Monday, April 16, 2018

What James Comey got wrong

During the interview by George Stephanopoulos broadcast by ABC last night, James Comey spoke with calm dignity about the man who fired him last year. Comey did not call him names. He didn't even call him a liar, though he mentioned numerous occasions when the president told demonstrable lies. That the president lies, of course, is neither news nor opinion: it's verifiable fact. And Comey did express an opinion about that:
A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they're pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person's not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds.
Well then, wondered Stephanopoulos, "If you are right, what is the remedy? Should Donald Trump be impeached?"

Surprisingly, Comey said no:
Impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they're duty bound to do directly. People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values.
Perhaps the president should be impeached and removed; perhaps not. There are some problems, however, with Comey's answer.

First, America is not and never has been a direct democracy. We are instead a representative democracy. That is, American citizens do not directly make, enforce, or judge laws: our elected or appointed representatives do. American citizens do not directly elect the president of the United States: our electoral college does.

Second, the people in this country did stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values in 2016, and the largest number of votes—by a margin of nearly 3 million—were for Hillary Clinton. But our representatives in the electoral college nevertheless gave the election to Donald Trump.

If people in this country are appalled by the president's crude, cruel, immoral, and illegal behavior, do they really need to wait until 2020 to put a stop to it? If the people's representatives in the form of the electoral college got them into this mess, why shouldn't the people's representatives in the form of Congress get them out of it?

Of course they should. The catch is that the people's representatives have been cowed by the playground bully in the White House. James Comey on several occasions should have told the president that his behavior and requests were out of line. He did not. Republican members of Congress on many occasions should have censured or stopped the president rather than attempting to put a good face on his behavior. They did not. And now some Republicans are hoping to energize Republican voters by warning them that, if Democrats take Congress later this year, Trump will be impeached.

I can think of no better reason to vote Democratic in November.

But then, I'm not a conservative. Still, I feel bad for my good, decent, kind, intelligent conservative friends (and they really do exist—probably in much greater numbers than many of us progressives want to admit). Progressives and conservatives need each other. Our country is strengthened when principled legislators with differing perspectives sit down together to craft policy. Conservatives should not be asked to shelve their deepest convictions in order to remove from office someone who violates them.

Comey again:
We owe it to each other to get off the couch and think about what unites us. I think about the people who supported Trump, and continue to support Trump. A lotta them come from families with a proud history of military service. And that's a wonderful thing. What did their fathers and grandfathers fight and die for? Not for immigration policy. Not for a tax policy. Not for Supreme Court justice. They fought and died for a set of ideas. The rule of law. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. The truth.
We know our president is not personally interested in military service, the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or the truth. We may soon learn to what extent his business affairs and other foreign entanglements cross the line from fraudulent to criminal.

Is it really a good idea to wait another two-and-a-half years for the people in this country to vote their values? Didn't we already do that in 2016? In a representative democracy, why shouldn't our elected representatives—of both parties—act on the values that unite us and put an end to our national nightmare?
(The portion of the interview aired Sunday night was edited down to fit in a one-hour time slot with lots of commercials. You can read a transcript of the complete interview here.)

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

THE DISCOVERY OF CHOCOLATE by James Runcie, with 2 ways to make chocolate cake as God intended

Five years ago I learned about Cook the Books, an online book club featuring not only books about food, but people who read those books and invent recipes inspired by them. One of those people even wins a prize. What could be more fun?

Back then they asked David and me to judge contributions based on Andrea Camilleri's The Shape of Water (the book, not the current movie by the same name, which bears no relation to it). Here's what we decided, and wrote.

Ever since, I've been reading their bimonthly emails announcing more books and more recipes. In February I noticed that they were featuring The Discovery of Chocolate by James Runcie (author of the books that inspired Grantchester, for you James Norton and Masterpiece fans), so I immediately ordered it. If, in the intervening weeks, I hadn't also acquired a new puppy, had a family reunion, celebrated 50 years of marriage, and survived Easter while being married to a church music director, I might have blogged about The Discovery of Chocolate in time to join their contest.  I liked the book more than any of their contestants did (and I'll tell you why), and I have a couple of killer chocolate recipes.

About the book:
I've read a lot of comments from people who hated it, or were mystified by it, or were bored by it, or thought it should have been written differently. As a former editor who helped authors develop their books in hopes of getting people to buy them, I respect those comments. Runcie's book fits no categories - not even magical realism, which many commenters think it is. It could be a hard sell.

But as a big fan of Voltaire's Candide, I chuckled all the way through Runcie's mash-up of impossible stories.* Candide is a classic and The Discovery of Chocolate is a bit of fluff, but both books are wickedly funny, both authors wink as they toss out allusions for readers to recognize, and both sweetly expose cruelty, pomposity, and hypocrisy through the naïve observations of their credulous protagonists.

