Why I Stopped Donating to the Democratic Party.

Yesterday I decided to quit sending money to the Democratic Party. It felt weird, I have to say. I donated more money for the 2020 election than at any other time in my life and fully expected to continue, mostly because I want to defy Ben Franklin and keep our republic.

For personal reasons I won’t go into, I can’t be a foot soldier activist anymore. I can’t go door-to-door, attend rallies, and so on. For the 2020 election, I wrote letters and made phone calls, but mostly, I gave money I really should have kept—modest amounts, but it was a lot for me—to candidates in races I thought could be won.

Despite the polls, despite party and independent enthusiasm, despite unconscionable antics by the other side, and despite raising obscene amounts of money, my party pretty much lost. Sure, it won the presidency—a stroke of luck, because Covid kept Biden off a physically grueling campaign trail—but it lost seats in the House. It gained a virtual tie in the Senate, Trump having turned off Republican and independent voters in Georgia enough to make them stay home.

Too many good candidates lost races they should have won. And no one in the Party said why in a definitive way, but worse, no one took responsibility and no one was held accountable. That really, really pissed me off. But would I please please please send money?

Now, despite the economy igniting, Covid in retreat (at least before vaccination refuseniks greased the skids for Delta), the war in Afghanistan winding down, and huge infrastructure legislation being on the cusp of becoming law, the Democrats are floundering. Or so it seems. I’m not even sure you can say they’re merely floundering as the President’s positives go down and his negatives up.

It’s not so much that the party can’t seem to get its message out as it is that no one seems to be trying. They’re not just bringing a knife to a gun fight, they’re bringing position papers that no one cares about. The result is that the Insurrectionist Party, who’s pretty much been unable to make negative flak stick to Biden, is still leading the conversation and winning in the media, and, possibly, the polls.

I can’t recall the least time I saw the January 6 videos of thugs pounding the Capitol. Those should be plastered all over the place every day with a reminder that Republicans own the Insurrection, and the riot should be mentioned in every media appearance. Where’s the daily outrage over the prairie fire aka the Delta variant sweeping the country because the Insurrectionists won’t get vaccinated? Right-wing southern states didn’t just make an unforced error over mishandling Covid, they gift wrapped it in foil and handed to the Democrats who…did nothing. No daily news stories of disinformed people and their children dying because they wouldn’t wear masks or wouldn’t get vaccinated, courtesy of their elected leaders.

A leading news story yesterday morning on NPR was of a new Gold Star father giving President Biden a piece of his mind over the death of the father’s son in Afghanistan. I get that, and I’d be just as livid as that dad. Furious. I don’t blame him a bit and not only empathize with him, I want to underscore over and over how that Marine sacrificed his life so others could be free.

That notwithstanding, it was a story of a casualty in a dangerous combat mission, which isn’t all that unusual. But the Democrats have ceded the conversation to perverse Republican talking points manufactured from clickbait media stories on the Afghanistan withdrawal. The tragic incident of a despondent father and his young Marine son became a signifier for the Biden administration’s “failure” of evacuating 116,000 people in two weeks from an airport with a single runway under fire.

This screed isn’t to take anything away from extraordinary reporting by, say, CNN’s Clarissa Ward, NBC’s Richard Engel, PBS’s Jane Ferguson, and others whose names I can’t immediately pull but whose astonishing work is Pulitzer-worthy. And CNN’s Jake Tapper has done the best he could for years to keep wars and soldiers in the public consciousness. No, it’s not about that—it’s about the way the Insurrectionist Party has co-opted the conversation. Is it any surprise that Republican politicians are appearing on CNN and MSNBC shows more often in the last two weeks than in the last four years?

And what are Democrats talking about? Not an administration handling a war termination, a pandemic, an economic re-boot, and a Cat 4 hurricane all at the same time. Not a Congressional panel investigating sedition and possible treason. Oh—the progressive wing wants to get rid of the Fed chair because, well, whatever it was he did. Or didn’t.

Yet my emails from Act Blue warn that their candidate du jour is dangerously close to missing her monthly fundraising deadline and imply that it’s all my fault.

Oh.

While my interest here is partisan, my political leanings take a distant back seat to my conviction that the American republic is in existential trouble because of the Insurrectionist Party and its Fox Pravdaganda.

But my party doesn’t seem to care. Why should I care about the party?

The Bansai At Karzai

The shitshow at Karzai International Airport was looking like explosive diarrhea, but an Immodium shower seems to have happened. Full planes are departing, empty ones are arriving, troops are there, and it all seems less frantic from my comfortable perch on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

The Defense Department has taken over the briefings, while the hapless officials at the State Department have faded and have quit giving absurd replies to journalists’ questions they don’t like, which was pretty much all of them. Defense Department spox seem to be straightforward and as transparent as possible. Did something happen?

My amateur eye is impressed so far with the Defense Department’s conduct. At least 5,000 troops are there to secure the airport, with more on the way. Getting that many people there that quickly was pretty good, and it isn’t just the people with guns. They have to eat something, sleep somewhere, rotate shifts, get medical care, shit, shower, and shave, and so on. It’s not just the folks with guns, it’s the support they require as well. It’s been a Class A logistics achievement.

Karzai Airport has one runway. At times, full planes depart every ten minutes, if I heard this morning’s briefing correctly, with empty planes also landing. Moreover, fighter jets are circling overhead. That means, to me, that air traffic control is pretty good in the middle of all the chaos. The Defense Department has done all that in just a couple of days.

