Life in the Balance:
Knowing, Caring, and Acting
By Dorothy Van Soest
WILPF US Liaison to the Poor People’s Campaign
ISSUE NO. 14 • 2020
What Happens When It’s Over: What COVID-19 Is Teaching Us
...when the crisis is over, our lives depend on things not going back to normal.
Dorothy Van Soest,
The wake of death and destruction in COVID-19’s path leaves us reeling. Deaths in the United States at this writing have topped all other countries. Every day, new cases, and deaths cause experts to fear that the actual numbers could grow even higher. As time goes on— even with staggering numbers and the human suffering they embody unfathomable—there are calls to continue to open businesses and get life back to the way it was. A desire to return to normal is natural but, given what we know about the consequences of the pandemic, going back to the same exact systems we had in place should give us pause. COVID-19 is teaching us many things that point to a need to rethink our structures and reimagine our society. Here are some of them.
COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on racial inequality. Although all of us are facing a dangerous situation now, people of color faced a dangerous situation before the pandemic, due to inequities such as those related to poverty (54 percent of the 2.9 million poor or low-income people in Washington state, for example, are people of color); criminal injustice (40 percent of the 19,104 people imprisoned in Washington state are people of color, almost six times the rate of whites); and health disparities (black people are 1.5 times and hispanic people 2.5 times more likely to be uninsured than whites).
COVID-19 is worsening racial inequality even more. The virus is hitting people of color hardest. In King County, where I live, Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders and Hispanic people are testing positive at four times the rate of white and Asian people; black people, at twice the rate of whites. In Arizona and New Mexico, the coronavirus is taking an astoundingly disproportionate toll on Native Americans, while in most other states they are not even being counted. Across the country black people are dying from COVID-19 in staggering numbers compared with their proportion of the population. For instance, in Michigan, black people make up 14 percent of the population but 50 percent of the deaths; in Louisiana they are 32 percent of the population but account for 71 percent of deaths; and in Mississippi they are 38 percent of the population but 67 percent of deaths. Eight of the top United States 10 hotspots are prisons and jails, which house a disproportionate number of inmates of color.
COVID-19 is exposing the vast disparities of wealth in our country. Before the pandemic, 700 people a day died because of poverty; in my state, 33 percent of our population (2.5 million) were already poor or low-income people (including 48 percent, or 787,000, of our children), 513,000 lacked health insurance, more than 21,000 experienced homelessness (fifth highest state in the country), and more than 894,000 used the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance. Approximately 140 million people in the United States (more than 40 percent of U.S. citizens) cannot afford even a $400 emergency, much less the reserves needed to prepare for this public health crisis. They do not have the resources to stock up on food and supplies, stay home if they are sick or exposed, or take other precautions to survive COVID-19. Further, those individuals who have been unable to address other health conditions aremore vulnerable to the virus.
COVID-19 is worsening economic disparities. Millions of people have joined the ranks of the unemployed; more people have been thrown into poverty and homelessness. Tens of millions remain without health care during a public health crisis. Many of the least respected and lowest-paid workers have been deemed essential, but their wages have not been raised and they face shortages of the personal protective equipment needed to weather this storm.
COVID-19 is teaching us that poverty is everyone’s problem. It’s showing us that we are all affected when we ignore poor and lowincome people, that it’s more expensive to ignore poverty than it is to fix it, and that poverty threatens not only the lives of the poor but the lives of all of us.
Think about it. The most vulnerable among us work in low-wage jobs in the service industry, where coronavirus is most likely to spread. These individuals prepare and serve food, clean hotels and public buildings, and care for children and the elderly—those most susceptible to COVID-19. And when they go home, they do not leave the virus behind at work. Approximately 1.2 million workers (37 percent of Washington state’s workforce) make less than $15 an hour, and more than two-thirds of the lowest-wage earners get no paid sick leave. They cannot afford to miss a paycheck by staying home, even with symptoms of coronavirus. Even under normal circumstances, the uninsured people in my state do not have the money to pay for health care. And when we ignore people who are sick and do not have the money to go to a clinic or emergency room or stay home from work, we are all in danger.
