Time For a New One

No human being who ever lived has been held so highly by Republicans as Ronald Reagan; he is often spoken of as one small step below the Divine. Republican candidates fight for the right to be thought of as his philosophical successor. And by that term, they mean the champion of smaller, more decentralized government and lower taxes.

But that’s the Reagan myth, not the Reagan reality.

As the actual historical record clearly shows, they couldn’t be further from the truth. Reagan grew government and raised taxes more than any president who preceded him.

Under the administration of Jimmy Carter, Reagan’s immediate predecessor, the federal government spent 27.9% of GNP. Reagan’s administration spent 28.7%. Over the course of his 8 years in the White House, Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party’s patron saint of limited government, increased federal spending by 60% in nominal dollars.

Candidate Reagan pledged to abolish the Department of Education. Instead, spending by the Department of Education more than doubled during the Reagan administration. Social Security spending increased, as did spending on farm programs, Medicare, and so-called entitlement programs (from $197.1 billion in 1981 to $477 billion in 1987).

Today’s Republicans, it seems, can’t be bothered with such bothersome facts. Reagan himself said: “We’re not attempting to cut either spending or taxing levels below that which we already have.”

The result of Reagan administration spending was unprecedented debt. Reagan tripled the national debt (from $900 billion to $2.7 trillion) during his years in office. He also grew the civilian federal workforce by close to 250,000.

Candidate Reagan promised to cut personal income and business taxes. President Reagan didn’t. Tax increases put into place between 1982 and 1989, equaled $1.5 trillion. Hardly the image today’s Republicans present.

When it comes to the Reagan legacy, Republicans, it seems, would rather cling to the myth than accept the facts.

If Republicans want to continue flogging themselves as the party of smaller government and lower taxes, I’d say it’s time for the Grand Old Party to find itself a new idol.

Energy Independence And Other Fantasies

The people who should know best think it beyond our abilities, American energy independence. Yet, politicians trot out the idea constantly. To the right audience, one that is looking for reasons to further despise the current president, it is red meat.

At the GOP convention, former senator and current political hack, John Sununu, asserted that his party’s candidate, Mitt Romney would, if elected, “…unshackle our assets and lead us to real energy independence.”

Despite the archaic language (“unshackle our assets”?), it played well in the hall but it is complete crap.

The United States will never be energy independent. Never. Not ever. The goal is unrealistic, no matter what national policies are implemented or who occupies the Oval Office. The CEO of one of the world’s largest energy companies has said so. So have most other informed and honest energy analysts and economists.

John Sununu may himself know this. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he does. In that case, he’s posturing for political advantage.

If he doesn’t know America’s true energy reality, he’s just an ignorant fool.

No Heroes of Mine

We go through it routinely, this cycle. Whether through typically purposeful media hype or other more organic mechanisms, we inflate celebrities to the status of heroes. Then comes the inevitable, but somehow surprising fall of these faux heroes due to their completely predictable human failings.

Maybe the problem lies, not with those we’ve chosen to elevate, but with ourselves and our choices of heroes.

After all, what is it we think a hero is?

A hero is not someone who just does extraordinary feats. If that were true, every circus freak would be a hero. No, a hero is someone who does extraordinary feats: (1) while exposing themselves to risk (physical, emotional, to their reputations) or danger; and (2) doing so in order to benefit others. Examples might include, exploring previously undiscovered places, saving others in time of war, or teaching girls to read in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

By that definition, and I say this as a dedicated fan of sport, there is nothing inherently heroic about athletics; athletics being simply being a category of popular entertainment.

The latest revelations about Lance Armstrong have led to a by-now typical round of hand-wringing about the loss of our “heroes.” At this late date, anyone – and I mean anyone – who holds sports personalities as heroes must be: (1) a child, (2) hopelessly ignorant, or (3) both blind and deaf.

Since 1998, more than a third of the top finishers of the Tour de France have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs at some point in their careers or have been officially linked to doping.

