Malaise à la Trump

June 18, 2017 by

It’s five months in, is all. Five measly months of Trump and he’s already moved into my head sans rent. I am grumpy. Grumpy and mildly avolitional, tilting just a titch towards despair, or at least the exhausting grind of an existential dread that will not abate. The president has become the human equivalent of a chronic headache ruining my summer. Even high-end gin barely makes me happy anymore, for God’s sake.

The presidency has undeniably gone to hell. You don’t have to wait five minutes for a new atrocity to emerge from the annals of even his routine behavior. Handing visitors full-color maps of his ludicrous Electoral College win because he’s sensitive about his 3-million-vote loss in the popular vote. Avenging all his juvenile slights and hurts on Twitter in real-time, while avoiding intelligence briefings he does not consider useful. Trashing alliances that go back to the first and second World Wars, without giving it so much as an apparent thought. Hosting the most embarrassing staff meeting in history, wherein he was praised, thanked as a human blessing, and otherwise mawkishly revered by servile minions flogged into doing his bidding.

His popularity peeks barely above 30% in most polls. His pet issues poll far worse. Health care, as served up by his policy sous chefs Paul Ryan in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate, is an unappealing Dickensian gruel charting about 16% popularity with the public at any given moment. Nonetheless he’s pushing for it, one moment calling it ‘mean’ and ‘a sonofabitch,’ the next pressing hard for it over intimate dinners with select GOP Senators. Tax cuts are also striking out (Health Care is not that at all, as we now know, but rather the elimination of health care – for the poor, miners with black lung, seniors who use Medicaid to help pay for their care, and middle-class Americans – to fund a tax cut for the wealthiest). He left the nuts and bolts of all his policy crown jewels to conservative hyenas who nursed at the arid, leathery teat of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. And then he’s upset when the result is “a sonofabitch, mean” bill? Jesus.

On US policy in Cuba, Trump announced this before a crowd in Little Havana, Miami, with his usual bluster: “…effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” This is yet another of his favorite Man-Baby delusions. Only Trump can come to the table and get a fair deal, fair for Cuba, and fair for America. Everyone else’s deals have been crap. This is the nonsense he’s peddling, and some embittered Cuban-Americans were buying. Of course he says the same thing about trade deals, arms deals, every deal you can imagine. He’s spending his entire presidency, in fact, engaged in nothing more thus far than a protracted play-acting pretense of firing the former president, whom Trump is forever blaming as the architect of all these crap deals.

In fact, Trump can’t shut up about Barack Obama. He can’t shut up about Hillary Clinton. He knows as soon as he does the story becomes all about how he’s done nothing but break a lot of laws, and far more ethical customs, since his inauguration. Absent his crabbing on about old nemeses, the national conversation drifts back to Russian interference in our election process, or Russian and Chinese bankrolling of all his business endeavors. His otherwise unoccupied adult children sitting in on meetings of national and international import. His wife flicking away his hand on the tarmac. His underlings having computer linkages directly to Russian hackers. If he stops attacking people who are no longer there, his own present appears before him insisting that he live in it. And confronting present realities, for Trump, is something he finds unbearable.

Ironically, this leaves him locked in yet another unbearable inevitability. He must remain entwined in combat with those he’s already defeated. They grapple forever, like the swirl of lost souls in the nether circles of Dante’s hell. The lake of fire never runs cool blue in Trump’s world. Those of us who would critique him against the mercilessly even backdrop of history and law must also squirm in that fire, once-removed, as we sit with high-end gin drinks in our hands trying to assess his performance.

It has never been less fun to be an observer of American presidential politics. Trump’s a ludicrous buffoon but there is nothing funny about a single day in his presidency. Even Melania’s wrist flicks and arm rejections are signals so dark we haven’t the heart to really revel in them. We’re bereft of the luxury and relief of humor as we regard this man and his stated objectives. He’s ascended to an office known for being transformative, for turning human beings into giants of history. But it has had no effect on him. He plods, and sneers, and puckers, and tweets, and we all are swayed this way and that by his every mundane maneuver.

The truth of it may well be that the hardest part of the Trump presidency is going to be finding a way to survive it with our love of analysis and criticism intact. It’s easy to want to let go, to try to ignore or diminish him, to swim in a lake of gin, leaving the lake of fire to Trump, Ryan, and McConnell and those upon whom they would stomp in order to give piles of money to Americans already rich beyond belief. But we mustn’t. And we won’t. We’ll stay right here, and do our best to look at him with clear eyes and calm temperament. The future of our Republic requires nothing less.


