Is Social Disconnectivity at the Heart of the Political Disconnect?

Is social disconnectivity at the heart of the political disconnect? I remember watching dwindling numbers of old men gathering at some lodge or hall or club or some such place where they would debate and argue and harrumph at each other daily. The women would gather at someone’s home to cook or knit or whatever the excuse was that led inevitably to gossip. The funny thing is, the gossip always ended with more than just knowing each others’ business, it led to a social network more powerful than Facebook. The tales of woe and illness and struggle would spread through the community and lead to obligatory “stoppings by” with a casserole or box of doughnuts or some such nonsense. And the men could never reach an agreement, but sometimes they seemed to come close – at least a begrudging respect for an alternate view that not one of them would ever admit to in public. These rituals seem so quaintly old-American, conjuring up the images of chessboards in the park, and the rusted old bistro set in front of the deli, or amusingly mysterious rituals with funny hats and pins. But these rituals kept people connected and engaged in a way that we seem to no longer be. With all the technology that keeps everyone we know at our fingertips, do we really engage with the people on the other end?

It seems to me that as these sewing circles and men’s clubs fade into the past, the social isolation creates a self-determination in our thinking that is playing out dangerously in our politics. We have opinions. Humans are opinionated creatures, and whether we are deeply studied on a subject or heard about it on a news trailer, we form opinions. But nowadays, those opinions go largely untested. The media has bifurcated along whatever label you choose: left/right, Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, socialist/capitalist. The name doesn’t really matter, but what does matter is that the process of debate has slipped away and the sources of our information are feeding the opinions we have already formed, which led us to choose those sources to begin with. Some will occasionally turn on the “opposition” and you may hear a liberal neighbor ranting and raving at Fox News, or a conservative may roll her eyes in disgust over MSNBC, but do we engage in the debate? By and large; no. We sit in our offices or living rooms and rage impotently at how “wrongheaded” those people are, and wonder why they can’t see it. Then we turn back to the comfort of our preferred source which reassures us that we are right and They are wrong, feeding all of the fears and doubts and smugnesses that we have chosen to embrace.

What’s wrong with that? Look at Washington and see. This form of government was designed and built to capitalize on the beneficial processes of debate. By forcing people to engage in discussion, the Founders expected that the best (and yes – like it or not – the most moderate) ideas would rise to the surface, because the logic and benefits would be distilled and displayed by learned men engaging in the intellectual challenge of forming, verbalizing, and legitimizing their opinions. By creating a system that demanded that a proponent fully frame and defend an idea, the Founders expected that we would continue to give form to vague beliefs and accept that only the light of opposition can truly reveal the cracks and flaws of our most cherished, but unconsidered, thoughts. We have lost this, and our society is suffering badly for it. We no longer discuss ideas or goals or consider how to get somewhere; no one offers a thought into the pit for others to chew on and break through the rind to the rich nut of a half-realized truth for fear of the opposition’s media seizing upon it as a folly. When did we as a society become so deeply, desperately, intractably invested in the absolute rightness of everything we say and do? Why can we tell our children to respect their elders and open their minds to new experiences, but can’t seem to accept even the most well-thought-out challenges to our thoughts? Why did we lose that most productive and human of abilities: the ability to evolve in our own lifetimes?

The Abrahamic traditions believe that God created man as exceptional among His creations. What made man so remarkable? Free will? Intelligence? Speech? Yes. And for many years we have been slowly and sadly moving toward a belief that to question, to learn, to explore the ill-defined edges of our beliefs was a failing. Learning and education, so hard-won for our predecessors, has become a mark of elitist (and therefore impractical and malevolent) thinking. But why? Are we made less by changing our minds? Are we made less holy or exceptional for daring our minds to move beyond our mental knee-jerk reactions and consider the other opinions available, or the unseen downsides to our positions? I say not – I believe that this rejection is saddening to God, a conscious and knowing rejection of his most special and meaningful gift to man: our brains. If we were truly created in God’s image, and if not, if we are truly the (current) pinnacle of evolution, what is to be gained by willfully rejecting God’s gifts or willfully de-evolving before our very own eyes?

Apparently, what is to be gained is a painfully fragile and dangerous need to believe in the black-and-white patterns we first thought we saw. Like young children who need to believe in Santa Clause and the power of the closet light, we shroud our minds in the Emperor’s New Clothes of conviction, of self-satisfaction, terrified that if anyone were to notice that our jewels were merely glass, that the whole illusion would shatter, and we would be left naked and exposed; somehow less.

For the sake of your children, for the sake of the flawed but elegant American government, and for the sake of our communities, there must be a way to recapture the debate. We have to find our unified voice that clamors for information to process. We absolutely need to shed the “us vs. them” trenches we have dug in our minds and come together to argue again! Embrace it folks, arguing has gotten us out of far more harm in our history than absolute rightness ever could. Health care, joblessness, economic fears, unstable industry, international pressures: all of these things can benefit immeasurably more from the blending and curing of opposing forces than from the abject defeat of one or the other. I mean really, when was the last time you preferred to choose between the pasta and the marinara rather than combining them into something much more special and whole than either would be alone? That’s all I’m saying.

Why the Tea Party can’t keep.

The self-proclaimed Tea Party is oft-portrayed by the media as an actual ‘party’ with a political platform. Let’s be honest - they don’t have a platform, they have a gathering of soap boxes. There’s a big difference between angry rhetoric and actual political goals. The thing is that, despite the abundance of colorful signs, they don’t actually want smaller government or no government or government out of the bedroom – they want government out of THEIR bedrooms and THEIR wallets. This same group of people who are (sometimes literally) up in arms about taxes, socialism and big government seem either in denial about, or blissfully unaware of, the fact that we are paying the lowest tax rates in years and “socialist” handouts like unemployment, Social Security and Medicare are the primary sources of income and health care for their very own members. These crowds are every bit as eager to have the government tell other people how to live as they are to tell the government not to tell them how to live. So Big Government isn’t the problem – “Government Stuff I Don’t Like” is.

Just check out the candidacy of Sharron Angle of Nevada. She’s built her campaign on uber-extreme views about abortion (not ever – even for rape and incest victims - God has a plan – go with it), and eliminating everything from Social Security and Medicare to the IRS and the Department of Education. Her reputation in the state legislature was for a guaranteed “no” vote on anything; to the point that not even lobbyists would talk to her. Even for conservatives, she’s too extreme for the national stage, and her handlers are busily reworking her website to be more palatable. See also Rand Paul of Kentucky, who just loves regulation as long as its businesses doing it. And if a business thinks that racism is cool, that’s fine – who is Congress to tell them they can’t? And lest we forget the darling of the Tea Party – Sarah Palin. That’s a whole book of hilarity and fear unto itself. From her “foreign policy experience” of sorta governing a state near a foreign country to her endless willingness to comment on issues she admittedly knows nothing about (the recent Prop 8 ruling, for example), the Palinator has become an icon to the Tea Party. Taxes? BAD! Oh wait, ‘cept the Bush tax cuts for the rich – those are cool. Foreign policy? Bomb ‘em! Whoever they are – doesn’t matter – just point and shoot. Taxes to pay for all the pointing and shooting? Oh just cut some silly stuff like ... well ... umm ... like ... unemployment benefits! Yeah – get those lazy bums up and working! No matter how often she embarrasses herself and the rest of us with her snowbilly nonsense, nothing seems to shake the faith of the Tea P. The fact that Saint Sarah has little or no credibility, and is motivated solely by the Almighty Dollar doesn’t deter them from hanging on her every sarcastic, dare-you-to word, evidencing that the Party’s “platform” is more about anger and resentment than about accomplishment.

