One white knee on a black neck may prove to be one knee too many.
The police-caused death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week may be the galvanizing point for real change this November. I hope so. Racism is on the ballot. Like COVID-19, racism too is a virus, an invisible pathogen passed down from generation to generation. It can hibernate from time to time, but in four centuries, it has never been dormant for long. Please help kill this virus by voting. Please study the history of the candidates. Please turn out the noise and listen to your mind and heart. My novel, Once Upon a Lie, publlshed a few years ago, was my small contribution to insights into American racism of the Eighties and Nineties. I learned so much in writing it: The kernel of the virus is always the same. If you don’t have discussions with those who don’t agree with you what that kernel is—don’t give up. Keep talking, keep protesting without violence. Having the courage to substitute dialog for polarization may save our democracy."
With only a few days before the much-anticipated midterms, my wife and I attended a small fundraiser for a 29-year-old Latina running for a seat on the Santa Maria City Council. Gloria Soto is a political novice who, if she wins, hopes to give voice to approximately 70 percent of the population of a city sixty-five miles north of Santa Barbara, home to Vandenberg Air Force Base and lots of productive farms reliant on inexpensive labor. Most of the approximately 73,000 Hispanics in Gloria’s city perch on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The city faces a significant deficit, underperforming public schools, lack of a plan for raising revenues, an inadequate social safety net, and a predominantly while, older city council.
Gloria wants to challenge all that. She describes herself as a fighter with a dream, and as I listened to her speak, I thought of the heroine of my novel, The Beginner’s Guide to Winning an Election. My story takes places in Indiana in 2025, where politics is hostile and combative even in high schools, and my heroine, like Gloria, is a fledgling at what feels too often like a blood sport. The two young women—one fictional, one real—merge in my mind. They both run grass roots campaigns that combine instinct, courage ,and new ideas with a refusal to be dissuaded by those who tell them to quit, or wait their turn, or focus on some other future besides politics.
As a writer and, like so many others, a voyeur of American politics, I think it’s the youth that have the best chance of saving our struggling democracy. In assessing any candidate, I frown on the tyranny of ideology and agendas, and celebrate those who embrace common sense and pragmatic solutions. I want to see candidates who reject excuses for apathy at the polls, and view public service as the highest calling that a democracy can offer. Getting elected can be more difficult than going to med school or becoming a particle physicist. Maybe that’s why so many people young people shy from politics, but those who want to climb the mountain, and aren’t afraid of challenging the status quo, they deserve my support.
In 2017, I began wondering how the new political norms in Washington would filter down to a public high school election, say, in 2025. I made middle-of-the-night notes. Then I put those notes into pages. Then I made the pages into a novel. Then I rewrote the story a half dozen times… until I began to see how it could all come true.
Neither my wife nor I are psychologists, but on the subject of child and adolescent behavior, we have been middle-class parents for decades. We were determined, from our son’s and daughter’s first days of life, to be good and effective parents. Blogs and books told us to focus on love, perseverance, protection, discipline, communication, and lots more—so we did, year after year. Sometimes life went smoothly, other times were challenging. As a family, we always worked things out.
Yet, I think we all missed out on an obvious and early opportunity to build trust and solve problems more efficiently. It just wasn’t obvious at the time.
Children and teenagers are understandably self-absorbed, because each day there’s something new to question, learn, and process. We guide and discipline our kids as little or as much as we think necessary. We want them to be the best human beings they can be. What few of us do well, however, is explain to our children how theycan help us be better and happier parents.
Here are my five suggestions for amending the social contract of childrearing.
1. Parents shouldn’t hide that they’re fallible human beings, and kids should be encouraged to learn from a parent’s weaknesses and mistakes as well as their strengths. Everyone needs equal time to speak up, not just about their happiness and successes, but disappointments and problems. A five year old losing a pet hasemotionalequivalency to a parent losing a job. Learning to offer help, forgiveness and sympathy needs to be a two-way street.
2. Parents should let kids know early on that mom and dad have roles to play other than raising children. Holding a job, nurturing friendships, dealing with aging parents, taking care of their own health, handling a divorce…the list is long. The sooner kids accept that a parent may not always be around physically or emotionally, the more adept they become at solving their own problems. They also get a glimpse of what awaits them as adults, which can seem, and Is, daunting. if they go to a party school, or announce they want to live like a hedonist, remind them they still can’t escape responsibility.
3. A child giving mom or dad a hug, or even a sympathetic glance, at the end of a parent’s hard day has healing qualities It’s almost as important as mom and dad hugging their child. A lot of parents think they have to be self-sufficient authority figures, but really, they need love, too.
5. Many teens like to think that they’re two or three years older than their actual age, and in some ways they might be Don’t be reluctant to count on them if they have skills and insights that you don’t, whether they’re academic, socialization, or just common sense. Authority resides with a parent, but it doesn’t mean much to kids if you don’t have an open mind or encourage their talents. When they express gratitude to you for “being there for them,” that validation is priceless.
