Measured by how we are seen

This is from the eighth edition of the Near-Earth Object newsletter, to which you can and should subscribe, right here.

This project of producing newsletters and media at a somewhat regular clip, is still new to me, and I’m still trying to find the right mix of elements that make it really click. For my first video-cast-pod-thing, I chose to read a piece I’d written a couple of years back about how hard it is to put in the time, effort, and emotion into all this creative work, all the while knowing that it will reach only a handful of people. Of course one can’t know this for certain, but it’s a solid bet!

I think the cold reality of irrelevance has hit me a little harder this week, as the election receded from the top of my mind and I took a little time off work. When a room opened up in my brain, it was quickly furnished with feelings of futility.

I began reading How to Disappear by Akiko Busch this past week, and in the introduction she says, “It has become routine to assume that the rewards of life are public and that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than what we do.” As someone who grew up being utterly ostracized for how he was seen, and then later became a professional actor, and then later got into nonprofit communications, I think I’ve been conditioned to measure my value by how I am seen. I’m not sure I’d know any other way.

We’re all feeling fragile right now. The slow-moving coup in process makes it feel like we’re watching an asteroid that’s going to slam into us in a couple of months, and all we can do is watch it get imperceptibly closer day after day. The foundational things we’ve relied on to tell us who we are as a people look like they’re about to crumble. If they do, we won’t know who we are anymore. If they don’t, we’ll still know that we aren’t quite what we thought we were. We’re all facing an identity crisis.

So maybe none of us can settle our minds enough to find meaning within (or nearby) rather than without.

In my favorite novel, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, the protagonist Erasmas, a sort of monk-scholar in training, is given an urgent bit of wisdom from his mentor, Orolo.

“That is the kind of beauty I was trying to get you to see,” Orolo told me. “Nothing is more important than that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways.”

Maybe if our identities weren’t so wrapped up in these performative digital spaces, we’d be handling things better right now. Maybe if I were better able to see myself as enough, if I were able to love the beauty that is right in front of me, perhaps I could more thoroughly cast out the ugliness in my head that tells me I am not and never will be enough.

But if I do that, then what will I be?

If you’re reading this, I’m so glad you’re here. You are part of a small group, and I appreciate each and every one of you.


More of Paul’s irrelevant-yet-immeasurably-valuable stuff

New post on how news sites’ homepages are covering the coup: “Homepage Hopping at the End of Democracy.

New video-cast-pod on Biden the caretaker, with some post-election thoughts as an addendum:

As always, if you find this stuff valuable, you can toss some currency my way. It’s totally okay if you don’t!

And thanks.

Homepage Hopping at the End of Democracy: How Are News Sites Presenting Trump’s Coup Attempt?

I have a bad habit. When big, anxiety-producing events are taking place (and they always are now), I hop around to different news sites’ homepages to see how they are characterizing the situation. My guts are in a constant, immovable clench as I doomscroll and site-hop for any new development.

Here’s what CNN’s homepage presented its readers this morning:

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“Akin to a dictatorship”! That should wake people up, right?

You see, it’s not just news I’m looking for. I’m trying to get a sense of how the major news organizations are presenting the story to their audiences. Republicans are trying to overturn democracy, and I’m hoping that our news outlets are making that clear, right away, without normalizing or both-sidesing.

CNN’s headline, while horrifying, at least told me that a mainstay institution of American news was getting the point across.

But then I remembered that most folks don’t go to news websites directly. Regular people who aren’t obsessed with this stuff don’t constantly refresh the front pages of the Washington Post or the New York Times. If they’re not just getting everything through social media, a lot of them are just opening their browsers and seeing whatever was already set as their default homepage. So how are they covering the coup?

It’s not as reassuring.

Here’s Yahoo News.

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It acknowledges the issue, but it’s framed as an ongoing contest, not a power-grab. Trump has a “new weapon” and insists he didn’t lose. Biden isn’t concerned. Yes, well, I am concerned.

Look further down the page, and what do they choose to highlight? Biden’s mask mandate idea and how he can’t actually enforce it. So right away we get “Trump says he didn’t lose” and “Biden can’t make you wear a mask.” Not encouraging!

Aol.com’s homepage, which is still Yahoo content, at least begins with “State election reports defy Trump’s baseless claims.”

