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The box of manure in our basement  

The song is a beautiful piece of 1960s pop. Melancholy, yet upbeat. Confronting an issue – loneliness – and offering hope:

And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you

Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to

Guide them along …

There is quite a distance between a cry for help and the statement made on Christmas Day by a strange loner who rigged his RV with explosives, drove to downtown Nashville and staged his own death to the soundtrack of Petula Clark singing “Downtown.” The fact that no one was killed does not ameliorate the darkness of the act. He knew better. The people around him who knew he was building bombs knew better.

So for now, we associate a violent act with a song that urges people to seek comfort among strangers. “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city, linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty.”

The arts is sometimes a strange bedfellow to inhumanity. Paul McCartney didn’t have mass murder in mind when he wrote “Helter Skelter,” with Charles Manson’s followers using the blood of one of their victims to paint the song title on a refrigerator door during their weekend murder spree in 1969. Misspelled as “Healter,” they weren’t scholars.

Mark Chapman and his favorite book, “The Catcher in the Rye.”

The man who murdered John Lennon had an obsession with the novel “The Catcher in the Rye.” Adolph Hitler’s deep admiration for the music of Richard Wagner is well known. Yet the works of McCartney, J.D. Salinger and Wagner have survived those associations. “Downtown” will live on as well.

Of course, these stories are never as simple as all that. Wagner couldn’t control his fan base after his death in 1883. But his raging anti-Semitism (today excused as the rantings typical of a 207-year-old man) remains his responsibility.

Everything created by musicians, painters, dancers, writers and architects is a reflection of the artist. Maybe not in image, but in message. Their art outlives the worst of the self portraits that it reflects. As much as I detest Michael Jackson now, I’m sure his music will survive with future listeners not giving much thought to his alleged pedophilia.

Although, in my mind, they should.

I don’t expect even-handedness in a fractured world. The girlfriend of the Nashville RV bomber reportedly told the police a year ago that he was making bombs. They shrugged and moved on. If that bomb maker had been a Black man, rather than white, it seems likely the cops would have been kicking in the door of his RV, shooting first and worrying about what we think a little too late.

This past year was a product of the bi-polar planet on which we live. One side of it works just fine. There are times when I feel like a hyena creeping out of the desert, to the edge of a campfire, where I watch all of these amazing humans doing incredible things. And I just feel damn lucky to be close to it. Squirreled away in my home through the pandemic, I’ve read some great books. This was unplanned, but more than a few have had something to do with trees. My Friend Michele gave me Richard Preston’s “The Wild Trees,” the story of California redwoods; I learned that falling from a tree any more than 60 feet means you’re dead. Trees are to be found in nature writer Robert MacFarlane’s “Underland: A Deep Time Journey,” but its real soul is uncovered in the world beneath the roots; there is a cavern in China that is so large, it has its own weather system. And now I’m deep into Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Overstory,” in which trees are as much characters as humans. While it’s fiction, much of it is based on fact; as blight was wiping out chestnut trees across the country, an attempt was made to halt the spread of the disease by clearing trees from a 400-mile zone across Pennsylvania. The maneuver failed; the workers’ axes and saws helped carry the plague across the state.

I read that and thought about COVID-19.

Peter Gunn navigates his 1959 Plymouth Fury through another scene.

Television? It hasn’t been of much help. Amazon Prime created special “Holiday” categories of dozens and dozens of films to choose from. It’s astonishing how many really unwatchable Christmas movies have been given the green light over the last 15 years. All attempting to reveal to us The True Meaning of Christmas. Which is basically: Don’t Be An Asshole. None of these films meet the standard set by “A Christmas Story.” In that true classic, The Meaning of Christmas is simply: If the neighbor’s vagabond hounds seize your Christmas Day turkey from the table and viciously dismember it, there is a Chinese restaurant open somewhere.

In this time of quarantine, I have enjoyed an amusing dalliance with “Peter Gunn,” a private-eye series from the late 1950s and early ’60s starring an actor I’d never heard of. But Craig Stevens seems to have set the stage for Sean Connery’s James Bond. “Peter Gunn” is fedoras, jazz and blonde cocktail crooners, casual smoking, cars with big fins, fisticuffs and serious gunplay in warehouses stacked with labyrinthine arrangements of crates, good for chaotic chase scenes. All of this in less than a half hour for each episode. With an immediately recognizable theme by Henry Mancini.

