The Tiny Fireplace

Dear Subscriber,

My wife and I have just returned from our trip to Chicago, where we saw our son for the first time since he started at graduate school in the fall. Now, you will wonder: what about Thanksgiving? What about the holidays? After all it is the spring. There have been several opportunities, Paul, to see your son and you are only seeing him now that it is April.

As I’ve written previously in The Gollman Report, my son is in love. He has a wonderful girlfriend and her family, who lives in a leafy suburb of Chicago, has taken precedence for Thanksgiving, the holidays, and spring break. Because the girlfriend’s father is a celebrated political thinker, and so I’m sure his company and conversation are very interesting for my son, it is only understandable. Also, we are in the middle of a plague. Judith and I of course received our vaccines in early March. Here in central Florida they were remarkably easy to get considering our mini-Trump governor, “Ron Death Sentence.” Anyway we have essentially been hermits. We’ve had our groceries delivered. We haven’t seen our friends. We certainly haven’t traveled. There, I have addressed the questions.

We are of course very proud of our son, Daniel. For a while in the mornings, over coffee as we sat on our balcony in the warm sunshine, we would read his social media posts and portions of his subscription newsletter aloud to each other. Although since around the time I started this semi-daily newsletter, Judith has taken her coffee in the den with her magazines, I believe that one day we will sit together again. Why don’t I go into the den? Well, if I join her in the den, then she goes to the balcony—an impossible situation.

I Provide Some Context for Today’s Newsletter

You might be familiar with Daniel Gollman because I have linked to his newsletter several times in this newsletter, which of course, if you are familiar with my newsletter, I started because I was inspired by Daniel’s newsletter and the reception it was getting. Judith was another source of inspiration. A while ago, she said I had so many views that I was airing on the balcony or at the dinner table that I should start a newsletter instead of telling her every theory or judgment that occurs to me, and so I have done that, started the newsletter I mean, which itself is also a way of communicating to my friends who I see so rarely now, even after the vaccines. I suppose everyone is still being cautious and we should be so as well, but I admit I have let my guard down recently and even bought a ticket to see Billy Joel in July! It should be a treat–the “piano man.”

Daniel’s newsletter is called The Radical Center, as you will already know if you are a frequent reader of this newsletter (and to all new readers–welcome!). However, though of course Daniel and I frequently take the same positions on the issues which come up day-to-day, his viewpoint is somewhat different from mine, as loyal readers of this newsletter will know, and I have sometimes aired the open disagreements that I have with him about the nature of our nation’s politics in the space of this newsletter.

He believes that we are lost, while readers of this newsletter will know that I always try to end the newsletter on a hopeful note. However, though of course my newsletter focuses more on the malevolence and corruption of the last administration, his newsletter focuses on “the Democratic and democratic rot,” as he calls it, referring of course both to the rot of the Democratic Party as it falls away from its blue-collar roots, and the rot of democracy itself.

We Fly to Chicago

By the time we arrived in Chicago, Judith was already mad at me. I suppose perhaps I had been airing my views about the issues of the day on the plane, and even before the plane while we were at a cafe inside of the Orlando airport, The World Cafe.

These issues will already be well known to frequent readers of The Gollman Report, but for new readers of the newsletter (and again, welcome!), I should clarify that the issues of which I most frequently air my views include the last administration’s handling of the pandemic, the last administration’s vast cronyism and corruption, and a stern defense of the present administration, which, despite its flaws, is not the last administration. For this I must give thanks to all who voted for the present administration in the last election.

I suppose perhaps that I had aired too many views at once, especially at The World Cafe while I was beginning to feel the effects of the caffeine from the soy latte (I am dairy free). As readers of The Gollman Report will already know, Judith and I have not had much of an opportunity to engage with each other over the past several weeks. However, of course as readers of this newsletter are no doubt well aware, I have never entirely understood why Judith has been so strenuously avoiding me, and it is even more mysterious to me why if she was so set on avoiding me, she decided to come along on the trip we had planned long ago (in February, when the present administration, in another instance of its significant improvement over the last one, began to distribute the vaccines and we managed to get injected in spite of Ron Death Sentence).

It is in writing this now that I realize maybe she had the hope of reconciling during our trip, even if it is still not clear to me what I ever did wrong that would need reconciling, outside of exercising my right to air my views on the debates and issues of the day. As evidence of this, I remember that at The World Cafe, as I was sipping my latte but before I began to air my views, Judith said with her surgical mask bunched under her chin, “I think it’ll be good for us to spend some time together, getting to know each other again.” However, as readers of this newsletter are no doubt well aware, I am passionate about today’s issues and debates. I refuse to let the sins of the last administration be rewritten. That is just who I am. Thank God for people who are passionate, who will not let the sins of the last administration be rewritten.

