The Death Camp

Recounting my experience at Auschwitz/Birkenau.

On Thursday, September 19th, 2019, I visited the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp outside Krakow, Poland.  The experience defied my expectations, and has been sitting in my head like an onion, waiting for me to pull back each layer and examine its flavors. I think that I am ready to begin. 

My identity and history shaped my experience of Auschwitz, as I’m sure they do for all of the millions of visitors.  The first and most important facet is that I am a descendant of Eastern European Jews who emigrated to the United States in 1912.  Had they stayed, they would have likely been victims of the holocaust. I would, in all likelihood, never have been born. 

Beyond that, I have had an academic fascination with World War II since as long as I can remember.  I know great volumes of information about the rise of the Nazis, the progress of the war, the decisions that led to the holocaust, and the impact on the many victims.  My appetite for the history of that time is insatiable, and I am always reading and learning more.  

When I realized, earlier this year, that my travels would bring me within visiting distance of Auschwitz, I resolved to go.  I believe that we have a duty to go there and witness the most infamous of the death camps, to see what remains of the most horrible atrocities of modern history.  

I thought that if I turned off my phone and brought my notebook, I would be able to sit and reflect, to be present, and to let the raw experiences of that presence inform my writing.  I was confident that when the time came, I would know what thoughts I needed to record.  

In fact, the visit had the opposite effect.  The few notes I took down were too raw, too abstract, too out of place and time.  The import of having seen Auschwitz has stifled my expression, such that even now, weeks later, sitting in an air-conditioned office with limitless time to compose, I find myself at a loss for words.  

So, I’ll start with something basic, an aspect of the experience that I was not expecting, and that relates to the way the Polish government has set up Auschwitz as a historical site.  All visitors are assigned to a tour guide in their particular language, a guide who works with the facility, and all tours are guided; there is no opportunity to wander, to be by oneself, to sit and reflect.  

The guides, who are well-versed in the camps’ history, lead each group through the carefully curated confines of what was once Auschwitz I, the original camp, and through the wasteland of former structures known as Auschwitz II, or Birkenau.  Throughout, they present a running narrative of facts and stories about the camp, and they keep a brisk pace, as interest in visiting Auschwitz runs quite high: our guide told us that last year, they had over two million visitors.  

Auschwitz I was much smaller than I expected.  Its buildings are intact, and it housed the prisoners who worked in the factories.  It contained the site of the infamous Mengele experiments, the death wall where prisoners were executed, and the original “Kanada,” a building that housed the belongings stolen from the newly-arrived.  Two or three of the buildings have been converted into what is essentially a museum space, with photographs, artifacts, and informational displays.  

The most moving of these exhibitions, at least for me, was the large collection of hair, shoes, and luggage.  The hair, which was removed from each prisoner upon arrival, filled a space larger than I could have imagined.  Some was still braided. It was discovered in large boxes and sacks by the liberators, a tell-tale relic of the great swaths of humanity who passed through and perished there.  

In between the buildings of Auschwitz I was a guard hut, which was used during the tortuous roll calls that took place twice each day.  I wanted to sit on the curb, to be by myself, to imagine what it must have been like for those desperate people, at the mercy of the guards and sick with exhaustion and hunger.  I wanted to try to bring all those stories I have heard for years, and put them in their physical place, to feel how they resonated in my mind.  

But we were on a schedule, and the tour moved quickly on. 

Just outside the walls, a single gallows stands near what was once the home of the camp commander, Rudolph Hoss.  After the war, he was hanged on that site. Next to it, there had been a gas chamber and crematorium; thought it had been destroyed prior to liberation, it was reconstructed, and we were given an opportunity to walk through the macabre facsimile.  

From there, our tour suspended, and we were told to meet at Birkenau, several miles away, where we reconvened with the same group, and the same guide, for the second half of the tour.  Cafes outside Birkenau offered pizza, hot dogs, and coffee. There was a gift shop, facetiously styled as a book store, peddling postcards, literature, magnets, bags, and other souvenirs.  

While Auschwitz was small and full of stories, Birkenau was massive and full of unfathomable numbers.  The barracks that once housed hundreds of thousands of people have been almost entirely dismantled; their raw materials furnishing nearby residents with what they needed in order to rebuild after the war.  The main surviving feature is a train track that runs directly into the camp, between the barracks, and stopping just a hundred yards short of the twin gas chambers.  

Our guide pointed out the place at the tracks where the selection took place.  For most of the war, the selections took place outside the camp, at what was known as the Jewish platform; it no longer exists.  This last, later platform was primarily used for Hungarian Jews, who were brought here near the end of the war. Popular media gives the impression that only the weak, sick, very young, or very old were sent directly to the gas chamber, but that is incorrect: of these later arrivals, 80% were sent directly to their deaths, and only 20% were sent to be used as slave labor.  

The gas chambers, which were destroyed but whose ruins still remain, flank either side of the extreme edge of the train track, and the camp.  They were once combined facilities, both designed to kill, and to cremate.  

Imagine the experience of stepping off those train cars, and seeing large plumes of smoke on either side.  By then, it was late in the war, and information about the extermination camps had already spread within the Jewish population of occupied Europe.  After an excruciating journey in cattle cars without food or water, prisoners would be forced to line up, abused by armed guards, and made to run past a doctor, who would with a wave of the arm determine whether they would live or die.  Most died. 

The extreme edge of the camp, between the two fossilized gas chambers, houses a memorial, in which words of commemoration are written in many languages.  It is large but simple. It does not, nor can it, do justice to the atrocities it seeks to memorialize. 

The final stop on the tour was a barracks, one of the first constructed and one of the only buildings still standing.  I saw the small spaces in which bodies were overcrowded for sleep. It is hard to imagine that human beings lived there for years, on starvation rations and subjected to hard labor, abuse, and disease.  It is a wonder any of them survived to liberation.  

As the tour ended, our guide- a non-Jewish Pole- said something important.  She said that while it is tempting to only think of the victims, we have a duty to think of the perpetrators: they were not aliens, they were people, and if they were capable of doing these things, so, too, are we.  That is why, she added, it is important that people come to this place, and see what happened here.  

Elsewhere on my travels, I learned the extent of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe before the war.  Jewish cities, town, and villages dotted Polish and Ukrainian maps by the thousands. Wooden synagogues sprung up all over the country.  In Warsaw, the Jewish population topped out at 40% of the city’s inhabitants.  

The systematic persecution, the ghettos, and the forced deportations thinned that population out, and concentrated it, cutting it off from the rest of the populace.  Had the Nazis stopped there, the Jewish population would have been severely reduced and disrupted over the 5-6 years of Nazi control.  

Instead, their decision to conduct mass extermination wiped out all but a small fraction of the Jews living in Eastern Europe before the war.  Auschwitz/Birkenau was the crown jewel in that effort. More than any other place, Auschwitz exemplifies the genocide of the Nazis, and the complicicy of the Poles.  After seeing the camp, I cannot believe any accounts from the locals that they did not know what was happening there; the scale was too large, the surrounding villages too close.  I believe they turned a blind eye, motivated by self-preservation.  

In Warsaw, before the war, the Jewish community was thriving.  They wrote music, published Yiddish newspapers, and had a burgeoning culture that reminds me of America’s own roaring 20s.  The destruction wrought by the Nazis ended that community, and it has never recovered.  

The major takeaway I feel is anger.  Anger at the people who did it, and those who allowed it to happen.  The excuses of the camp guards- who were just following orders- ring hollow.  There is a great wrong that took place at Auschwitz, and it has never been rectified.  I’m not sure that it ever can be.  

I still believe that everyone who can, should visit Auschwitz once in their life.  I think it is important to pay witness, and to be moved beyond articulation. I certainly have been. 




Published in: on October 1, 2019 at 9:34 am  Comments (3)  
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The Frog

For pride month, River challenged me to re-write a fairy tale to incorporate LGBTQ et al. themes. This story is the result.  

“What on earth is that racket?” said Queen Marianna, with equal parts scorn and brown gravy dripping from her mouth.  As a globule of the latter fell onto her plate, she self-consciously dabbed at her face with a napkin. 

Voices were talking over one another in the hallway, the sound growing gradually louder. 

“I don’t know,” King Grisham said, frowning, “but this is our dinner-time, and they can wait until we’re through.  Jessop?” This last word he addressed to the servant who stood at the ready.  

“Yes, sire.” 

“Go see what all that fuss is about.  And Luna, finish your plate, so you can get started on the dishes.” 

Princess Luna sighed mightily, her forearms on the table, head hunched over the last few bites of her food.  

“I don’t WANT to do the dishes, father.  Why don’t we have a maid to do them instead?  We used to have a maid…” 

The king and queen exchanged a meaningful look. 

“Luna, dear, we talked about this,” said the queen.  “We are tightening our belts this season, and everyone has to pitch in.”

“And you promised you would do the dishes tonight.” the king said, with finality.  

With a mighty crash, the wooden doors flung open, and Jessop returned, panting. 

“Sire, it’s a meteor shower!  The sky is full of shooting stars!”

Luna jumped up from her chair. “Father! Can I go see it?!”

The king furrowed his brow and thought for a moment. 

“You need to do the dishes first. When you’re through, then you can go outside and watch.”

“But, sire, we don’t know how long-“ Jessop started. 

A dangerous, direct look from the king stopped him cold.

“A promise made is a promise kept, Luna. Some falling space rocks don’t change that,” said the king. 

“It’s just not….it’s not fair!” said Luna, stomping off to the kitchen.  She slammed the door behind her as she left, causing both king and queen to stiffen and wince. 

“You were a little harsh, dear,” said Marianna.

“Perhaps,” said King Grisham, “but she needs to learn responsibility.  She only got out of her chores yesterday by promising to do them today.  We can’t let her become spoiled.” 

“But she’s only a child,” Marianna said, gently. 

The king sighed.  “If only that were so!  She’s fifteen. Far too old for these make believe games.  Most young women her age are learning to tend to the household, choosing dresses, learning to dance.  I worry about Luna.” 

“She’s just a bit of a tomboy.  There’s no harm in that.” 

King Grisham chuckled.  “A tomboy? Yesterday, she was pretending to be a knight saving a maiden in distress.  I think she’s just confused.” 

“She’ll grow out of it,” said the queen.  “I certainly did.” She gave the king a flirtatious smile.  

“You did all right for yourself, I suppose,” the king said.  

