Intimations of Instability

Justice Ginsburg’s passing seems to have made everyone a little crazy. Wild speculation about the Supreme Court succession is all over the internet. Along with advice for Biden and the Democrats. And much vituperation of the Republicans and their tactics. God bless her, we didn’t need for her to die at this juncture.

Her death has permeated how people think and feel. It has diffused itself into the American Crisis that has been looming and is now exacerbating everything. Her passing also seems to have penetrated into our dreams, at least mine.

Last night I slept the sleep of the dead, though punctuated with dreams, the last one this morning a real doozy. Something I ate? I don’t know. I was lost in the wilds of Upper Manhattan, trying to get home to Greenwich Village, asking people the way to the subway in a snowstorm, through an obscure park, in dank restaurants, in caverns and offices underground. Ginsburg was helpful, giving directions which led nowhere. I kept up my spirits by singing songs from old Broadway shows, like “The Lullaby of Broadway.”

Finally a limousine stopped and the driver offered me a ride. I sat way in the back as we set off but suddenly the rear of the car detached, with me in it, and proceeded on its own down a steep road to a rocky beach, looking out to the ocean. Workers on a house far above peered down and cheered. That was enough to wake me up.

So now we will play Dr. Freud and hazard an interpretation. Lost in New York is a rather familiar theme in my dreams. They are usually more intimidating, but this one was shocking in its vividness. New York here is America, of course, and we are all pretty lost right now. The limousine ride starts out to be a rescue but turns into a weird fiasco, ending up in what could be another country (e.g., Mexico).

Ginsburg tried to be helpful, but ended up impotent. She, we know in real life, was a New York woman par excellence, surprisingly good friends with Antonin Scalia, another New Yorker. Her grand achievements in this life may have come to naught in this dream—and in the disorder the dream portends—but they are historically real nonetheless.

Since her death, the paeans of praise have been pouring in. As always happens, the tributes have come after fate has cheated us of her presence. Eventually they too will evaporate like a dream.

The Forgotten Zucchini

Going to the supermarket is still an adventure though not always a welcome one. Hunting for the foods you want to make a certain recipe takes a kind of focus, distracting you from the nauseating news of the day and the perils of COVID. It can give your unsettled life a temporary sense of purpose.

So you have an idea that you want to make zucchini with onions and tomatoes to go with the fish you bought. The recipe was a simple holdover from your childhood that never failed to bring back good memories. Maybe you’ll add in a poblano and some spices.

Your first stop was to pick up a can of good Italian tomatoes and then maneuver on to collect other, unrelated things. That was a mistake because it got you distracted from finding the remaining ingredients. Your first mistake was not making a list. At the store one needs to keep a sharp focus because there are so many other distracting items. In fact, a supermarket purposely distracts you so you’ll make impulse purchases.

By the time you get to the produce aisle, you pick up other items but fail to recognize those nice bulbous green zucchinis waiting in their bin. You are by then thinking about the latest Trump revelations to Woodward, the fires in the West, the disastrous election looming. You are totally distracted and pass by the zukes.

Of course you don’t realize the omission until you get home, cursing and flailing your poor memory. Thus a welcome distraction (going to the store) becomes a little tarnished because you were too distracted to buy what you came for.

Why I’m Not Watching

”Only a masochistic brain-dead racist could bear to watch the Republican Convention.”

“But John, you need to watch in order to know thine enemy and understand how they think and what they are planning. Only then can you win the argument that constitutes the election.”

“The election is not an argument. It’s a contest as to whether the country will survive or not. Biden still thinks he can somehow accommodate to these people. I do not. The Republicans and I are singing from completely different musical scores. And it’s the 100th anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth. I want the same kind of revolution in politics he brought about in music.”

“Well, it’s true there is a lot of flak and noise that keeps you hitting the mute button. Jennifer Rubin seems to endorse your idea: She says the convention has no agenda, no arguments worth hearing, just ‘screaming, dog whistles and bullhorn appeals to White supremacy and abjectly ridiculous accusations’ about Biden.”

“The perfect example of that is Kimberly Guilfoyle’s unhinged rant on the first night, building in decibels and discord as she proceeds. Born from a Puerto Rican mother, she calls herself an immigrant.”

