Guest Post: AL Franken


Well, it finally isn’t funny anymore – the grandiosity, the ignorance, the cruelty, the bullying, the racism, the petty insults and incessant stupidity. But especially the non-stop lying. The greatest asset that a president can bring to a crisis is credibility. On Day One of his presidency, Donald Trump chose to pick a fight with the media about the size of his inaugural crowd. On the morning of January 21, 2017, after fewer than 24 hours in office, Trump sent out Sean Spicer to tell the press corps a laughable and easily disprovable lie – that Trump’s crowd was the largest in history ever to attend a presidential inaugural. The very next day, Kellyanne Conway let Americans know of the existence of something called “alternative facts.” Oh. So, that’s how it’s going to be, huh?

Since then, the lies have come so fast and furious that keeping track has been impossible. How do you remember the last one when three or four equally ridiculous lies are almost certain to follow that day? “Don’t take him literally,” his supporters insisted. “Take him seriously.” Really? Well, no. What they really were saying was how happy they were that he would be appointing pro-life, pro-corporate Federalist Society judges, cutting taxes to benefit the wealthy, undoing regulations to help corporations exploit their employees and destroy our environment, and pulling us out of the Paris Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Deal.

That the President of the United States is a malignant narcissist who could allow no fact to stand that contradicted his insatiable need for self-aggrandizement has been of little concern to establishment Republicans. The stock market was climbing. They were getting richer. And they had cover from the right-wing media to fool enough of his base into believing his limitless dishonesty. At this year’s State of the Union, the First Lady bestowed upon Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honor he now shares with Mother Teresa, Cesar Chavez, and the crew of Apollo 13. In 1995, I wrote a book entitled Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations for a reason – the same reason that I wrote Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them – A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right a few years later. Without Rush, without O’Reilly, without Hannity, without Newsmax, Breitbart, and InfoWars there would be no Trump.

Until this crisis, Trump has paid no real price for his constant, pathological mendacity. Before politics, the man had spent his entire career in a business where, evidently, there was no accountability for inveterate lying. But for this crisis there is accountability. And instead of leading, Donald Trump’s focus has been where it always has been – on Donald Trump. “I give myself a ten out of ten.” “We are very close to a vaccine.” “I don’t take responsibility at all.” “Anybody who needs a test can get a test. And the tests are perfect. Like the letter was perfect. The transcript was perfect.” Of course, no leader could have prevented the devastation that this virus has and will continue to exact. But because Trump’s focus has been on himself, his reelection, and his fragile self-image, our federal government squandered our most valuable commodity. And the amount of suffering which that lost time will cost our nation is as tragic as it is unknowable.

Trump will not step away. He will continue to take the stage and our focus – but he will not be able to claim the credibility he never earned. We are left to proceed despite our president and find the leadership we need elsewhere. From governors and mayors and other civil servants. From health care professionals and scientists and economists. From community leaders and each other. It is time for each of us to step up and fill the vacuum at the top – first by staying home. And for those fortunate enough to weather this storm financially – to help those who cannot.
Lest we forget Trump’s Houdini-like ability to escape the traps he’s set for himself, it is also time for us to commit to his defeat in November. For now, find a way to do that from home. But when it’s time to come out into the light, it must be our collective mission to make this godawful human being pay the price for every lie he has ever uttered.


The Effects of Sequester


There are some who sulk: “if I can’t go out to visit, I’ll just lock my door.” I’ll hang out a sign, “No visitors, please!”

Sulking can morph into rebellion.  “I’ll take that walk, the rules be damned!”

But the sequester may generate goods. The phone visits are valued and stretch out generously.  The few stores that remain open can be more generous than usual in light of sequester customers waiting in line, obediently six feet apart..  This morning I forgot my wallet and asked if I could return later with cash for my coffee. I got a generous nod of approval.

Those out for a walk can discreetly hug the far side of the sidewalk as I approach, or even slip off the curb for safe distance.  Others give an especially generous “hello” attesting to the pain of sequester and the happiness of breaking it, even if only for a moment on the sidewalk.  I swear the hello is brighter, the smile wider.

These are some of the social effects.

