George, the First

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George HW Bush may be the most underappreciated president in my lifetime. For my money, he was among the most intelligent, most thoughtfully connected to world affairs, and most humanly decent – in short, among the greatest.

Some might forget the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell during Bush’s tenure, not his predecessor’s. It was a singular moment in world history. In response, there was no chest-beating, no adolescent crowing from the American president, no showy rah-rah cheers but sincere offers of support and peaceful cooperation. A lesser person in the Oval Office might have used the opportunity for personal aggrandizement, or America #1 hyperbole. Bush was matured beyond that need. He personified the best of American strength: scale, connection, commitment, concern for others, and honor.

Some saw his deliberately measured stewardship of the Gulf War as a sign of weakness. In fact, it was a moment of extraordinary strength. He assembled a wildly diverse coalition to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait and kept it together and functionally effective. When the coalition’s objective was met, it stopped fighting was disbanded. Many in America thought Bush should have pushed on to overturn Saddam Hussein but he resisted, for the benefit of regional and coalition stability.

Some saw Bush’s backtrack on his ‘no new taxes’ campaign pledge as a breach of conservatism. It was, in fact, completely necessary after the blindly spendthrift policies of his predecessor. Bush knew it would finish him politically but took the sacrifice nonetheless, for the benefit of the country.

I had the pleasure of meeting Bush only once (with Barbara) but have met and spoken with a number of people who knew him very well. George HW Bush was, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent human being, a brilliant thinker, a mature self-aware person who personified the best of America – not our bluster but our honor and our human decency.

If, as many commentators have been saying over these last few days, he was a symbol of a political  America that is truly gone forever, we should not expect to see his like in the Oval Office again, much to our loss.

May his memory be eternal.

Former President George Bush

Personal Confession: I am (still) a NASA Fanboy

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This past week, NASA showed us very detailed photos from the surface of Mars from InSight, part of a substantial mission to better understand the mysterious red planet.

In the agency’s own words:

“NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is a science-driven, technology-enabled study of Mars as a planetary system in order to understand:

  • the formation and early evolution of Mars as a planet
  • the history of geological and climate processes that have shaped Mars through time
  • the potential for Mars to have hosted life (its “biological potential”)
  • the future exploration of Mars by humans, and
  • how Mars compares to and contrasts with Earth.”

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All that is good and important, of course, but I’m going to be honest here. Even if we didn’t receive immediately valuable data from these missions into space, I’d still be squealing with delight. I love watching rockets take off. I love seeing pictures from space. I love seeing people float around in weightlessness, and have since I was a kid.

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Back in the 1960s, you might remember, NASA was in high gear. Mercury. Gemini. Apollo. I was absolutely glued to our little black-and-white TV watching every second I could. Like a lot of kids my age, I dreamed of donning the silvery flight suit of astronauts and blasting off into the starry dark.

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And when Apollo 11 took off for its rendezvous with the moon, well, I could hardly contain myself. I am likely one of many. According to NASA: “An estimated 530 million people watched Armstrong’s televised image and heard his voice describe the event as he took “…one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” on July 20, 1969.”

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It’s hard, maybe even impossible, to describe to people not then alive what watching that event was like. To me, after many years and many missions, it was a glorious accomplishment but by no means did I think it would be the last. Just like the twelve-year-old fanboy I was, I envisioned continued space exploration going on forever. New missions. New technology. The solar system. The sun. Other suns and other worlds. An infinite pathway to the stars.

Not so much, as it turned out. You know, other priorities. Most people got bored with the repetitiveness of space missions and their relentless efficiency. A few more trips to the moon. All started to look the same. Once you’ve seen it, well, you know.

For me, missions like our exploration of Mars are thoroughly exciting. For the science, sure. But also because my fanboy self just loves to relive the time in 1969 when I and almost the entire world watched the absolute coolness of space exploration.

