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Friday, April 17, 2020

The Novel Coronavirus and Christian Faith

Viruses frighten and disgust me. Always have. 

Not enough people realize that viruses are not alive. 

People keep calling in to public-service radio talk shows and asking questions like, "If I put something in the freezer, will that kill the virus?"

Sure, freezing would kill the virus ... if it were alive. It's not alive, and we really should have schools that taught people basic facts like that. 

Viruses, outside of their hosts, are inert packages of information. These packages gain power only after gaining entrance to a host cell. 

Virus propagation is diabolical. 

You get a cold. Your nose runs. Your eyes water and itch. You touch your face to address the runny nose and watery eyes. Your hands are now covered with viral material. You touch doorknobs, cooking utensils, and a loved one's face. 

You have done the virus' work for it. You have spread disease to those about whom you care. 

Once the virus enters its host, it penetrates the host's cells. The host's cells go on to use their own machinery to produce copies of the virus. Tens of thousands of copies may result. This is called viral burst size

Then, the cell dies. 
Is there a better definition of diabolical? 

And it isn't even alive. It's just a little package of genetic material a package that is "smarter" than the human beings it has been parasitizing for all of human history. 

We have conquered Earth, from pole to pole, from jungle to desert, from Everest to Death Valley; tigers have devolved from the fearsome enemies that snatch our children to characters in a Netflix miniseries; we have landed on the moon, and we can't lay a glove on the common cold, something that isn't even alive. 

They say that the word "virus" comes from the Latin for "poison." Poison makes sense. Poison is not alive, but it kills us. But poison doesn't manipulate us to aid its deadly mission. Poison doesn't lure us into touching our eyes and nose with our hands, thus increasing the chance that the poison will go on to hurt others. 

They also say that no one knows for sure how viruses came to be.

Viruses look, to me, like life itself in its ugliest form. No driver, no intention, no telos, all destruction. And I don't know how to understand that without looking at life in a much darker way. And without looking at the author of life in a much more questioning way. 

Viruses cause me to look again at the life that entrances me. I look at birds in all their wonder and can't not believe in God. I confront viruses and I really wonder. God, was if you who created life after all? As described in Genesis, even if that is just a poetic account of deeper truths?

Or was it just blind chance after all? 

Life just seems like an ugly accident. Something that reproduces stupidly and blindly. What could be more blind or stupid than a motive-less package of genetic information penetrating a cell only to kill that cell? What could be more blind or stupid than the cell obeying its murderer's orders? 

Humanity is so naked and helpless in the face of viruses. Why? Why haven't we studied them more, rather than spending money on the space program? 

Why can't we communicate with our cells, and tell them, "No, this invader is bad. Don't let it in." 

We do. We have vaccines, and they are wonderful, and their development includes wonderful stories. Jonas Salk, for example, who developed a polio vaccine, has a well-deserved reputation as a real hero. Louis Pasteur is another world-famous hero in the war against viruses and disease. And the list of heroes grows everyday, in the martyred police officers, nurses, doctors, aides, and other health care professionals, family members, and other helpers  who are giving their lives to the fight against the coronavirus. 

I have to get back to work, so I must tie this up.

Heroes aside, I am face to face with a virus. It looks like life as one big result of the chance collision of molecules, not as the magnificent handiwork of a benign creator. 

I'm hoping and praying that a believing Christian or Jew who understands something about viruses will read this and get back to me. 

Friday, April 10, 2020

Fifth Anniversary

Before I published God through Binoculars, I sent it to various authors, some of them bestselling and prize-wining authors, and asked for blurbs.

They sent blurbs praising the book. Their praise gave me hope that this would be the book that would finally reach an audience.

And it didn't. I spent a month, full time, eight-hour days, six-day weeks, emailing, writing, calling, and no one would review it. Well, I got a handful of reviews, but not enough to create sales, and the book has pretty much died on the vine.

That's a pretty heavy silencing and erasure. You just don't want to talk after a life event like that.

I'm old. I've been doing this for a long time. I don't see the point of doing it any more.

My writing just doesn't reach people, and, at this point, knowing that I am closer to the grave than the cradle of new beginnings, I don't much care.

There's something to be said for not much caring. You suddenly realize what makes old women so brave. We have no value in society, so we have nothing to lose, and we have no time for BS. We speak truths no one else wants to speak.

And there's no one left. She had kids, and a husband, but they don't talk to me. I have one sibling left alive, and he doesn't talk to me, either.

It's a horrible feeling when everyone you are related to dies. Solitary confinement, catastrophe survivor, the last living speaker of a dead language, one foot in the grave … I could go on all day with the metaphors.

There is so much in my head that no one would understand or care about.

So why bother talking. And yes the appropriate punctuation to end that sentence with is a period, not a question mark.

Why bother talking about anything, from world peace to this fifth anniversary.

You know, as I type all this, I'm finding it's much harder to talk about not talking than it is to talk.

As I saw the anniversary approaching, I thought, will I do anything? Will I mention it? And I thought, nah.

But then this morning, on WQXR, Jeff Spurgeon, the velvet-voiced, suave and charming morning DJ, mentioned, not once but several times, that today is Siblings Day.  

You do notice when one of your siblings dies while you are rubbing the soles of her feet, and she dies on Siblings Day, especially if you've had two siblings die already, one at 23 on your birthday, the other at 34.

So, I thought, let me at least try to come up with something to say on the blog.

And I find that I don't really have much of anything to say.

So I'll just repost this. It's a Facebook post from a couple of weeks ago.


Antoinette was very into current events, and also into science.

I'm a current events junkie, and I like science stories, but not as much as Antoinette did. She understood more than I do; she did not have my cognitive handicaps.

When the coronavirus story began to break, I thought, "I wish Antoinette were here. She would have been all over this like white on rice."

Years ago, when she was in nursing school and I was a kid, she was the one who taught me, emphatically, "Do not touch your face with your hands. Don't touch your eyes. Use a tissue. A clean tissue."

If she were here, she would read about coronavirus, and develop theories as to which treatments would prove beneficial, and make predictions -- which would usually turn out to be correct -- and have all kinds of backstage gossip about how her hospital, which announces itself as having been designated one of the fifty best hospitals in America, is handling the crisis.

A day or two into the crisis, I suddenly felt her presence, and also the presence of my mother.

I would just be in the kitchen making dinner, or taking a bath, and -- I felt their presence. Both my mother and my sister.

How to describe this sensation. How about this. Even if you closed your eyes, and stopped up your ears, and held your nose, you might feel someone in the room with you. I don't know how that works.

also, that sense that someone is in the room with you has a signature on it. It has a vibration. This is only Antoinette. Not a vague sense of presence, but a sense of her identity, her essence.

You don't see anything or hear anything, she's just *there.*

You feel it with some antennae that isn't part of the standard five senses. It's not your nose and her aroma; it's not your ears and her voice; it's not your eyes and her outline; it's not your fingers and her distinctive flesh.

