It’s Yogi Berra, deja vu all over again, time. Even with an almost exclusively rational flow of information, from vetted sources, especially the newsletter of Your Local Epidemiologist, “written by Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, MPH PhD— an epidemiologist, biostatistician, professor, researcher, wife, and mom of two little girls. During the day she has a research lab and teaches graduate-level courses, but at night she writes this newsletter. Her main goal is to “translate” the ever-evolving public health science so that people will be well-equipped to make evidence-based decisions, rather than decisions based in fear,” I have twinges of the same anxiety I felt in the first fear-filled largely uninformed days of the outbreak of Covid in earnest, when Trump was still President. I mention the latter condition, not only to place my reference in time, but because he so conditioned the nature of the response and the state of mind of virtually everyone (which is to say, everyone) whose lives could potentially be affected at some undetermined time adversely by the emerging scourge, and the pandemic it brought to the world in its advance waves of infection.
As Dr. Jetelina suggests, we are at the mercy of time, as the first emerging signs of the effects of Omicron, which sprang out of nowhere, seemingly, though first reported, as it continues to be, most reliably by the health professionals monitoring these things in South Africa. It appears as a preliminary very cautious take on the very first, and largely really inconclusive results, that the best response may be to revert somewhat to the near hibernation mode of sequestration we entered – some of us a great deal more devotedly and aggressively than others – when lockdown began in the United States in the first days of March 2020. One thing that seems already to trend so powerfully it is not likely to be moderated by more data, is that having been previously infected by any other strain of Covid does not protect the newly infected, or more pertinently the reinfected, unfortunate enough to have come down with the Omicron strain.
More children, being the most likely never to have been vaccinated, than adults are being infected with Omicron (one likely, certainly a possible, outcome of the evidence that reinfection is going to occur among adults who will then pass it unknowingly to their unprotected children). What’s not at all clear, and what represents the currently sought gold standard of a statistical index on the new highly transmissible and rapidly spreadable strain called Omicron, is to what extent vaccination protects either against infection altogether, or, at least, against highly threatening levels of infection in an individual. It has been clear for some time that all the forms of vaccine, but especially the Pfizer, the Moderna, and the Johnson, especially with a booster, help to mitigate the effects of infection and keep the symptoms mild and manageable.
So what accompanies the renewed wave of a very familiar type of feeling of anxiety, is a renewed hope that time will eventually reveal the positive efficacy of these vaccines. Secondarily, of course, there’s the hope that work that has already begun in the laboratories of the developers and vendors of the vaccines, will quickly produce a booster formulation that works against Omicron. More than ever before, the compelling need for far greater preventative measures on the part of the public, and not just health professionals, and a far greater commitment to the measures advocated from before the start of the continuing pandemic (now about to enter its third year) and consisting largely of the now familiar to all (whether followed or not) protocols of prophylaxis and social distancing, including, but not limited to, avoiding congested spaces, especially indoors, keeping a safe distance from others, going masked in the presence of others, and frequent hand washing, especially after contact with objects likely handled by others and with other individuals themselves.
For those of us who have only gradually and very cautiously moderated the curtailment of such measures and only under certain circumstances, the clamping down that now seems inevitable if there is any hope of avoiding a devastating level of resurgence of infections and the need for hospitalization for the most severely affected. It would not be the first, for sure, but it could be, at this stage of not knowing, one of the worst, of the three or four major surges that have crippled the economies of a number of countries and their populations.
“Social distancing? Hey! No big deal. I never really liked you anyway.”
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 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.
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.
First let me state, categorically, that I am not one of those people who is crazy about artist’s statements. Not from others, above all, but these are easy to avoid. And not from myself, so there are very few such verbal excrescences in my history. But accepting the current premise that it should be short, and in my own words, with every effort made to avoid jargon and pretense, and honest and forthright.
Second, let me offer, as caveat, the second part, below, though honest, is not necessarily true in all its parts. It is closer to art itself, however, I think, to leave the reader to decide for him or her or itself which parts are which.
Any number of people do wonder, especially of late, given my long history as a photographer, just what I am up to, and just how my current work departs, or let’s say progresses, beyond what may be the natural drift of the Dinin canon of images, collected now for over 50 years. There are those who believe they reveal a style that is identifiable. I would hope so. And unique. Even more so.
I am never sure myself that I am moving into areas of what I am very reluctant to call explorations, because it sounds poncey and like the kind of thing I was encouraged to do when I was 10 and betraying “creative” tendencies. I resisted, as it turns out in the full course of my life I have resisted everything, and I merely contented myself with taking photographs of things that struck me as photographable and worth recording (that is, using up costly resources and time).
It was possible after the passage of a number of years, at least the ones between the age of ten (if not, in actuality, earlier) and the age at which I learned with the full impact of its meaning a word that those who know me really really well knows is one of my favorite words of all time, that is, “quotidian.” It qualifies my favorite subject. The mundane, ordinary, largely unsung and, let’s face it, unnoticeable, details of existence as we plod through our all too brief lives continuously, albeit aware of its passage only from moment to moment.
The virtue of photography, the medium of the moment.
photographs I am working on now | a gloss on two images
Lately, I’ve taken to recording real quotidian moments. And as my quotidian, like that of so many people, especially in first world countries, consists of a certain amount of time spent in front of an illuminated screen, watching whatever I like to watch (an irrelevant facet of this subject as far as I’m concerned, so forget about it). I am interested in the image. I’m interested in the randomness of what we take in in our field of vision. I’m also interested in getting a well exposed photograph when I choose to press the shutter release.
So I have a small body of images of late, say the least six years, which is about the span of our household acquisition of a large screen monitor for watching video content – a 55 inch plasma screen. Most of my images were recorded from this device. But others were recorded from the screens of smaller devices, including a phone, a tablet, and a 27” color corrected monitor on my production desktop (I call it that, because that’s where I do serious manipulation of images).
