Mental Health I: Why Do I Write?

The first in a series of five essays about Mental Health to celebrate the dog days of August.

I’d been writing words and sentences since the first grade. As a person of engineering temperament, I expressed myself with logic and clarity (my specifications for concrete were top-notch). But I can pinpoint the specific date when I first tried to express the vagaries of my heart and soul. Summer 1996. Sitting at a picnic table under a tree outside a weathered guest house in Provincetown. Scribbling phrases on notecards to make sense out of the lightening chaos with which this stable married family man became a single gay dad.

My therapist at the time—I can’t remember which one, there’ve been so many—counseled me to journal. Really? No thanks. I saw little to be gained in documenting my screwed-up present. Instead, I selected points of experience as the premise for a barely-concealed autobiographical novel. It took me three years to complete Sing Out Loud. When I began, I had no idea how the book—or my life—would resolve. The manuscript sits in a box on a shelf, which is where my amateur effort belongs. But creating the book became a case of life imitating fiction: I literally wrote myself to a happy ending. The process brought me immeasurable value, and established writing as my preferred form of therapy.

Next up? My troubled childhood. Weekends in Holy Land. Three brothers confront the illusion of youthful potential against their adult reality. It’s a much better novel. Someday, I might actually dust it off and put it out there. Still, it’s most useful examination is how straightjacket Irish Catholicism sunk its claws into a pudgy little—maybe—faggot.

After two attempts I realized, I’m no novelist. I am, however, pretty fair at personal essays.

Over a decade ago, riding high during my Bikram yoga addiction, I’d never felt so energized, so limber, and so compelled to share my euphoria. My peak yoga enthusiasm corresponded with peak blog craze, thus I went public with www.theawkwardpose.com.

About a thousand folks subscribe to The Awkward Pose. I have no idea why. The blog has little theme beyond a particular author. The focus has evolved from yoga, to Haiti, to bicycling, to tomorrow, to… Over time, my blog has become more political, in keeping with my personal evolution. But most often, essay topics are simply what’s on my mind. A place of personal catharsis in an unnecessarily unjust world.

Yet…even with writing

as my principal mode of psychic balance,

I’ve never written about mental health.

I’ve ceased any illusion to become a well-known blogger. I write what I want and post it to the world. I do no promotion. If someone finds my essays and likes then, all good. If I influence someone’s ideas about our world, even better. If not…oh, well.

The blog’s byline is: seeking balance in a world of tension. There’s truth in that statement, but it’s also misleading. Because there are elements of my life—important elements—that I’ve never written about, honestly. The primary one being: my mental health.

Like all true progressives I parrot the notion that mental health is an equal aspect of our overall well-being. No need to hide or disguise it. Yet, for decades, even with writing as my principal mode of psychic balance, I’ve never written about mental health.

During the pandemic, I faced renewed mental struggles: I am not alone there. After years away from therapists, groups, and medications, I once again had to navigate our inept health care system in search of guidance. At a primary level I failed: I could not find a single therapist to take me on. And in that failure likely lies my growth, for I tackled my demons, through reading, and workbooks, and writing; with more disciplined focus than ever.

I’ve made enough progress that I’ve decided to share, through a series of essays, my personal struggles. Not because I want sympathy: I know how fortunate I am in life. Because, if I am struggling with all of this sh*t, pretty much everyone else is too.

The only way out is through. And it will be easier to get through, if we are all in it together. Read on.

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A New Narrative

We are stuck.

On one hand liberals, or progressives, or left-wing, or Democrats, or whatever you want to call them; are hell-bent on subdividing our nation into ever tightly defined ‘identities.’ According to them, I am a cis-gender gay white male occupying land once inhabited by the Massachusett people who uses ‘he’ series pronouns, recycles, doesn’t buy meat, and rides a bicycle.

On the other hand, conservatives, or traditionalists, or right-wing, or Republicans, or whatever you want to call them; are hell-bent on measuring liberty and justice for all according to a yardstick ticked off in the 1950’s. According to them I am a successful property owner who racked up a big bank balance without government handouts, who invests on Wall Street, listens to country music, watches Chicago P.D., and drinks PBR.

