When your seven-year-old daughter sees you sending off a book manuscript and asks what that is, and you tell her it’s your book, and she asks you what it’s about and you reply, “My life, mostly.” And she asks, “Like, your childhood?” and says she wants to read it, and you tell her it’s not really for kids. And she asks, brow furrowed, “Your childhood's not for kids?” Then she asks if you put in the part about getting in the newspaper for catching a tropical fish at the lake in your town when you were around her age, and you stop for a moment, manuscript in hand. “No,” you say. “I didn’t even think to put that in. That’s a good memory.” “You should put that in your next book,” she says. Make sure to put that in your next book.
I AM SO EXCITED, PEOPLE. Some of you know that a couple years ago I discovered a deep and rich hispanic tradition of microfiction (excuse me, minificción) that's informed my work since then in some profound ways (I would have never thought to do the Sneaky Feels without this work, for example). Now, for the first time, I'm sharing my work alongside some of those influences and contemporaries in the new anthology Minificción y nanofilología: Latitudes de la hiperbrevedad (Iberoamericana-Vervuert, ed. Ana Rueda). My contribution, "The Beginning and the End: Essaying History in Short Form," is one of the few English-language pieces in the collection. I'm still getting over the bolt of joy at seeing my name in the table of contents right above Ana María Shua's (Her collection Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction, in both the original Spanish and English translation by Rhonda Buchanon, is ravishingly, surreally beautiful).
Here's the link to the publisher's announcement. My Spanish-language skills are still very much a work in progress, so don't feel bad if, like me, you have to get your browser to translate to English. It's my understanding that the anthology will be available on Amazon pretty soon as well.
When you go to the federal courthouse for jury duty and sit down with 27 other potential jurors in front of a judge, a few attorneys, and a handicapped black man on a federal gun possession charge, and you get to know these 27 other people as equals, or at least variants of the same criteria—borough/town of residence, length of residence, education, work, marital status, children or other people living in the household, hobbies, newspapers, magazines, TV, or blogs you follow—and then the judge asks a few questions relevant to the case like Have you ever been a victim of a violent crime? and Have you or anyone in your family been incarcerated? and you raise your hand and say Yes, my father was incarcerated, and the judge asks For what? and How long? and you respond, Drug trafficking, and I’m not sure, I was a child then, knowing this will get you off this trial, and you feel that same admixture of relief and rejection when your name is called for dismissal knowing you’ll never see these people sharing this moment and these criteria with you again, and wonder if tomorrow you’ll say the same thing for the next jury because, after all, he’s no longer even legally your father, you don’t have to tell them anything. But you know you will. You always do.
Some of my friends and readers know I took a fairly impulsive trip to North Dakota last November, leaving the day after the election. While I am a progressive and proud of the values for which I stand, like many others after this election I’m finding myself, perhaps out of necessity, learning as I go how to be an activist. I wrote this account of my trip to Standing Rock as it happened and filled in a few blanks in the past couple of months, trying to relate my own struggle as honestly as possible. During this time I’ve wondered how (or if) I might share this struggle, but have decided finally to just post it here. I perhaps don’t look so great at times, but again, I’m learning as I go. As the Corps of Engineers closes the Oceti Sakowin camp today with possible raids by the morally bankrupt Morton County PD and leadership discusses how to build on the movement, I’m also sharing some of my photos for the first time.
On October 28, I posted this hectoring message to Facebook:
"Every person cheering the Bundy verdict in Oregon needs to now direct your energy to defending the protesters at Standing Rock. If you are truly for defending land rights against an oppressive federal government and big business, THIS IS YOUR FIGHT."
It was an impulsive post, wrought mostly by frustration at what I saw as an obvious incongruence on the American right. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was originally planned to run through Bismarck, but after the city confirmed the substantial risk of water contamination the pipeline presented, the company moved the path of the pipeline through the Standing Rock Reservation to its south. This is a move straight out of power broker Robert Moses’ playbook, cutting through the land with a meat cleaver and finding the path of least economic resistance to hack away. Like Moses, Energy Transfer Partners obviously consider themselves above the law, simply ignoring court orders and paying the fines, illustrating what Robert Monks found in 1933, channeling Baron Thurlow in the late Eighteenth Century, to be the cardinal error of corporate personhood: “They have no soul to save, and they have no body to incarcerate.”
I didn’t expect much of a response. In fact I got only one, from my childhood friend and bodyguard Bill. We became close in the fifth grade after I started paying him half my lunch money to keep me from getting beat up by all the boys and some of the girls in our lower-lower income school district in Kansas. He’s been in and out of prison since high school, and now resembles Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty in both look and temperament. An ardent Trump supporter, he’s gone round and round with me for the past year, our lifelong bond mostly preventing us from stereotyping each other—he the misanthropic ex-con Trump supporter, and I the college professor liberal scum Bernie-then-Clinton supporter. I was surprised, then, to see his response: “I have been from day one! This is just crazy! This is complete disregard for anything but the dollar!” I then defensively challenged him: You go, and I’ll go.
A week later, we hatched plans to road-trip to Standing Rock, in solidarity with the Dakota and Lakota tribes to help defend their water against the Army Corps of Engineers’ and state and local police’s collusion with the corporate interests behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. We both agreed to risk arrest. I would document the trip as we went, and we would leave the morning after the election.
I mentioned the trip to my friend David, a mostly-retired colleague with an extensive knowledge in indigenous history, and he asked if he could come. Sure, I said, thinking he could moderate Bill and me. I figured Bill would be in a sour mood after what was assuredly a Clinton victory.
I’ll spare my readers the next plot point, except to say that I was operating on less than two hours’ sleep, having had the shakes all night as I sat in front of the TV, then on social media, then curled up in bed. I’d talked to my sister about whether I’d allow my mother and stepfather, who voted for Trump, to mention him to our children. I wrote H.L. Mencken quotes like “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard” on my Facebook wall and watched Bill gloat on social media. I’m just coming to terms with the fact that he viewed this election a lot like he views football games—if you win the fight, if your team wins, you talk trash. That might be what he empathizes with most in Trump.
