Sunday, November 12, 2017


It’s light that tells us how lonely they are,
Bleached yellow and harsh, that light,
Piercing even, turning to white, a pure oblivion
To match their beginnings and ends.
It migrates alive from the corner shop to the shadowed night
Animating blue-green streets, rich red brick,
Corridors of a poor commerce, a corner of time
Revealed in a light more vital than faces.
What are faces in such light but skin and bone?
It’s light that tells us how lonely they are,
That draws them together, that leaves them alone. 

The coffee shop is gone. (Now Phillies are a buck.)
A laundromat maybe, garage or bank, a fake
Has occupied the place, no home to nighthawks.
All four—the woman too, her sultriness, her sex—snuffed out,
All but incidental, caught as they were in the same bright blast
That migrates alive through our lives
From the first cold hour to the last,
Or any hour where you and I are,
Sleepless in our separate selves.
A cruel glare reveals how alike we are
In our caul of skin and bone,
Lets us know how lonely we are,

Draws us together, leaves us alone.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

At Dyke Marsh at Dusk in Fall

Walk out a crooked boardwalk, water slapping on the underplanks,
Walk out into this wetland marsh in fall, its gilding grass and cattails
Tall as you or taller, see a careless, autumn moon
Strolling in the nimbus,
Its jangled brace of light is sprawled across
The field of grass. And further out, the river
Idles in the dark and on the other bank
Somewhere north behind the trees
A city’s shrieking in its capitol teeth.
One hundred years ago or less
Or more when time was inessential,
As the moon just slipped behind that cloud
So water overcame the bank
And inundated land, and water,
Grass and foliage conspired
To form this wetland marsh
For pickerelweed and Orioles,
Beavers, black duck and Arrow Arum,
Swamp shrub, osprey, wrens,
For pumpkin ash,
Sparrows, spatterdock and cattails
That graze the breeze at night in fall.

You might wish to be wanted there,
For the night to tell you its secrets,  
For the moonlight to gather up into itself
The form of a girl you might once have loved
Who walks into the shallows and
Out of her dress
And waits for you there in the shadows and grasses

But just like that its gone again,
The moon, behind a bank of coming winter sky,
As if she turned her back on you.
Whatever glory there is
In water, reeds, cattails, sky,
Implacable sky,
Conceals itself as in a shawl,
Shuts you out, shares nothing at all
Says nothing to you at the Dyke Marsh at dusk in fall.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Dunkirk: Hemmed In by Sea and Sky...and the Wehrmacht

“What are you doing, son?” the boat master Dawson says, preparing to take his private vessel across the English Channel to Dunkirk, when the teenage dock-hand George hops into the boat. “I’ll be useful,” the boy responds. That’s all—I’ll be useful. It might be the signature line to Christopher Nolan's, Dunkirk, roundly and rightly hailed for its realism and evocation of war, especially war as it is experienced by the side that is getting (for now) soundly and thoroughly beaten.

What has been praised as realism in this movie is, I think, in fact a matter of photography and camera work. Never have I seen in the movies sea and sky that seemed so alive and present, stunningly close, breathtaking in beauty, but also full of menace. In a way, it is sea and sky that are just as much the enemies of the men trapped on Dunkirk’s beach, as the planes and destroyers that are menacing them. They are hemmed in.
The movie is admirably to the point, an hour and fifty minutes. (There was only one Godfather Part II. Any film aiming for longer than two and a half hours should aim to be that good, or start editing.)

The story is a great and worthy one, uncomplicated (so I believe) by the sort of historical complexities that tend to get elided over when Hollywood wants to tell a story. Forty-thousand men were trapped on a beach. England’s leader called for a citizen armada of private vessels to go and rescue them. The armada responded.
Americans love stories of British pluck and self-effacing heroism. Why aren’t we better at emulating it in our own crises? Our politics today seems like the extended tantrum of a spoiled child who has soiled his pants. Which is just why Dunkirk is important today.

But I confess to leaving the theater slightly dissatisfied. I had trouble hearing the dialogue, for one thing, which may have been me, or might have been the acoustics in the theater, or might have been the fact that everyone is a Brit and everyone is talking in hush or in a rush or both. More importantly, though, there isn’t that much dialogue to hear. And that gets to what was bothering me in a way I couldn’t quite identify—there just isn’t a lot of storytelling here. Of the hour and fifty minutes, approximately an hour and at least twenty of it is watching two guys get shot at, nearly bombed, nearly drowned, nearly suffocated, nearly killed a dozen different ways.
After a while, you lose the sense of exactly what is happening—Where are the shots or bombs or torpedos coming from? Where are they trying to get to? I suppose that’s a clever verisimilitude, since life in a warzone does that to you, upends every normal logical sequence and sense of place. Just try to survive the next shock.