“Well, right now, I am going to see about this meteor shower.  Would you like to join me?” 

“I have some things to attend to, my dearest,” said King Grisham.  “Enjoy the show.”

Luna sat astride an impossibly high tree branch, her legs dangling, her concentration focused on a small patch of dirt just below her.  She wore simple shorts; her legs and feet were bare. Muttering aloud, she slowly cocked her hand behind her head, and then swung it forward, propelling a smooth rock at high velocity.  It impacted the dirt precisely on target, a plume of dusty fallout rising.  

“Right between the eyes!  The ogre staggers backwards.  His eyes get wide. And then…he falls!” 

She looked around.  Nobody was in sight.  To her left, she saw the path back towards the castle, the ground knotted with bark-covered tree roots.  To her right, the river shallows, which began just a few feet from the base of the tree. The water was quiet; the only sound was the hum of insects, and the few distant voices of those still outside after the now-abated meteor shower.  

“All at once, a huge roar, and then Sir Luna sees…the dragon!”  She bared her teeth, pushing air and voice through them to simulate the malevolent growl of the great beast.  

Luna dropped her voice to a deep tenor.  “You’ll never save the maiden! Guards!” 

She reached into her pouch and drew two more stones, which she swiftly threw, one to each side of the original impact.  

“What is this magic?  The spears bounce right off!” 

Deep tenor again.  “Hahaha, you fool! I am protected with a deep magic.  You cannot defeat me or my servants. Surrender, and I will give you a swift death.” 

“Never!”  Luna reached back into the pouch and drew a golden orb.  “Behold! I have my own, more powerful magic!”  

She thrust the orb forward and back, forward and back, aiming each thrust in the direction of her failed missiles.  

“Pachoo!  The dark guards are fallen!  And you’re next.”  

She raised the orb over her head, imagining the terrified dragon’s look.  

“Wait, Sir Luna, don’t hurt me!  I’ll return the maiden to safety.” 

“And what of your hoard?  Will you give back everything you stole from the village?” 

She snarled her voice.  “Never! You will never take my gold!” 

“You asked for it.”  She pulled the orb back dramatically.  As she did, a moth alit onto her elbow, giving Luna such a fright that she spasmed slightly, the orb slipping from her grasp.  With horror, she watched as it fell, leaves exploding off of their branches as it passed. It hit a low-hanging branch, and Luna watched helplessly as it rolled down the right side of the tree, into the river.  

For a moment, she sat in stunned silence, and then bounded down the tree, letting the twigs and bark abrade her legs and face.  When she reached the ground, she ran to the water’s edge, and peered down into the darkness, seeing nothing.  

“Oh…..shit!” she exclaimed, emphasizing each harsh letter of the curse.  

“What did you lose?” said a small, tinny voice.  Luna looked around quickly, but saw no one.  

“Hello?” she said.  

“I said, what did you lose?” 

“Where are you?  Come where I can see you!” 

“Don’t be frightened.”  The voice was very close now.  Luna felt fear rising from her lower back, through her chest, and coming to rest in her collarbone.  “Turn around. I’m sitting on the lowest branch.”

Luna turned, but nobody was sitting on the bough.  She saw only twisted bark, a line of tree ants, and a small frog, that seemed to be looking directly at her. 

“Don’t be frightened,” the frog said.  

Luna gasped, taking a big step back and nearly falling into the water. She regained her footing, mouth agape. 

“How are you- are you talking?!” 

“I am,” said the frog. 

“But that’s impossible!” 

The frog took a small hop forward on the branch, and Luna flinched.  The frog’s voice was enthusiastic. “Dragons are impossible. Magical stones that can slay demons are impossible.  Now what are talking frogs, next to those things?” 

Luna shook her head rapidly from side to side, trying to clear her head.  “You…were listening to me?” 

The frog nodded.  “The whole time.” 

“I can’t believe this!  First, I miss the meteor shower.  Then, I lose my golden orb. Now, a…FROG… is talking to me, and snooping on me when I think I’m alone.  This is too much.”  

She dropped to the ground and started to cry. 

The frog hopped off the branch and came down next to her.  “Maybe I can help you. What if I go and get your orb back?” 

Luna sniffed loudly.  “You can’t. It fell in the river.” 

“Ah, but I can.  You said it’s gold, right?” 

Luna nodded. 

“If it’s gold, then it sank right to the bottom.  It’s not too deep here. I could get it for you.” 

Through teary eyes, Luna looked at the frog.  “You’d do that for me?” 

The corner of the frog’s mouth turned up.  “For a price.” 

“I don’t have any money,” said Luna. 

“I don’t want money.  I want you to break my curse.” 



“What’s the curse?”  

“Well,” the frog pressed his mouth together broadly.  “I can’t tell you that. It’s part of the curse.” 

The princess sat up, wrapping her hands around her knees.  “Well, then, how am I supposed to break it?” 

The frog audibly sighed.  “I can’t tell you that either.  But if you let me stay with you, just for a little while, I think you’ll figure it out.” 

Luna scrunched her forehead and thought for a moment.  “If I say yes, you’ll get me back my golden orb?” 

“I will!” said the Frog. 

“Okay, then.” 

“You promise?” 

“I promise,” said Luna. 

At once, the frog hopped to the water’s edge and dived in, disappearing under the black water.  Luna sat, watching for any sign of its return.  

She waited. 

And waited. 

And waited some more.  At last, despondent that the talking frog would never return, she stood up, brushed the leaves and dirt off her clothing, and started back for the castle.  

She had gone just a few steps when she heard a splash, followed by a very faint, high-pitched panting.  

“You found it!” said Luna, rushing towards the golden ball.  She grabbed the orb, kissed it, and started back for the castle. 

“Hey, wait!” the frog gasped.  “You…you promised to help!” 

But Luna was already gone, running and skipping her way back home.  

It was the galloping of leather-shoed feet on the stone floor, rather than the thunderous banging of the doors that immediately followed it, that woke King Grisham.  

“Sire!  Sire! You must come!  The guards, sire! They have caught something fantastical.  Sire, a talking frog!” the guard spoke so quickly and nervously he stammered. 

“Wait, slow down.  A talking frog?” the King said, drawing out the last word as though it was foreign and unwelcome.  

The guard nodded enthusiastically.  “Yes, sire!” 

“And it has been captured?” 

“Yes, sire.” 

King Grisham cocked his head to the side slowly.  “In that case, why did you wake me up at this unspeakable pre-dawn hour?” 

The guard’s enthusiasm transformed, first into fright, and then into defiance. 

“Sire, there’s more.  The frog…it’s talking like a person, like it knows things, sire.  It says it knows your daughter.” 

“My daughter?” said the King.  “What did it say about my daughter?” 

“Sire, I’d sooner not say, sire.  I think it’s better you hear it from him.  Sire.”

King Grisham elevated his chin.  “Thank you for letting me know your preference.  Now, tell me precisely what the frog said about Princess Luna.” 

The guard looked confused, and then at his feet.  “It said she made a promise, sire, and that she’s broken it and run away.” 

The King considered a moment, rolling his bottom lip between his teeth.  “Okay. Have her woken and brought down. Have the frog waiting for us in the throne room.  I will be down presently.” 

As the door closed behind the departing guard, King Grisham turned around to see his wife, her body wrapped up in a large, fluffy robe, standing attentively by the bed.  

“It’s a good thing Luna wasn’t here to hear you call it the throne room,” said Queen Marianna.  “You just know she would make some comment about there being no throne, the servant would giggle, and you would be forced to discipline the servant for the insult.” 

“They’re guards, not servants,” said King Grisham, rubbing his temples.  “We don’t have servants for the same reason we sold the throne.”  

“Money, yes, always money.  I thought you were going to ask the wealthier lords for a more substantial…tribute.” 

“I have,” said the King.  “Duke Leonid has been begging off a meeting for weeks.  I think he knows the shape of the conversation. Duke Broadstone and Lady Elena plead poverty, and Sir Roget gave something, but not enough to make a real difference.” 

“I’m sure something will come through.  It always has before,” said the Queen, smiling brightly. 

“I do hope you’re right,” said the King, pulling on the same shirt he had worn the day before.  “I guess I had better go see to this talking frog. I’ll be up shortly, dear.” 

“Are you kidding?  A talking frog? I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” said the Queen.  

King Grisham considered protesting, then thought better of it.  Now dressed, he marched out of the bedroom and towards the throne room, Queen Marianne following close behind.  

If the King was expecting to see just the frog, his guards, and his daughter, he was mistaken.  A talking frog created a stir, and not one easily contained. It was just as well the throne had been sold: it would not fit in the room this evening, so full it was of the curious residents, most dressed in their sleepwear.  

“Where is this frog?” said the King. 

The crowd parted, and a guard gestured towards a small bird cage. 

“‘E stopped talking, sire.  Before, ‘e was, but then it got to be crowded and ‘e just stopped.  I tried shaking the cage and poking at ‘im, but ‘e’s not so much as made a ribbit, sire.” 

The King grimmaced at the reference to shaking and poking, but nodded as he gestured the guard away with a wave of his hand.  

The crowd was silent, kept back a small distance by the guards.  King Grisham bent down and peered into the cage. 

“So, you can talk, then?” 

The frog met his eyes intelligently, and moved its head  slowly up and down. 

The king returned the slow nod.  “Show me,” he said, softly. 

“Yes, your majesty,” the frog articulated precisely.

An involuntary shudder passed over the king.  He stood to his full height, and turned around. 

“Guards, send these people home.  This is under control, and we will still be here to discuss tomorrow.”  

The chamber resonated with the sounds of footfalls, muttering, and the clanking of metal on stone as the crowd migrated towards the exit, and then dissipated.  At last, the large wooden doors thudded shut, leaving in the throne room only the King, the Queen, and the caged frog. 

“Tell me what has happened,” the King said to the frog.  “Why can you speak, and what is this business with my daughter?”

The frog hopped forward and rose on its hind legs, resting its front legs on the bars of the bird cage, so as to address the king bipedally.  

“Your majesty,” it said, its voice proper, “I am afflicted by a curse.  I met the princess by the river, and she promised to help me break the curse if I did her a service.  I did the service, but then she ran away into the castle.”

The king nodded.  “What is the curse, then, and what do you need in order to break it?” 

“I can’t say, your majesty.  That’s a part of it, I’m afraid.”

