Miscellaneous Ramblings

The Year That Was


San Miguel de Cozumel to San Francisco, California, December 26-31, 2012

Oh, 2012. The Mayans had it right.

I’ve been doing this every year since my early twenties, ritual-compulsive that I am, drafting up a “year in review” with the bombast of all those newsmagazines. Clichés come to mind: best of times/worst of times, new beginnings, trials and tribulations.

Blah blah blah.

But this year, for me and mine, really was a game-changer, and for that reason, I’m taking this bit of introspection and putting it out there for all the world to see.

Looking outward, it was actually a pretty good year: the tottering American economy continued to heal from past depredations; the U.S. leadership my crowd favored (hint: begins with a “D” – and with an “O”) won decisive reelection in November; heck, even my home baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, won their second World Series in two years. My career, and that of just about everybody I know, has moved forward smoothly, steadily. One of my sisters is pregnant for the third time, and her family is in the process of moving to an ever-bigger house in Montreal.

My household grew, too: I adopted a cat, vanquishing past fears about pet-owning, and discovering that a seven-pound fluffy feline can (yes!) love and be loved more than in my wildest imaginings.

I even managed to further fatten my already-hefty travel dossier – adding Cairns & Port Douglas, Australia (the Great Barrier Reef: astounding!); Zermatt, Switzerland (snowboarding astride the Matterhorn: amazing!); and Cozumel, Mexico (Mexico! At last, after a decade living in California!) With satisfying work, and with more writing projects and home-improvement projects keeping me busy – as well as greater rapprochement with my liver-donation recipient and ex-partner back east… well, by midyear, 2012 was on track to be one of my best ever. Mantra I kept repeating: please, please, nobody get sick.

Sometimes mantras have the ring of prophecy.

Sometimes, too, years dramatically bifurcate along their midpoint: for me, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2007, and 2008 were all cleaved in two by life-changing events. And this year?

As 2012 crept on, I began to wonder: shockwaves began occurring close to, though not at, home: a close friend who’d thought she’d left earlier health problems behind saw them flare up, again and again, over the course of the spring, summer, and fall. A former boyfriend, with whom I maintain a friendship (actually I credit him for kicking off the happy precedent of staying on good terms with exes) underwent the ordeal of his father committing suicide one night in April. These were troubles and tragedies, yes, but for me the pattern was familiar: they happened to those near and dear, but no closer.

I rose early on Saturday, July 7, not uncommon for me these days. Soon after, my cell phone rang: my mother. A bit unusual for her to be calling me at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, especially in a quavering voice.

“Your father had a massive heart attack.”

Panic and hope gripped me simultaneously: on the one hand, this was unprecedented for my Dad. His mother had been taken by something similar, but she was ten years older at the time than he presently – and in spite of an ox-like constitution, she’d been chronically sedentary and overweight. My father, though not quite as much the fitness freak as he liked to think, nonetheless enjoyed an active life of skiing, bicycling, tennis, and soccer in his younger years. If anything, the biggest travails of his seventies were significant but treatable complications arising from a series of orthopedic surgeries – a knee replacement, two hip replacements, a bacterial infection.

But one thing about my Dad: his limitless capacity for bounceback. Even though his heart had stopped for forty-some minutes that morning – with my mother performing compressions on him until the ambulance arrived – I was forwarded stories by friends of new procedures (which were performed on him) for cooling and slowly restoring the body’s temperature to prevent damage. Many, many people today suffer cardiac arrest, only to walk out of the hospital a few days later to many more years of life. I was almost expecting that would be the case with my Dad.


A few days later the CT scans came back: his brain was irreversibly damaged. The person that he once was – gone, felled by brain-cell necrosis even as heart function was restored. In a whirlwind, I jammed into my suitcase what things I could in the eight minutes it took a taxi to arrive at my home, and high-tailed it to SFO, bound for Montreal and three of the longest days of my life.

Relations between fathers and sons are, I think, always complex. Males in our culture are reared not to be emotionally demonstrative – and though my father was one of the standouts, the sort who cried at every opera… well, his ability to relate affectionately to others was more circumscribed, typical for men of his era. Though we never really fought, he and I, we led lives and embodied personas so distinct it was sometimes hard to believe we were related: he, a product of late-colonial privilege and boarding schools, but too much of a softie to fit in with the hard-nosed business culture of his peers; gifted with languages; a lover of ladies; at once adventurous and dependent, the sort who felt at home doing business in Geneva or Milan, but whose notion of changing a light bulb was “call somebody.”

But then, as I realized after he was gone, more things bind kin than meet the eye. My fixation with fairness came from him. My passion for travel equaled his: in many ways, my big world voyage – and subsequent follow-on journeys – echoed his globetrotting footsteps. I may be gay, but my passion for, well, passion bears more than a passing resemblance to his life of early-1960s ballroom dancing and table-hopping at Miss Montreal.

After the events of the summer, the year took on an altogether different tenor. Further travels were planned with family – including this journey at year’s end; plans and projects continued, albeit at a muted pace. I head into the new year simultaneously at a skip and a shuffle. Fittingly, for a year that saw the passing of a man who so loved nature and the sea, I began 2012 with a dunk in the South Pacific waters off eastern Australia – and ended it with a similar swim in the Caribbean on the far shores of Cozumel, Mexico. Death is a part of life, goes the cliché, and while I’d always been able to be moved by that, knowing it was something of an abstraction, this year the abstract was hardened, crystallized. It’ll be hard to look at a sunset or ocean again without a tinge of sadness.

But then, another cliché: life goes on. With work, with pets, with kitchen remodels, with new family members still in the womb. My father, ever the active sort, would certainly have approved.

Happy New Year 2013.






What a night!

For those of us in the progressive camp, it went at least as well as we could imagine: a solid (if close) Obama win; a pick-up of some Senate seats, partly brought on by the defeat of what I call the “pro-rape coalition” of Neanderthals Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. Legalization of both marijuana and gay marriage in a few states — the first time such measures have actually won a general vote. Dylan nailed this one: the times they indeed are-a-changin’. For many of us, it wasn’t a moment too soon.

