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Never Get Off The Boat (Unless You’re Going All The Way)) August 30, 2011

Posted by The Typist in Biography, cryptic envelopment, The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
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Well, no
thanks. I’ve had enough. I’m going to
pull myself up over the side, and get
all the way out of my mind.

Just Normal, by Everette Maddox.

I introduced someone recently to the film Bulworth. Whether your are a regular reader of this blog or an accidental visitor, this may strike you as just another (uncharacteristic, for me) Dear Diary blog entry of the sort that litters the internet.

Instead, I wanted to use this moment to explain to the reader when it was I started to get all the way out of my mind, as Everette Maddox puts it. Or, as the person I was introducing to the film suggested, when I found it. Some people assume it was Katrina and the Federal Flood that was the watershed moment in my life, and to some extent that’s true. It was, however, just a milestone in a journey that began earlier with the viewing of this film.

Bulworth came out in 1998 but I didn’t see it until the early oughts, at a time when I was a legislative district chairman of the North Dakota Democratic Party, had stood as a nominal candidate for the state senate against an undefeatable Republican incumbent in our suburban district. A veteran of statewide and presidential campaigns and former Capital Hill staffer, some people in the party no doubt had high hopes for me. In the period after the Clinton impeachment I was, however, already drifting away from politics, disillusioned at any practical hope for comity necessary for a real democracy to work.

The film is the story of a United States senator from California, a former cast iron liberal with a charcoal drawing of Bobby Kennedy on his wall. It opens with him watching reels of his campaign ads, which attempt to recast him as a moderately conservative neo-liberal of the Clinton stripe. He is unshaven, with an uneaten pizza on his desk. He is crying.

I won’t reveal too much of the film (as part of the purpose of this post is to encourage you to finish this piece, navigate to Netflix or Blockbuster and order it immediately.) It is enough to know he is having a nervous breakdown over this opportunistic transformation, and as he watches his spots in endless loop has already arranged for his own murder, has decided to betray his principles completely to kill an insurance reform bill in exchange for an under the table gift of a $10 million life insurance policy payable to his daughter from the insurance lobby.

In the last days of his campaign–and his life–he breaks down completely, crumpling his carefully written speeches and instead telling various constituents the unvarnished truth: they only matter in so far as they can donate money. He starts in an Africa-American church, and in the delirium resulting from days without food or sleep he picks up three young black women, who lead him ultimately to an after hours hip-hop club in Compton where the patrons must check their weapons at the door. By the end of a long made night of smoking blunts, he emerges and gives a scathing, hip-hop inspired performance to a multi-million dollar fundraiser, wandering through the audience and calling out each special interest in the room, what they have paid and what has been delivered in return.

It is brilliant.

The plot you will say is implausible Hollywood. I will grant you that. It is A Fiction (as Tim O’Brien brilliantly subtitled his compelling narrative of the Vietnam War) and yet every moment and word of dialogue is true, the capitalized and dangerous Truth: producer and star of the film Warren Beatty laying out the dirty secrets of our profoundly broken and corrupt political system for all the world to see. It is possible for the sort of politically attuned viewer who would be drawn to the film to treat it as comic exaggeration with the same dishonest ease I would, as a Capitol Hill press secretary and speech writer, defend the Political Action Committee system as groups of thoughtful citizens banding together to advance their beliefs.

Bullshit. Bulworth was a revolutionary act of propaganda masquerading as entertainment, and among a more thoughtful people it might have become the spark that started an an uprising but Americans are a lazy, self-satisfied people. I watch the revolutions sweeping North Africa and the East the way I watched those that took down the remnants of the Soviet bloc and wonder how the residents of the land of the free and the home of the brave sat dumbly through the coup of 2000, the angry mob threatening violence to disrupt the counting of votes. And we did nothing.

In our very real and carefully crafted system of corporate-regulated free speech and superficially open markets, Bulworth was missed or ignored by most, dismissed by the Right as the very propaganda it was, trumpeted by the powerless left who learned nothing new from it except some current urban slang, and the film was allowed to slide into obscurity on the shelves of Blockbuster by the people the film was intended to perhaps unseat.

I’ll stop here because I don’t want to spoil the film for you, but watching it uncorked something inside me. I wanted to rent a room at the Fargo Civic Center and show the film on endless loop to the earnest, white-bread delegates at the state Democratic Convention where my wife and I would serve as the page coordinators. If you have seen the film, you understand why I would have been thrown out of the Civic Center, if not the party itself, as someone who has lost his mind, someone as dangerous as Bulworth unleashed.