Partiers reportedly bristle at the suggestion that they answer to, or are part of, a hierarchy. Wait. So your “party” isn’t a “party” as much as it is a sort of antique-mall umbrella term used to refer to endless small groups of folks united only in their ... what? Dislike of taxes? Not really a novel concept is it? And now there’s a new threat on the horizon: so-called net neutrality. The new problem is that Google and Verizon are trying to tier the internet so that preferred (read: paid) sites get preferential posting rank and speed on the internet, once again handing us (the little guys. Wait – I thought you folks were all about protecting small business little guys?) over to massive corporations. Well, maybe. The apocalyptic threat here is that the FCC is trying to prevent Google and Verizon from taking over the Internet. That must be bad – umm, well, cuz it’s the government. Huh? So monopolies and toxic rivers that catch fire and price fixing are OK? So that must mean farm subsidies are bad? Well, I haven’t heard from the Party on that one – but some of their favorites (Michelle Bachmann among them) are happy recipients of farm subsidies, so I guess that kind of socialist big government waste is A-OK. Lest we be distracted here, make no mistake – according to the USDA, farm subsidies go overwhelmingly to giant agribusinesses (the top 10% of large corporations garnered 74% of the subsidies, with 62% of farmers receiving nothing), not quaint little mom-n-pop dairy farms.

This is a group of people largely dependent on the government, and yet protesting the very existence of government. The best part? That many of the programs most vehemently opposed by the Tea Party (based largely on misunderstanding and misinformation) are programs and proposals that will most directly benefit them! The unemployed and uninsured opposing the stimulus plan and health care reform. The elderly so wrapped up in false patriotism that they oppose ending unwinnable wars in order to preserve the Social Security and Medicare benefits they depend on. Or better yet – opposing the very government health care they themselves fight tooth and nail to retain! It becomes a mockery of politics, and an entertaining but distracting source of false news and non-headlines. I remain convinced that the Tea Party is a reality show. The motley crew of the unemployed, uneducated, retired, and the educated but still conspiracy-theory-obsessed gather, dress up in period costumes, and play at understanding 18th Century society. Much like religious fanatics who pick and choose the pieces they like and defend them to the death as absolute truths, the Tea Party pick and choose a few truths and rumors and hang a proclaimed ‘philosophy’ on them. At some later time, I may have a guest blogger explain why the Tea Party view of history is ... a little ... selective.

But in the meantime, the cracks are beginning to appear as the groups begin to realize that – horrors! – blind, blanket resistance to all things government may not be a viable platform for a political party. Especially when the reality is that they will have to face their secret love-affair with government regulation. The Tea Party has made itself about “no-isms” and oversimplifications. This is a party that is less about a unified goal than about a generalized resentment of a myriad of things, some legitimate, but most springing from some very fundamental misunderstandings. Primarily that “they” are a “they” and not a motley crew of “I”s. Face TP – you can dress up in costumes and paint purdy signs all you want, but the fact is that you are – by and large – much more accepting of government regulation than you want other to believe. As long as they’re regulating someone else. That’s all I’m saying.

Can’t ... not ... comment ... on Prop 8 ...

Realizing that much ink and much wringing of hands has already been expended on the Prop 8 ruling of this month, I loathe to add more to the already-muddled throng, but alas, I must. However, I will restrain myself to a single point here.

In 136 pages (yes – I read it all), Judge Walker makes a very (excruciatingly) careful record of the trial and of his decision. He addresses each element of the arguments for and against, and discusses each witness and their testimony. My last hope was dashed on the shores of I-was-right-after-all-ville. I have spent many years trying diligently to find an actual explaination for exactly how gay marriage would undermine, devalue, or in any way really affect hetero marriage. This decision was my one remaining hope, but still – nothing. Perhaps the Supreme Court will say something, but it’s not lookin’ good – they’re bound to the record.

I generally try to at least hear the other side of an argument, but after several years, I am left empty. The sum total of the best-thought-out arguments against gay marriage all seem to boil down to “it just will.” But WHY???? I beg of you – why? Tell me what the precise mechanism is that will create the endless parade of horribles that the antis claim must certainly result from legalizing gay marriage.

The very fact that gays are willing to fight so hard for so long to be permitted to marry seems to only support the ongoing vitality of marriage as a social institution. And yet the fight for the right to marry has somehow been labeled the doom of the very prize. Odd.

So on to a point that follows (for me anyway) on the heels of this – the Other Side. In my view, it isn’t the right of gay couples to marry that threatens marriage as an institution of social value, but rather the opposition to it. That’s right Righties – it’s all your own doing! Here’s how it works. You (the antis) are making marriage into a club – a heteros-only club. And in the process, you are pushing marriage into a particular social cubical – an ultra-religious, intolerant, out-of-touch, isolationist, old-fashioned cubicle. Not surprisingly, there are many, many people who don’t want to play in your clubhouse, and choose to reject being associated with those labels. Consequently, the young will flock away from the very thing you are trying so hard to make Yours and Only Yours. No one who disagrees or wants to do things differently need apply. So congratulations, you’re turning marriage into a Whites Only golf club, a Men Only bar, and losing the war to win the battle.

The appeal of Walker’s decision has hung itself on the state’s interest in funneling procreative relationships into the stable institution of marriage. So, let me get this straight. If we let gays marry, all of their accidental procreating will happen outside marriage? And if we let gays marry, all the heteros who accidentally procreate outside marriage, won’t. Huh? I will stop now, and hopefully the silliness of this last, desperate attempt to keep up the No Blacks, Girls, Jews, Protestants, (fill in your favorite group here) Allowed signs up.

And P.S. – a friend of mine once said that his objection to gay marriage is simply that the states shouldn’t be involved with marriage in the first place, it’s a religious institution. Agreed, but they did get involved, so now they are involved and the actuality of marriage is as a civil and legal structure. The religious element is now little more than ceremonial. So it has to be addressed as a civil institution with the attendant civil benefits. No one has ever said that any church would have to perform gay weddings any more than they have to perform interracial or interfaith weddings. That’s still entirely up to the church. And now that I’ve been to my first church-performed gay wedding, I can say with authority that it was every bit as beautiful, moving, romantic, and meaningful as any hetero religious wedding performed at the point of a shotgun.

