Archives for posts with tag: politics

REPORT FROM DOWN UNDER

 

A visit to Australia and New Zealand is a sprawling event. It’s hard to characterize or describe each aspect of the experience so I’ll dissect just a few, namely:

 

THE TRAVEL is daunting. For us, it involved a five-hour flight to Los Angeles, a three-hour layover and a fifteen-hour flight to Sydney. When we arrived, we found ourselves fourteen time zones ahead of North Carolina. Ten a.m. equaled midnight to our bodies. Advised to stay awake until “normal” bedtime by all the literature, we proceeded, Zombie-like, for the first day of sightseeing.

“Ah,” says an observant reader, “Why didn’t you sleep on the plane?”

“Can’t,” I reply miserably. “Never have, apparently never will. Even the sleeping pill had no effect.”

 

THE PEOPLE are friendly. If you pause on a street and look confused, chances are excellent that one or more pedestrians will offer assistance. Often, they insist on leading you to your destination if it is within a block or two. Others consult their phones for directions or flag down other strangers for consultations.

 

CAUCASIANS ARE IN THE MINORITY. In Sydney, particularly in the vicinity of the airport or university, most people are Chinese. As a person who is open-minded in terms of immigration issues this fact provokes no immediate negative reaction. However, I wonder how I would feel if my hometown, Philadelphia, somehow became 80% Chinese. Would it, in essence, still be Philadelphia?

I believe Australians struggle with this issue in private but they accept the influx as an economic necessity. I sensed some resentment when speaking with several Australians during the course of our tour, but they are too polite to complain openly. An Aussie sitting beside me on the plane captured the attitude when I said I looked forward to seeing how Australians live.

“You staying in Sydney?” he asked. “Good luck finding some.”

 

THE SCENERY, particularly in New Zealand, is amazing. Days of seeing snow-capped mountains, fiords, glaciers, swift-moving rivers and waterfalls means I may not have to travel to Alaska or Iceland in the future. Below the mountains are the greenest of green pastures, populated by domesticated deer, cows and millions and millions of sheep. The latter had just birthed and the lambs, be it one or two or three per mother, are sooooooo cute. No more lamb chops for me.

 

RUGBY is an obsession in both countries. Before this trip, I believed rugby to be a primitive form of American football played in total obscurity. Now, having scanned newspapers and surfed television, I know there are actually THREE types of rugby, each with its own networks, teams, leagues and fans. Not at all “obscure,” rugby is pervasive Down Under. How does a country of only twenty-four million (Australia) or four million (NZ) support such so much infrastructure?  The passion for sport runs deep. Aussies are pretty good at tennis, too, and facilities for recreation are everywhere.

IN MELBOURNE, our final stop, we anticipated bringing home memories of vast public gardens, stunning architecture and commerce. Though we saw some of those things, our primary impression is quite different. The evening we arrived, the local rugby squad had won a championship game and jubilation ensued. The next morning, fans were still stumbling around, hung-over, clad in the black and yellow of the Richmond Tigers, a team based in the very neighborhood in which we were staying. One store clerk, dressed dutifully, confided that she wasn’t really interested in rugby, but her admission came in a whisper, lest she offend her boss or a local customer.

 

POLITICS rarely came up in public discussions with our tour-mates. Since we were the only Americans, couples sidled up to us privately, at some point to ask, of the United States: “If I may, what happened?” “How is this possible?” We knew what they were wondering. How did a reality television buffoon become president? We tried to explain two things: 1. Part of the enjoyment of being abroad for us was to NOT discuss “he who shall not be named” on a daily basis; and, 2. Suffice it to say one cannot underestimate ignorance and hatefulness.

I LEARNED that Australian politics is much like ours though they have not YET descended to total lunacy. As in America, solid majorities of the population support protection of the environment, freedom of choice for women, equal rights for all and gun control. However, as in America, government is controlled by money. For instance, mining interests battle alternative energy projects though there may not be a country in the world more suited to solar, wind and geothermal power. Religious groups battle women’s rights and gay rights and their older cohort show up to vote.

