When you’re waiting at the bus stop with your children and you see a guy with a familiar face, and you realize you went to high school with him almost three decades ago and half a country away, and you instinctively say his name despite having barely known him in high school—he looks at you without recognition so you say, “John Proctor. We went to high school together,” and he fakes it, smiling wide and saying “Um” and “Ahhh, yes,” and you know he has no idea who you are, but that’s alright, you tell yourself, you weren’t that memorable in high school. You know from common friends that he went to Harvard and now also lives in Brooklyn, that he’s married to a man and they have what mutual friends have described as a precocious child, and this doesn’t surprise you since he was a precocious child and now has a prominent career in city planning and public policy, and as your bus arrives and your children start pulling your arms toward it you remember the one thing that has stayed with you through three decades between youth and middle age: His dominant hand, twirling a pencil on his knuckle with his thumb over and over in humanities class while your teacher talked about Bruce Springsteen and the Romantic poets, and how you spent the remaining years of high school imitating and perfecting this twirl with your own hand in the hopes of approximating this young man’s intelligence and appropriating the respect everyone gave him as a very intelligent young man. And when you get on the bus and think on him more as your daughters don’t ask who he was, you hope he still twirls his pencil on his knuckle, that you share this intellectual property with him, in this city and this neighborhood within which you’ve both nested.
When you’re reading Mrs. Dalloway on the train home from teaching at Rikers and you remember a conversation you had at the beginning of the summer with your therapist, when the two of you established the room as a metaphor for your life—you go to your room (which can be anywhere really) to be alone, to reflect, to create, but if you spend too much time in the room you forget about all the other voices outside of your own head. And you marvel at Woolf’s internal dialectic of finding a room of her own while remaining open to every voice she hears on the streets, in the shops, in the government facilities, at parties, at funerals and wakes, on the trains and omnibuses, all pulsing and pressing against her—you feel those voices too, and you wonder at the voices of the inmates you teach, and who teach you, voices informed only by the monotonous day-to-day of waiting for the freedom you are enjoying at this very moment. You feel those voices within you, and recoil at the sneering use of the term “social justice warrior” to belittle the impulse to serve and share space with people who don’t share your privilege on the assumption that this feeling of well-being, of expanded consciousness at serving friends you might never make if you didn’t seek them out when they were at their weakest, is somehow an ulterior motive for the service. Remember, duty is also an ulterior motive, as is the desire for a pleasant afterlife, as is any moral authority you may presume. There’s nothing so pure as the kindness of an atheist, a simple act of unselfishness that never asks to be repaid. Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean sang this, but Virginia Woolf could have written it. The voice is the same.
FIRST OFF, OUR FAKE PRESIDENT IS A PIECE OF STEAMING ORANGE SHIT WHO IS DUMB AS A ROCK AND HAS THE EMPATHY AND INSTINCTS OF WYATT'S OLDER BROTHER CHET FROM WEIRD SCIENCE. THAT'S NO SURPRISE. HE IS WHO HE IS. IT'S NO SURPRISE HE'S TRYING HIS HARDEST TO ESTABLISH A MYTHICAL "ALT-LEFT" THAT SOMEHOW IS THE EQUAL AND OPPOSITE EVIL TO THE RACIST ALT-RIGHT HE EMBRACES AND REPRESENTS. THE CLOSEST APPROXIMATION TO HIS IMAGINED ENEMY IS PERHAPS ANTIFA, BUT THEY WOULDN'T EXIST WITHOUT WANNABE FASCISTS LIKE HIM AND WHITE NATIONALISTS LIKE TRUMP'S FRIENDS WHO MARCHED ON CHARLOTTESVILLE WITH TORCHES. THE WORST YOU CAN SAY ABOUT ANTIFA IS THAT THEY REJECT THE PRINCIPLES OF NON-VIOLENT RESISTANCE, FOR WHICH I CAN HARDLY BLAME THEM CONSIDERING CONSERVATIVES' KNEE-JERK TENDENCY TO CHARACTERIZE ANY PROTEST AS VIOLENT, AND ALL POLICE VIOLENCE AS JUSTIFIED.
