Taking a Left Coast Perspective

Moving from Manhattan to Seattle, with a boost from Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” I'm rethinking a lot of things

Arrivati a Seattle!

(Why Italian? Because it’s such an expressive language and I feel especially exuberant about being here. Va bene?)

PLEASE NOTE: This post, initially meant as an innocent return to blogging after the move to Seattle, quickly and unexpectedly turned into the start of a manifesto. It contains neither the word "independent" nor the word "film"…

My lust for life began returning in waves almost the moment my flight left JFK. I’m from New York. I’ve lived most of my adult life in Manhattan and there was a long stretch – perhaps two decades – where I would have sworn it was the center of the universe.

I’m fairly certain I was wrong then and I’m 100% sure now when I say that New York City is insufferably suffocating and the last place a person – or especially a business – would want to be if their time horizon in life – or in business – extends beyond a few hours from now. (Except, of course, in summer, when escape to the Hamptons (or wherever) becomes so tragically desperate and convulsive that planning ahead can’t be avoided.)

What? New York is where the opportunities are? OK, but opportunities to what end?

I don’t want to get all apocalyptic, but take a look around. (Wait, you live in Manhattan. Head to Riverside or East End Avenue or Battery Park, then take a look around.) We’re still in the early stages of what’s likely to be 100 years of war with radical Islam and other extremists. Global warming or not, we’re experiencing significant climate change that’s almost certainly the cause of severe environmental shifts that are likely to impact us more frequently and with more consequential effect as the millennium rolls out. We’re living longer yet more unhealthfully, a one-two punch that’s going to keep us on the ropes financially and severely undermine our collective quality of life well into the foreseeable future. Regardless of the actual numbers, the rate of extinction of plant and animal species is higher today than it’s ever been and is certain to increase over the coming decades.

Unnatural disasters, whether technological (BP) or gothic (genocide), seem just as easy for us to ignore today (or at least as easy) as ever, in spite of the internet. White-collar criminals are little more at risk after the financial meltdown as before. Political parties worldwide (but especially here) are as polarized and unrepentantly unethical as ever. Corporations are relentlessly patenting human genes and quietly but vigorously infesting the food supply with genetically modified substances and force-feeding farmers worldwide genetically modified – and patented, of course – seed. And then there’s the continent of floating filth and debris in the north Pacific.

So again, opportunities to what end?

Since it first aired in 1990, I’ve had an unusually deep affinity for Ken Burns' series "The Civil War." I’ve found myself drawn to it time and time again over the years, and I’m watching it nightly right now.

Finally, with this viewing, I’m fully realizing its hold on me.

I’ve always felt deeply lucky to have been born an American. I’ve never taken it for granted and I’ve become more and more intolerant of those who do. Especially those who use all the tenets of American democracy and freedom in pursuit of their own intolerance of others.

The Civil War Ken BurnsWhich brings me back to Burns. The series is so much more than a document of events, although it succeeds spectacularly at that. In particular, it drills down to the depths of what it is to be American. It’s a monument to the American spirit and a testament both to the ferocious individuality of the American people as well as every individual’s determination to protect each other’s right to be who and what we yearn to be.

And it reminds us with enormous sorrow and an unflinching eye that it took the lives of more than 600,000 and the limbs of millions more – along with the assassination of the country’s most transcendent patriot – to remind the nation of its fundamental responsibility to the founding principles and to each other. (The fact that we slaughtered millions of Native Americans for the privilege is a rant for another time.)

I realize today that the series is so important to me because it has the power to fill me with intense feelings of pride and a deep sense of purpose. It also fills me with increasing rage. Rage at myself and a growing rage at us as a nation for our seeming inability to act upon or even recognize that we’re living in a virtual cesspool; one whose uncivil, self-involved, undereducated, overfed waters are rising by the moment. And that’s just our own cesspool.

America’s not only actively impotent with regard to the growing impact of past, present and impending disasters both natural and self-inflicted, but to those of the rest of the planet as well. The world has never been smaller, and yet the gulf between the American people and the rest of humanity is as wide as ever.

The good news is that you and I both know it doesn’t have to be that way. We have the ability – the responsibility – both as individuals and as the freest, smartest, most bountiful country on Earth, to change the tide. Right now. Not tomorrow or next year or in 10 years. And not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors, our friends, our families and for every stranger we’ve never met. Even for the ignorant, the intolerant, the indulgent and the MPAA. (Although feel free to get to these groups last.)

How do we begin? Start with random acts of kindness. Two a day. One for a stranger and one for yourself. Eventually, you’ll want to work your way up to living a simpler life. Eliminate clutter, both real and imagined. Strive less, live more. Teach it to your children. Be conscious that you’re teaching by example in everything you do and say in their presence. Kill fewer things. Don’t spray it with Raid. Instead, keep a butterfly net nearby and catch and release. Simple. Effective. Life-affirming. These are baby steps but their impact will be far-reaching, and doing is always more effective than thinking.

Especially deep thinking. Raising consciousness is all well and good, but Facebook pages and petitions and U2 concerts are almost always dead ends. They might make us feel better about ourselves, but doing is the key.

<End Rant>

For now, for me, life in Seattle is refreshing and revitalizing. It’s a far more progressive environment both in business and in life. To my friends and family back in New York, I miss you and I wish you well. Always. And I hope you don’t take offense. I’m passionate about these issues and I’m equally passionate about my feelings and my concern for those I love. And I love you all. Even if you live in Manhattan.

Please watch "The Civil War" again at your very earliest convenience and light a fire for life.