How the Way We Choose to Look Expresses How We See Ourselves

“There’s always a place for the angry young man, with his fist in the air and his head in the sand;

              And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes, so he can’t understand why his heart always breaks.

              His honor is pure and his courage is well, and he’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell,

              And he’ll go to his grave as an angry old man.”

-Billy Joel

While my wife and I were vacationing in Germany this past spring, I decided not to shave for two weeks. I fully intended to return to my clean-shaven habit when we returned, but she suggested I keep the facial growth, saying she thought I looked good with it.

Two months have now passed, and I still have the beard. I trim it every week, but otherwise, it presents a whole new look (and image) for me. It is mostly gray, and it definitely makes me look older than I did when I was clean shaven. A few friends, while acknowledging that fact, also say it makes me look more distinguished, which, when you’re a law professor, probably isn’t a terribly bad thing.

Looking at yourself in the mirror is a fairly common practice, I suppose. At least it is for me. Not that I’ve ever done so with a sense of great pride or satisfaction. In fact, I’ve never been particularly enamored of my face. Let’s just say, I’ve always seen flaws in it, even if, in my youth, I might have passed for handsome in a dark ethnic kind of way.

But over the years, you get used to that face in the mirror. It becomes part of your identity, of how you relate to yourself, as well as to the rest of the world. And if you’re a guy, and you suddenly change the way that face looks, you are making a conscious decision to adjust the way you relate to yourself, and to how the rest of the world might relate to you as well.

Okay, so maybe I’m making too much of a relatively simple issue, but hang with me; I’m going somewhere with this. It’s all about this aging thing, and how I’m feeling about it.

I suppose it happens to all of us at some point if we live long enough—the realization that there is going to be an end, and that each stage of the aging of our bodies brings us closer to it. I dwell on the irony of death as the end point of each life more than I probably should, but it is the ultimate imponderable, isn’t it?

We’re born; we thrive for a while, and then we slowly begin to deteriorate, both in mind and body, until we are no more. Now that simplistic existential description may be offensive to some, but it’s pretty much the way I see it. My father-in-law, a true salt-of-the-earth type who never asked much of anything from anyone, said it more bluntly: “We live until we die.”

Ah, but there’s more to it, some of you will want to tell me. There’s what we do with those years when we are vital and possessed of all our faculties. Life should be purposeful; everyone should feel productive in their work and joyful in their ability to fully experience all that life has to offer.

Sure. I get that. And I think I’ve been fairly purposeful and productive and joyful, and continue to be, for all of my soon-to-be 69 years of life. But I’m also becoming increasingly aware of that irony I mentioned: that there will be an end; moreover there will be a diminution of capacity leading up to that end.

Yes, that’s the thought that sticks with me and that links to my decision to keep my “distinguished but older” look.

I recall a conversation I had with a group of friends maybe forty years ago. I wasn’t yet 30 years old, and the discussion was focused on the idealism of youth, something I was, at that point in my life, still very much in touch with. When my friends pressed me on my insistence that idealism was noble, I told them, by way of explaining myself, that my favorite musical was “Peter Pan.” Several of them guffawed at me, as if to suggest I was slightly out of touch, if not unhinged.

At some point in the forty years since that conversation, I lost my idealism. Or, maybe a better way to say it would be that life as it really is finally dispossessed me of it.

And so, I no longer hope to see a world at peace or to believe that love conquers all. Instead, I have that smaller sense of equanimity that comes from realizing that I’m blessed with what life has given me and that little by little over the years that remain to me, I will have more reason not to be idealistic, more reasons to feel older, if not quite so distinguished.

The beard, as I become more accustomed to it, is an expression of that new realization, and in that sense, I think it reflects the identity I’ve come to possess for myself. This is what I think I’m saying about myself: I’m an older guy who takes care of himself but who isn’t afraid to face the reality of the stage of life he is in.

Sure, I could choose to look younger, and I’m certainly not about to stop the productive and purposeful things I engage in to bring me joy and a sense of fulfillment. But even the most beautiful rose ultimately loses its petals and withers away.

I don’t want to be Peter Pan anymore. I’ve grown up and gotten old—older and more distinguished; yeah, that’s the ticket. It isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. In fact, as the joke goes, it beats the alternative.

