NeverNesters

lefty politics, Asheville real estate, and what to expect when you're not

The Commerce Between Us

Posted on July 23, 2018

This morning I met a 3-year-old and her little brother in the dentist’s office waiting room. In no time at all I went from perfect stranger to trusted confidant. I said “Hello” and the girl said “I’m Rapunzel.”

She had a slightly spooky way about her: her eyes swam constantly around eye contact with me, rolling in her cute rolling head, and she spent a healthy portion of our little talk slowly spinning. The story she told would’ve been pretty hard to follow anyway. It involved a being named (alternately) Tinkle or Twinkle, and something about bedtime and the night, and she said “wintuhs” a lot. Her little brother didn’t seem to know what to make of it either—or of me. He sat in a tiger chair everybody else wanted to sit in, glanced at me coyly, walked around a little table a few times, then flashed me a look at the card he was holding with a picture of a green animal-like blob on it.

“What’s that?” I asked. He was really proud of it, but this question vexed him.

“Osaur,” he finally managed.

Dinosaur,” his mom corrected happily. She’d been sitting opposite me filling out health forms, grateful I think for the assist. (“Do you have kids?” she’d asked earlier, smiling and nodding expectantly. My shake of the head aborted whatever exchange would’ve followed a positive response, like it always does… “Nephews and a niece,” I said, immediately second-guessing my honesty. For, reader, I confess: I want sometimes to spy into that moment, to feel the juice of that umbilical tether.

A nice man in a puffy Mets jacket recently sat down at the bar of my coffee shop and had a bagel with lox. Recent transplant from the Island. I said to him, “So, the Mets,” and he took on a philosophical air: “Whata you gonna do.” Instant cultural commerce between strangers. [Let us carve the new wood, said the young poet to the old poet, Let there be commerce between us.] No one sportsy is unfamiliar with this sensation. I imagine something similar links the victims of the white patriarchy in moments of white patriarchal egregiousness: pulses of empathy throbbed across the synaptic gulfs between people otherwise unknown to each other, instants of engagement—as fleeting as a Facebook scroll’s—in which a person is a picture worth a thousand words, never mind the authorship.

But I get away from myself. My point is: she asks, I lie, say “Just had our first” or “Two of the little devils” or whatever, what nutso parental emotion rays would she’ve beamed back my way? I imagine it’s a cross between the connection people make with strangers witnessing something wild together—the uncorked-ecstatic Can you believe this shit? you might get at shows or ballgames [which really do lead people to high-five perfect strangers], but sleepier—and that between veterans of wars, who need merely confirm that another had been there to achieve a grim transcendent understanding language could only have approximated.

imagine it’s like that, ’cause that’s all I can do. The childless do not spark conversations across waiting rooms devoid of children by saying, “Hey, you childless?”)

At some point I said to the mom, “It’s like they’re talking in their sleep,” and she did the puppet-with-her-hand-that-jabbers-and-jabbers-and-jabbers. But the more I thought about it, the more apt an analogy it became.

Not for all intents and purposes, but for a lot of them, childhood is a dream. Think about it! The dreamstate of being a kid, the dreamy babbling. Remembering your childhood: the inability to vividly recall, the pieces that float up into your waking adult days, tripped by some random adjacency… The faces we recall might have the wrong names and vice versa. And consider how dreamlike a child’s days must be! “A nice stranger struck up a conversation with us in a room where grownups wait. My sister spun and talked to him about Twinkle and wintuhs. I showed him my dinosaur and then attacked a sofa at a running start. Plowed into it headfirst. Why not? My chair was a tiger.”

Dreaming then can be understood as a dip back into childhood, where we are always surrounded by strangers yet somehow at the same time safe under a veil of normalcy. (Except for moments of cold panic, of course, which in our dreams we are as like as not to experience for bizarre reasons. Similarly, kids are lousy threat assessors, charmed by fire and completely losing their shit if made to look at a piece of fruit, say.)

A dream is the mind playing when the body is at its most helpless: a nightly state of childhood. My sister spun, I ran growling into a sofa, mom all the while filling out paperwork FOREVER….

I read this to A. and she says “It makes you think, are we looking for chaos?” “When?” I ask. “When we dream,” she says, “I mean when was the last time you had a boring dream? I go to bed all the time thinking: Geez, can I just go grocery shopping or something? Instead of being—I don’t know—raped by an alligator? But no.”

Even kids as kids aren’t very good at remembering things. Their brains are plastic, and sieves, and a gigantic impossibly alien world is pouring through them at all times. Where did I put that toy I was playing with eleven seconds ago? Where is the thing that I am looking at right now—right this second—this thing that I am literally describing right this second and looking at and not seeing? Where is it?

“It’s right there, dude.”

“Oh.”

Maybe childhood invents dreaming, and that’s why we’re often so silly, oblivious and incapable in our dreams.

