In the Time of the Virus We’re Not Sick, but…

One of the more common themes of life as a human, at least as I look back over things, is not knowing what to do, think, feel, or say. All the more true in this time of the incipient plague. Like earthquakes, winning the lottery, and getting published, I’ve got that undeniable sense that it will most definitely “never happen to me.” (He said in an election year.) And as the man in the song says:

“the agony and the irony, they’re killing me.”

Whatever that digression was about…

I’m being a little cleaner, more sanitary (what a word) than before, but that doesn’t amount to much. I’m more worried than before, but again…

I do wish that we would go back to calling it a plague. I like what Merriam Webster gives me online; this introduction to misery and despair:

plague
noun
\ ˈplāg \
Definition of plague
(Entry 1 of 2)
1a : a disastrous evil or affliction : calamity
b : a destructively numerous influx or multiplication of a noxious animal : infestation a plague of locusts
2a : an epidemic disease causing a high rate of mortality : pestilence
b : a virulent contagious febrile disease that is caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) and that occurs in bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic forms
— called also black death
3a : a cause of irritation : nuisance
b : a sudden unwelcome outbreak a plague of burglaries

2b sounds suitably scientific, and that’s what we’re all after these days. That’s why we don’t call it a plague. We call it a what?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

We call it an epidemic. Now that’s science-y! Our saviors can do something about that! Scientists: the people who settle disputes in an indisputable manner, who answer questions with unquestionable answers, and are never to be doubted (except when it comes to food and biological sex; then suddenly they’re a bunch of Keystone Khemists who have no business telling us anything). Test tubes, beakers, swabs, and acronyms! An epidemic doesn’t stand a chance.

But then 2b dons its plague doctor mask, and descends upon us with the “black death.”

In which we think of Artifacts and potential Evocations - Onyx Path Forums

Call it the black death instead of an epidemic and things seem pretty hopeless, don’t they? I mean, just add it to definition 1a up there: “Evil.” “Calamity.” We don’t have labs for evil and calamity, much less black death.  We do have art, though:

Church Records Could Identify an Ancient Roman Plague - The Atlantic
Jules-Élie Delaunay’s “Plague in Rome” (1869)

And there’s literature, from Defoe to Camus, and a little work you may have heard of that’s called, in some circles, The Bible ((science has declared a hyperlink to be unnecessary in the case of The Bible (A little joke that I’m now recognizing has substantial depth to be explored, depending on your sleep and electrolyte levels this soon after DST clock changing)).

All of which is to say that I don’t know what I am saying, or what I want to say, or how to thnk or feel about it all. We have a germaphobe in the house already, so there hasn’t been much of an uptick in the previously sensible sanitation habits (though between me and the kids, our germaphobe hardly stands a chance).  And I find myself reading King County Health reports very selectively, for the information that helps me to not be concerned – all the dying people are old, they all came from the same care center, etc. There’s not much of a reason to give it any thought at all, as long as I do it like that.

I barely remember the swine flu or the bird flu, which are much cooler names, BTW, than Coronavirus, but there’s probably something worth examining in a society’s tendencies when naming it’s disasters – do we shoot for sensationalism? Gravitas? Humo(u)r? (our ancestors would certainly have much to say about the humors in the time of a plague).  I do know that we fancy ourselves a very intellectual culture and society here in the US, and “unseriousness” is frowned very seriously upon – he said, yet again, in an election year.

And I have to say, though I’m sure it’s just coming from the macabre child that will not release its hold on my soul, that I envy a society that called its affliction something so dour, dire, and distraught as “The Black Death.” That’s beautiful. Succinct. I don’t think we’d ever do that. I already note how unwilling people are to joke about this outbreak, and resistance to humor is another mark of a society that overvalues intellectualism amidst a dearth of it. Comedians are brilliant, and geniuses tell huge jokes. But mediocrity (and we are mediocre, on average – definitions and all that) – mediocrity poses and postures, and adopts a serious tone, because it adapts poorly to things that stray too far from the line it clings to. Mediocrity hides best when it moves least, and there’s nothing more stagnant than humorlessness.

