Interesting Times

Here we are together, you and I, alive in interesting times. We’ve seen the first parts of this movie. Long lines at grocery stores. Empty shelves. Bewildering press conferences. The steep slope of economic charts mapping the wild gyrations of our invested futures, our 401Ks.

Familiar routines are being scrambled as normal activities get deferred, postponed or canceled. Simple things get complicated.

We return ourselves to our houses and hunker down, keeping watchful eyes on the news which seems to come at us from every direction.

We look for leaders to help us discern what’s happening and offer some small sense of what’s likely to happen next. We’ve seen the movie this far. It’s scary. We want to know what’s next.

Here’s the thing: we can’t know what’s next.

There’s no predetermined plot line with neatly designed characters to take us together through this from crisis to climax to denouement in the space of two and a half hours. This is going to take weeks, maybe months, to get the sense of things and figure out a new normal.

We should expect leaders to help us through this. But we can’t just sit around and watch for those leaders to appear. Most of what happens next is up to us, how we manage ourselves and our relationships with each other.

We are already doing some of the right things. Low risk, healthy people are staying home from an abundance of care and caution for others. People are mindfully washing their hands. Companies are swallowing the sunk costs of lucrative events early on to keep more people safer longer.

We find ourselves together at the beginning of weird, interesting times. No one exactly knows what happens next.

Keep being kind and careful as we pass each other (from an appropriate distance) in hallways. Check your supplies to be sure your family has what they need and be mindful that what you have in abundance someone else may need in a week or two. Check in on each other to see how we are doing and what may be needed. Wash your hands.

Be kind to yourself. Remember that self-isolation doesn’t mean you have to make a cave of your home. It is still okay to go outside, take a walk, and breathe fresh air. Turn off your TV. You don’t need a constant feed of uncertainty. Be informed but trust that the important information will find you.

The Google Gods Listen. Give Thanks.

The Google gods are benevolent and generous. They care for us and are always listening to our Boolean prayers so that they might deliver the thing we most need at the moment it is most needed.

What? You don’t believe? You doubt the awesome, sometimes terrible, mercy of the Algorithm Almighty? Behold this item presented to me as gift in my morning Google news feed: “The Chekhov Sentence That Contains Almost All of Life” by Joe Fassler, published this very morning at 6am on the Atlantic culture site and tucked neatly in my news feed between headlines about Hurricane Florence and FEMA/ICE funding.

If you’ve been following in recent days, you will know that I’ve been pondering the significance  of Anton Chekov and trying to puzzle out the power of his short story style. I used, just yesterday, the last sentence of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” to reflect on Chekhov’s ability to start and end a story at an unexpected place. Fassler’s piece is actually an interview with Gary Shteyngart, who offers the last line of “The Lady with the Dog” as an encapsulating statement on the situation of life. The story never ends. The lovers don’t break up. They don’t live happily ever after. They continue to struggle. They struggle because their lives are complicated. They struggle because they are deeply in love. They struggle because they are people and struggle is what people do.

Shteyngart offers the unresolved situation between the lovers as the unresolved situation for writers and parents and husbands and wives and teachers and oh just everybody.

“Personal growth is not some sudden breakthrough that solves everything. Instead, it’s incredibly protracted, hard-won, and painful. If anything, you’re less happy as a result, not more. But you get the sense the characters wouldn’t trade it. The final insight of this ending is that there is no final insight, there is no ending. You only keep on striving, and that’s the beauty.”

The article is short and definitely worth a read. Fassler and Shteyngart offer more insight about Chekhov in a few paragraphs than I could muster in a week of thought and two blog posts.

Truly, I say, the Google gods love us. They are listening. They provide a news feed both rich and bountiful. Give thanks.

Another School Shooting

Yet another mass shooting in an American high school. That’s eight in the first seven weeks of 2018.

Facebook is torn up with people pressing their hopes and prayers for the family while chastening anyone who suggests there are actual solutions to curb some of this violence. My own senator has tweeted his thoughts and prayers while his own pockets are lined with cash from the gun lobby.

 

This doesn’t happen in other countries. We like to say America is a Christian nation, but we are doing it wrong.

