On Sharing Experiences, and the Experience of Sharing

There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.

Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

The three years I spent in college were characterized by the exercise of one theme more than any other: experience. One person, the prevailing idea goes, can never know the experience of another. It would be a fine topic for philosophy, but it was never really examined at that level. Nobody cared to ask what deep, intrinsic features make experience unsharable, which things about the rights of ownership of experience are de rigueur vs, de jure, etc. It was simply posited and accepted that all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual preferences were irrevocably separated by the unbreachable uniqueness of their individual experiences. Individual, but immediately transferable, in uncorrupted perfection, to anyone who shares a skin tone or birth country, gender, etc. For instance, all gay people can immediately know and understand the experience of a single gay person. But no straight person can. Ever. Nobody but a black person can know the experiences of a black person, and all black people are privy to that single one. They can commiserate. Nobody else can. It can be broken down into more restrictive zones, based on birth place, country of origin, etc. It reduces all the way down to neighborhood and even family home, whenever that level of covetousness is required in order to guard against criticism and/or self-examination.

Shutting people off from one another is one of The University’s most refined skills.

But – If I cannot know the experiences of others, then why did I get ill a few weeks ago and turn away after watching the first video of someone being beaten by looters? Why can’t I handle watching the replay of an athlete breaking his leg? Why do those experiences of other people, black or white, male or female, physically sicken me, even through a computer monitor, if I can’t know or understand anything about them? Empathy, maybe. But I’m not sure that counts for much beyond being a nice thing to say.

I thought about this condition of experiential boundaries as much as anything else in college. I thought less about the experience, and more about the unknowability of it. The odd bubble around an individual that prevents me from knowing or understanding his experience, even when it is taught to me, or actually occurring right in front of me. The thing that came to me quickest, most frequently, and has never left me, was this: What are we doing, in college, telling each other that there’s things we can’t know? Things we can’t learn? What else is school for? I am not Pythagoras, but that didn’t prevent me from applying his theorem when I was building my patio. I was able to access and employ the experiences of a man who I am not, because, as a child even, I learned it. If Pythagoras were adhering to the tenets of today’s educated society, he would have copyrighted his theorem and demanded a stop to any construction using right triangles. When he said “you can’t possibly know this,” the absurdity would have been evident.

So – If I cannot know the experiences of others, why do I read? How am I supposed to react when a girl who grew up in poverty in Afghanistan stands at an open mic and reads a poem about her experience, if I can’t know anything about it? Why should she even bother? Why should anyone?

My God, the things that we would miss.

And of course, what of white privilege? After all, the concept of white privilege is the declaration of a perfect knowledge and understanding of the experiences of white people, by people who are not white. It’s an obvious contradiction, sure. And no doubt it’s the kind of rocky coast upon which essay after essay dashes itself without dislodging so much as a pebble. But honestly it isn’t much of an issue for me. I do not believe that my experiences are not commutable. People of all kinds are bright and capable, and can learn what life is like for me – even when they are not me – simply by asking and observing, and really by generally existing in the same world. The world is nothing, if not evidence for everything. I have no call to tell someone that because his skin is not white, he must look dumbly upon me and know only about me that which I am willing to tell him. I believe, in a word, that non-white people can observe and even share in the experiences of white people. All the time, and easily. They can cry “white privilege” and be right or wrong, but not dismissed on the grounds that it’s impossible for them to know.

I just also happen to believe that it works the other way as well.

I arrived here, eventually: any time you can convince someone that there is something he cannot learn, you can make him your slave. You can tell him anything about it that you want. Anything that serves you and silences him, because he is precluded from having any doubt about what you are saying, and strictly confined to doubting what he thinks he knows about it. You can build a prison of lies for him to live in, unable to protest, because his agreement is full submission to your mastery.

All of this language policing, all the shouts of racism and sexism where there is none; all the hoarding and walling-off of experiences and words as things owned and personal; it is about establishing that mastery, and gaining that submission. This is where it is easy to say it’s about power and control, in a sort of grand, state/national/global-level scheme, but I’m not convinced it’s quite so deep for most people. I think that the relationship – the arrangement – is sought as a means to arrive at a simple feeling of personal security, and is only carried further on its own momentum. That’s when it starts to dip into political waters, but I am not a very political person. I think about Steinbeck when I think about politics. I retrace my steps back to the humanity – the person – at the source. About “bad things made by men.” That’s what politics is. And like the tenant squatting in the disappearing top soil in The Grapes of Wrath, who believes that the men who built the bank-machine are still in control of it, I can’t shake the belief that that’s something we can change. I can’t grasp the notion that there’s something out there that is made by us but is beyond us. Run by us but not controlled by us. Made of us, but is not us. It’s logical but naive, sensible but stupid. That’s why it’s so easy to abandon.

