When Kim Met Xi


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images-1America cannot, alone, eliminate North Korea’simages
nuclear threat. We must engage China, which has a vital interest in regional peace and stability, and no small amount of leverage. To do that, we need to know what China is thinking and doing.

It was, thus, no surprise when the Agency, recalling my many insightful reports on North Korea and China, phoned, asking me to find out what I could on the recent meeting between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping. With the usual Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell caveat, here is a bit of what I gleaned:

Ah, Leader Kim, welcome to Beijing. I hope your flight was not delayed by the particulate matter in the air caused by our extraordinary industrial and overall economic growth.

Flight? I came by train, though we had to go very slowly because of your so-called particulate matter.

Ah, train, how quaint, but at least that gave you a chance to see our beautiful countryside.

I think you miss my point.

Yes, yes, I see that you didn’t see … ha ha … Anyway, it must be refreshing to live in so bucolic and pollution-free a country as yours.

Are you saying that we are industrially challenged?

No, no, not at all, simply that what might have been your industrial talents and energies are instead focused on an area that is difficult to translate directly into the daily well-being of your people.

Well, at least our people can breathe free.

In a manner of speaking … So, have you noted how the world press have been distracted from your nuclear program and are focusing on your main source of sustenance?

Sorry, I don’t follow.

Every headline is Kim-Xi, Kim-Xi, Kim-Xi. Get it? Kimchi! Your main dish!

Oh … ha … but are you saying that we are culinarily challenged?

No, no, just a bit of levity. And, of course, a steady diet of pickled cabbage has — in your case, for example — more than sufficed.

Are you saying I’m dietetically challenged?

Not at all. It’s obvious that pickled cabbage has done you a world of good, in contrast to much of your population … which brings up a salient point. Under the right circumstances, we might increase our food exports to you — Moo Goo Gai Pan, Peking Duck, Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, for example.

But aren’t your food supplies tight? Why would … oh, wait a minute, I get it! You’re planning to slap tariffs on American soy beans in retaliation for their tariffs on your steel. So, your soy sauce output will plummet and since, as we all know, Chinese food is useless without soy sauce, you foresee a food surplus that you can dump on us, get us hooked, and then use a possible cutoff as leverage to make us abandon our nuclear program.

I wouldn’t have put it quite that way. Rather, we were hoping that we would find a softer path to reducing the threat of nuclear disaster than sealing your land border, blockading your ports, and adhering to all international economic sanctions.

Hmmm … but, unless you abandon what we know is your plan to slap tariffs on U.S. soy beans, how could you guarantee us a steady supply of soy sauce, without which our food imports from you would be useless?

We are prepared to make that sacrifice in the name of international peace. But let us set aside such sensitive matters since I’ve been informed that lunch is ready. Interestingly, we have Moo Goo Gai Pan, Peking Duck, and Shrimp with Lobster Sauce. Which would you prefer?

They’re all so delicious, I’ll take a full helping of each, with lots of soy sauce.  I hope there’s enough for second-helpings!

(Whispered aside to aide: We’ve got this dickhead hooked!! Find an immediate substitute for soy bean tariffs. But don’t touch McDonalds or Burger King. We need them now more than ever.)


Across the Great Divide


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UnknownIf you’re pro-abortion, odds are you’re anti-gun. If you’re pro-gun, odds are you’re anti-abortion.

This seems so normal a part of our cultural/political wars that it’s easy to miss an apparent anomaly: in their opposition to each other, both sides are taking essentially the same position, that the protection of human life is paramount.

This seeming convergence of views is easily lost in the noise of each camp’s main slogan — a woman’s right to rule her own body; a citizen’s right to possess a gun.

But, in any rational definition of rights, these must be secondary to the right to life.

In other words, each camp is either lying about what it really believes or blind to the contradiction between its own (presumed unimpeachable) moral foundation and the (presumed indefensible) moral foundation of its opponent.

The two sides may not think of themselves as hypocrites, but they are. No semantic evasion can avoid the fact that abortions take lives and guns take lives.

But logic is one thing and reality is another. These are essentially two tribes, with different beliefs and rituals, even different territories. Expecting them to recognize their moral blindness and abandon fundamental doctrines, which others may regard as mere second-order principles, in favor of some distant higher-order principle like the sanctity of life, is unrealistic.

A thought-experiment might be helpful here. If you are pro-abortion, would you accept an end to, or at least a curtailment of, the legal right to abortions if it meant a corresponding end to, or curtailment of, the legal right to own guns? If you are pro-gun, would you accept this quid-pro-quo?

