Mounting Losses…

I often think, even in difficult times, that optimism is baked into our DNA–but confronted with end-of-life issues I waver. There are so many possible tragic endings…in fiction and in life. From Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina’s throwing herself in front of the oncoming train, to the brilliant actor Chadwick Boseman’s secretive death from colon cancer at age 43, life shows us the unpredictability of our endings. Sherwin Nuland, the physician/writer, reminds us in his book, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter that most of us mythologize that chapter, hoping and imagining a quiet slumber from which we never wake. “There is a vast literature on death and dying,” but rarely does it dwell on the ugly details.

When I was young, death was way over the horizon. As a 22-year-old fighter pilot it was something that happened to other people. Faulty equipment, bad weather, or someone else’s mistake could trigger an accident, but even then with “the right stuff” death wasn’t in the cards. If we trained hard, ate right and didn’t do anything stupid everything would be fine. Now, with a foreshortened future, that’s all in the rearview mirror. It may be something else that’s baked into our DNA.

My friend, Michael, is a case in point. An Übermensch—musician, actor, painter, potter, and tropical fish savant—he is one of the most engaging and talented people I’ve ever known. Handsome, artistic, accomplished, funny, and an exemplary husband, father and friend.

He and my former wife, both talented painters, met when they were art majors at UCLA. But, Michael was also a musician, and while still in school he formed a folk duo called The Other Singers with his friend Tom Drake. They began playing West LA bars and clubs, and in short order were discovered by talent scouts from Doug Weston’s Troubadour. It was the heyday of the folk revival, and the Troubadour was the hottest showcase for new talent on the West Coast. Mike and Tom shared the mainstage with Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and The Eagles. I saw them recently on a poster in the Linda Ronstadt documentary, The Sound of My Voice.

While they were still playing the Troubadour, Andy Williams asked them to form a larger group he called The Good Time Singers, for his TV show. That gig lasted until his career took a different turn when his brother Jim, an actor on ABC’s One Life to Live, wanted out of his contract and thought Mike might be able to help. The brothers look alike, so Jim pitched ABC on Michael as his replacement. ABC bought it and agreed to write Jim out and Mike in by creating an auto accident that put Dr. Larry Wolek (Jim’s character) in the hospital where urgent surgical repair altered his visage slightly. Mike took over Jim’s role and stayed with the series for 20 years.

But, Michael was always resourceful and creative. When he was a pre-teen his father moved the family to England, where they knew no one. Before enrolling at an English public (private) school, his parents worried he would be seen as an outsider, an American interloper. They shouldn’t have worried. Michael was a bridge-builder. On his first day, he took a deck of cards to school and during lunch regaled his English classmates with card tricks and sleight of hand. By the end of the day he was the most popular kid in school.

In one of life’s cruel pivots, an insidious protein began depositing itself in Michael’s brain twelve years ago. When memory lapses alarmed the family they consulted a neurologist. The diagnosis, Lewy body dementia, is a cousin of Alzheimer’s. The invading protein changed Michael’s brain chemistry and brought on more than memory lapses. There were also disruptive disease-related hallucinations. Last month his wife Sally and daughter Maggie knew they could no longer give him the care he needed and moved him to a memory care facility. Invasion of the Lewy body brain snatchers.

For Mike, Sally, and Maggie the change is life altering. For me, his situation is sad and confusing. He’s lost to me in some ways but not in others. I’m trying to keep him present. I keep replaying old tapes of things we’ve done. Lunch at a little Cuban place on Columbus Avenue. Visiting their home in Dobbs Ferry. Playing guitars in our little garden in St. Tropez. Waiting for Mick and Bianca to emerge from the Hotel de Ville after their wedding vows. Here’s is a picture Mike took that day.

You can tell, I’m struggling with endings. Dying of “natural causes” seems benign but has a cruelty all its own. Alzheimer’s and its cousins don’t kill like brain cancer or a heart attack. If there’s a difference between a bullet and a slow-acting poison, is one more cruel? I don’t know. I just know the losses are mounting.

Sally tells me that until recently Mike and Jim were still getting together to play guitars and sing. I marvel that the brain, even a damaged one, can still grant this gift. I hope the brothers will be able to keep playing in Mike’s new home. I plan to play and sing along to The Other Singers CD as a way to feel like we’re all together again.

