My New Year’s Resolutions (May Contain Trump)

2017

Sorry, this is going to be really self-indulgent. I mean, who fills up a blog with their New Year’s resolutions as though anybody cares?

Resolutions:

  1. Stop apologizing for being self-indulgent. Especially about my own blog. (Actually, I should stop apologizing quite so much all around. My friend Teresa pointed it out to me once and I told her I thought I was being kind of charmingly Britishy, like occasionally saying “I reckon” or “that’s rubbish.” But I think she’s right. I reckon it’s probably a way to forestall other people finding fault with me first.)
  2. Fight Trumpism. This is different from fighting Trump himself. The bloviating Cheeto has given birth to his hideous progeny, this loose conglomeration of ideals and values, and now it can exist independently from Trump himself. How do I see Trumpism?
    • Valuing personal success over the good of the community
    • Devaluing of constitutional rights
    • Normalization of vicious stereotypes based on ethnicity, religion, and country of origin
    • A self-serving and cynical treatment of facts and of truth-telling
    • Treating women as objects to be viewed, grabbed, used, and cast aside
    • Horrible syntax
    • Adulation of the strong, rich, and powerful
    • Disdain of the weak, poor, and disenfranchised
    • Kleptocracy
    • An unhealthy obsession with the size of one’s hands
  3. Exercise.
  4. Exorcise. My inner demons, that is, mostly the twins insecurity and perfectionism.
  5. Write more. Because FFS, how can I call myself a writer if I don’t write? No more namby-pamby excuses. What I produce may be garbage, but it will be MY garbage.
  6. Refuse to allow anybody else to tell me to worry about Thing A instead of Thing B. I am perfectly capable of worrying about climate change and petulant PEOTUS tweets and Hamilton and SNL and fascism and whether the cashier at the grocery store thought my jokes were weird. When it comes to worrying, I contain multitudes.
  7. Worry less.
  8. Eat more vegetables. Ancillary to this: stop counting No-High-Fructose-Corn-Syrup Strawberry-Banana V-8 (“contains one whole serving of vegetables!”) as a serving of vegetables.
  9. Get a thicker skin.
  10. But not so thick I become hidebound or insensitive.
  11. Be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend. (If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of these. Let me know how I can do better, ‘kay?)
  12. Be better at asking for forgiveness when I can’t do or be any of the above (like, pretty much always). That includes forgiving myself.

Love to all of you, and I hope you have a joyful, fulfilling, peaceful, and prosperous 2017!

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I am George III, Know You Not That?: On Trump, Hamilton, and Shakespeare

Theater is a distillation, not a distraction.

Like most of America, I have a lot of thoughts about the statement Brandon Victor Dixon read to Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence after the November 18th production of Hamilton and Donald Trump’s tweeted reaction.

There are those who think it was disrespectful for the cast to call out a member of the audience. “You go to the theater to be entertained,” those folks say, “not to have politics shoved down your throat!”

If that’s your take, you might want to stop reading now. You’re not going to like what I have to say.

There are others who will argue that by focusing so much on this Hamilton controversy, I’m falling into Trump’s trap of redirecting attention from his other scandals, especially the news, announced the same day, of the $25 million fraud settlement in the Trump U case.

Those folks have a point: we need to pay attention to as many of Trump’s misdeeds as we can. But this critique implies the theater is somehow not a part of the larger political world, that it is a distraction from “the real world.” I couldn’t disagree more. Theater is a distillation, not a distraction.

(But, because I agree that it’s imperative for us to hold Donald Trump accountable for all of his decisions, here’s a partial list of the things I’m also paying attention to: the $25 million settlement in the fraud case mentioned above; the appointment of white-supremacist, misogynist, anti-semitic Steve Bannon as chief strategist; Trump’s many business ties to Russia; the evidence that Russia hacked the 2016 election; the choice of a Jeff Sessions, a man considered too racist to be a federal judge 30 years ago, as Attorney General; and the choice of an islamophobic national security advisor. There are a lot more. Feel free to add them in the comments.)

I can worry about all of this and still have thoughts about what happened at Hamilton. As I tweeted on Saturday, when it comes to worrying (paraphrasing Whitman) “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Okay, now that all that is out of the way….