The State Department still has to “process” the non-Americans who want to leave, and the bureaucratic process appears to be stifling. The army can’t do that part, nor should it. But still, compared to just a couple of days ago, I wondered if the operation’s management had shifted from State to Defense.

Why did the State Department mess up? Was it because the staff had been gutted during the prior administration? Was it because whoever was doing the work wasn’t good at it? Poor planning, or even zero planning? We don’t know. We’ll find out in the post mortem.

Is Andrew Sullivan Right?

I booted up Twitter early this morning and saw that Andrew Sullivan (@Sullydish) was trending. My choice at the moment was to find out why, or to walk the dog. The dog won. As best as I could determine, during some TV segment or other, Mr. Sullivan said something to the effect that we need to learn to live with COVID and quit spending so much time arguing about what to do. The dog was unimpressed.

I’m calling Marquess of Twitter Rules, here, which means I get to opine without seeing the segment nor reading 99.9 percent of the comments. Moreover, this blog is mine, and I can do whatever I want.

So: Mr. Sullivan has a point, I think. Why? The angry fighting over it all—mask/not mask, vax/not vax, the whole catastrophe—isn’t accomplishing much. If governments mandate people to get vaccinated or to mask up, does that mean everyone will just say, Oh, okay, sounds good? No. Everyone just gets pissed and launches into their hardwired talking points.

As one who believes in vaccinations and masking, I’m kind of sick of carrying water for those who do not, and those who drag their feet, their knuckles, or explode in righteous outrage need to face the consequences. Already, we’re seeing airlines and hotels and bars and restaurants requiring vaccinations of both patrons and staff. The same thing should happen in grocery stores, shopping malls, and everywhere else people gather.

No vaccination? Fine. Our hours for the unvaxxed are 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Don’t want a vaccination or don’t want to wear a mask? That’s okay, but you’ll have to get your own airline. And so on.

These are sensible business decisions. I, for one, won’t take an airline that doesn’t require vaccinations and/or masks, and I won’t buy groceries at outlets who don’t take this COVID thing seriously. And as I read news reports, more and more businesses are adopting these kinds of restrictions.

My guess is schools will follow. The danger of COVID in schools appears to reflect the severity and number of cases in the greater community, and school boards will react to protect kids and teachers. Don’t want a vaccination or don’t want to wear a mask? Okay, fine. Stay home. But you’re responsible for work missed. Oh, and if you play sports, you’ll need to figure out something else.

But whatever restrictions happen, the larger point is that with so many people not getting vaccinated, COVID isn’t going away. Like any virus, it will continue to mutate as long as there are enough hosts out there, and lots of people have decided they’d prefer to be hosts. Right or wrong, that’s a fact on the ground.

That being the case, Mr. Sullivan is right. We’ll have to figure out how to live with it.

Re-thinking the Trump Thing

If you think Donald Trump is an ignorant, incompetent, narcissistic racist, what do you think of his supporters? Most of us lefties and other NeverTrumpers dismiss them out of hand, or just chalk it up to irreconcilable differences. Me? I’ve change my mind.

Do you ever have one of those Hercule Poirot moments when everything is suddenly clear? These flashes tend to happen to me about 3:12 a.m., and that’s it for the next couple of hours. Often, I’m so pleased with my brilliant revelation that I can’t wait to share it with the universe, the problem being that I don’t remember it when I wake up. I had one of these moments a few weeks ago watching the Donald Trump rally in Minden, Nevada, near Reno, where I grew up.

I mean, political rallies always lean toward the goofy, right? The cheesy clothes that match the foil balloons, the hats, the partisan posters, the vintage rock booming over the loudspeakers. Everyone’s seen dozens. People get to hang out with like-minded congregants in a boisterous celebration pointedly excluding non-believers and naysayers, reinforcing their beliefs and ramping up their certainty. Okay, fine.

But Trump rallies seem a bit…cultish. Sputtering anger replaces partisan messaging, whether on placards or answering reporters’ questions. Even the reporters get dissed. MAGA itself is synecdoche for something larger than the slogan it represents, more brand than mere motto. I watched as people arrived early, waited in the parking lot until the gates opened, then shoved and shouldered their way inside, few masks, social distancing be damned.

God, these people are stupid, I thought. How can so many people still support this clown, not to insult clowns? The facile answer is that Trump supporters are uneducated, rural, low-class, stupid, racist, and maybe all of those. With his plastic-fantastic and lipsticked pig performance, he’s their idea of what a millionaire is suppose to look and act like. They’re ignoramuses hosed by and hooked on the Kool-aid of FOX news rage, and boy, can Trump ever own the Libs like nobody’s business.

Then, my epiphany: Um, no. No, they’re not stupid. Whatever they are, they’re not stupid, and shame on me for going there. By default.

These are people I grew up with. My kids, fourth generation Nevadans, were all born near there. I know those people in Minden, I’m quite comfortable with them, and guess what? They aren’t either stupid. They’re not ignoramuses. They aren’t uneducated. Moreover, Nevada being a magnet for four-flushers and silver-tongued hucksters, Minden people can spot a phony from a hundred miles off.

To be sure, Trump is among the more loathsome individuals I’ve ever witnessed. Arrogant, smug, loud, angry, fact averse, he’s a tabloid hologram in a knockoff Brioni and serpentine tie whose professional life was a string of styrofoam castles in the air and shuttered casinos where the house lost. He is ethically and morally bankrupt, a misogynistic pervert, an inveterate liar and corrupt criminal whose ineptitude and narcissistic contemptuousness has not only resulted in the deaths of 215,000 (and rising) Americans, but has destroyed the institutions and norms of this country, including national security, in ways that won’t be reparable in my lifetime.

