At a certain age, or so we have come to believe, a singer loses her voice. Her vocal cords stiffen and slow. Her high notes dry up. But that is not what has happened to Judy Collins.
At 80, Collins sounds as clear as a spring wending through a field of wildflowers. The ethereal soprano that guided listeners through the 1960s — the “gentle voice amid the strife,” as Life magazine proclaimed on a May 1969 cover — still resonates in 2019. This has earned Collins an almost supernatural perspective. When audiences come to see her perform, which she does about one out of every three nights, they are transported. “They’re thinking about their youth,” Collins told me. “They’re thinking about their hopefulness. They’re thinking about their dreams, when they hear me.”
Your voice is like a time machine, I said.
“It’s a time machine,” she said. “Oh, very much. Very much.”
Collins was poised at the edge of the dining room table in her bewitching Upper West Side apartment, which she has occupied for almost 50 years. She wore a crushed velvet purple jacket and a sparkling necklace that said “Resist.” Her white hair tumbled down to her slim shoulders. The outline of a swallow was tattooed on her left hand. Just beneath it, “Clark” was etched into her wrist, for her son who killed himself in 1992. Collins drank sparkling water from a purple plastic-footed glass. She goes out onstage 120 nights a year, she told me, “because I make a living. I love it. And I’m getting better at it.” Then she bounded onto a small exercise trampoline and jumped off into a tour of her apartment, and her life.
Her home had the feel of an overstuffed time capsule, as if its curator kept lifting the lid to add important new artifacts. Thirteen umbrellas overflowed from the umbrella holder. Clinton administration ephemera dotted the space, which she called “the environment.” On the walls of the environment hung her Life magazine cover, and small photographs of Western landscapes and Walton Ford’s artfully disturbing paintings of birds. The environment was lit by dragonfly stained glass lamps and softened with pillows embroidered with messages like “Friends Are the Best Present” and “One Can Never Have Too Many Cats.”
Collins has three. They are Persian cats with luxurious coats and celestial orbs for eyes. At my request, she hunted them down, and when each was discovered — the tuxedoed Coco Chanel, the blue-gray Rachmaninoff and the all-white Tom Wolfe — Collins greeted the cat in a high, fluttering soprano. “Hellothere,” she said. “Do you want to say hello?”
The hunt led us into the bedroom of her husband, Louis Nelson, who was wearing a pair of funky yellow socks and contemplating a large rendering of a dog. “I design memorials,” he told me — he designed the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall — and now he was at work on a memorial for Samantha, a friend’s old dog, who would be laid to rest in a pet cemetery upstate. “It’s an extraordinary place,” Nelson said. Collins and Nelson have themselves outlived many pets, leaving them with an unwieldy collection of feline remains. “They’re in little pots and things around the house,” Collins said. “Sometimes I think, I should get rid of these. But I can’t.”
The cats stretched and scattered, and Collins zagged through a bathroom and into her own bedroom. A folded New York Times crossword lay unfulfilled on the bed. (Recently she spotted a friend in a Monday clue: “Jong who wrote ‘Fear of Flying.’”) Around the room’s perimeter, an array of leonine wigs was assembled. Collins’s voice is unchanged, but the hair is new. Two years ago, she had surgery on her hand, and when she awoke from the anesthesia, her hair fell out. “I had fabulous hair,” she said; silky hippie goddess hair. Collins was unimpressed with how it grew back, so now she has it all shaved off: “My hair was so good that there’s no comparison.”
It is here, in the environment, that Collins does the work of maintaining her time machine. “Most days, I do a number of things,” she said. “I practice. I sing a little. I write something. I do my crossword puzzle. I write in my journals. I try to do something exciting. I go to a funny movie. I get together with friends who are funny,” she said. Collins is always collecting jokes and stories and curious observations to fill out her sets. She used to stand onstage and close her eyes and just sing songs one after the other, but when she got sober, in 1978, she began to speak. “I found out that I had an awful lot to say, which I had not realized,” she said.
In 1965, when she was 26 years old, Collins did lose her voice. She was so hoarse that she could barely talk. She called up the vocal coach and activist Max Margulis, and once she convinced him that she was not a flighty folk singer but a serious person, they embarked on a 30-year course of study. His technique was not about the mechanics of Collins singing from her head or her lungs or her chest. It focused on the clarity and precision of her phrasing. It was about meaning what she sang.
“If you’re in the forest,” Collins explained, “and there’s a bear following you, and you want to alert your family, you raise your voice and say so, because if you don’t, your family might die from the bear.” Whether you’re in the woods of Colorado or the clubs of New York City, you must always be ready to use it. “The voice,” Collins said, “is actually meant to last forever.”
In the 1960s, when folk singer-songwriters were multiplying in the West Village, Collins was best known for singing other people’s songs. She sang “Both Sides Now,” by Joni Mitchell, and she made Joni Mitchell famous. She sang “Suzanne,” by Leonard Cohen, and made Leonard Cohen famous. She had an intriguing curatorial range. She sang old standards, and contemporary folk songs, and the Beatles, and Sondheim, and a medley based on the music of “Marat/Sade.” Collins encouraged Cohen to sing his own songs, and he encouraged her to write her own songs, which she approached the same way she did everyone else’s songs. You have to write them, she said, but “then you have to figure out how to sing them.”
The art of singing other people’s songs is not fully appreciated beyond the cabaret circuit, or maybe it’s a little bit lost. Folk singers used to be called “collectors” of songs, and Collins is a master collector. “I feel as though my voice is capable of doing anything,” she told Life in 1969. “I don’t question that I can make a sentence mean anything I want it to as long as I know what it is I want to say. I don’t know why I seem to be able to do it, but I do, and I think people are pleasured by it.”
This fall, the artist Justin Vivian Bond performed a tribute to Collins at Joe’s Pub, singing songs from writers that Collins had surfaced. Listening to her music as a child, Bond was struck by her interpretive skill, by “her sense of how to sing a song,” Bond said. “She’s a great actress, in that regard. And I think that’s how a great singer is a great singer — by acting the story of the song.”
Collins’s latest album, “Winter Stories,” out Nov. 29, is a collaboration with the Norwegian singer Jonas Fjeld and the bluegrass band Chatham County Line. It’s a hygge folk collection, perfect for curling up with three cats, but it also holds unexpected emotional power. On it Collins sings Mitchell’s “The River,” and her own “Mountain Girl,” and “Highwayman,” Jimmy Webb’s song about a man who is reincarnated as a thief, a sailor, a dam builder and a starship captain, which was later covered by Glen Campbell and then the country supergroup the Highwaymen. She had contemplated recording it for many years.
“I never really had the nerve,” she said. The song seemed to be owned by “the guys,” as she put it. “And then I thought, what the heck?” Collins’s version is unlike any other. In translating the masculine country anthem into her gossamer voice, she has dismantled and rebuilt the song into a testament to female resilience. After hearing it, the recordings by the other versions sound somehow muted. It’s Judy Collins’s song now.
Collins turned 80 this year. The news release in advance of the event read: “Judy Collins Celebrates 80th Birthday on May 1, Forecasts Another Prolific Year.” Her family assembled a fantasy dinner party of guests to fete her, including Gloria Steinem, Robert Caro and Joan Baez. “You have to see the jacket that Joan bought me for my birthday,” Collins said, disappearing into her closet and returning with a pink sequined number. “It’s hysterical,” she said. “She and I would never have worn this.” But a lot has changed since then.
Last year, Baez released what she said was likely to be her final album. “I asked my vocal coach many years ago when it would be time to stop,” she said, “and he said, ‘Your voice will tell you.’ And it has — it’s a muscle, and you have to work harder and harder to make it work.” Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen are dead. Joni Mitchell rarely surfaces publicly, and she will not answer Judy Collins’s letters. A whole generation of artists has fallen silent, but Collins is still singing. She is transforming old songs through her voice, and through that process she doesn’t just revive them — she remakes them.
“I notice that in old cultures, when someone is ill, they say we have lost our song,” Steinem, who has known Collins since the ’60s, wrote in an email. “Judy’s magic is that she gives us back our songs.”
There is a tendency to cast older artists as shadows. We go to their performances and listen for an echo of the star in their prime. But Judy Collins is the thing itself. “I’m a better singer now,” she said. “A much better singer.” Recently she kicked off a stretch of shows at Joe’s Pub in New York City with Fjeld and Chatham County Line. She emerged onstage in a pink sequined top — she owns multiple pink sequined tops — and a warm, daffy persona. She introduced Fjeld, and then, as she coolly tuned her guitar, she asked him, “Where is Norway, exactly?”
When they launched into “Mountain Girl,” I noticed that the men onstage looked as if they were engaged in a strenuous form of exercise. But Collins was still. Her guitar appeared to be made of air. She chased the song’s highest high notes with the relaxed air of a woman, in her environment, summoning her cats. When Collins sang her “Highwayman” — “I am still around, and I’ll always be around, and around, and around” — I felt transported, not into the past, but into Judy Collins’s present.
Up at the castle, in front of the cameras, the puppets were eagerly preparing for a festival. Dwarfed beneath high rows of stage lights, in front of painted trees, they bopped happily along the pretend stone wall. But there was a buzz kill: King Friday XIII, the mighty ruler in his bright purple cape, decreed that the festival would be a bass-violin festival.
“But you’re the only one who plays the bass violin,” one of the neighbors pointed out.
“Oh, so I am,” the king replied. “Well, it looks like I’ll have a very large audience.”
Fred Rogers was on his knees behind the castle, dressed all in black, working the puppets, his posture straight as a soldier’s, lips pursed tight as he voiced the king. There were cushions strewn on the floor and blocks of foam rubber taped to the parts of the castle where he tended to bonk his head. In one swift movement he crouched, slipped off the king, slid on another puppet. He shot his arm up, returned to his knees, but this time he slouched, his face softening as he voiced the meek and bashful Daniel Striped Tiger.
And so the neighbors scrambled about trying to figure out a way to be part of the festival. Stumped, and on the sly, they began to invent bass-violin acts they might contribute. One dressed up her accordion to look like a bass violin, another practiced a dance with one, another tried to turn herself into one by wearing a big fat bass-violin suit. Another, a goat, recited a bass-violin poem in goat language. (“Mehh.”)
Was this O.K.? Would the king approve?
He did. In fact, he was delighted. It turned into a most rockin’ bass-violin festival, neighbors singing and twirling with pretend and real bass violins (including a puppet holding a bass-violin puppet), around balloons with little cardboard handles taped to them to look like bass violins, to rousing bass-violin/accordion polka tunes accompanying bass-violin-inspired goat poems.
“If you didn’t know what was going on,” one of the guys on the crew said, “this could be a very weird situation.”
I appreciated that. I worked for a different department in the building, at WQED in Pittsburgh, down the hall. They had microwave popcorn in the cafeteria. To get to the popcorn you had to walk by Studio A, and there was usually the blue castle parked outside it for storage. If the castle wasn’t there, you knew they were taping inside, and sometimes you heard music. It was fun to go in and watch, if only to take in the live music, usually jazz, and to marvel at the bizarro factor. Like Fellini for preschoolers. My brother-in-law Hugh Martin had worked as director and producer of the program for a couple of years. He was long gone, had moved to New York, but he credited Fred with starting his career. Fred loved Hugh — so by association people were nice to me. It helped. I was 26, just out of grad school.
I wanted to ask Fred how he came up with the idea for goat poems. Whose day allows them to sit around thinking about accordions dressing up like bass violins? The first time I talked to him in his office, one floor up from Studio A, I tried to get him to explain. He kept turning the focus on me. It took us a while to get past the deflection match. He asked me about grad school. I hardly wanted to think about that, about the dark cloud hovering over my feelings about my time there. I asked him what he was working on. Any new scripts or songs?