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There’s also MSN, which is where millions of Edge and Internet Explorer users will get their first dose of news, and there’s no mention of the coup at the top, but some everything-is-normal coverage of a presidential transition, a little tiny dose of paranoia about Trump’s border wall, and something about the guy who played Ron in the Harry Potter movies.

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You get the point. While CNN—correctly, I think—presents the coup as the emergency it is, the news outlets that most regular people will probably get their information from are a mixed bag.

ABC News and NBC News both take the coup more seriously on their respective homepages. ABC gives context to Trump’s bullshit by showing that he always does this (as well as featuring the news of the recanted claims of voter fraud by a postal worker). NBC highlights the personnel massacre at the Pentagon, along with other problems caused by Trump’s recalcitrance. (Plus, further down there’s stuff about how great Stacy Abrams is.)

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CBS News’s homepage is formatted differently, highlighting whatever they’re talking about on CBSN, which, I assume, nobody watches (I could be wrong). But what did I see when I popped that URL into my browser? BALLOT PROBLEMS!!!

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Yes, it’s Puerto Rico. Now, you and I know that Puerto Rico doesn’t vote in the presidential election (and we also know that this is morally wrong). Regardless, any big-splash story about BALLOT PROBLEMZZZ only serves to feed the existing false narrative of a rigged election.

I was also none too pleased to see USA Today’s homepage, which seems to be stoking a lot of small fires without committing to one conflagration.

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The CDC is stumbling. The lieutenant governor of Texas is offering a bounty for evidence of election fraud. Trump “shakes up” Pentagon leadership. It’s not at all clear that these things are all part of One Unified Crazy.

Then I had to look at Fox News, because I am sure plenty of folks do make a beeline to that homepage for their dose of indoctrination. And it was not exactly what I expected.

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There’s Fox News calling Biden the president-elect right in its top headline! The propaganda arm of the GOP is saying, yes, this guy is your president-to-be, folks. As weirdly assuring as that is, it’s heavily saturated with reasons to be afraid of this new administration. “Controversial names”!!!

I mean look at those people hovering over Biden’s shoulders like a quartet of devils! There’s that crazy socialist lady Elizabeth Warren! There’s a Black lady right next to her! On the other side of Joe’s head is a Black guy! AND THEN ANOTHER WOMAN. CONTROVERSIAL!!! PERSONNEL IS POLICY!!!

As gross as Fox News is being, it almost feels like a return to normal…where normal isn’t very good to begin with.


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The Caretaker

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Photo: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When Barack Obama picked Joe Biden to be his running mate in 2008, I was delighted. I had always been enthusiastic about Biden’s as a political figure, and loved his role in the ’08 primary campaign as a no-bullshit happy warrior. (Remember “a noun and a verb and 9/11?” So great. And even better considering how far the subject of that jibe has fallen.)

While Biden’s persona and personal charms probably figured into the Obama campaign’s choice to bring Biden onboard, it wasn’t the main reason. To reassure an electorate that might be wary of an inexperienced, black presidential candidate, they put an elder statesman by his side, someone whose very presence vouched for the qualities of the man at the top of the ticket. There was no doubt that should tragedy strike, the next Vice President of the United States would be ready and more than qualified to take over. Not unlike George W. Bush’s choice to tap Dick Cheney in 2000, Biden would be the adult supervision.

Certainly, Biden’s trademark folksiness would help sell the Obama candidacy to those who might not be quite as excited about diversity and cosmopolitanism, by speaking to them in terms to which they could relate. But these were bonuses. In my opinion, it was all about the picture of the two of them together, the image of the exciting and untested buttressed by the familiar and trusted. The message was that Joe would look after Barack, and make sure the new guy found his footing.

(Honestly, I have difficulty trying come up with a presidential ticket in which the two candidates complemented each other as well as Obama and Biden did — save perhaps Biden and Harris, which I’ll get to in a bit. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are in the ballpark, as two ridiculously intelligent, relatively young southerners with diametrically opposing personalities that somehow clicked electorally. But still, almost all the pairings I can think of felt forced. Pence as a Christian bandaid for Trump. Tim Kaine as the blatantly inoffensive white male for Hillary Clinton. Paul Ryan as a youthful junior-executive sidekick to Romney. Sarah Palin…yeesh. And John Edwards as John Kerry’s personal TV ambulance chaser. God help us.)