GUN CONTROL is the exception, perhaps because there is not a wealthy, native industry as we have in America, along with twisted reverence for the Second Amendment.   In 1996 in Australia, the mass murder of thirty-five took place with semi-automatic weapons. It was the deadliest of thirteen such events in the preceding eighteen years. In its aftermath, a CONSERVATIVE government acted to buyback all but necessary hunting and farming-related firearms and to ban semi-automatic and automatic weapons. The population acquiesced without drama and Australia’s rate of gun violence is now miniscule.   There have been no mass murders since 1996, and firearm-related suicide rates have dropped by eighty percent!

 

AFFECTION for Americans adheres in New Zealand and Australia, though the Las Vegas massacre occurred during our last night in Melbourne which provoked an outpouring of news coverage about “What is wrong with America?” Still, there is a deep reservoir of patience. Largely without complaint, both nations Down Under continue to contribute troops to every one of our military adventures.

QUESTION I asked several veterans in both countries: “Why is there no resentment, at least about failed expeditions in Vietnam or the second Iraq war?” Each time, the response hearkened back to World War II. Apparently, when Japanese warships threatened invasion Australia and New Zealand appealed to Winston Churchill for help. He refused, citing the burdens his troops were already facing from Germany. America, however, sent ships immediately and routed the Japanese. We sowed seeds of affection still alive seventy years later. I hope we don’t poison the field or take it for granted. Hanging up on Australia’s prime minister last January was probably not a great first move by the con-man, but….

 

DOUBTLESS Australia and New Zealand are wonderful destinations. If only they were closer. Both countries have a pace and friendliness that seems like the America I imagine of sixty years ago. They are comfortable countries for an American, as they speak the same language, but with enough accent to make you feel you’ve “gone somewhere.” Cars on the left side of the road reinforce the difference.

 

OBVIOUSLY, if one visited America and saw only Miami and New York they could hardly claim to have “seen it.” If the flight were five hours or less I’d want to visit Down Under again and again to see all the places not included in our trip, including, but not limited to: the Outback, the Great Barrier Reef, the cities of Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Auckland, among others. Perhaps, when the jet lag is finally forgotten, once and for all, after another month or two… I’ll consider it.

 

Advertisements

A POLITICAL FUTURE?

Last week, an older, self-described Socialist from Vermont declared he is running for president. His last name is Sanders and, therefore, the nation has an opportunity to ponder what I’ve often deemed an obvious solution to its problems, namely: “Sanders for President.” Unfortunately for America, the candidate is named Bernie. I have not thrown my hat in the ring.

*****

I’ve never run for office. However, that didn’t prevent me from once being elected. During my first week at Dickinson College, my fellow residents on the third floor of Adams Dorm voted for me, in absentia, to represent them on the student council. My roommate, Keith, informed me of this upon my return from the library. (Or was it the ping-pong room?) In any event, he explained:

“At the floor meeting you skipped, Mike (the resident advisor) told us we have to elect a delegate to the student council. We chose you.”

“Why?” I said, stricken.

“You said you were going to major in political science,” said Keith.

“So?” I asked.

“This is political,” he said.

I was less than gracious about my election. The next day, I learned from Mike that the Council held meetings once a month, and I would be expected to keep my floor-mates informed of developments.

“Great, “ I said, grumpily.

“It’ll be good for graduate school applications,” said Mike.

“That’s four years from now,” I said. “I hate meetings.”

“Yes, I noticed you weren’t there last night,” said Mike, smiling. “This is what you get.”

*****

After only a few weeks of classes, I already knew that political science was dismal, as majors go. For instance, one of my classes was State and Local Government, wherein I studied the distinction between towns run by mayors and towns run by managers. I learned that some towns hold partisan elections and others do not. Most critically, I learned that Nebraska has only one legislative house, not two, and therefore, is called “unicameral.” Future success in Trivial Pursuits and Jeopardy secured!

The other problem in political science at Dickinson was that the classes were full of hyper-competitive, grade-grubbing pre-law students. Though I eventually completed the course work in political science, I shifted my primary field of study to English Literature. The classes were enjoyable, less grade-oriented and, incidentally, overwhelmingly female in make-up. The atmosphere seemed collegial, academic, not mercenary.

