Archive for the ‘Serious Stuff’ Category

Bring Back the Draft? A Parent’s Perspective

January 8, 2020

And so the tit-for-tat begins. Iran responded with what is clearly a symbolic military strike, using its own ballistic missiles to show their capacity and technology to strike, but not with the devastating impact that allowed America the political room not to escalate.

But you can read about that anywhere from those more in the know than I. One of my areas of expertise is, however, being a Dad. My High School freshman came back from school yesterday talking about how his AP World History teacher (yes, I’m humble-bragging that my 9th Grader is taking an AP class…) engaged the class in a discussion on what’s happening with Iran. It seems the core element of the discussion was Mr. Moses trying to calm their fears of war; noting that Iran recognizes that U.S. military might is not something they want to instigate a full-scale fight with.

Of course, Mr. Moses is likely right, and the Iranian response seems to validate that theory. But that hasn’t kept my College freshman’s Instagram from blowing up with fears of war—but more pressing to young men and women—fear of the draft. It reminded me to make sure that my boy was indeed registered with Selective Service as I did 30-plus years ago.

My big fella has a lot of his mother’s practicality in him, and spent most of the time trying to settle his friends down. I agreed with his rationale and rationality. There is no political appetite in this country for a draft, and with the force-multiplier of technology (remember, it was a drone that killed Suleimani), the likelihood that we’re going to spend the time and money to increase the size of our standing forces is a distant threat to Millennials and Gen Z.

But while something like a draft would mostly impact my sons’ generation, and the impact that Millennials have on the workplace and culture are almost obsessively covered by the media (AOC, anyone?), very quietly, the overlooked middle child of the “O.K. Boomer” battle—Generation X—are taking the levers of leadership. Indeed, as this fascinating article points out, The Global Leadership Forecast for 2018 shows that Xers have taken the majority of world leadership positions for the first time.

Besides the certainty that music attained it’s absolute height with Peter Gabriel’s “So” in 1986 and there can-and-will never be a better action movie than Raiders of the Lost Ark (note: it is NOT “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Wars” is NOT “Start Wars: A New Hope”), I as a GenXer remember the establishment of AmeriCorps, President Clinton’s initiative to expand the notion of service beyond the military or international aid (aka Peace Corps) both by providing direct government services such as teaching, construction, and poverty amelioration with grants to existing organizations to bolster their ability to employ and expand their reach. Indeed, it is a model strikingly similar to the signature program that the first GenX President put in place—Obamacare.

I’ve often termed Generation X as the “Live Aid” generation. In general, it’s a notion that we want to make the world a better, place, but there’s no reason we can’t do that and keep the things we love about the world we have. Global hunger? Okay, let’s have a mega-concert and collect a zillion dollars to feed the hungry!

Indeed, I’ve heard from so many of my contemporaries the notion of “working the problem.” Perhaps that’s why as a coach I am so taken with the the RAMP-C method from the Heads-Up Baseball school. Calm down, breathe, don’t get ahead of yourself, and give the best you have at the moment to an immediate goal. Reset, assess, and go at it again. It’s not sexy. It’s not revolutionary; it just works.

I graduated from college before AmeriCorps kicked in. Instead I went the nonprofit direction, spending the next two decades working for various arms control and environmental organizations. I’m still proud of the little, tiny sliver of a Nobel Peace Prize I can clam as my organization worked as part of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. But as much as I loved the idea of AmeriCorps back then, I must admit that I had to look it up this morning to see if it indeed still even existed. And when I mentioned it to my College Boy, he looked back at me as blankly as if I had asked my Denison University first-year whether he knew the Occidental College fight song by heart (Of course, it’s, Occidental Fair!).

Right now, he’s planning on public service, but in the government arena as a Poli Sci major. While as a history nerd and non-profit advocacy vet I’m proud of that choice, getting him upped for Selective Service has really reinvigorated the aspirational ideal of AmeriCorps in me. As I mentioned in my last Iran post, when I was a student in Israel, I almost marveled as my friends packed-up the dorm room in order to do their tour in Gaza as part of their obligatory military service.

In a nation so polarized, could mandatory national service be a way to empower the next generation toward a sense of a common future? And could we afford such a thing?

The more I think about it, the more I think that we cannot afford not to.

I’ll leave that on a cliffhanger. In my next post, I’ll give you my idea of why, and how, I think it can and should be done, and how I got at least my Gen Z College Kid to sign off on it.

Batman, Bibi, and the Killing of Quassem

January 3, 2020

“Life only makes sense if you force it to.”

—Earth 99 Batman/Bruce Wayne in the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths

Maybe it’s just me, but this one feels different.

The US assassination of Quasem Suleimani, general and leader of the Qods Force of Iran, doesn’t feel like the usual tit-for-tat in our endless war. This would be like Iran directly assassinating our Secretary of State or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Several intelligence sources have noted that both the Bush and Obama administrations had Suleimani on their radar and had opportunities to conduct similar strikes. Both administrations decided not to move forward because of the potential for uncertain results.

However, one of those Bush Administration officials, Michael Doran, saw this move as a positive. He said in a “hot take” in the New York Times:

In Washington, the decision to kill Mr. Suleimani represents the final demise of Mr. Obama’s Middle East strategy, which sought to realign American interests with those of Iran. Mr. Obama’s search for a modus vivendi with Tehran never comported with the reality of the Islamic Republic’s fundamental character and regional ambitions. President Trump, by contrast, realized that Tehran’s goal was to replace America as the key player in the Middle East.

I personally disagree with Doran’s assessment of the Obama Administration’s efforts in the region. I see it more as a belief in multilateral pressure as the key component to moving adversarial powers in the region to policy directions more in line with stability and U.S. interests. Such a core belief had its successes (Iran nuclear deal) and failures (rise of Islamic State) much like the very similar global foreign policy successes (Oslo Accord) and failures (Rwandan Genocide) of the Clinton Administration.

So while I might see that part differently than Doran, one thing I completely agree with is that this action marks the final demise of the Obama (and Clinton) Middle East policy. And, at it’s core, I believe what that means is particularly tragic.

It means the death of hope.

