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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Savior Complex

Four years ago, when I worried that Romney would defeat Obama, I didn’t volunteer to work at the phone banks or to canvas neighborhoods, because after all, I was living in Washington State and it was sure to go blue. This year I’m not worried; it’s more like a deep-seated terror at the idea that our democracy might be destroyed by an egomaniac who appeals to people’s fear, ignorance, and the most sinister parts of their psyches. I have to work through near-paralysis every time I fully consider the very real possibility that our nation’s darkest hour may soon be upon us. And I’m living in Iowa now, so I can’t get away with saying that there’s nothing I can do. I have to at least try to make a difference, even if I neglect other areas of my life in the process.

“Is this right?” Monty sat in our bed and he pointed to his tablet, our family Google calendar displayed on its screen. “You’re volunteering three evenings next week?”

“Yeah. I want to do as much as I can before you’re back in D.C. Monday is obviously out, with the debate and all, so that leaves Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.” I was putting away laundry, folding pants and hanging up my work blouses, talking loud so he could hear me, my head buried in my closet. “That’s not a problem, is it?”

“Umm…” He cleared his throat and I stepped out for a moment, glancing at the muted TV. Commercials were running but Lawrence O’Donnell would be back on soon. “Lucy, are you still mad at me?”

Mad? No. I mean, yes, he'd shut me out for a week while he was out of town for work, but as soon as he'd gotten home he told me that he'd gotten his AIDS-ridden ex-girlfriend a job and they'd be working together now. I guess Monty and both have a bit of a savior complex. 

I let my eyes stray from the television screen and settle on my husband, his dark hair flecked with gray, stubble covering his cheeks and chin, wide eyes blinking with confusion. “No,” I said. “I’m not mad. Volunteering for Hillary has nothing to do with you; you know how committed I am to getting her elected.”

“You’re panicking,” Monty stated this without judgment; it was merely an observation.

It’s hard not to panic. I find myself obsessing over how both the media and the public can just assume that any allegation against Clinton is true until proven otherwise, while any allegation against Trump is simply ignored, because he always manages to slide through the mud without having any of it stick to him.

“Of course I am. With the debate on Monday, the stakes have never been higher. How must it feel to be her, to know that she MUST deliver, that millions of us are relying on her to take down Trump?” I reached for more laundry, folding and putting things away like it was second nature. “But then I think about all the stuff I tell my students, about responsible citizens in a democracy, and I know I have to get out there and practice what I preach.”

“Yeah, okay…” He looked off toward our bathroom like there was something to see. Dismay was etched into his profile.

I sighed, picked up my laundry basket, and moved over toward the dresser so I could put away my underwear. “What’s the big deal?” I spoke with my back toward him. “You’re gone all the time. I can’t spend a few nights volunteering? I’ll be back by 9:00.”

“It’s not a big deal, Luce. I guess I just thought that you’d say something to me before planning to be out on my birthday.”

I dropped the last of my laundry into my top dresser drawer and shut it, feeling my heart thud in the process. “Oh,” I said simply, and then I turned around. “I can’t believe I forgot. Wednesday is the 28th. I’m sorry, Monty.”

He shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll get someone to watch the kids and go out on Saturday night. We can celebrate then.”

“Yeah, sure.” I moved toward the bed and sat down next to him. “Of course, but Abby and Noah will want to make you a cake, watch you blow out the candles and open presents.”

He nodded. “What about what you want?”

“It’s your birthday,” I replied. “What do you want?”

“I want alone time with you.”

We’d had a rough week, the relationship equivalent to getting pneumonia and calling the other side deplorable. I let my finger trace the line of his jaw, starting at his ear and ending at his chin. “I want that too.”

He gave me a tentative smile. “So you can cancel for Wednesday? Our democracy won’t be destroyed if you skip a night?”

I scooted in close, letting my head nuzzle the space his chin and shoulder. “Hopefully not.”

He stroked my hair. “Maybe you should go. If Hillary loses and the Donald gains the nuclear access codes and brings about the apocalypse, I don’t want me and my birthday to be blamed.”

I closed my eyes and imagined election night - Rachel Maddow, visibly shaken, stating that Trump had won Iowa by just a few dozen votes and that put him over the top. I shrugged off the thought and opened my eyes again. Lawrence O’Donnell was back on. “Don’t be silly,” I said, reaching for the remote. “I’ll blame CNN and all the voters in Ohio and Florida long before I blame you.” I sat up and kissed his cheek. “I love you. I’m not missing your birthday.”

Then we turned the volume back on, cuddled and watched Lawrence O’Donnell, and even though the news wasn’t great, I felt less panicked than I had all day.

If anyone deserves to have a savior complex right now, it's probably Hillary. But I bet that even she would agree: sometimes you have to save your own little corner of the world before you can worry about the rest of it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Breaking News

I feel the way CNN should feel.

