Bedlam Farm Blog Journal by Jon Katz

27 May

Election, Chapter Two: Captain America Versus Lord Chaos

by Jon Katz

(Another in my series of pieces about the election this year, an effort to explain as best I can what all the political noise and thunder is really about.)

So now,  in politics, the big game is on – we move up the ladder to another genre in our political fascination, another chapter, Chapter Two:  the battle of the Superheros,  Lord Chaos versus Captain America.

This conflict promises to be ugly and intense, and sometimes, very hopeful. I would like to be helpful.

Lord Chaos, the role model for our President,  is a Marvel Studios creation, a mirror of a country in mid-life crisis;  an abstract cosmic entity that represents the struggle between chaos and order and fact versus fiction.

Captain America, embodied by Joe Biden,  is by far the nicest Marvel superhero.  He is selfless,  always looking to help people. He is the champion of decency and visits veterans and children.

Both are apt symbols of the candidates they typify, both are old men, they seem oddly out of date.

The dueling reality TV press conferences between Andrew Cuomo and Donald  Trump are winding down now, Cuomo is left pretty much on his own. Their press conferences marked the first stage of the 2020 presidential campaign.

Through the two of them, the country got its first chance to carefully ponder two distinctly different views of leadership and governance, another marker for a divided country.

I would not have thought it possible for masks in a Pandemic to become a left-right battle cry. Do not ever underestimate Donald Trump or his utter lack of boundaries, or the narrow-mindedness of people who love labels.

This is the template for politics in 2020 and the recurring theme of this campaign – how do we wish to be governed?

The choice is between chaos versus what was once considered to be normal.

It wasn’t too long ago that Americans pulled together in a crisis, we were all proud of that. We all wonder if that can happen again. Biden says it can. He needs to be more convincing about that.

I suppose it would be naive to think we can go all the way back again anytime soon; the challenge is to retain the best of what we had and to do the hard work of rebuilding for the future.

President Trump wisely abandoned his effort to be Doctor-In-Chief and Great  Leader and War Leader and retreated to his much more positive and familiar role as the God Of The Booming Economy.

He doesn’t make a good Churchill.

We may need to sacrifice a bunch of old and poor people, but we are never shutting down our economy again, he pledged. He says that almost every day.

Trump is putting all of his chips on that table – we’re opening up, the economy will coming rushing, if not roaring back. I did it once, trust me to do it again.

He is the Muhammad Ali of politics, a political terrorist, nobody can do the rope-a-dope better. Every time you knock him down, he bounces up and comes 0ut swinging.

Nobody even remembers that suggestion about drinking bleach, it was a hundred outrageous statements ago.

The big news is that the opposition – also called the Resistance –  has a leader now, and he has emerged from very conscious silent contemplation.

Joe Biden’s silence was very considered and very smart; it turns out. People were distracted by the Pandemic. The more Trump talked, the more Biden’s popularity rose, he didn’t have to do a thing.

Trump revealed himself in ways his opponents have never been able to do.

Captain America, in the form of Joe Biden, is all about the spirit of decency and normalcy. He wants to bring back the America we knew and somehow lost before it’s too late.

The policy stuff -except for health care –  really doesn’t matter. Only the journalists and policy geeks pay any attention to all those proposals.

Biden’s appeal is pure and simple, easy to grasp, and convincing. He is one of those sunny people.

He is a kind of Reaganesque. Like Reagan, he exudes a natural sort of decency and optimism. He can be critical without being vicious, a rare gift in politics, one the President does not possess.

Like Reagan, he often embarrasses himself. Nobody really cares.

Reagan never talked about plans or policies, and Biden doesn’t like to do that either. He is a centrist, a moderator, a negotiator, and a peacemaker. It’s often exciting to watch him speak, his followers have learned to hold their breath.

Biden is not looking to shake up America or upend the federal bureaucracy, or break all of our treaties or alliances. He wants us to be one nation, working together again, especially in a crisis. I believe that is a compelling message in America in 2020.

Promising health care for almost everybody isn’t a bad message either.

And yes, it is the literal opposite of Donald  Trump’s message. I can hardly remember a clear choice.

