porcelainandporcupines

First, my bona fides: I, of course, am neither a legal scholar nor a project manager. I am but a humble librarian, albeit one who took over a job 2 years ago and has managed to enact a number of sweeping changes in that short time. While the stakes are certainly lower in a small college library than they are on a national stage, I think the guiding principles behind my successes should be scalable. Plus, after the week you just had, I’d think you guys would be willing to try anything.

I. Set a positive goal

Let’s start with some Real Talk:  “repeal” is not a positive a goal, I’m afraid. Not even after you tack “replace” on to the end of it. I know it’s all you’ve been thinking about for the past 17 years, and you really want to do it, but the fact of the matter is that this is not a goal at all – they are actions that you would like to take, but you haven’t defined why you’d like to take them. Repeal and replace, but in service of what?

Instead of framing your entire project in terms of ObamaCare, I would suggest you take some time to figure out what the purpose of health insurance is, and what you want it to be. To make it easier for you, I have come up with the following suggestions:

  1. Health insurance should ensure care for all of a person’s medical needs;
  2. Health insurance should be affordable for everyone

From these two points, we can then build our positive goal: “Inexpensive, comprehensive medical care for everyone.”

Now that our positive goal has been established (and that example you should feel free to use), we can move on to step 2:

II. Document the steps necessary to achieve your goal

Personally, I like to use Visio for all my process-plotting needs. Partly because I’m used to it but mostly because the variety of little people icons serve as a very helpful reminder that the needs of actual human beings are being impacted by whatever plans I make.

However, I understand that there are some budget issues facing the government at the moment (when are there not, am I right?), so you may not be able to afford a premium Microsoft product. Fortunately, there are plenty of open access alternatives available; I’ve heard good things about LucidChart, and probably Google Drive has something, even if I’ve never heard of it. Ask around, try a couple out before settling on one you like. But make sure it includes the people icons; you know, just as a reminder.

Once you have determined the path to your positive goal, move on to step 3:

III. Set a reasonable timeline

I know it feels like you’ve been working on health care for the past 70 years and now you just need that final push to get the ball over the finish line, which is a thing I understand happens in sports. But: have you? I only ask because, having nothing at all to show for all the work you’ve claimed to be doing all these years makes it seem like you’ve just been dicking around the entire time.

Now, I am sure that knowing President Obama would veto any repeal plan you sent him – and with good reason, you have to admit – kept you from really sitting down and doing your best work; it is very difficult to succeed in the face of certain failure. That’s why we, as a culture, have so few stories of people overcoming adversity to persevere. Especially in sports – that never happens. It’s like the underdog always fails, and the town remains dispirited, and the estranged father and son don’t get to share a look of understanding across the field, much less hug. It’s very sad.

But now, you’re it, guys – you’re the overdog. The ball is in your court. Success is practically guaranteed, except for how it keeps failing, but you need to be realistic about how long that is going to take. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we won’t get to universal health care (see step 1) over lunch, or even in two weeks. Give yourself the time to make sure things are done right.

Once the plan and timeline have been established, we move on to step 4:

IV: Consultations & Feedback

Even with the best of intentions (see step 1), people can be prone to tunnel vision. I myself spent about 3 weeks this summer devising a new workflow for our interlibrary loan services, only to discover, after reviewing my notes to make sure I hadn’t left anything out, that I had already come up with the exact same plan 5 weeks prior. Embarrassing.

But, with something as important as ILL, I needed to be sure that the plan I kept coming up with was actually the best possible plan and not just reflective of my own personal point of view. But how to be certain? By consulting with and getting feedback several groups of stakeholders:

  1. Peers – in my case, this means librarians, but for you, I understand that there are people besides the male Republicans you’ve had working on this so far? Democrats, Independents, Women and their Lady Parts, may have some crackerjack insight on how to get a health care bill to become law, what with having done it and all. I’m sure they’d be willing to pitch in, if only you ‘d ask.
  2. Experts – Now, I was able to talk to the Director of my library, who is a thoughtful and wonderful human being who really knows what she’s doing in her role. So you’re kind of S.O.L. there vis-a-vis consulting with the president. But may I recommend Justin Trudeau? He’s very approachable, and Canadians are famous for not being rude. I’m sure he’d take your concerns seriously.Additionally, since, as a congressperson you are unlikely to also be a medical professional, you should consider speaking with some medical professionals when making plans that will impact medical care. Doctors, nurses, patient-advocacy groups, even the insurers themselves have had a lot of opinions about this process so far. We can’t say for sure that ignoring them is the only reason your efforts have failed again and again, but we can’t rule it out either; maybe try listening to them and see if you get better results?
  3. Those impacted by the plans- I mean, this seems like a real no-brainer, right? In the library, we even solicited feedback from Faculty before changing the circulation period for books to unlimited, and who is going to object to keeping a book as long as they need? Of course, there is always going to be some jerk who says “But what if people take advantage of this?” But, as part of our positive goal setting (see step 1), we had already determined that we’d rather offer better support to those who operate in good faith than worry about guarding against anyone who might try to game the system.

