Mac Clayton

Mac Clayton invests personal stuff with memory, and it’s never more stubborn than when its connected to your children.

Remember setting up house? Pots and pans. One pan, anyway. A dish or two. Coffee pot. A decent knife. Laundry basket, or maybe not, maybe just a corner of the closet. You were busy and free. You weren’t worried about all that stuff.

But it piled up, and then you moved in with someone else and his or her stuff and pretty soon you needed more room not just for the stuff but for the baby that was on the way, a prospect both exhilarating and terrifying.

That baby did it. Before her, stuff was just stuff. Now it became the cradle, an ornate antique with lace linens, in imagination if not reality. The flowered wallpaper. The changing table. The rocking chair. The toy box. The soccer goal. The study desk and lamp. The stereo. The couch with popcorn between the cushions. The television with fingerprints on the screen. And finally, the duffel bag for college.

You keep her bedroom like a silent migratory marsh pond. When her visits become less frequent, you begin saving things you think she would like for her new apartment. A set of plates she always loved. The pots you cooked all her meals in. The lamp she read by. Your attic becomes a shrine to both her past and her future.

But she never comes for her old things. She sets up her own house and finds her own mate and has her own kids. You begin to save her childhood toys for your grandchildren. Your attic is getting crowded.

And now here you are with all that stuff, which is not stuff to you but the memoir of your life. Long after you know it won’t be needed, not even by you, you keep it, knowing without admitting it that one day you will be gone and those bits of your life will remain, knitted together like the gray twigs of an old robin’s nest, still sturdy and serviceable, but abandoned.

With a Perspective, I’m Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is an author. He lives on the Peninsula.

Mac Clayton’s mother suffered for years from a condition that’s easy to acquire and terribly difficult to overcome.

I keep hearing my mother say, “I’m just so lonely.”

She said it to me only once, years ago, but I hear it over and over in my mind. I suppose I didn’t think there was much I could do about it at the time: that’s just the way it is with parents and kids living in different cities.

My father died when he and she were 50. She lived alone for 34 years. Late in her life she lived near me for 10 years. I hope she wasn’t lonely then, but I’m not sure.

Loneliness is a funny thing. It’s a kind of desperate longing. You can be in a crowd and be lonely. You can have casual friends and be lonely. Close family is usually an antidote, but even that remedy can sometimes be as bad as the sickness. Old thoughtless habits, old grievances.

There is no cure, I think. There are moments of respite — of remission, one might say — but once it has crept into your life, loneliness seems to persist despite everyone’s best efforts to chase it away.

It’s a form of getting ready for death, I suppose, a gradual release of one’s hold on the world, and of it on you.

Mom died in a nursing home in another city, 2,000 miles away. I’ve been thinking about her lately because it was about this time of year that I flew with her to my brother’s hometown and helped her move into a nice place that could give her the 24-hour care she needed, and was affordable.

I visited as often as I could, but it wasn’t enough. When I came she always asked me to wheel her around to a cage of parakeets in a hallway. She loved their happy chatter and companionship.

A hospice nurse called me not long after my last visit to say that Mom had died. Not from anything in particular, the nurse said. She called it failure to thrive.

With a Perspective, I’m Mac Clayton

Mac Clayton is an author living in Palo Alto.

The last child is off to college or career. Now what? Mac Clayton has this Perspective on identity theft.

Can you hear it, the flapping of little wings as youngsters leave the nest?

I had children under 18 in the house for so long, I hardly knew what to do when I didn’t.

Some ideas: Throw yourself into your work. Travel. Make love in places you never could before. If you have a dog, be nice to it. It will become your replacement child.

This too will pass, I might add, except I’m not sure it’s true.

When your kids leave home, it’s a form of identity theft. You are no longer snack-maker, homework-nagger, chauffeur and spy. The role of parent is not one you play, it is who you are. When they leave, you’re consigned to straightening the comforters on their beds, dusting their trophies, hoping they’ll call.

If someone steals your social security number and your credit, we call it identity theft, but it isn’t really. Only your children can steal your soul.

It won’t pass, at least it hasn’t for me, even after seven years, but it will get better. You’ll begin to share in their lives and achievements in different ways. You’ll meet them at lake houses and invite them to join you in Paris. They may not, but even the hope of it will be exhilarating. You’ll remind them to renew their passports.

