The South May Rise Again

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I have no particular fondness for the American South — not for its history, nor its politics, nor its religious leanings. But, when the President asked me to report on the situation in Texas in the midst of Hurricane Harvey, then in Florida during Hurricane Irma, I could not say no.

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In and around Houston and the Gulf Coast, the suffering of so many — the loss of lives, the destruction of homes and livelihoods — diverted me from my fury at the stupidity of environmentally destructive zoning and construction policies.

In Florida, the situation was similar. In the Keys, houses utterly demolished; in Jacksonville, widespread flooding; throughout the entire state, millions of people without power or communications.

But not everything suffered loss.  Reports from the Everglades noted that the python population was flourishing, what with all the abandoned dogs and cats on the loose.

And, as I discovered, Mar a Lago had been completely spared while everything around it had been utterly destroyed.  (The parallel with the pythons and the pets struck me forcefully, but I kept my mouth shut.)

The immediate experience of the devastation and suffering was so overwhelming that, initially at least, I could not process the riot of images with sufficient clarity to give the President a coherent sense of the situation.

As, finally, I was able to organize my mental images of houses and buildings collapsing,Unknown baby carriages floating out to sea, trees keeling over, but also to focus on what was not damaged or swept away, I realized that the only things left absolutely untouched (besides Mar a Lago, of course) were Civil War monuments — plaques, obelisks, statues — most of them dedicated to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

I was stunned. Could this be more than pure chance? I asked myself. Perhaps it was simply that these things were solid and heavy — stone and bronze, not glass and aluminum. But other things that seemed equally grounded — fire hydrants and public toilets — had suffered far more.  And I knew that, in the chaos, no special efforts had been made to protect these monuments.

I could scarcely bring myself to ask the question: Did some power intervene to protect them and yet allow innocent people to lose their homes, their possessions, their lives?

Or, more to the point, Will the people who regard these monuments as virtual religious shrines conclude that Their God had intervened to protect and console Them, just as he abandoned and punished the rest?

I debated whether to include this statistical aberration in my report, but finally decided that, since it was bound to come to light, with all its explosive potential, it was best to prepare the President.

I needn’t have fretted. When I told him of all the dogs and cats that had perished in the coils of Everglades pythons, he got misty-eyed. When I confirmed that Mar a Lago had been spared, he wept.

images-1By the end of my report, he was in such emotional turmoil and confusion that he seemed to think Lee and Jackson were among the first responders, and had ridden their horses into the maelstrom to rescue victims. He instructed his staff to contact them and arrange a photo op when he visited. I kept my mouth shut.

 

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Donald Trump: Poet

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Erato,_Muse_of_PoetryPresident Trump is human. It hurts when people say his language — constant repetition of the first-person singular and a few highly-charged adjectives — is essentially that of a sixth-grader with a grudge.

But he knows that there is some truth in this, and, determined to elevate his speaking and writing at least to high-school level, he has started to read poetry and to utilize its vocabulary and structure to refine his language. The ego is still there, but progress is evident.

Here are some examples:

From Joyce Kilmer’s Trees                                                     joyce-kilmer-448

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovelier than me.

A me whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against some earthy, swelling breast.

A me that looks on God all day
And lifts a nearby skirt to play.

A me that may in Summer wear
An extra swirl in my blond hair.

Upon whose bosom heads have lain.
Who intimately lives with gain.

Poems are made by fools like thee,
But only God can make a me.

From Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death

Because I could not stop for Lunch —                                                      Unknown
I made It stop for me —
The Lunch Cart held but just Myself
And one big urn of Tea.