*****

Despite my misgivings, I dutifully attended the initial student council meeting on behalf of my of Adams Dorm constituents. Held in the conference room of the 200-hundred-year-old “Old West,” the setting was, admittedly impressive. Stern portraits of past College presidents gazed down upon the assembled representatives. I took a place in the back row, as was my custom in such matters and waited for the action to begin.

At a table in front of the room, facing out towards the delegates, were the officers of the Student Council. These were seniors who took procedural rules seriously. I recognized several from seeing them roam the halls of the political science building where they sought face time with professors at every opportunity.

A gavel brought the meeting to order, motions were made and seconded, speakers were given “the floor,” and a lively debate ensued on a matter of absolutely no interest to me, namely: How many student delegates would attend the College Trustees meeting and, when they attended, should they sit among the Trustees at their conference table, or should they sit in chairs set back from the table as sort of “advisory” attendees?

And would the attendees actually be “advisory” or would they merely be “witnesses” to the goings-on? And, if they were “advisory,” what sort of advice would they give? And how should a consensus be arrived at to determine the student council’s position? And wouldn’t all these matters depend (almost entirely, duh…) on the preferences of the Board of Trustees, whose meeting it was?

Most of the delegates had passionate opinions on all these questions. The debate continued for an hour. By this time, I’d filled my note-pad with doodles, looked at the beautiful grandfather clock in the corner of the hall at least twenty times, and wondered if anyone would notice if I just sort of slipped out the side door. My reverie ended with a decisive bang of the gavel and the announcement that a task force would be established to submit recommendations to the officers who would take the matter under advisement and blah, blah, blah. I had no idea what to tell my dorm-mates.

*****

I never aspired to the presidency of the United States. From the earliest household mentions of Presidents Johnson and Nixon in my formative years, I heard only complaints from my parents, particularly my father.   Therefore, the office held no special allure. Congressmen, however (in 1964, or so, a Congresswoman was a rarity and a “Congressperson” did not yet exist as a concept) struck me as special. I still detected an aura around what I thought of as silver-tongued orators.

On an eighth grade trip to Washington, two classmates and I strode freely through the hallways of the Capitol building; the high ceilings and marble impressed me and, as a student of geography, I thrilled at the sight of each huge doorway marked by the name and state of a different legislator. As a special treat, Senator Dirksen, a famous old lion whom I recognized from television news, strode past us looking important. He nodded in our general direction, and the three of us told anyone who would listen that he’d personally welcomed us to the Capitol.

*****

Half a century later, Congress’s public approval rating is below fifteen percent. Personally, with the drip, drip, drip of revelations over time, I’ve come to view legislators as narcissists with a tendency towards larceny. Why would any sane person choose such a life except to financially enrich themselves and/or their families and friends? That is why it’s so bizarre and refreshing to see probably-not-a-cousin Bernie with his uncombed hair, rumpled suit and unfiltered spleen sputtering in vain about the depredations of big banks and corporations. As Andy Borowitz pointed out in The New Yorker, he’s probably disqualified from the race due to excessive integrity.

*****

Back to my political career: I returned after the student council meeting and found that none of my floor-mates cared one whit about what had happened. No one asked about the meeting. When I told my roommate, Keith, that I’d attended, he shrugged.

The following month, I skipped the council meeting. I skipped the month after that, too, and, in fact, the rest of the year. The third floor of Adams Dorm did not have the benefit of representation, and no one noticed. When it came time to complete law school applications several years later, most included a question about whether I’d held elective office. I’m pleased to report that I checked “No.” My maintenance of that shred of dignity is the sole positive to come out of the experience. I wonder how many politicians would have answered the question the same way.


COUNTRY CLUB POLITICS

We live in a community constructed around the contours of a golf course.   The topography is beautiful and it’s a nice place to live, regardless of one’s feelings about golf. Since I’ve quit the sport for life due to extreme frustration, we’re not “members” of the club. Still, we occasionally join members at the clubhouse for dinner. Most are impressive and accomplished people, enjoyable to be around. We discuss children, sports and the weather. We compare restaurants, travel and traffic. We do NOT discuss politics.

Recently, my wife, Katie and I were invited to dinner at the clubhouse with three other couples. When we arrived, however, three of the eight seats at our table were empty. We learned that two husbands and one wife were elsewhere in the building attending a fund-raiser for a Republican congressional candidate. The wife sitting to my right at the table, Amanda, told the rest of us she doesn’t agree with her husband’s politics, so she didn’t attend, but she expected them shortly. In accordance with the local etiquette, we stated we wouldn’t discuss the fund-raiser when the three attendees arrived.

