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Tuesday, June 19, 2018
"Should I Stay or Should I Go?" (current introduction of My Year 2018) [to be revised].
should i stay or should i go?
The 2018 volume of My Year, much like its predecessor, began very early on in the previous year, and was written basically parallel to that volume. In a sense, when you have established the borders, as I had in the 2017 subtitle of “Barbarians at the Gate,” you have already declared a notion of insider and outsider narratives. And, of course, that had been President Trump’s dialogue even before 2017: we had to build a wall not only to keep the “barbarians” out, but to establish what was our notion of being American and what was the “dangerous other.” And in that sense, this volume might almost be seen as a continuation of the madness expressed in My Year 2017, during the year when each new day seemed to proclaim a significant breakdown in American government and governance. Yes, the news sputtered on about Trump’s daily transgressions, and the major newspapers seriously tsked-tsked his actions, but the absurdity of his behavior and political actions were so egregious that no one, least of all his Republican followers, could possibly assimilate them.
I think the entire country, me among its citizens, were so daily stunned by the “noise” of his ridiculous assertions and political decisions that none of us quite knew how to respond, as if we were shell-shocked by this clown who had managed to wander into the American presidency. We might have been prepared to fight, but none of us could quite deal with the cynical absurdity, the kind of daily beat of a new kind of dictatorship that Trump drummed into our heads. I so recall not even wanting to get up, despite the fact that I am an early riser, to face the daily newspapers (we subscribe to both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times and listen every morning to CNN’s reports). What was the disaster of the morning, I always asked of myself, as I stumbled into the living room to face the media reports. The shock of the president’s daily twitters and tweets, along with the nearly always destructive policies of his cabinet members, sickened me and allowed to me to justify my natural alcoholic tendencies.
How could anyone like me, an old angry man, do what was needed to stop this madman? I didn’t have much money but tried to give as much as I could to the very disorganized Democratic Party. I cried a lot. I even wrote some essays, but after a while even the outraged pleas of my Facebook friends failed to move me. All seemed to have no effect. And suddenly I realized how the Germans must have felt in the early days of Hitler. How can you destroy such a fiend, when you, yourself, have been convinced you are simply a puny voice?
I had no friends of whom I knew of who had voted for Trump. My brother and sister back in Iowa—a state that regrettably had voted for Trump—had long ago assured me that they were not registered Republicans, and were, if nothing else, not Trump supporters. My own state of California voted strongly for Hillary Clinton. In fact, despite Trump’s attempts of denial, most of the country had voted strongly for Clinton. Why, given a few irate voters in states such as Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, were they holding us all hostage to the monster to which they had decided to support, I believe mostly out of hatred for the black president Obama, with a hostility to the democratic principles which had previously helped to make my country so great? Yes, I know this is a kind of simplicity. In these same states and others, many of which were suffering from vast unemployment and a strange over-prescription drugs, they had felt that they had been left out of whatever one might have imagined was the American Dream. I had never believed in The American Dream; but it doesn’t matter, they and many others had.
Many a critic attempted to describe the source of this national dissatisfaction, but few had convinced me with their explanations. The few had clearly—not for the first time—used the Electoral College to select a president not of the majority choice. Is it any wonder why the despicable, but desperate-to-be-loved Trump spent much of his first year in office trying to explain his choice as president by explaining that close to 3 million Americans had voted illegally? Or that he was determined to describe his inauguration ceremony as the largest event of all time? He was not loved, and he was unpopular, and he blamed the press, the opposing party, and even members of his own Republican constituents for those facts. Although the cartoon below expressed his view of “America First,” in Trump’s case, the expression should have read “Trump First.” America (a country that might never in his thinking be described as a United States) was clearly not as important as his own ego.
In his incompetent leadership, this man was clearly not even a Hitler, despite the fact that he desperately wanted to be a kind of dictator in the manner of Putin and other such iron-clad leaders (at one point even admitting that he wanted “his people” to sit up an listen to him like Korean dictator Kim)—anybody who led democracies to civically support democracy came under immediate suspicion, to this way of thinking, while true authoritarians he defined as models and friends—he accomplished in the first year nothing except to undo every civilized achievement Obama had accomplished, and to pass a tax bill that he and the Republicans lied about, suggesting it supported the middle-class (actually statistically a very small number of Americans these days), while it gave most of the benefits to the wealthy.
