Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Goodbye, swim coach

Some of my swim literature, Terry Laughlin's along with
Lane Lines toShore Lines by Gary Emich and Phil DiGirolamo,
which helped me swim from Alcatraz.
Terry Laughlin has died.
He taught me to swim.

After my cousins Mike and Pat, that is, who on a summer vacation to their town long long ago, proved at their neighborhood pool that holding my breath while under water wouldn't kill me, and that knowing how to glide like a sea mammal far below the surface was worth the $1.50 to get in.

And after a half dozen summer-program swim instructors at the old dank lung-burning indoor Municipal Pool, and the sunny warm pool at Cabrillo High School, where I once jumped off the high dive and lived to at least this moment to write about it.

And after my dad encouraged me. I don't remember him ever swimming with me, though I admit to not always paying attention. I learned after his death he was what we now call an open-water swimmer.

After all those, Terry Laughlin taught me.

Laughlin died late last month from cancer. He promoted a struggle-free form of swimming he called Total Immersion, and taught through books, DVDs and swim camps — at his headquarters in New Paltz, New York, and in community pools across the country and exotic locales beyond. Licensed coaches of his technique abound.

About 10 years ago, I decided to swim for exercise, because it would be good for — let's be honest — an old guy and his old joints. And somehow that plan has sustained, while all my other exercise resolutions before and since fizzled quickly.

I found some old swim trunks in a dresser drawer, rejoined my wife's gym, and got in the pool, day after day, marveling at my ability to stretch two lengths into 72, and to keep up the mile swim regularly.

Two things happened.
  1. My shoulders burned in pain.
  2. I decided I had always wanted to swim from Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay. Why I told myself this lie, and convinced myself of it, I don't know. But this suddenly lifetime goal had no chance with those burning shoulders.
I must learn to swim.

To the library I went, where I keep most of my books, and found a couple about swimming. One was Terry Laughlin's "Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster and Easier." I don't remember the other book, because Laughlin's description of his method caught me right away, describing me and my struggles wholly, and offering to break down my lack of method into a new one — one that would rely on my hips, not my shoulders, for propulsion.

I was hooked.

I don't think Laughlin had any proprietary control over his technique. In the intervening years, I have seen similar techniques under different names, from people selling their own swim camps and media. Experienced swimmers may also call it "front-quadrant" swimming, in which one arm doesn't complete the backward stroke until the other arm enters the water, at the same time that side's hip drives down into the water.

Total Immersion stresses a stress-free way of swimming, more efficient, using hips to move the body forward while it glides at a slant like the keel of a sailboat. Rather than kicking continuously, like you imagine swimmers in a race, Total Immersion swimmers kick only enough to turn over the hips.

Many open water swimmers, I learn, swim in somewhat the same way, even if they don't call it Total Immersion.

Laughlin, a frequent blogger, pointed to the record holding long-distance swimmer, Sun Yang of China, as the epitome of his technique. Watch him in the 1,500 meter race: Sun looks like he's taking a relaxing dip, and yet he is often several body lengths past his competition, which churns the water violently. Laughlin was quick to say he had nothing to do with teaching Sun this technique style.

Racing swimmers also call it a recovery swim — I have seen Olympian swimmers cool down after races using this very same deliberate front-quadrant style, kicking only enough to turn their hips.

The difference was: This is the book I happened to find, and Laughlin talked me through it well. I went through two editions of his book: One in which he denounced so-called "endless pools," which allow swimmers to swim in place through an artificial current; and the next edition in which he said such pools won't ruin your technique after all.

I even stepped off a place in my backyard in the ridiculous wish I would one day have my own such pool. I schlepped off to the gym pool instead.

At the same time I was learning how to be a schoolteacher — on the job, not recommended — I was learning how to swim. To the pool at 4:30 a.m., without witnesses, I would go through Laughlin's many steps of floating and gliding, up and down the pool, just tilting and kicking, then one arm extended and the other held out of the water, bent in the shape of a fin. Then plunging my fist into the water near the side of my face, as quietly as possible, no bubbles if possible, driving one hip down with one kick, then the other with another kick, sculling on my side. Finally, my open hand knifing in for a full stroke.

Then I'd go off to school, endure the day, fall asleep at my desk writing responses to students' journals, go home, get up at 4 and repeat.

In rare free time, I would watch YouTube® videos of Laughlin's instructors, who seemed to proliferate. One especially, named Shinji Takeuchi, becomes the water he swam in, so languid in form but racing down the pool, the barest of ripples around him. They kept me going.

It took a long time to practice and get used to Laughlin's steps, the length of that school year, until I could put it all together into the stroke he described. I could glide the length of a 25-yard pool in 10 strokes when it used to take me 21, and could swim a mile with ease. Leaving shoulders free of pain!

