Abnormal Times

I’m living in abnormal times, and I’m tired of it. I yearn for the return to normal.

These days are a departure from normalcy for a set of unrelated reasons. First was the presidency of Donald Trump that turned the political world on its head. Then came the coronavirus lockdown that has lasted more than a year. And now the cicadas are out, filling the air with their screech and littering the ground with their ugly bodies.

All this will end. Already, the new president, Joe Biden, is working to correct the depravities inflicted by Trump. The lockdown is ending as more people are vaccinated, masks are gradually disappearing, and people are meeting face-to-face. And while the cicadas haven’t hit their peak yet, I know they will disappear at the end of the month.

But the normal I once knew is gone forever. Biden will not only reverse many of Trump’s worst policies but is already introducing massive changes of his own that will alter the face of America. The changes will help. But the world as I knew it will no longer exist.

The cicadas will eventually fade away. All they will leave behind is unpleasant memories and buried eggs that will hatch seventeen years from now.

And the lockdown? As is becoming clearer to me by the day, the normal we’ll arrive at is not the normal I was used to before all this began. We’ve learned, among other things, that people can work very effectively from home. We now know that remoted meeting, with all participants using computers and webcams, works as well as face-to-face get-togethers. We found out how easy and effective it is to order goods online rather than buying them at a store. I suspect that we have become fonder than ever of eating in restaurants, something we couldn’t do for a year. I expect the number and popularity of restaurants to grow.

So yearn as I may for a return to the normal I knew before all this began, it’s obvious we’re not going back there. We’re going somewhere else instead, and I’ll have to adjust to whatever “normal” turns out to be.

The Cicada Plague

I was shocked to learn that the infestation of cicadas currently darkening my life is expected to last until the end of June. I don’t know how much worse it can get. Outside my house, dead cicadas lie everywhere, a few feet apart. The air is filled with them flying about. And the sound of their constant screech fades only at night.

The cicadas’ presence prompted me to look up the old testament story of the ten plagues that God visited upon the Egyptians to force them to release the Jews to travel to what is today Israel. Those plagues were water turned into blood, frogs, lice, gnats, diseased livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness for three days, and killing of firstborn sons.

Any one of those is far worse than the influx of the cicadas. So I can comfort myself that God is not punishing us. For all that, the cicadas are becoming more of a curse as each day passes. Their demise and disappearance can’t come too soon for me.

The Republican Strategy (2)

Despite colossal effort on the part of the Republicans, their appeal to working-class people is rapidly weakening. More and more people see through the Republicans’ positions and realize that the Republicans are working to restore their control even if it requires lying and hiding the truth at an unprecedented scale. Why else would the Republicans block a national commission to investigate the January 6 Trump-incited attack on the U.S. Capitol? Why did they twice acquit Trump of impeachment charges in the face of overwhelming evidence? And why did 147 Republicans in Congress vote to overturn the proven validity of the November election? Republicans, in other words, insist on cleaving to the Great Lie—that Trump won the election—in the face of undeniable evidence to the contrary. In sum, their actions are inviting more and more people to desert the Grand Old Party.

To the degree that Trump continues to hold the Republican party in his iron grip, the party will continue to decline. According to a Washington Post article in January, Trump’s false or misleading claims totaled 30,573 over his four years in office. And he encourages violence against his opponents. Vox reports that “dozens of people enacted violence in Trump’s name in the years before the Capitol attack, according to a 2020 report from ABC News.”

In short, Republican allegiance to Trump and his values portends its defeat. Trump’s popularity is waning by the day. Unless the party breaks decisively with Trump, its supporters will dwindle.

My sense is that the Republican Party as we know is will soon cease to exist. And unless it alters its strategy, it will remain the minority party for the foreseeable future.

The Republican Strategy

Republicans in the U.S. are outnumbered by the Democrats. According to Wikipedia, 31 percent of the U.S. population declare themselves to be Democrats while only 25 percent call themselves Republicans. The largest segment of the population declares itself independent, some 41 percent. But when those independents are asked their leaning, 50 percent express a preference for the Democrats; only 39 percent prefer the Republicans. However you count it, Democratic voters greatly outnumber Republicans.

The expected and honorable thing for Republicans to do is to improve their policies and candidates to appeal to more voters. Instead, their strategy is to reduce the number of people voting by making voting more difficult, especially for minorities who most often vote for the Democrats. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “as of March 24, 2021, more than 361 bills that would restrict voting access have been introduced in 47 states, with most aimed at limiting mail-in voting, strengthening voter ID laws, shortening early voting, eliminating automatic and same-day voter registration, curbing the use of ballot drop boxes, and allowing for more aggressive means to remove people from voter rolls.” The Washington Post described the effort as “potentially amounting to the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction.” In sum, the Republican strategy is, as one commentator phrased it, “If you can’t beat them, cheat them.”

Many working-class people sympathize with the Republicans because of the latter’s conservative and religious policies on cultural matters. These same people don’t seem to realize that when they vote for the Republicans, they are voting against their own interests, supporting leaders who want to suppress voting, reduce taxes for the well-to-do while maintaining them for the working class, diminish labor unions’ power, and prevent raising the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. The Republican’s power base is those with money who want to hold on to it and keep the impecunious riff-raff (ordinary working people) under their thumb and deprived of power.

More next time.

