Paul Staley

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If I were designing a new flag that expressed the current state of the world, it would be very simple: just the image of an iceberg floating on the ocean, the bulk of its mass lurking below the waterline.

The iceberg says it all. Obviously, in its non-metaphorical reality, it is the proliferating evidence of global climate change. But it can be seen as representing so much more.

An iceberg is, after all, a refugee. Its homeland has fallen apart and it has been cast into a vast and unforgiving ocean. But at the same time it is far from powerless. You can’t think iceberg without also thinking “Titanic.” And so the iceberg also reminds us of the vulnerabilities of our most advanced technologies to a single unfortunate encounter.

But the iceberg derives its real symbolic power from its shape. A song lyric from the 90’s expressed it as “one-fifth showing/ four-fifths hid” and that’s approximately correct. What you see is only a fraction of what’s there. As such the iceberg symbolizes all the occasions when we are shocked by what we see and even more unsettled by the knowledge that there is so much more that we can’t see. For every account of sexual assault or excessive use of force by the police there are many more that are never reported or captured on video. Yet another iceberg.

The uneven distribution between the ice that can glisten in the sun as opposed to being submerged in dark frigid water also captures our economic inequities. Twenty percent of Americans control 85% of the nation’s wealth. Sounds like an iceberg to me.

Finally, the iceberg embodies the dilemma that confronts us in many of our relationships and associations, both social and political: Glaciers have scraped down mountains and carved canyons. But life in a glacier is confining and progress ever so incremental. We yearn for freedom and the autonomy to be ourselves. Ice that stays united possesses awesome power. Ice that breaks off and floats away? Well, we all know how that ends.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francicsco.

Paul Staley new

No doubt many, if not most, of you are familiar with George Santayana’s admonition that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In fact there should be a corollary stating that those who read enough political commentary are doomed to seeing references to this quote for the rest of their lives.

It’s tempting to take these oft-cited words and invert them into the proposition that knowing history would enable people to avoid making the same mistakes again. But I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. History casts a long shadow.

But how should we think about history, particularly in a year as potentially momentous as this one?

In this election year some appear to have decided that since history is the record of everything that has already happened it can be rewound like a TV show or movie you’ve recorded: just rewind until you get back to what you thought were the good parts.

For others history appears more frightening. Its ability to replicate, from generation to generation, the same resentments and conflicts suggests that it has its own genetic structure. But now we have entered an era in which we have spliced in new factors such as instantaneous global communication and the ready availability of brutally efficient weaponry. History has, from this perspective, become a genetically modified organism. But just as the introduction of GMOs into our food supply has created what some call Frankenfoods, these changes mean that we are living in Frankentimes, an even more unsettling prospect.

In the end, the problem may be that we have always underestimated the role that we play in history. When we talk about making history we are usually referring to an event or person that changes its course. But each of us makes history every day. It’s the way it happens. History is neither monster nor something that we manipulate, but rather the accumulation of all our actions, no matter how small. And so, now more than ever, our responsibility is to see that we act decently and fairly with each other, because that is what we will leave behind.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

Paul Staley new

I am tired of the familiar sequence of events. The shooting and then the grieving. The drop down menu of social media-click here for thoughts and prayers-followed by a failed attempt to legislate even a modest curtailment in the availability of guns. The slaughter of innocents transformed from tragedy to a Rorschach test: do you see proof that there are too many guns or evidence that not enough of us are armed? Then we all retreat to our respective echo chambers until the next shooting.

There are those who counsel optimism. If this country could end slavery or expand voting rights, then surely we can curb this plague. But the social progress made in this country has been the gradual and grudging expansion of rights, not their curtailment. That this expansion had to be enforced by the power of the state makes many in the country even more protective of a right to bear arms that they see as their best defense against tyranny.

In a matter of days we celebrate not just the birth of our nation, but the longest lasting relationship on Earth between government and the governed. It is a marriage of sorts, but if the Declaration of Independence was the wedding invitation, then the Bill of Rights is the pre-nuptial. It is a statement that we may have come together as a nation but that certain rights were not surrendered in the process.

These days the fault line that runs through much of our public debate is the boundary where these rights collide against community interests: the right to privacy versus national security, the right to own a gun and community safety. We sort ourselves into political tribes based on where we’d tolerate an infringement or reinterpretation. We can summon any number of statistics to frame an issue as a matter of public well-being, but there will always be somebody who claims that their right deserves protection.