Today the pool. Tomorrow, Alcatraz!

Swimming open water was like learning to swim all over again. The logistics of finding water to swim in regularly, and swimmers to show me the way, consumed my time. I finally resigned to getting myself out of swim trunks and into body-squeezing jammers, and being OK in public about it.

Then I had to apply all I re-learned in the pool to a cold murky lake, where lane lines don't exist and distances are hard to judge, and beasties may lurk below and the water isn't still. That took even more time.

Having found a group of swimmers in the dead of winter, I also had to learn how to swim in cold water — which I have not regretted a whit. One fallout is that all the bilateral breathing I had learned in the pool atrophied. I'm guilty of the bad habit of breathing from one side after every two strokes; try though I might to breathe again from both sides, the cold water forces me to revert.

I'm OK with it.

And I'm OK where I am now. When I finally got the hang of Total Immersion in the open water, I resolved to join Masters swimming so I could qualify for races. I scratched that itch for a couple of years, then tired of it, realizing I have no desire or talent for racing, and I was spending money for something I could do for free, which is to swim in new waterways.

I still love to take part in some dear swim events — not races, but moving communities of swimmers  — such as the 24-hour swim relay at Aquatic Park in San Francisco, which Suzie Dods developed, and the Humboldt Bay Critter Crawl Sarah Green invented on the north coast. And I'd recommend the iconic Donner Lake swim to anyone; the lunch that awaits you after is worth the 2.7 mile trek across that mountain lake.

And I swam Alcatraz! And I swam from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge (well, St. Francis Yacht Club to AT&T Park, about the same distance, because whiteout fog made it unsafe to get in under the Golden Gate).

Along the way, I learned something surprising and disheartening — strangers who immediately deride and belittle Total Immersion. It blindsided me at first, when I'd be having a conversation about swimming with a fellow open water practitioner and unwittingly let slip I practice Total Immersion. The fellow swimmer would tell me right away how much they hate that technique, how no real swimmer would be caught doing it.

At first I'd defend it, but after a while I just shut up. It seemed silly, like I was a convert to a secret religion, taking care who I talked to about it. Occasionally I'd meet another who practice Total Immersion, and maybe we'd talk.

Now I don't even talk about it. I just swim. All I know is I can swim, and I can swim every day, and Total Immersion makes it possible.

I swim alone these days, having abandoned the pool for open water years ago. Don't pity me, it just is. I was part of a regular group for a couple of years. We pushed each other to swim longer and longer distances of our home lake, and explore other venues. We'd go to coffee after; we even exchanged Christmas gifts one year. But members of the group moved away and moved on; I went to a nineish-to-fiveish job, so I have to swim as early as possible before work, and not many would join me at that hour and place.

I see swimming groups on social media, and think how nice to be part of that; but in the rare event someone does join me early for a swim, it becomes a new thing to relearn, the stress of trying to keep up or keep track. I've gotten used to trekking alone up the lake. It's OK.

After a while, I stopped posting on a facebook®™ group for swimmers, simply because I had run out of new things to day about my swims. It is always beautiful, always dotted with Canada geese and mergansers and mallards and the rare otter, but it was like Groundhog Day with each swim.

I could have written about this year, the heavy rains filling Folsom Lake and forcing water managers to release huge amounts of water though Lake Natoma, where I swim, and down into the lower American River. For a couple of weeks this winter it was impossible to swim there, the tranquil waters having roiled into Class III rapids.

Even when the current slowed a bit, swimming was a challenge. One winter morning I got in and stayed near shore, to prevent being swept away if I strayed to the center. The main bridge ahead was about 100 yards away.

Against the current I crawled ahead, pebble width by pebble width (the water was unusually clear). I counted strokes: 2,450 strokes got me just past the main bridge. It took exactly 87 strokes to swim back to the boat landing.

Another time, shortly after, I got kicked out of the lake.

Getting in from the boat landing at the lower end of the lake — my ritual when I'm down there — I climbed up through strong muddy current. That was my mistake; I caught someone's attention and raised the alarm. A quarter-mile into my swim, I see a chase boat from the nearby aquatic center sidle up to me; it's one of those boats from which the coaches instruct the local rowing crews as they train on the lower lake.

"The lake is closed," the pilot told me from his bullhorn. "These currents are dangerous. You have to get out."

I was not gracious; I was angry. I wanted to say, "Where ya been? I do this all the time!" He just repeated his instructions.

"I'm swimming back!" I shouted. "Just don't go near the dam," the pilot said. Gee, you think?! The boat circled back to the aquatic center. I swam a few more strokes upstream, but the pilot was watching and circled back to escort me out of the lake.

