Letter From Los Angeles
April, 2009
© 2009 Joel

This edition is dedicated to my blue- eyed white readers who President “Lula” of Brazil holds responsible for the global economic mess. Don’t be blue.

Pick of the Letter

  • Nixon Defrosted
  • The Bone Asses at AIG
  • Newspapers R.I.P.?
  • Senior(s) Matter(s): It’s The Calendar, Stupid
  • How To Talk With a Republican, or a Liberal
  • Special Supplement: Growing Up Gay: The Queen Is I, Part I

Nixon Defrosted

How many of you have seen the movie Frost Nixon? The play? The original? One of the great lines of my life was delivered by our first neighbor in San Francisco just days after Frost interviewed Nixon on the air. A visitor deducted a couple of years from his age, to which the neighbor responded, in a stage whisper, “I’d believe Nixon first.” We still use that line, occasionally substituting Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

Frank Langella’s expertly drawn Nixon scared the hell out of me even as it elicited pity, too. Nixon was in so much pain he was painful to observe. I’ve read that at a post presidential dinner party at his townhouse in New York Nixon oddly greeted his wife, Pat, as if she were one of the invited guests. In the film, leaving the interview site after blowing the final segment with Frost, Nixon approaches a waiting fan with a dog he clumsily pets and asks, “They call this a dachshund?” Ouch!

Did you recognize the woman who played Pat Nixon? Does the name Patty McCormack ring a bell? Over fifty years ago she played the blonde monster with pigtails in the play and movie The Bad Seed. McCormack hosted a Q and A at the Castro Theater in San Francisco ten years ago, and afterwards we discussed a child actor from the 1950’s we both had known. “I was in love with him, “ she confessed, and then asked, “Was he gay?” “We were in love with him too,” I replied, “and I have some bad news. He wasn’t.”

Pick of the Quotes

“With Socrates ...you had to go into a dialogue prepared to change, not to bludgeon your conversational partner into accepting your point of view.” Karen Armstrong, religious scholar

Please read that again. And again and again. Its implications are stunning. Openness to change is fundamental to human advancement. For everything we have of value we are in its debt.

Recession Quotes and Quips

“It’s just your money and not your life. Everyone who loved you a week ago still loves you. Puppies cuddle and robins sing. Keep the windows closed and your hearts calm.”
Louis Rukeyser, on his Wall Street Week 10/23/87

“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”
John Kenneth Galbraith

“It’s disrespectful to the people who don’t have much to flaunt your wealth.”
Monica Hagerdorn, an Atlanta lawyer speaking of hers.

“George Will observed that ‘the war, not the New Deal, defeated the Depression.’ Why, though? Because it entailed a massive expansion of government spending. The Republicans who have been endlessly making the anti-stimulus case seem not to realize that, if you believe that the war ended the Depression, then you are a Keynesian.”
Jonathan Chait, The New Republic

“If only the unemployment rate for actors were 10%.”
Lloyd Johnson

The Bone Asses at AIG: Enough Is Enough?

Awarding the $165M in bonuses to American International Group’s Financial Products Division is “like giving a Nobel Prize for Evil.”
Alan Goolsby, an Obama economic aide

“This proposal (the Securities Act of 1933) adds to the ancient rule of ‘caveat emptor’ the further doctrine of ‘let the seller beware.’”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

“My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it until now.”
John F. Kennedy

In what David Brooks calls our “commercial nation” we don’t expect competitive enterprises to divulge their every move. We’ve also learned that allowing the businessmen to operate entirely in private can endanger our world. Bernie Madoff was not the only one in need of an electronic monitoring device.

Americans are alternately attracted to and repelled by what we lump together and call Wall Street. We have complicated feelings about social equality, a level playing field and how far we are willing to go for the Almighty Buck.

We are also mutually dependent. No working class, no monied class, and the other way around. Consequently, the current enthusiasm for throwing out the baby with the water will pass. We need to fashion a modus vivendi between corporate and financial institutions and ourselves. Far more stringent oversight is required in business and government alike. Government ordered restructuring of corporations or banks is what any prudent majority shareholder would insist on and will not amount to a long- term takeover or socialism should it come to pass. We’re capitalistic to stay.

What disturbs me most about the AIG bonus affair, our stand- in for this whole damn mess, is the unmistakable message it sends, especially to our youth, to grab all you can, when and however you can.