Some of these images have leaked into the stream of images I deign to share in various forms on internet media.
Today, I am posting an image that was recorded deliberately with some sense of it constituting a genre, perhaps peculiar to me, but I doubt that. It is truly peculiar only when considered in the context of all other images I’ve taken, lately, and always. So a particular understanding can be gotten only by those people throughly familiar with images I have been making, as I said, for several decades. There’s, I figure, oh about three or four of you. Talk about small audiences. But I don’t mind.
The first image here is a screen capture of a thoroughly obscure attempt by a British production company to make a successful video series of a very idiosyncratic, if not wholly baroque sequence of detective novels by a Brit (and not the first one with a jones for ginning up Italian crime novels) named Michael Dibdin. It lasted for three episodes before being cancelled. His hero is named Aurelio Zen (an odd name, even to Italians, and explained as being because he’s from Venice—I have no idea what this means, and I don’t care). They didn’t stint on the production, and even got some eye candy performers, it happens with acting ability, to play the major parts. Rufus Sewell (who did a particularly splendid job of distinguishing himself as more than a pretty boy by playing the role of Queen Victoria’s mentor and first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, for PBS Masterpiece. Though Sewell is, today, a somewhat youthful 51, he took the role about two years ago, and played it as written, as a sickly, vaguely decrepit, but clearly still attractive, middle-aged man on the brink of death. It was only six years before that he played the much more youthful role of Zen – for all the good it did his career; though I’m not sure what was expected by those Brits who played the series seriously, shooting on location in Rome, with all roles assumed by Brits, playing native Italians, except for the love interest, who, it happened, was Italian, Caterina Murino, and whose claim to fame then was that she was the first Bond Woman in the first of the rebooted series of James Bond epics, starring Daniel Craig. Murino played a beauty, entangled with the villain, and suffers a horrible fate at his hands. In the role, as these things often go, she played a Greek. Must have been money determining nationality of characters; it made no sense otherwise.
But neither here nor there. I provide all these details deliberately and also fairly sure they in some way inform, except it’s too late now to tell, the viewer’s perception and appreciation, if any, of my first image, It’s entitled “Now Watching Zen, Zen.”
Now Watching Zen, Zen
The other photo seems more characteristic of a lot of other work of mine, but I will insist that, in fact, it’s informed by this latest impulsive strain of mine to capture what I’ll call, I hope intriguingly, packaged quotidian. Like most video concepts these days.
It’s a moment caught in the wild, while I was out in one of my rare public forays for any purpose other than to go shopping for food at Whole Foods Market, or for prescriptions at CVS. It records a phenomenon that I have taken note of for some time, and is a real thing, I am positive, though little noted by others, and certainly not by the world at large.
It is the little studied phenomenon of what, for lack of any formal term I have encountered, has to be called “womansplaining,” which is also the title of the second image. There is no need to belabor the phenomenon, duly noted long since by many, and having passed into the common vocabulary, of mansplaining, which is reprehensible and comical at once, and doesn’t deserve any attention from me, I don’t think. But decide for yourself and write to me; we’ll discuss it, as long as I don’t have to explain anything. Whatever other, possibly more sober and serious analysis of the phenomenon is, I will speculate, not only likely, but if it is or it isn’t, it’s not compelling enough to explore in a scholarly fashion. Someone will help me out I am positive, whether I invite the assistance or not.
Womansplaining, as I have fashioned it, and as I have observed it, is the manner in which one woman explains to another woman the immediate subject or topic in a series of these during what is often a wide-ranging verbal engagement. It is rarely a conversation, except for stock, usually terse rejoinders by the woman in the de facto role of listener, to keep the pace of social intercourse at a rate most likely to dispel detectable boredom or ennui in either participant. In short, the woman engaged in womansplaining is also usual the participant who commandeers the conversation, setting its agenda, and delving into the narrative with a level of detail that is sometimes astonishing to witness for its breadth somehow combined with specificity. Many items I would assume, but I am the wrong gender, so I’m probably wildly off here, were of the type that fall under the rubric of speaking for themselves, if not altogether self-evident. But I have long since discovered that, all matters of gender aside, I am a poor judge of what is of due importance to others. They will decide for themselves. I know they will. They always do. I’ve observed it many times.
The explanations in these exchanges can get quite complex, not merely in terms of verbal content, but combined with a concomitant (apparently standard) repertoire of manual gestures and gesticulations. You can tell what’s being said is important because of all the hand jive. That’s not fair, I know. But I’ll leave it.
The exchange recorded here was captured in a suburban restaurant that serves excellent ethnic food. It was only sparsely attended by patrons at lunchtime, but I happen to know most of its business occurs in the evening hours. During the course of the exchange I witnessed, and admittedly I did not observe every moment, never mind closely, as we were sitting three tables away. and mainly concerned with actually eating, interspersed with an actual conversation, I can honestly say now I did not observe either participant in the distant exchange consume one bite of food.
I wasn’t sure I should craft the following coda to this statement, but I can see it presents a little opportunity for doing something else that’s not so characteristic for me: a little merchandising… you know, marketing and promotion.
I wish only to observe about these images, which are suggestive of the totality of the impact I think they embody, like so many of my images, if not all of them, they would best be appreciated as actual objets d’art, that is, physical prints on photographic materials, rendered as I wish them to be seen as closely as I can, with all my skill, manage the process. Anyone wishing to see either of these images as prints should contact me directly and privately.
It is only in my lifetime to my knowledge, and largely restricted to the Anglo northern semi-continent of North America that individuals with Jewish forebears have relaxed a vigilance that most Jews of the modern era have instilled in them from birth. Having been born only within about a year after the ovens of the camps in Germany and Eastern Europe were extinguished, and as the first generation son of a couple of immigrants from that same enclave — whose families were tormented, if not outright killed, by their gentile neighbors in Russia, and whose immediate relatives sought refuge with them to the West – I was regularly, if passively and, so to speak, tenderly made mindful of the threat, however covert, “out there.” Whatever the outcome in terms of my faith, and in time I repudiated the religion of my fathers, I was never allowed to forget I was a Jew. Someone intent on making me suffer, if not worse, for that sole reason, would not care how devout or heretical I might be.
