Update from Italy: The Quickly-Exchanged Coin

. I know it’s a Brazilian real and not a two-euro coin but the image was so lovely ….
Photo by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash

This morning I walked along the Lungarno, the Via dei Tornabuoni. Listening to a podcast about Marla Rusicka and feeling my heart ready to burst with the tales of antiwar protests, her work in behalf of civilian victims in Afghanistan and Iraq, knowing by the language used that she would not live, she would not be alive at the end of the story.

In Piazza Antinori, in front of the Chiesa dei Santi Michele e Gaetano, I saw it, glimmering on the wet pavement. A coin.

Two euros. Perhaps destined for the the offering plate? Why was it out here and how had no one else seen it yet? No matter, I picked it up. A sign from the universe! Yes, surely a sign that the Universe wanted me to have a cappuccino this morning. I slipped the coin into the pocket of my red raincoat, feeling buoyed by this benevolent sign. I turned right to go up Via dei Pecori, Sheep Street, the façade of the duomo and the bell-tower looming high above me, the blue sky and scraps of clouds floating above. What a glorious day! And soon I would be seated at a bistrot table, sipping a steaming cappuccino on this glorious morning. I felt very pleased. I passed a clothier, a bar, a terrazza with tourists sipping their cappuccini. Soon I too would be sipping a steaming cappuccino! I smiled to myself. How wonderful to have received this sign! I walked with a spring in my step, the weak sun streaming in the sky.

At Via dei Brunelleschi I saw him, with his pink baseball cap. A man of about twenty, African, always with a literal cap in his hand. More often than not I crossed the street to avoid his imploring, obsequious face. But I knew what the Universe was asking now. Easy come easy go. The coin was already in my pocket. I fingered it with my left hand. He smiled at me, his cap empty. I dropped the coin in his cap. Signora, grazie infinite! he smiled at me. Well, maybe not infinite thanks, I thought with remorse. It was just two euros, and I had only picked it up around the corner a moment before.

Easy come, easy go. My bag weighed heavy with the wallet which just he week before had been a source of mirth for the security at the US consulate. Però signora! Why do you have so many monete in your portafoglio? the private security guard exclaimed. Where else would I put my monete, I wondered, confused. Half annoyed. First world problems. Yes, x-ray my wallet! Count all my damn change!

But it occurred to me this morning that perhaps my heavy wallet full of monete was sign from the universe enough that I might order a cappuccino outside this morning. And indeed I did, at Caffè Ciapetti, where the aged signora served me with a trembling hand, and I sat outside next to a potted plant and to write in a flimsy journal while the motorini and cars and busses zoomed by.

Update from Italy: Life on a Human Scale

Photo by Suzi Kim on Unsplash

After I published a piece two weeks ago about the American work ethic, a friend asked, but what can we do to help effect the change? It seems many people are unhappy with the turn American culture has taken. What can we do to bring it back around to something on a more human scale?

The human scale is a concept I came to appreciate in Europe as a student, and my gratitude has only deepened in the past three decades. A day and a neighborhood that are human-sized for walking and interacting. A manageable day, week, year. Parks and sidewalks. A neighborhood. Cafes and small grocery stores close by. Basic shops within walking distance. Quotidian circuits you can actually do without driving 45 minutes in each direction, and sometimes in a multi-destination route, example: home, daycare, work, daycare, home, spending two hours per day or more in a car. This is not sustainable, but it is normal for many people living and working in America.

Everything has gotten more extreme. This has happened everywhere; in America, especially so. The weather. The climate. Politics. What passes for news. Elections and recalls. Clock speed. Work weeks. The cost of living. Anxiety. Enmity. Fractures and fault lines in community and culture. The pandemic and public health. There is no middle ground. Where is the firm footing? The ice is so thin. How can everything be getting more and more extreme every day, rocketing toward the far right end of the spectrum?

Do Americans even want the culture to change? I wonder. Everyone has to want it in order for it to change. A social contract is only as strong as the collective goodwill that supports it.

