Read an Excerpt
The Stories of Our Times
MY WIFE, LOUISE, AND I CAME OF AGE IN A WORLD THAT WAS fundamentally different from the world in which today’s young people are growing up. We both left home around the age of 16, with no support, inheritance, or stipend, and yet we were still able to make it in the world.
We raised three children, our greatest legacy, and started a series of successful businesses, either from scratch or with money I borrowed first from a credit card and later, when we had a bit of a track record, from local, community banks. Most of those businesses still exist; we long ago sold our shares and moved on, taking our retirement “in installments,” in the model of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee (we lived at slip 18 in a houseboat community in Portland, Oregon).
Louise and I were fortunate to have come of age in the 1960s in America. We had a quarter-century of incredible opportunity before the ideologies and the policies of political and economic predators began dismantling the American Dream for all but those Thomas Jefferson referred to as “the well born and the well bred.”
Our parents remembered World War II (Louise’s dad was in the US Navy, mine in the US Army), and both her dad and mine used the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Administration and other “big government” programs to leverage themselves into the middle class. Her father went through law school on the GI Bill and ended up an assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan, after coming from a home of poverty in Detroit. My father’s story is told in this book. Our parents also remembered the Republican Great Depression of the 1930s, albeit as children, and our grandparents told us both many stories of life in those days and the lessons they learned from it.
Just 40 years ago, Louise worked her way through college as a waitress at a Howard Johnson’s and I as a minimum-wage DJ (neither of us graduated, but that’s another story unrelated to economics). I picked apples in White Cloud, Michigan, with migrant workers one summer; worked in a gas station; and washed dishes at Bob’s Big Boy while I was spinning records at WITL and WVIC. That was enough to cover the cost of higher education in the late sixties. My friends who moved to pre-Reagan California were able to attend the University of California system—one of the world’s best—for free.
Student debt? The idea was alien to Americans for most of our history, until the predators got into the system, for-profit colleges began to proliferate (their students are about twice as likely to default as students of nonprofit and state institutions), and banksters decided to get into the education business. Last year student loan debt in America exceeded credit card debt for the first time in history—more than $1 trillion. It’s creating a generation of serfs for the multinational corporations—kids so afraid to challenge or leave their employers that they are little better off than the indentured workers who came here in the nineteenth century from Europe and lived lives of near-poverty and insecurity.
When Louise and I began our family, we were debt-free—broke, but debt-free. Today the system’s rigged so that young people can’t even imagine such a thing, and banksters are making billions on student loans.
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I remember sitting with Louise and our son almost two decades ago, as a psychologist ticked off the symptoms of attention-deficit disorder (ADD). With each one I thought, That’s me, too! And then he told my son, who was just hitting his teenage years, that ADD was such a serious mental problem—a “disorder” and a “deficiency”—that instead of pursuing his passion, a career in science, he should consider car mechanics.
“Be sure to work on foreign-made, high-end cars,” the well-meaning doc said. “That’s where the money is. You wouldn’t believe how much they charge to fix my Mercedes!”
My son was in tears, and I was outraged.
This experience led to several years of intense research. I took with me the background of having been executive director for five years of a residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed and abused children, most of whom had some sort of “hyperactive” or ADD-like diagnosis. I developed the firm conviction and gathered some solid evidence suggesting that ADD wasn’t a disorder at all—a hypothesis that has now been well corroborated. It led to my writing seven books on ADD, most about kids but one—Focus Your Energy: Hunting for Success in Business with Attention Deficit Disorder—specifically about how adults with ADD could be more successful than their “nonafflicted” peers.
As for our son, he recently graduated with a master’s degree in the biological sciences.
Realizing the power that came from simply reframing a story, I moved my attention to the stories we all tell ourselves about the world and our relationship to it. That led to my book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: Waking Up to Personal and Global Transformation, in which I come to the conclusion that it’s not our behavior that’s killing us and so much life on the planet; it’s not our technology or even our wasteful ways of living. All of these are just symptoms that derive from our stories, which over the millennia have become, in many cases, highly dysfunctional. Only by changing our stories—our understanding of our relationship to everyone and everything else—can we stop the destruction and begin the process of healing our planet and ourselves.
