taped

It’s like this: you’re walking through an art center you’ve visited several times, chatting idly as you pass the art work, stopping occasionally to study or share a comment on a particular piece. There’s a Grant Wood, there’s a Hopper, there’s a Mapplethorpe and an O’Keefe. It’s normal, it’s enjoyable, it’s casual and easy, and then you turn a corner and encounter…well, this:

It’s hard to describe. But try to imagine if the xenomorph from Alien and Tolkien’s arachnid nightmare Shelob the Great mated, and the resulting offspring could extrude packing tape. To come across it unexpectedly is wonderful — and I mean wonderful in the earliest definition of the term. It inspired wonder.

And then as you stand there gawking, you realize there’s a person inside it. A person. Inside it. And moving.

It’s an art installation by a collective calling itself Numen / For Use — three industrial designers (from Germany, Austria, and Croatia) who create large-scale, site-specific interactive projects. They’ve done similar tape projects in Melbourne, Paris, and Vienna. This is their first tape installation in the U.S. And it is spectacular.

 

In this case, Numen / For Use used about 1400 pounds of translucent polypropolene tape to create an object that’s a cross between a giant spider’s web and a cocoon. There’s a single small circular opening in the bottom of the installation through which it can be entered (with the help of a small stairway). Folks can crawl, scoot, wriggle, and worm their way through the installation. At some points, it’s large enough to stand up inside.

On its own, this installation is singularly strange and oddly delightful — but even more strange and wonderful are the reactions of the people. Nobody can look at this without becoming at least momentarily childlike. You want to touch it, to crawl up inside, to wander around beneath it — you want to play with it even as you admire its beauty.

My friend and I spent maybe an hour with it. Then we went for tea. Then came back again for another thirty minutes. And it’s still not enough. We’re going back again today.

It’ll be enchanting and astonishing folks in the I.M. Pei wing of the Des Moines Art Center for the next three months.

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taking a knee

It’s become popular among some Republicans to claim Comrade Trump isn’t really a Republican at all. They act like he’s some sort of chimera — a semi-mystical, implausible synthesis of disparate bits of different animals. Part liberal, part conservative, part patriot, part iconoclast, part traditional, part unconventional, part who the fuck knows. A new type of politician, they say.

Bullshit. Trump is the distillation of everything the Republican party has become in the last couple of decades. He’s selfish, self-centered, cruel, mean-spirited, fearful of anything different, completely unscrupulous, alienated from reality, dismissive of science, contemptuous of facts, mercenary, fundamentally dishonest, sneering, arrogant, judgmental, and too privileged to give a shit about anybody or anything that isn’t useful to him.

In brief, Trump is an asshole. Over the last couple of decades the Republican party has gradually shed any semblance of a conservative philosophy of governance and replaced it with being an asshole. You want to know what the Republican position is on any given policy? Ask yourself this: ‘What would an asshole do in this situation?’ The environment? More coal, fewer regulations. Epidemic of gun violence? More guns, fewer regulations. Healthcare? More regulations, fewer people insured.

This is what you can expect from the president when the president is an asshole. Free speech? Call NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem ‘sons of bitches’ who disrespect the nation, and encourage owners to fire them.

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired,’

You have torch-toting nazis marching at night in an American city? An asshole would say there are some “very fine people” among them. A football player who takes a knee during the national anthem to protest violence against African-Americans?  An asshole would call that “total disrespect of everything that we stand for.”

Because all of those football players are paid huge amounts of money to entertain the public, assholes will claim they should keep their political opinions to themselves. Because most of them are black, assholes will feel victimized by that exercise of free speech while at the same time complaining to other assholes that the players are being uppity.

But here’s a true thing about assholes: they polarize people. Today there are probably folks — standard NFL fans — who were maybe mildly offended by the decision of players to take a knee, who are now applauding the practice. Today there are probably folks who don’t care at all about professional sports who are appending #takeaknee to their social media posts. Today there are probably folks who are supporting the ‘take a knee’ movement NOT because they agree with it, but just because they’re just fed up with having an asshole for a president.

By the way, those NFL players? Some of them are assholes too. But a LOT of them, even though they’re making obscene amounts of money, are also showing up at soup kitchens, they’re standing up against bullying, they’re helping with flood relief, they’re raising and donating money to hurricane victims, they’re supporting research to cure diseases, they’re fighting homelessness, they’re actually out there doing stuff for their communities while assholes are sitting at home and complaining.

Let me also say this, since I come from a military family rather than a sports family. In the military ‘take a knee’ means to take an immediate break, right where you are, because you’re just fucking exhausted. It’s a moment — and only a moment, which is why you’re only taking a knee — to stop, catch your breath, allow your sore muscles to relax, and consider what to do next.

I think this whole nation needs to take a knee.

never shocked

This is what I used to do. Wake up, start the coffee, look out the window to see what sort of day it is, read a chunk of whatever novel I was reading at the time, pour myself a cup of coffee, turn on the computer, spend maybe 30-45 minutes reading and editing whatever I’d written the day before, check my email, then turn on NPR and start the actual working part of the day.

That’s what I started to do sixteen years ago. But during the editing period I got a phone call. Normally, I’d have let the phone ring; I discourage interruptions while editing and since I didn’t have Caller ID back then, I’d no idea who was calling. But for some reason I answered it, and it was an old buddy. I don’t recall his exact words after I said ‘Hello” but it was something like “Are you seeing this?”

A few months earlier I’d moved from Manhattan to a massive old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. It was quiet there, tranquil, no distractions aside from the occasional sound of a tractor in a nearby field, ridiculously inexpensive to live — a perfect place to settle down and work on a novel.

