Monday, March 8, 2021

Why Meghan Matters

 It's always amusing the day after there's a televised interview of some celebrity to see the inevitable tweets by people who you KNOW tuned in, but still feel they need to harrumph about how stupid it is to be interested in these people. And when these people are part of British royalty, Americans go almost as nuts as the British do.

Yes, I watched the whole thing. But this wasn't a piece of fluff. This was a metaphorical bomb lobbed right into the rebuilt metaphorical door of Kensington Palace that a soon-to-be-former princess named Diana virtually detonated in 1995. That inbred bunch isn't going to go quietly. They'll keep putting those doors back up until the stones holding them up crumble.



The US may have had its birth in a declaration of independence from a king, but it seems that for the entire time I've been alive, we've been trying to get back to a monarchy. I came to awareness during the Kennedy years, when the First Lady herself anointed her husband's White House as "Camelot." Americans loved the glamour of the Kennedy years, with a First Couple who looked great in formal wear and hosted concerts in the gilded East Room.  Many people envisioned a Kennedy dynasty, with Bobby reclaiming the throne in 1968, and other Kennedys, who were a constant presence in those days, taking over from there.  But the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, followed by l'affaire Chappaquiddick, Joe III's messy divorce, JFK Jr.'s plane crash, and on and on and on, have pretty much banished the would-be Kennedy dynasty to the dustbin of history.

And yet the quest for dynasties continue. Caroline Kennedy dipped her toe in the waters for a while. There's always talk of Chelsea Clinton. Michelle Obama may have been the only person who could have defeated Joe Biden last year. The Bush family snagged two presidencies and might have had a third, had Donald Trump not brought his entire circus down that gilded escalator in 2015. And had Beau Biden not died tragically from brain cancer at far too young an age, we might be looking at yet another Biden running for president in 2024 or 2028. 

And then there's the Trumps, whose aspirations clearly go far beyond a genteel political dynasty and into a kind of grotesque parody of a monarchy, in which Ivanka would forever be a princess and Don Jr. the heir apparent -- all the jewelry and none of the noblesse oblige. Such royal pretentiouns should have been met with mockery, but our fascination with monarchy and dynasties still hasn't died, even after 244 years.

The most pervasive and insidious manifestation of this is the ubiquity of the Princess rite of passage for girls in the US. We're rotten with princesshood.  Every little girl in the country cuts her teeth on one Disney princess or another. For girls like me -- chubby, homely, weird, cranky -- being a princess meant being pretty and slim. It meant being able to wear pretty new clothes instead of their sisters' hand-me-downs It meant fabulous gowns and a guarantee of happiness, and perhaps most importantly, it made you Popular

Watch any episode of TLC's Say Yes to the Dress and you'll see at least one Jersey Bimbo with big hair, surgically-enhanced breasts, 4" impeccably manicured talons, a voice like a foghorn, and $15,000 to spend on a jeweled gown so she can "feel like a princess." Or you'll see a Barbie-lookalike blond who wants to "feel like Diana" on her wedding day. Yes, that last one still happens even now that we know that Diana walked down the aisle looking to see where Camilla was. Or you'll see a size-22 who brings in a photo of a bejeweled gown on a size 0 model and cries when the dress she loves doesn't come in her size. The whole Bridezilla thing is nothing but the Princess Myth writ large. I thought back in 1997 that the princess nonsense would finally also die in that twisted wreckage in the tunnel in Paris, but it keeps rising from the dead like supply-side economics. Princesshood is so pervasive, and so practically ingrained into our DNA at this point, that while covering Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding, two perfectly respectable women journalists did this:


After all, isn't a royal wedding the ne plus ultra of princesshood, combining the entire Disney princess trope with the the mystique that is the Bridal Gown? 

And yet here we are now, with the giant turd that Harry and Meghan have laid in the Royal Punchbowl, and never has a punch bowl more richly deserve to be turd-ed. Because the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Mountbatten-Windsors have to be the most dysfunctional familiy in the world not named "Trump."

Full disclosure: I've always had kind of a soft spot for Harry. Mr. Brilliant and I had been married just shy of 11 years when Diana died, and I knew how much Mr. B's mother's death when he was twelve impacted his life. And while I was watching Diana's funeral, because of course I did, I kept looking at that little boy, compelled to walk, stone-faced, behind his mother's coffin on worldwide television. You don't get over that. Mr. B never got over his mother's death either, though the story I was told about her changed in his last months from him being her favorite until she died to her always having been cruel. I can tell you, though, that on his last conscious evening in this world, which doubled as our 27th anniversary, he spent our entire anniversary dinner talking bitterly about having to spend five days sitting in front of his mother's open casket at her wake when he was 12. You don't get over that. So I kind of get it. Now imagine living through that at age 12, growing up, getting married and finding it happening again WITH YOUR OWN WIFE.

I realize that we put suits of metaphorical clothes that suit our own agendas on celebrities whose lives interest us. But watching Harry in the second part of last night's interview, my theory that his choice of  Meghan Markle was, however unconsciously, his ticket out of the dysfunctional clusterfuck that is his family and the institution that has trapped them, became highly plausible.

I'll be honest -- I had no idea who Meghan Markle was until she showed up in Vanity Fair magazine in 2017. And I had no idea that she was a woman of color. At one time, someone who looked like her would have "passed for white" if she'd been so inclined. Hell, MY MOTHER had similar coloring and she was an Ashkenazi Jew. 

Could Harry have really been so obtuse as to believe that this wouldn't matter in an institution that has become first and foremost about overseeing a colonialist Commonwealth disproportionately populated by people of color? I don't think so.  By 2017, his brother William had two children, and Harry was no longer needed as "the spare." But leaving that crew without a damn good reason was unthinkable. And when he and Meghan committed the unforgiveable sin of being more charming, more popular and made "better copy" than the necessarily staid heirs, well, the ugly underbelly of the already-ugly-enough tabloid culture in the UK and its psychotically dysfunctional relationship with The Institution became the final stamp on Harry's ticket out of it all; the ticket he'd purchased when he chose this particular woman in the first place.