And, hopefully, if I keep working on it, I’ll avoid going to the grave as an angry old man.

E. Haig’s Review of B Street’s “Grounded”

George Brant’s “Grounded” depicts the life of a drone pilot who happens to be a woman. The title refers to what happens to the woman when she gets pregnant and can no longer fly her “Tiger,” the F-16 that had provided her raison d’être. As the character tells her story (over the course of a 75-minute single act), she experiences the highs and lows of her new position in the “Chair-Force” (referring to the sedentary position she must assume as she “pilots” the distant drones from her post in the Las Vegas desert).

It’s a compelling story that can be seen from the distinct perspectives of the female bomber pilot, the bomber pilot (without regard to gender), the soldier, and the human being who is a soldier. Those different perspectives provide both the strengths and the weaknesses in the play, as there is much to chew on in considering the character’s story, but also much that may be touched on too lightly in terms of the different perspectives her character represents.

It may be harsh criticism to suggest that Mr. Brant is trying to convey too much in the telling of this single character’s story. We were conflicted, for example, by the pilot’s female gender, as it is certainly distinct, and presumably intended to be distinct, from the story as it would be told by a male pilot (if for no other reason than that a male pilot would not have been “grounded” initially by a pregnancy).

But the pilot’s experiences are also equally compelling and frustrating in the manner they are told. We learn, for instance, that sitting in front of a screen for 12-hour shifts, as drone pilots do, is nothing like flying into the “wild blue yonder,” as fighter pilots do; nor is directing bombs with near perfect precision to kill selected enemy “guilties,” the same as dropping bombs from high above ground zero and then speeding off before they even hit their target.

Much of the soldier’s tale in “Grounded” is told in a similar vein to that depicted in the 2013 Oscar-winning film, “The Hurt Locker,” but Mr. Brant’s character is portrayed as being more “human” when she is removed from live combat missions. It is that human aspect of the military person that Mr. Brant succeeds best at portraying. His pilot’s reaction to the carnage she creates is what we would expect a real person to feel, tragic though it ultimately is.

But are each of these different perspectives intended? The overall impact, for us, at least, was a tad muddled. Is the play intended to convey an anti-war message? An audience member asked that question of the panel that handled a Q and A after the performance we saw. “Yes and no” seemed to be the answer. The pilot loves flying and bombing “guilties.” But she doesn’t react well to the collateral damage that she creates when she sees it up close. Is the central point the playwright seeks to make that war is always hell even if those engaged in it don’t always see it that way? Or are we to view the pilot as the “wounded warrior” all wars always glorify for their sacrifices?

Whatever the play’s internal deficits and ambiguities, it definitely offers a showcase for the actor who plays the pilot. At the B Street Theater’s B3 stage, Alicia Hunt is currently offering a bravura performance of the pilot. As the play’s sole character, she speaks directly to the audience as she describes the flow of her life from the joy she gets as a bomber pilot to the disenchantment and ultimate breakdown she suffers as a drone pilot.

Along the way, she relates the initial stages of sexual intensity she experiences with the guy who meets her in a bar and ultimately marries her and fathers their child, a daughter, who, as might be expected provides more joy and more complications for her. The arc of the pilot’s tale is dramatic and poignant, and Ms. Hunt conveys the many emotions and reactions to her experiences believably and powerfully. Her performance alone is reason enough to see this excellent production, directed by Lyndsay Burch, with a simple but impressively conveyed scenic design by Samantha Reno. (Julian V. Elstob provides the lighting and video scenes; Shelley Russell-Riley gets costume design credit for the pilot’s flight suit uniform.)

Another reason to see it is to mull over the differing perspectives the play offers and to consider the various points the playwright may have intended to convey.

Performances of “Grounded” continue at the B Street’s B3 Theater through August 8. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2711 B St.), by phone (916-443-5300), or online (bstreettheatre.org).

Why the Iran Deal is the Only Viable Option

“I believe it is peace for our time.”

-Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister on the 1938 Munich Agreement appeasing Adolph Hitler

              One of the senators in the 1962 film adaptation of Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent” is noted for always stating his position on any matter up for a vote by saying, “Opposed, Sir; I’m Opposed.”

