Trump

A sick and demented three year game of Asshole…

Regular readers of this blog know that I went to a state supported college in Virginia, where four national sororities were founded. It was far from a dry campus, although I do remember that they tried to make the freshman residence halls “dry”. When I was in college, I learned how to play several drinking games. There was Circle of Death, Never Have I Ever, Kings, Beer Pong, Bullshit, Quarters, and Fuck You… But my favorite of all was a game called Asshole. I’m not sure why I enjoyed playing Asshole as much as I did back in the day. Maybe it’s because it was a game everyone knew how to play.

I remember one particularly rousing game of Asshole I once played with friends at my school. We were all sitting on the floor in a circle, drinking Mickey’s Big Mouth. Mickey’s Big Mouth, for those who don’t know, is a particularly potent brand of cheap malt liquor. No one drinks it for the way it tastes; they drink it to get drunk FAST. It comes in a green bottle that looks like a barrel or a grenade. It has a wide opening so it can be slammed. The night my friends and I were playing Asshole, we were being particularly vicious. The “Asshole” was required to wear an ugly yellow and green visor made of foam rubber. A tampon was stuck out of the top, making it look oddly unicorn like.

I remember that as we were playing this game, a friend’s fraternity brother was passing. He ducked his head into the dorm room where we were engaged in our game of Asshole and said with great admiration in his voice, “Mickey’s Big Mouth will fuck you up!” He laughed as he walked down the hall. As I reflect on the past three years of Trump’s leadership, I feel a sense of deja vu. Mickey’s Big Mouth will fuck you up… but so will years of having Donald Trump “lead” the country.

Last night, as I read about Donald Trump’s latest Twitter meltdown that basically invited private citizens to revolt against state governments, I was suddenly reminded of the game Asshole, which interestingly enough, is also known as “Presidents”. I feel like our country has been collectively playing a sick and demented three year round of Asshole.

What the hell? Is he out of his goddamned mind?

In the game of Asshole, players are assigned roles. The object of the game is to lose all of your cards first. The first person to lose all of their cards is the President. The President is allowed to make up new and strange rules that the other players have to follow. The next person to lose their cards is the Vice President. The ranking continues until there’s just one person left with cards. The last person to have any cards is the Asshole. The Asshole is basically screwed over by the other players, who try to keep him or her in the Asshole position by handicapping him or her with onerous rules. One rule, for instance, might be that the Asshole has to drink twice whenever someone plays a face card. The Asshole fetches drinks for everyone and when he or she doesn’t follow the rules, more drinking is required, which makes it harder to get out of the Asshole position. It’s not unlike real life, huh?

A rather dry but accurate video about how to play “Asshole”. The guy narrating doesn’t say “asshole”. Instead, he says “A-hole”.

As I was thinking about playing Asshole last night, I couldn’t help but realize that the roles in a game of Asshole seem vaguely familiar to our present reality. Trump is, of course, the President, and he’s acting just like a president in the game of Asshole behaves. A large number of poor, disenfranchised, or unlucky people from different places are collectively the Assholes… and Trump has his thumb on them, keeping them down in that position. Every day, his tactics to stay in charge grow more desperate and dangerous, and I fear that some bad things are coming as our demented “President” grows ever more unhinged.

Asshole used to be an amusing game, when I was young and totally healthy and strong. Even when I was the “Asshole” when playing with my friends, I knew it was a temporary condition (although I realize that some people think I’m an asshole even when I’m not playing a drinking game). Whoever was in the “President” position in the game was still my friend and it was all in good fun. Eventually, we all outgrew playing Asshole and getting drunk and reckless simply for the sake of getting drunk and reckless. We mostly took on more important responsibilities and the stakes grew higher, but more valuable. We now have a lot more to lose than a few brain and liver cells.

I worry that Trump’s vigorous, immature, and irresponsible tweets encouraging people to defy their local government officials may be perceived as permission to be violent. Trump stirs up people who are dangerous… people who cherish their guns and don’t want to be told what to do by anyone in authority, especially government officials. Many uneducated folks see this situation as government oppression when, in fact, it’s a pubic health crisis. Not only do I fear that people will get sick by defying the shelter-in-place orders, but I also worry that there will be more bloody violence as people try to get action by using weapons.

