I’ve made a resolution I might actually honor: to post on FB nothing relating to political or sociological debate. Those in agreement don’t need it; those who aren’t, don’t listen. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be entirely faithful to my resolution, and I retain the privilege of (a) scribbling on the wall of my own timeline, (b) posting comic one-liners if they come steaming into my head, or of (c) honest questions that might deepen the conversation without provoking outrage.
We once did a performance at a community college for a large class who sat in dead silence for the 50 minutes of mainly comic material. It was only after the debacle that we understood: they spoke only the equivalent of grocery-store English. Mostly Vietnamese refugees, they were being exposed to us as a learning experience. You have to be listened to by folks who speak the language.
It’s not the fault of FB. It’s a familiar habit of life, in controversial dialogue, to spend more brain-strain preparing your own response than listening to what’s being said. But FB is a conduit for what I’d call “Facebook activism”—an illusion that something in the real world will actually change if you’re sufficiently vehement on FB. To me, there’s a radical difference between dialectic and primal scream.
It’s complicated by the fact that I rarely respond to stuff I think is radically wrong—they don’t convince me, I won’t convince them, so best to appreciate the photos of their cats, as there’s lots to life besides the issue at hand. I’m much more critical of my fellow travelers, those making a case I agree with but making it badly or with disastrous results for a cause we both support. Invariably, the response is that at best I’m ignorant of reality, at worst I’m an unenlightened old white male.
I recall my first childhood experience that male privilege doesn’t always work to my advantage. When I was quite little, on my mom’s vacation, she drove us across the wilds of Nebraska to Denver. That afternoon, en route, I told Mama I needed to stop and pee. She was always in a hurry and said, “Open the window and pee out it.” Normally, she was a very practical soul, but in this case there’d been no way for her to learn from experience. I did as she said and quickly learned what happens when you piss against the wind.
And I’ll see what’s possible in finding more active activism. I just don’t want to spend my remaining hours on Earth splattered with my own liqueur.
I wrote this in Facebook today: “A heartfelt plea to all my friends: if you haven’t voted, please. Please do it tomorrow. Please ask your friends if they have voted, and if they haven’t, then beg them. No question this will be contested, and if the turnout isn’t a tsunami, there are dirty tricks beyond our imagination waiting in the wings.”
Now I’m writing the rest of this. By the time y’all read it, the election results may have already come in. Yes or no, who knows what comes next?
I don’t want to live out what should be my golden elder years in a Republican kleptocracy, not here, not in California, the home for which I had to wait through thirty-three years of Elsewhere. I am here to stay. I was so grateful when 1999 turned the wheel and we got in the big Dodge van and the rentosaurus and headed west. We’d loved the Philly we’d lived in for seven years (magic number), and we left behind things that would keep drawing us back for visits. But California had always been the dream, and after we arrived it took me months before I’d have to stop whatever I was doing to absorb the heart-lurch of realization: I live here now.
The multiverse smiled. We found the perfect little place in Sebastopol, after nearly six months of house-hunting in which we gradually made peace with the fact that we’d made a mistake of epic dimensions: no way could we afford most of Sonoma County. But we didn’t give up, and the miracle happened, and we’re here to stay.
Then came the awful realization that the touring market we’d assumed we would re-enter was dead. And given the nature of local theatre in the North Bay, we were not remotely going to be able to start a new theatre here. OK, we stayed home and sent our stories out over the radio with a three-year series, and that got us through the first rough patch. Then we started to do live performances more or less locally with repertory from past years and started mounting new work. Things were looking up.
I’d planted a garden and was enjoying my new partnership with dirt. We are not accomplished social animals, but we found a good circle of friends. It felt like we’d have a sweetly-sloping path to the eventual Summerland, and then the fires came. And returned, and fastened their grip on the future. Now we also have an unprecented political schism and the plague. I think our future plates will be very full of challenge, and the image of my sun-blessed elder years is a sweet joke.
But I’m here. Right here. This is home. And I do own a very sharp pitchfork.
Our daughter is visiting from Italy, where she’s lived for 20+ years. Because of the plague, it’s been a long time. Her brother in San Francisco picked her up from the airport, she stayed there a few days, then yesterday he brought her up to our place. Last night, before he drove back, we all sat to dinner to a monstrous, magnificent salade nicoise and a bottle of prosecco.
All the usual catchups: airplane irritants, current news, word of the mates, recent movies seen, cat tales, not to mention our own cats sniffing each of the family’s feet. Sitting down to the long, opulent dinner on the patio. Then Eli took off and Johanna settled in.
It’s always a joy to see the kids, especially the family together again. We’re thankful they’re healthy & creative, have good mates, are self-supporting, and above all that they like each other. Growing up in the back seat of our VW or our touring van over thousands of miles of travel in our touring days, in a childhood anything but placid, they seem to have developed the friendship of Army buddies who’ve been through tough scrapes together.
