Ditties from the Info Desk: Seeking the Vaccine

A tall elderly man approaches the desk. Patrician in bearing, not a millimeter lost to the gravity of age.

“I’d like to find out how to get the vaccine.”

“Do you work at the hospital, sir?”

“No, but I’m seventy-five.”

“At this time, the hospital administers vaccines to health-care workers according to the governor’s priorities.”

“But I’d like to get one.”

“I suggest you review the guidelines to find your priority. Perhaps you can contact your physician.”

The gentleman gives me a look I’ve seen before, though usually from immigrants or non-English speakers, folks unfamiliar with American culture. A bafflement, an incomprehension of a world that mistreats him. He opens his mouth. I sense that he wants to protest, to argue, to have his way. But he can’t voice the injustice to me: another aging, albeit less distinguished looking, white guy. Besides, pubic displays of anger are likely not his style. The man turns and leaves. Withholding a polite, ‘thank you” is the extent of visible protest. But I feel his brain spin in disbelief. He is accustomed to being the first in line.

——————–

I staff the information desk at my local hospital a few days a week. The parade of people who enter a hospital provide fascinating glimpses into the vagaries of human experience. I occasionally share vignettes with my readers, stripped of identifying markers, which illustrate and sometimes delight.

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Two Thumps Up: Rich Philanthropist

A Google Search for MacKenzie Scott yields the following headline:

MacKenzie Scott, Philanthropist and ex-wife of Jeff Bezos…

Two years ago, those among the general public who knew MacKenzie Scott (I did not) described her as Jeff Bezos’ wife. Then, in July 2019, she got a whopping $38.5 Billion from Mr. Bezos (4% of Amazon stock) in their divorce and she became famous as his savvy and wealthy ex-wife. During 2020 she gave away over $4 Billion to various charities. So now, the adjective ‘philanthropist’ gets plopped in front of Ms. MacKenzie’s name before the less flattering ‘ex-wife.’ And she’s still got a hefty $30 Billion to burn.

Ms. Scott has so much money, multiplying so fast (investing her divorce settlement in lowly US Treasuries would yield over $3 million a day) she cannot possibly spend it. In giving away an amount inconsequential to her—immense though it be to the rest of us—she buys something no piece of art or real estate can procure: fawning publicity with the noble adjective ‘philanthropist’ tacked in front of her name.

Ms. Scott does not have to give her money away. Neither does Bill Gates. Nor did John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie. But for each of these immensely wealthy people, giving away a proportion of their total wealth purchased them an inspiring legacy. More people know about Andrew Carnegie’s libraries than about the oppression and violence he foisted upon his steelworkers in Homestead, PA.

The United States’ social and economic system is riddled with oddities. We create tremendous wealth, and then distribute it erratically. We measure a person’s worth by the money they acquire, and then further lionize them if they give some away. Take a look at the Home page of The Giving Pledge. Headshots of billionaires, mostly white men, many with youngish wives at their sides. Their contributions may or may not improve the world. Their contributions will absolutely burnish their image.

Every person on this planet acts according to what they perceive to be their best interest. One measure of an individual’s wealth is the lens length of that interest. Poor, homeless, hungry people have a very short-term perspectives: they seek a hot meal and a place to sleep. People one paycheck away from eviction keep their eye on the job. Affluent people worry about their 401K’s and health care coverage. Billionaires worry about their legacy.

My problem with billionaire charity goes beyond whitewashing the actions that acquired wealth. It centers on the more fundamental issue: who gets to decide how we generate and allocate resources.


During my time in Haiti (a nation with the highest per capita ratio of NGO’s to citizens in the world) I witnessed the chaos of well-intentioned charity directed without broad perspective or local initiative. On the two projects I designed and helped construct, we used to joke, “Thank god we don’t have any Clinton-Bush funding,” It was well understood, on the ground in Haiti, that projects with such grandiose funding sources were bureaucratic entanglements, from which little money ever trickled all the way down.

I don’t know the social benefit that The Gates Foundation or Ms. Scott’s donations provide at the point of receipt. What I do know is that our society has ceded to Mr. Gates, Ms. Scott, and their ilk the privilege of shaping how we care for those in need simply because they are rich. Then we bestow upon them the cloak of generosity.

Instead of allowing the fabulously wealthy to create foundations that glorify themselves, we ought to make them pay more taxes, and collectively determine how to use that money to the betterment of humankind.

