Thou shalt not fear thy neighbor

I went for a walk yesterday. I do it a lot here in my town nestled into the foothills of the Berkshires in the Western part of the blue state of Massachusetts. A curtain of mist had settled in the distance upon the hay fields, the bare tree crowns peering out above its straight upper border.

On days like this, when the cold hasn’t yet reached the ferocity of the deep New England winter, a teeshirt with a down coat will do. If cold, I zip the coat all the way to my chin. But when I overheat, there is the option to unzip and let the cold air chill me. And on this ordinary late fall day here in Massachusetts, for the first time since I arrived in the US as a teenager in 1977, I am giving my choice of teeshirts some thought for reasons other than fashion.

You see, when I got up yesterday morning, I put on my Clinton/Kaine 2016 shirt, and its soft blue still envelops me as I lace up my hiking boots. My coat on, reaching for the door handle, I realize the potential thorniness of walking on our roads, coat open, my chest advertising my implicit resistance against what has been elected.

Now, it’s not a secret that Massachusetts is and always has been a blue state, our penchant for electing Republican governors notwithstanding. Yet when parsed, all this means is the majority of our voters overall go Dem. This leaves a substantial swath to support the other side. And generally, it’s good for a Democracy when people don’t walk in lockstep, don’t all fall in line with a single governing philosophy, do challenge each other’s views and convictions. Dissent is patriotic and Democratic, after all. But this election season has been different, and now, with my damp teeshirt clinging to me half-way through my walk, I am reluctant to unzip my coat.

To be precise, over 60% of Mass votes went to Hillary, and the breakdown in my small rural town was roughly the same. And when I walk around here, I always wave to the drivers going by, and stop to say “hi” to and chat with my neighbors. So you would think in a small rural town like mine, inhabited in part by Yanks with deep local roots and in part by city explants like myself, we can handle a political disagreement better than most. Yet I shrink when I see a Trump flag hanging limply on a pole in my neighbor’s front yard, a flag that either wasn’t there before the election day or that I hadn’t noticed in my blind trust in the wisdom of our voters.

I keep walking, and I see my neighbor R., an older man whom I have known for years, though not well. He is walking from the garage to the front door. R. is the one you can see everywhere in our town, no job too big or too small. Need a trail cleared from a felled tree? R. is there with his chainsaw and rolled up sleeves. Looking to place a memorial bench for a beloved member of the community after her unexpected death? R. delivers and installs it. A while ago, he was our animal control officer, driving into our driveways in his pickup, making sure the dogs’ licenses were up to date, and the chickens were treated humanely.

I don’t know for whom R. voted, though if I had to guess… A few months ago, at the time many of us were vigorously protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline through our state, the sign in his yard urged “Build the Pipeline,” its slogan tinged with something close to hope about American jobs.

Since the election I’ve been wanting to reach out to my neighbors, if only to understand how they deal with the cognitive dissonance of electing a serial liar, racist, misogynist, homophobic know-nothing with self-confessed history of sexual assault to the highest office in the land. I want to understand their priorities, their views, want to convince myself their choice wasn’t driven by the same rank -isms their candidate continues to flaunt. But how to start?

I take out my earbuds and walk up R.’s driveway toward him.

“Hey, long time,” I say. “I haven’t seen you in a few weeks. How are you?”

“I see you all the time,” he says, his green Carhartt jacket open, the plaid shirt underneath covered in wood dust. “You walk here a lot.”

“Yeah,” I say, “You should come with me sometime.”

“I don’t walk,” he replies. I know, he is too busy working on projects, his own and our town’s.

I turn to walk away, but hesitate, move closer toward him instead and pull him into an embrace. He hugs me back for a long moment before we part with a “goodbye, see you again soon.”

Here in my rural town in the foothills of the Berkshires we haven’t been hit with the wave of hate crimes gripping the nation since the election. The similarities in our skin hues hide a number of more subtle differences of religion, ethnicity, sexuality, philosophy. Everyone here still waves back, still says “hello” with a smile. But I feel that cold fear in my gut now, the fear that until three weeks ago would have been an anachronism, a useless left-over of my childhood in the Soviet Union.

