Monthly Archives: January 2017

Fasten Your Seat Belts

The runaway train is rumbling toward us. It’s almost here. What do we do? (A) Jump out of the way? (B) Lie down on the tracks and let it crush us? (C) Pop cans of spinach into our mouths, extend our now-bulging arms, and stop the train dead on its track (or get crushed anyway, trying)?

Okay, now, seriously, folks. We are about to enter partly uncharted (and partly charted) territory. When I feel like my head is about to explode, I like to stop, take a deep breath, and compartmentalize.

In the two months since Donald Trump was elected king by less than a quarter of eligible American voters, all of the impending disasters seemed to run together in one orange blob. But as we turn the corner into an actual Trump-led government, I’m beginning to see three areas of distinct concern that may have less and less to do with each other as we go forward: (1) Trump himself; (2) the hate-filled nutjobs who think they’ve just inherited the country with a mandate to mock and scare and drive out and possibly even kill their nonwhite, non-Christian, non-male enemies; and (3) the Republicans in the House and Senate who are licking their lips at the prospect of turning the clock back to 2000, or 1980, or 1850, or something like that.

I’ll offer a few thoughts on each. I’ll try to be brief; I don’t want to miss Toby Keith.

The nutjobs. This is a very real and scary problem, but one you’d think all reasonable people should be able to unite behind. The litany of threats and attacks that have been made since Trump’s election is too long to recite, but it certainly came home to those of us who live in Albany when the local Jewish Community Center received a bomb threat yesterday (along with Jewish organizations across the country). I certainly hope anti-hate organizations will be joined by a vigorous law-enforcement effort to root out these assholes, but I also hope that the various targets of hate—foreigners, Muslims, Jews, blacks, women, and members of the LGBT community—will be reminded that we all need to be united in opposition to bigotry and hate. In the meantime, there’s a chance this fervor will subside when the hatemongers begin to notice that the billionaires in charge have stopped acting like they care, and also have taken away their health plans.

Trump. This is the real uncharted territory. Megalomaniacal, narcissistic, mentally unstable, unpredictable, unhinged. I don’t know if anyone knows what he is going to do at any given moment, except that he will send off blistering tweets to those who disagree with or mock or publish damning stories about him. And that he’ll revoke press credentials, but since he doesn’t like to give press conferences, I’m not sure how much difference that will make. His business conflicts of interest and international entanglements, his lack of interest in the fundamentals of national security, and his apparent readiness to hastily realign America’s place in the world order, are scary enough before we even consider how he will respond to foreign-policy crises (with tweets?). I should add that Trump also appears to lack interest in running a government, period. Besides clearly preferring to stay at Trump Tower over the White House, and blowing off security briefings, he is way behind in nuts-and-bolts staffing of his administration (see–which may well mean that basic government functions will be run ineptly, and also suggests that the appointments he has made (besides relatives) likely have been suggested by others who know exactly how the whole thing works.

Back to the business conflicts–I believe he will be in violation of the Constitution, and therefore impeachable, the second he takes the oath of office. But we’ll see who wants to go there (and remember, Mike Pence would not change the dynamic of part three below). I also think Trump is fundamentally at odds with the Republican establishment—even though there hasn’t been much talk of that lately—because of a fundamental difference in their agendas. Trump’s agenda is himself, his ego, his delusions of unlimited power and awesomeness (also frightening, though I for one don’t see him as Hitler). As for the Republicans who actually make the laws …

The Senate and House Republicans. I don’t think most of them give a damn about Trump, except that he has given them the enviable circumstance of having control over all three elements of the legislative and executive branches (and he has cheerfully provided them with the most deplorable of foxes to guard the cabinet henhouses). And what they want is nothing new—this is the “charted territory” part. They already have begun trying to dismantle all the good stuff government does, and they won’t stop trying until … they don’t have majorities any more! Now repeat after me, there’s no time like 2018, there’s no time like 2018 …

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon



Stories of lasting friendship, and a message to an old buddy’s daughter


Last September, Mark summoned up the courage to jump out of an airplane.