But still, much remains to be done: will the Obama camp drop their continued (if somewhat halfhearted) pursuit of the fruitless “war on drugs”? Will they overturn the Defense of Marriage Act? Will they go forth and enact “Obamacare” as promised? Will they tackle longstanding inefficiencies and unfairnesses in the immigration system? Will they indeed push for a future that’s less dependent on dirty, climate-altering, nonrenewable, depleting fossil fuels? I could go on.

If the mood this time around is less unabashedly jubilant than last, it’s because maybe we, collectively, have a clearer picture of the enormous work that still needs to be done — and we’re also less sanguine about the prospect of “reaching across the aisle.” In my years in this country, I’ve watched the continued devolution of “conservatism” from a movement emphasizing cautious-minded retention of core values into one that’s angry, deranged, nativist, theocratic. Free-market fundamentalist to a degree that would make Morgan and Rockefeller cringe. Bits of it make sense; most of it is hateful and brutish and belongs nowhere in an advanced democracy.

It’s that sometimes hard lesson that we bring the morning after: if Republicans indeed are what they are, it’s time to stop harboring illusions about bipartisanship and begin forging a future without them. Be bold, Barry. You’ve got a four year runway with no more elections to win. Way I see it, America faces a choice: it can remain an indispensable nation, a pre-eminent technological, economic, and military power whose great wealth can be used to help build a productive, just, outward-looking society. Or it can shrink backward into 18th-century ideology, turning itself into an irrelevant, paranoid, neo-gilded-age banana republic. This election laid the choice bare — and I, for one, am heartened that we pulled the lever forward, not back.

Now let’s go turn those votes into action.


One Creature Small & Great


I hail from a family of pet-owning animal lovers, but I must confess:

I’ve always had a bit of an odd relationship with our furry friends.

It all began when my family adopted our first dog. I was an anxious, frustrated kid, and at the tender age of six didn’t really understand the distinction between “play” and “harrassment.” My prankish antics earned me much growling and a lifetime of doggie detachment — she was a proud little lady and didn’t suffer foolish children lightly. Of the six members of my family, she liked me the least.

After our dog passed on a semi-feral cat adopted us. My sisters did their best to coddle her and get her to trust humans; I, meanwhile, made the kitty-clueless mistake of having him attempt to swat my extremities (not very successfully: I was faster). After I left home, my parents adopted another cat, and this one, while more gregarious, was no less tough-minded in the play department. Winston liked me more than Mookie did, but I couldn’t say any kind of bond was formed.

Even though I’ve lived alone for nearly all my adult life, these early experiences made me resist the notion of getting a furry critter of my own. And other excuses as well: too much bother; the anticipation of presiding over yet another passing; and, of course, my own ever-mobile, ever-transient lifestyle.

That is, until this year.

For one thing, that settledness bugaboo: I’ve lived in San Francisco five years, and have been at my current job for three — the longest such stints in my adult life, with no plans on altering either. And then came this summer, that anguished stride through the looking glass. Is it unusual that watching a loved one die somehow elicits the desire to foster and care for new life?

With those notions in mind, I went with my sister and mother over Labor Day weekend to San Francisco’s palatial SPCA to see if a kitten was available who could enter my life.

Indeed, there was no shortage: between its mild climate and the resilience (and fertility) of the feline species, San Francisco is never wanting for baby cats. They were adorable, but one struck my fancy: a five-month old, near-solid dark brown female resting alone in one of the glass-walled “cat condos.” She came out of her cat tree and meowed as I approached; when I entered, with a volunteer, she continued her vocalizations and climbed into my lap.

I took Daenerys home that afternoon, bracing for the worst: refusal to come out of the “safe room” I’d created for her in my spare bathroom; hiding under bed and sofa; scratching up furniture. Instead, it seemed to me, a miracle occurred: she adjusted to the full expanse of my two-stories and 800 square feet in an afternoon; willingly ate everything that was put in front of her; and slept in my bed that night and every night thereafter.

Oh, her kittenish feisty side did come out eventually, but on the whole she’s been a wonder to play with, to hold, to chat with (she must be part Burmese, given her vocal/social/adaptable tendencies). She’s even handled the couple of trips I’ve taken out of town with (relative) aplomb… though I did get an earful on my return from my latest excursion this morning.

They say people in good relationships live longer, healthier lives — and now research is coming out that the same holds true for owning a pet. I’m hoping to spend many happy years with my new adopted housemate, and feel I’ve happily expunged the ghosts of pet misfortune of times gone by.


Leon Jedeikin, 1933-2012


The following is the full text of the eulogy I gave yesterday at my father’s funeral; the PDF can be downloaded by clicking here:

I’m probably not the first person to stand here and say this is a new experience. Death of a parent, a grandparent, a brother, a husband. A confidante. A friend. But then, maybe the merging of fresh and familiar is the appropriate mixture when talking about Leon, my father. We keep coming back to bits from movies, from books, from stories other people tell, to try and comprehend the events of the past few days. But that’s my Dad, whose life reads like pages of a storybook.

Together with his sister Jeannette, he was born half a world away, in Kobe, Japan, in the 1930s. Coming from the same Eastern European stock common to so many of us in this room, his parents veered left – to a late-colonial life in the Far East – when others went right – to North America. I think that set the precedent for his life.

He was a beautiful baby boy, with an impish, expressive face retained right through his life. So beautiful, in fact, that his mother submitted a picture of him to a contest held by a local dairy… and wouldn’t you know it, baby Leon won.