I had no idea I was going to go there. But here I am, talking about fear and humorlessness in the time of plague, and in an election year, blah blah. Of course it’s somewhat overserious of me to draw that comparison at all, which fact brings swimming back to me what the man said in the song, and what I already laid out above:

“the agony and the irony, they’re killing me.”

Especially the irony.

 

The Dirty Geese

Any Season’ll Do

A few weeks ago, the family and I took a much needed but ill-timed (weather-wise) trip to Camano Island for the weekend. February is no time to head up the Washington coast. That wind. If you live in the PNW, you know that wind. We couldn’t do a lot. But my wife and I did get to take a good walk halfway across a vast bay that went full dry when the tide went out. It was clear from the pieces of driftwood that were still visible when the tide came back in, that we could probably have walked across it wet, too. Aside from that, the weather kept us mostly indoors. It was a nice rental, with a telescope for eagle spotting, and we did alright. Even the kids.

On a local’s advice we made a short drive from there up to La Conner. We were told we might see some snow geese on the drive.  Swans, too, but mostly geese. And we did. One of us pointed out the window to a field next a barn and said “She was right. Geese.” The wife and I shrugged. The kids shrugged. Our sharp black Mercedes shrugged and sped along the Pioneer Highway. And for a few minutes we saw a few more – dozen here, dozen there. “I think that one’s a swan.” But then we turned West onto Fir Island Road.

In the distance we could definitely make out a vague brightening, groundward, inverting the natural order of a Northwest winter, where the light we wait for – we pause for, we die for – is the elusive and short-lived sunbreak. The sky was far too thick to hope for that, but the dark earth of those coastal farms held an entirely unexpected thrill. We drove on and slowed so that my wife could avoid the cars pulled half-off the narrow road while also trying to see what they and their tri-pod mounted cameras were there for. We finally put two German wheels in a bar ditch and looked. Someone must have said “wow,” because it was the only word that could have made any sense.  The road was a new beach, and we had pulled off of it to look at a whole new ocean – this one snow white and downy, the furtive waves of a fallow field covered in snow geese. Thousands upon thousands of them. I believe it’s Carver, maybe Ford (maybe neither) who has a brilliant short story that takes place on a hunt during the height of the snow goose migration in Washington. Richard Ford it is, the story is Communist:

“I put down my gun and on my hands and knees crawled up the earthwork through the wheatgrass and thistle until I could see down to the lake and see the geese. And they were there, like a white bandage laid on the water, wide and long and continuous, a white expanse of snow geese, seventy yards from me, on the bank, but stretching onto the lake, which was large itself – a half mile across, with thick tules in the far side and wild plums farther and the blue mountain behind them”

Our geese were in a muddy field, and with Ford in mind I knew I wanted to ignore the fact that the pure white birds were hiding filthy undersides. This was no time for that. I don’t know if I said anything to my family then about that story – I know I remembered it right away and I hope that I said something. Let them know. Let them in. The world gets too big at a time like that, and a man shouldn’t be alone in it.

We looked for a while. There’s nothing ese to do about it.  I hoped someone would do something else – honk a horn, sneeze, fire a gun – that would make the whole thing lift off. Ford called it a “raft,” but of course his were on the water. I wanted to see if they would all take off at once, or if it might start gradually from one end and curl fantastically off the ground like a giant vegetable peeler scraping off a skin of soap. Or maybe it would be random and messy – disappointing. We didn’t find out.

We moved on to La Conner. Cute, quaint, all that stuff. It has the mildly interesting Rainbow Bridge. We spent a good couple of hours hiding out from the rain in curio shops and galleries. Bought some things we didn’t need, and had a grand finale in a candy store where the proprietors were wonderful with the kids. Walked out of there with way too much chocolate (I’m a sucker for a classic turtle – milk chocolate, caramel, and good, old-fashioned peanuts). The kids ate ice cream in the cold and rain. We went back to the car.