I don’t want to live in a place where I have to worry for my safety and the safety of my loved ones. I don’t want to live in a place where accents and different skin tones and opposing views are not welcome. I don’t want to live in a place where I have to question the decency of people whom until just a few weeks ago I knew to be decent.

I will be walking with my coat wide open. I will be hugging R. again, and perhaps my other neighbors with their flaccid Trump flag. I will not let fear determine my actions. Because, as someone very wise recently said to me, if I do, the big nefarious “THEY” has already won.

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When fascism comes to town

Well, so much for the “in-betweenness of being.” Nothing in-between about this — hate has won this round.

I know, I know, I too have friends and neighbors who voted for him. They are people whom I love and respect (respected?), and I am pretty sure that hate wasn’t the driver in their minds. But hate is what’s here.

What else can I call it? I cannot turn away from the heinous campaign rhetoric about immigrants, ethnic minorities, from the racism, homophobia and virulent violence against women this campaign traded in (I will not link to those horrific images here; we all witnessed them in real time). The image of the now President-Elect mocking a disabled reporter at one of his rallies haunts me; I have not seen such deplorable behavior from a serious contender for public office, let alone that of the President, in a long time. His election has legitimized violence and enshrined ignorance.

Stephen Bannon is now the President-Elect’s chief strategist. In case you are not familiar with this man’s history, here is a comprehensive article about him from Bloomberg. Briefly, he the alt-right’s (read neo-nazis, white supremacists) propagandist-in-chief. It would be redundant for me to recount all of the evidence now, but here is a link to a recent HuffPo article that samples at least some of the hateful pernicious lies he purveys through his Breitbart news organization. Oh, and if you think this man is not a threat to our Democracy, think again: his organization is already preparing a law suit against free press. (And if we don’t have free press, I am afraid we will, just like that song, be “back in the USSR.” But that’s a tale for another day. And I will tell it, since I experienced that brand of dictatorship first hand.) This tactic is a page out of Peter Thiel’s playbook, the self-hating gay man in the fold of this bigotry machine. This strategy was used by him to exact a personal vendetta from Gawker, putting them out of business for outing him.

The KKK has endorsed the President-Elect, and they are jubilant about his victory. They are holding rallies to celebrate his victory. This is one of the most dangerous hate groups in the US, and THEY ARE CELEBRATING OUR NEW PRESIDENT! Let that sink in. And, please, don’t lie to yourself: their endorsement is not a coincidence, no; it is the very essence of this campaign of hate. Think about it, if you were a group with a radical agenda, would you be ebullient about a candidate who did not advance it? Exactly. Here is an article that lays out this argument far more eloquently than I can.

I can believe the discontent felt by a large swath of the American voters that compelled them to vote for this man. But I cannot believe that they will now sit by and watch this spectacular assault on all of our values in silence, worse, cheer it on. Is this really who we are now?

I will leave you with the words attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” And guess what: it’s here.

Elections, statistics, and the in-betweenness of being

There are lies, there are damned lies, and then there are statistics. In statistics we create variables, then look at them from all angles, move them around our mouths, masticating their meanings. We swing at them, we grab them, we lurch to save ourselves from their crooked trajectories. But first of all, we categorize them, wrangle them into shapes that will speak to us whether they like it or not. Sometimes it feels like a forced confession, as in “assume a spherical cow.” But that is the way we make sense of the universe. Because God is a mathematician.

Some variables are categorical. They are like sunflower seeds – a kernel (category: edible) and a hull (category: inedible). Some of the variables have a handful of categories (race, for instance), while others limit themselves to forced binaries (dead/alive, male/female, single/married, young/old, you get the picture). We like binary variables; they are easy to work with.

Other variables are continuous. They are like a ripe peach – each bite its own peach essence. These are the variables with tedious trails of possible values. They are age, height, weight, blood pressure just to name a few. They are messy, exist on a continuum and don’t readily self-categorize without some imposed order of a reference value. These are the variables we force into means, medians and modes in order to understand them. They are thorny, mutinous. We subordinate them with our functions, our programming code, whip them into shapes that are manageable, shapes we can understand and draw conclusions from.