He put his eyebrows up. “It’s so hard, isn’t it?” he said. “I think there are many people who bring a whole lot of baggage from their past and a whole lot of anxiety about the future to the present moment. What’s so great is that people can be in relationship with each other for the now.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“If we can somehow rid ourselves of illusions,” he said. “The illusion that we are greater or lesser than we are. The illusion that we’re going to save the world. There are a lot of illusions that people walk around with. I would love to be able to be present in every moment I have.”
I distinctly remember having little more to offer than, “Yeah.”
His office was more like a living room. No desk, just his easy chair and a soft brown couch — plus a flowering peace plant, a piece of driftwood, a miniature sandbox and other random gifts people had brought him over the years, many of which he pointed out, then told stories about the people who gave them to him.
“I think the greatest thing about things is they remind you of people,” he said.
I supposed so. And more so as I thought about it.
“I want to tell you about my tie,” he said. He lifted it up and looked at it. “Do you know what this tartan is? This tartan is the clergy tartan. I suppose if somebody were Scottish, they would recognize it. But I don’t think most people know. I wear this tie more than any other. Maybe I just feel, you know, that it represents a big part of who I am.”
Muted lavender and light blue, the clergy tartan is one traditionally worn only by people involved in ministry. Fred said it was a gift from Bill Barker, one of his closest friends and the minister who gave the charge at Fred’s ordination in the United Presbyterian Church in 1963: “We charge you to shake us through a God who involves Himself in our world, into the world where He already is. … This world of TV cameras, of puppets, of children, of parents, of studios, of directors, of actors, this [too] is God’s world. … We, as the Church, charge that you speak to us to disturb us. … We charge you to speak to us to remind us that we too, through you, must be involved.”
“So the show is like your church?” I asked Fred.
He thought a moment. He said it was easier to say what it wasn’t. It was not a show. He used the word “program,” never “show.”
“An atmosphere,” he said. What he was trying to create with “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was “an atmosphere that allows people to be comfortable enough to be who they are.” He continued: “I really don’t want to superimpose anything on anybody. If people are comfortable in that atmosphere, they can grow from there, in their own way.
“A lot of this — all of this — is just tending soil.”
He fell silent, as if adding white space around that simple, stark remark.
When we were saying goodbye, I thanked him for all he had taught me.
“I think that it is very important to learn that you get that largely because of who you are,” he said. “I could be saying the same words and giving the same thoughts to somebody else who could be thinking something very different.”
I remember protesting. I was just trying to say thank you.
“It’s so very hard, receiving,” he said. “When you give something, you’re in much greater control. But when you receive something, you’re so vulnerable.
“I think the greatest gift you can ever give is an honest receiving of what a person has to offer.”
He was impossible to thank. I remember going home that day with goat poems swirling in my head.
Fred Rogers was a curious, lanky man, six feet tall and 143 pounds (exactly, he said, every day; he liked that each digit corresponded to the number of letters in the words “I love you”) and utterly devoid of pretense. He liked to pray, to play the piano, to swim and to write, and he somehow lived in a different world than I did. A hushed world of tiny things — the meager and the marginalized. A world of simple words and deceptively simple concepts, and a slowness that allowed for silence, focus and joy. We became friends for some 20 years, and I made lifelong friends with his wife, Joanne. I remember thinking that it seemed as if Fred had access to another realm, like the way pigeons have some special magnetic compass that helps them find home.
Fred died in 2003, somewhat quickly, of stomach cancer. He was 74. It was years after his death that he would, suddenly, go from a kind of lovable PBS novelty to an icon on the magnitude of the divine. It happened so fast that it was easy to gloss over his actual message. He gets reduced to a symbol. A conveyor of virtue! The god of kindness! Something like that, according to the memes.
“Just don’t make Fred into a saint.” That has become Joanne’s refrain. She’s 91 now, still a bundle of energy, lives alone in the same roomy apartment, in the university section of Pittsburgh, that she and Fred moved into after they raised their two boys. Mention her name to anyone around town who knows her, and you’ll very likely be rewarded with a fabulous grin. She’s funny. She laughs louder and bigger than just about anyone I know, to the point where it can go into a snort, which makes her go full-on guffaw. Throughout her 50-year marriage to Fred, she wasn’t the type to hang out on the set at WQED or attend production meetings. That was Fred’s thing. He had his career, and she had hers as a concert pianist. For decades she toured the country with her college classmate, Jeannine Morrison, as a piano duo; they didn’t retire the performance until 2008.
Joanne’s refrain has been adopted by people who spent their careers working with Fred in Studio A. “If you make him out to be a saint, nobody can get there,” said Hedda Sharapan, the person who worked with Fred the longest in various creative capacities over the years. “They’ll think he’s some otherworldly creature.”
“If you make him out to be a saint, people might not know how hard he worked,” Joanne said. Disciplined, focused, a perfectionist — an artist. That was the Fred she and the cast and crew knew. “I think people think of Fred as a child-development expert,” David Newell, the actor who played Mr. “Speedy Delivery” McFeely, told me recently. “As a moral example maybe. But as an artist? I don’t think they think of that.”
That was the Fred I came to know. Creating, the creative impulse and the creative process were our common interests. He wrote or co-wrote all the scripts for the program — all 33 years of it. He wrote the melodies. He wrote the lyrics. He structured a week of programming around a single theme, many of them difficult topics, like war, divorce or death.
I don’t know that he cared whether people saw him as an artist. He seemed more intent that people not see him at all. Over the years he would occasionally carry a small camera in his jacket pocket. He would whip it out without warning and just start snapping away at you. No explanation. Then about two weeks later you would get a card in the mail from Fred. The pictures. On the backs of some he wrote comments. “I like this one a lot” or “You sure look surprised here!” (He would not sign the card; he would often put his words on a Post-it so you could reuse it.) You were left in a most unusual and private moment, looking at pictures of yourself from the point of view of Fred.
The focus was always on you. Or children. Or the tiny things. It was hard to see Fred. I remember those first days in his office, learning about soil, illusions, giving and receiving, concepts that would go on to rattle through me like drumbeats. It would take me years to understand it all, to see how those blocks fit together, to recognize just how radical his message was.
“L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” That was Fred’s favorite quote. He had it framed and hanging on a wall in his office. “What is essential is invisible to the eyes,” from Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls,” he once said, expounding on the idea in a speech. “It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff. … What is essential about you that is invisible to the eyes?”
I like you just the way you are. One day he told me where that core message came from. His grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely, who like the rest of the Rogers family lived in Latrobe, Pa., about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. “He was a character,” he said. “Oh, a lot of me came from him.” He got excited talking about his grandfather, telling disjointed stories and family lore. “If I knew how to paint, I could paint you a picture of my grandfather’s house. … He had an old horse. It was so old nothing could have happened to you. Sally. … And he’d even let me send away to Sears for things!
“He was a real pioneer!” he went on. “The fascinating thing about him was that he loved to do things so much that every time he would get something started, a company started, he’d sell his entire interest in it to be able to start something else. So when he died, I think he had all of 25 or 30 dollars. After all that. He started something like four companies in Latrobe.” Fred’s father inherited the last one, the McFeely Brick Company. “But then my grandfather retired, and he went out to the country, and he always wanted some chickens, so he bought 5,000 chickens. Then he got rid of them because that was too much trouble, and he bought 150 head of cattle, and then he got rid of them and he bought a whole lot of pigs. And then he had a slaughterhouse, and they made sausage and they evidently didn’t make a penny. The last thing he bought was a little coal mine, and then he sold that when he went into a nursing home.”
His grandfather represented a life of risk and adventure, the very things Fred’s boyhood lacked. He was a lonely kid, an only child until he was 11, when his sister came. He was bullied. Here comes Fat Freddie! He was sickly. He had rheumatic fever. He had asthma. He was not allowed to play outside by himself. His parents and the family doctor pitched in together to buy what Fred loved to say was Latrobe’s first room air-conditioner to help with his breathing problems; they installed it in a neighbor’s window for Fred and Paul, another sick child. “We rarely left that room,” he told me. “We had our meals there. After that, we got an air-conditioner in our house.” They installed it in Fred’s bedroom. It was there that he spent much of his childhood.Puppets from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood:” Daniel Striped Tiger, King Friday XIII, X the Owl, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Henrietta Pussycat, Queen Sara Saturday.
He had music, and he had puppets to keep himself amused. He didn’t need much. He was expected to fill his father’s shoes, become his business partner at the brick company. “My dad was pretty much Mr. Latrobe,” he told me. “He worked hard to accomplish all that he did, and I’ve always felt that that was way beyond me. And yet I’m so grateful that he didn’t push me to do the kinds of things that he did or to become a miniature version of him. It certainly would have been miniature.”
Fred wanted to be like his grandfather. He was allowed to leave the air-conditioned room to visit him. “He taught me all kinds of really neat stuff!” he told me. “I remember one day my grandmother and my mother were telling me to get down, or not to climb, and my grandfather said: ‘Let the kid climb on the wall! He’s got to learn to do things for himself!’ I heard that. I will never forget that. What a support that was. He had a lot of stone walls on his place.
“And you can understand my mother and grandmother. They didn’t want a scratched-up kid. They didn’t want somebody with broken bones. No. But he knew there was something beyond that. He knew there was something more important than scratches and bones. … I climbed that wall. And then I ran on it. I will never forget that day.”
Joanne came into Fred’s life in college. They were music majors together at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and after graduation they lived in New York. Fred was hoping to work as a composer but had become intrigued by the nascent medium of television. He worked his way up to network floor manager at NBC before learning about a start-up, the nation’s first community-sponsored television station, WQED in Pittsburgh. Despite warnings from people at NBC who told him he was crazy — “That place isn’t even on the air yet!” — he moved to Pittsburgh in 1953, and he and Joanne bought a red-brick house.
He brought out his puppets. He found something important for them to say, thanks in large part to the person who would become his lifelong collaborator, Margaret McFarland, at the University of Pittsburgh. Along with her colleagues Benjamin Spock and Erik Erikson, McFarland revolutionized the study of childhood development. She helped Fred explore the emotional landscape of children. “Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable,” she would repeatedly tell him. She taught him the ways in which empathy and people’s own experiences of childhood could enable them to accept and help children accept themselves, not as an end, but as a starting place. She provided an intellectual framework for what Fred learned from his grandfather.
“I think it was when I was leaving one time to go home after our time together,” Fred told me, “that my grandfather said to me: ‘You know, you made this day a really special day. Just by being yourself. There’s only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are.’
“Well, talk about good stuff. That just went right into my heart. And it never budged. And I’ve been able to pass that on. And that’s a wonderful legacy. And I trust that he’s proud of that. I could have walked into some positions that were already set. I could have walked into an office that was already furnished for me. But I would much rather have done what I have done.”
It was cold in Studio A. I learned to bring a sweater. Usually I sat by the piano, with Johnny Costa, a well-known jazz musician at the time, admired by greats like Duke Ellington and Cannonball Adderley. He signed on to Fred’s program back in its earliest days. Costa was so cool. Wisecracking. He seemed way more Bugs Bunny than Mister Rogers. I marveled at the way he and Fred communicated through the piano, Costa following Fred’s movements during taping, matching his expressions with a riff or a sequence of chords, shoulders up, right hand in the air on the high notes. He was so into it. “Thank God I’m a genius,” he would say after a take.
He liked to talk about his unlikely friendship with Fred. “Me, I enjoy a good steak,” he told me. “Now Fred, he would never think of eating a steak. And I’ll enjoy a glass of wine. Fred doesn’t drink. Fred, he would never swear. Me, I would swear. You follow me?” He said he and Fred liked to talk about Heaven, about meeting Beethoven up there. Costa worried he would miss out. He was “afraid about some of my sins, you know, throughout my life.” Costa said, “I’d tell him I’m more bad than good sometimes.”
