Individual Responsibility / Societal Responsibility

There’s a passing quote in Rachel Aviv’s recent article “The Edge of Identity” (The New Yorker April 2, 2018) that stopped me short.

In 2008, Hannah Upp, a vivacious, engaging woman, experienced a dissociative fugue. Fugue is the medical/psychological term for an extended, complete identity lapse. Hannah ‘disappeared’ in New York City. She triggered newspaper headlines and a widespread search, her image popped up on several retail video cameras around the city, and she was finally ‘discovered,’ twenty days later, floating in New York Harbor.

Four years later, in Kensington, Maryland, Hannah ‘disappeared’ again. Another search. This time she was found in a creek.

After Hannah’s second fugue, some wondered if perhaps Hannah might benefit from wearing a chip implant; the Maryland police suggested an ankle bracelet similar to the ones designed for people under house arrest. Hannah did not want anything like that and her mother, Barbara, honored her decision. “She’s living it, and she needed to have the freedom to make choices.”


That’s the quote that gave me pause. Really? A young woman who has endured two disappearances, suffered personal danger, and caused all sorts of heartache among family, friends, and emergency personnel, can decide against identifying technology that could assist in another fugue simply because she needs the freedom to make choices? If Hannah can choose not to take precautions against another fugue, do we—society—have a responsibility to intervene and require her to do so? If she refuses reasonable safeguards against a foreseeable disaster, are we responsible to sound the alarm and search for Hannah the next time she goes astray?

Which, of course, she does.

Hannah’s third fugue occurs on St. Thomas, just after Hurricane Irma hit in 2017. Her third search includes three Coast Guard helicopters, several boats, and extensive human resources, conducted amidst the chaos of disaster relief. Her official search gets called off only as Hurricane Maria approaches. But her mother Barbara moves to Saint Thomas indefinitely and continues to look for a daughter who has never been found.

Where do we draw the line between people who blamelessly deserve societal support, and those who contribute to their own downfall?

Surely we should provide support for children with Type I diabetes. How about adults with Type II diabetes exacerbated by poor diet?

We should rescue scientific expeditions on Mount Everest that encounter extreme conditions, but should we rescue clueless day hikers who wander beyond their abilities?

How about my friend Bob, who endured a brain tumor that left his balance precarious? He’s fallen several times in his apartment, even blacked out, yet he refuses to wear an emergency call button. When he inevitably falls again, are we compelled to expend unlimited resources to his resuscitation, or are we allowed to hold back, since he shuns reasonable precautions?


We humans are expert at destructive habits. What is our responsibility to treat addicts who relapse after multiple rehabs? Heavy smokers? Chronic gamblers? The dividing line is rarely clear. Most misery istriggered by a combination of personal action and cultural conditions. Folks with Type II diabetes are not 100% responsible for their condition; they may be unaware of better dietary choices, and healthier food is both more expensive and more difficult to access.

Americans hold individual freedom paramount. We may restrict individuals for the stated objective of protecting others (we require parolees wear an identity bracelet), yet we don’t demand that individuals protect themselves (Hannah was not required to wear one). We establish certain obligations that serve everyone’s health and safety (drivers license and insurance to drive a car), yet are lax on others (user ID on hand guns). Our fixation on so-called individual rights over societal responsibility is so strident as to become self-centered, borderline narcissistic.

Hannah’s story is tragic; her condition arbitrary as it is bizarre. The article focuses on her deep empathy and caring. Yet it doesn’t even mention the obvious flip side. By refusing to do whatever she could to minimize the impact of her fugues, Hannah brought all manner of distress on others. We will never know, if Hannah had agreed to technical monitoring, whether it would have helped us find her when she went wandering on St. Thomas. We only know that her third fugue was predictable, that she did nothing to mitigate it, and that society condoned her decision.


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The Curious Case of the Benefits Bestowed by Failed Technology

The chasm between technology’s glittering promise to liberate humans from drudgery and the more commonplace reality of technology rendering us incompetent in our objectives through opaque algorithms or mis-struck keystrokes, is simply too commonplace to deem blog-worthy. We all feel humbled, inconvenienced, misunderstood, and annoyed by technology every day. Some days, we feel it all day. So imagine my surprise—joy is not too great a sentiment—when a recent experience in failed technology blossomed into personal good fortune.

I belong to that long gone epoch of humanity who find satisfaction and security in paper. I print out theater tickets, bicycle maps, and airline boarding passes. I understand, in theory, that these scraps are redundant. My phone preserves all necessary e-documents, and despite my care in recycling, the paper consumed drains our natural resources. Yet I remain attached to the superfluous ‘stuff’ of printed forms.

