Dear Kellyanne Conway

Dear Kellyanne,

I know you’re terribly busy, so let me begin by thanking you for taking the time to read this letter.

It’s hard to believe that only nine months have passed since Ted Cruz pulled out of the White House race. I can imagine it was a pretty big blow after all the effort and time you spent endorsing him.

The ads produced by your multi-million-dollar Political Action Committee (PAC) to ridicule Donald Trump hadn’t managed to dissuade the masses.

One of your commercials claimed he wasn’t a “real Conservative.” You even provided video evidence to back it up: footage from 1999, showing Trump expressing his support for late-term abortions.

You went on several television shows, arguing passionately that Trump was not fit for purpose. You accused him of intimidation. And you hounded him for refusing to publish his tax returns.

kellyanne_conway_by_gage_skidmore

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore Source: wikipedia

 

But nobody seemed to care about the facts.

Two months after Cruz quit, Trump became your boss.

It must have been terrifying.

And exhilarating.

Your journey to this point, you told NJ Advance Media in an article published last September (please correct me, if this is fake news) began when you were a teenager working at a farm in Hammonton, New Jersey.

You spent eight summers there, packing blueberries. And in every respect, you excelled.

You could reportedly pack 300 crates a day – a skill that ultimately helped you win the World Champion Blueberry Packing competition.

“The faster you went, the more money you’d make, you said.”I wouldn’t stop to drink for hours. I would just keep going.”

I’m not surprised you won. Years later, you seem equally indefatigable.

But packing blueberries is good work.

Knowingly selling rotten ones is not.

In a recent Tweet, you informed the world that you serve the “pleasure of @POTUS.” “His message is my message,” you wrote. “His goals are my goals.”

To a narcissist, there is no greater declaration of love. To anyone else, it reads as a cry for help.

Donald Trump has been forthright about his pleasures. In his own words, he is “automatically attracted to beautiful.”  As for his goals, here again, in his own words, is one he has admitted failing to achieve: “I did try and fuck her. She was married.”

His message is your message. His goals are your goals.

I wonder if this is the life you imagined for yourself as you were packing blueberries all those years ago.

Servitude and sycophancy.

Was this what you had in mind when you went to law school? Or later when you founded your own polling company?

You have many talents, Kellyanne. The most potent is your serpent’s tongue. With your glib and oily art, you can turn the truth into an alternative fact and back again, all in a matter of seconds. Your tricks might be easy to learn but they are difficult to employ because they rely on a trait exemplified by your administration but alien to most: shamelessness.

But please, please, please believe me when I say to you: you can do more.

You can do more than be ridiculed for failing at an impossible task: acting as a mouthpiece for a man whose own words and deeds make no sense, who operates only on whims, and whose extraordinarily thin skin needs constant massaging.

Never forget that Donald Trump is your inferior. He is less intelligent and less diligent.  He would never have had the stamina for packing blueberries  like you did. Had he entered the packing competition, you would have beaten him easily, even if he might later have claimed the contest was rigged.

When I think about the things you could do I get very sad. You could use your slick and artful oratory to challenge bigotry and hate. You could unravel the lies told by those in authority and give a voice to those who don’t have one. You could advocate for immigrants, for gay and transgender folk, for a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. You could be a role model, a person of substance.

But instead you elect to prop up a system rigged in favour of ignorance and fear.

History will be unkind to you. You will be described as the Goebbels of your time.

Here is a more frivolous example of what I mean.

When my boyfriend suspects me of bending the truth, he refers to me as Katzianne Conway.

It’s a joke. Still, it reveals an unpleasant truth: your name has become synonymous with lies.

All I want to say, Kellyanne, is that is never too late to do the right thing. The departure of just one of the high-ranking opportunists Trump has gathered around him could be enough to trigger the downfall of his administration.

And that, I believe would go some way towards Making America Great Again – a goal that for many people was bitterly redefined on January 20th.

Now, more than ever, your voice is needed. Your real one. The one you’ve buried deep inside you, where decency resides. The one you use when you look your children in the eye and tell them that everything will be alright.

