Saturday, January 28, 2017

How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Donald?

We’ve got it all wrong, guys.

And since we had it all wrong from the very beginning, that’s why we’re in this mess. So why can’t we learn?

It was Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now, who said it: the press coverage of Trump was phenomenal during the primary season. And it was revelation after revelation, and were any of those revelations particularly good? Of course not, and so we all believed that the worsening news would at some point sink him.

It was the worst thing we could do.

We were operating on a set of principles that Trump had long since discarded, if indeed he had ever had them in the first place. And so we got the stories of his financial messes—the bankruptcies—and then the tales of all the suppliers whom he had bilked. Then the reprise of his three marriages, as well as the photos of his current wife. She appeared nude, though the vital bits were covered up; the handcuffs added that little spice to the whole affair.

It got worse and worse. Trump wouldn’t reveal his tax returns; a bit later, The New York Times suggested that he hadn’t paid taxes in a couple of decades. Then came the convention, and Melania’s speech, which was plagiarized. And through it all were grossly troubling signs: would Trump “lock her up,” meaning through his political opponent in jail? Would he refuse to accept the election results, if they didn’t turn out to be in his favor? The answers were respectively “yes” and “no,” apparently, and that was exactly not what our democratic system was all about. Whatever you thought about Obama, no one can say (including Trump) that he didn’t suck it up and put a good face on it, eight days ago (and during the whole transition period). Saying which, I can’t wait to read at least one chapter of Obama’s undoubtedly upcoming memoir….

Then there were boasts of sexual assault, and the numerous women who came forward and accused him of groping them. Did any of this make any difference? Of course not—not even to the Evangelical Christians. And all during this time, Trump was fomenting fear: the nation was a cesspool of illegal immigrants, ISIS was running amok, we were the laughing stock of nations. And who was the only person ready to take all that on, and ready to make “America Great Again?”

Read the biographies. Throughout his life, Trump has thrived on bad publicity. In this, he learned from his mentor, Roy Cohn, the lawyer who famously advised Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s. It was an old story, and though Trump made a show of threatening lawsuits against the media (and on occasion did), he never reacted as any of the rest of us would to bad publicity. One of the most glaring examples came when he was divorcing his first wife to marry his second; The New York Post, a newspaper that Rupert Murdoch took from intellectual to scurrilous, published an account of Marla Maples called “The Best Sex I Ever Had.” Trump thought it was great; everybody else was appalled. Most particularly since Trump had a 12-year old son in a private school; is it any wonder that the kid didn’t speak to his dad for a year? I absolutely agree that 10-year old Barron should now be off limits; I also think that a father who would subject his 12-year old son to his girl friend’s public appraisal of their sex is….

…do I have to finish that sentence?

“Do you have no sense of shame, Sir,” said someone famously to McCarthy (sorry, the internet is taking the weekend off, apparently). Rhetorical question, since we all knew the answer, just as we know the answer in the case of Trump. So now we have him in the White House, and that’s a problem. Right—so what do we do?

1.     Don’t engage him. Remember about that pig? He’s definitely having a good time dragging us all into the mud….
2.     Isolate him. Ignore Trump, stop putting his picture on the front page, and refer to anything he does as “a Republican initiative,” even his executive orders. Refer to him only as “the Republican president.” In fact, make the Republicans own him, and who can say that’s not fair? Paul Ryan wanted us to believe that he didn’t support Trump—remember that famous, courageous statement that he wouldn’t “defend” Trump, though he also wouldn’t, of course, denounce him? Every Republican is going to have to have his or her political future tied to what this madman does, and they’d better know it. Oh, and then there’s history, too.
3.     Triangulate. Trust me—OK, that sounds like the Republican president, sorry—the Republicans know that nothing lasts forever. The midterms are in two years, and what’s going to happen when 30 million people have lost their healthcare, our neighbors are fuming about protectionist tariffs, our allies are outraged at our betrayal, and the head of their party is a laughing stock? Do you really think they wouldn’t throw Trump under the bus?
4.     Go on the defensive. Take charge of the narrative: Trump claims that the elections were rigged? Well, they certainly were: by gerrymandering, by voter suppression, by passing in multiple states legislation that made it difficult for poor people, students, and the elderly to vote. In addition, the very assertion that there were illegal votes cast is an attempt to righ future elections. Question the legitimacy of Trump’s election, in international fora if need be.    
5.     Take a deep breath and stay the course. Yes, the Republican president hit hard, this first week, but do you think all of the problems are going to go away? There will be more attacks, and attacks on our own soil. The problem of immigration won’t be solved by a wall, though the expense will be prohibitive. Sick people will be turned away from emergency rooms and will come forward.
6.     Remember—nobody actually likes this guy. Unless you were really, really rabidly anti-Obama, it was hard not to like the former president. He was smart and he was funny, and he was famously a family man. Trump, by contrast, has reportedly no friends, and is it only I who think that there’s something a bit bogus about Melania staying in New York for Barron’s school year? Trust me, I would hate to disrupt our four cats in their accustomed daily life here above the shop (in this case, Payless Shoes), but if Mr. Fernández were unaccountably to be elected president? Trust me—I’d get out the cat carriers, call the movers, and get ready for four years in the White House. And why do I think that Melania, born in relatively modest circumstances, shouldn’t otherwise be jumping to live in the White House? Is there something a little off, here?