It’s not that violence is an unusual occurrence in the United States, particularly during the month of April, which is historically when a lot of bloody violence occurs. Ever since Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, and Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shot up Columbine High School in April 1999, it seems like there have been more bloody acts of violence in April than any other month. In April 2007, Seung Hui Cho went on a shooting spree at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. In April 2013, the Boston Marathon Bombing happened. April is also the month that Adolf Hitler was born, and many very dark, evil people admire Hitler. April is also when the weather is warmer and people typically emerge from the dark cold of winter. As flowers bloom and grass gets green, the nuts come out with their guns. This year, people are even more pent up than usual. Trump’s inflammatory tweets might be like throwing a match at people who are already feeling volatile and unhinged.

But… it seems like to Donald Trump, this is all just a game, and his objective is simply to stay in power at all costs, no matter how many people get hurt. So he irresponsibly tweets, encouraging people to be disobedient and “rise up” against local government control… when he is the PRESIDENT of the United States! It’s his responsibility to be a LEADER that keeps things under control. Trump isn’t a drinker, but he is DRUNK on power and desperate to keep it. So he’s running the country like drunk college students play Asshole. And too many people are stuck in the Asshole role, unable to escape it. Add to that… Trump even speaks like a drunk person. See below:

That is crazy! It’s NOT the way a world leader should speak.

I know that a lot of people are scared and frustrated. Most people aren’t personally affected by the coronavirus yet, and they think this situation is simply an extreme way of getting rid of Trump. Trump’s base seems to be mostly made up of white people with conservative values who think the 1950s were a great time in our history. Even though Trump doesn’t really fit the clean cut 50s image, except for his desire to keep white men in power, they see him as their champion. They overlook the ways he’s not really like them. He’s like them in the important ways– because he’s white and male and doesn’t mind keeping down the people who aren’t white and male. So what if he’s not really a Christian? So what if he cheats on his wives, uses crude and abusive language, sexually harasses women, and screws over people, especially those who work for him? He’s rich and powerful, and in their eyes, that makes him a success. But he doesn’t care about them, and when they do what he’s encouraging them to do and wind up in prison, very sick, or dead, he’s not going to do a damned thing for them.

So… count me among those who would like to see this neverending game of Asshole with Donald Trump come to an end with a new, sober, humane president. Let’s change the game to something more productive. I’m really tired of wearing the foam rubber visor with a tampon poking out of it. Time to dry up… put away the Mickey’s Big Mouth and get back to being responsible world citizens before more people are harmed or killed.

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News, tragedies

April really is cruel…

Last night, as I was making more travel plans, I was blissfully oblivious to the horror unfolding in Paris, as its famous Notre Dame cathedral smoldered in a massive fire. I have been to Paris twice, but never managed to tour the cathedral on either visit. I do remember seeing it as we walked along the Seine, but I also remember my former best friend’s dad telling me back in 1992 to skip climbing the tower at the cathedral. I do like visiting beautiful churches in Europe, but it’s not really a focal point of what I do when I go places. Paris has a lot to see, so visiting Notre Dame was never at the top of my list of things to do there. I regret it now.

The cathedral was being renovated when it caught on fire, just as it was at Longwood when Ruffner Hall caught on fire. It seems that renovations can raise the risk of sudden fires.

It seems like April is often rife with tragedies. I never paid a lot of attention to it until around 1999 or so, when students at Columbine High School were confronted by the murderous wrath of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as they shot up the school. Other school shootings would occur during April, like the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. But it’s not just the shootings and bombings, or even T.S. Eliot’s famed words that make April cruel…

I remember in the spring 2001, when Ruffner Hall, the most historic and beautiful building at my alma mater, Longwood University, was being restored. I was then a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, about to finish my second year of a three year dual master’s degree program. The weather was warm and sunny, and I had visions of the end of the semester dancing in my head. I’m sure it was the same at Longwood, the college from which I had graduated seven years prior. In 2001, Longwood was still known as Longwood College. It was renamed Longwood University in 2002.

On April 24, 2001, just before students were about to take their final exams for the semester, the Rotunda caught on fire. Fortunately, because the building was being renovated, just as Notre Dame also was, priceless art and historical relics had been removed before a raging fire consumed the original building. That beautiful building held so many memories, not just for me, but for all of the students that passed through it after it opened in 1907. Longwood’s name has been changed a few times in its history. Before each name change, there has historically been a fire. There were also fires in 1927 and 1949; both occurred just before the school’s name changed.

