My "Beautiful girls." - July 6, 2015

Some thoughts about parenting and the words we use.  Before beginning, I would like to acknowledge that I’m an extremist.  As a performing artist and a social worker, I think of words as precision tools, with real power to hurt and heal.  You are welcome to dismiss my point of view as over-the-top, unless you decide that it makes perfect sense.  Here goes.

When my oldest daughter was a baby, I would take her grocery shopping with me.  If her mom or her babysitter had dressed her, she might look ‘“like a girl,” in a dress, wearing frilly tights, etc.  If I had put clothing on her, she was more likely to be in gray sweatpants and a baseball cap.  It was an inadvertent social experiment, because people would respond differently to us depending on Emma’s attire.  If she looked “like a girl”, I could scarcely get from the beginning of one aisle to the end without people stopping me to comment on how beautiful my baby was.  The reason “like a girl” is in quotes, obviously, is because there is no one way that girls look.  I’m talking about stereotypical appearance, involving lots of pink, lace, etc.  On the other hand, if she was dressed “like a boy” I could walk all over that grocery store without interruption or comment.  This experience underlined for me society’s validation of girls, which begins at infancy.  Girls are validated, first, for their looks; boys are not, or at least, they are not validated primarily for their looks.  I know I’m not saying anything here that everyone doesn’t know.   

Early on, I decided not to play.  Although I couldn’t control the rest of the world, I had power over my own words.  I resolved never to validate my daughters for their looks.  Throughout their childhood and adolescence, I never said a word about their appearance - never called them beautiful, pretty, lovely, cute - never, not once.  It was only mildly challenging, because English has so many words from which to choose - amazing, miraculous, wonderful, adorable, precious, awesome, brilliant, talented, fine, cool, etc.  Even into high school prom-time, I would say, “That dress looks great on you”, or “I like your hairstyle,” but never, “You’re beautiful.”  Sometimes it felt like a kind of self-denial, but I thought it was important to be the one voice that validated them for their character, their accomplishments and their inherent and unique divine nature, but not for their looks.  

When I talked about it with friends and colleagues, many of them told me I was crazy, that I was withholding from my daughters an important approval.  Some of them were expressed sadness for my daughters, who had to grow up without hearing their father call them “pretty.”

Once, Emma and I went for a walk in the sculpture gardens behind the Pepsico headquarters.  (Before you get to thinking that I was an awesome parent who did this sort of thing all the time, please know that we did this, exactly, once.)  We crossed paths with a young man and woman who seemed to be on a date, and as we did, the woman was saying, “I mean, face it.  If you’re a woman and you’re not pretty, there's just no hope.”  After we were out of earshot, Emma, who was probably 10 years old, looked at me, aghast, and said, “No hope?  As what?  A doctor?”  

If you ask Emma and Olivia how they feel about my choice of words while they were growing up, the (beautiful) young women who are my daughters will tell you that they never noticed, and never felt like anything was missing.  They remember that I told them they were “cool” a lot.  In their opinion, it was a good idea.  


The pledge of allegiance - June 19, 2015

“I pledge allegiance to the flag,” we say in our public schools every morning, “of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands.”  We go on to affirm that our country is “One nation, under God, indivisible,” a country that deserves our allegiance because of its dedication to “liberty and justice for all.”

I’ve been thinking about the pledge this week for two different reasons.  The first is about flags, and the Republics for which they stand.  Thanks to Emma Zakes Green, I had the opportunity to read the Cornerstone speech delivered by the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens in March of 1861.  In it, he said, “Our new Government is founded upon … its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."

The state of South Carolina seems insistent about flying the flag of the Confederacy on state land, and equally insistent about denying the truth of that flag and its most basic historical meaning.  I understand that the entirety of the United States was complicit in that most evil institution of slavery, but only the Confederacy enshrined it in their Constitution.  I hope that a tidal wave of public opinion, from every corner of this nation and every ethnicity finally moves South Carolina to take down that flag.

The second reason I’ve been thinking about the pledge has to do with the disparity between its language and our reality.  America’s mythic history is about a people yearning for freedom who created an exceptional country out of their highest aspirations.  But the truth?  This nation built an economic empire using human slaves to farm land we stole.  It was never the intention of our founders to extend ‘liberty and justice’ to all, merely to Christian males of European descent, people like themselves.  America was built on the backs of people it intended to exclude.  Nearly 250 years later, we are still engaged in the struggle of inclusion for all people.  