The personal impacts are quite different and varied, day to day.


Is There a WAY OUT?


I’m a hair’s breath from 80, in many ways happy, blessed, and grateful for a full and rich life. Can I stay upbeat in the face of impending decline and death?

In my ’50s I’d read obituaries. That was like reading about traffic accidents. They didn’t happen to me. I was reassured.  A friend died of cancer in our 50’s. I held his hand. I survived with not a tad of survivor’s guilt. No sense of “there but for the grace of God. ”  I didn’t anticipate my present question, “Is there a way out?” I was on a smooth clearly marked highway and didn’t need, or envision, an off ramp.

I had dodged cancers and auto crashes and heart conditions. I had no sense that time was closing in. The question of leaving wasn’t there. But times have changed — for me.  I  ask, for the first time in my life, this new and global question, personally:  is there  a way out?

A way out of what?  An escape from, an avoidance of . . . what?

There’s the present virus trap. I want a way out from doldrums in this time of plague and enforced isolation. Helping others, changing one’s mode of sociability, is a way out.

Then there’s the deeper series of traps around aging.  In my 50’s and 60’s I had no sense of these. There now seem to be a string of aging traps — without sure-fire escapes.

There’s the trap of diminishing leg-power.  Is this common for those my age?  I’ve never asked in a general way.  I sing in a church choir and can see those 80 plus who have canes, walkers, limps, or wheel-chairs. I’m not that distant from them.  I was once a long distance runner; now, I’m the slowest guy hobbling up the sidewalk for morning coffee.  Could I reverse this with more concentrated exercise?  Perhaps.  But that would work only for an interval.

There’s the trap of diminishing mental acuity.  Hearing aids can halt hearing loss. Is there an antidote for those names that escape you, for the blur of keyboard location — that comma one has never had to hunt for before?

The way out of forgetting appointments could be to stick post-its around the house.  That  assumes I’ll dependably remember to read them. At some point I may forget how to find my way to the rehearsal. Is there a way out of this trap? Or is it set in stone, and it’s just a slow wait for its incremental springing?

There are wise ways of saying there’s no way out, no escape from portents of death or from death’s portal itself.  Its shadow descends, grimly.  I’d like to find a way out but then again: if I’m brave, I know death will triumph.


Religion’s Generous Ambit


In The Religion of Socrates, Mark McPherran takes a generous view of religion as a “common human response to the uncharted territories of life.” Given this wide ambit, the tragic poets are religious celebrants, as any classicist would know. There’s a distinctive reverence or piety, for instance, in those haunting lines of Sophocles:

                 Many are the wonders and the terrors,

                and none more wonderful or terrible

                than humankind.

Wonder and terror are not in this case responses directed toward a divinity but toward the uncanny undergoings of humankind as it traverses “the uncharted territories of life.”

The poet adopts a long and deep perspective. And here we have the poet-translator Robert Fitzgerald voice a similarly capacious view of the religious:

                     So hard at best is the human lot,

                     and so great is the beauty we can apprehend,

                     that only a religious conception of things can

                     take in the extremes and meet the case.

He adds:

                     It seems to me there are a few things everyone

                   can humbly try to hold onto:

                   love and mercy (and humor) in everyday living:

                   the quest for exact truth in language and affairs of the intellect:

                    self-recollection or prayer:

                   and the peace, the composed energy of art.

Giving Sophocles and Fitzgerald their due, the tenor of the religious seems to be evoked in wonders and terrors, in sufferings and beauties, and in the sense of humankind being caught in tensions between these extremes – for example caught in tensions that resist easy articulation or reconciliation.

Religion, we might think, is living in this unfinished world of dark and light – suffering these inescapable, often painful discords in the sea of the unknown. We might imagine awe, fear, love, respect or exaltation as ways of response that take on a natural religious expression in song and ritual around the phases of life – death and birth and family and political life, say – where these dimensions of existence can take on sharp and often discordant relief.

The specific tenor of a religious articulation in art or ritual or public action will vary enormously, between one culture to the next, one group or person to the next. But some responsiveness to these “limit situations” of birth and death, place and others, say, and the tensions they embody, seems inevitable.