“In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:17

Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Luke Skywalker Cannot Save Us Now

Oprah Winfrey gave an incredible speech last night at the Golden Globes. She was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” Oprah used the opportunity to connect her experience seeing Sidney Poitier win that same award in 1982 with the experience of young girls who were watching her last night. Oprah was focused, inspiring and, most of all, generous.

We live in a distracted world. Moments when everybody pays attention are rare and getting rarer. Oprah used her moment to direct our attention to the importance of a free press to bring truth to light against corruption and abuse of power. She brought the forgotten life of Recy Taylor out of history and into my attention for the first time. She connected the often unseen struggles of industrial, agricultural, service and military women to the #MeToo movement of Hollywood. She honored the achievements of women while reminding that those achievements are often well-supported by the work of like-minded men. She did it all in under nine minutes.

Predictably, the Morning After headlines read “Oprah for 2020”. I love Oprah. She brings people together rather than pushes them apart. She inspires people to search for the best in themselves and bring that out. More importantly, she inspires people to search for the best in others. She came up through tremendous adversity to become one of the most influential, successful people alive today. Should she be president? I don’t know. I don’t even care right now.

We need to be careful. We have solved or are solving most of the simplest problems in the world. The problems that remain are really, really hard — racial intolerance, global resource distribution, climate change and nuclear holocaust to name just a few. These problems won’t have a single, simple solution and they won’t be solved by a single person, corporation or nation.

And yet, with each passing year, we seem increasingly fixed in the blind hope that electing the right president will save us. President Barack Obama received the Noble Peace Prize just eight months after taking office. The award underscored a phenomenal accomplishment, becoming America’s first African-American president, but the award also seemed to be aspirational, a down payment on expectations that one person’s vision might permanently transform reality. The Nobel Prize was an honor about which Barack Obama himself was conflicted.

Seven years later, slightly less than half of American voters elected the candidate who stood on stage at his party’s national convention and actually spoke aloud the words, “I alone can fix it.” You’ve probably been following the rest of that story.

We keep searching for saviors. The problems you and I face together are scary. They are overwhelming. We keep looking for an Abraham Lincoln, a Winston Churchill or a Luke Skywalker to save us. We won’t find them. Not even Luke Skywalker can save us now.

And so, as we watch Oprah’s eloquent moment, let’s accept it for what it is. An inspiration. A challenge. A call to action.

Oprah for 2020? I don’t know. For the moment, it is just all of us together. If we are inspired, challenged and working together, that can be enough.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai thinks you are an idiot

So right before repealing Net Neutrality, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai took time to record and share a mocking video explaining how we’ll all still be able to binge watch Netflix and post selfies with our food on Instagram. He doesn’t mention how the Internet has become essential plumbing for most of the creative work being done today. He doesn’t mention that the Internet fuels innovation and is crucial in helping small companies get better ideas to market. He isn’t talking about the internet that helps level economic opportunity by making online education available to working adults in rural communities. In short, he isn’t talking about the internet we actually care about. He’s talking about entertainment. We’re talking about the infrastructure of our communities.

This government needs to get serious about its responsibilities to the future and stop wasting time posting dumb videos and picking Twitter fights. America is moving backward. These people are taking hammers to our future.

A Planet Called Rizak

I wrote my first short story when I was 10. It was about a planet called Rizak that was facing ecological collapse. Rizakian scientists had discovered a path away from inevitable destruction, but it required everyone on the planet working closely together and no small measure of personal sacrifice. Rizakian politicians and religious leaders hated the plan because, if everyone worked directly to fix the problem, politicians and religious leaders would no longer be needed. Rizakian business leaders hated the plan because it was expensive and meant no one would have time or money left to buy the things they were selling. So, everybody died.

I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (site of the WWII Manhattan Project) during the Reagan administration. At the time, I felt pretty certain I would die by sudden nuclear annihilation. Funny how, despite the preoccupations of the conscious mind, the unconscious mind finds the more plausible story.

Easy Outrage

Let’s stop moralizing with each other. There are no rules anymore. Kathy Griffin did an outrageous thing. I don’t care. Every day since November has been full of outrageous things. Just this week I have woken up to news reports about a Congressman elected to office the day after publicly assaulting a news reporter and a Texas state legislator who threatened to shoot his colleague in the head as his solution to a peaceful but inconvenient demonstration in the state chamber.