It's her unique essence, what her soul does to space, and you register that with some sense you can't name.

Evidently I can't describe this at all.

I got the sense that Antoinette and my mother were eavesdropping on the crisis, and maybe sticking around to reassure me of something.

Mind -- my relationship with both these women was imperfect. In the physical world, they were both as likely to terrify me as reassure me. and I did not "summon.' them. I was not yearning for them. I was not missing them. so, no, my imagination did not conjure this up.

Then, one night, I woke up -- probably in a dream -- and there was Antoinette, lying next to me, her big, substantive body, earthbound and earth mother shaped. We used to share the same bed when we were growing up.

I said, in a very matter of fact way, "Antoinette, when did you arrive? When I went to bed you were not here."

And she said, equally matter of factly, "I got in at three."

The sense of their presence lasted about three days, and then ended. Haven't sensed them since, and as I write this, I can't re-feel that feeling. It is gone.


The blog post from five years ago, that I wrote the day she died, is here.

Grateful to the Polish American Journal for Covering God through Binoculars

Friday, March 13, 2020

An Open Letter to Facebook Friends Who Support Bernie Sanders

An Open Letter to Facebook Friends who Support Bernie Sanders
You Aren't Voting Only for "Free College"

Dear Facebook Friends,

Mark, you sent me educational materials insisting that Bernie Sanders is a socialist, not a communist. Communists are bad; socialists are good. You did not object as three of your friends called me an anti-Semite because I don't support Bernie Sanders. Yes, the same Bernie Sanders who dubbed anti-Semite Ilhan Omar "One of the greatest people I know" is suddenly the poster boy for Jewish identity.

John, you posted a meme with a Harry Truman quote stating that "'Socialism' is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years." Anyone who criticizes Bernie Sanders is part of some backward "they" who stands in the way of progress.

We Sanders critics are caricatures of Senator Joseph McCarthy. We are trying to start a new 1950s-style witch hunt, falsely accusing citizens of being communists, fomenting paranoia, ruining careers, sending innocents to the electric chair.

Or we are corporate shills, the privileged elite, perched on piles of ill-gotten gains, no doubt inherited from ancestors who were slave-owners and rapists-of-the-earth. We are greedy. We are bloated fat cats, hoarding the world's wealth in our tightly clenched fists.

Sometimes Bernie Bros stereotype Sanders critics as warmongers. We are characters out of Dr. Strangelove. We are just fixing for a fight, and, fists raised, we want to punch ourselves some Russkies.

Sometimes you dress us in denim overalls and plunk a straw hat on our heads and stick a blade of grass between our lips. We are yokels, lumpen proletariat, Faux News addicts. We are brainwashed, and otherwise unwashed, knuckle-dragging hayseeds. We are the masses who vote against our own self-interest. Sanders himself echoed this line. Anyone who criticizes his socialism, he wrote, is a victim of the "tremendous political ignorance in this country created by the schools and the media."

My friends, you post photos on Facebook that introduce me to your lives. These photos are replete with big porches begging for long, summer, Sunday afternoons, mountain ranges in alpenglow, expanses of pristine water punctuated by the paddles of canoes, and adorable granddaughters dabbling in finger paints. You post about books published and awards won. Somehow supporting Bernie Sanders christens you, economically successful and comfortable Americans, as spokespersons for and saviors of the masses, the working poor, the disenfranchised.

I, by contrast, am quite literally a coal-miner's daughter. I live well below the poverty line in one of America's most dangerous small cities. I post the latest record tally of police officers posed in action figure posture twenty feet from my window, my former-silk-mill apartment walls splashed with the hypnotic, throbbing red and blue lights from multiple police cars. I try to figure out what the police are here to address this time, another suicide off the Wayne Avenue Bridge or Garret Mountain's cliff face, or heroin haul, or gun pulled in the bar across the street.

I'm the one, not you, who has done manual, blue-and-pink collar labor for years at a time, as my sole means of support. I've been a nurse's aide, house cleaner, live-in domestic servant, carpenter, zookeeper, waitress, and landscaper. I'm the one who is supposed to be voting for Benevolent Uncle Bernie, who will swoop in and jackknife the millionaires and the billionaires and hand me the workers' paradise I deserve. "Arise ye prisoners of starvation … From each according to his ability, to each according to his need … Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains." I know the lyrics; I just do not want to sing along.

This dichotomy isn't just about you and me. It's worldwide. I listen to NPR and David Remnick and Brian Lehrer, two highly educated, very successful and powerful white men, hammer in to me that they, not I, really know what it is to be poor in America. They, not I, have the right to dictate for whom I should vote. I must, in their drama, sneer at the more moderate candidates I prefer, the ones who talk about patriotism, hard work, obeying the law, incremental improvements, and compromise with opposing parties. It's the Catholic Church that oppresses me, they insist. It's capitalism. It's that irredeemably tainted project, America, that I must hate and fear. It's not millionaire socialists like Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders is not a communist, you tell me. He is a socialist. Communists are the ones responsible for this or that unfortunate mass grave in a galaxy long, long ago and far, far away. Socialists are warm and fuzzy philanthropists responsible for free college and healthcare-as-a-human-right.

You are playing a semantics shell game. Both Marx and Engels used the terms "communism" and "socialism" interchangeably. The Proletariat Party, the Social Democratic Party, The Independent Social Democratic Party, the Spartacus League, The Communist Party: these are the parties Rosa Luxemburg belonged to, one after the other, the same poison product rebranded with a new and improved name. Don't like the crimes committed in the name of Marxism? Don't address the crimes; just change the name of the party. The movie Life of Brian parodied this leftist game. Ancient Israelites, living under Roman oppression, are talking politics.

"Are you the Judean People's Front?" a passerby asks them.

"F--- off! We're the People's Front of Judea! Judean People's Front are wankers. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f---ing Judean People's Front, and the Judean Popular People's Front."

Maybe Bernie Sanders sees important differences between socialism and communism. But he has said, "I don't mind people coming up and calling me a Communist." And Sanders is on record praising the USSR, Communist China, Castro's Cuba, Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega. And people calling themselves "socialist" have a lot to answer for.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Bernie Sanders signed a letter of support for Venezuela's socialist leader Hugo Chavez in January of 2003, even as Chavez's troops were firing tear gas at tens of thousands of Venezuelans protesting his rule. Chavez was also threatening to revoke broadcast licenses of anyone who criticized him. There was "property confiscation at gunpoint, politically motivated arrests, and state-sponsored gang violence." Socialist Chavez is largely responsible for a world-record-setting humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

The Journal noted the name game Marxists play. "Whether Mr. Sanders wants to call the humanitarian disaster he encouraged in Venezuela socialism or 'democratic' socialism, the press should not allow him to escape accountability."