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Yes, Again

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People have told me I’ve said enough about guns and the pain they cause in our country, that I have made my point and I should move on to more pleasant and useful matters. The truth is, I have written about gun violence so many times over the last several years because it’s an issue I feel passionately about, it is one that has touched me personally, and one that continues to touch me professionally. You can read some of my prior pieces here, here, here,  here and here. 

Turns out, there is no ‘enough’ with guns. There is no measured rationality. It is an emotional thing for Americans. Here, the gun is more than a gun. It is more even than a phallic symbol, as Dr. Freud might have observed. The gun is our nationally-worshiped idol, as historian Garry Wills suggested here.

The adolescent revolutionary wet-dream fantasies of the  ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ crowd, the Oath Keepers, white supremacist militias and other wannabe Rambos keep feeding our national obsession and growing our civilian national arsenal.

Responding last week to increasingly urgent calls for the meaningful reform of gun regulation by the healthcare community, itself in response to yet another mass shooting, the National Rifle Association (NRA), just the latest in a long line of organizations which make their livelihoods from the misery of others, a diabolically effective lobbying organization for arms manufacturers, told emergency and trauma doctors: “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.” [emphasis added]

“Do you have any idea how many bullets I pull out of corpses weekly? This isn’t just my lane. It’s my f— highway.”
– Dr. Judy Melinek, San Francisco forensic pathologist

Doctors, many of whom have very deep experience with the business end of the whole gun-worship thing, were having none of it. Thousands took to social media (with the hashtag #ThisIsMyLane) to post their experiences and photos of their masks, gowns, shoes and floors, blood-splashed from victims of gun violence.

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Here’s what I’ve personally seen in the past year:

  • The victims of mass shootings at a UPS delivery facility, YouTube headquarters, a high school and a local barber shop;
  • Countless shooting victims of lower-profile incidents;
  • Their blood, everywhere;
  • Their frightened, angry and grieving families;
  • Our doctors telling brand new widows that our staff did all we could but that their spouses died anyway;
  • Those widows, along with their children and extended family members screaming with anguish;
  • Our nurses desperately looking to colleagues for emotional support after too many hours of too much death;
  • A 13 year-old kid, who was sitting next to his dad when he was shot, shaking with fear and anxiety, refusing to leave his dad’s side even when he needed to go into the CT scanner;
  • A high school student sitting by himself in our emergency department, having just heard that his classmate and friend had been shot dead, saying over and over through sobs, “What am I going to tell my sister? What am I going to tell my sister?”
  • Our social workers trying to help families, insane with grief, through the first hours after a loved one has died.

And as we Americans purchase ever more guns, call for ever more people to be armed, supposedly for self-protection, arrange ever more gun-friendly playdates with neighboring militias, as mercenary spokespeople like Ann Coulter and Dana Loesch continue to purposefully inflame their audiences, the bloodthirsty maw that is this country looks for its next victims.

Stop writing about guns? Fat chance.

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Family History

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If you’d ever been to Spenger’s, an old school fish place at the foot of University Avenue in Berkeley, you’d know it. There wasn’t anywhere else like it on earth much less in town.

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It was among the few spots Cal students would go with their parents and have an okay time and feel comfortable about the experience. It was an after-game destination for generations upon generations of Bay Area families. It was a hangout for some students and a place for a special occasion for others. It was a place you could take a professor to lunch without breaking the bank (even if you did have a drink or two at the bar while waiting for a table) and without feeling too weird about it.

I once shared an unforgettable meal with history professor Bill Slottman and fellow student Jim Crosby. If you knew either Bill or Jim (or, God forbid, both), you may already be seeing in your mind’s eye what kind of experience that likely was. To say it was both hilarious and insane is an understatement of colossal proportion.

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But for our family, the place had an even longer history and deeper experience.

In the spring of 1941, my dad graduated from high school and entered the California Maritime Academy, in Vallejo, just up the bay from Berkeley, with the intention of becoming a maritime engineer, as his dad was. In December of that year, of course, those plans, and the plans of many other young men changed. The academy accelerated its course, to provide the American fleet with the many new officers it would need to fight the Second World War. Things around the place got really intense and really serious.

