America, do something about your ethnic strife or please shut up about intervening in other dysfunctional countries forever.

I’ve been meaning to write about how sad I am about the current state of mere coexistence in this country for a while now but have been putting it off, mostly because I’ve been busy with work, but also because sadness isn’t very inspiring. It’s not like anger. I can rant all day, ask anyone. Ranting is good because it might spur the change you want to see.  Our country’s fissures, though, seem every day further removed from the possibility of healing.

Charleston AME

Coexisting because you have no other choice isn’t much of an aspiration.

It was clearly evident after Freddie Gray died on April 12, 2015. My previous post was a reaction to the ensuing Facebook shit show, with one (predominantly white) segment “standing with the police,” trolling about black-on-black violence, and even posting the absolutely horrific sentiment that Gray deserved to be killed for his previous record. On the other side, the (predominantly black and/or grad student) segment likened the police presence to slavery and called for people of color to “fight back.” It was absolutely disheartening to see so many people completely talking past one another. I bet many of them went to town on Facebook’s unfollow option, which only increased the shrillness and vitriol because then there wasn’t even the one sane moderate humbly critiquing your hateful posts, only the thirty members of the choir you’re preaching to showering you with likes and hell yeahs.

For the record, I find it almost impossible to imagine that Gray died from any other way than excessive force by the police. Whether or not the officers’ actions were motivated by race is another matter. It’s a matter that might affect the legal details of the case but happens to be irrelevant to the bigger picture that we Americans are still ridiculously motivated by race.

I don’t mean just whites. I mean all of us. We cling to racial identity as if it actually means something, we insist on ascribing characteristics to races in a way that would’ve made Louis Aggasiz blush. Aggasiz, using that sophisticated measuring-the-volume-of-sand-in-skulls method in the years leading up to the Civil War, only argued that blacks are stupid. In 2015 I witnessed Facebookers call blacks stupid, lazy, dishonest, violent, and (in the case of Freddie Gray) deserving death for breaking society’s rules.

What a mistake it is to assume that these are the ramblings of fringe white supremacists intent on safeguarding their privilege, though. There are so many people who truly believe those things, and they live in fear. These are people honestly can’t imagine why black families are worried about their sons encountering police because it’s so far removed from their own experiences of cops directing traffic or giving them a friendly wave at the doughnut shop. They don’t consider how humiliating it is to constantly see pedestrians cross to the other side of the street, let alone have chubby security guards subtly trail you through the Walgreens. They aren’t even bad people, only people who don’t know.

On the other hand, there are also people who genuinely consider today’s cops to be analogous to plantation overseers. Because of that they too live in fear and calling for violence to end violence seems to be the only option left. They call whites greedy, dishonest, violent, and deserving death for gaming the system to their perpetual advantage. It hasn’t occurred to them that white people don’t think of themselves as descendants of slaveholders because to them honoring the experience of the enslaved is still very salient. They can’t imagine what it’s like barely being to make ends meet for your family yet being told to “check your privilege.” Again, though, they aren’t bad people.

So we need to talk. Better yet, we need to think. At this point I can’t imagine it getting better unless we consciously stop using race as a category of difference. It’s a shameful historical relic that never did serve any purpose other than demarcating us vs. them, and if you’re sure you’re the good guy it’s difficult to see that the other guy might be good too. To quote the poet Kai Zen: “The truth is, there is no race but the human race. But we want there to be race, otherwise how would we know who wins?”

Asian doctor writing in medical record

If you’re concerned about what rejecting race categorization as dumb and offensive might look like, ask the Orientals, the members of the yellow race, how it worked out for them.

Case in point: Last night nine congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston were killed by a gunman who allegedly screamed “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country!” as he reloaded five times. Three times as many people died in Charleston compared to the Boston Marathon, but we’re in so deep that even this very fucking blatant act of terrorism is somehow controversial. Somehow, the same War on Terror zealots who went apeshit over the Tsarneav brothers can’t muster the outrage to say one word about this shooter. Somehow, “rednecks” and their “white supremacist culture” need to be dragged into the fray. This is what I mean by our current state of mere coexistence. We coexist, barely, because we have to, but the dysfunction is submerged only just below the surface.

This is the first part of a series of three posts! 