Of communist China, Sanders said that, "they have made more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization, so they've done a lot of things for their people." Estimates of communism's death toll in China run between 40 and 80 million. China has been able, in recent years, to lift people out of poverty because China allowed the selective application of capitalism.

In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Sanders said about Cuba, "It's unfair to simply say everything is bad … When Fidel Castro came to office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?"

In other interviews, Sanders said about Castro that he "educated the kids, gave them health care, totally transformed the society … The revolution is far deeper and more profound than I had understood it to be … It is a revolution of values in which people, instead of working for their own personal wealth, work for the common good."

Before Castro, the literacy rate in Cuba was 77%. That's not bad for a small, mostly agrarian island in the mid-twentieth century. Yes, Castro can claim raising the literacy rate to 100%. But Castro's Cuba must also take responsibility for banning and burning books, and for extensive legal sanction against any production of words that criticize the ruling powers in any way. For example, anyone in Cuba who "threatens, libels or slanders, defames, affronts or in any other way insults or offends, with the spoken word or in writing, the dignity or decorum of an authority, public functionary, or his agents or auxiliaries" is subject to three months to one year in prison, plus a fine.

In his famous "Words to the Intellectuals," Castro said that the Cuban artist

puts the Revolution above everything else, and the most revolutionary artist will be that one who is prepared to sacrifice even his own artistic vocation for the Revolution … Nothing against the Revolution, because the Revolution has its rights also, and the first right of the Revolution is the right to exist, and no one can stand against the right of the Revolution to be and to exist … No one can rightfully claim a right against the Revolution. Since it takes in the interests of the people and Signifies the interests of the entire nation … I believe that this is quite clear. What are the rights of revolutionary or non-revolutionary writers and artists? Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, no rights at all.

Castro, like a Bernie Bro, declares that he, not those counter-revolutionary writers and thinkers, has the authority to represent the working poor. Flaunting that self-awarded imprimatur, Castro further declares that he has the right and duty to decide what artists can create, what writers can write, and what readers can read. If Sanders were being honest, he would mention that Castro's literacy program was created not to free, but to imprison human minds.

In 1987, as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders wrote to Cuban representative Ramón Sánchez-Parodi, inviting Sánchez-Parodi to visit Burlington. Remember, though the Nobel-prize-winning critic of the Gulag system, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, lived in Vermont, 1976-1994, he and Sanders never met. But Sanders did work to meet Cubans and Soviets.

Sanders is on record as making extraordinarily insensitive comments about the socialist Sandinista government's mistreatment of Miskito Indians. When confronted with Miskito reports of deadly attacks by Sandinistas, Sanders responded, "It happens not to be an area of my interest." Criticism of the Sandinistas, he said, must be understood "in the context of the society we are living in. When you discuss what is going on now, you have to look at the alternatives." Real Clear Politics reporter Philip Wegman wrote,

According to reporter Debbie Bookchin, who would later serve as press secretary for Sanders during his years in the House of Representatives, that meant improved health care, access to education, and increased literacy overall. Apparently annoyed that he was being pushed on the Miskito issue, he shot back, "I really don't think the people of Rutland are staying up nights worrying about this."

The New York Post quotes Sanders as saying, about the mistreatment of Miskito, "The word genocide is nonsense … It is a complicated issue. I'm not an expert."

Sanders' quotes on Sandinista mistreatment of the Miskito bring to mind the proverb, "In order to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs." It astounds me that these quotes have not received more press attention, and that they did not factor into the Democratic debates. Joe Biden was called to task for his lack of support for busing, and Mike Bloomberg was pilloried for jokes. Surely Sanders' wink and nod towards Sandinista persecution of Miskito is more grave.  

Sanders honeymooned in the USSR. He did so in 1988, reporting, "People there seemed reasonably happy and content … I didn't notice much deprivation."

Bernie Bros, please do me this favor. Perform a Google image search of "Leipzig 1989." Thousands of people jam public squares and streets. These people have free college. These people have free health care. What they want is written on their signs: "FREIHEIT," translated as "liberty" or "freedom." You can almost hear, through these archival photos, their chant: "Wir sind das Volk," "We are the people."

Their chant reminds me of the tension between you and me, the tension between me and the NPR talking heads who tell me that they, not I, represent the working class. Their chant calls to mind Castro's insistence that he can tell writers what to write and readers what to read because he, Castro, represents the people.

We are the people, you bastards, these East Germans said to their betters, to their vanguard. We are the people, not you.

The word "people" had been co-opted by Marxists to justify oppression. This is the people's democratic republic. This is the people's housing. This is the people's censorship office. This is the people's army. This is the people's police. This is the people's water cannon, the people's tear gas, the people's truncheon breaking your counterrevolutionary skull. We are doing what we do for the people. Leipzig was in East Germany, perhaps the most oppressive of the Soviet satellite states. These protesters risked everything to take back the word "people" from the communists who stole it from them.

I've never stood over a mass grave. Unlike my Facebook friend Anna, my mother, father, aunts and uncles were not deported to Kolyma and other Siberian camps for the sole crime of being Polish in territory the Soviet Union wanted. By the way, Bernie Bros, have you heard of Kolyma? You've heard of Auschwitz, and I can take your knowledge of that manmade hell for granted. But I cannot take for granted your awareness of Kolyma. That's part of the problem, guys.

When I was a kid, we were in constant contact with my mother's family. I don't have any dramatic stories from these letters, just the drip, drip, drip of censorship, threats, stolen items we tried to send them, and petty harassment. Their letters, in words and silences, told us what Marxism was like on the ground. We visited in the 1970s.

I remember my aunt who had been gang raped by the invading – oh, sorry, liberating – Red Army. She had what we would now call PTSD and lived a limited life. No one thought she would marry but she fell in love with a rare gentleman. He was a dissident who had been non-personed. He couldn't work, had to live under constant surveillance, and contact with him compromised anyone who dared talk to him. He was brilliant, courageous, and charismatic, and one of the most intellectually dynamic men I'd ever meet. His intellect, his decency, his dynamism, were limited to the walls of his apartment. Wasted. Because his qualities did not serve "the people."

Can you imagine, I wonder, how deeply this man's tragedy gouged a hole in my soul? That I feel him, right now, even as I write about this, and choke back tears?

I remember standing with my cousin and her friends on a dirt road, next to oceanic fields of wheat and rye, blue cornflowers and shockingly red poppies; I remember distant green mountains and the ruins of a castle. We were talking about something. I don't remember what. What girls talk about. Laughing, freewheeling. And I asked my cousin what she thought of X. I don't even remember what X was. And suddenly she looked terrified, and stopped, and silenced herself, and looked around, and everyone else did the same, and the conversation died.

There were no police around, no lampshade to hide a microphone. And they killed the conversation because I innocently asked, "What do you think of X?"