Blacks, I always understood, would have it worse throughout their lives, as they each wear their identity on their skin, and I have never encountered anyone of African descent, however remotely it could be traced, who, in some part of their conscious minds, was not aware of being the subject of a potential hostile gaze. At the very least.
Periodically, and it is happening again now, at this moment, because of the massacre of Squirrel Hill, Jews remind themselves of what too many are lulled into forgetting—a state of mind few African-Americans seem to allow themselves to indulge in. So vast is our country, and so large is our still growing population, that it has happened for virtually every identifiable ethnicity or sect or nationality that has found shelter in it that seemingly for them, if not ever for all, and never all at once, there is no longer a cause for alarm. No longer a need to fear bigotry, oppression, bodily injury or mortal danger.
However, it seems necessary every time there is an unexpected upheaval (and doesn’t a lack of vigilance, or a mere lack of staying alert, a lack of mindfulness, necessarily determine the condition of shocked surprise when it happens?) suddenly that group under attack, in however focused and localized a way, is reminded of the difference between true neutrality and dormant hate. With sufficient empathy, anyone among us, especially those who can discern some substantive and differentiable marker in their biological being that, under the malevolent scrutiny of an authority would define them as some alien “other,” will, like those once again active targets, realize their status as prospective prey – simply for being who they are. Of course, if the bigotry is overt, there is no mistaking it for disinterest.
But even in America, the friendliest of nations, how often is prejudice left wholly unmasked? How often is what at bottom can only be called hatred made naked, actively so, for anyone to see?
I’m not saying that the alarm and dismay, the sadness and grief, the unremitting emotional anguish of hearing of and seeing the victims of violence borne out of hate is inappropriate or serves no purpose. I am simply reminding all of us of the virtues of being mindful, if not consciously in a state of vigilance. I mean, whatever the level and degree of guardedness we exercise – and it should always be within the bounds of reason – complacency that is the yield of a false sense of security is likely not a rational way of carrying oneself through a world, and everywhere within it, that every day provides savage testament to the still untamed facets of human nature. There simply is no utterly safe enclave anywhere.
The current ordeal of the nominee for the seat on the U.S. Supreme Judicial Court vacated on the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy highlights, among other things, two contradictory tendencies among the public. We tend to accept fully, or utterly reject, and purely at face value allegations of extreme behavior. What gets our juices flowing are cases of murder or even significant bodily harm, kidnapping, and, of course, sexual misconduct. At the same time, we have a spot in our hearts, perhaps softened and predisposed by all those juices, for seeing justice done however long it takes in the special instance of what are called in police jargon “cold cases.” The only matters that compare for compelling sympathy are cases that later prove to have indicted, and usually punished, the wrong person. But these latter instances, both unsolved crimes and crimes erroneously attributed to an innocent, are related if merely by the power they have to excite our emotional involvement even after protracted periods of time. We even can work up a compulsion for cases involving offenses so ancient they are history, and all the parties involved long dead, if not almost altogether forgotten. Nothing stirs certain of us like the words, “disinter,” or “exhume.” You’d think we had a scholarly love both for Latin and rotting flesh.
Among the genre programming that claims sufficient following there is always current a choice of shows, both on network television and cable or streaming. We have the fictions of the very popular series, which ran for a respectable seven years, called, simply, “Cold Case.” What underscores the avidity for that series is that all the cases featured were fictional. On the other hand, there is equivalent enthusiasm for a series which features what are purported to be real cases, in which we are to suppose there is the satisfaction of seeing in the end the meting out of “Cold Justice.” In the latter a real-life former prosecutor and a crime scene investigator team up to crack such cases across the country.
There have also been myriad mini-series and podcasts devoted to examining afresh baffling or vexing seeming (or actual) crimes in which, originally at the time of occurrence, there was either a successful conviction, or the mystery of a total lack of an indictable offender. The more popular of these “reality-based” extended inquiries resulted in concluded cases being overturned and retried, or in the case of utter failure a latter-day confession by the perpetrator. Receiving equal acclaim have been a certain number of shows that incorporated fictionalized or speculative aspects of exposition of a real case. The most engaging of these kinds of programming, in my personal experience, have included the documentary mini-series “The Jinx” (the case of admitted murderer Robert Durst), the documentary podcast (that spawned a powerful genre of such shows, and the establishment of a production company devoted to producing them), “Serial” (involving the case of an accused and convicted Adnan Syed, who had his case re-opened 16 years later, in part because of this inquiry, after being sentenced for the crime in 2000—as recently as five days ago, incidentally, the State of Maryland, which is running out of appeals of the decision to retry Syed, appealed, probably as a last resort, to the highest court in that state… as they say, stay tuned, and back to my regular programming).
Suffice it to say there is an ongoing hunger for stories of injustice, of justice forestalled or upended or perverted. Generally, we find these compelling and engaging, and a test of our willingness to keep an open mind, or at least to examine more closely how we arrive at the conclusions and convictions we arrive at in the light of what is sometimes conclusive evidence—when sometimes other factors we can’t quite identify compel us to arrive at a contradictory “verdict” in our minds despite that evidence. When the evidence is inconclusive or fragmentary or, seemingly, non-existent, we are thrown back on our entire internal system of beliefs, biases, and what we persist in calling logic, no matter what part of the brain is involved, acquired over a lifetime of childhood development and all of our experience.