Both of these synopses of my personal life are accurate; neither is complete. Similarly, the world views ascribed by the two poles of our political arena each hold some truth, but they are selective truths. The Left’s constant parsing into ever-tighter identities pulls us further from a collective identity; while the Right’s vision of a unified America demeans most anyone who is not a heterosexual white Christian.

I believe in Martin Luther King Jr.’s adage, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” These days, that arc seems mighty long and shallow.

Political theories, and their power, run in cycles, often 40 to 50 years in duration. The excesses of the 1890’s Gilded Age led to the 1930’s Depression, which realigned our politics along the New Deal. The idea of government providing a base of social cohesion for all appealed to the majority of Americans, so long as that cohesion was predominately Christian and white. During the 1960’s and 70’s, Blacks and Browns and gays clamored for a slice of the Great Society until Nixon’s “silent majority” commandeered the conversation by electing Ronald Reagan in 1980. Ever since, our federal government parrots getting smaller (despite growing bigger), while it delivers fewer services, reduces individual protections, and increases corporate influence under the guise of free enterprise. Gilded Age 2.0.

There will be a shift in our political direction. Whether it occurs in response to outlawed abortions, or negligent climate response, increased economic inequality, or erosion of personal freedoms, I do not know. Whether we can vote ourselves back into a semblance of democracy or the US will actually suffer a full-blown authoritarian regime, I do not know. Whether our discord results in armed conflict or we can find stasis through peaceful resolution, I do not know. What I do know is, given the duration of the current rightward flow, a correction is due; and given the speed at which our government is moving contrary to the will of a majority of citizens, that reckoning may be soon.

Along with new politics will come a new narrative. The collective story of who we are and what we believe. I don’t subscribe to either of the current narratives because “diversity” is not a sufficient rallying call to bring people together; and “MAGA” is an illusion built upon fear.

I propose a new narrative, one that’s both aspirational and encompassing. Although its roots come from two experiences in an unlikely place: Haiti.

I travelled to Haiti often after the 2010 earthquake, designed and supervised construction of two buildings there, and lived in a mission run by evangelical Christians. Toward the end of my time, they asked me to preach at their Sunday service. I asked, “Why do you invite me, when you don’t agree with much about my life?” The response: “Because when we needed help, you came.”

A less-rosy corollary: I never met a Haitian who described himself as gay. People knew what the term meant. Men had sex with men. Men were nelly and everyone knew it. But no one applied the label ‘gay’ to themselves, nor tacked it on anyone else. People accepted, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” But I witnessed how it hindered folks. The men on the DL. The women they married for cover.

The first vignette betrays the arrogance of affluence. People in Haiti know they cannot make it alone, while the United States is so wealthy we imagine that we don’t need others; so confident we actually believe our autonomy myth. The second story illustrates the corrosive power of secrets. When we do not allow people to be themselves, fully and open, everyone is harmed.

Today the United States is so puffed up in our affluence (more illusion than reality, but that’s another essay), we feel free to divide and divide and divide without realizing that every time we cordon off ourselves, we forfeit allies, we forfeit support, we forfeit each other.

The wealthier a nation is—in every measure—the better it can embrace a full array of opinion and choice; the less it need to dwell in want or fear. It is time for us to reframe our divisions as a sign of our strength. Embrace that our affluence liberates us to be open and inclusive. Flip the dueling narratives of fear and division on their head. Acknowledge that social change is not moral decline. Accept each person’s way of being as valid, deserving respect.

My new narrative: The United States is so bountiful, and so secure, that we welcome every person to be their true selves.

Quixotic? Perhaps. Idealistic? Sure. Achievable? I believe so.

The key to the new narrative’s success: mutual respect. So let’s step down from the lofty to the mundane and explore how mutual respect might actually work. Consider the pronoun conundrum that we encounter daily in left-leaning cities, a ‘problem’ that barely deserves to register on any list of the major challenges we face, yet is an everyday irritation—sometimes confrontation—that wears us down. Some people want to be referred to as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she.’ It’s a construction that’s never escaped my mouth with any grace. But I figure, if it’s important to this person to claim a unique identity, I can try. That is me showing respect. But when I fail to properly execute a change in language that’s existed for thousands of years, don’t get all militant: cut me some slack. Understand that you are asking others to make special accommodation for your preferences; asking us to make a conscious change to something which has been reflexive for centuries. Realize that my mistake is not personal, or even a microaggression. It’s simply human. Respect me in return.

