1000 Words: Crime & Joy

Funny how the least of Donald J. Trump’s sins, apparently, will be the one that gets him indicted first.

Me? I couldn’t care less that he paid off a pornstar to keep her mouth shut about an affair they had years ago. Just as I couldn’t have cared less that then-President Bill Clinton got a blowjob in the Oval Office and lied about it under oath.

Yes, Clinton’s lie and Trump’s bribe both broke the law but you and I know some laws are important and others not so. For instance, if a person is carrying a small amount of marijuana for personal use at the geographic coordinates 41.707842°N 87.524471°W, and takes a single step to her right, she has automatically broken the law. That’s because, in this example, she stepped from Illinois into Indiana.

Trump’s coming indictment, based on what we know so far, stems from him cooking his books. He allegedly ordered his personal lawyer to bribe the pornstar and then his umbrella company reimbursed that lawyer. That’s a crime, sure. Companies aren’t supposed to declare bribes as business expenses, which is what the Trump Organization did.

Folks, that’s absolutely nothing compared to what Trump’s company did regarding getting nine-figure loans from banks by artificially inflating the value of holdings he declared as collateral, and then turning around to artificially dis-inflate those same holdings when it came time to pay taxes on them.

And that‘s absolutely nothing compared to how Trump, the man, has personally warped America’s and the world’s view of truth and reality, how he’s debased public discourse as president by verbally abusing both people and countries, and how he has fomented violence both prior to January 6th and in recent days leading up to his indictment.

Funny thing is, a guest on NPR’s morning edition made the iffy statement that America is saddened by the revelation that Trump indeed will be indicted. I suppose this fellow, whom I recall was described as a Republican strategist, spoke a grain of truth. Sure, it’s sad that a former president will be fingerprinted, booked, and arraigned. But at least half the nation is giddy over this news.

I can’t say I am, even though I feel the political ascension of Trump is one of the low points in American history. No, I’m not giddy that he’ll be doing the perp walk. I only want him to go away — as in never be president again and stop inciting his mob to violence. And, before I forget, quit spewing falsehoods and verbally abusing other people and nations.

The president should be above such things.

Yet at least 30 percent of the American electorate remains in thrall to this man. That’s what’s really sad.

Yesterday was Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, a high, holy day for me. Spring is here no matter what the weather report says. The skies were fairly clear over Wrigley Field in Chicago but the temps hovered in the low 40s. No matter the weather, Wrigley Field would be my personal vision of heaven, if I believed in heaven.

I’ve been rained on, sun-baked, snowed on, and pushed around by gale-force winds at Wrigley Field but never have I considered any visit there a bad experience.

Well, truth be told, I suffered the initial effects of amoebic dysentery there on a sunny June afternoon in 1984. Around the sixth inning, I fled the place and raced home lest disaster strike. For the next week I endured a fever that caused hallucinations and never ventured more than a few steps from the bathroom. So, yeah, that was a bad experience. But it was the only one. Also, I’ve never eaten another hot dog again at Wrigley Field. When I told my doctor I’d eaten a wienie a half hour before my symptoms started, he nodded and told me the bug that got into me very likely came from a food worker who hadn’t washed his hands after relieving himself.

That kind of mental picture never leaves you.

Otherwise, all my experiences — even the disappointments and heartbreaks — at Wrigley Field have been, if not uniformly blissful, at least happy. Even the one Saturday, very early in the season, when the Cubs played a game two days after a fairly heavy snowfall had blanketed Chicago. I sat in the first row of the upper deck and had to stomp my feet almost continuously to keep them warm as there were a couple of inches of ice beneath them. Future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux handcuffed the Cubs that afternoon but, still, there was no place I’d rather have been.

A Black Cat Crosses the Cubs Dugout in New York, September 1969.

Not even the time I attended the Chicago Bulls’ NBA championship-clinching game against the Seattle SuperSonics in 1996 could top, for me, any old regular season game at Wrigley Field, even in a year they stunk the joint up.

Perhaps my fondest memory at Wrigley was the game on Tuesday, August 19, 1969. I sat in the centerfield bleachers, actually underneath the big hand-operated scoreboard, part of what gives the place its old-timey feel. I like to think I got the last ticket sold that day because the fellow in the bleachers ticket booth slammed his window shut after he was finished dealing with me.

The Cubs were steamrolling to their first World Series in a generation.  They were in first place, already 31 games over .500 and the city was delirious. Lefthander Kenny Holtzman threw a no-hitter that day against Henry Aaron and his Atlanta Braves. Fans poured out of the stands as his teammates mobbed Holtzman on the mound after the final out.

I was 13 years old and certain my entire life would be validated when the Cubs won the World Series that coming October.

Of course, they didn’t. They suffered their notorious monumental collapse and watched as the heretofore woebegone New York Mets sped past them and won the title.

Nevertheless, that Tuesday remains one of the happiest days of my life.

1000 Words: Sometimes…

…I just don’t know.

What I do know this moment is I screamed at the radio this AM. That’s something I haven’t done in years, at least since November 2016 when…, well, you know what happened in November 2016.

Today the news, about as disturbing but more immediately tragic for a group of parents, relatives, friends, neighbors and compassionate others, was all about a yet another loon with a high-powered firearm offing a half dozen innocents in a Nashville, Tennessee school. Three adults and three nine-year-old students caught lead because some personification of evil couldn’t think his way past whatever previous slights or insults have been dominating his warped brain for the last few years.

News coverage of such events has become boilerplate: the horror, the details, interviews with law enforcement officials, a statement from the president, “not much is known at this time about the shooter.” If, indeed, AI should become the new standard replacement for human reporters, mass shootings will be the repetitive story it will cover as well or better than its flesh and blood predecessors.

Anyway, the radio. The human anchor covering this latest carnage had to, had to, ask the human reporter on the scene the single most annoying question posed during the fallout from any kind of horrifying misfortune: “How,” she asked, “are the people of Nashville dealing with this tragedy?”

I snapped. It’s long been a bugaboo for me. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gritted my teeth when, listening to a report about, say, an apartment fire that claimed the lives of several children and the reporter asking the neighbors or even the parents, “How do you feel about all this?”

