The Life of Johnston

The Audience

15 November 2016

Dear Max,

The Saturday before the election, Karol and I were talking with someone we work with and like and admire. We’re lawyers, and she’s an investigator. The election came up, and our friend said, “But how can I vote for Hillary? Doesn’t she have people killed?”

Karol and I asked why she thought that. She laughed at herself—she did recognize the absurdity—and said one of her Facebook friends posted something about Hillary having people killed, and she didn’t want to seem like she didn’t know what was going on, so she just said nothing.

She didn’t tell us this, but I’ll bet you a million dollars she clicked Like, because that’s what you do, and, having Liked it, she started to believe it. Or at least not to disbelieve it. She entered into a state of mind where the presence of something swimming around in your head becomes dispositive.

This is an intelligent, lovable woman working in an evidence-based profession.


It’s Sunday, and I’ve been at work all day, feeling a little sorry for myself, but I also secretly like being alone in this huge empty building. A few hours ago I gave myself a lunch break and rode my bike to the park. It was a beautiful day: blue sky, clear warm air, fall color all over the place, gaudy as hell.

I was reading Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, and I came across an essay that’s partly about Silvio Berlusconi and how he rode the TV that he controlled to ultimate power, reducing the citizenry to an audience. And I came across something that stated so perfectly what I’ve been trying to say all week (at least to myself) about Trump—that as an individual he’s unimportant, but what he showed us how to do is horribly important.

She says: “…the man will disappear…one way or another the political struggle will remove him from the scene, but his ascent as supreme leader within democratic institutions, the construction of his figure as a democratically elected economic-political-television duce, will remain a perfectible, repeatable model.” (Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia, from the essay Suspension of Disbelief)

It reminds me of a remark my big sister made after the election: “Let’s make the reality TV screen bigger than ever. Let’s make it as big as the whole country.”


I’m so weary of opinions—my own and everybody else’s. My mind feels about as receptive and responsive as a hard little marble rattling around in a pinball machine. But I have just one more.

Teresa and Michele are going to Washington in January to protest at the inauguration. And I’ve heard the criticism that that’s just what Trump threatened to do, reject the results of the democratic process just because he lost.

Wrong. Protesting at the inauguration is as American as you can get. Trump won under the system that we have. He has to be President, and we have to endure it. But we don’t have to endure it silently.


Veteran’s Day 2016

Dear Max,

I’ve been writing about this horror show mostly in terms of, what will this do to the morale of girls? How do we explain this to the children?

Fuck the children. They’re fine. How do we explain this to ourselves? (It’s easy to get sanctimonious about kids. But they’re just people, only worse.)

I talked and emailed briefly about the election with two Trump voters, just to establish human contact. They’re both white women that I like—one is my paralegal and the other is one of my grandma’s pals. You can’t just divorce half the country, right? But it felt false. When they go low, you go fake. But it can’t be right to say that someone casting a ballot is going low. Voting is never going low, is it?

The falseness and brevity of those conversations felt a little bit like something that happened last Saturday, back when we only knew half the bad news. (We already knew that a very large proportion of the population was mild-to-severely racist, but we still thought that wasn’t enough to win an election.)

Anyway, last Saturday Enzo and I went to a fish pond on private land. You pay to fish there, and the old man who took our money told us, friendly as pie, about a troop of boy scouts who were planning to come to the pond. He explained how the boy scouts couldn’t go fishing at the river because of all those people who hang around down there. And I just smiled and gave him the money, and I didn’t even feel shitty and false about it until a few minutes later when I understood what he was saying.

Why is it so hard to say, “Those people? What people?” It’s that old habit of pleasing. I could have at least told him that Enzo and I have been fishing at the river almost every weekend this fall, with mostly black and brown people because we’re usually on the Rancho Cordova side, not the Fair Oaks side, and we didn’t find ourselves polluted by it. (Rivers separate neighborhoods by class, income and race even more effectively than freeways do.) But I never think of these things until it’s too late.


I want to say something that requires a whole different feeling. It can’t be said in the same breath as what came before. Today is Veteran’s Day. And Captain Humayun Khan is dead. That was their boy.

How dare we? How could we?


9 November 2016

Dear Max,

This morning Enzo’s first words in the dark were, “Did Hillary win?”

I went into his bedroom and got under the covers. “No. She didn’t win. But it’s going to be all right.”

“Trump won? That is amazing.” We snuggled together.

“Yes, it is amazing.”

We lay there quietly for a while. Then he said, “Well, I said I was going to say it, and I’ll say it. Fuck.”

(On Monday Enzo asked Teresa, “If Trump wins, can I say the F-word?” And she said, “If Trump wins, we’ll all say the F-word.”)

“Fuck,” I said.

“I don’t understand how we can be the greatest military power in the world if over half the people in our country are so stupid.”

“They’re not stupid. They’re just wrong about this.”

Teresa came in, sleepy from bed, singing, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun.” Then she said, “Don’t worry, B. We’ve had terrible presidents before. We’ve all just gotten used to having Obama, and we forgot what it’s like.”

“But how can there be so many bad people in America?”

“They’re not bad people,” she said, “Just because people disagree with you doesn’t mean they’re bad.”

“But what about the wall?”

“He’s not going to build a wall. That was just a lot of talk to get people’s attention.”

