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.

GO AHEAD

Happy to be full of it, sometimes

The last thing I ever want to do is the thing that everyone else is doing. For the purpose of this entry, that thing is playing the victim. Claiming specialness. I am not special. I am not a victim. But I am willing to observe, politely and mildly, that there is a bit of an extant sentiment in society that is, shall we say, ever-so-slightly in opposition to men. There’s lots of things we’re not supposed to be, depending on who you ask. But it’s all the same thing in the end, really. The thing we’re not supposed to be, is us.

So what. My entire childhood and adolescence were based on doing exactly what I wasn’t supposed to do. Big deal. Still, here I am: one of these men – at least in terms of biology and mentality – that we don’t seem to want much of. I write occasional poems in support of others like me because after three years in college, I learned more than anything that the most important thing to do is to celebrate and support with the greatest fervor those things that are the most like ourselves. The liberal arts world in college is a world based on the elevation of things of your own kind, and denigration of things outside of your own cultural circle. And also tolerance. Do what you will with that little contradiction.

I am aware of what kind of man I am. I only very occasionally build things, but I have an embarrassingly impressive array of tools. That kind of cliché. I fold laundry more than I hammer steel, I wash dishes more than I turn wrenches. My hands are not hard or large. I am tall but not imposing, and I am (he meekly admits) terrified of confrontations. My God, I think back over all of the fights I have craftily avoided in my life and I am not proud. But it’s still in there, that core thing, that masculinity that is called toxic nowadays. I know our need of it, and bristle at the mockery directed its way.

I am not here to argue against that. It strikes me as hypocritical in some ways. The masculinity I own and revere does not raise its voice to protest. It works and produces and creates and lets that action speak for it. It follows the cardinal rule of the writer in that it does not tell – it shows. I am here not to complain but to be a fan. To write up my support for the hard things that we are, and for the shittily unrefinable parts of our nature that I would not run from a fight to preserve.

Having said that:

GO AHEAD

Be dirty and don’t hide 
your large hands that could 
                    split timber.

They flip thin pages, too,
rattle pans and
feed their fighting heirs.

GO AHEAD

Be mean and lift the heavy thing 
and don’t mind making a little 
                    show of it.

Your beambroad back
can bear it and
won’t tremble in the least

GO AHEAD

Be hard, clumsy and cruel
and let the sneer of the timid 
                    mock itself.

You hardly can part 
from that look that
feeds you its forsaken strength

GO AHEAD

Be bare-knuckled and nude
because we need most what
                    no one wants.

The world knows and 
keeps a place 
for the things we expel.

 

Signs! Signs!

Another square in the quilt.

First Gen Poster

When I started attending Seattle University (just a few years ago!), there was a Veteran’s Center. It was a nice room with a kitchen, lots of seating at tables and booths and couches, kind of a little café where you could go study, make yourself some lunch, top off your coffee, etc. It was nice, but it was empty most of the time. Seattle U is a small school, and there probably are not very many veterans studying there. That it is in Seattle is surely a major contributing factor.

Whatever the reason, be it the low attendance or a combination of things, the Veteran’s Center eventually morphed into the Outreach Center. I don’t particularly care that it was no longer reserved solely for the military students. Though if I were more of the kind of student that SU was actively trying to create, I would have protested and decried the “erasure” of a “safe space” for my “marginalized community.”

Let me get tangential and parenthetical and very heavily digress here, too. The stance America takes towards the veteran community is a good example of the unintentional vilification of an otherwise good society. I have never been treated poorly because of my service. Not even close. In fact, I have had more people positively change their demeanor towards me because I am a veteran than I can count. Changed to be more appreciative and forgiving and welcoming. Still I have also heard more people, veteran and otherwise, claim that veterans are indeed a marginalized community in need (or at least especially and uniquely deserving) of preferential treatment in order to be allowed to rise to the status of everyday society. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand it because I have seen no evidence – but then I’ve never had need of the VA hospital – that veterans are a struggling and persecuted demographic. I have only seen the help, the preferential treatment. I have only ever seen us treated better than average, so it always shocks me to see us pitied. Even the pity is a form of (albeit misguided) status elevation.  As a result, though our society is actually perfectly good in its treatment of veterans, it appears to be quite bad. This is precisely the same phenomenon at work where racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc are concerned. We insist that we’re worse than we are.

