The Trust Quandary

I spend a lot of time in airports. If you look around the airport, endless dramas are playing out. People coming, going, hugging, saying goodbye sometimes forever, welcoming home friends and family gone who knows how long. When I look at so many strangers, I often wonder about the ideas that bond and separate us as co-inhabitants of cities, states, and our nation. That often leads me to think about our common ideas of trust.

Why trust at the airport? If you get on as many planes as I do, trust is implicit in the experience. I don’t know the pilots. I don’t know the state of the equipment I’m boarding. I don’t know who else is going to populate that airborne metal tube for the next several hours at 30,000 or more feet above sea level.

A few weeks ago my flight was delayed more than ten hours in a reasonably bad storm. It happened to be Election Day. When they finally let us board, I walked onto the plane and took my seat as quickly as I could. I looked out the window and saw a wet runway and dark sky hurling rain and wind. I didn’t ask to exit. I didn’t ask for reassurance that the crew was rested. I trusted everyone involved in the decision that it was safe to fly.

Since you’re reading this blog post, you can presume that wasn’t a fateful choice on my part. It surely could have been, but somehow trust in people I didn’t know, a company that employs them, and a government division assigned to oversee the activity carried the day. Other than thinking I wanted to write about it, I didn’t think much about it at all.

Is trust a form of absurdity or is some form of it necessary for us to share common spaces?

Perhaps it is both.

It isn’t a coincidence that I write this immediately following an election. Somehow over the past few elections, it has become vogue in certain circles to simply dismiss the reported, monitored, and validated results of an election as fraudulent. If one’s candidate loses an election, especially by a narrow margin, there is no easier way to declare victory than to declare a lack of trust in the voting process. It doesn’t even require evidence to attack the fairness of the vote count. We all can say what we want, and if we want to say our candidate lost because the election was compromised by fraud, we have the freedom to say that.

To summarize: I can trust the strangers controlling the jet airliner I’m going to fly with four hundred other strangers through a storm, but I can’t trust the civil servants whose job it is to count votes accurately. That one seems tough to reconcile.

Some say that democracy itself was on the last ballot, with the outstanding question of whether the tallied results would result in the winning candidates being lawfully seated. Again, just typing that sentence makes my fingers tremble. Democracy has been at the core of my personal values for as long as I can remember. I presume as a citizen of this nation I get to vote along with everyone else and the counted votes will direct an outcome. I don’t think about it any more than getting on the plane in the storm.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want expert monitors overseeing the transportation industry or our voting booths. If I can’t trust either one of those, I can’t fly and I can’t agree to follow laws passed by legislators. When we throw in the towel on trust, our ability to function in shared spaces is dramatically curtailed. Without some presumed notion of trust, I am not sure we can function at all.

Before you write to let me know what a mark I am likely to be for targeted scams, let me assure you my trust is not easily won. If you’ve worked with me, you know this emphatically. If you’ve ever sold me something of substance and been paid cash money for it, you know it even more. Even then I am wildly understating the difficulty to win my personal trust, but it can be won. If it can’t, we can’t do great things together. We can’t do anything at all.

Do I worry trust is abused? More than you can imagine. Baby boomers know a thing or two about trust. We were raised with the Vietnam War. We were raised with Kent State. We were raised with Richard Nixon. One of our most memorable anthems declared, “We won’t get fooled again.”

It sickens me when trust is blatantly abused.

It sickens me that people trusted FTX and its once-celebrated CEO to help them navigate the already shaky world of cryptocurrency. If you trusted FTX as an investment, you likely lost all your money.

It sickens me that people trusted a night out with friends at an LGBTQ dance club in Colorado Springs and five of them didn’t return home, with as many as 25 others injured in the semiautomatic weapon assault. If you were someone who put trust in diversity and acceptance that night, your trust was forever violated.

