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The Stepford Republicans

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“There will be someone with my name,” says the lead character, Joanna Eberhart, in a climactic scene from The Stepford Wives, the 1975 Gothic horror movie. “She’ll cook and clean like crazy, but she won’t be me. She’ll be like one of those robots in Disneyland.”

Joanna, played by Katharine Ross, is slowly realizing that something insidious and horrible is happening to the housewives of Stepford, the fictional Connecticut town where she and her lawyer husband, Walter, had recently moved with their two young children. The film is in the tradition of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Village of the Damned” and others of that genre, in which humans are secretly possessed by sinister forces (usually symbolizing Communism) bent on subverting our way of life.

Watching The Stepford Wives is great fun. Screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) meant it to be a spoof on “a bunch of Playboy bunnies,” but this perhaps misinterpreted the goal of Ira Levin, whose 1972 book of the same name, on which the movie was based, was more menacing: these robotic women had been murdered and then mysteriously transformed by their husbands, through some unexplained (surgical?) process, into complaisant helpmate-robots. Coming after Joe McCarthy and during Nixon’s administration, Levin’s book represented the nightmare side of America.

Re-watching The Stepford Wives in the era of Trump, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how Levin and Goldman unwittingly presaged what’s happening now in America. But this new tale is no longer about women and their role and place in our society. It’s now about the Republican Party, which, like the women in the novel and film, has been transmogrified: from a fairly conservative political party into the Party of Trump.

The scholar Rashna Wadia Richards dismisses the simple explanation that The Stepford Wives is merely “a cautionary tale about secret, robotic Communists hiding among unsuspecting, passionate Americans…” We have “to dig deeper,” she writes, and seek “other cultural anxieties” the film taps into. What might these be? Richards considers issues of sexual and racial politics before concluding that The Stepford Wives is actually more complex and horrifying: the ultimate alien tale. “Not only can’t we tell who has been ‘taken over,’ but we also can’t tell who hasn’t been ‘taken over.’”

Many Trumpers don’t publicly admit their true affiliation because they’re embarrassed. They know, in their hearts, that Trump is evil and Trumpism is an aberration. It’s politically incorrect to admit that you rather like Trump and will vote for him in November. In that sense, The Stepford Wives has now become The Stepford Republicans, a horror movie for our times.They’ve out there, these evil robots, walking among us, looking like us and sounding like us. But except for the obvious crazies with their MAGA hats and twisted faces at Trump rallies, we don’t know who the rest of the robots are. They could be your mother, uncle, cousin, neighbor, friend, boss. Or you.

If there are enough robots in November, Trump will win re-election. But I don’t believe there are. Public sentiment, as measured by every single poll, has the American people rising up against him. We’re tired of this horror show. We want him gone. The ending of The Stepford Wives is sad: Joanna becomes “one of them.” I firmly believe that the ending of The Stepford Republicans will be far happier.


My so-called Shelter-in-Place life

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Gus is afraid of Zoom.

It’s surprising, because no other sounds bother my chill dog in the least. In the ten years we’ve been together, fireworks, garbage trucks, backup beepers, other dogs barking and howling—he sleeps through it all. He might glance at me if there’s some particularly loud and concussive noise, but it’s only to see how I’m reacting. When I tell him there’s nothing to worry about, he contentedly drops his head back on his paws, and pretty soon he’s snoring.

But Zoom! My improv troupe has been on it since March, for both regular classes and Friday night performances. Gus doesn’t like it. I’ll be at my desk, in front of the computer, sitting in my swivel chair, and as soon as we start Zooming Gus is on the floor, wedging his head in between my legs, the signal of his distress. I scoop him up—he only weighs 13 pounds—and place him on my lap, the place he’s comfortable and secure. I don’t know what it is about Zoom that disturbs him. Technology, I suppose, is as disruptive to our animal friends as it is to us members of the human tribe. The surprise is that, in four months, he hasn’t grown used to it.