Recently, upon a visit to Atlanta, I mentioned to my beloved daughter that I was compelled to check in for my return flight and obtain an e-ticket, since my AirBNB did not contain a hard copy printer. Being young, and lacking my affinity to parchment, she laughed that I ever printed such things. Twenty-three hours before flight, I checked in online and followed all prescribed steps until a bright red box proclaimed, ‘Check-in Complete’. Then I let my phone go to sleep.

In the meandering queue at TSA ATL, I awoke my phone to retrieve my electronic boarding pass. Alas: several emails, myriad instructions, yet no actual boarding pass. I shared said phone screen with the TSA officer who, nice as could be, directed me to the Delta ticket counter for the express purpose of obtaining a paper boarding pass. A second gracious agent guided me out of the security area. Most everyone knows that Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is the busiest airport in the world; many fewer acknowledge it to also be the friendliest.

Cinisia, a Delta agent with a big smile, even bigger hair and bewilderment that matched my own, was incredulous that my e-boarding pass shot deep into cyberspace without successfully landing in my phone. She printed me a reliable paper copy, trustworthy as currency, beyond its weight’s worth in gold. Then she added, “The flights to Boston are all delayed; severe weather up that way. I’m going to register you on standby for an earlier flight that’s been delayed.” She handed me my pass and added, “Proceed with all haste to Gate A6 by four o’clock. I am resolute that will welcome you aboard.” Her exact words perhaps mirrored a more contemporary jive, but her meaning was clear.

I relished the joy of a second return trip through the TSA Security maze—not. Yet my snail’s crawl was peppered with an enjoyable encounter with another lovely officer, this one monitoring the bins. “Have you got any food in your backpack?” “Just a Power Bar.” “Only one? We’ll let that slide.” “You can have it if you’re hungry.” “No thanks, I’ve got a salad waiting for me.” “You eat better than I do.” Officer Jacinta smiled and waved me through. I arrived at Gate A6 even as my deadline loomed. The efficient Delta team directed me to one of the few remaining seats on the delayed flight, held in my name. All hail Cinisia! She reserved for me a window seat of my own.

Our amply crowded plane grumbled away from the gate and loitered on the ground while the captain explained the intricacies of Air Traffic Control flight allotments. We sat; buckled into our metal tube baking on the sunny tarmac, warm as fresh bread, stinky as aged Stilton. Shared distress bonds the common folk in economy class. Each shared his personal tale of woe and delay. Except me, who had suffered no delay he could heartily relay. All found comfort in cursing circumstance beyond control. Except me, who was running ahead of schedule and is too well-bred to gloat.

We took off in a mighty tail wind. I nestled into Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, an author of infectious language. Boston came fast upon us, before poor Tom, hindered by the eighteenth century limitations of muddy roads and wobbly carriages, had reached even halfway to Brighton. Our weary band of travellers descended through sunbeams slanting against candy cotton clouds. Light refracted in fantastic colors until it gave way to a sordid, solid grey mass beneath. High winds, scattered showers, nature’s cruelty spit upon New England’s drab spring. What horrific sins these Puritans must have committed to deserve such fury. The pilot guides our fuselage out of aerial danger. The assembled applauded the captain’s tricky landing; relieved all, to finally arrive.

Instantly, everyone fingered their phones, texted their loved ones. They were all running late, but at least they were safe. Expectations and plans got jimmied accordingly. I sat alone in my contentment, having arrived at my destination an hour early; thanks to the necessity of a boarding pass printed upon paper.

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The Prodigal Son

It’s been eight years since I attended a Sunday mass, with my daughter Abby during junior year aboard in Paris. She suggested that we go to mass at Notre Dame, more for the pageant than the message. Still, I was wary.

I am both suspicious and envious of cafeteria Catholics: folks who can pick and choose aspects of the religion to suit their taste. Strict Catholicism coursed through my youthful marrow. Intoxicating incense, a clean soul, and the righteous warmth of ingesting Christ’s body and blood were permanently affixed to mandated stands against sexuality, abortion, and divorce. As a child, the prohibitions seemed a fair price to pay for a comprehensive and comforting worldview. But once my thinking mind kicked in, and I realized how much Catholicism served power and privilege rather than people, the cost-benefit nose-dived into deficit. It never occurred to me that I might negotiate a selective faith. Once one foundational principal faltered upon another, the whole thing crumbled, and so I left the Church.

For Abby, raised on Unitarian relativism, visiting Notre Dame during mass simply ratcheted up the tourist appeal. I was the one who had to assuage demons.

There we sat, under the buttressed arches, the filtered light from the famous rose window dancing on our shoulders, streams of yellow, green and blue. The opening procession was pageant indeed: a parade of gold vestments, the familiar clank of the thurible; its aromatic smoke wafting up, up, to Gothic heights. I can enjoy this, I thought. It’s just a show.


