Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Life on the Tracks (redux)

This is a story about my father, Jerome Orkin.

I still remember hearing him tell it himself when I was much younger. In fact, I still vividly hear his voice at certain points in this retelling. I have endeavored to keep certain aspects of the story fairly sparse to prevent my ‘writerly’ sensibility from ‘filling in the holes’ and thereby compromising the purity of the details and events. This is not my story. It’s his. I consider it an honor and a privilege to present you with this brief glimpse of a life well-lived.

I first posted “Life on the Tracks” to “Orkin’s Law” back in 2012 but I decided to revise, expand, and repost it in honor of Dad’s 80th birthday, which was on December 26, 2016. He left us on October 30, 1992 and not a single day passes where I and the rest of my family doesn’t miss him.

Throughout my daughter Julianna’s life, I have spoken of him to her. I like to think that through my memories, as well as those of my mother Carol and my brothers, that despite never having met him, she has some sense of him, who he was, who he endeavored to be. Sometimes, I like to imagine what a blessed, beautiful thing it would have been for them to know, appreciate, and help each other in this life.

Though my dad was certainly not meek, this did not preclude him from being gentle. This gentleness, this inherent compassion and warmth of spirit, as well as his playful sense of humor, would undoubtedly have formed half of a bridge that would have fit quite harmoniously against the one Julianna has created herself thus far in her young life. Hers contains a complementary gentleness, a huge, loving heart, and a gracious sense of humor (albeit one with sparks of subversive mischief scattered in the mix).

Elements of my story, ‘The Lost 95’ touch on related feelings, thoughts, and some fairly high-end metaphysical suppositions regarding such a relationship (among other matters), but suffice to say, the very thought of my dad and my daughter sitting in a diner having breakfast together, just the two of them, never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

And now, the tale...

A good portion of my dad's adult working life was spent as a trackman for the Long Island Railroad. The guys he worked with frequently (and unwittingly) provided him with verdant source material for entertaining vignettes he would share with us around the dinner table, the heart of our home. Though generally soft-spoken, even reserved in public, Dad had a wonderful sense of humor and was a fine storyteller.

As funny as many of those stories were, they didn’t change the fact that life on the tracks entailed a lot of difficult, physical work, some of it life-threatening. Despite his caution, Dad was injured more than once on the job, on one occasion breaking his arm and leg after being hit by a railroad tie, the long, square, wooden beams that anchor the metal train rails in place.

During bad winter storms, he would be called in the middle of the night to help clear snow and ice from multiple train platforms and miles of track. Refusing such “invitations” was not a viable option. Even outside of the tacitly mandatory nature of these calls, Dad’s deep sense of responsibility with regard to taking care of his family prevented him from turning down most any opportunity to make overtime pay. Though our family wasn’t destitute, we still really benefited from any extra money he could make. Further, having grown up very poor himself, I think he was more driven to provide for us than he otherwise would have been.

Sometimes, after receiving one of those late night / early morning calls, Dad would be gone for two or three days, grabbing a few hours of sleep as he could on the school bus-style vehicle he and his crew used to get from site to site. If we got hit with a particularly brutal stretch of winter storm weather, he might return home for a day off (most of which he, by necessity, spent sleeping) followed by few days of “normal” work hours. Then, he’d be gone for another two days.

On one occasion, he brought home a strange pair of black gloves, stiff and shriveled like the hands of an old corpse, far too small for him or even for me, as a kid, to wear. I remember examining them in wonder as he told us they had indeed been his gloves. At some point during his shift, he had gotten some sort of industrial strength de-icing solution on them. As a result, they started shrinking so fast, he’d just barely had time to strip them off before they would have constricted around his hands to excruciating effect.

Summer had its share of difficulties as well. He and his crew tangled with bees and hornets, poison ivy and nettles. They had to remove the bodies of animals hit by trains. They spent every working day completely exposed to the sizzling sun, the heat absorbed, amplified, and mercilessly radiated back out through the metal rails.

On the lighter side, we would often tease Dad about his annual workman’s tan: chestnut brown from the waist up, bone-white from the waist down. At one point during his time working with the LIRR, his work zone enabled him to frequent a deli where my then teenage cousin, Donna Reese worked. She always gave him a free cup of coffee and of course, all efforts on his part to explain why she did that were met with sarcastic responses of, “Riiiight. She’s your ‘niece.’” with implied air quotes. 

On a side note, I remember him finding it amusing that the LIRR's central office would periodically receive irate phone calls from daily train commuters complaining that the trackmen were "standing around doing nothing!" whenever they saw them. Such well-meaning Good Samaritans clearly didn't take the time to think it through and realize that it's pretty hard to work on train tracks when there are tens of thousands of pounds worth of train cars rolling over them.