As an eight-year-old in Shanghai – where his family relocated on the eve of war – he witnessed the Japanese march into the city the day after Pearl Harbor. He’d tell us of a boyhood spent with a Swastika draped across the street; about listening to secret Allied broadcasts on his parents’ radio set; about the whistle of bombs falling from American air raids; about P-51s swooping out of the clouds over the city. When the Americans liberated them, he said, it was like they were twelve feet tall, with their tanks and their trucks and their planes parked wingtip to wingtip. He held a reverence and admiration for our neighbor south of the border that refracted through the generations, all the way to two of his four children – me and my sister Miri – who’ve made our homes on the U.S. West Coast.

But the place that touched him most, he’d always say, was where his family lived for two years after the war, and that was Italy.

They only managed to get there, all the way from China, thanks to some secret help my grandfather gave the Italians during the war; my father once proudly showed me a letter his father had kept, from some Italian dignitary in Shanghai, granting them highest consideration upon arrival. Traveling by steamer around Asia and through the Suez Canal, my fifteen-year-old father rode camels around the Great Pyramid of Giza, drank at Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and walked the streets of Bombay. When my grandparents settled in Rome, my father went to school in Florence, and his love of the city reverberated through his soul. With his gift for languages, he picked up Italian and remained fluent his whole life.

Thanks to my great-uncle marrying a Canadian during the war – my great-aunt Lou, who’s here today from Vancouver – my father and his family settled in Montreal in 1949. Leon attended McGill University and became a lawyer. He was a member of the Quebec Bar for over fifty years. During that time he transitioned from young, independent-minded attorney – a dapper single man who, we used to joke, dated half the city – to family man, husband, father of four children, and, eventually, six grandchildren.

But such facts and events, amazing as they are, are only facets of the full picture of who my father was. He thirsted to know more about people and things, a yearning that went beyond education. He drew, he painted, he loved music – everything from Verdi to Brahms to the Beatles. All his life he lived in cities, but his love of nature was unparalleled – he’d tell my sisters the only way to shoot an animal was with a camera.

People overuse the word “family man,” but that old shoe fit my father well. “La familia,” he’d call it, raising a glass at reunions like the one we were set to have later this week. He was enormously proud of us, his children, but the light of his life was his grandchildren. He held weekly brunches with the little ones; went to all their school plays, piano recitals, and hockey games; trudged up flights of stairs with his cane to see model cities and ships built by my nephews using lots of scotch tape and the cardboard from his folded shirts. He took them to events ranging from classical concerts to the movie The Avengers to the Italian community’s Centro Leonardo Da Vinci – which one of my nephews dubbed the Centro Leonardo Di Caprio. He engaged his grandchildren, truly engaged them, on a level they understood, but never like they were anything less than his equals. At the same time, he remained a kid at heart himself; he could always be counted on to make a baby laugh with a funny face or an impossible-to-duplicate sound or expression.

Lust for life is another cliché my father embodied. Food, wine, dancing, skiing, swimming, soccer. He did them all, even when age and orthopedics made it difficult or impractical. Having come of age during the Second World War, he became a de facto expert on the subject; my mother quickly learned to nod off to the literal sound and fury of The Longest Day or Bridge on the River Kwai. But beyond militarism, his fixation on the events he experienced firsthand as a child led to an interest in history as a discipline, and to personal histories as well. It was rare for somebody to meet my father and not, within the first ten minutes, have shared where they came from, what languages they spoke, the origin of their surnames.

His passions, too, were the stuff of legend, and romance was always his thing. After all the dates and dalliances, he linked up with a 22-year-old Israeli gal on a blind date in London in 1968. True to form, my father showed up late in the lobby of the Park Lane Hotel with a spot of shaving cream behind one ear. Still, the date lasted eighteen hours, and after it and a season of letter-writing, the couple married in Jerusalem that Christmas Eve. Oh, don’t kid yourself, not everybody was on board: two astonished sets of parents and siblings were joined by my mother’s quirky aunt Jenny, who at their wedding wore a black dress and told everybody “these long-distance marriages never last.”

Well, 44 years later…

Here again, though, emerged the iconoclastic within the stereotypical: theirs may have been a storybook meeting and romance, but they defied the gender roles of the age: my father, a male from the 1950s, was brazenly unafraid to show emotion – he cried at every opera he saw. He gravitated toward strong, smart women he could admire and respect. And there was nobody he found those qualities in more than my mother and, as they grew to adulthood, my three sisters. (Mantra to them: “don’t take shit from anyone!”)

Not like he made it entirely easy for their prospective suitors: our wall of historic military armaments, rifles and swords acquired by my grandparents in their time in Italy, struck a tremor into boyfriends real and would-be. So too did the “Friday night initiation,” those weekly Shabbat dinners my parents held that left many wondering if those ornamental guns were intended for actual use (they weren’t).

He transcended boundaries on other levels, too, blending a personal and professional life in the Italian and Jewish communities. Our house was filled as equally with Italian rolls as it was with challah bread – and, courtesy of my father, lots of breadcrumbs. Later, in my twenties, when I told my parents I was gay, he wasn’t quite sure what to think: what would I do without the love of a good woman? he asked the night I told him. But he trusted my judgment, and grew to embrace my life and orientation. Attending a Pride parade with me in New York a dozen years back, he thrilled to the opening motorcycle contingent – Dykes on Bikes – while hoping for a day when such marches would become altogether unnecessary. Soon after, he and my mother became good friends with a gay couple; two years ago, when Ron and Don decided to tie the knot, he officiated at their wedding.

You’d expect from a Montreal Jewish attorney a sense of seriousness, but my father was anything but: his ribald sense of humor was legendary, mixing hackneyed expressions with groan-worthy puns, Italian profanity with dirty jokes.

Meanwhile, he managed to imbue our moral universes with balance: use judgment, he’d insist, but don’t be judgmental; think critically, he said, but don’t be cynical. His philanthropic urge went way, way back: his late mother, my grandmother, told us how, for one of his birthdays back in Shanghai, he received a magnificent train set. But instead of keeping it for himself, he insisted it be donated to less fortunate children in the city. In adulthood he volunteered with Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross); with the Special Olympics; with a Meals on Wheels organization. He also spoke to schoolchildren of all stripes about the Holocaust and the War, and once sponsored a child in Africa.

