I thought it was about time I gave myself permission to write about things that weren’t all that important.
We’re living through such Unprecedented Times when so many Serious Things are happening every hour, I think I started to feel like it would be irresponsible to write about things that were not directly related to the end of the republic or the plague.
But honestly, who cares what I think?
I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way. Okay, yes I do, but I also mean to say that plenty of other smart and good-hearted folks already have this covered. There are times when I do feel like my particular perspective on current events is valuable. But, you know, not all the time.
And at the same time, I have a lot of big thoughts about things that simply aren’t existentially consequential. Lately, though, I guess I’ve felt like it would be almost inappropriate to talk about anything frivolous, like superhero TV shows or gadgets, let’s say. Since no one is currently paying me to publish my thoughts on unimportant things (oh please someone pay me to do that), it sort of felt rude to do so—almost gauche.
I wrote about how cool it is that when I needed my iPad to serve as my primary personal computer, it unexpectedly filled that role really damn well. Read that too!
I also posted some fake news! Let me explain. I am experimenting with coming up with fictional news articles, not satire per se, like The Onion, but just things that aren’t true. Maybe it’s funny, maybe it’s not.
I took some time off last week, which was desperately needed, and it gave me some extra time to do more extracurricular writing. So that’s good!
I know it’s a cliche, but good lord it’s hard to actually relax into vacation time. I don’t think I really nailed it until the last two days. In the first few days, I wasted a lot of energy fretting over what I “ought” to be doing with my free time. But I can report that I did manage to come out the other end of this mini-vacation (entirely at home) feeling just slightly more grounded. Probably because I worked through a lot of my personal angst in public, which you can now enjoy! Lucky you!
Maybe I can’t get free of the fetters I’ve fitted myself with, nor the ones that the culture has clapped onto me, because I maintain a delusion that meaning, peace, and validation will still be given to me by Someone Else, by some force Out There. Maybe by shedding hope, I empower myself to provide it on my own.
I think natural selection and I need to have a talk. I need to thank it for getting us all this far, what with the conscious brains, the opposable thumbs, and whatnot. And then I need to tell it, honestly, that its time with me is over, because it’s holding me back from, well, evolving.
Are people just getting together and hocking mucous-globs into each other’s mouths?
And finally, I came up with a little speculative fiction about what might happen if we just let the Trump cultists believe that Trump is going to be president for however long they want to believe it, in a sort of MAGA-Matrix:
It is 2023. Joe Biden is embroiled in several lawsuits over his attempt to steal the 2020 election. Hunter Biden is in prison in Moscow. Kamala Harris is still out there, working with AOC, Antifa, and George Soros (now 93 and obviously being kept alive with some kind of secret pharmaceuticals or cybernetic implants) to foment a revolution and take over the country.
I won’t always have this much extra time and energy to put out this much Quality Content, but I’m glad I did. I hope you are too!
This project of producing newsletters and media at a somewhat regular clip, is still new to me, and I’m still trying to find the right mix of elements that make it really click. For my first video-cast-pod-thing, I chose to read a piece I’d written a couple of years back about how hard it is to put in the time, effort, and emotion into all this creative work, all the while knowing that it will reach only a handful of people. Of course one can’t know this for certain, but it’s a solid bet!
I think the cold reality of irrelevance has hit me a little harder this week, as the election receded from the top of my mind and I took a little time off work. When a room opened up in my brain, it was quickly furnished with feelings of futility.
I began reading How to Disappear by Akiko Busch this past week, and in the introduction she says, “It has become routine to assume that the rewards of life are public and that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than what we do.” As someone who grew up being utterly ostracized for how he was seen, and then later became a professional actor, and then later got into nonprofit communications, I think I’ve been conditioned to measure my value by how I am seen. I’m not sure I’d know any other way.
We’re all feeling fragile right now. The slow-moving coup in process makes it feel like we’re watching an asteroid that’s going to slam into us in a couple of months, and all we can do is watch it get imperceptibly closer day after day. The foundational things we’ve relied on to tell us who we are as a people look like they’re about to crumble. If they do, we won’t know who we are anymore. If they don’t, we’ll still know that we aren’t quite what we thought we were. We’re all facing an identity crisis.
So maybe none of us can settle our minds enough to find meaning within (or nearby) rather than without.
In my favorite novel, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, the protagonist Erasmas, a sort of monk-scholar in training, is given an urgent bit of wisdom from his mentor, Orolo.
“That is the kind of beauty I was trying to get you to see,” Orolo told me. “Nothing is more important than that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways.”
Maybe if our identities weren’t so wrapped up in these performative digital spaces, we’d be handling things better right now. Maybe if I were better able to see myself as enough, if I were able to love the beauty that is right in front of me, perhaps I could more thoroughly cast out the ugliness in my head that tells me I am not and never will be enough.