Like Candide, Diego voyages throughout the world, having one bizarre adventure after another. Both characters are inspired by love, and both witness actual historical events. Unlike Candide, however, Diego also voyages through time. He's a gourmand, not a philosopher. He ends up at a Día de los Muertos festival, not in a garden. And he has a dog.

Also, the book is about chocolate.

About chocolate:
There's something called red velvet cake that I didn't discover until I moved to Maryland. Apparently it's a Southern thing. They think it's chocolatey. It is not.

There's something called a Texas sheet cake that is slightly more chocolatey, but it's still pretty wimpy.

Chocolate, my friends, can be assertive and even rough. It can be deep and rich and smooth. But it should never be bashful. It should never be milky, for heaven's sake. And it's not about the sugar. Cocoa content of 72% is good, but 85% is better, and 100% is just fine with a bit of coarse salt. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

[Flourless chocolate cakelet.
Raspberries and candle are optional.]
Back in 2009, I posted a recipe for a seriously fortified Texas sheet cake. The previous year I posted a recipe for flourless chocolate cakelets, whose chocolate content is even more intense. Both recipes still work. Try them. I can't promise that they'll make you immune to death, like Diego's elixir in The Discovery of Chocolate, but who knows?
*Clarification: I have degrees in French; Runcie earned a first in English from Cambridge University. I'll bet he was thinking, not of Candide (1759), but of Gulliver's Travels (1726). It's possible that Voltaire was thinking of Gulliver's Travels too--he was living in England when it was published. Take your pick. The point is, The Discovery of Chocolate is an 18th-century novel with sly 21st-century allusions. And it's about chocolate.

Friday, March 23, 2018


I asked Google to find the cover of the book I'm about to praise. "Everything happens for a reason," I typed, and clicked "images." Instead of the cover, I got a pageful of annoyingly pious memes and posters--and this perfectly wonderful empathy card,

I've never met Kate Bowler, but I heard Terry Gross interview her on "Fresh Air" (which is why I read her book), and I'm pretty sure she would love the card. 

Bowler, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, is the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford, 2013). The prosperity gospel is attractive: God wants you to be healthy and wealthy! And so if you trust God enough, and get rid of the sins that hold you back, and think positively, and (often) donate money to some ministry, God will make you prosper!

Except when he doesn't. Suppose, for example, that, like Bowler, you contract a mysterious neurological impairment that baffles doctors and keeps you from using your hands. Suppose you lose a much-wanted child to miscarriage. Suppose you discover at age 35 that you have stage 4 colon cancer.

Is your suffering your fault? Did you not trust enough, give enough, repent enough? Is God trying to teach you something? Is he using you to teach someone else?

No, says Bowler. These things happen because we're human.

Read this book if you've ever wondered why people suffer--or if you think you already know the reason.

Read it if you've ever wondered what to say to somebody whose has had a sobering diagnosis, or who has lost a loved one, or who is going through some other painful crisis. 

Read it, too, if you've ever wondered what not to say. The two Appendixes alone are worth the price of the book: "Absolutely never say this to people experiencing terrible times: a short list" and "Give this a go, see how it works: a short list."

Read it if you appreciate memoirs that are introspective but not self-absorbed, wise but not preachy, ironic but not unkind, often hilarious but never, ever chirpy.

And read it if you like good writing about what it means to be human that will make you laugh as well as cry.

I went back to Google and asked for "Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason." Here's what the cover looks like. I hope you read the book.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Midlife: the best of all possible ages?

The other day a friend of mine, who is 45, was offended when someone referred to her as middle aged.

This seems odd, since female life expectancy in America is now approximately 81. Or since a woman who has reached the age of 45 can expect to live another 40 years. Or since the ages at which an American is most likely to be employed are between 20 and 61. By all numeric indicators, my friend is clearly middle aged.

People used to think middle age began at 40 and ended at 60 or 65. Even they were somewhat optimistic, but not downright silly like folks who now say that 60 or even 70 is the new middle age.

No, 60 or 70 is not middle-aged, unless you think the middle lane on a three-lane road is the one farthest to the left, in which case I'd rather not drive with you.

But why doesn't my friend want to be middle aged?

After all, middle age is when you might be
  • young enough to be beautiful and old enough to have character
  • young enough to stay up late and old enough not to want to
  • young enough to be stylish and old enough to know what suits you
  • young enough to have a bright future and old enough to have solid experience
  • young enough to have energy and old enough to know what to do with it
  • young enough to feel good and old enough to take care of your health
  • young enough to have strong opinions and old enough to know when to express them
  • young enough to start over and old enough to put down roots
  • young enough to protest and old enough to govern
  • young enough to have living parents and old enough to appreciate them
  • young enough to be smart and old enough to be wise
Oddly, I don't know anyone past 40 who wishes to relive their youth, nor do I know anyone of any age who longs to be old (despite recent research indicating that the older we get, the happier we are). 