“Hmm…” said the King.  “Did you used to be human, then?” 

The frog looked pained.  “I cannot speak about the nature of the curse, your majesty.” 

Queen Marianna came up from behind.  “Did you used to be unable to speak?” she said. 

“No, I have always been able to speak.” 

“A human, then,” she said to the King, and stepped back, as though satisfied.  

At that moment, the door pushed open and Luna entered, looking sleepy but trepidatious.  

“Luna, do you know this frog?” said the King. 

She started to shake her head in denial, but caught a stern look from her mother.  “Yes, I mean, I ran into him last night.” 

“It says that you promised to help, and then ran away.” 

“That’s not true!” Luna yelled.  “I never made a promise.” 

“It says that he did a favor for you, and you promised to help in exchange.  Did that happen?” said the King.  

“No!  We didn’t have a conversation.  I was down by the water, minding my own business, and this frog started talking to me.  I thought it was crazy, and I ran away.” 

“That’s a lie!” said the frog.  

Queen Marianne gasped.  The King turned to the frog, his face hardened. 

“You would accuse the princess of lying?” he said.  “You had better be able to back that claim up, or you will be punished for saying it.” 

“She had a golden ball, that she was playing with in a tree,” said the frog.  “She dropped it into the water, and I dove down to get it. That’s the only reason she agreed to help me.” 

Queen Marianne turned to her daughter.  “How do you explain that?” she said. 

“It’s not true,” said Luna.  “I didn’t even have my gold orb with me. It was in my room.” 

“In that case, how would the frog know you have one?” said King Grisham. 

“I, uh-” Princess Luna looked from the King to the Queen to the frog.  

“Did you lie?” said the king. 

“Yes,” Luna whispered, looking at the floor.  

“Return to your room and go to sleep.  We will discuss this in the morning.” 

Luna scurried out of the room. 

“As for you,” the King said to the frog, “I apologize for my daughter’s conduct.  We will give you a room here, of course, and a guard to keep the curious at bay.”

“May I be let out of the cage, your majesty?” said the frog. 

“Of course,” said the King.  “But please, stay with us. I will endeavor to help my daughter keep her promise to you.”

The frog bowed.  “Thank you, your majesty.” 

“What sort of curse turns one into a frog?” the King said.  It was mid-morning, and he and Marianna had finally given up on going back to sleep.  They were making a slow rise of things, gradually assuming their daytime dress in between yawns and moments of repose.  

“Two kinds, that I know of,” said the Queen.  “It could be witchcraft, it could be a hex. I don’t think a haunting, that wouldn’t persist within our castle.” 

“Remind me the difference?” 

“Witchcraft is done on purpose, by a witch.  A hex is tied to an object or a place. If our guest encountered somewhere or something it was not supposed to encounter, it could have been cursed that way.” 

“It knows it can’t speak of it: that probably means a witch, since it must have been told,” said the King. 

“Not necessarily,” the Queen said.  “It may have figured it out when it tried to talk about it, and found that it could not.” 

The king nodded.  “I suppose that’s true.  How many witches do we have in our lands?” 

“Capable of this type of curse?  Oh, five maybe? But who is to say it happened near here?  It could have been anyone.” 

“Still, it is worth the inquiry.  Can you arrange it?” 

“Of course,” said Queen Marianne.  “There is one more thing to consider,” she added.   


“A talking frog is quite a rare thing,” said the Queen.  “Sometimes, rare things can be sold for quite…high returns.” 

“Are you suggesting selling the frog?” said King Grisham. 

“Oh, not at all,” she said, “what you do with the frog is your affair.  I just thought it prudent to consider that, among your options, you could conceivably find a person willing to take the frog off of your hands for a very considerable amount of money.  Enough, perhaps, to keep us afloat for many months to come.” 

“Our situation is not as desperate as all that,” said the King. 

“It is,” Queen Marianna said.  “Just today, the guards gave their notice.  If they are not paid within a fortnight, they shall leave.  The cook will be right behind them. We must consider all our options”  

The king was silent a long moment.  “It won’t do to compromise our values,” he said.  “Luna promised the frog assistance. We promised it hospitality.  To turn around and sell it, and to one likely to exploit it for its farcical value, is wrong.” 

“Your values may lead to our household’s collapse,” said Marianna, urgently.  

The King had no response, and was gladdened when a sharp knock at the door interrupted the conversation.  It was Jessop. 

“Sire,” said Jessop, “Duke Leonid has come. He sends his apologies for his delayed message, and asks if you have time to see him now.” 

King Grisham smiled and turned to his wife.  “See? Things will turn around: We already feel them turning.”  He turned back to Jessop. “Tell him we shall be down shortly, and see him into the den.” 

Jessop nodded and set off.  

“I do hope my suggestion did not give offense,” said Queen Marianna.  

“We shall not speak of it again.  Now, we must go and see to our financial health!” said the King. 

Duke Leonid was still standing when the King entered his den, and the monarch approached him warmly.  

“Duke!  You’ve come at last,” said the King. 

“Yes, about that, I am so sorry for the delay.  I meant to respond, but time got away from me, and…well, I’m sorry, sire.” 

King Grisham smiled indulgently.  “We are sure you came as soon as you could, Duke.”

“The truth, your majesty,” said the Duke, shifting his weight uneasily, “is that I have been distracted this past week.  My son is missing.”

“Was he kidnapped?” the king said, his eyes large. 

“I…don’t think so.  The truth is, sire, he…may have run away.” 

“Tell us what happened.  Perhaps we can help.” 

“Well sire,” said the duke, “Alex is a…special boy.  Always very shy, and lately, very troubled. I fear I left him far too much in the care of his mother, as a young child.  Lately, he has been despondent, and I learned he had been seeking out the services of a witch.” 

King Grisham started.  “A witch? What could a son of yours, a son who wants for nothing, need of a witch?” 

The duke could not maintain eye contact as he responded.  “I think he had some…rather unusual ideas. About magic, naturally, and special powers.  I forbade him from going to the witch, of course, but he sneaked out despite my instructions, and has been gone ever since.” 

“Could he have come to some harm from the witch?”   

“Anything is possible, your majesty,” said the duke.  “The truth is, I have come to ask your assistance.” 

“Well, the witches in this region will receive no safe haven from us,” said the king.  “Tell me where we can find this witch, and we will take care of the problem.” 

“I fear it has gone beyond that, sire,” the duke said.  “I have had her hut watched for several days, and there is no sign of Alex.  I fear he may have found what he was looking for, and absconded.” 

“What type of magic was he seeking?” the king said. 

“Transformation, your majesty,” said the duke, looking once more around the room, at the ceiling, the floor, in the direction of everything but the king.  

“What type of transformation?” 

“I’m not sure, your highness.  He just…wanted a change, really.  Said he was unhappy in his own skin, or something like that.” 

The king furrowed his brow.  “We wonder if our new guest might have some information that could help you.” 

“New guest?”

“Yes,” said the king.  “Surely you’ve heard about our talking frog.  It’s the talk of the castle.” 

“I did hear some strange rumors on my way to see you, sire, but a talking frog?  I must confess, that’s a new one to me.” 

The king stroked his beard slowly.  “Do you suppose there is any chance the frog is your son?”

“My son?  A frog?”

“You said he was looking for transformation magic.  Perhaps something went awry.” 

The duke considered this a moment.  “I suppose it could be so. Have you spoken to this frog?  What does it say happened?” 

“It can’t precisely say,” said the king, “It claims that the curse prevents it from explaining.” 

“May I see this frog, sire?” the duke said. 

“It’s dining with the princess this morning.  Perhaps we could find a place to observe it unnoticed.  That might give us a clue as to its origins.” 

“Thank you, your majesty,” said the duke, bowing low. 

Luna sat at a small table in her room, poking her spoon at a soft boiled egg in front of her, tapping just hard enough to fleck off the small pieces of shell, which were gathering on the table. 

“I don’t know how you expect me to help you, when you can’t even tell me what’s wrong,” she said. 

Across from her, sitting on the edge of the table, was the frog.  

“Believe me, princess, if I could tell you, I would.”

Luna clapped her spoon onto the table loudly.  “It’s not fair! You got me in trouble, and now I have to help you, and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be doing!  If my father wasn’t so stubborn, he’d just thank you for getting back my ball and send you on your way.” 

“To live out my days with the curse, then?” said the frog, its voice expressionless. 

“Well, no, I mean, maybe to find someone who knows how to help you.  Another witch, maybe?” 

“You are the only one in these lands who can cure me, princess.” 

“But I don’t know HOW!” said Luna, throwing her spoon in anger.  It careened off the table just inches from the frog, hit the wall behind it, and clattered to the floor.  The frog started. “…I’m sorry. It’s not you. It’s my father. He’s…he just thinks he knows what’s best for me.  This whole thing with promises, and honor, and duty. It’s not easy having a king as your father.” 

The frog took a deep breath, the panic fading from its eyes.  “No, I suppose it wouldn’t be. My father is also a…strong-willed man.”

“Not like mine!” said Luna.  “He’s obsessed with acting properly and setting a good example.  He doesn’t want me climbing trees or playing outside. He says I should wear dresses and greet people politely, and speak softly.  And he’s always giving me lectures about when I’m married and when I’m a queen or a lady.”

“My father was the same way,” said the frog, “always wanting me to be more manly, more grown up.” 

“You were a man, once, then?” Luna said. 

“I…” the frog tried to speak, but its small green lips only quavered.  “I suppose I can’t say.” 

“You can talk around it, though!” said Luna, her voice rising.  “You may not be able to tell me about the curse, but if you tell me about yourself, maybe I can figure it out!” 

“We can try that, I guess,” said the frog.  

“So, your father, he wanted you to be more grown up, right?” 

“Yes.  He’s an important man, and I’m supposed to take his place one day.  So he has all these ideas of how I need to act and who I need to be, and it’s just…overwhelming.” 

“It sounds like he and my father would get along,” said Luna.  “My father always makes me change clothes and stand around being quiet while the adults talk.  He says I’m supposed to be seen and not heard. And he keeps telling me to stop acting like a boy.” 

“And what do you do?” said the frog. 

“I usually do what I want,” said Luna.  “I’m in trouble pretty much all the time.  Because I don’t want to be some lord’s wife. I don’t even like boys.   I want to be an adventurer! Or a knight! I want to save maidens in distress and fight off monsters!  I want to be a hero!” 

