Sunday, January 03, 2021

Fatherhood at Fifty-One

One year ago last night, as my spouse and I were getting ready for bed, she complained that her waistbands were feeling tight although she hadn't gained any visible weight.

"Could you be pregnant?" I asked, and she told me that was ridiculous. She was probably right. We were too old. We had missed the window for having children and reconciled ourselves to growing old together as a childless couple. So I went to sleep.

One year ago today I woke at 5:30 in the morning and found my wife had already been awake for hours. My question had nagged at her until she dug an old home-pregnancy test out of the bathroom closet. Positive. A baby was coming.

But was that right? The test was so old it had expired. So off to the drugstore for another (inconclusive) and another (positive) and then a hurried call to her ob/gyn and a trip to the nearest emergency room for an ultrasound. And there was our daughter on the screen, wriggling happily away.

"I can't take a picture for you," the ultrasound technician said. "I'm only trained for the first trimester, and we're obviously past that."

As Gomer Pyle used to put it: surprise, surprise.

My spouse and I met late and married late, when I was already past forty, and spent our first years of marriage commuting between jobs hundreds of miles apart. There was no responsible way to start a family when I spent the work week two states away. By the time we'd landed jobs in the same city I was very distinctly middle-aged. Could we start a family so late? Should we? We decided to let nature take its course and then accept its verdict: no IVF or other medical interventions, no adoption. We'd just see what happened, and nothing did. We thought that was that. And then it wasn't.

So in this worst of years, filled with calamities, we were also given an enormous, unexpected gift of joy. Our daughter was born in the Pandemic Summer of 2020 and we've been home with her ever since. I mean, where else would we go?

Being older parents means getting warned about every possible complication or grisly birth defect. The testing was constant. But the baby is healthy. Being pregnant during the pandemic meant worrying that there won't be a hospital room at all when the time comes, but the line held. Being an expectant father during the pandemic meant I had to live in the hospital room with my wife and newborn; if I left the hospital, I wouldn't be allowed back in. But I wouldn't have had it any other way. I began fatherhood as I meant to go forward, and living together is the point. Having a newborn in a pandemic means you never go out or see anybody; in some ways the two parts cancel each other out. 

Working from home with a newborn when both parents teach at the same university, means that the fact of the newborn cannot be hidden. She has sat on my lap through Zoom meetings and through online teaching videos. I wouldn't recommend it as standard practice, but I also wouldn't have it any other way. And why should the work of raising a child be hidden, except to keep employers from recognizing that work?

And Christmas came to our small family at home, the first time I've celebrated Christmas without traveling since before I left home for college and I think the same for my spouse. But all I wanted for Christmas I had, here under my own roof. 

I'm old to be a first-time father: as old as my own grandfather was when I was born. I don't have the physical energy I had in my twenties or my thirties, but I have a little more cunning and much more patience. I will worry about my daughter every day for the rest of our lives, but that's the job description. 

Being half a century older than your child brings home mortality like nothing else, not even a global pandemic. If I'd forgotten how fragile everything is, I'm never going to have that luxury again.

And I know what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life. Happy New Year. I hope yours is joyful and safe.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Monday, October 12, 2020

Arrivederci, Columbus

All statues, like all politics, are local. They're about the place where they are put up, and they change that place (which is to say, they're political). It's a mistake to think a statue is put up to represent some eternal truth; they're a local statement about the politics of the moment. So it is with Christopher Columbus, who got statues and a national holiday for political, and progressive reasons. Those statues don't seem progressive anymore, for a simple reason: they worked. So they've outlived their purpose.

Columbus Day, and the statues of Columbus all over America, were introduced in the 2oth century in order to promote immigrants' rights. Italian immigrants, and Italian-Americans born in this country, were despised as perpetual foreigners, looked down upon as unassimilable and un-American. They weren't the only immigrant group treated this way, but they stood in for the larger group of Southern and Eastern European immigrants that nativists hated, and they were conspicuously despised. They certainly didn't count as white people in the first half of the 20th century. Elevating Columbus was part of a larger campaign to assert that immigrants were Americans, too. After all, "America" is an Italian word.