To be sure, that shift in wealth and responsibility requires drastic change in many attributes of society. It requires that we have a progressive tax structure as a fundamental method of income redistribution. It requires that restructuring not allow assets to flee beyond national boundaries. It requires that we collectively determine a minimum level of health, shelter, nutrition, and social benefit every person is entitled to receive simply for being here. And it requires a responsible, accountable government to provide those services, either directly or through fair contract. In short, it requires that we non-billionaires stop pretending that the rich will take care of the poor, and acknowledge that each of us is responsible for our fellow human beings.

Whew. That would be a lot of work. Especially in a society grown addicted to the notion of individual rights and allergic to collective responsibility. It’s easier to let philanthropic foundations tackle the issues they choose, pretend the super-rich have got the charity thing covered, and then laud their generosity.

Within the space of two years MacKenzie Scott has gone from being tech-wife to savvy divorcee, to icon of female empowerment, to philanthropist. That she landed $38.5 Billion in a divorce is merely an extension of the grotesque amount of money we allow a few people to make. (It’s not for me to monetize the agony of being married to Jeff Bezos, and the guy’s certainly got billions to give.) That Ms. Scott chooses to adorn her name with ‘philanthropist’ for what’s essentially chump change is such an obvious expenditure it’s hardly worth noting. What is interesting to me is that we allow it, we condone it, and we celebrate it.

Thumbs up, MacKenzie, for being rich. Double thumbs up for being a rich philanthropist.

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Top Ten of 2020

2020! 364 days ago, I hoped this ocularly significant year would help the world see things straight. I was so, so wrong. Still, all was not lost. Consider this listicle of experiences that we never even considered, yet 2020 delivered

10. The aversion reflex. It is now socially acceptable, even commendable, to close your mouth and look away when passing someone on the sidewalk. How friendly!

9. The zig-zag. Of course, it’s better to simply cross to the other side of the street to avoid others, ricocheting like some toddler learning to navigate a first bicycle.

8. The moss munch. You know it’s time to change your mask when the inner lining turns all cotton-candy and infiltrates your mouth. Time for some entrepreneur developed flavored face masks.

7. Rules are for others. People at the hospital information desk yell at me why they’re special: exempt from wearing masks, demanding to eat in the cafeteria, insisting to visit contagious, vulnerable patients. Corollary: Rules are for losers. The most compliant people I encounter are low-level workers and people of color. The least compliant? Senior staff and white people. Just sayin.’

6. Walk, walk, walk. I have so much time on my hands I walk everywhere. 268 straight days over 10,000 steps. Will I be able to keep it up through the winter to reach a full year?

5. Zoom seminars are terrific. Without geographical constraint, I attend BLM meetings with Aware-LA was easily as SURJ Boston. Hear speakers from the National Constitution Center as easily as Cambridge Forum. Corollary: Zoom social events are terrible. Enough said.

4. Sanity is a basement workshop. So far I’ve made beehives, planters, protest signs, and shelves. Next up: a Little Free Library for my front yard.

3. Take a Knee, meet your neighbor. Six months into our nightly vigil since George Floyd died, I am no better at meditating. But it’s important to me to bear witness, and I enjoy neighbors I had never met before.

2. Spider Solitaire. Totally addicted!

1. That’s all folks! This year has been such a downer, no way there are actually ten good things to say about it.

Here’s hoping health and contentment to all in 2021.

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A Holiday Season of Circular Beliefs

I’m not a fan of Christmas. But in our culture it is unavoidable. So too, I’m not a fan of religion. But again, in our culture it is unavoidable. So despite my secular psyche, even I ponder the Great Almighty at this dark time of year. Not as one of the faithful, mind you. More like an anthropologist observing a curious species—believers—from a detached distance.

The most obvious bifurcation of my sixty-five years on this earth is that I spent the first half living as a straight man and the second half living as a gay man. Yet more profound than flipping my terms of sexual identification, has been my journey into spiritual dissonance. As the devout third son in an Irish-Catholic family, I was groomed for the priesthood. That I was clumsy, introverted, and laden with shame (see bifurcation listed above) made me, as a boy, eager to trod the road of God’s service.

