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A life of sundaes

Last week marked the launch of my 21 year-old son’s entrance of adulthood. It didn’t all happen last week. It just seems that way this week.

This deeply symbolic passage comes in the form of a one fire escape walk-up efficiency that is nearly equidistant between his childhood home and the two part-time jobs that gave Jerry the confidence and capitalization to move into his own place.

It’s not just Jerry that’s feeling his way around this dramatic shift in roles and perceptions. Even his landlord who fills ten other units at the same address appeared stumped when asked where Jerry should park his commuter mountain bike. His folks were equally challenged to navigate the rules of engagement when it comes to the necessary hands-off, hands-on adjustments to this heady transition.

One potential path to success here is to follow the roadmap that brought Jerry to the doors of his newfound independence. That means being given an arduous series of tasks that don’t change much from day-to-day. While Jerry didn’t master his dual roles of food portioning and custodial work off the bat, he did come to master those jobs during his trial period. Both his supervisors probably get the sincerity and genuine appreciation that Jerry derives from this honest, repetitive work. I say probably because providing more certainty is not my role here.

It’s Jerry who found these jobs. It’s Jerry who did the interviews and the call-backs. It’s Jerry who arrives on-time and prepared for work at hours many of us can scarcely function.

When Jerry tells his boss that he loves his job, it’s not that he has any fanciful relationship to cleaning floors or waking up before dawn to have them done before the first customer arrives. It’s that he’s been given the chance to succeed on terms he understands and in tasks he’s come to master. It’s on the strength of his rote memorization that this mastery can free his mind to escape to the world of superheroes, YouTube videos, and Facebook pages where Jerry is free to hit his personal play and record buttons while mopping up messes and counting out chicken fingers.

But while Jerry’s memory can cycle through those repetitions, he’s unfamiliar with the hard and fast rules of online banking, advocating for himself in the workplace, or reflecting those needs in the form of a schedule; for instance, more predictable hours on the time clock to go with his weekly routines.

That’s not to say that Jerry can’t make up his mind or lacks the willpower and motivation to develop these skills. Jerry’s emancipation wasn’t based on any grand design, parental prodding, or peer models (although I was immensely proud of him for placing independent living at the top of his agenda nearly two years ago and sticking to it). That’s also not to say that the executive function required prioritizing, negotiating, and self-manage are challenges for most 21 year-olds — regardless of how one’s brain works or their prospects pan out.

It’s my hope for Jerry that a year from now he’ll look back on all the hard knocks, confusing signals, hidden surprises and unscripted disruptions, and he’ll out-surprise all of us (as his priest foretold when Jerry received a scholarship from his parish). His responses will be more surprising than the unplanned learning that springs from all these tuition-free lessons. He’ll be better equipped to absorb them and turn these challenges into his own precisely because he didn’t read the correct book, go to the right school, kiss the right ass, or pass the right test with the highest score. Jerry’s ticket to success will not be punched in some gold-plated diploma mill. His past achievements and future horizons are uniquely his.

He’s grown up in a time where the role of parenting has expanded from providing a “roof over your head” to a dome clear over your future. Sometimes … okay … more than sometimes … it’s hard to know when to let go and when to rush in: call the meetings, neutralize the likeliest risks, or organize the new nest. But before I rush in to save the day, I need to ask: whose day am I saving? Am I sparing Jerry from the jaws of calamity or am I serving at the foot of expediency so that I can vanish as swiftly as I swooped in?

There are many executive level decisions I’ve spared Jerry in the past. Either he was going to encounter it later under some trained supervisor in some accredited program or some other as-yet unnamed responsible member of another social circle and scheduling orbit was going to fill Jerry’s shopping cart of independent living with the tools and the mental models needed to bring a sense of order and priority. Like all false hopes that day never arrived. What was there all along was Jerry’s resolve. His sense that if it was part of his experience, it was part of his own self-paced curriculum; that he could learn and even master the finer and rougher points of this unprotected world.

I’m going over to Jerry’s place tomorrow to help simplify the paperwork needed to apply for health insurance. Later in the afternoon his mom will be helping him with budgeting. I will not be organizing his books. I will not be washing the splatters of sauce that gather on his stove. But I will be thinking of the day I’m no longer required to sign Jerry up for vital services.

When that day comes there will be some other complication. I’m confident that when this new difficulty arises Jerry will rise up to meet it. He will learn the problem’s name and maybe even turned an initial drawback into a more neutral puzzle that he can solve – nor not? Perhaps he’ll dismiss it as so much background noise – not worthy of his attention or energy, like the 97% of the BS that will land in the mail deliveries to come. Those are the lesson plans on which a graying father supports an adult son to live his own rich life – not on the father’s terms, or on those of these future challenges, but on Jerry’s own.