But this is a movie, and you hardly even know it’s the German Wehrmacht and Navy—you know, the Nazis, led by that guy Adolf Hitler—that is doing the shooting, bombing and generalized terrorism of the guys on the beach. There’s so little dialogue because there is little or no storytelling, little or no context. Just a lot of cinematically brilliant mayhem. (Richard Cohen, columnist with the Post, brought this to my attention, sharing my sense that something was missing.)

Then, suddenly, three-quarters of the way through all this verisimilitude, the Armada arrives across the Channel and the movie breaks out into full-on Hollywood, milk-the-moment story-telling sentiment, with lush background music and Kenneth Brannagh’s eyes welling, every so very slightly, with tears.  
Next to me in the theater was a young woman who may been, maybe, 25 years old, but might have been as young as 17 or 18. She may be only barely able to recall 9-11. What was she making of what she saw on the screen? What could she have learned from this fine film? Not much about World War II or about why or how those 40,000 men came to be stranded on a beach being picked off by an enemy that introduced to the world the concept of total warfare (in truth, of course, the Allies did their part in that as well).

What had she come to see, anyway? Maybe she was there to see Harry Stiles. (Nothing wrong with that, and if that’s the case she was in luck, because there were a lot of cute English soldier boys to look at, lots and lots of them, boatloads you might say.)
I’ll be useful. As a goal or an ideal, striving to be useful in a good cause seems to have lost out to more individualistic objectives. That’s the way it is when the world seems safe. It may not be safe for long, which is why it’s important remember when—but also, crucially, why--people had to be choose to be useful over being safe.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Psychoanalyst Thinking About Urban Violence in Chicago

Photo: Person in an alley

Academic papers on youth violence in America—causes and possible solutions—are legion.
But when a socially committed, psychoanalytically trained senior psychiatrist and an academic psychologist with extensive work “on the ground” at the interface of mental illness and crime team up in the pages of a major publication read by the business community to tackle rampant violence in America’s third largest city—it’s just possible people will sit up and take notice.
Past APA trustee and Chicago-area native Sidney Weissman, M.D., and Arthur Lurigio, Ph.D., associate dean for faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University, cowrote a three-part article on violence in Chicago that appeared in successive issues of Crain’s Chicago Business in May. The articles address how rates of violence have spiraled in the city, while New York and Los Angeles have made some progress, reforming police interactions with minority communities and creating safe neighborhoods. Weissman and Lurigio urge extensive reforms grounded in expertise on the effects of culture on the brain and development.
Weissman is a professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and on the faculty and board of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. Lurigio is the senior research advisor to Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities at Loyola and has experience as principal investigator on more than 40 grants with city, county, state, and federal resources.
In an interview with Psychiatric News, Weissman said that he and Lurigio sought out a respected publication in the business community, because the city’s business leaders have a stake in a safe city while Chicago’s civic leaders have been mired in political stagnation.
“Nothing has been meaningfully done, and the basic underlying issues aren’t changing,” Weissman said. “There has been a fundamental failure on the part of the city administration and the business community to act.”
Weissman added that he believes psychiatry needs to regain its voice for addressing social issues, aided now by vastly more advanced knowledge about the brain and the effects of the surrounding culture on brain development over time.
The first article, appearing in print on May 18, looked at the scope of violence in Chicago and how other cities have succeeded where Chicago has failed. “Nearly 20 years ago, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) added 1,000 new officers and shifted its focus from an arrest-heavy to a service-heavy style of enforcement,” they wrote. “Police officers were rewarded for community outreach activities. No such sustained efforts have ever been implemented in Chicago, and the gulf between the police and community grows ever wider.”
They added, “The LAPD used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute to charge and convict gang leaders and other members with the crimes of their compatriots, even if they only conspired with the actual perpetrators. Large numbers of gang members were incarcerated with that strategy. Under former Superintendent Jody Weis (2008-2011), the Chicago Police Department (CPD) only threatened to invoke, but never systematically employed, the RICO statute against Chicago gangs. What’s more, today barely a quarter of homicide perpetrators—many of them gang members—is even arrested in Chicago.”
Weissman and Lurigio noted that the LAPD also used civil injunctions or abatement laws to rid the streets of congregations of gang members. “Empty corners provide no one to shoot or no opportunity to be the victim of a shooting. From 1992 to 1999, Chicago tried a similar strategy based on curfew violations and loitering but it was deemed unconstitutional.”
(The use of RICO against alleged gang members is regarded as highly controversial among some in the African-American community.)
The second and third articles, appearing online May 22 and 23, looked more closely at how pervasive societal failures have shaped the lives and coping skills of children and adolescents in Chicago’s African-American communities and at the effects of “the elephant in the room”—race and racial segregation. They especially focused on the effects of trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“By the time a young man picks up a gun and pulls the trigger, he has been prepared to do so by deficient parenting, school failure, and repeated trauma—the latter the result of witnessing violence in the home and in the street,” Weissman and Lurigio wrote. “The impact of such trauma throughout a youth’s life can be severe and result in PTSD. Most of the young people with PTSD either have been the direct target of violence or have directly witnessed life-threatening violence. …
“For those who suffer from childhood PTSD, the ability to recognize their own or others’ feelings is impaired. Their apparent toughness obscures this disability and becomes a means to feel safe in their dangerous world. Toughness becomes an essential element of survival, a means to attain respect, for which they are validated from fellow, equally impaired gang members. … The most violent among them earn the highest approval and greatest elevation in status by killing a rival gang member.”
Lurigio and Weissman said that sustained behavioral health care interventions in the city’s neighborhoods are urgently needed. “In particular, strategies to prevent delinquency, which is a precursor to violence, have been created, studied, and established as evidence-based. … For example, among several effective interventions for at-risk youth are the Big Brothers Big Sisters community-based mentoring program and the Aggression Replacement Training and First Step to Success programs. Those that are effective for at-risk families include the Functional Family Therapy and the Guiding Good Choices programs. The crime- and violence-reducing benefits of these programs greatly outweigh the costs.”
Weissman and Lurigio acknowledged that their recommendations are “both sweeping in nature and limited in logistical details” and that “abundant resources and greater specificity will be needed to bring these recommendations to fruition.” They are not sanguine about the ease or quickness with which anything can be accomplished—far from it, their articles make for sad reading about the state of one of America’s great cities.
But they do offer a way up and out. “This is a part of what psychiatry is about,” Weissman said. “We have a unique understanding of the psychology of young people and the effects of the surrounding culture on their development. We owe it to those young people to help shape a culture in which they can grow to make healthy choices. It’s not happening in Chicago.” ■