Until we got to The Gospel: Luke Chapter 15, Verse 11. “A man has two sons…”

There are few stories I dislike more than the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son,’ a disdain rooted in my own experience. I identify with the older son: a guy who steady toils without complaint. His anger at the extraordinary bounty bestowed upon the prodigal’s return seems justified.

But my reaction to ‘The Prodigal Son’ goes deeper. For instead of seeing the parable as a tale of forgiveness, I believe it exalts one of humanity’s least noble traits: to celebrate drama over constancy, to herald the extreme rather than acknowledge the dependable. Why do we gush over the recovered addict but don’t recognize the perseverance of the woman who shuns drugs from the get-go? Why do we applaud the man who loses 50, 100, 200 pounds but never give a passing comment to the guy who’s maintained a healthy weight throughout his life? Why do we consider success all the sweeter when it rises out of a stumble?

A person who overcomes an adversity or addiction demonstrates worthwhile discipline and fortitude. But it is no more admirable than a person who has the discipline, the constancy, to avoid life’s temptations in the first place.

The parable of ‘The Prodigal Son’ elevates human hunger for drama and redemption, when the message that a productive, stable society needs to convey is: we need people who shoulder on. A person who falls and then finds his footing is surely stronger than the person who cannot recover; he is stronger still for changing his course. But let’s not forget, and celebrate, the people who keep on keeping on. They provide the backbone that steadies our course.


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The View from the Nest

Springtime, and we just finished our move back to Cambridge. Jake and I winter in the Blue Hills. We’re not migratory creatures, but we tell our friends we need serious hibernation, clean away from humans. Truth is, we leave just so we can make a splashy return. Fresh Pond folk make such a fuss. If we hung here 365, who would notice?

Last year we nested near the top of a tall tree, far from any trail. I like this year’s spot better. Lower down, less windy, where the trunk splits into a sturdy fork. It took Jake less than a day to form the nest. And we’re just a head turn off the main path. Might as well make viewing easy.

From my perch atop our hatchlings, I peer down the rutted ice. From dawn to dusk, citizens stand and watch, yellow parka sentinels, brilliant against spring’s gritty snow. They press flint black binoculars and cameras to their faces. They contemplate me in solemn awe, point my way and exclaim in hushed voices, “The owls have returned.” Their reverence is ridiculous in this noisy spot, what with the highway close at hand, and a pile driver drilling apartment building foundations only a few hundred feet away. As if city noise disappears the moment they step off the concrete sidewalk and merge with this parcel of curated nature; as if fixing us with their eyeballs and gear all day is not disturbance enough.

Fresh Pond is an easy place to live: no predators, easy prey. But mostly, we love the humans. All except that photographer with the zoom lens so powerful it singes my feathers. He hangs a ring of photos from his tripod; photos of me that he sells to people too rushed to give me any real time. Don’t I deserve a commission? If not currency, at least a rabbit, or a few rodents. I’m thinking of flying over to that lawyer’s office on Concord Avenue. Cambridge is full of lawyers. Surely one will see the justice in my cause.

Calm down Mildred, I tell myself when the photographer ruffles my feathers. That man can’t give you anything you need, and Jake already gives you everything you want. I fix a fierce gaze on the tripod man. I stare at his heart pumping excitement as he snaps close up after close up, clueless to the fact that I can hold still for minutes on end. One image will prove indecipherable from the next.

When I’m certain that his blood pressure’s raging and he’s clicked so many prize images that I’ve singed his soul, I make a finale move. I turn my head, quick, confident, ninety degrees to the west. The crowd gasps. Loud enough to drown out the pounding pile driver. Humans are so easily amused. Little wonder they consider me wise.


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Three Strikes Against Hillbilly Elegy

When I read Mitch Dunier’s Sidewalk I am filled with empathy for black men, often drug users, living on the street. When I read The New Jim Crow, I seethe over the injustice of systematically containing their imprisoned brothers. When I read Evicted, I ache for the poor women struggling to raise their children against all odds. When I read Rachel Aviv’s “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights, “I root for the victims. When I read Hillbilly Elegy, my heart turns cold.

When I absorb, second hand, the consequences of being black or brown, a woman, even an old person, the foundational source of his or her disadvantage is clear to see: skin color, gender, wrinkles. I’ve spent considerable time contemplating why, when I seek complementary sympathy for Appalachian folks, I fail.

First. I find is easier to be empathetic toward someone whose life circumstances are remote from mine. Since I have no perspective from which to judge their disadvantage, I take others’ struggle at face value. However, the more someone seems like me, the less empathy their plight evokes. The characters in Hillbilly Elegy look too much like the people in power—angry white males—and too much like me, to merit special consideration. The fact that these folks fail to create viable lives, whether measured by economic success or personal satisfaction, doesn’t move me because, frankly, blue collar Middletown Ohio is not all that different from blue collar Toms River, New Jersey. J.D. Vance’s family and neighbors are too much like the people I grew up with: loud, labile, and distrustful of anything beyond their circle; quick to damn a changing world, resistant to change with it. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for a narrow, gloomy worldview I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to escape.

