An Actor, an Introvert, and a Universe of Possibilities

The author in 2006.

People tend not to believe me when I tell them I’m severely introverted. It’s understandable, as the persona I put forward is usually that of a quirky, agreeable smart-aleck. I am animated and expressive in conversation, I engage in overtly silly play with my kids, and of course, I’m an actor and musician.

To many people, my personality simply seems too big to be that of someone who is shy, anxious, or reserved, let alone autistic. Some have even told me they find me intimidating. To me, that’s beyond ridiculous, but there it is.

When folks have trouble grasping how it is I could have had found any joy in being an actor while finding social interaction to be utterly draining and even painful, I explain that when I’m performing, I’m protected by several layers of metaphorical masks. On stage in a play, I am explicitly not myself. It says so right in the program! Next to my name will be the name of whatever character or characters I’m playing. I’m definitely not playing “Paul Fidalgo.”

I don’t have to be clever or come up with interesting things to say, because the words have been written for me, hopefully by someone who is well established as being really, really good at writing interesting things for people say, like, for example, William Shakespeare.

People tend not to believe me when I tell them I’m severely introverted. It’s understandable, as the persona I put forward is usually that of a quirky, agreeable smart-aleck. I am animated and expressive in conversation, I engage in overtly silly play with my kids, and of course, I’m an actor and musician.

To many people, my personality simply seems too big to be that of someone who is shy, anxious, or reserved, let alone autistic. Some have even told me they find me intimidating. To me, that’s beyond ridiculous, but there it is.

When folks have trouble grasping how it is I could have had found any joy in being an actor while finding social interaction to be utterly draining and even painful, I explain that when I’m performing, I’m protected by several layers of metaphorical masks. On stage in a play, I am explicitly not myself. It says so right in the program! Next to my name will be the name of whatever character or characters I’m playing. I’m definitely not playing “Paul Fidalgo.”

I don’t have to be clever or come up with interesting things to say, because the words have been written for me, hopefully by someone who is well established as being really, really good at writing interesting things for people say, like, for example, William Shakespeare.

I don’t even have to decode any social signals or read between the lines of what others are saying in order to know when to speak, because it’s all been planned out in advance. I am forbidden from speaking until my own lines are cued. That limitation is indescribably liberating.

I don’t have to know what to wear. I don’t have to know where to stand or how to behave, because all of that will have been worked out in rehearsal. If the play doesn’t call for my presence in a scene, I don’t even have to exist.

But there’s another way to explain the apparent incongruity of my personality that flips all of this on its head, and I didn’t even realize it myself until I had it explained to me in an article by a true master of the theatre from several years ago.

I recently came across an essay published in The Nation in 2011 by the great actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, who most folks will know as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, Grand Nagus Zek on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or the voice of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Toy Story movies. Maybe you know him from the 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. Oh, and he was just in Marriage Story, so that might help.

In his essay for The Nation, which is a truly beautiful piece of prose in which he explains how his art leads him to consider himself a socialist, Shawn writes:

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.

In one version of my explanation for why such a loud, animated performer like me could be such a severe introvert is that I alone am too small and too vulnerable to be comfortable in my own skin in the midst of other humans. But what Shawn helped me to see is that this disconnect also stems from the fact that my singular, real-life self is also near to bursting with thoughts, ideas, fears, ambitions, impulses, and possibilities.

The potential energy bottled up and pressed down into this small, delicate body is overwhelming. Letting any of its pressure out brings with it the risk of humiliation, regret, misunderstanding, or bewilderment. So a single, inoffensive persona must be adopted, a safe and broadly acceptable packaging must be applied.

The stage does not solve or sort all of these parts, but it does allow them to manifest in meaningful, productive, and satisfying ways. In this way, an actor’s role is sort of like Mjölnir to Thor.

In Thor: Ragnarok, the Asgardian Avenger has lost his legendary hammer, Mjölnir, and at the edge of utter defeat, he hears the voice of his late father Odin, who asks him, “Are you the god of hammers?” Odin explains that Mjölnir was not the source of Thor’s power, but merely a means of focusing and controlling it. The real power, the “thunder,” is already inside him, coursing through him.

That’s what a role in a play is for an actor. It harnesses the lightning and thunder inside us and allows us to wield it. Shakespeare himself even wrote of “youths that thunder at a playhouse.”

It is true that for me, and I suspect for many actors, taking on a role is a way of protecting ourselves, providing armor for our fragility. But it is also a means to show our strength, to unleash a power within us that in most other circumstances would be too dangerous or destructive.

As Wallace Shawn says, we have within us a universe of possibilities. The stage allows us to live some of them out.

Oh Crap We’re Living in “Final Crisis”

Here’s a panel from the big DC Comics event, Final Crisis, in which a fictional President of the United States laments his state of affairs. You see, a god-like alien, Darkseid, has begun reprogramming the minds of the Earth’s population, causing them to submit to utter subjugation.

In this scene, a man with the president (for some reason wearing a fedora in the 2000s), warns that Darkseid’s forces, brainwashed humans and superheroes called “justifiers,” are about to wipe them out.

The haggard president, dejectedly clutching a gun, says, “This can’t be happening. The scale of it. The speed of it. Not in my lifetime…not like this…”

Well, of course it happened quickly! It’s a superhero comic book crossover event with an antagonist whose home planet is literally called Apokolips! Darkseid doesn’t do gradual.

But there was something about this particular comic book armageddon scenario that struck a chord with me. Cosmic-level supervillains usually achieve their aims through overwhelming destruction and death. Palpatine will rule the galaxy with the might of his fleet and the power of the Dark Side of the Force. We will all become children of Thanos once he murders half of all life forms. Etcetera.

With Darkseid, however, while there’s plenty of death and destruction, his plan for intergalactic domination was to turn humanity into a hyper-materialist cult.

What?

Okay, here’s a quick summary of this particular branch of the rather dizzying plot of Final Crisis: An evil prophet-type character, Libra, recruits supervillains to help him infect people’s minds with the “Anti-Life Equation,” a sort of “proof” that leads the person exposed to the equation to reject all the values they once held dear, and choose to serve Darkseid. But not just “serve” in the sense of bowing down before his greatness or what have you, but becoming willing cogs in a sort of empty-headed, ultra-fascist state.

(Here’s where I must point out that I provided the voice for Libra and a couple other characters in the audiobook version of Final Crisis. Cool, right?)

We get a taste of what’s coming when, in a very strange part of the story, Superman deals with various alternate-universe Supermans for reasons that are frankly too esoteric to explain here. (I find these Crisis-themed series very confusing.) One such is Ultraman, and he’s not a truth-and-justice kind of guy.