I have always thought that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is like a first cousin to Shakespeare’s Henriad (which comprises Richard II, Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V). Like Richard II, Hamilton depicts the overthrow of a king. Like Henry IV, Part I, Hamilton addresses the aftermath of that overthrow and subsequent internecine conflicts. Like Henry IV, Part 2, Hamilton embraces the place of the tavern and the commons.

But most of all, Hamilton reminds me of Henry V with its looming questions of succession and its grappling with ideas of nationhood, national identity, and pluralism, the political role of the center and the periphery. Where Henry V expands the definition of “Englishness” with its inclusion of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish soldiers, Hamilton defends an inclusive and expansive meaning of “Americanness”–insisting on the fulfillment of the promise of equality–by casting people of color in main roles.

But with the aftermath of the performance on November 18th, these days Hamilton is reminding me most of Richard II in the way the play has adapted to and entwined with contemporary political crises.

The staging of Richard II has a history of being famously controversial. By depicting the deposing of a king (in very immediate and symbolic ways), the play skates perilously close to treason. Elizabeth I has long (if erroneously) been reported to have said, “I am Richard II know you not that?” And supporters of the Earl of Essex paid the Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II on the eve of the Essex rebellion.

Richard II may or may not have been written with these intentions in mind. Art is funny like that—it morphs and mutates, takes on a life of its own.

Similarly, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was written before Trump’s election, but the social and political ideas running through it have unintended connotations and consequences.

According to audience members at the November 18th production, there were two moments in the musical that served as touchstones.

The first occurred in this famous exchange between Lafayette and Hamilton in “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”:

COMPANY:
The battle of Yorktown. 1781

LAFAYETTE:
Monsieur Hamilton

HAMILTON:
Monsieur Lafayette

LAFAYETTE:
In command where you belong

HAMILTON:
How you say, no sweat
We’re finally on the field. We’ve had quite a run

LAFAYETTE:
Immigrants:

HAMILTON/LAFAYETTE:
We get the job done

hamilton

That line (“Immigrants/We get the job done”) caused the audience to erupt in cheers. Small wonder when Trump has been declaring that he will deport immigrants, build walls, and deny Muslims entry into the country based on an unconstitutional religious test.

The other big moment of the night, though, shows how Hamilton has adapted to current political crisis: King George singing “What Comes Next.” According to this account of the performance in Fortune,

 “The audience members weren’t the only ones reacting to Pence’s presence. King George III, played by Rory O’Malley, reportedly sang portions of “What Comes Next?” directly at Pence and had to pause the song for a standing ovation after he sang the words, “When your people say they hate you.”

In the direct aftermath of the evening, Pence was silent (he has since then, in an interview with Fox News, said of the audience booing “that’s what freedom sounds like”).

Donald Trump, however, was neither so generous nor so well-spoken, tweeting out:

My view: Trump’s response had little to do with any concern for Pence. Rather, Trump took the audience’s reaction as a personal insult. I don’t know whether Trump has seen Hamilton or read the lyrics or heard the music. But I can imagine Trump seeing himself in the portrayal of King George: rich beyond the imagination of the people he represents; unwilling to listen to criticism; petulant, childish, and out of his depth.

So far Trump has only claimed to be King of Debt, but he is not far from some Trumpish version of “I am King George III know you not that?”

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After Trump, What?

The AP just announced that Donald Trump will be President of the United States.

trump

The man who has declared that America’s top priority will be walling ourselves off from our neighbors and who thinks climate change is a hoax. The man who wants religion to be a litmus test for citizenship. The man who helps himself to women’s bodies even when they object.

The man who has done nothing for America will now be its leader.

And that fact is making me feel small and sad and helpless.

I don’t know what to say to my teenage daughters to make them feel better. “Work hard and you’ll succeed”? “This is the land of opportunity”? This election has shown those to be feel-good lies. Hillary Clinton worked hard and was one of the most qualified candidates in American history. And yet her 30 years of public service meant nothing when faced with a man with no political experience, no policy expertise, and no concern for America’s position in the world.

I keep wondering what tomorrow will look like. For me, on the surface, it will be much the same. I am a privileged, white, heterosexual woman: sadly, these things make me safer than other Americans. My fears are not immediate like those of my loved ones, my dear friends and family, who must worry about their fellow citizens, emboldened by a Trump victory to act on their racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

What can I do? What can any of us do?

