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.

Summertime Songs from the Memory Bank

August 1st, 2014

              If you’re like me, as in old, you are probably finding yourself being more and more nostalgic for the past.  I think the main reason for this phenomenon is the realization that life is all too short and that memories can provide a sense of perspective, if not contentment, with the never-ending passing of the years.  Anyway, before I got overly maudlin, let me get to my point, which is to recall the songs of summer’s past that bring back memories of happier, or at least more carefree, times.

              I’ve compiled a list of 20 such songs.  They may not all resonate with you, and if you are under 50, you may not even know most of them.  But they were all hits in their day, and they filled my summers on the AM radio stations we used to have our transistors tuned to as we sunned ourselves at the neighborhood pool or on the nearby beach or as we cruised the boulevards of our home towns.  I list them here in reverse order of my favorites.

              20.  “Summer Breeze,” Seals and Crofts (1972) – It had that mellow feel to it that most songs by this harmonic duo produced.  It was the kind of song you listened to while the sun was setting.

              19.  “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding (1967) – Recorded just days before Otis died in a plane crash, this song captured the feel of a summer night in San Francisco or Montauk, Long Island.

              “18.  “Summer in the City,” the Lovin’ Spoonful (1966) – John B. Sebastian was a master at weaving feeling into his lyrics, and on this one, he captured the feel of a hot night in the Big Apple.

              17.  “Dancin’ in the Streets,” Martha and the Vandellas (1964) – It had to be summer to want to dance in the streets, at least where I grew up.

              16.  “Surf City,” Jan and Dean (1963) – I was always a fan of this duo, even though most of their harmonies were thin.  This song was the perfect beach song.  I used to hum it as I swam out to catch a good wave.

              15.  “Wipe Out,” the Safaris (1966) – Great guitar licks on this one.  Years later I became best friends with the lead guitarist on the record.

              14.  “School’s Out Forever,” Alice Cooper (1972) – This one could have been my anthem if it had been released ten years earlier.  As it is, I was just getting ready to start law school when it was a hit, but it still struck a chord.

              13.  “Theme from a Summer Place,” Percy Faith and his orchestra (1960) – This one isn’t really a summer song.  But it was a great song to slow dance to.  I first discovered the supreme pleasure in that activity with this song.

              12.  “Summer of ’69,” Bryan Adams (1985) – I cheated a little to include this one, since I was well into being married with children when it was a hit.  But it captured exactly the nostalgic mood I’m trying to express in this column, and it’s a darned good song.

              11.  “Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer,” Nat King Cole (1963) – An upbeat ode to summer by the master crooner of his day.

              10.  “The Girl from Ipanema,” Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto (1964) – Talk about a sultry summer vision; this one had every guy I knew day-dreaming and fantasizing.  The vocal by Ms. Gilberto was as provocative as any I think I’ve ever heard.

              9.  “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” Sly and the Family Stone (1969) – Sly and his crew were great at spinning out dance tunes, and this one was perfect for a barbeque or a summer wedding.

              8.  “Saturday in the Park,” Chicago (1972) – I was driving across the country when this song hit the charts.  It was a mix of a catchy tune and a quixotic lyric that seemed at once happy times and message song.  But mostly it was just a song that made you feel good.

              7.  “California Girls,” the Beach Boys (1965) – More than any other song, this one caused me to want to move west, which I did seven years later.  It would easily qualify as the group’s signature song if they didn’t have so many others equally worthy.  But it conveyed an image that, if, like me, you were a teen trying to figure out how to get a date, was pure heaven.

              6.  “The Boys of Summer,” Don Henley (1984) – Another one that really doesn’t fit the time frame, but what a great song.  And with the built in nostalgia in the lyrics (“Remember how you made me crazy? Remember how I made you scream?”), it captures the passion that maybe we were lucky enough to feel during one of those summers of our youth.

              5.  “Summertime,” Janis Joplin (1969) – I could have selected the original hit (by Ella and Satchmo) from 1957, but, frankly, I wasn’t old enough then.  But Janis’ version, sung in her scratchy soulful voice, was poignant in its complexity and yet beautiful in its simplicity.  It’s a great rendition of a great song (from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”).

              4.  “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Bryan Hyland (1960) – From the most innocent days of budding adolescence, when wearing her first bikini could actually cause a young gal intense embarrassment, this song was a novelty at the time.  We (the guys) laughed at it, while the gals whom we wanted to pay attention to us understood exactly what the subject of the song was feeling.

              3.  “That Sunday, That Summer,” Nat King Cole (1964) – I fell in love for the first time when this song was a hit, and it has always reminded me of that feeling, one that can only be felt by the young and innocent.  Ah, youth.

              2.  “Under the Boardwalk,” the Drifters (1964) – She never went under the boardwalk with me, but I fantasized that she did. 