*****

To our surprise, however, when Tom, Mary and Amanda’s husband, Harry arrived, they burst with missionary zeal. Not only did they wish to discuss politics, they appeared to have been enlisted to do so, to bring enlightenment to the apathetic or, worse, progressive-leaning in their midst.

“No one could be happy with the way America is going,” declared Harry, the most excited of the trio, as he sat down to my left. “Don’t you think it’s time we got this country turned around? We’re under siege!”

I had a sinking feeling my loose tongue would not obey my cautious brain.   “I don’t see the pitchforks,” I said, gesturing out the window to the sun-splashed golf course, just as a blue heron took flight over a lake in the foreground.

“You know what I mean,” said Harry. “The country is going down the tubes.   We’re not where we want to be.”

I realized he was repeating parts of the presentation he’d just heard, but I couldn’t resist responding literally. “We’re sitting here at dinner in a lovely setting. All of us are retired or semi-retired, without financial worry. Isn’t this exactly where we want to be?”

Harry rolled his eyes. “You just don’t get it, do you?”

“No, I definitely do not,” I admitted.

*****

For the past couple of years, while the national political scene has become increasingly polarized, I’ve tried without success to comprehend the Republican mindset. I miss the old days, about twenty years ago, when the difference in parties often hinged on nothing more than disagreement about spending and taxation policy. Now, there’s a disconnection with reality on the Republican side. For sure, the Democratic point of view is also full of inconsistencies. But I’m familiar with those from growing up in a Democratic household and attending a Quaker school. I don’t condone Democratic inconsistencies, but I do understand them.

For instance, my father, who died in 1994, was nearly a socialist in terms of economic sympathies. Yet, as a victim of numerous robberies and burglaries at his clothing store in Philadelphia, he rabidly supported a “tough-on-crime”, right-wing mayor. In addition, while he hated the Vietnam War as much as Abby Hoffman did, his personal sense of fastidiousness caused him outrage whenever he saw longhaired or even sloppily dressed men.   In the 1960’s and 70’s, in particular, he was appalled on a regular basis. I didn’t always agree with his hard-to-reconcile positions, but I comprehended them. They sprung rationally from his experience or personality.

But modern-day Republicans? As Harry asserted, I don’t get it. I wonder about it. I shake my head about it. I can’t figure it out. In my prosperous suburban milieu, I can’t find a Republican who admits to supporting the stated positions of their chosen representatives. Lovely people to share dinner with, their preferred politicians seem so hard-hearted and willfully ignorant.  How can that be? In Harry, Mary and Tom, I saw the opportunity to gain an understanding.

“Let me play the devil’s advocate,” I said, as innocently as possible.

“Sure, bring it on,” said Harry, spoiling for a debate.

Mary and Tom, sitting across from me, regarded me sympathetically, like a poor student in need of assistance.

I thought I’d tread carefully to begin, with something easy. “Do you believe a woman is equal to a man and should be paid the same?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Harry.

“Sure,” said Mary, as though my question were the most naïve she’d ever heard.

Tom nodded.

“Should a woman have control over her own medical decisions?” I asked.

“I know what you’re getting at,” Mary jumped in. “I know it’s not part of my religion, since I’m Catholic, but I completely believe a woman should be able to make her own decisions about abortion.”

“Wow, you get double points for that,” I said, smiling.

“We have daughters and grand-daughters,” said Tom. “Of course we think they’re entitled to equal pay and to make their own decisions.”

“What about gay people?” I asked. “Are they equal, too?”

“Of course,” said Mary. “Even if you don’t actively support gay marriage, why would you actively oppose it?”

“Good question,” I said. “I can’t figure that out either.”

*****

I became aware the rest of the table had paused to listen. Katie, to my far right, made a facial expression I took to mean: “Are you sure you want to do this?” Intrigued, or reckless, I plunged further: “Do you think there should be reasonable background checks to prevent domestic abusers, mental patients and ex-felons from obtaining guns?”

“Absolutely,” said Harry.

