A Childhood Friend Passes

I said a final goodbye to a longtime friend recently. He was intensely private and not at all a fan of social media so I won’t name him here. I do feel the need to write about him, so I hope I am in-bounds handling this in the abstract.

We actually lost him during Covid, but the logistics of his memorial had to wait for travel arrangements. He wasn’t a Covid victim, perhaps just the timing. He had other medical issues that lasted all his life. I have known this person since we were 11 years old, which I believe makes him the longest-standing friend I have maintained. I didn’t do a great job of maintaining that friendship, but luckily I did visit with him right before Covid. He gave me a reasonably rebellious book right in line with his lifelong wit and irritation with the unreasonable. I gave him a copy of my last book. We never got to discuss either.

The medical condition that haunted him dates back to our earliest conversations. He never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him, but if you were in his circle, he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. It was a neuromuscular disease and although his entire life would be linked by operations and treatments, he refused to let his life be defined by it. It was existential. He understood existential.

Several years ago I wrote a tribute to Jerry Lewis when he died. I had been involved as a supporter and volunteer of the Muscular Dystrophy Association since childhood and strangely always felt a connection to Jerry. I remember discussing this with my friend in childhood. He had a mixed reaction to MDA. He appreciated all the donations that Jerry inspired to invest in research, but he was troubled by all the photoshoots and poster children. This friend was sufficiently progressive but never woke. When I wrote my piece on Jerry he wrote to me after a very long stretch of absence, almost out of the blue, a brief email to me that began:

“So I don’t get a mention in the Jerry Lewis post? I cried when he died. Loved him as a funny man.”

He then went on to blast MDA, a very harsh critique. You see, this friend understood the nature of a mixed bag. He could see light and dark in the same moment. Dark was really dark but light was talent, accomplishment, connection, selfless commitment.

Yes, a mixed bag. Aren’t we all? Particularly a half-century past the day we meet a childhood friend.

There were phases to our friendship following our seven years together leading to high school graduation. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had nowhere to live, no money, no job. Just a college degree and hope. My friend was still in college here and welcomed me to sleep on his sofa until I could establish credit and find a place (it was actually his sister’s apartment, although he deftly negotiated my path in the door). I used to comb through the L.A. Times each day looking for apartment rentals and employment. Soon enough those came together and I moved on. I don’t forget that sofa. It was a symbol of friendship. I drive by that apartment every once in a while. Yes, the proverbial launchpad.

Years later when I was immersed in a writing assignment and seeking his feedback, he told me that someday he might want to write a movie or book. He wasn’t completely sure what he wanted to write about, but he told me with certainty he knew what the last line would be: “Let’s go home.”

There is a lot of resonance in those three words. Home for him was not specifically a place or even a metaphor. It is an idea, an aspiration, a Platonic Form.

He enjoyed a celebrated career in architecture and co-founded his own firm. He was a master of sculpture and ceramic design. He cherished historic structures and the learning to be found in the history of art. The notion of home was alive and well in all his aesthetic constructs. He clearly saw the natural extension of people into the curious things they chose to build, not always successfully, but hopefully with conviction.

Sometimes when I am getting to know someone, I ask them what three words they would most hope someone else would use to describe them. I never asked this friend that question because when your connection reaches back to childhood, you have a lot of time to think about it.

He was resilient. He was uncompromising. He was nuanced.

Resilient—because no matter the physical or character challenge he faced, he never backed away from it, never let it be an excuse or obstacle, never complained that he wasn’t dealt a fair hand, never asked for a different set of rules.

Uncompromising—because if you were wrong, he would tell you so, and even when you argued coherently that you weren’t wrong, he’d explain what you were missing in your evaluation and help you see why a counterintuitive approach might create a bridge to his logic.

Nuanced—because he knew wherever light entered a prism, its refraction could not be contained, mixing light and darkness in most forms of thought, the beautiful and the sublime in most expressions of art, good and not-so-good outcomes in too many of our intentions, however noble our purpose.

Our touchpoints form a pastiche of separately evolving but forever interconnected lives. A love of the water, whether on the natural coastline, an inelegant water skiing loop, or a boat shared with friends at sea. Political fairness and equal justice in limitless dialogue. The intersection of historical philosophy and pragmatic psychology. A belief that the courage to choose honest words matters more than our ability to perfectly craft them under pressure. An ardent shared defense of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. These are bonds time cannot undermine.

Lives together and apart twist and weave. Our relationships with each other are fluid. We don’t realize that when we come together and separate, but it is the course of things.