Being one of these people, I said, “Yes I agree” and then right away began to air my views. In fact I aired them that much more passionately because the conversation between Judith and me had dropped to a minimum for the past several days beyond the arrangement of meals and a brief and surprisingly friendly discussion over who would pack the set of knives I bought our son for a gift (I ended up packing the knives). And that was when Judith became angry at me, I guess because I was exercising my right to air my views and airing them that much more passionately because I hadn’t had the chance to air them over the past several days–a right which she has as well, which we all have.               

I Visit The Library

Once we reached the hotel I felt like waiting downstairs while Judith got ready. The sad truth was, and I understand that Judith (who when I started The Gollman Report a month ago was my first subscriber because “I really think this will be a great platform for you to express yourself, I’m so excited,” as she said) might be reading this–the sad truth was that I did not want to be in the room with Judith because she was mad at me for reasons which were mysterious to me at the time but which I am now, as I write this, beginning to understand.

It was an okay hotel. We don’t have much disposable income at the moment–I am a pediatrician in private practice and Judith, who recently was awarded Master’s in English Literature from an online program at Florida International University, was a customer service manager at a department store that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last May. And so the hotel was only okay, except for one small room adjoining the lobby, called The Library. The Library had several shelves of antique books which, you had the sense as soon as you entered, were not meant for reading. It was an aura they had–they were not there to be read and one should not touch them. This sense was reinforced by a plastic sign that said “Please Do Not Take Books From Shelf.”

The Library had a tiny fireplace. In front of it were two mahogany armchairs accompanied by buttoned leather footstools. It was the right size for two people to sit in front of and air their views together. Though there was no one else there, I sat in one of the armchairs and imagined how it would feel to have a companion who would be there too and, after listening to my views, air his or hers in turn. I should mention also that the fireplace was dark, not lit at all. And so I went to the front desk and let them know that the fireplace in The Library was not only not lit, not lit at all, but didn’t even have any firewood visible in the hearth. The front desk person in turn alerted me that the fireplace was lit each night at seven, which I noted with excitement. I planned to behave well for the next several hours and in this way weaken my wife’s irritation. I would warm her toward me. Then after we returned to the hotel we could sit by the tiny fireplace and exchange views, air them together as the fire burned. 

I Undergo a Conflict with My Son and My Son’s Fiancée and My Wife

As I have intimated, I am beginning to understand as I write this why Judith became angry with me before we even reached Chicago and why, further, she had manifested a low-grade anger with me in the weeks previous to this same trip. Certain minor and at the time difficult-to-comprehend statements she made are now becoming clear to me in terms of their intent.

For example, when she came down to the lobby dressed for dinner and drinks with our son and the woman we believed to still be his girlfriend, she said, “Let’s try to make tonight about Dan and Mira and not ourselves.” At the time I guessed this meant that she didn’t want either of us to tell Daniel and Mira any long-winded stories about our lives over the past year since we visited Daniel right before the rise of the virus and before he started graduate school.

Now I realize when she said “let’s” and “ourselves” she meant me, and when she said “make tonight” and “not,” she meant this as a small-scale prohibition on the free expression of my views–which I am beginning to understand may have been making her frustrated, especially given that my passion in terms of the expression of these views had only increased in the long-feeling time of my relative silence.

Anyway, I said, “Yes I agree” to Judith and then we ordered a taxicab using Judith’s phone. We met Daniel and Mira for what is conventionally called “a drink,” which even though linguistically it refers to only a single drink, signifies often in fact more than one drink. In light of this point, it’s easily understood why once we reached the bar–which did not seem like a bar in the conventional sense but instead like some kind of loud art gallery–I had more drinks than the other members of our party, and more quickly.

This was of course exacerbated by two facts, first that Daniel revealed to his mother and myself that he and Mira, a beautiful Romanian woman who is two inches taller than Daniel, were engaged. Though of course, however, I was very happy for Daniel and Mira, I may have taken the sense of celebration inaugurated by this revelation a bit too far, a sense of celebration that was cut through nonetheless with a feeling of anger which itself would be better explained by the second reason why I had perhaps too many drinks that night, and certainly more than any of the other three members of our party.