So what I mean, somewhat obviously, is that politics is corrupt not because it’s politics and there’s something inherently, mechanically bad about it, but because of the people in it. The individual men and women using foul means to course-correct for personal shortcomings. Not because they are Democrats or Republicans, fascists or communists, but because they are individuals striving for small-scale salves for the wounds they suffer at the hands of their consciences. In short, nobody is setting out to make a city or state or country’s worth of people bow down to their whims. They are setting out to cover the holes in their armor. The things that make them feel small and vulnerable and, undoubtedly worst of all, mediocre. The shouts of injustice and privilege are not really about power – they’re about waking up in the morning feeling personally, individually unimportant, under the control of something outside of and bigger than you, and going to bed that night feeling you’ve done something about it. Like you’ve at least gotten your three dollars a day to drive the tractor, instead of impotently waving your rifle in the window of the farmhouse that the tractor’s running down.

College, by the way, deified the notion of vulnerability, while casting any skepticism to the lions. Once advanced, a person’s expression of vulnerability was never to be doubted or questioned. It was only to be supported and validated. It’s very nice at first, and as long as it is a voluntary revelation of weaknesses that we instinctively try too hard to hide, in almost every instance it’s a perfectly useful, pleasant, kindly and humane response. We can find a world of glad protection, outside of ourselves, when we dare to expose our soft spots. It’s beautiful. But ultimately grievance was made tantamount to vulnerability, so that anyone claiming any degree of victimhood also fell under the protection of the vulnerability tenet – that once uttered, it was not to be disputed. A case of good intentions wreaking havoc on the virtue of honesty. Soon every word is a wound begging for a bandage, and quickly slapping away the hand of any Thomas who dares to doubt. As for the vulnerability itself – it starts to ring shallow and measured, and offered only as a sort of unconscious habit, or tick, never left to be weathered by proofs. It is the robe snapped shut at the threat of the probe, with no soul noble enough to bare flesh and say “put your finger here.”

And more than than that, it’s about something that I’ve talked about several times before. It’s about getting something for nothing. About forgetting that it’s normal to have very little, and it’s exceptional to be affluent. That a life of being low-to-middling in just about every aspect is the common condition for minimal effort, which is how most of us go through life, and that anything above that bar is the result of having done something more. But for some reason we keep believing in the perpetual elevation of the minimum, that we are beaten if we are happy with what we have, and that there is virtue in an increasing gap between merit and reward. That while we shouldn’t be asked to do anything more, we should go on expecting to get something more. Perhaps if the United States is guilty of any injustice, it is guilty of spreading that particular optimism, poisonous as it may be.

All of which is about, of course, one thing: The refusal to accept reality. And most definitely the inability to be satisfied with it. Conflating contentment with submission has driven us to believing in an ethics of tantrum, wherein the intellectual creativity that we should be using for growth and creation is being exhausted in the pursuit of too-clever variations on the theme of “that’s not fair.” Our great capacity for belief is wasted in the notion that we are something that we are not, and that we deserve more than we’ve earned. And most perniciously of all, we believe that a person is defined by what is said about him, rather than what is known about him – the former being shamefully abundant, and the latter being dearly scarce. Any Monday morning cynic can prattle on endlessly about where that belief comes from, how and from whom that arrangement is learned, but that’s just another kind of witch hunt. Our obsession with blame over solution. The belief in progress through punishment. I’ve been a parent too long to believe that works.

Now, with this blockade set up around experiences, we’re able to claim a little territory. We’re able to tell people, at least in this instance, where they are not allowed to go. The tenant gets to stall the tractor and the owners have to get in their closed cars and go back to the bank, and everyone gets to believe for a while longer that it’s just a system. That it’s tractors and cars and banks and not people, until the tractor fills in the well and pulls down the porch and then it’s “were will we go” and “how will we eat” and suddenly it’s human. Now it’s time for a reckoning, because almost all of us want to – but almost none of us will ever get to – be the bank, and we don’t have the strength or courage – much less the capacity for contentment – to go on being the tenant. So we accept the bank’s offer, climb up behind the wheel of the tractor, spread our blameless arms to the horizons, and only have to try to keep the lines straight as we plow our old homes into the dirt. That’s powerful. It feels like getting something without having done much of anything. And that feels good.

