JONAH AND JONES

Harvard University recently rejected a Ph.D. candidate in history despite impressive credentials. Michelle Jones’ case should move us to examine the biblical book of Jonah.

Jones, 45 and a child victim of abuse, served more than 20 years for murdering her four-year-old son. A horrible crime? Absolutely. Yet in prison, she earned a B.A. from Ball State and led an award-winning research project for the Indiana Historical Society. Harvard’s history program accepted her, but the school’s administration overturned the decision fearing backlash from rejected applicants. At least some Harvard administrators hold the concept of repentance at arm’s length.

With Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning next Friday evening, practicing Jews focus on repentance. During Rosh Hashanah (the New Year; it’s 5778) and the ten days following, we seek forgiveness—individually and communally—for sins committed against God. (For wrongs against people, only those hurt can grant forgiveness.) We pray for God’s mercy. But are we willing to forgive others who repent?

Note that Judaism doesn’t instruct victims to turn the other cheek and offer blanket forgiveness. That lets wrongdoers off the hook. Rather, a wrongdoer must ask for forgiveness. If after being asked three times the injured person refuses to forgive, the offender no longer remains obligated to make further petitions.

Understand, too, that it’s easy to say, “I’m sorry.” The philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) instructs that repentance involves three phases—understanding the wrong committed, vowing not to repeat it then not doing it. Words must lead to action.

Granted, it can be difficult to forgive those who have wronged us. This conundrum marks the biblical book of Jonah, a traditional Yom Kippur reading. I’ll teach the text at Congregation Sherith Israel on Yom Kippur afternoon (1:15).

In brief, God tells Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh and tell the people to repent. There’s an irony here. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, which destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered its “ten lost tribes.” Despite God’s command, Jonah sails west in the opposite direction to escape performing this task. He doesn’t want God to give the Ninevites the opportunity to repent.

After three days in the stomach of a dag gadol (a big fish, not a whale), Jonah learns a lesson. God commands. You do. Jonah goes to Nineveh and announces that God is giving the city 40 days to repent or be overturned.

The Ninevites, from the king down, repent—and mean it! Jonah is unhappy. He wants Nineveh destroyed and always feared God would forgive. God, however, prefers that humans repent and live righteously. Terrible deeds cannot be undone, but people can refashion themselves.

Jonah and Yom Kippur assert that the human heart possesses considerable elasticity. Not all bad or evil people will turn towards righteousness. Like the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, some have gone too far gone. But for most of us, the opportunity to repent endures.

But we cannot proclaim our worthiness to be forgiven while refusing to give others when they prove their merit. New York University got it. They accepted Jones. In doing so, NYU (my father’s alma mater) affirmed that Jonah, a small book, offers a big a lesson for the ages. Now go and study.

For more on Jonah, see my recap and commentary in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible (Amazon). May you be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and enjoy a year of peace.

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DIRTY LAUNDRY

Jerusalem and the Second Temple fell to Rome in 70 CE. The Sages saw in this event dirty laundry—what Jews didn’t want to talk about. The tragedy occurred because of sinat chinam—baseless hatred. Not of Rome for Judea but of Jews towards each other. Jews around the globe need to take notice. So do non-Jewish Americans.

Today, discrete groups of haredim—ultra-orthodox Jews—maintain great antipathy towards each other. They unite in their distaste—often hatred—for Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and secular Jews—the majority of Jews in Israel and the U.S.

The haredim deny Israelis in the Progressive (Reform) and Masorti (Conservative) movements religious equality. In 1948, David Ben Gurion gave this then tiny group full charge of all religious lifecycle events to bring them into his governing coalition. With their high birthrate, the haredim grew far faster than other Israeli Jewish groups. In Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s multi-party coalition, they wield considerable political power. This includes preventing Progressive women from praying at the Kotel (Western Wall) by themselves or with men, wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) and reading from the Torah.

The Jerusalem Post (9-6) reported statements by Shlomo Amar, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, that Reform Jews “… don’t have Yom Kippur or Shabbat, but they want to pray [at the Western Wall]. But no one should think that they want to pray. They want to desecrate the holy.”

Sinat chinam! Jews seeking religious equality very much observe Shabbat (Friday night and Saturday) and Yom Kippur (beginning this year on September 29 and coincident with Shabbat). Their interpretation and observance of the Law is not that of Rabbi Amar and others in the ultra-Orthodox community—who often contend among themselves regarding minutiae. But it is serious, studious and heartfelt, reflecting a love of Torah along with an embrace of the twenty-first century.

Divisiveness also impacts Israel’s political realm. The left has faded. The far-right now abhors centrists, who prefer a two-state solution given sound security guarantees to a greater Israel disenfranchising Arab citizens—or denying citizenship. Despite statements to the contrary, Netanyahu continues to appease the far-right. This while facing allegations of corruption and his wife Sara’s imminent indictment on corruption charges.

