Thursday, April 16, 2015

Vulnerable and Half-Baked

When I was working in restaurants and catering in my early twenties, I must have baked a thousand cheesecakes. Cheesecake is easier to make than most other cakes. There is no sifting of flour, separating of eggs and precise mixing. You put all the ingredients--cream cheese, sour cream, eggs, sugar and flavoring--into a standing mixer. It's even easier than pie. The traditional graham cracker crust requires no rolling, and some recipes forgo crust altogether. There are no-bake recipes, too, but none compare to the baked versions. Dress up a cheesecake with glazed fresh berries, and it's an elegant dessert.

The difficulty with cheesecake is in the baking. It's all about achieving the desired consistency. Cheesecake is supposed to jiggle, to have give. A half-baked cheesecake will jiggle, but not in the right way. Too much jiggle and it's runny and impossible to sell. This is an easy problem to fix. You simply bake it longer. Too firm, and it dries out. I suspect that's one reason why glazing it with fresh fruit came to be a thing. Shiny, happy fruit covers many sins.

At that time in my life, I felt I was myself half-baked. Too much jiggle in my life, not enough solid ground beneath my feet. This may have accounted for why I erred on the side of baking my cheesecakes too firm. I estimate I ruined ten cheesecakes before I knew by sight whether they were baked to perfection. Luckily there were always prep cooks and dishwashers ready to eat the evidence.

People in public life who unfailingly present themselves as confident, competent, and invulnerable  amaze me. These confident performers apparently never walk around, as I do, feeling as vulnerable and half-baked as my first-effort cheesecakes. I'm not thinking of House Speaker John Boehner, who is known for tearing up during speeches, or even President Obama. Though known for his eloquence and cool, the president liberally sprinkles uhs and long pauses in some of his impromptu addresses. These jiggles make both leaders more human. If you like your politicians to be human. Some voters do not want their leaders to show any human frailty.

The late Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations who brokered the Dayton Peace Accords, is an example of someone who was authentically confident. He was the guy you wanted to set things in order in tough places like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had the education, Peace Corps experience, directness, and the diplomat's uncanny ability to balance listening and speaking. He was properly firm, never half-baked. Confident as he was, even the good ambassador turned out to be vulnerable. A New York Times column attributes his death at age 69 in part to the elusiveness of peacemaking in Afghanistan.

For other reasons, I'm also thinking of Alex Rodriguez. Such a talent. Such a hard worker, dedicated to the sport of baseball and his performance. Such a physical specimen. Always so well-dressed, well-groomed, unflappable, smooth. Not even when Yankee fans heckled him did he loose his cool. A-Clod when he fumbled ground balls as he transitioned from playing shortstop to third base. A-Fraud with his high salary and mediocre performances in the World Series.

Not surprisingly A-Rod was extremely competitive, willing to do whatever it took to stay on top of his game. You don't get to be in professional sports without it. Turns out that one crucial thing behind A-Rod's confidence was a warehouse full of performance-enhancing drugs. Add A-Roid to the chorus of taunts. He had the cojones to deny it until a court of law forced him to confess under oath. In the end, A-Rod's cheesecake rating: overdone. 

Like A-Rod, Bill Maher is another confident performer whose aggressiveness threatens to undermine his status. He regularly mocks all religion, but heaps most of his scorn on Islam. Maher insists there is something fundamentally wrong with Islam and is unmoved by experts who object to how his schtick inflames Islamic extremists and Islamophobes alike. Maher's cheesecake rating: same as A-Rod's. Overdone. Inedible and undigestible. Give it up, Bill. Find a hungry busboy to eat the evidence, and start over again already.

Many people accept that confidence is a "fake it until you make it" proposition. Presenting a facade of invulnerability is the same as being invulnerable. Do whatever you have to do to prove yourself right, even as the evidence keeps stacking up against you. The trouble is, this isn't confidence. It's bravado. Confidence is much more solid and authentic. It is also about knowing one's limitations and choosing whether to accept or transcend them. Confidence can be trying something new, when all else has failed, knowing you don't have total control over guiding the outcome.