It’s now fairly commonplace to see presidents task their VPs with particular portfolios, as a way of 1) communicating the importance of an issue by putting in the hands of the vice president, and 2) giving the poor guy something to do. But think of some of the things President Obama handed to Vice President Biden: Implementation of the Recovery Act after the financial meltdown, saving the auto industry, upgrading workforce training, addressing violence against women, cultivating and maintaining relations with foreign leaders, and the “moonshot” to cure cancer.

These were all caretaking roles. They conveyed a message: People who have been hurt, people whose lives have been upended, people who have lost jobs, people who have been alienated, people who are scared, people who are sick: Joe Biden is going to take care of you.

Now think back to March of this year. Biden’s campaign in the Democratic primaries had been shaky at best, and was being more or less written off, until his blowout victory in South Carolina. Coinciding with the sudden awareness of the threat posed by this “coronavirus” thing, Biden’s victory there seemed to change something in the very air.

Candidates began dropping out before Super Tuesday and endorsing him. I got the sense that they were relieved to do so. The coming general election campaign was likely to be the ugliest and most brutal in generations. The mysterious virus was looming. No one knew what was going to happen. With a sense of foreboding and anxiety that few could not have articulated at the time, the Democratic Party and its electorate turned to a father figure, a figure of stability, normalcy, and comfort. Someone to watch over them and take care of them. That was Joe.

The choice of Kamala Harris as Biden’s own running mate makes even more sense to me now, seen in this light. There was no shortage of brilliant, utterly qualified candidates, but Sen. Harris represented something I think few others could: As a social progressive with a law enforcement background; as a woman of a mixed ethnic background and the daughter of immigrants; as a stepparent in a modern, multi-faith family; and as a woman who pulls no punches for vice presidents, former or current; she is the future. She is, really, the present, but the electorate is not always ready for the present. By choosing her as his second-in-command, Joe Biden sets the stage for her ascension, and the ascension of a whole new generation. And he is trusted to do that.

I think we got Joe Biden at this moment because we are a nation in pain, wracked with fear and anger, unable to nurse our old wounds while triaging the new ones. To replace the current president, who seeks only to inflame every gash and tear every stitch, we need someone who will tend to us, heal us, take care of us.

I don’t think Joe Biden ever thought of himself this way, but this is the burden he’s been given, in his personal and in his public life. Time and time again, he has been asked to take care of us, and he always has. Election Day is about 55 hours away as I write this. If Joe Biden is elected, it will be because we needed him to take care of us one more time.

Equilibrium-plus

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This is from the sixth edition of the Near-Earth Object newsletter, to which you can and should subscribe, right here.

It occurred to me that one theme of the last few years, for me and perhaps for society in general, has been the pursuit of something like balance; a kind of tolerable, flexible equilibrium.

“Normalcy” is one of the ways we talk about it in terms of current events and public life, but with an understanding that the “old normal” isn’t quite going to cut it once we get through our current “new normal.” We want a sense of stability, but not stasis; there has to be both room for adjustments and the will to adjust. Steady forward motion with a few reasonable routes to choose from.

I know it’s where I am. I want to be engaged with the defining issues of our time, but not so much that I lose all sense of hope. I want to learn to live more fully in each small moment, but not to the point that I become oblivious. I want to marvel at how well my life has turned out, but not let myself off the hook for my mistakes, failures, and flaws. I want to be at peace with what I have achieved, but not fully accept anonymity and irrelevance. I want to feel that what I have, all I have, is enough, but not stop looking for greater possibilities.

Maybe that’s where the country is now, too. It seems to me that this is what the candidacy of Joe Biden has been offering us, and most of us are pretty pleased with it. Biden is offering, yes, a return to a kind of normalcy, but with a little extra kick. Biden is offering us what we had before “all this,” but a little better, and with an eye toward a little more. Not a lot more. Not revolution, not “change we can believe in.” It’s equilibrium-plus. It’s a balanced scale with a thumb at the ready as needed.

Biden is asking us to look at what we have as a country — in terms of our population, our institutions, our institutions, and our ideas — and decide that it is enough. Not to settle for, but to work with. We can take what we have, and use it to make everything a little better, bit by bit.