A picture of the original Rotunda taken in the 90s, when I was a student. Inside Ruffner is a statue of Joan of Arc– better known as Joanie on the Stoney. We also have a statue of Joan of Arc on a horse called Joanie on the Pony. Paris’s Notre Dame, likewise, has a statue of Joan of Arc.

I happened to live in the Colonnades during the first two years of my college days. My freshman year, I lived in Tabb Hall, which connected to Ruffner. At night, when the building was closed to everyone else on campus, my buddies would sneak into the Rotunda area and box. I only recall watching this one time. I’m surprised they were never busted, to be very honest. I’m sure nowadays, they have security cameras. But it was a lot of fun to sneak into Ruffner and mess around after hours. Unlike the bell tower at Fordham University, there was no danger involved… The lights were on and there were no steep, spiral steps to climb… and no holes to pass through on landings. At the front door of the building, there was a slate step that had a deep indentation worn into it from decades of students walking across it.

Sophomore year, I lived in French Hall, which was also connected to Ruffner. French is no longer a residence hall, but in the 1990s, it had the largest rooms on campus. Some rooms held four students. Most had at least three. My room only had three students for part of the first semester. We had a roommate who moved in mid semester– she had been my roommate’s freshman year roomie, and she had to move from her room because she and her original sophomore year roommate were caught smoking marijuana. She didn’t come back in the spring. That was a pretty stressful, yet awesome year. I lived among friends.

The other two years, I lived in South Cunningham. The Cunninghams used to be the center of campus. They were eventually razed for a new student center. My former university is becoming less recognizable to me, as new buildings are being built and old ones are being rebuilt.

Ruffner was also rebuilt, and it now looks just like it did before the big fire of 2001. It took four years to rebuild the historic hall to its former glory, and during that time, Dr. James Jordan, an esteemed anthropology professor and archaeologist who taught at Longwood for many years, did several archaeological digs. He found many long buried relics among the ashes. The damaged step was found and when the building was reconstructed, a replica of the historic indented step was made for the new building.

As I heard about Notre Dame last night, I couldn’t help but remember the Rotunda at my alma mater, and how it’s been rebuilt. Maybe it’s not the same… Notre Dame has a history dating back to the 12th century. It took many years to build it, but only one fiery evening to destroy it. On the other hand… even in destruction, there is opportunity for new growth, new discoveries, and rebirth. I’m certain that in the ashes of the fire, new discoveries will be made, new knowledge will be gleaned, history will be made and recorded, and the cathedral will be rebuilt. In fact, French billionaire Fran├žois-Henri Pinault has already pledged $100 million euros to rebuild the cathedral (and hours later, at least 200 million more has been pledged by other donors). French president Emmanuel Macron has also vowed to rebuild the cathedral.

This is an opportunity for people to unite. It’s an opportunity for architects, craftsmen, construction workers, archaeologists, students, teachers, holy people, and the public to come together in solidarity. Many new discoveries will be made and the cathedral, just like Ruffner Hall, will be rebuilt stronger than ever. But it will take time, effort, and money. I may never see the end result in my lifetime. Still, as bad as this is, it could have been much worse. As sad as it will be to dig through the wreckage, I know there will also be excitement and fascination. Every situation– even the worst ones– offers opportunities. So I will try to focus on that, instead of tragedy of the tremendous loss wrought by sudden fire.

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book reviews

Reviewing: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

It’s finally April, and according to T.S. Eliot, “April is the cruellest [sic] month”. April is when spring really springs. But it’s also been a time of great tragedies. Most recently, it’s been a month that has proven popular for mass killings. Both Columbine and the Virginia Tech Massacre occurred in April, as did the Oklahoma City Bombing. April is also when the world’s greatest nuclear disaster occurred back in 1986.

On April 25th and 26th, 1986, I was in the eighth grade and 13 years old. The Soviet Union was alive and well, and people worried about nuclear war. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located on the outskirts of picturesque Pripyat, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, had been heralded as a great Soviet achievement, as it provided clean, cheap power to scores of people. The Chernobyl plant was constructed between 1972 and 1977; it was the third nuclear power plant built in the Soviet Union and the first on Ukrainian soil. It was originally named the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station and it consisted of four nuclear reactors, which provided about 10% of Ukraine’s power at the time of the accident.