Enzo’s playing Mine Craft now. Teresa took Colin for a walk. Pete and I are in the living room in the dark with a fire in the fireplace.

I hope, oh I hope, that Trump can just be a normal terrible President. But we haven’t been given much reason to hope that.


I’m at work but I’m on strike. (I’ll start working when the male attorneys get here, and I haven’t seen one yet.)

I called Beth, Danyelle, and Karen—my friends with daughters. Beth said that Lena is scared. Beth sent her off to school today for a field trip to the Hall of Justice—the most ironic field trip in history—and Lena was scared. Lena is what Donald Trump would call an anchor baby—born in the USA to an undocumented parent. Lena wouldn’t be a citizen if Trump had his way. And her straight arrow, tax-paying dad will probably get hunted down and deported.

Danyelle said that a few weeks ago, because of the crotch-grabber revelations, she talked to her daughter about sexual assault: she wanted to tell Marjane that if someone touches her without permission, she should tell them to go to hell. But she realized she couldn’t say that. Instead she told her that if someone touches her without permission, she should do whatever she has to do to make sure she’s safe. She had to tell her the truth—that standing up for herself might be dangerous. And the same for her son. Danyelle has had to tell him: If the cops mess with you because you’re black, you do what they say. Put your hands in the air and lie down on the ground. Don’t say, This is who I am. Just lie down. And it’s so demeaning. Teresa and I will never have to say those things to Enzo.

I felt a sort of glow of fellowship, talking to my pals, my dears. I felt miserable but all alive. We comforted each other.

(later, lunchtime)

This morning Teresa called a few times to check on me. She could tell I was in an unusual state of mind because I sent an email to Enzo’s entire class, calling out the dads for letting the women do all the work. So she called to see how I was, and I paced around my office telling her my plan never to be likable again. Fuck likable as the key criterion for female success. Isn’t that why Hillary lost? Because a man can be unlikable and succeed, it’s even an advantage. But a woman must find a way to be liked.)

Earlier, when I was riding my bike to work, plotting my future as a pissed-off feminist, I thought about Teresa. She never truckles. She doesn’t smile and accommodate and make sure everyone’s comfortable. I want to be like that. I’m going to surround myself with a forcefield of unused rage. I’m done pleasing.

Their World

This morning at our neighborhood polling place I saw a woman with her two elementary-school-age daughters. She took their picture in front of one of the Vote Here signs. It was going to be a good day for girls, a historic day.

What is that mom going to say to her daughters tomorrow morning? What will Hillary’s loss look like to them? I hope it just looks like old people who will be dead soon, so it doesn’t much matter. I hope girls don’t care, or even notice.

But I’ll tell you what it looks like to me. You can be the smartest girl in the class, the smartest kid, and the hardest worker, and be that your whole life, and you’ll still lose to a man. You do the work. They get the power. It’s their world. (You might get a little money and power if you’re likable enough.)

And what about my grandma, who might not live to see a woman president? The girls will get there. But what about the old ladies?

I don’t think Hillary lost because she’s a woman. It’s many thousand times more complicated than that. I’m just thinking about what the world looks like to girls, what their possibilities are.


I see haven’t even mentioned the really bad part of all this. We just elected an avowed racist as our president. And I feel shame.







Original Sin

I have a soft spot for plagiarists. I’m not talking about frat boys getting term papers off the internet. That’s cheating and knowing that you’re cheating. But there’s something strange and touching about plagiarism like Melania Trump’s—or Joe Biden’s so many years ago. How could they have thought they’d get away with it? They must have been convinced by some temporary trick of the brain that they were speaking their own words.

I can imagine Melania dutifully studying the speeches of other nominees’ wives and then coming up with her own version, and imitation somehow crossing over into outright quotation. Part of the problem must be that all political speech is full of canned phrases. Your truth-o-meter has to be turned way down low to write any workmanlike set-piece political speech. And from that state of mind, or absence of mind, it’s an easy step to outright word-for-word parroting.

And it’s not like Michelle Obama’s words were so original. Work hard; respect others. That’s been said before. Michelle put it across a lot better. And of course it was foolish of Melania to copy the exact phrases. Your word is your bond. Oh dear. Michelle must really have made an impression on her.

But I’m trying to get to a story that my friend Kelly told me. When she was in high school, a song came to her in a dream: words, tune, harmonies, it was all there, perfect. She woke up and wrote it down in a frenzy of inspiration. Then she went to the piano to play it, and it was Elton John’s Someone Saved My Life Tonight, note for note.

The difference between Kelly and a plagiarist is that she recognized the song when she heard it, so she never passed it off as her own. But for long, convincing minutes she believed she’d been inspired. The sensation was delicious.

Reading this over, I see that my explanations are unsatisfying. Maybe Melania knew exactly what she was doing and just expected to get away with it. Either way, I feel sorry for her. Her position seems false from beginning to end.

Julian: An Interview by Melissa Ureña

This is the last piece in my mini-series of other people’s writing about immigration. It’s by Melissa Ureña, a student of mine at UCSB sixteen years ago. The assignment was: interview someone and edit the interview into a narrative. She interviewed her father. I guess I should add that this piece was published in Spectrum in 2001.


