Fighting the Sickness, or Being an Artist in Trump’s America

Shannon Plumb tries to counter the flu bug sweeping through her household, and to formulate a plan to defeat a much bigger problem.

For two weeks, the sickness has been running through my house. I watched Obama’s farewell speech while my older son threw dirty tissues on the floor. I watched the Inauguration as the tissue pile grew like a mountain of snow in a blizzard. I watched Trump’s first week in office unroll like a dirty rug inside my house. Then I got sick. My other son got sick. The protests were happening and I was marching too. First with my pillow in bed, then marching across the living room with pink medicine in a teaspoon. As I marched on the couch next to my 9-year-old, his sickness burning away in a fever, he lifted his head and looked at me. I tried to hide the tears in my eyes as a reporter announced 11 had been detained at JFK. He asked me to close my computer. “It’s too sad.”

The best I could do for our country at that moment was cater to the little boy next to me. Keep him safe, give him liquids, rub his feet. The world needs good men and someday he will be a good man.

In the days passing, as the fever went away, the news revealed pictures of Trump signing his executive orders. He held up the white paper to the cameras like a child would show a drawing to his mother. “Look what I can do.”

Trump reminds me of a stepfather I had. Calling the man that lived in our house Stepfather is as hard as saying President before Trump.

This Stepfather was in my dream the other night. He was driving my mom and me in our car. I sat between the two of them. He drove fast on a residential street. At first, he avoided trees and garbage cans. Then he started hitting things. On purpose. He was trying to kill us. He changed direction and ran into oncoming traffic. He jumped the curb, oblivious to pedestrians walking home on the sidewalks. He swerved back and forth, making dents into parked cars. I bit his nose and wrestled him for the steering wheel, trying to protect my mother sitting beside me. He crashed the car, and walked away.

Analyzing the dream, it wasn’t difficult to see what that death ride in our old Chevy Impala was really about.

My Stepfather used to say to me (when my mom wasn’t around), “Don’t you ever come between me and your mother.” He wanted domination. Then he would smile proudly when she came in, as if he had just told me a good joke.

The evil Stepfather has a certain fairytale-like quality. At first, he’s charming and wants to save everyone. You almost believe he could. He says what he knows you want to hear. He gives you a puppy. He flashes money, he acts manly, he smells like cheap cologne. But then he spreads the fear that he knows will keep you close to him. “Without me here, you would starve. Without me here, you are nothing. Without me here, you will be raped, blown up, robbed. I am the man of the house now.”

Before long, the Stepfather boards up the windows, builds a huge wall, sends the girls and women to their rooms, and so makes it safe? He found the remote control. Watch out. He’ll soon decide what stations you can watch.

When you yell out in protest, he’ll think of you as a spoiled child asking for something you didn’t need. You’ll get over it. He’ll wait.

As the tissue pile on our floor melts away, I wonder how to move forward. I’ve never had a president that I didn’t respect. I’ve never seen so many people threatened by a leader in our country. I’ve never felt the line of division so strongly between what is right and what is stupid. I haven’t felt this unsafe since we were children ducking under school desks during nuclear bomb drills.

I know we have to be vigilant. We have to turn on the news. We have to check our information once, twice, three times. Technology has made it easier to get information but it made it harder to find the truth. We will have to search hard for the truth.

I know we have to continue to write our scripts, paint our pictures, compose our rhymes and SING OUR SONGS! We have to put all our fears, and rage, and observations into our work. Then we have to resist and resist and resist some more.

Obama mentioned Atticus Finch in his farewell speech. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

I’ve been trying on other people’s skins. Doing my best to walk in their shoes. I really want to understand the other point of view. But all the shoes I try on damage my feet. They’re as restricted as a geisha slipper. They’re as territorial as a flip-flop. These shoes worn by racist people, Christian extremists, ignorant kinds, uneducated types are squashing my toes and collapsing my arches. I’m trying on shoes that have never traveled. I’m trying on shoes that never walk on subway platforms. I’m trying on shoes that are old and outdated. I’m trying on shoes that kick women, Muslims, poor people, smart people, shoes that kick hard.

I’m not sure how to go forward. It won’t be blindly. It won’t be passively. Maybe it starts here with feelings, and shoes. Eventually, though, the Mother leaves the Stepfather.

It’s getting a little darker in our land and the shoes we wish to put on, those ruby red slippers, they’re not bringing us back home anytime soon. But I know we’re going to be stronger. I know people will work together. There will be bonds that have never existed before.

I see my son step into his father’s shoes. He shuffles around the house, he deepens his voice. He stands a little taller, a little prouder, he knows a little more. These are good shoes. My boys will be good men. The sickness is gone and they are stronger. The world will be theirs soon. We showed them how to blow their noses, we taught them a fever is not something to fear, now we’ll show them you can fight a sickness with devotion and love. And you can win.

Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.