This takes the shape of YOUR support and votes for leaders and policies that support families and individuals in meaningful ways. I am talking the Maslow’s Hierarchy here (thanking my ninth-grade health class for a concept I often refer to):

Universal guaranteed healthcare. (I have another post coming about how the lack of healthcare in America has led us down the road of the opioid crisis and legalizing weed faster than a high school sophomore will cut class after lunch. For a different day….) Also and on a side note, if you’re celiac, Italy gives you a nice monthly rebate on groceries because it’s hard to shop gluten free and wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit of help where it counts?! On your groceries? What would that cost per day for the US? NOTHING like the $273 million per day we spent over twenty years in Afghanistan.

Guaranteed parental leave. The United States also fails to mandate paid parental leave, unlike countries such as Germany, Mexico, and Niger. See UNICEF on this for excellent information.

Universal childcare. See UNICEF again on this. I remember once when a coworker in his early twenties was shocked when I told him that our bill for childcare in a given year was more than our annual mortgage payments. Younger people do not know this. Older people have not lived it. His response? Blargh.

Universal retirement. Starting at a dignified age. Perhaps 68. I don’t know. Not 75.

Guaranteed sick leave. 93% of the world guarantees paid sick leave. (PRI)

Guaranteed holiday time off.

Universal education at all levels of instruction.

These items cannot simply be commodities reserved for the wealthy or the fortunate, for those who judged to have worked “hard enough” and are therefore deemed to have “earned” these things. Does every person not have a life span that naturally incurs different needs? Pregnancy and parental leave for infants, childcare for working parents, school for the youngest among us. Bodies get sick, both our own and those of family members. Bodies and minds grow old – and sometimes sick – with age, and cannot work like a younger person. We all have bodies. We all know these things will happens to our persons. Why make the ridiculous bet against reality? Why shame people for being ill, or pregnant, or for having ill or pregnant family members, or small children who don’t raise themselves and need lots and lots of care? Have you seen a newborn lately? Your home basically becomes something like an ICU until the kid is six months old, and then you’re in a form of occupational therapy until the kid is 2 or 3 years old. Why is this a dirty secret, a reality to be swept under the rug, when it comes to public policy? American families are under stress because it is hard as hell to be an American family. The very structure of an extreme system deals almost every hand against you, and dares you to survive it.

Maybe fractured American families are broken under the weight of a system that refuses to support them, yet makes them pay and pay for everything, out of pocket and after taxes, with no time off. Unless you’re sick, in which case, you’re using your paid holiday leave to be home sick from work. Does this sound like a recipe for success? It is not. It is insane.

Education offered at no cost to anyone, if public – leave the private institutions for those who work there, and for those who wish to pay and who have the resources to do so. There are a few private institutes of higher education in Europe, for example, but far, far fewer that what we have in the US, because public education carries a very low economic threshold to access in the EU. Typically a few hundred euros of fees per year, plus books. Sometimes a couple thousand euros per year, but I don’t think it’s ever more than that. (The UK used to have a more accessible EU model, but that public payment structure has been dismantled over the past couple of decades, and British students now take out loans like American students for college. Not as much as we do, but a lot, compared to what they paid before, I think in the neighborhood of £7,000-8,000 per academic year.)

Healthcare, for everyone, all ages, all conditions. This can be done for less than what the US spends on healthcare per capita currently. Medicaid, Medicare, the US military and the VA, and Congress all currently operate on what is basically a universal healthcare system. Along with this, guaranteed sick leave for all workers. I can’t believe how no one in the US talks about this. It’s just not on the radar for the frogs in the proverbial boiling pot. About 20 years ago, all worker sick leave was combined with holiday leave so that we were forced to to use holiday pay when ill. Sick a lot this year? No holiday for you! Italians are always shocked when I tell them this. I guess I just got used to it in the US. Since employers in the United States aren’t required to provide any paid sick leave to their employees, many do not. About 32 million workers in the US have no sick leave whatsoever, with less lucrative jobs less likely to offer sick days (Pew).

