Sunday, November 8, 2020

THE Election

“The” is all in caps intentionally.  Yes, it was razor thin in the swing states, but a 4 million plus popular vote plurality demonstrates that the American people made a choice to remove Trump from the Presidency.  His illegitimate claims the election was “stolen” from him is belied by the fact that Republicans actually made headway in reclaiming some House seats and as of now haven’t lost the Senate.  The message is clear:  Republicans showed up to vote but many decided enough is enough as far as Trump’s behavior is concerned, with the commensurate loss of America’s reputation among our allies throughout the world.  The pandemic certainly fed into the lateness of the count, so many people wisely choosing to vote by mail, but that does not involve “stealing” the election – it gave more Americans the opportunity to safely vote, under the umbrella of each state’s Supervisor of Elections, ballots being counted by teams of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.   And that’s what it is all about: the voice of the people. 

What struck me the most about Joe Biden’s speech last night was its Presidential tone, both in content and delivery.  Yes, it came off a teleprompter, but Trump’s speeches, with few exceptions, even with a teleprompter, veer off into a fantasy land and sound like a third grader speaking, using Hollywood adjectives over and over.  Four years of having to listen to that level of speaking, not to mention his Tweets, has inured us to the true power of the English language, and no doubt left us the laughingstock of the English-speaking world.  Even foreign leaders who use English as a second language are more coherent. 

Biden’s message of governing on behalf of ALL the people was conciliatory.  One can only hope that Trump’s supporters will give him a chance.  Most of all, we should all look forward to joining the world community again, to battle climate change, the pandemic, and in general to allow science rather than conspiratorial fantasies lead us into the future.   We’ve allowed the needle of nationalism to tip into the territory of isolationism.  We’ve precariously allowed democracy to teeter into despotism.  I will give the Trump administration some credit for exposing the extreme to which we allowed the concept of globalization to expose our vulnerability to critical elements in our society – case in point, personal protective equipment.  Some manufacturing must be brought back here.

If we (my wife Ann and I) were not in the middle of a move, the disassembling of twenty years of our lives and trying to put “things” back together I would be able to spend more time on describing my feelings and elation at this important moment in our history.   One of the benefits of writing a blog such as this over such a long period of time is that it allows me to look back and understand my feelings and thoughts during these pivotal points in our history.  On the eve of President Obama’s inauguration after his election in 2008 (can it be, 12 years ago?) I wrote this piece.

It reminded me that he was facing the most significant economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Although one may argue that wrong turns were made at times, under his (and Joe Biden’s) leadership, we survived that crisis and Trump inherited a booming economy (although he will never admit it).  Now, Joe Biden, and our first VP-Elect who is a woman of color (another remarkable step forward for this nation) Kamala Harris, must confront a pandemic which is equal to or even greater than the economic crisis of 2008.  Science must be followed, and we can’t rely on a single Hail Mary pass of a vaccination.  I am confident that this will be their immediate mission, besides rejoining the world community.  As I felt when Obama was elected, there is hope.  Hope is a mighty word  

I’ve written enough Trump pieces to fill a book and last year it was published (Waiting for Someone to Explain It: The Rise of Contempt and Decline of Sense).

After Trump’s inauguration, I wrote although I had severe reservations that he would ever preserve the dignity of the Office of the Presidency (after all, it was his avowed objective to “drain the swamp,” ironically more of his advisors having to be fired, or imprisoned than any administration in history), I concluded by saying  “I hope President Trump transcends all these concerns.” 

Perhaps this was disingenuous, never expecting it, and indeed, getting a worse President than the candidate himself. I truly had expectations the Office might change the man.  It did not from the start.  His first Cabinet meeting, where his members lavished praise on him was one of the most uncomfortable moments I’ve ever witnessed in government.  I’m afraid it set the tone for what would follow for the next four years and of course, most of those supplicants are no longer there.

I ended my Obama piece quoting the entire poem I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman.  I am now again hopeful as Langston Hughes wrote in his 1935 poem Let America be America Again.  We have made progress since then despite the last four dark years.  The last stanza of his poem echoes what the American people have just said with their precious vote:

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!


