The Distrust Party

In situations of persistent conflict, it is really hard to continue to wish good things for your self and your group without also sliding off to wishing bad things for “them.” That is one of the very large problems the U. S. faces at the moment. The COVID 19 pandemic has made that abundantly clear.

The Republican party has become the party of Distrust. One of the things that makes this possible is that it makes some undifferentiated THEM available as a scapegoat. You can urge the party faithful not to support anything that would bring aid and comfort to THEM without raising the question of the best way to respond to the present situation.

The old Republican party wasn’t like that. Heather Cox Richardson reminded me in her column today that President Eisenhower characterized his program as “a middle way between untrammeled freedom of the individual and the demands of the welfare of the whole Nation.” 

There are two positive formulations there. There are things we have to do for the welfare of the nation as a whole. Let’s do those. On the other hand, there is the freedom of the individual to consider, a freedom that needs to be respected. No modern Republican could make an appeal like that because the Republican party as become the party of distrust.

Ross Douthat noted in the New York Times this morning that the simplest way–he granted that there were other considerations–would be simply to pay people to take the vaccine. Among the reasons he gives for this approach is one I like a lot. It is cheap. The return to the society of this paltry investment in the nation’s welfare would pay for the expense many times over.

But…really? Have we been driven as far as that? A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that a lot of people don’t think the case for the vaccine has been made. And why is that? It is because the major institutions that oversee the health of the public can’t be trusted. And how do we know they can’t be trusted? Because the party of Distrust–the Republicans–have been shouting it from the rooftops for forty years. These formerly trusted institutions have become part of THEM.

So what would have become a trusting (and inexpensive) response to the unanimous judgment of the professionals has become a very expensive exercise in compliance that the government is forced to purchase. Providing the services the country needs to an untrusting population is really really expensive.

It can be argued that allowing everyone to exercise their own judgment is the best way to solve the problem. That’s a good looking approach at the beginning, but eventually, we need to say that it isn’t working. So it isn’t “a good way to solve the problem” because it doesn’t actually solve the problem. That would be the place where a sensible society would invoke Plan B, whether that involves punishing people who refuse vaccination or rewarding people so they will accept it.

But both of those treat those plans as ways to solve the problem. If “I get to make the choice for myself” is asserted as a right, then there is no Plan B. That brings us to President Eisenhower’s use of the word “untrammeled.” Untrammeled–literally “unbound”–individualism is the kind that will accept no amount of public benefit as an adequate reason to give up even a fragment of precious autonomy.

In the 1940s, they used to say “there’s a war on, you know” as a reason to do something for the public benefit that the government could not otherwise require you to do. “There’s a war on, you know” saved the government untold trillions of dollars in compliance they didn’t have to buy. Conversely, the persistent cultivation of distrust we have seen from the Republicans–oh, and the Russians, too–does cost those trillions. There isn’t a war on anymore.

And the Party of Distrust considers only the benefit to itself when crucial public programs fail.

That’s really the problem the Democrats face. Even the consistent achievement of crucial public purposes is not going to rebuild trust. Trust is built by explanations, not by achievements. Every beneficial program that can be explained away as “politically motivated” does not have the effect of building up our fund of trust. And “trust is cheaper than purchase,” true as it is, is not the kind of explanation that is going to restore trust.

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My colleague, the Honorable Scumbag from North Dakota

It is a commonplace that the United States is now in a hyperpartisan era. People who think that is not true or who think it is not important often pass it off by saying that nothing is more naturally human that for people to get angry at each other and, while angry, to say angry things. It is “natural,” of course, to say angry things when you are angry, but not everyone does.

I have never personally been in a barroom brawl, but in the dramatized accounts I have heard and seen, men go out for a beer, have too many, pick a fight on some pretext or other and fight it out. It was once very different in the U. S. House of Representatives. People who think that is not true often point to the physical violence that some representatives have resorted to on the House floor, but the fact that they always cite the same few events indicates how rare they are.

You really don’t expect running (candidates) or sitting (incumbents) congressmen to routinely abuse each other and if, once upon a time, someone in the House had proposed the routine abuse of their partisan opponents, he would have had to explain why it was a good idea.

Newt Gingrich, then Republican Whip in the House, did explain why it was a good idea and I am going to tell you how he sold the idea. [1] But before I do that, let me give you some of my favorites. Here are nine of my favorite terms from the list Rep. Gingrich circulated to Republicans running for office in 1990. These are nine from a list of 30.

common sense

“Use these words,” Gingrich says [2] “to help define your campaign and your vision of public service. These words can give extra power to your message.”

