Pipat’s Letter

I was following the story of the boys, the Thai soccer team and their coach, who were trapped in Tham Luang Cave in Thailand.  When I passed a newsstand on Monday night and saw that four were rescued, I choked up for a second. There were still eight more and the coach to go. Scores of divers traveled to the cave from around the world to help with the effort and a Thai Navy Seal died trying to chart an escape route through the floodwaters that filled the mile and a half of treacherous cave pathways.

Yesterday morning, all the boys — the Wild Boars – were rescued. At the end of one of the detailed accounts of the rescue operations, I read some of the notes that the boys had sent to their families, transported by divers who became the link between them while they were still in the cave.

Pipat Poti, who is 15, wrote to his parents, “Mom, Dad, I love you guys, and little sister Toi. If I get out please take me to a pork barbecue place. I love you Dad, Mom.”  My heart skipped a beat. Pipat, trapped in a harrowing maze with low levels of oxygen and facing a dangerous escape route, longed for his family and a small pleasure. Pork barbecue.

Small pleasures. Pipat’s letter, written half a world away, made me laugh and cry and then shudder because of all the ways that small pleasures are being erased in so many places, especially in our American political culture. Everything is about big things, like winning, about monstrous things, and most of all, everything is about spinning the outcome for your own political purposes. No small pleasures permitted in this game.

I run a national organization, Independent Voting, and our headquarters is in New York.  I grew up here, in the Big Apple, long before the Tourist Board made it a popular slogan. Though I travel the country a great deal, speaking and organizing on behalf of independent voters—those who are sick of the political game in one way or another—my roots are here and my politics were formed here.

Everything is about big things, like winning, about monstrous things, and most of all, everything is about spinning the outcome for your own political purposes. No small pleasures permitted in this game.
Jackie Salit, President of Independent Voting

I was glad to see the results of the congressional primary in the 14th District, the one that made national headlines when a little-known community organizer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, upended a powerful 10-term incumbent to win the Democratic nomination for the seat.

An overconfident and well-connected congressman (shades of Hillary Clinton?) succumbed to a campaign in which Alex, as she is known, went door-to-door and inspired non-voting Democrats in this blended Bronx/Queens district to come out.

I watched Alex on TV handling all the questions that come at you when you’re thrust into the political spotlight, when the sharks are circling and everyone is trying to define what just happened.

Your win is a repudiation of the Democratic establishment! One interviewer noted.  That’s not how I think about it, she said, I don’t think of it as a repudiation of anything, it was a positive statement about what people feel they want and need. Good answer, I thought, and maybe even an honest one.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the Democratic Party poobahs to exclaim that the event was an entirely local one. Nancy Pelosi — who, as House Minority Leader is balancing more spinning plates than there are stars in the heavens — rushed to assure the world that Ocasio-Cortez might be a socialist, but that the Democrats were not.

I actually felt badly for Pelosi. She couldn’t carve out just two sentences to express some pride for this beautiful and outspoken woman who had expanded the universe of voters and maybe the universe of hope in her district. That would have been a small pleasure, perhaps. But politics leaves no room for that.

Alex will have to contend with that culture as she moves along. I hope she can manage it, while continuing to expand the universe of voters. Maybe she can even press for opening the primaries so all the young (and older) people in the 14th who are independents can vote, too. Right now they can’t.

I watched President Trump’s press conference Monday night where he announced the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Not a bad performance by the Donald, all things considered. He stayed on script. I don’t think he’s ever said things like “the Constitution is the crown jewel of the Republic.” Likely he’d thought a crown jewel was a bauble you bought at Harry Winston for your wife or mistress. But still, he played his part.

Brett Kavanaugh, a controversial nominee, played his part, too. At the press conference, he seemed like a decent man, with a long history as a judicial scholar teaching at Harvard and Yale, not exactly marginal or extremist institutions in the field of jurisprudence.

Kavanaugh talked about his commitments to the Catholic Church, to volunteering at social programs, to his daughters, for whom he coaches basketball. He even made a joke about how the kids call him Coach K. I assume that he holds to views on certain things, probably on many things, with which I would deeply disagree. He would not have been my choice for the Supreme Court. But I did not think he was the Devil.

Within minutes of the announcement, my iPhone started to buzz with text and email notifications, excoriating Trump and Kavanaugh, asking me to donate to a campaign to prevent his confirmation by the Senate, warning of a takeover by the radical far-right. And suddenly, I was cast into a netherworld of dread and death, for which there is only one antidote. Demonize the opposition. Give control of Congress to the Democrats. I felt sick.  Is that the way we all must live now? I turned off my phone.

The weather in New York City was beautiful over the weekend, and on Saturday night I took a late evening walk over to an ice cream parlor which has become the hip place in my neighborhood. The line stretched around the block, but I didn’t mind waiting, the night was warm and it was a great perch for people-watching. I joined the line.

A half-hour later, I was at the counter placing my order, cookie dough caramel, and as they handed me my scoops I pulled out a $20 bill to pay. No, Ma’am, the boy behind the counter said sternly. No cash here, credit card only. I only have cash, I told him, but it made no difference. This was a cashless ice cream joint.

I shrugged and put the cup back on the counter, turning to walk away, when a tall man, who, with his girlfriend, had been behind me on line, waved a credit card and said “I’ll get it for you.” I smiled, oh thank you, I said, let me get you some cash.  Oh no, he said. I’ll just buy it for you. And he handed his card across the counter.

I was so surprised. I grabbed my cup, I thanked him, and on my way out I stopped and turned to his girlfriend. “He’s a keeper, you know.” “I know,” she said, and smiled. I loved that exchange almost as much as the ice cream. Two women connecting through a secret code. And we didn’t need a hashtag to do it.

I walked home, enjoying the night air. Maybe a half a world away Pipat, waiting to be rescued, was dreaming of safety and his family and some pork barbecue. Maybe we can survive all the ugliness, the inhumanity of our politics, and come out of that dark cave into the light. I took a spoonful of the ice cream that a man I didn’t know bought for me. Small pleasures.