Donald Trump has made it clear that he intends to keep the Presidency, even if he has to steal it. That promises to be an ugly and grinding process; I won’t lie about that.

People who love democracy need to gird themselves for a bumpy ride.

Some advice. Polls are as good as the day they come out, don’t ride up and down with them. Modern media has a vested business interest in conflict and controversy. They make a ton of money off of it.

Be careful about believing everything you see, or taking it too seriously. Remember, the windbags on cable news mostly talk to one another. They have proven again and again that they have no real idea of what is going on out there in our big country.

Your guess is as good as theirs.

This kind of race will yo-yo up and down. Try not to go up and down with it. It will, by definition in a partisan world, be close. There are no landslides in a divided country.

There will be no rousing affirmation of  Trumpism, no rousing rejection of it.

You are free to hate anyone you want; I’m not Pope Francis. I do sincerely believe it will hurt you more than him or them, especially over the long haul. I’m not going there.

But back to the election. Joe Biden is not a hell-raiser, he is your uncle Joe, coming over to barbecue. Yes, he might embarrass you, but that’s Joe.

Andrew Cuomo’s moment in the sun is, by necessity, receding. But Cuomo did his job; he gave the country a lesson in how leadership can work. He set the stage for what’s to come.

Trump’s erratic, sometimes bizarre fumbling over the virus has hurt him, especially among moderate and elderly voters, two groups he badly needs on his die to win re-election. He is panicking, flailing about wildly. It is hurting him, and he can’t seem to stop. He’s got this emperor thing embedded in his consciousness. This is not a country that wants an emperor or a king.

If the election were held today, it is clear that he would lose. November is a long way off.

Older voters are unhappy with him, they aren’t eager to be sacrificed to the booming economy.

It’s a universally accepted belief in politics that Americans don’t pay attention to a political campaign until it is upon them. The Pandemic changed that assumption.

Americans were paying close attention to the coronavirus these past weeks as they sat at home, waiting for it to come. They had nothing else to do. That alone transformed the presidential race.

Trump fares much better when people are not paying attention.

His hubris damaged him, as it will inevitably bring him down. I asked a good friend, an ardent Trump supporter: “can you really stand four more years of this?” He paused for a few seconds, and answered: “Jesus, no.”

Trump is the Rainmaker, sweeping across the skies in a cloud of lies, attacks, conspiracy theories, insults, distractions, demands, and grievances. He is the King of Media, controlling all of it, every day, every night.

“A man is an angel that has done deranged,” wrote Phillip Dick.

Pandemics and catastrophes make Trump’s disjointed and chaotic style a lot harder for him; crises call for empathy, difficult decisions, and a gift for organization and calming.  People listen hopefully, and he failed utterly.

That is why he is so desperate to leave this crisis behind.

Presiding over a booming economy is much simpler to do. Presiding over an economic and health crisis is very difficult to do.

But if there is any sacred law of American politics, it might be this: you do not go out to tweet vicious lies and play golf on Memorial Day maskless while veterans are being honored, 100,000 Americans have just died hard and cruel deaths, and every doctor in the world is begging people to wear masks in public.

Trump reminds us that he is his own worst enemy and that he is vulnerable. Hubris is, in part, the belief that you are invincible. He really isn’t, it just seems that way, and he has come to see himself that way.

So far, there is truth to it.

He is, in fact, very vulnerable. And if you watch his face closely, you can see for yourself that he knows it. There is a new look in his eyes, a different one.

He has to figure out how to torpedo a genuinely nice guy.

After two quiet months of sheltering-in-place, Biden sensed his moment to emerge on Memorial Day.

He reflected that staying in his Delaware basement did no harm; it gave Trump every opportunity to be outrageous, which he does at every available opportunity.

That is the one way in which he is all too predictable.

In a campaign of shouting, backtracking,  attacking,  lying, and insulting, being quiet could be a brilliant strategy. As Biden did Sunday, he can pop up now and then to throw a punch, and then vanish, leaving Trump sputtering and tweeting and looking nasty.

Trump was a moving target every day. Do not listen to what those pundits say. They need drama and alarm. He made a complete fool of himself during the worst crisis of his Presidency. There is no other honest way to put it.

