Since I’ve lived here, my governor (who doesn’t in theory represent me, but as we’ll see has begun starting to) has been Gavin Newsom. My U.S. representative is Nancy Pelosi. My senator, for a smidgen of years after Barbara Boxer (who once starred in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm) stepped out was Kamala Harris. Likely you’ve not only heard of these people, but you can pick their faces out of a lineup.
I don’t think I could pick out the faces of Florida’s or Texas’s governor if there was a prize involved.
Anyway, it blows.
I’ve been thinking about representative democracy a lot this weekend, after reading first this L.A. Times article on my governor going on Twitter to tell another governor his fans that they should debate. ‘[C]learly you’re struggling, distracted, and busy playing politics with people’s lives. Since you have only one overriding need — attention — let’s take this up & debate,’ Newsom wrote, a pot calling the kettle smutty (as Montaigne called it).
People in different parts of the country tell me they like my governor. Why don’t I? And why I don’t I like my representative in Congress? When I try to think clearly about it, I run again into my lifelong contrarianism, my distrust of quickly beloved people and things. I spent ten years in Nebraska and Alabama feeling not once represented by the officials my fellow citizens elected. Why can’t I just let myself be happy now?
Let’s table those questions and look at the other thing I read: Adam Gopnik’s review of some recent books on democracy in the New Yorker—headline: ‘Can’t We Come Up With Something Better Than Liberal Democracy?’ (Short answer: not really.) Gopnik is unmoved by the belief these authors hold that we can have a better republic once we improve our democracy’s workings. Here, for me, was the operative ¶ (mind the wacky Oz analogy, which refers to points made earlier):
The perennial temptation of leftist politics is to suppose that opposition to its policies among the rank and file must be rooted in plutocratic manipulation, and therefore curable by the reassertion of the popular will. The evidence suggests, alas, that very often what looks like plutocratic manipulation really is the popular will. Many Munchkins like the witch, or at least work for the witch out of dislike for some other ascendant group of Munchkins…. The awkward truth is that Thatcher and Reagan were free to give the plutocrats what they wanted because they were giving the people what they wanted: in one case, release from what had come to seem a stifling, union-heavy statist system; in the other, a spirit of national, call it tribal, self-affirmation. One can deplore these positions, but to deny that they were popular is to pretend that a two-decade Tory reign, in many ways not yet completed, and a forty-nine-state sweep in 1984 were mass delusions. Although pro-witch Munchkins may be called collaborators after their liberation, they persist in their ways, and resent their liberators quite as much as they ever feared the witch. ‘Of course, I never liked all those scary messages she wrote in the sky with her broom,’ they whisper among themselves. ‘But at least she got things done. Look at this place now. The bricks are all turning yellow.’
I’m a leftist tempted perennially by this line of thinking. I Know In My Heart that we can have a better world if social media was outlawed and everyone in this country got a quality education in how to think critically. It took a while after November 2016 for me to accept that D. Trump had won the election fair and square (well, as fairly and squarely as anyone wins elections post–Citizens United). Even if the majority of voters didn’t vote for him, there were 62 million people who heard what he said and saw what he did and said, Yes. Please be our leader. And in 2020, there were 74 million people who wanted to keep going.
D. Trump is a fascist the way I’m a native Virginian. It’s in everything he says and does. I know this because I’ve read about fascism, and I also know that no fascist government has ever taken power by force. Fascists get voted in. They give people what they want. It boggles my mind how many people—and how many different kinds of people—deeply and passionately want authoritarian men to rule discompassionately.
But they’re my fellow Americans. Gopnik’s conclusion is that human variation will always make democracy a mess, and it’s the function of politics to manage the stresses of living in a mess without the bridge between us crumbling to bits.
I like messes. I find myself most content when I accept and even enjoy that life is chaos, and as I’ve written about before, I distrust any thinker pundit who claims to ‘make order from the chaos’:
[I]f you can’t handle chaos you can’t handle the everyday mess of life on a globe of difference. And if you look for leaders, charismatic or otherwise, who promise to lead you away from this discomfort, they’re going to need to make that messy world smaller, and more sterile. They’re going to point you to a future where that seems possible. And the only way that’s truly possible is by controlling people until they make sense, or eradicating those who don’t from the face of the planet until the planet makes sense.