One night, my dad and a buddy had a night of leave, and ventured down to Berkeley to find some fun, or trouble, or whatever sailors at liberty do, and happened to pop into Spenger’s. They met a couple of girls and the boys were looking so good in their uniforms, and everyone was just so patriotic and, you know, one thing led to another and, the next thing they knew, according to my dad, the last bus back to Vallejo was gone, without them.

During wartime, such things as missing muster carry extreme penalties.

The boys began to sob and rend their garments and Mr. Spenger, himself an old salt, took notice. He knew, by God, the serious dutch these guys were in, so he lent them one of his fishing boats to get back to the academy, which they gratefully accepted.

As a result of Mr. Spenger’s generosity and trust, no cadet blood was spilt.

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My beloved Erika played in the Cal Band while an undergrad. After every home game, her family would travel up from Fresno to watch her and the Golden Bears play, then adjourn, post-game, to Spenger’s for a meal, some drinks and other traditional merriment.

That last part often included her dad Dwight jumping up on a table with his buddy Gary and leading the place in Cal cheers. I’m told no blood was spilt on those occasions either.

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The place meant so much to us and our families as a place of singular memories that Erika and I made Spenger our son’s middle name.

True story.

 

 

 

John McCain Deserves

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Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a public servant who personally inspired me, died this week.

Many people have taken this opportunity to express their admiration of him as a war hero who endured over 5 years of torture in a Vietnamese prison, their appreciation of him as an old-school legislator who could demonstrate respect and work with those of the other party, their gratitude for his humanity and dignity in trying circumstances.

Others have expressed their serious issues with McCain: he often lately criticized his fellow Republicans but fell short of taking action to stop most of their agenda, especially early in his political career he was known for his temper, his environmental record was unsatisfactory to many, his selection of Sarah Palin was both abhorrent and baffling to political supporters and foes alike.

All these beliefs about McCain can be true simultaneously. He was, by all accounts a complex character who was consciously aware of his personal contradictions. But he was, by any account, deeply committed to the idea of service: in the armed forces and in political life.

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I cannot personally imagine the horrors of enduring years of imprisonment, torture and starvation in a foreign land. I cannot imagine turning down the prospect of early release because I preferred to model solidarity with my fellow prisoners. And I cannot imagine coming back from that experience and looking for ways to further serve my country.

That is an exemplary life, a life worth honoring, commemorating and imitating. Would that his fellow elected officials be inspired to more closely follow his example.

He left a final message, below, that an aide, through tears, read aloud today. May it represent a path forward for our injured republic.

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Thank you, Senator. May your memory be eternal.

 

Appreciating Ed

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In common with many humble people, San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee was underappreciated, talked about behind his back, and made the butt of jokes, not all of them kind. And he seemed to care not one little bit.

He was an astonishingly hard worker with his eye trained firmly on what would benefit the people of his city. He was omnipresent, that is you’d see him everywhere around town: at ballgames and the opera, neighborhood diners and high-society cocktail parties, cleaning up dirty streets and cutting the ribbon at school openings, speaking at corporate conferences and union meetings.

For a person in his position, he seemed to care very little about personal publicity. I saw him often at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (so often, I’d joke with him about moving his office there from City Hall) where he came to visit patients, especially fallen cops and firefighters. No media. No retinue. No fanfare. He came to visit people and their families, and ask them how they were doing and what he could do to help them.

He didn’t get fawning press for his many kindnesses and I don’t think he much cared. I have met very few elected officials with such humility and such devotion to the welfare of others.

He told the corniest jokes, was the biggest fan of the city’s sports teams, and made some adversaries in this liberal, union town because of his pro-business and pro-development policies. But Ed Lee didn’t seem to make any personal enemies. There were many tears the night of his passing. In these ugly and divisive political times, we should all appreciate the example he set in that regard too.

May you rest in eternal peace, Ed. Your city is grateful for your work on our behalf but very much diminished by your passing.

