IQ Test, Please!

Probably the most horrifying thing on CNN this week was an interview with six women from Pennsylvania who call themselves swing voters. Twitter was fired up over the response of one, who, when asked if she would support Trump if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, said she would want to know what why he shot them.

But that’s just hardcore Trumpcult, and not at all surprising. Trumpies believe he has a good reason for everything he does and says, and it is not for mere mortals to understand him. It’s the other women on this panel who scare me. When asked if Trump has anything to do with the divisiveness they decry, five of the six say no. And when asked for one word to describe Trump’s presidency, half of them can’t seem to count: “one of a kind!” “for the people!” and that old sawhorse, “entertaining!”

“Are you not entertained?” Trump bellows to the crowd, and they bray back in the affirmative. At his last rally, supporters were given shirts to wear that said “Read the Transcript!” But there is no transcript of the infamous call with the Ukrainian president, only a summary of that meeting, which is pretty damning in itself. And what makes you think any of these people would read that transcript, or even could? Is it too late to bring back the elitist idea of giving voters an IQ test? Asking for a nation.


I awoke this morning to the news that Matt Lauer was the latest public figure to fall in the wake of accusations of sexual harassment, and by the time I got my second cup of coffee, Garrison Keillor announced that he had been fired by Minnesota Public Radio over allegations of “improper behavior.”

I have no special insight into the cases of either of these men, or the numerous others who’ve gone down since the New York Times (with an assist from Ronan Farrow and the New Yorker) brought Harvey Weinstein down–and that story keeps on giving, with people anxiously awaiting fuller disclosure from Uma Thurman and other victims of his. I did interview James Toback (who has been accused of harassment and worse by over 300 women) back in 1991; I was writing a feature about Bugsy, for which he’d written the screenplay. Spy Magazine had done a piece about Toback’s Pick-Up Artist schtick–hitting on young women in NYC, name-dropping his way into having lunch with them at the Harvard Club before propositioning them–and he had refuted the allegations. I wasn’t there to talk about that, though I do remember arriving at his apartment building near Columbus Circle and calling upstairs only to be told he needed another 30 minutes: He was just “finishing something up.” After cooling my heels in the lobby, he emerged with a young woman who gazed at him adoringly while he talked about Dostoevsky, his movie The Gambler etc. and I thought: Some schticks die hard.

I’m glad to see all these mastodons being brought down, pleased that this moment has become a movement and hope that its waves finally reach the White House. But without stating the obvious, I think what ties a lot of these predators together is delusion.

Think of Michael Jackson. He was found not guilty on multiple charges of child abuse after hosting overnights at his ranch near Santa Ynez: Neverland. That was the name of Peter Pan’s island of Lost Boys, which might make you think of Mary Martin but makes pedophiles dream of vacationing in Bangkok. Jackson lived in a world of his own making, complete with amusement park rides and lots of places to hide, until the fantasy walls were broached by police. (He sold Neverland after the trial, saying that investigators had forever soiled his sacred place, and seriously cramped his style.)

Jackson’s was an extreme case, and I know many of his fans still refuse to admit that he was guilty of child abuse. (Denial is another form of delusion.) But I think that sense of entitlement, that ordinary rules don’t apply to you, is what links most of those now being accused of (mostly) lesser crimes. It’s why I have trouble dismissing the most serious allegations against Woody Allen. So many of his films (which I can no longer bring myself to watch) have a plotline about the extraordinary needs of Artists, and once you’ve slept with your girlfriend’s daughter, there aren’t too many boundaries left.

Watch for more backlash soon (even Woody worried about a “witch hunt” after the Weinstein story blew up), and I’m sure there will be more Trump-sized insults before this movement is exhausted. (Senator Roy Moore, anyone?) But I think the swift action on the part of so many responsible institutions (NPR, the New York Times, NBC et al) proves that the intruders are still at the gates. Never say never.

The Wicked Stepfather

There has been a lot of scholarly writing about the archetype of the Wicked Stepmother in the tales of the Brothers Grimm over the years. Bruno Bettelheim suggested that having a stepmother wanting to kill her kids allowed children to separate their feelings, and preserve a pristine image of a good (usually dead) mother from the bad one. Also, having a wicked mother would be a little too on the nose (though John Frankenheimer certainly went there in the Manchurian Candidate!).

in the classic thriller, The Stepfather, a super bad new dad–played by Terry O’Quinn (aka, John Locke in Lost) in the original–literally sets out to kill his new children, after having done the same in an earlier family. He’s a classic sociopath, doing evil and moving on, unperturbed.

If every president deserves an archetype (George HW Bush was your first husband, Bill Clinton the guy your mother warned you about), Trump’s might just be the Wicked Stepfather. Sure, we couldn’t believe it when Mom brought this guy home–I mean, have you looked at him? The hair, the teeth, the way he talks about himself? And we could hardly stop barfing when she said she was going to marry him. But we couldn’t leave because, well, America is our home.

So we hoped he might pivot once he was our dad (even when we wouldn’t call him that) and hoped he would stop being such an asshole, or at least stop hitting on our girlfriends. But from the beginning, things looked bad. He spent his wedding toast talking about himself and then tried to scare everyone with talk about carnage. And he doesn’t even drink!

