Author Archive

CHARLOTTESVILLE

You know the old saying, “There are two sides to every story.” Donald Trump repeated that last Tuesday. Regrettably, such clichéd adages lend themselves to ignoring horrible injustices.

Last weekend, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the city’s proposed removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Some carried Nazi flags and wore Ku Klux Klan regalia. Counter-protestors rallied. Tempers grew hot. Violence ensued. One man drove a car into a crowd of counter-protestors and killed a 32-year-old woman.

Trump bemoaned the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides—on many sides.” Is it bigotry to oppose the belief that non-white, non-Christians should be classified as second-rate citizens or sub-human? Charlottesville does not represent opposing but legitimate principles.

Not until Monday did Trump condemn white supremacy and hate groups by name—just as his American Manufacturing Council began to unravel in disgust. On Tuesday, he circled back and again defended the pro-statue protestors. “There are good people on both sides,” Trump said.

Two sides to every story? I once served as a juror on two criminal trials—a shooting and a stabbing—and a civil trial—a suit against a supermarket chain. These properly represented two sides to each story because jurors were mandated to decide the outcome based on facts. At no time did a judge suggest that any party deserved to be found guilty or innocent, or liable or not at fault, because of who or what they were.

In the criminal trials, the District Attorney’s office was required to make a case against the defendants’ actions, not their characters. In the civil case, the plaintiff’s attorney had to demonstrate wrongdoing by the company, not present an anti-corporate screed. The criminal trials led to convictions. The civil case was dismissed. The juries, after lengthy deliberation, based their decisions on the evidence. The characters and beliefs of all parties played no role in those decisions.

Donald Trump abhors facts. His statement about bigotry on both sides offered legitimacy to the grievances of neo-Nazis against Jews because Jews are, well, Jews. Likewise, he offered white supremacists of all stripes a measure of understanding. In doing so, he implied there must be a measure of truth behind their hatred of African Americans, East Asians, Latinos, South Asians—and Jews.

One could extend this kind of thinking to Hitler. Yes, he ordered the killing of six million Jews and millions of others. But he must have had his reasons. Should we thus tolerate statues of Hitler? By Trump’s logic later in the week, yes. After all, Hitler was a historical figure.

For centuries, American whites enslaved blacks. Weren’t slave owners simply capitalists promoting, like any good conservative, the South’s agricultural economy? Therefore, shouldn’t we maintain statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis as icons of a bygone, if misguided, culture? Trump also says yes to that.

Each week, I evaluate topics about which to write. With disturbing frequency, Donald Trump preempts them. I could ignore him. But how in good conscience can anyone overlook the moral chaos continually fomented by the White House? If Mr. Trump truly wishes to drain the swamp in Washington, he can resign and go back to flushing gold-plated toilets in Trump Tower.

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FIRE AND FURY

Last Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that North Korea has miniaturized a nuclear device to fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile. President Trump responded publicly that further threats by North Korea would be met by “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” I turned on CNN. For several seconds, national security reporter Jim Sciutto’s face revealed a fear I’ve never seen displayed by another journalist.

Will North Korea launch a nuke towards Honolulu, Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles? Will Kim Jong-un send missiles to Guam? An attempted strike by North Korea would be met by a harsh American response leaving Kim dead or with no functioning nation to rule. Yet it would be foolish to say that Kim might not launch a suicidal attack if he saw a concrete threat to his regime. American foreign policy must weigh the odds of all possibilities and measure its words. The difference between slim and none can be deadly.

Sophisticated diplomacy can reduce—although not eliminate—the chance of a strike by North Korea. This involves firmly but calmly communicating America’s commitment to use all the power we can summon in response to such a strike. For entirely practical matters, that warning should be made in private.

Why not a public statement like that voiced by Trump? As military and law enforcement strategists know, cornering an enemy often makes him more dangerous. We receive continuing reports of police requiring more training to de-escalate difficult situations. A peaceful outcome isn’t always possible, but it’s more probable when criminals or the emotionally disturbed—or a Kim Jong-un—see a way out without losing face.