As I was getting a coffee the morning after the election before setting out from my South Slope apartment, I ran into the mother of my four-year-old daughter’s friend. Neither of us had slept. Her eyes were red, and she gazed at me looking for a sign of welcome, then broke down silently sobbing.
“How can this happen?” she said. “How can a rich, white, arrogant man say anything he wants to anyone, and we make him President?”
I had no answer.
“Last night we made signs,” she said. “This morning, when I told him…It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Bill would undoubtedly think this was all way too dramatic, the world didn’t end or anything. I guess he would be right.
As I headed out of New York with David, I found myself grasping for direction. David had worked the ballot box all of the previous day, and he wore a stoicism that had me wondering when it would actually hit him.
As we headed toward the Holland Tunnel, I got a text from Kansas:
"Hey John, this is Kim, Bill’s wife. I just got a call that Bill is headed to Southeast Kansas to his elderly aunt’s house to help her. Her house was broken into and vandalized early this morning so he won’t be able to go with you to Standing Rock."
A few days later Bill would tell me it was “due to Trump haters breaking into an elderly family members house and garage.” At that moment, the reaction I was ashamed to admit out loud was, Wow. Lost the election and my story.
I spent some of the ride contextualizing Trump’s victory with the Standing Rock movement. Trump is deeply and mutually invested in the construction of the pipeline the Sioux are protesting, so deeply in fact that Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, has guaranteed that the DAPL will go through once Trump is in office. Trump also has expressed interest in his campaign to abolish the EPA, and has now, since my return from Standing Rock, taken definite steps to defang the agency by appointing climate contrarian Myron Ebell to direct its transition [and now fossil fuel advocate Scott Pruitt to lead it]. In short, Trump is no friend to the water protectors at Standing Rock.
About six hours into the 30-hour trip, I began communicating with protesters who were already at the camp on Facebook groups. A person who told me about a police blockade on the north side of the main camp friended me on Facebook for approximately ten minutes, responding to three of my post-election threads before messaging me, “you are too much for me im an empath and extremely sensitive I have to unfriend you…guidance.” An indigenous trans asked for a ride from Chicago, offering even to “just hold space and pray together before you continue your travels.” It was actually very sweet, but David refused to stop at 2:00am to pray with a transsexual hitchhiker off the highway in Chicago.
We both lost cell service close to Bismarck, left with an AM radio diet of plummeting crop prices, reports on the Carfentanil epidemic in Winnipeg, Rush Limbaugh demanding that Obama bow down to president-elect Trump, and George Jones (Thank you for the respite, Country 1130). Driving to camp from Bismarck on Highway 6, we saw the pipeline snaking through the dead grass in a giant brown ditch over the horizon. Its imposition on the landscape can only be described as brutal, violent. I then understood why so many water protectors had dubbed it the Black Snake. It was perhaps the most haunting image of the trip.
When we got to Cannon Ball, we followed directions to Sacred Stone Camp. After being waved in by a young man who asked us if we were unarmed, we drove to a circle of tents and wondered where the rest of the camp was. A man named Alexander politely told us that we were at the wrong camp. Oceti Sakowin, or Council of the Seven Fires, camp was down the road in the other direction from Cannon Ball.
At the entrance to Oceti Sakowin camp, we both immediately realized the magnitude of the movement. Looking down from the entrance at the top of the hill, the thoroughfare was lined with hundreds of flags representing myriad indigenous nations and tribes, many of whom hadn’t shared space since the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Men and boys rode painted horses bareback, and let them wander freely to drink from the Missouri River. There were plenty of cars, all coated with a layer of Dakota dust thick enough to obscure them from view at the camp’s entrance. We told the men at the entrance we were new, and asked what we should do.
“Keep moving,” one of them said.
Once we found a spot and made camp, David and I found the main tent, where we could almost always hear a microphone with a revolving cast of speakers. One of the organizers immediately put us to work sorting through recent donations, which took up probably a hundred square feet of space. As I was sorting coats I heard the speaker talk about dinner options.
“Getting closer to eating time, hope everyone fills up but if you’re eating at the main hall just be aware of the limited portions and don’t take more than you need. I know Rose has some good stuff cooking at her place, some chicken soup and even some of her own fry bread. Just follow your nose.”
After an hour or two, I wandered to the top of the camp called Facebook Hill, where people see if they can get internet access and charge their devices very slowly with a solar power generator that actor Mark Ruffalo donated. I talked to a woman at the Red Owl Legal Services [since redubbed the Water Protectors’ Legal Collective] tent, who had me fill out a questionnaire of my contact information, emergency contact, etc., in case I got arrested.
“My wife and the friend I traveled with made me promise not to get arrested while I’m here,” I said.
“There haven’t been any arrests in the past couple of weeks,” she responded, “but we like to be safe. Even our camp here is the property of the Corps of Engineers, so technically we all could be arrested. Up until a few weeks ago police would patrol the outer edges of the camp and pick people up on misdemeanor charges and take them to stations as far away as Fargo, so when people would inevitably be released they’d have a hard time getting back to camp. Speaking of which, can you pull one of your sleeves up?”
She handed me a permanent marker. “I’m going to tell you the number here, and I want you to write it on your forearm. This is the number to call, no matter where you are, and we’ll come get you. Also, if you end up at a police station, tell them your name, where you’re from, and your emergency contact information, then exercise your right to remain silent, ask to speak with your lawyer, and call this number. And remember that every time you speak you’ve waived your Miranda rights, and you’ll have to restate them when officers ask you more questions.”
But I didn’t plan on being arrested.
“Many of the people who’ve been arrested so far didn’t plan on it. I do believe Morton County Police are changing their plan though; we seem to have clogged their system sufficiently that they had to. That’s why they’ve been using rubber bullets and pepper spray lately. I think now they’re recalibrating for the increased media coverage.”
“And maybe because one of their investors is now our president-elect,” I added.
