Notes from the Perimeter

Thursday, October 23, 2008


As the leaves burnish and the chill night air of the New Hampshire north country hints of the monsoons of snow to come, it’s hard to remember the tender days of spring when life was bursting up through snowplow debris and, all over the country, graduates were being exhorted by a multiplicity of commencement speakers to get out there and “make a difference.”

Once I was invited to serve as the faculty advisor for a Lesley University Women’s College senior class. My primary duty, as far as I could discover before I declined the honor, was to give a gung-ho speech to members of the class, parents and faculty guests at the beginning of the year. As I was contemplating what I would say, naturally I decided to tell them to get out there and make a difference. Then I thought about it.

The problem is, everyone makes a difference. No matter what you do, your presence on this earth alters the course of things. Each of us is a tiny bundle of gravity imperceptibly curving the space-time around us and inexorably affecting the orbit and the destiny of each person who crosses our path. Even a determined effort not to make one whit of a difference makes a difference. Life can be a bitch.

Change is also a bitch. There’s no question that most of us are pretty unhappy with the current state of affairs. On the world stage, we’ve become Snidely Whiplash: a mean, bloated, ultimately ineffectual cartoon villain. On the home front, we’re the orphans cast out into the storm. As hard-earned money melts away, as the globe continues to warm, as we persist in embroiling ourselves in a war that never should have started and never seems to end, we are adrift in a mess of the administration’s making. However, we the people need to bear our full measure of responsibility for the sea of trouble in which we’re sinking.

Yes, I think it’s fair to say we, the electorate, made some wicked bad choices, but I don’t really fault us for that: elections have become such a game of image manipulation that bad choices are par for the course. However, isn’t it our duty to take some ownership of our choices and hold them – the choice-ees – to the high standards they might have fooled us into buying?
Our contract with our elected officials is complex. We give them permission to make weighty decisions. We allow them to abide by the equivocal notion of “what they think is right.” We laud them with a measure of fame, a degree of power, and some lucre (hopefully not dirty).

In return, the good ones bear a burden of responsibility that, as a friend of mine would say, could choke a horse and which, regardless of which ideological path they follow, they honor by placing duty above profit. The bad ones take the game to another level – it becomes a blood sport in which moderation and nuance are crushed, cronies just by being cronies are lifted up, and spoils are for the taking. Good or bad, they are our surrogates: their mouths might be moving but it is our voice that is heard. And for way too long we’ve tolerated their abuses of privilege while allowing our fears to overwhelm our fundamental courage and decency.

In these perilous times, the very idea of change is like that pair of fantastic Jimmy Choos (for those of you who might need explaining: Jimmy Choos are Shoes) featured in Vogue: everyone wants them. Everybody wants change. Each one claims to offer it, and they all fight over who most represents it. And, truth be told, nobody wants it, not really. For most of us, change feels major, change feels uncomfortable, and most of all, change, even positive change, feels challenging.

Numerous pundits have noted that on this shipwreck we call the current state of our country, it defies reason that we aren’t frantic to flag down the nearest passing vessel, especially one that promises a safe port and full spa treatment on the journey. Despite our protestations to the contrary, we resist change because we doubt what we do not know. Our old, familiar, smelly, scuffed, dowdy pumps feel safe and undemanding. We would have to live up to the Jimmy Choos. And that’s a bitch.

Again the problem: like making a difference, change is a constant whether we want it or not. In fact, life is nothing but change. Someone once told me that we humans cannot experience reality – we can only remember it. Our conscious lives are spent plunging from one unknown to the next. Anything else – notions of stability, predictability, and permanence – are mere illusions.

So, like making a difference, we might as well embrace change since we have no other option. We do have a choice in the matter of what kind of difference we will make and what kind of change we will propagate. We are a brave, honorable people, or at least we used to be, who rose to challenges instead of shrinking from them. I say, let’s proudly choose those Jimmy Choos and once more walk tall, fierce and fabulous.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Trans-International Institute for the Advanced Study of Blogography Welcomes YOU

A couple of weeks ago I was trawling through the channels when I happened upon an entertainment show – The Insider, ET – one of those. Normally I’d just scurry on to something intellectually and spiritually enriching, like Patriots All-Access, but, as I was about to move along, the glam and perky hostess introduced the next celebrity interviewee: Meghan McCain! I wasn’t going anywhere.