Second. Hillbilly Elegy draws parallels between the people of Appalachia and other disenfranchised groups in our nation. However, there’s a big difference between a woman or person of color struggling against a system that oppresses them, and someone who is simply too tribal and fear-driven to act as his own change agent. Suggesting the equivalence piles undeserved credence on Appalachian complaints, and undermines the plight of those whose disadvantages are externally imposed.

Third. What is the author’s responsibility in all of this? We applaud people who rise above the difficulties of their youth, and we don’t expect everyone who moves up to return to his roots. My time in Haiti taught me not think ill of capable, educated Haitians who stay in the US rather than plough their talent back into the Magic Island. Each person gets to determine his own balance of personal opportunity and cultural reinvestment. But there’s something disingenuous about a man who escapes Appalachia, goes to Yale, becomes a West Coast lawyer, and then writes a book about how we’ve failed his people. That’s a level of guilt I refuse to shoulder, from a guy who’s pretty much shirking it himself.


Reading Hillbilly Elergy was like cycling down a long, unmarked, dead end road. These folks don’t have any good way to move forward, and an awful lot of backtracking just to get on the main road. It also brought me to my personal limits of empathy. Not a comfortable place to be. It also signifies another similarity between the titled hillbilly’s and me. We are imperfect human beings, every one of us.





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Tomorrow! Live! On Stage!

Everyone is invited to the first public reading of my new play…

Staged reading of How Will We Live Tomorrow?

7:30 p.m. on Thursday May 3, 2018

at Boston Playwright’s Theatre – 949 Commonwealth Ave – Boston, MA

Admission: FREE!

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Free! Stuff!

Do you know anyone who needs another tote bag? How about a coaster, or a click pen inscribed with an organizational logo, or pretty much any of the stuff that comes in the obligatory goodie bag we all receive at a conference, sometimes even at a luncheon?

A couple of years ago, I began giving the staff handing out these things a polite smile, “No thanks, I don’t need it.” In return I got baffled looks and uniform replies, “But it’s free!”


To quote my philosopher brother, “Free is a very good price.” And when I find something that I can actually use, discounted to the incomparable price of zero, I take what’s offered. Sometimes two. I’ve even been known to sort through the goodie bag, right on the spot, to see if perhaps the lip gloss has SPF 15, in which case I will fish it out and put it in my pocket. But I’m never tempted to take stuff I don’t need. Because even free stuff carries a cost: the societal cost of creation and the personal cost of possession, to carry, store and eventually throw away.


Note that I refer only to things I ‘need’ because, in truth, there is nothing that I want. I long ago realized that my existence resides an idiosyncratic limbo of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem: ‘How am I different from everyone else? Let me count the ways.’

I am a woefully deficient 21st century American, an economic mutant born without the consumption gene so essential to our consumer economy. I appreciate beautiful things, objects that reflect the imagination and skill of the maker. But I have no wish to own them. Macy’s Department Store, Mahoney’s Landscape & Garden, Museum of Fine Arts: all equally enjoyable places to stroll. Never do I see anything in them and think, “I want that.”


Thanks to my housemate, perhaps the most perfect person in the world, our house looks rather nice. His vintage prints, antique breakfronts, upholstered chairs, and silver candlesticks almost obscure the dining room table I scoffed from the curb.

Sidebar on that table: a non-consumer coup. Not only was it free, not only did I save it from the landfill, the timing was perfect. I had just completed renovating the dining room (I may not much like things that move, but I’m fastidious about permanent attachments). I dreaded having to shop for a table. Then I found this grand slab of solid oak, large enough to accommodate twelve, only a block away. Drag it home, Pledge it down, toss a cloth over it, and no one sees the cracked shellac or the ciggie burn in the corner.

Being practically perfect, my housemate is a pretty good consumer, which means he buys a good amount. He’s also a savvy purchaser, with some kind of credit card that yields many benefits. Alas, those benefits have expiration dates, and if he hasn’t claimed enough credit goodies, they offer him free magazines. Which he accepts.

First we got Time, then New York and People; followed by Southern Living, Food and Wine, and The Economist. Lately, Bloomsberg litters our breakfront. I understand the allure of free magazines, but my housemate only reads online. The magazines exist for no one, except maybe me. I used to get back issues of The New Yorker and The Atlantic from the library, now I have a dentist office’ worth of glossies in my own dining room.

The magazines are nice to have around, though when the subscriptions end I will return to my old habit of library journals. One day, when the pile was high and he wasn’t dipping into it, I asked my housemate why he subscribed to them. His answer echoed the voice of every conference staffer barking totes, “Because they’re free.”

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