The second reason is this, that Daniel, in spite of his celebrated newsletter and his minor online fame (which once transitioned into real fame when a month ago he was a panel guest on a popular talk show which has been sharply and sometimes insightfully critical of the last administration) and in spite also of his beautiful new fiancée whose father is apparently a celebrated political thinker–that Daniel was (and is) incorrect about the present and future of our politics. To briefly air my views, Daniel believes that the Democratic party has abandoned the workers in favor of elite policy ideas, most of which will never be achieved. It has become obsessed with perfection and because perfection is impossible to achieve, it only becomes more obsessed as it fails to realize its impossible dreams–its fantasies. I see his point but I also believe we can find hope for instance in the present administration’s efforts to defeat the virus and distribute vaccines, which themselves have allowed people to come together again and exchange views, an essential democratic activity. Though democracy is under attack when both parties are “captured by elite interests,” as Daniel puts it, it is also under attack when we lose the sense of hope that seems essential to democratic life, a hope which the friendly exchange of views can restore.

In the exchanging and mutual airing of views we see democracy at work. Indeed in the very disagreement between our newsletters we are helping democracy to flourish. These are some of the ways in which I disagree with Daniel, and it seemed to me necessary after we had toasted Daniel and Mira’s impending marriage, and after I had ordered what might have been my third drink, I cannot remember–it seemed necessary that I air this disagreement.

But it was too loud and I was drowned out by the noise of the bar. After a while we paid (I paid) and then walked a few blocks in the windy and still-cold spring weather to the restaurant. On the walk I began to air my views. Daniel and Mira were leading the way and Judith and I were behind them. While the core of my views, as I have said, revolved around the disagreement between my view and Daniel’s views, it seemed to me necessary to first air my views regarding Chicago weather. How was it still so cold in April? Shouldn’t it be warming up? Was it always this windy? How can you people live in this place? I admitted that I was glad to live in Florida instead of this windy place, and this in spite of “Ron Death Sentence,” who perhaps, I added, we will replace in the next election. The will is certainly there.

It was at this point that Judith pinched my arm, which hurt even through the down of the coat that she bought me when we were in Chicago the last time. She presented me with the coat when we met up for a drink after an afternoon apart. She said, “To keep you warm” as I lifted it from the box. But now she was pinching me through it.

Finally we reached the restaurant, which similarly to the so-called bar, looked like some kind of art gallery in which they happened to serve food. But truly it was a restaurant and as we sat down, I began to air my views again, this time digging into the nucleus of these views–that is, the disagreement between my views and Daniel’s views.

Daniel flagged down a waitress and asked whether they had some bread for his father to munch on? He (I) had had a long flight. But then of course I interjected and said that we should also have a round of champagne for the newly engaged couple! As Daniel and my wife said no, no, I jokingly told them both to shut up.

I snacked on the dry bread and waited for Daniel to reply to me, but instead of replying to my argument, he flipped through the menu and commented on its contents. This upset me even more. If I were Mira’s father he would exchange views with me. If I were one of his classmates or teachers, or even one of the commenters on his newsletter, which sometimes I am (and even then he doesn’t reply to me), maybe then he would reply to me. But it was as if I hadn’t said anything.

Finally the champagne came and I raised a toast. At this point in well-wishing my son and his fiancée, I might have mispronounced the fiancée’s name, and I might instead of its correct pronunciation even have intentionally pronounced it as the name of the last president’s wife, and then I drank my champagne.

At this point it became clear that I was not welcome at the table. Though no one said those exact words, voices were raised and they were raised against me. “This was all supposed to stop when you started the goddamn newsletter,” said Judith; “You’re such a fucking narcissist,” said my son; while the offended party, who sat there mostly indifferent to the supposed insult, silently drank her champagne.

And so I stood to leave, though of course with the assumption that doing this would spur my wife to call out my name, Paul! Paul!, and my son to follow me and try to persuade me to stay, which I might or might not do. It depended on how he asked and whether he apologized for calling me a narcissist. But none of that happened. I left and they said nothing.

I had a vague idea of where the hotel was. In Chicago the blocks are long and wide and almost entirely boring. There is nothing interesting about them. I stayed on the same street, struggling against both the wind-driven cold and the overall boredom of the walk. Even walking, I might have fallen asleep from drunkenness and boredom if it weren’t so cold. I am sorry to any readers who might live in Chicago, but it is a boring city, a terrible and cold place where the bars and restaurants look like art galleries and the complimentary bread isn’t very good.