And I couldn’t even get up enough nerve to play and sing “For a Dancer” in front of 30 people.

I can play “For a Dancer” on the piano, and I have an okay singing voice, so I could have pulled it off. I got the idea because Mark’s sister, Jane, played a song for the occasion, one she had been practicing, and she performed admirably, even though I could tell she was nervous and shaking and struggling to follow the sheet music in a couple of places. It still sounded lovely.

I gave up trying to read sheet music a long time ago (I’m terrible at it) because I can play by ear, but at the gathering last Saturday, my courage just was not there. Maybe I worried that performing the song would seem like a distracting ego trip—I certainly didn’t want it to be about me. But “For a Dancer” did seem fitting. The event was almost over, and some people had left, when I finally sat down on the piano bench and played a couple of verses. No singing. I was surprised that most of my friends didn’t recognize what I was playing—see, singing the words would have been so much more meaningful! When I stopped, a few people thanked me and asked if it was something I had written. Across the room, someone I didn’t know made a remark about Jackson Browne.

I discovered the music of Jackson Browne and David Bowie when I was in high school, and I think it was Mark who introduced me to both. He was very passionate about finding interesting new things happening in music and art; another friend recently found and shared a Bowie album review Mark wrote for the school newspaper. Senior year, while our high school building was being renovated, we had classes in a half-dozen buildings scattered around downtown Pittsfield, an arrangement they called “open campus.” It meant, among other things, that we were free to go to the public library for study hall (or for any other period we decided was “free”). I think the library had some contemporary albums you could listen to on the house audio equipment and headphones. If I didn’t listen to Browne’s Late for the Sky album there, I certainly did at home. And one evening, lying on a blanket under the stars at Tanglewood, I listened to him play “For a Dancer” live, and the song’s simple elegance and melancholy left its mark on me.

The arc of my long friendship with Mark began in high school, when he and I and a handful of other friends and girlfriends would hang out together just like any other teenagers—in class, at sports events, at parties, at Boys’ Club dances. We scattered for college but always visited one another, and mostly spent summers back in Pittsfield. It was during those years, on one particularly sweltering summer night, that we went for a midnight swim that resulted in our most enduring story. Leaving our clothes piled next to the cars we had arrived in, we set out for the middle of Onota Lake. Good swimmers all, we nonetheless agreed to have names for a periodic “check-in” to make sure everyone was fine. Mostly, we chose goofy sounds—except for Dick, who couldn’t think of one, so his handle was “I don’t know.”

At one point Chris decided to stand on George’s shoulders so that it would look, to the next car that came around the bend and momentarily trained its headlights on the middle of the lake, as if Chris were walking on water. And that is exactly what the occupants of the next car saw—but they were not amused. So on came the flashing lights and out came the blue searchlight that probed the lake in a sweeping motion from one end to the other. I still remember waiting underwater for the light to pass overhead, then coming up for air and doing it all over again. We drifted this way and that, waiting for the cops to leave, which they finally did. We eventually swam back to our cars, though Chris had entertained the idea of swimming instead to the public beach to look for something in Lost and Found to wrap around himself before walking home.

The group stayed in touch for a while. In the early years there were letters (try to explain this to the kids …), holiday weekends home, visits to apartments in Boston, New York, and Buffalo, and class reunions every five years. But geography, new families, and years take their toll on old school friendships. I saw less and less of everybody until it pretty much ended. George left for Colorado, Mark for California. I saw Mark in 1989 when I flew to Los Angeles for a conference, and drove out to his house in the suburbs one evening for dinner with him and his wife Diana. Their daughter, Phoebe, had not been born yet. We told stories, we laughed, we had a great time. We probably talked about art (Mark was working as an engineer but longed to work as an illustrator, which he eventually did). And I remember watching Mark make homemade croutons. I’ve always made my own croutons since that night.