“I saw a really racist post on Facebook the other day, with really idiotic commentary. Even though all the news sources I consider trustworthy reported exactly the opposite, I decided not to unfollow this time and read everything with an open mind. It really opened my eyes! Even though I still don’t agree with what was said, I understand now that people different from me are just as worried and scared as I am, just for different reasons. So now I listen calmly to people whose perspectives used to really piss me off. Hopefully they in turn will listen calmly to me, so that we can one day finally have that long-overdue conversation about what it’ll take for all of us Americans to feel safe.”

– no one ever

I nearly changed my mind about how awesome Facebook is this past week :-/ Then my inner optimist made its triumphant return! More tomorrow though. I just finished a last-minute push with grant writing assignments due by the end of the month, and I’d like to take the rest of the day to unwind.

funsies

Unwind = Dig through more ridiculous photos of this sexy meat-head I used to date. Before I married him.

“I ask the reed flute, Why are you crying?

How can there be such tears

when nothing has been lost?

 

The reed flute says, Not so.

They took me from lips

that once made sugar throughout

my whole and silent body.

 

Now I live letting others

make crying sounds

with my emptiness.”

– Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

flute

Reed poetry. Or have someone else reed it to you 🙂

Happy Poetry Month! Not going to lie, I’m usually pretty skeptical of celebratory months. They seem like Christmas ornaments for our Facebook walls: something to decorate with, something that others might notice and even like, but in the end something that gets heaped in a dusty corner as soon as the appointed season is over. Nevertheless! I have myself been very guilty of neglecting poetry, and so I’ve been trying to (re)discover some great poems this April. The Rumi collection I’m reading at the moment was a gift from Giti. It’s about friendship. Reading it feels a bit like beautiful, perfect little daggers scraping at the edges of the Giti-shaped hole in my heart, which would be horrible, except that maybe I’m too old for heartbreak now, which might actually be even more horrible, come to think of it.

Let me explain. There are people who flit from one life adventure to the next, and there are those who build comfortable nests. I think, though, that most of my generation is neither. We move around the country (and world) following education, work, better work, love, or even just “a change of pace” all our lives. We stay for two years or four or ten – but rarely with the conviction of forever. That’s not a bad thing. We’re becoming a lot more cosmopolitan through our mobility. Over the course of these tangled travels, living in different places has finally taken us beyond the anthropological to a more genuine appreciation of what makes a city, village, or region unique. I don’t think anyone in my generation can honestly believe that the essence of regional American subcultures is based in biology anymore, and that can only lead to good things. The price we have to pay for this though is our friends.

I don’t know for sure that friendship used to mean more than it does today but it would certainly seem so based on what people used to write about it. Rumi, for instance, wrote love poems about his friend Shams Tabriz in the thirteenth century: “A certain one claps his hands/ And makes me clap mine./ His heart changes my heart… / Now I have become whatever/ that one wants…” From ancient and medieval Europe there are oodles of tales of people avenging their friends’ deaths, or dying trying. And even in the U.S. in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was still an incredible amount of affection, solicitude, and physical proximity expressed between friends. I have to disagree with queer historians on their efforts to queer history here, because I don’t think that Hull House founder Jane Addams was a lesbian though she held hands with her best friend and called her beloved, nor was Abraham Lincoln gay though he shared an uncomfortably small bed with another dude for a few years. It’s hard for us silly moderns to imagine that level of love without sexual attraction, even though it was seemingly the norm at the time. Looking back it’s a bit embarrassing actually that more than one person questioned me on whether Giti was my romantic interest. Yeah, we went on lots of private dates and talked all day and texted all night. Yeah, it made me want to jump for joy to see her enter the room, and that her enemies were my enemies goes without saying. I don’t think either of us found it weird at all.

friendships

Nineteenth century homies holding hands.

Ironically, if I had to pick the culprit that first set old-fashioned friendship on its course of demise I would probably have to go with modern romantic love. That is, the idea that the intimacy and affection between a romantic couple ought to be on another level entirely (plus passion that never ends! But that’s a rant for another day). I cringe whenever someone I know stops hanging out with their other friends as soon as they get into a halfway-serious relationship.

