“Hey, hey, hey — don’t be mean. We don’t have to be mean. ‘Cause, remember: no matter where you go… there you are.”
I have a joke about the socialist meeting: I went to the socialist meeting to meet people, but all anyone there wanted to talk about was overthrowing capitalism.
“I’m just a lonely person looking to socialize,” I go on. “Get it?”
My younger brother James is silent on the other end of the phone. I imagine him with a scowl on his face as he lounges in the shade of his one bedroom apartment, open window letting in sea breeze and a slant of warm California sun.
“You’re a socialist now?” he asks.
James has his own joke he likes to tell: how are a frog and a joke alike?
“Like a frog, if you dissect a joke,” he’ll say, taking a beat before the punchline, “it dies.”
Except that’s not the punchline.
“You see,” he continues, “in much the same way that blood is the lifeforce of a frog, funniness is the stuff that makes a joke work. Now—and try to stay with me here—I want you to think in a metaphorical sense about what happens when you cut into a joke, take it apart and reduce it to its most fundamental components; how if you over explain the precise mechanism by which a humorous premise successfully arrives at its chuckle eliciting conclusion, the funniness of the joke tends to come spraying out in sticky hot jets all over the walls. And like a frog—”
There will come a day when someone points out that the kind of frog who typically gets dissected is the already dead kind of frog. When that day comes, I know what James will say.
“I don’t think you get the joke. Let me explain.”
On rare mornings I put on the frivolous leather jacket. Even though it doesn’t do much against the cold. Iowa winters can get so cold it burns.
I bought it from a thrift store after talking the price down from $50 to $45. The purchase took a major toll on me. I’d stalked like a caged animal among the racks for what felt like days, wringing it in my hands, my lower-middle class mindset rattling against the bars.
At the counter I wore a pale grimace, the debit card in my outstretched hand heavy as a kidney. Later in the parking lot, I found a faded receipt in the pocket that showed the jacket’s original sale price. It was more than $200. Frigid air escaped my lungs in a howl of ecstasy.
In my best moments, I allow myself the thought: I look cool in this leather jacket.
I didn’t wear it to the socialist meeting. It was at the library in downtown Iowa City. I wandered in late, disheveled and bleary eyed after another day at the call center. I looked around at the fifteen or so people in the room and said, “Are you the socialists?”
After receiving several mumbled assurances that yes, they were indeed the socialists—were in fact the Iowa City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, risen from the ashes of a recent and hasty dismemberment—I took a seat among them. A paper went round the room. I signed my name and email address.
The guy to my right hadn’t forgotten to wear his leather jacket. I admired its silver zippers and punk rock epaulets, John Darnielle’s falsetto quavering in my head: “I’m pretty hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore.”
The guy to my left had a giant Chapo Trap House patch on his messenger bag. Chapo Trap House is an absurdist political podcast I listen to, the vanguard of “the dirtbag left.”
I pointed at the grinning skull on the patch and said, “Nice Chapo patch.”
His face lit up. “I intend to steal so much valor,” he said in a rough impersonation of Felix Biederman, one of the show’s hosts.
I gave a slow nod. “Right on.”
“Don’t,” James says over the phone.
I pause. “Don’t what?”
My brother is an engineer in the U.S. Air Force. This hasn’t stopped him from being funnier than me.
On the phone with him over a fifteen minute break, I take a seat on one of the public benches strewn about the Old Capitol Mall. The call center where I work is on the second floor. I spend most of my days here, encased in this carpeted fortress of artificial heat. I lean back on the bench and search the frosted glass ceiling for cracks.
The city council plans to install new public benches downtown, much like the one I am resting on. These new benches will have metal armrests built into their middles. When asked about it, the city manager said the armrests are there to encourage people to sit next to each other; to preserve their bubbles of personal space.
The truth is that these benches are designed this way to keep homeless people from sleeping on them.
At the socialist meeting we discussed committee assignments. The election of officers. Personal moments of radicalization. A grey haired child of the sixties pointed out the lack of diversity in the room.
“There isn’t a single person of color here,” she said with a peevish twitch of her shawl.
The guy in the punk rock leather jacket arched an eyebrow. “Yes, there is,” he said. “Two, actually.”
A pair of Asian men suddenly appeared at the table.
“Did you know that Gandhi didn’t practice nonviolence out of some high-minded moral principle?” I said to a co-worker one day.
She’d just finished reciting for the pod an inspirational Gandhi quote from a book of other inspirational Gandhi quotes.
“He only chose to be nonviolent,” I went on, “because it was the best strategy to defeat the British.”
My co-worker looked at me like I’d just farted out of my mouth.
It turns out that this thing I’d uttered with such dead eyed Cumberbatchian certainty is not, in the strictest sense of the word, true. I learned later that my narrow statement—based on something I once read in a narrow book—has been widely denied by many of the various Gandhian sects. I didn’t clarify the record because it would be inexpedient. It would also be quite awkward.
The Hindi word for Gandhi’s concept of nonviolent resistance is satyagraha. In English, the word means “holding to the truth.”