We long for evidence of the successful pursuit of justice. We plunge into the fascination of cases involving the extremities of behavior, especially when there seems to be no satisfaction of that longing. We put aside our repugnance, if not outright horror, of certain acts, in the interests, we say, of truth. And we endorse, at least as passive witnesses, if not outright bystanders with no other skin in a game but our shared skin as human beings, the additional energies, if not the material expense of time and cash in pursuing what we insist on calling the truth. We do. Unless some other order of value, some objective conforming to that order and that value, is at stake. Then, it would seem not only are bets off, we don’t care to venture into the casino altogether to watch other players confront the stakes. It can be a complex and complicated business, this business of who did what to whom, and what’s it worth, if anything, to find out.
And so now, let us consider the even more convoluted contradictions of the matter before the Senate that is hogging the headlines, concerning Judge Kavanaugh.
Stating the obvious, apparently unsubstantiated allegations about sexual misconduct by alpha individuals – mostly men, but let’s not introduce the specter of gender bias – in our society have been enough to bring down politicians, both in office and seeking them. Enough to bring down very powerful media executives and on-air talent. Enough to bring down star athletes, as well as athletic management of professional teams and the de facto equivalent, major college sport organizations.
What they are not sufficient to derail, never mind to oust from any current office, are the ambitions of men who are nominated for one of nine seats as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Other misdeeds, or so they were positioned, have been sufficient to scotch a nomination. Even Abe Fortas, a sitting Associate Justice nominated to replace the retiring Chief Justice (and the first sitting Supreme Court justice to be called in to testify at his own confirmation hearing) failed in his attempt to be seated, largely because of unpaid political debts by President Johnson owed to Republican senators who elected to find that the stipend Justice Fortas received from a university to teach a course at American University during the summer recess of the Court was sufficient sign of moral unfitness that they filibustered the confirmation process into extinction. The upshot was that Justice Fortas chose to resign from the Supreme Court altogether.
And now, of course, it should be mentioned as an aside, as well as ironic counterpoint to latter day machinations, the filibuster is dead as a political weapon. The Democrats in the Senate as it is currently constituted are sufficient in number and temperament to have put an end to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh long since, and without an ounce of painful personal discomfiture for anyone.
Though I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion about the range of historical precedents for finding reasons to disqualify candidates on what, after all, were strictly political grounds, there have not been many instances, as I started off by saying, where an alleged act of sexual impropriety lost a nominee a seat on the highest court in the land. A quick review online reveals none. There has been at least one instance of a state District Court justice losing his seat (and not a lifetime appointment at that) because of sexual improprieties, but not without his stepping down while also denying the allegations against him. Not to mention U.S. Appeals Court justices (the most recent one being the infamous Alex Kozinski, who sat very close to his colleague on that bench in the Ninth Circuit, that is to say the aforementioned Brett Kavanaugh—but Justice Kozinski got away clean by the expedient of retiring, though at the youngish age for senior judges of 67).
To be fair, Judge Kavanaugh is in the process of being prepped for being pilloried in the court of public opinion, not to mention the Senate Judiciary Committee if the Democrats in the minority can somehow get their way, for activities in which he is accused of participating when he was still a teen-ager. He was in prep school as a senior of 17 in one instance, and in a newly revealed alleged incident, it was a year later, his freshman year at Yale College.
By any definition, these incidents, accepting the premise they may have occurred, are cold cases, especially in view that the warm bodies involved are still among us, still vital, still relatively young, though the occurrence of these alleged incidents was at a time that the bodies were not just warm, but in the full flower of youth—which seems to have a fluid meaning and pertinence depending on whose opinion you ask about the allegations. Yet, given our penchant for deep interest in such cases – whence the course of justice, indeed? – there is a divide as to whether there should be any intensive effort to examine either case, but especially that of the first allegation involving the sexual assault of Dr. Ford at a prep school party, for further evidence or corroboration beyond that of the principals in this drama. Indeed, it’s clear that for the Republicans in the hearing room, and in Greater Washington DC, and in suburban Connecticut, and around the country, there has already been too much allowance, and the chance being given to Dr. Ford to submit herself to examination and inquiry (let us not call it interrogation, even though the Republican majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee insists that lawyers appointed by them be permitted to pose the questions to those testifying) is sufficient effort, energy and expense. And not because of the nature of the offense, but because of, well, that’s the question isn’t it?
If it were a Hollywood mogul, it’s easy. Guilty as charged. And if not guilty, though Mr. Harvey Weinstein, in fact, will have to face the court, so let’s consider, ahem, another example. Well, if it were a U.S. Senator or a member of the House of Representatives, either of whom will be up for re-election in short enough order, and either of whom could be made the focus of an ethics inquiry by the body on which they sit as a member (but why bother with such a nasty and un-collegial business, when a man’s honor can be invoked and he can be called upon, in private, to do the right thing?), he would do the honorable thing and simply step down, by way of tacit admission no matter what discrepant verbiage actually issues from his lips, which it inevitably will. But this is a sitting judge, who will have to suffer the bitter deprivations of continuing in his seat on the bench of one of the second highest courts of the entire nation, continuing to wield power and influence on the laws of the land, rather than assume an even higher agency holding a judicial position for life.
Is this a matter or justice? Is this a matter of life and limb? Nah. Apparently not, at worst it seems to be a matter of teenage hanky panky and indiscretion. It’s merely a matter of the reputation and word of a woman. How many times must we be taught what that’s worth, at least in certain arenas?
The last time I was in Chicago was May 2002. I was with my late wife on what I want to say was a business trip, but I don’t recall the details. And besides, no matter. It turned out to be a lovely time of the year to be in the Second City, for sure for the weather. However what made the trip memorable was my primary reason for being there.
Linda may have been there for business. She was manager of a global program that was one of a broad range of corporate services offered by a company called IBM. However, I was on a rare excursion to accompany her, because the fates and the many interconnecting gears of business had fortuitously aligned so that, after years of enticement, we could fulfill a long held out invitation from one of my closest friends. A former colleague, which was how we originally met, Philip had come to be a regular at gatherings all over the country. He was an account supervisor at an industrial ad agency based in Boston that represented, aside from a full roster of industrial, commercial and technology clients, a number of trade organizations.
