Monday, March 27, 2017

We Didn’t Solve the Puzzle: Musings from the 40th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

We take a break from politics to report on the ACPT, one of the truly wonderful events of our time.  We wrestled with some tough puzzles, performed in the Talent Show as a band ("Clueless"), and soaked up the atmosphere with a special group of people.  And for those attendees who asked for the lyrics to our song parody "We Didn't Solve the Puzzle," you can find them at the bottom of this post.

We have just returned from the 40th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Ct., a weekend-long extravaganza hosted by Will Shortz, the esteemed “enigmatologist” who is, of course, the editor of The New York Times Crossword Puzzle.  Will is not just a legend in the field, but rather he is THE legend in the field.  Will founded the event in 1978 and has presided over each and every one since, and does so with a calm tone (amidst the swirling madness), a gentle voice, and an incredible repository of puzzle arcana – and he is the nicest person you would ever want to meet.

Will and his trusty crew of volunteers (dozens of them) put on quite a show.  The main event is a seven-puzzle competition, which attracted 619 entrants this year, up from 575 a year ago.  While it is open to all (for a modest fee), it attracts the best solvers on the planet (and the constructors who create the special puzzles used at the event are the best as well).  And surrounding the competition are an array of ancillary events including, this year, a Palindrome Championship, two nights of additional contests just for fun, a rather fulsome awards ceremony and a talent show to boot (“Crossworders Got Talent”).

For eleven years, from 2005 to 2015, the contest has been dominated by two men, Tyler Hinman, who won the tournament the first five of those years, and Dan Feyer, who unseated Hinman and whipped off six straight championships of his own.  Feyer and Hinman are prototypes of classic sports match-ups, with Hinman playing the role of the colorful and emotive crowd favorite, while Feyer is the cool machine, methodical and menacing.  Substitute the names Palmer versus Nicklaus, Ali versus Frazier, Mickelson versus Woods or Namath versus Unitas and you get the idea rather neatly.

But last year, Howard Barkin, a top ten finisher for years, broke through and defeated Feyer in the finals, for which Hinman failed to qualify.  It should be noted that after the seven contests, the three highest scorers, those who complete the puzzles most accurately and in the fastest times, ascend to a stage and go head-to-head in the finals under the bright lights, filling in the answers on giant white boards, all the while sealed off from the screaming audience (complete with exceptional play-by-play and color announcers) by their bodies (backs to the crowd) and headphones of the kind that airport personnel use to block out the noise of giant roaring airplanes. 

The finals this year were no less exceptional than those of the last two years, which were both certifiably epic.  Two years ago, the last year Feyer won, he defeated Hinman by literally half-a-second, using every last one of the five second advantage he had earned over Hinman in the seven contest run-up (they both got every puzzle absolutely right, but Feyer completed them a tad faster and was duly rewarded with the advantage) to hold onto his title.  Last year, Feyer seemed to be methodically rolling to a seventh consecutive title when he lost his momentum and Barkin made his move.

This year, Hinman was back in the finals, and itching for a title after a seven-year gap in hoisting the cup.  And he was on his game, easily outpacing Feyer and Joon Pahk in the match (Pahk made the finals as Barkin was wiped out by trouble in the notoriously difficult Puzzle Five).  But alas, Hinman had uncharacteristically made an error, coming up with TEATAX (as in “tea tax”) for 48 Down, clued as “drastic, as cuts“ when the correct answer was MEATAX (as in “meat ax’).  Hinman had no way of knowing that he had a huge time advantage over Feyer and thus could have taken a bit of time to check his work.  Instead, he thrust his arm in the air, yelled “DONE!” triumphantly (he could tell that Feyer and Pahk were still at it), only to confront a sea of agonized faces when he turned around in joy to face the crowd.  He quickly looked  back at this puzzle, realized his error, and became the very picture of despair, shoulders slouched, helplessly watching as Feyer tidied up, corrected his own miscue, and claimed victory.

Theirs was not the only championship playoff.  Contestants are divided into various skill levels, A through E, and the top three categories have their own finals.  Each levels’ finalists solve the same puzzle, but the clues are progressively harder, with, in Will’s words, Level C’s being “pretty hard,” Level B’s “difficult” and Level A’s “excruciating.”  The drama this year was that, inadvertently (and echoing the Oscars), a mistake was made and the “B” folks were given the “A” clues.  But they soldiered on and each completed the puzzle anyway, within the time limit.  (And form held, as “A” champ Dan Feyer completed his puzzle three minutes faster than his B champion counterpart, Brian McCarthy, using identical clues.)

My wife, daughter and I are tangential players in this crossword drama.  Out of the 619 players, I finished in 542nd, just one place behind my wife, Wendy.  We may be among the best in our hometown, but we meet our betters in Stamford.  Kristy, however, is rising swiftly.  In her first tournament, back in 2012, as a 21-year old (and thus one of the youngest competitors), she was back with us in 476th.  But by leaps and bounds she has progressed, and did so again this year, rising from 181st to 129th place, moving from Division E to D to C and now knocking on the door of B.  She was one of only 65 contestants to complete every puzzle without an error.

But while we are not in the elite, we do get to play on the big stage, not by performing crossword magic as a champion, but rather in the Talent Show.  The Talent Show serves the functional role of killing time on Sunday morning after Puzzle Seven, so that scores can be finalized and thus finalists and other award winners determined.  This was our fourth year of performing, in a band we call “Clueless,” that purports to represent the “plight of the crossword challenged,” those who, like Wendy and me, plod along in the competition as members of Division E.  Each year we perform a crossword-themed song parody, with Kristy as lead singer, me on the guitar, and Wendy serving as back-up singer and, this year, on the kazoo.  We were the sixth of ten acts, which included six other musical acts (performed by a variety of mostly professional musicians, which we are not), two comedians of various stripes, and a juggler who preceded us and exacted a huge roar from the crowd.

