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.
Humans experiencing kindness
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.
Art and race and joy and sorrow
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?
Less evolved humans
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.