Finding Good Work: Letter to My Grandchildren

Dear Molly and Jake,

I’ve been thinking about the two of you these days, as you, Molly, plan for life after graduating college in May, and as you, Jake, move through your freshman year.  In some ways you are already adults, setting off on futures that will span decades and decades past my own. So what advice might I offer you that might be of immediate use, and also stand the test of time?

I’d like to begin with work.  You can’t know this yet or fully grasp its meaning but, as adults, you will probably spend more time at work than in any other activity in your life.  So I am writing to urge you to seek out good work.  By that I mean both work that you find satisfying and work that benefits others.  It’s the kind of work your parents have chosen, as did Grandma and I—and I wish it for you as well.  I’ll try to define that in a moment.

First things first:  The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, noted that humans operate within a hierarchy of needs, beginning with food and shelter.  Only after addressing these “basics” can we seriously consider other impulses and desires – toward altruism or for self-fulfillment, for example.  So, of course, that pertains to you too. You’ll need to attend to life’s practical side, to earn a living and to help establish a secure and nurturing home for your family.  But each of you is fortunate to possess an abundance of talents that have been supported by good schools, interested parents, and broadening experiences; I’m confident that you will have the bandwidth, the opportunity and capacity, to move past these basic life requirements.

Your next step might be to winnow down the universe of possibilities.  Let’s begin with the kinds of work I hope you not choose.  I hope you don’t pursue jobs that primarily  promise of wealth or fame, two of our culture’s most powerful and pernicious lures.  You probably have the talent to go that route but it will leave you feeling empty.  You will never fulfill or prove yourself through money or even fame.  They won’t nourish you, nor will they help you think well of yourselves or generously of others.  And after a point, the more you have, the more you’ll convince yourself you need.  Like an addict needing yet another drink.

And success for it’s own sake, moving up and up in the work you do, will likely feel like another empty A for a course that you don’t really care about.

Now what?   Explore, explore, explore.  From my distant perch, high school has become a dull, lockstep, bloodless training ground for college and beyond.  You both negotiated it well on its own terms, but those aren’t the terms I would set for you.  Instead, I’d love you to cast a broad net – intentionally putting yourselves into new and challenging situations.  You both have those inclinations – for example, Molly, with your independent travels abroad, and Jake with your love of humor and your eclectic first-year fall semester course selections.

Sol Gittleman, the former Provost of Tufts University, wanting to embolden students, used to say that the college should prepare students for jobs that haven’t been invented yet.  He asked them to push past the established boundaries of things.  Explore. I wish that for you.  And exploration also means that you should feel free to change jobs or professional paths if, after thoughtful consideration, you decide that the one you are in doesn’t work or if you discover a promising opportunity.

What else?  This may seem obvious, but first and foremost, choose work that really interests you.  Good work captures and holds your attention.  It isn’t boring.  For that to be so, it has to be challenging.  This may seem counter-intuitive but our minds drift when work is too easy.  Soon enough, we imagine ourselves doing other things, then wishing we were doing something else.  But work that calls on your ability to solve problems, work that stretches you, sometimes beyond what you think is your capacity, work that concentrates your mind—that’s good work.

With effort and luck, you will find deeply absorbing work.  In that case, there will be stretches of time when you are riveted.  The outside world will fade into the background.  Time will slow or quicken.  When you stop, it will seem as though you are awakening from a dream.  This kind of experience doesn’t happen all the time but enough so that you will look forward to beginning most mornings.

And here’s the strange, paradoxical, thing about this kind of work.  It both requires tremendous energy and it relaxes you.  When you are intensely engaged, most of your mental static goes missing.  You’re not asking, “is this the right thing to do?” “Can I do it?” “Am I good enough?”  Your self-doubt is parked elsewhere.  You’re in motion, in rhythm, acting.