First, in this era of separated-at-birth luminaries – the most obvious being, of course, the eerie similarity between Tina Fey and Sarah Palin – I was immediately struck by how reminiscent Meghan McCain is of the actress who played Lucy Ewing on Dallas: Charlene Tilton. Maybe the reason John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his VP nominee (I figure there’s got to be some reason so I’m winging it here) was because he already has a daughter who’s a dead ringer for a movie star – well, former television starlet – and it seems to be working for Meghan… however, I digress.

The reason that Meghan was on the show, other than the fact that she’s a Famous Daughter and a newly published author of a book about her father*, was to respond to a recent comment by Matt Damon: he had said something to the effect that the Sarah Palin hockey-mom-to-nominee saga was “like a bad Hollywood movie.”

“So, Meghan,” chirped the hostess, “What do you say to THAT?”

Meghan executed a perfect shoulder shrug and eye-roll in the best Valley Girl fashion (and that’s not a partisan comment since I’m certain that the Obama daughters could Valley-Girl Meghan right under the table) and then responded, “I think that people should stick to what they do best. Matt Damon should stick to acting, and I’ll stick to blogging.”
Hey ho, epiphany!! Blogging! Meghan’s a blogger! That’s what she does BEST!!

Now, some of you might think that blogging isn’t exactly work. You know, that activity that maybe you go to school to learn and get trained for and then practice and learn some more until you get good at it? Unlike, for example, the rigorous curriculum of coaching principles as propagated by Coach University (I’m not kidding) there is no Institute of Advanced Blogography. There are no rules, no requirements, no nothing. After all, you blog, I blog, we all blog. The serial killer down the street blogs. My cat blogs. What’s so special about blogging? I’ll tell you what’s so special.

Blogging means that you can express whatever brilliant or provocative or revengeful or just plain stupid thought wanders across your mind, and share that thought with potentially millions of people. Scary? No! It’s Democracy at its purest! You don’t have to be informed, ethical or balanced – you simply have to open your virtual mouth and spew. Of course there are people out there blogging away who are reliable, accountable, professional writers but I daresay they represent a tiny fraction of blogworld. Somewhere there’s a gateway to the blogosphere and upon it is writ: “No Offer Rejected! No Credibility? No Problem!” The blogosphere is the most truly egalitarian enterprise that humankind has ever known and the ultimate refutation of the “expert.”

In a previous column, I said I “sort of knew” Sarah Palin. Well, with that as my standard – I don’t know Sarah Palin at all – then I can say, with confidence, that I DO know Matt Damon. I actually, as in personally, know Matt Damon’s mother Nancy. She and I worked together at Lesley University and became friends – Nancy is a nationally recognized expert in childhood education and conflict resolution. And she didn’t utilize her status as Famous Mother to publish her book Taking Back Childhood: Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World (I highly recommend that you check it out – it’s a wise and invaluable resource).

Because I know Nancy and have heard her talk about Matt, I know something of his life and values. I know that, in addition to being wicked cute, very talented, and by all accounts a great family man, he’s a highly intelligent, compassionate, informed and concerned human being who knows whereof he speaks. Why should his profession compromise his ability to comment intelligently on the issues of our day? Would we tell a rancher that his considered opinions about politics are irrelevant because he’s (gasp!) a rancher… as opposed to, what? A blogger? And really, folks, who would know more about “bad Hollywood movies” than someone in the Industry?

Sorry, Meghan. You and I and Matt all have the right to voice our opinions and be judged (by that I mean paid attention to) on the basis of how valid we can demonstrate our positions to be. Not everyone will agree with us, of course, no matter how persuasively we express our ideas – and let’s remember that folks can honestly view issues from different perspectives -- but to dismiss someone on the basis of his or her line of work is tantamount to my saying, “What does Meghan McCain, who’s merely a daughter of a politician, know about anything?” And that I would never do.

*By the way, not to minimize Meghan’s literary accomplishment but, really, if you’re a Famous Offspring you get to do a book about your Famous Parent. It’s in the contract written at birth. I’m sure that Malia and Sasha are hard at work on a book about their dad entitled “When Do We Get That Dog You Promised Us?” Clever how they worked “US” in, eh?