That’s all I have to say.

Take care and good luck,

Kate Katharina

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Westalgie in the qi gong changing room

There were three of us, in various states of undress. I was the youngest. Hardly surprising, given that we were getting ready for qi gong, the slowest form of exercise imaginable.

“You’re not from here?” one of the women said.

“No,” I said, “I’m Irish.”

She wasn’t German either, though she sounded it, having moved here from Greece as a young child. Her name gave it away though: Althea*.

The other woman was from Bavaria. Her name was Heike*.

“Some friends of mine were moving to Berlin,” she said. “So I went with them on a whim, planning to stay for a few months. That was 50 years ago.”

We chuckled.

“But oh, how West Berlin has changed,” said Althea, who came here long before the wall came down.

“Oh yes,” said Heike. “It used to be quite something.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“West Berlin used to sparkle,” she said. “It was a very special place.”

Althea nodded enthusiastically. “Yes,” she said. “It positively glowed.”

Everyone knew each other, they told me. Walled off and with a constant perceived threat of Russian invasion, it was an unconventional type of person who chose to come to West Berlin.

“It was full of pacifists,” Heike said, referring to the young men who came to West Berlin specifically to avoid conscription. A quirk of the city’s division was that the West was technically under the rule of the Allied occupiers, allowing residents to legally bypass the draft that applied elsewhere.

There was a schizophrenic aspect to the city too. It wasn’t just conscientious objectors smoking cigarettes while they mused about changing the world.

Wealth mattered. And flaunting it was a conscious choice.

No building typified it more than KaDeWe on Kudamm. These days, it looks like a regular fancy department store.

But back then, it was an icon of capitalism and the freedom many asso

1280px-berlin_schoeneberg_tauentzienstrasse_21-24_kadewe

KaDeWe – source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

ciated with it.

“There used to be a cafe nearby,” said Heike. “You couldn’t go there without meeting someone you knew. There was this one wealthy man who would pay for everyone …  they were good times.”

The concept of Ostalgie – nostalgia for the former East Germany – is in common parlance in German.

It evokes the sense of a simpler time, far from the Ellenbogengesellschaft (literally ‘elbow society’) of today, characterized by citizens nudging each other in the race to get to the top.

(Before you get too warm and fuzzy, it’s worth remembering that it was also a time of totalitarianism, operated by a network of tyrannical officials and served by tens of thousands of informers masquerading as friends and lovers.)

But the idea of Westalgie – the yearning for the walled-off West – was new to me. Proof it existed could be found in the qi gong changing room in Schöneberg.

*names have been changed

On bombs and sock drawers

“When will we open the bottle of wine?” Frau Bienkowski asked.

We agreed we’d have it the next time LSB came around.moser-roth-edel-bitter-85

“I was very sad over Christmas,” she said. “There were many times I could have cried.”

Then, probably changing the subject, she continued: “I think someone stole my chocolate.”

I was pretty sure I could fix one of those things. I began opening drawers tentatively.

Frau B has recently developed the habit of finding elaborate hiding places for her personal items.

They’re so good she often can’t find things herself afterwards.

I got lucky after rummaging through her sock drawer. Three bars of Aldi’s Moser Roth, buried deep within a knot of nylon tights.

“Well, there you have it,” she said, retracting her accusation of theft by implicature alone.

“Now, tell me about Alicia*!”

Alicia is my six-month-old niece. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee and charmed practically the entire island of Ireland with her visit at Christmas.

Nothing makes Frau B happier than hearing about her.

“You must have some photographs,” she said, pointing at my phone.

I did. Alicia and her parents in front of the Christmas tree. Alicia dressed in red sitting on an armchair with her grandfather looking on benevolently. Alicia playing with wrapping paper. Alicia with her aunt Kate Katharina.

Frau B sat in her wheelchair, the phone clasped in both her hands, her face lit up in delight.

Babies have that effect.

She told me about her son, Uli, born in 1940 as the bombs were falling on Berlin. Her husband at war, she stayed for two years, taking cover in the cellar during the raids.