The answer, right now, is pretty obvious: the NRA is strong and very unlikely to accept detente. Planned Parenthood, in its weakness, would have no incentive to capitulate.

The key is a reasonable balance-of-power.

If anti-gun sentiment should grow, as it has especially in the wake of the recent Floridaimages-1 school shooting, you don’t have to be an anti-gun activist to think that a few bullet-holes in the NRA’s balloon might be a good thing if it re-balanced the equation and improved the chances for a serious discussion of a shared — higher — value.

Call it cautious optimism, with very heavy emphasis on the cautious.

We Too!


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The unspeakable tragedies of American gun violence regularly raise hopes that we can, at last, deal with this national cancer. And, just as regularly, these hopes are dashed.

The recent killing of seventeen souls — most of them students — at a Florida high school, and the angry, politically-focused response of many of the survivors, raise our hopes once again.

This time, there may be a slightly better chance for progress. These kids elicit powerful emotions. But they and their supporters need an organized political force, proven in battle, that could test an adversary as powerful and implacable as the NRA and its legion of American gun-owners.

Sadly, that force will not come from a political party. Certainly not from the Republicans and probably not from the Democrats. Politicians, understandably, follow before they lead and, so far, no force has come even remotely close to challenging the political influence of the NRA and its supporters.

Sensible gun policies need American women. For many decades, they have demonstrated the power of organization, most significantly voting rights, and, when political means have failed — the Equal Rights Amendment, for example — they have built on social activism and educational achievement to earn power and influence.

The Me Too movement has added an important element to women’s activist muscle, demonstrating that mass support can assuage individuals’ fears of retribution, and sexual menace and violence can be successfully challenged.

The menace and the violence that comes from guns is not that different. Behind a pinch in the ass or a lewd remark lies the serious possibility of rape. Behind a gun in the glove compartment or concealed under a jacket lies the serious possibility of death.

Most sexual predators are men. Most gun-owners, including NRA supporters, are men. Women are savvy enough to recognize that relative security from sexual predators means little if they, and their loved ones, might be victims of gun predators.

I’m not proposing a war of the sexes. But American men — already in free-fall, now reeling from the disgrace of icons of male power, and more divided than women over the gun issue — are simply not in a position to lead.

Men grieve just as profoundly as women at the loss of a child to gun violence. But there still is a symbolism in motherhood that would make an expanded Me Too movement, allied with the voices of the young, especially powerful.

There’s a name waiting for the movement. It’s at the top of the page. And I’m ready to follow.

It’s Not That Easy Being Vincent


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Unknown-2In the early 1970’s, Don McLean wrote and recorded Vincent, a loving tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, consoling him posthumously for being misunderstood and scolding society for its indifference to his suffering.

As McLean’s song came out, Sesame Street was in its infancy, and Kermit the Frog was singing It’s Not That Easy Being Green to console children who felt different and confused.

A friend of mine, a Sesame Street producer, who loved McLean’s song, and saw the parallel with Kermit’s, thought the show might use Vincent’s quietly reassuring tone and McLean’s sweet, gentle voice to reach children with problems more serious than mere differentness and confusion.

Her colleagues agreed, but considered some of Vincent’s lyrics — darkness in my soul; how you suffered; they could not love you; you took your life as lovers often do — much too upsetting. They thought some rewording that retained all of the song’s other qualities might work.

My friend called me, explained the situation, and asked if I’d like to give it a try. I was (as I still am) an aspiring, but unpublished, poet, and I jumped at the chance.

Here’s what I came up with:

Starry starry night
Get some sleep and wait for day
Wake up and go out to play
And have a picnic
At the water hole.

Sunlight on the hills
Beaming on the window sills
Don’t forget to take your pills
I have them for you
Right here in my hand.

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
How you love to climb the tallest tree
And how it makes you feel so free.

I listened closely
When you told me how
Let’s go out and climb one now.

Starry starry night
Pale pink flowers on summer days
Soft white clouds and fields of maize
And, up above, the sky serenely blue.

Isn’t it so true
When you’re walking down a lane
And it starts to gently rain
That life is just so absolutely grand!

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
Happiness is just like poetry
What a joy to simply be.

I listened closely
When you told me, “Wow,
I feel so well-adjusted now!”

For everybody really loves you
As your love, too, is true
And now that everything’s all right
On this starry, starry night

You look at life as happy people do
And, as I’ve told you, dear friend,
This world was always meant for
One as beautiful as you.