“You still ought to watch the convention, John, to see how permeated their thinking is with appeals to race. It’s the dominant focus of Trump’s agenda.”

“The NY Times agrees with you. Politico magazine agrees with you. I agree with you. But I’d rather hear their reporting than the outsized race-baiting the convention seems fascinated with. Better some media outrage than hearing another speech from Patricia and Mark McCloskey.”

“Patricia said, ‘Make no mistake: No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.’”

“Let ‘em go back to their fortified St. Louis mansion. If I want to be depressed I’d rather read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, a book about how deeply immersed our country is in maintaining racial separation. She mixes stories about how caste is embedded in our everyday life with comparisons to India and Hitler’s Germany. We are throttled still and now by caste and its consequences. Do we really need to hear more praise of Trump and his fealty to the cause of caste, hate and fear?”

Boredom, Tedium and Ennui

What Does Boredom Do to Us—and for Us?

Why Boredom Is Anything but Boring

From what I hear, you’re all pandemically bored, right? I have no suggestions of what to do about that but Google uncovers 7,860,000 answers. My thoughts about boredom may or may not make you feel better. After all, it’s our common fate. We’re all in this together, as the Democrats continue to remind us.

Isolation makes some people angry. Some take up knitting or art. Some are just bored to tears. I have experienced plenty of boredom in my life, starting with early formal dinners with my parents. Most classes in high school produced long stretches of stifling tedium. In graduate school my friends and I used to entertain each other by getting drunk and reading aloud from the Oxford English Dictionary. Kids today resort to their phones during lectures.

With the pandemic I find myself sleeping a lot more. I often avoid getting up in the morning, lying in bed and letting the mind wander into frivolous paths. Avoidance of boredom often produces more boredom: watching baseball on TV, trying to get into a boring book, avoiding the exercise machine.

It’s hard to agree on what constitutes boredom. Is the capitalist system at fault? Is boredom a social construct? A built-in human response? Margaret Talbot recently wrote a wonderful anatomy of boredom, which you ought to read. She touches on the many definitions and descriptions of the complaint. Here’s one I like: “a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.”

Some think it’s inherent in the human condition. Others, like Margaret, see it as a function of how we work and live, part of the capitalist nightmare:

David Graeber, in his influential “bullshit jobs” thesis, argues that the vast expansion of administrative jobs—he cites, for example, “whole new industries,” such as financial services and telemarketing—means that “huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” The result can be soul-choking misery.

The French call boredom ennui, which adds the suggestion of lassitude or languor. Baudelaire’s great poem “Au Lecteur” (To My Reader) identifies it with decadence and death, calling all of us brothers, tainted with the apathy of evil. The best book I ever read on boredom is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

There’s an old saying that most people couldn’t stand to sit alone in a room for fifteen minutes.

A while back some researchers put together what’s been called the most boring video ever.

Other researchers have had study participants watch an instructional film about fish-farm management or copy down citations from a reference article about concrete.” Thanks, I’ll go on hanging up my laundry.

The Maskless Ones

A Detailed Map of Who Is Wearing Masks in the U.S.

Texas ‘wide open for business’ despite surge in Covid-19 cases

Rep. Louie Gohmert, and the rest of the anti-maskers, are beyond irrational

The band struck up “Louie Louie.”

We pretty well know why Trump goes maskless. One reason is his vanity; the other is political: if he masked up, his persistent denial of the virus would be in jeopardy. Lordy, if he would only test positive, it could change the course of the disease. His toadies might just rethink their maskless lunacy.

Masking only works if a great majority wears them. The way things are going now in the U.S. we are in for a long onslaught of plague. Obviously, the virus numbers grow as the fools unmask and gather in bars, etc. Texas is the prime example. Despite a mandatory mask order, people continue flocking to “bars, restaurants, movie theaters and shopping malls” because Republican Governor Greg Abbott called them “wide-open for business” back in May. Interesting, isn’t it, that Republican governors have been responsible for most of this confusion nationwide.

This past week that wise old dog, Texas Representative Louie Gohmert, tested positive and cheers went up from Democrats everywhere. Gohmert has consistently gone unmasked in the halls of Congress, spraying droplets everywhere and pissing off everyone from Pelosi on down. Meanwhile the band struck up “Louie Louie.” Remember that one?

