What's In a Number
Trump's lasting legacy will be a numerical figure.
People are generally remembered for one thing, and it tends either to be the biggest thing they do, the worst thing they do, or the last thing they do. Heaven help if you're a popular figure with an action in your life that manages to be all three. You're doomed. It's a foregone conclusion that'll be your only act which publicly outlasts you.
Trump's legacy will be a number. It will be the number of dead women, men and children who could have lived if he had acted on the coronavirus.
After enough time, most of the other acts will be forgotten. This won't be. People remember numbers. Sometimes men do unforgivable things they are later forgiven for, perhaps because they earnestly try to improve themselves, and the people around them believe humans can grow and change.
There will be no such understanding here.
The number dooms him. It is large enough it can't go away, but that isn't everything: it is also small enough that people can wrap their head around it. These are the ways in which fame becomes ignominy.
I listened to a man on the bus one night, musing to a friend of his. The speaker was a spry, wiry sixty-something, holding a skateboard and sporting silver dreads with a jean jacket and turtleneck, both of sensible size; he was a touch scruffy, a man both educated and earthy, from a multiracial somewhere. He'd talk about fishing. Or skateboarding. But he always had a book under his arm too.
On this night– years ago– he spoke a thought which seemed to come from nowhere. It was a musing unrelated to their conversation, the sort of thing you build up to in your mind, but which to the listener comes as a surprise.
He said, "Man, I'd rather have no money at all, and be respected, than be the richest man in the world and have everybody hate me."
Mr. Trump did not think about that when he entered the public stage. He lacks this man's reflective abilities. Becoming a pariah is one tough rock to climb out from under. You need commitment, charisma, and an ocean of goodwill. He lacks all three.
Years from now, a high school student is going to read about our time period in his history book. He'll be sitting in Social Studies thinking about girls, mildly bored, alternating between looking out the window and idly tapping his pencil eraser on the desk. These will be the days before he settles into himself, those fraught and restless days of youth, when your own problems bounded ahead of you, taking up most of the view. But something will distract him out of his reverie. It'll be the chapter about us.
Way back in the early twenty-first century, they elected a tyrant whose infantile rage and abuses of power recalled ancient Rome, the worst of the monarchies, and mid-1900s Europe and Asia. Despite having a democratic system designed from the start to prevent precisely such occurrences– all that stuff about checks and balances we had to study last month– he will learn that no action was taken. A flawed voting system resulted in a despot taking over and abusing others exactly as he was predicted to do, and worse. Much worse.
Then they voted him into office again.
When he reads that he'll pause. They also didn't fix the election system that got him there in the first place? His earlier reverie is forgotten. He is now very interested. Riveted, actually. And confused.
"Wow," he'll think. "They must have been complete morons."
He will be right.
We aren't given a lot of chances to actually do something about world affairs. I know it's discouraging. I tend to focus on what I can do for other people on an individual level; there you can do a lot. More than you think. But we do get one chance to make a difference on the larger stage, and this is that chance. Don't not vote, and then walk in marches later. You want to be qualified to complain, right?
Vote. Let the future see that you tried.
And my thoughts on:
Hearing From YOU: Nathan and Dori Gillam at Redmond Library, Part 4 of 4 (Online)
Let’s talk about what this is. Who’s Dori Gillam? What’s this about a 4th event? What have I missed out on already?
The official title is "Discussing The Lines That Make Us: Stories From Nathan's Bus: Session 2.” Isn’t that hot? Did you ever hear of a more exciting, juicy event title that definitely didn’t sound like a business conference? Me neither. While no one will mistake that mouthful for the latest Katy Perry tour, I like to think it’ll still be fun.
There were tons of people at the first two events, but this is the one you really want to check out. The ending is always the best part, and I’ve had a great run at Redmond Library this past summer. The Friends of the Redmond Library and City of Redmond have sponsored such a bevy of events throughout– interviews with me about specific chapters of the book, a repeat of my MOHAI lecture about cell phones and loneliness, last week’s “gettin-to-know-ya” personal author talk (thanks for making that such a total smash! I'm still blown away), and yesterday’s group discussion with Dori and I.