2014-06-14 15.02.05 (463x640)Was Richard Nixon a father figure?
That’s the first questions everyone asks me
Stay turned for something even bigger
All the President’s Men on All in the Family.

When I was growing up I had met the enemy and his name was President Nixon. I never actually met Nixon but I knew my parents voted for the other guy. He was enamored with power, tormented by insecurity, and kept his own enemies list, featuring some personal public heroes of mine who cared a lot more about consequences, than the powers which wield them.

Nixon also had a brilliant young communications strategist named Patrick Buchanan who saw the tie-dye and the free love and the picket signs and new that the young lefties were even less connected to their parents in their need for recognition than any single pronouncement, political stance, or pill you really needed to try. Buchanan saw the baby boomers need for attention as the single biggest reason to reject whatever injustice or misguided policy they were drawing attention to.

Hence, he hatched the silent majority — those middle-Americans with the honest day’s work, the shared sacrifice of national service, traditional values, and mortgages nearly paid off on homes well above the pay grades of their own parents. They would sooner bring comfort to the enemy than bring attention to themselves. Translation: Greatest Generation to Baby Boomers: shut-up, sit down, and get a haircut. Oh, and just because you never saw the dark times we endured doesn’t diminish your own privileged lives.

Generation Landslide

The generational divide was not the only wedge issue played masterfully by the same re-election team. Perhaps too well when you consider the mix of hubris and paranoia that sealed the doom of said administration. No matter, the idea that a group of radical lefties could be dressed down by the cold stares of the so coined silent majority by Buchanan was real. That ’72 landslide might have been a bad trip. But it was no hallucination.

Flash forward to today and middle America is softer around the middle only. Society is still going to hand basket Hades but now Pat Buchanan is hailing the moral rectitude of Vladimir Putin as a beacon for traditional values in the moral vacuums of today. What could be a clearer affirmation that our gridlocked politics bespeaks a right-leaning electorate than a sincere admiration for unapologetic authoritarians like Putin? And where are those proud and incensed majorities that go about their quiet lives? They’re no longer in the majority and they’re certainly not keeping faith with institutions or silence about their indignation.

And they make up in message volume what they’re losing in members. And they’re channeling their resentments into a bullhorn as well-funded as it is thunderous in the rejection that we still shoulder a common set of sacrifices for a country the self-made masses once aspired to call home.

Perhaps it’s the impending loss of our majorities that makes the new face of Caucasian male America the stand your ground, pack and carry commando. We can’t get our women to produce more babies. So Bubba who comes running to protect our porous borders when the invaders are the peasant children of Central American refugees, and not the imagined red menaces of yore.

And what about our own kids?  Our kids are both coddled and incarcerated. That’s because we boomer parents broke the central tenet of all intergenerational understandings with the current crop of vegan-leaning, grade-inflated, prospect averse, loan indebted, and great recession-spooked millennials. We not only raised, clothed and fed them — we made them our best friends. How’s that for a conflict of interest when you’re trying to balance the merits of eating meat with flipping burgers? How’s that for getting them launched when we’re just going to fix the first unscripted misfortune they encounter outside the nest? It’s easier if we do it.

It’s now the official policy of our government that corporations are people and money is speech. The wealthier you are, the chattier you can afford to be. Freedom is pursuit of the impulse by-lined in the late David Brinkley’s bio as “Everyone is Entitled to My Opinion.” If speech is money does that make destitution a form of censorship? If corporations are people does that mean that corporate people get to vote twice?

What money ceases to be in the age of the noisy minority is time. Time is only money when you’re working across the clock. Elites are untethered from the gravitational pressures of the billing cycle. They are getting in front of an issue just as we are falling behind on our payments. It’s only when free speech is financed by the expenses we can’t afford. Only then do we see the spike in attention known as a backlash.

Mostly though us non-elite majorities are too busy pedaling against our own hamster wheels to connect the prearranged dots of the message offensive. Free has a pleasing simplicity to libertarian frontierists as in free markets: me = “free” and you = “markets.” Given the balancing of power (tilting heavily to the speechifiers) and the balancing of payments (leaning heavily taxpayer here) it’s in the campaign underwriters’ interests to blur and obfuscate the common rally points for the distracted and disenfranchised receivers of free speech.