My Uncle Jan was slim, muscular, and self-reliant, making his way on an acre of land, a pig, rabbits, chickens, crops, beehives, pork parts hanging from hooks in the cellar, no stove, no refrigerator. Survived Nazism. My mother and I were chatting, again, I don't remember about what, and he jumped up from the table and shouted, "Shut up! Shut up! Don't you realize what you are doing? A man sang 'Slovak som aj Slovak budem' in the bar and he was taken away and we never heard from him again!"

I could go on all day with stories like this…

Oh, just one more. This one is from Poland, 1988. Jacek had received a scholarship to the UK. He recruited me to teach him some English. We were sitting in his dorm room. He opened a notebook and, pen poised above the paper,  asked me for the English translation of the very first word that came to his mind, a word he thought for sure he would need while shopping for food. "Smalec." Lard.

"Jacek," I assured him, "When you get hungry in Western Europe, you are not going to need to know how to say, 'lard.'"

Okay, okay, just one more story, also from Poland, 1988.

I went to a gynecologist. She had me strip and mount the table with the stirrups. When she had me all strapped in, she abruptly opened  the window across from me, exposing me to passersby in an alley. She jammed a wooden Q-tip in my privates, broke it, and then she left the room. Later, I told Polish friends. They said, "You didn't put dollars in the cup?"

"What cup?"

"There was a cup on her desk. You were supposed to put dollars in it. That's how you get health care."

One more story. Just one more, I promise.

Beata heard that someone was traveling to West Berlin for the weekend. She gave this American her entire month's salary so that the American might bring back to her one spool of turquoise thread.  

On Thursday, March 5, 2020, some lunatic raised a Nazi flag at a Bernie Sanders rally. Bernie Bros were outraged. Mass murder is very bad!

I said to you, "So, we are supposed to remember, be outraged by, and protest atrocities committed by Nazis. But we are supposed to forget, forgive, and move past atrocities committed by Marxists."

Why is it okay to wear a t-shirt with Mao's, Stalin's, or Che's face, but not okay to wear a t-shirt with Hitler's face? Why is the swastika taboo, but the hammer and sickle is okay? 

Bernie Bros, you are politically correct. You are part of a social machine that advocates fines and professional termination for people who commit such offenses as referring to a biological male, who self-identifies as female, as "he." You've given the world safe spaces and sensitivity training. You never let Mitt Romney forget that he said "binders full of women."

Tens of millions of dead in the name of Marxism? Not even a footnote to you, as The Atlantic points out in its March 1, 2020 article, "Young People Don't Care About the U.S.S.R." Those who died under the hammer and sickle need their Anne Frank. Tens of millions – you can't get your mind around that. We need one named victim of Marxism that you might, you just might, be able to care about.

How about Chen Shuxiang? On August, 27, 1966, Shuxiang's mother walked into a room where he and his five siblings were hiding. "She was covered in blood; it was all over her face and her body," Shuxiang recalls. "She didn't look like a human being." The blood was his father's. She told her children that their father was dead. She had witnessed his murder. 

Teenagers, members of the Red Guard, had chained Shuxiang's father, Chen Yanrong, to a radiator and beaten him to death with iron bars, ropes, and belts. This was part of the Cultural Revolution. Chen Shuxiang thought to ask, "What mistake did we make? What did we do?" But of course he and his father were guilty only of being impediments on the road to free college and healthcare-as-a-human-right, or whatever promises Marxists were making that day. The murder would eventually be ruled an accidental death.

"My father was a human being, not an animal. He wasn't a cat or a dog. He was a person. They beat him to death in just a few hours," Shuxiang would protest fifty years later. Shuxiang complied a dossier documenting communist crimes. "It took me 10 years to write. It was so hard for me. Each time I tried to remember my father, I couldn't help but cry … We don't know where you are, but you will be in our hearts forever … You are an honest man, genuine, kind … We will always miss you."

"Fifty years after the murder," The Guardian reported, "Chen weeps as he says he does not even have a photograph to remember his father. 'Taking a photo was a luxury.'"

Roderick MacFarquhar, the author of Mao's Last Revolution "says Beijing's refusal to allow a truth commission … has left the door open to further violence … 'They haven't done the heart-searching that is necessary if you are going to put it behind you forever … if one doesn't face up to that, it could happen again.'"

Bernie Bros, believe me, I know exactly what you are thinking. "They" – that is the Marxists who committed atrocities on the road to Utopia – "They did Marxism wrong. We are going to do Marxism right."

Or maybe you are thinking, as one Facebook friend put it, "France has free college. There are no gulags in France."

I remember back in the days when I was a fellow traveler among card-carrying, active party members. Impassioned debates would go on into the night. If this or that historical sequence had been altered by as little as the equivalent of one frame of film, everything would have gone differently. If Lenin had not died. If America had only done this; if England had only not done that; if Trotsky had filed his nails differently; if Bukharin had used a different brand of mouthwash, then, comrades, yes, yes, then! We'd see real Marxism, the real workers' paradise! Humane, fair, just! Read this pamphlet by Rosa Luxemburg and it will all become clear!

One of you insisted, "Hey! Bernie Sanders is no Stalin!"

Well, yeah, Bernie Sanders is no Joseph Stalin. Stalin actually got things done. Even Sanders-friendly voices acknowledge that he has a slender resume, a slight list of accomplishments. If Stalin had wanted student loan debt eliminated, believe me, it would have happened immediately. Or heads would roll.

Stalin got things done through state terror. Ukrainians refuse to collectivize? Starve them to death in their millions. Sanders doesn't starve anyone to death, but he doesn't get things done. Am I implying that Sanders' ideas are unworkable in contemporary America? Yes. Prove me wrong. Get Americans to vote for Sanders' $97 trillion budget. Sell just this part of it – convince American taxpayers to assume the burden of other people's college loans. And get back to me when you are successful. I can wait.

Sanders hasn't just praised bloody, oppressive communist dictatorships, he uses their same rhetorical approaches and logic. Again and again, Sanders insists that there are bad guys out there, bad guys who are responsible for all the evils of society. Those bad guys are "millionaires and billionaires."

Would you understand how toxic, false, and irresponsible Sanders' hatemongering and scapegoating is if, instead of telling us to isolate, hate, and blame "millionaires and billionaires," he was telling us to hate, isolate, and blame Jews? Or educated people? Or members of some group other than the rich?

Why do you think singling out the rich for hatred is innocent? Do you know what has happened to rich Chinese, say, in Indonesian and Malaysian riots? I'll tell you what happens. Rich Chinese are singled out for torture and rape. Do you know that economic resentment has long been a significant spark for anti-Jewish pogroms, and that it also played a role in the Armenian Genocide?

