Let me open a vein for you. See that white fluid there? That’s the milk of human kindness. It flows freely through my body. It causes me to think the best of everyone, to make allowances, to promote tolerance, to embrace strangers in the street only after asking permission. That’s just who I am.
You may have notice that my milk of human kindness is a little clotted. It feels like it’s past its sell-by date. It’s been hearty and free-flowing since the Eisenhower administration, and now…I worry.
So here’s a story, not a true one but who cares? I was pulling weeds in the front yard of the old widow Jenkins, who has slowed down in recent years and has a bad back. So I like to keep her front yard tidy, because that’s the way she liked it when she was younger. And I’m going along, murdering blackberries, and I notice that the widow Jenkins has a Trump sign in her window.
A Trump sign! Where did that senile old biddy get a Trump sign? Probably down at a meeting of the “Dopey Seniors Who Hate Negroes” club. Gawd.
So I did the best thing I know to do: I took a knee. Then I replanted all the blackberry plants. Screw her.
As various public bigots are likely to say after their comments go viral: This is not me. Yet, it’s clear that it is them, because they did it. And I did it too, or have done something equally nasty that I don’t feel like copping to just now.
Because why? Because the fucking president is driving me crazy. I have cut back on my news consumption; I listen to nothing but podcasts now, because there’s nothing like a three-year-old episode of “Wait, wait, don’t tell me” with its jokes about the polar vortex and the ice bucket challenge. It was a simpler time.
So you may have noticed this blog is late. Really embarrassingly late. Not that it has a schedule, you understand, and it may be that I overestimated my ability to write regularly with no deadline looming, but that ain’t the whole story. The whole story is that the resentment monkey inserts himself into every sentence, every paragraph.
Like for instance, I have wanted to write forever about my increased engagement in the arts, mainly plays and live music. This summer I saw a Berkeley Rep show called “An Octoroon,” which was a complex presentation of a nineteenth century melodrama of that name, with many things added or interpolated. It was an amusing, sophisticated, ultimately devastating look at race in this country.
It did everything I want a work of art to do. My brain was buzzing when I came out, but also my heart had heard that melancholy American music and I began to feel so relaxed and fulfilled. Not because institutional racism made me feel good, but because I had seen human beings do the thing they do best, create castles and crevasses and the contours of the human spirit. I felt…kindly. I very much wanted to hug everyone I saw just because we had audienced together.
I believe that a work of art is not complete until in interacts with other human beings. The combination of the two rises like smoke from the sweetest fire ever.
I began to think about…you know who. Because you cannot think about race in this country with thinking about the barely concealed racism of the current administration.
It may be that the Trump administration promotes a flurry of great work in the arts. Resistance should be powerful, and I suspect artists of all types will rise to the challenge, and I look forward to the next two years, assuming the next two years exist in any real way.
But also, art does pure joy as well. At the very same Berkeley Rep, four weeks later, I saw Mike Birbiglia do a 90-minute aria on marriage and children that provided, as they say, non-stop laughs. Stand-up comedy is as demanding an art form as ballet, and when it’s done with honesty and brio, it’s like watching a really funny high-wire act.
And music! Chris Thile is the new host of Prairie Home Companion, which you may know (I didn’t). He’s also a virtuoso mandolin player and, by the way, a MacArthur Genius Award winner. Bet you didn’t know that. And he came to SFJazz with pianist Brad Mehldau, and they gave us two hours of bliss with original compositions and jazz/blues takes on Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why” and Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” (absolute stunner of a version). And I was so happy. It just reached a center of my self that appears too infrequently.
And I did not think for 107 whole minutes about Trump, who has contempt for artists and art and, for that matter, the concept of free speech.
In fact, he has contempt for almost everything that makes what’s important and useful in American life. It can make you fucking crazy. I feel so powerless. I try to do stuff, call and write and whatever I can think of, but a small part of me wonders whether, in the long run, violence might be the answer.
And that’s me, Mr. Milk of Human Kindness. What are the less evolved humans thinking?
Yeah, but: Despair doesn’t get us anywhere. Despair just makes us take to our rooms with a six-pack of whatever and a television playing endless reruns of “Law and Order,” where our faith in justice is restored every sixty minutes. We need the solace of art. We need, I submit, art in live presentation, at a concert or a theater or a dance hall or a symphony space. That’s our most basic understanding of community, when strangers assemble to experience joy or sorrow or madness or rueful acknowledgment of our shared humanity.
The mad humans, particularly the ones with guns and don’t get me started, threaten that sense of community, but they must not be allowed to kill it. Because that’s our blood and bone. We are not hate robots.
Last week I went to the San Francisco Symphony. The first thing on the menu was Bartok’s piano concerto number two. I know little about symphonic music; it’s become an emerging taste of mine. I’m an ignorant savage, but I know what I like. I like big and fast and crazy.
I like feeling things that are sublimely unpolitical, but that make me stronger for the politics I must endure. And there were 50 or 70 musicians, flawed and grief-laden and wrapped in joy, coming together to make music and dance in their souls. Together.
Racism will continue to exist. But also this, this will continue to exist. Keep remembering. Keep fighting.
Photography by Tracy Johnston, who would undoubtedly want me to say that, although she did indeed take these photographs, she did not choose them for this column, nor did she approve the captions, because she has to be in Pakistan, home of the Taliban and the ritual slaughter of vigorous older women. She’ll be back as soon as we can pay the damn ransom.
To tell you the truth, the cat thing was becoming a drag. I have 12 insights into cat behavior, and I used them all up in the last century. And lately we’ve been down to one cat, Pancho, and he never does anything interesting.
