What Goes Around…

On August 1, 1999 Robert Gottlieb, the esteemed editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster, reviewed Speaking of Diaghilev in the New York Times Book Review. The book is John Drummond’s definitive biography of Serge Diaghilev, the famous/infamous ballet impresario. Gottlieb is best known as the editor for Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Nora Ephron, John LeCarre and Robert Caro–but he was also a lifelong balletomane and wrote frequently on the subject.

So, why am I telling you this?

Because last week when I was feeling overwhelmed and reflecting on both the good and bad news associated with moving a household, I noticed a yellowed corner of newsprint sticking out of a book in our new bookcase. The book was Speaking of Diaghilev and the clipping was Gottlieb’s review.

The bad news about moving is you have to deal with all the extraneous stuff you’ve accumulated over the years. The good news is you sometimes run across a treasure tucked away and overlooked during those same years. I know it’s not original to talk about “six-degrees of separation” or “what goes around comes around,” but when I unfolded and read Gottlieb’s review I was reminded of how haunting that experience can be. 

I bought the Drummond biography 25 years ago, because I wanted to know more about the history of ballet. Like Gottlieb, I’ve always  been a fan—partly because what dancers do with their bodies is so beyond anything mortals, like me, might be able to do and partly because I admire the marriage of art, music, dance and theater that is embodied in the discipline.

This particular “what goes around comes around” story began in 1998 when I moved back to Seattle. I didn’t have a job but felt it was the right place for me. I rented an extended stay hotel room and started job hunting. Within a couple of months, I ran across a newspaper ad (remember those?) recruiting employees for a new bookstore. Amazon was killing independent bookstores, but Third Place Books was setting itself up to be the anchor tenant in the revamped Lake Forest Park Mall. As an English major I’ve always been a sucker for books. In college I worked at the University of Washington Bookstore and in Salt Lake City I moonlighted a couple of nights a week at The King’s English. So, Third Place wasn’t out of my wheelhouse. I got the job at Third Place and started working there the day it opened. And that’s where I bought the Diaghilev biography.

Fast forward 25 years… In January, we sold our condo and moved to a new apartment in Edmonds. In March our floor to ceiling bookcase was installed, and by the end of April we had unpacked the 40 cartons of books we brought along and the bookcase was full. That’s when I re-discovered the book and the Gottlieb review.

A by-product of my discovery was to feel the absence of ballet in our lives. For several years, pre-Covid, we were Pacific Northwest Ballet subscribers, and even in year-one of the pandemic we committed for the digital season. But we missed the up close and personal experience, and though we felt guilty about dropping it we couldn’t risk mingling with a large crowd in an enclosed space. The arts suffered because of people like us and haven’t fully recovered but things are changing. We’re still careful about crowds but in May M and I went to our first post-Covid ballet and this week we renewed our subscription for the 24-25 season.

One of the new season’s offerings is Romeo and Juliet, and I can’t wait to see it. M and I saw the PNB version in 2008 and it was exceptional. But my indelible first experience was seeing Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn in 1967 at the Opera House in San Francisco. It was a once in a lifetime event. Still… even without that incandescent star power, PNB’s is a heart-wrenching treat.

Diaghilev, Nureyev, Fonteyn and Gottlieb are all gone now. But they’re still in our bookcase. 

Earlier this week Alice Munro died and there was a long obituary in the New York Times. When I finished reading it, I pulled one of her short story collections out of the bookcase, folded the article neatly and placed it inside the cover. Maybe my daughter will see its torn, crinkled, yellowing edge peeking out from Too Much Happiness 25 years from now. Nothing would please me more. It’s part of the good news that comes with the “what goes around comes around” about moving. There are treasures hiding in the stuff we accumulate. It’s good to remember that and not be too eager to Marie Kondo everything before the movers pack it up. RIP Alice Munro!

Do the Right Thing…

I haven’t been here – on the page – since early January. It’s the longest break I’ve taken in 15 years. There are several reasons. M and I sold our condo and moved from the edge of Lake Washington to an apartment overlooking Puget Sound. Moving is not for the lazy or the weak. 