Is that taught in J-school? I’d been under the impression that “news” was something extraordinary, meaning had those neighbors or parents replied, “This block’ll be better off without those bratty little bastards,” that would be news. Getting the grieving to say they’re grieving, to admit their lives are shattered just now, that it’s doubtful they’ll ever get over the trauma, well, that’s given, for pity’s sake.

The reporter may as well have asked the person, “In which direction did the sun rise this morning?”

Here we are again. This is piling on. Not only do we have more guns than people in this benighted holy land, not only do far too many people believe guns are the answer to every problem imaginable, not only do we lap up two-fisted shooters on movie and TV screens, not only does one of our two major political parties pander to the Gun Fondlers of America all the while flipping the bird to the weakest, lamest, most unfortunate among our sisteren and brethren, and simultaneously shrieking to high heaven that the single most pressing issue facing our great nation today is a few men dressing as women but, dammit, here’s another woeful tale of children — nine-year-olds — being slaughtered in their classroom. It’s too much, I tell you.

The straw that broke my patience’s back was that radio reporter asking, “How are the people of Nashville dealing with this tragedy?”

I bellowed, “They’re sad, you fucking idiot!”

The cat jumped. The windows rattled. The Loved One called out, What’s going on?

Despite the fact my hands were sudsy and soaking wet from washing the morning dishes, I grabbed at the transistor radio (yes, I still have a transistor radio; two of them, in fact) and flipped it off as dramatically and emphatically as possible, considering the act only entailed my forefinger moving the on-off switch a few millimeters to the left. There!

Every once in a while, I take a deserved break from the news. My sanity depends on it. And thus begins my latest hiatus from rotten news, fucking idiot reporters, and any mention of the man who made headlines in 2016.

Okay, lemme redirect things around here. One of my passions, as all loyal Pencillistas know, is science. Now, I respect and revere scientists. That is, their work in their respective scientific sub-fields is worthy of esteem. I do not uniformly or universally respect scientists as human beings. In fact, far too many of them are or have been…, well, jerks.

The prime examples are James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the helical nature of the DNA molecule, perhaps the basic building block of life as we know it. The three stood on their heads to deny their colleague, Rosalind Franklin, her fair share of the glory. Franklin was the one who actually eyeballed the structure of the molecule and described it to the other fellows. But, being men, they patted her on the head and ran off to grab all the plaudits.


The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) reports that fewer than 30 percent of the world’s scientists today are female. “Numerous studies have found that women in STEM fields publish less, are paid less foir their reserach and do not progress as far as men in their careers,” the UIS report states.

That all said, let’s celebrate the most recent female to win a Nobel Prize in one of the STEM fields. Last year, Carolyn Bertozzi of Stanford University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, shared the Nobel in Chemistry for her work in both “click” and bioorthogonal chemistry.


Her Nobel mini-bio reads:

Chemists strive to build increasingly complicated molecules. For a long time, this has been very time consuming and expensive. Click chemistry means that molecular building blocks snap together quickly and efficiently. Around 2000, Carolyn Bertozzi started utilising click chemistry in living organisms. She developed bioorthogonal reactions which take place inside living organisms without disrupting the normal chemistry of the cell. These reactions are now used to explore cells, track biological processes, and improve the targeting of cancer pharmaceuticals.

Let’s celebrate even more the currently anonymous grade school girls who might learn about Bertozzi and hope to become scientists one day.

North Carolina fifth-grader Aubrey Slaughter wins her school’s science fair for her “Movement & Power: Homopolar Motor” Display.

1000 Words: Thought Crimes

The last member of the Hollywood Ten died in 2000. One died in 1999. Three died in 1985. The rest died between the years 1957 and 1977.

It’s possible if you’re, say, 30-ish, you might have some memory of reading the obit of Ring Lardner, Jr., the last of that gang to turn in his typewriter and depart this mortal coil.

As I sit here writing this, at a table in Hopscotch, the Bloomington coffeehouse that serves as my work/social headquarters, I turn to my tablemate, a 41-year-old who is a voracious reader, a student of history, and an all-around knowledgable guy, and ask him if he knows what or who the Hollywood Ten were. He doesn’t, which surprises me.

He knows, of course, about the post-World War II communist witch hunts in this holy land, of which the H-Ten were among the more infamous victims. The Hollywood Ten made big news in the autumn of 1947, when they were subpoenaed by the US House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, commonly known as the House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC.

The Ten were screenwriters, playwrights, novelists, and directors who had been members of or had cozied up to the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in the 1930s or ’40s. The HUAC members tried to grill them about their Party memberships and who else had shown up at CPUSA meetings. Each of the Ten refused to name names. Each of the Ten served time in prison because of it. Each of the Ten was blacklisted from employment in his chosen profession.

Think of it. In this century, in this millennium (if you tend to include the -00 years in those time frames) there was still living in these United States a person who’d been imprisoned for thinking the wrong things.

And, make no mistake, the things they thought were wrong, Their CPUSA was bankrolled, largely, by Joe Stalin’s Soviet Union even as his orders and practices resulted in the deaths and forced migrations of millions. The 1848 pamphlet CPUSA members adored, Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, laid out a wholly unrealizable utopia wherein no one wanted for the basics of life and the capitalist world’s rival classes were eliminated.

The Hollywood Ten, like many Americans — like millions around the world — had been soured by the excesses of capitalism and the agonies imposed on most people during the Great Depression. They mistakenly thought Marx’s vision of the future was achievable and would be ultimately successful. They bought into Soviet propaganda that the Stalinist empire was a fair and equitable place.

Again, they were wrong.

Keep in mind none of the Ten was imprisoned for any crime of violence or insurrection or intimidation. Each was found guilty of Contempt of Congress for refusing rat out fellow Party members.

A contemporary analogy would be if, say, the Democratic-majority Senate threw folks in the federal pen for attending MAGA rallies, or the Republican-dominated House of Representatives imprisoned contributors to Planned Parenthood or the American Civil Liberties Union.

A lot of people think we’re living in a “cancel culture” these days (and, to a certain extent, we are, thanks to both ends of the political spectrum) but, truth is, we’re not throwing people in prison for joining a club or reading the wrong pamphlet.