WORSE, THOUGH NO LESS SURPRISING, ARE MAINLINE CONSERVATIVE ATTEMPTS AT THE EXACT SAME THING TRUMP IS DOING. TEA PARTY DUDE ERICK-WOODS ERICKSON, IN HIS HEAD-SCRATCHINGLY SELF-CONTRADICTORY NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE SUNDAY, SOMEHOW EQUATES WHITE SUPREMACISTS WITH "SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIORS"*, CALLING THEM "TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN." THIS CONVENIENTLY REPRESSES THAT THE PEJORATIVE USE OF THE TERM "SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIOR" (OR SJW'S, AS THE CONSERVABROS LIKE TO CALL THEM) IS LESS THAN A DECADE OLD, WHILE WHITE SUPREMACY IS A NOTION ENTANGLED IN OUR FLAWED NATION'S ENTIRE HISTORY AND SUPPORTED UNTIL A HALF-CENTURY AGO BY THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH HE NOW CALLS UPON TO SHEPHERD US THROUGH THE MESS THEY'VE HAD A HAND IN CREATING. THE MEASURED ACADEMIC IN ME WANTS TO CALL HIS ARGUMENT INTELLECTUALLY DISHONEST, BUT I'M CAPS LOCKED AND LOADED SO I'LL JUST GO AHEAD AND SAY IT: ERICK ERICKSON, WITH OR WITHOUT THE WOODS AND THE HYPHEN, IS AT LEAST AS RACIST AS DONALD TRUMP. AS THE NATION CONTINUES TO BE SOMEHOW SURPRISED THAT OUR FAKE PRESIDENT CAN'T BRING HIMSELF TO UNILATERALLY CONDEMN HIS BASE OF WHITE NATIONALISTS, CONSERVATIVES FLOODED SOCIAL MEDIA WITH SHARES OF ERICKSON'S EQUALLY UGLY ATTEMPTS TO DEFLECT BLAME AND PUT IT ON PEOPLE WHO, LIKE HIM, USE MEDIA TO EXPRESS OUTRAGE BUT WHO, UNLIKE HIM, ACKNOWLEDGE THE COMPLICATED AND SOMETIMES UGLY HISTORY WE ARE STILL LIVING.
* QUOTES IMPLY THE SEETHING IRONY OF THE ALT-RIGHT FROM WHOM ERICKSON CAN'T BRING HIMSELF TO PUBLICLY ADMIT HE STEALS HIS MOST CREATIVE IDEAS.
TL;DR: IF YOU REFUSE TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE SYSTEMIC RACISM IN U.S HISTORY AND OUR PRESENT CULTURE, YOU ARE BEING RACIST. IF, LIKE ERICKSON, YOU INSIST ON MAKING IT A SIMPLE PARTISAN ISSUE, YOU ARE BEING RACIST AND STUPID.
MY 8YO: So how many books have you written?
ME: Well, if you count published ones...None.
Kids really know how to hit you where it hurts.
8YO: Can I read your unpublished ones?
Kids really know how to hit you where it feels good.
When you take your kids out to New Jersey for a two-week swim day camp, dropping them off early in the morning, getting some work done at the Starbucks, and picking them up around noon, and you find the two-week Jersey-Mom structure entrancing—waking up at 6:30, working out, having breakfast with your kids, loading them in the car, navigating the same traffic patterns every day, trying a different prefab Starbucks breakfast sandwich each day of the first week and then repeating each sandwich the next week, letting the barista take your name down as George the first day, then Joan the second day, until by the second week they don’t even have to ask your name, asking the swim instructors the same questions every day (“How was the day?” What did they learn today?” “Anything we can do at home?”), going back to your in-laws' house where you’re staying and having lunch, then going to the beach for the afternoon with your kids and a book and alternating between reading ten pages and getting in the water with them, leaving the beach at five and making dinner with your kids, your wife, your in-laws, and/or any cousins who happen to be there, putting the kids to bed, watching baseball, and having two beers. This procession should feel repetitive and artificial, because it is. But it feels good for two weeks.