I have no idea. I don’t know what it will look like to push back against xenophobia and fear and small-mindedness.

For now, this is what feels radical and revolutionary: to be good, kind, and loving. To be logical and reasonable. To open my home and my heart with courage and love. To talk and, more importantly, to listen.

And to do this, I’ll need your help, friends. We’ll need to protect each other from harm and love each other through times of misery and pain. We’ll need to celebrate our joys and laugh with each other.

We’ll need a radical and transformative love that will save us from ourselves.

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Much Ado About Doodles

One of the best things about being an independent scholar (whatever that term means) is that my enthusiasms are no longer policed by the academy.

Note: Which is not to say that academics are unenthusiastic about their topics. It’s a truism that academics have a proprietary relationship–well, really, they fall in love with–the subjects of their research. One need only go to an academic conference and watch people unabashedly nerding out about Chaucer or planetary rovers or chaos theory to know that’s true.

No, this is all a very long way of talking about how I saw some of John Dee’s books—and the doodles, notes, and marginalia within—and am unconstrained in saying that it was pretty freaking magical.

Portrait of John Dee. Sixteenth Century, artist unknown. Original in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

Portrait of John Dee. Sixteenth Century, artist unknown. Original in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

***

The circumstances that led up to my sitting in the reading room of the Royal College of Physicians, quietly waiting to pay my respects to Dee’s books, were a perfect example of the kind of generosity of spirit and collegiality among many academics on Twitter. I had heard that the Royal College of Physicians would be doing an exhibit on John Dee, the 16th-century magus and mathematician who is widely thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero (Scholar, courtier, magician: The lost library of John Dee). Unfortunately for me, the exhibit was ending in late July, and I wouldn’t be in England until late August. I was sure I would miss this chance of a lifetime. I bemoaned my luck on Twitter, tweeting out “Oh, to be in England, while John Dee is there…”

Within a day I was thrilled to have a response from R. Satterley (@rsatterley), tagging the curator of the exhibit, Katie Birkwood. Katie generously offered to show me some of the highlights of the exhibit when I was in London, a month after the official end of the show. Katie spent almost an hour with me, and we talked about a wide and fascinating array of topics: how the books were stolen from Dee’s library and found their way to the Royal College of Physicians; Dee’s wife, Jane Dee, and what her life might have been like (in a word–odd); and Dee’s mathematical interests and drive to codify and record everything from the weather to his wife’s menstrual periods. Katie was so very kind and immensely knowledgeable. Thanks, Katie! <waves>

The first thing Katie showed me was, she said, one of her favorite parts of the exhibition: a doodle Dee had drawn (probably in 1545 when he was a student at Cambridge, as Katie notes in the video below starting around 2:40). It was found in a compendium of Cicero’s work’s, tucked in a corner by a poem about the “foaming, frothing seas.” The drawing is of a ship that seems almost to glide off the page, the perspective foreshortened in such a way that it floats toward the viewer. I had viewed the digitized image before my trip, but seeing it in person had a much more visceral effect. I was embarrassed to say this to Katie, fearing it would be too fanciful, but it reminded me very much of the scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, in which Eustace, Lucy, and Edmund stare at a painting of a ship rolling on the sea, staring gape-mouthed as it materializes in front of them until they are drawn into the cold, salty ocean.

That idea—of a picture, a doodle, a painting that manifests itself in person, that jumps the dimension between concept and object, the materiality of that idea—captured my imagination. I started thinking about the differences in seeing a picture of an object and the object itself. Why did it seem different, somehow, to experience these books in person rather than to view them on my computer, 7,000 miles away? Do we know, at some deep, molecular level, that we are in the presence of the thing itself? Does that materiality connect us more intimately than an image separated by distance and time? Is it all in our imagination, and if so, is that any less real?

I’m reminded of one of the best stories I’ll ever be able to tell in my life.

Five years ago, the magnificent Ursula K. Le Guin came to my local library with photographer Roger Dorband to talk about their book Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country. At dinner after the presentation, the table talk drifted to how, let’s be honest, there’s something a little weird about wanting an author’s signature on a book. As Le Guin put it (paraphrasing here), “I’m happy to do it, of course, but I do think sometimes, ‘I’ve just given you my words—thousands of them!’” We talked about how the signature seemed like a material proof of connection, of experience. My husband nodded sagely and said, “Hmmm, maybe you could just lick the book instead?” (For the record: Le Guin laughed and laughed, and when it came time to leave, she gave my husband a little pretend air lick.)