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Manchester By the Sea: On the Lip of an Abyss

There is a central scene in Manchester By the Sea, when Randi (Michelle Williams) seeks to console her ex-husband Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), assuring him he is not to blame for the personal holocaust that lay behind them, and hoping to make amends for the accusations she has hurled at him. It is an all but impossible task for both of them. Neither is quite able to look each other in the eye, but it took an astute young future filmmaker of my acquaintance to point out that one of the great feats of direction here is Lee’s inability to take his eyes off the infant in the carriage, a child of Randi’s remarriage.
Only infants and children are not guilty or accusing. No one else—none of the adults—in the story seems able to look anyone in the eye for long. Characters talk at each other, over each other, missing each other’s points. Incessantly, so that there is (at least for this aging viewer) an oppressive sense of perpetual conflict, of disjointedness verging on violence. These are redeemed—I mean that in the religious sense—by scenes of incandescent beauty: crystalline skies; a charming New England town encrusted in winter; seagulls pinwheeling in a grey mist over the water; crooked gravestones in snow; boats bobbing in the pier, heaving gently as if in slumber, or meditation; and always the sea. These are backed by a soundtrack of choral and string music—forgiving and benedictory.
Manchester By the Sea is a masterpiece of storytelling, a profound meditation on suffering, death and beauty. The horrific tragedy at the heart of this story (no spoilers here, go see the movie), singes everyone in this drama—with the exception, perhaps, of 16-year old Patrick, whose fate following his father’s death from congestive heart failure forms the plot of the film. But it has entirely consumed Lee, Patrick’s uncle. It has devoured him. He is a shattered soul, a walking ruin. Death, unadorned and unromanticized, is everywhere in this film. Lee is already walking dead, and his brother’s passage is only an occasion for dutifully tying up loose ends. “What’s he look like,” Patrick asks when Lee comes to his school to inform him of the death. “He looks dead,” Lee says. “Not bad. Just….dead.” Patrick’s father cannot be buried until spring so he rests in a frozen vault at the morgue.  “I don’t like him being in a freezer,” Patrick protests. “I don’t either,” Lee says. “But we can’t do anything about it. It’s the way it is.”
Lee’s brother has left behind a will making him Patrick’s guardian, but it’s a responsibility Lee—given the ruin he has become—cannot think about shouldering. Patrick (Lucas Hedges), handsome, impish and gentle, is the only one in the film free of the somber curse that hangs over the story. He is buoyantly alive, the source of the film’s best humor. As he boasts to his uncle who wants him to move to Boston, he has a life to live in Manchester: he’s on the hockey team, he has two girlfriends (one he has sex with and one with whom he is mainly doing “basement business,” as he explains to his uncle. “What’s that mean?” Lee asks. “It means I’m working on it”), and he plays in a rock band (an atrociously bad one). Scolding his uncle for being unable to make casual small talk with the mother of one of those girlfriends (the one he’s working on), Patrick has no problem at all speaking directly. “You can’t make boring adult conversation for a few minutes? Like `Hey, how ‘bout those fucking interest rates?’”