I’m reminded of a story I read decades ago about a high-school teacher in Chicago. He encountered a student confronting others with a gun. He made no threat. Rather, he calmly said, “Here, let me hold that for you.” The student yielded his weapon. The teacher averted potential carnage.

Nuclear proliferation, particularly involving countries engaged in hostile rhetoric, such as Iran, must be taken seriously. Still, the United States and its allies—those we have left—must recognize a reality not of our choosing and one we may be powerless to reverse. Today’s interconnected world makes the transfer of technology relatively simple and swift. Added to that, nations in Asia and the Middle East—as elsewhere—boast people who are as bright and inventive as us. Disturbed as we may be, regimes with whom we maintain profound disagreements probably will develop nuclear weapons.

I’m hardly the first person to suggest we adapt our foreign policy to recognizing proliferation’s sad inevitability. To prevent calamity, we must make clear that our commitments to friends remain firm, and that we maintain the option to use nuclear weapons in response to nuclear attacks or massive conventional aggression. We must also make clear that talking out our differences, even if we don’t reach resolution, makes far more sense. And we must do this within the framework of diplomacy.

Responding to threats, no matter how vile, with public counter-threats raises the global temperature and risks buttons being pushed in the heat of the moment. Dealing with this issue requires level-headedness and considerable discipline. Mr. Trump’s comment this morning that the U.S. is “locked and loaded” again evidences failure to display these qualities.

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GONG DAY

On June 9, I wrote “Glowing in the Dark” about my treatment for prostate cancer, highlighted by 45 radiation sessions over nine weeks. Two days ago, my final zapping took place. To celebrate, I banged the gong at the cancer center. I’m glowing brighter than ever.

During radiation treatments, I never experienced pain or discomfort. But every weekday, I drove to the Golden Gate Cancer Center on Townsend Street near AT&T Park. A 10:20 am time slot assured relatively light traffic. Free valet parking saved time. Leaving home to returning totaled 90 minutes.

I experienced some fatigue and “suffered” dietary restrictions. But I continued to walk four to seven miles a day, work on my new novel and marvel at the bizarre White House.

As the magic moment neared, “the Beast”—the radiation machine—swung its final 360-degree arc around my body, destroying cancer cells’ ability to reproduce. My PSA (prostate-specific antigen) level has plummeted from 10-plus prior to treatment to 0.2. Since I still have a prostate, it can’t be zero.

As to the gong: When a patient completes his treatments, he gets to bang a gong near the patient lounge, which includes a large-screen TV and pool table. I took advantage of both, though I’m not sure I now shoot pool any better. (I shot a lot of pool as an undergraduate—badly; that’s another story.)

Six weeks ago, I watched a patient bang the gong. At seventy-three—I celebrated my birthday in July—I’ve learned patience. I took each zapping one at a time while creating milestones to enhance my sense of progress.

Then came my turn. The gong rang true, its tone rich and encouraging. Life is finite, but medical science offers many ways to extend it so that, with some luck, our elder years can be full and rewarding. Mine continue to be just that. If you’re a man middle-aged or older, I paraphrase the Scots poet John Donne: “Never send to know for whom the gong rings. It rings for me—and thee.”

Gong Day included more. Carolyn came down to the center. Our oldest son Seth flew in from Baton Rouge to join us.  In a few weeks, he begins a graduate program in digital arts at Louisiana State University. We have two children—Yosi being the other—living in the South. Perlsteins can’t seem to stay put. We also had dinner with Aaron and our son-in-law Jeremy.

The center’s physicians, technicians and admins were great. In thanks, I brought them pastries from the House of Bagels on Geary Boulevard and a card from Trader Joe’s. Carolyn insists that TJ’s offers the best cards for all occasions. This one worked well.

