Ciao to Convention

I can’t hear mention of the good old days without grimacing. Golden days for some folks were hell for others. At the same time, some good-old-days conventions and assumptions come in handy. The unspoken agreement, say, to prevent blacks from moving into white neighborhoods, is/was crappy. The old boy system that has women earning 78% of what men make is intolerable (AAUW statistic). But what I think we’re seeing in 2015 America is the disappearance of useful conventions.

It’s hard to imagine people “somewhere ages and ages hence” telling their grandchildren about these days “with a sigh.” Maybe Americans are as happy as ever in their homes and relationships, but societal life is often a vexing pain in the ass. Why? Our conventions—shared beliefs about how the world works and how people ought to behave—are being put out to pasture one by one.

Schmoes like me watch the news and say, “Hey wait, I thought we had a deal!” Our pacts sometimes find words: “Don’t hit below the belt.” “Don’t stab a man in the back.” “Don’t run up the score.” LeBron James shouldn’t (and wouldn’t, of course) cream a teenager in one-on-one. That’s not how we operate. Have some class. We’re all in this together. Show a little mercy. Give the kid a break.

Sadly, such deals are collapsing, especially in politics. Each time a convention is smacked on the rump and told to start grazing, folks with manners and a sense of fair play slap their foreheads. When forty-six Senate Republicans signed Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) open letter to Iran about Obama’s nuclear talks, another Clydesdale clopped off with head hung low: “We Americans are all on one team, and in some matters we don’t undermine the Commander-in-chief.” Conservative columnist Michael Gerson puts a fine point on it: “Congress simply has no business conducting foreign policy with a foreign government, especially an adversarial one.”

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The United States Capitol: a setting that should inspire honor, or at least passable manners. (Credit: Wikipedia)

It’s no big deal that one greenhorn senator penned a letter meant to interfere with delicate negotiations. The problem is, forty-six of Cotton’s colleagues signed the letter and are now taking turns tussling his hair, if indeed they can reach that high. In other words, about half of the United States Senate thinks it’s not only okay, but laudatory, to reject a long-standing assumption about constructive and honorable political behavior.

The Republican objection, summarized by Rand Paul (R-KY), is that President Obama is undertaking negotiations with Iran without congressional participation. Well now gosh, I wonder why the President would do such a thing—which leads me to another convention standing out in a rainy field: bipartisan cooperation.

When former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) died in June of 2014, both Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Harry Reid (D-NV) practically wet themselves on the Senate floor paying tribute to the “Great Conciliator.” Current Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), also praised Baker: “His service was marked by a courtly, civil, and respectful style that won him friends and admirers on both sides of the aisle. His example — his ability to fight for principle, and disagree without being disagreeable — will continue to inspire us as we honor his life and memory.”

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The Great Conciliator in 1984 (Credit: Wikipedia)

Yeah, right. This from the Speaker who took the uncivil, disrespectful liberty of inviting a foreign head of state to address a joint session of Congress behind the President’s back. Has this ever happened before? No. And so, ciao to another understanding among the branches of government. Add to this Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eagerness to accept such a shabby invitation, and convention takes another blow: of course Bibi knew that his speech would break with tradition. He just didn’t care. Let’s face it: all that Howard Baker stood for is now scorn fodder. Imagine the “Great Conciliator” and young Turk Tom Cotton brokering a deal in a present day cloakroom. The beloved Tennessean would be scorched earth.

Not because Baker would be outmatched, but because the rules he played by no longer apply. In a Washington Post essayThomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein blame Republicans: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Let’s pause for a little contrast. Consider the words about compromise from Senator John McCain (R-AZ): “The way you have bipartisan negotiations, you sit down across the table, as we did with Ted Kennedy, as I’ve done with many other members, and you say, ‘OK, here’s what I want, here’s what you want. We’ll adhere to your principles, but we’ll make concessions.'” Now let’s hear from John Boehner as he summarizes his goals for leading the House of Representatives (it refers to Obama’s agenda for a second term): “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”

For Boehner, “everything we can do” includes holding multiple votes on the Affordable Care Act, a recent one merely for the benefit of freshman Republicans who haven’t had the chance to record their ire at Obamacare. How many is multiple? TheAtlantic.com reports fifty-six. My head spins at the wasteful stupidity. According to MiamiCBSLocal.comthe estimated cost to taxpayers for each of these votes is $1.45 million.