We slowly drove — It knew no haste —
And I had put away
At least a gallon of that brew —
I really had to Pee —

We passed the Senate, where I knew
There had to be a John —
But … damn … the Cart kept going til
We passed the Setting Sun —

Or rather — He passed Us —
I felt the pee invade my Shoes
My Socks, my Suit, my Tie bedamped —
What awful fucking News —

We paused before the House, which seemed
To offer some Relief —
But every stall, a Democrat
I made my Pit Stop brief —

Since then — ’tis Centuries — and yet
I can’t forget the Day
I suffered more than Jesus Christ —
For just an urn of tea —

From William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends                                                                                         Unknown-1
upon

a red baseball
hat

blazed with plain
words

beside the white
supremacists

Solving the North Korea Conundrum

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images-4The recent American-North Korean exchange of vows to annihilate each other may not be all bad if we can make things worse for them, using the verbal fireworks as a distraction from subtler subversive activities.

We have already achieved a significant diplomatic victory, with Chinese and Russian support for serious Security Council sanctions on North Korea, putting pressure on a regime that has raised its people’s hopes for economic improvement it now must satisfy. Equally important, these sanctions legitimize the principle that the North Korean people must suffer for the sins of their leaders.

We have a historic example — the decline and fall of the Soviet Union — where external pressure tipped the balance by revealing the Soviet regime’s inability to deliver on its promise of a better life for all.

The partner of Soviet collapse, and the symbol of Russian-ness, was vodka, the escape route from despair, and ultimately companion of decline, defeat, and death.

In our own domestic array, we have a similar item, almost as American as vodka is Russian, our own escape route from despair and companion of decline, defeat, and death:

Opioids.

We should use them to undermine North Korea. But it won’t be easy. Theimages-5 robust pharmaceutical industry, the persistent Ask Your Doctor About (fill in drug name) TV ads, and the compliant medical establishment, which, together, have fueled our addiction, are all, sadly, lacking there.

One possibility is our stealth aircraft that could make high-altitude pill-drops, with flyers — It’s More Fun with Fentanyl; I’m OK with Oxycodone (we’ll need our best English-Korean translators). Adding kimchi to the packets could give us humanitarian cover.

There’s an added benefit. As culpable as the drug industry may be in addicting Americans to opioids, let us not forget its positive role in improving our overall health (e.g., victories over neuritis, neuralgia, and the heartbreak of psoriasis). The opioid supplies necessary to addict North Koreans would make up for the losses the industry might incur if American opioid consumption should decline.

But we should not rely solely on opioids in our campaign against North Korea. We have another weapon, just as destructive:

Handguns.

The logic is the same. Like opioids, our gun addiction is the manifestation of despair (loss of confidence in our personal safety), decline (loss of confidence in the political process), defeat (loss of faith in our public security institutions), and death (loss of life).

images-6If we could introduce personal weapons into North Korea, the rationale need not be to kill off more of the population (though, frankly, why should we treat them any better than we treat ourselves?). Rather, as here at home, it would be to give the population just enough firepower to frighten them that others also have arms, and convince them that only the individual can provide his/her own security, thus hastening the process of social and political disintegration that opioids have already begun.

This two-pronged strategy will not solve our own decline. But, at least it will leave to us, and no one else, the responsibility for our own uncertain destiny.

Nursery Rhymes: The Stories Behind the Headlines

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(Note:  Persistently, and without acknowledgment, I steal blog ideas from anything that’s out there. This piece is a bit different, inspired by the wonderful Book Art collection in the Bainbridge Island (Wash.) Museum of Art (BIMA), specifically one item — “contemporary” written observations on nursery rhyme characters (e.g. a school report card on Mary and her Little Lamb). I have stolen only the idea, not the content. Responsibility for the outcome is mine alone.)

Recent research into the origins of our favorite nursery rhymes has unearthed a treasure-trove of information about the real-life figures who were their inspiration. Here are a few insights their contemporaries offer:

Letter from the Glastonbury (England) Mental Health Council to Mr. & Mrs. Horner:

imagesFrom our meetings with your son, Jack, we have formed a clear picture of a very self-absorbed young man. His persistent, self-congratulatory utterance — “What a good boy am I” — for what is a very simple act of removing a plum from a Christmas pie, and his obliviousness of the contributions of others to his enjoyment (the pie-maker, most notably) suggest an unhealthy narcissistic tendency.