It may sound like this kind of experience only happens for special people doing special work, like great artists and musicians.  But that’s not true.  It has more to do with finding the right fit between you and your work.  When you’re exploring, ask yourself what you find captivating.  I have felt this way while focused on practicing psychotherapy, doing carpentry, writing, building a management team.  When the fit Is right, I know that I’m doing good work.

Of course, fit also depends on style.  You’ll want to identify the best working conditions for you.  I, for one, need both solitude and community—sequentially.  One won’t do without the others.  I need time to develop my ideas and people to test them with.  I need people to stimulate my thinking and solitude to work out the implications of the thinking.  Others work best in groups or even crowds — never alone.  They get lost in crowds the way I lose myself when alone with my writing.  Some need lots of physical action.  Others need conversation.  It’s almost as important to match your personality to the style as to the subject of work.

Maybe the most important thing about work is that it lines up with who you are at a very basic level. As a child, for instance, my mother insisted that sympathy for those in need was not enough.  I would have to act on their behalf.  These qualities have always guided me.  When I stray, they wave me back into the fold.  When I work within the guidelines, I am at ease.   That’s what I want for you.

When I ask friends what they will miss most in retirement, they often say that it’s the community of people they work with.  People they have come to know and trust—and who trust them.  The ease of being together, the shared histories, the ability to get things done.  The sense of being known.  There are surely some individuals who don’t need a work community but almost everyone I know who has loved her work wonders if the community hadn’t grown as important as the work itself.  Maybe this is similar to what you have experienced in school or at camp.

And then?   This next step is difficult to imagine, to make concrete, for anyone who hasn’t managed a household budget, or been responsible for their own finances.  So you might tuck it away, and consider it later, but here goes:  Once you think you know what might interest you and satisfy you in the longer term, then inventory your needs and desires, thinking modestly on the material side of the ledger.  What material aspirations or possessions, or aspirations, can you feel good about foregoing so you can work—and play—at what you love to do?

If you can find your way to living with a modest material spirit, not enslaved by other people’s ideas of what you need, you will feel free.  Grandma and I have always lived according to this principle.  In our view, we have lived luxuriously, but have done so  spending far less than we earned, living in homes that don’t strain our resources, taking vacations that renew and enlighten without breaking the bank.  As a result, we have always felt rich and relaxed about our material well-being.

What’s more, it seems to me that when you stick to satisfying work, when you work hard and with integrity, you are generally rewarded by earning enough — even when you pay very little attention to your salary.

Now I want to get back to the beginning: Work is good, really good, when it benefits others.  Most of us say that being kind or generous or helpful to others is at the core of our values, and some of us have the privilege of focusing our work to realize these values. You can do good work as a doctor, a therapist, a social worker, a nonprofit leader, a political activist, a craftsperson, a writer, a storekeeper, and in so many other ways. I wish that for you.  Others express these same values within their families and communities, and through philanthropy and volunteer efforts for good causes.  However you do it, I hope you have the opportunity to spend many hours every week in this pursuit.  It will make for a fulfilling life, and I will be proud of you.

Love,

Grandpa

 

 

 

On Being Men: Letter to My Grandsons

Dear Jake, Eli, and Jack,

There are so many things I’d like to share with you.  Some will have meaning now; others are for later as you grow into manhood.  Here’s one.

Did you know that the majority of men in this country prefer Donald Trump to any of the Democratic candidates for the presidency?  For me, that fact feels like the betrayal of the American ideals and, more personally, the values I was brought up with.  Our elected president is dishonest, cruel, bigoted, and corrupt.  He’s a braggart, a misogynist (that means someone who disrespects and probably dislikes women), and a cheat.  I could say more but you get the picture.

Yet men in great numbers keep choosing him.  Instead of just dismissing him and his followers, though, you and I need to ask ourselves as honestly as possible what makes him so attractive to so many.  The temptations to join his crowd are greater than you might think, yet it would sadden me beyond measure if you yielded to them.