OK I lied – there’s one more thing. I’ve heard a lot of outcry about an “activist judge” overturning the “will of the people” and I feel the need to express the outrage and face-palmistry of this. Holy cow people – didn’t any of you ever have 6th grade Civics!! The judicial branch of government is designed to be isolated from populist influences. The whole idea of an independent judiciary is for the judges to protect the minority from oppression by the majority. THAT’S THEIR JOB!!! The legislature is for populism, the judiciary is expressly NOT a populist institution. Judges are supposed to protect the rights of the people least able to do so through the legislature. So the complaints that the judge was out of line for overturning the will of the people, and claims that this is evidence that something has to change, are just embarrassing to me. Well, I’m embarrassed for the people making these claims. Especially since they seem to buttress their outrage with references to the Founders and democratic government. Really? Try again – you clearly don’t understand the tripartite government you’re so busy defending. Grab a 6th grade textbook and do a little looking-into and get back to us.

OK then, carry on. I’m just saying.

Good Timing in a Bad Market.

This little rambling has very little to contribute to the social conversation, but at the same time, it might have some unintended effect ... do with it what you will.

On having a child too young
Yes, I had a child too young, but not Teen Mom-style too young. Long story short – I graduated high school at 17 and got a year of college in before I had my son Jake at 19. As someone who grew up with the assumption that I would go to college and steer my life to grand adventures, the last thing I ever expected was to be benched so early. But there I was – young, broke, no useable education to speak of, no family around, and (I learned later) no meaningful partner. So I had a baby, and it was all of the clichés that Lifetime Television builds its lineup around – I tapped into the wellsprings of emotion that becoming a mother opens up. It was intense bonding I had never expected, and my son is now nearly 16 and my best buddy. OK that’s enough sappy.

Over the past 16 years of turmoil and struggle and hard decisions, I often longed (still do) for the Kleenex commercial life with a loving partner, a sunny home, and time to just sit and play with my child. But that wasn’t the life I had. I quickly became the sole breadwinner, and then a single parent. I had a stable job and did well enough for someone with a year of college and an “oh crap, I’m pregnant, what can I do in 7 months?” tech-school education. But as with so many Americans, my annual raises weren’t keeping up with the cost of living and insurance premiums, and I seemed to be perpetually behind and had to say “no” more often than I could say “yes.”

And so I plugged through my 20s, a time when most people are cutting loose, starting careers, and generally getting to be selfish. I paid the bills, did the best I could with Jake, and managed to scrape together enough from two jobs to buy a tiny old row house with some major problems. But I managed. Always a paycheck or roof leak from the edge, we got through it. It wasn’t pretty, and I know it took a toll on Jake, but he grew up in a very blue collar neighborhood where the rich families drove new Nissans, not Mercedes’ so the lack was less obvious.

He had what he needed, and a little extra, but not much. I think (hope?) that this insulated him from the effects of commercialized parenting that so many kids in the wealthier suburbs nearby seemed to have. The kind of parenting that says a child should have everything – and the best of it. Where back to school shopping ran into the thousands – usually on trendy junk like the $80 t-shirts from certain mall stores that look like they’ve been handed down for 5 generations and last 6 months. Where every kid expected (and received) a car for his 16th birthday and believed himself to be the epicenter of the universe. And he usually was – Mom or Dad would always come pick him up from wherever he was no matter the hour, would lecture occasionally on over-spending, but always ponied up the dough, and thought it was perfectly natural that at 12 their daughters were getting highlights, manicures, and designer purses and sunglasses. I kid you not – these kids lived one town over.

On giving up my job, house, and 401k to go back to school
As the margins got tighter and the costs of a growing boy mounted, I did a quick calculation. He was about 10, and I realized that if I wanted to be able to put him through college, I had to do something fast. I wanted to go to law school, but that meant finishing undergraduate school and graduate school and having time to start a career and get stable before college. Not much time.

So I made inquiries, and almost accidentally ended up enrolled at a major university that happened to be nearby. And so it began. I had three years to complete, but was still working full time. At 10, my son was old enough to know what was going on, but unfortunately I discovered that this also meant he was old enough to know when I was missing things. This is the Great Untold Truth of parents in college: DO IT SOONER!! You will miss things when they’re little. But they won’t know it. They do know when you miss things when they’re older, and trust me – it’s a lot harder to deal with them knowing you’ve missed it than it is to miss it.

Anyway – I was in a hurry, so I took classes over spring and winter breaks, over summers, and almost full time during the regular year, and finished up in 3 years. On to graduate school. The double load had been insanely difficult, and I was ready to leave the East Coast for more collegial and pleasant surroundings, so we up-and-moved West. All the way West, to Portland, Oregon. Best thing I ever did. Quit my job, decided to live on loans and just be a student. That way I would be able to actually be part of campus life and enjoy the opportunities that would become available. It also let me be home more, even if I had my face in a book all the time.

It was terrifying – there’s no doubt about it. I had spent 10 years trying to be happy with the life I had, but it didn’t work; I wanted more. For myself and for my son, I wanted experiences and opportunities that I would never have as a billing clerk. I had more than most women in my place may have had. I owned my own home, had a new car, had a 401k plan, and even a little library in my spare bedroom. I had a circle of wonderful friends and a great kayaking club across the river. It should have been enough – people were losing jobs, losing insurance, and the real estate crash was rounding the first turn. Giving up my 401k and paying the penalties after it lost 20% of its value because of the stock markets, and selling my house at a time when houses weren’t selling seemed like a terrible idea. But it’s what I had to do to escape. So I did it. I poured money into fixing code violations that the housing inspector failed to cite when I bought the place, paid the withdrawal penalties, and let my health insurance lapse. And we got into the car and set out to find a new life.

After that, I watched the real estate market really crash, and the stock market tank. I realized that if I’d waited, I would have been completely stuck. Even 3 months later there would have been almost no chance of selling the house for enough to pay off the mortgage. My 401k would have continued to lose value to the point that it probably would have become essentially worthless within a year. Looking back, I got out of the real estate market and the stock market just as they were turning into tar pits and the American Dream became more like a horror movie where you can hear and feel the surgery but can’t move. But at the time, I felt like I was stepping off an edge blindfolded, hoping that it was a step and not a cliff.

On coming out of school with few (if any) jobs available The timing now, of course, is a little more dicey. The job market is barren, and only the top 10% of the class or those who clerked for firms during school graduated with jobs. In a way, this may also be a hidden blessing. Having looked forward to a life that isn’t paycheck to paycheck and coupon clipping, I probably would have been lured into a BigLaw firm for massive amounts of money and found myself relegated to a basement cubicle cataloging e-mails or proofreading thousand-page merger documents 80 hours a week. Since those jobs aren’t really there anymore, other types of jobs are much more viable, and also far more appealing to me personally. The pay stinks, but that’s where the potential blessing comes in. With the timing of my son entering college, taking a lower-paying job will preserve his access to grants and loans which might have been lost if I’d taken the high-paying job. Ironically, a higher salary might actually have prevented him from being able to go to some schools, since I will still be at the beginning of a career with giant piles of student debt of my own to pay. These lower-paying jobs also tend to have more regular hours, so I may still be able to be present as he finishes high school, even if this matters more to me than to him.

On handicapping myself during parenthood – what it means for me, my son, and his (eventual) kids
And here I am now – with my son almost 16 and starting his sophomore year of high school. It’s time to start thinking about college (applications go out next year) or alternatives (if he doesn’t get his grades up). And I look at the trajectory of our lives and wonder – as all parents do – if I did the right thing. I think so.