Those don’t sound all that bad. Anybody here against “strength” or “duty” or “freedom” or “common sense?”

Here are some items from the other list. This is a list of 36. Again, I will choose nine.


And how shall we justify using these words against the people who, if they win, will be our colleagues in the House of Representatives? This is what Gingrich told them. “These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, his record, proposals and party.”

And they did. And it worked.

There is a lot to deplore in this campaign of vilification. [3] My interest today is only to look at the words by which they were first sold. The words you are to use in “defining your vision of public service.” Some vision. The words you are to use in defaming your opponent (and his record, his proposals, and his party) are words that “create a clear and easily understood contrast.”

Your opponent is a traitor and hypocritical. You, on the other hand, are passionate and principled. Do those create a clear and easily understood contrast? Not really. There is no understanding in those words at all. They don’t require substantiation. They are “feeling words” only—is your opponent actually a “traitor?”—but they sound like substantive charges. And denying these charges has roughly the same effect as admitting to them, so there is almost no risk at all to the perpetrator.

And now the Congress labors to pass legislation that a majority of Senators and Representatives favor and which polls show to be overwhelmingly popular. Thanks, Newt.

[1] I take for granted that there were also reasons that were not given publicly. These were the public reasons.
[2] In the pamphlet Language: A Key Mechanism of Control, which was sent to Republican candidates.
[3] Rep. Joe Wilson, who yelled “You lie!” at President Obama at a joint session of Congress in 2009 is a direct beneficiary of the advice Gingrich gave in 1990.

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Living on Autopilot

Human personalities are incredibly complex. I know that because I have one, myself. And for some purposes, I think we should lean into and fully appreciate the complexity. But there are other purposes—I am going to explore one today—for which some simplification may be helpful.

Abraham Maslow’s famous and widely misunderstood hierarchy of values will serve as an example. He argued that humans have a drive toward what he called “self-actualization” A few other things need to be taken care of first—survival, safety, and community, for example—but as each “need” is met, our attention and our efforts move toward the “next” level of values. [1]

I have something simpler in mind. I have in mind a three part division and I start in the middle with something that could be characterized as “autopilot.” This is the level of functioning—cognitive, conative, affective, and behavioral—that I expect of myself on a day to day basis. [2] There is a plus version, in which I intend and enact “better things.” Notice how much complexity is wiped out there. There is also a minus version, in which I either intend and enact worse things, or simply neglect to intend or to enact at all.

So instead of Maslow’s five levels, I have three. Instead of Maslow’s drive toward self-actualization, I have “doing better” and “doing worse.” Maslow’s scheme is rich and sophisticated and, apart from the problem that his levels are notoriously hard to measure, better for researchers. My scheme is embarrassingly simple, but I will argue, on its behalf, that it is easier to use. I think I have been using it for years, but just today, I thought of names to call it.

In the early 2000s my wife died. We had been friends for a quarter of a century or so and married to each other nearly all that time. Her death devastated me. I withdrew from all the parts of life I could withdraw from and participated minimally in the others. In that deeply deprived state, I learned some interesting things. I learned, for instance, that some things gave me a little boost and helped me move on into the next hour. I didn’t intuit those things; I discovered them. “Hey,” I would say to myself, “That helped.”

Oddly, one of the things I discovered is that buying things helped. It didn’t matter much what it was, although whimsical purchases were better, and it didn’t matter how much they cost. I concluded eventually—no way to tell if I was right about this, but it doesn’t really matter—that making a purchase implied that I would still be there to use it at some time in the future. I would still be here when the TV dinner needed to be eaten or the new chair needed to be sat in or the new CD needed to listened to.

That is when I began to think about the boundary between autopilot and “better than autopilot.” I’m still thinking about that boundary although the depression based on grieving the loss of my wife dissipated [3] and I got on with the business of living.

What is my better self like?

To keep this from getting entirely out of hand, let me treat the “better self” with the metaphor of carrying capacity. This metaphor neglects entirely the fact that some days I really want to do better things, not just carry heavier burdens. It also neglects the fact that on those good days, I am more sensitive to just what is there to do. But, for the sake of simplicity, I am going to deal with Autopilot in terms of carrying capacity. This is what that looks like

Carrying capacity is the simplest kind of notion. Imagine that I am a lifeboat after a cruise ship has sunk. As the boat I am (autopilot) I can take on nine people before we all sink and die. But I am more buoyant in the plus version of myself and I can take on eighteen people without sinking. And I should.