So why does it matter? Why did this interview feel weightier than other coverage of the weird American fascination with royalty?  Because racism is insidious, and because the US doesn't have a patent on it. Because you can be the lightest-skinned woman of color, and you can still be treated by white people as less than human. Your in-laws will concern troll you about how it will LOOK if your baby has darker skin than they deem to be seemly. Your newborn will be branded as a chimpanzee or a monkey -- something which shows that even though slavery in England proper had largely disappeared by 1800 (though it it didn't in places like the West Indies), and interracial marriage was not illegal, the UK has nothing to pat itself on the back about compared to publications in the US that published drawings of our first Black president and his wife as monkeys.

It's been interesting watching the same sorry scenario of a woman unprepared for and unwilling to buy into the stifling, anachronistic formality of an institution that long ago outlived its usefulness, nearly destroyed by it. I don't think Diana was as strong as she wanted to believe she was, but she was strong enough to blow a hole in the myth of happily ever after as the inevitable outcome of a royal wedding -- and to get out of it.  The Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Mountbatten-Windsors could have learned something, and perhaps if Diana had lived, even if outside the Firm, they would have. But her death allowed them to once again close the door to modernity, to diversity, to enlightenment -- until a Black woman, as Black women did in the US in the 2020 election, showed up and tried to save The Firm from itself. Because it's always up to Black women to clean up the messes that white people leave behind. This time it didn't work. But the white people behind that closed door now have to live with their mess, while the Black woman gets to leave with her head held high.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

When "the middle" is a Kansas church that uses white nationalist imagery, the hell with it

UPDATE:  Jeep has now pulled the Springsteen Jeep ad because it seems that Mr. Middle was busted for DUI last fall.  Somewhere out there, Irony is laughing her ass off.

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 The Super Bowl has always been for me nothing but  the first of three new year mileposts on the way to Spring Training, the other two being the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Of course in this Year Two of the coronavirus pandemic, with said virus seeming bound and determined to remove our miserable species from the planet, these Rituals of American Excess just don't have the same energy they usually do. 

The latter two of these displays of American Excess, those festivals of  hideous designer clothing and self-congratulation, are likely to be virtual this year, and the thought of movie stars accepting awards from their living rooms while dressed in chihuahua pajamas just points out how these awards shows really ARE just about the clothes. And with most of us having seen few if any of the nominated movies (how do you distinguish a movie from a TV show these days anyway), what's the point of spending three hours on JUST the self-congratulation? I have to admit a morbid fascination with the "In Memoriam" segments, mostly because I'm at an age where the cultural touchstones of my youth are dropping like flies, which just adds to my sense of being Next In Line For Oblivion. But overall, I think I'd be far better served by watching something I missed because my fascination with the Parade of Horrors that the final years of Orange Pinochet have been have had me glued to the news.

The only time I can recall being interested in the Super Bowl, or being at something resembling a Super Bowl party was in 2008, Giants vs. Patriots, when we had friends over and one of them assured me that even though Mr. Brilliant was adamant that he hated turkey meatballs, he'd love HER turkey meatballs, and she was right. It was a great game, actually, with the Giants winning in the last few seconds. Usually the game is such a lugubrious affair, relentlessly hyped for the two weeks beforehand, but inevitably resulting in a boring game played between two teams that nobody really likes outside of their cities, and  a mediocre "Triumph Of The Will"-reminiscent, pyrotechnics-heavy half-time entertainment. Starting in the 2000s, these shows became less about a theme and more about what Major Star (TM) the NFL could get for it. It's been was a time of Major Stars indeed, with the likes of Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, and Michael Jackson upping the ante of big names. These days all I know about the halftime performers is their names, other than Bruno Mars in 2014, and that only because Uptown Funk was not only the Earworm of the Year, but because of the many YouTube mashups of classic film dance sequences to it.

Because the game itself is almost always boring, and because the lifecycle of the Huge Pop Star (there are no Huge Rock Stars under age 60 anymore) is so short, the Big Game has become about the commercials. That the Super Bowl is primarily a psuedo-holiday devoted to consumption of artery-clogging processed food in a house full of people or crowded bar made it difficult to market in this pandemic year.  Far too many Americans are simply unable to buy the stuff they used to, or even the wings 'n' nachos; and celebrating barely weeks after a mob exhorted to violence by an on-the-way-out president came uncomfortably close to murdering various members of Congress, but chose as a consolation prize a Capitol police officer, beating him to death with a fire extinguisher, seemed just a tad inappropriate. So even the hype this year seemed kind of half-hearted, and so the ads did too.

And then there was this:




I'm not sure who Jeep was targeting this ad to, other than perhaps Joe Scarborough, who predictably spent the better part of an entire segment on Monday waxing rhapsodic about it.  After all, the white male middle is Scarborough's stock in trade, and as everyone who watches Morning Joe knows, it's exactly the same kind of predominantly white, predominantly suburban, predominantly Christian middle that non-crazy white men long for these days. Jewish liberals like me were made queasy by the relentless Christianist iconography, particularly the shot of the cross over a stars-and-stripes-festooned map of the US, topped with the exhortation "PRAY AMERICA," which someone with a clue should have known is common among white nationalists. And what the hell does THIS image mean? Is it meant to depict the crucifixion? Is the barbed wire a symbol for Trump's wall? Or are these crosses waiting to be lit on fire?


WHAT THE HELL ARE THEY SAYING HERE?