I could have written about that. Or how the current only relented about two months ago to let me swim again to the Folsom Prison property, my favorite, a round trip of about three miles through a jagged ravine. Or how clear the water was all summer, the storm water having scoured the river bottom of the milfoil and water hyacinth that had choked the channel during drought years. I used to be lucky to see a fish a year when I begin swimming Lake Natoma. This summer I saw at least two fat trout a day, swimming along with me, just below.

The water has clouded up again since, back to its green murk.

Now I just swim. Though I haven't opened Terry Laughlin's book or looked at his DVDs in several years, I try to mind what he taught me. I try to dip my hands into the water quietly, without bubbles. I try to pick up the pace, to swim with easy speed. I have never figured out how this technique can make me swim fast, and I have my suspicions I would have to go to one of the swim camps to learn, and I wasn't in the position to do it.

Lately I practice picking up my pace for long distances, just fast enough before I start making bubbles with my hands. I tell my hips to drive down; I tell my shoulders to let my hips do the work. I lean down, trying to keep my body straight, as if through a tube, as Terry Laughlin taught.

And I swim and swim and swim. And I'm swimming still.

And I thank Terry Laughlin for that. May he rest his shoulder in peace.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Eviscerati

It's a hallowed, hollow anesthetized
"Save my own ass, screw these guys"
Smoke-and-mirror lockdown


"Bad Day," REM
The morning after the Supremely Lovely Day, one of the loveliest ever,
I regarded the
hollow orange.

It lay in the backyard of the house we had rented, at the base of the tree from which it had fallen. Since then a critter had carefully and completely devoured its fruit.

I'm guessing it was a possum. We had seen two of them slink along a concrete gutter at the back fence the morning of the Lovely Day. The homeowner noted in her rental instructions that it's OK to feed the gray neighborhood cat should it happen by. We joked that maybe the nearsighted homeowner only thinks they're a cat.

The orange rind remained full and round, even with a flap across its middle clipped away, the shape of a rawhide flap on a baseball. Though the other baseball flap is all that remained, the rind held its shape.

In this quiet moment, soft talking all around in the backyard, the rind made me think of my country, hollowed out steadily as I write. The thought of it dampened the afterglow of the Lovely Day, in which our son and his beautiful fiancée got married.

That Day overflowed with novel sensations. Useless as ever, I stayed off to the side and witnessed the pell-mell rush to complete the many last details, which had been dreamed and planned for more than a year.
  • The groom and his men using the rented home as their base, adjusting their tuxes, sliding into their patent-leather shoes, pouring into the limousine that would take them hilly hither and yon.
  • Some of the bridesmaids readying themselves at the home too, in glories of makeup and gown.
  • The beautiful bride in the beautiful cathedral, her home, standing next to her soon-to-be husband, both of them crowned, in the Russian Orthodox tradition. We are at once somber and wondering, sneaking glances high into the church's uninterrupted space.
Unseen from high above in the cathedral, a choir burst forth, their intertwining harmonies filling the immense cube of space, and seeming to set fire to the gold leaf in the iconography, the Bible stories, that adorned every surface.
  • At the reception at a magnate son's mansion-turned-wedding-venue, the newlyweds embraced all of us who came to witness, embraced the moment they had yearned for, embraced long into the night.

    Lou Seal, the San Francisco Giants mascot, made a surprise appearance, an amazing how-did-she-do-it? arranged by my new daughter-in-law. Photographs prove our son went wild with glee.
It was joyful and bewildering, committed now to memory, bright and fierce.

Much of the rest of this year, however, has been ashes.

They are away now, the new wife and husband. They are out of the country, on a new chapter of their adventure together. It's not really a secret where, though I don't feel like disclosing. I feel in a way I have helped spirit them away. They are somewhere safe — safe from their own country, now being eaten away, like the orange, but looking somehow whole.

Our other child is stateside, in the country. I wonder what our children think of this place now. I could not have imagined what it's become.

In sixth grade I penned a school report about our country taken over by Russia or its simulacrum, of a transplanting of our representative government by a dictatorship, of our freedoms instantaneously removed, and how that world looked. But in my literary device it was all a dream, because the country in which I had grown up, by its very rightness, would not so much as brook a takeover.

I have thought that way, more or less, through my life. Despite its egregious behavior at home and abroad — for all its many failings and sins — my country was still right, an experiment worth improving. Though it has faced threat and extinction many times, my country would hold and thrive.

Ha.

This is real, and this is worse. With the Trump administration, this is a daily dismantling from within, a taking away, a making less.

I watch the daily creation and vilification of the Other. The Other are legion — women, blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, Dreamers, the poor, critics, opponents of their thoughts and actions, activists for constitutional rights. The environment. The world.

