Archive for the ‘People’ Category

Q: Why Does Moloch Keep Eating Children?

May 12th, 2019

A:  Because that’s what he does.

It is perversely reassuring that even very intelligent and perceptive people are so baffled by Donald Trump’s mentality.  It means that he is an extreme outlier, so far outside the normal ken that he might as well be another species.  I was listening this morning to David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, and Bill McKibben, climate change activist, pronounce themselves stumped by the question whether Donald Trump believes in his climate change denialism.  By contrast, I do not find this puzzling at all. I think I possess a key to understanding Trump that these intellectual lions are searching for in vain.  What that says about me, is something I don’t want to think about too much, right now.

The key is to take really seriously the obvious fact that Trump does not believe anything, at least, not in the same sense that you and I believe things.  For him, facts and truth are entirely fungible.  The only point of reference in his universe is Donald Trump.  Sure, he has certain fixations, like the utter undesirability of any non-Nordic immigrant to the United States and the idea that the trade imbalance with China can be rectified to the United States’ advantage by making U.S. consumers pay more for Chinese goods; but a fixation, an orientation towards the world determined by involuntary psychological factors, is not a “belief” in the same sense that you and I mean by the word, that is, an interpretation of reality based on accepted authority and evidence.

I often say that Trump lies constantly about everything, but I am not being entirely accurate.  In order to lie, one must have some notion of truth, which he does not.  It would be a more precise description to say that no word comes out of his mouth that is neither false nor misleading, because no word of his bears any relation to a referent other than what he conceives to be the advantage to Donald Trump of pronouncing those sounds in that moment.  This is the one thing you never will hear him say.  Otherwise, he will say anything, including things that are directly contrary not only to easily verifiable facts but that directly contradict things he may have said only minutes before.

Another way of seeing it is that words, for Trump, are meaningless except as social currency. They buy attention.  They manipulate behavior.  These reasons alone are why he bothers with grammar and syntax. He displays no sense whatever of the aesthetics of speech, no indication that he uses it to achieve empathy or understanding.  His few attempts at expressing empathy, as when belatedly after a school shooting he will utter his “warmest condolences,” are the clumsy, studied actions of an alien imitating how has observed humans to behave in those circumstances. Language, for him, is purely a transactional medium.  If you want to study Trump, one place to go is the old television series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  One of the humanoid species populating that show was the Ferengi, a race of Trumps, preoccupied almost entirely with personal commercial advantage.  The main Ferengi character was named Quark.  When Trump speaks, I often hear Quark’s distinctive combination of ingratiating whine and bare-toothed snarl, except that Trump’s emotional range is somewhat different, lower and heavier.  There is the occasional ingratiating whine, to be sure, but more often in its place there is the triumphal roar, as when leading a crowd in chanting “Lock her up!  Lock her up!”  That descends through the cheerlessly smirking taunt to the dull, aggressive monotone.

What people like Mr. Remnick and Mr.McKibben canot seem to rid themselves of, despite all evidence to the contrary, is the notion – really, the hope – that Trump possesses some sort of ideology.  Nothing could be farther from the case.  The people Trump seeks to ingratiate himself with are not his fellow believers, of whom there are none, but those whom he can manipulate to his own ends.  (For a fascinating, terrifying closeup depiction of how he does this to the individuals he surrounds himself with, see James Comey’s op-ed in the May 1, 2019 New York Times.)  He goes after the most malleable and gullible, like a scam artist selling fake driveway asphalt services in a housing development full of elderly people.  Of course he espouses climate change denial.  The people who can be taken in by the climate change denial industry are Trump’s meat.  People who understand climate change, despite all the Koch brothers’ expensive efforts, are harder to dupe.  Like any predator, he expends his time and energy on the easier prey.  If Flat Earthers were sufficiently numerous, he’d be directing NASA funding to them.

Similarly, nearly all the head-scratching analysis of Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign strategy, based on demographics and economics and careful consideration of whose interests he may be weighing against what, is misguided.  There is no strategy.  Likewise, the people who perceive Trump as engendering “chaos” also miss the point.  There is a polestar to everythinghe does.  It is him, now.  This may look chaotic, observed from the outside, or it may seem to result from the operation of some inscrutable purpose.  Doubtless the cosmic debris plummeting towards the event horizon of a black hole looks chaotic, yet subject to some mysterious direction.


October 18th, 2015

My dear friend Susan Weiss died this summer after fending off breast cancer for several decades.  Susan was a difficult, courageous, charming, immensely talented and creative, warm, caring, smart, wacky, alert, profound, perceptive, sensitive, funny, principled person.  She and I got together regularly for years to talk about writing and about our families.  Susan wrote novels, one of which, My God What Have We Done, was published and is highly worth your while to seek out.  The publisher is Fomite Press of Burlington, Vermont.  One feature of Susan’s writing was her penchant for meaningfully juxtaposing pairs of subjects that one would think had little if anything to do with each other.  The effect was kind of like if you tinkled one of those little tibetan meditation bowls that you see in gift shops, and out of it came the clangorous reverberations of a great church bell.  In My God What Have we Done a failing marriage is juxtaposed with the Manhattan Project.   In the last book she completed before she died, Susan wrote about a mother seeking relationship with her children, and a murder of crows.  Here is a poem I wrote after visiting Susan in the respite house where she spent her last month or so (with insincere apologies to Dylan Thomas):

I know you’re tired,

too tired to sleep well.