Our song, plaintively titled, “We Didn’t Solve the Puzzle,” was set to the tune of the Billy Joel classic, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which, as you recall, was a rapidfire review of world history from roughly the early 1950’s to the late 1980’s.  Ours was devoted instead to all the funny words and celebrities one learns about through the puzzle solving experience, the ones that are often repeated because of their wonderful “filler” abilities – essentially short words with a happy mix of vowels and consonants.  There are also a few stanzas recognizing the constructors who torment us; each of the constructors who contributed the eight puzzles featured in the tournament are mentioned, as well as a few others.

The Talent Show may be a filler event but it is captures perfectly the light-hearted spirit of the entire weekend.  The audience, fellow solvers who, like us, have just completed Puzzle Seven, are ready to relax.  They are wondrously supportive of our follies; all they want to do is laugh and help us along.  It is a terrific group, incredibly talented, kind and generous of spirit. 

After our performance they shared their good wishes with us, and a few of them asked us for the lyrics, which we reprint below.

We’ll be back in 2018, of course, in our roles as solvers, Talent Show performers and, ultimately, spectators of what will surely be another riveting set of finals.

We Didn’t Solve the Puzzle (to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” with apologies to Billy Joel)

Oreo or olio? Or the soldiers at St. Lo?
Epee, Esme-- don’t know which to do
Is it Asta -- yeah the dog, or Asti -- the bubbly grog?
Yoko Ono, the brothers Alou

Was it Tosca or Aida, or the sands of Iwo Jima?
Uzi, ouzo, Apolo Ohno
It could be the UAR – wait I think the UAE
REO, GTO -- I don’t drive -- how would I know!!!

We didn’t solve the puzzle
Though our minds were churning while the clock was turning
We didn’t solve the puzzle
Couldn’t get the theme and now we want to scream!

Entertainment’s not for me – Captain Hook and faithful Smee
Oona, Uma, actresses I think
Barbara Bel Geddes of Dallas, and of course Esai Morales
Opie, Odie – puts me on the brink

Sports – well there I’m not so hot, just know Giant slugger Ott
Ogee, Agee – wasn’t he a Met?
I don’t get what hockey’s for – well there’s Boston legend Orr
Jai alai, worth a try – gotta ante up a bet!!!!

We didn’t solve the puzzle
Though our minds were churning while the clock was turning
We didn’t solve the puzzle
Couldn’t get the theme and now we want to scream!

There was Mork who was from Ork, and there is that other orc
Ewok, Eloy, how is one to know?
Maybe it is AOK, or Isao Aoki
Eli, Ali, with a TKO

Is it oro -- or oso?  Just more Spanish I don’t know
Ural, Aral -- all the same to me
Is a caribou an elk?  Or something of a different ilk?
Emu, or a gnu – just more beasts I’ll never see!!!

We didn’t solve the puzzle
Though our minds were churning while the clock was turning
We didn’t solve the puzzle
Couldn’t get the theme and now we want to scream!

Patricks Berry and Blindauer, I can’t finish in an hour
Mike Shenk, Bruce Haight, I can’t get the theme
David Steinberg, Trip Payne, both are driving me insane
Brandon Emmett Quigley, a bad dream

Paula Gamache, David Poole, they make me look like a fool
Julie Bérubé, I can’t get the flow
Michael Shteyman, David Kahn, what exactly are they on?
Lempel, Merrell, Joel Fagliano

Now it’s time for us to go
Division E -- that’s what we know
Not Greek, not sports
Blame it all on Will Shortz!!!!

We didn’t solve the puzzle
Though our minds were churning while the clock was turning
We didn’t solve the puzzle
Couldn’t get the theme and now we want to scream!

We didn’t solve the puzzle
Though our minds were churning while the clock was turning
We didn’t solve the puzzle
Couldn’t get the theme and now we want to scream!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Play's the Thing

Steve turns to Shakespeare for clues as to “what the President knew, and when he knew it.”

Perhaps now we can focus on how to “repeal and replace” the real problem.

The epic crash you heard on Friday afternoon was the sound of Donald Trump’s two year binge of lying and ignorance about Obamacare suddenly colliding with truth about 21 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. When all was said and done, the only two things that Donald Trump has ever known about the complex world of healthcare was his infantile mantra that “Obamacare is a disaster,” and now, that this assessment was wrong.

But as humiliating as this Republican internecine head-on collision proved to be, it was actually not the worst thing that happened to Donald Trump this week.  Last time I looked, woeful ignorance, boundless arrogance, and colossal mismanagement are not among the items listed in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution as legitimate grounds for impeachment of the President.

And perhaps the silver lining for Donald Trump in bungling one of his most central campaign promises is that it certainly diverted attention from the arguably more devastating news that was delivered earlier in the week. In fact, by Tuesday, a number of pundits had already concluded that this was the worst week of his Presidency, and the healthcare debacle hadn’t really begun yet.

No, what happened on Monday afternoon in the House Intelligence committee may prove to have far more grave implications for Donald Trump than punting on healthcare.

