The Time of Your Life

“I said, time, time, time is on my side, yes it is”—the Rolling Stones [cover]

But maybe not so much.

This is the story of my time and how I have thought about it over my 75 years. It is painful to write, but for some reason it feels necessary to write it.

Perhaps it is an unpacking of accumulated angst.

Perhaps it is designed to convey to younger folks a perspective on what I suppose to be a typical journey. Forewarned is forearmed.

Perhaps I am just afraid.

And so we begin. And we begin with an admission of failure. Who can recall what a young child thinks about age? It is easy to project and assume, and to have a high level of confidence in that assumption. Thus it would be easy to say that at an early age I became aware of time in the sense that I wished I were older for any number of reasons. That might include being able to play sports better, or to stay out later, or to watch a favorite television program that started as late as say 8pm. That might include wishing that when we played stick-ball in the street, trying to hit a pink Spalding as far as possible with the handle of a broom, I wanted to be older so I could hit as far as the benchmark distance for bragging rights, the distance of the length between the sewer cover we used for home plate and the second distant sewer cover down the middle of the street. So why do we not assume together those assumptions as they are as good as any; they are what I would think that I would have thought. But I confess that I do not recall.

So what is it that I do recall?

I remember pride at being old enough to graduate from PS 189 in Brooklyn, New York and to move onward to PS 232, my junior high school. I felt grown up. We had different relationships with teachers, we were embarked on a joint march to knowledge. They were leading, but we were participants, not silent cannon fodder.

I remember waiting for my learners permit to drive a car, for which I became eligible when I turned 16. I promptly applied, certain that driving was to be easy because it seemed that almost everyone could accomplish it. Even mothers who, at that time, were generally thought to be ancillary functionaries although to be strictly obeyed. And to be defended, with your fists if necessary, when some other kid said something disrespectful about your mother, or simply answered your own taunt with the thrown gauntlet words, “Ya mamma!!”

I remember being angry at my age when I arrived at College only as a sixteen year old. My classmates were all two or even three years older; some had gone to yet another prep school year for anotherl year after graduating from their initial prep school, a thought wholly alien to the middle class streets of Carroll Gardens. They had better clothes, better panache and better academic preparation, and they were far more confident about girls (or so I assumed). What foolish hubris had encouraged my parents to advance me so quickly and to leave me at the whim of my under-agedness? My efforts to grow older on the spot by buying a pack of Camels cigarettes (wretched, and the bits of tobacco kept dropping off from the unfiltered cigarette into my mouth) and by getting drunk at the West End Lounge on Broadway (the policeman was very nice to me, as far as I can remember) did nothing but reinforce my sense of inadequate aging.

I remember pride when I graduated from Law School, younger than almost all my cohorts. I had a head start. I would practice longer, achieve more, earn more, be better for longer. Married at that time, I reinforced my head start by starting to have children. I was young to have children, to move to our two family house and finally our single family house, young to be a partner in my lawfirm, young to have my children advance through school. Time was relational then; it had to do with my personal sequence with respect to my cohort. It had no personal meaning other than a benchmark that made me feel superior.

I am at this point reminded of two of my favorite lines from a movie. Interestingly, they both are about death. I think now that I prefer these lines because they carry the voice of inevitable power with them, a tinge or mortality of which we are reminded not by our own perceptions but, rather, by some broader force or being.

The first is when Orson Wells is dying, presumably taken by his God. The voice intones deeply: “And then death came, as it comes to all men, to Charles Foster Kane.”

The second is when Roy, the last surviving replicant(robotic person, or “skin job”) is about to die in the original Blade Runner movie based on Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Robotic Sheep. Programmed to die at a certain moment by the robot’s God, the man who designed him, Roy turns to the Blade Runner and wistfully recalls the wonder of his quasi-life: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched sea beams glitter in the darkness at Tan Hauser Gate. All these moments will be lost, in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.”

When does one begin to contemplate one’s mortality, and begin what I will call the mental mathematical dance we have with our own time to live? I see great depths of truth captured in great movies; I see my own awareness reached and drawn out by the power of what appears on a screen. For many I am sure it is the written word but, for me, it is the written word expounded by the artistic enhancements of lighting and photography and the emotive skills of actors who I believe are putting a voice to the truth and emotion within those words. I do not know if either of these movies (let us not call them films, a pretension of nomenclature) triggered my own initial awareness of time as a fearful thing and a gross injustice to my person, that would be far too pat a conclusion to be accurate, but this is the point about time: it is finite, and when your mind switches from thinking about time as chronology and how you relate to the world, and when you begin to count your remaining years, you have stepped upon the most slippery slope of all. And, you cannot step back onto the high ground.

Not that you abandon how you mark yourself to market on a comparative basis. I still think that I may look young for my age, or be one of the oldest lawyers or partners, or have outlived many or have more energy than people much younger. The old habits do not die. But these thoughts now are secondary to the thoughts you have when you lie down in bed and actually shock yourself by thinking, “I hope to hell I wake up in the morning.”

So now I will explain to you my own mathematics. It does not involve counting down to meet my maker. It does not involve achieving certain things before I die, although I do find myself having those thoughts also. It does not involve being “there” for my family, although of course I think of that also. It is a remarkably selfish and fierce mathematics, and it is all about me.

And it is a false mathematics, unlike the purity of real numbers. It is a subjective mathematics. It is rigged.

I think I was about forty when I started thinking precisely about time. Until then, a casual mental throwaway sufficed—I am young, I have lots of time to do what I want and so I need not think about dying. Anyone can die at any age of course, but for me it is a rarity, and it is a waste of the time I have to worry about the statistically insignificant.

I absolutely recall being forty. Not the day it happened, but finding myself within that cohort. Why? Perhaps it was popular culture beginning to invest a certain decade of life with the baggage of age. People do not call you young when you are in your forties; you are middle aged. Middle of what? Well, your mind translates that into “half-way to dead.” Not a happy phraseology so, let’s change it up.

Maybe the average person of my generation dies at 80 or so. You find yourself looking up those things. Women live longer; well, can’t much parse that metric. Men live around 80, it turns out, though it depends on all sorts of things like race, geography, genetics, not to mention poverty and war.

Well, that’s not so bad, is it? Look at all I have done, enjoyed, accomplished and learned in my first half. I can foresee a picturesque denouement through my second half, learning and earning and finishing raising my children and meeting my grandchildren and retiring and reading and traveling and enjoying the benefits of new medicine that, dare I think it, is likely to give me a few more years than today’s actuarial tables suggest. They never could fully anticipate the incredible rate of medical advance that will actually allow me, a person with enough money to afford the insurance that will allow me to enjoy these advances, to tack on a few golden years.

That worked for me until I hit sixty. That is, for those of you without your slide-rule, 75% of the trip to 80, not a sanguine thought. Time to think about the math you are using. Well, it is clearly wrong, at least as for you personally. Here you are, sixty and healthy and look at all the new medicine, and you seem immune to the things that kill younger men. Is it not true that if you make it to 60, your time line expands. You look it up. Eureka, it does! And we all know about genetics, don’t we? Let’s look at the family tree. Let us ignore those unfortunate relatives who died young and, particularly those troublesome analogies of those who died at say 70 or 75, or just about 80. Not much help from those cohorts. But wait. Dad! He lived to almost 101. Everyone says I look a lot like him. Even the same theoretically unhelpful build, a realized tendency to some body fat. And he did it without all that new medicine. Mom died around 90, not bad but then again she had been a big cigarette smoker in her early and mid-years so let’s just tack on another ten years to her story—fair is fair and after all, my mother’s mother lived to 109, rumor had it.

We obviously misfigured when we began thinking about this age thing. We were counting percentages based on a rough end-line of 80 years. We really should use 100 years. Sure, it seems like a push, but then again think about all the careful analysis that brings us to this conclusion: genetics, present health, new medicine, careful life style, and let’s start modest systematic exercise while we are at it just to be sure. We now have 40% of our life left. Sounds good.

I have a child when I am 60. I am putting my money where my mind is.

Actually, I am putting the kid’s money where my mind is, but let’s not dwell on that, shall we?

Things go pretty well. Now you don’t dwell on percentages as you have a vague but certain sense that the percentage of your time is, by definition, falling. You think about 100 years as your target. You feel good, although truth be told your knees sometimes feel awfully stiff and you get a bit more winded when you walk quickly, and you avoid those hikes up the steeper hills. But that is normal, those are not markers of anything other than your success in getting to where you are standing. And standing you are, that is the point; sure those knees you are standing on are a bit tired, but they deserve to be respected and to be rested a bit more, while your heart and lungs take care of that living thing you have going on.

