great deal of farming possible and keep the prices of produce low.  People who, once we see them as people, we would never fear or distrust, at least not most of us, but when lumped into the generic threat that enables the Sheriff Joes to act as they do just frightens us unmanageably.  America’s toughest sheriff maintained a prison system little better than a gulag.  That the only thing that lost him his job and got him a jail sentence was his vocal refusal to obey a judge is a sad commentary on the fact that his constituents liked what they thought he was doing and didn’t mind being his friend.

When we’re kids it’s hard to parse responsibilities with presumed friendship.  The desire to be liked, to be accepted, to be part of some in crowd is so strong that we learn to overlook the obvious in order to keep from being cast out.  Consequently we often make “friends” with assholes.

Most of us grow out of that.  But the lessons don’t come in neat packages with guidelines, so from time to time we find ourselves doing it again as adults.

The president pardoned his asshole friend.

If you think that makes the president your friend, what does that say about you?

Observations On The Collapse of a Deal

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make some statements which may not be dependable. You are warned. I’m speculating.

But I want some optimism, so…

With the dismissal of Bannon, it is obvious—or should be—that there is no center to this administration. The Donald had no plans, no principles to defend, no competencies to bring to bear. From the beginning he was indulging in pure deal-making showmanship, and now that he has to deliver we see that the fine cloak of carnival hucksterism is draped over nothing. He is entirely about Making A Deal.  He thought that’s all he had to do, come into Washington and start wheeling and dealing as if the business of the nation was no more than a complex set of real estate negotiations that required someone who could sit down and negotiate a Deal. In his conception of that, though, you base your negotiating principles on bluff and managing to get one over on the other guy. As long as you come out ahead—however you conceive of that—you’re successful. The one thing that is de rigeur, though, is that nothing is to be allowed to get in the way of the Deal.

Not even your own biases.

So we see exactly how that works in practice with the dismal display over Charlottesville. Don’t take a side, you might have to make a Deal with those guys later.  If possible, make all positions roughly equal so that you somehow hold the upper hand.

This doesn’t work so well with people on the street and it works even worse with countries.  You try to make China look bad so you can deal on trade imbalances, but the rhetoric you choose makes it difficult to then ask for help when North Korea acts up.  And threatening North Korea as part of a bluff to get them to open up to deal doesn’t work with a leadership that thinks it has already won.

On a practical, domestic level, you make promises that require a lot of other people to sign on for without any kind of guidance on where to go with these promises, because, as a “master” dealmaker you know you can bait-and-switch.  You can get them into that turkey you’ve been wanting to unload if you can just get them to the table and pliant.  They either walk away with nothing or take your offer, and no one wants to walk away with nothing.  They do business with you now so they can do a better deal later.

It’s vacuous.

But an even deeper problem lies with the people who helped him into office.  We know them now, we can see what they are, and recognize the disregard and empty polemic and the class bias and the sheer disrespect they carry with them in lieu of an actual conscience.  They think everyone is just like them and when it turns out that they’re wrong they have nothing to fall back on.

Now, I suspect that had this bunch come into power in 2008 we would be in even worse trouble.  The country was on the ropes then, people were terrified, insecure, the economy was in a tailspin, and everyone was out to blame someone. We might have had a deeply serious  problem had this bunch gotten into power then.  They would be just as inept but we would have less confidence in our ability to challenge the obscenities.  The comparisons to Germany in 1932 are apt but they go only so far.  These folks are eight years and an economic recovery too late.

Oh, they can still do damage—they are doing damage.  But they’re doing more damage to themselves.

Bannon was dismissed because, somehow, he threatened the Deal.  Whatever the Deal might be.  The Deal is amorphous, unformed.  You throw things out there until something coalesces, then you recognize what it’s going to be, and you start arranging the furniture to make it happen.  But Bannon wasn’t interested in that.  He wanted to assert a position, he had a clear agenda.  Can’t have that and keep the Deal fluid. He was an unreliable negotiator.  His strategy, whatever it was, would have required his boss to give up options.  Can’t do that, the Deal isn’t shaped yet.  When he said the presidency he and the others fought for is over, that’s what he meant.  The goals he thought they were all going after are being traded for advantage, used as negotiating chips in some Deal.

It all has no center.  No substance.  It’s collapsing.  The scramble to make appearances count for reality is failing.

So my bit of optimism.  We’re going through a long-overdue purge.  It will be better.  All we have to do is vomit out the residue of old beliefs that, in most instances, only served to distract us from our darker selves.

It’s going to be all right.