The US GDP is almost $23 trillion annually. (So that $3.5 trillion bill in Congress is worth about a quarter of our annual GDP…. yes the one certain people are saying costs too much … like they’re buying a sofa or a car or something. Honestly, people should not be in public office if they don’t understand how public spending is different from private spending.) We’re a G7 country, at the top of the rich democratic heap. The wealthiest of an elite group of nations How much of that money is tied up at strategic points, like a blood clot, in massive corporate ventures whose profits become CEO paychecks? Or the defense budget? Our citizens are on the verge of a collective stroke because money and services are not flowing freely through the accounts of individuals. How much would it seriously cost to provide all these things to everyone in our country? Is American culture truly still so puritanical that we think that the only people who deserve a clean shot at a civil life are those who have worked “the hardest,” without “complaining,” eating cold gruel, and weathering numerous setbacks? (Trying to sketch a picture as Puritan as possible…)

So, here is my view on the path forward. If you feel crushed beneath the wheel, vote for the well-being and support of every person in America. You might not need that help now, but there is a 100% chance you will at various points in your life when you are called upon to confront the reality of the physiological needs for you and the people in your family, whom you assumedly love and wish to see happy and well cared for. And well communities make for calmer homes with happy people in them. Happy people tend to be able to better parent, and if they’re married or committed to one another, they’re more likely to remain so if every day is not some infernal slog where everything is difficult and respite is nowhere to be found.

I’m passionate on this topic. Still scarred from medical crises, a few pregnancies, working, babies, and parenting in the US, trying to combine two careers and one marriage in a culture where the pieces just don’t fit together, our savings are drained by normal daily expenses, and we never made enough money, while we are somehow gaslit as people and convinced that it is our fault for not working hard enough or making smart enough decisions. It can be a different way. It has to be, because the way the US is trying to do things – they way things have devolved in the US – is just not tenable.

Vote, then, for the public good. Support the new infrastructure bill. Be humane, and civil. Imagine life on a human scale, because it is certainly possible. We just have to believe it and want it to happen.

I am delighted to report that this piece was picked up and edited for publication in Adamah Media in October 2021.

Update from Italy: What Italians Think Americans Do Over There

Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

The preeminent eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico became, after his death, a voice of the Risorgimento (“resurgence”) – the name for the concerted attempt by an élite group to forge a unified nation of Italy. The many cultures that called the Italian peninsula home, with the many voyagers who sailed by and stopped a while, ensure that Italy was characterized, perhaps more than anything, by cultural plurality. The old Risorgimento chestnut – “We have created Italy; now we must make Italians!” – originates in this perceived obstacle.

The solution, as our man Vico understood it, was to culturally mediate among the groups, to find not just common ground, but a shared civility. The end goal? Incivilmento. A social contract, an agreed-upon culture.

In incivilimento the process, Vico maintained, is initiated by certain people — or temosfori—who act as the first cultural mediators between different human groups. (Temosforo is itself an invented term from perhaps the Greek, [tèmis], knowledge or law; [foro] carrier. Oh, Vico.)

My life work, both formal and informal, has been to develop and interrogate my own Theory of Culture, exercising a broad definition of culture. I was delighted when I learned this neologism, which I came across last summer when working on a mammoth editing job for an academic transcript whose theme was right up my alley, At the Roots of Italian Identity.

On that note, I have been compiling, thanks to scattered conversations with Italians and others over the years, a brief list of what Italians think Americans are up to in America:

1 – Everyone’s just getting richer and doing so well because there’s so much work and we pay no taxes.

2 – No foot on the neck of any American over there!

3 – Everything is free and easy!

4 – My personal favorite: some version of We’re all basically 1%ers living in SoCal, eating sushi and admiring the Pacific from Malibu, or strolling through Central Park.

Point counterpoint! A collection of overheard What Italians say about Italy:

1- The healthcare system is dysfunctional!

2 – The tax man will get you in the end.

3 – You can’t start anything here.

4 – It’s impossible to get anything done.

5 – If you’re not “connected,” forget about it.

6 – Everyone and everything and every institution in Italy is corrupt.

7 – Our elections are a joke.

A few of my humble observations regarding What Italians take for granted:

1 – Universal healthcare for all ages, all conditions, everything, guaranteed. Of course it has its systemic drawbacks, as do all systems, but by and large, with experiential knowledge of both countries’ systems, the Italian system is equitable and accessible and serves its purpose. Italians have no understanding of the Wild West scene in healthcare that Americans live every day. Paid for by the public.

2 – Universal education starting at three years of age, with excellent snacks and lunches. Paid for by the public.

3 – High-quality education in public institutions. Paid for by the public. (Downside: Italy has the lowest four-year graduation rate in the EU – 22%. Many start but never finish.)