For the typical 25 to 35-year old today, though, the ideal of exclusive affection in a sexual relationship is but a footnote in the losing fight to maintain meaningful friendships. We just don’t have time for them in the midst of juggling 10,000 other things. We avoid controversial topics in social settings and save our darkest fears for our therapists. In fact the constant pressure to be more “social” impels us to always be on the prowl for new “friends,” stop investing time in what won’t result in awesome bestie selfies, and puts us in Instagram love button competition with those we have the most in common with. And, worst of all, we always move away! Not that distance means detachment, necessarily. In a way I’m excited to be living so small talk-free at the moment, since I’m luckily still in touch with people I have a great connection with from New Orleans (and New York and Florida) while not having many acquaintances here in Kansas City yet. Still though… anyone who says it’s going to be the same is playing you. It never is. If everything goes your way, it’ll be the same once you’re reunited again, that’s the best you can hope for, and it’s happened to me so many times now that part of me realizes that there’s no point in moping about it. The other part of me misses Giti terribly.   

It feels really good to be a religious fundamentalist.

Erm, except when it doesn't?

Erm, except when it doesn’t?

I’m not even being particular about which religion. Pretty much all the ones being widely practiced today require stupendous amounts of discipline and conviction if you ever want to reach Level ??? Fundamentalist in them. And shout out to my scientific fundamentalist peeps! I know you think you can’t relate, that science isn’t a religion – in fact it’s the anti-religion. But if avoiding pork is a silly diet, is paying attention to electrolytes, nitrites, and saturated fat any less restrictive? Is it crazier to believe that there are ancient, divinely authored laws than to believe that the absolute laws that govern all existence can be gleaned from the scrawls of a handful of present-day math nerds – scrawls that the rest of us don’t understand, so we have to take their interpretation on faith? I can’t help thinking that this, too, is devotion to a religious degree. The scientifically devout spend tens of thousands of dollars on invasive medical treatments that as far as quality of life goes might not really be any better than faith healing. To them the monetary sacrifice is not only acceptable but desirable, because it gives them that singular warm feeling that money can’t buy, the joy of cleaving to the one true thing. Life’s a mess but I did my best. 

So yes, it feels amazing to be a fundamentalist. A totalitarian, if you will, with an iron-clad faith in what’s true and what’s not. True and untrue should be distinguished from right and wrong. Everyone has a sense of morality, wherever it comes from, whether it overlaps nicely with the moral code of social consensus or not. I’m talking about being certain about how the world truly works.

I’ve been thinking about this pointless stuff lately because I realized that part of the reason I’m so stressed out all the time is that I’m not a fundamentalist in any shape or form. I can’t shake the feeling that what I’m doing with my life is profoundly useless. Existentially, my best guess is based almost solely on scientific evidence, and if I only had one box to check I’d have to go with “atheist.” Atheism can be quite empowering. It’s not a surprise that arguably the most critical social movement of our lifetimes, environmentalism, is led and will continue to be sustained mostly by atheists, because they’re the only ones audacious enough to believe that human beings actually have the power to halt a catastrophe a thousand years in the making. I’m like a true atheist in the sense that, from a scientific perspective, I see that it’s rational – even morally imperative – to prevent ecological disaster, because frankly gay marriage, the second amendment, feeding the poor, decriminalizing marijuana, shutting down puppy mills, etc. won’t be much use to us for long if less than a hundred years years from now half of our cities are under sea level, and all we’re left with is refugee camps, famine, and fracked up poisonous drinking water. But I’m not like a true atheist in the sense that I don’t see a way out. I don’t know if human technology – let alone our rational self-interest – is up to the task. More importantly, I worry that maybe as a species that drove millions of other species to extinction we don’t even deserve to win the day this time around. I worry that the last days of humanity will be so violent and ignoble and repulsive that whatever species rise up on our planet in the next epoch won’t even reminisce about us fondly the way we do with the dinosaurs. Seriously, I stay up at night because a desperate starving person in 2200 might make me look bad!

global warming

I also cry over the plight of polar bears – true story! I have issues!

 

A scientific fundamentalist would say, “Well, what’s the problem here? Science predicts that global warming will reach catastrophic levels and that there’s a good chance that human beings will die out fighting for the scraps of remaining resources. Good job, fellow atheist! There doesn’t have to be a technological solution for everything for science to be valid.”