The University of Washington has a life events scale that rates the impact and stress of certain changes—the death of a parent, sibling or spouse, a serious medical problem, etc. Moving, it turns out, is near the top of the scale. Now I know why. 

Nevertheless, it was a great decision for us, and now that we’ve settled in we know it was the right thing to do. We pared down and cleaned out 25 years’ worth of stuff but are grieving the loss of the garden court M worked so hard to populate. We’ll also miss the pool, the park and the bike path, but Edmonds is a tight little town where we can walk everywhere. Lots of restaurants and bars, two blocks from the Kingston ferry, two blocks from the Center for the Arts where we have tickets to see The Wallflowers next month and our apartment is in a building with a wine bar downstairs. Almost perfect.

The other reason for my absence is that I’m 2/3 of the way through year-one of a two-year non-residential novel writing program at Stanford. I knew it would be challenging, but it’s also time consuming. Much harder to make up stuff than write about Trump’s failings or the last movie I saw. I’ve missed writing essays for the blog and it will be hit and miss for a while since I’m committed to the Stanford program. But I don’t want to stop completely, especially with the election looming in November. I plan to post more here in the near future…hopefully.

But the real reason I’m here now is to talk about failure. My own. I like to think of myself as a reasonable person, someone who is chill and above petty grievances. But lately I’ve let myself down and it’s not pretty. I think there’s a lesson to take away.

For almost 25 years I’ve played tennis with a group of guys on Monday nights. That’s right. Twenty-five years. It’s a long time. The group waxes and wanes. New people come in, some move on, and one or two have died. Earlier we fielded some good seasonal USTA teams in the various age groupings, and we were competitive as a 4.0 rated group. Over the years we slipped down to 3.5 and now we’re mostly 3.0. I stopped playing USTA around the time the pandemic changed everything else.

But, this isn’t about the quality of my tennis. It’s about letting myself get petty about something as stupid as a line call. Just writing about it is embarrassing. Here’s the backstory. One of the guys in the Monday night group cheats. He’s cheated for 25 years. Everyone knows he cheats. Anything close to the line he calls in his favor and he misremembers the score that way too. When it’s egregious we draw the line and he concedes. He is to tennis what Trump is to golf. Mostly we overlook it and go on to the next point, but for some reason I let it get under my skin last week. He’s been pissing me off for years and it’s been smoldering under the surface. Last week it boiled over. I’d had it and after a couple of bad line calls I called him an asshole and stalked off the court. How small is that? Two old guys playing recreational tennis having a shit-fit over a line call.

I know it’s a stretch, but it’s a tiny example of how everything seems to be going globally. The deaths of George Floyd. Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, and locally of Manuel Ellis and Native American woodcarver John T. Williams stand out. People are shooting and stabbing each other over trivialities. Cops are shooting jaywalkers and jaywalkers are shooting cops. National politics is a blood sport. Putin is killing thousands in an effort to restore the Soviet Union. Netanyahu has killed 32,000 Palestinians to avenge the death of 1200 Israelis, and Trump is calling for violence against anyone (except Aileen Cannon) that has anything to do with the justice system.

This  past Monday I sucked it up and apologized for losing it. He’s not evil, just a cheat. The apology probably wasn’t very convincing, but I needed to do it–for me if not for him. Do the right thing, as Spike Lee would say. I believe in cycles and maybe this one will pass but, like writing a novel, it’s hard to see the future from here. It comes down to personal responsibility. In a few years Trump, Biden, Netanyahu, Putin and I will all be gone. I hope the new blood will right the ship. Until then I’ll do my best to follow Spike Lee’s dictum. In fact, let’s all “Do the right thing.”

Breaking News: Trump Dies of Covid-19*

Year-end is always about fresh starts, reflection and speculation. Since I’m writing a novel, my imagination is probably more active than at other times and less grounded in reality.

The novel’s plot features a number of ghosts who return to advise and haunt the living characters. One of the ghosts is Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States who, in my creative rendering of the past, present and future dies of Covid-19 in the White House residence on October 10, 2020.