That’s a good operating principle, by the way. You might want to consider adopting that. It would be especially helpful as you move on to step 5:

V. Consider your mortality

Professionally speaking, you’re not going to be in that job forever. People retire, start new careers, follow a passion, or, sometimes, when they are astoundingly terrible at their jobs and spend all their time dicking around (see step 3), they get fired. Give some thought to the person who will step into your current role in 2018, 2020, or, you know, after a special recall election. Instead of being the bitter jerk who changes all the passwords and takes a giant dump on his desk on the way out the door, make it easier for whoever comes next by keeping things simple – for example, like a single payer system –  and not leaving a big mess they’ll have to clean up before they can start working on their own positive goals.

Personally speaking, remember too that your time here on Earth is short. While you may devote that time to amassing great wealth and great success, and believing that this sets you apart from others, and that in your elevated position you will always be safe, you will still inevitably one day arrive at the end of your life, just like everyone else. Instead of devoting the only time you’ll ever get to attempting to hoard the wealth of the world like a dragon in some dumb story nerds read*, be generous with your compassion and find security in knowing that we’re all facing the unknown together.

Remember, too, that you can help lessen fear of the unknown in step 6:

VI. Keep stakeholders informed of your progress

Remember that transparency is not just for border walls to prevent people from being hit by flying sacks of drugs. Particularly when the work you’re doing will mean that someone has to change their established routine, it is a best practice to give them as much lead time as possible.

Additionally, be sure that you are share the information through as many channels as possible. In-person is very hot right now, and can be a great way to reach out and get in touch with the people who may not be available by the more traditional electronic means. It may be hard to believe, but some people do not regularly check their email in 2017, and I can tell you from personal experience that you’ll get the most negative feedback from the people who are caught off-guard by a change, and the second-most negative feedback from the ones who were perfectly aware of the impending changes but for some inexplicable reason decided to ignore the part where they were affected by them too.

But this step also provides you with an opportunity to pat yourself on the back, as you continue to make steady progress toward your goal, as milestones are reached, and items are checked off your to-do list. This is a level of satisfaction that comes from actually accomplishing something, and once you’ve experienced that (and, if you follow these steps, some day you will), you’ll develop a liking for it. However, as you pat yourself on the back for your small victories, remember the final step, 7:

VII: Only celebrate once the job is done

Premature celebration can prove terribly embarrassing for a gent. Imagine throwing a party – with beer! – in the Rose Garden at the White House because a preliminary version of a bill written without vision or a positive goal managed to get through the House of Representatives, only to then watch as that bill failed over and over in the Senate, despite having an insurmountable majority? Worse, imagine if that beer party had been in part to celebrate the seeming success of Paul Ryan, a person literally nobody likes? And was hosted by a serial sexual predator who takes credit for everything even though his understanding of how government works is non-existent? God, what a nightmare that would be. A person might never live that sort of thing down.

* No shame – I have read a lot of dumb stories about dragons; that’s how I know they’re hoarders.

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When my position at Harvard was eliminated I was eligible for unemployment. Now, I know that, as a former Harvard employee and liberal intellectual elite, no one wants to hear my opinion on welfare or other government services since I don’t know how real people live. But, having collected both unemployment and, briefly, food stamps, I have a few opinions on the newly released Republican budget and its planned gutting of the food stamp program.

First, saying my position was “eliminated” is a bit of an overstatement. It was from the outset a term position, and though it had the possibility of being renewed at the end of the year, that was certainly no guarantee. I was still taken by surprise, of course – it’s difficult to believe that an institution as august as Harvard (which I still lovingly refer to as “the center of the universe”) would not be interested in retaining the lack of ambition and general know-it-all attitude I bring to my work. But in the year that I was there, the Harvard Libraries implemented digital book plates, and therefore no longer needed someone to spend 17.5 hours a week gluing physical plates to the front inside cover of new books.

(Yes. That was my job at Harvard. People are often very impressed when they hear I worked at Harvard, forgetting that even Harvard – the center of the universe – has entry-level work that needs to be done.)

Despite working only 17.5 hours a week and having been there only for a year, I’d been a fully benefited employee. I got health insurance through Harvard, and tuition reimbursement for graduate-level classes that would help advance my career, even though that advancement would not happen at Harvard. And so, when my position ended as scheduled, I was qualified to collect unemployment.

I am sure there was an option to register for these benefits online, but I registered by phone. When I called, I spoke with a woman whose name I don’t remember. In fact, I remember almost nothing about her except that in addition to unemployment payments, she automatically signed me up for food stamps. This, she explained, was because the approval process for food stamps could take several weeks; if it turned out I did need them, it would be better if I did not go without them during the approval process.

That is not actually the reason I started writing this post. It did not stand out to me as at all remarkable at the time because of course the priority would be ensuring that hungry people did not go without food during the lengthy approval process. Of course the very purpose of these systems is to make sure that people in need do not, even temporarily, fall through the cracks. And of course this unnamed and probably underpaid public servant would immediately send me a SNAP card; she was just doing her job.

I don’t to this day know if her actions were unusual or not. I do wish I could remember her name though, because I have a feeling that, in addition to being a dedicated and hard-working public servant, she is a god-damned American hero for making that effort on my behalf.