I live in a senior center with, in round numbers, a couple hundred other people like me. We live in our own apartments and come and go as we please. We have the problems people have from time to time and that older people have more of. I can walk into a common area, say a lounge where people are loosely organized around a coffee pot, and tell a lot of things at a glance. I can tell who is hungry for conversation or, maybe, just for recognition. I can tell who is still pissed off from our last discussion. I can tell who wants to ask me to be on a committee or to tell me she was unhappy about the last meeting of the Resident’s Association.

On a buoyant day, I can take on all eighteen. On an Autopilot day, nine. On a minus day, I just keep moving and try not to make eye contact. The water is lapping at the gunwhales as it is.

As a scheme, it’s a lot simpler than Maslow’s, but it also doesn’t carry the ideological baggage of the Maslovian version and I can use it every day. I do like that.

[1] Jim Davies, my grad school mentor, was a Maslovian and he loved words. He used to say that the need for belonging and then the need to be differentiated from the group to which one belongs, could be expressed as the need to be a part; then the need to be apart.
[2] Three of those four terms are familiar. “Conative,” which refers to will and intention, is not often used. The others mean: how I think, how I feel, and what I am most likely to do.
[3] Grief at that level is never really “gone.” There are little triggers that I accumulated during all that time and every now and then something pulls one of them and I remember briefly what it used to feel like all the time.

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The Crusades (again) in the 2020s

I had a friend once who descended from time to time into an irrational rage and he hated to go alone. I am going to describe the process in the form it finally became familiar to me. This will make it sound like a process I understood at the time. It will also make my friends actions sound as if they were chosen and intentional. Neither of those is true.

He would begin by lamenting things we both opposed. Then he would move on to things I thought were less clear. Then to things that angered him but not me. At that point, I would begin to disengage the way one does from a drama that has failed to catch your interest. At that point, he would begin to attack me for mistakes and errors of judgment, past or present, knowing I could not really disengage from such an attack. It was, after all, an attack on me.

I did learn, however, to disengage even from those attacks. Once I saw the pattern, I knew they weren’t really about me, no matter how they were phrased. But even more important, I came to understand that wherever he was going, he would need some help coming back and if I went with him, I would not be able to help. I would be in the same “place” he was. So to honor our friendship and to retain the ability to be of service to my friend, I would disengage even from attacks on me.

When he came back from wherever it was he went, I was still there and was able to help him reorient himself and check back in to his life. He was very resentful when I refused to accompany him but he was grateful that I was still there and still ready to help when he got back.

The Politics of the Pit

Most of my life, politics has been about power and wealth. I’ve gotten used to it. Now it is about virtue and I’m not sure the system the Framers built can handle it. [1] I remember the ease with which I absorbed the idea that the Crusaders went to Jerusalem to take it back from the Infidels = Muslims. They succeeded. Then it was the job of the Muslims to take it back from the Infidels = Christians. You see the problem.

Good and Evil cannot rotate in office the way Democrats and Republicans can. And as liberalism and conservatism—now Trumpism—have moved more and more to waging war against evil, there doesn’t seem to be much of a place for a person who is interested in the old favor-trading coalitional politics. That means there is no room for someone who refuses to be absorbed into the descent into the pit. And it may also mean that there will be no one left to help the survivors out of the pit.

So I am going to have to make the decision about progressive politics that I was forced to make about my episodically angry friend. If I can’t talk you out of it and I am unwilling to go down into the pit with you, then the most I can do is to wait here, hoping that I will be able to make a contribution to your welfare when you come back.

It’s sad, really. Back when progressives, and before them, “liberals,” formulated problems that could be addressed by devising programs and spending money, there were things that could be done. Now that whole areas of public policy have been transformed into questions of “sin,” there really isn’t anything that can be done.

The Sin Axis

Progressives are, by and large, secular, so “sin” might not be the first way to describe the orientation to come to their minds. It isn’t hard to work with, though. Sin is the end point of an axis. It is bad. The closer you get to it the more bad you are, but you don’t get good by getting further away from it. Just less bad. You can sin by “thought, word, and deed” as the expression goes. You can sin by being part of a group that has sinned in thought, word, and deed or that sinned during some part of their history.

There is, obviously, no good end to the sin axis. If “sin,” rather than enacting and funding needed public programs, is the question, then there is only one axis, as there was in Jerusalem where each soldier was an Infidel to the soldiers on the other side. Not “opponents,” you see, but “enemies.” And, further, “evil.”

Progressivism still has programs to support that would improve the lot of people who need them and there are contributions to be made there, but progressivism as a cultural force is like a revolution that has gained momentum and lost balance. It is on its way down into the pit.