In the film, the senator is portrayed as a sleepy old man who rarely even bothers to know what the issue is before stating his perfunctory opposition. It’s a comical portrait, or at least, it’s intended as such in the film, and at the time of Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel (Doubleday and Company, 1959) such a view of a U.S. senator would have been hard to pin on any one individual. Those were the days of bi-partisanship and collegiality, when bills were considered with only the rarest use of a filibuster and when issues of foreign affairs were a source of unanimity far more often than of rancorous debate.

Ah, how times have changed. The recently struck deal with Iran that Barack Obama and John Kerry will present to the Senate for the equivalent of the ratification of a treaty is already producing much the same kind of opposition from a large segment of the Senate that the Drury senator is depicted as mouthing in the Otto Preminger directed film. In a count of all senators taken by The Hill shortly after the deal was announced, only 18 of the 100 (all of them Democrats) were noted as either firmly in support of the deal or leaning that way. All but five of the 54 Republicans expressed firm or probable opposition to it.

So it’s safe to say that Obama faces an uphill battle in his effort to gain Senate approval of the Iran deal. But if logic prevails, the deal should be approved, since the alternatives to accepting it are problematic, to say the least. Before exploring those alternatives, however, let’s analyze the concerns about the deal.

The biggest concern, of course, is that Iran will cheat on the deal and will continue to work on developing the amount of nuclear capacity that can produce a nuclear bomb.   No one, other than Iran itself, wants that development to occur for the simple reason that it would make the Middle East even more unstable than it already is. And on the matter of cheating, the deal does appear to be less airtight than it could be, albeit as soon as Iran was discovered to be cheating, the international community would undoubtedly react, at the least, with a re-imposition of the economic sanctions that have forced Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. (Let’s remember, however, that the sanctions only work when they are universally enforced; more on that point in a moment.)

The second concern about the deal is that it really only kicks the can down the road for ten years, whereupon either a new deal would be struck or we’d be back to the status quo ante, with Iran presumably that much more secure economically and that much more capable of re-doubling its nuclear acquisition efforts.

But much can happen in ten years, not the least of which could be a softening of Iran’s militancy (owing to any number of reasons, including the rising frustrations of its young people and the appeals of Western culture, along with the possibility of a quasi-alliance with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS). Iran will evolve. The world will look different ten years from now.

The third concern, one deserving of far less credence, is that the message sent to Iran and other rogue states (ISIS, North Korea, maybe Venezuela) is that the United States is “soft,” meaning it lacks the will to “fight” or to use its military might. This concern is really an old canard that has been the equivalent of a campaign theme for Republicans in almost every instance of “hawk/dove” debates since the Vietnam War. The presumed logic of it is that foreign leaders judge U.S. willingness to go to war based on previous U.S decisions (some of them made by previous administrations dealing with entirely different issues).

These concerns, legitimate though the first two may be, are more than outweighed by the problems with any of the alternatives to approving the Iran deal. The first and most apparent alternative is to attempt to reinstitute the economic sanctions that brought Iran to the table in the first place. But the sanctions only worked because just about every country honored them. That coalition will not form again should the Senate vote against the deal (initially, and in overriding a veto), thereby forcing Obama, or his successor, to cancel U.S. participation in it.

Neither Russia nor China would join up again, and much of Europe might resist signing on to sanctions just because the U.S. refused to honor the deal. In fact, rejecting the deal without giving it a chance is the surest way to make Iran look sympathetic, if that’s possible, since it would then be the U.S. that would be viewed as intransigent in the face of a willingness to negotiate and compromise from the theocrats in Iran.

But the more significant alternative (one that you won’t hear many Republicans actually stating) would be to go to war against Iran. How else, absent the renewed sanctions, could Iran’s nuclear program be halted?

Now war can be waged in many ways, but it almost always involves bombing and killing, and it almost never avoids collateral damage. Among the likely collateral damage in a war against Iran would be political upheaval and disunity domestically, and who knows what kind of eruption of hostilities amongst the neighboring states in the Middle East (to say nothing of the likely increase in influence exerted by the Islamic State and its band of ISIS terrorists).

In seeking approval of the Iran deal, Obama’s biggest task might be to persuade the American people that he is no Neville Chamberlain. To do so, he should emphasize the risks of rejecting the deal.

 

On the Infinity of Space and Time

Under a clear sun-lit sky, Oregon’s Crater Lake is a gorgeous sight.  It is as beautiful a blue as any body of water I have ever seen.  Check out some photos of it (www.nps.gov) if you haven’t seen it in person.