“We value material wealth above everything,” he says through gritted teeth to the nicer Superfellows. His declaration is a kind of foreshadow for what Darkseid is bringing to Earth. Here’s a taste of what life under Darkseid looks like:

“Increase production!” shouts a justifier to the brainwashed drones that had once been everyday folks. And then shit gets real.

“Work! Consume! Die!” he shouts. Whoa, I’m thinking. Darkseid is creating a consumerist dystopia! Which sounds pretty close to the world as it is anyway!

And then the kicker. The justifier shouts, “Judge others! Condemn the different! Exploit the weak!”

It’s here I’m thinking, okay, Darkseid just built a Republican dream world. It’s Trumpism from space.

Don’t think so? Look how a justifier reacts to finding a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:

“What disagrees with Darkseid is heresy.” The book is burned, and echoing what other justifiers have said at the commission of horrifying acts, “Anti-Life justifies my ignorance!”

Take away the space-gods, and the attitude is exactly what is demanded by the cult of Trumpism. The facts are only what the cult leader says they are. They can change moment to moment, at his whim. Nothing he does can be bad, because it’s done by him. Any crimes committed by others are justified if they are done in his name.

This is the position of the United States’ ruling faction right now. And like the fictional comic book president observed, it happened so quickly.

Attempting to rescue some folks from the devastation, and from becoming Anti-Life zombies, the hero Black Lightning says, “Darkseid is remaking the world in his image, using our technology, our people as building blocks.”

For about a generation, the advent of the internet and social media were seen as means to enlightenment. And then the bad guys figured out how to use that technology to bring out our worst selves, minute after minute. Now countless “dimensions” and “alternate realities” are mainlined to us by Facebook through our individually-optimized Anti-Life Equation Feed, and the resulting state of chaos and confusion is the perfect breeding ground for the lies, the ignorance, the disenfranchisement, the demonization, and the many other forms of supervillainy we are witnessing right now.

Trump and his cult are remaking the world in their image. Like Black Lightning says, “This won’t be over until each and every one of us chooses to resist.” That’s true for us, too. But Superman’s not coming.

The Unexpected Plausibility of Mike Bloomberg

“I am getting really sick of all these Bloomberg ads!”

This was spoken by my 10-year-old son who watches shows on Hulu with his mom and has therefore been exposed, repeatedly, to ads for the presidential campaign of Mike Bloomberg.

When Bloomberg formally entered the race for the Democratic nomination last year, I railed to the heavens (you couldn’t hear me, but trust me, I railed), “WHY?” I don’t have any major objections to Bloomberg as a candidate or potential president, though he’s certainly not one of my top choices. But I simply couldn’t understand what he thought his path to the nomination could possibly be.

I know what the pundits have said, and what the line of the campaign is: Bloomberg can afford (both in terms of money and political capital) to skip the early states, use his wealth to blanket the later states with ads, and eventually squeeze past a muddled field of candidates currently lacking an overwhelming frontrunner, with the promise that his business acumen and aura of competence would seal the deal.

But, you know. Come on.

While technically possible, there is nothing plausible about Bloomberg’s prospects. Polls showed for months that the Democratic electorate was plenty satisfied with its existing options, and that the top four or five candidates regularly bested Trump in head-to-head general election polls, particularly Joe Biden — who Bloomberg would have to totally neutralize to even have a shot at the nomination.

How many times have we seen a late entrance into a presidential primary contest go on to win a party nomination? As we learned from would-be party saviors Wesley Clark, Rick Perry, and Fred Thompson (and eventually Deval Patrick), pretty much never. The fashionably late just don’t get to be president.

But let’s say none of this is the case. Let’s sat a latecomer could in fact ride in and shake everything up and that the Democrats are utterly despondent over their choices. Even then, in what universe does this imply that what progressives really want is the stop-and-frisk, former-Republican, Bush-endorsing, women-belittling, 80-pushing one-tenth-of-one-percenter? Perhaps there was some alternate dimension in which this made sense before the Crisis on Infinite Earths, but not on this Prime Material Plane.

Mike Bloomberg knows all of this. So my only explanations for his decision to run anyway are, one, that he is surrounded by advisors and consultants on his payroll who have a vested interest in convincing him that he will be president, and two, perhaps most importantly, he just really, really wants to be president, and at age 77, this is his last chance.

In recent weeks I’ve finally started to see some of those Bloomberg ads myself, either on social media or, yes, on Hulu. They’re really quite good. They’re not blockbuster, knock-your-socks-off, windsurfing-swiftboat ads that blow up the race, but they’re good. Perhaps the most effective thing about them is how reassuring they are. In general, his ads lightly contrast Bloomberg with a reckless Trump by highlighting Bloomberg’s competence and, well, normalness. They send a message that’s similar to Biden’s, in that they tell you that the country would be back in sane hands under this candidate, only Bloomberg’s ads layer on an actual record of governance. Twelve years as mayor of the city at the center of the universe can provide that kind of record.

Biden, for all his decades in public office, has never really been an executive in the way a mayor or a governor would be, and no one would mistake his role as vice president for that of a buck-stopping decision maker. So his ads rely on character; he’s got it, Trump doesn’t. He’s not wrong.

But without saying it, Bloomberg’s ads communicate that same message, that same feeling. Maybe it’s because I have been so skeptical about Bloomberg’s campaign that my reaction is disproportionate to their actual effect, but I have been very surprised to see how invested he appears in the people he’s shown listening to, how convicted he appears in the candidate-with-voters B-roll that are the standard filling for every political ad.

“That’s a good ad,” I find myself saying out loud. Hmm, I find myself thinking, the field of candidates is still pretty muddled. Hmm, I think, Bloomberg is often polling third and fourth nationally.

Nah. I mean, come on.

But then Iowa happened.

Put aside the procedural shitshow of the caucus tabulation debacle. What the Iowa caucuses showed us was that the race is a mess. Nationally, Sanders and Biden are wrestling for a small plurality to claim the top spot, with an undulating rotation of Elizabeth Warren, Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Andrew Yang in the next few slots. Sanders people will always be Sanders people no matter what, but the rest of the field has not been sufficiently winnowed to clarify who Sanders’ prime challengers are. Maybe it’s Joe Biden, maybe it’s eventually Pete Buttigieg, but it’s no clearer today than it was a week ago.

By the looks of the final alignment results, as I type this on February 4, Joe Biden wound up with a pretty bad fourth place showing in Iowa. He was never banking on an Iowa win, but a distant fourth-place finish is pretty damned embarrassing for the erstwhile national frontrunner and former vice president.