I will try to find something useful to do while I am waiting. The decision to refuse to go with them has taken about all the energy I have right now. Still, you can’t spend all your time as a former lemming [2] and I get bored easily, so I will need to find something to do. Finding a way to get back to normal politics would be nice.

Lots of democratic socialist countries do their day to day work as normal politics. Of course, they didn’t get to be democratic socialist countries by normal politics either, so there is work to do.

[1] Very close to the surface of the system the Framers built is Newtonian mechanics. One force balances another. Imagine how that would all have to change if something, say “gravity” were declared to be evil.
[2] I saw the 1958 film
White Wilderness in which the Disney studio purported to show lemmings committing mass suicide by running off a cliff. It was very persuasive. Even now that I know it was staged, I keep the mental movie.

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How well do you want it fixed?

In the early 1960s, I dislocated my left shoulder. After many subsequent dislocations, I decided to see if I could get it fixed. I went to team of doctors who were said to have a lot of experience with athletes. That one piece of information should have prepared me for unusually fine questions, but it didn’t. I told the doctor what was wrong with my shoulder and asked if he could fix it. He moved it around a little with his hands and then asked a question I had never heard before and that I want to think about today. He said, “How well do you want it fixed?” [1]

I long time friend recently characterized me as “buoyant.” I took it as a compliment, of course, but I think what she meant was that I revert quickly to the question the surgeon asked me. I wonder how good something needs to be to be good enough.

I hear people say that they “didn’t get enough sleep last night.” I know what they mean and I never ask, “Enough for what?” It is what I always think, however, and it is what I ask of myself. I don’t sleep as deeply or as long as I did when I was a young man, but the amount of sleep I get is a very acceptable match for the “work” I need to do that day. [2]

So I ask myself, when I am trying to decide whether to get out of bed, “Have I had enough sleep?” I pause, at that point, and consider two things. The first is what I need to be able to do when I get up. The second is, how soon after that could I go back to bed if I really needed to?

Consider these two scenarios. I have something really exciting to do. I feel the stimulation of this “meeting” just in the anticipation of it. I am confident that when the meeting begins, I will be filled with energy and possibly even, depending on the meeting, with creativity. If I am trying to decide whether to get out of bed using the standard, “Have I had enough sleep” on the day of this meeting, the answer will almost certainly be Yes.

Notice that that calculation has nothing to do with how much sleep I got or with how I feel at the moment. The “enough” standard, matches how I feel to how I need to feel. Is that being buoyant?

This way of thinking about whether I have had enough sleep makes it plain that what looks like a property is actually a relationship. I always feel as if “sleepy” were a condition of my body, but that makes no sense at all if the same amount of alertness is good enough for some things and not good enough for others. Think about it. I have had enough sleep to attend a stimulating meeting of my peers but I have not had enough sleep to attend a dreary make-work meeting called by my superiors. Clearly, we are not talking about the same meaning of “enough sleep.”

But consider the implications. Do I need to be taking sleeping pills so I will get enough sleep? No, I need to engage in more engaging activities when I get up. Do I need to be taking stimulants when I get up? No, if I am doing things that stimulate me, I don’t need chemical stimulants. [3] If “enough sleep” is, in fact, a ratio between how I feel and how I need to feel, then altering either side of the equation will work equally well.

The second question I posed above has to do with how long I need to be alert. This is a sort of fail-safe provision. If I can get up and do what I need to do and then go back to bed, I can take that into account when I am getting up. If I can go back to sleep after the meeting, then I can hold it together during the meeting.

It turns out that “How well do you need it to be fixed?” is a question with quite a few valuable connections. Do I need to order from the most exotic menu I have ever seen or do I need to order from a menu that has interesting and nutritious food on it? Do I need a bike that will take sustained speeds over rough terrain or will a bike that does everything I want to do be enough? In my recent (now fifteen years ago) trip into the world of dating, I had to get clear in my mind about just what I was looking for. I was looking for a woman who was “good enough” on the whole host of criteria that are featured on dating shows and truly excellent in the few things that will be important in our life together over the years. [4]

Again, not “traits” but “ratios.” It is not hard to make that case, but it is really hard to keep it at the center of your attention, where decisions get made; it is hard to feel it, when your reasoning is accustomed to thinking about traits.

This is really important to me as a man who lives in an old body. Note the careful phrasing. It is easy to say that all my systems—cognitive, affective, behavioral—are fading. Nothing works as well as it used to. On the other hand, nearly everything still works well enough to do the things I most want to do. “Fading” needs to mean that I am no longer able to do the things I need to do. Again, note the careful phrasing. “Need to do” is not the same as “used to do.”