Why did I come here? I wanted to make some money so I could go back to Mexico and build a home. You know, marry somebody someday, have a place to live, some money to spend. And I was young, twenty-one, tired of seeing the same town, the same people, going to the same places. It was 1969. Time for some adventure. Time to go north.

I went to San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico. I was told that I could find family there to help me get here. All I found was a job that put buckets of cement on my head. I had to carry them upstairs, a hard and tiring thing to have to do. I couldn’t afford to go out because I was saving money to get to the United States. I worked and I killed time at a pool hall where I never played pool. Hope grows dim. I didn’t see any hope of coming here through there so I went back to Manzanillo.

A cousin named Nico called me one day, “Hey, I heard you tried to go to the States but didn’t have much luck.” “Yeah, I couldn’t find anyone,” I said. “Well, I’m going there. I know the way. I go back and forth all the time. If you want, let’s go.” It was nighttime when we jumped the border. There was a rusty green Valliant waiting for us on the other side that Nico had put there. We jumped over the fence, ran into the car and were off. We swam across the American Canal, holding our clothes in a plastic bag over our heads. We swam with one arm and held our clothes with the other. Both grew sore.

We got a job in Newcastle picking pears, prunes and peaches. The locals said the place was safe. When you got to a new place you always asked if it was safe. Word was that immigration never went there, so we stayed and we worked. We were cooking beans after work one day without shirts or shoes, just our jeans, all of us at ease except Nico. “I have a feeling,” he said. “Maybe we should leave.” “You heard the people. It’s safe. Don’t worry.” He left, later he told me that he had gone to the fields to pray. The door of our house was facing West toward the setting sun. Against its escaping light we saw silhouettes. We couldn’t make out the details of the figures, but we knew they weren’t our people because we saw belts and we saw guns.

Nico had returned by then and we tried to run away but there was nowhere to go. There was a single hill ahead and flat ground after. We would have been running in the open air. There was a river behind our house that was mostly mud. There were bushes around it and I hid in one of them. My feet were bare. I was feeling the gravel, rocks and dry sticks on my soles when I ran. The bottoms of my feet got so irritated that I didn’t feel the broken bottle that made a gash about this big on the side of my foot. I still have the scar. It is thirty years later.

Our house had a single door. When we ran out of it, the police officers were already on the path that led to it. They saw where we went. One of them stood over the bush I was in, pointing his finger and yelling at me to come out. At first I didn’t come out, but he got angry and there was nowhere to go. When I stepped out, he yanked me and handcuffed me. “¿Donde están los otros?” he asked. They knew two or three phrases in Spanish. “Where are the others?” was one of them. I said there were no others. “¡Dos Mas! ¡Dos Mas!” he yelled while shaking two fingers in front of my face. I saw my cousin Nico some feet ahead. I stared at him, not being able to talk, but trying to tell him to get away. I pointed toward the free air with my eyes and head. He just turned his back to show me his hands. They were cuffed. They had caught him too.

The ground behind me became red like a royal carpet as they walked us away. One of the cops told me I was bleeding. It wasn’t till then that I looked at my foot and saw a cut on its side, generously spilling out the redness of the carpet I left behind. We were up to our knees in mud and still without shirts or shoes, so they took us back home to change. We knew we were going to need extra clothing where we were going. We put on two shirts, two pairs of jeans, and our one pair of tennis shoes. I bandaged the cut as best I could, but when I walked I felt it bleed and I knew the bandage wasn’t enough.

The officers were young, about twenty years old, happy because they had just caught themselves two Mexicans. We heard them behind us singing La Cucaracha through obnoxious laughter. We stopped at a fruit stand along the road. They bought us fruit drinks and told us to drink up because they would be our last. They weren’t our last.

When we arrived at Lincoln City Hall, they handcuffed one of our hands to the metal screen that separates them from the backseat and went inside. Nico turned to me and said, “I have a feeling we can get out of this.” “What? You’re crazy. How? You know that once you’re in the car, there is no getting out.” “Well, I don’t know. I have a feeling. Do you have your handkerchiefs with you?” I used to carry two handkerchiefs with me then. When you’re working your nose gets runny and you need them. I gave him one. He tightened it into the form of a rope and wrapped it around the stump where the handle for the window used to be. They took those off of the doors. All that was left was a short piece of metal with teeth around it. Nico wrapped the handkerchief around the teeth and began to turn it. The window went down. “There! You see!” “Yes, but what about the handcuffs?” “I don’t know, but at least we know that the window goes down.” The cops appeared in the rearview mirror. They were coming back. I quickly put the handkerchief away and we did our best not to look excited. We sat pretending nothing had changed since they left.

We made one a last stop at Marysville to pick up another guy. It was Sacramento from there, then jail, then deportation. The cops parked the car in front of a house. One of them went inside and the other sat on the windshield facing away from us. He turned around routinely to eyeball us. The handcuffs were off by then. Our hands were free. Nico said hurriedly, “Give me the handkerchief. This is it, our chance.” He rolled the window down and stuck his arm out to open the door from the outside. He left it open, but close enough to the car that it appeared closed at a glance. “Come on! Let’s go!” he said. I was trembling. I can’t tell you if it was fear, excitement, or fever. The cut had made feverish by then. Nico yelled, “Let’s go! This is it. From here it’s Sacramento and then jail. There won’t be another way out. We have to go NOW!” “No, my foot hurts. I can’t run. Leave. You leave. I’ll stay.” “If I go and you stay, they’ll hurt you. They’re animals. I am not leaving if you don’t come.” I saw the cop sitting so close to us and I saw Nico so excited, so ready to go, but I felt my foot, it was aching, I felt my state of mind, it was aching too. “I can’t.” Time was running out and we were both very tense. Nico was pleading with me. “It’s now or never. We have to go.” I was trembling but I knew what I had to do. We waited until the cop eyeballed us one last time. As soon as his face disappeared, we jumped out of the car.