Pete Buttigieg’s showing was the breakout of the night, for whether or not he “won,” he certainly wrestled Sanders to a functional tie. But he’s polling in single digits nationally. Unless Iowa has an impact on voters that is even more outsized than usual, I don’t see how he turns a tied-for-first-but-technically-second-place showing into meteoric rise. And I suspect there’s not going to be a lot of bounce to be had out of this particular Iowa caucus.

I don’t really get what’s happening with Elizabeth Warren. It seems like the voters all really like her a lot, but too few of them are willing to cast their lot with her. I think that’s a huge shame and a big loss for all of us.

This is all to say that where I once did not see an opening for Mike Bloomberg, now I think I might. Skipping Iowa certainly seems to have proven to have been a net plus for his campaign, though also missing New Hampshire seems like an unforced error. That’s a whole other week of coverage in which he won’t be part of the conversation about who will be the next president.

But maybe it doesn’t matter, and if so, that’s largely because of his money. (It’s also because of his name recognition, as everyone knows who Mike Bloomberg is, and hardly anyone recognizes Tom Steyer, the other billionaire.) For all the media that Bloomberg won’t earn, he’ll buy, ten-fold. He’s already run a Superbowl ad and is reportedly planning to double his already gargantuan ad spending in the coming weeks. If his polls go up soon, he’ll qualify for the debates after New Hampshire, and I suspect that even after New Hampshire votes, we won’t be much closer to knowing who Bernie Sanders’ real competition is. That’s a good spot for Bloomberg to find himself in.

And here’s what might be the biggest thing. Bloomberg obviously wants to be president badly. Those other late-arrival candidates I mentioned earlier were largely ushered into the race by draft campaigns and twitchy party insiders. They didn’t jump in because of an insatiable desire to become President of the United States. Bloomberg’s got that desire, and one should never underestimate the guy who just wants it more.

It remains the case that Bloomberg’s chances at being the Democratic candidate to take on President Trump are incredibly slim, requiring a near-perfect falling-domino execution to create the circumstances for his ultimate nomination. But for the first time, I can see it.

I personally support Elizabeth Warren. My 7-year-old daughter agrees, and even more strongly, often screaming “WOOOOO ELIZABETH!!!!” when the election comes up in conversation — which it does a lot in my house. My 10-year-old son has found a lot to like about several candidates, and I think he misses Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris. But the other day, as I’m driving him home from a lesson, he started asking me to tell him about Mike Bloomberg.

Those are some good ads.

Suicides Are Not Car Accidents

When trying to make a point about the troubling rise of suicide rates in America, the statistics are often compared to other modes of fatalities, and understandably so. In order to understand the scale of the problem, it helps to compare it quantitatively to undesirable things we feel more familiar with. But in the case of suicide, I think it diminishes the scope and seriousness of the issue.

I’ll pick on Arthur C. Brooks’s column at the Washington Post, because that’s what got me thinking about this. Brooks rightfully urges a serious confrontation of the undeniably sharp and steady rise in suicide rates, and to convey just how bad things have gotten, he draws comparisons to homicides and motor vehicle accidents. According to his cited statistics, there are now two suicides for every homicide in America, and there are 17 percent more deaths per year by suicide than by car accidents.

While these numbers do help to communicate the scale of the problem, these kinds of comparisons, to my mind, oversimplify the issue to an unacceptable degree and make some morally false equivalencies between only somewhat related actions and phenomena.

Let’s start with the homicide-suicide comparison, and take as granted that twice as many people die by suicide than by homicide. Put aside for the moment the rise in suicide rates. Is the fact that more people take their own lives than have their lives taken from them in itself an obviously bad thing? In every instance? Could it not be a sign that perhaps we are now less eager to murder each other, and that if we must die by someone’s hands, at least it’s more likely to happen by our own choice and volition rather than someone else’s?

Of course it’s not “a good thing” that people want to kill themselves, but what does it actually mean to point out that there are more suicides than homicides? One is a death without choice, the other, at least in the broadest sense, is. What this numerical comparison ignores is what drives a person to make that choice. Would we feel better if those numbers were reversed? I don’t think I’d feel very safe if I was told that I was twice as likely to die by murder versus suicide.

Now let’s look at the comparison to death by motor vehicle accidents. It’s similarly problematic, in that it is not at all clear to me that we’d be pleased to see the statistics in reverse, in which car accident fatalities overtake suicide deaths. In that case, we’d all be wondering what is up with all the careless driving and poorly-made vehicles?

More to the point, Brooks points to the campaigns of a generation ago to improve car safety and how they eventually led to laws and regulations that made cars and driving much safer than they had ever been, and says, essentially, let’s do that, but for suicide.

This makes little sense to me. Absolutely increase public awareness of the issue. Countless people might be helped if more Americans were better educated and empathetic about suicide. But what else are we really talking about? There’s no suicide equivalent to seat belt laws, speed limits, or air bags.

Auto accidents, and to a lesser extent homicides, are more or less binary. They are bad things that result in unwanted deaths, but they can be prevented and mitigated by a fairly straightforward collection of measures. Make cars safer, make guns scarcer, and so on. Homicide is somewhat different in that, like suicide, its tendrils reach much deeper into other societal ills, and I’ll address that in a moment. But both auto accidents and homicides boil down to one thing: They kill people who don’t want to be dead.

Suicide is something else entirely. Let us grant for the sake of simplicity that no one’s starting position is “I want to be dead, and I want it badly enough that I will end my own life myself.” Something has to push a person into that place. Several somethings, both apparent and invisible. Whatever those factors are, they are different for everyone. I’m not even slightly qualified to list them or assign them relative values. But you know some of them; depression, fear, hopelessness, self-loathing, brought on because of abuse, joblessness, loss, addiction, and so on.

The point is that while murders and car crashes steal a person’s life from them, in the case of suicide, something else has stolen a person’s desire to live, and, importantly, driven them to the point that they have concluded that ending their life would be preferable to living it. Even if we could install some sort of air-bag-for-suicides and prevent the vast majority of them from succeeding, we’d certainly bring the suicide numbers down, but we’d have done nothing to address what brought on the choice to try in the first place. There’d be fewer deaths, but just as many miserable people.

So the question can’t be — must not be — “how do we bring down the number of suicides?” The real question is about how we change society so that tens of thousands of people every year do not become so overwhelmed by existential despair that suicide even becomes an option worth considering. Yes, that means laws, but not just preventative laws focused on the act of suicide itself. If that’s all we’re thinking about, then we’re too late anyway. But we will need laws that address poverty, economic anxieties, addiction, basic health and nutrition, mental illness, education, and much, much more.