Biden made a powerful statement in his coming out. He talked about leadership, and I guess that this will be what the campaign is all about.

Trump Re-Election is preparing billions of attack ads to damage Biden before he can establish himself. It just won’t work. You can’t sell Donald Trump as a healer or empathetic leader, and you can’t sell Biden as evil or corrupt.

Imagine a billion-dollar ad campaign to smear Kermit The Frog.

The millions of kids who watch Kermit all the time just wouldn’t believe it, just as Trump’s loyal followers wouldn’t care if he shot somebody.

But just as I wouldn’t underestimate Trump, I wouldn’t underestimate Biden either. He’s an old fox, he’s been around a long time and ridden in lots of rodeos. He has vastly more experience in national politics than Trump. He knows plenty of tricks.

People gloss over it, but he defeated a lot of strong and popular competitors to win primary after primary.

Biden understands the value of doing nothing, especially if your opponent will do your dirty work for you and scramble to be a bad guy.

He hasn’t been out of his house for two months, and during that time, he is said to be leading Trump in almost every state in the union.

Almost every day, Trump highlights the contrast between them by the way he behaves.

On a day when the coronavirus death toll reached 100,000, the President reeled off tweets so false and vile that even Twitter began fact-checking his posts.

The President won’t put on a mask. Biden showed up at a Deleware veteran’s memorial with his wife, both of them wearing masks.

The mask defined each of them, for better or worse, indelibly and for the entire campaign.

Both were very considered political moves, the opening, and well-orchestrated salvo in the coming campaign. Like two alpha dogs circling one another, each one made his move.

We segued right into Chapter Two.

Biden called Trump a “fool,” which is about as nasty as he can get, and he thus took over Andrew Cuomo’s spot as the anti-Trump.

Trump himself reveled in his role as a cult leader, not a politician when he accurately bragged in 2016 that he could “shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Arrogant but true.

That is not the statement of a political leader, but a cult leader. Once again, Trump-connected with his followers in a shocking and compelling way.

Biden is viewed as old, out of touch, inarticulate, and sometimes incoherent. But he is also viewed as decent, moderate and, well, nice. People miss that, they are yearning for it. We are all getting a bit raw.

The danger facing someone like Trump is that while he is exciting, almost hypnotic in his rage and drive, he wears people down, he is tiring, even exhausting.

He tweeted  108 times when he was aroused one day, and every one of them was angry, false, or cruel. On his worst days, he appears to be mentally ill, paranoid, and narcissistic.

President Trump has always seen himself as a War President, locked in a fight to the death with a secret army of elitists, bureaucrats, and sissies – he calls his enemy the “Deep State.” He fights dirty and will do almost anything to win.

That makes him effective on one level, but vulnerable on the other, especially against an opponent whose ingrained values come from King Arthur’s Round Table.

We will learn this fall if chivalry still lives.

For Trump, everything is political, black and white, Red versus Blue, left versus right, Democrat versus  Republican.

There is nothing in the middle.

The problem for him is that people get tired of endless war, it becomes stale and boring. His attacks are beginning to feel like a pea bouncing off a  tank. They upset people, but they don’t seem to ever demolish their targets.

Day after day, he suggested TV Anchor Joe Scarborough was a murderer, Joe Scarborough will be on his show broadcasting tomorrow and well beyond.

Trump will, I believe, regret chasing off the people in the middle. He needs the people in the middle, who are rumored to be turning away from him.

This ugliness is tiresome, almost boring. When the President of the United States suggests a critical TV anchor might be a murderer, the result is almost a yawn. I don’t know a soul who cares about it or believes it, and I live in the heart of Trump country.

The usual suspects fuss and condemn him, but it is just Trump making some noise again, like a grandpa with dementia, sitting on his porch screaming at the children to get away from his lawn, cursing the paperboy for being late.

It’s getting old. I don’t read polls much or write with them in mind, but I do get the sense that nobody is paying too much attention anymore. Even outrageous and slanderous conspiracy theories are getting boring, Netflix draws a much bigger crowd.

Biden’s campaign is, in a couple of surprising ways, similar to Trump’s four years ago. Biden is the underdog now, Trump the cash-heavy incumbent favorite.