On the return trip the geese were still there, but I think some had left. Or maybe it was just that we’d already had our first time, and it would never look like that to us again. A lot of them were flying, having robbed us of the sight of the take-off that I wanted so badly. One of them, in a display of trite symbolism that could only disappoint, shat a great wad of stewed grasses onto the hood of the Mercedes. This is its own story, I thought, and I wondered if Richard Ford’s characters could drive their Nash Ambassador back out to that lake for a second run, and still pull their triggers:

“I don’t know why I shoot ’em. They’re so beautiful.” He looked at me.
“I don’t know either,” I said.
“Maybe there’s nothing else to do with them.” Glen stared at the goose again and shook his head. “Maybe this is exactly what they’re put on earth for.”
I did not know what to say because I did not know what he could mean by that, though what I felt was embarrassment at the great number of geese there were, and a dulled feeling like a hunger because the shooting had stopped and it was over for me now.

And to think, there was a moment in there when I wondered why we went.

 

 

Unabashed thanks to Gerard at American Digest. For more and better PNW tavelogueing, see his The Olympic Peninsula at the Vernal Equinox

The Hordes of the Invisible

It’s all leading to a mass grave of chickens and eggs.

I get a little thrown sometimes when I realize that I don’t know what things are like anywhere else. I don’t know the vibe in New York or the gestalt in Topeka. I don’t know what Floridians see when they walk down the street. I just don’t know much about how people measure their worlds outside of my own, and have to guard against the tendency to assume that what I know about my home applies everywhere.

I do know what it’s like here. And it’s strange. Seattle. It’s like touching something and not knowing right away whether it’s absolutely searingly hot, or skin-shatteringly cold, because there’s hints of both in the pain. We’re awash in activism. Utterly drowning in it. There isn’t a shop window that isn’t plastered with flyers for this march or that proclamation or that protest. Every author reading at every “local” bookstore – nota bene: everything is local, people. Absolutely everything. it only depends on where you’re standing – every reading is this cultural expression or that identity group’s response to something, or a statement of “this is me climbing proudly out of this miserable social/cultural prison.” In every instance it is billed, at least implicitly, in its subtext, as an exception. A rare opportunity. A victory over something. But you can’t have victory without competition, and you can’t have competition without an opponent, and so without realizing it, the movement itself ossifies the necessity of the opponent.

If you’re still listening to the subtext, you know that here it says that none who suffer do so as a result of their own failings. It is that whatever the nature of their suffering may have been – “invisibility” is a popular one, as well as the closely-related “marginalization,” and of course any word  with “phobia” trailing from its backside like some undigested serpent that can never quite be pinched free – whatever the suffering, these are people who not only are/were down, but were put there, intentionally and perniciously, and are now rising up in spite of “the dominant culture’s” efforts to keep them down. But this raises a question or two for me:

1. Who is the dominant culture?

As far as I can tell, they are. The sign makers, the book writers, the painters and poets. They’re everywhere. But if their claim is that they are resisting the dominant culture, who is it that’s putting them down? In light of their inescapable pervasiveness and influence, are they even down at all? If so, who is trying to keep them there?  Not the athletes and CEO’s – they’re all on board and applauding. They’re hosting fundraisers and lending their celebrity to “awareness.” (Show me, by the way, the unaware. There must be an odd colony of them somewhere that eats garden slugs and are too cut off from civilization to have heard of sexism or Old White Males or Macklemore). Corporations have more people in subcommittees working on fair hiring and balancing corporate skin tones than they have working on their actual bottom lines. Are the oppressors the shopkeepers and their customers, who block out the sun with their storefront virtue signals, and curse the planet-eating Republicans over cupcakes as they wipe pureed kale from their baby’s Che Guevara onesie? Can’t be the teachers and the principals (sorry “Heads of School,” as we can’t say “principal” anymore, and I honestly don’t know why), because they’re as helpful as can be. They organize days for students to leave school to protest climate and corporations (I always thought the protest was supposed to reflect the issue being protested. When I skipped classes, it was to protest school), they encourage multicultural literature and literacy, and are leading the way on efforts for diversity and inclusion. And of course the media and the universities, as well as the music and movie industry, they’re so obviously on the right side of this thing that I don’t need to say any more about them.

In short, every single representation of power and influence of any kind, is dominated by the spirit of charity, inclusion, and diversity. They are populated, organized, and run by people of, to quote Roger Waters, “every race, creed, color, tint, or hue.” So where are these oppressors? If the so-called “invisible” are not the dominant culture, then why are they the only ones I can see?