So, how can Trump earn and keep the support he’s had from Day One? What’s wrong with those people? Can’t they see the facts?

Maybe, maybe not, but there’s a larger story. Linguist George Lakoff has offered perspectives on the differences between conservative and liberal people, such as this one. Others have offered economic reasons–you know, NAFTA and globalism and free trade with concomitant job loss and all that. Some posit that endemic racism plays a major role, and that’s also true, though not universal. But for all that, Trump is what he is, and I’ve long wondered how people could be attracted to him, especially when his actions are antithetical to their interests.

Flash back to David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, which chronicles how the intellectuals of the Kennedy administration took us into the illogical and unwinnable Vietnam war. Around 58,000 Americans were killed, most of them from economic middle- and lower-class backgrounds. College students (like me) got draft deferments and some of well-connected enrolled in the National Guard (the term “weekend warrior” originated then). 

The Clinton era brought NAFTA, with the promise of an economy that would lift all boats. Yes, there would be some job losses and other disruptions, but really, free trade and globalism turned out to be more about the free movement of capital and the loss of American manufacturing jobs. When the Dot-com bubble burst in 2000, the venture capitalists, the bankers, the elite came out just fine. But two-thirds or so of ordinary people’s 401k plans lost a fifth of their value, some even more.

A few days ago, I listened to a podcast on Cafe: Stay Tuned with Preet. I love that show. His guest was one Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard philosophy professor (MAGA people if you’re reading—stay with me here), who just released a book entitled The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good. The dueling moments of the Minden Trump rally and the podcast collided. 

It was a long interview, and I won’t get into the whole thing except to summarize a bit. The so-called elites, he says, are pretty well convinced they know most of what there is to know, and how to do what needs to be done. And with good reason, he says. Social and physical sciences from our universities provide huge data and information sources offering empirical support for reasoned objectives and strategies in just about any field. But what if they’re wrong? What if, in their intellectual zeal, they miss something that some non-elite point of view might have caught?

Something like, oh, say, your friends and family were those who died in the Vietnam war, were among those who lost their jobs when NAFTA came, or were those who saw their savings shrivel post dot-com. There are other examples, but if you were among the non-privileged, you might suspect that the elites aren’t always right. Moreover, they don’t ask you about any of it and pretty much look down on you if you say, Um, wait, I have a point I’d like to make. They just tell you it will all be good and please go away and maybe get retrained in something that pays minimum wage.

At some point, you might suspect that those in charge don’t know everything and don’t have your best interests in mind, since they get so much wrong.

If you look at a plate from the side, it appears to be a line, but if you look at it from the top, it’s a circle. Both perspectives are true, and both are right. Maybe the HateTrump-LoveTrump is like Schrodinger’s Opinion, where they’re both true in different parts of the same universe.

 

 

Is This Where It Ends?

So, today’s assignment is for you to get acquainted with my friend, Claire Berlinski, mostly because she’s really, really smart. You know how some people have this way of taking disparate, seemingly unrelated facts and weaving them into this Grand Unifying Theory that makes you think, “Well, of course, why didn’t I see that in the first place?” She’s one of those people.

A caveat here. She’s not really my friend, and I’ve never met her. I’ve never even seen her or heard her speak. We met on Twitter (she’s @ClaireBerlinsky and I’m @MrLiam), where I think she actually responded to me on one of her threads. Also, I sent her a modest contribution to help support her work, and she wrote the kindest email of gratitude. She likes cats, so there’s that, but everything she writes is thought-provoking and engaging enough to keep you awake thinking about it.

On July 1, she posted on Twitter, “An open thread: What do you expect the United States and the West will be like in ten years’ time, and why? Do you expect the US to hold together? The EU? If not, what will replace them?

“What forms of government will emerge triumphant, and how will we view this period of our history? Who will be the winners and losers? Which old ideas will be consigned to the dustbin of history? Which new ones will blaze across our political awareness? Why?

“Will the world be more stable or less? Happier or unhappier? Richer or poorer? Fairer or more unjust? More harmonious and beautiful, or uglier, more damaged, and more anomic?” (Note: She really did that–used “anomic” in a sentence).*

See what I mean?

I started to reply a few times, and then just gave up. That’s because not only do I not know, not only do I not know what I’d need to know to start knowing, I don’t even know where to look. For example, Plato’s Republic suggested that democracy necessarily leads to tyranny. If I were to similarly respond to Ms. Berlinski’s questions, where would I look for evidence? Our world seems to be awash with autocracies and kakistocracies and all manner of badassocracies, and those seem to be winning out over democracies. But the way things seem now doesn’t mean things will be this way forever, right? Where would you look? What social, economic, and political undercurrents are flowing to suggest a reasonable answer?

Or, say, the novel coronavirus thing that doesn’t really seem so novel anymore? As of this writing, it’s out of hand in the U.S. and relief is not in sight. We can wax on about who’s right, i.e., science, and who’s wrong, i.e. those in authority, but then what? Win the argument and lose the sale, as Standard Oil taught my salesman father. Add to this the purported cures–thoughts and prayers on one hand, or a Godot vaccine on the other. The former doesn’t work at all, while the latter may work half-assed or not at all. We may wait for Godot for years and years, and the curtain could drop in the meantime.