Meanwhile, our country is preparing to abdicate responsibility to my daughter’s generation by stepping out of the Paris Climate treaty. New health care laws are coming that no one actually wants or understands. We are staring down a budget that systemically underfunds education, science, and welfare assistance. Nine years after the Great Recession, we are already deregulating the very industries that recently crippled our economy with unbridled greed and excess. Across the country, state legislators pontificate about limiting the role of government in our personal lives while blithely extending the reach of government into the vagina of every woman of childbearing age. Shameful.

Kathy Griffin doesn’t matter. She can disappear. Like all celebrities, she only gets to have the power we lend her with our attention. Our tweeting, celebrity president understands this very well. His rise as candidate was fueled by mendacious assertions that the sitting president was not a United States citizen. Our civic discourse has been downhill ever since.

This isn’t democracy. This is celebrity culture run amok. These people aren’t serious people. They don’t even pretend to address the needs of our time. They hook our attention with sensational acts, inflammatory tweets. We feed them in turn with our easy outrage.

Don’t be fooled. Easy outrage is a trap to keep us constantly dispirited and deeply distracted. Easy outrage keeps us fighting against each other rather than making common cause to fix our dangerously broken system.

Today it was Kathy Griffin. Tomorrow it will be someone else. It doesn’t matter. Keep your seat. Try to stay focused. Save your powder. You are going to need it.

Reality TV Show President

Back in November, slightly less than half of American voters elected our first reality TV show president. For many, it was a genuinely painful choice. They didn’t like their options, but, since America is an Option A or Option B kind of place, they held their nose and pressed what they hoped would be the least bad button. You know the rest.

Since November, I have come to realize that many hoped the button they were pushing was connected to much needed change. Some saw their choice in terms of Ultimate Washington Insider vs. Ultimate Washington Outsider. Some thought they were voting for a successful business executive. That’s completely understandable. There are very tall buildings all around the world with his name on them. He had casinos and a university. Who am I to know if any of these ventures are actually successful? You don’t see my name on the top of tall buildings, casinos and universities.

Unfortunately, those who voted for the successful business executive got the reality TV star, instead. Now, we all find ourselves trapped inside a reality TV show. The usual rules of logic, evidence and careful deliberation do not apply. Facts are debased. Conflict is amplified.

Fans of reality TV know how this goes. There is no script. All that matters is a compelling, engaging narrative every day with obvious heroes and villains. When the story goes stale, the conflict is easily refreshed with a few well-placed tweets. This story will be a shambling, nonsensical cascade of escalating conflict and aggrievement until the season ends or the show gets canceled.

In the meantime, we are all trapped inside. I never hoped to be in a reality TV show, but now that I’m here, I’m desperate to know which TV show this is so I can understand the rules.

The White House itself seems to operate like The Apprentice. Each week, the cast is given an impossible, ridiculous task, and, each week, someone hear’s the unfortunate, but expected tagline: “You’re fired.”

Congress seems to operate like Big Brother. A crowd of mismatched strangers forced to get along without any real purpose or sense of direction except trying not to look like a total loser on live TV.

The rest of us, I fear, are Naked and Afraid. There are no tools. There are no ready-made shelters. We’ve just got each other and the ever-present hope that, if we work together and stay focused, someone will eventually show up in a rescue jeep, boat or helicopter before we die of starvation, bacterial infection, or get eaten by wild animals.

America is Already Great. Let’s Keep it That Way.

I stayed up until 2am this morning watching election returns and woke up in a world that feels very unfamiliar to me. I’m not sure what to feel or what I’m meant to be doing.

This tweet from last night says it pretty well:

But the country isn’t all that different. Things haven’t actually changed that much. Yet.

Here’s Nate Silver’s take:

Something to remember: Whatever your feelings about the state of the country right now, it’s fundamentally not that different a place whether the final call is that Clinton has narrowly won or narrowly lost. Add just 1 percent to Clinton’s vote share and take 1 percent away from Trump’s, and she would have won Florida and Pennsylvania, therefore would probably have been on her way to a narrow Electoral College victory.

Apparently, the Canadian Immigration Services website crashed last night from heavy traffic. Last week I joked with my most liberal friends about packing go bags and digging bunkers. That doesn’t feel funny anymore.