And that’s where Batman comes in.

For while I don’t have Mr. Doran’s pedigree, I have a Nerd’s Eye View he lacks.

While I tried and just didn’t enjoy the soapy, millennial stylings of most of the CW’s “Arrowverse” shows, I have always come back for their crossovers, as to date they have brought back and referenced the “multiverse” of heroes beyond just the shows currently on. And this time, leaping off the seminal 1980s comic series Crisis on Infinite Earths, the writers decided to go all out, bringing in everything from Christopher Reeve’s iconic Superman to my Batman, the Batusi-dancing caped crusader of the 1960s.

But while perhaps the most satisfying part of the first three episodes has been Brandon Routh’s return as the successor to Christopher Reeve (Bryan Singer deprived us of a fantastic era of Superman with his poorly constructed film), what has been most striking was the iconic voice of Batman, Kevin Conroy, making his first live action appearance as the Broken Bat. For while we first think he will become the “Paragon of Courage” we quickly learn that, instead that what light was in this Dark Knight’s soul was snuffed out long ago.

If you’ve got a little over 4 minutes, here’s the segment in its bleak, glorious entirety:

https://youtu.be/62GpdErpjr4

In essence, this feels like what would have become of Batfleck in Batman vs. Superman had he succeeded in killing the last son of Krypton. Indeed that Batman says almost the same bleak line that I quoted to start this piece, before finding hope in Superman’s humanity as Clark seeks to save his earthling mother even at the cost of his own life.

But this Bruce instead saw his world as a bleak and endless battle; the only survival coming from forcing one’s will on reality. It is why he rejects Kate’s pleas to help save the universe. The end of everything is a release from misery:

KATE: Do you understand how many people, how many worlds, are going to die?

BRUCE: If they’re anything like this world, maybe that’s for the best.

KATE: How can you even say that?

BRUCE: Because there is no hope for this world.

For me, this is at the very core of why despite the failures of Clinton and Obama (for Clinton, I highly recommend the incredibly difficult, but entirely brilliant book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch), I will take this world view of neocons like Doran, who tried to force the Middle East to make sense by attempting to export western democracy at the edge of a sword.

Indeed, I remember seeing hope spring in the Middle East when I was studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the summer of 1992. Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party had just come to power on the promise of a serious effort toward peace with the Palestinians. Israeli friends of mine who had to leave school to do their tour of duty in Gaza expressed a spark of hope that it could be their last. And, almost unanimously, they told me that I should be following their lead and voting for “Kleenton.” Time to take a chance on the man from Hope.

Perhaps somewhere else in the multiverse, Rabin avoided assassination at the hands of a Jewish zealot fed in part by the political machinations of one Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. I could go into detail, but if you want the full picture, I recommend Dan Ephron’s seminal Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel. Or perhaps there’s an Earth where Rabin’s slaying inspired Yasser Arafat into seizing on Ehud Barak’s offer at the Camp David summit in 2000. But we don’t live on those worlds.

Instead, Israel’s hope was broken, and what replaced it was Netanyahu’s cynical efforts to bend the situation to his will, inclusive of the call-and-response of Hamas missile attacks on Israel and Israeli strikes aimed at high-level military operatives in Gaza. The Labor Party of Rabin has been reduced to an afterthought. In its stead are parties fighting over who can best manage dystopia.

In this fateful action the Trump Administration has taken, it smacks to me of that final surrender of hope. While it began with abandoning the nuclear agreement and the international consensus behind it, this action feels like Batman finally snapping the Joker’s neck. A decision to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven.

This morning, my wife retweeted something from Congressman Richard Dangler (D-WA) that I think should resonate with any parent:

I try to be a little less judgmental, but the worry rings true.

But despite how I feel, I still find some light. The world’s greatest superpower is still a democracy even in the midst of a growingly undemocratic world. Change is still possible.

As the multiverse collapsed, Brandon Routh’s Superman, flying from universe-to-universe trying to save what was left of humanity, returns to the heroes, slamming his fist on the floor having failed one now-destroyed reality. Lois Lane (from another universe, his Lois was murdered by The Joker) attempts to comfort him:

LOIS: Clark?

SUPERMAN: I couldn’t save them.

LOIS: Do you want to take a minute? Looks like you could use a break.

SUPERMAN: When I put this on—this crest—I made a promise, to keep fighting, no matter what.

LOIS: Hey, why’d you add black to it?

SUPERMAN: Because, Lois, even in the darkest times, hope cuts through. Hope is the light that gets us through the darkness. I must go back.

And in this moment of darkness, I will—no, I must—hope that maybe, just maybe, that we can Make America Super Again.

A Useful Tool

December 14, 2019

So here I am on my fancy new iPad my sister gave me for my big Five-O. The last two iPads were victims of my Forgetful Forties—both sacrificed to the travel gods when placed hurriedly in airplane seat pockets while coordinating the family exodus.

The nice thing about a new device—and a new decade—is that it gives me a chance to both start fresh and look back. I always love when cognitive dissonance comes into play—it’s such a wonderfully human trait. After all, every person has an inalienable right to hypocrisy.

As far as starting fresh is concerned, my mid-century tech boost enables me to bid farewell to the literally dozens of failed blog posts, op/eds, and first chapters that litter my old PC. Indeed, I’m really hoping this missive doesn’t wind up in the same virtual dust heap as all those others—it will at least prove that something is different this time. For my 40s featured mostly a point/counter-point that started with some point, and countered with my realization that I really wasn’t making my point particularly well.

The 40s me simply hated the sound of my own voice.

Indeed, I recently made this point to my great college friends in life in a 50th birthday bash weekend in LA. 30 years after wandering as boys into Eagle Rock, California, Thom, Dan, and I rounded back to see the decay, gentrification, and renewal in both our old stomping ground and ourselves. To quote one of Thom and my favorite pop culture characters—FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper—such trips are invariably both, “wondrous and strange.”

Dan became a business and marketing expert, though his true profession is people, as it was even back in school. His interest in culture and his natural ease enabled him to build a career that for years took him hopping all over the globe, mostly in Asia. Even so, he and I always had a small pang of regret that we never tried our hand at following Occidental College legend Terry Gilliam in the art of satirical comedy.

