Thank You, Appellate Court

February 7, 2024

I am loathe to praise Donald Trump. I am so opposed to him and what he represents—perhaps just as opposed as his fiercest critics. That’s saying a lot, for the critics are so numerous, so talented, so diverse, so incisive, so funny—and on it goes. One boon (and potential curse) of technology and social media is the great availability of the analysis, cogitations, skits, declamations, and so on of like-minded people on just about any topic. Donald Trump has his critics and deriders, and I’ve marveled at just how thorough they can all be and in such creative and comprehensive ways.

Trump has also had his supporters, obviously, and it’s that group that compels so many of us to devote so much attention and energy to thinking/opining/worrying about him and his influence.

The praise concerns the way Trump has perfected a method, or rather the way he has been unflinching in the application of that method.

Some time ago, when Ron DeSantis was still a contender and mattered, John Oliver commented on Donald Trump’s designation of DeSantis as “Meatball Ron.” Oliver made a concession about Trump, commenting, with a smirk, “he’s still got it.” Oliver’s appreciative nod, right there alongside the biting satire before and after, got the balance of things right. As we deal with the insanity of a phenomenon like Trump, it’s best not to yell loudly all the time, but to give the devil his due, when earned. Smiling at Trump is an unpleasant prospect; but naming and acknowledging how Trump’s charisma and methods work provides a partial safeguard against him. Laughing at him needs to be done carefully—not only in the sense that his danger should never be dismissed as laughable, but also because meanness and attacking as gratifications in the wake of Trump provide only so much comfort, and that at the risk of some of our dignity, or at least our efforts to elevate our ways at improving things.

As of February 6, when the DC Appellate Court pronounced that Trump does not have unbounded presidential immunity, the tide, long in the making of turning, seems to have decisively turned against Trump. It’s now a matter of time. For so long the great defenders of democracy and justice, the great lawyers and commentators, like Glenn Kirschner, Meidas Touch folk, Andrew Weissmann, and others of the cable news/internet, have been promising, directly and indirectly, that the time was coming. That accountability, so long denied, was on its way. Until yesterday, no one could be certain.

That’s part of the whole insanity of the debacle of Trump—the calling into question all norms, all protections of civil society and the legal profession. But yesterday, after a delay too many of us felt was worrisome and extreme (despite the characterization of one month as “light speed” by those who have experience in appellate court timelines), the court ruled in a way to place some ground, terra firma, beneath our feet once again. Here was a circumstance where a specific response was called for, was needed—and here was a response where all the criteria were met, with elegance and power. And the world (or the part of it with its proper dose of TDS) sighed. We looked on in marvel as propriety, civility, adulthood, calm, and reasonableness were all on display in just the measure needed.

So why should Trump be praised? Part of me feels that, with the immunity question resolved (or on the fast track to resolution), the inevitability of accountability has been scripted; there are various possible drafts, but they all produce the same result. The word inexorable must be used once again. Trump had succeeded in calling into question the concept of inexorability. That was his genius. But he has met his match in some fine professionals in the court system.

What is Trump’s method? It’s more than shamelessness, though that’s a necessary condition. Trump’s method of assertiveness, of never backing down, of being the “perfect bully,” was—and remains—so flawless. It’s his devotion to his method, perhaps, that is so unprecedented. He has taken an idea and has shown us what it looks like to instantiate that idea without alloy or mitigation. Since 2015, I always thought a pivot was coming. To normal people, a strategy works and works and works—until it shows signs of breaking down and not working in the future. At such moments, lesser people will pivot. Trump has shown us what a powerful method looks like without the pivot. 

Never before has such an experiment been on display to so many, all connected, immersed in conversation and commentary. We looked on and wondered: Why would he so endanger himself when he could easily protect himself? The psychologists (most notably, his niece), and conscientious insiders like Barbara Res, give us the needed insight here—but that insight here is not my main concern. Trump has shown us things, almost as a public service.