COVID-19 is showing us that poverty and race are inseparable and that we cannot resolve one without resolving the other. Although we know that black Americans are dying at a rate more than twice their population share and that people of color are disproportionately poor, we also know that, in absolute terms, poor white people outnumber poor black people and other poor nonwhite people—and that COVID-19 is ravishing all sectors of the poor and dispossessed. Both racial and economic inequities are worsened by the epidemic. And when we ignore the most vulnerable among us, and yet count on them to keep our cities and towns running without a safety net, we are all in danger.
If we are to learn anything from this epidemic, it is this: When the crisis is over, our lives depend on things not going back to normal. The exploitative economic and social systems that COVID-19 has exposed and laid bare for all to see must be confronted and dismantled.
With the Poor People’s Campaign across our country, people have been coming together since spring 2018 to continue the work begun in 1968 by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. On June 20, 2020, over 2 million people participated in the largest digital and social media gathering of poor and low-income people, moral and religious leaders, advocates, and people of conscience in this nation’s history. Voices representing the 140 million poor and low-income people across our country talked about how the global pandemic is exposing the already existing crisis of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
This is a time of great suffering and danger, but it is up to us to join our voices with those who are insisting that it does not have to be this way. The tens of thousands who have taken to the streets to protest police violence in the past weeks are calling for widespread, deep, systemic change—starting now. If we learn from what the past few months have laid bare before us all, we might embrace the real possibilities before us to reimagine our society.
Dorothy Van Soest, PhD, MSW, is professor emerita at the University of Washington. A novelist and activist, she is the former chair of the NASW Peace and Social Justice Committee. She can be reached at www.dorothyvansoest.com.
Johnson, G. (2020), Coronavirus Disproportionately Impacts King County Residents Among minority groups, Hawaiian native and Pacific
Islanders had the highest rate of cases, according to public health data. Patch, Health and Fitness, Retrieved from:
For more information about the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, go to:
At the beginning of March, Seattle is designated a COVID-19 hot spot. Sheltering in the comfort of my privileged existence is an inconvenience, not a hardship. As a white woman in America, it is second nature for me to center myself in the crisis, search for ways to stay balanced. But the pandemic fills our morgues and hospitals with bodies of the most vulnerable, people who keep our cities and towns running without a safety net, disproportionately black and brown and poor people. Where is the balance in such staggering inequity, such unfathomable human suffering?
Spring comes, its hope of new life overpowered by grief, terror, and discord. Morgues are full, dead stored in refrigerated trucks. On my morning walks, I curse those for whom precautions are a mere inconvenience. I scowl at people not wearing masks, place my palms together, mutter “Nomaske” instead of “Namaste,” give them the finger, sometimes hidden, sometimes not. I have a satanic urge to unleash the virus on those who care more about the economy than people, who mismanage and manipulate the crisis for personal gain. My friends say anger is normal but a little voice inside says otherwise. You’re not like other people. You’re too excitable and unstable. You make people uncomfortable. I cancel my inner critic and my airplane reservations to Washington, DC for the Poor People’s Campaign mass march and rally in June, promote it as an online event instead.
Summer comes and, as if the pandemic isn’t evidence enough that there is no context in which black lives matter, police kill Breonna Taylor, a frontline ERT worker. Wanna-be cops murder Ahmaud Arbery while he is jogging. Police murder George Floyd. Two days later, Tony McDade. Collective grief and outrage flood the streets with protesters of all races, ethnicities, genders, ages. Unidentified armed militias sent in to silence cries of “stop killing us” met by a wall of white moms in Portland. Emotions are raw. COVID-19 takes 1,470 lives, the highest number in a single day, four times as many people of color as whites.