Chance Seedling

May 10, 2017 by

A year ago almost to the day I discovered that our magnolia tree was the Soulangiana variety, an accidental hybrid that originated in the garden of Etienne Bodin, a french nurseryman. The tree combines two Chinese species, the lily and the yulan. This chance seedling somehow flourishes here in zone four sort of five, and last year we had a wonderful barred owl in it before our catbirds chased him off. The vigilance of the catbird to perimeter duty is well established. Where they rule, the nests of every bird have an enhanced possibility of success. The quick, silent approach of the bird the Native Americans called “bird who cries with grief” scours up the yard, scattering all before it. One year ago Kim and I were laboring on behalf of a cardinal’s nest lodged outside our kitchen window, right over the sink. The cardinals made a sloppy nest that rode the wind like a sinking ship in a hurricane. We tied the nest to our garden thermometer and set up tin panels and silver foil underneath, where a neighborhood cat had tried to climb up to the eggs. For nearly three weeks we wrung our hands and hoisted a glass or two in prayer for the survival of the fledglings. They all flew out intact.

This year I watched a male cardinal cover every inch of that bush, staring in at me as I washed the dishes. Finally, he rejected the site. I was not sorry. I’ve noticed that the neighborhood has filled up with wandering felines, and the birds have responded by nesting in more hidden locations. Even in nature, I am tempted to place meaning in ways that reflect the world of human folly, never darker than it is now. Can they sense the undoing of everything, rushing around them? Probably not, but I am exhausted with my own vigilance, not exhilarated like the catbird so clearly is. I wake in my sleep and find my fists clenched. Often, I have to instruct my own body to release itself. When I sit down and become quieter, I’m shocked by how strange this seems to me.

This week has been beautiful. I have been working outside each day until today, when the rain came. I pulled up a root like a mandrake, a form that suggested crucifixion. I found it later, the body of the root looking exactly like the Simone Martini painting of the death of Jesus. I set up all the water stations for the birds, and now they have three instead of their sole winter copper bowl. All through the day they took long indulgent baths, and I changed the water every few hours, my spring and summer routine. Redbud petals fell, covering the stone heads of statues in the yard under the tree. The place is covered in buddha figures, a thing I realize is vulgar but can’t resist. Those closed eyes and Mona Lisa smile have captivated me all my life. Now I have become too old for excuses and I don’t care if across the world somewhere in Thailand an aging woman has decided to festoon her yard in images of Jesus. There is no accounting for taste, and there shouldn’t be.

Down the street from us, the one pink dogwood on this side of town is passing slowly into ecru before the blossoms fall. I am buoyed by it every year and wonder how many others see it and are amazed and glad. In the Hobby Lobby today- no excuses there, either- I heard a woman younger than myself telling her husband that the young are immobile and stupid. “All they do is play on their phones and get high,” she said. “They don’t move, they don’t care about anything, they don’t care for anyone, they’re all idiots.” I thought of all the remarkable people I know under thirty and had a moment where I feared I was going to confront her. I was alone, without Kim, and it is true I am much more audacious without her. Oh, much more so. I pulled my measuring tape out of my bag and spent about ten minutes checking the length and width of metal trays. Then I walked away, keeping faith with my vow to avoid bringing suffering to living beings. I am sure all beings are sentient, after all, even the woman I almost hollered at in what Kim refers to as the Lobby of Our Lord. Yesterday I took my eight foot rubber tree out of its indoor pot and carried it outside to a new pot and new earth and a wonderful spot in the sunlight where it spent the summer of the previous year. I lowered it into the dirt and filled the rest of the space around it, and I felt it breathing under my hands. I am sure of this. I could feel that tree expanding itself, unfolding, sighing. I washed every one of its leaves and spoke to it of summer and the long days and nights that it will see fully now, instead of being trapped in the kitchen leaning toward the sun. When I picked it up and lowered it into a bag to hoist it around the corner and out the back door, the whole room exploded in the light the tree had absorbed for six months. The cat woke and sat straight up in surprise. Then she slowly sank back down in the green leather chair that matches her eyes exactly, and fell asleep floating in sunlight.

Trump Watch: ACA Repeal, The Dead Parrot Edition (adapted for the stage)

March 26, 2017 by

Act I, Scene I – The Day of the Vote
Beware the ides of March. For thereabouts a vote on healthcare looms. In the US Congress such a thing is bound to be loaded with treachery, obstinacy, and double-dealing. This time, there was also a surprise appearance by Americans in need of affordable health care, who made more calls to their alarmed representatives than at any time in recent memory. Top that all with the sober fact that the bill presented for a vote was both loaded with giveaways to wealthy people and insurance companies, and baldly Dickensian in the blows it dealt to the poor, the aging, and those with all manner of chronic illness. From stage far far right, three dozen madmen calling themselves a Freedom Caucus burst onstage to demand further puncturing the life raft to which sick and poor Americans cling. Like a herd of Shakespearean maids they scattered comedy, gossip, and malicious mayhem as they went.