We pushed the door back close to the car, being careful not to make any noise. We squatted real close to the ground, and using the parked cars as cover, we walked away. When we were no longer in his line of sight, we sprang to our feet and ran. I swear I felt them behind us. I ran with my body arched forward because I felt their hands reaching for me, their fingers almost touching me. I forgot about my fever. The adrenaline cured my cut. We came across eucalyptus trees. We tried to climb them to hide between the branches, but no matter how hard we tried we couldn’t. We kept sliding off. They were too smooth and we were too anxious.

“Look,” I said, “We can’t make the same mistake we made last time. We can’t hide, we have to run. We’ll run until we fall, until we can’t run anymore.” So we began to run. We ran from nine at night until one the next morning. We walked the rest of the dark way. There was an ocean of blood in my shoe. Every time my foot crashed on the ground, I felt warm squirts of it between my toes. We came upon a river that we couldn’t cross. We had been running for too long, we were hot, sweaty, and heaving. The cold water would have killed us. If we had gotten a cramp, that would have been it for us. We walked along its side for a while. My mind began to trick me. “Shh, listen,” I said, straining my ear. “Do you hear dogs?” I swear I heard hounds barking. They were after us. I knew they were coming. The river was winding back to Marysville. We couldn’t keep following it. “We’re gonna have to swim,” I said. The moon was full above us. We squatted to catch its light against the tide. It wasn’t as long as the first part we saw, so we jumped in and swam across.

When we came out we saw long rows of trees. By the time we reached them, we were both very thirsty. We climbed the fence around the trees and were in farming lands. Big wooden crates slouched between the trees. I made one of them my bed while Nico looked for water. The moist ground dense with vegetation was mosquito heaven. A thick blanket of them buzzed around my head, intensifying the exhaustion vertigo I was in. When we were running in the dark, I fell headfirst into a piece of barbed wire and cut my head. It was bleeding too. I was a feast for the critters. Nico took off his shirt and put it over my face to keep them away. I don’t remember anything from then on.

It was about five in the morning when I regained consciousness. Nico’s face was close to me, shaking me, telling me to wake up. He had found water. It was dark, murky, in puddles on the ground because someone over-watered the grass. That is what we drank. The sky wasn’t dark anymore. The sun was spreading its light, giving form to things. We saw men coming out, getting ready to work the fields. We approached a white fellow who was in a tractor. Nico and I knew very little English. He said one word and I said the other, but we managed to get this story across: We were out with some buddies last night and we got very drunk. Our friends got mad at us and left us here. We don’t know where we are but we need a ride to Newcastle. The man said he couldn’t help us because he couldn’t leave work. We should talk to the man standing by the shed.

We did and we gave him the same story, but he couldn’t help either. He offered to call a cab for us. There was a phone next to him in the shed but he went inside to make the phone call. I told Nico, “This doesn’t look right. We’re both dirty, muddy, our hair looks like we just got struck by lightning. They didn’t buy our story. If he was going to call a cab he could have done it with the phone next to him.” We left, disappeared into the trees and out of the farm. We couldn’t afford to take any chances.

Through the greenery we found a highway. “Wait,” I said, “What are we going to do? We can’t keep walking without direction. We have two choices. We can go back to Marysville and take our chances with the police, or we can stand here and hope that someone will give us a ride.” We couldn’t go back. We saw car after car zoom by for hours. Finally one stopped on the road ahead and reversed. They were two Latino men. “Hey,” they said, “What is going on?” We gave them the story and asked them for a ride to Newcastle where we worked for a Japanese man. They were hesitant. The driver said he was looking for work for his friend. We offered them twenty dollars and a job at Newcastle. They accepted and we left.

We entered the nerve-wracking terrain of Marysville. Nico and I slouched into our seats trying to conceal ourselves from enemy eyes that could be lurking outside. The car began to circle the area, to slow down. It was about nine in the morning and the guys were getting hungry. They wanted to stop and eat. “We’re really in a hurry to get to where we’re going,” we said. “Well, we’re hungry,” they said. “Look, I will give you four dollars right now. I’ll fix you something to eat when we get to Newcastle, and we’ll get your friend a job, but we have to leave now. We can’t stop.” After glances amongst each other and some time of careful consideration, the guys put the car on the road out of Marysville. Nico and I wiped the sweat off of our foreheads.

When we arrived at Newcastle our boss didn’t want to give us our jobs back. He thought that the law had let us go in return for other immigrants. He didn’t want to lose his workers. The guys that picked us up explained how they had found us, but it was hard to convince him that we had gotten away. We were caught at six in the afternoon and we were back by ten the next morning. No one ever comes back that quickly. No one could believe it. After hearing how the guys had found us, he gave us all jobs. He sent Nico and me to his brother’s farm in case immigration went back. Word spread that we had gotten away from la migra. On Saturday everyone came to our place with thick slabs of meat to grill and six-packs of beer to drink. They all wanted to know how we did it. It was legendary.