Religion was the solace of my youth. God offered safe haven from a family and community more interested in mocking my peculiarities than acknowledging their strengths. I felt acutely alien at Christmas, when the message of love and goodwill bore no parallel in lived experience. Often, in December, I withdrew to the basement or my top bunk, where I drew my way to comfort. One year, I holed up for days and penned a twenty-foot-long banner of the Christmas story (Luke 2:8-14) in Gothic script and presented it to my aunt, the nun, who hung in it her convent chapel every Advent. The wider world interpreted that banner as a sign of piety and devotion. I knew it was simply an exercise in applying ink to assuage frayed holiday nerves.

I continued to be a good Catholic boy in the eyes of the world until an unexpected event occurred: I started to think. It’s a cliche to say that Catholicism thrives on the ignorant and uneducated, but it is so, so true. My independent mind budded in high school, when I argued that being a priest, albeit a valid vocation, was no more important than any other calling. My handlers weren’t too upset—men condemned to think could still be Jesuits—and everyone sang along as I strummed guitar at folk mass.

The cracks in my priestly veneer grew when I refused to apply to Notre Dame or Boston College, and went to MIT instead. The ‘reality’ of the Holy Trinity couldn’t hold a candle to mysteries revealed through biology, chemistry, physics, analysis and synthesis. I became a person of science. Which doesn’t negate the potentiality of a Supreme Being; it merely compromises religion’s stranglehold on the mind.

The Catholic Church made bald attempts to convert the secular woman I chose to marry, and failing that, laid claim to the religious upbringing of unborn children. In their greed for increasing numbers, they finally lost me. When a young man falls from ‘the one true religion,’ the pitch is steep. In short order I stopped going to confession, then mass, relegated god to a lower-case noun, renounced Rome’s repressive hierarchy, and let the actualities of the world I inhabit set my moral compass.

The further I distanced actual practice, the more intellectually interesting human interpretations of god became to me. I am not an atheist; the idea of something bigger than us seems both right and comforting. Nor I am against religion; I appreciate friends and family who find solace in whatever teachings they choose. I savor theological conversations with my Mormon brother as well as my Evangelical one, and find it ironic that they both talk with me, but won’t talk with each other. From my wide perspective, Mormonism and Evangelicalism are not all that different; whereas they view each other as heretics.

Which is where my fascination with religion ends, and my problems with it flower. I’m fine with everyone believing whatever works for them; I am against any religion claiming a singular path to salvation. Which pretty much all of them do. Once a disciple feels compelled share their good news, whether through proselytizing, force of government edict, arrogance of crusade, or crime of genocide; religion steps over the line from benevolent coping skill to a rationale for abuse.

Ultimately, humankind will be better off without religion because religions always step over that line. True believers are never content to simply savor their theology. They compel others to believe, and then fight to enforce their doctrine. Diplomacy, negotiation, have no bearing in a religious worldview because religion is not based on reason. It is based on faith. And faith is circular. Belief=truth. Parting the sea, rising from the dead, angels in upstate New York. Every religion’s origin story is sacred truth to its adherents, and pretty far-fetched to everybody else.

Circles are geometry’s most complete and stable form. A circle of belief contains a comprehensive worldview. It answers all questions, soothes all doubts. Provides purpose, meaning, and the comfort of others with like mind. I can still the conjure the security the Catholic Church provided this lonely boy, and witness today the solace it offers people like my brothers.

Circles are also geometry’s most restrictive form. Difficult to expand, contract, or escape. It takes tremendous energy to spin away from their centrifugal grip. But once you’re released, a free-radical twittering through space, liberated to observe the world unrestrained, with equally grave concern and detached amusement, one is disinclined to ever infiltrate any religious circle again.

I hope you all enjoy this season of long nights in a warm house with a good book (or a subscription to Netflix). If you inhabit a circle of belief that brings you comfort, savor it. And please remember that goodwill toward men doesn’t depend on all men believing the same thing. It comes from granting each person the grace and latitude to their own beliefs.

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Three Band-Aids + a Tourniquet – Part Three

A band-aid is a beautiful thing: sterile pad ample enough to cover over a wound and protect it from infection until it heals. A tourniquet is entirely different. A rag, a shirtsleeve, a whatever’s available to put pressure between a torn arm or leg and a person’s torso. A stopgap measure to staunch bleeding. An acknowledgement that conditions are grave and medical support remote. A gamble to buy time until the body can be tended, even at the increased risk of losing the limb.