Laden as it was with those excessive burdens, with no outreach across party lines prior to the vote, it became clear a perfect storm would soon roll over Capitol Hill and flatten pretty much everyone involved. The nation watched agog as the drama of the day mounted.

Preliminary Event: The President Plays in a Truck
The morning of the vote, when the knell of doom had rung clear for all to hear for over 48 hours, President @realDonaldTrump stopped pretending to care. Instead, he sat making his least favorite face in the driver’s seat of a giant semi truck at the White House. He was hosting trucking industry leaders. At this point, Speaker Paul Ryan was on the Hill trying some CPR moves in an attempt to avoid calling time of death on his most important political task ever.

Rising Action: The Phones Won’t Stop Ringing or, This Parrot has ceased to be!
Even as assorted minions labored to revive the flat-lined bill, GOP members of the House began revealing their ‘no’ votes to the media in the late morning. This was typically accompanied by a rundown of stats showing meager numbers of calls in favor of the bill, and massive numbers of calls against. They blinked into the cameras and revealed their intent. They could do no other. Their people did not want this bill. It was, they said, the most detested bill they had ever been asked to consider.

Democrats, doubtless wanting to be helpful, immediately began to Tweet their own call stats. Angry Americans who wanted to keep their ACA health care RT’d every damned one. GOP reps in neighboring districts were likely dismayed to see such numbers so near their own gerrymandered safety zones. Word percolated everywhere: It was going to be a complete and utter rout. This bill was turning into the fabled Monty Python pet store parrot – it had ceased to be. It was an ex-bill, about to chime in with the choir celestial.

Rising Action II: Paul Ryan Lunches with President, Appears to Lose a Tooth
So Speaker Paul Ryan, to whom the president had entrusted this bill in a stark display of stupidity, scurried over for lunch at the White House. Ryan had decided to present his numbers to the president and plead with him to agree to withdraw the bill. Astute observers will note Ryan had no need to do this, and it just made him look more weak and strange. The Eddie Munster hair peak at his forehead hung dramatically over his wan and sunken face. He’d allowed a perfectly hideous piece of legislation to slide forward before his chamber, and it was dead on arrival.

They lunched, we are told, on grilled chicken, brussels sprouts, and twice-baked potatoes. There is a photo of Ryan getting into his Chevy Suburban to head back to the Capitol. It’s later described as the world’s weakest thumbs-up – but it looks precisely as if he is spitting out a tooth. This does not go unremarked upon in the world of social media (I was as guilty as anyone). This is Paul Ryan having the worst day of his life (the photo is from Reuters).

Climax: The Vote is Pulled
Within moments of a scheduled 3:30 p.m. vote Republicans are called into conference where they are told it won’t take place. Ryan takes to the podium almost betraying emotion as he says, “Obamacare is the law of the land, and we will be living with it for the foreseeable future.”

Falling Action: The Art of Trump’s Deal Revealed
“He did very little to say why we should vote ‘yes,’ ” one Republican member of Congress said of a negotiation meeting with Trump. He spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity “to avoid alienating the White House.” What he said next is surely a contender for Trump’s executive epitaph as president: “He kept talking about his damn election.”

Denouement (Aptly, from the French word for ‘unraveling’)
Our president is back on Twitter, apparently his virtual office. He’s snarking at Obamacare, awaiting its “explosion.” What he says earlier, live and in front of cameras, throws his whole problem with repeal and replace into high relief.

He says amiably, “I’d love to see Obamacare succeed. But it can’t. It’s failing.” With these words, Trump reveals he’s bought into the biggest lie Paul Ryan foisted onto his party. It is a lie for which he deserves to be stripped of his speakership. There is no ‘death spiral.’ What abandonment of the health insurance marketplace has occurred has done so because the GOP balked at elements of Obamacare that would have prevented any such flight and manipulation by insurance giants.

In the end, the GOP hated Obama’s Affordable Care Act not because it was bad, or poorly reasoned. They hated it because it was Obama’s. They had months of input, and face-time with the president himself for questions and criticisms, prior to its passage. But after seven years, and 60-plus cheesy symbolic votes to repeal the ACA, they had no viable plan to actually do so. Their bill was nothing but a mix of 18th-century deprivations for poor and older people with the misfortune of being ill, combined with a goody basket of eye-popping giveaways to individuals and companies who didn’t need them. It was an embarrassment of epic scope. Now, the GOP must live with the implications of a complete failure as this president attempts to move forward and accomplish something.