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1776: All Over Again

1969 Broadway Production starring William Daniels as John Adams and Howard DaSilva as Ben Franklin

My God, Paul, how many times have you seen this show? The thought synapsed through my brain as the lights dimmed on a covey of actors in revolutionary era brocade and buckles belting, “For God Sake, John, Sit Down!”

My quick recall: five times.

The original Broadway production, in 1969, when this teenage theater maven-in-the-making snagged a pair of half price matinee TKTS. The MIT Theater Guild’s college production circa 1975. A summer stock version with my own youngsters about twenty years ago: an easy spoonful of American History. The New Rep’s non-traditional-cast version four years ago, in which Ben Franklin was a woman, Martha Jefferson a male, and…whatever. Now, Diane Paulus and ART’s no-male casting of this rather hoary chestnut.

John Dickinson to John Adams:

You, sir, are merely an a-gi-ta-tor, disturbing the peace, creating disorder,

endangering the public welfare—and for what?

Your petty little personal complaints.

2002 Broadway Revival – still all men

I don’t especially like 1776. It’s a problem musical, with a long, long dialogue interlude taking up most of the first act, songs that feel glommed onto the action, and an ending that—well—we all know how it ends. Yet, 1776 has its moments. For me, “Till Then,” the love ballad between John and Abigail Adams, and “Momma Look Sharp,” a haunting psalm on war’s futility, are remarkable, if unconventional show tunes.

Caesar Rodney:

Stop it! Stop it! This is Congress. Stop it, I say! The enemy is out there!

Dickinson:

No, Mr. Rodney, the enemy is here!

New Rep Gender/Race blind cast

Perhaps the fifth time is the charm as I found Ms. Paulus’ vision of 1776 my favorite, by far. She made one big move—no one in the cast presents as male—and then held the good restraint to let that speak for itself. I could not identify one place where she changed the script or a lyric, and yet knowing that the actors wouldn’t have been “Founding Father” material in the day, gave many of the lines enhanced relevance.

Franklin:

Why, Mr. Dickinson, I’m surprised at you!

You should know that rebellion is always legal in the first person—such as “our” rebellion.

It is only in the third person—“their” rebellion—that it is illegal.

ART 2022: Female/non-binary cast

1776 was a hit in its day, winning Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book. Yet, I never really appreciated the book until this recent production. Could history so clever be accurate? I checked the script out of the library and read it aloud. Wonderful! Including an Afterward that clarifies exactly what is specifically true and what historical facts have been shaped for dramatic purposes. By popular theater standards, the history is very good.

John Adams to Abigail:

I have always been dissatisfied, I know that

 But lately I find I reek of discontentment!

It fills my throat and floods my brain, and sometimes—

sometimes I fear that there is no longer a dream,

but only the discontentment.

ART 2022

Which got me thinking about 1776 and 1969 and 2022. Three periods of tremendous social unrest. How accurately, the words, the emotions, and the injustices of one time find relevance in another, and another.

John Adams:

Mark me, Franklin, if we give in on this issue (abolishing slavery),

posterity will never forgive us.

Franklin:

That’s probably true. But we won’t hear a thing. John, we’ll be long gone.

And besides, what will posterity think we were—demigods?

We’re men—no more, no less—trying to get a nation started against greater odds

than a more generous God would have allowed.

John, first things first! Independence! America!

For if we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?

ART 2022: Mamma Look Sharp. The only time the cast presents as female, in this tragic tale of a lost son

1776 at the ART in Cambridge only plays through July 24. See it if you can; it’s terrific. But don’t fret if you cannot. The show is on to Broadway, and likely a national tour. Coming soon to a city near you.

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I Dreamed a Dream

Sunday morning, July 3. Walking to the gym through a deserted city. Seventy degrees. Overcast. Listless. I love summer in the city. The Whole Foods crowd has Tesla’d off to their beaches and mountains. Leaving behind quiet stillness, a smattering of foreign graduate students, and street people. Plus me, decked out in shorts and a straw hat and whatever adjectives apply to a guy who could be gone, but rejects the hassle required.