Some pundits think that’s a strength for the President, I don’t.

In difficult times, people always want to change. It is a great surprise in so many ways, but Biden, of all people,  is change in 2020, especially in this election.

Many “progressives” are enthusiastically ageist, dismissing Biden as a muddled old fuddy-duddy from another world. That is a mistake. There are millions of fuddy-duddys in America, old and rural, and they almost all voted for Donald Trump in 206. If Biden can capture them, his chances of winning will be greatly enhanced.

And the fuddy-duddies all vote, every time, unlike those idealistic young progressives who think to post on Instagram and Twitter makes them Che Guevaras.

Winston Churchill was 71 when he became Prime Minister when life expectancy in Great Britain was 59.

Trump is savagely cunning and intuitive. He is also, as the ancient Greeks predicted, self-destructive. With the country so partisan and divided, elections are now decided by the dwindling but powerful center, the middle, and the independent.

People are e-mailing me accusing of being a communist, a leftie, a radical and a socialist because I say some critical things about Trump, and I have to smile at that – people who embrace these labels can’t see the end of their own noses.

I am a complete creature of the middle, cautious, and conservative in most of my life.  I’ve always shied away from the real radicals and their politics. I am stubbornly middle class.

I actually loved Ronald Reagan much of the time, at least until the AIDS epidemic.

I veer from one side to the other but I never jump into the river. I am not a fan of the left or the right, or the damage both have done to our country.

I pride myself on stepping back and trying to think. I dread the idea of being a slave to one ideology or anyone’s dogma.

I was ready every one of these past four years to understand Donald Trump and accept that he was what the country needed and that he could not possibly be as bad as his critics insisted.

We do need change.

But the truth is that President Trump has wholly rejected people like me, shown utter contempt for me and my values, pissed on every open mind that tried to give him a fair shot. For the first time in my life, I feel I do not have a president; I am orphaned in my own country.

Yesterday, I watched Trump raging on in the Rose Garden, one vicious lie after another, proudly pretending to be a tough guy by not wearing a mask, spewing libelous and grossly unfair conspiracy theories, one after the other.

Then I watched a video of Joe Biden being interviewed on CNN. Wow, I thought to myself. This guy is nice. He is all right there on the surface. What you see is what you get.

He is an awww shucks guy. Even when he called President Trump a “fool,” he seemed to wince a bit, as if it hurt him to say it.

That, I thought, is all he needs to be this year. Nice.

Nobody can take Donald Trump down faster than he can ruin himself.

Captain America always wins. Lord Chaos never does.

27 May

“Navigate Your Stars” – For The Refugee Graduates

by Jon Katz

I called the Battenkill Bookstore, my local bookstore, today and asked them for suggestions about a book to each of the 37 Bishop Maginn High School students who will be graduating in a ceremony at the Albany Cathedral sometime this summer – all socially distanced, as required.

We kicked around a bunch of options, from journals to different kinds of storybooks, but we came up with the perfect idea.

Battenkill has been through an awful time, shut down for weeks during the Pandemic, and they still aren’t permitted to open up completely.

I thought it would be wonderful to help the bookstore, which has suffered greatly and also give the refugees something memorable to take from their graduation, along with the caps, key chains, sashes pens, and baby candy jars.

The students have had a truly dreadful time also. The book we came up with will be perfect – it’s called Navigate Your Stars by National Book Award Winner Jesmyn Ward.

If any of you are looking for the perfect book to give a child or grandchild or godchild for graduation, this is the one.

It’s a beautiful and touching storybook about encouragement and empowerment, I read a chapter online and was deeply moved by it. I ordered 37 copies which will cost a little over $500.

It was cheaper on Amazon, but independent book stores have a right to live, and they too need support. I don’t want to live in a world with one online store.

I have the money to pay for it, but if anyone wants to help you can do so via Paypal, jon@bedlamfarm.com, or by check, Jon Katz, P.O. Box 205,  Cambridge, N.Y., 12816.

The refugee students were walloped by several different storms – most of their parents lost their jobs, most got sick, they struggled with food, and lost their graduation ceremony, which is so important to these people.

I am so happy to be able to help.