Then, in 1942, mother and child moved to the safety of the countryside in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

They stayed in a guesthouse until 1945.

“If it hadn’t been for the war,” she said, “I would say they were the happiest years of my life.”

She and her husband exchanged countless letters.  I wonder what became of them but don’t ask. Frau B has spoken before of the pain she experiences thinking of all the possessions she parted with when she moved into the home.

In Mecklenburg, she became friendly with a protestant priest. He got on famously with Uli, perhaps on account of the affection he had for his mother.

“He told me that if my husband weren’t to survive the war, he’d marry me in a heartbeat,” said Frau B.

“Yes,” she continued. “I could have married three or four times in my life.”

In the end, it was just once. Her husband came home, injured. And the priest was killed in cold blood when the Russians arrived.

*not her real name

6342 words

All of them terrible of course, when I’m in a certain mood. Their only function to form fraudulent sentences. Most of it a garbled version of my life. All of it an unimaginative reassembly of reality.

I’m writing a novel. There I’ve said it. If I never say it, there’s even less chance I’ll do it.

It’s set in a nursing home and heavily inspired by Frau B. But the story is not hers. It’s made up.

The fictional aspect is especially important. Frau B’s already gifting me with inspiration.  It would taint our meetings to ask for biographical details.. for permission to print old photographs.. for a linear summary of her life. We dip in and out of each other’s lives every week. It would seem wrong to go excavating instead.

I began it as part of NaNoWriMo, a worldwide online challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

An impossible task for me, I knew. Not that I would have otherwise, but I was working full-time and had plenty of other activities going on. Still, it was a little kick and I was receptive to it. Plus, they sent you motivational e-mails and had a function allowing you to update your word-count, which I did obsessively, almost sentence by sentence.

It’s hard to articulate the kind of self-doubt that comes with writing. For me, it never gets easier. I’m painfully slow. I am not full of ideas. It rarely flows.

I compare myself with the writers I admire and despair. I Google videos and interviews with them for evidence of their self-doubt. Usually you can find some.

I feel uniquely empty, incapable of adding anything of interest to the world, amazed at others’ ability to make conversation, to come up with witty responses, to communicate unfettered. I imagine how much I could put to paper with those talents.

My news feeds full of the atrocities in Aleppo, I feel all the more ashamed of even having such thoughts.

Still, I haven’t deleted the document. It’s still on my computer.

And it wouldn’t be if I didn’t believe, somewhere small and very deep down, that it was possible.

So I’m out of the closet. I’m trying to write a novel.

I read a piece of advice earlier that the first step to becoming a writer is to call yourself one.

I’m not ready to yet. But maybe I’ll change my mind once I hit the 10,000 mark.

I’ll occasionally write about writing here. Perhaps it will even be a welcome distraction from the task in hand.

corner

My writing corner (laptop replaces typewriter)

A night of horrors: the death of decency

There was no need to worry about her accepting the result of the vote.

That’s what her running mate said as he introduced her onto the stage.

Just days ago, her opponent had made the same commitment. But he included the qualifier: “if I win.”

Well, he did. Hillary Clinton lost fair and square in an election rigged in favor of ignorance. The most qualified candidate ever to run, she had the audacity to hope she could beat a buffoon.

November 8th, 2016 will go down as a dark day in American history, just as March 5th, 1933 did in Germany.

Already, attention has turned to Trump’s conciliatory tone. After all, didn’t he pay tribute to her contribution to politics? Thank her for her decades of service?

Meanwhile, supporters outside chanted ‘lock her up!’

‘But how much damage can one individual really do?’ people ask each other with cautious optimism, indulging in fantasies of an orange-faced narcissist experiencing a eureka moment in the White House, as the extent of his ineptitude dawns on him. A molester re-thinking his territorial right to a stranger’s vagina.  A compulsive liar considering whether the truth might matter after all.

This result is about more than building walls and failing to shatter glass ceilings.

It is about the death of decency. The cult of shamelessness. The triumph of tyranny.

Today, men and women all over America endorsed misogyny and division, wilfully bypassing reason in their rush to restore the myth of greatness in the safety of a ballot box.