I suspect (though I certainly don’t know) that this is extremely appealing to most Americans. For progressives, it is an acknowledgement of what is possible, even if it doesn’t promise radical change. For sane conservatives, it assuages fears of some sort of sudden cultural upheaval. For everyone “in the middle,” for those whose sense of well-being is not tied to each new outrage-of-the-moment, it offers the comfort of the familiar, with a little optimism for steady improvement.

If Biden wins, I hope that we get this. Whatever happens, I hope I can find it for myself. Because what all of us need now, as individuals and as a civilization, is a little peace.

Interesting things: Two books of essays about totally different subjects have informed my thoughts here. More prominently, I just finished Heather Havrilesky’s What if This Were Enough?, which I wholeheartedly recommend. I’m also enjoying Michael Dirda’s Browsings, which is about his thoughts on books and other stuff.

Last week, I made a video out of the speech I wrote for George W. Bush in the event that Donald Trump refuses to concede a lost election. I’m pretty happy with it.

Also I have a video/podcast-thing on wrestling with my self doubt as I try to be a “real writer,” which also turned out pretty well. And it has fake time-travel.

Stay safe.

If you’d like to validate me with a monetary tip, you should! Do it here.

What’s so funny?

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This is from the fifth edition of the Near-Earth Object newsletter, to which you can and should subscribe, right here.

How do you make political satire when the real political universe is already a parody of itself? I’m hardly the first to ask a question like this, but some recent events have made this question more salient than it has been for a while.

To be effective, political satire begins with what we know to be true (or at least plausible) about a given individual, group, or issue position, and stretches it — in a logical direction — toward an absurdity, thereby highlighting the flaws or harmful implications of whatever is being parodied.

But in the real world, right now, one side of the political debate is living out the parody. “Not The Onion,” the once-ubiquitous refrain on Twitter in response to news about the president, is now nowhere to be seen, because, well, why bother? The president himself just the other day retweeted a satire piece from the definitely not-funny Babylon Bee, thinking it was real. The very fact that most Americans even know what QAnon is tells you all you need to know about how the absurd has become all too real.

My friend Brian Hogg wrote a parody autobiography of Trump in 2016, Trumped Up, which is absolutely hilarious. After Trump actually won the election, which neither he nor I expected, and the damage he would do to the republic became ever more apparent, it was harder to find comedy in someone who was such an obviously ridiculous figure at the time the fake autobiography was written. The real President Trump turned out to be way, way too similar to the bananapants Trump character that Brian created for his sci-fi/time-travel/pseudo-hagiography/comedy book, except the real Trump had real power to ruin real people’s lives.

He and I have often mused about the prospects of creating some new venue for political satire in the form of blogs or podcasts, but we always run into the same brick wall. How do you do funny-smart without just winding up sobbing?

This was how I felt about the video “Weird Al” Yankovic (who is one of my heroes) did with the auto-tune masters, the Gregory Brothers, about the Trump-Biden debate for the New York Times. To me, that debate was traumatizing, a national tragedy. Perhaps I’m over-sensitive about this kind of thing, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling psychologically injured by that event. But Yankovic’s video treated the debate like it was any other conventional debate between two conventional candidates. “Who’s it gonna be?” was the musical refrain, as though it didn’t really matter in the end. I don’t think Yankovic or the Gregory Brothers actually feel that way, but that’s how their video made it seem, that the two figures on stage were equally worthy of being satirized.

Turning a debate into an overblown music video works when it’s yet-another set two dudes in suits parroting the same predictable, boring talking points, and the stakes aren’t all that high. But this wasn’t that. It was the tearing of an already-open wound. I’m sorry, Al. I love you, deeply, but there’s nothing funny about this moment. Not now, anyway.

But here’s the thing about Brian’s fake Trump autobiography: It really isgoddamn funny. The plausibility of Trump speaking about himself as a long-reining god-emperor who falls in love with a future robot version of himself, and leads a liberation rescue team that includes Chris Christie and Ted Cruz to put an end to the “Mexican rape fields,” is what makes it funny. Trumped Up reads like it came right out of the real Donald Trump’s mind. Which is what also makes it uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s part of why it works, and why something like Brian’s book is necessary. It is funny and it’s uncomfortable, because it takes what we know about a political figure or moment and points to where it all leads.

In my own work, I’ve sort of accidentally stumbled upon a twist on political satire that I might keep exploring, something like “aspirational satire.” It started when I wrote a resignation speech for Trump at the time of his attacks on protesters outside the White House for his Bible photo-op. I knew he wouldn’t resign, but I found the fantasy of his doing so irresistible. If it couldn’t be real, I’d at least indulge my wish with some amusing fiction.