Fortunately, he often failed in his odious promises to undo American civil liberties, while undoing such major changes of the former administration that it will take years for individuals and organizations to regain their proper protections and simple dignity. You might describe his tenure, at least in this first year, as one who that accomplished a great deal in breaking down anything one might have thought of value. The saddest thing I have ever seen in my now fairly long life was how so many congressmen and senators went along with his ISIS-like destruction of the great artifices of previous presidential administrations, not only Obama’s, but those of Clinton, Carter, and Johnson—even the Bushs’ and Reagan, whose presidencies also troubled me.
Narrow-minded and loud-mouthed, with a propensity to lie about nearly everything, Trump displayed a verbal ignorance that has never before penetrated the presidential office since Andrew Jackson (one of Trump’s heroes), dismantling American icons as intently as the Taliban and ISIS soldiers had previously destroyed the masterworks of their own cultures. Many ignored him, even encouraged him, but most of us were utterly, if somewhat silently, shocked.
Since then, I have come to realize that individuals locked within a society so self-destructive often perceive the world in terms of an “inside/outside” perspective. Some, indeed, leave for the outside—several of my own personal friends being examples—while others of us are locked within, either because we feel too old to leave or can’t quite determine whether or not we might have an influence by remaining within, by staying behind. It’s not an easy determination, nor must it have been for Germans and other Europeans who began to suffer in the beginning of Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist rise. Can we still make a change, those of us who remain ask? Are things truly as bad as they appear to be? It’s not accidental, and incidental, that a popular hotel chain, Choice Hotels, uses The Clash’s song “Should I Stay, or Should I Go,” as a theme to question whether or not their guests might stay at home or leave to return to their hometowns for their class reunions and other events.
I had originally subtitled this book, “Inside Outside.” And it was not merely coincidental, surely, that after I had chosen that 2018 subtitle, early in 2017, that my friend Brad Morrow had chosen the title Inside Out: Architectures of Experience for the title of his 2017 volume of his magazine Conjunctions, or that my friend Joe Ross (an expatriate living in France) chose to write a new series of works, with others, based on the same title. Ross, as he explained to me, wanted to give new essays and writing a context of “inside and outside” of whatever the writers might define as their own global identities.
But over the year, I realized more and more, that it was not simply a matter of feeling “inside” or “outside” of a culture, but that we were all living in a world in which we might feel as if we were in “enemy territory.” Even though Trump might never be able to build his wall, we had all psychologically built up our own walls, as particularly those of us who were desiring to live in an international community, were truly living in enemy territory. Some of my friends had escaped, while I remained entrapped in a country with which I could longer identify. It was time to take on the fact that I wasn’t in a world of what might be perceived as documenting the inside and outside of it. I was already imprisoned, at least in the context of dialogue and discussion, as well as my personal actions. Suddenly I perceived it was no longer an issue of leaving or staying, but that, in my reticence to leave, I had already, at least psychologically become a prisoner of my own environment. And suddenly, the issue was no longer about escaping, but about surviving.
Old fashioned art historians, of course, like to point to their artists’ encountering the work of other artists which made for determined changes in their own art. But we all know that such coincidences come out of the air and time in which writers and artists exist. World events help us all to conceive things in similar contexts. Mightn’t people caught in cultures as vastly different as Syria, Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Venezuela, Turkey, and numerous other countries feel the same “Inside/Outside” perspective? Should I stay, or should I go, or if I might want to go, to where and how might I get there? Many certainly must have perceived themselves as living now in enemy territory, as journalists were imprisoned or killed, and law-abiding citizens were destroyed. Why did Gertrude Stein stay in France during World War II? And the question of why we are remaining in the US during the early destructions to American democracy by Trump do not seem, in hindsight, so very different; except for the attacks on particular religious and social groups—which are happening in more subtle ways in Trump’s reign—it is difficult to imagine abandoning one’s own culture if there are still possible ways of effecting change.
But staying does, after all, begin to feel like a kind of prison in which one is trapped inside as opposed to the world we know lies outside of the walls our President is so determined to erect. The fear, of course, is that in our delay to escape, we might never be able to extricate ourselves from the guilt that must surely follow our election of such an absolute fool to lead our country. And the embarrassment of that choice, no matter what our personal votes and consciences, can never truly be truly assuaged. Generations of younger Germans, Japanese, and Italians have had to live with the guilt of their grandparents, just as all US citizens can never live down the generations before them who killed Native Americans, put African and other blacks into slavery, or locked up their Japanese citizens during World War II. Today, even writing this, my tears almost destroy the image of the computer screen upon which I try to write. I might just add, I’d move in a moment, but my husband Howard won’t and can’t. I am sure every generation has had precisely these indeterminations: Fritz Lang left Germany and his wife the very day he was offered the position of the director of German cinema; the great German poet Gottfried Benn, who’d had a relationship with the Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler, stayed behind.