My first memory of a dream is waking up from a nightmare of a lion chasing me. I walked into my parents’ room and woke up my mom. She told me to go back to sleep and tell the lion to leave me alone. It worked! Maybe I remember it because it was the first time adult behavior influenced my dream. The boy in the dream had agency and fortitude. He’d learned from his elders. Maybe this was part of the waking-up process—which is analogous to getting older. Eventually we awaken even in our dreams.

(Awaken… What a word. Lord of mind. Light of days. “To spring into being, arise, originate…”

Believing it an effective form of self-hypnosis, etching words into the grapefruit of my brains, “saying” them in my head, I pray most nights. Mostly I pray for good dreams: entertaining, charming, frivolous, bright, funny, quirky, so on. Indie movies Greg Kinnear would star in. I pray for A.’s, too, since she’s for as long as I’ve known her been more or less terrorized by dreams at least a couple times a week. It works for me pretty well. Better at any rate than does praying for random pots of money or a miraculously single chin.)

As kids, the only domain we’re ever truly masters of is that of our dreams. If our eyes are open, someone else is in charge; if closed: free as the wind! For argument’s sake, consider Merlin, who as everybody knows was born in the extremity of his old age and then walked backwards through time. Informed already by a lifetime’s worth of vocabulary, experience and knowledge, Merlin would’ve cultivated a unique dreamlife actually impossible for the nonfictional person to imagine. But let’s give it a shot:

They’d be pretty much like real life, if flavored with a certain tang of senescence. Maybe random pains and forgetfulness would replace falling and unplanned nudity as dominant themes. Instead of flying, just getting around OK on your feet. But the idea of “dream logic” as a thing contrary to waking logic wouldn’t exist for Merlin. Forged in the set schema of an established mind, his dreams wouldn’t add much spice to his life. They’d be like watching a sequel of his day every night, instead of tuning in to a broadcast from a parallel but goofy universe. Merlin, we can be assured, dreamt of grocery shopping.

Which all suggests that as children we’re constructing a kind of time machine we’ll then inflict on our adult selves for the rest of their lives. As if to say:

You, you who just laid awake absorbed for some precious minutes of your life churning through your ever-updated itinerary of fears, you who’ve ranged so widely beyond your early limits that you like to think you’re only a distant relative of that helpless little guy who didn’t know shit from Shinola—yeah, when you sleep? That’s my house.

 

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The Gym

Posted on January 22, 2018

A typical moment at the end of a session at the new Gold’s down the street: I’m grody with sweat, pale with exertion, whiskers beaded, mostly avoiding my reflection in the mirror a foot away while holding heel to butt in my usual stretching routine. Behind me, to my left, a young barefoot gentleman with nice bulbed arms cuffs his thighs in turn, slapping them like he’s picking on them, like a mafioso screwing with his younger brother; the other guy, to my right, is arched over a large blue nipple, strenuously doing push-ups on his fists.

I’m on the treadmill, three and a half miles painted onto a yard of sweat-anointed rubber track when a maybe 65-year-old-woman, fatless and frizzy-haired, trots backwards into my field of vision, jazz-handsing. She comes to a stop at the wall, then tilts into it and pushes off without honestly–I mean really, she wasn’t even far away from it. This was a lean-in from kissing distance. Now she picks up the little medicine ball and kind of push-throws it down against the wall. I’m obsessed with her weird workout. Arielle must see her.

I mount the treadmill, hit “Quick Start”, log on the wi-fi, and my phone burps: Arielle saying: Niiiiiiice ass! 

I like the mobocracy of the gym, the flowing anarchic kind of silly mess of it, of all these bodies. Everyone out to better themselves, no one in charge, though there is probably a hierarchy of fitness. Were power to be wielded, it wouldn’t be the schlubby wielding it, regardless of what they parked outside. It would be the guy with the milk chocolate skin and the trim mohawk and the tiny camo shirts tucked among the furrows of his enormous scalloped muscles. Muscles like entire cats curled into his body. This guy, my friend overheard someone tell him: “Man, you keep workin’ out, you’re gonna look goofy!”

All the time I find myself being like: How is this co-ed? How cool is that? It seems very bold or adult or reckless of us. But everything has its limits. A. tells me of awkwardness in the stretching room. A guy next to her, in his activity, making frankly very undisguised sex grunts. We treadmill next to each other once while in front of us a very self-satisfied yogaist yogas her butt off, swanning and craning and flexing. After, A. is like: “How ’bout that yoga lady?”

Sometimes you want to draw people’s attention to the Sign of Rules, particularly the one that says No Grunting. A svelte salt-and-pepper-haired man with his back to the wall walks his hands backwards down it til he’s a bridge on the floor, each time at the same steps emitting these deep animal moans.

I ask Dan at work–Dan who just opened a Crossfit thing–Is it true you’re not supposed to stretch before exercising? He says Yeah, don’t do static stretching, like this, and he shows me pinning the heel to the butt, but dynamic stretching is good. What’s dynamic stretching? And he shows me cantering across the floor like a new horse. So I just stretch after.