Food stamps were different than I expected. First, there were no actual stamps; instead, I received what was basically a pre-paid debit card, which I could swipe in a card reader just like any other card. It couldn’t be used for certain prepared foods, but other than selecting ‘SNAP’ on the pin pad at the register, I did not have to declare to anyone at the store that I was receiving government assistance.

Second, and I cannot state this strongly enough, I loved getting food stamps. LOVED IT. I feel like I saw a lot of ‘very special episodes’ back in the ‘80s where a family was offered food stamps, but ultimately turned them down because they were too proud. Gimme a Break, maybe, or possibly Just the 10 of Us? Like, there’d be a scene where the cute kid would roll in this giant wheel of government cheese and everyone would be super excited at the bounty of food they’d received, but eventually, by the end of the episode, the dad – that dumb killjoy – would decide that the family, his family, didn’t need charity, they’d buckle down and sacrifice and pull through. Food stamps are fine for some people, of course, but better his family of precocious children should go hungry than his pride suffer, seemed to be the message.

That message, of course, is bullshit; food stamps are the best. Because not having a job is obviously extremely stressful, and food stamps help alleviate some of that stress. They are a net good. I mean, think about it: you get to eat without having to spend money on food! It is amazing. And that means the money you would have spent on food can be spent on something else. Like an internet connection so you can search for and apply to jobs. Or laundry detergent so that if you do have an interview you can show up in clean clothes. Or, you know, rent and other basic necessities of life that are not food, for reasons that should be obvious.

So I was very happy to receive food stamps. And I imagine that there are some you reading this who, because you know me, are coming up with reasons why I am different than what you imagine to be the ‘normal’ recipient of food stamps. Before expressing those reasons, I would encourage you to consider instead how those people are like me: they are former coworkers, former classmates, friends of a friend someone met one time at a party who post a lot of cat pictures on social media; who have fallen on hard times and need a bit of assistance. And if their need is more long-term than mine turned out to be, well, that certainly is unfortunate, but I would suggest that the tragedy of that situation is not that you are in a position to be of assistance.

Because, it turned out that, as much as I loved them, I did not actually qualify for food stamps. Fortunately, I lived within walking distance of a very inexpensive grocery store, so I bought what I could and made a lot of soup during those months while job searching. (I also listened to a lot of This American Life while cooking, which is neither here nor there, but I think it’s important to take every opportunity to mention that Ira Glass occasionally gets on my nerves.) So I got by without food stamps. But, it should be noted that I also was not supporting anyone other than myself during that time.

Because, like  many benefits for the unemployed – transportation assistance and child care – these are reserved for people who truly need them, and most often that means families. Families, obviously, with children. And this, of course, is why we must strenuously oppose the new Republican budget that takes so much money from the food stamp program. Because cutting funding from the food stamps program will only result in hungry children. That’s really all it will do; I don’t know why anyone would be in favor of that.

I do understand that there are some people who don’t want their tax dollars supporting people who sponge off the system. It is important to note that the majority of welfare recipients are actually like me – they receive assistance temporarily, while looking for jobs. Through those jobs, they pay taxes, which means that, far from sponges, they are active contributors to the very benefits they receive.

On the other hand, there are unfortunately always going to be people who will game the system. These cuts will not prevent anyone who is so inclined from taking advantage of what’s left of these programs even if they don’t need them. The sad truth is that there will always be bad actors, but I defer to the aforementioned god-damned American hero in believing that the priority should be ensuring assistance is available to those in need.

I would also point out that nowhere in the budget proposal is there a tax cut for you; cutting funds from food stamps will lead to hungry children, but it will put no more money in your pocket, no more food on your table.

Instead, your money will go toward a drastic increase in defense spending. Which is a difficult thing to take issue with, it would seem, particularly in these times of increasing violence and the ever-present threat of terrorists. And I understand that – the world is a scary place, and it seems like we should be doing everything possible to defend ourselves. But it is worth taking a look at what we are willing to sacrifice in our rush toward security; if we are willing to sacrifice the health and well-being of children, what then, are we actually working to preserve? If we as a nation are targeting our own children – or, worse, identifying some children as “other” so we can target them – what does that make us?

In eighth grade, we had to do a research project on World War I. The project was a joint assignment between our History and English teachers, and included a presentation in History class in addition to the paper we turned in, also to the History teacher; I don’t remember what role the English teacher played beyond the initial instruction session on how taking notes on index cards would help us keep track of our different source. I also don’t remember the school librarian playing any role whatsoever in the project, even though I very clearly recall that instruction session being held in the school library.

In fact, I remember very few details about that project at all. Of my own paper, I remember not the topic but a typo: instead of underlining one word on a page, I underlined every word on the page except that one. That word was underlined in red pen when the paper was returned to me, with a -1 written over it. This was the first paper I’d ever written using a computer – remember, this was 1986; Taylor Swift hadn’t even been born yet – and though not as dramatically as it did at the time, it does still bother me that I was penalized for what was very clearly a difficulty using MacWrite and not a lack of understanding the importance of proper underlining.