And then….and then…there is always the hope that things are not truly as bad as they seem. I began this introduction the very day after Trump tweeted (I hate that word) that all transsexual men and women must be expunged from the military and on the same day he attacked his equally mean Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not because he disagreed with Sessions’ concerted attacks on immigrants or his other terrible policies, but because Sessions had legally and necessarily recused himself from the appointment of special consul Robert Meuller, the independent prosecutor investigating the Trump administration’s Russian connections. Certainly, Sessions is no hero in this case, but yet Trump is still the monster, determined to destroy anyone whom he perceives is not loyal, meaning those who do not advance his interests—which increasingly are clear are both personal and financial connections with him.
If anyone imagined that the New Year 2018, might possibly represent a shift in the President’s behavior and that his actions might have been more tolerable, they were badly mistaken as early January, through Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, revealed what we all know, the complete incompetence of Trump, highlighted by the utter stupidity and ignorance of the entire Trump family. Even his mean-spirited confederates, his close associates and cabinet members threw out pointed barbs directed at the President, such as “moron,” (Tillerson) “idiot,” etc. The President’s reactions, to have his lawyer deliver a cease and desist letter to the book’s publisher, only demonstrated Trump’s stupidity, as the publishers immediately pushed up the release date of what, despite Wolff’s own spotty past as a writer, would surely be a best-seller.
If my mother’s death was expected, the sudden accidental death, in an automobile crash, of French publisher, Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens announced on the very same day, further devastated me. I wrote on Facebook:
Really sad to hear today of Paul Otchakovsky‐Laurens' death, evidently in a car accident. He was one the great publishers in the world, presenting P.O.L writers such as Lilliane Giraudon, Jean Fremon, Henri Deluy, and returning many such as Georges Perec’s works to print. He was a great editor, a magnificent force, a dear friend, and a witty confidant. I so admired his press, and I published many of his authors, visiting him every time I traveled to Paris. He made the Parisian publishing scene over, giving it new visions for the 21st century. We will all miss him dearly. What with my mother's death, it's been a hard day!
The very next morning, The New York Times reported that Trump attempted, illegally, to convince Jeff Sessions, his Head of the Department of Justice, to not recuse himself in the investigation into Trump and his family’s involvement with the Russians and his firing of FBI head James Comey, angrily shouting out “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump’s terribly nasty former friend and mentor had supported the most monstrous figure of American politics before Trump, Joe McCarthy.
A few days before the New Year Howard and I encountered an artist friend, Susan Silton, with whom we briefly discussed the events of 2017. “Some say, at least, we now know the worst of what to expect,” she and Howard agreed. I responded, “I can’t imagine that it is good for us to try to accommodate ourselves to his insane behavior, nor do I feel that we’ve seen the worst. I think, alas, that 2018 will only be more terrible.”
Yes, there was worse, when we discovered on January 25th that Trump had attempted to fire Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller, way back in June of 2016, but was stopped by his advisor Donald F. McGahn II, who suggested that if the President attempted to do so, we would resign. For all the months since, Trump and his staff had been lying about the President’s position, and even when faced with the evidence, argued that The New York Times and CNN’s reports represented “false news.”
And then, as if to mock the seriousness of what Trump had already done, in March the President outdid himself in terrifying behavior. After promising that he would support changes with regard to the age which young people could buy guns, he quickly flipped his position when he perceived that the NRA would not even support that mild-minded alteration of the law.
Porn star and director, Stormy Daniels (Stephanie Clifford), not only admitted that Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen paid her hush money of $130,000 (incredibly out of his own pocket after a personal loan) to shut her up about what she claimed was an affair with Trump but dared the President to try to shut her up. Daniels even claimed that she was willing to give back the hush money simply so that she might speak out about the events, which Trump and his lawyers claimed never occurred and who had secretly sought out a restraining order against the outspoken woman. Other women also spoke up again about being abused by the President. And that was only the beginning.
After the nerve gas attack (a rare nerve agent created by Putin and the Kremlin) in England on a former Soviet spy Sergei V. Skripal and his daughter Yulia, delivered evidently in through the doorknob of his home in the small city of Salisbury, Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, admitted in The New York Times that “it was an egregious act” that appeared to have come from Russia. The very same day, Tillerson was fired (told through Twitter) from his position, while the hawkish CIA director, Michael Pompeo, was positioned to replace him. The very same day Trump’s personal assistant, John McEntee was ushered out of the West Wing, evidently because of background checks—slow to come in Trump’s administration—which had found him guilty of shady financial dealings. Trump promised him a position in his 2020 presidential campaign.