“Yes, perhaps that too. You say it’s your first day? My advice is to look around, introduce yourself as often as possible, but remember that this isn’t your movement. The indigenous folks who’ve been here from day one—” She paused. “—They have a mixed opinion of all us white folks coming in. If they don’t want to talk to you, don’t push it. And remember: We are here to help, and then we get to go home. This is their home.”
By the time I met back up with David, both of us were feeling pretty hungry. We found the main dining hall, a series of three military canvas tents, each of which probably held twenty people. Dinner was bison chili, or would have been if it hadn’t been gone by the time we arrived. A number of dry rations were left on the table, so I grabbed myself some Fig Newtons and suggested we try Rose’s Kitchen. I’d seen her trailer, airbrushed with a rose and her name, so we followed our noses the rest of the way to it.
Rose’s Kitchen consisted of a fire, a big pot, a small pot or two, and a covered seating area that fit perhaps eight or ten people. That space was filled when we arrived for dinner, and many people were gathered around the fire itself. Rose, we soon found out, is from Oregon. She works in some sort of counseling or therapy position, but when the tribes gathered she told her boss at the hospital where she works that she had to go to help. I hope her position is graciously reserved for her on her return, but that may not be anytime soon. “I’m here for the duration,” she said.
A couple of what looked like kettles were the only things remaining on the grate above the fire. “Coffee?” I asked.
“No,” Rose replied. “We don’t do coffee here.” I looked into the pot, took what I thought would be a fair share of the scant rice and chicken at the bottom, and got a piece of the most delicious fry bread I’ve ever had. David offered to do some work for Rose the next day in exchange for the food.
“Come to think of it, I could use a couple people to move my firewood from the pile out front under the tarp,” she said. At least half the people eating knew Rose. She obviously enjoyed having a full table, and took time to talk to everyone she didn’t know.
Around the fire stood a couple of middle-aged native women and two young white women. “I’m just so scared,” one of the young women said. “I feel such a hopelessness after this election. I don’t know…”
“Now is the time we have to remember prayer,” Dar, a 50-something native woman, said. “You have to remember, we value prayer not as an individual act but as a communal one. Let me tell you about when my son got in an accident on his fourwheel. Broke nearly every bone in his body. He was in intensive for so much time, nobody thought he would come through. But I got ahold of our elders first thing, had them burning tobacco leaves and praying, and slowly, my boy got better. The doctors all said they never seen nothing like it, but I expected it all along. Now he’s got a good job, married, I don’t have to worry about him, because he’s got a community of prayer behind him. Let me show you all something—just take each other’s hand and look into the fire and each other.”
We did, awkwardly. Dar was on my left and took one of my hands. “You are all in prayer right now, the kind of prayer I’m talking about.” Then she turned to me and took both of my hands in hers. “You have the coldest hands I’ve ever felt.”
I pulled my hands away slowly. I feared whatever it was this woman was offering. I was scared, of a power none of us could see that was out to destroy everything this camp stood for. But Dar was asking something far more difficult from us: to welcome a power none of us could see, and to acknowledge that we were part of a bigger story, that we could even be its agents, but that none of us was the story. This was the first intimation I had of what moves this movement.
“Come to the water ceremony tomorrow morning,” she told me. “I think you need it.”
The North Dakota badlands at night are bone-achingly cold. It was only after my first night outside that I truly understood the courage of a protest that could last long into the Dakota winter. At 10 p.m. on the first night from the inside of my heated car, I felt like a fraud. I also understood why they are chopping firewood at the camp from day to night. The warmth of the fire at Rose’s place drew us all around it and made us interact, if only through the shared dependence on the heat. Before I left for Standing Rock, my childhood friend Adrian posted on Facebook his estimate of how many gallons of crude oil my trip would take, justifying the need for the pipeline I was ostensibly protesting. Now I was sitting in my heated car thinking about how much gas I was expending so that I could stay warm and comfortable enough to write about this struggle, a key component of which is our dependence on expendable energy resources.
I woke at 3 a.m. with a start. David was tapping on the window and shining his light in my face.
“Turn the car off!” he said. I’d fallen asleep with it running. “They’re gonna need the whole pipeline just to give you a good night’s sleep!”
I turned off the ignition, and David went back to the tent. I then watched a steady light creep over one side of the camp, and decided to watch the sunrise. Only then the light turned off over the mountain, and I realized that what I thought was the sun was the light generated by crews working through the night on the pipeline.
At 5 a.m. a series of large trucks came barreling down the camp entrance, and a megaphoned voice yelled, “It’s a great morning! Time for some peaceful protest! We’ve been up for three hours, how about you?” After the trucks parked, a number of voices began chanting and praying. David made us coffee with some canned heat and a French press, and we listened to the “marvelously consonant-free” (David’s words) voices coming from the main tent.
The people camped next to us turned on their truck and a bright spotlight shone out the back of it as they prepared their fire.
“Turn that off!” someone shouted from a camp on the other side of us. “People’s trying to pray! Show some respect!” It was not lost on me that he was probably yelling at me, since I was the one who’d been running my car all night.
As the light slowly penetrated the smoke and the fog of the camp, we realized everything—the car, the tents, the hay on the ground—was coated with a thick layer of frost. A filmmaker with an Australian accent walked up to us with his handheld camera, and David spoke with him about his own Jewish heritage, and how ecology is inherently related to genocide—take away a people’s ability to hunt, gather, and grow their own food, and you take away their independence, their livelihood, their personhood. Once they are not people, you may do anything to them without recourse.
At 8:30 or so, David and I went out to walk and find the main hall for the morning orientation and meeting (the main hall being, like all other “halls,” a fairly large canvas tent). The morning fog was so thick we could see it move, separating and shapeshifting around us, and we could see nothing else more than fifteen feet around us.
“Do you know where you’re going?” I asked David.
“Of course I do,” he said. “Vaguely.” We traversed the camp a few feet at a time until we came to an open courtyard-type space with a ceremony being performed and a large group of people around it. A woman was praying over a metal pitcher of water and inviting people to drink of it.