CNN has a love/hate relationship with the Republican nominee and they’re the worst when it comes to falling prey to his antics. Maybe it’s because they have a twenty-four news cycle to cover, plus they attempt to be “neutral” while lapping up the high ratings they get just from mentioning his name. But if Trump actually wins, in my mind, CNN will have a lot of explaining to do.

Just this week, they ignored a major story from Newsweek about Trump’s shady international business deals, instead covering the suspenseful results of his latest doctor’s appointment, a manufactured farce. But Friday was worse, when the network got tricked into giving him free coverage of veterans endorsing the new Trump hotel, all so he could spend less than a minute to say “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it.”

You know what I mean.

“I think I’m being taken in,” I said to Robin, who had come for dinner on Tuesday night, one day before Monty was due home, one day before he’d finally reveal the details of dinner with his ex-girlfriend, Evelyn. “I’m terrible at calling him on his crap. I should have insisted that he tell me everything over the phone, but instead I’ve been distracted all week, wondering what the heck he has to tell me.”

Robin rubbed her belly, which was starting to protrude ever so slightly as she moved into her second trimester. “Okay, maybe I just have babies on my mind, but you don’t think he found out that he got her pregnant all those years ago and she just never told him until now, do you?”

Thank God I’d sent Abby and Noah outside to play in the backyard after they’d finished their chicken nuggets. Of course the possibility had occurred to me, but I certainly didn’t want to explain it to my children. “I don’t know,” I said glumly.

Robin reached over and squeezed my arm. “Forget what I said. I’m sure it's something simple. She probably just wants one of his kidneys, or maybe she's actually an alien and wants to take him back to her mother-ship.”

I surrendered half a laugh. "Something simple like that, huh?" She shrugged. “Let’s talk about something else,” I told her. “How’s business lately?”

Robin started telling me about her latest dress order from a C-list celebrity, and I tried my best to listen actively and ask questions. But I couldn’t stop myself from thinking ahead and wondering what talking points the next day would bring.

By some miracle, I was able to free up my schedule so I could pick Monty up at the airport on Wednesday afternoon. My car was pulled up to the curb at baggage claim and as soon as he climbed in I pounced, desperate for the interview I’d been promised. “Okay, we can talk in person now. Tell me about Evelyn.”

To his credit, he didn’t sigh belligerently or make some sarcastic comment, like “nice to see you too.”  Instead he leaned his head back against the car seat and stared forward, not meeting my eyes, which admittedly, needed to be on the road. “She’s a single mom - ”

I cut him off. “How old is her kid? Is it yours?”

“No.” He took a deep breath and tapped his fingers against his knee. “Her son is only three, not twelve, like he’d have to be if was mine. The father is someone she met in South Sudan, but he’s dead now, because it turns out he was HIV positive when they met and later he came down with AIDS.”

“Oh.” I stopped at a light and switched on the turn signal, trying to form a reply. That’s too bad would sound like a terrible understatement.

“There’s more,” Monty said. I glanced over at him. His eyelids were drooping and so were his shoulders, making him look worn out and deflated. “Her kid is fine, he doesn’t have the virus, but a couple of years ago Evelyn tested positive, and recently she was diagnosed with AIDS herself. So she moved back to the U.S so to get better health care, but that’s really hard to do without a job.”

“She doesn’t have a job?”

“Actually, she does now.” He swallowed hard and finally looked at me. We were in traffic, inching forward at a snail’s pace. His ominous tone made me wish to press on the gas pedal, to speed toward some unknown destination. “She begged me to pull some strings so she could work in my department at the Gates Foundation.”

“And you did?”

“Yeah. I mean, she’s more than qualified, and I didn’t know how I could say no.”

I white knuckled the steering wheel while I bit my tongue.  If I pointed out that he owed her nothing I’d be the “deplorable” one, speaking ill of a single mother with AIDS. But Evelyn would never have to answer for all her misdeeds; she’d earned a free pass at a terrible cost. “You’ll be co-workers now?"

Through my peripheral vision I saw him nod. “I knew you’d be upset. That’s why I had to wait to tell you about this in person, so you could see my face and believe that it’s all going to be fine.” Monty placed his hand on my knee, surprising me with the coolness of his touch, its chill seeping through my cotton khaki pants.

“I’m not upset,” I said. “I… I don’t know what I am.”  Just like CNN, I didn’t know how to insist that he back up his blanket statement of fineness, or do anything but be stunned at getting caught off guard. I was one step behind the breaking news, one step behind having the news break me.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

But Civil is Boring

“So how did the dinner go?”

