The Dread of Labor Day and What It Portends

August 28th, 2014

              Don’t look now, but Labor Day is upon us.  Yes, that dreaded end-of-summer holiday arrives on Monday next, bringing with it the return to our normal existences.  (And, by the way, didn’t there used to be a rule that Labor Day couldn’t be on September 1?  I thought it was always the first Monday, unless that Monday was the first.  Maybe that was just what I wanted the rule to be.)

              I used to hate the approach of this single holiday for the reason most kids still hate it: school starts shortly thereafter.  In my case, it was always the following Wednesday.  The school system in my town at least gave us the Tuesday following to get back from our vacations.  And that’s exactly what my family used to do.  We’d pack up from our summer beach house on the Jersey shore on Tuesday afternoon and make the short drive back to our suburban home (on Long Island).

              It wasn’t that I was the kind of kid who hated everything about school.  I actually liked a lot of what going to school entailed.  I liked reuniting with my friends, and, for the most part, I liked learning.  But I hated doing homework, or at least I was generally averse to it, being much more inclined to play and watch TV and talk on the phone and otherwise do what most kids like to do when they aren’t in a regimented atmosphere.

              But it was just the thought of the end of the non-regimented atmosphere summer provided that I dreaded, and as a result the approach of Labor Day was cause for tremendous anxiety and distress.  It used to start for me right around August 1, which is when (almost without fail) those damnable “back-to-school” ads would begin.  I used to hate those ads.  How dare they talk about going back to school when we still had a whole month to go, maybe even five weeks if we were lucky and Labor Day fell on the sixth or seventh (or eighth?) that particular year.

              Summer vacations were the best of times.  Too bad they only lasted about twenty minutes.  Of course, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that the expression, “time flies when you’re having a good time” is another one of those truisms that are only partially true.  It could easily be shortened to, “time flies,” because that is a much more accurate statement of reality.

              In actuality, of course, time is a constant; at least non-Einstein time is.  It is just about as certain as death and taxes that each minute will be comprised of sixty seconds and each hour of sixty minutes.  And even though modern society has found ways to expand the use of time (e.g., multi-tasking and 24/7), it still is unshakeable that each year passes with the same amount of rapidity.

              I’ve adopted a simple response when someone in idle chit-chat says something like, “Boy, that year sure went fast.”  “Yes,” I’ll reply, “but of course that’s how time is.”  That observation rarely gets a nod, since, I assume, most people aren’t willing to acknowledge that aspect of our existence, to wit: before we know it, it (whatever the “it” happens to be) will be over.

              I think you have to have reached a certain age (and maybe have a certain generally depressive view of life) to face that fact fully.  I know that in my youth I never even considered how oppressive the passage of time is.  I was twenty-one, for example, when Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released.  I marveled at the film, as I still do, but I also thought when I first saw it in 1967 that the actual year 2001 would never really get here.  Oh, I knew on some intellectual level that it would, but I just couldn’t imagine that it would happen in any kind of conceivable length of time I could imagine.

              I used to have the same feelings about summer vacations when they started, usually around the twentieth of June.  I’d leave school on that last day and think I had eons of time to do whatever I wanted to do—no middle of the night alarm clocks waking me up to get ready for school, no horrible term papers to write on subjects I didn’t care about, no stupid tests about things I wasn’t interested in.  Just fun in whatever form I wanted it to take.

              And I’d feel that way until those horrible “back-to-school” ads hit the airwaves on August first.  And then, from that point on, I’d feel the increasing dread that the approach of Labor Day caused.  And it certainly didn’t help that the days kept getting shorter, by which I mean the sun kept setting earlier each day.  That was another thing that became noticeable right around August 1: no longer could you play ball until bedtime.  Instead, you had to stop because you couldn’t see the ball anymore.

              In my current mode of existence, these traumas largely escape me.  It’s one of the virtues of being an older adult, I suppose.  You no longer look on the passing of a summer as the end of everything that makes life worth living.  Instead, it’s just another season that went by in the blink of an eye.

              I know that nothing in what I’ve said constitutes wisdom.  Coming to grips with reality is just what happens if you live long enough.  In my youth, I thought I would never get old and would always have the strength and energy to do whatever I wanted to do.  It was a curse, of course, to be so deceived, for all too often I put off what I could have and should have been doing, assuming that I could get to it another time.

              Now, in the older-adult stage of life that I’m in, I understand that lost opportunities, wasted minutes, hours, days, are never recoverable.  They just vanish to give way to the rest of your life. 

              So, here’s to another Labor Day.  And don’t worry kids: another summer vacation is right around the corner.


