In Remembrance

Candle in the dark

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I wrote this post on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and offer it again today in commemoration. I hope we can some day live in a world where the best of humanity prevails.

As usual, I went to yoga Sunday morning, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Mostly I go for the effect on my muscles, not my spirit. But on this solemn day my yoga teacher lit a candle in remembrance, and invited us to practice Tonglen, breathing in all that is troublesome in the world, acknowledging it, then transforming it into compassion and peace on the exhale. After a few minutes, the class continued with its typical focus on backs, necks, and hips, or, as one member put it, “the usual overall soreness.”

At the end of the class, after the stretching and the Namaste, another member shared what happened to her Turkish and Egyptian friends ten years ago. They owned a restaurant in Manhattan, which they managed to keep open after the towers fell despite the chaos and lack of customers. Late at night three white men came in. They trashed the place. One of the owner’s friends managed to slip away and call the police. Soon the men who had destroyed the restaurant were apprehended and brought back to be identified before they could be charged.

“Yes, those are the men,” the owners told the police, who were eager to throw the book at them.

But the owners refused to press charges.

“This is a difficult day,” they said. “We understand their grief and rage. Let them go.”

Incredulous, the police did so reluctantly.

A few hours later, the three men came back with some of their friends, pressing upon the owners fistfuls of cash for the damage. The men helped clean up as best they could, and continued to come for the next several weeks until things were put right again.

Sometimes forgiveness is the most effective kind of justice. It is much more likely than hatred or revenge to spawn atonement. This is the lesson so often lost in our decade of fear and grief and war. But it is one worth remembering as we light a candle; breathe in trouble and sorrow; breathe out compassion and peace; and seek to ease the overall soreness of the world.

Airlift: Feeding the Grassroots

Like a lot of Americans, I went to a party on the Fourth of July. We celebrated Independence Day with fervent expressions of patriotism: BBQ, beer, and, of course, politics.

The sign on the door welcoming us read:

This was a couple of weeks after the first Democratic presidential debates, so there was a lot of buzz about the candidates. A few people had someone they were leaning toward, but most were so overwhelmed by the sheer number of contenders that they were waiting awhile for things to shake out. They wanted to give money to somebody, but who?

The presidential race of course generates a lot of attention (and money). But no matter who the nominee is, it’s what happens on the ground that matters most.

Luckily, there’s a lot we can do RIGHT NOW for Democratic victories, not just for President, but also for all-important Senate, House, and down-ballot races. Right before July 4th, I had gone to a gathering where I learned about Airlift, a new group I was excited to share with my fellow partygoers who were itching to join the fight.

Airlift’s tagline is “Feeding the Grass Roots,” with the goal of turning non-voters into voters. Airlift focuses not so much on candidates but on funding grassroots organizations working tirelessly year-round in their local communities to engage low-propensity voters, particularly young ones and people of color. Organizers listen to and talk with people about issues that matter to them, giving them a reason to vote. After a careful vetting process, Airlift funds groups with a proven track record of electoral success in key areas nationwide.

That strategy works. Remember how exciting it was in 2017, when Democrats flipped 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, paving the way for Medicaid expansion, and Doug Jones won Alabama’s Senate seat? These successes were followed by the 2018 mid-terms, when the steadily growing blue wave swept Democrats to victory up and down the ballot. Airlift played a key role, helping to:

  • Flip 21 house seats, including all 7 in California!  (West by Southwest Fund)
  • Restore voting rights for 1.4 million citizens in Florida (Organize Florida)
  • Turn Nevada almost entirely Blue! (PLAN Nevada)
  • Increase early youth voting in Texas by 500% (MOVE Texas)
  • Kick Scott Walker out of office in Wisconsin (Milwaukee BLOC Action Fund)
  • Pass redistricting in Ohio, Missouri, and Michigan (Lift the Midwest Fund)
  • Flip 15 Virginia house seats and win Medicaid expansion for 400,000 people (New Virginia Majority)
  • Pass automatic voter registration in Michigan and Nevada (MI-Liberation and PLAN Nevada)
  • Hire 600 organizers in Alabama who won the election for Doug Jones (Airlift special project)

And that was in the Fund’s infancy! This year, Airlift hopes to triple its first-year contributions. Efforts are organized around three strategic funds comprising 17 organizations: Lift the Midwest; West by Southwest; and Voter Motor. You can read all about these amazing groups here.

