The Human Condition (BLOG)

Lest We Forget

This past September, I did something I’ve longed to do for twenty years: Ed and I went to Utah Beach and Omaha Beach on the coast of Normandy. Two of the five beaches involved in the Allies June 6, 1944 invasion of France, colloquially known as D-Day. It is no exaggeration to say that D-Day was seen as a now-or-never, do-or-die effort to at last turn the tide of the war and defeat Hitler and the Nazis. A war that would claim the lives of 60 million people before it was over, 45 million of them civilians.  

You have to imagine the fear, the uncertainty, the desperation as year after year of the war dragged on, bringing new, more frightening, more destructive weapons—the Nazi’s V-1 flying bomb and later, before the carnage would end, the V-2 rocket missile. The race on both sides to create the ultimate killing machine, the atomic bomb. You have to picture the piles of burning rubble that just hours before had been home to hundreds. Hear the scream of the air raid sirens. Envision the desperate rush to descend into the Underground stations in London as the bombs fell. Feel the unrelenting weight, knowing every hour of the day that you might not live to see the next. Then you need to imagine enduring that for nearly five years. Only then can you understand what enormous hope was pinned on this all-out effort by British, American, and Canadian troops, aided by soldiers from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, the Netherlands. France, Greece, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, and Luxembourg.

As the largest naval, air and land operation in history, the Normandy invasion remains a testament to what people can do when they come together to fight fascism—and fascism is always with us, sometimes lying low, sometimes—as now—rearing its ugly head openly at home and around the globe.  

The Plan

The British began planning how they might invade Europe shortly after the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 (when Germany overran Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern France), but practical preparations for Operation Overlord—D-Day’s military codename—did not begin until July 1943, eighteen months after the first U.S. troops arrived in the UK and two years after Hitler had opened a second front of war against Russia thereby splitting his own forces. By this point, the Allies had gained the upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic. All vital developments if the invasion was to have any chance of success.

As Allied officers brainstormed strategies, they agreed that: 1) air operations must have a night with clear skies and a full moon; 2) naval operations—the safe transport of troops ashore—would require low winds and calm seas at dawn; 3) ground troops had to land at low tide when any obstacles on the German-occupied shore would be visible. Weather, tides, and the moon cycle must all come together to create the perfect conditions.

Unsplash: Sven Verweij

By December 1943, a committee headed by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower was busy planning the specific naval, air and land operations. British factories began pumping up production, their work aided by some nine million tons of supplies and equipment shipped from the U.S. and Canada. Spring saw over two million troops in Britain preparing for the invasion and, that May, a target landing date was set: June 5 (though bad weather in the days just prior would force Operation Overlord to be delayed until June 6). 

Meanwhile, a stunning deception campaign was in full swing to fool the Germans as to where the invasion would occur. Calais was the most plausible spot, as it was just across the channel from Britain, but it was also the most heavily fortified, so the Allies chose the Normandy coast 150 miles to the southwest, then set about creating the illusion that the invasion would be at Calais. Fictitious radio transmissions about Allied troop and supply movements were broadcast. Fake inflatable Sherman tanks were moved from location to location in the dead of night to simulate advance. Row upon row of dummy airplanes and an armada of decoy landing crafts were created from painted canvases over steel frames. All this to deceive Nazi radio and aerial reconnaissance.

Concurrently, the French Resistance and the British Special Operations Executive sabotaged German defenses and collected intelligence while the Allies stepped up their aerial attacks on Calais to keep the ruse going. To echo Churchill’s words at the Battle of Britain in 1940: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

The Day

The invasion was to take place at dawn on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast. Utah and Omaha beaches would be handled by U.S. troops, while the British would take Gold and Sword beaches, and the Canadian forces would overrun Juno.

In the wee hours leading to dawn on June 6, 15,000 paratroopers were dropped behind the invasion areas to provide tactical support for the infantry soon to arrive. Key among their objectives was to block all entrances leading into the Allied landing zones. But the Germans rallied quickly. A number of paratrooper planes were destroyed by German flak while many others were forced to make their drops off-target, creating chaos on the ground and preventing scores of pre-determined link-ups from happening. One soldier’s parachute snagged on a steeple, where he “played dead” for several hours while German soldiers rushed the grounds of the church below. But in the end, many paratroopers made their rendezvous and wreaked a fair amount of havoc along the German lines.

Meanwhile, the ground troops were arriving. On Omaha Beach, the Americans narrowly escaped defeat. The Germans had built a string of bunkers in the dunes along the Normandy coast, effectively shielding them from both enemy reconnaissance and the Allies’ preliminary air and naval bombardment which failed to knock out key targets on Omaha. Only two of the 29 amphibious tanks launched at sea reached the shore that day, and the first wave of infantrymen were gunned down in the rough surf before they made land. But the troops did not give up. Eventually more and more soldiers made it to the seawall and climbed the steep bluffs while U.S. warships moved in to fire on the German bunkers. Omaha would turn out to be the most heavily defended of the five beaches. Twenty-four hundred U.S. soldiers died there that day.

Despite months of calculating wind, weather, moonrise, and tides (best laid plans!), the morning of June 6 gave the Allied troops something more to deal with than German firepower. Strong winds made the seas rough, bringing the tide in sooner than expected. On Utah Beach, the first wave of troops was swept 2,000 yards south of their original target and visibility was severely hampered by the shore bombardment preceding the landings. Three of the four Allies’ designated control craft were destroyed by mines.    

The same high winds also caused the tide to rise rapidly along Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches, concealing obstacles on the shore. Fortunately, the air and naval bombardment prior to the ground troops’ landing had succeeded in weakening German defenses on Gold Beach. British troops were able to advance some six miles inland that day to make their rendezvous with the Canadian forces who landed on Juno.

The Canadians at Juno Beach had a tougher time of it. The turbulent seas had delayed their landing, and the rising tide had left only a thin strip of shore that quickly became jammed with Allied vehicles and equipment. Like Omaha Beach, Juno was heavily defended, making it difficult to clear the exits from the beach. Casualties ran high. But by midnight, the troops were on the march, had joined the Gold Beach forces, and were waiting only to link up with the British 3rd Division who had landed on Sword Beach.

The British assault on Sword Beach had also been slowed by the lack of room for the armored support vehicles needed to advance inland. Time moved at an agonizing crawl and German resistance was spotty but fierce. In the early afternoon, the British finally made it off the beach and linked up with airborne troops. Together, they managed to push a few miles inland toward their key objective for D-Day—to take the strategically vital city of Caen and its nearby Carpiquet airfield nine miles away—before encountering intense German opposition. It would take another six weeks for the Allies to make those last few miles and conquer Caen.            