That’s only surmise, of course. I think it must be universal for parents, when grown kids visit, to be extra alert for anything in their kids’ being that might suggest their own failure as parents. The first time I came home with a mustache, my mother worried about what she’d done to make me a drug addict. I’m somewhat more New Age than that, having left Iowa, but there’s still the impulse to worry.
How do I feel about their presence? Good, but I’m not really in touch with my feelings. I shield myself from the bad stuff, and that tends to block lots of the good stuff. Maybe that’s why I mostly write comedy, or the tragic with a tongue-in-cheek edge. So I guess what I mostly feel is, “This is right.”
Which is maybe the best thing to feel. It’s what I feel in finishing the final draft of anything. It’s what I feel cursing lovingly at the cats. It’s what I feel in eating supper, especially soup. It’s what I feel first thing in the morning embracing Elizabeth and just holding each other there. There’s a rightness to it, a gracious acceptance of what’s there, and, to a perpetually discontented soul, that’s heaven.
At the simplest level, I think of it in kid terms: a secret way to say something. Or maybe Morse code, a way to say something in a weird formal language that can travel great distances and unbleep and unblip its way back into common speech. Or what about the criminal code? The big bag of laws that are in force in your neighborhood? Code of ethics, now there’s one that often vanishes from view. Computer code bends my brain, but I love how something assembled from the bare minimum of parts can make a machine do our bidding.
How about the genetic code, or what is sometimes referred to as DNA? Wow. You get a sperm and an ovum together and give the cell a map, and eventually it gets a driver’s license and a diploma and a mortgage and social security, and maybe it survives the flood or the wildfire.
Snark mode off. I think music is a code, one that resides deep in the bone. Today I heard a trio play an afternoon of Hungarian folk music as filtered through their unique musical sensibilities. Their vocalist has traveled regularly to small villages in Hungary, sometimes collecting a song from the last living human who remembers that particular one. If Zina didn’t hear it and memorize it and teach it to others, would it still exist? If Matthew couldn’t play the fiddle with a speed and intricacy that rivals a classical Pakistani singer’s voice, could he mirror and tease Zina’s singing? If Misha didn’t play his cello with the deep tones of a skilled lover, would their music have a rock-solid foundation?
Together the trio, Vadalma, is speaking in code. They are reaching back through generations of music sung around kitchen tables, sung while wooing, sung while coping with keen grief, sung while bringing the animals home, and they are recreating it with their own contemporary musical instincts. It isn’t ancient, it isn’t contemporary, it is a new code.
There are people who make music in the same necessary and ordinary way that they breathe, for hours every day—not for someone else to hear, but because it’s like breathing, and it’s from deep in the bone. There are those who collect others with whom they can make music for mutual pleasure, and that collective energy is a different code. One more level is those who make music for an audience, another level of experience. At the far end of the spectrum is listening alone to recorded music, but it’s all code.
Find a way to sing, and then listen.
I’ve always appreciated surrealism, as long as it knows its place. Nailed to the wall or stamped into print, it’s fine. It’s like salsa on the burrito. It’s refreshing, an expression of the world sifted through a single quirky human—the way a face is distended in a funhouse mirror or a raindrop.
These thoughts pop up as we’re driving into San Francisco to attend an art exhibit, visit our favorite North Beach coffee house, and see our son. Coming into the city, starting and stopping, changing lanes, tuned to the classical station, I see a billboard. It proclaims, “Wake up your sandwich, America!” This unsettles me.
Well, yes, I know the goal of advertising is to get your attention, and a popular mode today is indirect confusion, inducing you to work out the meaning. This might be a sandwich shop, it might be for alarm clocks, or it might be recruiting for the U.S. Marines. Or none of those. It might simply be telling us to get our shots.
Soon after, we pass a cafe called “Enter the Cafe.” It seems to want us to enter the Enter the Cafe. Soon after, walking, we encounter “Urban Curr”—most likely their Y is mssing, but they might be serving baked dog. At lunch at Caffe Trieste, we’re given little packets of hot sauce; mine says, “When I grow up I want to be a bottle.”
A couple next to us has a large dog; his leash is tangled behind his two front legs. This seems to reflect my psychological condition, but is it a simile, a metaphor, or a personification? Or a plot by the military-industrial complex, the corporate elite, or Antifa to drive us nuts? The dog succeeds in his struggle to untangle, but he’s still firmly leashed.
The news, of course, is a prime purveyor of the surreal, second only to old Roadrunner cartoons. Yet the news rarely touches us directly—it hovers on the flat-screen, much as a Max Ernst painting stays plastered to the wall. When it does come looming at us, screeching like an onrushing taxicab, we’re not likely to be assigning it an artistic genre—we’re just trying to out-screech it.
The surreal in daily life appears like a flash mob, a sudden twister, or a terrorist bomb, though with luck it’s only a billboard or tangled dog. But no one prepares us for it by announcing Magritte or Breton or Dali—it’s just suddenly confronting us on a billboard, interrupting our droning daily brain-wave of “I wonder what’s next?” by screaming, “Me!”