It really does. I’m not saying this cynically or sarcastically. I have been in the military and have been on both ends of orders. Both sides of power and impotence. I have been arbitrarily prohibited from countless meaningless activities, even sometimes from speaking at all, for no other reason than that the person standing in front of me had the power to do it. I have also been that person, issuing the orders, the prohibitions, in the most trivial and ridiculous circumstances. And in every case, I enjoyed it. It felt good. Maybe that doesn’t speak well of me, and maybe it isn’t true of everyone, but let’s be honest in an era of equality, there really isn’t all that much difference between any of us. Winning always feels good, and in the absence of conscience, the Pyrrhic Victory doesn’t exist.

The military analogy is somewhat unfaithful, though, because to have the authority to shut someone up means achieving a certain rank, and achievement requires effort. You cannot become a non-commissioned officer without satisfying some number of requirements that require a level of input slightly greater than getting dressed in the morning. You do have to do something in order to get something. If, however, you are launching your authority from a platform of personal experience, claiming your promotions by birthright, then you are demanding to get something not from doing something for it, but simply by being something. It starts to look a lot like privilege, except you objectify and commodify yourself. You “earn” said authority through absolutely nothing more than being born in a certain place, or with a certain set of parents, of a certain skin tone or gender, etc. You are constructing an authority on nothing but sophistry and vain solipsism, making an arrangement in which you attempt to trade skin color or sexual preference for that sweet feeling that comes when you tell someone to shut up, and he has to.


Whenever I begin these things (begrudgingly, believe me, but I am sometimes compelled), I expect that I can do it well. Do it better. I expect that I can present my criticisms in a way that even the people I am criticizing will not take any offense. That they might even walk away thinking “there are some really good points in there.” I know that, first of all, I am not so deep and erudite that I can perform that particular miracle with the degree of success that I wish. Second of all, I know that it is the rarest of souls who takes criticism well, without rancor and resentment, and with a willingness to apply it constructively. The rarest of souls that takes a searching doubt by the wrist and guides the finger to the wound. Just as they teach in college, we don’t even believe that we ought to be criticized in the first place, and should immediately condemn anyone who does it. Irony’s a weird trip.

The third thing I know is that I am not supposed to care. That I am supposed to refuse to tiptoe around anyone’s sensitivities, and to outright dismiss the reactions of anyone who can’t handle what I have to say. That if I am right, I am right, and the cries of the offended are not my problem. If I were a more popular writer, I’d have a dozen comments in an hour telling me to stop being such a baby and not apologize, ever, for “telling it like it is.” But if you think about what I said earlier about politics being made of people, and not necessarily by people who are setting out to rule over whole populations, you can start to see how it gets that way. You start by thinking “I’ll post this essay, and damn anyone who can’t stand reading it,” and then realize that when you carry that attitude through a winning political campaign, you wind up applying that personal philosophy to your governing philosophy, and that’s what tyranny looks like. That’s when man becomes machine.

So think about the girl from Afghanistan reading her poem. I asked why she should bother, if I can’t know anything about growing up poor under a different sun, a different God, a different war. If her experience really is so singular and remote from me that I can do nothing with it beyond being told. The answer is that she should bother for the same reason we all bother: because we want each other to know. Every time we speak about our experiences, we act against the supposition that no one else can know them, and we do it in order to gain something that has, for a change, a grain of nobility. We do it not to win, but to win over. We want understanding every bit as much as we want allies (the latter without the former is a very weak tonic), but are struck by the disquieting feeling that every time we share something personal we lose ownership of it. We want to somehow both give it away and to keep it, to tie it to a string so that we can let it out when we’re feeling lonely, but yank it back when all the sharing feels like dilution, and we’re losing our claim to uniqueness. Without a way to reconcile those needs we’re very confused. Very vulnerable. And generosity of that sort – the giving away of something personal, the the gifting of some part of the soul – is always hardest to do because it means giving up a measure of something you have, to someone who can never care about it as much as you think it deserves.

One of the most worn-out cliches expended in praise of someone is the one that says “if you tell her she can’t do something, she sees it as a challenge and won’t quit until she proves you wrong.” Usually the premise is a lie, anyway – nobody ever said “you can’t do that,” in the first place, but it makes for a much prettier arrangement if we say it, and it is accepted. It sets up conflict, which we absolutely love, because we are at our most excited, most elevated, when we are triumphant. Especially over someone or something that can be shown to be mean, base, or cruel. Over someone who said “you can’t.” We celebrate victory uber alles, but triumph is only possible when there is an opponent, so we keep our lives as full of them as we can.