It’s nearly impossible to solve a problem while denying it.  If we truly intend to make progress against the institutions that perpetuate inequality in this country - and most of our institutions perpetuate American inequality - we need to acknowledge the brokenness of the foundation upon which we were built.   

What would America look like if we were truly dedicated to liberty and justice for all?

A country that requires municipalities to balance their budgets using speed traps, or the labor of prisoners, is not a ‘free’ country.  A country whose penal code is influenced by the privatized prison industrial complex is not truly ‘free.’  The nation that has 4% of the world’s people but 25% of the planet’s prison population is not a ‘free country.’  

States that forbid their environmental experts from saying the words “climate change” do not belong in a free country.  States that require medical professionals to lie to women seeking to terminate pregnancies do not belong in free countries.  

I would like to be able to say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, one nation, indivisable, striving mightily to achieve liberty and justice for all.”   

“America! America!” wrote Katherine Lee Bates,
“God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!”

Calling it torture - Dec. 10, 2014


I don’t know about all of y’all, but I mostly understand the world by analogy. Here’s the analogy I’ve been thinking about in relation to the CIA’s defense of their interrogation techniques.

Imagine that a doctor ordered me to go on a liquid diet, avoiding all solid food. Now, I understand that solid food is bad for me and that eating is not only dangerous, but also a sign of weakness on my part. I’m scared, though, because I’ve never gone without it. I’m afraid that I’ll be really, really hungry. So I get a lawyer to write an opinion renaming the act of putting a pork chop in my mouth, chewing and swallowing. From now on, I’m going to call it “enhanced nutrition.”

Later, after photographs are published showing me dining in restaurants, the doctor says to me, “You were eating.” And I say, “No, I was practicing enhanced nutrition, but I don’t eat solid food. Listen to me. I. don’t. eat. solid. food. In response to the fear of hunger, I practiced enhanced nutrition.”

And the doctor says, “OK. You don’t eat solid food. But there was a pork chop in your mouth, and you chewed it and swallowed it.” And I don’t deny it.

This is an Orwellian exercise playing out in front of our eyes. I have no doubt that some of us will believe that enhanced nutrition is not the same as eating solid food. I’m also fairly certain that many of us will endorse the idea that means are justified by ends. As an American, as a person who grew up believing in an ideal America even though I know it has never actually existed, I have to insist that our conduct matters, and that our ends are less important than our means. They’re not unimportant, just less so.

I’m willing to leave to others the debate about whether enhanced nutrition, er, interrogation produced actionable intelligence. I’d like to believe it didn’t, but that seems like the kind of partisan debate in which I have no access to the truth, only to what each side is willing to claim is true. To me, it doesn’t matter, ultimately. What matters is that we need to hold ourselves to the higher standard we’ve always claimed. We had the moral high ground on September 12, 2001, and we mortgaged that territory.

Dec. 1, 2014 - Ferguson


I hope we all know the truth by now.  This nation was created for the enjoyment of the members of a Club.  Inside the Club, this is the most beautiful, the greatest nation on the planet.  Outside the Club, not so much, although we’ve repeated that “greatest nation” trope so often that many of us believe it despite ample evidence to the contrary.  

Over time, we’ve expanded the rules for who could be in the Club.  Women can be in the Club now, although they have to put up with constant reminders that we’ve let them in.  Sometimes they are told that to stay in, they have to put out, and they should be grateful for the opportunity.

Lots of people who couldn’t have joined the Club a hundred or more years ago have done so.  Italians, Irish people, southern Europeans - they’re all in.  Other people can join if they conform to stereotypes.  Asians can be in the Club so long as they’re excellent at whatever discipline they pursue.  Black and brown people, African Americans, people of color, the Club is not available to them.  They are The Other, Langston Hughes’ darker brother.  Many of these folks succeed in spite of being out of the Club, and some of them actually manage to get inside,  but they are exceptional, and they are the exceptions.  

America was made by the people who are not in the Club, but it was not made for them.  It was made for the Club members.  It was made for white people.  

I want to digress here for a moment and say that, in the middle of a Facebook debate about the Ferguson verdict this week, a Facebook friend of a Facebook friend piped up to complain about the term ‘African American.’  Come on, he said.  They’re black people.  It’s enough already.  We don’t mind being called white.  So here’s the thing about the names.  People have been trying for 120 years to find a term for America’s Other People that would endorse their inherent worth and dignity.  It never works, because they’re still the Others.  Their Otherness just drags every name down to the level of just those people who aren’t white.  The truth is that America was just not made for them, and it’s still not.  