March 19, 2017 by

The nature of trauma is repetition. This is an assertion from the latter nineteen nineties, a time when American psychiatry finally admitted that wide spread demonic child abuse was an unlikely American suburban pastime. It became clear that the slow death of the patriarchy had engendered some dark stories that were as false as they were ugly. Occasionally, even now, I will have a patient in their middle years who insists they have forty personalities that arose out of Satanic abuse. These we treat now with the benign neglect once reserved for certain house plants. Because the truth is there is no truth there. The experience of being violated ritually and repeatedly and savagely would never produce amnesia and a passel of personae. It would produce the same story told again and again and once more. The ability to tolerate what is intolerable relies almost entirely upon the human mechanism of story construction and by the virtue of this strength, story telling.

I think about pain much of the time. I am melting down rapidly or slowly, depending on whether one is looking in or looking out, into my death. I have certain types of bodily pain that are staggering. I manage this without medication, for my system is fragile and mercurial, and can’t be relied on to light anywhere for more than a moment. I manage this with odd types of social behavior that relax and activate my brain. In the main this takes the form of smiling and envisioning myself floating above my temporal self. This works shockingly well, usually reducing my pain by about forty to sixty percent depending on the time of day and how much I have slept.

In my sleep last night I dreamt it was as it is now, Spring emerging. I had gone to a garden center and there encountered Donald Trump, breaking into song. He was alone in a small crowd of shoppers. No one had come to see him. He burst into song and I tried to ram him with my cart. He stepped aside, like a bull fighter. I reached into the shelves of specialized soils and grabbed a small bag marked toxic to humans. I ripped it open and covered him in the dirt. He went on singing. I gave up and went to look at flowers with Paul Ryan, who had mysteriously married into my family. I was stricken, but polite. We had decided to buy one another flowers. He claimed his garden was already producing something new every day. I realized he was lying- it was still Iowa, and my garden was as it is- nothing but sticks. Still, I was excited as a child, as I steered my cart toward the room of flowers. It registered with me that my family had taken the wound of Paul Ryan, but I still wanted the blossoms. I still wanted them.

Yesterday I went to see our little Hermione play Beauty in the film, and I went alone, as the rest of the family is ill. I sat with giggling insipid women who laughed aloud when the Beast was in anguish, and near a younger woman who stuck her dirty feet right into the space between our seat rows so I was sitting beside them and in front of her. It was still worth it. That moment when the Beast lifts Beauty on one shoulder on the dance floor was sufficient for everything and more besides. I saw clearly that moment when the thunder of love obliterates the world of human pain and illuminates the whole geography of our life in the blinding light that follows.

Earth Shall Be Fair

February 25, 2017 by

This morning Kim is in Washington, and I am home, listening to Godspell while I wash the dishes. Outside a strawberry snow fell during the night, and proper February chill descended. The water in the copper birdbath has become kinetic again, and every hour I go out to break the forming ice and add warm water. Birds of every description are here to drink and visit the feeders that are freshly filled with black sunflower seed. It is almost as though all were right with the world. But the words of the musical remind me that all is not well. Turn back, oh man, the singers warn as I lift the plates and glasses from the soapy water. Forswear thy foolish ways. Old now is earth, and none may count her days. Da da da da da.

Last evening as the dark fell I sat at the back window and watched the birds having their final moments on the feeders, and the late appearing mourning doves standing on the edge of the water. If the bowl freezes, the doves stand on the ice as if they were on a tiny lake. The doves are mysterious. Symbol of world peace, they are actually violent avians, and willing to shred one another for any sort of gain. This does not make them less wonderful to me, but it does heighten their strangeness. On the radio, Ravel’s “Mother Goose” is being conducted by Andre Previn. The music is searing and almost crushingly beautiful, exactly like much of the natural world. The chords of the music mingle easily with the rise and fall of the last waves of birds, and I sit a long time watching them. I wish to believe again in God, when I see such grace. Abdoul told me once that he thought perhaps birds would lead me back to God. I loved him a great deal in that moment. But it was not a persuasive idea.

You make them twice as fit for hell, as you are yourself. In a quick entry of my day journal, this item on December 8th, nestled among the many Christmas shopping lists: “The evil of denying clarity to others=Trump.” It is true that this year I did not listen to Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” for the first time in more than thirty years. I listen when I decorate the Christmas tree, and I realized the music would move me beyond the place of soft, quiet tears my family may or may not notice as they sit on the couch for their viewing pleasure. I knew it would put me on the floor when King Melchior forgives the mother for trying to steal their gold for her son. Eventually, everyone in the play comes to understand that there are some things beyond material survival. I doubt that we will ever reach this place as a country, in time.

