Summerpeek on the Plagueround

I have plague fatigue. The weekend was brilliant with kids and hoses and dirt and sun. And color!

Sumeryard

85 degrees. Let’s run that Summeryard inventory:

  1. Star spangled paddles
  2. Aluminum baseball bat (pink?)
  3. Hose with selectable nozzle
  4. Scooter
  5. One boxing glove
  6.  Bicycle helmet
  7.  Tiny soccer ball (pink?)(and sparkly?)
  8. Camp chair

Note: no children in sight, being so close to cleanup time.

They invented a game wherein they would heave the boxing glove down one end of the not-so-dead end street, then run past me to retrieve it. I was sitting in the camp chair, facing the street, about midway through their run to the glove, wielding the garden hose. They tried to go and get the glove, manufacturing a series of (let’s face it, pretty weak, if tremendously enjoyable) diversions, schemes, misdirections, and covering maneuvers, in an attempt to not be sprayed by the water. The paddles were shields, the baseball bat was used in an as yet inconclusive role (though it was generally menacingly pointed here and there), and a very pathetic, flimsy, plastic football helmet whose logo had long since worn off was passed from head to head. Each new wearer had high hopes for the helmet’s water repellency, but was ultimately disillusioned in turn. The cries were of the timeless variety:

“He got me!”

“You can’t run out of range!”

“Cover me!”

“No, split up!”

“Oh, who cares? Just spray me, I like it.”

………

You were wondering about the patio dig?

May 7
May 7
IMG_3524 (2)
May 9

Not vastly different, but measured and marked off. I’m in a holding pattern until my gravel and sand get here Wednesday. Fine by me – I need the rest. Ran the final numbers today and will order the actual pavers and wall blocks tomorrow. Finalizing the materials – shapes, colors, etc. has been a somewhat fluid endeavor, depending a bit too much on my own personal considerations of what would make things easiest on the installer (you know, me). Christ, I hope I can pull this off.

………

There has been a smell of gasoline in the air all day. It’s 9:30 pm, finally dark. I’m on the porch, listening to a very still night being lacerated every ten minutes or so by the sound of the next someone dragging trash cans to the street. The fuel smell persists. I keep putting my fingers to my nose to see if it could be me, but it isn’t. I haven’t touched gas at all today. The wind changes, and it goes away. I haven’t heard a ferry.

………

There’s been a void since completing Moby Dick. Animal Farm was just too much like reading the internet, so I knocked it off after about half. Steinbeck’s been good – my God why did nobody ever tell me about The Red Pony? What madness! What guts! Alas, I need something bigger/longer. For two bucks I put The Woman in White on my Kindle. I read a Wilkie Collins book a few years back in college – The Law and the Lady. It was a good read in a class taught by a woman who was a total fangirl for the Victorian/gothic/mystery thing that Collins does. I understand it is a long book – 600 some pages. Just what I need. It may become unwieldy on the Kindle. I don’t like the electric format for anything long. It’s best, anyway, for airplane and night reading.

The Brothers Karamazov is also on the way. I want to do that one in paper.

The Perfect Vision Plague Diaries #7

On the optimism of risk

Notes on the general state of the neighborhood, the family, and the masses in the time of the virus

Yesterday’s numbers:

  • 1170 confirmed cases (up 130 from yesterday)
  • 87 confirmed deaths (up 12 from yesterday)

After a couple of days with a low “new death” count, we’re up 12.

Bridge cam

To recap, in case you missed my bonus post this morning: West Seattle is cut off! It’s just another thing that seems horrifying up front, but will wind up being not very interesting in the end. It’s of a piece with the whole “the world will be a different place when this is over” trope. I’m hearing that more and more, and I just don’t know why anyone believes it. Different how? We’re going to go back to work and school, and in 6 months we’ll barely remember the Coronavirus. There will likely be businesses that don’t survive this, and life will be different for those people, but this is not going to shift us into some new global existence of…of what, exactly? Nobody seems to have gotten that far yet. That’s because all of the fun is in the prophecy – the fulfillment always just feels like December 26th (unless that’s your birthday).