In the first of this three-part post, The Awkward Poser made the case that the United States deserves a new, proscriptive Constitution, and then proposed to warm-up that process by reinvigorating the amendment process. The second post described three amendments to champion as band-aids: the ERA, the 28th, and uniform Federal elections. Today, I take on the electoral extremity in need of a tourniquet in our beleaguered Untied States: the Electoral College.

Winners who lost: Jackson, Tilden, Cleveland, Gore, Clinton

The Electoral College is not the worst compromise in our Constitution (fractionalizing men as 3/5 deserves that honor), but it is one that plagues the twenty-first century. Five times, in over two hundred years, the man selected as President by the Electoral College lost the popular vote. Two of those elections occurred in this century, and in 2016 the Electoral College voted contrary to the popular wishes of the largest percentage of voters ever. (Hillary Clinton received 2.8 million more votes than Donald Trump.)

Losers who won: JQ Adams, Hayes, Harrison, GW Bush, Trump

Today, a voter from Wyoming has more than three times the influence in a Presidential election than a voter from California. Given the ongoing shift from rural America to urban America, and the demographic differences between people living in rural versus urban states, the disproportionate influence of rural white voters will only increase.

How can we level the Presidential electoral playing field? The obvious answer: to abolish the Electoral College and direct elect our President, is logistically impossible. Eliminating the Electoral College requires a Constitutional Amendment; Constitutional amendments require a minimum of ¾ of the states for ratification; and there are too many low-population states who enjoy an Electoral College advantage for that to happen without the kind of horse-trading that might occur at a full Constitutional Convention.

However, there are three possibilities short of that, any of which could lessen the Electoral College’s rural tilt.

One: Expand the House of Representatives

This is a feasible, but non-serious proposal. True, expanding the number of Congressional Representatives would tilt the Electoral College towards larger-population states. However, we hardly need more members of Congress feeding at the public trough with notable ineffectiveness.

Two: National Popular Vote Bill

The National Popular Vote Bill states that the electors of a given state will vote for the winner of the national popular vote, even if that candidate did not win the majority of votes in that state. In theory, if states that cumulatively possess 270 electoral college votes pass the bill, this bill will ensure the winner of the popular vote becomes President.

At present, the bill has been presented in some form in all 50 states. It has passed into law in sixteen states with a total of 196 Electoral College votes (all of which, incidentally, voted for Biden in the 2020 election anyway).

This sounds like a great idea, but I have doubts. A state law is less fixed than a Constitutional Amendment. What if, say, Texas passes the law and in a future election the people of Texas majority vote for a different candidate than the national majority vote. And Texas’ 38 electoral votes will determine which candidate becomes President. What is there to stop the Texas legislature from rescinding that law between the election and the time the electors meet? As a Lone Star might say: darn little.

Three: Electoral College Proportional Voting

A third approach, and one I think most deserving, is for all states to adopt the Electoral College allocation used in Maine and Nebraska. At present, the election winner in 48 states gets 100% of that state’s Electoral College votes. That is not a Constitutional requirement; it is a state determination. However, in Maine and Nebraska, two Electoral College votes go to the candidate who wins the most vote in that state (i.e. the ‘Senate’ electors) while each additional vote is allocated according to the winner of each congressional district. This can result in a split Electoral College vote within the state. (In 2016, Clinton won Maine’s popular vote and the district that includes Portland, while Trump won the 2nd district, which covers primarily rural areas of the state. Clinton received three electoral votes, Trump one.)

What appeals to me about spreading this methodology across all states is not just that it decentralizes the Electoral College, but also that it would bring Presidential candidates into areas of the country where, right now, they never even campaign. No Presidential candidates ever come to my home state: reliably blue Massachusetts. The Democrats own us; the Republicans have no chance. But if the electoral vote from, say, the politically blended area around Worcester was up for grabs, it is likely that both Republican and Democratic candidates would make their way to that district to solicit that vote.

            _____

To be sure, all of this is shenanigans against the obvious right thing to do: direct elect our President by popular vote, with a run-off if there is no majority victor. But as long as the Electoral College remains intact, or at least until a new Constitution is enacted, let’s put a tourniquet on a system that is bleeding the entire idea of democracy dry.

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Three Band-Aids + a Tourniquet – Part Two

I recently made the over-the-moon suggestion that we reinvigorate the Constitution. First, by amending it. Eventually, by replacing it. This post offers three band-aids. Amendments past, present, and future, if you will. Each of which takes a step toward making our government more reflective of, and responsive to, the people it serves.