2. Given all this – given the undeniable momentum and power of movements towards fairness and righteousness and equality, given the ubiquity of this movement in every single aspect and institution of this city, how is it possible that it still feels like such an awful, intolerant, racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-indigenous (sorry if I missed anyone) hell hole of a city?

The answer to that is actually pretty simple. The misery, the injustice, doesn’t exist in spite of all the social justice activism, it exists because of it. And truthfully, as my own subtext from the preceding paragraphs indicates, it doesn’t actually exist at all. The world, this city, as I walk around in it, is simply not in its actions a racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic place. But my God it feels like it, and the activists (or the media, but I repeat myself) won’t have it any other way. What does exist, in a fetid curtain as thick as the sad salmon hauled from the poison Duwamish, is the idea of injustice. The haunting spectre of it. And they have all – high and low, black and white, gay and straight, on and on – risen up in their holy alliance against it, not realizing how adept they have been, all the while, at creating their own need for it. Students are rewarded for writing about it. They are given extra credit for attending poetry readings about it. Their social capital portfolios are almost wholly dependent upon the growth of it. Resist and you’re in. Don’t and you’re dead. It’s a sinister little perpetual motion machine, eating from its own toilet to survive, and knowing on some instinctive, subconscious (dare I say invisible?) level, that achieving its stated purpose would only eliminate its only fuel source.

How oppressed they would feel if someone took their oppressors away!

So no, maybe I don’t know what the rest of the world, or the country, or even the state of Washington looks like. But I do know Seattle. I’m in it on several levels every day. It’s a much nicer, much friendlier, much fairer place individually than the collective seems to want me or anyone else to notice. But I do notice. I certainly hope more people begin to as well. Because all this rallying towards disharmony creates the sensory confusion I mentioned in the beginning. Too hot or too cold? It’s impossible to know, because it encourages an ever-deepening degree of personal guardedness that prevents anyone from staying close enough to each other to find out.

Moon-Cooled

Don’t get lost! But do!

Here’s another for the Morocco collection (sum total now 2 complete pieces, but a few more in draft form). Allison wrote a beautiful poem about Morocco and published it yesterday. Something she rarely does. I say only this about that: the first time you click that “submit” button is the by far the hardest. After that it’s just another thing that you do. Much like reading poems to an audience. The first time was brutal. The next couple were easier, and now that I have a few more that I’m comfortable with, I’ll pop out sometime soon and use them in an open mic somewhere.

You’ll read in Allison’s poem the impact that Morocco made on her, emotionally and spiritually and personally. I cannot say otherwise for myself. Something about my time there went far deeper than research, than mere information and entertainment and box-checking. And while much of that can be attributed to the country, the people, and our hosts, certainly as much comes from the fact that I did not enter Morocco defensively or skeptically. As I do at home with my family, I gave myself to Morocco, accepted it and processed it, and did not begrudge it for its eccentricities or the many moments of hesitation it presented. HAd I done otherwise, I culd not have written this poem, my first ever villanelle:

IMG_2978

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But First

Love, lead me through Moroccan streets
where the city burns behind its walls
with a flame moon-cooled and honey-sweet

that gilds the dates on every tree
and lights my throat’s mosaic halls.
Love, lead me through Moroccan streets

to where my shadow squats beneath my feet
when the muezzin melts the merchants’ stalls
with a flame moon-cooled and honey-sweet

that clings to bees on lacquered sweets
whose nectar drips a torpid crawl.
Love, lead me through Moroccan streets

to where old men call through Berber teeth
while the Moorish sun burns over all
with a flame moon-cooled and honey-sweet.

I’ve come to meet the Amazigh!
I’ve come to climb the Atlas wall!
But first, love, lead me through Moroccan streets
with a flame moon-cooled and honey-sweet.

Tilting Loveward

Every Dog Deserves a Eulogy

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If there is anything that is guaranteed in life, it is that we will love things that are not good for us. Few loves are ever a pure win. Some are calamitous. Most are in between, and most of those lean significantly towards the good. Tilting loveward is our most incorruptible instinct. It is the one thing we do that always moves in the same direction as God, so it is the movement that makes us both most human and most divine.

