Colored pencil on paper, 18×22 cm (c) Amy Zucker Morgenstern 2018

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You know what scares me most about Trump’s latest outrage? It’s not that he described other nations as “shitholes.” It’s not that he said we shouldn’t allow immigration from such countries. It’s not even the deep, toxic racism of his policies.

Those are all plenty frightening, but what’s got me most in a sweat is the evidence that no one, least of all Trump himself, has control over what Trump says and does.

There are those on the left and right who say he’s being strategic: shoring up his base with the occasional blatantly racist comment. But the people who love this comment don’t need shoring up, so if it is a strategy, it’s a bad one. Again: he is not in control of himself.

It’s been a while since I wrote one of my appreciations of Ursula K. Le Guin, though I keep reading new and old works of hers. During my sabbatical last year I read Malafrena and Unlocking the Air for the first time and enjoyed both. This week I pulled one off the shelf that I have read once before–only once, several years ago, and I won’t wait that long again before my next reading, because there’s a lot to discover in Changing Planes (Ace Books, 2003). It’s a volume of short stories, in a sense, though what draws my attention in each is less plot or character, and more what, if this were non-fiction, might be called ethnography. The narrator is writing as a tourist, though a reflective one, of fifteen societies. They are sketches: brief anthropological visits to some of the rooms of Le Guin’s imagination. It’s as if she decided to just play at world-creation for awhile, and it’s something she does with so much creativity, humor, and generosity of spirit that I feel possibilities expand.

I would like to comprehend the language of the Nna Mmoy, whom no visitor has yet understood and whose texts “are not linear, either horizontally or vertically, but radial, budding out in all directions like tree branches or growing crystals, from a first or central word which, once the text is complete, may well be neither the center nor the beginning of the statement. Literary texts carry this polydirectional complexity to such an extreme that they resemble mazes, roses, artichokes, sunflowers, fractal patterns.” (166)

I would not like to visit the Veksi, who are perpetually angry: fighting, sulking, quarreling. But as unpleasant as they are, after this peek into their community I wonder whether their anger is not mostly a response to the perpetual losses and griefs of life. Maybe that’s where our anger comes from too.

On Gy, about one in a thousand adolescents develops wings, in a painful process that changes all of their bones as well as adding these two limbs. As a result, life on the ground becomes difficult for them, with their delicate bones and ungainly appendages; however, many winged Gyr choose not to fly, because catastrophic wing failure is a constant and unpreventable risk. Le Guin draws no analogy, but I draw my own. Maybe wings are like extraordinary talents; flyers are the equivalent of certain artists, writers, scientists, mystics, choreographers–visionaries of all kinds, who take risks in order to experience the inimitable intensity of “one’s whole body, one’s whole self, up in the whole sky. . . . It takes everything to fly. Everything you are, everything you have” (210). Do I live like that? Do I want to? And is it as risky as the Gyrs’ flights, fatal one time in twenty?

I’m both drawn to the migratory life of the Ansarac and sobered by the homesickness that must accompany it. Each of their years is about as long as 25 of ours, and they seldom live much longer than three of their years, never as long as four. So the annual migration north in spring, to where they live in families, in rural villages, and there dance their courtship dances, is made by each of them no more than three times. Come fall–which is a good dozen years later, in our terms–they migrate to an urban life in the south. Couples separate, children go off to school and away from parents, not to be reunited until the following spring, after another one-sixth of their lives has passed. What happens when they are offered a new development that would allow them to travel as often as they wish between the two places is vintage Le Guin. She is never naive, but resists the simplistic stories both of technology as ruin and technology as salvation. She’s interested in how and why people choose the changes they do–and so she imagines for us a more discerning, deliberate approach to “progress” than we have generally imagined for ourselves or our society.

This book doesn’t get the attention it merits. It’s a beauty. And it’s yet another reason that, when my daughter asked me this week who my favorite writers are, Ursula Le Guin was the first name from my lips.