The Past Always Matters

Despite the various difficulties they faced, the Allies persisted undaunted. Some 133,000 troops from England, Canada and the U.S. had landed on the Normandy coast with the assistance of 7,000 ships and landing craft manned by more than 195,000 naval personnel from eight countries who bombarded German coastal defenses and provided artillery support for the invading troops. The human cost for June 6 would be tragically high—more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded—but by the end of the day, the Allies had established themselves on shore and begun the advance into France. 

Operation Overlord did not bring an end to the war in Europe, which would drag on until May 1945, but it did kickstart the process through which victory was eventually achieved. By the close of August 1944, the German Army was in full retreat. Northern France had been liberated. It was the beginning of the end of a nightmare—Hitler’s maniacal fascist dream of a “Thousand Year Reich”—that had engulfed much of Europe and left tens of millions dead.

As I descended the dunes down to the shore on Omaha Beach and gazed out across that vast expanse of water, I thought back to a day I spent in our local library. A map that caught my eye as I gathered research for my World War II novel. A map of Europe 1940, shaded darkly with Hitler’s conquests. By June of that year, only Great Britain was unconquered. This small island nation that never gave up, never gave in to the Nazis. Tears streamed down my cheeks that day. Even now, writing this, my throat tightens, my eyes well up. We owe the British people of that era—the soldiers, the airmen, the navy, the government, the people everything. Everything. For eighteen months, before U.S. troops joined the fight, the British were the lone candle in a very dark world.

Before going to Normandy, Ed and I had spent a week in Paris. We ate breakfast daily at a lovely café across the road from our Airbnb, where we were usually served by a genial waiter, a man in his mid-40s. On our last day, he asked where we were going next. Ed told him the Normandy beaches. He was puzzled. “Where the Allies landed. D-Day,” I added. He shook his head and smiled. He had no idea what we were talking about. I did the math. He was probably born around 1975. His parents likely around 1950. Meaning his grandparents lived through the war as young adults.

Several years ago, trolling a directory for agents I could query about my WWII novel, I ran across an agency that said they had no interest in novels of that nature: “We’re moving past World War II now.” I beg to differ. Fascism is very much alive in the world today. Far-right and openly fascist leaders are seeking power everywhere, running for offices large and small, and getting elected. They are using social media platforms, and sometimes seizing the companies themselves, to fan the flames of racism, antisemitism, homo- and transphobia, and chauvinism. Recently, after acquiring Twitter, Elon Musk tweeted an image of Adolf Hitler with the words “Stop comparing me to Justin Trudeau. I had a budget.” Ah, Elon. So cute. So hilarious. Why don’t you trying telling that “joke” to the 11 million Jews, prisoners of war, Romany, Jehovah’s Witnesses, LGBTQ folk, and the mentally/physically disabled people who were murdered in Hitler’s concentration camps?

We have never so desperately needed to understand the horror, the devastation, the tragic cost of fascism as we do now. The poet and philosopher George Santayana observed that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We can’t afford to let the history of one generation vanish with the next. No one is coming to save us this time. We must save ourselves.

I’m leaving you with one of the most poignant, best-loved songs from World War II, “The White Cliffs of Dover”, penned by Walter Kent and Nat Burton, and made famous in 1942 by Vera Lynn. May you enjoy a happy, peaceful holiday season with your loved ones.

And never give up the fight for a better, more inclusive, more humane world.

    

One-Hundred and Sixty-Eight Hours

There are 168 hours in a week. We don’t think about that much. We work, cook, play with the kids, water the garden, read, get together with friends, kick back with a favorite TV series, indulge in a hobby or work on a pet project, sleep. The weeks turn into months. The rhythm of our life.

We don’t think about it much. Until it shatters. The place where we work—gone. The supermarket we shop—gone. The school our kids attend—gone. And worse, far worse, the house we live in—and with it the family photo albums, all our books, our treasured LPs, the prints and posters that adorn our walls, collected from travels near and far, the quilt our great-grandmother stitched—gone, all gone, crushed beneath storm-felled trees and swept out to sea by massive waves. In mere minutes, everything we have, the physical foundation of our life, and the emotional comfort of home, even if it’s just a couple of rented rooms … GONE.  

Reduced to Statistics

That’s what happened to thousands of people while Ed and I were in France in September. Hurricane Fiona ripped through the Dominican Republic, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico—the last still recovering from the massive assault of Hurricane Maria—before funneling northward to wreak havoc on Eastern Canada. We came home the day a second hurricane, Ian, wiped out much of Florida’s Gulf Coast. For two days, the news featured nothing but harrowing footage of flooded homes, battered boats, and fatally-submerged cars. “Our home, the life we built, everything, it’s all gone,” wailed one woman. Her cry, in various iterations, was echoed by dozens, then hundreds as twelve-foot waves swamped and swallowed everything along the shore. “Hurricane Ian Batters Florida’s Gulf Coast with Catastrophic Fury” Reuters reported.

Now, a scant five days later, the handwringing is fading. The headlines are mostly updates on body counts: “Death Toll from Hurricane Ian Surpasses 100 as the Search for Survivors Continues in Florida” (CNN). Or $$$ estimates of the destruction it inflicted: “Hurricane Ian’s Staggering Scale of Damage Becomes Clearer” (The New York Times). In fact, a quick google turned up more than a dozen reports on Ian’s rising death toll in the Sunshine State, but nothing of the thousands left homeless. Yet, for those among the living most seriously affected by Ian—like the people MSNBC’s Ali Velshi interviewed who now have only the clothes they stand up in—their lives continue amid devastation.

The Forgotten

One-hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week. I remember thinking about this in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005), when some 10,000 New Orleans residents sheltered in the Louisiana Superdome (now the Caesars Superdome). I imagined the families—distraught parents, having no clue as to where their lives were headed, how they might proceed, the kids whining: Mommy, I’m hungry. Mommy, I want my toys. Mommy, when can we go home? Mommy, I’m BORED. Did relief agencies wrangle 10,000 cots, or did people just have to sleep on the bare floor of the Superdome with (maybe) a blanket? What about a change of clothing? How did they manage bathroom facilities for 10,000 people? What did they do all day?

Katrina’s refugees stayed in the Superdome for an entire week. One-hundred and sixty-eight hours. And then what? FEMA was on the ground, but the city was still a mess and many people had no power, no running water—no working toilets, no cleansing showers, no turning on the tap for a drink. What do you do?

Unsplash: Wes Warren

Hurricane Ian washed away parts of the Sanibel Causeway, leaving Sanibel Island residents stranded, adrift from the mainland. Hurricane Fiona dumped close to three feet of rain on Puerto Rico, a massive flood with mudslides that wiped out roads and bridges, leaving many in the island’s mountain towns without access to food, utilities, or medical care. How long can you survive without food? Imagine having a stroke with literally no road to a hospital. Or, depending on your location, not even the ability to contact a healthcare facility by cellphone. WHAT DO YOU DO?