The truth is that Trump isn’t a demon. He is, in fact, quite pathetic. Throughout his adult life, he had to go and beg money from his father: at one point, the crisis was so bad that the father had to buy several million dollars in casino chips, to safeguard the money from other debtors. And while Trump senior expressed admiration at times at what his son had done, there’s a lingering feeling, as you read the biographies, that Donald felt he had never quite measured up.

In fact, he hasn’t. For all the gold toilet fixtures, for all the leggy and big-haired women on both his arms, did New York society ever take him seriously? Does anyone think that he has any intellectual capacity? (If so, read his inaugural speech, and compare it to Obama’s….) Was he able to create a solid base in the Republican Party, and do his cabinet nominees represent anything like the best the party has to offer?

He is, in fact, pitiful. I imagine him there, in the White House, with his wife and 10-year old son a couple of hundred miles away. No friends, and no one much to call, except his son and daughter-in-law. So he must do what he always does: sack out in front of the cable TV, and then reach for his unsecured phone to tweet or twitter. Being president of the United States most bring its share of loneliness, but why do I think…

…he’s the loneliest president of all?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Notes from the Abyss, Chapter 1

It was a time in my life when I faced two truths: I was utterly alone, and I was going nowhere.

In fact, I wasn’t alone. I was living happily with my husband of 8 or 35 years—depending on whether you count the time we’ve been together or the time we’ve actually been able to be married. (We had travelled to Boston in 2008—four years before the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality—to marry.) And there were people around me whom I loved, and loved me in return.

The “alone,” then, was something altogether different. I wasn’t marching with my times—I had figured that out a while ago—but that was hardly the worst. In fact, the times were marching—at times it felt like goose-stepping—towards an unthinkable land.

It was the fall of 2016. The Democratic Party had brutally stifled the one authentic voice—Bernie Sanders—and given the nomination to Hilary Clinton. I had seen the stifling first hand, since I had had to go to the next precinct over to vote in the Puerto Rico primary. (In Puerto Rico, we can vote in primaries but not in the general election). And once there, I had waited for nearly two hours to cast my vote for Sanders. Later, I was to find out that there had been somewhere around 1500 voting places for the Democratic primaries in 2012, but in 2016, the number had mysteriously and suddenly been reduced to under 500.

It was one more of a multitude of tricks. I sat in the café and watched as around the country, the machine imposed its will. Facebook showed one thing: the faithful were posting footage of lines stretching city blocks of people trying to attend Sanders’ events. And then Clinton would “win” the primaries or the caucuses.

In the end, I came to like Clinton. All right, perhaps “like” isn’t quite the word. She was certainly intelligent; she was certainly experienced. And she was certainly business as usual. But I only came to that opinion late in the days before the election.

And then, of course, there was Trump. What did I know of him? Only what I had read in The New York Times and other news sources (OK—so polarized are we, you will want to know. CNN and NPR, as well as the even more incendiary Democracy Now. Go ahead—brand me as a liberal….)

In fact, I knew nothing about Trump. I knew that he was famous, that he had “triumphed” in business, and that he was controversial. I knew that he had married and divorced, among very public circumstances. I didn’t know the names or number of his wives. I knew nothing about his business deals, though I knew it was real estate and New York. I had never heard him speak, and never seen him on TV. I also didn’t know that he had appeared on a “reality” show, since I had never seen a reality show. (Well, perhaps I had. When I had been travelling to Wisconsin in my mother’s final days, I had broken the trip to stay in a very cheap hotel close to the airport. I would eat deli food from the Jewel Supermarket, and watch television until the Scotch and the Benadryl had done their work. And there I had seen something called “The World’s Biggest Loser.” You probably know it, but I didn’t, and it was a revelation to me. The premise was simple: several fat people were featured trying to lose weight. Since this is as interesting as watching a parking meter expire, the action was fueled by a sadistic and of course very thin woman, who screamed abuse at the obese contestants.