The resolution of this conflict (sorry, you won’t get that here, either) will not be the one we might find sentimentally satisfying; but it will be the one that works, in a human way.
In just that way does Manchester render its blessing on this story of human woe. They are trying, these characters, to work it out under a gunmetal sky, hemmed in by the sea, in the teeth of death. The guilt that consumes them, that renders them unable to look each other in the eye, may be the awareness that they haven’t deserved the beauty that surrounds them. Yet one of those redemptive scenes is a human one: gathering in the church for Patrick’s father’s funeral, family and friends and folks from the town do not hesitate to greet each other honestly—smiling, consoling, comforting, embracing. The art and craft of life is learning how to live on the lip of an abyss; mostly it’s a mess or a comedy show, and some of us fall off. But sometimes, in the right light, its beautiful.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Letter to the Religious Right

Nearly forty years ago Jerry Falwell Sr. emerged on the national stage, a happy warrior and leader of a movement that would become the Moral Majority. It was a movement that seemed at once to stand outside, over and above, what it considered to be a degenerating culture, demanding that it reform itself. At the same time, it was engaged, with its feet planted firmly on the ground and determined to win over not just the hearts and minds of the public, but seats in the House and the Senate.
   Even for those of us who couldn’t quite get on board with their agenda, Falwell’s movement was difficult to criticize. Here were Christians who took their faith seriously enough to take it, as it were, to the streets. I was 20 in 1980. I had been raised in a Methodist church and religious faith has always been important to me, something I have never quite relinquished even during slack periods when doubt and indifference overtake me. I was a “deacon” of the ecumenical church at my small liberal arts school. I thought briefly of going into the ministry (a bad idea Im very glad I never acted on) and thought more seriously about studying academic theology (something I wish to this day I had done).
   As a Methodist I absorbed the ethic of doing good works (“Do all the good that you can, wherever you can, whenever you can.”) As a college student I thrilled to my undergraduate dose of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Christianity I was attracted to was concerned with social justice. The historical Jesus I knew was the Jesus whose concern was always the poor, outcasts, the marginalized, including women (especially widows who had it very bad in his day). It continues to be baffling, in fact, how anyone can read the gospels and come away with any other portrait. It was a faith that claimed for Christ the whole of human experience, the repair of the world so that the community of man would mirror the Kingdom of God, nothing less. The faith of Falwell and the religious right, in contrast, seemed to takes its stand on a narrow beachhead of personal salvation and private behavior, still more narrowly circumscribed to the area of sexuality. It seemed, and seems to me now, an enormous retreat.
   But Falwell and his movement made its mark and it clearly resonated with millions who felt that the values that had built America were being shuffled off.  It captured the attention of Ronald Reagan, and was a vital component of the conservative Republican revival. In any social history of late 20th century America, the “religious right” had earned a chapter all to themselves.
   In time, there would be slips in the façade that seemed to confirm what some of us thought of the movement—as when Falwell suggested that the 9/11 attacks were America’s retribution for a culture of abortion and homosexuality. Now, in the aftermath of the ugliest political campaign in our history, a humiliation of international proportions in which you the public leaders of the “religious right” fell (with some notable exceptions) one by one into line with Donald Trump—today I and people like me, of every shade of faith and skepticism, wonder, quite literally, how you look yourselves in the mirror.
   Where does one begin? It ought to be entirely sufficient to mention simply that the candidate you backed has exhibited—not just during his campaign, but throughout his adult life and career in the public eye—every sort of behavior that decent parents admonish their children to avoid. A loudmouth, a braggart, a bully, a crybaby who is insulted easily, yet easily and breezily insults, a compulsive liar. And you know the laundry list of recent revelations—the jilting of contractors and employees, the claims against Trump University, the bankruptcies, the failed casinos and businesses—you know the list and you ignored it all. Of course, there is the famous Access Hollywood tape that captured your candidate’s distinctive style with women; that’s the one that caused Paul Ryan and other Republicans to be (briefly) shocked, shocked, and prompted Ralph “Family Values” Reed to pronounce Trump—using that conscienceless, value-free label so emblematic of baby-boomer moral neutrality—“inappropriate.”
   But honest to God, who is so sweetly naïve as to have been honestly surprised to learn that this man is a coarse, crude, vulgar reptilian? Boys will be boys—right?—and now the episode barely registers (a measure, itself, of political degeneracy). But some things do stand out and retain their capacity to take the breath away (at least for those of us capable of shock and shame). Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter is one—perhaps because it was captured on video and replays itself in the mind like a traumatic memory. Maybe you take your lead from Ann (“Godless: The Church of Liberalism”) Coulter who rationalized that Trump was merely mimicking a “generic retard.”
   Is that how you explain this to your children?
   Or take Trump’s astonishingly, brazenly dishonest description of an altercation that took place, late in the campaign, during a rally at which President Obama was speaking. A veteran stood up and began heckling the president; predictably, some people in the crowd booed, attempting to silence him. But Obama lightly scolded the crowd and insisted the man, who served the country, had a right to have his say. The exchange was, of course, videotaped and can be viewed online.
   Later at his own rally—also, of course, videotaped and easily accessible--Trump described the exchange saying the President was “screaming” at the veteran, and called Obama’s behavior a “disgrace.” 
   Spend even just a minute or two to meditate on this: Trump made a patently false, publicly defamatory pronouncement about the President’s behavior during a rally that he knew (as all of us know now about virtually everything that doesn’t happen in the deepest warrens of our own homes) would be videotaped and widely available on the web. He made this statement (at a rally he also knew was being recorded) either not knowing what the President actually said or did; or he made it knowing exactly what the President said and did, and lied anyways. In either case--and this is really the important thing--he didn't care.   
   Do you care? Evidently not. Are you ashamed of not caring? I guess not. Does it matter to you what this behavior, when it is endorsed or overlooked by moralists such as you, does to the entire understanding of public truth? Evidently not.
   Spare me, spare all of us, your prevarications about Hillary Clinton. Drop it. There are countless ways you might have approached this travesty of a campaign without endorsing Mrs. Clinton and salvaged your integrity.

