A Very Psycho Dish Christmas

Psycho Dish went home for the holidays for the last time this Christmas. His dad passed away in early December, a few days after having a second heart attack. He was 86, and he’d had a good long run; he lived the late 20th century American Dream in its entirety. He grew up a smart kid from a lower-middle-class family who got a full ride scholarship to Berkeley and graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering. It was the height of the Cold War, and he got recruited even before he’d graduated by a big defense contractor to work on radio and radar systems for the Navy. They relocated him to a lab near the Philadelphia Navy Yards, where he spent most of the 60s and 70s working on the AEGIS radar, one of the wonder weapons of the era. It was a respectable job with a Fortune 500 company: good pay, good benefits, good pension. He bought a nice house in a nice neighborhood, married a nice girl, and had four kids. He became a pillar of his community, a fixture at his local church, and a founding member of the volunteer fire department in his rapidly-growing suburban town. As the Cold War wound down and defense contracts became less lucrative, the company offered him a generous buyout, and he retired a few years early. He and his wife had a couple decades worth of good golden years – volunteer work, playing with their grandchildren, five-day cruises to the Bahamas in winter – before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He cared for her till the day she died, lingered on a couple more years, and then joined her in the next world. It was a fine, full life to have led.

And so, at Christmastime, all four children returned to the house they had grown up in for a final Christmas together before the funeral was held, the will was read, and the possessions accumulated over a lifetime were divided up between them as the house was emptied and then, finally, sold. The oldest sister, Janet, came down from Massachusetts. She had followed in her father’s footsteps, graduated with a math degree from MIT (back when very few women did that sort of thing), and ended up working for her alma mater, helping it transition into the computer age. With time on her hands after having recently retired herself, and having always had the responsible nature of firstborn older sisters, she commandeered the lead role in taking care of her father’s affairs. The second sister, Cindy, flew in from Michigan, where she had briefly been a teacher, and then a wife and mother. With the lion’s share of the work safely in Janet’s hands, she had a seat on a plane back home a couple of days after the holiday. Psycho Dish was the third child and the only boy in the litter. He was also, along with the youngest sister, one of the two black sheep of the family – though they held that distinction for very different reasons. Psycho Dish inherited his grandmother’s free spirit, stubbornness, and “Whadda ya got?” rebellious streak, though beneath it all he has always had good intentions and genuinely loved his family. But the youngest, Chrissy, has always been crazy (literally, not figuratively: she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder decades ago), an attention hound, and a born troublemaker. She had wanted to take control of things, but Janet had given her a “No thank you” in a manner that was polite, yet unmistakably signaled that debate on the matter was closed.

One by one they came home, and resumed residence in their bedrooms of long ago for one last time.

Another one of Psycho Dish’s inheritances from his grandmother is her repertoire of family recipes – never written down, but memorized from the years that he lived with her during his young adulthood. Most of these dated to her childhood during the Great Depression, when people found whatever means they could to make a little food go a long way. The one he makes the most is her chicken soup. It’s not a complicated recipe – cut a whole chicken into pieces, put the carcass into a big stock pot with some mirepoix and garlic, then simmer it all day. By the time it’s done, even the bones will be soft and ready to flake apart – and will have added all the flavor and nutrition in them to the mixture. Two days before Christmas, he went out to the local ShopRite and bought a chicken to simmer down into soup the next day, chill overnight, and serve with Christmas dinner. He put it in in the fridge, took out a couple of beers, passed a couple of hours watching Dancing With The Stars in the living room, went to bed, and slept in late the next morning.

By the time he got back into the kitchen, it was around 11 o’clock on the morning of Christmas Eve. Chrissy was there, busily unpacking some groceries she had just come home with. She seemed upset about something, but he decided not to ask… until he noticed a rotisserie chicken sitting on the counter among the things she was putting away.

“Y’know”, he began, “I don’t know if you looked in the fridge before you went out shopping, but there’s already a chicken in there. I’m not sure we needed two of them.”