And then the cluelessness is compounded by the craggy, nearly-unrecognizable face of the aged Bruce Springsteen, an outspoken liberal from New Jersey who fancies himself, and indeed has been anointed by some, as the Second Coming of Woody Guthrie. While Guthrie, who died of Huntington's Disease at age 55, didn't live long enough to be come the Craggy Wise Elder, Springsteen has, and  that is the look Springsteen and Jeep are going for here. Springsteen's heart is in the right place, and aside from an unfortunate and mercifully brief foray in the 1980s into the obligatory buff-muscled marry-a-fashion-model phase, he has done a good job of putting his money where his mouth is over the years. So it's hard to believe that even a Michigan-based ad agency was clueless enough to see Springsteen as someone that the people who go to that church in Kansas that's depicted in the ad will see as One of Them. I wonder if Springsteen got to see the ad after it was done, and frankly, I wonder if he realized what it looks like for those not in the targeted demographic.   Because it is an ad that excludes people of color, urban people, women, those who realize that the middle is essentially where  the Democratic establishment is, and anyone other than right-wing Christian males. It is an ad targeted specifically to those very white people who attempted to overturn an election and overthrow our institutions, asking them to buy a vehicle developed for the military, shilled for by a liberal rock star who lives in the New York tri-state area.

It's easy for me to think well, maybe I'm just being paranoid. I've often felt over the last eight years that I am doomed to re-live my mother's life, but until the pandemic forced relentless solitude upon me, with Zoom being only a partial balm, my active social life allowed me to think perhaps I'm not doomed to EXACTLY the same path. But now it seems that I am, and increasingly of late, I seem to be doomed to another of her less-charming traits, and that is seeing anti-Semitism around every corner. But of course, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they AREN'T out to get you.  Still -- was I overreacting?  Not according to The Wifely Person:

"I really tried to look at this ad from a whole bunch of viewpoints. It didn't matter. The words did not match the images. The images were pretty clearly directed at Christian Whites, the ones who were still donating to Feckless Loser's campaign to overturn the election. Were they targeting that group subliminally to say, It's over; come back to the centrist position of the GOP ? Or were they telling them White Supremacy is the source of light and truth? It's not easy to discern which message is the target message when the images do not match the words. 
"These guys spend tons of money on ads. This one is two minutes plus. There is no way you will ever convince me that the ad agency did not know what it was doing, or that Bruce Springsteen thought this was benign. It's inconceivable. 
"There is nothing benign or harmless about this ad. Anything Springsteen has to say about it will be coached and probably apologetic, but all bullshit. They knew exactly what they were putting up and they were hoping We, the People would aw, shucks the Boss in his cowboy clothes. They were counting on the emotional impact, but not the one it appears to have punched." 
If you're tempted to dismiss her as just another paranoid Jew, there's Phil Woodson, an actual Christian pastor, who saw it too -- and explains in excruciating detail, which I highly recommend you read.

I realize that I've just written a very long screed about a Super Bowl ad when I haven't been able to focus enough to write about the election, the insurrection of January 6, the inauguration of the first person of color and woman as Vice President, the miracle that is Amanda Gorman, or even yesterday's Impeachment Redux. Perhaps it's that these things are just too big for my brain to handle, given that I lost my ability to focus and concentrate one day in March 2013 when I received an email from Mr. Brilliant at work that said "The ultrasounds weren't good. Please call me" -- and it has never really returned. But this relentless focus on a middle that is ONLY about the white and the Christian as being an ideal that means All Is Right With The World is terrifying on a very visceral level to those who don't fit the description. At least this screed deals with something real and immediate.  I COULD have written about that ad which uses Pete Seeger's paean to mill workers to sell Volvos to hipster douchebags who find parenting to be just too hard.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Every election is the most important of our lifetime, but this one really is - personal thoughts on November 2020

 I used to love fall. 

By September or early October, I'd have had enough of summer and the cool weather made me come alive. There's something about the angle of the sun in the fall, the way it hits the changing leaves. There's a smell to fall too; it's the smell of fire pits and cinnamon and now the ubiquitous "pumpkin spice." It's cocoa and a good book and a fuzzy throw and the cats hunkered down all yin/yang on something soft or burrowed under the comforter.


2013 changed all that.  Now I navigate the period from September 22 - October 5 with a kind of vague dread, reliving Mr. B's last days in the ICU year after  year after year.  This was the seventh anniversary (yes, really) and perhaps because of a song that's been played for a decade and a half but has special resonance for me forever, seven years seems particularly resonant.



After seven years, and the knowledge of how high a recurrence rate bladder cancer has, and about what real life is for many people with moyamoya is despite surgeries, I have come to where I can think "If Mr. B. were alive today, he wouldn't be alive today."  There's a comfort in that. He was not a man who was going to be able to cope with recurrent metastatic bladder cancer, or with not being able to drive for X number of years due to history of seizures, or with having occasional TIAs. He was nowhere near ready to throw in the towel on working, but until recently not being able to drive would have been a career killer for him. There was never going to be a happy ending there; at best there might have been a delayed one.

Autumn in North Carolina is different.  It stays warmer longer. We seem to have drown-or-drought. There are always trees that stay green all winter.  The skies are bluer.  And as November progresses, the overall pall of grey that seems to hang over New Jersey in that month is absent, and that helps leaven the memories with reminders that life continues. 

This year is different, though. This year has had a mind-numbing sameness to it. I've been in semi-isolation since mid-March, due to the coronavirus pandemic, which the man up for re-election today has made sure may never go away in my lifetime. After building a life here in my chosen home in an attempt to not relive my mother's life, here I am, reliving my mother's life -- alone; my social contacts largely limited to Zoom calls, telephone, 15-minute driveway chats, and the occasional outdoor lunch. But it gets dark early now, and colder, and soon I will be hunkered down with the aforementioned fuzzy throw, the cats, and more streaming content than I can consume in a lifetime.