If we want to be true patriots and save our democracy, it’s time to engage and expand the electorate. 2020 will be a heavy lift. Make it easier by supporting Airlift today.

It will lift your spirits as well!

Moon Dreams

Moon and poppy collage (colored paper and toner, hand-cut and layered in quarter-inch strips), early work by my artist daughter

Fifty years ago today, I was 14 years old and standing with my parents in central Copenhagen, looking up. So were thousands of others–Danes and tourists from all over the world, jammed into the streets, craning our necks to see.

Our collective gaze fell not on the moon (it was the middle of the day), nor on a TV screen (there were no nearby stores with banks of televisions, and Jumbotrons hadn’t been invented yet). Instead, we were plugged into the moon landing through one of those electronic billboards flashing the news, the pixellated words chasing each other around the top of a skyscraper.

The crowd gasped, and my parents and I were caught up in the excitement. Only slowly did it dawn on us that we didn’t exactly know what was happening. We could make out obvious cognates like “Apollo” and “astronauts,” but we had no idea if the men had crashed or landed safely.

There was no confusion about the unity of the crowd, however. Even though the Apollo mission was born out of intensive nationalistic rivalry, all divisions and ill-will ceased to exist in that moment. We were one people–fearful, hopeful, awestruck–transcending the bounds of petty earthliness.

This is what I remember of the moon landing. That unity, good-will, and collective purpose feel scarce today when we need it more than ever. I dream of its return.

Republican Dereliction of Duty

Except for Justin Amash, the U.S. House representative from Michigan, no congressional Republicans have stepped forward to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment. The G.O.P. apparently gets a pass as all eyes turn to the Democrats to hold the President accountable. Their path is seeded with land mines no matter which route they pursue, especially since Trump, with total Republican acquiescence, has defied the Constitutional imperatives that grant Congress the duty and power of oversight. As Michelle Goldberg’s aptly titled New York Times column points out, “Impeaching Trump is risky. So is Refusing To.”

hold the President accountable. Their path is seeded with land mines no matter which route they pursue, especially since Trump, with total Republican acquiescence, has defied the Constitutional imperatives that grant Congress the duty and power of oversight. As Michelle Goldberg’s aptly titled New York Times column points out, “Impeaching Trump is risky. So is Refusing To.”

Obsessively focusing on whether or not Democrats should impeach Trump, however, is the wrong frame for deciding what to do about the grave peril this Administration and its enablers pose. For starters, it lets Republicans off the hook, and deals with only one man, leaving all those who are better mannered sitting prettily in power despite their complicity. 

We should instead emphasize how the President has failed utterly to even say let alone do anything about undeniable foreign sabotage in our elections, and how he continues to abuse the powers of his office by threatening to go after the FBI and his political opponents for starting these much-warranted investigations in the first place. He flaunts the Constitution daily by refusing to respond to any and all subpoenas. He refuses to address the myriad problems facing the country unless the Democrats drop their investigations. His brazen acts of corruption unfold at a dizzying and purposely mind-numbing pace. His presidency is one long tantrum after another. His malignancy knows no bounds.

Trump being Trump, however, is not the worst part. Far more dangerous is that Republicans, when they are not actively rallying around him repeating his lies, say nothing. We must hammer home the point that Republicans have failed to hold Trump accountable for large and small displays of unfitness throughout his campaign and presidency on matters well beyond Mueller’s investigation. Getting rid of Trump is insufficient; we can and must put an end to their dereliction of duty as well.  