We all love to feel important, and because we have a hard time getting that feeling from our everyday lives – from the mundane and decent moments – we imagine doomsday scenarios and great changes. We manufacture tragedy where it doesn’t exist, farming it like oysters in the brackish waters of our boredom and banality. Nothing’s more dull than stagnation, so we want to believe that something different’s coming to stir us up. It isn’t, though, and that’s the best part. We’re too good at civilization. The plague can’t ruin us with toilet paper and sanitizer shortages, and it isn’t going to forever change our way of life as we come out the back end of it (in a couple weeks or months or whatever). We’re too resilient and our systems are too redundant, and we’re just too big. You can’t turn an aircraft carrier in a phone booth.

The governor also laid out some “enhanced strategies” yesterday. I see now that there’s a slogan attached to it: “Stay home, stay healthy.” Fine by me. It may actually be a misdemeanor now to be within 6 feet of someone. I don’t see much chance of that being enforced with anything more than a shout. Inslee has avoided calling directly for a shelter-in-place, which I think is a pretty savvy move. The public has been calling for it and predicting it (so that later they can say they were right) for a while now. It’s been an unavoidable term in an unavoidable conversation, and the Governor won’t be sucked in by the sheepish momentum. Possibly it also leaves room for escalation. After all, what if you order a shelter-in-place and things get worse? Where do you go from there, Martial Law? He’s at least buffered and slowed the lockdown process with an additional step this way, and perhaps has significantly (smartly, invisibly) staid the hand of public panic by avoiding the language of school shootings and severe weather.

Or maybe it’s just politics, distinguishing himself from the New Yorks and Californias, hoping that in the end he can look at his voters and say that he was right. It’s his own low-risk bet on future validation. He’ll be able to stand there and say that he successfully fought the plague without resorting to the draconian measures of the other states, all the while doing essentially the same thing they did, only using different words.

Either way, I say “Good job, Jay.”

BUT…

There is a line now at Trader Joe’s. They’re doing the one person out, one person in thing, with a max capacity of 20 shoppers. I came down the stairs from the parking garage yesterday, saw that the line was 7 or 8 people deep, and decided not to wait. I like Trader Joe’s. It is easy to ignore their shortcomings, given the low prices and some of the goodies that are unique to their stores. But I’m not waiting in line for it, six feet away from the next person.

I went back to my usual store, closer to home anyway, and found myself with an unexpected sweet tooth. Bought two kinds of cookies, a tub of ice cream, and even a package of ladyfingers for some reason I can’t explain (except that I turned towards the shelf and there they were). They are not very good. Clearly Tiramisu is the best thing that ever happened to them. Toilet paper was still out, as was the yeast. I’ve been looking for yeast since this thing started, and in the meantime managed to forget my lack by making soda bread. Yeastless and delicious, with a little rosemary to make it classy.

Soda Bread

I’ll make another loaf today, as well as a large vat of chicken and noodles, which is the only thing I can think of that qualifies as a family recipe for us. My grandma used to make it when she visited, especially during Christmas and Thanksgiving. My mom made it when grandma wasn’t around (and after she died, of course), and I’ve been making it ever since I moved away from home, such a long time ago. Everyone loves it.

………

So, as we’ve already explored, things are very serious. There’s hard lessons to be learned! Life as we know it will be forever changed! Well, I took a walk the other day with a friend who recently found out his 8 year-old son is dying of a rare condition, and they caught it too late. They could still have years to go, but most of them won’t be good. It was a walk in a park that made us part of the unperson population, being too cavalier about social distancing, and apparently putting everyone at risk with our irresponsible behavior. Risk. My friend and his family are a thousand tragic steps beyond risk. They are living with something far more sinister and damning: certainty. He would joyfully replace that certainty with the welcome possibilities of mere risk, rather than knowing so plainly the hell that is coming. So he is understandably unmoved by the moralizing masses in the comments of the Governor’s twitter feed. Tell him, and the rest of his family, that going to the park is dangerous and irresponsible. That the world’s going to be different when this is over. For them, yes, very. But not because of quarantines, closed bridges, or government decrees. Not because we “came together as a community” and “supported local businesses” while we looked at the suddenly clean air of our cities and “finally learned a hard lesson about climate change” (yes, people are saying this). Nope, all the people in a situation like my friend, who are plagued by reality, are just trying to find the importance in the mundane and decent moments of the life they have left, before it changes for real, forever.

Your “Homeless in Coronafornia” update:

Goot morning from ground zero
Anyone know of a place to pee inside?

That’s a concern of an unbridgeable kind. I’m usually less troubled by his troubles than I should be. It’s comments like those that remind me not to go around manufacturing tragedy where it doesn’t exist.