Major-league baseball’s latest, but by no means only high-profile cheaters, Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon. Colon was having a solid year and Cabrera was selected MVP of the All-Star game before being caught taking banned performance enhancing substances.

In previous years, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Manny Ramirez were all-star baseball players who used banned drugs.

Olympian and universally-beloved “golden girl” Marion Jones admitted to using steroids.

Want real heroes? Find people worthy of the title.

At the age of 32, Physicist Sally Ride became an astronaut and was the first American woman to orbit the earth. Marine sergeant and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer risked his own life to save 13 US troops and 23 Afghan soldiers by providing the cover in a firefight necessary for their escape. Mohandas Gandhi exposed himself to prison, beatings and ridicule in his fight for Indian rights and independence.

Barry Bonds and his ilk, pardon the expression, aren’t even in the same league.

As long as we continue to elevate entertainment personalities, both athletes and others, to the status of heroes, we’ll continue to go through this wrenching but, in the end, essentially empty and meaningless cycle of apotheosis and public destruction.

Jury Duty

As you approach, you can feel it. The 1960s-era building oozes pain and discomfort. This is no place of peace. Many walk in; fewer walk out. Eyes are cast downward. Shoulders slumped forward. The pace, hesitant. No one really wants to enter San Francisco’s Hall of Justice. Not the people appearing for trial. Not the police and sheriff’s deputies. Certainly not the people, like myself, who have been ordered to report for jury duty this morning.

There is no real edifice, no welcoming lobby. You enter through swinging doors of smudged and dirty glass and enter the line for security screening. Off come belts, out comes pocket change. Bags pass through X-rays.

And into the elevators. Other potential jurors, defendants, box-toting lawyers, bailiffs with their morning coffees in paper cups. Dim and flickering fluorescent lights. Bumpy and jerky ride to the 3rd floor.

Out and left down a dark corridor. Decades of wear have grooved, rutted and marked the floor’s dingy linoleum. The walls of dark grey marble reflect oddly distorted images of the people walking by.

We line up to check in, and it’s quite a line. From the door to Room 307, down to the end of the hall, back the entire length of the opposite wall clear back to the floor’s elevator lobby. They must be expecting heavy business, I think to myself.

Enter the jury assembly room and be seated among the already packed rows of chairs all facing the door. Everyone facing the same way, with the same glazed expression, creates an odd effect. Noisy and busy with people leafing through magazines and catalogs, reading crappy paperbacks, or squeezing in a few minutes of work between obligatory moments, when such isn’t permitted. Too noisy to really concentrate but not busy enough to be fun people watching.

Quiet, please, for the orientation video. Just as on airplanes during the safety video, more than half the room’s people never look up. They’ll be the ones asking questions later, I bet.

Then, the reading of the rolls. Names mispronounced, garbled, mangled. Groans along with the calls of “here” and “present” and “yes,” just like on the first day at a new school. Scanning the room for familiar faces. I spot a few. No friends, though.

Waiting.

The names read, again, to assign us to courtrooms. Those who’ve been through the process before know this is the truly excruciating part. Maybe 100 potential jurors will go into Department 20 with me. (Why are courtrooms called departments, anyway?) We sit in the audience (not the correct name, I’m told) and wait longer.

The room is poorly lit. The walls are covered with taped-up, handwritten notes. Where not to park. Court holidays. Earthquake plans from the 1980s. Important phone numbers in 8 pt type.

After long inaudible conversations between the judge and the lawyers and, frankly, just about everybody else at the front of the courtroom, the rotund and wheezy bailiff calls us into session. Endless boilerplate about the sanctity of trial by jury, the role of jurors, the process by which a jury is selected. We are told that we cannot read, cannot be on electronic devices, cannot write.

A group of us are brought to the front to be interviewed. The general questions asked all prospective jurors – in what neighborhood do you live, what do you do for a living – at least provide a quick and not uninteresting snapshot of the city.