It’s a ratio and I am free to choose the other term. If I remember. Does that make me buoyant?

[1] I didn’t know what he meant. I said, “I’d like to be able to play basketball.” He said, “Industrial league?” He was a sports doctor.
[2] Ursula LeGuin created an anarchist society in her book, The Dispossessed. In preparation for setting up this culture, the founders invented a new language because they understood that the values of the culture would be embedded in the language. For that reason, they invented a verb that meant both “work” and “play.” Tedious, meaningless activities, to distinguish them from both work and play, were called kleggich. I feel that same way: “work” and “play” are pretty much the same thing to me these days.
[3] Or what they are now calling “energy drinks.”
[4] I have written recently about the importance I placed on the kind of marriage I had in mind and the true necessity that we both be willing to do the work necessary to sustain it.

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Sen. Collins says No to democracy

It always seems odd to me when events that make such sense on one level, aggregate to produce effects that make no sense at all on another level. This is what Adam Smith had in mind when he said that when you look at economic transactions, you see only greed and private advantage; but the whole set of economic transactions is guided by “an Invisible Hand.”

It is what Karl Marx meant when he said that when the mob of proletarians assembles to hang the last few remaining capitalists, the capitalists will sell them the rope because they will make a profit on the transaction.

And, regrettably, it is what Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) meant when she said, about her vote against S1, the “For the People Act, “S1 would take away the rights of people in each of the 50 states to determine which election rules work best for their citizens.” As in the case of Smith and Marx, when you look at one instance, the logic flows one way. The businessmen are being greedy, but the system as a whole works. The capitalists are making an economic transaction the yields a profit when they sell the rope to the leaders of the mob, but they are advancing their own deaths. Sen. Collins is arguing that the states have a right to distribute the vote any way they like but you can’t have a democracy that way and Sen. Collins says she is in favor of democracy.

In each of these instance—Smith, Marx, and Collins—there is a logic at the level of the particular transaction that is reversed in the system as a whole. Sen. Collins would never, I am sure, favor the elimination of the right to vote for all black citizens in the states. I hope she finds it disquieting that the reason she gives for voting against S1 would cover that action as well.

Her argument is that the states have a right to adopt the “election rules that work best for their citizens.” Which citizens does it work best for?

Heather Cox Richardson, in her June 22 post “Letters from an American,” cites research by the Voting Rights Lab.

According to the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab, 18 states have put in place more than 30 laws restricting access to the ballot. These laws will affect around 36 million people, or about 15% of all eligible voters.

I suspect that these voters, the 15%, are not the ones Sen. Collins has in mind. When she gives an absolute right to the states to control their voters’ access to the ballot, she is saying that anything they do is fine with her. The U. S. Constitution doesn’t look at it that way. There are lots of actions that states could take—some, like the poll tax, they actually have taken—that the Supreme Court has declared to be unconstitutional.

But between these two—between the absolute right of the states to control the election laws and the absolute right of the Constitution to forbid the disenfranchisement of citizens, there is an intermediate zone—a zone that has not yet been eliminated by judicial action but that is clearly incompatible with democratic governance. That’s where Sen. Collins is working.

Democracy requires free, frequent, and competitive elections. Even more, it now becomes clear, democracy requires the belief by its citizens that the elections are fair. [1] Sen. Collins is supporting the right for the states to violate the rights of their citizens as much as they like provided that they have decided that “that is what works best for their citizens.”

She has decided, further, that the national government has no right to curb the abuses of the states because the states have the right to make the decisions they are making. The states also have, of course, the duty to insure equal access to the ballot box and Sen. Collins doesn’t say what the Senate should do when the states claim the right to neglect this duty.

I am glad I am not writing her speeches. I have no idea how I would justify that.

[1] “Fair” is a colloquial way of saying “free, frequent, and competitive.”

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Fathers’ Day Thoughts

I always thought that the basis of my authority over my children was that I had their welfare in mind and they did not have my welfare in mind. On the occasions when they argued with me, they found that asymmetry frustrating. They were inclined to want to win the argument. I didn’t mind losing the argument, but I wanted them to argue well.

That wasn’t the only thing I wanted, of course, but I said OK to some things on the grounds that a very respectable argument had been made that I would not have approved otherwise. I don’t think that made me easy to like as a father, but it helped me feel that I was doing them some good. When I needed to be liked, I did other things, likable things.

When my wife died and I had to go back into the dating market in my late 60s, I thought long and hard about what I was looking for. By that time, I had been married most of my life and I knew I wanted to live with a woman I could look in the eye and tell the truth and also one I could work with side by side, each of us valuing the contribution of the other. I came to call those two faces of the relationship “intimacy” and “collegiality” [1] and I knew by then that a relationship that had only one of those two virtues was in trouble.

