Paranoia Porn

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Detail from Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” at the Museo del Prado

The germ of this thought comes from listening to an interview on Fresh Air yesterday, Thursday, November 12, recorded the day before, which would have been Wednesday, a week and a day since the still officially unresolved election, and at least two news cycles previous. I point it out using this commonplace gauge of cultural progress because it is also still current (or why would Terry risk the embarrassment of being out of touch?). To wit, I notice in both the New York Times and the Washington Post that President Trump – his aides are alleged to say – has no plan; he is merely getting himself however he can from news cycle to news cycle.


White house memo

Trump Floats Improbable Survival Scenarios as He Ponders His Future

There is no grand strategy. President Trump is simply trying to survive from one news cycle to the next.


The thought flits through my head that, maybe, he has at long last legitimately found his own bit of revelation and, as an endgame, turned to religion and a faith in miracles.

But nah. I can’t help but grab the seat of my pants and what’s left to palpate of my shrinking gluteal mass, and deduce from the condition of my hind parts that it’s the same old shit, just a different day. But it’s the implications of the ghoulish contemplations and deliberations on the possible, the probable, the unthinkable, and the preposterous that nag at me. It’s like a constant frigid flow of air from the left, a polar express of glacial horror originating from somewhere “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Yet it keeps nagging at me that I should just give in, and allow the temperature in my core to keep dropping, to the zone of absolutely no hope. It’s tempting, but I resist.

On Fresh Air, Terry’s guest was a dude touting some what is now considered durable, if not estimable, cred. His name is Garrett Graff, and he is the very model of the cyber-age journalist: former editor of Politico, a contributor to Wired, and the author of at least three books, one on Robert Mueller’s tenure as head of the FBI, a history of the bunkers built in secret to protect government leaders in case of nuclear attack, and an oral history of September 11 (which I am only guessing does not include President Trump’s notorious lies about witnessing people, which he averred were Muslims, dancing on rooftops and cheering from across the Hudson straits from Hoboken as the twin towers burned and finally tumbled).

The topic of their conversation is entitled, on the Fresh Air home page, as “Journalist Details ‘Potential Mischief’ of Trump’s Remaining Weeks in Office.” It consisted, in my hearing of it, of admittedly only speculative outcomes of the potentialities of the various “moves” and actions taken by the president in the past few days, and weeks, and, even going back months – with the unstated implication that every measure, every step, every vindictive or mean-spirited or sheer lunatic act was performed aforethought, and, conceivably… not saying it’s so, but this is how autocrats, authoritarians, totalitarians, dictators do things, have done things…

And I realized, not a new thought for me, but a refreshed set of impressions, that this is how a certain quarter among the news media has been reporting and commentating on the Trump presidency all along. To me, it constitutes a really unsettling superset of the stuff of dread-scrolling. For now I call it Paranoia Porn.

It amounts to imagining the worst outcomes of a regime that resists owning the qualities ascribed to it, beyond the malevolence and hatefulness embedded in the spirit of its worst aimless deconstruction of certain entities and systems necessary to the conduct of governance in the United States. These stories and conversations, these interviews and analyses, the stuff of a whole industry of media content engineering and manufacturing that has kept it going, and not just going but thriving – with the major companies, like The Times, reporting record levels of revenue and profits – in my view are the final throes of examining minutely what Trump has been doing, and then fantasized about by the far left media in the way of speculative horror scenarios based on incredibly complex conspiracies involving setting up a shadow government in the hollowed out shell of the existing legitimate infrastructure which has been performing the business of government for the entire history of the republic.

In fact, as far as I can tell, and anyone – from the lowliest whistle-blower to Carl Bernstein, from Mattis to Bolton, from Comey to Scaramucci – but anyone has been willing to make public, frankly and truthfully (by their own recognizance) has reported on every conceivable twist and turn, every u-turn and wrong turn, every impulse and miscue, there is only evidence of one large truth. Trump has proven repeatedly and consistently the incompetence and shallowness and shortsighted nature of nearly every one of his more far reaching initiatives and in four years, and continuing into this period of interregnum, when his aides tell the media that he has no endgame intended as a culmination of his current chaotically disruptive machinations, he has never betrayed the possession of anything resembling a strategy or plan.

Of course, as I like to say, I could be wrong, and I hope I’m not. But if I am, I am, and you are, no worse off than the doomsayers are perpetually hinting we may find ourselves to be. In which case, we will indeed be beyond help. But I am not sure I will regret (nor would I find solace in doing so) thinking this is all, as I say, a morbidly prurient fascination with yet a new form of pornography. It scares me to think of paranoia as a desirable state in which to seek ecstasy.

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2020 Howard Dinin

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Like Tiresias Throbbing

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Of course he won’t go quietly

Donald J Trump emoting

photo by Albert H. Teich/effects added by Howard Dinin

I’m thinking as we all, in some corner of our consciousness, fidget and distract ourselves awaiting an outcome, and suffer the condition of Tiresias in The Waste Land, not so much throbbing between two lives, as vibrating between what I’ll call two civic states of being. Is it the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end?

The more that suddenly positivist liberal media, and especially the commentariat – that overpopulated sub-state of what it fancies itself to be, part of the fourth estate – are merely anticipating what they seem to think is a foregone outcome, the more I feel the hum of true uncertainty. Joy is in the air, and after a long term, it’s closing in on four years after all, of pissing and moaning and talking about the inconceivably further decaying state of civilization, and all embodied in one clinically obese semi-failed real estate developer with a knack for expropriating the attention of every person, including anyone not immediately in his presence. Optimism, can you believe, from the baleful doomsayers. This despite being bitten in their hindquarters innumerable times by a perversely indifferent set of facts, in this case numbers of votes to be counted. And yet, and yet… that delirious outcome of which we are on the brink – suddenly we’re a happy few, a band of brothers, whereas yesterday, they were all too ready to tell us what’s wrong with us – an outcome soberly still measurable against some calculable total of statistical deviance… is generally concluded.