If you think about it, even those variables that we call categorical aren’t so easy to categorize. Dead or alive may seem like a simple dichotomy, but how many of us have known people in-between? My patients in the ICU spent days and sometimes months in the purgatory of neither. Though by virtue of maintaining some of their bodily functions they were considered technically alive, by other mathematical estimations they could just as easily have been classified as dead – artificial respiration, artificial circulation, artificial kidney function, etc.

More to the point, such dichotomies as single vs. married fell by the wayside decades ago, when shacking up became a thing, a culturally acceptable phenomenon. And again, the dichotomy of acceptable/unacceptable fails here: acceptable to whom, to which part of the culture?

Male/female binary is being destroyed before our very eyes by the current generation of brave souls who, despite crushing societal disapprobation, forge their own courses in these stormy waters, reminding all of us living in the safety of our deeply worn trenches of our younger, less certain days, when we lived the “both and” rather than “either or.” Even race, according to genetics, is more of a social construct than a biological reality. So do these categories really help us understand our world, or are they just cramming the complexities into an irrelevant ill-fitting cubbyhole?

The world is becoming more continuous, fewer splines, fewer sharp distinctions, more curves and connections. This destruction of the false security of categories is leaving me with a sense of vertigo, but also of wonder and curiosity. (Which are themselves, incidentally, categories.) And some of my fellow humans are choosing to dig deeper trenches, to stay in what they think was once a great America, where “girls were girls and men were men,” where minorities could be easily categorized into black or Hispanic, where you were either straight or gay, and you knew who was a pervert, a criminal, a thug. In those days in that great America people did not hover between life and death, throwing families into alternating states of hope and despair.

In that great America there were three classes – the upper, the middle and the lower, simple categorical variables, easy to cram into a consistent picture of enviable clarity. But what always lurked under these categories are the details of the continua they obscured. You didn’t just wake up one day in the upper class, traversing a financial distance from here to infinity. No, the awakening after the New Deal, after the Great War was to the possibility of the middle category, spanning a coveted but limited segment of wealth, just enough to keep people satisfied. Because satisfied people don’t question. And because categories confirm our understanding of the world, naturally there needed to be a class to elevate all others, a class to look down upon, a class to grind into the dirt, the lower class. The line, however, was thin, where these categories needed to keep the illusion of fluidity, where social mobility was the carrot for all. Life was simple and great in that America, especially if you could move up. And didn’t we all dream of moving up?

The demolition of categories is a double-edged sword. It is a snake you let into your home that will poison your family, the serpent who will enchant you into eating from the tree of knowledge. It is the sledgehammer that destroys the status quo, fills in the trenches, exposes the truth of the continuum. It pulls apart the curtains of our misguided thinking, destroys an outdated model of what we have grown to see as truth.

This election season has been about demolition. Like an ice storm it is pruning dead branches and dying ideas.If we are wise, this election is tilling the field, turning shit into compost, and we will emerge smarter, kinder, more awake, uncomfortable to be sure, but with a better understanding of our world and our selves. There is no suppressing this rebellion, this fracturing of categories, this emergence of the blinding complexity so frightening and exciting to the human brain.

 At my computer I do not yet know of other ways to examine data. I still have to impose my will in order to make the numbers spill their secrets. I am still the KGB officer and they fallen dissidents. My computer is an orderly array of zeros and ones, the ultimate rejection of the continuous. The analog world around me is infinite, not subject to binary limitations. Not either man or woman, not either black or white, not either Democrat or Republican. Not either Liberty or Justice. Not either Equality or Freedom. No. Both at the same time. And everything in-between.