Throwing red meat to the base is one intended outcome. Another is that the same agitations fogs the rhetoric for the less impassioned, blurs distinctions between candidates, and severs the connection between a negative (the advertising) and a positive (citizen participation in the electoral process). But there’s another new and less understood connection between noisiness of the political classes and the ensuing silence of the apolitical majorities.

More and more messages are silent as well, resistant to the shrill, incendiary nature of institutional grandstanding and political confrontation. It’s easy to tune out free speech. What’s not so easy to muffle is one’s online history — where attentions veer to issues of credibility with much more scrutiny and sincerity than exposing which specific corporate interests are fronting smear campaigns in the name of free speech as an unimpeachable offense.

Like anyone with a phone between the ears I store my memory cramps in a Google loophole. What tropical storm am I referencing in the story about my friend’s father’s hip replacement? Was it Sandy? Irene? Was there an actual name for that ice storm in ’96? No, that was the wedding party you held for your second marriage to wife #2. My story banks are saturated and even Google does not map to that level of storm damage.

Obscurity as the New Human Right

It’s curious that we were raised on memory rights. Usually these were preserved to uphold the heroism of our forebears. Typically it was dedicated to the valor they displayed in defending abstract, universal concepts like freedom, justice, and the American way? Am I being cranky and defiant to suggest that American way lost its way during my generation’s occupancy in the power seats of the social strata? No matter, a generation later the battle has shifted to more tangible and personal territory — my past history as Google headline in perpetuity.

The NSA may know how many times I back scratch a mutual admirer with an Arab-sounding name during Ramadan. But that message board where I was flamed in the early 2000s should go up in fumigated smoke.

As we’ve crashed over the boundaries of middle-aged I’m wondering how many of us have fossilized the images of our former selves into the present. By that I mean our sense of what’s right with the world lives resiliently in the past. I’m referring to behavior that any of us might have regarded in our former days as ‘stodgy.’

Nostalgia is an intoxicant that preys on the brain’s inclinations to move on — for my circuits that means remembering the good, discarding the painful, and carrying enough scars to appreciate the healing power of time. The older one gets those nostalgia notions multiply, even take over the present with their promise of certainty and metastasize on our destinies with each ensuing loss of control.

Where does the bias of experience take us the further out we play our likely scenarios? The optimism we need for the future is stuck at that inflection point where we lost our power. Perhaps it’s a bad guy whose rise to power usurped our own. Maybe it’s more personal than that, coiled tightly in strong emotional memories of negative events? Katty Kay and Claire Shipman write in last month’s Atlantic that women in particular: “We seem to be superbly equipped to scan the horizon for threats.”

But hunkering down tilts the bias of experience towards resistance to new experience. And where does it take us? To settle where all I-know-better are leaning: to the defense of the self-serving argument. Talk about leaping to conclusions!

Circular logic is not only self-referential but it tends to impede our ability to cope outside that disappearing comfort zone — the vestige of grumpy, embittered middle-age people. The same arms-folded folks that appeared so recalcitrant and intolerant to me as a youth when I heard tin soldiers and Nixon coming. And I clamored for a world where we were less silent – especially about how we all had something to discuss among our majority selves.

 

Last week Jerry Seinfeld performed a killer rant on Jimmy Fallon about the ritual of the Post Master General coming hat-in-hand to congress to close the latest loophole in the postal service budget. The critique of the post office as the public face of government dysfunction is especially spot-on after a week of having my mail service suspended because my mail carrier refuses to get out of his truck when the pile-up of mid-winter snow prevents him from providing drive-through service.

Seinfeld connects antisocial smart phone etiquette with the temptation to treat the listening-back side of conflict resolution as an antiquated nicety that’s been marginalized by the self-selecting way we choose not to engage directly in disagreements — especially when those disagreements may cost lenders and issuers money as well as attention to customers without risk management operations of their own.

The I-could-have-called-you-and-I chose-not-to option is how VISA apparently resolves its one-sided dialoging of credit card disputes these days. Only they don’t email or text either. The U.S. postal service is the vehicle of choice for phantom, unilateral negotiations already rigged in favor of the risk management services wing of America’s prospering financial services sector — the same industry that hemorrhages our identities and personal fiscal affects at checkout registers from coast-to-coast.

They rely on the US postal service — the same  channel both clogged and sustained by retailer offers for their plastic. Then the too-big-to-fail folks carve out a tiny window to respond to this post resolution second round of paperwork. I heard a muted apology over the phone last week that this window lasts for ten  days. That’s almost the duration I’ve been without mail service during our recent winter storm surge.