These are the stories we never hear. What happened to those left homeless in the flash floods that swamped Kentucky this past July? The wildfires that burned over half a million acres in Oregon and 2.5 million acres in California in 2021? The hurricane (Dorian) that levelled the Bahamas in 2019, causing “unprecedented damage”? These disasters all carry a heavy human toll, but mostly all we get is statistics. On October 2, NPR reported that more than 100,000 people in Puerto Rico were still without power two weeks after Fiona. Yes, that’s worth noting, but what did those people do all day, day after day, week in, week out? Where are those stories? It took almost six months in 2017 for power to be fully restored to the island after Hurricane Maria hit. One-hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week. Four-thousand, three-hundred, and sixty-eight hours in six months. A half year. A very long time when your life is on hold. A long time to be “forgotten.”

Climate Change: The Terrible Cost of Starting Over  

We know that climate change is wreaking havoc across the nation—and around the world. More powerful hurricanes that cause severe flooding along coastal areas. Widespread wildfires in the increasingly rain-starved breadbaskets of the world—California and the Midwest, France, Brazil. We speak of this in the aggregate but never, or rarely, of the very real impact the warming of our planet has on the people whose daily life vanishes in a blaze, a flash flood, a landslide. The price to be paid, and who pays it, for the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, nitrogen fertilizers, and livestock farming. As Al Gore famously noted, it is an inconvenient truth.

How is the actual cost for such devastation to be met by its victims. Most people’s home insurance covers fire or damage from falling trees, but flood insurance is not a part of the standard homeowner coverage. It can be purchased, but the extra cost (an average $985) makes it a hard pinch for some families and an impossibility for many. Yet, just one inch of water can damage a home to the tune of $25,000.

So, along with the emotional distress of having your home, its comforts and memories, wiped out, there’s the very real fiscal question of how does one “start over”? The median savings for Americans age 35-44 is just $4,710, and many families have no savings at all.

Their Stories Could Be Our Story

Yes, the world moves on, but maybe in such moments of disaster for tens of thousands, it should linger a little. Not a parroting of dollar-damage stats, but updates on the stories of real lives lived under extremely stressful conditions. The family of five with no home, no car, no clothing, no way to pass the hours comfortably with three children under the age of ten. The elderly couple living on a fixed income with no resources to “start over”, their one asset—their home—having been washed away. The farmer who lost both home and barn but must somehow manage to feed and care for the half dozen dairy cows and the chickens who survived. This last, by the way, is a true story—the woman said large dairies have their barns insured, but the price was too steep for her small operation.    

Unsplash: Fons Heijnsbroek

If the news agencies like AP and Reuters and the television networks each chose 2-3 families to follow as they put their lives back together. If we continued to hear the stories in weekly updates—to live the experience, if only at secondhand—of those whose lives disaster has upended, to witness their daily struggles, to champion their resilience and strength, we might be reminded that we are all in this together. We might organize to demand real action on climate change to save our planet. And if our turn in the barrel should come, if we should find ourselves homeless, frightened, uncertain of the next step, we might not find ourselves alone.         

As you go about your life in the coming week, think about the ease with which you fill a glass of cold water from the tap or pull a soft drink from the fridge to quench your thirst, the pleasure of taking a book from the shelf and sinking into your favorite chair for a read, the simple act of  choosing something to wear from the selection of clean clothes in your closet or dresser, and how good it feels at the end of the day to lie down in your own bed. And then imagine it all…gone.

One-hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week. Week after week. We must pay attention. We must help one another.

Please Consider

If you can afford it—even ten dollars helps—please consider donating to one of these orgs to ease the distress Hurricanes Fiona and Ian have caused so many families.

World Central Kitchen: “WCK is first to the frontlines, providing meals in response to humanitarian, climate, and community crises. When disaster strikes WCK’s Relief Team mobilizes to the frontlines with the urgency of now to start cooking and provide meals to people in need… We know that good food provides not only nourishment, but also comfort and hope, especially in times of crisis.”

To donate to WCK, go to: https://donate.wck.org/give/417669/#!/donation/checkout

American Red Cross: “Help People Affected by Hurricane Ian.” (Note: The Red Cross is still assisting people affected by Hurricane Fiona, too.)

To donate to the Red Cross, go to: https://www.redcross.org/donate/donation.html/

The Salvation Army: “From Florida to Puerto Rico, The Salvation Army is there to provide food, drinks, shelter, emotional and spiritual care and other emergency services to hurricane survivors and rescue workers. Your generosity enables The Salvation Army to serve those in need and fight back against the pain caused by Hurricanes Ian and Fiona, bringing comfort to families and offering hope in the aftermath of natural catastrophes.” 

Click to choose whether your donation goes to victims of Fiona or Ian. Or, why not split your donation, and give half the sum to each?

To donate to the Salvation Army, go to: https://give.helpsalvationarmy.org/give/166081/#!/donation/checkout?utm_source=google_lerma&utm_medium=cpc&utm_term=disaster&utm_content=text&utm_campaign=edonation_national_brand&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI__e_1cvd-gIVD6_ICh2ZRAdNEAAYASAAEgJzxvD_BwE&pid=cpc:edonation_national_brand::google_lerma:::::eastern_eastern:disaster:disaster

Toward a More Perfect Union

“Let us not talk falsely now. The hour’s getting late.” Bob Dylan (All Along the Watchtower)

[NOTE: This post first ran in March 2019 shortly after the State of the Union address by He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. Well, I do name him here. I wrestled with the idea of updating all the references, but decided in the end to leave the post exactly as I wrote it. After all, does it matter that I referred to the Green New Deal rather than the Build Back Better Act? Neither made it past the death grip of the Gas/Coal/Oil conglomerate of fossil fuel billionaires. We are still facing/failing at the concerns I raise here. Plus a new slew of threats. A Supreme Court bent on destroying both the environment and our human rights. A far-right slate of candidates who threaten to upend our elections and render null any votes/voters who oppose their fascist march to power. November 8 is election day. In the face of this onslaught, I implore you to get out there and VOTE. The left has a poor track record when it comes to voting in the midterms. This year must be different. If we lose now—the state attorneys-general offices, the governorships, all those little down-ballot races that are too often viewed as inconsequential, not to mention the House and the Senate—if we lose now, we may not have a second chance. We are facing an uphill struggle, I won’t sugarcoat it. But the record-turnout, landslide vote in Kansas last August to save abortion rights gives me hope. So, please, VOTE, VOTE, VOTE. A democracy is a terrible thing to lose.]