And Republicans, not just Trump followers, form the overwhelming majority of the maskless. It’s their protest, not against science, but against reason—of which they have a bare minimum. Some of them chant, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Said Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: “there are more important things than living. And that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren and saving this country for all of us.” He noted he’d rather die than see the economy destroyed. Well, Dan, you are in line for the first Louie Gohmert Viral Dysfunction Award.

The maskless are making their statements not just in Texas and the U.S. but around the world. Russia, the U.K., Germany, the Scandinavian countries—they’re all opening up. The reasons for this behavior vary, of course, “But some might be to show defiance, to make a political statement, to somehow express or feel like they are free and can do whatever they want.” Add to that a general distrust of government.

Such behavior is basically childish, and one of the prime examples is the Mexican president, López Obrador. He takes pride in going maskless, like Bolsonaro and Trump. He recently said, “I am going to put on a mask, you know when? When there is no corruption anymore, then I will put on my mask.” Mexico now has the third highest death toll in the world and corruption is more than ever a fact of life.

Asking people to grow up is certainly a fool’s errand. But how many will have to die before they wake up? Said Virginia Heffernan, LA Times writer, “Refusing to wear a mask is like supporting the fire against the fire department. It’s like openly sneezing into a packed elevator. It’s stupid. It’s also kind of disgusting.”

Going Out for Butter: A Break from Mexican Solitude

One of life’s necessities is having butter for your morning toast. Without that you have to resort to jam or some dumb substitute like cream cheese. Toast without butter is like Washington without the Redskins. Excuse me, it’s now the Washington Football Team.

So, after some hesitation this morning I fired up the car and drove to the supermarket. (There are no butter stores nearby.) I did pause out of concern for the climate. Driving to the store would involve burning gasoline, polluting the atmosphere (if slightly) and making an “unnecessary” trip. Butter won out, naturally, and I salved my conscience by deciding to make other culinary purchases so as to prolong the time before the next trip.

At the store I donned my ill-fitting mask and walked up the nonfunctioning escalera móvil. The butter selection at the store was, as usual, disappointing: a whole lot of tasteless Mexican mantequilla and none of the stuff I like, Danish Lurpak or French Président. They used to carry those brands off and on, but no more. I had to settle on something called Lynncott unsalted, which is not too bad.

Completing the rest of my purchases (I forgot the milk) and heading to checkout, I reflected that settling for second-rate butter was God’s punishment for a) being so choosy and b) making a self-indulgent trip to buy it. While I was there, I thought I’d check out the gin and found Boodles on sale for thirty percent off! God was smiling after all. Gin and butter, nothing better.

So the trip was a success after all. A break in the viral solitude is worth a lot, and even something as mundane as going to the supermarket is a welcome diversion. You get to see other people in ill-fitting masks, driving their carts fast to get in the shortest possible checkout line. You see the checkout clerk, patient behind her face shield while a customer badgers her for a few more pesos discount. Like cattle we wait to get through the line and out to pasture. Human nature in the supermarket is worth watching.

On Race

Miles Davis beaten by New York cops, 1959

In one of his better bits, Lenny Bruce imagines a prison movie with a Black guy on death row: “Fried chicken and watermelon,” the guy sings, “fried chicken and watermelon. Well, boss, you don’t mind dyin’ if you’ve got a natural sense of rhythm.”

In the 1960s I learned a lot from comedians about how ludicrous racism was. Then came Richard Pryor. In one of his lighter moments he reported being stopped by a cop: “I. Am Reaching. Into. My. Pocket. For. My License.” Pryor’s standup routines were often a lot more obscene and stinging. Then came Dave Chappelle and others who went on from there.

Comedy turns the light on racism, but it’s never enough. The laughter diffuses any guilt or shame on the part of the audience. You can laugh when the comic says “nigger” because you’d never use that term. It’s easy to recognize racism if it’s not your own. But if it’s your own, it’s often hidden beneath the cultural veneer that covers all of us.