Band-aid number One: Revise and pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

At this time, the ERA has actually been approved by the minimum required 38 states. However, the time restraint on achieving those passages has expired. Write your congressional representative and get Congress to modify the ERA legislation to enable passage.

Band-aid number Two: Pass the 28th Amendment.

“Congress shall make no law that applies to the citizens of the United States that does not apply equally to the Senators and/or Representatives; and, Congress shall make no law that applies to the Senators and/or Representatives that does not apply equally to the citizens of the United States.”

This amendment is so obviously fair, yet it wallows in Congress: a political body disinclined to put restrictions on itself. So far, twenty states have passed legislation or ballot initiatives calling on Congress to pass this amendment and deliver it to the states for ratification. Contact your representatives to make it happen.

Band-aid number Three: Create a Federal Election Amendment.

“The regulations and requirements for electing any person to an office of the Federal government shall be determined by the Federal government.” Or some such language that attorneys and scholars might draft.

The Constitution, among its many compromises between states’ rights and federal authority, gives states the responsibility (and power) to determine how to run elections. Although this might make sense for state and local elections, it is clearly a nightmare for federal elections. Fifty different sets of registration deadlines, identification requirements, absentee regulations, polling locations, polling hours, postmark dates. Is there any place on earth where so many different sets of rules are used to select someone for one particular elected office?

Our most recent Presidential election is a potent example of how ridiculous is the current patchwork, and may be the reason the nation is ripe for this amendment: right now. Having so many different sets of rules did not, in the end, favor one party or candidate over another. Rather, it favored obfuscation and confusion. Some might argue that was exactly the point. But obfuscation is not the point the Constitution is trying to protect.

The desire to create a level playing field to elect Federal officials can, and should, appeal to all political parties. The array of organizations invested in voting practices runs the ideological gamut, from Stacy Abrams’ Fair Fight, to the non-partisan League of Women Voters, to the American Conservative Union. That diversity actually boosts the strength in achieving an amendment.

Having the same rules for Federal elections in every state does not determine whether voting is easier or more difficult for individuals. It only means that everyone’s hurdles are the same. Congress would establish rules for Federal elections, the Supreme Court would verify their legitimacy, the Executive branch would implement them. Given the current composition of our Federal government—a Democratic House vis-à-vis a Republican Senate and President backed by a conservative Court, a citizen’s requirements to vote could be arduous. The point of the amendment is not to guarantee that voting be easy or difficult; only that the rules be the same everywhere.

I am not an activist or political organizer. I don’t even belong to a political party. But in the new year, after the Georgia special election determines the composition of the US Senate, and establishes DC’s power balance for the next two years, I plan to circulate the idea for a federal election amendment to organizations center, left, and right. Like the 28th amendment, it makes perfect sense. Also like the 28th, I don’t imagine our leaders will enact it unless ‘we the people’ demand.

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Letter to a Friend who held an Extended Family Thanksgiving

Sunday December 6, 2020

Dear Anna,

I was baffled after our phone visit yesterday, and your detailed recount of Thanksgiving. I listened to what happened to you and your family: how you decided to celebrate in person together; all took COVID tests in your respective states and then flew from California or drove from DC and New York to Massachusetts. I heard the terror in your voice when your son received a late test result by email after you’d been together a few days. Positive. I followed the frenzy of everyone immediately separating and then fleeing on Thanksgiving eve to places of quarantine. I even laughed at how you divvied up turkey to the departing couples, and discovered none left for you and your husband, alone and by yourselves when Thanksgiving arrived.

“We did everything right.” You said at least three times as you explained where each couple has landed, ten days later, asymptomatic all. And in the moment of conversation with a friend, a person I care about and want to support, I did not chide or correct. But afterward, doubts nagged. About my responsibility as your friend. Because sometimes being a friend means delivering difficult news. And if you honestly think you did everything right, maybe a true friend has to step up and set you straight.

Anna, dear friend, you and your family did not do everything right. In fact, you did wrong. In drawing together a family flung across four states during a pandemic you violated the law and health guidelines. You invited danger and disease among your family, and exposed others in the process. The fact that it appears your family suffered nothing more than an abrupt end to your reunion and a misdistributed turkey is pure luck. The kind of luck that more often falls upon families of privilege, like yours, and contributes to the arrogance that we are above this disease, that the rules of public safety don’t apply to us, that our individualist desires take precedence over the common good.