Summer Vacations: the Not-So-Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

August 22nd, 2014

              Have you had your summer vacation yet?  If you’re like many Americans, you might very well be on it right now.  I’m somewhat of an expert on vacations, having suffered through more than a few of them.  Here are a few of my thoughts on some of the more popular types of vacations that may resonate with those who have had similar experiences.

              Disneyland – What could be better than a week at the Magic Kingdom?  Isn’t it every child’s dream vacation?  Well, maybe, but not necessarily.  It’s certainly a mistake to assume every toddler is going to be entranced by sights of Mickey and Donald.  Disneyland is great for a few hours, but it’s hell for a family with little kids beyond that point. 

              For one thing, the lines are very long and the Anaheim sun tends to get very hot.  For another, the sugar highs that the kids will experience from all the junk food you feed them will eventually morph into depressive lows that are likely to be accompanied by crankiness at best and complete breakdowns into uncontrollable tantrums at worst.  And if you have two or more kids of varying ages, be prepared for a scene of rotating basket cases, as each child wears down at different points in the afternoon.

              The Beach House – This one should be a winner, right?  You rent a house on the beach and all you have to do is roll out of bed and you’re in paradise.  Unless the house isn’t actually on the beach but instead is a few blocks away (as most of them are), in which case you have to lug all the beach equipment there and back each day.  And do you take your lunch or plan to buy something from the snack bar?  Either way, you have to plan for everyone, kids included, and kids will get hungry at the most inopportune times. 

              But nothing can beat lying on the sand with the sun beating down on you, unless you forget your sunscreen and end up with a third-degree sunburn.  Or you forget the bug spray and end up bedeviled by sand flies and mosquitoes.  And how many days in the sun on the beach can the average human endure before something akin to cabin fever starts to set in?

              Cruises – Nothing beats a cruise for a carefree vacation, right?  All the comforts of home provided by the friendly crew, all the food you can eat, and all the activities you can want right there at your fingertips.  At least that’s what the brochures say.  The reality is slightly less romanticized. 

              For starters, your stateroom will feel more like a closet, and the meals will fall a good bit short of five-star dining.  They are mass produced, after all, since all cruise ships nowadays are massive floating hotels, many housing upwards of several thousand guests.  And don’t think everything is free, because almost nothing is.  Oh, the food is, but drinks, other than tap water, will cost you, as will almost any shore excursions that you want to experience. 

              And remember that thing about cabin fever?  It can hit on a cruise as easily as it can in that beach house, especially if you also happen to get a little sea sick, which they also don’t warn you about in those brochures. 

              Road trips – This one is the classic post-WWII American family vacation.  You pack the kids and suitcases into the family car and drive to some of the country’s great tourist spots.  Uh, right.  The odds are that within two hours of your departure, the kids will be fighting with each other or asking you in ever more impatient pleas if “we’re there yet.” 

              And when you do get there, it will be in a motel where you’ll be cramped into a room that really should only accommodate four, but they’ll give you a rollaway for one of the kids.  So the five of you are stuck with the one bathroom and no escape from the forced intimacy of the situation.  Try that experience for a week or two, and you’ll wish you’d never left home, and that’s assuming the tourist spots you do get to are all they were cracked up to be.  Some are, and some most definitely aren’t.

              Sight-seeing – Pick your favorite city, the one you’ve always dreamed about visiting, and plan a week or two in a posh hotel so you can devour everything the city has to offer.  It could be New York or Paris or London or Rome.  Or maybe it’s one of our great national parks instead: Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore.  (Rushmore isn’t really a park, but you get the idea.)  Wherever you go, be prepared to do a lot of walking while you listen to tour guides or read brochures that tell you what you should be seeing.  And almost all of these spots will be crowded with people just like you, with kids just like yours who are easily bored and require constant attention.  And you’ll be surprised at how uninterested they are in the majestic and historic places they are seeing with you. 

              Camping – Maybe the best way to get away from the rat-race of your normal existence is to take a camping vacation with your family.  What could be more fun?  Pitching a tent, eating food cooked over a campfire, telling scary ghost stories to the kids before they go to sleep, hiking all day while you explore nature in all its beauty and wonder? 

              Of course, you’ll need to be prepared for the unforeseen but highly foreseeable irritants, like bug bites, poison ivy, twisted ankles, the lack of rest rooms when you need them, kids too tired to walk any more, kids getting bored, spouses getting irritated because the other spouse isn’t helping enough.  You get the picture.

              In the end, it might just be that the best summer vacation consists of staying home, sleeping in every morning, taking in a few movies, playing a little golf, and reading a few good books.  And you’ll save a few bucks, too.


On Becoming Who We Are: the Journey of a Lifetime

August 12th, 2014

              “The child is the father to the man.”