Which brings us back to Ms. Berlinski’s questions. The answers? As Tevye the Dairyman said, “Well, I’ll tell you: I don’t know.” I started contemplating some with this previous post on the fallout from the Black Lives Matter protests, thinking, naively perhaps, even chauvinistically, that solutions for the larger problems in America might show a pathway towards figuring out how world history would begin to play out. Since the end of World War II, America really has led the way forward with Pax Americana, if you will, with both good and bad consequences. Ms. Berlinski once noted that the price of keeping the world’s sea lanes free and open might be American hegemony. Well, okay. Sociologist Michael Mann, in his book Incoherent Empire, posits that the U.S., in a transition from Republic to militaristic empire, can’t figure out if it’s a universal force for freedom, justice, and human rights, or if it’s just there to bomb the crap out of any country it doesn’t like or whose stuff America’s oligarchs want to take.

Honestly? Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. 

Do I expect the U.S. to hold together, and what form(s) of government will prevail in ten years’ time? My reflexive response is “not entirely” and “authoritarian.” But why do I think that? I don’t know why, not just because of the above not-knowing, but also because of the black swans large and small. What if, say, China doesn’t stop at Hong Kong, but goes on to invade Taiwan as well? What if Pakistan or India nukes the other? What if Russia invades Lithuania? What if North Korea accidentally blows up Guam? What if a giant meteor smacks Paris and burns a wide swathe to Berlin?

I’m also cursed with indecisiveness, by which I mean that nearly every conviction I have is subject to doubt. An example is a creeping premonition that all those incidents involving people with guns may not be a few nut jobs, but the beginnings of an insurrection. I don’t mean the mass shootings, such as Sandyhook or Columbine or Florida Pulse or Parkland or a dozen others. I’m thinking of Cliven Bundy in Nevada, Ammon Bundy in Oregon, Boogaloo, the Oathkeepers, the Three Percenters, and many similar militia groups. Insurrection? Country breaking up? You tell me. I can be talked out of it.

I can be talked out of it even though the January 2021 Congress is likely to have more QANON members than the AOC Squad. Who knew? Maybe I can’t be talked out of it.

Which brings us back to Ms. Berlinski and others like her. I think she leans conservative, but I’m not sure. In her case, it doesn’t matter. Heather Cox Richardson leans to the left, but it likewise doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because both have a marvelous ability to synthesize events into a coherent narrative that might–might–help each of us, if not offer answers to the questions in Ms. Berlinski’s Twitter post, at least get us thinking about them.  

It’s hard, I know. I mean, take the question, “Do you expect the U.S. to hold together?” I can’t get past why the question comes up, let alone attempt answer it. That said, America, even the world, I’m pretty sure, is at an existential moment, however you define “moment,” and we all need to seriously contemplate a host of concerns that were unimaginable a couple of short years ago.

I mean, really–Is this where it ends?

 

 

 

*Anomie is a societal condition defined by an uprooting or breakdown of any moral values, standards, or guidance for individuals to follow.[1][2] Anomie may evolve from conflict of belief systems and causes breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community (both economic and primary socialization; normlessness (from Wikipedia).

Them That’s Got Shall Get. Them That’s Not Shall Lose.

Fiction writer Raymond Carver talked of an epiphanous moment he had at an automatic laundry. He was there with his kids, hung over, searching for coins to put in the machines, unsure how he’d pay his rent, how it had been the same way in the same laundry the week before and the week before that, and he suddenly realized that if something didn’t change, this was the way it would be forever. 

Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

The recent mass protests over police killings of African-Americans is precipitating such a moment. Why? It’s not as though we haven’t known about the problem for years. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breona Taylor, and now George Floyd are a few of the many names of killed black people over the years so often at the hands of police. We’ve been properly outraged, passed it off, and made excuses: Maybe they were at the wrong place at the wrong time; maybe they were doing something they shouldn’t have been doing; I wasn’t there, so I don’t know everything; it was a fraught moment and the cops had to make a split-second decision under extreme duress. Or this: I’m so appalled over what happened, but  what am I supposed to do about it when nothing will change and politicians won’t do anything anyway?

Why is the country, even the world, realizing that if something doesn’t change, it will be this way forever, and the status quo is no  longer acceptable? Is there a context this time to make it all explode? 

It’s been out there all along, but it’s as though people are seeing it for the first time: Them that’s got, shall get, and them that’s not, shall lose.

Mega-producer Extraction Oil and Gas, strapped with $1.7 billion debt incurred well before oil demand tanked (so to speak), just filed for bankruptcy. Before filing, the company’s board approved $6.7 million in executive compensation, the questionable judgment in obligating the company to the suffocating debt apparently not an issue. A legal analyst (third party, not a company flak) said these compensation agreements are increasingly common with firms about to file bankruptcy so key staffers stay on board for the reorganization.

Extraction also secured $125 million of financing–more debt–just prior to filing. Never mind that energy giant BP is advising Wall Street that the world will need less oil in the future and wrote down $17.5 billion of its mineral holdings. Whoa! I guess that added to Extraction’s creditworthiness, but what do I know?

Not to be outdone, 24-Hour Fitness also filed for bankruptcy, a noble act which allowed it to receive $250 million in interim financing as it closed all its locations, many of them permanently, and sent their employees packing.