Socrates has a place for beauty and love but he seems to minimize the importance of terror or affliction. That places him apart from a tragic-religious vision of things.

                   [Note: Sophocles, Antigone, first choral ode, my transliteration.]



Six Feet Separation; Six Feet Under


The current continuing crisis has been likened to the catastrophes of war, except in war-time we can usually huddle together. It’s agreed that this is worse than 9/11, which at least brought people together in their distress.  It’s more like entering a war whose outcome and unexpected afflictions keep piling up — afflictions often deadly for those over seventy. There is neither tear gas nor bombing, but the fear and panic, disorientation and rupture of daily life, must be reminiscent of European and Asian life during World War II.  Death counts don’t bear comparison. But could social isolation be far greater than during wartime?

           As morgues are inundated, coffins pile up and mourners grieve in isolation.  This is the bitterest part.

This, from the news, one among many insightful journalistic discussions in the daily news.  Here are further striking examples.

    Great Neck is a Jewish community. Here, the concept of ‘social distancing’ is about as kosher as a double-bacon cheeseburger.  We do not  shake hands. Anything less than a tight hug and double kiss is considered antisocial. Here, social distancing is a wedding that only has 400 people.  That’s because of the     nature of Judaism.  Dependence is a dirty word in a secular American culture   that glorifies self-reliance.  Judaism is built on interconnectedness.  Nearly everything we do requires gathering a community

Here is an opinion page savant quoting the late George Steiner (again, no source).

             Europe’s cultural identity is founded on characteristics largely missing in the US, where car culture, suburban sprawl and great open spaces engender a sense of separateness. Europe has a culture of coffee houses and cafes, places open to all, where people meet, read, write, and plot. There are places for assignation and conspiracy, for intellectual debate and gossip, for the flaneur and the poet or metaphysician at his notebook

          Europe is a pedestrian culture, founded on squares and small streets, usually named after scholars and statesmen famous for their works and their massacres.  Europe is “walked” and distances are on a human scale.

Steiner is quoted again in another piece:

      The European sense of death and decay is an eschatological self-awareness that may well be unique to European consciousness. Deep in Christianity and European philosophy is a more or less tragic finality.  It is as if  Europe, unlike other civilizations, had intuited that it would one day collapse under the paradoxical weight of its achievements.

And a simple news report:

   Mrs. Fusco died after spending Wednesday “gravely ill” and breathing with help from a ventilator, unaware that her two oldest children had died. Nearly 20 other relatives are quarantined at their homes, praying in isolated solitude, unable to mourn their deep collective loss together.  “It is so pitiful,” her daughter added. “They can’t even mourn the way you would.”

Mortality prompts meditations on the grand sweep of preceding life.

We’re witnessing a culture trying in quiet moments to reflect on the wider meanings of sociability and mortality.

[Maybe it’s time to reread Camus’ The Plague]



The Riddle of Life


The author of the marvelous book before me writes,

“There is meaning in being part of something larger than myself – connecting with   people I love, with the environment I live in, with humanity, nature and, perhaps, God.”  This sense can make me small in the scheme of things. But it’s also true that “We need to make a life – this puts me at the center of a project.”

This double vision–being at the center and also being lost in a vision that sweeps me away – is best rendered in poetry.  All chapters of Unraveling Life’s Riddle open with poetry, the epitome of non-specialized, engaged, experiential writing (and speech). Plato was mistaken to exile the poet. The best philosophy needs the poet, for she can unravel hidden depths of thought and perception.

The James chapter of this book — Unraveling —  opens with poetry from Wallace Stevens’ “The House was Quiet, and the World was Calm.” Our author, Professor Tami Yaguri,  counters that her world is not quiet, not calm.