The lake sits in the crater of the old Mount Mazama, which erupted some 7,700 years ago to form the caldera that was eventually filled by precipitation to form the lake.  The lake now maintains its average water level through a combination of annual precipitation and evaporation, and the lack of any outside source of water (like a river) results in its purity that may account for its magnificent color.

Actually, as I discovered with my wife and son and his fiancée when we spent the Independence Day holiday weekend there this month, the caldera in which Crater Lake rests contains a second caldera, this one within Wizard Island, which was formed from a smaller volcanic eruption within the Mazama crater.  That eruption occurred sometime after the big one that blew the top off of Mount Mazama.

Of course, Mazama had been formed some 400,000 years earlier by volcanic eruptions even larger than the one that formed Crater Lake, and we can only imagine what may have been going on in the region before those events.

You get a sense when looking down at the lake, as we did after ascending to 8,000 feet above sea level in a hike to what’s called Garfield Peak, that the land mass beneath the lake is now at peace and that the lake is a permanent part of the geography of the place.  Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth.  The mountain, or what remains of it, is still volcanic, albeit dormant, and it is entirely conceivable, indeed, perhaps even inevitable, that Mount Mazama may one day re-form, once again being created by the massive flow of lava and magma from deep within the planet’s core.

Viewed in that sense, Crater Lake is just a moment in time in the evolution of our dear planet Earth, and that evolution is, of course, just a small speck of the ongoing evolution that is constantly in play in the universe.  And, just to take the thought one step further, that universe is only what we know to exist in the vast region of space that our little solar system occupies.

It’s all a bit mind boggling when you focus your thoughts on it: the infinity of time and space, and the relative insignificance that any one body, be it a lake or a mountain or a single human being looking down on the one from the other, actually represents in those combined infinities.

These are probably not thoughts to dwell on if we seek to find meaning in our lives.  I mean, viewed in the extreme, how can our single life, or any specific moment in it, be of any consequence in the vastness of all that is around us and has preceded us and will follow us?  And the answer is that it can’t.  Those moments, those events, those vexing things in our lives that either bedevil us or force us to strive harder to overcome them are completely lost in the history of human existence, which, after all, is but a single grain of sand in the hour glass that represents the time that the universe has existed and will exist.

From such thoughts, I am sure, beliefs in God take their root.  The idea of God allows us to escape the depressing thought that we are no more consequential or significant than the mosquito I just swatted away as it buzzed around my head.

But, of course, we can, collectively, make a difference, at least on a relatively small scale, just as a swarm of mosquitoes, too many to swat away, can make a big difference in the level of discomfort we might feel if they descended on any one of us in voracious fury.  And God or no God (leaving that subject for another day), human existence has certainly developed to the point that it can alter, again with relatively limited significance, the evolutionary path of our planet, if not our solar system or our universe.

But that thought still doesn’t resolve the personal perspective that one can gain from viewing Crater Lake and considering its creation and potential demise.  How is each of us, individually, to account for ourselves, for our single existence, in the vast sea of infinities (spatial and temporal) that surround us?

Ah, you expect me to provide an answer here, don’t you?  Sorry, but I have none.  I’m completely unsettled with the idea of infinity.  I find it wondrous in its magnitude and altogether depressing in its oppressiveness.  I would love to feel that my life is somehow intended to mean something, to be something of lasting import.  But it’s a fool’s errand to play out that thought.  In the end (an end that comes all too quickly after all too short an existence) we are gone, and soon thereafter, the memory of us is gone as well.  Perhaps we did some momentarily great things, created something, helped someone, loved, procreated, lived fully with the tools we had.  Or perhaps we just did the best we could to survive and provide for ourselves and our little unit (family, community) that we chose to form and be a part of.

In the end, my agnosticism is my refuge, although some may call it a crutch.  It helps me to accept reality as I perceive it and not to obsess on that which I cannot change or even begin to understand.  It isn’t God, but it’s probably a good equivalent.

I look down at Crater Lake, and I feel blessed to be afforded the ability to feel its grandeur and its beauty.  I look at my wife and my sons, and I feel blessed to have had what they have given me.  I look at myself and I feel blessed to be able to feel in the here and now.

Infinity be damned.