Both caustic and quick, Dan and I found pleasure at pushing at pillars we thought needed toppling. Our most memorable campus moment came when we decided that the Oxy Glee Club’s annual Valentines Day foray—going into classes and serenading a student at a lover’s behest—needed a counter. Dan and I felt that it unfairly left out the angry and alone among us, and used our friend Thom as a willing rube to regale his class with a thrilling rendition of everyone’s favorite tune, “I Hate You, You Dirty Sonofabitch!”

Ah, the college comedy stylings of Dan & Scott…

Unlike we Python wannabes, our accomplice Thom did decide to make a career in comedy. He’s written and directed some fantastically funny short films, and with representation now seems on the verge of his long-deserved breakout moment. As we sat in the hotel drinking in every moment together (as well as some plain-old drinking), I gathered a bit of bravery to expose some of my vulnerability.

“So do you ever get frustrated with what you write?” I queried.

“Of course!” Thom responded. “Sometimes I just can’t find the right line, the right joke, and I’ll just put, ‘think of something funny here’ as a placeholder.”

I envied his ability to simply push on over that obstacle. But I selfishly wanted to get more to the heart of my own issue.

“But do you ever look down at the page, and just find yourself sick-and-tired of your own writing? Do you ever just dislike your own voice?”

Thom’s response was almost instantaneous, almost reflexive.

“Oh, that’s just ‘imposter syndrome.’ You can’t let that creep in.”

Our conversation moved on, but my thoughts dwelled on the apparent ease in which he was able to dismiss what for me as a writer is at my core. Indeed, even as I write this, I feel both verbose and whiny.

But my new iPad compels me forward.

So I will punch the keys.

I can see that for Thom, imposter syndrome might be the correct diagnosis for such a malady. But I’m not so sure that applies to me. Not everyone is a good writer—and there are many out there who think they have talent, but simply do not. Why can’t my poor self-review be honest, rather than simple self-loathing?

People who like you, love you, root for you are oft unflinching in their support; for your happiness is their happiness. That’s not selfish—at least not in a bad way. It’s human nature—a symbiotic circle of giving and reciprocity. And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make, as a fabulous set of four philosophers once crooned.

I understand this as a husband and father. My greatest moments of joy and satisfaction lie in knowing my family is thriving. My greatest fears are their struggles. My greatest failures are their failures. I have invested my entirety. And so it is only natural to want a return.

The same goes for my, “relentless optimism” as a coach. I simply do not have it in me not to invest in the kids I work with. To simply give them Xes and Os defeats the purpose of teaching the game. And while I’ve come to understand that my own style needs to change with both age group and the particular player, I cannot distance myself from every pitch, swing, and throw my players take. It’s probably not healthy, but it’s true.

But while I understand that selfish altruism (there’s fun with cognitive dissonance again!), the flip side of that comes with it the pressure to measure up. In my personal case, it’s the pressure that I think comes from everyone who wants you to see yourself as positively as they see you. If they think you are awesome, and you don’t think you are awesome, something surely must be wrong with you. It must be imposter syndrome. It must be depression. You must need therapy, Prozac, something so you can see what they see.

As a teen, my mother put me on anti-depressants, and everyone just loved how happy I was. But I didn’t feel like they were helping me. It felt more like they were replacing me. I felt like I was feeling someone else’s feelings. Like I was the me others wanted to see.

I stopped taking those medications, and some 35 years later with an incredible wife and two fantastic boys, I’ve never regretted the decision to be me; warts and all.

This is not to say I don’t think medication is a bad thing in itself for mental health. It is a crucial component for many and I don’t begrudge anyone that choice. But for me, it was a moment best captured by James T. Kirk in one of the fleeting moments of quality from the ill-fated Star Trek V. When the antagonist Sybok attempted to enlist him as a follower by releasing him from his greatest mental anguish, he refused, saying, “I want my pain. I need my pain!”

And here you thought you’d escape an arcane pop-culture reference. Wrong blog.

In my 20s, that pain was tempered with the endless, impetuous possibilities of youth.

In my 30s, that pain was put to use with empathy, passion, and love to build a family and career.

In my 40s, that pain overwhelmed me with the realization that the endless, impetuous possibilities of youth had given way to the understanding that inevitably comes to most—that I was not special. My mark would be local—not global. I was good at my job, but so would the person taking my job after me, and the next. That what I contributed might be of value, but it certainly wasn’t novel. Indeed, “Midlife Crisis” isn’t a stereotype for nothing.

Here in the infancy of my 50s, my pain has dulled into a sort of resignation—no—an understanding is perhaps the better term. I am loved and lucky. I have made an overall positive impact on the lives of the people closest to me, and of some others around me. I will never become a best-selling author or write the bill that changes the world. I understand now better than I ever did before that the more you learn, the less you truly know. But I see that what I have become still has its utility.

My pain and I are, at last, partners.

I am, finally, a useful tool.

And, at least right now, that is enough.

Wonder Woman vs. The Filter Bubble

December 26, 2016

Actors Gadot and Carter pose for photos during an event to name Wonder Woman UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls at the United Nations Headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York,

Much to my boys’ consternation at times, I’m an “NPR in the car” parent.  If we’re going somewhere they need to get pumped-up for, say to a sporting event or a workout, I’ll let them pop it on music, but mostly they’re regaled to the lilting tones of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

On Sunday mornings, we toggle between acoustic sunrise (kids in a bad mood so I know they’ll complain) and the TED Radio Hour (got enough sleep and not thinking about Monday just yet).  Last week, TED won out, and I got a chance to listen to a great story on a 2011 talk by Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser.

His was a sobering talk about the advent of “Filter Bubbles,” our new algorithmic masters.  The talk is less than nine minutes and very much worth your time.  In short, he decried how the most ubiquitous ways we get our information, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Flipboard, are all “personalizing” what you see based on clickthroughs and user information.  This used to be only for ads, which I personally never saw as an issue, but now it filters everything from search results to friends’ posts.  The result is that the online “world” for us becomes a proverbial bedtime story; gently rocking us to sleep with warm, comforting words.  I believe that makes us as a people more self-righteous and thinner-skinned whatever your political slant.