It will get better but it will always be there, that small empty spot. Like the damage to your self-confidence when you tried out for the eighth-grade football team, like the BB-sized hole in your heart when you lost that first love. The scar will fade so that you’ll hardly feel it except on sad, rainy days. Or on sunny days, when you’re sitting alone on a bench in a park watching a scrum of third-graders in a soccer game and your foot twitches as if to kick the ball, a reflex called up from a time when you knew with certainty who you were.

With a Perspective, I’m Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is a writer living in Palo Alto.

The last child is off to college or career. Now what? Mac Clayton has this Perspective on identity theft.

Can you hear it, the flapping of little wings as youngsters leave the nest?

I had children under 18 in the house for so long, I hardly knew what to do when I didn’t.

Some ideas: Throw yourself into your work. Travel. Make love in places you never could before. If you have a dog, be nice to it. It will become your replacement child.

This too will pass, I might add, except I’m not sure it’s true.

When your kids leave home, it’s a form of identity theft. You are no longer snack-maker, homework-nagger, chauffeur and spy. The role of parent is not one you play, it is who you are. When they leave, you’re consigned to straightening the comforters on their beds, dusting their trophies, hoping they’ll call.

If someone steals your social security number and your credit, we call it identity theft, but it isn’t really. Only your children can steal your soul.

It won’t pass, at least it hasn’t for me, even after seven years, but it will get better. You’ll begin to share in their lives and achievements in different ways. You’ll meet them at lake houses and invite them to join you in Paris. They may not, but even the hope of it will be exhilarating. You’ll remind them to renew their passports.

It will get better but it will always be there, that small empty spot. Like the damage to your self-confidence when you tried out for the eighth-grade football team, like the BB-sized hole in your heart when you lost that first love. The scar will fade so that you’ll hardly feel it except on sad, rainy days. Or on sunny days, when you’re sitting alone on a bench in a park watching a scrum of third-graders in a soccer game and your foot twitches as if to kick the ball, a reflex called up from a time when you knew with certainty who you were.

With a Perspective, I’m Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is a writer living in Palo Alto.

The sun is going down. The young man looks up at the darkening sky and hurries home from his job in the city of Venice, Italy. He is Jewish, and in his time, 500 years ago, he and all Jews had to be within the confines of their island ghetto by dark. The doors to the bridges over the canals that surround the ghetto were locked. Venetians patrolled the canals throughout the night.

Jews came to Venice beginning in about 1250 to escape persecution. They were allowed to stay, but only if they wore clothing that identified them as Jews: a yellow hat at first, then red, then yellow again. They could only work as money lenders or pawn brokers, or in textiles or as doctors. In 1516, the ruling council of Venice met to decide whether to send the Jews away. They let them stay, but nighttime confinement in the ghetto was the condition they imposed.

The lodgings the Venetian Jews were forced to accept were in an area of foundries, the word for which was “ghetto.” This is where the term ghetto, as we use it today “a place of poor living conditions in which people are crowded together,” originated.

The immigration crisis here and in Europe has provoked a new wave of anxiety about “The Other.” They are not like us. They must be kept away, or at least segregated. If we give in to that fear, we will harm not only those we isolate, but ourselves as well.

The Jews hung in there in Venice for a long time, but gradually most moved away. When the Holocaust came, only 1,200 remained. Of those, over 200 were shipped off to extermination camps. The city had marked them, segregated them and humiliated them for hundreds of years by then, so I imagine it was an easy enough thing, a kind of natural and inevitable progression, to send them off to death camps.

With a Perspective, I’m Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is a writer living in Palo Alto.

Mac Clayton

I was an industrious boy. I sold greeting cards and holiday wrapping paper. I cut lawns. I had a paper route. I was a sack boy in a grocery store. I worked the graveyard shift at a printing plant. By the time I got out into the world, I was confident I could do anything. I was a poster boy for American self-reliance.

Not really.

I was a country club brat. I was the son of a well-to-do doctor who bought a new car every time the ashtray in his old one filled up. After my paper route, I played golf at the club and ate chicken sandwiches and told the white-jacketed waiters to put it on my father's tab.