Of course, I should have done a better job proofreading, which, in this case, would have been, you know, proofreading the paper. But, if you’ll recall how long it actually took to print out a 7-page paper back in 1986, you’ll understand why the relief of having it finished would preclude any interest in potentially finding reasons to have to go through all of that again. Even if it had been an option, given the difficulty I had with the underline function I can’t imagine I would have figured out how to print only a single page of a longer document.

The other thing I remember about that assignment is that, during the question and answer period following one student’s presentation, another of my classmates – Dale – said the word “fucker.”

The presentation had been on air warfare, and the German air fleet included a number of planes made by Fokker manufacturing. Over and over the presenting student said the name Fokker, carefully, seriously, with no hint that there might be something about that name that might make bunch of 12 year-olds titter.

Listening to the presentation, it was startling to hear the first time. “Did he just say…?” confusion rippled across the class, because it definitely sounded like he did just say… It was an unavoidable comparison to draw; Fokker, no matter how carefully pronounced, sounds a lot like Fucker, and that is not going to go unnoticed by a class of 8th graders.

It could have gone unacknowledged, though. The student carried on through his presentation, and the rest of the class could have supported his heroic efforts by asking pertinent questions on the subject of his presentation, or, as we likely did with all the other presentations, offered tepid applause and then showed that we didn’t really care about anyone else’s topic by not asking any questions at all. Unless there was some class-participation grade component? I don’t remember that either. What I do remember is that, instead of allowing this student to gratefully take his seat at the conclusion of presentation, Dale raised his hand and proceeded to ask a series of questions about the Fokker planes that served no purpose other than to give him a reason to, carefully and seriously, say Fucker over and over again in class.

Until, that is, Mr. Gray stepped in. Mr. Gray was the 8th grade history teacher; he would occasionally lean against the chalk board while teaching and end up with his own writing all over the back of his shirt, and when the phone in his classroom rang he would answer it “Mi-IS-Ter Gray,” but without the stuttering dashes – just a smooth arc of emphasis that never varied throughout the school year. In other things, too, Mr. Gray never wavered. He had taken issue with the qualifying test for the Spelling Bee that year; “a lot,” being two words, was an invalid measure of spelling acumen and Mr. Gray said as much, pausing the test to tell everyone that it should be written as two different words. Mr. Gray did not stand for administrative chicanery.

And he did not stand for swearing in his classroom. He cut Dale off when he tried to ask yet another question, to which Dale, a mealy-mouthed little prick, protested innocently that he was just curious about the planes. Mr. Gray cut him off there, too, stating he’d never heard a pronunciation so blatant; as clearly as I remember Dale saying Fucker, I remember the hint of anger with which Mr. Gray said Blatant. Mr. Gray made it clear he knew what Dale was up to, and made it equally clear that he, who ended every day with his clothes covered in his own chalky handwriting, was not impressed.

I’ve thought about that interaction a lot over the past few months. As details have leaked out about the proposed Congressional budget that cut funding from Meals on Wheels, from school lunch programs, from the Environmental Protection Agency; in the last-minute scramble to secure the passage of the now-or–at-least-temporarily-dead AHCA, as Republicans dropped requirements that health insurance cover care received at an emergency room, or pre-natal exams, or new baby care, but added a requirement that new mothers would lose their Medicaid if they hadn’t gotten a job within eight weeks of delivery.

I thought of it earlier this week as Paul Ryan, undoubtedly nursing his wounds from his incredible failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, proudly announced a repeal of another Obama’s rule which had protected hibernating and baby animals from hunters.

I’ve thought of it so often over these past few months as I’ve tried, very seriously, to understand what the fuck is wrong with these people?

Because their proposals, as astoundingly cruel as they are, are also utterly artless. Not only are they as blatant as a shitty little eighth-grader seizing an opportunity to say Fucker in History class, they are just as pointless. There is no goal in the plans they have revealed; you can not look at any of their recent actions and say “Oh, yes, now I understand what these people want.” Instead, it seems as though the only guiding principle at the moment is identifying an opportunity to act like an asshole, and then rushing in to do just that.

More than anything, though, in this moment, I admire the authority of Mr. Gray. Suddenly, as the country has been over-run by inimical eighth-graders, who believe themselves clever even while being too self-satisfied to see that no one is impressed by them, Mr. Gray has become the hero we need. Not letting bullshit pass, when it would be easy to do so, particularly after years of the same bullshit being flung your way. Recognizing your moral duty to be a leader, and stepping in to support those with the difficult job of sharing information that, due to its nature, might be easily dismissed or mocked by morons. Curtailing xenophobia and providing a lesson in recognizing that similar sounding words can mean different things in different languages (false cognates, these words are called, if you’re interested.) Persisting, yes, in the face of an unchanging tide of ill-informed students rolling into his class every year. Most importantly of all, understanding the importance of history, the details that matter, and how they continue to impact us today.

And so, among the many people who have risen to the challenge of inspiring others to act – for decency, for equality, and, yes, for freedom – for me, Mr. Gray stands tall and deserves to be recognized for his sterling efforts. Inanity is exhausting, but, even when the stakes were low, he never let the bastards grind him down. I hope, in the months ahead, I will do him proud.