Sometimes I do actually fart in my cubicle. Nothing elaborate. Just a quiet little toot now and then. I don’t think anyone notices. I don’t think.
I also don’t want this to be mistaken for an apology.
“We live in a culture of stupidity,” my brother says. “I look at the conversations online and I don’t see much up side to engaging. Sometimes I feel like going full hermit and moving into the woods. But I’m afraid if I do, I’ll just find a bunch more people like me arguing about what sort of sweaters to put on the trees.”
My Facebook feed is filled with newborn babies and GodArchists. All of them are Russian bots. All their memes are dank as fuck.
I post something in a serious and authoritative tone. I get into an argument with one of my best friends about centrist versus leftist Democratic politics. I win the argument. He wins the argument. Then I pick a fight with a guy who I imagine enjoys making love to his AR-15 and openly fantasizes about getting into gunfights with “the commies”.
“What commies do you speak of???” I punch into his thread, feeling the acid of every keystroke. Later, I message the other socialists in town.
“Hey,” I write, “when is our next meeting?”
I’m the scrawny guy lifting weights at the gym. There’s a bearded man with bulgy neck veins who grapples and grunts with one of the machines across from me. The kind of bearded man whose elbows have armpits. He is already one version of the person I am working so hard to become. In the tiled vastness of the locker room, someone blows their nose. It sounds like a tiny elephant in a department store.
“I just want us all to be happy,” James says in distant California. “And by us, I mean me and a few friends and family members.”
Dad calls to talk about the Falcon Heavy launch; about the genuine human emotion he witnessed on the video feed outside the Kennedy Space Center as the most powerful rocket in history climbed into the stars. The retelling moves him to tears.The only reaction I can muster is anxiety about how many of us will be left behind, trapped on a dying planet in a future where outer space is no longer a wondrous frontier, but a tightly controlled dominion, packaged and sold to the fortunate few by trillionaire corporatists.
“The Voyager probe carried the recorded brain waves of a human being experiencing love,” I say to my starry eyed father. “The best we can do these days is a car commercial?”
I feel faraway as I hang up the phone. I go to Sarah, who’s reading under a pile of blankets on the couch, and ask, “Am I full of shit? Am I a total drag?”
Sarah can read a whole book in a single day. I wish I knew how to do that.
I retreat into Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and watch a Jewish Texan drunkenly cajole a jaded Marxist priest into joining the fight against the thousand year Reich. Deep down in New Orleans, the Nazi killing begins in earnest. The righteous bloody destruction of each simulated body brings me closer to a bright world that is, in the alternate universe of the game, only a fantasy.
It is the world in which we all live.
There is a secret to the frivolous leather jacket in the cold. Underneath I wear a heavy button-up sweater. It belonged to my grandfather, who died in the summer.
Grandpa didn’t tell jokes. He told funny little stories. One night, after too much wine, he recalled for me how he once rescued a man’s ballpoint pen. He was always rescuing things in his stories. Mostly cows and horses. This time it was a ballpoint pen.
“I’d never seen one before,” he said, his voice slurring a little from the Franzia. “None of us had. They hadn’t been invented yet.”
The story takes place during the war. Grandpa was a young U.S. Navy boat pilot in the South Pacific. The kind of guy, he told me, who could get you anything you wanted. One time he stole a hundred pound bag of potatoes from the Army. Along with a bunch of their hot plates.
He was strutting down the beach on a sunny afternoon when he came across a man outside a building. The man had been writing a letter with his ballpoint pen—a precious gift from his parents—but before he could finish, the pen slipped from his fingers and somehow clattered down into the darkness between the walls of the building.
“Oh god!” the man shrieked. “I’ve lost my ballpoint pen!”
“Never fear,” grandpa rumbled. “I’ll get it for you.”
He turned. Walked into a barn. This being the type of beach where buildings and barns are. Inside the barn was a tractor. Grandpa turned it on and drove it out of the barn. He steered the tractor across the sand and came to a stop near the distressed and penless men. He dismounted the tractor and hooked it to the bottom of the building.
Grandpa then, in his words, picked up the building.
“And there was the ballpoint pen,” he said with a shrug. “The man reached in. Grabbed it. And I set the building back down.”
It was, he said, the funniest part of World War II.
He never got around to telling me the bad parts. He would sometimes tiptoe to their edges, right up to the bodies rocking in the surf off the Island of Tarawa. Then he’d stop and grow quiet.
Grandpa didn’t like Obama any more than he liked the Japanese, and he wasn’t afraid to let it be known. No matter how atonal his proclamations about race and politics became as he got older, it did little to dissipate the legendary well of kindness in his eyes. The ultimate truth about himself, which I’m convinced my grandpa sometimes tried but failed to hide from the people around him, is that he loved everybody.
It’s another frozen morning in America. I pull on grandpa’s sweater and clomp down the stairs to feed the cats. I drink too much coffee and twist myself into queasy knots trying to find an ending. I begin to wonder if the concept is inherently dishonest when one of the cats hops onto the table and spews his breakfast across my keyboard.
“This will have to do,” I say, spraying the keys with disinfectant.