Recommendations that we put this behind us offend. The lawyer advises clients to give up without even trying when they’ve been wronged because “the only person you’ll hurt is yourself;” the political leader intones, “Move on.” Crocodile solicitousness about our blood pressures is insufficient when we feel we’ve been betrayed.

The New York Times has counseled Americans not to miss the forest for the trees of AIG. Prioritizing is necessary, especially now, and we don’t cut off our nose off to spite our face, but with a minimum of demagoguery we need the memory of government, capitalism and our own nature at their worst to persist and to catalyze reform. If corruption and stupidity can’t be eliminated, they can surely be contained.

Are the AIGs different because they’re too big to fail? I’m afraid they are, and I agree with The New York Times that they should probably be broken up. By imposing a 90% tax on the bonuses has Congress, acting in the heat of passion, set a questionable precedent, flirted with the law of unintended consequences and committed overkill? It likely has.

We’re going to have to swallow square miles of the stuff before our economy heals. Yet our consciences have something to tell us, too. The UAW contract was renegotiated by realists who were also patriotic, and there might even be something reluctantly patriotic about the AIG employees who gave what remained of their bonuses back. Feeding overstuffed cats the choicest morsels at their victim’s expense was just too obscene.

Newspapers, R.I.P.?

When John Kennedy rolled into Manhattan during the 1960 presidential campaign, the college freshman Joel became so excited at the sight of the press bus he almost forgot to look for JFK. At every window, in every seat was a real life reporter, face obscured by a wide open paper, just like commuters on their trains. My love affair with The New York Times had already begun, and their correspondents were my gods.

Today’s traveling press is similarly absorbed, though no ink will stain their hands. And soon they are likely to be joined by commuters and just about everybody else in getting their news from a screen.

Has the death of the daily paper been greatly exaggerated? The Chicago Tribune is bankrupt, the Christian Science Monitor, joined recently by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, available only online, The New York Times awash in red ink and its Boston Globe all but extinct.

Clobbered by shrinking revenues and the reading public’s distrust, news business is increasingly done on the cheap. Washington and other key bureaus are shut down. The Sunday L.A. Times has a wasting disease. Even television’s CNN has cut producers and support staff, leaving newscasters overburdened to the point of doing less well. One wonders if papers as we know them can survive even online.

One expedient that I question has been to recruit the public to pick up some of the slack. The average citizen’s sniffing out stories in corners reporters have traditionally ignored, like school board meetings and other very local concerns, comes to mind. I’ve seen some reportage on television by passersby that I’ve liked, but I wonder if we have reason to expect greater or even comparable coverage, accuracy and objectivity with weakened editorial planning and review.

Who is going to bankroll the placement of reporters in foreign capitals, state houses, police precincts, business districts, entertainment centers, schools, scientific research facilities and the other places where our lives are shaped? Without a highly capitalized organization, who or what will ensure the wide or detailed coverage on which an informed citizenry depends?

Publishers are pressured to slant the news all the time. Still, an observer writing in The New York Times, admittedly a vested interest, warns that “If newspapers go bust,” and nobody covers city hall, “corruption will rise, legislation will be more easily be captured by vested interests and voter turnout will fall.”

The writer reminds us that in the nineteenth century, “newspapers were mostly partisan mouthpieces. But as circulation and advertising grew, they shed political allegiances and started competing for customers by investigating shady deals and taking up populist causes” which enabled the progressive era. Will the post-press media take up that slack?

Not that credibility is contemporary print journalism’s strong suit. A 2008 Pew Research poll revealed that “only 18 percent of Americans believe all or most of what The New York Times publishes.” I wonder how many viewers trust their television news or are disposed to trust what appears online.

Where the millions of Americans not yet in the electronic age, many of whom are poor, will go for information I’m not sure. Then there’s the endearing ritual of the Sunday papers. Imagine, “Honey, would you hand me the business section of the screen?”

Sentiment aside, as long as reasonably impartial, carefully sourced, capably written news grabs our attention, inspires trust, and is made available to as wide a range of Americans as possible, I don’t care if that news appears on a page, on a screen or on the wrong end of a cat.

Stimulus Package’s Nasty Amendment

A self defeating little amendment to the federal stimulus package requires companies which accept TARP funds to hire American citizens only, effectively freezing out the desperately needed pool of talented individuals who want to work here and come from abroad.

We go protectionist and we’re cooked.