— Give me six feet, comrade citizen! —

The Dirty Geese

Any Season’ll Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The Hordes of the Invisible

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

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

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

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

1. Who is the dominant culture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it Works, it Really Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Halo

People like to say that you can conquer your fears, if you can just manage to face them. I disagree. The more you face your fear, the more you details you collect about what there is to be afraid of. The more certain you become. I had thirty chances – thirty-five, I always forget about jump school – to get over my fear of heights. All I got over was my interest in jumping out of airplanes. I’d do it again if I had to. If I had to.

The trained eye watches that video and sees a few fellas who are going to have a hell of a time getting their affairs in order before the ground comes up to meet them.

There’s no point in trying to avoid the ground, it’s everywhere. Still, your brain tells your body to find a way around it. Your brain screams at you to not let that meeting happen. You are told to look for the treetops and estimate your distance to the ground, but it can’t rightly be done. Like a drunk, you have no idea, really, when you’re going to hit bottom. Hopping off a chair or a platform 5 or 6 feet off the ground gives you the impression that you understand your position relative to it, but it’s not really true. It’s really just something you don’t care about, because you know you’re safe. You aren’t falling long enough to care about how fast it’s happening. From under a parachute, the closer you get to the ground the more you realize that you have no idea – no way of knowing – just how fast you are falling. They tell you it’s twenty-eight feet per second, and that’s a neat thing to say, but screaming it at the ground, in the dark, isn’t going to make things any easier. Besides, you’re only supposed to make noise out there if you are hurt.

You’ve been stuffed in this tiny airplane for the last hour, like tobacco in a cigarette, sweating. Sixty pounds on your lap, forty on your back. Your legs are woven into the legs of the man across from you, because the bird just wasn’t built for this. When it shakes, the dust of all the world’s time zones fall from the exposed wires and tubes. It has about two decades worth of flight hours, and has been doing this since Vietnam. The skin’s so thin that you think you can see right through it, all the way to home and your mom and that day when you thought you needed this, somehow. Even if she didn’t love you then, she loves you in this memory, because this memory wants you to go back. The old plane creaks and settles when it’s sitting still, and then it really lurches and lifts you into the sky.

The noise. Jesus, the noise. A little red light and the commands you echo not because you can hear the jumpmaster shout them, but because you know where and when they belong, even if you haven’t figured that out for yourself yet. Even if figuring out where and when you belong is really why you’re here. The noise, the light, the commands. And the games. You deflect and you distract. Your mind is screaming at you to not do this. To stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are tough. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are crazy. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself that you are screwed. This time your mind doesn’t rebuke.

The light goes from red to green, and finally your instincts are jolted by all your years and you know what to do when lights turn green. Your mind tries one more time: STOP.

There’s a dozen ways to screw this up, and your only comfort comes from knowing that almost none of them will kill you. That’s left to God, so you’d better hope He was there for pre-jump. It’s so dark and loud and your feet are shuffling and really you’re just doing what the other people are doing and all you know for sure is that if you buck this trend you will ruin the night for everyone behind you.

Then it’s silent but for the numbers in your head. Counting because they told you it was important, that if you made it to five there was something going wrong and you had better pull that reserve. But you’re not really doing the counting. They’re just shapes in your mind, a slide show with your eyelids stapled open. Just terror and symbols occupying the same ether, no causality. Somehow you always knew that if you made it to five you would probably make it all the way to nine or eleven or however many it would take before nothing else will take.

Somewhere in there came the yank. When the straps pull tight it is the only burning in the groin you will ever love. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Counting – six, seven…you can stop that now. The chute is open, the night is dead. You might or might not hear the quad props of a fifty year-old airplane trailing off somewhere. Maybe the moon is out and the varied terrain below you is somewhat visible. Varied. It’s mostly flat, and it’s all hard as trigonometry. Maybe the moon is gone and everything is black, except that matronly silk vestment above you, which is the darkest green Creation has ever seen. A perfect circle cut into the nothing overhead. You have a dark halo.

But twenty-eight feet per second isn’t interested in what’s above you.

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.

