This is a very short story about cause and effect. Last week a serious outbreak of a particularly nasty variety of flu reached a level of infection among Americans that bordered on epidemic. 49 of our 50 states reported cases, and several people have died from the disease. This variety was not covered by the annual flu shot, although reports are that someone who received a flu shot would have an easier time fighting this strain off. Still, dozens of people across the nation have died from the illness. Making matters worse, the national supply of saline IV fluids, key to combating this flu and all sorts of medical situations from surgeries to chemotherapy, is low. No patient yet has suffered lesser care, but the IV shortage could become a crisis in the upcoming months.
The major suppliers of saline IV fluid are in Puerto Rico. Those manufacturing plants were hit hard by Hurricane Maria and the facilities damaged. On top of that, they still don't have electrical power and are running on generators, trying to catch up with a backlog of orders pouring in. Perhaps if the U. S. government had done a better job in helping its territory, American citizens in every state of the union would not have to worry that there will be enough saline IV when they need it. Our President gave himself a very, very good grade on the response to the Puerto Rican disaster, but, as Donald Trump seems unable to fathom, things are a bit more complicated than water bottles sitting on a dock.
In my favorite all time play, Inherit the Wind, there is a passage in which the fiance of the man on trial for teaching evolution asks his lawyer, a fictionalized version of Clarence Darrow named Henry Drummond, why he curses so much. Drummond responds that English is a poor means of communication and we have to use every tool at our disposal. “And besides,” he adds, “there are damn few words everyone understands.”
I understand Donald Trump. I watched him descend from a staircase and spew out vitriol as he announced his candidacy for president and thought, this man is a joke. But the joke grew and became a parody and then a travesty and then a presidency. It seemed he would go out and say something outrageous, topping himself time and time again, just to see how far he could go before he lost his appeal. But he did not lose his appeal. And he was elected—granted, through the Electoral College and with something in the neighborhood of a quarter of the eligible vote. 39% of Americans give him an F as president and another 17 a D—over 56% fail Trump. Yet he remains. Investigations and huge questions about his competence abound, yet he remains. He is the laughing stock of most of the world and wildly unpopular at home, yet he remains. And he will remain for four years barring impeachment or a federal indictment—neither of which seem likely as I write these words. And now, his racial bias once again spews forth with expletives spoken out loud.
How do we get rid of thi embarrassment? Talk of the 25th Amendment depends on a cabinet that opposes him, which it does not. Yet the majority of America has no confidence in, and even expresses fear of, this man. I would call for a vote of no confience if I could. But I can't. Americans have no recourse but to wait it oust.
It is easy for a white Western European to say, “They're not assimilating like we did.” It's true, our ancestors managed to maintain their sense of cultural heritage while assuming the identity of true Americans, and did so for the most part with little effort. I myself am an immigrant; becoming an American was as natural for me as leaving the Old World was for my father after the devastation and horror of World War Two. But we assimilated into a culture that was pretty much already the same as the one we left. Our ancestors shaped the prevailing white Western European culture here. The Spanish, the British, the French, the Dutch, the Swedes, the Germans, the Norwegians, the Danish all were crucial in making colonial and later revolutionary America a melting pot – for Spaniards, Brits, French, Dutch, Swedes, Germans, Norwegians and Danes. Our ancestors did not assimilate at all, if you think about it. They brought their cultures with them and forced them down the throats of the indigenous peoples across the length of the New World. Their motto could easily have been: “Assimilate or die.” Join our culture or suffer the consequences.
Conquerors do not assimilate.
In fact, when we began inviting laborers from other parts of Europe, and Asia, we wanted their labor but we pushed against their culture. Even the Irish, themselves Western Europeans, were met with hostility. Still another entire group of people we imported as a labor force – free labor, against their will.
So what worries us about immigrants? Do we fear that the Muslim world will do to us what our ancestors did across the globe? Or are we simply afraid to lose our white supremacy? Inquiring minds want to know.
In 1987, my all-time favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut, published one of his best novels, Bluebeard. The novel was a critical success but falls, popularly, far under his most famous works like Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle and Sirens of Titan. To me it stands second only to Slaughterhouse Five. It is the story of a fictional abstract expressionist painter named Rabo Karabekian, who, like the character Bluebeard, spends much of his time trying to understand the relationship between men and women. The plot set aside. Vonnegut presents two startling ideas that dovetail into today's world perfectly.