She shot him a cold look. “Oh, I saw it.”

“Well, then, uhh…”

She didn’t let him finish the thought: “And I suppose that leaving it in the fridge was your way of telling me that you just expected me to cook it for you?”

“I actually was thinking that–”

“It’s because I’m a woman! You think it’s my job to do all the housework!”

“No, y’see, Grandma Catherine–”

“May have cooked and cleaned and picked up after you, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to! So guess what? To hell with your sexist chicken! I reject it, and bought my own! And you’re not getting any!”

At this point, Psycho Dish decided that he’d taken enough heat and he’d best get out of the kitchen for a while. He turned to leave, and noticed Janet, who had apparently heard the whole exchange, standing in the doorway. As she moved out of the way to let him pass, he found himself silently mouthing the words “…my sexist chicken…” to her. It would be a couple of hours before he dared venture back to the kitchen to see if Chrissy had vacated it. When he found that she had, he put the soup on, and it was nearly midnight by the time it was ready to put in the fridge.

Christmas morning didn’t see many presents exchanged. It’s different when you’re a grownup – if you don’t have kids of your own, it’s a more low-key holiday, and there’s not all that much pressure on to buy a bunch of presents for relatives who are adults themselves and can afford whatever toys they want on their own. The big event of the day is Christmas dinner, where, for better or worse, everyone gathers to catch each other up on what they’ve been doing and where they are in life. Psycho Dish felt a little uneasy about it; he was not only the sole male member of the family there, but also the sole member of the family whose political sympathies leaned rightward – his sisters ranged from NPR-listening Democrat to full-blown #RESIST in their views. As much of a joyful gadfly as he can sometimes be, made up his mind that under the circumstances, he’d consciously avoid the slightest hint of politics in his dinner conversation.

Janet said grace. She manages to balance respectable mainline Protestantism with the mainline liberalism that is the only respectable way to think on a university campus in Massachusetts. Food reached plates, first bites were taken, and compliments to the chef were exchanged between the siblings who were responsible for each piece of the meal. Janet made sure her compliments on the soup were extended last, waited a few seconds through a lull in the conversation, and then took some older-sisterly initiative:

“Chris, dear, I wonder if maybe you might have been a bit harsh with your brother yesterday. I know it’s a stressful time and everyone’s on edge, but do you think maybe a little apology might be in order?”

This caught Psycho Dish by surprise, and he shot a glance over to Chrissy to see how the comment landed. He expected her to look defensive. She didn’t. He recognized what he saw in her face that way that only a family member can. No, she didn’t seem like she felt cornered at all – rather, someone had just made the mistake of putting her center stage under the spotlight, and now she had the opening she needed to put on her most dramatic performance. Instantly, he realized that he was trapped in the front row, with no exit path in sight.

“Maybe I was, but all of you just don’t understand what I’ve been going through lately! It’s not just losing dad or dealing with the paperwork and legal stuff…”

Janet frowned slightly. Actually, she had been the one dealing with all the paperwork and legal stuff.

“…but there’s the trauma of being a rape survivor too!”

This was news to everyone at the table. Psycho Dish now directed his look to Janet, who was wearing an expression that somehow managed to combine concern and skepticism. It did not escape his notice that the revelation was followed by a long pause, into which a response was obviously intended to fall. He found himself very glad that his older sister was the one who had to deliver it.

“Oh, Chris, why didn’t you tell us anything about this before? We’re your family! We’ll always stand by you! Did you tell anyone else? What did the police say?”

Psycho Dish didn’t know what would come next; he knew only that he dreaded it.

“No. I was too embarrassed and afraid to tell anyone! And nobody would have done anything about it even if I did!”

“But that’s not true at all! The police would have…”

“The police wouldn’t have done anything! They couldn’t!”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because the man who raped me was…” here, Chrissy lowered her voice and seemed near tears. “…it was Donald Trump.”

Janet’s next words were calm and measured, but her tone made it obvious that the skepticism had started to overtake the concern.