At first I was like: Where did all these jocks come from? Who knew? It was a revelation to discover that PE really took for so many people. Guy with Cat-Sized Muscles, now he and those like him I think just clearly dedicate their entire lives to their bodies, but they’re the exception. Everybody else you get the feeling have regular jobs and relationships and just happen to somehow know all these bizarre workout techniques. How do all these people know all these bizarre techniques?

Then again, my Florida brother-in-law, Chris, who owns a fitness studio, says he can’t go to the gym anymore because everyone’s doing it wrong. It’s good for his business actually, ’cause they’re all going to end up needing physical therapy, which he does, but he doesn’t see it that way ’cause he’s a good guy. I resist telling Dan about the thing I read about millennials in their third decades on Earth high-intensity-training themselves into replacement hips.

People squatting under broad black weights, breathing through their teeth. People dangling from monkey bars, throwing themselves around, behaving improbably. Once I became confused watching a woman fold her upper torso down over a thing, holding a weight, and then straightening again. How can we move like that? Without using our arms or legs? How do we move?

Meatheads in their little shirts, sheened in sweat. Rangy fellas with thousand yard stares. Guys crowded with tatts. Big boys with football shoulders and thick calves. A bronzed Adonis with a man bun, lordly upon the stair stepper, writing–I imagine–poetry in his pocket-sized leather journal.

In the early days I watched this maybe 65-year-old-man with tattooed legs run six miles at 6.0 speed. He then taught me (by showing, not telling) that wet wipes exist you can clean up after yourself with, which I would’ve figured out myself I think had I spent a little more time at the Sign of Rules. There’s an older woman who walks pretty slowly, a hardback book opened on the display. An our-ageish lady who’s there a lot will bring a magazine from time to time, but mostly we’re plugged in. Arielle listens to special playlists of workout music, I to the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson. Some tune in I’m sure to the ubiquitous horror show of Fox News or CNN or the lesser hell of sports talk. That running man didn’t bring shit with him, though, and he’d staked the single best ‘mill from which to avoid television. This is my preferred ‘mill now.

Arielle tells me that one day in the stretching room there were just too many dudes. It was all dudes and her, and when one more came in she just had to get out of there. That week we’d watched the Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which the gang of mean teens get hypnotized by hyenas and eat their principal, and she said it just felt like hyenas gathering around her. She said too that one time in the sauna these two Americans (my adjective) were giggling confessionally about beans and farting. In the sauna!

I go a lot. I go enough that I develop little pockets of short patience and uncharitable thought. So many people spend so much time doing basically nothing! They idle around complex machines! They stand, idling! They stretch and stretch and move without conviction from one thing to the next! They wander in a desultory fashion! For this you pay $40 a month?

One man you would think works there, so often is he around, carousing with the real employees, but never seeming to exercise. We talk about him, A. and I, at night. I imitate his strange gait–left side less mobile or fluid than right. I’ve seen him so much, seen him just slowly walking so much that on the first try my imitation is fairly spot-on. It’s not uncanny, like the recent Kermit the Frog singing “Just one more sleep til Christmas” I unleashed from the passenger’s seat with Arielle driving, but pretty damn good. The next day I see him among the weights. He’s doing a little supervised thing with a trainer involving just his right or left side. Later, upon my treadmill, I mark that he makes a slow but complete circuit around the interior of the gym, stopping to chat up the employees at the front, before returning to the weights. In a flash it occurs to me that he could be rehabbing something. He was in a traffic accident or got knifed or used to be fat and suffer strokes. I feel bad. If that: Good on you, brother. Keep it up. You’re an inspiration to us all. But if not that: Fuck you, weirdo! Get a life!

Takeaways from the 2016 election for our leaders of tomorrow

Posted on November 9, 2016

It’s OK to insult everyone, lie 90% of the time, have no serious ideas, show an utter disregard for our institutions, and scorn the idea of preparing for stuff. Conservative voters are cool with all that.

It’s OK to make shit up about why you can’t release your tax returns. Conservative voters will buy it. And even a lot of them who know you’re lying will find a way to ignore it.

It’s OK to change just about every position you’ve ever publicly held in order to pander to evangelicals. Had a couple of front-page divorces and affairs? Can’t pronounce “II” correctly? On the record saying that women will let you grab them by the pussy if you’re famous? No problem. Conservative voters will let you off the hook.

Ascribe climate change to a Chinese hoax. Why not? Conservative voters don’t care about climate change anyway.

Don’t start small and work your way up in public service. Much preferable to the conservative voter is a background in casino bankruptcy and reality television. Because guess what? Running for office is easy! All you have to do is tell conservative voters that you’ll single-handedly resurrect entire irretrievable industries. They love that stuff. Also: see if you can wipe your ass with our founding documents while threatening to institute religious tests for refugees. Conservative voters will cheer you.

