a short list of things I’d like to see in 2019

In no particular order:

The Great British Baking Show with Paul Hollywood as a contestant. Let’s see how he likes that.
— A movie car chase in which the police officer doing the chasing decides it’s just not worth the risk to the public and just stops.
— The return of home milk delivery in glass bottles.
— Playgrounds for adults, so you could go play on a swing for half an hour without other adults looking at you like you’re some sort of pedophile.
— Louis CK continuing to perform in comedy clubs…and the entire audience standing and walking out.
— A remake of Killing Eve with all the same actors but with a plot that wasn’t phenomenally stupid.
— Donald Trump and his family of grifters and traitors in handcuffs.
— Universal health care in the US.
— Universal selective service in the US. Not necessarily military service, but a couple years of compulsory national, state, or local service.
— George RR Martin admitting he’s sick to death of GoT and acknowledging he’s never going to finishing the last books, so everybody should just watch the HBO show and be satisfied.
— More respect for bollards.
— A harsh, severe, punitive tax on houses with pointless gables and extraneous dormer windows.
— Brett Kavanaugh busted for DWI.
— Gun owners actually held accountable for their guns.
— Actual usable pockets in women’s clothes. It’s 2019, for fuck’s sake.

I’m sure there’s other stuff, but this is all I could come up with while waiting for the coffee to finish becoming coffee.

What about you? What would you like to see in the coming year?

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comrade trump spent three hours in iraq

I was actually prepared to give Comrade Trump some credit. I mean, he actually visited troops in a theater of combat operations. Yes, that’s something every POTUS in recent history has done and is expected to do, but let’s face it — nobody really expects Trump to behave like a president anymore. But I believe in giving credit where it’s due, so I found myself in the unusual position of giving Trump props for doing the minimum requirements of his job.

But Jeebus on toast, he had to go and fuck that up. All he had to do was go the al-Asad Air Base, shake a few hands, take a few photos with a few troops, and give a simple speech supporting their mission. Seriously, a high school student could have done that. But Trump? Apparently beyond his ability. He just couldn’t do it.

First, the point of POTUS visiting troops in a combat area is to bolster the morale of the men and women who do the fighting and killing and dying at the Commander-in-Chief’s direction. That’s it. It’s a simple task. It’s NOT even remotely a venue for partisan politics. And it should NEVER be about money.

Here’s one of the early comments in Trump’s speech to the troops:

“America shouldn’t be doing the fighting for every nation on Earth not being reimbursed. If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price — and sometimes that’s also a monetary price — so we’re not the suckers of the world. We’re no longer the suckers, folks.”

The US military isn’t a mercenary army. They’re not for hire. We don’t tell other nations we’ll protect their interests (and our interests) only IF they can reimburse us. The US military isn’t a for-profit enterprise. Comrade Trump doesn’t seem to understand that.

Then he moved on to domestic partisan politics.

We want to have strong borders in the United States. The Democrats don’t want to let us have strong borders — only for one reason. You know why? Because I want it. … You know, when you think about it, you’re fighting for borders in other countries, and they don’t want to fight — the Democrats — for the border of our country.

First, Trump makes it about him. Democrats are opposed to building a wall along the southern border just to spite him. Second, he accuses his political opponents of not wanting to protect the nation. Turning a morale-building mission into a political campaign speech is despicable.

That said, I must say I have no problem with Trump signing MAGA hats while at the air base, providing the Trump campaign didn’t bring them or distribute them. I don’t think the criticism Trump received for hat-signing is justified. If troops ask him to sign their hat, he should damn well sign their hat.

Near the end of his speech, Trump flat out lied to the troops. He lied to them in a typical Trump self-aggrandizing way.

“You just got one of the biggest pay raises you’ve ever received… You haven’t gotten one in more than 10 years — more than 10 years. And we got you a big one. I got you a big one. I got you a big one. They had plenty of people that came up. They said, ‘You know, we could make it smaller. We could make it 3 percent. We could make it 2 percent.’ I said, ‘No. Make it 10 percent. Make it more than 10 percent.'”