4 – Many employment protections. (There are downsides to this as an employer – hard to hire, impossible to fire… this is the case in much of the EU. And another downside is that there is effectively no open labor market, and it’s the holy grail of a professional to obtain an indefinite contract, since it’s basically the equivalent of a traditional university tenure.)

5 – Guaranteed holiday time – twice as many holidays (14 official federal holidays) as opposed to the US (7), with plenty of ponti (long weekends, where you take off one or two days if the holiday falls midweek), and paid leave from jobs.

6 – The tredicesima. Employees receive an extra monthly paycheck in December – the thirteenth month. If they are in one of those “tenured” jobs.”

7 – A retirement without wearing a greeter vest at the door of a retail establishment when you’re 72. Which is not actually a retirement anyway, let’s be clear. Retirement, or a drawing back, literally means to draw down, not to draw the short stick and never get to rest in your later years.

8 – Family time. Italian culture understands and values family responsibilities, of children to aging parents, of parents to young children, extending outward to the family at large. See my lengthy analysis of this in a 2017 post, Italy: Who’s Taking Care of You?

9 – Excellent and affordable frequent train service throughout the country.

10 – Affordable excellent food that they know how to prepare at home. Hardly any fast food.

11 – Nice local wine and olive oil.

12 – A country with varied geography – Alps, Apennines, ocean, forest, lakes, cities, ad infinitum.

13 – Founding EU member state.

A few years back I wondered what the world would be like – more specifically, what America would be like – if our culture were able to put down its insularity and inquire with curious minds how things work in other places. An enormous, collective fact-finding mission, if you will. Sort of like delayed study abroad. Perhaps a period of two to four weeks, paid for by the commonweal to anyone willing to go see for themselves. No tourist activities, but a lot of hands-on community inquiry. I am accustomed to cultural woolgathering and grant that I betray my own outlier status on this point as a temosfora. The more we see, the less we fear, and the more we know. In most cases, and eventually, the more we release anxiety. There are so many ways to be. There are easier, gentler ways to be.

It’s well worth a moment to consider how we view ourselves versus how others view us culturally, even as a starting point.

I fully expect additional points/counterpoints, from my own desk, and from inquiring friends in all locales. Let’s hear it.

Love, A Temosfora

Update from Italy: When Fear Looks Like Hate

A Japanese Kannon (Kuan Yin) statue, the deity of limitless compassion, with her thousand arms and hands ready to help and support those in pain and in need. Photo by Hiroshi Tsubono on Unsplash

I fled Facebook a few years ago (with few exceptions) because its psychic sludge was prompting daily cortisol reactions and making me feel ill. I’m not a fan of denial, but neither do I wish to be barraged by online discord that thrives in the echo chamber of social media. I want to work for social change in a meaningful way, whenever possible. What that looks like exactly is something I am always considering.

A friend urged me to migrate to Instagram, a Facebook product. I was heartened by its positivity and minimal signs of political/cultural conflict. It’s full of pretty pictures that calm and soothe. Ahhhh la bellezza! I started posting my pictures there daily.

A friend shared a Twitter screencap on Instagram (the infinite loop of social media!). I adore this friend and her work for social change, but the reshared message stopped me mid-scroll.

Well, here we go again. Instagram, a Facebook product, is now about as fun as Facebook. (No fun.)

I commented. I felt I had to. (This is how social media gets you!) This observation is reductive, I wrote. We know this. Hate comes from fear. People don’t love to hate. People are driven by cold fear. This is what America looks like when people eat fear for breakfast.

My friend didn’t respond or reply. The screencaps kept getting posted.

That’ll learn me, I felt with some remorse. I’d been gone so long from social media that I forgot how much people just scream, and then ignore. Scream, ignore, repeat. Scream, ignore, repeat. Even good people. Being upset takes a lot of energy. Then, after that, listening? Forget about it; who has energy for that, after being in the arena for hours, days, an age?

That person who pissed you off? I assure you that they did not wake up today and think, I wonder how I can really make that other person mad today. Like furious! They woke up, and were going through their day, and then something happened that triggered them into a fear-based response. To think that they singled you out, or a group of people out, to annoy you to the exclusion of any other intent, intended or not, is to think with the mind of a child. It is the cry of an ego that is smarting. We all have egos, and they all wince, some daily, some multiple times per day. This is normal. What’s not healthy is to not see things as they are, and to take things less personally.