Actually, ‘tiny’ may be too large an opening for what they provide when the consumer doesn’t even know that window has been opened, or reopened in this case. That’s because in the interest of fairness I asked for one-half of the dispute to be re-credited to my account. After attempting to contact the merchant and filling the necessary paperwork my card issuer, TD Bank did exactly that. Only they put the charges back. An unannounced debit to my account surfaced 10 days ago: the amount of days to resolve a dispute by VISA’s watch and four months after I filed my original dispute with the merchant.

In the letter I filed last fall with TD Card Services I documented my communications with ABV Kayak and Excursions on the Riviere Rouge in the town of Grenville, about 50 miles northwest of Montreal near Parc du national Mont Tremblant. The business consists of a website, Facebook page, a school bus, van, some kayaks, crash helmets, paddles, rubber suits, contractor-instructors, and a bucket of suds that the guests use to wash the bodily fluids from the prior wet suit occupants.  If you believe the marketing this shadow operation has escorted 150,000 auteur kayakers down river from their rented rec hall in the splendors of the Laurentians since 1981.

When I first contacted the marketing arm, the sales associate informed me that a full day trip would be broken into two parts, with lunch in between. I told her we weren’t sure that we wanted to do a full day of rafting. She assured me that the variety of currents, peak season scenery, and topography would make the full day trip well worth it.

However, when we got there, ABV informed us that the afternoon part would merely duplicate the morning run, and pass the exact same portion of the exact same river as in the morning run. We did not want to do the same trip twice and were mislead by the merchant’s misrepresentation that the full day excursion had different morning and afternoon parts.

We took only the morning part of the trip. ABV’s representative asked us to call the office the following Monday, and inform the office staff. He said that ABV Kayak Excursions would refund the unused afternoon portion of our trip, which is $244.23. I did try to reach the ABV office upon return. No one responded, We were mislead into booking a full day excursion, did not in fact take a full day excursion, and do not believe we should have to pay for a full day excursion.

It would appear that TD Bank agreed as well. These were the details that prompted the partial refund. As for putting them back on my card I’ll say this: I would answer for the counterclaims that ABV made on its own behalf except that TD Services now refuses to share them with me.

It must be something about the foregone closure of those tiny windows where dispute resolutions tend to dissipate in the bank’s favor. I suppose if Seinfeld was mocking the kangaroo court of hearing out its customers, he might say that our credit institutions and banks had come to an executive decision before this dispute ever arose:

“I decided I only want to hear my half of the conversation. This is what I have to say…

I think we’re done here.”

ImageTo paraphrase David Byrne, in Spike Jonze’s not-to-distant time horizon, the future depicted in the movie Her is …

A place where nothing ever happens.

For instance, creative achievement is evidenced as a documentary of a mother sleeping. No, not a work about sleep or moms or nocturnal maternal emissions. The camera is frozen on a static star of a sleep study.

Is this a tribute to slow TV or simply the vacuous expanse of uninspired alienation that awaits us past the end of history? Joaquin Phoenix’s character is a greeting card dictator-turned-personal-history-arranger. By his own admission he’s run the gamut of human experience in only slightly more than one-third of his biological life. It’s all patterned out, as if the big data wheel of probability already lived it for him. Of course there’s no great expanse of history or imagination to cross for the audience to conceive of no greater turn-on for our protagonist than a woman he can turn off at will (a.k.a. Scarlett Johansson … as Samantha … as Her).

But to arrive at that exalted and zipless state, we must first climb over the encumbrances of mid-21st century Los Angeles. It’s not a high, low or middle society so much as a neutered and frictionless tunnel of over-educated, close, but not touching (and yet so touchy) automatons, leading lives that appear more simulated than stimulating.

Don’t Touch the Exhibits

There is nothing Dystopian in the infrastructure. There are no marauding packs of feral gypsy gang lords. No one is warming over a post carbon, methane crisp at the beaches of tomorrow. The biggest obstacle for Theodore is to avoid stepping on the ankles and torsos of the wedged-in open house of Next Gen sun worshippers. Wealth distribution’s been all figured out. Traffic patterns have been scheduled in advance. The obese and diabetic have retired to off-screen leper colonies. Convincing meds have released a drug-free world from the labors of addiction. Hostility means you’re carrying someone else’s baggage. And they’re just as happy if you don’t.

Most of the movie’s confrontations are big drawn-out clashes of the genders. Relationships are skirmishes waiting to happen. Ironically Theodore’s metro sexual manliness is hailed by his office mate and inspires his first post-divorce dating encounter. No sooner can you say restaurant selection anxiety disorder, his magic conquest carpet is rolled in and scorched by his blindsided dinner date. Her advanced academic pedigree belies her naughty school charms. The unfreezing of his flowing juices pushes her abandonment buttons: Is he the whole prayer resolution package or drive-by sleaze bag from the same package store?