Recent events have burst the bubble that liberals are somehow exempt, that they’ve beaten the rap. I grew up in one of those liberal environments where mild racism was tolerated if not approved. As a high school kid I worked summers in a Shell service station in Wilmette, Illinois, with a big jovial Black man named George. At lunchtime we’d sit in his old Packard where he kept a pint of Southern Comfort in the glove compartment. And we’d have a tot.

At home my parents lived in something approaching the grand manner. We had three resident, live-in domestics, none of whom were Black. And yet in 1950 mom and dad threw a blowout party featuring Louis Armstrong’s band. This, to be sure, was entertainment, not atonement. George would have been welcome but not as a guest.

In my college years and later I became a diehard jazz fan, soon to meet and form friendships with Black musicians, later to write about them as a critic and reviewer. Some, like Charles Mingus and Thad Jones, became good friends. The relationship was reciprocal: I wrote about them; they taught me about music and Black culture. We had a connection.

For a time I got to thinking about jazz in a Crow-Jim way—that only Blacks could access and play the authentic music. Well, that’s not true, of course, and the idea was an outgrowth of racism. But by living and working in New York in the 1960s it was easy to think you had escaped the curse of racism.

We’ve learned recently that no one escapes that curse. In the 1968 election I voted for Dick Gregory and felt virtuous about it. But no one is beyond the curse. The Washington Post just told us that John Muir, the environmental icon and founder of the Sierra Club, was a straight-up racist. Colin Kaepernick—the great quarterback who lost his career by taking the knee against police brutality—has been rejected by all the NFL teams who refused to sign him. It would have been “bad for business.”

Racism is so embedded in our society that it’s always been part of how America does business. The story of Fred Trump and his exclusion of Black renters is hardly unique. I’ve come to think that racism is part and parcel of that other American characteristic, exceptionalism. The common notion that America is in many ways superior to other nations and peoples is still widespread, and not just among Trump supporters. It’s only one step from exceptionalism to chauvinism. And, unless the protests can take hold, that’s where we are today. Still, it’s pretty clear that the American century is over.

Maybe our recent turmoils and protests are a hopeful sign. But I’m too old to march, and my contacts with Black people are now limited by where I live. Mexico offers its own homegrown varieties of racism and prejudice. It sometimes makes you think these attitudes are irreversible and built in to every culture.

Conrad’s Passing

I lost one of my best friends the other day. Some of you knew him, and those who didn’t should have. Conrad LaRiviere was a fixture of our expat life in Oaxaca while he lived here. He moved back to the U.S. nearly six years ago, settled into Phoenix, and we had an interesting email correspondence, some of it too foul for publication.

We planned to do a joint book on geezers that never came off. At one point he wrote, “Please god, send these two aging geezers interesting, attractive women. We’d appreciate it!”

I seem incapable of writing the standard tribute here. So let me give you a piece of fiction about Conrad that I recently published in Moot Testimonies, a pseudo memoir in the form of a journal. For Conrad I wrote some words pertaining to our relationship as follows:

I assisted in John’s apostasy from American life in more ways than one. He and I have been good friends, buddies, since his arrival when we both took part in Maestra Laura Olachea’s Spanish classes. We were a bunch of American castaways and misfits endeavoring, for various reasons, to start over. They foolishly thought that learning Spanish would give them entré into Mexican life and culture. JG and I knew better.

But the classes were fun and Laura was a great teacher. We had group presentations—like a Christmas play that some of us wrote and performed in. John was the Little Drummer Boy, and as we sang along he tapped out “pa-rum-pum-pum-pum” on his little tambor and the crowd greeted this with gusto. Laura’s group really did give us gringos a foothold into Mexico and became a happy shelter for many. Goodman and I dropped out after we had totally corrupted the group, and of course our Spanish suffered.

Before leaving the U.S. I had traveled a lot, bouncing around the country, and at one point held a soft kind of job, teaching audiology at the University of Maine-Bangor, and so Goods and I had the Maine connection in common plus the hapless circumstances of academic life—like tenured colleagues who couldn’t teach, and rambling, boring departmental meetings. We were linked together by our views on politics, religion, government, wine and pot. I drank a lot of box wine out of cheapness, and JG always had a comment on that. I have this fine pad in Jalatlaco with a big roof garden where in fine weather we would repair to smoke dope and consider the follies and glories of mankind.