They’ll get a 2.8% pay raise next year, which is about average. It’s certainly not the biggest raise the military has ever received. They’ve been given a raise every year for decades. It’s not enough, of course. It’s not even close to enough. I’d applaud Trump if he actually DID fight for a meaningful pay increase for the troops, especially enlisted personnel. But he hasn’t.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, Trump and his communications team inadvertently outed a covert Navy SEAL team. The locations of special forces units deployed abroad is classified, and showing the faces of spec ops troops is generally a violation of operational security. Trump’s team put their faces on Twitter. Twitter, for fuck’s sake.

Oh, and one more thing (there’s always one more thing when Comrade Trump is involved): he didn’t bother to meet with the Prime Minister or any Iraqi officials while he was there. He apparently doesn’t understand that US troops are stationed in Iraq with the permission of the Iraqi government. President Obama worked out an arrangement with the Iraqis; the Trump administration has been attempting to negotiate a similar long-term arrangement since the spring…without success so far. Snubbing Iraqi officials isn’t going to help. Some Iraqi officials are now calling for all US troops to be removed.

Comrade Trump was in Iraq for a total of about three hours. In that time he offended the Iraqi government, outed a covert SEAL team, lied to the troops, and turned a simple morale-building mission into a political campaign event.

Three hours. The thing is, I don’t think any of these fuck-ups were deliberate. They were all just the result of a president who doesn’t understand his job and is incapable of carrying it out. This should have been an easy gig for Trump and his team. But in three hours they managed to create a monumental clusterfuck.

I guess we should be grateful it was only three hours.

a midvinterblot’s tale

The luck of the king is the luck of the land, according to the Ynglings, the most ancient of Viking dynasties. The sad truth of this can be seen in the story of King Visbur and his son Domald — which is appropriate given that today is the winter solstice.

Visbur married the daughter of Aude the Rich. Her name is unknown to history since the value of women was only measured by their ability to give birth to sons. She gave Visbur two sons: Ond and Gisle. At some point Visbur put his wife aside and married another, whose name is also forgotten. The new wife gave him another son, Domald (sometimes called Dómaldi or Dómaldr), who was declared Visbur’s heir.

Ond, Gisle, and their poor nameless mother objected. The two sons went to Visbur to protest, but were rejected. Their mother then cursed Domald with ósgæssa — ill-luck or bad fortune. Ond and Gisle took what today would be called a pro-active approach. This is how the skald Snorri Sturluson described it:

Eptir þat sömnuðu þeir liði, ok kómu at Vísbur um nótt á úvart ok brendu hann inni.
Thereafter they collected men, came unexpectedly in the night on Visbur, and burned him in his house.

The crown passed to Domald, whose curse of ill-luck was compounded by an exaggerated sense of self-worth coupled with a distinct lack of competence. Domald’s reign was disastrous. Crops withered and failed, livestock became sickly and died. So on the winter solstice, at the time of midvinterblot — the annual sacrifice — Domald had his priests sacrifice oxen instead of sheep. The greater the sacrifice, the more it is appreciated by the gods.

It didn’t work. The crops still failed, the livestock grew thinner, old folks and children starved. At the next midvinterblot Domald had his priests sacrifice a few peasants instead of oxen.

An early version of the Sacrifice of Domald.

It didn’t work. The fields of rye and barley gave paltry yields, the hay and timothy needed to feed the livestock died before it could be harvested, the swine and cattle wasted away. So as the winter solstice and midvinterblot approached:

…a great multitude of Swedes came to Upsalir; and now the chiefs held consultations with each other, and all agreed that the times of scarcity were on account of their king Domald, and they resolved to offer him for good seasons, and to assault and kill him, and sprinkle the stalle of the gods with his blood. And they did so.

And they did so. Snorri Sturluson assures us the crops and livestock then flourished, and all were happy.