You asked about my own Thanksgiving. I enjoyed a long walk outside with a friend, and spent the evening on a binge watch. Not a traditional Thanksgiving, though memorable in its singularity. You and your family also created a memorable Thanksgiving, and for years will tell of the celebration aborted by a positive test.

As your friend, I hope that you and your family shape that story to include the fundamental truth that you were ethically wrong to gather during this pandemic. That “doing everything right” after the fact cannot counterbalance your initial, wrong choice to come together. That you will acknowledge your selfishness, learn from it, and not put personal desire over collective wellbeing again.

You are not the only family who made wrong choices this Thanksgiving. Millions of Americas did, as evidenced by the soaring caseload, hospitalizations, and deaths from coronavirus we chart every day. I would like to reach out to every one of them in the hope that they learn from their indulgence. But I am not their friend; I do not have their ear.

However, I am your friend, and hope to remain your friend. I hope that you receive this letter in that spirit. I hope you reframe your Thanksgiving story from, “we did everything right,” to, “what we did was wrong, and we learned from it,” and in the future, act accordingly.

Your friend,

Paul

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Three Band-Aids + a Tourniquet – Part One

If the recent Presidential election, the deadlocks in Congress, and the politization of the Supreme Court teach us anything it is simply this: our government is gravely ill.

True, the election met two important attributes of democracy: it was robust, in that many people participated; and it was fair, despite numerous attempts at a judicial coup. Therefore, I am disinclined to declare American democracy dead. But it is severely wounded.

I have long advocated for our country to adopt a new Constitution. A remote prospect considering a vested minority (i.e. rural white people) wields disproportionate power under the current system. The citizens from low-population states are unlikely to accept wholesale, equitable change until it is forced (i.e. revolution).

I recently watched Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me (Amazon). Despite finding it an uneven piece of theater, I recommend it to anyone interested in the state of the United States. For nestled into the two-thirds point is a critical idea: the U.S. Constitution is a restrictive document, while more recent democratic constitutions are prescriptive.

What does that mean: a restrictive document? It means our founders’ principal focus was to limit the ways government can interfere with its citizens. Our Constitution enumerates specific individual rights: free speech; assembly; bear arms. It also establishes executive, legislative, and judicial checks and balances (in addition to fifty-odd state governments), all of which present obstacles against individuals or factions achieving outsize power. The system makes sense for educated, affluent, land-owning white men reacting to the restraints of an absolute monarch. But by fractionalizing slaves as 3/5 persons—while being completely silent about women and indigenous people—our Constitution didn’t protect the majority of people living in our country even when it was ratified in 1787.

Back in the days when civics was taught in school, we learned what a noble thing is our Constitution. I still believe that. It is a remarkable translation of Enlightenment ideals into government form, an important step away from the divine rights of kings. Given the dichotomy between America’s libertarian nature and the reality that democracy is, by definition, messy and inefficient, the Constitution does a good job at creating a workable government that rests loosely on our backs. What it doesn’t consider—and we never explored in school—is that government might be something more than a necessary evil to be kept at bay. That it might actually provide useful support and services to its citizens. That a Constitution can enshrine individual rights, and also prescribe a government’s responsibilities towards its citizens.

Herein lies the struggle between personal freedoms and collective support that plagues the United States and has turned the world’s oldest functional Constitution into a dinosaur. We are no longer a million people spread over raw land with limitless expansion; we are over three hundred million, rubbing up against each other at the extents of our domain. We are no longer self-sufficient farmers; we are economically, socially, and culturally intertwined. A few preppers among us may have stored up enough to survive alone; none of us has the ability to thrive alone.

Yet, we cling to a document that, despite the noble opening, “We the people,” protects our autonomy more than it promotes our community. Our Constitution is increasingly irrelevant compared to ones adopted by other nations. Constitutions that acknowledge government as an active participant in their well-being, and require it to provide, by right, basic human services: food; shelter; healthcare. True, the United States has woven an uneven safety net (Social Security, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation are all variants of socialism: individual contributions pooled to distribute in common when required). But our imagined ethos as rugged, generous individuals who stand alone, yet will extend a hand to help a brother in distress, prevents us from acknowledging reality that we cannot stand alone, and too often only extend a hand when it reinforces our own stature. Thus, we are unwilling to create a government—and a society—that takes care of everyone, regardless of race, gender, or creed, according to their need, simply because we are all here.