Meanwhile, millions of furloughed workers are facing eviction. Mortgage defaults have spiked, with the fired employees holding the empty bag the executive compensation came out of. Maybe they can declare bankruptcy and secure a few mill in interim financing and carry on as before.

But it’s more than Wall Street.

Major League Baseball’s superstar outfielder Mike Trout has a 12-year contract for $425.5 million. Pitcher Gerritt Cole’s is for a measly nine years and $329 million. Meanwhile, in city after city, local taxpayers underwrite the stadiums for teams with billion-dollar valuations. Never mind that most taxpayers don’t enjoy baseball, and of those who do, many can’t afford the tickets.

These guys are playing by the system’s rules, the statutes and practices and customs in American mercantile society that have evolved over time, and we’ve all bought into it. Or gone along with it. Or endured it. A system that rewards sports people so generously. A system that lets massive, publicly-traded corporations go tap city while raining money on executives, then borrow more dough for a do-over while sticking it to their employees.

Former National Football League coach and announcer John Madden once said that “winning covers up a lot of stink.” He was referring to the fractures within sports franchises that everyone overlooks as long as the team is winning, but so it goes with the American community writ large. Don’t like paying for billionaires’ sports stadiums? Think it’s outrageous that some no-name third stringer gets $3 million while teachers have to buy their own supplies and can’t pay rent? Shake your head when you realize some people’s restaurant tabs are more than many other peoples’ paycheck? Scowl when you learn that a lot of people pay more than half their income for housing? I think those things upset most of us. But if our own lives are humming along, the outrage doesn’t last very long. Winning–our our getting  along okay while a few other folks are not–covers up the stink.

It’s as much a question of societal values as it is one of equity. Greet a friend, and you shake hands with the enemy. And conversely.

My friend David Wagman, a journalist and editor who specializes in energy infrastructure and also writes the INFRAreport, took a side road into into equality with a recent post. I agree with him, but I’d add that our society needs a huge, systemic change, a brand new architecture.

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty has become America’s War on Poor People, but why, suddenly, isn’t the stink covered up anymore? Why do so many seem to care? The coronavirus invasion spiked the system for sure. But the event that has shaken each of us to the very core isn’t  some pandemically-minded paramecia. It’s the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in particular, and the Black Lives Matter movement in shining a supernova klieg light on on the official sanctioning of killing black people in general. Why is it different this time?

Because we now realize that if police can come for George Floyd and kill him, they can come for us. If a quarter of the workforce can be made dust in the wind, so can we. If millions can get evicted or foreclosed on, so can we. We’ve known this for a while. Society has known this. But because of the mass outrage Black Lives Matter has inspired, we all suddenly realize that if something doesn’t change, and fast, it’s going to be this way forever.

“Don’t tell me the problems, tell me the answers,” an old boss was fond of saying. Okay, will do, but they’ll be in subsequent posts, because they’re, you know, kind of involved and nuanced and not bumper sticker worthy. Moreover, what do I know? I’m no expert and I’m not in charge of anything. But I can try, I can offer my two cents, and it will go something like this:

  1. Creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to what Nelson Mandela did in South Africa. One ugly truth we need to hold a mirror to is blaming the police for society’s deficiencies. We need both national and personal uncomfortable and honest discussions on race and a common definition of what racism is. The purpose isn’t so much to assign blame as it is to develop a common set of facts, and from that to agree on accountability and redress. If South Africans can do it, so can we.
  2. Economic re-structuring, with a goal of altering the divide between the one percent and 99 percent. Staggering wealth inequality benefits no one. And part of this change must include reparations to African-Americans. The argument of who gets what and how can be resolved by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  3. Upend and rebuild the entire education system, which may involve the elimination of charter schools. If America will provide a high-quality education in high-quality facilities to very student, the contrived issue of “choice” will be displaced.
  4. The country needs a mechanism of some kind to certify journalists. It’s not just low-information people who can’t contribute to solutions, it’s the disinformation people. Yes, we’re politically polarized, and yes, we tend to watch the “news” we want to hear, and that needs to end. I don’t know if the Fairness Doctrine that existed until 30 years ago, whereby holders of broadcast licenses had to report all sides, can be reinstated. I’m not even sure it should. But we need a way to deliver honest and trustworthy information so that people of diverse opinions at least share the same facts.
  5. We need to agree on how the police should be restructured. As with the armed forces, the police may legally commit violence and take lives on behalf of the civil authority. Yet the military is a trusted institution, while the police are not.

That’s it for now. Screed over. Get informed, get involved, care, reach out. It doesn’t have to be this way forever.

 

COVID Voices: These Are the Things They Did

“For sale. Baby’s shoes. Never worn.” That’s a six-word short story often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, widespread doubt notwithstanding. Hemingway’s talent was brevity of prose, his ability to tell a big story in a few words, and his style sparked a writing tradition in American fiction.

You can’t help but recall this six-word story when you read through the list of names in the New York Times May 24, 2020 edition listing people who died of COVID-19.  Okay, I confess to being a sucker for someone’s story, and I zoom in to these names and brief obits with imagination unloosed. As the Times puts it, “None were mere numbers.”

I’m channeling Mr. Greeke. “William D. Greeke, 55, Massachussetts, thought it was important to know a person’s life story.” There are just over 329 million Americans right now, but there was only one William D. Greeke.

What’s moving is that the same kind of uniqueness is true for every other victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

“June Beverly Hill, 85, Sacramento, no one made creamed potatoes or fried sweet corn the way she did.”