The school has fought hard to have a graduation ceremony, which will be difficult to organize. My role was to fill a gift bag with some momentoes, and l also chose to look for inspiration.

I can’t do better than this book.

If anybody wishes to help with some small donations, that would be great. If not, I completely understand.

26 May

Gift Cards. Every Day, My Respect For People Grows

by Jon Katz

My mail brought a great gift to me and to others today (above).  I was overjoyed and uplifted to find there were 20 Price Chopper Gift Cards to help the struggling Bishop Maginn High School families get through the next month without going hungry.

The Army Of Good has sent more than $18,000 worth of gift cards to the approximately 50 families who urgently need assistance due to the aftermath of the coronavirus.

They lost their jobs, many of their benefits stopped during the chaos, and many were infected with the virus. They and their families came under quarantine. Most of the nearby food pantries had closed.

I never saw Teacher Sue Silverstein or Principal Mike Tolan so upset or concerned.

This is a school with a heart, they took responsibility for caring for people almost no one else seemed to care about or could help.

They asked if I could help, and I promised myself that these people would not go hungry, no matter what. We went to work and we never stopped, every single day.

Every few days, I saw or received a wrenching message from mothers and fathers desperate to feed their families and purchase the food they can eat and want to eat.

Price Chopper, the grocery store chain in their neighborhood, not only has the food these families eat but delivers to their homes and apartments free of charge.

They can order online or on the phone.

Some of the families – Sue calls their situation “radical” – were desperate.

Every day for nearly six weeks, people have sent me gift cards and I have overnighted them to Sue Silverstein. I purchased more than $1,000 in gift cards myself and bought hundreds more for people who didn’t care to shop online or who had trouble with the Price Chopper website.

I buy some gift cards almost every day. Despite the rain of bad and contentious news, every day brought light and meaning to me. I came to see these cards as mystical and magical.

You don’t have to be good to do good.

These cards have come to symbolize something very special to me. They affirm my hope for human beings at a difficult time, they strengthen my hope and faith for the future, they expand and enrich my idea of love, empathy, and compassion.

This is our true selves, not the labels callous and angry people put on us.

They are, in a sense, the inevitable culmination of the work done by people from all over the country, most of whom I have never met or spoken with and would not recognize if I ran into them on the street.

We call ourselves the Army Of Good, a title that once seemed lofty to me, but now feels like an understatement. I am so grateful to you and to Mike Tolan and Sue Silverstein for trusting in me to help.

It is a great honor.

How privileged I am to be associated with people like this, who defy every single news broadcast I read or see and remind me of the goodness of human beings, given the chance.

Their trust and generosity are a sacred trust to me. Every day, one or more of the people in this proud army thanks me for letting them help other people who are needy and vulnerable, something I sometimes thought was no longer part of the American character.

I was wrong.

Every day those cards arrive makes me want to cry, and sometimes I do.

I did today before those cards arrived,  I had just gotten off the phone with Sue Silverstein and she told me these families would need help for about another month, when many will be healthy enough to return to work, and when their employers are expected to re-open and hire their furloughed workers back.

So we have about a month to go. I know now that we can do it and will do it. Sue says we made all the difference to these people, they pray for us and to us.

This is what they mean when they talk of the best of times and worst of times.  I think of my grandparents, who fled dreadful persecution to come here and experienced lives that were safer and more welcoming and meaningful than they ever imagined.

I believe we have kept that dream alive for this new generation, embattled and sometimes abandoned.

You can purchase a gift card here in any amount, and mail it or them to me (it’s the safest address now) Jon Katz, 2502 State Route 22, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816.

If you prefer, you can send me a contribution via Paypal, jon@bedlamfarm.com, or by mail, Jon Katz, 2502 State Route 22, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816, or Jon Katz, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. I will be happy to purchase the gift cards for you. The denominations offered are $25, $50, $75 and $100.

Purchases of over $300 must be activated by an e-mail message sent soon after the purchase.

I believe this is transformative, for me and hopefully, for many of you. I have never experienced anything like it. Every bit of food I eat comes with gratitude and empathy.

We have made such an enormous difference in the lives of these people and their children, many of whom endured unimaginable sacrifice and ordeal to get to America.

Thanks to you, we showing them the true heart of our country. This is what America is really about.