8YO: There are these two boys in my class that are identical twins. I can never tell them apart.
5YO: Can you tell me what they look like?
8YO: It's hard to explain what people look like.
5YO: Can you tell me what one of them looks like?
When you tear the meniscus on your right knee and can’t run or exercise for almost a year, and you sink into a deep pit of despair that, a year later, you begin to think sprung at least in part from the lack of physical stimulation and activity, but you also notice another by-product of the reduced activity: you’ve gained at least 20 pounds. And you begin to regret all those times you made conscious or subconscious fun of people who talked about counting calories and pinching an inch (you can now pinch 2.5 inches) and their bodies changing as they grow old, as you now feel, running again, like you’re running with an entirely different and deficient body. You no longer think about pushing the pace for ten miles, but merely of getting through three without too much pain in your knee. And then when you are running across 21st Avenue in Queens in the rain, and you slip and fall on your right arm, tearing the muscles in your rotator cuff so that you can’t lift your arm above your head without pain, and you begin rationalizing and compartmentalizing, telling yourself that it’s only the right side of your body that’s grown old and unusable, that you are left-handed and perhaps you can simply live on that side—you always loved your left hand more, with the little mole on the innermost knuckle that was always your way of discerning it from your right hand, only now the mole is gone, but at least your left hand is free of the liver spots that have gathered on the backside of your right hand. You will be 44 years old next month, and your life is most likely more than half-lived. Start living through your children as they run through sprinklers and go to swim camp and dart through the waves on the beach like the little crabs and sand fleas they chase. Stop running. Rest, recover, and then run again, in fits and starts toward the finish that awaits us all.
8YO: This movie was made by Duncan Studios. Do you think that’s the same place they make Dunkin Donuts?
ME: Because donuts are usually made in movie studios?
8YO: Well, there were some police in this movie.
In thinking on how to curate my workshop at Rikers, I've been spending some time with Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. On my way there on the Q100 last week, though, a passage from the last chapter gave me some context for our current regime. Here's some of it.
...[T]he dominators try to present themselves as saviors of the women and men they dehumanize and divide. This messianism, however, cannot conceal their true intention: to save themselves. They want to save their riches, their power, their way of life: the things that allow them to subjugate others.
"A psychoanalysis of oppressive action might reveal the 'false generosity' of the oppressor...as a dimension of the latter's sense of guilt. With this false generosity, he attempts not only to preserve an unjust and necrophilic order, but the 'buy' peace for himself. It happens that peace cannot be bought; peace is experienced in solidarity and loving acts, which cannot be incarnated in oppression.
"Since it is necessary to divide the people in order to preserve the status quo and (thereby) the power of the dominators, it is essential for the oppressors to keep the oppressed from perceiving their strategy. So the former must convince the latter that they are being 'defended' against the demonic action of 'marginals, rowdies, and enemies of God' (for these are the epithets directed at men who lived and are living the brave pursuit of mans humanization). In order to divide and confuse the people, the destroyers call themselves builders, and accuse the true builders of being destructive. History, however, always takes it upon itself to modify these designations."
History will not be kind to Donald Trump, or to us as Americans for electing him. We have a lot of work to do, and a major reckoning with ourselves. But Freire also has some cautionary words for Democrats dreaming of quick fixes at the midterms:
"In a situation of manipulation, the Left is almost always tempted by a 'quick return to power,' forgets the necessity of joining with the oppressed to forge an organization, and strays into an impossible 'dialogue' with the dominant elites. It ends by being manipulated by these elites, and not infrequently itself falls into an elitist game, which it calls 'realism.'"