Our outgoing President would seem to agree.  Again owing to my NPR-nerd side, Obama spoke in a fascinating, wide-ranging interview with Steve Inskeep, he had this to say about the advice he’s given to his daughters about political dialogue:

“… my advice to progressives like myself, and this is advice I give my own daughters who are about to head off to college, is don’t go around just looking for insults. You’re tough. If somebody says something you don’t agree with, just engage them on their ideas. But you don’t have to feel that somehow because you’re a black woman that you’re being assaulted. But speak up for yourself, and if you hear somebody saying something that’s insulting, feel free to say to that guy, “You know what? You’re rude” or “you’re ignorant” and take them on.

But the thing that I want to emphasize here though is, the irony in this debate is often-times you’ll hear somebody like a Rush Limbaugh, or other conservative commentators, or you know, radio shock jocks, or some conservative politicians, who are very quick to jump on any evidence of progressives being “politically correct,” but who are constantly aggrieved and hypersensitive about the things they care about, and are continually feeding this sense of victimization, and that they are being subject to reverse discrimination.”

I think Obama’s point is a valid one.  There’s a delicate, yet vital line between disagreement and insult, and I think we have, collectively, strayed too far as a society toward conflating the two.  But what I would add to the President’s insight on this is that while we shouldn’t be looking for insults, we should be actively looking for disagreement.  Testing (and sometimes disproving) our assumptions helps us to be better people, parents, and for me, a better coach.

So, to give myself a little pat-on-the-back, one thing I’ve been doing for a while to get out of my filter bubble is that I’ve chosen “Conservative News” as one of my interest areas on Flipboard.  I noticed over time that because I was choosing to read more progressive than conservative stories, the Flipboard algorithm was bubbling away and that the conservative stories in my main feed were dwindling down to nothing.

So rather than go to the main feed, I always spend at least a few minutes going directly to the conservative news section.  Now, I’ll fully admit, most of what I see I have a hard time getting past the headlines on.  Here are a couple of examples of stories I really had to force myself through:

  • Islamist Terrorists Continually Slaughter Christians’: Trump Says What Obama Refused to Say: The whole “Call it Islamic Terror” thing has been a terrible dog whistle, and this article has nothing new to say on the matter. There a reason why ISIS is delighted Trump won the election, as they yearn to be taken as the No. 1 threat to Western civilization.  So good on ya for playing right into that propaganda.
  • Freakout on the Left: I can’t even begin to tell you how much I detest the deflection on the fact that Russia actively hacked into our election process. This kind of editorial backslapping is so filled with misstatements I can’t even begin to go through them all.  The larger point I feel being missed by most isn’t the fact that Russia hacked for Trump, but that it hacked at all, and succeeded.  That’s not just a past threat, but a pernicious future one that is tremendously worrisome.  Articles like this make it that much more difficult to find common ground on what should be universally accepted: it is not good to have foreign powers use covert means to destabilize our democratic process.

But while the lake runs deep with articles like these that make my blood boil, there are ones that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen that stretch the gray matter a bit more.

An article from The College Fix (“Original.  Student Reported.  Your Daily Dose of “Right Minded” News and Commentary from Across the Nation”) posted a challenging article on a black teaching in Milwaukee who was suspended from his job for giving his 7th Grade students a persuasive writing assignment to defend the KKK.

The article is, to my mind, fairly written—not overly defending the teacher or the parents.  The suspension came down over the fact that 7th Grade was too young to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of a hate group, but coming off reading To Kill a Mockingbird, the notion of seeing the perceptions of even the worst of people seems to me a challenging and appropriate assignment.

As a teacher, I could easily see myself making that choice, as arguing for the worst of people is often the best way to understand and ultimately undermine their arguments.  Perhaps 13 is too young and perhaps the assignment could have been couched better, but I find it hard to think that a teacher trying to create a challenging and thought-provoking assignment should be suspended.  There’s that line between disagreement and insult that Obama was talking about.

As I continued to wade through, I ran across an article that was a nerd’s must-click.  This one from The Blaze, best known as Glenn Beck’s online home, emblazoned, “Israeli actress playing Wonder Woman responds to UN giving her character the boot as ambassador.”  The flap, for those who aren’t aware, is that Wonder Woman was given a ceremonial ambassador for women’s rights with both the original TV Wonder Woman Linda Carter and current inhabitor of the character Gal Gadot celebrating the long history of the character championing women’s rights.

The Star-Spangled spandex and the animated version’s impossible body-type inspired a petition to remove the Themysciran princess from the UN-appointed roll.  Gadot, who has embraced the chance to play Wonder Woman as the roll of a lifetime, was less-than-impressed by the rationale behind the protest.  From the article:

“There are so many horrible things that are going on in the world, and this is what you’re protesting, seriously?  When people argue that Wonder Woman should ‘cover up,’ I don’t quite get it. They say, ‘If she’s smart and strong, she can’t also be sexy.’ That’s not fair. Why can’t she be all of the above?”

I had to say I was behind the sentiment of the article, but I do take issue with the article’s subtext.  Note in the headline the choice to say “Israeli” first.  The notion of “cultural imperialism” that some of those protesting WW’s inclusion has absolutely nothing to do with Israel.  Indeed her citizenship is entirely irrelevant to this particular story the way it is written.

Until…

At the very end of the article, as an aside, there’s this tucked away:

Gadot has come under attack in the past from social justice warriors for her background as an Israeli national, an Israeli Defense Force veteran, and a denouncer of Hamas.

Look how the article bookends anti-Israeli innuendo into a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.  To me, this is perhaps the worst traditional journalistic practice—the “wink-and-nudge” editorializing within a solid piece of reporting.  To me, it undermines an excellent, thought-provoking point about the need to look past labels (or the spandex) and see the value underneath.  Indeed, I dare any one of the protesters to sit down and watch the wonderful Independent Lens documentary Wonder Women! and not see the immense and complex contribution to the world that this character has to this very day.