And by the inherent permission accorded by an assumed happy and propitious resolution (however tiny, and therefore ambiguous, the margin), the collective wonder turns to a focus on how the incumbent, presumably, and in what I’ll cling to calling a presumptive way, is expected to make his exit. He has promised even well before, weeks before, the polls were scheduled to open – and briefly he gave us pause to think that he could even alter the implacability of that received fact: the immutability of the Election Day, as defined in the Constitution—call it off, delay it, schedule it for next year, or the release date of the vaccine; Can he do that? He seems to think he can do anything? He can’t do that! Well, of course not… but isn’t it pretty to think so, with echoes of his innate impotence in virtually all matters in which, in fantasy, in his wishes, he wields power impervious to the most refractory resistance – that he will contest whatever there is to contest, having established, at least for his own nefarious rhetorical purposes that not only was there a fraud of historic proportions afoot, but that it was already started, weeks ago remember, and all ballots save those cast, defiantly in the face of a raging monstrously contagious viral epidemic, by voters in person with proper identification, were bogus and void. Not just suspect and uncountable. Strip away the franchise that was born with the Republic, and never abrogated or delayed, not once in our history – except temporarily in 11 renegade southern states, and the Union would have magnanimously and unquestioningly have granted them continued voter status, if they would just, at the same time, put their muskets and rifles down, and let those people go…

He would not even answer the question about whether he would comply with the protocol of an orderly and non-disruptive transition of administrations as a new one took power from his – his non-responsiveness not to be interpreted as the globally accepted legal policy, ‘tacet contire,’ silence implies agreement, but really more in keeping with the rules of the game of stud poker, and he chooses, in anticipation, to keep his hole card face down for a long as possible. And of course, there were those of us who have expected the worst from him, even without provocation, because we had taken the measure of his character, and without pausing to analyze the sum of his life of grifts, not only weighing the comical grandiosity of the rewards when they succeeded, but also assessing the abject ignominy of the intentionally circumspect, if not downright concealed, and ultimately uncountable, failures, but including also the repeated acts of salacious indulgence that were the chief excrescence of his innate, his almost genetically determined, vulgarity. And those of us who did fully expect he will make his longed for extrication from the seat of power ugly – really ugly and gut-wrenching – and difficult (Herculean), and, if possible, violent, in a series of final acts of his particular style of scorched earth deconstruction of the social and civic order, which is then gilded over, like a chandelier of base metal left hanging among the ruins by a single strand of tarnished wire.

And so, it may surprise you to hear me agree, of course he will make it as bad as he can, not because he is vindictive and vengeful, though he is, not because he is a pugnacious bully, though he is, but because that is his nature. To be loud and attention-seeking, and monotonically in the mode of self-aggrandizement. In short it’s the manner in which he does everything. It is the template for the caricature of himself to present to a credulous world, hungry for the cheap seats version of some manifestation, two-button sharkskin suit and all, with the fake hair, and the fake skin, and the multiple layers of gold in the form of ostentatious artifacts, the gaudier the better, to be worn on one’s person, that passes in the age of the infinite loop of streaming content version, of a hero.

He was loud and attention-getting as a mere over-publicized and, measured by the tacit codes of socially accepted behavior (this was years before the concept of Real Housewives was ever imagined as a germ of an idea), over the limit in lubricious demeanor and affect, as phony as the very-expensive-dental-work realty shark, whose closest manifestation as front page content was the barely proximate permanent slot reserved for him on Page Six of the tabloids, like the best table at some parody of an ostentatiously “glamorous” venue. He was loud and attention-getting through the 70s, when he forced himself on a jaded media as the latest personality to pay attention to, and on through the 80s and 90s as his notoriety – always positioned as fame by his own exertions at spin – spread all over New York, like melting oleomargarine on toasted Wonder Bread, and oozed occasionally into the notice of the national downmarket tabloids.

It was the mode of his announcement – I’ll remind you: loud and attention-getting – with generous dollops of hyperbole and outrageous character assassination on a global scale, and perpetrated with the corrosive weapons of glittering, wholly mendacious stereotypes as he ascended that famous golden escalator with a hired mob of cheering sycophants.

Of course, he’s going to make noise, and make it difficult, and he won’t go quietly. It’s not in his nature otherwise.

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Nothing Changes, 1879 Edition

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

Mark Twain, 1909. By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Twain wrote the following piece the year previous to the tumultuous and critical election year for President of 1880. Only 15 years after the Civil War had ended. The incumbent, Rutherford B. Hayes, had run in 1876 with the promise that he would not seek re-election – a promise he kept… astonishingly to our modern sensibilities. As a result the election was highly contested.

Recall, for perspective, that the country had already weathered the initial vagaries of Reconstruction, the various eruptions of corruption that marred the chances for a more peaceful process of reconciliation between the north and south, or for the assimilation of African-Americans, now fully established as citizens with rights (albeit what these were, and their extent continued to be contested). It had weathered the chaotic and tumultuous administration of Andrew Johnson, the martyred Lincoln’s successor, and as a great exponent of exploiting his office for purposes of politically biassed exercise of power. It had weathered the previously unrivaled level of corruption revealed in the administration of President Grant, sullying the reputations of all but the General himself.