“Maybe we can trade,” said the frog.  “My father would love it if I tried to act like a knight.  He would say that knighthood is a manly profession. But I don’t like those things.  So I don’t do them.” 

Luna narrowed her eyes.  “Did your father put the curse on you?”

“No!” said the frog, quickly, its lips slamming shut the instant the syllable was uttered.  

“Then who did?” Luna insisted. 

The frog opened its mouth to speak, but no sound came forth.  It closed its mouth again, and shook its head sadly. 

“…worth a try,” said Luna. 

They sat in silence for a long minute, Luna poking a finger at her egg, and the frog pursing its small lips.  

With a silent gesture of his hand, King Grisham led the duke away from their place of concealment.  They moved slowly and quietly until they emerged into a vestibule separated by several walls from the princess’ chamber.  

“That was hard to hear,” said Duke Leonid.  “That is most certainly Alex. I am ashamed to say I recognize those sentiments, very well.”

“You hear how my daughter speaks of me,” said the king.  “It won’t do to have her spreading such stories. She is willful, incorrigible, and has no care in the world for her duties as a member of our royal family.” 

“My son appears unable to tell us the nature of the curse,” said the duke.  “Your majesty, we must confront the witch. She is the only one who can put an end to this.” 

The king stroked his chin and took two deep, slow breaths.  “I have no love for the witches of this kingdom, as you well know, Leonid.  But before we breach the peace, perhaps we should give this time to play out.”

The duke frowned mightily.  “Sire, every moment my son spends in that disgusting form, he risks being killed, injured, or seized by some unscrupulous rogue.  We cannot risk this continuing even a single day.” 

King Grisham walked across the vestibule and sat, gesturing for the duke to follow him.  

“Leonid, we must be very candid with you.  We may be making some changes to this household in the coming weeks.  Our financial situation is…regrettable. This may be the last fortnight in which we have the service of our full complement of guards.  We do not want to start a fight with a witch that we cannot finish.”  

The duke gave a half smile.  “So that’s why you have been seeking a meeting, sire.”

“You are the richest landowner in the lands, Leonid.  And you have always been loyal. Of course I would come to you for assistance.”

“What if I offer to pay for the guards, for as long as you need them to confront and defeat this witch?” said the duke. 

Grisham shook his head.  “Then we would be in the same situation we were in before your son was cursed.  The kingdom would be in financial distress. Remember, we intended to speak with you about this before the nasty business with your son.” 

The two men sat frowning, Leonid shifting uncomfortably in his seat.  Then, a small smile came over his face, which grew into mirth, and erupted into a full grin.  

“I  have an idea, your majesty, that might solve several problems at once, for both of us.” 

“I’m listening,” said the king. 

“Open!  In the name of his majesty!” yelled the guard, pounding on the wooden door of the hut.  

Behind him, King Grisham and Duke Leonid stood on either side of Luna, who held in her arms a small wicker basket bearing the frog.  Flanking them, a dozen guards, in full martial gear.  

“Go away!” came a sharp voice from within.  

“You will open this door, or we shall break it down!” said the guard. 

A cackling laughter.  “Feel free to try. My protective spells on this hut will never yield to your brutishness.” 

The guard turned his head and looked at the king, shrugging. 

“This is the king.  You will open this door at once,” said Grisham. 

“Go away!” 

“Those are some beautiful herbs you have in the garden,” said Luna.  The king, duke, and guards all turned their heads towards her. “If you don’t open, I suppose we will just have to try to find our own remedy.  Perhaps uprooting these herbs and taking them back to the castle would be a good start.” 

“Not my herbs!” said the witch.  There was a thumping and clanging and creaking from behind the door, which then swung open.  The witch emerged. She was dressed in an elegant gray dress that covered her from neck to heel.  Her hair was wild, her face a mix of anger and fear.  

“What is your name?” said the king. 

“Esmerelda.  Why have you disturbed me?  If this is about the meteor shower…that was just a spell gone wrong.  It won’t happen again.” 

“Why have you cursed my son?” said Duke Leonid.  

The witch looked confused, her eyes darting from the duke to the king, to the guards, and then to Luna.  Finally, she spied the basket, and began to laugh. 

“You mean Alex?  I didn’t curse Alex, I tried to help!   And some thanks I get!” 

“If this is not a curse, why can’t Alex speak of it?” said the king. 

The witch frowned, sending a mole on her cheek several inches towards her pointy chin.  “I agreed to help, but we both knew you-” she pointed at the duke “-would not approve. So I made Alex promise not to tell a soul about the spell.  And a promise made to a witch is binding on one’s lips.” 

“What was the spell?” the duke demanded. 

“To transform.  Alex wanted to transform into a new body,” said Esmerelda. 

“Into a frog?” said Luna.  “Why would anyone want to be turned into a frog?” 

“Well…it wasn’t into a frog, precisely.  It was more a general transformation, and I don’t believe either of us was expecting it to turn out quite that way.” 

“Well, change him back!” said the duke.  

“It’s not quite that simple,” said the witch.  “Restorative spells only work under certain, er, conditions, and when Alex first became a frog I was really in no position to- hey!” she looked at Luna.  “You wouldn’t happen to be the princess, would you?”

“Yes,” said the king.  “This is my daughter.” 

“Oh, in that case, it’s simple.  You must kiss the frog. That will restore Alex’ true form, and wipe away the transformation.” 

Luna’s eyes grew wide.  “I…I can’t.” 

“Why not?” said the king. 

“Because of a promise.  I promised myself that I would never kiss a boy, no matter how much you wanted me to.  Because I’m not going to marry some duke or lord, father. I’ve told you a hundred times.” 

The others just stared at Luna, stunned. 

“In any case,” she continued, “you’ve always told me I can’t break a promise, and I promised that I wouldn’t do it.” 

“But Alex isn’t a boy; he’s a frog,” the duke pointed out. 

“He’s really a boy, though,” said the king, sighing.  “Luna is right; a promise made must be a promise kept.” 

“You promised to help me!” said the duke.  “And I promised you that Alex would marry Luna.  What about your promise to me?” 

“You did WHAT?!” yelled Luna.  

The king pursed his lips.  “It’s for the best, Luna. You need a man to help settle you down.  And Alex needs a wife. And our kingdom needs the resources of the dowry Duke Leonid has promised to provide.  This is your duty, Luna.” 

“No.  No way!” said Luna.  “I already promised I wouldn’t kiss a boy.  And I’m definitely not going to marry one.” 

“You’re being childish,” said the king.  

“It appears we are at a stalemate,” said the duke. 

“Can I say something?” said a tiny voice from within the basket.  It was the frog. “Esmerelda, will you release me from my promise not to talk about the help you gave me?” 

The witch looked puzzled.  “Yes, I release you.” 

The frog hopped onto Luna’s shoulder and leaned in towards her face.  

“No!  I’m not going to kiss you, no matter what you say.” 

“Shh,” said the frog, softly.  “I’m just going to whisper something in your ear.” 

For the better part of two minutes, the frog spoke directly into Luna’s ear.  Her face turned inquisitive, then disbelieving. She whispered a few words back, and the frog resumed.  Then, a smile broke out over Luna’s face. 

“Okay!”  she said, grinning wide.  She cupped both her hands, and the frog hopped into them.  Lifting them to her face, she put a great kiss upon its face.  

Smoke began to rise around the frog, and winds from some unseen source caused the smoke to swirl.  Luna stepped back; the frog was gone, enveloped in the dark gray vapors. After several seconds, the smoke cleared, revealing Alex.  

Her dark hair shone like flax, hanging below her shoulders.  A blue summer dress hung from her shoulders, lacing about her torso and hanging loose just above the knees.  

“What new mischief is this?” the duke demanded, addressing the witch.  “You said this would restore Alex, not turn him into some…girl!” 

The witch’s mouth was open, and her eyes did not move from regarding Alex.  Then, slowly, she closed her mouth and began to chuckle, starting with a few shakes and escalating in pitch and frequency until it became a proper, witchly cackle.  

“So THAT was our mistake, Alex,” said the witch.  “We never should have used a transformation spell.  There was probably a frog going about its business in my garden nearby.  Poor creature, at least it will have a tale to tell the other frogs in the pond.”  She resumed laughing. 

“What is the meaning of this?” said the king.  “What are you talking about?” 

The witch, now doubled over, took several seconds to regain enough composure to respond. 

“We should have used a restorative spell to start with!  Alex wasn’t looking to be transformed: she was looking to be restored to her true form!” 

“What do you mean ‘she?’” said the duke.  “This is my son we’re talking about!” 

“I was never your son, father,” said Alex, her voice soft and sweet.  “I’ve always been this person…I just didn’t look like it.”

“Well, the marriage is certainly off,” said the king.  

“No, father, you promised,” said Luna, without taking her eyes off Alex.   

“But…you must marry a man, Luna.  A woman will never do.” 

“I don’t want to marry a man.”

“Well, I forbid it.” 

“You can’t, father: you made a promise to the duke.”  

The king looked to Duke Leonid for assistance, but the duke, still transfixed on Alex, was in no position to give it.  Nobody spoke for several seconds. 

“Luna, you did say you always wanted to rescue a maiden in distress, didn’t you?” said Alex. 

Luna laughed in response. 

“May I have another kiss, then?  Who knows what that will do.” 

Before the sentence was even complete, Luna closed the small distance between them and kissed Alex passionately, then stepped back.  

“It didn’t do anything,” said Luna. 

“It made me happy, though,” said Alex, and they both laughed.  

“Alex, is this…really who you are?” said the duke, quietly.  

“Yes, father, it’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for a long time.  I just didn’t have the words, I guess.” 

The duke stood motionless for the better part of a minute, then inhaled sharply and squared his shoulders. 

“In that case, you have my blessing.  I promised the king your hand, and a promise made is a promise kept.” 

“This is madness,” said King Grisham.  “What will your mother say, Luna?” 

“She will say that you are the king, and her duty is to obey your wishes,” said Luna.  

The king and the duke regarded their respective daughters, who were now holding hands and smiling at each other wordlessly.  The fathers turned to look at one another. The king looked uncertain. The duke shrugged at him. The king shrugged back, and they both broke into small smiles. 

“So be it,” said the king.  “We don’t understand this magic, but we understand duty, and we understand keeping one’s promises.  And a promise made is a promise kept.”  