Domald dies by bloody arms,
Raised not by foes in war’s alarms
Raised by his Swedish liegemen’s hand,
To bring good seasons to the land.

Carl Larsson’s ‘Midvinterblot’ depicting the sacrifice of Domald.

We shouldn’t read anything into the similarity between the names Domald and Donald. Nor should we consider the blood oblation of midvinterblot as anything other than a metaphor for a meaningful sacrifice. But given recent events, and the promise of more chaos, upheaval, and pandemonium to come, I think it’s past time for Congressional Republicans to begin the ritual necessary to remove our own ill-fated, star-crossed Donald from power.

The luck of king, the Ynglings told us, is the luck of the land. And Comrade Donald is bad luck all around. For the good of the nation and its people, Donald Trump needs to go.

700 days

Today is Comrade Donald J. Trump’s 700th day as President of These United States. And I am completely exhausted. A lot of us (well, most of us, if you look at the popular vote totals) were pretty certain he was going to be a bad president, but I don’t think anybody expected him to be so thoroughly and consistently awful. A lot of us (well, some of us) hoped that once he grasped the nature of the job Trump would at least try to do the job well. I mean, we all benefit as a nation when the president — even if we don’t like him — succeeds.

But fuck me with a chainsaw, we can’t go a single day without a couple of scandals that would sink any other presidency. The sheer number and scale of Comrade Trump’s cascading daily outrages is staggering.

Today, for example, we learn that North Korea (you remember…Trump and Kim Jong Un ‘fell in love’ in Singapore and Trump happily reported on Twitter that “everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”) isn’t going to denuclearize itself. I don’t think anybody but Trump actually thought they would, but now it’s official. The president got played by a third-rate dictator. That’s this morning’s horrorshow; we have time for a couple more after lunch.

 

Yesterday we learned that candidate Trump had signed…wait, do you remember when Trump said he had no business deals at all with Russia? Then he said he’d looked at a development deal in Moscow but decided against it before he became a candidate. Then he said he’d planned a major development deal in Moscow and discussions had continued while he was campaigning, but nothing had come of it. Then he admitted he’d pursued the major development deal, but hadn’t signed anything. Well, yesterday we learned he’d actually signed a letter of intent to develop the deal in Moscow. This is a consistent pattern for Trump. When caught lying, tell another lie, followed by still more lies.

Yesterday Trump also decided to pull US troops out of Syria. He’d discussed this with his boy Vlad Putin and with Turkish president Erdogan. But he didn’t bother consulting his own Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. Or the Department of Defense, or the State Department, or the National Security Council, or members of Congress. He just went on Twitter and announced it, saying ISIS had been defeated (which probably comes as a surprise to ISIS, since there are still around fifteen thousand ISIS troops fighting in Syria). This withdrawal effectively delivers Syria entirely to Russian influence.

Also yesterday, the Trump administration decided to lift sanctions imposed by the US Treasury on Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch. Deripaska, who has been described as “Putin’s favorite industrialist”, is also the guy who ‘loaned’ Trump’s former campaign manager and convicted felon Paul Manafort ten million dollars.

And the day before that? Trump was forced to close the so-called Trump Foundation after the Attorney General of New York found the charity had been used by the Trump family as a sort of slush fund for personal use. The AG noted “a shocking pattern of illegality,” including “willful and repeated…unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign.” This happened after Trump’s first National Security Adviser was due to be sentenced for lying to the FBI about being an “unregistered agent of a foreign country” but before we learned that Russia had implemented a disinformation campaign against Special Counsel Robert Mueller. And, of course, yesterday the Republican National Committee announced it would merge with Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and become a single entity — an unprecedented move that would have shocked the news media and sparked Congressional investigations two years ago. Two days ago it was just a footnote scandal.

