Reconsidering Righteousness

In Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain writes, “most of us have to be self-righteous before we can be righteous.” This implies that we go through the storm and come into the light. Though I agree that the self-righteous are intolerable, in my experience, the righteous are not all that much better. All too often a righteous person sets himself above another, usually in the service of keeping them oppressed.

I learned this as a Catholic child when I overheard a fresh-scrubbed young priest counsel my mother to stay with a husband who beat her. And as an adult when Evangelical missionaries proclaimed they loved Haiti because it enabled them to do God’s work; as if poor Haitians existed for no reason other than to salve wealthy consciences.

My disdain for righteousness informed my governing principles of life: give no unsolicited advice, offer no uninvited commentary, make no judgment. Try to live by the golden rule, and perhaps that rule will take root in myself and in others.

Recently, however, I’ve been bending these principles. In our increasingly uncivil society, bestowing quiet respect on others is insufficient against the swirling vortex of entitlement and meanness. These days, when people violate the basic fascia of society, I sometimes call them on it.

Before, when a person walking down the middle of the sidewalk glued to their cellphone caused me to stop my bike before I struck them, I stopped cold and when they finally lifted their head, I glared at them in silence. Now, I say, ‘Please watch where you are going.” Or if I’m feeling smart-alecky, “Please pay attention to the world around you.”

Before, when someone’s cellphone went off during yoga class, I heaved a sigh of disruptive meditation and did my best to refocus. Now, after class I remind the person that it’s inconsiderate to bring phones into the studio.

Before, I held back my pedals as one, two, even three motorists turned left after the yellow light had turned red. Now, as they hog the intersection that has turned green for me, I wag my finger in their direction. I don’t proceed—having right-of-way won’t matter much if I’m dead—but I do convey that their violation is noted.

All of these people know, in theory, that they’re supposed to mind where they walk, leave cell phones off during class, and obey traffic signals. Yet each does as they like, in the moment, because our sense of personal entitlement has eclipsed our social norms.

These are minor examples of selfish behavior; yet the foundation of society is mortared by countless small considerations. I even take a risk in calling folks out on them. The fuss and fluster a woman recently made when her cellphone rattled during half-moon illustrated that she know it was wrong. When she continued to make excuses (but no apology) after class, and I told her she should leave her phone outside during class, she shouted at me, “You’re nasty.”

It’s distressing to witness someone who I am 99% certain thrives along the Hillary Clinton / Elizabeth Warren political axis, rip a page right out of Trump’s playbook. Instead of apologizing, acknowledging, or simply taking a cleansing breath (after all, we were in a yoga studio), the woman raised her voice and amplified the stakes through insult. Yet another example of turning the tables to deflect that it was she—not me—who behaved badly.

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, not all of them pretty. Unfeeling, smartass, prig. When those words fly my way they stick to my psyche, prompt self-examination, and often lead to improved behavior. But ‘nasty?’ Never been called that before; and hard to believe it fits.

I don’t really want to be called righteous either; the word is still loaded with overtones of power and privilege. But I don’t want to live in a society where people violate whatever norms they choose, and defend themselves by a loud offense. And so I will continue, calmly, to point out large and small ways in which we disrespect one another. I may get called ‘nasty’ again, or worse. I accept that as a righteous risk.

Advertisements
Posted in Personal | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Tale of Two Taxes

April 15 is a remarkable day. We the People will file over 140 million tax returns and fork over $1.8 trillion dollars to support our government. Almost all of us complain about paying taxes. Almost all of us disagree with how our government spends our money. Pacifists decry defense spending; libertarians denounce funding social programs. Yet, virtually all of us pony up and pay.

At first glance, this enormous collective endeavor might lead a person to think our nation is not so divided as the media—and daily experience—suggests. But closer inspection reveals that even in filing taxes, the United States is a single nation bifurcated into opposite extremes with a shrinking middle.

My tax forms reflect the upper demographic. They include Schedules A, B, C, and E for itemized deductions, dividend income, self-employment, and real estate. I have a wizard accountant who carries forward my capital improvements and depreciation from year to year. He notifies me of quarterly payments due; I am never docked a penalty. As long as I die before he retires, tax day for me will be a breeze.