Fred told him, “Remember how you give this great comfort to people through your music.”
That was the vibe in Studio A. Fred was intentional about the atmosphere he created on the program as well as on the set. If you could provide an environment that allowed people to be comfortable enough to be, simply, who they are, what would happen? Who would they become?
“When I first started doing this,” Costa told me, “I wasn’t so sure I wanted to do kids’ music, you know?” Fred gave Costa his songs. Costa interpreted them, added the great Johnny Costa to them. “I played what I always played,” he said. “You know, I played jazz. And Fred liked it. And so it stayed. And so I stayed.
“Fred knows that I have something to give that’s important. And he lets me give it, and I give it freely, and then I’m part of it, a part of his creation.” He said pretty much everyone felt that way. “That’s what makes us so tight. It’s because Fred lets us give. And what a thing that is, huh?”“Neighborhood of Make-Believe” book, 1995. Mister Rogers showed this book in his television house.Photographs by Henry Leutwyler
This idea of accepting a person, a child or anyone as is was a novel concept to me. I had spent a lifetime in a Catholic household where adhering to dogma, rather than self-discovery, was the thing. The church supplied you with a better way to act, to think, to behave. In time I came to question if I had any of my own thoughts at all. I went to grad school. No Catholics anywhere as far as I could tell. It was exhilarating! Critical thinking was the thing. It was at first a mind-expanding drug. Deconstruct your thoughts. Doubt yourself. Doubt everything. Attack your thoughts. Attack everyone’s. Skepticism became the badge of honor. But for me it all led to a kind of sourness, a distrust of anything soft, of beauty, silence, love.
And here was Fred. Accept yourself. Accept others. As is. In Fred’s world I found my own thoughts, and quite literally my own voice, as a writer. I even wrote about him over the years, without much success. Some of the conversations and moments recalled here are from those early attempts to understand — puzzle pieces I continue to play with, all these years later, at random intervals in my day.
Fred and I commiserated about the creative process. We would often sit and talk about confronting the blank page, the blank canvas, the blank song sheet. That place of vast possibility and bottomless terror. “Why is it so scary?” he would say. “It’s so hard.” He told me he would sometimes freeze before being able to jot down a word. He had a writing room, away from the office, away from home, where he showed up on writing days no matter what. Take it on. Enter it. Sometimes in Studio A he would show me how he worked out his doubts about himself and his emotions at the piano. Banging out anything angry or anything glad. He said it helped. I told him my outlet might be something more like shopping or maybe napping. He said either of those could work.
Fred saw creating as a divine act. Inspiration happened in everyday moments. “I remember one time,” Newell told me, “Fred and I were in Ligonier, Pa., in the mountains, and we were filming a nighttime sequence. And we were driving home. And as I pulled onto the turnpike there was somebody, a soldier or sailor hitchhiking. This was like 12 at night maybe. And Fred said, ‘Look at him, he looks so lonely there.’ I said, ‘Fred, we have no room.’ We had a full car of equipment. He let it go. Or, well, I guess he didn’t. A couple of weeks later, he wrote a song.”
Hello there Are you lonely Are you a lonely neighbor Alone tonight Hello there If you are lonely Then you need only say Hello there I’m lonely Hello there Just say hello
That was the place where Fred and I connected, and it was also the place where he lived. This place of creating, of making stuff, and I know for him it was vital, a lifeline. He said he thought it was for me, too. In fact, he thought it was true for everybody. Fred believed that the creative process was a fundamental function at the core of every human being.
“I think that the need to create has to do with a gap,” he said. “A gap between what is and what might be. Or what you’d like to be. I think that the need to create is the need to bridge that gap. And I do believe it’s a universal need. Unless there is somebody out there who feels that what is, is also what might be.
“I don’t know anybody who has complete satisfaction with everything. Do you?”
On the beach in Nantucket, he was wearing a tattered windbreaker, loosefitting chinos and the famous blue sneakers. It was the summer of 1992, almost a decade into our friendship. He was struggling to carry all the stuff he had gathered: a ratty old beach chair, a towel, a ball cap. Joanne and I were not exactly helping. These things were filthy, random junk having washed up on the shoreline at various stops along our walk. At one point he put them down and charged toward something else that had caught his eye. It was a sheet. A dirty old sheet. “Now, what size is our bed?” he called to Joanne as he began spreading it out on the sand.
“Uh, Rog,” Joanne said, as we drew near. “I don’t think — ”
She looped her arm around mine.
He looked at us, seemed to genuinely calculate the sincerity of our disapproval, then glanced back down at the sheet.
“It’s disgusting, Fred,” I said.
He put it down, gathered up the other stuff, and we toddled back to the house without comment. By this point, I was pretty used to Fred’s quirks. He was definitely a guy drawn to junk. To the world’s discard pile. He liked flea markets. On Nantucket, where he and Joanne spent summers in the small cottage they called the Crooked House (it leaned), he liked to stop by the town dump just to browse. That weekend he had rescued a cement deer from the dump, a lawn ornament or something. It was missing an ear. He had it perched on the porch railing at the house, and he kept calling our attention to it. “Yup, nice deer, Fred.”
The tiny things. The meager and the marginalized. This emphasis was ever-present in Fred’s life — in everyday exchanges at home, in speeches, in scripts and in songs. He embodied a kind of simple/fancy dichotomy. Simple was a virtue. Fancy was suspect. Simple was pure. Fancy was exhausting and vapid. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.
That year I went with Fred to something that was anything but simple. It was a fund-raiser for George H.W. Bush’s 1992 re-election campaign. The decision to attend was out of character. Fred did not endorse politicians, ever. He was a pacifist and was vehemently opposed to Bush’s war in the Persian Gulf. But somehow he had agreed to do this favor for friends involved in arranging the event. Newell, who doubled as the program’s public-relations guy, went with him, and so did Bill Isler, president of Family Communications, the company that produced the show. (It would later change its name, after Fred’s death, to Fred Rogers Productions.) I remember that Isler was nervous, and Newell was rattled, and Fred was trying to pretend he wasn’t angry or, at least, miserable.
We arrived late, skipping the cocktails, and entered a ballroom at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Fred was scanning the room as if expecting ghosts to pop out.
“You O.K. there, Fred?” I asked.
“I just don’t know what to expect,” he said. “You know, that’s why I sing that song, ‘Children Like to Be Told.’ ”
Just then Secret Service officials popped out. “Hello!” Fred said with a little hop, like when a balloon pops. They took us to a little room. They pulled back a blue curtain and there was the president of the United States, standing between two big potted plants. “Thank you for coming!” Bush said to Fred. “I am so sorry Barbara isn’t here. She is a real fan of yours.”
I don’t remember anything else about the small talk. I just remember Isler yanking Fred aside to provide commentary. “My God, you guys look like you’re part of a wax-museum exhibit.”
At the luncheon, Fred stood at the lectern between Bush and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. He leaned in to the microphone.
He looked tiny.
“I know of a little girl who was drawing with crayons in school,” he said.
He kept looking tinier.
“The teachers asked her about her drawing,” he said. “And the little girl said, ‘Oh, I am making a picture of God.’ The teacher said, ‘But no one knows what God looks like.’ The little girl smiled and answered, ‘They will now.’ ”
With that he asked everyone to think of their own images of God, and he began praying. He talked about listening to the cries of despair in America and about turning those cries into rays of hope.
A hush fell over the room, and he wasn’t tiny anymore. He stepped away from the lectern and darted. He was always a darter, but this was extreme. “O.K., now where the hell is Fred?” Isler asked me. We darted. We combed the building and climbed stairs. The Secret Service guys had lost sight of him, too. “We’ve got to get out of here,” Newell said.
We found him outside, next to an oak tree, motionless and relaxed. “Fred!” Isler said, exasperated. Fred said he wanted to go back to the office.
“I wasn’t about to participate in any fund-raising or anything else,” he told me later. “But at the same time I don’t want to be an accuser. Other people may be accusers if they want to; that may be their job. I really want to be an advocate for whatever I find is healthy or good. I think people don’t change very much when all they have is a finger pointed at them. I think the only way people change is in relation to somebody who loves them.”“A Granddad for Daniel,” final score for the MRN opera.Photographs by Henry Leutwyler
Unity Cemetery is two miles outside Latrobe. There’s a little church on it, Unity Chapel, that Fred’s father helped organize a campaign to restore in the 1950s. Fred’s buried in the back, inside the family mausoleum. Four marble steps, four marble columns, a sharp-pitched roof, a brass door, gleaming stained glass. From that spot, the mountains stretch in all directions, green and blue and streaks of vermilion. I peeked inside and read the names on the marble walls. I said hi to his mom and his dad, as you do. I said, “Oh, Fred.” I did not look at the space reserved for Joanne. I turned around and took a long breath of the mountain air, and I remembered a bright green lawn. Fred barefoot. His first grandson, Alex, was 3. His toes. “This little piggy went to market.” Alex squealing with delight. Me and Fred lying in the grass. It’s probably the closest I ever felt to him. He wasn’t asking me questions about me. He wasn’t taking my picture. He wasn’t making my mind do back flips. He was just Grandpa on a fabulous spring day.
Recently someone asked me if I thought my friendship with Fred had any impact on my life now. I said that I probably think of him, or of something he taught me, every single day. I suppose that’s a weird thing to say about an old friend. But I know that anything worthwhile I do as a parent is rooted in Fred’s teaching about tending soil. The same goes for anything good I do as a teacher, at the same university, in the very same classrooms where the darkness once fell over me. I’ve been back awhile now, working to create an atmosphere that allows people to be comfortable enough to be who they are. I don’t want to superimpose anything on anybody. A lot of this — all of this — is just tending soil. It’s not the kind of thing you read in the pedagogy journals. It’s not really a thing at all.
But it’s all connected. The soil, the atmosphere, the fundamental human urge to create. It all goes to Fred’s notion of a gap between what is and what might be. For Fred, creating is an expression of optimism, an act of faith. Faith in progress, in invention, in some basic urge to constantly make life better. Perhaps the best way to understand just how radical his message would be is to think of what happens when soil isn’t tended. A barren landscape. A toxic soil. An atmosphere devoid of love and of acceptance, where a person’s internal wars go unnoticed and unattended. What sort of creations come out of those people, stuck in that place? A world war? Walls? Children in cages.
“I think that how we were first loved — or not — has a great deal to do with what we create and how,” Fred once told me.
He put it this way in a speech:
“There are those of us who have been deprived of human confidence. Those who have not been able to develop the conviction that they have anything of value within. Their gap is rather a chasm. And they most often despair of creating any bridges to the land of what might be. They were not accepted as little children. … They were never truly loved by any important human other. … And so it seems to me that the most essential element in the development of any creation, any art or science, must be love. A love that begins with the simple expressions of care for a little child.
“When people help us to feel good about who we are, they are really helping us to love the meaning of what we create.”
The speech was a commencement address at Carnegie Mellon University. After Fred delivered the last line, he began singing his song “It’s You I Like,” and hundreds of students joined in. Costa was there on the piano, going full-on rhapsodic.
It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear It’s not the way you do your hair But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now The way down deep inside you Not the things that hide you Not your degrees They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like. Every part of you Your skin, your eyes, your feelings Whether old or new. I hope that you’ll remember Even when you’re feeling blue That it’s you I like It’s you yourself It’s you — It’s you I like!
Fred told the crowd that he wrote that song “for the child in all of us — that part of us which longs to help in the creation of a new and better world.”
A local opera company in Pittsburgh recently decided to stage two one-act operas written by Fred. Over the course of his life, he wrote 13 of them. He would weave them into a week of programming. It didn’t matter that the puppets could barely sing; the point was the process of making an opera, not the performance. When I thought about the company’s putting this show together with actual opera singers, I thought, Huh, will these things hold up? I don’t think Fred intended for them to hold up. Joanne told me she was going, and she said she would save me a seat.