In the final act of “Romeo and Juliet” as the warring families sleep unaware that their children are dead and about to die, Friar Lawrence tries to rush Juliet from the tomb where she sleeps on, drugged and dreaming of her love breathing beside her. Come, he urges her, on the edge of panic. Come from that nest of death, contagion and unnatural sleep. A greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents. Come, come away. Juliet rebukes the monk, and he flees alone. Later, the families don’t blame him and they reconcile. Romeo’s father will build a statue of gold to keep Juliet eternally lovely in the town square. They embrace and exit. From death, the ascension of peace. Earth shall be fair, and all her people one. Not till that hour shall God’s full will be done. Somewhere under an African moon Abdoul sits with his father, praying for the world. And I wait here, continuing to hope he manages to return safely to this cursed nation, almost loving him enough to hope not.

The Man Who May Never Become President

January 22, 2017 by

It’s nearly three days into the administration of President Donald J. Trump, and he’s managed to make one thing clear already: He is not our president. Not yet.

He seems almost obsessed with proving this to us with each day. Each new tweet, each new unworthy kerfuffle he takes up and busies himself with brings it to our attention again – he’s not our president.

I’m not speaking here of some popular vote fetish. I don’t mean he didn’t win election. I mean he has not become our president. He’s held his right hand aloft, and placed his left upon a Bible before the entire nation and assembled dignitaries. He’s said the words; he’s sworn the oath. But something isn’t right. Some ineffable thing has not transpired. So there he stands, a garish sort of pretender to our highest office – large-headed, bushy-browed, in a suit, appearing angry most of the time. He’s riding in the right limo, he’s been seen entering the right house on Pennsylvania Ave., but something’s amiss. He remains a spectre of a president, a changeling president, a creature we cannot recognize awaiting transformation.

Let’s begin as he did – his inaugural speech. A president has to do just a few things in this speech to marry himself to the citizens of our republic. He has to show humility on his great day; he has to show a scope of global consideration that embodies American exceptionalism and reveals the heart of a great nation as it regards the world; he has to make his listeners’ hearts soar with a sense of possibility and great things to come. It sounds like frippery perhaps, but it’s critical.

In his speech Trump said many awful things but among the worst was, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be—always—America first.” In what passes in him for a flourish of extemporaneity he added, “America first.”

He could not manage to offer up even one of the crucial items an incoming president must in order to join the country together and move us energetically into the first days of governance. It’s as though he’s not succumbed to that moment of awareness presidents talk about. The moment where they feel the full force of the job they are poised to undertake settle onto their shoulders, and at least symbolically drop to their knees under both the weight and the awe of it. I thought maybe, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where he laid a wreath after arriving in Washington, his moment had come. Trump stood, looking straight ahead, and he seemed to breathe heavily. If you watch film of it, you’ll see him patting at his chest repeatedly, right over his heart. He did this many times, and I thought at first it indicated depth of emotion. But I wonder now if it was mere impatience at standing there for so long.

Trump appears unable to sense the U.S. as anything more than another company to run. Worse, he appears to have no one around him who might point him towards a moment in which he could stumble across the realization that nothing could be farther from the truth. He speaks briskly of trimming, clipping – ‘skinny budgets’ potentially eliminating funding for arts and humanities. Where former presidents praised American artistic vision even as they did scientific initiative and entrepreneurial drive, Trump speaks in a mingy, crabbed way of “America first.” You can see the mean kid on the school yard elbowing everyone else out of his way to be first in line for lunch.

I have always felt America’s greatness lay in part in the capacity of every citizen to be moved – deeply, at the core – by its origin story, by its Constitution, by its durability and flexibility in stormy times. By the knowledge that immigrants literally teemed onto our shores and poured into our cities to build them, expand them, and ultimately make both those cities and themselves great. The notion of a nation whose citizens actually make one another better by example is a wonder in the world.

The fact that America’s leaders are charged with mirroring and amplifying the dreams and strivings of its people, as well as recognizing and alleviating their sufferings, is also a wonder, especially in a world where national leadership often springs from raw brutality and military force.

This sort of nationally inspired and shared wonder at the very essence of the U.S. seems to be a scant commodity – an undervalued one, at that – in the Trump administration. They appear sealed off from it. They come from a place of defense alternating with aggression, and as of now it just looks ugly, unevolved, and mean. It certainly gives the rest of the world no reason to hope or to wish us well.

I have few feelings of empathy for the Trump I’ve read about, but I have great stirrings still for the presidency. What it is meant to be, what it has been and can be at its finest. It can be such a beacon, even in a dim world of disaster, terrorism, hunger and thirst. But that beacon must be lit from within. I see no light in Trump, and it will be the greatest of both human and global tragedies if this man cannot ever manage to find that light, and show it to us all.