An anecdote from one of the Hollywood Ten HUAC inquisitions: Albert Maltz, who’d penned the scripts for such classic movies as This Gun for Hire, Destination Tokyo, Pride of the Marines, and The Naked City, took his turn before the committee. One of his questioners was Mississippi segregationist John E. Rankin. The House member had long publicly held that the Ku Klux Klan was a noble organization. As Rankin began to query Maltz, the screenwriter interrupted, stating he wouldn’t be “dictated to or intimidated by men to whom the Ku Klux Klan, as a matter of committee record, is an acceptable American institution.”

Contempt, indeed.

It should be noted that never in American history has anyone ever been imprisoned for belonging to the KKK or hobnobbing with members thereof. This despite the fact that the Klan satisfies perfectly the definition of a domestic terrorism organization.

The American capitalist system is a stacked deck, rewarding the haves and punishing the have-nots, with racism, sexism, and nativism built into it. Our economic structure in the year 2023 is far more warped and cruel than it was in 1935, when Maltz joined the CPUSA, or 1947 when HUAC hauled him and the rest of the Ten before it.

HUAC members and their more rabid supporters held that the Hollywood Ten and other American communists were disloyal and subversive. Meaning, I suppose, they wanted to overthrow…, um, something. Politicians and demagogues were scared to death in the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, by the spread of socialist and even communist thought in America. Stalin’s communists were clever guys, realizing that America should be attacked through its two weakest spots, wealth inequity and racism. Thoughtful but misguided people like bass-baritone Paul Robeson visited the Soviet Union, were given the white-washed tour, and came away thinking they’d get a better shake in Moscow.

They didn’t take into account the endemic and pervasive white supremacy that runs through the veins of much of Russia even today. Stalin’s Potemkin villages fooled a lot of people. Marx’s pie-in-the-sky utopia fooled many more. Being fooled, falling victim to charlatans and fabulists, isn’t an imprisonable offense in the United States. If it were, our jails would be bursting twenty times more than they already are, which is one hell of a lot.

Here’s a list of the Hollywood Ten:

  • Alvah Bessie novelist, journalist, screenwriter
  • Herbert J. Biberman screenwriter, director
  • Lester Cole screenwriter
  • Edward Dmytryk director
  • Ring Lardner, Jr. screenwriter
  • John Howard Lawson screenwriter, playwright
  • Albert Maltz playwright screenwriter, fiction writer
  • Samuel Ornitz screenwriter, novelist
  • Adrian Scott screenwriter, film producer
  • Dalton Trumbo screenwriter

The Hollywood Ten (minus one)

The House Un-American Activities Committee was disbanded in 1975.

1000 Words: Booked

Now that Caveat Emptor has reopened under new ownership, the east side of Bloomington’s courthouse square is back to being a vibrant book destination.

I stopped in Friday afternoon, Dayna Thompson’s grand re-opening day for the place. The floors were squeaky clean, the shelves neatly ordered, and the total inventory reduced to a manageable amount.

There are, in retail, two polar opposite merchandising philosophies. One says fill every available square inch of your floors and walls with goods. Empty space, so this thinking goes, is not generating revenue. Then there are those merchandisers who design their floor spaces to include broad aisles and a limited number of choices. Adherents of this philo. believe customers can zoom in on key items and not be overwhelmed with a jillion things to look at.

Caveat re-joins the Book Corner as downtown Bloomington’s book headquarters. The Book Corner has been open for business on the northeast corner of Walnut and Kirkwood since 1964 when the original owner, Jim Spannuth, bought the bank building there and turned it into his retail space. Spannuth had run a thriving newspaper, magazine, and book shop farther east on Kirkwood Avenue, nearer to the Sample Gates. He was a customer of the bank and when its owner told him he was building a new location down the street, Spannuth bought the building and moved in when the bank moved out.

There was a small concrete foundation in the front corner of the first floor where a safe had been installed and the basement contained at least two big vaults, as far as I could tell. Trust me, many Book Corner employees have scoured every inch of those vaults for whatever stray hundred-dollar bills someone might have left behind, but none ever turned up.

The first time I walked into the Book Corner, I met Ruth Paris, as fire-crackery a person as I’ve ever met. I asked if the place was hiring and was told no but I should leave my name  and number with the owner, Spannuth’s daughter Margaret Taylor. I did so and then proceeded to call the store every week for about a month until, I suppose, they got tired of hearing from me and just gave me a job. I’ve been there going on 14 years now, even though I’ve taken several long leaves of absence due to a succession of health challenges that make Alexandre Dumas (fils)’ character, Camille, look robust.

Both the Book Corner and Caveat Emptor regularly carry tomes authored by such as the Dumases (pere et fils) as well as the latest Colleen Hoover efforts. As I’ve written herein previously, it doesn’t offend me that quadrillions of people are reading Hoover and her wannabes these days, as long as people are reading. We can even look at Hoover as a gateway drug; if a certain number of her readers find themselves so drawn to reading, they might next turn to the 19th century Gallic father and son scribes. Or at least Bill Bryson and P.G. Wodehouse.

Even if they don’t, even if they continue to read modern romance novels solely for the next few decades, at least their faces aren’t going to be buried in their smartphone screens. Well, every second of the day, that is.

As I say, Ruth Paris was a firecracker. One that was likely to go off, unexpectedly, at any moment. She was passionate about politics and world events, but that doesn’t do her ardor any justice. Calling her passionate about those things is like saying Elon Musk is doing okay, financially. One day, about a week after I started at the Book Corner, I heard Ruth getting into a noisy argument with a customer. He was spouting all the then-canards about Barack Obama — that he was an Islamist, that he was schooled in a terrorist madrassa, that he was born in Kenya, that he was a commie. Ruth went toe-to-toe with the guy. Then she spun on her heel and stormed off, proclaiming loudly, “Some people are just too stupid to argue with!”

I figured she must have known the man to have engaged so ardently with him. A few moments later I asked her who he was. “”I don’t know,” she said. “I never saw him before.”

Sadly, Ruth died in the summer of 2014. Then again, maybe she was lucky. Had she been alive to see the likes of Donald Trump ascend to the presidency, her head would have exploded — and not just with the force of a little firecracker.

Anyway, I got introduced to Janis Starcs, the founder of Caveat, early on. Our stores each acted as though we were two sides of the same coin rather than cut-throat competitors. Booksellers in each place told customers to go to the other place if they couldn’t find what they wanted in the first place. That tradition carries on today. Dayna told me she’d directed somebody to the Book Corner within an hour after opening her doors.