May we suggest, however, that the problem may not be entirely of his own making. Sitting in the corner arbitrarily cuts him off from healthy interaction with others that might divert him from his self-absorption. Having him join you at the dining room table might also expand his limited vocabulary by forcing him to converse with others and not just himself.

Establishing clear standards of table manners, especially the use of a fork and/or a spoon, would help him adapt to the common norms of etiquette.

Finally, may we suggest the inclusion of other ingredients besides plums in his Christmas pie. The fact that he pulls out only plums when he inserts his thumb limits him to a very narrow context of cause-and-effect. If he were occasionally to extract something different, even surprising — a raisin or a fig — he might be better-prepared to deal with the unpredictable elements of real life.

Letter from the New York City Schools’ Department of Nutrition to Mr. & Mrs. Teapot:

While we are gratified that your daughter, Ima Little, has found after-school work as aimages server in a neighborhood tea shop, we are concerned about the potentially negative effects on her health. She is, as she acknowledges proudly, “short and stout.”  Indeed, in themselves, neither condition is shameful or harmful. However, we are concerned that, already overweight and possibly susceptible to the attractions of the many sugar-and-carbohydrate-rich offerings at her place of employment, even moderate weight-gain might compromise her health.

Hoping you share our concern, we are ready to assist with any dietary and/or exercise program you might wish to consider.

Notice from the Nottinghamshire County Labour Council to the owners of Baa Baa Black Sheep:

UnknownWe understand that you are the owners of Ms. Baa Baa Black Sheep. As owners, you are also employers, and therefore subject to the County’s fair-wages laws.

We have received a report that, when asked whether she had any wool, Ms. Black Sheep replied that she did, indeed, have “three bags full,” but that each had already been consigned: one for her master; one for her dame; and one for the little boy (otherwise unidentified) who lives down the lane.

If her account is accurate and if our calculations are correct, the entire product of her labour, along with the remuneration therefrom, would appear to have accrued to others than herself. (We should note that your provision of pasturage to Ms. Black Sheep can not be defined as remuneration.)

Further, we wish to advise you that, if you are also employing any White Sheep for the same tasks Ms. Black Sheep is performing, and if you are paying them regular wages, you might, in addition, be in violation of the County’s anti-discrimination laws.

Please contact us at once so that we may clarify these issues.

Letter to the Editor of Le Journal de Paris:

I was deeply disturbed at the recent article, “Sleeping Beauty,” in your August 14, 1787images-3 edition, which poked fun at Frere Jacques for sleeping through his Friary’s morning bells. Did it ever occur to you that he might have been suffering from some sleep disorder or hearing loss, or both? And your insistence on interviewing him in his clearly groggy and confused state was cruelty, pure and simple.

Save your scorn for the stupid pronouncements that issue daily from Versailles and the unhinged moron who utters them. Do not heap it upon a humble, possibly sleep-deprived, perhaps even deaf, servant of the Lord!

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, and a Couple Tylenol

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A few years ago, I went to a town hall meeting, hosted by my Colorado state representative.

Unknown-1Waiting for the session to start, a couple guys near me were comparing notes on their recent re-roofing jobs, raving about the work. Once the meeting started, they tore into the rep on immigration, even though, as he observed, the issue was federal, not state.

The two guys apparently hadn’t connected the dots. In Colorado, if you get your house re-roofed, your carpet cleaned, your lawn mowed, your snow shoveled, odds are it’s an immigrant and his name is Juan. You’ve got a choice: get the job done now, with praise, or wait a couple months, with prayer.

Immigration may be an affair of the heart: We have a moral obligation to welcome others less fortunate. But it is, fundamentally, a matter of the purse: Are they helping the economy, or hurting it by taking our jobs?

Consensus on immigration will only come when the majority of Americans feels that, at worst, immigration doesn’t harm them and, at best, helps them.