The king and duke nodded at each other; Luna and Alex embraced; the witch smiled and quietly retreated into her hut; the guards smiled at one another, anxious to end their duties and talk about the strange magic they had just witnessed.  

We won’t here tell of the challenges and joys and sorrows that ensued for Luna, for Alex, or for the king.  We won’t describe the hundreds and thousands of conversations and debates and discussions that followed in the wake of this unprecedented marriage.  Rather, we will take the full sum of the happiness and sadness that each of them underwent; we will hold them up, weigh them carefully, and pronounce our verdict, as storytellers immemorial have, on the resolution of our tale: 

They all lived happily ever after. 








Published in: on June 28, 2019 at 12:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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All In for Mayor Pete

Wherein I make an earlier-than-expected endorsement for President. 

Around the time the twelfth prominent Democrat announced their exploratory committee, I decided to spend 2019 in a permanent seat on the political fence.

My reasons for this weren’t lazy or apathetic: I follow politics more closely than most, and have a bevy of opinions on the candidates, the issues, and the erstwhile sport of electoral politics.  Rather, my benign neglect resulted from two equally important factors: so many of the candidates are just SO good, and would make SUCH good presidents;  I wanted to see how the fared in the early process of ramping up, building a national following, and articulating an election message that has broad enough appeal to defeat the sitting president next year.

Today, I’m setting that plan aside, and declaring my early support for Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

Like most of the country, I had never heard of Mayor Pete until he started considering a run for the presidency.  South Bend may be a small town, but I have some personal ties: both my parents are Notre Dame alums (go Irish!),  my younger brother was born there, and my uncle still lives there.  It’s a great town, but won’t be confused with a metropolis.  Mayor Pete is an unlikely mayor, particularly in Indiana: he’s gay, married, and all of 37 years old, barely old enough to seek the presidency.

As a candidate, his strengths are immediately apparent as soon as he starts to speak.  He can speak to the “religious left,” a thing I did not previously know to exist.  He draws constant contrasts with Mike Pence, Indiana’s former governor and our current veep, in a plainspoken but intelligent way that shows Pence to be the cynical hypocrite that he is.

But most of all, Pete knows how to recruit quality staff.

This morning, I learned that my sister will be taking a leave of absence from her top-tier law firm to work for his campaign full-time, advising them on immigration policy.

I haven’t written much about my sister previously, so let me briefly make up for it here.  Elizabeth has one of the smartest, most incisive minds of anyone I know, and she has a moral drive that is downright inspiring.  When the travel ban took effect, she went to LaGuardia and advised members of congress, along with detainees, helping protect their rights.  When the border crisis began, she rushed down south to take cases reuniting small children with their families.  She worked as an asylum officer, and clerked for a federal judge.  She’s absolutely brilliant, and when she believes in a cause, she does everything she can to make a difference.

In short, my sister is a major inspiration to me, and is one of the very few people who can and does utterly sway my views about political topics, because I trust her instincts, and I trust her analysis.

If you had held a gun to my head yesterday and asked me who I would vote for in the primary, Mayor Pete would have had my vote, but I wasn’t ready to commit.  His decision to hire my sister helped.  Her decision to join the campaign sealed it.  If someone as inspiring, hard-working, and intelligent as my sister believes so strongly in this small-town mayor, then he’s the real deal, full stop.

It is going to take a lot of hard work for a politician with a last name I still have to google to spell correctly to win the nomination.  I’m going to need some time to reconcile that next week, I’ll be the same age as my preferred candidate for president.  I trust that both of us are up to the task.

And while we’re here: BOO-duh-jij.  I think.


Published in: on March 27, 2019 at 2:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Was Lincoln a Founder?

How we view the bones of American history may be a product of our own demographics. 

John Quincy Adams would be my test-answer delineation for where the “founding fathers” ended and the list of presidents-I memorized-once-but-know-little-else-about begins. The former I view as a group of problematic faves, where some of their ideas and accomplishments were awesome and inspiring and others, mostly having to do with their treatment of women, people of color, and the poor, were shocking and awful.  The latter is a group that kept the basic status quo of the founders chugging along, the same vices as before but none of the transformative evolution of society.

Then came Lincoln.  He stumbles into our history, with a war and tales of heroism and brutality that changed our country, and he does brave things that make us substantially better.  He frees the slaves. He saves the union. He acquires that mythos, that same granite veneer that makes him the face on the five, while history majors grumble about his impure motives.  

I’ve always thought of Lincoln as an anomalous figure in history.  The founding fathers came as a group, not as one individual dominating everyone around them.  The generals of the Civil War are pretty well-known, but that’s mostly because wars are interesting and people like writing about them.  They weren’t transforming the country, at least in a lasting way, the way Lincoln was. He had no peers, and even his vaunted “rivals” are of the sort where, if you hear their names, you say “oh yeah…sounds familiar.”  

So why isn’t he considered a parent of our nation?  This came up in a political speech I was watching a few weeks ago- this mild-mannered Colorado senator said, in a rhetorical valley during an otherwise fiery speech, that he considered Lincoln a founding father.  The idea struck me, so I started to think about it.

My initial instinct is “no,” because there’s something different about establishing the country and our system and making big changes to it later.  For twenty minutes, give or take, I was pretty solid on the idea that there’s a meaningful distinction to be drawn, and that Lincoln is plainly on the other side of the line.  We had been a country since 1776; you can’t found something that started four score and seven years before your contribution.

One idea was nagging at me, though.  The way I’m perceiving the country and its history is through a lens of demographically relating to the founders in very specific ways: I’m white, male, and educated.  For folks like that, the country really was founded in 1776. So when I ran the “privilege check” part of my totally-not-neurotic process for forming opinions about things, some red lights were going off.  

Hilariously, I realized- as I have on several other occasions, but just can’t seem to correct- that this group of founders I supposedly relate to have no actual kinship with me.  I’m a Jew, a descendent of early-20th-century imports. My only relationship to them is through a modern demographic lens, and I think that’s telling in the “defaults” we learn growing up.  I like to joke that as a Jew, I’m white in a bull economy.

But I would not have had an invitation to the convention in Philadelphia.

I think that the Ante-Quincy Adams crowd founded the country for white men.  I think Lincoln founded it for people of color, and so did King. I think Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott got royally cheated by our history books, since I never learned enough about them to even correctly spell their names without the aid of Google.  As someone who sought out history in school, drank it up and kept refilling the glass time and again, even to today, it’s only in the last three years or so that I’ve really learned anything about them.

And they founded the country, too.  

If we persist in claiming that our country is exceptional because it is an idea, or even an ideal, then we can’t let the tyranny of chronology dictate the bounds of who is considered a founder.  Designing systems of democracy is no more important than opening up those systems to more people.

As I read, daily it seems, about the travesty happening at our southern border, the menacing over-imprisonment of our citizenry, and the creeping racism and xenophobia of our nominal leadership, I realize that our grand experiment in democracy hasn’t really gotten underway; there are still empty seats at the table.  Perhaps our youngest founding fathers- even the term smacks of patriarchy- are yet to be born.


Published in: on March 12, 2019 at 7:32 am  Leave a Comment  

Afternoon Eddies

Some short fiction, a palate cleanser from this year’s NaNo.  

Pine needles, so many pine needles, poking and sticking and filling the air with a seductive calm musk of forest, of danger, of plants grown legion. Jack winced, using one arm to clear the branch in front of him, the other idly brushing away the needles that probed his pants and the tough skin underneath.

This path was familiar, though overgrown now; in the halcyon days of his youth, his almost daily wild trek through this stretch of forest kept all but the heartiest vegetation at bay.  In the half century since, the nettles and the pines and the small weeds that now constellated the ground had fortified the reclaimed territory, had set barbs and thick branches to stave off intruders.  Jack returned here as to a scene of forgotten glory, each labored step through the brush an achievement, a small mote of progress in his reconnaissance of his boyhood haunt.

A needle jabbed through the knuckle at the base of his thumb, breaching the skin and finding purchase in the soft tissue between bone and ligature.  Jack gasped, feeling the thick pine and pollen dust racing into his nostrils and settling in his chest.

-why have i come here?-

A wind announced its arrival, rustling the tops of the trees before enveloping Jack.  Leaves and dirt rose in its wake, tickling his ankles, the cold, sweet air startling him and breaking the pace of his progress.

It was getting late, the afternoon sun angled too low to counter the chill breeze.  Shadows long and eldritch danced as their progenitor flora swayed to the wind. Jack knew he should go back, to find his aunt; if he came in before sunset, she was apt to bedevil him with a wet kiss on the cheek, and reward him with a cookie.  She used maple syrup in the cookies; they squished under the smallest pressure of his jaw and melted into molasses behind his teeth. Jack could taste them now, could feel the warm, familiar smell rise into his nose from the back of his mouth. Aunt Millie’s cookies.  Aunt Silly, he had called her.

But no, Aunt Silly- Aunt Millie- had died, years ago.  That house had been sold, and with it, any claim Jack and his clan held on the vaguely titled plot of forest.  So why was he here?

The wind intensified.  The pitch of the rustling trees deepened as the tallest trees bowed lower, acknowledging the passage of air and weather.  Clouds poured above, a celestial river of white that gave way to dark gray. Jack felt like an earthbound raft traversing river rapids, hoping the sky above stayed white and fluffy, mentally steering his patch of ground away from the dark, treacherous sprinkling of storm clouds overhead.  

All at once, Jack was wet.  He hadn’t felt the rain fall, but he could hear it, a susurration above and all around him.  It seemed to be everywhere, a thousand points of barbed water dinging and careening off everything in the forest.  He couldn’t see the rain falling, though, and looked around for some visual confirmation of the storm.

The forest aroma intensified, pine and decaying leafs misting around him.  It was a pleasant smell, though somehow sad, even wistful. It was the smell of yesteryear, of careless youth, of seasons changing and passing, rolling forward, always forward, into the next.

Jack put a hand to his hair: it was soaked.  The loud but invisible rain had drenched him.  Above, few white fluffs remained, the sky now overrun with menacing dark leviathans that filtered out the diminishing light of the fast-setting sun.  

At once, brilliant white forks appeared overhead, and three distinct claps shook Jack’s ears and caused him to start.  He closed his eyes, feeling drops of warm water fall from their lids, glancing off his legs. When he opened them, the storm was gone- the sky was clear, it was mid-day, the sun surging warm waves over his wet body.  A bird chirruped somewhere above him. The ground was dry.