The hatred keeps on coming. Bibi and Sara’s son Yair recently posted on Facebook a cartoon using classic anti-Semitic images of his father’s political foes, including billionaire George Soros and former prime minister Ehud Barak. Yair withdrew the meme but not before it elicited praise from American neo-Nazis.

Israel and world Jewry see Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas—among others—as security or existential threats. The challenges they present must be faced with resolve. But Israel confronts an even greater challenge—disunity.

The U.S. exhibits the same dirty laundry. Liberals and conservatives raise fists and shout each other down. Varying groups claim sole knowledge of civic and religious truth. Each seeks to impose its views on the others.

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, offers my favorite biblical verse: “Choose life” (30:19). We possess free will. Using it, we can air our dirty laundry and rid ourselves of its stench. Otherwise, we open ourselves to grave risks as reflected in the words of the cartoonist Walt Kelly’s beloved character Pogo: “We have met the enemy and they are us.”

To all Jews everywhere: L’Shana Tovah—Happy New Year. To everyone else: shalom—peace.

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CHICKEN VINDALOONIES

North Korea. ISIS. DACA. Harvey. Irma. This morning’s 8.1 quake in Mexico. Life gets heavy. So it’s time to lighten up with Indian food that soothes the soul. I’ve got just the recipe. Actually, forty. But first, an explanation.

Carolyn and I visited India last fall. Recently, we had an Indian dinner at Keeva on Clement Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. Having leftovers, the next night we picked up a dish of Chicken Vindaloo to fill out a meal at home. India being large and diverse, Chicken Vindaloo varies from family to family, restaurant to restaurant, town to town. Research revealed many recipes, each appealing to a different taste. See how many you recognize:

Vindalucy created with Cuban spices by Desi Arnaz on “I Love Lucy” for Lucille Ball… Vindalube prepared by auto mechanics on the greasy side… Vindaljubljana prized by residents of Slovenia’s capital… Vindalulu scarfed by the British singer Lulu  with the 1967 hit “To Sir With Love”… Vindalucretia in safe and poisonous versions from Italy’s notorious Borgia family… Vindalubavitch satisfying the kashrut standards of Chassidic Jews… Vindaluminous lighting the night for stargazers… Vindalooneytunes for fans of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck…

Vindalucite slobbered over by multi-headed, plastic-eating space aliens on “The Simpsons”—and Homer… Vindalutece followed by assorted cheeses at the once-famed Manhattan restaurant… Vindaludacris, a recipe traditionally passed on by rapping… Vindalutein recommended by ophthalmologists to fight macular degeneration… Vindalute soothing lovers of Baroque and classical Persian music… Vindalouisville served at the Kentucky Derby… Vindalugosi offered at Dracula film festivals…

Vindaluria connecting the human and Divine for kabbalists… Vindalucca spicing things up for folks living in the Italian city founded by the Etruscans… Vindalupron maintaining masculinity for prostate cancer patients undergoing hormone therapy… Vindalude recalling memories of all-night dancing in ’70s glam-rock clubs… Vindaloofah cleansing the bodies and souls of earth mothers… Vindaloogie clearing congested throats… Vindalucille memorializing B.B. King’s legendary guitar… Vindalucchese for folks who love cowboy boots…

Vindaluna satisfying the nighttime munchies of moon watchers… Vindalucre for Wall Street types… Vindalouvre winning the grudging approval of French art lovers… Vindaloose prepared on the go by prison escapees (you thought I had something else in mind?)… Vindalucha heating the palates of Mexican wrestling fans… Vindalucci celebrated soap opera star Susan’s Emmy (1999) after 18 fruitless nominations… Vindaluke offering a taste of Heaven to readers of the Gospels… Vindalucifer for those who like it hot and then some…

Vindaloot gobbled at malls by shopping addicts… Vindalucabrasi, a dish you can’t refuse inspired by “The Godfather”… Vindalucerne prized like their ancient covered bridges by citizens in central Switzerland’s largest city… Vindalouvaine featured at a neighborhood restaurant on St. John’s Hill in Battersea, London (South Bank)… Vindalura teasing the taste buds of the little girl who lived down the street from us 40 years ago… Vindaloser endlessly regurgitated by Donald Trump… and my favorite—Vindalunacy.

The late George Carlin quipped, “Class clown becomes office schmuck.” I add, “Lame humor writer remains lame humor writer.” But this is my post, and we all need to ingest something silly now and then. See how many references you recognized without googling. And if you didn’t laugh with me, laugh at me. But laugh! We need to do that now more than ever.

Didn’t find your favorite? Let me know what it is. Hungry? The New York Times offers real chicken recipes from around the world.

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HOUSTON, WE HAVE A SOLUTION

In April 1970, the Apollo 13 moon flight’s Jack Swigert reported, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” (The movie modified this to “Houston, we have a problem.”) Hurricane Harvey brought a more massive problem to Houston. In its suffering, Houston and other Texas Coast cities have displayed the solution to this nation’s bitter political and racial divide.