People don’t love to hate. People are driven by fear. They’ve got genuine fears that look a lot like anger. Maybe listen to the reasons for that fear? Can we work on listening? Can we respect the fears of others, even if they are not our own shared fears? We all know what stone cold fear feels like. I’m talking about the kind forms cold puddles in the bottom of your stomach and makes you feel like you’ve been sucking helium out of party balloons.

This would require a new understanding and use of social media. Part of the problem is that disembodied discourses in the online space bring out the worst in people. You can do an insult drive-by and never reap the consequences. I’ve never done it, but have been on the receiving end.

We can all agree, we want to lay down the fear. Don’t we? Everyone in America is so hopped up on anxiety and anger and fear that no one is thinking straight anymore. Seventeen million guns were sold last year in America. This is madness, and indicative of a deeply rooted problem. Rooted in fear. A delusive fear that endangers and tricks people into creating a more dangerous world. Which creates more fear. The cycle of fear and hate will consume us.

I’m not saying to condone hateful speech, but to listen and to really hear where it’s coming from. And prioritize having more conversations in person. You’ll never change anyone’s mind online in what passes for an exchange.

We all need to work on the imaginative empathy muscle. It’s the only way out of the pit of anger, hate, and fear. Can you put down your triggered response, and see things for what they are? A world full of fear and people in need of compassion? Can we try to talk – and listen – to people in person?

Update from Italy: On America and Cultural Psychology

Coming or going? Emigrating or staying put?
Photo by Brígida Lourenço Guerreiro on Unsplash

Last weekend I posted a piece about the American work ethic that struck a nerve. Along with my congenital nosiness, I am also dogged, wielding the scalpel of Why against blur and confusion. Why does America harbor, indeed nurture, this work ethic that seems to undermine our very stability? Have we exchanged one set of values – peace family, community – for another – career, salary, prestige? Do we long for one while working for the other, and if so, why? Where does the American restlessness, the seeking, the striving – and with the flip side of that, the fear – come from?

Does America wonder why other countries in the world do not out their children through active shooter drills at their school, armed with bulletproof backpacks? Why other countries are not struggling with a breathtaking opioid epidemic? Why the very term trigger warning originated in America and never caught on anywhere else, much less its prescribed usage?

I have thought a lot about this. Years of research and reading in cross-cultural communication and cultural psychology have framed my professional discussions and internal musings about the nature of a culture’s collective personality. A few years back, a spate of articles came out about the so-called Wanderlust Gene. Go on, read the summary and evaluate for yourself. If you’re American, you very likely carry a copy of the variant of the DRD4 gene, labelled 7R by some unimaginative lab tech (I might have gone with Woohoo!; the writer of the article opts for the Wanderlust gene – but “Dirty Four” is funny), estimated to be present in 20% of the genpop. (Global genpop, surely – I am convinced it is far higher in America). The variant is suspected to be a predictor for novelty seeking, risk taking, and new experiences. Not like you’re necessarily BASE jumper, or an adrenaline junkie, but maybe even someone who feels restless, internally and externally, and often. The allele reduces dopamine receptivity, so its carriers may prioritize and seek out experiences that offer a greater dopamine release. (Flying from my home in Seattle to Rio de Janeiro in the South American midsummer on frequent flyer miles in 2001 and being promptly pickpocketed in the Metro comes to mind, but that might be a story for a different post. More importantly, why did I envision the trip as an entertaining endeavor, even as it tickles my memory today)? The 7R variant is also a possible marker for ADHD and substance dependency as the person with a higher dopamine threshold seeks to calm themselves with external interventions or experiences.

Anyone who was barely awake in school in the US has learned the story of early immigration to the US. People seeking a better life. Puritans going into exile from an intolerant England. Irish who could not wait for another crop to fail. Scandinavians fed up with thin topsoil, Russian incursions, and seasonal affective disorder. Germans in search of, I don’t know, farmland beyond a single terrace planted with Riesling. Dutch farmers tired of living below sea level in search of higher land at a lower cost. (I am going to set aside the facts of the slave trade for a moment, as people who were human trafficked into unpaid labor from abroad did not opt into this choice based on their preferences, to put it mildly.) In short, people were presented with choices, and they went all in. They picked up and left for good.