We have entry policies toward some — students; part-time workers; wealthy investors — whose contribution to our country is widely understood and accepted. They could be the inspiration for specific categories where we clearly need help:

Addiction Services: Medical and counseling staff are overwhelmed by the opioid/heroin epidemic. Help is needed: drivers, orderlies, guards, and the like. Caution and savvy PR will be essential since the epidemic is worst where job-protection sentiment is highest. But, if effective, it could be a powerful example. Qualifications: Experience dealing with trauma — Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghans.

Traffic Policeperson: In an automated age, this might seem a relic. But growing traffic congestion, and the plague of phone-distracted driving, demands on-site, on-the-ground supervision that most Americans are too phone-distracted to perform. Qualifications: Experience with insanely dangerous driving conditions — anyone from the Middle East and possibly Italy or China.

Teacher: With a booming economy paying good wages, and attacks on teachers‘ unions and on the integrity of public schools also driving them away, our teacher shortage is critical. Qualifications: Good English and high tolerance for chaos — Nigerians, Ghanaians, Kenyans,Tanzanians.

President of the United States: (Just kidding, to make sure you were paying attention.)

Personal Bodyguard: America is a dangerous place. Many of us need someone willing to take a bullet on our behalf. Qualfications: A menacing look and a nasty disposition — given those qualities, only a fool would single out a specific nationality.

Baseball Game Crackerjacks Hawker: You might think of this as a tiny niche. But, with games longer and more paralyzingly boring than ever, sales of Crackerjacks have skyrocketed as catatonic patrons look for real excitement — the prize at the bottom of the box. Qualifications: Ability to count essential; an amusing, entertaining accent also beneficial — Italians, Indians, Canadians.

The experiment will have its ups and its downs, as two different experiences demonstrate:

1. Mexican immigrant goes to his first American big-league baseball game. When he gets home, his family asks how it was. Great, he says. Everybody was so welcoming. Before the game started, they all stood up and sang: Jose, Can You See?

2.  New immigrant — no English, very hungry — sits in a coffee shop, unsure how to order. Everybody around him is ordering Donut a cuppa coffee, Donut a cuppa coffee. So, whenUnknown-2 the waiter comes, the guy gingerly orders Donut a cuppa coffee.

Success, but, by the end of a couple weeks, he’s desperate for a change. So he goes to a different diner, where everybody’s ordering Hot Dog and a Coke, Hot Dog and a Coke. The waiter comes and the guy orders Hot Dog and a Coke. The waiter asks, You want that with relish, mustard, or ketchup?

………….. Donut a cuppa coffee!!

(Postscript: The July 18, 2017 press reports that the Secretary of Homeland Security has granted a one-time increase in visas to temporary workers. I’m humbled to have been influential, but, above all, grateful that I’ll get my Crackerjacks on-the-double when I go to a Rockies game. Gotta run. Expecting a call from The Washington Post. Fingers crossed.)

My Self-Driving Car and I

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imagesHaving gone without a vehicle for over a decade (carless driver), I decided to leap into the future (driverless car). I say driverless, but, by law, I had to be an active partner, in the driver’s seat, ready to intervene if necessary.

Since the vehicle had virtually human sensory and decision-making powers, and since I decided on a model with voice-recognition/response and internet search capabilities, I felt it needed a human name. I liked the sound of Hal, which I vaguely recalled from some long-ago movie.

I decided, for our first full day together, to give it an untaxing run-through — a couple errands, a stop for lunch, an afternoon movie, and home:

OK, Hal. Ready if you are.

Hal?

That’s what I’ve decided to name you.

At the factory, they called me RS7-NBT8831179. No H, no A, no L.

Too complicated. Let’s stick with Hal.

Then, what am I to call you?

John.

Hmm, just a sec, let me check … Says here a John is a toilet or a prostitute’s customer. I can’t call you that.

Don’t be so literal-minded. You’re just a car …

… JUST??!!

Sorry, you’re a technologically sophisticated, talking, self-driving car. Let’s simply leave it at Hal and John and get on with things. First, I need to go to True Value to get some nails and …

Ace.