I cross empty Mass Ave at Porter Square. Before I reach the far curb I hear music. Loud music. Stirring music. “I Dreamed a Dream.” The original, Les Miserables soundtrack. When I reach the sidewalk I pause and seek out the source. Tucked in the weird little court near the subway station, shaded by a few trees, behind the Blue Bikes kiosk, sits a man. A burly guy with a tight white beard and ample, shapeless body. Barriered by a rolling suitcase and an assortment of shopping bags. I cannot see the boombox source of song. But it sure is loud. I cannot hear the man’s singular voice. But he sure is singing along. With enthusiasm.

I stand, transfixed by the anthem. Not of nationhood, on this Independence Day weekend. Rather of personhood. I dreamed a dream in times gone by… What do these lyrics mean to this middle-aged, likely homeless, man? When hope was high and life worth living… His outward appearance is not high, his life questionably worthy by most measure. I dreamed that love would never die… Could I imagine the warmth of love in his life? I dreamed that God would be forgiving… What had he ever done to deserve winding up here, by himself, on a gorgeous summer day, surrounded by a moat of motley possessions?

The guy was into it. Head bobbin’, mouth jammin.’ I could not help but smile. The tigers came at night, they teared his hope apart, they turned his dreams to shame. But here he was, still alive, still making music. Dashed hopes be damned.

The singer behind the Blue Bikes Kiosk

I am civil to street people. I greet them, acknowledge them. I meet their gaze. But this guy does not see me. He is lost in a world far, far from Porter Square, someplace where he is vibrant and whole and full of promise once again. I want to believe that, in this moment, he is happy. For on such a fine summer day, don’t we all deserve to be happy? For the fact that his soulful singing reveals a humanity deeper, richer, than I’d ever granted a street person. A humanity that commands me to stop. To listen. To appreciate. To pray that whatever hope this man has lost, he will find once again.

The gym crowd on a sultry summer morning is scant as the citizens outdoors, weighted towards those who cannot afford to be elsewhere. Still, I have a great workout, and gift myself two sessions on the massage bed. I leave, showered, and fresh. Jay-walk across Mass Ave. But before I turn the corner at Upland Road I hear it again: more music. I stop. Cross back. There he is, still. Singing loud and proud. A song I do not know, Unreachable something. Not The Man of La Mancha unreachable. Something else. Fresher. Hipper. I smile and turn away. Hopeful that my fellow summer dweller finds his happy place in his song.

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This Independence Day: Free the Territories

It’s not often that Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and I land on the same side of an issue. When it happens, the subject in question must occupy that obscure tangent where progressive ideology and libertarian thinking meet. Points of agreement always worth exploring.

Back in 2018 I wrote a series of essays under the banner ‘A Soft Landing’ which posited ways in which we might remedy the challenges facing our nation short of violent revolution. In the four years since, none of my suggestions have taken hold, yet we have witnessed an insurrection and appear closer to active revolution than any moment in my lifetime. A Soft Landing outlined, first and foremost, the need for a new Constitution. One sticking point that refurbished document should address is clarification about how federal, state, and local governmental entities overlap. A second should spell out not only how states can join our Union, but also how they can secede.

For some three million Americans, my discussion of these topics fell completely short: citizens who reside in the territories.

In a recent Supreme Court decision, United States vs. Jose Luis Vaello Madero, the Court upheld lower court opinions that SSI benefits obtained in one state (New York) are not transferrable when a citizen moves to Puerto Rico, (which does not offer SSI) because the entire tax structure of a territory—both in terms of taxes paid and benefits received—is distinct from the states.

Justice Gorsuch’s concurring opinion opened with a bang-on statement (link, page 24). One with which I fully agree:

“A century ago in the Insular Cases, this Court held that the federal government could rule Puerto Rico and other Territories largely without regard to the Constitution. It is past time to acknowledge the gravity of this error and admit what we know to be true: The Insular Cases have no foundation in the Constitution and rest instead on racial stereotypes. They deserve no place in our law.”

In other words, there is no place in our nation for the colonial euphemism called a ‘territory.’