I did sell holiday cards door to door, but most were bought by family and friends of family. Ditto with the yards I cut. The lawn mower was Dad's. I got the paper route myself, but I couldn't have handled it if Dad hadn't bought me a moped to deliver the papers. The grocery I worked for was the one where my mother shopped. The printing company where I loaded pallets was owned by a friend of hers on our block who had a mad crush on her.

A way of looking at my early work experience is that I was an apprentice on the family estates. The owners weren't all Claytons, but they were friends of Claytons. Dad delivered their wives' babies. Favors were passed back and forth as naturally as greetings at the country club.

So what does all that mean, other than that I was born into fortunate circumstances? It means I got chances, and when I whiffed, I got second chances. Sometimes third.

In our culture, we mythologize self-reliance. We are from hardy stock. We are resilient. But rarely do we succeed alone. There's no shame in needing help. The only shame is in denying it to those for whom it is not a privilege of birth.

With a Perspective, I'm Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is a writer and lives on the Peninsula.

Fiction writers are "what iffers." What if the hero falls into a pit of despair? What if he falls in love? What if he falls and breaks a leg? You come to a place in a story where you're a little stuck about what should happen next and the what-iffing begins. If a story is boring, it's usually because there hasn't been enough what-iffing.

So also a life. When you fall into a rut and don't know how to get out that's the time for some what-iffing. What if I go somewhere where no one knows me? What if I ask his name? What if I sell everything, grab a backpack and hit the road?

When we're very young, we have powerful imaginations. I remember a recurring dream in which I could fly. For a long time, I thought maybe I really could. Flying becomes winning at some sport or getting into the college you want, maybe landing a particular job. I'm not saying those aren't good things to hope for, but they're a long way from flying. Over time, life coaxes us off that childhood height where we stood with our arms spread to the wind and, as Louise put it to Thelma, we get what we settle for.

My wife, a writer, particularly likes a bit of writing advice the novelist Tim O'Brien gave her: "Have people behave in extraordinary ways to illuminate ordinary emotions." When you come down to it, most of what we want is pretty ordinary. How bold we are in pursuing it is what makes the difference.

We are, each of us, the authors of our own stories. When we feel the plot dragging, it may be time step back and ask "what if?" There are reasons to be reticent about taking some daring leap in life – money, time, other commitments – but often as not, if our lives are boring, our biggest failure may be one of imagination.

With a Perspective, I'm Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is a writer living in Palo Alto.

I have a friend who, if you wrong him, will not rest until he has repeatedly pointed out the error of your ways. Sometimes he gets so worked up he seems to lose consciousness of everything but his self-righteous fury. It's like an orgasm of hectoring.

What is it about administering a good scolding that is so therapeutic? So cleansing? I don't think many of us believe we are changing minds. In moments of calm reflection, we surely know we are likely only provoking hostility toward ourselves and our point of view. So why do we do it?

My neighborhood crows may offer an answer. When I'm out with my dog, a big golden retriever, they follow us from tree to tree, squawking feverishly, staging dive-bombing attacks. They want to scare him off. They want to warn other crows of the danger they see in him. Maybe that's what we feel we're doing when we spin ourselves into a full blown storm of opprobrium: Warning! There is danger here!
 
Perhaps we aren't even speaking primarily to our nominal target. We raise our voice so others may hear. We mean to incite the righteous to burn the heretic. Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist, has for years been scolding those who favor economic austerity. "Deficit scolds," he calls them, without apparent irony. Looking back at some of my essays, I have to admit that I am no stranger myself to a good old sanctimonious admonishment.

If we are like my neighborhood crows, perhaps we can view our lapses into scolding as unselfish acts undertaken for the protection of our friends. But of course we aren't crows. We no longer live in the wild. Angry intolerance is a vestige of our tribal past. Once, it may have protected us, but at this point in our social development it only drives us apart.

With a Perspective, I'm Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is an author. He lives on the Peninsula.

My wife and I have two friends in Santa Barbara with whom we have breakfast whenever we are there. They're men of the arts, old in years but not in attitude. One was a publisher in New York. The other is a writer — books, movies, television — and raconteur. He is Felix to the other's Oscar. They're perfect gentlemen never failing to ask about our children and our endeavors.
 
