Before composing my weekly blog today, I worked on a novel in progress titled Alawi. Reviewing yesterday’s scribbling, I came upon: “An unfamiliar feeling stirred in the breast of the Somali sailor.”
This new novel charts the al-Qæda recruitment and development of a sailor born and raised in Somalia, Mohammed Alawi. The terrorist organization recognizes that Alawi has a personality disorder under the general description of sociopath, shown in him personally as an overdeveloped ego and lack of empathy. One description of empathy is an ability to feel what others are feeling. Al-Qæda fully understands Alawi and plays him for its own ends.
In my novel, it is empathy that begins to stir in the breast of this Somali sailor, a glimmer of understanding the feelings of a young woman with the mental development of a 13-year old. In the novel he is forced to cover his personality faults for purposes of the operation, but his feelings for this woman are genuine.
Our president, Donald J. Trump, is often described as having the same personality disorders as my character Alawi, though I think Trump’s overdeveloped ego is even worse than that of my Somali sailor. The literature ascribes a couple of reasons for such disorders: genetic and environmental. I see my character’s problems as coming from his early background, which allows an exception to his lack of empathy.
I’d like to think that the same might be true for President Trump, though I’ve seen no sign of exceptions there.. It’s maddening to sit on the sidelines and watch this ridiculous game of politics played out under the leadership of a president who is widely thought of as having a serious personality disorder. But he is still there and getting his way through having the wiliness of a Latin dictator.
Novel writing is not easy, but at least is rewarding in one sense: I can decide Alawi’s fate. Will his terrorist operation succeed or fail? Will he get professional help in dealing with his personality disorder? And how about that young woman?
I sure wish we could have the same control over our president, Donald J. Trump.
* * *
On Thursday this week America found a way to illustrate the social/political polarization that has been building for so many, many years. Somehow it gelled with the election of our first black president. The color of Barack Obama’s skin was in itself a polarizing factor in the eight years of an administration that accomplished much, and was much reviled. It was followed by an administration that has become the butt of global jokes, making a fine art of polarizing our politics, our social fabric and citizenry.
Thursday’s illustrating event was, of course, the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee hearing concerning the elevation of Federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Two seemingly honest people gave testimony about the character of the nominee, presentations that were emotional and compelling. Presentations that were 180 degrees apart concerning facts. In other words, polarizing.
Why should this be illustrative of social/political polarization? Because the hearing had little to do with Brett Kavanaugh’s suitability to be a Supreme Court justice. It had everything to do with a political tussle between Republicans and Democrats. It’s been painted as an ideological fight between conservatives and progressives, with Roe vs. Wade as the plum to be picked or left alone. I think the politicians were focused much more on the soon-to-come mid-term elections than they were on pure ideology. There seemed to be more interest in making their political statements during the five-minute time allotted to each senator for discussion with the two witnesses, than for enlightening questions.
Count me discouraged. Both parties need fresh people to field fresh ideas that consider the welfare of ordinary Americans I hope the mid-terms will uncover some new, truly dedicated talent on both sides, but I’m not counting on much until 2020, when I think the future of this great country will be more clearly drawn.
The next two elections will be crucial, a time every voter is needed not only for a vote but for a vote that is educated through keeping balanced eyes and ears on the news. Prayers help, but if you don’t believe in prayer than please send good thoughts to Washington, DC. They’re needed.
* * *
Back in the 1960s, I occasionally enjoyed coffee and brandy with a Spanish friend in Madrid, each time a learning experience. Jaime was a wise old doctor who spoke a wonderful Spanish, Castellano, used in the geographic region where Madrid is situated. His language itself was a pleasure to hear. But more important was the wisdom he shared on each visit, giving me nuggets of ideas about life that turned over and over in my mind until I saw him again.
My nerves were frayed when I saw him on a particular visit. The dangers of smoking were in the news, painting life-shortening and terrible physical results for regular smokers. I was heavy smoker, just then in one of many attempts to stop smoking. Along with a snifter of brandy, Jaime offered me a cigarette. For the first time during our meetings, I turned down the offer.
“I’m sorry, Jamie,” I said, “but I’m trying to quit. Frankly I’m surprised that you’re still smoking. As a doctor, I should think you’d give up tobacco in light of all the health warnings. How come you’re still smoking?”
Jaime lit his cigarette and blew a smoke ring. “Because it makes me happy,” he replied. We then launched into a long discussion about happiness, summarized with Jaime’s ideas
- Knowing what you are best suited to do in life at an early age.That’s not given to everyone.