“We the public leaders of the contemporary Christian conservative political movement (the so-called `religious right’) urge Americans of faith to vote their conscience. However, we feel obligated to state that this entire campaign, and these candidates—both of them—are the rotten fruit of a political culture that is shot to pieces. This ruin has been a long-time in the making, with blame to go around on all sides (however much we as conservatives may feel that the great bulk of blame lay on the other side) and is ultimately rooted in a larger, broader culture degeneration which the founders of our political movement first began to point to nearly 40 years ago. Whatever the outcome of this election, Christians of all shades of belief must come together afterward to work to repair our democratic Republic.”

But no. Listen to William “Book of Virtues” Bennet on Fox News who said that Republicans who opposed Trump “suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.” How else to translate this except as follows: manners, civility, the norms of civilized discourse, are all an elitist affectation, unrelated to the substance of our politics, and irrelevant in judging the fitness of any candidate.
   On that note, by the way, would any of you dare to look anyone in the eye and say that your candidate would have been as gracious in defeat as Hillary Clinton was, and as Barack Obama, who endured eight years of nihilistic obstruction, continues to be? Right…Don’t even bother. Just move on and let that one go.  
   Mr. “Death of Outrage” Bennet was clearly cashing in on the current stock, lately risen so high, around the notion that “elitism”—which evidently includes commonplace and traditionally understood instincts toward civility and truth-saying—is what afflicts our politics. Yet nowhere among the conservative media outlets have I read anything remotely as sympathetic to Trump’s supporters as Larissa Macfarquhar’s article, “In Trump Country,” in The New Yorker—that citadel of the Manhattan literary and intellectual elite.  Read it--there is not a trace of that more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger condescension that sometimes characterizes liberal-left attitudes toward the underclass; it is an authentically sympathetic, even admiring, portrait of Trump supporters in rural West Virginia.
   By the way, I believe that your candidate should—as Mrs. Clinton suggested—be given a chance, despite my foreboding. He’s big on infrastructure (name a candidate who isn't) and everyone will smile if gets some bridges repaired. And, let us acknowledge: the man likes to build things. The nation needs a grand project (the interstate highway system, the Apollo space mission) to inspire it again.  So maybe your candidate will incite some clever entrepreneurs and engineers to throw a great string of gondolas across the West Virginia mountains, creating a monumental statewide park that will attract millions of tourists, hikers and campers to that beautiful state, employing tens of thousands of state residents and helping to rekindle a national awareness of Appalachian history and culture. And maybe he will couple this great national project with a massive infusion of public dollars for mental health and substance abuse treatment to battle the off-the-charts opioid epidemic there. 
   (I just made that up sitting at the laptop. You tell us what the New York City real estate mogul with the trophy wives intends to do for those people in Larissa Macfarquhar’s portrait.)
   Maybe he will be successful, or less disastrous than some of us fear. Perhaps inertia and the stuck forces everywhere (inertia plus stuck forces = “reality”) will rein in the man’s crazier impulses. Perhaps he won’t launch a nuclear war on a whim when he has a bad hair day and can’t find his I-phone. Perhaps someone sane will urge him to give the heave-ho to the unsanitary figures around him (Roger Stone, Steve Bannon). Maybe he will surprise us all, and all of the drama on Facebook and Broadway theaters will be shown to be so much foolishness.  Perhaps, who knows, your man will end up someday engraved on the side of Mt. Rushmore, his trousers down, seated on the crapper and studying his I-phone, his brow furrowed in mid-tweet—a final, enduring, case-closing rebuke to elites everywhere: This is who we are, get over it.