It is why we love our dogs, so often doing so not because of them, but in spite of them. The strife and inconvenience that they bring to our lives almost immediately outweigh the joy: the ruined rugs and floors; the shoes, furniture and walls chewed to pieces; the holes in the yard and the fence, the running away. The vet bills. The apologies to the neighbors and the boarding expenses when we go on vacation (if we still take vacations, now that we have a dog). The piles of dog-specific clutter that enters our homes and disrupts our lives from deep down in the Feng all the way up to the shui. And unless you are a full time hunter or a sled driver in the Yukon, the return we receive on this investment in chaos is rarely more than a wagging tail and yet another body that we didn’t invite into our bed but is there anyway.

Yet for all that, we look one time at some oversized paws, get nipped by those tiny piranha puppy teeth, and smell that unbelievably sweet vanilla-maple perfume down in their downy coats, and we tilt ever harder loveward.

The years go on and some of the early worries vanish, along with the amount of free space left on the bed. They are years on cruise control when the young dog mostly behaves and our lives are are an often mechanical, sometimes poetic routine. “This is why I got a dog,” we say and mean it because her coat is rich and full and as she naps after hours of running in the park her breaths come easy and even. We don’t know why but suddenly we want to invite friends over. We want people around us, and our dog. We want to show off a little.

The years continue to go on and some of the early worries start to return, along with the amount of free space on the bed because she can’t get up there anymore. We tap the brakes and adjust our speed more frequently. “It is difficult to have a dog,” we say and mean it because the mature dog has some new dietary needs and her coat is thinning and her face is turning white and as she naps after a short walk down the hill to the mailbox her breaths come with a slight wheeze and catch. We don’t know why but suddenly we want to sleep, too. We want to be alone with our thoughts, and our dog. We want to cry a little.

So yes, it becomes increasingly difficult to say, honestly, that we’re happy we have a dog. Yet for all the woes that I could easily catalog over the 15 years of a tumultuous life with our dear Lucy, I find us undeniably diminished by her departure. She died yesterday, medically induced. It was a decision we made based on the fact that for however much longer she might go on, every single day would be both her best day remaining, and also worse than the one before. We did it for her. We did it to let her go out on the highest note she had left.

We could have had it done at home, but at the vet she was well known and even better loved. We sat with her there on the floor and as the sedatives took effect the whole building seemed to sag with her muscles. She worked her way at first voraciously through the pile of treats that the doctor set before her. Then she forgot them, rested her chin on the blanket, and let her tongue hang comically and adorably from the front of her mouth. The rest was done with a somehow tender clinical ease, by way of two more injections, and she faded gently out from there without so much as the tiniest twitch or final significant breath. She was just still there – only not – and there was no longer anything we could ask of her. That, I suppose, is the final gift: that she no longer has to wonder how to make us happy.

She could have gone on for a while, survivor that she was. As a pup she was bitten in the face by a rattlesnake and barely flinched. I, on the other hand, drove so fast and recklessly to the animal hospital in a rented roller skate of a car that news helicopters were being scrambled.  Years later, the new dog we got to be her companion wound up turning on her and attacking her brutally several times. We found that dog a new home (literally – not in an “off to live on a farm” kind of way). She had food allergies and skin conditions and more medical issues than I can list. But in the end there was always Lucy, waddling bow-legged along and pawing her nose at a world that seemed bent on holding her back. She kept going.

But the joy was gone for her. She really just slept through any stretch of time in which she had no reasonable hope for food. She followed us to bed but could barely manage the stairs. Life was naught but compulsion and habit, and was only getting worse, so we let her finally get off those aching legs of hers forever.

We remember her best, perhaps, driven for years by a steroid imbalance that left her with an improbably large liver and a literally insatiable hunger for food, rushing to the kitchen whenever she heard the dishwasher open so she could scrounge up any scraps she could reach. She lived to eat, and she died among food.

I only ask her to please, just once, make sure to poop in God’s living room on Roomba day. My children can attest that it might be the only time you ever get to hear Him swear.

In her life and again in her death, Lucy tilts us loveward.