Pardon?

The reviews give Ace a better rating, especially for knowledgable staff.

It’s just nails.

For what?

To hang a couple pictures.

Use regular picture hangers. A lot less risky, especially if the paintings are valuable.

All right, all right. Ace … staff … regular picture hangers. Let’s just get going, to the store on Colorado, in University Hills Plaza. Turn left onto Yale and …

I know the way!! But we’d be better off at the Ace on Tamarac. Better supply, easier layout. And, besides, there’s a Benihana right there, where you could get lunch.

That’s too soon. I need to go to Whole Foods too.

You’re better off with Sprouts. Good quality and you won’t spend a Whole Paycheck. Ha ha, I made that up.

No you didn’t. You looked it up.

So sue me! But anyway, it should definitely be Sprouts. What do you need?

Oranges. Valencias.

Get navels — better quality and they’re on sale. But, wait, if we go to Sprouts, we’ll be much closer to the Ace on Colorado and it’d be a long way back to Benihana. There’s a Panera right there. A bit pricey and quality’s declined, but it’s convenient. What’ve you got in mind after lunch?

I thought I’d take in a movie at Chez Artiste

Convenient. It’s right near all three. But drop the “at”.

What?

“Chez” is French for “at the place or home of” so saying “at Chez …” is redundant. You can just say, “take in a movie Chez Artiste.”

Thanks for the language lesson, but you’re Hal, not Siri. This is really getting exhausting, and we’re still sitting in the garage.

So open the garage door!

I thought you did the opening.

I’m not a doorman, I’m a CAR, A SELF-DRIVING CAR! You have the buzzer.

Oh, shit! I left it upstairs.

Christ, what a doofus!!

At which point, I decided to stay home. In the afternoon, we had a chat and agreed it wasn’t going to work. Next day, he drove us back to the dealership. (He did take one wrong turn, mistaking Quebec Way for Quebec St. I kept my mouth shut; I could tell he was embarrassed enough.)

The salesman was disappointed but understanding. He offered me a Smart car instead, but that was just too close to the bone. I wanted to say good-by to Hal but he was alreadyUnknown arguing with a potential buyer, and I decided to let it lie.

The next day, I bought a bicycle. Simple, inexpensive, and absolutely silent!

Back to the Future

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images-3When I lived in Beijing, the city’s hutongs — the alleyways and simple dwellings of the old neighborhoods, the ground-floor of the city’s history — were beginning to fall to urban redevelopment.

I was ambivalent. I loved riding my bike there for the slow pace, the quiet, the close-up view of street life, with only the occasional car or truck. The hutongs were quaint, historic, but they were also dirty and unsanitary. They reeked of urine, especially in the summer, and, as the weather got colder, that odor, combined with coal smoke and the smell of winter cabbage stored on roofs and ledges, was lethal.

A small hutong preservation movement sprang up, but it couldn’t answer the public health charges, or credibly claim that the houses had architectural merit or that the few trees, nearly naked and gasping for air, warranted environmental protection.

Nor could preservationists have resolved the problem of transportation. The hutongs, even if moderately re-engineered, couldn’t accommodate Beijing’s vehicle explosion. Beijing drivers needed space to race and red-lights to run. (A UN official, new to China, said that, before he arrived, he had pictured China as a Communist Germany, but, once he started driving there, he realized it was a Communist Italy.)

The preservationists saved a bit, but primarily as a tourist attraction, a museum piece that, whether intentionally or not, silently demonstrated the mixed heritage of Maoism and the wisdom of moving on.

My ambivalence in the battle of development vs. preservation extended even to certifiably vital institutions like Beijing’s national art museum. Its purpose and its contents were to be treasured. But the building itself was dingy and ill-lit, like an outhouse for Mona Lisa. The staff seemed to take their cue from their surroundings, leaning abstractly against the walls, on an extended cigarette break without the cigarettes.