But everything is new. Sally is moving into a mother-in-law apartment at Maggie’s, where Maggie and her kids, Jack and Ella, will welcome and care for her. But she and Michael were each other’s life support and soulmates for more than 50 years. I can’t imagine how that will feel? 

The rational me thinks this is all for the best, but the other me hopes Michael can pull off a Houdini-like escape from Lewy body prison. He’s had so many incarnations. Is there one last card trick up his sleeve?

When I close my eyes I can hear him strumming softly in that little garden in St. Tropez. It sounds like Swing Low Sweet Chariot…

https://open.spotify.com/artist/3XhZbOiuOqjXtsA3Td2uIr

 

Are You Afraid of Books?

I recently read an article that began with “A library implies an act of faith.” I had never thought of libraries in that way, but it resonated. The quote is from A Qui La Faute?, a Victor Hugo poem written in 1872.  It suggests that by collecting books people are investing in the future—having faith that future generations will find inspiration and continue to grow intellectually, that they will learn from history and the experience of others.

But there are those who see a darker side. These people see danger lurking in the stacks. They think that by restricting access they can protect themselves and their children from dangerous and upsetting history and ideas. This is at the root of the great books debate. In 1497 Savonarola, the Italian friar, led a movement that destroyed art and burned books in the name of Christian renewal. In 1922, James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, was banned in the United States and Great Britain and a serialized version was burned in the streets of Ireland, England and Canada.

Joyce’s novel chronicles a day in the life of Leopold Bloom as he wanders the streets and bars of Dublin. Originally published in Paris, US Customs deemed its content obscene and seized copies because might cause American readers to “harbor impure and lustful thoughts.”

In 1933 United States District Court Judge John M. Woolsey, after a month long reading of the book, ruled it “a work of literary merit:”

“In writing ‘Ulysses’ Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new if not wholly novel literary genre. Joyce has attempted- it seems to me with astonishing success- to show how the screen of the consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries as it were on a plastic palimpsest not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.
The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men, and, I venture, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe, by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe.
If one does not wish to associate with such folks as Joyce describes, that is one’s own choice.”

Today, exactly 100-years after Ulysses seizure by Customs censors, there is a resurgence of book banning (and burning) in America. Ann Patchett, prize-winning author (Bel Canto, The Dutch House) and bookstore owner wrote in her latest newsletter:

“It feels like we’ve heard more about banned books over the past year than usual, but it’s not just your imagination. According to PEN America, educational gag orders that prevent teaching about topics like race, gender, and American history have increased by 250% this year compared to 2021 and have been more likely to include punishments, such as fines, loss of state funding, or even criminal charges against teachers. As a result, many books that address politically charged topics have either been banned or challenged in school districts across the country. Books that aim to educate about race and LGBTQ+ identities have been disproportionately impacted.”

So, what books are we talking about? Here’s a recent list of the most commonly targeted books. The second,  third and fourth are children’s books and The 1619 Project is a recent addition of African American scholarship. The others are all considered classics of American/English literature.

·      Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
·      Julian is a Mermaid – Jessica Love
·      Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson
·      King and the Dragonflies – Kacen Callender
·      1984 – George Orwell
·      Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
·      Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
·      The Color Purple – Alice Walker
·      A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansburry
·      1619 Project – Nikole Hannah-Jones
·      To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
·      Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
·      Beloved – Toni Morrison
·      The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

While libraries have been the traditional target of book banners, school boards and school libraries are the latest forums under attack. The most frequently given reasons for exclusion are pornography, obscenity, painting an unflattering picture of American history, grooming gay and transgender youth, student discomfort with discussions of race, sex, and gender identity. Is student discomfort a reason to keep literature off the shelves of school libraries?

Today happens to be the last day of Banned Book Week 2022, and I’m siding with Victor Hugo– a library is an act of faith. I have faith–faith that Americans can discern and decide for themselves if a book has value, and parents can decide whether they want their child to be exposed to ideas that conflict with their religious beliefs, but they should never be permitted to ban a book for that reason.

This is one wall of our living room. Behind me is another. 

I have faith that by buying and collecting books we are collecting knowledge. We are making an investment in future generations, that they will continue to learn and grow intellectually. The symbolism is that we are “in the dark” in our own time, but that by recording and storing our knowledge in the safety of a library, future generations will be able to see the light and learn from our mistakes and our experience.