I’m far off my train of thought now, so let me steer us back. I’m talking about accepting two things: chaos and the (to me awful) desires of the right. I’m not talking about centrism, about ‘meeting those people halfway.’ I’m talking about recognizing sameness across differences while holding on to our differences.
Let’s go back to the Gopnik ¶. Typing it out, it hits me what a shame it is that these good ideas are so inaccessible to the people who may need them—i.e., who may not already agree with them. I’ve complained about activist language before, but I feel I’m in need of activist language that crisply and forcefully demands greater nuance in our thinking.
THINK FROM YOURSELF might be the sign I’d most like to hang in my street-facing window.
If I can be allowed to simplify Gopnik’s somewhat brainy language, I start to see something interesting come through his ideas. Something instructive:
Leftists believe time and again that the reason their ideas aren’t more widely popular is that rich people keep lying about them. The solution: remind the public that we outnumber the rich, and remove those liars from power. Except: history has shown, time and again, that the public often wants exactly what rich people want.
Okay, so I’ve removed some of the nuances to the ideas, but not to the main argument. What I like about looking at it this way is that when you swap ‘Trumpists’ for ‘leftists’ and ‘politicians’ for ‘rich people’ you get the ideology behind Drain the Swamp.
That Gopnik’s idea applies, through transformation, to a different voting bloc helps me see how much I have in common with them, and how my political imagination—though aimed at different ends—is made up of much similar stuff than I’d otherwise like to admit.
This sounds like Trumpist ‘both sides’ rhetoric, but it’s not. Both-sides centrism reduces or denies difference between groups—even when done in a positive light, as with the current president’s message of UNITY. UNITY is such a shitty message because it implies that one group ought to conform to another, or that we ‘need to set aside our differences’ to come together as one, an impossible proposition that’s never once occurred in the history of this country.
The better slogan, though it would look worse on a placard, is basically this post’s whole thesis: PLURALITY. Or the weird phrase on all our money: E pluribus unum. The ‘one’ that we are as a nation is ‘out of the many.’
I feel like a happier person, and a more contented U.S. citizen, whenever I try to fathom the manyness of that many.
When I tailgate somebody going 10 miles less than the speed limit (not everybody on the road can play defense), three things happen: they speed up, or they move out of my lane, or they do nothing. Maybe they don’t notice me, or maybe they don’t care to correct their behavior.
But sometimes a fourth thing happens: they slow down even more.
It’s a power move, wielded in a moment I imagine the person in the car in front of me feels that power has been taken away from them. It baffles me. I’m just trying to get off the road as quickly as possible. But it’s this drive, fully nonpartisan, that I’m getting at: I don’t like what that person is doing, I don’t share their values, so they’re values are wrong to me, and so I’ll either hurt them in this small way, or feel better when I see they’ve been hurt.
Why it blows to be represented by celebrities is that they too often play to this desire, having as they do more fans than constituents. What benefit is it to California for our governor to debate another one? And rather than tell me how she plans to serve the needs of San Franciscans in the next congress, what does it say that the Pelosi’s campaign website offers me this sticker to buy:
I’m likely in the minority by feeling ashamed or embarrassed when my representatives dunk on conservatives. I wish this wasn’t as much a drive on the left as it seems to be on the right. As I argued in my previous post, letting politicians go on TV to ‘debate’ each other benefits nobody except the people on TV, because they’ve been given more time to be, again, on TV. Nobody’s debating anything about policy. They can’t afford to take that much time away from their image.
Back in Pittsburgh, when I was young and online so much that I felt very connected to this 2-sides, dunk-on-the-GOP mentality, I remember loving Michael Moore—not so much for his films but for his position. They’ve got awful Rush Limbaugh, and he’s our version of that, I remember telling a friend.
‘But why do we want our version of awful?’ he asked.
I was liking Moore the way many people outside California like Newsom and Pelosi, the way many gays I imagine bought this terrible hat. I wanted a version of This Conservative Thing Getting Lots Of Attention that affirmed my values, forgetting, as Audre Lorde reminds us, that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
The high road, if it ever existed, was bulldozed decades ago. Another myth I’m tempted perennially to believe in.