And it worked. Italians, like the Poles and Lithuanians and Portuguese, have been promoted to the full privileges of American whiteness. The category has expanded to include them, which means the borderline of racism had been moved.

And regressive approaches to immigration worked too. The first laws limiting immigration were passed in the 20th century to keep out the Italians, specifically, along with the Poles, Greeks, Czechs, and so on. The flow of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe was choked to a trickle, and over the decades after that those immigrant groups lost touch with their home countries. Being Italian American now is its own thing, heavily diluted and even at its purest divorced from Italian culture. Virtually no American Italians today speak the languages their immigrant ancestors did, regional Italian dialects that no American college teaches. (What one learns in an American university is the artificial national language created for reasons of other, strictly Italian, politics. Your great-grandmother didn't actually talk like that.) 

And plenty of Italian Americans, at this moment in history, have gone over to the anti-immigrant politics that would have once kept them from being born in America. A large slice of Trump's base comes from white ethnics descended from immigrants themselves, people who show up in most polling as "white Catholics." Look at Rudy Giuliani spitting bile on cable. The Italian Americans no longer need help. We arrived a long time ago.

And now that the America's racist imaginary is focused on the border with Latin America, and on despising Latinx as permanent foreigners, Columbus comes to symbolize an anti-immigrant agenda that the people who lobbied for his statues and holiday never intended: a celebration of European colonization by Spain. The reversal of the original intent is just ghastly.

So arrivederci, Colombo. I'm done with you. We don't need you, and you're not helping. My people weren't from Genoa anyway. Anything I have to say to you I can say in Sicilianu, the handful of words that have come down the generations. But all of those words are obscene.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

He Knows He's Losing: Trump as Mike Tyson

The most obvious thing to me about last night's toxic sludge fire of a debate is that Trump knows he's losing. Bigly. And he has no idea what to do about it. Many pundits are confused on this point, because they treat Trump as a conventional politician or as a media figure rather than as a psychiatric patient. And if you don't view Trump through the lens of his maladies, you misunderstand him. Trump is not a serious politician. Comparing him to other Republican presidential candidates doesn't help you understand him. This is not Mitt Romney. Let me compare him instead to someone Trump does resemble, deeply: Mike Tyson.

Back in 1997, just before Tyson's infamous rematch with Evander Holyfield, the Boston Globe's boxing columnist, a guy named Ron Borges, predicted that if Tyson couldn't beat Holyfield in the first three rounds, he'd try to disqualify himself. Tyson no longer had the stamina for a full-length championship bout, Borges explained, although he still had a furious opening attack that had won him some matches, and even a heavyweight belt, with early knockouts. But if he couldn't knock out Holyfield by the third, Tyson had no chance. He would only get weaker as the match stretched on. So he'd try to disrupt the match and get a DQ instead.

Holyfield won the first three rounds. In the third, Tyson bit off part of Holyfield's ear.

What people forget is that Tyson bit Holyfield's ear twice, because the referee didn't stop the fight after Tyson had actually chomped off part of his opponent's ear. (If you want to make a comparison to last night's debate moderation here, feel free.) So Tyson bit Holyfield again.

This was crazy, but not spontaneous. It was Tyson's plan. He actually came out for the third round without his mouth guard, which is a crazy thing to do if a heavyweight contender is about to punch you in the mouth over and over again, but efficient tactical preparation if your plan for the upcoming round is to bite some dude. The ref made him put it back in. Tyson came out of his corner looking to get thrown out of the fight. When biting didn't work, he kept biting until he got thrown out. Then he threw a tantrum blaming the referee.

What we witnessed last night was an attempt to bite off the opponent's ear, to look for a DQ rather than take a public beating. Trump destroyed the debate because he had no legitimate way to win, and he knew it. He can't stand on a stage with Joe Biden for ninety minutes in a conventional, legitimate debate. I mean, what would he talk about? His record? He can't afford to do that. Trump has no affirmative case to make for his presidency beyond childishly obvious lies. So his goal was to keep Biden from talking. His handlers talk about how he was trying to goad Biden into some gaffe, and maybe that's part of the truth, but I think Trump's handlers don't understand the real goal: keep Biden from talking so Biden couldn't score any points. Trump couldn't beat Biden, so he tried to derail the match so Biden wouldn't be seen beating him.

