What sixty years have taught me

Children’s programming, according to my parents

Like others of their generation, my mother and father took the “benign neglect” approach to parenting, so every evening my brother and I found ourselves propped in front of the television set, TV trays and dinners before us, and we watched the reports about the Vietnam War as we made our way through our Swanson fried chicken and mashed potato entrees. This was the late 1960s, so there really wasn’t much else to watch as we ate, and though the war was never discussed either in school or at home, we knew about it well enough.

My own kids are 13 and 12 now, and I guess my parenting style — as it is for many of my generation, especially those who live in New York — can be called “grave concern” instead. Over the past three years, their mother and I have had to assuage their fears about COVID (we’re all going to die next week), climate change (we’re all going to be burned alive next week), Donald Trump (our country is going to be run by an idiot for four more years), and now Ukraine. This makes the 1960s look almost quaint. Therapists never had it so good. Neither have bartenders, especially mine.

I’ll be turning 60 in a few days, one of those taking-stock milestones that come around every ten years, so as my body and my mind edge into decrepitude (well, edge further into decrepitude, anyway), I made a little list of a few cultural and political disasters to which I’ve been privy during my past six decades to see if there’s any general conclusion I can get out of it. Join me, won’t you, with a glass of your favorite adult beverage to hand as I tick them off:

  • The Vietnam War (and the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Africa generally, South America generally, not to mention my parents’ marriage)
  • Watergate (in my social studies class I learned how government was supposed to work; watching the Watergate hearings I learned how government actually worked)
  • Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, another more maladroit Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden, and that’s just the executive branch (the most admirable and courageous politicians of my lifetime have been an absurdist playwright and a TV comedian from Central Europe, which tells you something, though God knows what that is)
  • SARS and the swine flu (fondly remembered, these)
  • Chernobyl (the gift that keeps on giving, apparently)
  • 9/11
  • Air travel (never particularly attractive, especially after 9/11)
  • 1/6
  • Television comedy
  • Higher education (for that matter, K-12 education too)
  • The Internet (not since Gutenberg has so much stupidity been shared so rapidly by so many; at least a printing press costs something)
  • Contemporary American fiction
  • Canned wine

I could go on, but neither you nor I want that.

I know there are those of you who cavil that I’m leaning a bit into the negative side of things. Fine. Let’s look at a few of the most commonly cited achievements of mankind over the same period:

  • The polio vaccine (sure, try that now)
  • The Internet (see earlier list)
  • The end of apartheid in South Africa (good idea; we should end it in America sometime)
  • Wider selection of good beers in the supermarket (I’ll give you that one, and you’ll have to take it, because beer just makes me bloat these days)
  • The legalization of marijuana (it just makes me want to urinate)
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall (peace in Europe had a bit of a run there for a while, true, but there are new walls going up all the time, apparently)

And now, to wrap it all up, Ukraine. Top off that drink for you?

With age, they say, comes wisdom. Not for this sixty-year-old; any chance my kids will be the benefit of parental wisdom will have to come from my wife, who’s got it all over me in the wisdom department. I’m not sure what kind of wisdom is going to emerge from Ukraine anyway, let alone all the rest of it.

Maybe the best I can do is a trite observation. These days the word “evil” is bandied about quite a bit. Ask ten people and you’ll get ten different definitions of it, though, which if nothing else is proof positive that they’d all be wrong. In Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray, apparently a pessimist himself in the end, posited “an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America,” which comes closest to the way I look at it, but that doesn’t really tell us what evil is.

I don’t know what evil is either. I can’t even get my DVR to work. One thing I am pretty sure of, though, is something that the late, great P.J. O’Rourke suggested about “trouble” in the introduction to his book Holidays in Hell, a collection of essays about his travels to the Gaza Strip, Belfast, Managua, and other trouble spots in the 1980s. “Trouble” serves as well as “evil,” but given the current social climate and O’Rourke’s tendency to colorful and occasionally offensive language I should probably just paraphrase.

His point was basically this: That evil does not spring from any particular group of people. Evil does not spring from Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, Hutus, Tutsis, the Japanese, the Chinese, Canadians, or Americans. Evil does not spring from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or atheism. Evil does not spring from Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Communists, Capitalists, Conservatives, or, God bless ’em, liberals. Evil does not spring from adults or children. Evil does not spring from men or women or any given gender variations thereof. Evil does not spring from people of a particular skin color, a particular age, or a particular height or weight.

Evil springs from the human heart.

Mr. Trump goes to church

He did not pray. He did not mention George Floyd, he did not mention the agony of people who have been subjected to this kind of horrific expression of racism and white supremacy for hundreds of years. We need a president who can unify and heal. He has done the opposite of that, and we are left to pick up the pieces.

–Mariann E. Budde,
bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington,
in the
New York Times, June 1, 2020

And the beat goes on; and so yesterday Donald Trump threatened to call up the army to invade and militarily occupy his own country. The days all seem to string together without division, so I can’t say exactly when he also characterized members of the Antifa movement as a terrorist organization. (Mr. Trump and his defenders are apparently Profa themselves.) Because  he is Donald Trump, his threat was laced through with stupidity: there is very little if any real organization among the Antifa crowd, making them a quite slippery target. It’s plain that the real rationale behind his characterization is to provide carte blanche for individual prosecutions under terrorism laws. And under a Trump judiciary, this will likely succeed.

Otherwise his designation is useless, not unlike most of the things he does. Late yesterday, his path there cleared by police firing tear gas canisters into the crowd, he walked from the White House to a riot-torn St. John’s Episcopal Church and stood before it for a photo op, waving a bible. “This evening, the President of the United States stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, lifted up a bible, and had pictures of himself taken,” noted Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. “In so doing, he used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes. This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us.”

