Playing Chicken with the Stars

I’m writing this eight days out from the election, from a place of confusion, from a place of fear, where uncertainty has generated the unexpected joy of calls from friends in all of the corners of my life crying out from The Canyon Of Irrelevant Math, assuring me they can see the future, assuring me they know the outcome with an absolute certainty which underscores their need to believe in something they can’t possibly know but instead of asking for a hug or a shoulder to cry on, they’re playing a game with me. I have no choice but to play along, and even though it feels like they’re dealing from the bottom of the deck, it’s a game I relish.

Last week was the final debate and even this was a game of deceit, no one honestly tuned in to make a decision – there are no Undecided Voters in 2020 – it’s a focus group generated myth, everyone knows exactly what they’re doing as sure as the Undecided Voters in focus groups know in the darkest corner of their hearts they didn’t agree to participate to be honest, they agreed to participate to earn a few extra buck and gorge themselves on free donuts. A fair trade. The first debate was a Festival Of Interruptions. The second debate was cancelled, so we were offered dueling town halls because President Trump was contagious with a hoax. The third debate needed to drum up an audience, so the media ran endless promos hyping the Mute Button, accommodating Biden’s reasonable desire to be heard while playing the Reality TV Game of daring Trump to prove he could serve up a presidential teaspoon of impulse control.

I pulled up to Lex’s house ahead of the debate.

Lex has been a schoolteacher for the better part of three decades. He had me over for the final debate. We grilled pork chops, Italian sausage and roasted peppers. He finished a bottle of wine as I cracked one cheap beer after another, self-medicating our way through the night. From time to time, Lex would leap to his feet, running toward the TV and yelling , “Mute! Mute! Mute!” It was honestly the best part of the debate and I feel certain it was happening in households across America, as those of us in denial are trying to will this moment to pass, as if Will To Power were anything more than a pithy lie ripped from the diary of the drama queen to end all drama queens, Fredrich Nietzsche. I’m pleased to report my pork chop was cooked perfectly, the Italian sausage was otherworldly, the burnt skin of the peppers ceding like notes twisted from the guitar by the confident hands of Lex.

My phone buzzed.

Eddie Gee wanted to know if I Early Voted. After the dueling town halls, he texted me a link to an article, “Trump and Biden town halls showed us two worlds, and only one of them is terrifying.” He sent me a thumbs-up and then a follow-up message, “Best headline of the day!”

I replied, “I watched both town halls this morning at 5AM on YouTube, flipping back and forth. I find both worlds terrifying. One world where Nazis are very fine people. One where the 1994 Crime Bill seemed like a rational idea. I’m voting on Election Day, it’s my guilty pleasure. Stickers, clipboards and lines of people to schmooze for an indication of the world I’m living in.”

“Um,” he replied, “I’m pretty sure you dozed over the part where Biden said he regretted the 1994 Crime Bill and it was a serious mistake. The Biden world is not at all terrifying: don’t forget he was the leader on same-sex marriage in the Obama White House, plus he led on the Affordadble Care Act and pushed the Deleware caucus on Dodd-Frank. But okay, you stay terrified. Anyway, I do love to vote on Election Day, but more important to vote in Florida.”

“I understand Biden regrets parts of the 1994 Crime Bill but I don’t like that he ever thought certain parts were acceptable. Listen. I’m not turning Biden into a Saint. I hope he wins but it’s going to be my job to do everything I can to pull him away from the lazy impulse to become a Moderate Republican – one who soft shoes on fracking – and demand he becomes the kind of president I expect him to be, one who steps forcefully into the world I care about. Glad you voted by mail in Florida.”

“I know you’re not turning him into a saint, the point is you can’t turn him into a monster. We need him to be a warrior.”

“Yes. Exactly. A warrior. None of this turn-the-page bullshit, heads must roll.”

“On that point, we totally agree!”