When I got the two concepts all worked out it my head, I was stunned to discover that that is what I had been hoping for in my relationship with my children. I wanted to work with them as a valued partner does—valued not for who he is but for what he contributes to the common project. And I wanted the kind of acceptance and trust that would allow me to look them in the eye and say what I really thought. To me, that felt like saying who I really am.

The parallel between fatherhood and husbandhood isn’t perfect, of course, but I wasn’t looking for any similarity at all, so when I found it, it smacked in the face. Did I really want my children to grow into partners I could love and also work with? Yup. I wanted that long before I had the words to say it even to myself.

I celebrate Fathers’ Day, not because I achieved all the goals I had as the father of children, but on the grounds that I had those goals and I worked at them because I was their father. It is what that relationship was for. That is the way I saw it then and it is the way I see it now.

I made a lot of mistakes as a father. It was my first time around, after all. But I think that, all in all, the relationships I have with my children are considerably better than I deserve. [2] I still argue with my children when the occasion arises and I take great pleasure in the fact that they argue well. I take special pleasure on those occasions when they argue better than I do. I’ve never been very competitive.

I know they love me and, of course, I appreciate that. But they make allowances for me as well and to do that they have to know who I am—they do—and to be willing to pass over some things out of sheer consideration. I have heard them pass off a mistake of the kind I make frequently by saying to a spouse or a friend, “It’s OK. He always does that.”

As Fathers’ Day gifts go, that is the top of the line and I am very grateful for it.

[1] I didn’t call them that to the woman I was courting until I knew her well enough that I thought I could get away with it, but it mattered to me that “intimacy” came from intimus, “most within.” Colleagues are people who are “sent or chosen to work with each other.”
[2] A father who gets what he deserves from his children is likely to be an unhappy man.

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I can’t take him anywhere

It’s a great line, but it has to be delivered just right. It is accompanied by a rolling of the eyes or a slow shaking of the head. It does some very good things when it is done right and I’d like to explore some of those today.

In the senior center where I live, I see couples celebrating their 50th or 60th wedding anniversaries. [1] There are some bad relationships among these long-lived marriages, of course, but there are some surprisingly good ones, too.

In the good ones, more often than not, the woman shepherds the relationship. She characterizes the relationship as a relationship of a certain kind; she seeks out and maintains the social settings where her own marriage can be well received. Her husband is, in these marriages, more of a bit player. There are things he is good at. She sees to it that he has a chance to do those things, that he is well received, and that the cost of these small performances is kept within the tolerance of the people they are with.

It is in the context of a marriage like this that I hear lines like, “I can’t take him anywhere.” It is a line delivered with mock resignation. That is why the expression “take him” works. She wouldn’t say it of a husband who is not, for any of several reasons, socially presentable. She would be running the risk that the line would be taken seriously. She would not say it of a husband with whom she is currently and visibly at odds for the same reason.

With the proper inflection and body language, “I can’t take him anywhere” is fully compatible with “I am grateful that he still takes me places I want to go.” If the line were taken seriously, the relationship is either one in which she takes him places or he takes her places. Delivered with mock despair, as I most often hear it, it doesn’t imply either of those and the potential contradiction just sits there for anyone to use.

It is a line with a message. The message is tacit, but it is there. It is, “Whatever he just did or said is not to be taken seriously.” If it was a lapse, it was a characteristic lapse. It was the kind of lapse we laugh about in our marriage and we invite you to laugh about it as well.

I remember so well an early dinnertime conversation with such a couple. He said something like, “ I want to tell the story of my time in Texas.” She said, “Dear, you just told that story. He responded, “Well, I want to tell it again.”

At this point, I was thinking, “Oh dear. How is this going to work out.” It worked out great. She reached out and touched his arm and said, “Well it’s a really good story. You just tell it again.” And she looked over at us, away from him, and winked. She included us in the charade and assured us that the cost would be low. And it was.

The kind of recognition implicit in the line I am examining—or in the equivalent, “ Oh..George!”—has the effect of placing the lapse in the intermediate zone. It is not ignored. That would leave the others without guidance as to how to understand it. It is not seriously deplored. That would call attention to the statement or action rather than to the man himself and to his status in the relationship. It would give the others a problem to solve.

Notice that the structure of the sentence, “I can’t take him anywhere” imagines a continuing series of actions. She “takes him” places and she is going to continue to “take him” places. That is given in the tense of the verb, “take.” The clear implication is that the woman, in her capacity, at least, as the shepherd of the relationship, either likes what the man just did or has learned to bear it with good grace. The remark invites her current company to treat it the same way.