There is something not good about thinking that your life is 75% over. It is what drove you to recalibrate when you were 60. So happy birthday, you are 75 years old and 75% down the slippery slope. How do you handle those thoughts? Not easily.

We can revisit our already revised assumptions; let’s give that one more try. Medicine is accelerating; great although those advances seem to focus on illness rather than simple aging. People are living longer; great, although a lot of them are those pesky long-lived females and what is that statistic about certain foreign countries pulling ahead of the USA in male longevity? Looks like some of those are European countries with early retirement ages; less stress on those men. Maybe I should slow down? But my self-image a long-lived survivor is tied up in not being one of those short-lifers who actually do slow down. Gotta think more about that one.

What about the end-line? Increase that above 100? That actually does smack of self-delusional manipulation. It is very important not to rig the mathematics so grossly that your mind is required to recognize that you are playing a self-serving game of mental massage. Mathematical Xanax is not the goal. Credibly believing you are going to live a long time is the goal.

So at 75 I have run out of tools to play the percentage game in terms of how much longer I may live. I change up the game. Now I am concentrating on the absolute number of years I have remaining. Again, eureka. I now have twenty-five whole years to live. Given my skills, education, health and attitude, that ain’t so bad. That’s actually a lot of years. Years in which to be sure to slow down a bit and work on enjoying the now-ness of things, of people, of children and friends. Pretty comforting, actually. I am happy again, although truth be told I would trade where I am today, chronologically, for just about any earlier point, however embarrassing and inept I might have been when I actually struggled through that age.

It all works, and you cannot live your life being afraid you will die. To say you will live every day as if it were your last sounds inspiring, but it is actually an anti-life statement, and is enormously depressing. I think this model of personal mathematics is going to work for me for a while. I occasionally think forward and wonder what I might think in fifteen years from now when I am, ugh, 90. Best to not go there, it might cast a pall on the years in between. But when I do think about it, I say to myself that perhaps I will be more tired, less scared, less drive, more at peace. I will see my children and grandchildren in or approaching middle age, or even beyond. My own personal health may be such that living forever seems less appealing. It may be, as I have been told by my own father, that you change your thinking when all your friends and acquaintances and contemporary relatives are gone; not a thought I enjoy but, then again, I have been told this by someone with an experience base I lack.

Thus I am working at living my time and being at greater peace. I have little choice in any event, and that is also somewhat a comfort. I can be who I am, and that may be for good or ill in the eyes of others but it is an unabashed comfort when I am looking at myself.

So it is good.

I just have one residual wish, and that is each night, when am going to sleep. And it is a wish that sometimes does interfere with closing my eyes, to tell you the truth.

Each night, I find myself wishing to hell that I wake up in the morning….

Farewell to Pedro Martinez

[In the winter of 2004, the Boston Red Sox refused to grant the aging Pedro Martinez a four year contract so that he could end his career in the City where he made history as the finest pitcher of his generation. I watched Pedro pitch for many years, and from my box seat at first base thrilled to his start in the 1999 All Star Game played in Fenway Park, where he struck out five batters in getting the first six outs of the contest. Pedro left for another team; the young Boston General Manager made the decision and a friend of mine, at the time a bank executive, sent to me a suggestive email, clearly inviting my vitriol over the loss of my favorite pitcher who had played his heart out for the team that had just won its first World Series in over 80 years. The below is the emailed reply I sent to him, with present clarifications interlineated for clarity. At this writing, Pedro is in the Hall of Fame and the General Manager who let him walk, Theo Epstein, is now the adulated General Manager of the Chicago Cubs, whose team he went on to rebuild and to win the 2016 World Series.–posted October 2017]

I got your message, inviting (nay, itching for) vituperative reaction on the subject of Pedro’s departure from the Sox. That is most unbecoming for a banker. I am surprised at you.

And particularly because, though you admonished against a laissez-faire answer, there is nothing I can do about it and it is wholly understandable. You and I would have done the same.

When the world treats you like an economic equivalent, pricing your efforts in the context of a multi-million dollar enterprise and showing you no loyalty whether or not you are young, old, successful, failing, up, down, depressed, happy – treating you like a cog – then you take to cog’s attitude. You are seen as a sucker – and are a sucker – if you show loyalty and flexibility to an organization that does not show you any human respect. After all, if you show loyalty to a large stone rolling down a hill, it is a pathetic exercise in anthropomorphic fantasy.

And Pedro’s decision, just like the Hit Dog and everyone else before him, must be seen solely in short-term economic context. [The Hit Dog, Mo Vaughn, a great Sox player, who also was allowed to leave the Sox over a contract dispute.] Today, one’s 15 minutes of fame may only last for 10. Pedro will work in a place where he will have fewer runs on his side and far worse fielding; he will be thrown at (and hit and injured) by opposing pitchers which will further reduce his numbers and his legacy. [Pedro went to a National League team, where pitchers must hit and run; with the American League Sox, pitchers only pitch and their at-bats are taken by a “designated hitter.”] He may even imperil his Hall of Fame prospects if he fades any more in skills, which I suspect is heavy on his mind and driving him to insist on a committed fourth year rather than letting himself be marked to market.
If any vituperation is due, it is directed at the Sox, who have been getting great press by being particularly cold-blooded about the running of the team. Nomar? [Excellent shortstop callously traded.] Expendable after we made him disgruntled because, after all, the man is – disgruntled. Cabrera [excellent successor shortstop, callously traded], who turned out to be a gem of a team player, and a very human person – we can do better now that we have salary cap freed up. Pedro – although we owe him everything for the last 5 or 6 years, the heart and soul of the team, let’s not give him his fourth year, let’s sweat him in a game of chicken. Or worse yet, let’s position him so he is the bad guy and leaves, taking us off the hook because our 30 year old general manager thinks that a short weak guy of 33 isn’t going to last as a quality pitcher for much longer, and what has he done for us lately?

I rather liked the Sox teams that did not win the Series, they reminded me of the teams of my youth, when you could actually tell your friends who the third baseman of the St. Louis Browns happened to be. [Growing up, as a baseball nut, I could tell you the names of starting players of all sixteen major league teams. The St. Louis Browns were the worst team in baseball.] He was there long enough so you could remember him; he gave the team its character; you could care about your team, you could care about the other team, it gave depth to the game. Sort of like the difference between fighting your own wars, and fighting with mercenaries. When the mercenary dies, you don’t shed a tear even if he is yours.

And there is mostly vituperation for us. Without us, no team, no system, no free market place. Look at hockey. What if Darwin gave a party and no one came? That’s hockey. [Written when hockey players were paid far far less than players in other major sports; no longer the case in 2017.] If we stopped paying more for a baseball seat than for a good Shiraz, the world would be a better place and the President of the United States would make more money than someone who hits .240. Or .340.

The Ken Burns series [a 9-part PBS filmed history of baseball, with a focus on the exploitation of players by team owners] was so affecting because it showed how baseball was just like Soylent Green – it was people. But there has always been a thread of owner-vs-labor. In this arena, American labor has had enough strength to assert itself. The CIO could learn something from Scott Boros [player agent skilled at getting major contracts for better baseball players]. Baseball today is social capitalism run amok.

It is us.

I don’t blame Pedro. I blame Epstein. And you and me.

Have a good week-end.

Imagine my Surprise

I start with a confession. When people have asked me how I am feeling, I have said something like, “Well, as my father used to say, I woke up, I looked around, I was on the correct side of the grass, so it’s going to be a great day.” [pause] “He lived to almost 101, you know.”

The confession is this: I have been saying this for so long, and my dad has been gone for so many years, that I cannot remember if he in fact used to say anything like that. It has just become part of what I say and, consequently, part of who I am.

I raise this particular matter today, however, because a most unusual thing happened to me today, just shy of my 75th birthday. I woke up, I think, but no one asked me how I was feeling. Or said any other thing to me. It seems that today, before my own self-appointed time, I woke up dead this morning. Wryly I thought, “huh, pretty soon on the wrong side of the grass I guess.”

Now there was something else that I always said, uh beforehand, that had relevancy to this situation in which I find myself. I always said, and this was an original with me and had nothing to do with my dad, I used to say “Boy, I am going to be wicked pissed the day I drop dead.” In fact, I am, as my list of things to accomplish is, if anything, longer today than at any other time in my life. That may be because I was enjoying each day so much as each flowed into the possibilities of the next day, that my list kept expanding as, apparently, my time window was shutting.