With the events of Charlottesville and his reaction, Trump has disappointed on a whole, new level. To follow my metaphor: It’s as if we came home from being beaten up or raped and our new stepdad said, “Well, who told you to go out there? and what were you wearing? There are two sides to this, you know. I don’t see that you are so blameless.” When what you wanted was a real dad, one who would try to comfort you and maybe even say, “Where is that son of a bitch, I’ll rip his head off!” Not, “He looks like a fine person to me!”

I don’t know how this horror show will end. But in the movie the kid finally kills the bastard.

Feet of Clay

A few years ago I interviewed a Buddhist teacher that I had come to admire. I’d heard this person give a number of dharma talks and liked the way he blended traditional Zen teachings with modern poetry and gleanings from other lineages. I asked him if I could interview him for a magazine devoted to Buddhism and he agreed. He wanted to know if he could see what I was going to publish before it went to press, and seeing how it was a Q&A, I didn’t see a problem. That was my first mistake.

All went well with our first interview. He was, not surprisingly, wise and funny about his past and what brought him to the place where he is now. The editors liked the interview but asked for more; they had questions about an old controversy at the center where he taught and wondered if he might address them. He was agreeable, when I finally reached him (corresponding with Buddhist monks can be a lesson in patience) and I showed him an edit of the first Q&A, which he seemed pleased with. I asked a few more questions, he gave me some good answers and I added them to the final piece, which the magazine rushed into print (though “rushed” is a relative term for any spiritual publication).

Then the teacher asked me if I could see the final version and I told him it was too late; they hadn’t even given me a chance to review it but presented the story to me in a PDF, fait accompli. Not that there was anything to complain about; it was a laudatory feature about a guy doing good work, illustrated with beautiful photos of him in nature. But when I told him that it was too late, but not to worry, he blew a gasket, called me “deceitful” and “manipulative” in an email–fighting words where I come from, and where he comes from, too. (He was raised in what we would today call a conflict zone.) I envisioned kicking the monk’s ass, which is definitely not the way I thought this assignment was going to turn out.

I still see this teacher occasionally, and while I admire his teachings, I’m aware that as a human being, he’s as fucked up as I am. I was reminded of this today when reading Jack Kornfield’s new book, No Time Like the Present. Not being up on my Buddhist gossip, I was surprised to learn that Jack had been divorced, after 30 years of marriage. I’ve heard him speak a number of times, have sat with him and read his books, and just assumed his life was perfect.

“I had to let it all be okay and realize that it does not define me,” he writes. “‘How could a teacher of mindfulness and lovingkindness be getting divorced?’ I was asked.

“Like a human being, that’s how.”

Reading that helped me let go of my still simmering resentment about the teacher I interviewed years ago. Now I have only a few thousand more resentments to go.

Mind Makes Heaven Hell

I was on the west coast of Florida a few weeks ago, not really a vacation since my wife and I were working most of the time – that’s what passes for vacation these days.  Still, I could see the Gulf waves rolling in from where I sat in a little bungalow on Casey Key and I would have been a fool to complain.

There must be a lot of fools there then. The weather was unseasonably cool for a few days – in the sixties my last day there, with the sun struggling to come out – and I heard a lot of grousing among the other wayfarers I met.  It was as as though Florida owed them something and they wanted to give the state one star on Yelp! (“Was this review helpful to you?”) –  forgetting what the weather was like where they came from: A friend wrote me from Madison, WI when I was there, where it was four below, and after Florida I went to NY where it was in the twenties every day….

Our capacity to make ourselves miserable in the finest of conditions never ceases to amaze me.  Before we went to Casey Key, a barrier island in Sarasota County, we were seeing my wife’s parents in Sanibel, a popular tourist and retirement destination south of there. More than half of Sanibel Island is made up of wildlife refuges, and thanks to the Sanibel Comprehensive Land Use Plan of 1974, it has not been developed to death. How could you not be happy there?

I saw a local about my age tool by in a purple Fiat Spider, top down, and I envied him his choice of locale, to say nothing of his car… until he passed me and saw his bumper full of hate stickers.  They happened to be anti-Obama though you never know in Florida: This was the state that gave us the George W presidency (you could argue that the Supreme Court gave us the George W presidency) but they went Democratic in the last election – a swing-state in the truest sense. And it’s not just Republicans who become unhinged when the other party is in the White House; I know a lot of Dems who were reduced to sputtering, quivering contempt after eight years of Bush.

I guess I’m marveling at the vitriol. On the nice days you see people looking for shells on the beach (“shelling,” in the local parlance), eyes downcast and shuffling like old-school zombies. It is the picture of carelessness. No matter what your political stripe, doesn’t the whole pursuit of happiness clause mean you should give the need to be right (or left) — and always enraged — a rest once in a while? The wave I got from my neighbors when I went running on the beach was not just the one-per-center wave of recognition (though being able to be there in March by definition puts me somewhere in the upper class bracket); it’s an acknowledgement of our good fortune. Hey there, says that little wave: Ain’t it good to be alive?