It sickens me that the federal government offered much-needed financial aid to individuals and small businesses through the CARES act, and billions of these dollars were diverted to fraudulent claims. If you needed Paycheck Protection Program dollars and didn’t get any when they ran out, there’s a good chance you trusted the custodians of these funds to be ahead of con artists, and they weren’t.

Does that mean we going to stop investing, going to clubs, or filing applications for government programs? It can’t, any more than we should consider not flying or accepting the results of certified elections.

Trust in some shape or form is always going to be violated, which is why we must continue to insist on as many reasonable safeguards against these violations as technical and process engineering can muster. I don’t know anyone in the FAA, but if I don’t trust that agency to do its job, or I don’t support proper legal action to correct its performance should it fail, my time at the airport is done.

If I don’t trust the vast majority of fellow citizens to behave civilly in public, I can no longer go out and presume I am coming home as healthy as I left.

If I don’t trust my doctor to perform a procedure when I am under anesthesia, I can’t have the procedure.

And if we can’t trust the certified results of a routine election, then we can’t have a democracy. We didn’t protest against all the attacks on civil liberties this past half century to give up our democracy. We did it to enhance and preserve this incomparable gift of sharing spaces, agreeing to disagree, and believing that if we didn’t get our choice in the last election, the next one will be coming soon. That next election has to be a certainty or the experiment is over. I’m calling the experiment alive if not perfectly well, but necessary and enduring.

There might be an absurdity underlying the notion of trust. If that kind of trust is what it takes to get me on the next scheduled flight, call me absurd. I’ll see you at the airport and at the ballot box.

_______________

Photo: Pixabay

Advertisement

Ten Bad Reasons Not to Vote

It’s easy to convince yourself not to vote. While the 2020 presidential election had a record high turnout for the 21st century, that still represented just 66.8% of citizens 18 years and older who participated. Midterm elections tend to yield significantly fewer voters. In many other nations around the globe, people still die for the right to play a role in free and fair elections. If you’ve managed to convince yourself that you needn’t exercise your right to vote, here is a laundry list of bad excuses that might talk you off the bench.

1) My single vote is just that; it hardly matters in a nation of millions.

Well, maybe, but what if the millions feel the same as you? There go the millions. Have a look at how close some of the vote counts have been in a number of highly contested races and you are likely to change your mind. Your vote matters.

2) I’m really busy and I don’t have the time to vote.

Well, maybe, but think about something you could trade for the time that you won’t miss, perhaps an hour of social media scrolling, television reality shows, or arguing with others about their poor election choices.

3) Voting is so inconvenient.

Well, maybe, but if going to a physical voting booth is not your thing, in almost every state there is some form of a mail-in ballot you can fill out anywhere and drop in a mailbox. If you need assistance getting to the polls, there are free or reduced-cost transportation resources available in many municipalities.

4) Most of the candidates fall into two parties and I don’t like either of them.

Well, maybe, but no rule says you have to vote strictly along party lines. Vote for the individual who best aligns with your needs, choices, and values.

5) Those ballot initiatives are too complicated and are meant to trick people.

Well, maybe, but there are plain language summaries of every initiative published online, in local newspapers, and in widely distributed brochures that can help you cut through the foggy language.

6) I don’t trust the election establishment and think fraud is deeply embedded in the system.

Well, maybe, but if you study the research, there is scant evidence of widespread election fraud, and the best way to overcome the possibility of fraud is for elections to be won decisively with huge turnouts.

7) I like identifying as being outside the system and not part of corruption.

Well, maybe, but if you live in the same nation as those who vote and you choose not to vote, the same laws apply to you. Your outsider status doesn’t exclude you from compliance with the laws others make. Letting those who vote elect officials to make laws for those who don’t vote seems like an awful concession. Where voter intimidation is in play, standing up for your right to vote seems more consequential than ever.

8) The candidates are idiots and I don’t want to endorse idiots.

Well, maybe, but even if the candidates aren’t up to your standards, you still might want to offer a stack ranking. Your opinion of relative competence can only be included in outcomes if you submit a ballot.