So what do we do with the more than three million people who live in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, and a scattering of atolls? The answer is as simple to determine as it is difficult to implement: fish, or cut bait. The ‘territories’ should be given the opportunity to become independent states: individually; or collectively (as their populations dictate); or even ‘glum-on’ to other states.

Logical configurations can be assembled. I can envision Puerto Rico going it alone, or taking the US Virgin Islands under its wing. I can also imagine the Pacific territories coming together, or hooking up with Hawaii.

If a majority of citizens in a territory vote to become a state, we should invest in them such that they achieve a standard of living comparable to at least the poorest states (at present Puerto Rico’s median annual income is only 80% of our poorest state: Mississippi). The US should cut loose territories that do not vote to join the Union, and let them form their own nation. We should provide an overdue financial boost for all the abuse we’ve inflicted, but if they don’t want to be all-in, we should let them go.

A true democracy has no place for ‘territories.’ On that, Justice Gorsuch and I agree.

Oh, and that also means: make Washington DC a state or fuse it back into Maryland.

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Summer Solstice Celebration of Bicycles!

“The bicycle is a curious vehicle. Its passenger is its engine.”

John Howard, Olympic cyclist, set a speed record of 152.2 mph in 1985

It’s the longest day of the year up here beyond 42 degrees north. The weather is mild, the winds are calm. Perfect weather to get out and take a ride.

“Cyclists see considerably more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will kill most ill this flesh is heir to.

Dr. K.K. Doty, 19th century physician

Jill Lepore is that rare and cherished writer who can make anything interesting. Her New Yorker articles—on any topic—are insightful and expanding. Imagine my thrill encountering her personal essay in the May 30, 2022 issue: “Easy Rider: Life on a Bike.” I plunged right into a favorite writer’s thoughts on a favorite subject.

“The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

Iris Murdoch, Author

By New Yorker standards, “Easy Rider” is a puff piece; appropriate for this time of year and this lighthearted subject.

“To ride a bike, is to come as close to flying by your own power as humans ever will. No part of you touches the ground. You ride on air.”

Jody Rosen, Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle

I firmly believe that everyone loves bicycles, except automobile drivers forced to share the road.

“Learn to ride a bicycle. You will not regret it: if you live.

Mark Twain

Ms. Lepore addresses the intractable battle between big, heavy, fast machines and delicate, vulnerable, bicycles. She also centers the evolution and varying popularity of bicycling in historical context.

“The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything in the world.

Susan B. Anthony

Still, “Easy Rider” devotes most of its energy to promoting the pure satisfaction of pedaling through life.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills, and coast down them.

Ernest Hemingway

Ms. Lepore weaves personal tales of every bicycle she’s ever owned with a curated, rather than encyclopedic, history of traveling on two wheels. She divvies cyclists up into three specific categories: cowboys, teenagers, and Old Woman. From age four, Ms. Lepore has pedaled firm in the ‘Old Woman’ category. Yet, despite her caution, she seems to have too many mishaps.

“Toleration is the greatest gift of the mind; it requires the same effort of the brain that it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle.”

Helen Keller

I fall square into ‘Cowboy,’ a category I consider confident rather than reckless. I make myself visible. If the road is narrow, I simply occupy it fully and make the honking cursers behind me wait for safe passing. It takes nerves, but as I’ve logged over 100,000 miles with only two accidents, (albeit each of them major), I have a better track record than the Old Woman. Then again, she is such the better writer.

“I relax by taking my bicycle apart and putting it back together again.

Michelle Pfeiffer

There are many things I’ll never do on my bicycle. I’ll never exceed 40 miles per hour (39 was my personal best, on a straight downhill on U.S. 90 outside of Pecos, Texas). I will never true a wheel or replace a crankshaft (my mechanical ability has been zilch since day one). I will never win a race – or even enter one.

“Those who wish to control their own lives and move beyond existence as mere clients and consumers — those people ride a bike.”

Wolfgang Sachs, Author

There are some things I used to do on a bicycle that I don’t much now. I never run a stop sign or a red light, at least not before a full-on pause. I steer clear of gravel and dirt and mud paths. I hardly ever ride at night anymore.

“Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair.