I look at myself in the mirror, forehead angry and tight, shoulders sagging under the weight of two public health emergencies. Uncontrollable cowlicks sprout from my head like ghastly COVID-19 and racism viruses stuck in my hair. I long to be out protesting, rail at the health vulnerabilities holding me captive at home. Outraged, I focus on what divides us, the unmasked from the masked, the racists from the anti-racists, the privileged from the oppressed. Then, on June 20th, tears flood my cheeks as two and a half million people unite at the massive Poor People’s Campaign virtual rally and sing, “Everybody has a right to live.”
By mid-October, 220,000 American lives have been snuffed out by COVID-19. The racism pandemic, far deadlier and longer lasting, paralyzes Jacob Blake, a black man shot in the back seven times by police who then let a white boy with an automatic rifle walk away after committing murder. Fires consume millions of acres of our land while conflagration on our streets burns down centuries of willful ignorance and silence. For weeks before the election, falsehoods and nightmare scenarios have been spreading like wildfire, and crowds of white people are gathering at mass rallies without masks.
I reject the privilege that I know is mine to focus right now on my own coping. Instead, I get to work. Write. Contribute. Organize. Collaborate. Call. “No action is too small, every action counts,” I shout at the voice inside whispering you’re not doing enough, it won’t make any difference.
September 23. My last nerve. No charges are filed against the plainclothes police who killed Breonna Taylor, her name not even mentioned. No one will answer for her death. Peaceful protests are decreed as unlawful assembly. States of emergency declared. White supremacist groups galvanized. I rage in defiant rejection of everything I was taught about white people being rational and intelligent, in other words, superior. I scream at my inner critic. Don’t even try. No more with there she goes again. No more with you need to be balanced. My outrage honors the fire raging within, the deep mourning that spurs me on, the moral compass that points me in the direction of fairness and justice. Yet, even as I rage, I know it’s not about my feelings—it’s about what I do with them. It’s not just about being informed—it’s about getting out of bed and doing something about it. It’s not just about shouting, it’s about doing. Ringing in my ears are the words of Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, at a recent Get out the Vote rally: “it’s not about the awakening, it’s about the rising.”
I rise up and look at myself in the mirror. The wrinkles and age spots and caved-in places on my face jump out at me and remind me where I’ve been. What I’ve lived. My hair, wild and uncut during the pandemic, is once again a symbol of free expression like it was in my twenties, when it was blonde. When I remember the despair of the sixties, the eloquent rage and actions of that time branch and flower on my weathered face and the old becomes new. I look into my seasoned eyes and they tell me who I am. And then I know that, even when it may not appear to be so, I am as balanced as a three-legged stool. The first leg is my knowing: read, listen, learn. The second is my caring: suffer, grieve, scream my rage in private, not as a performance or a burden on others. The third is acting: use my abilities to do what I can. Old messages about being too loud, caring too much, and not doing enough make me wobbly sometimes, but my stool stays steady. And as long as I do what I can, the best I can, for as long as I can, then I know that change is still possible.
Dorothy Van Soest is a Seattle writer and novelist for social justice. Nuclear Option, her third Sylvia Jensen mystery, will be released December 1, 2020. For more information about her and her work, go to
By Dorothy Van Soest - Fall, 2020
You cried when you told me. We were sitting in the cozily sophisticated home you’d created with cast-off furniture and artwork from your many friends.
“Promise you won’t tell,” you said through tears. “No one will see me anymore. Just what I forget.”
I promised. But we already knew that summer when the four of us, friends as close as sisters, were at the lake cabin. We knew when you couldn’t follow the instructions to Bananagram. When you laughed and made up your own rules. We knew when you couldn’t figure out which door was the bathroom. We knew when you threw up in the car on the way home.