In nearly breaking the country, he has shown us just how dangerous it is to take for granted things like democracy, the legal system, and the social contract built on conventions of decency. 

But also, in losing, he has helped us affirm some verities: the system basically worked—even on January 6 and all that followed and went before.

For so many months, I considered Trump a fool and a clown that … how could he be dangerous? He puts himself on display, like, all the time. He can’t be taken seriously, and we’ll all be returned to our normal way of behaving once he’s off the scene. So it would go, I thought. But then, after he lost the election, he kinda was off the scene, and began mildly fading—until the indictments started coming in. Like a switch that had been flicked, the insanity of support exploded and has been settling in ever since. True, many commented that it wasn’t deep or considered support, but it was pervasive and growing. And Trump’s method went in the only direction he knows—more assertiveness, more never backing down, more defiance of facts, more gas lighting, more projection, and on it went.

Since 2020, all Trump needed for succeeding in every major design of his was perhaps one more cog—Mike Pence not standing up—or any of the others—Randy Bowers, Brad Raffensberg, William Barr, and so on—and it might have all been different. Or yesterday, the appellate courts could have phoned it in, and on the wrong side of the argument. It’s not hard to imagine, with the alteration of just one or a few pieces, a completely different outcome rather than the one which now points so clearly to accountability.

And it’s because of the closeness of the outcome, the fragility of it all, that I praise Donald Trump. It’s for his uncanny ability to succeed in ways no other person could. He shows us what’s possible, so he’s, yes, a cautionary tale, but he’s also reminder of the awesomeness of human potential. He really could have won. He shows us the power, the horrible efficacy, of a strong man. Oddly, that power affirms the value of human life. One individual can matter. One leader can completely remake a great nation, a great tradition. As horrible as that possibility is, especially as most of us would use the word “destroy” instead of “remake,” it does bring with it an affirmation of human agency. We matter. 

So, Donald Trump is a great man. He’s also a loser, an ignoramus, and a creep. In the end, he shows us what we are capable of—just how close we can come to the edge of the abyss, and just how resilient our institutions can be in pulling us back from peril. Thank you, Appellate Court—for doing your job, with decency and thoroughness, at a time when those attributes were never in greater need.

Never Underestimate Thimbles!

I’ve read a lot of good words in my day, but those of Julie London on her voice have to be among the best:

It’s only a thimbleful of a voice, and I have to use it close to the microphone. But it is a kind of over-smoked voice, and it automatically sounds intimate. –Julie London

Such confidence, expressed with awareness and humility and precision. Not to mention, a good dose of sensuality, along with the promise of being together through it. The woes of the world would be lessened, I’m convinced, if we all just listened to, and spent time with, Julie London.

The Fixations of February 2

February 2, 2023

Was it Bill P. who said that every important life lesson could be taught from The Godfather? Bill, now long retired, is still with us, still sharp as a tack. I’m thinking of Bill as I picture the convalescent Don Corleone, rehearsing over and over again the details of the operation ahead of them—or was it the Barzini matter? Obsessively, Don Corleone would repeat the steps, with self-awareness of his preoccupation. He was talking to Michael, who had matters in hand (kinda).

I think of the Don, and Bill, as I contemplate my plans and prospects. I keep going over the numbers, the possibilities for retirement, as the idea has loomed up as a salvation of sorts. It still feels too early. Is my main motive that of escape? I know I need a change. I know I’m paralyzed with depression. But yet I function on. There’s a comfort in rehearsing the Barzini … er, retirement, business.

The woes of SXU: I keep thinking that all these vanities will pass. But they still seem so important. Here I am in a class, with all these young people, and their futures are so important, so full of promise. I need to be the adult and to lead them. But under the weight of my depression, I can’t move well.