Most people don't know millionaires and billionaires. When the revolution starts, it isn't only millionaires and billionaires whose homes are ransacked. In the Cambodian killing fields, the Khmer Rouge focused on persecuting anyone who wore glasses. When Soviet Russians rounded up Poles for Siberia, they targeted stamp collectors. Wearing glasses, collecting stamps: activities associated with a better class of people. People with more than you have become acceptable targets. It's okay to bash them over the head and take what they have, because they caused all these problems. Benevolent Uncle Bernie told me so.

In 1973, in The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described a different, Christian, moral universe. "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

It's not just in his scapegoating and hate-mongering that Sanders is like more successful Marxists like Stalin. Sanders has said that he is not a capitalist, that he does not believe in the profit motive or free enterprise, does not believe that the profit motive is fundamental to human nature, and that he does not believe in competition. And one of you told me how great such a society would be. A society where we would all be equal. A society where we cooperated rather than competed. I assigned her some reading: Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." I hope she reads it.

It's funny. Some of the same folks who embrace Sanders are proud of how science-y they are. "We're all about truth and facts!" Truth and facts, like evolution. Like the idea that competition isn't just a filthy, rotten, capitalist tool of oppression. Competition is how life on planet earth works. Species compete among their fellows and with each other. That competition hones life to its finest. Remove competition and you have the life we lived in communist Poland.

I keep struggling to describe to Bernie Bros what it was like to live in a "socialist republic." I keep throwing in the towel. Unless you lived through it, you can't know what it was like.

Imagine that you live in a world where it is taboo to attempt to score, to excel, to be higher, faster, or stronger. Where football players are anointed not on how far they can throw, how fast they can run, or how hard they can hit, but on how much their identity fits some government-decreed quota. Imagine a football game consisting  of folks in uniform milling about on the field. No cheering; too sexist. And then everyone goes home. And  then imagine a subterranean economy and social life that is rife with competition and black market deals and men in long coats on street corners whispering that they will give you a hundred times the official rate for your American money, because he needs hard currency, dollars, to shove in the cup at the doctor's office or his kid won't be seen. You maybe begin to understand what day-to-day life is like without competition, without the profit motive, where everyone is equal.

Bernie Bros, I think you don't care about my aunt, my cousins, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Chen Shuxiang, Venezuelan women prostituting themselves for a sandwich, Cuban poets rotting in jail, or the countless and uncountable tens of millions of other victims of socialism, communism, and other forms of Marxism.

I'm not saying you are cold and uncaring. I'm saying you are incorrect.

One more story. I promise this will be the last one. When I was younger, I lived in New York City and I hung out with American communists. These were folks who carried party cards and sold newspapers on subways and attended endless meetings. One of them was named "Mack." Mack was one of the most active, the most dedicated. He was also an intravenous drug user. He contracted hepatitis and was hospitalized. And none of his comrades ever visited him in the hospital.

I heard this story from several party members. I used to ask everyone who told me this story the same question: You are idealistic. You want a better world. Why not create that better world now, with your day-to-day decisions and behaviors? Why not be nice to people, donate to charities, maybe tutor literacy, that sort of thing?

Again and again, from several party members, I received the same answer. Our belief that we have the ability to make choices now, to improve anything now, is delusional. Being nice to someone is not a powerful act. It is the act of someone who has been brainwashed by capitalists. We are currently powerless. Ameliorative projects, from sending a get-well card to a friend to programs like Social Security, are chimeras designed to trick us. Ameliorative projects are the real opiate of the masses.

The better world can only come about after the workers control the means of production. We must spread propaganda convincing more and more workers to join the struggle against capital. If we spend our time visiting Mack in the hospital, we delay the revolution. The thing to do is to hit the subways and sell more copies of the party newspaper.

Not everyone is as hardcore, or as conscious of this reasoning, as my former comrades. But I do see those who shout the loudest about the need for a spectacular, world-cleansing revolution, including Bernie Bros, as often the least likely to pursue simple decency in the here-and-now world. There is so much emphasis on a future worker's paradise that the here-and-now world slips into insignificance. I believe that that future workers' paradise, as has been demonstrated by failed socialist / communist / Marxist regimes again and again, can never happen, because it defies human nature, a nature that is, yes, competitive and reward-driven, a nature that yearns to be free. You, Bernie Bros, do not believe that. So you are signing up, yet again, for what you think will be a straight-line rocket trajectory to a better future, but is really just another disillusioning ride on a stuck-in-place merry-go-round.

In 1982, after the USSR clamped down on Solidarity in Poland, Susan Sontag gave a speech at Town Hall in New York City. Sontag said,

There are many lessons to be learned from the Polish events. But, I would maintain, the principal lesson to be learned is the lesson of the failure of Communism, the utter villainy of the Communist system. It has been a hard lesson to learn. And I am struck by how long it has taken us to learn it … I can remember reading a chapter of Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind … When it came out in 1953, I bought the book, a passionate account of the dishonesty and coerciveness of intellectual and cultural life in Poland in the first years of Communism, which troubled me but which I also regarded as an instrument of cold war propaganda, giving aid and comfort to McCarthyism …  We believed in, or at least applied a double standard to, the angelic language of Communism …  We thought we loved justice; many of us did. But we did not love the truth enough … We tried to distinguish among Communisms, for example, treating "Stalinism," which we disavowed, as if it were an aberration, and praising other regimes, outside of Europe, which had and have essentially the same character … Communism is in itself … fascism with a human face … In our efforts to criticize and reform our own societies, we owe it to those in the front line of struggle against tyranny to tell the truth, without bending it to serve interests we deem are just.

This first appeared at Front Page Magazine here

Monday, March 9, 2020

"From Fire by Water" Sohrab Ahmari Book Review

Iran-Born Shiite Muslim, Marxist, Catholic Convert, Conservative Author, and Ardent Trump Supporter

Sohrab Ahmari was born in Iran, grew up Muslim, immigrated to Utah in the United States, became a Marxist, left Marxism, became a conservative journalist, and converted to Catholicism in 2016, when he was 31 years old. His 2019 memoir, From Fire by Water, describes this journey.

Ahmari made national headlines with his May, 2019 First Things op-ed, "Against David Frenchism." In that piece, Ahmari argued that Christians must resist cultural trends like drag queen story hour and the "paganized ideology" of "elite institutions." Christians must "fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good." Donald Trump, Ahmari argued, is the Christians' ally in this culture war against pagan ideology. Trump has shifted politics and culture "away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion. He believes that the political community – and not just the church, family, and individual – has its own legitimate scope for action. He believes it can help protect the citizen from transnational forces beyond his control."

Ahmari's piece touched off a widespread debate among conservatives. Critics accused Ahmari of arguing for a Christian theocracy in the US. His article could have been titled "For Theocracy," said Nico Perrino of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

I could not wait to read From Fire by Water. I imagined it would be like Seeking Allah; Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi, Nonie Darwish's Wholly Different, and Mosab Hassan Yusef's Son of Hamas. All these books dramatically recount their authors' conversion from Islam to Christianity. I also thought From Fire by Water would be like David Horowitz's Radical Son and Mortality and Faith, memoirs that also follow the journey of a former leftist who became a prominent conservative author.