Listen, don’t tell anyone I said this, but sometimes the worst part of my job is talking to faculty members. Not all of them, of course, but some of them, the ones who’ve spent their entire lives working in academia, the ones who view the entire world as their classroom, the ones who think everyone else spends their time just waiting to hear them speak.

If you can’t read between the lines there, I’m talking about the white guys.

I spoke with one of these guys earlier today, a guy with a theory about what happened last night, a theory that explains why Trump won. I observed that a lot of people have theories today, and he responded smoothly that, as a History professor, his theory was maybe worth a little bit more.

To tell you the truth, I was both looking forward to and dreading talking to this guy today. We’ve spoken many times about the election over the past year, and he, as a History professor, does indeed have some keen insights about political doings, even if his tendency is to express them in a way that I’m could generously describe as muddled, or ungenerously describe as designed to demonstrate his own intelligence rather than actually communicate. Interesting, to a point, but more interested in a receptive audience than in what someone else – maybe not everyone else, but probably me – thinks.

We spoke yesterday about the election, agreeing that Hillary winning was the only possible outcome. When I awoke this morning to the impossible, I thought back to a conversation we’d had over the summer, in July, about barbecues. Whose barbecue would I rather attend, he asked, one organized by Hillary Clinton? Or one organized by Donald Trump? Without hesitation, I responded “Hillary Clinton.”

This, it turns out, was the wrong answer. Trump would be the better barbecue, you see, because “you don’t know what he’s going to do.”

But Hillary, I argued, would be prepared for the barbecue. Hillary would make sure there would be adequate utensils, and napkins, and a crudites platter for nibbling while things cook on the grill. Hillary would have veggie burgers available, knowing some of her guests don’t eat meat. Hillary Clinton’s barbecue would definitely include watermelon, and beer, and games for the kids.

That Hillary Clinton would plan a barbecue that actually feeds her guests – including me – wasn’t a strong enough argument to overcome the  Trump-led spectacle, before the topic changed entirely to the racial aspects of watermelon, a conversation so reasonable for two white people to be having that I engineered an reason to excuse myself post-haste and returned to the desk. But I thought about the Trump-led barbecue for a while, because there was a flaw in the ‘spectacle’ argument, and as not a History professor, it took me a while to put my finger on it.

Eventually, I realized the flaw is that, actually, we did know what Trump would do. By that point, in July, Trump was entirely predictable. He would be his own true turd self, and while we may not be able to predict exactly how that would manifest, we knew it would be rude and vulgar and cruel, it would be entirely self-serving, and it would be filled with lies.

Of the many things I thought this morning, one of them was “Well, I guess [you] got [your] barbecue.” Followed by the realization that he would be in at some point today and we would try to dissect what had gone so wrong. Well, he would offer his dissection, and I would offer mine.

So after his theory, I offered to share one of my own. One of the strange things about the results was that so many women – white women – had turned out for Trump, rather than Hillary. How could this have happened?

Well, he interrupted, that was a problem he’d always had with Bill Clinton, the accusations from women.

I did not point out that Bill Clinton was not running in this election. Also, it should be noted that at no point did I ever ask for whom he’d voted. Instead, I pointed out that many women had accused Trump.

They had?

Yes, I insisted, a touch incredulous. I couldn’t tell if his disbelief was genuine or a misplaced pedagogical device.

It was genuine. He didn’t know that.

But you heard the Access Hollywood recording?

Yes, of course he’d heard that.

Afterwards, many women came forward to detail his assaults. I believe the last count was 14.

He hadn’t heard that.

It was in the news.

Question mark?

All over the news.

That, see, was the problem. He doesn’t get the news in the way you or I do, as a passive consumer. He has to seek it out, search for it, effortfully follow up on stories. This one, he missed.

He did not seem concerned about this. It seemed unfortunate, but, obviously, unavoidable.

MAYBE, I did not scream in his face, but MAYBE PART OF THE REASON TRUMP WON IS BECAUSE YOU, AN EDUCATED WHITE MAN, DID NOT THINK HIS ASSAULTING 14 WOMEN WAS A STORY WORTH FOLLOWING UP ON.

And this is the problem I’ve had with today. It’s not the students in the Trump tee shirts that I have grudgingly held doors for, or the people with whom I strongly disagree. It is discovering that people – because it’s not just him; he came in to the library at the end of my long day of seething at the meme from the Bernie Bros – still in a snit they didn’t get the revolution that conveniently popped up right in front of them and that they’d fought so hard for for all of 5 months and so clearly deserved; the meme stating that had Hillary not rigged the primary, Bernie could have won last night,  tone deaf to the implication that women can only win by cheating, but also, somehow believing that this woman, who’s so clearly guilty of something that she’s been investigated non-stop for nearly 2 decades, and yet so wily that the charges never stick; that this grasping, devious woman would rig a primary and then somehow leave the general election to chance? Somehow, her long streak of underhanded wizardry fails just when she needs it the most, all so they can absolve themselves from the results that we all are responsible for, that we all have to live with, except them less than everyone else. This, from people I know, people I assumed were on my side, they have sold me out, don’t care at all that I might now starve at a barbecue – while others face so much worse – while they sit back, having been right all along, and enjoy the spectacle. The hardest part of today is coming to terms with the fact that it is not just the other side that lacks compassion; it is our team, too.