This particular friend’s family had a vast impact on me. Counsel from his father set my life on a course that has let me be who I am today. I wouldn’t be the same otherwise. It’s not just your friends who transform you. It is their circles and the circles you cannot imagine are forming in the background of your journey. When you look back, it is all so clear. At the time, it seems like just hanging out.

Sometimes I think there is no such thing as just hanging out. Everything can be consequential. You don’t know that at the time. That’s the scary part. We’d best pay closer attention all the time.

There are few realities more absolute than mortality. It is the universal link that humbles us all. It translates directly to the impermanence of our time together. That can be hours, days, years, decades, or most of a lifetime. We seldom understand it that way, because time does not reveal itself that way. The passing of time is certain, but not our shared intervals.

When we lose someone, we are reminded both of our own insignificance in the continuum of earthly events and our enormous significance in the impact lives can have on each other. I am thinking about that now in the span of a half-century, about what I did right and wrong in this friendship, what I could have done better, and how I am changed and shaped by this remarkable individual’s authenticity.

He left us with the perfect ending.

Let’s go home.

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Photo: Pexels

5 Brief Quotes That Keep Me Thinking

Are we turning the corner on a new day of reinvention and reinvigoration, or are we swapping one set of enormously complicated challenges for another?

I’ve been think about that a lot as Covid-19 vaccinations are welcomed by increasingly more people and the doors to a rejuvenated nation continue to open at an encouraging pace. Still, it’s hard to ignore that much of the conflict that existed in the pre-Covid world remains in the post-Covid world.

The economy is rebounding with optimism in investment, yet income inequality is as deeply embedded in our interactions as it has ever been. High profile convictions for the abuse of power have been handed down, yet racial injustice remains in the daily headlines. International travel is resuming, yet lives are being lost in battles across and within borders.

We remain too often divided, and find little in the way of broad consensus that will adequately address sustainable remedies. Has the world learned anything from Covid-19, or are we picking up where we left off?

On days that are difficult to explain, I find myself looking to tiny bits of wisdom that keep me inspired and focused in good times, bad times, and when I can’t tell the difference. Here are five fragments I keep top of mind that I hope you will find perennial and inexhaustible.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” — Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He had every reason to be a pessimist given the treatment he endured, yet he was a fighter of the most noble order and seems to me a true optimist. He had a gift that he transformed into a cause. He led by example. He teaches me there is no other way to lead than by example.

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” — Walt Disney

Walt Disney was another optimist, but in a different way. He focused on pushing the imagination to unimaginable bounds. He knew beyond all financial gain that our aspirations live in our dreams, and that our stories are mirrors of our souls. He teaches me there is creativity in all of us, and nurturing that expression is essential to our fulfillment.

“All we are saying is give peace a chance.” — John Lennon

John Lennon expressed this in lyrics, so when I hear it, it is more music than words. Is it pointlessly naïve to think after centuries of combat, conquering, and attack we can make the active choice to seek peace as he suggests? To think less seems to me impossibly cynical. He teaches me that hope is at the root of getting past the seduction of old ways, and those old ways find a terrible way of repeatedly deceiving us.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” — Anne Frank

Anne Frank left the world much too soon and in the unfairest of ways, yet it is the majesty of her child’s voice that reminds us initiative to improve is always within our grasp. Her courage holds the uplifting power to bypass the contaminants of cruelty in favor of a bias toward action. She teaches me that no matter the debilitating obstacles confronting our values, we must remain true to a commitment to heal the world.

“One voice can change a room.” — Barack Obama

Barack Obama is the one person quoted here who is still alive, tirelessly active in his advocacy for our shared wellness. He remains a controversial figure and his impact on our world will be debated long after his poetic voice passes into history. He often cites another of my favorite quotes around the arc of the moral universe. He teaches me there is intrinsic reward in tackling audacious goals, and that where progress may appear thin, there is ever more necessity in maintaining navigation toward a North Star.

That’s a lot to invoke in relatively few words. I have another batch of these I may share at a later date, and of course I would love to hear the words that inspire you in these ambivalent times. The concise wisdom of others is often enough to help us make a better decision, sculpt a bad choice into an improved choice, or just fire up our engines when fuel is hidden from our view. As I get older, I seldom see the obvious clarity I once anticipated would always reveal itself.

Sometimes you have to Think Different. Sometimes you have to think harder. Sometimes a little listening helps us discover the path beyond the noise.