I watch denizens of the Trump swamp take power, deliberate and swift, as if with orders to make whatever Is within their power, suddenly Not. Whatever Was, Will Not Be any more, for its own sake. Step by step, agency by agency. I watch them fly about the world needlessly at enormous taxpayer expense, then lecture us against fraud and waste.

Hypocrisy made hip.

I watch Puerto Rico drown in a hurricane and debt and denigration, and then see President Trump say he's doing a terrific job.

It is not just blatant. It is the Age of Flagrancy.

What is not on purpose is instead capricious, the stuff of unthinking, dangerous whim.

I wake up each morning with a thought I hadn't entertained since I was an Air Force brat and lived in the Cold War's chill across the coastal valley from the missile base, and could see the rockets lift off, and knew it would be a first target in a nuclear strike:

Is this the day nuclear war begins? Is this the day? Is this?

Is this?

Reflexively, I think of how our leaders can protect us from the brink, and snap back to the real dread that the man in charge is the one pulling us to the brink.

I hit "angry" a lot on my facebook®™©, as if that will help.

Ashes flow in the air as I write, ashes from fires all around. Uncontrolled fire has destroyed whole neighborhoods where close relatives live in Northern California. Fire swept close to my childhood home two weeks ago in Southern California, where my sister still lives. Storms laid waste to Texas and Louisiana and Florida and Puerto Rico. A man beyond any understanding shot to death nearly five dozen people and wounded hundreds of others in Las Vegas.

But by all means, let us all denounce football players peacefully protesting racial injustice, and let the man who's supposed to lead us use is energy to confuse his followers that it's about disrespecting the flag.

My beloved San Francisco Giants finished one of their worst seasons this year. Three years removed from their third World Series win in five years, the Giants won 64 games but lost 98, tied for the worst record in baseball this season. They finished the season 40 games behind the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers. The Giants battled hard not to lose 100 games. Lou Seal had little to cheer about. Our children's wedding, and not much else.

Every team opens the season in first place, but the Giants looked good and strong, promising; fans could breathe easy with hope. In lightning speed just a few things happened here and there, and the talented team became a wheezing creature. Funny how little it really takes to derail a vaunted team.

Or a country.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Look over there!

This is all going one of two ways — and either way, you lose. Unless you can do something about it.

I still don't know what to do about it.

But I'm on fire to find out.

Either you believe:
  • God stopped the rain right before Donald Trump delivered his inaugural address Friday
  • Three to five million illegal votes were cast in the general election, depriving Donald Trump of a just popular vote victory in addition to his Electoral College win
  • God resumed the rain as Donald Trump finished his address
  • The inauguration was most viewed, best attended inauguration in the history of the tradition. Period.
  • You and I suffer an American carnage
None of these is true. All are proven false, even semantically. All are lies, repeated by Dread Pirate Trump and his parrots.

They are not even very important, though the continued lie about the illegal votes persists as much as it intrigues, because voter fraud hangs heavy in this election, but not in the way Trump declares.

If you believe all this obvious why-even-try lying, and more (such a firehose of lies these days!), then you and I lose. You are a frog boiling, and you don't know your end is near. I do, and I'm watching, more frantic than I was nine paragraphs ago to find out how to fight this insanity.

You are doing as egregious sycophant Lamar Smith told you, that you should get your new from Donald Trump directly, rather than from the news media. Mr. Smith is a Republican Congressman from Texas, and someone who makes decisions about science and press policy in Congress.

Your froggie life will have boiled away before you realize your lost jobs that Donald Trump said he'd rescue are not coming back, that they have already been lost to automation and shareholders' need for squeezing profits from your company.

Creating a new economy and new opportunities? Not so much. Easier to sell you on the old economy that has already long gone. Too bad for you.

Your health care will become tatters, not that it will matter to you, in your boiled state. But it matters to me and so many millions. Something really good is replacing Obamacare, you will have heard while dying. But nothing will replace it, nothing good anyway, not for you. Just as long as all traces of Obama are gone, that's what matters to Dread Pirate Donald and his Parrots, and everyone following him into the fallout shelter. They could rename it, erase Obama's credit, and fix the flaws while so many millions kept their coverage, and maybe it would even get better. But no. The powers that be don't care, and they hope you boil away before you get boiling mad about it.

By coincidence, the top 1 percent will get tax breaks with the repeal! Imagine the odds!

Either you believe this glorious fountain of the most obvious bullshit ever spewed — or you don't.

You still lose.

The Washington Post ran a postmortem feature on the White House Goings-On Saturday night, how Donald Trump returned from the last inaugural fete (probably a happy dance — for him, anyway — with his clearly distraught wife Melania), and was so enraged to see coverage of the women's marches across the globe, and the suggestion that his inaugural crowd didn't match up — so enraged he wasn't getting his due as the once and future king! — that he made his press secretary Sean Spicer rush out to the media in a cartoon suit and school them on what we now enshrine as "alternative facts."