I think (hope) that what’s come of this is that I raised a child when I had almost no resources, and got through the most expensive of human endeavors in modern society by the skin of my teeth. And now I am starting out a career and (hopefully) financial stability in my 30s. Most of my contemporaries did it the other way – the “right” way. They went to school, started careers, and will now be coming out of the work force to raise kids when they feel able to afford it. Which usually means that they have the means (and the intention) to buy into commercialized parenting. They start out looking for kid-friendly (read: big and new) houses in kid-friendly (read: planned and expensive) neighborhoods with the best schools and big backyards ready for designer swingsets and designer puppies. Then when the carefully planned kids arrive, it will be to designed nurseries and top of the line accessories. They have the resources to spend on the kids and they will do it. They will take their children on learning vacations and playdates. They will obsessively read and research every decision, option, fear, suspicion, action, reaction, and snack. Only organic local fresh handmade upgraded positive self-affirming educational European-designed double-safety-tested horizon-broadening items will ever cross the child’s path. And things may work out perfectly well. But the parents will be draining their resources at stunning rates to provide only the best, even though the child is unaware of any difference in their blankie or building blocks.

This is what I think went accidentally right for me (or at least is the silver lining). I didn’t have the resources to trundle my son off in his all-terrain space age baby-mover to the farmer’s market twice a day for fresh, organic, locally-grown produce, or enroll him in supplemental learning centers and karate lessons and piano lessons and pee-wee football leagues. He had to get by with one sport at a time (usually soccer, basketball, and baseball) in the town league (no travelling clubs or training camps) and riding his bike with his friends. He had to learn to use the library and how to get around on his own, I wasn’t available to randomly drive him wherever the spirit moved him to ride across town rather than walk. Now he uses the eminently useable public transportation system and plays sports in school. Still no private tutors or fencing lessons. Sorry kiddo.

But this means that once I do get going, the resources will be preserved for retirement, or for splurges on grandkids. The unnecessary expenses that parents feel compelled to pay have passed me by. And my son. If I had done things the “right” way, I don’t think he would have the independence, self-reliance, or perspective that he has now. Let’s not be idealistic about this, it was incredibly hard, he’s had a lot of difficulty in school, we’ve had our blowouts and I am not a patient, energetic mom. But we’ve always had love between us, and sometimes that’s all we had – so we developed little things like living room camp-in movie festivals, tent camping, borrowing kayaks from the local club, and a variety of other cheap ways to entertain ourselves. As a result, I think we’ve both become more resourceful and less willing to just buy things for the sake of it, or to blow huge amounts of money to get the thing that’s ‘just right’ – we learned to compromise, to make do with what’s good enough, and to not obsess over it. He learned to prioritize spending money, and to consider not just the number on the price tag, but the value of the thing – is it worth that much, even if it’s not a lot?

So I got through the expensive part of my life without any money, and now that I (hopefully) will be making money, the costly part is over (well, except paying back all those loans). Now I can get back to where I wanted to be in my 20s – free to drive my life to adventures and experiences. And when I take my son with me, he will actually be old enough to appreciate and enjoy it, not a cranky 2 year old who doesn’t care that he’s in a stroller in Florence or in a stroller at the park. And we’re already planning his 21st birthday in Las Vegas. At separate hotels, of course.

The Schizophrenic American Voter.

We cherish bi-partisanship among our elected officials. When most of us decry the political machine, and “the Washington way” we mean partisan politics. By which we usually mean voting along party lines regardless of whether it’s best for your constituents, the country, or your own conscience. We want our officials to be adult, educated, able to lead

But we don’t want them too smart. We say they should be real folks, not over-educated elitists, they should understand “the people.” But these Real People have to be pristine and perfect, with nary a blemish in their entire lives. No traffic tickets, no faux pas, no family skeletons. No relations that might have them either. An unbroken halo of a life unchallenged. But still someone you want to have a beer with. Huh? The ideal person that the American voter wants (unmarked, unbesmirchable) is most definitely not someone I would want to have a beer with – they have no experiences to draw on. We learn by making mistakes, but we demand elected officials who have never made them. But who understand that we make them. But who are just like us, only smarter. But not too smart. Hmmm. Wait...

We develop and change as we grow (well, most of us), but we want our politicians to be static. They can’t change their views, or alter their position based on altered facts or circumstances that warrant it without being accused of “flip-flopping.” If you said something 15 years ago that your partly likes, you damn well better still be willing to say it. Unless it’s something the party doesn’t like anymore – then you better repudiate (that’s “refudiate” to the Palinites) it post haste.

We don’t want growth experiences, evolving viewpoints, or connection to the complex dynamics of society to influence those Real People we elected – they have to maintain their perspectives from election to election in perpetuity so we “know who we’re voting for.” But we don’t like the entrenched career politicians who do things the same old way. We carry on about the Washington bubble where politicians go and lose touch with the real world. So you better be responsive to changing economies and changing social values. But don’t “flip-flop.” As Sarah Palin put it – you better “dance with the one who brung you.” Meaning you follow the party line and you stick with whatever your opinion was 40 years ago when you got there. Even if people’s views change, you will be lambasted during the Silly Season for changing your position, often simply as a res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself). Your change of position will be portrayed as an obvious sign of (insert bad thing here: weakness, influence of special interest groups, pandering, lying. etc.), even if what you’ve done is develop a more sophisticated understanding of the problem you’re trying to address.

Which brings me to the new anti-government sentiment, which is all about getting the incumbents out. But who are these incumbents? Guess what – they include all the freshman legislators you voted in just 2 short years ago to get the last incumbent out, who may well have been the new guy last time. And now it’s about “we sent you there to clean up the joint and you didn’t.” Well, the new kid on the block has a learning curve in Congress just like everywhere else – they can’t overhaul the entire political system in their first term. And for the most part, they shouldn’t. New legislators - perhaps more than any other new kid on the block – are often in place based on populist slogans that aren’t forged in the fires of intellectual wrestling and deep research, but rather on things that average folks on the street think based on their emotional reactions to sound bites and 30 second news clips. These are terrible foundations for legislation! But since we as a society have a sense that our government should do whatever we want rather than what’s best for the nation, we LOVE it when candidates tell us we’re right and smart and should be in control of everything. So the new kid gets to Washington with little more than a fire in the belly and a few cue cards. Then they start talking to the folks who’ve been there-done that and (hopefully) start to realize that they aren’t the saviors of mankind they thought they were – they’re more like teenagers stomping their feet and demanding to be in control of their own lives and not have to do dishes or take out trash. So anti-incumbent sentiment is not only inherently flawed as a platform (as soon as you elect a new savior, she becomes an ‘incumbent’ and is now the enemy), but also counterproductive - denying that legislators get better with experience just like anyone else.