Go ahead and get endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan while you’re at it.

And remember: a campaign is not about ideas; it’s an opportunity to throw a temper tantrum. Conservative voters love a good temper tantrum.

To future Senate leaders and congresspeople: It’s OK to piss on the constitution for transparent political gain. It might work! And, either way, conservative voters don’t mind.

Also, whenever you have a sense of who you might run against four years down the road, it’s advisable to finance non-stop character assassination and witch hunts against that person with taxpayer dollars. Conservative voters won’t hold it against you.

Too, you should do everything in your power to make sure that the government basically doesn’t work. Don’t pass laws. Don’t confirm appointees. Hell, shut it down! Then run against it for being dysfunctional! Conservative voters eat that stuff up.

And if you ever think about becoming director of the FBI, it’s fine if you want to mess around a little bit with elections. Again: it might work! Anything for a W, right?

 

 

 

Calling People Stupid

Posted on July 8, 2016

In a recent New York Times editorial, a creative writing professor who drove five hours to attend the Trump rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, hypothesized that the Trump phenomenon is fueled by the collective desire of his fans for their own safe space.

(Leave it to an academic to link arguably the 21st century’s most and least progressive social movements: on one side, the paper-skinned, trigger-warned darlings of the institutional left, carving out free-speech-free zones on the quad and screaming down their liberal centrist elders, and on the other the yahoos hawking TRUMP THAT BITCH-branded merchandise to each other in the rustiest patches of the Rust Belt. But isn’t this precisely the sort of intellectual exercise Trump dismisses?)

His point was that the movement might actually have very little to do with the man himself. In Greensboro, he heard unchallenged vulgarities hurled at all the demographics you’d expect, witnessed people proudly unfurling their resentments, and saw sizable chunks of the audience tire of the ranting figure at the pulpit and leave in the middle. He scarcely heard the candidate’s name at all. In this light, the Trump show is primarily an excuse for adults to behave poorly in public. Looking at it like that doesn’t much tax the imagination.

With his tweeted outbursts (“Bad!” “Sad!”), surreal denunciations, lies of breathtaking audacity and sulking refusal to talk to mean girls, the Trump show has been less a campaign than a massively public temper tantrum. And it is easily the most colossally embarrassing thing that’s happened to America in my lifetime. I mean, it wins that race running away, and I paid attention to the Swift Boating of John Kerry and the Bush re-election. I paid attention for the Monicagate merry-go-round of hypocrisy, when the House Republicans, in a farcical round, couldn’t find a leader free of the taint of adultery, until finally settling on a “safe choice” who just happened to be a child-abuser and future embezzler. It’s so embarrassing that it’s more embarrassing than David Cameron’s recent oopsy you may have heard about.

I’m a native Texan and I watched Rick Perry run for president. My adopted state just passed HB2. Sarah Palin is. But the only thing I can ever conceive of being more embarrassing than Candidate Trump is President-Elect Trump.

We’re experiencing a moment in which America is essentially river dancing across the world stage while shitting itself.

*

One is never far removed from the aggrieved right when one is from Texas. Some of the earliest and most influential adults in my life were three Texan brothers, owners of an Austin coffee shop chain, who employed me for three-plus years from the age of fifteen. Two of them were political, one—Scott—extremely so, and it was a rare shift that didn’t entail being forced to listen to a cynical diatribe directed at the Clintons, at the loony left, at hippy environmentalists driving foul old cars.

Remember when the president was touring an African nation, all but engulfed in a human sea of outstretched arms, and someone fell and was getting trampled, and he, florid-faced and yelling, tried to disentangle the masses? Scott misinterpreted his reaction as one of racist panic and took unconcealed delight in the spectacle of the world’s most prominent democrat unhinged by terror at the presence and nearness of so many blacks. I was positive that it was deliberate, this misinterpretation, and I felt nauseous with hatred. The president was trying to save someone’s life—a black person’s life, as a matter of fact—and this asshole, through some horrible mean smallness of the heart, was alchemizing it into proof for all his horrible mean smallness.

In my Southern Baptist education I was taught that it’s an unforgivable sin to attribute God’s work to the devil.

(Though that’s evidence of smallness in me, too, that snarky sentence right there. An atheist dem browbeating a religious conservative with scripture is an act of cruelty for its own sake. It’s a way of saying, I’m so much better than you that look, I can whip you on your own terms—terms I don’t even pretend to accept. I’m stereotyping, to boot: Scott was no Christian.)