   Or not. Where will you hide your shame when it becomes clear that those tiny bones he tossed to the working class during the campaign will be all they will ever get, as your man stocks his cabinet with billionaire businessmen? Shamelessness. That’s the key to getting by for the next four years with your candidate who was forced to shell out millions to striving regular folks defrauded in his “University,” and as the revelations about his many conflicted interests emerge. Reach for the most shameless excuses as his curious crush on Vladimir Putin evolves, with ominous consequences for the NATO alliance and the Baltic states you would otherwise be howling at Democrats for having “lost.” Shamelessness is what will enable you to hold your head up when the peculiar childishness of this man’s temperament begins to unnerve the closed circle around him, and he careens from one drama to the next, punctuating the reality show with angry, semi-literate tweets composed at 3 am and aimed at whoever has not—in the Trump parlance strikingly reminiscent of a first-grader coming home from school in tears—been “nice” to him.
   Shamelessness, no need to hide anything. After all, you hold all the cards. The executive branch, both houses of Congress, a majority of governorships and state legislatures—all this along with your gerrymandered congressional districts, your multi-million-dollar megaphone at Fox News, the Koch Brothers, and legions of one-percenters determined keep employed those legislators in Congress whom Garrison Keillor called “Christian pirates with their hands on the tax levers.”
   Many of us—whose patriotism you would readily impugn if it was advantageous to do so—do indeed feel profoundly afraid for our country. Resentment toward our fellow citizens who voted for Donald Trump is not the way out, but for you, the leaders of a movement that has claimed for 40 years to champion the cause of character, integrity and values in our politics, there will be no forgetting and no forgiveness.
   There is a tremendous liberation that comes with finally seeing things as they are, at finally seeing you and your “movement” in all its naked shamelessness for what it is. Moreover, some of us will hold on to an assurance that, in fact, you are not the future. Now when the attendant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, "Alas, my master! What shall we do?" He answered, “Fear not, for there are more of us than there are of them.”
   There are more of us than there are of you. Here is the nub of what I have to say: you will never, ever again lecture Americans about the need for character and integrity in our leaders without being met by the rolling thunder of derisive laughter followed by the silence of contemptuous disregard. You have won another battle, congratulations. You have lost your war.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Road Trip: Hills, Voices, Mysticism, Candidates and Letting Go

“When I’m in California, I feel like something bad is going to happen, because there’s so much empty space. Here it’s cozy. If you believe the mountains are yours, like most West Virginians do, when you get back to these mountains you feel comfortable again. You feel at ease….When I see the mountains, it’s like they’re embracing me.”
I spent what felt like a lot of time driving through West Virginia this weekend on a 13-hour road trip from Washington, D.C. to Columbus, Ohio and back (six and a half hours each way), and found myself thinking about this comment. It’s from a lovely article by Larissa Macfarquhar in a recent New Yorker Magazine, a deeply sympathetic and informative portrait of Donald Trump supporters in a small town in southern West Virginia. It’s a highly descriptive statement; the hills in that country are so compressed together they do seem to make you feel enclosed. (During my first exposure to rural West Virginia on school trip when I was 12, I remember then being impressed by exactly this feature, and being rather scared of it; from suburban Washington, it was for me startling different and made me feel cut-off, entombed possibly in a vale of mist and shadows, and it exacerbated, perhaps, the lonely homesickness I was feeling on my first extended time away from home.) The crowded hills leave no space for the kind of expansiveness that one normally associates with a landscape, but create instead the characteristic hollows or ‘hollers.’ When fogs fills the hollers it becomes a world folded in on itself, shrouded, as it were, in its own distinctive self-history; it is out of this haunted landscape that the “high lonesome” sound of bluegrass was born. These impressions, and others I gathered 35 years ago when I took a bus trip across the country and then, a few years later, drove across the country, have caused me to think more than once about the effect of landscape on one’s perceptions of the world.

