Yesterday I woke up in the dark to a sound like jet airplanes directly above the house. It wasn’t airplanes. It was a sudden, heavy, and sustained gust of wind through the dark ponderosas. Then came flashes of lightning that lit up the room, like some scene from a horror movie, and then basso-profundo rolls of thunder that vibrated the floor and woke up the dogs. And then the morning sky, still dark but ripening, opened up with hailstones. It hailed hard for about ten minutes, enough to cover the ground outside and turn the world momentarily white. And when the hail finally stopped it began to rain again.
Our oldest dog has always been afraid of thunder. He’s blind, and deaf, but he could feel the thunder in his bones. He put his chin against my knee where I stood in the window, watching. Later, at lunch, sitting in my pickup in the rain, I gave him some beer-battered French fries and half of my sandwich.
This morning we also learned that President Joseph Robinette Biden fell from his bicycle. At a dead stop. He got his foot caught in the pedals, apparently, and down he went while an ocean of auto-shutters went suddenly cyclic. This is an important metaphor. In 1902 Teddy Roosevelt was tossed from his laundau when Pittsfield Electric Railway Car #29, a runaway, broadsided him on South Street. A horse and a Secret Service agent died in the collision. Roosevelt, thrown from his carriage, and whose face swelled up like a basketball, brushed off some dirt and horseshit and then went about the Presidential business. This is also a metaphor.
George Bush choking out on a pretzel wedged in his throat and slamming his head into a table, Joe Biden falling down, or up, as the case may be, various flights of stairs and toppling over on his bicycle while at a dead stop, are sizable clues. To something. They are clues in the same way that photos of Putin fly-fishing shirtless in the Urals, sitting at one end of a table thirty yards long, or judo-tossing a mope are clues. They aren’t definitive of anything, necessarily, but they are clues meant to point us in some direction. Maybe the better investigative term is leads. Aren’t they? It’s possible to make too much of optics in the same way it’s possible to make too little of them. The larger point is that in the era of JR Biden—and he will be the brightly painted totem for this bananas epoch–up is often declared to be down, down is sworn to be up, and personal responsibility is for suckers who don’t have a billion twitter followers. The point is that as of this writing the nation lacks appreciable ballast, and ships without ballast tend to capsize.
The long and fruitful days of summer approacheth. Not without evidence I begin to fear we are, collectively, in a race to the bottom. We are third-worlding the grand experiment. A series of simple questions: is anything easier than it was five years ago? Ten? Fifty? Is anything less expensive? Are there less criminals in the city park? Does a pound of meth cost less? Are there fewer school shootings? Recently, it took me four different phone calls with polite but sad-sounding women in the Philippines, and two more with stupid-sounding people in the United States, to change the pin number on my debit card. Fully half of each of those conversations was me punching various numbers into my phone, or telling a robot “Change pin number” or telling it “Yes,” or “No,” or “customer service,” or declining to conduct the call in Spanish. In the end, when I had survived an hour in this digital labyrinth, I was greeted by a coked-up robot who told me that my call was important, but that it would be at least an hour before a human would make it to the phone.
I hung up. My pin number remains unchanged.
Also, I filled up my truck with diesel yesterday, an overt act of deranged consumerism that cost me $200.00. I would argue for more horses but apparently bovine and equine flatulence is wrecking the environment and the price for a ton of hay is probably going to reach 500 bucks before the end of summer. So it’s a wash. Also, I note a strange trend in marketing these days, which offers the idea of staying in your home as a great solution to most problems. If the thing they are selling you keeps you confined to quarters the world is a better place and your life has improved. That’s the message. Watch for it, and for the jazzy jingles that sell it.
The good news is that toss-toy season in Yellowstone—that brief window of time each summer where urban morons who think a Patagonia puffy jacket and a Co-Exist bumper sticker make them spiritual black belts, and that they can cosmically commune with bull bison who traditionally give zero fucks–and so end up gored on viral Tik Tok videos–has been forestalled by flooding. The park is closed. This secretly delights the Park Rangers who also hate tourists and want it all for themselves, but will be just another economic trapdoor for those towns around the park where tourists are sincerely despised but who depend on summer sticky dollars. Red Lodge, where my wife and I have spent considerable time, became a riverbottom overnight, and we’ve all seen video of intact houses floating down the Yellowstone.
Cue the climate deacons.
Whether it rains or snows or we descend into long cycles of drought, or flood, or get battered by tornados, the town cryers go about banging their triangles and the climate priests crawl into their vestments and proclamations of doom are read in the public square. Repent, for the end is nigh! These people are stuffed so full of doom and despair and apocalypse, and even superstition, it’s difficult for me to see them outside of a religious context.