Perhaps, with the title of this post, I’m setting the bar too high, implying that we are anywhere in the same galaxy, let alone neighborhood, of something approximating a true democracy, a swamp-less America. On the other hand, at this point almost any little uptick in our nation’s health, unprompted by greed or outright corruption, would be a step toward a better, if still far from perfect, union. It’s gotten so that when I hear some pundit put two coherent sentences together, I find myself thinking they could be president.

Well, if any clown can grow up to be president, as TheRUMP proves daily, then I feel it’s only fair that I get my 2¢ in and deliver my own State of the Union address here. Without the hyenas who applauded every syllable, garbled or not, out of the OrangeOne’s mouth. Without their annoying, puerile chant USA, USA, USA!

Actually, my SOTU is not so much about what is (sad, as our twittering POTUS likes to tweet), but more about what could be. Therefore, having established my right to blather on (isn’t that how things are done these days?), I’m delivering my 10-point plan for an America that represents the many rather than the few, a more humane and democratic nation and, by extension, a better world.

1. Number one, front and center, VOTERS RULE, and everyone gets to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 will be fully restored, Citizens United will be dumped outright, and anyone caught gerrymandering districts or closing polling stations (as happened with Dodge City in the 2018 elections) or “tinkering” with voting machines will find themselves booked on a one-way trip to Deep Space. Byeee! The days when a thug like Brian Kemp could delete  some 800,000 voters from the rolls as Georgia’s Secretary of State, thereby stealing the governorship for himself, are OVER. In my America, Stacey Abrams is the rightful governor of the Peach State.

One person, one vote. No more electoral college (which, hilariously enough, was designed in part to prevent “unqualified” persons, like the one we have now, from becoming president). No more voter suppression: No impossible/ridiculous ID requirements. No lines out the door and around the block at polling stations. No intimidation tactics.

And I want to see a big, clear PAPER trail. No white-out.   


2.  We can achieve #1 because all citizens will be first-class citizens, and everyone will enjoy EQUAL RIGHTS and OPPORTUNITIES. Gay, black, brown, Muslim, female, Jew, atheist, transgender, teacher, garbage collector, unemployed steel worker, 7-11 counter person. We will stop this nonsense about a level playing field, and officially recognize, and legislate for the fact that billionaires and their kids, jetting off from their private helipads to one of their many homes, don’t quite face the same hurdles in life that, say, a single mom working at Mickey D’s and her kids must navigate. We will do everything we can to knock the support props out from under the privileged few and level that damn field for the struggling many.

Equal rights for everyone also means that everyone enjoys EQUAL PROTECTION under the law. The next racist cop who shoots a black teen for looking at his cell phone funny, that cop is going to Sing-Sing for life. Without parole. [I do want to note that I have met many a decent cop, most touchingly, a couple of officers in New York’s Little Italy, who were very protective of and sympathetic to the poverty, addictions, and visible struggles of their peeps. If we want good community policing, we should use them as our model.]

3. FREE PUBLIC EDUCATION for everyone through college or trade school. If we throw up our hands at people so ignorant/uninformed that they continually vote against their own true interests, consider this: We are a country who puts up road blocks to a literate, thinking citizenry at every juncture of education. Underfunded public schools. Overcrowded classrooms staffed by underpaid teachers. Ridiculous college costs, which leave students staggering under debt for years, and prevent many more from even attending.

And it’s getting worse. The push for charter schools at the expense of public schools by the DeVos wing of TheRUMP regime has closed many of our public schools already, and tends to favor no separation of church and state. At least six states—Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia—have pending legislation that would make “Bible literacy classes” part of the public school curriculum.

An uninformed electorate may be easier to control through prejudice and baseless fears, but it doesn’t make for a strong, innovative society, and it doesn’t make for happiness either, if our high rates of depression and substance abuse are anything to go by.

4. We need to stop monkeying around and slap on MASSIVE MANDATORY ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTIONS NOW. Nothing else matters if we don’t do this. Without this, we might as well be ordering donuts for our last cup of coffee.

The Green New Deal outlines broadly how the U.S. should combat climate change over the next decade, but we need specifics today. Here’s a few:

Zero tax breaks for companies who 1) directly pollute our land, water, or air; 2) whose production methods harm the planet (think anything that uses palm oil, which is created by destroying large swaths of rain forest and animal habitats); 3) whose end products pose peril to the earth and its oceans—plastic bags or straws, for example.

All corporations must transition 20% of their total operation each year to green energy and green/sustainable practices, for a 100% transition within five years, or we SHUT THEM DOWN.  No more drilling, fracking, coal production, or factory farms. No more toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of so many products from foods to plastics to cosmetics. We need stuff we can eat, handle, and wear without fearing for our lives.

It’s insane that we’re not already doing these things, considering scientists are saying we have only a decade left to avert the worst climate disasters (our extinction being one of them), and ice at both poles is melting like a DQ snow cone at the height of July.

What gives with these high-pollutin’ fossil fuel billionaire morons, anyway? They could have transitioned to solar and wind power and every other green thing forty years ago. Become leaders in the green-tech field, and still raked in the big $$$. (QED: Being rich does NOT equal being smart.)

But they (and many other corporate entities) seem to be stuck in the 1950s, when steel was “king” and coal was the leading fuel for generating electricity. Stuck in the time-warp of a fabled all-powerful America where (white men) ruled the roost while (white) women fixed their dinners and birthed their babies, and all people of color rode under the bus.

Wake up boys. The heyday of the steel mills that employed 700,000 workers in 1948 is over. Today, those mills are down to 83,000 people. Other countries, less afraid of introducing new, more efficient technology, got the jump years ago. And burning coal, besides being an environmental nightmare, is no longer economically feasible. In mid-February, against TheRUMP’s expressed wishes, the Tennessee Valley Authority voted to close a large coal-fired power plant, Paradise #3, in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky—a plant made famous by John Prine’s song “Where Paradise Lay.”

We need to be training coal miners and other displaced workers for the clean-energy jobs of the future. A future we must adopt NOW if we don’t want life on the planet to be just a memory tomorrow.

And no whining about how unaffordable it is to retool for a green planet. When Joy Reid asked Senator Ed Markey how the Green New Deal would be paid for, he reminded her that the cost of cleaning up from the rising number and worsening damage of climate-caused disasters will be in the trillions. And that doesn’t include the indefensible cost of lives lost. In short, we can’t afford not to go green.

I also don’t want to hear any lobbyist yammering about free enterprise or government interference in corporate rights. As far as I’m concerned, their rights end where endangering our lives begins. Clean energy. Clean water. Clean air.

5. UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE. I feel like I have been shouting this for 40 years (probably because I have been shouting this for 40 years) but AMERICA IS THE ONLY DEVELOPED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD THAT LACKS UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE.

