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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond Offers Clarity

This book is staggeringly good. I was familiar with Steve Almond from his short stories, but this is straight journalism at its best (which he teaches at Harvard). (It is clear from Almond's thought processes and messages to students, presented in this volume, that he is a great teacher and seasoned journalist.)

In reviewing, there is a tendency to break down books about politics into bullet-point messages, and I hesitate to do that because it would misrepresent Bad Stories as something much smaller than it is.

So what is it?

Because of Almond's conversational writing style, it is easily readable and offers up documented mind-blowing insights like hors d'oeuvres. Hence, Bad Stories is a huge, readable 237-page revelation of profound insights gleaned from connecting dots that we-the-people largely prefer not to see.  Read More 
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What's After #MeToo? Send in the Clowns! Read Paul Beatty's The Sellout

Timing is important. There is a time for rage and a time for laughter, and right now rage reigns—as it should. After centuries of suppression, critical mass has been reached, the #MeToo movement has exploded, and male bodies are flying. Time magazine has put it on its cover. It's about time!

Like any other human woman, I have a litany of stories of men abusing their power. I admire the women who have spoken up. I quickly learned that would not work for me: Although I'm a clown, I couldn't laugh. As a child, I wasn't believed; as an adult, there was nobody to speak up to because the abuser was the boss. My M.O. was to cut and run, resulting in what might be politely referred to as an "attachment disorder" and "an eclectic" work résumé.

But I do believe there is another way, and eventually the clowns will have their microphones.

I recently read a "holy cow"-popping, rib-crackingly funny book that gave me a clue about how that might be.

In Paul Beatty's Man Booker-prize-winning, esoteric-reference-riddled novel The Sellout, an outsider black man "leans in" (thank you, Cheryl S.) to prejudices, actually reestablishing segregated schools and slave trade in his small California town of Dickens.  Read More 
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Sacrifice Is Critical in the Age of #MeToo

It's not complicated: "No" means no. "No, I don't want to do that." "No, stop that." "No, I don't think that is funny."

Persistent advances—kissing, groping, or worse—after somebody has made their "No" clear is bullying or assault. End of story.

Good guys can do this. They can get their photos snapped doing it. And rather than defend them as good guys and attack the victims for being "coached" by your opposition, realize they were doing something a woman had clearly rejected.

Talented guys can do this: brilliant actors and directors who have long-dirty reputations in closed industry circles, yet they've gotten away with it and their predation escalates.

Presidents can do this, and they appear to be Teflon-covered.  Read More 
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What Happened by Hillary Clinton

What really happened? What always happens: Politics, like life, is not fair. Nobody tells the whole truth. Everybody thinks they're right and excoriates everybody who doesn't agree with them. And the best we can do with this mess is try to listen to everybody with an open mind, make the best choices we can—knowing that none of them are perfect, and when we are in peril, choose whatever compromise most assures life.

I voted for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries, and his book, Our Revolution, was the first I read about the election.

The second related book I read more recently, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, and it was like an infusion of sanity.

What Happened by Hillary Clinton feels like the third in a medicinal trilogy. It is healing to read a funny (the specifics of the phone and email stuff are laugh-out-loud funny!), articulate, sane person admit her flaws, take responsibility for most of them, introspectively process what happened, learn, and consider new policies and future actions in a more open way because of it. Read More 
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Team of Rivals—What Doris Kearns Goodwin Omitted

This is a wonderful nuanced book that resonates mightily with and informs what is going on today. Read it if you want to understand any kind of historical basis for what is now happening in the U.S. Read it if you love the minutia of history—every conversation ever recorded during the Lincoln period, every permutation and convolution of the Civil War, the complex emotional motivations behind the factions (a lot of people fought more for preservation of the union than out of any conviction about slavery)—or if you feel as if you need to learn U.S. history. This book has garnered enormous public attention as well as an award-winning movie based on it, so I am not going to write more commentary on what is in it. Instead, here are some opinions about the very important content that is missing.

At more than 900 pages, the book was so heavy, I broke down and bought a wretched Kindle version so that I could read without straining my tendons. But still, it was too short. Why? Read More 
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The Book of Mormon and Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

In The Book of Mormon, eager-beaver boy Mormons aspire to save humanity by spreading their truth to "unwoke" people across the globe. In the performance I saw on Friday, actor Steven Ashfield (not the actor in this recording), playing "Elder McKinley, the tap-dancing, light-switch-turning Mormon district leader in Uganda" (see profile) leads the cast in a rollicking number called "Turn It Off," lauding the wisdom of violently "crushing" any homosexual and other feelings. The audience roared with laughter — a recognition of the universal futility of experiencing anything approximating "good" by self-crushing.