That’s exactly the point, though. The Catholic Church for instance has quite a few reasonable explanations for disasters: to chasten us, to bring us together, to give us the impetus to become better people, to send us to heaven. I’ve noticed though that the church is silent on the topic of second-hand smoke, which the scientific community has quite a bit to say about. Neither specific lack of insight should affect the religion’s overall validity! And for the record I’m always happy to go to mass. I feel inspired and connected there, and can’t shake the feeling that in today’s world only an organized international community like the Catholic Church can heal the damage done by organized international greed and economic inequality. I am, to be clear, not quibbling about reasonable explanations or the good that faith can do. I just truly, honestly don’t know how to have it.

I’m quite fine with never knowing (or “knowing”) all the answers. The main reason I’ve always wanted to be a writer is that it’s the only way I know to put my natural uncertainty and speculative ramblings to some positive use. As stressful as it is in real life, when trying to imagine a character or a story suddenly the fact that I live in a perpetual state of self-induced bewilderment isn’t an entirely horrible thing. Still I’ve tried so hard for the last fourteen years of my life to believe in some absolute truth. At the moment I’m at least close enough to outwardly faithful that I can move through certain groups without getting called out immediately. I keep the knowledge that sometimes I can feel events happening far away to myself around my scientific fundamentalist friends. When I felt my grandma in Austria pass away for instance I was correct within five minutes. My dad just thought I was being a total jerk until he got the news three and a half hours. I also don’t think I can mention to my parish priest that when I pray I’m not sure anyone is listening. But if pressed I won’t lie. I’m at least honest enough to admit that pretending won’t help. Well, it’ll help get me invited to Bingo maybe, but not to understand my place and purpose in the universe, and faking it strikes me actually as an admission that I’ve failed for good. After all those attempts only that last refuge of the religiously-minded remains, the personal god who doles out continuous revelation. I hope I’m never lame enough to stoop to something as half-assed as that. Most of the people I’ve met who call themselves “spiritual” are agnostics who like to talk to themselves.

death

Death, cake, the millions of other topics – actually only a creepy personal deity whispering in your ear can give you answers about EVERYTHING.

 

As for being a writer, the irony is that most writers at least present themselves as pretty wise and even able to impart valuable life lessons to their readers. They write because they got their shit together. I’m jealous! I write because I can’t get it together at all. If I can lead a reader to a jarring moment of insecurity, it’s definitely not so that I can guide them back to the comfortable revelation further on in the text.  

Wow, I really don’t know why I’m doing a blog entry on this! I guess I want to explain myself. I feel like I’m always offending fundamentalists when I try. I don’t even want to describe myself as agnostic because it suggests a coward making a deliberate effort to hedge their bets for the afterlife, but maybe a lot of agnostics go through the same shit just trying to explain that they can’t force themselves to believe something they really don’t believe. It’s not a judgment, only a different person’s search for truth. To me scientific facts are about as meaningful as “knowing” that Jesus rose on the third day. They are equally warm words, beautiful words, but to my mind still only words, vulnerable to the intuition I feel in the pit of my stomach or to a new idea or to each other.

 

Out in the hotel courtyard a man was talking. Jeremy strained to hear what he was saying, but couldn’t understand the language. Almost an hour later he realized that it was only a growling dog. Sighing, he closed his eyes and tried to go to sleep. In the morning he’d really lay into that plumber. It had been five days now since his family started living out of a hastily packed suitcase, clinging to the man’s vow that the oak tree that had pushed its roots into their sewer pipe would be out of their way before they knew it. To his credit, the plumber – a thin, sunburned man named Lionel – was paying for their stay at this decrepit old hotel. It was nearly a consolation until Jeremy remembered that he had stood in front of his students in the same pair of pants three days in a row now. And he still had to look forward to cleaning all the shit from the burst pipe out of the living room carpet once the job was done.

hotel

I shouldn’t have to be here. I should be at home gulping down cider and watching sports. But which sport? Which home? The day that had just passed was Thanksgiving Thursday in the United States, the day that Americans gave thanks to some long-forgotten nation that didn’t have wit enough to let itself be swallowed up by the Peace. They didn’t parade nor dance in the streets but celebrated with gluttony and a sport called football instead. As always, Jeremy got his mother’s invitation – a plea – that he come visit her in Olive Branch for the occasion. As always he ignored it. This time it wasn’t her scorn towards Aziyadé and Ghislaine but out of fear of what he would admit if he dared write her back. If Jeremy could’ve salved the gash between them with only her favorite phrase, “You’re right, Mom,” he would’ve written to her immediately, but he knew that she would gloat over her victory and would ask for details. She’d never let it go.

