Once, while attending a summer program for young students at UC Santa Barbara, I attempted to skateboard down a long, sloping hill. I had no business doing that. I was not a skateboarder. Where I lived in northern California skateboarding was not a thing because it is very difficult to skateboard on dirt roads. But I tried anyway. I stepped aboard and went merrily down the path until, and quite suddenly, the skateboard developed speed wobbles, became uncontrollable, and I was tossed unceremoniously–and I’m sure hilariously–into the grass.
The skateboard went shooting off into the bushes like a dud missile while I lay impaled, and writhing, on a lawn sprinkler.
Ever-after I have been mindful of speed wobbles.
In Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan observed, rather optimistically, that no winter spent in an insane asylum could be counted as a total loss. There would be, he pointed out, “television, clean sheets on soft beds, hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes, a dance once a week with the lady kooks, clean clothes, a locked razor and lovely young student nurses.”
Lately–by which I mean every single day–I admit to difficulty in warding off the notion that we have, collectively, checked ourselves into a nuthouse.
There is, for example, the Russian question, which appears to be more and more of a political and journalistic fidget-spinner–a three-sided toy that keeps going nowhere even as it goes faster and faster and amazing the children. There is the continued hand-wringing over who uses what bathroom, spectacular millennial meltdowns on the quad, Nancy Pelosi, parents in Ohio and Florida putting their children in dog kennels, rompers, manties, now mantyhose even. There is the enduring mystery of Jerry Brown, the male-rapist mayor of Seattle, that weird Rasputin in the White House named Steve Bannon, to say nothing of environmental protestors who leave hundreds of tons of garbage and dead dogs behind, eyebrow shaving and suicides over whether or not to install stop lights or roundabouts, Great White sharks, fentanyl lollipops, and masked truckers driving their Peterbilts through the Moonlight Bunny Ranch.
Probably none of this weirdness is new to humanity, and I’m certainly not suggesting it is somehow worse today than it was in, say, Atlanta after Sherman was finished. But I would argue that somehow the frictions of our time often feel manufactured out of the boredom of luxury. They get built like a coal fire in a steam engine, and continually stoked for purposes other than identifying and solving actual problems. And the train just keeps hauling ass down the tracks, even as nobody knows where it is headed.
Also, none of it will help me grow more apples, a better crop of green beans, or encourage more flexion in my colt’s neck.
In his marvelous book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes:
“…despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles–but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one.”
We have the speed wobbles, but at least we know how to make glow-in-the-dark rabbits.
On the political end, I don’t care anymore. I don’t care who wins or loses because I have stopped trusting them. Any of them. Utterly, and completely. I view the entire political class the same way I look at striped apes leaping around in a zoo. They live in a world that has nothing to do with the one I’m trying create for myself–and I still get to do that in a lot of ways–but I’m losing confidence that my grandchildren will.
Because I believe I am looking at striped apes, being angry, or shocked, or appalled when they start humping, masturbating, or throwing poop on the walls–daily events that somehow require endless investigations, and which are now endlessly rehashed and repackaged via the ten-minute news cycle, is counter-productive to my mission–which, ultimately, is to live well enough to stay out of Brautigan’s winter asylum.
I’ve been alienated by all of it, more or less permanently.
Which brings me back to that skateboard. I got on it. It was going too fast. I probably could have stopped, picked it up, and spent a little more time figuring out how I was going to properly negotiate that hill before I crashed and hurt myself. But I didn’t.