EVERY ONE OF YOU, TO A MAN*, IS EXPENDING ENERGY TODAY IN CALLING THE DISTURBED GUY WHO SHOT UP A CONGRESSIONAL BASEBALL GAME A BERNIE SUPPORTER AND A TYPICAL ANGRY LIBERAL, AND ARMCHAIR-RESEARCHING ALL OF HIS POSSIBLE CONNECTIONS TO THE NEFARIOUS LIBERAL UNDERGROUND. SPEAKING AS AN ANGRY LIBERAL, LET ME BE (PROBABLY NOT) THE FIRST TO POINT OUT THAT NOT ONE OF YOU BOTHERED COMMENTING ON THE STORY TWO WEEKS AGO OF A DISTURBED MAN WHO STABBED THREE PEOPLE ON A PORTLAND TRAIN, KILLING TWO, BECAUSE THEY WOULDN'T LET HIM SHOUT RACIAL SLURS AT TWO TEENAGE GIRLS ON THE TRAIN (AND WHO AT HIS RECENT ARRAIGNMENT SHOUTED "YOU CALL IT TERRORISM, I CALL IT PATRIOTISM!").
I'M NOT ASHAMED TO ADMIT THAT I EMPATHIZE WITH A PERSON WHO, SEEING A CONGRESS CYNICALLY COLLUDING WITH A LEGITIMATELY INSANE PRESIDENT WHO OPENLY INCITES VIOLENCE AMONG HIS FOLLOWERS ON PEOPLE WHO RESIST HIS REGIME, SEES THE VIOLENT LOGIC IN ELIMINATING A FEW FROM THEIR RANKS - SURELY MORE THAN I EMPATHIZE WITH A XENOPHOBE WHO TAKES THE PRESIDENT'S LOGIC AS PERMISSION TO STALK PEOPLE ON THE TRAIN AND STAB TO DEATH ANYONE WHO DENIES THIS "FREE SPEECH." THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ME AND EITHER OF THESE MEN, BETWEEN ME AND ISIS OR THE POSSE COMITATUS, IS THAT I DON'T ACT ON THOSE IMPULSES. I UNDERSTAND THAT THE MOST BASIC CONTRACT WE HAVE WITH EACH OTHER IS NOT TO OPPRESS EACH OTHER'S PERSONHOOD. KILLING SOMEONE IS OBVIOUSLY THAT, BUT SO IS SHOUTING RACIAL SLURS AT THEM IN A PUBLIC PLACE. SO IS MAKING HEALTHCARE LESS VIABLE FOR THEM BECAUSE THEY HAVE LESS MONEY. SO IS IGNORING THEM IN ELECTED OFFICE BECAUSE THEY DON'T FIT INTO THE HALF OF THE POPULATION YOU'VE DECIDED YOU REPRESENT. SO IS SYSTEMATICALLY INCARCERATING THEM. SO IS TAKING AWAY THEIR LAND AND GIVING IT TO THE CORPORATE INTERESTS THAT FUND YOU IN THE NAME OF "DEVELOPMENT."
SO YES, I DO EMPATHIZE WITH THE MOTIVES OF ONE KILLER OVER THE OTHER. I OWN THAT. BUT CALLING ONE A HATE CRIME OR AN ACT OF TERROR AND THE OTHER ANYTHING ELSE - OR IGNORING IT BECAUSE IT DOESN'T FIT YOUR IDEOLOGY - IS JUST AN ASSHOLE THING TO DO. AND YOU'RE AN ASSHOLE IF YOU DO IT.
* THE PRONOUN USE IS NOT ACCIDENTAL. YOU ARE ALL MEN.