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The Real Driver of Sexual Harassment

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Let’s not start at what is perhaps the most obvious place to discuss a national climate that enables sexual abuse and harassment, our pussy-grabbing braggart-in-chief. (Too on-the-nose, as they say.)

Let’s first think about the tech industry. Reports of the harassment of and prejudice against women are everywhere in tech and reported widely in industry media. No surprise, some would argue, because tech is not only male-dominated and male-led, it is an industry with very few women at any level of hierarchy.

True enough, I suppose.

Without a diverse critical mass, tech has a stereotypical “bro” mentality that fosters thinking of women as the “other”, not to be accepted as colleagues and leaders but to be demeaned, objectified, sexualized and feared. There are precious few women engineers in tech organizations, much less leaders of them.

Most appalling may be the reaction of these tech “bros” to criticism of their industry’s record of marginalization and harassment of women: insinuations of male tech genetic superiority, critiques of women’s contributions to tech (which are historic and substantial), and flat-out threats to those who speak up.

Eyeball social media and see what I mean; it’s sickening.

The case of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has created increased awareness of sexual harassment in America’s workplaces, and we should be grateful for that contribution to our social health. Women in entertainment have been the unwilling subjects of male domination since the industry’s earliest days. And that subjugation has taken on near-legendary status: countless stories of leering producers and casting couches and coerced dressing room assignations.

That a powerful man in Hollywood preys upon the beautiful, young and powerless can be no surprise to anyone at this point. That particular cases, and particular predators, are widely known in the industry, and have been widely known in the industry for long periods of time and have not been called out for their behavior, much less stopped, is disappointing to say the very least.

As human beings, presumably, we wouldn’t want to think colleagues, investors and partners would allow sexually predatory behavior to continue unabated, just because a particular predator was good at getting awards and making money.

But there we are: enablers exist in Hollywood too.

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The most well-documented cases, of course, are likely those of the enablers of sexually abusive Roman Catholic priests. For many decades, the church not only looked the other way and enabled ongoing abuse but shielded the abusers from legitimate law enforcement, from their accusers, and their communities.

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It was only after numerous civil lawsuits and very high-profile journalistic investigations that the church admitted (some) instances of abuse (and the church’s efforts to hide them) publicly.  The conscious and purposeful cover-up reached to the very highest levels of the global church and continues to erode public confidence in the institution.

Worse, it is completely at odds with what the church claims it stands for.

Harassment and abuse also exists in scale, of course, at our schools, colleges and universities, abetted by the typically decentralized structure of academe (especially in higher education). And many educational institutions will not report instances of abuse when they actually occur, or are learned of, only when institutions are faced with public reports and lawsuits.

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All this I know too well from personal experience as a communications counsel to many institutions dealing with sexual harassment and abuse: many people know of the harassment and abuse and too few (if any) will move to stop, or even report it.

After the fact, that is to say after the harassment has already ruined psyches and careers and lives, people will share that “Everyone knew about Harvey,” or “I heard the rumors about Father Timothy,” or “Professor Herman was a well-known pervert,” or “Coach Johnson was always giving rides to his players.”

Let me say this directly and as straight-forwardly as I am able.

Sexual harassment and abuse cannot exist in any institution without the forbearance and enablement of a great many people. People knew that Harvey Weinstein was assaulting young women and DID NOTHING. People knew about that tech venture capitalist and DID NOTHING. People knew about the priests and the coaches and the professors and DID NOTHING.

Why?

Greed. Loyalty to the institution. Sexism. Fear. Personal discomfort. Other reasons.

Several years ago, I told a colleague about a coach who had raped a series of his players over the course of several years, with the knowledge of his school’s administration. My colleague, himself the dad of a little league baseball player told me with firm conviction that, were he presented with that kind of information about one of his kid’s coaches, he’d kill the guy (or at least take serious action of some kind).

And I said to him I hoped so, but based on my substantial experience, I supposed he would instead convince himself he’d obviously been mistaken (because the coach was too nice a guy) and do nothing.

Without our silence and cooperation (active or tacit), sexual harassment and abuse cannot exist in our institutions.