Have you read the Sandman graphic novels? I read them repeatedly in the ’90s; I had a series of roommates back then who were fans, and it seemed like a good idea to re-read them every time they appeared on our communal bookshelf. If you haven’t read them, I would cautiously recommend them; I certainly enjoyed them at the time – hence all the re-reading, and talking about them today – but I don’t know if they offer the same appeal to a more seasoned adult as they would to someone for whom the concept of adulthood having relevance in their own life is a bit fresher.

ANYway, so one of these graphic novels starts out, as I recall, in a club. I believe this is the storyline wherein Delirium decides to find her missing sibling, a lumberjack-looking fellow whose specific Endless identity I don’t actually remember. But this quest of Delirium’s ends up leading to Dream’s killing Orpheus, much to the delight of Desire, whose antipathy for Dream was well-established but never satisfactorily explained, in my opinion, except that every story needs a bad guy and if you’ve already cast Death as the cool older sister in your mopey family of goths, it would then naturally fall to Desire to be the bad one since, although we hadn’t fully defined the concept of thirst back then, it’s never been cool to want something or to be something.

But before we get to that, we start out in a club. Delirium, despite her, uh, delirium, recognizing that she maybe shouldn’t undertake this quest all on her own, follows her guide, the Borgol Rantipole, a lesser entity that Dream had assigned to provide her company in an earlier issue and herein appears as a hovering fish on a string, to a club to see if she can enlist Desire’s assistance in finding their missing brother. Delirium, it seems, having once been Delight, also spent a brief spell as Dumbassery, since it’s well established that Desire serves only shis own ends. Desire obviously rejects Delirium’s offer, probably while Despair oozily lumps nearby, upset that nobody wanted to include her.

But before being rejected by Desire, Delirium has to find hirm first, and so it is that we find ourselves momentarily with a human character in the club. This, presumably, is not too long after the death of Freddie Mercury, as the human, who I don’t believe is named, is telling his companion – we, the readers – that when he told another person in his acquaintance, who definitely does have a name but I don’t remember what so let’s just call him Donald, about Freddie’s death, Donald glibly replied “Well, another one bites the dust, eh?” To which Human responded “Donald, when God put teeth in your mouth, he ruined a perfectly good asshole.”

And that, dear readers, is why, while I may have some of the details of that Sandman storyline wrong, whenever I see a picture of Donald Trump with his mouth open, all I can think is “You know, Donald, when God put teeth in your mouth, he ruined a perfectly good asshole.”

(I know, you’re probably thinking “What the hell is this?” Well, for a variety of uninteresting reasons I found myself thinking about a certain cartoonish, megalomaniacal, tonsorially-challenged redhead, and I wondered what thoughts Lex Luthor might have on the subject. Spoiler alert: he is not a fan.)

Lex Luthor put down the newspaper and wrapped both hands around his mug. Eyes closed, he let out a sigh, knowing that such an action was pointless. And it was. Nothing had changed when he opened his eyes; he sighed again.

Look at him, this buffoon! Like everyone in Metropolish, Lex had been confronted with this angry image for months, heard his nattering through all manner of devices. Evin if you didn’t want to listen to him, he was obsessively replayed by every media outlet, eager to catalog the day’s gaffes and offenses.

Lex had grown tired of him. Not right away – at first, he thought they could be allies. Believing his goals, his inevitable dominance could only be bolstered by this self-proclaimed Captain of Industry. Believing he’d found another leader like himself, a man led by vision, whose wealth was no more than a by-product of achieving their goals. Yes, together they would do great things – so Lex thought.

Yet how quickly this huckster revealed himself! Of course, the truth had been there all along; Lex was angry that he too had taken so long to see past the bluster. But what had initially passed for similarities were quickly exposed as mere trapping. The finely tailored suits they both wore, that were so fitted to Lex it as though they were drawn on him, looked cheap despite their probable cost, hanging awkward and unflattering on his puffy frame. The keen business mind was nothing of the sort, just shouts of success where everyone could plainly see failure. Worse, what meager success he had achieved was not his own, but just his name hastily plastered over someone else’s work.

Maybe some of his own inventions hadn’t succeeded in the way he’d hoped, but he, Lex, was the chief innovator at Luthorcorp! His scientists and engineers carried out his vision, as they should have; he didn’t need to take credit for someone else’s work.

But the hair – that had mislead him. Lex knew, always, that it wasn’t good. He didn’t admire it, but he was jealous. If not for that long ago incident in the lab, Lex would still have his own red hair. Although, he surely would have allowed his own to thin with dignity, if it must – Nature acted without malice. Unlike Superboy.