Whether or not Democrats pursue formal avenues of impeachment, one thing is clear: We must Impeach at the polls—vote them all out.

And They’re Off!

With this week’s debates, the Democratic presidential primary race is officially upon us. So here’s my official position on the contenders: I love them all, and would be happy to vote for any of them. In fact, I would happily vote for anyone with a pulse and a “D” after their name. Even those whose name I can’t recall.

Oddly, the Democrats have gone from having no bench to an extremely crowded one that could cave under the strain of all those people jockeying for position on it. It’s an embarrassment of riches, whereas the Republicans just have rich embarrassments.

Still, enough is enough. The two dozen (and counting) candidates perversely echo the effect of Trump’s lies: so numerous that we tune them all out.  Let the winnowing begin!

I’ll share my opinions on specific candidates from time to time, even though these opinions will no doubt change weekly from now until the Convention. For now, just some general observations to kick off 2020.

Electability. It’s the mysterious “It” factor, even though nobody has a clue what “It” is. Most simply, “electability” means whoever gets the most votes. Except the Electoral College makes it not so simple, as Al Gore and Hillary Clinton can attest. So we have to consider the whole body politic as we try to squeeze, Spanx-like, all the weird excesses and lacks into some pleasingly redistributed configuration.

Since the highest priority of almost all Democrats and many swing voters is to get Donald Trump out of office rather than assert moral purity (aka “lose”) by refusing to vote for any non-preferred candidate, this shouldn’t be that hard. To recap, if everyone who is alarmed by Trump pledges to vote in the General Election for anyone with a pulse and a “D” after their name, problem solved.

Year of the Woman or B is for Boy? Until recently, none of the super-qualified female candidates was gaining much traction. Biden, Bernie, Beto, and Buttigieg formed the alliterative core of Boy Power. That’s shifted some, with Elizabeth Warren and now Kamala Harris gaining ground. Plus, the only bumper sticker I’ve seen so far besides “Bernie 2020” and “Any Functioning Adult 2020” is “Tulsi.”

Unconscious (not to mention conscious) bias is real. After the 2016 election, HuffPost ran a piece by Max Weiss called, “Things I Blame for Hillary Clinton’s Loss, Ranked.” It began,

Here is my response to the Slate article, “So We’re Still Blaming Jill Stein and James Comey, Huh?” This is a partial list of the things I blame, ranked.

1-199. MISOGYNY

Of course, Hillary won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, so except for the Spanx Problem, it’s hard to argue that a woman can’t win. What worries me is that I’ve been to many dinner parties in which someone invariably says, “Elizabeth Warren is such a school marm.” And these are people who LIKE Elizabeth Warren! A little while ago there were many stories about women who would love to see a female president but were afraid to vote for one. Even if legitimate, this worry can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Michelle Goldberg just wrote a compelling post-debate piece on this dilemma.)

Of course, Democrats and women candidates prevailed in the mid-terms. Trepidation about a female nominee has abated some, and the term “school marm” has mostly disappeared from my own social circle. We have to reckon with our own unconscious bias, just as I did in 2008 when I came to view as racist my conviction that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could never be elected president.

Feeling anxious?

I have a plan for that: vote for the nominee with a pulse and a “D” after their name.

Weathering the “Total Exoneration” BS Storm

I’ve been sheltering in a secure, low-news bunker since Robert Mueller handed over his report to Attorney General William Barr last week. That’s so I can avoid getting caught up in the powerful cyclone of spin put out by Trump’s propaganda machine and amplified by mainstream pundits.

For the record, Mueller explicitly stated that the evidence does not exonerate the President regarding obstruction of justice. His investigation, besides concluding that Russia definitely meddled in the election, yielded 34 indictments, with several close Trump associates pleading or being found guilty and facing time. It’s also been a money-maker for the United States, netting more in fines and forfeitures than the investigation cost.