“Hey, didn’t you mention someone talking about a water thing last night?” David asked me.
David is a Jewish atheist, and scoffs at ceremony. He’d already been invited to a tribal dance earlier in the morning while I was writing, and came back telling me how bad he felt saying no when they asked him to dance with the tribe’s warriors. “I don’t know what to do about that aspect of this protest. So much of it seems centered around a religious impulse, and I just want to do the work.” He knows I used to be fundamentalist Christian, but has always been fairly uninterested in my life before I became agnostic. Both of us, a recovering Christian and a non-practicing Jew, had been struggling with the overtly spiritual elements of the movement. When he saw this water ceremony in progress, though, he said, “I think you should join it.”
David went to the morning orientation. Two women, one possibly a man, motivated campers around a simple theme: You are not special, and your privilege is getting in the way. They instructed campers, in gentle tones, that they were not here to observe but to help, and they didn’t deserve the attention of anyone who’d been here longer than them. Both orientation leaders were white, and David said that if they were not white he wasn’t sure if they would have held everyone’s attention the way they did. He left with a sense of duty, and got right to work.
Meanwhile the women with the water were leaving the courtyard with a large group of people in their wake when I joined them. The flags of the hundreds of indigenous tribes and nations lining the thoroughfare emerged through the fog individually as we followed the female elders through most of the camp singing songs, some in English but most in native languages, and offering water to anyone we passed. If someone wanted to, they could receive a bit in cupped hands, drink it, and dip their faces in it. I was an interloper here, and well aware of it. But I felt a part of this, in the way that ceremony unites people with a common, synchronous action. It seemed, to my post-fundamentalist model, akin to baptism, only you could receive cleansing anytime you wanted rather than once a lifetime. I began singing along as we continued, especially the songs for which I had no linguistic filter. It felt good to pronounce the syllables, especially the rallying cry: Mni Wiconi, Mni Wiconi! I saw, momentarily at least, as so many of the camp drank from the water that this was part of what made this whole thing more than protest. Sharing what they—we—are protecting reaffirms the stakes of the movement. This water is all of ours.
Eventually, we arrived at a very small dock on the banks of the Missouri River, just down from the proposed pipeline and area of the most conflict and media exposure. The women had the men line up on either side of the path down to the dock, and the men offered their hands to all of the women in the group following them—which now included over 200 people—as they made their way down to the dock to take a bit of dried tobacco in one hand and have the women with the pitcher pour a bit of water over each of their hands with the tobacco into the river. “After all of the ladies go through we’ll have the men who identify as women, then the men, then the women who identify as men. Women, if you are on your moon, we ask that you close your hand when offered the tobacco.”
Slowly, over the course of about an hour, each woman came down to the water, clasping hands with the men for support down what became more and more of a slippery slope as more people broke up the frozen clay. After the men, myself included, came down and accepted the tobacco and water, the woman leading the ceremony said she’d like to give a short water parable. She told of “Grampa Dan,” an elder who told her stories when she was a child and held at home from boarding school. Grampa Dan, a fisherman, told her that no water was meant to be divided as property—it just didn’t suit its nature. The first thing the white man did when he arrived, Grampa Dan told her, was he had us start drinking dirty water. Coffee, tea: dirty water. Once the non-natives made it clear that they were going to both dirty and divide the water, the natives made one simple and unenforceable rule: Whoever laid claim to any water must find a stone the size of his heart, throw it as far into the water as he could, and that was the only water he could lay claim to. But getting the indigenous people to drink “dirty water” also seemed to implicitly foreshadow the true nature of their water colonization: contamination. It was a simple, satisfying parable, and I—descendent of colonial forebears—felt its simple, unexplainable wisdom.
The women then ascended back up the riverbank, the men helping them in the same way, until everyone was up the bank. I didn’t wear gloves, and hundreds of hands—male, female, non-gender-specific—held mine. And for the first time since I arrived, my hands were warm.
Less than a month after I returned from Standing Rock, most of the non-Sioux left after the Corps of Engineers declined an easement and asked that Energy Transfer Partners conduct more environmental studies and propose alternative routes. This of course was not an unequivocal victory, but it was significant enough that only the core water protectors are staying over the long cold winter until the story’s next act plays out. After Donald Trump assumed the presidency in January and signed executive orders in favor of both DAPL and the Keystone pipeline, the Corps of Engineers not only granted the easement but expedited the process and waived the required studies. All of this could easily lead me to a circular view of American progress shared by many indigenous Americans: one government official’s promises, even in writing, are only as good as the word of the official who takes his place. And that’s rarely any good.
But. We sustain nonetheless. We fight, even with the foresight that we’ll probably lose. This, to me, is the closest we come to purity of heart and intention, something David and I spent much of the 30-hour drive home from North Dakota in November talking out. Discussing what we learned and what the next steps of our involvement might be, I told him my only regret was that I didn’t make it to the front lines to participate in direct action.
“What would you have done if you got arrested?” he asked. “What would I have done? Drive your car back and tell your wife you’re stuck in jail?”
“There were no arrests this week,” I retorted weakly. This was the week before the massive police attack involving water cannons, concussion grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray that injured roughly 200 water protectors.
“You know you can’t know that going in.” David paused, then smiled a smile that I imagine the two orientation leaders gave when telling everyone their privilege was getting in the way.
“I’m going to tell you something, and it will probably hurt,” he said. “When you told me on the way that you wanted to be arrested, I knew you didn’t mean it. You told me even then—and you might have just been making excuses—but you told me you didn’t think you’d be arrested anyway, you were just wanting to show support. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few days, it’s that to effectively face down oppressive authorities in the ways these people are teaching, you have to have a pure heart. And you did not have a pure heart. You planned this trip around a story you wanted to write about you and your friend, and your disenchantment with a Trump presidency. You pitched it, and thought it would write itself. Every one of the people who are there for the long haul, their story’s not important except as part of the larger struggle. You went in planning on leaving. The people who are going to effect change here, if that’s possible—indigenous or white or whatever—are the people who aren’t planning on leaving. Even when they have to leave.”