“That’s just common sense,” added Tom.

“What about fracking?” I asked.

“I’m all for it,” said Tom.

“It’s for the economy,” said Harry. “And energy independence. Are you against it?” he asked me.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate in North Carolina,” I said.

“Why not?” asked Mary.

“Because we have a large population, a tourist economy, sandy soil conducive to leakage, and only a minimal amount of oil or gas,“ I said.

“Well, is it EVER acceptable in your view?” asked Harry, warming to posing the questions.

“It might be appropriate in North Dakota,” I said, “since there’s tons of oil there, almost no people, no tourists and the soil isn’t sandy and permeable. Still, even there, the chemicals should be disclosed.”

“Agreed,” said Tom.  “You know, we Republicans do care about the environment. You can’t just roll back all the protections.”

“We breathe the air and drink the water, too, you know,” said Mary.

“See,” said Harry, beaming, gesturing warmly to the entire table. “We can have a serious, political conversation here. We can reach reasonable conclusions. We can respect each other.”

“Absolutely,” I said, wondering when they would veer off to major disagreement.  “On to another subject.”

Harry’s wife, Amanda, patted my right arm. “You go get ‘em,” she said. “I have to go through this every day at home.” Everyone laughed.

I turned back to my three-person panel. “What about the concept of ‘clean coal’ and the alleged ‘war on coal’ that Republicans blame on Obama?”

“Haha,” said Tom. “No one’s stupid enough to think coal can ever be clean.”

“But why do Republican candidates claim it’s wonderful?” I asked. “So they get elected,” said Harry. “They have to say that stuff.”

“And the war on coal?” I asked.

“Same thing,” said Tom. “You gotta get the votes. The birthers and the crazies love that stuff.”

“Would you agree cheap natural gas has more to do with the plight of the coal industry than Obama?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Mary. “But we do have to protect the people in the coal states. Their economies are bad.”

“That’s right,” said Harry. “What are those poor people in Kentucky and West Virginia going to do without coal mining?”

“I suppose their economies have done fabulously in the past 150 years WITH coal-mining?” I said.

“Oh, there you go,” said Tom. “Getting a little sarcastic.”

“Well?” I asked. “What do you suggest those people do for a living?” said Harry.

“Perhaps,” I said, “instead of strip-mining the tops of their mountains, companies could develop wind turbines or solar panels and construct the necessary grid connections. Those projects would create thousands of jobs, without spills and without explosions. Did you know there are now more solar workers in America than coal workers?”

All three of them looked at me wordlessly. Finally, Tom asked: “Are you serious?”

I nodded, but before I could say: “You can look it up,” Mary began to explain her motivations for supporting the GOP.   “There are two main things: securing our border and education.”

“And don’t forget welfare fraud,” said Harry.

“And the need for more military spending,” said Tom.

“Whoa, one at a time,” I said, smiling. “Let’s discuss the border.”

“We have to know who’s coming in,” said Harry. “Anyone could be pouring across the Mexican border. Democrats don’t take that seriously.”

“You do know Obama’s presided over more deportations than any other president?” I said.

“I’ve heard that,” said Tom. “But he sets the wrong tone, with the amnesty and all.”

“Terrorists are crossing over every day,” said Harry.

I had to ask: “How many of the 9-11 terrorists were from Mexico?”

“Oh, you’re good,” said Harry, admiringly. “Very good. But if we had a wall at the border, we’d worry a lot less about bombers.”

“You mean like the Tim McVeigh?” I asked. “I doubt he chose tacos as his final meal.”

“Very funny,” said Tom. “We have to know who’s in the country. We have to fingerprint them.”

“I guess that would be helpful,” I said. “But the FBI knew about the Boston Marathon guys. They ‘checked them out.’ It didn’t prevent the bombing.”

“Security will never be perfect,” said Harry. “I still think the first step is to secure the border.”

“And who’s going to build the wall?” I asked. “When it’s finished, will the laborers be asked to finish painting on the Mexican side and stay there? Who will pick our fruit? Who will mow our lawns? Who will clean our houses?”

“Those are problems,” said Mary. “Would you deport all those people?” I asked.

“Of course not,” said Tom. “We need some way to legalize them.”