As much as I respect the Post for its unrelenting examination of Trump and his "presidency" (hey, Trump got to do it with "intelligence!"), I will offer that it is way off in this assessment.

It's not the only medium calling out Donald Trump's narcissism, terrible temper, ego — even suggestions of mental illness — but I am suspicious.

Donald Trump knows exactly what he's doing. More plausibly, forces behind the curtains and doors in the Oval Office know what they're doing, especially how to work Donald Trump like a lever for their fascist, authoritarian aims. Trump knows what they're up to, and may be in it for the big payoff somewhere down the road.

A disarming opinion by a writer for the Caracas Chronicles says Donald Trump is like Hugo Chavez, the late totalitarian ruler who left Venezuelans with the oil-poor chaos they live under now, where people stand in line all day in hopes of toilet paper, and catch whatever grain spills from relief trucks while the military profit from the rest on the black market. Come to think of it, Hugo Chavez also said he was giving back Venezuela to the people.

So did supervillain Bane, in the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.

Hugo Chavez was not stupid, writes Andrés Miguel Rondón, and belittling him and raging against him didn't take him down. Doing so just gave him room to mass-label his opponents, the people, as the enemy, and turn them into cartoons, and turn power against them.

Or even better, to ignore them — as our Republican power elite are doing right now to you and me, even you boiling frogs. None of the Republican leaders meeting with Trump yesterday seemed particularly perturbed by Donald Trump's voter fraud claims or the use of alternative facts. Mitch McConnell, honorable servant of the people, said there could be other sides to any argument. Two plus two could mean just about anything, you see.

Rondón suggested it's better that our leading opponents of Donald Trump use his weight against him, like a judo move, and be among the people, and be with the people, and truly know their concerns, and separate Donald Trump from the people in this way. To give America back to the people, truly, and not in some nationalist phrase that means its opposite.

That's a patient play, and maybe it's right. But I don't think we have time. I have a feeling this cluster bombing of bullshit, this widespread deployment of clampdowns on government agency communication and removal of climate change information, this renewing of oil pipelines, this closing borders to refugees from Muslim countries and threats of Muslim registry — this whirling hurricane of the most ridiculous, cartoonish lies — are a weapon against us.

All this is camouflaging some mad race Dread Pirate Donald and his puppet masters are embarking on, and they're frantic to get it done before we boiling frogs and their dry but doomed witnesses find out.

Investigating massive voting fraud! And finding out whatever Donald Trump wants to find out, so he can suppress voting further, but call it free and fair! Maybe trademark it! Publish lists of crimes by immigrants, and use it to restrict Muslim Americans! And that's just what we know of!

I will never forget John Steinbeck's opening line from The Moon is Down, a novelette of the Nazi capture of a Norwegian town. Never forget it since the day in 10th grade I first read it:

"By ten forty-five it was all over."

Watch the skies.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

"Wrong"

So, it's Thursday morning, and Donald Trump hasn't revealed to us what he knows that no one else knows, about alleged hacking and manipulation of the U.S. election. Like he said he would.

"You'll find out Tuesday or Wednesday," Trump said Saturday at the New Year's Eve party he hosted at one of his resorts.

That was yesterday. And that was two days ago.

We still don't know. Because Trump doesn't know. He knows he doesn't know. Because Trump doesn't care. About anybody but Trump.

In two weeks he'll be our president. In name only.

"And I know a lot about hacking," Trump said at his party. "And hacking is a very hard thing to prove. So it could be somebody else."

I thought, if nothing else, Trump would produce the guy from the bed in a bedroom somewhere — the guy Trump has repeatedly said could be as likely as Russia or China to have screwed with the election.

But what he produced — as you and I and everybody else, including Trump, have known all along — was nothing else.

Because is a liar. He is a liar and a manipulator, scaring hell out of citizens and corporations alike. Citizens united, indeed.

What Trump is NOT is the thing, above all, we need in our president. Someone to trust.

I can't believe anything he says.

Trump's lies are how he has defrauded businesses and voters, how he has put the leader of a foreign power over the integrity of our own intelligence sources and the intelligence of the American people, how he makes money from the office he will hold.

Mine isn't partisan griping; mine is a lament for human decency.

No need to retrace his transgressions. They are legion, half-baked fresh every day.

Which is why this transition looks like a takeover, looks like a takedown, smells like a breakdown.

So many people I know bid bitter goodbye to 2016, that it sucked, that it took with it too many of our most cherished celebrities.