We think we want the best and the brightest, but we demand unreasonable things from them, both in order to get elected and once they’re there. Is it any wonder that the best and brightest don’t want to run? Who wants that? Who wants their high school prom date in the tabloids discussing their juvenile pranks? Your vindictive ex on Fox News saying whatever horrible thing they want and getting the rapt attention of the non-fact-checking media? Or, heaven forbid, a college rally against a Wal*Mart showing up during a Republican campaign? Who wants to have their education used against them and face the demands of the screamingly uninformed that you kowtow to their every whim? And who are They anyway? One thing is for sure – if you’ve got 20 people in a room and one issue on the table, you’ll have 45 different opinions and probably another 32 issues being argued about.

Politics represents, in many ways, the deep divide in American thinking, and we continue to be shocked that “they” aren’t doing what “we” want when we don’t even really know what that is. It’s a Madonna-whore complex of national significance. And until Americans are better educated about the government and its processes and duties (i.e. NOT ‘do as I say, not as the other 60,000 people in this district say’) and more willing to recognize that every individual person can’t get their way all the time any more than one new representative can drive national policy, we will continue with this spiral of inferior candidates, inferior platforms, and inferior government processes. And for heaven’s sake STOP denigrating education and STOP thinking that candidates should be just like you – they SHOULD be smarter than you! They should be smarter than me! They should actually be the best and the brightest, and if you want real people, you HAVE to accept that you can’t just checklist them off every time the opposition says “he made mistake X and changed his opinion about Y” – those aren’t bad things. I guarantee you’ve done worse. So have I. Grow up America! Most people stop thinking in black and white at about second grade, but somehow our political thinking has regressed to toddlerhood where we think we know everything and we can do a better job and good candidates have to be perfect according to some standard that we don’t quite understand.

Join Sandra Day-O’Connor’s quest to re-introduce civics education into classrooms. And coffee-shops and diners and anywhere else there are people.

The Government is NOT a Business!

There seems to be an endless supply of simplistic complaints about government programs, spending, and accounting along the lines of “if I ran my business that way, I’d be out of business!” Well, yes. That’s the idea. The government is not a business. It is there to provide the services necessary to underpin society, not to provide profitable commodities. It is not there to accumulate profits, it runs on tax revenues that fluctuate naturally and necessarily in response to the needs and the capacity of society. The government “deficit” is an illusory and malleable number that essentially means very little in real terms. The deficit is an attempt to estimate a static number based on very dynamic factors – like a Farmer’s Almanac estimate of the temperature at 3 pm on August 23, 2014 based on this year’s record-high temperatures. But somehow it’s become a Holy Grail to some parts of the wonkosphere. Here’s the deal folks – when people aren’t working, they still need to eat and pay the bills. Thus the need for government support goes up as tax revenue goes down. Voila! Deficit. Then when those people get back to work, the reverse happens. Voila! Surplus.

I’m not sure when the understanding of the mirror roles of government and private business diverged, but I suspect Sandra Day O’Connor is on to something. Since retiring from the Supreme Court, she has taken up the cause of re-introducing civics education into the schools. I truly hope she succeeds, because I hear a de-volution of understanding of how government works, what its goals are, and why the government and the free market occupy separate scales on the weigh-station of society. They (and we) HAVE to understand this, and have to let both operate in their own spheres – and nary the twain shall meet.

All unexpected changes in the innumerable economic influences will affect deficits and surpluses, and in both directions. If the elderly suddenly stop seeking treatment for everything, then the demand on Medicare and Social Security will go down = less deficit. If foreign nations embrace labor regulation and reduce global labor arbitrage so that manufacturing moves back to America = less deficit. War = more deficit. Drought = more deficit. These are the natural fluctuations that are addressed by the tax system, not some newfangled boogeyman. Taxes will go up, the deficit will come down, you put your left foot in and you shake it all about. Our taxes right now are historically low, despite the apoplexy of the GOP and the Tea Partiers, which is contributing to the deficit. As is the fact that our social need is nearly historically high. So deficit numbers based on high need for services and low input of taxes are bound to be exaggerated. Not untrue, just not quite the whole story. Once our need drops or tax revenue rises, the deficit boogeyman will shrink. Thus it is, thus it has always been, thus it shall always be.

Also largely lost in this clamoring cacophony of complaint is the fact that the very “big government” the Tea Partiers claim to detest is up to 30% larger than they know about, largely because of something some call the “shadow government.” This creepy-sounding phenomenon is a byproduct of elected officials caving to Tea Party-style paranoia and special interests in an unholy alliance of mutual misunderstanding that has given us the privatization of services that should never have even a scent of a profit motive. The one that gets me is the prison industry. States and the Feds have outsourced prisons to private companies, ostensibly to “smallen” government. What has resulted is a profit-driven business that operates on the corporate profit model rather than on the government necessity model. These companies literally hold people’s lives in their hands – their education, training, future, and present existence depends on being profitable.

And where does the constant flow of bodies come from that keeps this profit machine turning? Recidivism. The “prison-industrial complex” thrives on turning people out with the assurance that they will come back. And all evidence indicates that they are doing a bang-up job of it. As for the cost savings, there are relatively few studies available, and the GAO has found the results largely inconclusive because of differences in evaluative factors and some studies using hypothetical public institutions.1 One in Colorado found the supposed equivalency of cost to be questionable because lower-level inmates were moved to high-security private facilities to increase the maintenance costs (and thus the profit to the company).(2)

In an excellent article for CNN Money, D.M. Levine highlights the minimal or negative savings in private-over-public prisons and many of the true costs of these savings. (http:// index.htm). Exempt from state oversight and largely free to shuffle prisoners to other states, private prisons are free to use low-paid and less-trained staff, cut corners wherever they can, and take their profit at the expense of those who desperately need the services that are most often cut. They also operate with only the slightest flicker of transparency, whereas state agencies are bound to be transparent and accountable.

And if the cost to the inmates doesn’t concern you, the cost to your neighborhood should. When prisoners are returned to the streets without drug treatment, job training, or basic skills, what do you suppose happens? They re-offend, often simply because they lack the capacity to do anything else. Poof! Back to the slammer with you. What happens to the mentally ill? Returned to the street without care or diagnosis at even the abysmal level of state facilities because transfer to a hospital would cut out a bed-charge and good doctors are expensive. All on the taxpayer’s dime, which finds its way directly into the pocket of the prison owner. Over and over again. Overall, the cost-savings seem largely illusory, the benefits questionable, and the profit motive disturbing. But don’t talk to the Tea Party about that – they seem content with a “smaller government” at any cost, even though the government still has to pay for the private systems, and is often paying more. Whatever, we like it! Why? We don’t really know – but we do, and we’re LOUD!

Whatever the actual outcome of privatized services, the bottom line remains that some functions of society must be performed out of necessity, not out of profitability. The truth is, where capitalism operates properly, the private sector performs its duties quite well. But we cannot allow an overriding and unsophisticated “anti-government” furor to obscure the fact that a corporation is, by law, obligated to pursue the highest possible profits for shareholders. Other motives can and do subject corporate boards to lawsuits. The government, on the other hand, operates with a social welfare goal, and properly so.