9) Campaign commercials, lawn signs, and debates are just icky, meaningless rhetoric.

Well, maybe, but choosing not to vote when you’re offended doesn’t give voice to your offense, it just rewards those behind the ickiness by silencing your repulsion.

10) I just don’t feel valued as a voter and don’t think elections matter to my everyday life.

Well, maybe, but if that kind of apathy becomes widespread, it becomes much easier for autocrats to seize control and take away the choices you may someday regret losing.

The right to vote should never be taken for granted. Wars have been fought and lives sacrificed to protect this sacred right. You will be compelled to pay taxes, but you won’t be compelled to vote. They sort of go together, so don’t give up your right willingly. Those who allocate your financial resources will still send you a tax bill whether or not you like how they spend your money.

Voting may seem bothersome, abstract, or elusive in representing your point of view, but it always matters and can never be surrendered. Rational and heartfelt thinking are the main hopes we have for transforming bad behavior into good behavior. Listening and learning are all part of the process of bringing positive change. Sitting on the sidelines doesn’t make a statement, it avoids one. If it doesn’t go your way this time around, there’s always next time, and the time after that, and the time after that.

Never give up hope. Protect your right by exercising it every time you can. Please, get out the vote.

_______________

Photo: Pexels

David Milch Pens a Curtain Call

It’s called Life’s Work. It’s anything but a simple title, as only to be expected from its incomparable author, David Milch. It’s not so much a play on words as it is an enunciation of intent, a spiritual aspiration. Yeah, let’s start there and see where it takes us. The rabbi is in.

There is a profound sadness that winds its way through these pages. Alzheimer’s is laying claim to David’s current challenge, and it permeates his thought process in this troubling memoir. He is assisted in committing the recallable memories to paper by his family, and even where confusion follows his path like a sine curve, it’s not just Alzheimer’s that elicits sorrow. It’s the entire path of intermittent regrets. If words are to make us feel, his words again succeed.

I hadn’t seen David in a very long time when I attended his book launch. I asked him if he remembered me. “Of course,” he said, “do either of us owe the other money?” I was 99% sure it was a joke, but just in case I assured him we did not.

In the broadest sense of its definition, rabbi means teacher. In the workplace, it means more than that. If you get one, your life is going to change. You might just be finding a path to Life’s Work.

When you’re a young writer, if you’re smart you seek teachers. They don’t teach you how to write. They teach you how difficult it is to write. They instill in you taste, fortitude, inhuman patience, proper doubt, and resilience.

The feedback is anything but pleasant. It’s not for the faint of heart. You learn that bad first drafts are a fact of process. They are necessary, but largely need to be deleted.

David Milch taught me these things, mostly by demonstrating them, but sometimes from the breakfast lectern. He taught me that subjecting others to unpolished work was amateur, lazy, and unfair. If you choose to tell stories, you must learn to craft them in ways that don’t waste an audience’s time or take advantage of their goodwill.

You learn discipline, like an athlete. You do it every day, again and again. The rabbi keeps you honest. Character comes first, then reveals plot, but plot is only a device to enhance the arc of character development. We think we love story, but what we really love are characters.

David taught me those characters are guests in people’s homes. Audiences will let them in on expectation, but will only keep them there if they grow. When a show dies, it’s not because you have run out of story; it’s because the characters have no more headroom to interpret and flourish.

Feedback becomes lifeblood. Then one day you’re on your own. When the teacher is no more, your filter is established to shield you from embarrassment. The work must pass your own sniff test as it would be blessed from further refinement by the teacher.

In this memoir, David writes of the mind’s decay. He didn’t ask for this denouement, but his choices are few. He accepts the path as inescapable. He turns to notions of faith that evaded him in his younger years, when his temperament was not tamable. I remember that David. That was the rabbi who first said to me: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

He wrote unforgettable, award-winning episodes of Hill Street Blues. He created the groundbreaking television series NYPD Blue and Deadwood. He left the craft of episodic television writing better than he found it. That is an understatement.