Bill P. always brought a smile—he was always on, always performing. His schtick didn’t play well with everyone. My UIC classmate, Mary Kay, was thrown off by Bill’s irreverent demeanor during her interview in 1996, a day or two before my own interview. Maybe something about that interaction got me the job? I too was thrown off by Bill—but his voluble, comic, and I would eventually learn, Italian, nature made it easier for me to roll with him. Bill wasn’t, of course, the decision maker in the hiring for the position that I won—but he captured or represented some kind of favor that fell on me then in that life-changing accomplishment of becoming the English Education Coordinator as an Assistant Professor of English at Saint Xavier University. I still can’t believe it, and I still look on that moment as … what … a blessing? Curse? Miracle?

It was lucky in so many ways—to get the local job in a disciplinary area that was my first choice. To have gotten it when I did—with the family I had when I did. To have been able to send three children here—so proudly—when the institution was so worthy, though it did not ever know it, or appreciate it fully enough. 

Through the twists and turns of the late nineties and early aughts—before tenure, there was such energy, hope, vitality. I could name conferences that were transformational—in Arizona (the Grand Canyon being a big part of that) and Florida (on vacation with the family in Orlando, and my catapult into technology with Nicenet and Web Course in a Box). When Angelo became a student in 2004, everything changed, and the promise he pointed towards—intelligent, moral, carefree, free-spirited and free-wheeling engagement in the world—became an incarnation of what it was all about—the life of the academic, the purpose of education, the purpose of raising a family—the promise of it all.

It wasn’t necessarily his greatness (though he was great)—he was just the first of the kids to make that transition into adulthood. And he did it in a time when, despite being in the near aftermath of 9-11, was still a time of hope and promise … and even innocence.

I’m thinking of retirement … only because life has gotten so unbearable at SXU. I take that word “unbearable” from my colleague Amanda—who, young as she is, didn’t retire, but moved out of state and into a different teaching career in high school. Such were/are the conditions of worklife at SXU. Our best and brightest—our future—our most dedicated are made to feel the unbearable, and they leave in search of a better way to work and serve. Her farewell letter was polite and upbeat—no shots fired—and her use of the word “unbearable” was uttered in a more or less matter-of-fact way, but the word now rattles in my mind.

Part of my problem was just how good I had it. When we’re living the dream it’s hard to be aware that it is just a dream, that it all can vanish in the face of oncoming realities. There is some truth to the privilege of being a white guy, an older white guy, a tenured professor white guy. So many of the challenges now swirling about in contemporary society have spotlighted, if not outright critiqued, the accrued benefits of each of those adjectives and nouns—and it’s all justified. But those justifications don’t necessarily rehabilitate the motives or effects of the dismantling of academic mission that our university has suffered since 2015. The victims have been people of all kinds—varied in race, age, and gender. We have all lost—first the faculty, then the students. Our bloated, over-paid, over-self-congratulating administration seems to be the only winner, as we collectively descend into whatever version of us is to settle into place.  

There’s always hope that a new order, a new approach to justice can, yet again, put us on a path to a new prosperity, a structure of things that sidesteps some of the old injustices and deficiencies—and builds on new principles of inclusiveness, youthful vigor, and academic promise. But the grief over the things lost will still be there. Today is Groundhog Day—a “holiday” that invites a hope for sunnier days sooner rather than later. It’s a day also that has come to mean being trapped in a deficient—but improvable—environment, and one complete with all the resources needed for escape and future happiness. In the mixture of hope and imprisonment endemic to Groundhog Day, I struggle with my depression, and I smile at thoughts of Bill P. and Mary Kay, and I shed a tear for all that is unbearable. I hope to wake up to a better tomorrow; I long for February 3rd, and what might lie beyond.

Atwoodian Car Parking

I want to continue taking inventory of all my reactions to Margaret Atwood’s Burning Questions. Here are her themes, as I see them at this moment:

  • Environment
  • Second wave feminism
  • Her literary appreciations
  • Canada
  • The 20th century
  • The 21st century
  • Pandemic
  • Story-telling
  • Tales
  • Optimism
  • Writing
  • Her life

But wait, more than getting the list complete, I want to bear witness to how I’ve fallen under the spell of Atwood’s essayistic style. Burning Questions takes us to so many places, but the itinerary is always one of Atwood’s distinctive voice and literary appreciations and optimistic cautions and wry appreciations, while she (and the rest of us) “hang by a thread.”