So many times Lex had thought back to that day – he’d never believed Superboy’s claims that it had been an accident – and what his life would have been like if not for the Kryptonian’s carelessness. All the praise heaped on Superman would fall on him. He would be embraced by a loving public. He’d enjoy a better reputation in the press, that was for sure; Clark Kent would be his mouthpiece too, not just Superman’s, and would never have reason to launch his relentless, and strangely personal, campaign against Lex and Luthorcorps.

For years Lex had believed this, but now, suddenly, another possibility presented itself. Without Superman to strive against, might he, Lex, have become no better than this ridiculous tycoon who was all over the news for months? Without the very real threat posed by the son of Krypton (why was he the only one to see it?) could Lex have turned into this fearful tyrant? Lex shuddered at the thought of himself rambling on about a wall. Mere humans posing a threat? Bah! No, the only alien who should be illegal in Metropolis was Superman.

Fate had brought Superboy to his lab on that day, to provide the adversary Lex deserved; he understood that now. His path in life was always to protect the people of Metropolis; for years, that had meant from Superman, but now, here, there was a more immediate threat. And not just to the people he loved – because Lex did indeed love the people of Metropolis; why else would he fight so hard for them? – but to himself. His own wealth would be protected under such a Miser-in-Chief, of course, but the celebration of ignorance this man was whipping into a frenzy; well, it would turn people against scientists like Lex and their innovations faster than Superman ever could.

He needed to be stopped, that was clear. But how? It was too late to run himself; besides, having already been president, he was probably ineligible to run again. He could surely, between now and the election, develop something to tally the votes however he saw fit. But Lex didn’t want there to be any whiff of impropriety, nothing that might support the delusions and paranoia that, incredibly, only seemed to feed the mania swirling around this man like flies on a corpse.

No, what he needed was for everyone to see what Lex saw, for him to be so exposed that even those who’d cravenly offered their support, tepidly claiming this was the best of a bad situation, would have to say No – no, we can do better than this. It needed to happen before the election, so he would never get the votes in the first place. And Lex knew, all to well, there was one surefire way to get everyone – everyone – on Earth to turn against a business man. He picked up his phone and made a call.

“Hello, Daily Planet? Put me through to Clark Kent. I need him to deliver a message to Superman – I have a proposition for him.”

The most frustrating thing about aging right now is how much it makes me think of Milan Kundera. I spent a good solid chunk of the ’90s, maybe ’93 through ’99 – just absolutely hating that guy. It was so bad that I was planning to write abook about it, entitled “Why I hate Milan Kundera,” with the first chapter being “Because He Sucks.” It’s a compelling argument, I know, which made it all the more astonishing that it should need to be made in the first place. Milan Kundera clearly sucks, so why was he so popular?

At least in part, the answer to that is because everyone’s first exposure to Kundera was via a charming turn by a young Daniel Day Lewis in the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In a larger sense, though, the two halves of the equation are more intertwined, and the thing that makes him so popular is the very reason that he sucks so bad, and that reason is the clear and incredible contempt he has for his female characters.

This is not simply an issue of an author writing unlikable characters. While I generally prefer to like the characters I read about, in much the same way I prefer to spend time with people whose company I enjoy, it’s not 100% necessary. I understand unlikable characters have their time and place; holidays, for example, or other family gatherings. But the series of embarrassing or tragic calamities that befall so many of his female characters ends up having no lasting impact on the story. So a pregnant nurse accidentally takes a poison pill – the real surprise is that the crabby old man wasn’t lying all those years about carrying a suicide pill with him at all times. Or the woman, despondent over an unworthy man, who attempts to end her own life but instead takes a handful of laxatives and suffers not just the expected bathroom embarrassments while her uninterested beloved stands on the other side of the door, she, desperate to flee her humiliation, must then run out of the bathroom without pulling her stockings all the way up, causing her to trip so severely that she falls face forward on the lawn, exposing her bare ass to the world.

Now, I have not had occasion to have first-hand experience of the stockings that could be gotten under Communism, but from decades of Democracy stockings I do know both that even in an intestinal emergency they don’t take that long to pull up, and that if you are in such a rush that you don’t pull your stockings all the way up, that will present such a serious impediment to travel that you will not get far enough out of the bathroom to run outside, trip, and expose your bare ass to the world.

Such are the calamities that befall young women in Kundera’s novels. Should a female character manage to avoid both accidentally being poisoned and accidentally not poisoning herself, she can still in her old age look forward to being ridiculed by Kundera for having aged. And in this case, instead of acting through his characters or the role of the omniscient narrator, in Immortality (or maybe it’s Identity; I read all of those books such a long time ago), Kundera inserts himself directly into the story as Milan Kundera, sitting poolside as an older woman climbs out of the water, pausing in her post-pool toweling off to wave girlishly at someone.

She’s probably not waving at Kundera; even if she doesn’t know him, she can probably tell he’s a dick. But Kundera was there to catch the wave and can’t help but notice the incongruity of the girlishness of the act with the advanced aged of the actor, and is stunned to be witness to this older woman not knowing that she’s not beautiful anymore. Which, honestly, shouldn’t be such a terrible surprise to him – or maybe it should, because, despite his many years, he seems to have no awareness that he himself is a terrible prick. Regardless, he is so amazed by it that he goes on to repeat that this woman is no longer beautiful at least 1,000 times on just that one page if I’m recalling correctly; as I said, I read it a long time ago, so it may have been more.