Yes it did, but here comes 2017. The living are going to envy the dead.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Missing

For all the daily sucker punches making America great today — the Kremlin collusion, the nepotism, the pay-for-play schemes from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the tweeted slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, all the blatant lies repeated into truths — I will miss a small noble thing most of all.

I will miss the president being presidential.

Barack Obama is presidential.

[This is not about his being president, which is another writing entirely. Though I fault President Obama for failings — notably public education — as I would any president as is my right as a citizen, I fault his foes far, far more, for their cruel hypocrisy against our president. They have twisted their blatant intransigence into something they think of as noble, and have managed to stick Obama with blame for their own failings.]

At times of tragedy and times of wonder, Barack Obama is one who speaks for our shared grief and awe. He stands at the podium, as he has done far too many times than is fair or acceptable, for all those times of massive crushing violence against innocents, and reminds us we are united in these states, in these times. We are together; at least we feel, in this gathered moment, that we are, even if we aren't really.

President Obama makes the words his own. Some are indeed his own, and some the eloquent choices of writers who know his voice, and he speaks them as if they and he are one fiber. He speaks his truth.

President George W. Bush also — sometimes — spoke with eloquence, but so woodenly you knew the words weren't his. Good for him, being wise enough to speak them, to know the weight of the words carefully chosen for him. George W. Bush reached his acme after 9/11, when he spoke through a megaphone, his arm around a firefighter, amid a pile of rubble that used to be the World Trade Center.

Bush let the firefighters and rescuers know that the nation stood with him. Had he also let the crowd know that his administration would soon use this horror as pretense to lead us into 15 years of misguided brutal war, that would have been refreshing and disarming in all meanings of the word.

Bill Clinton was almost too presidential in this regard, so at ease with words that he often overacted them, hammed over them. He had precedence in Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, who not only had the choice of the choicest words, but knew how to deliver, a master propagandist.

George H.W. Bush had a tough act to follow, and didn't very well. At least he read the words before him, stiff though they were, tumbling from his mouth.

Donald Trump is not presidential. Not in any meaning of the word.

Can you imagine him presiding at the next great national tragedy? Try to imagine Donald Trump speaking words of comfort and hope as we consider the aftermath.

He will have none to give, nor would he know how to give them; nor will he care to give them. He will instead leverage the moment for some new loss of liberty, some new broad brush of blame against some new group. He'll vindicate himself as having been correct about this tragedy — pick any tragedy, which he can sell as an I-told-you-so — and froth his followers into some new course of extreme action. For our protection, of course.

Trump will not speak with the poetry we will long to hear. He might have someone who can write that poetry, but he will not speak it. He will barely speak complete sentences, chopping them up with needless digressions, usually about his greatness and rightness.

Donald Trump is "interested in two things and two things only: Making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it," as Aaron Sorkin's movie president, Andrew Shepherd, said of his conservative arch-rival, in The American President. "That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections."

Donald Trump will have made the country a slow-motion wreck by then, but I will miss the charitable important act of a president being presidential. It is gone.

Now I tire of writing about Donald Trump, tire of drawing orange pieces of him, tire of paying attention to him, though I pay I must, to keep a wary eye.

As palliative, I instead repeat, for this season, my favorite moment from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the instructive moment when Jacob Marley's ghost appears before Ebenezer Scrooge.*

Weighted down by the chains and change-boxes that mark his own selfishness in life, the ghost of Scrooge's business partner has come to warn Scrooge of the horrible burdens he too will suffer in the afterlife. Scrooge will forever drag the "ponderous" chains he has forged in life, if he continues to hole up in their counting house, attending to business rather than charity.

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," Scrooge volunteered.

"Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” 

Remember the good, which once was, and can be again. 

*Watch Frank Finlay's version of Marley's ghost in the best version, with George C. Scott as Scrooge. Finlay's ghost is desperate and despairing, frighteningly frantic to make Scrooge see his errors.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"With"

Forget "post-truth."

Forget "xenophobia," or "fascism" or "kleptocracy" or "oligarchy" or "emoluments," or any of those candidates for Word of the Year, so strange and tangy with menace, that goosestep across your tongue these days.

The true Word of the Year — and for more years than I may be able to stomach — is "with."

Such a simple word, with — so familiar and modest, almost invisible. A preposition that in almost all cases denotes accompaniment, harmony. Togetherness.

Except when it spurts from the mouth of Donald J. Trump. From Trump's mouth, with is a chilling weapon.

In his use, with means opposition, as in this morsel you may have missed last week, when Trump was in Iowa, frothing up yet another thank-you rally, still running for president.