Well maybe it’s just me, but the fewer opponents I see when I look around, the more harmonious I feel. And maybe it’s just my experience, but the more often I’m told that I can’t know something, the less inclined I am to try, because all my efforts start to feel like submission to manipulation by some lilliputian force, and it becomes very appealing to just get away from that exclusion and stay closest to the things that are most like me. To spend less energy trying to assemble a gossamer affinity for a stated impossibility. In other words, this covetous ownership of experience has the only effect that it possibly could have: it pushes us apart.

The good news is that there isn’t very much that needs to be done to correct any of this. We’re already contradicting our covetousness by sharing our experiences every chance we get. It’s most of what social media is. It’s nearly everything produced in the arts and literature. Everyone’s experiences are everywhere we look, and everywhere we listen. The only thing that needs to be done differently is to cut the string that we keep using to yank them back from the brink of recognition in order to preserve our sense of ownership. The string that’s so clearly labeled “this is mine.” And for those of us being told that we can’t possibly know, it’s our job to reassuringly object. To insist that we can understand, and that we have something of equal value to share in return. As it is, we are doing ourselves the disservice of offering acquiescence in place of understanding, and losing the distinction between familiarity and enforcement. In a world where mutual respect across any discernible boundary is rarely expected, wilful servility is being proffered as an adequate substitute. If we could simply respect each other enough to believe that we can be responsible stewards of one another’s souls, we’d find out how natural an impulse sharing can be.

But still, and importantly, sharing does confront us with disharmony. It taunts us with imbalance. The possibility of giving something away only to watch it be mishandled can be very discouraging. That’s why we make of personal experience such an insular entity, and protect it so dearly. What we fail to realize is that sometimes we will lose a little something of ourselves, but that loss is a valid experience, too, and one that is every bit as sharable as the rest. So we have to just keep going. And if, at the end, we find that the world’s run off with all of our experiences and there’s nothing left of us to share, that’s how we know that we’ve done something right.

So please, tell your stories and read your poems out loud. Just resist the impulse to snap the cover shut when it looks like the audience is getting too close. Let the world take them, and run with them, and bring them back improved.

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.

Soft, Sweet Armor

On resisting the things that actually threaten our harmony, our unity. We never go deep enough.

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Guard against the joylessness –
the shout
the sloganed cry.
Guard against the chanted curse
and truthful-seeming lie.

Guard against the joylessness –
against the sheepish fright.
Guard against the mirthless marches
that wilt without the light
(a truly righteous Army thrives
even out of sight).

Guard against the joylessness –
the hunt
the bluebird’s noose.
Guard against the flashing placards
that turn a lynching loose.

Guard against the joylessness –
against the textbook heart.
Guard against the low momentum
of the classroom’s faded arts
(the ivory’s crumbling fastest
at the over-polished parts).

Guard against the joylessness
my son,
my girl child,
by suiting up in Mother’s grace
and by wielding Father’s smile.

It’s Friday!

It’s Friday!

It’s Friday! It’s Friday!
The school children shout.
It’s Friday! It’s Friday!
But they won’t let us out!

They dash us through spelling
and draw up the art.
Then they stir up the science
(our least favorite part).

The next problem is math
(which they don’t even know),
before digging up history,
and – what? We can go?

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.

The Real Story is Down the Page a Bit

The importance of reading the whole thing.

The kids have story writing every Thursday. They’re given a writing prompt and some gentle help moving their work along. The Boy has said often that he doesn’t like it, but he’s a left-handed writer and I’m told that it is pretty normal for the lefties to be annoyed by the act of writing for the first few years, what with all the physical rebellions against  mechanical standards and procedures. And also the smudging.

The Girl generally says she does like it. She’s a natural speller and focuses well and has a head full of scampering whims and intentions, so she can sit down and churn out plenty without getting too bogged down. She is a bit literal and straight, though, and she moves between sentences like a bowling ball between pins. This will all be ironed out with practice and guidance. She has the unteachable knack of taking it very personally, too, so there’s a chance that writing can make her crazy eventually, meaning that she might be very, very good at it.

Yesterday’s writing prompt was “hope.” The Girl has asked me not to read hers. Too personal, too revealing. She can’t bear for me to know. Of course I’ll read it the first chance I get.