Concluding Gong Day, Carolyn, Seth and I enjoyed brunch at Town’s End Restaurant & Bakery, 2 Townsend at the Embarcadero—great food and great value. (Yes, this is a well-deserved plug for our friends David and Mary Sperber.) Then Yosi called.

What’s next? Four more testosterone-eliminating hormone shots. After the first two, I find myself doing a good deal of laundry, bed making and kitchen cleanup. Of course, without treatment and over time, I’d be incapable of doing those or any other things. So, I enjoy every moment. And I still hear that gong.

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ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

Several weeks ago, I realized why the president of the United States so often speaks like a seventh-grader. Three old men turned on the lightbulb for me.

I met the first two—elderly African-Americans using walkers—on the 38-Geary bus. They didn’t know each other but chatted amiably about life in San Francisco and growing up in the South. When one stood to get off, his walker’s wheels tangled with the other man’s. I pulled them apart. They offered smiling thankyou’s.

A simple lesson presented itself. As men age, their testosterone levels drop. Their aggressiveness dissipates. Older men—yes, cranks exist—tend to be polite and non-confrontational. They prefer talking over coffee, making conversation on a park bench or just chilling. Thus, the elderly define “cool.”

The third man was Senator John McCain. He recently had surgery for a blood clot above the eye. President Trump praised McCain and wished him a speedy recovery. Then he added, “We also need his vote [on the healthcare bill.]” Trump’s uncalled-for aside sounded awkward and childish, as well as selfish. Yet it represented, I believe, an attempt at humor. The attempt bombed. But I know where the approach came from.

Donald Trump and I grew up in the New York City borough of Queens. He lived in wealthy Jamaica Estates. I lived in middle-class Rego Park. We both developed a very New York sense of humor. As kids, my friends and I insulted each other good naturedly and people we didn’t like with the sharpest (and stupidest) barbs we could hone. Then we grew up. We learned when humor may be appropriate in private but unacceptable in public.

We didn’t abandon humor, though. Men rib their friends in private. It’s a guy thing. But unlike the Donald, my friends and I also love laughing at ourselves. Importantly, we understand that joking about people close to us is fine—if they buy in. And that even among friends, some lines are not to be crossed. That’s why a friend asked if he could joke about my hormone therapy (ending this Wednesday) for prostate cancer. I said, “Of course. I do.” Because we care about each other, the jokes and insults remain confidential and within bounds.

Trump knows no bounds. It appears he suffers from arrested development. While our peers ascertained the limits of making other people objects of humor, Trump continues speaking like an adolescent. Watch his televised remarks about others. They’re uniformly unfunny, tasteless and cruel. No adult, let alone the president, should say those things in public. Yet Trump does and remains clueless.

Last Monday, he delivered a highly-politicized speech to boys at the National Boy Scout Jamboree. He was way off base. The Boy Scouts of America acknowledged that.

With education and mentoring, twelve-year-olds mature and develop judgement. I Corinthians 13:11 offers a sound guideline. “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned like a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”

Donald Trump failed to learn that lesson. It’s sad. It’s also pathetic that so many of his supporters applaud him for “saying what’s on his mind” even when Trump utters remarks for which they’d march their own children off to the woodshed.

And now you know why Trump appointed Anthony Scaramucci as his f*****g White House communications director.

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IT ONLY TAKES ONE

My friend Marty recently emailed to say how much he enjoyed my novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht. I hear from readers only occasionally. Then again, I don’t email authors. My purchase of their books tells them what they most want to know. Still, I need to acknowledge an author whose short story got to me.

Nathan Englander’s “The Reader” in the acclaimed anthology What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank touched me deeply. The story will appeal to any serious reader. Writers will experience a near-visceral response.

“The Reader” concerns both a writer, referred to as Author, and a devoted fan, called by Englander—you can see this coming—Reader. Author has reached relatively old age. He’s written several very successful novels—about one per decade. (No way I could take that long, but that’s another story.) Now, he’s driving cross-country on a book tour for his latest (unnamed) novel. Alas, his reputation no longer serves him. At one bookstore after another, he finds not small audiences but no audience at all. His career isn’t even running on fumes. But he encounters one exception.