During a late night safety test on April 25, 1986, things went horribly awry. The safety test simulated a blackout, and all of its safety systems were intentionally shut down. Thanks to a “perfect storm” of conditions, to include reactor design flaws and reactor operator errors, as well as shoddy Soviet era construction, there was an uncontrolled reaction condition which resulted in a steam explosion and open-air graphite fire. The fire propelled updrafts of nuclear waste into the atmosphere that eventually drifted as far north as Scandinavia and blanketed much of western Europe. The area around the nuclear power plant was flooded with radiation and radioactive dust, which has made Pripyat and the surrounding area unsafe to live in. It will probably be hundreds of years before people can safely reclaim that territory, which at this point, has been overrun by nature. Descendants of pets left behind after the accident are still living near the power plant; they are unsafe to rescue or even pet, because their bodies are contaminated by radiation.

I learned a lot about Chernobyl when I read Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by journalist Adam Higginbotham. This book, which was just published in February 2019, is an exhaustive and comprehensive account of what happened at Chernobyl when the nuclear power station exploded, who was involved in the accident and responsible for its occurrence, and what happened to the many innocent civilians living in Pripyat. I will admit, this isn’t the cheeriest book to be reading, but as someone who remembers when this accident happened and then later lived in the Republic of Armenia, which also has a nuclear power plant (Metsamor), I found it fascinating reading.

News about the accident. Interesting video, because it shows western news coverage and Soviet coverage of the accident, along with actual footage.

It might be because of Metsamor that I decided to read about Chernobyl. When I first arrived in Armenia in June 1995, not even ten years had passed since this enormous accident, the news of which Soviet authorities had tried so hard to suppress. I remember that all Peace Corps Volunteers were issued tiny bottles of iodine pills, which we were supposed to immediately take in case of a nuclear event. It was supposed to protect our thyroid glands. We were instructed to carry that bottle of pills with us wherever we went.

I remember Metsamor was closed when we first arrived, and had been since December 1988, when the city of Gyumri and surrounding areas suffered a devastating earthquake that had killed over 55,000 people and destroyed cities. When I was in Armenia, Gyumri still hadn’t been rebuilt, so it was still easy to see the horrific damage even several years later. Officials were afraid the earthquake had damaged the nuclear power plant, so they shut it down to avoid another Chernobyl situation. Unfortunately, Metsamor provided Armenia with a lot of electricity and, at the time, there was an energy blockade imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan, due to hostilities with those two countries. Consequently, during my first year in Armenia, I pretty much lived without electricity. It was sharply rationed, and I was lucky to get two hours a day. I lived in the capital, though, so I probably had it better than some of my co-workers. Many Armenians were amateur electricians, and they’d hook up a “left line” to local hospitals or a metro station, which always had power.

Some of my colleagues had been assigned to villages that were too close to Metsamor, which was scheduled to reopen in 1996. They had to be hastily reassigned because we weren’t allowed to live within 30 kilometers of the nuclear power plant. And yet, on a rare cloud free, smog free day in Yerevan, I could actually see the nuclear power plant’s reactors from various high points in the city. I often cynically thought about what would happen if Metsamor exploded. I figured I’d be a goner, or at least get radiation sickness. In 1996, Metsamor did reopen after it was examined by nuclear specialists from around the world, including the United States. I remember coming home from a vacation in Turkey and Bulgaria to hear a strange humming. It was the refrigerator, which hadn’t run in six weeks. During my second year in Armenia, I had power 24/7. It was life changing. At the same time, it was unnerving to realize how close we lived to a nuclear power plant that was built during the Soviet era, especially given that Chernobyl had occurred less than ten years prior.

A Nightline episode about Chernobyl, circa April 1986. Interesting how they refer to all USSR inhabitants as “Russians”. Also interesting to see how the world has changed since 1986. It doesn’t seem that long ago.

Anyway… getting back to Chernobyl and Higginbotham’s book… I have to admit, it took me a long time to finish it. The subject matter is fascinating, but it covers a long story that encompasses more than just the accident itself. To really understand this, you have to remember that the Soviet Union was a corrupt regime with a very fragile facade. In the 80s, everyone thought of the Soviet Union as a “superpower”, in competition with the United States. However, although people there were encouraged to serve the state, there was little incentive to do so. Yes, there might be awards and/or accolades given to those who were high achievers. Maybe they’d get a better job or more desirable living quarters. But it’s not like most of them were paid a lot more, given more autonomy, or offered any real impetus to do their best. When they screwed up, they were harshly punished. When they achieved, they might get a new radio or a bottle of vodka or something.