Eddie Gee is the mystical friend who visits me by traveling through a portal from another time. We met at The University of Florida, where we both pledged a fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi. Eddie Gee was a couple years ahead of me, at a time when being a couple years ahead seemed insurmountable. He was revered, carrying himself with a natural ease, brown eyes sparkling with brilliance, college girls following him around campus like they were star struck. I really didn’t get to know Eddie Gee until the tarot cards were flipped for us to meet again in New York City. He was at NYU Law School while I was at NYU Film School. He was studying how to rack up legal fees by exploiting loopholes while I was studying pretentiousness. His degree would end up taking him further. We used to meet up after class, split a 40 of Schlitz Malt Liquor in a paper bag, passing it back and forth as we walked the streets, dreaming ourselves into a future we could see but somehow felt just out of reach. One night we had a fight about Malcolm X. He was telling me what an amazing leader Malcom X had been when I cut him off to tell him that Malcolm X was a reverse racist. Eddie Gee looked at me puzzled. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. But I doubled-down, the vain in my neck bulging as I tore into him, “What’s the difference between a racist who hates black people and a racist who hates white people? It’s the same lie,” I said with absolute certainty. The next day, I went to the library and checked out a copy of a book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” written by Alex Haley. My plan was to read the book, gather evidence and shame Eddie Gee into buying the next 40. I finished the book and walked over to Eddie Gee’s dorm. “I’m sorry, “I said. “I was wrong. I read about Malcolm X. I love the guy, what he stood for, how far he came, how much he allowed himself to change. I don’t know what made me think I knew what I was talking about. I owe you an apology.” He thanked me for the apology. Then he walked me to the corner bodega, standing by the cash register with his arms crossed, smiling at me, as I reached into my pocket to cover the full cost of beer with the little money I had. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you win by losing, sometimes you lose by winning, sometimes you double-down and never stop to think about why the win is more important than the friendship. I never forgot the feeling of my ears burning with the sudden awareness there were thoughts in my head put there by other people and unless I did the work to see the thoughts and pull them apart, I was basically walking around shooting off my mouth like a mass shooter, indifferent to the wreckage I was leaving behind, caught up in the intoxicating power of pulling the trigger. It turns out, putting down my guns and investigating what was underneath the battle was one of the best things I ever did in my life, not only was I introduced to Malcolm X but it opened the door for me to begin the slow work of dismantling the lies I’d been carrying around in my head. At the time, I thought winning a free beer was everything. It turns out, reaching into my pocket to settle the score had a more satisfying aftertaste.

My phone buzzed.

Mary had a question for me.

Mary is a budding super star living on Staten Island. She can do anything with sandpaper and a paintbrush, turning abandoned furniture into Instagram Gold. She was married to another fraternity brother I met when the stars guided my flight from the beige bubble of suburban sameness. In haste, I ran in the exact wrong direction – following the south star – landing me on the Peninsula of Insanity in the perpetual humidity of bad-hair days otherwise known as Gainesville, Florida. I used to think it was written in the stars for me to meet her ex-husband so we could play music together but I’m starting to think the stars had other plans for me, they foretold of a time when I’d be separated by geography but linked by the heart to Mary. Those sneaky stars!

Mary has been at war on Facebook, putting her ass and her business and her peace of mind on the line, speaking Truth To Power, another pithy lie ripped from the histrionic diary of The Dalai Lama – like that lazy monk knows a goddamn thing about making payroll. I bit my tongue. As tempting as it was to beg her off the impulse to engage with MAGA TROLLS, I secretly admired her stamina for taking abuse which is the only weapon in their arsenal. They can dish it out but they can’t take it. I never knew Trump Voters were so thin-skinned, a Trinity of White Nationalism: the father, the son and the holy troll. I worried about Mary’s furniture business, knowing how quickly well intended words can be weaponized, used against you to dismantle your business, your friendships, your peace of mind.

Mary texted, “If you had to sum me up in one song, what would it be?”