It was nearly 11PM, well after my bedtime. I had to be up early the next morning to drop Noah and Abby off for their first days of Kindergarten and second grade, then I would put on my community college-instructor hat and begin a new semester of teaching political science. I’d hoped to be in bed by 10:00, but Monty had flown to D.C that morning for work, where he was having dinner with long-lost ex-girlfriend, Evelyn. She’d called last week out of the blue, saying she had something important to talk to him about. Monty had promised to call me as soon as the dinner was over, but by 10:45 my phone still had not buzzed. Finally, I gave in and called him.

“The dinner is still going,” Monty said, his voice distant and smothered.

“Still?” I said. “Are you eating a seven-course Italian meal or something?”

His laugh came out in a jumpy, quiet, burst. “No, we just have a lot to talk about.”

I clutched my phone, which had grown slick in my palm, and took a slow, measured breath, trying not to sound panicked and crazy. “She’s sitting across from you right now, isn’t she?”

“Yeah. Look, can I call you tomorrow? I know you need a good-night’s sleep.”

Yes, I did need to sleep, but how would doing so even be possible? As soon as I closed my eyes, I’d be haunted by images of Monty and Evelyn, sipping wine in a candle-lit restaurant, traipsing down memory lane while they shared dessert, their fingers grazing each other as they passed the plate of tiramisu back and forth.

“Lucy? You still there?”

“Yeah,” I answered, but it came out in a sigh.

“We’ll talk tomorrow?”


“Love you,” he told me, as if saying it by rote.

I didn’t want to say it back, not when I doubted it would even register. “Goodnight, Monty.”

He called the next morning to wish Noah good luck on his first day of Kindergarten. We were driving to school, Noah in his car seat, pressing my phone to his ear and telling Monty, “No, I’m not newvous.”

“Let me talk to Daddy!” Abby insisted, and she reached across from her booster seat and pried the phone from Noah’s little fingers.

“He called to talk to me!” Noah yelled, instantly bursting into tears. “Mommy! Abby stole the phone!”

My head was foggy from a restless night of tossing and turning, and now it was pounding. I pulled over, unbuckled my seat belt, and leaned over the driver’s seat. “Abby! Give me the phone!” But before she could, I snatched it from her. Then she started to cry too.

“Great,” I said into the phone. “Two crying children. Perfect way to start the school year.”

“Sorry,” he answered. “Put me on speaker and I’ll try to calm them both down.”

“In a minute,” I snipped. “How late did you go last night?”

“I don’t know… it was…” he sighed. “I don’t know. I have a lot to tell you, but not over the phone, okay? And certainly not right now.”

“Are you saying I have to wait until after you get back to hear about your dinner?”

“Luce!” His exasperation was more out of shock I think, then anger. “Let me calm down the kids, okay? We can deal with the rest later.”

Abby and Noah were both wailing and school was starting soon. I had no choice. “Fine. I’m putting you on speaker.”

I held up the phone with one hand and steered with the other, while Monty managed to say some magic words to get our children to stop crying. I didn’t say goodbye when we pulled into the school parking lot. I just clicked the end button, shuffled my kids inside, tried not to let myself cry as I left Noah in his classroom, and forced my head on straight so I could go teach my classes.

“We’re obviously going to have a lot to talk about this term,” I later told my students, who had gathered for their first session of American Government and Politics. “As Iowa is a swing-state, I’m assuming you all represent a variety of political beliefs, ranging from left to right, and one goal is to keep the conversation civil.”

“But civil is boring,” said a guy wearing a Make America Great Again baseball cap. He’d chosen to sit in the middle seat in the front row.

“That may be true,” I responded, leaning against my podium, wishing I’d worn a thicker heal. I felt small. “But lots of people share that attitude, and it has gotten us where we are now, with made-up controversies dominating the news cycle and reality TV stars posing as potential presidents.”

Baseball cap guy threw back his shoulders, puffing out his chest. “You just insulted my candidate. How is that civil? And I thought instructors were supposed to be neutral.”

He kind of had a point, but my inability to remain neutral was my Achilles heel, especially when it came to teaching politics. And as the week went on, I wouldn’t improve, growing more and more anxious as Monty refused to fill me about his dinner with Evelyn. It left me with the sense that, like Trump and Putin, if Evelyn was going to say great things about Monty, he’d say great things about her too. Things I defiantly didn’t want to hear.

“I promise to explain everything as soon as I get home,” Monty had told me during another phone conversation later that week. But he wasn’t getting home until Wednesday. Meanwhile we tried to stay civil and I caught myself wishing that civil was actually boring.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Fact-Checking and Foreboding

“You’ll never guess who called me today.”

I was not in the mood to guess. I’d just finished a volunteer shift at the phone banks, calling on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign to make sure Democratic leaning voter’s registration was up to date. People hung up on me multiple times but that was far more pleasant than the “I don’t trust that lying bitch” tirades that so many people felt necessary to release.