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Photo: Pixabay

Why We Should Give More

Give!
It’s that time of year for me, another trip around the sun complete. This one is not quite a milestone count, but as good a time as any to reflect on purpose. Age will do that to you. We don’t get to reflect indefinitely. That which goes into our permanent record is anything but limitless.

Covid-19 will soon pass into history, but not its devastation. The time it has given us to think about our uses of time may be one of its few constructive legacies

Do we look externally for validation or is it intrinsic? What is a job well done? Are we meant to behave as survivalists with a primary worry of self or something different?

Giving is a curious notion. Perhaps it presents a choice that is inescapable. We do or we don’t. We make a choice even if we don’t make a choice.

I do wonder at length why we give. It’s easy to be conned and give wrong. The charlatans and traps outnumber our investigative hours. The risk of being fooled is an occupational hazard. I’ve made peace with that.

Here’s one good reason to take the risk and give: When we believe in others, we reinforce their courage to believe in themselves. When we share compassion with others, we demonstrate that compassion is possible and can be a virtuous circle.

We are directed to welcome the stranger. Soon after that our bond becomes our gift.

I find myself increasingly thinking about the notion of fairness. I do believe the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but I find the pace of alteration lethargic and unsatisfying. Are things better than they were 50 years ago? My father says yes and he has a 40% premium on years of observation to mine so I’ll go with his affirmation, but better is not the same as good. Relative unfairness is still unfairness.

Black Lives Matter shows us conclusively that the application of law is unfair. Two and a half million dead globally of coronavirus shows us that the availability of healthcare is unfair. The wealth of stock market gains for the few against the lost jobs and bankrupt businesses of many is almost violently unfair. Unfairness is not solvable. It is at best addressable through personal generosity and accessible charity.

Woke isn’t working. The Dr. Seuss debate was not a debate at all. A company for its own reasons decided to exercise copyright authority and stop selling certain books. It has that right. That is not book banning. No government or autocratic mandate was issued. If you still want for some reason to read these books they remain available at libraries, specialty stores, or in digital form.

I find the debate around capitalism equally disingenuous. If you think you have reason to storm the Capitol because socialism is coming for your freedom, you are deluded. There are no pure forms of economy. They are all mixes of this and that, some weighing more heavily in one direction or another, but always open to reversion by market forces.

Likewise, any cheesy rhetoric that would seek to undermine capitalism in the extreme is pointless. Free enterprise has created unbounded benefits for billions. No, it is not equally or fairly distributed. There aren’t enough recognized referees in the rough and tumble. Policies that ensure ardent competition inspire innovation with incentive compensation. That kind of moderate regulation protects our livelihoods and drives imaginative initiatives without useless polarization.

If you’re really worried about economic instability, worry about runaway income inequality. Without thriving buyers and broad access to manageable credit, there is little need for growth in sellers.

I am both beneficiary and critic of our system. If you’ve worked with me or read any of my books, you know I am not shy or apologetic about this.

I love our nation. I love free enterprise. I love working hard.

I despise exploitation. I despise greed. I despise arrogance and lack of humility.

Hegelian dialectic has taught me these head-banging notions can co-exist.

I love the impossible challenge, the learning that comes from failure, the teamwork of a shared victory overcoming competitors and naysayers.

I despise the selfishness, self-congratulations, and coldness that comes when we fail to recognize that too many trusting, hopeful, well-meaning individuals tirelessly try in their own way to navigate daunting obstacles, but often end up with little or nothing.

I believe we begin to bridge the gap by giving. We can give our time and attention. We can give money. We can give opportunity. We can give understanding and empathy.

As it becomes clear that there are fewer trips around the sun ahead of me than there are behind me, I find myself retreating to the existential. I find less meaning, reason, and justification in fairness than I hoped I might find at this age. At the same crossroads, I see time as more precious and commitment to social justice more urgent. I know I can’t fix much, but where I can have a slight impact, time is increasingly shorter.

I think perhaps we give to beat the clock. We can see a life change before our eyes because of something caring we do, but we have to endeavor to do it.

We give because all forms of faith suggest it is our duty. We don’t have to agree on spiritual reckoning to have this in common. We don’t have to believe in anything more than the tangible world we see to know we are expected to do something unexpectedly selfless with the disproportionate gifts we are awarded.