When on an unseasonably warm Sunday in February you take your children to the beach and find yourself unexpectedly pining for the home of your childhood, where there was no beach and the only water was the dammed brown rivers and reservoirs and the only stone was the gravel on parking lots and unpaved roads, but at least it warmed more quickly in the spring. You remember every Easter being rife with greens and yellows and new baby chicks whose adult heads you would eventually cut off and watch red spatter frantically over the soiled stump that autumn, whereas March in the Northeast is a month of grays and Easter is a day to plant peapods in your 11x7 garden box that you hope might grow and hatch green before being burnt off by the sudden onset of city summer. But now, on this blue-hued day, you gather clam shells that your daughters will paint and sell in front of their grandparents’ house after you leave them here, and your youngest daughter, as you are leaving, will stifle sobs long enough to say she’ll miss you, then place a tiny crab claw, faded from the winter, into your hand and say, This is to remember me.
"Days of this February were white and magical, the nights were starry and crystalline. The town lay under a cold glory."
- from "Descriptions of Things and Atmospheres," The Crack-Up
When you stop on your way to your friend Frank’s funeral on a blustery February morning to get a cup of coffee, and for whatever reason you make it a hazelnut, which you haven’t done for years—in fact the last time, or at least the most emblematic, was a similar morning when you first arrived in New York in 2000. You picked up a hazelnut coffee from the bodega near your stop on the 7 train in Sunnyside, Queens on your way to your first temp job stuffing envelopes at the New York Observer, and that hazelnut coffee filled you with hope—you were getting a coffee on the way to work, you were a part of the city, it let you drink its coffee. Less than a month later you started reading your words at open mike nights, where you met Frank—you immediately wanted to know him because he looked like Lou Reed, and you soon found in him perhaps the kindest New Yorker still that you’ve ever met. And as the Q takes you over Manhattan Bridge this morning, you remember seeing the seagulls on a cold winter day in 2001 while on your way to a job you hated and writing about those seagulls like they were those shorthand birds—just two little arches, creatures composed only of wings—and then, at the end of that summer, walking home over the Manhattan Bridge in a vehicle lane while lower Manhattan seethed in the rubble of its cracked landscape, and not leaving your apartment for days until you invited Frank and the rest of your crowd to your rooftop to observe together your broken city. You remember looking at Moira, Frank’s girlfriend at the time, and saying, I feel for the first time like this is my city. And then Moira broke up with Frank a couple of years later, and he began what ended up a decade-long circular—or perhaps spiral—pattern of losing his mind, then gaining it, then losing it again, the periods of lucidity shrinking by the year as his body wore away, the heavy medication he used to preserve his mind turning his backbone to dust. And you remember the last reading you saw him give, when he stopped midway to wipe the profuse sweat from his face with a handkerchief and said to the crowd, “I’m dyin’ up here!” then, “No, really. I’m dying up here.” And as your train arrives at the stop in Astoria where you will attend Frank’s funeral, you want to thank this hazelnut coffee, to give it a toast: Salud! To life, as in death!
THERE ARE LOTS OF YOU BITCHES, AND I'M SURE YOU'RE ALL HAVING A NICE LAUGH NOW THAT QUEEN BITCH TRUMP HAS CIRCUMVENTED THE LAW TO GET YOU YOUR EASEMENT WITHOUT DUE PROCESS AND LET YOU FINISH YET ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF 20TH-CENTURY "BUILD IT AND FUCK IT" INFRASTRUCTURE PLANNING: RUSH THE JOB, AND DO A COLLECTIVE SHOULDER SHRUG WHEN THE STRUCTURES FAIL AND DESTROY THE SURROUNDING LANDSCAPE, LIKE HERE AND HERE FROM THE PAST TWO MONTHS ALONE.
FIRST, MORTON COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT: YOU GUYS MIGHT BE THE MOST MALICIOUS, CORRUPT GOOD OL' BOY NETWORK THIS SIDE OF 1964. I SAW WHAT YOU FUCKS DO WHEN I WAS THERE AND AFTERWARD, WITH YOUR WATER CANNONS AND RUBBER BULLETS AND JOY AT THE OPPORTUNITY TO PUNISH A BUNCH OF REDSKINS, HIPPIES, AND DO-GOODERS FOR DARING TO PUNCTURE THE DELICATE BUBBLE OF WHITE POWER AND CORPORATE GREED YOU'VE MANAGED TO NURSE IN THE FACE OF A COUNTRY HELLBENT ON CULTURAL SENSITIVITY AND MISCEGENATION.
SHERIFF KYLE KIRCHMEIER AND COUNTY COMMISSIONER CODY SCHULZ: CAN'T YOU HAVE THE CREATIVITY TO AT LEAST IMAGINE YOUR OWN STATEMENT? ONE OF YOU COPIED THE OTHER'S WORK. WHOEVER MADE IT UP, THIS SHIT IS RICH:
"Today's decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a step toward the closure necessary for pipeline construction. If protestors continue to take unlawful actions in response to the Corps’ decision, law enforcement will be forced to continue to put themselves in harm’s way to enforce the rule of law. Our hope is that the new administration in Washington will now provide North Dakota law enforcement the necessary resources to bring closure to the protests. This has never been about the pipeline or the protests. This has always been about the rule of law, protecting both residents and peaceful protestors from criminal elements that have significantly harmed people and property – all with very little assistance from the federal government in the last administration."
TRANSLATION: "THANKS, TRUMP! NOW WE CAN CONTINUE TRYING ON THE RIOT GEAR WE LEASED FROM THE MILITARY, ATTACKING WOMEN WITH DOGS, USING WATER CANNONS WHILE SAYING WE HAVE NO IDEA WHAT WATER CANNONS ARE, AND DETAINING AN INDIGENOUS WOMAN ARRESTED MONTHS AGO FOR HAVING THE NERVE TO LET US ATTACK HER. AND IF OUR MIGHT ISN'T ENOUGH TO OVERCOME ALL THESE TURRISTS, WE'LL GET TRUMP TO SEND IN THE FEDS! (ASSUMING THEY'RE NOT ALL IN CHICAGO DEALING WITH THEIR BLACK PROBLEM.)"