People who opted in to (non-forcible) emigration to the US from elsewhere had a different psychological profile than their neighbors at home. They tolerated a greater level of risk, and were willing to take that chance. And, after they landed in their new home, perhaps the 7R allele went quiet for a generation or two, but then it came back to life, hopping and skipping through generations, popping up here and there as the restless brother, the hotheaded sister, the aunt with the attention span of a housefly, the head of household who moves in search of an incrementally better home, greater gain, and more. Now when I meet people who tell me they can’t stand change, hate it when things change, I don’t adapt well, I quietly wonder if they have a recessive gene for a raised dopamine threshold. When people recount travel adventures, times they made a seemingly rash decision (whether or not it worked out), or start dreaming big in casual conversation with me, something deep in my spirit starts thrumming and I think, yes. I know exactly what you mean.

Last summer, our of a surfeit of nosy and dogged curiosity, I completed hours of research on my own family – the Sharps. I knew nothing about our origin story, but as I looked into it, I became more and more interested in how significant life choices repeat through generations. My eighth-great grandfather, one William Sharpe, signed an indenture contract and boarded a ship in Leith Harbour, Edinburgh, bound for East New Jersey in 1685. The generations of Sharps before him painted a picture of lost inheritances, failed farms, an attempt to build a new life in Aberdeen that didn’t quite work out. William and two of his brothers went to East New Jersey – John and George went first, in 1684, followed by William the year after – and there the family farmed for a few generations. William’s son and grandson farmed the same land that William purchased once he completed his contract, receiving a parcel of the same land he’d worked off his ship passage on the banks of the Raritan River. William’s great-grandson Solomon, born in 1765, picked up the 7R thread and moved around the east coast and the expanding American frontier like a wild hare compared to his more rooted father and his dissolute grandfather (perhaps in a variant expression of 7R). Solomon moved from the Raritan River in East New Jersey, to Cape May, in the southernmost tip of New Jersey, to Pennsylvania, to Kentucky in the space of thirty years, finally landing in Ohio, where he was buried. He never knew his great-grandfather, but the life arcs of the two men match. I am sure if they had known one another they would have been strikingly similar, and would have demonstrated a similar dopamine threshold. Some of my ancestors stayed rooted on the farm, but others were more peripatetic, their roots loosely bound.

It seems Americans are convinced they exercise a great deal of control in their daily life, in their work, in the world, and around the globe. We seek experiences that reinforce this belief. But how much control do we have really, versus how much control we believe we exert over circumstances? Our ancestors and instincts would have us believe one way, but experience proves otherwise. Regardless the actual outcome of our quick and comparatively risky American decisions, the identity takeaway for our collective culture is that, in the moment, when presented with the decision, we took the risk. I will say also from experience that this openness to changing one’s whole life in a moment, throwing all the pieces in the air to assemble some new, just-now-seen puzzle that lands on the table, is a uniquely American approach that truly confounds the landed descendants of people who never emigrated. They just do not get it.

An old memory from Spain in 1993 comes to mind. A Spaniard my age named Antonio who begged me to admit that nothing made me feel calmer than picking up a handful of dirt from my home and smelling it.

I was revulsed. Are you kidding? I need a boarding pass! I responded. Pack me a suitcase! I gotta see stuff!

What do you mean, you have no home? he demanded.

I stared. If I knew where my home was, I would tell you.

He judged me coy. I knew I was candid. Thus did two perspectives fail to intersect that time, but I always remember it. He was right, and I was right, but we each thought the other was being dishonest, I am sure of it.

America is anxious. Maybe more anxious than most places in the world. America has anxiety and fear on tap. The weight of history and memory of all those disasters, the risks our forebears took that didn’t work out, the hope always that the next risk (frontier, farm, job) would work out. American? It’s not your fault if you’re bouncy, nervous, prone to risk-taking and possibly also substance abuse, overeating, obsessive exercising, extreme opinions, doodling (I have never seen people doodle like an American in a boring work meeting) and non-stop social media doomscrolling. It is easy to trigger an American because most Americans are always on edge. But why are we all on edge? Ask why.