Just the day before, the spineless GOP-controlled House Intelligence Committee determined to close their investigations of Russian meddling, arguing not only that there was no collusion on Trump’s part, but, against any findings of US intelligence sources, that it may not even been Russia’s intent to support Donald Trump in the US elections. This, on the same day that I finally finished Jane Mayer’s brilliant, insightful, and extensive essay on Christopher Steele in The New Yorker, which revealed the integrity of Steele’s report and the truth (to the best of possible knowledge) of Steele’s reportage of Trump’s sexual dalliances in Russia (where he was witnessed in the same hotel room where President Obama and Michele stayed, asking prostitutes to piss on the bed), but also was responsible for numerous acts of treason, working with the Putin administration to help put him into the American presidency. Mayer’s article convinces anyone who is not a dunce that Trump very much knew what was going on, but also was seeking help from Putin’s Kremlin. And the US GOP’s leaders, such as Nevin Dunes, Charles Grassley, and Lindsay Graham, have been using the very fact that Steele, as a former government employee, cannot openly speak, to create a series of lies and untruths to help to undermine his honesty, as well as putting him in harm’s way with the Russian government.
Even Steele was openly shocked by what he discovered in trying to determine Trump’s relationships with Russia. Having already perceived, through other investigations, that a great many of Russian underground and illegal dealings somehow occurred in apartments rented in Trump Towers in New York City, even he was totally startled by what he had suddenly uncovered. As Steele’s friend Christopher Burrows put it, “We threw out a line in the water, and Moby-Dick came back.”
Even more sorrowful is how hard Steele attempted to get the information to the American FBI, but either they simply ignored it or buried it as implausible truths. Much of the Dossier since has been confirmed.
I love Mayer’s sense of detail, the meetings of Steele and others at Washington, D.C.’s Tabard Inn—a kind of out-of-the-way place where Howard and I dined many times with our former friend Frank Schork. Equally fascinating is how Putin himself may have tried to dissuade Trump from hiring Romney as head of the State Department, preferring the now suddenly disappeared Rex Tillerson. Indeed, Mayer’s work reads eerily like some of the events in All the President’s Men, or even worse, The Manchurian Candidate. No, we could clearly not imagine how bad it truly was.
Soon there came the firing of his security advisor, H. R. McMaster, who also blasted Trump for his inability or his determinedness not to criticize Russia. His personal advisor, head of communications, Hope Hicks also left the White House, with Trump evidently feeling he need not even replace her. Increasingly in March and April Trump felt he could do all jobs alone, and ordered tariffs against Chinese products, setting off fears, after China responded with tariff demands of their own, of a trade war; the stock market fell.
In early April he argued for a pull-out of US troops in Syria, something many of us long for, but cannot be so easily accomplished. On April 4 he ordered that National Guard members be sent to the Mexican border to protect it from border crossings. There seemed to be no possible end to the insanity of his inabilities and mis-perceptions of reality. In the annual Easter Egg Roll he lectured the children on his achievements and the power of the American military while a strange looking Easter Bunny stood by, his face frozen (by the costume) into what appeared to be total startlement. As the president himself said on April 5th: “It’s insanity. Nobody knows what’s going on.” Surely, he did not know where his own rhetoric had taken him. Most people also felt Trump’s confusion, but, obviously, it was Trump who had created it.
His cabinet members (Ben Carson) determined to get rid of laws protecting the poor regarding housing (he planned to raise their monthly rents), to close down (Betsy De Vos) fraud cases against profit-making universities and to federally fund religious institutions, to crack-down even further on migrant workers and individuals who might cross our borders (Jeff Sessions), causing huge back-log decisions for US judges, to dump chemicals into US waters (Ryan Zinke), and to breakdown environmental protections (Scott Pruitt), the latter of whom was also under investigation for numerous financial offenses. Trump’s own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was under investigation for numerous offenses, including his career in real-estate and rental properties. Trump himself was accused again for lying when his lawyer Michael Cohen’s home and offices were raided, and investigators revealed that he had not only paid to cover up Trump’s sexual peccadillos, but, as even as a replacement lawyer such as Rudy Giuliani admitted, was knowingly paid off by Trump himself.