You cannot possibly sum up her in one song. But I understood the game she was playing, take the focus off the focus. We could all use a break from the unrelenting speculation of Election Season. I cannot tell if the Early Voting is a reckoning or a celebration. Are people appalled by the past four years, or turned on by it? I’ve lost the ability to differentiate between what’s right in front of my face and what I want to believe. Playing along with Mary’s game was exactly what I needed. She’s brave like MIA, taking on the NFL with her middle finger; she’s impossibly joyful like Lizzo, you can blame it on her juice but it really has to do with the depth of how fearlessly she gives love; she’s snarky like Amy Winehouse, but she has too much self-esteem to be roadkill on the walk of fame; she’s unfairly gifted like Sia, unstoppable!

My phone buzzed but I was walking into rehearsal. So I turned it off.

Vince was my college roommate. We lived together at 15 Fraternity Row in Room 11. We built a loft, laying under it at night, a thin wall between us, where we dreamed-up separate futures while dozing side-by-side. Vince was majoring in finance, he wanted to escape the financial hardships of his youth, spend his adult life traveling Florida to Paris for brunch in a fleet of private jets with his name stenciled in gold, Air Vince. I was majoring in pissing people off, spending my time living for the next time the words would come together and I’d have something clever to say in the school newspaper, Air Head. We both got exactly what we dreamed-up, Vince lives a life of riches, a beautiful wife, two beautiful daughters, his fortune billowing in the clouds, a rainmaker in business while I continue pissing people off, flinging words into the darkness, playing chicken with the stars, hurling to the edge of the galaxy where horoscopes litter the horizon like billboards in Times Square, where fortunetellers eat fortune cookies in a bowl of low fat milk, where light travels at the speed of kindness. We had a fight recently, Vince becoming increasingly certain Joe Biden was going to win, disregarding my fears, willing a future into existence by flipping tarot cards for his candidate. I didn’t know what was happening. I felt pushed away by his optimism, not understanding the need he was exhibiting to take care of his mood so he could face his family with a smile, despite the darkness he was seeing in the cards. Then last night after driving home, I noticed he left a message, forgetting I’d gotten a call on the way into rehearsal. Sitting in my car with the windows down, looking up at the crescent moon flanked by Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, contemplating the last beautiful night as winter overtakes Chicago in the forever-and-a-day feeling of pandemic fatigue, I plugged my phone into the stereo – broadcasting Vince – a shooting star stretching across the tiny horizon of my bottled up fears. This is what he said…

“So after Biden wins, I want to see the super-progressives, The AOC’s, all of the new candidates that are going to be elected across the country, come together as power progressives who move the country where it needs to go. Get rid of Nancy. Get rid of the old guard. Clean the house. Get a young, vibrant, attacking, war-minded, progressive-liberal movement in America.”

Exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks for knowing, Vince. Thanks for the game of musical chairs, Mary. Thanks for introducing me to Malcolm Little, the guardian angel of my ambition, Eddie Gee. And of course, to you, Lex, thanks for the tutorial on peeling roasted peppers.

May the stars align for us. I love you all. Vote!

2 thoughts on “Playing Chicken with the Stars”

  1. With only 8 days to go, you must have some predictions to make. Everyone does. Unless you are afraid to be wrong. It’s easy to say Trump has fanatics and has a black belt in media and that Biden was selected by the dem elite, thwarting Bernie again. With that, you win either way. If Trump pulls out his cheating win, you can say, “I have the media eye, unlike you Vince, and I saw it coming.”

    If Biden wins, we are all happy and the world throws a party, you join in, and few days later we wake up with nothing left to talk about.

    So if you are playing chicken with the stars, and reading your tarot cards, and your seeing things though your media lens, what is your election prediction?

    I am willing to say that Trump does not get to 200 electoral votes. He will be at 197-198-ish. I will live in this happy place until the election. I will broadcast my happy thoughts, hopefully inspiring others to happily march into the booth and cast a vote for the imperfect candidate, Joe Biden.

    Being optimistic is so much more fun than being pessimistic, and the future will unfold the same way. Unless, my optimism changes things for the better along the way.

    This was a great post; well written and fun.

    1. My favorite thing about this one is that it was long. And I could keep reading. The universe is always listening. Let the trumplicans have their final last days As for your friends you spoke of.. sounds like you have a great foundation of love, care and mutual respect which you deserve greatly. That Mary girl though sounds like a weirdo

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