It may seem excessive; but I continue to buy books – Audible, e-reader, and print. In September I bought four. Over the course of my life I’ve worked in three bookstores and a college library. M and I belong to Folio, The Seattle Athenaeum, one of a loosely affiliated group of national membership libraries. Please join me in celebrating Banned Book Week 2022 and fighting the narrow minded, fearful segment of our population that for some reason sees danger in the printed word.

Safe and Secure in Idaho…

You might recognize her as a type: a neatly dressed, polite, older woman but tentative and out of place in her role as a restaurant server. It may not be fair, but I often slot these women–mostly widows and/or single women–into a category that supplements its limited Social Security by working entry level service jobs. Last night, one served us at the restaurant next door to our Best Western hotel in rural Idaho.

Bonnie, not her real name, might fit this description generally, but our encounter revealed a more disturbing story. This awkward but friendly woman in white jeans and starched pinstripe shirt with glasses hanging from a lanyard started the conversation while busing our outside table overlooking the Snake River. With only a few post-Labor Day stragglers in the restaurant she felt comfortable pausing to talk.

Orofino, Idaho, is 51 miles east of Lewiston on the Snake River–a destination for fishermen and hunters. The biggest property in town is an RV campground that borders the river. It’s packed with campers all summer, thins after Labor Day before filling again during hunting season. Orofino is on the Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway, a beautiful stretch of the Snake leading downriver to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

But Bonnie and Orofino are part of another American story—darker and more sinister. She tells us that she moved here from Victorville, on the edge of the Mojave Desert in California. She, her husband, and adult daughter were looking for a “safer place” to live. We didn’t have to probe; she explained they were Catholics, followers of a charismatic Filipino priest, who preaches that America is a dangerous country in the throes of a crisis. Was he preaching about the coming Rapture? The end of days?

It’s not clear, but after receiving God’s message in Victorville Bonnie and her family set about finding a “safer place.” To aid in the search they consulted Strategic Relocation, Joel Skousen’s book length survivalist Bible, and started looking at locations in Alabama, Georgia and Texas. They settled on rural Idaho—Orofino specifically. It had all the elements. It was rural and remote with a demographic of like-minded people.

A like-minded community was important to them, because survival is political as much as it is physical. Bonnie’s family, conservative Catholics, believe in a vast conspiracy in which Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, both professed Catholics, are pawns in an evil plan to destroy America. According to Bonnie, Biden and Pelosi are not really Catholics. They are plants. She says she prays about it every day. She asked us to pray about it.

At this point, I’m staring at my half-eaten burger and fries. I can’t respond, but Marilynn does. “Where do you get your news? Do you watch Fox?” “No,” she answers, “we don’t trust mainstream news. We listen to podcasts. God leads us.”

I signal M that I can’t do anymore. It’s too much. We have to leave. We settle up, say goodbye to Bonnie and hurry out the door. Marilynn looks at me as we cross the parking lot. “What just happened?” I ask. She shakes her head. Silence.

The next morning, we’re off to visit family in Hailey . But first I need a latte and we want to see what Orofino looks like in the daylight. The downtown core is surrounded by neighborhoods with populated with small, early 20th century homes–the kind you see in older towns all across America. Almost nothing is new. They look like doll houses compared to what’s “normal” in urban settings. On a side street we pass a trash-packed yard with a Confederate flag hanging over the front door. A block away another homeowner has tacked a large banner to the side of his house proclaiming, “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump.”

It’s hard to focus after the encounter with Bonnie and the drive through town. On the way to Hailey we listen to MSNBC on Sirius XM Radio. Two different worlds. We tune in Fox to get a different side, but nothing comes close to Bonnie’s strategic relocation story… the mannerly, matronly older woman, the Filipino Catholic priest, God’s will, the power of prayer, the search for a “safe place” to live, the Biden-Pelosi conspiracy to destroy America.

I would have been able to frame Bonnie’s Catholicism had it been Opus Dei, the ultra-conservative sect but still within the church, but this is nut-case, wacko, beyond the fringe stuff. In the wrong hands it could lead to another Waco or Ruby Ridge. Do Bonnie and her family have a houseful of guns to repel the invaders? It’s hard to imagine. Are they part of an organized group or are they hunkered down to get out of the way? What does “safe” mean to them? Is it defensive or are they preparing for battle?