 

Not so easy for others, as I learned firsthand this spring as a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) volunteer. Taxes are a completely different animal for low-income people, yet it’s important for them to file. If they worked a W-2 job, they will likely get a full refund of all taxes deducted from their paychecks. (44% of all tax filers owe nothing). In addition, they may be entitled to various credits that the Federal government offers working people, especially working people with children. Certain credits for dependents can reduce a tax liability to zero. Others, like the Earned Income Credit, can actually exceed what a person contributed during the year. It’s possible for a family of four in $40,000-$50,000 income range to receive a ‘refund’ of over $5000—much more than they actually paid during the tax year.

I’ve been a VITA volunteer before. After an evening of training I could complete the basic forms that applied to low-income working people, most of whom only needed 1040-EZ. I’m not an accountant, but my math is sharp and the returns were easy. Most took a half an hour to compete. Some less.

 

Seven years later, post Affordable Care Act, post tax reform, in the thick of the gig economy, VITA training takes two full days, the1040-EZ is a form of the past, and even the lowest paid of our workforce require a fistful of paperwork. Some evenings this year I completed only one return. Even the simplest take at least an hour.

Like all volunteer opportunities, preparing tax returns for low-income people was an eye-opening experience. I helped people maximize their refund and in kind, I received insight into another part of our society. People arrived with their stack of W-2’s and 1099’s and ACA coverage forms, their receipts for rent and gasoline and childcare. They laid out their life before me in dollars and cents. I tried to be respectful of this intimacy, even though I did not have to reciprocate. Affluence buys me an accountant and preserves my privacy. Poverty dictates they reveal all to a complete stranger.

Beyond the basic 1040 form, there is little overlap between the sheaves of forms that constitute my tax return and the returns of people who come to VITA. Instead of filing lettered Schedules, they file 8332, 8862, and 8965, for credits based on dependents and penalty exemptions for lack of health insurance. They are baffled when they cannot claim the $1000 deduction for gas while driving for Uber because it is only a number they wrote on the back of an envelope. No one told them to keep receipts. Nor did Uber educate them to pay quarterly taxes and their portion of Social Security. It is excruciating to explain to a man of broken English that he must pay a penalty for failing to comply with a tax he didn’t even know about. A penalty easy for educated people with accountants to avoid.

And so, in taxes as in life, the United States contains two separate societies within its borders. It’s easy for us to complain about the 44% of tax filers who get full refunds, to feel like they are a burden on our backs. But would I rather be one of them? I think not.

Posted in United States | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Alan Drury, Charles Dickens, and the Duality of Good Times and Bad

Sixty years ago Alan Drury published Advise and Consent, perhaps the most famous political potboiler ever written. The novel spent 102 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and inspired Otto Preminger’s 1962 film with its all-star ensemble cast headed by Henry Fonda. I recently watched the film and read selections from the book. The Red-baiting and homosexual suicide, steamy plot engines in 1959, seem a bit dated. Yet if Mr. Drury penned his drama today, he would have no trouble concocting a convincing cocktail of comparable political hyperbole and private scandal. Fabricated border crises, trade wars, nuclear jingoism, and #MeToo revelations can easily compete with any scandals of the grey-suited 50’s. Plot details aside, the tenor, the message of Advice and Consent are spot on today.

A century before Drury, Charles Dickens synthesized the duality of human nature into literature’s most famous opening line. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens summarized that truth in 1859, seventy-five years after the story he tells. It held for Mr. Drury in 1959, and holds for us still today. Eighteenth century London and Paris were wealthy beyond previous imagination; 1950’s America eclipsed that affluence by a wide margin; while most of us in 2019 live far grander still. Yet, each wave of increased comfort and material wealth washes on the shore of increased anxiety and expanding human disparity.

Part of Mr. Drury’s genius comes from assembling a huge array of characters, both inside and out American culture. Politicians scramble within our nation’s web of fragile checks and balances, some for noble purpose, others for private gain, while the outsiders often understand America better than the mice running the treadmill. The French Ambassador quips to the British Ambassador: “I do not know which way this American animal is going to jump, you know? He is scared and he is lazy; it is a fateful combination.” No in-house operative could ever acknowledge our cozy 1950’s superiority, or our arrogance today, as accurately as keen eyes from beyond.