-what on earth?-

Three claps, louder than the first, stirred something deep in his breast.  He closed his eyes again, and this time they opened slowly. Jack was prone on his back, his face and hair dripping wet.  Sunlight and shadows swapped places on the ceiling above him as the blackout curtains rustled in the breeze from the window.  Jack felt a pillow under his head, touched his brow. It was damp. Dropping both elbows beside him, he lifted his body a few strained inches, feeling the wet sheets pull away and turn instantly cold as he relaxed back down onto them.  

His hand went to his leg: no pine needles.  No bird sounds. No forest scents, only the antiseptic smell of the humidifier, and the sour, vinegar odor of his own sweat.  Three sudden claps caused him to jump- they were knocks on his door. With considerable effort, Jack sat up, swinging his legs to the floor, feeling the pins and needles ebb and vanish as the blood started to flow.

Jack stood using a hand against the wall for balance as the other swept the curtain aside.  Below, standing just outside his door, were two men in suits. One had brown wavy hair; the other was starting to bald.  Jack knew why they were here. He had long expected them, dreaded them. They were from the army, come to deliver sad and solemn news.  Jack had a premonition about this, knew they would come. He knew what they would say, and how he would react. It was as though he had rehearsed this very moment a dozen times in his mind.  

Jack slowly walked to his closet, pulling out a long robe to cover his sweat-through night clothes.  He closed the closet door and stopped, disconcerted. This was wrong; he wasn’t wearing a robe. It was a white shirt, with a blazer and a loosened tie, as though he had just come home from work, was still making the transition into casual clothing.  The officer had even remarked on his tie, some inane compliment. And- more darkly- it was this tie he would invoke in his passing consideration of suicide, a momentary thought of hanging himself from the ceiling fan. He would never do that- would never even give the thought a proper name- but he remembered the tie, of that he was certain.  

Jack opened the closet again.  There was a white shirt, slightly wrinkled, but serviceable.  He quickly pulled it over his arms, buttoning from the top down, aged fingers made deft by decades of muscle memory.  The tie, though, if only he could remember the correct tie! Jack worried for a moment that his visitors would give up, would leave before he was ready.  

“I’m coming!” he yelled, voice unsteady, in the direction of the window.

Perhaps the tie wasn’t important.  At least, the type of tie. It just had to be a tie, any tie worthy of remarking on.  Jack found one of black and white gingham and pulled it loosely around his neck, knotting it without tightening.  It was perfect.

As he left the bedroom, Jack ticked through all the details of this encounter.  He would open the door, and the younger of the two men would call him sir, would confirm his name.  Then the older man would say that Michael had died, that he was honorable, and use other nice adjectives that Jack would scarcely hear and soon forget.  A rare and frightening tightness would grip his chest, and, searching for any acceptable words to speak, Jack would invite them inside. Karen would make ask who was there from the kitchen, and Jack would tell her to bring waters, that they had two guests.  

Karen would bring the water and a small plate of cookies, still oblivious to the nature of the visit.  She would blanch when she saw them sitting on the sofa, all starched uniform blue with explosions of medals on the breast.  She would shake, spilling one of the waters, they would call her ma’am, she would start to sob before they could say anything else.  

Jack paused on the staircase.

-i should put a hand towel in the den, to clean up the water.-

He turned at the bottom of the stairs, away from the door and towards the inside of the home.  This was wrong. Karen wasn’t here, she had died, not so very long ago. There would be no spilled water, no spilled tears.  Michael had a gravestone in a large cemetery in Virginia; Jack had visited there, had laid flowers on the grave. It was all wrong, it was out of place on the timeline.  Jack was angry as he reached the door and flung it open.

“You’re too late!” he said, pointing an accusing finger at the visitors.  

The two men stiffened up.  Their army uniforms were wrong, too.  They looked like businessmen, in neat white shirts and black suits.  They scarcely even looked like men; Jack would be surprised if they were a day over twenty one.  Their only medals were shiny name tags that Jack had to squint to read. He glanced back and forth between the baby-faced visitors and the incongruous word Elder on the badges.

“Um, good afternoon, sir,” said the taller of the two.  “How are you today?”

Jack opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.  The visitors glanced at one another.

“My name is Elder Brown, and this is Elder Lee.  It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

“I’m Jack,” he said, definitively, extending a proud hand.  Elder Brown took the hand and shook, then passed it to Elder Lee, who did the same.  

“Do you have a few minutes to talk about faith?  We are taking a survey in this neighborhood, and asking some questions about God and our place in the world.  Do you ever think about those things?”

Jack considered it.  He did think about God, all the time, but those were private thoughts, and some part of him knew that his musings were not safe for public airing.  

“Oh, from time to time,” he demurred.

“That’s wonderful!” Elder Brown said, as both visitors broke into wide grins.  “Would you mind if we step inside?”

Jack glanced over his shoulder.  Inside, that’s where they want to come.  To his place, his sanctuary. Of course, he has visitors all the time.  The den is usually immaculate, not one item out of place. In the middle distance, he saw the sofa, covered in balled-up newspaper and dirty clothing.  The coffee table, spackled with used dishes, would need tidying before guests could be admitted. Karen would have his head if he didn’t clean up before having company.  

“My, uh, place isn’t very tidy, I’m afraid,” said Jack.

“Oh, we don’t mind!” Elder Lee cut in.  “The truth is, we’ve been walking for several hours, and it would be good just to get off our feet for a few minutes.”

Unable to think of a counterargument, Jack stood aside, gesturing admission, and the elders crossed his threshold, waiting patiently for him just inside the door.  

“You can, uh, sit over there.  I’ll make space,” Jack pointed towards the sofa, and staggered in its direction.

“We can help with that, if you like,” said Elder Brown.  “Here, let me fetch those dishes for you. Do you want them in the kitchen?”

It was moving too fast for Jack.  The young men- boys, really- flitted to and fro in a whirlwind of activity.  Dishes and refuse were swept up in their wake, re-deposited out of sight. It was over in an instant, and the room looked almost tidy.  

“Would you like a glass of water?” Jack said.  The elders were seated on the sofa now, their eddies of motion evidently spent.  

“Yes, please!” said Elder Lee, with boyish enthusiasm.  

With a nod, Jack retreated to the kitchen, where he searched the cupboards for clean glasses.  He needed to pour the water carefully, and bring it to the den without spilling. He mentally checked through the constituent parts of the task, determined to be more careful this time.  

-why are they here?-

It must be another volley from his daughter.  They were here to convince him to move into a new place, to give up his home.  The nerve of these people, to barge in here and tell him he couldn’t live alone!  They talked over his meek objections. When he spilled the water- just a careless tangling of his feet!- they made much of it, wielding it as proof positive that he needed to leave.  The destination was hazy, but Jack could see through them. They wanted him in a home, not in his home, but a home for people at the end of their days, who couldn’t be trusted to live unsupervised.  It was a second childhood, he remembered thinking, and he was not going softly.

Jack filled each cup only halfway.  This time, he would not spill it, would measure each step slowly, deliberately.  They would see that he can still function, can still do the mundane tasks of life that silently delineate between those worthy of independence, and those whose vitality is spent.  He would show them!

Both cups in hand, Jack began his perilous trek, shuffling his feet just an inch off the floor, finding a stable rhythm.  In twenty strides, he reached the coffee table, and began to lower the cups, feeling the strain in his back as he hunched towards the landing pad.  Elder Brown reached out and intercepted the lander before touchdown, passing one to Elder Lee and snatching the other for himself.

“Thank you,” Elder Lee said.  Jack stood, half-hunched, frozen, slow to realize that his mission had been an unmitigated success.  He smiled and nodded, easing himself upright and rounding the table to the easy chair, into which he sunk majestically.  

“Do you ever think about what comes after?” Elder Brown said, sipping his water.  

Right to the point, then, Jack smirked.  It is time to do battle.

“I think that I stay here.”

The elders exchanged glances.  “I mean, what comes after you leave here?  What comes next?”

“There is no next!” Jack raised his voice.  “I stay here until I die! And I’m not going anywhere else.  I make do just fine on my own.”

Elder Brown looked at Elder Lee again, who shrugged.  An awkward moment passed.

“After we die, I mean,” said Elder Brown.  “Where do we go then?”

Jack thought about this.  Perhaps he had misjudged the situation.  Come to think of it, these boys didn’t look like they came from a nursing home.  Religious folk, then. Come to spread the gospel. Only they were so young. Maybe he should put them in touch with Pastor Abrams, he liked talking about theology.  His sermons always went long, Jack remembered counting the minutes while his stomach rumbled its lunchtime protest.

“I don’t know about that,” Jack said.  “Maybe you’d like to talk to Pastor Abrams, I could introduce you.  He loves talking about heaven and hell. In fact, at his funeral his wife told this story about him getting out of a speeding ticket by telling the officers that he would need to give an extra tithe to make up for the violation of the law.”

Once again, the elders exchanged looks, this time with concern.  

“So, he has passed on?” said Elder Lee.  

Jack stopped, considering.  Yes, that sounded right, he had been at Pastor Abrams’ funeral.  He wouldn’t be available to talk shop with these young people.

“I suppose so,” Jack conceded.

“You live here alone?” Elder Brown ventured.

“I do,” Jack said proudly.  “I have a girl who comes by each week to take care of a few things, since I move more slowly these days.”

The words spilled out of his head before he could catch them.  He had a girl? Who was that? It sounded right, but he couldn’t place her.  Natalia? Tatiana? Something that sounded Russian. When had she last been here?  When was she expected? Jack could never keep it straight. He was seized by worry, that these young people would see his confusion and do something to upset his safety and routine.  

“That’s nice,” said Elder Brown, smiling his acceptance.  “Elder Lee and I are helping people, too, by spreading the good news about Jesus Christ.  Do you believe in Jesus?”

“I do,” said Jack, relieved.

“Wonderful!” Elder Lee clapped his hands.  “Our church believes in spreading Jesus’ teachings, and showing people how faith can transform their lives.  Would you like to join us in a small prayer? Since this is your home, maybe you can say something appropriate, or we can, if you prefer.”

Jack mentally braced against the onslaught of words.  They wanted him to pray? Praying for Jack was not a performative act, it was a silent reflection that belonged in a church.  

“You can go ahead,” Jack said, suspiciously.  