Back when I was doing The New Yinzer, my fellow editors and I threw a 10th-Issue Anniversary Party, because we wanted to throw a party, because we were in our 20s with private grant money and a dubiously achieved sponsorship with the Pittsburgh Brewing Company. (I stole the extra cases the art gallery I worked for didn’t consume at its own parties.) We thought it’d be funny to celebrate a 10th anniversary after only 5 months of publication, but celebrating milestones just depends on what you count.
This is the 10th issue of Shenny. I’m celebrating by not quitting. I’m celebrating by saying hello to this week’s start of the semester but not goodbye to my mornings of pushing the boulder of my memoir up the hill another inch. I’m celebrating by looking once again at this quote from Hilton Als I’ve got taped on the wall of my office here on campus:
What we imagine is so much more powerful than the literal. I think that ideological art can involve the literalization of facts that we already know. What Arbus gives us is the poetry of the soul. Stormé DeLarverie was a real person, and Arbus also makes her a figment of our imagination. If I have any kind of credo or ethos as a writer it’s, Don’t condescend to your audience. Let them have their imagination. And by doing so, you’re feeding your own.
It’s a week of looking backward—on Shenny, on the gone summer—and forward. Here’s to everybody feeding our onward imaginations.
1. Hitching Up Your Pants Before You Sit, Squat, or Bend Over I mean that thing where you pinch up the fronts of your pant legs at the thigh before sitting. It’s classically a move seen in Men Of A Certain Age, but as I explain in a blog post about discovering the maneuver, it’s an equal opportunity for anyone who wears pants, the 100% best way to ensure your waistband doesn’t slide down your ass as you bend at the hip. The comfort that ensues is immeasurable. And I mean ‘discover’ above. While I watched men do this time and again growing up, no one ever taught me what they were up to. (Maybe no one’s ever been taught it, and it’s something that’s magically acquired in middle-age, like thinning hair or regrets.) Anyway, here I am teaching you: this may literally save your ass.
2. Minecraft Builds of Cartoon Houses Watching a lot of TV, you come to wonder what it’s like in the house that some ‘family’ ‘lives’ in. Spatially, I mean. Live action houses are rarely houses, more like rooms situated around a studio, and so there’s always some improbable guesswork on how it all fits together. (Witness the different floorplans of The Golden Girls‘ house viewers have tried to draw.) But cartoon houses could be, one would assume, fully rendered, down to the square foot, and yet we always see them in pieces. Much has been written about the Simpsons’ house (yes, it’s got a Wikipedia page), but the cartoon house I’m most enamored with is this beauty from The Cleveland Show:
Happily, I found the YouTube account of Enderwarp, a Minecraft build team that replicates cartoon houses in glorious intact 3D. They’ve got maybe every building in Springfield, but their rendering of Cleveland’s house is just expert—considering there’s maybe only 1 episode with a scene in the basement.
A Career Change in Your 40s
My sisters both accomplished it. Jenny since high school worked retail, chiefly in mall apparel shops like Express and Victoria’s Secret and Talbot’s and White House Black Market. For 20+ years she worked every Black Friday. She made far more money as a store manager than I did as a college professor with two advanced degrees, but the irregular hours, working always over Christmas, eventually she gave it up and now manages the front office of a medical center—a funny career change to make, as I’ve heard, one year before the COVID outbreak.
For 20+ years, Shani sold ads, real estate mostly, for weekly print newspapers—a not-thrilling career to have, still, in the first decade of the 21st century. She smartly saw the writing on the wall, and in 2015 left to get her real estate license. She now sells homes in the D.C. metro area.
I love being a college professor as much as I dislike being a college administrator, so I’m unlikely to follow in my sisters’ footsteps this time. But given how much I loathe being a college administrator, I do indulge in fantasy jobs. One is California driver’s ed teacher, so I can do my part to raise smart drivers in this state full of slow and nervous ones. Another is San Francisco ‘manny’. (I have this notion that, by not really liking children, I’d be better at raising them than others who felt like kids are the future or whatever.)
