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:
For the text of the rest see the HAA website.
In truth, this is not a labor of love. It is more than that. I owe this school more than I can ever pay back. For me, it is my foolish way to say thank you. It is worth doing this for that alone.
If your institution does not have a Poet Laureate, volunteer. You will make a fool of yourself but you will open door for others to be free to do the same.
But if you are a graduate of Harvard, the job is taken.
What is so great about Classical Christian art is it is like getting morality training delivered in a horror movie.
You have to see it to believe it.
He is in quarantine for life and starving and has to either starve with his family or take care of his own bad self and eat his children.
His quandary is the classic question which pits self-interest against the rights of others.
He ended up at the bottom of Dante’s Inferno.
We have no vaccine or reliable testing that will allow us to determine who can go back to work without putting others in harm’s way.
We don’t have the equipment to make the correct decisions without all the information and we running out of time.
This is a horror movie scenario.
Maybe we have been kidding ourselves all along that our humanity is our ability to reason and think.
Maybe there are sometimes when you have to think with your feelings.
You have to see it to believe it.
In Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s sculpture of Ugolino and his children, you can feel the pain of Ugolino at the moment he is the making that decision. His children trust him.
It is that same decision which confronts the caregivers in emergency rooms and elected representatives as they reopen the country, decision by decision and case by case.
Look at all the expressions in that sculpture.
Quarantine Journal Entry #*@!%😱!
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.
My social media manager Katie Marinello has already posted the Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal article written by Michael Millemann about the law school class that we taught with Eliot Rauh. We have been notified that it continues to be one of the most downloaded current articles. I read it, and instead of taking it for granted I celebrated it as part of a new beginning, a new opportunity.
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.
It is who we are.
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.