But we’ll also need to change our culture, heart by heart. We’ll need to call ourselves to become kinder to each other, more sensitive to the pain of our fellow humans, and more willing to be a friend. We’ll need to stamp out those ideologies that thrive on the marginalization of other groups, and teach each other not to fear or resent equality. We have to decide, on an individual basis, to celebrate and embrace each single person’s differences and idiosyncrasies, and rather than seek uniformity, consider our species blessed by its infinite variety of neurologies, talents, flaws, ideas, histories, gifts, and limitations.

When we start to assign value to each and every one of us, then, maybe, we’ll see those suicide numbers go down. Not because we managed to stop more folks from pulling triggers or popping pills, but because far more of us have decided that this world is worth living in for as long as we can.

Forty-Two

Listen: There are things we are supposed to want out of life, and there are the means by which we are supposed to attain them. There are cultural events, life milestones, rites of passage, and personal interactions which we are supposed to eagerly anticipate, and those we are supposed to bemoan. There are standards of comportment we are supposed to uphold, degrees of amiability we are supposed to project, and durations of eye contact we are supposed to maintain.

We are supposed to know when to laugh and when not to laugh. We are supposed to stand a certain way and sit in a certain way, and ways in which we are not supposed to stand or sit. We are supposed to have street smarts, as opposed to book smarts, but we should have enough street smarts to know how to attain those book smarts. We are supposed to be honest, except when we aren’t supposed to be. We are supposed to be careful and we are supposed to take big risks.

We are supposed to have jobs and we are supposed to seek to advance in both position and compensation in these jobs. We are supposed to look forward to lunch. We are supposed to care a great deal about food and eating and sporting events and and acts of geographical transit and the weather. We are supposed to care a great deal about many, many things, and we are supposed to know what those are without being informed in advance.

I have lived my life riven by “suppostas.” From the very first moment I realized that the world had expectations of me beyond the routine of elementary school classrooms, I was in a state of near constant bewilderment as to how I should go about my existence. All rules were unspoken and yet somehow universally understood and viciously enforced. I never received instructions, only penalties for failing to follow them.

So I flailed about in search of guidance; examples to follow and role models to emulate. But I never found any templates that I could build upon, no maps I could interpret, no ciphers I could even attempt to break. In day-to-day moments, there were ways to sit, to stand, to walk, to move, or not move, and I coudn’t make sense of them, which often meant defaulting to keeping very still. In my education, there were crucial tasks to accomplish that had nothing to do with that was in the syllubus, and yet were somehow clear to my peers. In the professional world, the litany of unwritten rules, agendas, rites, and rituals were so perplexing and numerous that it caused a kind of paralysis.

From the quotidian to the global, I simply could not figure out how to be. How I was supposed to be.

The problem may already be obvious to you. My error has been to seek meaning and validation through my perceptions of what other people value. I don’t know how I could have known any better. To observe other humans is to see them behave based on some combination of motivations that are invisible to me, guided by some set of rules that is equally inaccessible. Existing, as I do, as a single individual with no way to read the contents of anyone else’s thoughts, all I can do is look and guess, like trying to describe the constellations in the night sky by looking through a paper towel tube.

I would be 38 by the time I realized why the behavior of my fellow humans baffled me so, and why I was so lost navigating this ocean of “suppostas,” for that’s when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, when I found out I am autistic. One aspect of this neurological difference is difficulty with ascribing agency to other people. Another is difficulty deciphering, or even perceiving, nonverbal communication. There are many more parts to being among the neurodivergent, but it all boils down to this: I don’t think or behave the way everyone else does, and I have a lot of trouble understanding what is happening around me if it’s not being explicitly stated. I have a neurological supposta deficit.

But forget that. Placing too much value on external validation is not solely the burden of autistics. Being baffled by the motivations and behavior of other people isn’t exclusive to the neurodivergent. We austistics are more likely to face these kinds of difficulties, often to greater degrees of severity, but feeling misunderstood or alienated is part of being human. We all fear being lost or alienated.

We can’t just dismiss this phenomenon as an error in thinking and move along, though. Whether or not we’ve identified the error, we still have the underlying problem, which is, really, how are we supposed to have meaning in our lives? How are we supposed to matter?

I think I have looked to others to tell me what is meaningful because I couldn’t work it out for myself analytically. When I think about the whole life-cycle trip we’re all taking down this mortal coil, it looks like this: We’re born ignorant and helpless, and starting from absolute zero we then spend twenty-odd years learning how to be a human in the world, and then spend what time we have left deteriorating until we eventually expire and utterly cease to exist at all. Good lord, what, I ask you, is the point?

Given that it looks so plainly like there is no point, and that existence has no meaning, the anxious young mind eagerly looks to the example of others. What’s meaningful to them? To what ends to they direct their finite time and energy? What do they celebrate and what do they revile? In short, what do they value? I hoped that by aping the moves of the humans around me, I would know what I was supposed to value.

This was never going to work.

Of course, society at large will always, at the least, set up the guardrails for what we find meaningful about life. We all learn by example from our family, our peers, and our broader culture. None of us find meaning in a vacuum.

What I didn’t realize, and what I think many people don’t realize, is that there is no meaning there to be found. Those expectations that society places on us, or that we place on ourselves, those “suppostas,” can nudge us in one direction or another or, hopefully, keep us from finding meaning in the grotesque or destructive.

Meaning itself, however, is not something that anyone or anything can provide or even define. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer Deep Thought is built in order to answer the great question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Famously, after millions of years of calculations, Deep Thought declares the answer to be 42, which of course makes no sense to its egregiously disappointed audience. Obviously, the Answer is supposed to have a Question, so it builds another, even more unfathomably advanced computer to figure out what the question is that would spit out the cryptic answer 42. More hilarity ensues.

The first (several) times I read that book, I took it as I suspect most people did, as a wonderful example of humor, literary cleverness, misdirection, and a great poke in the eye to know-it-alls everywhere. And it is all of those things. But only now, at this point in my life, do I actually get it.

As a miserable, alienated, and frightened pre-adolescent, terrified of each new school day, I would have given anything to have a Deep Thought of my own to tell me What The Hell It Was All About. Throughout my adulthood, even with whatever wisdom I had accumulated, I would have no less welcomed an algorithmic answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. But it doesn’t exist. It can’t exist.

In recent years, coming closer to terms with who I am has allowed me the psychic space to better appreciate those things that do not fit into a formula for optimal meaning generation. An atheist and skeptic through and through, I have yet developed warmer feelings toward practices and frames of mind that are usually the domain of religion. I don’t need to believe in the literal existence of supernatural beings in order to find peace, connection, or motivation through ritual and story. I am developing a love for the numinous and the immeasurable.