But if I do that, then what will I be?
If you’re reading this, I’m so glad you’re here. You are part of a small group, and I appreciate each and every one of you.
More of Paul’s irrelevant-yet-immeasurably-valuable stuff
It occurred to me that one theme of the last few years, for me and perhaps for society in general, has been the pursuit of something like balance; a kind of tolerable, flexible equilibrium.
“Normalcy” is one of the ways we talk about it in terms of current events and public life, but with an understanding that the “old normal” isn’t quite going to cut it once we get through our current “new normal.” We want a sense of stability, but not stasis; there has to be both room for adjustments and the will to adjust. Steady forward motion with a few reasonable routes to choose from.
I know it’s where I am. I want to be engaged with the defining issues of our time, but not so much that I lose all sense of hope. I want to learn to live more fully in each small moment, but not to the point that I become oblivious. I want to marvel at how well my life has turned out, but not let myself off the hook for my mistakes, failures, and flaws. I want to be at peace with what I have achieved, but not fully accept anonymity and irrelevance. I want to feel that what I have, all I have, is enough, but not stop looking for greater possibilities.
Maybe that’s where the country is now, too. It seems to me that this is what the candidacy of Joe Biden has been offering us, and most of us are pretty pleased with it. Biden is offering, yes, a return to a kind of normalcy, but with a little extra kick. Biden is offering us what we had before “all this,” but a little better, and with an eye toward a little more. Not a lot more. Not revolution, not “change we can believe in.” It’s equilibrium-plus. It’s a balanced scale with a thumb at the ready as needed.
Biden is asking us to look at what we have as a country — in terms of our population, our institutions, our institutions, and our ideas — and decide that it is enough. Not to settle for, but to work with. We can take what we have, and use it to make everything a little better, bit by bit.
I suspect (though I certainly don’t know) that this is extremely appealing to most Americans. For progressives, it is an acknowledgement of what is possible, even if it doesn’t promise radical change. For sane conservatives, it assuages fears of some sort of sudden cultural upheaval. For everyone “in the middle,” for those whose sense of well-being is not tied to each new outrage-of-the-moment, it offers the comfort of the familiar, with a little optimism for steady improvement.
If Biden wins, I hope that we get this. Whatever happens, I hope I can find it for myself. Because what all of us need now, as individuals and as a civilization, is a little peace.
Interesting things: Two books of essays about totally different subjects have informed my thoughts here. More prominently, I just finished Heather Havrilesky’s What if This Were Enough?, which I wholeheartedly recommend. I’m also enjoying Michael Dirda’s Browsings, which is about his thoughts on books and other stuff.
How do you make political satire when the real political universe is already a parody of itself? I’m hardly the first to ask a question like this, but some recent events have made this question more salient than it has been for a while.
To be effective, political satire begins with what we know to be true (or at least plausible) about a given individual, group, or issue position, and stretches it — in a logical direction — toward an absurdity, thereby highlighting the flaws or harmful implications of whatever is being parodied.
But in the real world, right now, one side of the political debate is living out the parody. “Not The Onion,” the once-ubiquitous refrain on Twitter in response to news about the president, is now nowhere to be seen, because, well, why bother? The president himself just the other day retweeted a satire piece from the definitely not-funny Babylon Bee, thinking it was real. The very fact that most Americans even know what QAnon is tells you all you need to know about how the absurd has become all too real.
My friend Brian Hogg wrote a parody autobiography of Trump in 2016, Trumped Up, which is absolutely hilarious. After Trump actually won the election, which neither he nor I expected, and the damage he would do to the republic became ever more apparent, it was harder to find comedy in someone who was such an obviously ridiculous figure at the time the fake autobiography was written. The real President Trump turned out to be way, way too similar to the bananapants Trump character that Brian created for his sci-fi/time-travel/pseudo-hagiography/comedy book, except the real Trump had real power to ruin real people’s lives.
He and I have often mused about the prospects of creating some new venue for political satire in the form of blogs or podcasts, but we always run into the same brick wall. How do you do funny-smart without just winding up sobbing?
This was how I felt about the video “Weird Al” Yankovic (who is one of my heroes) did with the auto-tune masters, the Gregory Brothers, about the Trump-Biden debate for the New York Times. To me, that debate was traumatizing, a national tragedy. Perhaps I’m over-sensitive about this kind of thing, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling psychologically injured by that event. But Yankovic’s video treated the debate like it was any other conventional debate between two conventional candidates. “Who’s it gonna be?” was the musical refrain, as though it didn’t really matter in the end. I don’t think Yankovic or the Gregory Brothers actually feel that way, but that’s how their video made it seem, that the two figures on stage were equally worthy of being satirized.