It is our calling to repair the world. Civilization will remain conflicted and in conflict, because human beings are imperfect, troubled, fundamentally flawed while evolving. That doesn’t give us a get-out-of-jail-free card. Existential does not have to mean cynical. It can mean we are empowered to consider the unfairness around us as a challenge to be met, an uneven distribution of pain to be healed, a sense of acknowledgment if not quite purpose.

We give to be more complete.

We give to be part of a whole that has been shattered by our own achievements.

We give because the math suggests there is little other way to balance a scale that assures us history will maintain its imbalance.

We give to combat rhetoric, indifference, and convenient but incomplete argument.

We give because justification is not justice, and because words will always fail us.

We give to remind ourselves we are human, and we have no choice to be anything otherwise.

Whatever necessary mission that elevates your imagination, whatever human cause that fuels your passion, consider increasing your commitment. No, it’s not a carbon offset, it’s not retiring guilt, it’s not a debt you owe or a pledge against salvation.

It’s the right thing to do, to whatever extent you can. It’s not hypocritical and it’s not posturing. It’s how you can be more dimensionally human.

An investment in your belief set is a pact with yourself. The outcomes of your contribution can carry you many more times around the sun with reason to renew your journey. Stay honest, stay measured, stay authentic. That distant, mythic, flickering light at the end of the tunnel has cascading spectrum to shine on you.

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Photo: Pexels

My Take On 230

A good friend on social media asked for my opinion on why Donald Trump would be so adamantly opposed to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. For years it is precisely Section 230 that has allowed him to expand his unedited voice and create his vast following. Now he’s banned on most of these platforms including Twitter and Facebook, which some would argue are at long last exerting a form of editorial oversight. Rather than hide behind their legal ability to allow him to rant, they have essentially silenced him.

Ironic, huh? Not exactly what he wanted in limiting this broad permission.

Has something good or bad happened? I think the answer is neither, but something evolutionary is unfolding, and depending on where that takes us, we can decide later like most history if it was good or bad.

Confusing stuff, no question. Let me try to unpack some of it as someone who has been working in this space almost since day one of the commercial internet.

While personally I would say my life has improved without the constant noise of Trump tweets, I’m afraid the world is not that simple. The resolution of this exercise may have frightening connotations in the abstract. Many are worried about free speech and arbitrary limits on the power of a single individual to curtail the public expression of another, which is something that matters dearly to all of us.

I’m not a legal professional by any stretch, but I don’t think a specific defense of ex-President Trump is what matters here. Trump no more understands Section 230 than he understands global trade and tariffs. He wants his speech free and speech against him controlled, like any dangerous autocrat. Let’s set him aside (doesn’t that feel great?) and think about the real risks and privileges waltzing into the arena of public discourse.

For reference, the historic 26 words that constitute Section 230 read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

As simply stated as possible, that means the technology platforms are not liable for what they publish. They don’t want to be considered authors, publishers, or broadcasters. If the Wall Street Journal prints something that bothers you and you think is unfair or sloppy, you can sue it. Same with legacy brand survivors like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, Us Weekly, or your local talk radio station. You can sue the person who said it or wrote it, too. If you think you have been libeled, you can sue everyone. You are way more likely to lose than win, but your case can be heard in court.

These kinds of traditional media companies have accepted the responsibility to abide by legal standards of accuracy and honesty of some sort, and they must stand by the messages they share. Mostly they print retractions when they find themselves wrong, but that doesn’t stop you from seeking damages. It’s an imperfect system dependent on evolving standards, and whether we like it or not we have learned to live with it.

If you don’t like what I say about you on Facebook or Twitter, you can sue me. You can’t sue Facebook or Twitter.

What’s the difference? Section 230.

Why is there a difference? That’s what’s about to be debated heavily.

Why was the exception created? That will also widely be debated in the months and years ahead, but having been there at the outset, my sense is that it was because federal lawmakers wanted the internet to grow. They wanted to increase free speech, so we all could bring our voices to the marketplace of ideas. They probably had an inkling some of us were wacky and would make up lunatic fringe falsehoods like QAnon, but they also knew if they held the platforms liable for everything published, very little would get published. The internet would have the same filters on it as traditional media, a funnel and a gatekeeper on opinions that limited expression with editorial oversight. They hoped for something more accessible.

Remember, this was a quarter-century ago. Better angels were optimistically anticipated.

The problem here is the division is not clean when all of our voices are collected. If the technology platforms exert no control, we have the chaos we have experienced. If they exert traditional editorial control to manage or reduce liability, all internet dialogue becomes gated, and as a practical matter, the scale of the task makes it impossible to be done by humans. That would put the editorial control at the mercy of algorithms, which at this point in their evolution given the nuance of language will be even less successful than humans.