Thursday, October 22, 2020


In late September we decided, spur of the moment almost, to break loose from our self-imposed Covid semi-quarantine, and rent a house overlooking the Pisgah Mountains outside Asheville, which we had visited many times before, and loved.  This time, we would not be doing our usual sightseeing, or sampling the fine restaurants there, but hunker down at an elevation of 2,000 feet looking at the distant mountains rising to 5,000 plus feet from our outdoor balcony.  There, we would sit in our rocking chairs and read, without the cacophony of politics swamping the airwaves.  I haven’t read a good book for a while and I selected 3 novels for our visit, the first being Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, which I read in college but not since.  What better place to channel Wolfe’s thoughts but in the very place he so soulfully wrote about?

My college copy was long gone, but I found one from my son’s remaining books in our home, the one he read in college 20 plus years ago.  So I dove into the book as soon as we arrived, unpacked and ordered groceries to be delivered.  Sitting there on the porch, or in the living room which had the same view, reading that novel was a special experience, and although I vaguely remembered the story, and I knew quite a bit about Wolfe from my other readings, and we twice visited his mother’s boarding house in Asheville which is now a museum, I did not remember the details of the novel and was almost shocked by the numerous and casual derogatory references to blacks and Jews.  What did I think about those passages when I first read the novel more than 50 years ago?  Or was that simply more acceptable in those days?  As a boy from New York City, I never felt the way young Eugene Gant and his friends did, but wasn’t I nonplussed by the language and the overt racism?  If I wasn’t then, I admit I found them jarring now.

Wolfe, however, wrote what he witnessed, without judgement.  This is the way people thought, particularly in the western Carolinas.  It was just a part of life.  I felt this over and over again rereading the novel.  Some of the language relating to that theme was just downright painful.

I made an attempt to put that disturbing language aside, as this is, indeed, the great American novel, just as Wolfe intended.  Its sprawling themes and description of a brilliant young writer coming of age is peerless.  The prose is potent and poetic.  Eugene Gant is tested, time and time again, only to rise like the Phoenix, break loose the chains of childhood and set course towards his destiny.  Only Wolfe could write these words of unmitigated optimism and the raw youth of genius:

Eugene was untroubled by thought of a goal.  He was made with such ecstasy as he had never known. He was a centaur, moon-eyed and wild of mane, torn apart with hunger for the golden world. He became at times almost incapable of coherent speech. While talking with people, he would whinny suddenly into their startled faces, and leap away, his face contorted with an idiot joy. He would hurl himself squealing through the streets and along the paths, touched with the ecstasy of a thousand unspoken desires. The world lay before him for his picking-full of opulent cities, golden vintages, glorious triumphs, lovely women, full of a thousand unmet and magnificent possibilities. Nothing was dull or tarnished. The strange enchanted coasts were unvisited. He was young and he could never die.

Can you imagine Wolfe’s euphoria when he wrote this, and I wonder mine reading it the first time almost the same age as when he wrote those words?  Yes, I was going out into the world to make my own way, no real goals, but to live, live, live.  I could never die; he could never die. And here I am, becoming an old man (although some would argue, I already am).



Before I finished the novel I was snapped out of the dream of youth by a startling development in our lives.  Ann and I had a sudden offer to buy our house.  For years we had considered this, even putting it on the market before Covid made us take it off.  I’ve always said that once we are out of boating, and this last summer that became a reality, it would be time to leave the waterway, and downsize to a gated community where some responsibilities are assumed by the association.  Without getting into details regarding timing, where we’re going (locally), etc., we accepted the offer and found a house in the community we were interested moving into.  What is the saying?  Watch what you wish for?  This new house has come with its own set of problems, ones we’ve addressed over the years in the house we’re leaving.  I feel our present home is almost an extension of myself; I am so sensitive to anything out of place, such as an unexplained sound that might require maintenance. 

Our home is set up for our own unique life styles.  For me it’s writing and playing the piano, neither of which I’ve been able to do to any great extent during all this turmoil.  I’m forcing myself to write this entry, before I forget our respite in the Asheville area.  We came back early because of these real estate transactions and now we are in the thick of it, including preparing to move, a four day process even though it is fairly local.

One does not fully appreciate the weight of the accumulated “stuff” one gathers over two decades, especially when a house has so much storage.  When in doubt, keep!  Stuff owns you and now we are paying the price, not only a stiff one because of the totality of “things” but given our age and during such a dangerous time.  It’s all sinking in now and we along with the realization.  And there is no turning back.