The election was precedent-setting for several reasons. Unlike today, there was, in practical terms, virtually total engagement of the electorate. More people voted, as a percentage of the whole population in the 1880 election than had ever occurred previously in the United States. The vote could hardly have been more evenly split. The winner, James Garfield (who ran with Chester A. Arthur as Vice President, later to succeed him to the highest office) garnered a majority of the popular vote over his rival,  Winfield Scott Hancock, the Democratic Party candidate. The vote was split by a difference, in the final tally, of less than 2,000 votes nationally. But in electoral terms, although each candidate won an equal number of states (19 to each), Garfield’s electoral votes were entirely from the more densely populated, urbanized and industrialized north, including Oregon in the enclave of Pacific and Mountain states that existed in a kind of civic isolation from the rest of the country, separated by what was then still the territories (and therefore non-voting) of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. This band of not-yet-enfranchised territory included the contiguous Dakota territory, not yet divided, and that of Montana. Importantly, the Democrat Hancock’s victory in the entirety of what had been the formerly secessionist southern states, plus Texas, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey, set the precedent that persisted for decades, of a solidly Democratic south. Until the the first third of the ensuing century the liberal banner was carried by the Republican Party – the classic notion of the “party of Lincoln” as the nucleus of progressive ideas, a notion now obviously defunct. Curiously, and consistent with the bizarre unpredictability of the American electorate, the one state Hancock did not manage to carry, and whose allotment of electoral votes would nearly have reversed the outcome (as opposed to ensuring the landslide that was Garfield’s) was Pennsylvania… still a contested state and, today, a potential game changer if President Trump does not manage to retain his advantage there in 2016. For perspective, if Hancock had won Pennsylvania, he would have lost the Presidency by a very slim two electoral votes.

In any event, whatever the actual political reality and the culture that inspired Twain to write this piece as he did, he does seem to have captured, as he did so often, what it turns out is an enduring, perhaps, in a sense, a genetic, characteristic of the peculiar and continuously unpredictable condition of what the electorate will find not just tolerable, but acceptable about its would-be representatives.

The “moral crimes” of Twain’s imaginary contestant for the office, qualified to run sufficiently by his own lights (the only ones that count, as apparently has long been the case in our country, if not from the beginning) despite his peccadilloes, may seem mild by comparison to what passes for business as usual in Washington or what is considered a candidate’s “private business” and of no bearing in fitness for office. But those were gentler times, and we and the politicians, have had just over 140 years since then to invent far more ingenious ways of interpolating tolerance for depravity into our perception of normal behavior, and the same amount of time to have our sense of outrage ground down, possibly to only a trace presence in our consciences.

“An Open Letter to My Countrymen”

I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any Congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850.

I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have someone else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home.

My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency?

The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why would I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit, also, that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the Cannibal Islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be: “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausage.”

These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

—Mark Twain
“Let’s Look at the Record”
Harper’s Magazine, July 1954
Reprinted from the
Kansas City Journal, June 15, 1879

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2020 Howard Dinin

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Just Another Covid-19 Day

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

For far too much of my life so far, in far too many ways and moments, dealing with feelings has been no more and no less than an either/or proposition. Too often I have to decide consciously whether to let something pass by as simply as my teeming consciousness will allow, or do I allow myself to embroider intellectually along the same lines as some unbalanced intrusion of active thought about something, real or imagined, has propelled me. And even with this particular perfectly understandable state of mind expressed as I have, I do wonder, “am I kidding myself? do I have any control really over what I’m thinking and how? Is this where I concentrate on my breath and only the exhalations and inhalations until what I can only describe metaphorically as a “storm” passes—I’ll illustrate how these things work with this interpolation of an interruption of my interruption of my own thoughts: more specifically, speaking of storms, I’ve just learned of a cytokine storm, thanks to the deluge of information that’s surging unstoppably from every digital portal and orifice on the internet with regard to all facts Covidian, and I pay attention to such things, at least at this level of specificity because through no fault of my own, save the fault of voluntary longevity (understand I don’t mean I actively will myself to keep living, though it’s not far from that I suppose, or I could be persuaded, I mean simply that I am not voluntarily ending it – and come on, you know what “it” is – and therefore keep going until factors wholly beyond my control given the prevailing conditions that might and inevitably will obtain at the time determine otherwise—like a “cytokine storm,” which is not so much preventable, but with a few ounces of luck avoidable given an otherwise healthy prevailing set of conditions regardless of age, though, and here’s the point, someone my age is more susceptible to such a storm, which nature means to protect the organism in younger specimens, but if it runs away with itself, the prevention can be the instrument of danger, or the by now terribly worn trope of a “perfect storm,” which if it has anything of conceptual ideality about it, it’s not perfection the conditions embody so much as unmitigated chaos.

And the particular either/or I’ve had to deal with now for what is going on five years is what will inevitably come to be called in an institutional way (instead of the merely contingent media-driven facile rhetorical convenience it is, because we’re living it in what NASA taught us nearly 50 years ago to call “real time”) the Age of Trump, is the either/or of paying any attention whatsoever to what the news channels, in whatever medium, but for me, mainly digital media and mainly in the form of readable text on a screen, has determined should vie for my attention, trying to capture it for long enough to draw me in for engagement longer than can be measured in seconds or fractions of them.

I’m simply talking about the channels I have chosen to focus my attention on a regular basis. It’s a small number. So the phenomenon universally is compounded to some nearly incalculable number of occurrences of what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about, even merely on the web sites of the mainstream press, and being the cultural manifestation of my generation that I am, I have to face it, like it or not, this means The New York Times, The New Yorker, and to a lesser extent, The Washington Post and The Guardian (daily cancelling each other out, circling one another as they do, around a center to which one stands fixedly well to the left, and the other waveringly, but discernibly, on the right), are the daily doses of trying yet new angles—and usually failing to be new, but the attempts never cease—on the vagaries and failings of the personality known possibly to more of the first world than any other personality made manifest as a living person at any time in the past 50 years at this point.

There is a perpetual contest to dig up yet new ways to tally the shortcomings and failings of the behavior and character of Donald John Trump. It stopped being interesting four years ago. It stopped long since being anything but raw fuel, inherently pernicious for being spent in the production of the heat it produces—whatever the nominal benefit that heat was intended to provide; though it never does anything now but make things infernally hot—kind of like an endless supply of wood pellets for the furnace in the basement of our souls, for preserving a constant state of anxiety. Constancy being the quality, the only quality necessary, to define such a state as existential.