I am nasty woman, and I know you, Mr. Trump

 

hillary-clinton-nasty-woman
Photo credit: Getty images
Dear Mr. Trump,

I am not a beautiful woman. I am in my fifties, short, a little fat, with unruly hair, which in its new stiff and graying incarnation requires frequent cropping. In adolescence my bushy eyebrows were a unibrow I resisted waxing. When I was a girl, I had a gaping diastema, which mercifully all but disappeared without braces. I never took to make-up or pretty clothes or elegant shoes with six-inch heels. In short, not supermodel material. And yet, despite being what you, Mr. Trump, would have called “a dog” or “Miss Piggy,” I too have experienced sexual harassment and assault from males of varying ages, even those old enough to be my father or grandfather. I am proof that your, Mr. Trump, strategic campaign to discredit your alleged victims by disparaging their looks as evidence of your innocence is no evidence of your innocence. Because, let me tell you, even “dogs” get sexually assaulted.

The first time was when I was six. At a birthday party, a man, the father of one of the guests, invited my friend and me to climb into his lap. We did, since to do otherwise would have been disrespectful, and sat facing each other. His breath smelled of cigarettes and vodka, and he proceeded to slither his fingers into our underwear while making darting boozy eye contact with us. It didn’t take us long to abandon his lap. At that time, I was naïve enough to think his behavior unusual, and told my parents what happened. I recall the man being invited to our apartment for a “talk,” and subsequently witnessing him leave the said apartment with the look of a ghost. I don’t know what my parents said to him, but I am grateful they took me seriously. We never mentioned it again.

Fast forward five years, and I am on a crowded bus going across town, my grandmother seated in a window seat, when I feel a hardness push into my buttocks. The hardness doesn’t back off even when the crowd disperses. I am frozen partly from curiosity and partly from fear. He stood behind me the entire 30-minute trip, pushing up against my dress with a dropped waist, the pattern of large crimson poppies like handprints on the grey silk of the fabric. His crotch and my eleven-year-old ass were the only points of contact between our bodies, and I did not dare turn to look at him. When everyone alighted at the final stop, his appearance surprised me – short, balding, clean, no attempt at eye contact. I wouldn’t learn the word “frottage” for another decade.

My final brush with sexual assault came during my medical residency training in Boston on a morning commute on the Red Line. It was your kind of a pussy grab, Mr. Trump, except it turned into a grabus interruptus, as I knocked the offender’s hand out of the way before it reached its destination. Still I commuted by bicycle or a car for the rest of my training.

These three incidents, so familiar to most women, were propped on a lattice of smaller, though no less damaging assaults. The boys in third grade who, standing behind me in line, laughed about the lack of space between my chunky thighs. A family friend my grandmother’s age, after hugging me a little too closely for a little too long, gazing hungrily at me, commented on my beautiful smile. A colleague camp counselor, a handsome youth of eighteen, who in response to my particularly clever debate point, bored his icy stare into my face and called me an “ugly shit.”

So you see, Mr. Trump, even though I am an “ugly girl,” I know you. The likes of you have groped me and frottered me and tried to grab my pussy. And when I didn’t meet their standards, they “educated” me about my place in this world. I am in good company: Rosie O’Donnell, Angelina Jolie, Carly Fiorina, your daughter Ivanka, your many wives, Miss USA contestants have all fallen prey to your third grade worldview. And when all else fails, when your catastrophically microscopic vocabulary has been exhausted, it is the conclusion “nasty woman” that sums up your opinion of anyone who bruises your Chinese porcelain ego.

Mr. Trump, you don’t really have standards – not moral ones, not ethical ones and not beauty ones. The truth is, Trump, you would grope me and frotter me if I allowed it, and you would feel like a king if I encouraged it. You are that simple. Because small men like you, Trump, require constant affirmations of your dominance, no matter how insignificant, the way a vampire requires blood. And if I thwarted your attempts or worse, revealed them to the world, you would ridicule the very idea that you could ever notice an “ugly dog” like me, let alone expend your sexual energy on her. And some men would laugh knowingly. Because that’s how they got away with it too.

Mr. Trump, on the eve of your epic loss to the most qualified candidate ever to run for the office of President of the United States of America, I and the majority of my fellow Americans see your bluster for what it really is: the final desperate gasps of a would-be emperor without clothes. And what poetic justice there is in witnessing the land mines of your own words and deeds take you down. I should pity you under such circumstances, and then try to access compassion. But, Mr. Trump, I am just an ordinary nasty woman. I am sitting back to enjoy the spectacle. Pass the popcorn, please!