Without the balancing context of everyday life, all you have is the news, and news by its nature is generally bad.
— Zadie Smith
My Achilles heel in this gig has always been events which lack historical context. When something unbelievable happens, I almost always get to tell myself, “Yeah, but something a lot like that also happened in 1922,” and I feel grounded, and that’s good. I’m a lawyer’s kid; precedent is king. Most events have a sister somewhere in history; even the astonishment of September 11 has Pearl Harbor, right down to the LIHOP (Let It Happen On Purpose) conspiracy theories. If you want to be a true original in this world, you best eat your Wheaties.
Rogue wave events, however, have a way of roaring over the gunwhale and swamping my ship. A good example came when Dick Cheney declared the Vice President’s office was not part of the Executive Branch because he didn’t want to hand over his papers to the National Archive as required by three different laws. Yeah, that happened, and I was a good two days talking to the cat afterward. Once upon a time, such unsettling events were a relative rarity. That, as they say, was then.
Suddenly, as if we all lost some cosmic bet, events seemingly without historical context have been flying in the window like those damned monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. In virtually every way imaginable, Trump & Co. have been borrowing pages from every tin-pot dictator and wannabe fascist that has ever scarred the skin of the planet. It would be boringly repetitive if it wasn’t so flatly terrifying: overwhelm with bombast, charge from all sides, be deliberately unpredictable. The absence of context is not a bug; it’s a feature.
The first time I had to write the words “President Donald Trump,” I became untethered, opaque, a ghost in a fog bank. My mental fingers frantically clawed the dirt seeking purchase, to no avail. I was lost in strange space with a moment that seemed to have no satisfactory peer … and then a hailstorm of peerless moments followed in a deluge, day after day, until the very concept of context itself became little more than a bad joke poorly told.
Consider Thursday all by its lonesome, just one day in the firmament. The morning opened with the news wires thrumming over the words of Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Judge Gorsuch, either in an act of candor or total ingratiation, told a gaggle of Democrats that Trump’s harsh attacks against the judicial branch were “demoralizing” and “disheartening” … and it was wheee! Let’s wriggle down that memory hole to try and find another instance of a Supreme Court nominee slagging his benefactor in the public prints. I came up empty, again, but not for lack of trying.
Late that afternoon, word came down that the three-judge federal appeals panel hearing argument on Mr. Trump’s thinly veiled Muslim travel ban decided unanimously to make the president stand in the corner with a dunce cap on his head until he said he was sorry and promised never to do it again. Predictably, Mt. Trump erupted on Twitter: “WE’LL SEE YOU IN COURT!” This, the response to … a federal court?! Well and good, that’s his right, but the talking heads’ reaction made my brain want to slither out my ear. Heavyweight litigator Alan Dershowitz congratulated Trump for accepting the court’s ruling, and some nameless studio counterpart earnestly warned us all not to be overwhelmed “by the power of an all-caps tweet.”
Let’s review, shall we? In the time it took for the sun to frown down on both American coastlines, a Supreme Court nominee took a very public dump on the guy who nominated him, possibly because he really wants Democrats to like him. Later, the president lost a major court ruling (for failing to show due precedent, I might add), and a renowned lawyer congratulated him on television for following the rule of law instead of rolling tanks on Washington State. After the decision came down, the president screamed into social media for the eleventy millionth time, and a journalist felt compelled to counsel that we not take capital letters too seriously.
Context shmontext, who’s got the booze?
We are dealing with a world where all the buckles have come loose. Meanwhile, this exterior chaos is being mirrored by some context-free bedlam under my very own roof. My daughter — who was seven pounds and nineteen inches long maybe a minute ago — begins preschool on Monday. For the first time in four years, someone else besides my wife and I will feed her, entertain her, read to her, and put her down for a nap.
The true price of fatherhood is not the gray hair or the sleepless nights. It is being required to learn the softly brutal art of letting go one finger at a time, of filling yourself in every waking moment with a love so profound as to beggar the poets, full in the knowledge all the while that a day will come when you must pull that perfection from yourself with deliberation and intent, and show it the road with a smile and a wave. That day is upon me. For things to remain the same, everything must change, because love is chaos triumphant.
I have come to believe that what we call “reality” is little more than a veneer built at right angles to impose some semblance of order on a universe in constant flux. The dark matter of space is made of surprise, and the only real wonder is that we aren’t all left in a persistent state of shock from confronting it. Politics is now context-free? So be it; so is fatherhood, in which everything lacks precedent except diapers. I’m pretty good at the latter, and will come to grips with the former in the fullness of time.
When I crack the newspaper on some future morning to find that Donald Trump has signed an executive order which offends the very fabric of time, I will be ready. I will not go tharn. I will put it in the pile with all the others and begin the work of undoing the damage. I will deploy my coping skills to maximum effect. My daughter is teaching me how.