As oblique as this might seem on her part, it is much better than ignoring what he just did. Ignoring it doesn’t give the others any clues about how or whether to respond to it. For people who will be think “Did he just say what I think he said?” the wife’s response establishes that he did but that it isn’t a major flaw. So “I can’t take him anywhere” acknowledges that something has been said or done, that she takes it in good humor, and that she invites others to do the same.

In some of these relationships, I suspect that it has been the husband who has done the shepherding over much of the course of the marriage. It is clear, however, that as a rule, men’s abilities recede faster. I see that a lot although, of course, my abilities are receding faster than Bette’s. The shepherding of the relationship that he once did is now being done by her. And the best ones are really something to see.

[1] I’ve been married 58 years myself, but I have spread the burden out over three different women. Always the gentleman.

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Oregon, Their Oregon

Oregon has just revised our state song. It was filed with the Oregon Secretary of State yesterday. It doesn’t get any more official that that.

The principal virtue of the new version is that it gets rid of some really embarrassing language from the old version. That really needed to be done. “Conquered and held by free men” calls up a lot of scenes that were celebrated in 1920 when it was written. “Land of the empire builders” sounded a lot better before we turned against the idea of having an empire. And “blessed by the blood of martyrs” requires a particular historical perspective and a special reading of history.

I, myself, am nowhere near the front of the line of people who court being offended by outdated language. Still, even I found myself shying away from the language of what we can now call “the old version” of the song.

On the other hand, you can’t really “declare” a new state song. You can remove the old one. But if you had a community gathering and wanted to amp up patriotic sentiment by singing “the Oregon state song,” the words people would sing would be the old ones. They would sing the ones they know. They are not going to learn the new ones, even if they are better, because the new ones don’t have any claim on their lives.

My kids and I used to sing “Oregon, My Oregon” because a) we were just moving there and b) it was a real rouser. For that reason, I will probably learn the new lyrics. I have already sent them to the kids—who are now in their 50s and 60s, but still…

It may be that we are past the era of “state songs.” That Oregon should have an official song doesn’t really sound contemporary to me. The new state song is not going to catch on if people don’t sing state songs anymore. We can listen to choirs sing it on special occasions, I suppose, but the old people won’t know the new words and the young people won’t sing “state songs.” So probably, we will just stop singing it. That doesn’t appear to be the intent of the legislature, but I’d guess it will be the effect.

Nothing in the new version (see the Appendix) has anything to do with people. It is a celebration of nature and there is a lot of nature in Oregon to celebrate. It is about nature because we can agree about nature, leaving an owl to two to be decided upon. But we have no version of the history of our people that we can sing together. So we just write “us” out of the song. Problem solved. [1]

I am quite sure that the legislators who passed this Resolution thought they were substituting a new song for an old song. I fear they are substituting no song at all for the old song.

[1] Is it only a matter of time until we get to the Star Spangled Banner, which contains these words, tucked safely into the obscurity of the third stanza.

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave…”

Appendix: The words to the newly-adopted version of Oregon, My Oregon

Land of Majestic Mountains
Land of the Great Northwest
Forests and rolling rivers
Grandest and the best
Onward and upward ever
Forward and on, and on
Hail to thee, Land of Heroes,
My Oregon

Land of the rose and sunshine
Land of the summer’s breeze
Laden with health and vigor
Fresh from the Western seas
Blessed by the love of freedom
Land of the setting sun
Hail to thee, Land of Promise,
My Oregon

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An appreciative sort of partnership

I know from watching movies that the classic pickup line is, “Do you come here often?” When couples meet in the dining room of the senior center where Bette and I live, the equivalent question is, “So….how did you guys meet?” As a result, I have heard myself answer that question a lot of times over the last five years and have heard Bette answer it, too. [1]

The story has taken on familiar contours, like a much-loved stump speech. I think that makes me love it more, rather than less, but it doesn’t keep me from adapting it to my audience. It doesn’t keep me from listening carefully to what I am saying, either, and like any storyteller, I find myself modifying the story so that it continues to fit my current interests and concerns. [2]

The last few times I have told my part of it, I have emphasized the part where I made a really uncomfortable decision. I decided that I was in the process of falling head over heels in love with Bette and that there were a couple of questions I needed to ask while I was still able to hear what her answer was and to react to it with integrity.