This happens every fucking day now — scandal after outrage after malfeasance after incompetence after scandal. And every day it seems to be accelerating. Seven hundred days of this. It’s no wonder the entire nation is exhausted and frazzled and just wants to have a quiet beer someplace with friends and maybe go a full day without another two or three crises, is that too much to ask?

uncomfortable confessional crap – part three

This is what you do. You wake up, you remind yourself that nightmares aren’t real, you turn on a light, toss the blanket back, rotate yourself on the bed, put your two feet on the floor, stand up, and put some clothes on. Then maybe you sit at the computer for a bit, or sit in a comfortable chair and read your book, or fire up Netflix on the television and watch something lighthearted. What you do isn’t terribly important; what’s important is finding something interesting to swab out the residue of whatever ugly thing formed the core of your nightmare.

At about 4:15 this morning, the ugly thing was a simple 55 gallon drum in the corner of an old barn.

I’ve mentioned before that I have occasional nightmares. Not the usual nightmares, but nightmares that revolve around things I’ve done or seen. Or, in this case, something I didn’t actually see, but something that was there anyway. Here’s what happened: years ago I was hanging around a courthouse, waiting to see if a case I’d worked on was actually going to go to trial that day (this is where I should mention I used to be a private investigator specializing in criminal defense work). Another defense lawyer told me his client was going to trial that morning–some drug-related charge–but the client hadn’t shown up and wasn’t answering his phone. He said he could stall for a while, and asked me to go to the defendant’s home and roust him. Since it didn’t look like my case was going to go forward, I agreed.

This sort of thing happens occasionally. Sometimes there’s a valid reason for a defendant not to show up for a court appearance. Not often, but sometimes. Usually all you have to do is show up at their door and remind them that if they don’t get their ass to the courthouse right damned quick, an arrest warrant will be issued and their bail would be forfeited and they’d be even more fucked. That’s assuming you can find them, of course.

This guy lived in the country on what had once been a farm. At some point in the past the farmhouse had burned down (distant past–nothing to do with the defendant), but the barn was still standing. The client lived in an old Airstream trailer beside the barn.

The barn door was partially open and I could see a moderately battered pickup parked inside. I knocked on the trailer door a few times. No answer. I walked around the trailer banging my fist on it, just to let him know I was there. No response. I tried the door. It was unlocked and it opened, so I yelled my name and identified myself as working for his lawyer. Nothing. I decided not to go inside. If he was in there, he clearly had no intention of coming out; if he wasn’t inside, there was no reason to enter,

I did, though, decide to do a quick sweep of the barn. I don’t know why; the barn was no different than the Airstream. He’d have heard me arrive, so if he was inside the barn he had no intention of coming out. But I yelled a hello, identified myself again, and went in anyway. I checked the truck; the hood was cold, so he hadn’t been driving it recently. I generally nosed around, but aside from a couple of old 55 gallon drums in a corner by the door there wasn’t much to see. The drums were out of the ordinary; lots of folks in the country used them to burn trash. I noticed these drums still had their lids on, which was odd, but I didn’t think much of it.

I decided I’d done enough. I wrote ‘You were supposed to be in court today’ on the back of a business card and stuck it under the windshield wiper of the pickup. I wedged another card in the door of the trailer. And I went back to the courthouse.

A week or so later I got a call from the State police. The local police had found my business cards. They’d also found the guy stuffed into one of those 55 gallon drums. Without his head.

I wasn’t a suspect or anything; the Staties were just being thorough. They asked the questions you’d expect them to ask, I gave them the answers I could, and that was it. I don’t know why the guy was killed, when he was killed, or who killed him. It was likely a drug thing, but It wasn’t my case, so I didn’t pay attention to it. The last time I spoke to the guy’s lawyer, he told me they’d never found the guy’s head.

I have no idea why this figures into an occasionally recurring nightmare, but it does. I didn’t know the defendant, I never met him and I don’t even recall his name. I didn’t see anything scary, I didn’t do anything frightening or dangerous. I just walked around and made noise. There’s no reason this should be in my nightmare lineup. But there it is.