This has always been my problem with Kundera – is that it’s impossible to believe that the extremely negative portrayal of women in his works is due to anything but him. Which is always the case with authors, that everything that happens is due to them, but the purposelessness of the malice directed at his females, that doesn’t add to the story, that doesn’t provide any commentary on the role of women in society, Communist or otherwise, or on the difficult and changing relationships between women and men; by the process of elimination, we can only conclude that the only purpose women serve is to show how much Milan Kundera does not like women.

And that, in my opinion, is what accounts for the disproportionate popularity of his books here in these United States. Writing as he was behind the Iron Curtain, Kundera provided assurance that, should American have lost the Cold War and been crushed under the heel of oppressive equality, men would still have plenty of opportunities to act like immature and terrified little prats toward women, benefiting from their accidental and completely avoidable deaths, or causing them disgraceful embarrassment simply for not being their ideal. So, that we may have won the Cold War, in that we just waited while the other side collapsed under its own weight, we have the comfort of knowing that, even if we had failed (or they didn’t), the State would have begun to do terrible things to those who acted against its interest, but crimes against women would still not be considered crimes against the state and could therefore proceed unobstructed, in the usual fashion.

Eventually, in ’99, I let go of my plans to take down Milan Kundera. Partially because writing a book would have meant learning a lot more about Milan Kundera than that I hated him. Partially because “because he sucks,” is a lot harder to turn into a whole book than you might think (although, at this point, you may have an inkling). Mostly, it was because I realized that when I gave up trying to convince the whole world that Kundera was terrible, I would not have to subject myself to him anymore.

And so I put his books down. I still remember closing that last one – Immortality, or possibly Slowness – on my desk at work. Under the bright florescence my coworker Matt asked “What are you reading?” And I replied, with a calm smile and a pleasant shake of my head “Nothing,” certain that the moment would be as cinematic in my memory as it was in reality. Eventually, I got rid of the books that I’d been lugging around from house to house; physically and mentally, I left Kundera behind.

And so I lived, happily ever after for 15 years without thinking of Milan Kundera at all. But here we are together now, talking about him which means, obviously, that has ended. Not because of his new book, although it’s fitting that Kundera, too, has forgotten that he’s not desirable anymore. But a year ago, as I stood in the Grove with my brother and sister on a sunny spring day that wasn’t as warm as it should have been. It was the first time we were all together in more than a decade too, and we stood in this crowded outdoor shopping complex overrun by tourists, like us, who, like us, had come hoping to spy a celebrity and who wouldn’t notice us anything other than a group, like them, of middle-aged tourists, standing around and squinting into the sun.

It was sad in that moment to realize that I too was a part of the anonymous throng of overweight Americans, that, until that moment, I’d been living like Kundera’s foolish old woman at the pool, living on as though I had value despite the cruel march of time. Perhaps somewhere in that crowd at the Grove there was a writer witnessing that moment who would be so inspired by the momentary despair that they, too, would use it as the springboard for an unrelated story that reinforces for the world what a cock they truly are.

At the same time, from the viewpoint of Kundera’s ridiculous old woman, I understood – in a way Kundera could not – that she wasn’t so ridiculous after all. She may not have been beautiful in the moment Kundera hoped to preserve (an observation which is entirely suspect because why would anyone trust Milan Kundera on these things?) but even he himself can recognize that she had been beautiful at one point. This may not be valuable in his opinion, but it is not merely the shadow of beauty that persists. Her beauty (which, it should also be noted, is not her most important quality, but again, we are limited by Kundera’s framework) may no longer be that of youth, but it continues to be visible for the people who know her. The woman herself, other people, people who are not assholes; rather than lamenting its absence, they still see her beauty, made all the more remarkable that it can still be seen despite her foolish old face.

Too, there are the people of the woman’s life who don’t know she is no longer beautiful,those who knew her before the moment Kundera felt was so important to preserve. The moments they witnessed – of beauty of otherwise – also endure, as much as Kundera’s moment, if not more because they are not insufferable twats, most likely. And, even if they are, the version of them that the old woman knew still exists, as she remembers a place where she was beautiful in the company of someone sufferably charming; her eyes alight with mischief while he stands up straighter and wonders if in the future they’ll still be together. Those two people, who managed to be lively even in the face of Communism, will continue to matter as long as anyone continues to think of them, in the present as a fond recollection or a promise of a future that will never be realized.

But the most important thing – the MOST important thing I have to occasionally remind myself about that day in the Grove, when I notice my eyelashes have vanished, or as I wait at an intersection for a beautifully upright horse to trot past while I sit in the car feeling like a melting candle, is not just that, even if only in photos or on Facebook, I will always be young enough to enjoy the sun and believe it will always be shining on me; that my brother will always have a dopey grin and a bowl haircut even as his crew cut becomes saltier; that our sister will always be taller than us because she’s older, and her feathered bangs will never go out of style. The MOST IMPORTANT thing to remember is that Milan Kundera will always, ALWAYS be a dick.

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