Throw in Morgenstern’s bookshop/cafe/community center on the east side and Bloomington’s book-loving populace is well-served.

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A couple of years back the Pew Research Center took a look at who doesn’t read books in America. Pew’s September 21st, 2021 report revealed a few things about America’s reading habits. To wit:

  • Nearly one in four (23%) Americans polled hadn’t read a single book in the previous year
  • People with only a  high school diploma were more than three times as likely not to have read a book in the past year as those with college degrees (39% vs. 11%)
  • Thirty-one percent of people earning less than $30,000 a year hadn’t read a book in a year while 11% of those earning $75,000 or more hadn’t
  • Surprisingly, more older people, 55 years old-plus, hadn’t read a book in the past year than younger people, 18-48 (28% vs. 19%)
  • Less surprisingly, more men than women hadn’t read a book in the past year (26%-21%)

By the way, I can thank Janis Starcs for pointing out Pew’s study. We readers — and we booksellers — like to help each other out.

1000 Words: Olio

Notice that word in the headline? Proof positive I’m a crossword junkie. Olio shows up approximately every half dozen crosswords I do. Clue: A four-letter word for Medley. Or Miscellany, Assortment, Melange, etc. It’s one of those words that turn up only in crosswords.

I don’t use it myself (until this very minute) because it just doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t fit its definition. Plus, it sounds and looks too much like Oleo, another crossword word. Short for Oleomargarine. Which itself is a funny word like Omnibus, the grandparent of our commonly-used term, Bus. Or maybe it’s the parent thereof. If, in that case, it’s related on its mother’s side, it would be described as Enate. Yet another crossword word.

See how my vocabulary has been expanded by spending so many hours, months, years — decades, for chrissakes — filling out all those crossword puzzles? Not that I use any of the aforementioned in everyday conversation. Nevertheless they continue to reside in my personal word bank. Or Jargon, Glossary, or Lexicon.

Okay, I’ll stop.

Anyway, Olio. It’s in the hed (an old newspaper contraction for Headline) today because this post will be, natch, a collection of things, as opposed to an essay on a single topic.

Topic No. 1 (obviously): Olio and crosswords.

Topic No. 2: The 45th President of the United States may or may not be indicted today in New York City. He may or may not be arrested or turn himself in. Nobody knows nothin’ just yet. We do know he made a hush money payment to a porn star with whom he dabbled some years ago. We don’t know, just yet, if the funds he used to shut her up came, illegally, from his campaign chest.

But here’s something we do know. Donald Trump is a man who’s never let an opportunity to be in the public eye slip — even if it’s for being involved in a potentially criminal, tawdry bribe. The other day he shrieked out to the world on his Truth Social page that he was going to be busted today, thereby spurring countless idolators to unbelt and send scads of scratch to his campaign and other accounts because…, well, that’s what he does best. Raking in suckers’ dough and portraying himself as ever-aggrieved, the target of vicious, spiteful persecutors, and the Victim-in-Chief, are his primary — and likely only — talents.

In any case, when announcing he was going to be perp-walked, he called for his supporters to come out and protest as the bracelets are being slapped on him. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why there hasn’t been a screaming outrage over this call-out. I mean, the last time he called for protests, a mob stormed the United States Capitol, occupied Representatives’ offices, smeared human shit on marble walls, floors, and statues, broke stuff up, and cost the lives of five people. It was, perhaps, the ugliest scene in Washington, DC since segregationists felt comfortable enough to display their true colors (pun intended) back in the days of Strom Thurmond and Dick Russell.

It’d be like Bernie Madoff announcing from his prison cell he was about to start a new business venture. Or the loon who killed nine Black people in a South Carolina church back in 2015 authoring a book on the history of race relations in the United States.

Donald Trump begging for people to take the streets is a clarion call for violence and mayhem. Yet it seems nobody was terribly disturbed by his call. Except me.

In delving into this, I learned that Trumpists, by and large, are being uncharacteristically circumspect regarding these protests. USA Today reports Trump’s message “seems to be falling on deaf — or at least unwilling — ears.” The Hill quotes House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a notorious Trump coat-holder, as saying, “I don’t think people should protest this stuff.” The Associated Press reports, “Former President Donald Trump’s calls for protests before his anticipated indictment in New York have generated mostly muted reactions from supporters, with even some of his most ardent loyalists dismissing the idea as a waste of time or a law enforcement trap.”

What does this all tell us? Is Trump’s svengali-hold on that 30-or-so percent of the American electorate petering out? Or are the Trumpists playing a strategic hand?

Either way, what Trump did is spectacularly rash, even for him.

Of course, it could be that America, at long last, is beginning to ignore him the way frazzled parents strategically ignore the tantrums of a brat.

Topic No. 3: I’ve lived in Bloomington, Indiana for a good 14 years now. I’ve loved much of it. I told one of my Bloomington pals early on that it was like a dream for me to live in a college town and rub shoulders with professors, lecturers, researchers, and other such cerebralists.

Yet the habitués of academia are not without their quirks. Take a look at this description for an American Comparative Literature Association seminar that took place this past weekend in Chicago:

What key concepts or fundamental principles might best equip theory as an engaged practice for the 21st century? What sorts of norms and ideals should organize criticism and theory: how and why? This seminar asks participants to identify a specific value — i.e. “sustainability” or “freedom” or “impersonality” or “disclosure” or “affirmation” etc. — and to argue vigorously for it. It seeks papers that situate these values both within and against guiding edicts in the tradition of literary criticism and comparative literature.  What principles might better operationalize and animate critical theory? What habits and dictates have precluded value assertion from within literary criticism? How might a specific value for the present and future either extend and explicate or counter and revise the governing conventions of the past?

What in god’s holy name does any of that mean?

My first impulse was to ridicule, mercilessly, whomever wrote the description as well as anybody who signed up for the seminar.

But perhaps I’m just ignorant. If any Pencillistas can decode this paragraph, please help me understand it.

Although any statement containing the word Operationalize seems, de facto, inscrutable.

Operationalize:  Yet another entry in my word bank. And one I don’t suspect I’ll ever actually use.