I lived in Idaho for 25 years. When I arrived, Frank Church was Senator and Cecil Andrus was the governor–both liberal Democrats. Church, an environmental activist and opponent of the Vietnam War was defeated for a fourth-term in 1984 and Andrus retired after four terms in 1995. Idaho hasn’t elected a Democrat to a statewide office since. Blaine County (Sun Valley area) is now the only Blue county in the state. The panhandle always had a smattering of survivalists and homegrown militia, but they were fringe elements and seemed to me like grown men dressing up to play soldier. Not anymore.

According to The Guardian:

Idaho has long been one of the most conservative states in America with its fair share of extremism. Now, critics warn, the extremists are being normalized. Once dismissed as backwoods fanatics, the far right have entered the political arena and identified a path to power.

That path leads through a state Republican party that has long exploited tensions between independent-spirited Idahoans and the federal government, which manages two-thirds of the state’s land, and more recently embraced former president Donald Trump’s culture of grievance.

I want to think our experience with Bonnie was anomalous, but after Jan. 6, 2021 I see that even the most exceptional and radical things are possible. Our institutions from the Supreme Court to Congress are vulnerable and a polarized electorate is walking on eggs waiting to see what happens in the two upcoming election cycles. Bonnie wants us to pray. I will…but it won’t be for the same thing she’s praying for.

Not Far From the Tree…

Remember Bozo the inflatable punching bag clown? Pop him on the nose, watch him flop and then bounce right back up? Trump is Bozo. Knock him down and he pops back up. The crowd loves it. The crowd cheers.

It would be funny if it didn’t have such dire consequences for America. 

The search and seizure of presidential records at Mar-a-Lago is the latest and one of the most egregious examples of Trump as Bozo. Twelve boxes of classified documents were seized, including several marked Top Secret/SCIF, meaning they could only be read in a Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility. “Eyes Only” stuff. Criminal charges could include obstruction of justice, unauthorized possession of national defense information (a violation of the Espionage Act), and concealing or destroying official U.S. documents– punishable by up to three to 20 years respectively.

Nevertheless, undeterred, unchastened and without a trace of contrition, Trump bounced back with an attack on the FBI, the magistrate who authorized the search warrant, and the Department of Justice, claiming that somehow the FBI had planted the evidence they carted off. Then, following the seizure and fearing his wrath, a group of sycophantic Republican leaders – Rubio, McCarthy, Scott, Scalise, Stefanik, Bobert, and Greene joined the parade to condemn the attack. How can this be? Why would once respectable elected officials (along with some not-so-respectables) leap to the defense of a disgraced twice-impeached former president who lied in an affidavit about not having highly classified materials at his Florida estate? Astonishing!

In mid-January, the National Archives and Records Administration retrieved 15 boxes of records and documents Trump took with him when he left the White House. In February, when it was discovered that some of the documents appeared to be classified, the matter was referred to the Justice Department for guidance. In April a DOJ investigation ensued and a grand jury convened when it was learned that Trump was in possession of still more materials. In May a subpoena was issued, and at some point federal agents made an unusual visit to Mar-a-Lago to seek information about the remaining boxes of documents. When the subpoena was ignored DOJ decided to seek a search warrant to retrieve the remaining documents. A firestorm of recriminations ensued.

The first question that comes to mind is why did Trump wanted these documents? It was a clear violation of the Presidential Records Act (44 U.S.C. §§ 2201–2209). So, why was he willing to violate the Act, and what did he intend to do with the booty?

I’m no fan of Donald Trump’s. That’s clear, but in 2016 I accepted that “elections have consequences,” a phrase that turned out to be the understatement of all understatements. By May of 2017 I had seen enough to write an essay called Commander-in-Thief (https://www.jackbernardstravels.com/commander-in-thief), arguing that his behavior in the White House, built on a lifetime of shady business practices and family profiteering continued as he enriched himself at government expense, violated the Emoluments Act, defrauded the Internal Revenue with false valuations and financed projects with laundered money through Deutsche Bank. These, I argued, were grounds for criminal prosecution under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). In 2020 I wrote another essay, RICO Time, calling for the same criminal indictment and prosecution.

____

Now I think I know the answer to the presidential records question. Donald Trump was doing what he has always done. He was thinking of how to monetize the documents in order to enrich himself…somehow. He may not have known how exactly, but he saw another grifting opportunity. A lifelong pattern of lying, cheating, bullying and blackmailing associates, told him they were worth something to somebody.