You could rage against the

dying of the light, but the

night doesn’t care.

I can imagine you

wasting breath on that, but

not too much.

Or you could go gently.

Whatever.  Really, I see you

stroking the tiny throat

feathers of that crow

sitting on your shoulder, its

strong beak poised at your

ear, asking it to

let you tell its story.

Now It Is Finished

October 6th, 2012

This is a poem I wrote for a friend who was dying of cancer.  She asked me to read a poem at her memorial.  I asked why.  She said because she liked my way with words and she was curious to know what I would say.  So here it is, Jane.  I don’t like the way Word Press insists on messing up the formatting.  It’s going to look a lot better on the printed page.  But here are the words.  We’ll just have to do without little fripperies like indentation in all the places I wanted it.


Now it is finished
and you have stopped withdrawing
into a self that cannot be found anywhere

now the pink bathrobe
is uninhabited like the body
and the clear plastic tubes that fed you
enriched air these last months are discarded

now your lips have pursed
the last time on sweetness and tartness
and the last laugh has left your belly

now memories grow uncertain
as cigarette smoke and
piercing as the tang of wine that
hovers above the empty goblet

we will carry you

when we asked you about the afterlife
you said “remains to be seen”

and I think you might have laughed
had somebody said,
“we don’t want to know about the remains
we want to know about what’s unseen”

I can hear you laughing
in all its charming variety your laughter

of all of us who knew you
who cannot hear it

you hired a doctor to give you the right poisons
you hired a nurse to care skillfully
you asked a poet to find words for when it’s done

here’s what’s carved on Billy Butler Yeats’s stone:
 Cast a cold eye
    On Life, on Death.
    Horseman, pass by!
and here’s what Rilke composed for himself:
Rose, oh pure contradiction,
    joy of being, No-one’s sleep
    under so many lids
and here’s what you thoughtfully said:
it’s very important to be nice

polite, certainly
never consciously unkind
plenty – perhaps a bit too much – of turn the other cheek

but not the smiling lying kind of niceness
nor namby pamby, no:
the kind of niceness that is stamped in steel

you tended each of your dying parents with desperate assiduity
sacrificing peace of mind, health, livelihood,
and truth be told
(a Jane phrase –truth be told –
I think it in your voice)
a certain amount of marital harmony
to ensure that through that long subtractive process
which ends with everything lacking and nothing wanted
no day would be empty of attentive loving
because it’s what people do, dammit

your face heart-shaped
your mouth small and potentially prim
but it was so often merry
I don’t mean “glad” or “happy” I mean “merry”
as in Dickens certain characters – Fezziwig, for example
or the Cheeryble brothers are merry –
the easy overflow of a generous heart

Damariscotta girl, your husband denominated you
something to do with whitewashed mullions
seawashed granite
knowledge of which fork and where to put it
the unyielding kernel of humanity
wrapped in just the right shade of social exchange

before I met you, a union activist
a labor leader a contract negotiator
imagine facing across the conference room that
politely intransigent reasonableness

when we met you had restrung your bow
to play a rather different sort of chamber music

admirer of formal British gardens
collector of McCoy Pottery
interior designer – that is one who makes
order and harmony
aesthetically pleasing and life enhancing

(didn’t you wince a little when
we hung the plastic tubes from the trim
over your bed in the parlor to which
your world had narrowed to see the open
eye screw pierce the fine white glossy
paint job Mr. Lou did for you
– never a drip – long ago)

and when the design business went bust
librarian – no profession more evocative of
just how close we poor animals can come to
giving some part of ourselves to life eternal and
how delicate the leaves in which we preserve it

your vices were the costs of your virtues

a tendency to become overwhelmed and frustrated
consequent upon the unremitting unconscious effort
to be what you should be and do what you should do

a certain waspishness when overwhelmed or frustrated
at the unaccountable recalcitrance of things and people
to be what they should be and do what they should do

(not to imply that you were unworldly
to the contrary, you down-to-earth down-easter,
bewildered not that badness exists but by its stupidity)

a sometime resort to the grape
for relief from knowing how inevitably
we must fall short

if only by leaving before those we leave are ready for it

an immoderate taste for televised British mysteries
in which evil however clever is rooted out by
understated mildly emotionally repressed
clear thinking keen observation and humane values


how ironic that the thing which at last would lay you low
most civilized of persons
full of all the civilized decencies
attached to civility like a mussel to a boulder
(as Thomas More was attached to the law, because
what else will stand between you and the devil)

that what took you from us
was a few cells throwing off the compact
whereby the body’s constituent parts agree to respect their mutual
roles and places in the service of long and amicable coexistence
and in riotous anarchy bringing the whole house down

sweet and kind and loving to the end
if everyone were like you, there’d be no more war
and we’d all have nicer homes.