I entered the lobby, and it was like a Who’s Who of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” So many familiar faces, all of us a kind of saggy version of our former selves. Newell was there with his wife, Nan, and “Mrs. McFeely,” a.k.a. Betsy Seamans and her husband, Joe. Hedda was there, and props people came, and various support-staff members I recognized from the WQED cafeteria. Everyone seemed excited or maybe nervous. Fred never intended these things for an adult audience.
Joanne was wearing one of her signature pretty flower-print tops. She clutched her purse in front of her like a demure, dainty lady, wearing her white curls like a dainty lady; she is always sporting this same demure, dainty-lady look that does not prepare you for her giant laugh, her occasional potty mouth and her fierce intelligence.
She and I found our seats in the middle of the theater, and we sat there staring at the watercolor Fred on the cover of the program.
“I don’t think I’ve seen this one,” she said.
“It’s a good likeness,” I said.
“I think it’s one of those photos they blur up to make it look like a watercolor,” she said, holding it up and peering over her glasses.
Just then the house lights went down. A thundering piano rolled into, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” invoking the spirit of Costa, who died more than two decades ago.
Joanne smiled broadly, and she reached out and held my hand. True to form, she led the audience with her booming laugh as the first opera, “Spoon Mountain,” went crazily on. Purple Twirling Kitty twirled her silver spoon and sang of her fear of Wicked Knife and Fork. “This is so ridiculous!” she cried out. “Oh, my goodness, Fred!” Then as soon as Wicked Knife and Fork finished her aria in which she revealed the source of her darkness — “A spoon! All I ever wanted was a spoon! A spoon! A spoon!” — Joanne clapped feverishly shouting: “Brava! Brava! Brava!”
At intermission I ran into Newell. He asked me what I thought of Spoon Mountain, and I said that I got lost in parts. He told me that the next opera, “Windstorm in Bubbleland,” was originally produced and directed by my brother-in-law Hugh. “So if you thought ‘Spoon Mountain’ was wild,” he said, “now you’ll see Fred’s imagination really let loose.” He said Hugh encouraged Fred to fly. I said that was funny because I always thought it was the other way around.
Then Newell told me something else I never knew. He said one thing Fred talked to him about was the idea of one day writing a stage musical. A real musical for an adult audience. It was a lifelong dream. He said Fred talked about getting started on it. But then came the cancer. “And he was gone so quick.”
That hit me. The idea that Fred believed he had another act. That he had more creating to do. Maybe a lot more. People often wonder what Fred would think of the world today, which can seem so far removed from his vision of bridges, love, a healthy atmosphere. Maybe he would have despaired and given up on it, people say. I don’t think so. Just the opposite. I think right now, Fred would be feverishly creating bridges and bridges and bridges.
I kept thinking about it as I sat in the dark next to Joanne and we all went to Bubbleland. “There’s never, ever any trouble in Bubbleland,” the TV anchor sang. Except there was. It had to do with a windstorm coming and a bad guy promising to spray sweaters on bubbles, and there was a hummingbird named Hildegard trying to warn everybody, and it felt as if we were tumbling through the looking glass into one man’s imagination that knew no bounds, all of us in that theater laughing and shaking our heads and nudging each other. What? Spray sweaters? And Joanne with her best guffaw. I felt as if we all got to visit Fred where he lived most fully. An artist of goat poems and wicked knives and forks fearlessly embracing the absurd, singing with abandon.
Jeanne Marie Laskas is a contributing writer for the magazine whose last article was the basis for her most recent book, “To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger and Hope.”
On Sept. 1, with a Category 5 hurricane off the Atlantic coast, an angry wind was issuing from the direction of President Trump’s Twitter account. The apparent emergency: Debra Messing, the co-star of “Will & Grace,” had tweeted that “the public has a right to know” who is attending a Beverly Hills fund-raiser for Mr. Trump’s re-election.
“I have not forgotten that when it was announced that I was going to do The Apprentice, and when it then became a big hit, Helping NBC’s failed lineup greatly, @DebraMessing came up to me at an Upfront & profusely thanked me, even calling me ‘Sir,’ ” wrote the 45th president of the United States.
It was a classic Trumpian ragetweet: aggrieved over a minor slight, possibly prompted by a Fox News segment, unverifiable — he has a long history of questionable tales involving someone calling him “Sir”— and nostalgic for his primetime-TV heyday. (By Thursday he was lashing Ms. Messing again, as Hurricane Dorian was lashing the Carolinas.)
[James Poniewozik will answer questions about this essay on Monday at 1 p.m. Eastern on Twitter: @poniewozik]
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This sort of outburst, almost three years into his presidency, has kept people puzzling over who the “real” Mr. Trump is and how he actually thinks. Should we take him, to quote the famous precept of Trumpology, literally or seriously? Are his attacks impulsive tantrums or strategic distractions from his other woes? Is he playing 3-D chess or Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots?
This is a futile effort. Try to understand Donald Trump as a person with psychology and strategy and motivation, and you will inevitably spiral into confusion and covfefe. The key is to remember that Donald Trump is not a person. He’s a TV character.
I mean, O.K., there is an actual person named Donald John Trump, with a human body and a childhood and formative experiences that theoretically a biographer or therapist might usefully delve into someday. (We can only speculate about the latter; Mr. Trump has boasted on Twitter of never having seen a psychiatrist, preferring the therapeutic effects of “hit[ting] ‘sleazebags’ back.”)
But that Donald Trump is of limited significance to America and the world. The “Donald Trump” who got elected president, who has strutted and fretted across the small screen since the 1980s, is a decades-long media performance. To understand him, you need to approach him less like a psychologist and more like a TV critic.
He was born in 1946, at the same time that American broadcast TV was being born. He grew up with it. His father, Fred, had one of the first color TV sets in Jamaica Estates. In “The Art of the Deal” Donald Trump recalls his mother, Mary Anne, spending a day in front of the tube, enraptured by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. (“For Christ’s sake, Mary,” he remembers his father saying, “Enough is enough, turn it off. They’re all a bunch of con artists.”)
TV was his soul mate. It was like him. It was packed with the razzle-dazzle and action and violence that captivated him. He dreamed of going to Hollywood, then he shelved those dreams in favor of his father’s business and vowed, according to the book “TrumpNation” by Timothy O’Brien, to “put show business into real estate.”
As TV evolved from the homogeneous three-network mass medium of the mid-20th century to the polarized zillion-channel era of cable-news fisticuffs and reality shocker-tainment, he evolved with it. In the 1980s, he built a media profile as an insouciant, high-living apex predator. In 1990, he described his yacht and gilded buildings to Playboy as “Props for the show … The show is ‘Trump’ and it is sold-out performances everywhere.”
He syndicated that show to Oprah, Letterman, NBC, WrestleMania and Fox News. Everything he achieved, he achieved by using TV as a magnifying glass, to make himself appear bigger than he was.
He was able to do this because he thought like a TV camera. He knew what TV wanted, what stimulated its nerve endings. In his campaign rallies, he would tell The Washington Post, he knew just what to say “to keep the red light on”: that is, the light on a TV camera that showed that it was running, that you mattered. Bomb the [redacted] out of them! I’d like to punch him in the face! The red light radiated its approval. Cable news aired the rallies start to finish. For all practical purposes, he and the camera shared the same brain.
Even when he adopted social media, he used it like TV. First, he used it like a celebrity, to broadcast himself, his first tweet in 2009 promoting a “Late Show With David Letterman” appearance. Then he used it like an instigator, tweeting his birther conspiracies before he would talk about them on Fox News, road-testing his call for a border wall during the cable-news fueled Ebola and border panics of the 2014 midterms.
When he was a candidate, and especially when he was president, his tweets programmed TV and were amplified by it. On CNBC, a “BREAKING NEWS: TRUMP TWEET” graphic would spin out onscreen as soon as the words left his thumbs. He would watch Fox News, or Lou Dobbs, or CNN or “Morning Joe” or “Saturday Night Live” (“I don’t watch”), and get mad, and tweet. Then the tweets would become TV, and he would watch it, and tweet again.
If you want to understand what President Trump will do in any situation, then, it’s more helpful to ask: What would TV do? What does TV want?
It wants conflict. It wants excitement. If there is something that can blow up, it should blow up. It wants a fight. It wants more. It is always eating and never full.
Some presidential figure-outers, trying to understand the celebrity president through a template that they were already familiar with, have compared him with Ronald Reagan: a “master showman” cannily playing a “role.”
The comparison is understandable, but it’s wrong. Presidents Reagan and Trump were both entertainers who applied their acts to politics. But there’s a crucial difference between what “playing a character” means in the movies and what it means on reality TV.
Ronald Reagan was an actor. Actors need to believe deeply in the authenticity and interiority of people besides themselves — so deeply that they can subordinate their personalities to “people” who are merely lines on a script. Acting, Reagan told his biographer Lou Cannon, had taught him “to understand the feelings and motivations of others.”
Being a reality star, on the other hand, as Donald Trump was on “The Apprentice,” is also a kind of performance, but one that’s antithetical to movie acting. Playing a character on reality TV means being yourself, but bigger and louder.
Reality TV, writ broadly, goes back to Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera,” the PBS documentary “An American Family,” and MTV’s “The Real World.” But the first mass-market reality TV star was Richard Hatch, the winner of the first season of “Survivor” — produced by Mark Burnett, the eventual impresario of “The Apprentice”— in the summer of 2000.
Mr. Hatch won that first season in much the way that Mr. Trump would run his 2016 campaign. He realized that the only rules were that there were no rules. He lied and backstabbed and took advantage of loopholes, and he argued — with a telegenic brashness — that this made him smart. This was a crooked game in a crooked world, he argued to a final jury of players he’d betrayed and deceived. But, hey: At least he was open about it!
While shooting that first season, the show’s crew was rooting for Rudy Boesch, a 72-year-old former Navy SEAL and model of hard work and fair play. “The only outcome nobody wanted was Richard Hatch winning,” the host, Jeff Probst, would say later. It “would be a disaster.” After all, decades of TV cop shows had taught executives the iron rule that the viewers needed the good guy to win.
But they didn’t. “Survivor” was addictively entertaining, and audiences loved-to-hate the wryly devious Richard the way they did Tony Soprano and, before him, J.R. Ewing. More than 50 million people watched the first-season finale, and “Survivor” has been on the air nearly two decades.
From Richard Hatch, we got a steady stream of Real Housewives, Kardashians, nasty judges, dating-show contestants who “didn’t come here to make friends” and, of course, Donald Trump.
Reality TV has often gotten a raw deal from critics. (Full disclosure: I still watch “Survivor.”) Its audiences, often dismissed as dupes, are just as capable of watching with a critical eye as the fans of prestige cable dramas. But when you apply its mind-set — the law of the TV jungle — to public life, things get ugly.
In reality TV — at least competition reality shows like “The Apprentice” — you do not attempt to understand other people, except as obstacles or objects. To try to imagine what it is like to be a person other than yourself (what, in ordinary, off-camera life, we call “empathy”) is a liability. It’s a distraction that you have to tune out in order to project your fullest you.
Reality TV instead encourages “getting real.” On MTV’s progressive, diverse “Real World,” the phrase implied that people in the show were more authentic than characters on scripted TV — or even than real people in your own life, who were socially conditioned to “be polite.” But “getting real” would also resonate with a rising conservative notion: that political correctness kept people from saying what was really on their minds.
Being real is not the same thing as being honest. To be real is to be the most entertaining, provocative form of yourself. It is to say what you want, without caring whether your words are kind or responsible — or true — but only whether you want to say them. It is to foreground the parts of your personality (aggression, cockiness, prejudice) that will focus the red light on you, and unleash them like weapons.