Ritual, for me, can come in the form of artistic creation. Writing essays like this is a kind of prayer or meditation, allowing me to have a conversation with myself, to interrogate and beseach my own mind for insight. Making theatre is not unlike having a church, where great stories are told by a congregation of participants in order to be shared and experienced by the community. Indeed, theatre and religion are siblings, both born from the stories told by our earliest ancestors around the fire.

These things are not, in and of themselves, meaning. Theatre may have an effect on me that is akin to “spiritual,” and I might just really like doing it, but that’s not what makes it meaningful. It’s not even enough to say that something in my life has meaning because I have chosen to bestow meaning upon it. Really, it’s the fact that I’m not at all sure that it has any meaning at all. Or that anything does.

For our lives to matter, and for what we do to have meaning, we have to endow it with meaning ourselves. But, remember, in the sense of some core, cosmic truth, meaning does not exist. So for me to bestow meaning on something is the same as my granting myself a knighthood. I can do all the bestowing I want, but it doesn’t make it so.

The point, then, is not to discover meaning. The point is to look for it. It’s the search, the investigation, and yes, the agonizing doubt. There are precious few creatures living, that we know of, that are blessed, or cursed, with the ability to even engage in this kind of inquiry. It is a quest to satisfy a yearning for that which can never truly be had.

And there is no single way one is supposed to go about it. “Suppostas” are meaning-repellents.

I was about 10 years old when I realized I was something of an alien among other humans. After college, dear friends of mine told me I’d figure myself out by age 27, and that didn’t happen. At age 41, still fresh off of an autism diagnosis and a divorce, I looked at an actuarial table that showed that I was at the precise midpoint of my lifespan. Barring unfortunate events, I had lived the first half of my life. A few weeks ago, I stepped into the second half.

Maybe it’s age. Maybe I’m just too old at this point in my life to care anymore what people think of me. Maybe it’s not the result of personal enlightenment, but that I simply no longer have the energy to care. Or maybe being fatigued by all the pretending, all the masking, all the passing as “normal,” maybe that very exhaustion is what has allowed for clarity. I just know that my life is likely more than half over, and I’m tired of the suppostas.

I no longer want to fit in. I want everyone else to make room.

So now I actively combat my old instinct to worry about what it is I’m supposed to be like. It is a daily battle, but at least now I’m waging it. Now I am more interested in that yearning, the endless inquiry into meaning and mystery. And I often feel frustrated by the lack of solid answers and despairing of my failures, but I can also accept that the frustration and despair are themselves part of the story, as much as anything else.

It turns out the question was always the answer. And it just so happened that I would arrive at this understanding at this particular time in my life. So, in a way, the answer was, in fact, 42.

A New World Without Loss

Arthur C. Brooks writes about how Ludwig van Beethoven dealt with his gradual hearing loss, which, while crushing to a genius composer, ultimately lead him to new heights of greatness.

It seems a mystery that Beethoven became more original and brilliant as a composer in inverse proportion to his ability to hear his own — and others’ — music. But maybe it isn’t so surprising. As his hearing deteriorated, he was less influenced by the prevailing compositional fashions, and more by the musical structures forming inside his own head. His early work is pleasantly reminiscent of his early instructor, the hugely popular Josef Haydn. Beethoven’s later work became so original that he was, and is, regarded as the father of music’s romantic period. “He opened up a new world in music,” said French romantic master Hector Berlioz. “Beethoven is not human.”

Brooks takes this as a lesson in loss. He says that here Beethoven shows us how losing something precious can open up new possibilities and ideas, and all of that is true. But that’s not the lesson I take.

When Beethoven lost his hearing, he could no longer be aware of what others in his field were doing. Whatever music was being lauded or pilloried at the time, Beethoven had no way to know what it sounded like. He had no way to compare his work to anyone else’s. All he had were his memories of what had come before.

To me, the lesson isn’t how Beethoven turned the tables on fortune and made something beautiful out of loss. (And I do have my own, albeit far less severe, experience of hearing loss to draw from here.) The lesson is that his loss meant that he was no longer burdened with his own perception of what great music is supposed to be. Beyond what he could still hear in his own mind from his musical memory banks, there was nothing for Beethoven to compare himself to. The energy spent and wasted on anxiety and self-doubt brought on by the desire to suit the tastes of the time, his genius was liberated, freeing him to make the best music he was capable of at that moment.

Before I sat down to write this, I caught myself wondering whether the traditional early-2000s-era blog format was still viable, whether anyone would want to read a post by a relative nobody responding to an article by a relative somebody about an indisputably significant somebody. I worried whether the format would make me seem unhip. I worried that whatever I wrote might better suit a magazine essay, which would never be written (nor published if it were), or if it might be best to simply tweet a condensed version of my thoughts, and leave it at that. In other words, I wasted time and energy on anxiety about what my writing is “supposed” to look like.

Imagine that I came to this piece with no preconceived notions of the form my thoughts should take. Imagine I had no respectable essays, eye-catching blog posts, or pithy tweets to compare myself to. Imagine that all I had were my thoughts and my skills as a writer, whatever they happened to be at this moment.

Beethoven’s loss forced him into a position of ignorance. His deafness gave him no choice, but that ignorance freed him. His earlier work sounded like somebody else’s, the work of people he thought were “doing it right.” When he could hear no one else, “doing it right” meant only what was right to him in his own mind.

I, and we, do not have to wait for loss. We do not have to be forced into a kind of ignorance. We can choose to learn from what others have done, build on what we have already accomplished ourselves, and then let everything go. Then we can be free, and we can know it, too. We can open up a new world without loss.

Beethoven is not human, and neither am I. Thank god.

Purposeless on Purpose

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I seek to be at peace with my own irrelevance.

In earlier, less distracted, and less accountable years, I was a fount of creative energy. Free time was often spent on writing songs and recording music or writing essays and blogs. I have always been driven to create. That drive formed my earliest sense of identity.

Today, in my forties, raising two kids, and working at an intellectually demanding job, my sparse remaining energy usually feels insufficient for extracurricular creativity. Fumes make for a poor muse.

So I don’t write nearly as much anymore. I rarely pick up an instrument. Songwriting is now filed away in the dusty archives of my persona as ”something I used to do.”

But while the fatigue of existence is real, and my drive to create fires on fewer cylinders, these aren’t the real obstacles to creating. Nor can I lay the blame on the easy abundance of distractions provided by the internet, a phenomenon that had yet to saturate the culture when I was in my prolific twenties.

It used to be that as I worked, with every paragraph or stanza, I believed myself to be building toward something. I was laying the foundations of my career, one in which I would not just be a creator, but one that mattered. “Fame” isn’t quite the right word for what I was after (though I would not have shunned it by any means), but perhaps “prominence.” I would be known.