These are not, by the way, bucket list items. Bucket lists speak to death. My list was proactive and lively and, thus, mostly mundane. I wanted to clean my garage. I wanted to sort my various writings. I wanted to throw away my old clothes. I wanted to put the album pages for the past few years into my postage stamp albums. I wanted to see the original movie Birth of a Nation, having put off that pleasure for, well, about 75 years I guess. I also wanted finally to live a whole week showing, without frustration or rancor, love I felt for the ones I loved; my love, it seems, was often cloaked in the folds of my own personal list.

Now one thing about what my father might have said and which I might have either repeated or invented has become today’s preoccupation. Now, that is, that I have stopped chuckling to myself that this all must be a dream and soon I will wake up because everyone knows that, in reality, when you are dead you just, incredibly and inconveniently, stop. Just stop. That’s it. Bell rings, you’re done. So if I am thinking at all, going through this dialog with myself, I surely must just be dreaming and when I wake up I will tell people I am on the right side of the grass.

However, and without going into unnecessary detail, let me just say that the several things that clearly have been done to my body over the last several hours have convinced me, beyond all doubt, that I am indeed deceased. Let’s leave that conclusion as a given, if you will.

So, the grass thing. Being buried always seemed so messy and clearly confining and corrosive that, when pressed, although the thought scared me to death (well, scared me very much), I always allowed as how I wished to be cremated. I had this whole well-publicized script for my funeral; my ashes would be shaken into Cape Cod Bay at high tide from the deck of my favorite Italian restaurant in Provincetown, while all my friends and family were seated and enjoying my favorite dinner, which since you would like to know consisted of: baked clams, veal parmigiana, pasta with oil and garlic, a bottle of chianti in a straw-clad bottle with a rooster on the label to prove provenance, some rum-soaked dessert with a double espresso, twist of lemon on the side so you can line the lip of your cup before you start to sip. (If you don’t like the menu, no need to attend.)

But now I have this new dynamic in the discussion of grass or fire. Which is most likely to prolong my present state of thinking? Does it matter? How dependent is my awareness on my body being intact? If the body and the thought are somehow linked, surely fire will shut me down post-haste. On the other hand, if I am buried and decay, will I slowly and painfully lose my mind, sort of a post-death Alzheimers of the spirit? Perhaps I should do neither; perhaps I should try to preserve myself physically as long as possible? Perhaps those people who were wealthy enough to afford to freeze their bodies accidentally tripped themselves into the best possible result? But how do I convey my decision to hang around in one piece, given how I am now — situated? What do you suggest?

This conundrum is very serious stuff. The belief that you live forever with your soul surely resolves this problem, as well as providing comfort on many other fronts. If I only knew for sure….

You may be wondering if I am aware of my surroundings, seeing or hearing or sensing my family, or the various people whom I feel are touching and treating my body. The answer is that I am not connected to the world at all. I am only connected to me, to how I feel and think and process. It is very lonely in here, all alone. I am not complaining, mind you; compared to my expectation this is surely a step up. I think? If it goes on forever, will I run out of things to think about, to process? Will I have an eternity to make up my mind on every single thing within my mind-range? What then? Maybe I should just go for the fire. But it scared me then and it scares me now.

The whole damned thing scares me. I want the Woody Allen solution: “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be around when it happens.”

Is this what it is like, then. An eternity of reprocessing those things that happened to be stored in the synapses the moment I cashed out? All the movies I recall. All the actors whose faces I know but cannot recall their names. All the jokes I recall? Or do you get to drill down, get to everything you ever knew? That’s a bigger set of things to work with, might give your mind a few hundred extra years of time to be able to think about – stuff.

If you dig down, do you get to reprocess all the pain, all the things that went wrong, all the things that went really morally deeply ashamedly, harmfully to others who did not deserve it, fucked up? Do you have to go there? Do you get so bored, about 38% into eternity, that the worst pain is better than having nothing on your mind?

I have concluded that this is really unfair. You ought to have a chance to understand what is coming so you can plan better. I just hate being in the dark. I am getting tense, where just a few hours ago I felt sort of peaceful. I am conjuring now my favorite meal, the rich chunky tomato sauce is coating the breading, the melted cheese is dripping down the sides of the my forkful of dinner, I am reaching for my glass of chianti because chianti is such a good match to the food and the bottle is strangely far away and I am getting tired but I wonder how smart it is to go to sleep because sleep is sort of like death except you do get to wake up and maybe if I just close my eyes but keep on thinking except my eyes are actually already closed and I am drifting I am drifting I am drifting……

(If you enjoyed reading this essay, close your eyes and concentrate and I will send you a complimentary reading list gleaned from the annals of my mind.–October 2017)

Santa Barbara–Springtime 2017

There is a fallen tree in the road opposite the house. It is a live oak, or at least was. It blocks half the winding road which is approached around blind curves. The town or county has put red road cones around it. Day and night you hear the screech of brakes. Why is it still there? Jurisdictional dispute? Battle between governmental and home-owner obligation? To prevent potential disaster, you try to hack off the protruding limbs, which are bare of leaves and stretch like arms into the road. Live oak is very dense. The ax bounces upward against each downward stroke. You cannot cut it without a chain saw.

The tree was uprooted by strong winds driven up the hillside face. The hole left in the ground is remarkably small. There are so few roots so shallow. How did the tree get water? How did it stand upright all these years, with so shallow a footprint?

The hillsides are green, those trees not killed by the drought are green. The drought is broken, but there will be no important rain from now until the Fall. Already the sun-exposed hillsides are hinting at brown, they are tinged with gold. Soon all will be of a tan color again; the usual state of the land. Soon the same winds that sweep up the hills will carry flash fires upwards, cresting the hills, raining not water but sparks of hot ashes into the volatile dry slopes. Today the posted signs along the road say the risk of fire is “LOW” in green capital letters, indicated by a dark wooden pointer. But on the other side of the wheel is the word “HIGH” in red capital letters; soon the pointer will begin to creep upwards into the red zone.

Up the hill from the house, there are still burned posts standing guard at the top of the hill; blackened sentinels. The wire they held is fallen down at the feet of the guardians. Now there is the Spring ritual of clearing fallen trees and chaparral, raking dead grasses, removing the more obviously combustible detritus. It may help when the fires come again. Higher up the hill a newly cut road leads to a new housing site, high enough to command a view of the distant ocean with its oil derricks, and with the channel islands partly hidden by sea fog behind them. The view is as impressive as the risk. When will the time come when no one will insure such houses, regardless of the premium assessed?

Last time I was here, in the summer, smoky wafts came over the hillside and helicopters flew overhead trailing large buckets full of water to dump from the sky. There was fear of evacuation. People went outside and watered down their yards and roofs against errant embers.

As I write this, the whole house shakes. Did a tree fall onto the roof? There is no wind today, it is warm and sunny and beautiful. Birds of all sorts, unknown on the East Coast, have been chirping. Outside, the barn door is askew; an earthquake tremor. No damage; just one twitch of the earth’s skin. How can so perfect a place be such a continuous reminder of perils?

Down by the beach, there are occasional small round patches of gummy black. The signs at the fancy hotel ask patrons returning from the beach to watch out for oil leakage, to keep the sticky tar off the manicured walkways. Meanwhile the water is crystal clear off the narrow strand of sand, only occasional small boulders punctuate the coast. There is no seaweed, only an occasional shell. My host assured me there is seaweed, but none appears in my honor. Anomalously, a large king crab carcass, arms still attached, lies up-beach midst a small tangle of stone, wood shards and brush. No animal, no insects, no sea creatures are nibbling at the shell; it is either already empty or just plain unappetizing. Perhaps it is the absence of drawn butter, I think. Likely not.

There are too many thin blond people. The men are hidden by large glasses with dark lenses. For some reason, the women have their glasses pushed up over their hair lines, resting on the top of their heads. Men on expensive racing bikes, all in full gear of tight colored or black spandex, are everywhere, but mostly on the hilliest of roads, heading into the Los Padres Mountains, up and over impressive peaks into the valleys beyond where the grapes grow and the cattle graze. There are no women on bicycles, and no one knows why.

I am eating oranges from the tree out front. They are very sweet; my host complains they are not ripe. He does not remember what oranges taste like when they finally reach a supermarket in New England; if he did, he would not complain. There are no seeds. None at all. I sift the orange flesh into my mouth, tentative squeezing out the juice, alert to the feel of the seeds so I can expel them, fearful they are lurking, hidden in wait for me. There are none I find; it is a mild disappointment, I remain suspicious of the fruit and will remain vigilant the next time I eat some more; perhaps they are in conspiracy against me, all the seeds will be in the next picking.