The Outreach Center that grew to overtake the Veteran’s Center now included a couple of other student demographics. The one that became the most noticeable was the “First-Generation” or first-gen students. These are people who are in the first generation of their families to attend college. I was now a severely reluctant member of not just one, but two protected classes at Seattle University (but also a white male, so never mind). And as far as the first-gen thing goes, I understand, or understood, at first. It’s cool. You worked hard, or your parents did, and you’ve managed to find a new avenue of growth outside of the family business or possibly some near-squalid conditions that you were the first member of your family to be strong enough to climb from. Good job! But I noticed that it became something else, too. Look at the sign:

First Gen Poster

Look at that dangling declaration: “I belong here.” You only say that if someone has told you that you don’t belong here. This sign’s message is “I’m first-gen. Because of that, people don’t want me here, but I am defiantly attending college anyway.” Which is just plain false because, again, I have never come across any reason to believe that a first generation college student was discriminated against or looked down upon, or marginalized in any way. Not while I was in college, not before, not at all. I’ve never seen that angle played in a movie or read it in a book. Nothing. It is a form of discrimination that appears to have been manufactured out of nothing (and does not even exist) for the sole purpose of having something to stand against. And now, because of this sign and its message, we live in a world that is perfectly accepting of  first gen students, yet appears to be cruelly opposed to their success. It’s another false injustice, making our world look worse than it is. Why do we do this to ourselves? Are we not adults?

It strikes me that it’s very mafia-esque. A sort of protection racket set up by people to create a need for themselves. If you’re a first-gen student that was doing just fine (or a person of color, gay, etc), someone will come along to help you believe you aren’t doing fine. Or worse, that fine isn’t good enough. That you need help, and they just happen to be the perfect people to provide it.

How do you find that help? Follow the signs.

Why the Gods Stopped Answering

On being careful what you wish for.

In a year that started with three months of march
the gods of the globe met a girl on a Hill,
fit with ambition and requests for the rights
of all of the people to be equally filled.

Great Zeus consulted the God of Abraham
and Mohammed added a surah or two.
Buddha nodded his silent approval
and Brahma saw it the right thing to do.

The wish was granted, her prayers were answered
and equality had been wholly ordained.
But the protester gathered her high-lettered signs
and marched, in her hat, right back out again.

Zeus looked at God and said “What’s this about?”
while angry Mohammed drew out his blade.
Buddha sat down and Om’d ‘til he shook,
Brahma wondered what mistake they had made.

The young woman said you’ve all done so well
in answering my prayers and granting my wish.
but by making my purpose so neatly complete
you’ve presented my hunger a cold, empty dish.

They watched her smartly set out for the heart
of the love that only they could create.
With a burgeoning army she chanted and marched
‘til she raised a new devil from an angelic state.

So Zeus and the God of Abraham shrugged.
Mohammed’s scimitar furrowed the dirt.
Buddha looked to have tuned it all out,
and Brahma just picked at a stain on his shirt.

Signs! Signs!

In which we examine the subtext of our expressions.

iu82DJHH9FOk, so you’ve put this sign up in front of your house. I can’t find anything to disagree with here.  That’s part of the point though, I know. It’s not terribly deep, the sarcasm implicit in the plain truth of the statements. If you don’t believe these things (and honestly, I’m still looking for someone who doesn’t), then you are The Problem.

It’s creepy how these signs act as ID badges, too, because what about your neighbors, who haven’t put up a sign? What are you saying about them? If I stand on the sidewalk and look first at their house, and then at yours, I have to make a judgment, don’t I? I’m obviously looking at two different kinds of households. At least that’s what your sign is telling me.