In real life, he reported that he and Melania had tested positive for the virus on October 2nd, and later that day he was airlifted to Walter Reed Hospital. On October 4th he left the hospital briefly to wave to supporters before returning to WR for further treatment. On the 5th, against the advice of his doctors, he returned to the White House, struggled up the steps of the South Portico and dramatically ripped the surgical mask from his face, telling the crowd below not to be afraid of the virus.

In my fictional replay of events, he dies in the residence within days though details of the date, time and circumstances were not available.

Following the news release of his passing crowds surged in violent mobs across the country. Martial law was invoked, and a nationwide curfew imposed. Within hours,Vice-President Pence was sworn in as the 46th president and within a month most of the nation had accepted the truth–the virus was real, and Trump was dead. No amount of jaw-boning, posturing or horse medicine could change the facts.

President Pence performed the duties of president in his characteristically inoffensive, wooden puppet manner, but in 2020 the electorate overwhelmingly chose Joseph Robinette Biden the 47th President of the United States and a peaceful transition of power took place on January 20, 2021.

Following Trump’s sudden and surprising death:

  • More than 90% of the population came forward to receive the Covid-19 vaccine and two booster shots.
  • Democrats retained control of both houses of Congress and significant legislation was enacted to restore infrastructure, control inflation, impose universal background checks for firearm purchases, prohibit high capacity magazines and military-style weapons, and grant citizenship to DACA status immigrants.
  • Mitch McConnell failed to force confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and when Democrats regained control of the Senate in 2021 Merrick Garland was confirmed as its newest Justice.
  • In 2023 with more revelations by ProPublica of ethical and financial impropriety, Clarence Thomas resigned from the Supreme Court, and he and Ginny are now gracefully enjoying the RV life he so admired.
  • The anti-vax community and its leader Robert F. Kennedy Jr. lost all credibility, diminished in size and was unable to exercise political clout or influence on healthcare policy. 
  • In 2024 Judge Arthur Engoron found the Trump Organization guilty of defrauding investors and the State of New York, assessed a fine of $250 million and revoked its business licenses leading to a collapse of the organization and its eventual bankruptcy.
  • Before filing for bankruptcy the family donated Mar a Lago to the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library and Theme Park whose main attraction is the open casket of the former president. For $25 visitors may view him, perfectly embalmed, and restored by the same Russian team that annually restores Ho Chi Minh. Visitors may also purchase T-shirts, NFTs and other memorabilia with likenesses of the former president as Superman and The Terminator in the dining room, now gift shop, managed by Kimberly Guilfoyle and Lara Trump.
  • Jared and Ivanka after being shunned in Miami now reside in the penthouse of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai with a summer cottage next to Mohammed Bin Salman’s palace on the Red Sea.

Yes, this is a fever dream–pure fantasy. 

Happy New Year!

*This is pure fiction. Donald J. Trump is still alive and living his fantasy life in Florida with Rapunzel in the tower and the seven dwarfs – Jason, Stephen, Walt, Johnny, etc. – reading classified documents in the Mar a Lago loo.

My Belief in Cycles…

With everything that’s happening on the planet these days I’m paying increased attention to all its cycles–cosmic, solar, historical, political, business, gestational and creative. Some, like cosmic, solar and gestational are immutable. The others are at the mercy of humans and human events.

In the fifth century B.C. the Greek historian and geographer Herodotus was the first to categorize and investigate ethnographical, geographical, and historical events and come up with a theory regarding their origins. It was the first systematic theory of history. Over the 2600 years since other theories have been propounded–Thomas Carlyle’s Great Forces or Great Man theory, Arnold Toynbee’s Challenge and Response theory, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The “random” theory,” currently in favor, holds the interaction of billions of humans and their choices along with all the other natural and unnatural factors in the world creates history with no discernible flow or path.

In college I had the good fortune to study with the remarkable Giovanni Costigan. For 41 years he captivated University of Washington history students. I went to his classes even when I wasn’t enrolled. Costigan subscribed to Oswald Spengler’s philosophy of history as articulated in his two volume treatise The Decline of the West.  The German historian believed that each civilization has a life cycle that includes childhood, youth, manhood and old age, and at the end of its cycle a civilization becomes “a petrified body characterized in the modern age by technology, imperialism, and mass society which he expected to fossilize and decline from the 2000s onward.” He published the theory in 1918 but 100 years later his forecast is turning out to be as timely as it was uncanny.