It’s not unusual, I suppose, to want to write like a great writer after reading her. I find myself wanting to place down layers, or vectors of story/message, and have them, at some point connect in key, and unexpected, ways. I’ll try, but what follows, perhaps, is more a plan for bearing witness than the act itself—but I’ll see where it leads:

Seated at the kitchen table, I told my daughter Gen, who was standing some feet away at the counter, that I had gotten an email from the Cubs with a picture of Gallagher Way. Gen couldn’t see the picture, so I tried to describe it. As I did, I found myself saying positive things—things I did not want to be saying about the Cubs, or the Ricketts, or baseball. I told Gen that “July 30” (2021) had become a date for me like September 11 or December 7 for Americans, or May 28 for SXU faculty (whose union was busted that day). It was a day of crisis, a date that becomes an epithet. “July 30”: The willful dismantling of the World Series championship team was a display of ugliness that counterbalanced so much of the pastoral and idealistic and wishful and yes, childlike, joy I had associated with baseball. I vowed I would not come back, or come back quickly, or come back the same.

Still, here was this email, with the picture of Gallagher way.

I spoke to Gen of the complete take-over of Wrigleyville by the Ricketts. I told her of my days, 40 years prior, parking cars on game days across the street at the Mobil station. Gen asked, “Did you ever envision complaining about the Cubs’ owners to your adult daughter after you had received an email from the owners who were trying to purchase an English football club at the cost of several billions of dollars?”

Her question led to a swirl of meaningful strands set in motion by the Gallagher Way email. I started unraveling by asking her if she knew about the “knot hole” project at Wrigley Field? Her brother, Terry, had told me about this idea a few years ago. It was a faux nostalgic type of “hole in the outfield wall” that enabled people to walk up to the park and catch a glimpse of the game without paying. Of course, in the intervening years, the low-key idea was amped up, and evolved into the current Gallagher Way pictured in the email. The simple knot-hole had grown into a kind of theme park, with an over-sized big screen TV, concessions, and possibly other attractions (along with, of course, paid admission). Despite myself, as I looked at the families on the green artificial turf, the bright lights, the HD video, I thought, “that looks kinda fun.” And so part of me was thinking how we need to keep growing, keep changing with the times, keep searching for those essences of baseball, which, I guess, come down to sunshine, smiles, and lots of color. And let’s not forget families being together.

But … Gen and I have understandings, and one of them concerns rants, and I felt one coming on. I talked about “July 30″—how I needed, in the aftermath, to turn away from the Cubs for a period of time (Months? Years? Decades?) to heal. I told her about the sadness I felt over the changed character of the neighborhood, how the complete takeover by the Ricketts constituted a grotesque kind of gentrification—something which even in its best aspects is always heartbreaking and confusing, if not blatantly grotesque.

The talk of the neighborhood brought my focus to the gabled roofs of that iconic, but now gone, Mobil station on Clark Street. I worked there three summers while I was an English teacher at St. Scholastica Academy (1980-1983)—and every task of that job brought its own universe of meaning and significance. I wish I had the words to describe the parking of cars in our lot on game days. Somehow the memories here eased the pressure to rant. Instead, I now felt a need to capture a feeling of that time, the feeling I had in that job, of … what?

There was a lot of movement, and I became quite skilled at jockeying cars. The people handed over their cars, and they were all so happy to do so as they disembarked, with the flush of excitement and stretching after being cooped up in city traffic on their way to an adventure. Our prices were high, but we were right across the street from the ballpark, and we were “easy in-easy out” lot. To quote Terrence Mann from Field of Dreams: “For it is money they have, but peace they lack”—and so our high prices and our “easy-in-easy-out” guarantee accommodated both halves of Mann’s reflection. These people left their cars—but they also left the hurry and bother to me, which I was glad to take from them in some kind of converted and joyful purposefulness. In my efforts, I felt none of the stress but all of the exhilaration of service, of service in a happy maelstrom, of service making possible the escape that was soon to be entered into by children and parents, men and women, men and friends, women and friends, retirees, and every kind of traveler. They handed over their cars, and I put these cars into spaces, tightly, backing them into places I could find again, when the post-game chaos (after the lull of the game) required I do so swiftly and efficiently.