Long ago and in a galaxy far, far away, a Senator from Tennessee name Howard Baker  earned immortality in the “quotable quotes” hall of fame by framing a two-part question: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Watergate geeks have always understood that the latter question was the more profound. It was chronology that cemented the existence of a cover-up, and it was the cover-up – not the crime – that brought Richard Nixon down.

Monday’s testimony by FBI Director Comey was eye-opening for many reasons, but the most basic shocker was his simple acknowledgement that the FBI was conducting an ongoing investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election.

The implications of this investigation are nothing short of existential for the Trump White House. Many people believe that the only constitutional definition of grounds for impeachment is the vague language about “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but the actual language in the United States Constitution also includes the words “treason” and “bribery.” Collusion with a foreign government to undermine the free and fair election process is not some hard-to-define “high crime or misdemeanor.” It is treason.

And if the President is aware that any such collusion took place, then he is currently actively engaged in a cover-up. What did the President know, and when did he know it? If the answer is that it already happened and he knew about it, Donald Trump’s presidency may have already hit the iceberg.

As we unpack what unfolded in the hearing and in the days that followed, there were any number of tantalizing components that suggest the possibility of a gash below the waterline.

But of all the unanswered questions posed, the one that is most intriguing is this: Why did Comey decide to announce the existence of an investigation, and why now?

Let’s begin with reading of the hypothetical charges. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, used a portion of his time to proffer a specific hypothesis into the public record that would constitute collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. It was a simple quid pro quo: the Russians would disclose damaging information they had collected about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and, in return, the Trump campaign would soften Republican positions to be more beneficial to Russia.

Independently, all three of the facts upon which Schiff’s hypothesis rests are now broadly held to be factual: (1) while the Russians hacked both campaigns, they only released damaging information about Hillary Clinton’s, (2) it has been widely established that Trump campaign officials met with representatives of the Russian government in and around the timeframe of the Republican Convention, and (3), a crucial change was made to the Republican platform regarding policy toward Ukraine, in which language advocating that the United States would provide the Ukraine with "lethal defensive weapons" was changed to the far softer stance of offering "appropriate assistance."

All the dots exist; the issue now is for the FBI to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that a deal was struck; that the action taken by the Russians was the quid pro quo for the change in the platform language.

Later in the week, Schiff would make a far more remarkable (yet oddly less publicized) assertion about the committee’s investigation. He stated that the committee is already in possession of evidence that is “more than circumstantial,” which is hard to interpret as anything other than hard, direct evidence. Is it an exchange of email? An audio tape of a conversation? A trail of money? Testimony from a known Russian agent?

It is difficult to read what Representative Schiff is saying without concluding that the investigating agencies already have a workable case against some officials in the Trump campaign. And that is what makes a second issue so interesting…

The second reason to believe that the Trump presidency has a huge gash below the waterline is the simple duration of this investigation.  The existence of an FBI investigation surprised no one. The fact that Comey acknowledged it publicly was startling, but the fact that it has been going on since July, 2016 blew minds all over Washington. This meant that there was already enough troubling information as of last July to warrant an investigation, and it has been an ongoing investigation for nine months.

In short, if the Trump campaign hit Schiff’s iceberg, it happened in July. That's when the Republican convention was held in Cleveland. It is when the language changed in the platform, and it is when a variety of Trump campaign officials met with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador. If there was a deal, it was struck in Cleveland.

We also know that the FBI has been diligently checking out the reliability of the information collected by British Agent Christopher Steele, the author of the famous “dossier” that was commissioned for political purpose by Trump’s campaign rivals to investigate Trump’s business dealings with Russia. That famous dossier included allegations that the candidate himself was aware of the contacts and the nature of the discussions between his campaign staff and the Russians. And reports are that so far, Steele’s info has been checking out as reliable.

What really happened? What did Trump know? And when did he know it? It’s easy to speculate that Comey has been spending the last nine months trying to definitively establish – without a shadow of doubt – whether Trump was aware or not aware. Comey could not care less whether some low level functionary on Trump’s campaign staff chatted it up with the Russian ambassador in Cleveland last July. All he cares about is whether Trump knew, when he knew, and that his information is 100% accurate.  James Comey has had an uneven run as head of the FBI, and he has already been irretrievable scorched by speaking without full benefit of fact once before. This time, with these stakes, he is not going to say a thing until he is certain. And that will take time.

But the most blatant clue about the nature, actors, and structure of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is being played out in plain sight, never more obviously than in Monday’s press briefing by the long suffering White House spokesperson Sean Spicer.

Sean Spicer is increasingly resembling a dummy under the uneven command of an amateur ventriloquist, and his comportment before the White House press corps is, in a very real sense, theatre. Spicer is marched out by the Trump administration to perform a mixture of badly written fiction and poorly executed improv. He is the thespian tasked with acting out the fantasies and untruths of the Trump administration before a live theatre audience.  

Sean Spicer is a one-act play, and the play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king.

It is plain as day from what Sean Spicer parrots from Donald Trump that Donald Trump has an exceedingly guilty conscience.

If Donald Trump believed in his heart and soul that Paul Manafort had never made any deals with the Russians, he would have send Sean Spicer to the podium with this line: “Paul Manafort is a gentleman of the highest integrity and patriotism, a man who would rather die than commit any act that might bring dishonor to his country, and President Trump challenges Director Comey to find the tiniest sliver of impropriety on the part of this great American.” That’s what you say when you deeply believe that your guy is not guilty.