After that time we came back and forth a lot and mostly without trouble. The first time I was scared because I had never been here. I didn’t know anything. After that it was fun and games. We were young and we didn’t have families, so we didn’t take it seriously. We laughed at the trouble we got into. Immigration officers were power icons. If we got away from them, our reputation grew, along with our egos.

Despite that, we were always worried. One day some utility people drove by in an official-looking car. They were wearing green suits and belts with tools that we perceived as guns. Four workers were there illegally. We ran. A young white guy named Mark worked there after school. He ran too. We were pumping our knees and elbows trying to get away as fast as we could, when all of a sudden we see him running in front of us. He ran faster than all of us put together. We jumped a barbed wire fence. Once on the other side, we stopped and looked around with heaving chests. “Hey, Mark, why are you running?” “Well, why are you running?” “We saw immigration.” “No, that was the utility man. I was just running because I saw you guys running.” We fell to the ground with tears in our eyes, laughing so hard that our bellies began to ache. Mark didn’t think it was funny. He told us not to laugh, but we couldn’t help it. I have not forgotten his name to this day.

Work in the fields wasn’t always funny. It was hard. I remember picking grapes because they were the hardest. The vines were at waist level. We were on our knees the whole time. They pay you for the amount of grapes you pick. We woke up at four in the morning and gave it our all until about one in the afternoon when it got too hot to work. Actually, at twelve it was already too hot to work. The sun really began to beat down on us, to hit us with its inferno. Your back hurts, it is suffocating, you see miles of fields in front of you. It makes you delirious. When you pulled the bundles of grapes some of them popped and spilled their juice on your face. It dries into syrup. When you shake the vines the dirt and dust falls on your face and is glued there by the syrup. When it’s all over, you can take your nail and scrape layer after layer of the day’s work from your face. You get thirsty but you don’t want to go get a drink of water. It is too far. The lost time will cost you at the end of the week. You take a handful of grapes and squeeze their drilling sweetness into your mouth. I got so tired of it that I couldn’t eat grapes for a long time after.

Behind the harsh curtain of the fields, there was beauty and untouchable peace. I had no worries or frustrations about bills, violence, traffic jams. What I did have were Sundays, my days off, when I could wake up late to watch the fruit in bloom. Beds of colors stretched out as far as my eyes could see. It was hypnotizing. February and April mornings were my favorite. Their coldness was the best excuse to prepare a hot cup of coffee and light a cigarette to smoke while watching the bees and smelling the flowers.


Suicide and Salami

June 16-25

Dear Max,

I’ve stopped writing because I’m on a Russian/Soviet reading kick: Voices From Chernobyl and Second Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich. And now Gulag by Anne Applebaum. It’s terrific fun. I’ve never been able to understand why people get depressed by books about terrible things. I get depressed by upbeat blogs about animals, gardens and children. Fuck the children. Give me the Gulag.

The Alexievich books are long interviews edited into narrative. And they’re great, astounding, how did she do it? You can tell that she took notes and used a tape-recorder, because the interviewees say things like, “turn off the tape” or “write this part down.” But she doesn’t say how extensively edited the interviews are. My guess is, she did a lot of editing, a lot of selecting, a lot of moving stuff around. Because the interviews have all the naturalness of speech without any of its awkwardness and triviality. And they’re so good.

Also, I shouldn’t say I guess because I went online to find out and read some interviews with Alexievich where she describes her method. She meets with her subjects multiple times and end ups with hundreds of pages of transcripts. From that she distills the narrative that ends up in the book. And she somehow doesn’t mess it up.

An alternative title could be Suicide and Salami because both are mentioned in almost every interview. Of course, that hits the wrong tone. But you do realize after a while that hunger, violence, heroism and despair are big parts of Soviet and now Russian life. And the passionate love affair with alcohol is always there.

And the wars. They’re so present. Almost everyone mentions beating Hitler, even those born long afterward. Many mention that they could have beat the West. They were prepared to do it. A feeling of being at war seems never to have left them.

And then the disappointments of capitalism and democracy—how people read so much more back when there was censorship. A poet could fill a stadium. There’s something touching about that censored, hungry, heroic Soviet life. Of course you’d never want to go back, but infinite choice has its drawbacks.

I told Teresa some of the stories from the book, and it sounded like a catalog of horrors. But it’s not that. It’s a catalog of humanity. And ominous. An empire rising from its knees is dangerous.

The Applebaum book is great too, but it’s more straight history, not the addictive miracle that Alexievich pulls off. It’s scholarly and responsible.

I don’t know why I’m so set on these Russians. I know almost nothing about our own history, especially the less attractive parts. But I’m not really in it to learn. I’m in it for pleasure, and this is what landed in my hands that I don’t want to put down. Teresa and Enzo are about to go to the library, and so in a few minutes it’ll be just me in the hammock with mojitos and Gulag—heaven.

Guest Post: Why I Do Not Dismiss Trump

6 June 2016

Dear Max,

A few posts ago I outed my dad as a possible Trump voter. Here is his reply. It’s too long for the comments.