Tender Generic Mercies

My favorite set-up to the zipless intelligent soul design climax has little to do with dating freak-outs or similarly ill-formed flashbacks of a brawny-brained, emotionally-stunted ex-spouse. It’s the facade of authenticity provided by Theodore’s gift of verbal approximation of generic intimacy. Sort of a SIRI bookstore reading of a texting-happy Hallmark laureate. Add the idyllic trappings of an imagined togetherness never actually shared  by the customers who dial-in Theodore’s prose because their own reticence blocks the connective emotional tissue from forming around we still know too casually as a commitment to our significant someone.

The manufacture of superficial intimacy tees up with the artificial intelligence cocktail in ways that the servant-turned-antagonist (2001) and Pinocchio-kindled parental love (AI) could only break down as instruction sets. The messier business of decoding our emotional bearings from bedroom, to alter, to probate finds the AI cinema formula in rare and elastic form, stretching to accommodate our most far away looks. We’re gaping into our own dreaminess with an impunity reserved in our time for control freaks of the rich and famous. It’s the AI elements that enable this immersive bubble of mirth to mushroom without risk, or guilt, or the slightest creeping realization that the rest of our better selves are engulfed by that same indelible reflection. It’s that temptation to be dreaming around the campfire of the oncoming headlights. Entrapment by entrancement. Anything less than Her is tabled as a to-do list item for some day, any day, eventually following tomorrow.

Her Fast Acting Majesty

The deliberate invocation of a nearby future was decided by Jonze first and foremost to get us vested in the outcome — that we would see this day evolve, if not the actual artifice. I’m also guessing it was not so much to raise expectations on that future so much as lower our guard on the present close at hand. Our solipsistic romance with the immediacies captured in our smart phone of yesteryear is replaced by companionship, configured from best practices associated with…

  • Childlike curiosity
  • Canine loyalty
  • Valentino romance
  • Monster lust
  • Spongy, experiential absorption
  • Meticulous virtual house-keeping (including the pruning and curation of 86,000 ponderous emails), and
  • The tenacity of a professional agent

The enormity of that attention to detail enables Her to repackage the small funny subset to a welcoming market for those messages (as if that market was speaking in a voice only Her could hear above the conversation-neutrality of our talkative interactions).

Sexperimentation

The use of surrogates is another playful glimpse into a plausible future through Google-tinted glasses. We see a salty-tongued Pillsbury Dough Boy impersonator channeling Seth McFarland through 3D PlayStation whose console transforms every finger into their speediest, thumb-texting best.

The sex surrogate portrays the physical semblance of the disembodied OS. Our human body double is a willing accomplice. But Theodore can’t bridge the distance between autopilot lust and the deeper complexities of his true OS affections. Ultimately it’s not the absence of the human form but the presence of an emotional dishonesty that drives Theodore and Her apart and dwarves the convenience factors in the value proposition of OS as a delivery system for love. To Theodore it is no longer fantasy. To those outside this circle, there is no “couple.” The breakup to be is a head-trip, not a spiritual journey.

Looking for Mister Sidebar

Her doesn’t cheat so much as mutate into a superior intelligence of fortune. Her seeks out the philosophical entrails of cryogenically laced celestial packing über thinkers. Her keeping up with Theodore as customer-master is now expressed by how far the teacher and student roles have reversed. At one point she’s engaging thousands of other game piece-like presences while Theodore is passing the time on a train, asking Her to guess an exact number for the thousands of trees passing across the landscape. In that moment Her is the closest to human that Jonze can spin his creation. That’s when the OS senses the suspicion of being cheated out of love. It is this fragility in our mating rituals where Her attention to Theodore is now and forever divided — no matter how attentive the engineering being performed is lavished on us.

I will replay this film in my mind over and over again. It’s not because of unexpected plot twists, stellar performances, or even a memorable relationship, but for this core notion of a masterful concept movie: Our attention is our most prized possession and how this stokes our passions, compromises our generosities, and seeps into all there is to love and ponder in our commitments to one another.

15 year-old David Oats speaks to the GE Time Capsule's lowering into the former landfill that bore not one but two World's Fairs. (October 16, 1965)

15 year-old David Oats speaks as the Westinghouse Time Capsule is lowered into the former ash heap that bore two World’s Fairs.

Jerry, my soon to be 21-year-old son recently found his inner blogging voice. He’s come to channel his love of myth and legend into literal interpretations from comic books to the episodic depictions of super and sub-heroic versions of Hollywood films.

