I am in Seattle now to see a consulting psychiatrist about new therapies for my depression. We will be talking about zapping my brain with electromagnetic impulses or taking doses of horse tranquilizer, while under his supervision down here. That.. or I will go back home and keep at my new regimen of diet, exercise, prayer and meditation, and see if that keeps me going. But that’s not what I want to write about today… really… though it colors everything I write about. (all my readers know that my melancholy joi du vivre is the mood of all my dance music)
Seattle is beautiful right now, the flowering trees are in full bloom, dogwood, and rhododendron, even lilac. In the early mornings before the planes start hectoring the sky the birds are in full song in my nephew’s neighborhood. Downtown is another story where the homeless gather under the bridges in their tents the sidewalks flow with piss and more and more mentally ill work their strategy to get money from passers by, while they brush their teeth in public water fountains and fight each other for their territories to beg. Every walk downtown presents dilemmas on whether or how much to give. No amount of personal generosity will solve the problem, of course, some systematic large scale communal decision needs to be made, to help us all.
Jan was in Washington D.C. for a meeting about her new grant to help Native Students learn to address paralytic shellfish poisoning in their villages. Her grant will teach them the science of this problem which is the number one threat to their ocean subsistence food. They will learn the testing the causes, how to do the tests, and how the western science dovetails into their traditional knowledge of the resource . She is partnering with the Sitka Tribe and the Sitka Sound Science Center, bringing more than a million bucks into the community, that has a structure already set up to use it effectively. I’m so proud of her and her partners.
I went back east to be with her and I spent a day going to art museums with her. Jan’s Parkinson’s disease has slowed her down some but her enthusiasm has not dimmed a bit. The key is not to try to do too much. We just do fewer things and take our time. Do things we enjoy and enjoy doing them slowly and together. This has been a learning process for both of us. All we did the first day was walk to the American Portrait Gallery… it’s free. We wanted to see the portrait of John Steinbeck, but dammit, it was in storage. Our dear friend Nancy Ricketts has a wonderful portrait of her father Ed Ricketts by the same artists who did Steinbeck portrait and we thought they might be interested in Ed’s portrait as a companion piece.
The portrait gallery was a surprise with how it effected me, I had a personal reaction in seeing many of the “people” hanging there. Here’s an example. In the hall of the presidents every president is represented there, and there is a smattering of people throughout. But when when we got to the striking portrait of Barack Obama there was a long line and many people stood in front of the painting and either took selfies or asked the next person in line to take their picture with the painting… as if they were getting their picture with the actual man. I thought it was an amazing testament not only to the President but to the Artist.
One floor down Michelle Obama’s Portrait was hung and hundreds of people visited there as well and as we stood there nearly every person who came said the same thing that both Jan and I thought. “It’s striking, but it doesn’t look like Michelle,” and each person said, either, “Michelle” or “her” as if they were talking about a member of their own family.
In a way these people were members of our family, our American family. Also I loved that this museum is free. That is the way it should be, there should not be a fee to go see your family. This is our heritage. This is where we come from like it or not. Here are some of the people I felt “kin” to:
We all gathered around and took pictures of our various friends and family members. I have many more. I took a photo of Walt Whitman, John Brown, Tecumsa, Rachel Carson, Merle Haggard, Ulysses S. Grant, and Beyonce. When I left I knew the troubles of America, genocide, and slavery, the unjust wars and I felt the challenges ahead, but also I felt the force of greatness and possibility too. That’s what I think Patriotism should be, the mix of responsibility and pride.
That night Jan and I went to see the Mountain Goats. This is our favorite band, and we have seen them all over the world. John Darnielle is the singer songwriter who writes all the songs and is the lead singer. He writes with wit and irony… or is it irony? His followers are devoted to the point of obsession. Jan and I like and admire him. He has written and very nice blurb for one of my books, he is a greatly admired novelist and I think he writes about disaffected youth much, much better than J.D. Salinger ever did, but his hard core fans can recognize his most obscure unreleased songs, only distributed on cassette or handed around by fans, from the first three notes of John’s guitar and sing every word right along with him. Men and women cry out “I love you!” frantically in cracked voices from the audiences of two or three thousand. And this for a relatively portly forty-ish year old man with a bowl haircut and, glasses who wears a sports coat on stage and sings in a reedy high register about Mexican wrestling, obscure science fiction tropes, and terrible, terrible break ups.
Imagine last Saturday in the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. the Mountain Goats were celebrating the release of their new album release “In League With Dragons” and John tells a brief story of driving through Iowa and he thinks of a story of a couple “saying horrible things to each other” and cheers start building from the crowd of about twelve hundred. He says when confronted with what to call the song he decides “the best thing to hope for these people is that they don’t reproduce… and hence… NO CHILDREN” then the crowd erupts and every one begins singing in a seeming full throated kind of bliss:
“I hope that our few remaining friends
Give up on trying to save us
I hope we come up with a fail-safe plot
To piss off the dumb few that forgave us
I hope the fences we mended
Fall down beneath their own weight
And I hope we hang on past the last exit
I hope it’s already too late.
And I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here
Someday burns down
And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away
And I never come back to this town….
Again… in my life
I hope I lie and tell everyone you were a good wife
I hope you die
I hope we both die.”
Now… I don’t chant at protests and I don’t really sing at concerts. I’m repressed and that’s not something I like about myself and maybe the horse tranquilizers will help me with this. But on Saturday night I watched the crowd. A young woman in a tank top.. maybe in her thirties. Ball cap on backwards, tattoos down her arms, eyes closed and singing her heart out, was raising her fists in the air when she comes to the “I HOPE YOU DIE, I HOPE WE BOTH DIE!’ part of the chorus, and I have to say… I get it. This is the love song that nobody else writes, this is undoubtedly the more common part of the love experience that John Darnielle gave voice to and there is a joyful aspect to just letting it out… but maybe it’s not really irony. See too his songs like “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” There are reasons to be a crazy fearful misanthropes sometimes… at least part of the time and if you can’t let that part of you out what do you do with it? It festers maybe and blossoms into a real monster? I don’t know…
Much like my visit to the portrait gallery the experience in our nation’s capitol was a mix. I’ll end with a short anecdote. The next day before our flight we went to the Phillips Gallery and we sat in front of a beautiful Renoir and just looked at it. I was talking to Jan about how impossible in must have seemed to try and paint “light” and to see the relationship between color and light. When a beautiful woman in her late seventies came up and looked closely at the painting, Then she turned to us and asked us to look at the young man with the goatee who was looking down at the young girl on the right side of the painting. She said, he looked just like her great nephew. Then she said the sister of that boy was with her the last time she was here at the Phillips: her great niece. The niece was 24 and off to Africa to work for a relief organization and two days after their museum visit she was killed in the Ethiopian plane crash. This older woman started to cry, I rubbed her back and we talked about her tadgedy. The girl had left a museum magnet of the painting on the woman’s refrigerator and today was the first day she had worked up the courage to come back and look at the painting. She said… “I just wanted to talk with you to make a connection… and somehow share my grief.” Her name was Clair and both Jan and I said that we were grateful that she did. We asked if she would care to have a cup of tea with us, and she declined because she was meeting a friend of her niece in a few minutes. But we both agreed that we were glad to have met and that the only answer to loneliness and grief was human connection in whatever dose you can find it. Then she left us with the great beauty and our bitter sweet memory of her grief and our chance meeting. Much like all of my experiences lately, there is a melancholy joi du vivre to be had… and savored with each heart beat.
Windows are open.
One dogwood flower blows in,
like a telegram.