It was unsettling, all of it. Though I was later to write a “confessional” account of the last days of my mother, I wasn’t much of a fan of the genre. I knew people who were obese: they struggled, they went on diets of varying efficacies, and they stayed in the background. And wasn’t the background where we all should be? Was it one of the Mitford girls whose governess had whispered, “Remember, you’re the least important person in the room,” even though, as a Baron’s daughter, she very likely wasn’t.

But the contestants on the show were very much not doing any of the obvious if not easy things to lose weight: eliminating carbohydrates, reducing calorie intake, and exercising. Instead, they were trading public humiliation for the chance to be a star. The odds, after all, were stacked against them. And even if they won—they were the biggest loser!—they would have prevailed only after having suffered the insults and taunts of the host. Oh, and had millions of Americans laughing at them.

And so I sat on the hotel bed, drank Scotch, and pondered all of this. I would go back to Puerto Rico, where I was teaching some 200 students or so, and they had all seen the show. This despite the fact that many of them would have trouble understanding it: still, it was in their world, not mine.

And so it was happenstance that I had stumbled on “The World’s Biggest Loser,” with the dominatrix named (if I remember rightly) Jillian, and not “The Apprentice” with Donald Trump. In fact, I was not to hear Trump’s voice, or to see any footage of him, until after he was inaugurated on 20 Jan 2017. I didn’t watch the debates—why should I? I had read enough to know that he was exactly the kind of kid that I had despised in high school: a loud-mouth, a braggart, an arrogant and errant bully. True, he had grown older, though nobody could say he had grown up. That happens to people; what doesn’t happen, or so I thought, was that anyone would take him seriously enough to nominate him and then elect him president.

I had seen, as I approached my 60th birthday, a series of horrifying presidents. And I had seen spin, most notably for Ronald Reagan. But it was apparent: Trump was in a category by himself.

As were the times. For truth had stopped being important, or rather, the concept of truth no longer existed. What took its place was repetition, and that counted for everything. And since the proliferation of social media had diluted the prestige of mainstream news and allowed for fanatics to live comfortably in their niches, truth was whatever a person chose to believe.

I knew where this was going, since I had seen it well in Puerto Rico. “All politicians lie,” said my students, and looked at me with amusement when I challenged the assumption. Did I still believe in Santa Claus? Was I still waiting for the Tooth Fairy to slip me a quarter under my pillow? Some politicians lie more than others, I told them, and all politicians cite statistics and data that support their views. Why shouldn’t they? It’s up to us to get the full picture, and that means reading the news, and listening to the opponents.

But the news, said my students, was depressing, and also…well, the reporters also lied. So that meant that people chose candidates much as they chose their favorite baseball team. And of course, many people opted out of the whole thing altogether, as in fact many people opted out of the election. After all, only 55% of the eligible  population voted in 2016, which according to CNN was the lowest in 20 years. So we had two candidates that nobody wanted to have coffee with, much less spend four years reading about and watching. Yetch! And would it make any difference who won?

I wondered about that, and so I read what was—if anything—supposed to be a rather more than tempered account of Donald Trump. Called Trump Revealed, the book went all the way from the Donald’s paternal grandfather (the immigrant from Germany, who did in fact seem to operate some hostelry in which women of less than rigid virtue were welcomed) through Fred (father) and through the three marriages of Donald himself. And sorry reading it made indeed.

It is as useless to summarize the book as it was (and is) to post anything on Facebook. And in a sense, it misses the point. I read the account of the small business man in Atlantic City who made the signs for the Trump Taj Mahal, thinking that he was getting a big break by dealing with the tycoon. He waited and waited for payment, joined a group of other contractors waiting for payment, and eventually wound up receiving less than full payment. And there went the family business, as well as the land on which it stood.

It was hardly the worst story. Apparently, Trump had gone through a phase where being a Lothario was important to him. And so he had gone on radio with Howard Stern—another guy I know nothing about—and they had talked “locker room talk” for months. Could Trump have bagged Lady Diana? Yes, was the answer, and he (Trump) had been sending her flowers, before she got herself killed. And he announced that he was having great sex with Melania, and then passed the phone to her. “Yes,” she confirmed, every day, and it was terrific.

