The last few days since I got out of the hospital have been quite good and happy in our little household, certainly trending in the right direction. For one thing, to make a long story short, Jenny managed to extricate herself from a regrettable work situation that was really no one’s fault, but that had left her feeling increasingly miserable and exhausted throughout July. She did it in a way that left no one unhappy, and that made her feel liberated and me proud. The next challenge, for each of us and for us jointly, is “Now what?” But then, that’s everybody’s challenge.
One thing I’m trying to remind myself is that it’s not necessary to be frantic, largely because it’s not like life is stable or predictable for any of the people I work with either. And Jenny and I are not financially secure, but we don’t have the urgent fears about merely paying the household bills that millions are facing on the first day of this new month. And I have a couple arrows in my freelance writing-and-editing quiver that are keeping me busy and optimistic. And I see that – optimism – as invaluable.
One of my current projects is collaborating with Eugene Smith on his memoir Back to the World: A Life after Jonestown. When Eugene’s book is published, it will be the first-ever book-length memoir by a Black man of the infamous mass murder-suicide incident that took place in Guyana on November 18, 1978. That is important in itself. Eugene also has a lifetime’s store of hard-earned wisdom to share, based on the sustained feat he has accomplished of surviving survival, as he puts it – living a self-sufficient, productive, and useful adult life over the forty-plus years since Jonestown.
Eugene and I spent a total of something like eight hours on the phone Thursday and Friday, filling in some of the remaining gaps in his story as we hurtle – in what’s now feeling to me like a good way – toward our deadline for turning in the manuscript. The collaboration feels to me fruitful and professionally gratifying, and I think it suits Eugene’s needs as well. As he put it the other day, “You write; I ad-lib.” Here’s a sample from our work of these past couple days:
Having as much past in you as I do, and not being able to say anything about it, ages you. … It’s irritating to me that, four decades later, we’re going through all this all over again. It’s corrosive, it’s toxic, it’s depressing, it’s bewildering. What was the point of going through everything, just to end up with this result, which is a non-result? Americans today are not committing suicide, but they’re being killed all the same. Do we have a death cult? Who’s the nut? Where’s the cult at? Are they drinking Flavor Aid, or are they drinking disinfectant? Or are they refusing to wear masks?
On Wednesday I got an unusually chatty email from my mom, who will turn 82 this coming Friday. She used to tend to be too busy to chat a whole lot, which is a good thing, or at least characteristic of what makes her tick. I’ve been feeling a little concerned about her lately because in normal times she’s way into civic life in Colorado Springs, always heading off to a luncheon or board meeting somewhere. She reassured me:
I am doing well. I enjoy my PILLAR classes on Zoom. I have signed up for 12 of them this trimester, and each so far has been excellent. Next Tuesday, Skip [lady next door] and I will learn about the Navajo Code Talkers – they have fascinated me since I learned quite a bit about them when I judged a National History Day competition in Denver a few years ago. One student prepared an extensive trifold that provided wonderful photos and accounts.
As to the concerts, the Philharmonic had what they called “Interludes” where individual musicians were interviewed about their lives and their instruments. Those one-hour times were great; they ended in late June. Skip and I mentioned just yesterday that we do miss the Phil concerts a lot.
Yes, Board meetings continue on Zoom … Citizens Project is seeking a new Executive Director, so that will keep us busy. The Youth Symphony has had its challenges with online auditions for the coming year. We moved into a new building at the end of June – it is a church that has plenty of rooms for practices and concerts. The (former) sanctuary is huge, and the musicians are getting ready for the year. This is the first time in 40 years that the Youth Symphony has been in one building. …
As for social contacts, I have regular “Friendship Zooms” with friends just to catch up. I have one at 2:00 today with my two good friends, Paula and Phyllis. Those are fun!
Thanks for asking about how I’m doing – I am doing well, day by day … I am getting a lot of reading done (political articles, Trevor Noah’s memoir …). Times were not easy for him. His mother provided strict guidance, and he was always in trouble!
One last thing for now: Nikki Haley has been on my mind, and I think the only way I’ll be able to exorcise her is to write about her. Normally I try to keep malevolent mediocrities of her ilk off my radar, but something she tweeted on July 23 – mind you, I don’t “follow” her; someone I do follow must have retweeted her – got under my skin: “Any coronavirus cure will be thanks to capitalism.” (She added two emojis: a heart and an American flag.)
Laying aside the more general problem I have with so much of our national life, such as it is, being conducted via social media, Haley’s drive-by bullying claim – almost a kind of Zen statement, but in a bad way – has a subtext that’s concealed barely, if at all. It goes like this: If there ever is a vaccine, we must all bend the knee in humble gratitude and supplication to the mighty god Capitalism. Conversely, if there never is a vaccine, then just too damn bad for all you dead losers, because the only thing that matters is Capitalism. And the fact that you losers are now dead just proves you were losers all along.
I’m not the first to note that there’s Oz-like mumbo-jumbo going on here. It’s helpful to remember what the reality behind the curtain in the Emerald City turned out to be. Haley is really, unawares, expressing a kind of despair. It’s similar and related to those conspiracy theories about Dr. Fauci that have been going around. Too many Americans have been too well trained for too long to believe that it’s not plausible for anyone in public life to have motives other than ulterior ones. In exactly the same vein, Detroit Tigers president (and legendary ex-University of Michigan football coach, blah blah) Bo Schembechler told Detroit Monthly magazine in July 1991, about the Tiger Stadium Fan Club:
Way overplayed for as much power as they wield. It’s just too bad that you media people run to ’em, because there’s a lot of self-interest there. They’re not fans of the stadium or the ballclub. They represent themselves. They’re all politically motivated. I think they want to run for some kind of office. The head of that outfit will be on the ballot before too long.
That quote caused a stir of indignation among my friends in the fan club, which I could see with my own eyes was a genuine grassroots activist group made up of ordinary baseball fans who were also earnest citizens. One of them, Eva Navarro, said to me:
I’m a legal secretary. I’ve never had any political aspirations. We do represent the fans, because we are the fans. The [Tigers vice president] Bill Haases and Bo Schembechlers are not the fans. [Tigers owner and Domino’s Pizza founder] Tom Monaghan, who flies in in his helicopter a couple of times a year, is not a fan. It’s insulting, because what he’s saying is that nobody does anything for free. That there aren’t people out there that care about something, that believe enough about something, that they’re willing to take a stand and fight for it.
The fact that those two juxtaposed quotes are from nearly thirty years ago but still relevant is, as Eugene Smith says, corrosive, toxic, depressing, and bewildering.
Part of what’s deadly wrong about Nikki Haley’s chilling tweet is the primacy it presumes of commercial over professional values. But beyond even professionalism (and sometimes in tension with it) is vocation, a sense of being called or driven to do work because it’s yours to do. Or, here’s a wacky notion: doing something because it needs to be done, otherwise known as making ourselves useful.
My recent hospital stay reminded me of how awesome nurses are. Nurses are unionized, by the way, and if some of them make in the upper five figures, or even higher, as I gather some do, then good for them. People who do important work on behalf of others and of society at large should make that kind of money, and people who don’t – like Nikki Haley – shouldn’t. Getting into that income bracket was certainly one of my own aspirations, back when that still seemed achievable.
My bottom line is that I don’t want to live in a world where the profit motive is the only motive that’s given any respect. In fact, this is not such a world, you can’t make it one by fiat or any other contrivance, and you have no right or grounds to tell me that it is one.