1000 Words: Our Very Own

As we all sit around and cluck our tongues about what a bastard Russian boss Vladimir Putin is, a lot of us will hardly notice that Monday is the 20th anniversary of our own foray into overthrowing a sovereign government, slaughtering countless civilians, and destroying precious infrastructure.

That’s right: March 20th marks two decades since the United States of America invaded Iraq. The undeclared war lasted eight years, eight months, and 29 days and cost the lives of more than 4600 US soldiers, a couple of hundred others from participating coalition nations, more than 17,600 Iraqi fighters, and — at very least — more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Some estimates of civilian deaths range as high as 300,000. If you want to split the difference, go ahead. They’re only numbers. A hundred thousand or three hundred thousand matters only to accountants and statisticians. Whether it’s the low end or the high that’s accurate, countless mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles, spouses, lovers, friends, neighbors, and many others mourned the loss of someone close to them.

So, yeah sure, Putin’s a bastard. But what was — is — George W. Bush?

To this day, the question remains: Why did the US invade Iraq?

You want an answer? Pick from this list:

  • Iraq participated in planning and executing the 9/11 attacks
  • Iraq’s leader was a no-good tyrant
  • Iraq was thisclose to making its own nuclear weapons
  • Iraq possessed chemical and/or biological weapons and was prepared to use them on its neighbors or even on us

How about this? Saddam Hussein was a mote in the eye of the global fossil fuel industry.

Or this? Pentagon wonks, relying on game theory models, foresaw a war between the US and Iraq somewhere down the road, so why not make it happen sooner rather than later, at a time and place of our choosing?

So, there’s six possible reasons why our holy land launched an attack that killed, at minimum, 150,000 human beings. Pick one or pick ’em all.

And, truth is, that’s likely precisely what President Bush and his trusted advisors did in the lead-up to March 20, 2003. They picked ’em all.

I haven’t even mentioned yet another casus belli, America’s ego. We got punked on 9/11 and beating the bejesus out of Afghanistan simply wasn’t enough for us to get our macho-man mojo back. The year 2003 was still only 30 years past our ignominious loss in the Vietnam (undeclared) War. Most decision makers and, hell, most Americans, still smarted over that disaster. We needed a big time win and Hussein’s Iraq was screaming out to be trounced.

Dang, Dutch, Rambo, and all the rest of the 80s genies whose lamps we rubbed in hopes our great nation could once again kick the living crap out another nation, just the way god intended, were itching like mad to sling semi-automatics over their shoulders again and march off to the shores of Tripoli. Our victory in the first Gulf War against Hussein was spectacularly unsatisfying inasmuch as Saddam remained in power, we never occupied Iraqi control centers, and that war’s end was less a moment of supreme triumph than the blowing out of a candle.

War against a real enemy, led by a man whom we could plausibly* compare to Adolf Hitler, and resulting in an inarguable W in the record books, became inevitable from 1979 on.

* Plausible, that is, to the vast majority of Americans whose idea of history was a six-month old rerun of “Cheers.”

Back in ’79, we got humiliated by that other I-country over there somewhere in the Middle East, or wherever, y’know…, they’re all the same, aren’t they? Islamic militants in Iran overthrew the Shah and took 52 American diplomats and office workers hostage, keeping them for 444 days, costing Jimmy Carter the presidency and us our swagger as The Country that Won World War II. The hostages were released a scant half hour after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States, a choreographed “coincidence” that became proof positive to the lunkhead set that Saint Ron had superpowers.

Even though we got the hostages back, thank god almighty, we hadn’t sliced the Ayatollah Khomeini and his wild-eyed revolutionaries into ribbons, giving the aforementioned lunkhead gang more time and reason to stew.

Thus began the slew of movies wherein the Vietnam War and other American humiliations were re-fought against fictional enemies. The were, of course, Rambo, Stripes,  Commando, Top Gun…, hell the list goes on and on. Americans — the good guys — triumphing in those flicks made us feel good for a moment or two as we left theaters but only the real thing, a blood-soaked ass-whuppin’ administered by us to them — whoever they were — would suffice.

And when our nation was spanked and shut down by the several dozen fundamentalist loons bankrolled by Osama bin Laden, our urge to fight — whomever, wherever, it didn’t matter one iota — became irresistible.

Max Fisher writes in Sunday’s New York Times that many in the Bush braintrust had a hankering to go shooting in Iraq years before 9/11 or anybody had started whispering the initials WMD. Whereas Iraq’s purported nuclear program was, in reality, as close to non-existent as it could be, its chemical and biological weapons programs ditto, and game theory models are the stuff of, well, games, Bush’s people cobbled together all the reasons to go gunning into Iraq and simply picked the ones that would resonate with the American people the most and the best.

Fisher writes: “A critical mass of senior officials all came to the table wanting to topple Mr. Hussein for their own reasons, and then talked one another into believing the most readily available justification.”

And so began the eight year, eight month, 29 day undeclared war that cost anywhere from 150,000 to more than 300,000 people their lives. Don’t get me wrong, the world without Saddam Hussein is a better place but Iraq today is a failed state riven by violent factions. I don’t suppose Iraqis feel any much better today about their country than they did in, say, 2002.

As for us, the answer to the question posed above — But what was — is — George W. Bush? — is simple. He’s our bastard.

But, nevertheless, a bastard.

1000 Words: Pro- or Anti-

I’ve passed the sign countless times on State Road 46 just this side of Ellettsville. And it wasn’t until the other day that the full meaning of it hit me: WOMB radio. I don’t have a pic of the actual LED sign but here’s the logo from WOMB’s webpage:

Filling the O, naturally, is the image of a fetus, probably about six or seven months along in its development, far past the time the average pregnant woman gets an abortion. The Pew Research Center reported on January 11, 2023: “In 2020, 93% of abortions occurred during the first trimester – that is, at or before 13 weeks of gestation, according to the CDC.”

Now, the Roman Catholic Church isn’t the first or only advocacy organization to exaggerate to makes its point. Hell, I recall seeing one environmental group try to scare the bejesus out of the world by claiming climate change just might wipe out life on the planet by the year 2050. You don’t get very far by saying, “Hey, folks, we’ve got a really serious problem on our hands but it ain’t gonna affect us for a few hundred or even a thousand years.”

