Austin at Large: Life’s Short, Eat Dessert First

A time for gratitude and discernment, and for enjoying both cake and ice cream

Austin at Large: Life’s Short, Eat Dessert First

Some people in this city are being spared the Old Testament wrath I was going to pack into this space this week, before I decided I should write something more seasonally appropriate. So many holidays this week! By the time our next issue comes out, Austin will have consumed or discarded its Thanks­giving leftovers (don't keep them longer; that's gross), lit its first candles for both Advent (Sunday) and Chanu­kah (Mon­day night), and be headed headlong into its end-of-year letting-it-all-go. Last year's winter holidays were much less enjoyable than they could have been, as President Apesh*t wouldn't leave quietly and thousands of Texans wouldn't stay home, gifting everyone with coups and COVID come January. Remember all that? So things are already starting off on a better foot, and hopefully we can make it through all 12 days of Christmas this time without a new deadly plague or constitutional crisis.

But I still wouldn't blame you if you decide to eat your dessert first. We may have relief this year from those human-made disasters, but we have plenty of chaos agents who would like you to feel as if things are getting much worse. I will once again be the positive-thinking get-a-grip friend who reminds you that this is not true. Yes, things would be better if we'd avoided the coups and the COVID, both of which we'd be happy to blame on disgraced ol' Apesh*t except that so many of his partisans want to enable his sorry legacy to drag on indefinitely. Our governor, for instance. This is annoying all the time, and as a matter of right and wrong it justifies your own Old Testament wrath, if that helps you calibrate your own attitude. But so would treating yourself to small acts of kindness, like eating dessert first. (Or latkes. Mmm. Dessert for dinner!)

Potatoes, But Also Pancakes

It is a Festivus miracle that one badly broken human being can cause so much chaos and disorder simply so he can be the center of everyone's attention. Future histories will ascribe to ol' Apesh*t the body count he's racked up in the process, which is cold comfort now – as the defense counsel for the QAnon Shaman put it so well last week, Dolt 45 has "got a few effing things to do, including cleaning this effing mess up and taking care of a lot of the jackasses that [he] effed up because of January 6."

On our blue side of the street, it's popular to disagree with the premise that MAGA-na­tion is an aberration, bound in time and space by the power of its cult leader and not really indicative of the baseline conditions in today's American politics. "See," we say, pointing to monstrosities like the Senate Bill 8 abortion ban, "this is what Republicans are like all the time and will always be like, and the only way forward is to extinguish them utterly, and Apesh*t is just a distracting sideshow." My response is that both of these premises can be true at the same time in different ways. Just as latkes are potatoes, but also pancakes, and the Messiah is both the king of all nations and a messy human baby sleeping in a stable, our prior president is both a fading tabloid celebrity and the avatar of his party's attraction to wickedness, hatred, and greed.

One of my old priest friends in San Fran­cisco framed this for me decades ago with a different food metaphor: cake and ice cream. We like them both, we enjoy them together, we feel no urgent need to rank one above the other, but we also know they are very different. Cake is structural, an embodied essence, while ice cream is situational, existential, experiential, contingent. Once it melts, ice cream ceases to exist, but until it begins to melt, it can't be eaten. Cake uses most of the same ingredients, but is instead a way of preserving them; it's highly engineered, the inevitable and sole outcome of the different inputs (ingredients, amounts, techniques) that made up its recipe, persisting even as it soaks up all the melted ice cream. And so on. We were discussing political systems on a grand historical scale, but it applies well to this present moment. Some things that are being played up as egregious and extraordinary are, like cake, the predictable results of how we do politics. Some things that are being defined as normal and authentic expressions of enduring truths are, like ice cream, the time-bound product of circumstances that could change for many reasons, including random chance.

Look Out! It's Mister Softee!

Donald John Apesh*t Trump is like the emperor of ice cream, an out-of-control Mister Softee truck firehosing frozen custard in everybody's face, causing chaos. But he will eventually melt. Joe Manchin, on the other hand, is like a Little Debbie snack cake that will never change its state. The way we do politics means there will always be a Joe Manchin, but there is unlikely to ever again be an Apesh*t.

This can be hard to parse out and respond to in the moment, and my own profession is a big source of that difficulty. Our country is too big and diverse for interpersonal politics (whether retail encounters with voters or negotiations in Congress) to be sufficient; media narratives and storytelling are not just a way, but really the only way, for most people to make sense of their society. That means people like me need to be discerning about what we highlight, repeat, downplay, ignore; instead, we're incentivized to do the opposite and chase clicks and clout and make things seem both worse and less textured than they actually are. This holiday season, let's celebrate what's good and treat ourselves to an extra serving of dessert.

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