Everyone else is free to sleep peacefully and go about their day joyfully in these other countries, at least when it comes to knowing that they won’t be dumped by the wayside and left to rot, or completely bankrupted and made homeless if they develop something more serious than, say, a cold.

The U.S. ranks the highest in healthcare spending among the developed nations. Universal healthcare will bring down the cost for everyone. I’m betting the increase in my tax bill wouldn’t begin to equal the increase in my healthcare premiums since TheRUMP’s monkeyed with the ACA.  And I’d rather pay taxes to fund healthcare than the slaughter of children in Yemen or building TheRUMP’s “mini-nukes.”

By the way, if you’ve ever wondered why our healthcare is so expensive, I have a little story a friend told me some 20 years ago. He was playing piano in a trio at a dinner bash for insurance company execs, who were merrily washing down their filet mignon with bottle after bottle of cognac—at $750 a pop. I’m guessing with inflation, those bottles now go for a grand-plus. 

So, no more Big Pharma billing us twice what we earn in a month for a drug they sell elsewhere in the world at a fraction of the price (nearly all countries except the U.S. have policies, price controls, and regulations limiting drug company profits). No more pushing drugs on us we don’t need, thus rendering half the country opioid addicts. (The US makes up 5 percent of the world’s population and consumes approximately 80 percent of the world’s prescription opioid drugs.)

Our reps and senators enjoy stellar healthcare and we foot the bill for it. The way I see it, what’s good enough for them is good enough for the rest of us.

6.  It’s beyond appalling how many two-faced GOP duffers, themselves the children and grandchildren of immigrants, are railing on about the (bogus) “threat at our southern border,” backing ICE, and denying people their legal right to apply for asylum. Way beyond appalling that thousands and thousands of children were ripped away from their families (with little or no record-keeping or a plan to reunite them). Unconscionable that ICE is dumping people in prison camps hastily erected by, and highly profitable for private company buddies of TheRUMP—an outright crime that has resulted in the deaths of several children.

So, listen up, we are having a total rededication to old Lady Liberty. In the words of Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

As for anyone seeking asylum, if you can make a reasonably compelling statement, whether it’s in English, Spanish, Mayan, Garifuna or Ewokese—say, Because U.S. foreign policy and CIA knavery of the past 60 years have made my country a hellhole—well, as far as I’m concerned, you’re in. Welcome to America. Care to learn the skills for a new green-energy job? We need you.

7. The issue of immigration, as I suggested in #6, brings up the whole question of foreign policy. So listen up, mighty OrangeOne and Blackwater and Exxon: No, you can’t take another country’s oil, topple their elected officials, suppress their protests, or cut off their trade with other countries. You can’t bomb other nations so you can steal their wealth or install your own dictators. After a century of talking up the right of nations to self-determination, we will finally walk the walk, honor self-determination, and keep our hands to ourselves. And our hands will not sell bombs and guns to nations who suppress other nations, commit genocide, or behead journalists.  

8. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Well, begging the trigger-happy NRA’s pardon, the more than 1.5 million Americans who have died a gun-related death since 1968 might wish to differ, if only they could. One-point-five-million. That’s more Americans than have died in all the wars we’ve fought, including World War II.

There were 346 mass shootings in 2017—not 346 deaths, but 346 mass shootings. Another 340 occurred in 2018. Night clubs. Schools. Movie theaters. Concert venues. And then there’s those little domestic scenarios where the toddler shoots her mother, or the brother shoots his baby sister. Or Dad shoots the entire family. So, hear me good: No assault rifles. No handguns. No open carry. No concealed carry. No “stand your ground” laws. NO GUNS. AT ALL.

9. Total government TRANSPARENCY. No one we elect and/or pay the salary of hides from us what they spend our money on, or the findings of special investigations into, say, the corruption of the president, his cabinet cronies, fellow criminally-inclined congresspersons, and their various fixers. We are your constituents. We are your BOSSES. We elected you to represent us and to serve our best interests. We demand to know exactly what’s going on. And if you were appointed rather than elected, you were appointed to serve the interests of the country and uphold the Constitution, NOT to massage TheRUMP’s rump. Got that, William Barr?

One More Thing

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Geeze, Ame, you sound like the Green New Deal on steroids. How many decades and decades of Congressional sessions would it take to write up, introduce, and vote on all these proposals, and would there be anyone left on Earth by the time we got all this done, even if Mitch McConnell only lasts another 200 years?

Good question. Of course, we could knock most of this into a hat if we just adopted my tenth proposal, and went global with it:

10. NO ONE gets more than a million dollars until EVERYONE on the planet has a decent home and full healthcare. Until EVERYONE receives as much education/job training as they care to pursue. Until EVERYONE has clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, and plenty of healthy food. Until EVERYONE has some fun money, time for regular vacations, and a secure retirement.

The main reason we are in such a huge mess domestically and globally is because a handful of billionaires are dictating the terms—no taxes for the rich, freedom to pollute the planet to death, low wages for workers, endless war—and choosing who gets into office and how they will vote. I guarantee you that if NO ONE is allowed to have more than a million dollars, our campaign finance problems—the Koch brothers/Shel Adelson/DeVos-family et al.—will be solved. You can’t donate $300 million or even $30 million if you have zero millions.

A couple of stats to underscore my point here:

  • The 400 richest Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the nation.
  • Globally, 42 people have as much wealth as the 3.7 billion poorest folks. Yes, 42 people have as much wealth as the poorest HALF of the WORLD.

So, I repeat. No one gets more than a million dollars until everyone has what they need. All income over $1 million will be taxed, retroactively, at 99.99%. So sell those extra dozen houses, private jets, helipads, and pay up, you billionaires. There will be no more off-shore accounts. No tax havens. No tax loopholes like the ones that gave Amazon a free pass for federal taxes this year, despite the $11.2 billion in profits the company reaped for 2018.  

The billions and billions and billions that we who work have made for the planet’s richest 42 people? That money comes back to us. Then we won’t have to worry about Social Security or Medicare or public school funding or the cost of infrastructure. The people in the world’s poorest countries will have running water and homes and schools and healthcare—a chance to live their lives rather than merely trying to survive starvation day to day.

Perhaps it is the Green New Deal on steroids. I make no apologies. Instead, I’ll sign off with the words of George Bernard Shaw, tweaked by Robert Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

Why not, indeed?

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Close

Many years ago, while reading Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography, I came across this arresting line: Never go to the theatre with your head full of what you don’t like. Words Redgrave attributed to her father, actor Michael Redgrave. I was reminded of this wise counsel recently while perusing the program notes for A.I.M by Kyle Abraham’s dance performance at Jacob’s Pillow. Abraham’s troupe is noted for blending a wide range of dance styles in its repertoire, an approach that has made the company “one of the most consistently excellent troupes working today” (The New York Times).

