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My Fears and Their Assuagement

1. I’m afraid I’ll never be really moved by a work of art again.

This one is evergreen. The more art I experience, the more seldom I find true pleasure in it. This has to do with proficiency at looking, which is one of the recompenses for having one’s body start to fall apart in middle age. Fortunately, I never have to live with this worry for long. Some wonderful idea or essay or painting always emerges, deus ex machina-like from somebody’s wonderful brain, that captivates me. This week it was a musical one-two punch: stumbling onto the delicious song Ojos Del Sol by a Portland band called Y La Bamba; and of course, Childish Gambino’s powerful video This Is America, which I watched obsessively for the better part of an hour, then watched again the next day, and the next.

2. I’m afraid the art world has been permanently destroyed by the art market.

It kind of has.The gallery and museum system we knew and loved in the 20th century has given way to a gross hybrid of personal-brand empowerment, high-end décor, insipid playgrounds for grownups, and shopping (our national pastime). My consolation is that, while the art world has little to do with art anymore, art itself is doing fine. It’s still out there, even if it’s increasingly not in its traditionally recognizable forms. That said, galleries have always been the first line of discovery and support for artists, and now they’re hurting. If they disappear, I don’t know what will step in to take their place of doing the hard work of studio visits and keeping ears to the ground. It’s probably going to be up to the artists themselves: in some cities, artist collectives are proliferating and finding their own ways to get the work out there.

3. I’m afraid our country is inching dangerously towards civil war, for no good reason.

This really could be an essay unto itself. I say “civil war” because of the increasingly maniacal pitch of the discourse. The extremes on both ends of the political spectrum are both guilty of this, but Exhibit A is surely the National Rifle Association’s chilling videos talking about “them” (meaning me). Is the NRA telling its adherents to get ready to kill people like me who advocate for gun control? It sure sounds like it. Unlike the abolishment of slavery, gun rights are not a good reason to have a civil war, any more than abortion, increasing income inequality, health-care bankruptcies, systemic racism, climate change, or any number of admittedly very difficult issues — but it’s really starting to sound like some people on both sides are itching for a serious fight.

4. I’m afraid the internet is making people crazy.

This is demonstrably true. See #3. Also: I highly recommend that you get off Facebook. It has done me a world of good.

5. I’m afraid popular culture is stupider and more insidious than it’s ever been.

Nobody can be worth a shit on an unrelenting diet of prescription drug commercials, cat memes, “journalism” about Black Friday, and Dancing with the Stars. If you’re as dismayed as I am, there’s nothing you can do but cede the field to the slurry heap of garbage out there and maintain personal quality control by watching good TV and movies, reading good books, and listening to good music. It won’t change the larger culture, but it will help you feel better, calmer, and more sane.

6. I’m afraid this President, like Nero in ancient Rome, will make appalling behavior acceptable and normal for leaders of the United States.

Given that he’s the Reality TV President, this is closely related to #5. I don’t know; every one of Trump’s dumb, illiterate tweets is so horrendously awful, with their moronic taunts of world leaders and petulant, boastful mewling. He is grotesque — but many people love him. Will the way he behaves become the new normal for our leaders, and if so, can our own Roman Decline and Fall be far behind? Of course, if every person in this country were to vote in every election available to them, things would be radically different. For starters, the fringey extremes of either side would not be dominating the conversation. So please, please, please vote. Always and in every primary. I’ll let David Foster Wallace take it from here:

“If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”

7. I’m afraid nature is lost to me.

In college I would go on somewhat extreme camping trips with friends to Big Bend, where we would camp without tents and find our own water using topographical maps and handfuls of iodine pills. Although I am fundamentally a city person and I’ve always preferred the energy and cultural activity of cities, I nonetheless miss that sense of wildness, of waking with the dawn having slept shivering out on a rock under the stars. That feeling of sitting on a mountainside, listening to the wind, looking at a vista after a hard hike. This week I was sitting on my porch and a watched a wasp fall to the sidewalk clutching a fat green caterpillar, and proceed to suck it dry and then bite off the end of it and fly away. That’s every bit as much of nature as a mountain vista, but you know… it’s not quite the same thing. I took a video of it, here:

8. I’m afraid of being over halfway through with my life.

45 years old is halfway to 90, which is about eleven years beyond the national average lifespan. Reaching this age can make people freak out and get unnecessary divorces and buy idiot sports cars, or sink into despair and a gnawing sense of wasted youth and regret for the fact that they never became Shakespeare or a movie star. Fortunately I don’t think divorce or a sports car is in my future, but rainy days and midlife sure can get you down, especially when your joints hurt. As the recently-departed Philip Roth wrote: “Old age isn’t a battle: old age is a massacre.” Given that this is a one-way trip and nobody gets out of here alive (as my stepfather likes to point out), there’s nothing to be done with middle age but suck it up, dig up some gratitude, and get on with things.

9. I’m afraid of being mediocre.

Surely I’m not alone in this? Someone once told me that forgiveness is overrated, and I think this is true when it comes to forgiving yourself for putting work out there that isn’t your best: it will never be OK, but you have to keep trying. There’s a reason there are so many platitudes: keep swinging, keep calm, keep on keeping on, I think I can, it’s a marathon not a sprint…

10. I’m afraid Houston is going to turn into Detroit.

If we don’t start developing jobs that are not related to oil and gas, it will.


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18 Responses

  1. Bill Davenport

    Hang in there Rainey! You yourself neatly dismiss fears #1,2 &7 (I’ll bet that wasp video gets a ton of views!). I think fears #3-5 are a function of the internet’s novelty. Things will settle down as society gets used to it’s new toy . As for fear #6, the president, we’ve had worse, and survived. I can’t help you with fear #8, but I included “it’s” in the sentence before last for your consolation. The pleasure of tsk-ing over misspelling never goes away. And Houston will never be Detroit! The abandoned buildings will be eaten by termites, and washed away by floods in a matter of a few short decades.

  2. Shane Tolbert

    There’s always an open invitation to visit here in Abiquiu. We have 2 mountain ranges and I can take you on a hidden hike along the Canones fault line where the Colorado Plateau begins.

  3. Jan Ayers Friedman

    You have said what I have been thinking for a long time. Since last November. Please believe that we’re all in this together as long as we are this honest. And please believe that your 60’s will be fabulous. I promise.

  4. It’s been grim attempting to cope with both Trump and Harvey and their repercussions. My age is more advanced than yours. My body betrays me and my parents are in terminal decline. I too am afraid of being mediocre both as a person and as an artist. I’m grateful you’ve shared with such candor.
    I don’t know Shane Tolbert but I noticed he replied to your article. Just yesterday I stopped by McClain Gallery and saw the amazing things he’s doing with paint.

  5. Theresa Quintanilla

    Yes and… Our artists will just keep working. I’ll be walking by and just be knocked sideways. Thank goodness.

  6. Detroit was rad, I lived there for one year and it was way better than the time I spent in Houston, and the art there was better, but its hard to describe how that’s possible.

  7. Helen Altman

    I believe that wasp took dinner home to her grub offspring, and she sealed it up in a chamber made just for them. Nourishment. You’ve done so much for all of us. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  8. Michelle "Rusty" Cate

    Re 8: I’ve been told that Southeast Texas artist Maudee Carron used to say, “Oh to be 50 again!” She apparently thought it to be a golden age where you might start having more time for things you love (or figured out what you think is important) and less debt but enough physicality to get things done.

    Re 2: I’ve been striking what I feel is mid-century art “gold” at my local second-hand store. I’m not going to second guess it, I’m just going to be thankful.

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