That brings us to the present conundrum. If a platform now and again edits a comment to conform to its terms and conditions, has it crossed over to becoming an editor liable for everything else on the platform? According to current law, as private companies, these platforms have a right to state terms and conditions and assert the right to enforce them.

The real question becomes whether multiple infringements of terms and conditions can justly lead to the banning of an individual, like Trump. This is the heart of the matter: Do we want an individual company or CEO deciding who gets to have a public voice and who doesn’t?

I think the banning of Trump is going to open a huge can of worms to the platform companies because they just made policy on the fly and that can’t be extrapolated fairly.

Free speech is an interesting corollary, but only because we largely understand it must have limits to work in practice. Today we know there are legal restraints on free speech because it has been tested and adjudicated. While we now understand that a Nazi group had the right to march in Skokie, we also know that is not the same as yelling fire in a crowded theater. We didn’t always know that. It took a lot of time and argument to unfold and reveal itself to multiple courts. It’s been messy, and yet free speech survives.

I think we’re there with Section 230. It’s the right big idea, but 25 years later with wildly consolidated corporate power and big new media money at play, it requires a great deal of interpretation, nuance, and finesse. It’s no more an absolute than free speech. Yes, we really can disallow direct, personally threatening hate speech without fully destroying the First Amendment. The reasoning is not straightforward except in hindsight, when we consider the more pernicious alternatives.

Regulation here is our friend, not our enemy. My sense is the dialogue we need to have is not about throwing out Section 230, but reasonably debating the rights and responsibilities of social media platforms without making them liable for every post crossing their servers. Here is where it gets even more tricky, because the law clearly allows a private business to ban an individual for violation of its stated terms and condition, yet provides very little in the way of enforcing those standards evenly beyond obvious discrimination.

One person gets banned, another does not. How does one challenge or appeal the equal application of silencing rules? In the final analysis, what ensures us or at least gives us confidence that authority is anything but arbitrary? There is no such thing as goodwill or trust when the profit motive of the platform benefits enormously from throwing kerosene on the fire of controversy—fueling viral engagement equates to generating revenue—yet it can eliminate its critics at will under the guise of decency. That is a mega problem we aren’t even close to solving!

We don’t want to make the economic consequences of our discourse addressable only at a practical level by silence. Likewise, we don’t want any business individual with a profit motive to have the power of doling out silence for convenience. Hearst had that kind of power. Zuckerberg can’t.

The Trump legacy may be the bookends that form around Section 230, which clearly are necessary because the platforms are neither fish nor fowl. This is new ground. Internet platforms are not voices per se, but the application of needed editorial standards around facts and lies does not make them voiceless. As I write often, technology advances much faster than our ability to understand its ethical consequences.

Sadly, this morass is likely to be argued largely on economic grounds, because the remedies surrounding liability are compensated in our system through cash settlement of lawsuits. The key problem with lawsuits is they favor the well funded, and while legal, that will never approximate the ideal of fairness. I think there is a lot more at stake than whether a company might be brought to bankruptcy paying fines and settlements, which might cause it to be overly cautious, or bold and flagrant if it has deep pockets to defend itself. Financial penalties can’t be the point, be they absorbable or game-ending. There is a public-interest necessity in our ability to express ourselves. Our government has to protect that and let the business of the internet expand.

Yes, we can.

As for Trump’s point of view, he has demonstrated repeatedly that he only cares about what serves his agenda, not nuance or principle. He has succeeded in blasting open this door, but his own point of view remains self-serving. He is purposefully ignorant, a blunt object in a fragile ecosystem that requires reflection.

We are once again facing the question of whether we do truly relish the marketplace of ideas, or if this only matters when it is safe, convenient, and nominally polite. We don’t need to open the door to criminal insurrections that put our democratic nation at risk; the off switch just worked well in that regard and I’d comfortably welcome it again, if for nothing more than a badly needed time-out.

We have addressed this before, however imperfectly, and I have great faith that given the breadth of legal minds in our nation we will begin to solve it again. Trying to make it an either/or decision is a fool’s errand. We need to retain the big idea of Section 230 and add some guard rails. Once they are tested, we can adjust them. This is likely to be a combination of legislation and judicial resolution. It will be slow and complicated and evolving. It’s worth the ambiguity to sort it out carefully.

Let the real debate begin.

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Photo: Pixabay