I wanted to believe otherwise, but recent events, natural and political, have moved me closer to Spengler’s view. In the past I described myself as a short term pessimist and long term optimist. Today I see myself as an existentialist watching the world unravel.

I’ve lived a life of privilege–born white, born in 20th century America, born healthy, born into a middle-class family. I was the beneficiary of a free public education from kindergarten through law school, became a Marine Corps fighter pilot during peacetime and a Pan Am pilot during the glory days of commercial aviation. For the past 25 years I’ve lived with my fifth-grade girlfriend. All good fortune.

Despite that good fortune, seven years ago I began to doubt my positive view of our civilization. It was jolting. It’s clear that we haven’t lived up to our potential or honored those who gave us our system of government. We ignored both nature and our “better angels.” We didn’t learn the lessons of our own Civil War or those of WWI or WWII. We never accepted the equality of races, genders or religions. We didn’t listen to what science was telling us about climate change and the effect it has on our planet.

And while we have elected some visionary leaders, we are also electing ignorant, greedy, ambitious demagogues–Putin, Xi, Orban, Bolsonaro, Milei, Modi, Netanyahu, Trump, and the unelected military juntas in Afghanistan, Myanmar. We celebrate and reward the wealth of ego maniacs like Elon Musk and largely ignore the grace and generosity of Melinda French Gates and MacKenzie Bezos.

My steadfast belief in America’s aspirational values has cracks and dents. It’s existential now. We were flawed but I believed in our system. Even after Trump’s defeat I believed we could recover. But Biden has squandered whatever good will America gained in uniting NATO in support of Ukraine. His handling of our departure from Afghanistan and his tone deaf full-throated support for Netanyahu and Israel’s destruction of Gaza are unforgiveable. The last straw was Friday’s American veto of a UN resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease fire.

The score today is 1200 violent Israeli deaths on October 7th in contrast to the 18,000 violent Palestinian deaths and untold thousands of maimed, displaced, homeless, and starving Gazans at the hands of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). Unconscionable.

I still believe in cycles. My granddaughter, Georgia, and her wife, Lisa, hope to have a child next year. My grandsons, Will and Charlie, are in college. Eamon is planning to become an apprentice electrician, and Matt Jr. is in a bank training program. Ben and Lucie, are excellent student athletes, and the youngest, Leevi, is in elementary school. I hope the world takes care of them. They don’t deserve less.

There must be a degree of optimism baked into our DNA, because even I, at some level, remain aspirational. In September I was accepted for a two-year online novel writing program at Stanford. There are 60 of us in the program, and I’m encouraged when I see the talent and positive energy the others generate. Keep me, and them, in your thoughts this holiday season. I will keep you in mine. Be well.

Biden, Gaza and 2024…

The 2024 presidential race is already underway, and I am deeply concerned. Ron DeSantis, Nicky Haley, Tim Scott, Robert Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, Joe Biden… and Trump. The list sounds like the next round of Dancing with the Stars hopefuls.

Where is the candidate to inspire us? Where is the one with real leadership skills who might be able pull the divided country together?

I’m emotionally torn these days, the way so many are — feeling strong affection and appreciation for Joe Biden and yet feeling gripped simultaneously by a pounding fear that a Biden-led party will lose next year and lead to a Trumpian Götterdämmerung. Like many Americans, I’ve found myself having The Conversation over and over again, with friends, sources and people who work in Democratic politics: whether Biden is the best candidate to defeat Trump, his chances of winning, if there’s some better course.David Brooks, (New York Times)

In addition to Brooks, David Ignatius (Washington Post), Frank Bruni and Ezra Klein (New York Times) Robert Reich (The Guardian), Steve Inskeep (NPR) and Mike Allen (Axios)–all Democrats–have written columns suggesting it might be better if he dropped out.

It will be hard, but if no one else steps up, I will hold my nose and vote for Biden. None of the others has what it takes to repair what ails the country or even patch the leaking ship of state? It’s not that I don’t trust Biden or his policies. I believe in his inherent goodness, but recent actions have shown me he’s well past his pull date–as the list of political columnists above has eloquently and persuasively written.