Rather than having such a defective human being become the nucleus of my inescapable inner sensation of dread, I avoid such “news” whenever I can. Further, I simply do not read anything labeled as “opinion” (and we are way past any jocular reference to the Dude’s mantra, as a way of lightening any notion that what one person, usually someone I’ve never heard of before and will likely never hear about, or want to, again says as “just your opinion, man”—which is to differentiate the non-entities from the media’s featured players who long since proved, and retired the evidence long since as irrefutable of the fact, of their idiocy or stupidity or thickness or dullness or opacity of mind by whatever trope you prefer: I mean of course the likes of David Brooks and his entire cadre… to these folks I stopped paying any attention whatsoever about two years ago, and the sight of their names in running text of any authorship, by way of allusion or reference, is a marker of text I should avoid, with a bookmark against the author of that text to watch for warily in the future, because why would I want to read what someone who has wasted their precious time being simply alive engaged in the reading of a syllable from the endless Brooksian stream of syllables, as in, to paraphrase Capote, “those aren’t thoughts at all, those are phonemes?”

But now, as would be predictable, it continues, even as we are in the midst of only just beginning to become sensible of the impact the prophylactic and preventative measures being imposed clearly with more of a sense of contingency—that is, as doable, rather than as a measure of their known efficacy, and hence compelling and necessary even to a moron—than of exigency (a status that China seems, we hope, to have begun to pass out of, and that Italy, woefully and tragically is fully immersed in) to mitigate not so much the present, but the future, the immediate future for sure, but the ongoing future as well, if we may permit ourselves even to speak of what will follow after some indeterminate date in the next few months as an assured “ongoing future” for everyone who comes out at the other end with a life that has not been extinguished. I mean literally, but in many other senses as well—there is a growing torrent of articles that are enumerating, analyzing, and dissecting all the ways, what are quickly becoming a practically uncountable number of ways, in which the Donald has fucked up, or demonstrated an incapacity for doing anything other than fucking up, or how his life is a summation, only discernible (fantastically “only”) at this point of consummation, here on the precipice of a humanitarian disaster of previously rarely, if ever, rivaled proportions.

How in god’s name (or God’s name, if you like; or anyone’s name; or how by any contrivance or invocation you like) is it going to make things better sooner and less catastrophic by even talking about what he does or doesn’t do about the Covid-19 threat as unsuitable?

Though in my opinion, which is not worth much, I’ll admit, in the larger scheme of things, beyond the locus of, say, the property I own in the world, which is maybe, in sum, about ⅓ of an acre, which symbolically is probably even less than the locus of the scheme of David Brooks’s opinion’s worth (if only by the scale of the income that dumb son of a bitch takes in for a living), we long since passed the point where what anyone has to say about the Donald is worth lingering for more than the time it takes to turn the page (figuratively on a digital device, or literally). Any attention he receives at this point is too much, and prolongs the agony of his monstrous impact on the lives of all the other humans on the planet. Surely talking about how his stupidity, cupidity, narcissism, or any of his myriad inadequacies are only making the possibility of improvement of the present global threat more difficult, because it’s a distraction that’s not beneficial, and in fact, compounds the agony, which by now we all know is inevitable pretty much for all of us, one way or another.

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Corona Fever

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

“Social distancing? Hey! No big deal. I never really liked you anyway.”

shows the empty paper goods aisle

From the rear of the store, to the front, Bath Tissue and Facial Tissue (and, note, Paper Towel as well). Appropriately, Aisle 13. Friday the 13th, March 2020, 10 am. Giant Supermarket, Wynnewood PA

It’s mid-morning. About 10:30am. The store, a suburban Whole Foods Market, opens at 8. I exit the store with my two reusable shopping bags, festooned with WFM logos and nowhere near full with my short haul of singular items, a few apples, a couple of fresh pastry items, a partial loaf of sourdough bread baked in huge bâtards and then cut into quarters, bagged and weighed and sold by the pound. A chocolate bar. Those sorts of things. No staples.

I dodge and weave through other shoppers’ carts. In front of me, as I get near the produce section at the front doors, a woman stands next to her heavily burdened shopping cart, filled to the brim with a variety of groceries. On top of these, held gingerly in place with her left hand, a stack of five paste-board packages—the standard package for a pound of sliced, cured and smoked pork belly. Bacon to most of us. Five pounds seems a lot, but is not inconsistent with the mounds of other foodstuffs in her carriage. I don’t linger even a moment to see what other comestibles are featured in this matron’s haul.

I think immediately and fleetingly of the usual coroner’s expression I’ve heard repeated so often on my favorite streaming British detective series—a “well-nourished female in apparent good health, of about middle age.” The store in fact is full of such subjects, all very much alive of course, regardless of my morbid speculations and associations. I think even more fleetingly of why she, and her cohort, and the dads, and the nanas, and the myriad children I would otherwise have expected on a friday morning, a warm one in an early spring of persistent and no longer unusual mildness, not to be clinging to sleeves and shopping carts, and pulling items off shelves. I would have thought they’d be in classrooms doing what school children do these days.

And I realize the teeming aisles of this prosperous suburb, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania (media home value just north of half a million dollars), are as full as the township’s school building corridors must be empty. But not because of spring break; that was originally scheduled for a month from now. I’ve learned in the interim, schools were closed on Tuesday, three days ago, because two students and a school staff member may have been exposed to the area’s first reported case of the virus – a Children’s Hospital cardiologist serving in a satellite clinic in nearby King of Prussia. He has been in the ICU at UPenn Hospital downtown since the discovery he was positive.