That didn’t happen. It’s not going to happen, either. For years now, this has been an inexhaustible source of regret and self-loathing. I’ve been dedicating a great deal of thought and work toward being at peace with the fact that whatever meager level of renown I’ve scraped together at this point is about as good as it’s ever going to get.

What does this mean for the creative drive I claim to still possess? Nothing good, I’ll tell you that!

I might become more accepting of my irrelevance to the wider world, but that very acceptance starves me of much of what once served as creative fuel. Why write an essay that only a handful of people will ever read, for which I will not be compensated, and which doesn’t lead to my work being discovered so that I can be placed into the demi-pantheon of People Whose Writing Matters?

In other words, why bother?

The wall of “why bother” is a big one. From any distance, its summit visibly looms over the top of my laptop’s screen. Large, white letters adorn the wall like the Hollywood sign promising “NO ONE CARES.” The letters are much brighter than the display on which I type.

One is not supposed to see things this way. Creation is supposed to be for its own sake. I have always had a great deal of trouble with “supposed to’s.”

So I seek out wisdom. In Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel questions his master about the purpose of his archery training. The master insists that Herrigel take no note of the target. The master insists that he not consider releasing the arrow. For what feels like ages, the master keeps him focused only on drawing back the bow, and nothing else. And Herrigel is utterly flustered. He says to his master that he is unable to lose sight of the fact that he draws the bow and lets loose the arrow in order to hit a target. There is a reason for all of this effort:

“The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”

They debate this point for a bit, and Herrigel asks:

“What must I do, then?”

“You must learn to wait properly.”

“And how does one learn that?”

“By letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.”

“So I must become purposeless — on purpose?” I heard myself say.

“No pupil has ever asked me that, so I don’t know the right answer.”

The idea that art, creation, is purposeless, is very difficult for me to internalize. I can intellectually understand and even appreciate it, but I can’t seem to accept it in my heart. The words “why bother” still ring in my head, and the “NO ONE CARES” sign still leaves a visual trace on my retinas when I close my eyes.

“You will be somebody, the second you make peace with being nobody,” Heather Havrilesky has written. “You can create great things, the second you recognize that making misshapen, stupid, pointless things isn’t just part of the process of achieving greatness, it is greatness itself.”

Being purposeless on purpose is, itself, greatness? I want to believe. The idea that a creative work is supposed to be purposeless is a claim without evidence. It is less a truth than it is a statement of faith. One has to decide for oneself that the work itself is enough.

“Let go of the shiny, successful, famous human inside your head,” writes Havrilesky. “Be who you are right now. That is how it feels to arrive. That is how it feels to matter.”

I do believe that. I can work with that.

But she also says, “Being a true artist merely lies in recognizing that you already matter.” That, I don’t understand. How does she know what qualifies one as a true artist? How does the archery master know that one’s aim must be aimless?

Like many statements of faith, I suspect the value of the claim that art is purposeless lies less in its veracity, and more in the behavior it induces. Its value is in the discipline required to live that ideal. It may or may not be true that creative work is “supposed to” be purposeless. It may or may not be true that writing this essay right now, or any other, is a meaningful end in itself, regardless of whether it is ever read or appreciated by anyone.

I don’t know if these things are true. I doubt that they are. But I might need to take the leap of faith and live as though they are. Doing so will take a good deal of practice. Discipline. But unlike art, it would not be purposeless. For if I can manage it, I may begin to believe that I do matter right now, and that mattering right now, and at no other time nor to any other people, is enough.

In Between the Pictures is the Dance

639D09D3-5BC7-4147-8B0A-FD0B734B8200I’m not a dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve taken my share of dance and movement classes in my previous life as an acting student. I don’t mind being able to tell people that “I studied dance at Alvin Ailey,” which is technically true, as that’s where the acting students in the Actors Studio graduate program had dance classes. I was a hard-working if mostly-hopeless student, and a frequent cause of eye-rolling and pity-sighs from our teacher Rodni, who moved with incredible control, strength, specificity, and power. It was not necessarily transferable.

The man who taught me more about dance and movement than anyone else in my life was Henry, the impossibly graceful, endlessly wise, and astoundingly patient head of the dance department at my undergraduate state college. Truly, there was something superhuman about the man (I assume there still is, he’s alive and well, and I imagine will be for many centuries to come). Taking a dance class with Henry was what I imagine taking a physics class with a gifted professor is like; it seemed as though every lesson had several “ah-ha” moments in which something marvelous about the body in space suddenly broke its way into my bewildered brain.

An example: What is walking? Henry would ask us as we ambled around the studio. The answer, which I was distinctly proud to call out in class when I had my eureka moment: Walking is falling. Think about it, you’ll get it.

Getting through to me was a doubly remarkable feat on Henry’s part, given that I’m autistic (Asperger’s, to be precise), which was unknown to me at the time, and surely made the job of teaching me how to move in a coordinated, graceful way exceedingly difficult. Rodni, gifted as he was, could have learned a few things from Henry, I have no doubt.

One particular “ah-ha” moment with Henry came outside of regular class time, when for some reason I can’t recall, he was looking over some of the choreography he had written for the school’s next big dance concert. I had never seen choreography written down before, only taught to me in person (an experience I do not envy any choreographer). Musical notation I could understand conceptually, of course, but how could one codify movement in unmoving glyphs?

I don’t know what most choreographers do, but Henry’s approach was pretty damned simple: stick figures. Much like a comic strip, the figures would be drawn in particular poses, indicating the moves the dancers would execute at various points in the music. There were probably arrows indicating direction and other marginalia scribbled throughout, but this is all I can remember.

I think I expressed my surprise that this was how choreography was written, that it could be done with stationary pictures even though the art form itself is based entirely on motion. Henry explained that rather than think of them as representations of movement, each picture should be thought of as points for the dancer to reach, marks to hit with their bodies. The stick figure poses were guideposts, “You Are Here” indicators.

“The pictures are the choreography,” explained Henry. “In between the pictures is the dance.”


There’s that cliché about the journey being of greater value than the destination, “it’s not where you go, it’s how you get there,” and so on. Maxims on that theme are so overused that they usually come off as trite to me, if not meaningless, or at least what Daniel Dennett might call a “deepity,” an idea that is true on its face in the most basic and obvious way, but without any of the profundity it’s presumed to convey.

I may be coming around.

Another fellow who, though I’ve never met him, I nonetheless consider one of my most important teachers, is the writer Alan Jacobs. One of his recent books is a short volume called, simply, How to Think, and truly, I feel like no one should be allowed to discuss politics or religion, write opinion columns, or use Twitter until they’ve read it.