More recently, I wrote and recorded a speech intended for President George W. Bush, an address to the nation that he could give in the near future, if and when Trump refuses to concede a lost election. I don’t actually think Bush would take this task on, but he could, and I strongly believe he should. But rather than just wish and bemoan, I decided to write him one myself, so at least such a thing would exist in the world.

He obviously would never use the speech I wrote, as I make references to how shady the 2000 outcome was, but the stuff I wrote about looking to Al Gore’s concession in 2000 is, I think, absolutely on point, and something a real speech by President Bush could and should bring up as a contrast to the expected behavior of a defeated Trump.

For me, this aspirational satire works because it doesn’t mire us in the current moment, but rather allows us to exist, temporarily, in a place where the horrors of the now are exploded in a favorable way. Their plausible absurdity makes them feel safe to laugh at, and maybe just a little bit hopeful.

If there is a post-Trump world, maybe old-school satire will feel good again. For that to happen, I think politics need to get a little more boring, and a lot less terrifying. That’s when we’ll once again have the emotional energy to laugh. Oh, there they go again, those stuffed suits and their empty sound bites. It’ll be bliss.

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If Trump Won’t Concede, I Have George W. Bush’s Address to the Nation Ready to Go

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McConnell Center (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Trump era has been how establishment Republicans have rolled over for him, aiding and abetting Trump in every asinine, narcissistic urge, never having the guts to do anything to stop him from laying waste to the republic. Mitt Romney has had his good moments, but they were too few and too late.

Throughout the election, I have nursed a wish that President George W. Bush would put down his paint brush, get in front of a camera, and tell the folks who still love him that Trump needs to go. He’s never done that, even though you know he believes it.

Now, Election Day is nigh, and Trump continues to assert that he will refuse to concede if and when he loses. Lord only knows what he will do with the enormous power he thoughtlessly wields in order to remain in office.

If Trump loses and attempts to deny Biden the presidency, my last hope is that Bush will finally speak up and urge his fellow Republicans to accept the results of the election. He probably won’t.

But just in case he’s thinking about it, but doesn’t know quite what to say, I thought I could do my part as an American, and help our former president out. Here is my draft of what could be President George W. Bush’s address to the nation if President Trump refuses to concede a lost election.

President Bush, I am open to changes. Have your people get in touch.

UPDATE: I made a video for the speech, just to really drive it all home. I am helping!

Address to the nation by former President George W. Bush on the outcome of the presidential election, November 2020.

Let’s get right to it.

One score and none years ago, I was declared the winner of the presidential election because our side was better at whatcha call “political maneuverings.” Me and Al Gore pretty much wound up in a tie, and you can’t have two presidents at the same time, so our guys just did a better job of greasin’ the wheels and workin’ the refs, simple as that.

It wasn’t all above-board, those ballots in Florida where old Jewish folks were accidentally voting for Pat Buchanan was some real sketchy shit, and to give it to ya straight, even we were surprised when the Supreme Court just kinda let me be president. But like I said, it really was just a tie, and I think everyone figured it was just the other team’s turn to be in charge for a while. It weren’t pretty, but the thing got settled and we moved on.

But here’s the real important part, and I probably should have said more about this at the time, but the reason things got settled is because of Al Gore. Listen, Al was sure as hell that he’s the one that won that election. He was positive he’d won Florida, and hell, maybe he really did. “Butterfly ballots”! I mean, goddamn. But both sides filed all their lawsuits, both sides did their PR bullshit on TV, and in the end, those five Justices shut it all down. Al coulda’ kept fighting. I don’t think it’d’a changed anything in the long term, but you never know, and it’s not like we’re talkin’ about a fight over who gets to be employee of the month at a Pep Boys. This is the presidency. It doesn’t get any bigger’n that.

So think about what Al must’ve been feeling. He believed he’d won more votes in Florida. He believed the Supreme Court was screwin’ him over because they liked me better. That’s probably true! And what’s for sure true is that Al won more votes than me overall. He beat me by about a half a million in the national popular vote — and don’t think I didn’t feel that sting for the next four years, til I definitively kicked Kerry’s ass in ’04. Now, winning the popular vote doesn’t mean shit if you don’t win enough’a them electoral votes, and he knew that, but you just know it all had to be makin’ him nuts.