My father would always sum up this mixture, his mixture, of groundedness and free-spiritedness in three words: “Roots and wings,” and that’s what he tried to instill in all of us. Although he chose to practice Judaism in his own, unconventional way, he remained an ardent Zionist his whole life; he once told me that, while living in Italy and hearing about the Israeli War of Independence, he itched to join the fight even though he was too young. Dancing at the Western Wall on Simchat Torah with one of our relatives from California he emoted, “this is what it’s all about!”

But with all that, he was never the sort of father who held us to fixed standards and expectations; his pride in our careers, our lives, and above all our – and his – descendants was what really kept him going.

Shortly after he entered his latest – and last – bout of hospitalization, my sister Naomi sent us an e-mail about a dream she’d had: In it, we were all at our father’s bedside. He looked as he did when we were kids, and he turned to her, called her “Naomi Lara,” as he would back in those days, and said, “I see you’ve been reminiscing.”

That was, I think, his greatest gift on his final days on Earth: a chance for us to recollect, to remember, to gather our thoughts, to say goodbye. To reiterate, for me, how my life’s travels echoed his footsteps – from the gardens of Shanghai where he played as a boy, to the courtyards of Florence where he studied, to the forest graveyard in Riga where his kin lay fallen but never forgotten, to the ski fields of the Matterhorn where he beheld the great mountain alone.

After his death this past Friday, we drove home from the hospital. My sister Tamara pointed her car to the west, toward home, and beheld the most spectacular sunset she’d ever seen: the sun a gargantuan, fiery orange sphere sinking fast toward the horizon. My father, in that most exquisite melding of the timeworn and the original, always loved sunsets. Like God painting the sky, he called it. There was no doubt in our minds what nature’s most incredible light show that July evening could be.

It was Leon. Our friend. Our relation. Our baba. Our love. Our Daddy.





“What shocked both gays and the straight establishment was that gays had, for once, openly fought back.”

I had a dream last night that I was being bullied.

It was some spoiled kid from my elementary/high school (who later actually came out, I believe). Admittedly, the bullying in question — both the dream and its real-life counterpart — were nothing serious or systematic, but one thing about both incidents (real and subconsciously synthesized) struck me.

I didn’t fight back.

Instead, I learned to hide, to “pass”, to subsume my true identity. I’d let parts of it discreetly shine through — I was a nerd, I liked computers and science fiction, all that — but that certain fascination, that quickening of my heart when I walked past a a good-looking boy in high school… well, I ignored that impulse, pretended it wasn’t there, thought it was anything but what it really was. And for my troubles, I was (limitedly) rewarded: the bullying stopped. In exchange for suppressing who I really was, I was quietly ignored.

But eventually, the elimination of a fundamental part of what it means to be human — to love, to date, to marry, even (yes) to have sex both meaningful and not-so-meaningful — took its toll. From early adolescence right into my twenties, I could never remember what dreams I had after I woke up. It’s as if my subconscious had switched itself off.

Then, one snowy February night, after a traumatizing friendship and falling out with a fetching lad in college (nothing happened, alas, except to me, internally), I sat beside my parents’ cat on the sofa at two-thirty in the morning and laid the truth bare.

The cat’s reaction was predictably unenthused, but for me it was a revelation — the revelation — that would change the course of my life. But it took time. I was scared — terrified of those feelings that are for many the baptism-by-fire of teenagerhood. I gradually told friends, then siblings, then parents. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I began dating. It wasn’t until my very late twenties that I experienced love, if only briefly. It was only in my thirties that I had my first serious, multi-year relationship.

I’ve often mused about the awkwardness of Pride: a combination party and political rally. But, then, maybe that’s the point. Unlike most minoritarian identities, being gay is something that lives dormant inside you, only reaching fruition with the onset of adult emotion. As such, it’s easy to suppress, ignore, wish away, be told doesn’t exist.

Which is why Pride is what it is: a fight for your right not only to party, but to love, marry, form families, be happy with yourself. Proud. That’s what those youths and drag queens, fighting the New York City police at a speakeasy many Junes ago, understood better than so many of us in the mainstream did: that coming out is, for each of us who’ve gone through it, a mini Stonewall inside ourselves to awaken who we truly are.

Happy Pride to all.


Edward Conard is a Big Fat Idiot (with apologies to Al Franken)


The word “connard” in French is often translated as “arse,” “jerk-off,” “dipshit,” “douchebag,” and too many other epithets to list. Which is exactly what went through my mind as I read, a few weeks back, a New York Times article about one Edward Conard, former partner of presidential nominee Mitt Romney in his years at Bain Capital.

Actually, I should qualify: I kind-of respect Conard for doing what few, if any, of his fellow “one percenters” have done — take a stand for their team and lay out, chapter and verse, exactly why they believe that the accumulation of immense, gargantuan, humungous — what many of us term “obscene” — wealth is not only alright, but is actually a virtue.

His book on the subject, which comes out this week, lays out his case. If the introduction and sample chapter are any indicator, it seems like a respectably written treatise on the economic situation today — how it evolved, how we got into this mess, and how various actors played their parts to make it so. In the absence of his complete tome, I had to make do with the samples and his bits of wisdom shared with the Times — and suffice it to say, it ain’t pretty.

First off, I will say that I agree with some of what this haughty fellow posits: that risk-taking ought to be rewarded, that people who are in a position to do so ought to be encouraged (partly in the form of generous remuneration) to take said risks. Though frankly, I can’t believe we’re still having this “Communism led to mass starvation and we won the Cold War” argument. Yes, capitalists: your system is better. Everyone cannot, and should not, a priori, be granted equal reward no matter what their contribution is to the world. And yes, there is, somewhere in our social conditioning or DNA or from our expulsion from Eden (or whatever worldview you choose) a deep-seated human tendency to socially stratify (though I maintain that’s a tendency we can overcome). Old-school Bolshevism, that simplistic bit of Victorian-era social over-engineering, failed to account for all that… and so it crumbled. The few remaining “Communist countries” of the world are either destitute (North Korea, Cuba) or are (to paraphrase the Tea Party epithet for moderate Republicans) CINOs — Communists in Name Only (China).