What I needed to tell her was that I already had a commitment to a kind of marriage. It was a kind that required two active partners to make it work so it was only fair to her to tell her about it. And it was only fair to me to tell her early enough in the relationship that I would be willing to walk from a very promising beginning if she didn’t want to be part of a relationship of that sort. I was in a hurry because I know what infatuation is like. I know, for instance, that the English word is derived from the Latin fatuus, “foolish.” And I know that no matter how hard I try to exercise “sober judgment” while I am infatuated—“enfoolished”—I don’t really exercise such judgment.

That being the case, I needed to tell Bette, while I still could, that I wasn’t just looking for a wife; I was looking for a partner. Bette was very good about it. She took it seriously. It took her a little while to make sure that I did not mean that I wanted to restore the marriage I had had with Marilyn, with her being expected to play the part of Marilyn. [3] Once she was confident that I was not asking her to do that, she was free to examine the model on its merits and she found a good deal of merit in it.

That solved the problem for me. The problem, remember, was not how to court Bette. It was how to confess a previous commitment to a kind of relationship. Now that she liked the relationship, as much as you can like it by looking at it from the front end, I could move away from the problem of having both an actual commitment to the model and a rapidly developing commitment to Bette. They now appeared to be compatible and I had asked the question early enough that I was able to really hear the answer.

That’s the end of this segment of the “how we met” stump speech. But, as I said, saying it a lot means hearing it a lot and as I have been hearing it, I have begun to feel the need to explore what good things there are on the other side of infatuated. The word wasn’t built to be a phase in the development of some mature good. No one talks about the “trans-infatuation stage” of a relationship. [4] But that is what I would like to do here.

I think “appreciative” covers most of what I want to say about that stage. It does cut short the very important part of the marriage that requires taking initiatives that show both that you love your partner and that you know who she is. So let’s just take the active part for granted and move on the the responsive part, which I am calling “appreciation.”

The choice I find that I face on a day to day basis is whether to appreciate the good things in the marriage—I experience them as “things Bette does”—or to take them for granted and just not notice them at all. Infatuation takes care of that problem. Every trait and every act appears in the golden glow of enjoyment, lust, surprise, and anticipation that pervade the time you spend together. When you spend a lot of time every day together, infatuation just doesn’t do the right things. But taking the understandings and the courtesies of a willing partner for granted doesn’t do the right things either.

Being willing to notice the generosities and the understanding that are offered on a day to day basis actually does do the right things. It is banal, I know, to think of that willingness as “a labor of love,” but I think it is a good description. There is no denying that it is a labor. Taking things for granted is always easier. It facilitates all the other things you are doing; all the other group memberships and responsibilities and all the other projects. But putting those things first and not allowing the time and energy that appreciation requires, shorts the marriage if it is the kind of marriage I am talking about.

The marriage will not run on appreciation if you do not appreciate. You will not appreciate if you do not notice. You will not notice if you go on autopilot and take everything for granted. Staying off of autopilot is a lot of work. It is “a labor.”

But you could justify that level of work by saying that love makes it worthwhile. [5] Love is a hardy plant, but it does need to be watered from time to time by appreciation. Feeling that you love a person is a reason to pay attention to the gifts that love brings. Continuing to love and appreciate that person whether you are currently feeling it or not shows that you understand the relationship between the actions you take and the emotions you feel. So appreciation of the kind I am talking about leads to the feelings that love brings, which feelings can have the effect of keeping you off of autopilot and attentive to the relationship you actually have.

That’s doing a lot with so trite a phrase as “labor of love,” but having heard myself telling the story at dinner after dinner, I am pretty sure that is the way I feel about it. And it makes me very happy that I put this question to Bette while I was still willing to walk away from the relationship if she had said that it made no sense to her at all.

That’s not what she said.

[1] We have two distinct modes, depending on who is asking. One is sequential. One of us tells the story, then the other. The point of view of the speaker is assumed in each case The other is intermittent, very much like a sportscaster and a color commentator describing the game they are seeing.
[2] The facts, obviously, are all the same. Narratives change by relative emphasis, color, and tone; not by inventing new facts.
[3] At this time in my life, my son, Dan, gave me some very good and very uncomfortable advice. He told me to date a lot of women even if I didn’t
want to. If I neglected to do that, he said, I would just be looking for “another Marilyn,” no matter what I told myself I was doing and that would not be fair to any of the dates, particularly anyone I got really serious about.
[4] The closest we come is “trans-fat” which is like infatuation in the sense that it is a problem you are supposed to be able to deal with.
[5] I am talking about the ordinary romantic love that husband and wife often have for each other. There are many other kinds of loves that rea
lly don’t balance out. They cost more than they bring in. They are worth doing anyway.

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