I think I can boil down Trump’s appeal to a simple message: people (immigrants, people of color, the “elite” (people who are well educated), and women are taking away our power.  Men must be strong and reject their takeover.

What kind of takeover are we talking about? Here’s how the Trump voters see it: “They” are taking our jobs.  They are taking our culture (this is code, meaning a diverse society that no long puts White men and especially those of northern European ancestry on top).  They are taking our homes—men are no longer the kings of their castles but must share power with their wives.  In other words, White men are no longer the automatic center of American society.  Hoards of immigrants, Black and Brown people, women, and Eastern intellectuals are attacking our traditional ways.

Not only is society changing but we can’t seem to do anything about it.  There is a tidal wave washing over us, overwhelming our efforts to maintain our way of life.  What’s worse is that all of this is happening in spite of us.  We’ve got to stop acting like helpless victims—like women.  We need to take back what rightfully belongs to us.  If we have to do that by bullying, by stealing votes, by keeping those “others” poor and powerless, we will do that.  Thus the big, orange-haired man, bellowing at the rallies, insulting all who oppose him, sneering and snarling at all opposition—that’s who we want to be.
Warriors. Big and strong, our anger released. He makes us feel more like men.

This, of course, is not even close to the kind of man I want you to be.  It’s not who your parents want you to be.  It’s not who you are.  I already see that plainly in you, Jake, at 18.  I can even see it in nine year old Eli and six year old Jack.  Your parents have taught you well.  But let me say a little more about the forces that have brought on this backlash to a century of social progress.

Trump and the White men are right: we have lost some of the power that men have had over the centuries.  Woman now vote.  Women now work out of the home and will soon earn equally with us.  Black and Brown people vote, too, and they are finding good jobs. Immigrants from around the world, people of all colors and nationalities, have entered our country in search of freedom and economic security.  Women and men, often working twice as hard as we do to earn a living for their families, often laboring at jobs that White people don’t even want to do.  I get goose bumps watching them rise.  Isn’t that the American dream?  It sure is mine and I’m happy to share.

And here’s some of the positive sides of change.  In the old days, men had to always seem, even pretend to be strong, even when we felt tired or frightened or depressed.  We couldn’t ask for help.  When I was young, cultural norms warned us not to share our feelings—bad feelings, of course, but even good feelings, like love and delight—for fear of seeming weak. We don’t have to be that way anymore.  We don’t have to act like cartoonish stereotypes of men the way that Trump and his followers do.  We don’t need guns to make us feel strong, to make us feel like men.

We can join together, share work, share feelings, share triumphs and losses, fears and loves.  With each other.  With women and children.  We can be playful and sweet.  Not always rough and tough.  We don’t have to hide behind gruff voices and threats and guns.  We can be obvious.  We can be who we are, each moment, and over the long haul.  You can’t imagine how much more energy comes from breaking the old taboos, from the ability to express all sides of our character.

By tearing down the shell we built to protect us from feeling weak, we are free to love.  To be open and close with our wives, our children, our friends.  And to feel loved.  Something that so-called “real men” rarely feel.  We can let it in and be warmed by it.  Gain confidence through it.  Find ourselves able to love others more because we feel loved.

Maybe the most extraordinary prize for the new men among us is the ability to be close, loving fathers.  We don’t have to hand the job over to mothers.  We can share.  We can begin by holding our babies, by playing with our toddlers, hanging out with our older guys (and girls).  For me, there was no deeper and no more challenging experience than raising my daughter—your mother and aunt—by myself for a while.  It made it so much easier to understand women and children.  And that made me stronger and—pay attention—less self centered.  I had to pay attention to her first.  Not something that many men have had to do.  Not something that came naturally to me, either.  But I learned, and, when you care for your little ones, you will learn too.

Getting outside ourselves, being caretakers—not just by paying the bills but, like your fathers, by changing the diapers—will make (modern) men of us all.  And I will be so proud that you are my grandsons.