The climate Jesuits may be driving EVs, sipping soy lattés and condemning, with extreme prejudice, the Joel Osteens of the world, but their rackets are built on the same principle, preach the same fevered promise of apocalypse and a singular path to eternal salvation, and operate relentlessly on a penitent’s understanding of sin. It’s true enough that all new Gods—particularly if they are meant to replace the old ones–must be slickly packaged, marketed, and sold with a promise of grace. And it is the rare builder of a new temple who tolerates a skeptic. What they also share is a seething hatred of anyone who questions their message. They lie about that, but it’s true. Forced conversions, torture, murder, or enslavement are always a part of that equation because whether it is Zeus, Allah, or Science, all Gods and their priests tend to share the same essential diktat: thou shalt have no other Gods before me.
Also, as George Carlin noted before he gave up and turned into an unfunny vessel of anger and darkness, God always needs money. Joel Osteen, Black Lives Matter, and the Sierra Club share an excellent business model. They are on an endless quest for converts and heavy tithers—and pushing their tracts–because money doesn’t hide itself in the bathroom walls of a megachurch and more importantly Teslas and toney houses in Topanga Canyon aren’t going to just buy themselves.
I hate to say it, as I sit here clinging to my guns, my old religion, and weird notions of independent agency, but in many ways we, the vast majority of us, are simply Billy Budd. We’ve been pressed into service. That’s the genius of Melville’s story, of course: we all want to see ourselves as Billy Budd. He was always the tragic hero, too beautiful to live, whose flawless performance of his duties and insouciant refusal to take a knee drove men to madness. It drove them to murder. But there is something else, something key in his character that I think is closest to the mindset I must find as I am pressed into service in this strange era. Melville wrote of Billy: “As to his enforced enlistment, that he seemed to take pretty much as he was wont to take any vicissitude of weather. Like the animals, though no philosopher, he was, without knowing it, practically a fatalist. And it may be that he rather liked this adventurous turn in his affairs, which promised an opening into novel scenes and martial excitements.”
I don’t think I’m a fatalist. Not yet. But I’m also not sure, which may be the sound of one hand clapping. Yesterday we hung the hummingbird feeder—1 part sugar, 4 parts water—and this morning the hummingbirds were attacking it en masse. I could see only beauty in it, not fate. And I lean heavily toward the promise of novel scenes and the potential for martial excitement.
The thing is, I’m falling in love again. It’s spring, despite the thunder and hailstorms and relentless wind off the Cascades, and I have not been able to resist the success of my favorite baseball team. That’s been a stormy relationship because several years ago the players on that team committed an act of politics I found personally insulting. It was insulting enough that I turned away. Forswore them. It was a bad divorce. I filed for that divorce because, like Billy Budd, I will die with my hard won integrity but I will never take a knee. Ever. I don’t think Abe Lincoln, who signed the order creating the Secret Service on the day he was assassinated, would either.
Thing is, I haven’t been a baseball fan for fifty years because I’m interested in a Major League Baseball team’s politics. I watch because of the rich history of the game, the bang-bang plays at first, old grudges renewed with chin music, and plays at the plate. I watch because I love a great hitting streak and a perfect game broken up with two out in the bottom of the ninth. I love the occasional bench-clearing push and shove, and Derek Jeter bashing his face while selling out for a foul ball in the stands. I love a grown man catching a foul ball and giving it to some kid he doesn’t know. I love Billy Martin getting in George Brett’s delicate bubble by way of pine tar, and I laugh at corked bat scandals and Rollie Fingers greasing up a fastball. I love Joe Niekro tossing off an emery board as if the entire world couldn’t see him do it. I love the ugly, beautiful, infuriating, hilarious–this is our crazy family–spirit and promise of a charming game that can’t end in a tie and has no game clock. So when they did that, when they put all that aside for a cynical, corrupt, and opportunistic political brand and insulted me with assumptions, I turned away the same way I would turn away from a good friend who could not stop putting alcohol above everything else. At some point, he made his own bed, and at some point he has to sleep in it alone.
But this spring I’m back. I have forgiven but I have not forgotten, and that’s a good place to be. I’m back to a glass of wine on the back porch with the dogs in the afternoon, watching the birds in the trees and the horses in their secret world down at the barn. I’m back to afternoons in the sunlight, listening to baseball on the radio with my wife, and musing absently about the first aerial dogfight, down in old Mexico, where the pilots flew lawn mower engines, wore big mustaches and goggles, and shot at each other from open cockpits with pistols.
Truth is, we’ve come through a long, dark, night in the last few years. Most of us. Some of us didn’t make it. But I don’t have to tell you about it because you were there too. The pain, anguish, and uncertainty are real. They always have been. But so are the joys and the triumphs and the ability to fall back in love with something. Fatalist or not, sober or stoned, I have to believe there is light up above. I just can’t bring myself to do otherwise. To be certain it’s faint—it’s always faint. It’s like that weird phenomenon when you look into the night sky and can only see a star by looking slightly away from it. And so I’m just doing that thing, standing outside in the dark and looking, looking askance, looking back again. There is a star there, I know it’s just right there, but the sonofabitch won’t let me look him in the eye.