In fact From Fire by Water is not like any of these books. Ahmari was never much of a Muslim, in spite of growing up in Iran, and his journey was more gradual, cerebral, solitary, and bookish than those of the previously mentioned authors.  

Initial news accounts of Ahmari's conversion often mischaracterized his journey. "If I was reacting against anything, it was against the materialism and relativism that had taken root in the West beginning in the nineteenth century. I had turned my back against Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, not the prophet Muhammad, whose religion had left only faint imprints on my soul by the time I entered adulthood."

Ahmari's Iranian family was not particularly observant of Islam. They were members of the well-to-do educated elite, living in Tehran, the capital city. Their faith "such as it was," "amounted to a kind of liberal sentimental ecumenism." Islam was worthwhile insofar as it contained some humanistic elements. Zoroastrianism was revered because it arose in ancient Persia. Christianity "was simply wonderful, a gentle, Western religion." Armenian Christians in Iran were his family's source for wine, arak, and salami.

"I thought I was American before I ever set foot in the United States," he writes. He arrived just before turning 14 years old. He already spoke English fluently, with an American accent he had picked up from the movies. He had concluded that the West was superior to Iran, based on the elegant packaging of Toblerone chocolate bars. Relatives returning from trips West brought with them the scent of a better world. Iran smelled of "dust mingled with stale rosewater." Iranian culture alternated between "burning, ideological rage" and "mournful nostalgia." Iranian narratives were informed by fatalism that dictated misfortune. In Western narratives, heroes confronted obstacles that they overcame, all through their own gumption. In the West, "an individual mattered as an individual." In contrast, a boy who donned a suicide vest and threw himself at an Iraqi tank was one prototypical Iranian hero.

Ahmari writes that he would eventually discover that those Western action heroes, capable of changing their own fate, were not rooted in the careful packaging of Toblerone bars, Western air freshener, or any other expression of consumer-item superiority. Eventually, he says, "I would find the heart of the West somewhere entirely different – in events that took place on a dusty, bloodstained hilltop on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem."

Niloofar, Ahmari's mother, studied abstract expressionist painting at a university. Ahmari tells us that she was "sweet tempered, mild to a fault, and something of a great beauty," but he never tells us much more about her.

The author describes his father Parviz at greater length. Parviz Ahmari was unconventional, a man of "sensuous self-indulgence" and "utterly incapable of restraining his passions." He smoked and drank heavily, and was "a thoroughly irresponsible husband and father … rumors of mistresses, gambling, and opium addiction swirled around him."

"All Iranians had to perfect the art of leading double lives." Young Sohrab had to be trained not to talk about his family's behavior in front of strangers who might deliver his family members to government imprisonment or torture. A family friend was caught with cassettes of Western music and flogged. "The skin on his back" looked "permanently like challah bread." Ahmari's family was once interrogated for two hours because there was an unrelated man in the same car with his parents. The police suggested that the only reason the man was there was for a planned ménage-à-trois. As in Iran's theocracy, children must also be trained in communist dictatorships. Don't tell strangers what books mommy and daddy read, what jokes they tell, what foods they consume, and what company they keep.

Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but the Ahmari family attended parties where alcohol was served. Unrelated men and women mingled at these parties. When discovered by the komiteh or morality police, the police would lecture them sternly, accusing them of behaving like customers at a whorehouse. The Ahmaris and others had to empty their pockets to pay bribes. Upon receiving the bribes, the komiteh would be on their way, forgetting any question of upholding public virtue.

Similar hypocrisy reigned in schools. One teacher upbraided Sohrab for his "Westoxication," an Islamist slur for Iranians who valued the West. That same teacher kept Sohrab after school in order to access his family's "movie guy," who provided bootlegged, contraband videotapes of Western films. The West-hating Muslim teacher wanted to see Titanic. When Sohrab and his mother announced their move to America, this same devout Muslim teacher, eager to condemn "Westoxication," asked Niloofar about the green card process. "He, too, hankered for the Great Satan's embrace."

As in other authoritarian systems, the worst rose to the top. One Koran teacher was a sadist in sweat-stained, ill-fitting clothes, "the very type of the uncouth provincial who, thanks to the revolution, had suddenly come to wield great authority in a big-city school." He forced children to assume stress positions for extended periods and sent them reeling with his blows. "Mr. Sadeghi was a bruiser." Sadeghi trained children in regarding self-sacrifice for Islam as the highest good. Remembering Hussein, a Shiite hero, "the sound of some four hundred men and boys beating their chests filled the schoolyard."

The family's live-in maid, a "homely, illiterate old woman," told little Sohrab ghost and djinn stories. "All of her stories had the same moral … it was always the skeptical characters whom the djinn would drag into the netherworld." Ahmari became an atheist around age 12. Ahmari realized he had made the break with his childhood belief when he stopped believing in djinn. Ahmari says that "if the Islamic Republic collapsed one day, it would leave behind the world's largest community of atheists."

In 1998, Ahmari, his mother and grandmother immigrated to Utah. A bookish boy, he rapidly became a teacher's darling. In classroom debates, he would argue for infanticide in order to get a rise out of others. He considered himself a nihilist and began to read Friedrich Nietzsche. Ahmari read Thus Spake Zarathustra "belly down on my bed … barely stepping out to eat and wash." "Values are relative," he learned. "What was wrong for the many was, perhaps, right for the few … all faith is but a fanciful tale that helps weak minds cope … organized religion is a con played by the hustling cleric on his gullible flock."

Seeing similarities between Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch and the communist concept of the vanguard that would lead the mass of men to a brighter future, "by the age of eighteen, I was quite literally a card-carrying Communist." Ahmari changed colleges and traveled from Utah to Washington in order to be closer to communist comrades. By the time he joined the Party, communism had already been discredited by the fall of the Soviet Union. Why, then, did he join? "The thrill of épater les bourgeois" and to act out his disappointment that the American he migrated to was not the America of his childhood imaginings.

Ahmari continued to spend days reading, no doubt belly down on his bed. He worked through Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Judith Butler. He hung out with other "cool" guys, also readers. He drank and often woke up painfully hungover and wondering what he had done the night before. "In those black hours, it did me no good to recall that all moral norms are historically contingent or that resisting Western hegemony Is the duty of the subaltern." He would pray, and then feel ashamed of himself for praying.

Ahmari graduated college and joined Teach for America. This was the turning point. No longer was Ahmari lying belly-down on his bed, alone in his room, reading. Suddenly he was responsible for other young lives. "At the slightest contact with reality, much of the bosh that clouded my mind dissipated." Ahmari met Yossi, an Israeli-American. They almost had a physical fight. Yossi once called Ahmari an "anti-Semitic piece of garbage." But Yossi's example would change Ahmari's life.