But all this is useless, and besides the point. And what is the point? Nothing is more revealing than what the bankers did to Trump when his empire was in fact failing, and when even father Fred couldn’t help. The bankers, it must be said, acted as badly as anybody else: they did to Trump what they were to do to the public in the first years of the 21st century. That is: they lent money like crazy to Trump, and often were unaware or uniformed of the other financial burdens that Trump had taken on. And so the chickens had done what they do, at the end of the day, and the bankers were left with the question: what to do?

In fact, the very thing that had gotten Trump into the mess got him out. Just as they believed that he was incapable of failing, he then became too big to fail. He was worth, said one of them, more alive than dead. So they put him on a strict budget: a monthly allowance of something in the six figures. Not hard for you and me, but apparently a challenge for Trump, who nonetheless had Melania sporting a diamond ring as big as a pigeon’s egg. And how had he gotten it, the bankers wanted to know? Easy, Harry Winston had lent it!

Of course, I believe these stories because I read them, and 30 or 40 percent of the public believes that Obama was (is) a Muslim born in Kenya. So who’s to say?

And that, of course, is the problem. Because a book is just as reliable as the website Buzzfeed; Facebook is every bit as valid as The Washington Post or The New York Times.

And so we had Trump, who had either developed major personality disorders at some point in his life, or who had arrested his development somewhere around age 12. None of that is particularly interesting. What amazes is that everyone had let Trump get away with it all for all his life, as well as stumble into the White House with a loss of almost three million in the popular vote.

And so I spent the fall of 2016 watching an incompetent braggart get away with it all. For none of it mattered. He hadn’t paid taxes, as reported by The New York Times? Perhaps, but who knew, since he was the first candidate in recent memory not to disclose his taxes returns. He groped women? Who cared, since the buds who were going to vote for him thought that was cool, and the Evangelical Christians thought that was a lesser thing than that demoness, Hillary, with all her support for abortion et al. No, none of it mattered, since there was no longer any truth, nor any metrics to get us to the truth.

Well, I told you at the beginning at the beginning: I was utterly alone, and I was going nowhere. And part of me, yes, watched with horror the ascent of Donald J. Trump. But that was only one part of it. For it became clear…

…while Trump was definitely the tail wagging the dog, the dog had been bred very much by the Republicans.


Monday, January 9, 2017

The Christmas Poisonings, Part One

“So it didn’t come this year: I’ve learned from experience that the fault is usually mine. Look, only when you’re a kid is Christmas given to you. As an adult you have to work at it, or perhaps earn it, even if you don’t have kids. So the failure is mine: I never quite happened on the stable where the blessed Jesus lay. Or perhaps I was too busy to look up in the sky, and the wondrous star burning bright shined for nothing. Anyway, Christmas didn’t come. But it really doesn’t matter, since things were seriously worse for a lot of people. As things have been worse for me, in many years past….”

“How,” asked Lady, “how can Christmas not come?”

“Well, it all started off badly, when Mr. Fernández came home badly poisoned from a staff Christmas party….”


“Can you believe it? Thank God I used to work for Wal-Mart, since Sam Walton was a serious old toad, and realized that cheering drinks were a heavy profit-loss at company events. But at the workplace of Mr. Fernández, no such wisdom prevailed.”

“Dear me….”

“Anyway, whatever it was that they gave him, it caused undue elation, slurring of speech, and a total loss of responsibility for pressing concerns, which in this case was the cooking of the Christmas turkey.”

“Raf had to cook the turkey?”

“Yup, the accursed turkey….”

“’Accursed’ is a word?”

“Seems so, since the computer hasn’t squiggled it. Anyway, the turkey had been a pain ever since it landed a week earlier in my mother-in-law’s cart at Costco. Not that it wasn’t a very big bird at a very good price…. So good, in fact, that Ilia (my mother-in-law) decided to get the biggest bird possible. So they sailed out of the club with 25 pounds of turkey, but then realized that they had no place to put it….”

“Nobody has a freezer in the family?”

“Well yes, but they’re all filled with ice cubes or frozen peas or God knows what. So it’s nine o’clock on the week before Christmas, and all the freezers were full. So that meant that they had to call, and see if the freezer in the Luna Street apartment was available. Since that’s my freezer, that meant that it was up to me to stay up way past my bedtime, awaiting a mother-in-law and a sister-in-law and a frozen bird that I didn’t much want and would, as it turned out, never eat.”