But in those same months, my shelter-in-place life has achieved a certain regularity. With the gym closed, I need some way to burn calories and stretch my muscles, so I take a long walk every day—well, almost every day; it’s important to rest the body too. I live in the center of Oakland, and there being four directions to strike out in, I’ve explored most of them, out to about 3 miles (making for a nice 6-mile round trip). I walked once to the West, towards the Bay. Surprisingly, in my 33 years here, I’d never been out that way, along West Grand Avenue. I wasn’t missing much: block after block of now-emptied industrial buildings, until you finally reach the Freeway, beyond which is the old Army Base and San Francisco Bay. There, along the Frontage Road, for miles is nothing but a vast, ugly tent compound. The streets are heaped with garbage piled two feet high. It’s dreadful that Oakland has let things get that bad. I won’t walk west again.

Southbound my walk takes me through downtown Oakland—now largely plywooded up from the riots—thence to Chinatown and, ultimately, Jack London Square. This is a good, long walk. The days are warm now, but the Square, on the estuary, is reliably cooled with breezes, and I like to stop by my new favorite dumpling shop in Chinatown, Ming. Their chiu chan (pork and shrimp with peanuts), or the pork and shrimp dumplings (larger, doughier) and Shanghai dumplings are irresistable. These days, everything is “to go,” so I carry my little bag to Jack London Square, where, in the restaurant district (Bel Campo and Farmhouse are the best), they have outdoor tables that are pretty much unused these days. I’ll find one in the shade (if it’s hot) or in the sun (if it’s cool), unpack my dumplings, pour a little soy sauce on them, and chopstick through, enjoying being near the water (always refreshing to me) and glad for the (relative) quietness.

The walk north takes me through Oakland’s up-and-coming Temescal District towards the Berkeley or Emeryville border. I wouldn’t mind living there: an exciting neighborhood of restaurants and cafes, bars, coffee shops and little shops. I might stop at a little Vietnamese place on Telegraph Avenue to get fish cakes to go. Then, I loop over to Broadway for the southbound route, cutting along Piedmont Avenue on my way home. So sad to see all these places shuttered, or just doing curbside activity. I wonder how many of these bookstores, boutiques, bars, cafés and coffee shops will go out of business.

The one direction I haven’t walked so far is to the east, so I might do that today. It’s hilly, and mainly residential: not much to do or see, but then, there are far fewer people around, so the risk of infection is less. My main walk, the one I do most often, is a simple, 3.2-mile loop around Lake Merritt, which is “the crown jewel of Oakland,” a beautiful park with the namesake lake at its heart. But so crowded has the park been the last few months that I find myself having to dodge people who aren’t wearing their masks.

This topic, or controversy, over masks has reached a fever pitch here, and nowhere is it more apparent than on the nextdoor.com social media site. Oh, you wouldn’t believe the arguments! People get really upset over everything these days. You could post “Isn’t it a beautiful day today?” and before you know it, there’d be 50 comments, half of them assaulting you, with the commenters feuding with other commenters: more heat than light. It’s dreadful, and is the main reason why I’m avoiding getting into things on nextdoor, Facebook, Twitter.

Happy Fourth of July!


Dear Republicans, Science is Real

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I had double cataract surgery last week. Needless to say, I was scared going into the procedure. People crawling around my eyeballs, scraping and cutting! Wow.  

But the procedure was miraculous. No pain during or afterwards. And now, for the first time in my life since I was seven, I have long distance vision that’s near perfect. I can look out my window and see the flowers on trees half a block away, people’s faces on the sidewalk, the kind of sneakers they’re wearing, even the shoelaces in those sneakers. That was unthinkable last week; it all would have been a blur.  

In cataract surgery they remove the old eye lens, which has become occluded with a film that makes everything gauzy, and replace it with a new lens that comes in a fancy box that looks like it could be sold at Wal-Mart. They not only get rid of the gauzy cataract, they replace the old, near-sighted lens with a brand-new one. Although I can now see perfectly at distance, I still need reading glasses, but what an improvement over the old situation.