“Donald… Trump? You mean, as in… the President?”

“Yes, him.”

Janet is a mathematician and a programmer. It’s in the blood. Psycho Dish’s family history is filled with respectable engineers who married crazy artists. Everyone in the family fits into one of those two types somehow. In his generation, the two older children grew up respectable and studious, the two younger ones unstable and artistic. The divide between them hung like thick smoke in the long pause that had followed. Chrissy had always been into New Age spirituality, crystals, and meditation in addition to having a troubled relationship with reality that had lasted her whole life. Janet had always thought in algorithms and equations, and outside of church took life about as literally as it could be taken. He saw her struggling to come up with some explanation for what she had just heard that her exceptionally rational mind could process. After a few seconds that seemed much longer, she came up with one.

“So you mean… twenty or thirty years ago?”

It seemed at least plausible; certainly to a group of women whose outraged reactions to Trump’s “Grab ’em by the pussy” comments of long ago had lit up Psycho Dish’s Facebook timeline for weeks on end.

“No, I mean now! Recently! Since he became President!”

Psycho Dish now turned toward Cindy and saw her staring off into the distance, as if she was looking at something far away that wasn’t really visible. And he knew exactly what it was – Michigan, where she was no doubt very much wishing she was at that moment. Psycho Dish wished he was in Michigan, too – or in Bora Bora, or in Swaziland, or in Purgatory, or literally anywhere other than that dinner table. She got very slightly up out of her chair, extended a boardinghouse reach across the table to a near-full bottle of wine, yanked it back to her seat, and filled a glass almost to the brim.

Janet continued in a polite tone of voice: “But Chris, I… I don’t like him any more than you do, but I don’t really see how that’s possible. I mean, he’s surrounded by the Secret Service 24/7, and I don’t think he’d really be able to slip away to… do something like that.”

“See?! I knew you wouldn’t believe me! You’ve always been like that! You’re not able to see all the ways that someone like that bastard could do something like this!”

Janet seemed increasingly desperate: “Then please, Chris, help me to understand. Tell me what he did.”

Chrissy’s expression told Psycho Dish that she knew it was time for the killshot: “He used astral projection.”

Janet hadn’t changed her expression yet, but when she continued, her voice sounded like an old cassette tape that had been slowed down.

“Assss… trallll… pro…ject… ion…”

“Yes! Right into my bedroom! While I was sleeping!”

Janet suddenly looked relieved. Her rational mind had thought of another explanation for all of this.

“Well, dear, I think that may only have been a dream, don’t you?”

“NO! Not if it’s happening over and over again, every single night!”

A good sister will always come in for the save when things get bad. Cindy is a good sister, and took over momentarily from the flabbergasted Janet.

“So you’re saying that the President of the United States is astrally projecting himself into your bedroom every night to rape you?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying!”

“And how long has this been going on?”

“Since the election!”

“That was two years ago. So Donald Trump has astrally raped you every night for two years?”

“Yes, he has.”

Psycho Dish noticed that the wine glass was now empty. It would not be long before it was refilled.

Janet had recovered enough to interject again, but only barely. “H… how?” was all she could manage.

“You all don’t understand how evil he is or the dark power he’s got! That’s how he won the election in the first place!”

Cindy tagged in again: “So he’s some kind of wizard or something?”

“That’s such a simplistic, storybook way to put it!”

Psycho Dish had grown up with these women. He knew them like only close family can ever really know someone. And that means that he knew precisely what to say – the only thing that it made any sense to say at this point:

“I’m gonna go into the kitchen and check on the soup.”

A few minutes later, I got a text message from Psycho Dish. It read: “My sister thinks that Donald Trump is an evil wizard who’s astrally projecting into her bedroom and raping her every night. Tell you more when I get home.”

Dear readers, if you have been following me here or on social media for any length of time, you must know by now that I am rarely at a loss for words. But it took nearly an hour of starting, deleting, and restarting replies before I texted back: “I think you’ve just found the bottom of the well of Trump Derangement Syndrome.”