On another side-note (last one, I promise), I remember coming home from school one day to find Dad standing by the kitchen table skeptically regarding the cover of a record album my brother Milton had purchased that day. This seemed a little odd to me since he had fairly eclectic musical tastes but glancing over, I quickly identified the source of his consternation. The artist was Bob Dylan, which wasn't an issue. The name of the record: “Blood on the Tracks.” 

Because of the intensely physical nature of the work, turnover among LIRR trackmen was pretty high. Further, Dad, along with many of his coworkers, was periodically moved to other crews due to redistribution of work or other factors. As a result, he encountered a lot of different guys on various crews over time and many of them knew of him even if they’d never met him personally or worked directly with him. By the venerable age of 35, Dad was sometimes referred to as “The Old Man” or “Pop” (a term he disliked so much he didn’t even let his kids use it) by a great many LIRR trackmen.

Dad wasn’t a “life of the party” type of guy but he was nevertheless liked, respected, and trusted. His “titles” were generally used with good-humored respect but there were a few trackmen who didn’t exhibit the good will toward him that he deserved. Sometimes, they were condescending. Sometimes, they viewed his experience and “old age” with arrogance and treated him accordingly.

On one such occasion, one of the bigger, younger guys he didn’t know well challenged him, saying, “You wanna lay track with me, Pop? Think you can keep up?”

Dad wasn’t a proponent of this kind of testosterone-driven, beers-with-lunch braggadocio and he wasn’t easily provoked to rash action, but he had a lot of pride and a refined moral compass, a desire to see things set right.

He considered the request and responded, “Sure...”

The younger guy smiled, eager to put The Old Man in his place.

“But we work at my pace, not yours,” Dad informed him.

The trackman confidently agreed, assuming the pace didn’t matter, and they got to it. But by the end of that long, hot summer day, Dad’s cocky coworker got schooled with a rather forthright lesson in humility and common sense.

You see, the thing was, The Old Man wasn’t the strongest guy on the tracks and he wasn’t the fastest. But he didn’t have to be.  He could swing a hammer All – Day – Long.

In this story, we find a timeless message about the value of consistency and durability over flash & bang theatrics. There will always be someone stronger, faster, smarter, funnier, richer, more attractive, more charismatic. But at the end of the day, I’d much rather be the tortoise than the hare.

Thanks for the lesson, Dad.

And thank you for reading.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Harbinger of the Douchepocalypse

“One word. Made up. Douchepocalypse!”
          - Barney Stinson, ‘How I Met Your Mother’

So here’s the thing. I get how people have differing, even polarized political ideologies, how they have different priorities in terms of what we as a nation need to do and how we need to do it. However, zealotry in any form is dangerous. ‘Toeing the party line’ is not, in my opinion, a viable strategy for change. In fact, just the opposite is the case.

Though I’m registered as a Democrat and agree with many of that party’s tenets, some of my views are on the Republican spectrum. I’m okay with that. If someone asked me to identify my political affiliation, I’d probably respond that I’m in ‘The Common Sense Party’ whose core belief is simply this: “The person with the best idea wins.” Granted, determining what the best idea is can at times be immensely challenging but within that statement lies an undercurrent of objectivity, receptivity, and flexibility of thought, a willingness to consider alternative points of view regardless of their source.

That is a lesson our two-party political system needs to learn. As I’ve written about previously, they have completely lost their way, devolving into a perpetual game of one-up-man-ship. They not only stick to their own agendas with superglue-like adhesion; they actively attempt to derail anything the other party does, whether it’s good for the country or not. It’s not their job to fight for their own agendas. It’s their job to do what’s best for the country, regardless of which side of the aisle they sit on and who comes up with the idea. I think there’s a compelling case to be made for dismantling the current political party system and starting over.

Anyway, my slightly paradoxical point in establishing this atmosphere of flexibility and common sense is to unconditionally excoriate the Republican candidate for President, Donald Trump. My need to do so has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he’s a Republican and everything to do with the fact that his words and actions illustrate him to be a boorish, mean-spirited, narrow-minded, misogynistic, bigoted, narcissistic, manipulative, grandstanding blowhard who lacks the intelligence, integrity, morality, and compassion to earn him the right to have a cup of coffee with any decent American citizen, let alone run their country. The fact that perhaps one out of ten of his opinions may have some degree of validity does not preclude him from being comprehensively unsuitable for the job.

I’m not going to bore you with an overabundance of quotes or video clips depicting his abominable behavior. You can find hundreds of them on your own. This post is more about theme than specifics.