What a miracle modern science is! Throughout human history people with cataracts had to go blind. No longer! Then there was the time, in the 1990s, when I had intense pain in the side of my left knee, the result no doubt of heavy-duty downhill running in San Francisco. Again, throughout history, people would have had to deal with the pain, and their mobility would have been limited. But because of the modern miracle of arthroscopic surgery, the Kaiser doctors were able to operate on me, and within weeks, I was back to full running capacity. In fact, I took up the study of karate, developed a lethal kick, and got my black belt.  

I respect modern science. It saves lives and restores to people their abilities. That is so wonderful. And yet, here we are in 2020, and there is a segment of the American people—mostly Christian Republican Trump supporters—who hate science. They question it all the time, whether it’s concerning global warming, the truth of evolution, or the coronavirus pandemic, which they insist is a Democrat hoax.

Why do Republicans hate science so much? It’s because so many Republicans are evangelical Christians. Now, you have to realize that these peoples’ main source of information is not science, but their Bible. And the Bible, which was first compiled by multiple authors between 3,000 and 1,500 years ago but was subsequently rewritten, translated, retranslated and rewritten again multiple times, is completely illiterate about science. The Bible is, in fact, the quintessential definition of superstition, defined as excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings.  

What does “excessively credulous” mean? Children believe in superstitions like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Adults know that these “beings” do not exist. Similarly, Bible believers believe in superstitions like a personal God in the sky (usually an old white guy with a long white beard), while “adults” know that no such being exists. Or—if they’re unwilling to go so far as non-belief—then at least they know that God may exist, but there’s no proof she does; and, at any rate, science—the explanation for the realities of the world—does not depend on the existence of God to justify itself, but is the ongoing effort to understand the physical realities that governs existence.  

Individual scientists, obviously, may or may not believe in God. Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, was a Christian. Even Albert Einstein believed in Der Alte, “The Old One,” although he never defined just what he meant. But all scientists, regardless of their personal beliefs, believe in a science that seeks to describe the underlying physical properties of the world through comprehensible, provable physical mechanisms—not the personal actions of “supernatural beings.”  

This is where Christian Republicans get so confused. They want to believe in their Bible; indeed, the ultimate motive force of their lives is the Bible; to disbelieve it, or any part of it, would be tantamount to having their mental foundation stone completely undone. But that Bible is entirely inconsistent with science. If humans only adhered to the Bible as the fount of all knowledge, there would be no cataract surgery, no arthroscopic surgery on damaged knees. There would be no automobiles, no anesthesia, no plumbing—well, just about everything that has lifted humankind above the level of the apes would never have been discovered or invented. Of course, when Christian Republicans get cataracts or tear the meniscus in their knee, they never hesitate to run to their doctors to get surgery. They turn, in other words, to science, to heal what is broken. On the other hand, when those same scientists, in different areas of science such as climatology, tell Republicans that the climate is radically changing due to man-made fossil fuel emissions, those Republicans profess horror and disbelief. “God promised mankind he would never again destroy the Earth!” they cry, citing Genesis 9:13-16.  

That Christian Republicans do not see the hypocrisy and absurdity of their conflicted beliefs is obvious. Fortunately, most of us do, which is why we view Christian Republicans with such skepticism. We do not want superstitious, ignorant people—the kind of people who first denied the existence of coronavirus and, now, deny its epidemiological destructiveness—running our world. Sadly, in America, they do, for a simple reason: more of them showed up to vote in 2016 than the rest of us, by a very slender majority, but just enough to turn Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan red. That was a tragedy for America, but it also was a stain on rationality in America, which the people who voted for Trump, or who didn’t vote at all, will never live down.  

This post started out as a message for Republicans who don’t believe in science, but nothing I can say will change their minds. They’re stuck in their atavistic ignorance; they neither desire a truthful conversation nor are they capable of being convinced by fact. All we can do—the rest of us who do not have an “excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings”– is to vote this November. That’s exactly what President Obama tweeted last week, that single, one-word admonition: Vote.          