The Boy, on the other hand, said “Papa, make sure you go in tomorrow and read my story.” He is the self-promoter that I have never been. I strutted with them both through the hall this morning, cocky as all get out because I know I am a better parent than any of these people, and my kids are far more useful already than theirs. Before I entered the classroom, one parent had already told me that she loved The Boy’s story. In the classroom, both teachers said “I hope you’re here to read his story. It’s wonderful.” This was getting interesting.

I floated past the 1st grade scrawlings and pictures, passing Chloe’s and Connor’s and Vera’s and Milo’s (Meatloaf, he likes to be called, says it’s Spanish), and found The Boy’s. Atop the page is a sickly, uncomfortable red and black marker drawing of a big building that looks like a moldy hospital, but says Seattle University across it. Spelled properly, score. The first sentence said “I hope that I go to a great college.” This, it turned out, was the entirety of what all of these people thought was so exceptional. They may not have read past that line. To my eyes they looked like they were relieved, all these adults, made to feel safe by the thought that a 7 year old has already emerged from the great die-cutter, ready and eager to take his place in the procession that has produced everything that they put their faith in. And of course the most certain thing is that they all now think that, because he said he wants to go to college, he must have pretty good parents who are sitting at home and telling him the Right Things, because they are Good Persons, and no doubt on the Right Side of History.

He does. He has incredible parents, but not for those reasons. And he has an amazing sister who I already know will fight his fights for him until he is fighting hers. But that he wrote that he wants to go to college is nothing special. He sees what I am doing, and I talk about it, and like a good boy he wants to do what his dad is doing. If I was a drunk he would want to be a drunk, too. When the mother of one of his friends said “That first sentence is amazing: ‘I hope that I to go to a great college,'” I said “I just keep trying to make sure he knows he doesn’t have to.” Because he doesn’t. But if I don’t tell him that, it’s possible that nobody ever will. And if he eventually finds out that college is not his cup of Kool-aid, he’ll feel as smoked out and useless as I did when that happened to me. College isn’t everything. I’m only doing it now because it is free and I am missing some piece of self-determination that I thought going to college could help me pop the clutch on. So far it has been a raging success for me, but if I was in my twenties or a B/B- kind of student (or God help me, both), I would be miserable. Wasted for the future and needing another path. I will work hard to make sure that my kids don’t rest all their expectations on an artificially clean run through the Academy.

With his teacher standing next to me and sounding more like a proud parent than I did, I moved her attention down the page. “Here,” I said, “is the best part.” He has had a cold for a few days, was probably wiping snot with his sleeve while he wrote his story, and the sentence said “I hope this sickness runs from me soon.” He didn’t do it on purpose, of course, but it’s loaded with meaning, it’s rhythmically neat, terse and tidy, and it’s all grown up. Having built such a simple, direct sentence with a bit of anthropomorphism and the subtle flourish of metaphor, intentional or no, is a far more heartening indication of his innate potential than any sophomoric declaration of a desire for college.

We’re going on and on as we can only do. I’m starting to look at MFA programs and getting a little more serious about pushing my work around for publication. If all goes well the kids will eventually be able to see that college has worked for me because of qualities that possessed or lacked, not because of the infallible utility of the university itself.

They’ll be able to see, most importantly, that you don’t really know anything if you only read the first sentence.

Your Papa’s Schmaltz

My Papa’s Waltz

by

Theodore Roethke

A Sober and Graceless Dramatic Interpretation by Andy Havens

Hell’s Kitchen, New York. The tiny kitchen you expect in the tiny apartment you never stop seeing in movies. A tiny table is clean and tight against the tiny wall. Two burner stove, a few open shelves stacked with dishes and pans, and a sink squarely balanced on its pipes. Enter Papa, well past supper time, dirty from work. Mother sits at the table, expectant and displeased.

 PAPA: Any whiskey in the house, m’darlin?

MOTHER: (Talking in the direction of the clock) I don’t guess you need any, the way you smell already. And listen to ya talkin!

PAPA: You know I can’t help but me and the boys stop in for a turn or two at the Old Russet after a Friday shift. It’s a long week in the shop, and Mickey lost three fingers in the die cutter today. And hey, it ain’t even yet eleven o’clock!

MOTHER: Three more fingers?

PAPA: Am I speakin’ Gaelic? Three fingers, sure as I’m standin here.

MOTHER: Poor Mickey musta been born with near two dozen, by my count. And yer barely standin’ there at all, anyway. Lean up against somethin’ already.

Enter the son, eight years old and yawning in his pajamas.