My daughter Kate posted the following in her blog. “My dad’s argument for Trump goes something like this: he’s winning. The anti-immigrant racism, the woman-hating, the freakish self-regard—it’s all strategy. It’s a pose for getting votes, and it’s working. Trump wouldn’t govern like that. He’s a con man, but he hasn’t conned himself. And in our system of checks and balances, he couldn’t do all the outrageous things he’s promised, even if he wanted to.”

My Comments: The reason that I might vote for Trump is rooted in my libertarian and, more importantly, in my anti-elitist political philosophy. We pride ourselves on our democratic political system. But that’s not what we actually have. Our system is controlled by a tiny political elite with essentially the same set of values regardless of political party. (One commentator hit the nail on the head when he said: “We’re going to end up with a moderate Republican—Hillary.”) I despise this elite—mostly because their touchy-feely liberalism masks their fundamental arrogance.

And I watched with great interest and amusement over the past months the behavior this elite. They were initially dismissive of Trump. Then they tried to push back. But all the while, ordinary folks kept voting for Trump. The elite squirmed and danced around the question of how to respond to the phenomenon of Trump.

In our political system, folks who win elections get to hold office. Our Founding Fathers understood that sometimes the popular vote might elect someone who was not the best. To deal with this eventuality, they set up a system of checks and balances. They anticipated that from time to time the system would put jackasses like Trump into positions of power. They devised a political system that would moderate and limit the damage.

It is now a virtual certainty that Trump will be nominated. In November it will be Trump v Hillary. And it is entirely possible that Trump might become President.

I would like our society to move in the direction of more personal responsibility, less nanny-state socialism and an end to our current state of overseas meddling and perpetual war. For those who share this view, a vote for Trump is not irrational.

—Stewart Johnston




3 June 2016

Dear Max,

I’m continuing my literary series on immigration. It’s fun and way easier than writing anything myself. This is from Resident Alien, Quentin Crisp’s journal about emigrating from London to New York with no money.

Quentin Crisp happens to be legal immigrant. The title Resident Alien refers to his green card. But I make no distinction morally or economically between legal and illegal immigration. I’m in favor of both. In fact, if immigration is good because it brings grit and gumption into our national life, then maybe illegal immigration is better because it’s so much harder. You have to really want it, like Ana in the previous post.

I don’t know how famous Quentin Crisp is or how much explanation is needed here. Surely all my readers have Crispiness well in mind. But you need to know what he looked like for parts of the passage I’m about to quote to make sense: old, obviously gay, wearing a men’s suit, high heals, lots and lots of makeup, long nails and big rings, hair done up in some mysterious way, often a hat. Think Marlene Dietrich but an old white man. (He was eighty-six the year he wrote Resident Alien, and I think that qualifies.)

He writes that he has always been American in his heart. But what I love about him has a lot to do with what I think of as English virtues: the restraint, the wit, the good manners. My idea of Englishness comes from English law and literature. Quentin Crisp’s idea of Americanness comes from the movies. We’re probably both off the mark, but we’re wrong in the right direction.

I have always been American in my heart, ever since my mother took me to the pictures (silent). She did this in a spirit of ostentatious condescension. Films, she said, were for servant girls. Anyone with any taste went to the theatre. When I began to gibber with excitement, she warned me that movies were greatly exaggerated—that America was nothing like it was portrayed on the screen. I suspected that she was wrong and that everyone over here was beautiful and everyone was rich.

Though not everyone is rich, everyone is beautiful. This is due to the addition of a Mediterranean ingredient. For instance, in the district where I live, Spanish is spoken. The shopkeepers speak American to you but they gibber away in their native tongue to one another. Those who are not Spanish are Greek or Italian. That means that their lips are curly, their nostrils are flared, their eyelids are as thick as pastry. When I was only English, I asked an American soldier if he thought there was an English face. Immediately he said Yes. Then I asked if it looked as though there was not enough material to go round. To this he also agreed. The English have flap lips, papery eyelids, prominent jawbones and Adam’s apples. We are an ill-favoured race. I recognize that now that I live here.

A huge man sitting next to me on a bus going up Third Avenue asked me if I lived here permanently. When I said that I did, he remarked, ‘It is the place to be if you are of “a different stripe”.’ There are so many different nationalities, so many different income groups, so many different sexes, that the freaks pass unnoticed. People have always imagined, or pretended to imagine, that I seek to provoke hostile attention. This is rubbish. What I want is to be accepted by other people without beveling down my individuality to please them—because if I do that, all the attention, all the friendship, all the hospitality that I receive is really for somebody else of the same name. I want love on my own terms.

Here I, have it. I was standing on Third Avenue waiting for a bus when a black gentleman walked by. When he noticed me, he said, ‘Well, my! You’ve got it all on today.’ And he was laughing. In London, people stood with their faces six inches from mine and hissed, ‘Who do you think you are?’ What a stupid question. It must have been obvious that I didn’t think I was anybody else. (8-9)

The American people have done so much for me, have restored so fully my self-confidence, that I am constantly twisting and turning in an effort to live up to their expectations of me. Ingrid Bergman said, ‘You must go on the stage knowing they want you to succeed.’ She meant American audiences. In England the people in the stalls sit back in their chairs with folded arms, saying in their stony hearts, ‘We’ve paid a hell of a lot for these seats. We hope you’re going to DO something.’ In Manhattan, the audience is leaning forward eagerly, crying, ‘Tell us!’ You can tell them anything—how to be beautiful, how to be successful, how to be thin, how to be saved. They will listen intently.