Reader, also an old man, follows Author to every stop on the tour. While Author finds his fall from the heights both heartbreaking and debilitating, Reader will have none of it. He insists that Author deliver his promised reading at every store. Moreover, Reader insists that so long as he creates an audience of one, Author must give a great performance. Reader cares that much.

Why did I respond so much to this story? Fiction proves valuable because it arouses empathy. Every writer can see in Author either the fragility of success or the failure to achieve it. For most writers, the latter applies. I’m not sure it’s the worse position to be in.

Why do writers keep writing when readers aren’t reading? Maybe it’s an odd addiction. More likely, it’s a compulsion to share our observations of, and response to, the world. Think of it as therapy masquerading as art.

I don’t know how many Americans write fiction. I do know that among what may be millions of writers, only a small percentage ever get published. A smaller percentage get published regularly. Even fewer achieve enough success to give up their day jobs.

Ultimately, even the greatest writers fall by the wayside. For Author, this constitutes a living death. Of course, I’ve never come close to Author’s accomplishments. Still, everyone likes a little applause. So, when even one reader, like Marty, tells you that your work matters, you experience the emotional equivalent of being brought back to life by a defibrillator.

I relish the compliments I’ve received. A while back, I read from my story “Beautiful!” at the launch party for San Jose State University’s new edition of its annual REED Magazine. The audience offered enthusiastic applause, and the previous year’s editor asked me to sign his copy. What a rush!

It should be noted that Author’s experience translates to any profession or pursuit. Success rouses our spirits. Failure—no matter how many successes, large or small, precede it—can crush them. Check out Englander’s “The Reader.” See how you respond to Author’s pain. I felt it in spades.

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DON AND VLAD AT THE G-20

While the mainstream media lacked access to the conversation between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the recent G-20 conference, sources of mine with digital flies on the wall produced a transcript of the first part of their private meeting. It’s kind of interesting.

Don: “So, Vlad, we finally meet face to face. My face, of course, being much more manly and handsome than yours. I mean, the tan. And the hair. But I envy you. You get to be in a room with Donald Trump and his lackey. Sorry, Rex. No one held a gun to your head. Anyway, Vlad, you have anything worthwhile to say while I make you look important?”

Vlad: “Mr. President…”

Don: “I’m glad you called me that, Vlad. Because I am president. And I’m making America great again. Wait. Since I’m President, America is great again. That’s what my other lackeys tell me. Sorry, Rex, but I’ve always had lackeys. They’re beautiful. Know why, Vlad? And you, too, Rex. Because I can say and do anything, and my lackeys go, ‘Fabulous, Mr. Trump. May I kiss your ass again? It’s been so long. Since yesterday.’ When you’re the billionaire President of America, you’re big. Huge.”

Vlad: “Mr. President…”

Don: “There you go again with that Mr. President thing. You respect me. You love me. Not in that way. Or maybe. But a guy with the three wives Donald Trump has had doesn’t swing the other way. Jesus, I’ve had women you can’t imagine. Remember my 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow? Beautiful girls all over me. Know why? Because I’m big, Vlad. Spelled h-u-m-o-n-g-o-u-s. You? You like to ride stallions. Me? I am a stallion. Not that you’re ever going to ride me. Maybe you swing that way. Is that a Russian thing? I don’t know anything about Russia. Except maybe nukes. You have nukes. Big deal. The frickin’ French have nukes. I mean, a guy like Macron has his finger on the button. Or whatever they use. Incredible. He could run the Miss Universe pageant in frickin’ Paris and never get laid.”

Vlad: “Mr. President, that’s what I want to speak with you about. Several contestants at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant have had babies. They claim you are the father. We provided DNA tests, since we have, of course, your DNA. You may have some explaining to do.”