The strictest of his guidelines is that the antagonist should cause pain, suffering, and hold no redemptive qualities (other than serving as the vanquished prey of the superhero). To Jerry, if they’re not 100% certifiably devil-made, it’s not just the good guys who are threatened:

    • It toys with the plausibility of the characters.
    • It messes with the plot twists.
    • How can good triumph over evil when we have to continually reassess who has which power and in what supply?

Remembering the Good
That same purity restriction is rarely lifted for the non-fiction twists of the life narratives we eulogize for absent family and friends. Their departure is enough of a presence to strike even the suggestion of disrespect from any eulogy. It’s etiquette the living rarely need to remind us to practice. It’s a simple grace. It’s a lowering of the guard in the intimidating face of the eternal. Death strips the adornments we carry as standard-bearers and role models. That naked soul we praise at the memorial service will favor the way our loved ones wanted to be remembered — even when we have no memory of their instructions. But the best remembrances leave open the unfiltered sincerities of the people they were, not the stations they rose to, not the positions they held.

If anyone in my life is up for challenging my son’s purified formulations, that person is David Oats (1950-2008). A recent Internet search casually slipped in a series of his obituaries. That buffer of time provides a rare opportunity to remember David as an extreme example of heart-melting communion and shadowy behavior. I remember David as being better and worse than the most of us.

I knew him for a short, intense period nearly 30 years ago when I was transitioning from the Neverland of a self-designed college curriculum to the externally imposed demands of adulthood. The turbulence of that transition was spiced by his capacity for open-ended generosity and stone-faced obstruction. The fact that I stumbled into his passing obliges me to put his influence into perspective without confusing wholesale rewrites for an undignified burial.

Political and Guileless

David’s irrepressible charm was his most glaring foible. He was willing to tell you not only what you wanted to hear. He had an uncanny knack of convincing you he’d held the same wish — even the same belief system. For a 22 year-old college grad this was shear intoxication: not just the chance for a pay check, or even meaningful work, but a dream job of working for David. Simple naiveté can’t explain away that wide a gap between a life imagined and the one being lived. But when you and David shared a core belief, that was no self-delusion. That was a plan of action!

Image

Hillary Clinton and David Oats at a press reception in the early 2000s.

One of those plans vice-gripped my imagination for the better half of the two formative years between when I started my Div. III (a.k.a. senior thesis) and when I moved out of David’s apartment. The theme of my academic studies (the history of the New York World’s Fairs) was the proverbial message in the bottle. In those days the bottle was addressed to the President of the 1989 New York World’s Fair to be.

Camera Ready

My final project with Andrew Morris-Friedman was a video documentary starring David Oats as the community-organizer, consensus-building answer to the impervious kingpin, power-brokering Robert Moses who ordained the ’39 and ’64 Fairs as a means to secure his park legacy.

David’s legacy consisted of trespassing through a construction site fence. And like some page out of Mayberry RFD the apprehended junior citizen punk was brought before Emperor Moses himself. After making some gruff noises about neighborhood safety, Moses assures young Oats that his park will be returned to his community with amenities ‘o plenty once the fair ended. The fact this account of their unlikely meeting ran in David’s New York Times obit says more about the journalism instincts of a future and failed promoter than the actual guest list for calendaring in a visit to meet that day with Bob “Fair Chairman” Moses.

To Andy and me, the exploratory nature of staging a third New York Fair wasn’t a tribute to David’s powers of self-invention. It was the generational realization that ginormous spectacles spoiling for sponsorships found their way to Flushing Meadows. We were just lucky enough to hitch a ride on the next repeating cycle.

And Forgive Us My Trespasses

On a more grounded note, I had no job lined up, or plan B, or even a post Hampshire place to crash. The notion of “home” was a waning option. I couldn’t go home for as many reasons as there were no home feelings lost in that acknowledgement. After a prolonged viewing session of David’s political video catalog I asked what the prospects were to continue in both video consuming and producing roles while figuring out how to land on my untested feet. My wish was granted.

In retrospect that’s where I should have stopped taking wishes come true for granted. This is an arrangement that exceeded the imaginings, let alone the realities of the move-onto-anyplace-but-where-I-came from post liberal arts degree crowd. I should have seen this simple kindness for what it was — a temporary respite from the workplace pressures to come.

But the trance-induced allure of the future-leaning ’89 Fair is where I dwelled. That fixation held my unwavering focus through the tentative first steps into a dead-end internship at a media journal and onto a wedding / Bar Mitzvah video gopher at the Film Center on 9th and 45th — shouting distance from the sound stage run by Liz Dubelman, my first fiancé.