In theory, our Constitution can evolve as society changes. That’s what amendments are for. Past amendments expanded rights beyond white males: the thirteenth amendment freed the slaves; the nineteenth gave women the right to vote. Through most of our history, the Constitution has been amended every decade or so. But that process has stalled as our political discourse has grown more partisan. It’s been more than fifty years since the Constitution was amended to expand any group’s rights.

So, what are we to do? One option, of course, is revolution. That worked out pretty well for the guys who penned the original Constitution. However, history teaches that peaceful transformations are much more effective than armed conflict in creating real change, and so I continue to seek out peaceful ways to share the bounty of America. What I suggest, unlikely as it may prove effective, is that we reinvigorate what we’ve got: our exiting Constitution. First, by going through the process of creating and ratifying amendments. Then, when we once again taste how we the people really can determine our form of government, hold a Constitutional Convention and thrash the entire thing out anew.

The chance of success in this approach? Near zero. But the catastrophe that awaits if we keep trying to define society today through the prism of eighteenth-century gentry, is too great not to at least try. Coming up, The Awkward Pose will suggest three band-aids to initiate the process of making our Constitution a living document once again. After that, I’ll suggest a tourniquet to help staunch the electoral bleeding that is contributing to the divisive wounds of our nation.

I hope you read on. More than that, I hope you work for peaceful change.

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My Jane Austen Life

The prospects of Mr. Bennet’s five charming daughters, destined to be destitute upon their father’s death given the patriarchy of British law, improve considerably when the wealthy bachelor, Mr. Bingley, rents Netherfield estate in rural Herefordshire and invites them to a country ball. Sparks fly between Mr. Bennet’s eldest, Jane, and Mr. Bingley; while second daughter Elizabeth is quite put off by Mr. Bingley’s closest friend, the considerably wealthier Mr. Darcy. When Mr. Bingley’s sisters, Caroline and Louisa, invite Jane to Netherfield for dinner with intentions beyond dessert, Jane is caught in a rain shower, develops a bad cold, and is forced to remain at Netherfield. Dutiful Elizabeth makes a recuperative visit where she meets the aloof Mr. Darcy once again, thereby establishing the particulars under which the events of Pride and Prejudice unfold.

In the twenty-first century, any self-respecting publishing house would toss aside a novel whose plot hinges on such a flimsy device. Why would a young woman, regardless how severe her cold, remain at the home of a relative stranger for several days, when her own home, warm bed, loving sisters, and eccentric parents are only three miles away? That’s right: the distance between Longbourne and Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice is a mere three miles.

Most of us, in and out of our cars all day, don’t give traveling three miles a second thought. Our vehicles take us, effortlessly, to work, to the grocery store, to the gym. I have a friend who drives five miles to simply reach the park in which he subsequently takes a walk.

However, three miles in 1813 rural England, before motor vehicles or paved roads, was a sizable distance. Although the Bingley’s might have delivered Jane back to her family in a carriage, nursing a sick neighbor in situ was both chivalrous and a welcome diversion in a world that hadn’t gotten around to inventing movies and Instagram.

I often marvel upon the delights of Pride and Prejudice, predicated by a measly three miles, as I go about my own life. As a man without a car, the distances I travel are significantly abbreviated compared to motorized folk. Under my own power, transit times run long, and weather is a factor.

The ride to my boyfriend Dave’s house takes me through beautiful New England drumlins and forests, past ponds, through quaint towns. But it takes four or five hours for me to pedal there. I do it in daylight, since bicycling at night outside the Cambridge/Somerville/Boston triangle feels dangerous, no matter how many lights I wear. I endure the prevailing wind, though I try to avoid rain, and always steer clear of snow. Of course, it is no hardship to go the distance for my special someone. Yet, back in the days before pandemic, when friends invited friends to dinner, I would often bunk on a suburban sofa rather than pedal home in the dark.

Why do I choose to put this restriction on my ability to travel through the world? I know how to drive. I can afford to own a car. There are the faux-noble reasons: that traveling within the world is a richer experience than traveling through it; that cycling is meditative; that it’s sustainable; that I’ve integrated fitness into the fabric of my life. But there are also the ignoble reasons: an antsy temperament that chafes behind the wheel; a guy with lots of time thumbing a world that worships busyness; an individualist temperament that’s borderline peculiar. There’s no mystery as to why I had to go much, much further than three miles to find a boyfriend.