The Elders bowed their heads.  “Our father, who art in Heaven…”

Jack knew this one, tuned out the familiar words, his eyes closed.  He remembered the lilt of the prayer, hearing it echo through the chapel at Karen’s funeral, the sad timbre of the pastor, using the benediction to plead with their maker to treat Karen’s soul with kindness and mercy.  The realization that, when this day of ritual was complete, he would be alone, left by himself for the first time in decades. Imagining waking up in bed, with Karen not there. Tears flooded his eyes and leaked down the deep crevices of his cheeks.  

“Are you okay, Jack?” one of the boys said.  Jack opened his eyes, feeling a rush of water escaping down his face.  

“Yes, uh, I just need a moment.  Excuse me, please.”

Jack stood with considerable effort, and moved towards the staircase.  “I just need to fetch something,” he muttered, using his arms on the railing to propel him upward, towards his bedroom.  Below, the boys sat with their water, watching him with intense interest.

Jack reached the bedroom, and sat on his bed, taking a tissue from the nightstand to his wet face.  He could smell his own sweat on the pillow case beside him. That smell reminded him of deep sleep, of the surreal experience of waking, of the warm embrace of the blankets.  Unthinking, he lifted his legs and tucked them under, feeling the weight and pressure of the comforter on his body. He blew his nose, and then set his head down on the pillow, staring blankly at the ceiling.  

Time must be passing, Jack thought, and there was something he still needed to do today.  It was something to do with Michael, and with Karen, or maybe Pastor Abrams. He searched the ceiling for answers, but the dancing shadows and reflected sunlight held no answers.  The room grew dimmer as his lids half-closed. His body sank into the mattress inch by inch, the soft foam taking his torso into a slow embrace.

A creak on the stairs.  “Are you okay, Jack?”

It was a young voice- one of the boys, the elders.  So they were still here. Jack ran through a checklist of actions needed to see them off properly.  It seemed daunting.

“I’m in bed,” he called down.  “You can see yourself out.”

“Do you need anything?  Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, just a bit tired.  Thank you for the prayer,” Jack said.  Out of his peripheral vision, he saw the face of one of the boys- which one, he could not tell, the name tag concealed by the door frame and too far off to read in any event.  Jack shut his eyes, performing sleep, hoping the youngster would leave him be.

After a moment, he heard a renewed creaking on the banister, and muffled voices from below, followed by the sound of the front door opening and closing again.  

Jack was still dressed in the white shirt and loose tie, but the bed was a comfort, and there would be no harm in taking a nap.  He allowed himself to sink deeper, to begin to drift, his thoughts swirling back to the taste of molasses, his cheek wet with the unwanted kisses of his Aunt Silly.  


Published in: on December 10, 2018 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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Raw and Unfiltered

This Halloween, I’m going to try something very scary.  

For the past four years, I have somewhat religiously participated in a month-long event called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.  The idea is a simple, the task daunting: write a complete novel, 50,000 words or more, from start to finish in the month of November.

In years past, I have used this like a tool, rather than the launching point for an actual literary project.  NaNo is a chance to sharpen my writing through sheer volume.  Once, I took a minor character from a novel I was working on, and fleshed out his backstory.  Another time, I wrote a series of stories about barely-veiled people I know, and my imagined interactions and adventures with them.

Last year, I wrote a fiction that I am working on turning into an actual novel, though the current iteration bears little resemblance to the piece I completed on November 30, 2017.

For this year’s NaNo, which starts in a few days, I want to try something terrifying: I am going to share my writing as it happens, in this space.  I want to do this for a couple of reasons:

First, as my regular readers surely know, I have an output issue.  Note, I did not say an output problem.  I take what I refer to as the Mr. Ed approach to blogging: I never speak unless I have something to say.  I do not write just for the hell of it- any time a piece appears in this space, it is because I felt that my words should be heard.

While I stand by that minimalist approach, I also recognize that my public writing will improve with practice, and as the months-long gaps in this record reveal, I could use more of that.

Another reason I want to post my raw NaNo output is to get over my fear of imperfection.  Most of my blog posts are painstakingly edited to remove typos, improve word choice, and make things more concise.  I don’t mind admitting, I’m scared to death of having my raw writing out there for scrutiny and judgment, which is exactly why I should give it a try.

So, for those of you who subscribe, safe in the assurance that I will only darken your inbox infrequently, this might be a good opportunity to reevaluate your choices.  I’ll go back to my signature Mr. Ed approach in December, but until then, expect daily posts.

I simply ask that you reserve any criticism, and keep in mind that what I will share is rough and unedited.  Chapters may post out of order- NaNo is a beast, and I have to find word count where and how I can.

I am also planning to incorporate a weird rule while I write, which will affect every chapter: if you spot it, let me know.  I kind of hope you don’t.

To help set the tone, I have written this in one sitting, and will post without re-reading.  Hoo boy.  🙂

Thank you for your patience, and see you on the other side.




Published in: on October 29, 2018 at 1:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cross Purposes

A challenging routine, its abrupt end, and a pledge to do better next time. 

Last month, my nearly two-year streak of solving the NY Times crossword puzzle came to an accidental end.  It really wasn’t my fault.

Here’s what happened: the crossword comes out each day at 10pm, or 6pm on weekends (daylight savings time wreaks havoc on this schedule, so let’s leave it at that).  Credit is given for completing the puzzle before midnight the next day.

On my way to a Saturday evening event, I realized that I hadn’t yet done the crossword, so I opened it, and Kelsey and I got it done over the course of twenty-or-so minutes.

Unfortunately, neither of us realized that the puzzle we were doing was the Sunday puzzle- which should have been obvious, as it’s a larger puzzle grid.  The Saturday puzzle was not complete, as I would learn the following day, when I looked for the Sunday puzzle and was informed that it was complete, the first installment of my new streak.

In many ways, the crossword puzzle is a perfect hobby for me.  As someone blessed with mild OCD, I thrive on daily tasks.  Each day’s puzzle is a new challenge, growing progressively more difficult from Monday through Saturday, and easing up with a large, enjoyable grid on Sundays.

The puzzle’s test of trivia, wordplay, and pattern recognition also appeals to me.  My brain, notorious for forgetting names of people I have just met, excels at remembering inane trivia several decades removed from practical relevance.

I am also blessed to have Kelsey as my solving buddy.  Not only does she have a knowledge base that covers many of my blind spots, she greets puzzle puns with the most satisfying groans of anyone I know.  Between the two of us, we can usually crack the grid at a good clip.

Those times when the answers just aren’t coming- I remember one frustrating puzzle where every CLUE was an anagram, and until you figured that out, you were lost- we are both shameless about asking friends, colleagues, or friendly-looking strangers.  You would be amazed how many people can identify, for instance, ballroom dancer Castle (IRENE), Nixon’s “In the _____,” (ARENA), or a relative of Calliope (ERATO).

Over time, as the streak grew longer and longer, it became of corresponding greater importance to me that it continue.  On days where I would be out of cell reception, I made sure to complete the puzzle when I had signal.  During my trips back to Lexington, I would impress my parents and sibs into service to get the puzzle done over coffee.  My day didn’t feel complete- didn’t feel right- until the puzzle was done.

That said, it was perhaps surprising that the loss of the streak came not with anger or devastation, but with mild sadness, and a resolution to start a new, even longer streak.  I’ve realized that, while the streak had a motivational impact that scratched my OCD itch, it is really the process I enjoy: the puzzles themselves.

So, after going back and finishing that regrettably-missed Saturday grid (the functionality of the app is truly amazing), I immediately resumed puzzle solving as my daily task.  The streak is now back in double-digits, and given time, I’m sure it will grow back to something more substantial.

People tell me that crossword puzzles are good for the brain, and may help keep our minds sharp as we age.  I don’t know about all that.  To me, they’re really more about assuming challenges, and doing everything necessary to overcome them.  The moment the grid is complete, and the app plays the little “success” jingle, feels like enough of a wholesome reward to keep me consistently coming back.

Published in: on September 5, 2018 at 12:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Graduation Day

Some thoughts and remembrances of Uncle Lucius’ final show

On Friday, March 23rd, Austin-based country rock band Uncle Lucius held their final live show.  The venue, Gruen Hall in New Braunfels, Texas, purports to be the oldest dancehall in the Lonestar State.  My brother, Jon, has been Uncle Lucius’ keyboard player for the last seven years.

About two weeks before the show, I booked the shortest vacation of my life.  I would fly in two hours before the show, surprise my brother, and leave the following afternoon.  My time in transit would approximately equal my time on the ground. Even so, I had to take a day off work; my schedule, particularly given the last-minute nature of this trip, necessitated a very brief visit.  

The first leg of the flight was the most uncomfortable flying experience I have ever had…and I was once on a plane in China that nearly crashed.  This time it was a United flight, and my middle seat had so little room that I couldn’t properly extend a book in front of my face without hitting the seat in front of me.  It served as an important reminder of why I don’t voluntarily fly on United Airlines.

As New Braunfels is between Austin and San Antonio, getting there necessitated renting a car, which I did in my chosen port of arrival, San Antonio.  Though I am out of practice driving, I got there in one piece. After leaving the interstate, the navigation took me through mile after mile of utter nothingness.  Then, all of a sudden, a village appeared, with cars lining both sides of the street and a huge, mostly full parking lot. I had arrived.

My logistical connection with the band- the bassist, Johann- hadn’t gotten back to me, so I was concerned about how to get into the sold-out show.  It was a few minutes before the opening act was scheduled to start, and the line extended around the block. All I knew was that Johann had put me on the guest list, but so that my brother wouldn’t see it, he put me down as his girlfriend’s plus-one.  I imagined getting to the front of the line and telling the security guard, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m on the list…Johann’s girlfriend’s plus-one….her name? I dunno…”

Fortunately, in the outdoor area on the other side of the fence, I spotted my brother.  I asked a brusque-looking security person to get his attention for me, a request he ignored until I mentioned our relation.  A sudden, full grin erupted across his face. “You’re a GROSSMAN? You want…JONNY KEYS?!”

Jon and I had a warm, brotherly reunion.  He smuggled me into the venue through sheer force of will.  

Unbeknownst to me, Jon was sitting in with the opening act, so he only had a few minutes before he had to go on stage.  He was ebullient, introducing me to everyone, as though my full name was “my-brother-who-came-from-New-York-and-surprised-me.”  