Don: “You think I don’t use protection? Or maybe I didn’t. Doesn’t matter. Donald Trump controls his baby making thing at will. So, don’t think you can make up some ridiculous story to get me to make you a big shot by inviting you to the White House. And don’t tell me you made me President. Although I hear Russians are as good with computers as 400-pound guys in Jersey. See, America loves me. Look at this hair. I won the electoral college in the biggest landslide ever. Plus, I won the popular vote by ten million. Don’t tell me you win by more, because you’re always the only real candidate. And don’t have a cow. I’ll pay back those loans I took out from you guys by the end of my first term. Maybe after two. Possibly three. Four even. Why not more? Like you. Unless, after Christmas, I bail.”

Now you know.

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CONFESSIONS OF A CULTURE CRIMINAL

Last September, I wrote about “cultural appropriation” in “Let the Book Burning Begin.” Some attendees at a literary festival in Australia excoriated the novelist Lionel Shriver for advocating that “white” writers should be free to create characters of other ethnicities. They can also excoriate me!

My novel Slick! (one of Kirkus Reviews’ 25 Best Indy Books of 2012) presents Arab characters. They revealed all kinds of traits, some culturally specific, others simply human. Some characters I like. Others I satirize—as I did white American diplomats.

In San Café, I created—gasp—Latino characters. Again, I satirized human nature across ethnicities.

I avoided crossing most ethnic bounds in The Boy Walker but cop a plea to “cultural speciesism.” Like me, all my major characters are Jewish, but the novel’s narrator is the shattered Greenbaum family’s 12-year-old English Bulldog Brute. However, the speciesism isn’t all that grievous. Brute’s also Jewish.

In Flight of the Spumonis I had the gall to write about an Italian circus family with Irish roots. Was it okay because Italians and Irish are white? People think Jews are white, but I know many Jews with other genetic backgrounds. Also, I don’t identify that way. Still, I got enough Jewish characters into the novel to cover my tracks—including a “black” character who’s equal parts African-American, Chinese, Native American and, yes, Jewish.

Which leads me to my new novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht. I’m not giving much away by saying that Adonis is not—gasp again—Greek (would that be a no-no?) but Jewish. Yet he undertakes a relationship with a woman named Emily, adopted from Korea by white parents. He works closely with a Mexican-American named Fred. Can it be that in the major art museum where Adonis works, his contemporaries include people with Korean and Mexican genetics? Or must Adonis, living in a large but unnamed city, encounter only other Jews?

In Adonis, I also created an African-American character. I can imagine cultural purists salivating then snarling that Hunter Kirk must be a semi-literate gangster representing every racist’s stereotype. Or a star entertainer or athlete with no depth. Wrong! He’s the museum’s executive director. True, he shows Adonis a football in his office, but the protectors of cultural purity may be surprised:

“People always seem so startled,” said Dr. Kirk. “Or they think, Well, sure. All black men play sports.” A second-string tight end during his senior year, he’d caught the winning touchdown against his school’s archrival with seventeen seconds left. “Division Three ball. No pro scouts in the stands. Well, maybe one or two but not to see me. It was my only touchdown of the season. If you must know, of my career. A broken play. Life’s all about timing.” And discipline, he pointed out. It took discipline to earn a Ph.D. and an MBA. “No easy task for your average street kid.” He chuckled. “Of course, my father was a corporate lawyer, and my mother was a pediatrician.”

How dare a Jewish writer believe that an African-American can be educated and skilled, can lead a major arts organization, can be (final gasp) like anyone else? Take me to literary court and accuse me of recognizing the humanity in all ethnicities. I’ll plead guilty.

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PRESIDENTIAL LEGACIES

During this season’s “House of Cards” (Netflix), the wife of the presidential candidate challenging the evil incumbent Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) says of her husband: “He has a chance to be a fine president. A great president.” Maybe. But presidents don’t create legacies, and those who think they do subject the nation to great and unnecessary risks.