So for the next two months, our life is really not our own and while we will make our best efforts to socially distance and mask up for all the movers, vendors, agents, etc. we must see during this period, we’re hoping to make it through the tunnel without the virus.  This may be my last entry for a while with the exception – hopefully -- of a celebratory one after the election.  An America without Trump might even have me singing Eugene Gant’s optimism, not of youth of course, but of a future of normalcy, less strident dialogue, people coming together, our country rejoining the world community.

In the meantime, the profound words of Carl Sandburg resonate:  Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.


Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Sound of Silence


It’s like the eye of three different hurricanes I’ve lived through, Carol in 1954, Jeanne, 2004, and Wilma in 2005.  A hurricane eye is other-worldly.  After hours of destruction, the sun comes out and everything is still, with hardly a breeze.  We emerge from our homes to inspect the damage, knowing there is more to come on the backside, yet grateful for the reprieve.

I view President Trump’s departure for Walter Reed Hospital similarly.  First, I will make clear that I hope he and the First Lady recover, and it is a recovery with wisdom and humility.  So nothing I write here is to wish him ill.  We are in the eye of the storm while he and the finest physicians battle his illness.  Meanwhile, there is blessed silence, a reprieve from hearing that voice, the tweets, his endless invectives, the brandishing of the Trump brand.

He said it during the 2016 election:  He could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and no one would do anything about it.  One cannot prove an alternative reality, but what if, rather than his branding the mask as a symbol of weakness; he had promoted it and worn it as a symbol of American unity?  How many thousands would not have died in this country, maybe a hundred thousand?  That needless, wanton loss of life, Mr. President, will be your legacy, as well as your hurricane like destruction of traditional norms and long held foreign alliances. Your denial of science has set us back years in addressing urgent changes in environmental policy, and has leavened the seriousness of COVID beyond that of any other nation.  Your rhetoric has divided the nation and we remain on a tethered lifeline of emergency funding and unimaginable actions by the Federal Reserve to temporarily prop up markets and the economy.  It all must come crashing back to the real world. 

It was unnerving to watch the theatrics yesterday on the news, broadcasters focused on Marine 1, will he come out that door, or not in our view?  This is what you’ve always wanted, Mr. President, a nation of voyeurs and followers; cult worshipers.  Finally, the “official” tape was released of you getting on the helicopter and a Marine in tow carrying the secret nuclear codes suitcase, another reminder that this is more than a reality TV show, the one thing in which you excel.  Again, chilling that someone who is so uneducated in the matters of diplomacy, government, and the rule of law has that responsibility and is being air lifted to a hospital with a disease he himself promoted as “fake news,” ignoring every scientific advice to wear masks.  The last image I recall in the news coverage was White House aides gathered together pecking at their iPhones, all wearing masks, as if suddenly they got religion.

It didn’t have to be this way, but as I said at the onset, may you and your wife have a full recovery and may you return with the religion as well, wearing a mask, requiring everyone else to do so, and discontinuing your disease spreading rallies and self-promoting ceremonial meetings. 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Lake Success in Dystopia Land

I was in the mood for a new “Great American Novel” and although Lake Success is now two years old, it filled the bill, at least in its intent.  If you define that “dream” as being just that, an apparition that exists only in the American psyche, mostly a rags-to-riches delusion, this novel is that.  And as NYC is its broad canvas, it personally resonates, particularly as one of our publishing offices was in the Metro Life Building at Madison Square, the vicinity in which the protagonist has his multi-million dollar condo, with his wife Seema, a gorgeous Indian-American, and their autistic son, three year old, Shiva.


Gary Shteyngart’s tale is a Bildungsroman of sorts, tracing Barry Cohen’s success and failure and redemption as a NYC hedge fund manager, having pushed the envelope a bit too far in his quest for the golden ring.  His marriage and his business are disintegrating and so Barry takes a physical and spiritual journey in the America of Trump’s rise to power.  Poor Barry, he impulsively flees his tower in la la land with the illusion that he can be reunited with his ex-girlfriend from college.  But traveling by Greyhound bus is not exactly the homey experience he might have fantasized about in It Happened One Night, where down to earth country people traveled and entertained each other with a sense of camaraderie.  Barry interacts with today’s travelers from the lower rung of a fractured society.  Perhaps he was thinking of a journey more along the lines of a Simon and Garfunkel song, They've all come to look for America, even imagining he could write the next On The Road.