But instead, Trump sent his thespian on stage to read a very different script, one that clearly attempted to distance Trump from Manafort, who was Trump Campaign Chairman from March to July, including the timeframe of the Republican convention under question.  Implausibly, Spicer attempted to create a smoke screen to conceal the very direct and daily connections between Manafort and Trump, by characterizing Manafort as having a small role of short duration.

Saying Paul Manafort had a “small role in the campaign” is like saying that the white whale had a “small role” in Moby Dick.

Or consider Spicer’s take on dismissed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who served as the campaign’s key advisor on national defense. The Oscar for Best Supporting Actor definitely does not go to Sean Spicer, who attempted to minimize Flynn’s role by characterizing him as a “volunteer,” somehow hoping that we would infer that his campaign role was as marginal as an earnest sophomore from Iowa State who was stuffing envelopes for the primary.

Ah, the play. The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king. But it could be that Spicer’s one act play is actually just the first act in a bigger piece of theatre.

Consider for a moment that if Donald Trump were really all that smart, he’d know just how exceedingly dangerous Spicer’s treatment of Manafort and Flynn really is. Both men can reasonably conclude that they are being hurled under the bus.  Both also know that Trump is aware that they communicated with the Russians, and both suspect that Comey can prove it. But they also know that the only thing that Comey cannot prove at this point (or he already would have!) is that Manafort and/or Flynn were acting under Trump’s direct knowledge and authority.

It’s a funny thing about throwing people under the bus. People with huge tire tread marks over their torso tend to feel abandoned, wronged, and mighty pissed off. So when Comey comes knocking on Manafort’s door with a series of lesser charges, Manafort’s destiny may well be to cop a plea in exchange for fingering the boss.

Which leads to an intriguing theory about why Comey went public with the investigation. He wanted Trump to publicly react to the news that Manafort and Flynn were under the microscope. He wanted to find out whether Trump would defend them, dump them, or just hide. He got his answer in less than an hour.

In other words, Comey was theatre, too. Comey is Act Two.

Comey’s entire performance was orchestrated so that Manafort would come to understand whether the White House would protect him or dump him. Now Comey can go to Manafort and turn over all of his aces. He can suggest that Manafort take a risk on a charge of treason, or he can propose that Manafort tell the FBI what he knows about Trump.

Is there an Act Three?

It just happens that there is a new play on Broadway called “The Present.” It is based on an unpublished script by Russian (of course!) playwright Anton Chekhov. Chekhov, of course, is famous for his theory of the need for concision in writing, summed up succinctly in the phrase, “If there is a gun on the wall in the first act, it better go off in the third act.”

What gun will go off in this Act Three?

The gun on the wall in Act One is a smoking gun. Somewhere in Cleveland, somebody got taped talking to somebody.

The problem is that those tapes are held by Vladimir Putin. Perhaps the most fascinating dimension of this story is the extreme likelihood that every question that the FBI wants answered is already neatly filed and cross-tabbed somewhere in the bowels of the Kremlin. The Russians may have been vaguely interested in changing the language in the platform document of a party that was then on a fast track to an epic electoral defeat, but I doubt it. The suspicion has to be that the deal struck in Cleveland was simply finding out just how willing Trump’s team was to cooperate on rigging schemes. Because the Russians knew that if they had proof of such activity, then they would hold the Republicans where it hurts. Proof in the form of audio and videotape of the quid pro quo in progress. So Comey is working around the clock to understand the scope and content of conversations that exist in full in Russian vaults.

The smoking gun in Act One going to go off in Act Three is when Vladimir Putin decides that having Donald Trump as President as the United States is not as much fun as he thought it would be.

Vladimir giveth, and Vladimir can taketh away.

All in all, a bad week for Donald Trump.

Funny how that seems to equate to a good week for America.

Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this. The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

William Shakespeare
Act 2, Scene 2

Friday, March 24, 2017

A Call To Action: Fighting the AHCA Real-Time

Tom reports on the health care battle from a local perspective in another edition of Wendy's "A Call to Action" series...

Against the backdrop of the House vote on the American Health Care Act (AHCA), Wendy and I attended an event at our local Planned Parenthood affiliate, headlined by our local elected officials:  state representatives, mayors, county legislatures.  It was originally supposed to feature our area’s three U.S. Representatives, Nita Lowey (D – NY 17), Sean Patrick Maloney (D- NY 18) and Eliot Engel (D- NY 16), but the postponement of the AHCA vote from Thursday night to Friday afternoon meant that they had to stay in Washington instead of joining us in its aftermath.

When the rally initially scheduled, I believe that Planned Parenthood likely thought it was going to be a “buck up the troops” session after the AHCA passed the House.  After all, why would Speaker Paul Ryan schedule a vote if he did not have the votes?  (“Rookie mistake,” opined Nancy Pelosi.)  But the bill -- to no one’s surprise except Donald Trump – has proved to be “complicated” indeed, and the GOP, in its first real effort to define health care coverage, and thus health care itself, has failed to agree on a bill.  Three – count ‘em – three warring factions, the so-called Freedom Caucus on the far right, the “moderates” (yes, there are some) and the poor schnooks in the middle who favor the bill as is, cannot all be satisfied, as any move to mollify the far right has a see-saw effect on losing more moderates, and vice-versa.  The vote will occur at 3:30 PM.

And so the rally was held in a suspended state, knowing the bill was in trouble, but before the vote.

And our elected officials used the time wisely, not to focus on the bill itself, but rather on the long-term fight.  Because while the AHCA is a particularly important chapter in the battle for health insurance for all, and in protecting women’s rights, it is a very long book, with many prior chapters and more to come.