Somehow we decided that the government should be run like a corporation – dragging in profit at all costs and only providing services that can be paid for with retained earnings. NO! Bad American! Don’t make me get the rolled-up newspaper. The government’s services are those that must be provided to members of a civilized society for the benefit of society. Health care, prisons, trash removal, roads, postal services, and education may have a role for the private sector as an option, but absolutely can NOT be provided solely to those who can afford it. We fought a whole war (remember – the Revolutionary one?) to cast off a social structure that accumulated wealth and access to only those who could afford it, leaving the rest to sink deeper and deeper into poverty, dragging the entire Empire down with it (despite what the nobility thought). So I beg you, whenever someone decries “big government” or “out of control spending” ask them – how much are you willing to pay out of pocket to a private company to remove your trash? To treat your drinking water? To inspect your food? To guide your airplane through the skies? Yes, there are private options (gated communities opt to stay off the grid and pay private companies for roads and trash, but they are certainly not the majority, and they act as a whole community – not as individuals) but consider the social fabric; YOU may be willing to pay $1,000 per year for trash disposal, but what if your neighbors are not willing or able to do the same? Your block becomes clogged with trash, disease, and vermin. Yay for you – the government went away. And back we go to Colonial times (you know – like the Tea Party costumes) when you had to buy memberships into fire and police guilds. Anyone who didn’t buy in had to negotiate with the reps who stood outside and watched their houses burn. Good idea? How about if your neighbor failed to buy in. Ever seen a block of rowhomes go up in flames? All it takes is one person behind on his dues to bring an entire block of homes to ash. What about police and 911 services? Should these be profit-driven? Do you want to be the person whose crime is too expensive to investigate? Where is the profit in solving murders? More importantly, where is the profit in solving them correctly. Is there a profit to ensuring your civil rights when you’re on trial? It’s far more expedient and far cheaper to simply dispense with some of the rituals designed to ensure the right person is convicted – is that what’s best for everyone? Sure it would reduce taxes, but do you want to be the one wrongly convicted because of a cost-cutting measure? You knew the victim, you have no alibi, you have no money for a defense lawyer, so away you go. Public defenders are so expensive, right? So you do it – go to court and stand in front of a judge, next to a prosecutor and detective who are instructed by the corporation to get this case closed and get you into a private-prison bed as soon as possible. You can check out a book on local procedures at the library, I’m sure you’ll do fine. Ambulances? I envision a hierarchy of plans. You can buy in at the Gold rate down to the Wood rate. Since vehicles are expensive and personnel more so, there are probably only 2 or 3 trucks in the company, right? So imagine a bad, bad night when 8 calls come in from private subscribers. They have to allocate resources, right? Like any good corporation. So the Gold member in the gated community on the hill gets his truck, and the Silver member in the historic lakefront home gets her truck. Then the Bronze member who lives on the other side of town but is closer to the garage than you gets his truck, since gas is expensive and you’re also only a Bronze member. So your child who drank the stuff under the sink will just have to wait until a truck is available. Profit motive still looking good?

There are also things the government needs to do a better job of – like inspecting the food supply and enforcing immigration laws. Why are they failing? LACK OF FUNDING! Because we are so afraid of funding things that look like “big government” that we leave some of the most important functions anemic and hobbled. What do we fund instead? Wars. Endless, unplanned, unjustifiable wars against nations that (in recent memory) pose only the most tangential and theoretical threat to our own. Despite the soaring rhetoric of terror, the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan posed no immediate or even conceivable threat to our security. And yet we send trillions of tax dollars down the rabbit hole and complain about border security. We spend trillions on arms accumulations and the largest standing army in the world, just in case we decide to pop in on another war at a moment’s notice.

Here’s the facts kids: the government has multiple jobs to do for all of our benefit. All of those jobs cost money. We pay a relatively infinitesimal amount of tax compared to the value of the services we receive: police, fire departments, air traffic control, roads, water treatment and sewers, wildlife management, food and drug safety, the health care and retirement benefits that some people receive, food for the poor, housing safety for renters, labor protection for workers, harbor and shipping inspection, daily mail delivery, safe trucks on the highways with us on the morning commute, safe trains carrying millions of gallons of toxic chemicals and tons of cargo, and on and on and on. Complain about taxes and government all you want, but the fact is that the

benefits FAR outweigh the costs. And while waste, ineffectiveness, and silliness certainly exist, and some functions absolutely need improvement, the solution requires a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. That’s all I’m sayin’.



I think it needs to be said that the Tea Party is not only badly out of touch with the reality of America and its own preferred candidates, but they are also desperately deluded about the reality of their own positions. If Tea partiers spent a fraction of the time considering the policies they advocate as they do on their costumes, some might see that they are not only supporting jaw-droppingly unqualified candidates, but also some very un-American policies.

The Tea Party is not advocating a return to “traditional American values” in the Disney-fied sense of the oil paintings and great orations related to us in 6th grade history class (if, indeed, they still teach history). They are advocating a return to feudal England where the Haves have everything and the Have Nots die in the street crying “God Save the Queen.” The real difference? Miniscule and diminishing. American feudalism is rooted in an increasingly unbalanced “free market” where the brochure says anyone with gumption can succeed and hoard resources unto themselves and their heirs. The English system, on the other hand, relied solely on family inheritance and ownership of money-making capacity. But the outcome is the same.

The semi-secret catch in the free market myth is something felt more acutely by minorities, but increasingly by the middle class: generational wealth tips the scales. Sure, there are the occasional fairy tales of The Guy Who Made It with little more than a dream and some ambition, but these are rare enough to be made into movies (The Pursuit of Happyness, for example). Outside these exceptions – which provide a pointing-place for the Haves as proof that the system works (and therefore that they are better than you) – most Americans are slipping further and further behind. Meanwhile, the Haves continue to gain, hoarding power at levels that make it possible to build their own advantages into the systems that are then sold to us as a “free market,” disguising the fact that it is rigged to accelerate the funneling of resources right back to the people who made the rules because they had the money.

Meanwhile the rest of America is losing resources to those upper echelons, creating a situation where people in the middle class are losing their homes, losing their savings, and being forced to sell anything of value just to stay afloat. This leaves less (if anything) remaining for heirs to inherit, reducing their position and resource pool – and thus reducing the resource pool of their own heirs. This increasing disparity in generational wealth has been studied as a factor in racial equalization, but it now affects Americans across the board in record numbers. And there’s no end in sight, as Republicans continue to amplify the American myth and accelerate the redistribution of wealth upwards via protective policies. Not the Land of Opportunity we like to write songs about and give seminars about in other countries.

Enter the Tea Party. Interestingly enough, made up almost exclusively of Have Nots who are convinced they have made it, and funded by Haves who feed off the ignorance of these self-satisfied minions and continue to tell them that they have made it! They’re American success stories! Why? Not really sure – most of them are unemployed or retired, so the measure of “making it” is a little fuzzy, but hey ... it sounds nice.

Dressing up in costumes and crying for a return to the age of slavery, oppression of women, wanton pollution, industrialist robber barons, and 16 hour/52 week work lives, Tea Partiers merrily avoid any element of history they didn’t see in the theme park of Colonial Williamsburg, where the actors playing colonists are protected by labor laws, minimum wage, lead-free paint, and health insurance. Y’know, for a society that likes to say “those who don’t learn their history are bound to repeat it,” we’re sure doing a lot more repeating than learning.