 PAPA: I’ll lean up against my boy!

SON: Hi, Papa!

PAPA: Sorry if I woke you up! Lemme just wolllltz ya back to bed! Mother, sing us a tune!

Mother most decidedly does not sing them a tune.

 PAPA: Well, then turn up that Lefty Frizzell!

MAMA: We don’t have a radio.

PAPA: We don’t need one! (Singing) “My daaaaad was a poor, hard-workin’ Saginaw fishermannnn…”

 Papa takes the boy by his hand and begins a clumsy dance around the tiny kitchen. The boy wraps his remaining three limbs around papa and hangs on like a cowboy. He might be smiling.

 PAPA: We’ll start with a box-step!

MOTHER: A what now?!

This first move sends a cast iron skillet from a shelf to the linoleum floor, and rattles a couple of tin mugs. There’s a glassy jangling of milk bottles inside the refrigerator. A large cat skulks dejectedly out to the fire escape.

 MOTHER: See now? You’ve even chased off Ulysses!

 PAPA: I’m sure he’ll just go up and get some fish guts from Joyce. Now, boy, like I taught you, the telemark!

MOTHER: (Rising a little, shouting and incredulous) THE TELE-WHO?! Where did you learn to-

PAPA: No time for talkin m’darlin, we’re coming to a tricky sp-

Papa slips a bit on the polished floor. The son makes a brief exclamation and rubs his ear, as it was scraped by Papa’s belt buckle. A neighbor pounds on his ceiling from below. Mother’s portrait of Kathleen Lynn goes a little crooked on its nail.

 PAPA: Sorry, son! We’re all jammed up here widdout any room. Can’t be helped! Now remember the next move, boy. It’s called the wing! Let’s dance you back to bed on a “wing” and a prayer! Hang on to something!

Mother is rooted to the spot.

 The son grabs two tiny fistfuls of Papa’s dirty cotton shirt and holds on for the scant six feet of movement from the kitchen to the one small bedroom they all share. Papa tucks him in.

 SON: Nice moves tonight, papa. You really like to dance.

PAPA: I have to dance, bud. We all have to. I only really like to dance when I do it here. Sweet dreams, now.

The bedroom light turns off. From the kitchen comes the sound of a burner igniting on the stove and a cast iron pan sliding from the shelf. A glassy jangling of milk bottles in the refrigerator. A large cat struts self-assuredly in from the fire escape.

Amotivational Wish

I don’t have to say it just because you want me to.

Not a typo. I wrote amotivational on purpose. That’s how this works.

College. Where I find unique challenges every day. I was able to say the same for the Army, but in the Army, motivation was either easy to come by, or all-too-readily available from any number of willing… mentors. In any case, you were simply going to do whatever was to do, and that was that. Rather parental, when parenting works.

In college, motivation can be more elusive. You are truly on your own here, and if the material presented does nothing to move you intellectually or emotionally, it can be hell to get started on a project. I suspect this is why so many students just do what they’re told and buy whatever narrative is sent their way. It eases the difficulty. There’s no real way, from the impotence of the student’s disposition, to ensure that the wheels get greased. So the student’s best bet is to become a wheel and catch as catch can whatever lube is dripped her way.  To wit: an hour in a literature class is plenty of time to know exactly what the professor professes in public and private, and there’s a real narcotic allure to the idea of getting ideologically on board. Your assignments will conform to your conformity, and the sad coitus between two beings of diminished creative ambition will spurt along at a potentially Dean’s-list-level of coursework.

I see it, as best I can, from a distance. I call myself a writer with some confidence now, having produced some papers for school that I am perfectly proud of, as well as having one poem published and another take honors in a competition. I am a writer. There is power there, that I don’t think my fellow majors understand. I can sit in these classes, listen to these teachers, read the little post-modern litanies of a liberal arts education, take in the constantly present sense that “seriously, just do it like us, it’ll be so much easier for both of us” – and still write what I want. All it takes is evidence, and if you read regularly, you become so stocked with the stuff that you could be the 163rd CSI incarnation. I could read a piece of feminist literature and write a 5-page paper that never mentions feminism. And as long as I find the evidence for my points in the paper itself, I am in the clear. That’s the real power of liberal arts, as it is supposed to be understood. The power of being a writer with a little actual resistance in her. The power of turning post-modernism against itself and recognizing how easy it is to be right, within the framework of today’s vacated artistry and dissipated standards.

