Thursday, August 06, 2015

Reality Sleights

Let me tell you about the time the wall between me and a complete mental breakdown got as thin as it has ever gotten. I will have to fudge some of the facts because I sort of blacked out. I don't mean that I fainted, and took a header, I mean that my eyes were open and I was talking and I don't remember a lot of what happened.

President George W. Bush had just been re-elected.

I know. You just rolled your eyes. I get it. If you're younger than 30, that just sounds weird, if you're older than 40, it sounds obnoxious, but if you happen to be in your 30's, maybe you can put your annoyance or indifference aside for a moment. Please.

If you ever get the chance, you should really listen to Dan Carlin's most excellent history podcast, Hardcore History. In an episode about the Cold War and the Red Scare, Carlin admits that most of his listeners will be baffled at how people in those days acted. Hiding under desks for fear of nuclear bombs falling on Duluth? Hysteria that communists were poisoning the minds of American Youth? It all seems so ridiculous, but that's just because we know how it ended.

Carlin roughly explains it this way: judging people in history is a bit like watching an old sports game, when you have nothing on the line and you know how the game ends. Living history is like watching a live sports game on which you have bet every cent you have and you have no idea what going to happen. If that's that case, you're so aware of every single detail that could affect the outcome of the game: is it a home game? Is it raining? They playing on turf or grass? Is the quarter back getting a divorce? Didn't the running back have a cold last week?

All I can say is that it felt like I had put every cent I had on a game where the odds at least felt like so crazy in my favor I couldn't help but win. To lose, something really insane would have to happen: up would have to become down.

And because we know how it all ended, it's hard to describe the sort of sadness the Bush presidency engendered for a particular subset of people. It wasn't just sadness; it was eight years of marrow-deep existential dread mixed with childlike confusion.

If I can pin this potent dread/confusion mix on anything it is the fact that reality was not being... Validated? I guess is the word I'm thinking of.

(There is a reason I am writing this on my personal blog and not anywhere else -- I don't quite have my mind wrapped around how I want to say what I want to say.)

Turns out? Up became down.

One of the things that I think that is so gratifying about the current Presidency is that our country's laws are reflecting reality. A lot of Americans are gay and basically already live as married couples, but they wanted the right to get married -- now they can. For eight years it felt like the most powerful voices in the country, and therefore the world, were basically trying to convince us all that, you know, there really aren't that many gay people, so why all the hullabaloo? Every American who needs medical help already has it and could pay for more if they want! We don't need healthcare reform!

We are going to find weapons of mass destruction!

(I have to pause here and feel my stomach fill with battery acid, and that wave of dread and confusion build up again because... It's how long now? And no one knows why we went to Iraq, everyone who got us there are just out in the world, being provosts and painting therapeutic paintings of feet and puppies, being millionaires, and we can't do anything about Syria because people are still so tired and broken hearted. We still don't know how many Iraqis have died. Not even Frontline has been able to figure out what we were doing in Iraq, and Frontline knows everything. If Frontline told me that brushing my teeth with shards of broken glass was a good idea, I'd reach for a hammer.)

"We are going to find weapons of mass destruction!"

Once my mom and I were driving home and at a red light, a man was literally kicking a puppy across the cross walk. More than anything, I was just confused. Who kicks a puppy? At all, sure, but also in public? (I got out of the car, grabbed the puppy and we had a new family dog.)

What I'm trying to say that the Bush presidency felt like every day was a different version of "That guy is drop kicking a puppy across the street! Who kicks a puppy? Someone has to do something! Why is no one doing anything! We can't agree that kicking a puppy isn't a good thing to do!?"

The entirety of the 2004 election felt like, oh good, we as Americans are going to get together and agree on reality. We can all agree kicking puppies is a bad idea!

But then we didn't all agree. I stayed up for 48 hours. I watched news constantly while reading every newspaper I could think of, looking for a reason this was happening; truthiness was beating out over truth.  Reality was not being validated. I called home, crying hysterically, and then collapsed into bed for three days, exhausted and broken hearted. I barely ate. It was bad.

On the fourth day, my roommate tentatively knocked on my door and announced she was taking me to the Poughkeepsie Mall to see a movie -- I needed to get out.

So. Back to me blacking out with my eyes open.

I don't have any idea what movie we were there to see, but I do remember that it started because of a diet Coke. I ordered, as I always do, a medium diet Coke and a bag of peanut M&M's. And when the diet Coke came, from the nice lady behind the counter, I noticed that it was bigger than my head. The medium size.

And I was off to the races.

I don't really remember what I started cry-yelling, but I remember it went on a long time, and that it basically boiled down to: "I thought no one would kick a puppy, and it turns out we are a nation of puppy kickers. I wasn't just wrong, I fundamentally misunderstood the universe."

I woke up about 2 hours later, in the car on the way home to Vassar, looking at the red leaves of autumn, the window rolled down and cold air in my face.

(...Because I'm pretty sure my friend thought I was going to hurl.)


I was young and naive and privileged and sensitive and Romantic, and in the course of about five months, I grew up a lot and it was painful. But there was one bright light:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart validated reality. He pointed out the huge gap between what we were being told was happening, and what was really happening. Before the catharsis of watching Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondence Dinner, or listening to Arcade Fire's "Neon Bible," (a sprawling cri de coeur, filled with dread and apathy) there was the communion of sitting down to hear your friend Jon tell you what was really happening. More than that...

Watching the Daily Show didn't just tell you what happened, it told you that you weren't crazy-- it is wrong to kick puppies!

Which is fine and dandy, and that there would be enough to earn my love -- tell me I'm right! Validate my fears and point of view!

But what makes the Daily Show more than all of that?

The fact that it was funny.

Catharsis and validation are nice, sure, but you know what's better than being told that you're right? Getting to listen to people who are smarter than you ask the questions and tell the jokes that make everything else seem like background noise.

I don't really know how to describe what I mean, but I guess this is as close as I'll get: the Daily Show with Jon Stewart didn't aim to "eviscerate" or "demolish," or be some beacon of truth in the world, it just aimed to be funny. And in aiming to be funny, it ended up being a more powerful steward of truth.

It's like a Joni Mitchell record.

Sure, she has had a long, interesting career, and I hope she keeps making music for a long time. At the same time... It's really those 5 records we love. We love them so, so, much. Not just because they're good, which they are, but because they're classic. A classic is something that never ages. "Blue" could have come out Nashville last year. "For the Roses," could be from some neurotic Williamsburg singer song writer. You cannot say the same thing about "Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm" or "Dog Eat Dog," or hey, how about 1977's "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" in which JONI MITCHELL IS IN BLACK FACE DRAG ON THE COVER.

I'm glad Joni has all those records because she's an artist, she has to create. But they're not all classics. A classic is just... better. It's the best.

Were there other things that made me feel better during the Bush presidency? Sure. But for every "Neon Bible" there's 20 horrible protest songs. For every Colbert there are 450 bits that haven't aged very well.

When something is really funny, and I mean really, truly funny, it's just better than only being right. "Being right," exists in a time frame. It was right to hiding under the desks in Duluth. It was right use synthy keyboards on every pop song for a goddamn decade.

 But being funny? Being truly funny is classic because it lasts forever - it shows you reality and how funny and sad and lovely and awful the world is. It's real.

And I don't mean to say that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was always funny, or always right, for that matter, but when it was? It was classic.

And I'm so grateful.

Thank you, Jon.

 It's been real.