I distinctly remember being taught in high school that what made America great was its big heart and a commitment to democracy and freedom throughout the world. The country of opportunity met you with the words of the Statue of Liberty.
However, with America’s commitment to the IMF and the World Bank after COVID-19 still in question at the White House, I have gone back to when I thought we protected free trade as essential to the spread of democracy and freedom for the world.
Imagine if there had been no Marshall Plan and America had not aggressively led the way to rebuild Europe after the Second World War. That allowed us to create trading partners and free trade and made America and Europe free and able to prosper for the last 80 years.
In college, I was taught that free trade is necessary to build civilization. Free trade is like the blood flow through a healthy body.
I may have gotten it wrong, but I think without free trade there would be no America to “Make Great Again.”
Ten years ago, I visited Syria. The Syria that no longer exists. Entire cities have been wiped out since I was there.
Back then, I fell in love with the beauty of a pre-Roman city of Palmyra and its history.
Northeast of Damascus, it survived because it was at an oasis at the crossroads of trade routes in the desert.
Years ago, it was a burgeoning metropolis of peoples and civilizations. There were times when it was a nation-state and times when it was a city within the ever-changing powers of the region. Its independence depended largely on the prosperity opened to it by free trade.
From the beginning, America has been an oasis of natural resources, protected by our two oceans from the dictators or monarchies of the rest of the world.
As a new nation, I was taught, we became an oasis of constitutional freedom with trade between the states, to became a force in the world. Have our oceans and self-confidence become a curse now? We hear only the voice of the growing isolationism, of “America first.”
Over the last three years, it seems we have not been able to admit or see that we are falling behind and doing everything but making America great again.
I am certain I can still remember when America’s foreign policy was about keeping our oasis safe and the world safe for freedom and democracy.
Anyway, I attach these 10-year-old pictures of Palmyra. You can ride a camel there.
If you loved your education or even if you didn’t, but love the people, the culture — and you are pretty certain you should have never been admitted — you are a born Poet Laureate.
If you are worried about qualifications, no license is required. And what is really great is that there are endless jobs available because in most institutions this job has not even been created — so you can fill it by volunteering and hold it endlessly as long as you are keeping the alumni laughing.
And if you are worried about keeping your integrity this is absolutely the job for you! You can test this:
Call a restaurant and tell them you are a Poet Laureate. You will get a table next to the kitchen. You can insist on no favoritism and be certain that your request will be honored.
And it is not “a low paying job”! It is a no paying job, so you pay no taxes! And there are other hidden benefits:
I have found that as long as I have been a Poet Laureate they have not revoked my degree. In my case, that’s important.
I have been the Poet Laureate of the Harvard Alumni Association for the last eight years and I am living proof that no talent is richly rewarded for the pure pleasure of just doing this job.
Yes, I have proof:
The job requires that I present my “ode” at the Annual Spring Meetings of the Alumni Association and, for the last two years, for different reasons, it has been videoed.
Have fun with it. Two weeks ago, because of the coronavirus, I bemoaned the cancellation of our graduation and celebrated our student athletes and our football team:
The year before, I celebrated the Harvard Magazine and my former father-in-law:
On Friday, March 6th, I headed home on a mid-morning train from NYC. We had been busy. The day before, we had finished a third table reading of The Grace of God & The Man Machine. The atmosphere had been wonderful and the actors had greeted each other with hugs and kisses, celebrating the act of making theater.
Other than my wife, this was the last time I have been within six feet of anybody for almost two months. Everyone in the world I know is in quarantine.
I have tracked my friends in New York and elsewhere, as some of them have gotten the virus, gone dark, and returned to report they are better but have lost friends to the disease.
The realization that this will not end easily for anybody has been made clear every morning as I’ve watched a cold spring come to Maryland under iron gray skies. I have been waiting for good news or some sign of change. I want the everyday life that I will always remember but will not see again.
Today, I decided to gather the little things that I might have taken for granted before, and make them into an exciting life that must be coming.