BUT HERE'S THE THING: THE FIGHT AIN'T OVER, BITCHES. OUR INDIGENOUS FOLKS HAVE SEEN A LOT WORSE THAN YOU'VE GOT, AND THEY'RE A LOT MORE DISCIPLINED, ORGANIZED, AND LOVING THAN I AM. I'VE WORKED WITH THEM, BEEN INSPIRED BY THEM, SHARED SPACE AND CEREMONY WITH THEM, SHIVERED IN THE COLD WITH THEM. YOU ARE WEAK-WILLED LITTLE FOLLOWERS OF YOUR CORPORATE DADDIES. AND EVEN IF YOU THINK YOU WON, YOU LOST. WE ALL DID, BITCHES.
THIS ONE'S BEEN BUILDING FOR A LONG, LONG TIME, YOU TURTLE-FACED, WEAK-CHINNED, SLANTY-SMILED MOTHERFUCKER. YOU MAKE IT YOUR STATED GOAL TO MAKE OUR FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT A ONE-TERM PRESIDENT, AND FAIL. YOU REFUSE TO DO YOUR JOB IN REVIEWING A QUALIFIED APPOINTMENT FOR SUPREME COURT JUSTICE, HAMSTRINGING OUR SUPREME COURT FOR A YEAR IN THE PROCESS. AND NOW, YOU USE AN ARCHAIC PARLIAMENTARY RULE TO SILENCE A FELLOW SENATOR'S READING OF A LETTER FROM THE WIFE OF ONE OF OUR MOST BELOVED CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATES, AND REPORT A "HIGH LEVEL OF SATISFACTION" WITH THE RACIST BILLIONAIRE CURRENTLY OCCUPYING OUR PRESIDENCY. CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ARE A PIECE OF SHIT, AND AN ENEMY OF THE UNITED STATES.
LEST WE FORGET, YOU BARELY GOT PAST YOUR LAST REPUBLICAN PRIMARY, AND THEN GOT ONLY 56.2% OF THE POPULAR VOTE IN THE GENERAL ELECTION OF ONE OF THE MOST HEAVILY CONSERVATIVE STATES IN THE UNION. YOU NOW OWN THE LOWEST APPROVAL RATING OF ANY STANDING U.S. SENATOR. IT MAKES SENSE THAT YOU WOULD SUPPORT A WILDLY UNPOPULAR PRESIDENT WHO LOST THE POPULAR VOTE BY ALMOST 3 MILLION VOTES. YOU STAND FOR NO ONE BUT YOURSELF AND THE MONEYCHANGERS WHO FUND YOUR WRINKLY SOURPUSS.
“When you realize that much of your adult life is a performance—for your wife, your children, your friends and colleagues—to show them that you are normal, that you have internalized your memories of being raised by sad and angry children and are now the kind of father whose children feel he knows them, that the model of conflict-based marriage that led you to think Bitch and Asshole were proper synonyms for Wife and Husband are now a critical palette from which you (mostly) do not draw when resolving conflict within your own marriage, that your friendships are multifarious and drawn from a wide range of geography and experience that qualifies you to call yourself ‘cosmopolitan,’ that you even have colleagues, a word you can’t imagine uttering to anyone you knew before leaving home the first of many times decades ago. The critical distance you feel from terms like ‘colleague,’ though, also puts space between you and words like ‘friend’ and ‘family’—their meanings are so multiple, so evanescent that you sometimes wonder if you will ever truly know anyone, because every person you know exists to you only in the context of your performed relationship with them. Perhaps every expression is a performance—a quotation from an unnamed source.”
When you’re on the train at 6am reading an essay by a writer about the pleasure she derives from fucking married men (“I allowed myself to sleep with men for whom I felt just the right level of contempt”) and the guy sitting next to you keeps spreading his legs a little too wide so that you would have to sit slightly bowlegged if you let him continue, so you give his right knee a brief but insistent tap with your left knee and then look into the window facing you, and in the darkness of the tunnel you see the dim reflection of his face and think you may know him, but you keep reading. “I do not mean to say that the contempt we contain, which flares in us, need always be visible to others and acted upon, but I do know that its existence can be of use. The kind of contempt I am praising is but a sliver, a powerful small thing, which holds a space, preventing inappropriate enmeshment.” The man is looking at you, but you don’t feel like talking to him, figuring out whether you know him from a party or some past overlapping life or whatever, but you enjoy the sense of sharing space with someone you might know and choosing not to interact with him—you enjoy this so much that you think this might be your most natural state, a body in space, perhaps sharing a commonality or two with the other bodies sharing this translucent moment, warm packets of constant, sloshing motion encased by membranes so thin you can almost see what’s inside each of them as they bump and jostle on their respective ways like spermaceti, like metastasis, like sun rays.
When your wife is away for the weekend at a conference and you binge-watch Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, and you remember seeing Before Sunrise at the student union in 1995 and when Jesse and Celine kissed for the first time while overlooking the ferris wheel you remembered two years earlier riding a ferris wheel with the first girl you loved right after she broke up with you and she let you hold her hand one last time and you knew at that moment that you’d thought she would be the only one you would ever tell you loved, and then you watched Before Sunset in 2005 alone in the room your friend Frank rented out to you after you ran off and left the fourth or fifth woman you thought would be your Celine, and then again in 2007 with the woman who would become your wife, only she thought it was a bit maudlin, and so six years later when the third film was released you didn’t bother asking her if she’d want to watch it, instead waiting until she’s out of town and your two children have gone to bed to share space with these two fictional characters whose fates parallel yours, realizing that you’ve been wondering for years how they’ve been, whether Jesse stayed in Paris, and now, seeing them in Greece having the same sort of existential negotiations you have with your wife, you feel more comfortable in the world knowing they exist in it, even as fictions. And you realize, watching these three films in succession after your children are asleep, while your wife is away, that for twenty years now these fictions have provided a template for your life, and there is a reason that like, say, the tears you shared with your mother over repeated viewings of Terms of Endearment made you wish you were a girl so you could share the kind of a bond with your mother that Debra Winger shared with Shirley MacLaine, you’ve internalized the three evenings you’ve shared with these two people, they have become your new mythology, a paradigm by which you understand love and death and time and love. And love.