“Somehow, the logic is getting a little skewed in this story,” said Lady, who has chosen not be here, but still is, in my mind.

“You don’t know the family,” I told her, or perhaps told ‘she-who-is-but-isn’t’ (English having no ser / estar distinction). “Anyway, it would be at least two hours from club to Luna Street, since it was a Friday night, and the traffic is always horrible, and especially at Christmas time. So that meant I would have to lose my first sleep cycle—some four hours or so—awaiting family and bird. So I put my foot down, which meant that I turned out going to Luna Street, to hide the key cleverly in the foyer of the building. Then I came home….”

“Right, so the bird was causing trouble, right from the start,” said Lady.

“It was,” I told her, “since we then managed to keep the bird frozen, but then somehow forgot that we weren’t serving frozen turkey for Christmas dinner. So then it was two days before Christmas, and had anyone taken the bird out of my freezer? Of course not, so I had to give Mr. Fernández my keys, and he went before work to set about thawing the turkey. But guess what? Instead of bringing it home, putting it in the aluminum roasting pan in the oven (away from predatory cats), and letting it defrost there, he simply dumped the bird three feet away from my freezer into my kitchen sink. So then, t’was the night before the night before Christmas, as well as the night in which Mr. Fernández suffered his greatest bout with corporate America, at the office Christmas party—a seemingly innocuous affair. So it was 9:30 at night, which is bedtime for little Marc, and Mr. Fernández arrived, filled with cheer, protestations of love, fulsome admiration of my physical charms and, fatally….”

“Fatally, Marc?”

“Christmas brings that on,” I told her. “Anyway, there he was, asking where the hell the turkey was? Then he bolted for the bathroom, very nearly not making it. So I followed him, and the four cats followed me, since they hadn’t been fed, that being Mr. Fernández’s job. So we all stood around, and Mr. Fernández announced that he would cook the turkey, which he colorfully and profanely described. But guess who had to go get it?”

“No, Marc!”

“Well, could I send out a poisoned man to retrieve the turkey? Or leave an entire family unfed on the night before Christmas?”


“That’s the way it happens in this family,” I told her. “Anyway, I had first to steer Mr. Fernández to the chair in front of the screen that was YouTube-ing the Messiah, which had gotten to the ‘Shirley’ song….”

“No, Marc, the Messiah can’t have a ‘Shirley’ song….”

“It does if sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the version of the Messiah borne to me by my mother. Anyway, the Mormons updated the choir ‘Surely, he hath borne our griefs’ to ‘Shirley, he hath borne….’”

“Things appear to happen differently at your house,” observed Lady.

“Apparently,” I told her, “since there an envenomed (well, you know what I mean) Mr. Fernández was, shouting ‘Shirley,’ which could be heard all down the street, to which I can attest, since I had left Mr. Fernández safely in the arms of Handel, as well as four unfed cats, who were surrounding the chair, making egress impossible. So I grabbed the damn turkey, and my back instantly registered the fact that it was a 25-pound frozen fowl. And then I sputtered back to the apartment, where I discovered Mr. Fernández sobbing in front of the screen, on which was YouTube-ing ‘Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow….’”

“Marc, you have to be making this up entirely!”

“Well, that may or may not be,” I told her, “but though there were two of us, I can assure you that there’s only one witness!”

“I see that,” she said.

“Anyway, Mr. Fernández roused himself and vowed to march manfully into the kitchen, there to cook the turkey. The fact that he was unlikely to get unguided into the kitchen seemed of lesser importance than the fact that kitchen is a place with knives, which might have done more damage than even the Christmas party did. So I announced that I would cook the damn turkey, and not tonight, since it was now several hours after my bedtime, and even if I could start the cooking process, who was going to be around to see to the end of it? I mean, would the oven turn itself off?”

“So then what happened?”

“So then I assisted Mr. Fernández to bed, and did you know that I’m the most beautiful man in the world?”

“Not unattractive, certainly,” said Lady. “I mean, next to the Elephant Man….”

“First you’re not here, thus refusing to share your burden of this story….”

“Oh, rubbish, Marc! Why do I have to be the straight man in your stupid posts!”

“Well, that’s it,” I told her. “If you want to know what happened, you’ll just have to stick around until tomorrow, since both of us have gone to bed….”

Stay tuned!