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Ghost Ship, marker on paper, approx. 4″x6″ (c) AZM December 2016

A year ago tomorrow, 36 people died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. At the time I did these three drawings in my sketchbook. I was haunted by the stories of people being trapped, trying to flee the fire by going down a staircase that ended only in more fire.

The larger story, that haunted me at least as much, was (and is) the extreme scarcity of safe, affordable housing in our area. These people lived there because actual apartments, which have stricter codes, were out of reach to their budgets (as they are to an increasing number of Bay Area residents). Their landlord got away with housing them in a warehouse because everyone concerned wanted it to work, even though it wasn’t safe. The housing crisis is another rapidly narrowing space that leads to suffering and possible disaster.  I knew when I drew these that I wanted to do more, a piece with specific allusions to the cost and scarcity of decent places to live, the way people are trapped by a poverty we have created. I haven’t yet. But I am still haunted.

 

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Ghost Ship 2, marker on paper, approx. 4″x6″ (c) AZM December 2016

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Ghost Ship 3, marker on paper, approx. 4″x6″ (c) AZM December 2016

Yes, yes, condolence calls don’t bear much scrutiny and it’s time to stop analyzing what each of these poor people had to endure, or what they appreciated, about a call from our 45th (in chronology and rank) president. In a way this is a minor blip. Though of course it is not minor for the families, no one will die from a bad phone call, which is more than we can say for some of his other decisions. But it’s deeply significant for our country, the other countries of the world, and all of the billions of us who are affected by this man’s holding so much power.

1. Trump is the worst person in the world to deliver condolences. He has no capacity for empathy, he is completely clumsy with words (see: inability to distinguish between “He was willing to die for his country” and “He knew what he signed up for”) and has zero sense of what is appropriate to say when (see: same).

2. Trump, when criticized, immediately attacks others. Even if they are grieving Gold Star families.

3. Trump is a pathological liar: he lies constantly and in situations where his lies are easily exposed.

4. One of the many things he habitually lies about is his own generosity. He promises money, or claims to have given it, and then little of the money ever materializes. His charitable “foundation” is a scam.

5. He is desperate to be the unique, the best, the first. Other presidents didn’t make calls, he claims (of course they did). No other president writes a check for $25,000–or maybe what he means is, no previous president would have promised such a check and not send it until compelled by public exposure, which may be true. This narcissistic neediness causes harm to other people, such as the grieving father he strung along. What might be even worse is that Trump seems not to perceive that a promise is not actually meaningful unless fulfilled; words are not enough. No wonder he stiffs creditors, reneges on contractors and now, as president, blithely breaks treaties.

6. When caught in a lie, it’s also part of his m.o. to pass the buck like it’s a hot coal. In this case, he immediately blamed the fabrication on “his” generals. “I was told,” he said. He lacks the most elementary courage needed for leadership.
7. A president does not need to call each family that has lost a servicemember; a letter, crafted by a staffer, is fine. Likewise, some people will appreciate the call, some will be angry and bitter, and many will not remember a word. They’re in shock and grief, damn it. There is no perfect, right thing to say–but there are many wrong things to say. There’s a “first, do no harm” principle to such things that he does not grasp.

8.  In no circumstances is it acceptable to complain about this duty. Again: if you don’t know that “this is one of the hardest things a president has to do” is not a complaint, whereas “Now, it gets to a point where, you know, you make four or five of them in one day. It’s a very, very tough day” is a complaint, then it’s best to just keep your mouth shut.

9. People who have lost a child are not “politicizing” the incident by talking about it in a political context. You can’t politicize what is already political, and what could be more political than asking someone to die for his country’s aims? They are not tarnishing the sacredness of their sacrifice by pointing out its connections to policies, parties, or politicians. I lost my last scrap of respect for John Kelly yesterday when he implied the Khans had done so.

When I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.

If there’s something or someone else he could have meant by this reference to Gold Star families, please enlighten me.

10. Don’t even get me started on a so-called leader who keeps trotting out “the dog ate my homework”-level excuses. Again: leadership skills 101.