This strategy only intermittently worked. Sometimes Biden was rattled, because it's hard to have a serious conversation while a floridly symptomatic mental patient shrieks at you. But when Biden got a chance to breathe and focus for 45 seconds, especially when he spoke directly to the camera, it became very clear why Trump couldn't afford to let Biden speak for any longer than that.

Here's the thing: this is not a strategy for a candidate who's behind, and Trump is behind. Keeping Biden from gaining more ground on him isn't a win. Biden's ahead by 7 or eight points. Trump needed to use the debate to close some of that gap, and ruining the debate, getting the DQ, doesn't do that. (To switch sports metaphors briefly, it's the equivalent of trying to get the last innings of a baseball game canceled when the other team is ahead. If you're losing after six innings, you don't want the last three rained out, because then you lose.) So this was less strategy than pathology.

Getting DQ'd out of the Holyfield match was not to Tyson's advantage. Getting disqualified is not better than losing. It's actually much worse. Not only did Tyson forfeit the match, he lost his boxing license and got fined millions of dollars. It would be much better to fight through the next twelve rounds, take his lumps, and lose honestly. But that would have meant Tyson letting people see him lose. Instead, no matter how high and insanely self-destructive the cost, he preferred to end the match and keep the option of pretending he might have won. Tyson was willing to throw his career in the toilet in order to shift blame for his defeat onto the ref.

Trump, like Tyson, can not accept or admit defeat. He would rather hurt his campaign than have the experience of letting Joe Biden beat him on live TV. But doesn't that invite the even greater humiliation of having Joe Biden beat him on Election Night? Yes, but here's the thing: Trump knows he can't win the election either.

Let me say that again: Trump knows he cannot win this election. He knows he cannot get more votes than Biden, that he will lose the popular votes by millions. Listen to him, if you can stomach it: this man who constantly boasts never boasts about the vote count he's going to rack up, because he's read the polls. He knows he's losing. No one associated with the Trump campaign talks about the popular vote. They have given up hope of winning it.

They barely, if ever, even talk about the Electoral College. Trump doesn't brag about which states he's ahead in. Because he doesn't have a strong lead in any state with more than about 11 electoral votes. He's way behind, playing defense on most of his map. He's going to have to defend Georgia and Texas.

Instead, Trump talks about voter fraud and Supreme Court rulings and voter intimidation. He's shouting that it's going to be stolen, because he knows he's losing.

We should take this very seriously, because it represents a genuine threat to our election. He's shouting that the election is going to be stolen because he wants to steal it if he can.

But even more important to Trump is ruining the election itself, disrupting it the way he disrupted the debate. Even if he can't hold onto power, he wants to avoid the humiliating spectacle of public defeat. Trump knows he can't win. He's looking for the DQ. You saw him last night. He's already taken out his mouthpiece.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog


Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Mayor from Jaws Explains Those Quotes He Gave to Bob Woodward


Everyone knows I want to be a cheerleader for Amity Island, right? You want to project confidence. So while I might have told some reporter from the mainland that we were facing “a  grotesque, Biblical monster of the deep,” “a bloody, churning nightmare of teeth,” or “a lean, mean tourist-eating machine,” there was no reason to tell the general public that. You don’t want to start a panic, fellas. Just think of the kids.

On the subject of kids, the media’s distorting my comment about the unfortunate Kitner boy being “a fit offering and sacrifice to our mighty fish-god Dagon” completely out of context. First of all, I was brought up never to criticize someone else’s religion. I don’t know how you were raised. Second, if I have the worshipers of Dagon right – and they’ve been fine, upstanding members of our Chamber of Commerce – then Dagon brings wealth and prosperity not just to his followers, but to the whole community. Who wouldn’t like a little more prosperity, am I right? Here on Amity Island we depend upon the ocean for our very lives. So you gotta keep those obscene, scaly, aquatic monster gods happy.

