Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Originally written and performed at The Paper Machete, a weekly live magazine taking place at Chicago’s historic Green Mill.
Before I get started I need to apologize. This is very difficult for me.
The Good Place recently ended, you see, and the flood of grief and joy it instilled has yet to subside completely. I also finished watching BoJack Horseman the night before last, and I’m still processing how wise and funny and empathetic it was about the ways damaged people engage with one another, whether that damage was done to us or was self-inflicted. If you’ve watched either of these shows through to the end, you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t watched these, I’m giving you homework.
This is all to say: The place where I’m at right now is one that asks a lot of questions about moral philosophy and forgiveness. And it is deeply unfortunate that I should be feeling this sort of internal complexity during a week that not only saw the all-but-final collapse of Republican integrity and the dismantling of restraints on a would-be dictator, but also the news that right-wing radio ghoul Rush Hudson Limbaugh III is dying of advanced lung cancer.
Because oh my words, people. Oh my vast and varied and meticulously catalogued library of words. I stand before you as a man who was struck silent on how to respond to that news.
The other thing I’ve thought a lot about this week, besides The Good Place and BoJack Horseman, is an epigram once expressed by Cathleen Falsani:
“Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. And grace is getting what you absolutely don’t deserve.”
I have struggled with which of these I would dispense to Rush Limbaugh, and the shape such a presentation would take. Because, and let me be specific, when you learn of the imminent doom for a media figure such as Limbaugh, there is an appropriate response, there is the appropriate response, and there are also an and the appropriate responses for you.
In my response, I stand on a stage on a Saturday afternoon in a landmark jazz club, speaking through a microphone at a packed room of Chicagoans, native and adoptive, permanent and temporary. I take a moment to introduce the concept of serenity, which I consider both a principle and a practice, meaning that it is something I aspire to and often fail to achieve. I observe that the core of any principle is consistency, because any principle you practice selectively becomes a willing companion to prejudice.
I observe that sometimes this is right for you. And you have to make peace with that as well.
I had a notion that I would deliver no words to this room today. That I would stand here mute, my eyes packed with daggers, in protest of the life he led and an attempt to express how little pain I shall feel when he passes. As if to say: I will make this man Limbaugh mean so little to me that I am unwilling even to spare my schadenfreude on him. But silences of this sort, in these contexts, are often employed for reflection, and I would not have my opinion be misconstrued. So my conscience and I agreed that I would speak.
The problem that then follows: How to speak a eulogy for a man who is not yet dead, much less a man for whom I hold zero esteem, who is not yet dead?
Obviously, one might tirade. One might drop a minecart full of meteors into the forge of one’s disrespect, and from them craft the jagged, sabretoothed cat-o-nine-tails that scourges with such ferocity as to make the clickbait merchants of the internet cry out OOOOOOOOOH DESTROYED. There would be cheap, easy shots at his girth and his drug addiction, of the intolerable drawl of his voice, the way he carries himself with the demeanor of an assistant high school football coach unwilling to accept that he peaked in middle school, which is why he treats the world with the contempt of a neglected kindergartener.
Nothing I said would be unearned. I could justify each invective simply by reciting a litany of notorious soundbites, each an avatar for his racism, his misogyny, his attacks on those already suffering delivered under a ragged cloak of self-declared comedy. We would all of us simply marinate in it, inhale its strychnine vapors, and walk out of the room ready to clock the first person who dared to exist within six inches of us.
Except that it would also serve as a reminder that he survived all of it. For decades, across radio and television and the rise of the worldwide web. Limbaugh is a man who ought have defined the notion of being given enough rope to hang oneself, and yet he turned out to be the kind of cackling gnome able to spin the hempen knots into gold. Rather than condemning him with his words, we also stand condemned for having permitted them, for letting him slip through the cracks and continue, until such point that we find ourselves watching with horror while he receives the nation’s highest civilian accolade in front of a cheering horde. We failed repeatedly to shut the man’s mouth through the means we had at our disposal, kicking the can down the road to be handled by base mortality. To be handled, at the last, by cancer.
Which is yet another part of my problem: It’s cancer. It’s not any of the sudden calamities that can befall us; a car accident or a fall down a flight of stairs. It’s not the misadventure he probably should have had when he was caught en route to the Dominican Republic with a bag of illicitly acquired Viagra. No, instead it is cancer, and the likelihood that his own affinity for cigars may be the cause does little to alleviate my conflict, because one of my abiding principles — one that I know I can express with consistency — is Fuck Cancer.
Say it with me if you want: Fuck Cancer.
So then how dare you, Rush Limbaugh, have cancer. How dare you be dying of the same wretched fiend that stole Alan Rickman, and Gilda Radner, and Carl Sagan, MCA, Edith Piaf, Duke Ellington, Ada Lovelace, Raul Julia, Audre Lorde, Fred Rogers, Bob Marley, David Bowie, Elijah Cummings, the countless beautiful, dynamic individuals we were never allowed to make famous, that same bloodthirsty marauder that keeps making runs at Ruth Bader Ginsberg because it somehow hasn’t learned to take a fucking hint. How dare you, Rush Limbaugh, make me, even for a moment, consider taking sides with cancer.
That’s my low point.
That’s me staring into the abyss of who I might become.
My toes hanging just over the edge of my own decency.
So I close my eyes.
I take a deep breath.
I turn back.
And I make a different decision.
I decide to begin this essay with an apology for my shortcomings, because he could never once recognize or apologize for his own. I decide to be deliberate with the words I choose to speak, and weigh the impact of those words beyond how they might enrich my tiny, petty empire. I decide to sweep away the details of his violence and focus on healing the scars he carved into our skins. I decide to be mindful of how I express anger and spite in front of my son, to do what little I can to cultivate a society that feels no hunger for the hunks of red meat men like Limbaugh toss into the dust of every available coliseum.
I decide to imagine the day we cure cancer.
I imagine several years after that breakthrough, when there are still some of us left who remember what it was like to endure and survive it. I imagine extemporaneous vigils in which we think of those who succumbed, and those who suffered, those whose lives were diminished by the ordeal and whose potential was limited by the fight. We mourn the miracles we might have had if not for cancer. We celebrate the fallen for the time we had them and lament that their time didn’t extend long enough to have experienced the level of medicine that would have saved them. We think of family, we think of friends. We think of those who gave our own lives meaning for as long as we had them.
I decide to believe that nobody during these vigils is able to remember the name or deeds of Rush Limbaugh. That when the time comes, he is not considered somebody we lost. He’s simply somebody who died.
I decide that this can be the justice I expect, the mercy I can grant, the grace that I can allow. I decide that this is how I pursue serenity.
And that becomes the response I decide to deliver to you.