Prior to 2016, I hadn’t seen anyone from the old gang since the last class reunion, in 2001. Then, early last year, Chris sent around an e-mail titled “Cheese Dogs” (don’t ask) as a conversation starter about an upcoming class reunion, teasing us with references to funny moments from our school days. One by one, we responded with stories of our own.

Before long, the “Cheese Dogs” thread took on a life of its own. Soon our whole high school experience was being replayed on our laptop and iPhone screens. Every class, every teacher, every awkward date, every strange thing one of our classmates did, every zany night out—all reconstructed in hilarious detail. People everywhere have their own stories—ours are not uniquely funny, or even unique, but they are unique to us. And like photographs tucked away in a drawer for decades, they were a joy to share all over again. And like time travelers, there we were: wondering what to do with a fallen streetlamp after Chris’ car skidded on an icy road and into a snowbank; playing soccer hungover because the game was postponed by a day, but Margo’s party was not; watching in shock as a classmate, trying to close the Venetian blinds for a movie in chemistry class, yanked the whole thing out of its casing and watched helplessly as it smashed into thousands of dollars worth of Pyrex glassware. And of course, swimming nude in Onota Lake and ducking the police searchlights.

Reconnected, we all vowed to make it back to Pittsfield for that weekend in July, and most of us did. And what an amazing reunion. I had all but forgotten what awesome friends I made all those years ago in high school. Our e-mail group has remained active ever since. Not everyone is so lucky; I do know people who couldn’t wait to leave everything about high school behind, for whom high school was like one three- or four-year-long root canal.

As the official reunion event ended and many of us agreed to meet for a nightcap at my hotel, Mark asked me if I could give him a ride. Prior to the weekend, I had told everyone I was in the middle of a divorce, so it wouldn’t come up as a surprise. Mark and Diana had divorced several years earlier. He wanted to ride alone with me to find out how I was doing, and to share his experiences. And Mark is so funny and easygoing about everything, talking about divorce with him was anything but a downer. We were having such a good time, we stayed in the parked car for another 10 minutes before going into the bar.

At the gathering this past Saturday, we retold the midnight-swim story with four of five participants present—Chris, Dick, George, and me. We even remembered our check-in sounds. Everyone got a nice laugh out of it. I also met Phoebe, now a graduate student, for the first time. Later, I learned that she had had considerable difficulty letting go of the anger she felt toward her parents over their divorce.

That got me thinking about my own children, but also about Phoebe, and whatever between her and her father may have been left unreconciled. If I could say one thing to her, it is this:

I don’t know enough about you or your life to understand what you have gone through or how you feel. All I do know is this: If you’ve been married for any length of time, and especially if there are children, divorce is difficult for everybody involved. It doesn’t matter if it’s his fault or her fault, or everybody’s fault or nobody’s fault. It’s no fun for the kids and it’s no fun for the parents. It breaks their hearts to tear their children’s lives apart, but for one reason or another, they have reached the conclusion that there is no other choice. Mark loved you, but I’m sure you know that. He made that clear to us as well. You know what else about him, that you might have heard once or twice these past couple of months? When you talked one-on-one with him, it was as if you were the only other person in the world. We all try to be that much in the moment, but Mark did it effortlessly. And for me, it was a blessing to have that last 20 minutes in the car with him, as he shared his own difficult experience with me to make sure I didn’t feel like I was going through it alone.

On the night before Thanksgiving, at the home in Laguna Beach he shared with Corrin, his partner, Mark Warren Peronto died suddenly, unexpectedly, of a heart attack. Last Saturday, we gathered in Williamstown to toast his memory and tell stories celebrating his life—and to watch a video of him skydiving, smiling from ear to ear as he fell to Earth.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Decency Is Not a Dirty Word

Meryl Streep.

Did you have a visceral reaction to that name just now?

If you know why I’m asking that, my guess is that you thought her speech at the Golden Globe awards was either powerful and eloquent and exactly what the country needs to hear as the Bully-in-Chief prepares to take office, or an inappropriate, off-topic, partisan attack on the president-elect by an out-of-touch liberal elite living in her privileged Hollywood bubble.