No, if you want to motivate people, if you want them to dip into their wallets to contribute to your cause, you make them think disaster’s right around the corner. Or, like WOMB radio, you portray the statistically least likely potentially aborted fetus in order to shake up the largest number of drivers passing by its LED sign.

For pity’s sake, during The Loved One’s and my weekly Sunday drives through Southern Indiana, we see any number of anti-abortion billboards featuring a cuddly tot, grinning and half-tented in a crib blanket, accompanied by a message reading, essentially, Why Would You Kill This?

Well, you wouldn’t, because that kid’s already been born and abortion is a procedure done almost exclusively during the first trimester of pregnancy. The 45th President of the United States, when he was running for office sometime in 2016, even claimed many doctors were performing abortions after the child had been delivered which, like so much of what he’s ever said, is utterly dishonest. That would be called murder and if such a practice does hold in this holy land, the twice-impeached president would have been the very first to point it out, a terribly unlikely possibility considering he’d never before shown any concern for the life of any human being, whether recently delivered, ten years old, 25, 55, or 95.

I can’t explain why the WOMB sign eluded my close attention until now. Generally, I’m alert to all road signs, even reading them aloud, much to The Loved One’s mild annoyance. Certainly the bazillions of anti-abortion signs on SR 37, US 50, Interstate 69, and pretty much every paved byway in the state imprint themselves in my memory. Maybe it’s the high-tech aspect of WOMB’s sign. There’s this quasi-Luddite aspect of my nature that causes me to shy away from tech for tech’s sake, as evidenced by my refusal to carry a smartphone. But that’s just me.

But now WOMB is etched in my brain. Again, I’m moved by how obsessed half this nation is with abortion. All the churches of whatever faith TLO and I pass every Sunday seem compelled to post a sign or billboard. And the vast majority of said signs and billboards carry an anti-abortion message. Of all the ills in the world abortion, apparently, is the only one that counts with people who believe there’s such a thing as a god.

Back to WOMB’s website, the footer message on its main page reads (all sic):

From WOMB to the TOMB we are 100% pro-life. No contraception. No abortion. No euthanasia… NO EXCEPTIONS!!!

Given their exuberant use of capital letters and exclamation marks, the people who run WOMB really mean business.

Funny thing is, there’s no mention of capital punishment, which is odd considering so many religious types are spectacularly mistrustful of the government. I mean, governments from the township level to the superpower seem too often incapable of efficiently, quickly, and properly filling potholes, keeping banks from collapsing, preventing enemies from floating spy balloons over their territory, and even making sure trains carrying highly toxic chemicals are operated without fear of derailment and explosion. Yet, those same government officials are given a free hand to snuff out the lives of convicted criminals.

Criminals, of course, who’ve been convicted by a justice system demonstrably warped by money and racism. I’ve never yet seen an Indiana church sign or billboard saying No Capital Punishment Ever!

Church folks like to tell the world they are caring and loving, that helping their sisters and brothers is the highest form of dedication to godly principles. Yet their refusal to consider abortion even at risk of the mother’s life or her inability to care for and provide for her unborn child, coupled with their abhorrence of mercy killings and assisted suicides for people wracked by unbearable pain, untreatable cancer, inability to take a deep breath, or soul-crushing dementia appears to me to be flat out mean.

To be sure millions and millions of pious folks care deeply for humanity and might well perform supreme sacrifices for the benefit of others, but the obsessive anti-abortion gang doesn’t strike me as being part of that altruistic subset.

The anti-abortion movement seems a symptom of tribal supremacy. We don’t want our women to abort, it sounds as though they’re saying, because we have to have the most people. And it’s been the countries with the most people who traditionally have ruled, either over huge swathes of the planet or the entire globe.

I suppose this instinct was important when small, nomadic bands of people lived in fear of other small, nomadic bands of people on the other side of that big hill and across that wide river. They had to have more warriors than the other side did. Perhaps that still holds today. China boasts nearly five times as many people as the United States does. Should the two nations go toe to toe, China’s got a hell of a lot more cannon fodder to lose.

Perhaps being anti-abortion isn’t pro-life at all.

1000 Words: I Don’t Want To Know

Try as I might I can’t quite figure out all this transgender blowback that’s going on across this benighted countryt.

That Tennessee law banning most public displays of transgenderism would seem to be the last straw, the most egregious crackdown on people’s personal liberties imaginable. Then I remind myself that when radical, reactionary, neo- and crypt0-fascists get up a head of steam, the sky’s the limit. So Tennessee likely won’t have the last word in criminalizing gender expression.

While most of the nation seems okay with people deciding their genders assigned at birth don’t fit them anymore and, subsequently, acting upon that realization, antediluvian legislatures are falling all over themselves to enact laws designed to stop them. It’s as though a loud minority has taken over.

I suppose that explanation is as good as any.

Statehouse senators and representatives, as well as a passel of higher-ups — including Florida’s Ron DeSantis, Arkansas’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado’s Lauren Boebert — have positioned themselves as modern-day saviors, proclaiming themselves to be defenders of righteousness and good while cracking down viciously on rights and expressions.

Their chief crackdown right now is men dressing as women. Of course, it isn’t all as simple as that. Men dressing as women implies there are only two gender paths, both imposed on us all at birth and never to be trifled with. Reality and scientific explanation have demonstrated that gender is not binary but a fluid, too often societally warped spectrum. XXs and XYs are but one deciding factor in a person’s self-identification. People are born with a wide range of genital structures. Their minds and hearts, too, encompass an equally vast scale of sex and gender identifiers.

This has been true for all of human history. Men dressing as women, for lack of a better term, has been part of every human culture and society ever studied.

Women dressing as men, too. Yet, somehow, these modern day protectors of children and virtue don’t seem to care much about that aspect of things. Perhaps because women wearing men’s clothing signifies an aspiration to a higher state. To be sure, these anti-cross-gender display laws are written and championed by people who, no doubt, see men as superior beings and why in the hell wouldn’t any thinking woman want ascend to that holy state?

But men dressing as women? By god, that’s sick and evil. It’d be like blacks calling for a return to slavery or Jews loading themselves into the trains headed for Dachau. Crazy!