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When it Works, it Really Works

A bright, tiny poem at the end of some sappy reminiscing. Have a smile on me.

I followed, yesterday, the link to someone who liked my poem. It landed me at a blog called Reowr, a lively and fun place of poetry that I had never visited or heard of before. The author is talented and sincere, and this is what I used to love about the internet.

Eight or more years ago I blogged regularly, almost daily. Through the odd tentacles and tendrils of the world wide web, I made a whole bunch of friends. I never even knew what some of them looked like, how old they were. I only ever met one of them in person, and I don’t think I measured up in real life to what I was in writing, so we never met again. He was (and still is) a big fish out there. At my heyday I was barely a tadpole.

But we all left comments for each other at our blogs, exchanged emails when something called for it, and my family even got a Christmas card from one of them. For me, for a long time, the internet was good.

They’re all gone now. At least gone from me. Their websites are shuttered or stagnant, probably in a lot of cases from the sheer fatigue of keeping up, emotionally, with the too often sinister turns that personal exposure on the internet can take. It’s hard, oddly, to be a public nobody. One of them, a curmudgeonly but generous and compassionate Air Force retiree (and regrettable Red Wings fan) named Buck, died several years ago. I regret not finding out in time to make it to his funeral.

Yesterday I got a little glimmer of that good side of the internet when Cubby, the proprietor and author of the aforementioned Reowr decided she liked my poem, and I, as I always do, decided to go look at her blog. The first poem made me interested in reading a second one, and that’s something. There was a section on her site called “challenges,” and for the most recent one she supplied two lines to a poem and said “finish this.” I was happy to see something that seemed motivated only by joy and creativity, so I, as I almost never do, decided to accept the challenge. So did a whole bunch of other people. Poetry is always fun, but sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes poetry is cotton candy and high fives and a place where, finally, I don’t hesitate for a second to use exclamation points.

The first two lines are the ones she wrote, the rest is mine:

Dreams like water-colored paintings
Wash away when days are raining
But, the puddles!
My, the puddles!
The muddled, colored, splashable puddles!
I bootbrush the pavement
with the dream-streaky puddles!

Out There

Thoughtcrime announces itself like a claymore.

I kind of didn’t want to write about this, because in a way I see it as marking me guilty of the same kind of enemy-making that I accuse our modern social justice movements of doing. Trampling the Good in the pursuit of the Right. Also, I remind myself that what’s missing from the discourse on contemporary social issues is generosity. If I cannot employ it where others don’t, then I should keep mum (but that sounds rather ungenerous itself).

In the end I have to remember that I cannot control responses or reactions. I can control my own words, and I can know what I am on about, but I cannot, in a single sentence or paragraph or essay, sharpen the distinction between statement and judgment, knowledge and belief, or especially reason and purpose, to the extent that someone untrained to know the difference will suddenly come around. I can only write (with very intentional capitalization), and endure misunderstandings, willful or otherwise. But I promise to work with you on them.

 


 

I made it to my first class of the new quarter yesterday. Encountering Intercultural Literature. Social narratives have been built, at this point, in such a way that we all know immediately that the word “intercultural” is why we’re here. And that’s because it has become evident over time that the word “culture,” especially when appended and prefixed to “intercultural,” is one of those many weaponized words that we’ve come to employ and discharge as we engage in our own inward-looking marches towards the eschaton (which will, of course, be televised tweeted). It is evident from that word alone that this will not be a simple compare/contrast of different literary styles or themes from various cultures during a particular historical period. It doesn’t work like that anymore. “Culture” is simply not allowed to stand as an innocuous concept that can be studied dispassionately. It is a battleground, where lines are drawn and sides are taken, and every statement is weighed for valuation of virtue tariffs.

Students – young students – get excited for classes with words like “intercultural” in the title because they are smart enough to know that in that class is an environment where other Good People are, who will say The Right Things. A place of unambiguous intent, where it is easy to know what to say without any measurable worry of incredulity. What they may not be keying into immediately is that it is a place where the ostensible material is the study of cultures across geography and history, but the real material is the concrescence of the ideologies of their own current culture. The ossification of the unbelievable strictures of right think, and a carefully designed backdrop against which thoughtcrime announces itself like a claymore. That they’re really studying or creating a gossamer version of their own culture which, incidentally, they don’t believe in. When asked, yesterday, what our definition of “intercultural” was, two students stated unequivocally that intercultural study must exclude the West. High school taught them that we are either too vile and criminal a thing to be considered alongside Noble Distant Others, or we simply do not pass the sniff test to qualify for the title of “culture” at all. It is immaterial, either way.

