Inspired by three (real) albums of protest music released in 2018 -- "Retake the Middle Ground," "Unfollow," and "World Almost Over?" -- the novel follows the travails of three (fictional) songwriters as they deal with issues from writer's block to physical intimidation, from trolls to the seemingly endless social media feeds devoted to politics.
Kim had things all set up in her garage for the Thursday meeting. The garage was ready to go for whatever sort of jam session might happen. Now all all she needed was a few people to show up.
She sat in the open doorway and stared across the yard to the sign planted in her neighbor's yard. Trump, it said, just as it had for the last several years.
She sighed and tried not to admit to herself that she was feeling a bit down.
The first person to come strolling up her driveway was Nathaniel. That made Kim feel a little better. She wasn't quite ready for Jenny's energy. Talking to the soft-spoken Nathaniel would help ease her into the socializing mood.
As Nathaniel grew closer, it became noticeable that he had, much to her surprise, shaved off his gray beard.
Jenny had been right: the beard was what had been making him look so much older. Without it, he looked downright baby-faced.
"Well who is this stranger walking up my drive?" she asked.
"Yeah, I did it."
"It looks great!"
"Really? You don't have to say it just to be polite. I'd rather you be honest with me."
"Honestly, it looks great. Jenny was right. You look more like your age now. It's great."
Nathaniel sat down in the lawn chair next to hers. "When I was walking up you looked like you were a million miles away. I wasn't sure you were actually seeing me."
"Sorry Nathaniel, " she sighed, "I've just been kind of down. I can't get the thing with Mike out of my mind."
"The guy in the red hat from Monday."
"Oh, that guy. He seems like one you should just forget about."
"I guess, but it bothers me."
"What bothers you?"
"It bothers me that I couldn't connect with him. I believe — and I've written songs about this — that we need to connect more. Have less of the Us vs. Them. But I couldn't make that happen."
"Well, he didn't seem like he wanted to connect."
"Didn't he?"" she asked, "Doesn't everyone? But I just pissed him off. Could I have gotten my point across without pissing him off? Jenny says that I won, but I wasn't looking to win. I wanted to communicate."
Nathaniel thought for a moment, then said, "Do you think he wanted to communicate? From where I was sitting it looked to me like he wanted to win. Like you said: he was just being a troll."
"Yes, but even trolls have feelings…"
The two sat in silence for a bit. Kim stared at her neighbor's Trump sign. Nathaniel stared at the ground.
"I just feel terrible," said Kim.
The two sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Nathaniel said, "May I say something?"
Nathaniel hesitated, seemingly reconsidering whether he should say what he wanted to say, then said, "Right now you're exhibiting the main weakness of being a liberal — you're thinking about your opponent's feelings."
"Weakness?" Kim said, a bit flabbergasted at what Nathaniel had just said.
"Weakness. Now, don't get me wrong, I personally agree with you that you should care about the feelings of others. It's the right thing to do. Even Jesus said 'love your enemies,' but…"
"But that's the way the world should be, not the way the world is. Do you think that Mike is sitting around thinking about your feelings? No, he's thinking of how he could have won and of what he'll say — if you ever meet again — to make you look stupid. You and I may think that empathy is a beautiful thing, but the way our society — our world — is built is closer to the hierarchy of a group of gorillas than it is to anything compassionate. And in that world empathy is a disadvantage. Empathy pulls you down. Self-interest pulls you up. The way that things are structured it's arrogance that rises to the top."
"Wow, Nathaniel, I'm surprised to hear you talk like that. You don't really believe that, do you?"
He thought for a moment on how to phrase what he wanted to say, "It's not how I want the world to be. But I think it is how the world is. We don't have societies based on compassion and lovingkindness. We should. But what we have are societies based on competition."
Competition. This had a familiar ring to it for Kim, although it was about the last thing she would have expected to hear from a hippie who worked at a vegetarian restaurant.
Kim had once been engaged. Kevin. Her fiancee had been very fond of the phrase "competition is healthy." Kim had once challenged that notion. She had asked him how exactly competition could be healthy when losing made you feel so awful and in any competition there are only a handful of winners and a whole lot of losers. The overwhelming majority of people in a competition — any competition — lose. So, how exactly is that 'healthy.'
Kevin's response had been simply to repeat "competition is healthy" and walk out the door carrying his gym bag.
She often wondered, in hindsight, how she had not seen how wrong she and Kevin had been for one another. Besides being ultra-competitive, he was also a compulsive liar. It had taken him dumping her, while hiding the fact that he was also cheating on her, to make her see how wrong they had been as a couple. She supposed that it was because in the same way that he believed in the saying "competition is healthy," Kim had believed in the saying "opposites attract."
She didn't believe that one any more.
"Kim, you need to win," said Nathaniel.
Kim just looked at him in amazement. Was she dreaming? The hippie was talking pragmatically? Talking of how the world is as opposed to how it should be? Just as she was about to ask him about compassion and lovingkindness he said, "Kim, if you want to accomplish anything at all with Political Music Club you need to get into that winning mindset."
She responded, "I don't even know what to say. This doesn't sound like you."
"It's not me. I could never win. I crumble too easily. You've seen how easy it is for Jenny to kick me around. And Jenny, she can't win either. She's got the competitive nature but she can't focus it. Look how she can never even finish writing a two minute song. Plus, she's got too many sharp edges, which makes it even harder for her. But you… Kim, there's something about you. If you set your mind to it you could win. You could win and then, after you've won, then you could think about empathy. But not…"
"Gasp!" yelled Jenny from the street, "I mean, just fuckin' Gasp! Who is that kid siting next to Kim?"
"Speak of the devil," Nathaniel said to Kim.
"That's what I'm talking about!" said Jenny as she ran up the drive carrying her guitar and amp. She set down the Telecaster and amp in the garage but kept her gaze on Nathaniel's smooth-shaven face. "That is so much better. Isn't that better, Kim?"
"That is better. You were right."
"See, we've actually got a good-looking man here instead of a… whatever it was we had… a Wookie wrapped in burlap. I love it! Now you're gonna have girls after you all day at the restaurant. You'll have to beat them off with a potato pancake! You won't be able to pick up a check without it having some vegan girl's phone number on it."
Jenny then walked up to Nathaniel, who was blushing at the attention, and pinched his cheeks. "It's, like, smooth as a baby's butt! Much better! Isn't it Kim?"
Kim again nodded.
"I have got to tweet this," said Jenny as she set down her guitar and amp and pointed her phone at the blushing Nathaniel. "And without the beard now the Jesus hair doesn't bother me so much. You can keep that if you want."
"Well thanks," Nathaniel replied.« previous next »