Look, if it wasn’t for me, this whole island would descend into real darkness and bloodshed. I’m talking about roaming mobs of young radical leftists – some of them nearly four foot ten – destroying our picket fences with their karate. If my opponent is elected Mayor, they’ll just run wild. Then the only white, pointed pickets you’ll see will be the row upon row of pitiless shark teeth closing down on you. I think I got off the subject somehow.

When I told that reporter, “We want to play this down, so the suckers don’t avoid the beaches,” I simply meant that it was time to reopen our beaches and our economy. It’s lost business that’s the real killer: not just people, but whole communities. Do you want to kill our community? Maybe I should quote you in a newspaper.

So it’s exactly what I was saying on twitter at the time, except a few minor details about the insatiable marine predator Carcharodon carcharias. Twitter has a character limit, as you’re well aware.

And when I said that “We should get everyone we can to go swimming and thrash wildly in the closest possible imitation of a distressed seal,” I was simply calling upon the spirit of loyalty and public service in our nearly 346-year-old community and its citizens. “Amity,” as you know, means friendship.

When I said “Have you seen some of those off-island girls’ bikinis? I wouldn’t mind eating them myself,” that was simply boat-locker talk, and a compliment to our beautiful young guests and the fashionable swimwear for sale here in our town. Life’s too short to get upset about stuff like this, particularly with a frenzied cartilaginous fish honed to homicidal perfection by millions of years of evolution around to shorten it.

 I don’t think the voters are going to hold a little banter against me any more than they did last election, when I was recorded talking about inviting Chief Brody’s wife for “a little midnight harpoon practice.” And speaking of the Chief, I don’t expect voters to mind me hoping “the shark eats that snotty New York bastard, so I can show his widow my blow hole.” People from New York can be prickly. 

 No one cares what I may or may not have said to a famous investigative journalist who explicitly asked permission to record me. Who are you going to believe? All that matters is, the sun is shining, the beaches are full, and we’re going to have the best Fourth of July we’ve ever had. You’re the one who says it’s September. I prefer to be an optimist.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Fear, Loathing, and Pandemics

An epidemic turns out to be a rotten time to have a germophobe President. Trump's more obvious pathologies -- ignorance, narcissism, magical thinking, pathological lying -- have gotten the obvious attention, because those are all real dangers to public safety. But Trump's germophobia makes him fundamentally unsuited to a public health crisis. His focus on making sure that he, personally, does not get ill, is just the mindset that increases the number of people who will. Selfishness helps an epidemic thrive. The outbreak can only be defeated by cooperation. It attacks the whole society, and the society needs to fight back together.

How do I not get it? is the wrong question to ask in plague time, although of course everyone would like not to get it. How do I not spread it? is the more important question.

If your goal is to be one of the lucky ones, to be spared while others fall ill, that will be counterproductive, because other people getting it raises your risk. The fewer people get it, the less likely you are to be one of them. (This logic can be particularly difficult for elites or the super-rich to grasp, since they're used to being spared from widespread problems.) If your whole strategy is just to protect yourself, that will likely fail. Viruses gonna virus. If your strategy is to help your whole community control it, your individual odds will probably go up.

I've found myself, for the last week or two, treating myself as presumptively infected. There's no sign I have covid-19 or anything like it, but I live with someone I don't want to get sick. So I'm acting as if I have something and trying not to expose my wife to any germs I might have. Likewise, I'm trying not to do anything in the classroom that might expose my students. I wash my hands a lot these days.

I'm middle aged, but not elderly, and there are no known covid-19 cases in my area yet. My odds if I come down with covid-19 aren't as good as they would be if  were 10 years younger, but they're not bad. Should I come down with a case, I will probably ride it out fine. But I don't want to spread the damn thing.

Pretty soon, this very infectious little bug is going to get close to Trump. I don't expect him to respond well.