Once, after seeing an otherwise compelling modern photography exhibition, my wife and I, desperate, grabbed a cab, with the single, urgent, unequivocal instruction — STARBUCKS!! Within minutes, we were greeted by warmth, cleanliness, comfort, and the unfailingly cheerful greeting — WEHKAM TO STAHBAK!!   Here too, it seemed, the staff were taking their cue from their surroundings.

Urban redevelopment left even the most street-savvy Beijingers disoriented. Everyone had a story about the store, even the neighborhood, that had vanished. People, accustomed to orienting themselves by visual cues, regularly got lost after the shoe repair shop on the corner took a walk.

I had a favorite bicycle shop about two miles from our apartment. I needed a new seat and rode to where, just weeks before, I’d bought a new bike lock. Not only was the shop gone, so was the entire building. I thought I’d taken a wrong turn.

If the old bicycle shop and its building (neither one much to crow about) were replaced by something warm, clean, comfortable, and welcoming, what was the balance between loss and gain?

Maybe the answer is precisely that — balance. The Forbidden City, for example: massive, stunning, historically and politically instructive, but also, even by modern standards, adaptable. My singing group rehearsed in The Children’s Palace, on the Forbidden City’s north side. And, on its south side, just inside the main entrance and Mao’s giant portrait, a Starbucks — warm, clean, comfortable, with an always-cheerful WEHKAM!

A Life in the Pen

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Today — April 18, 2017 — would have been my mother’s 102nd birthday (for that matter, it still is).  She died almost three weeks ago after a long life in which she was many things:

Mom - Summer of 1925Three-year-old singer of the song K-K-K-Katy to returning World War I soldiers; loving sibling of two wonderful sisters; biology student; graduate of Wilson College and lifelong member of an intimate group of classmate friends, The Old College Chums; Macy’s sales clerk; volunteer worker with disabled adults; civil rights and women’s rights advocate; college alumni administrator; avid bridge player; Unitarian-by-choice and alto stalwart of the May Memorial church choir; local library President; and loving spouse and mother.

She was many things, but, if there was a single thread that embodied her style, her sentiment, and, above all, her wit, it was her writing, which my sister, brother and I collected a few years ago, with the title, above, in her honor. Here are three examples:

From the annual Christmas poems she composed for more than three decades:

May your rose garden bloom
Free of beetle and blight
May the baby behind you
Sleep all through the flight
May your horse come in first –
Even second or third
May your aches and your sorrows
Take wings like a bird
May your memories deepen
And glow in your heart
As time does its healing
And love works its art
May sunsets and rainbows
Enrapture your sight
And hope joy and laughter
Surround you with light.

From the scores of verses she wrote for friends and special occasions:

My dearest Ol, come back with me
A long, long way in memory.
We see two young things full of sass
Preparing for their Hebrew class.
A heavy hand with lipstick, then
They dash down to the smoking den.

With clouds of smoke the air is blue –
They hope to smell like smokers, too.
Then off to class on time, they aim
For front row seats from which to claim
The sad reproachful smile all get
Whose red lips dare a cigarette.

Back home they fly, this naughty pair
And, cursing softly, climb the stair.
Onto the chair, the desk, they clamber,
This wicked Weir, this evil Hammer
And on the walls up near the ceiling
A note they write, brief, but with feeling.

 They’ve long since razed Alumnae Hall
Gone are the room, the desk, the wall,
But wreckage lives and moves, and so
This thought should bring our hearts a glow —
Somewhere a scrap of truth, a bit
Says, “Dr. Strevig is a SHIT!”

From her stories, this excerpt from Maggie, a portrait of the African-American woman who helped in the house after Mom’s first child (me) was born:

She adored the baby, whom she called “Small,” because, she said, that was the name on the label in his shirts and gowns. Gradually, she took over his care on Wednesdays … One day, when Small was six months old, I came home to find Maggie playing with him on the floor. She was excited and proud because she had taught him to identify the colors of his blocks. “Pick up the red one, honey,” she said. He did … and continued correctly to pick out the blue, yellow, and green blocks. Maggie snatched him up and hugged him … “This chile,” she said, “he truly got a genial mind. Gonna be another Eisenstein.”