“Did the candidate say that in his presentation?” I asked.

“He can’t SAY that,” said Harry. “Everyone understands that.” He gestured to the rest of the dining room, filled with cheerful, prosperous diners.

“After all,” said Mary. “We’re a nation of immigrants.”

*****

My hamburger had grown cold. My sweet potato fries had long ago been stolen by my table-mates. I took a deep breath and plunged in again.

“What’s the Republican solution to education? I read that forty-six states approved of the Common Core standards. And now most Republican-led states are balking. I don’t begin to understand the specific issues, but why did they agree, and now they don’t agree?”

“It has something to do with testing and parent choice,” said Mary.

“Okay. What about them?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure, either,” said Harry. “But we have to put teachers in a position to do a better job. They need to be respected like professionals.”

“You sound like a Democrat,” I said. “Would you support raising their pay?”

“Not with raising taxes,” said Mary. “Nothing can be solved with taxes. As the candidate said, we need to cut waste and fraud.”

“Ah, that’s a good phrase,” I said. “Sounds like the candidate has studied the Fox television talking points.”

“Don’t make fun of Fox,” said Harry. “MSNBC is just as bad.   There’s a lot of waste and fraud in government.”

“Especially welfare fraud,” said Mary.

“And food stamp fraud,” added Tom.

“I don’t condone welfare fraud,” I said.

“And it costs money we could otherwise spend on our military,” said Mary.

“Is that why the GOP proposes to raise military spending while lowering social spending?” I asked.

“That’s right,” said Harry. “We need a strong defense and there’s plenty of money available on the social side.”

“I agree we need an effective military,” I said. “But I suspect fraud and waste in military spending far exceeds welfare fraud in real dollars.”

“Aha, an MSNBC talking point, no doubt,” said Tom.

“Actually,” I said, “no less a hawk than John McCain pointed out that there are billions, with a B, dollars of waste and overruns in our weapons programs. Welfare fraud is measured in thousands and millions.”

“So you think Boeing and Halliburton executives are worse than welfare queens?” said Harry.

“They can be,” I said. “It’s just that when those executives are crooked, we aren’t as interested because they look like us and we’d enjoy dinner or golf with them.”

“That’s very cynical,” said Tom.

“Still true,” I said.

“How do they get away with that?” asked Mary. “Why don’t we hear about that?”

“Could it be because defense contractors make huge political contributions? I don’t think the same could be said of welfare recipients,” I said.

The table quieted for a moment as we concentrated on the dessert menu. The rest of the table had tired of our debate and resumed chatting with each other. I wondered if I’d ever be invited to the club again. Still, I figured I’d gone so far already, I might as well finish the conversation.

“So tell me,” I began, addressing Harry, Mary and Tom. “Your positions deviate from the stated Republican positions on guns, gays, women, fracking and a path towards legal status for undocumented immigrants. Once you verify that military spending is at least as wasteful as welfare spending, you’ll look at that differently, too. None of you profess to be against environmental regulations. How do you support candidates who don’t express any of your relatively progressive positions?”

“Like I said before,” said Tom. “They have to get elected.”

“So what voters are they talking to?” I asked.

“Those people out there,” said Harry, gesturing to the windows. “The people out west, and in the deep south. The ones who like Palin and Cruz, the nut-jobs.”

“So you feel the Republican candidates don’t actually believe what they’re saying,” I said. “They’re just speaking buzzwords to get the votes of the low-information, low-education voters and then, basically, winking at the high-end Republicans like you?”

“Bingo!” said Tom. “That’s what they have to do.”

“So you have no problem with the disconnect between the stated positions of the candidates you support and what you believe to be their real beliefs?” I asked. All three nodded. I found myself where I began. I STILL don’t get it. If there are not rational, real-life explanations for why these intelligent, kind people vote the way they do, are there irrational explanations? What factors might come into play? I hesitate to ponder too deeply lest I dislike my own conclusions. Readers are welcome to weigh in.