A minute or two later, my phone vibrated again. Psycho Dish had answered: “Yeah, I think I just did.”

Whatever went on with the conversation at the table after that, Psycho Dish missed it. Instead, he turned to the dirty dish-filled sink, turned on the hot water, and attacked it with an intensity that demonstrated why the fellow dishwashers at the string of restaurants he’s worked at over the years gave him that name.

* * *

Normally I would not include a note like this in any of my pieces, but here I feel it necessary to assure my readers that, other than changing the names of Psycho Dish’s sisters and filling in some lines of dialog that he left incomplete when he told me everything a week later over beer and chicken at Buffalo Wild Wings, I have not changed anything about this story. Psycho Dish is a real person, as are his sisters, and all of this actually happened. This is really the point we’ve reached in our politics, in our culture, in relations between the sexes and the state of our women, and in not just one person’s relationship with reality, but our entire society’s as well. Grown adult women have been driven to such hysteria by the fact that someone they dislike won an election that they’ve lapsed into literal hallucinations because of it. As Janet discovered, there is no rational response to that. It can’t be argued with or have its mind changed by data or tables filled with statistics.

And yet it can vote, and set the policies under which you and I must live.

This is 21st century democracy.

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To See The Invisible Man

For anyone who’s never seen it, this episode of the 80s revival of the Twilight Zone (posted here in its entirety) is a perfect metaphor for the deplatforming/unpersoning of those found guilty of wrongthink in the current year. Notice, especially, how it ends, which is the right answer to how we should respond to respond to it.

If we are afraid or indifferent, they will isolate us and destroy us one at a time. We must stick together and take care of each other, which is what communities do.

Green Tea Among Snow-Covered Mountains

Twenty years ago, I lived in a small town in the mountains of central Japan, where, through a nationally-administered educational program called JET, I was employed teaching English in the local middle school. I was in my mid-20s, and off on a great exotic adventure – a romantic one too, as through some luck and ingenuity I had managed to find a way to bring with me a certain young lady of whom I was quite fond. It was not only my first time living in a foreign land, but, as a child of the Great American Suburbs, also my first time living in the countryside anywhere. It was, as small towns tend to be, the sort of place where not only does everybody know everybody, but everybody is vaguely related to everybody as well – there were a handful of local surnames that I’d guess between them hung on about three-quarters of the people there. The local barber had, in his younger days, been a sailor on a a cargo ship and had come home with a Filipina wife, but other than her, my young lady and I were the only non-Japanese there. As one can imagine, we made quite an impression on the place, as it did also on us.

Japanese schools work differently from American schools in a few important ways. Among them is that in America, students shuttle around between classrooms all day, while in Japan, students stay at the same desk while, every class period, different teachers come in for each of their various classes. This is why there are no lockers in Japanese schools – students there simply keep everything at the desk at which they sit all day, every day. It is also why the common American phenomenon of a teacher taking over a certain classroom as their own personal fiefdom and storing all of their stuff in its desk never happens in Japan. Because of this, teachers in Japan spend a lot more time at their desks in the staff room, which is where they come between classes and during periods in which they have nothing scheduled, to grade papers, plan lessons, or relax a bit.

My own desk in the staff room was nose-to-nose with that of Yukari-san, the school’s office lady. Office lady (OL for short) is a job that doesn’t exist in America, or even in the West as a whole, but is a fixture of Asian business settings. It is, in truth, a job that the egalitarian feminist sentiments of the modern West would not permit to exist here. The function of OLs is simply to make the office comfortable and comforting. Yes, they often do some minor functional tasks like making copies or shuttling papers from one office to the next. But the main things that they do during their workdays are to make tea (oh, the endless cups of tea consumed in Japanese offices!), to ensure that the electric hot water kettles that office workers use for instant ramen consumed at their desks are full, to offer cookies and snacks to those too busy even for ramen, to greet guests, to be pleasant, to look nice. Most of them are attractive young women who are expected to, and do, quit after a few years when they get married. Most, in corporate settings, wear smart-looking uniforms – universally featuring skirts, not pants – and pretty but businesslike high heels. They make offices – in which Japanese workers spend far more time than their American counterparts – a more warm and welcoming place.