Late one night, my third, we go downtown to pick up some Indian food to bring home. There is man, mangy and palpably malodorous, yelling about the Son of God. The older people look away, negating him. A group of teens wave back; he is oblivious. It is now that I see my first African American; he is walking down the street, doing nothing special, but he seems almost unique. In three days I have not seen anyone of color, except for the occasional Mexican gardener. I ask my host if there are black people in Santa Barbara and am told “not many.” None on the beaches either, public beaches on a Sunday. I ask if there are any slums, which in retrospect is a racist question but it slips out anyway. My host drives me though what looks like a neat neighborhood with small yards and flowering bushes on the East side of town; many toffee-colored people, some small children carrying toys, balloons. Not much of a slum, not by Eastern standards. My host acknowledges it is just a working class area, noting however that “it is thought by some to be the more dangerous part of town.” How can an area be dangerous when it is festooned with bright flowers everywhere?

We cruise the coast to the South, going towards LA. Small houses are expensive; large houses are outrageous. There is little concern for rising oceans; nothing is on stilts, new construction going on down by the water-line. In the evening, heavy traffic on the 101 heading South; wealthy folks from LA going back to town late on Sunday, leaving their beach houses after the weekend. Feels like Cape Cod, maybe the Hamptons. Likely all wealthy enclaves everywhere, I just don’t know their names; but I do know the people, the lawyers and executives and entrepreneurs and the inherited money all look the same: green bills held in white hands at the margin where the blue water and blue sky merge at the horizon.

My host shows me a few insects, winged and compact, he says they are male termites. I am a city person, I have no opinion. He has called the “pest man” and we are waiting at home for an artisan who does not arrive in his time slot. My host calls and gets voice mail. “Santa Barbara is like that, seventy percent of the time the tradespeople just don’t come.” I choose not to tell him that it is true everywhere I have ever lived; the DNA of the American service economy has its own internal clock, and it runs everywhere slowly, in spite, whenever it is called upon by people in fancy houses. It is the closest America comes to a class revolt in the face of gross disparity, as if self-respect is defined by arriving two hours late and leaving an innocent-sounding note tucked in the door: “Sorry I missed you. Please call. Joe.”

I am staying in a cabin, not in the main house. It is just as well; there are cats at home and I think they make me wheeze. But I spend all my waking hours at the house, and am spurned by the cats. The black one runs away when he sees me, except at dinner where he hops up on the table and sniffs my food. I am told there is a fat gray one also; I recall him from a glimpse during a prior visit, but this trip he is nowhere to be seen. My cabin is large and sparse and pleasant, relaxing with homey wood trim and a footed white porcelain bath top and an old-fashioned shower head overarching it. I imagine what it would be like to not go home; to just stay in the cabin, enjoy the uniform weather, own a single wardrobe geared to seventy degrees plus a sweater for the evenings; I would go to the main house to eat and be ignored by cats and have someone mail me a check each month so I could pay my fair share. It is on this latter proposition that my musing plan breaks down, for want of volunteers willing to send the requisite mail. Each night after dinner and conversation I pick up my books and eyeglasses, my cabin door key {“Please don’t lose it, we don’t have another”) and take my flashlight down the stone path, avoid the brown mounds of earth piled up by gophers my host will not eradicate (“Why? They belong here too and they don’t hurt anyone?”) and wonder briefly what I would do if all of a sudden I saw two bright shining eyes in front of me, unblinking, highlighted by my light beam. Last visit there was Bob the Bobcat seen at the top of the ridge, and on one occasion seen on a trellis and gazing into an upstairs bedroom and growling at the intrigued cats—but Bob has not been seen for some time, perhaps he has permanently moved on which may explain all the gopher holes.

I have been told of a fat snake seen crawling into some of the gopher holes, but I choose not to think of that aspect of local fauna. Particularly at night I choose to believe that local snakes are only diurnal, like the virulent rattlers on the floor of the Grand Canyon; you confidently fell asleep on the ground but sure were up like a rose-bud when the first rays of sun breached the canyon walls at dawn.

Today I ask for a tour of the University of California at Santa Barbara which, I am told, looks like an office park. I find that a disappointing thought; I rather envisioned stucco buildings fronted by flowers, with tile roofs and deep overhangs and Spanish Ivy hanging from verdant trees on a hill overlooking the ocean. As with many places, what you perceive is partly there and partly arrived there inside your own expectations. Seemingly this is not a worthy enough attraction to show to a visitor; we end up instead downtown, wandering a serious of mock-Spanish commercial arcades, where national brands of false cache (Couch) and national brands of no cache (Marshall’s) share street and arcade frontage with numerous small overpriced local restaurants. Memories here of Naples, Florida; well-dressed trim couples, in their 60s it seems, seated in groups of four in outdoor restaurants, lunching lightly, lots of salads in sight, white wine in glasses; in the walkways around the cafes and shops, the occasional startling sculpture, big life-sized bronzes: a little girl in a blue jumper conversing with her grandfather, a fat workman with a squeegee brush addressing a large plate glass window, a plaid handkerchief flopping out of his back pocket. All the everyday scenes rendered in neat bronze, no need to have the cocktails marred by the voices of children, the workman-like tones of the staff. I have been looking for a big bronze piece for my own house but they are too expensive to buy; these casually strewn sculptures, scattered around the shopping arcades for occasional effect, must cost many thousands of dollars each but, then again, with wine at $18 a glass and purses at $800, what’s the problem?

Onward to the waterfront of Santa Barbara and the long pier, built in the late 19th century, the plaque informs us, to bring trade to the sleepy town. The waterfront is inconveniently separated from the entire rest of the town by the North South throughway, the 101, and a single railroad track that seems active with horn-blowing passenger trains; poor design indeed, to get to the water you must either drive over tracks and under the highway, or walk through a tunnel. Too late to unite the city and the ocean perhaps, although one could bury the road and the train to great effect, as they have done in Boston, uniting the sea and the city and enhancing the commercial and tourist experience while so doing. Near the railroad there is the “Funk Zone,” expressly so designated; wine bars in old buildings, a few artist galleries, a boarded-up surfing museum, large skate board park in fresh concrete. The people in the bars and on the street are oh so young and oh so tan and oh so without visible means of support. A spike of jealousy intrudes as I sip a flight of nondescript wines; turns out the grapes are imported from all over California and blended somewhere outside town, not even at the tasting room. The woman pouring the wine is pleased to tell us that they have mixed in grapes not usually combined; perhaps there is a reason for that reticence.

The pier is tourist standard: long, three restaurants, souvenirs, a fudge shop, an ice cream room, and near the end, for those disheartened by the hike, Madame Rozina will read your palm. Her window also features a human head in glazed pottery, no hair, lines drawn showing the parts of the brain, labeled as to function under the system of phrenology now totally debunked. I wonder if Madame will run her bony painted fingers across my skull for an extra fiver, and I glance in: a couple of red-upholstered Victorian chairs and an old oriental rug and no person in sight. I will forgo the experience. The wide ocean is in front of me, a brisk wind eliminates any haze, and in the distance is Santa Cruz island, 24 miles off-shore, a backdrop for five or six seemingly diminutive oil cranes out in the channel. My host buys a small slice of fudge — $3.08 and here is a small white plastic knife in the bag to make it easier to share.

There are several large antique stores, one or two in each town, the kind that are cooperatives; numerous alcoves with specialized collections depending on the whim of the sub-proprietor. Here is a collection of old toys, there some wood-working tools, several cases of different colored wine and aperitif glasses. The furniture is small, mock Southwestern and mock Mexican or, perhaps, the real thing, nothing ornate or European, very West Coast. By the cash register there is a small bowl of large brass coins with a hand-lettered sign: “BROTHEL TOKENS.” The alleged purpose of each is clear: on one side is a price, on the other side the name of a bar or a hotel and a description of what the price buys you. I smile, I know they are fake in some way as they all are the same size and same color of bronze; if they were real, the tokens for Arizona and California and New Mexico would be of different aspect I am sure. But they are a collection of something and I cannot resist buying a handful, perhaps to put out on a coffee table at home in a small bowl as a conversation piece. Back at my cabin I go to my computer, and learn they are of course not real, a tourist device from the 1950s but, of course, there is a collectors’ market for them nonetheless, as there is for cigar bands, old Coke cans and bottles, the ends of fruit packing boxes. I have a coin next to me as I write this. On the front it says “$3” and has two hearts and also says in big letters “ALL NIGHT CHECK.” The obverse informs me that I may redeem the coin at Swede’s Saloon in Yuma, Arizona and it is “good for screw stogie and whisky.” I wonder if the redemption must be availed of in that specific order.