As a friend remarked, I decided to come to America at an age when most people decide to go into a nursing home. I wish I could have come here sooner when I had the energy and the optimism to fling myself with more abandonment, more total commitment, into all opportunities for self-promotion that are offered to me, but I couldn’t pay my fare. When I say this people laugh nervously as though it were a joke, but it is the ugly truth. I never earned more than twelve pounds a week in my life in England. There it was enough. My old age was taken care of by Mrs. Snatcher. When the day came when I could no longer see or hear or walk, she would spread her iron wings over me. But I would have been saving up for three years to spend three hours in Manhattan so I waited until I was invited by Mr. Bennett, the darling of the Shubert Theaters, to visit Manhattan.

That is the story of my life: I go where my fare is paid. (15)

I guess I should have mentioned that he was also a performer: small roles in movies, and he did a one man-show where he just talked. Here’s what he looked and sounded like.

Quentin Crisp on David Letterman 1985

Breathe Free

2 June 2016

Dear Max,

A few days ago, I was trying to write about immigration and why I think it’s great. It’s not a subject I’m qualified to write about, but I have some other people’s writing in mind, and I’m going to spend a few days on that.

This first piece is from Bob Blaisdell’s great, nothing-like-it Have They Got Stories To Tell. It’s about Bob teaching in New York City and his students, who come from all over the world. About half the book is the students’ writing. This is from a travel story by Ana. In the story, she’s visiting friends in Japan, working illegally and having many adventures. She’s from Peru. And now she wants to come to the USA:

The day I went to the American Embassy I dressed up with the best dress I had. I would try to make them believe I had money.   I was wearing high heels that felt as if they were choking my feet. I guess because they were new and I wasn’t use to wearing shoes at all but sneakers only for about two years. My heart was pounding like crazy, trying to fill out the little application sheet they had in a not too big room full of people mostly Japanese. I finished filling out the application using my poor knowledge in the English language. Actually I pretty much guessed what those questions meant. It was the first time I had to fill out a visa application. I guess that is why I was so surprised that the application would have questions such as crimes committed in one’s own country or diseases that one might have had. While reading those questions and answering no to all of them, I wondered if there was ever somebody who did actually answer yes to any of those questions; I think not.

There I was on the line, getting ready to be next, when I saw the person who was going to interview me. He was a totally gringo kind of guy. Tall as a basketball player, blond as the corn, and proud as a bottle of Budweiser. As soon as I got to the window, he asked for my passport. I had it in my hands, so I just put it in front of him. However, as soon as he saw that it was Peruvian, he refused to take it. “You have to go back to your country and get your visa there. This is for Japanese people only,” he said, pushing my passport back to my side of the window. I pushed my passport back to his side and told him that I didn’t understand what he was saying and told him that I needed somebody who spoke Spanish to communicate with. The guy was getting very annoyed by my sturdiness, he would push my passport and airplane tickets back to my side in a ruder and ruder manner, telling me, “Youuu haveee tooo gooo backkk tooo yourrr countryyyyy.” As if the higher and longer he vocalized the faster I would understand what he was trying to tell me. Very soon all the people in the room knew what was going on. I didn’t care. I figured that my only chance to get a visa was with somebody who spoke Spanish. “They have to have somebody who speaks Spanish,” I kept on telling myself. After holding the line for about ten minutes, embarrassing myself, and annoying the poor gringo guy for the same amount of time, he took my passport and asked me to wait for somebody who would come to speak in Spanish to me. I waited for over an hour when they finally called my name. I approached the window from where my name was called and saw this guy who right away started talking to me in perfect Spanish. He told me basically the same thing the other guy had told me but in Spanish. While he was talking I guessed he was half Mexican because of the slightly Mexican accent he had. This made me feel more comfortable to talk to him. Actually to lie to him. “Why are you denying me the opportunity to visit your country,” I said. “I just want to stay there for a month or so. If it is because of the money, don’t worry, I have money to go there. Look, my father gave me these tickets because I just got into a very difficult to get into university. Come on, this is my last opportunity to travel around the world, after this I will have to study, study; I won’t have time to travel. Please, can I have it, please.” I kept on telling the guy how rich my family was, how ridiculous it was for me that I would leave my high standard of living in Peru to go to work as labor or god knows what in America. I would keep on talking this way every time he opened his mouth to say, “Yes, but . . .” He kind of kept quiet for a few seconds, then asked me, “How much money do you have to go to America?”

“Over three thousand dollars,” I said, hoping the guy didn’t ask me to pull them out.

“Do you have it in cash or in traveler’s checks?” he asked.

“I have it in cash, but I don’t have the money with me right now, I left it in the place where I am staying,” I said.

“How about you change that cash you have in traveler’s checks, it is always safer to carry traveler’s checks than cash, and come to see me tomorrow, with the traveler’s checks, under your name, of course. That is, if you don’t have a problem changing it.”

“No problem!” I said, trying to figure out how was I going to come up with that kind of money. “But, I might not be here tomorrow because I have some previous plans, but I’ll be here the day after tomorrow or the following day, at the latest. I’ll see you. Thank you very much.” And I left.