What’s more, many Soviet products and infrastructures were notoriously inferior. Higginbotham explains that Chernobyl’s construction was slipshod, which paved the way for the future disaster that would doom so many people– particularly those who were unfortunate enough to be living near there at the time. Higginbotham does a good job describing the eerie quality of Pripyat after the accident, especially as some people were allowed to come back and reclaim some of their belongings. They were given a very brief amount of time to go through their valuables, all of which had to be tested for radiation. Consequently, for decades, Pripyat has been like a ghost town, with remnants of the Soviet era crumbling, rusting, and still there thirty-three years later. However, looters have come by and stripped the area of metal.

In the wake of the accident, military servicemembers were tasked with cleaning up the mess. Some of them got out of the duty by paying off the powers that be, something I was also aware of in Armenia, where in the 90s, young men were expected to serve in the military. Those who didn’t pay up, were sent to the front lines in Azerbaijan. I often saw the horrifying results of that service, in the form of men who had lost limbs or were otherwise killed or maimed. The corruption was unfair, of course, for those who lacked the ability to bribe officials. Even in the Soviet Union, some people were better off than others were. The ones who were not as well off, paid with their health or even their lives. In one part of the book, Higginbotham writes of the brave people who ran into “ground zero”, worked for about a minute, then ran out of the area for their lives. Within a minute, they had reached their lifetime safe quota of radiation exposure.

Bill was in Germany from December 1987 until May 1991. One of his first German landladies got very sick with leukemia. She died within six weeks of diagnosis. It was thought she got sick due to exposure to the radioactive fallout that had drifted across Europe from Ukraine. Even today, there are still wild boars in the Czech Republic that are loaded with radiation– so much so that they can’t be consumed. Although Chernobyl has now become something of a tourist destination, it’s still not safe to live there or visit for longer than a short time.

I think about the age I was when Chernobyl happened… right smack dab in the middle of adolescence. I wonder what it must be like for my contemporaries who happened to be living in Pripyat in April 1986. Families had to be evacuated from the area, but this didn’t happen immediately. Authorities tried so hard to keep the accident a secret, but it was impossible because there was no way to prevent the fallout from escaping Ukraine. It drifted north to Belarus, to other eastern bloc countries, and all the way to Scandinavia. Higginbotham does a masterful job explaining the story of specific people involved– the female mayor trying to save her town– the people who ran Chernobyl and were involved with the cleanup– people who died– people who went to prison.

Higginbotham writes that Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Soviet Union’s leader, wrote that more than his policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, the Soviet Union collapsed mainly due to Chernobyl and the Soviet Union’s inability to repair the damage due to the staggering costs and simple lack of availability of the materials needed. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, so did research efforts and cleanup efforts. It was the same thing that happened in Gyumri, where the skeletons of buildings remained years after the earthquake had ravaged them. There was no money to clean up the mess and no leadership prepared to take on the task. And the economy was in the toilet, which is why so many former Soviet countries had Peace Corps Volunteers in the first place.

At the end of his very well-written book, Higginbotham offers an epilogue, detailing what happened to the people who were most involved with the Chernobyl accident. Some of them have, of course, died by now. Some are still living. Quite a few people went to prison during the waning years of the Soviet Union. One of the men emerged from prison, having not fought for his rights or tried to clear his name, since during the Soviet era, there was really no point. Then the Soviet Union fell apart anyway, so the people responsible for scapegoating him were no longer in power. It was kind of depressing to read that part– this man who had tried to be a loyal party member and went to prison, then came out emaciated, not knowing his granddaughter or having seen where his wife relocated after the accident. The country he knew was gone… and so was his hometown. It must have been very surreal on many levels. Pictures are also included, which I found especially intriguing.

I suppose if I had to offer a criticism of this book, it’s that it’s written from a western perspective by a British journalist. Because of that, there’s a bit of pro-western bias that comes through. On the other hand, having lived in the former Soviet Union myself, I’ve experienced first hand Soviet era building quality. I saw what happened to buildings in Gyumri, built shoddily and with cheap materials, as they collapsed after a massive earthquake. Most of those people didn’t have a chance. I’m afraid the same was true for Chernobyl and the people living near it.

HBO is about to release a new series about Chernobyl. I may or may not watch it, depending on if I can access it over here… and if I can stomach such depressing subject matter. I may have my hands full with The Handmaid’s Tale.

HBO’s take on Chernobyl.
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