But what are facts in the age of spin?

I had fortified myself in advance thanks to Pod Save America’s Dan Pfeiffer, who offered a pre-report rant before he himself disappeared into his hidey-hole.  Pfeiffer predicted that unless the Mueller report resulted immediately in Nancy Pelosi donning her sunglasses and sauntering from Capitol Hill to the Oval Office in her new role as President following the Constitution’s prescription for succession, the media would declare a huge victory for Trump and a huge loss for the Democrats. As the Pod Save hosts have been reminding listeners since just about forever, defeating Donald Trump and his Republican enablers will require the hard work of organizing to win the 2020 election—in House, Senate, and state races as well as the White House. It was never going to be through a Deus Ex Muellercha.

In any case, with my news consumption down as I wait for the Total Exoneration Bullshit Storm to pass, I’ve freed up a lot of time for other things. If you, too, want to limit your exposure to the Mueller Report Obsession, here are some suggestions:

  1. Do your taxes. Ready or not, April 15th is just around the corner. Why not just get it over with? Be sure to think about how Trump’s biggest legislative accomplishment has been to pass a $1.5 trillion tax cut benefiting mostly the super rich and big corporations while blowing up the deficit Republicans pretended to care about under President Obama.
  2. Schedule a doctor’s appointment. You might want to do this really soon, since once again the Republicans are going after your healthcare with a vengeance, not just via death by a thousand cuts, but with wholesale elimination.
  3. Calculate how long it will be before you’re eligible for Medicare. Oh, silly me! Republicans do care about deficits again, which is why they are now threatening Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, and other vital social programs.
  4. BTW, just as you shouldn’t have been holding your breath for the Mueller Report to save us, don’t hold your breath for Medicare-for-All anytime soon. Be sure to instead work toward it via any of the avenues being proposed by Democrats, but for heaven’s sake don’t insist on any purity tests!
  5. Have sex! Following the news is not only a time-suck, it’s a libido-killer. Put that device down and snuggle up! But if your time until Medicare eligibility is substantial, first make sure to . . .
  6. Stock up on birth control. Already the Trump Administration, under the guise of “religious liberty,” has made it easier for employers to refuse to provide free contraceptives as required by the ACA. The aforementioned threat to the ACA will only make things worse in the family planning department.
  7. Speaking of which, make a donation to Planned Parenthood to counteract the Republicans’ war on the organization. Bonus activity points for donating in Mike Pence’s name.
  8. Be careful, though! If you don’t want to have a baby but followed #5 while failing to follow #6, you may find yourself needing an abortion. This has become more and more difficult and is about to become even more so as states like Georgia pass so-called “heart-beat bills.” Besides banning most abortions, often before a woman realizes she’s pregnant, the goal of these clearly unconstitutional laws is to trigger a Supreme Court hearing with the hope of overturning Roe v. Wade.
  9. Ah, yes! Remember the Supreme Court? One of whose seats was stolen by Mitch McConnell? The branch of government that motivates Republicans to vote more than Democrats? When I made calls to Nevada for the 2016 election to see if people supported Clinton or Trump, one man told me, “I think they’re both idiots, but I’m a conservative, and I want conservative justices on the Supreme Court so I’m voting for Trump!” Impeccable logic. People who are alarmed by the rightward lurch of the Supreme Court might try it. Planking in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s 86th birthday is nice, but insufficient.
  10. Hug your children. Give thanks that they have not been wrested away from you and put in cages. Spare a thought for those who have.
  11. Take a hike. It’s good to get out in nature. Do it while it lasts–it won’t be too much longer if Trump and his fellow climate deniers remain in charge.

Refreshed by your alternative activities to reading about Trump’s “exoneration” by Robert Mueller as interpreted by Attorney General Barr? Here are a couple of other suggestions once you’re ready to emerge from your bunker:

  1. Call for the release of the Mueller report.. But please, relinquish any vestigial hopes for a savior. Instead,
  2. Roll up your sleeves and get to work.