Back at the cabin, just in time to see the Santa Barbara Fire Department Crew with chain saw and rakes and brooms cut up that part of the fallen tree that blocks one lane of the road. The log parts are stacked like firewood at the edge of the road; it is unclear if they are there to be picked up later or for the taking by a passer-by. The wood scraps, leafy arms and dense foliation is picked up and thrown down the slope at the edge of the road. I am informed later by my host that this is poor form in fire-prone country; the insurance inspectors will tsk-tsk at all the dry detritus so near the houses, and perhaps demand removal or a higher premium, all by reason of something my host did not do. Would it help to tell the insurance man that it must not be a problem because the condition was made by the firemen themselves? The crew seemed to enjoy their work, the roar of the chain saw, the spray of sawdust, the tossing of the logs from one to the other for stacking, the pitching of large limbs laden with greenery down the hill. Surely more fun than one can ever have sitting at a desk. I am not sure, but I think that one of the fireman was a firewoman; the yellow work vests and hard hats disguise much, and I did not consider it politic to just inquire.

My last day dawns like all the others; sky is totally blue, sun is totally sunny, the hills above the cabin are sharply outlined with cactus and chaparral sticking up above the slope, here and there, bits of green on what is now an almost golden mat of ground grass. Birds are everywhere, seen and unseen. The doves are in pairs, white tails dancing amid the flutter of their take-offs. The quail barely fly, they scoot along the ground also in pairs, their bodies rocking like Charlie Chaplain in his Tramp movies minus the cane. I am bent over the chest on which I am packing my roll-on, stuffing dirty clothes into crevasses, trying to position my few remaining clean items so they survive the trip intact, when a mustard-colored shape passes by the window, not three feet from me. At first I think it must be the missing bob-cat, not seen for months, but this is not a bob-cat based on the length of the tail, at least as long as the body, same yellowish fur, standing straight out behind the animal, parallel to the ground. I am stunned for a moment, then reach for my camera and pull on the string to pick up the venetian blinds; the motion, perhaps the sound, attracts the animal who is now perhaps ten feet away; it turns and stares quizzically but without panic and the gaze freezes me. Then it turns slowly and is gone behind the rocks before I think to take a picture.

My host is excited; they have lived there almost three years and this is the first cougar. We go on line and there is no doubt that this is a mountain lion, not a smaller bob-cat with abbreviated tail. The computer tells us that the drought has brought the cougars down from the high canyons and there have been sporadic sightings; there is a fuzzy film clip taken by a jogger within the past three weeks, it made it onto the local TV station. I am now peeved to have failed to get a picture and some recognition. I ask my host if he will report the sighting; he demurs. “They will probably think that I want them to shoot it.” I tell him I doubt it but he just shrugs. Maybe he knows Santa Barbara better than I do….

A final lunch in a small restaurant overlooking a public beach. Outside, white caps churn the water and there is no one in the surf except one kite-sailor in a black wet-suit, zipping over the rollers on a board pulled by his sail, catching air whenever he can. Inside behind the glass wind-breaks, the lunch crowd is mixed old and young, but mostly well dressed, some of the same lunch crowd one sees downtown, the ladies who lunch. At the bar, a tattooed couple drink beer; a motorcycle helmet between them identifies them as “Daughters of Hell.” The tattoos seem strangely benign.

And then of a sudden I am at the airport; it is almost empty, laconic, a short counter, businessmen in suit jackets awaiting the delayed flight to San Francisco. I am early, going to LA to catch the red-eye East. I have lots of leeway time-wise; I do not trust the timing of airplanes, they are not so careful about my appointment schedule as I would like. The air conditioning begins to clear my nose and throat from what must be the wind-excited pollens of the many trees; I was told it was exceptionally windy and that palm trees have pollens. I asked about the trees and am reminded that almost none of them are local. My host gives me a book to read on the plane that tells the story of how trees were imported in great numbers after the gold rush, to remind those who stayed that they were not in the mid-West any more but building a unique Western paradise. I have little interest; the book is not telling me which ones make me sneeze.

Next time I am out in the air it will be in Boston. The temperature will be in the mid-40s and I gather it will be raining. I will have a clear nose and a fuzzy head from sitting in my plane for an abbreviated night as I fly East into the sun. I have that feeling that comes at the end of all vacations: had a great time, not looking forward to what is waiting for me at home, but for some strange reason the thought of going home makes me content.

False Advertising

The advertisement read:
Giusto is a powerhouse. Its hefty, taut body holds bushes of ripe blackberries and hawthorn berries, warm spices like licorice and cedar, and a beautiful balance between velvety tannins and mouthwatering acidity. Full-bodied, earthy and concentrated with rich, sweet tannins that signify aging potential, this ever- popular selection delivers a lingering finish.

Imagine my chagrin on learning that this advertised item was merely a bottle of wine, and not a young woman. (The clerk at the store, when I telephoned to place an order, was less than understanding and at one point suggested that the police might have an interest in my call, or perhaps McClean Mental Hospital.)

Imagine a “powerhouse!” And although “hefty,” at least taut. Imagine a woman redolent of berries and spices in a “beautiful balance.” No doubt such a person would be “mouthwatering.” And wealthy and kind to boot (“rich and sweet”). Yet still unspoiled by all these wonderful attributes (“earthy”). And such a woman would not much lose her charms over time, having “aging potential” that is “lingering.”

I have decided to cease dating human beings and am building a cellar of fine wine. Although such wines are of course expensive, they are cheap as compared with actually courting and marrying a woman. And they never complain if I do not text or tweet. And if I am stuck late in the office they are nonetheless silently awaiting my pleasure when I finally do return to my home. And failure at sex is now a problem that is off the table; after foreplay with any decent bottle, I fall blissfully asleep without attempting to rally for a boffo finish.

And finally, wine is so politically correct. It can be of any color. It can come from any country regardless of politics, predominant religion, membership or non-membership in any trade alliance. Who ever rejected a wine because the country of origin had failed to pay its fair share of the costs of NATO? Yes, folks, I am a new man these days and, if at work on some mornings I seem a bit unfocused, I am sure you will support me in my quest for the proper work-life balance.

The Jews of the Donald

Today’s Wall Street Journal notes the fifth wave of anti-Semitic bomb threats against Jewish community centers, all over the country, since the first of the year. The total of threats for the two months is 90. That is more than one per day. That is, on average, 540 for a whole year. With one Canadian exception, all of this within the borders of the United States. This follows the defacing of dozens of tombstones in a Jewish cemetery just the other day.

Today’s New York Times ran an article about the attack on Enlightenment values, noting that, in the past, truly enlightened people have risen up and defended principles-based social compacts against reactive forces who believe that group identity, perceived personally by your particular group (be it a country or a religion), is the best basis of governance, headed by a strong person who can lead the folk who are destined to prevail.

Seventy or so years ago, I grew up in New York City, and if there ever was a combination of melting pot plus prejudice against the other, it was New York right after the War that was fought against one country that killed Jews and another country that supplied the population for our American concentration camps.

I grew up with Kikes and Sheenies. Also Niggers and Coons. Throw in a few Spics and Wops. Spice with a few Krauts and Nips and Chinks. Are you fish, Hebe or raghead? At the same time that intellectually I could not understand why someone would hate me and curse at me and make me fearful, I feared and reviled every other group, because everyone I knew feared and reviled them. Something deep in human nature was at work then, and it is at work today, and I am sure it will always be at work. People are fiercely imperfect; perhaps evil. What mix of genetic material brought our group of killers to the top of the heap I do not know – but I can imagine what the “right stuff” looked like a few hundred thousand years ago. Frightening.

Over time, nurtured in the gentility of the East and the Ivy League, believing (almost) that a new age had dawned, I slowly lost my edge on these matters. I stopped comparing my experience in the United States to the experience of Jews in Germany between the wars. I was comforted by politicians who, for the most part, said the right thing about people of color, and about people who were born into the religion that was a magnet of death at the hands of religions whose savior preached life and love. Logical anomalies were just that; transient anomalies, we would outgrow them.

Tides always turn and, today, we are seeing the turning of our political tide. I am compelled to teach my son, cursed with the dual defects of a half-Jewish heritage and a sweet and trusting temperament, what I had hoped to leave behind in the vain believe that sometimes the tide just keeps going out. I am girding myself, and want to gird my son, against those who are certain that “it can’t happen here” and who (not to my face) mention that I am becoming a touch unhinged; “guess age catches up to all of us, he just doesn’t get it….” I hope to find my son an education that exposes him to all the darkness, curses and prejudices of the world so he is better prepared to cope personally and defend himself robustly; not one of those places that cancels appearances by those who speak evil, as if not understanding evil is the best way to defeat it.