So while I was disappointed by the way The Blaze decided to cover the story, there was still room there for agreement.  Indeed, the best defense for Wonder Woman came just days later from Eli Pariser’s Upworthy (wonderfully written—well worth the read).  And when the two ends meet, to me that can be the place to burst the bubble and start a real, productive conversation instead of a label-throwing fight that simply puts us once again in our ideological corners.

So whatever place in the ideological spectrum you are, go hop out of the slowly warming pot of water that is the filter bubble.  For the more we seek disagreement, the easier it is to find the space for common ground.

“They’re Not Jewish”

December 16, 2016

national-menorah

It’s one of those memories that burn.

23 years ago or so, I took a girl to an Indian restaurant in Adams Morgan.  She was friend’s with my roommate, and from the first time I met her, I knew this tall, beautiful woman could talk, drink and think circles around time.  If she ever actually liked me, I knew immediately this had the potential to be much, much more than just a hookup.

And so I took a chance, and on our first official date, I said something that I knew might make her run the other way.

“I really like you, but I value our friendship.  And I think there’s real potential in our relationship.  So I just want to tell you up front that one thing I need is to have my children raised as Jews.  If that’s not something you’d consider, we should just stay friends, as I don’t want to lose that.”

I remember her saying she appreciated my honesty.

And I also remember at that moment I thought I had just tossed the best thing I ever had out the window.  The strains of Tevya’s “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof strained in my mind’s ear.

But it wasn’t.  She asked if that meant that she needed to convert.  I said absolutely not.  Not long after, we were roommates, and a few years after that, engaged.

That’s a wonderful memory, but it’s not the one that burns.

As we decided to start our lives together, one thing we were looking at was the right fit for us, and our future children, was a synagogue.  I was brought up in a conservative household, and still enjoyed the rituals and traditions and underlying philosophy of Judaism—particularly the notion of Tikkun Olam; the notion that we are partners with the almighty to assist in the perfection of the world.  My work, my coaching, and my writing are entirely infused with that concept to this day.

But despite my background, I was a skeptical about taking our interfaith relationship in that direction.  Intermarriage is something of a “crisis” to many conservative Jews, and I wanted Kirsten to feel welcomed for who she was.  But I didn’t rule it out, either.  And one of our synagogue shopping stops was the largest conservative synagogue in the D.C. area, Adas Israel, was only a couple of Metro stops away.

And so I called to ask about whether we could attend a service and talk to the rabbi.  A woman with a distinctly New York accent got on the line.  I remember her name was Tobie.

I told her our situation, and what we were looking to do.

“So how do you practice?” Tobie inquired.  I was a bit taken aback as I didn’t expect this to be about me.

“Uh, I light candles pretty much every Friday,” I stammered back.  “I attend services on the High Holidays, and I’m always home for Pesach.”

There was a pause.  And then there was a sentence I will never, ever forget.

“That isn’t Judaism.”

Stunned, I mumbled, “Uh, okay.”

Then she started rambling.  Something about my needing to invest more in the rituals and how important that was, and reconnect with my Judaism in a meaningful way.  None of that mattered, as she had already lost me with that most insulting of phrases.  It wasn’t that her opinion was better.  Not that she was more connected to the Jewish community than I was.  It was that everything I felt and believed was invalid.  I did not have the right to believe or feel the way I did.

That isn’t Judaism.

That’s what burned.

I do not now nor did I then believe that was the way that Adas Israel itself wanted to speak to young Jewish kids like me, and I don’t hold it against the congregation.  But I will never forget that, in all my life and among the many anti-Semitic jabs taken at me over the years, I have never felt as insulted as a Jew as I did that day.

And then I got a chance to read about our prospective new Ambassador to Israel.

To quote from today’s New Yorker:

“Finally, are J Street supporters really as bad as kapos? The answer, actually, is no,” Friedman wrote in Arutz Sheva. “They are far worse than kapos—Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas—it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”

Asked about this piece of wisdom recently at the Saban Conference, in Washington, Friedman doubled down. “They’re not Jewish,” Friedman said of J Street, “and they’re not pro-Israel.”

They’re not Jewish [epm. added]. This is a calumny of the most disgusting order. But hardly a new one. Netanyahu, in the hope of solidifying his conservative and religious base, was once overheard whispering in the ear of the Sephardic leader and rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, “The left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish.” The question of Jewish identity has for centuries been a matter of debate and halakhah, Jewish law. It has never, to my knowledge, been a matter of bankruptcy law.

Friedman’s view is Tobie on steroids, and taken now to a global scale.  He goes beyond disagreeing with those that dissent from his viewpoint, and goes even beyond dismissing those viewpoints.  He delegitimizes.  And not only the viewpoint, but, like Tobie did to me, he delegitimizes the people behind the opinion.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is excruciatingly complex.  I’m not going to get in to the details here but for anyone who wants to get a flavor for just how tenuous a lasting peace was even at its zenith of hope, I highly recommend Dan Ephron’s excellent work, The Killing of a King.  There are sides-within-sides-within-nuances-within-conundrums.  Those that try and make this simple on either/any side is doing a tremendous disservice to their own argument.

But this is about something beyond the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and beyond Israel itself.  To elevate a man who chooses to question not the validity of the argument, but the validity of the person, is someone, and something that is beyond question an insult to governance, regardless of issue or viewpoint.

Both America and Israel built their democracies on disagreement.  It has helped to check direction, strengthen argument, and create enduring institutions where the voice of the “other” had to be heard.  The selection of David Friedman is contrary to what is best in both peoples.

I AM a Jew.  I AM and American.  As “real” as any other.  And the minimum I expect from those that govern is to acknowledge those fact, regardless of my viewpoint.  The fact that this is actually a matter of debate at this moment should give every American and every Jew, regardless of their viewpoint, pause and cause to leap past politics and understand that there is something truly dangerous to free society afoot.

It’s Not Fake News – It’s SPAM

December 15, 2016

spam

Back when I was with the Union of Concerned Scientists, I ran a nice little feature called the Hybrid Timeline as part of our (Webby Award-winning — yep, still bragging a decade later) HybridCenter website. In an effort to combine both issue and consumer advocacy, we looked to give folks the most up-to-date information on how the hybrid car market developed, what was on the market currently, and what looked to be coming down the pike.