“Clara Louise Bennett, 91, Albany, Ga., sang her grandchildren a song on the first day of school each year.”

“Cynthia Whiting, 66, La Plata, Md., determined to spoil her granddaughter.”

“Robert L. Crahen, 87, Waunakee, Wis., nicknamed ‘Boxcar Bob’ for his luck in shaking dice.”

“Harley E. Acker, 79, Troupsburg N.Y., discovered his true calling when he started driving a school bus.”

“Stanley Marvin Grossman, 83, Nanuet, N.Y., known to many for his amazing Donald Duck impersonations.”

Most of the stories I’ve cited so far are of really old people, with whom, being 72, I feel a certain consanguinity. As I’ve said before, I can’t recommend old age, since its future is somewhat limited. On the other hand, Senior Citizens is the only minority group I ever aspired to join, the alternative being arguably worse, although I’m open to discussion on that one.

But each of these people’s death notices evokes thoughts beyond the mere dates and places of their beginning and end. They plant the seeds of wonder, curiosity, and emotion that bloom in your imagination, in your heart.

Contrast the older folks with  “Skylar Herbert, 5, Detroit, Michigan’s youngest victim of the coronavirus pandemic.” With those lines, you can’t help but go back to the baby’s shoes, never used. No soccer games, no first time on a two-wheeler, no graduations. A life scarcely lived. But you can imagine the memories never had and create the same stories as you do with the others.

A few more before closing.

“James W. Landis, 57, Krocksville Pa., loved his truck, Dorney Park, Disney World, model trains, and especially California cheeseburgers.”

“Steve Dalkowski, 80, New Britain, Conn., gifted pitcher who never made the big leagues.” I hope he’s waiting in the bullpen at the Field of Dreams waiting his first major league start.

“Asela E. Dejo, 92, New Jersey, excellent cook, though she hated the task.” I wish I had her grit.

“Robert M. Shaw, 69, Beverly, Mass., loved being Grandpa to his ‘little man’ and ‘sweet pea.”

You run with that one. I’m done for right now.

-30-

COVID-19: Waving from Across the River

“U.S. DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS, said the May 24, 2020 New York Times headline over an article that calculated the loss. It was a stunning piece of work, really. I had no intention of reading the whole thing–the headline pretty much said it all–but after reading the first name, I read the next, and the next, and so on until the end.

“One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin reportedly said. I was never a big fan of Joe, but he’s sort of right in a perverse way. The Times piece, though, was no mere glorified Vital Statistics section. The names, listed by date of death, included lines from the obituaries or death notices, adding dimension to the statistic and weaving a quilt of incalculable loss.

We lived in San Francisco years ago, where people you met never asked the usual, “What do you do?” They didn’t care where you worked so much as finding out who you were, what made you tick. What makes the names in the Times story so compelling is the sense of the whole person radiating through mere words.

Each entry, each death, is a story. Some are novels. For the reader, it’s an encounter with a whole life, not just its end. I’ve selected just a few, here, which was hard, because they’re all really interesting, and I could go on for 10,000 words. This Styx thing is interesting. In any event, here’s the sampling.

“George Freeman Winfield, 72, Shelburne, Vt., could make anything grow.” Who doesn’t know someone like George?

“Theresa Elloie, 63, New Orleans, La., renowned for her business making detailed pins and corsages.” At some point in her life, Theresa thought, “Hmm, I can make some money with this,” after creating her tenth or twelfth corsage. Or, perhaps a friend or relative said, “Theresa, these are so beautiful you ought to sell them.”

“Romi Cohn, 91, New York City, saved 56 Jewish families from the Gestapo.” Generations and friends of generations didn’t just know the rabbi and what he had done, but many owed their existence to him..

“Fred Walter Gray, 75, Benton County, Wa., liked his bacon and hash browns crispy.” With that, Mr. Gray came to life. You can hear him barking at the server in the diner to make sure the bacon and hash browns were crispy. You can see his wife and kids cringe just before he does it, because they know it’s coming. Of such things are memories made.

“Helen Kafkis, 91, Chicago, known for her Greek chicken and stuffed peppers.” You can smell Ms. Kafkis’s kitchen. You can see her bent over the range, stirring and tasting with the steam rising on both sides of her tiny gray head. You can see her stir with one hand and grab for the hot pad with the other and open the oven.

“Angelo Piro, 87, New York City, known for serenading friends with Tony Bennett songs.” Can’t you hear his friends? “Angelo, Christ Almighty, stop it with ‘The Good Life’ already and do ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’, wouldja?”

“Ronald Willencamp, 75, Wisconsin, proud to have logged over five million miles behind the wheel.” Like anyone else, Mr. Willencamp no doubt had a few regrets over choices not made, over opportunities squandered, whatever. But goddamit, he logged five million miles and you didn’t.

“Susan Great Hopp Crofoot, 97, Westwood, N.J., took great joy in writing little ditties under her pen name, Penelope Penwiper.” Most of these names brought me to the brink of tears, but this one put me over it. I imagined her getting the idea of writing her ditties for posterity. I imagined her deciding she needed a pen name when her real name kind of sounds like one. And I imagined the person who put this into the obit and the affection he or she had for Ms. Crofoot.

“Tommie Brown, 82, Gary, Ind., who died the same day as his wife. Doris Brown, 79, wife who died the same day as her husband.” Think about that one for awhile.

“Edward Cooper, Jr., 83, Louisiana, he loved his wife and said, ‘Yes, dear’ a lot.” This entry, as with all the others, stunned me in saying so much more than the mere words.