One of the first things anyone should be able to recognize from inside of the vapid collegiate gestalt is that the last thing anyone should be giving it is what it asks for. Maybe I am uniquely capable of seeing this because I am a parent: I know that you can’t raise a damn thing – child or idea or machine – by giving it what it wants. You have to give it what it needs. The university doesn’t need feminist papers or anti-feminist papers. It wants them both, though, because in either case the student is still just a wheel, safely hubbed onto the framework. What the university does need is true papers, real papers that are disinterested in social propulsion or the narrowing effects of thought-building. The university does not need to be saved by noble conservative infiltrators and their stout anti-political messaging. That’s more of the same, anyway, and absurd. It needs, like a protest needs a mute button, apolitical messaging. It needs, in short, to be made to forget about itself for a while. Again, exactly the same way that a parent knows that a child in a tantrum is best served by a distraction. The university is child to the student, and the student needs to start distracting its disobedient charge from its own illogic. You don’t do that by shouting “NO!” or by presenting oppositional logic. That just keeps the focus on the locus. Distract, distract, distract. You do it with ice cream and tickle bugs, wisdom and wit. You make it get up off the ground by showing it the sky.

But as nice as all that is to wail about for a minute, it’s only a small part of motivation. For instance, I am about to read “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” It’s a challenge that I am simply not sure that I am the master of. It’s ok, though, because again, there is a distance I can keep. A professionalism, and an artistry, even. Sometimes all it takes is is to talk to myself for a moment, and pencil up a poem to buoy me through the surf:

Every Wish has a Rider“Your wish has been granted”
said the Genie to the girl at the protest march.
She rose,
stiffened,
held her sign erect and raised
a single finger for the patriarchy
(forgetting her father)
in permanent letters
on the tip of a
long wooden shaft.
She heard herself say
“Thank you, sir.”

 

Gaudy Explosions

Getting Better at Things

I don’t think I’ve had a year of so much change since 1998, when I joined the Army. On April 4th last year I started school again for the umpteenth time, and made up lost ground in a hurry. Three quarters at South Seattle College got me an Associate’s degree, a frightening (for me) comfort with the Modern Language Association and its writing format, and frightening (for you) comfort with poetry. Recall (as I reminded you of too often) that my English Comp teacher asked to use my Voter ID paper in her future classes. My only fear – recognized after giddily saying that OF COURSE YOU CAN MY GOD – is that she’s been giving it the full Maddow ever since. Putting my calmly dispassionate support for voter ID on the screen and ripping into as prescribed therapy for post-election PTSD. But hey, she wouldn’t do that if it wasn’t good.

I love, too, that we lived through THE ELECTION. The last great tragedy that occurred in my life – the last “where were you when” event – was the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up in 5th grade. What was her name – Krista McCullough? I think so. Wrong! Krista McCauliffe. The teachers wheeled little CRT sets on carts into our classrooms, turned the dials and adjusted the antennae until one of the 4 channels came through. I wonder, with THE ELECTION, how many classrooms had their flat-screened LCD panels drawing satellite signals of pre- and post-election coverage into classrooms. The anticipation beforehand, the buildup, and the moment of recognition that the carnage was real. I can’t imagine a condition by which anyone would have enjoyed watching the space shuttle separate into flaming debris after launch. But if you were a Trump voter watching the election unfold, seeing that gaudy, expensive, billionaire’s toy rocket to the stars come apart on its ascent on November 8th was as satisfying as hearing the words “no cancer.”

Two months before that, I quit drinking. It’s as if I knew how important sobriety would be on November 8th – the last thing you want to be in a riot is drunk. This is my first and last post on the subject, because no matter how you spin it there isn’t a drinker in the world who wants to hear a single word from a non-drinker about not drinking. There is no mission, no outreach, no hope that you might be getting through to someone. There’s no place for that sanctimony among friends. The problem is that most non-drinkers use that sanctimony to fuel their sobriety, as if smugness is how they quit, and more smugness is how they stay quit. That’s not mine. I will make one blanket statement, and move on: I quit because it’s better this way. Everything is. Not hyperbole. Everything important is better, and I am better at it. Would it be the same for you? Yes.

Poetry. One of the things at which I have gotten better. Much better, and still going. Thank you Michael G. Hickey and South Seattle College.  I have submitted a packet of poetry to The Iowa Review, arguably as prestigious a literary publication as there is. I’m sure nothing will be selected, but that’s not even the point. Two other times, I have been selected. The aforementioned Mike Hickey submitted two of my poems to a competition at which I won an honorable mention (and money!). Thanks, Mr. Hickey! And Fragments, the literary magazine at Seattle University, is going to publish another of my poems. But you know all this. What you may not know is what I think about it: I think I am doing things right.