Forty years ago, my wife and I and our two young children embarked on a three week trip to New Zealand. We rented a small camper van and drove everywhere, amazed not just by the number of sheep, forests, rivers and snow-crowned mountains, but the steady temperament of the population. The vibe was 1950s America and everyone was middle-class. The locals never seemed in a rush. No one got upset or angry. Copacetic was the status quo. The only person I heard ever using his horn—I swear this to be true—was me.
I remember that moment well, making a right turn behind a car I judged to be too slow. I honked without thinking, from an impatience bred in urban America, I imagine. It was just a brief brassy stab, but it seemed to hang in the air for a while. Quizzical looks darted my way from nearby drivers, pedestrians, even shopkeepers, as if something was wrong. Had there been a collision, a heart attack in our family, or was my camper van in trouble? None of the above, or course. I felt like getting out of my vehicle and apologizing to everyone. Instead, embarrassed, I kept my eyes on the road and left that city, tail between my legs. I never honked for the rest of our trip.
The New Zealanders had it right. Gratuitous honking should be unacceptable. Absolutely, use your horn if an accident seems imminent, or maybe a warning to an erratic or possibly drunk driver. Otherwise, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t flinch when someone blares in his horn at them for no good reason. At the risk sounding like a driver’s ed teacher, one’s horn should not be a musical instrument, nor an emotional outlet, nor a signal that you’re late for something and you’re blaming others for slowing you down. Driving your car within ten feet of another’s bumper, blinking your lights madly until the driver change lanes, is telling the world that either you’re on drugs, have a very bad temper, or your stress level is heading to the moon. If you’re totally out of control (road rage, allegedly increasing at seven percent a year, obviously means putting more than your own life in danger), pull over for over coffee.
In a country of approximately 270 million registered vehicles (only China has more), self-control is not a luxury.
When the future eventually becomes the present, and we’re hunkered down in our self-driving vehicles, what happens then to the lowly car horn? Does the computer in my car decide when and where to use it, and how long the duration should be? If I’m in the backseat, can I override the computer if I think it’s way too horn happy? Can I finally be free to customize my horn sound, much like choosing the ring tone on my phone? Until the day comes when self-driving vehicles are truly immune to accidents, something soothing to the ear would be nice. I’m thinking Mozart.
One bad night filled with unimaginably wretched feelings may amount to nothing in the morning, but one time it just might be enough to want to close your eyes for good...
I’ve read several thoughtful pieces on the passing of Anthony Bourdain A sensitive, talented and self-doubting man complicated by addiction and depression, which he fought most of his life. As someone (and I don’t know how many other tens of millions) who deals with depression, I’d like to humbly add what life lessons Bourdain taught me.
On Parts Unknown, he sold his political views with sleight of hand. You thought you were watching an exotic food show, or a travelog filled with interesting people, but after being inundated with a season or two, you realized that Bourdain's view of food and cooking was more than about local color. His subtext was about what a culture can afford to eat, what it likes to eat, what it is conditioned to eat, and when, due to affluence, it craves something new and different. These are complex forms of self-expression and cultural identity, and defined mostly by economics or politics.
If Bourdain had trained his critical eye on our country, he’d be asking why so many of us are gluttons for fast food, and even the idea of four, always inexpensive, high calorie meals a day? Or why do we go to Whole Foods and spend $150 when $100 would have bought a comparable basket at a more modest supermarket? Why do we pay $100 for a Chard loved by Beyonce? Why do we go on diets? Why do we go to gyms or yoga hoping for obedience from our bodies? Food drives us crazy. Perhaps there’s a hidden, even unconscious agenda behind what we put ourselves through. The pyramid of survival and happiness starts with food, education, and shelter, but then the simple plan gets blown out by status seeking, greed, fear, ambition, novelty and the political views to justify what we’ve become.
Until his mid-forties, Bourdain knew from life as an addict, suffering from depression, that each day was as precious as it was precarious. Then, almost overnight, he caught a break by writing Kitchen Confidentialand going to culinary school. Ultimately, he became a star in the celebrity firmament. Terra Incognito for our hero. He happily forgot the lessons of being broke and on the street, I believe, because he thought he had escaped them. Instead of heroin, he became addicted to his success, and understandably so. Millions of us loved watching him and hearing what he had to say. I think he likely attributed his self doubt, which always returned unexpectedly, to a former life of steep vulnerability, thinking that it no longer mattered. Of course it mattered, and down deep he had to know that, but he couldn’t let go of a lifestyle that was the envy of so many people. He looked at low self-esteem as the enemy, instead of what it is—the canary in the coal-mine, warning of serious danger ahead.
One bad night filled with unimaginably wretched feelings may amount to nothing in the morning, but one time it just might be enough to want to close your eyes for good. That’s my real takeaway from an extraordinary, troubled American life. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, because few others will care as much as you should. Your worst moments should be your wake up call. That is not boastful piety. I think Bourdain, had he survived the hours before his death, might have had some moments of clarity where he got real with himself.