I can’t overstate my disappointment with “Scranton Joe.” I think he did a creditable job as Obama’s wingman and liaison to a dysfunctional Congress, and early in his presidency he pushed through some remarkable legislation on infrastructure. But recently he’s shown how clueless and tone deaf he is. Inviting his criminally charged son Hunter and wife to a White House state dinner awash in photographers was a ridiculous gaffe. Then, he does nothing about his German Shepherd, Commander, until after he’s bitten ten of the White House staff, mostly Secret Service. Finally, last week, after number eleven he was sent back to Delaware. But that’s minor compared to his owner’s recent lapses of judgment.

His decision to visit Israel following the slaughter of Israelis by Hamas vigilantes was the last straw for me. It wasn’t a diplomatic move–to broker a settlement or show solace for the victims. He was there to show America’s whole-hearted support for Israel, including gifts of military equipment and $14 Billion. Standing beside Benjamin Netanyahu, the far-right, corrupt, under indictment Prime Minister, he pledged 100% American support for the PM’s determination to level Gaza as retribution for the Hamas attack. It eerily reminded me of Trump standing next to Putin in Helsinki where he said “I don’t see why it would have been Russia.

It’s true, Israel is a long time American ally, but Netanyahu is shifty. He needs a win here in order to shore up his fragile political coalition, and the Middle East is a powder keg. The PM and Israel’s quickly assembled War Council are behaving like bullies. Palestinians, including those in Gaza and on the West Bank, were dealt an unplayable hand in 1948. Nobody should be treated as they have been.

In the early 60s I admired Israel’s grit and achievements. I’m not even Jewish but I naively wrote and asked about becoming an Israeli Air Force pilot, because I thought it was the best in the world at the time.

But in 1965 I saw my first Palestinian refugee camp–in Beirut–and knew the situation was untenable. Seven thousand Palestinians were still living in tin shacks 17 years after they were displaced by the founders of Israel. It was only a matter of time. I knew there was a violent confrontation coming.

For the first 50 years, PMs like Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres made good faith efforts to find a solution to the Palestinian problem, but for the last 27 years, since Netanyahu’s first term, Israel has turned his back on peaceful resolution by refusing to negotiate, encouraging Jewish settlements on the West Bank and rebuffing outside diplomatic efforts to find a two state solution.

The US couldn’t stop what happened on October 7th. Neither could Israel. Their flawed intelligence failed them. And the Hamas incursion, two years in the planning, was executed with stunning force and bloody success.

I believe Biden should have acknowledged its depravity and given Israel words of support but stayed away. Instead, he pledged America’s full throated support while pledging arms and money to support the wealthiest and most advanced military in the Middle East. Israel doesn’t need our money–Ukraine does. In fact, the biggest loser in the Israel/Hamas conflict is probably Ukraine.

Over the weekend, Israel launched its long anticipated ground assault on Gaza. Hamas killed 1400 Israelis in their surprise cross border attack on October 7th. Since then, 8300 Gazan civilians have died, roughly 70% of them women and children, from constant, continuing Israeli air attacks–even before the current ground invasion. Israel vs. Gaza will never be fair fight. War is never a solution. Israel is a rich, powerful, military and nuclear power. Gaza is a tiny, disorganized patch of land with two million inhabitants governed by a terrorist organization. But Gazan civilians are not Hamas. They deserve better than what they’re getting from either side at this point. They are as much hostages as the 222 Israelis being held prisoner.

America should do everything it can to find a diplomatic solution, but Joe Biden needs to step back from his 1960 view of Israel and let the diplomats have a chance to resolve the Israel-Gaza conflict. The United Nations has called for a ceasefire. So has the European Union. Even prominent Jewish leaders in America have. Criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. They shouldn’t be conflated. When friends make mistakes it’s important to call them out.

I’m looking for an inspiring leader to vote for in 2024–one with fresh ideas. I don’t see him or her yet, but things could change. If they don’t I’ll cast what may be my final presidential vote for Joe Biden. The others are third tier wannabes and a twice-impeached, four times indicted, mob boss-like former president.