H.G. Wells

But the most important thing about riding a bike I still do, almost every day. Get out on the road and get where I need to go, under my own power, at my own speed, in my own time. It seems inefficient until you realize that while I travel, I exercise my body, and ease my mind. That’s a heck of a lot of useful multi-tasking.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.

Albert Einstein

There are more than twice as many bicycles than cars on the planet. I know you have access to one.

“Bicycling is a big part of the future. It has to be. There’s something wrong about a society that drives a car to workout at the gym.

Bill Nye, the Science Guy

So on this longest day of the year, consider getting out of your car and onto a bike. Take a ride somewhere special, or nowhere at all. The world will be so much more beautiful. Your place in it will feel so fine.

“You are one ride away from a good mood.

Sara Bentley, competitive cyclist

Illustration courtesy of Cari Vander Yacht, The New Yorker, May 30, 2022

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Unsolicited Fatherly Advice

In time for Father’s Day, I read this vignette by Indrani Sen, Culture Editor for The New York Times. A thirteen-year-old girl, Sasha, asked her parents for permission to skip school. Her father, Matt Gross replied, “Not allowed. Nope!” and then offered this unsolicited advice:

“Next time you want to skip school, don’t tell your parents. Just go. Browse vintage stores, eat your favorite snack, lie on your back in Prospect Park, and stare at the clouds. Isn’t that the point of skipping school, after all? To sneak around, to steal time and space back from the arbitrary system that enfolds you? To hell with permission! That’s being a teenager—carving out a private life for yourself under the noses of the authority figures who surround you.”

I like to think I don’t give unsolicited advice. But of course, I do. We all do. Because…well…our advice is invaluable—or so we think. Besides, giving it away is as satisfying as it is easy. I admire Matt’s unsolicited advice to his daughter because it resonates with my own spirit of parenting. It also triggered an internal analysis: what advice did I bestowed upon my own children; how did it lodge in their heads?

A father with an infant at the park, mid-day, mid-week, in 1989: it was a rare thing. Yet there I was, primary parent for our wee daughter, target of unending amounts of unsolicited advice. Every mother in the playground felt obligated (Compelled? Entitled?) to correct everything I did. “She’s too cold.” “She’s too hot.” “She’s hungry.” “She’s wet.” When my daughter was calm or cooing, the stream of unsolicited advice was steady. The moment she fussed, it became a torrent.

Over time, I grew accustomed to ignoring the advice (and the women who offered it). Though occasionally, I wound up and pitched back. Once, when my daughter was maybe two, shooting head first down the grand slide at Robbins Park in Arlington, an apoplectic mother ran up and shouted, “She’s going to get hurt!” Abby flew off the end of the slide, I scooped her into my arms, raised the exuberant critter to my face, and bussed her quivering cheek. Then I grinned at the meddler, and simply replied, “Not this time.”

My theory of parenting is simple. My job is to give my children enough rope to explore the world without hanging themselves. This attitude was considered too, too lax when they were infants and toddlers, yet far too restrictive for teenagers. By that time, I was chagrinned to learn that I had evolved from one of the loosest parents to one of the strictest. Even when they were in high school, I remained a stickler for sharing our days over nightly family dinners; for staying up until curfew to ensure they arrived home safe.

Parenting teenagers was my favorite phase of the job. I enjoyed the mental game of trying to figure out these emerging creatures much more than the physicality of raising toddlers or even the best-friendliness of their wonder years. As for infants, I’ve never met an honest woman who did not love that time best, nor an honest man who enjoyed that time at all.

I foisted two tidbits of conscious, unsolicited advice on my children. I’m quite certain that they remember one piece of dad wisdom to this day, and equally sure they’ve tried to forget the other.

At age twelve or so, I took aside my daughter; the following year my son. I asked them if they had any questions about babies, sex, that sort of thing. Short conversations, as each in turn, turned red and withdrew. Then I made my moral appeal. “I want you to do this one thing. Choose the first person you have sex with carefully. You are going to remember that person, and that experience for the rest of your life. Try to make it good.” The sum total of my unsolicited advice about sex.