The power of Trump lies in his willingness to pour gasoline on lowest common denominator emotions and fears, mercilessly set them aflame, and use the ensuing chaos to his advantage. He is a human sound byte, spouting key words and phrases that sound impressive and meaningful but actually have no substance whatsoever. Think about the short, emphatic statements he uses to convey his intentions as President:

          “We’re going to build a wall.” (immigration)
          “I know more about ISIS than anybody.” (terrorism)
          “I’ll have great relationships with Russia and China.” (foreign policy)
          “Law and order.” (racial tensions between the black community 

               and the police).
          “We’re going to make America great again.” (his entire platform)

He has few if any actual plans to solve the nation’s problems. Whenever possible, he actively avoids answering questions. It’s far easier to cast aspersions at others than put the time and effort into truly understanding the issues and creating a cohesive strategy to contend with them. He has essentially seduced a large number of people in this country with his lowbrow, dumbed-down ideology, his inability to exhibit self-restraint, and his delusional but no less effective willingness to paint himself as someone who “tells it like it is,” someone who is “just like us.”

Please believe me when I say that Donald Trump has absolutely no connection to anything resembling an average citizen of America today. He is not only removed from reality; he’s devoid of it. He has no understanding of what it means to live little more than paycheck to paycheck as most Americans do today. He has no conception of the struggles we all face.

The most telling statement of the entire first presidential debate in my opinion was one he was justifiably condemned for. In response to Clinton suggesting that he has used the tax laws to avoid paying taxes, he couldn’t help interjecting, “That makes me smart.” This is typical corporate sociopath thinking. There is no moral foundation within this mentality. It is soullessly mercenary.

Side-Note: Though there is ample opportunity for corporations to make more money than they know what to do with in this country, it’s never enough for them. They’re constantly scrabbling for more, more, more; by any means necessary. The fact that big corporations have a moral obligation to give back to the country that birthed them and thereby contribute to the overall wellbeing of our nation isn’t on their agendas. “We can make more money by dumping our US factories and call centers and moving them overseas.” “We can dodge paying taxes if we center our operations overseas and/or use the loopholes in the (cripplingly arcane) US tax codes.” The biggest problem with the underlying conceit of the “Citizens United” Supreme Court case (easily among the most obscene legislative rulings in the history of our country as far as I’m concerned) is that if corporations were actually people, a large percentage of them would be diagnosed as clinical sociopaths. Think about some of the major components of enterprise in this country: banking and other aspects of financial services, real estate, insurance, pharmaceuticals, big oil (and don’t get me started on the gun lobby and the power they continue to wield over us). These and more have all amply demonstrated that they cannot be trusted. They will do whatever they can to perpetuate their own agendas. They act in unequivocal self-interest; nothing more. 

Anyway, back to my primary topic. I do not believe that Donald Trump actually wants to be President. He just wants to win. What greater ego stroke is there than scoring the biggest job on the planet? But actually doing the job? Seriously. He doesn’t know how to play nicely with the other children! He doesn’t have the patience to truly negotiate, compromise, or listen to anyone other than himself. He’d swagger across the world stage when he felt like it and let his VP and cabinet take care of the nuts & bolts stuff he doesn’t have the patience or knowledge to be bothered with.

And if he loses? Not a problem. He’s already establishing his Quintessential Narcissist Escape Route: “I didn’t lose. The system was rigged.” The notion that his contemptible character and ignorance of the nuances of the country’s problems and how to solve them may ultimately be refuted by a majority of Americans in November is not a possibility he is capable of accepting.

This is not the person we want representing our nation to the world. He typifies every negative American stereotype there is. He is an unmitigated embarrassment to what it truly means to be an American.

That said, despite his demented, Cro-Magnon, rodeo clown theatrics (and perhaps to some extent, because of them), I believe he has a pretty good chance of winning the election.

Here’s why:

Hillary Clinton has problems.

She has in my opinion, been conducting a largely terrible campaign. Running ads telling everyone that Donald Trump is a douchebag is a waste of time. The people who support her already know it. The people who support him don’t believe it or they don’t care.

Say what you want about Hillary Clinton. Love her or hate her, agree with her or disagree with her. The bottom line is she has the documented, verifiable experience, credentials, and knowledge to do the job. She has a broad-based, informed understanding of the issues and has the intelligence to contend with them. Donald Trump doesn’t. That’s her strong suit. That’s what she should be using to sway undecided voters. Perhaps more significantly, that’s what she should be using to sway the large numbers of still-disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters who are seriously considering either staying home on election day or making a protest vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, neither of whom has what it takes to be President even if they had the momentum to win the election.