Mr. Drury also writes terrific passages about our moral and political decay; passages equally apt today. “… he had seen America rise and rise and rise, some sort of golden legend to her own people, some sort of impossible fantasy to others to be hated or loved according to their own cupidity, envy, and greed, or lack of it; rise and rise and rise and rise—and then, in the sudden burst of Soviet science … the golden legend crumbled, overnight the fall began, the heart went out of it, a too complacent and uncaring people awoke to find themselves naked with the winds of the world howling around their ears, the impossible merry-go-round slowed down. Now, the reaction was on … a time of worry and confusions and uncertainty.”

I find odd comfort in A Tale of Two Cities and Advice and Consent; the comfort that we have seen this all before, we will see it again, and somehow we will survive. But it is a brittle assurance. A time will come when we won’t survive, when we contort our systems so out of shape that revolution, genocide, apocalypse, even extinction prevail. When we humans turn the best of times into the worst of times.

Posted in Personal | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

First Kiss Girl / First Kiss Boy

I woke this morning to the memories of first kiss; a rather pleasant way to greet the day.

 

My first real kiss arrived unexpectedly in 1971. My family had recently moved to Oklahoma; I was invited to a party with fledging high school friends. When Kristen switched off the living room lights at an opportune moment, the girl next to me—let’s call her Grace—wiggled into my arms and introduced me to the wonder of open lips and wandering tongue. As a newcomer to Native America, I suppressed my inclination to recoil from local customs. I imitated her technique.

I worried that Grace, and others, would intuit my greenhorn status. But Monday gossip whistled along our high school corridors that Shorty Fallon was a good kisser. I breathed relief and thanked god that, as a tuba player born in the bottle-fed 1950’s, I possessed both excellent embouchure and insatiable oral need.

 

Grace and I proved to be an excellent pair of kissers. After all, she played French horn. But the pressures of dating eclipsed our ecstasy. In Oklahoma circa 1971 high school sweethearts often skipped right on into marriage and parenthood. Everyone seemed to dance to that agenda except me, constitutionally thick to unspoken customs. Grace and I crashed and burned before high school’s end with drama worthy of Dallas. I headed East.

My second first kiss occurred two years later, back in Oklahoma, at a holiday party during my first return from college. The crowd was pretty much the same, though we had graduated from Kristen’s mother’s living room to Allen’s basement apartment. Furtive sips of Boone’s Farm had given way to cases of Bud. We shared just enough joints to spawn a cloudy haze. As our night of reverie approached dawn, I stood against a doorframe, silent, my customary dullard response to a second hand high.

 

‘William’ came up to me, round and bleary from a lack of sleep and an excess of everything else. Any introductory words are long forgotten. He moved toward my face. Our lips drew open and closed upon each other. William was a large boy, 250 pounds if an ounce. I fell into his girth. I felt the stubble breaking through his pimply skin. Almost a man.

Our kiss lasted hours, or so it seemed. It certainly lingered past daybreak. One long, wet, hot, beer and dope smooch. Our tongues must have tangled, though what I most recall is the hollow void within his immense cheeks, the support of his solid mass. I have no clue if anyone else saw us, or cared what they saw. We did not pull away until mutually satisfied. “I love you, Shorty.” Words I’d heard from Grace, and the girl after that. Words I had never repeated, and did not repeat now, although coming from William, their meaning was less fraught.

I never kissed William again. He died young. I’ve always felt loved by him, and trust he knew I reciprocated our affection.

For almost twenty years after kissing William, I marched to a life plan: marriage; school; children; career; that didn’t even acknowledge the possibility of guys. I was not unhappy, neither was I content or fulfilled. I kept thinking that striving for what I ought to want would one day deliver satisfaction. It never did.

When the life I constructed imploded, I started kissing boys again. Men now, with guts and sagging chins, exciting despite the weight of gravity. The singular aspect I liked most about being gay was not the rough skin or surplus appendages. It was the spontaneity. In the 1990’s, after HIV was understood and before marriage was possible, gay men’s actions and emotions existed in the moment. Completely. We celebrated fundamental natures that are evolutionarily irrational.

I am grateful to live in a time and place where being gay carries no penalty; I work for a time when that can apply to everyone, everywhere. My preference for kissing boys over girls doesn’t have any repercussions for my life, aside from making it so much more satisfying.

And so when I awake to the memory of my first boy kiss, I simply luxuriate in the delight.

 

 

Posted in Personal | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

If you take everything we know about good television and do the exact opposite, the result is Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Low resolution, cheap sets, slow pacing. Same holds for the recent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, similarly slow moving yet profound. Fred Rogers, champion of children, is a weird guy, to be sure, but he’s impressive as all heck.