Then, the judge asks people who feel they cannot serve to identify themselves. A long (And when I say long, I mean looooong.) line forms to talk with the judge about lack of language ability, childcare, financial hardship, various religious exemptions. Some are excused quickly. Others interviewed at length and are sent back, sulking, to rejoin the rest of us. This seems to take forever.

But when the lawyers start to pose more specific questions, the torture begins in earnest.

The same, sometimes very detailed and convoluted questions are asked again and again, literally, hour after hour. And it is clear at once which prospective jurors are trying to make the jury (“Oh, yes, I could be fair to an accused serial murderer of children.”), and which are trying to clear out as quickly as possible (“My second cousin’s high school boyfriend was a cop, so I would be more likely to trust the testimony of a police officer.”).

The process takes forever.

And there is no escape.

10 Movies for Grown-Ups

As much as I love watching movies with my teenaged son – we have the same taste in action (Bond) and comedy (gross) – there are times when I need something challenging, real and more substantial. Here are some suggestions for those times when you might feel that need too.

Michael Clayton (2007): George Clooney stars as a lawyer who gets handed all his firm’s dirtiest assignments, and who has long since lost any illusions about life. The narrative is non-linear. The acting is superb. The story is raw and sometimes tough to watch. The ending, while generally affirming, is ambiguous, like real life.

Casablanca (1942): Sure, it’s a classic, and some find the emotions cloying and false. But if you’ve ever been asked to give up something you love for something that may be more important, you know the wrenching feeling Humphrey Bogart has in his gut as he lets Ingrid Bergman fly away. If you haven’t, you’re not grown up enough to get all this picture has to offer.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011): Watch completely compromised people with no illusions. No big-boom special effects here. Just spooks without honor. Not pretty.

The King’s Speech (2010): The behavior of leaders matter, particularly in moments of great consequence. In the days leading up to the Second World War, the heir to the British throne, a vain, self-absorbed party-boy, showed no interest in the welfare of his people and even flirted with German fascism. (For some reason I can’t fathom, he’s often portrayed as a hero who sacrificed a kingdom for love. Please.) Luckily for all civilized human beings, he was forced into abdicating in favor of his stuttering younger brother. This is the story of how the younger heir heroically overcame his disability and led his nation in a moment of singular crisis.

La Dolce Vita (1960): First thing you need to know – the title (meaning “The Sweet Life,” in English) is ironic. Second thing: It’s a brilliant Fellini masterpiece. Third? In addition to being funny and beautiful, it’s more than slightly unsettling.

Roman Holiday (1953): Gregory Peck plays a rakish American reporter in Rome who stumbles on the story of a lifetime but, because of love, never files it. He also bids a final goodbye to the woman with whom he’s in love (it’s Audrey Hepburn) without saying a single word. Hysterical picture with an honest and heart-wrenching ending.

Sexy Beast (2000): Here’s the film to get Gandhi completely out of your head. Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan, a violent career criminal, is on fire in this picture. He spews malice, venom and profanity in equal parts. So much more than a ‘caper’ movie. Existential.

The Big Parade (1925): You know who romanticizes war in movies? People who’ve never been in one. Here are the immutable rules. Armies go to war with bands and parades. They come home to ruin and sadness. This film (It’s silent.) was made very few years after the end of the most horrific war in human history and the scars are evident, fresh and deep.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): Made the year after the end of the Second World War with actual war veterans in the cast. Many veterans came home significantly changed by their war experiences to hometowns that didn’t, perhaps couldn’t be expected to, understand. Both heartwarming and profoundly sad.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962): A woman thinks back on a critical period of her young life with honesty, clarity and insight, remembering her father’s heroic attempt to save an African American man wrongly accused of rape. We should all be so warmly remembered by our children.

Public Works

Outside of our home, here’s what most of my young life looked like: libraries, schools, playgrounds and parks. To be more specific, public libraries, public schools, public playgrounds and public parks.