His childhood dream was to lift himself out of Little Neck, LI and disassociate himself from being the son of a pool maintenance man, using his ability to think like a programmer of a Commodore computer to fill in responses when his peers questioned what he did over the weekend, such as having gone to the Lake Success mall.  Obviously, Barry is a genius, but much of it is of a savant nature, being able to think as a programmer, and that ability feeding his hedge fund success and his passion for collecting and knowing the nuances of the world’s most expensive watches.  In fact, his road trip is made with little cash but with a stash of watches in a rolleraboard.  He is a “Watch Idiot Savant.”


Still, it is on the bus trip, running away from his hedge fund world and Park Avenue life, with the perfect wife but with a damaged child to win back his college sweetheart, that he develops the thought of finding the son he thinks he’ll never have, even having fantasies of bringing a clever young inner city drug dealer, Javon, under his wing as a surrogate son.  It is a crossroads in the novel for Barry: So this was America.  A cruel place where a man could be thrown off the street because of the color of his skin, the cut of his watch.  It was disgraceful. He didn’t want any part of it.  Maybe it wasn’t too late to turn back.  He could picture it all.  His office.  Seema’s fine body, an endless stream of cacchiatos and uni rolls.  A Manhattan life for a Manhattan man.  He could rejoin the winner’s circle.  But he continues on. 


Ultimately, he latches on to the son (Jonah) of his ex-girlfriend, Layla, who reluctantly takes him in but none of his goals are realistic for a possible relationship.  Jonah is a different story.  He has his own obsession, cartography.  It is here that Barry can express his reverie for his own childhood and the significance of the place, Lake Success.  Jonah says: "I don't have any shared interests with my peers."  Barry laughed. … "I didn't either," he said. "You know what's right above Lake Success? Great Neck and Port Washington. One day when you're in high school you'll read a book called The Great Gatsby. There are these towns in the book called East Egg and West Egg, and that's them." …."That book The Great Gatsby is about a man who wanted to improve himself. And when I was your age I wanted to improve myself, too. So each day I'd practice my 'friend moves.' Like, what are ten things kids in school can ask me, and what are ten things I can say back? It's like drawing a map or knowing all the train systems in the world. Except instead of facts, you have to memorize what they call small talk. People who aren't smart like us, they love small talk. 'Did you hear about this?' 'Oh, what about that?' 'So-and-so got hurt in gym class.' 'That's cool.' So I worked my friend moves real hard, and then by the time I graduated from college, I was the friendliest guy in my profession. And it made me hundreds of millions of dollars."


His fascination with Fitzgerald (and his Alma Mater, Princeton) is highlighted in the names of his hedge funds, the first failed one being “This Side of Capital.”  Then another one , “Last Tycoon Capital” and ultimately, “Balance Wheel Capital,” ‘a reference to “the spinning part of a watch movement.”  In a sense, that is the conundrum of being Barry, a computer like mind who has a love of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Shteyngart’s writing sometimes becomes as lyrical as Fitzgerald and is frequently hilarious but melancholy dealing with the reality of what America has become.


The climax of the novel is his trip to Juarez, Mexico (ironically where I got a divorce more than 50 years ago) with Lalya and her friends where he becomes completely disoriented, nearly losing himself there to eternity, but after finding his way back Lalya kicks him out, back on the road, and ultimately to face the music of his financial shenanigans.


Meanwhile Seema’s story is juxtaposed to Barry’s, her affair with the downstairs neighbor, a Guatemalan writer, who defines his own work as being basically the same (“American colonialism, crimes against the indigenous, yada yada yada”), her devotion to Shiva, and having to invite her parents back into her life. 


Barry’s story runs parallel to his young son’s autism.  He is similarly affected by an inability to establish a normal human relationship.  Instead he has his watch fetish.  And there are parallels in the maturation of each reaching the novel’s redemptive Kumbaya conclusion.  All of this is told in a land of such division between the upper 1 percent and the rest of us, and in the dystopian land of Trump.  It is compulsive reading, at least for me at this sad moment in time.