- Being able to do that when you become an adult. Fewer still can do this.
- Doing it in the place in the world that best suits you, and that’s the rarest of all.
Jaime lit another cigarette, expanding on his ideas. “Have you ever gotten off a boat, plane or train, breathing the air, listening to people talking with each other, feeling more comfortable there than ever before? That is probably your place in the world, whether it be your birthplace or the other side of the globe.”
That nugget from Jaime has stuck with me as I traveled from country to country, watching my children as they developed different talents, trying them out as they grew. Two of my kids followed their God-given talents, one in the military, one in aviation.. The others struggled as I have, trying different things before settling on jobs suiting their abilities.
I think Jaime’s idea of happiness is a good guideline, but certainly not the only rule for happiness. Jaime was right about the rarity of people given all three of the blessings he listed. He was right in saying that few people are able to assess their talents early or use them during their working lives.
While on a home leave late in my career, we took the family to Colorado Springs, Colorado, car-camping there for a week, thinking of it as a place to retire. It was a pleasant time, followed by driving onward to the Pacific Northwest. As we had lunch at a campground in Washington’s Cascade mountains, looking to the west, we were struck by the view of lakes and sea, There, certainly, was our place in the world. And there I happily remain. It’s my place.
My friend Jaime’s opinion of happiness has a lot of merit, but I think that one needs something in addition to those three points. Without empathy, without a heart open to helping others, it doesn’t matter what you know about yourself, what you do in life or where that is, happiness will have a hard time finding you.
* * *
Back in the good old days, “man bites dog” demonstrated creativity in journalism, and a news article was an objective recounting of an event or incident. No half-truths. Opinion in the editorials or on the Op-Ed pages. No fake newsexcept in some yellow-page tabloids. If you read it in reputable print media, or heard it on major radio broadcast stations, you could “take it home with you.” Things have changed.
In the early 1950s I had a friend who was a radio news broadcaster. Dick worried about the advent of television broadcasting. TV was a great invention, he thought, wondering if he should shift over there. But he worried about the hours and hours needing to be filled with visual content. You couldn’t just present music or some other kind of filler as was possible with radio. How would TV cope with that challenge?
Now we’re in the future my friend was thinking about, and Ted Turner has provided part of the answer by pioneering the 24-hour, TV cable news broadcasting concept. Filling the time on cable news stations is done with news reporters and their guests, sometimes known as “talking heads.” In this Donald J. Trump era, the majority of cable news time (except for ads) is taken up with politics, and much of that time covers President Trump’s failings in governing our republic. Except, of course, FOX News, which solidly supports him.
As a reader through so many years, it seems to me that objectivity in print media news has slipped through the years. The opinion of reporters often glimmers or shines brightly in what are supposed to be news articles. Nowhere, though, does opinion shine more brightly than in cable news, with MSNBC and CNN openly blasting President Trump’s performance, while FOX News sings his praise. The result is a steady drumbeat criticizing Trump’s leadership, made the louder by print news media banging on their own drums..
I am no admirer of Donald Trump. His ego, lies and communication style are inflammatory, providing fodder for the news-hungry media. But I worry that this overwhelming criticism gives him support in his claims of unfair media coverage. Or fake news as he likes to call it.
Dick, my broadcast news friend, was right about the challenge TV news producers would find in trying to fill the hours and hours on the air. There was no way he could predict that talking heads and their guests would fill so much time on cable news stations. Nor was there any way he could foresee that balanced reporting would be lost in the drive to keep the news coming, twenty-four hours a day.
I just wish that media reporters would spend more time looking for a man who has bitten a dog.
* * *
In the 1960s and ‘70’s I spent nine years in Europe on CiA assignments unbroken by a tour at Headquarters between foreign positions. My family was with me most of that time. We did have a couple of home leaves, some weeks to visit family and friends while on those tours. But it was hard to retain a feeling of patriotism when living away from our country so long. That was especially true for our children, born and raised abroad with little memory of home.
We used home leaves to help the children better understand their country. One way we hoped would be memorable was to pick up a car on the east coast and spend a couple of weeks camping across the United States on the way to visit our west coast families. Among historic sites visited along the way was the Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota. It features sixty-foot sculptures of the heads of four United States presidents: George Washington Thomas Jefferson, Theodroe Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
Talking with a Park Ranger on arrival, I learned there would be a sunset service including a lowering of the flag and a bugle playing “Taps.” As we gathered for the occasion with other tourists and family, I was struck with a feeling of patriotism that brought tears flowing down my face while hearing that haunting melody echoed during the solemn ceremony. My young daughter’s hand slipped into mine.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?” she asked.