The schools were to have been cleaned and sanitized and reopened, but, as in neighboring Cheltenham School Disrict, they remain closed for the week.

Here at the Whole Foods, which bursts with boisterous life, and has increasingly depleted shelves of stocks, there are nine register lanes. Eight are open. All are full. I’m guessing after the fact there are about six or seven carts in each lane. I am guessing about every two out of three carts is full to the top of the cart. These are mainly full-size grocery carts, rather than the smaller, two-tier carts, which are in every event in much shorter supply anyway.

The people in line are civilians. By this, I mean, they are not part of the usual and sizable brigade of Amazon Prime shoppers, who use the same carts and fill them to the same brims – usually every day of the week as increasing numbers of consumers exploit the generous Amazon policy of free same day delivery of groceries in orders in excess of $25 placed by their premium customers (called “Prime” as is the membership program which entitles them to such, and other similar, amenities).

I am by now used to the brigades of Prime shoppers who normally manage quietly to stay out of the way of legitimate consumers fending for their own urban foraging needs. But even as much as they clog their specially designated deployment area, the deployment zone keeps growing as the shopping service beneficiaries mushroom in number. It now encroaches on a section of the store that originally served as an area for customers to dine on the prepared foods for which the chain is justly famous. Where there had been a dozen tables seating six at a time, there are now three that serve to seat maybe two or three disparate customers who try to keep their mutual distance, and consume their pizza slices or fresh salads as quickly as they can before moving on.

But for now, as in those rare historical moments that adverse weather reports predicted as imminent, and usually in mid-winter and delineated in terms of massive snow accumulations and blizzard-like conditions, the platoons of professional grocery stock pullers are far outnumbered by the expeditionary force of an army of householders preparing for the siege of an invisible enemy that demands adherence to that defensive term of art in the peculiar stiff bureaucratic rhetoric of public security enforcers, first heard as a recommended tactic for those under siege by only too palpable wielders of only too real armament. These shoppers are provisioning for sheltering in place.

And what is most unnerving is that there is no definitive sense of when the siege will end. But, while the prospects for toilet tissue are equally unclear, it’s a good bet some of us will always have bacon.

I did have a chance to do a very informal survey of what is disappearing from the shelves.

I knew a week ago, when I went to look in supermarkets, drugstores, big box, whatever, the usual suspects, there was no hand sanitizer in any size to be had. At the Whole Foods, the price leader brands of pasta – Whole Foods own, and the Italian brand De Cecco – stocked with the greatest variety of shapes and sizes and the least deviation from the vanilla of pasta grains #1 semolina are being depleted. Today, they are pretty much gone, and the much higher priced premium imports, the kinds with convolute names and made with convoluted antique bronze dies and allowed to air dry, have also (amazingly to me) begun to disappear.

Cheaper mass-market brands of canned tomato products were already well-gone and the more recent hebdomadal toll sees a decimated reserve of the authenticated, certificated San Marzano stocks. Somehow consistently, I do note that the olive oil shelves are as depleted as I’ve ever seen them, and Whole Foods being who they are tend to stock only the EVOO varieties of oils, whatever the points of origin (or bottling: information which must be sought scrupulously on the label, and usually in virtually no-point size type, next to the names of the countries of origin of the olives which may have been pressed in Italy, but are about as Italian by derivation as my great uncle Sol of Ukraine).

At the Giant Supermarket, just across Wynnewood Rd, and slightly south of the WFM, in a strip mall with other somewhat more downscale retailers, including a Bed Bath and Beyond and an Old Navy, there are no more paper products to be had. To wipe one’s bum, or any other body part, or the kitchen counter.

I don’t check the pasta shelves at Giant, kind of knowing what to expect, but I do note that virtually every kind of packaged rice product is in extremely limited supply, as are most of the processed tomato sauces in jars and cans. I don’t check the raw goods shelves.

I am so astonished by the vast expanse of shelf space in the paper goods aisle, I have to take a rare photo. I’ve not seen shelves so empty in a consumer store of such magnitude since I was given privileged access to the first Staples store in the world, prior to its opening, prior to its stocking, some 35 years ago.

It bespeaks emptiness. I mean in the sense of the hollow lack of accord that somehow, whatever the calamity, hummed in the interpersonal spaces and voids and promised, even if only in an inchoate way, assurance of a return sooner than later to some kind of normalcy. Now, I am not so sure.

And the little sign, tucked in the crevice of the long unbroken expanse of tier on tier of emptiness of this most basic, dare I say fundamental, of symbolic necessities in our modern sense of inhabiting a coherent and resilient society, offers no reassurance of any kind in the platitudinous eviscerated insincerity of corporate speak.

Corporate apology note for running out of TP

Corporate sorry from Giant, for running out of toilet paper, facial tissues, in fact anything absorbent made of paper. The sign, you should note, is tucked between the “Sensitive Wet Wipes” and the “Gentle Clean Wet Wipes” shelf talkers.

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Cacophony

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Toyota dealer waiting room

Sitting in the local Toyota dealership waiting room for the service area. I am here with about a dozen other customers waiting for their vehicles to be evaluated for service, a cost to be estimated, and then for the work to be done.

Like most customer-minded modern businesses, the waiting room has an array of amenities, including vending machines for packaged goodies (mainly candy bars and pastries), several urns of coffee in vacuum pump reservoirs in a choice of flavors, including decaf and hot water for tea.

There is another vending machine for cold beverages, including bottled water, the ubiquitous Dasani, which is, I believe, a brand of Coca-Cola and its bottlers.