So I despair of any meaningful change when it comes to gun control. We will go on repeating the same cycle and individual rights will remain the altar on which we sacrifice the innocent.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

Paul Staley

I have never looked at a photo on my phone for so long. I could not take my eyes off him.

It was a picture of our first grandchild. I hadn’t seen him in person yet. This was our introduction. And it was love at first sight.

Yeah, yeah, I know. We grandparents can be a bit much. There’s nothing quite like one of us armed with a smartphone full of photos and videos.

But we can’t help ourselves. When you hold that child in your arms a switch goes off inside you. I think we are hardwired to go nuts when our kids have kids of their own. Indifferent grandparents wouldn’t have helped the survival of the species.

The old saw about being a grandparent is that it’s great because when you’re done doting on them, you can give them back to their parents. But what that really means is that you feel love unencumbered by responsibility, and that love is a surge of pure, unalloyed tenderness.

But although we appear to appropriate the experience by proclaiming our new identities as grandparents, this is not about us. Quite the contrary. When we hold our newborn grandchild we are acknowledging and celebrating that life does, and will, go on without us.

There is a well-known piece of bumper sticker wisdom advising us that the best things in life aren’t things. I think it’s also true that the special events in your life aren’t special, in the sense of being unique. After all, what is more common than a birth? These events do not distinguish us as much as they connect us in different and powerful ways. Your child is now a fellow parent. You finally understand what your friends who were already grandparents were raving about. You see yourself as just another link in a chain that extends back in time, and you couldn’t be happier.

The lesson that resonates inside all this is that the earth does not revolve around us. But if we are lucky, and stick around long enough, it will carry us to these moments of blessing and joy.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

Paul Staley

It is becoming increasingly clear that the most important person in our local economy is more conceptual than real.

Let’s call him “the Next Guy.” Our exuberant economy has relied on his showing up and doing what’s expected of him: paying more than the guy who came before him. The momentum that inflates a bubble is the expectation that he will continue to show up. He or she buys the house that’s being flipped, or is first in line to buy the stock when a company goes public.

A bubble’s excesses are all so obvious in retrospect. It is one of those objects best examined in the rear view mirror. But while it’s happening, a bubble offers the comforting reassurance of a future that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least for a while. And it is all made possible by a steady stream of Next Guys.

But lately there are indications that the latest batch of Next Guys has gone MIA. She’s not showing up at the open house. He’s not buying the stock.

The topic of whether we are in a bubble has been a staple of conversation around here for a while. But the recent disappearance of the Next Guy indicates that we may be about to find out just how bubbly things have been. If you want to play with a common metaphor, you could say that the omen is not the death of the canary, but his failure to show up at the coal mine.

But if we are about to have a downturn, it will bring an interesting twist to the identity of the Next Guy. When markets retreat, we come to discover that all of us, not just the speculators, have played that role. For example, at some point each of us was the next to be hired. But as employers’ prospects dim, they may no longer hire all of us. Instead, we become the next to be laid off. Such is the cruel nature of the economic cycle: it relies on the Next Guy on the way up, and turns many of us into the Next Guy on the way down.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

Paul Staley

I'm thinking of something that — like it or not — plays a major role in our lives, particularly at this time of year. Long ago we doled it out in coins, which is appropriate since it possesses a decidedly two-sided nature. It both creates and destroys. We lust after it but then also scorn it as filthy. It has been called the source of all evil, but it is also the means by which we acquire things we consider good.

You can stack its paradoxes as high as a rich man's wealth. It weighs the heaviest on us when we have too little of it, but a great amount does not necessarily set one free. It is an easy way to keep score, and yet everyone leaves this life with the same amount with which they arrived. We believe that things like love or friendship transcend it, but then we often rely on it to express those very feelings.

It is most dangerous when invisible, when a mere keystroke propels massive amounts of it across the planet at the speed of light, or when the swipe of a plastic card creates possession and debt in one simultaneous instant.

But although we may not be able to see it, it is convivial. After all, it is a form of exchange and we have particular disdain for those who remove it from the marketplace and simply hoard it. It is a social creature in a cliquish sort of way. It has the annoying habit of preferring the company of its own kind and actively shuns those places where it is in short supply. This is one way of explaining why the rich get richer.