Trump: J’accuse!

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The economic and mortality consequences of COVID-19 are entirely Trump’s fault.

He didn’t create the virus. But we now know he was repeatedly warned throughout January and February that it was coming and would take a devastating toll on America. Yet he did nothing. Not only that, he actually downplayed the seriousness of the situation by promising us that the case load would soon “fall to zero.”

That was in February, when the U.S. case load was in the hundreds. Today, it has topped 1.3 million, and continues to climb. Had Trump taken action sooner, much of this would have been avoided. We know that by the example of California, and particularly the six Bay Area counties that issued shelter-in-place orders before anyone else in the country. California, by far the nation’s most populous state, has experienced far fewer cases—only 60,000–than even much smaller states, like Massachusetts (74,000 cases). Meanwhile, the Bay Area, with a population about the same as New York City, has had a death rate less than 3% that of the Big Apple (Bay Area fewer than 400, NYC more than 14,000).

This is stark proof that shelter-in-place and face masks work: The Bay Area beat New York for quarantine by a week or so—plenty of time for the virus to spread exponentially. Had Trump listened to his healthcare officials and actually led the nation in response, the pandemic’s American profile would look more like California’s, instead of being the worst in the world.

Trump will, of course, try to wriggle out of this. His usual method, when confronted with his own failures, is, first, to deny the facts and accuse his critics of lying and spreading fake news. When that doesn’t work, he finds someone else to blame. In the case of COVID-19, it has been the Obama administration, or the Chinese government, or U.S. Governors who are Democrats, or local healthcare officials or, by implication, the victims themselves. But the American public isn’t getting fooled. People are swamped with news, but one thing they’ll remember, going into Election Day, is that Trump denied the problem of coronavirus and did his best to undermine efforts to combat it. He is literally guilty of the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. That will not only cost him re-election, but will ensure his place at the top of the list of the Worst Presidents Ever. Quite a shameful legacy for his descendants to deal with.


Reading through shelter-in-place

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t long to write. At the age of four, I’d sit at my mother’s vanity table with some good books from her library—leather-bound works of Balzac or Shakespeare—and ruin their flyleafs with a pencil, making repeated curlicuing loops, as I pretended to write cursively. I must have known in my mind what the words were, although at this point, that memory is gone. But my mother certainly gave me a role model for reading. Night after night, when dinner was done and the dishes washed and dried, she’d retire to the living room, to “her” chair, a green velvet overstuffed monstrosity of the kind even then called Haut Bronx, and read the rest of the night away.

Her books were fictional mysteries and romances, so unlike my own preference for history, science and memoir. My sister, who hated my mother, criticized Gertrude’s reading habits as escapism: from an unhappy marriage, from a limited life cooped up in a drab apartment, from the resentment of her children. (I did not resent her, but my sister did, and often projected her own mental state onto others.) Maybe that is why Gertrude read, but then, books are “portable magic,” in Stephen King’s words, and Gertrude was not the first to transport herself to other places through a good book.

I myself learned to read at a very early age, and once my teachers taught me how to write, I was off to the races: poetry, mainly. By eight I’d been exposed to Amy Dickinson, Whitman, e.e. cummings and the obligatory Poe. None of my work survives from that ancient time, but I do remember a ditty composed to a goldfish that swam, limitedly, in a bowl on our kitchen counter. The fish clearly did not realize it was confined to a prison. Yet so was I (as are we all), and that was the poem’s point. It was a nice juvenile effort to place myself in the consciousness of another being, the sine qua non of good writing.