The memory I found myself trying to convey to Gen is one I have often thought of, and have found impossible to relay to others. It is a primal experience that can’t be characterized by comparing it to other experiences or building it through component experiences. It’s like the taste of something—how to describe it? How to convey the “taste of an orange” to one who had never tasted an orange? The experience I wanted to share was the experience of a ball game, several ball games, from outside the park. To be so close, yet so far. To be “in”—but definitely “out,” too. I have a picture of me in my gym shoes and tight fitting 80s t-shirt running here and there solving the placement of cars issues with great purpose, dexterity, and urgency—with the sound of the ball park organ, yes, the PA announcer, yes, but … most of all, the roar of the crowd, always expected, always a surprise, always communicative of something so big, so joyful, so unique … as the taste of an orange.

Gen and I talked of creating an audio documentary … of Wrigley Field, then and now. But the project seems so insurmountable. Is it my experience of “car parking guy”? Is it that “in and out” kind of participation? Is it the Ricketts tearing down of all the gabled roofs of Wrigleyville? Is it the uneasy mix of July 30-gentrificaiton-loss of soul-but sill smiling despite it all?

My essay seems to require Atwood’s masterful interweaving method and ability. Maybe I’ll just go to a ballgame with Gen instead, and we can try to talk about the passing away of things between pitches. That’s a different kind of experience, but one that, too, is its own “taste of an orange.” Fortunately, that’s an orange we have shared, and can share again, even if, at times, in silent nods.

Why I Can’t Read Novels Anymore

[Or Eat Sitting Down, When Alone;
Spoiler: It’s About Panic]

I hope it’s temporary, my inability to read. Rather, I should call it my disability in reading. I’m actually reading much more perhaps than ever before, since it’s all the time. But it’s so fragmented and erratic. I read news stories, alerts, tweets, threads, threads, threads. It’s twitter and its ilk becoming like rabbits in Australia, taking over. Fragments and bits, all distilled to pungent effects, like so many stabbings of wit and pure essence, pulling us this way and that, leaving us enervated and depleted, and ultimately, unfulfilled.

The old curling up with a novel, and doing so as a routine in my life, over long stretches of time, no longer seems possible. The reading nowadays is forever in snatches, sometimes precipitated by a buzz on the phone, sometimes stolen in a moment of distraction, sometime sought after in a pursuit of something—not sure what—but primarily a distraction. There are distractions that come unbidden, and distractions that are sought after, but whatever the pursuit or activity, all that seems to “be” is … “distraction.” This is my (and our society’s) current state of growing pains at the takeover by cell phones, social media, new journalism, contemporary consumption of culture, the agonizing human condition, the loneliness of modern life, the desperation for remedies, the nostalgia for a simpler, long-form type of life. Nothing is long-form any more. The shelf-life of ideas, dreams, aspirations, plans has shrunk. We scramble and move on, in ways that have lost a defining purpose or value. Why bother, though we don’t ask that, so we just keep the perpetual motion going, till it, mercifully?, stops.

Is this all but the logic, still, of a parent losing a son in his prime, or rather just before his prime?

It is. But it extends far beyond me too. We’re all feeling it in the ennui of 2022, post-pandemic (kinda), post-Trump (kinda), post-analog world, post unconnected world. The frenzy of 24/7 news and communication and being is getting to us all, and it’s not all bad, just mostly.

And I’m so busy, and everyone is in crisis. I have trouble justifying that selfish indulgence of long form reading as a regular part of life. But I worry as I skate along the surfaces of distractions that I am cutting myself off from hope, from possible immersion in that very thing that will cure me, that will help me find solace and understanding and calm—if only through transport to another place, not one of my own creation, a place that can provide healthier “distraction” in realms of greater possibility, where some unseen core of truth or energy will give us something essential for health and hope and joy.