He battled substance abuse and gambling addiction, both almost crushing his existence. He raised a caring family and found his way back to their love. Surviving his demons to nurture love was a monumental achievement.

I came to David because my viewing experience of Hill Street Blues was TV that tore at the soul. I didn’t know that was possible, particularly because it broke for commercial every 12 minutes or so. David came to think of it as bourgeois. That’s a word you don’t often hear outside of college.

He wanted to go deeper, extract honesty from language despite the limitations imposed by presumed broadcast standards. Rules for David were goalposts that needed to be moved with concerted wit whenever a network executive forgot to interfere. All forms of writing are bound by some form of convention, but he wanted those boundaries to be in service to creativity, not obstacles to authentic expression.

He never stopped being a teacher. He saw the gift in his mentor, Robert Penn Warren, and paid it forward. He helped the careers of endless writers who learned from his example the poetic revelations in pure, gritty, messy, conflicted reality.

For many years I never believed I would achieve David’s standard. My aesthetic was too unformed, too quick to quip, too impatient to let a character breathe if it killed a laugh or shocking turn. I became despondent with my own attempts at composition. I worried words would fail me when I needed them most.

Yet I never gave up. The rabbi made that an untenable notion. Work was essential. Rewriting was essential. Craft was essential. I was on my own as David was. Every writer is alone. It takes a lifetime to learn that. The rabbi if abrupt saves you half your life denying this truth and readying you for being alone, determined, indefatigable.

A mentor is a subject matter master. A mentor is not meant to be kind in the present, only in the long arc of life. We learn this too late. The critique of the master is only meant to become self-critique in perpetuity. Like I said, apprenticeship is not for the faint of heart.

There is gravitas in the audacity of writing, absurdity in committing to an endeavor that consistently leaves you empty and unnaturally separates writer from the written. David understands that in a rabbinical sense. His ability to articulate the nature of output is simultaneously divine and existential. A brief, revealing excerpt early in the memoir captures the essence of that reduction:

There’s something about literature—poetry and prose, but particularly poetry—which disinfects the efforts of being. The effort itself is cleansing. It neutralizes what’s profane about the process, and just leaves the result.

If writing becomes your essence, the idea of not writing is about the same as the idea of not breathing. Neither is feasible. Both are equally necessary.

At the end of the reading, supplemented by famous friends sharing passages for reasons of pragmatism, David took the microphone. “Thank you so much for being here. I love you all. God bless you.”

I had never heard him say words like that. His arc had come with an unpredictable resolution. Story and character were again united in natural resonance.

The rabbi placed a small ribbon between chapters and closed the book. His eyes were clear and telling. Here ends the lesson.

_______________

Photo: The Author at Diesel Bookstore

The Thing About Vin

This month I suspect the nation is accidentally divided into two unsuspecting camps: Those hearing the beloved name Vin Scully for the first time, and those who feel the world has lost a soul whose voice permeated their imagination for what seems like forever. I probably don’t have to tell you, but my tent is in Camp Two.

I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to the touching tributes to Vin all month now, waiting for the words to come to me that might add something different to the mix. Like so many fans of baseball, I am finding it impossible to quantify the impact Vin has had on the game and my life. Let me try to get there by focusing on what Vin brought into our lives that exceeds anything to do with a child’s game played by adults for well over a century on our pastoral fields of dreams.

Vin was decent in a way that defines decency. Try to think of anyone in the public eye where you never hear a single bad word uttered about him. People like this about someone but not that, people argue about the talents and abilities of professionals, people offer pointed critiques of someone’s shortfalls despite their success. I’ve never heard anyone utter a cross comment about Vin. Never. It’s uncanny. I can’t think of anyone else who fits that bill.