I can also accept that the received opinion and conventional wisdom about why our economy crashed in 2008 might be flawed — and that a fellow with insider knowledge of “the system” might have a thing or two to say about it: his “bank run” hypothesis actually sounds rather compelling. Heck, I’m not even against mortgage-backed securities: when I started work at the former Countrywide Home Loans some fifteen years back, I learned that the presence of a secondary market in the United States allowed for a deeper, more diverse, more flexible housing market than existed in my native Canada. Back then, the overwhelming number of loans were conventional 30-year fixed-rate loans (something the rather monopolistic banks in Canada could never offer); subprime and exotic loan products were small-scale, specialty niche items either for skilled investors or for the occasional borrower with adverse credit. I still recall one of our more expert staffers scoffing at the then-newfangled negative-amortization, no-money-down or interest-only loans, calling them “junk bonds” and claiming “we’ll never do those.”

So much for that.

And here’s where I part company with Conard and his ilk, who draw a false connection between legitimate innovation and risk-taking, and the pathological foolishness that’s gone on these past fifteen — nay, thirty — years, ever since the real-life Gordon Gekkos promulgated the cult of “greed is good”. Conard’s true colors come out about halfway through the Times article, right when he spots, at a cafe off Madison Avenue, “three young people with plaid shirts and floppy hair.”

“What are they doing, sitting here, having a coffee at 2:30?” he snarls. Apparently coffee breaks are reserved only for jacketed-and-tied one-percenters. He goes on to deride “art history majors,” his blanket term for anyone who isn’t in one of his club of risk-taking “job creators.”

Asshole. First off, who knows what these young folks are doing on their coffee break? Perhaps taking the very risks and innovations he celebrates. Furthermore, Conard seems clueless to the gargantuan risks many “liberal arts majors” are in fact taking: entering professions with chronic underemployment and socio-economic uncertainty in the hopes of “making it” as a writer, artist, filmmaker, web designer, advertising creative director, or countless other professions that involve tremendous sacrifice, risk, and hard work. What’s a bigger risk: having your well-to-do parents pay for your MBA at Wharton that practically guarantees you a six-figure salary on Wall Street, or working multiple jobs while slogging away nights on a screenplay that (you hope) sells for a handsome sum and becomes a box-office smash?

There’s nothing new, of course, about Conard’s elitism. To him, “job-creators” or “risk-takers” is just shorthand for “our crowd,” an elect group of like-minded people — often from educated, comfortable (if not already wealthy a la Romney or Bush) backgrounds with a thorough knowledge of how to attain or further their wealth and power and with that as their sole objective. Somehow, they posit, the sum of all these greeds is supposed to lead to a better world — even though it never, ever has when such a system’s been tried out in its purest form.

And so, I believe Conard and his crowd are actually crushing the “you can be anything” promise of America, replacing it with their gang of technocrats, educated at a small number of schools and ensconced in a select set of professions, who are busy quite successfully lobbying for a government that continues to pander to their every whim (and boy, do they howl mightily like spoiled children when a moderate such as Obama even tries to reform the system). In their full-throated, uncompromising belief in deranged, 18th century Adam Smith fantasies about the “free market,” they seem set on bringing America back to an “earlier time” — a Dickensian gilded-age nightmare wherein the biggest, richest economy in the world is to be transformed into a corrupt uber-scale banana republic with a tiny, wealthy elite astride a horde of poor and near-poor who keep the system afloat by constantly believing in a promise of a “better life” that’s ultimately unattainable.

Good luck, Conard. Just don’t expect the rest of us to take this one lying down.


I Sing the Vehicle Electric: 24 Hours With a Nissan Leaf

Growing up in the energy-crisis late-1970s, oil has always been for me the subject of fascination — and occasional derision. No commodity has, I think, been so central or so fraught. Its energy density, its uncertain availability, its volatile price… no other natural resource makes front-page headlines the way it does (when was the last time anyone cared about the price of, say, phosphorus or magnesium?)

The question that’s been burning me up (pun sort-of intended) since kidhood is: when are we finally going to get off the stuff? It continues to amaze me, what with more solar energy striking the Earth in an hour than humankind uses in a year, and with Einstein’s e=mc2 equation long since having found practical application in nuclear energy (and more destructive forms of same).

Oh, I know, the reasons are legion, from the realities of legacy energy infrastructure to facts about energy density to what I believe is a plain-old failure of the imagination. I recently got into a near-argument with a colleague from conservative Georgia who claimed that alternative-energy research is bunk, and all these newfangled vehicles are doomed to failure. After he promulgated the usual Fox News canards (“none of this will work without subsidies”, “it’s just shifting pollution to the electrical grid”, etc.), I finally blurted out, “Come on; we’re scientists. We’re not supposed to thrown up our hands and say ‘impossible!'”

So to that end, when the time came for me to pick up a rental car for a day’s worth of errands and a visit to some friends down the Peninsula, I responded with an enthusiastic “yes, please!” when the agent at the car-rental shop asked, “do you want to try the new Nissan Leaf?”

I was a bit concerned about the oldest bugaboo in the book: although I’d heard electric cars are a pleasure to drive (responsive, power-efficient engines), the limiting factor for them has always been energy storage. While gasoline, for all its faults, can store an incredible amount of energy (and is easily portable, being a liquid at room temperature), battery technology has always been comparably weak. That’s why batteries typically only power small devices, why they’re constantly running down and needing to be recharged or replaced… and why, in spite of a heritage going back to the earliest days of the automobile, they never caught on the way their petroleum-distillate counterparts did. Only now, with historic rises in oil prices and talk of peak oil — coupled with incremental advances in battery efficiency — are electric cars starting to come out in greater (though still modest) numbers. So much so that my local Enterprise outlet now offers them as part of their regular fleet.