When, your junior year of high school, you played tennis at Lyons Park with a boy who lived down the street from you, whom you’d known since grade school, only neither of you knew how to play tennis. You didn’t really hang out at school much—he was a senior and seemed to talk only of girls he was trying to work up the nerve to call, girls with more money than he or you had ever known, and you perhaps wondered why he never saw you this way but you never said a word about it. You appreciated the way he always talked to your brother, who had a degenerative condition that caused his mouth to perpetually gape and slobber as he slapped this boy’s back and loudly told him Hi at the lunch table or at the grocery store where your brother bagged people’s food and took it to their cars. Maybe you saw your tennis games with this boy, filled with calls of “Strike!” and backhands over the fence, as a break from the relationships boys and girls were supposed to have in high school—absent the struggle of whether to call you or not, the cotton mouth when you did answer the phone, this boy treated you a lot like he probably did in grade school, only now standing on opposites side of the net on the cusp of adulthood. Hopefully now, on the other side of the curtain with children of your own older than you were then, not having kept in touch since those dates on the court, you remember these tennis games every now and then, as this boy does.
When you read Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights after your senior year of high school in 1991 because you had no idea what you would do with the rest of your life and still held onto the small bit of hope that standing the sidelines in your ill-fitting pads and watching your own high school team win State championships gave you. Reading about Boobie Miles’ quixotic dream of getting out of a town where he was “just another nigger” coming to an end after a season-ending ACL injury despite the school spending more of its budget on sports medicine than the English department, the sheer luck that even got the team to the state playoffs on the flip of a coin, the seeming ease with which their head coach could just leave them all to coach linebackers at Texas Tech the next year: all of these cleared your palate of any perceived purity of the sport. And in 2004, almost 15 years after the book was published, when a movie adaptation was released and a popular TV series adaptation soon followed in 2006 that ran until 2011, and now, more than 25 years after the documented season, Friday Night Lights has entered the realm of American trope, a three-word cultural flashpoint whose connotations almost everyone knows. And now that those original players are in their late forties and in varying degrees of recline or decline after being made to feel immortal at 16 years old, the brief excerpts of their much longer lives have morphed from documented nonfiction to fictionalized national TV mythology: the coach comes back to the team after one year at Texas Tech (er, Methodist), female characters like the coach’s wife and daughter become just as focal as the players, and each season is a laboratory for values that everyone involved with the ’88 Odessa Permian team would probably consider overly effeminate, liberal, and/or big-city, and your Jewish Upper East Side friend Sarah, no fan of football or heartland values, says it’s her favorite TV show.
When the formalist term systematic defamiliarization assumes a primary role in the construction of your self-image. By removing yourself from the family, friends, and social mores of your initial iterations—birth, childhood, adolescence, education—and placing yourself as object into a new system—city, subway, urbanity—you sought, by estranging yourself from the comfort of familial tradition and placing yourself in an insular new system with no job and $200 in your wallet, to find a new way of seeing yourself: As both artist and artifice, simulacrum and simulation. And then you get married in this new iteration, have children, find your artifices hardening into modes of being, and you finally feel equipped to begin the journey into the central questions this work of art that you call your life seeks to address. Only these questions are sublimated in daily struggles like talking to your mother on the phone when she believes—truthfully—that you are no longer the person who accompanied her through her own transformation from high school dropout to abused spouse through divorce and remarriage, or going to the beach with your new family and squaring the sand beneath your feet with the simulations of beach and mountains you only read about until first travelling over the Great Divide with a church group the summer after high school and first seeing the infinity-like expanse of ocean meeting sky for the first time when at Daytona on spring break in college. And finally, sneakiest of feels, when you wonder if your childhood, your education, your experiences were all simulation, and only recently, after years of faking it, are you penetrating the skin of what it means to be human.
When your four-year-old daughter tells you, “You’re the best dad in the universe” and you reply, “No, I’m not.” When she says the same thing the next day, and you remember wanting to say the same thing to the man you called Dad but the best you could say—at the city fair when he allowed you to ride the Zipper the first time—was, “You’re a good dad.” And when she says the same thing the next day, and you put her cheeky little face in your hands, plunge your own face into her little nest of hair, and breathe deeply her talent for the superlative.
When you start telling your secrets to your primary care physician on the day before Thanksgiving. While she checks your ears, you tell her you don’t hear voices but you’ve thought about suicide in a purely theoretical way; when she asks if these thoughts are making it hard to function in your daily tasks, you ask if she means like going to yearly doctor checkups; as she checks off your yearly mental health survey you tell her you think you might want to revise your answer about childhood sexual abuse—does making you keep the bathroom door open while you get ready to bathe when you were a child while calling you a faggot and then taking pictures of you crying count as sexual abuse? And now when you enter any restroom you immediately lock the door and run cold water over your wrists to cool the panic, you tell her, and how your wife has never seen you cry, you’ve cried only twice since junior high school in fact, and maybe panic attacks are your tears now. You repeatedly tell her “I’m sorry,” when what you really want to say is “This really happened,” not to her but to yourself.
As I look at my yearly tabulations on Excel, I see that if I write 1,185 words I will have averaged over 4,000 words per month on the year. Given the myriad other elements of 2016, it’s important to me that I achieve this meager milestone. (Hey, I’m already down to 1,139 words!) (1,132!)