Maybe the best definition of being real came from the former “Apprentice” contestant and White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman in her memoir, “Unhinged.” Mr. Trump, she said, encouraged people in his entourage to “exaggerate the unique part of themselves.” When you’re being real, there is no difference between impulse and strategy, because the “strategy” is to do what feels good.
This is why it misses a key point to ask, as Vanity Fair recently did after Mr. Trump’s assault on Representative Elijah E. Cummings and the city of Baltimore in July, “Is the president a racist, or does he just play one on TV?” In reality TV, if you are a racist — and reality TV has had many racists, like Katie Hopkins, the far-right British “Apprentice” star the president frequently retweets — then you are a racist and you play one on TV.
So if you actually want a glimpse into the mind of Donald J. Trump, don’t look for a White House tell-all or some secret childhood heartbreak. Go to the streaming service Tubi, where his 14 seasons of “The Apprentice” recently became accessible to the public.
You can fast-forward past the team challenges and the stagey visits to Trump-branded properties. They’re useful in their own way, as a picture of how Mr. Burnett buttressed the future president’s Potemkin-zillionaire image. But the unadulterated, 200-proof Donald Trump is found in the boardroom segments, at the end of each episode, in which he “fires” one contestant.
In theory, the boardroom is where the best performers in the week’s challenges are rewarded and the screw-ups punished. In reality, the boardroom is a new game, the real game, a free-for-all in which contestants compete to throw one another under the bus and beg Mr. Trump for mercy.
There is no morality in the boardroom. There is no fair and unfair in the boardroom. There is only the individual, trying to impress Mr. Trump, to flatter Mr. Trump, to commune with his mind and anticipate his whims and fits of pique. Candidates are fired for giving up advantages (stupid), for being too nice to their adversaries (weak), for giving credit to their teammates, for interrupting him. The host’s decisions were often so mercurial, producers have said, that they would have to go back and edit the episodes to impose some appearance of logic on them.
What saves you in the boardroom? Fighting. Boardroom Trump loves to see people fight each other. He perks up at it like a cat hearing a can opener. He loves to watch people scrap for his favor (as they eventually would in his White House). He loves asking contestants to rat out their teammates and watching them squirm with conflict. The unity of the team gives way to disunity, which in the Trumpian worldview is the most productive state of being.
And America loved boardroom Trump — for a while. He delivered his catchphrase in TV cameos and slapped it on a reissue of his 1980s Monopoly knockoff Trump: The Game. (“I’m back and you’re fired!”) But after the first season, the ratings dropped; by season four they were nearly half what they were in season one.
He reacted to his declining numbers by ratcheting up what worked before: becoming a louder, more extreme, more abrasive version of himself. He gets more insulting in the boardroom — “You hang out with losers and you become a loser”— and executes double and quadruplefirings.
It’s a pattern that we see as he advances toward his re-election campaign, with an eye not on the Nielsen ratings but on the polls: The only solution for any given problem was a Trumpier Trump.
Did it work for “The Apprentice”? Yes and no. His show hung on to a loyal base through 14 seasons, including the increasingly farcical celebrity version. But it never dominated its competition again, losing out, despite his denials, to the likes of the sitcom “Mike & Molly.”
Donald Trump’s “Apprentice” boardroom closed for business on Feb. 16, 2015, precisely four months before he announced his successful campaign for president. And also, it never closed. It expanded. It broke the fourth wall. We live inside it now.
Now, Mr. Trump re-creates the boardroom’s helter-skelter atmosphere every time he opens his mouth or his Twitter app. In place of the essentially dead White House press briefing, he walks out to the lawn in the morning and reporters gaggle around him like “Apprentice” contestants awaiting the day’s task. He rails and complains and establishes the plot points for that day’s episode: Greenland! Jews! “I am the chosen one!”
Then cable news spends morning to midnight happily masticating the fresh batch of outrages before memory-wiping itself to prepare for tomorrow’s episode. Maybe this sounds like a TV critic’s overextended metaphor, but it’s also the president’s: As The Times has reported, before taking office, he told aides to think of every day as “an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.”
Mr. Trump has been playing himself instinctually as a character since the 1980s; it’s allowed him to maintain a profile even through bankruptcies and humiliations. But it’s also why, on the rare occasions he’s had to publicly attempt a role contrary to his nature — calling for healing from a script after a mass shooting, for instance — he sounds as stagey and inauthentic as an unrehearsed amateur doing a sitcom cameo.
His character shorthand is “Donald Trump, Fighter Guy Who Wins.” Plop him in front of a camera with an infant orphaned in a mass murder, and he does not have it in his performer’s tool kit to do anything other than smile unnervingly and give a fat thumbs-up.
This is what was lost on commentators who kept hoping wanly that this State of the Union or that tragedy would be the moment he finally became “presidential.” It was lost on journalists who felt obligated to act as though every modulated speech from a teleprompter might, this time, be sincere.
The institution of the office is not changing Donald Trump, because he is already in the sway of another institution. He is governed not by the truisms of past politics but by the imperative of reality TV: Never de-escalate and never turn the volume down.
This conveniently echoes the mantra he learned from his early mentor, Roy Cohn: Always attack and never apologize. He serves up one “most shocking episode ever” after another, mining uglier pieces of his core each time: progressing from profanity about Haiti and Africa in private to publicly telling four minority American congresswomen, only one of whom was born outside the United States, to “go back” to the countries they came from.
The taunting. The insults. The dog whistles. The dog bullhorns. The “Lock her up” and “Send her back.” All of it follows reality-TV rules. Every season has to top the last. Every fight is necessary, be it against Ilhan Omar or Debra Messing. Every twist must be more shocking, every conflict more vicious, lest the red light grow bored and wink off. The only difference: Now there’s no Mark Burnett to impose retroactive logic on the chaos, only press secretaries, pundits and Mike Pence.
To ask whether any of this is “instinct” or “strategy” is a parlor game. If you think like a TV camera — if thinking in those reflexive microbursts of adrenaline and testosterone has served you your whole life — then the instinct is the strategy.
And to ask who the “real” Donald Trump is, is to ignore the obvious. You already know who Donald Trump is. All the evidence you need is right there on your screen. He’s half-man, half-TV, with a camera for an eye that is constantly focused on itself. The red light is pulsing, 24/7, and it does not appear to have an off switch.
One is on the policy: Would the best insurance system be one fully funded by the federal government? The Democrats who support Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill are saying it is, while other candidates prefer to build more gradually on the public-private system we have now or openly running against the idea of single-payer.
The other debate is over strategy: Even if Democrats are lucky enough to win full control of the government in 2020, which is by no means guaranteed, should they try to enact another major health care overhaul? Or should they use their time, energy, attention, and political capital for other pursuits?
The delineations on policy are obvious as candidates come forward with their plans. The divisions on strategy are a little more speculative: Sanders’s supporters on the left have recently been suggesting Elizabeth Warren’s more circumspect approach on the timeline for Medicare-for-all, which she supports, means she isn’t as progressive as their favored candidate.
As the first debate approaches, the candidates are being delicate on health care, trying to signal their support for aspirational and broad goals like universal coverage. Most of them would rather not get bogged down in the devilish details — but as long as Sanders, an unreserved supporter for single-payer, is a major figure in the race, that will be difficult to do.
The actual policy disagreements Democrats have about health care reform
This month, House Democrats held a health care hearing about “paths to universal health coverage.” This is the story Democratic leadership wants to tell: The party agrees America should cover more people with public programs or subsidized private health insurance (or both). They are just looking for the best path forward.
“We all agree we need a stronger health care plan that covers everyone, universal coverage. We want everyone to have it,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told Vox earlier this year. “We’ll figure out the best way to get there. … Different people have different views, we don’t attack each other. I think it’s great.”
But there are meaningful differences between the current left-of-center proposals. This Venn diagram covers the bills in Congress, written into real legislative text, and ideas from two prominent DC think tanks. On critical questions about whether the 150 million people who have employer-sponsored insurance should have access to a government plan, who else would be covered, and how much they would be asked to pay out of pocket for health care, the plans have notable differences. They do also have shared features.
Sanders wrote the single-payer bill in the Senate, which would move every American into one national insurance plan and would cover most medical services at zero cost when people go to the doctor or hospital. Warren and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) signed onto his Medicare for All Act. The Sanders plan is the most maximalist overhaul in the field, a nationalizing of the health insurance industry.
The Medicare for America bill, based largely on the work of the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Yale professor Jacob Hacker, would maintain the employer-based system that covers half of Americans right now. It would also, however, allow almost any American move to a government plan if they wanted to. Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg have shown support for that idea. They like to say they support Medicare “for all who want it,” a halfway point between single-payer and more limited public options.
Joe Biden has said he supports allowing “every single American” having access to a public insurance plan, but his campaign has not yet released the details on his proposal. In his record already: He called the Affordable Care Act “a big fucking deal” right after President Barack Obama signed it.
The more limited public options and buy-ins, like legislation sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO), would generally allow the 10 million people who buy private insurance on the Obamacare marketplaces to join a public plan instead if they pay a premium. People on company-funded plans would not be able to buy the public plan, limiting the size and impact of the program.
The health care debate is also a question of priorities and politics
But even Medicare-for-all-supporting candidates have sought out some wiggle room on the more difficult challenges presented by the single-payer plan. The Sanders bill would largely ban private health insurance. Yet Harris and Booker — both sponsors of it — have indicated at times on the campaign trail that they do see a role for private coverage.
The second question on this great New York Times survey of most of the 2020 candidates revealed some telling differences: Would your focus be improving the Affordable Care Act or replacing it with single-payer? Sanders took an absolutist tone.
“Clearly we need to replace it with a popular system, and that is Medicare, and expand Medicare to all,” Sanders said.
But another Medicare-for-all sponsor, Booker, pledged to pursue a public option first as president.
“I’m going to fight to try to expand access through things like creating a more vibrant, robust public option,” Booker said.
Warren gave a more guarded answer, not dissimilar from Harris’s general line on health care: Medicare-for-all should be the goal, but it’s something the country may have to build toward.
“There are a lot of different ways to get there,” Warren told the New York Times. “‘Medicare for all’ has a lot of different paths.”
Warren has an Obamacare improvement bill that, while not campaign stump speech material, would expand the federal subsidies available through Obamacare and extend them to more people. That plan would be one possible next step for her administration.
The activist and ideological left, for whom Sanders is such an important figure, have seized on Warren’s equivocation, contrasting it with her cultivated image as the bold “plan” candidate on other issues. From Tim Higginbotham’s essay in the socialist journal Jacobin, bearing the title “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan for Everything — Except Health Care”:
Taking this answer at face value, it seems Warren sees herself pursuing an incremental approach that expands public coverage while preserving the private insurance industry should she be elected president. This would likely surprise many of her supporters, who might view her cosponsorship of Sanders’s Medicare for All bill as an endorsement of single-payer health care.
It’s fair to ask why Warren, who supports bold, progressive policies on a number of major issues, is avoiding the most important issue to voters. It could be a reluctance to attach herself to a rival candidate’s signature policy, or it could be a way to avoid conflict with the powerful health care corporations in her home state of Massachusetts.
As Vox’s Tara Golshan explained, Sanders and Warren are sometimes seen as so similar on policy that some people apparently have trouble telling them apart. Sanders’s side clearly sees health care as an opening to contrast them because their candidate says he is invested in passing Medicare-for-all as soon as possible.
Candidates have other plans they want to prioritize. Warren told Vox’s Ezra Kleinthe best place for her agenda to start is with an anti-corruption reform package. She’s been one of 2020’s trendsetting candidates on taxing the rich and expanding workers rights.