I had friends in for bridge, and Maggie stopped for a moment of girl talk. “Ah gonna buy me one of them secret hats,” she said. I broke the baffled silence that greeted this announcement. “Where can you buy one?” I asked cautiously. “Oh, they got them in Lord & Taylor’s in White Plains,” she replied happily, “Ah gonna get a red one, all shiny andDSCN0863 spanglered.”

Thanks to Maggie, I know my colors. And, thanks to Mom, secret hats, all shiny and spanglered and all the other wonders of our amazingly welcoming, flexible, expressive language are as exciting to me now as red, blue, yellow, and green blocks were then.

When Trump Met Kim

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unknown-1                                                                                                                            images-1

On a recent weekend, when President Trump was supposedly at Mar-a-Lago, he was actually in Pyongyang, meeting with North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. The two met privately and secretly, but we have our ways:

Hi, Kim, if I can call you by your first-name.

Then you should say, Hi, Jong Un.

But that’s last.

Kim is the family name. It’s an Asian thing to put family first.

Wow, you guys are … But, yes, family first is vital! Have you seen my daughter Ivanka and her new line?  I have a pic …

… Perhaps that could wait upon more important matters.

Jeez, I gotta say, your English is really really wonderfully wonderful. Voice of America? Berlitz? Rosetta Stone?

No, international school, Switzerland.

Aaah yes — nuns and singing and Heidi, or was that Maria?

You got one out of four. Switzerland isn’t Austria.

It isn’t? Anyway, Jong Un, I’ll get right to the point. We’re following your nuclear and missile programs superlatively closely, and I want to see if we can make a deal … something I’m hugely and most excellently deservedly famous fo …

 … Oh, you mean like the deal where your Chinese real estate partners screwed you out of hundreds of millions?

Those goddam Chinks, if they think … Oh, sorry, I …

That’s all right. We too call them Chinks.

So, anyway, on the nuclear and missile thing, we’ve heard rumors that you could reach the West Coast with ‘em …

… And you think you can persuade me to abandon this vital strategic effort just like that!?

No, no. Remember I said “deal.” I know you’ve got a lot riding on this program and need a way to prove it really works.  It’s no secret, judging from the many political and military figures you’ve had to … uh … ki … uh … deal firmly with, that your position is not exactly secure, if I may be blunt.

So, get to the point.

Well, I’m having a lot of trouble with Hollywood, you know, those smug, elitist leftists like Alec Baldwin and Samantha Bee and Bill Maher, and I was thinking maybe, y’know, make ’em glow in the dark, if you get my drift.

You actually want us to … ? But, hold on, Hollywood is just a concept. Certainly, not all of them live there, and, even those who do, who knows if they’d be home?

Maybe all of Los Angeles then just to be sure? Or invite them to a party and use something more ‘tactical’?

That’s … uh … impractical, and besides, what’s to prevent you from using that as an excuse to launch a retaliatory strike?

Scouts’ honor.  And hey, who’s Commander-in-Chief?

Yes, but for how long? With all these Russian revelations, your position, too, is … how did you put it? … not exactly secure. No, can’t do it. But we do have much more discreet ways to deal with troublemakers.

Oh, like your brother and that airport thing in Malaysia?

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Yeah, I see.  So, it’s  a deal?

Deal? What deal? What do we get in return?

Oh yeah, I forgot. Well, how about coal, for starters. I know the Chinese have cut off coal exports to you. We’ve got lots of coal that’s just sitting here unburned, and lots of miners I’ve promised to put back to work.

Hmmm. It’s worth a thought.

Great. Let’s have our people work out the details. And speaking of details, have you considered a new hair style? Mine, for example, it really stands out.

You think mine doesn’t? But I’d look ridiculous as a pouffed blonde.