Early on, Houston’s mayor Sylvester Turner made a tough call telling residents not to evacuate the city. Given the impassability of so many streets and stretches of highway, his call seems on target. Still, Harvey forced tens of thousands of residents to leave flooded neighborhoods. Some managed alone. Many required assistance.

Local, state and federal agencies, including the Texas National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard, went to work. They deployed helicopters, boats and high-water vehicles to pull desperate people out of the water, free them from vehicles and pluck them off roofs. Given the scope of the problem, they couldn’t do it alone.

Houston-area residents—and many people from out of the area—used their own boats and vehicles to take neighbors and strangers to shelters across the city. The Red Cross and other non-governmental agencies cranked up their efforts.

In addition to courage and compassion, these rescuers and caregivers shared another important quality. They assisted people in need without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual identity or any other factor that has pitted one segment of the nation against the rest. I know of no white Christians who refused to help Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews and gays. I know of none of the latter who refused to assist whites. When push came to shove, Houstonians and others pushed back against the common adversary that threatened life, property and hopes for the future.

Houston and the Texas Coast will require years to fully recover. Some estimates see the presence of FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Administration—at four years. This raises a critical question: Will FEMA have the funds and personnel to do the job—and do it right? Donald Trump ran a winning presidential campaign on shrinking the federal government and draining the swamp in Washington. Forget D.C. The White House needs to sufficiently fund FEMA and other agencies to help Houston and the Texas Coast rebuild long after its very real swamp drains away.

I wonder how many first-responders and rescuers—all of whom deserve our praise and thanks—voted for Trump based on his premise of smaller government and funds directed away from FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the arts and more to build a wall on our border with Mexico. What we need is a wall sturdy enough to shield the Gulf Coast and its cities from rising waters—or a dome expansive enough to hold off biblical-type rains. Of course, that’s wishful thinking.

But here’s reality: The U.S. government has the unique assets and people power to make a long-term difference anywhere disaster strikes—and lead planning to avoid or mitigate new disasters. That’s why Texas governor Greg Abbott, a Trump supporter, welcomed federal aid.

Our political efforts should target making Washington more efficient and effective, not destroying it. Houston’s selfless, color-, religion- and gender-blind heroism offers a solution to national acrimony and achieving that goal. Pray that enough Americans notice.

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SAY NO TO FEAR

In April 2015, I wrote two posts on the issue “Should the Jews Leave Europe?” I based them on Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic. Given the Trump presidency’s legitimization of the alt-right, the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and a similar rally here in San Francisco tomorrow (which will close most of the Presidio National Park), some American Jews ponder if we should leave the U.S. Not me.

Anti-Semitism is not new to America. It surged in the 1920s and ’30s with an economy that challenged many white Christians while fascism and Nazism developed in Europe. America became more open to Jews in the ’60s. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War altered perceptions of Jews. We became tough guys (we’d already produced plenty of combat veterans and gangsters). I experienced amazing respect from non-Jews when I was stationed at Fort Sam Houston.

Today, American Jews are integrated to the point of potential disappearance within the open arms of assimilation. But Jewish memory is 3,700 years long and filled with tragedy. Some young Jews may short-circuit that memory and feel distanced from the Holocaust, but their parents and grandparents understand that Jews in the Diaspora may always be perched on the razor’s edge.

Now, many American Jews have grown nervous. Read the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Intelligence Report,” and you know why some Jews think about fleeing. Israel accepts anyone with a Jewish grandparent or any convert. Across the border, Canada beckons. It’s a democracy, and most Canadians—including French speakers—speak English. Some Jews have left the U.S. but far fewer in relative numbers than European Jews, who face a much darker situation. America, however, is not 1930s Germany.

Still, some voices at my synagogue express only fear. Although not planning to leave (that I know of) they ask, Can a Holocaust happen here? That any American feels the need to ask that question should trouble the nation. I don’t believe we’ll face a Holocaust, but I can’t guarantee that.

To Jews—and the great majority of Americans opposed to white-supremacists in all their variations—I offer a simple message: This is our country, too. We’ve bled for America. We’ve sweated for America. We’ve made a positive impact on the nation in far greater proportion than our numbers. (Jews—religious, cultural and/or secular—constitute roughly only two percent of the population.)

Should we keep tabs on the situation? Absolutely. Should we be reduced to trembling? Absolutely not! Instead, we must inform government on all levels of our concerns, pressure politicians when we must, support organizations that bring to light the truth of white supremacists’ aberrant ideas and make clear that they will be denied the victories they hope to obtain—sowing fear and provoking violence to gain media coverage.

I hear messages about what a terrible week it has been, how sleep eludes so many. Yes, we are challenged. But we are not weak. In the face of publicly expressed hatred, Americans of all ethnicities are uniting as we haven’t in decades. Together, we’ll not only secure the gates against the barbarians, we’ll expose them and drive them back into their holes.

So, let’s be watchful but keep our heads. Let’s also remember the words of President Franklin Roosevelt: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

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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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