Archive for January, 2018

GAS PUMPS AND IMMIGRATION

Gridlock in Washington reflects Republicans and Democrats—and many Americans—refusing to listen to each other. It takes active listening to bridge gaps. Many years ago, an old friend revealed a great example.

Sam Smidt was a brilliant graphic designer in Palo Alto with whom I worked early in my freelance career. He told me a story that always stuck with me and should be the subject of a mandatory class for anyone holding political office.

Sam once was designing the gas pumps for Chevron. A major oil company’s gas pumps represent a corporation’s brand. The client, not satisfied, asked Sam to make the logo bigger. Sam complied. The client wanted the logo even bigger. Sam did that. The client remained unhappy. Then the answer occurred to Sam. “You want the logo to be more prominent,” he said. “Yes!” the client answered, realizing that size and prominence don’t necessarily equate. Sam shifted some design elements without supersizing the logo, and the client was delighted.

Often, people get bogged down in specifics without communicating what they really want. This leads to wasted time and energy, and often to antagonism. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In a New York Times interview on Wednesday, columnist Frank Bruni interviewed two Democrats—former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and strategist Joe Trippi. Both agreed that Democrats’ chances in the 2018 Congressional elections hinge on standing for something rather than Trump bashing. Patrick hit it on the nose: “What matters most is that we agree on and fight for the ends, not so much the means. For example, we want every man, woman and child to have access to quality, affordable health care. There’s more than one way to skin that cat, and we should be open to debating all those ways.”

I imagine that Gov. Patrick is willing to listen to Republicans. Would they return the favor?

As with all major issues, politicians—and many voters—too often demand specific solutions rather than define outcomes. This parallels the Chevron executive, who ultimately realized that increasing the size of his logo wasn’t the key to meeting his objective.

Immigration poses this same challenge. Donald Trump wants a wall. It’s “wall or nothing.” But does a wall represent a “bigger logo?” Ultimately, several key questions concern the nation. Should we take in immigrants? Most people would say yes. Should we control immigration? Again, most people would say yes; the numbers and sources appropriate to a separate discussion. What are our immigration needs? What do we expect immigrants to contribute to the nation? And if we make new laws, are we willing to uphold them while finding humane solutions to tricky problems?

Start there, and Americans could find a measure of common ground.

There’s lots to discuss, and no black-and-white approach—pun intended—will serve us well. But rather than demanding the means—a wall or blanket amnesty—let’s discuss the ends. How can immigration strengthen the United States in the next quarter-century and beyond?

If Americans start expressing their vision and listening to each other, we may find our views far closer than we imagined. Then we can forego pumping up the volume and discuss, rather than argue, the practical means to achieve our objectives.

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THE HOLER PERSPECTIVE

Soon after the president of the United States reminded us of his “stable genius” by asking why America wants immigrants from “shithole” countries (if he said “shithouse,” does that make a difference?), a friend asked if I was speechless.

My answer, even recovering from a bad flu (haven’t kicked it yet): “Hell, no!” The latest racist blather by Donald Trump offers lots to write about. Failure to do so would make me a traitor to the nation I’ve sworn to uphold and defend.

I am what The New York Times’ Bret Stephens terms a “Holer.” So is he. Our grandparents came to America in what were clearly called shithole countries over a century ago. Mine from Poland and Belorussia, parts of the Russian Empire. For that matter, my father was born in shithole Poland. Worse, we’re Jews! To many Trump supporters, we’re still Holers.

Fortunately, America at the turn of the 20th century continued welcoming—if often grudgingly—Holers from eastern and southern Europe: Jews, Greeks, Italians, Slavs. A growing nation needed more people to work on farms, and in mines and factories. But the picture wasn’t perfect. Although we Holers eventually became successes, we weren’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Grassroots anti-Semitism swept over the nation. In 1924, Congress through the Johnson-Reed Act basically banned Jews and southern Europeans from entry.

Still, we Holers retained our devotion to America and served it well. Ultimately, attitudes towards us changed. Following World War Two, some restrictions against Jews—refugees from the Holocaust—were lifted. Moreover, we could buy a house in most neighborhoods and attend almost any university.