I am, or course, talking about money. It surrounds us like water does a fish. We may resent it, but there is no greater proof of its central place in our existence than this: we have a special word for those things we consider the most important, the most valuable and significant in our lives. We set them apart from everything else by describing them simply as priceless.  

With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

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Another election, and with some exceptions, another low voter turnout.

But perhaps the problem is not that we vote too little, but that we are voting too often.  Voting is, after all, a particular form of choosing, and you can reverse that to state that all choices are a form of voting.

And when you think about it in those terms it becomes clear that our lives these days demand that we do a lot of voting.

All our consumption choices — clothing, entertainment and food — are available to us as a range of options drawn from a pan-global spectrum of alternatives. Or consider, for example, the purchase of a phone. It used to be to that you contacted something called The Phone Company and they literally hooked you up. That was it. Now acquiring a phone — between choosing make, model, features and data plan — is, according to some  experts, the most complex financial decision a consumer can make. 

Back in the days when voter turnout was higher there were people like pension fund managers or travel agents who made informed decisions on our behalf. Now we live in the age of the empowered consumer, which is another way of saying that we’re on our own. 

Even our diversions make this sort of demand on us. Social media platforms function as arenas for collecting endorsements and the fantasy sports enthusiast roots for a team comprised of players she selected.

I suspect that exercising one’s democratic franchise seemed a good bit more compelling when all shopping took place at the general store and home entertainment meant reading the Bible. In a world where choices are everywhere, we eventually start avoiding them. There are numerous psychological studies showing that people who are asked to complete some task or computation before selecting something to eat are more apt to select the indulgent over the virtuous: they take the cookie instead of the apple. We don’t have a limitless capacity for this sort of thing. At some point we want a break. So is it any surprise that so many of us choose not to choose when Election Day rolls around?

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco and he has already voted in today’s election.

 

Paul Staley

Recently, over the span of just a few days, our twin sons turned 30 and I received the class report for my 40th college reunion.

I've noticed that there is a social convention when it comes to this sort of milestone. It is deemed appropriate, if not mandatory, to express shock that an interval of several decades has passed. This is obviously not the surprise of the unanticipated; predicting that this day would arrive was always a matter of simple arithmetic. And rarely is it an appreciation that we have lived long enough to witness such an occasion. These days most of us take this amount of longevity for granted.

But it occurred to me that our difficulties with perceiving time could be explained by resurrecting the ancient notion that all things are composed of four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. When we express disbelief that thirty years have passed so quickly we are registering a geological assessment of that span of time. Thirty years is less than a blink of an eye to the earth, and so there is more than a bit of rock in all of us.

We are also the creatures who harnessed fire, and we love not just its warmth, but the glow and dance of the flames as well. Our days are a parade of bright shiny objects. We distract ourselves with drama and entertainment, and all the while, the days relentlessly march on. This is the essence of the magician's craft, and we fall for it every time.

We have dominion over the planet, but time is the one thing we have not tamed. It is a body of water we will never contain, a river that we can never dam.  

Finally, time is, like the wind, an invisible power and we have a complicated relationship with things we can't see. On the one hand, unseen things are by definition easy to ignore and so we go about our days acting as if they weren't there.  But then there is the moment of revelation when we see what the invisible has done, and we are in awe.  We are shocked.

With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

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We face many challenges these days but none quite like homelessness.  It has an uncomfortable intimacy that we don't experience with issues such as climate change that are so vast in scale that they can easily become abstractions.  

As an issue it is both a lens and a mirror. If we look closely homelessness says a great deal about what isn't working in our society. It reveals that we live in a country where it is alarmingly easy for people to fall through the cracks. In many ways the homeless are the canaries in our coalmine: their stories point us towards the places where neglect and stress are the greatest.  
 
At the same time our reactions to the homeless say a great deal about us. Our urgent calls for action express a range of motivations: for some it is compassion, for others discomfort and for many, it is a   mixture of both. Homelessness is also a sad indicator of our adaptability. The homeless improvise a life without the customary amenities that the rest of us enjoy while we, in turn, have grown accustomed -somewhat — to their presence.  In the 80's homelessness was a scourge that we wanted to eliminate. These days we approach it as a condition that needs to be managed.