It was all great fun, but really, I think there’s something there.

At the risk of sounding as esoteric as Dee, I think books and writing retain some residue of the people they’ve encountered. “Books speak to us,” we say, and sometimes I wonder if we’re being strictly metaphorical. Why else do we run our fingers over their spines, trace the lettering on their backs and covers, flip through pages as though visiting an old friend? There’s something profound about the physical manifestation of our most cherished ideas, thoughts, experiments, and emotions made solid and shared, a way for people to connect across time and space through the simple touch of a pen to paper.

Or you know what? Maybe this is just a flight of fancy of my own. Maybe this deep sense of connection we feel when seeing somebody’s actual writing, or doodling, or jotting of notes, the joy and connection people find when an author has signed their book, is all in our imaginations. But I ask you: If so, does that make it any less magical?

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What Depression Is

Depression is a big, skittery spider that you tried to smash with a book or some other heavy object but it got away and now it’s hiding in a dark corner of your bedroom so you stay awake all night because you know it will be back.

Depression is a big wave in the ocean that pushes you over and pulls you out into dangerous surf and then gets in your eyes so that everything looks wrong and blurry, and it makes you cry (so much water, so much salt) and you can’t tell if your loved ones are reaching out their hands to pull you up to safety or to point and laugh.

Depression is that long, decaying wooden bridge in all those Indiana Jones movies, and you’ve got to run across it carrying your shining golden treasure (so beautiful, so fragile) and you don’t know which of the wooden boards is going to splinter under the weight of you, making you watch in horror as your rare treasure plummets through the air and shatters on the ground in a million shards.

Depression is the mean girl in middle school with the silken hair and the serpent’s tongue who tells you you’re too fat, too dumb, too ugly to be loved.

Depression is the sweet girl in middle school with the shy smile and kind eyes who tells you you’re too mean, too selfish, too cruel to be loved.

Depression is a fiend. Depression is a bitch. Depression is a thief and a liar.

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Melania Trump Steals Words

When I was teaching, I had to confront students about plagiarism far more than I would have liked. Never once did I have a “gotcha” moment. I hated it. I hated feeling like I had failed as a teacher to impart the importance of original work and/or the basics of how to (intentionally or unintentionally) avoid stealing other people’s words. I hated the look of shame in students’ eyes when I said the word “plagiarism.” I hated the chill that settled over the classroom when I lectured about it.

But I’m realizing now that the reason the whole topic was so charged was that my students and I cared.

Not once, after they were confronted with evidence of plagiarism, did I have students try to deny it. Those who’d done it intentionally felt badly and gave reasons that they’d cheated. Those who’d done it unintentionally also felt badly and promised to do whatever it took to make things right.

Not once did I have a student say it was no big deal.

It’s the denial of any sort of responsibility or moral culpability that’s so shocking in the Republicans’ response to Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech.

Melania_Knauss-Trump

Photo: Marc Nozell from Merrimack, NH, USA (Wikimedia Commons)

Trump’s campaign chairperson Paul Manafort chalked up the similarities to the commonness of the words and ideas expressed. (Well, there are no uncommon words in “to be or not to be,” either, but you don’t find people claiming authorship of Hamlet’s soliloquy.)

Manafort even had the gall to blame the debacle on Hillary Clinton, even though the plagiarism was first noticed by independent journalist Jarrett Hill. Per Manafort, “It’s just another example, as far as we’re concerned, that when Hillary Clinton is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy the person.”

Ultimately, the Trump campaign is trying to pass this off as a tempest in a teapot. Here’s why it’s not, at least to me.

For me, writing is hard. Damn hard. I have to go in, in , in: I have to probe into the whirling mass of thoughts and information stored in my brain, sort through the details of calendars and menus and the periodic table and the conversion rate of gallons to liters (1 to 3.79ish). I have to push all this to the side and think myself into The Thing, the idea or emotion I want to convey. For me, this takes enormous energy and focus, so much so that I often have to type with my eyes closed until I have the words right (which is why it’s sometimes so awkward to write in cafes). Then, once I have a taste of what The Thing is, a feel for it (sensory synonyms fail me here), I have to see if there are words that can capture The Thing.  Failing that, I have to verbally sidle up next to whatever The Thing is (thought or idea or feeling) and point to it, mime it, gesture at it evocatively enough that a reader or listener knows what I mean.