Yet as corruption was more daily revealed, Trump madly moved forward, denying all, permitting a lower aide to even make fun (a joke she called it) of Senator John McCain’s slow death from brain cancer, and even worse, refusing to fire her or even admit the moral indiscretion. Similarly, his new appointee to head the CIA, Gina Haspell, refused to characterize, despite her insistence that she would never allow it again, the enhanced interrogation methods (including the despicable practices of water-boarding, deprivation of sleep, and other methods of torture) as immoral acts.
A revealing article in the May 21, 2018 issue of The New Yorker by Evan Osnos recounted just how Trump and his cabinet members worked in concord to dismiss or diminish the jobs of those they felt disloyal to the President, many serving under several different presidencies and most of whom had far greater experience than the often younger and unqualified people who replaced them. Entire departments, such as the Department of State, were decimated as replacements where not rehired, and the wisdom of hundreds were lost to the often clueless Trump administrators.
Even events that might have been seen as presidential achievements came to nothing, such as the Trump-Kim summit meeting, which saw no major changes in North Korean policies, despite the President’s claim of a “major breath through.” We’re still waiting to here of real changes.
In June it became even more apparent just incompetent this President and his administration were when his demands for tariffs—not only on China, but allies such as Canada, Germany, and England—began to severely effect the American and other world markets, surely the beginning of a trade-war which might end all the recovery of the economy over the past 3 years.
That same month Jeff Sessions and others of the Trump administration announced that they intended to and, soon after, began to separate children from their parents at the borders. The terrifying conditions of these children, some held in converted WallMart stores and others sleeping on the floor old warehouses with Mylar covers, while other very young children screamed out in the night while being separated along the border from the mothers and fathers who had attempted to bring them to a better life. The shock of these events, and Trump’s and his administrator’s callous dismissal of all those who opposed these odious acts of child-abuse brought about a widespread criticism of his values, including from his own wife Melania, Laura Bush, and Hillary Clinton.
Typical of Trump, he blamed the decision on a pre-existent “law” (although no such ruling to separate children was ever apparently in any statement about immigration) blaming it on the Democrats since they had failed to approve money for his beloved wall. Comparisons to the Nazis immediately arose, particularly since some of the border guards had evidently told mothers that they were taking their children to be bathed, only to report, later on to these women that they would not see their children again—which is probably the truth since the parents would be quickly shipped back to their home countries, while their children’s cases would take months to wind through the courts.
In one tape the cries of children losing their parents was punctuated by seemingly uncaring guards who joked about “the symphonic chorus of voices.” The cruelty of this decision created an outcry across the globe.
A day after, Trump described the necessity for immigrants to not “infest our country,” a term that took him yet closer to the Nazi linguistic evaluations of “outsiders,” including people of the Jewish faith. “We need security, we need safety,” he repeated again, as if we were being attacked by hordes of barbarians.
For a few days, thankfully the Trump rhetoric was interrupted as our attentions turned to 12 soccer-playing boys coach were found deep within a cave in Thailand and, as oxygen levels grew dangerous were rescued through deep waters and narrow crawl spaces by Thai Navy Seals advised by British and US authorities. The seeming miracle that they were all saved and appeared to be in good health buoyed up communities around the world, a relief in these bad times
But, of course, Trump could not stay away from the limelight long, and stopped into Belgium on a visit to a NATO meeting, describing NATO members and economic foes and demanding they pay more dues, ultimately declaring they should pay more even that does the US. He was particularly hard on the embattled Angela Merkel, declaring that because of Germany’s reliance on Russian oil, they were pawns of Putin—a statement that had long been leveled against him.
If damaging NATO were not enough, he then flew to England where, in a newspaper interview, he spoke out again Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of that country’s exit from the European Union, and praising her former advisor, Boris Johnson, who had been forced out of her cabinet a few days earlier.
The next day he kept the Queen waiting for 14 minutes before lumbering about, often walking in front of her, as she attempted to review her guards with him. Anger was written across her face.
Then on to Helsinki where he met with Russia’s Putin, appearing after their meeting with vague and meaningless agreements, and far worse, expressing the fact that he believed Putin over his own FBI and CIA operatives that there was no attempt by the Russians to interfere in the US election, despite the fact that when asked if he preferred one candidate over the other, Putin admitted he backed Trump. As some commentators such as CNN anchor Chris Cuomo observed, this was perhaps one of the darkest days of any US presidency. Even Fox Network commentators, despite that stations clearly pro-Trump values, were shocked by the President’s behavior. Several Republicans expressed their dismay, without doing anything about it. The word “treason” was spoken throughout the country regarding Trump’s behavior. And the next day, July 17, even the President, himself, attempted to deny his quite obvious recapitulations to his Russian “friend” by claiming that when he said:
My people came to me. They said they think it’s Russia, I have President Putin; he
just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.
that he had intended the sentence to be a double negative, “I don’t see any reason why it would not be.” Yet, even in that denial he couldn’t resist going again off script, suggesting that it perhaps was others and well, and again insisting that there had been no “collusion,” even as it appeared that the day before he had now publicly colluded with the Russian President. Many felt that American politics had descended to the very lowest it could get.