Authors Dinner

Last Tuesday, I attended the Authors Dinner at the Old Europe restaurant in Washington, D.C. I was one of more than fifty authors in attendance, ranging from the famous to the unknown. I’ve been participating in the event for more years than I can remember, but it hasn’t been held for the last year because of the pandemic lockdown. It was good to see again people I’ve known more than half my life but only see once a year.

Getting there and back from Columbia, Maryland (where I live) was more than a nuisance. It took me more than an hour to get to the restaurant, driving, as I was, at the height of the rush hour. And the drive home was almost as long. I’m getting to the age where a long drive—especially in rush hour traffic or in the dark—is a real nuisance.

But I’ll probably keep attending the annual Authors Dinner for as long as I am able. There’s nothing quite like being in a room full of people who understand the difficulties of translating thoughts into words and transcribing them onto paper. These folks are my fellow crusaders.

Comments Invited

I blog almost every day. My intent is to stimulate readers with my thoughts and experiences. And I more than welcome reactions from readers.

So I encourage you to respond to my writings, especially if you disagree or simply see the issue from a different point of view. I learn from what others have to say. The more I learn, the better my writing—and this blog—will be.

So step up and speak out. We’ll all be the better for it.

Meaningless Words

A habit of most of the people I know has caught my attention: scattering meaningless expressions throughout their speech. I suspect they do it to fill in the empty spaces created when they pause their speech to stop and think. As far as I can tell, I’m not subject to that habit, probably because I was rigorously trained as a public speaker and learned to eliminate unnecessary sounds.

The utterances I’m talking about include but are not limited to “well,” “you know,” “so,” “and so,” “mmm,” and “um.” They get in the way of clarity and drain away the emotional power of elocution. All they do—and, as far I can tell, all they are intended to do—is make sounds to fill what would otherwise be silence.

In my experience, only speakers of American English litter their speech with these sounds. The British and Australians I have known didn’t do it, nor have I observed it with speakers of languages other than English.

What is it about the American character that leads us to spend so much time on meaningless sounds? I have no idea. But my guess is that the habit does not endear us to others.

Memorial Day Readings

For many years, I have trudged down to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., every Memorial Day and Veterans Day to participate in readings by local authors. The event included music—singers accompanying themselves on guitar or banjo—and poets outnumbered prose readers like me. It was a joyful occasion and entertained many passers-by.

No events on the mall have been held since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic. More than a year passed with no gatherings. Then, this Memorial Day, the program organizer, Dick Epstein, decided to hold the event not in person but remotely by Zoom. More than twenty of us sat in front of our computers with webcams and performed. My contribution was reading from three of my novels.

The content of the readings emphasized the theme of Memorial Day, remembering our war dead. It was a rewarding afternoon. Dick tells me that future readings will continue to be remote. I’ll tip off readers here so that you can tune in.

Begonias, Begonias Everywhere

On the back of my house, looking north over the pond which is about a hundred feet in diameter, is my deck. It’s roughly ten feet by thirty feet, surrounded by a railing topped by flower boxes. Last summer, I planted a variety of annuals in the flower boxes, but the plants bloomed at different rates, and some started dying off before the summer was over. So this year I planted only one variety, red begonias.

I figured I’d plant one begonia every six inches, all around the deck and bought the requisite number of plants. But the instructions that come with the plants said they should be spaced apart ten to twelve inches. I had too many plants. As a result, I planted extra begonias in a dozen pots. I still had plenty left over. So I cultivated a plot to the side of my driveway in front of the house and planted the remainder there.

To my surprise, the end result doesn’t look crowded or congested but resplendent. Flowers everywhere. And the plants are thriving. Not a one is showing signs of failure.

For once, my miscalculation turned out to be a handsome improvement.

Rerun: Do What You Have to Do, Whatever It Takes

This Memorial Day, I return to the subject of an earlier post. I have hanging in an honored place in my piano room a color photograph of a pair of empty combat boots. The caption, quoted from my novel Last of the Annamese, reads “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.” The implication is that the owner of the boots did what those words imply and gave up his life for his country.

During the thirteen years when I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the “real world” (what we called the U.S.), I knew far too many who died in combat. Among them were men I particularly admired, navy corpsmen. These men were sailors, but they were assigned as medics to Marine combat units to care for those wounded in battle. So all corpsmen, by definition, saw combat. The Marines they served all called them “Doc.”

Some 10,000 corpsmen served in Vietnam. Of those, 645 were killed in action and another 3,300 were wounded. They are credited with saving thousands of lives.

I know two men who were corpsmen in Vietnam. Both were there in 1967, and both were assigned to units operating in the central part of the country. I was in that area at the time, and although I saw other corpsmen working with Marine units I was supporting, I never met either of these two guys, nor did know each other. One of them still uses the moniker “Doc.”

My corpsmen friends and I are alike in one respect. We weren’t on the battlefield as combatants. They were there to save the lives of the wounded; I was there to provide intelligence on the enemy. I know they were armed. I was, too—I carried a .38 revolver, but I never fired it on the battlefield. One of them was wounded multiple times in combat; I was not.

All three of us lived by the rule of doing what we had to do, whatever it took. We knew we might not survive. We were serving our country by putting our lives on the line.

American combat veterans are becoming a rarity. There are fewer of us every year. And I am the only combat veteran I know who was civilian. During my entire time of working on the battlefield in Vietnam and afterwards, I operated under cover as an enlisted man in the unit I was supporting, but I was not in the service.

So I am more than proud to be able to say that I understand in my heart of hearts the meaning of that saying—

“Do what you have to so, whatever it takes.”