11. And the whole thing blew up because Trump didn’t want us to hear about Niger. So: what are we doing in Niger? And why was it such a secret? I was hoping the silence was only because he couldn’t bear to report a failure, but it’s become apparent that this is a secret mission. So what’s going on there? Did Congress know about it?

I know there is a long list of things to worry about that Trump is doing vis-a-vis Puerto Rico alone, yet this little exchange may be what frightens me the most. (Transcript from the Washington Post.)

THE PRESIDENT, in Puerto Rico: I want to thank the Coast Guard. They are special, special, very brave people . . . . Would you like to say something on behalf of your men and women?

AIR FORCE REPRESENTATIVE: Sir, I’m representing the Air Force.

THE PRESIDENT: No, I know that.

Our daughter used to do this. 

“Mama, my lunch isn’t in my backpack.” 

“Yes it is, honey, see, right here.” 

“I know.”

It drove us nuts. It peaked at about seven or eight, I would say. Now, at ten, she knows not to say “I know” to a fact that she has just demonstrated she doesn’t know. Yet the President of the United States (age 71) is too emotionally stunted to utter the words, “Ah, so sorry, my mistake. The Air Force. Please, tell us about what your people are doing.” 

How can such a person lead? He is constantly boxed in by the need to protect his fragile ego. How is he ever going to change course about big things if he can’t even cope with being wrong about something as small as this? And how can he have a reality-based policy about  anything if his response to a mildly embarrassing fact (mixing up Air Force and Coast Guard uniforms) is to tell a roomful, a worldful of people, “You didn’t see what you saw. My version of reality is the true one”? 

Joy spotted a sign for an etching workshop here in Oaxaca (grabado en metal, in Spanish): three days, five hours a day, various techniques. Investigation confirmed that the artist, Marco Velasco, would gladly teach a ten-year-old how to work with acid, something not all printmaking workshops here have been willing to do, so all three of us signed up.

The germ of this piece came to me seven years ago; it even inspired me to begin learning GNU Gimp (open-source Photoshop) because I envisioned it as a digital collage. But I didn’t learn how to make digital collages (yet), and the piece sat in my sketchbook and a corner of my mind. When I learned about the variety of marks one can make with etching, it emerged and said “make me a print!”

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Colony Collapse Disorder, etching, about 4″ x 8″, (c) Amy Zucker Morgenstern July 2017

 

It involved fun research. I did not know that the headache-medicine people, Bayer, own a company called Bayer CropScience, soon to acquire Monsanto. Nor that it is one of the biggest manufacturers of neonicotinoids, the pesticides that work by attacking insects’ neurological systems, and of course an ardent advocate of the claim that they have no significant effect on bees. Nor that Monsanto has decided to protect Bayer’s flank by producing a new kind of bee. (It’s the Roundup Ready corn of the insect world. Make poison, spread it on everything, and when you discover that it kills some species you like, instead of changing the poison or ceasing to spread it, alter the species.) Bayer’s logo even resembles the cross-hairs of a rifle, a pleasing bit of serendipity. I also did not anticipate that looking up images of the Gadsden flag, the one that says “Don’t Tread on Me,” would cause websites full of US flags and pugnacious political mottos to pop up in my ads, but of course it did.

I think the founding principles that united the American colonies left us particularly vulnerable to attacks like the one on the bees (and our food sources, and the entire web of plant and animal life), but these ideas are still too abstract for art; I don’t have the image yet to express what I think is threatening to cause the collapse of the human colonies. Maybe there will be future works in a series.

I know for certain that I want to do more etching. I loved the techniques. You can scratch into the varnish that will resist the acid, or use a different kind of varnish and draw right onto it (the smudges in the lower left come from my leaning on the plate as I did that, a mistake), or scratch into the plate itself. And make areas of darker and lighter tone by how long you leave the plate in the acid, and by gently sanding the plate’s surface. Unlike relief techniques like linocut, where you think in negative (what you want to be dark, you leave behind as you carve), the marks you make on an etching plate will be dark. This makes it possible to transfer images to the plate in my own drawing style. The three days involved painting, drawing, scratching, sanding–I enjoyed every minute.