The book warrants a substantive review of its own, but I want to call attention to one passage that had my neurons firing off like the 1812 Overture. Thinking, according to Jacobs, is a skill that has been wrongly equated with coming up with answers, decisions, and responses. Thinking becomes about being right, about winning. Jacobs explains what it’s really about:

This is what thinking is: not the decision itself but what goes into the decision, the consideration, the assessment. It’s testing your own responses and weighing the available evidence; it’s grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant senses, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be. And it’s knowing when not to go it alone, and whom you should ask for help.

Decisions, answers, conclusions; these are the final pose at the end of the music before the curtain falls. Each new piece of data acquired, each bit of information learned, are marks to hit, the guideposts that lead us on. They are static snapshots, pictures. But the thinking itself is what happens while we’re seeking those data points, hunting for information, and piecing it all together in our minds.

In between the pictures is the dance.


A few months ago, a friend of mine fervently insisted I read Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, one of those anti-self-help books that seem to hip right now. I was somewhat reluctant. (Oooh, it has “fuck” in the title! How edgy!) But I am so glad I did, because, much to my surprise, it taught me what happiness is.

That’s overstating it somewhat. But Manson offers a way of thinking about happiness that, for whatever reason, had never consciously occurred to me. Simply put, Manson says that happiness is not a state one achieves, but it is rather a process, it is what we experience when we are solving the problems we want to be solving.

That’s it. Happiness is not something to be attained, it’s just what happens while we’re solving problems. If we hate or don’t care about a set of problems, we’re miserable. If we do care about them, the process of solving them is what makes for a rewarding, meaningful existence. If I am spending my time and energies on tasks that hold no meaning for me, I’ll hate every moment of it.

But when I’m directing a play for my university students, for example, I can actually experience bliss, because I’m solving the problems presented by the production so that it can become its own living, breathing work of art. When it’s over, and the run of the play has finished, I almost always crash hard, and have serious trouble clambering my way out of a serious depression. This is largely because completing the play is not what brings me happiness (though averting a disaster for the production also averts severe psychological breakdowns).

It’s putting the play together that brings me meaning; helping the actors understand what they’re saying and why their characters do what they do; arranging the movement and positions of bodies on stage; coming up with ideas for costumes, sets, props, and sound; helping individual students overcome their hangups and anxieties so that they can grow into their roles and blossom. While it’s gratifying when each problem gets solved, checking off boxes on the great beast of a to-do list that a theatre production can be, each solved problem is one mark, one picture.

The struggle is the point. The joy is in the journey. Happiness is in the process. And in between the pictures is the dance.


Am I too old to have just figured some of this out? Having spent 40 years obsessing over goals and products, I never noticed that everything that mattered was in the reaching, in the creating. The doing, not the having-done. The -ing’s, not the -ed’s. Looking back, it becomes obvious.

I have time left, I think. I hope. I can’t have those previous 40 years back, but maybe I can reframe my memory, tell my story to myself that focuses on the journeys rather than the successes and failures. And maybe I can start the next story from this perspective, though not as a goal to be achieved — I must think differently about my life— but as a process, a discipline, an asymptotic odyssey.

Look, some goals must be achieved, whether they provide meaning or not. Marks do have to be hit and some boxes absolutely have to be checked. You know what kind of box-checking I mean, the Maslovian, bottom-of-the-triangle kind, the kind that provide for one’s life necessities, and that of those in one’s care. There is not always joy in hitting the most remedial marks of mere survival. Though maybe there sometimes is.


This is how love works too, isn’t it? Whether familial, platonic, or romantic, it’s the active cultivation of a relationship, the choice to give of oneself to another person, be it a child, friend, or lover. Like happiness, love can’t just be a feeling, a state that we achieve, or a spell cast upon us. It’s the choice to love — a choice we keep making, moment to moment, picture to picture — that gives it meaning, that makes it matter, that makes it real.

I think that has to be it.

Walking is falling, and in between the pictures is the dance. I between the answers is the thinking. In between the giving is the love.

In between the moments, in between the events, in between the accomplishments, in between the failures, in between the losses, in between the lessons, the steps, the miles.

In between the seconds is life. That’s where it is.

I’m Convinced There’s No Hope for America. Please Talk Me Out of It.

Here’s what I need to know.

I need to know that all is not lost. I don’t need to be told that all is not lost, I need to be convinced. I need proof. Without that proof, I either have to remain in this unbearable state of stomach-churning anxiety, or I have to accept the end and prepare for what’s truly next to come.

So this post is a request. Or maybe a cry for help.


Let me go back a bit. I left my theatre career in order to get involved in politics, because I believed that the good I could do in that arena would be more tangibly meaningful than whatever effect I could have as an actor on a stage. (I was almost certainly wrong, but that’s for another post.)

When I made that decision, George W. Bush had been re-elected president, and as bleak as that was, I knew that there were enough souls in this country to nudge the ship of state in a more positive, enlightened, and humanitarian direction, if only they could be moved to do so.

While the Democratic Party wasn’t exactly doing wonders for itself during this era, it still had the allegiance of about half the electorate, and they managed that following not with aw-shucks faux-average joes or slick media manipulators, but with statesmen. People like Al Gore and John Kerry may not have been the most charismatic politicians, and lord knows they were prone to screw-ups. A lot of folks even doubted the sincerity of their principles, but I didn’t.

There is always ugliness in politics. There are always egos of unusual size and tenderness, always those whose ambitions for power boggle the average citizen, always undesirables and deplorables, even within the wider orbits of leaders and representatives on unquestioned integrity. It will always be so. This is a given.

I always understood the Republican Party to be premised on a lie, on the claim that it was made up of men (and almost entirely men) who stood for traditions, stability, and safety. The reality was and is of course that it has, as long as I’ve been alive, stood for the perpetual acquisition of power for those who already have it. Some within the party and its ancillary groups and movements truly believed in the values the party pretended to care about, and, as all of us are wont, managed to rationalize every ethically or morally repugnant action taken on the party’s behalf; from senseless wars to pandering to theocrats to stoking xenophobia, racism, and disgust for the already-marginalized to decimating the mechanisms of society on which tens of millions of souls rely.

Just as evil men could launch themselves into the orbits of true-hearted leaders of character, well-meaning people could also find themselves pulled by the gravity of this plutocratic gas giant, and therefore in its thrall.

I have taken this all as given. This darkness, this oligarch-trained leviathan disguised as an American political party, was known.