I grew up about ten blocks from two public libraries. The librarians – there were several – seemed to love having kids around. They took time to show us books, of course, but also how to look, how to use the card catalog (Anyone still remember those?), how to look through magazines and newspapers. There were author programs – a very fine kids’ author, Marilyn Sachs lived in our neighborhood – cultural events, a chess club, reading groups, and many more features that made for a healthy and robust community of young thinkers.

I attended public schools from kindergarten through college. My state was among the top 3 in per student spending for K-12 education when I was of school age. We had many experienced, engaged and talented teachers, books that were ample and new each year, school supplies, enrichment programs, music programs, art programs, school libraries, PE, special events, like spring festivals, up-to-date AV equipment. Once I got to high school, my school offered instruction in French, German, Italian and Spanish. We had several interscholastic athletic teams every season, a school play each semester, frequent musical events. Our science labs were well stocked. I was fortunate to attend my state’s university for a little less than $600 per year in tuition.

I lived across the street from a very well used playground – tennis and basketball courts, athletic equipment, a special play area for littler kids, art classes, a program of day-trips, a professional staff.

A huge urban park was only half a block away. It had a lake with boats for rent, baseball diamonds, a full track, football fields, open meadows, walking trails, horse rentals, a world class fine art museum, a natural history museum, open-air band concerts, a Japanese tea garden, several playgrounds, an animal farm, public art, a working antique carousel.

Almost everything about my experience as a youth told me it meant something special to be a part of my city, my state. I came to understand through that living, breathing, personal experience, then, the very concept of citizenship. I had a clear understanding of what government provided its citizens. I received education, enrichment, socialization, physical fitness, recreation.

Expensive to build and run? Without question. But what did my hometown get in return?

Generations of good, well educated, civic-minded, committed citizens.

When I hear people say they want government out of their lives, I can only assume they haven’t had the same experiences I’ve had. I would hate to think they were self-serving, hypocritical and cynical enough to criticize and even kill the very institutions that gave them such advantage in life.

Karmic Reminders

Why do I have a chronic bad back? Is it the few extra pounds I tend to carry about my middle? Or, rather, is it some sort of cosmic retribution for giving my dad mostly good-natured shit about his bad back when I was a smart-assed kid?

I believe I know the answer. In this world, what goes around, comes around, and payback is hell.

Case in point.

I saw some potentially bad news in yesterday’s paper: The Tosca Cafe, one of the places in San Francisco I love most dearly, may soon close. The reason should be very familiar to anyone paying attention. Landlords want ever-higher rents. Tosca’s North Beach landlord is a strip club that’s already made earning a living very hard for the bar’s owner.

Tosca is the kind of place you see rarely these days. A melting pot and mixing bowl of the city’s very heterogeneous population. A place to go and meet people. A place to go and run into lifelong friends. A place to feel like you’re a part of something special. Here’s the kind of place it is: on one particularly memorable night, I shit you not, my pal Fish and I sat at the bar between supermodel and actress Lauren Hutton and a cabbie named Tim. We listened to opera on the juke box. We joked. We told each other stories. And unless I’m very much mistaken, we all enjoyed each other’s company very much indeed.

Tosca is precisely the kind of place that makes San Francisco what it is.

Tosca’s precarious situation should sound familiar to San Franciscans because so many of the city’s most colorful haunts have been disappearing with increasing frequency. Last year, it was the Gold Dust Lounge, told to vacate in favor of, just what we need more of in the Union Square area, a new national-chain clothing store.

To think of North Beach without Tosca is a sad prospect. To think of it replaced by a Hooters or some other corporate girly club is beyond my comprehension.

My only solace would come from my firm belief in karma. These soulless corporate leeches will get their just payback at some point. You can’t take a place like The Tosca Cafe away from my hometown and not expect some measure of rough justice.

Better sleep with one eye open, leeches. With Tosca gone, the universe will be in no mood for mercy.