And what if your neighbor does put one up? And then the neighbor on the other side of you puts one up, too? Then everyone on the street follows suit? And then the coffee shops and dry cleaners? What am I to believe about the state of my world after a quick jaunt around your block? What can I believe about a world that needs signs like that? And so many? I can only believe that it is a hard, cruel place. That your house, your street, your hood, is the exception, not the rule. A tiny island of kindness in an ocean of violence and hate. Which is the opposite of the truth. The truth of our world, our country especially, is that we are a vast ocean of goodness, with (unfortunately but unavoidably) islands of despair. I would give anything to start shifting public recognition in that direction. But I guess that why I write poems. I digress…

These signs, to put it simply, are why the world seems meaner, not  kinder. Because of what they are saying, silently, about all the spaces where they aren’t. The accusations they are leveling at the world around them.

 

Side note, on the “Love is Love” part: I had a lit class a couple of yeas ago in which the going doctrine was that Shakespeare and his sonnets were gay (queer, whatever I’m given permission to say). Now, lawd hammercy, I can’t remember which sonnet, but the professor mentioned one of them that was popular at weddings. Her point was that, because it was Shakespeare professing his love to another man, it was hilarious that so many straight couples have had it read at their weddings. This of course revealed her to be kind of a bitter and angry person, enjoying the inadvertent embarrassment of others. But also I couldn’t help thinking:

It’s a love poem. If you believe that love is love, there’s nothing to laugh at.

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.

Signs! Signs!

Maybe the first in a series. Probably not though.

IMG_2707I may begin a series of sign interpretations. I probably won’t, so don’t get too excited, but there are a few out there that are certainly saying something other than what they are saying.

This first example comes from our good friend Trader Joe. On the surface, he seems to be letting us know that on Thanksgiving, he will be closing up shop and allowing his workers to enjoy a day off. And indeed, had he stopped at “We Will be Closed Thanksgiving Day,” that’s exactly what the sign would say. And I wouldn’t be here. But as is so often the case with just about everyone everywhere today, he wasn’t content with his sign until he made it contentious. He looked around, saw that nobody was fighting about anything, and decided to change all that. The record-breakingly passive-aggressive addendum that says “So our employees may spend time with their familes” was never, not for a single second, about employees or families. It is a belligerent virtue-signal and a GoFundMe call for social capital. Here’s what Joe’s sign really says:

We will be closed Thanksgiving Day. Any business that is open on Thanksgiving Day is a capitalist greed monster that hates its employees and has no respect for families.

Again, stopping after the first sentence says nothing. Adding the rest says it all. I still bought my groceries there, and will not stop.

Dinner Party

After reading Virginia Woolf

I am not more right.
I do not know better.
I just can’t run with the baton I’m handed
when my leg of the race comes up.
It is gross, the baton.
Slimy, and it smells of rot covered by perfume.
I cannot carry it.
I cannot wield it.
I cannot.

You can pass it between each other
because you carry it low
against your thighs
and don’t look at it
and instinct makes the transfer.
Instinct never smelled a corpse to know it.
It hasn’t the time.

Briefly, Your News

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find something that happened somewhere but that’s like counting the grains of gunpowder in the bullet with your name on it.

There might be one in there that isn’t going to light when the firing pin strikes, but that’s not going to slow it down any.

All that mad space on the airwaves. A dozen papers a hundred websites a thousand articles a million words.

Each one distinct and identical and individual but fired all together from a three-letter casing that tries to hide its intent. It succeeds wherever we let it and it does what a bullet is supposed to do – it makes a hole in us.

Oh my god I just can’t do it.

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find poetry, though I know I should have known better. By the time I had my breakfast all I knew was exactly what my opinions should be.

All I knew was that it was wrong to stereotype (except by voting preference)
and that it was wrong to discriminate (except by skin color and gender)
and which kind of prejudice would get me high fives
and that love is both love and a very oppressive weapon

and I am far more certain now that there are some very hateful ways to say that hate is a very bad thing.

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find out who we are and it has become very clear that if everything we say we are working so hard to eliminate – the hate the prejudice the racism the sexism the violence

my God I think especially the violence!

if all of those things we march against and wave signs against and rally against and throw rocks at and beat people up over and lie to keep alive were somehow magically eliminated tomorrow

we would bring it back yesterday because we wouldn’t recognize ourselves without it.

If we won we would be lost.

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, and my family still sleeps somewhere above me and I pray that when they wake up I don’t somehow take this all out on them
the way I see everyone else take it out on each other, every day, for love.

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.