In the midst of the magic of small things, the potency of everyday life—giggling like schoolgirls, painting each other’s toenails, and the smells of tuna fish, lasagna, and pecan pie—your unholy diagnosis hung in the air as loud as a slammed door. Our shared intimacies were filled as always with contradictions like dueling dog barks—insightful, ridiculous, bizarre, irreverent, and hilarious. But that summer, all the sentimentality of our shared history was shattered by the loss of your last five minutes.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 10 early signs and symptoms. Forgetting recently learned information is one of the most common. Others include having trouble following a conversation, losing things, and being unable to retrace one’s steps to find them again, getting easily upset when out of one’s comfort zone, and problems with decision-making.
But it was always hard for you to make decisions. Whenever we made plans to go out to eat, you’d call to change the time, or the place, or both. You chose several items on the menu before placing your order, then you’d call the waitress back to change it, and when your food came, you’d point at mine and say, “I should have ordered that.” You always forgot things. Lose things, once even a plane ticket. Did you know then and joke to cover it up? All those times I got frustrated or irritated. Did you have early-onset Alzheimer’s then and I just didn’t understand?
Oh, but you were such fun, the life of the party, witty and clever. I can still see you dancing on the table at one of our university parties. I can still see the twinkle in your eyes when you got us laughing so hard we begged for mercy.
Five years ago your wonderful adult children, who I’ve known for 44 years, moved you to memory care. You didn’t want to go. Didn’t understand. I was living in Seattle so was only able to visit you once or twice a year. Each time, even as your disease progressed, you were as funny and alive and sexy as ever. One time, when us four “sisters” were at your favorite church, you whispered in my ear.
“I have a new boyfriend.”
“Yeah? What’s his name?”
“Tim.” You smiled. “And he likes me just as much as I like him.”
After lunch, we brought you back to the memory care unit and you knocked on his door. You called out “are you decent” and then opened the door without waiting for his response. I heard that you slept with him and each morning the aid took you to your own room so Tim’s disapproving family wouldn’t know. I heard he was a priest. I hope that was true.
During another visit, you pointed to a painting of an elephant on the wall. “The elephants are coming back. The social workers are going to make sure they’re freed. It was in the paper.” I knew you were confabulating the recent news about the Ringling Brothers elephants but each time you repeated the story I listened as if it were the first. You thought you were living in the university building where we’d taught together. You talked about students you were concerned about. Whenever there was a problem in the memory care unit, you said you’d get the social workers to fix it.
During my last visit, I noticed that all your dresser drawers were labeled (panties, bras, pajamas) except for the bottom one.
“What’s in there,” I asked.
The twinkle sparkled your eyes. “Dirty socks.”
“Dirty socks? What do you do with them?”
“I take them out.”
“I put them on the floor.”
“Then what do you do with them?”
Your face lit up. “I. Lick. Them.”
Oh my God, you had me rolling on the floor. And you loved it. I treasure that moment—you, outrageously funny as ever, and me, your willing collaborator.
When you died, I felt sad and relieved. I don’t know what comes after we die but maybe, in death, we no longer forget things. Maybe, in death, we remember everything. Maybe, in death, it doesn’t matter whether we remember or forget.
A few weeks later, I saw you early one morning when I was still in bed, half-awake. You were suspended in space, doing cartwheels and flips and being your outrageous self. And now I know, wherever you and your energy are, that you are still laughing.
Dorothy Van Soest is a Seattle novelist, a professor emerita, and a former dean of the University of Washington School of Social Work. See more of her work at www.dorothyvansoest.com
THIS IS THE TIME
June 15, 2020
Written by Dorothy Van Soest at the Boulder Writers’ Retreat
The last time I had a haircut was Friday, February 14th, three days after the World Health Organization announced it had named a deadly virus COVID-19. Fifteen days later an outbreak sent Seattle into lockdown. Schools closed, Microsoft and Amazon employees worked from home. On March 23rd a statewide stay-at-home order was issued. By Memorial Day, our state had over 20,000 cases and over 1,000 deaths. As I sit and write this, the U.S. has over 2 million cases and over 118,000 deaths, more than any country in the world.