Turning a debate into an overblown music video works when it’s yet-another set two dudes in suits parroting the same predictable, boring talking points, and the stakes aren’t all that high. But this wasn’t that. It was the tearing of an already-open wound. I’m sorry, Al. I love you, deeply, but there’s nothing funny about this moment. Not now, anyway.
But here’s the thing about Brian’s fake Trump autobiography: It really isgoddamn funny. The plausibility of Trump speaking about himself as a long-reining god-emperor who falls in love with a future robot version of himself, and leads a liberation rescue team that includes Chris Christie and Ted Cruz to put an end to the “Mexican rape fields,” is what makes it funny. Trumped Up reads like it came right out of the real Donald Trump’s mind. Which is what also makes it uncomfortable.
Maybe that’s part of why it works, and why something like Brian’s book is necessary. It is funny and it’s uncomfortable, because it takes what we know about a political figure or moment and points to where it all leads.
In my own work, I’ve sort of accidentally stumbled upon a twist on political satire that I might keep exploring, something like “aspirational satire.” It started when I wrote a resignation speech for Trump at the time of his attacks on protesters outside the White House for his Bible photo-op. I knew he wouldn’t resign, but I found the fantasy of his doing so irresistible. If it couldn’t be real, I’d at least indulge my wish with some amusing fiction.
He obviously would never use the speech I wrote, as I make references to how shady the 2000 outcome was, but the stuff I wrote about looking to Al Gore’s concession in 2000 is, I think, absolutely on point, and something a real speech by President Bush could and should bring up as a contrast to the expected behavior of a defeated Trump.
For me, this aspirational satire works because it doesn’t mire us in the current moment, but rather allows us to exist, temporarily, in a place where the horrors of the now are exploded in a favorable way. Their plausible absurdity makes them feel safe to laugh at, and maybe just a little bit hopeful.
If there is a post-Trump world, maybe old-school satire will feel good again. For that to happen, I think politics need to get a little more boring, and a lot less terrifying. That’s when we’ll once again have the emotional energy to laugh. Oh, there they go again, those stuffed suits and their empty sound bites. It’ll be bliss.
For me, today was Election Day. I got my ballot in the mail, I filled it out (it’s a ranked choice ballot, which is GREAT, but there’s nothing worth ranking this year; there are no “second choices”), drove over to the local ballot drop box, and SAVED DEMOCRACY.
I was as excited as a little kid getting a new toy when my ballot arrived, and I tried to make a big, fun deal out of filling it out, but no one else in the house seemed to be on the same wavelength. (“Don’t you usually get to vote?” asked my son, as if that very fact weren’t something worth celebrating.)
WHATEVER. I don’t get excited about almost anything anymore (why would I?), so if something sparks enthusiasm in me andit’s part of the effort to save the world, you better believe I’m going to get goofy. Election Day — or Election Month or Election Season — is a momentous occasion, no matter what the buzzkills I live with think. WOO, VOTING!
I have no idea what’s going on in my state. Last year, I started a subscription to the Portland Press Herald (digital with print on Sundays) because I wanted to be better informed about the place I live, not just in terms of its government and politics, but to learn more about the lives and cultures of the people of Maine, a state I’ve now lived in for almost a decade.
I read a lot of it the first couple of weeks. Then I just read from the print Sunday edition. Then I just did the included New York Times crossword. And then I more or less forgot about it.
National news — more specifically, national political news — is all-consuming to me, but it covers that which is many times removed from me. It doesn’t affect me from day to day, nor do I have the capacity to do anything about what I learn. It would make much more sense for me to be more engaged with the goings-on of my state and municipality, which does directly affect my life, and especially the lives of my kids. It’s not nearly as soap-operatic as the titanic struggles over the soul of the nation happening in the presidential election, but it’s just as meaningful. Maybe more so?
So as we careen toward what I hope to Zod is the reasonable conclusion of this election, maybe it’s time to start refocusing on what’s going on closer to home. Regardless of what happens November 3, I know I can’t have any meaningful influence on what goes on in Washington.
But Augusta? Maybe.
In my own town? Surely.
Something to think about.
The most powerful man in the world gets COVID-19 (because of course he did), and after being given the best care available to anyone in the world, he declares that getting the disease and then recovering makes him feel 20 years better.
Meanwhile, I have to sit in my car in order to watch my daughter’s soccer practice, in which the kids play maskless. None of it makes sense. And that’s what the second episode of my podcast-vlog-monologue thing tries to capture. You can watch it here or listen to it here.
I said there would be a podcast coming, right? I think I meant that about 60 percent seriously. Well guess what! A podcast I declared, and a podcast I have made. After a few frustrating stabs at a more “professional” sounding audio product, I opted to go for something more personal and informal. So the new Near-Earth Object podcast was recorded, audio and video, from a bench beside a river. I kind of like how it turned out, and who knows where I might record the next one.