Side Note: Despite my “wipe the board and start over” note above, I do believe that the concept of a viable third party is very much worth talking about and cultivating but the fact is we’re not close to being there yet. At this rather ominous moment in history, where so much depends on the choices we make over the next several years, casting a vote for Stein or Johnson is the equivalent of pulling on a “Make America Great Again!” t-shirt. I am confident you will find it be very ill-fitting very quickly. Underestimate Donald Trump at your peril.

I wouldn’t classify myself as “disaffected” but I would vote for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton any day of the week, despite her having (in certain respects) a more diverse curriculum vitae than he does. Further, I think Bernie would have mopped the floor with Trump because whether you agree with his ideologies or not, Bernie Sanders inspires a quality that Hillary Clinton is sorely lacking in: Trust. No one can question (certainly not to the degree they do with Clinton) where Bernie Sanders stands on things. He states his position, puts his words into action and remains consistent in both.

On the other hand, if we were to take a survey of what people don’t like about Hillary Clinton, I’m quite confident that the number one answer by a 75% or more margin would be “I just don’t trust her.”

I’m one of those people.

I believe that a lot more has been made of her email scandal than is warranted. To be honest, I don’t particularly care what’s in the missing emails. I suspect they’re more embarrassing than dangerous to national security. What I very much care about is the fact that other than saying “It was a mistake for me to use a private server and I’m sorry,” we have no conclusive answers about why she did so. Nor do we have any conclusive answer as to what actually happened to all those emails. Given all her political experience and savvy, how can anyone believe that it simply never occurred to her that using a private server for government business was a bad idea? How can anyone possibly accept that she has no idea what happened to all those emails? The answer is: They can’t. Even her most diehard supporters have concerns regarding what this email thing and its underlying issues are really about and if they tell you they don’t, they’re either lying to you, or they’re lying to themselves.

There’s more.

Just to jump back to Sanders for a second, I remain very deeply troubled by Clinton’s (to put it generously) conscious unwillingness to act against the DNC’s plans to keelhaul him if he got too close to her by the convention. If they’d spent half as much time not underestimating Trump as they did freaking out about Bernie Sanders, this race wouldn’t be as close as it is. This is more about the stupidity of the DNC backing Clinton over Sanders in the first place than it is about Clinton herself but I can’t help but feel that it paints a picture of her as someone who is willing to do quite a lot of questionable things to get what she wants, regardless of who happens to be standing in the way.

Another serious concern of mine is that she appears to have a lot of ties to a lot of people with a lot of money. I question how steadfast and thorough she’s truly going to be with regard to shifting the catastrophic imbalance in wealth distribution in this country when those actions may threaten her funding for her second term.

Side-Note: the President should have one term of six years. The bottom line is, no matter who they are or what they think is best for the country, they always spend their first term not rocking the boat too much to ensure they have the same or greater level of support for reelection. If they only have one term to do the job, they can leave it all on the field with impunity. Giving the President only one term would make us a better, stronger country.

The point is, both candidates have less than desirable qualities but one is far less desirable than the other.

Trump and his supporters believe he’s going to stomp into the Oval Office and “fix” everything but his penchant for animosity, finger-pointing, and exclusionary thinking make him about as likely to pull the country together as a jellyfish is likely to win a tap-dancing contest. Further, he’s got so much resistance on both sides of the aisle, he’d be hard-pressed to get much if anything accomplished.

However, this does not preclude him from having a potentially devastating effect on the credibility of this country around the world and quite possibly further polarizing other nations against us. Domestically, his slightly modified “trickle-down” economics plan will have exactly the same effect (probably worse) than it did the first time we tried the concept: Multibillion dollar corporations (his own interests among them) will get their “more, more, more” and the rest of us will continue to slide toward economic obscurity.

Hillary Clinton isn’t doing herself any favors in terms of her campaign by continuing to devolve into the “Not Trump” candidate. Further, she will continue to be dogged by trust issues because her actions, as well as her unwillingness to explain them in a satisfactory manner, have illustrated her to be someone who bears watching.

That said, the fact remains that Clinton is not even close to being as potentially destructive to the wellbeing of our nation domestically and internationally as Donald Trump is. Indeed, he is a clear and present danger to everyone and everything around him. That has nothing to do with Democrat vs. Republican. It has to do with Trump as an individual lacking the intelligence (both emotional and analytical) and strength of character to even make the D-List of candidates for the job of President of the Unites States of America.

Does it seriously suck that we are often faced with a “lesser of two evils” situation in our current political climate? You bet.

Does that make the choice any less clear?

No. It does not.

Thank you for reading.