Despite the staggering numbers and the unfathomable human suffering they embody, my defiant hair sprouts from my head like plants from the earth, a symbol of life in the midst of the pandemic’s devastation. It’s growing so fast I can almost hear the hairs shooting through the follicles in my scalp, the buzz of tiny sebaceous glands multiplying by the millions in order to produce hair as thick and dense as mine. When I’m asleep, they go on growing binges without me. After four months, ten days, and four hours—but who’s counting—my hair is shaggy in a time-to-take-our-dog-Tinker-to-the-groomer kind of way. A rippled dome, like a helmet on my head, obscures my face. I grow cross-eyed from staring at the hair hanging on my forehead. In the cowlicks, those little tufts of hair springing up wherever they want, I see everything dreadful, everything I can’t control, as if the pandemic has gotten stuck in my hair.
Musing about how I don’t quite look like myself anymore is, I know, a dumb privilege. But the truth is I don’t quite act like myself anymore either. On my morning walks, I curse those for whom precautions are a mere inconvenience, scowl at people not wearing masks, place my palms together and mutter “Nomaske” instead of “Namaste,” give them the finger, sometimes hidden, sometimes not. I have a satanic urge to unleash the virus on those who care more about the economy than people, who mismanage and manipulate the crisis for personal gain. I am no longer myself. Or is this really who I am? Or who I’ve become? Is this who I want to be?
COVID-19, of course, could care less about how I or anyone else looks or acts. It just keeps filling our morgues and hospitals with the bodies of the most vulnerable, people we count on to keep our cities and towns running without giving them a safety net, disproportionately black and brown and poor people. As if the pandemic isn’t evidence enough that there is no context in which black lives matter, police kill Breonna Taylor, a frontline ERT worker, in her bed. Wanna-be cops stalk and murder Ahmad Arbery while jogging. Police publicly lynch George Floyd. Two days later, Tony McDade. Collective grief and outrage burst onto our streets. Cries of “Stop Killing Us” drown out privileged cries of “We Demand Haircuts.” Unidentified armed militia attack peaceful protesters. The state accrues more authority. Emotions are raw. We mourn the dead, knowing there will be more.
Police fists throttle a young woman with a long blonde ponytail, their hands push a seventy-five year old man down onto cold hard concrete, pull a mask down before blasting pepper spray. Helpless rage consumes me, focuses me on what divides us, the unmasked from the masked, the racists from the anti-racists, the non-racists from the anti-racists, the privileged from the oppressed. This is a different time, the hopeful say, pointing as proof to the lily-white legs at a Houston die-in and hundreds protesting in an Alabama town that is 97% white. But I know my people. When things calm down, they will forget, their moment of being woke a feel-good memory, a temporary blip in their normal lives of privilege. Aren’t they already forgetting the pandemic even as the numbers of cases are spiking in 22 states and it claims over 1,000 American lives every day?
I don’t recognize myself, feel like I’m walking around in someone else’s life. It’s not just my hair, it’s my forehead, too, angry and tight—my shoulders, sagging under the weight of two lethal viruses—my eyes, devoid of hope in the face of two public health emergencies. In despair, I grab a pair of scissors and a fist full of hair. Then I look in the mirror and stop. The wrinkles and age spots and caved-in places on my face jump out at me, remind me who I am. Where I’ve been. What I’ve lived. What I know. I put the scissors down and run my fingers through my thick gray hair, remember when it was blonde and its waves flowed down to my waist, a symbol of protest against racist injustice and war. It’s growing right now and the tiny sebaceous glands are singing. Won't you gimme it down to there . . . hair shoulder length or longer . . . Here baby, there mama, everywhere daddy daddy . . . grow it, show it, long as I can grow it, my hair . . .