The Ugliness of Books

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There’s the #bookstack for the quarter. One book is still missing, an anthology of Ottoman Lyric poetry. I don’t have nearly enough history in me to say anything funny about that, though it seems ripe for ridicule, for some reason. I’d go do some quick research on the Ottomans, find a reason to presume the quality of Ottoman poetry to be somewhere between Tay Bridge and Vogon, but I think I’ll just put my feet up and relax instead (do I still have to point out the #dadjokes?). And of course that doesn’t include Arabic. We don’t even use the textbooks for Arabic, but I lug a dictionary the size of a church pew to that class every day, except the 4 days per quarter that we actually open it. Every single time I look at it in the morning and think “I can leave it at home today,” we end up using it. About 3 people will actually have it with them, and the teacher makes us feel like naughty children who have disappointed her terribly. I love her. She bought chocolates for my kids and gave them to me after our final exam last quarter (don’t tell the kids).

Sometimes I feel (bear with me here), sometimes I feel like I don’t look all that cool, when I’m wearing my cardigan. Like I’m showing my age, as they say.

Anyone whose read David Foster Wallace can probably tell at this point that I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace. I have a terrific tendency towards style creep, and while I am universally incapable of reproducing the wit or profundity of any author worth selling in a nearly Amazonned-out-of-business basement-used-bookstore, I can certainly wrestle with them (wit and profundity) in a passably similar sentence structure and pacing scheme. I can sound just like Vonnegut, given a few chapters of reading him, without worrying you over any questions of my actual talent. The proof, I was recently reminded in an Alexa-driven round of Jeopardy!, is in the pudding.

He’s going on and on, Wallace is, in this part of Infinite Jest where he finally gets to describing the physical abnormalities of one of the characters. Mario. Mario has been talked about enough that the reader knows, and if the reader is honest wants to know how much, Mario is enfeebled. Wallace does not disappoint. He is as relentlessly visual about Mario as he is about everything else, and not a single word of it is flattering or careful in any way. The book was written in what, ’96, so I would have been too stoned  to know what The Culture was doing about honesty at the time, but it strikes me that a modern audience is probably aghast at Wallace’s being so derisively clear about someone born – how would we say it in the classroom – omnilaterally bio-intersectionally disadvantaged. Take this:

“…Mario had not so much club feet as more like block feet: not only flat but perfectly square, good for kicking knob-fumbled doors open with but too short to be conventionally employed as feet: together with the lordosis in his lower spine, they force Mario to move in the sort of lurchy half-stumble of a vaudeville inebriate, body tilted way forward as if into a wind, right on the edge of pitching face-first onto the ground, which as a child he did fairly often, whether given a bit of a shove from behind by his older brother Orin or no.”

It reminds me of parts of Something Happened by Joseph Heller, in which the main character is bluntly despondent about the toll he suffers because of his son, who is a special needs child of some sort (I cannot remember the details, years removed)(Here it is)( Found it):

“It is not true that retarded (brain-damaged, idiot, feeble-minded, emotionally disturbed, autistic) children are the necessary favorites of their parents or that they are always uncommonly beautiful and lovable, for Derek, our youngest child, is not especially good-looking and we do not love him at all. (We would prefer not to think about him. We don’t want to talk about him.)”

This is the truth. This is people exhausted by the gymnastics, with nothing left for the self-immolating obsession with seeing the best, no more blood to spill. He laments the time, the effort, the drain, the stress. And he blames the boy, because it is the boy’s fault.  The modern psyche cries “SELFISH! MONSTER!” but if it’s healthy, the modern psyche takes a moment to be refreshed by the permission to feel just as handicapped, though in this case by duty.

More about Mario:

“…together with the lazy lid-action gave even Mario’s most neutral expression the character of an oddly friendly pirate’s squint.”

His brother, for Pete’s sake, yanks down on his (Mario’s) eyelid “with that smart type of downward snap that can unstick a dicky shade.”

You’re not laughing. I mean, you are laughing, because you’ve pictured it and you’re hearing the cartoonish flapflapflap of the liberated shade, but you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re relaxing your sphincter for a moment, finally. Of course we don’t go around freely cursing every living thing that can’t be reasonably expected to go golfing or row a boat, and when you have a child or a sibling or someone very close to you who has some Serious Problem or another (here someone suitably progressive will tell me that my use of the word ‘problem’ is problematic) you do not curse his existence. You do not target him. Because if one facet of telling the truth is that it can be shit ugly and hurt worse than withdrawal, then another facet is the kind of intentional lying that shores up the holier parts of our nature. The looking at the Marios and the Dereks and saying, unbelievably, “He’s wonderful.” It may be flat-out false in all but the briefest and most accidental flashes, but so is epiphany, and thank God we have books that can say the ugly stuff out loud for us.