And today is Election Day, 2020. Four years ago, I was the only person I knew who thought Donald Trump would win, as impossible as that seemed.  Why did I think that?  Five words:  IT SHOULDN'T BE THIS CLOSE.

If you hadn't spent the 1980s in the New York metropolitan area, you probably thought that Donald Trump was the successful businessman of "The Apprentice."  Most Americans didn't know what he was. The media did, but they also knew he was good for delivering audience eyeballs to advertisers.  It should never have been close enough for the Comey letter to make a difference, or Russian propaganda to make a difference. But it was. And it did.

And it is too close for comfort today. 

We always say that this is the election of our lifetime, but this year it is.  George W. Bush mused about things being easier if he were a dictator, and yes, people like me feared he might try it. But while we didn't realize it at the time, GWB had one thing that Donald Trump does not have:  a basic respect for American institutions. Donald Trump doesn't, as we have seen over the last four years. Today there is absolutely no excuse for not knowing what Donald Trump is.  And still -- nearly half of Americans support him.  I used to say that there was a hard-core 31-32% that would never turn on the GOP and George W. Bush. This was the core of white evangelicals, and die-hard war hawks who would rather be drawn and quartered than vote for a Democrat. But now it's the "Trump Core", or "Trump Cult", if you will -- and it is 40-44%.  

So no, I am not optimistic about today.  This is the death knell of white male patriarchy.  It is armed, and it is not going down without a fight.  Joe Biden may squeak this out today.  And who knows, John Roberts may decide that for all that he doesn't seem to care much about voting rights, he cares very much about his legacy.  And Neal Gorsuch, who may only SEEM less doctrinaire because of the Trumpesque grievance philosophy of Brett Kavanaugh and the retrograde religious fervor of Amy C. Barrett, may also look at the big picture.  But we are in for a very ugly few months, perhaps years, no matter what happens today.

And I am by no means confident that there won't be a smoking ruin where the United States of America used to be when it's over.

VOTE. And....



Thursday, September 24, 2020

What is the extent of our obligation to know?

 I've always been a bit of a Cassandra.  At times, if there's a silver lining, I'll find the dark cloud. How much of this is just my nature, how much of it is garden variety Jewish pessimism born of inherited Holocaust-related PTSD that at least one study has shown is an actual thing, and how much is born of the experience of having always been short, fatter than others, and always marching to a different drummer, I cannot say. But I've never had the sense that "everything will work out fine."  

Everything DOESN'T work out fine. That's not to say that the worst possible scenario always occurs, because it doesn't.  And once we get into the habit of worrying about things, that habit is hard to break.  A very good therapist once told me that "Worry doesn't change any outcome.  It keeps your mind busy so you think you have control when you really don't." I have had to remind myself of this over and over again, especially since early 2013.

There is a kind of pessimism I've noticed in life that seems to be uniquely Jewish. It is informed by a long heritage of "You're not paranoid if they really ARE out to get you." For thousands of years, there have been attempts to eradicate the Jews, and yet we persevere.  It's something of which we are proud, but that pride always comes with a sense of unease.  

I used to get irritated with my mother, who saw anti-Semites around every corner.  There were very few gentiles that she ever really trusted.  This was not because she was so religious, because she wasn't. What she WAS, was a very damaged woman whose own mother had seen her parents and three sisters come to the US, become homesick, and return home to Poland, just in time for Hitler. Home movies from my mother's early childhood show a happy child with a smiling mother.  Yet somewhere along the line, that changed. I suspect that when my grandmother found out what had happened to her family, her grief and guilt destroyed her.  With no therapists or support groups available in those days, she took it out on her husband and children. Certainly the dour grandmother I knew bore no relation to the woman in these videos. And the mother I had bore little resemblance to the happy child in the videos.


But when I look around me today; when the name "George Soros" is used as a dogwhistle that means "Jews", when I see a president who calls people who march in the streets chanting "Jews will not replace us" some "very fine people," I have to both rethink whether my mother was really wrong, and also give thanks that she is not here to a) see this; and b) gloat and say "I told you so." Because it often DOES feel unsafe to be even a lapsed secular Jew in this country today.

Whatever the reason, the feeling of being besieged is something that exists so deeply in my soul that all that therapy has been able to do is give me the tools to cope with it.  And my way of coping has been not to worry, but just be cognizant of the dangers and then kind of shrug my shoulders and say "What is going to happen will happen." 

Before going on, I want to make one thing clear:  The many words spilled above on Jewish fear do not mean that Jews, American or otherwise, have some kind of a patent on suffering.  I am writing this on the day after a grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky has refused to issue any charges against police officers who pumped six bullets into a young woman named Breonna Taylor while she slept, and months after the summary execution in the street of a man named George Floyd.  This has been a summer of systematic and institutional eliminationism of Black Americans; one that has forced many of us whose skin is white, even those of us who are Jews, to examine the ways that we take for granted the benefit of the doubt that is given to us by virtue of our skin color. My view is that as people who have benefitted from white privilege while simultaneously dealing with the generations of reality of bigotry and eliminationism, we have a special obligation to fight alongside our Black Lives Matter kin. 

We are suffering right now from grief overload, from outrage overload, from terror overload, and all this is combined with the isolation many of us are enduring from the coronavirus pandemic. I'm weathering this better on the surface than many people are, because most of the time I seem able to "compartmentalize" it all.  I am steeped in news much of the time, whether it's having news on as background sound to help minimize my sense of aloneness, or because I've been a news junkie since I was twelve. 