Television pundits, the mouthpieces of society, are painting them as disgruntled steelworkers struggling to eke out a living, ordinary folk battling against the evils of the ‘establishment.’

Victims of globalisation and greed. In other words, those in need of a billionaire messiah. Any saviour would have done. But not a woman with a shrill voice and a private e-mail server.

This is the day the American dream was redefined.

For little girls and boys around the world, the message as they turn out the lights tonight is this:

“Say it loud enough and they’ll believe you. Scare them into submission. Claim it, don’t earn it.

Lie, insult and grope your way to the top.”

The sun may rise again but all I see reflected now is darkness without end.

Why I’m a tree hugger and you should be too

When Frau B looks out of her fourth-floor bedroom window, she sees two tall trees. On the left is a spruce. Its mass of deep-green needles presents a burst of colour all-year-round.treehuga

But she’s more interested in the maple tree beside it. Each September, she watches its leaves turn from vibrant green to grimy brown and yellow. A few weeks later, the wind snatches them away, leaving a stark tangle of branches for Frau B to observe during the winter months.

At the age of 97, even she is a whipper-snapper compared to a tree.

When I told her the other day that scientists in Norway had discovered a 9,500-year-old spruce, she sighed.

tree2

a tree community in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Mich nimmt der liebe Gott auch nicht,” she said, meaning ‘God won’t take me either.’

It’s something she says quite often, usually with a smile. This time, it conjured up an image of a long line at the gates of heaven. When Frau B eventually gets to the top, she is rejected alongside a Norwegian spruce. Together, they lament the curse of their longevity.

In the past few weeks, my relationship to trees has morphed from passive appreciation to zealous awe. Peter Wohlleben, the author of The Hidden Life of Trees is mostly responsible.

The book was an impulse-buy, having met my three criteria for spontaneous literary purchases: an inviting title, a pretty cover and the promise that I would be a slightly different person after reading it.

My transformation has become especially apparent to LSB, who now finds himself at the receiving end of a barrage of excited outbursts:

“Do you know that trees use fungal networks to communicate?”

“Woah! You will NOT believe this! Trees can detect the saliva of insects and use THAT knowledge to send out chemicals to attract their predators!”

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tree bark in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Okay, I promise this is the last one: did you know that parent trees deprive their children of LIGHT in order to keep their growth rate steady?”

“…I know, I know: I’m sorry but I just have to tell you this: trees of the same species INFORM each other about impending environmental threats!”

At first, he listened politely, nodding occasionally as he scrolled through his phone. But as the days turned to weeks and my enthusiasm failed to wane, he advised me gently that I was putting the “bore”into arboreal.

It hasn’t stopped me though.

What I find so extraordinary about trees is in fact quite unremarkable: they’re just like us.

They have memories, which they can pass on. Communication happens via a sophisticated electric network forged over millions of years. The sick are nursed and the tendency is to protect one’s own.

Eventually though, like you, me and Frau B, they breathe their last and descend into the ground. There they turn to humus and enable new life, once again, to begin.

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a sick tree is propped up by its neighbour in Volkspark Humboldthain

The airport and the hawk

Last month I took a trip to Nashville, Tennessee to visit my sister. I was rolling my little green suitcase towards the security gate in Berlin when all of a sudden a woman swooped towards me, like a hawk.

She was wearing an airport security uniform.

“Excuse me,” she said.  (But I don’t think she meant it.)

“Yes?”

“A moment ago, you had a German passport. Then you switched.”

I paused. This was a rather odd accusation. I don’t have a German passport. And I certainly hadn’t taken anyone else’s.

“No, I didn’t,” I answered eventually, trying to avoid her piercing eyes.

She began firing questions at me. They weren’t hard but she phrased them oddly, so sometimes I had to think a moment before answering.

“With whom has your case been this morning?” she asked.

“With me” I said.

“Who packed it?”

“I did.”

“What items have you purchased at this airport?”

“None.”

“What did that man whisper to you?”

She turned to point at LSB. He was watching the scene from afar, looking rather puzzled.

“I’m sorry? I asked.