We hear much about the Affordable Care Act being Barack Obama’s legacy. Obamacare represented just a step forward. American healthcare has a long way to go. Moreover, President Trump and Republicans vowed to “repeal and replace.” Will they? We’ll see. But I suspect Mr. Obama’s legacy will reflect not what he set out to do but what he had to do. (More later.)

I doubt George Washington took office thinking about his legacy rather than the job at hand. He had to react to the creation of a new form of government under the Constitution. During his eight years in office, Washington had to shape the executive branch from scratch. He also had to contend with the pioneering efforts of a newly devised Congress, Supreme Court and thirteen states. All had their own Constitutional visions. Washington’s legacy consists of navigating unchartered waters successfully.

Abraham Lincoln assumed office with the nation on the brink of splitting. Shortly after his inauguration, the nation toppled over the brink. Lincoln’s greatness lay not in promoting grand plans by which history would hail him but in meeting this daunting challenge—leading in ways about which he may never have given prior thought.

Yes, some presidents see opportunities. Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark across the west and spearheaded the Louisiana Purchase. But he did so in response to Napoleon and European geopolitics. Jefferson earned good grades. To assure peace after “the war to end all wars,” Woodrow Wilson pushed the establishment of the League of Nations following World War One, which America entered well into his prsidency. Congress balked. Ultimately, the League failed. Wilson’s reputation is spotty. Franklin D. Roosevelt took office during the Depression and did much to provide a safety net for Americans while pushing the economy towards recovery. FDR made mistakes along the way, but he’s idolized by many.

George H.W. Bush, with no legacy in mind, responded to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and ousted Iraqi forces in a 100-hour war. Then he withdrew American troops. His son George W. Bush responded to 9/11 with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The younger Mr. Bush, with little knowledge of the region, decided to remake the Middle East. History will not be kind.

Back to Barack Obama. Whatever he thought he might accomplish—health care reform being a massive item on his agenda—he entered the White House with the American economy unraveling. He responded by rescuing financial institutions “too big to fail.” For that, he’s been lauded and vilified. While time will offer new perspectives, I think his actions will establish a very positive legacy if one unplanned.

I’m baffled by people who believe that a president’s first concern should be his (and someday, her) legacy. All presidents can do is shoulder their burdens and meet challenges with their best efforts. The world mocks our plans, and history exercises its own judgement.

Have a great Fourth. And remember, you can purchase THE ODD PLIGHT OF ADONIS LICHT directly from me or at Amazon. If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too.

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WARRIORS AND WARRIORS

I have nothing against athletes making upwards of thirty million dollars a year—or more. The NBA champion Golden State Warriors’ payroll (equivalent to 15 full-season players) came to $101 million. I don’t mind fans idolizing players. But I’m uncomfortable when people see athletes as heroes, and especially when athletes call each other “warriors.” Where does this leave the men and women in America’s armed forces?

Let’s start with money. A marginal NBA player can put away serious cash towards his future. Next year, the minimum salary for rookies (first-year players) will be $815,000. An Army staff sergeant (E6) with 10 or 11 years of service makes $41,000. In our voluntary military, pay is better than it used to be. In 1966, I made $94 a month during basic and advanced infantry training. When I entered officer candidate school at Fort Benning, my E5 pay shot up to $200 a month.

NBA players fly on chartered jets with plentiful food and drinks. Military personnel head to the Middle East on transports with no amenities. Buses take NBA players from hotel to arena and back. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan leave their operating bases to go outside the wire in armored vehicles targeted by improvised explosive devices and other weapons.

NBA players stay in five-star hotels. Many of our troops in combat and combat-support areas live in shipping containers. During the Vietnam, Korean and Second World Wars, they slept in pup tents, hammocks or foxholes they dug themselves. If they got to sleep.

On the road, NBA players receive $106 a day for meals. That’s on top of their salaries. Today’s troops in the Middle East take what they can with them outside the wire and are thrilled to dine at a McDonald’s or Pizza Hut when they return to base.