Okay, a couple more before I stop.

“Jerzy Glowczewski, 97, New York City, last of the WWII Polish fighter pilots.” Wow. I didn’t even know there were WWII Polish fighter pilots, which, I guess, is dumb on my part, but did you? His name made Memorial Day all the more special for me.

“Muriel M. Going, 92, Cedarburg, Wis., taught her girls sheepshead and canasta.” Sheepshead (I had to Google it) is a German card game. With that, you can see a history or a persona and a family, and even share, if vicariously, the love people had for Ms. Going as well as the way she had to have affected so many.

Quite a few names of famous people appear, but it’s the ordinary folk who grab you by the heart and shake it. What you realize is that a neighborhood, a city, a county, a state, a country, a world, when it’s all said and done and the historians are outlining their essays, is that it isn’t the great ones, the billionaires and the star athletes and the presidents and the generals who make society work, it’s all of us. Each one of us is a tiny speck of life that forms into sand and then into mortar and then into bricks and then into buildings, and that’s what makes a society, a culture what it is. And who’s to say which morsel is the most valuable?

 

Ruminations on the Road to the River Styx

When you’re young, you view your life as a series of options, but when you’re old, you see choices. Once you get within spitting distance of your date with Charon, you inevitably try to put it all in some kind of order.

One of the first things you learn in an entry level J-school course is that the most popular sections of the newspaper are the Letters to the Editor and the Obituaries. True, that was in the olden days when lots of newspapers existed and people actually subscribed to and read them. But still.

The custom now is for the newspaper to peddle space to the bereaved to place obits for the deceased. These tend to be florid and abstract, quite lacking in the neat conciseness and paucity of words that used to be requisite. Real journalists knew how to make them newsworthy, realizing obits are for the public, not the deceased.

On one hand, I don’t want a boring obituary. On the other hand, I’ll be dead and won’t give a damn. Threading together those extremes requires me to write my own obituary and stick it in with all the other stuff for the heirs–the will, the key to the safety deposit box, the list of website passwords, and that sort of thing. No one will have to argue over who gets to–has to–write the damned thing. All someone has to do is fill in the blanks.

Blanks? Date of death, cause of death, that sort of thing you don’t know until it’s too late. The memorial service, if any, which will be for the survivors’ benefit and not mine. Obits need to have that sort of basic information. Business is business, and one of the things I can do by writing my own is to cut the fluff and to the chase. When you’re dead, you’re dead, and three weeks later, nobody will think about you anymore, my father said. Not counting your creditors. But you will have something of an adoring public for part of those three weeks, so take advantage of it.

I’ll be sure to say I died. Not “passed,” “passed away,” “left this world to be with Jesus,” or any of that kind of crap. I’ll enliven it a bit by saying, “croaked,” “bought the farm,” “bit the dust,” or somesuch, but what happened will be unambiguous. The date of death will be noted. This is basic journalism–who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Ah, the why. Obituary habitues want to know why you checked out. Car accident? Got drunk and fell out of a window? COVID-19? Cancer, stroke, heart attack? Some long illness? Suicide? It needs to be there. If you leave the obit writing to others, they may feel a need to mask the cause of death for one reason or another. Don’t let them. Unfortunately, you’ll be dead and won’t be able to do much about it, but you can do what you can.

Parenthetically, I can skip platitudes with illness, such as “ended his long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis” or whatever.  You don’t battle ALS, you suffer from and endure it. “Battle” implies that you could have won through pluck or effort, and had you tried harder and not been the slacker you were, you might have lived.

At your memorial service, assuming anyone shows up, people will ask, “Was he old” or “Was he ill” or “Did he ever smoke” or whatever. Those questions will really piss off your surviving relatives, since the answer means either (a) your time had come anyway, so your demise is no biggie, or (b) you asked for it. To them, you’re dead and that’s (presumably) sad, so what difference does it make why you croaked? They’re entitled to their moment of grief, so just get it out there in the obit and forestall the issue.

The hard part comes with the dash, that little nugget of punctuation that’s a trope of your existence between the date of your birth and the date of your demise. The events of a life, such as birth, marriage, parenthood, and so on. The feats you accomplished. The mountains you climbed. The selflessness you exhibited. The way you made the world a better place.

But whoa! What if you didn’t do anything to make the world a better place? What if you weren’t, say, a teacher, or public safety worker, or nonprofit world-saver, or philanthropic gazillionaire, and you lived a life that was comparatively uneventful? “You need to do something to put in your obituary,” my father said. Well. No outsider can put lipstick on the pig of your mortal journey. But you can.

Just come up with a bit of wisdom and run with it. It’s your obit, after all, and you’re paying for it, so it can say what you want. W.C. Field’s tombstone said, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Not an obituary exactly, but it’s in that same vein. There’s also inspiration in last words:

  • Humphrey Bogart: “I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.”
  • Oscar Wilde: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”
  • Groucho Marx: “This is no way to live!”
  • Marie Antoinette: “Pardon me, I didn’t do it on purpose.”
  • Auntie Mame: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” (Okay, I took liberties with that one)

But you get the point. Use your imagination and go from there. For example, if you have more than one child, you can say, “Beatrice was right–Arthur was always the favorite.” Or showcase your regrets: “I should never have dumped the sugar into the vice principal’s gas tank.” In my obituary, I intend to recommend against old age, as there’s very little future in it.