One of Phil’s more interesting accounts entailed some wing of the turkey growers of the United States. It was his job to oversee the formulation and execution of communications strategies to ensure Americans ate a growing share of their diets in the form of the flesh of the bird that Ben Franklin preferred as his choice for national bird of the country he was instrumental in founding. No doubt part of the reason for more and more year-round meals including turkey was a product of the intentionality of a sustained marketing campaign. A large part of the major objective of the advertising and pr effort was to ensure that people understood that turkey was, in effect, not just for Thanksgiving.
Among his duties, Phil was expected to accompany food service industry bigwigs – people like the national food and beverage managers of major restaurant and hotel chains – when they assembled for the larger trade shows. There was no bigger show than the one for the National Restaurant Association, or, as it’s known, “the other NRA.” The gustatory version is impressive in its own right. At present, it serves over 380,000 member eating establishments. It was of comparable size in 2002, and attendance at their annual convention, always held in Chicago and usually in May, was a necessity for exploiting the leverage of having so many important target customers accessible for schmoozing.
After years of wining and dining the executive managers and chefs of the restaurants among the most recognized, prestigious, highest volume, or distinguished for gustatory excellence in the country, Phil had acquired a cadre of restaurateurs, maîtres d’, hosts, bookers and the like at the most desired tables in Chicago. He was recognized on sight, and a last minute reservation was usually no problem.
For the course of our friendship of over 20 years at that time, Phil and I shared a love of food savory to the palate and lovingly prepared. This meant we mainly enjoyed the fruits and the comforts of entertaining one another at home. Or, once we no longer worked under the same roof, gathering for lunch, which was easiest, or dinner at a restaurant, usually a hidden gem or little-known local masterpiece of a dive that happened to serve incredible dishes. More often than not it was ethnic.
Indeed, it was our great fortune that what is still the best Turkish restaurant I’ve ever dined at—idiosyncratically open only for lunch, mainly because of the location, which was the only spot the immigrant chef/owner could afford at the time—was two blocks from the office we both worked at mid-way in our careers as ad men. “Sultan’s Kitchen” has opened, and quickly found itself serving lines out the door, on Broad Street in the financial district. That’s because that’s where the greatest concentration of an audience jaded on fast food and sandwich machines congregated every busy day, on account of they had to for work, and they appreciated inexpensive, healthy, incredibly delicious meals prepared to order, and could be done either dining communally on the spot, or taking an entire meal back to the desk, and all for about ten bucks.
That’s the kind of fare Phil and I especially appreciated, but mainly for the care in the preparation and cooking, the quality of the ingredients, and the infectiously friendly attitude of chef Özcan Ozan. But I have gotten ahead of myself, and diverted you from my tale of a visit to a meal at the signature restaurant of another master of the kitchen, an American named Charlie Trotter. So, let’s back to Chicago from our detour to Boston. By the time, Linda and I showed up there, Phil had become as conversant with the bill of fare and the wine list of Chicago’s finest. As conversant as he and I had become with the variety of kebabs that Ozan had on offer every weekday.
In 2002, Charlie Trotter was at the pinnacle of the culinary food chain in the United States. Always named as one of the top three chefs on virtually any list at the time, Trotter was a known genius for inventiveness, for being an unrelenting perfectionist in every aspect of fine dining, and, at time, it was said, a ferocious boss, who earned the respect of his staff, but was inflexible in demanding as much from each of them as he clearly did from himself. There was a softer side to Charlie, which he wasn’t afraid to hide. A human side. Evident enough in the daily presence of his mother, who served as a kind of auxiliary host and ambassador of the mission of the Trotter eponymous restaurant on Armitage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not too far from the lake.
Charlie Trotter’s was considered a kind of mecca—a clichéd designation for a place that, in fact, was substantiated and reinforced by invariably being named the best restaurant in a city full of great places to eat. On the one hand, it was the kind of place that could still require “gentlemen will wear jackets in the dining room,” but, on the other hand, this kind of requirement seemed not too fussy when it was well-known that you couldn’t get away without spending well over a hundred dollars a person for dinner, and far more with wine. And yet, tables were impossible for dinner except well over a month or two in advance.
When I had first-hand experience of how my friend Phil was excluded from such obstacles, not only at Trotter’s, but virtually any other table in the city, I was very proud of him for having acquired the skills necessary to thread that particular needle. He had given me a standing invitation, any time we could manage to be in Chicago to join him for dinner—even if, and I didn’t understand the import of this provision at the time, it was a last minute rendezvous. He said I simply, if possible, someday had to eat at Charlie Trotter’s.
Which is how we ended up at the front door of what I otherwise thought looked like not much more than a stately urban brownstone building of an owner who was enjoying a solid, if modest, round of success. Phil met us at the door, and we entered, and immediately Phil was greeted by everyone on staff within eyesight, including the maître d’, by name, with a broad smile. We knew instantly we were in for a memorable evening.
Seeing my friend enter, restaurant staff faces brightened. They said his name and greeted him hands outstretched. There is little that compares to being known as one in the party of greatness, however parochially it may be defined. And there is nothing strictly parochial about the most fundamental of affinities: true friendship. Not only were we glad to be in a literally world-famous restaurant, about to be seated to dine. We were glad to be in the select company of those recognized as “one of us.” Moreover, I was glad, petty as it was at bottom, that all this greatness was not for a single centavo to be at my expense. We were invited as Phil’s guests.
He was paid semi-handsomely for his exertions on the part of the turkey growers, as well as other clients. A significant part of his emolument was a personal expense account, on the one hand potentially taxable as income, on the other, amounting to such a munificent sum annually that strategically his bosses put him in the position of using it up, according to that poetic bit of doggerel philosophy, “use it or lose it.” So that night, he was showing an important IBM executive and her husband his appreciation in the form of a very nice dinner. And he simply refused my participation.