“Who is that man?”

“My boyfriend,” I replied. “But I don’t remember him whispering anything. Wait, let me ask him.”

I motioned for him to come over. “What did you whisper to me just now?” I asked, forcing LSB into the same position hawk lady had put me in.

“I think I said goodbye?” he said. “But I wasn’t whispering.”

Our confused expressions seemed to satisfy her. “Okay, fine. Off you go,” she said.

I toddled off, taking care that my farewell nod to LSB didn’t appear conspiratorial.

I’m not used to this kind of treatment.  It’s one of the unfair advantages of being non-descript, female and white.

I imagined the kind of terror I could prompt by browsing the airport shopping area sporting a long beard, turban or burqa.

When I set foot in the United States, a nice customs officer asked me some more questions about myself.

“Do you have food in your bag?”

I knew he only wanted to know if I was bringing  fruit, seeds or meat into his country. But I didn’t want to give him a single reason to send me back to the scary hawk lady in Berlin, so I confessed I was carrying some Puffreiss Schokolade for my sister.

He wasn’t interested in my snacks. But he did want to know how long I intended to stay.

“Only eight days?” he asked. “Do you not want to stay here forever?”

“No,” I said. “No, thank you.”

“Why not?”

I mumbled something about being content in Europe, which seemed to surprise him. But he handed me back my (not German) passport and wished me a pleasant stay.

How curators are thriving in the digital age

It might still conjure up an image of a spectacled, tweed-clad type rummaging through a dusty museum archive.

But in this age of digital saturation, the role of the humble curator is being reinvented.

With a multitude of literary offerings now appearing online every second, the need to separate the wheat from the chaff has become greater than ever.

In many ways, a curator’s work resembles that of a journalist: selecting what is important or remarkable out of an amorphous mass.

Many curators on the Internet labour out of love. In this way, they present an antidote to the journalist’s tendency to simply reinforce the consensus, by writing about subjects proven to generate clicks or the ideas closest to their editors’ hearts.

Curators can afford to be choosy about the work they promote; their selections don’t necessarily have to appeal to the masses.

One of my favourite curators of that kind is Ana Kinsella. She’s an Irish fashion journalist based in London who runs a Tumblr account called A Week’s Clicks. It features a wonderful selection of links to writing she’s enjoyed that week. Sometimes she teases readers with an arresting quote; other times she posts a short summary of what a piece is about. I always end up reading and enjoying writing I wouldn’t otherwise have stumbled upon.

Maria Popova of  BrainPickings is a curator of a different kind. Some of you might remember she previously featured in my list of favourite female bloggers. She curates centuries of ideas within literature, science and philosophy in exquisitely written posts. Her curation is unique in linking the thoughts of people separated by time, geography and discipline. In her case in particular, curation is very much an act of creation.

Curation can serve a highly practical purpose too. Posts like this one, which lists the best Websites for getting a free education can save you hours of Googling.

Like all Internet crazes, curation has of course turned commercial too. And no site has better exploited the need to restore online order than BuzzFeed.

While its profit-driven curation is less noble than that of the beaver-like individuals who undertake -simply for the love of it  – the sifting so others don’t have to,  the site’s enormous success reflects the huge demand for curation in the digital age.

Admittedly, our need for someone to summarise the Internet has taken on absurd dimensions too.

At time of writing, BuzzFeed’s homepage features the following articles:  19 pictures that will change your mind about frizzy hair, 19 dogs that are prettier than the views they’re looking at  and my personal favourite: 15 hilarious tweets that accurately sum up working at a call Center.

Have you got any favorite curators? Let me know in the comments!

Goodbye Frau Bennett

She was beautiful and wisplike.  I passed her often in the hallway of the nursing home.  She would sit in her wheelchair beside the rabbit cage. When she didn’t know you could see her, she wore an expression full of sadness and longing.

But whenever she saw me pass, her eyes lit up and she smiled. Her hearing was very poor. But that didn’t stop us communicating. I would motion to the rabbit or gesture to the window to deliver my verdict on the weather. She would always nod warmly in agreement.  We were gentle with one another – a source of mutual appreciation. She carried her melancholia with grace.