The essence of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is: “Love your neighbor and yourself.” This is a single word off the Biblical imperative, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And yet I find the two to be quite different. Love your neighbor ‘as’ yourself implies no doubt – of course you love yourself! Love your neighbor ‘and’ yourself implies that perhaps you do not love yourself. Which, many of us in mid-20th-century America did not.

Self-love in 1968, when Mr. Rogers debuted, was not a sure thing. The tumultuous Sixties represented a ground shift from the conformists Fifties, (when self-love was neither common nor valued, and was perhaps suspicious). Self-esteem grew rampant, at least in the media, throughout the ‘me’ decade of the Seventies; by the time Whitney Houston belted ‘The Greatest Love of All’ in 1985, healthy self-regard teetered on narcissism; and when Mr. Roger’s finally exited PBS in 2001, the man who exalted self-esteem was pilloried for puffing up mediocre, fragile egos.

Anyone in the public eye as long as Fred Rogers is sure to develop detractors, and there’s logic in identifying him as a compass point in our increasingly self-absorbed society. But he’s too easy a scapegoat. As a pre-Mr. Rogers boy who grew up with ten tablespoons of sarcasm for every teaspoon of encouragement, I appreciate how this gentle minister called out America for its mechanized approach to childhood. He often said, “America values children for what they will be.” Mr. Rogers always valued little people for who they are.

If we could all adopt his wisdom and apply it to our own children, our elders, our betters, and our peers, our world would be a much better place.

Posted in United States | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Their Eyes Were Watching God

The longer I live, the less I understand religion. I don’t understand why humans crave order and answers so much that we proclaim as truths what are, at best, idealized fables; why we hate our fellow man and why we kill him in god’s name. Yes, uncertainty is uncomfortable. Power in a form that doesn’t reflect our own is unsettling. Acknowledging that we do not know all, and cannot control all, may appear to diminish us. Actually, it balances us. It places among—not above—the rest of the natural world.

I recently read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book includes this passage, the most succinct argument against traditional ‘god’ I have ever read:

“All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.”

Posted in Personal, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

If You’re Going to Steal our Title, at Least Give Us the Bucks

According to Work + Money Magazine, six of the ten highest paid jobs of 2017 have one thing in common. That’s in addition to the fact that they are male-dominated techie-jobs with elusive descriptions that didn’t exist a generation ago. Take a look at this list, and find the clue:

  • Enterprise Architect: $112,500
  • IT Architect: $105,303
  • Software Architect: $104,754
  • Solutions Architect: $102,678
  • Data Architect: $102,091
  • Systems Architect: $97,873

That’s right, six of the top ten jobs have the word ‘Architect’ in their title. Yet, not one of those jobs is actually… ummmm… an architect: a person who went to architecture school, passed their exams, completed their internship and is registered to call himself, or herself, by that name.

I admit that being an architect is at least 95% cool. It may not be a top 1% profession, like being a movie star or a professional athlete or Beyoncé. But I get a one hundred percent eyebrow lift rate at parties when I tell someone I’m an architect. Paul Simon writes songs about us, Mr. Brady-bunch is one of us, Mr. Ed’s human is one of us. Thanks to Ayn Rand and Frank Lloyd Wright, everyone thinks architects are cool. Do a Goggle image search for ‘Architect’ and see a world of trim white guys with cropped hair and colorful hardhats unrolling luscious drawings before the world. No matter that we actually sit before monitors all day, just like other office dweebs. Even when I divulge the second level fact that I design healthcare facilities, a cool-factor demerit for sure, most people still think what I do is cool. Regardless that it has nothing to do with Enterprise/IT/Software/Data/ System/Solutions.

 

I don’t mind, in principle, that geeks skim my title. But I do note the disparity between the salaries these ‘faux’ architects command compared to what the world pays the real deal. Average pay for an actual architect in 2017, per US News and World Report, is $78,470, 25% less than these guys (almost all guys) who tack ‘architect’ to their name.

In the grand scheme of world problems, people embellishing their title with the word ‘architect’ is minor. But since our wacky world is inclined to pay these guys much more money than the folks who actually ensure our buildings stand tall, perhaps the American Institute of Architects ought to franchise the title it made so desirable. People don’t pay architects all that much. But apparently they can get paid handsomely for calling themselves one.

 

Posted in Personal | Tagged , , | 6 Comments