As we wrangled with EPA folks and Congress over the minutiae of weight-based fuel economy rules and whether pee-based technologies could be an effective particulate matter reduction technology for Diesel engines (I kid you not), it was actually quite nice to take a bit of a mental break and just surf the Web for news of a cool new car that might push the Prius off its perch atop the fuel-efficiency world.

At one point, I found a news story that sounded really exciting.  Toyota had made a concept hybrid supercar and it looked sweet.  Most concept cars never see the production line, as they are more intended to show what the technology could do, rather than be something that gets the full production treatment.  But this one site had a story saying that Toyota decided to go ahead with the car, nicknaming it the “Priapus.”  Now, this was before Tesla really even got off the ground, so the idea that a carmaker was going to go high-end with a hybrid was extremely exciting.  So much so for me that I posted it on our website without giving it a second thought.

After a few months, one of our engineers was perusing the site and said, “Uh, Scotty, have you actually taken a look at the site for the “Priapus?”  I think it’s actually something like The Onion.  I went to the site, and sheepishly saw that it did say “satire” in the header.  That said, I reread the article, and despite the fact that it was from a satire site, didn’t really find anything particularly funny about the article.  Perhaps, I thought, the author mixed in satire and fact.

So I went to the author and asked whether, perhaps, this was true, and if so where he got the information.  He responded quickly and succinctly, noting that anyone who might take the name “Priapus” seriously must be someone with, shall we say, special needs.

I think he was being satirical.

That was my first real experience with what we are now calling “Fake News.”  What it showed me was how much I personally was willing to look past in order to reinforce my own hopes, and how easy it was now in the age of the internet to see anything on the screen as potentially legitimate.

My mistake was pretty innocuous, all things considered.  I admitted my mistake and removed the Priapus from the timeline.  Not even once did it cross my mind to arm myself, drive to Toyota’s headquarters, and self-investigate as to whether the Pripus was really heading to market.

But that’s where we have evolved.  A few years back, we all got a giggle out of when the Chinese government would confuse an article from The Onion with actual fact.  But now, what we are calling “Fake News” is a cottage industry, going beyond cherry-picking of facts and gross exaggerations to creating outright lies.  And whether the end game is political or financial (from articles I’ve read, the latter seems more often the case), this phenomenon is now a common and disturbing part of our dialogue.

Now, there are far better places than this to get excellent information about the sources, motivations, and impacts of so-called “Fake News” than this blog.  I bow to the expertise of excellent investigative journalists and technology experts who are covering this, some of whom I’ve linked to in this post.  What I want to talk about is the fact that I think we are already losing the war of words with the term we have so far chosen.

To be blunt, “Fake News” just doesn’t cut it.  It is overly simplistic, implying only that what you are reading is not true.  Jon Stewart would often call his program “fake news.”  As noted, satire sites have been doing this for years, occasionally tricking the random dictator or clean car advocate.  Grouping in those who plant false and conspiratorial stories, sometimes even using false major network headers to hoodwink the public, have essentially been grouped into the same aggregate.  That both confuses and lessens what has become a growing, serious threat to discourse in our society, particularly our kids.

Worse still, the term “Fake News” has already been corrupted.  Donald Trump has cited major news sources being wrong about the election result as another example of Fake News.  Of course, this is in no way the same thing, but it has allowed those that profit and are ideologically strengthened by the propagation of lies-as-news to not only co-opt the term, but help to further erode confidence in genuine investigative journalism by branding it with the same brush.  And, sadly, the media itself has been complicit in reinforcing this muddled perception.

In the old days when print mattered, it was fairly easy to get a sense of what was real and what was fake.  Print cost money, so the difference between, let’s say, a thoughtful-yet-conservative source like the National Review was easy to discern from the tinfoil hat crowd, who published amateurish pamphlets in far smaller numbers.  But in the age of the Internet, it is now much harder for even a discerning reader to tell the difference.  Frankly, most mainstream news sources these days just look like filler for the sea of click-bait ads that generate the revenue.  This reinforces a false equivalence among sources of information.

And so with that, I would ask those concerned about this phenomenon to end the use of the term, “Fake News.”  We need something that better, and I believe we already have a term in our online lexicon that covers it:

SPAM

What we are seeing with these stories are nothing more than a new wrinkle on the Nigerian Prince just needing your bank account information to send you his riches, or that irresistible erectile dysfunction treatment just begging you to click through to virus-land.  Whether it be clicks-for-profit or malicious political tampering, we’re just seeing folks looking to dump crap online for the purpose of their own gain. That is a big difference between a satire site, or ideologically-driven commentary that might cherry-pick facts to suit their world view.  The latter IS an issue, and a significant one, but it is distinct in both its problems and its impact.

So call it SPAM News.  Or Social SPAM.    Or just plain SPAM.  Or, hey, come up with a better term that encapsulates not only the outright falsehood, but the malicious nature of this phenomenon—I’m all ears.  But I believe the longer we call it “Fake News” the more we turn a pressing problem into more white noise on the web.  This is an issue that needs more than identification, it requires stigmatization.

And so I ask all you readers, posters, and writers out there to please help not just educate, but change how we converse about SPAM in the news.  Because if we hope to have any chance to have a real dialogue about real issues, we cannot be entitled to our own facts.

Post Election Stress Disorder

November 9, 2016

bruce-wayne-president

Frustration.

Powerlessness.

A feeling like your voice doesn’t matter.

Anyone feeling that way today?

Frankly, I’ve been feeling that way for the better part of a year now.  It’s why while I’ve been busy as Dad and Coach and certainly have some stories to tell, SHYB has been in a virtual shutter.

I’ve started dozens and dozens of posts.  On the need to rethink the way we teach kids baseball.  On how I reacted when a young player said to me—“You’re weird!”  On the demise of the Super Hero genre even as it rises.  On the exchange between my 15-year-old son and my mother when he linked his own experiences being bullied for his stutter to the actions of our President-elect.  Those and many more gathering dust on the virtual shelf.