“Noisy discomfort is present everywhere – in the city, on the street, at home, inside out. Demands of all sorts stream in, pop up, knock on our door and barge in. An incessant source of disquiet, noise has sundry ways of irritating, of making life miserable, of thwarting the possibility of reaching tranquility and peace (175)”

This is a poetic rendering of clamor, change, and pain. It lacks the dispassion of analytic philosophic discourse.  We’re told:

“If change is all there is – we’re sentenced to unbearable existence, to reality without solace or hope, without respite from the shrillness of noise, and without hope for the blessing of peace. Life fraught with noise narrows the range of possible meanings. But the noise of change is not the last word. The answer to noise lies in the creation of meaning despite change (176)”

Life and writing burst into songs that defeat meaningless noise.  We get a direct experiential feel of falling in love or opening a new book, of finding something to draw or to do for others; we find beauty in a daily walk or pleasure at a concert. We’re swept up in meaning.  Life’s Riddle is Unraveled.

Each chapter opens with poetry, provides a classic philosopher’s or psychologist’s framing of meaning in life, and contains interviews with persons leading rich lives who seek to further explore their meaning.

Here is Ruth – an elderly acquaintance who volunteers that she finds meaning in assisting others. Our author asks, “Do you know someone who tries to aid and assist others?” Ruth answers:

It’s not a particular person. It’s an experience. My reaction is expressed in tears, not in thinking of a role model. When I hear that a person is assisted, I cry. […] For me, every good thing that happens is a sort of miracle. I perceive my life as wrapped in a string of benevolence. (190-2)

James might see this as meaning descending in a moment of personal religion:

There are moments of sentimental and mystical experience […] that carry an enormous sense of inner authority and illumination with them when they come. But they come seldom, and they do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes either no connection with them or tends to contradict them more than it confirms them. (182)

Personal, generative meanings are at the heart of individuation – attaining a sense of who I am. These meanings also reside in world-views – the bigger cultural-political-religious landscapes I live in. “Helping others” might be central to my identity and also mark my global sense of things.

Classical thinkers, psychologists and philosophers, provide chapter heads: Erich Fromm, Socrates, Victor Frankl, Søren Kierkegaard, William James, and others.

This book is astute, lyrical and inspiring. It speaks to specialists in philosophy and psychology and to the wider humanity that James, Kierkegaard and Fromm engage. There is a balance among classical thinkers, autobiography, and one-on-one dialogue.

We need to make a life – this puts me at the center of a project – and also seek and find meaning in a way that displaces me from the center. I can be in the picture, but not as its subject […] There is meaning in being part of something larger than myself – connecting with people I love, with the environment I live in, with humanity, nature and, perhaps, God. (178)

We are exposed both to the immediacy of the search and to the detachment of analysis. Einstein gives a professional account of Relativity. It’s no defect that his account lacks the tang of life. Displaying meaning in life straddles the impersonal and personal. Existential bite is both appropriate and necessary.

Our author teaches philosophy, trains psychotherapists, and has a novelist’s gift for vivid storytelling. My only complaint has to do with shelving.

I can quickly put it under “my favorite books.”

But if I try to decide between shelving it as psychology, or philosophy, as autobiography or biography, I’m defeated.

It falls in the cracks and that’s what makes it brilliantly unique.



                                         A Gentle Disregard of Difference

(Vera is on Amazon Prime, 10 seasons)


You’ll find in this excellent British detective series

 A plump 75 yr old eccentric woman: the Chief Detective.

(She drives a god-forsaken Jeep, is always snacking other people’s sandwiches and stares down tough guys even when they’re armed —  she never is.)

A young woman wearing a hijab.

(Vera first pursues her as a suspect and then helps her with immigration papers)

A dwarfed, wheel-chaired female detective

(she blends perfectly in the office)

A Black male teenager, white mom

A mixed-race female detective

A mixed-race woman island supervisor

A “half caste” 16 year old female murder victim

All the forensic examiners — highly skilled — are  Black

(there may be others I’ve missed)


The show does not advertise or accentuate these differences. There’s no overt message promoting acceptance of difference. Differences are presented poker-face. The tone is “so what,” matter of fact, “nothing’s happening here.”

Is England way ahead of USA in acceptance of difference?

Perhaps Vera’s scriptwriters recognize discrimination in British society but have devised a subversive agenda to expose it — pursued with enough subtlety that it flies under the radar.  Either way, there’s nothing “preachy” afoot in these generous inclusions.

We watch them subtly unfold — differences in color, body type, religion, family artfully, flawlessly play out.