People have asked me, "How can you stay so calm?" I tell them it's because I can compartmentalize. I know where my burnout point is, and then I tune into TinyKittens or Kitten Academy or I watch reaction videos on YouTube or something else to quiet my brain down a bit. My blood pressure is still normal. I sleep well. So to some degree it's working.  But not completely, because my hair loss in the last six months has been alarming.  My old hair stylist in New Jersey used to say he could always tell when I was under stress because my hair was thinner on top.  I think back to 2013, when I was dealing with Mr. B's illness and death and the loss of Maggie and Jenny, all while working an extremely high-stress job. Or 2015, when my father died before I could get to Florida to visit one more time. Or when I moved.  Or when I was still working 14 hours a day from home and was so tired that I would look at my work and it might as well have been written in Aramaic. Yes, my hair would thin out, but not now, when not even the "old lady combover" I've been doing for the last five years, pulling everything to the front, covers what is happening.

Back in 2004, I started writing at the old place just after the 2004 Democratic National Convention because poor Mr. B. needed a break from my incessant ranting.  These days, most of my ranting takes place over on Facebook, where some of even my closest friends and relatives have unfollowed me because they just can't deal with the things I'm sharing.  It gets them too upset. Some of the people who have unfollowed me are just "not political" and don't want to read about the things I write about.  As long as they have their jobs, and their spouses and kids are all right, and everyone's healthy, it's all good. Others just aren't able to stop the runaway train of anxiety that comes from being steeped all the time in the hellscape that is life in the Trump era.  I get that; I really do.  It must be sort of like those times when I was a kid when the certainty of eventual death would wake me up in the middle of the night. It's the terror of things we can't do anything about.

Here's the problem though:  At what point do we have an obligation to stop looking away? Does looking away mean pretending that everything is OK? How do we find a way to be hyper-aware without it taking us down a psychological path that leads to emotional paralysis, or worse? How do we look away when our fellow citizens are being summarily murdered by those who job it is to protect them as well as us?  How do we look away when the very institutions we profess to revere every time we hang a flag or celebrate a holiday are in very real and imminent danger of collapsing completely? How do we look at the hurricanes and wildfires and think that pulling the cellophane windows out of junk mail envelopes before recycling is going to make one iota of difference? Is there even hope?  What does hope even mean today?  What's the difference between hope and delusion? And what kinds of action are even effective at a time when demonstrable facts are given the same weight as utter horsepuckey?

Yes, it infuriates me when I see people who have children and grandchildren who either don't care about what's happening or else have embraced the GOP worldview because it looks more like what they're accustomed to.  "DON'T YOU CARE ABOUT THE WORLD YOUR CHILDREN ARE GOING TO LIVE IN???" I want to scream. Yes, I care what's happening but does anything I do even mean anything? Will my money change a single vote? My Senators' staffs most of the time don't even answer the phone. I am one of those hyper-aware people. I KNOW.  But does it even matter?  Do we have an obligation to know when far too many of our fellow citizens choose not to? Or should we just join those who look away, live out our lives and let it all shake out the way it seems destined to?

Friday, September 18, 2020

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is Dead And I Don't Feel So Good Myself

 Seven years ago today, Mr. Brilliant had started a regimen of chemoradiation for his bladder cancer. He was three weeks out of the first of two planned surgeries for moyamoya disease, and though he was starting to have some side effects from the radiation, he was doing pretty well.  Three days later, about mid-day, his speech would start to slur, his hands would be shaking, and he would outright refuse to go to the hospital or even call his neurosurgeon.  By the next morning, he would have had a full-blown stroke. By the morning after that he would be no longer conscious, and two weeks later he would be gone.

Seven years.  Seven years has gone so fast, wake me up when September ends.



Mr. B. never understood why I loved Green Day. It was just 3-chord punk, too poppy to be real punk.  I couldn't have known then that hearing Billie Joe Armstrong's ode to his father's death would resonate so much with me in the years to come.

I am 65 now, and Mr. B. is forever 58.  I'm too old for him now.  I've let my hair go gray, it's starting to thin out now, and I can no longer pass for 45 in the dark with the light behind me.

This time of year is always difficult for me ever since then.  In good years it's a vague sense of unease, and it lets up after October 5. This year it's been far worse than usual.  Maybe it's because it's the seven years in that song. Or maybe it's the hellscape that we've been living in. Every day it seems like I wake up, look at the news to see what fresh horror has happened overnight, and every morning 2020 says "Hold my beer."

People think grief is something that happens and then you're done.  But grief is an insidious little bastard.  It's like that tough little cancer cell that stays behind, untouched by whatever you've bombarded it with, only to roar back later.  And with it, when you're the one who had to make The Decision, comes the guilt, the recriminations, the late night second guessing that never really stops. And the sense that you'll never be whole again.

I went into a tailspin when Chadwick Boseman died, and I still don't understand why. But tonight, when the news came through that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died, that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I remembered from seven years ago hit me. 

I'm not a drinker and I don't take drugs.  But there I was, rummaging around the bottom of the pantry closet, looking for that little bottle of Wray and Nephew Overproof Rum Cream that I'd bought in Jamaica two years ago when I took Mr. B's ashes to be buried amidst the Mid-Shoals Reef off of the beach in Negril, Jamaica. I opened it up and just started swigging the sweet, fiery yet creamy room-temperature stuff right out of the bottle. And yeah, it did help my stomach relax.

I'm alone right now. The cats are asleep. It's cool enough that I don't have any fans running and the air conditioning isn't on. The only sound is the refrigerator running and the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard.  I feel very alone, and very frightened. Because if the death of Chadwick Boseman felt like the death of hope because of a fictional character he portrayed, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg feels like the final nail in the coffin of any chance that the country we were living in can ever be made even into what it used to be, never mind something better. During the Bush years, Mr. B. and I would talk endlessly about it.  But he's not here now and the cats don't care.