Vin was a storyteller of the highest order. We frequently overuse the word storytelling to describe the sequencing of events that constitute an unfolding narrative, but Vin turned broadcasting into art and baseball into a series of real-time epics built from a foundation of plot and character. You never had to love the Dodgers to love the resonance of Vin’s unmistakable voice. You listened to the anecdotes excerpted from the lives of MLB players told gracefully between balls, strikes, hits, and runs. You never missed a play, and every chapter of the story added up to a portrait of an era.

Vin brought us together. Whether you were sitting in Dodger Stadium with a transistor radio earplug hanging below your ballcap, watching a big screen with rowdy strangers in a sports bar, or sitting at home texting friends and family while Vin did the play-by-play alone in the booth, everyone choosing to participate in the day’s game came together as part of the event. Vin was inclusive, and he made us inclusive. Our differences didn’t matter on game day when he had the mic. His friendship was our friendship. Vin made sure everyone felt welcome to be part of his 67 years of telling campfire stories while athletes performed them in stadiums linked to historic moments.

“Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you.”

“If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky.”

“A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”

“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”

“I know in my heart that I’ve always needed you more than you’ve needed me.”

Vin turned simple words into profound statements, moments into musical notes, radio and television commentary into sound bites for the ages. Today that might seem corny, impossible to pull off without sounding dated or forced. I guess when you have the perspective of almost seven decades to evolve your act, whatever you say is instantly perfect. It’s jazz. You’ve rehearsed as much as anyone alive, so you can improvise without a worry. You also instinctively know when quiet beats loud.

The stories of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, Don Larsen, Fernando Valenzuela, Don Drysdale, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente — they are each 100% their own, and Vin knew that more than anyone. Vin was forever the reporter, never the story, that was his inviolable commitment. Yet the stories were better because he told them. Everyone knew that. If you had a story in the game, you wanted Vin to tell it, to record it for the ages, to make it vital, enchanting, and historic. Doing the outlandish in a game that has never seen a moment like yours is one thing. Having Vin lock down the tale for all of time is quite another.

As I think about all the kind words I’ve read and heard about how deeply this one humble man touched so many lives, I am repeatedly left breathless by the stories the fans themselves have shared. Fathers and sons who couldn’t find the right words to say to each other turned on the radio and had a catch while Vin called the game. Families who couldn’t afford the price of tickets parked their cars in open spaces, opened the tailgate of an old station wagon, spread a picnic blanket and grilled hot dogs as Vin made them feel like they were at Chavez Ravine. Brooklyn loyalists who never forgave Walter O’Malley for moving the team west generations later got satellite TV and fell in love again with their Dodgers bridged by the same voice who loved the team as much as they always had.

So here’s the thing about Vin, where the legend of simpler times and radio days brings us to the less innocent evolution we’re all trying to navigate with fragments of heart and hope. Some of us are getting older, losing the icons that carried us from youth to adulthood while poignantly keeping us young at heart. Every April baseball season begins with enormous hope, and every October it ends with one World Series champion. We all know the beginning and end of that cycle come with a change in the cast. Some of our favorite players will be gone. Some of the most important people in our lives may be gone. That is the sad and precious reality of our time together. Our memories are both powerful and fragile. When we remember a common voice that triggers the goodness in those memories, biological age for an instant is no longer a thing.

Vin was there for so many of those memories. He had the seat of honor at so many of our tables. He will stay tied to those memories as long as we stay tied to those memories. The gift of his life was to enrich the lives of all those who carry forward those memories. He wanted that even more than to call a perfect game. For Vin, every game was a perfect game.

I’ll give the wind-up to Vin, because I cannot imagine any other way to set up the close and get off the air:

“When I was eight years old, I fell in love with the roar of the crowd coming out of the speaker of a four-legged radio. When you roar, when you cheer, when you are thrilled, for a brief moment I am eight years old again.”

Yep, so am I. Thank you, dear Vin Scully. Your gift of optimism and connection is once in a lifetime, once in a century, once in sports history. Your gift forever keeps us eight years old.

_______________

Photo: Library of Congress