But A.I.M’s notable achievement might never have come about. In an interview with LifeandTimes.com, Abraham recalled going to see the Joffrey Ballet at age 16. He did not go to see the ballet as a form—Abraham was a club dancer then—but to see some dances within the company’s piece Billboards because they were performed to a song cycle by pop superstar Prince. Yet that night, as they say, changed Kyle Abraham’s life. What he witnessed on that stage inspired him to step outside the narrow confines of his own experience in dance, to begin exploring and creating what he now calls his “postmodern gumbo…a hybrid of movement sensibilities inspired by a lot of postmodern, modern, contemporary, and ballet forms and even some social-dance vernaculars as well.”

But what if Abraham had gone to Billboards convinced there was nothing of value in ballet itself? If he had closed his mind, his sensibilities to everything but the Prince song cycle? How much in life do we miss because we “go to the theatre” with our minds made up? Or engage in discussions to talk but not to listen? Or simply close our eyes to what is inconvenient to see or disturbing to consider? And why do we do this? I mean, what risk is there in exploring a subject further or considering other takes on a topic?  It commits us to nothing. And it just might open up our life as it did Kyle Abraham’s.

If You’re Right, Then I’m Wrong

We tend to fear challenges to our beliefs. Psychology even has a name for this inclination: belief perseverance. Picture an Inquisition dude at Galileo’s trial in the 1630s—hands over ears, vigorously shaking his head—“No,no,no! The Earth does NOT revolve around the Sun. God’s greatest creation is the center of the universe!” Or Earl Landgrebe, GOP congressman from Indiana, famously defending Nixon in August 1974—just days after the Watergate tapes came to light. “Don’t confuse me with the facts,” Landgrebe said. “I’ve got a closed mind.”

Unsplash: Obie Fernandez

Belief perseverance (also referred to as “conceptual conservatism”) prompts us to actively reject any and all information that contradicts or outright proves our convictions false or flimsy. And if we step back for a moment, it’s easy to understand why this not-infrequently annoying trait is so powerful. After all, our beliefs can feel like the glue that holds us together as we try to make sense of a constantly changing, complex world.

But that doesn’t alter the danger refusing to reconsider our beliefs can pose to ourselves and others (think of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the movement to “Stop the Steal!” when there was no steal). Even in far less fraught circumstances, it’s still a losing strategy. A diminution of self. A blind eye that puts us at the mercy of anyone with a desire to pull the wool over it for their own ends.   

At some level, we all recognize this. I mean, what adult still believes in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus? Growth is the result of challenges to our assumptions. It’s evidenced by a viewpoint that expands far beyond the narrow focus of early home life to encompass a panoramic vista of the human condition and the world in all its contradictions.

If we’re lucky, those challenges just keep on coming. If we’re wise, we embrace them. Allow them to enrich our understanding and, thus, our experiences throughout our lifetime.

Identity Crisis

Unsplash: Caroline Veronez

We also fear losing our identity—how we see ourselves and wish to be seen by others. So we tend to seek out and embrace anything and anyone who affirms our picture of ourselves and the world around us. Psychologists call this confirmation bias.  As a concept, it’s the photo-negative of belief perseverance. In everyday speak, it’s called wishful thinking. It’s like the child who, wanting to go to the picnic her parents caution may be rained out, desperately searches a gray sky for signs of sunshine.

When I was 12, I wrote passionate poems about the evils of science. A child of my times, as we all are, I could only see science as the atomic bombs that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the Agent Orange that defoliated Vietnam—part of the “herbicidal warfare” waged there by the U.S., sickening and killing the Vietnamese and our soldiers in the process. As the napalm bombs that left huge areas of unquenchable fire in their wake. I loved the Byrd’s song “5D (Fifth Dimension)” with its line: And I saw the great blunder my teachers had made, scientific delirium madness.

I still love that song for its embrace of a loving universe, but I have learned a lot since then. Allowed a lot of facts in. Realized that my take on science in 1967 contained some truth, but ignored many, many other truths. Because along with weapons of mass destruction, science has created life-saving medicines and technologies—where would we be today without the COVID vaccines? Science created deadly herbicides like glyphosate, but science is also working to prevent further bio-diversity erosion and the poisoning of our earth, air and water. A team at MIT recently developed a portable desalination unit that removes particles and salts from ocean water to render it safe for drinking. The machine weighs just 22 pounds and requires less power to run than a cell phone charger. It can even be driven by a portable solar pane. Science has been destruction. It has also, and more often, been life and hope.

Unsplash: Nathan Dumlao

Asking questions, listening to others, testing their ideas—and yours—teaches you virtually everything is far more complex than it first appears. When I was young, I had clear-cut solutions to all of society’s many problems. Well, I’m still in the same fights I was then—the struggle for racial equality, for the rights of women and LGBTQ+ persons, for preserving the earth and all its creatures (great and small), for universal healthcare and high-quality public education. Yes, I’m still in those fights, but now I understand the solutions are more complicated than I first thought. And the questions not infrequently outnumber the answers. This can feel overwhelming at times but, as every good scientist knows, it’s the questions that drive the most significant, the most enduring solutions. Anyone can act, but to act intelligently—that’s a different, and far better, course.

I’ve Got It All Together (Not)

Admitting to ourselves and others that we don’t “have it all together”—that we harbor uncertainties, have gaps in our knowledge, or are totally clueless about the issue at hand—can make us feel very vulnerable. “I’ve got it all together” is the mantra of our age. Social media has made it possible for people to “package” their lives for public consumption: See me. I’m in my beautiful home, surrounded by my perfect family (the kids all spectacularly successful), dining at elegant places and traveling the world without a care. It’s a dream life!  

In most instances, I’m willing to bet, the only solid truth in that carefully-scripted presentation is the dream part. Which is ironic because a truly secure person can admit to screw-ups and uncertainty. A truly secure person knows that no one “has it all together.” A truly secure person is open to new ideas and different takes.      

Like a self-described club dancer who goes to the ballet to see how they’re dancing to Prince and comes away profoundly changed.

Kyle Abraham could have gone to Billboards with a head full of what he didn’t like. He could have refused to be influenced by anything else, fearing it would weaken his identity as a club dancer. But instead, he opened his mind to the possibilities. And that opening up made him a stronger dancer, a magnificent choreographer, one able to draw from the rich diversity of dance the world offers.

Everyone can learn from others. Even my cats, Tibby and Coosh, understood this. One of their favorite treats was butter wrappers, especially on a warmish day when a rich layer of the good stuff stuck to the wax paper. But butter wrappers can be a real challenge, as Coosh discovered. With every lick, the wrapper slid along the tiled floor, making it hard for him to get a satisfying mouthful. His brother Tibby, however, quickly developed a strategy—place one paw on the wrapper to keep it from sliding. A couple of wrappers later, I noticed Coosh had adopted Tibby’s technique.