The first concept is that no art is permanent, that perhaps very little of what we do will last even beyond our own lifetime, but what does survive is going to be our best work. When he was younger Karabekian experimented with a new type of paint that enhanced the effect of his photo-rrealistic paintings. But the pigments in the paint break down after thirty years, so every single work begins to disintegrate right on the canvas and Karabekian has to come to grips with impermanence. He then pours his heart and soul into one final work, the secret locked in his studio barn. It is the only work that he himself feels has 'soul.' And it is that enormous painting that creates the greatest message of our age, or more precisely, its title. Thirty-one years ago Vonnegut told us men to make room, to let go, to hand over the reins, to admit we haven't done such a fabulous job running the world. See the 5,219 battered people, the child Karabekian among them, left behind in a valley by the Nazis as they fled the end of the war, protected not by soldiers because there weren't any to protect them, not by any men because there were none to protect them. Five words that could become the new anthem of our #MeToo era, courtesy of one of the greatest writer of the past century: “Now It's the Women's Turn.”
Mark well, and remember.
I wrote this over a year ago, in the reflective hours just after Donald Trump won the Electoral College. If anything, the words are more resonant today.
The biggest hope I heard expressed these post-election days is that Donald Trump did not mean what he said, and that he will not do the things he said he wants to do. I know that drawing a parallel to the world of 1933, specifically Germany, is considered the last resort of poor argument. Still, looking back begs the issue of what lies ahead. Katherine Anne Porter wrote a novel in 1962 entitled Ship of Fools, about the passengers and crew aboard a cruise ship headed from Mexico to Germany in 1933 just as the Nazis have taken control of the German government. This situation back home is a major topic of conversation and concern. Several of the passengers are Jewish, and they know the rhetoric of hate spewed out by those who now have taken power toward the Jewish people. One of them says to another, “What are they going to do? Kill us all?”
I have heard the rhetoric of hate spewed out by the Trump campaign. “It can't happen here,” is another favorite phrase uttered by those who believe someone else will protect them. I ask you to be a protector, in case. Do not for a moment relent. Do not for a moment think Trump can't possibly mean it. Do not for a moment relax your guard believing that one man cannot take full control of America. It can happen; dystopian stories of the past several years are clear on this point, and art too often comes in ahead of life. There are signs to watch for, such as the demonizing of the Press, and calling anyone who disagrees a traitor, or a cancer. The system may right itself, but most Anericans don't trust it to do so, which is in part why Trump was “selected.” He was not elected. He did not win the vote. He has no clear mandate from the people other than this: we are all dissatisfied with the status quo.
We Americans tend to forget our own history, or worse, most of us do not know it. We have a powerful mythology of freedom, but our freedom has come at a great price, in hard fights, one by one since our Founding Fathers set up a democracy that excluded everyone but the landed gentry from the vote. We have suppported dictatorships and still do. We have attacked and invaded countries smaller and weaker than ourselves, sometimes to ill result. We have oppressed people on our soil and outside it, and sytemmatically and intentionally caused the near-extinction of one of our most magnificent creatures, the American Bison, then made it a symbol of our greatness. We are not the noble people we think we are. But we could be.
We are, it seems, at a crossroads. We have two roads to choose from, one that leads forward and continues the fight for economic and political freedom; the other that tries to go back to a time imagined to exist that was less complicated but also much less free. We have veered off our path, but, as Englishman Robert Plant famously sang, there's still time to change the road you're on. Remember, they can kill us all. And we are they.
Immigrant Status (An Open Letter to the President)
Dear Mr. Trump,
I do not address you properly, I am aware. The title, Dear Mr. President, and the title, The Honorable POTUS, just do not fit with your name. I apologize at the outset, but I do not believe you care one way or the other. It seems that those of us who do not belong among your followers, although they be a significant majority of the American people, also do not belong to your idea of what America is and how She feels about you. Even when an office deserves respect, its occupant still has to earn it; in my eyes, you have not.