When it comes to the American Dream, we have flirted with it at times (maybe best during the post-war era), but we clearly haven’t gotten it right yet. It may turn out that “live and let live” is anathema to human nature if the let-ees are too different from the let-ors. Democracy and the great Melting Pot may fade away into an interesting blip on the EKG of political history. But I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet.

We may be a young country, but we are a deliberate country. We didn’t slip into ourselves over centuries of war and takeovers and turnovers and coups; we invaded, we settled, we rebelled, and we designed ourselves a government. Maybe not from whole cloth, but certainly from the better scraps. Like children are shaped by their parents but destined to shuffle loose, America was informed by her mother (England – for those who slept through history) but set out to forge her own path and drive her own destiny, taking the best and rejecting what didn’t fit our burgeoning self-image.

This is why it pains me to hear so many refusing to respect those principles that we developed or imported. Like hippies who grew up to be conservatives like their parents, leaving the rebellious, free loving, revolutionary spirit behind like faded tie-dyes, we seem to be facing a tide of fear-driven regression from those idealized goals of our collective national youth: liberty and justice for all. Not for just the white, the male, the moneyed and landed, the Christian, or the heterosexual. ALL. Everyone. All of us. “One nation, indivisible.”

Too many voices on the extreme right (Beck, Palin, Limbaugh, Gingrich) are preaching open, and sometimes violent, divisiveness. With patronizing flattery and manufactured fear, they urge their followers to listen instead of think. To take up arms instead of joining hands. To point fingers instead of finding solutions. And affirming that whatever unfounded, ignorant, hateful, fear-based opinion you’ve half-formed is the OBVIOUSLY correct/ patriotic/ reasonable/ intelligent/ whatever viewpoint (so don’t bother listening to those Lefty NoGoodNiks who want you to consider consequences or facts).

I wonder – what would America be like if the founding fathers had embraced this ugly side of human nature, rather than designing a temperate, cooperative system? I know, I know, they weren’t saints, the system wasn’t perfect, and we’ve made some terrible missteps along the way (Jim Crow comes to mind) and occasionally had some terrible outcomes, but isn’t that what growth is about? It’s not about popping from the womb with a PhD and a perfect soufflé in hand, it’s about falling down and getting back up. It’s about burning your hand on the stove and never touching it again. It’s about learning from your mistakes and not repeating them. Where did we lose sight of this? When did we, as a society, decide to throw history to the wind and head breakneck down the perilous and damaged road behind us instead of looking forward and thinking about what we could do better?

So how about we try the real old-fashioned way of doing things. Let’s stop sniping and digging in our heels to get our way, and actually engage in the debate. Bring the ideas, recognize that there will be intractable disagreements, and DO THE WORK! Wrestle with the conflict, discuss the differences, and take a legitimate vote. By all means – get worked up! Get mad, get irritated, but USE that to develop your views and ENGAGE in the process. Because that’s where we learn where the weaknesses and failings of our best-laid plans lie. I will refer readers (reader?) back to my first post regarding social disconnectivity here. Since that’s really why I write these things; so I don’t have to repeat myself.

Let’s consider what that flag that some people have gleefully wrapped themselves in really means. How this country actually came to be. Et Mesdames et messieurs, it did not come on a silver platter of handholding and unicorns. It came in the sweltering humidity of a pre-air-conditioning Philadelphia summer. It came with hours and hours of arguing, debating, discussing, handwringing, and disappointment. It came with a large dose of egos and apocalyptic predictions as well. And yet, the world did not end when someone’s idea got voted (or shouted) down. It has not ended in the 200 years since, despite innumerable other ideas being voted and shouted down. And whoever you are, if your idea doesn’t make it, don’t be afraid – the world will not end then, either. Even though I admit, I see the harbingers of doom in the increasing valuation of thoughtlessness, selfishness, and intransigence. And the disturbing number of candidates willing to run on “I’m not that smart and I have no experience, but I’m really, REALLY mad and really REALLY sure I’m right about everything!” platforms. We used to respect educated, experienced professionals. Now we call them “elitists” and “establishment” and villainize them for our own lack of understanding and unwillingness to learn. I wouldn’t hire someone with no experience to build my house or run my business. Why would I hire them to steer my country? I’m just sayin’.

The Cliff Behind the Silkscreen

There are times in your life when things seem to just be falling apart, and it feels like the end of everything. When that shining highway of adventure or accomplishment or happiness that used to be spread out before you turns out to be a silkscreen backdrop hung on the edge of a cliff. And as you careen off into the darkness to certain doom, you wonder: why did this happen? I did everything right, it was all supposed to work out and I was supposed to live happily ever after. Now there’s nothing but sadness and darkness and failure. In those moments, people tend to retreat to The Plan. It’s all part of the plan of the Fates. Of God, of the universe, of karma. Whatever the guiding force is, it has a plan, and this is part of it. So why does it never feel that way? Why does it always feel like we were following The Plan and doing our part and being good little soldiers, only to have it all ripped out from under us? And more germane to this entry, why doesn’t it help to think that your failure/heartbreak/loss/ disorientation is part of The Plan?

I have a theory. My theory is that people who can happily resign themselves to The Plan send themselves into a spiral of escalating disconnection from reality until they become cultish and potentially legitimately mentally ill (sorry for the string of “ly”s). If we are actually able to resign ourselves to The Plan and avoid the heartbreak and disappointment of watching that ravine rushing up to meet us, we can never accumulate the breadth and depth of experiences that create real people and full lives. If we were able to short circuit that experience, we would become helpless creatures, totally at the mercy of the winds and lacking a driver.

We all need a driver. We’ve seen the folks who are willing to sign over control of their lives to someone else, or to the Great Unknown. They drink the Kool-Aid. They wear old-fashioned clothes and say things like “sleep sweet.” They shrug in the face of every adversity and say another prayer. These people seem to be able to cope with anything, and yet they drift aimlessly in the world, following a soap bubble. Never guiding, never leading their own lives. And I think the phrase “leading a life of …” is not accidental. If your life is to be a life, it must be led, and it must be led by you. It cannot be followed. That’s not life, that’s surrender. That’s all-consuming cowardice. At the same time, I recognize and have felt the longing to be like them. To just stop fighting the tides and let someone else tell me what to do and who to be. To stop feeling the world. To not suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. To lay down the arms taken up against the sea of troubles since my opposition seems never to end them.

But what then? To become an accident in the world? A spectator to my own life? The one chance I have to experience this world and to shape my space in it? I make no judgment about reincarnation, but we clearly don’t come back with memories of ourselves and what we did, so for the Me that is me, the conscious soul of awareness that defines this Me, this is the only life I have. I also make no statement regarding the Christian afterlife, since what becomes of us in the next world is shaped by what we do here (according to Christian tradition), it does not shape who we are here. Fear is bad guide, so personally I don’t believe that a moral compass imposed by fear is especially valid. But that’s another blog.