Her name was Frau Bennett. If we had been contemporaries, I think we would have been friends.

The same couldn’t be said of Frau Bienkowsi though, who was quick to dismiss her.

“Her mind’s gone,” she declared a few times. “She never says a word.”

I knew the first part wasn’t true. Frau Bennett was frail but I knew her mind to be in tact. The second observation was more plausible though. The two sat at the same table at dinner and I found it easy to believe Frau Bennett had a hard time getting a word in. She didn’t seem like the type to want to battle for floor time.

Frau Bennett had a son and grandson who lived locally. They didn’t visit much but she once confided in me that she sat in the hallway in case they came by.

I met them both at the nursing home’s Christmas party last year. They arrived late. My heart was already beginning to ache as I watched Frau Bennett sit quietly with her eyes fixed on the door.

Her son, a tall and rather strapping man, probably in his 60s, discovered  I was Irish by chance and struck up a conversation. He told me his father had been part of the British government that ruled West Berlin after the war. It confirmed my suspicion about how Frau Bennett had got her name. Many British soldiers stationed in the country ended up staying to marry German women.

Frau Bennett’s son was keen to speak English to me. It was the language of his childhood before German began to dominate. I got the impression he missed it. He seemed to have inherited some of his mother’s wistfulness.

Frau Bennett would have known my face but not my name. She was aware I was a friend of Frau Bienkowski. To my astonishment, she once asked me if I liked her. I said I did and asked her back. Gently and politely, Frau Bennett indicated they weren’t the best of friends.

I could understand that stance though it sparked some cognitive dissonance. Frau Bienkowski and I get on because we are different. I appreciate her warmth, her openness – even her outrageousness. But she is dominant and headstrong too.  She is a talker, not a listener. She is enormously kind. But she is not especially tactful.

I can imagine that quiet and perceptive Frau Bennett disliked her dinner companion’s forthright and – at times- perhaps abrasive style.

A week or two ago, as I was pushing Frau Bienkowski into the dining hall for dinner, I noticed an empty seat next to her. I didn’t think too much of it.

But during my last visit, I asked her how Frau Bennett was doing.

“She’s dead,” Frau Bienkowski said. “She went into her room and didn’t come out again.”

The rabbit has gone too. The cage disappeared around the same time Frau Bennett did.

Five terms from social psychology that apply to Donald Trump

  1. Mere exposure effect

–          The more familiar you are with something, the more you prefer it. In other words, familiarity breeds content.

Trump started off as a joke candidate whose only redeeming feature was his entertainment value. In the months that followed, he was all the media talked about. Now he could become the next president.

  1. Fundamental Attribution Error

–          Failing to distinguish between situational and intrinsic causes.

Trump thinks being Muslim or Mexican makes you intrinsically dangerous. So he wants to ban immigration and build a wall. Other people believe lax gun laws, poverty and lack of opportunity create dangerous environments.

  1. Cognitive Dissonance

–          The tension you experience when you hold two conflicting opinions – or fail to act in line with your attitudes.

The Republican Party wants to appear unified. On the other hand, it’s keen not to go down in history as rallying behind a sociopathic, racist, misogynistic, egomaniac reality television star who unleashed a nuclear war. Otherwise known as: stuck between a rock and a hard place.

  1. Reciprocity norm

the assumption that you get back what you give     

Ben Carson, the former neurosurgeon who tried and failed to become the Republican presidential candidate, is now one of Trump’s most vocal supporters. This is despite the fact that Trump compared him to a child molester. Carson is, presumably, working on the assumption that his support now will earn him a privileged position in a future Trump administration.

  1. Just-world phenomenon

believing that the world is fair and that people get what they deserve. Sometimes related to the fundamental attribution error.

Trump once boasted that he had created a real estate empire after receiving a “small loan” of a million dollars from his father. Rather than recognising the enormous privilege he was born into, he implied that his fortune was self-made. Those who didn’t get such a loan probably didn’t deserve one. In other words: the fallacy of the American dream.