But when the formalities of civility are complete, the sport begins. If there were an Olympic event for competitive storytelling, they would both be gold medalists. They know or knew or knew of everyone in the arts in America and Europe for about the last hundred years.
 
One will be discussing an old film or Broadway show and the other will jump in with, "Not many realize that the director of that show also was the man who wrote 'Guys and Dolls.'" Or, "You know, of course, that actress was from Bulgaria, where she was married to a count who was a perfect beast. When she left him, she took nothing but her suitcase."
 
It's entertaining hearing them one-up one another, but also a little sad. They are the last men I know who know these things. Their knowledge will not be lost to humanity when they die — there's always Google — but it will be lost to me. The life of it. The spontaneity. The savoir faire.
 
We sit at a table at the beach and they carry on a lively banter that I enjoy the way one does watching children on a playground, all that joy and laughter. I told them when we were last together I should be recording their exchanges for posterity. What I think I meant was that I should try to stop time, with the sea birds circling over the sand and people ambling by as our friends tell their stories and make me feel that their time, and mine, will never be old.

With a Perspective, I'm Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is a writer and lives on the Peninsula.

It starts innocently, virtuously. "Don't go near the street, sweetie." Then, later, from where you watch beneath a big magnolia tree, "Don't put your weight on the small branches. They won't hold you." From the way that one grinned down at me when I said that, I should have known my days of being in charge were numbered.

Still, I tried to keep up. I was protector-in-chief. As they got older and more aggressively resisted my sage counsel, I became more insistent. You can't keep children safe, after all, if they don't do what you tell them to. Obedience becomes the key. One of my son Grant's friends called me "The General." I took it as a compliment.

Now my troops are all off at foreign postings: jobs, marriages, a last year in college. When I try to tell them what to do, they stop calling. The funny thing is — and this surprises me about myself — I've almost stopped wanting to. Maybe this is because I am so proud of the wisdom they have gained, of the smart choices I see them making. There is that, certainly. But something more is at play.

My children are my friends now. I don't tell my friends what to do. I listen to them. If they ask what I think, I tell them, but cautiously, guardedly. It's almost like I've become afraid to influence them. They have to live with their choices, so they have to make them. What might be good for me might not be best for them.

I wonder what that boyhood friend of Grant's would think of me now. I imagine he would shake his head at my new-found reticence and pat me on the head they way one does an old dog with no teeth. He and Grant might sit out on the porch talking about old times while I nap in the sun, whimpering and kicking my legs as I dream of children I have chased.

With a Perspective, I'm Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton lives in Palo Alto.

First I had a BB gun: a Red Ryder lever action with a leather thong hanging from a gold ring on the magazine. Then a Crossman CO2 pellet gun. To a 12-year-old boy of my time, a pellet gun was a bazooka. I could knock a quarter off a log from 20 yards.

When I was 16, my father gave me a bolt-action shotgun. Two friends with fancy pump-action Remingtons took me to a wooded patch near an old barn, where we waged campaigns against tin cans and rabbits. I didn't shoot again until my father-in-law, a dove hunter, gave my oldest son a Browning Sweet Sixteen.

Doves hurtling in black silhouette are like targets in a video game until you pick up a wounded bird, so soft and warm in your hand, to break its neck. My son was a good shot. Once, when a rattlesnake snuck up behind us and I missed the shot twice, he took the gun and saved us with the last shell.

After he left for college, I put my Smith & Wesson 20-gauge on the top shelf of my closet, where it has been for so long. I've forgotten the combination for the trigger lock. I remarried and had young boys again, but I did not teach them to shoot. I think by then I had become ashamed of how easily I killed harmless creatures in my youth. What did that say about me? Nothing I wanted to admit.

A few months ago, my defender-from-rattlesnakes son called to say he was taking his own son to a skeet range. I know he likes my 20-gauge, and I've always told him he could have it, but before I got around to shipping it, 20 schoolchildren were massacred in Newtown, Connecticut.

My shotgun is still in the closet. As much as I love my son, as much as I enjoyed our days in the field together, I can't bring myself to send it to him. There are too many guns, doing too much damage. I can't get rid of them all, but I can get rid of one.

With a Perspective, I'm Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton lives in Palo Alto.