Harris, the next highest-polling Medicare-for-all sponsor, says she aspires to Medicare-for-all but has left room for leaving some kind of private insurance or incremental reforms. Her campaign also told me earlier this year that Harris’s tax plan would be at the top of her to-do list.
How much will these differences matter in 2020 and beyond?
Among Democrats, a tug-of-war exists between governing and ideology. Some Democrats think single-payer is the only acceptable answer if health care is a human right. Others are chastened by the recent and fierce fights over more limited reforms and want to instead focus on what is politically possible. The left’s theory is that incrementalists are too timid about what is achievable with the right message and the right plan.
“Medicare for all” polls well and health care is a unique issue: Americans broadly accept a role for the government in making sure people have health insurance. There are a lot of Medicare-for-all supporters in the Democratic Party now and among the people who vote in primaries. A recent survey of likely Iowa caucus-goers found about half said a candidate’s support for single-payer would be a “must-have” for them in 2020. That’s quite a few voters in such a crowded field.
Other polling indicates a lot of voters are still fuzzy on the details of Medicare-for-all, like whether it would get rid of private coverage. Support for the proposal still seems fluid, with push polls finding attacks on single-payer do significantly drive down support. The “must-have” number from the Iowa survey — 48 percent — reveals a lot of Democratic voters who aren’t making single-payer a deciding factor. Joe Biden, doing well with and focusing on the party’s older and moderate voters, is building his candidacy with voters like that.
Polling from public-opinion researcher Michael Perry, not done for any outside group, found Democratic voters saying that they would focus on improving Obamacare over passing single-payer in the near term. The Sanders wing is now questioning Warren’s commitment to Medicare-for-all, but so far, the 2020 polls show Warren and Sanders splitting voters who identify as progressive or liberal.
Still, health care reform has been politically challenging and historically an electoral loser, as Democrats and Republicans saw in 2010 and 2018, respectively. And whether Medicare-for-all can actually pass — or whether a more incremental option is the only thing that could clear a narrowly Democratic Senate with a solid cohort of centrist members — is a very different question. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, for starters, don’t sound onboard with single-payer right now. They just got elected for a barely-started six-year term.
A Sanders administration would also need a Democratic Senate to change the Senate’s procedural rules, which currently set a 60-vote threshold for most bills, to pass the best version of Medicare-for-all — and on that subject, eliminating the Senate filibuster, Sanders is actually more wary than Warren.
But there’s also a large chance this could all be moot. Democrats will need to be a little lucky to win the Senate at all. If they don’t, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell relishes the chance to block progressive — he’d call it “socialist” — legislation, as we’ve seen with a Democratic House. President Donald Trump has already called out “socialist” single-payer in his 2020 reelection launch speech.
It might seem strange for Democrats like Sanders and Warren who sponsor the same plan to be “debating” an issue. In this crowded field with a lot of policy overlap, campaigns are looking for every opening to stick out to voters.
But the party broadly does still has real differences not only on the best political path, but the right policy. Center-left Democrats really want to preserve a big role for private insurance. The candidates are asking elemental questions among themselves about the free market and the role it should have in providing health care to Americans.
I haven’t posted much lately due to a few health problems which I think are mostly cleared up now. This article from The New York Times interests me because I have been an opponent of the death penalty for many years. I believe my opposition grows out of the influence of Jesus Christ in my life. My relationship with Him has been a corrective to many of the “natural” inclinations of my human heart. For example, having grown up in a segregated and prejudiced society, it was “natural” for me to be a racist. However, while I believe that I have racist tendencies deeply ingrained in my being, I strive not to be racist.
In the same way I am “naturally” inclined to be vengeful. When I hear of the hateful things that people do to one another, I want to take revenge. However, I believe that Jesus has directed us to a better way, the way of forgiveness. This “unnatural” idea rings true to me because I believe that vengeance is harmful to the one–or to the society–that seeks revenge. For me, the death penalty encourages us in the wrong direction.
Whatever your point of view, I think you will enjoy reading about Sister Helen.
NEW ORLEANS — Thirty-five years ago, when Sister Helen Prejean was in the death house at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola waiting to witness the execution by electrocution of Elmo Patrick Sonnier, the guard in charge asked her, “What’s a nun doing in a place like this?”
“Dead Man Walking,” her harrowing 1993 book about her experiences on death row, was one answer. In it, she writes of how she became a pen pal and spiritual adviser to Mr. Sonnier, who had been convicted, with his brother, of killing a teenage couple parked on a lover’s lane after raping the girl.
Sister Helen described her horror at the barbaric crime and at its barbaric consequences, her stumbles with the victims’ families and her education into the injustices of the death penalty and death penalty convictions. Her conversion to activism would in time make her one of the country’s best-known death penalty abolitionists, and maybe its most famous nun.
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The book was a New York Times best seller, and then a movie, an opera (with a libretto by Terrence McNally) and an educational program. The film, out in 1995 and made by Tim Robbins, starred Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as the death row inmate. Ms. Sarandon won an Oscar, wearing a coppery Dolce & Gabbana gown to the ceremony.
Sister Helen, who had shed the habit in the late 1960s (as many nuns did post-Vatican II; the ecumenical council began in the early ’60s to modernize church practices), wore a black top and a long flowered skirt she borrowed from a friend. What would the nun wear? was big news at the time, Sister Helen recalled.
On a recent July day she was in a white polo shirt printed with sprigs of flowers, khaki-green denim pants and wedge sandals, greeting a reporter to discuss her new book, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey,” out on Aug. 13, a memoir of her life up until the moment she began to correspond with Mr. Sonnier.
In it, Sister Helen, who was raised in Baton Rouge and is of French Cajun descent, tells how a precocious Catholic girl turned nun shed her cocoon of privilege long after the social revolutions of the 1960s and the attendant reformations and renovations of Vatican II transformed many sisters into social justice activists.
“Don’t hold your breath,” she writes. “It’s going to take a while.”
But being a nun has always been a radical act. What’s more counterculture, Sister Helen said, than joining a convent?
Sister Helen, bane of prosecutors, was settled into a recliner topped with a lace antimacassar stitched with her last name, having moved papers, letters and her journal out of the way. With short, bushy brown hair, big round glasses and a luxurious Louisiana way with vowels, she looked about 65, though she turned 80 in April.
She lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment, a few blocks from the fairgrounds in New Orleans, running her organization, the Ministry Against the Death Penalty, from the apartment next door.
The staff of five includes Sister Margaret Maggio, an old friend who is also in Sister Helen’s order, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and Rose Vines, an Australian writer, activist and atheist. There are debates on cosmology and quantum physics over scotch (Sister Helen) and gin and tonics (Ms. Vines).
A framed print of Fra Angelica’s “Annunciation” hangs over Sister Prejean’s computer monitor, taped to which is a photo of Dzhokhar Anzorovich Tsarnaev, the convicted bomber of the Boston Marathon, printed with the words “Pray for Dzhokhar.”
In 2015, after meeting with him five times at his lawyers’ request, Sister Helen testified on his behalf. The prosecution had fought hard to keep her off the stand, and attacked her testimony as being biased. “I presented him as human being,” she said. Nonetheless, the jury returned a death sentence.
In the bathroom, there was a quiz deck of landmark American Civil Liberties Union cases.
“Here’s the spark at the heart of all this,” she said. “The big annunciation” — she nodded at her Fra Angelica print — “was writing a man on death row and witnessing his execution. When I walked out of that execution chamber, all this was new to me. I didn’t know anything about the criminal justice system. I love to quote what Tim Robbins said: ‘The nun was in over her head.’ Back then I didn’t know anything.”
Sister Helen grew up in an affectionate Catholic family. Her father was a lawyer; her mother, a nurse. They loved language, drawing on both Roget’s Thesaurus and Groucho Marx — and the Virgin Mary. On family trips, the family of five said three rosaries a day, as Sister Helen writes, “surefire Catholic Prozac for three squabbling kids in the back seat.”
In eighth grade, she declared she would grow up either to be pope or president. She was curious about romantic love, but had ambitions outside of marriage and children. She was 18 when she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph’s, an order begun in France in 1650 with a particular mission for the education of girls.
She was a scrappy, mouthy novitiate, often in trouble. Bounding out of the family station wagon on the day she joined the convent, she announced, “I’m here! I’m here to become a bride of Christ!’”
And she was wildly competitive, once practicing the down-turned gaze meant to indicate modesty so zealously that she knocked down another nun.
Convent life wasn’t all rosaries and penances. When she and 13 other nuns in her community vacationed on an island off the Gulf Coast, they surfed in inner tubes and scarfed boiled crabs and cold beer. They listened to “West Side Story” and dissolved in tears.
On the first day of that vacation, an ethical dilemma presented itself: Before a trip to the beach, should they take off their habits in their camp, or cross the public highway in full nun regalia, and divest in the sand? It took half an hour of discussion before someone pointed out that the image of 14 nuns undressing on a beach and leaving their habits in a big black heap would perhaps be too unsettling.
Sister Helen read J.D. Salinger and Thomas Merton but was oblivious to the civil rights movement swelling around her, though she did learn to play “Blowin’ in the Wind” on her guitar.
At a religious education program in Ontario, she met a young priest she calls William in the book, and they fell in love. Nuns and priests were experimenting with a relationship model called “the third way,” which was sort of like dating except the couples stayed celibate and true to their orders.
“If this sounds confusing and tricky in the extreme,” she writes, “that’s because that’s exactly what it is.” William was not only smitten with Sister Helen, he was also jealous and controlling, as well as being an alcoholic. It took seven years for her to end the relationship.
Then came a nascent feminist awakening, as she examined the meaning of celibacy beyond biology. Attending to William’s emotional needs, she writes, had consumed more and more of her time and focus, competing with “the single-heartedness” that is the essence of her vocation.
“Virginity is completely identified with sex,” she said, “what a person has not experienced. It’s that closed-off, puritanical kind of thing.” But Sister Helen’s practice of celibacy taught her that the Virgin archetype was something more radical. “It is the single-heartedness that is the integrity in one’s being,” she said, and then quoted Jean Shinoda Bolen, the Jungian author: “She does what she does, because what she does is true.”
It is a state available to everyone, she writes, even politicians. “Although in the United States, the brokering of money and power in politics sets the ‘purity bar’ pretty high.”
Sister Helen’s awareness of social justice came even later, when she attended a talk by an activist nun who noted that Jesus’ message about the poor is that they be poor no longer. That their fate was not God’s will, and that just praying for people was not enough. Social justice, the nun said, meant being involved in political processes, because doing nothing was tacit support for the status quo.
What stung the most, Sister Helen said, “was the realization of how passive I had been.” A year later, she moved into Hope House, a Catholic service ministry in a New Orleans housing project. She was 42 years old. And a year after that, she would begin writing to a death row inmate.
“I had to break out of two cocoons,” she said. “One was the spiritual one that by praying you helped the world be a better place. And the other was white privilege because I was taken care of in every way. Nuns were held in great regard. We could ride the buses free. If we went to a restaurant, someone would pay the bill. I didn’t know any poor people. I didn’t know that right down the street from the convent where I was living, in the New Orleans suburbs by the lake, were 10 major housing projects. You grow up in these envelopes. My good mama and daddy would say, ‘Now honey, it’s better for the races not to mix.’ I didn’t know booscat!”
Her family was always supportive, though often her work and her eventual celebrity made for complications. There was the time her brother, Louis Prejean Jr., befriended Antonin Scalia, the late conservative Supreme Court Justice, at a wedding, and began to take him duck hunting. When the movie “Dead Man Walking” was about to come out, Mr. Prejean proudly told the justice that his sister was going to be played by Ms. Sarandon.
As Sister Helen remembered, “Scalia says to him, ‘Just what we need. Another liberal book being made into a liberal movie.’ And Louie says, ‘Sis, I don’t think he’s too excited about your movie so I’m not going to bring it up anymore.’”