I generally read three books at a time, one in my bedroom, one in the john and one at table. My bedroom book now is Gore Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest, a little—well, a lot name-droppy (Tennessee Williams and Harry Truman on page 2, Jack Kennedy and Susan Sarandon on page 3). But few other books make me burst out laughing. The bathroom book is William D. Hassett’s (he was a sort of personal aide to the second Roosevelt) Off the Record with F.D.R., 1942-1945, a fascinating, gossipy if discrete account of Roosevelt’s private wartime hours, chiefly at Hyde Park. Almost all of his visitors, to hear Hassett tell it, were deposed or exiled European royalty, especially Crown Princess Martha of Norway. In Palimpsest Vidal implies a romantic relationship between Martha and F.D.R., although to be fair, Vidal loved that kind of insinuating tattle, and Hassett’s repeated description of Martha as always arriving with her children and royal entourage, with Eleanor fussing over them, would suggest no extra-marital intimacy. But who knows? In those days, aristocracy had its arrangements, and while reporters were just as snoopy as they are today, they were reliably reticent to write about the private lives of politicians. Besides, wartime censorship laws, of a kind that would be deemed unconstitutional today, prohibited journalists from publishing what F.D.R. aides like Hassett told them not to; and Hassett, if he knew his boss was fooling around with Martha (and if F.D.R. was, Hassett knew), certainly would have quashed it.

My dining table book is Emile Peynaud’s the Taste of Wine. All three are re-reads. Any book worth reading once is worth reading again. But also, in my dotage I find myself liking the comfortably familiar, which is why I still like, say, Magical Mystery Tour (so underrated a Beatles album). Incidentally, the American release of MMT does not contain two of the greatest Beatles songs ever, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, while the British release does. I remain dumbfounded how impactful The Beatles remain after all these decades. Beethoven, Bach…and The Beatles? I wouldn’t be surprised if musicologists of the future mention them non-ironically in the same breath, although I’d be surprised if I were still here to read it.

My book collection is not large, maybe a thousand volumes. I’ve slowly been getting rid of the ones I no longer care about. We have, in my neighborhood, a metal box, about 2’ x 2’, in which people drop off reading materials for their neighbors, a sort of lending library co-op. But with shelter-in-place, it hasn’t seen much activity lately, as people are rightfully concerned with riffling through stuff that strangers have touched. I wish there were some way to ensure that my best books—the wine collection and my World War II volumes—remain intact after my demise, and end up with people who will love them as much as I have. But then, I have to remind myself that once I’m gone, all my worldly cares will disappear. Will it really matter who gets my first edition of Notes on a Cellar-Book?

Current fear: my eyes are going. Yes, the ophthalmologist at Kaiser tells me I have cataracts, a fellow traveler to old age’s other insults. The right eye cannot read anymore; the left isn’t far behind. This is alarming for someone who loves reading and whose reading, under shelter-in-place, decidedly is more escapist these days, when there’s little else to do. The problem is that Kaiser has ended all elective surgery, and so the ophthalmologist tells me I might not be able to be treated until late summer, by which time my reading vision will be gone. I have complained mightily to Kaiser’s customer service people or, as they call themselves in bureaucratese newspeak, “Expedited Review Operations.” Cataract surgery may be elective to Kaiser, but blindness is not elective to me. The squeaky wheel might be working; now they tell me they may be able to arrange something. We’ll see, but I read an article that the surge in coronavirus cases that necessitated a halt to routine surgery will likely result in a second surge of elective surgeries this summer, which will come just in time for an expected third surge, of COVID-19 cases, this Fall. Surge gridlock! As Roseann Rosannadanna said, it’s always something.

At any rate, my heart goes out to my Governor, Gavin Newsom, who is caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea, or is it a rock and a hard place? Does he wait to re-open until the epidemiologists say it’s safe, or does he kowtow to growing public pressure to get back to normal? He’s a politician, after all, and wants to be re-elected; the last thing he needs is for growing numbers of voters, especially younger ones, to turn on him for preventing them from playing volleyball at Laguna Beach and drinking mimosas or whatever young people drink these days at the local pub. The tension is palpable, the issue authentically complicated. I want California to re-open as much as anyone. But I wish the re-open demonstrators would stick to that one issue, instead of parading around in MAGA hats and Trump2020 shirts. If they’re for him, then I’m against them.


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