Sad Days, Sweet Days, Bad Days, Surreal Days — and A Virtual Residency

I’m excited to be engaged this week in a “virtual residency.” My friend and colleague Francois Matarasso is using his blog “A Restless Art” (where you can also download the excellent book with the same name) to publish daily excerpts from my workshop handout on the “Values and Ethics of Participatory Arts Practice,” then to host a free Zoom conversation on the topic on Friday. It will start at 10 am MDT/5 pm in the BST (9 am PDT, 11 am CDT, noon EDT — that should be enough to figure out the time if you’re in a different timezone). We hope you’ll join. You need to register in advance for one of the up to 100 slots. When you do, Zoom will send a confirmation email with details. See you there!

You know how some people sheltering in place report losing track of the days of week? That isn’t exactly my problem. I know their names, but two things about them are different. First, time has sped up. I can’t believe it’s Tuesday (or Friday, or Sunday) because wasn’t it just Tuesday yesterday? Our household’s last “normal” day was March 9, I recall, because we had our annual physicals that day. That feels like a long time ago — and it was, a full ten weeks! — but also very recent.

Second, whatever homunculus in my head is generating my moods has instituted a weekly rotation. If I wake up sad on Monday I’ll be mad on Tuesday. Wednesday will be a sweet day, despite it all. And Thursday? I’ll move through Thursday in a fog of incredulity, unable to credit the stupefying surrealism of what now passes for everyday life. I’m learning to titrate the dosage of these daily moodswings. I thought you might want to know about some of the things that have helped.

SAD DAYS

The world of movies is in utter disarray — as with theater, live concerts, and every other artform that depends for both its production and dissemination on people gathering in crowds. Films that planned a theatrical release this spring are having to seek alternate routes. Kino Lorber distributes the new documentary Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a cinematic precis of Thomas Piketty’s book of the same name, tracing the rise, expansion, and globalization of capitalism and suggesting remedies for the stupendous inequality and oppression it has enabled. Theaters are closed, but you can stream the film; it just takes a little perseverance. The distributor has you go to a site where you choose one of the local theaters in which it would have played to benefit from your rental fee. You click on the theater you choose to support, then pony up $12 for a five-day rental you can watch on many different platforms.

As a film, I found the art direction busy and distracting, but I wouldn’t have missed the content for the world. The film explains a very complex subject in accessible terms: how global capital managed to move its wealth and profit out of the taxable realm, bankrupting working people. One of the most damaging phenomena has been the ease with which corporations are able to move their money offshore and escape taxes. A lot of discussion about taxing the rich in the U.S. tends to be bound by conventional ideas, such as how income tax can be made fairer by eliminating loopholes. All good, but the real money is in taxes that rhyme with the globalization of capital, collecting tax on wealth no matter where it lives. Not easy to execute, of course, but necessary to change the story of extreme inequality and exploitation to one of livable equity.

Why is it a sad day film? Because watching it, you can’t help but weep at how we allowed this to happen. It’s a wakeup call many people need to take.

SWEET DAYS

With the deluge of insanity and suffering, it feels very good to see people-power in action, persisting toward a win. Slay The Dragon tells the story of the anti-gerrymandering campaigns going on around the U.S., seeking to overturn Republicans’ cynical and self-serving reorganizaton of electoral districts to neutralize the democratic power of one person, one vote.

Republicans have not been shy about saying they don’t want non-Republicans to vote. The film features the late ultra-Right mastermind Paul Weyrich speaking to a group of evangelicals in 1980: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” #IMPOTUS said as much in a March 2020 appearance on “Fox & Friends,” speaking of voting reforms such as same-day registration advocated by Democrats: “The things they had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

I loved hearing one of the people featured in the film say that Republicans are now so desperate to gerrymander their way to victory because their numbers are dwindling. Young people are overwhelmingly progressive. The Republicans are trying to further rig the system to postpone their own inevitable decline. Makes sense, hm?

Seeing ordinary people organizing tirelessly to overturn gerrymandering capped one of my recent sweet days. I have an idea you will feel the same when you watch it.

MAD DAYS

I keep sharing articulate, well-documented, infuriating articles from excellent publications, detailing how the pandemic has exposed even more starkly the structural racism and callousness of this nation.