It’s a paradox that the governing philosophy founded on an aspirational ethos (that traditional structures be not atrophied and individual agency not stunted by the hand of government) is the one today most inclined to see the worst in people. For years Republicans have won the votes of people they’ve thrown under the bus by framing scapegoats for the violence. The welfare queens threw you under the bus. The inner city threw you under the bus. The Mexican rapists who took your jobs threw you under the bus. The non-believers, the worthless college students and the liberal media threw you under the bus. (Yes, somehow it is the fault of the liberal media.) Also the gays did it. Big government did it. “Activist” judges did it. The national debt that we’ve so diligently watered when it was our turn to hold the can (but never mind that) did it. The bleeding-heart-soft-on-crime democrats did it. Darwin did it. Actual science did it. And now, while you’re not paying attention, we’re going to slash food stamps while repealing the estate tax, so that Sam Walton’s great-great-great-great-great grandson never has to work a day in his life. Vote Republican!

Finally it’s TrumpTrump, the tasteless outsider, Trump, the reader of the National Enquirerwho has the grapes to call the kettle black: It’s our leaders, folks. They’re stupid.

*

Now we’ve come to the part of the blogpost where I once again reference an early Louis C.K. bit:

There’s an early Louis C.K. bit about how stupid is the one thing you can’t get away with. People respect the crazy man and shower praise on the disabled, but if you’re stupid, people hate you: “What are you, stupid? Shut up, you stupid shit!”

There has always been this sneering element among the luminaries of the far rightparticularly of the AM radio set, which has none-too-gradually infiltrated the ecosystems of the heretofore not batshit insane. Though generally an exemplar of the field, Rush Limbaugh’s aborted foray into SportsCenter was not representative: Sean Hannity made the transition from the low bandwidth to the big screen; Glenn Beck’s blessing is courted by mainstream Republicans; and the guy who invites guests to come and be yelled at to shut up in front of a national audience, Bill O’Reilly, adopted his entire persona from the spectrum. The sneer is, to me anyway, as emblematic of the right as the frothy latte is of the left. It denotes a way of being in the world that is adversarial, dominating, incurious and intolerant. In a word: illiberal. In Trump, the sneer has reached its apotheosis.

Remember that Ainsley Hayes episode of West Wing where she takes Josh to task for not liking the people who oppose him on gun control? It isn’t that he doesn’t like the guns, is her point: it’s that he doesn’t like the people. And since we’re all Americans here and all in this together, we need to at least, and always, like each other.

Maybe this is what Obama was thinking of when he referred to the show as a “liberal fantasy.”

I want to like the people on the other side, but I often don’t think this is possible. Besides the litany of policy conflicts, there are vast, yawning aesthetic differences to overcome. I just don’t feel like mustering the energy to try and bridge gaps with someone wearing a pin that says KFC HILLARY SPECIAL: 2 FAT THIGHS, 2 SMALL BREASTS, LEFT WING. (Yes, that exists. I’m sorry.)

We should at least like some of the same things, though. We should at least appreciate, in common, a few of the tenets that make us Americans. For instance: religious freedom. For instance: the right to due process. For instance: a tradition of transparency in electoral politics. For instance: a respect for those who’ve served their country. For instance: the importance of a free and watchdog press.

But the people who gather in the toxic safe space around the Donald to vent their spleens against everyone guilty of throwing them under the bus don’t care about those things. Not really. Not with their feet. When they cheer their candidate’s proposal to impose religious tests on immigrants, when they embrace his enthusiasm for torture and his disdain for the Miranda rights, when they forgive the Braggart of Braggarts’ hilarious refusal to release his tax returns, when they permit him to castigate prisoners of war for having been dumb enough to get caught, and when they remain indifferent as he punishes each institution that has the temerity to truthfully report his actions, they as much as sing out their contempt for American values.

If they’re citizens of anything, it’s television.

*

The thing about stupidity is that it’s irreversible. Ignorance you can stamp out. This is one of the things my office-neighbor, Mr Mashburn, is always reminding me of. “On your way to stamp out ignorance?” he’ll ask me when I’m going to class. “You know it,” I’ll say. And in class, day after day, quarter after quarter, waves of ignorance break against the bulwark of education. Mr Mashburn’s been doing it for a whole career. He’s about to retire. In fact, he might have just attended his final graduation ceremony. It was an odd one.

The honor guard came out with the flag and their rifles and their funny cadence, and right after we sang “America the Beautiful” they departed in their funny, halting way. Said Mashburn in his sonorous southern barritone, sotto voce on the stage, “That might be a bit premature.” Which was accurate, because next we were lead in the Pledge of Allegiance: a whole auditorium of people with their hands on their hearts, staring at the faculty with their hands on their hearts, pledging allegiance to a flag that wasn’t there—or, pledging allegiance to each other.

When you call someone stupid, you dehumanize them. You say: there’s no rescuing you, you aren’t even worth the effort. It isn’t a coincidence that the same campaign that says “Don’t let the back door hit you on the way out” to people threatening emigration in the event of a Trump victory has laid its foundation on calling people stupid.

They say that contempt is the one emotion a marriage can’t survive. In this analogy, the flag is the ring we all wear to signify our marriage to each other.

I want to stomp and cry and call them stupid, too. But if I did, I’d be helping to drag the flag from the room. And my concern is that, once it’s gone, we won’t get it back.