Ultimately, I love how traveling by bicycle slows me down and sets me apart from a world that, as far as I’m concerned, is frantic for no reason beyond infatuation with speed.

We love Pride and Prejudice because we admire Elizabeth Bennet’s fiery independence and Mr. Darcy’s quiet generosity. We mirror ourselves—our better selves—in these substantial people of substantial character. So I can be excused for organizing my life to be a bit more like theirs as I take my sweet time in getting from here to there. My head fantasizes as my legs spin in pursuit, however slowly, of my Jane Austen life.

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HOW I BECAME A 23-YEAR-OLD WOMAN

Greetings Readers. This week’s post is written by an engaging author and good friend, Chuck Latovich. Chuck recently published his novel, The Girl in the Boston Box, a ‘Mystery Times Two.’ Any lover of history, Boston, or thrillers will enjoy it. I asked Chuck to share with Awkward Pose readers his challenges in writing the book. Please enjoy his perspective on a middle-aged gay male author creating a young straight female protagonist.

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THE GIRL IN THE BOSTON BOX is available on Amazon, IndieBound, Apple Books, and other channels.

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When I start to write a novel, I have goals in mind, over and above the simple objective of getting to “The End.” With my mystery, The Girl in the Boston Box, I wanted to expand my technical repertoire and compose a third-person narrative. Eventually, I chose a structure for the book that was a combination of techniques. The novel’s subtitle is “A Mystery Times Two” because I have two storylines that compliment and enlarge one another (and eventually converge). One of my narratives is in the first person, with a main character not too different from me: a middle-aged man, gay, single. Easy to write, and a style I’ve employed before. The other narrative, told in third person, is that from the viewpoint of a young woman in her early twenties.

Those parts of the book were my biggest challenge since, obviously, I’m not a young woman, and the character was a major part of the book. To make her believable, I began with external details, like choosing a name popular for those in her generation, (“Caitlyn”), and identifying some of her cultural touchstones (Harry Potter). Concrete items, and all fine and good.

As for her inner life, I started by giving her a personality that will propel the plot (she’s a snoop, of sorts). Moreover, so I could be in her head with some kind of comfort, she has experiences akin to mine. Caitlyn walks where I have walked, lives where I have lived, uses with technology that I have used. She occasionally meets people with characteristics similar to people I know. Therefore, she feels what I have felt, and I hope that provides some verisimilitude.

As for deeper aspects of her psyche, I imbued Caitlyn with a few of my hang-ups and habits. For example, I projected my Catholic upbringing onto her. In one sequence, after her second sexual encounter in a week, she ponders questions about morality while she rides the subway. Could other passengers sense that had just had sex? Is sleeping with two different men over the course of the week irresponsible or immoral? I’ve had those thoughts. After a while, Caitlyn brushes them away, but the fact that she ponders them at all tells us about her earliest values and morals, and I hope deepens her.


These traits are the ones that I was aware of. I’ve wondered, however, if someday in the future, I will reread the book and, with some distance, realize that other quirks of mine were made part of her personality almost unconsciously. Writing a novel is a fascinating exercise in self-revelation and self-discovery; a story becomes a key to understanding a writer in ways that they may not recognize while they are in the process of creation. Of all the books I could have produced (in theory), The Girl in the Boston Box is the one that’s emerged. Sigmond Freud could have a field day interpreting it: my creative dream. What might Caitlyn reveal about me that I might not have realized as—occasionally inspired and typing so fast—I wrote her?

To protect a surprise in the book, I won’t share here the impact of one formative event in Caitlyn’s life (unveiled at the end of Part One), but I eventually grasped that it connected obliquely to something from my own past. With time and distance, it’s likely that I will identify other commonalities. It’s an interesting prospect for me, but although I can imagine an insight happening, it’s premature to speculate too much about what it might be. Maybe I will look at Caitlyn’s interest in hidden rooms and think, as I do now, “That’s a device.” All front and center. But maybe, instead, I will find something more revelatory, or symbolic, in her fascination.

I’ve concluded that using the third person for Caitlyn may be symptomatic of being just a little removed from her inner life, but in light of our differences (hers and mine), that seems appropriate. Third-person narration made me more comfortable in my pretense. And while I can already appreciate the technical lessons Caitlyn has taught me, it’s possible that in a few years, I will have the ability to dig deeper and appreciate what she teaches me about myself.

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