What I want to emphasize about this last event is that it’s an opportunity to participate. We spend a lot of time consuming media, especially during these times of withdrawal, and it feels good to stretch the other muscle: not just receiving thoughts but putting them forth, reaching out, an exchange of thought rather than the ol’ one-way transmission of passive consumption. Have a thought about my book? Does it call to mind events or opinions or questions you’d like to share?
Well, this is the event. Dori is a superstar facilitator who’s guided hundreds of group discussions, and you feel safe in her hands. There’s an art to it, and she’s got it. I wouldn’t know where to begin, but she can make something as sterile as a Zoom meeting feel like a comfy living room roundtable.
You can come to this discussion with nothing to say, thinking you’ll just listen, but you’ll find yourself wanting to chime in, and we’d all love to hear from you. I'd love to hear from you. I’ve spent enough time blabbing at events over the summer, and I want to hear your thoughts. Have you read my book, or blog? Perfect. What you have to share in response is just as valuable. If you haven’t read the book, that’s fine too; you’ve probably crossed paths with me, virtually or otherwise, and know that I value community and kindness. Maybe it’s something you have stories about, or something you struggle with. Either way, talking about it will feel good! This is what Thursday nights during COVID are for!
You need a KCLS library card. Register for the event here; you’ll notice some fun “task” suggestions down below. They’re not requirements, but they might make for interesting conversation if you do end up doing them! Let’s talk about all this and more Thursday!
Peruse earlier videos of me and the book from this past summer here, courtesy of Redmond Library.
It's About Who's Around
“Is that mah boy?”
“Jooohn! What’s goin’ on! Been a long time!”
In the days of coronavirus, pleasantries have to be yelled. John had entered through the middle door and now stood right by it, just behind the velcro strap encouraging passengers to keep distance from the operator.
We went on like that for a bit, catching up. But right in the middle of it he hit me with the news:
"Hey I just got outta th' hospital. I got cancer, man."
"Cancer, that’s terrible! John!"
"Yeah, I got cancer.” He said it as though he was trying out the phrase, testing out its truth, seeing how it molded to his reality. Do you remember the early days of your tragedies, when there seemed a chance they might not be true?
“I got cancer. They said I drink too much.”
He ducked under the velcro strap, carefully, to come closer. The last time someone did that I got spat on. But you have to remember that’s not everyone. These lives out here have nothing to do with each other. One night someone will scare you, and the next night another man who looks the same, talks the same, dresses the same (and, depending on which corner of 3rd and Pike you’re at, smells the same)– will help you when no one else will. Keep this in the back of your head: If someone saves your life, that person will probably be homeless.
But back to John, the 40-something Latino man and fixture on Rainier whom readers of my book will recognize. From one angle, he was another alcoholic breaking the rules on a Wednesday night. For me, he was a friend with whom I shared a history, from whom my life was richer.
“Yeah man,” he said, “I weigh 140 pounds. I used to be 235.”
“Oh, no. One forty? That’s what I weigh! One forty, 145…”
“Yeah, doctor said I only got two months to live.”
“What? John, this is heavy! Two months?! That cancer’s no joke.”
“Yeah they said two months.”
I was so glad he came up. He came closer because you can’t be sensitive from far away. What do you say to two months left to live? I was taught to think before speaking and usually do, but in this moment my body led the charge. My soul cut in, interrupting with the only words that could work, with a verve I was surprised by.
“Two months? Man, you' be around longer than that.”
It’s a feeling more than a thought, and that sub-liminal part of me spoke now with enormous confidence, and complete belief in itself. I, who knows cancer kills people, who knows the very concept of “beating cancer” is nothing but cruel advertising, that cancer always comes back, that it tears you up, that trying to do anything about it tears you up too– that me somehow believed itself when it said,
“You got this.”
“I’m gonna beat it.”
“You are gonna beat it.”
I believe hope in the face of certain failure is still beautiful. I do not know why this is.
“I’m gonna beat it. Doctor said two months, ah say no way. Fuck that.”
“Two months, more like two decades!”
“I’m gonna beat that cancer.”
“You been through tougher stuff than this.”
“I’ma be pickin’ you up ten years from now, just like I was ten years ago.”