It went still lower, if that is possible, when the President attacked former CIA and other special workers such as Director such as John O. Brennan’s special security clearance, simply because he had spoken out against Trump and his policies. Bennan responded with a clear dismissal of Trump and his policies in The New York Times. Trump was perceived truly a vengeful man, who refused to even take responsibility for his actions, and was clearly terrified by how others might tie him to to Russian involvement, “collusion” being beside the point. From day to day throughout the year, one never knew what to expect from this totally mecurial and erratic “leader.”
On August 21st, in an astounding one-day pounce against the presidential honesty, Paul Manafort was found guilty by an American jury of 8 out of 18 accounts of fraud and hiding illegal funds. A few minutes before Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen admitted to several illegal activities, including, so he insisted, his acting on behalf of the President to cover up his affairs with two women by paying them illegal funds to keep them quiet before the presidential elections. Trump and his group predicticably attempted to present Cohen as a liar and their insisted upon their own innocence. We all know that the President had endlessly lied, but now we had evidence, which even, after the fact, Trump tried to eradicate. This was a madness we might all have predicted.
When the war-hero John McCain died, not only was Trump uninvited to the funeral (as he had also been to the funeral of Barbara Bush, and to the royal marriage of Prince Harry), but hung the White House flag at half mast only for a day—at least until veteran and legion groups demanded he alter his behavior, resulting in a few clumsy words of admiration. It was clear the President wanted no part of it, as he struggled, as he did constantly, to shift the attention by announcing a new NAFTA-like agreement with Mexico, without resolving our country’s failure to include Canada. A bit like a trapped beast, he attacked Google for being prejudiced against him; increasingly he appeared to have gone mad.
When in September of the year, Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House (see my review below) was published, the horrific “crazytown” which the author revealed seemed almost like old news, as did the anonymous op-ed piece in The New York Times that which declared that some members of Trump’s own staff knew of his madless and had worked behind the scenes to help keep the government in steady keel. As Trump further stormed and fretted, even calling for a Justice Department investigation into the author of this piece (which would, in itself, be an unlawful action given the rights of the First Ammendment), the public split on whether to call this secret spokesperson a coward who should reveal his or her identity or as a kind of hero protecting the country from the would-be king.
Usually, in these early pages I try to connect my numerous essays on film, poetry, fiction, dance, theater, television, and all other cultural endeavors, including politics, with the essays that follow. But this year, I’ll permit the readers to determine those connections. Every work I’ve included within, with far too many bows to film, has something—to my way of thinking at least—to the subject at hand. Jeff Sessions appeared to soon to be fired because of the continuing issues with the Mueller investigation.
There are many ways to be outside and yet inside a culture: sometimes it involves immigrants who have not yet found a way to assimilate as in the films of the wonderful director Ramin Bahrani; or it involves sexual identity as in Gus Van Sant’s 2008 film, Milk, the older film, now revived as a play on Broadway, The Boys in the Band, dancer Freddy Herko’s sexual and drug addictions, or as in the Turkish-based film on Zenne dancers and Parvez Sharma’s story of a gay Muslin couple, A Jihad for Love, just being sexually different; religious separation is obviously the subject of 2017’s documentary film titled One of Us; or that sense of “enemy territory” can arise simply from experience of the confusions of adolescence as in André Téchiné’s The Witnesses; or, as Betty Davis discovered, by being a mother or lover who is unable to expose her true identity and feelings, and, finally, being an old woman who has lost her abilities to cope, as my own mother had. And then, obviously, you and your brother can just be perceived as “racial freaks” as were the original Siamese Twins, whose lives were recounted in Hunte Huang’s book Inseperable. There is a tortured history in all artistic forms about just this issue, with writers, artists, dancers, and theater writers desperately seeking to balance the inside of their lives with the often-destructive outside demands, or, just as often, vice versa, attempting to assimilate the inside demands with their outside aspirations. Either way, it’s a prison which isn’t generally of one’s own making. This same year, what might have once been thought of as a complete outsider, given the culture of the British royalty, Megan Merkle, a bi-racial American became Prince Harry Windsor’s wife.