Our Schools: Better Screening

Delightful, those simulcasts of “Live From” the great opera houses of the world at a theater near you and me. Why not apply the same principle to teaching children by seating large numbers of them before screens and exposing them to the very best at the least expense?

Consider master teachers presenting masterful lessons on screens large and small (t.v., computer) available to entire grades, school systems or even students nationwide? Offhand I cannot think of a subject from the alphabet to algebra that can’t be effectively presented this way.

Why endlessly reinvent the wheel by requiring teachers to create lessons that simply can’t compete with the best? We all know that kids are blown away by practically anything that appears on a screen. No one size fits all, but look at the success of Sesame Street. How many teachers can stage those kind of musical numbers or use animation to put across basic concepts or more sophisticated ideas?

Hot, hot lessons taught by the hottest, hottest teachers utilizing resources rarely available in the typical school can provide the background for the indispensable follow up in each class. Screen star teachers might inspire their classroom counterparts without seeming a threat. School budgets being leaner than ever, the proposal is also cost effective. And by awarding bonuses to these master teachers we can also satisfy our national obsession with merit pay.

Senior(s) Matters(s): It’s the Calendar, Stupid

“Some day you’re going to be nostalgic about when you were old.” Joel to a reader waxing nostalgic about when he was young

Have you noticed that what we found hilarious about our grandparent’s generation may already be happening to us? You know, looking kind of funny, forgetting where we put the plastic surgeon’s number, being somewhat technologically challenged and speaking too fondly of the past?

And have you noticed that they just don’t make old folks the way they did back then? (My favorite New Yorker cartoon has an older woman complaining, “In my day people died.”) Where are old lady shoes? Old lady hairdos? Old ladies?

Kids don’t make fun of their elders on the street the way we once did, Maybe they’re too busy texting to notice, but today’s older generation has a remarkably different look. We go to the gym, travel the globe, dress sharply, strive to keep current and look like almost everybody else from the neck down.

Dye jobs or drag notwithstanding our bodies age, loved ones die, and we measure our horizons less in decades than in years. While some consider having lived long as a privilege, others seize upon even benign reminders of advancing age to feel depressed, which reminds me of a joke.

Fabled psychologist and humorist Dr. Murray Banks told of a very rich client who complained about her husband, her children, her friends and everything in sight. “But you’re so lucky,” Banks countered. “You’ve got a yacht, a penthouse, servants– everything a body could want. Yet you’re miserable. What’s the point of all this wealth?” “Look,” the lady shot back. “If ‘m going to be miserable, I’m going to be miserable in style.”

Join me in being miserable in style. Better, let us join what I propose we call The Above The Ground Club for reasons that should be abundantly clear. I’m satisfied with being “senior” for the status it implies, though that expression conjures up passengers on a fall colors Greyhound tour. Above the Grounders revel in remaining, however precariously, this side of the sod.

Look for yourselves in this partial list of how my senior readers spend their time.

Traveling by land, air and sea to destinations long dreamed of. Taking singing lessons and warbling on stage. Auditing courses at local colleges. Creating websites, and writing essays and entire books. Opening their minds to new art forms and ideas. Oil painting. Joining gay groups and going on hikes.

Returning to work. (A sixty-six year old cardiac bypass survivor has a demanding full time job and teaches college courses, too; a reader past seventy trains members of a gym.) Dealing with life's unfinished business in psychotherapy. Becoming deeply involved in religious affairs. Presenting scholarly papers around the planet. Keeping busy with card games, entertaining friends and culinary pursuits. Getting to know their children's children. Acting in Hollywood movies. Writing newsletters that are far too long.

When former President Gerald Ford’s mother died attending church, her family found the most remarkable thing on her kitchen wall–a calendar filled almost to illegibility with activities and obligations extending months ahead.

I’d like to establish a dialogue with “every day above ground is a good one” readers like yourselves, occasionally about health matters and psychological challenges, political issues and special opportunities for people our age, but primarily with how, despite everything, we can enjoy our lives.

So many of you do the senior thing better than I that I’m not certain what contribution I can possibly make. Fair warning. Role models among you may find your barely disguised stories on this page.