Many of the people I see posting on Facebook say they’re sympathetic to the plight of black people in America’s cities and towns, but disgusted by the violence that arose in reaction to the Grand Jury verdict.  They say, “Please explain to me what’s to be gained by burning down your own community.”

There’s an old saying I only learned recently - “As a parent, you’re only as happy as your least happy child.”  If America is our parent, we have some terribly unhappy children - desperate, heartbroken, overworked and underestimated.  I’ve been thinking about America from the family systems perspective, about our dysfunction.  

Imagine you had five children in your care.  You were happy to acknowledge three of them as yours.  You fed them well, took them shopping, gave them laptops and quality educations.  They slept on good mattresses with comfortable linens.  You told them stories and spent quality time with them.  

The other, two, though, you just couldn’t warm up to.  You were convinced that they were inferior; maybe they were adopted, or stepchildren.  Maybe they just didn’t look enough like you, or maybe their temperaments were not a good fit in the culture of your family.  Whatever the reason, they slept on cots in a shared bedroom not much bigger than a closet.  You forbade them unlimited access to the food in the kitchen, telling them that they couldn’t be trusted to eat responsibly.  You outsourced the responsibility for their education, sent them to boarding school in high school.  The love they felt from you was a dim bulb compared to the outpouring of warmth their siblings received.  By the way, let me say that, as a social worker, I’ve seen families like this one.  And as a citizen, I live in a country like it.  

Now, say that whenever that child tried to express their pain and fear, you told them they were exaggerating, that it couldn’t really be as bad as that, because they’re not starving or homeless.  There is a clinical correlation between parents who deny their children’s emotional state and children who self-harm.  When you deny people’s truth, they sometimes hurt themselves.  

Over the years, I’ve watched black people trying to explain their experience to white people, many of whom vehemently deny the truth being expressed to them.  Since the concept of the Other is perpetuated by the Normal People, many individuals have real difficulty accepting what American black experience says about white people.  As a white person, I find this conversation exhausting, but I can choose not to think about it.    America’s Others have to think about it whenever they encounter white people, pretty much daily. 

I’m not suggesting that I think the black experience in America is a singular one, nor am I saying that I understand it in any real first-hand way.  What I am saying is that we continue to punish our darker brothers for not being white.  Family systems, systems of oppression - they’re all systems.  The first step in healing broken families is in understanding the dysfunction, and the best beginning for that is active listening to each other.  If America is to heal its divisions, we must all be listening.  It’s hard not to hear the members of the Club, but it’s difficult to clearly hear the people outside the Clubhouse.

Ultimately, if we want to be the greatest nation on Earth, we will have to remake this country so that everyone’s in.  To accomplish that, we might just have to remake ourselves.

Thanksgiving, 2013


I’m grateful this Thanksgiving for this magical life. This world is utterly random; flowers and missing pets bloom in the rubble of earthquakes and tornadoes. Billions of us struggle to get by, so many live in desperate circumstances, but love abounds and joy catches us off guard.

My job affords me the great honor and blessing of being present for humanity’s resilience and vulnerability. Young people and their parents share the greatest gifts, their stories, their losses, their pain. As a social worker, I’m a witness. As a performing artist, I get to testify.

Today I’m feeling all of it - all of the losses in my life and in the lives of the people who talk with me. I miss all of the loved ones who are a state, a continent away. It’s as though the gain on the antenna has been turned way up. So much love, so much vitality, so much grief, so much strength. I’m filled with gratitude for all the feelings, all the proofs of existence that threaten to take my breath away.

If you’re reading this, I urge you to be good to yourself and your loved ones this Thanksgiving. Celebrate your imperfections - give yourselves a hug. The Mundane, the Terrible or the Magnificent might be just around the corner, but, whatever comes, it will be accompanied by Love.

From August 16, 2013


When I was a teenager, it was hard for me to reconcile making art when the world was so broken and in need of help. Wasn’t it trivial and indulgent to to put on plays and musicals when there was a war on, and people were dying because of poverty and want? If we weren’t actively part of a solution, weren’t we part of the problem?

