Democracy? Sweet!

As migraines decrease, knotted muscles relax, restless nights shift into deep, relaxed sleep, and the voices of anxiety soften in our minds, the first month of the Biden administration cruises along—calm, adult, competent. Not that our country is fully out of danger. The pandemic still rages, though the delivery of vaccines is finally ramping up. The insurrectionists are only beginning to be rounded up, but prosecutions will inevitably follow. The disgraced former resident of the White House remains unrepentant, but a world of legal troubles awaits him, even if he escapes conviction for his second impeachment.

Much work of course remains undone, but social and racial inequity relief is being embedded into government programs, and the pandemic rescue bill is going big. So perhaps it’s time to stop holding our cautious breaths and celebrate a little.

A good way to begin would be to listen to Democracy! Suite, a new work composed by Wynton Marsalis for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet. Written to provide “the healing insights of Jazz,” the eight songs of this suite exude optimism and joy. In many ways it’s a celebration, a testimony to the human spirit that—despite unacceptable losses and a torn national fabric—has survived one of our country’s hardest of hard years. I listen to this album every day, and sometimes all day long. It makes me want to sing, to dance, to shed invisible demons.

There’s a performance video available for many of the songs in this suite, each one well worth watching. The band plays before an enormous window overlooking Columbus Circle, Central Park, and the broad busy street of Central Park South in New York City. They begin the suite in the light of day, and by the end of the song cycle they’re performing in a rich dark night adorned with the city’s glitter. Here is the band, led by trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, playing “Be Present,” dedicated to the frontline workers in the pandemic.

The entire album is a magnificent gem, one of the best alternatives to Doom Scrolling that I can think of.

Another effective antidote to obsessive internet anxiety that I’ve recently discovered is Leonard and Hungry Paul, the debut novel of Rónán Hession, a musican and social worker based in Dublin. This novel achieves something I’ve never quite encountered before in fiction, a sense of calm without for one moment inciting boredom.

Perhaps this is because author Hession displays such a broad acceptance of all his main characters. But the novel mainly concentrates on the story of two seemingly ordinary people, two adult men who have not yet found a way to expand their lives. Leonard, who lives alone, is a ghost writer for children’s science books, and Hungry Paul is a part-time mail carrier who lives with his parents. They are best friends, and understanding of each other’s foibles. The novel begins with them spending an evening playing a board game:

As they both played board games regularly, and switched between them often, it was not unusual for games to start slowly whenever they changed to something new. It was perfectly normal to have a warm-up period, like the way a polyglot who has just arrived at the airport needs to hear the local language spoken around him before he can regain his own fluency in speaking it. Before long, the game settled into a steady rhythm of clacking dice and turn-taking, interspersed with uninhibited rallies of conversation between the two friends, both of whom were free thinkers with a broad range of interests.

Both characters, in their quiet ways, are careful observers of the world around them. Here, Leonard has come along on a shopping expedition to help Hungry Paul buy a suit (his first ever) for his sister’s impending wedding.

“What colour do you want?” asked Leonard.
“Not navy, as that’s too much like my post office uniform. Not black, because I’ll look like someone in a ska band. Not brown, because I’d look like a teacher. So, maybe gray, dark grey even?” Hungry Paul had given this some thought.
“What about the pinstripe one?” suggested Leonard.
“Nah, pinstripe is for a work suit, not a social occasion. Besides, that’s chalk stripe, which is different.”
“I’m impressed,” said Leonard, “I sort of expected you to be hopeless at this, to be honest. How do you know so much about all this?”
“I think my mother thought the same. There isn’t much to know. Men don’t have huge variety in suits and I like to pay attention to what goes on, so after a while you notice who wears what, even if you’re not interested in wearing a suit yourself. Let’s try that dark gray one.”

The novel is filled with quirky observations that reminded me of the celebrations of the often overlooked and ordinary in Nicholson Baker’s first two books, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature. Hession’s novel has a further strength: a sustained, canny sweetness, because while Hession has the best interests of his characters in mind, the twists of the plot feel more than earned. By the last page the book felt less like a novel (though it is a wonderful, distinctive novel) and more like a friendship I had made.

Perfect for a post-Trumpocalypse world. It’s time to shake off the inner restraints of the past four years, which I grant will likely be a long process, and embrace some optimism. The first steps could be to read Leonard and Hungry Paul while listening to Democracy! Suite.


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