I sing out and the old becomes new again. I’m going without makeup most days now and my hair grows unfettered like it did in the sixties. My voice grows louder and stronger, transforming a tuft of thick hair on my head into a symbol of free expression that brings me back to who I am and what I know. That this is the time for me to act in ways both possible and unique to me and to believe that every action counts. This is the time to trust that the smallest of individual efforts, when joined with others, creates a chain reaction and releases human energy leading, over time, to the critical mass that will make change inevitable. I don’t know if this is the time that will happen or whether this will be the tipping point or not. What I do know is that, just as those tiny sebaceous glands on my scalp are multiplying by the millions to produce my thick hair, this is the time for our numbers to multiply by the millions into a defiant racial justice movement that is unstoppable.
The following essay appeared in the June 2020 WILPF US e-newsletter, a monthly online publication of the US Section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
Poor People’s Campaign Mass Gathering on June 20 Confronts Racial and Economic Inequities
By Dorothy Van Soest
Women, Money & Democracy Issue Committee
As new COVID-19 cases and deaths keep climbing each day in the U.S., reaching staggering numbers that represent unfathomable suffering, the pandemic is revealing that our systems and structures desperately need to be reimagined.
When we ignore the most vulnerable among us, but at the same time count on them to keep our cities and towns running without a safety net, we create a morally unconscionable situation that leads to dangerous public health consequences for us all.
Both racial and economic inequities are being worsened by the epidemic, revealing to us that poverty and race are inseparable. We cannot resolve one without resolving the other.
When the pandemic is finally over, all of our lives depend on things not going back to the way they were before. As Kenia Alcocer, co-chair of the California PPC and Organizer with Unión de Vecinos puts it on the PPC website, “We don’t want to go back to ‘normal,’ because normal wasn’t good.”
The exploitative economic and social systems that COVID-19 has laid bare for all to see must be confronted and dismantled. The Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is doing just that. From Alaska to Arkansas, from the Bronx to the border and all across our country, people have been coming together since the spring of 2018 to continue the work begun in 1968 by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
On June 20th, the PPC will hold the largest digital and social media gathering of poor and low-wealth people, moral and religious leaders, advocates, and people of conscience in this nation’s history. Voices representing the 140 million poor and low-wealth people across our country will be talking about how the global pandemic is exposing the already existing crisis of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
WILPF US is an organizing partner of the Poor People’s Campaign and we are all in! To register for the mass gathering on Saturday, June 20, use this WILPF-specific link. For more information about the PPC and this important event, go to: www.poorpeoplescampaign.org
THE EMPEROR’S RED BUTTON
by Dorothy Van Soest
NOTE: I wrote this story as a way to deal with my own fears after our president called for the population of Seoul to be moved in case we launched a nuclear attack against North Korea. It subsequently appeared in the February/March edition of “The Retiree Advocate,” published by Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action (PSARA)
The Year 2020
“Is it red, Grandma? The button. Is it red?”
I turn down the volume on the radio. More news about North Korea. Another missile test. About #45 ordering the evacuation of almost ten million people from Seoul, South Korea. About someone talking him down from his alternative universe so then he said to just evacuate the Americans living there. And now Iran. My four-year-old granddaughter doesn’t need to know any of this.
“Is it in his office? On his desk? Does he sleep with it?”
“So many questions, Sweetie. Go out and play now.”
“What’s nuclear, Grandma?”
“A form of energy.”
“Momma says I’m full of energy. Do I have a nuclear button? Can I push it whenever I want, too?”
I place my forefinger on her up-turned nose. “Whenever you want to release energy, just push this cute little button.” I give her a big hug.
She giggles and heads for the back door, then stops and turns around. “Grandma, what is energy?”
“You. You’re energy. Go outside now.”
I sit down at the breakfast nook with a steaming cup of coffee. I watch my granddaughter on the swing and listen to National Public Radio. The purpose of having nuclear weapons is to never use them. But the president gives no indication that he understands our deterrence policy or what a nuclear war would mean. During his presidential campaign, he said . . .
I cover my ears. I know what he said. Somebody hits us with Isis, you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke? If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them? If we can’t use them why do we make them?
My granddaughter screams. I look out, see her on the ground under the swing. I race out the door and pick her up, kiss the scraped boo boo on her elbow. “What happened?”