–William Wordsworth, poet 

              Psychologists will tell you that your adult persona, the person you ultimately become, isn’t fixed until you are well into your twenties.  More specifically, they say that most women have reached that point by the age of 25, while many men don’t get there until their early thirties.   

              That assessment may be correct, but I’m not convinced the lifeline progression it suggests works quite that simply.  In many ways, I think I’m still developing a sense of myself as I approach my sixty-eighth birthday.  At the same time, I see many of the characteristics I have long identified as the guy I know as having been set in my childhood years.

              It’s an imponderable subject, to be sure, the idea that we become someone who is specifically and uniquely identifiable and that that someone assumes a fixed identity at some specific point in our life.  The subject, or at least the idea of the subject, is explored in Richard Linklater’s remarkable film, “Boyhood,” which is as artistic an exploration of the topic as the cinema industry has produced.

              The film opens with a shot of the central character as a six-year old.  He’s lying on the ground, staring up at the sky.  What’s he thinking?  Why is he seemingly transfixed by what many of his peers would consider too ordinary to pay any attention to?  Is this young child destined to be a philosopher or an artist or an astronaut?  Is his destiny fixed at that early age?

              The film, of course, is fiction, so when the youngster grows into a young man who continues to be introspective and artistic and even a tad philosophical, that arc is a construct, a device, developed by Linklater to present a perspective.  That he accomplishes his goal so beautifully and lovingly is why the film is the masterpiece of his career.  But it doesn’t answer the imponderable question; it only raises it.

              Other attempts to explore the subject have been more direct and real.  Michael Apted’s “Seven Up” series, tracing the lives of fourteen British boys/men and girls/women with new updates released as full-length documentaries every seven years, shows the then seven-year olds as 56-year old men and women in the latest installment.  The series is fascinating to a point, much as the chronicle of anyone’s life, with snapshots taken every seven years, might be.

              Snapshots, however, don’t really tell a complete story.  They just present a moment in time, a moment that may represent a meaningful event or encounter that will have lasting impact and will define forever the person, or that may quickly become the smallest of incidents in the life of the person, soon to be all but forgotten or overwhelmed by succeeding events and encounters.

              Traditional Freudian psychoanalysis plays on the imponderability of childhood events and experiences.  Freud identified critical stages in a child’s development, but he ignored the later years of adolescence and adulthood, thereby locking his brand of psychotherapy in a stultifying box that may create more neuroses than it cures. 

              More modern forms of psychotherapy are only marginally more successful in providing insights of the nature that Linklater and Apted are intent on exploring.  Behaviorists seek ways to make patients more productive and functional, but their methods are only slightly more sophisticated than the self-help experts who claim to have magic secrets that can cure all manner of dysfunctional behavior.

              I am told, and can indeed recall, that as I child I was often far more serious of mien than my peers.  At an early age I would lose myself in thoughts about my existence and how it was supposed to make sense.  At the age of seventeen, suffering from a broken heart at the loss of a girlfriend’s affection, I seriously contemplated suicide.  I plotted the manner of my death to the point of planning it.  What stopped me was this thought: I want to see what I’m going to turn out to be.

              Fifty years later (almost to the day), I’m still not sure I have my answer.  Yes, I certainly have an identity—law professor, writer, husband, father, Dodger fan, political junkie, and a personality—extrovert, intense, opinionated, pensive, outspoken, but I’m still discovering things about myself and ways that I approach events and circumstances in my life that suggest I am still a work in progress.

              Is it not so for all of us?  We all come out of the womb with the genes our parents gave us.  They dictate how we will look, how tall we’ll be, how long we’ll have a head of hair to comb, how susceptible we’ll be to life-threatening diseases and fatal afflictions, and how much potential we have to be a star athlete or an intellectual scholar.

              But then life intercedes and plots a wholly variant course for us.  Maybe it’s the third grade teacher who turns us on to the joys of reading, or the scoutmaster who helps us discover the wonders of nature, or the first love that leaves us forever in search of a romanticized view of an intimate relationship, or a college spring break that introduces us to a hedonistic existence, or the death of a friend that destroys our faith in God.

              Any or all of those kinds of events, all of them pure happenstance from an objective perspective, can mold or change the course of our evolution into the person we ultimately become. 

              And, of course, the process never stops.  The world is always becoming, evolving from one era to another.  So, too, are we ever-changing in our perspectives and in our identities, even as we see in the child we were the parent of the adult we have become.

              It’s a journey, a perilous, mysterious, fascinating journey.  For as long as we are able to experience it, we continue to find new ways to understand it.  And, of course, we never really do.  Like Sisyphus, we just keep pushing the rock up the mountain, never knowing what is waiting for us at the top.