I worry about my inability, our society’s inability, our youths’ inability, to carve out that slow pace, that shutting down, that putting on blinders that is reading. And without reading, I fear for the sanity and peace of the future world. Why can’t we turn away, shut out the outside world, and transport ourselves into that place, whatever/wherever it is, and however created by an author, and let that author and that world carry us along?

I bring this up during my deep dive, maybe halfway into the oeuvre of Margaret Atwood—not in books, but via Audible. So, the novels are being consumed, and at a relatively good rate, but not by reading, sitting, and being alone and focused solely on the book. There’s no underlining in ink. No pausing. No reflection, note-taking, and writing. So, it’s a different experience—again, not wholly negative, or deficient. 

If I’m ever to leave this new “reading” experience (and of course that day is coming, but no need to be morose or lugubrious about it), I’ll miss the performance aspect of the reader. Such pleasure in the human voice telling us a story. Such pleasure in the intonations, the singing, the sound effects, the interpretations. We’ve always had artists putting their stamps on a literary work, when, say the work is translated from the page onto the screen in a movie adaptation, for instance. But there, the interpretive license went too far, sometimes giving directors and other creators too much license to remake the work in their own image. With an Audible book, the interpretation is fully constrained to the author’s words, and the interpretation becomes only an enhancement, not a divergence.

When I was consuming Virginia Woolf on Audible, it was the breathy and beautiful Nicole Kidman who enchanted me through To the Lighthouse, and then it was the less-breathy, but equally enchanting and beautiful Annette Benning taking me through Mrs. Dalloway. I got to know these readers … through their intelligent interpretations, their miraculously deft performances—and my heart swelled with such gratitude. Thank you for doing this for me! Thank you for reading to me. Thank you for the simplicity and elegance of it.

But now I have a problem. I can’t listen to Audible outside the car. I just can’t do it. I can’t hunker down, hour after hour, while at rest, and approximate the old routine of reading. My impatience and distraction and anxiety about “the impending” (no noun to follow, just “the impending”; that’s what has kept me from the old way of reading)—prevented me from listening, despite the profundity of my gratitude. 

I should note an evolution in my Audible life which began last summer with Virginia Woolf. I read my Audible Woolfs, dare I say, on the treadmill (that just sounds wrong) this past summer, when I had time [cough, excuse] to exercise. Now, however, I listen to Audible solely in the car, where fortunately (?), I find myself every day. On my daily commute, and even short errands, I find I am able focus on the words and story, almost fully, but certainly enough to be “carried along”—both by the story and by my auto-pilot driving. Is that auto-pilot phenomenon real? Should I trust it? I can’t be sure…. But where I am now … I need the car; I need to be driving somewhere in order to read. It’s both a pragmatic need, but also metaphorical for the simultaneous escape and purposefulness, or the not having to choose between them. Most of all, it’s where I can give myself permission to “do nothing else” but luxuriate in the possibility of an author’s universe.

As I said at the onset: I hope I it’s temporary, my inability to read. I don’t always want to be driving to read. And the pandemic, which confined me to the house for nearly two years showed me that all my travels, and thus all my books, may evaporate into the ether, without notice. Also, this long-form reading works well for novels—but what about all the other kinds of reading I should return to? Philosophy? Meh, I guess I could do without philosophy; non-fiction works fine on Audible. Maybe I shouldn’t panic … about everything.  

Earlier this week, Atwood recommended against panic. As she accepted the Hutchins Prize (a bit of news I read, alas, old school/new school, as one of those Apple News distractions on my phone): “[D]esperate times require desperate remedies, and our times are desperate. However, instead of all these chariots and swords, I’ll propose something simpler. Don’t panic. Think carefully. Write clearly. Act in good faith. Repeat.” And so I will, but with a voice in my ear and a going someplace, at least for now.