I mean, imagine, you’ve been the Vice President of the United States for eight years, you’re the smartest guy you know and you’re not only sure you’d be a better president than the guy you’re running against, but you know you’d be way better than the skirt-chasin’ hillbilly who’s shadow you been stuck under for a decade. You run your race, you win more votes than the other guy, and then it all comes apart because of a bunch of technicalities and bullshit.

But listen. After all that, even though he believed in his heart that he was being wronged, he stopped, he put the best interests of the country ahead of his own, and he opened wide to take an enormous bite of the biggest shit sandwich ever served in American history. On December 13, in the year of our lord 2000, Al Gore went in front of those cameras and told the American people that it was over, and that I was his president.

I mean, holy shit.

Now while you think about that, then look at where we are today. There’s no technicalities. There ain’t no tie. Everyone knows that Joe Biden beat the pants off of Donald Trump. Yeah, sure, there are a bunch of mail-in votes that ain’t been counted yet in Pennsylvania or whatever. But come the hell on. Trump lost this election the second he told folks to think about injecting themselves with bleach. I mean, you all know I said some stupid shit when I was president, and even I spat out my O’Doul’s when I heard that one. Mike Murphy says that the country has been tryin’ to cough up Trump like a hairball, and I’m tellin’ you this election was the cat’s final hork. But now the hairball is trying to haul its soggy ass back into the cat’s mouth. That’s just gross.

And it just ain’t gonna fly.

A lotta folks who supported me back in the day also supported Trump. I get it. I ain’t exactly excited about Biden bein’ president. But the race is over. Biden won it, plain as day.

Trump is tellin’ you that he’s been robbed, that the election was fixed by some Deep State antifa pizza parlor tinfoil hat shit. He wants to make you scared and angry. But that’s because he’s scared and angry.

He’s humiliated. You best believe I had my doubts about whether I belonged in that Oval Office, but deep down, Donald Trump knows he sure as shit never shoulda been there. And now he can’t stand the idea of lettin’ it all go. So he’s pulling every trick he can think of so he can stick around. Too many goddamn people who certainly know better are letting him.

Since he won’t do it, I will. I’m here to tell you, it’s over.

To my fellow Republicans, my fellow conservatives, I know you don’t like the idea of a Democrat in the White House. Lord knows, I don’t either. But the people have spoken, and they have not been subtle about it. Joe Biden won, and he’s gotta get sworn in on January 20, and Donald Trump has to let it go.

Republicans in Congress and in your state governments need to hear from you, right now, that they need to step up, like I’m doing now, and to tell their president to stand down. Don’t let Trump rile you up with a bunch of crazy, made-up conspiracies about a rigged election. Don’t let the cable news folks and the talk radio folks get your blood boilin’ and making you think you been screwed. I know the system’s screwed you over a bunch of times before, but this ain’t one of ‘em.

Joe Biden’s a hell of a good guy. He talks too much, and it makes me tired just thinking about him going on and on about how some guy he met in some town had some damn expression and on and on. But he’s a good man who won fair and square. And if you don’t like what he does, and you do like some of what Trump was doing in terms of policy and what have you, well then you vote for Republicans for Congress in the next election, and you support the next Republican candidate for president with everything you got. Fight like hell, and beat ’em fair and square.

But let’s not do it like this. What Trump is doing now, it’s unseemly. It’s unsportsmanlike. It’s weak.

Remember ol’ Al Gore. He had an honest-to-God claim to say that he’d won that race back in 2000, and that he oughta’ve been president. But he knew that the peaceful transition of power was more important than him being president, and more important even than keepin’ someone whose guts he hated from getting the job instead. He put his country first, and he took it like a man. He took it like an American.

Republicans can take this one too. Donald Trump can’t, so we’ll have to do it for him. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

Party of one

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This is from the fourth edition of the Near-Earth Object newsletter, to which you can and should subscribe, right here.

For me, today was Election Day. I got my ballot in the mail, I filled it out (it’s a ranked choice ballot, which is GREAT, but there’s nothing worth ranking this year; there are no “second choices”), drove over to the local ballot drop box, and SAVED DEMOCRACY.