“You can definitely make it to Menlo Park and back,” said the agent as he sat me down in the car and gave me a tour of its Internet-age instrument cluster. “Just make sure to put it in ‘Eco mode.” Apparently in this mode the vehicle uses less energy, sacrificing a bit of performance to do so.

Right away it was apparent that the boosters of electric-drivetrain vehicles were right: the car drives fantastically. Even in Eco mode it was smooth, zippy, and (of course) quiet. The range indicator ticked off the miles remaining at a slightly slower pace than actual miles driven. Since the car is all-electric, it’s able to recapture some of the energy lost in braking to charge the battery, a process known as regenerative braking. The car’s initial range was 80 miles (a bit more with Eco mode on); after half a day’s worth of errands, I still had some 70-plus miles left — more than enough for the 28 or so miles each way to get down to my friends’ party in the Peninsula that evening.

Still, I wanted to see if I could top up, and to that end went looking for one of those electric vehicle charging stations the eco-minded leadership in San Francisco has been busily installing these past few years. A few taps on my smartphone and I found one nearby — in the parking garage of a nearby Costco superstore.

Easier said than done, however: no signage existed inside the mammoth parking area, and only care of an employee did I discover the two spots, forlornly tucked away behind the exit and a tire service center. Both were available free of charge, and both had charging receptacles… but neither one of them featured the type of outlet my Nissan Leaf called for.

Still, I figured I’d be fine, and with a friend in tow I headed down south. Again, even in Eco mode the car was as assured on the highway as any comparable subcompact… but neither of us could help turning our eyes toward the range meter: the miles kept peeling off as we cruised at typical highway speeds (in these parts they nudge 70 mph). Our 30 miles of distance consumed 45 miles of charge… which means we were down to 25 miles and wouldn’t have enough to get home.

Fortunately, my suburban friends have a garage (and a long three-pronged extension cord), and with the car’s own cord and adapter, we plugged the thing in and settled in for some St. Paddy’s Day revelry. Five hours later, the charge was up to 45 miles… which based on previous consumption patterns would barely be enough to get back to San Francisco. As it happens, SFO airport (and another Enterprise outlet) was on the way, so I figured if we were running low on juice stopping there to swap vehicles was always an option.

This time, however, I really took it easy (I am, admittedly, a bit of a leadfoot): we turned off the climate control, and drove a grandpa-style 55 mph the whole way home. This time the mileage corresponded more closely to the range meter, and we got back with over a half-dozen miles to spare. This was more than enough to head back to the rental place the next morning, where I experienced the best part of the whole adventure: no need to fill up!

So what’s the verdict? I think this is a stellar step in the right direction, but a combination of improved battery range and recharging infrastructure need to be in place to truly make this viable. This has been the chicken-and-egg issue with electric vehicles all along: the expense of getting everything in place is staggering. Sure, this was true back in the early 20th-century with gasoline vehicles as well, but the difference then was that no motor vehicle infrastructure existed, so any improvement in fueling and roadways were welcomed (and took a long time, too: from the invention of the motorcar in the 1880s to widespread popularity in the 1920s marks a span of nearly half a century). But now we already have an infrastructure in place, a gasoline-based system, and turfing out that “legacy” investment is proving a tough nut to crack. And until there is a reliable electric infrastructure in place, people are understandably gun-shy about plunking down their ducats… and so continues the vicious cycle.

There are a number of ways out of this: for one thing, a “hot-swappable” battery would be great. At least one company is working on this. A global, universal standard would be nice as well — I shouldn’t have had an issue finding charging stations compatible with my model of vehicle. And improved battery life (and an accurately-rendered one at that) is critical: until cars can get 300-plus miles to a charge, I doubt many of us will be interested (one manufacturer is pretty close to that benchmark already). Sure, having a “city car” is nice, but for most of us, the ability to go anywhere, anytime, is what we pay to have an automobile for. As with all things environmental, it’ll only be when green technologies offer comparable features to their non-green counterparts that they’ll really become popular.

Ultimately, then, I think this is going to take a coordinated, concerted effort on the part of governments, corporations, and the public — a notoriously difficult combination to get in sync. But similar such efforts have been successful in the past, from winning World Wars to putting men on the moon. In spite of initial hurdles, I’m excited to see what comes next — and will definitely be first in line when this technology is more mature.


Can We All Be Rich?

It’s a comment Presidential wannabe Mitt Romney got reamed for last fall, and it even finds its way into far-right Tea Party manifestos: the notion that our society can make everyone wealthy.

I thought about this as I watched another meditation on this notion from last fall, the dsytopian sci-fi thriller In Time. Written and directed by Gattaca‘s Andrew Niccol (I consider the latter film one of the best sci-fi movies ever made), In Time failed to resonate with critics though was a moderate box-office success — no thanks to me, who gave it a miss in theaters. But in spite of its tepid directing (Niccol’s measured, deliberative pacing doesn’t work as well here as in his earlier films) and needlessly Michael Bay-like action-adventure plotting, well, I maintain this is the most brilliantly conceived filmed sci-fi dystopia since 1999’s The Matrix.

It’s all in the premise: In Time posits a future world where the genetic code has been cracked so completely that we can control aging. Nobody ages past 25, but there’s a cruel caveat: you have to earn your “time” beyond that, and time left to live — eerily displayed on people’s arms as a glowing green “life clock” — has become the currency of the age. Just at the reimagined Battlestar Galactica brought us a contemporaneous, Western-style society with spaceships and polytheism, so too does In Time deliver up a world nearly like our own, but with a completely different medium of exchange standing in for present-day money. My back-of-the-envelope calculation from the film, based on “four minutes [of life] for a cup of coffee” and 100 years being considered a fortune, puts 1 minute as roughly equal to 50 present-day cents — which means a day is worth about $700, a month about 20 grand, a year at just over a quarter-of-a-million. When a bank safe containing a “time capsule” (which can be delivered into a person, and can be transferred from individual to individual) is revealed to contain a million years ($250 billion), it elicits gasps — and a boast from its owner/tycoon on how it’s not his first.