Recover the Cornfield

January 22, 2017 by

On Inaugural morning, the moon never rose. I accidentally reset the remote and could not correct it after a full hour’s work. The plan, tiny but precious to me as any jewel, was to drop my pants to the giant nodding orange head and pledge resistance. Instead the TV didn’t function until later that day when Tim got up and corrected it in moments. Grateful to the point of tears for his restoration of my Friday night watching sitcoms I’ve already seen, I gave our son a huge cash reward and fell asleep early. When I woke up the streets filled with women all over the world. If the new President had any horse sense, he’d be too worried to be wounded by this. Happily, he has none. No one can navigate in the waters of outrage. Sensible people discuss the undoing of the world under his leadership. I ponder the degree of suffering ahead for him, and know it will be both immense and unmanageable. I know this because I have spent forty five years nursing people who have lost their minds to one degree or another.

I listen to his speech and recognize the influence of medication in his thick tongue and slightly halting nuances. My guess is a beta blocker and a minor tranquilizer, designed to hold down his physical response to anxiety, and add a little glide. I’m put in mind of Fahrenheit 451- the film, not the book, where the leader is always on a huge screen and you may watch, but not without being watched. I think of the old woman who immolates herself among her books in the middle of the movie. She is an image that is always with me, and I think of her laughter as the firemen burn her alive among her volumes. In that world no one may own a book. The firemen come quickly, not to vanquish flames but to start and feed them. The film ends beautifully and sadly in a forest where a secret tribe of the resistance turn themselves into books, memorizing and then disposing of them, becoming their book, walking and speaking their book aloud under the trees.

As the week leads up to the terrible day that the age of Obama will end and this age begin I experience an unshakeable sense of the surreal. I am often close to weeping, then I am quiet for a long time and feel alone on an emptied planet. I go to a field near Kim’s workplace and watch geese land and depart. I am questioned by a woman at work who has done much strange and inexplicable damage to me over the last decade. She asks why I don’t believe in God. I tell her it was Syria that took God from me. Before we leave in the morning she approaches me again and says flatly: “I believe in gravity.” I think to myself how clever and tiresome she is, but I say nothing in return. Out in the dayroom, one of the young patients asks me why I am always in black. “I’m in mourning for my life,” I tell her, never thinking she’ll credit me for the remark. When she does, I don’t illuminate the thing. For we have passed beyond the age of truth, haven’t we?

Uncover the Cornfield

January 15, 2017 by

Friday morning next, I’ll finish up with my patients for the week. It will be, as it ever is on that day, Little Debbie Friday, the day of tiny frosted cakes brought in by myself for the patients to have with morning coffee. No fights break out in the dayroom on LDF day as if tempers rise someone hands someone else a cake and offers the full pile of them for seconds. I have learned over long time how many problems real coffee and the serious depravity of cheap white sugar solve. My patients will turn on the inaugural and they will watch it on Fox. Make of it what you will, and I surely have, but only safe within the walls of the nursing station, and only to the chosen few who think all the same political thoughts I think. My beloved colleague Abdoul has gone to Mali and is even now probably sitting with his father watching the moon or the sun rise. He will not be here to exchange glances with me, roll his eyes, and say as he does when pushed to his limits: “What else?”

After I have passed the last sweetie and the last pill and the last insulin syringe, I’ll take off my gloves, scrub up, and drive home to pick up and drop off Kim. I’ll drive home for the second time and wash up. I’ll set my alarm for 10:45 am, about two and a half hours later, and fall into a deep dreamless sleep. I will be sure to have the clock in the bed with me, so I don’t leap up and fall out of the bed on the other side. Generally I sleep each day until I wake naturally. On the most extreme days I may sleep until 3 in the afternoon. But on no day would I wake before this time, a mere two hours after I climb the stairs slowly, with the increasing stiffness and pain the years are bringing to my aging body. By the reckoning of anyone under 70, I am old now. I long for the extension of my life so I can continue to serve and to attend and to watch for the relief of pain of all sorts. This has never ceased to enchant me. It is my fairy tale, my story of the blessings of energetic transfer. Humans cannot tell as readily when they are loved as can animals and plants, but they learn, although slowly and clumsily.

When the alarm rings, I will stand by the bed and steady myself for a moment. Then I will turn on the TV and possibly to Fox as an added fillip to what lies ahead, or perhaps I should say behind. All alone in my bedroom with my door shut and latched, I will do the thing I have never done a single time in my long life. I will lower my pants in anger. And when the large ungainly discoloured head appears I will back my ass up to the screen and bend over. Surf’s up, bitch.

Trump Watch: The UTI Edition

January 8, 2017 by

I am, on occasion, the queen of the unsavory. In this season of the New Year, I am battling on dual fronts: a sinus infection (that sidled into my lungs), and a urinary tract infection. I’m on my second set of antibiotics, for the late-arriving UTI. I’m displeased and dispirited. The antics of Donald Trump’s incoming administration, and the amoral shit-show that is our new Congress, are not helpful. They are fully as irritating as anything floating in my urinary tract, if you’ll pardon my saying so.