The biggest collection of controlling stories, of course, comes from religion and politics. The former has been a lifelong fascination that led to my writing The Prophet’s Way: A Guide to Living in the Now, a book chiefly about my spiritual mentor, Gottfried Müller, who passed away a few years ago at the age of 93, leaving behind the international Salem work.
I’d largely ignored the political stories for most of my adult life, outside of my Students for a Democratic Society years in the sixties and lengthy discussions/debates with my Republican father. But after Louise and I sold our last business in Atlanta and moved to rural Vermont, we drove to Michigan to visit family for Thanksgiving. All the way there, we searched the radio dial for an intelligent conversation to listen to, but city after city all we found was Sean Hannity at a Habitat for Humanity site (he called it “Hannity for Humanity”), telling us that no “liberal” was ever going to live in the house they were helping build.
It was a bizarre experience. Having worked in radio back in the sixties and seventies, I wrote an article, “Talking Back to Talk Radio,” about how liberal talk radio might succeed, if done right. Sheldon and Anita Drobney read my article online, and as Sheldon noted in his book The Road to Air America: Breaking the Right Wing Stranglehold on Our Nation’s Airwaves (in which he reprints the article), it became the first template for a business plan for that ultimately ill-fated network.
But rather than wait the almost two years it took the Drobneys to launch Air America, Louise and I, with the help of a local radio guy and friend, Rama Schneider, looked around the state and found a station in Burlington, Vermont, that was willing to put us on the air. The slot was Saturday mornings at 10 a.m., right after the swap-and-shop, so many of our callers, instead of discussing politics, wanted to know, “Is that John Deere still available?”
Ed Asner was kind enough to come on as a guest, helping us make a tape that caught the interest of the i.e. America Radio Network run out of Detroit by the United Auto Workers. Suddenly, broadcasting from our living room in Montpelier, Vermont, with a studio I’d thrown together mostly from parts bought on eBay, we were on the air nationally, including Sirius, taking on Rush Limbaugh (and beating him in some markets) in the noon–to–3 p.m. slot ever since.
When we bought our house in Montpelier, we found in the attic a 20-volume set of the collected writings of Thomas Jefferson, published in 1909 and badly water damaged but still quite readable. I spent almost two years immersed in that incredible man’s brain, from his autobiography to his letters to his work as president. Inspired, I wrote two books: What Would Jefferson Do?: A Return to Democracy and Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became “People”—and How You Can Fight Back.
Applying the lessons of nearly a decade spent in the whirlwind of national and international politics, I wrote Rebooting the American Dream: 11 Ways to Rebuild Our Country, one of my favorite books. In 11 chapters Rebooting follows a model Alexander Hamilton first used to set forth 11 steps we could take to restore and rebuild this once-great nation. Combining my experience and training in psychology and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), I wrote Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Vision, a book on political messaging and strategy. And I’ve been watching how the first few years of the Obama administration have not produced the core true changes necessary in our trade, industrial, and fiscal structures. I’m so convinced we’re staring down the barrel of another disastrous Great Depression that I’m working on a book about that right now.
I once read that wisdom is the result of knowledge tempered and shaped by experience. This year is my sixtieth on this planet, and while I’m loath to call myself wise, over the past decade I’ve begun to understand the concept in a way I never could have when I was younger. Wisdom requires that an arc of history be both superimposed on knowledge and lived. I mention this not so much in my own context but as a universal. The stories you’re about to read cover, roughly, the span of time from 1968 to 2005. While they’re our stories, they’re also stories of our times. They cover the arc of what was, what is, and what could be—much of it as I’ve lived through it or learned directly from those who did, including a great deal of wisdom I found in those older than me. May it be your wisdom now, too.
Washington, DC, May 2011