A year ago this week, I recited my 7th annual Harvard Alumni Association poet laureate poem (a “serious” bit of frivolity which I dearly love). This year, because the alumni meetings will be held virtually, I was asked to write it and have it videoed for presentation tomorrow. Instead of being disappointed I will not see my friends and fellow alumni and present it to a live audience, I reviewed the video and found myself laughing.
Finally, the play I was afraid would die in New York City after that great reading, we have just been informed is a finalist for the New York Rave Theater Festival and is being considered for perforce in NYC in October.
A different world is evolving now, but at least personally it is starting to feel like we are starting to wake up from a sleepless night to a coming spring.
So, this is how I got tricked into my new unintended optimism:
With the coronavirus, we are confronted with a new “new normal” yet again. I am again surprised at how fast our world can suffer catastrophic change and how quickly we accept it and adapt and —yet again — take no notice that disaster recovery as a way of life may be in our DNA.
Yesterday, quite by accident, when I was deep in quarantine and grumpy, I discovered some old travel photos I had taken ten years ago and my mind played a trick on me.
I was thinking about how years ago, there were no security checks in our airports and how now they are an accepted part of our lives.
I noticed that each picture looked like it could have been taken today, but history makes that impossible.
Look at the picture of the sister bending to be photographed with her little brother and how instantly it was interrupted by two of their playmates who wanted to be part of the fun.
It was taken in Aleppo, a city which was totally destroyed several years ago during the war in Syria.
The second photograph is of a market in Luang Prabang at the edge of the Mekong River in Northern Laos. Since that picture was taken, Chinese civil engineers have changed the flow of the river and thus the life of that little waterfront Buddhist city.
But finally, the picture which is the cause of this my unexpected optimism:
It was taken by total accident in a street market in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I realized the surprise of an unexpected discovery:
“Everybody is looking for something-at the same time.”
All of a sudden, I was surprised by the present that I thought was the past.
The people are so alive despite their futures and their past. We put our best face forward. We are, by nature, resilient. It lives in the acceptance of people in these photographs, whether these people are now alive or dead.
Being quarantined is like driving with your family at night when the government turns off your headlights.
First, you realize you must pull over because you don’t want to be stopped by an invisible tree or police officer.
The rest is endless waiting and the push and shove of group activity in a very contained space.
The driver instantly loses authority and the backseat gets more and more unruly. (This is an absolute truth.)
Actually, the seat belt is unbuckled for everybody.
There can be no consensus about the radio so it gets turned off.
Out come the cell phones, as people start thinking for themselves rather than for others, but there is no privacy so out come the headphones and the binge watching begins in strange existential silence.
Am I really watching “The Tiger King”?
The world outside the car is the enemy anyway, because no one can dress up to confront it. And worse, if they do, they must wear face masks and plastic gloves, which ruins the grooming and manicure.
As hope for alternatives disappear (“alternatives” are recognized to no longer be available), as a last resort we are confronted by our family and friends and the question:
“How did they happen?”
“Why did we end up in this car?”
It is not by accident.
Back when I was growing up in New England, the entire Northeast had a black out and nine months later the birth rate spiked!
You chose it. I don’t mean birth order—I mean you chose to get in the car. Is this car the architecture in which we chose to spend our precious time? Maybe? What are traffic jams anyway?
So why do cars have backseats? For procreation and the storage of loose children?
And this is who we end up with when the lights go out?
Oddly, as if by miracle, these strangers must be eventually confronted and recognized.
At different times for each of the people in the car, during their own moment of silence, something is recognized.
It is that you belong to them and they belong to you.
It happened to me. I am fortunate, and a little surprised to realize the “unexpected” has broken my status quo and given me an opportunity to get out of the car as a different person than when I got in it.
I am fortunate to have the friends and the wonderful extended family which I have.
But I had my moment.