You will be shocked to learn he was fuming over a new criticism, this time about how he'll supposedly drain the swamp by refilling his cabinet with millionaires and billionaires, crony corporate titans:

"One newspaper criticized me: 'Why can't they have people of modest means?*'" he told his rally crowd. "Because I want people that made a fortune! Because now they're negotiating WITH you!"

Not "negotiating for you," as I read so many — too many — media outlets quoting it, as if they assume Trump made a semantic mistake. Fortune Magazine substituted the word for in brackets, like a Band Aid™® over what he actually said. Or the media used "for" in desperate hope he misspoke, that these henhouse foxes are negotiating for you, on your behalf! With your welfare and interests in mind! That must be what Trump meant!

But that's not what Trump said. Nor what he meant.

He said, "Now they're negotiating with you."  

With, as in "against."

Trump didn't misspeak. He's the greatest businessman in the history of the world, of course — as he'll tell you. He's the zen master of the deal, everybody knows. Negotiating is his thing.

How do I know Trump said what he meant? To quote our own glorious leader, "I know words. I have the best words."

So President-elect Trump is amassing a cabinet of contrarians, who not only seem loathe to run the executive functions for which they have been appointed, but who have been chosen for that reason.

We get, among others,
  • An education secretary with no experience, but lots and lots of money, who is against education, unless you can afford it, and wants to pick and choose who gets educated.
  • An attorney general whose experience with civil rights is selective at best. Guess who it's selective for?
  • A housing and urban development secretary, with no experience, who ignores the breadth of social safety net that enabled his self-made self to get where he got.
  • An energy secretary who would lead the department he wanted to eliminate during his own bumbling run for presidency, even though he couldn't remember its name.
  • An Environmental Protection Agency administrator who has demonstrated he thinks his agency is a nuisance that impedes taking profitable resources.
  • A health and human resources secretary for whom health care is a choice if you can afford it.
  • A secretary of state who runs his own virtual state already, and smells of money oil.
  • A national security adviser who has disparaged Islam and helped disseminate the most ridiculous and reckless of fake news.
What aren't fatcats in Trump's stratosphere are retired generals, or presidential hopefuls who stumbled on the campaign trail when Trump tripped them, insulting them as they fell.

It's Eisenhower's nightmare warning of the military-industrial complex, sitting around one table, holding their departments hostage, ready to negotiate with you.

They'll have the butter, and the guns to guard them. What do you have in trade?

Better education? Nah, we're thinking of going private with little accountability. We'll call you if we have a seat available for your kid, but probably not.

Civil rights? What color are you? What gender? Who do you love? By the way, what religion?

Health care? How long can you hold your breath?

Fresh air, clean water? Do you own any mineral rights? That'd be helpful. Love those mineral rights.

Freedom? Stand by. We might need them back. You know, to protect you.

Frankly, you don't have much to interest Trump in a trade.

Down continues to be up, and right wrong.

I finally figured out what the Trump phenomenon is all about: To use vulgarity he'd recognize, Donald Trump is pissing on our backs and calling it rain.

All our backs. Whether you're for him, against him, don't know, that's rain.

His minions spend their waking hours in spin, telling us so.

"Yes, that's rain!" says Vice President-elect Mike Pence, when he dismisses Trump's ridiculous statement that millions of people voted illegally, "I think one of the things that's refreshing about our President-elect, and it's one of the reasons why I think he made such an incredible connection with people all across this country, is because he tells you what's in his mind, tells you what's on his heart." Even it's untrue.

(The popular vote has Hillary Clinton with 2.8 million more votes than Trump. Still counting.)

"It's raining!" says Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, asked if Trump's lies, Twitter™® attacks on individuals and misogyny are presidential behavior. "Well," says Conway, "he is the President-elect, so that's presidential behavior."

"It's raining!" says Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes, when she declares, "There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of (sic) facts. And so Mr. Trump's tweet, amongst a certain crowd — a large part of the population — are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up."

Whatever Donald Trump says, goes. What he believes is true.

I'm not so innocent as to believe we don't already live among lies, elaborately made and disguised, around for so long we forget they're there. It's how we get by. It's how banking and finance works. It's how the haves have, how we fight wars, how we ignore atrocities at home and abroad, and still get to call ourselves exceptional.

But now we've entered the Age of Blatancy, where even the hope of a better way, based on facts, becomes mere mist in this thing Trump calls rain.

His cabinet, this would-be wrecking crew, these hostage negotiators. They're ready to negotiate with you.

Don't worry, Donald Trump is with you. As long as you're with him.

*When Trump assumes the role of his critics, do you notice how he leans back, tucks in his chin, purses his lips and lowers the register of his voice, very much in the way Alec Baldwin impersonates Trump on Saturday Night Live. Maybe Baldwin should sue.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Normal eyes

My mom is dead, which is good. These terrible days would have broken her heart all over again, so painfully.