It’s interesting that the movie came out within a month of Occupy Wall Street: both push the revolutionary premise that “there’s enough for everyone” if only the rich would quit hoarding it. But where the Occupy movement (or at least some of its supporters) and In Time part ways, it’s in the notion that everyone can be rich. In sci-fi-land, it’s the wealthy members of the establishment who claim that time isn’t infinite, that distributing it to the unwashed masses will “crash the system.” In our present-day world, it’s liberals claiming that not everybody wants to be rich, but most everybody wants a job, a roof over their head, and some degree of security — what I always call a “basic minimum” and agree that every First World country ought to and can provide its citizenry. Bill Maher famously claimed, “of course everybody can’t be rich; who’d be left to do stuff for rich people that nobody wants to do?”

Actually, that’s an excellent point: In Time never quite explains the mechanism by which its “currency” is produced. Does it require energy? Manufacturing? Even if we assume it’s nothing more than a digital countdown, and that the complexity of genetic aging processes can simply be switched on and off — not as far-fetched as its sounds, given research into telomeres — what are the raw economic costs of producing other goods and services to society? This is the basis of economics, at least as I understand it: the medium of exchange reflects, or should reflect, the aggregate cost of producing the stuff we use. As long as these products require human labor and — yes — time to create, an economic system involving scarcity (whether it’s monetary or temporal) seems inevitable.

But this begs the next question: what if stuff costs nothing, or next to nothing, to make? Well, speculative fiction addresses that too… I’m thinking, particularly, of Isaac Asimov‘s robot novels.

In these — starting with The Caves of Steel in 1954 — Asimov imagines a far-ish future (around 1,000 years) where groups of settlers had colonized a bunch of worlds with the aid of robots. But unlike Blade Runner‘s maniacal, malfunctioning replicants, these robots have been (successfully) engineered to be docile, helpful, near-indestructible servants — happy, willing, perfect slaves. They are self-repairing, self-manufacturing, and can (and do) produce all the goods and services anybody could ever want. In contrast to overpopulated, impoverished Earth (gotta have one of those for contrast), these off-world colonies are paradises of wealth. There, too, people live for centuries (though not forever — the prospect of genetic agelessness was unknown to Asimov in 1954) and population is voluntarily held in check. Everyone lives in mansions surrounded by flotillas of well-meaning servants, and does what one likes. Everyone is, indeed, wealthy.

And yet, the Spacer worlds (as they’re known) are far from utopian: jealousy, intrigue, even murder (the premise of at least one of the books) are present. It seems, in eradicating poverty and disease from these brave new worlds, future humans had forgotten to engineer away the not-so-better angels of our nature.

So maybe that’s where real-life activism and speculative fiction come together: technology can solve our problems (though it can also make them worse) but technology alone (or, for that matter, political policy) isn’t enough. As an unrepentant idealist, futurist, and geek, yes, I hold out hope that our scientific advances can improve our world. But we need to change, too. Many of us accept a certain degree of inequality in our lives (this very interesting blog post deals with such notions and how they fall on the political spectrum) — those who take initiatives, who work harder, ought to reap a greater reward — but a society based entirely on one-upsmanship, on reinforcement of inequality, on scarcity as a self-reinforcing idea… that’s a society which, sadly, too many of us have decided to accept.

And here’s where I rejoin my Occupy cohorts, and almost anyone who doesn’t accept our world at face value: I don’t think our current state, our current way of being, is static and inevitable. It may take time — more than on most people’s clocks — but I for one believe we can change, and shouldn’t throw up our hands and refuse to try.

I’ll take a million years, too, if that’s on the table.


Occupations and Reactions


The “Occupy” movement has been spreading like wildfire these past weeks, fanning out from its perch in New York’s Zuccotti Park to spots across the world. It’s hard for we social-justice types to contain our enthusiasm: sure, the movement lacks leadership, it doesn’t have one coherent, focused message, and winter is coming. But still, it’s heartening, after decades of John Birchers and free-market fundamentalists and “Tea Party Patriots” to see Americans (and others in concert) protesting what folks like me think are the right things to be protesting.

This is true locally as well: even here in “let’s protest-the-least-relevant-stuff” San Francisco, where putting a small local-coffee-store kiosk in a popular city park or opening a progressive Trader Joes grocery store arouse (utterly unnecessary) ire, the Occupy movement has taken root — so much so that in neighboring Oakland, heavy-handed police tactics led to a widening of the movement and even a general strike. So unprecedented is this in America that most of us probably don’t even know what a general strike is or remember the last time one took place — it’s something consigned to history books, images of black & white laborers from a century ago on rattling streetcars.

And so, at the behest of some friends, I took off one lunch a few weeks back to march in San Francisco’s first such event; a week or so later I was in New York, and in addition to seeing the 9/11 Memorial (quite well done; you forget how massive those buildings were) I made sure to stop in Zuccotti Park to check it all out. I was only there briefly, but this excellent piece gives a nuanced, insightful picture of what these protests are all about.

For me, really, what I find most incredible is that the conversation in America is finally shifting to an honest criticism of our values and mores; growing up, I was always taught that, however corrupting it might be for some, the quest for ever-greater fortune is the right quest to be on. Refusing a promotion, turning down more responsibility, refusing to work gratuitously long hours… these were all things likely to brand you as “lazy,” “bitter,” even “worthless.” Given the ending of the Cold War (or, actually, even during it) anything that smacked of the Communistic was considered heretical, a sure-fire pathway to corrupt officials in dachas making the masses stand in line for toilet paper and fear deportation to Siberia. Oh, I know, it sounds a bit shrill and extreme to, say, liken the Tea Party movement’s cries of “socialism” with Stalinist excesses… but the very reason the teabagger crowd (as they’ve also come to be known) uses those words is because they know that, deep in our subconscious, those associations are in place.