 

 

Nonverbal

Posted on May 4, 2016

1.

WNYC’s On the Media is a great show. One of the things that makes it so is its peerless audio editing. A story from one of its (since deceased) staff members spoke to this aspect: how surprised he was, upon experiencing the process, that Bob Garfield did not in fact always have precisely the word right to hand, but sometimes went searching for it, like the rest of us, behind the wandering torch of a prolonged uhhhhhhhhh; or that each of Brooke Gladstone’s interviewees did not instantly reply to her stunningly composed questions in clean, perspicacious paragraphs. Rather, as with any other magic show, work was being done! Lots of it!

2.

We’re driving home from out of town Sunday, listening to the latest episode, and Gladstone’s interviewing a journalist about the bus that went missing in Mexico when this man says um-hmm in a perfectly natural way that nevertheless knocks me out of the narrative orbit. You don’t normally hear um-hmms in On the Media. Normally they dandruff the cutting room floor, is my guess, victims of the producers’ yen for musically uncluttered dialogue. This one, though, was crafty: it’d been threaded inexcisably between Gladstone’s words. A freight-car-hopping um-hmm. A tumor you can’t cut out. An itsy bitsy little morsel of information. But what is it, exactly: um-hmm? Is it even grammatical?

3.

Arielle and I puzzle over this for a few miles. Clearly, um-hmm is “yes.” Suddenly there is so much to think about. The next day, waiting at the deli for sliced turkey, I scribble down a second list next to my grocery list: categories of speech that can be expressed vocally without using words. It gets more interesting after yes and no.

4.

Let me think about that, for instance, can take many forms. The straight-up, considered hmm belongs here, of course—perhaps the Model T of the hummed nonverbal set—but so to does the aforementioned full-throated uhhhhhhhhhI am shocked could come across in numerous ways, though the one that first occurred to me deliside was the old-fashioned rapid-intake-of-breath (hhe?)That feels good might take the prize for broadest category, comprising the oofs of sitting in chairs alongside the hummed exhalations of getting your feet rubbed and sex’s gamut of breaths and moans.

5.

A little looking revealed the term backchannel: defined by google as “a sound or gesture made to give continuity to a conversation by a person who is listening to another.” According to my researches, the most common backchannels in American English are: yeahuh-huhhmright, and OK. Clearly, the scope of my investigation is larger (a bloodcurdling scream conveys meaning but does not provide continuity to any but the weirdest conversation), but what a swell place to start. Scroll to the bottom of the page referenced above and you will find links to a slightly ticcy Englishman lecturing on “clicking and tutting”, a very brief audio-visual representation of “Huh” being a universal word, and actually pretty fascinating schematics of backchannels in recorded and diagrammed action.

6.

One might intimate that hurts with a sharp inhale through the teeth or with a noise way back in the throat. Speaking in his final White House Correspondents’ Dinner over the weekend, President Obama joked that the media had covered Trump’s campaign with restraint and judiciousness. He commenced then with a trifecta of back-throat notes connoting moral judgement (doubled by the customarily wagging head) followed by a fourth note a full five seconds later! (This drama unfolds from time marks 22:24 – 22:30 in the above, if you’d like to see for yourself.) The fourth note is not so much a reiteration of the judgment as an avowal of baffled helplessness: a Tevya moment.

7.

That hurts or that feels bad encompasses a vast range of nonverbal responses. We can say it with a twitch, a flinch, a look, a coloring. We can say it with a mood, or by retaliating. By pleading and crying, shaking our fist, shaking all over. We can say it by vowing revenge or retreating into silence.

8.

When something tastes good, there’s a noise for that. It’s different from when something tastes refreshing. The former is typically another back-of-the-throat noise, while the latter is a cold, happy exhalation, ala the Busch beer commercials of old. The former might start high, dive low, go high twice more and finish low (a ditty of enjoyment that must have come from somewhere, ’cause everything did, and was it a commercial, probably? Some grandma in hair-curlers, licking a spoon clean and shaking her hips? Did I just create that image?) but the latter is always true. (My touchstone for that was refreshing is Danny Glover’s character in Silverado, integrating a saloon by having his first sip of whisky in ten days.) (Which is strange, when you think about it, because no matter your take on whisky, it is many things, but it is seldom refreshing.) (O.K., I can’t find the scene I’m talking about on youtube, but if you watched the one I linked to, trust me, after John Cleese is done straightening everything out, Glover walks over to the bar, knocks back the shot and emits this awesome, lip-smacking exhale of satiation.)

9.

Like animals—like animals—we laugh. But we giggle, too: hummed melodious giggles, spurred by tickles and pokes (Pillsbury Doughboy, anyone?). We inflect the hmm of thoughtfulness and it becomes skepticism. Like animals—animals—we growl.

10.