A Mexico first for me: yesterday, in order to get from Tlacolula (home of a huge Sunday market) to the small town of San Marcos Tlapazola, we and our friend Jacki took one of the ubiquitous tarp-covered trucks that are a cheaper alternative to taxis. I’ve ridden in Mexican taxis, colectivos, buses, moto-taxis, and–an experience our daughter remembers as one of the highlights of our six months in Oaxaca, and possibly her life–the back of a friend’s pickup truck. These transports are small pickup trucks with a bench running along each side. The rear is slats, which, like the uncovered last couple of feet, allow a view of the countryside one has just passed.
 
The ride was fun. The route to Tlapazola was dusty, and other women covered their mouths and noses with their rebozos, the also-ubiquitous long woven scarves that are used to shield one’s head from the sun or rain, hold babies, carry groceries, keep warm, and who knows what else. I have a beautiful one, but it’s wool and I left it at home on this warm day–foolish gringa! I commented to Indigo, “Otro de los muchos usos de rebozos” (another of the many uses of rebozos). I don’t know how much Spanish the woman closest to us spoke, because she was speaking Zapotec to her friend and Joy noticed later that some of the women in Tlapazola knew little or no Spanish, but she saw us covering our faces with our hands, and offered the end of her rebozo to both of us.
Tlapazola was having a feria de barro rojo, a fair to promote the red-clay pottery that is its particular art form; during the Guelaguetza most of the villages near Oaxaca hold an event like this. The woman with the rebozo had a table, and I bought a little skunk that she’d made, loving its snout and the curve of its tail. A troupe of small children–they couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8, some younger–performed the Danza de las Plumas. Usually it is done by grown men, with huge feathered headdresses; the boys had smaller ones, but wow. (Girls also have a small part in this dance, but don’t apparently get to wear the headdresses or play the clowns who harass the other dancers.) Unfortunately, I can’t upload any of my photos or videos until I get back to the US, but here’s one on YouTube.

They did at least a dozen dances, standing patiently in between dances while a man told the story being acted out by the dance (and explained, every single time, that the group was from a cultural center at Teotitlan del Valle). I loved hearing the story, which was about Moctezuma and the “malos presagios” (bad omens) being told him by his advisers, as unknown people and monstrous beasts arrived on the shore. Lacking the perseverance of the children, I finally got so hungry I had to go get tamales from the food section, and missed the end of the story. I am sure it did not end well for Moctezuma. But it was very cool to hear this story of conquest, colonialization, and the culture that has withstood them, the first time I’ve heard the context for these dances.                                                                     
On the way back to Tlacolula, it was raining, which solved the dust problem. The bumpy road often adds false steps to a pedometer’s reading. This one didn’t add more than a few hundred, but my Fitbit seems to think they were all taken on stairs. It reports that I climbed 43 flights.

I’m at the annual meeting and conference of Unitarian Universalists, General Assembly: this year, in New Orleans. Instead of bringing knitting to occupy my hands through the many meetings and workshops, as I have done before, this time I brought my sketchbook. The last three might be called Variations on a Theme by Brice Marden, since seeing some of his work at SFMOMA last week clearly influenced what’s in my head.

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I didn’t even know what a rap battle was until I heard Hamilton, and now I’m trawling through YouTube looking for the ones I like best. Insult humor has never done much for me before, maybe partly because what I saw of the dozens, or as we called it as kids, “yo’ mama jokes,” was just that: kids’ stuff. The put-downs were just put-downs, without much zing because they weren’t clever. Watching grownups do the dozens, or their heir, battle rap, is a whole other thing. And once you know how sharp and funny battle rap can be, framing an intra-Cabinet argument about financial policy as a rap battle is one of those ideas that is so obvious and right that you can’t believe no one’s done it before.

Washington’s opening is like Miranda’s wink at the audience: “You’re watching a musical about the country’s first Treasury Secretary, and the joke’s on you because it’s actually terrific!” The president doesn’t say that, of course. Instead, he delivers the show-biz patter:

Ladies and gentlemen, you coulda been anywhere in the world tonight, but you’re here with us in New York City. Are you ready for a cabinet meeting?