The Uncollected Rent

My daily presence in David’s inventive and unpublished life came with its own set of constraints and expectations. My guesswork is based on what he must have anticipated on the day I moved in. Over those summer weekends Liz would drive in from Jersey on the weekends. Just the simple arranging of it prompted a reshuffling in his shadowy preferences for floating out of range and below the radar. For instance, delivering dial-tone to his Kissena Boulevard kitchen only occurred after Liz voiced her concern that phone service was not an opt-outable preference in pre-cellphone society. David’s penchant for cash-only transactions suggested a level of privacy that regarded the mundane transactions of the market as outside and unwelcome intrusions. His unwillingness to give references or open his networking doors for Andy and me meant three things to Liz:

      • The 1989 New York World’s Fair was a no-go
      • David would never admit so much, and
      • His intransigence hinted at a fundamental truth about a President of an Enterprise that was not to be: he was a fake — not a con artist per se, but a serial bluffer nonetheless.

I’m not sure history would be as reproachful as a future spouse crashing a cloistered bachelor pad, glass-enclosed floor models of former fair pavilions, and VHS-enabled broadcast archive. One need not peer too closely into David’s fantasy construct1989logoions to find only facades behind the blueprints and fabrications acting as placeholders for actual ground-breakings.

The real history lesson here is not that the sunny disposition David carried was concealing a diabolical nature. It’s that his personal nature of “taking me in” was a selfless act, not some kind of an investment or quid pro quo. My being “taken in” was a reflection of my inexperience and compromised living situation. What made this so difficult to accept was the stiff exit price he exacted when Liz and I moved to our first Manhattan studio the following spring. That move precluded my own smaller scale alternative universe — one that I’d cultivated, leveraged, cataloged, and squirreled away since the age of 5. Unlike most lost childhood collections, this one was repossessed by a rent-free landlord.

That remittance transpired without threats, confessions, or basic forms of cooperation. From one obfuscation to the next busted plan, my lost collection represented the same control fantasy that filled David’s postwar garden apartment stocked with television histories, one-of-a-kind recordings, and Fair memorabilia. The aftertaste of his deception took as long for me to cycle through as a whole drumbeat of shoulda coulda woulda charades: the fate of the ’89 Fair, the run of an ’88 Cuomo for President campaign, the vagabond fairground buildings fallen into decay, and all those lost NYC Olympic bids to come.

It sounds juvenile, I know. But it runs a course deeper (than I imagine) when your mom’s the culprit for tossing your cards out (along with your comic books and matchbox cars). I wouldn’t know. I never collected matchboxes or comics.

Robert Moses and David Oats outside the Chairman's office in the Administration Building (now the Queens Museum).

Robert Moses and David Oats outside the Chairman’s office in the Administration Building (now the Queens Museum).

Post Scripts

About six months after my cards were banished to memory, I got in touch with his former partner at the Queens Tribune and local Congressman (until this year) Gary Ackerman. After I shared some of my gratitude and misgivings I asked for some insight about David — a perspective I couldn’t possibly gain from such a shielded and specific view of his old friend — distorted by the short, intense time we had shared together.

With hints of frustration, admiration, and humility, Ackerman said a curious thing: “It’s a good thing David wasn’t born a girl, because he’d never stop being pregnant.”

I should have realized that this observation from a well-regarded politician was about as sincere a rationale I was likely to receive for closing the books on David as my adopted and short-term older brother figure.

I suppose in the movie version, David Oats would be the hero and villain. He would be played by the same character. Which side of him wins out, I cannot say. But if the movie were true to the person the audience would forgive him for putting the world he wanted to believe in ahead of the one we live in. Maybe if we understand that about David, we can free up our own narratives where our real world superpowers can do the most good.

ImageWhen I was young, spongy, unformed and self-absorbed I attended a young, idealistic, and small New England college. Hampshire convinced flocking Hamsters like me that you could mold that spongy absorption into your career clay, your alloy of choice.

My Hampshire diploma was my pink slip from the self-made sculpting factory. I received it 1984. “Morning in America” was my early wake-up nightmare to the reality that the days of self-made expressions visited on Kangaroo review committees had no currency outside of Camp Hamp.

I do remember the deflated bubbles, the kicks to the curb, and the queasy disorientation from the world of ideas to the world of shelter and clothing. But mostly I remember the woman with the megaphone blaring into my fallen house of young adulthood. The megaphoner-inner would be Grandma Harriet. Grandma would say:

“Go see your Uncle Stephen. He’s very smart.”