I cannot finish them.  Any of them.  And I’m struggling to keep going even at this moment.  I’ve reached a point where I simply don’t like the sound of my own voice.  In the constant drone of social media, the endless chimes of incoming email, the explosion of availability of news both true and “truthy,” my words feel redundant and trite.  My voice does not feel special, or even valuable.

And last night didn’t help.

Or did it?

I started Stop Hitting Your Brother to take a look at parenting and pop-culture from a conflict-resolution standpoint.  And, in this moment when we face four years of an almost literal “Bully Pulpit” I have heard those like Van Jones say, “What do we tell our kids in the morning?”

I know this is hyperbolic, but the feeling I have today has a strange taste of 9/11.  I remember in the days after the attacks, I started looking online at potential jobs in smaller towns in the Midwest.  With DC as one of the ground zero locations, I worried for my infant child and thought perhaps it might be better to head elsewhere to better protect his future.  Given Canada’s immigration site crashed last night, I’m guessing others are dealing with a similar emotional déjà vu.

It was that fear of the unknown—the horrific prospects the Id of my imagination happily filled—that made me feel unable to ground myself in the reality of that moment.  I knew the world was profoundly changed, and in a way that dashed my dreams of a post-Cold War world where, while we still struggled with the complexities of ethnic hatred and economic disenfranchisement, was a world that was better than the one that we had left when the Berlin wall fell.

Ironically, we woke up today on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a President-elect who used the building of one as his signature.  And that 9/11 feeling of a diminished, depressing future – of a country not struggling to overcome its past demons, but one who would prefer to ignore them (and some even celebrate them) in favor of the illusion of past greatness sears my soul with a disturbingly similar dread.

Now, I’ve seen folks like me posting and writing inspiring and consoling lines from Anne Frank and MLK.  Believe in the good in people.  The arc of history bends toward justice.  This Huffington Post piece that tells us we should tell our kids that we will protect them from the big, bad, Trump first and foremost.  And with those yawps into the perceived darkness come the unsure retorts of those seized by it – we are simply not sure anymore: of the light in people; of the arc of justice; that we can or should tell our kids that everything will be all right.

I don’t buy it.  My belief in this country is profoundly shaken.  But this moment — at least for me — is saying something different.

For me, it brings to mind another profound philosopher, Ms. Rachel Dawes.  Don’t know who that is?  Well, of course, she’s the assistant DA and long-time friend of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins (hey, it’s SHYB — of course there’s going to be a pop-culture reference).  As she said to an apparently vapid billionaire playboy:

“It’s not what you are underneath.  It’s what you do that defines you.”

To be honest, I’m not sure people in general have a “nature.”  And I’m not sure it matters.  The idea of recompense for good deeds is alluring, but it presupposes some kind of emotional payment that may never come.  Instead of proffering a better vision of a future I am entirely unsure about, what I feel like I can do is figure out what I think I can do today that will make our world a little more loving, a little more tolerant, and a little more understanding of others.

Obama told us to hope.  But maybe it’s better to just act hopefully instead, and let the chips fall where they may.

An election is a competition, and we get very caught up in the “winning.”  It’s understandable, given everything that is on the line.  But, as a coach, I get the fact that no matter how hard you work, no matter how well you do things, someone out there just might do it better.  Or someone might take a great pitch you made and flair it just over the infield for a game winning blooper (my best analogy at the moment for a candidate who won more votes but lost the election).  The result, however devastating, should not…cannot… invalidate the effort.

I am fearful today, I will fully admit.   I have less hope than I had 24 hours ago.

But I think I have found the power to act hopefully.

To show my children through my actions what I think the world should be whether it ever ends up that way.  That tolerance, inclusion, and love is how we should both live and give no matter what comes back to us in return.  That the value is in the effort, and that failure is part of the learning experience, and helps make us better people and our future actions more effective.

My first step in this process is right here, right now.  I will reclaim my words and my voice on this blog, and in my books.  I may still very much doubt who I am underneath, and what I do may define me in a way I don’t like.

But it is what I do.

I encourage all of you who feel like I do to go and do, too.

Well, what do you know, I finally finished one.

Why Utley’s Slide Matters to Youth Baseball

October 11, 2015

WinFor RubenMy older boy was playing a game last week in Fairfax County with his high school JV team.  This being his first experience with this level of baseball, it’s been quite the education for him.  For rather than play in the JV division, his team is playing other varsity teams, meaning big, strong kids with pitchers hurling well north of 80mph.

Gus has struggled a bit at the plate, as has almost every player, but he’s held his own.  And his team was holding a 3-1 lead going into the 7th inning of a well-contested battle.  Gus was catching, and our new pitcher was struggling badly.  He had already given up a run, had walked four batters, and they had the bases loaded with no one out.
When the count went to 3-2, we awaited the inevitable.  Our pitcher went into his stretch, came set, and…

THONK

…the lights went out.

10pm.  Nite-nite for this particular field.

The 7th inning ceases to exist, and we win 3-1.

As the gossamer batter threw his shadowy helmet to the ground in frustration, all of us parents looked at each other with a guilty grimace.

“That’s not a good ending for anybody,” said Joe, one of Gus’s former youth travel coaches, whose son is also on the team.

I am reminded of this given the ugly events that happened last night with Chase Utley breaking the leg of Ruben Tejada in the NLDS Game 2 between the Dodgers and my beloved Mets.  While the event wounded my not-so-inner Mets fan, it and the reaction to it hurt CoachN more.

Here’s what I posted on Facebook in an open letter to MLB:

Dear MLB.com you, and the umpires you employ, decided to show baseball-loving kids around the country that, so long as you think you can get away with it, it is okay to try and hurt a defenseless player because the play is so important.

I heard the talking heads on MLB Network talk about how catchers are now protected, so why not middle-infielders? THEY ARE PROTECTED! THERE IS A RULE! It just takes the minimal courage involved in simply doing your job.

This is made far worse by the fact that it was Chase Utley, a Hall of Fame-caliber ballplayer with a history of playing dirty. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. Hard-nosed is fine, it is great. But Utley has crossed that line multiple times, and your cringing from the proper course of action is an open encouragement for hyper-competitive players and coaches to think that somehow this is acceptable because, after all, the Dodgers won in the end.