I was very disappointed at my interview with both of the immigration officers. I thought that I could fool them. I was wrong. My last chance to get the American visa was to come up with 3,000 dollars that I didn’t have. I would have to ask somebody to lend me the money, after all it was just for a matter of hours. I would get the money, exchange it for traveler’s checks, bring them to the American Embassy, show it to the officer, get my visa, exchange the money back in yenes and return the money from whom I got it in the first place. Now I just needed somebody who would trust me enough to lend me the money. Toshio, who was the most likely person, was in the Philippines, Fanny had credit all around her town, but she never carried money, her husband wouldn’t give it to her. My friend Tomiko didn’t have any money. They were pretty much all the people I knew I could count on, and that could trust me with such a large amount of money.

It was kind of late when I got home that night, but Matsuo was still awake. I made some tea and then he asked, “Do you want to talk about . . .” He didn’t finish, he stood up, held his tea with his left hand close to his body, pointed to the ceiling with his right arm and kept his head still, like looking at something on the wall across from us. I couldn’t help bursting into laughs, he looked so funny, wearing his pajamas, making his impersonation of the Statue of Liberty. A while later, I told Matsuo all that had happened in the American Embassy. Afterwards, I was tempted to ask him to lend me the money, but I didn’t, I didn’t want to embarrass myself asking him for the money. I knew he wouldn’t lend me the money, he hardly knew me. But I was wrong. He himself offered to lend me the money the very next day. He said I would lose at least 100 dollars with the exchange, but I didn’t care. Next day we left early in the morning, went to his bank, and withdrew 3,000 dollars from his savings account. He gave me the money and went to work. I exchanged the money for traveler’s checks and went to the American Embassy. I got on the only line there was and looked at the officer taking care of it. It was the same officer who wouldn’t take my passport! I was scared. I thought it was over, unless I could remember the other officer’s name and ask for him directly. However, I couldn’t remember his name.

I stood on the line, and the officer looked even meaner than the day before. I was about to go to the end of the line waiting for a miracle to happen, when I saw the other officer appear and take his place. I was full of anxiety. I wanted him to get over with the person ahead of me, so that he could take care of me before the blond mean officer came back. By the time he said, “Next,” my legs were totally out of control, shaking like crazy.

“Hi, do you remember me? I was here yesterday. I brought you the money you asked for. You know, the traveler’s checks,” I said, while he was looking at me like I was some sort of lunatic, talking in some ancient language completely incomprehensible to him. “You told me that if I changed the cash I have to traveler’s checks, you would give me the visa I need to visit America,” I said, trying to be as polite and friendly as I could.

“Oh! You’re the girl from Peru. I remember you now. But I didn’t say I would give you the visa, I said I would try to get you a visa. Now, let me get this to my supervisor and let’s see what happens. Okay?” he said, walking to the office in back of the counter.

I waited there for at least three hours. Maybe the guy was trying to delay the bad news, maybe they called Peru and found out that all I had said was just a bunch of lies. How could I have been so stupid and lied to an American immigration officer. Didn’t I know better than that? They probably have computers where they place your name and know everything they need to know about you. No! Impossible, they can’t do that. There I was in the waiting room deliberating with myself what Americans can and cannot do, when I heard my name called. I rushed to the window and received my passport back. I didn’t want to open it there because I was sure I was going to show emotion, whether they gave me the visa or not. I held my passport tight in my hands, until I reached the outside door. I opened it and there it was, a beautiful stamp, red and blue words written, “The United States of America Nonimmigrant Visa Issued at Tokyo.”

I think that was one of the happiest days of my life. I was going to America! The country where all the dreams can come true. The country where hard work, dedication, and perseverance pay off. There would be the place I would call home.

That very same afternoon, I changed the money back to yenes and returned them to Matsuo. He was right, I lost over 150 dollars in the transaction, but it was more than worth it. I was going to America!

Eight days after I got my visa I was in New York. Three weeks later, I was working, checking bags and packets, in a supermarket. Two years after I arrived in Kennedy Airport I was attending fulltime college and working as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant.

After living four years in New York, I have, many times, heard all the criticism American people have against immigrants. From the rude “Go back to your country, bastards, you are taking the jobs away from us, real Americans,” to the condescending, “Poor people who come to America with the erroneous idea that they would become rich over night or they, poor creatures, thought that money was hanging on the trees in America.” I particularly didn’t think that money was hanging on the trees, however I did think that America would give the opportunity to be myself. I guess it is kind of difficult for an American to understand why so many people want to come here. Being an immigrant myself, I guess I could tell you that it is like getting accepted to go to Harvard or Yale, you know it will be hard, it will be painful, there will probably be many nights that you won’t be able to sleep, and most of all that you won’t have immediate rewards for your efforts. Yet, knowing all of this to be the truth, would you go? If you had the chance?

When I first started looking through the book for this story, I wanted to use it as evidence in my argument against Trump. And it’s great evidence. But as I paged through and started reading here and there, I lost interest in my argument, Trump, who my dad votes for, Our Democracy. I just wanted to read the stories, including Bob’s story.

That’s what great writing does. It makes you bigger than your opinions. (It’s temporary, but I’ll take it.)

Critical Dispatches

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