There was another remarkable occurrence, long before food began appearing systematically and with a certain arcane periodicity at the table; clearly not as a dish was ready, and clearly not some rigid mechanical interval. Linda had ordered the vegetarian “Degustation,” which is what fancy places such as this called what has become the prosaic “tasting menu” (and more on that phrase later), while I had the default omnivore’s portions. Not at all alike, each course was, nevertheless, perfectly in sync with all components. But that memorable presence I alluded to was not substantive and plated, so much as maternal. No other than Charlie Trotter’s mother appeared at our table, warm, congenial, welcoming, with an aura that softened the somewhat austere ambiance of the decor.
Not tall. Not short. Not thin. Not heavy. Neither overtly stylish, and by no means haute couture, but appealing and modest, understated while at the same time very present. Her smile was genuine. Her hair, grey, was genuine. Her loving praise of her son’s cooking was genuine.
She seemed genuinely pleased we were there to partake of her son’s handiwork – more than that, of course, it was universally accorded to be overall the artisanship of food as attained by genius, with or without a mother’s validation. We were promised an evening of superlative wining and dining, but what became memorable in larger part, at least for me, was this note of grace and warmth. And all afforded by the simple gesture of having the chef’s mother glide around the room putting every guest at ease and in a positive frame of mind. It was singular, and in my experience, it has remained as much. Nothing speaks of being welcoming than to make people sincerely welcome.
By this point in my life I have eaten in thousands of establishments in North America and Europe. And surely the mother of more than one restaurateur or cook was somewhere in the vicinity, though not, to my perception, in strong evidence. None, other than Mrs. Trotter, ever introduced herself or otherwise made her presence known. I remember the meal that night most generally as overall a classic display of haute cuisine, brilliantly prepared and plated and presented with a level of service to match. But no one dish was so singular as to distinguish itself or the evening – to make it memorable as only a unique detail can render one’s clear recollection – as much as the presence of that pleasant woman of, shall I say, advanced middle age, gracefully introducing herself, announcing her preparedness to answer any question about the menu, or her son, and offering her assistance with meeting any reasonable need.
In case you haven’t picked up my gist, and an appalling lack of testimony about the menu, or the food it proffered, or the wine, or any of the no doubt fine details of smoothly functioning service, let me be clear. I frankly remember almost none of it.
I know we had, as I mentioned, the two menus on offer, one for omnivores and an alternative for vegetarians. I know there were eight courses – or was it ten – including the desserts, which I remember least of all. Not to suggest that the food we were given was not superb. I’ll stake my unsupported belief in it to say that it was. I just remember none of it.
The fault is no doubt mine. It takes quite a bit for me to remember specific dishes I’ve had, especially in venues I’d never been to before and to which I have never returned. And returning by now, for sure, would be impossible, because Chef Charlie died in 2013, of somewhat indeterminate causes given the vagueness of the reporting about the autopsy performed on him, aside from drugs or alcohol or foul play being ruled out, as well as the dismissal of any chance of a notorious rumored burst aneurysm on his brain.
His brilliance lives after him by lingering reputation, and more substantially in the form of several enduring cookery books. The one I prefer is the one he wrote about cooking at home, called straightforwardly enough, Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home. Though the more defensible landmarks of his are a series of genre cookery books: one devoted to Seafood, one to Vegetables, one to Meat and Game, and, of course, one to Desserts. The more compendious general subject of his innovative way with classic dishes and the freshest ingredients, and titled simple, like the restaurant was, Charlie Trotter’s is still in print, in hardcover, after 24 years on the market, and five years after his death.
They all are enlivened with a quiet authority and assuredness about the food. Trotter was, as I have noted, known to be a perfectionist. He had a sure hand with the cooking, and a sure hand about how things should look on the plate, and how to taste once they arrived at ground zero, the diner’s palate. But getting there, for him, required the utmost care and preparedness.
Nowhere was this more evident at his restaurant than in the place that became the tableau and focus of what clear memories I had of that memorable dining experience. Not, as I have confessed, for the food, an evanescent collection of evidence in any event. And not even for that, I’ll admit, second-most memorable aspect of that evening, the engaging and warm presence of his mom – another deft touch on his part, accepting and also requiring her presence. A softening perhaps of the hard edge of his perfectionism and precisionism.
No, the most memorable part of the night came about with an invitation to tour the scene of the sorcery practiced every night in the fulfillment of ten measured courses of food. We were asked if we’d like to see the kitchen, and before anyone could say anything, I responded with an emphatic yes.
Entering was what I would have imagined it to have been like to enter the control room of a submarine in silent running, or given the amount of light and the sleekness of the overall design, it brought another kind of ship to mind. Something from the future, a starship’s bridge, with fewer seats and fewer dials and many hands on deck in immaculate whites.
What was most striking though was the silent operation. Sotto voce conversations; brief ones at that. No shouting. No scurrying. No wasted motion, though with all deliberate speed.
There was spotless stainless steel everywhere. Every station was well-lit. Every station was immaculate, even as they prepared meals for a dining room still full of patrons. Overall, the room was so quiet, I could hear the small printer that spit out short snippets quickly shorn from the lip of the machine and perused by a man, also in white, standing alone at the center of all the activity at the stations surrounding his post. The chef de cuisine.
He occasionally issued terse low-voiced commands to one cook here, or the garde manger there. It was more like he was coordinating a precise intensive operation, meant to save lives and not merely plate courses for some very indulged guests.
The air of calm and the steady intense intuitive sense I had of complete control under severe pressure never broke. As studiously as we observed the staff, no one changed stride, looked up or appeared interrupted. Discipline and order ruled, and as I say, proved far more impressive than the food. The fare had been exemplary, but the production of it – in a sense even more evanescent, because it existed only in time, possessed no mass or volume, but simply happened and was done. Altogether it was as much an unintended performance as a display of ingrained professionalism – yet repeated reliably and flawlessly six days a week.