Music, as always. As I’m typing this, I’m listening to Scott Regan’s “Open Tunings” show on WRUR-FM (88.5). His final song of the year is Nina Simone’s version of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” It’s elegant, drenched in melancholy and a wistful sense of something lost.

A lost year, perhaps.

A year in which we’ve tumbled backwards.

More than 25 million Americans have either lost their job or seen a significant drop in their income. More than 8 million Americans slid into poverty. That’s all contributing to one in four American households experiencing what those who study social structure call “food insecurity.” People are going hungry. In 21st-century America.

Perhaps they are… I’m searching for the right word here… unlucky? The Institute for Policy Studies published a report that demonstrated that many Americans are not going hungry at all. In fact, since March, when the pandemic started kicking in, the total net worth of the country’s 647 billionaires has grown by almost $960 billion.

A new Gallop poll out this week reveals Trump is the most-admired man in America. I’m thinking the rest of the Top 10 – Obama, Biden, Fauci, Pope Francis, Elon Musk, Bernie Sanders, Bill Gates, LeBron James and the Dalai Lama – split the vote among sane people.

The United States is responsible for so many advances in science, yet is populated by so many people who live in denial of clear fact. Fifty-one percent of Republicans still doubt that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. Forty percent of Americans are creationists.

Fifty percent of Republicans believe at least some portions of the QAnon mythology that a secret ring of Satan-worshiping pedophiles runs the U.S. government, and Trump is leading a secret fight against it. A storyline so ridiculous, any self-respecting screenwriter would lock the script in the bottom drawer of his or her desk.

Fact, and demonstrable history, is no match for populist politics. On Columbus Day, we celebrate a cruel slave trader. Town squares remain populated by statues that re-write the American south, leading up to the Civil War, as some kind of antebellum island of nobility.

We know better. At least, some of us know better.

As much as I’d like it to be true, the arts and science are not generally accepted as reflective of truth. We don’t look that deep into ourselves. The internet justification for fact-free beliefs is “owning the libs.” Downtown may be where, “The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” but the internet is not such a place. It is a room of darkness and separation, it nurtures troubles in the same way that a box of manure in the basement feeds a crop of mushrooms.

Acknowledging climate change or systemic racism goes nowhere in this environment. Seeing that 340,000 Americans are dead of COVID-19 should be a wake-up call, not something sprouting out of bullshit.

There is no evidence that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. None. And yet…

It all brings to mind the philosopher George Carlin: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

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Making way for strange, sweet, otherworldly creatures

Rudy Giuliani as Inspector Clouseau.

It is so sad for us that Peter Sellers has been dead for 40 years. It would be a short reach for the comedic actor to dip into his most-famous role, as the bumbling Chief Inspector Clouseau, to play Rudy Giuliani in a movie about the final days of the Trump presidency. Can’t you see it? Clouseau/Giuliani standing in front of a landscaping store, a dildo shop metaphorically next door, as he bravely proclaims Trump has won re-election. Yelling about conspiracies even as the television news crews pack up their equipment, Clouseau/Giuliani now rendered irrelevant, because at that same moment the major networks are starting to predict that Joe Biden will be our next president.

Inspector Clouseau as Rudy Giuliani.

Or, can’t you see the eyes of Clouseau/Giuliani bugging out as he howls incoherently about election fraud, while tears of black sludge run down his cheeks? Clouseau/Giuliani floating improbable, evidence-free plots of voting machines manufactured in Venezuela under the watchful eye of dictator Hugo Chávez (who has been dead for seven years) switching millions of votes from Trump to Biden.

Perhaps the narrator of our Clouseau/Giuliani film will be John Fetterman, the 6-foot, 8-inch, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. Tattooed and goateed, with a no-nonsense speaking style perfectly suited for closing the case on the sputtering Clouseau/Giuliani charge of voting irregularities in his state: “The only irregularity we had was the president’s campaign rolling up in a clown car in downtown Philadelphia, having an impromptu press conference, and saying ridiculous things and making up lies.”