I try to remember to be a little careful in that class. Not because I look down my grisly nose at other cultures and am afraid my grade will suffer if I make it known. Rather, it is because people have utterly lost the ability to discern between understanding and support, such that if I question anyone’s understanding of the subject matter, I will be accused of supporting some Hateful Ideology. In the Academy – indeed, in the neighborhood, on the streets, on the Internet – you either say the Right Things, or you are the enemy. There is no room for general disinterest or passive acceptance. There is only the protest marcher or the cross burner, and your classmates, neighbors, and friends will not let you live between the two for long.

Yesterday, and for the next week or two, we are into Lieutenant Nun. Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. It’s a fun read in the adventurous vein of Don Quixote or Robinson Crusoe, and generally as believable as either of them (but I’m a born skeptic). Half an hour of discussion centered almost entirely on pronouns. What should we call…this person who is credited with writing the story? The consensus landed on “they,” to which I simply swallowed my objections about grammatical reality (you cannot pluralize an individual, credibly, popular usage be damned), as it’s hardly a hill worth dying on. And never mind the fact that, absent any knowledge about what the author herself preferred to be called, any modern day “consensus” is really just a small tyranny – a passive-aggressive instruction that this is the way we do things, here (there are few English phrases as pregnantly pernicious as “we have all agreed”). I only mentioned at one point that we could not continue to laud this as a piece of feminine literature if we could not agree to call the author a woman. The breathing reader will note the judgment-free logic of this. The Professor professed agreement, and nobody else commented. I sit in the front row, so I could not see if there were any looks of approval or disdain. But I speculate, because I think it is fair to do so in this case, that that simple logical clarification was enough to mark me as a Bad Person in a mind or two in that classroom. The subject matter of the discussion was transgenderism and I said something not explicitly supportive, which, if not quite the same as setting the cross ablaze, is at least as bad as walking towards it with a can of gasoline.

It would be one thing if I was sitting in that room (and this is really very much the case everywhere I go in the University, and in the city) as a true opponent to their causes. But I am not. Of course it is called Social Justice so that it can be said that you either agree completely or you don’t believe in social justice at all, a thing which is simply not true of any but the most ridiculously irrelevant wastrels of society. But the marches and the protests go on under the presumption of some powerful enemy amassed and assembled against it out there somewhere. And if you are not actively, conspicuously in the march, you are, by default, out there. They believe in the enemy far more than the enemy believes in them, because the enemy does not substantively exist. Except in the case of those wastrels, those marginal extremists (they’re called “extreme” for a reason, and it isn’t because of their teeming membership) who become synonymous with people like me by dint of the fact that I am not issuing high-fives and posterboard to the sign-makers and hat-wearers, the gender-includers and the intersectionalist line-drawers.

I would sit here and say that I am ok with things. That I will call you whatever pronoun you wish to be called, and will only object if your request begins to smell a little like antagonism. I would say that I have no ill judgments towards transgendered people or gay people or people of color or Muslims or of any protected class you can drum up. That I respect everyone equally until they demonstrate that they don’t deserve it. That I am every bit as tolerant as you, and in truth probably quite a bit more (just think of what you think of me right now, for instance). I would say a lot of things, but I am afraid they would not be worded strongly enough to pass for inclusion among the Good People who are on that ever-shrinking Right Side of History. Acceptance is no longer acceptable – it is deemed too flaccid a response to progress, and so the minimum expression of acceptance has become passionate vehemence. Neither is tolerance any longer tolerable – it is deemed too temporary and shallow a response to difference, so the minimum expression of tolerance has become celebratory self-loathing. If you doubt me on this, please come to class with me, where the students look around themselves and believe, passionately, vehemently, self-loathingly, that the only place they see a culture, is out there.