One Last Roll of the Dice

Working a big conference several years ago, I had the bad luck to stay in Las Vegas for a whole week. When you’re organizing large meetings, you’re the first one up and often you’re downstairs dressed and ready while other people are still asleep. So every morning at The Mirage, I’d leave my room in the tower and take the elevator down to the conference center at 5 a.m. To get there I had to walk through the casino. And it seemed I wasn’t the only one awake after all.

There they were, sitting at the slots or the bar, always with a cigarette burning and a drink next to them, not so much greeting the new day as sucking on the butt end of the night. Hopeless, exhausted, but with just enough energy left to throw away a bit more money in the hope that some magical turn of events would transform the lives they had so far completely fucked up. Hoping just this once to be “winners,” and tragically blind to the fact that this wish was, more than anything, what made them losers. It made me uncomfortable to look at them, frankly, and I hurried past without lingering on their pasty, sick-looking faces.

If you want to experience the very worst of human nature, step inside a casino. No matter how luxurious and elegant the surroundings, you can feel the energy: desperate, powerless, greedy. Deeply depressed. They say depression is anger turned inward, and you can feel the anger too. It’s no wonder that booze and cigarettes and stale food abound in these buildings—if you’re going to destroy yourself, you might as well speed things up as much as possible.

And so it seems to me that of all his sleazy business ventures, Donald Trump’s owning of a casino is the most appropriate of all. Because his promises as a candidate for President are the same as the promises of a casino: magical thinking combined with bad behavior will do wonders for your self-esteem. You’ll feel great about yourself by giving in to the worst in yourself. Through no fault of your own, you’ve been a loser, and here’s your chance to feel like a winner. Just give up all your real power, give up what really matters, and feel the rush as you toss it away!

This is what so many of our fellow Americans have come to. They believed in many things that turned out to be mirages, but mostly in a consumer culture that long ago learned how to push their buttons and promise them fulfillment in a new possession, a new experience, a new President… a new anything. The ego knows nothing but clinging and craving, and if you let it run amok it just strives to pour whatever it can into the gaping empty hole at the center of it.

There’s one thing the ego doesn’t know, can’t know by its very nature. That selfishness leads to self-annihilation. That the only way to get—to really get—is to give. That empathy and love are the only paths to salvation. That making someone else happy, improving someone else’s life, is the fastest way to improve your own. And that defending yourself, putting up a wall around yourself for your own protection, may feel like power but is really the most powerless thing you can do.

The Democratic Party is flawed, like every other human institution, but it has this going for it: it’s full of people who want to help other people have a better life. Often, the ways they go about doing this aren’t all that helpful. Often, they don’t live up to their own ideals. Hillary Clinton, who will almost certainly be their candidate, is a flawed and compromised human being who has made a lot of mistakes in her life—a life that has nonetheless been all about public service. Many people hate her for that, it seems. Or they see her as a phony who is all about personal ambition. Or someone whose presumption to know what is in the public good is deeply arrogant. Some of them, whether they know it or not, whether they are men or not, hate her for being a powerful woman who is completely unapologetic about it.

Many of those same people prefer the Republican party, with its “greed is good” ethos and its survival-of-the-fittest outlook. A party of government that does not believe anything good about government except its ability to recruit and train soldiers, and build weapons. A party that exalts triumph and “winning” above all other values. And large numbers of them prefer the party’s apparent standard-bearer Donald Trump, a man whose life has been about surrounding himself with the appurtenances of success. Fistfuls of money and tall buildings and gold lettering and porn-quality women on his arm. It’s the image of success on a billboard outside a casino, and it wouldn’t be there if it didn’t draw a crowd.

But there are other crowds. Huge numbers of legal and illegal immigrants who had the courage and willpower to leave their homes in search of a better life, and who have found it harvesting your food and cleaning the mess you left in your hotel room. Groups of people gathering in poor neighborhoods doing free repair work on weekends. People in support groups helping each other past their addictions and their trauma and their sheer loneliness. These people could be Republicans or Democrats, because individuals have more savvy and compassion and complexity than large organizations do. There are people of both parties who find themselves repulsed by Trump’s narcissism, his crudity, his lack of ideas, and his bullying that seems to shade more into facism every day. I’m talking about the rest of us, in other words, who haven’t given up hope just yet.

And so for the rest of us, hating on those Trump voters is not going to help us get past this grim national moment we’re having. These are our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors, who feel they’ve come to the butt end of the night and want to throw away civility, compromise, and maybe democracy itself in one last desperate throw of the dice. We have to stop them, of course. But somehow, we also have to help them. Not try to hurry past and ignore them, because they feel they’ve been ignored already and that’s part of the problem. Look them in the eye, talk to them, attempt to understand them, and then point out that there are better ways to “win” than this.

 

 

No One is Safe

I got the message early, standing on the roof of our house as a boy, holding a garden hose and helping my father water down the wooden shingles as a huge fire burned all around us, the air black and full of cinders. And later, as earthquakes ejected me from the shower or shook the contents of my house into a heap. Huddling in the core of a hallway as a hurricane bore down. Holding a rag to my face on 9/11 so I wouldn’t inhale the pulverized dust of the World Trade Center as I ran through the streets of Manhattan.

I got the message: no one is safe.