Amy Paulin (D – NY State Assembly, District 88) started off plaintively:  “I am sick and tired of coming here!” – meaning that the need for basic women’s health rights should have long ago been settled.  Others, including Nita Lowey and Sean Patrick Maloney (both by phone) and Sandy Galef (D – NY State Assembly, District 88), also touched on the theme of how this battle for the most basic of rights is far from over, and in the area of reproductive rights, ground has been lost.  And thus, while Washington plays out this drama, in all likelihood a huge loss for Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and the GOP, there is more to come.

Vince Russell, the Interim CEO of our local Planned Parenthood affiliate, then spoke.  In a straightforward manner, Vince took the emotion out of the argument and simply defined who Planned Parenthood is, and what exactly it is they do.  Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic, which serves parts of the Hudson Valley and Long Island here in New York, provided care to more than 34,000 patients in 2015, who made 59,000 visits to one of their 10 health centers and two smartvans.  An extremely tiny percentage of these visits involved an abortion.  Most were family planning sessions, many involved STD testing, other patients received pre-natal care, some received pregnancy detection exams and others cervical cancer procedures.  This is a large organization that has become heavily politicized, and it is easy to forget what exactly it is they do.  It is a health care provider, plain and simple, usually of underserved patients.

The mayors of White Plains, Irvington and New Rochelle were at the event, and not because they had a roomful of voters.  They were there to thank Planned Parenthood, because they know that Planned Parenthood serves their constituents, many of whom have nowhere else to turn for their basic health care needs.  And they were there to advocate, to our elected officials in Washington, DC, on its behalf.  They were there not because in the culture wars that have dominated our political scene, they want to be seen on the “pro-choice” side, but rather to advocate for something that many of us take for granted – the right to basic health care.   As Town Supervisor Paul Feiner of Greenburgh (the event was held at a health center in his town) said, “I hope you {PPHP} are here for decades to come.”

The AHCA defunds Planned Parenthood.  It has not been as well-publicized, because the ACHA has so many things wrong with it – truly the bill that everybody hates – but it is in there just the same.  And keep in mind, no federal dollars, by law (the infamous “Hyde Amendment”) can go to fund abortions.  So all defunding Planned Parenthood would do would be to dramatically undercut Planned Parenthood’s ability to provide all of its other health care services.

Sometimes we ask ourselves, do these events really matter in the grand scheme?  Does getting together with a hundred like-minded souls really make a difference?  And we come away with our answer -- a resounding "yes."  We need to show our passion to our elected officials, because they are watching, and if we stop caring, they will be far less likely to advocate on our behalf.  Perhaps, as Woody Allen once said, 80% of life really is "just showing up."

This call to action is to alert you to the ongoing struggle, the battle to roll back advances in health care, whether caused by attempts to repeal Obamacare or attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, or, in the case of the AHCA, both.  We may well have won this particular battle, but the war goes on.  We need to keep up the fight.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Call To Action: Sobering Report on Women

The latest in Wendy's "A Call To Action" series...

Earlier this week my daughter and I attended a breakfast hosted by the Westchester Women's Agenda (WWA) in Westchester County, New York.  The WWA describes itself as "a feminist organization that serves as a strong voice for women in Westchester on legislative policy and program issues."  It's a coalition of nonprofits, volunteers and corporations which work together to advocate for common objectives.   

This week's agenda was the presentation of the "2016 Report on the Status of Women in Westchester."  Short summary, the status of women in Westchester isn't at all promising.  And we're talking about one of the wealthiest counties in the country.  This should concern you.

The meeting was kicked off with a gut-wrenching personal story from a woman who'd navigated Section 8 housing in our county.  She'd earned her living as a waitress (by the way, tipped workers in NYS can be paid as little as $7.50 per hour vs the state minimum wage of $15/hour) until she suffered a stroke.  After a long period of rehab, she landed a job as a caretaker, where she was abused.  She then moved to a women's shelter.  Month after month after month, her search for Section 8 housing was met with slammed doors, until finally someone gave her a chance and agreed to rent to her.  She told her story, not with anger or bitterness, but with gratitude.  Gratitude to the people who cared for her in rehab, at the shelter and finally as a landlord.  And she asked us to remember that we all need help in our lives at one time or another, that we don't know when that need will present itself, that what's desperately needed is something we all can give: kindness.

That's one person's story. Here are some of the eyebrow-raising statistics that serve as the backdrop for thousands of stories. 
  • Twelve percent of Westchester's children live in poverty.  Twelve percent.
  • The number of new cases of chlamydia in the county continues to rise dramatically each year.   In 2005, the chlamydia rate among Westchester women was 266 per 100000 people; by 2014, it has risen to 464 cases per 100000 people.  The trend for men is similar.
  • Depression is the most common clinical mental health diagnosis among women.
  • Men outnumber women in elected office within the county by 2 to 1.
  • Women fill only one-third of executive leadership positions in the largest seven corporations headquartered in Westchester.
  • Women continue to earn less than men for equal work. 

This is just a random sample of the data collected in the report.  What do these facts tell me?  First, the threat to funding for Planned Parenthood should have us all feeling very, very edgy.  Contrary to popular belief, Planned Parenthood’s primary role is as a health care provider, especially to the disadvantaged, and it is often their only option.  Chlamydia can affect a woman's ability to conceive; in 2014 Planned Parenthood affiliates in New York State tested more than 385,000 patients for sexually transmitted disease.  Despite this, chlamydia rates continue to rise.  Clearly, we need more of the services provided by Planned Parenthood, not less.  And very significantly, teen pregnancies have been declining in Westchester, a trend we're all happy to see. What do you think would happen without the sex education and contraceptive care provided by Planned Parenthood?