There are three large-screen monitors, two above my head which I have to crane my neck to view. One of these features a live Instagram feed of marketing and promotional material related to the dealership itself. The other screen, silenced seems mainly to be showing a succession of commercials from a variety of advertisers, including Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a variety of law firms of local provenance, etc. It does seem, now that I watch for about 30 seconds, to be tuned to the local major affiliate for ABC. At this hour of the morning (it’s just about to turn 9:30) the show is “Live Kelly and Ryan,” which features the eponymous perpetually mirthful hosts speaking to a round robin of guests who are there to tout whatever it is they are touting, and to bathe in the prompted glorification from the studio audience, consisting of hooting, cheers, laughter, much clapping and general expressions of guiltless, non-judgmental approbation.

The screen, about four feet above my head and located about eight feet on center from my field of vision, repeats the content of the screen on the opposite wall across the waiting room, above the alcoved coffee station. There is a mate across the way as well to the screen with the live “house” feed of marketing information.

The screen near me is muted. The screen behind me provides the main sound track for the entirety of the waiting room, which has a capacity, I would approximate, of about four times as many individuals as now occupy the space. In addition to the endless stream of mirth and enthusiasm that issues from the programming stream of Kelly and Ryan’s production, including all commercial messages (all, in some way, hopeful and upbeat, even when advertising the services of advocates for personal justice when a malign social milieu has, unjustified and fearfully, targeted the consumer’s well-being for the usual mayhem laden reasons: suits of various kinds, including divorce, malpractice, fraud, etc.).

However, in addition to this foundational layer of sound, there are additional ceaseless audible tracks from various sources located on vectors that are no doubt random and accidental, but which serve to present a current of perpetual counterpoint one to another, and challenging the listener, to exercise a significant effort of mindful aural focus. It’s the only way to distinguish one stream of audible content from another.

The effect is not unlike, say, a rough mix of the intended soundtrack of a more artfully crafted (and intended) work of cinematic presentation…very reminiscent, in fact, of a Robert Altman movie, any of the iconic ones, like MASH, Nashville, or a film from his oeuvre sometimes criticized for its extremity of sound effects, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The difference being, of course, that, successfully or not, Altman sought to encourage the willing viewer not only to focus, but sharpen their observational and analytical skills on the strength of more than mere visual cues and image manipulation, as one would expect from an art form like the cinema, and learn something about the cumulative and aggregate impact of a nexus of discrete and individualized coded aural content occurring stochastically in a suburban Toyota dealer showroom. Here in the specific waiting room of the Ardmore Toyota dealer’s service facility, the effect is to create, as stated, a cacophony.

The only aural signals that register and capture the attention of the listener, providing a focus, are those arising randomly from the throats of the platoon of service representatives who are monitoring the progress of all jobs being shepherded and tended to in the system. Every so often a name is announced, usually the surname of the customer, and a head twitches or jerks, or perhaps less spasmodically reorients and signals attentiveness, turning like a dish antenna in the direction of the interjection.

A hushed conference ensues, and the service representative returns to his or her station with the consent of the owner to proceed. This is usually the only hushed or modulated verbal exchange that occurs in the course of the morning.

Usually other conversations are conducted at not merely audible levels to a narrow locus of accidental listeners in the vicinity of the communicant – and almost needless to say representing one end of a multi-sided exchange by means of the ubiquitous smart phone. Every customer seems to have one. Every customer seems to have recourse to its use one way or another during the course of their vigil attendant to the mending or possibly merely the preventative maintenance of their vehicle. Most engagements by phone seem to have nothing at all to do with the immediate mission at hand. The calls have nothing to do with the vehicle.

Rather, and this is immediately evident, as no conversation—none—is conducted discretely at the murmurous level called for by etiquette and even only a token amount of self-regard. Rather all and sundry in the waiting room are privy to any and all business that occurs ex tempore.

Those scattered about the room not engaged in a magazine, not staring blankly at a television screen, not volubly holding up their end of an inevitably and quite evidently wholly banal confabulation, one of doubtless millions being conducted at any daylight moment throughout the entire great nation of ours, and all through the miracle of a slab of silicon and other much rarer minerals, are using their phones as a personal amplification systems, conveying the soundtrack of what may be a visual display of live action or other animated programming, or perhaps merely providing musical accompaniment as a kind of anodyne relief from the montony of waiting for the mechanic to get done.

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The Difference Being

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

If you feel like the current conditions of political life in our country are pretty much a matter of the greater number of us being in thrall to a much smaller number, whose will to do bad acts seems to grow perceptibly, you’re not alone. Sometimes it feels like the situation of our physical selves being in thrall (and certainly at threat of finding ourselves in such a condition) to microbes (or even smaller… viruses are very much smaller than bacteria, for example) about which little seems to be able to be done.

But there’s a significant difference, however compelling the analogy and however helpless and bereft you may feel. Like the body’s own immune system, of which, let’s face it, we remain substantially unaware as well, we have it in ourselves to take action against even a sea of troubles.

We can vote at the very absolute least.

Remarkably little of the electorate feel the power of their right to vote. Despair unhinges us. Disgust, frustration, anger, ennui, whatever the erosive demotivators we suffer, there seems less and less hope left in this most fundamental of American rights. But it remains the key to collective empowerment. In part this is what we mean when we speak of democracy, and we mean it with the connotations of good, and ethical, and right. Individually, we have, each of us, our one small bit of command, of entitlement. This is what substantiates our agency as citizens. The power of the ballot.

Enough votes at once will effect change. We’ve seen it in the lifetime of the current generation. Changes in administration. Changes in the majorities of Congress. Changes in laws, including at the highest, the constitutional level.

Inherently our system still works, even as we plod on, seemingly limping and bleeding from what has come to seem not merely a chronic, but a continuous assault on our fundamental humanitarian principles, uncertain of not if, but when, our sense of belief will give out completely and we submit, if not surrender, utterly. All it takes is a vote. And as the actions of key leaders among those who hold power over our behavior as a people and a nation seem to portend that we will crash on in defiance of other of the world’s sovereignties, in defiance of nature itself—utterly despite the collective will, at the deepest level, of the greater percentage of our entirety as a nation—the power of that vote we still have seems to have less and less reason to enact it effectively. But repeatedly, we have proven as an electorate, that this is not so.