It’s a forever mystery that so many Americans failed to see through the posturing, false-front, bullying, failed businessman that Trump is and always was. Even more mysterious is the cowering, sycophantic behavior of Republican officials given his long public history of ethical violations. This is the man who lied to avoid military service, hid his college records, cheated on his wives, paid off mistresses and a porn star, cheated tenants, violated fair-housing statutes, used his charitable foundation for personal gain, paid $25 million in fines to settle the Trump University fraud scheme, refused to reveal his tax records, lied about business dealings with the Russians, cheated sub-contractors, illegally profited from business relationships as president, refused to accept the 2020 presidential election results – and did nothing for 187 minutes while the U.S. Capitol was under siege.

Few books have held my attention, over the years, like The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker’s 2002 study of the “nature vs. nurture” controversy. Pinker who explores the fields of visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations as the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University is one of academia’s rock stars. 

I think Pinker would agree; no matter where you come down on nature vs. nurture as the determining factor in human behavior, Donald J. Trump would be a great subject for an in-depth case study. It could be a treasure trove of data on the question of the nature v. nurture. Donald’s father, Fred Sr., was clearly smarter and more successful than his son, but he was a mean-spirited, ethically challenged, ruthless, robber baron…and Donald’s role model. Is that nature or nurture? 

DJT didn’t fall far from the tree, but Donald’s siblings are a mixed bag in the nature v. nurture debate. Fred Jr. (Freddy), the favorite son, wanted nothing to do with the business and drank himself to death. The other three include a federal judge, an in-and-out of Trump Organization businessman and a low-profile housewife. Nothing remarkable in either nature or nurture—or criminality. Donald is the exception – a career white-collar criminal running a vast criminal enterprise. Now let’s see what the DOJ does with it. Will Bozo bounce back yet again?

The End of Days…

America is getting downright crispy. There was a time when “forest fires” savaged large tracts of BLM and Forest Service wilderness and we learned about it in the morning paper or on the nightly news. Back then, when a fire topped the ridges north of Los Angeles, homes in Malibu and Topanga Canyon were on high alert and volunteer fire departments were mobilized to hose down rooftops to keep the embers from torching the neighborhood. But in 2018, the Camp Fire, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, destroyed 19,000 homes and killed 85 people. Since then, out of control fires are a regular occurrence, and residential communities across the country are threatened by fire as never before.

It feels like the Biblical end of days. Even the Pacific Northwest is under a heat advisory. I’m sitting in a darkened living room. Blinds closed. Lights off. Doors open in the hope that a cross-breeze will redirect a whisper of wind. Our east facing front courtyard is leafy with tall camellias, lilacs, bamboo and yew. It gets an hour of overhead sun at midday then it’s shaded for the rest of the day. M hoses it down and the wet pavement helps cool things off.

It’s almost embarrassing to complain of temperatures in the 90s when triple digits have become the norm across the country. We live in a part of the country where air-conditioning is the exception rather than the rule, but climate change is real and after last summer’s hot spell M decided to have A/C installed in our bedroom. As fate would have it, supply chain issues moved the date from Feb. to September and we decided to cancel. On Monday, the A/C in our car stopped working. I remind myself that it’s the end of days, so A/C is the least of our worries.

In the meantime, we sleep under a sheet with the covers thrown off and the doors and windows open. During the day we drink Italian soda with lots of ice and read quietly as if even conversation could raise the temp.

The last three years have conditioned us for these end of days. First came the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Then the plague of Covid-19. Then the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter. Then the 2020 election, the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, and the attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine followed by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And now it’s Monkeypox. Only Cormac McCarthy could turn that sequence into a good story.

Does it matter that the Seattle Mariners have never been to the World Series but have won 22 of their last 25 games, or that Tom Cruise kicked an unnamed foreign adversary’s ass in Top Gun: Maverick? Maybe it does. They are signs of hope and that the good guys might have a future. Does it matter that the House’s Select Committee is moving up the food chain, interviewing Cabinet members and marshalling information about the former guy’s attempt to retain power? I think it does.

I don’t care if Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are still arguing over who did what to whom? I never did. Nor do I care that Tucker Carlson has a testosterone problem. You probably need to work that out in the shower, Tucker, not on primetime TV.  

In the meantime, until the heat index reverses course, we’ll stay in our darkened living room drinking Italian soda, reading a depressing novel called Desperate Characters, and binging on Yellowstone, The Old Man, Hotel Portofino, and never-fail Seinfeld episodes. Who knows, maybe another surprise installment of “the hearings” will rise like the Phoenix from the ashes of January 6. If not, there’s always Zoloft.