As a matter of public policy, homelessness challenges some widely held beliefs. A thousand bumper stickers have urged us to think globally but act locally. But it is fair to ask how much can be expected of any one locality when the causes of a problem are systemic and national in scope. It also underscores a fundamental paradox of government programs. A homeless veteran who gets placed in a supportive housing unit disappears from our view. This success may be measurable, but it is also invisible. All we notice is the person who takes that veteran's place on the sidewalk.

So we are left with the inevitable frustration that comes from addressing outcomes instead of causes.  Our country is very good at leaving people homeless. Until that changes, we can expect them to keep arriving at our doorsteps.  

With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco and works for a housing non-profit.

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A few years ago I was in a hotel in Berlin that had placed a copy of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in every room.  I didn't read all of it, but ever since then, when the Fourth of July rolls around, I remember that trip because Article 3 of the UN Declaration states, "everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person".

Those last three words are jarring to American ears accustomed to the familiar cadence of our Declaration of Independence.  It's like having the lyrics of a familiar song changed.  What happened to my pursuit of happiness?

The differences between these two versions say so much.  The UN document may appear to be setting the bar a little lower, selecting essential rights from a list of our most basic needs.  But one can also see the tragic arc of history here.  The confident self-assurance of the Enlightenment in which men proclaimed their freedom from superstition and tyranny has, by the mid-20th century, been replaced by an awareness of our vulnerability to persecution and annihilation.

There is, as well, a subtle but powerful distinction about the role of government.  Security of person, our Constitution's Second Amendment notwithstanding, is shared collectively; it is something that government provides.  In our Declaration, however, government has stepped back; it allows people the room to pursue what they want.

It is this elevation of the individual that is so quintessentially American.  After all, we are not merely free to pursue this thing happiness, but the goal itself is something that each of us would define differently and experience subjectively.  And debates on public policy often focus not on collective effect but infringement of individual prerogative.

But there is an even more profound difference.  The UN Declaration says that we all have a right to be secure.  Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, wrote that we had the right to go after something; he asserts the right to a quest, not a guarantee.  The key word in his phrasing is pursuit and not happiness.  And on this Fourth of July in particular it feels like his formulation was prophetic: collectively we are not a happy bunch, but individually we are definitely engaged in the pursuit.

With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.

Paul Staley is a real estate professional.  He lives in San Francisco.
    
  

PaulStaley

The word "foodie" was coined in the early '80s, just as the personal computer revolution was gathering momentum. At the time these were, of course, very independent events. But with the passage of several decades you have to wonder if we have arrived at a point where our digital lives are encouraging our growing fascination with food.

There is the obvious economic link. Wealth is a great enabler when it comes to the quest for novelty. Jaded palates that have wearied of the familiar and the customary can summon legions of chefs and purveyors of fine foods who are quite happy to offer new delicacies.  And this is not merely a diversion for the tycoon. A world where content is free is one where there are extra dollars for the artisanal or hand-crafted.

But there may be a deeper connection. The Internet is, to a large degree, an apartheid of the senses. There is nothing to touch, smell or feel. The ability to summon any song or book with the press of a button means that content has to travel light: everything is stripped down to its essence. You want words, you get words. You want music, you get music, but nothing else.

In addition, the marriage of art and technology has, over time, traced a long arc that first removed the audience from the performer, and then the members of the audience from each other. Each of us can carry in our pockets a vast library and a concert hall full of music, but these are all private realms. And in the "on demand" world we not only don't have to attend together, we don't even have to watch at the same time.

In the midst of all this, dining remains an experience that not only draws on all our senses but is communal as well. An obsession with food – like any pre-occupation – can become pretentious and pedantic. But perhaps we should recognize that food's current exalted status reflects its survival as an experience that cannot be digitized. It is one form of entertainment that our phones can't deliver to us.

At least not yet.

With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

Paul Staley

They were the three most important words of 2014:

Black lives matter.

But so do black votes, or for that matter, brown votes or young votes, or the vote of any citizen who has an opinion about how laws should be enforced or civil rights protected in our communities.  But last summer, during all the demonstrations, I had a suspicion that many of the people chanting the other, more infamous three words of the year — "I can't breathe" — would have had to make another three-word admission — "I didn't vote" — if asked about their participation in local elections.

The recent municipal elections in Ferguson, Missouri, the epicenter of the controversy, illustrate this problem.  A tripling of voter turnout heartened community leaders, but the sad footnote to this improvement is that voter participation was still only 30%.