Yossi went against the Teach for America grain. He did not teach his students to feel like helpless victims and future troops in inevitable class warfare. Yossi demanded order, responsibility, and consequences. Observing Yossi's example, Ahmari concluded, "Character and virtue, then, preceded material circumstances; leftist ideology put the cart before the horse. People and their conduct weren't reducible to language, race, class, and collective identities."

These reflections caused Ahmari to realize that there is an internal measure of virtue. From whence that internal guide, if there is no God? Ahmari educated himself about the dark side of communism. He concluded that "To restrain man's hand against man, he has to be bound by some absolute authority outside himself … How was it possible to uphold the dignity of the person if there wasn't something special about his origins?"

Ahmari found the answer to these questions in the Judeo-Christian tradition. "Western democracies were morally superior … because they still hewed to a Judeo-Christian line … if I savored the ordered liberty that I saw around me, I had to give credit to the religious ideals that had given birth to it." Eventually he would come to conclude that "A skeptical and infertile West lacked the spiritual resource to deal with an energetic and virile Islam … To deal humanely and intelligently with Islam … Americans and Europeans needed to honor their own Judeo-Christian roots."

One Sunday evening, afraid of appearing a "gullible sap," Ahmari walked into a Catholic church. During the re-enactment of the Last Supper, he broke into sobs. "I was in the proximity of an awesome and mysterious force, a force bound up with sacrifice, with self-giving unto death."

As ever, books brought him around, specifically, Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses and Joseph Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth. The universality and timelessness of the Bible caused him to ask if the Bible was the work of "human hands alone." The Bible is simply not comparable to other religious works that are thousands of years old. Most Pagan texts are "of merely archaeological, historical, or literary interest; the Torah was a living text that spoke fresh truths across a distance of three thousand years." The story of the Fall offers a truer insight than can be found in more recent attempts to explain human nature. People are broken, and no intervention, short of Jesus' sacrifice, will fix us. Of course Ahmari read Augustine. "All false doctrines, Augustine said, seek to negate man's responsibility for sin."

From Fire by Water is largely a journal of books read and interior life. One chapter, "The House on the Cape of Olives," stands out as quite different. Ahmari describes, on journalistic assignment, posing as an Iranian migrant traveling along the route from countries like Afghanistan into Europe. This chapter evokes Ahmari's experience vividly. A group of men hide out in a migrant safe house. The house is crawling with cockroaches. "Migration itself is a form of jihad!" one insists. Another man, a sadistic bully, torments an effeminate boy. This chapter is brief but unforgettable. Ahmari includes it, he says, to demonstrate what a hell on earth human beings can make for each other, absent God.

Again, From Fire by Water is not like the other memoirs I had read about Muslims converting to Christianity or left-wingers moving right. It is very much a book about a man for whom reading big-name authors is a primary activity. I was truly astounded by the "Cape of Olives" chapter because I had begun to wonder if Ahmari could write narrative prose with description, characters, and plot. Clearly he can, and he can do so superbly.

I'm a more plebian Catholic than Ahmari. My religion is less about what I read and more about what I do, and how I interact with others. As a woman, I was troubled by the relative silence of women in this text. Clearly Ahmari's mother is a key figure, but he says next to nothing about her. Yes, there are Islamic constraints on how much a man can discuss his mother in public. But Ahmari does vividly describe what appear to be two prostitutes who try to drum up business during his assignment as a faux migrant.

For this review to be complete, I have to mention Ahmari's insistence on unquestioning obedience to clerical authority. Ahmari was instructed in Catholicism by a priest who asked him few questions, and invited no discussion. "This was catechesis, not a dialogue … what, really, did I have to say to the Church that she needed to hear? Nothing."

Ahmari's silent, unquestioning submission is very much not exemplary of Biblical or Church tradition. God converses with humans, including the lowliest, throughout the Bible. Adam, Cain, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, The Samaritan Woman at the Well, all converse, argue, debate and bargain with God or angels, voicing their most mundane concerns, which God takes seriously. Hannah, a woman shunned because of her barrenness, named her son "Samuel," meaning "Heard by God." Jacob's name was changed to "Israel," "He who wrestles with God," after Jacob did just that. St. Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church, complained to God about falling in mud. She also griped about her wagons getting stuck in mud. "If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them," she famously said, to the creator of the universe.

Ahmari acknowledges an accusation made by not a few critics. "Had I found in the Catholic faith a way to express the reactionary longings of my Persian soul?" I don't know. I do know that unquestioning obedience to Catholic clerics has a spotty history in recent days. I think, of course, of the clerical abuse crisis. My Catholic Church is a church that can handle questions, and provide answers, and participate in dialogue.

My other hesitation about From Fire by Water. I keep thinking of that young man "belly down" on his bed, reading some great author or other. Ahmari details his own history from influential author to influential author. I wish From Fire by Water had provided the reader with greater assurance that Ahmari is finally home, and he won't be moving to any new ideology any time soon. He does provide a careful roadmap. Nihilism, Marxism and postmodernism left him with questions, questions that were answered overwhelmingly during the mass' reenactment of the Last Supper. I just wish I could feel more secure that my new brother in faith won't go through the process he has gone through before, that is, finding a new author or ideology that refutes the previous one.

Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery

This review first appeared in Front Page Magazine here

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

A Message from My Sister Antoinette

Friday, December 20, 2019, I was settled in to that comfortable slough between dispensations. The cup-shaped curve in the year's parabola is especially pronounced for teachers. Fall semester had just ended. Days before that Friday I was being inundated by contact with students, each of whom had a super-urgent request that I must fill or the earth would crash into the sun. Did I want students to write on both sides of their final paper or not? I NEED TO KNOW RIGHT NOW! If only students had this urgent need for their teachers all semester. Come finals time, students are suddenly as focused on someone they had previously ignored as are dying penitents suddenly insisting on plumbing the mind of God.

Friday, December 20 I was making out Christmas cards and looking forward to well-earned days of blissful cookie baking and rewatching Bing, Danny, Vera and Rosemary in "White Christmas." I was really looking forward to having time to sleep and clean thoroughly.

I checked email. My boss wrote to let me go. I am an adjunct, and my continued employment depends on student enrollment. When the economy goes south, college enrollment increases. When the economy improves, enrollment goes down. Today's full employment means fewer students means more adjunct professors fired.

It was a gut punch. I'd been at the same school for fifteen years. I have since learned that not only was I let go, but the entire department I used to teach in might itself disappear. Breaks my heart.

