Monsters Fill the Void

My wife walks in the door, fresh off lunch shift. She looks tired. The first day back to work in months, she now serves wearing a face mask and latex gloves. “I must have gone through 50 pair of gloves!” The tips are average, she says. We assumed people would be generous considering the times and the risk on the part of restaurant workers. Maybe the people who dared to dine today aren’t the smartest or the most conscientious. One woman was disturbed to discover a lipstick smudge on her water glass. Martha shrugs. “All those things are run through the dishwasher and sanitized.” I see myself cooking at home for the foreseeable future.

Portland, OR 2019 – My first art sale

I don’t miss normalcy. Who misses working 40 hours a week with little time to pursue art? Recently, a business acquaintance told me young people don’t like to work. I couldn’t really argue with that; although I find it odd he asks his employees to walk his dog and take out his garbage. There’s sumthin’ bout a man’s reluctance to do the mundane, I think to myself in a Clint Eastwood voice. I don’t whip out the proverbial Colt on him, but I keep smoking on the cigar, thinking, shits gonna change around here, as I ride my horse on to the next watering hole. Why don’t you just move to another country, someone else would later tell me. Like I haven’t heard that one before. All I did was question the merits of capitalism. I’d move to Canada, I thought. I’ve visited my brother-in-law on Vancouver Island multiple times now. I find it to be a very lovely place.

America First Series “Mr President’s Pandemic Playtime” Oil on Canvas

I understand the necessity of work to pay the bills, but prosperity in this day in age is delusional. Why would I want the success of a Jeff Bezos or even a Bill Gates? Empires built on exploitation, that’s how I see it. The liberals like to point out the charitable organizations, as if they somehow offset the means by which fortunes amassed. I guess I’m the one who is delusional. Name a mogul who distributed their shares to workers, effectively giving up control and profits. Yeah, I can’t either. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford; saviors of free enterprise. God bless.

A quick glance at political leaders we adore. Jimmy Carter started as a peanut farmer to become the 39th President of the United States. He too created a network after his presidency with the aim to fight disease in the developing world. I visited the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, my freshman year of college. His young interns boasted about the center’s work to fight disease in Africa (which is a noble effort like that of Gates, but nevertheless…). He is a man of peace they proclaimed. Why didn’t he speak out against our invasion of Iraq, I asked. That would effectively be challenging the power of the United States, the intern shot back. Days later the Navy announced a nuclear submarine named after Carter. I guess it’s a peace-keeping nuclear submarine?

“We the People” Paint marker glass

The benchmarks of my white-privilege millennial situation amidst a pandemic: no home mortgage, very little college debt, good health, no children, a contract job without benefits. I’m sure a situation in which some despise and others romanticize. To further infuriate my right-wing readers, unemployment has been good for my household. We’ve managed to amass more weekly earnings from the state than an average week of work and we will hopefully use it for a down payment on our first home. Despite my relative comfort I do recognize the unprecedented crisis: 100,000 American casualties (if not higher), disproportionately-high death in communities of color, depression-like unemployment and hunger, and a political obscurity that gives rise to monsters (maybe Gramsci said this?).

Many of my fellow contemporaries find the benefit of the crises as a rare episode of prolonged paid-time-off in which they pursue personal endeavors in art, music, relationships, exercise, raising a new-born, and paying off debts/saving money. Of course, this is the silver-lining to the pandemic. Family and friends found themselves in unknown territory. My youngest brother-in-law and his partner gave birth to their first child weeks ago. A moment they anticipated to be a joyful occasion was overshadowed by the possibility of contracting coronavirus in the hospital. Luckily, Lukas, Kylee, and baby Rye emerged from the hospital unscathed but the world was no safe place for an infant and again joy was delayed when family visits were reduced to facetime sessions. Despite the limitations of extended family visits, baby Rye had both his mom and dad home to care for him in those crucial first weeks. My in-laws, nearing the last years of their careers, were faced with the difficult decision of how to handle retirement in a volatile stock market.