If the prospect of an exciting cabinet meeting puts a disbelieving smile on any face in the audience, it’s been wiped off within a few bars. This is hot stuff. They’re posturing, strutting their credentials:

Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness,
We fought for these ideals, we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ’em,
Don’t act surprised, you guys, ’cause I wrote ’em.

Trading innuendo and insults:

Jefferson: Now place your bets as to whom that benefits
The very seat of government where Hamilton sits.

Hamilton, later: And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment

Hamilton again: Thomas Jefferson, always hesitant with the President
Reticent—there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison
Madison, you’re mad as a hatter, son, take your medicine
Damn, you’re in worse shape than the national debt is in

Hamilton wins the battle of rhetoric, though not the policy argument. His plan won’t pass without enough votes in Congress, and it hasn’t got them–yet.

Other moments:

  • Madison is such a flunky, I’m embarrassed for him.

Jefferson: Such a blunder sometimes it makes me wonder why I even bring the thunder

Madison: Why he even brings the thunder…

  • It’s been less than two years since Hamilton and Madison worked on the Federalist Papers together. I would love to know what made them hate each other so much. Was it that process itself?
  • Both Hamilton and Jefferson are too brilliant to get away with taking the just-plain-folks side in the culture war between the experts and the anti-experts, but Jefferson goes for it, with a little laugh in his voice when he says of Hamilton’s plan, “It’s too many damn pages for any man to understand!” I wonder if the “I’m less expert than you” contest really existed then.
  • Washington, showing superhuman patience, gives Hamilton a crash course in political necessity.

Washington: You need the votes

Hamilton: No, we need bold strokes. We need this plan.

W: No, you need to convince more folks

H: James Madison won’t talk to me, that’s a nonstarter

W, echoing his line in “Right Hand Man”: Ah, winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.

H: They’re being intransigent

W: You have to find a compromise

H: But they don’t have a plan, they just hate mine!

W: Convince them otherwise.

My daughter wanted to know what Hamilton’s debt plan was. I didn’t know anything about it besides what was in the play, but the question led to a conversation about something I and anyone else who follows U.S. politics knows plenty about, the tension between the various states, and between the authority of the federal government and that of the states. Jefferson has a point, I told her, and we’re still arguing the same one today, since most laws and policies benefit some states more than others, and therefore basically benefit some at the expense of others. And Hamilton has a point for the same reason: the states with free labor did have a huge advantage over the ones that insisted on paying all workers, and we still have states running that race to the bottom when it comes to workers’ rights, health and safety laws, and environmental protection–we’ve just raised the bottom a bit so that it can’t include chattel slavery as it did in the days when free states had to compete with free. (Hamilton’s argument is a little anachronistic, by the way; slavery would still be legal in New York for another 10 years. But the state’s economy wasn’t as dependent upon it as Virginia’s.) And we’re still very much wrestling about how much power should inhere in the federal government. Few of us are very consistent; most U.S. Americans, left, right, and center, tend to cite the principle of states’ autonomy when we like a state’s policy in defiance of the federal government, and uphold a strong central government when we want to overrule a particular state law. So within us, and among us, the rap battle battles on.

Incidentally, listening to Hamilton and looking up the terminology has clarified what I’ve wondered for some time: is “federalist” the position advocating a strong central government, or a weak one? The answer is the former.  So I have no idea why the Federalist Society calls itself that, when it is a small-federal-government, states’-rights organization. Lots of other people also call themselves “anti-federalists” when they mean they favor a strong federal government, and they have it backwards, at least if “federalist” means Federalist. Hamilton, the Federalist, argued strongly for a strong central democracy, and against the idea that the states were or should be sovereign entities.

Another echo of today is Jefferson’s specious comparison of empire-imposed taxes to self-imposed taxes:

Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky
Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whisky

He sounds just like the Tea Party, every member of which has three representatives in Congress (unless they live in our resident colonies, D.C. or Puerto Rico), yet which likens us to the colonists who had to pay a tax on tea without representation in Parliament.

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