Friday in the Grist Mill

I came downstairs to assume my usual position, and found The Boy, asleep under a blanket in my chair. I don’t know when he got out of bed and headed down there. He’s been out of sorts – sudden bursts of sadness, lots of resistance to school and soccer. He’s a feeler, emotional, and as much as we may think that the heavy things of our big, grown-up world don’t penetrate their gleeful childish ignorance, we are wrong. He’s been, for instance, for weeks now finding ways to work the word “detain” into conversation. “I feel so detained today,” or, in the middle of doing chores or schoolwork, “this feels so detaining.” I don’t know that I use that word very often, but he picked it up somewhere and is feeling it. Of course if I said any of this to twitter I would be told that he needs to check his privilege; that he has no idea what it really means to be detained. Because everything is binary, zero-sum, and a 9 year-old saying he feels detained during the COVID-19 quarantine, while riots are burning the cities, is a slap in the face to 9 year-old immigrants in detention facilities at the border. It can only mean that.

Even Lileks is depressing this week. If you just got your internet this morning, and still don’t know James Lileks, here’s your chance. Click on “The Bleat” and you’re on your way. He’s always taking the angle that I wish I would have been insightful enough to take myself. There’s no one more level-headed and erudite, and this week he just sounds pissed off and tired and sad and well, not himself. Things have taken their toll. On all of us.

The first of several planned and announced demonstrations in West Seattle is at 10:00 this morning. I don’t anticipate problems. This is a gathering of people on a street corner outside of a senior care center. Another one is later this afternoon at a busy intersection, but there’s no retail to speak of out there. Hooliganism also not expected.

It’s tomorrow’s march through the heart of West Seattle that worries me. Someting about the idea of movement seems to excite the mobs, and there are lots of juicy targets for the brick-throwing anti-capitalists.

Let me just say something here that nobody else will (I also hate that I said that just now. As if I’m so special, so unique that I could possibly be the only person to say something. What a jerk). It ties directly to what I’ve said several times about people being exhilarated by tragedy. People taking a, perhaps unintentional and consciously unnoticed, thrill in being a part of something horrible. Like COVID-19 and the excitement that seemed to come out when people talked about how bad it might become. Like watching a grenade get lobbed into a public swimming pool and being a little disappointed, in spite of our better angels, when it turns out to be a dud.

We’re a fodder-fed society, and there’s no fodder in joy.

So what I’m saying is that I see it in me. Just admitting that right here, right now. A part of me wants to see West Seattle burning tomorrow. I want to be able to drive through on Sunday morning and see the broken windows and graffiti, take pictures, write about it, and commiserate with my neighbors about the sadness of it all while working in, every dozen sentences or so, the boilerplate “it’s a shame that they have to make the good protesters look bad like this.” It’s a small part of me that wants this, a part in no danger of becoming dominant. The part that longs to belong, to be able to say #metoo. The allure of locking horns with hell and boasting, later, of my survivability. Especially when I was never in any real danger because the devil doesn’t want me. It’s weak and petty. It’s the side of me that wants something for nothing; to take credit for resilience that I may not have shown in the face of anything more immediate than these approximate dangers that I see on the news. I don’t know if you feel that, too, but I know I’m not the only one who does.

Find something that sucks that you can admit about yourself today. Maybe it’s the part of you that hopes, when you’re reading an article about a murder, that the perpetrator turns out to be not of your race. Or the jolt of happiness you feel when you’re reading an article about a politician in a sex scandal, and they turn out to be not of your party. Drag that feeling out by its tail, give it a little shake, then put it back in and make sure you remember where you left it. I’d like to say that you should throw it away, but let’s be honest.


The boy woke, stirred, accidentally shook a sleeping cat from his lap, then slumped down onto the floor and fell asleep again on the rug, as he mumbled something indecipherable to me. This is not the sleep of bliss under the impenetrable dome of childhood. His is the sleep of emotional exhaustion. The exhaustion of the long-borne illusion, the impotence of childhood. and the weariness of trying to work out just what that thing is, slinking around behind all of these toys and games that seem so nice. That thing that worries you inexplicably and keeps full contentment at bay. The thing that no amount of otter pops and ice cream can sweeten enough to silence. That thing that feels so detaining.

He’ll know it one day as conscience, or Original Sin, or a grand moment of unchecked honesty. Maybe he’ll be careful enough, astute enough, mature enough, to drag it out by its tail, give it a little shake, and then set it free.

Signs! Signs!

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.

The Hordes of the Invisible

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.