To somebody on the outside looking in, I’m just sitting at the computer, eyes closed and squinting, fingers on keyboard, DOING NOTHING. But what I’m doing actually takes a lot of psychological and even physical energy.

Some might say Melania Trump’s plagiarism is no big deal because both Michelle and Melania’s speeches were written by speechwriters. But by all accounts, both women worked collaboratively with their respective staffs, and if you’ve ever written by committee, you know that the capture of those words and phrases is just as hard won.

No, Melania didn’t just use “common words” that anybody might have used. She stole ideas. She stole emotions. She stole a person’s history and values and hopes.

Melania Trump stole Michelle’s words, and she needs to apologize.

 

 

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“No man is an island”: Some thoughts on Brexit and the American tea party

It’s with some trepidation that I write a blog post about Brexit. I mean, I live almost 5,000 miles away from the UK, and most of what I know about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union comes from Twitter, newspapers, and magazines. I’m hardly in a position to provide any new observations.

What I can offer, however, is speculation about how something like Brexit might go down in the US.

I was really struck by the rhetoric and empty* promises of the Leave campaign , particularly by the pledge–splashed on posters, websites, and even on a massive bus–that the 350 million pounds the UK sent to the EU every week could instead be spent on the National Health Service.

brexit bus

I marvel that Brexit, the most fiscally irresponsible, blunder-headed, ill-conceived political campaign in decades nevertheless promised to shore up the social safety net.

Many have compared Brexit to the American tea party, but I just can’t imagine politicians like Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan (darlings, at various times, of the tea party) making a promise like that. I can’t envision them pledging that kind of money to health care, or schools, or even to infrastructure like roads and bridges.

No, tea partiers, I think, would promise that the money would go back in the taxpayer’s pocket.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to speculate what that means about the character of UK politics, but I certainly can say that it highlights the toxic individualism that seems to be taking over American political discourse, especially when it comes to guns and health care.

In my community in Southern Oregon, voters have repeatedly turned down funding for libraries and public safety.  I have seen many letters to the local paper that read, basically, “I’ve got my own books and I’ve got my own gun—why should I pay for yours?” It’s a weird sort of invincibility that ignores the horrifying truth: ours is a community in crisis. Our local social safety next isn’t just frayed around the edges, it has great, gaping holes. And it’s the most vulnerable—children, the elderly, the ill—who are likely to fall through.

I wondered what an analogous movement locally might look like, but it’s hard to find something similar when taking geographical scale into account. Oregon (98,466 square miles) is roughly the size of the UK (95,058 square miles). We do have a longstanding (since the 1940s) proposal to have sections of Southern Oregon and Northern California join together into a separate state called Jefferson, but that’s more of a secession than an exit.

I guess I’m still parsing out how I feel about all of this, but I do feel deeply envious of the assurances citizens of other countries have: health care, reasonable gun control, a secure physical infrastructure. And, despite the names that occasionally get hurled at me on Twitter for these opinions, I refuse to believe that wanting those things makes me a Communist.

I’ll just keep coming back to John Donne’s Meditation XVII:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

 

*Nigel Farage, for example, immediately walked back the pledge to send the 350 million pounds to the NHS within hours of the referendum

**Edited to add:

I’ve mentioned the funding crisis in Josephine County umpteen times on this blog. This FB exchange with my eloquent friend Kriston Eller sort of explains why:

KE:  Every time I read that you have no funding for libraries and public safety, I get 1st surprised all over again, even though I have read it many, many times; 2nd confused that this is even a thing that can happen in our country; 3rd disgusted that people can be so wrongheaded and selfish; and 4th angry that you have to tolerate that.

me: YES! And while I feel kind of silly for repeating it again and again and again (and again), I feel like I have to help keep it from being normalized (the whole “frog in the boiling water” thing).

KE: Oh, for sure. I really do think I go into a sort of denial about it because it’s just too stupid to be believed.

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