Last year we hosted a notable Christmas party on the roof to honor not Jesus but Christopher Hitchens, one of our heroes, who had passed on in December three years before. I read from his works, highlighting his vigorous comments on renouncing all religion, and then we sang Christmas carols. Oaxaca embraces all types.

I’m thinking about leaving Mexico, however, to go back permanently to the U.S., a decision no one can understand. My friends all thought I’d become a fixture here, the life of the party. Well, there were a couple of disappointing, one could say unrequited, affairs of the heart that fell apart, and I began to think on the prospect of finally giving up on any serious female connection. I don’t need the tsuris, as Goods would say, and I’ve seen and done all Oaxaca has to offer. So part of me is just tired of being the house liberal, and I think Goods has felt the same way. Every progressive cause has its downside. Living in a liberal bubble like Oaxaca can get tiresome.

After all, we are the privileged caste, aren’t we?—the white folks who call ourselves expats, so unlike those Nicaraguan and Mexican “migrant workers.” I recently read a piece in The Guardian about this. Arabs, Latinos and Asians are immigrants; we and the Europeans are favored and called expats. Well, I can’t get too exercised about this linguistic snobbery, though many of my Oaxaca friends are always preaching from that liberal state of mind where every last kind of injustice must be called out as unfair, insupportable or immoral. I come from good French-Canadian stock, working class folks who had no money or time for such bullshit. Mainers by and large don’t put up with such bullshit. They can’t afford the indulgence.

Goodman gave up on the American Way, maybe for similar reasons. He was disheartened with his past relations with women, which had often ended unhappily, and he was broke besides. He could have continued on in the U.S. but why? Life is less indulgent here. For some of us, a change of scene is just a necessary part of life.

The World According to George

I have always been a fan of the manic nuttiness of George Carlin. I loved him because of the pointed language which just flowed from him, a bubbling spring of praise and put-downs. He drew attention to the verbal tics of contemporary language—like the oxymoron “jumbo shrimp” and euphemisms like “bathroom tissue” for “toilet paper.” More than that, he used common, often foul language to make us react and think.

George’s later years saw him become less of a stand-up comic and more of a hip philosopher—as this video (from 2007) demonstrates. He rails against our contemporary follies, but his words also project the long view of history and what the philosophers call quietism. As a friend of mine used to say, in the long run “it don’t mattah.”

With the present turmoil over social issues and commitment to causes, this may seem like heresy. Today we can’t be convinced that “the planet will heal.” But, finally, Carlin’s is an indictment of human society. He’s the man with the notebook, observing and commenting on the “freak show” we live in.

O Solitudo!

The morning is easy. I have my routines after waking—breakfast, then the computer for an hour or two, checking out email and the news sites. Besides the usual Trumpcrap, there are always a few uplifting pieces like “Unemployment, isolation and depression from COVID-19 may cause more ‘deaths of despair.’”

Solitude isn’t always bleak. I’ve been living alone for years, mostly liking it, but the virus has put a new dimension on it. Instead of filling up one’s down time with friends, amusements and travels, we are for the most part confined to quarters. My life was bound by solitude before this; now there is more of it and it’s enforced.

Things got more pressing after I finished writing and publishing Moot Testimonies a couple of months ago. Searching for another writing project made me anxious and uptight. I finally gave that over for small bouts of exercise, TV, reading, a lot of sleeping, and music—none of which has proved very satisfying. I couldn’t develop or keep to the routines which are necessary to flatten time.

Occasional Zooms with family and friends didn’t do it for me. Trips to the market I eagerly looked forward to: just give me some masked human contact, for Christ’s sake. Finally I remembered Thoreau, the king of solitude, and “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It wasn’t despair that I felt but a nagging need to fill time with something productive or absorbing. I think we’ve all felt that.

I picked up Octavio Paz the other day, to reread The Labyrinth of Solitude and its search for Mexican identity. The book begins this way:

Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves. . . . It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work.

We do rely on games or work. In the COVID solitude we have to create them, and that is not easy. Yet if you face the prospect of solitude with some equanimity, you will beat it. We can import or create the routines and rituals that have sustained us, and perhaps they will flourish. What we bring to solitude is what grows there.