You see? I’m tying myself into knots trying to figure these people out. With a world entering a climate crisis stage, ongoing wars, the epidemic spread of automatic firearms and random shootings, men still physically abusing their domestic partners, the widening wealth gap, and countless other immediate and long-term threats to humanity, the DeSantis/Huckabee Sanders/Greene/Boebert gang see men on stage wearing spectacular gowns, multi-colored wigs, and dazzling makeup as something, by golly, we have to act on right now!

Of course, the drag-show-ban gang is using The Children as their most potent weapon. I’ve been to many a drag show and I’ve yet to see any crowd therein populated by tots. The Tennessee law specifically refers to The Children. It’s the same canard people used over the past few decades to fight against legal protections for gays and lesbians. What about The Children? they shriek.

It makes me wonder why The Children always pop into their minds when the issue of sex arises. I don’t want to make any unsupported claims here but…, well, use your imagination.

Problem is they’re using their imaginations and, for pity’s sake, thank heavens mine doesn’t go to those places.

Here’s another stab at trying to figure this all out. America — and much of the world — has become this tribal battlefield where each side sees everything the other thinks and says as The Worst Thing Imaginable. To be sure, my side does it too but, sheesh, the Trumpists, the Hard Right, the Fox News-consuming couch monsters have become expert practitioners at it. If the Liberals and the Democrats think drag shows are cool and lesbians can be teachers and gays cops, then these automatically become mortal sins. How many Fox folks even thought about drag shows before the echo chambers they live in brought them up? How many considered RuPaul — remember her? — a threat to children’s safety?

But as my side hollered for more tolerance and embracing of those Others, the other side reflexively dug in their heels. You’re okay with transgender people? In that case, they must be stopped!

As I say, I’m trying here. I’m casting about for answers.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon played women in “Some Like It Hot.” Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari did the same in “Bosom Buddies.” Hell, let’s go back hundreds of years to Shakespeare’s original productions in the Globe Theatre where every single solitary female role was played by a man. You’ve heard of Shakespeare, right? The fellow that every high school English teacher in anybody’s memory has assigned their students to read, to study, to embrace. As far as I know, high school students are mostly children.

No wonder there are so many gays and lesbians and drag show performances — The Children have been mesmerized by a playwright who dressed men in women’s clothing! Shakespeare was a groomer!

Am I coming any closer to an understanding here?

I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever know. There are some things I don’t want to know. And I sure as hell don’t want to go delving into the minds and imaginations of the likes of Ron DeSantis, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and the Tennessee legislature.

1000 Words: Casting Call — Hero

Both my cities — Bloomington and Chicago — are staging mayoral races this year. Both of them, too, will have a new mayor next term, no matter what happens in their respective contests.

Chicago is my beloved hometown and Bloomington my adopted home. I like and, occasionally, love them both for wildly different reasons. I dislike and, occasionally, loathe them both, similarly for disparate reasons.

Chi-town was the home of my younger days when I had all the energy in the world, all the curiosity, daring, rashness, and adventurousness, too. One of the great cities of the world, Chicago offered the younger Big Mike all the art, frissons, sex, food, sports, music, booze, and mildly criminal pursuits I could have imagined. Then, as my body began breaking down and I started dodging a string of death bullets, I found myself more composed, more exhausted, more circumspect, and less in need of thrills and spills. I wanted a slower pace, a more bucolic environment, but one that still offered me intellectual and artistic stimulation. Bloomington fits the bill.

Both cities are staunchly liberal, a must for me. I can’t tell you how difficult it is for me to live in this godforsaken Republican state with its reactionary, lunkhead legislators and largely Trumpist countryside. But being that Bloomington is a deeply entrenched island of progressivism — or what passes for progressivism these days — it’s almost bearable to live in what is sometimes referred to as the Alabama of the north. Or is it the Mississippi of the north? No matter.

Make no mistake, though, Illinoisians outside of Chicago are no more prone to read Cornel West or Noam Chomsky than most habitués of the aforementioned Mississippi. Or Alabama. Whatever. It’s just that Chicagoland is so huge and sprawling that a majority of state senators and representatives in Springfield are far closer to me in terms of life and political philosophy than, say, Indiana’s Todd Rokita, now the state’s attorney general but previously a longtime statehouse fixture. Rokita, for instance, gained national headlines last year when he launched a slander campaign against a medical doctor for performing an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim. In Rokita’s world, the doctor is the villain in the case, not the rapist.

Not everybody in Indiana buys into Rokitaism but plenty do. Way too plenty.

So, Chicagoans and Bloomingtonians are trudging to the polls this year to select shiny new chief executives. Bloomington’s current mayor, John Hamilton, unexpectedly announced this past November he wouldn’t be seeking a third term. The announcement opened the door for three Democrats to declare their candidacy in the party’s primary, which in this town is a coronation. To the best of my recollection, there hasn’t been a Republican candidate for mayor in any general mayoral election since I arrived here in 2009. As usual, there are no declared Republican candidates for any citywide office this year. A single Republican is running for  one of the nine city council seats.

The last Republican mayor of Bloomington was a fellow named Jack Hooker who was ousted in the 1971 election, a revolution of sorts that transformed this college town from a Republican stronghold to a Democratic one. For more info on that election read my friend Charlotte Zietlow’s new book, 1971: How We Won. While you’re at it, pick up the book I wrote with her, MInister’s Daughter, her memoir.

Hooker, by the way, was indicted for some zoning and development malfeasance, the likes of which deserved a slap on the wrist. Hooker was found guilty in a criminal trial. His punishment? A $2 fine. Let me clarify that: two bucks.

Back in Chi., a ward heeler in those days would use two dollars to light the hundred dollar bill he’d use to light his cigar. Which he probably stole or extorted in the first place.

Anyway, the three Dems wrasslin’ with each other for the right to sit in Hamilton’s warmed-up chair are Kerry Thomson, former longtime CEO of the local Habitat for Humanity branch and current director of Indiana University’s Center for Rural Engagement; Susan Sandberg, longtime and outgoing city council member and retired career development advisor in IU’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Don Griffin, real estate holding company founder and former deputy mayor under Hamilton.