On this weekend I was driving between northern Virginia and Columbus, Ohio, and back the tops of the trees all over the hills were touched with the beginning of autumn.  Bright color, but still only dappled—one can imagine a careful child’s sponge painting, the reds and yellows and orange crenellated, and lots of greenery still carpeting the lower reaches of the ancient hills. In another two weeks it will be a riot.
Listening to the radio for six-and-a-half hours on a Sunday drive through the near-midwest and Appalachia is an interesting experience. A social historian, listening to a tape years later, might draw some interesting inferences about our country. Country music, “classic” rock stations, preachers of every stripe. Oddly, a large number of preachers with Scottish or Irish accents. Preachers relating (not explicitly, but still transparently) the meaning of being Christian to the importance of not voting for Hillary Clinton. Football games broadcast through static. A commercial in which an avid sounding 20-something fellow opens with, “I’d like to talk about an issue of grave social importance—condom use.” It was an advertisement for Trojan.

There is also a station I have lighted on many times driving through the East Coast mountain region—We Are One Body: WAUB, operated (according to the station’s website) by the diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, out of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. There are no commercials, but the station does rely on contributions and there are occasional solicitations for donations.  It is otherwise a continuous reflection on Catholic Christianity hosted—most of the time I have ever tuned in—by the kindest sounding, most soft spoken, most brotherly young man, reflecting either on Scripture or very often on arcane doctrine of the Church. (I have heard him reflect—he doesn’t really “expound” the way preachers and pundits do—on the meaning of specific paragraphs and nuances of obscure Papal proclamations.) If there is a political or doctrinal inflection in one direction or another along the familiar cultural fault lines, I haven’t detected it. Certainly, the station would be appealing to the most orthodox Catholic; it is appealing to me, a non-Catholic skeptic. The website states that the station is “catechetical and contemplative” and “the programming is intended to present the life of the Church in a way that makes the Mystical Body of Christ more apparent.” (Catechetical and contemplative or not, the Brothers behind We Are One Body are living fully in the digital age. The website offers a downloadable App, and several venues for listening online at The reflections are interspersed with Gregorian chant, a musical form well suited to contemplation and especially resonant driving alone through those old, old hills, and with periods of silence. A radio station that promotes periods of silence. I think it’s a concept that should catch on.
Somewhere else on the radio dial, far away from We Are One Body, a devout, exasperated Catholic was asked what the Church could do about the fact that young people—“Millennials”—were drifting away from the Church. He grumbled about the intellectual vacuity of what he termed “the atheist idea” and seemed to believe that the way to get young people back in the pews was to argue them back. I would like to have told him he would do just as well to go outside and beat his head against a rock.

But it has occurred to me later that in fact the Catholic Church has an enormous gift that could draw in many of the disaffected—namely this rich, rich inheritance of contemplative mysticism, of which We Are One Body is a such a charming representative for motorists driving 65 miles an hour across the Interstate highways of the Appalachian mountain range. (Protestants, having no such inheritance, are left with offering to the un-churched these ubiquitous folk and “alternative” worship services with the rock band and the theatrical trappings.) If Catholic parishes began thinking about creative ways to offer the Church’s ancient treasure of contemplative mysticism to their communities I believe they would find young followers. Actually, I think young people might eat it up. 

It is not, after all, the life of the Spirit that young people (and others) are fleeing from in their flight from the Church (and from religion in general); it is rather from what I would broadly call—by way of shorthand—“clericalism,” the deification of little men in robes and vestments, the perfumed odor of pharisaical righteousness, the itchy, obsessive preoccupation (inherent, it seems, in every orthodox religion) with what everyone is doing with their poor, sad sexual organs, and the habit of most organized religions and many “religious” people to fabricate a God who conveniently just happens to look (and vote) as they do.

On the Sunday I was driving, the young Brother was reflecting on the Incarnation, the distinctiveness of the Christian belief that Jesus was God made flesh, and the need to meditate on this most paradoxical of all doctrines—that Jesus was fully man and yet also God.  
When I wasn’t listening to We Are One Body, or trolling the airwaves for music that wasn’t deeply depressing, I hung around the high upper 80s on the radio dial where, if you are close enough to a major city, you can pick up public radio. West Virginia public radio is quite good. There was a lengthy interview with J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Vance’s book sounds fascinating—he sounds like an interesting and likable man, with a rather tortured family history—and its garnered a lot of attention, in part, Vance acknowledges, because of the election, which has focused attention on poor working class whites. (In this, his book has been joined by the way, by “White Trash: The 400-year Old Untold History of Class in America.”)
But about this particular “meme”—Donald Trump and the white working class. Among the countless things that anger me about this election and Trump’s ascendancy, perhaps this is the most infuriating: while it is certainly true that white working class men are almost entirely voting (or saying they will vote, or showing up at rallies) for Donald Trump, there is absolutely no way in the world he could have come this far in an election on that demographic alone. (Leave aside the preposterous delusion—bewildering to all those who see Trump for what he transparently is—that the New York real estate tycoon is some kind of honest broker for poor white working class people, or that he could give a damn about the West Virginians depicted in Larissa Macfarquhar's New Yorker article.)