What else do these facts tell me?  Women need to run for elected office.  At every level.  Now.

What else?  Well, my daughter has just accepted a new job, to begin this summer.  When we left the WWA meeting, she immediately wondered out loud about how her salary compares to that of her male peers.  I wonder too. 

You can read the full status report here: 

So once again, I urge you to both analyze the stats and listen to the stories.  I urge you to both lobby your legislators at the local, state and national level and to get involved with a nonprofit where you live.  The need has always been deep, and the handwriting on the White House walls tells us that it's going to grow deeper.  The possibilities are endless.  Choose an issue that matters to you, get your dialing finger moving, and contribute your time and talent.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Call To Action: It's Up2Us

Wendy's latest in her "A Call to Action" series...

Yesterday I attended a meeting of Up2Us, a grassroots advocacy and activist group in Westchester County.  For those who don't necessarily read to the end of every piece (maybe even any piece), I'm going to begin with an important Call to Action take away from the meeting.  At least an important political action.  I do encourage you to read on though because my suggestions begin with strategy but end with heart.

This April 18 there will be a Special Election in Georgia’s 6th District to fill Tom Price's vacated Congressional seat.  (Price was appointed to Trump’s cabinet as Secretary of Health and Human Services.)  While this district is solidly Republican, Hillary Clinton lost there by only a hair, and many see the outcome of this election as a referendum on the Trump administration, an early indicator for the 2018 midterms.   So our marching orders, which I pass to you, are to use the coming month to get out the vote. 

It's going to be messy.  There are eleven Republican candidates and at least five Democrats taking us into runoff land.  We were encouraged to support Jon Ossoff, seen as the Democrat with the greatest potential for a win.  Nita Lowey, Congresswoman (D) from New York's 17th district, will be hosting phone banks to get out the vote and I volunteered to make calls.  Perhaps your own Representative is doing the same. 

So back to the Up2Us meeting. Up2Us was originally formed to support Hillary Clinton's candidacy and after Election Day, regrouped, renamed and moved on to its current mission of advocating for a liberal agenda.  Their huddle meeting was well attended by roughly 150 people in a little church in Chappaqua on a cold Saturday afternoon.  As the leader of Up2Us said, Chappaqua is, of course, "the home of a former president and a should-have-been president!"  I was so pleased to see among the attendees several friends from my own town as well as representatives of both Hope's Door, a domestic violence agency, and our Planned Parenthood affiliate. I volunteer at both.

Wherever you live, I encourage you to put your name on the Up2Us email list or to follow them on Facebook (  They're extremely well organized -- and I mean that both as resisters and as communicators.

The meeting opened with the organization's ED reading a letter from Hillary which got the crowd jazzed; that was followed by conversations with three elected officials -- Nita Lowey, US House of Representatives, David Buchwald, NYS Assembly, and Mike Kaplowitz, Westchester County Legislature.  The group was also joined by George Latimer, currently a NY State Senator and potential candidate for Westchester County Executive (challenging incumbent Rob Astorino (R) who lost the governor's race to Andrew Cuomo in 2014) .  And then we formed break out groups to talk about specific issues: education, the environment, women's issues, immigration, community support.

One of the themes of the discussions was to flip from the “bottom up.”  That is, many of us haven't heretofore paid a ton of attention to local politics, but it all matters.  (As Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local.")  Here in NY, we have a Democratic governor and State Assembly but a Republican Senate.  And until that changes, we're stymied.  The crowd applauded as David Buchwald talked about the Assembly passing a version of the Dream Act, an Immigration Protection Act, a NY Health Act, and bills supporting a woman's right to choose, but was quickly deflated when he explained that none of these got past our Republican controlled Senate.  Gotta change that. 

Congresswoman Lowey believes that the volume of calls and letters, the attendance at Town Hall meetings, the heat we're applying, is making her Republican colleagues edgy.  She encouraged us to keep it up.  At the same time, when talking about the ACA, she acknowledged that we can't depend on the US House of Representatives; it's the US Senate that stands between the bill and disaster.  We need to flip those seats.  She encouraged us to register voters, to support Jon Ossoff in Georgia, and in a lighter moment, to send pink slip postcards to the White House.

And then Congresswoman Lowey humanized what we're seeing in Washington. She talked about budget cuts to Pell grants and Headstart.  Of course, we've all heard about cuts to Meals on Wheels, which to me, is symbolic of cold-heartedness. We heard heartbreaking stories of Hispanic parents, our neighbors, going to their children's schools with the names of guardians in case the parents facing threats of deportation are no longer there at the end of the school day, of children being told where to turn if they don't find their parents at home.  This is not a worry that any child, anywhere, should ever, ever experience.

My breakout group was focused on how we can help local nonprofits.  I believe this is critical.  Changing our government will take time, and while that time is passing, families will go hungry, men and women will be victims of domestic violence, women will go without reproductive health care, immigrants will live in fear.  So as we all make our phone calls, write our letters, march in our marches, and contribute our dollars, we also need to work at the micro level to help those in need, those who will be stripped of their safety net by a Draconian budget, those who will be stripped of their health care by the dismembering of the ACA.  And we help them by volunteering at local agencies.  I can't think of a better way to spend a little time each week than by touching another human life in a meaningful way.

So please keep it up, with your efforts in Washington and your efforts nearer to home.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Call to Action: Let's Keep It Going

The latest in Wendy's "A Call to Action" series...