I never screened the film but somewhere inside I had lost interest in the Democratic Party as a meaningful institution, in politics in general. In that same year, the candidate for governor–a beloved and long-serving woman Attorney General who seemed a shoe-in for the job–had her campaign smashed when someone lead her private medical records to the press, revealing she had breast cancer. Although such a leak was a felony, there was not even an attempt at an investigation. No one was punished, the murmuring began, and she lost.

After that, I had no more faith in the system than Bulworth. I stopped reading the liberal site Democratic Underground, found reasons not to attend local party meetings, quit watching the talking heads on cable news: just drifted away.

All through the movie, the blind seer Rastaman the Griot appears, repeats some variation of the phrase “you got to be a spirit, Bullworth, you can’t be no ghost,” tells him at one point he must sing. I have one phrase tattooed on my body and if I were to choose another, that would be it, my soul exposed on my skin in a bit of ink, but at the time while I understood exactly what Rastaman meant I was to weak or confused to take his advice myself. I made it the signature on my email, that cheap refuge of the Internet intellectual, and got on with life.

A few years later, in the build-up to Gulf War II, then-president George Bush visited Fargo, N.D. Some zealous state party operative assembled a list of 41 people who should not be admitted to his speech, a list including my own city councilwoman. It was leaked to the press, a large black headline above the fold, and a list of names that would come to be known in liberal circles as The Fargo 41, mine included. My wife was flabbergasted and angry, embarrassed by this dangerous publicity. What would people think?

It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Bulworth broke something inside me, the same lingering naive faith in change and possibility that lead me at 20 to join the Young Socialist Alliance, fraternal youth wing of the Fourth International. (That’s Trotskyist gibberish for a commie), the same change-the-world impulse that led me to become a suburban newspaper journalist at a salary in the high four figures (pause for arithmetic), what brought me back to the N.D. Democratic Party even after I had walked away from a decade on Capitol Hill years earlier.

Fast forward a few years to late August, 2005. I am standing atop a renovated old hotel in downtown Fargo at a political fundraiser, drinking too much and in shock. I was expecting my cell phone to ring at any moment, a reporter from The [Fargo] Forum calling to talk to me about the failure of the levees in my home town of New Orleans. Every one of the political and news junkies on that roof-top bar had spent the last several days watching scenes from the Convention Center and the Superdome. At one point I stood in a circle that included the former chief-of-staff to a North Dakota U.S. senator. I was trying to explain why people would be trapped in the city, would take desperate measures to find food and water, do what they needed to survive.

At one pause, the former chief-of-staff took a leisurely sip from his drink then said, our people would never behave like those animals. The entire circle of people turned to look at me. I said nothing for what seemed an eternity but was more likely 30 seconds, still a long pause in a conversation. I was later told that my drink hand was just perceptibly trembling, that every vein above my neck was visible, my blood-pressure no doubt at some dangerous figure. I was contemplating if it would be possible to drag this man from his chair and throw him over the railing, leaving him a broken splatter on the street six blocks below.

Instead of impromptu mayhem, I ultimately uprooted my family and moved them to the disaster zone, itself an act of questionable rationality. I remember reading the Little House on the Prairie books to my daughter when she was very young and finding in these tales of supposed Midwestern fortitude echoes of the dark Southern Gothic, wondering why no one saw in the father a tragic figure dragging his family from place to place on the godforsaken Plains of the nineteenth century, twisting straw to burn so as not to freeze to death.

I became that man and they dutifully followed, but they could not hear the howling ghosts that haunted Faulkner and Styron in Little House either.

Katrina was a long time ago. Get over it.

I can’t know if the person who supposedly said this about me truly did, as I only heard it second hand and the situation doesn’t permit me to ask. The words were intended to wound like a slap to an hysterical person in a movie, as if my current personal circumstances were a weakness, an inability to pick myself up, slap the dust off with my cowboy hat like a good American and get on with life.

The fact is, I have, just not in the way intended by the remark or implied by the movie analogy. I walked away from the fight, left the obvious plot unresolved and rode off not into some Technicolor John Ford sunset but into the barren hills and desert, a man with no name leaving my American dreams behind me.

I don’t write about Katrina and the Federal Flood much on this blog. That was another time, another place. I reached a point a few years ago when I hung up the Closed sign at the Wet Bank Guide, ending on what I though was a perfect coda to that tale. Still, you can never escape the past. The road you are on, winding over the hills before you to god only know where, unwinds behind you just the same and every twist and turn has formed your soul the way climbing the hills of San Francisco shape the calves of the natives.

Katrina was a damned big hill to climb and my legs still ache, but it was not as simple as a single event upending an otherwise carefully scripted life. It was instead just the snapping of one critical strand of the rope that kept me moored to conventionality, a strand in which many threads had already unraveled.