When your best friend texts to tell you that Emma Morano, at 117 years old the eldest person in the world, has died and all you can think is Beverly Cleary, the 102-year-old author of all those Beezus and Ramona and Henry and Ribsy books you read as a child and now read to your children—how they were written in the span of 50 years from 1950-1999, long enough to see perhaps the period of greatest cultural tectonic shift in human history, only the world of Klickitat Street never changes, or only slightly, enough to see two girls age five years over the fifty between Henry Huggins’s publication in 1950 and Ramona’s World in 1999; how you can feel the nostalgic pull toward an imaginary 1950’s that led 26% of voting-age Americans to vote for Donald Trump last year in the hopes of bringing back salt-of-the-earth jobs that no longer exist and probably shouldn’t; how Henry’s industrious schemes to save $59.95 for a bike by selling boxes of bubblegum and preying on traditional female gender roles to resell a coupon for beauty treatment to Beezus speak to the “innocent Fifties” mentality Joan Didion documented while observing a Jaycees convention in 1970: “There was the belief in business success as a transcendent ideal. There was the faith that if one transforms oneself from an ‘introvert’ to an ‘extrovert,’ if one learns to ‘speak effectively’ and ‘do a job,’ success and its concomitant, spiritual grace, follow naturally." But: “There was…a kind of poignant attempt to circumnavigate social conventions that had in fact broken down in the Twenties…the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to be their time. It was not.” Only the spirit-ghost of that mythological time seems to keep returning every thirty years—the pre-crash Twenties, the pre-upheaval Fifties, the pre-internet Eighties, now the Teens which, according to self-perpetuating American mythology, promise to be remembered as another golden age of adolescent self-delusion, one that, like the corporations that create and promulgate this cycle, will far outlive Emma Morano, or Beverly Cleary, or you.
When you hear a child scream on the other end of the train, once, then again, the second scream stifled by a hand over the child’s mouth, and you think about your four-year-old daughter and how she screams at pretty much any impulse—running around the circuit of your small apartment, being told not to do something, arguing with her sister—and you think how you, a young boy, would run home to your room so you could be alone in the house and imitate the shrieks your mother would hurl like fists at the man who had entered your house and demanded you call him Dad, would mortify your young friends’ masculine sensibilities by screaming like a girl when they least expected it, would stop in the tunnel under the railway bridge and wait for the train to pass over you and battle the locomotive’s roar for the loudest octave. You know now that you should empathize with the parent and your fellow passengers on this train, but you want instead to go to the other end of the train and tell this child something like Enjoy this, or You have a beautiful voice. Then the child begins again with a low-pitched, hurtful sustained wail, and people begin to shift in their seats and murmur at each other until you put on your headphones, unsure whether you’re blocking out the whispers or screams.
When you sat on the edge of Kentucky Lake with your girlfriend and your best friend, and you knew this was ending—maybe it had already ended, the details are fuzzy, but the only thing that remains is you and this woman and this man and you, and this woman is getting into the water, her body is submerged and she’s removing her swimsuit, and your best friend is on the shore with you rubbing your thigh, and she emerges wet and glistening in that evening sun and sits next to you, leans her head on your shoulder, and sighs, and you feel perhaps more desired, more interesting than you will ever again feel with these two people surrounding you, and the three of you go back to the car in the woods by the lake and get in the backseat together and remove all of your clothes, and you know they both desire you, they both move upon you, devouring you with gulps and slurps, and you cower. You fear both of them, the two people closer to you than anyone has ever been and perhaps ever will be, who want only to ingest you from the cock upward, and this makes you tremble from the center of your thorax, makes your member flaccid, and your two lovers look at each other in confusion until you invite them to devour each other while you curl up into the floorboards.
When your kids are playing with their stuffed animals at the couch and one falls off, and your seven-year-old daughter laughs, “He jumped off the cliff and killed himself,” and then she and your four-year-old tell your Echo speaker to make a song out of the phrase so that “He jumped off the cliff and killed himself” plays in an endless loop to the tune of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. You think about your friend who jumped off a cliff and killed himself last year and want to tell them to stop it, just stop it as they send one particular stuffed animal on a series of headers from the couch to the floor, then smile at the deathlessness of this sequence—the fall and rise, fall and rise of Waddle-Waddle the Penguin as a synthetic voice approximates a chorus—and you marvel at the innocence and ignorance with which they have, for these moments, achieved the artist’s greatest aspiration: to stop time, to stand at the edge of the precipice and laugh.