We still have, remarkably, another chance. In the most primitive of assessments, it’s down to basics. Almost a Manichean choice of a duality facing us. Possibly as simple as right and wrong.

Gratefully, the choice is even simpler, because there is only one wrong choice. And many right ones, with nuances and more blatant differences for sure, but any one is right in this electoral challenge. Just don’t give up. Just don’t vote wrong. Just vote.

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My Ethnicity

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

The family: mine that is, on one side. If this doesn’t say “Russia” to you, before it says anything else, you are invited to a serious discussion at our mutual convenience.

My Ethnicity

It’s taken all this time (and, as trigger, after reading a Louis Menand book review cum essay about Franz Boas and his followers) to understand that in saying I am an ethnic Jew, it means not that my ethnicity is Jewish. My first pass at understanding this in broad terms is that religion has not much at all to do with ethnography or ethnology (Jews, in short or in long, are not the same the world over).

Rather I am of a certain ethnic group, probably with some specificity, the first generation of Eastern European immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in the last wave of migration from that region to the United States that was admitted more or less without negotiable impediment.

My parents both were from Ukraine/Belarus, dating from a time that these distinctions were not made geopolitically. These nations, as they are recognized now, were all part of Russia. And being right on the border, or as near, with Poland, there is some dispute as to the exact way in which such derivation should be characterized precisely. Saying the “Pale of Settlement” covers a lot of inexactitude.

In any event, they both came from families that lived in small towns, definitely not shtetls (though my father did a good job of describing life during his boyhood in remarkably similar ways to the descriptions embedded in classic shtetl literature – Sholem Aleichem, and the like). And so, though there was some resonance, life was not exactly Anetevka and there were no fiddlers perched precariously on thatched roofs. There were resonances for sure, but my father and his entire family were used to many what I would call bourgeois amenities.

He spoke with equal fervor of the “emporium” (I’m sure he used that word at least once) owned by my grandmother’s relatives. It was a capacious store with many departments and sold a wide variety of goods, from the pickles in barrels and caviar (packed in similar fashion, though displayed and dispensed and sold in ways he never specified) to all manner of household goods, clothing, and the like.

My father told me of forebears (though from how many generations back he did not say) who were “magistrates,” a term he meant to be understood as interchangeable with judge—which in many jurisdictions, including current ones, is not an unfair definition. The reason this came up at all, aside from a current of motifs in his stories about his childhood that were evidentiary of the somehow higher or greater status accorded to holders of our family name, was to make a reasonable case for the etymological roots of that last name. He said one theory (apparently held by the clan’s wise men; though he never singled out these individuals as to identity) was that, the Hebrew word for law being “din”… as in “beth din” (house of the law) and these being Jewish judges, the intimation was that the laws used by them to adjudicate matters before them were talmudic derived from Torah, and there you have it. Though the intermediary steps of how these magistrates came to acquire the family name Dinin, as if they themselves embodied these laws, was also never spelled out.

I have potentially valid blood relations with other Russian emigré descendants who settled not only in this country, but even more favorably (given the coincidence of localities from which we can trace our family roots, plus the still relative singularity of the last name) in Israel. These latter, though the choice was voluntary as to the appropriate orthography of the surname, call themselves Dinim, which, in fact, is more consistent with the orthography of Hebrew plural spellings and pronunciation.

With a contemporaneity that extends back at least as far as my paternal grandparents’ births, which occurred in the waning decades of the nineteenth century—which makes it now at least 140 years—the name was spelled Dinin.

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Helping of Music

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

I’ve got nothing to prove here, and you have everything to gain.

Here’s what it is. I listen to more music than anybody I know. That’s not saying much, probably, given how much music some people listen to. But it’s a recursive universe and mine is particularly self-referential, because I don’t get out much.

The thing about what I listen to is, it’s all over the map, I mean the cultural qua musical map, because if it gets to my heart, or my soul, or simply into my head to my pleasure centers, I listen and I listen good. The same results for everyone are not guaranteed. I mean there’s even some rap and hip-hop I listen to. I like opera. If you catch my tune.

One of the pleasures I always get, or not so much “always” as more and more reliably more often, is listening to music that is the auditory version of comfort food. It hardly matters, except for context, but I am very comfortable with music I have been listening to my whole life, which is over 70 years, and some of it, a lot of it strictly speaking because I listen to so much so-called “classical” music and there is more of that written during the course of the modern era in western culture, that is, over the past five hundred years or so, than has been written in the time I’ve been alive.

But the greater comforts can be had as well with popular music that is, some of it, at least my age, and older, dating back to beginning of the 20th century. This is more or less co-extensive of certain kinds of music, genres distinguishable from their roots in ethnic sources that traverse continents and oceans. I am talking about, among other major musical art forms, jazz. But I am also talking about blues, and I am talking about rock and roll. All more or less a century old in their recognizable forms by those rubrics.

I love to share what I gives me so much sensate satisfaction (call it soul satisfying if you like; I won’t stop you, or even give you a fishy-eyed look). Usually this means something literally digestible, some kind of food, especially if there’s enough to go around, and particularly if I’ve prepared it myself. But music is a food. Evanescent, speaking to feeling as much as to anything, and in a certain respect impossible to get yourself filled up so you can’t take any more. Which can’t always be said of North Carolina style pulled pork.

But in a certain way, it’s easier to share something good to eat, if only because of its substance and immediacy. And I can immediately gauge the effects of consumption. And there’s an ease about how it’s here, and then, consumed, it’s gone. And if my guests don’t like it, no harm done, and my sense of pleasure isn’t compromised. Tomorrow is another day.