“I touched my button to make the swing go higher and I fell off.”
I pull her close and whisper in her ear. “You’re okay. Ready to get back on?”
She whimpers. “I have too much energy.”
“Sweetie, there’s no such thing as too much energy. Just remember to hang on.”
I watch her get back on the swing and push off, tentative at first then bolder. What I just told her isn’t true; there is such a thing as too much energy. The energy in one megaton nuclear bomb is enough to wipe out the largest city on Earth and suck all the oxygen out of the atmosphere. My granddaughter doesn’t need to know that. But adults do because it’s our job to ensure the safety and survival of the next generation. We need to comprehend the difference between nuclear and conventional weapons, chances of surviving weapons of mass destruction versus chances of surviving weapons that target a limited area.
I brush the dirt off my jeans and go back inside, turn up the volume on the radio. The world is once again contemplating the very real possibility of a nuclear war. And one man has authority to push the button.
I sigh. There is no nuclear button. There’s a nuclear football, though, a forty-five pound briefcase containing a list of targets that goes with the president wherever he goes. To launch a nuclear attack he verifies his identity with a code, nicknamed “the biscuit,” that he is supposed to carry with him at all times. Four minutes after he gives the command, the missiles leave their silos.
No president in his right mind would ever actually launch a nuclear attack. I mean, seriously, if Clinton had even remotely considered the idea, he wouldn’t have gone around without “the biscuit” for several months without telling anyone he’d lost it. Nor would Carter have sent his suit off to the cleaners with the biscuit in one of the pockets.
And, now, as a tumultuos fall season draws to a close with the President impeached, a long and difficult winter lies ahead. There are rumors that the President has been stricken with an unnamed malaise and is deteriorating at an alarming rate.
I talk back to the radio. Everyone already knows he’s not of sound mind. Last night at a rally, he raged so violently they almost had to restrain him. Even some of his supporters are now saying they think his behavior is unbecoming. He rants about a plague on the land. It’s like he wants to hasten his own demise.
What happens if the president comes unhinged, the radio asks. What safeguards are there if he goes off the rails? All our prior concerns that a deranged president might use the nuclear button irrationally are now magnified. And since all the adults in the White House have been purged, who is left to remove the nuclear football from the President’s hands as they did with Nixon in his last days? Is there anyone left to step in quietly, like Schlesinger did, to order a pause on any nuclear strike commanded by this president?
I turn off the radio, look out the window at my precious granddaughter, and pray.
The Year 2022 (or thereabouts, no one’s really sure)
Ivanka sits on his lap, plants a noisy kiss on his cheeks followed by a feathery caress on his lips. “Good morning, Daddy. I mean, your majesty.”
He squeezes her body against his. “You like having a daddy who’s emperor of the country?”
She smiles. “Of the world, Daddy.”
“That’s right, isn’t it. Emperor of the whole world now.” He smiles, proud to be God’s gift to the world, to be the chosen One.
Jared appears, leans against the bedroom door frame. “The whole planet, Dad,” he says, smiling indulgently.
“Oh yes. I did that, didn’t I.” But then his smile fades. His head jerks from side to side, his eyes are saucers, his mouth a suction cup. “Where is it?”
Ivanka points to the bedside table. She picks up the square black plastic box with the red button on the top and places it next to him on the bed, gives it a little tap. Then she runs her fingers through the few wisps of hair remaining on his head, strands of spaghetti turned gray/white long ago when they ran out of hair dye. Jared winks at his wife. He used to get jealous when she sat on her father’s lap and wiggled her cute little butt on his crotch. But that was before. Everything is different now.
A bell rings and Ivanka jumps off the bed. “Time for breakfast, Daddy. Bacon and eggs? Or would you like a double hamburger with all the fixings this morning?”
Jared shoots her a warning look. “Or maybe a bowl of cereal for a change, Dad?” He told his wife just last night that their food supply is alarming low. Everyone else in the bunker is eating so little they’re losing weight. But not him. He’s turned into that fictitious fat man he talked about during his presidential campaign, the one who he said, instead of Russia, sits on his bed and hacks into computers.