The advice know they remember was this: “Break a law—every day.” I trusted my children to understand my intent. Not to become murderers or bank robbers, or consciously harm others. Rather, don’t be a cog in the system, obedient to the point of denying your individual spirit. Understand the rules of smooth society, but don’t be a slave to them.

My children are in the thirties now. Their contributions to our world are more impressive than their rap sheets. Impressive too, are their independent natures. They understood my cryptic advice and, just maybe for once, listened to their old man.

A short time after Matt Gross gave his daughter unsolicited advice on how to skip school; she did. Without prior approval. Way to go Sasha! Way to go Matt!

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Words to Live By…courtesy of Inventing Anna

My new favorite slogan for life comes from a deep binge of Netflix’ Inventing Anna. I watched the seven-hour dive into the world of New York City glamour, crime, and con-artistry back in March, when it topped so many must-view lists. One solitary line of moral virtue percolates within me ever since.

For the maybe six people in this country unfamiliar with this infectious Shonda Rhimes creation, a brief overview. Inventing Anna is the story of a self-designated German heiress with the fictious name Anna Delvey who, in actual fact, lived an extravagant life in New York City at other people’s expense for way too long, while she came ‘this close’ to pulling in $40 million in venture capital to create an illusory palace of the arts. Her only collateral was hutzpah, coupled with a teeter-totter of bitchiness and charm. The series is based on an article by journalist Jessica Pressler.

Inventing Anna is fabulous television, whiplashing between known fact, perceived fact, and blatant lie. Everyone is cruel and manipulative; everyone behaves as if they’re rich or would instantly kill to be so; everyone is out for number one. In short, Inventing Anna holds a precise mirror to the world we inhabit. Even as we love to hate Anna Delvey, we know that if only we could be more like her, we’d be further along in life.

So where, one must ask, within this tale of glittery deceit, is there a slogan for living for a crumpled Cambridge curmudgeon?

Enter my favorite character: Kacy Duke, physical trainer to the rich, portrayed by actor Laverne Cox. I spent the first few episodes trying to decide whether Kacy was a biological female, a trans, a drag queen, or simply such a formidable force of nature she could be whatever she chose, whenever she chose. Kacy is trainer to Anna and Anna’s adoring entourage. At one point, stressing and straining to a blaring beat within the skyline views of Kacy’s penthouse studio, one of the wealthy whiners complains to the point of belittlement, the hoi-polloi stuck to the pavement below. With the same sharp tongue used to sergeant skinny white girls into more and faster reps, Kacy commands, “When life gives you the opportunity to choose how to be: be kind.”

A mere moment of gentle wisdom tucked seven hours of grueling self-centeredness. But what a keeper! The simple motto: “Be kind” is all over the place these days. But to acknowledge whatever privilege you have, claim your agency, and then choose to be kind. That is a dagger in any narcissist’s chest. That is humanity in full.

In the end, the mirror that Inventing Anna shines on our culture, cracks. Anna Sorokin (her real name) goes to jail. The plot turn reminds me of Martha Stewart: able to get ahead on feminine wiles for a good long time, though in the end, the boys in the club get away with the big stuff while women who aim too high go to the clink for lesser crimes. For even as Martha—and today, Anna—serve their time, the vast majority of power liars, con artists, and shyster goons are still loose, making our world a morally corrupt and vulgar place.

Anna whatever-last-name-she-chose-to-use is a criminal. She embezzled. She cheated. A few people she took in were seriously harmed. But most of the chumps she took advantage of wagged eagerly at her get-rich Ponzi. Anna exemplifies so many values admired by our culture, until her scam ran dry. That’s where our empathy tanks. Damn she who gets caught.

Still, I feel sorry for Anna. And since life has given me the opportunity to choose how to be: in regards to Anna Sorokin, I choose to be kind.

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Trigger Warning: My Typing Finger is Itchy

Memorial Day Field of Flags on Boston Common

I have been to Jamestown. I have been to Plymouth Rock.

I have been to Lexington and Concord. I have been to Independence Hall. I have been to Yorktown.

I have been to Fort Sumter. I have been to Gettysburg. I have been to Appomattox.

I have been to Ellis Island. I have been to the Statue of Liberty. I have been to the Golden Gate.