A more satisfying fantasy job is high school sex ed teacher. Or maybe even middle school. The facts around sex education in the U.S., you might know, are grim:
Fewer than 50 percent of adolescents learned how to get birth control before they first had sex.
More than 90 percent of teens get instruction on STIs—which, while good news, combined with the above helps make sex seem dangerous and scary.
Every time I read about the state of sex education, my blood boils. I picture confused kids, horny as hell and hating themselves for it, convinced—as I was—that if they ever allowed themselves to have sex, they’ll get a disease. Add to this sorry state of affairs the overturning of Roe—and the general idea that sex outside of marriage is something we shoud punish women for having, but not men—and I start to feel like I have a calling.
Likely this means it’s time to volunteer. If I could get just 1 heterosexual boy to understand he’s equally responsible for birth control, or 1 heterosexual boy to understand that if he wants to get oral sex he needs to give oral sex, I could feel like a hero.
I do feel like a hero. Tonight is the first night of my fall seminar, on the history of humor in nonfiction. We’ll be reading this Fanny Fern essay and talking about punchlines. Not all heroes wear capes.
When I was a kid, as a private dare with myself, I’d sometimes stop and picture being dead. I’d close my eyes, because the dead couldn’t see, and imagine eternity. What I saw was a conscious void, almost like floating through space in a body that couldn’t move, but in this fantasy my soul lived on to watch itself, forever. I pictured having to not just conceive eternity, but continually face it. A thousand years of absolute black stillness, then a million years after that. My heart would start racing and I’d run off to distract myself from such thoughts. When I was a kid, I feared death more than anything.
I’m still afraid to die, but the fear now hovers around regret. I’m afraid to die before I finish this book, before I see the parts of the world N & I want to see together, etc., but I’m more afraid to look backward at the moment of death and see myself at the end of a story about a coward. Or a tyrant. Or a miser of his emotions.
Avoiding that regret takes a certain serenity of mind re the complex mess of living a long life, but it seems also to task me with sowing the right seeds in this present. I am—we all are—right now living the very life we’ll one day see from the perspective of its end, and so what exactly are we making? And more importantly: how can we live the life that pleases us now and will also please us later?
A couple weeks back I wrote about compassionate hedonism. That’s not what all this is about exactly, but I do think I’m talking about a focus on maximizing pleasures now without much concern for long-term effects (of, say, drinking or being yourself). Talk of life’s end brings to mind the popular obsession with longevity. I saw Death Becomes Her early in life (maybe even in the theater), so I know from the dangers of focusing on quantity of life over quality, and it’s almost not worth writing about the glut of articles online with headlines like These 3 Lifestyle Changes Will Add Months to Your Life. Fearing death all those years, I read every such article I came across, and spent the next week or so consciously adding more walnuts to my diet, or trying to remember to sit and breathe pranic-ly for 5 minutes.
I didn’t necessarily need to live to see 100, but I knew I didn’t want to die in my 80s. To die in my 80s felt like quitting the race before I reached the finish line, that I’d done too poor a job of pacing myself, and then having to watch others continue on without me. I’ve noticed in the last year maybe that I’ve stopped thinking this way, dropped the whole notion of a target number all together. I want instead to enjoy my time running, to belabor this race metaphor. I think I’d be okay dying in my 80s, my 70s, my 60s even, so long as I was dying without regret.
It’s with all these notions that I was a quick liker of this recent Instagram post I found in my feed:
I’ll type it out (with edits) for better legibility:
Top Five Regrets of the Dying Bronnie Ware, Australian nurse
Phenomenal clarity of vision people gain at the end of their lives (same top 5 regrets people expressed in the last 12 weeks of life)
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. (Every male patient; felt they missed their children’s youth and partner’s companionship.)
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I’d let myself be happier. (Realized happiness was a choice.)
I have some cynicisms to work through before I get into how this list moved me. One’s about this ‘phenomenal clarity of vision’. Ware wrote a book about these regrets, one I should probably read, but much of this sounds like a just-so story about death and dying—that deathbeds are a site of magical wisdoms. I haven’t sat by anyone’s deathbed, and I’m of course not a hospice nurse, but clarity of mind doesn’t seem to be a salient feature in the final weeks of a person’s life. (I’m thinking of those who die at a very old age, and all the levels of cognitive decline that attend such a death, but maybe Ware’s book’s wisdoms come from folks dying at all ages.)