I was as excited as a little kid getting a new toy when my ballot arrived, and I tried to make a big, fun deal out of filling it out, but no one else in the house seemed to be on the same wavelength. (“Don’t you usually get to vote?” asked my son, as if that very fact weren’t something worth celebrating.)

WHATEVER. I don’t get excited about almost anything anymore (why would I?), so if something sparks enthusiasm in me andit’s part of the effort to save the world, you better believe I’m going to get goofy. Election Day — or Election Month or Election Season — is a momentous occasion, no matter what the buzzkills I live with think. WOO, VOTING!

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I have no idea what’s going on in my state. Last year, I started a subscription to the Portland Press Herald (digital with print on Sundays) because I wanted to be better informed about the place I live, not just in terms of its government and politics, but to learn more about the lives and cultures of the people of Maine, a state I’ve now lived in for almost a decade.

I read a lot of it the first couple of weeks. Then I just read from the print Sunday edition. Then I just did the included New York Times crossword. And then I more or less forgot about it.

National news — more specifically, national political news — is all-consuming to me, but it covers that which is many times removed from me. It doesn’t affect me from day to day, nor do I have the capacity to do anything about what I learn. It would make much more sense for me to be more engaged with the goings-on of my state and municipality, which does directly affect my life, and especially the lives of my kids. It’s not nearly as soap-operatic as the titanic struggles over the soul of the nation happening in the presidential election, but it’s just as meaningful. Maybe more so?

So as we careen toward what I hope to Zod is the reasonable conclusion of this election, maybe it’s time to start refocusing on what’s going on closer to home. Regardless of what happens November 3, I know I can’t have any meaningful influence on what goes on in Washington.

But Augusta? Maybe.

In my own town? Surely.

Something to think about.

The most powerful man in the world gets COVID-19 (because of course he did), and after being given the best care available to anyone in the world, he declares that getting the disease and then recovering makes him feel 20 years better.

Meanwhile, I have to sit in my car in order to watch my daughter’s soccer practice, in which the kids play maskless. None of it makes sense. And that’s what the second episode of my podcast-vlog-monologue thing tries to capture. You can watch it here or listen to it here.

I have a Patreon if that’s a thing you’d like to help out with.

A Man Down By the River

I said there would be a podcast coming, right? I think I meant that about 60 percent seriously. Well guess what! A podcast I declared, and a podcast I have made. After a few frustrating stabs at a more “professional” sounding audio product, I opted to go for something more personal and informal. So the new Near-Earth Object podcast was recorded, audio and video, from a bench beside a river. I kind of like how it turned out, and who knows where I might record the next one. 

The video version is easy to get. It’s just right there on YouTube.

The audio podcast is making its way through the various tubes of several podcast apps and services, (here it is at Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Podbean, to start) but I presume it will be widely available by the time you read this. I hope you like it. 


I’m thinking about normalcy. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the abnormality of the crisis-buffet from which we are being force-fed, the so-called “new normal,” does not seem to be causing some kind of great awakening, but rather the “old normal” is clawing its way back

But then the president got the coronavirus. And it dawned on me, well, of course he did. And the fact that he got it (along with all the other folks who got it with or from him) just meant that things operating, well, normally. The times aren’t normal, but the way humans react to the abnormal times, and the way natural phenomenon like viruses behave, are normal. 

And even though none of this means that things are just fine, or that things will get meaningfully better, it is, weirdly, comforting. Read the whole thing


In other news, I’ve rewatched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time in many, many years in preparation for checking out the new Netflix show Ratched. Some quick thoughts:

  • Go watch Cuckoo’s Nest, whether you’ve seen it before or not, and just revel in the masterful acting work being done by this ensemble without parallel.
  • Watching Cuckoo’s Nest will in no way prepare you for the show Ratched. Four episodes in, the only connection between the movie and the TV show is the fact that it’s about a stern psychiatric nurse with the same name in the time just before the events of the movie. The Nurse Ratched as excellently performed by Sarah Paulson in the TV show seems, at this stage, to have nothing to do with the character as so exquisitely performed by Louise Fletcher in 1975. Don’t try to square that circle. It’s just something else.
  • All that said, I still can’t tell if Ratched is brilliant, ridiculous, overindulgent, insipid, visionary, a curious novelty, or some mixture of all of that. But the fact that I still don’t know must say something good about it.

I have a Patreon if that’s a thing you’d like to help out with.