Yet I believed that if the Truth could be successfully and thoroughly conveyed, if the public could only be persuaded to listen and think for a half a moment longer than our lizard brains are inclined, and if the body politic could be exposed to just the right appeal to our innate empathy and higher notions of ourselves, then we could win. I was never so naive as to think that there could ever be anything like a total victory, one in which our politics reflects the loftiest ideations of what true democratic discourse could and ought to be. But I did believe that there were sufficient numbers of us who, given the right nudge, could look past our lazy, atavistic aversions and foster something approaching a national generosity of spirit.

Lost elections didn’t necessarily mean total defeat, either. If the good guys couldn’t quite make their case on one go around the electoral track, we regroup, rethink, and run the race again.

And when a brilliant, professorial black guy whose name rhymes with “Osama” gets elected president, twice, despite running against a lionized maverick war hero, and later a man who was clearly grown in a pod for the purpose of becoming president, I think it’s understandable that I could come to believe that not only could we win sometimes, but that the tide had finally turned. We were winning.


During the Obama years, despite the pride I took in knowing that a truly good man was president, it was impossible to ignore the boiling magma of fear and hate that began cracking the surface of the public sphere and spewing jets of scalding rage and idiocy, disfiguring all who wandered too closely. So too, it was impossible to ignore the depths of cynicism, callousness, hypocrisy, and mendacity that Republican leaders and cultists were willing to employ for even the tiniest gains, at the national, state, and local levels.

I knew it was there, and it made me sick, physically ill. And yet I still couldn’t allow myself to believe that it was indicative of more than a disgruntled ruling class and a baffled, aging demographic lashing out like a cornered animal. If nothing else, it would only be a couple of decades before these increasingly anarchic tribes of aggrieved aristocrats, and the ignorant mobs to whom they distributed pitchforks, would simply die off.

Now it’s 2018. Every branch of government is not only utterly dominated by Republicans, but by the very worst kinds of Republicans. The grotesque horror that is the president is well established, but he is only one part of a triumvirate of depravity.

There may be no one living who encapsulates the word “soulless” better than Mitch McConnell. With truly inhuman coldness, he lies, schemes, and destroys. I find him terrifying.

Paul Ryan is a tool. If Republicans keep hold of the House, Kevin McCarthy will be a stupider tool. Less principled than Ryan, if that’s even possible, and without all those pesky brains to confuse matters. And the House Republicans themselves are not much better than the most conspiracy-crazed Tea Party rally, only wearing suits instead of eagle-emblazoned tank tops.

And there’s the latest tragedy, the courts. Among a Supreme Court conservative majority largely made up of partisan hacks, Brett Kavanaugh has asked America to hold his beer(s) as he proceeds to out-hack them all. He is the Platonic ideal of the aggrieved, old, rich, white guy, a Euclidean avatar of the spoiled, entitled country-clubber, who now feels that he has been wronged by Democrats and, more importantly, American women, who dared to question his right to their bodies. Well, now he gets to show them who’s boss.

Let’s not stop there! In state after state, legislatures and governors conspire to dismantle democracy itself. From the disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor to the revocation of municipalities’ right to local governance, Republicans are torching the fields and salting the soil.

If we’ve learned nothing else from the past decade, it’s that if Republicans can’t win through persuasion, they’ll simply rewrite the rules. They are eternally controlling Boardwalk and Park Place. It’s written right on the inside of the box, that they shall eternally passeth Go, over and over, forever and ever, amen.


Today, those of us in the reality-based community, those of us who aspire to something more meaningful than personal power or status, those of us who feel a whit of empathy for those unlike ourselves, are scared. We are marching, we are rallying, we are donating time, money, and energy. We are sparking vital social movements and unleashing waves of compassion, creativity, and raw determination, the likes of which I cannot recall seeing in my lifetime. We sense the threat, the feeling of permanence to the darkness already snuffing out light after light. It feels like an emergency.

It is an emergency. I do believe that people are waking up to that simple fact. Many millions of people have come to realize that things have not only gone wrong, but horribly, existentially wrong. The republic is in mortal danger, and the blight will not be contained within our borders. It’s soaking into the Earth’s crust. It’s riding the oceans’ currents. It’s attached to the very molecules we breathe.

There’s no more nudging. We’re heading headlong into a new Dark Age, and a minor course correction will not suffice.

And my fear, my despair, is that it’s too late.

I fear that there aren’t enough good souls in the electorate to transfer power from the monsters in the Republican cult.

I fear that even if we do outnumber the bastards, that they have so twisted our electoral mechanisms that even the bluest of waves could not wash them from power.

I fear that Republicans and their allied extra-national agitators have so successfully sowed confusion and mistrust, not only of our institutions, but of reality itself, that there is no path back to a shared understanding of what is and is not so.

I fear that our better angels are simply no match for our worst demons.

I said this post was a request. I admit, it took me a while to get here. But this is it: Someone convince me I’m wrong.

Show me that the anti-democratic voting laws, the boots on the necks of the poor, the dehumanization of women, the tantrums of white men, the open racism, the soulless quislings, the partisan hacks, the bullies who cast themselves as victims, and the dumptrucks of money sloshing through the system do not spell the end of this American project.

We’re stealing children from their parents and putting them into camps. We’re destroying our ability to inhabit the only planet we have. We’re callously incarcerating generations of black and brown men. We’re revoking the ability of millions to vote. We’re robbing women of the right to control when and whether they give birth. We’re kissing the rings of sociopathic and psychopathic dictators and turning our backs on the world’s democracies. These are just a few things I just now thought of. I could go on.

How does this get fixed? Show me the math and illustrate the physics. Point me to those who are in a position to repair the damage to our democracy, and explain to me how they’ll even be given the opportunity to do it. Make me understand how control of a grossly unrepresentative Congress will be wrenched from the iron grip of the evil men who currently wield power.

Persuade me that if the good guys start winning again, that the bad guys will even acknowledge it or allow it. Obviously, nothing is beneath them. The mask of civility has long been discarded, and I don’t believe for a second that they see any means as too savage or too depraved. They have proven this time and again. Ecological catastrophe is fine. Mass poverty is fine. Violence and brutality are fine. Nazis are fine. Sexual assault is fine. What depths are even left to plumb? Let your imagination run wild. They certainly let theirs.

If I’m wrong, if there’s real hope, show me. Make me see how Republicans lose control of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the federal courts, the state capitols, the school boards, and how power gets into the hands of men and women who aren’t moral monsters. Convince me that the haze of misinformation that burns our eyes and ears is not the new normal, and that Americans can have something approaching a shared understanding of reality.

Point me to the light at the end of the tunnel, and prove to me that the tunnel hasn’t already caved in. Because I can’t see it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.