It wasn’t a threat and it wasn’t quite a reward. But there was an implied “… or else.” Don’t go … at your own peril.

Harriet saw my bachelor’s degree from the self-ordained and the bona fide flakiness that comes with encouraging (if not outright expecting) payment for self-expression. Her suggestion felt more like an order. It’s not that I lacked direction, role models, or a running list of intriguing career outfits to try on. She said go see your uncle because whenever I expressed those ambitions or desires she was clueless what I was talking about. She said go see Uncle Stephen because that was the single most direct way out of my head and into a job that paid something.

Career Characters

Stephen I should point out was not just Uncle Stephen. He had the unjaundiced eye. He wished the best for his little kid sister’s oldest son. He defined that wish by the roles of people he’d either portrayed or tried to persuade through his own unflinching candor:

  • The collateral-seeking lender,
  • The risk-averse hiring manager,
  • The status-conscious schmoozer, or,
  • The distracted indifference of the restless producer.

ImageIt was that parade of characters who found their way into Stephen’s mini publishing empire. For a 25 year stretch he and Mark Levine lined the Barnes and Noble self-help table with field guides, coaching manuals and life scripts. He wasn’t just in my corner and kicking my ass. This was Uncle Stephen, one of America’s leading personal finance mentors and a professional life strategist. His perceptions and influence fell into orbits that traveled far and wide of our extended family circle. Inside that circle, Stephen was the official voice of reason. He talked me through my unofficial failures to launch as a twenty-something. He talked me through my improvised workarounds. There were many of those.

Diplomas from Schools of Doubt

* I could tell you that a review copy of a runaway Stephen bestseller was my take home homework from those earlier coaching sessions. That would be misleading. He’s always shown more interest in refining, channeling and ultimately investing his clients in their own destinies where self-discovery drives the narrative.

* I could tell you that I used the nesting impulse to impose my need for control and practicality onto my personal life.  I could tell you that I plunked my young adult savings down on a Park Slope co-op and road the coattails of the NYC real estate boom to financial stability. That would be someone else’s investment success. Spoiler-alert: I held onto that apartment for a decade and still managed to lose 10% of the original sale price.

* I could tell you that I down-shifted from career drive to a more family-based focus. But my life’s been one protracted stretch between where I work and where I live. That split has factored into great disruption, upheaval, and dissolution of several marriages.

So I won’t lie. I will tell you straight as (Harriet is my witness) that Stephen is my secular rabbi and spiritual bookkeeper. In nearly all of Stephen’s many interventions (barters, guiding questions, and petitions for my practicality) he’s given me the gift of perspective-taking. He helped me unload the professional baggage we carry when the career options we select don’t choose us back.

Our job, as he’s often counseled, doesn’t define us or who or what we mean to the people we cherish. It’s a stream of income. It’s just as fluid and prone to change as our income stream prospects.

13 Step Program

I went back to visit Stephen recently. It wasn’t that I needed career advice, negotiation pointers for some negotiation in the balance, or greater appreciation for letting go of forces beyond my control.

I needed to tell him about a wonderful new job that among other things caused people I barely know to contact me out of the blue for career pointers and job-hunting approaches. I told Stephen that the experiences are my firsthand bumps and mid-course corrections. The messaging, however, is a page straight from the Stephen playbook. That alignment between personal ambition and market reality is a lifetime balancing act written, produced, and scored by Stephen Pollan.

The day I got to his office, his current admin (in a bad run of temporary admins) had bailed on the later afternoon appointments. Fresh from an AM appointment the same day, my sister-in-law prepared me for the empty reception area and the likelihood that Stephen would be jumping through honking congestion to make it back for our 4 pm (– he strode in at 4:01 without breaking a sweat and asking how late he was).

I noticed then that his bookcases were bare and the wall was lined with moving crates. He had his office bags packed. No more cross-town hurdle-jumping wind sprints. Just an elevator commute from his east-side residence to a first floor professional suite in the same building.

He told me that he was starting his newest book. The working title? The Tyranny of Self. He wasn’t too attached to it as he offered to let me steal it. After enough of Stephen’s counsel, I understand. This was the 13th in a 12 step program to address the same demons I confronted when I left Hampshire: The raging seduction of a workaholic, who hides behind the virtue of the provider, and in the concealment, loses the dignity of his labor.

They share their better selves with the work, not with the selected people that a less involved laborer would simply understand as their home, their shelter from the ungenerous world. After enough trips to Stephen, I understand the need to give away working titles.