I wish to God I could track down which politician said something like, “When I lost a vote, I walked across the aisle, shook hands, and said, ‘I hope I can count of your vote on the next bill.'” Was it Howard Baker? Bob Dole? Richard Lugar? (I really looked hard. If you know, please pull me aside!)

Oh for the days of debating, voting, and moving on. But this is yet another demoralized horse. “Go munch bramble, you mangy thing!” Votes, it seems, are meaningless anymore. Which returns me to a question I asked earlier: “Why would the President undertake nuclear negotiations with Iran without congressional participation?” Why bother? Colleagues who would spend $81.2 million on symbolic votes and have repeatedly made their subversive intentions clear aren’t looking to provide input. Their goal is to impede and frustrate. The evidence of this is indisputable. By any measure of productivity, argues Chris Cillizza, the 113th Congress is the worst in history.

This is what happens when a democracy is deprived of its long-standing working agreements. It’s also what happens when, as Mann and Ornstein suggest, facts and scientific evidence don’t matter. Example: according to Climate.NASA.gov, “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” I would call this a consensus, but not Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who said in 2012, “Just so you’ll know, global warming is a total fraud and it’s being designed because what you’ve got is you’ve got liberals who get elected at the local level want state government to do the work and let them make the decisions. Then, at the state level, they want the federal government to do it. And at the federal government, they want to create global government to control all of our lives.”

Believe it or not, my intention here isn’t to take Cotton, Boehner, et. al. to the woodshed, but to make observations that help keep me sane. Taking in the world, politics in particular, sometimes steals my peace, so I lay out my case as a way of regaining equilibrium. For the record, I’m a Democrat, but plan to forgo participation in future primaries by becoming an Independent. Why? Republicans are responsible for most of the demise of conventions, but I don’t despair about the possibility of them taking over America because, as I often say, “They eat their own young.” By disposition, theirs is a house divided. On the other hand, Democrats violate shared understandings when it suits them; they just don’t do it as often and with such glee as Republicans. When a politician of one party is indignant over the effrontery of a colleague from the other party, prepare to hear some hypocritical bull crap. They take turns being aghast. Awww, shaddup!

Which is probably what I should do. To the litany of conventional behaviors sent to the glue factory I’ll add two quick others from outside the beltway. Consider these me waving so long on a lighter note.

  • My son Micah watches Mixed Martial Arts matches, where the “don’t hit a man when he’s down” deal is off. When somebody gets knocked out, the victor keeps hammering the guy’s unconscious head until the referee steps in. I’m not a fan.
  • I’m all for earthy, sophomoric humor, but wasn’t sure what to do with a bumper sticker I saw yesterday. Irreverent, yes, but it seems like a minor violation of bumper sticker etiquette.
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Congratulations?

The next time I see a convention trotting into the sunset–an overshare or a politician being ill-mannered–I’ll say, “Nope, you’re not stealing my peace. Not today!”

 

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I Found the Holy Ghost in Asheville

Were I to subscribe to omens, the family drive from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Candler, North Carolina, last week would have put me in a black mood. I’m not sure what formula Google Maps uses to estimate travel time, but I doubt it includes weather, bodily functions, and babies, all of which can add decades. My spunky iPhone 6 (not Plus!) predicted 9 hours and 49 minutes, or some such crap. When wife Kathy, daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, grandson Cole, and I rolled up my sister Cindy’s long driveway, our constitutions were too battered for math. We squinted at each other and said, “Huh? Yeah, maybe like 17 hours?” Blowing snow, freezing rain, and West Virginia mountains occasionally had us down to 30 mph. Good thing I sit still and pray-meditate a lot. When I was younger, such a drive would have set my bowels into angry, claustrophobic spasms. Are we there yet?