Watching Bulworth I realized that I had spent a third of my adult life in the service of a lie, not just a simple lie, the stories we tell ourselves to live, but one of the Big Lies, a term coined by Adolft Hitler in Mein Kempf. He attributed this to the Jews in his book, but used the same technique effectively to his own ends. I used to jokingly refer to Joseph Goebbels as the father of modern political public relations, not the sort of remark that makes you popular on Capital Hill,but it illustrated the Big Life I was a part of, telling myself I had good reasons to be an actor in that drama. The movie laid out for me, my own role, the stories I had told myself to live.

Katrina was another strand snapped, not a fiction like Bulworth but the reality of seeing all the big lie tapestry of modern American life unravel. This snapped not just another thread but a critical remaining strand, the moment Our Hero is left spinning in the wind, suspended and helpless and the camera turns to the rocks below. Still, I had to get up and go to work in the morning to pay the homeowners insurance I knew was worthless, to pay the taxes to a government I recognized did not exist to serve me and which did not represent me in any meaningful way, reminded routinely in the evening in a casually emasculating way that I was not paid enough for the stress and hours of the job that paid all those bills, just another sucker on the corporate treadmill.

I had to try and be present as a husband and father and not drift into Willy Loman fatalism but it was hard. I was shell-shocked not by a single event in the past but by the horror of getting up every morning and pretending none of it had ever happened, that I still believed, as bitter as a priest consecrating the eucharist to an absconded god, doing so because as a man he understands and tries to fulfill his obligation to the people in the pews who look upon him as the agent of their own salvation.

And somewhere in this tragi-comedy, unconsciously at first but deliberately as time went on, I finally “[pulled] myself up over the side, and…all the way out of my mind” as the poet puts it. I was in the condition Joan Didion famously catalogs in her essay The White Album, the piece that opens with the line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…” and continues:

[My life] was an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go. The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised. I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot… [In] what would probably be the middle of my life I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical.”

I have not mislaid my script exactly, except perhaps at the end of the last act, a consequence of my unconscious decision to cut the last strands. The script instead fell apart, large parts of it blown away on the wind until the larger tale was incomprehensible, the individual stories unraveling in predictable drama but without continuity. To quote another film, my life had become something like Synechdoche, N.Y., a sound stage production in which the only coherent thread was my own unraveling.

There was only one thing to do: send the crew home, and go back to re-write. The answer to the problem of lost coherence, to the unraveling of my own personal narrative, was to take back the script and begin again. The convenient Wal-Mart verities of that life, the conventional measures of career and marriage, had lost their hold on me (and I my hold on them), and so had no place in the script not because they were wrong but because the script was a mess of revisions, the story unraveling in the telling.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. I had been doing that, I realized, for years, but the stories where changing. Here on these blogs, and in other places where I write: the much revised first chapters of a stalled novel, in poetry, in more private journals: all these words and all the hours on the computer from which they were born were leading to something, the discovery that there was a door in the horizon of that sound stage, that I was writing the prologue of the story of the rest of my life.

What have you ever done for New Orleans, someone once asked me in anger. You haven’t gutted a house or help build a new one in Arabi. Fair enough, but I’ve written and done it well enough at some moments to be noticed, to fell the Potemkin villages and tell instead the beauty of the Dnieper River. Once you realize that it’s not a wonderful life and that like Willie Loman you are worth more to this world dead than alive you have choices to make.

And I choose to write, to spend as many hours of the rest of my life as I can reading, studying and writing because somewhere deep inside I have both a cautionary tale to tell and an abiding love of the beautiful particulars of this fucked up world to share. Perhaps no one will notice. Perhaps I am only good at poetry and, by definition, irrelevant. Still, I don’t understand how any rational person can sit through Bulworth or The Truman Show and get up and go to work the next morning. Am I the only one who has finally recognized that to go all the way out of my mind as the only rational response?

Didion, in The White Album, writes about her psychiatric evaluation after “patient experienced an attack of vertigo, nausea and a feeling she was going to pass out.” The extended diagnostic notes are worth reading She ends that section: “By way of comment I offer only that an attack of nausea and vertigo does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”

If I have made bad choices they are my own, and some of the alternatives–Willy Loman’s for example–are worse. In the end it only matters that I spent an entire morning alone in a half-furnished apartment finishing this piece started a few weeks ago, that I had the strength of conviction or (lack of sense enough, take your pick) to pull the publish trigger before I iron my shirts for work, and that you read it through to the end .

You got to be a spirit, Bulworth. You can’t be no ghost. You got to sing, fool.

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