I dream I’m at that farm. I walk around the trailer banging on the sides as I go. I open the door to the trailer, but don’t go in. I go into the barn and noodle around, and with each scene in the nightmare I get more and more anxious and scared. In the nightmare I know there’s something horrible in those 55 gallon drums. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know how I know, but I know it’s there and I know it’s horrible. In fact, I’m not even sure I actually see the drums in my nightmare. But there’s something in that barn, something I don’t want to see, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to see it.

I don’t have this particular nightmare very often, and usually I wake up before it gets too bad. Usually, I’m able to go back to sleep. But not this morning. This morning I was too unsettled to even consider going back to sleep.

It’s ridiculous, isn’t it. These sort of nightmares used to be a common occurrence. Now I have them three or four times a year. The ones that wake me up and keep me up, I mean. So it’s not a big deal. I usually forget about the dream after a bit. The only reason I’m still thinking about it this morning is because I became curious why and how 55 gallon drums (or 200 liter drums if you’re European, or 44 gallons if you’re in the UK) became the standard size. (Spoiler: the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. patented a process for making stackable steel storage drums in 1904; but what’s really cool is the fact that the company was owned by Nellie Bly.)

I see old 55 gallon drums with some regularity when I’m out noodling around. They don’t bother me; I don’t associate them with that incident. There’s nothing spooky or scary about them. But still they sometimes show up in my dreams and wake me up. When that happens, I remind myself that nightmares aren’t real, I turn on a light, toss the blanket back, rotate myself on the bed, put my two feet on the floor, stand up, and put some clothes on. Then I find something to distract myself.

Thar’s what you do.

not gonna happen

Let’s just dispense with the fantasy of Comrade Trump being frogmarched out of the White House in handcuffs, put on trial, found guilty, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, and tossed in the hoosegow. It’s not going to happen.

It doesn’t matter if Trump has committed multiple felonies (spoiler alert — we’re like 98% certain that he has; before he ran for office, during his campaign, and after his election), he’s not going to be prosecuted for them while he’s in office. Maybe after he leaves office; that’s a possibility. But unless he’s impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted by two-thirds of the Senate, Trump isn’t going to stand trial — not for money laundering, not for conspiracy, not for obstruction of justice. It’s just not going to happen.

Here’s why: the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has stated that “a sitting President is constitutionally immune from indictment and criminal prosecution.” They decided that back in 1973 and again in 2000. In 1973, the DOJ stated the following:

A necessity to defend a criminal trial and to attend court in connection with it, however, would interfere with the President’s unique official duties, most of which cannot be performed by anyone else.

Implicit in that line is this fact: If a sitting president can be tried for a crime, they could also be convicted — and if convicted, imprisoned, but they would still be the president. It’s not a part-time job (even if Trump treats it like one). The president is POTUS when they’re asleep, when they’re on vacation, when they’re playing golf, and when they’re in jail. They’d have to conduct the business of the nation and perform all the attendant duties of the office from a prison cell.

Now, you’re probably saying, “But Greg, old sock, Trump doesn’t bother performing most of the duties of his office now; surely he could Tweet from a prison cell.” Yes, it’s true, he could. But here’s the thing: Trump is a uniquely lazy and incompetent POTUS. Sure, locking him up wouldn’t interfere too much with the way he does his job. But in the future we may have a president who is both criminal AND competent, and locking up that president could seriously disrupt the security of the nation.

So the only way Comrade Trump could possibly face incarceration in the foreseeable future is for him to be impeached and convicted first, then prosecuted afterward. The coming House of Representatives might impeach him, but it would require two-thirds of the Senate to convict him and remove him from office. That’s 67 senators. There are only 47 Democrats in the Senate, which means at least 20 Republicans would have to vote to convict. And no matter how guilty Trump is (or might be), the GOP Senate has shown itself to be unwilling to hold Trump accountable for anything.

So no matter how solid the evidence is that Comrade Trump lied, cheated, and/or stole, he’s not really at risk of incarceration — not for the next couple of years.