How to Talk With a Republican, or a Liberal

“The three monotheisms–Judaism, Christianity and Islam–have a besetting tendency; that an idolatry taking a human idea of God, a human doctrine, and making it in the place of God. We are constantly creating these idols, erecting a purely human ideal to the supreme reality. Once you’ve made something essentially finite, once you’ve made it an absolute, it then has to destroy any rival claimants because there can be only one absolute.....We get a lot of secular people doing this too. I think the so-called liberals can also be just as hard-lined in their own way.”
Karen Armstrong on Bill Moyers Journal, 3/13/09

Joel Note: The “talk” in this heading is limited to small, informal gatherings, at most, when the subject of politics comes up. I am not suggesting the quest for cooperation and mutual understanding requires abandoning one’s ideals–far from it. My past experience serving at conflict resolution hearings with Community Boards of San Francisco has convinced me of the benefit of giving in in order to receive.

My first “so-called liberal” was a third grade classmate, word positioning intentional, at a school within blocks of the Yankee Stadium in 1951. “I want the Yankees to lose,” she raved, “because they always win. It’s time another team won. It just isn’t fair.” Enraptured as only a child can be by a real life hero, at age ten I liked Ike enough to become a very young Republican, much later the Log Cabin kind, until Ronald Reagan knocked it out of me in 1984.

In New York and later in San Francisco, I experienced so much intolerance from “so-called liberals” that when we explained why we had become Republicans at a San Francisco County Committee meeting I used language that made the chairman, no stranger to profanity, blush.

Today I’m a pragmatic liberal whose willingness to talk with people across political and other divides is a matter of some pride. Although Republicans seem to have appropriated the mantle of intolerance, a conservative reader reports she can no longer discuss politics with her condescending liberal friends even as a Republican I know delights in so working up Democrats they become too frustrated to speak. Sound like the U.S. Congress writ small?

I begin with the premise that I am liberal, Newt Gingirch is liberal, Ronald Reagan was liberal, George W. Bush is liberal–wait! Don’t dial Bellevue just yet.

Liberal comes from the Latin for “free,” making most of us all liberal in the classic nineteenth John Stuart Mills sense, though not necessarily in a New Deal way. (Commentator Alan Wolfe surprises us with news that, “the word ‘liberal’ was first used in its modern political sense in 1812, when the Spaniards wrote a new constitution liberating themselves from monarchical rule”) Each of us passionately wants to live in a country and a world that maximizes freedom. We differ about freedom for whom to do what.

Name calling, sarcasm and mockery move us further away from our cherished goals. A Long Island Jewish friend who admitted to becoming a Republican as a play against type called me a “bleeding heart.” An aide to a San Francisco far left Supervisor encouraged campaign volunteers to defeat the “Republican fascists.”

You are not obligated to suffer people with agendas or who play games of “gotcha!” And if their primary source of information is talk radio or the clergy, change subjects really fast.

Stow expectations about changing minds and strive for mutual understanding instead. If Orin Hatch and Ted Kennedy can do it, if James Carville and Mary Matlin can do it (!), there’s hope for you and me.

Offer facts. It throws ‘em every time.

Leave the use of slogans to the professionals.

Let your perfectly understandable passion surface when appropriate, but remember that deeper disagreements require even greater objectivity, empathy and calm.

Listen, and show you are listening. How I’d love to lock opponents in a room until each respectfully states the other’s case. “You felt that Saddam’s aggression was a danger to the United States that could no longer be contained,” and “You’re saying that universal health care coverage is both practical and humane,” come to mind.

Understand that the other side isn’t necessarily coming from a place you’ve never been. Stretch your empathetic system. Take a cue from the actors and discover your inner softy or your inner tough as nails.

Instead of attacking a hardened position look for commonalities, then have some fun developing compromises the other person might be willing to accept. When discussing an emotional issue like gun control you might offer, “We both prize safety and security but see different ways of getting there. Wouldn’t you feel even safer if everyone who applies for a fire arm has to be found as upright and as qualified as you?”

Take advantage of any opportunity to acknowledge a valid point and direct it toward problem solving. “I agree. There’s entirely too much tenured dead weight in our schools. But how can we protect good teachers from arbitrary dismissal while ridding ourselves of the dross?”

Be cautious about moralizing. “We should do this because it’s right” ignores the possibility that your idea of right and mine don’t coincide. No one is persuaded by our fervent beliefs simply because they’re ours.

Your exchange with that Republican or liberal is now over. They haven’t even cooperated, but there’s hidden gold here too. You’ve probably learned more about the other fellow’s thinking and tactics than they care to have revealed, and about your own behavior too, giving you an advantage in dealing with this sort of conversation at another time.

You both still differ sharply after trying everything I’ve advised? Agree to disagree, then find where you can volunteer to Get Out the Vote.