Yukari-san was not in her 20s, and though she had obviously been quite pretty in her younger days, age and care had faded her looks. She wore no uniform, but came to work in the nicest clothes that her modest circumstances would allow. Hers was not the “Pretty Young Thing” approach to making the office a brighter place, but a motherly one. Quite literally, in fact, as two of her three daughters were students at the middle school (the third and oldest had just moved on to high school, which, as is common in the countryside, was farther off and shared by two or three nearby towns). She had been a widow about ten years, her husband having been killed in a wintertime wreck on one of the twisty, narrow roads that led out to the highway. She had never graduated high school, had no marketable skills, and after the accident had been left with three young children and enough money from savings and life insurance to get by for perhaps a few months.

In a small place like that, word gets around fast. The town, as a whole, made up its mind to do something to help her. Meetings were held at town hall. The mayor got involved. It was decided that a job would be found for her, marketable skills or not. Budgets were adjusted, and a modest sum per year was come up with. The Board of Education was consulted; suddenly there was an opening for an OL at the middle school, and only one candidate was ever considered for it.

In the West, the answer would have been to send Yukari-san to the welfare office, and to hurl her into the void of those who become lifetime wards of the system. She would be left to shuffle through the dehumanizing bureaucracy of the welfare state, filling out forms in dreary government offices, and then to return home to sit on the couch in front of a television set, getting fat on EBT-provided, high fructose corn syrup-laden junk foods, until diabetes or hypertension took her to an early grave. Or perhaps, as has become so common in America, someone would clue her in on how to get an easy prescription for opioid painkillers, and they would slowly consume her until, inevitably – by choice or by accident – the inevitable happened. But that is not how small-town Japan works. They find a way to take care of their own, and not just by giving them free processed junk food and a shabby Section 8 apartment. They came up with a way for Yukari-san to continue to be a useful member of the community, to have a purpose in life, to have a reason to get off the couch, to have pride in every bit of money that she was paid.

For Yukari-san, the job was perfect. She wasn’t well-educated, but she could make tea and snacks and photocopies and she could keep electric kettles full. The position allowed her to keep an eye on her daughters – the elementary school and the middle school were separated only by their shared baseball field, which meant that she would be near them all the way from when they began kindergarten to when they were teenagers headed off to high school. The pay was not lavish, but for getting by in a small town it was adequate, and since the staff in Japanese schools eat the same meals that students do, a few meals a week for both herself and her daughters were had at no charge. And most important of all, she could hold her head high with self-respect and say that she earned her keep.

Was that really quite true? Was the service she provided worth what the town was paying her in cold economic terms? Most certainly not. But despite the protestations of Ayn Rand, not all societal good is measurable that way. Was it cruel to make her work for her money instead of simply handing it to her and asking for nothing in return? Bleeding hearts would insist that it was, but it never seemed that Yukari-san felt that way. She didn’t feel demeaned – either by feminist sensibilities telling her that the job was beneath her or by a sense of entitlement telling her that she was owed something for nothing. She was only grateful that her community had found a way to take care of her, and she was equally grateful that she could contribute something back to it.

And as for me, I was simply happy to have a hot cup of green tea waiting for me whenever I came back from teaching a class. To this day, I can’t drink any without thinking of Yukari-san. The memories – of looking out at snow-covered mountains beyond the school windows while warming my hands over a steaming cup – are faded, but surrounded by a glow of distant happiness. By helping to create them, Yukari-san added something of value to my life that I feel even all these years later, in ways that are beyond the capability of economists to quantify.

And, though she was never a teacher, she did manage to provide me with a lesson in how a community can best take care of its needy.