“Not a thing, Honey,” I replied, “not a thing.”
That occasion struck me this week as both President Trump and former President Obama launched the mid-term campaign season with speeches lauding their political parties. Listening to those, thinking back to the experience at Mount Rushmore, I had to believe that my daughter would not now see tears on my face during a similar ceremony. Rather, she would see worry lines coming from the deep divisions plaguing our wonderful country today. Here’s how I imagine the conversation would go today: She slips her now mature hand into mine.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?” she asks.
“An awful lot,” I reply, “but now that you and your friends are grown, it will be up to you to get our country out of the mess we’re in. Everyone has to help, and vote if they’re old enough.”
Healing the divisions will of course take more than one mid-term election, probably even more than a couple of general elections. But for me, that feeling of patriotism lives on. We’re a great country with great people. I may not be here to see it, but I have to believe that one day in the future the answer to my daughter would be:
“Not a thing, Honey, not a thing/”
* * *
The world of work in the U.S. was much different during World War II from what it is today. Although we have been in one conflict or another since the Korean War ended in 1953, the need for soldiers on multiple battlefronts was much greater during World War II. Fifty million men were registered for the draft beginning in September 1940, and ten million were inducted into the military. My dad was drafted in 1942, when he would have been about forty years old, spending a couple of years in the Army, pushing paper.
All this was a huge drain on the workforce. It gave a new understanding about the value of women in jobs that were non-traditional at the time, and opened up others to kids. Many high school students were hired to be extra sales clerks needed at retail outlets during holiday seasons. I tried my hand at that when I was fifteen years old, with little success. Then and for many more years I looked much younger than my actual age, so shoppers had a hard time understanding that I had the maturity to be a salesperson. I was brokenhearted when “demoted” to work in the stockroom.
That was at Christmas time. More success came during the summer when I was still fifteen years old, I was hired to work part time as a stock boy in the ships’ store at Sand Point Naval Air Station. Then, on the day in October I turned sixteen years, I got my dream job: working part time for the Navy as an assistant aircraft mechanic at the air station’s repair facility. I don’t remember the number of part time work hours available to students, maybe fifteen or twenty hours a week. The hangar where I was assigned repaired the amphibious flying boats designated as PBYs.
My tasks were not very technical, including such things as cleaning fuel tanks in the wings, crawling through claustrophobia-inducing tanks while swabbing the aluminum with rags and a volatile fluid. Two kids on our team passed out from the vapor. It was huge job getting them out of the tank and revived in fresh air. Unlike today with all the safety regulations, I don’t remember that any change in the cleaning procedures was made.
The high school kids were subjected to that awful job for only a few weeks, being transferred to more interesting work after that. I was put to work repairing aircraft interiors, one job being the re-working of navigation tables. New PBYs had a plywood table that was always crushed by the time the planes came in for repair. The navigators had to stand on the table to take locating sights, so there was no way to avoid damage. I found some surplus hardwood in the hangar and was able to cut and carve it so as to fit in the original frame for the table. I did other odd jobs around the planes and immensely enjoyed working there until going on active duty as a Navy recruit.
I don’t think policies at that time had a great effect on teenage hiring, but it certainly changed the world of work for women. “Rosie the Riveter” is often used as an example of this, but today the spectrum of work open to women is broader, including quite a few CEOs of large companies. That’s helpful,but not to say that all aspects of work are open for Rosie today. Equal pay for equal work by women has never reached equality. I hope it doesn’t take another world calamity to arrive at a much-deserved fairness for women in our country.
When I was a lad eight years or so in age – around 1935 – my dad took me to Boeing Field for my first airplane ride. Our route from Seattle’s Greenwood Avenue North took us over the rather new Aurora Bridge before skirting Elliott Bay There Dad pointed out a large group of shacks and tents that he called a Hooverville, explaining that people living there were so poor that they couldn’t afford a regular home. It was due, he said, to the Great Depression taking so many jobs away from people.
This past week I read an article headlined “Seattle Increasing Removals of Homeless Encampments (The Seattle Times, August 21st2018). One of many such articles on homelessness, it recounts the numbers and management for removing these encampments, and the challenge of finding placements for the growing number of homeless people in the city.
Am I missing something? Does my childhood memory tell me that we’re in the midst of another Great Depression? Certainly not, if we are to believe a steadily growing stock market and national administration boasts of the best economy ever.