After 2020, we’ll see.

susan sontag annoys me from the grave

Two or three times a year I’ll open up Susan Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays On Photography and read a few pages. I usually do it when I’ve finished reading another book and I want a breather before starting something new. I’ll open it to some random page, read for a bit, then close the book and mutter “Susan fucking Sontag.”

The thing is, Sontag/On Photography 1) always makes me think and 2) always annoys the hell out of me. Always. Always and for a dozen different reasons. The main reason, though, is that she’s usually entirely correct. Nobody likes a person who is always right. This is what stuck in my mind last night:

To photograph is to confer importance.

That’s Susan Sontag for you. Six words, and there it is. Six words, and she confronts you with a notion that ought to be self-evident but isn’t always. Six words, and she lays out a way to both shoot and understand photography. To photograph a thing is to confer importance on that thing.

That’s not to say what a person photographs will be important to anybody other than the photographer. It only means that by making the decision, consciously or intuitively, to isolate one chunk of reality and photograph it is a way of stating that particular chunk of reality has personal value for the photographer. It’s saying “This little chunk of reality is deserving of my attention, however fleeting that is.”

To photograph is to confer importance. Sontag illustrates that notion by discussing a photograph made by Edward Steichen in 1915 — a photograph of a couple of milk bottles sitting on a tenement fire escape. When I say Sontag illustrates the notion by discussing the photograph, I mean exactly that. Any other writer and any other book on photography would have included Steichen’s photo to illustrate the point. But not Sontag. That’s another annoying thing about her and On Photography: there are NO photographs in the book. None at all. If you want to see a photograph Sontag is talking about, you have to go find it. Which I did.

steichen_milk_bottles

Instead of showing the photo to make her point (which, if you recall, is to photograph is to confer importance), Sontag chooses to illustrate the concept by — and I’m not making this up — quoting from Walt Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:

Each precise object or condition or combination or process exhibits a beauty.

It is annoying as hell to quote a poet to explain a photograph. But yeah, as usual, she’s entirely correct. Each precise object exhibits a beauty and to photograph a precise object is to confer importance to it. Remember, Steichen shot that photo in 1915. Photography at that point in time was cumbersome and expensive. Steichen couldn’t just notice the milk bottles and take a quick snapshot of them. He had to set up a tripod, attach a large boxy camera to it, compose the image beneath a shroud using a screen in which the image appears upside down and reversed, then calculate the exposure. And all that takes place before the labor involved in developing the film and making a print. Taking a photograph in 1915 was a lot of work.

So yeah, to photograph was damned sure conferring importance. You don’t subject yourself to all that fuss and bother unless the precise object exhibited a compelling beauty. So Steichen was faced with a question. Milk bottles? On a fire escape? Really? And his answer was, yes, really, milk bottles on a fire escape!

This sort of photo is common now, but in 1915 it was revolutionary. Now, with digital imagery, a photographer can piss away hundreds of photos on milk bottles on fire escapes without any concern or thought. So even if we agree that Whitman is right and every precise object exhibits a beauty (and I’m not about to argue against our boy Walt), we have to ask if Sontag is still right. Does photography still confer importance?

I kind of want to say no. I want to say no partly because if modern photography requires absolutely no training and is subject to anybody’s passing whim, how can it confer importance on anything? I also want to say no just because Sontag continues to annoy me, even though she’s been dead for a decade and a half.

I kind of want to say no, but I can’t. Even if a digital image requires less commitment to the subject and the process, the decision of what and how to photograph remains the same. Here’s a photo I shot recently on a walk. It took maybe ten seconds to notice, to compose, to adjust the exposure, and take the photo using my cellphone. Maybe fifteen seconds. Then I was back to walking.

It probably took hours for Steichen to photograph his milk bottles and make a print of it. It took me only a moment to photograph a shed in somebody’s back yard. But the fundamental process is exactly the same. You observe the precise beauty of a thing, you isolate that thing in a lens, and you confer personal importance on it by photographing it.

Susan fucking Sontag. She annoys me from the grave.