I think back to those terrible days in September 2013.  Yes, they were terrible for me; I had a husband in the ICU and didn't know if he was even still in there. I had a manager who, once I'd declined taking family leave because I had no idea what was in store for me in Mr. B's illness, refused to cut me any slack at all, and I was dealing with a fuckup of a religious fanatic data manager who was bitching about me to my manager all the time. But outside of my hellish little corner, things were pretty good.  It was the first year of Obama's second term. The economy was in good recovery. The weather was nice that fall. The worst thing I would talk to Mr. B. about as he lay there unconscious with four anti-seizure drugs being pumped into him, was about how awful the finale of Dexter was.

I've been saying for the last four years that he was the smart one.  He saw his opportunity to exit painlessly and he took it.

After he died, when people wanted to go to something and I wasn't planning anything because he hated funerals more than anything else to the point that during our last dinner together, he talked with still-raw anger about having to sit for five days at his mother's wake when he was twelve, I threw a memorial party at the local dive bar. He'd always said that the Irish do it right because they throw a party, and the Jews do it right because they get it all done quickly.   So I decided that was what he would have wanted. I don't even know why that's relevant.

Most of the time in the intervening years, I've been pretty satisfied with my life. It's not the one I had wanted, but it's very good in its own way, with a good circle of women friends, two cats that keep me entertained, and no real financial worries. I'm fortunate, and I know it. But I've been thoughtful lately; taking stock of my life -- what I've learned and the person I've become.  But sometimes the sheer breadth of the years hits home in a way that it can't on an ongoing basis because I don't have children to be that barometer of the passage of time. And I'd give anything to have them back. So many years I took for granted, both before I met Mr. B. and during the 30 years we were together.  Despite our ups and downs, we had a marriage, and if it was at times like an old, reliable toaster -- dependable and functional  -- there was a lot of comfort in that, and in having a like-minded soul RIGHT THERE.

I no longer have that comfort, or any other kind either. There's a scene in I, Claudius where Claudius' mother Antonia is saying goodbye to him before opening her veins:

Antonia: My mind is made up. I don't want to stay here anymore. I was born into a world of people. It's become a kennel of mad dogs. I've seen my splendid son Germanicus murdered, and my grandsons, Drusus, Nero, Gemellus. My granddaughters are degenerate beyond redemption, and your sister Livilla died by my own hand. That was the worst. I should have died then myself. 
Claudius: Wait a while! Caligula's sick in his mind. Sooner or later... 
Antonia: No, Rome is sick, sick to its heart. He's just the rash it's come out in.

That's kind of how I feel. I look at what my country has become, and I look at the continued pile-up of atrocities right out of Hitler's playbook, and I envy Mr. B. sometimes that he was able to exit what he called this "God-forsaken level of reality" before the shit really hit the fan.

I had little hope even before Ginsburg's death that we had any chance of stopping this relentless authoritarian goose-step, but with Mitch McConnell already stating that the Merrick Garland rule no longer applies when the president is of Mitch McConnell's party, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that whatever Federalist Society nutjob Trump puts on the Court (and it looks like it's going to be the Make Gilead Great Again theocratic lunatic Amy Coney Barrett) will be the one who will definitively turn this country into a permanent Trump Family Dictatorship, with carte blanche for that grifter family to plunder as much money out of the federal coffers as they can before climate change mercifully for our planet wipes our miserable species off the map.

In case anyone is concerned that I might be suicidal (and I can't for the life of me imagine why anyone would give a shit; my existence is pretty insignificant in the larger picture, and I'm OK with that), don't worry, I'm not.  But I guess I'm thankful that I don't fear death the way I did when I was a kid, when I'd sit bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night with my heart pounding and think I AM GOING TO DIE AND THERE IS NOTHING I CAN DO ABOUT IT. I've had a good run; better than I ever thought I would.  I'd like to have more of it, even if it's just to cook and eat some good food, pet my cats, listen to some good music. 

But oh, how I wish I could have some of those years back, hold them in my hand, and treasure them for the miracle they were; those years that I thought would just go on forever.

As it is, I just hope that when the Trumpazoid brownshirts come to round people like me up, they have the decency to just do a good clean shot in the head that I don't see coming.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Chadwick Boseman and the Death of Hope

When Indian actor Irrfan Khan died earlier this year, I felt an uncharacteristic sadness.  Khan was the kind of actor who even when he played a villian, there was an underlying kindness to him; a nobility; a preternatural and paternal calm that could make you feel that no matter what happened, things would be OK as long as he was in the world.

But that sadness was nothing compared to the gut-punch that has been the news of the death of Chadwick Boseman.

I am not one to grieve over celebrities. My cynical grounding in the real world taught me long ago that famous people are not our friends and that we really don't know them.  The hand you shake, the autograph you get, the TV show you watch, these are not genuine connections.  But sometimes an actor comes along, and a role comes along, and a concept comes along, and it all comes together at the exact right time in the zeitgeist, and something magical and transcendent and yes, important, happens.

Such was the case with Chadwick Boseman.

I first saw Chadwick Boseman in 2013 in "42."  As a longtime baseball fan, I love a good baseball movie.  Watching this one, I was blown away by this guy I'd never heard of who so inhabited Jackie Robinson that it was as if he were channelling the real one.  The stoicism. The pent-up rage. The quiet strength. 




It was the kind of performance that makes you sit up, take notice, and write down the name.  I thought about that movie for days.

I have to admit that I didn't rush out to see "Black Panther."  I knew it starred the guy who had impressed me so much five years earlier.  But I'd grown tired of comic book movies years earlier after sitting through "Iron Man" with Mr. Brilliant.  At that time, I figured that if Robert Downey, Jr. wasn't enough to offset the stunts and CGI and noise of which I'd grown weary, nothing was.  So I didn't see it until enough people assured me that it wasn't going to be just another Marvel movie with a superhero and a Big Bad and a lot of Things Blowing Up Real Good.