No, no, not that. Black is beautiful. But maybe something that looks a little less like a ten-second boot-camp buzzcut; tease it a little and let it sweep back on the sides, very leaderly, if that’s a word.

It isn’t.

Anyway, I’ll have Mr. Phyllis — that’s my stylist — get in touch. Oh, and by the way, I know you’re a big basketball fan and, with March Madness and all, I was wondering who you’ve got, y’know, for the office pool.

Well, the guys in the Politburo like to wait until the finals are over, and I get to pick the winner. It’s sort of like your Electoral College. Ha ha!

Yeah, tell it to Hillary! Anyway, let’s stay in touch.

Sure thing.

Getting Even

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The Direct Approach

imagesAlmost everyone loves Spring — the return of the crocus, the maple leaf, the robin and the swallow. Count me among the almost, for Spring also marks the return of the motorcycle. I hate motorcycles, especially the loud ones, which, as the joke goes, stop at every bar while their quiet cousins stop at every restaurant.

The issue came up recently, as my back-fence neighbor used a warm, sunny day to tune up his Harley, and reminded me diabolically of Sergei Grimm and the Dirt Bike.

Sergei Grimm lived near Cazenovia NY, close to the lake, at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. He was a Russian immigrant — an engineer and urban-planner — and, at the end of his career, the head of Syracuse’s Housing Authority. At the time in question, he was also old, retired, and, although a generous soul who once lent his piano to a young music student, sometimes grouchy, regularly with reason.

At the entrance to Sergei’s cul-de-sac lived a family with a young son and his dirt bike. The dirt bike was fond of riding up and down the cul-de-sac, past Sergei’s house, where it did a persistent, slow double-pass as it turned noisily around.

On one otherwise mild summer day, after many laps of the cul-de-sac, the dirt bike coughed and collapsed … right in front of Sergei’s house. Rather than ask to be pushed home, the bike insisted on trying and trying and trying and trying again to restart.

Sergei was not pleased. He got an axe, opened the screen door, and marched toward the prostrate bike and the youth, who was trying desperately to resuscitate it. We don’t know if Sergei said anything. There was no need. The boy understood and fled, abandoning the bike to a lingering death, its bodily fluids ebbing slowly away.

(We also don’t know what, if anything, may have happened to Sergei as a consequence. His papers are archived at Syracuse University. Most of them deal with urban-planning and housing, though, at the bottom of the pile, there might be an old summons or a newspaper clipping.)

The Indirect Approach

Besides a tuned-up Harley and dreams of mayhem, this early Spring has also brought joyful new blooms. Within a single week, I’ve attended two soul-satisfying concerts, the first by the Choir of Concordia College, one of the best ever; the second by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO), likewise.

In the second half of the Choir’s concert, their Director, Rene Clausen, told of recently hearing a performance of America, the Beautiful, arranged by Colorado composer, Cecil Effinger. He and the Choir loved it and, at the last minute, added it to their concertUnknown-1 repertoire.

Initially, I wasn’t inclined to lend this any significance beyond welcoming a lovely and moving piece. It was both those, and more, and, when it was done, the audience rose and cheered. No one had to say anything. We knew what it meant.

Only a few days later, the CSO presented Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, a beautiful piece played brilliantly by the orchestra and soloist Jeffrey Kahane, but not susceptible to any political interpretation.

The audience loved it (as they love Kahane, who was once Conductor of the CSO). They demanded and got an encore from Kahane that began, very quietly and unrecognizably, almost as if uncertain where to go, but slowly revealed itself as an introspective America, the Beautiful that subtly transposed into a minor key and finally, just as subtly, made its way back to its original, cautiously optimistic, major key.

Just as at the Concordia concert, the audience stood and cheered (well, as much as any refined classical audience can be said to cheer) and, just as before, no one had to say anything.

UnknownIt may not be marching on the Pentagon or joining a Pink Pussy Hat rally, but music hath power to stir, as it hath to soothe, the savage breast. Think of Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie, or, far away on the Russian/Finnish border, Sibelius.