I have been to Fort McHenry, inspiration for the Star-Spangled Banner. I have been to purple mountain’s majesty and amber waves of grain.

I have been from California to the New York Islands, from the redwood forests to the Gulf stream waters.

I have been way down upon the Suwanee River. I have stood on a corner in Winslow Arizona. I have been somewhere in the Black Mountain Hills of Dakota. I have seen the Berkshires dreamlike on account of that frosting. I have sent Greetings from Asbury Park.

I have been to Yosemite. I have been to Yellowstone. I have been to the Grand Canyon. I have been to Big Bend. I have been to the Everglades. I have been to Bar Harbor.

I have been to Pearl Harbor.

I have been to Tammany Hall. I have been to Carnegie Hall.

I have been to Wounded Knee. I have been to Mohegan Sun.

I have been to Black Wall Street in Durham, North Carolina. I have been to wealthy Wall Street in New York, New York.

I have been to Wall Drug. I have been to Wal-Mart.

I have been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago; the Kimbell and the Getty and the Broad; Crystal Bridges and Fallingwater.

I have been to the Museum of Magic, the Nutcracker Museum, the Russian Doll Museum. I have been to the Museum of Bad Art.

I have been to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Horseshoe Hall of Fame, and the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

I have been to every Presidential library.

I have been to the Utopian remnants of Hancock, Massachusetts and Oneida, New York; to Battle Creek, Michigan; and New Harmony, Indiana.

I have been to the company towns of Corning and Homestead; Hershey and Pullman.

I have been to Topeka, where separate was deemed unequal. I have been to Little Rock. I have been to Meridian.

I have been to Birmingham. I have been to Selma.

I have been to Watts. I have been to Newark. I have been to Detroit.

I have been to Los Angeles. I have been to Ferguson. I have been to Minneapolis.

I have been to migrant-festered fields in California. I have been to autonomously-trackered fields in Kansas. I have been to organic fields in Vermont.

I have been to copper mines. I have been to gypsum mines. I have been to strip mines.

I have been to millwork factories. I have been to candy factories. I have been to baseball bat factories. I have been to truck factories.

I have been to Fort Dix and Fort Bragg and Fort Pendleton.

I have been aboard the USS Constitution. I have been in an underground missile silo.

I have pedaled I-94. I have pedaled US 15. I have pedaled California 101.

I have stared, breathless, at the destruction of 9/11.

I have been to the Granary Burial Ground. I have been to Mount Auburn Cemetery. I have been to Bonaventure Cemetery. I have been to Arlington National Cemetery.

I have been to the Book Depository at Dallas. I have been to the tower at the University of Texas.

I have been to Littleton and Aurora. I have been to Las Vegas. I have been to Orlando. I have been to El Paso. I have been to Sandy Hook. I have been to Buffalo.

I have been to Uvalde.

On this Memorial Day, I am a well-travelled American, in despair for our nation.

United States citizens comprise 5% of the humans on this planet. Yet we lock up 20% of the world’s prisoners; we own a third of all private guns. More guns than people. Many more guns than people. Guns we use them to shoot ourselves, and our children. The correlation between access to guns and gun violence, whether measured among nations, among US states, within US localities; is clear direct, and indisputable. Yet, we do nothing.

I have a deep love for the founding principles of our nation. I am deeply ashamed of the nation we have become.

We have squandered the opportunity of equity for all. We vote into office politicians who pedal fear and division, whether through jingoistic heart-thumping or slivering us into narrow identities. It is so much easier to call out difference than celebrate commonality; to tear down rather than build up; to divide rather than unite.

We know what we have to do. We have to rededicate our shared ideals over individual pursuit. We have to take care of each other. All of us, caring for all of us.

One first step is to deny eighteen-year-old troubled boys’ access to AK-15’s. But that is mere preamble to creating a world where eighteen-year-old boys feel valued and loved within their community, so they don’t even contemplate rogue destruction.

We also have to love our children enough to protect them from danger. Which means we have to love them more than we love guns. We have to love them more than the profits that guns derive.

On this day of national mourning and remembrance, I have no confidence that we’ll do what needs to be done. What progress do we have to show in the decade since twenty innocent children were gunned down at Sandy Hook? We have Uvalde.

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