I must warn you, once you start noticing backchannels, they are wonderful and distracting. Arielle and I are having some beers in our library, making recordings of these noises, incapable either of omitting backchannels or ignoring them. I tell her I learned that people wait about 700 milliseconds after hearing a low note of about 100 milliseconds to voice one. I pause fractionally and she fills the gap with an um-hmm—completely on autopilot. I discover a bias toward right in my own speech. The proffered backchannel says: I am listening to you and you’re not insane. It says that rhythm is essential to dialogue.

11.

Representations of which often leave much to be desired. I remember that one of the nasty things people would do when George W. Bush was President was reproduce verbatim his speech to emphasize its clumsiness. Of course he was a bad speaker, but a verbatim transcript of anyone’s language is invariably the written equivalent of the first HD cameras making luminous and unignorable the caked-on makeup and cratering pores of TV personalities. For the most part, it’s a miracle that any of us are ever understood. We speak in dizzied ill grammar. We’re experts at filling-in each other’s lacunae. We slosh about in a rain of fragments and change case and tense at the drop of a hat. It’s a mess. Or it isn’t. It’s an inimitable solo. Your voice is a singular instrument, and when you play it, I weave in my rights, my uh-huhs, to say I hear you, you make sense, because conversationalists duet better.

12.

You can make how about that? with an uptilted hum, like a jaunty fedora: the audible equivalent of a cocked eyebrow. You can do I don’t get itI’m exhausted and, maybe my favorite, I didn’t mean to do that. We compared notes and decided Nicholson Baker, author of The Mezzanine, was right when he noted that women say “Oops” and men say “Oop.” Louis C.K. nailed it, too, riffing on those moments when you say nothing at all. You enter an occupied elevator, go to press a button and realize it’s already been activated. What noise do you make? And what the hell does that mean?

13.

An occupied elevator is a weird sort of audience, isn’t it? It’s either no stage or all stage. And that stuff matters! Only the most self-centered person in the world would let fly the backchannels as a student in a classroom during a lecture, but as soon as the professor is responding to a particular question, that questioner often feels swept up by a tide of um-hmms and yeahs. A little reaction is O.K., though, at a poetry recital, and encouraged during a certain kind of church service. We’re informed by the rules of wherever we are.

14.

Masters of prose dialogue are praised for their ears, their uncanny knack for translating the spoken word into print. Elmore Leonard’s got shelves full of these accolades. So does Richard Price. An audacious actor might salt her silences with backchannels, but they’re only ever given the scantest role in books, which substitute tag lines. I remember a sequence of dialogue in Don Delillo’s Endzone: two college football players in earnest, worldly discussion in their dorm room. Delillo’s not much for the tag line—preferring to make his readers pay closer attention—but he deploys a whip-sharp “he said” after a short sentence and it stood out. At the time I’d thought he did it for the rhythm, and I still do. But now I know it was also a stand-in for um-hmm.

15.

Arielle recalls that one of her favored tactics is to isolate me in my speech: to let me go on and on in silence. She’ll stare at me, unblinking, with a slightly suspicious look, as if she is a five-year-old girl and I am a benign stranger. I will keep talking, becoming amused, feeling odd. She will deprive me of yeah, and O.K. until I am crutchless, unsupported, a guy talking-slash-dragging himself across the parched mesa of her silence. It’s funny because it’s true.

A Case for HRC

Posted on March 21, 2016

Hillary Clinton is not typecast for the role. Her figure doesn’t suggest power. Her voice belongs in the overlit, underairconditioned rooms of county party headquarters, not rising across a stadium of the devout, rinsing away their hopelessness. You can see her leading a shaggy, too-old group of volunteers in the Pledge. It is harder to imagine her establishing doctrines that radiate out across the globe from 1600 Pennsylvania, a commander of fleets and astronauts.

She’s got all her husband’s political baggage and none of his political skill, remarked a poster to an internet forum.

The Senate conservative’s favorite Democrat, said Senate conservatives, according to an article in Harper’s 

Neither a progressive, nor a liberal, until Bernie decided to run, wrote John MacArthur, that magazine’s publisher.

So what’s a gun-allergic, bible-abjuring, tax-amiable lefty like myself thinking? Why am I not feeling the Bern?

OK, one reason is because, the nearer we come to the end of his historic presidency, the more I like Barry, and she’s the most like him of anyone running.

He’s by no means been the black Messiah progressives hoped for, but let’s be honest: the root of that disappointment should rightly be assigned to progressives them(our)selves, who in 2008 succumbed en masse to a fever dream, googly-eyed with romance, heedless to the clues (they weren’t concealed) that Obama fancied himself an intellectually honest pragmatist first, a liberal partisan not at all. (This should have been obvious even from his national coming-out party: the “audacity of hope” speech at Kerry’s convention.)

(It’s a sad shitty tragic thing that his administration had to exist in the same swamp with Mitch McConnell and his yahoo caucus; think of what could’ve been accomplished over the last eight years for our country [and our world] had the Republican Party not been…itself. Anyway, the new insanity is upon us, and it’s worse and different than it’s been in our lifetime. The inevitable eruption of the GOP is making Mister President look better every day.)