I didn’t face any of these challenges. At the onset of my time-off I developed a rigid routine I followed systematically for weeks. I wake to coffee, followed by yoga. Walk the dog a few miles. Run 5 miles. Read Marxist Economic Theory. Yard work. Draw. Paint. Drink beer. Who in the world lives like this, I wondered. I was happy. As Lukas acknowledged, this rare slice of freedom lifted the depression that comes with a long week of work.

I can relate. Before the pandemic I spent my days sitting around a carpet showroom assisting customers, visiting their homes to measure for bids. I figured the role allowed me the opportunity to grow professionally. This isn’t the ideal setting, I thought to myself, but here I can work on things I’ve been putting-off: building my confidence, communicating clearly, holding strong boundaries. A somatic therapist out in Portland taught me how to interpret the signals my body was sending. Chest pain. Yes, I know this is anxiety. I’ll put my hand on my chest and breathe deeply. I’m hunched over. Well, I’m not feeling very confident. I’ll push my hips forward and relax my shoulders. Resourcing, she calls it, is a means to identify and adapt to stressors in a situation. Years of therapeutic intervention and practicing out in the world, I haven’t felt the prolonged despair that plagued me since childhood or the accompanying flairs of death.

Looking back on the days when I felt like driving my car off a cliff, I’m curious how little I knew about myself and how I lived in a constant state of deep depression. My wife’s insistence that I go to therapy was the breakthrough. This experience gave me insight into the potential darkness I faced in the days of unemployment, but I was ready and prepared to accept this temporal gift of freedom and explore the recesses of my imagination. I turned to my art journal. I only recently began keeping one last year. In my young life I’d been so careless to save my work. My life is an endless trail of doodles, I thought, but I’d never be able to find the trailhead because I threw my papers to the wind.

How should I describe the pages inside the journal? I guess if you know me well, you are not surprised to find elements of chaos and realism. To some degree I now understand how the visual collectivization of a public mural influenced my own depiction of stories as a moment bent on changing the world. There is simply no other way to describe one’s desire to change the world as absurd, but I’m undeterred. My absurdity, as it manifests on the pages of my journal, is simply a visceral reaction to what feels wrong with the world and probably has something to do with the fact I was introduced to Marx in middle school. And then, on the following page, I attempt to ground myself by sketching a landscape or childhood portrait. In art, I think doses of reality are constructive and necessary. I think materially, but I don’t necessarily express myself in such a way. I think maybe that’s what my Dad meant when he called me an anarchist.

“Monster Love” oil on canvas

In a period of obscurity, with monsters standing by to fill the void the Left must engage in public discourse whether it be an essay or painting; ideally a collective action. I engage mostly conservative co-workers daily, mainly because there’s no way around it. I listen and am compelled to speak my mind. One guy jokingly calls me a communist. We mostly dismiss one another, but listen with civility. What I find most interesting is their openness to entertain conspiratorial thinking. To be clear, no one has openly pledged allegiance to QAnon or joined a militia. The perplexity of this crisis, I think, has moved them further into mysticism. It is now clear they suspect a grand architect behind the emergence of the global virus and the subsequent shutdown. As one co-worker conjured, “There’s something going on they’re not telling us.”

I spoke to my oldest brother-in-law just a few days ago. He and I agree: the emergence of conspiracy thinking into the mainstream is deeply troubling but understandably appealing. The power structure in America is formidable while justice is elusive. People turn to mysticism in the absence of rationalism. The chatter of sycophants and small-fry fascists is filling the void and giving people purpose through a reinvigoration of national pride. Right-wing conspiracy promoters like Praying Medic on twitter and fringe journalist Bill Gertz are convinced the coronavirus is man-made and originated in a Wuhan laboratory. We should not underestimate the fringe and its growing appeal to the masses. We must be compelled to fight fascism with science, history, art, humanity, and collective action.

If not, we risk monsters filling the void. Strategist and Italian fascist sympathizer Steve Bannon waits in the wings. On his nightly podcast “The War Room” he hosts guests such as White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Trump loyalists in the House and Senate. China is an existential threat, Bannon surmises. The Chinese takeover of Hong Kong is tantamount to the Nazi annexation of Austria. “This is 1938, folks.”

Posted in The Week in Black and White.