Clown car. That’s the image that has perfectly captured the final downward spiral of Trump in these last few weeks, as he bounces around like an amusement park bumper-car ride, finalizing the dishonor of: Worst President Ever.

Oh, how harmless it all seemed, five years ago, on the day the acclaimed grifter and reality TV star rode down the gold escalator in Trump Tower to make the announcement that he was running for president. And since that day, that escalator has just kept on going down, down, down, down…

On the Sunday after it was evident that Biden had won the election, and speculation turned to how many Secret Service agents it would take to drag Trump from the White House, I did not turn on the television until late that evening. I’d had enough. Outside my window, the leaves on the trees lining the street had all turned a glorious gold. All day long, I listened to The Allman Brothers Band. “Eat a Peach.” And “Live at Fillmore East,” the greatest live album of all time. One of the Top 10 albums of all time, period.

As night fell, we Zoomed with friends, equally ecstatic over Biden’s victory. While we talked the television was on, but muted, showing us images of people dancing in the streets. Dancing! Truly moving images of celebration. People holding up hand-lettered signs reading “YOU’RE FIRED!” The gloom of Trump had been lifted, for a moment at least. There was no longer a need to respond to Trump, and his thrashing about like a mastodon trapped in a tar pit. No need to pay any mind to the snarling acid trip of Clouseau/Giuliani.

All of my friends are smart, but I feel bad that a few were taken in by Trump. It’s been a tough year if you’re inclined to make excuses for 250,000 Americans dead of COVID-19. Or record-high unemployment. Or seeing fellow Americans rallying in the streets against racism as their president orders them to be tear-gassed so as to clear the way for a photo-op of him holding a Bible upside down while standing outside of a church he doesn’t attend. Or hearing Trump snarl about how he sees cities ravaged by riots and fire – on his watch, by the way – even as he applauds the anarchy of militia guys wearing camo and waving guns in the halls of government buildings. It’s a tribute to the National Rifle Association that it can inspire 17-year-old kids with automatic rifles to shoot people in the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Even as the NRA leadership, including its president Wayne LaPierre, appears to have been busy using my friends’ NRA dues to buy powerboats and take vacations to exotic islands.

There has been so much to absorb in the midst of the Trump funeral knell. As the dust and spittle settled, I read an online story that insisted the new breakout sexy-nerd star of this year’s election coverage was Steve Kornacki. The MSNBC analyst whose uniform was khaki pants and the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to his elbows, waving his arms at a big electronic board that gave him every combination of vote totals and electoral counts imaginable. I guess we’re supposed to forget that in the weeks leading up to this election – and the 2016 election, for that matter – most of the pollsters and prognosticators had been really, really wrong.

But yes, I do find smart people to be sexy. Carl Sagan. Frida Kahlo. Dr. Anthony Fauci. Maria Popova, who writes one of my favorite web sites, Brainpickings. So I turned off Kornacki and read a Popova post entitled “250-year-old Natural History Illustrations of Some of Earth’s Strangest, Sweetest, and Most Otherworldly Creatures.” It opened with this observation:

If the legendary nanogenarian cellist Pablo Casals was right, as I trust he was, that working with love prolongs your life, and if Walt Whitman was right, as I know he was, that an intimacy with the natural world is the key to robust mental and physical health, then the English naturalist and pioneering ornithologist George Edwards (April 3, 1694–July 23, 1773) owed his longevity, which eclipsed the life expectancy of his time and place by decades, to the extraordinary creative vitality with which he reverenced nature in his work.

That’s one hell of a sentence. Popova’s point through her long essay – copiously illustrated with color prints of Edwards’ decades-long career of creating watercolor studies of monkeys, birds and anteaters – is that a long and rewarding life is to be had from comingling with nature.

I trust she is right. Spending too much time in the company of ugly creatures such as Trump, Giuliani, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsay Graham, will take years off your life.

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Baron Harkonnen in the White House

The internet is a museum of memes for all occasions: Trump as a character from “Dune.”

The days preceding had shown so much promise. First there was the news that the arch-villain Jerry Fallwell, Jr., president of the conservative hatchery Liberty University, enjoyed watching his wife have sex with the pool boy. Then a sneak preview of the new book by former Trump mob lawyer Michael Cohen revealed that the president enjoyed sneaking off to Las Vegas to take in live sex shows that involved golden showers.