Ghislaine slept like a sack of potatoes in the bed closer to the window. Jeremy could see her still outline against the glowing curtains. They’d chosen the Hotel du Phare from among a smorgasbord of seedy budget hotels in Neakita mostly because it was only a few blocks from her school. Aziyade’s car was in the shop again, and he needed his to get to the university.

Ghislaine had taken the first few days of banishment in good cheer. In a city where private pools were an almost unspeakable luxury even the Hotel du Phare’s small, kidney-shaped tank full of cloudy water was a thrill. She and her friends spent every afternoon there until an attendant shooed them away to lock up for the night. The girl was finally starting to crack though, over the same clothing issue that was needling Jeremy. They couldn’t go back home to fetch more clothes until the biohazard warning was lifted.

Leighton called one of those evenings, that was a surprise. They hadn’t talked much since Leighton and Ashley’s paint-by-numbers storybook wedding. And even on that day not much. In the meantime Jeremy had forgotten, actually, how annoying it was that his best friend pronounced his name “Germy.” The phone call was occasioned by Leighton’s sudden recollection of a hot Neakitan girl who’d managed to evade his clutches. Her cunning maneuver took place about seventeen years ago – when Leighton visited Jeremy in grad school – but you’d never know from the way he described every curve of her ass with mathematical accuracy. “Any given day I could’ve gotten her out of those ridiculous leather pants,” he declared.

waiting for a ride

“Maybe,” Jeremy agreed, thinking: but on your given day, you didn’t. There’s no denying that Leighton is loyal, witty, and generous. If he has any faults as a friend Jeremy couldn’t name them. As a person, though, he still had the frustrating childish quality of never quite knowing what he wants. Or at least never willing to risk what he already has to get it. So on his given day he gave a Neakitan beauty a ride to the airport and didn’t even slip her his number. Why? Because he suddenly remembered something his old granny used to say about talking to strangers? Jeremy could hardly believe that this guy who sails into stock trading every morning like a pirate with a death wish could never trust himself to take the risks that really mattered. And too late now. Ashley was consolation enough for any man but she was a big red stop sign on the adventure highway if he ever saw one. 

When he was through reminiscing about the ass Leighton mentioned that he bought a house not too far from Olive Branch, at the foot of a ski resort, which was curious because he didn’t know how to ski. Six bedrooms and two baths. “Only two?” Jeremy asked. Leighton huffed that some of the bedrooms had been servants’ quarters and so they didn’t have their own bathrooms and of course he would make the necessary additions to his home once he had the chance. But he hadn’t even moved in yet, Jesus! Then, because he didn’t know that Jeremy was scrolling through the vide and mistook his silence for rapt silence, he added: “It’s such a safe neighborhood, buddy. You should see it. No crime, no libertines…” At the cusp of his midlife crisis Leighton still didn’t understand that everyone to the left of you is a libertine. Everyone to the right of you is a prude. Both make for frustration but at least the former tells better stories. There had been a time when Jeremy had treasured Leighton precisely for that reason. No one else he knew swam out to Bannerman Prison to sell cigarettes to its inmates or went over Niagara Falls in a barrel – twice. He was born an adventurer. Always up for whatever everyone else out of prudence abandoned. Nowadays there was something about Leighton that bored Jeremy nearly to rages of tears. The phone call before this one was a soliloquy about the most pedestrian near-overdose of cocaine in the history of the world. It was almost as if Leighton had deliberately transgressed his limit for the stuff just so he could tell the story later. Or maybe the overdose hadn’t happened at all, which was likely considering how much the tale sounded like it was lifted and sifting from those depressing human interest stories that New York’s newspapers always like to print.

 

From part one of my story about the Great Kanadaga of Neakita. Thanks for humoring me!