“Actually,” I’d tell them, “the bipartisan group Politifact has done lots of fact-checking and they’ve determined that Hillary Clinton rarely lies. But Donald Trump’s record with the truth is terrible. He lies more than any recent candidate.”

“I’m not voting for him either! This year’s election makes me sick!” Then there’d be a click and I was left shaking my head in wonder that somehow, Clinton’s negatives almost matched those of a man who has built his campaign on hate, just like he built up his career by cheating people. Yet all it took was one or two well-staged photo-ops with the president of Mexico or at an African American church in Detroit, and the press let Trump win the news cycle. Meanwhile, if I had to hear about Clinton’s emails ONE MORE TIME I might just move to Canada.

Now I was home, stretched out in bed, after a long day during the last week of summer for Abby, Noah and me. Next week I’d resume teaching, Abby would start second grade and Noah would start Kindergarten. “Just tell me,” I said to Monty, who had been working out in our basement when I got home. A couple of moments ago I heard him bounding up the stairs, and now he stood in front of me, his t-shirt clinging to his chest and sweat beading his forehead.

“You look tired,” he said. “Rough night?”

I nodded my head without raising it. “She’s slipping in the polls and her negatives are actually going up. I don’t get it; how can Trump even still be standing after all the crap he’s said and done?”

Monty shrugged and sat on the edge of the bed. “People are idiots.”

“People are sexist idiots. Why can’t anyone talk about how much sexism still plays into presidential politics?”

“I don’t know.” Monty seemed nervous as he breathed in and out and looked away, toward the window. The shade was drawn, shutting out the fading light of evening in the suburbs.

I sat up, sensing a foreboding. “So who called you?”

By the time he turned his head back toward me he’d composed his face with an easy smile and unblinking eyes. I guessed he was trying to look relaxed and confident but he communicated the exact opposite. “Evelyn,” he said, his voice half an octave higher than normal.

I could feel something collapse inside my chest, a sickening sensation worse than the bristly heat that had repeatedly flared up while I worked the phone banks. “You’re in touch with her?”

He swallowed like it hurt. “Not for like, twelve years.”

“Not since she left you to die in the Congo?”

Evelyn had been Monty’s girlfriend over a decade ago. The two of them were both altruistic lawyers who had given legal aide to rape victims in the Congo, until Monty had caught malaria and Evelyn had abandoned him, running off with his doctor, no less. As far as I knew, the last time they’d spoken was when she’d ended their several-year relationship by walking out while he was feverish, delusional and too weak to lift a glass of water. It was sort of a huge deal.

“She didn’t exactly leave me to die,” he corrected. “I was pretty much on the mend by the time she took off.”

“Oh, well then, bygones. What did she want? How did she even find you?”

“She looked me up on Facebook and saw how often I’m in D.C.  She works there too now and she wants to have dinner.”

His eyes darted down so I couldn’t stare into them. I couldn’t garner the truth behind his casual facade. “Are you going to say yes?”

“Yeah, unless you really don’t want me to.” Finally, he met my gaze. “Would you have a problem with it?”

“I guess not,” I lied, not even sure why I let these words fly from my lips. “But why would you want to eat dinner with her?”

Monty took a careful breath, forming his response over the span of a few seconds. “I don’t want to. But she said she needs to talk to me about something, and that if we happened to run into each other it would be really awkward, so we should meet.”

“Oh.” I rubbed my forehead, trying to massage away the tension that pressed between my eyes. “What does she want to talk to you about?”

He stood and moved toward the bathroom, probably to shower. “She didn’t say. But you’re okay with it, Luce? It would just be a one-time thing.”

 My stomach turned over. His need to justify and reassure me that it would only be a "one time thing" was by far the most disturbing part of this conversation. “Just promise you’ll call as soon as the dinner is over and you’ll tell me everything.”

Now his smile seemed genuine. “I promise,” he said. And I believed him.

So this morning Monty flew to D.C. for the workweek. He’ll be back on Friday evening, but he’ll miss dropping Noah off for his first day of Kindergarten. “Promise you’ll take lots of photos,” he said.

“Of course. Do you want to call on Tuesday morning? Talk to him before I take him to school?”

His eyes watered and he gave me a sad smile. “Sure. Sounds good.”

We’d be talking on the phone twice in less than twelve hours. Monty had arranged his dinner with Evelyn for tonight, saying he just wanted to “get it over with.” I’d be counting down the hours until he could give me the recap.

But that isn’t all I’ll be doing. Today I’m driving for over an hour to see Hillary at an event, with both kids in tow. We’ll stand and listen to her Labor Day speech, proud that she chose our state as a venue. “She’s going to be the first girl president,” I’ll say to Abby.

And as a new season begins, I expect we'll be reminded, probably multiple times, that we're stronger together.