Here, forty years later, is an answer:

The performing arts create loving communities in which we do the work of calling people to their humanity. The canvas of the broken world is shot through with joy and sadness, with love and grief. All of life needs celebration, even the experiences that are so overwhelmingly sad we feel our very hearts will stop beating. Our feelings tell us that we’re alive. When we let them, they remind us to ask for help and offer it in return.

When we make good theatre, everyone involved - actors, crew, house staff, audiences - everyone is called to their humanity; everyone is enlivened. Even if the work of art does not point explicitly to our social responsibility, it highlights our common humanity. Even the worst of times needs art and artists.

Rehearsals for the next play start Aug. 30. I'll be ready.

From June 26, 2013

Thoughts on the Supreme Court



I don't know why good news always makes me cry. And I don't know why I should have to thank the Supreme Court for doing the logical thing, as though justice is a rare precious gem we only find every so often. Sadly, our world often feels like that, where justice (especially attributive justice) is routinely denied most people. 

For today, however, I'm not judging my own tears of gratitude and joy. It's a good thing.

To be clear, I don't mind crying about good news; I cry about everything. This is what I mind. 

I live and work in a country where every workday I hear young people pledge allegiance to a symbol of country "with liberty and justice for all," and yet today's news has to be viewed as a victory in the same week as the protection of voting rights and affirmative action are declared unnecessary or unimportant. In America, justice should roll down like water, and instead it comes in occasional timed releases.

From February 2013

Here’s a thing I’ve been thinking about. We are connected to so many people, held in a web, as though we’re holding onto one end of hundreds of ropes. These ropes are of different length and strength, but, inevitably, the moment comes when we find ourselves holding one end of a rope with no one on the other side. Our lives are like that - we are destined to lose the people we want to hold onto - or they are destined to lose us. All of us know this about our lives - that they will end, and that, before they do, we will lose people we cherish.

We’re promised nothing in this life, not a year, not a day, not an hour. Every second of our existence is a bonus. We didn’t ask to be born, couldn’t have asked if we wanted to, and this astonishment of consciousness and connection, of thought and sensory delight, this amalgam of experience and sensation, this body, all of it will be gone one day. Life is so sweet, and so short. In sympathy with each other, we deserve, we all of us deserve, to live in a world of kindness and care.

This knowledge calls us to a powerful mission - to create this idea in the culture - to help each other, young and not so young, to acknowledge the terrible ephemeral beauty of this life, and to respond to that understanding with kindness, service, and care for each other. This mutual understanding is at the heart of empathy, which is the bedrock of justice. If we all know that we know this about our lives, then we can intelligently address bullying, healthcare, domestic violence, hunger. The basic idea of the world as it ought to be arises from an understanding of life as it is.

Thanks for reading. Good night.

more from the 2012 presidential election season...

One of the comments from my last post said, "we, to some extent, need to be a culture that willingly embraces the role of being our sister's and brother's keepers..." Thanks to Debra Goodman for saying so, and I don't disagree. I'm not sure we can make this argument in a compelling way to those Americans who are determined to see their fellow citizens as "the other."

The only case I can make is an economic one. Although I'd prefer a compassionate society, I'm willing to settle for an economically efficient one, because they turn out to be the same thing, in the long run. It costs less money for government to help a child grow up to be a productive member of society than it does to process an adult through the courts and keep him or her in prison.

We don't have to be compassionate. We don't have to be liberal or conservative. We ought to be pragmatic, and understand that our society is healthier if we don't have to be afraid of violence and aggression at the hands of desperate people.  Personally, I would rather my tax dollar pay for the services that help all Americans grow up with an education and hope for the future than have it go to support a burgeoning privatized prison industry. 

I would also rather see us pay to finance alternative and renewable energy research and development, because the Republican alternative is to pay fewer taxes, so the governments get to stand back and watch our addiction to oil and natural gas heat up the planet and poison our water.

I get that Americans resent taxation, but government is going to cost money. Our local taxes are as high as they are because our Federal and state taxes are lower. It's not trickle down wealth - it's trickle down taxation, and it's inevitable. Sooner or later, nationally or municipally, we have to pay for government.