My parents had enough of a work ethic for five modern-day Americans. It's a Bohunk immigrant thing. They would work within days of major surgery. My mother worked two full-time jobs when I was a kid, working in factories during the day and cleaning offices at night. Her presence was the sound of the backdoor opening when I was drifting off to sleep, the pot of mush in the double boiler left on the stove for my breakfast in the morning.

In the past years of multiple catastrophes, hurricanes, forced evacuations, cancer diagnoses and deaths, I have missed exactly two days of work. One for a broken bone and one for a hospital-acquired infection that caused dramatic and unattractive facial swelling.

So I immediately got another job. I realize now that that wasn't the smartest move. If I had just cried a bit and let myself bounce back I could have devoted some time to finding the best job, not just any job.

And it gets worse. I committed to the new job, a distant commute away, a commute I make in a twenty-year-old car, for half the pay I used to make. And the very day I committed, I got a desperate phone call from my boss. She wanted to offer me a class! Someone she had kept on let her down and dropped out days before the spring semester was to begin. I would never do that. I would have loved to have taken that class, but it was too late. I had promised the new employer my services. Nothing had been signed yet, but I made a commitment. An expensive one.


There's another challenge to the new job. The commute is the exact route to my sister's home.

I had never traveled that route till my sister moved there. I haven't driven that route since the day, five years ago, I rubbed the soles of her feet as she breathed her last breaths. The only association I have with these roads is my sister.

My brother Phil was killed on my seventeenth birthday. My parents did not comfort me. I can't remember being hugged or stroked or kissed or complimented or calmed by either one of them, ever. And of course they had their own grief work when Phil died. My friends were, like me, teenagers. Regina was very kind to me at the funeral, and I remain amazed at her kindness to this day. Other than that, though, I was on my own.

What I realized is I can go on living if I just put the grief into a tightly sealed box and totally ignore it. Never indulge it. I think of Phil once a year, on my birthday. When I do think of him, my tears are as fresh as they were over forty years ago. In that box, I have not aged a day past 17. I have learned no lessons. Phil's death is an intolerable an outrage as it was the day he died.

I've worked hard to do the same with Antoinette.

Last night, for reasons I can't even guess at, I just couldn't take it anymore. To hell with discipline. I ripped off my carefully maintained straight jacket. I raged within my head. I walked into the kitchen, all by myself, and said all the unsayable things. How lonely I am. How much I miss her. How irreplaceable she is. How great is the wound. Huge, gaping, bloody, meaty, purple and red. How I'd be maimed by grief till the day I died, and how carrying grief like this makes you count the days till death, which is closer than it has ever been.

I need a woman to talk to. The way I talked to her. She could talk about *anything.* Some primitives yelp in syllables. Some average Joes manage the occasional sentence. Really refined people, the kind who could never get elected president, people who may turn up as guests on NPR's "Fresh Air," can speak in paragraphs. Antoinette spoke in essays.

Movies. Directors, stars, scripts, themes. No holds barred. Valentino to Driver. Genes. She'd go on for hours, days, about genes. I never had any idea what she was talking about once she started talking about genes. I'd smile and nod. She barely needed that encouragement. She'd listen to me talk about birds and she'd kick in a tidbit or two. She wanted to know the name of the shagbark hickory.

Women so often emotionally blackmail. Once a female Facebook friend deleted my post because I stated the simple truth: 2017's "Wonder Woman" was a dumb, boring, comic book movie that didn't offer a lick of feminist uplift. Deleted my post, without even telling me. Slyly silencing a transgressive voice. A man would have had the decency to yell at me and invite me to thrash it out with him. The woman goes behind you and slips it in where you can't see.

Antoinette wasn't like that. She had the best quality in a conversationalist: no verbal scruples whatsoever. No idea, no question, no vocabulary was taboo. You can, and should, tell the truth about anything, from the hot lava percolating in the volcano of your soul to your take on the latest politics.

Why is it so hard to meet a woman who can talk like that?

Antoinette used to joke that she and I had been raised to be good men. Strong like bull.

Again, I don't know why I let fall the dam last night. But I did.

This morning I did the same, as I was driving to new job. This whole time I've been driving with blinders on. I refuse to see the side road that leads to her house … not her house … somebody else's house. I refuse to wonder if they allowed the pink dogwood, the one she bought at Skylands, after she knew she had cancer and would never see the tree grow … I refuse to ponder if the new owners hacked it down or are letting it grow.

This morning as I was driving I saw all the landmarks. Felt them all.

An Indian restaurant, where her daughter and son-in-law bought Indian take out for us to eat as we sat around waiting for Antoinette to die. A different restaurant, a Mexican one, where Antoinette and I ate our first meal together after I moved back to New Jersey from Indiana. The bookstore where I bought her daughter a birthday present, a tarot deck. The car dealership where I bought this car, the first car I owned in over thirty years, expressly so I could drive to her house during her final months on earth. The museum of artistic furniture she was excited about. The side road I drove from Antoinette's house, from Antoinette's deathbed, to a party I'd been invited to. I walked into the party shell-shocked. No one spoke to me. Fuckers. I turned around and left. You can do that when you came in your own car, I was learning. The apartment complex on a hillside she griped about because she wanted to live in a part of New Jersey that was still green.

Once I started recognizing how many landmarks there were, I was overwhelmed by their number and the potency of the memories. I had been ignoring all these in my commutes. For good reason.

But this morning, I was feeling it all.

And under it all, of course, anger at God. God, you effed up. You blew it, God. Her death was a big mistake. A big mistake in your creation, just like suffering and houseflies.

And suddenly, even as I was thinking this, just that quick, my hand moved to the car radio, and I changed stations, from classical music, to WOR, a right-wing talk station. And I heard Michael Riedel, a New York theater critic, Trump supporter, and morning-drive-time radio host say, "The Monkey's Paw." And I nearly lost it right there.

"The Monkey's Paw" is a short story. My sister read it and told the story to the family as we were gathered in the kitchen of our childhood home.

Right before Antoinette died, I re-told the story on my blog. You can find that blog post here.

The moral, or one moral of "The Monkey's Paw" is that death is not God's mistake. It may look that way to us mortals, but our vision is limited. The moral is that death comes in its own time, for reasons bigger than we can imagine, and we best not wrestle with it – not with death, not with its timing.

Why did Riedel mention "The Monkey's Paw"? I have no idea. Again, I just switched stations rapidly, on a whim that surprised even me. And all I heard was Riedel asking if his cohosts had heard of "The Monkey's Paw." I think Riedel mentioned that it is a creepy short story. And then they moved on the lentil soup recipes, not knowing that they had knocked a bereft little sister in New Jersey on her keister.

Do I believe that that was a message from Antoinette? Come on. You think that that was mere chance? That on the very day I finally let go all my self-indulgent kicking at Heaven over my sister's death a capriciously summoned radio talk show host would mention the very story Antoinette herself, if she were still around, would use to argue the counterpoint with me? Being an atheist takes more gullibility than I can muster.