Speaking Through Letters

Blogs are so different than books.  When you write a book, it may be several years between conception and reception.  The response to a blog ranges from hours to days, and I am grateful for the greater immediacy in the feedback.  There is even a community, however attenuated, that emerges.  I love that, too.  Even so, writing can be a lonely business.

When I write essays, it often feels like I am reaching into a large, open space that is almost devoid of human life.  And I find myself wishing there were someone real, someone specific, to receive and respond to my words.  When Franny or my friend, David, is around, I sometimes ask: “May I read this to you?”  I love reading to people, adults as well as children.

But, of course, most of the time there is no one around when I write and even if they were, I’d ask them to leave because I need the quiet and the privacy to marshal my thoughts.  To give room for images and feelings to turn themselves into words and thoughts, and to have those thoughts creep into consciousness.

There is one form of writing that brings together the intimacy of reading aloud and the privacy of a journal: letter writing.  It has been a long time since I’ve written letters — ever since email emerged — but I remember it.  I remember writing a letter to someone important, then sending it off, knowing that it would take two or three days to be received and, even if my friend or lover wrote back immediately, there would be another three days to bring their thoughts back to me.  That meant six days of anticipation and suspense, especially if I had confided something very personal.  Whole scenarios would play out in my mind.  The extended time heightened everything.

There is nothing like this intensity in the exchange of emails or texts — or, for that matter, in the essays I send out through my blog.  So I have been searching for a way back to those letters or at least, to the intimate experience they brought.  In my experimentation, I have discovered that writing letters, even to imaginary people, brings me closer.  And, if I have a real person I’m writing to — a grandchild or a close friend, for example — I’m almost there.

There are big topics I want to write about, like what it takes to be a man in our current society, how to live a moral life, and how to face old age, but I have grown tired of talking into the void that essays call forth.  So I have begun to experiment with “letters” that speak through my relationships with my children, grandchildren, brother, sister, and friends, and let me speak in a more personal voice.  Often it’s not solely or even precisely the persons I name in the letter—my brother, my son.  Rather the feeling of speaking to them allows me to speak to similar others—parents, children, siblings … you get the point.  I hope it works for you, too.

As you’ll soon see, the first letter, speaks to, and through, my wishes for my grandsons.  I want them to grow into good men.

 

 

Caution

Dear all,

There are two notes I need to add to my last message:

1. If you want to attend the MVP fundraiser, please let me know at barrydym@gmail.com

 

2. A friend of mine in Los Angeles tells me that a Bill O’Reilly rant somehow got attached to my message–probably only those that went through Facebook.  Please ignore the rant.  It is one of the many disgusting ways that people are using social media to spread false information

Thanks,

Barry

How to Win the 2020 Elections

Dear Readers

You’ve read my essays and know how upset I have been about the Trump presidency, the way that it veers towards autocracy, criminality, racism, and a crass, childish style.  We have two opportunities to stop the bleeding.  One is proceeding in the legislature: the impeachment process.  The other, which we need to pay even more attention to is the upcoming elections.

Many of us have been searching for a meaningful response.  We send dollars to political campaigns.  We prepare to knock on doors to canvas in neighboring states.  But most of us live in a “blue bubble” and worry that these activities won’t have much effect.  But I believe that there is a way to make a difference: by supporting proven grassroots political organizing.  That is, support for those who support local organizations, particularly those located in the battleground states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

By focusing on county and state elections, the Koch Brothers created a vast, powerful network of grassroots political action, think tanks, PACs, and the like, which fueled and sustained the right wing revolution, originating in the Goldwater defeat, and blossoming in the Tea Party, presidencies of Regan, Bush, and Trump, and Congressional dominance leading to a defiant Republican judiciary.