Cooshy didn’t defend his (unsatisfying) practice. He didn’t feel it made him “less of a cat” to copy his brother. He simply grasped that Tibby’s method resulted in MORE of the good stuff. You’d have to be stupid not to adopt it.

How sad it would be if we encountered every new experience, every new idea or piece of information with our mind already made up. If we never expanded our understanding or outlook. Never grew beyond the Tooth Fairy. Because growth is life.     

NOTES FROM THE ROAD: LONDON, PART 2

As you know if you read last month’s post, Ed and I spent all of May in the home of my heart, London—a city I have visited some twenty-odd times since doing a semester there in my student days. London always stirs my senses, my thoughts, my emotions. On this trip, I kept a loose collection of notes during our rambles about the city (you should have seen the mess that was my purse by the end of the trip—ticket stubs, programs, even Sainsbury’s receipts, all inked with impressions I wanted to share with you). More, I confess, than could comfortably fit into a single post, so once more and with feeling I give you “Notes From the Road: London, Part 2.”

Sunday on the Heath

Hampstead Heath on a sunny Sunday—it’s magical. We start by going down the High Street through Hampstead itself to where the heath really gets going [Note to any urbanites out there: a heath is open, uncultivated land, with lots of heather, gorse and coarse grasses], stopping along the way at The Hill Garden—a tumble of green lawn, dense gardens, and a lily pond. Rising above this idyll is my favorite spot in the universe, The Pergola. Built by Lord Leverhulme (of Lever Brothers, think soap), and later donated to the city, the Pergola is a long L-shaped elevated walkway with pillars that support a latticework “roof” covered in roses, wisteria, and a host of flowering vines. It’s a popular spot for wedding and fashion photographers. But most of the time, it’s a sanctuary of silence and beauty.         

From The Hill Garden, we wander over the heath—wooded and densely green in May—down to Golder’s Hill Park. It’s a great lifestyle, this wandering from park to park. If only I had the dosh to do it year-round! Anyway, Golder’s Hill Park is a huge family-friendly space with a croquet lawn, a café and ice cream stand, tennis courts, gardens and fountains. It also features a small zoo, home to a dozen deer, several rare donkeys, ring-tailed lemurs, coatis, and a variety of birds—Eurasian eagle owls, white-naped cranes, and kookaburras among them.

The birds are kept in the kind of large cages—about 25 feet in height and twice that in length—that allow them to fly, but not far. Or high. While watching the speckled pigeons, I noted this fact the park had posted:

A speckled pigeon’s lifespan is 3-5 years in the wild and 30 years in captivity.

That’s quite a striking difference and, on the surface, a real boon to the birds. They’re fed daily. They face no predators. And their lifespan is extended by a factor of 6 to 10. But… their flight is severely restricted. They never soar.

As I watched the birds—pecking at seeds, preening, shifting from one roost to another—it struck me this is the trade-off we’re always facing: freedom versus safety. Not just on a physical level, as these birds are, but emotionally, mentally, psychologically. Freedom versus safety. The one with its risks, but also its joys. The other with its certainty, but also its sameness, its predictability, its confinement. Of course, we’d all like to have both, but when push has come to shove in my life, I’ve always chosen freedom. And that, as the poet Robert Frost said, has made all the difference.

Off-the-Cuff #1

Anecdote from our guide during a fascinating tour of the old tunnels on London’s Underground (the Tube): Hundreds of thousands of Brits sheltered overnight in the Tube tunnels during the Blitz in World War II. So full were the platforms that some even slept on the escalators. These folks received quite the wake-up call when the stairs beneath them buzzed into life each day at the station’s opening. 

National Archives Catalog: WWII

On a more somber note, at various loos in pubs across London, I still encountered a few of the old pull-chain toilets. The ones where there’s a water tank overhead and you pull down on the chain to flush. It took me back to my student days in the late ‘70s when these were the rule rather than the exception. In the streets back then, one could still see evidence of WWII, especially along the Thames (a nightly target during The Blitz). The skeletons of bombed out buildings. Piles of rubble in vacant lots. It takes a long time to recover from a war, to restore a city, a country. To move beyond the death, the destruction, the dislocation. I think about this when I see the before-and-after film footage of cities in Ukraine. Such a sad, stupid waste. Of everything. Maybe the madmen who start these nightmares should be strapped into rockets and launched on a one-way trip to deep space. Bye-ee! 

Imagining a New World

The Tate Modern is housed in what used to be the Battersea Power Station on the south bank of the Thames. It is a ginormous building—over 85,000 square feet of display space with vast halls and lofty ceilings—the perfect showcase for the best of contemporary art. Happily, our visit coincided with the Tate’s “Surrealism Beyond Borders” exhibit. Big fans of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst, among others, we’d eagerly ordered tix in advance.

The show’s scope far exceeded the usual focus on Parisian and Spanish artists to highlight a half-century of surrealist works across the globe, from Buenos Aires to Cairo, Mexico City to Prague, Lisbon to Seoul. Works designed, their creators stressed, to “subvert reality. To find the uncanny in the everyday. To tap into our unconscious desires and bring dreams to life… a way to challenge authority and imagine a new world.” And so they did. In gut-punching color and vigorous lines, the paintings and sculpture made bold statements on the struggles of women and indigenous peoples, the inhuman pace of modern life, androgyny, war, and religion.  

Ed and I spent a lively three hours, crisscrossing the twelve rooms of the exhibit to share perceptions, reactions, “must-sees”. But it was a quote, displayed on the wall, by British-born, Mexican artist Leonora Carrington that blew me away: To possess a telescope without its other essential half—the microscope—seems to me a symbol of the darkest incomprehension. The task for the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope.

A timeless truth yet speaking so eloquently—and imperatively—to the hour we find ourselves in now.

Off-the-Cuff #2

From a display at the Imperial War Museum of casings made for the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, killing 70,000 people, this note by historian Ian Kikuchi: From the moment the first bomb was dropped, there was no going back. Even now,70 years on, who has the bomb and who does not continues to shape our world. 

Over the Millennia…   

About 5,000 years ago, people on the Salisbury Plain in the southeast of England started building this enormous thing we call Stonehenge, a circular enclosure more than 330 feet in diameter which is believed to have served as both a ceremonial site and a place of burial honoring the ancestors. It was also aligned on the Sun and possibly used for working out when to plant crops. We were lucky enough to be in London while the British Museum was running an in-depth special exhibit on this wonder of the ancient world which continues to fascinate anthropologists and archaeologists around the globe.  