“Am I seeing what?” I asked. And he told me a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Which was absolutely ridiculous, of course. The towers of the WTC were huge, and not in any air traffic lane. “Maybe a helicopter,” I said, “but no way a plane would crash into the towers.” He said, “Go see for yourself, it’s on television.”

About a year earlier he’d come to NYC for a visit and slept on my futon-sofa. We’d done a few tourist things — the usual things New Yorkers take visitors to see. FAO Schwartz, the toy store. The boat pond in Central Park. The Bethesda Fountain. And always the top of the World Trade Center.

“Go see for yourself,” he said, and since he’d called on the land line, I had to hang up and go to the living room to turn on the television. And sure enough, the north tower of the World Trade Center was on fire, with a large hole in the side where something big had hit it. I watched for a bit, and was about to call my friend back and admit he’d been right — and that’s when the second plane hit.

When I lived in NYC I belonged to a reading group. We’d meet once a month at somebody’s apartment, eat snacks, drink a bit of wine, and discuss what we’d read. It was easy and pleasant and fun. One guy, Joe, occasionally brought along his dogs, a pair of Cavalier King James spaniels, one of which had a heart condition and always got extra attention from the group because we weren’t ever sure he’d make it to the next meeting. Joe worked in the South Tower. We later learned he’d called his sister after the North Tower was hit. He told her his office was evacuating the building as a precaution. He’d taken the stairs down to the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor and was waiting with others to take the express elevator ground level. Nothing to worry about, he told her. The second plane struck the building between floors 77 and 85.

A friend from graduate school. Mark, worked for a social research group located north of the WTC. We figure he must have left his office and walked to the towers after the first plane hit to see what was happening. He was apparently killed by debris, probably from the same crash that killed Joe. They identified Mark’s body fairly easily, since he was largely intact. Joe was confirmed dead several months later, apparently through tissue samples. A neighbor of Joe took in his dogs until a family member could claim them.

This is what I do now, this is what I’ve done every single day for the last 16 years: I wake up, I start the coffee, I look out the window to see what sort of day it is, I say to myself “Let’s see if any planes crashed into buildings” and I look at the news. It’s a sort of mantra — a ritualized phrase and a ritualized process. I check the news to see if anything horrific happened while I was asleep. Every morning. I don’t know why; it’s not like I can do anything about whatever has happened, any more than I could do anything about the 9/11 attacks. But except for making coffee, nothing gets done until I’ve checked the news.

It seems like a pretty small life adjustment. But beginning the day by asking about a terrorist attack means the news never really shocks me. A school shooting? A forest fire? A devastating flood? An explosion at a fertilizer plant? A ferry sinking? A terrorist attack in a major European city? The news can make me sad or angry or distressed or upset, but I’m never shocked by the ongoing list of tragedies. Because I begin each day wondering if a plane has crashed into a skyscraper.

first you catch a tuna

See, this is exactly what happens when you elect somebody whose arrogance is fueled by ignorance. You end up with a president who makes bad decisions about problems he doesn’t understand, without any awareness of the consequences.

As late as one hour before the decision was to be announced, administration officials privately expressed concern that Mr. Trump might not fully grasp the details of the steps he was about to take, and when he discovered their full impact, would change his mind, according to a person familiar with their thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity without authorization to comment on it.

This particular quote from The New York Times is about Comrade Trump’s DACA decision, but it applies to just about every important decision he’s made in his time in office entire career. As a businessman, Trump was used to entering negotiations, telling folks what he wanted, then wandering off feeling self-satisfied while his crew of lawyers and managers banged out the details and tried to find ways to implement some/most of what Trump wanted. If it worked, Trump assumed it worked because he was a savvy negotiator; if it didn’t work, then it was the fault of his staff.

“Nobody understands the system better than me.” For Trump, the ‘system’ is this: “I want a thing done; somebody go do that thing.” He apparently thought that would work just as well in government. Obamacare? Crime? International trade? Immigration? North Korea? When Comrade Trump said “I alone can fix it” what he actually meant was “I’ll tell my people to handle it.”

I think Trump is legitimately surprised to discover that ‘his people’ can’t just handle stuff for him in government. I suspect he really assumed that if he told his people — in this case, the Republican Congress — he wanted a health care bill, that it would just happen. Remember this? “I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” It’s NOT complicated if all you do is say “I want this thing done.” Remember when Comrade Trump had dinner with Chinese president Xi Jinping and suggested China should lean on North Korea to stop missile testing? I suspect he actually believe China would act as ‘his people’ and, you know, do something, after which missile testing would just stop.

For his entire life, I believe Trump has simply assumed ‘managing’ meant ‘giving orders’. If he wanted a tunafish sandwich, all he had to do was say “Fetch me a tunafish sandwich.” He didn’t have to think about the person whose job it was to make the sandwich. In fact, it probably never would have occurred to him that before the tunafish sandwich process could even begin somebody had to go out on a boat and catch a goddamn tuna.

A tuna is a massive fish. The average size of a bluefin tuna? Six and a half feet. Somebody has to catch the big bastards, somebody has to take them apart, somebody has to process them and jam them into a tiny can. Somebody has to make that can. Hell, somebody has to mine the metal necessary to make the can. Somebody has to take those cans of tuna from the processing plant and deliver them to markets. Somebody has to grow and harvest the wheat to make the bread for the sandwich.

If you bother with the details, you realize that making a tunafish sandwich is incredibly complex. A tunafish sandwich costs millions of dollars.

Comrade Trump has made a decision affecting the lives of 800,000 young men and women whose parents entered the U.S. without proper documentation with the same level of concern and attention that we give to ordering a tunafish sandwich at the local deli. That’s reprehensible.

Editorial Note: Yes, I know ‘tunafish’ is properly ‘tuna fish’. And yes, I know ‘tuna fish’ is redundant since there aren’t any non-fish tuna. But I like tunafish as one word, and there it is.