This Vox article describes how people did just that for the 2018 mid-terms. They knocked on doors, made phone calls, registered voters, and talked to people about their concerns. Contrary to what you may have heard about Democrats in disarray because they’ve been taken over by wild-eyed lefty purists, they did so with a high degree of pragmatism and personal engagement. As someone who’s knocked on a lot of doors and made a lot of phone calls in a lot of campaigns, I can attest that what happens on the ground is quite different from what media hype would have you believe. People I talked to in the swing district I visited every month in the run up to the mid-terms worried about healthcare, good jobs, traffic, and affordable housing and education. Russia and the Mueller investigation never came up.

Besides which, criminally guilty or exonerated, we’ve never needed evidence beyond what Trump and his Republican enablers display multiple times a day. From despicable character to destructive policies to deep corruption, it’s there plain as day. As George Conway (husband of Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway!) writes in the Washington Post, “If the charge were unfitness for office, the verdict would already be in: guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Let’s do something about that. Mueller Time must now be Our Time.

Children in Peril

When I went to see the Oscar-nominated Live Action shorts recently, an advisory taped to the box office window warned viewers to expect themes of murder, racial violence, and children in peril. The films featured a six-year-old abandoned on a beach; a child getting sucked under by quicksand as his friend watches in helpless horror; a reenactment of the police inquiry of two 10-year-olds convicted of kidnapping and murdering a toddler in England 25 years ago; and a young boy from a gun-loving (as well as loving) family.

Well, maybe not entirely loving, since the father beats up a black man for interacting with his son in a friendly manner in a checkout line. In a fastidious act of retaliation, the beaten man’s friends and family tattoo the racist father’s entire body black before releasing him to stumble back home. Whereupon his son unknowingly shoots him to death, mistaking his dad for a black intruder. This last short, “Skin,” was awarded the Oscar.

All the films were well-acted and tightly written, with top-notch production values. Still, not a good first-date movie.

I have another short film to nominate for the “Children in Peril” category. It’s a lot less harrowing to watch than the Oscar contenders, although if you think about it for more than a nanosecond, it’s the most disturbing. Unlike the others, the production values are terrible, as videos surreptitiously shot by an amateur holding a smartphone tend to be.

The fifteen minutes of grainy footage shot through a narrow doorway are of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s now-infamous meeting with a group of middle- and high-schoolers about the Green New Deal. The senator loses no time in dismissing the kids as unrealistic know-nothings who aren’t old enough to vote anyway, so why should she care? She doesn’t allow them to read their handwritten letter to her; instead, she’s fixated on distributing copies of her proposal so the kids can read it. One little pig-tailed girl looks like she’s about to burst into tears. Another, older and bolder, manages to score an internship with Feinstein, who seems to belatedly realize that she’s committing PR suicide on a national stage.

The kids are hurried out of the meeting by some middle-aged white guys in suits. These aides, looking like Jeff Flake trapped in an elevator with sexual assault victims after the Kavanaugh hearings, attempt awkward small talk.

“I’m a big backpacker, so I’m environmentally conscious!” one offers.

A boy says, “My grandparents’ house burned down in the Paradise fire due to low rain, and that could have been caused by climate change.”

 The adults in suits choke out, “Oh, no! Really? Terrible!” before fleeing.

Terrible indeed.

Feinstein may have had a point, but she looked and sounded like an old crank yelling, “Get off of my lawn!” Not a smart move to plant a sign reading, “You and your stupid ideas aren’t welcome here” for any Democrat hoping to attract a whole new generation of voters to the Party.

Of course, DiFi’s viral moment has nothing on the virulence of the Republican climate deniers and obstructionists currently in power and rapidly catapulting us toward catastrophe. While Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell rant about socialism and mock the Green New Deal, at least the Democrats are putting forth and debating ideas necessary for addressing the problem on the scale it requires. As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer—hardly a radical environmentalist but recognizing the urgency of the moment—said recently from the Senate floor:

“Maybe Leader McConnell doesn’t realize this, but because of the political stunt vote he’s planning on his version of Green New Deal, for the first time in a long time, the Senate is finally debating the issue of climate change. And it’s about time, if you ask me. . . . I understand my friends on the other side of the aisle don’t like the Green New Deal. O.K., that’s fine. What’s your plan? Maybe a lot of members think they can get away without having to answer the question. They won’t. . . . Democrats believe this is an issue of surpassing importance. What do our Republican colleagues believe? We hope sincerely that our Republican friends will come around and view it the same way.”

Until they do—until we all do—children will remain in peril.

And the Nominees Are . . . !

It’s Oscar time! Let me just say that 2018 was a really weak year for movies. I don’t think any of the Best Picture nominees deserves to win. My personal picks—Blindspotting, Eighth Grade, Leave No Trace, and Searching—didn’t even make the cut. Plus, I am still brooding about the failure to even nominate The Florida Project for Best Picture the year before. But, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, you go to the Dolby Theater with the nominees you have, not the nominees you wish you had.

So here goes, in order of most favorite to least favorite, Top Critic Shrinkrapped’s take:

Vice – If you, like me, are the kind of person whose favorite bumper sticker is “Cheney-Satan ’08,” then this is the movie for you. Brilliantly acted with several clever-but-sometimes-overdone innovations (like the reel-‘em-in fly-fishing motif), Vice is a tragi-comic depiction of the pursuit of power. Like Adam McKay’s earlier tour-de-force, The Big Short, complex theories like the unitary power of the executive are explained in entertaining ways that are depressingly relevant for our times. Lynn Cheney is even more evil than Dick. But I could have done without their Lady-and-Lord-MacBeth foreplay scene. We get it, already!

A Star Is Born – I have never seen any of the Stars That Have Been Born before this one, partly because I have an allergy to Barbra Streisand. It developed in college because my roommate whose father had recently died spent all of sophomore year crying on the couch, listening to her Streisand albums over and over again. Also, I’m never really clear who Lady Gaga is. I keep confusing her with Madonna and Dame Edna. But I like Bradley Cooper, and who am I to resist Oscar buzz? I enjoyed Star 4.0 a lot, particularly the music. A solid B+.

Green Book – If you view this movie within the context of a Buddy Road Trip or a Christmas movie, as my husband does, you will really like it as a well-crafted, well-acted, engaging story that incidentally might teach a white audience a little bit about racial discrimination. If you view it as an incisive commentary on race, you will find much to be disappointed (or enraged) about. If you view it as a movie about S&H Green Stamps (as I initially did), you will be baffled. I really enjoyed it, and really agree with a lot of the critiques.

BlacKkKlansman – Here’s another mass-appeal movie about race that seems primarily directed to a white audience. I happen to think that such movies—and I count films like Marshall, Hidden Figures, and The Butler among them–play an important role in educating and sparking discussions or at least thought about race. I liked this one okay, though it was a pretty mixed bag.

Black Panther – Halfway through the movie, I texted my friend to ask if it got better in the second half. “Are you thinking of leaving?” she texted back, then gently reminded me about what a huge cultural phenomenon Black Panther is. I stayed, possibly because it got a bit more interesting, and certainly out of shame. I am as thrilled as anyone to see a classroom full of African-American kids going wild with joy when they hear they’re going to see the movie. I was also reading Homegoing at the same time, and I liked how both the novel and the film depict the different experiences of being in Africa versus America. But I don’t like the Marvel Comic/Action Hero/Adventure genre, or the spectacle of fantastically costumed and choreographed warriors. Just not my thing.

Bohemian Rhapsody – After a 16-hour plane ride to Queenstown, New Zealand, in November, my husband and I thought we might kill time by seeing a movie since it was raining and we wanted to fight jet lag by staying awake until bedtime. This was one of two movies playing. I’d seen many Facebook posts from people who love Queen’s music and loved the movie. A life-long pop-culture illiterate, I’d be hard pressed to recognize any Queen song, but I did love Rami Malek in Mr. Robot. As it turns out, my husband and I decided we’d probably just fall asleep in a movie theater, so we instead walked around Queenstown in the rain before returning to our hotel. The day after Thanksgiving, we were searching for a movie the whole family could enjoy. Emma, a huge Queen fan, desperately wanted to see Bohemian Rhapsody. Ally did not, but uncharacteristically agreed to go along to keep the peace. Emma, my husband, and I were unimpressed. Ally loved it. Go figure.


Roma – I don’t get why people like this film. I found it incredibly boring. All I can say is that I’m glad we watched it on Netflix rather than paying to see it on the big screen. And no, I don’t think the screen size is why I didn’t like it. I won’t be surprised, however, if Roma wins Best Picture.

The Favourite – “Did Nike pay for product placement for the swoosh-shaped abrasion on Rachel Weisz’s cheek?” This is one of the questions I asked myself during the film when I wasn’t wondering whether or not to walk out and why The Favourite has gotten such acclaim. Is it because of that high-brow “u” in the title? Okay, I grant that the movie is visually sumptuous, with good costumes and fine acting (especially Olivia Colman as Queen Anne). But rather than a wickedly fun romp through power plays in the palace, it’s a two-hour immersion in degradation with thoroughly unlikable characters. On the plus side, Lady Sarah and Abigail make Lynn Cheney seem downright lovable.

Mercifully, the Academy Awards will soon be over. But the 2020 presidential race is just beginning, with nine Democrats jumping in so far and plenty more about to take the plunge. Unlike the Oscars, there’s any number I’d be happy to see win. Also unlike the Oscars, this contest matters.

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What were your favorite movies this year? Presidential candidates?

Then and Now

A little more than eight years ago, I made my debut as a staff writer for Impulse, the monthly electronic newsletter of the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapies. The piece was titled “Psychological Post-Mortem of the Midterm Elections.” It viewed the topsy-turvy political environment from President Obama’s election to his midterm “shellacking” just two years later through a psychological prism.

Interweaving attachment theory, neuroscience, and Melanie Klein’s notion of development, I noted that it was as if President Obama were trying to govern a paranoid-schizoid nation from a depressive position (non-therapists will have some idea what I mean by this by clicking on the link to the earlier piece).


Based on Nancy McWilliam’s commentary on the pitfalls befalling therapists who operate from their own depressive personality styles, I also drew parallels between how President Obama related to congressional Republicans and well-meaning therapists who attempt to work too flexibly with hostile clients.


My debut caused a minor furor within NCSPP, some of whose members wanted me and the editor to resign. Instead, the powers that be quickly removed my 400+ words from the site and issued an apology. Back then, electoral politics was largely viewed as having no place in psychotherapy. Fast forward to today. Is there a psychotherapeutic organization or office that hasn’t been infused with politics?


The enormous uptick in anxiety and depression therapists encounter has been dubbed “Post-Election Stress Disorder.” Clients routinely talk about re-triggered personal traumas such as sexual assault, family ruptures brought on by political disagreements, or how they can no longer bear their like-minded loved ones’ incessant obsession with Trump. A client who had never breathed a word about politics sent me a photo of a bumper sticker that said, “Elect a Clown, Expect a Circus.”


Outside of our consulting rooms, heated debates rage among mental health practitioners over the ethics of opining about Donald Trump’s mental health, and whether a duty to warn trumps formerly sacrosanct neutrality. The American Psychoanalytic Association renounced the “Goldwater Rule” (the American Psychiatric Association still upholds it). The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President was a New York Times bestseller. When William Doherty, professor, therapist, and founder of Citizen Therapists for Democracy, published an online manifesto declaring Trump a unique threat to America’s mental health, more than 3,800 therapists signed it. Classes and seminars about practicing in the current political climate and combining activism with psychotherapy have proliferated.


As is often said in the new era, “This is not normal.” The same could be said for the changes in the field of psychotherapy in the years since I wrote my piece. We have fruitfully begun to question the whole concept of “normal,” societally and professionally. There are dangers and opportunities. But one thing is clear: The personal is not only political–it is also psychological.

Be a Voter, Save America

Despite knocking on doors, making phone calls, and donating for the mid-terms this past year, I won’t even be here for the election: My husband and I are leaving tonight for New Zealand, our ballots safely delivered to our county’s registrar last week.

Since we’ll cross the international date line, I’ve been joking that we’ll be able to let people know on November 7 (Kiwi Time) if it’s safe to wake up, or whether everyone working so hard to turn red seats blue needs to drum up more votes while they still can (USA time).

But this election is no laughing matter. The Demagogue-in-Chief stokes fear and anger while his fans cheer his brutality and his Republican enablers stand by. Democratic enthusiasm is high, but voter suppression in red-dominated states is alive and well.

A couple of days ago I came across an essay by Ady Barkan that pierced through the rage, despair, numbness, and grim determination I’ve known too often in these past two years. Barkan is a progressive activist who was diagnosed at age 32 with ALS just a few weeks before the 2016 election.  As he puts it, ALS “ would rapidly destroy all the connections between my brain and my muscles, leading to complete paralysis and death, likely in three to four years. Three weeks later, our world was turned upside down a second time, when America elected a racist kleptocrat to the White House.”

Barkan describes the paradox posed by his medical condition and his life’s work:

Like many people suddenly confronted with agonizing loss, I looked for answers in Buddhism. Pema Chödrön teaches us that when the ground disappears beneath your feet, the solution is not to flail around in a desperate attempt to find a handhold; it is to accept the law of gravity and find peace despite your velocity. Leave the mode of doing and enter the mode of being. Accept things as they are, rather than yearning for them to be otherwise.

Such radical acceptance is in tension with my identity as a movement builder. Activism is precisely about not accepting the tragedies of this world, but rather on insisting that we can reduce pain and prolong life.

As Barkan rapidly loses his strength, his mobility, his ability to feed himself, and—soon—his speech, he has thrown himself even more vibrantly into the fight, traveling the country in his wheelchair, speaking to elected representatives and ordinary people, even getting arrested as he protests tax cuts for the wealthy and champions a radically humane vision of what America can be.

“Focusing on the moment and immersing myself in the task at hand has been my salvation over the past two years,” Barkan writes.

He’s encounterd much cynicism, but also much hope. Citing Rebecca Solnit, Barkan reminds us that “hope is not a lottery ticket that can deliver us out of despair, but a hammer for us to use in this national emergency—to break the glass, sound the alarm, and sprint into action.”

Barkan goes on to say that voting is not enough, that we must all be the organizers and heroes of the moment, for our communities and future generations. Few of us will be able to match his level of commitment. Yet every action matters.

November 6 is almost upon us, and voting is the necessary action right now. Make sure you vote, and that every person you know who is concerned about the national emergency brought into sharp focus by Trump’s election does, too. A great resource is Vote Save America.

November 6 is the date President Obama was re-elected. It is also the first birthday of my friend’s grandson, whose smiles and baby-deliciousness and cheerful oblivion have sustained all those who love him, inspiring them to work hard to make the world a better place. It’s an auspicious date.

Barkan, too, has a young son. Imagining the world Carl will inherit keeps him moving through the dark times of his own dwindling life and the threat to our beloved country:

I can transcend my dying body by hitching my future to yours . . . We peer into the future and hope that our children’s children will grow up in a more just and equitable society.

That is the country I wish to come home to from New Zealand, not one that deepens my horror and grief.

Let’s make this November 6 another hopeful and auspicious date.

Be a voter, save America.