I share this undoubtedly unwelcome information in order to excuse myself for being crabbier and meaner than usual. And, at least in print, I can come off as pretty mean and crabby. So here I am, consuming quantities of tea, juice, and water. Then more water. Sleeping, because I am exhausted. And when I turn lazily in bed to examine my Twitter feed, I see story after story about the idiots clustered around House Speaker Paul Ryan – and the man himself.

It is clear to all watching the spectacle unfold that Ryan is motoring around his life in DC in a spirit of elation, if not with an endless hard on. After years of being restrained, he now finds himself at the epicenter of an Ayn Rand wet dream he’s had since youth. With a president of his own party, and both houses of Congress Republican, he’s got the power to cut government benefits for millions of Americans whose lives will be worsened by the loss. If this seems an odd thrill, remember the man – Paul Ryan. He believes government assistance demeans and weakens humankind – when objective studies have shown the opposite. But more on that anon.

Lest you cry ‘foul’ at my characterization, note the following if you missed it: Ryan has publicly stated his belief that the American Left (and, presumably, all those lefty government programs) would leave children with “a full stomach and an empty soul.” He then segued, in the actual recorded remarks, into a story about school lunches, as though to sneakily tie the latter to the former.

Predictably, his complaint was bitter when someone later made the connection more direct and overt than he had dared. He wanted to assert, indirectly, that school lunch programs leave children with “full stomachs and empty souls,” but when caught out as a coward trying to edge into that equation sideways, he balked and pointed fingers at ‘the media.’ They were misquoting and distorting his meaning.

Nota Bene: To misquote is not a major issue if the speaker’s original meaning is clear, traceable, and intact in the misquote. He said what he said. He can’t outrun it.

Yet media shaming always works for Republicans. They have cultivated a solid 30-45% of the country who now believe the GOP line over objective reporting, which they have been brainwashed to believe no longer exists. This has been done via endless think tanks with names like The Family Research Council, and through fictitious news outlets like Fox. History will show it has been a stunning creation – a careful, papier-mâché cultural application of lies over the flimsiest architecture of truth. It is cynical beyond belief. And it has worked brilliantly.

This week, Ryan’s Cro-Magnon cronies in Congress are poised to approve a raft of appointees to crucial human service, housing, national security, environmental and other federal posts on an accelerated basis, before their ethics vetting is even complete. This is remarkable. It marks a complete historical departure from precedent.

All they really want to do, of course, is rush into ripping health care from 20-30 million Americans, many of whom are their voters. And then rush to funnel giant tax cuts to rich people, thus undoing the careful Obama economic engineering that brought us a record DOW, unemployment as low as most economists ever want it to be, a resurgence of the auto industry, and a deficit that has been dropping like a stone.

The GOP power clique will turn this epic record around, handily. All recent Republican administrations execute disastrous policy. They spend like drunken sailors, harm people and markets, and gut the planet itself. Then they wait for a Democrat to capitalize on public outrage, come in and clean it up. They spend their defeated phase energizing their brainwashed followers to set the Right Wing Zombie Nation in motion yet again, plotting their next takeover. No wonder my interior is fulminating like some unholy brewery.

About that research I mentioned, the study is found here:

Done by University of Iowa Assistant Professor Padmaja Ayyagari, published under the auspices of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, it takes advantage of some amendments to Social Security from the 1970’s. These created unique, unintended discrepancies in income among recipients that could be studied later by an astute academic. I directly quote the findings (the study was, I believe, also the basis for a recent NPR segment):

“The paper finds that:

• Higher Social Security benefits due to amendments to the Social Security Act in the 1970s led to significant improvements in elderly health outcomes. Specifically, individuals receiving higher Social Security benefits due to these amendments saw significant improvements in functional limitations (e.g. bathing, eating, preparing meals) and cognitive function.

•Improvements in health are not uniform across all groups. In particular, improvements in cognitive function were larger for individuals with better cognition.

•Further, higher Social Security income led to significant decreases in depressive symptoms but only in the case of households whose primary Social Security beneficiary had less than a high school education.

The policy implications of the findings are:

•Our findings have important implications for aging populations and for public policy. Our findings suggest that cuts to Social Security benefits could potentially have significant negative impacts on the functional limitations and cognitive function of older adults, while increases in benefits could lead to improvements in health outcomes.

•In addition to the direct impact on population health, increases in Social Security benefits could potentially be offset by reduced health care expenditures by the Medicaid or Medicare program, since functional limitations and cognitive impairments are often associated with significant health care spending.”

So Speaker Ryan is wrong, Ayn Rand should have perished in obscurity and the GOP is about to set a policy dumpster fire that will leave America in a smoldering heap. However, the research above sets up a future discussion of the absolute brilliance of a guaranteed income for Americans, perhaps the only sensible antidote to what is about to unfold.