Justice Scalia was an ardent supporter of the death penalty, a position that still confounds Sister Helen. “Human beings’ ability to compartmentalize is truly an amazing thing,” she said. “The way Scalia said, ‘As a justice, I must leave my Catholic faith at the door and follow the Constitution,’ as if the moral imperative to be compassionate and forgive doesn’t give you a perspective when you look at equal justice under the law.”
“Thomas Merton,” she added, “said the end of the world will be legal.”
Sister Helen has witnessed six executions since she watched Mr. Sonnier die in 1984. The second to last death was Dobie Gillis Williams, an African-American man with an IQ of 65, charged in the horrific murder of a Louisiana woman. “With an all-white jury,” she said, “he didn’t have a chance.”
That was in 1999. Since then, she has been visiting Manuel Ortiz, who is also on death row in Angola, convicted of the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife for her insurance. Sister Helen and others believe that he is innocent. The drive from New Orleans to Angola is two and a half hours, and Sister Helen has done it so often, she said, “my body knows the way.”
Ms. Sarandon has also made the trip more than once, most recently to visit Mr. Ortiz with Sister Helen in late February. Theirs has been a long friendship and collaboration; at one point, the nun had her own bedroom in Ms. Sarandon’s New York apartment.
“She’s been a great mentor and a great friend,” Ms. Sarandon said. “Somebody who always makes me laugh. One of the mistakes people make is thinking that everyone who does this kind of work is really a bore. A Debbie Downer. But Helen is really fun. She is always on a mission to learn. She keeps her heart and her mind open.”
It took seven years to write “River of Fire.” Gloria Loomis, Sister Helen’s longtime literary agent, had been pressing the nun to tell her story for some time, but she was always on the road.
She travels three-quarters of the year, and has spoken in all 50 states. She makes a silent retreat every year at the Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, Thomas Merton’s community, and she has been awarded 65 or so (no one is quite sure) honorary degrees, the most recent being a doctorate in divinity from Yale this spring. Her colleague Sister Margaret described her as a hurricane.
It’s a far different life than one lived in a cloister, though Sister Helen said that she considered that path for one weekend in high school. (Ms. Sarandon said, “You can imagine how crazy Helen would have been in a cloister.”)
My daughter and I were flying back home from North Carolina. Things had started out well. It was a clear day and we saw much of the beauty of my home state as we travelled. As the Great Smokey Mountains passed below us, we began to be jostled about by a cold front that was marching from Tennessee toward the Atlantic beaches. Jostling turned to pummeling as we held onto our seat harnesses to keep from banging our heads on the windows of the plane. Many of us have experienced a difficult flight or two, but this flight was becoming increasingly problematic, the primary problem being that I was the pilot.
The wind and the shaking continued throughout the trip, and, after five hours in the air, I was relieved to be lined up for a direct approach to runway 2 at Nashville’s John C. Tune airport. Just as we were about to touch down on the welcoming asphalt a gust of wind picked up the plane and slammed us into the ground. We rebounded from the runway, hit the pavement again and then bounced higher into the air. Often in a situation like this a plane eventually lands nose first. This is not good for passengers or for the aircraft.
I heard myself pray aloud, “Jesus, help us!”, pushed the throttle to full power, and we muddled around the landing pattern one more time and landed uneventfully.
“Jesus, help us.” I’m not saying that my prayer was the cause of our successful landing, but I’m not saying it wasn’t. Actually, I prayed before the trip began for a safe journey. In fact, I pray a lot; especially when I’m troubled. However, I also go through periods of time when I forget to pray. Our plane trip can be seen as a metaphor for life. Sometimes prayer is reserved for periods of difficulty and stress. What part should prayer take in the life of a disciple? How should we pray? How can our church family be encouraged to pray?
One thing that is clear is that Jesus intends for His disciples to pray. The most obvious indication of this truth is His teaching about The Lord’s Prayer. A second indication is the example Jesus set. The New Testament records 25 times Jesus prayed. We can probably all agree that prayer is indeed an important part of the Christian life.
Father Wesley and I have been talking—and praying–about these things over the past few weeks. We want to offer our church family an opportunity to experiment with ways of praying that may be new to some of us. Beginning on Wednesday, August 7, we will offer a 6:00 PM service which will consist of The Holy Eucharist and a time of community prayer. (In other words you will not need to listen to a mid-week sermon.) During the time of prayer, we will be learning to use new prayer practices. At our first meeting we will use Anglican prayer beads to facilitate our practice. This service will last about 45 minutes.
When we pray we are participating in a mystery. One way to think of prayer is that it is the means by which the resources of heaven are applied to the things of earth. I don’t know about you, but I want all the help that God can offer!
(CNN) — Doug Lindsay was 21 and starting his senior year at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit college in Kansas City, Missouri, when his world imploded.
After his first day of classes, the biology major collapsed at home on the dining room table, the room spinning around him.
It was 1999. The symptoms soon became intense and untreatable. His heart would race, he felt weak and he frequently got dizzy. Lindsay could walk only about 50 feet at a time and couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes.
“Even lying on the floor didn’t feel like it was low enough,” he said.
The former high school track athlete had dreamed of becoming abiochemistry professor or maybe a writer for “The Simpsons.”
Instead, he would spend the next 11 years mostly confined to a hospital bed in his living room in St. Louis, hamstrung by a mysterious ailment.
Doctors were baffled. Treatments didn’t help. And Lindsay eventually realized that if he wanted his life back, he would have to do it himself.
His journey since has amazed medical professionals.
“He did something extraordinary,” said John Novack, spokesman for Inspire, a healthcare social network for rare and chronic-disease patients. When people hear Lindsay’s story, Novack said, they often say, “I can do something similar for my kid.”
His mother was a living prophecy
Whatever was wrong with him ran in the family.
By the time Lindsay was 18 months old, his mother was so weak she could no longer pick him up.
By the time he was 4 she could no longer walk. She did manage to pick him up one more time that year, when he was choking on a jawbreaker. She saved his life.
Otherwise, she was too frail. She lived for decades, mostly bedridden with the same condition that stole her son’s twenties. After years of tests, she determined her condition was related to her thyroid, but she was too sick to travel to the Mayo Clinic to get more specialized care, Lindsay said.
Lindsay’s aunt also developed the same ailment, growing so feeble she couldn’t tie her own shoes.
As a teenager, watching his family members sidelined from life, Lindsay wondered whether his body was a ticking time bomb, too.
Finally, that day in 1999, the alarm went off.
“When I called my mom that night to tell her I needed to drop out (of college), we both knew,” he said. The family curse had struck.
He found answers in discarded medical textbooks
From the fall of 1999 onward, Lindsay was bedridden about 22 hours a day.
“If I was up, it was because I was eating or going to the bathroom,” he said.
Lindsay immersed himself in medical research, determined to find a way out. He saw specialists from endocrinology, neurology, internal medicine and other specialties. When one doctor was out of ideas, he referred Lindsay to a psychiatrist.
That’s when Lindsay he realized he’d have to figure his predicament out on his own.
While in college he had picked up a 2,200-page endocrinology textbook near a garbage can, hoping to use it to figure out what condition his mom had. In it, he found an important passage discussing how adrenal disorders could mirror thyroid disorders.
He zeroed in on his adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys on either side of the lower abdomen.
Using a stash of aging medical textbooks, Lindsay hypothesized that a whole class of autonomic nervous-system disorders could exist beyond the established categories of what most endocrinologists or neurologists knew about.
He cobbled together cash for a computer, had an old college roommate bring it over, and got to work.Lindsay soon stumbled on the website for the National Dysautonomic Research Foundation, delighted that an entire organization was dedicated to researching the type of disorder plaguing him and his family. He asked the foundation to send him literature about emerging research in the field.
None of the diseases the foundation was examining fit Lindsay’s pattern of symptoms. But he was getting closer.
He convinced a researcher who believed in him
Lindsay soon decided he needed a partner — not just a physician but a scientist curious enough to take on a rare case and spend long hours with him parsing it out.
The best place to find that person, he reasoned, was at the American Autonomic Society’s annual conference, attended by scientists from around the world who focused on nervous system disorders.
In 2002, he give a presentationabout his disease at the group’s meeting in Hilton Head, South Carolina. To get there, Lindsay bought a row of airline tickets so that, with the help of friends, he could lay across several seats during the flight.
Lindsay arrived at the conference in a wheelchair, wearing a suit and tie, and presented himself as a Jesuit-trained scientist. He tried to comport himself like a grad student or a junior colleague to the scholars in the audience, not like a patient.
He was just a scientist living an experiment in his own body. During his talk, Lindsay argued that a certain drug might help him.
Several of the scientists disagreed with Lindsay’s hypotheses about his ailment. But that wasn’t unexpected. He didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree and he was telling doctors from Harvard University, the National Institutes of Health and the Cleveland Clinic something their medical training told them was impossible.
“They didn’t patronize me. They treated me like a scientist,” Lindsay said. “I was entering into a world of science I couldn’t participate in because I was at home and couldn’t be a grad student.”
Dr. H. Cecil Coghlan, a medical professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, approached Lindsay after his presentation. Coghlan said he thought Lindsay was on to something.
At last, Lindsay had a medical ally.
His first innovation was repurposing a drug
In early 2004, one of Lindsay’s friends rented an SUV, loaded a mattress in the back and drove him, lying flat, 500 miles to Birmingham.
Lindsay suspected his body was producing too much adrenaline. He knew of a drug called Levophed, which is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to raise blood pressure in some critically ill patients. Levophed is basically an injection of noradrenaline, which counters the symptoms created by excess adrenaline.
It hadn’t been done before, but Lindsay convinced Coghlan to repurpose the drug so he could live on a 24/7 noradrenaline drip for the next six years.
Lindsay spent “every second of every day” hooked up to an IV. It stabilized his condition and allowed him to be active for short periods of time around the house.
“I was no longer at risk of losing everything,” Lindsay said.
Still, other than doctors’ visits, a high school reunion and a few weddings, Lindsay’s autonomic dysfunction kept him mostly confined to the house he grew up in well beyond his twenties.
Why was he so sick, he wondered? Something was dumping way too much adrenaline into his blood.
Coghlan told him he might have an adrenal tumor. But three scans of his adrenal glands all came back negative.
Discouraged but not deterred, Lindsay did the only thing he could do: He dove back into the medical literature.
And he came up with a treasure.
Later he diagnosed a disorder doctors didn’t believe could exist
Lindsay suspected there might be something in his adrenal gland that acted like a tumor, but wasn’t one.
A fourth scan in 2006 showed his adrenals “glowing brightly,” Lindsay said, an abnormality consistent with his new theory.
Coghlan called Lindsay and said, “We found it!” The diagnosis: bilateral adrenal medullary hyperplasia.
In layman’s terms, it means the medullas, or inner regions, of his adrenal glands were enlarged and acting like tumors. His adrenal glands were producing way too much adrenaline.
Experts in the field doubted the diagnosis. But Coghlan put his professional reputation on the line to back it.
As Lindsay delved into more medical literature, he found only 32 recordedcases of bilateral adrenal medullary hyperplasia.
And he fixed on what seemed like a simple solution: If he could cut out the medullas of his adrenal glands — sort of like slicing into a hard-boiled egg and removing the yolk — his health would improve.
Dr. Chris Bauer, Lindsay’s personal physician, calls his ailment an “atypical presentation of a rare disease.”
“They don’t really write textbooks based on that,” Bauer said. “We were were all learning with Doug as we went along.”
Then he pioneered a new surgery
Lindsay finally came to a bold conclusion. “If there isn’t a surgery,” he decided, “I’m going to make one.”