Two months out from Trump's inauguration, one of my worries is that the outrage is outlasting the action.  I see post after angry post on Indivisible Westchester and Up2Us, two local groups I follow (check out to join in your own area). There are a lot of angry and sad face emoticons, but my sense -- which I hope is wrong -- is that the early momentum is fading a bit.  Perhaps that's part of the natural progression, and the next big push will be the 2018 elections.  But I believe that hearing the steady drumbeat of discontent will be a powerful motivator for those in Washington. 

Postcards, emails, phone calls and letters may feel like a drop in the bucket.  And in isolation, they are.  But collectively, they send a message from the electorate to the elected.  So I encourage you to channel the anger, not just into Facebook posts and cocktail party rage (though both have a place in keeping us informed and involved), but also into activism.

One small example is Tom's letter to The New York Times (which was published online) in response to John Kasich's March 10 op-ed piece.  Here's the letter.  If you read something that drives you wild (and I know you do, multiple times a day), why not write your own.  Let's keep it going.

To the Editor:
Gov. John Kasich’s calm call for a bipartisan reworking of the health care law seems at first blush to be the “adult in the room” wisdom we desperately need. But it is in reality only marginally better than the partisan screeching he is trying to reason past.
While Obamacare could certainly stand some strengthening, the rational way to proceed is to improve it, not “repeal and replace” it, as Mr. Kasich advocates. Ted Kennedy used to preach the virtues of passing even an imperfect bill on important issues and then fixing any flaws. That is the true “adult” wisdom we need today.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Narcissist's Labyrinth: A Manipulable President

The big reveal of TrumpCare was undermined by Trump himself with yet another angry and wholly unsubstantiated pre-dawn outburst on Twitter. Steve on the serious reasons why this particular madness simply has to stop.

It is an unsettling image: a lonely Donald Trump, awake before dawn, pacing the White House in a bathrobe, perhaps a half-eaten bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken resting precariously on the edge of the Martha Washington High Boy. 

The President is fixed on the flat screen as he puts the remote through its paces: Fox, MSNBC, CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC. Then the President of the United States pauses to glance hurriedly at his Samsung Galaxy to check The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Breitbart. Suddenly a news story flashes on his phone that causes him to seethe with anger and outrage. With ever-growing fury, he compulsively grabs his device and begins feverishly racing with his thumbs. Minutes later, he feels a need to justify the venom in his initial tweet so he doubles-down with a second that ups the ante. After a brief reflectory period, he tweets one last time before falling back, satisfied and spent, on the couch.

This should have been the week that the President was aggressively out on the bully pulpit championing the long-awaited unveiling of signature legislative proposal, Anything-But-ObamaCare. Instead, that ship drifted aimlessly at sea for days – under attack from right, left, and center -- as the President’s spokespersons spent their time on damage control about what was arguably Trump’s most incendiary pre-dawn Tweet Offensive yet: his unsubstantiated smear that President Obama had wiretapped the phones in Trump Tower. Jaws hit desks all over Washington when this most outrageous allegation hit Trump’s Twitter feed on Saturday morning. Trump had accused his predecessor of a criminal if not impeachable offense while apparently clutching only a roll of Charmin for support. 

Indeed, where this President once lionized his unpredictability as a negotiating advantage, we now begin to see unhinged behavior on a predictable basis.  The 5:00 a.m. Twitter vendettas seem to occur more regularly than televised White House press conferences. Even the content of Trump’s angry outburst are predictable. When under attack, Trump has a tendency to invent an essentially identical but inverted narrative about his opponent of the moment. 

When Trump’s lying first became an issue early in the Republican primary season, Trump inverted that idea by simply turning around and pasting that exact charge onto his opponent: “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz. When Trump took heat for refusing to release his taxes, he turned the tables by attacking Hillary Clinton’s financial dealings, branding her as the most corrupt politician in history. In Trump’s first week in the White House, he was pilloried for fabricating “fake news” stories about the size of crowd at his inauguration and for claiming that millions of illegal voters robbed him of a victory in the popular vote. What did he do? He inverted the charge.  He seized upon the phrase fake news to castigate the reporting of any and every news service that portrayed him in a negative light.

Now, as investigators search for evidence as to whether Trump’s staff – and Trump himself – committed a possibly impeachable offense by colluding with the Russian government to influence the U.S. Presidential election, Trump lashed out and accused his predecessor of the exact same thing: an impeachable offense.

The concern now has to be that Vladimir Putin is figuring out how to manipulate these predictable behaviors. It is not hard to imagine how.

First, some observations and inferences about two aspects of Trump's overall behavior: his unwillingness to grapple with complex issues,  and perpetual denial of what is fact and what is fiction.

He appears easily influenced by the last person he has spoken with. He can embrace contrarian positions within minutes. He portrayed Barack Obama as the devil until he actually met him, when he concluded he was “a great guy.” That is, until last Sunday.

Trump’s inability to sustain focus appears similar to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is often viewed as a constant state of unfocused disengagement exacerbated by frequent distraction. But that is not always the case. Many people with ADHD oscillate back and forth between periods of inattention and mental meandering when presented with information of little interest, which are then followed by intense bursts of sustained hyper-focus on topics that the individual finds to be of passionate interest. Trump hyper-focuses on any and all information about his personal brand, but bores easily when confronted with the gritty details of policy.

