I realize that most readers turn to this column with the expectation of somewhat light-hearted commentary, so I am reluctant to unpack this month’s stock of bellyaches for public display. If this keyboard were a piano, I could play a sprightly solo that would entertain and amuse (especially when I hit clunkers)—communicating with musical sounds rather than words seems preferable. Almost all the words I have are discouraging, and the sky is cloudy all day—though the overcast is as mental as it is meteorological.
I could play a tune on these keys, but aside from lack of practice and (let me be frank) skill, the danger is that I would step on someone’s ancient copyright and I’d have ASCAP pounding on my door. If I were to attempt one of my own compositions, it is all but certain that I would offend or at least perplex my hearers. My songs are uneasy listening, by design. There is an undercurrent of anger and hostility, even juxtaposed within my gentlest melodies.
My people were a hostile people. Enthusiasm for beauty was met with derision, and all sincere enthusiasm had to be crushed. When my aunt took up the piano, she came home one day to find that her brothers had disassembled the instrument, with one wearing a mop on his head and strumming the frame like Harpo Marx. I grew up loving and wanting to make music, but I was wary of seeming too avid. I had to mask my obsession with cynical detachment. After a while the mask and the face are indistinguishable—and the songs I’ve written reflect that reality.
Viewing the world as it is, my trenchant novelties jibe with (and gibe at) a wider reality. This may be their time to be heard, as either a balm or a counter-irritant. “Impending Doom is Getting Me Down” was a calypso refrain that I revisited many times in numerous versions; it begins to feel as fresh as each day’s headlines. I crafted it as a joke to throw at the apocalyptically-minded; I’m not laughing anymore. “The sky is blue—soon it will be brown,” no longer sounds outlandish. It was the vista that many in the continental US were experiencing this September.
Music—even lovely, non-snarky music—can’t assuage the sadness that I dare not show to others. People on the West Coast (those whose houses remained intact) were photographing skies in various shades of orange, pink, yellow, and brown. Owing to the fires, the air was not fit to breathe. A dear friend of mine now living in the Bay Area has asthma, which was severely exacerbated by the air quality. His personal weather report brought the disaster close to home. None of us is untouched by tragedies of this magnitude.
We have a duty to each other—and ourselves—not to make things actively worse. If I may loosen my suit of emotional armor a notch, let me assert that we are here to take care of each other. We’re not here to claw at and crawl over and step on each other to get to the piles of money. We’re not here to put each other down to score dubious political points. We don’t elevate ourselves by denying the essential humanity of others.
Speaking of actively making things worse, September was another record month for slow mail delivery—resulting from the actions of the new politically-motivated Postmaster General. Those who had once received the paper within a few days of publication have now reported delays of up to three weeks. I won’t reiterate the harangue I disgorged in the previous issue except to say that the situation is not getting any better.
Which leads me to ask this: are you fine with it? Is a Pyrrhic victory better than no victory at all? Is the diminishment of quality of life (as embodied in a speedy and efficient Postal Service) part of the price you’re willing to pay to say you’ve won? Remember, the USPS doesn’t just bring (mostly) happy little jazz newspapers, but essential medicines and other items that must be delivered in a timely manner. If winning is the only thing, then what is everything else?
Putting on cynic’s mask again, I confess I do not feel kinship with any prominent political party now afloat in the land. One of my favorite sayings is, “Even when you win, you lose.” If I were to explore such reasoning with painful objectivity, I’d say that is true no matter who wins the presidential election this year. It’s also true that one scenario represents a far worse loss than the other.
Those on either side look at me and think I belong to the opposite. That doesn’t make me a centrist—just a pain in the hinder. I’m just trying to get out a periodical here while dodging bullets from both factions. If I had to call myself a conservative, it’s because I don’t want the things I love to disappear. If I had to call myself a liberal, it’s because I believe compassion is not selective.
At the moment, I am tired of words of controversy and contention. Would that I could play music here rather than wrestle with my murky and inadequate thoughts. I want us all to be safe and happy. I want us all to win so that nobody loses.
I absolutely, unreservedly want things to be different than they are right now.