I fear, as I move on in years that my introductions and the essays behind them are becoming more and more dour. To counteract that, in part, I have spent long hours in 2017-2018 on writing about things I love, such as my piece of “My Favorite Musical Theater Songs,” and by attending opera, musical concerts, and art exhibitions; yet even in those events I often saw the living in enemy territory theme and the inside/outside dichotomy, which had originally been my focus.
And then a minor miracle occurred: the outraged survivors of a Florida mass-murder shooting in Parkland, mostly students, spoke out, and began what I can only perceive as a new engagement of youth around the nation, all of which made me feel that perhaps we had all done something right, at least in educating our youth. Maybe as a country we might still survive. I write more about the event below. But even here Republican sympathizers attacked some of the students such as David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez personally, using the same tactics as Trump has throughout his career. And, of course, the NRA offered their hostilities as well. We seem to have become a nation of hatred. If many of this year’s essays have harsh criticism of our current President, I can only explain that he deserved it, and I refused to keep quiet about it.
Is it any wonder that by even the middle of the year I was beginning to post titles with words such as “Sound and Fury,” “Going Crazy,” “A Force of Madness” and “A Landscape and Loss,” “The Pure producuts of America go crazy.” Dear Bill, I’m nearly there.
Every year friends and major artists leave our temporary existence on earth: and this year the Italian film director, Ermanno Olmi, whose film Il Posto I reviewed in February, died on May 5th; my own mother died, and I wrote several pieces about her death and funeral. Composer Harvey Schmidt (of whom I wrote of two of his musicals in “My Favorite Musical Theater Songs”) died in February at the age of 88. Noted film director Miloš Forman died at age 86 in April, when I determined to review his early Czech comedy, The Fireman’s Ball. And, obviously, the sad death of Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens and his wife occurred early in the year, which I mention above.
Later in the year, fashion handbag designer Kate Spade unexpectedly committed suicide by hanging herself with a scarf (a death that brought back the memory of another young woman whom I’d admired, who did precisely the same thing). I hadn’t known anything about Spade—fashion and woman’s handbags are not on my radar. But a few days later, The New York Times reported that since 1999, the suicide rate had risen in nearly every state except one by 25-30%. What was happening?
That same day CNN reported the death, again by hanging, of their food and cultural critic, Anthony Bourdain, someone who I had watched and admired for years, who had hung himself overnight in a French hotel. Reporters, such as author Benedict Carey sited that during these same years (1999-2016) the economic crises had perhaps been responsible for many of these deaths; at the same time the opioid addictions of many may have contributed to the problem; guns, the primary tool of such suicides were more available than ever. Marriage rates had declined, and social isolation had increased. By August it was reported in The New York Times that over 72,000 people had overdosed on drugs. Something was terribly wrong with our culture. And perhaps this suicide might have been related to his girl friends, Asia Argento’s accusation (by a boy, then of 17 years of age, of child abuse; Bourdain had evidently paid hush money to the now adult actor.)
Yet only a few spoke to what I and several of my friends perceived as the largest of whispered issues: perhaps the ugly politics of the period, the very divisiveness of American politics and culture, had helped people feel separated in a world that had once represented a broader and more openly shared community. Trump’s politics struck at the very heart of this issue, as he and his allies centered their tactics on a kind of divide-and-conquer method of governmental control. There no longer seemed to be any middle-ground, any shared sense of what our country was, and, furthermore, which sought to separate our own country from the rest of the world—surely a matter that would have meant a great deal to Bourdain.
In late June, gay pioneer Dick Leitsch died of liver cancer, and I felt it necessary to tell his story since he had so impacted my own and Howard’s life, allowing us to live as a gay couple, even before gay marriage was allowed, with cultural acceptance. It’s painful to recognize without his, Frank Kameny’s, Jack Nichols’ and others’ sacrifices my life and Howard’s might have been nearly impossible. We did little things—protesting the gay stereotypes of The Boys in the Band and representing openly our relationship—while they gave up their lives in order to change cultural values. Without them, our actions would have meant very little.
In July the great French documentarian of the Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann died, in memory of whom I reviewed his 2013 film, The Last of the Unjust.
Soon after, we lost the 1950s actor Tab Hunter, for whom I pulled out a past essay on a documentary on his life.