Millennials have been described as stingy tippers, perhaps a cliché by now, yet I’ve seen first-hand young professional, pen in hand, look at the tipping line on the credit card receipt as an affront. I’ve seen a tab for $86 graced with a $2 gratuity, and one for over $100 with the words “no way” scribbled across the tipping line. “It’s like an extra tax,” I’ve heard diners say. My daughter once worked at a Washington DC taco and burger joint where almost a third of the customers left no tip. Whether parsimonious diners are reacting to bad food, bad service, are just cheap, think tipping is charity, or feel they have dropped enough coin for a meal and it’s the restaurants that should pay their servers a living wage….I have no idea. Maybe it’s all of the above, and more. I would love to see a consumer survey.
Tipping allegedly started in 17thCentury English taverns, when patrons gave servers extra money ‘to insure promptitude” (TIP). The practice was later adopted in the States and other countries, but a fair number of cultures discourage the practice. Others add a gratuity automatically to the bill. Optional tipping is where a variety of emotions are aroused, not just from diners but servers and counter people. If using a digital device to indicate the amount of gratuity, I’ve watched the wait person turn away for a moment, giving the diner privacy in making his or her decision. To some, it feels rushed and awkward, but I’m not sure what can be done about it. Some waiters don’t even glance at tip amounts because it’s beyond their control, while others work diligently and hope to be rewarded. For many, the extra ten to twenty percent or more you add to your bill makes a difference in their standard of living, from affording an extra gallon of milk to paying the rent.
When I was younger and eating out was a luxury, I left a ten percent tip (parroting my parents), which was the standard at the time. As my wife and I grew financially secure, I raised the ante to fifteen or twenty. Now, witnessing the vast disparity in American incomes, and its consequences on the social fabric, I tip 25%. I can afford it and I know my server appreciates it. I find tipping not to be a tax but a bond between strangers. It’s a feel good moment, which there never seem to be enough of in the daily grind.
The other day I was introduced to a new word, Precariat. It blends “proletariat” and “precarious,’ and refers to a social class with little job security, resources, or means of escape to a better job. Sounds typical of today’s America, I thought ruefully. Anyone without bankable job skills, living paycheck to paycheck, whether it’s a waiter, bellhop, taxi driver or delivery person, knows the importance of a gratuity. I have a friend, whenever he eats out, who forgoes ordering an ice tea, or a dessert, and adds the difference to his tip. Small acts of grace and common sense ultimately change our thinking and maybe the world
In a world where one news story, no matter how wrenching, risks being eclipsed quickly by another tragic event, the story of Parkland, Florida has stayed with me. Like, every day. It grabs my heart even more than Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, or dozens of other school killings. It’s hard emotionally to get beyond the slaughter of innocents, or the mental illness of their killers, but the survivors of Parkland found a collective voice to challenge a dark pattern of history, proclaiming “#Never Again.” They have an ambitious agenda now of lobbying legislatures, pursuing social media, and broadening their coalition. I’m rooting for them with every step.
Down deep is another remarkable thing about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the weeks following the tragedy, I listened to Cameron Kasky, Emma Gonzales, Alex Wind, David Hogg and other student leaders speak for sensible gun legislation and the responsibility of adults to protect minors. My take-away was maybe it’s high school students who need to protect and keep honest the adults. Their outspokenness was perhaps unprecedented coming from an American high school. Watching how poised, articulate and impactful a sixteen, seventeen or eighteen-year old could be, I was struck by their cohesiveness in rallying behind one of our century’s major issues: how to make us safer in an age of deepening insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety.
I have come to view students, in public and private high schools, as inescapably important members of society. For all the painful stories of kids marginalized by bullying and shaming, or who turn to drugs or guns or suicide to escape because they see no tunnel with a light, look again at Marjory Stoneman High School. Students are proving there is a light to follow—speaking their convictions with dispassionate eloquence—and to move toward that light means self-esteem and self-empowerment. High schools across the country now have a precedent for being heard on crucial issues because a tired Congress, overworked media, churches, and political non-profits can’t get the job done alone. I hope more students give themselves permission to be taken seriously. They should insist on it, and ignore critics who view high school as a mere launch to college or adulthood.
I was in college in the golden age of President Kennedy’s dictum “don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Responding, my generation threw itself into the civil rights movement, the Peace Corp, local and national politics, and a search for a deeper identity for ourselves and our country. In the category of social activism. high schools might be the new colleges. As our political culture grows jarringly complicated, and I feel repression in the air, I long for the strength of new voices.
Try to have one of your characters do or say something in the course of the narrative that’s totally original…something that’s never been done in another movie or film. This is not easy to achieve, but if you have an imagination, have some fun with it. You’ll go down a lot of dead ends, but if you’re lucky, you’ll end up on a mountain peak. Remember that the event has to be plausible, but originality is usually memorable. No matter how many crime stories we read, for example, the great ones take our thoughts and emotions to unexplored places. It’s what readers talk about in reviews and blogs.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.