After an NBA team wins a championship, it’s feted with a parade and usually—this year may prove an exception; Golden State players and coaches are not fans of the president—an invitation to the White House. Our troops return to the U.S. to be met by their families and maybe a military band. Many are rushed immediately to hospitals and VA centers.

I’m not calling on Americans to boycott the NBA or other professional sports. I enjoy sports, too. But most Americans—including all of America’s NBA players—have never served in the military. They don’t relate to the risks our troops take and the horrific personal consequences of bad government decisions, like invading Iraq. What can we do?

First, urge professional athletes, coaches, the media and fans to stop calling ballplayers warriors. Let’s save that terminology for people who train for or go into combat and dangerous combat-support roles. Second, let’s support our troops beyond wearing cammies to the ballgame or the mall, and posting photos of military and military-style weapons on Facebook as if combat is just another video game.

Today, I made another contribution to Fisher House, which helps families of military members live for a while at no cost near the hospitals which house their recuperating loved ones. Find out more at fisherhouse.org.

Let’s get real. NBA “warriors” face no risk of losing life or limb save from a freak accident. The warriors who protect us face risks daily. They too deserve love.

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LANGUAGE AND MEANING

Most people recognize the first verse of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Clear? Not really. Commentators and scholars translate the Hebrew word B’reishit—“In the beginning”—in several ways. This gives rise to multiple insights into God’s actions. Language—in translation or out—often fails to accurately convey meaning. We might apply this principle to the June 8 testimony of former FBI director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Re Genesis, the Soncino Press (1993) translation stays with “In the beginning.” The Stone Chumash (printed Torah) offers: “In the beginning of God’s creating…” The Jewish Publication Society (1999) and the scholar Robert Alter prefer “When God began to create…”. Everett Fox chooses “At the beginning…” As Nahum Sarna notes, “The mystery of divine creativity is, of course, ultimately unknowable.”

Congress and the American people face another mystery—the meaning in President Trump’s words regarding an investigation into General Michael Flynn, Trump’s fired national security advisor. Former FBI director James Comey, also fired by Trump, testified that Trump told him: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Because Comey said he met in private with Trump, liberal commentators and Democrats exclaim, “Obstruction of justice!” Conservative commentators and Republicans respond, “No way!”

During Comey’s testimony, Senator Jim Risch (R–Idaho), skeptical that Trump did anything wrong, focused on the word hope. Risch asked Comey if was aware of any successful prosecution of someone who hoped something illegal was done. Comey said no. But that, despite Risch’s efforts, hardly ends the matter.

Read Comey’s words, and important details of his conversation with the President go missing. Hope, Risch suggested, represents wishful thinking. Trump, in private, simply shared his yearning that Flynn, “a good guy,” not face prosecution. But which word follows hope? You. If Trump uttered these words, he spoke not to himself but directly to Comey. “I hope you can see your way clear…” It’s hardly a stretch to interpret this as Trump telling Comey to drop the investigation without saying the precise words, “You drop the investigation.” Personally, I’ve never said, “I hope you can…” to anyone without expressing a clear intent that they do what I for all intents and purposes asked. In this context, I hope creates an expectation.

I mentioned missing details. Whatever words Mr. Trump uttered, we lack a recording, which Trump hinted at having, although he may not. What tone of voice did he use? We don’t know. Intonation colors any word or set of words. Trump’s tone could indeed have indicated wishful thinking. Or it could have projected a presidential order. We also lack an eye on such critical factors as Trump’s facial expression and body language. All these help make us understood. For that matter, we can’t see Comey’s physical response.

Will Comey’s memo regarding Trump’s hope be accepted by Robert Mueller, the Justice Department’s special investigator, as proof of wrongdoing? We’ll see. Will President Trump testify before the Senate subcommittee? We’ll see about that, too. But I doubt we’ll see a smoking gun.

Still, a pattern seems to be emerging. Each day, it becomes more disturbing. And when I write disturbing, let there be no doubt about what I mean.

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