              1.  “In the Summertime,” Mungo Jerry (1970) – I defy anyone to listen to this song and not love life and all that the summers of our youth gave to us.

On the Joy of Great Friendships: Three Examples

July 25th, 2014

              My son Keith was born six months before Davey.  The two “met” when Davey was two days old.  They have been the best of friends for the thirty-three years that have now intervened.

              Davey’s parents and my wife and I were very close when our boys were born, and we remained so throughout their childhood.  Thus, the two had no alternative but to spend time with each other, and so they did, from the playpens to the sandboxes to the little coloring tables and on through the pre-pubescent years.  They played on the same little league teams, Davey playing second base and Keith first.  They played on the same soccer teams, Davey scoring the goals that Keith assisted on. 

              They went to different middle and high schools but stayed close.  During their college years, they were geographically separated, but stayed in touch.  Then Keith moved to LA, while Davey settled in San Diego, and they assumed their adult personas.  And, wonder of wonders, they found much to admire, respect, and like in each other during those post-adolescent years. 

              Ultimately, Keith moved to New York and Davey settled back in Sacramento.  Yet the friendship flourished, in spite of the geographic divide, as they would get together whenever Keith returned for a vacation or holiday visit.

              Last week, Davey got married and Keith was his best man.  Hearing Keith’s toast of Davey brought tears to my eyes, as it marked the most beautiful of friendships—the kind that endure and grow over the years into the kind of relationship that can only be equaled in the best of marriages.

              Bob is my oldest friend.  We met in what is now called middle school.  (It was junior high back then.)  We were coincidentally scheduled in all of the same classes that first year, which helped in terms of starting the friendship.  But we both felt a natural draw to each other in those adolescent years, I to his wit and out-going personality, he to something in me that I’m not sure I understand. 

              In those early years, we were constantly doing things together—golf, bowling, girls (well, not so much with girls, but talking about them incessantly).  We had a ritual on those nights when we both were lucky enough to have dates to meet at a local diner in our town where we’d share reports on the conquests (or, more likely, lack thereof) of the evening.

              We stayed connected during our college years, and when I accepted my commission in the Air Force, I was fortunate to be stationed at a nearby base, allowing us to see each other regularly.  During those years (our early twenties), we took up skiing and got much more serious about the opposite sex.  Each winter we joined with a band of similarly minded guys in renting a ski lodge, and we’d essentially spend every weekend at the lodge, often with female companionship. 

              We also joined an encounter group during those years with a wise old man named Abe.  He led us into a better understanding of the adults we had become and prepared us for the bumps in the road that were to follow.

              And we have been there for each other ever since, albeit we have been separated by a full continent since I moved to California to attend law school and pursue my career.  Our long standing tradition is to phone each other on our birthdays, and I don’t think either of us has missed one in over 40 years.  Bob wrote in my high school yearbook that “our bond will never be broke.”  I’ve always cherished that pledge, much as I do the vow I made to my wife thirty-six years ago.

              I met Jan in the fall of 2000.  He had just started dating my wife’s best friend, and she was convinced he and I would quickly become fast friends.  She was right.  Before I even met him in person, we were exchanging lengthy e-mails that delved deep into the kind of philosophical issues that regular readers of my columns know engage me completely.

              But our friendship involved much more than metaphysical discussions.  Aided by the friendship our wives shared (Gayle and Jan married in 2001), we began a tradition of attending concerts together (a tradition that received a gigantic boost when the great Mondavi Center opened).  On average we would attend three events a month together.  Our musical tastes were similar, and we learned from each other (he jazz and classical from me; I folk and blue grass from him).

              And we were both sports nuts and political junkies.  Suffice to say, we were never without topics to discuss, and our discussions were always invigorating and educational.

              And then five years ago, Gayle and Jan and Jeri and I joined with two other close friends, Ron and Sherrie in a once-a-month dinner-and-movie night in which we would rotate from house to house with each host/hostess responsible for the main course for the meal and the movie (DVD) selection that we would view together.  We all reveled in these evenings to the point that we often would cancel other plans just to make sure we didn’t miss a month.  (In five years, I don’t believe we missed more than two.)

              I dearly loved Jan.  He had become my closest and most intimate friend when he died in a horrific single-vehicle car accident last month.  He was driving home from his daughter’s house in Concord when his car spun off of the road, flipping and killing him instantly.  Our best guess is that he dozed off for a critical moment.  In the weeks that have followed, I have struggled with the pain that comes from the sudden loss of a person so intimately and completely involved in my life. 

              I don’t have much to add.  I’m not sure that any of these friendships, as I have described them, are all that unusual.  I suppose we all have such friendships over a lifetime.  Let this be my tribute to them, with the hope that these friendships may resonate with those you have known.