I am an immigtant. I came to America when I was two tears old, carried through Ellis Island by my father. I became an American citizen when I was seven, automatically, when my mother became an American citizen. I did not take any tests, I did not take a loyalty oath, I did not pledge to go to war against my homeland if ever the occasion arouse wherein the United States would find itself at war with the Netherlands. I grew up a liberal, evolved into a bleeding heart liberal. I belong to no organized religion. I am a pacifist. Although I am of good Aryan stock, as some might say, I still began my life as a foreigner, an immigrant. Like Arnold Schwarzenneger. Like Henry Kissinger. Like Jospeh Pulitzer, Rupert Murdoch, Madeline Albright, To this day I feel something of an outsider looking in at and, as James Baldwin might say, loving and therefore feeling free to criticize America. I fear for her. I fear you.
Given the above, when exactly will you deport me?
A Second Thought about Deportation
I wonder if Donald Trump could even pass a citizenship test.
I wonder if such a test should be a requirement of anybody runing for the office of POTUS.
I wonder if such a test should be a requirement for anyone running for public office.
I wonder, if Trump failed, should he be deported?
I wonder, would anyone else have him?
2017 was a difficult year. It seems that we say this often, annually, in fact. Every year is a difficult year. But every year also has promise and hope, and as I look back on this one I already am looking forward to the next.
Perhaps that is how it should be. New Year's is an arbitrary cut-off from one cycle to the next, with each cycle being only 365 days long, roughly matching the time it takes our planet to make one complete orbit around the Sun. I often contemplated the different amounts of time it gtakes to orbit the sun: Saturn, for example, takes about 29 and a half earth years to complete one rotation; Mercury, on the other hand, hurtles around the sun once every 88 days. Is time itself different on these locations? Would a human being age only a year every 29.5 on Saturn, but also age one year every 88 days on Mercury? Or, if a human lived on Saturn would three Saturn years constitute a long life; would a human live 320 Mercury years if he could withstand the radiation? I know, this is basic science 101: speed does change time but it has to be massive speed, much greater than the orbital speeds of the planets in our solar system. The “what if” posturing is fun but elemental. And I digress.
I began 2017 in recovery from hip replacement surgery. The surgey took place on our 42nd anniversary, three days before 2017 began. I ended the year with a new knee. During recovery, I lost a combined four months where I could not do my part-time janitor work, but we managed without the extra income. I published one book in 2017, Rhymes and Reasons. I saw my late 2016 effort, Custer's Last Stand, sell steadily if slowly throughout the year—monthly royalties, however meager, are a wonderful encouragement to a writer. There are at least a dozen more books to write if I have time. Friends and family came to visit us up in the Big Sky. Our eldest grandchild grew from a reluctant student into an eager one, while our other two simply grew with charminbg personalities and clever imaginations. In a sense, the world swirled around Diane and myself, while we sat back and watched.
The outside world in 2017 has been a disaster—one disaster after another. Massive storms and wild fires dominated the news; once again, humans with guns proved deadly to their fellows in terrifying numbers; and the United States has been plagued by a President who may be a laughing stock to much of the world but represents a clear and present danger at home to democracy itself. A third of you will not agree with that last opinion, but the world is watching us and America's prestige and position are slipping, and it all took a quantum leap in 2017.
Looking ahead to 2018, I am filled with hope. Optimism is too strong a word: I have hope, but I have an equal measure of fear. The storms will be bigger and more frequent. The fires will engulf drought-plagued regions. The rich will continue to line their pockets while people in America and all over the world face shortages of food, water, and adequate health care. It is a broken record. I often think I should stop commenting on it altogether, but I cannot help myself. All I have is my words, right now, and to remain silent when you see something wrong is to allow the wrong to grow. I did not mean for this reflection to travel down this path, but I have lived a good many years and I have seen good things happen. I have seen progress and I have seen resistance to change. I have seen momentum shift from one to the other and back again. My hope for 2018 is that the momentum shifts to progress and maintains itself through November.
For myself, Diane and I start the new year with a trip back to the Netherlands. Some of our dearest friends live there and we burn with the need to see them. We have another grandchild coming in April. And there are books to write, projects to finish and time to spend watching the universe at work. Of course, like honey badgers, the universe don't care. The solar system don't care. The planets will spin around the sun and the sun will spin around the Milky Way, and the Milky Way will fling itself farther and farther away from the center of the universe, regardless of what any of us do. Oddly, there is a peculiar comfort in that.
I was born in Holland in 1950. My parents immigrated to the US when I was two. I have many close friends and family on both continents. My wife Diane and I have been happily married since 1974. I have four children and one grandchild (two more are on the way). I love writing and sharing what I wrote most of all..