As soon as we had made our own glow, it dissipated. Reality set in, and I was thankful he could share its weight with me.
John the tough guy. The boisterous. The fighter. Comic. Man. John stared into the middle distance, stared forward the way only a passenger on a vehicle can. He said, “I’m sad, man. It’s sad.”
“It is sad.”
“I was 235 pounds. Now I’m 140.”
“They’re givin’ me liquid morphine. They give me a bottle a week.”
“Man, I bet you can’t feel anything.”
“Nothin,’ man. I only got two months left. They kicked me outta my apartment.”
“Man, that’s heavy. I’m sorry, dude. Now’s the time to hang out with good people. See your family, you know? Maybe you’ll beat it, but either way, you wanna have good people around you. You still see Valerie?”
He was lost in thought. “I stay behind that church there. Hey listen Nate, I hate havin’ to ask you like this, but could you spot me any change? Get somethin’ to–“
“Aw man, you know I don’t carry money when I’m workin’.”
“I know, It’s cool. Hey man, it’s always good to see you. I’ma get out right here.” He cracked a grin– “Don’t cut your hair! And stop beatin’ people up!”
There was an echo in his tone, the enthusiasm you put forth with great effort in those final moments, covering up the realization that you might never see your listener again. That was how he spoke now. He’d decided humor was the note to end on.
An hour later I would see him, though, with Valerie (read my book for more) at his side. More than once during the ride she’d tell me it’s always good to see me. Finality had crept into our interactions. It encourages sincerity, goodness, truth. She helped John as he moved, slowly, slurringly (“I’m not gon’ lie, Nate, I’m drunk right now!”), down the aisle with a tender gait as never before. I thought of the sillier times: him coming up to the door of my bus one afternoon and stopping in mock fright, proclaiming, “Nathan! Who did that to your hair??”
“I know, I know, I had to get it cut! It was gettin’ outta control!”
“You tell me who did that and I’ll send ‘em straight to Jesus!!”
I laughed. He’d said, “You gotta get those curls back, bro, like mine. We’re like twins. Oh hey, I saw you walking the other day. You know how to walk?!”
Tonight he was moving slower, but he was still John. They sat in the middle of the bus and struck up conversation with two friendly compatriots and a dog. I couldn’t hear them, but their arms and smiles said it all– gestures of togetherness among strangers, dog stories, travelling stories, communion found in exchanging the breeze. I marvelled at Valerie and John’s stalwart presence in each other’s lives, particularly now as they faced the finish line. A kindness in their camaraderie tonight.
In the last days things will not be perfect. There will be pain, shame, unfulfilled dreams. Your favorite people won’t all be there. But that’s okay. It’s not about that.
It’s about whoever happens to be around.
Have a good time with them. They’ll bring you up. We all have more in common than we don’t. Wave your arms in the air like John is now, telling another story, listening and laughing, making the most of the in-between moments; a post-sunset bus ride on a forgotten weekday, spent in the good company of strangers and friends.
That’s what living is.
More with John here and here.
Last month's Zoom lecture, the first of these four events, was a hit, and I have you all to thank for making it so. I'm so grateful you guys stopped in on a Saturday afternoon! Almost like there was a pandemic outside or something...
These next two talks take place in short succession, and you're of course welcome to check out either or both. As before, they're online, through Zoom, put on by Redmond Library. All you need is a KCLS library card and a Zoom account to register. It's free!
2. Meet the Author– Nathan Vass
Ask me anything! Talk about everything! I try to have each of my book talks focus on something different, to keep things interesting if you've been to one of these before; I promise to do the same here! I worked at Redmond Library as a youngster, so the focus here will be of the 'gettin-to-know-you' personal story variety.
Thursday, October 15, 2020
7:00PM – 8:30PM
Register and more here!
3. Discussing the Lines That Make Us: Stories From Nathan's Bus: Session 1
Diving deeper with facilitator (and author!) Dori Gilliam. We'll tackle some of the probing questions the book brings up about reaching out, and what that means today.
Saturday, October 17, 2020
2:00PM – 4:00PM
Register and more here.
In the meantime, more "Nathan at Redmond Library" stuff here! Video interviews with me about chapters of my book, why I wrote the book period, and more!