Reversion to the Mean

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Of course he’s got it.

Of course they’re all infected. Honestly, how could we have expected anything else? If you deny the severity of a viciously infectious disease, if you delight in flouting all measures to prevent its spread, and you spend each day interacting with hundreds of people — all of whom agree heartily with your denial and flouting — of course you’re going to get the goddamned virus.

In the course of just a handful of weeks, we’ve had all these “bombshells,” and I know I have been unable to withstand the psychological and emotional shellacking of it all. Less than a month ago, we learned that Trump knew — and personally accepted the fact — that the coronavirus was deadly serious. A few days later, Ruth Badger Ginsburg died, followed by the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace her. A few days after that, the New York Times released its major story on Trump’s taxes, where we learned about his avoidance of taxes and his gobsmacking financial losses and debts. A few days after that, we endured the 90-minute trauma that was the presidential debate, where we learned that Trump was absolutely not going to concede the election if he lost, and that he was encouraging white supremacist violence. A few days after that, we learned that he, his wife, several of people on his staff and in his campaign, two U.S. senators, and others who had been in contact with him, had been infected.

All this we learned. All this shocked us, roiled us, and caused varying degrees of anxiety, horror, and panic.

But I am just now realizing, really, we have learned nothing. And nothing has changed.

Let’s jump back to 2016. You know, how all the polls were wrong and Trump pulled out a surprise victory? The polls weren’t wrong. The results of that election were absolutely in line with what the polls were showing. Nothing weird happened. Voters who leaned Republican voted for the Republican, voters who leaned Democratic voted for the Democrat, and the results for each state more or less wound up well within the margin of error. In terms of consequences, the election of 2016 was monumental. In terms of probabilities, it was unremarkable.

Trump himself is figure of unprecedented abnormality for his position. So his behavior has roiled the collective psyche of the nation, pummeling us all out of any sense of time or orientation. But he is not magic.

The polls for the 2020 presidential election have been almost freakishly stable. For months, Biden has polled just above 50 percent, and Trump just around 42 or so. Even after the aforementioned events of September beat us all about the head, the polls remained eerily static. Why?

It’s pretty easy. It’s really obvious who Trump is now. After four years of him being president, you didn’t need to think too hard about whether you liked how it was going or not. He made it really easy. He faced his most important test in having to deal with a pandemic, and there was no getting around it, so if you were at all on the fence about him, his handling of COVID-19 probably gave you your last push. There’s nothing new to learn. People have settled on their preferences.

But what about this crazy month? Well, no one really thought that Trump didn’t believe the virus was serious. It’s news that he was stupid enough to say so to a journalist while being recorded, but it’s not surprising. Everyone already knew that Trump is a cheat, and that he’s avoided paying taxes. Indeed, he’s boasted about his ability to evade them. It’s also well known that he’s been a colossal failure as a businessman. He’s been siding with white supremacists for ages, publicly. He threatened to contest the election of 2016 if he didn’t win. None of this is new.

And now, he gets COVID-19. It’s “shocking” in the sense that it’s the President of the United States, and that’s just a de facto big-goddamn-deal. But, you know, come on. Of course he was going to get it.

After four years of Mussolini-But-Dumber, people know what they got. If they love it, they love it, and that’s all there is to that. The rest of us — most of us — don’t, and we’re going to vote him out of office. There’s nothing weird about that, either.

We may feel as a nation that we’ve been batted about like a cat toy, but it’s the same cat. It acts like a cat. It doesn’t grow wings or breathe fire.

Just like the 2016 election, the 2020 election just might be (and I can’t believe I’m about to type this) a normal election with an abnormal candidate. A majority of voters will reject the president because he’s done an obviously shitty job and is an obviously shitty person. We know this because this is what the polls say is by far the most likely outcome. 2016 polls showed that Trump’s upset victory was entirely plausible. This time, he could still plausibly win, and it wouldn’t be a miracle if he did, but it’s just not where things are. Putting aside malfeasance, manipulation, or a mustering of forces to hold onto power (and I don’t necessarily doubt those things), this election is, in a way, like any other. It will revert to the mean.

Water seeks its own level. Viruses infect people who put themselves in a position to get infected. People in a shitty situation will choose to get out of it. Trump’s behavior, and now his health, are dangerous unknown factors. But everything else is, I am realizing, obvious.