Hillary Clinton was her candidate. I seem to remember she called her "my Hillary" or "my girl." I understand she was sooooo upset when she lost the nomination in 2008 to Barack Obama. I don't understand quite why.

We spoke once a week or so from afar, but about everyday stuff, not politics. At the time I was drowning in my attempt to become a teacher, and when I could crane my neck for a glimpse of the outside world, it was in fascination at the idea Obama could be president, so diametrically opposed from a presidency of questionable and brutal war.

What goes around, comes around, with venom.

My mom, Bonnie Jean, didn't like Obama. Again, I'm not sure why, or why she particularly liked Hillary Clinton. Maybe it was simply that she would be the first woman president, or she did not find Obama genuine.

Nor am I sure what my mom would have thought of Obama's presidency. She died a week into his first term. I imagine that she would have admired his effort to wrest the country out of a recession, but would have rankled at continued war. There would be no pleasing her with him. I imagine she would have given him hell. Mom was at a time in her life when she had a mind to tell someone exactly what she thought, and plenty of time and a computer to do so.

To me, she embodied the Jenny Joseph poem, "When I am old," the ode that inspired the loosely organized organization known as the Red Hat Society, to which she belonged. She was the woman in the poem who would "run my stick along the public railings/And make up for the sobriety of my youth."

But as hard and as faithfully as Mom would have berated Obama, she would have harangued his enemies — the Republican leaders who stymied Obama's every effort, the Fox News pundits barking baseless propaganda at his ankles — so much harder.

And Donald J. Trump — the president-elect should be glad my mom is dead. He'd be no match.

For awhile anyway, then I imagine eventually she would despair at this surreal, unreal, untrue time. She would be so worked up she could hardly talk.

She'd see what I see, the latest being the astounding "thank you" rally President-elect Trump staged last night in Cincinnati, one of several to take place in the swing states he won.

He is truly still running for president, rather than getting ready to be president. He is running down "my Hillary" still, riling his rally crowd into the Pavlovian reaction of "Lock her up! Lock her up!" Still! He is amping his base over the new nonissue of flag burning, of radical Islamic terrorism, the utter bullshit of what he knows his followers want to hear.

Trump is still describing his swing-state wins — while the popular vote stands at two-freaking-point-five million more votes for Hillary Clinton, and counting — and literally pointing to the "dishonest" press who said he couldn't win. We have heard all of this before. Many, many times.

His rally came complete with a public humiliation of a protestor, who "doesn't vote. They never vote!" Trump pronounced. And the people believed!

I will not be surprised today to hear new stories of crimes in the name of hate.

Oh, and by the way, said Trump at the rally, we must come together as a nation.

He has a funny way of showing it.

My god, I can hear my mom saying, when she'd have found her tongue again, is he governing by Beer Hall Putsch? Is this our new presidency, staging rallies to whip up his base?! Can we not see how this rise of despotism, the measured steps, the grooming of we, the people, for this man's rule?!

Hell would have to be paid, right about now, by my mom, in a flurry of letters, so many letters:
  • To Steve Bannon, champion of the white nationalist movement, now Trump's adviser
  • To the proposed cabinet of Trump's billionaire beneficiaries, whose money won't cover their egregious inexperience and delight in making their world safe from us. They are draining the swamp by the girth of their fat bellies
  • To Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose plan to obstruct President Obama these last eight years worked too well, leaving us Trump
  • To Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who had hearings lined up to attack Hillary Clinton over her emails, but not a whit of consideration for Trump's staggering global conflicts of interest
And that would have been just a warmup. She'd have laid most of her unrelenting vengeance at Trump, who she'd have seen, as I do, that he's taking our country into danger as he speaks of safety, and separation has he talks of unity.

No email server could have contained my mom's fury at all this hypocrisy, this new normal.

Normalize. Normal eyes. Oligarchy. Gaslighting. Kleptocracy. Fascism. A lover of words, my mom would have rolled these, some new, others resurrected, over her tongue. And spat them out again. The new normal of words.

Even with all this nonsense, what would have really crushed my mom is what's going on near where she grew up in North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux and supporters standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I wouldn't have been surprised if my mom had tried to join the encampment against the pipeline. She was raised on stories of the Mandan people near her hometown of Washburn, who sheltered Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery during a terrible winter 114 years ago. She cultivated an affinity for native people, and drew away from the Catholic Church in which she grew up, upset at its complicity against native cultures.

Energy Transfer Partners, Phillips 66 and law enforcement in North Dakota would know my mom's name, for all the missives she would have fired at them, full of choice words.

She'd have stood with Standing Rock, wondering what has come to this country, people being driven again from their land for short-term profit.

As do I.