I’ve had many great meals, and yet so few stand out. Usually the memorable dishes were individual; over a lifetime a scattered constellation of a great main course here, an unforgettable starter there. But only one kitchen operation stands out, akin to a great concert performance by a renowned orchestra start to finish, every movement perfection.
It’s possible, I suppose, for a particular dish to be so good it defies capture in the mind of anyone but the most practiced and refined connoisseur. I would never claim to be that, and I am prepared to be judged as one not capable of appreciating what appeared on the plates of a Charlie Trotter meal. And that’s the reason I suffer the anomaly of remembering a great meal, but being incapable of describing none of it from “amuse bouche” to the final sweet nothing of a mignardise.
But I have also seen many kitchens in full array during a meal, and there is still only the one I will never forget.
Normalization is a problem of the past, not the present
I have said repeatedly, usually, I admit, to no one in particular, from the first time I heard the usage as a warning, usually screamed (figuratively) in my (virtual) face from a (virtual) hysteric in that inevitable nearly impossible place, all too real, for all its virtuality, Facebook: “Don’t talk about normalizing Trump!” There’s no danger there. It too is impossible. It’s not entirely what the word means anyway.
What we have to fear is an adjustment and periodic readjustment in our perception of all that has come before, which was never normal at the time (and the farther back you go, the farther goes one’s sense of the craziness of the errant behavior). As Corey Robin points out in his essay “Forget About It” in the current Harper’s [paywall], though it’s here, if you want to take a shot at getting access (see below), it’s our constant reassessment upwards of the assault on our notion of normal during the administrations of Richard Nixon, and then later George W. Bush – “Hey those guys weren’t so bad, after all, were they?” – that is the real danger. And it’s a danger not because of the infamous reality distortion field identified by Steve Jobs in one of his P.T. Barnum moments. We’re not likely to accept anything that happens today, that is, any time at all during the tenure of the current incumbent of the White House, will register as normal, not to anyone with any vestige of sanity. It’s the extent to which by comparison some future rough beast (to use that particular, but miserably and perpetually apt trope) may make today’s beast look not half bad to our future selves. Or whoever has managed to replace us.
In short, the dangers of normalization are not to the future or even the present. We like to think we are always capable of vigilance, resistance, and clear-headedness. The danger, because we are never sufficiently in possession of those qualities, is to the past, where we think some pastoral and salubrious notion of normal resides. After all, it’s to that instinct that Trump so scurrilously adverts with his now patent cynicism of a slogan about what we can make of America. What we are making of it, because we suffer the distortions of sensibility that alter our notion of what is normal. And as we seek our way back to some semblance of it, we discover, as we have done repeatedly, that we have lost our way. Possibly irrevocably.
‘“There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually [Philip] Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.’ — Corey Robin
Two things I’ve seen online this morning prompt today’s meditation. Let me just say, though, that I am reminded above all, ignorance is bliss. Dangerous, but bliss.
One is a post in my newsfeed from a Facebook “friend,” someone who, it happens, is a published author and life-long journalist on political matters and foreign affairs. He tends to take a moderate view on many things, and is quite serious, if not wholly sober-minded about what it is that is appropriate for a professional press to cover—not only in terms of subject matter, but appropriate for tone, manner, POV, and the usual journalistic decorum as it’s been practiced in American media for, let us say, the past 75 or 80 years.
And the other is, I suppose, strictly to be categorized as an opinion piece, now largely the meat of the “fake media,” like the “Washington Post” and “The New York Times,” the two papers, along with two or three others, usually designated national papers of record. The “Post” and the “Times” have significantly ramped up the number of pieces they publish daily with a byline, and the clear differentiation of being, editorially, commentary or opinion. They do this even as they have strayed somewhat in their beat and investigative work from the strait-jacket of the protocols and style of serious news reporting in the United States of neutral, fair and balanced observation and analysis without interpretation.
Well, my friend (who will go unnamed), it’s natural for those of us with a more refined sense of what is appropriate for mature and serious adults to ponder in the give and take of world events to decry, not just the breach, but the rupture, of what has always been a somewhat fragile code of the protocols and public demeanor of not only the citizenry of a sovereign nation, but the consciously professional members of its fourth estate. And while we’re at it, we tend to bemoan the rude tastes and predilections of whole swathes of the American electorate, who seem to have a constant and robust appetite for the unsavory, if not the debased, if not the DMZ between civility and barbarity.
However, it’s not just we and whatever “class” we represent, it’s not just the more prudent members of an elite in our society comprised of those of all political stripes, and it’s not just the rank-and-file, the hoi-polloi, the salt of the earth, and the deplorables of the national array of citizens who are taking in the behavior of those in Washington and in the outposts of the apparatus of government. And I mean, as well, the modus operandi of those charged with monitoring that behavior with whatever ill-defined, if not unhinged, sense of mission they have—not the real journalists, but the pretenders: all the self-styled reporters, bloggers, podcasters, pundits, and colorful personalities. As I’m sure you know, there is also a whole world of official watchers; friends, enemies, allies, antagonists, and lurkers alike who hang on every word, every tweet, every gif, every snap, every youtube (snippet or full-length feature), that now issues from our seat of government. I am usually mindful of this qualifying point of view, but the WaPo Bakos “perspective” piece is a pointed reminder not to stop paying attention. And it’s because no one off our shores, the millions of people employed full-time by foreign powers to study us, ever take their eyes and ears off us.