To my mind intelligence is to recognize the painful truth which everyone runs away from. Intelligence is to look at the politics of the country and to see red. Oh my—they are here. There are so many of them; and we were told, sure, there are a few, the unenlightened, the deplorable, they will never disappear but they will never be empowered in a systemic way so as to challenge the enlightened truth. Intelligence is taking a realistic look at the world and assessing painful risk. It is uncomfortable for yourself, and others around you, to define as intelligence so dark a conclusion, so seriously disruptive a world view. It is so – uncool – to emotionally “prove” your point by referencing millions who died before most of the current world was born, or by rebuffing reassurances by people who have merged what they have been taught to believe and what any organism knows – avoid pain, it is counter-productive.

So what do you do? The conventional answers are these: rely on the world to right itself, relax; take up civil arms against darkness by political action and legal action; conclude that there is no hope at least today as we must stand on the only beach we are afforded, and do business as usual and hope for a neap tide that floods only a bit of the world; take violent dramatic action based on the conclusion that this time is one of those really high tides that inexorably drowns the complacent many.

Pick one; all answers are available to you.

And I have been pleased to explain it all to you. For a moment there, I sort of thought you might be missing it…..



Part I:

There once was a large, yellow rabbit named Arthur. He lived in a small duplex burrow in the lawn across from Central Park South and was very sophisticated. All the bunnies thought that Arthur was cute.

One day, Arthur was walking to the Lettuce National Bank to cash his coupons attached to his Carrotcorp bonds. He wore a black Homburg and red spats. Everyone knew he was wealthy by the way he twirled his cane. All the bunnies thought that Arthur was cute and rich.

Arthur passed a sign and looked at it. He stopped. He was moved; for the first time since he was a child in a Hartford, Connecticut garden he was truly moved. The sign read:
“Fight for Amboulian Literacy! Be of Service to Man and God.”

Arthur’s brow curled in determination. His eyes turned steel-cold in resolve behind his whiskers. Here at last was something worth doing – his idle dissolution was shown now in true perspective, a waste of talent in an age crying for action, measured until now against a posterity all-too-forgetful of its ancestors. Arthur looked proud and strong and determined. Any bunny looking at him thought immediately that Arthur was cute and rich and, his yellow fur notwithstanding, quite courageous.

Arthur tore up his bonds and shaved his head. He donated his cane to the American Legion, his spats to the Catholic War Orphans, and his purple double-breasted surcoat to the UJA. He resigned from eating the grasses in front of the Union Club and the Princeton Club, sent back his membership card in the Hartford Herbivore Society, and took a few memorabilia in a small box and boarded the first steamer to Amboulian. All the bunnies thought that Arthur was cute, rich, courageous and crazy but’ since he was rich, apologies were made for him.

Part II.

There once was a large yellow rabbit who was born in the hills of Amboulian. He was smart and progressive and literate, and passed through life in a way to leave his mark by helping others such that none could scoff at the ground upon which he trod. All the bunnies thought that Ngomo was cute, smart, courageous and the image of his late grandfather, Arthur of the Lettuce, who had come to Amboulian long ago to be of service and to fulfill his churning intellect.

One day, rummaging through his ancestral burrow, Ngomo came across a small box with a brass ring on top. Gently lifting the cover, he found a book of photographs of his late grandfather. Here was Arthur in spats surrounded by seven beautiful bunnies in a mansion with palm trees. Here was Arthur doing the conga with a socialite lop-eared from someplace called Scarsdale. Here was Arthur addressing a gathering of the National Skeet-Shooting League.

For the first time in years, Ngomo was moved, truly moved. “My, is it not grand,” he exclaimed. “Here I thought life was so full, here I was doing great things, justifying my presence on earth, and yet there must be so much more to life than this!”

For weeks Ngomo brooded, troubled and alone. At last, he took a decision. Packing his few City clothes, he strode off down the road, midst tears and anguish from his people, and lay a course for the great metropolis.

Part III.

Invitation received in the mail just the other day:

“The National Association of Bank Directors Cordially Invites
To a Luncheon in honor of
Ngomo Rabbit
President of the New York Central Park Bank
In recognition of his philanthropy in donating
A very large amount of lettuce
To construct a heated community swimming pool in the basement of
The Central Park Zoo.”

Part IV.

“Except the Lord keepeth the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

Immigration 2006

[The below essay was written in 2006 at a time when there was an effort to unionize cleaning people, virtually all Hispanic, who labored in the office buildings of Boston. There were parades in the street, and a limited (and unsuccessful) outcry from the liberal elements of Boston making broad moral claims on behalf of these presumed immigrant workers. While no one should question their rights — to reasonable status, to reasonable wages, to fair humane treatment — the claims on behalf of this group struck me at the time as out of balance with a reasoned approach; and the debate seemed polarized, neither side listening to the other. The below is posted here, in the midst of the 2016 Presidential race, at a time when immigration is emotionally at the forefront of discourse, and where (even more so than in 2006) neither side is listening to the other. Although I am not sure I agree with some of my arguments (was not even sure then), the lack of logic and the lack of zero-base-evaluating ideas and alternatives which I noted at the time are factors even more predominant in the wholly angry and polarized Clinton-Trump election battle. I swallow my embarrassment for some of what I wrote (and threw into my file) a decade ago, and offer the below.]

It is difficult to get “air time” in liberal Massachusetts to express a reasoned liberal position that is generally opposed to much of the thrust of the “immigrant movement.” The issues to be dealt with are:

I. Why people shut down and don’t listen?
II. If they do listen, why do they not give any weight to logical arguments?
III. What can we learn from fact and reason, setting aside rhetoric and assumed analogy?
IV. Even if one listens and even agrees that the “immigrant movement” is premised on unsupportable emotional appeal, what is the correct, liberal, humane answer to the issues (if any there be)?

I. You Are Not Listening. Typical of the polarization of political thinking, we do not debate. There are several reasons for this:

a. in Massachusetts, liberals are very far to the left of the general US population, to the point of feeling besieged; they form a shell and let everything that they do not reflexively agree with bounce off them, rather than wearily engaging what they perceive as a continuous onslaught of illiberal hogwash.

b. in the land where everyone is entitled to an opinion, we are forgetting that that aphorism was born at a time when a corollary was that you needed facts to back up that opinion; we do not read; the vast majority of Americans do not even read newspapers any more; we rely more and more on the internet which is fundamentally unedited, and where each written “fact” appears on a par with every other (even if it doesn’t happen to be true). People without facts just repeat themselves with ever-increasing stridency; they do not listen.

c. in an interesting study in the power of a word, and in a great injury to our national texture, fundamentalists and conservatives consciously have attempted to make a political philosophy – liberalism – a dirty word. To call someone a liberal is now perceived as painting someone with a broad negative brush, and it is assumed that every thought they have is wrong-minded and un-American. This demonization of what had been for decades the dominant political articulation of the nature of our social contract is the single most powerful invention for political gain even accomplished in our country, excepting perhaps the invention of the gold standard as a convenient proxy for all that the Populists wanted to hate. Demonized groups tend to shut down their receptors; the broadcasts hurt too much.

II. The Anti message is not facially appealing. If you force yourself to listen, what does it seem like you are hearing? It sounds/feels like it is anti-foreign, anti-humane and bigoted. The Anti message on its surface seems to be against all those who liberals want to be FOR: the poorer among us, with no Roth IRAs and 529 Plans; the dark-complected; the foreign with accents and hence presumed inability to negotiate the difficulties of living in the US today; the politically unrepresented, un-lobbied-for, un-PACed. The marches are illustrative: large numbers of short brown people, very very many pushing baby carriages, large numbers of women. Who the heck wants to line up as “against” these, the meek who are to be the inheritors, the tempest-tossed who find themselves on this side of the golden door?

III. The logical analysis.

There is a first step, I suppose, which is: do you even want to apply a logical analysis? It is not too bold a heresy, I suggest, to take the intellectual position that there is so much obvious emotional weight on the side of the “immigrant movement” that one should not quibble with wherever it is logic may take you; certainly granting all demands cannot be imagined to impair the condition of 15,000,000 people, and certainly we believe that being “in” the US system is a huge gift of freedom, power and potential for all peoples and particularly for their bless-ed children, so why pause to entertain negatives that caring people will ultimately and surely brush aside in the final analysis anyway?