And I thought: This is going to be sooooooome kinda rockin’ Republican National Convention.

Well, you know how that turned out. While you were Googling “golden showers,” the convention was an utter disappointment. Same old racist, divisive, snarky, lie-loaded genuflection over a childish man whose psychological profile has been elevated, by experienced mental-health professionals, from an early-presidency diagnosis of malignant narcissist to what is now full-throttle psychopath.

How is it that someone can successfully identify generic pictures of a man and a woman on a test for dementia and proclaim it’s proof of his superior mental acuity? We could spend all day making a list of the president’s inexplicable behaviors. But if you can read, you already know them.

This weekend, we took a ride east on Rt. 104 toward Oswego. Stopping at a fruit stand for peaches. Cruising around the perimeter of Fort Ontario, a massive, star-shaped construction of dirt and brick built on top of a series of destroyed or abandoned forts dating back to 1755. I bought a few bags of smoking wood from an unoccupied stand at the end of a rural road, with an honor box to put your money in, because I don’t have the time these frantic days to take a walk in the woods and pick up fallen oak branches myself.

This region was clearly marked as Trump territory. Conservative pundits like to call it “Real America.” What you see are TRUMP signs. Not like those modest “Biden-Harris” lawn signs that are starting to appear around our neighborhood. No, TRUMP banners are king-sized bedsheet in scope. TRUMP flags fly from makeshift flagpoles of 2x4s tied to the awnings of trailer homes. The sides of weathered barns are painted with TRUMP as big as a drive-in movie screen.

Why? These Real Americans may be struggling. But they likely have access to the internet, television other than Fox News, National Public Radio and reputable newspapers such as The New York Times. These Real Americans must know that Trump does not care about them. That all of his actions as president – tax cuts, deregulation of laws protecting the trees where the possums live – are for the benefit of the wealthy, the one percent, yacht-sailing America. Trump is playing these Real Americans of Western New York for suckers.

There is no evidence that says otherwise.

Oh, look! Someone has posted on the internet a bust of Trump’s head! It’s made entirely of bullshit!

It is a fact that the bulk of American men and women who comprise the armed forces come from low-income families. Real America, as they say. But we know what Trump thinks of them. The people who lay their lives on this line, and sometimes lose those lives, are “losers.” They are “suckers.” Trump denies he has said these things. But many people in Trump’s own administration have confirmed that he holds this view. Even a Fox News reporter (you must always use the word “reporter” loosely in the context of Fox News) confirmed some of these statements.

And we know these words are consistent with Trump’s history: Remember how he attacked the Pakistani immigrant and American citizen Khizr Khan, whose son – a captain in the U.S. Army – was killed in Iran while protecting his fellow soldiers from a bomb-laden car in a suicide attack? Remember what Trump said about John McCain, who spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war, tortured after his Air Force plane was shot down over Vietnam? “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

Trump believes you are a sucker and a loser if you serve your country, rather than use the time to pursue personal gain.

There is no evidence that says otherwise.

Trump has ascended to the level of super villain, a White House version of the sadistic, unspeakably gross Baron Harkonnen of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune. Harkonnen is a man so weighed down in depravity that he uses anti-gravity “suspensors” to support his weight.

There is no evidence that says otherwise. Those who insist it is not so are Trump’s “suspensors.”

In recent weeks, we’ve learned that Trump refuses to acknowledge that the Russian government has placed a bounty on the heads of Americans killed by the Taliban.

Just days ago, we learned that Trump has been paying his legal bills with cash siphoned off of funds Americans have contributed to his re-election campaign. And this week the U.S. Justice Department, funded by your tax dollars, and run by the insidious toadie William Barr (the sadistic Piter De Vries, if you’re following the Dune analogy), has suggested that his people should take over Trump’s defense in a defamation lawsuit filed against him by E. Jean Carroll, a woman who has accused Trump of sexual assault.

Losers. Suckers. Is that who he thinks we are?

We know Trump is a loser of fortunes, his bankruptcies say so. We know Trump is a sucker being played by Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jingping, and the Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz. All world leaders know the strategy: Stroke Trump’s ego, and he will follow like a puppy.