I shortened it, as appropriate for kids’ attention span, and I kept the original’s meter and quirky rhyme scheme, but the tone and the meaning were the same — we understand; you are not alone. (Check YouTube: vincent don mclean). I sent it to my friend. She responded that things looked good and she’d get back to me. But, a week later, I got drafted, and, by the time I got back from Vietnam, Sesame Street had moved on.Unknown-5

I, too, had to move on. I took a job on Madison Ave and did quite well. You may remember my Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz, Oh What a Relief It Is for Alka-Seltzer. It wasn’t Vincent, but it paid the bills.

Ancestor Workshop


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UnknownMy family didn’t talk very much about our ancestry and I never had much interest. But recent breakthroughs in genetics and the availability of on-line DNA research services make it so easy to find out where we come from, I figured it was crazy not to give it a try. I looked around, and 23andme.com, with its catchy invitation — Find out if you’re a little bit Neanderthal — hooked me.

I checked the details and was relieved to see that all they wanted was saliva, not blood. I signed up. The collection kit arrived quickly. I opened it, but, since I was very busy, I left it on the kitchen table for a few days. Then I filled it and sent it in.

Three months later, when I still hadn’t received any report, I called the company. They told me they were trying to sort out an anomaly in my sample:

Anomaly? What is it? I asked.

Well, it says you’re 15% Schnauzer and 15% Poodle. We didn’t bother with the other 70%.

I realized immediately that it was my Schnoodle. He must have gotten up on the table and licked the container or chewed on it. I apologized, and they agreed to send me a new one, which I filled and sent off right away. But, once again, there was a long delay, so I called them and they explained:

We had to rerun the sample a number of times.

Not the dog again, I hope!?

No, not that. Even more unusual.

Unusual? How?

Well, can we first ask you a few questions?


OK … umm … do you have trouble finding hats big enough to fit?

Yeah, in fact I do.

Do you slouch a lot?

Well, my wife is always after me about my posture.

Do you have scabs on your knuckles?

Well, my arms are very long and, with the slouching, they do occasionally scrape on the sidewalk.

Hmm. And do you have hair on your back?

Yes, but doesn’t everybody?

Sure, some, but do you have to shave it?

Yeah, well, I don’t do it myself, even with my long arms. My wife does it. But, really, what is all this about?

Our testing shows that you are 53% Neanderthal, which might explain the head size, the slouching, the long arms, and the back-hair.

Omigod! You’re joking!? That Find out if you’re a little bit Neanderthal blurb was just a light-hearted come-on, right? And, besides, even if I did have some of that, it’d have to be a tiny percent. I mean, they died out eons ago. There must have been thousands of generations to dilute their contribution to the gene pool since then. Right?

That’s generally true, of course. But your DNA numbers could be consistent with the theory that Neanderthals interbred with early humans, and, that, even after they died out, some of their mixed offspring interbred only among themselves for thousands of years. This would have kept their Neanderthal DNA percentage high. It’s possible a few remnants have survived up to now. You could very well be the proof we’ve been looking for.

Yeah, I get the point, but, if it’s true, what am I going to do? What will people think of me? How will my family, my friends, react? How will it affect my kids? What if I lose my job?

What we tell everybody is that you’re the same person you were before you learned what your DNA tells about your ancestry.Unknown-1 Nobody else needs to know, not your friends, not your employer. Your kids can grow up and marry normal people (sorry, didn’t mean that to sound offensive). True, the Neanderthal thing is very unusual, but if, by some chance, you did lose your job, you could do something else. Anti-discrimination laws would protect you. Why, you could do anything. You could run for President, you could even be President. After all, it has happened!



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I can only presume that President Trump’s recent reference to Haiti and Africa as shitholes included Nigeria, a country I lived in, and dealt with, for six years.

I don’t presume to speak of, or for, all of Africa, but, as to Nigeria, I beg to differ with the President.

I love Nigeria.

This sentiment regularly shocks people. True, the country does not have a particularly high reputation and could not accurately be described as restful or peaceful, nor scrupulously law-abiding. (An official once told me, confidentially, that a Nigerian I had once known was the biggest crook in the whole country, and that’s against a lot of competition.)

But, really, who could fail to be charmed by the incredibly imaginative, almost poetic, stream of abuse that a Yoruba market-woman can unleash; the charming and persuasive letters from Prince Odipe, kindly offering you the opportunity to claim the million dollars your uncle left you; the colorful buses and wagons and taxis whose sole safety mechanism is the God Will Provide consolation painted on the front?

Maybe the best way to think of Nigeria is in nuclear terms. Its potential energy is enormous, available (and sometimes used) for destructive ends, but also available (and sometimes used) for positive ends.

How and where that energy gets used is up to Nigerians. But outsiders can help, at least if they have the common sense and grace to meet the country and its citizens on an equal footing.