The audio podcast is making its way through the various tubes of several podcast apps and services, (here it is at Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Podbean, to start) but I presume it will be widely available by the time you read this. I hope you like it.
I’m thinking about normalcy. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the abnormality of the crisis-buffet from which we are being force-fed, the so-called “new normal,” does not seem to be causing some kind of great awakening, but rather the “old normal” is clawing its way back.
But then the president got the coronavirus. And it dawned on me, well, of course he did. And the fact that he got it (along with all the other folks who got it with or from him) just meant that things operating, well, normally. The times aren’t normal, but the way humans react to the abnormal times, and the way natural phenomenon like viruses behave, are normal.
And even though none of this means that things are just fine, or that things will get meaningfully better, it is, weirdly, comforting. Read the whole thing.
In other news, I’ve rewatched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time in many, many years in preparation for checking out the new Netflix show Ratched. Some quick thoughts:
Go watch Cuckoo’s Nest, whether you’ve seen it before or not, and just revel in the masterful acting work being done by this ensemble without parallel.
Watching Cuckoo’s Nest will in no way prepare you for the show Ratched. Four episodes in, the only connection between the movie and the TV show is the fact that it’s about a stern psychiatric nurse with the same name in the time just before the events of the movie. The Nurse Ratched as excellently performed by Sarah Paulson in the TV show seems, at this stage, to have nothing to do with the character as so exquisitely performed by Louise Fletcher in 1975. Don’t try to square that circle. It’s just something else.
All that said, I still can’t tell if Ratched is brilliant, ridiculous, overindulgent, insipid, visionary, a curious novelty, or some mixture of all of that. But the fact that I still don’t know must say something good about it.
Here’s a way for me to talk about my response to last night’s debate.
In the parking lot at the grocery store today, I saw a man, who appeared to be in his 60s, returning to his car with his groceries. He was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Trump campaign logo on the front and “No Basement Joe” on the back.
Adjusting my face mask before walking into the store and catching sight of this fellow, my mind immediately recalled the depravity displayed by Donald Trump the night before at that horror-show of a debate. For a brief moment, my brain struggled to comprehend how anyone—including a presumably sane, sentient human being like the man in the parking lot—could witness the trauma Trump had inflicted on us all and still support him. Worse yet, this man was proudly advertising his continued devotion to the president the fascism-for-idiots he personified on that stage.
And in that moment, I felt hate for that man. To be clear: this was not okay. I know nothing about this person. Merely presuming that this man understands what Trump is and what he represents, I could come to no other conclusion that this man must be evil.
Of course, I have no idea if that’s so. I have no idea what this man is like. I have no idea what he knows and does not know. I know nothing of his life story beyond what could be gleaned by a few seconds passing in a parking lot.
It scares me, that I felt that way. But in noticing that sudden shock of hate in myself, I then considered how deeply and fiercely Trump and his cult have driven their followers to hate, and I became doubly frightened. I experienced a moment of hate, of indignant rage at the moral vacuum I assumed to reside in this stranger’s heart. Just imagine, then, the cauldrons of hate, like geological quantities of magma, seething within those who feel represented by Donald Trump.
For the few seconds that I burned, I struggled to come up with some imaginary scenario in which I might confront this fellow and set him straight. Absurd, of course.
But what about the millions of people, bubbling with hate, and being told to expect their enemies to deny their leader his power—and therefore, in their minds, their power.
I’m very worried about what scenarios they are imagining. I’ve very worried about that.
What I’m also thinking about:
How not to think about everything going on. M.G. Ziegler says, “I think in many ways we can only live through times like these by not stopping to think about them.” I don’t feel like I have that luxury.
So go easy on yourself. Try not to think about the future. Instead, think about the present. How can you win the next hour, the next day? How can you be of most value — to yourself, to your family, to your community, and to the earth itself? You still have the incorruptible capacity to create joy, and catalyze change. No one can take that away from you, no matter how dark they dim the lights.
That’s true. But while one’s capacity might be incorruptible, it is not inexhaustible. And I’m pretty exhausted.
I would ask you, dear reader, to remember the next-to-last thing that social media taught you to be outraged about. I bet you can remember only the last one. …
You can readily see, I suspect, how information overload and social acceleration work together to create a paralyzing feedback loop, pressing us to practice continually [informational] triage … forcing our judgments about what to pay attention to, what to think about, to become ever more peremptory and irreversible. … And all this has the further effect of locking us into the present moment. There’s no time to think about anything else than the Now, and the not-Now increasingly takes on the character of an unwelcome and, in its otherness, even befouling imposition.