Unfortunately, stock market numbers, administration claims and job statistics fail to measure livability for most people in this country. The growing number of people living on the streets of Seattle does not signal an increased interest in living outdoors. Rather, it reflects a pervading sickness that infects our social structures, a disease called poverty. Too many people living on the edge or below. The combination of regressive tax structures, ridiculously low minimum wages and reactionary politicians have brought deep and troubling change.
My wife Jan is a teacher, now substituting in Seattle schools. I hear Jan and other teachers talking about various schools, often referring to the question of how many children in a particular school are on “free and reduced lunches.” The answer is a percentage of children served by the National School Lunch Program, a federal effort to provide healthy lunches that are either free or reduced in cost for children of families living at a certain poverty level. It’s good to show we care about these kids living in poverty. But it would be better yet to do something about the poverty. Let’s work towards curing the disease, not just treating the symptoms.
A cure will be neither easy nor quick. But it won’t happen until thoughtful people put their hearts and minds, their votes and voices, into getting us back on track..
My fried Dave was there when Martin Luther Kin Jr. gave his “I had aDream” speech. Dave was a white guy in the crowd of 250,000, estimated to be 80 percent African American, gathered in March 1963 in Washington DC at the end of the great civil rights march.
That event was a marker in my friend’s remarkable life. A successful businessman, Dave is an expert skier, mountain climber, sailor and pilot. In the years since that March 1963 civil rights event, he supported a fine family and somehow found time to write letters to editors, to congressmen and others in support of causes that benefit downtrodden citizens struggling with God-given and constitutional rights. Dave belongs to activist groups seeking better government, and continues to march for various causes. I know that he participated on foot with some 50,000 other people in the Seattle Women’s March last year.
Dave still enjoys skiing at the age of 88 years, and doesn’t seem to have slowed down in the pursuit of justice for all.
I’ve had my own experience in legislative action for good causes, primarily on behalf of the community college movement. I can guarantee that well thought out communications and meetings with government leaders can be effecetive It’s hard for some to believe, but true that mayors, governors, congresspeople and even presidents pay attention to messages from their constituents.
I’ve never matched Dave in his continual concern and action in support of good governance, but I feel the need is greater now than it ever has been during my long life. Our very way of life, and our country’s standing in the world, are threatened by a national leadership that is at best inadequate.
If there were ever a time for appropriate citizen participation in governance, it is now. I believe all of us should:
Stay informed through the media, including, books, local and cable TV.
Communicate with community, state and national leadership about issues
Read voter pamphlets, familiarize yourself with issues and candidates
VOTE! Not just in general elections, but in special and primaries. .
I’ve heard that voter turnout in the recent Washington State primary election was 40 percent. Think how more certainly our government could go forward with an 80 percent turnout, reflecting a real interest from voters who know the issues.
Think how it would be if we all could be like my friend Dave.
& & &
A CAUTIONARY TALE
I’m following our current political spectacle with great interest and no little trepidation about the future wellbeing of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Somehow In past reading of James Michener’s tomes, I missed his work entitled “Poland.” Reading it now, while our country bares its political soul on the world stage, is an interesting exercise.
As usual with Michener, he writes a, well-researched, historical underpinning that allows the reader to reflect on how events of the past have shaped today’s Poland.. This includes an attempt during the 18th century to bring democracy into the leadership of a country then under the fists of about fifteen important families known as magnates, rich beyond imagination and controlling everything. Russia’s Catherine the Great led the autocrats of neighboring countries to erase Poland through a series of partitions, eventually getting rid of this upstart experiment in liberty. As we know, the nation came out of that darkness and became one of the leaders in political reforms that united most of east and west Europe.
Why does this reading of Michener excite me? Because it speaks so clearly to the strife of downtrodden people expressing the need for personal freedoms, seeking pride for the individual. We don’t have a majority of uneducated people known in the middle ages as peasants in Poland, or commonly as serfs in other European countries. Instead we must deal with the have-nots, steadily slipping further into having even less. Nothing visible is being done with the huge gap between the rich and poor of this nation that has many of the attributes of leadership under the magnates of 18th century Poland: a president who acts like a lackey of Russia, supported by rich business leaders; a justice system constantly under his attacks; and a do-nothing congress.
I consider myself an independent politically, looking for strong, thoughtful, leadership that truly wants to tackle an income gap that is parallel to the racism infecting our country and its leadership. My view is that the counter to these troubles must come from the Democrats, but so far I don’t see that party developing a platform that speaks to the needs of the downtrodden; a platform that can win on the political battlefield. At my age, growing from old to older, I fear that I’ll not see that in my lifetime.