The last time that Progressives experienced a comparable threat was the 1930’s, when the  horrors of the Great Depression overrode political timidity and paved the way for the powerful programs of the New Deal.  I believe that we may be facing a very different but comparable threat now, particularly as William Barr has added the resources of the Department of Justice to try to punish Trump’s opponents.

To fight off these threats, we must win the 2020 elections, local, state, and federal.  Towards that end, let me introduce you to the Movement Voter Protect (MVP).  They provide financial and consulting support to carefully vetted grassroots organizations in battleground states.  These groups are already in action, battle tested, and enduring.  They don’t dissolve every two or four years.  Like the Koch brothers crusaders, they take the immediate and long view.  I believe that support for the MVP provides a highly leveraged way for us, regular citizens, to make a difference.

Here’s one particularly compelling success noted by MVP : “We know that Maggie Hassan won her slim 2016 victory thanks to the votes in Manchester, Nashua, and Concord among people of color who turned out to support her.  Leading that work were four MVP-supported organizations whose staff and volunteers knocked on 85,000 doors in the summer and fall of 2016.  Hassan’s election – by 1,027 votes – saved Obamacare.”

With my friend, Matt Epstein, I will be holding a fundraiser for MVP, where you can be introduced to MVP organizers.  Please join us on December 5, from 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm at Goulston & Storrs, 400 Atlantic Avenue, Boston, MA.   Light eats and drinks will be served

And if you can’t join us, please donate as generously as you can to the MVP Big Five Battleground Fund at https://movement.vote/.

Thanks,

Barry

Changing your mind is a good thing: Advice for Elizabeth Warren

Dear Senator Warren:

I admire your campaign: your policy positions, your spirit, and your insistence on taking the high ground, even as others begin to dig into the dirt.  I don’t worry about the electability question.  It seems to me that, as people grow accustomed to you, as they hear your story and begin to identify more with it, they will vote for you.  Besides, it is vital to lead according to principle, policy and character, and not to primarily follow imagined pathways of voter preference.

I do have one suggestion, though, and I think it will greatly increase the possibility of victory, which, as we all know, is essential.  Trump must be defeated.  I believe that you’d have a much better chance for the presidency if you switched from a single payer health care system to a program that offers both universal coverage and greater choice.  Not necessarily because that is the very best plan but because it seems to be what the American people want.

You can and should say that you still believe that a single payer system is the most effective, efficient and affordable way to deliver health services.  Having affirmed your analysis and values, you now say that you have listened to the American people—those whose choices are paramount—and, so long as every person in this country is covered, you can accept the will of the majority if, when you are president, Congress endorses a plan that combines public and private health care coverage. 

Here’s my reasoning.  First, the objective is more important than the strategy by which you achieve it.  The objective is effective, affordable coverage for all in a way that people accept. Why not be open to any strategy that reflects your objective and gives you the best possibility of both election and positive, if imperfect, legislative action?

Second, this is an opportunity to affirm the will of the people.  That stance moves you further from criticism that you are an Eastern elitist with no feeling for the popular pulse—or compassion for how “regular” people see things.

Third, it is important to learn and to adapt to circumstances, and to be public about your learning.  FDR practiced this approach to great advantage.  He’d try one thing, see if it worked, and set about discovering how it worked and how to make it work better. If the innovative program didn’t work, he’d try something new.  He was an experimenter at a time when the answers weren’t so clear — like now.

Fourth, it is vital to establish your right to change.  I know that change has become taboo in American politics, that it is considered hypocrisy to begin in one place and end in another.  I know that you will be called a hypocrite or weak.  But you, the working class Oklahoma kid who rose to academic and political prominence, the young Republican who, with time and education, saw the Democratic light—you, of all people, know about change and can say how life-affirming adaptation to new circumstances can be.

Fifth, once elected, you will have a mighty struggle convincing Congress that any health care plan that covers every resident of the United States is a viable idea.  You will be accused of being a socialist, a spendthrift, a starry eyed idealist, and lots more.  You will need to be flexible in negotiations.  All great presidents, from Lincoln to FDR to Lyndon Johnson (before he got caught up in Vietnam) have been great negotiators.  Why not indicate ahead of time that you are so inclined?