It’s easier to share food, because one can plan on a conjunction of heightened expectations, of preparing for a meal by abstinence, and with all the anticipatory, perhaps ritualistic appetite enhancers: the aromas from the cooking area, other palatal stimuli like drinks and a sincere air of conviviality. We build ourselves up for satisfaction.

With music it’s different. There is no amuse-geule that prepares the listener for a meal of savory straight jazz standards. There may be an opening act, but that’s only to build up a different form of anticipation, larded as it is too often, intentionally, with delay and the attendant impatience.

Of course, for that reason, and others, I avoid live performances. There’s the inconvenience, and there are all those other people.

I don’t need company, frankly, to enjoy a tune, and certainly not for a symphony or a suite.

So, in more ways than the singular and irreversible accident of the occasion of my birth in the continuum of technological progress, I am the happy beneficiary of the pleasures of recorded music. What I want to hear, when I want to hear it, or so I characterize so much of the back catalog of my musical preferences.

I look forward to new performers and new performances, experimental or tried-and-true, by old favorites.

And therefore, to cut to the chase, I love Spotify.

I have shared the occasional cut, even as I was listening to it, posting a link before a song or movement was even finished to share it with my friends on Facebook.

But for the duration I am eschewing Facebook, which loses its pitifully small benefice of being, still, a kind of threadbare means of maintaining social contact. Without belaboring it, it’s proving increasingly more fulfilling to me to provide access to what I have to offer my friends by way of sharing thoughts and cultural artifacts by the means that I have always preferred in the age of technologically enhanced connection.

So I present to you, as I will from time to time (or not, not if there’s not some kind of stir, some kind of acknowledgment, some indication that it’s welcome and useful, dare I say satisfying to you as well). If you like it, tell me.

Today was a day of reviving obscure, if not moribund, old standards. And don’t say melancholy. Say moody.

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Nonplussed by the Left

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

There are certain words whose meanings have always eluded me, and I need to refresh my comprehension, long since, or so I thought, hard won. Nonplus is one of those words… Is it a good quality, a bad quality. All I usually am sure of is that it is a condition of uncertain benefit imposed by outside events or actions on one’s sensibility.

Jacobin Magazine [disclosure: I am a subscriber] has always elicited from me a sense of ambivalence, the prevailing response I give their endless outpouring of screeds. Sometimes the balance tips to positivity on my part, as I am mainly in concurrence with some sweeping, often categorical, pronouncement they have made about an occurrence or a presence on the world stage. I am, for sure, never left with a doubt that the magazine is turned out by a stalwart, that is, an unwavering staff of ideologues, or at least adherents to a prevailing principle, or, at worst, wage slaves who, to earn their weekly stipend, must show allegiance to the messages defined by the editorial mission.

It is with a strange sense of stupefied admiration that I have to read – yes, have to, as I subscribe, for the time being, to their email newsletter and to the newsfeed one sees on Facebook (and other social media for sure, but apparently the effect of my Facebook “like” has been to auto-vaccinate me against the urge to follow them on Tumblr, let’s say, which is about the only other place I might see their torrent of propaganda regularly, hour to hour, day to day).

In today’s email was the following link (below). You’ll have to click on it to see the degree of brazen chutzpah (no, I don’t believe that constitutes an unnecessary rhetorical redundancy: there’s chutzpah, there’s a higher degree of chutzpah, and then there’s our current president) they can effect when moved to comment, in three-part harmony, so to speak.

In this instance, the body is not even in a state of detectable decay turning into some form of inevitable compost, and yet they hasten to shit on it, or at least on the memory of the individual that once inhabited it.

Understand that I bear no love, and bore none while he was alive, and least of all while he served as President, for George Herbert Walker Bush. The worst thing I could bring myself to say was, at the time, he was the most cynical man who ever held the office. But, in my defense, because I see the weakness of this characterization (and no, not because of the degree of the comparative, or because it was the worst thing that I thought), but I can only see its inadequacy and shortsightedness because of the two individuals who held the office after him.

I have always been wary of the accusation of “war criminal,” certainly during the tenure of the usual suspects, going back, at least, to FDR (to name the first of a series of presidents within my ken; I was born only within two years of his demise, and his memory was a living thing itself within my family, because my father, a Jacobin in his own right, and a union organizer, worshipped the departed president). For one thing, it tests the notion of war as a crime. I’ll concede, even declare openly, that war is a great evil, but as for being a crime, that requires the intervention of a defining framework, including a body of laws that elucidate formally what constitutes a crime. Then you must have a suitable court to adjudicate the indictment during, presumably, the course of a trial in which evidence, hopefully of the unimpeachable sort, is presented to the court before judgment is pronounced.

With someone like George H.W. Bush, never mind Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, well, you get the idea… most such accusations, usually broadcast publicly and purely by self-sanctioning prosecutors, with no official role or appointment by a sovereign body of government, become especially forceful and louder at their demise, because, well, because that’s the last shot we plebes have got, isn’t it? I mean before the slow, quiet engines of historical judgment gather evidence, vet it, verify it, and present it in the appropriate venue for any follow-on implementation of fitting redress, whether punishment of a living perpetrator or vilification of a dead one. And that can take years, sometimes more than some of us reasonably have to look forward to.

But for some, often those of an ideological disposition, this is not a constraint, and freedom of speech being still a right in even these oppressive times, they feel free to pre-empt whatever order might impose the foregoing sequence of an act of justice. Usually there is no such order prevailing—the complainants would probably say it is not even apparent. But my point here is not to argue that condition.

My point is merely to marvel at the heedless and often terminally earnest sense of outrage and violated justice demands that card-carrying hotheads should make pronouncements, completely out of phase with even the mildest public notion of a qualified grief at the parting of a fallen former leader. My point is to say, Jacobin, once again, and what is becoming all too often, is leaving me nonplussed.

Here’s what was in my inbox this morning:

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