During intermission, as I gazed over the packed house from my seat near the front of the orchestra, I couldn't help but hear the loud cell phone conversation of a woman a few rows back: "I just don't find it funny," she said irately. "And I really dislike the actor playing the queer. His mannerisms are annoying, and there's a lot of things they don't get right. It just isn't funny." The conversation was all the more interesting because a few minutes earlier, several people sitting next to me had been complaining about the lack of cell service in the theater. But that aside, I began to wonder about her and her need to pronounce her displeasure. And I've thought about her more in the ensuing days. Read More 
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Indecent on Broadway and The Postman Always Rings Twice

Much as we like to fancy ourselves superior to sheep and cows, we really have a lot in common: we are a herd species. We have leaders and followers, and to spook us requires a well-placed surprise that the "influencer" members pick up, and ka-boom, stampede. To control us, merely convince the same influencers, and we follow en masse. It's the key to many things — for instance, politics. But first the entertainment. (To get a point across, I've noticed that good shepherds open with enticement.)

I just saw a matinee of Pulitzer-winner Paula Vogel's play Indecent, a timely story about our herd propensity. In 1907, a young playwright named Sholem Asch wrote a play called God of Vengeance which was frightening to his Jewish colleagues because it exposed Jews as flawed people. "You can't show this," they rail at him. Nevertheless, the play is put on, is a big hit, tours throughout Europe and eventually lands in New York . . . where it is censored for an uptown production. What is cut out is a love scene between two women. Subsequently, it becomes a play about a Jew who runs a whore house, abuses his lesbian daughter, and disrespects the Torah. And the show is shut down and the cast jailed.

The New York herd was spooked — something had to be done, somebody subdued, trampled, shut up.

The reason that I think this play is important — particularly in our time when political correctness has become a divisive topic — is that it movingly expresses the value of (and price paid for) speaking truth, no matter who may get offended by it or who may use it to bolster arguments for bigotry. In my opinion, this is the tightrope negotiated by all artists who are working to express something bigger than they are. If you really say it, somebody is going to be infuriated.  Read More 
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Lincoln in the Bardo, a Bodhisattva Story?

First some definitions:

In Buddhism, bodisattvas are people who are enlightened but stay with us suffering mortals to help, even absorb our pain, in order to aid us on our individual journeys to enlightenment (oneness with All That Is).

And bardos are an intermediate state of existence between two lives.


It took a day to hit, but when it did, the recognition of Abraham Lincoln in Georges Saunders's wonderful novel Lincoln in the Bardo as a bodhisattva made me feel like laughing and crying at the same time.

What an imaginative, unusual, and nicely bawdy book, but I'm not sure you would be drawn to it if you have no background in Eastern traditions or predilection for, or merely willingness to suspend disbelief about, the notion that life exists beyond what we experience in our bodies or that in more ethereal realms thoughts create reality and that energy can move like great literal ocean waves, causing experiences and communications between the realms.  Read More 
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Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff

Like many other people, I've been stymied by the fact that facts no longer seem to matter: you can have two photographs of crowds side by side, and someone can call the smaller gathering the larger one with impunity; you can claim to have done more than anybody in history and in fact have done next to nothing; there can exist historical footage quoting you as saying one thing . . . and then the opposite, and you can claim to believe whichever film is more convenient according to the moment. As a friend recently said, "What do you do when it's clearly raining outside and it's now perfectly acceptable to look at it and say, 'It's not raining'?"

Here's what I've done: I've begun to learn a new language and a neuroscientific explanation of all of the above.

Although it is only 168 pages and subtitled "The essential progressive guide for the issues that define our future . . .," in Don't Think of an Elephant (revised and re-released in 2014 by Chelsea Green Publishing), cognitive scientist George Lakoff has written an opus, not a quick-fix, sound-bite-loaded little guide. Often it suffers from too much detail, but I give it much praise for the sections that explain the brain science of why facts don't matter to many voters and they will vote against their own interests. And the last chapter, "How to Respond to Conservatives," is worth the cost of the book. Read More 
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A Gentleman in Moscow and Hypocrisy in Historical Accuracy

"At no other time in history," said Amor Towles, author of A Gentleman in Moscow (which I've swooned over) and Rules of Civility (which I will read very soon), "at no other time have fiction writers been held to a higher standard of truth than people who run for political office."