That’s it.  I believe that the main policy issue that may currently stand in the way of your election is health care—though there will be a need for more flexibility over time.  Make this change and I think you will be seen as the Champion of the American People — and make us all proud.

 

 

 

Awakening

We were at Yom Kippur services, seated among 500 congregants, some dressed all in white, chanting responsively with the Rabbi: sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in English.  There were a remarkable number of serene or smiling faces, particularly, it seemed, among the elderly.  And there must have been over 200 people 70 years or older.  The mood was so different, so much friendlier than the synagogue we had attended for over 40 years.

That former synagogue brought out all of my resistance, born of a lifetime’s attachment to secular humanism, to organized religion.  I had attended in order to be kind to the wife I love, but I had always been a stranger there.  I’m sure that every movement of my body, every crease in my face, signaled to others that I wasn’t at home, and as far as I could tell, that’s how they treated me.  Their greetings, like mine, were more grimaces than smiles, more perfunctory than genuine.  I felt like a stranger in a hostile territory, barely pretending to join in.

Without wanting to, I limited Franny’s ability to relax as deeply as she had wanted into the service and a community of Jewish families she wanted for her own.  Year after year, I felt irritated with my own fate, and angry at the way that I had diminished Franny’s experience, which was deep, satisfying, and uninhibited when I was absent.  I was ashamed of myself.

Though the liturgy in our new synagogue was essentially the same, it seemed joyful to me and that relaxed my muscles, mental and physical.  The chanting washed over me and I joined in.  My body, often edgy during services, quieted.  I stopped thinking and simply read the words of the prayers, lending my voice, however tentatively, to the haunting Yom Kippur melodies.  Instead of closing, praying—not the words but the sounds—opened my heart.

We were sitting in the middle of a long row.  There had been a choral group singing on the bima, which is the stage where the Rabbi, the Cantor and, most importantly the Torahs reside.  I had been enchanted with their song and, just as much by the age range of singers.  Of the 12, the youngest might have been 25 and the oldest 90.  When they were done, they came down from the bima and headed back to their individual seats.  As is the custom when one has read from the Torah or given a talk, congregants shook their hands, eyes gleaming, and saying with gusto: “yashar ko’ach!” (something like, “more power to you!”)

One man in particular caught my eye.  He was probably the oldest, about 90 or so, and walked slowly with the help of a cane.  As he shook people’s hands, he smiled, slowly, gently.  And I thought: He’s so dignified.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand, his dignity stunned me.  Much like the blast from the Rosh Hashanah shofar, the ram’s horn, that each year reminds us of the anguish, the yearnings, and the failures of the year, just past, and more importantly, awakens us to the possibilities of the new year.  I needed to understand what that old man’s dignity signaled to me.

Up to that moment, I don’t think I’d given up my desire to be the energizing core of whatever group I inhabited.  I would say to myself and sometimes to others that I had let go of my ambitions, my drive to succeed, to accomplish great things, or to be the center of attention.  I’ve done so because it’s clear that my time is past and it’s time for younger generations to claim that center stage.

And yet, in my mind, and in some of my activity, I don’t think I’ve permitted myself the full understanding and acceptance of this great developmental sweep.  I’ve not truly stepped back.

The old man at the synagogue had stepped back.  He seemed so profoundly at home in that gentle smile.  He seemed to enjoy what he could do and to appreciate the pleasure it afforded others.  His smile said to me, and to the other congregants: I’m pleased to still be here in this place, with these people…to participate, to be alive.

Observing him, I think I felt what he felt.  I understood, if only for a moment, that there is a next stage of life, outside the magic circle of youth and manhood-in-full-swing.  It is quieter, more accepting, filled with appreciation of others, and gratitude for what I have.