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


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!

Cutting Corners

My latest piece of flash prose published in Philly-based Cleaver Magazine. Fantastic experience working with the editor Karen Rile. And what an honor to appear alongside such skilled writers!

For a butter knife it was sharp. My grandmother must have had it for a long time. Its blade was truncated by a fracture, rust collecting at the end of its one-inch length, at the site of the break. I was never sure if she kept it because of some sentimental attachment or a deep-seated sense of Soviet scarcity made more acute by the still fresh memories of the deprivations of the Great War, which was only two decades behind her. I was attached to my distorted reflection looking back at me from its heavy silver handle. [Read more]



I remember your aftershave wafting after
You left my room
The ambivalence of a cheek flirting with
Its own rough edges
You wrestled a blizzard
— Visibility zero, temperature -40 —
The aftertaste of frozen tears

That afternoon I was the aftermath
Lost in the afterthought of shattered glass

A letter to Bernie

Oh, Bernie! I loved you, man! You were the guy in the Senate who stood by his principles, making the tea party assholes look like the assholes they are. You have always been concerned about the people, not the ones with endless zeros in their bank accounts, but the ones with zero stuff in the world, those left behind, those forgotten and trampled by the capitalist goliath. You were the one with principles, the one pushing the Democrats to the right… ahem, forgive me, the correct side of most issues. I didn’t always agree with you, but I sure liked your intensity and conviction.

So when you declared your candidacy, I was excited. Here I was, feeling the abundance of competence in both my major candidates, pride in their integrity and experience. Before my state primary, I struggled and searched my soul to choose between you and Hillary. Now, a year later, I hardly recognize you, Bernie, even though you and I are alike, and maybe even because of it.

No, I am not a man, I am not 74 and I am not from Brooklyn. But there is something about you that is familiar, that reminds me of my friends and family from this country and the old. The way you think, the way you debate, the way you are not afraid to be in the minority. But there is something else in you that reminds me of me. You and I, we are not team players. And for me, for the path I have chosen in life, that’s OK. For you? It is fraught. Politics is about coalitions. Successful politics is about banding together to accomplish your vision. You have not.

There is another way in which you remind me of me. When I practiced medicine, it was the diagnosis that intrigued me. I became an ICU doctor precisely because of the mysteries that I had to solve rapidly, while wrangling the fire hose of historical, clinical and laboratory data. Once I diagnosed, however (and, boy, you and I, we are both good at that), I lost all interest in treatment (well, not enough to walk away, you understand, but enough to find the subsequent steps tedious). I guess it’s a good thing I left practice.

And I have to say, that your lack of interest in the details of effecting your dreams scares me. If not you, who? And what scares me even more is that, in all the years you have been proposing this stuff, and over the past year of your campaign, you have not whittled away at the vagueness, have not articulated the path, have not given me something tangible to hold on to. And the fact that you have exactly zero foreign policy experience concerns me even more.

There are many think pieces these days about why people are stepping away from you, Bernie. It’s your flip-flops on whether or not you will run a smear campaign, your inconsistent views on superdelegates, your blind, data-free insistence that you are the more electable candidate against Trump. While I don’t like any of it, I do understand. I think it was Frank Underwood in “House of Cards” who said something happens to you when you get close to the White House door. You have felt that closeness, haven’t you? It has changed you — who would expect anything else?

And this is exactly what makes you human, and fallible, and impure. Yes, impure. And this should endear you more, but instead I am repelled. I am repelled precisely because you cannot see it, cannot admit your flaws, cannot fess up to the obvious.

Hillary is not a saint. We have all watched her for the last 35 years like a bug under the microscope. She makes stupid gaffes, changes her mind, refuses to respond to what she deems unfair and unequal intrusion. She also listens, she engages, she thinks. And yes, she compromises.

You don’t. You write off compromise as impure. You have no tolerance for divergent opinions. Even though I am not 74, I am too old for that.

Bernie, I am not going to pretend that I voted for you in the primary and that now you have lost me. I didn’t, but you did have me. I appreciated you, and made an informed choice to vote for your opponent. And I am bitterly disappointed that the last few months have have given me so much justification in my choice. The drag is that when I voted for Hillary in the primary it was not a vote against you. Now, after months of smears, innuendo and gamesmanship, I am turning away from your hypocrisy.

But here is the deal, Bernie. If by some miracle of numbers you win the nomination, I will be your ardent supporter. And no, there will be no cognitive dissonance for me, since the alternative is unthinkable to anyone with two neurons to rub together, even though you are not my ideal candidate. I am not “Hillary or bust” not because I am ambivalent about her, but because I am old enough to know that you don’t get everything you want every time, and that petulance, especially in this election year, could be deadly. I will go all out for you.

I haven’t given up on you, Bernie. I still hope that you are the man with the values and ideals that you espoused and that drew me and so many others to you. And that even if you don’t win the nomination, you can overcome your habitual discomfort with teams and become a member of Hillary’s team, our team, to make our country the best that it can be.

Your once (and future?) supporter