When I got back to the hotel, I realized it was after seven and the tiny fireplace would be lit by now. “The tiny fireplace!” I said to myself, attracting attention from two pairs of couples waiting in their coats for a taxicab to come. I heard their laughter but I didn’t care. They could laugh but I would soon be warm.

I hurried to The Library, almost running because I knew there were only two seats and there must be many married couples who go to the tiny fireplace together to air their views before dinner.

When I got there, however though, the fire was just a simulation of a fire. Like the books that should not be read, it was a fire that did not exist. Its images and crackles and even the details of its embers flickered on a screen that lay behind the grate.

However though, the room was still warm; and of course I was so cold and tired from my walk and also from the boringness of this city that it seemed to me necessary to sit in one of the mahogany armchairs and begin to air my views, both of which I then did, even though no one was there to hear them and reply.

As I was speaking about the last administration, a little drunkenly of course but less so than in the restaurant, a woman who was about my age came in. She sat in the mahogany armchair next to mine and, like me, rested her feet on the ottoman. “Do you mind if I sit down? I’m just waiting for my friend, we’re having dinner together,” she said.

Her red hair was cut in a bob, and she was somewhat obese. A quilted cotton purse lay against her chest. I asked where she was from and she said New York, and then I began to share my views about her governor and mayor. The governor I have criticisms of but ultimately he protected his people during the worst phases of the virus, which thankfully seem to be past because of these vaccines. The mayor, I said, I disliked. Though I wasn’t exactly clear why I disliked him, it felt to me that over the past several years I had gathered many reasons to justify the dislike I felt, none of which were available to me right then. “That mayor is a clown,” I summarized. I asked her what she thought about what I said? “I agree with you, except my husband wants us to wait for more research until we start with these vaccines,” she said and ignoring this last comment because I didn’t want to start an argument, I said that if she wanted to, she could subscribe to my newsletter, The Gollman Report. I spelled Gollman for her, though I think she decided not to subscribe because of what happened then. The lady began not to air her views in the strict sense so much as tell me the story of the friend she was meeting for dinner, who had recently separated from her husband, and as this stranger talked about someone who was even more of a stranger to me, I began to feel the effects of the warmth of the imaginary fire. I began to imagine that this woman was Judith, and then I fell asleep. And as I fell asleep I felt that instead of talking about someone I didn’t know, would never meet, and didn’t really care about, she was talking about the cronyism and corruption of the last administration. 

I Draw Conclusions

Though I apologized to my wife and Daniel and Mira, the next two days were a struggle. I was very quiet, I guess in a hurt and angry way, and this upset my wife and Daniel even more. It didn’t appear to me that Mira cared very much.

But that is not important. Eventually I will reconcile with Daniel. Eventually this time of silence in our household will end, and Judith and I will again have coffee on the balcony in the mornings and wine together at night in the den. Everything changes, and sometimes quickly. The present administration, and for that matter the last administration, are examples of that.

Yet like I’ve said, as I have been writing this I have come to understand some of my faults, which are not caused by narcissism (as Daniel put it) so much as a demand that other people have as much passionate concern for the future of democracy as I do.

Obviously this is a flaw. I should not see people as worth talking to only to the extent that they want to discuss the last and the current administrations. At the same time, I will not apologize for who I am. Yet it is clear that in my day-to-day interactions with other people, which is to say with Judith, I should draw a boundary between who I am in this newsletter and who I am in casual conversation. It is hard for me to accept that we live in a time where democracy is under attack and the last administration might–I have to admit–someday return, and yet other people see fit to forbid this as a topic of conversation.

Though I might change my approach to coffee conversations and after-dinner chats, you should know that this newsletter remains a safe place to talk about the future of democracy. I hope you find some hope in this and that you’ll even leave a comment. Feel free to even engage with each other. Because that is the essence of this republic. Though the preservation of democracy in the face of the depredations of the last administration might be an “elite obsession,” as my son puts it, it is a goal I will continue to anxiously pursue.

Lastly and as always, if you enjoy this newsletter, please share it with your friends, family members, loved ones. Anyone you care about should be glad to receive a forward of The Gollman Report along with accompanying text such as, “What is your opinion of this?” Anyone would be happy to get such a message.

Alec Niedenthal has stories in or forthcoming in The Baffler, The Brooklyn Rail, The Drift, and other venues. He is completing a story collection, The Patriotic Hat, and a novel, The Patriotic Plot.
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