Many Americans believe our country can have its way with the world by threatening military action, and they are frustrated with President Obama for not using it. I am more frustrated with him for using alternative forms of warfare, like drones and intelligence overreach. Military action would seem to be "working," except that it hasn't achieved the country's national goals since the end of World War II, or at least not the goals that were originally stated at the beginning of each conflict. Spinmeisters take over the messaging of the war once it's clear that the stated objectives will remain unmet. Because war is inherently so confusing, they get away with it. Invading Iraq in 2003 was originally about eradicating Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. When no such weapons were found, the mission morphed into rebuilding Iraq, casting the same military that had just invaded the country as humanitarians, even though Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said at the beginning of the war, "We don't do nation-building."

Check out this bit of Newspeak from the fork-tongued Rumsfeld:

Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iraq again have all ended in draws, or worse. No one could seriously argue that the American war machine made any lasting positive difference in these countries. All have been very costly, economically, socially, politically, morally and to our country's standing in the world. Nor have threats or the actuality of American military might deterred countries from picking fights with their neighbors (Russia and Ukraine) or killing their own citizens (Syria).

This is why Holbrooke is my guy rather than Cheney. Talk is cheaper than war any day.

I'm enjoying President Obama's approach in the last two years of his second term. He's tried joining those who oppose him, giving away too much in my opinion. Because no matter what he does he hasn't won them over. I'm glad he tried, but enough already. I trust that he cares enough about the country to work with his opponents if and when they show a willingness to collaborate. In the meantime, he needs to do what he can as the chief executive of the country. He is taking a tack that makes sense to me. He's summarizing what he's been doing all along, and that is turning more than a few pages between the belligerent approaches of the past as he works toward his vision for a less conflicted world. Many of his policies, of watching or withdrawing from fights rather than getting involved in the internal political affairs of other countries, are challenging the idea that American military action begets peace, or if not peace, order. Believing that violence begets peace, or that the chaos of war begets order, is as absurd as believing that hatred begets love. It is clear that peace is more, much more, than the absence of war. Making peace is a series of creative acts, and with every creative act, including making cheesecake, there is no guarantee of success. Obama's policies could very well end up as jiggly as half-baked cheesecake. Remember, though, that the fix for an underbaked cheesecake is to bake it longer. If someone could explain to me in ways that make sense--no fair using silly obfuscations ala Rummy--how Obama's approach to Syria, Russia and Iran could be worse than getting involved in a couple of more wars, I'm all ears. Because if there's anything good that can be gleaned from the Iraq War, it would be a healthy skepticism of the arguments for future military action.

It's no accident that Dick Cheney has turned up the vitriole and the volume on his attacks on President Obama. Cheney sees a way of moving through the world, a way he personally helped perpetuate, as being exposed for what it is--purposeless hostility without end. It's destroying his health, and these attitudes and their implementation are a threat to the integrity and well-being of our country.

Many have been critical of how President Obama abandoned candidate Obama's calls for change we can believe in. I believe he has upheld that promise, at least in part. Much has changed, and is changing, whether Obama initiated it or not. A vocal portion of the electorate doesn't believe in the changes he's made, and they are digging in their heels against any additional change. The unwillingness to move and be moved--to experience together the jiggle and vulnerability of change and evolution--is at the root of our conflicts. To try new things is frightening. So is changing old habits, even whey they're clearly not working. Some believe our government and our military must act decisively and make sure our opponents exploit no opportunity to attack our vulnerabilities. Another definition of strength is one tai chi masters teach: The tree that bends will not break. Our definition of strength needs to expand from force and firmness to include responsiveness to change . That involves not just the willingness to work toward a more just future. Being vulnerable isn't weakness. It's a fact of life that is best faced with courage and confidence.

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