When you’re preparing the reading for the class you’ve started teaching at Rikers, and the theme is ostensibly persona but you want to choose everything so perfectly that each of your five inmates—you mean, students—feels the force of the words so primally, so internally, that he wants to use those words to shape his own world in the image he projects, rather than the one he now lives within. Throw in some of your favorite Langston Hughes poems and Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” as long as you remain aware of the dynamic this creates of a white man “teaching” these pieces to incarcerated black men but also acknowledge the thirst to contextualize their experiences that they’ve let you in on. (And yes, allow yourself a moment to secretly glow that, even in your first conversations with them, they call you brother.) Go ahead and throw in Dave Eggers’ “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” because you reread it last week and want to give these brothers a taste of the unadulterated joy a dog takes in the simple act of running and leaping, from the dog’s perspective—even if the dog has been trained to fight and thrown in a river, even though the squirrels continue to chatter at the inanity of running and jumping just for the joy of it all, even in the knowledge that it all ends in death. Yes, even if it begins in bondage, even through the chatter of know-nothings and random, impulsive acts of violence, even in the knowledge that it all ends in non-existence, there is still joy, joy joy in the wind in your face and the air beneath you, even if we sometimes only feel it through words.
When you’re having this crazy dream that you and your wife continually break into the same apartment, not to steal anything but just to live in it for a few hours—the apartment belongs to another couple, who have a cat and a Vitamix and a balcony, and you sometimes grill out on the balcony and always feed the cat, and sometime in the course of the dream you think, This would be a great feature piece, about one couple living the life of another couple for a few hours at a time and leaving that life like they found it, and in the dream you pitch the article to numerous high-end publications, until one time when the two of you enter the apartment an alarm goes off, and you think to yourself, This must be the end of this story, and you feel two fingers jabbing your arm and your wife hissing, “Why is your alarm going off? It’s Saturday!” And as you shift worlds you think how great a story that would have been, only you know neither you nor your wife is the type of person to break into someone else’s home, so the only thing you can think to do to give voice to this story is to tap it out here and promptly forget about it.
When you come back from your first day teaching in jail and realize—after taking the train to the bus to the compound, going through three layers of security, speaking with five inmate-students in the chapel for two hours about their lives and Malcolm X and Sherman Alexie and writing and sadness and frustration and hope, boarding the bus and the train back to your apartment—that your knee, a source of near-constant pain for almost a year, hasn’t bothered you all day. You remember this because, as you sit down at your computer to write for the first time in weeks, it has started hurting again.
One of my former students now has a really fun conversational podcast called Dear Stranger and Friend, and he asked me a month or so ago to have a recorded conversation with him for it.
So now I'm in Episode 21! We talk about mixtapes and playlists, and books and words and marginalia, and kids and failure and the singular "they." Paul's a great conversationalist. Enjoy.
When you read Sartre or Beckett or Derrida or Barthes, or watch Six Feet Under, or talk to your therapist, or maybe just listen to The Head and the Heart, and you stare at the chasmic rift between your need for care and human love and beauty, and the voice booming from the other side that all these are illusions—there is no such thing as truth or transcendence or self-sacrifice, only a series of transactions between autonomous modals. There’s no such thing as love, there’s no such thing as god, there’s no such thing as you, there’s no such thing as us. And you want to talk to your wife about this but you figure she’ll either worry for you or ask you to get over it, and you want to call your mother but you’ll just end up judging her for telling you to put your life back in the hands of the god you’ve long outgrown, and you know you can’t tell your daughters the horrors of the world that they’ll discover on their own in due time. But then you talk to your wife, and she listens. And you talk to your mother, not about god but about upcoming plans to see each other. And you look at photos of kitties on your iPhone with your youngest daughter and exult in the names she comes up with for the white ones (Snow, Marshmallow, Powder Puff, Whitey) and the black ones (Midnight, Black, Blackie, Really Cooked Marshmallow). And you think of all the people you call your friends, and you know this isn’t an illusion or a lie, that you depend on every one of them to allow you to read the existentialists and absurdists and nihilists and realize that their truth is your truth, but it’s not your only truth.