I also want to dismiss the implication that happiness is a choice, another just-so story we like to tell about happiness. Why should that emotion get this special status apart from the others? Do we tell people that fear is a choice, or anger? I know so little about emotions, but whether or not we sort them into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ ones, it seems like a total lie to imply that a successful life involves learning how to opt out of some in favor of others. Fear comes to you in a blink. People make you angry in how they treat you. Just imagine choosing never to feel surprise. (Or only to.) As this great recent New Yorker article unpacks, our emotions are not created or even experienced inside us, in isolation, but rather are far more external and socially constructed than we tend to see. Likely this bit about choosing happiness is meant to suggest silver linings, or mindfulness practices. Taking time in the thick of life’s messes and disappointments to reconnect with, or see anew, the parts of it that fill us with joy, however small or short-lived.
As I said, I was moved by this list the way Scrooge was moved by the sight of his own grave. I took it as a warning, with the relief in my heart that it didn’t seem to be too late. Act now was the general idea. Check in with yourself on how true these are for you. I don’t live a life true to myself, because I’ve convinced myself that myself as I am—fiercely boundaried, caustically angry, endlessly horny, manic and spastic, talking to himself in silly voices, picking his nose amorously, quickly disappointed by virtuousness (I won’t go on)—makes me unacceptable to others.[*]
I do stay in touch with my friends. I Zoomed with 2 middle school friends on Wednesday and will Zoom with 2 college friends tonight. We do this like clockwork. It has changed the quality of my life immensely, and I love my friends so much I’d do anything to keep them in my life.
At any rate, as soon as I saw the post I started thinking about how to teach these—not, probably, in my own classes. But as a teacher, I have kneejerk reactions against Life Lessons, which often read more like learning outcomes than actual lessons. Any time you share something you’ve learned, you tell someone the end of a story they haven’t themselves lived through, and it’s likely a story you can’t reconstruct. What steps did you go through to come to understand that thing you know, and can you be sure those steps are translatable to another person’s lived experience?
Teaching is many things, but one of its arts is learning how to find (or, often, fabricate) that story from not-knowing to knowing.
So how do you teach choosing happiness, if happiness is indeed a choice? How do you teach gauging the limits of hard work? Note how much there is to teach in these stated regrets. What is courage, exactly, and how does it differ from bravery, or derring-do? How do you recognize courage within yourself, and then how do you cultivate it? How do you know when to use it? And then after the courage unit’s learning is achieved, it’s time to go on to feelings. What are they, exactly, how do you discern among them, etc. etc.
Finally, you can move on to the expression of feeling, which has been much of the focus of my therapy sessions for the last 7 years or so. Even understanding why this is unbelievably hard for me is unbelievably hard. I think much of the learning has been unlearning, undoing; my guess is that we as children don’t have trouble expressing anything, but somehow pick up over time habits of nondisclosure, or of shutting up, shutting down, burying feelings out of some disregard for them, or in some faith that the situation will improve with our silence.
Regardless of how I learned what I learned, I’m in therapy to unlearn it, because the life I’m preventing myself from living by not expressing my feelings has become more and more tangible and manifest. I can see it, just over there, almost like through a tall chainlink fence. And I also feel, at 44, that the time I have is starting to run out, and one day I’ll no longer have what it takes to climb over there.
Which returns me to a final cynicism about these regrets: is it even possible to die without them? Living a life without regret seems to be as possible as living a life without sadness, or anger, or even happiness. None of these are states to achieve, but storms that pass through us multiple times a day. Like ‘choosing to be happy’, we might also allow the dying to choose to ignore the times they, as human beings, didn’t live up to our ideals. Who always can?
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
I know I said I wouldn’t go on, but the question naturally follows: Why not just be yourself all the time? And the answer that comes to mind is the same answer I always had at the ready when I asked myself Why not just be gay? I’ll lose everyone. As in some sudden exodus. And it’s worth remembering how that didn’t happen. Indeed, I didn’t lose anyone.↵