Bring In The Blue Chair

January 7, 2017 by

I have not written here in four weeks, because every day from that day that seems long ago contained a list of things that had to be done before Christmas Eve. The funniest list had a rebuke attached to the end of it. “Bring in the blue chair to decorate it,” it instructed me. “Left Hand of Darkness, books on films and composers, candles in every glass thing, go to Best Buy and Scheels, THEN STAND DOWN.” On the twenty-third Kim and I drove through a freak storm, one of those stony nights when the flakes drive through your brain and you feel you are hunched in the front of a boat with the waves crashing over your head. Behind us, cars slipped off the road. We each thought this was imaginary until we told it to one another. We were playing Jobim on the car DVD player. I was trying not to want to keep replaying “Waters of March,” which makes me laugh and cry at the same time. Music can do anything, but not much music can do that.

Christmas was beautiful as it is here at this house. There is always a real tree, and each year I am driven to the edge of tears by the curse of getting it onto the tree stand. Outside I am sawing it and it won’t saw through before I am freezing and worried. This year I bought a new saw and we couldn’t get the guard off the thing. Once I’d dragged the ten foot Frasier fir through the door I set at it with my router and drilled an immense hole up the middle. From there, clearest of sailing and the thing could not be brought down by the worst storm or a herd of cats. I apologized to Kim for my usual holiday despair about the inception of the tree, and we collapsed on the couch. The boiling water I’d put in the stand rose through the icy tree and little clouds of resinous green wafted through the room.

I have never cared about getting presents, but been passionately distressed about giving the right ones ever since I was a child. This drives me for weeks and distracts me to the farthest shores of myself. I dream about it. I ruminate every waking hour. There is always one day in that last week when I actually have small, sequential panic attacks complete with rapid breathing and chest pain. These days I take a baby aspirin, for I am now sufficiently old that there could always be a better reason for the breathing and the pain. A lot of my presents to others went surprisingly well. On Christmas night I had to work, and I gave everyone a gorgeous little great horned owl crouched to fling itself from a high place right onto a mouse. It was the smallest gift I have ever given and I was amazed that the owls met with such a hearty reception. It was then that a deeply sad revelation imposed itself onto my soul. I realized in a flash of insight that my presents are always too much, too large, and too expensive. In this way I have fatigued many a soul I meant to delight. I have no idea what I can do with this awareness. It is very painful, actually. I doubt I will reform myself. This weird thing about me goes back as far as my memory will extend. When I was too young to offer other people things of value from my own coffers I simply gave away my own presents.

This year my sister, my only sibling, sent me some photos she had enlarged and laminated onto painted boards. She had spent nearly thirty dollars delivering these to me. I drew them out and stared at them in horror. There was an image of me as a four or five year old with my young tanned mother, and a second of me with my beloved son, my hair tied back in a scarf. My sister had sent a card warning me that one of the two had turned out better than the other. My son Tim stared at the boards. “Grandma looks insane,” he said flatly. “Yes,” I replied. He looked at the image of himself as a toddler for a long time before he spoke. “Why is my face stabbed like that?” he asked me. Across the image there were slashes, as if someone had taken a knife to it and run through it in a rage, a blizzard of anger. In my mind I’d heard the old music from Hitchcock’s “Psycho” when I pulled it from the box and saw it. “I think she had some trouble with this one,” I told him. “Some sort of issue maybe with the lamination, or with the process, I don’t know.” Later, Tim spoke to me from the hallway while I lay in bed watching TV. “There’s something else,” he told me. “She sent me a Christmas ornament. It’s wood, and has a really frightening Santa on it, a strange looking man.” I took it from his hand. “It’s your grandfather,” I told him. “He doesn’t look well,” my son said, “and the image is sinister.” “Go and put it on the tree,” I told him. Last night, we all sat near the tree, in our last days with it. Because we never put the tree up until a few days before Christmas, we leave it up for a few weeks afterwards, and it’s lovely and fresh. “You don’t want me to put up the ornament of Grandpa next year, do you?” I asked Tim. “No,” he replied sadly. “I just loved him too much to look at that again.”

At work I asked the wisest woman I know how to thank my sister for these terrible items. Julie is so loving and expansive she could be the mother of all things. Her devotion to every broken person around her is complete and without a moment of hesitation or rancor. I live in a perpetual state of rancor and hesitation. I revere her. I told her everything. “Just never say anything,” she advised me. “How can I say nothing?” I asked her, shocked by her answer. “Tim was frightened by his own image,” she said, “and if your sister didn’t get that he would be, there will never be a damned thing to say about it.” I have never stopped wanting my sister to love me, and forgive me for being the wrong sort of person for her, and support my child in his struggle with the illness that will one day likely take his life from him. The truth of these things has broken me many times, but I will not allow that pain to be more than momentary or make it important.