The establishment of the State of Israel touched many American Christians, if perhaps because Christ’s second coming, according to many, depends upon the Jews being in their homeland so we can finally accept Jesus as our savior. Or perish. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War raised the Jewish state to near-mythical status and brought American Jews a great measure of respect. Better late than never.

Holers from all over the world came to the U.S. Filipinos, Nigerians, Haitians, Dominicans, Syrians, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Vietnamese—and sí amigo, Mexicans—became Americans. They worked at some of the hardest jobs available. Opened businesses. Served and died in our military. Earned college degrees. Cared for us as doctors, nurses and orderlies. Became actors, musicians and sports stars. And brought us new foods.

Now, the president seeks to return America to its white-supremacist ugliness of a century and more ago. He wonders why we don’t just take in a lot of Norwegians—16 percent of whom are Holers. Okay, white, ethnic Norwegians. I like Norwegians, and Swedes, and Danes. But the people Trump most wants coming to the U.S.—western and northern European Caucasian stock—won’t likely immigrate. Over seventy years ago, their grandparents learned the perils of racial animosity. Now, they believe that all human beings should be treated with equal rights and respect. The president of the United States doesn’t come close to sharing that value.

I’m proud to be a Holer. An added bonus: I can see and smell a pile of bullshit a long way off. For the sake of accuracy, the distance between San Francisco and Washington, D.C. is over 2,400 miles.

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FLU-INDUCED RAMBLINGS

The flu clobbered me Saturday night. I’ve barely started to recover. As a result, this virus really got me thinking—when I was capable of thinking.

I see my mortality in sharper focus. Feeling so bad makes you feel old. Hell, I am old! Through the first few days, I wondered if I’d ever recover. Statistics from the California Department of Public Health didn’t help. This flu season, California experienced 27 flu-related deaths among people under 65—as of the week ending December 30. What about elders 65 and older? Health departments don’t count their (our) flu-related deaths. There are too many.

I hear my clock ticking. Like the clock in the belly of the crocodile chasing Captain Hook in Peter Pan, it’s damn loud. I wonder if I’ll spend my latter years feeling the way I do now—without the flu.

Brighter thoughts revealed themselves in brief bursts, offering more of an upside. Like the penny dish at my neighborhood 7-Eleven. If the clerk gives me pennies with my change, I leave them in the dish for others. If I’m short a penny or two, I’m covered. The penny dish represents a small courtesy we can offer one another. Of late, I’ve begun to see small things as increasingly important.

Big deals also entertain my thoughts. Basically, I’m not one. That’s okay. Most of us would like to be remembered for doing great things. Few of us will. Still, when we die, someone at our funeral or a local obituary will magnify our “accomplishments” until we’re unrecognizable. At many funerals, I’ve recoiled at the abundant lies spouted to gathered mourners who, almost to a person, must have wondered if they’d wandered into the wrong chapel. I wrote a short story about that.

I’ve long believed we don’t need to do great things to lead great lives. Donating to a hospital that in return plants your name across its entry and all its communications would be wonderful. Modest donations without recognition to fight prostate cancer or leukemia also mean something.  Running a program to feed the poor deserves praise, no question. Bringing a few cans of food to a local collection spot each week also makes a difference to people who will never know of you.

In the end, what counts is not a life lived well in terms of acquisition and comforts—although I’m quite comfortable, and don’t wish to mislead anyone. What counts is a life lived with decency and attention to the “small” stuff: family relationships, friends, community in its many forms, dropping in at the blood bank (yes, I enjoyed the donuts), helping visitors in the Presidio National Park find their way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

In a novel I recently concluded, Gold, by Chris Cleave, a 32-year-old British Olympic gold-medal bicyclist experiences an epiphany. Those several appearances on the podium to be celebrated as a world champion represented the only moments in her life when she was connected to the rest of the world. Her drive for gold stripped her of all feelings and doomed any chance of relationships.

Most of us never will receive great honors. But we can all work hard, love others and do the little things that, while easily unnoticed, make the world a bit better.

What you see is what you get. After posting this, I’m just going to sit and drool. And don’t think I’m not reflecting on President Trump’s remarks about shithole countries. I am. Oh, yes.

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