Even after the votes are counted there’s room for mutual gain. In one small midwestern city agreement was reached to close the abortion clinic provided pro-lifers did everything imaginable to support the mothers and their unwanted kids. True to their word, pro-lifer initiated financial assistance, birth control, adoption services and day care proceeded apace. Something about that you or your opponents don’t like? Good. That’s how we know effective compromise has been reached. In a culture war nobody budges and nobody wins.

“Look,” Karen Armstrong admits, and Joel echoes, “I’m not expecting the whole world to fall into a daze of compassion.” Maybe we’ll have to grant lower taxes, free vacations, or insider trading privileges to those who practice win/win, but anyone who finds this sentimental or soft misses the point. We have an alternative, you know. There’s always discord and war.

You call yourself a caring liberal, a conscience conservative or a committed moderate? Then act in the spirit of those terms.

Special Supplement

Growing Up Gay: The Queen Is I

I was five years old when the word “Jew” was first mentioned in an American movie, twenty-three before legislation ensured civil and voting rights for America’s blacks, twenty-seven at the time of the Stonewall Riots for gay freedom in New York, thirty-three when the ban on abortion was removed, thirty-six when Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official in the country, social security age when same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, and sixty-six when we elected an African American President of the United States.

Not bad for one lifetime and still counting.

l

How often I’ve been asked, “When did you know?” or “What did your parents say?” If I only had that nickel for each time.

I “knew” thirty-two years ago at the age of seven, all right, at age fifteen in 1958. Returning to Study Hall from the boys lockers for the nine hundredth time I had a Leon Ames moment from Meet Me in St. Louis, you know, when Father strikes a match and a look of recognition as the music swells and the camera slowly zooms, except that Father’s “Aha!” and mine were not alike. “My God,” I acknowledged, “I’m one of them,” and I went icy cold inside.

Why that “aha!” just then? Because I had finally connected my daily detour to see the boys changing after Gym with who I had always been.

One of “them.” They had names for “them,” us, back then; my parents surely did. “Pansy” and “nervous” topped the list.

Funny, my parents being out of shape about gay. When, at age four or five, I informed our housekeeper that her skin was brown, another “aha!,” that all but caused an existential crisis in the house. Grandmother gasped, “I was dreading this day” as if she would have preferred me speechless or blind. A year or two later my mother drove me through Greenwhich Village approvingly pointing out interracial couples holding hands.

But whenever they encountered a “man in sandals,” at that time the sign of a queer, fair minded mom and dad flapped their wrists, laughed and exchanged whispered words I always heard. Decades later I learned that my mother had suspected my father of being gay, with no proof yea or nay, which was perhaps the source of her fear.

Throughout elementary school I developed crushes on the prettiest girls, flat chested precursors of the beloved boys to come. Mary Ann, Janet, Ellen, and Joan come to mind. Funny that a classmate who turned out gay was then my hated rival for the girls. Too bad he was never my type.

When I was six, my mother decided she wanted me out of the house having good clean fun on Saturdays so she could entertain her boyfriend while my father was at work, and I was enrolled in a group led by two young men who showed us how to play “war” and told such nightmare inspiring stories that my mother had to intervene.

An angel in the group named Angel was my first same-sex crush, with his curly blond hair and blue eyes and the distance he kept from every other boy but me. I sat next to him on the bus and engaged in gentle chat. I said chat.

The second existential household crisis occurred when I was in the third grade and first heard the word “effeminate” accompanied by an anxiety among the grownups I had never known before. The teacher, as tactfully as an individual unqualified to be around human children could possibly be, advised my mother to do something about my “effeminate” gait.. For months I practiced and was reminded how to walk like a man under my parent’s disapproving gaze. (A doctor later confirmed that any peculiarity of gait had more to do with the extraordinarily high arches I had inherited from dear old Dad)

Ever try to teach a centipede to walk like a man? Or humiliate a kid and enhance his vocabulary at the same time? I was a little boy who liked little girls, playing baseball and the Yankees, who regarded other boys’ anatomy as somewhat gross, and who never dreamed of playing with dolls, much less other boys. Until puberty, prep school and gym.

To be continued

Coming Soon

  • Our Schools: Teachers
  • Gentleman’s Agreement, the Film
  • My Fascination with FDR
  • Growing Up Gay: High School and College
  • Consumption Makes Me Cough
  • A Far, Unattainable Star

Archive 2009