26 May

Sylvie, My Mansion Pen Pal

by Jon Katz

I miss Sylvie, one of my Mansion friends. I haven’t seen her in weeks, except to wave through a window, and the state doesn’t want outsiders coming around to the Mansion at all right now.

But we are in touch. Sylvie is my Mansion Pen Pal, I send her stamps and envelopes and she writes me a letter almost every day.

In today’s letter, she writes about how much she loved her mother and also thanks me for the lunches I’ve been sending over to the Mansion via Jean’s Place every Wednesday.

Sylvie is one of the many remarkable characters I’ve met at the Mansion. The daughter of an American diplomat send to Europe after World War II, she saw the harrowing aftermath of the war.

She got ill in Europe and ended up spending most of her life in different institutions. She had a boyfriend she loved very much who died in the hospital where she was saying. He loved bingo.

In his honor, she refuses to play bingo.

She uses up stamps much faster than I can replace them, she writes letters day and night.

Sylvie is a devout Jehovah’s Witness and writes extensively about Jehovah and faith. The Mansion is a Medicaid Assisted Care Facility.

We started the Pen Pal Mansion Program when the Pandemic started and the residents could no longer have visitors. People can write letters via e-mail – julia@thecambridgemansion.com – or to the Mansion directly – The Mansion, 11 S. Union Avenue, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816.

The residents participating in the program are Edith, Dale, Gary, Ellen, Matt, Gerry, Sylvie, Joanne, Madeline, Brother Peter, Helen, Georgianna, Georgiann, Barbara, Alanna, Linda, Nancy, Annette, Peggie, Becky, Jean, Robert (Bert), Ben, John, Jim, Claudia, Ruth.

Thanks, these messages mean the world to them, especially now.

 

26 May

Rest In Peace, JD. Greg, Get Another Dog!

by Jon Katz

Greg  Burch came over to drop off another cord of freshly chopped wood for our woodstoves – straight from the forest to our woodshed. I sensed something was off, and I asked him how JD was. The dog was always with him.

JD, you might remember, was the 16-year-0ld Pug who drove around with Greg for years on his logging runs. JD was the inspiration for my small dog experiment – first Gus, then Bud.

I noticed that most of the big tough men in trucks around here had small dogs they loved so much, they couldn’t even talk about them without crying. And these are not men given to crying.

Greg told me exactly how JD died right on the vet’s examining table in April. This dog had a great life, I told Greg he ought to be proud of himself.

I asked Greg – he’s been bringing our wood for six years now – if he was getting another dog, and I saw the pained look in his face, and I knew what was going on. It was just too soon, he was still grieving.

We are good buddies by now, so I let him have it, which I rarely do. I don’t like to give advice to other people.

“Listen” I said, “you and I are not teenagers anymore. What are you waiting for? Get another dog, and you will stop grieving and get on with your life. You know you want a dog.”

“People like you should have dogs, people who love dogs should have a dog. I got  Bud there because of you, but you tough guys in trucks are wussies. You don’t need to be crying, all kinds of jerks get dogs, people like you should really have one.”

Greg was nodding and when Maria came out, he told her about JD. She asked if he was getting another dog. “I don’t know,” he said, “it’s awful soon. But Jon is working on me, he’s getting to me.”

I never tell people how to grieve or when or how long to grieve. But I know Greg, and I know much it meant to him to have JD in the truck when he was out in the woods all day and much of the night chopping wood. The dog meant everything to him.

I told him my theory of dog grief: I celebrate the lives of my dogs, I would rather love a dog than mourn a dog.

When he left, he thanked me and I hope I really gave him something to think about. Greg is a tough guy, a big man in a truck, he will make up his own mind. I hope I see him soon with another dog.

So now we have two cords which my Willa Cather wife says she wants to stack. My plane is to have the woodshed filled with wood and the barn with hay by July. I take winter seriously, and I’ve learned not to wait everybody else is freaking out for their hay and firewood.

The prices go up fast in October.

I appreciate working with Greg. He is honest, and the wood is great. I have a wife who loves to stack wood. Life is good. I hope he gets a dog. Godspeed, JD, and thanks for the inspiration. Small dogs are great.

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