So I don’t know about you, but I can tell you why I care, whether I personally really want to or not. The whole world is watching, and it redounds, wholly involuntarily and wholly unasked for, upon me, as well as in excess of three hundred million other souls. As well, I am too unknowing, if not stupefyingly ignorant, of how exactly—beyond one’s sense of spiritual malaise (which I can live with; I have so far, for several decades)—these seemingly inconsequential acts, so mean and debased and sometimes prurient, performed by people I would, in any other universe, not care about or pay attention to in the least, will someday redound on me in existential terms. If for no other reasons, I would say, I pay attention (at least to the New York Times and the Washington Post, and a few other still trustworthy news carriers—there is no reason to get on Twitter, watch MSNBC or its brethren), because I don’t like surprises.
I woke up on November 9, 2016, neither surprised nor defeated. Overwhelmed by the depth of my ignorance, but neither of the latter sensations. I didn’t like the result, but there is nothing I can do about what the actions of people who believe the unbelievable. And these folks do reinforce their beliefs, their sense of “truth,” by indulging in all that those spurious and unreliable outlets had brought about, despite both my best intentions and what actions, as an ordinary citizen, I can take. I still see no reason to believe that by ignoring these signs and pointers to portents that we cannot afford to allow to carry on unattended, that somehow there will be some different future outcome. I cannot pretend that the act of behaving as if these real occurrences had no connection to my life would mean they, in fact, do not. That’s a form of delusion—the first thing all of us decry in our tormentors.
A national sense of shame because of the bad acts of a sitting president is an entirely new condition. It must be optimism that drives one positive perception about the current and ongoing phenomena. On the upside of the political history of the United States it’s taken us about 230 years of uninterrupted decorum to arrive at the sudden recurrent experience of having a president whose behavior in public has become a matter of concern. Not simply partisan observers, not simply the press, not simply pundits with an air of presumption, and not simply foreign commentators regard the status of our country as somehow imperilled.
Why are there no rules, however minimally formal—never mind actual laws, but even mere recorded precedent and a response, or a hastily written set of guidelines in the form of a personal note from a departing incumbent to a new chief executive—is because we’ve never needed them. But then, we’ve never had a president so evidently ignorant of the more homely and everyday aspects of the social contract that even children in tenements in obscure urban centers, or toddlers on isolated farms in the hinterlands seem to grasp and adopt from an early age.
Moreover, this president seems also not to grasp, or if he does, he does as he does so much else, that is, in the hermetic and very tight confines of some silent private code that determines he acts only in such a way as redounds entirely to himself—regardless of, though too often despite—how his actions seem to define a new and different character for our entire nation. We ask ourself if he really, truly understands. It has become evident long since that it doesn’t matter. The more relevant question is, does he care? Every day, in a different way, however small the difference, however unexpected the context—though even the expanse of the locus of his departures from convention seems to shrink, given the diminished impact on his ability to shock and disgust even the most thin-skinned; he does it in the White House, he does it online, he does it in foreign centers of power and governance, he does it on the telephone, on television, on the radio—he demonstrates a blatant disregard of circumstance and context. We must conclude there either are no scruples at work here whatsoever, to such an extent that even a predecessor who seemed amoral now seems a paragon, or that there is an idiocy working overtime as to redefine the meaning of genius.
The succession of lies has given rise now to a formal index, kept by no less than the newspaper of record. The succession of mean-spirited, heartless orders and proposed laws has now become so numerous that it keeps a self-appointed marshal of such a seemingly haphazard, but consummately systematic dismantling of our code of ethics—even to the negation of our compact and fundamental principles of liberty and independence from tyranny—busy tracking and codifying them, in anticipation of some future reckoning, as a permanent weekly enterprise for the duration of his tenure (see Amy Siskind on Medium.com), and now going into its 32nd week.
What was merely habit or perhaps a laughable character flaw in an otherwise harmless larger than life celebrity figure, has now become, with his investiture to national office, a grave embarrassment that has long since burst from the boundaries of media bleats, tweets, crawls, and blasts. It pervades our everyday lives. It does so whether we are resolute in our self-imposed news blackouts, or we bathe masochistically in the fetid waters of wall-to-wall coverage in all media 24 hours a day. It does so often, and with such disregard for even the most trivial of expectations of decorum. The only rationale is that he has warned all and several, generally and specifically, that, as his wife, and as a spokesperson on the government payroll have told us with straight faces, that if he is insulted, he will return the favor, ten times worse. Ahab famously exclaimed, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!” We are all the president’s white whale.
What is to be done? Apparently nothing.
We are to take solace in our ability to allow regular stresses of this insubstantial sort to leave us at worst numb to further onslaughts. It is after all just words. The positive view, as I started by saying, is that at least we’ve not had to confront this before, nor have our forebears, lo, unto ten or a dozen generations.
However, numb as we may be, we cannot allow that lull to set in that leads inevitably to a sleep. Early on, the caution was not to allow any of a consort of forces, the perpetrator himself, or any of those resources of information we all depend upon, regardless of political affiliation or persuasion that unceasingly report on and then perseverate on the meaning of his latest twisted utterance, to allow us to believe that there is something normal about this behavior. So far few see it as normal. And those who believe that avoiding the subject will somehow convey protection, they will inevitably discover that, like Rip van Winkle did, not paying attention, even voluntarily, will lead to shocks he never had to contend with.
For the culprit, there is no apparent effort involved in being himself. The energy required will always outlast the aggregate energy we must all expend, first, trying to keep up, and then, recognizing the impossibility of the task—the fount of opprobrium that is his consciousness is inexhaustible—we stop paying attention altogether and let him just carry on.
Rather we must have some faith that there will be some intervention from sources unknown, and essentially unpredictable. We have never seen such an affront to reason and civility, and it is ridiculous to expect that the only remedy will derive from some zealous application of reason, never before mustered and never before applied—just as reason and civility and determination have saved us from more easily characterizable global threats, blessedly palpable and substantive in their being, in the past, they are of no use now.
If there is some secret worm of genius at work here, the only objective can be that indeed, eventually, we will all get so tired we will just let him carry on. And indeed, the insults will stop, because the chief trigger is any expression of the reality he prefers not to confront and never has his entire life.
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