If there is a defining character to Trump’s persona, it is his selective embrace of information. Any news report that reinforces his sense of personal grandeur or validates his sense of victimhood is greeted, repeated, and retweeted without a moment’s hesitation. No fact checking, no running it by lawyers, no policy wonks, and not even marginally literate proofreaders. He eagerly accepts as truth any and all rumors and overt falsehoods he perceives to be brand-enhancing, and he dismisses as “fake news” anything that tarnishes his brand.

Combine Attention Deficit Disorder with Trump’s unconcealed narcissism, and you have a reasonable coherent structure in which to interpret his behavior. Trump is capable of intense focus on the subject that most fascinates him: how much he is loved and admired in the public eye. Conversely, Trump appears to have little time for the intense policy and intelligence briefings that are essential to the normal function of the executive branch. His very recent discovery that healthcare is challenging (“nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated!”), and his assertion that daily security briefings seemed “unnecessary,” speak to his tendency to glaze over when presented with topics he is not interested in and finds intellectually overwhelming. 

The model of the Attention Deficit Narcissist does neatly weave together the many threads we see in his Presidential behavior leading up to last Saturday morning’s journey up shit’s tweet without a paddle.

·         He is intensely focused on the news services, because he knows that these organizations in aggregate curate his public persona. 

·         His narcissist’s need to be universally loved means that he does not merely watch Fox or Breitbart, but that he will be equally – if not more – consumed by the “unfair” coverage he gets on the “fake news” organizations like CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

·         The need to constantly monitor his personal brand in the face of nonstop saturation media coverage is such an overwhelming task that he has no time or focus left to grapple with the real substance, policy, details, and facts required to do his job.

·         When his personal brand is threatened by a person, news story, or organization, his need to feel superior is so overpowering that he will invert his own liabilities and invent fantasies in order to glue them to his opponent.

With the narcissist's certainty, convinced that his "gut instinct" is always right, he is incredibly vulnerable to foolish, ill-considered actions when he is alone and unsupervised at 4:30 a.m. When a negative news story comes across at this hour, he is a powder key to a news wire match. 

Taking a step back from it all, it is possible to view Trump as a man wandering in an overwhelming maze, operating with no map and no goal, only with a ferocious drive for self-preservation that is measured by how highly he is regarded by others. He lunges for the random tidbits that reflect positively on him, and casually dismisses all criticism, all with indifference what is actually true and what is not.  

Call it the Narcissist’s Labyrinth. He wanders through his days acting only on the information that has freshly arrived from his environment, needing to be viewed as the greatest ever at that instant in time. Presented with information – substantiated or not – of person, places, or things that reflect well on him, he immediately endorses the source. Presented with information – substantiated or not – that undercuts or criticizes him, he attacks. Immediately.

Which brings us to the real problem: Trump in the Narcissist’s Labyrinth is an entirely new form of security risk to the United States of America.

Let’s say you are a certain Russian dictator, and your goal is to destabilize the NATO alliance that prevents you from – ahem – “annexing” certain independent nations that were once part of your grand Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Your goal is to drive a deep wedge of mistrust between once deeply intertwined allies to weaken the alliance.

Perhaps you start by faking a recording that you will attribute to Angela Merkel, in which she is “quoted” as saying that she thinks Donald Trump does not understand the complexities of Europe, and that rather than asking Germany to pay more for NATO, the United States should be paying more to European countries to manage the flow of refugees pouring out of the Middle East triggered by the misguided military foray of the United States in Iraq.  

Pop this story onto the newsfeeds at 6:00 a.m. in Frankfurt, ensuring that it will gain critical mass in the right wing media by 4:30 a.m. in Mar-a-Lago.

By dawn’s early blight, the President of the United States has launched a Twitter fusillade against the German leader. Here's what I imagine:

Merkel = horrible! Germany immigration catastrophe! Merkel pays more for NATO or US pulls out. Germany = overpriced cars and steal U.S. jobs. No friend of U.S. #So sad.

By the evening news cycle, the thoroughly offended population of Berlin is out on the streets carrying signs saying "Scheiss-Trump" or, worse still, "Amerika ist eine grosse Null."

And somewhere in the Kremlin, it’s Nastrovje-time.

This little game of Russian Roulette Twitter is not for the faint of heart. There’s a scenario to be imagined in which fake news is spread about Kim Jong-Un which results in the destruction of 60% of the life forms on Earth.

Of course the danger of manipulating this ADHD narcissist is not restricted to his lonely pre-dawn hours. This man is vulnerable to it at any point in his travels through the Narcissist’s Labyrinth. Think about this: all Steve Bannon has to do to get his way on anything is call over to his buddies at Breitbart and plant a fake story. Bannon is battling for power with Reince Priebus? I can see the Breitbart headline now: “Drunken Priebus tells dinner guests: ‘I’ve seen it, and it is tiny!”

Trump’s Saturday morning tweet about President Obama was a moment of clarity; a time when you realize that the game had changed.

It is time to stop thinking of “fake news” as simple inaccuracy on points of fact or error in conveying information.

“Fake news,” Bannon-style, is full-on propaganda. It is when people intentionally conjure and convey falsehoods in order to achieve very specific political objectives.

Most times you hear the word “propaganda,” you worry about how a government can use propaganda to manipulate its people… and there is no shortage in this White House of savage perversions of the truth in order to influence an outcome.

But with Donald Trump, the real worry is actually even greater.

For a man wandering in the Narcissist’s Labyrinth, the grave problem is how easily the propaganda borne upon fake news sources can be used to manipulate the President of the United States.

And tonight he will be, once again, alone with his KFC and his Samsung Galaxy, the fuse waiting to be lit.

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