IT’S IN THE JEANS

“Blue jeans are for farmers,” said my father.
I heard that pronouncement throughout childhood, first directed to my older brothers and, eventually, to me.
Lou Sanders’ Menswear in Philadelphia stocked Wranglers and Levi’s for customers but never for home consumption. There were few things my father, who had been born to a poor family in Ukraine, felt so strongly. He had no objection to selling work clothes to laborers, but his children were not to appear like proletarians. This belief was ironic, given that my father was far more sympathetic to the politics of the Red Army than to the White Army when the two alternately over-ran his childhood neighborhood.
I never managed to understand my father’s fickle political philosophy. I recall him reading the Socialist Workers’ newspaper when I was little. He was so sympathetic to Communist ideals I wondered, sometimes, why he ever left Russia in the first place. I understood, on some level, that it was a matter of economic opportunity and freedom from religious persecution, but he would not express distaste for the Soviet Union even in the face of Stalin’s obvious depredations. Perhaps, he held an idealized memory of his childhood there. But considering his family chose to flee the country, how ideal could it have been?
On the domestic front, my father disliked Johnson and despised Nixon, but he complained bitterly about those who demonstrated against them, too. He was equally dismissive of politicians on the liberal side, such as Humphrey or McGovern.
The picture painted above is more negative than I mean to depict. When my father skewered someone or something, it was, fortunately, usually leavened with wit and insight. A listener might wince at first, but a nod or smile often followed.
In race relations, he appeared colorblind in his dealings with customers. He found something negative to say about whites, blacks and hispanics, without discrimination. He derided members of all the world’s religions, including his own, without distinction. In fact, the more devout a person, the more harshly they would be criticized for their presumed hypocrisy. Somewhere, in his rarely-discussed formative years, my father developed deep skepticism of human motivations.
None of my father’s commentary prevented him from being an effective salesman, however. Anyone who shopped at his store was treated like a prince, at least until they were out of ear-shot. Thus, it was difficult to know exactly where he was coming from. His positions were strongly-held, even if they were completely contradictory. “Consistency? Ech, who needs it?” he would say, if confronted.
The subject of blue jeans bridged the gap between my father’s two realms, the store and home. Of course, he supplied his sons’ clothes. When he was young, my oldest brother, Barry, was indifferent to his wardrobe. Whatever my father brought home was okay with him. But David, two years younger, fashioned himself a rebel, relatively-speaking. In most families, he probably would have been “normal.” If my father would not bring home jeans, David earned his own money to buy them. This teenage flashpoint presaged subsequent battles over car choices (my father preferred a staid Buick; David a red Camaro), facial hair (David grew a full beard during a college-era camping trip which my father made him shave as a condition to re-entering our home), and girls. My father conveyed his disapproval wordlessly in that area, with just a withering stare. But that’s a different story.
I observed the fashion and other disputes from the advantageous position of being ten years younger. Some suspected and others declared my conception had been a “mistake.” Nowadays, the euphemism is “unplanned.” According to family lore, my father, who was fifty at the time, fretted during my mother’s pregnancy that I would be born with grey hair. Once I was born, however, he was dutifully positive and loving towards me, if rarely home. He worked, after all, seven days-a-week.
I grew up lacking rebellious impulses. I figured if my father worked everyday to feed, educate and clothe me, why should I aggravate him? Thus, my warm-weather pants were khaki and my cold-weather pants were corduroy. This wardrobe never struck me odd as a child but, as I reached my teen years and, especially during college, I realized I was unique. This fact appealed to me — initially self-conscious about my “squareness,” it gradually occurred to me I was the true non-conformist among my classmates, thanks to my over-arching conformity. (If the reader is confused, I understand. Any psychologists out there are welcome to weigh in).
In my twenties, several female friends took note of my lack of “style.” They bought me “designer jeans,” as gifts, with elaborate stitching and buttons. Depending on what I judged my prospects with a particular girl, these were either returned immediately to the store or placed in an obscure corner of my closet, just in case a desire for continued romance in the future made my stubbornness expendable. But the necessity of wearing jeans never became clear and, by the time I reached thirty, it appeared I would lead a jean-less life.
My father sold the store a few years before he died. Many things had bothered him, including: politicians; stale rye bread; cold coffee; and, rock-and-roll. Several things about me had also bothered him, such as: my lack of interest in the store; my lack of enthusiasm about practicing law; my choice to attend a college other than Penn, which he called “The Greatest University in the World.” But my wearing blue jeans was never one of them.