It is not particularly helpful to smear the opening for dialogue with shit, especially when it’s so clear from what opening it actually is emanating. Perhaps the real shithole is right here:



A Major Modern President


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UnknownIn Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, Major General Stanley sings “A Modern Major General,” a brilliant patter-song in which he blithely enumerates his knowledge of everything under the sun … except mattersUnknown-1 military.

Imagine how the ditty would go if — God forbid — such a situation should actually befall our country:

I am the very model of a major modern President.
I’ve information that three-hundredths really is just three percent.
I know the sum of four plus six, and seventeen plus twenty-one,
And I can hold my breath at least five times as long as anyone.
Each morning, when we face the flag, across my heart I place my hand,
So proud to be a second-grade Republican for Richard Stands.
At Monday morning show-and-tell, I’m teeming with a lotta news,
Of where we went and what we saw when Daddy took me on a cruise.

I’m very good at book reports and just gave one on Frog and Toad.
(Much better than the Lorax, who’s a silly, preachy, leftist load.)

In short, in matters really really very consequent-i-al,
I am the stable, brilliant, genius, model, President-i-al.

I clean the blackboards every day and once a week I wash them well,
Ignoring comments classmates make; may God consign them straight to hell.
I try to follow spelling rules, but still I cannot figure why
The I always precedes the E except when E precedes the I.

In fact, when I can understand just how a law comes from a bill,
When I can tell which House is which up on that godforsaken Hill,
When such strange words as dialogue and compromise at last are clear,
When I can tell what’s fake, what’s real, from all the muddle that I hear,
When I know what’s the capital of Arkansas or Delaware,
And when I find a decent gel that I can put upon my hair,
In short, when I have wisdom that is manifestly evident,
You’ll say no one has ever been so manifestly President.

What’s Happened to My Face?


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imagesI wanted to let all of you know at once of a strange development. When I woke up this morning, there was an odd feeling on my lips and around my mouth, extending even as far as my eyes and ears and forehead. I looked in the mirror and found what seemed to be tiny, intersecting lines across my cheeks and forehead (hard to see in the photo, but they’re there).

What’s more, my lips were slightly turned up at the corners; my cheeks seemed a little fuller; my eyebrows a bit higher; my eyes somewhat clearer.

Puzzled, I tried to think back on when I had last seen this odd look on my face and realized it must have been November 7, 2016.

For 401 days, I now understood, my face had rearranged itself so slowly that I hadn’t even noticed, and, last night, it suddenly, and startlingly, re-rearranged itself. With those tiny lines criss-crossing my face like an old porcelain plate, I saw that I had, almost literally, cracked a smile.

By smile standards, it’s modest. There’s clearly plenty of room for upward movement in the lip, cheek, eye, and eyebrow areas.

I’ll keep track of this. If there’s more cracking, I’ll let you know, as, of course I’ll let you know if there’s a downturn. And do let me know if you have any theories. It’s a puzzle, but at least so far, it’s a good puzzle.

Peace In Our Time?


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(Note: In the following, I refer to Israel as if it were an undifferentiated block of granite. It is not. Not all Israelis agree with Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. And not all Israelis are Jewish. About 1.5 million (ca. 20% of the total population) are Arabs (Palestinians), the majority, Muslims, but with a significant Christian and Druze minority. Their political views are at least as varied as those of Israel’s Jewish majority.)    

For decades, America has refused to officially acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and has consequently kept its embassy in Tel Aviv.

The Trump administration’s decision to reverse that position is not necessarily wrong simply because it breaks with tradition. Tradition can be good or bad. It’s wrong because it makes a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more difficult.

(And, incidentally, it ruins what was once a pretty good joke: Israeli: Why does America not move its embassy to Jerusalem? American: Because the road is uphill all the way and it’s much too heavy to push.)

If you look at the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, discounting the weight of allies on either side, Israel has a decided advantage: a powerful military; a strong economy; a fortress mentality.

The Palestinians have no military to speak of, though they can narrow the gap slightly with asymmetrical warfare, aka terrorism; their economy is weak and highly dependent on Israel; the only parity is their determination to have a homeland.

External factors skew the balance of power even more in Israel’s favor. America’s security guarantee to Israel, and its active security assistance, has long outweighed what the Arab and broader Muslim world could offer the Palestinians. Now, with the Middle East in turmoil, and the likelihood it will get worse, Israel’s enemies, who were once willing to go to war for the Palestinians, have much more pressing issues to deal with.

Under these circumstances, Israel has less reason than ever to negotiate a political settlement, which demands at least reasonable parity between the parties. Trump has given Israel all the more reason to say no.