We all want to be safe; it’s at the core of what it means to be human. We want safety for ourselves, for our loved ones. And yet it’s an illusion, safety. It’s temporary. Our passage into this world is dangerous, our time here is fraught with violence and threat, and our inevitable exit causes pain to ourselves and those we love. So we need to remind ourselves that safety is not the highest value.

I don’t want to be safe. I want to be strong. I want to be strong enough to know I can look into a fire or earthquake or hurricane without flinching. I want to be strong enough to look straight into the eyes of someone who does not love me and be unmoved. I want the peace of knowing that whatever happens, I’ll be alright because while I was here and while the power was in me, I stayed true to myself and did my best and loved the people I love with my whole heart.

I don’t want safety. I want wisdom. I want to have wisdom enough to see that the desire for revenge and more violence are deeply powerless stances, no matter how “tough” they look on the outside. I want wisdom enough to acknowledge that terror and violence reside in my own heart… and while I can’t eradicate them there any more than I can eradicate them from the world, I can overcome them. Time and again. Though false ideas of loss and indignity and offense keep coming back and fanning the flames of my own resentment and anger and hatred, I can put those flames out. Somewhere inside me I have the wisdom to know that’s all I can do that will make any real difference. Really living peace and love… not just saying the words, but living them when your soul cries out for justice and meaning and there doesn’t seem to be any… these are heroic acts.

The world seems to fall apart with increasing frequency. The world outside me, and the one in my head. What can I do about it, today or any other day when it seems so hopeless? Only the small, little heroic things that we all can do, the only things that matter in the end. Put out the flames. Sweep up the debris. Walk back out into the sunshine. Hand the rag I’m using to cover my mouth to someone else who hasn’t got one. Put my arm around somebody who’s even more broken than I am. Tell them No one is safe… but you’re safe with me.

An Open Letter to the Internet

child-misbehaving

Dear Internet:

How about we don’t put up examples of individual bad behavior anymore, especially if it’s to make some larger point about human nature, or society, or whatever.

Yes, yes, people do ignorant, crazy, borderline evil or just-plain-evil things every minute of every day. Some of them are still looking for the spankings they never got, and many others are looking for the love they never got. Either way, they’re misbehaving children.

Shaming them isn’t going to work. Public humiliation, finger pointing… it’s all a form of attention, and most bad behavior is just attention-seeking.

What’s the best way to deal with misbehavior?

A firm, gentle correction. And then role modeling the correct behavior.

So if some redneck wrote “n***er” instead of a tip amount on their dinner check, please don’t post a picture of it online and tell me that racism is still a problem in America.

If some selfish person took up two spaces to keep their Beemer from getting dinged, don’t snap it with your cellphone and share it everybody else who didn’t happen to be in the parking garage that day.

Today is the anniversary of 9/11. I was eight blocks away from the WTC that morning. I staggered off the island covered in the ashes of human beings, buildings I thought were permanent, and some of my own hopes and dreams. No need for more photos of grey smoke belching into that cobalt blue sky. I remember it. Show me the Freedom Tower instead. Because if you’re really just exploiting a horrific tragedy in order to drive up the number of eyeballs on your site, then…

Gandhi said we have to be the change we want to experience in the world. If that’s the case, amping up the audience for the despicable worst of human nature is not Being the Change. You might think you’re helping by spreading the word, but in fact you’re part of the problem.

What to post instead? Oh, anything, really. More pictures of your cat would be nice. Nicer, anyway.

Thanks. Oh, and BTW, Internet: love your other stuff.

Eddie

Diamonds Are Forever

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No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You to DIET!

If you weren’t there, you can’t imagine how exciting it was to arrive at the theater when this movie opened in 1971. To my wide adolescent eyes, the poster alone (featuring a gazillion diamonds in space, stuff blowing up, and Sean Connery flanked by Lana Wood and Jill St. John in bikinis) promised an evening of pure guilty pleasure.

Sad to say that 40-some years later it’s a guilty pleasure of a different kind… indifferently directed, filled with unattractive performances, and with a dud script that’s especially painful after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The Nixon-era Vegas locations are so surreally ugly that you half expect Hunter S. Thompson and his Samoan attorney to come ripping through in their great red shark.

And to paraphrase Hemingway, any movie that leaves you idly speculating that it would have been better with George Lazenby is a bad movie.

From Dr. No through Thunderball, Sean Connery had the grace and alertness of a panther on the prowl. In Diamonds are Forever, he’s just a jaded middle-aged movie star walking through a role he no longer takes seriously. Paunchy, jowly and sporting a greasy toupee, he looks more helplessly irritated as the movie drags on. Toward the end, when two girls send him crashing into tables and chairs, you realize that if he was any fatter and his pink tie any shorter, he’d be Oliver Hardy.

On the plus side… Jill St. John is a nice surly Bond girl — just the woman to help you start to get over Diana Rigg. Always a terrible actress, here she basically gives up, and unlike Connery, lazy indifference suits her. (If Bob Hope had only played Blofeld and growled leeringly at her, the movie would be perfect.) Although the chases inaugurate the “Smokey and the Bandit” vibe of the 70s, they do feature a cool red Mustang and a clumsy Moon Buggy. I still have the Corgi Toys of both. Finally, there’s the fantastic title song. If you listen to the words, it expresses not just the Bond character’s jaded contempt, but that of the whole cast and crew.

So, if I haven’t made it clear, I love this sleazy movie. Is it worthy to stand with a series that includes OHMSS, Goldfinger, and Casino Royale? Irrelevant, Mr. Bond!