Bucket died a few years ago, literally looking into my eyes as the fatal shot took effect, but I disapprove of maudlin “my pet died and here’s how bad I felt” columns. People will cry, but the tears seem unearned. Any writer or filmmaker can kill a beloved pet and make people sob, but so what? I don’t like being manipulative about a personal sorrow.
Also, by writing it I would diminish my own experience. Writers should take time to stop writing and participate in their own lives.
Come to think of it, Pancho did learn recently how to fake a limp. He tottered into the house one day, right front foot lifted off the ground. We poked around tentatively, but he didn’t seem to be in pain. The next day, the limp was gone. It came back a week later, and he looked pathetic, but the limp went away again. This pattern continued. Once, he forgot and lifted the other foot.
And yes, we took him to the vet. Don’t ask. That’s another reason I abandoned writing about cats: Every time I mentioned some cat eccentricity I’d be deluged with suggestions from people about diet, toxic environmental chemicals, and/or diseases frequently (or infrequently, but you never know) contracted by cats. Or, in one case, the possibility of cat poisoners operating in the neighborhood. Those readers all meant well, and I could hardly insult them, but God I wanted to.
Bucket, not dead yet
What was it like to be a semi-famous columnist?
It was great. What did you think? I was never so famous I had to hide from the paparazzi, but I was famous enough to get seats in restaurants that were theoretically booked up, or tickets to sold-out shows. Also, I got to do insanely cool stuff, from swimming with the dolphins at the Academy of Sciences to speaking to the graduating class of the English Department at Cal Berkeley.
Also, people would come up to me, sometimes literally on the street, and say, “I bet you hate hearing this all the time, but I really love your work.” Oh my yes, I did hate that, because who wants to hear that they’re doing a good job? I hate praise. Particularly when it’s delivered with a little bit of what might be called flirting.
Gradually I got unfamous. People slowly stopped coming to my writing classes, or sending me pleasant emails, or even recognizing my name. I wasn’t the flavor of the month anymore, and I wasn’t sure why, but it probably had to do with my personal failings. I kinda missed being semi-famous now that I wasn’t.
On the other hand, I learned who my friends were.
The heartbreak of anonymity
What’s it like living with a rage potato as president? I’m sorry, that was inappropriate. What’s it like to live with a shitweasel as president? A douchenozzle? A witless fucking cocksplat?
I’ll get to that.
Can we agree that greed is the problem? Maybe not the problem overall (that would be racism, right? Or war), but the vice that’s put the United States into this chaos of dangerous stupidity. It’s why Donald Trump became president: People have been trained by half a century of propaganda that, in the immortal words of Gordon Gekko, “greed is good.”
So Trump, with his bogus trappings of wealth, his gilt rooms and his plush plane and his idiotic “You’re fired” parlor trick, and his obvious lack of both sophistication and information, seemed to represent the American dream. Anybody could get rich, even this guy. And everyone wanted to get rich, because that would solve all the problems caused by amoral capitalists who could give a shit why you fell behind on payments.
So, at the risk of sounding like a 1975 Troyskyite publication with a picture of huge capitalist surrounded by bags of money swallowing workers whole and drooling corpses, our government is, now, largely a money-making scheme. Policy is about maximizing profit.
Of course, Trump is doing the nickel-and-dime hustles, forcing the taxpayers to pay for his stays at his own golf club, raising the rent for the Secret Service offices in Trump tower, and shamelessly suggesting that people who stay at the Trump hotel in Washington might get favorable treatment. Also he raised the room rates there. Trump steaks! Trump airline! Best of all, Trump University!
He’s a grifter. They’re all fucking grifters.
So now we have a new Afghanistan policy which is largely indistinguishable from the old Afghanistan policy. Why continue this war that we will never win? Why not just stop? But that would leave in the lurch the arms manufacturers and the military vehicle manufacturers and the uniform manufacturers and the companies that set up fast food outlets in war zones (nothing like a Big Mac before your die). War is, after all, an enormously successful profit center.
A profit center, I should emphasize, that is managed by the government, where cost overruns are celebrated in song and story.
Am I being too cynical? Absolutely not.
Everything is monetized. Everything. Trump’s secretary of education wants to monetize schools. (And don’t forget student loans, which monetize adolescents). Trump’s attorney general wants to monetize prisons — and fill those prisons with jaywalkers and marijuana smokers. (As someone said, “America’s justice system runs on the exchange of money for freedom.”) Trump’s Secretary of the Interior wants to open up national parks and monuments to drilling and mining, thus monetizing scenery.
And our drug prices are the highest in the world, thus monetizing us.
And we let that happen. There are so many distractions, sports and television and music award shows and two-hundred-dollar shoes, and meanwhile our government is being looted, and information about this looting is derided as “fake news”. The rules have changed, and we haven’t noticed until right now, and maybe that’s too late.
It’s entirely surreal. It’s like living inside a Terry Southern novel. It’s like living inside “Guernica”. Truth is imaginary, and rapey Mexicans are streaming across the border, and imaginary illegal voters are influencing elections. Did I mention that goddam wall? Plus, the Russians are doing God knows what, something shady involving Kushner and spies and unlaundered money and hotels in Georgia, not that one, the other one. Russia is the biggest kleptocracy in the world, but take heart. We’re catching up.
I own a garden full of plants. My plants are providing oxygen for a choking world. My fucking plants are do more good for the country than the entire government. What? I am not yelling. THIS IS YELLING.