There have been so many keystrokes spent on how this movie, with its fully fleshed-out, decidedly African universe that is more technologically advanced than anything that white people have ever come up with, and its nearly all-black cast, landed like an earthquake, that there's nothing more I can add.  But if the kings of myth are, if not superheroes, certainly a touch above us mere mortals, then the minute Chadwick Boseman appears on screen, there's a sense that you are not just in the presence of an actor portraying a king, you are in the presence of a real one. And at the end, when King T'Challa addresses the United Nations, sounding for all the world not much different from Nelson Mandela in tone and cadence, that view is cemented in your mind.



It was late Friday night, August 28 when I made the mistake of one last Twitter check before going to bed.  I was seeing a bunch of tweets from black journalists and activists I follow about how this is too much, about how 2020 just got that much worse, and I wondered what it was about.  And then I saw.

After Mr. Brilliant died seven years ago, I felt for days as if my chest had been crushed.  I would fear going to sleep because I feared I wouldn't wake up.  Whoever coined the term "heartbroken" knew what s/he was talking about. This news felt like that, and I simply could not stop crying.  This lasted all weekend, and I had no idea why.  I'm not one to cry over celebrity deaths, no matter how cruel and premature they are or however much I may have enjoyed their work.

This was different somehow.  This IS different somehow.

It's different because of the knowledge that this man, with his quiet strength, made this and six other films all the while knowing that time was going to run out for him sooner rather than later.  He did this grueling movie while undergoing cancer treatments, which knock most people out flat. He visited kids with cancer knowing of his own diagnosis.  He spoke at Howard University's graduation just months ago.

Somehow in the last two years, he BECAME T'Challa.  And every time you'd see a photo of a kid crossing his arms across his (or her) chest, you knew that the strength, the dignity, the quiet, and the determination of this man had reached well out into the universe.  Wakanda, with its sweeping vistas and beautiful waterfalls and ability to heal pretty much everything, seemed possible, and we weirdly thought he would be instrumental somehow in getting us there, even if only in a blockbuster sequel.  Hey, no one said it was rational, but  we WANTED Wakanda and its king to be real. And in that wanting there was hope that it COULD be real.

It's become harder every day in this annus horribilis to sustain that hope.  I've been able during this pandemic to largely hold it together. I've been living day by day, forgiving myself for those days (like this one) when I'm online all day and get little accomplished. My blood pressure is normal despite all the news and social media I feed into my head every day. I have a limited, but still-active-for-social-isolation social life.  I've described myself as "pretty zen about the whole thing."  But we are now two months away from an election the results of which I do not think will be pretty.  I'm quite honestly frightened.  The barbarians are at the gate.  Killmonger is in charge and will take power by any means necessary. And King T'Challa is not here to persevere and to light the way.

Of course that's absurd. And it's a terrible burden to place on ANY actor, never mind one battling cancer. But I think for a lot of people, that's what it felt like.  All I know is that since I read the news on Friday night, I can't shake the feeling that all hope I may have had that we might get out of this mess has died too.


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Dear Fellow White People: Virtue Signaling is Not Enough; We Have Work To Do

I find myself feeling pretty damn irritable these days.  Like everyone else, I'm a bit stir-crazy from nearly three months of my big excitement being going to Aldi on Thursday mornings when it's not busy.  I've been angry about Trump for over three years. And then there's my just general customary cynicism. And then there's the last eight days, in which four policemen, no different from the many policemen who have been summarily executing black men in the street without trial, finally did it one too many times.

For the last eight nights, there have been demonstrations in big and small cities all over the country.  The American people who aren't part of the Trump Cult have finally had enough.  And predictably, the protests have been co-opted by the usual crypto-anarchists who always end up at these things, and in a more terrifying development, but the neo-Nazis and KKKers who have formed an underground army of loser incel white men, armed with guns to hide their anxiety about their tiny penises, trying desperately to cling to whatever privilege they have left after billionaires have sucked out their livelihoods, blaming people of color for their problems.  It feels like the last stand of white patriarchy, and that patriarchy has made clear that it's not going to go down without an awful lot of blood being shed.

For those of us who remember, and in some cases participated in, the unrest of 1968, this is all depressingly familiar.  We had hoped to live in a different world.  We had hoped to make a difference.  We failed.  I don't know why we failed, but we did.  The millennials want to say we all sold out to Ronald Reagan and Wall Street, but it's not that simple. The truth is that the hippies that the news media covered were NEVER the majority.  And most of them DIDN'T sell out and become stockbrokers.  The stockbrokers are the guys in the plaid pants who ratted out the kids who were walking out of school to go to anti-war protests.

But that's not what moves me to write today. Today I'm here to talk to my fellow white people about virtue signaling.

Yesterday, white people everywhere put black background images on their Facebook and Instagram  pages for what was called "Blackout Tuesday."  This was supposed to be a day for artists and companies to "pause and reflect."  But people hate to let a good opportunity for virtue signaling go to waste, so most people replaced their cover and profile images with a plain black background.  Most of them kept on posting all day anyway, which meant that the advertisers for whom YOU are the product, much as TV programming is simply a vehicle for delivering your eyeballs to advertisers, got their money's worth.

I did NOT change my cover and profile images, because I knew damn well that I wasn't going to "pause and reflect" while reporters were still being attacked in the street and police were advancing on peaceful protesters spraying them with tear gas and pepper spray as if they were that 2" long hornet that found its way into my windowshade in my home office last year.  A lot of bad shit can happen while white people are pausing and reflecting.  I didn't succumb to this exercise in self-righteousness because it seemed not all that much different from those "I'll know which of my friends care about [cancer / domestic violence / autoimmune diseases / animal cruelty / domestic violence] by who shares this" memes that people insist on perpetuating.  I call this, variously, "Facebook Emotional Blackmail" or "Facebook Guilt Tripping." The idea that clicking "Share" on Facebook is the ONLY way to TRULY PROVE you care about the cause in question, and that sharing a black background is the ONLY way to show you recognize what Black people are going through, is  emblematic of the kind of facile, drive-by "caring" to which social media lends itself.