(I respectfully disagree with commentary that suggests strengthening Israel’s hand, as Trump has done, would facilitate negotiations by allowing it to make concessions toward the Palestinians. That is not a negotiating position. It offers, at best, kinder, gentler terms of surrender.)

It has never been certain that a two-state solution is the answer. Among other issues, protecting the coastal center of Israel’s population from the nearby heights of a sovereign West Bank would be very difficult. Still, no one has come up with a better solution.

Trump may view his decision as assuring Israel’s security. It may be that Israel can go on for a decade or two or more shaking an iron fist, but the long term is not promising: a volatile Middle East could turn on Israel in any of a score of ways; the Palestinians will not go away and they will not forget — they have before them a perfect example of the power of memory, the eternal call of a sacred land, and the willingness to fight and die for it; and, perhaps most telling of all, they have reproductive power in a population race that an aging Israeli citizenry cannot match.

Trump may think he’s doing right by Israel. I think he’s dead wrong.

Bake Me a Cake as Unobjectionable as You Can


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UnknownThe Supreme Court is, today, hearing the case of a Denver baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. He holds that his religious beliefs, which oppose gay marriage, are constitutionally protected, as is his cake-making, which, as an artistic expression, is a form of speech.

The gay couple sued on the grounds that his refusal violated anti-discrimination laws.

When I first heard about the case, I was struck dumb. I, too, was confronted with a very similar, painful, situation:

I was sitting quietly in my bake shop, watching the dough rise, when a strangely-dressed couple (male/female) came in. I am not a well-traveled person, but I judged by her outfit that she was a Hindu, and could see that the man was an Indian too.

They asked if I could make a cake for a celebration in honor of one of their deities, I forget who. I was initially concerned that they might want a design with ten or twenty arms, which would not demonstrate my skills in their best light.

But that wasn’t the case at all. They showed me a photo of the design they wanted and Ihindu-swastika-symbol-clip-art_csp45132920 just about croaked. It was a swastika!

I hesitated, trying to think how to approach this, but all I could come up with was, I’m sorry, but it’s too complicated.

Complicated?! the man protested, it is simplicity itself; just a cross, with right-angle extensions; perfectly symmetrical.

True, true, I said, it would be easy to fashion. The complication is a moral one. A swastika is a symbol of hatred and murder — anti-Semitic, anti-non-white, probably even anti-Hindu if it had come to that. My conscience wouldn’t allow my hands to fashion such an abomination.

But you don’t understand, the woman interjected, the swastika is an ancient symbol of goodness and auspiciousness, revered by Hindus, Buddhists and others, even westerners. It was stolen by the Nazis and made a symbol of hate, but they could not erase its real meaning. It is still, to us, a sacred symbol of peace and love.

I really didn’t know that, I said, but, even so, if somebody — one of my assistants, or worse, another customer — saw it, they wouldn’t know its real meaning and intent, and they’d assume it was for some racist or fascist rally. And even if I denied it and explained its true meaning and intent, they’d assume that was just a cover-up.

So, the man said, it’s not really a question of morality, but simply of protecting your reputation and your business.

No … and yes. If I’m thought to be advocating fascism, it certainly doesn’t help me make the case for fighting against it. And, yes, of course, I want to protect my business, which is my living, but also a means for doing good things for people. For example, I’m working on a cake for a gay wedding.

A gay wedding? the woman cried, that’s disgusting!

With that, I knew I couldn’t do business with them, and assumed the feeling was mutual. I thought the problem was solved. But the husband saw his opening.

Look, he said, you’re a businessman. You know you’ll lose some customers if we decided to spread the word you do gay weddings. At the same time, you know you’ll lose other customers if it gets out that you do swastikas. Do this one for us, and we won’t say anything about it or your gay cakes.

I thought seriously about it, but decided I couldn’t compromise my principles — gay marriage was right and a swastika, even if its origins were positive, was now as wrong as wrong could be. Furthermore, I reminded myself, I am an artist. Art that isn’t a genuine expression of the artist’s beliefs and feelings is simply dishonesty.

No deal, I told them, and they stormed out, muttering something about a lawyer.

That was a few years ago. Today, my bake shop is just a memory, but not because of the lawsuit. That got dropped. No, it was the icing on the cake, literally. I must have used a spoiled batch. Everybody got sick, including the groom and the groom. The health authorities shut me down.

imagesI’m selling shoes now. A nice shoe with a good fit is artistic expression enough. Shoes are neutral, neither gay nor straight, neither progressive nor fascist. If the Indian couple should come in, I’m sure I could make a sale, as long as we keep the talk away from cakes.