The point remains that no matter what tradition you hew to (tee hee –I rhymed ), the standard plotline is that some being or force created us and the world around us. Regardless of whether that force or being cares what we do day to day, or what words we use, if we believe we were put here, then “why” is a natural response. There may not be an answer, and I don’t pretend to offer any more insight or opinion than anyone else can think up. But at the very least, we are here to be us. Individuals a part of a group. Humans are social, to the point that social isolation is not only used as a punishment, but can cause severe psychological trauma. And we unquestionably have special gifts among the natural world. Although we are not the only animals with the ability to problem-solve, use tools, be self-aware, or even think abstractly, we are clearly very good at it.

To me, it seems an affront to whatever force or being you believe put us here to actively reject that capacity and surrender ourselves to another member of the species or to the fates. It also seems rather lazy to make God do all the work and have to move you through your life like dead weight. If God wanted us to be as passive and thoughtless as far too many people are willing to be, then why waste all that energy and capacity on free will and abstract thought? If we were intended to resign ourselves to fate, why even be aware of it? The line is fuzzy in the higher orders, but I doubt very seriously that earthworms and houseflies are troubled by “why am I here” thinking. To me, the peace that a person can achieve by surrendering to higher being is not a success, it is a death. It is a death of the soul, of what it means to be human, and worst of all, a death of the relationship that we have with God (if, indeed, you believe that sort of thing). I have found peace in temple, and don’t deny the role of religion or faith or resignation to anyone. What I deny is the inherent superiority or value in surrendering control of your life to The Plan simply because you haven’t been able to see it or to achieve what you wanted (or just lack the creativity to want something). I think The Plan is not related to any of us. I think it’s terribly arrogant to believe that fate has charted a course for you and is desperately concerned with everything you do. I have another theory. This one I’ve had for a while, and the older I get, the more I like it. I do believe we all have a destiny. I do NOT believe that every minor happening in life is directional. I see destiny as the center of a hedge maze. It’s there, it’s ours, and there are several ways to get there. But not every way will get you there. The journey is our own. The path, the choices, the pace, and the attitude are our own. Whether or not we ever reach that destiny is up to us. As is whether or not we recognize it when we do.

News flash: your destiny may be to raise an angry, anti-social child who will go on a killing rampage. Your destiny may be to die alone watching Home Shopping Network. Your destiny may be to make someone laugh at a critical moment in their lives or to invent the best cake your family will ever eat. Not everyone gets a grand, outsized destiny that will change the world. Not everyone even gets a positive destiny. You may reach yours at the age of 7, and spend the rest of your life wondering what it is. Such is life in a complex system. No one can promise you that you will feel the weight of a lifetime lift when you reach your shining center. Just that it’s there. You may mistake a left turn for destiny and stop there. You may plod along and not get there for a hundred years, and it may expire before you get there.

My point is, whether you go right or left is not guided by the fates – it’s guided by your choices. Fate may have set you at the gate and put the goodies in the middle, but that’s where it ends. For those who never enter the gate, or who make a few wrong turns and refuse to proceed, or who take up a divining rod at every corner, a life is lost. Because a life is rejected. And for all the times I wanted to just hand the reins over to someone else and stop having to drive on and stop following dead ends, I am not willing to forego the opportunity to reach whatever destiny I have or to see and do all the things between Here and There. And all I can do is hope that I haven’t gotten there yet. And so, once again, I careen off the cliff behind the silk screen. And even though I am hurtling once again toward certain doom, I always did like roller coasters.


I would like to formally announce my opposition to the “rule” against using ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. If there were actually an authoritative body making these rules, I would begin a formal campaign. However, since there is no such body, I am left with the Internet. I have done some research, and there is far less agreement about this “rule” than we were led to believe in 4th grade. Of the sources opposed to the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, the only justification given is based on logic, not usage, citation, or benefit to the language. However, it was not always verboten. In fact, many early grammar books specifically green-light using “they” in the singular.

Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, and many other esteemed composers of the English language used “they” as a singular. The opposition argument is most commonly based on “they” being primarily a plural pronoun and therefore (obviously, clearly, unassailable) unfit for use as a singular.

But why? I assert that the very existence of rules of grammar is rooted in the need to make language understandable and consistent. Any “rule” that forces a writer (or speaker) to do violence to the language in order to be ‘proper’ is either a rumor run amok and not a rule, or a rule not worth keeping. Language evolves, rules come and go, and even if there is a majority opinion that “they” cannot possibly be singular without destroying the entire tongue, it’s time to get over it.

Consider the options:

My family stops by regularly, and it always bring pizza.

If numeric agreement were the sine qua non of English, this would be correct because “family” is singular. But “THEY always bring pizza” is understandable.

Call the Department of Motor Vehicles for information. It has all of your records.

Hm, that sounds very unnatural and more potentially confusing than “THEY have all of your records”.

At church, everyone dresses in his finest tie or dress.

Supposedly gender-neutral “he” doesn’t quite work, does it? Unless this is a transvestite church Anyone can leave his or her keys on the table.

Awkward, wordy, pretentious, and nothing is gained. This sentence loses nothing by saying “Anyone at the party can leave their keys on the table” except the artificial ‘propriety’ of avoiding a singular ‘they’.

If the cashier can’t match the price, the cashier may offer you a coupon.

Erm? Heavy-handed redundancy is far more awkward than simply using ‘they’

Many otherwise reputable grammarians begin an indictment of the plural ‘they’ with a somber or bemused sigh lamenting the absence of a gender-neutral pronoun in English. The funny thing is, they go on to offer multiple awkward, heavy-sounding, or overbearing alternatives designed to obfuscate the sentence, distract from the thought being communicated, and generally create chaos in the name of avoiding a perfectly serviceable, centuries-old gender-neutral pronoun! Just because someone arbitrarily decided that as of some point in history, ‘they’ would thenceforth never be used as a singular word again, we twist and turn and abuse a poor, helpless sentence to within an inch of its life to avoid a perfectly reasonable, understandable method of communicating. Silly. Just plain silly. And any rule that starts with an apology for itself belongs in the dustbin of grammatical history.

Now consider the parallel: the terminal preposition. Terminal prepositions (“I need to find a field to have a picnic in”) got a bad rap from a Shakespearean rival who subscribed to a short-lived (but wholly destructive) fad among English society that attempted to make English comply with the rules of Latin because Latin is … well … Latin is cooler and all the super-smart people know that. But here’s the rub; English is not a Latin language. English is a Germanic language built on an entirely different foundation. It would be like trying to turn a treehouse into a cathedral. It was a flawed and pretentious idea from the get-go and fortunately didn’t last long. However, it did last long enough to get some of these ideas printed in early grammar books, and continues to give pretentious people cause to sneer at others who don’t know the “rules.”

When a rule of construction so undermines the communicative capacity of a language, it is either suspect in its origin, or due for elimination. Use of “whom” is becoming passé and making its way out of the lexicon. More and more people are catching on that the ban on terminal prepositions is a silliness up with which we should not put. (See? See how silly that is?) I am not advocating the destruction of all rules of grammar, only those that actually interfere with the language. I like English. I find it a uniquely flexible language and worth preserving, but language evolves. It’s part of the deal. And it’s time that we stopped making a singular ‘they’ the devil. It’s not. It’s just a word, and “he” is most assuredly NOT gender-neutral, as some would like to believe.

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