I’m not going anywhere. I love this country. I am a product of what is great inside America. You are too. I’m staying because there is urgent, important work to be done.

Too many of us live in fear. We live in fear of violence in our communities. We live in fear of racial persecution. Some of us live in fear of the police and civil authorities. This is wrong. We can’t let this continue.

We urgently need leadership from the best among us. This includes women, people who aren’t white and homosexuals. We should judge people based on the quality of their actions and their ideas. We should find and follow the people with the ability to move us forward. We aren’t there yet.

Diversity makes us stronger. We are a nation that attracts and welcomes immigrants from all parts of the world. We need to keep our doors open to them. The people who move to America from other countries bring with them their best selves, their highest hopes and an eagerness to participate and contribute. When we allow them, they make America stronger and reinforce the world’s belief that America creates opportunity.

Abortion is a terrible thing. Nobody likes abortion. Nobody wants women to have abortions. But, women must remain in control of their own bodies. This is a most basic freedom. Doctors, lawyers and politicians should not be usurping the most personal, vulnerable decision a person can make. Restricting access to abortion and birth control will kill women and children. We should focus instead on increasing access to birth control and providing real support for women faced with impossible choices. We should provide meaningful help for children born into families that are not ready or able to give them a good start.

Oh, and science isn’t a belief system. Science is a systematic way of looking at the world to describe what’s happening based on observable facts. Climate change is happening and no amount of wishful thinking is going to blunt the effects for my daughter and the children in your life that you hold most dear.

Our worldview has darkened. The work ahead is daunting. I am very, very scared.

Its time to close our Facebook and Twitter feeds and actually start talking to one another while being brave enough to look each other in the eyes.

It is time to stop paying so much attention to the carnival of political personalities and start grappling with real issues.

There is a lot of difficult work ahead. We’ve got to focus on that.

If you are able to look me in the eyes and talk with me so we can figure out these things together, then we are on the same team. If you can’t, kindly step aside. We don’t have much time.

America is already great. Let’s remind each other of that in the weeks and months ahead. Let’s work together to keep it that way.

November 9

We need to talk about November 9. In just a few days, Americans will elect a new president and members of Congress. I used to look forward to Election Day and feel proud of our participation in choosing our leaders and helping in some small way set the direction of our country. Today, I feel sick with anxiety, dread and fear. I can’t stop myself from refreshing the 538 Election feeds and trying to discern what the numbers mean. I’m scared. You may be too.

Here’s the thing. You and I may be feeling the same way even while supporting opposite candidates. I support Hillary Clinton and desperately hope she wins on Tuesday. But, I have wasted so much time this election focused solely on my fear of Donald Trump and his message and not enough time articulating what I support in Hillary Clinton. Your doing it too. Its in our Facebook and Twitter feeds. Donald Trump scares me. Hillary Clinton scares you. Everybody is scared.

Our fear makes our world smaller. Many of my friends and family have become strangers to me. People I care about deeply. People I know to be good, thoughtful, caring people. From time to time, that fear becomes anger and those people feel like enemies to me. You may be feeling that too.

We are not enemies.

You and I have wicked problems to solve.We don’t know how to talk about race and gender. We don’t know how to talk about the role legal immigration plays in our country. Too many of us live our lives warped by constant fear of violence at home and abroad. For too many people, hard work and personal sacrifice no longer allows access to the American Dream. Job markets have changed. Despite the growing strength of our economy, access to economic opportunity is unequally distributed. Higher education is broken. Climate change is a real thing that is actually happening. The list goes on.

For the most part in this election, we haven’t been talking about these things. We haven’t allowed ourselves. We haven’t known how.

You and I need to start talking about November 9 because, no matter what happens, we are going to need to find a way to start understanding each other again. Whoever is elected needs to govern. The President alone cannot fix these problems. Congress alone cannot fix these problems. Its us. We’ve got find a way to start fixing these problems.

So I want you know this. I oppose Donald Trump and the vision for our country he represents. But you and I are not enemies. I want to understand you. I want you to understand me. We’ve got to start talking again and trying to find our way forward.

I wish peace and comfort to all of us in the days ahead. Let’s work to help that happen.

May it be so.