As Madison Malone Kircher noted yesterday at Vulture.com:

That day is today and instead of using this movement to reflect on how Black artists fuel culture and sharing resources support ongoing solidarity protests around the country, #THESHOWMUSTBEPAUSED has been co-opted by well-intentioned Instagrammers clogging up the #BlackLivesMatter feed. If you search the hashtag on the app, you’ll find almost nothing but black square posts. A number of black artists, including Kehlani and Little Nas X, have pointed out how this is ultimately an ineffective way to help, given that Instagram is a vital tool for organizing. A great example is the @justiceforgeorgenyc account, a centralized hub for information on daily protests in New York City. A flood of black squares wastes useful digital space that could be devoted to the real cause.
But more importantly, blacking out social media during days of demonstrations, which in an age of corporate media, is often the ONLY place to get eyewitness reporting on the ground, is to black out possible useful information about the protests.  But why let logistics get in the way of a good way for white people to feel all "woke" and virtuous and caring?

Yesterday, the food blog Serious Eats participated in some world-class virtue signaling:

As a food website that publishes international recipes and runs reported feature articles, personal essays, and the like, we’ve long had a commitment to celebrating global culinary traditions. But while we’ve endeavored to be sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation, to represent diverse voices, and to assert that food is always, at its core, deeply political, we are also part of the problem. 
Serious Eats has no Black people on staff at this time, and we’ve never had a Black editor. The underrepresentation of Black voices in food media is well-known and often remarked and reported upon, yet it remains endemic to our industry. That’s not a coincidence, nor is it an idiosyncrasy of media broadly or food media in particular: It is a reflection of the power structures that define the United States, and it is not okay. 
We are committed to making more Black voices heard on our site, to honoring Black foodways, to being a home for Black stories, and to standing back and shutting up to listen to Black voices elsewhere. What that actually means is that we’ll be refraining from publishing new content this week and instead using our homepage to provide a list of links and resources to help people get involved in the necessary fight against racism in this country. We’ll also be using that time to have difficult conversations about our organization and the content we produce, and to plan for the future accordingly.

Wow!  "Difficult conversations!"  How virtuous!  How "woke"!  Look, I'm not trying to single out Serious Eats, a site I really enjoy. But seriously -- they're just noticing NOW that they have no Black people on staff?  THEY DIDN'T NOTICE BEFORE NOW?  They didn't notice when any of the OTHER Black men and women who have been murdered by police over the last decade that they didn't have any Black people on staff and weren't publishing content by Black authors?  George Floyd had to DIE for them to notice this?  And yet, they publish a letter like this, and all over social media, white people are kvelling about how wonderful they are.

I understand the need to find some light in the universe right now.  I don't want to be a complete Debbie Downer.  I too decided to follow young Jalen Thompson after seeing how he recruited his town's police chief to march with him in O'Fallon, Missouri. I too am moved at the sight of demonstrators embracing police offers as a gesture of reconciliation. But I'm not kidding myself that any of this means anything in the long run IF WE ALL DO NOT CHANGE.

Pointing out these "points of light" are the "All Lives Matter" of the current moment.  It's dismissive of the reality that people of color living in this country deal with every day.  Yes, not all cops summarily execute black people in the street -- or in their beds, as in the case of Breonna Taylor.  But enough of them do, and those who don't are doing nothing to stop them. Yes, not all white people are gun-totin', Trump-supportin' lunatics.  But we have not done enough to say "Enough."  We have not taken enough action inside our own heads.

Virtue signaling is fine, when it's part of an overall soul-searching of how we contribute to the structure that has made the murder of George Floyd and others possible, and how we benefit disproportionately from it. I'm no paragon of racial virtue, believe me, and black backgrounds on Facebook won't make me so. Only I can do that. I MUST do that.  Do or do not. There is no try.

I spent most of my life in northern New Jersey.  In all that time, I never lived in a neighborhood that had any more than MAYBE one or two token black families.  The town where I spent most of my childhood had a "black section" on "the other side of town." It wasn't till I got to high school where I had any interaction at all, most of it through political activism, with people not the same skin color as mine.  The town I moved here from is still 96% white.  The next town over from that one, a pretty tree-lined suburb with a thriving downtown, was for years regarded as less desirable because it has "a black section," tucked away behind the hospital.  It's a pretty, tree-lined neighborhood, but it's "the black section."  To my Jersey eyes, moving here was an eye-opener, because Durham, at least, is less segregated than northern New Jersey is.

But when you grow up without significant day-to-day interaction with Black people, you absorb the messages of the larger culture in spite of yourself, and no matter how bleeding-heart-liberal your parents are.  And then you grow up and you clutch your purse more tightly in the elevator when the Black bike messenger gets on.  Or you feel a pang of fear when you go to Caldor after dark and there's a young black man walking from his car behind you.  It's practically reflexive. And you don't even think about it.  Until you realize that you have to. If you've ever said "I'm not racist but....", you're racist.  You might not be an alt-right, Charlottesville tiki torch racist, but you're racist.  And so am I.  Until that little gut-twist goes away, we're racist.

Racism is a sickness, and it infects far too many of us.  It's hard to acknowledge that.  But we have to.  Symbolic gestures are fine, but we've had symbolic gestures for years.  They're not effective. Dealing with racism starts in our own heads, in our own communities, and at the ballot box.   We may never be "past all that."  We can't erase the history of this nation.  But we don't have to perpetuate it.  We know what we have to do.  It's up to us to do it.