I think, as an assiduous layperson and not an academic, that it’s because the dopamine threshold in the collective American personality is set, through our history and its people, at a much higher level than the rest of the world. The memory of want and famine and war are strong (I might write another piece on epigenetics and how responses to these crises got switched on in us in past generations). It’s not that Americans want to be overweight, or addicted to opioids, or frantically anxious, or changing jobs every year, or getting divorced again, or taking manic roadtrips. I am amused that a NYT article (co-written by Tony Blair, of all people) that keeps popping up for me headlines, We need to start travelling again! One might ask the question first, how do we continue to cope responsibly with an unprecedented pandemic? Is travelling really more important than the collective survival of the human race?

There are motivators deep within us that constantly press on us to do such things. Now, the question is, do we compulsively address these responses, pulled by an invisible thread in a trancelike state, blaming ourselves for our failures? Or do we consider a alternative version of reality in which we are not in control, in which we humbly admit there are forces at work within us that we must learn to work with harmoniously? Do you think you carry a genetic variant that raises your dopamine threshold? Why or why not?

Update from Italy: The U.S. Foreign Policy Squirrel

Incoming for the American attention span!

Like many of you, I have been following the recent news out of Afghanistan. Also like many of you, I am probably guilty of having forgotten, for days at a time during the past two decades, that America was even at war in Afghanistan. I am ashamed to admit this – I, who in high school articulated the goal of “understand global current events,” and tacked it to my bulletin board in my childhood bedroom, I who used to guest on “Worldviews” at KGOU ten years ago, I who chose again and again to follow an international career path (immigration advocacy, higher education, study abroad) accompanied by complimentary life opportunities and choices (various professional positions, living abroad repeatedly) mostly down to the fact that I am just so damn nosy I cannot stand to not know something. I used to joke that I should have been a war reporter, like Martha Gellhorn, but missed my calling.

An abiding curiosity has served me well in this lifetime, however, and the more I learn, the more I see and experience, the more ferret away and file new facts into my existing framework of understanding how the world we live in works. With respect to living abroad, work, languages other than English and cultures other than American, my life to date has been one extended, open-ended, compare-and-contrast essay like the ones we used to have to write against a timer in AP English in twenty minutes or less. People are like this here, that there; France is like this, Spain like this, Seattle versus New York versus the American Midwest; I only realized after 2003 that Finnish culture was a key yet covert component of my personal psychology. I have a solid introduction for this life essay, but the body of the argument keeps swelling and expanding, while the conclusion, if any should appear, seems ever further and further away.

The US finished its evacuation operations in Afghanistan a day early, on August 30. Many people were left behind who wanted to get out, notably many women, professionals, and educated people who may as well have a target sign tacked on their chest now that the Taliban is back in charge again. The daily newsletter (“Letters from An American”) that I receive in my inbox from the preeminent academic Heather Cox Richardson informed her readers that:

Researchers estimate that the war in Afghanistan has cost more than 171,000 lives. It has wounded more than 20,700 U.S. service members and taken the lives of 2461 more. It has cost more than $2 trillion, which adds up to about $300 million a day for twenty years.

I wrote in my piece last weekend that I remembered with clarity the day we began the war in Afghanistan, twenty years ago. The loss of life is irreparable on both sides, and very likely civilian casualties of American military presence in Afghanistan will always be underreported. But two trillion dollars over twenty years is a big number to crunch. It is helpful that she breaks it down for the reader to $300 million per day. If it is helpful to you to know this, as it was for me, one trillion is a million million. So, two million millions.

$300 million per day is a lot of money to spend on “nation building,” that is, when we remembered that we were even there. I have been thinking of $300 million per day all day. When I woke up. All morning. On my walk. On my way into the office. In the office. On my way home, making lunch. Eating lunch. Why, if I were the war in Afghanistan, I would have already thought my way through $150 million today. It’s a ton of money by any measure, but the fact that we were spending it under the pretense of building the new nation of Afghanistan is astonishing. The necessary hubris to presume that our efforts there were meaningful – that we could drop in, halfway around the world, where, for crying out loud, the USSR failed in living memory and Great Britain failed in recent memory, just a handful of monarchs ago – is astonishing. I bet most Americans even now would not be able to identify Afghanistan on a map, much less its spoken languages or prominent peoples. I wonder if most Americans would be willing to concede that the nation on American radar most in need of nation-building is America itself.