Monuments of stone arranged in a circle or an ellipse were common enough. The British Isles and Brittany were dotted with them. Israel had one of the oldest, begun some 3,000 years before Stonehenge, but Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world. It took about 1,500 years and countless generations to construct. Your father built Stonehenge—dragging 25-ton slabs of sandstone overland, using sledges and ropes (the wheel had not yet made it to England)—as his father had done, and his father before him. As you would do, and your son. And his. It… was …s-l-o-w. It was also a communal undertaking—everyone pitched in.  

So, what happened? Why did structures like Stonehenge cease to be built over the centuries? To make a long story very short, people started clearing the land and farming. At first, it appears they did this communally, but hierarchies developed as the quest for metals—copper, bronze, gold—and the luxury items that could be made from them—items that conferred status to the owner—made their way into trade with the outside world. As humanity became more global, people became more territorial (sound familiar?). Working for the community became working for one’s family, accumulating both property and private wealth. 

On the day I came back to the flat after seeing the Stonehenge exhibit, I was greeted by this headline on the daily paper: Shell Oil reports over £7 billion (more than $9 billion) profit in first 3 months.

“Progress”—it’s a funny thing. A bloody thing. An inevitable thing. But I can’t help feeling that somewhere along the way we might have made better choices.

Off-the-Cuff #3

Unsplash: Marcel Heil

Soho sits in the heart of London. Just south of Oxford Street, north of Chinatown, and right off the Charing Cross Road. In the “Swinging ‘60s”, its Carnaby Street was the destination for the young and fashionably hip. Soho is also the lively hub of the city’s LGBTQ+ community and has been since the 1600s when sodomy was a hanging offense.   

[A bit of history here: Henry VIII, that notorious beheader of wives, created the first anti-gay laws in England (The Buggery Act of 1533), and like the fate of his women, the penalty was death. This was changed to imprisonment in the 1800s—with a side of hard labor as Oscar Wilde discovered—and finally de-criminalized in 1967. Five years later, the UK Gay Liberation Front organized its first Pride march—an annual event to this day—and same-sex marriage was legalized in 2014.)

Yes, Soho is alive with the pulse of the LGBTQ community, but everyone goes there. Gay, straight, trans, black, brown, white, the young, the not-so-young—all crowd the streets of this vibrant area lined with clubs, pubs, restaurants, and sex shops with names like Agent Provocateur and Harmony. Mary Poppins, the stage musical, is playing at the Prince Edward Theatre.

Unsplash: Kelsey Chance

Ed and I have rented Airbnb flats in Soho several times, and one of our favorite eateries in London, Balans, is here. Balans serves excellent food and is open until 5 a.m., a real plus to those of us who like to dine after the theatre. It is also one of the most welcoming places in the universe. We ate there several times on this trip, and during our second visit, Ed tapped my arm. “Look around.” I put my fabulous scallop dish on hold for a moment and did a visual 360 of the room. Every table was packed with people laughing, talking. “No one’s on their phone,” Ed said. It was like spotting a Golden Pheasant, so rare and wonderful was the sight. A sight that’s still possible when people stop putting each other into categories—inferior, superior—and just start hanging out together. As Sly and the Family Stone sang: “I am no better and neither are you. We’re all the same, whatever we do … Different strokes for different folks, and so on and so on and scooby-dooby-dooby. We got to live together.” That’s Soho.   

Bargaining with the Devil

Among the fourteen evenings we spent at the theatre, for me the most arresting was a drama titled “The End of the Night.” The play, based on a historical event, chronicles the wee hours of April 21, 1945, as three men meet at the home of Dr. Felix Kersten. Besides Kersten, there is Norbert Masur, the Swedish delegate for the World Jewish Congress… and Heinrich Himmler, commander of the S.S. and the chief architect of the Holocaust. In terms of power, he was second only to Hitler.

The times are fraught with danger for the German High Command. World War II is winding down. The Allies are advancing. Any day now, they will discover the concentration camps.    Hitler has made it clear he wants all surviving prisoners to be murdered before they can be freed. Himmler has no trouble with Hitler’s wishes, but he has begun to think about saving his own skin, about holding off a final annihilation in order to bargain with the Allies. This is why Kersten had invited Himmler to his home this night. To make a deal. A much bigger deal than any he has previously been able to wrangle from Himmler.

Felix Kersten is Himmler’s therapeutic masseur. He came to Germany in the days of the Weimer Republic. Fabled for his talented hands, he soon became the masseur to Berlin’s wealthy class. His success bought him a big house in the city’s wealthy quarter and a German Aryan wife. Then came Hitler and, with him, Himmler, who suffers from torturing stomach pains. He wanted Kersten to be his personal masseur and doctor. At first, this was a request, then a command: Serve me or be sent to the camps.

As Kersten listened to Himmler’s horrific details of Nazi atrocities, he began to see a way he might yet make some good come from his situation. Instead of taking money from Himmler for his services, he would trade each massage for a life, sometimes two. In this way, he was able to win freedom for some of those Hitler deemed unfit to live. The hope Kersten harbors in the early dark of April 21 is, with Masur’s presence, to save thousands of Jews before the final slaughter.

Both men have to endure several hours of Himmler’s anti-Semitic rants, lies, and pompous self-vindication, but at “the end of the night” Hitler’s right-hand man signs an agreement to release several thousand Jewish prisoners to Masur who will transfer them safely to Sweden.

The play lasts a mere 80 minutes, a full hour shy of the running time of most productions, but it posed a powerhouse of troubling, thought-provoking moral questions: Should Kersten have fled his cushy life in Berlin when Hitler rose to power? Should he have declined to be Himmler’s personal masseur even though this would have meant a one-way ticket to the death camps? Do the ends ever justify the means?

Norbert Masur’s host did not flinch before Hitler’s henchman, in fact was gracious—which was uncomfortable to watch—but his method got things done. It’s a historical fact that Kersten saved a number of Hitler’s victims—Jews, homosexuals, political opponents of the Nazis. As the play is constructed, Masur is our “in” to the human dynamics of this meeting. Clearly uneasy with the monster that is Himmler, he nevertheless must, and does, place his trust in Kersten.   

A Last Glimpse

Riding London’s Underground, one is confronted by a host of posters—what’s on in theatres and the cinemas, ads for products and shops, service notices about healthcare, safety. Travel come-ons. My favorite was a large bright notice pasted on the tunnel wall across from the platform at Tottenham Court Road (and likely in numerous other stations). A rainbow of hands is marked with the words: WE STAND TOGETHER AGAINST HATE. To the right of this, the copy runs:

London stands together against hate directed at someone on our transport network because of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity. If you experience or witness a hate crime, report it to a member of staff or by texting [number]. In case of an emergency call 999. 

#TogetherAgainstHate

London: I can’t wait to go back there.