His first big lead came in 2008. He found a 1980 study from a scientist at Georgia State University, which he summed up as: “You slice the rat’s adrenal gland with a razor blade and squeeze it so the medulla pops out like a pimple.”Then he found that another version of the adrenal medulla extraction had been done at Harvard. Renowned professor Walter Bradford Cannon had performed the surgery on cats in 1926. Lindsay found records of the surgery being done on dogs as well.
He built a 363-page PDF which proposed a first-ever human adrenal medullectomy.
Then he spent the next 18 months working to find a surgeon who would oversee the unorthodox procedure.
Pioneering a new surgery is a high-wire act for ethical and financial reasons as well. Surgeons could risk losing their license by performing an unproven operation, especially if complications arose. And insurance companies tend to not reimburse patients for non-standard procedures.
Because many of the doctors in that specialized field knew each other, Lindsay was careful where he pitched the idea that might save his life.
Eventually he recruited a surgeon from the University of Alabama-Birmingham. In September 2010 Lindsday went to the university hospital, where the doctor successfully extracted one of his adrenal medullas.
Threeweeks after the procedure, Lindsay could sit upright for three hours. By Christmas Eve, he had the strength to walk a mile to church.
As he stood in the back of the church during midnight Mass, it finally felt like hope was winning.
But progress was slow. In 2012, he underwent a second surgery at Washington University in St. Louis to remove the medulla from his remaining adrenal gland.
A year later, he was well enough to fly with friends to the Bahamas. It was the first time in his life the Midwesterner had seen the ocean.
By early 2014, he was coming off some of his meds.
Coghlan, his champion, lived just long enough to see Lindsay’s remarkable recovery. He died in 2015.
Now he’s helping other rare-disease patients
Against the odds, Lindsay had found a way to save himself.
But his mother was too delicate to be moved to another facility, let alone endure the surgery her son pioneered. She died in 2016.
She didn’t get to see him walk across the stage to graduate that year from Rockhurst University with a bachelor’s degree in biology, 16 years after he originally expected to begin his career.
Lindsay is now 41 years old. Many of the friends with whom he planned to graduate are now married, with kids in grade school.
“You can’t recapture the past,” Lindsay said.
Today he still lives in his childhood home in St. Louis. He needs to take nine medications per day, and his health is far from perfect, but he has his life back.
He’s not exactly the biology professor he dreamed of being at 21, but he’s not far off the mark. He’s leveraging his experience into a new career as a medical consultant.
“I couldn’t be an assistant manager at Trader Joe’s. I don’t have the physical ability for that,” Lindsay said. “But I can travel and give speeches and go for walks. And I can try to change the world.”
Doctors are turning to him to help them identify and treat rare diseases like his own.
“I’m a full professor at Stanford, and I don’t know these answers,” said Dr. Lawrence Chu, who found himself leaning on Lindsay when a rare disease patient came to him. “Doug was the expert consultant.”
Lindsay has spoken at medical schools, including Stanford and Harvard, and at a growing list of medical conferences. And he’s working on a case study to be published in the British Medical Journal.
With his gift for solving intractable problems, he hopes to help steer other patients with hard-to-treat diseases on a path toward wholeness.
“I got help from people,” he said, “and now I have to help people.”
The following is a statement of faith drawn up by a number of leaders in the broader Christian community, including our own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. No matter how you think about the document, the confession is a reminder that we Christians have a Messiah who is Jesus Christ. Jesus is God with Us, and Jesus is our leader.
We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.
It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
When politics undermines our theology, we must examine that politics. The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13). When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”
It is often the duty of Christian leaders, especially elders, to speak the truth in love to our churches and to name and warn against temptations, racial and cultural captivities, false doctrines, and political idolatries—and even our complicity in them. We do so here with humility, prayer, and a deep dependency on the grace and Holy Spirit of God.
This letter comes from a retreat on Ash Wednesday, 2018. In this season of Lent, we feel deep lamentations for the state of our nation, and our own hearts are filled with confession for the sins we feel called to address. The true meaning of the word repentance is to turn around. It is time to lament, confess, repent, and turn. In times of crisis, the church has historically learned to return to Jesus Christ.
Jesus is Lord. That is our foundational confession. It was central for the early church and needs to again become central to us. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar was not—nor any other political ruler since. If Jesus is Lord, no other authority is absolute. Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God he announced, is the Christian’s first loyalty, above all others. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Our faith is personal but never private, meant not only for heaven but for this earth.
The question we face is this: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What does our loyalty to Christ, as disciples, require at this moment in our history? We believe it is time to renew our theology of public discipleship and witness. Applying what “Jesus is Lord” means today is the message we commend as elders to our churches.
What we believe leads us to what we must reject. Our “Yes” is the foundation for our “No.” What we confess as our faith leads to what we confront. Therefore, we offer the following six affirmations of what we believe, and the resulting rejections of practices and policies by political leaders which dangerously corrode the soul of the nation and deeply threaten the public integrity of our faith. We pray that we, as followers of Jesus, will find the depth of faith to match the danger of our political crisis.
I. WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God (the imago dei) in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel.
THEREFORE, WE REJECT the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership. We, as followers of Jesus, must clearly reject the use of racial bigotry for political gain that we have seen. In the face of such bigotry, silence is complicity. In particular, we reject white supremacy and commit ourselves to help dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate white preference and advantage. Further, any doctrines or political strategies that use racist resentments, fears, or language must be named as public sin—one that goes back to the foundation of our nation and lingers on. Racial bigotry must be antithetical for those belonging to the body of Christ, because it denies the truth of the gospel we profess.
II. WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class (Galatians 3:28). The body of Christ, where those great human divisions are to be overcome, is meant to be an example for the rest of society. When we fail to overcome these oppressive obstacles, and even perpetuate them, we have failed in our vocation to the world—to proclaim and live the reconciling gospel of Christ.
THEREFORE, WE REJECT misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women that has been further revealed in our culture and politics, including our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God. We lament when such practices seem publicly ignored, and thus privately condoned, by those in high positions of leadership. We stand for the respect, protection, and affirmation of women in our families, communities, workplaces, politics, and churches. We support the courageous truth-telling voices of women, who have helped the nation recognize these abuses. We confess sexism as a sin, requiring our repentance and resistance.
III. WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25: 31-46) “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal” is a test of our relationship to God, who made us all equal in divine dignity and love. Our proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ is at stake in our solidarity with the most vulnerable. If our gospel is not “good news to the poor,” it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18).
THEREFORE, WE REJECT the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God. We strongly deplore the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees, who are being made into cultural and political targets, and we need to remind our churches that God makes the treatment of the “strangers” among us a test of faith (Leviticus 19:33-34). We won’t accept the neglect of the well-being of low-income families and children, and we will resist repeated attempts to deny health care to those who most need it. We confess our growing national sin of putting the rich over the poor. We reject the immoral logic of cutting services and programs for the poor while cutting taxes for the rich. Budgets are moral documents. We commit ourselves to opposing and reversing those policies and finding solutions that reflect the wisdom of people from different political parties and philosophies to seek the common good. Protecting the poor is a central commitment of Christian discipleship, to which 2,000 verses in the Bible attest.
IV. WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Truth-telling is central to the prophetic biblical tradition, whose vocation includes speaking the Word of God into their societies and speaking the truth to power. A commitment to speaking truth, the ninth commandment of the Decalogue, “You shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16), is foundational to shared trust in society. Falsehood can enslave us, but Jesus promises, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). The search and respect for truth is crucial to anyone who follows Christ.
THEREFORE, WE REJECT the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life. Politicians, like the rest of us, are human, fallible, sinful, and mortal. But when public lying becomes so persistent that it deliberately tries to change facts for ideological, political, or personal gain, the public accountability to truth is undermined. The regular purveying of falsehoods and consistent lying by the nation’s highest leaders can change the moral expectations within a culture, the accountability for a civil society, and even the behavior of families and children. The normalization of lying presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of society. In the face of lies that bring darkness, Jesus is our truth and our light.
V. WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (the world) lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26). We believe our elected officials are called to public service, not public tyranny, so we must protect the limits, checks, and balances of democracy and encourage humility and civility on the part of elected officials. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. The authority of government is instituted by God to order an unredeemed society for the sake of justice and peace, but ultimate authority belongs only to God.
THEREFORE, WE REJECT any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule. We believe authoritarian political leadership is a theological danger that threatens democracy and the common good—and we will resist it. Disrespect for the rule of law, not recognizing the equal importance of our three branches of government, and replacing civility with dehumanizing hostility toward opponents are of great concern to us. Neglecting the ethic of public service and accountability, in favor of personal recognition and gain often characterized by offensive arrogance, are not just political issues for us. They raise deeper concerns about political idolatry, accompanied by false and unconstitutional notions of authority.
VI. WE BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18). Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. The most well-known verse in the New Testament starts with “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). We, in turn, should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.
THEREFORE, WE REJECT “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. While we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal. We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources, toward genuine global development that brings human flourishing for all of God’s children. Serving our own communities is essential, but the global connections between us are undeniable. Global poverty, environmental damage, violent conflict, weapons of mass destruction, and deadly diseases in some places ultimately affect all places, and we need wise political leadership to deal with each of these.
WE ARE DEEPLY CONCERNED for the soul of our nation, but also for our churches and the integrity of our faith. The present crisis calls us to go deeper—deeper into our relationship to God; deeper into our relationships with each other, especially across racial, ethnic, and national lines; deeper into our relationships with the most vulnerable, who are at greatest risk.
The church is always subject to temptations to power, to cultural conformity, and to racial, class, and gender divides, as Galatians 3:28 teaches us. But our answer is to be “in Christ,” and to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable, and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)
The best response to our political, material, cultural, racial, or national idolatries is the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Jesus summarizes the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind. This is the first commandment. And the second is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:38). As to loving our neighbors, we would add “no exceptions.”
We commend this letter to pastors, local churches, and young people who are watching and waiting to see what the churches will say and do at such a time as this.
Our urgent need, in a time of moral and political crisis, is to recover the power of confessing our faith. Lament, repent, and then repair. If Jesus is Lord, there is always space for grace. We believe it is time to speak and to act in faith and conscience, not because of politics, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ—to whom be all authority, honor, and glory. It is time for a fresh confession of faith. Jesus is Lord. He is the light in our darkness. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Bishop Carroll A. Baltimore, President and CEO, Global Alliance Interfaith Network
Rev. Dr. Peter Borgdorff, Executive Director Emeritus, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Dr. Amos Brown, Chair, Social Justice Commission, National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.
Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary
Dr. Tony Campolo, Co-Founder, Red Letter Christians
Dr. Iva Carruthers, General Secretary, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference
The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church
Rev. Dr. James Forbes, President and Founder, Healing of the Nations Foundation and Preaching Professor at Union Theological Seminary
Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary Emeritus, Reformed Church in America
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale, Senior Pastor, Ray of Hope Christian Church, Decatur, GA
Rev. Dr. Richard Hamm, former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Rev. Dr. Joel C. Hunter, Faith Community Organizer and Chairman, Community Resource Network
Rev. Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent Emerita, The Wesleyan Church
Bishop Vashti McKenzie, 117th Elected and Consecrated Bishop, AME Church
Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., Co-Convener National African American Clergy Network
Dr. John Perkins, Chair Emeritus and Founding Member, Christian Community Development Association and President Emeritus, John & Vera Mae Perkins Foundation
Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Fr. Richard Rohr, Founder, Center for Action and Contemplation
Dr. Ron Sider, President Emeritus, Evangelicals for Social Action
Rev. Jim Wallis, President and Founder, Sojourners
Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, Director, NCC Truth and Racial Justice Initiative
Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, Co-Convener, National African American Clergy Network; President, Skinner Leadership Institute
Bishop Will Willimon, Bishop, The United Methodist Church, retired, Professor of the Practice of Ministry, Duke Divinity School