While the infrastructure bill has passed ($3.5 trillion, again), that’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s no stretch to imagine how $2 trillion would have been well spent at home, for infrastructure, universal healthcare, universal childcare, universal education and student loan debt forgiveness, housing, a dignified retirement (e.g., not working as a Wal*Mart greeter in a red polyester vest with missing front teeth), a living wage, civil communities. Oh America, you have so much money, and you spend it on all the wrong things – a LOT of money of some very misguided projects – all while the citizenry convinces itself that domestic policies are staggeringly expensive and hence out of reach. What could we have done domestically with $300 million per day? I mean, seriously. It would go way past those newborn Marimekko boxes that the Finnish government sends parents every time a baby arrives, but that would be a good start.

But why take a look at our own house when we can point at other countries abroad and crow about how badly they’re doing? The former president took joy in deriding sh1thole countries, but many people were on board with his opinions. Thank God we’re not like sh1thole country X! Never mind our role in the decimation of civil society in any number of countries (various places in Central America, Africa, and Asia come to mind, not to mention pre-Columbian North America), or naive expectations and emptily hoped-for but never realized outcomes. Foreign wars are a policy squirrel that provide a convenient distraction from the meaningful everyday work of good domestic policy, by the people, for the people. I keep thinking too about how Congress has not declared war since Pearl Harbor, that these foreign military interventions represent ad hoc policies inherited like hot potatoes. How the US military, now all-volunteer, seems to shrink more and more from our collective conscience. If America wants a distraction from its internal messes, a war provides an immediate distraction that also permits a healthy serving of righteousness and moral outrage. A memory of watching the news in the Reagan years when we went to war with Granada, and Manuel Noriega. Examples abound.

Back in my radio and op-ed days, and in the years before as a Foreign Service hopeful and larval Hill rat, I will confess I was more pro-“benevolent” foreign intervention by American military. The milieu in which I’d been raised an educated sold a convincing story of American Helpfulness, that it was our duty to somehow police global ethics. That if we did not intervene, bullies would run rampant while civil society suffered. But evidence and years have done their work on me. Living in a civil society that looks after its citizens here in Italy has provided further points to compare and contract in my giant life essay.

Even a recent Ezra Klein podcast with Robert Wright, a purported left-leaning progressive and author of the newsletter Nonzero, was astonishing for his guest’s myopia. He veered into a explanation of the rebirth of the Cold War. The US wants to take on China? There are things we don’t like about China and we would like to change about its leadership? China commits human rights abuses? And their borders? I am so sorry, but we have no moral ground to defend here. I shook my head and thought, what if China turned the tables, came in one day with troops and said, America, big ni hao. Hey. You need to make some changes. In your leadership. And we don’t like how you run your borders in Texas and Arizona, and keep these kids in detention, and for that matter, we don’t like Guantanamo or your death penalty either. We need you to make some changes, mmmk? And we’ll stay here on your borders and construct garrisons in your towns until things look a little more here like we think they should. Where is this generation’s Jonathan Swift? Can someone write this counterfactual novel for me please? We need to hold a mirror up to this so we can see it and name it for what it is.

So, America. Forget the foreign wars, the squirrel that distracts, the sock puppet held up to make you smile, your eyes focused beyond the frame. Fold up the operations and go home, America. The world does not need your help – unless they ask for it – and almost always, interventions just exacerbate the existing issues and we leave a greater mess then first we found. Look at Afghanistan. Libya. Tunisia. Iraq. Others. Many others. I’m no isolationist. Very much not. As a global citizen, I am all for respectful, meaningful global engagement. But the US has got to get off the Helpful Train when it is not at all helpful, not to ourselves, not to others. And perhaps most importantly, we need to stop telling ourselves we’re helpful. To ourselves and others. Find what’s really helpful and maybe start there first. I’d like to see us start with a basic social infrastructure that supports civil society in the US.

I now relieved that I did not join the US Foreign Service. I would be so out of a job for having, much less publishing, these opinions. I would like to thank the diplomatic service for twice telling me, eight years apart and in identical anonymous conference rooms, that they declined my earnest offer to work for them.