The presumed reason for renting a Town and Country van and heading south was my sister-in-law Betsy Ann’s 80th birthday party. I should have known better. The actual purpose of travel, across town or to another hemisphere, doesn’t reveal itself unless I leave my soul’s door ajar and pay attention. Somewhere in the midst of eating spaghetti or getting lost in a Louis Armstrong song or walking into a coffee shop, I think, “Ah, so this is why I came here.” Tears are often involved.

As soon as Kathy and I put our bags in Cindy and her spouse Linda’s guest room, I began to suspect the days ahead would be about love or life or wonder–something wide-eyed. On the dresser was a photograph of Kathy and me from close to thirty years ago in a frame that said, “Welcome, Kathy and John.”

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A pathetic attempt at a photograph of a photograph. Ah well. Blurriness and flecks don’t diminish my young Kathy’s beauty one bit, nor do they provide cover for those ridiculously large glasses of the mid 1980s.

Thoughtful, this gesture. Along with the photograph went a bag of on-the-road stuff, like toothpaste, shampoo, and travel guides. That’s Cindy for you. Goodness pours out of the woman. She made our mother’s spaghetti sauce for dinner the first evening because she knows it was one of my favorites. But that’s a small detail. Cindy and Linda’s whole household hums with joyful, affectionate chaos. Pets are always making a ruckus, and their grandson Liam’s toys constantly chirp out music.

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Destined to be paesanos from the start: Cole and Liam, the latter the son of Tina and Rebecca.

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Friendly old Harriet, named after my spirited grandmother. Notice the bent left foreleg? When she was a pup, Harriet’s, owner smacked her with a two-by-four, resulting in a permanent . . . well . . . dogleg. She was supposed to be beyond hope, but not so with Cindy and Linda, who took the girl in and loved her into gentleness.

As if the blessings I’ve mentioned weren’t enough, we energetic travelers got to sample Asheville. A couple of moments there tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Soul, awake!” Asheville! Man, what a town! What I saw moved me, softened me up, cleared my vision. Behold Asheville:

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“Can I take your picture?” I said. He smiled and raised his left thumb to the sky. The Holy Ghost is all about conserving energy.

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Pippa and Brody greeting admirers. I chatted with owner Mary Ann as if we were old buddies.

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The Flat Pennies busking. Old Appalachian music. Great stuff.

Ah, to wander from beauty to beauty as a fiddle and banjo converse. The buoyant music made me buzz with gladness, and I wasn’t alone. Was I seeing the Holy Ghost in eyes of strangers, somehow no longer strangers? That’s how I felt.

But the moment, my harmonic convergence, arrived at Betsy Ann’s party. Taking advantage of free flowing pinot noir, I watched a photographic loop of the birthday girl’s life. One shot was an epiphany. I don’t consult omens, but do welcome a wave of inspiration, the sight, sound, or word that bestows an ah of recognition, a truth received.

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My sister Cathy with her arm around Betsy Ann. Two pilgrims in love, come to a place of grace and peace.

As you can tell, both of my sisters are lesbians joined in marriage. For decades I’ve been fine with homosexuality–as if what I think matters anyway. But when I saw this photograph, all I knew was joy. Oh that everyone who wants to join hands and hearts with another could do so. The human race is doubled over by body blows. Venom is the new norm. And don’t even mention manners.

But look! An 80-year-old woman puts her head on my sister’s 66-year-old shoulder–my sister Cathy, one of the most kind and decent souls in circulation. Don’t most of us want to rest in the arms of a beloved? To lean into another, share the view of a bright land, and think, “I’m home, yes. My home is here, yes. With this one person, yes“?

I’m all about love: guilty as charged. Sentimental, too, I guess. We all have to be about something. I pick this: it’s a wish. If only we could all find love in the measure we need and have the inner freedom to make our way there without fear or shame, however we find ourselves bidden. For some folks, days are weary, desperate, lonely. Love can turn the walk into a jig. If only we could all reach old age and sing to our beloved, as Betsy Ann did.

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“I said to myself, ‘What a wonderful world.'” Betsy Ann looked at Cathy. I wiped away tears and hid my sniffles by sipping wine. And I knew why I had made the trip to North Carolina.

Turns out the Holy Ghost wasn’t only in Asheville. She was also in Candler, at a birthday party, and in every other place of tenderness and care. What is the Holy Ghost, after all, if not love?