Our walled nation

I attended my first-ever protest last week. About 1,000 of us marched on the courthouse lawn in my town last Sunday to protest the travel ban and proposed wall.  I made a sign with cardboard and markers and fervor. We showed up and listened to ferocious speeches and clapped and cheered. And then came the first chant. The call-and-response echoed back and forth once, twice, three times. I looked around dumbly, sweating in the snow. I wanted to add my voice to the rallying cry, but it felt like a risk. I feared the sound of my voice wouldn’t blend organically with the hundreds of others, that it would pierce the fabric of the group and stand apart, intrinsically out of place. My friends joined in as the crowd chanted a fourth, fifth, sixth time. And finally I gathered my bearings, took a deep breath, and yelled.

“No ban! No wall!” said my stupid voice, and mine alone.

I felt like melting into a dumb puddle and being absorbed by the grass.

I felt like disappearing from the earth entirely.

Like Orin Incandeza, plummeting towards the football field dressed as a man-sized cardinal, I felt like a dick.

Insecurity stops us from doing things we want to or should do all the time. It holds us back from speaking up for what’s right, or from sharing our stories with others, or from dancing in public. Paralyzed by self-doubt, we let our insecurities keep us from enjoying things for fear of looking stupid. Hang-gliding onto a football field dressed as a giant bird could be humiliating, sure. But if Orin embraced the silliness and absurdity of it all and just let himself enjoy the ride, it could probably be pretty fun.

This week’s reading introduced us to the general rhythm of Infinite Jest, waltzing among the student athletes at ETA, drug addicts of Boston, and a couple of geopolitical agents standing on a cliff in Arizona. Each of these disparate worlds represents different types of insecurity. At ETA, we see Hal and his fellow seniors mentoring their Little Buddies. The younger boys are full of the type of insecurity that Orin and I felt this week. It’s the crippling emotional insecurity we all feel in adolescence and early adulthood. It’s the feeling that everyone else received some sort of How to Be a Person guidebook that you never got your hands on.  That type of insecurity is real, and it sucks. But it’s also the most privileged type of insecurity.

Toward the end of the week’s reading, we meet three homeless heroin addicts in Copley Square (where, coincidentally, another large protest was held last Sunday.) C, Poor Tony, and a narrator we only know as yrstruly spend Christmas Eve mugging people for drug money. Their very lives are insecure. Food, shelter, and the heroin they shoot in the street are never guaranteed. Their entire existence revolves around survival.

Then there’s Marathe and Steeply. The former is a wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatist, betraying his country and cause in the name of his dying wife. The latter is an American agent from the shady Office of Unspecified Services, deep undercover as a female journalist. They’re dealing with insecurity on a national scale. They discuss a mysterious weapon, referred to as the Entertainment or samizdat, which has the potential to devastate the entire country.

There’s no shortage of moments in this week’s pages that feel alarmingly relevant to America, 2017. The head tennis coach at ETA, Gerhardt Schtitt, calls our country “hilarious and frightening at the same time… A modern U.S. of A where the state is not a team or a code, but a sort of sloppy intersection of desires and fears.” The first victim of the Entertainment is the Near-Eastern Medical Attaché, an ethnically Saudi Canadian Muslim. Marathe calls the U.S. “your walled nation,” a strikingly fitting moniker for America today. The fear of foreign terrorism is deep enough that many Americans are willing to forgo our foundational national ideals. Our homeless and addicted citizens are struggling to stay alive, bereft of resources to help them. And teen suicide rates have been rising sharply for 20 years as our young citizens become less sure of their place in the world than ever.

America is insecure.

However, just as Steeply and Marathe conjecture about a possible anti-Entertainment to reverse the disastrous effects of the samizdat, there may be an antidote for insecurity in this week’s reading. Mario and Millicent Kent’s rendezvous in the woods has all the makings of a humiliating trauma for two teenagers. He’s a short, disfigured individual who needs special equipment to help him walk. She’s a top-ranked athlete with a very weird hairstyle who, according to the narrator, weighs over 400 lbs. Their search for an oddly-placed tripod turns intimate when Millicent confides in Mario about her morbidly obese father and his affinity for wearing his daughters’ leotards. Then it turns sexual when Millicent confesses her lust for Mario and sticks her hand down his pants. The ticklish Mario starts laughing hysterically, which results in the lovers being discovered by Mario’s brother.

One would expect the characters to be absolutely mortified. But we never get any indication that either Mario or Millicent is the least bit insecure or embarrassed. Mario showers Millicent with compliments on her violet hair bow. Millicent brags about her athletic prowess and promising future in the Show. These two bizarre characters, who society deems unattractive and disabled, show no trepidation about bearing their souls or going after what they want. They’re confident, brave, secure.

In short, Mario and Millicent are my heroes.

And in their honor, I kept chanting. I chanted, I marched, I stood up for what I believed in. Because my insecurities are no excuse for standing idly by as the insecurities of a certain president turn our country into Wallace’s nightmare. And later that night, I went dancing. Surrounded by like-minded individuals just as pissed and scared as I am, I danced like a fool. And in that moment, I felt proud. I felt good.

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