Big laugh! We were a packed audience at a talk Towles was giving at the National Arts Club located on Gramercy Park South, one of the most elegant addresses in New York City and a fitting venue for a writer as elegant as Towles in his perfectly fitted brown pin-stripe suit. He continued: "Someone running for the highest office in the land can say anything, the most outrageous lies, and be excused, yet if I get an address wrong in a novel, I receive a million irate emails."

Another laugh. Read More 

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Libraries for Life

The first thing I ever wrote and published was a review of Tell Me Another Morning by Zdena Berger. I found this autobiographical Holocaust novel while browsing in my local public library when I was 13 or 16; the time is hazy. I would hang out in the quiet of this small-town oasis, explore, and for a little while feel like who I really was. There was a newsletter booklet on the librarian's desk and it said they'd publish reviews, so I wrote one. Although I read Tell Me Another Morning 53 or 50 years ago, I still remember it. It was a story about surviving by listening to stories.

I was catapulted into this memory by yesterday's The Hill report:

As National Library Week begins April 9, the Trump administration and Republican Party have launched an unprecedented attack on the institution by submitting a zero budget request for the Institute for Library and Museum Services.


Libraries are important and I am appalled that the government of the country that people run to, the "land of the free," would defund them. Libraries are part of our national infrastructure. They allow people who have nothing to have access to everything. (Just take a look at this list of a few famous people, including Lincoln, who educated themselves with merely a library card.) Libraries allow those who are interested to learn the horrors of not resisting when humans act inhumanly (Yes, Sean Spicer, Hitler really did use chemical weapons on his people). Read More 

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Earth Mother

This morning’s contemplation: Sometimes you have a sudden awakening—a feeling of lightening; a knowing that, although each of us is ultimately alone, we are something much huger than any one person, something so powerful we would explode if we felt it all the time. If you have felt this just once, it is there for you. It’s like connection to a great mother’s placenta. For me, there was such an awakening during the 1/21 women’s march. And I believe there was such a worldwide concentration of this experience that it formed a global placenta for all of us babies who are aware of it. So if you get tired, sad, defeated, whatever, just REMEMBER those feelings.  Read More 
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How do we come together?

This is a sincere question and I have no answers.

I am not going to be able to "get over it" and "move on" when every day something happens that sickens and scares me. But I also am not a progressive fundamentalist. I sicken and scare according to each event on its own merits.

I have not found everything sickening and scary.


  • For instance, after hearing a lot of different opinions, I decided that General James Mattis was not a bad pick for secretary of defense. He opposed Trump in his hearings. He seems to understand more about Putin and Russia than his boss.

  • Likewise, from reading Bernie Sanders' Our Revolution and learning more than I've ever known about trade, I see renegotiating agreements as a positive thing.

  • Infrastructure projects, if done in a way that they benefit real people rather than the top 1%, will be a good thing. But I'm skeptical about the "how."

  • After hearing this riveting On the Media interview with Tim Weiner, Times reporter and expert on the CIA and FBI, I believe that James Comey might end up being a national hero.

  • My fiction has been known to tick off the political correctness police, and I abhor any constriction of First Amendment rights—including the rights of people who say things that sicken and scare me.

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A New Definition of Evil


[Updated 2/5/17]
From the New York Times
Earlier in the day, at the White House, Mr. Trump shrugged off the sense of anxiety and disarray, suggesting that there had been an orderly rollout. "It's not a Muslim ban, but we were totally prepared," he said. "It's working out very nicely. You see it at the airports, you see it all over."

Imagine:

  • You have risked your life to work for the USA, gone through years of scrutiny, obtained a legal visa, a green card.

  • Bombs exploding around you, you have run for your life, crossed treacherous waters crammed in a precarious boat. You have endured the death of your children, your spouse. You have lived in mud, waiting. For 2 and 3 years, you have answered questions. You have obtained a legal visa.

  •  Read More 
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The Point of the Women's March

The Point of the Women's March? This seems to be a question, so I'd like to answer it personally:

I marched in the first women's NYC movement in 1970 and vividly remember red-faced men on the sidelines screaming, "Get back in the kitchen where you belong." It was scary. I was 19 and was there because two "older" women at the company where I was an intern ordered me to come with them. Many of us were angry, but only in correlation to how scared we were.

When I marched on 1/21/17, it was an epiphany, an ecstatic event. I learned that everything had indeed changed for the better. I was not scared; I was elated. Police wore pink hats, smiled, and were helpful. The crowds were humongous and peaceful. The world joined this march. It was not merely a march to protest Trump's misogyny. It was not merely to fight for women's equal pay, right to determine what our bodies will and will not do, or any other single issue.  Read More 
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