I’m currently sitting at a table in Montpelier with five other writers, all on our laptops. It feels good. I’m helping out with the winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my beloved alma mater, prepping for a two-day generative microfiction workshop we’ll be conducting this week before attending a lecture by Trinie Dalton that will most probably remind me how much I have yet to learn. I’ve just decided on the fly that I want to have students read my friend Jeff Rose’s year-end collected chili meditations for the workshop, and I encourage you to as well, even (or especially) if you’re not that into chili.
Wow, I already ran out of ideas before I even came to a real one. In desperation, I just posted a call for suggestions on Facebook. The first came from my friend Richard:
Neutrality aids the oppressor. And go!
This is something I’ve thought about quite a lot as a teacher and as a human this year. Here are a couple of examples, one from my teaching life and the other from my human life.
I team-teach most of my classes during the fall semester, as the writing professor attached to a thematic seminar taught by another faculty member. One partnership this semester was with an International Politics professor who was teaching a class on dystopia in modern media and mythology. She is incredibly intelligent and on a work visa from Bangladesh, and also not that much older than our students. As November 8 approached, a couple of students in our class let her know they were voting for Trump, one fairly belligerently and with a looming hint that the student hoped Trump might the professor’s status as an immigrant and a Muslim against her. All of the students mentioned a particular class experience to me in which my teaching partner challenged the class to elucidate their argument; the class seemed to think that her perspective was not “neutral” enough, and that mine might be more neutral, the implication seeming that I might be more neutral as a white non-immigrant.
After the election I traveled to Standing Rock, ostensibly with my Trump-supporting childhood friend. He backed out as I was traveling to Kansas to pick him up, but before that happened another friend sent me a message that "30 hours in a car with a Trump supporter would be less feasible for a lot of people who feel color, gender, or orientation difference."
As I was thinking about that, I also thought about how I arranged this trip before the election in part as an olive branch to my friend, who would be downcast after the country finally came to its senses. I have to say, I wasn’t entirely disappointed when my friend backed out, and I’m starting to see that a lot of (white) people, in pretense to neutrality, have given a con artist with no virtuous qualities and his brood of leisure-class insiders the keys to the White House, mostly out of a sense of perceived familiarity with a guy who shares no cultural or financial referents with them except his self-identification as a Winner.
In both of these cases, I think, neutrality is essentially identification as the cultural “winner” – the person who, in setting and defining the rules of the game(s), is most apt to control the outcomes. This is not neutrality, and this is not moral. This is violent, and oppressive. And it’s why I’ve decided it’s important that I, as one white male, am not neutral.
Ok, I’ve now eaten dinner and sat back down, and my Facebook thread has waaaaay more responses than I could possibly respond to in the waning hours before the new year. They require much more thoughtful discourse than I’m capable of right now with a beer at my writing table and fireworks booming outside my window, but I’ bet listing them might both queue them up for near-future development and push me over my word count:
- From my friend Michael: “The reductiveness of ‘teach a man to fish,’ using actual facts about fish” (This is a full-on essay waiting to happen.)
- From musical genius Chris McFarland: “Write about songs that should no longer be covered, i.e.: retired like a sports jersey number” (To start: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” One of the most powerful songs ever written, that’s been borrowed and bowdlerized into submission.)
- From my old buddy Joe: “The Kansas Jayhawks: A List of Players and Coaches I have Watched” (Ooh, I sense a winter series of blog posts coming on.) “…or alternately: Duke Players: A List of Whiners, Floppers and Cheats” (This one pretty much writes itself.)
- From my friend Heather: “Words made up by children” (I wish I could think of my children’s right now, and/or tap into the voluminous cloud on this one. It’s rich for development.)
- From my old friend Angie: “Why people make New Years resolutions but always break them” (I’m doing my part not to break my word count resolution.)
- From my former student Loren: “The pitfalls and bias of crowd sourcing information from a social group who, presumably, have very similar outlooks and opinions.” Did I mention she was one of my more smart alecky students?)
- From my old friend Sarah B.: “A spiritual or supernatural experience that you have had that doesn't fit into your current worldview” (Standing Rock. More on this soon.)
- From writing colleague Nicole: “'On anticipation,' or 'Snacks and Rituals,' or 'Dropping the Ball' (any ball you want).” (Ohohohoho. Three dandies.)
- From my friend Carrie: “Dreams!” (I want to only write about this subject from now until forever.)
- From writing colleague Sheree: “10 things to do in 2017 to honor the lives of the artists we lost in 2016”
- From my old friend Sarah G.: “The trend I have increasingly been made aware of in my adulthood of people and friends committing to an event and backing out at the last minute...students backing out of an artwork, lack of commitment.”
- From my Aunt Stacey: “Close your eyes and tell yourself a story. Happy New Year!” (You too, Aunt Stacey, on the story and the happy New Year!)
I’ll squirrel these away for future essays/blog posts, or if anyone wants to run with any of them, consider it my New Year’s gift to you.
And that, my friends, just put me over. Here's the evidence, on advice from my old friend Darin: “Why numbers matter and how to fudge them”:
When on a snow-ridden afternoon you venture out into the backwoods of Montpelier, Vermont: down a steep hill past people on snowshoes who look curiously at you and your peacoat, scarf, and galoshes, up an even steeper hill where you see fresh tracks in the snow that might be a wolf or might be a dog’s diverging from the path into the woods, then you see a broad figure hunched over at the crest of the hill and think it’s a bear but it’s just a guy strapping his feet to a snowboard, and you keep walking until you realize you’ve gone in circles looking for this special place, an old slate quarry you used to enter in past summers—a 300-foot gash in the planet’s crust that you’ve heard people describe as a natural wonder, which strikes you as curious considering this is not a seismic fissure but a by-product of human industry, natural only in the evidence it gives of the planet healing itself. But this is not why—finally, after two trips round the makeshift canyon—you slip in through its cervical opening, travel in through its narrow slate passway that blocks out all sky, finally reaching its cool, warm center. You go here now because it is so solitary and so so silent, the discarded cans and Wu-Tang graffiti reinforcing a sense of community you value most: Those who were here, but are not here now, speaking with you in my voice.
I had nothing to add here. Feliz Navidad, everyone.