Youth baseball, particularly at the travel level, is plagued by the “Winning is the Only Thing” mentality. It is a significant reason why participation in travel baseball is down across the country, as parents are increasingly wary of putting their children in a system where their values and priorities for their kids, such as fair play, respect for teammates and opponents, and that the competition is as important as the result, are subverted by a concept of the game that prioritizes results over process or even the rules themselves.

Your umpires, and then the subsequent confused, half-hearted, finger-pointing “defense” of what happened by Joe Torre only serves to reinforce this notion.

As a Mets fan, I was okay with losing last night. Not only did we already win one, the Mets have given me a thrilling season win-or lose. What you and your umpires have done by cowering away from upholding the rules damages the game in ways well beyond this game or this series, or even the Major Leagues itself.

As a father, a youth coach, and a fan, I am disgusted by everything that has happened during and after that play. You should be ashamed. I will certainly be addressing this with my players, as hopefully at least someone can learn the right lesson from this event.

With greatly diminished respect,
Scott Nathanson
Manager/Head Coach
CoachN’s FUNdamentals

Utley has now been suspended two games for the illegal slide.  As one Twitter poster noted, “I wonder if Tejada can appeal his broken leg?”  Of course, Utley has appealed, like a true bully refusing to admit he’s done anything wrong.

For while my son’s victory came with a bit of embarrassment to his team, Utley and the reaction by his Dodger teammates and Major League Baseball has embarrassed the game.

Making Mandela Meaningful to American Kids through Sport(s)

December 5, 2013

Sport has the power to unite people in a way that little else can. It can create hope where once there was only despair. It breaks down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand. – Nelson Mandela

I’ll get back to my baseball tale soon, but I simply must take the time out to honor the passing of what, as you might gather from this blog, is a personal hero.  Nelson Mandela was such a remarkable man in so many ways, and his journey from nonviolence to armed struggle and back to nonviolence, particularly because the road back was one taken while in captivity, is one of the most remarkable personal tales ever told—and it was told on a global stage.

But while most of us grownups remember Sun City, Biko, and the shantytowns built all over college campuses in the 80’s divestment movement, our kids have lived in a world where South Africa has been a non-issue on the American news stage.  Apartheid is history, and not one most schools teach to elementary and middle schoolers.  So on the day of his passing, I struggled to think about how to make this amazing man connect to my suburban white kids.

And then I remembered the quote from above, and the story of the 1995 rugby world cup that was captured in the movie Invictus, staring Morgan Freeman and Mandella.  I quickly scanned Netflix to see if it was streaming, but, alas, no dice.  Instead, I got even luckier, as the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The 16th Man was ready to roll, and it is also available in its entirely on YouTube as embedded below.

We boys watched this just a couple of hours ago, and both pronounced it, “Very cool!”  I really can’t imagine a better hour spent with my kids today than watching this.  Much like the movie Lincoln gave you a measure of the full man by taking a small slice out if his life, The 16th Man gives you a sense of this pivotal moment in both South African and world history, and the enormity of his courage and his strategic thinking to bring a nation together that seemed virtually certain to be torn asunder by hatred, violence, and revenge.  I cannot imagine actors doing a better job in relating the personal and emotional journey that the South African rugby team went on than the players did themselves.

I think what makes this great for kids is that, at its center, this is a classic underdog sports story with a magical ending.  But the sport here transcends sports, and shows Mandela in a relatable and heroic light that is both true and resonant for today’s kids.

As we discussed it, my little guy immediately made the connection between Mandela and Rosa parks, and we also started an interesting discussion about the current flap over the name “Redskins” for Mandela took one of the most hated single symbols of the apartheid era, the Springbok of the national rugby team, and wore it on his head and his heart, even in the most uncomfortable of circumstances.

I’m so glad I had the chance to share that moment with my kids, and hope that Mandela’s spirit smiled a bit in knowing that his wisdom will continue to make a difference in children around the world who may not have even heard of him until today.

Rest well, Madiba, the epitome of a life well lived.

Jason Collins: The New 42

April 29, 2013

jason-collins-cover-single-image-cutHe’s not a fresh faced California kid with soft hands and cleats with wings. He’s a journeyman center who has probably played with half the players in the NBA.

But our kids need to understand that this is their Jackie Robinson moment.

I went to see 42 on Saturday and will have my review of it soon (a very good film overall), but I just wanted to urge each and every one of you out there to have your sons and daughters read and live through our very own 42 moment.

Jason Collins has become the first active player in professional team sports to declare openly that he is gay. This moment opens up endless opportunities to discuss differences, prejudice, and understanding with your kids. As Jackie Robinson’s journey showed the importance that sports had on the concept of race, I believe we are seeing something of equal importance here. As unlike the overwhelming horror of Syria, for example, something like this gives us a space that is easier to access with our kids as it is right where we live, both literally and figuratively.

And, luckily, Collins himself has written a fantastic piece for Sports Illustrated talking about who he is and why he is coming out now. He parallels with the civil rights movement with passages like this:

My maternal grandmother was apprehensive about my plans to come out. She grew up in rural Louisiana and witnessed the horrors of segregation. During the civil rights movement she saw great bravery play out amid the ugliest aspects of humanity. She worries that I am opening myself up to prejudice and hatred. I explained to her that in a way, my coming out is preemptive. I shouldn’t have to live under the threat of being outed. The announcement should be mine to make, not TMZ’s.

The hardest part of this is the realization that my entire family will be affected. But my relatives have told me repeatedly that as long as I’m happy, they’re there for me. I watch as my brother and friends from college start their own families. Changing diapers is a lot of work, but children bring so much joy. I’m crazy about my nieces and nephew, and I can’t wait to start a family of my own.

The fact that Collins has a long career already is, in some ways, an advantage. He doesn’t need to prove that he can play and coexist with straight men—he’s already done it. The fact that he has a straight twin brother who also plays in the NBA helps to dispel the myths that “it’s just at choice.”

Thank you for your bravery, Jason. Now please read, share, teach, and learn, and let’s all make the most out of this piece of living social history.