I learned I don’t just want to travel with them. I want to appreciate them and not take them ever for granted and forget for a moment how much I love them again and again and again…
And why The Tiger King should probably end up in solitary.
Okay, I may have a problem. I am a recovering lawyer and now aspiring playwright and poet. Is it possible that I miss time sheets? “Every six minutes” for a lifetime?
People used to say: “You are what you eat,” but what if you are what you “do” or have done?
Maybe I’m getting worse. At the law firm, I made a rule that if anybody could finish a story that I was telling I would stop telling it.
Now I don’t care. If I can get a second laugh or even a third from the same story I will repeat it, again and again. (And I’m going deaf so I’m the only one who doesn’t have to hear it.) It could be senility. It could be I’ve lost any sense of embarrassment, but it definitely demonstrates no merciful memory loss, at all.
The other thing is, even in retirement I must “work.” I have grown even more intolerant of delay because everything I’ve written should be on stage by now! Damn it!
What has happened to me?
In the past year, I have written or rewritten three plays. One (Onaje) has been produced in New York, two will be produced in New York (Vox Populi, for which I wrote the libretto, and The Grace of God & The Man Machine). Another, The Naked House Painting Society, is looking for a home.
Yes, I used to be impatient as a lawyer but now my stuff is not produced fast enough? Do I still need litigation? The need to measure work on massive conflicts in tight building blocks of measured time along with a new project have made me afraid.
I have started working on a poem based on Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s Inferno has 34 cantos and 23 six-line stanzas in each canto. That in itself was my wake-up call. How sick is this?
The law can definitely create “delusions of grandeur.” Might it also imprint the structured, ordered, anal impact of time sheets?
Is it now that I require 34 cantos and 23 six-line stanzas in each canto? Seriously? But I haven’t given into it yet, I think.
Still, as I started the Prologue and began to “write about what I know,“ I found a schizophrenic litigator’s theme begging for harmony. This is how it starts:
With first light, or birth, or perhaps before/
And maybe after, comes the dialogue:/
The debate in the mind. Waves on the shore/
Each overriding the last. No monologue./
Two nagging voices in constant conflict./
One “as doubt“ the other “as hope,“ both spent/
Bickering on some path I did not pick/
Living the daily schedule of events/
As I wake and wonder where each day went:/
The debate in the mind. Waves on the shore/
Each overriding the last. What event,/
What plea, what prayer from my central core,/
What keeper of my life long travel log/
Can cure me of this endless dialogue?/
I start with a sonnet? How sick is this?
T.S. Eliot said:
“evenings, mornings, afternoons,/
I have measured out my like with coffee spoons;”/
And the poor man was just a banker.
Still, it will be funny and too long for me to repeat, so that may be progress.
Spring is coming and we have a new lead producer and manager and a “new” play. Onaje is now The Grace of God & The Man Machine.
Mind the Art Entertainment is our new lead producer and manager, who will be working with Sue Conover Marinello.
This is a big deal for us. The money has been raised for two new “table reads” at the New York Opera Center in late February and in early March. The legal documents will be executed in mid-March and then we will start raising money for a production.
How did we get here?
After Onaje got the rave reviews at FringeNYC, Kevin R. Free and his agent John Essay took an interest and made suggestions to develop Onaje from a 93 minute one act to a full length two act. I went to work with Kevin.
Kevin and John have exposed me to a new and more polished professional performance, and Mind the Art has had numerous NYC productions, so both are big steps up. The performance dates will depend on fundraising and the acquiring of an off- or off-off Broadway theater, but we are focused and starting down this very challenging path.
All New York productions are expensive. This is a whole new world. It appears to be more about love and community than money. Most investors, large or small, love the theater and want to be part of the excitement. They are just plain “riverboat gamblers,” if they care about the investment at all. (The producers tell their investors that there is a high likelihood they will not get their money back because only a very small percentage of New York productions are successful investments.)
Over the last months, Kevin and I have met several times and I have been open to and impressed by his ability to X-ray the script and study its bone structure and life force.