“I miss Barack Obama,” wrote conservative columnist David Brooks a little while ago, suffering a bit of nostalgia-for-the-present (saudade [sow-DAH-chey], is how I just learned the Portugese refer to this condition).

He has such a knack for taking the heat out of things, a SXSW attendee said of the President, who’d addressed a group there about justice and iPhones.

The only grown-up in the room–that’s how they’ll write it up in history.

I’m not sure it’s possible that he could’ve done more to bridge the gulf between his administration and its opposition, but it does seem that he exhausted his tool bag fairly quickly. In the theatre, actors playing characters who are trying to get something from someone else are exhorted to change their tactics: if reason isn’t working, try flattery. If flattery doesn’t do the trick, try sweet. Try hot. Whatever it takes. But the dynamic between the Prez and his opponents (Obama: Be reasonable. Congressional Republicans: Won’t!) has been remarkably consistent from the beginning. Say that’s his greatest political shortcoming: a lack of creativity in terms of combating the cynical intransigence of his self-proclaimed enemies. This is not I think a problem he shares with Hillary.

I’d rather be caught trying, the Secretary of State told her staff.

That was in the lead-up to the Libyan intervention, which, OK, not the best example, but the point remains: she’s an inveterate tryer. She believes in it. She is, in this way, nearly the photo-negative of the fraying Republican monolith that works (well…) in the Capitol Building. Where our current president is a thoughtful and finicky cat, repelled by squalor, Hillary is (oh dear) a hound at peace with muddy scrums if muddy scrums are called for.

I like that she isn’t an ideologue. I like most everything Bernie has to say and I think, unfortunately, that he’s right: the only way he can deliver on his promises is if he surfs in on a tremendous and revolutionary wave. Very recent history shows us that waves of such a scale are not unheard of (Obama ’08), it’s their tendency to dissipate upon impact that’s terminal.

(He tried to tell us that, too–Obama did–first in his acceptance speech when he originally won the party’s nomination [It’s about you, he said] and again in his second inaugural [when he answered the right’s ceaseless anti-government bromides with a long overdue paean to citizenship].)

No. The campaign to move the dial left needs to be wider and deeper than what Bernie can offer. It needs to happen in every state at the grassroots level, gradually (imagine the America that went frothing mad over the Affordable Care Act reacting to President Sanders’s first hundred days to-do list); it needs to be organized around quantifiable goals (overturning right-to-work laws, for instance; reversing the [very recent] legal notion that the 2nd amendment grants an individual’s absolute right to own firearms); and it needs to be financed beyond the lifespan of one charismatic curmudgeon’s Quixotic run for office. Bernie is a great conversation starter (he’s certainly preferable to the one the Republican underbelly belched up), but he’s not the guy to bring it home. No one person is.

HRC may not be up to the task of putting out the fire in Washington, but she might over time do quite a bit to curtail its spread. A president who doesn’t come into office saddled with grandiose hopes, who is more concerned with substance than with optics, who’d rather be caught trying, might be the best thing we can expect right now. A president who began her political career with a listening tour, for crying out loud, sounds awfully refreshing.

I keep thinking about Elder Bush: a pragmatic technocrat intolerant of partisan silliness who looks better and better all the time. He didn’t have “the vision thing” in a moment when “the vision thing” was ascendant. (He also didn’t have much of the personality thing.) But that crap can be misleading. To use a metaphor he would appreciate, lots of baseball players get promoted on the basis of an individual tool (usually power) even while, on the daily, they vastly underperform their less glamorous colleagues. When Elder Bush assumed the Oval, its previous occupant had been an undisputed master of vision–someone capable, when he wasn’t napping, of hitting immense rhetorical home runs. He got drummed out by a personality equally as large. And that’s pretty much where we’ve been stuck for a long time. (Although it might be worth noting that the current president described his foreign policy as a singles hitter.)

This is weak tea so far as political endorsements go, I know, but we would do well to temper our enthusiasm when it comes to our leaders. The yen for a single fixer who can come in and solve all our problems is childish, and it opens the door to the Trumps of the world. Plus, it’s undemocratic.

Of course, that yen is encouraged by those who would lead us. Which is another reason I like Hillary. She isn’t selling herself like that. She’s selling herself as a team player…someone who will lay down a sacrifice bunt, steal a bag, go the other way to advance the runner. (It’s Spring, so I’m kind of basebally right now.) Perhaps what the country could benefit from the most at present is someone who takes the job more seriously than she takes herself. Looking at the field of available candidates, there’s no question to me who that is.

She fights, she loses sometimes, she comes back, she wins. She tries, she adapts, she tries again, she keeps her eye on the ball. She knows she won’t please everyone, she knows she’s not a natural politico, she knows it isn’t going to be easy.

Could we maybe give that a try?