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I’ve invited all three candidates to appear on my WFHB radio interview program, Big Talk. Thus far, Sandberg and Thomson have come on the show. I’m still waiting to schedule a recording date with Griffin. After the May 2nd primary, I’ll put out the call for any potential independents or Republicans (under state law, a major party may caucus in a candidate up until July, bypassing the primary process; I wouldn’t bet the mortgage this county’s GOP will do so this year, despite the heavy lifting performed by Taylor Bryant and William Ellis, current and former party chair, respectively).

Catch the Sandberg Big Talk here and the Thomson edition here. As soon as I get a Griffin edition on the air, I’ll post that podcast as well.

So, as I said, Bloomington’ll have a new mayor soon. So will Chicago. Current mayor Lori Lightfoot got the hell kicked out of her yesterday, finishing third to Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson. Perhaps it’d be more accurate to say the events of the past few years kicked the hell out of Lightfoot. The pandemic and resultant economic slowdown as well as an alarming violent crime rate and mob actions on the city’s showcase Magnificent Mile did her in. Vallas capitalized on those troubles, focusing his campaign on public safety. He emerged the top vote-getter yesterday. He’ll face Johnson in an April runoff. Chicago’s mayoral elections are non-partisan (well, technically, at least) and if a candidate doesn’t get a numerical majority in the first go-round, the top two meet in a runoff.

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The first question I asked of both Sandberg and Thomson was Why in god’s name would you want to be mayor? People vote for a mayor to solve the many intractable problems of a city, be it a part of a megalopolis or a modest mid-sized burgh. Invariably, those problems persist, voters get disenchanted and then seek another hero to come to the rescue.

Lori Lightfoot learned that lesson the hard way yesterday.

1000 Words: Fear & Loathing In A Hospital Gown

In what setting are you compelled to remove all your clothing and lie down while three, four, or even five people fuss around you, ministering to selected parts of your body?

I suppose one or two Pencillistas might flash, in their venereal imaginations, to that variety of intentionally inconspicuous business wherein money is exchanged for certain diversions.

Me? I’m thinking about the hospital. That’s been on my mind a lot of late because all the pre- and post-surgery appointments have been made for what I hope will be my final slicing and dicing in a long series of such excavations I’ve experienced, grudgingly, over the last 15 or so years. In that time, I’ve been carved open, re-jiggered, and sewn back up at least eight times that I can recall off the top of my head.

These operations included sawing bone ends off, the inducement of a therapeutic heart attack (honest: a surgeon actually caused a myocardial infarction in me, intentionally, to rectify a heart malformation), the insertion of a rubber feeding tube directly into my stomach, the implant of a defibrillator, the repair of gaping holes in my abdominal wall, and several other forms of knifeplay.

I’ve known about most of these things well in advance. I’ve planned the last three surgeries, including the one scheduled for Monday, April 10th, to take place at reasonable intervals over the last three years. The upcoming gashfest will entail my second total hip replacement.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m eternally grateful for the care and professionalism exhibited by the doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, attendants and all the other fine employees I’ll encounter on the day of surgery but, truth be told, I hate it, hate it all, hate it, hate it, hate it. I even hate them, much as I wish I wouldn’t.

Okay, I’ll Admit It: I Hate These People.

It ain’t easy to walk into a place and be told to strip and lie down on a cold bed in the pre-op room, while various people pepper me with questions about my medical history, my allergies, my living will, and my health insurance, while others poke and jam needles in me and record every measurable sign and symptom of the life remaining in me. Worse, at one point, someone’s going to come into the room and shave the hair off me in some ridiculously huge neighborhood surrounding the point where the surgeon plans to plunge his shiv.

I grit my teeth and try to be a good sport about it all but occasionally I get testy, pleading for only one person at a time do her or his thing. It’s the only remnant of bodily autonomy I have left at that moment. Sometimes the gang surrounding me even accedes to that wish.

One thing I dread is being pressured to characterize my pain using the numeric system hospitals have developed over the last few decades. Here it is:

Am I the only one who is baffled by this system? I find it almost impossible to answer when the nurse asks about my pain level.

I’m torn between being honest and being a he-man. Then — and don’t try to figure this out; several shrinks have tried and come up short — there’s my own doubt in my pain recognition. Am I imagining my pain to be worse than it actually is? Would a frail old lady bear similar pain better?

After one surgery, to remove a cataract from my right eyeball (into which a nurse had actually inserted a hypodermic needle beforehand — swear to god!) I experienced severe pain to the point of nausea. One attendant harrumphed and said little old ladies could take the pain better than I could. Turns out I was severely allergic to the anti-inflammatory drug they bathed my eyeball in. Again I kid you not, but the eyeball swelled, making me look like a monster from a cheap 1950s movie.

I was brought up in the 1960s when male boys were ordered to suck it up, don’t cry, don’t be a baby, you’ll get over it, only little girls cry, et cetera. Much as I’ve tried to move past those messages in the ensuing decades, they still reside in my psyche, sort of the way the chickenpox virus lurks in the system, just waiting to spring shingles on you when you’re 66 years old. Only there’s no vaccine to prevent the re-emergence of toxic male messaging.

So, if I think to characterize my pain as, say, a seven — very severe — am I being a baby? Would the 79-year-old woman down the hall be tolerating even worse pain?

I tell you, my very senses of valor and masculinity depend on my getting the answer right. Meaning the answer is never right.

For pity’s sake, why isn’t my assertion that the pain is severe — using those exact words — be sufficient? Oh no, we have to know whether that severe pain is 10 or 20 percent less than the Worst Pain Possible. Is this kind of thinking driven by computer programs or insurance risk managers? They’re very insistent on precise figures. If you get slugged in the nose, splattering the proboscis over much of your face, would the pain be a six or an eight or even a ten?

Who knows? More importantly, who cares? Why isn’t It hurts like hell enough?

We all understand pain levels exist on a spectrum. And that spectrum often is skewed by conditions. When you stub your toe in the middle of the night, the pain, for a scintillating moment at least, feels like a ten. But when your throat’s been burned by cancer radiation therapy for the last few weeks and you’re spitting out sloughed-off bits of the mucous membrane and skin lining your larynx, the pain begins to seem like a four or five.

It isn’t, but we get used to things, even severe pain.

I’ll survive April’s ordeal. Hell, I’ll probably be able to walk again, making all the discomfort, the loss of control, the ordeal, well worth it. But, please — please! — don’t ask me what number my pain is.

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