Now, is government going to get some things wrong as it spends our money? You bet. And so does the private sector, but they do it with the money we spend on products instead of our tax dollars. Every human institution is going to fail at least a little at everything it tries. There will always be people who game the system, who defraud noble efforts for personal gain. Some of them do it on the small scale, like the fictional "welfare queen" Reagan ran against. Some do it on the grand scale, like the folks who manipulated international lending rates, or the investment bankers who took TARP money and then paid themselves shameful sums of money while other Americans lost their homes and jobs.

The fact that we can't spend government money perfectly, however, is not a reason to disinvest in what government can do. We ought to be watching for waste and fraud in government; we ought to be holding government's feet to the fire and making them do better. As someone who works in the public schools, I can testify that we're doing that right now. But we ought not let government stop doing its rightful work, unless we want to live in the developing world, or the Wild West.

From October, 2012

Watching talking heads discuss politics - I want to put this out there. The free market is a wonderful thing, and we obviously want people to succeed, even to become wealthy.   We also hope for America's corporate elite to do the right thing, without regulation. If they had behaved like responsible social stewards over the last 40 years, we wouldn't be in the mess we are now. 

I am willing to believe that both of our candidates care about 100% of Americans, but the Republican party and its standard bearer are against any program that will help to alleviate the most fundamental problem in America today, the problem at the root of all other problems. It's the one that the Occupy movement hoped (and maybe still hopes) to address. The problem is income inequality.

It's not good for our nation to have the bulk of our wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. It's bad for a consumer economy, because poor people can't buy goods.

It's bad for elections because corporate money financed the lawsuits that enabled more corporate money to buy elections. Still more corporate money lobbied for voting machines without paper trails and financed foundations that wrote voter restriction legislation. 

It's bad for social and economic mobility, which has all but disappeared in America. We rank somewhere near dead last in economic mobility among the world's developed nations. The truth is that, in America today, the rich get richer and the poor get more numerous. 

This situation will require tough fixes, over time, by government, in the form of education, housing and infrastructure initiatives. The private sector is not going to prepare young people beset by poverty to become achievers and entrepreneurs. They can help, but education and housing are the government's job. 

And, by the way, if we do succeed raising new generations of wage-earners and consumers, it would be a really good thing if they had quality roads and bridges on which to drive the cars they invent, and light rail corridors on which to move the more energy efficient trains; all that infrastructure is the government's job, too. If you drive on the highways of Europe or take trains elsewhere in the developed world, you will understand just how far behind we are.

Thanks for letting me vent.

Welcome to the blog.

I'm going to start putting things I've written up here, throwing them out into the ether to see if they stick to anyone.   Let's start with this trivial list from facebook.  It was one of those challenges, a few years ago, to list 25 random things about oneself.  Looking back at it, I suppose it still paints a fairly accurate picture of who I am.  

1.    Spicy food is important.

2.    I regret not knowing how to tap-dance.

3.    I sold Peace buttons and medallions in school when I was in 8th grade.

4.    I no longer know how many theatrical productions I’ve been a part of.

5.    If I’m eating carbs, I sneeze at the end of the meal. A lot.

6.    They’ll pry my Macbook from my cold dead hands.

7.    I miss vests and skinny ties.

8.    In the course of my life, I’ve been told I look like John Travolta, Richard Lewis, Vin Diesel and Howie Mandel. Go figure.

9.    I’ve been married for more years than I was single.

10.    Many random items are stuck in the bear-trap of my brain.

11.    If today is like most days, I’m drowning in pieces of paper.

12.    Driving is always fun.

13.    Driving and crying is therapy.

14.    Since college, I’ve had 10 employers (including British Airways, Columbia University, Sloan-Kettering and myself) and 5 different careers.

15.    I’m a very religious person, but I probably don’t believe in your God.

16.    I don’t know why I’m straight.

17.    I always know that I’m a white man with an invisible backpack full of privilege.

18.    At the theatre camps I went to growing up, I was in Marat/Sade and the Open Theatre’s The Serpent at 13; by the time I was 16 I had played Leonardo in Blood Wedding and Bobby in Company.

19.    I went to Yiddish school instead of Hebrew school, but ich hob fargessen mein Yiddish..

20.    Desert island food? Tom Kha Gai.

21.    I learned to tie my shoes when I was in college.

22.    Sometime in the early 90’s, in a parking lot in New Jersey at 1 in the morning, I walked on hot coals.

23.    Clutter is good at managing me.

24.    The week of Nov. 20th holds the anniversaries of the death of both of my parents and our dog Oakley.

25.    If I could only get my hands on a caffeine IV…