This holiday weekend, Trump supporters in Austin, Texas, gassed up their power boats, decorated them with TRUMP 2020 flags, and joined the “Trump Boat Parade” on Lake Travis. Their exuberance became a rescue operation after five of the boats sank. Fortunately, no one was hurt, so I did smile a bit at a social media post that noted how the image of the wakes from millionaire yachts swamping outboard-motor dinghies is a perfect metaphor for the Trump administration.

Only four paragraphs into this screed – thanks for staying with me! – I suggested we could spend all day making a list of the president’s inexplicable behaviors. Things that are already well reported. Yet people like you and me, guided by facts and science, sometimes can’t help but sift through his debris, like archaeologists searching for an overlooked shard of broken vase that will tell the story of a lost civilization. So our recreational reading is a list of well-documented Trump failures as compiled here by The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, in a piece called “‘I Keep My Promises,’ Trump Said. Let’s Check.” 

Hmmmm… Mexico isn’t paying for the wall…? He really said, in 2016 while running for president, “We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else…?”

Welcome back, suckers. That took a long time to read, didn’t it?

And Trump will release his tax returns when…? That’s been like trying to pull a sock out of my dog’s mouth.

Oh, plenty of dog analogies come to mind when I think of Trump. When consuming the morning news, a cacophony that announces the fall of America, I am a Rottweiler running wild in a candy store, snatching treats until someone throws a net over me and drags me back onto the sidewalk. Trump himself tells a story of cities on fire, Black people seizing control of white women’s suburbs, rising crime rates and the certainty of fraud in the upcoming election. Vote twice to prove it, he says.

To different degrees, these are imaginary scenarios, but they do beg the question: He’s the president, why doesn’t he do something about them?

And Wednesday morning, the news arrived that Bob Woodward’s upcoming book on Trump, Rage, reveals that Trump was aware of the deadly nature of COVID-19 way back in early February, but chose to “play it down,” as he says on the tapes that Woodward released Thursday.

Yes, as was the case with another Woodward nemesis, Richard Nixon, there are tapes.

On Woodward’s recordings of his conversations with Trump, the president blithely admits that he’s downplaying the dangers of COVID-19 because he doesn’t want to panic the nation.

As we approach 200,000 dead Americans, does that sound like a good idea? Honestly, when faced with impending danger, do people go running willy-nilly from their homes, screaming, like they’ve just spotted Godzilla lumbering down their street?

Trump wasn’t watching over our tender psyches. He was watching out for his political career.

We’re not living in a horror movie. COVID-19 is real. If something threatens your life, be it radiation-engorged giant reptile or a microscopic virus, wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you rather make the decision on how to save your life, rather than leave it to a grifter like Trump and his co-conspirators?

So allow me to add one more conspiracy that emerged recently. When Trump told a Fox News reporter – there’s that misplaced word again – that:

We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend, and in the plane it was almost completely loaded with thugs, wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms, with gear and this and that.

Whoa! That sounds like trouble!

The reporter (I’m at a loss for the appropriate descriptor), Laura Ingraham, asked for details.

“I’ll tell you sometime,” Trump said. “It’s under investigation right now. But they came from a certain city. And this person was coming to the Republican National Convention. And there were like seven people on the plane like this person, and then a lot of people on the plane, to do big damage.”

“Coming for Washington,” Ingraham said.

“Yeah,” Trump assured her, “this is all happening.”

So who saw these thugs? Wearing the black uniforms of what organization? Coming from what city? What Federal agency is investigating this? How did the person on the plane know that these thugs were going to “do big damage?”

No one has answered any of these questions. No one ever will. With Trump, each week’s conspiracies are launched by what “some people say…” Trump, who vowed to honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else, has spewed more than 20,000 lies during his presidency, according to a running count kept by The Washington Post. And in his tale of dark forces on airplanes, likely henchmen of the Deep State, he was lying again.

We’re all trapped in the president’s fantasy world. How do we get out of here?

Baron Harkonnen watches the television in his White House bedroom, observing this disaster unfold. He’ll tell us how we get out of here. Sometime.

By then, it’ll be too late.

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