 

Mac Clayton

I saw a nice quote from Pablo Neruda today and, of course, I posted it on Facebook. I did it because I wanted to share the love, which is what it was about. At least I think that's why I did it. After checking my Facebook page a few times since the post and smiling to see that others liked it, I wonder now about my motives. Was I sharing the love or seeking it?

My wife, Meg, is out of town. I'm home alone. I don't do alone well. I don't exactly feel lonely, just unconnected. It's as if someone unplugged me. There's no one in the next room to talk to. But there is Facebook, which is kind of like talking to someone, even though it's hard to tell if anyone is listening, like talking to your ex, perhaps, or maybe your teenager.

For Facebook, the possibility, the eternal hope, of connection with another is a business model. For me, it's starting to feel like an unsatisfying faux reality, like going out to a bar alone and drinking too much and waking up feeling worse than the hangover.

I have realized all this gradually, vaguely. Like an alcoholic, I think I have to hit bottom to admit my problem. Repackaging someone else's wisdom and passing it along like an eager student hoping for a teacher's approval may not be the absolute bottom, but it's getting close. Good taste in quotes is a useful attribute for a designer of greeting cards or a chiseler of epitaphs.

So will I go on the wagon? Yes, of course. I'm going cold turkey … right after I post a link to this essay on Facebook.

With a Perspective, I'm Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is a writer. He lives in Palo Alto.

I was having dinner with a friend who is smart about business and I asked him what he thought was needed, what with the Euro crisis, America’s anemic recovery and China’s slowing growth, to get the global economy going again. His answer was one word: war.

It’s true that periods of great growth often follow wars. There’s all that rebuilding to do, and fewer people to do it. It’s kind of depressing, though, to think that war is the only way back to prosperity.

We have the oldest economic system in the world, the only one really: producing and selling goods and services. There’s a natural limit to commercial activity, though. When people don’t have money, they don’t buy. Producers cut back. Growth stalls.

A half century ago, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith suggested that we could not, over the long term, buy and sell ourselves into prosperity. He advocated more public works. By building roads and schools, modernizing electric grids, desalinating seawater, vaccinating against disease, we not only put people to work today but lay the foundations for the future.

But most infrastructure investments don’t make money quickly enough to attract private capital, so they depend on government funding. Government spending is a tough sell these days, with austerity being the buzzword in many capitals. Not many have the stomach for raising taxes or taking on more government debt.

So where does that leave us? On our current path we seem unlikely to have enough global economic growth to support burgeoning worldwide populations. Like an overbreeding species in a tiny patch of wilderness, we are outgrowing our economic habitat. Without more coordinated governmental support for the foundations of prosperity — clean water and air, food production and distribution, education, health care, scientific research — we may be destined, as my friend suggests, to end up fighting over scarce resources. That will be good for business, but little else.

With a Perspective, I’m Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is an author living on the Peninsula.

When I was a boy, everyone who was anybody wanted to be cultured. Cultured meant refined taste, manners and a good education.

Somehow though, the term has been hijacked to mean something more like tribal norms. Now, norms may be what most people accept, but they aren’t necessarily cultured. Slavery was the norm in the South 150 years ago.

And so, disputes that owe more to the Hatfields and McCoys than to Henry Higgins are labeled “culture wars.” They have nothing to do with culture. They have everything to do with provincial resistance to change. They are not in good taste or well mannered, and more often than not they owe little to the kind of open-minded thoughtfulness fostered by education.

The latest tribal norm to emblazon the banners of the “culture wars” is the view that God wants women to stay barefoot and pregnant. For centuries, all the major Christian religions said, “Of course He does.” Then, beginning in the 1950s, the secular state raised its heretical head. Contraception and abortion are matters of personal conscience, protected by a right to privacy, the Supreme Court said.

So why are we still squabbling about whether women should be free to plan when and whether to have children? It’s the last stand of a dying norm. The Appomattox of the Civil War of reproduction.

The phrase “culture war” is somethoing of an oxymoron. People of good taste, manners and education can find better ways to resolve disagreements. That’s what college dorm-room discussions are for. You know, college, where impressionable youngsters go to get an “indoctrination in liberalism.”

That’s the threat, all right; liberal thought. No wonder those clinging to repressive gender norms are fighting so desperately.

With a Perspective, I’m Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is an author.  He lives in Palo Alto.