The right to demonstrate and the right to vote are both privileges we enjoy in a free society. But they are very different actions. One is cathartic and an expression of solidarity. The other is deliberative, and only in the phony plebiscites of a dictatorship is voting an exercise in unanimity.

To be fair, demonstrators deserve credit for having forced the country to confront the problem of police conduct in communities of color. But demonstrations are only a way to register our objection to factors such as racism that we also realize will never completely disappear. Governance is how we make sure that our laws and their enforcement are not infected or distorted by bias.

Government can be clunky, but voting has an inherent logical efficiency; by definition it reflects the will of those who voted.  But that result may be at odds with the interests of the larger community if only a minority casts ballots.

On a final note, among last year's other controversies was the Academy of Motion Pictures' decision not to include "Selma" as one of the nominees for Best Picture.  But, perhaps the Academy's action was appropriate: why should it have recognized a movie depicting the struggle to obtain the right to vote when millions of Americans can't be bothered to exercise that very right?

With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

PaulStaley

More than nine years ago I realized that I needed to do something about my drinking. I wasn't a chronic drunk. I was simply drinking too much.

So I did what millions of others have done. I stopped drinking and went to AA meetings. I introduced myself in the tradition of that organization: "Hi, I'm Paul and I'm an alcoholic." But while I appreciated the fellowship, I had a hard time relating to the experiences people shared. They talked about levels of consumption that far exceeded my own, and swapped stories about incarceration and financial ruin. I knew I had a problem, but I also knew that the right place for me wasn't a setting where I could feel smug about not being as bad off as the guy sitting next to me.

So I joined a group that helps drinkers moderate, not abstain. I worked on redefining my relationship with alcohol, not ending it. I came to appreciate that habits begin when we forget that we have the power to choose. I had to learn that the prospect of a drink comes with the option of declining that opportunity. With some clear-cut rules about when I can drink, and the discipline of counting my drinks, I have become a moderate drinker.

There is a tendency towards solipsism that creeps into the debate about alcohol abuse. People whose lives have been saved through 12-step programs will argue that what worked for them is what works, full stop. In response, I'd suggest that a behavior like problem drinking that occurs across a spectrum logically calls for a range of interventions.

But the adage that "one size does not fit all" cuts both ways. Moderation isn't for everyone, and won't work for people looking to continue their old habits. It asks that you confront your appetite and then develop the skill and resolve required to alternately indulge and then restrain it. That can be more difficult than abstinence. But in the end, whether we choose to eliminate or modify a behavior, our success in doing so will always require honesty and focus, as well as the support of others.  

About that there can be no argument.

With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.  

Paul Staley

Science is what takes place at the boundary between the known and the unknown. Or at least it does if you're a scientist.

For the rest of us, science can be more like an intellectual ammunition store where we shop for evidence to support things that we are already inclined to believe. And, in the age of the internet, this store is a vast emporium where we find not only the latest findings, but also the discredited and discarded. It is the latest in technology combined with the dinged up inventory of a thrift store.

But more often than not it is fear and not curiosity that directs us down a particular aisle. Fear government and you can select from arguments asserting that climate change is fraudulent and essentially a conspiracy to extend bureaucratic control over our lives. Fear corporate power and you can browse through evidence that vaccines or genetically modified organisms are toxins foisted on us by profit-driven companies.

It is fear that twists the topography of our political landscape to such a degree that the current vaccination debate becomes a Mobius strip where right wing libertarians wind up on the same side as West Marin counter-culturists. As one observer has pointed out, the decision to forego vaccinations creates a strange permutation of the Occupy paradigm of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent: those who assert a right to opt out of vaccinations are a tiny minority who can do so in relative safety precisely because 99 percent of the population has taken measures to protect not only their own children, but everyone else's.

This allegiance to individual autonomy amounts to a rejection of science's greatest gift to us, an appreciation of exactly how interconnected this world is. All of our individual actions have an impact on the planet and our communities. A resurgent right wing may have dragged the old "Don't Tread on Me" flags out of the national attic, but in the age of the carbon footprint and in a world plagued by persistent diseases it is fair to ask who exactly is doing the treading.

With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.

Paul Staley works for a housing nonprofit. He lives in San Francisco.