“What’d you say?” Distracted, he rests the black box in the folds of his stomach and his short fingers stroke the red button like a lover’s breast. “Where’s Mike? Has he been found yet?”
Ivanka and Jared shake their heads.
“I know what he’s up to. He wants to be me.” He rocks back and forth, one finger on the button.
“It’s okay, Daddy. He can’t hurt you. Nobody can hurt you now.”
“We can’t know that. Not until we’re sure he’s gone for good.” One flourishing twirl of his little hands and both forefingers take aim, press the button. “Done!”
Ivanka and Jared exchange meaningful sighs. The system had made him a nuclear monarch and now with the toy button in the bunker—Ivanka’s idea and a good one—he still thinks he is, still boasts that his button is much bigger & more powerful than anyone else’s.
“Now how about those bacon and eggs,” he says. With great effort he lifts himself off the bed and waddles to the door wearing only his underpants. “And after breakfast, how about a round of golf?” He doesn’t put on a robe, maybe he forgets, maybe he just doesn’t bother, maybe, because they removed all mirrors in the bunker, he’s forgotten what he looks like.
He waltzes like an elephant into the spacious dining room and looks around for Melania. Ivanka holds her breath, hopes he won’t ask where she is. The few loyalists still with him after the purge look the other way. “I think I got Mike this time, honey,” he says as he jabs his fork into a piece of fatty bacon.
“I’m sure you did, Daddy.” Ivanka kisses the top of his shiny head and sits next to him.
He talks a lot, with a mouthful of food as always, about the button that isn’t real. He doesn’t remember the nuclear football. He has no memory of when, in a fit of rage, he used the code to launch a nuclear attack. He remembers what he was angry about, though. Those damn traitors. Their lies. The unfairness. No one told him that Seoul was wiped out first. Then Seattle. Then the others, a chain reaction. Nothing about human tissue vaporized, the fatal burns, radiation sickness, starving, painful cancers.
He thinks the bunker is his new Imperial Palace and it suits him. His daily life is the same as always. He uses twitter to ward off his enemies with no internet to transmit his vitrialic tweets and no one alive to receive them. But he doesn’t know that.
IN PRAISE OF INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES
Jul 29, 2016
When my novel, At the Center, was published last year, five bookstores in four different cities helped launch it by hosting book events. Thanks to the forging of strong author-bookstore partnerships, the events were like parties in packed houses with enthusiastic audiences, strong sales, lots of energy, and sometimes even food. Each event was magical. The four cities were selected because of the number of people I know there—friends, family, colleagues, and other contacts—and because they represented different parts of the country. The bookstores were selected because of their popularity, community spirit, and support of writers.
SEATTLE: THIRD PLACE BOOKS
Thank you to Wendy and Kalani at Third Place Books-Lake Forest Park for the first party and to Michael and Alex at Third Place Books-Ravenna the University of Minnesota Alumni Association who joined forces for a second event in the Pub.
MINNEAPOLIS: MAGERS AND QUINN BOOKSTORE
The next party was in the state of my birth, the place I will always consider to be home. A huge shout-out to Ann Mayhew and this wonderful bookstore in the heart of the popular Uptown neighborhood for being so generous with her time and so welcoming to all my friends and family who filled every seat and more.
BALTIMORE: THE IVY BOOKSTORE
Ed Berlin, owner of this the popular and wonderfully community-centered bookstore, couldn’t have been more thoughtful during the planning phase or more gracious and encouraging during the event, even when he had to keep bringing in more and more chairs until there were no more.
Kudos and deep gratitude to owner Susan Post of this premiere feminist bookstore that has a rich forty-year herstory of providing books to change women’s lives and the world. Thanks to her, the last launch event of the tour was filled with the joy and laughter of reuniting with friends and meeting new people and discovering new fans.