And logic is suspect when it runs head-on into so many implicit instinctive suppositions that liberals hold. In addition to the factors noted in the second part of this essay, above, do we as liberals not understand that:

a. we are an entire nation of immigrants; we are ourselves children of immigrants; that is indeed our special genius, why we are “better” ultimately than all other political entities; it is a heresy to oppose immigrants, it is like we are denying our parents AND our children as a nation.

b. these poor, short, brown people are fiercely exploited by American business, and they NEED the protection implicit in the status of US citizen – the group protection that comes from many such citizens voting together—in order to be able to lead decent lives and raise children who are productive people and not welfare parasites with poor teeth and no health insurance. To oppose the Movement is to condemn children to the economic, racial and political hell that we so well recognize as growing out of the residue of such other ill-conceptualized American exercises in political power: the cynically driven economic exploitation of Chinese labor, the economic system we called slavery, the sharecropper and company town systems of economic dependency, the sweat shops and inhuman mills of our industrial revolution.

c. our position in the world will be incredibly weakened if we are seen to be discriminating against our poor, mostly a darker ethnic sub-group.

d. we are not the kind of people who (any more) herd people we do not want or respect into prisons, or deport them or punish them, particularly if they actually are here among us, clean our trash from our offices each night, and have so many children, even children actually born here in the United States.

Who wants to apply logic to make fine line distinctions in the face of these agreed-upon facts? What a narrow-minded exercise that would be, not to mention if conducted by someone who once called himself a liberal!

Let’s try a few simple logical drills for starters. Because perhaps we will be interested in where those drills take us.

First, everyone is a nation of immigrants. Only Oldavai Gorge has true human natives. Everyone else came from somewhere else. Why does the fact that we are a nation of RECENT immigrants carry with it moral consequences? Why should it matter morally that the French, who are thought of as indigenous, came mainly from Norse invasions 1500 years ago while you and I had grandparents who came from a few hundred miles South of the Norseman habitat in Europe and a few hundred years later?

Why, logically, even if it WERE true that we are uniquely a nation of immigrants, are we obligated to favor new immigrants? Forever? Regardless of number? What if in ten years five million Canadians rushed the border and ran a few miles into the US, and what if none of them had jobs or money (or of course health care) and what if they all had TB and pink eye and athlete’s foot? Are they immigrants and therefore okay?

Our earlier immigration was overwhelmingly legal. Think about the US as a country of laws, not men; if ideas and ideals; a superior political compact. Think of the main function of a government as the protection of our nation as it exists. Does it not matter that vast numbers of the new immigrants are here illegally, in violation of the laws of our nation – mine and yours? Certainly this is not a game, is it; “ you should not be here but, gosh, you did slip past the system against our laws and in the dead of night, you have worked here for a few years, you have a kid you should not have going to school and he is pretty cute so – okay, folks, YOU and your family have won the lucky lottery of life and you can stay here in the US regardless of other factors because, after all, everyone loves a winner and – you WIN!”

Is it not anomalous to see thousands of people, here in this country against our laws, marching in our streets (an American legal right) and demanding an American political solution to give them the American rights under law that happen to arise under the same laws they felt fully entitled to ignore in order to get here? Is that just a little twist of fate, a chuckle on the road of life—or, is there not really something fundamentally wrong-minded about it?

Second, these people have jobs we need. The unemployment rate among people who are already here (do they lose status because they are first?) and who are also here legally (do they lose status because they did NOT violate our laws? Or because they are citizens) is enormously high. Now there are many many issues about putting populations to work, a separate and poignant debate not amenable to easy resolutions or pat, politically conservative Draconian answers. But it just must be logically true that the task of ultimately putting legal citizens to work is made harder by the presence of a large cheap pool of exploitable labor. Liberals know too well that the economic marketplace absorbs underpaid, noncomplaining low-level labor more rapidly than higher-paid, politically potent (legally powerful) labor. Can anyone seriously maintain that the presence of more, uncomplaining lowest-paid labor does not deny earlier legal immigrants or citizens jobs, does not depress the wages set by market forces, does not disempower yet another equally worthy group at the bottom of our society? It is just untrue that we need all this labor; we have what is known as”Unemployment.” That comes from more labor than jobs. How subtle is that fact? How mean-spirited to our older oppressed groups, to foster more lower paid labor when the nature of our economy, UNLIKE earlier times when we needed workers and farmers, does NOT need this influx of people? Would it not be better to have a cadre of poor white and black legal Americans cleaning out your office trash can tonight at $17.50 an hour?

You do not aid the poor by creating a large pool of disorganized labor which cannot assert its rights and lacks the ability to sue. The recent strikes to organize the Boston unions that clean the buildings, for example, leave this group of people still the most pitiably underpaid and socially abused part of our population. They walk to work each evening past street corners full of other people with no jobs at all.

The children! What about the children? They surely are blameless. Some were even born here. (If I sneak into Buckingham palace with my wife and we deliver a baby boy, should he not be king? Bad analogy you say—and, I digress.) Whatever the other arguments, what do we do about the children? How can this society turn its back on children? (In this discussion, we wrap ourselves in a flag and do not discuss the Napalm-burned in Viet Nam, the artilleried in Gaza, the bombed in Basra, the shot in Somalia, the malnourished in Mississippi; these children are different, of course, because —-uh——.)(The point is not to advocate harming these children because our government is so casual about harming other children; the point IS to put in context the emotional tugs perceived to bear upon the immigration movement debate.) This factor of course commits the ultimate logical sin of assuming the conclusion, that we are turning these children into refugees, poverty-stricken and without hope.

The now-collapsed compromise bill included the logical counterweight, or sop, of tightening borders. How sportingly American: being a legal American is a game, you got to pass GO so you get yours, but others in the future had darned well better watch out: this time we are passing a law, sort of like the law we have today actually, that you cannot just sneak into the US, but this time we REALLY REALLY REALLY mean it!!!! Wow, there is a tough governmental stance. Of course, morally there likely should not be any distinction, to hear the Immigration Movement argument, between those who come in the future and those who came in the past; once you are here, you are in! Additionally, morally, why is there any difference between those who have arrived here legally OR illegally, on the one hand, and those who in the future simply WANT to come here to live? Are they not similarly morally entitled? IS the difference that some sneaked in in 2005, and others will sneak in in 2007? What IS our policy, if we are entitled to have one, on national immigration? The answer is, we are entitled to and in need of a policy, tomorrow and today, in order to protect the social and economic fabric of our country, and that policy should be enforced tomorrow and it should be enforced today. Because it is the obligation of intelligent government to identify levels of immigration, and immigration needs for our country, and to factor in a world-wide function to serve as a partial safety valve for people truly at risk politically, and to enforce that policy. It is not logical, nor I submit conscionable, to give current illegal immigrants a pass and pledge at the same time to shoot the next wave of immigrants at our border crossings so it won’t happen again.

IV. So what to do?

The difficulty in answering that question is at the core of sloppy thinking. Even if a liberal is to believe some, let alone much, of what has been said above, what should be done as a practical matter? It looks like 7 people out of every hundred, physically within our borders, is an illegal immigrant. Is that correct? If it is anywhere near correct, do we even have the physical capacity to deal with a policy of enforcing the current law against all these people? Do we have the will power to sort out families, individuals, deal with figuring out whether mom and dad go back to Haiti and Pierre (born in Pittsburgh) gets to stay here (with whom?). Do we have the courage, and is it wise to have the courage, to ship Pierre to Port-au-Prince (let’s say he is in Junior High, is getting As and can already slam-dunk, if you want to draw the hard picture)?

Not problems one wants to tackle. And beware adopting a law that you cannot enforce. Or do not have the lack of sensibility to enforce.

I submit not even Congress, at least in public, is discussing a principled, logical and morally defensible program to break this almost inconceivably complex conundrum. But one thing ought to be clear: the insistence of people illegally here to be categorically given a pass is illogical, immoral, inconsistent with any definition of governance, and not in the best overall interest of the largest number of American citizens.

Rather than glibly decree the answer, let me just suggest things to think about. But we should not conclude that the Immigration Movement has the right answer just because we recognize the problem as complex and not easily solvable. It is very American to see a problem, want to solve it promptly, and then move on to the next problem to be solved, all on our merry march to the West Coast, to the Moon, to world hegemony; it is that characteristic, one likes to think, that makes American into the kind of people who actually DO all the things we do when others only sit aside and say tsk-tsk. It is important here not to throw up hands over complexity, or because answers are textured and subtle.