In my experience, fans of Uncle Lucius are all big fans of Jonny Keys.  They bought me beers, shook my hand, gave me hugs, all because I had a connection with him.  For the last seven years, Jon has been a musical virtuoso with the band, bringing his frenetic, colorful style to the stage.  He plays the keyboard with impossible fluency. In the opening act, he was playing songs he had first learned the night before, and was able to freestyle and complement their arrangement seamlessly.  

I stood front-row-center for most of the show.  The entire thing was wonderful, with three distinct high points, from my vantage point.  The first was Jon surprising me with a performance of my favorite Uncle Lucius song, New Drug.  It wasn’t on the original set list, but he added it at my request. The song rocked, and the crowd’s applause was deafening.  Then, the band covered Tom Petty’s “It’s Good to be King,” one of my favorites from the late, great bard. Lead singer Kevin’s voice is perfectly suited for that song, and it was fantastic.  Finally, the band played “Wolves,” a song written by Kevin as a tribute to his dad. His dad, who I met earlier in the evening (and bought me a beer) stood next to me in front during that song, a moving emotional high near the close of the set.  

The crowd lingered long after the boys took their final bows.  Merchandise was snatched up, photos were taken, and there were so many tears.  Several fans of Uncle Lucius had followed the band for various stretches, and seen hundreds of their shows.  During the past seven years, I had only seen them thrice, a pretty paltry attendance record for a big brother.  

We spent the evening in the pool area of the band’s hotel, about two miles from the venue.  We talked and laughed and told stories until the sun came up. I had a grand total of two hours of sleep on my twenty-four hour stay, crashing in Jon’s unused hotel room.  

In the days that followed, Jon and I exchanged very nice emails.  We don’t keep in touch particularly well, but our relationship remains close.  Even if six months pass between conversations, we fall right back into our usual camaraderie without missing a beat.  

The Uncle Lucius years saw Jon move out of our hometown, tour the country and Europe, sharpen his musical skills, network with world-class musicians, and ultimately, join their ranks.  It also saw a fair share of challenge, from health problems to the uncertainty of housing and life on the road. He came out the other side thriving, with a world of possibilities in front of him, and a fan base filled with adoring admirers.    

I’m terribly proud of my kid brother.  He set out to make wonderful music, and he went and did it.  Very few people can stick to a dream with such constant focus. He inspires me to pursue my own dream of becoming a successful writer.  

Uncle Lucius may have played their final show, but their music lives on, as does the impact they had on so many people who followed their long tenure as a touring band.  I’m so glad I was able to be there to see the final show, and to watch those five musicians end such a successful chapter of their musical careers.


Published in: on March 29, 2018 at 2:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Repeal and Replace

It’s time to repeal the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution

Our Constitution’s 2nd Amendment, enacted in 1791, reads as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

While there has been much legal wrangling over whether this right is individual or has something to do with militias, I believe the interpretation is clear, even if the wording is sloppy: under the 2nd Amendment, the government can’t infringe on people’s right to have arms.

At the time it was passed, the amendment was likely prompted by two motivating factors: to serve as a check on the power of the federal government, and in response to gun regulations imposed prior to independence by our formal colonial power, England.  The taste of revolution was still fresh in the mouths of the drafters, and there is probably some truth to the notion that the purpose of the amendment was to reserve to the people the power to, if need be, overthrow the government.

Many things have changed in the ensuing 227 years (eleven score and 7 years ago, if you want to be fancy).  For one, our government cannot be overthrown by armed civilians.  The military sciences have evolved to the point where governments are largely immune from direct attacks by their citizenry: it would take military cooperation for a new revolution to succeed.  In an age of nuclear weapons, air forces, and tanks, an armed citizenry wouldn’t stand a chance.

Moreover, the scope of “arms” has changed dramatically.  The muskets of our founding gave way to rifles, to machine guns, to assault weapons.  As pernicious as the much-maligned AR-15 may be in the media, people forget that it isn’t even an automatic weapon: it’s essentially a cosmetically-upgraded hunting rifle.  Our guns have gotten more powerful, and with our population density and the rise of mental illness, mass shootings have become commonplace.

I know that many people identify strongly with the right to own guns.  Blaming the NRA is foolish: contrary to popular belief, they don’t contribute very much money at all to politicians.  They are powerful because people support them.  A lot of people.  Many of them are motivated to vote based on gun rights, and see the waxing and waning cries for regulation as the opening salvos in an attempt to strip them of their legally-owned guns.

While the issue of liberty versus regulation may well be a zero-sum game- every regulation results in a corresponding decrease in gun ownership liberty- it’s not a binary choice.  There can be a middle ground, in which gun ownership is legal but highly regulated.  However, that middle ground is fundamentally inconsistent with the 2nd Amendment, which proscribes any infringement on gun ownership rights.

We need a full and unencumbered discussion on what gun ownership should look like in the 21st century.  I don’t know what the shape of that regime should look like; I personally hate and fear firearms, but don’t believe my personal views should be foisted upon everyone else.  I do think I should be given a voice, as should the other stakeholders- including, most especially, passionate and responsible gun owners.

In order to have that discussion, and implement substantial new regulations, we need to repeal the 2nd Amendment.  It’s presence guarantees a court battle over every rule, and if we’re reading it dispassionately, the plain language of the amendment is likely to invalidate any meaningful gun control or regulation as an infringement on the right to bear arms.

You hardly need me to recount the extent of the gun violence problem in the United States.  It’s unique to us, and it is unacceptable.  Our allegiance to liberal gun policies makes violence worse, and more widespread.  We simply cannot continue living with mass shootings as a regular occurrence.

The historic justifications for the 2nd Amendment have long since passed into history, and repealing that amendment does not mean taking away everyone’s guns.  It means lifting a broad prohibition on any meaningful gun control.  Gun owners should be licensed, tested, and safety-screened, as they are in other countries.  We can and must work together to accommodate the concerns of lawful gun owners with the concerns of the millions of us who will not accept routine mass shootings as a cost of living in the United States.

The time for repeal has come; perhaps our leaders can summon the courage to act before the anger of the populace sweeps them from office.



Published in: on February 19, 2018 at 12:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Even a Broken Clock

The decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was long-overdue.  

I am not a fan of our current president.  I’m sure that does not come as much of a surprise to anyone even passingly familiar with my writing.  My political views place great value on open-mindedness, humility, civility, and the role of objective facts and analysis.  Consequently, I think the current occupant of the White House is unqualified and dangerous.

Due in large part to the self-selection of social media, geography, and real-life society, a vast majority of my friends share this view.  Unfortunately, many of us make the mistake of concluding that because the president is dangerous and unqualified, anything he says or does must be wrong.

Admittedly, that formula produces accurate results in the large majority of cases.  However, over the last month, the president did something that- while controversial- I believe was exactly the correct course of action to move the Middle East closer to peace.

He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Naturally, as soon as this decision was announced, it was decried as dangerous folly by my fellow Trump critics.  After all, failing to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a bipartisan norm for our chief executives.  Official recognition of Jerusalem, coupled with moving our embassy there, has been one of the largest carrots we have dangled in front of the Israelis for decades, in hopes of persuading them into making a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

In a sense, this policy shift reminds me of President Obama’s steps to de-isolate Cuba.  In that case, as now, a long-held, bipartisan foreign policy position was being forfeited by a new chief executive with limited governing experience.  The president’s critics- then and now- immediately proclaimed it a mistake.  Then, as now, those critics accused the president of giving up leverage and compromising our long-term strategic goals.

One persistent error in American foreign policy has been our failure to recognize when our policies are not working.  The Cuban embargo lasted for decades, and did nothing to resolve our tensions with their government.  Our refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not compel Israel to make hard concessions for peace over the decades.

There is no final peace agreement that does not include an Israeli capital in Jerusalem.  Our stubborn refusal to acknowledge that reality does nothing to bend Israel to our will.  If you telegraph so persistently- as we have- that you are going to give the horse the carrot eventually, no matter what, it ceases to serve as an effective incentive.  It did, however, provide Palestinians with the hope- however remote- that Israel would be forced to cede Jerusalem to some international body, or that the city might be a shared capital of both countries.

Our president’s move effectively takes this issue off the table.  The predicted violent uproar in response largely failed to materialize.  The Palestinians have announced that they are unwilling to continue working with the United States, but they must recognize even now that will be an untenable position in the long term, as only the United States has sufficient influence on Israel to facilitate a comprehensive settlement.

The idea that this compromises our perceived neutrality in the conflict ignores reality; we have been compromised since at least the 1980s.  No international observer truly believes that we are impartial in this dispute.  The United States has been and remains Israel’s closest ally in the world.  That is not a surprising revelation to anyone following the abortive peace efforts over the years, least of all to the Palestinians.

There is a more subtle aspect to this policy shift.  It represents, for the first time, the United States intervening to settle a disputed issue unilaterally.  Israel was quite pleased at this particular outcome, but they must surely realize that the next issue could go the other way, particularly with our volatile and unpredictable president at the helm.

Perhaps the United States will decide that large swaths of Israeli settlements must be demolished in the West Bank, or that a certain number of Palestinian refugees must be readmitted to Israel.  We have the leverage to force compliance, should we so choose.  Consequently, this new precedent of unilateral decision-making should give Israel pause.

The message sent by this policy shift is that the status quo cannot be indefinitely sustained.  The current Israeli leadership seems satisfied to remain in stalemate, and the Palestinians still have not consolidated the necessary collective will to make a meaningful peace.  This unilateral move undermines that status quo, and signals that the United States is committed to moving towards peace, with or without the participation of the primary governments involved.

I do not believe- and this may be my anti-Trump bias, but it’s based on his other governing decisions- that the president considered all of the implications of his decision before making the announcement.  I am not convinced that he is a leader who understands nuance, foreign policy, or long-term strategy.  More likely, he was convinced to make this announcement at the behest of one of his pro-Israel supporters or family members; perhaps the recently-disclosed financial arrangements between Israel and his son-in-law played a role.

Regardless of his motives, however, I do believe that in this case, the president got it right.  Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and our refusal to recognize it as such was nothing more than a relic of a negotiating tactic that produced no results over the decades it had been our policy.  Just like the Cuba embargo, its time has passed, and we need to move on from ineffective foreign policy decisions.

To paraphrase an old saying, even a broken president is right twice a term.


Published in: on January 10, 2018 at 9:45 am  Comments (1)  
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