In August, the “Queen of Soul,” the great singer Aretha Franklin died of panecratic cancer, determining that I immediately write a piece about her as well. My eyes were not dry for days. And then, later in the month I read of the death of the great British publisher, with whom I had met in Paris, John Calder; a death followed the next day by the remarkable American actress and singer, Barbara Harris. I wrote about the former and chose to write about Harris through the discussion of a movie in which she appeared, Plaza Suite, which also gave me an opportunity to memorialize the death of playwright Neil Simon. As I described on that week, I felt as if I were playing a sad game of ping-pong, trying to manage my emotional responses about death with the political concerns of theat day (August 21st). As I argued, perhaps we just experience too much information far to quickly, without being able to entirely assimilate it. Perhaps it is simply “too much noise” that even the hated dead cannot comprehend.
On the same day that the country grieved Aretha Franklin and John McCain in funeral ccermonies, The New York Times announced the death of the great choreographer Paul Taylor. When I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin his company came to Madison for a performance. Somehow, probably on a street pick-up, I met his young company manager with whom I had sex, later attending, upon his invitation, an afternoon rehearsal of the company, and after that accompanying the manager to a film, Barbarella, starring Jane Fonda. I think I also attended the evening performance before meeting up with Taylor, finally, at the Madison local gay bar. There I discussed with him my lifelong love and interest in dance, sadly proclaiming that I had missed my opportunity, and was now too old to turn to a dance career. He looked me over and said, “No, it’s not late. I too came late to dance. Try it if you love it as you say.” A year later I did just that, taking nightly lessons at the Joffrey Ballet. I loved those evenings, before taking in the gay bars. But even though I eventually received some attention from the taskmaster dance teacher, I realized that I simply didn’t have the proper body nor the right muscles to achieve what I might have wanted to, just as I had previously had to face the fact that although I may have been a good choral tenor, I would never be able to sing opera. Yet I truly appreciated Taylor’s kindly advice, since he might have looked over my then scrawny body and simply replied, “Kid, don’t try it.” I had always wished to be able to see a dance performance of his group ever since but was never in New York or other places in which the much-lauded company appeared at the right moment. Yet I religiously followed the reviews, and felt so saddened about his death, yet another significant figure to disappear from the landscape of my life.
Soon after, in early September, screen-star Burt Reynolds died. Reynolds, to my way of thinking, was no great actor and most of his films (despite good roles in Deliverance, Boogie Nights, and a few other movies) were unforgettable except for his good looks and good ole’ southern home boy smiles and winks. Howard once joked that when a student of mine had called, he’d answered “Fessor Messerli can’t talk to you right now ‘cause he’s watchin’ Smokey and the Bandit,” a movie we had indeed watched together—a complete anomaly in my viewing habits. Reynolds was so modest about his talents and good looks that he often played something close to a camp version of a macho Hollywood hero, at one point describing the handsomeness of some of his fellow male thespians as almost making him want to go to bed with them. Mel Brooks toyed with ideas of Reynolds’ ego and sexuality quite wonderfully in his Silent Movie, in which he, Dom DeLuise, and Marty Feldman join the hirsute beauty in the shower to try to convince him to perform in their movie. So it didn’t take much to set Hollywood to talking. I recall, when Reynolds was suffering from pain after an incident after which he suddenly lost a great deal of weight (evidently from the drugs he had to take) and dropped out of sight for a couple of years, that Hollywood producers all assured us, time and again, at Bel Air parites that he was dying of AIDS. Fortunately, it was simply their own imaginations.
Thank heaven, my own life has been filled with loving friends and associates who daily present me with other alternatives. If this is a bubble in which I live, I am, nonetheless, appreciative of their support. This year, many old friends and new helped me, as I hope I helped them, to survive a nearly unbearable political fog, among them Eleanor Antin, Thérèse Bachand, Lita Barrie, Susan Bee, Charles Bernstein, Régis Bonvicino, Paul Breslin, Diana Daves, Merion Estes, Rosemary De Rosa, Elsa Flores, Tom Frick, Peter Glassgold, Sid Gold, Rebecca Goodman, Michael Govan, Dan Gurerro, Ira Joel Haber, Kelly Hargraves, Yunte Huang, Kim Soo-bok, Mary and Ben Klaus, Tom La Farge, Zach and Alice Leader, Nikki Lindqvist, Deborah Meadows, Robert Messerli, Albert Mobilio, Jim Morphesis, Martin Nakell, Lucy Pollack, Marjorie Perloff, Murray Pomerance, Francesco Rodriguez, Paul Sand, Pat Thieben, Paul Vangelisti, Wendy Walker, Holly Wallace, Diane Ward, Mac Wellman, David Wilk, and Marvin Zuckerman.
Once more, Pablo Capra helped to bring this book to life, accompanying me to many a performance; and my husband Howard Fox offered his gentle and, sometimes, not-so-gentle commentaries and support.