Apparently most of us prefer middle age--as long as we can call it something else.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Remains of the Day

A Nor'easter swept through Baltimore on Friday, uprooting trees and downing power lines as it went through.

Our lights went out at 2:30 in the afternoon. The inside temperature began to fall. I put a second down comforter on our bed.

We took the dog and our electronics to our church and spent a warm evening and morning there. And then the power at the church went out.

Fortunately we have a gas stove and a gas water heater. We were still able to shower and cook. This is a picture of our table after Saturday night's dinner (good thing the Christmas candles were still out). It would have been romantic if we hadn't been shivering.

Sunday morning the church temperature was 50 degrees. Most of the faithful bundled up and went to church anyway. After the Eucharistic prayer, the priest faced the congregation and said, "The gifts of God for the people of God." At that exact moment, the lights came on!

Or so they say. Back in my neighborhood, where the new pup and I were vainly trying to keep warm, the power was still out. Most of Baltimore was back on the grid, but badly damaged areas could lack power until midweek, said the newspaper. Several big trees were down near us. I was ready to despair. We packed up the pup and drove to a warm place.

And then good news!

Rejoicing! Merriment! Celebration!

Funny how we take heat and light for granted until they're missing. Funny how grateful we are when they come back.

I suppose that's the point of Lent--a little deprivation makes Easter that much more radiant. Though I confess: I'd rather have bunnies and chocolate all the time.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

THE NATURE OF THE BEAST by Louise Penny: a chilling conversation

I love Louise Penny's novels about Three Pines, Québec: a Brigadoon-like village near the Vermont border full of friendship, good food, warm fires, beautiful scenery--and the occasional murder. Penny can terrify you, though more often she makes you chuckle. With a perspicacious eye for character, she can also amaze you with her insights.

I recently came across this chilling conversation in The Nature of the Beast (2015). Retired Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is questioning a physics professor about a suspect, Gerald Bull. The professor speaks first:
"... no one really worked with Gerald Bull. It might start out that way, but eventually you found yourself working for him."

"Were you working for him when he came up with the plans for the Supergun?"

"No. I left when he began using the Soviets as a back door to sell his arms. He wasn't very smart."

"Is that why you left? Fear you'd get caught?"

"No. I left because it was wrong. ... Gerald Bull was the consummate salesman, and completely without a conscience."

"Why did you just say that he wasn't very smart?" asked Gamache.

"He made some stupid choices, like cozying up to the Soviets. He had an outsized ego that told him he was smarter than other people."

No, Ms Penny is not alluding to Donald Trump.

[Hand-colored woodcut, 1523,
for Martin Luther's New Testament]
She most likely wrote this passage in late 2014 before Trump had begun exploring the possibility of running for president. And, while Trump's connections to Russia had been going on for decades, they were not yet a matter of public speculation.

Penny's stories tend to have literary, not political, themes, and this book is no exception. In it she frequently mentions an image from the biblical book of Revelation, chapters 17 and 18: the great whore who--riding a fearsome seven-headed beast--glorifies herself and lives luxuriously, consorts with kings and merchants, helps them become rich and powerful, and deceives all nations.

But don't feel bad if your first thought was that the passage referred to Trump, not the great whore. Feel bad because the two have so much in common.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Trump wall everyone will love

Here's an idea for President Trump and his supporters. Let's build an impenetrable border wall around maybe a third of the United States. Make sure that no immigrants can enter. Make equally sure that no Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) who favor universal healthcare can enter. Likewise, don't allow any Democrats (or Republicans) who favor gun limitation and regulation to breach the wall.

To live inside the walled paradise, you must be an American citizen who wants to pay for your own healthcare or health insurance with no help from the government, or to go without healthcare altogether. You must own a gun, because only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns. And you must be willing for everyone inside the wall to get any kind of weapon they wish to have. Don't worry - since everyone inside the wall will be a Trump supporter too, there won't be any bad guys to contend with. (Pssst - you can keep out people who aren't white, if you wish. I mean, you'll be armed. Heck, you can keep out anyone you don't like.)

Only thing is, you must stay inside the wall. Well, unless you change your mind and unaccountably want to have your guns regulated (or, in some cases, even confiscated) and be forced to buy health insurance. Insurance that would help your neighbor but might never help you! And you'd have to live with all those people you don't like. Some of them don't even speak English! Would you really want to do that?

I mean, look at the financial advantage of living inside your walled community. Treating gunshot wounds costs American hospitals some $2.8 billion a year. That adds up to a lot of insurance premiums. If you choose not to buy health insurance, you won't have to pay a dime of it! But anyway, since you'll all be armed, gunshot wounds won't be a problem. I mean, who would shoot an armed person, right?

And here's the best part - you won't have to pay for this paradise yourself. Tell those immigrant-loving, gun-hating, socialist-healthcare-promoting Democrats (and Republicans) that you'd like your own walled country, and they'll jump at the chance to build it for you!

And then, finally, you can make America - or at least your walled-off portion of it - great again.