They show that the cover-story is that public policies and publicly funded relief efforts are neutral and benign, open to all. The truth they demonstrate is contained in Anatole France’s famous characterization: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” In this pandemic, black and brown people and people who lack economic resources are absorbing far more pain and loss than everyone else. This is perfectly acceptable to those in power who, as former President Obama said in his commencement speech this past weekend, “aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor expresses it perfectly in her New York Times op-ed entitled “The ‘American Way of Life” Is Shaping Up to Be A Battleground.”

Typically, the contradictions of our society are buried beneath the American flag, suffocating hubris and triumphalist claims of exceptionalism. But the pandemic has pushed all of the country’s problems to the center of American life. It has also highlighted how our political class, disproportionately wealthy and white, dithers for weeks, only to produce underwhelming “rescue” bills that, at best, do no more than barely maintain the status quo.

The median wealth of a U.S. senator was $3.2 million as of 2018, and $900,000 for a member of the House of Representatives. These elected officials voted for one-time stimulus checks of $1,200 as if that was enough to sustain workers, whose median income is $61,973 and who are now nearly two months into various mandates to shelter-in-place and not work outside their homes. As a result, a tale of two pandemics has emerged.

The crisis spotlights the vicious class divide cleaving through our society and the ways it is also permeated with racism and xenophobia. African-Americans endure disproportionate exposure to the disease, and an alarming number of videos show black people being brutalized by the police for not wearing masks or social distancing, while middle-class white people doing the same things are left in peace. In New York City, 92 percent of those arrested for violating rules regarding social distancing and 82 percent of those receiving summons for the same offense have been black or Latino.

It’s short. Please read it all. Then use a mad day to sharpen the point of your anger and aim at the right targets.

SURREAL DAYS

A little bit of surrealism leaks into every day, to tell the truth. But the deeply surreal days are when someone troubles to pull back the curtain on the Thief Executive and his minions, who under cover of COVID-19 have accelerated their self-dealing and manipulation of public policy to pursue agendas that would never be approved by a majority of voters.

There are too many examples to count. Consider #IMPOTUS’ firing of the State Department’s Inspector General at the behest of Mike Pompeo, who is under investigation for improper use of taxpayer funds. Consider Attorney General Barr’s attempt to drop the case against Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the Trump-Russia investigation. Consider how the Environmental Protection Agency is using the pandemic as an excuse to roll back essential environment rules. Consider that the US, with just over four percent of global population, has 28 percent of the world’s deaths…so far, and still, #IMPOTUS and his allies want more people out and about, sacrificing themselves to help the economy. Consider how Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “has nearly depleted the 2.5 percent of higher education funding, about $350 million, set aside for struggling colleges to bolster small colleges — many of them private, religious or on the margins of higher education — regardless of need.”

Well, you get the picture. As my husband and I look over the headlines each morning, our most frequent comment is “Can you belief this?” On surreal days, I definitely can. I just don’t want to.

We are among the fortunate: “gig workers,” as artists and other freelancers are now called. We’ve lost work — sculpture sales, speaking engagements, etc. — and all future prospects are unknown. That’s precarious compared to friends who are on salary, but not compared to so many others. We get our pittance from Social Security (try being a lifelong arts activist and see how much your monthly check adds up to). We got our stimulus checks and gave some of the money to a project Providing PPE for Pueblo, Navajo, and New Mexico Communities. I’ve been waiting two months to be paid for the outstanding invoice on a large consulting project that was half-done when the pandemic put it on hold; I’m told I will be paid, but no one can say when. We’re pretty sure the other going-on-40 million folks who’ve applied for unemployment need it more than we do.

Our age is a definite risk factor, but it is easy to control our exposure to the virus, since we live at the end of a dirt road with one other house on it and barely go out except to mask up for the grocery store every two weeks. The last time we were there, two different MAGA-hatted older men waltzed in unprotected and sidled up to everyone. Rick confronted them and was cursed. The nearby worker sorting produce said masks were mandatory, but no one was enforcing them.

Mostly I see no one in the flesh besides my husband. I spend a lot of time on Zoom, lucky to have friends and colleagues who want to connect. Some of them are alone in their shelters-in-place, which must be very hard. I love to cook and now have more time to do it — and to paint, read, blog, watch movies. I have neither aging parents nor young ones to worry about. But on all days — sad, mad, sweet, and surreal alike — I do worry, mostly about the death of democracy, the rise of kakistocracy, the seemingly free rein given the one percent to whom we are sometimes useful and mostly dispensable.

I wish you well-being in all ways, and an abundance of sweet days!

Chrissie Hynde singing Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about arlenegoldbard.com.

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