We have become friends, and out of that friendship has come a much deeper and more powerful and relevant play because we were vulnerable and shared the differences of our lives.
As we worked on the play I have been surrounded by, and have commented on the politics of the present day.
Those of you who came and saw the production of Onaje remember that it derives from the civil rights riots in Cambridge Maryland in 1967 and its aftermath.
I have discovered that the wellspring of the play and the divisions within our country derive from our first beginnings as a nation. But also from that wellspring has come deep, loving, committed relationships and even great humor. That is what the new play is about.
The support and belief of Mind The Art Entertainment has also been born out of friendship. Christian and Patrick commissioned me to write the libretto for Vox Populi based on the success of Onaje at FringeNYC. The year before, Christian, Sue, and I met in Wallingford, Connecticut at a class for producers at the O’Neil.
The beauty of this creation is it comes from divergent backgrounds and is born from respect and friendship. It is in direct contrast with what this country is presently going through. The new play incorporates the present and our nation’s past.
Cross your fingers and wish us “break a leg!” It will be an interesting year ahead of us!
There is only one lawyer I know who will go to heaven — Mike Millemann. He recently wrote a law review article about a theater class aimed at teaching law students how to be better lawyers, which we taught together several years ago at The Carey School of Law at University of Maryland. The class was both bizarre and beautiful.
The students were tentative at first but, by the end, definitely loved it. In almost every case, the students were amazed by a third dimension this class offered to their law school education: compassion as it is embodied by our professional responsibility.
One of the students commented:
“Ten years from now, I am certain that when I am asked to share my most eye-opening class in law school, I will mention this class. It has been a learning experience that no other law school class that I have taken can come close to in comparison.”
The model for the class came from the stories of African American males incarcerated and serving life sentences in Maryland, who were later exonerated because they were determined to be completely innocent.
At the first class, one of these innocent men who had spent most of his life incarcerated under a life sentence, was introduced to the class. He quietly answered the student’s questions, remarkably without anger.
Each of these men had been through hell and had escaped it unexpectedly, and they shared that experience.
Throughout the writing and performing process, the students learned in a way that is completely different than the traditional law school education.
After going through trial transcripts, appellate briefs, the underlying facts and the law of each case, the students wrote a play. They collaborated, they wrote the roles of corrupt prosecutors under public pressure and eager for a conviction and incompetent defense lawyers who took $300 from the family of the defendant and provided only half-day trials in capital cases without prior research or exonerating witnesses. But also, the students wrote the story of the diminished hope and desperation of family members who were in shock by the verdict, and who over time grew despondent about American justice.
And then the students lived the roles which they created as they performed their play before a live audience.
In one case, Michael Austin, who had been recently released and had taught himself music during his incarceration, stayed with us throughout the class and was asked to join a class member at the side of the stage to add musical accompaniment.
In the last scene, the governor of Maryland announced publicly that Michael Austin was to be released. On stage, the student playing Michael Austin was asked: “Are you angry about what has happened to you?”
To the extreme surprise of the audience, Austin, barely noticed previously, took center stage and announced: “I am Michael Austin and I am thankful for the lawyers who accomplished my release and for the efforts of this class and this law school for telling my story.” From the surprise, came tears in the audience.
But more importantly, the class had learned what law school doesn’t teach: that a lawyer, when he or she takes the oath required to be licensed, has a greater responsibility to the society than almost everyone else. The oath is not a license to make money. It is a responsibility to “protect the Constitution” and the democracy in which we live.
The brilliant Elliot Rauh, a founding member of Single Carrot Theatre and I worked together on this class, but the suggestion and support for the project came from Professor Michael Millemann. He is going to heaven for his lifetime commitment to public justice and the unfairly incarcerated, and for this class.
Professor Michael Millemann’s article has already been accepted by one law review for publication and others are expected to express interest. When it is published, I will post where it can be read.
Featured in the photo: Michael Millemann, Michael Austin, Robert Bowie, Jr.