There’s the old story of the funeral where the preacher ended his litany and asked the assembled if anyone would like to say a word about the deceased. A long silence followed, until a voice from the rear said, “His brother was worse.” Writing your own obituary gets you and your bereaved out in front of these types of annoying inconveniences.

Or, to put it all another way, what happens if the Grim Reaper is knocking at your door and you’re not ready to open it just yet? I don’t think anyone’s ever ready to answer the knock until the very end, but as rhyme and meter make an epiphany into a poem, so might tinkering with your final panegyric offer some perspective.

Just a thought.

-30-

 

 

Celebrities: Freeze, Flee, or Chat?

If you saw a famous person, not like a local mayor or whatever, but a really really famous one–say, a George Clooney or a Michelle Obama–what would you do? Prance over and introduce yourself, wave, maybe, or just look on?

Have you ever encountered someone pretty famous? If so, what did you do?

When I was a boy in the early 1960s, my family often decamped to San Francisco, where famous people loved to gather. because no one pestered them, In North Beach, particularly at places like Enrico’s with outdoor seating for people-watching, you were likely to see celebrities anytime, and we did. In the 1990s, my daughter and I saw Julia Child in the San Francisco Airport.

But that was just seeing, not encountering.

I went to New York City in 1975 for the first time as a buyer for a Reno, Nevada, specialty store. I was both excited and nervous, a small-town kid trying to act as though the frenetic Manhattan bustle was normal and to not come off as a total rube. And failing, in hindsight. 

The buyers and merchandise manager were to meet in the hotel lobby around 7:30 a.m. before heading to the buying office. They all stared at me when I arrived, late. I realized I’d left my briefcase in my room and they all rolled their eyes and glanced at their watches before looking away and glowering. I slinked back to my room to fetch the briefcase and waited for what seemed like the entire Pleistocene Era for the return elevator.

On board, I was too agitated to pay much attention to the only other person in the elevator, except that he was tall and wearing an elegant dark suit and his face was riddled with pockmarks. To this day, I can still see his facial skin. At the time, though, I was mostly looking back and forth at my watch and it didn’t dawn on me until we arrived at the lobby that my fellow passenger was Muhammed Ali. I snapped back and stared at him like the idiot that I was. He looked back at me with a half smile, and nodded. Even if I’d have been able to talk, I doubt I’d have said anything. What do you say to Muhammed Ali in an elevator? 

New York in those days was practically a foreign city to a small-town Westerner. The Garment District was absolute bedlam with the clothing carts snaking through the honking traffic along with the shouting, the clanking, and the general chaos. Despite the apparent pandemonium, conversation was in pre-recorded messages and manners were high context, with many strictures on what one did and didn’t do. It was all quite formal. You didn’t talk with someone higher up the food chain than you without first being introduced. You didn’t crack jokes. Social distancing was understood. I was a nervous wreck, a year later, when we entered the GM Building on Fifth Avenue to see if the Estee Lauder company would deign to allow their cosmetics to be sold in our store. 

The product was in such high demand that Estee Lauder didn’t sell to you, you sold yourselves to them. Bud Goldstone, our General Manager, knew Leonard Lauder and he hoped that connection would count for something. We met in their offices for a time with everyone but me having something to talk about–someone at Bonwit Teller doing whatever, and the same for Lord & Taylor, or Neiman Marcus’s or I.Magnin’s figures off a bit, all formal, all abstract, all hinting politely and circuitously as to why Estee Lauder cosmetics would never, ever, appear on our shelves and fixtures.

Leonard Lauder and staff left with us. The elevator stopped unexpectedly two floors down and the door opened to a diminutive, dark-haired woman in an understated classic navy blue suit. A sound like the hush in a theater when the lights go off and the curtain goes up swept through. “It’s Estee,” someone whispered, as she nodded at everyone and took her place alongside…me. And smiled and introduced herself.

I told her my name and she broke into a bright smile and her eyes sparkled. Her maiden name was the same as mine, she said, and was I also Hungarian? [Editor’s note: Her maiden name was actually Mentzer, but hey, close enough]. She proceeded to ignore everyone else and just chat away about her family, her roots, how dumb the mayor was, and some plays I should see. It all became a low din, because I could not get over being in the GM Building on Fifth Avenue in New York conversing with this woman about being a Hungarian when two months ago, I don’t think I knew there really was an Estee Lauder.

It was kind of cool, though.

Okay, one more and I’ll stop. When we moved to San Francisco in 1987, it turned out that Robin Williams’ son attended the same school as my sons. It was not long after Williams’ fame went viral following the release of “Good Morning Vietnam,” though we’d become groupies following “Popeye” years earlier. The school had some kind of parents event at a local park, and I saw Williams and his wife pushing their new baby in a stroller. What the hell, I thought, and knowing that even if I forced myself to say something, I’d freeze up. Nonetheless, I went with a small group of other parents to say hello.

The parents exchanged pleasantries. I looked in at the baby and said, “Oh my god, that baby is networking to get into the school.” In a flash, Williams morphed into comedian mode and began ad libbing a four-year-old taking an oral entrance exam, providing both sides of the conversation between kid and administration official. I laughed so hard I choked. It lasted all of about three minutes.

I know some people have no problem prancing up to some celeb’s table and asking for an autograph. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that. A lot of celebrities, though, seem pretty interesting, and I wonder what makes them tick and what they think about and what they’re like. But despite imagining myself being clever and erudite with celebrities, I just shut down. 

What do other people do? What stories do you have?