Quite good at waving bibles around, our president is, but he is a better waver than a reader. It’s unlikely that he’s come across the passages about rich men, needles, and camels; the merchants’ tables in the temple; meals with prostitutes and tax collectors (though here he may have something in common with Jesus); the urges to humility, modesty, simplicity, non-violence, our common humanity, and sacrifice. It’s possible that one day Mr. Trump may open the New Testament to read about these things. It’s also to be hoped that Mr. Trump will see fit to forgive Jesus for such a disappointing message.

Nothing to say

The White House, May 31, 2020.

About Donald Trump I have nothing to say. The photograph above is no doubt worth its thousand words, but many others have written thousands of words far more eloquent about the past few months, and especially the past few days, than I could ever aspire to. The photograph might be comic if it weren’t so pathetic: When competent leadership is needed most, it is completely lacking in the place where one would most hope to find it. When the protests appeared outside his house, its chief occupant locked the door, turned off the lights, and ran into the basement, perhaps hoping against hope that those protestors would conclude that nobody’s at home. And perhaps they’re right. For me the photograph is a most eloquent expression of Donald Trump’s cowardice, his lack of empathy, his refusal to take responsibility for what he and his supporters have turned this country into in a few short years: a disease-ridden nation now consumed by violence, fuelled by a racism, a reactionary and bigoted cultural and social conservatism, and profound structural and economic inequality they have blithely dismissed. But an empty White House would probably not have resulted in the disaster we’re currently experiencing; Trump’s rhetoric, his gross refusal to take responsibility for his office, his astonishing stupidity, and the resentments of his supporters were the fuel on the fire; silence and absence would possibly have been more constructive. That this too shall pass I am confident; that it will not happen again, and worse, in a second Trump term is impossible to believe given the evidence of our senses now. Since February 16, 2017, the historian Anne Applebaum has pinned a tweet to the top of her Twitter feed: “After this is all over,” she wrote, “I never, ever want to hear again about how businessmen would run the government better than politicians.”

I only post these few words of mine here because a Facebook or Twitter post seems like even more of a waste of time than a blog entry, a preaching (and a poor sermon it is) to the converted. But one must say something with words; even a photo, as eloquent as it can be, may not be enough.

Air of melancholy

It’s been nearly two months since I’ve posted here — I suppose that the spirit is willing, but the flesh weak, especially working all day from home with the kids in what is laughingly called “school” and the better half also at work all day in a 1,200-square-foot space on the Lower East Side. Instead, in what little spare time remains, I’ve been amusing myself as I’ve had to. In a sense, I suppose, we all need some kind of escape from the stresses and tensions of the period.

In New York, this isn’t easy at the best of times, but I’ve tried. I’ve gotten a lot of reading done on the weekends. Catch-22 remains perhaps more relevant than ever (there’s more than one way to “raise the number of combat missions”; a pandemic and enforced isolation are two); Mark Twain remains a comfort as well, with Pudd’nhead Wilson in the outbox and A Tramp Abroad on the bedside table (nothing like late Twain to confirm one’s cynicism about the culture and the race); Ed Berlin’s Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History and Rudi Blesh & Harriet Janis’s They All Played Ragtime fill out a little knowledge about a music that I’ve come to love even more, even though it’s over a century old, in 2020.

The friendly postman brought around two CDs from the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra the other day — both fine recordings. The PRO Finally Plays the Entertainer is a collection of band arrangements of tunes by the big three (Joplin, Lamb, and Scott — and the package design by Chris Ware is splendid), but the most surprising pleasure was From Barrelhouse to Broadway, a collection of songs by the great Joe Jordan, who is very new to me. (At the end of this post you’ll find “The Whippoorwill Dance” for your listening pleasure.) I find in the best ragtime a quiet, elegant air of melancholy that suits my constitution well.

For some reason this early American music has captured the affection of several comics artists. Apart from Ware mentioned above, Robert Armstrong and R. Crumb are also smitten by these tunes (I’ve also been listening to a bit of the East River String Band, with whom Crumb has often sit in). Germany’s Christoph Mueller is fond of the period, though I’m not sure if he’s an enthusiast for the music; Mr. Mueller recently contributed a cover called “Shelter in Place” to The New Yorker, his first. Mueller is a post-Crumb artist and this, in an odd way, is an appropriate accompaniment to Crumb’s own “Short History of America.” Although the immediate context is the coronavirus, of course, I think Mueller’s evocation of the isolation of the individual and the isolation of nature in large cities speaks to a much broader solitude and loneliness that transcends the immediate moment. At the moment, Mueller is completing the artwork for the 39th issue of Mineshaft, due later this year. (I hope I don’t have to remind you to subscribe to this, America’s most indispensable magazine.) Mueller spoke with the New Yorker‘s art editor Françoise Mouly about “Shelter in Place” here.

I should also mention that among my pandemic reading was Hillary Chute’s recent history of contemporary comics, Why Comics?, highly recommended.

Finally, my Google searches have been taking me recently to the environs of Dublin, New Hampshire, the home of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. When I glance out of my window now, I often see a facsimile of Mueller’s perspective; how much I’d rather see Dublin. There’s a photo below, and here’s “The Whippoorwill Dance,” as promised, performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra’s maestro Rick Benjamin. I hope to kick up the pace here soon and write a little more about all of this. Until then, save me a place in Dublin.

Town center of Dublin, New Hampshire.