The Trump phenomenon, in fact, is fed by legions of invertebrate Republican "leaders" at all levels, the usual low-IQ loud mouths in conservative media , and many, many perfectly comfortable American men and women whose jobs are not endangered and have never been anything but elaborately privileged, even judging by American standards, let alone the standards of how most of the rest of the world lives.
When I reflect on this and this sad and miserable election, I think of a profoundly sorrowful statement by Garrison Keillor. “If we elect this man president we are not the country we think we are….The churches should close their doors.”

My trip took me through Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia again and Western Maryland before coming into the mad traffic of the greater D.C. area.

The drive out from D.C. on Friday was miserable—it took at least two-and-a-half hours in northbound traffic to get as far as I might have gotten normally in one hour, and it rained the rest of the way. I had hoped to get to Columbus that night, but thought it better to stop for the night. I was visiting my daughter in college. We had a lovely time with her mother on Saturday, ignoring the Parents Weekend organized events and doing our own thing. But on Sunday I was impatient and crabby (I had a fuming fit standing in line at the Panera because a couple in front of us took too long placing their order) and eager—why? For what reason?—to get on the road.

I think my daughter was embarrassed for me at my immaturity. Or I was embarrassed for myself. Actually, she’s an adult and the necessary steps of separating she began as a teenager are all but completed. I doubt she gives me a lot of thought when she doesn’t absolutely have to. I haven’t quite let go of her—being her father has been the only aspect of my life in which I unquestionably knew what I was doing. All the rest of it, I have been making it up as I go along, a blind man groping along in the dark. I should let go of her, but I don’t know exactly what’s next.

It reminds me of a story I like a lot, “To Know a Woman,” by Amos Oz. The novel is a favorite of mine—I don’t read a lot of fiction—but I will admit it is a strange one. A lot of readers who love Amos Oz are stumped by it, understandably. Yoel Ravid is a middle aged Israeli, recently retired from the Mossad, the nation’s storied intelligence service. His wife has died in circumstances that are slightly mysterious, possibly involving a neighbor with whom she may have been having an affair. His teenage daughter seems to have some incompletely defined illness—which may or may not involve a certain amount of deliberate playacting on her part. Yoel’s relationship with her is scratchy, but not much more so than that of most fathers and teenage girls.  He is befriended by a middle-aged real estate agent, an odd fellow, a bit of a playboy whose admiration for Yoel is ever so vaguely erotic, something like a schoolboy crush.

The story is told in short, terse chapters in which not a lot happens. There is an atmosphere of tense uncertainty throughout, of frustrated action, of something being always uncannily “off,” not quite right—an ambience with which I somehow feel quite at home. Yoel’s is a keen intelligence, far seeing and penetrating, but hobbled by ambivalence—or rather, by a preternatural caution. He’s a cautious man by training (I am one by nature) and like me he wants to make the next step in his midlife a right one.
There is a pleasant, convalescent tenor to the resolution of the story, a relaxation—like a clenched fist slowly uncramping—of the low-grade anxiety that grips the story throughout, a sense of things out-of-balance suddenly righting themselves. Uncertainties are not so much resolved as let go of, as when Yoel (admonished by his daughter’s precocious boyfriend) agrees that he must let his daughter go and breathe on her own. For himself, Yoel is an observer, and he finds late in life a sudden pleasure in observing, only observing for its own sake and nothing more.  
Well, it’s a long drive back home from Columbus, not a fun one necessarily and I wasn’t wrong to be impatient, regardless of what my daughter thinks. On the other hand, I have always experienced driving to be somewhat meditative and as I found myself paying attention to those hills and valleys and the voices on the radio, and meditating on these observations as I wrote them over the following week since my return, I felt in a similar way that this too is who I am, an observer, whatever else may come as I grow old. Maybe that is all I will ever be.
It is not a bad fate. “Since he was capable of observing, Yoel grew fond of observing in silence. ... And if it was necessary to focus the gaze and remain on the lookout for hours and days, even for years, well there was no finer thing that this to do.”