The Good and Bad of Richard Nixon’s Presidency

August 5th, 2014

              Much is being written this week and weekend about the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, the nation’s 37th president (36th if you count Grover Cleveland’s split administrations as one president instead of two).  The cause for all the ink is the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, and much of what you’ll be reading is about the stain on his presidency that he caused by participating in and largely directing the cover-up of the Watergate burglary that occurred in June of 1972.

              My purpose here is not to relate the details of that high crime (one that most certainly would have led to Nixon’s impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate had he not resigned, which, of course, is why he did).  While the history of that summer (and the one preceding it that was marked by the Senate hearings chaired by Sam Ervin) is fascinating to study (and even more fascinating to have lived through), it overshadows the five-and-a-half years of Nixon’s presidency, leaving his record largely forgotten, or at least insufficiently understood.

              So let’s go back to the campaign of 1968 when Nixon won a tight race against Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat’s nominee.  (George Wallace, the Alabama governor, ran a third-party campaign and siphoned off five Southern states that might have tipped the election to the Democrats.)  Nixon had lost an even tighter race for the office (to John F. Kennedy) eight years earlier and had also lost a bid for California’s governorship in 1962 (thereafter swearing off electoral politics in his “last press conference”).

              Nixon was driven to be remembered as a great president.  Psychologists would probably say that he suffered from a mammoth inferiority complex which he compensated for by being suspicious and paranoid of those who opposed him.  The development of an extensive list of political “enemies” during his presidency was undoubtedly caused by this aspect of his hubris.

              He campaigned as a faux peace candidate in ’68, claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the dreaded war in Vietnam.  Whether he had such a plan at the time is still anyone’s guess.  As it turned out, he did institute a plan of sorts after he assumed the presidency.  Calling it “Vietnamization,” he commenced a gradual withdrawal of American forces in the country from the high of 550,000 troops in early 1969 to the eventual pull-out (marked by a peace treaty with the North) in 1973.  (The South ultimately fell to the North in 1975.)

              For the four years that he continued to prosecute the war, however, Nixon was anything but a peaceful president.  He escalated the war far beyond anything Lyndon Johnson had sanctioned, by bombing Hanoi (the North Vietnamese capital), mining the Haiphong harbor (the main port for supplying the North with munitions), invading neighboring Cambodia and Laos (in both instances to destroy Viet Cong sanctuaries), and otherwise seeking to destroy the North’s will to fight by increasing search and destroy missions and increasing body counts.

              In the end, the hatred that had been leveled at LBJ by the American peace movement was visited on Nixon with even greater force and fury.  But Nixon was nothing if not a skilled politician, and at the same time that he was being vilified by the long-haired hippies on the left who preached a revolution, he portrayed himself as the leader of the “great silent majority,” whom he identified as the true patriots who love their country and trust its president. 

              He won a landslide re-election in 1972, losing only one state to the hapless Democrat, George McGovern, and in doing so, he established the GOP’s “Southern Strategy,” which led to the election of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and which now has pushed the Republican Party farther to the right than Nixon himself would have ever envisioned.

              What must be understood, for any of this account to make sense, is that in today’s political terminology, Richard Nixon was a moderate.  In fact, it is highly unlikely that today he would be able to even withstand a primary election as a Republican in most of the country’s states.  He was, after all, apart from his hawkish prosecution of the war in Vietnam, very much a conciliator with the Communist governments in both the Soviet Union and China.  He was the first president to visit China, meeting with Mao Zedung and Zhou Enlai, even attending a Chinese opera and proposing toasts to Zhou.

              It is said that no Democrat could have opened the relationship with China (or achieved the rapprochement with the Soviets), and that is probably true, especially with the Democrats having been labeled as “soft on Communism” by virtue of McGovern’s campaign and the takeover of the party by the far left.  But Nixon deserves credit for having the courage and foresight to move American foreign policy away from the brinksmanship and threat of nuclear war that had marked our nation’s existence for the previous quarter century.

              Nixon also deserves credit for his use of the presidency to thwart runaway inflation (by imposing wage and price controls, absolute economic heresy for any legitimate Republican then and now) and for signing into law the Clean Air Act and creating the federal bureaucracy of the Environmental Protection Agency that is absolutely despised today by hard core Republicans.  He also supported the establishment of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the requirement of environmental impact reports for federal projects (also anathema to today’s GOP).

              And, if you can believe it, he proposed and sought health insurance reform in the form of a private health insurance employer mandate that is not altogether unlike what we today call Obamacare. 

              On balance, Nixon’s presidency was right of center, but not nearly as far to the right as Ronald Reagan took the country a decade later.  He was overly aggressive on Vietnam, to be sure, but he also opened avenues to peace with China and the Soviet Union (perhaps even paving the way for Gorbachev’s ascendency). 

              Watergate will forever mark his presidency as a failure, but it isn’t the whole story.