And now I’m studying creative writing at Seattle University, though I haven’t taken any creative writing classes. So far it’s much more like creative reading, and that’s fine with me. I’ll write more, submit more, read more (sometimes out loud) and hopefully get published again soon.

Carry on, now. Facebook told me that I am turning zero, and that “That’s all for today.” Imma just try to live up to that.

Grades, Grays, Graze

The Human Facebook Comment

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There’s nobody in that picture. Mostly, at nine-ish on a cold weekday morning, the few people about are older couples, ambulating carefully along at a thoughtful and deliberate pace that I should adopt myself more often. There’s nobody in that picture, but there is a cool little seagull way up in the corner, like a staple, if at the entirely wrong angle. I might become paralyzed if someone handed me a stack of papers stapled that way.

Grades came in from Winter Quarter. All is well in the world, as I managed all A’s. There was some anxiety because my Brit Lit grade, while good going into finals, depended on a final paper and a final exam, so just about anything was possible there. Philosophy was a worry, too, because I went into finals with the lowest A possible at the time. My paper needed to be spot on, and I suppose it must have been. I know I had an absolute blast writing it. How could I not?

Here’s the cool thing about philosophy, too, that I wish more people would understand about life in general: Understanding something doesn’t mean agreeing with it. Believing in something doesn’t mean supporting it. I can write a fun and thorough paper on Sartre’s philosophy, absolutely sticking the landing on every point we were asked to hit, without agreeing with any of it. But we get stuck in these patterns of thinking where if I say that I understand the reasoning behind a travel restriction or a border wall, that means that I want them both to happen and think they should. We have these conversations where we view the person we’re talking to as if he were a Facebook comment, electronic, robotic, and incapable of intellectual nuance. Philosophy, done right, doesn’t make that mistake. I do think that Western people are generally raised to not do it right, and are trained to resist doing it right by schools and social media, so we are starting from a position of weakness. Everyone wants to win at something (because they weren’t allowed to as kids), but when you look around and don’t see any opponents, you have to manufacture them.

I do, incidentally, agree with a lot of Sartre. To get to the end of his ideas – to read your way through “Being and Nothingness,” for instance, is difficult and confusing. But once you get to the core of what he is saying it looks like a common sense acceptance and description of reality as it is. That table you’re looking at is a table. Seriously. Sartre doesn’t really allow for a bunch of esoteric weirdness that renders the table some imaginary construct of the mind. There’s a friggin’ table over there. Deal with it. And of course we have to deal with it, especially when someone else is looking at it, too, which is where I start to part ways with him.

Here’s a link to the paper.  It’s only 4 pages, so a 5 minute read or so. What follows is an excerpt from it:

A certain momentary me. I know that this is just a story I’ve invented, and for a few moments the internal negation between that coffee-drinking self that’s been created, and the reflecting consciousness that created it, gives me space to wonder – do I have to be that person this morning? I could just as easily be a man who starts his day with a grapefruit juice or a tea or nothing at all. Neither coffee-me nor tea-me are a me that needs to be, and I’m starting to notice that with all of these possible beginnings to my day, none of them have singular importance. Whatever me it is that gets out of this bed – if I even do that – is no better or worse a version than any other. None of them can stake a foundational claim to me or my day or my life. This is a woeful resignation on the first Saturday of Summer. My Summer. I could choose a breakfast of fish and vodka instead of coffee, because the story of me as a coffee drinker is fundamentally unmoored from facticities like time and place and body and freedom. Anything else could take its place at any time. But that smell is delicious.

I’m still rocking along on Spring break and trying to write a poem that’s probably my most “serious” effort to date. But the funny thing about art and beauty is that the accidental kind is very frequently what tends to stick. The castoffs and the rigorless productions spring up out of the past and give you a “holy shit” moment. I wrote this one a while back, just a few quick revisions and done, and I love it more every time I read it:

Un-brella Weather

In October the wind came at its worst
and the rain became confused
from knowing how to fall
just plain down
anymore.

The boy said the rain is going sideways.

His sister used one hand
to put up her hood
then casually closed her umbrella
because she knew
it wouldn’t help anymore.

The boy said hey we need that.

But his sister just put the furled umbrella
(a rainbow colored rebuttal)
under an arm
and used one hand
to help him put up his hood too.