Where do people come from? What sort of country? Political repression? Physical risk?

Do they have children? People now too old to move?

What is the role, in today’s society, of the fact that someone was actually born on US soil. Does it matter? How much?

What will the countries who own these people pay us to help solve this problem (they are their people). Reimburse us for our historical costs, or our current costs to sort out and ship people?

Should geography matter? Where do we need labor, if anywhere? Should we offer all people, legal immigrants (even citizens) first shot at those opportunities but, if not taken, offer an illegal immigrant a deal of citizenship in exchange for moving/training? (or does successfully sneaking through mean you not only get to be legal, but you get to choose your location, even if that choice is harmful to extant society?)

What skills do people have? Can we train legal immigrants or citizens to do these things, or not? What if we raised the minimum wage first? What if we raised it only for legals?

Most immigrants are from South America. Is there a hemispheric fix? What do our neighbors think?

Is there a different status for these people that recognizes their geography and certain basic rights, but not others? Such as to vote? Such as to have equal access to jobs? Why DOES someone who is illegal have to have the same full rights of others? Can we be humane but have graded rights?

What should our borders look like? What IS a secure border? (How many jobs do you create if you put people along our borders, and upgrade our governmental processes and computers? Are these bad jobs to create? Badder than shooting Iraqis? What IS the proper liberal agenda for our government’s deliverables?)

Money. If you are illegal and rich, should that mean you should stay because you are our kind of people? That you must go, because you can afford it and you will not starve? That you can stay if you pay us (let’s put the money in a fund for poor people—poor illegals? Or, poor legals [called citizens], maybe those living in areas with many illegals and high citizen unemployment?).

Principles: what ARE our principles? Should government not proceed by articulating on the ground our social principles – what Rousseau called our social contract? We lose the process of thinking this way – logically, intelligently, and NOT necessarily inhumanely either—when we lose the ability to have a true communicative debate. We are at such a moment in our national history. Are we capable of recovering a modicum of “society” in the classic sense, and also a touch of logic? Or are we cursed to observe the buzz-words and preconceptions of our moment in time – Massachusetts liberals sticking with our knee-jerk judgments and proud of our unwillingness to consider what is possible, or smart to do, in the broader world?

Stinky Soap

Text of commercial/voice over

[Scene of man working out, sweating, then putting suit on without showering]

Guys, I know what you do. You work out, weights and treadmill and all sort of reps, and then you put your suit right back on because you do not want to shower and lose that perspiration smell that marks you as a real man. You don’t want the guys at the bar to think you’re some sort of sissy or effete snob, right? [Visual of several young guys with five o’clock shadows moving away from a clean-smelling guy in a suit]

[Scene of young guy in shorts sitting in a locker room, head resting on hand like the thinker]

I know what you’re thinking. Acne. Lice. Blackheads. Cooties. Pimples. Ringworm. Crotch-rot. You want to shower, you don’t want to deal with that shit. But once you shower, you’re a marked man. No buddies to hang with.

Now from the laboratories of Schvitz & Co. comes a revolutionary new product that is the answer to your prayers: Stinky Soap. A careful and scientifically proven formulation combining the finest of lotions, cleansing agents, aloe and softener, suitable for skin and hair, Stinky Soap also contains a proprietary secret ingredient: eau de sweat. While leaving your body entirely cleansed, without need for jock powder or athletes foot powder or even underarm deodorant, eau de sweat leaves a non-greasy harmless and invisible film that combines with your natural body effluents to create an overall hanging odor of old sweat.

[cut to picture of same man in suit, drinking a beer from a bottle with his friends]

So here you are. You have worked out like a fiend. A hundred reps of everything. You have showered off completely; there isn’t a microbe left on your body. But thanks to the redeeming miracle of eau de sweat, you fit right in with your buddies. [sip of beer covers wink towards the camera] Ain’t Stinky Soap grand? And REMEMBER, only Stinky Soap has eau de sweat. Accept no substitutes.

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SO—act now, and put yourself on the road to good hygiene without jeopardizing your precious bro-mances.
[picture of a bunch of guys doing a line dance]

Party on, dude. You STINK!


Perhaps you’ve heard of that miracle new product, Stinky Soap. [picture of puce colored bar in the shape of male sex organs]

Perhaps you’ve heard that it will clear out all your cooties and unwanted growing things and leave you pure as Ivory Snow. [picture of a swan floating]

Perhaps you were attracted to the ability to avoid crotch rot and yet still be accepted by your friends [that line dance scene again]

But you haven’t pulled the trigger and joined the Society of Sweat yet—have you?

[guy looking abashed at the camera]

And I bet I know why. [guy looks up quizzically]

It’s the chicks, isn’t it? You think if you smell from sweat you won’t get lucky, right? And let’s face it, you don’t do real well in getting lucky as it is, do you? [guy shyly nods agreement]

Well there is an answer to this problem right under your nose. Do you know what it is? [guy shrugs]

Any bitch that can’t stand your manly natural body odor as the legitimate cost of your amazing six-pack [cut to picture of a guy with no real architecture on his body] doesn’t deserve to hang with the likes of YOU, you stud-muffin you. [guy nods in agreement, grinning]

[visual of man making out with a skanky ugly girl with bad teeth and poor dress]

YOU know that ANY ho who is worth having will want to stay close – real close – to a guy who wears his work-out sweat out to the clubs – and afterwards, in the back of his panel truck [cut to sex in a truck]

BUT if you are still not convinced, those incredible scientists in the lab of Schvitz & Company have invented another brand new product: Stench-be-Gone. Just two drops of this incredible drug behind each ear, and one suppository inserted five minutes in advance, and SHAZAM‼: the effects of eau de sweat are wholly dissipated and you smell like the little girl you really are —NO, I mean you smell like the kind of guy who some chicks insist upon.

SO if you have ever dreamed of both hanging sweaty with the guys and then afterwards actually getting laid by a girl with more than a high school diploma and a hair lip, order a bottle of Stench-be Gone to accompany your order for Stinky Soap. Just another $59.95 for a two-screw – uh, two day supply. Order now and get free shipping by calling the number on your screen.

[visual of our guy in a fancy bedroom on top of a beautiful girl who is holding what appears to be a diploma from Yale]

You’ll be very glad you did.

Did you take my mojo? (Please check your pockets…)

So where is my mojo?

I had it when I left New York. Of course that was a long time ago, 48 years ago to be exact (being exact is, by the way, highly overrated).

When I moved to Massachusetts I took it off. Actually it just fell right off of its own accord. But I picked it up and put it aside. First on the dresser in my apartment in Cambridge, later in my basement in my first house, then in a clearly marked box in a series of houses, ready to be reclaimed or at least remembered.

Now, however, over this past weekend, I went looking for it but I just cannot find it. Anywhere. Have you seen it, perchance?

Why did I go looking? Thought you would never ask.

Each week I get my New Yorker magazine and I read it or pretend to. But it has been getting harder and harder and, truth be told, this last issue wholly eluded me. When in New York, even as a teen or college student, mojo insouciantly draped over my shoulders, I would flip through the magazine to guffaw at the cartoons, then go back and read the articles, or at least most of them, and even try the poems if they weren’t too long.

So Saturday morning I took the new issue and started flipping. I ignored the loose reply mail subscription cards that fluttered down at my feet. Starting at the back (easier to flip that way, and the cartoon don’t require a front-to-back sequence), I began reading. Could not understand the humor in a single one. Not one. Tried again for irony, the new vocabulary of a jaded age. No resonance there. A third read for mere cleverness, a grin-inducing perception—nada.

As for the articles, suffice it to say that the topics after the first few news-related pieces did not resonate, but felt more like inside jokes written by people whose names I did not recognize but sensed that I should have.

Is it the magazine or me? I must believe in my heart of hearts that the professionals who produce the magazine—this is THE New Yorker, for Godssake, not Mad, not that most useless of all publications, the scrap paper packaged as the magazine “Boston”—still had their totally cool finger on the wry experiences, the anomalies for which New Yorkers are ever attuned and which are recorded faithfully and promptly in their eponymous magazine.

It’s gotta be me. I gotta get my New York edge back. I need my mojo. I haven’t much needed it in Boston; you need none in the suburbs of course, and being an attorney is not so much a matter of true mojo as it is a drill in chutzpah.

So I went through my basement. I went through my attic. I went through my memory. I am not lying, I am telling you it is lost. Gone. No clue, no resinous residue of remembrance where it once was stored. Just plain lost in time.

I threw out the magazine. I feel better.