This is my biggest hope for the movement: that it continues to awaken us to the skew inherent in our values. Of course, they could also use a more focused set of ideas, though it is in the nature of such organically-springing movements (in this case aided by social media and other new technology) to be hazy at first. Still, some of our sharpest minds are on the case — and so am I. When I was in New York I decided to do my part: I drafted up a proposal for what I think the Occupiers should be demanding. It’s a bit radical, but also not unprecedented. Check it out here.

And feel free to comment below: what do YOU think the Occupiers should be demanding?


Hatfields and McCoys


The West Virginian Hatfield-McCoy feud is likely the best-known and least-understood family drama in American history (I myself mixed it up with the O.K. Corral gunfight, which is totally unrelated). But it’s most often used as metaphor for one of the biggest unresolved disputes of all: that between Israelis and Palestinians.

I’ve read and studied this subject a lot, partly because I have a dog in this fight (a sizeable portion of my extended family resides in the region), and partly because I’m captivated by its symbolism as the flash point in the alleged “clash of civilizations” between Western power and Islamic tradition.

First off, I’m simultaneously grateful and annoyed at world media for the disproportionate amount of coverage this gets. All sides of the conflict are equally culpable here, and I’m sure it must frustrate war-ravaged sub-Saharan Africans or police-stated North Koreans to no end to see their far larger-scale problems upstaged by the travails of a nation the size of Delaware. It’s nice to have so much information about this conflict I follow; at the same time, it would be nice if, say, the war in the Congo (1998-2003; 5.4 million killed) got a bit more airplay.

Various explanations have been advanced for this media malproportion: the relative ease of covering a major civilizational conflict from comfortable Western-style hotel rooms in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv (the very smallness of the country may be part of what keeps it in the news); an Anti-Semitic double standard; the importance of Middle East oil. Often overlooked, as it is in most news coverage and even opinion pieces on the subject, is the bigger picture behind the screaming headlines.

The issue has its passionate partisans (I know more than a few myself), most of whom spend much of their time railing about the savagery and cruelty of the other side. But what no one really states is what the conflict’s really about, i.e. what each side wants. My take on it, the one that I think a startling proportion of people on either side would agree with, is this:

Both sides want the entire place (more-or-less) exclusively for themselves.

At this point the partisans begin their carefully-worded “yes, but” responses: this side must stop doing this; that side did that barbaric or unforgiveable act; we’re not “really” going to exclude people; and so forth. Platitudes are then put forth about colonial projects, latter-day imperialism, (literally) God-given promises made to Biblical figures. But all that really obscures a simple yet intractable fact: this is, at its heart, a custody battle over some real estate.

Since it’s impossible for two sovereign entities to exercise exclusive control over the same turf (and restrict residency in said turf to its own kind), the dance continues, from settlement-building (“facts on land,” the early Zionists would call it) to suicide bombs to rocket attacks to reprisal incursions to full-on wars. But really, truth be told, the true goal of either side will never be realized: there are millions of both peoples (and, to be sure, smatterings of other minorities) co-mingled in the same space; one of the most powerful militaries on Earth on one side; the backing of ethnically-related neighbors on the other who happen to be some of the leading oil-producing nations; and the spectre of nuclear war still hanging like a Damoclean sword over all humankind (just because the Cold War has ended doesn’t mean nuclear weapons are gone, and it would take relatively little to invoke some future global nuclear conflagration).

So if no one’s going to win, is there any hope? Maybe, if the two sides can be persuaded to share the place. A truly multinational state with both Palestinian Arabs and Jewish Israelis as roughly a 50/50 split in population is anathema to both sides. I’m inclined, however, to think that short of this fight going on forever (which is a possibility), this will be what comes to pass long-term. Palestinian nationalists and die-hard Jewish Zionists may loathe and fear it, but I suspect it’s a demographic inevitability.

But in the short and medium term, it won’t work. The two sides are too different, too divided, too… well, Hatfield-McCoy-like, for a simple act of national union to happen. But the much-touted “two-state solution” is more likely.

If this does get closer to happening, I’ll offer up my one bit of highly-unconventional advice to both sides: forget the past. To heck with Biblical covenants or what village your grandpappy lived in before 1948 or who’s more wrong than the other. Make like a character in some movie who loses all memory and is forced to begin life anew.

First: from humble beginnings, the State of Israel is a wealthy, technically-advanced nation — one of the most on Earth. Whatever their motivations, whatever their actions, Israelis have wrought an enviable place from a cultural/economic-development standpoint. Meanwhile, you have another side that’s in dire need of something to do — assuming they can be persuaded not to spend their waking hours plotting their rival’s destruction like some Bond villain. What a great match, like tethering a once-divided Central European nation or two differently-skin-colored people in southern Africa. It’ll be uneven and bumpy at first — it always is, just ask the East Germans or South Africans — but it can work.

But that will mean Israel/Palestine abandoning their mutual goals for an ethnically-homogenous nation-state and instead settling for what we’ve (admittedly imperfectly) built here in North America, in Australia, and to a now-growing degree in Western Europe: a heterogenous “melting pot” nation-state, where people are just distinct enough to be interesting but not so much so that they’re at each others’ throats. We in such nations often scoff at this notion, calling it flawed, racist, outmoded… pick your epithet. But this very dismissal is indicative that our style of nation-ing works so well as to be taken for granted. Innumerable Palestinians and Congolese probably wish they had our “problems.” But in order to get there, they may need to embrace pragmatism and abandon romantic notions about “a state just for us.”

This will be dismissed as naive — and that’s precisely the point. Once every other approach has been tried, maybe a naive one, unencumbered by past trauma, is the way to go. After all, the Hatfield-McCoy feud eventually burned itself out — but who knows what might’ve happened if it were expanded out to the scale of two nations, in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, across a civilizational divide, and in the backyard of some trillions of dollars in energy deposits. The only way for these two parties to see past their differences is to look in an entirely different direction.