And if your reaction falls somewhere outside those polar stereotypes, I’d love to hear it. I dream of a society in which every single action and speech of consequence does not drive us to rush to one side of the room or the other to huddle in the comfort and safety of our supposed ideological soulmates.

Or to put it more simply, I dream of a society consumed less with ideology and more with cooperation, tolerance, kindness, and finding common ground. And enlightened enough to realize it is not always necessary or constructive to take sides—or for that matter, to make sides where sides don’t need to be.

In her speech accepting an award for lifetime achievement, Streep wove in a story about what she called one of the most effective acting performances of the year—by Donald Trump, in which he mocked a disabled reporter for calling out Trump’s lies about a story the reporter had written after the 9/11 attacks.

Here’s the portion of the Streep speech that, without naming him, directly referenced Trump: “It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

In 2001, reporter Serge Kovaleski co-wrote a story looking into claims that there were Muslims on New Jersey rooftops celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers. The allegations were never substantiated, but Trump, during his presidential campaign, claimed that he saw “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the attacks, and then cited Kovaleski’s story as backup. Kovaleski correctly countered that his story did nothing to support Trump’s claim. So during a campaign rally, Trump lashed out at Kovaleski—who has a disease that limits the function of his joints—and mocked him by flapping his arms spastically. If you watch this video and still deny that Trump was mocking Kovaleski’s disability, I’m pretty sure your trousers will erupt in flames.

It didn’t take conservatives long to fire up the backlash, on Twitter and elsewhere. Meghan McCain tweeted that “this Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won, and if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how, you will help him get re-elected.” The clumsiness of her logic aside (one must assume she meant Trump voters were rejecting Hollywood-style elitism in general, not having a collective moment of clairvoyance), McCain left us wondering what exactly in the speech she objected to. Other conservative pundits criticized Streep for turning an awards ceremony into a leftist political rally. Former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway asked why Streep didn’t use her platform to address the public (on Facebook) torture of a mentally challenged boy by four young African-American adults in Chicago. Conway’s apples-and-oranges twist of logic might have seemed bizarre had not Fox News been employing the same diversionary tactic for years, blunting necessary discussions about police brutality against blacks by asking why the media weren’t spending more time covering black-on-black crime.

And the Supreme Tweeter himself shot back that Streep was “over-rated,” and repeated the provable lie that he had never mocked a disabled reporter.

Now Streep’s speech did hit one unfortunate sour note, called out by, among others, Trevor Noah and The Washington Post. “Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners,” she said. “And if you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” As Noah scolded on The Daily Show Monday, “You don’t have to make your point by shitting on someone else’s thing.” If you want to make people think you are one of those privileged Hollywood elites who doesn’t understand Middle America, go ahead, make fun of “low-rent” entertainments like football. (And by the way, Meryl, like many of us educated East Coast elites, I would have been watching a certain NFL game instead of the opening of the Golden Globes had I not been detained by soccer-coaching duties.)

That said, there is nothing about Streep’s takedown of Trump over the Kovaleski incident that warrants left-vs.-right hostilities. The core of Streep’s message was not about politics—it was about decency, and the abuse of power to encourage similar indecent acts. This is what saddens and disgusts me about the world that Fox News and its ilk have created and perpetuated. As with the obstructionist Republican Congress, nothing that comes from the other side can be validated as correct or even a pretty good idea. There is no common ground. It’s bad enough that the Republican Party rejects science and welcomes racism and homophobia within its ranks. When we cannot agree that the parents of a fallen soldier deserve to be treated with respect, or that language demeaning women and condoning sexual violence is disturbing at best, or that a disabled man who dared to speak truth deserves not to have his disability mocked in public—by the soon-to-be-most-powerful man in America, no less—then we are in deep trouble.

And as long as the right is programmed to avoid these questions by simply lying its way around them, our national discourse is doomed to parallel the obstinate sez-who of an angry Facebook argument. Meryl Streep is asking us to be better than that, and if it takes a “privileged elite” to have the platform, and the gravitas, to say so, I don’t have a problem with that.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon