“When police come out and take a stand and wear and have equipment that makes it feel like somehow the people who are protesting are assumed to be the bad guys, I don’t think it helps take the tension out of the situation. I think it puts more tension in it.”
-Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), NPR Interview, 15 August 2014
Fifty years ago this summer, students from all over the United States traveled to the Jim Crow South to face down police and established government forces that were trying to quell the rights and privileges, few that there were, of the Blacks who comprised much, if not most, of the community in the South. They were trained in the tactics of non-violent protest, practiced taking beatings, prepared for and correctly anticipated the violent reaction that uniformed officers of the law would rain down upon them. The disappearance and eventual evidence of the murder of three young members of this protest movement is often credited as being the primary catalyst for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, arguably the last time that legislation in this country increased the rights and equality of the people of the United States.
Like the murders during Freedom Summer, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was hardly the first time that an unarmed Black man was gunned down by uniformed officers of the law in an American city. I was living in the Bay Area when the BART police shot a man in handcuffs on New Year’s Day, an event now memorialized in the fantastic film Fruitvale Station. My home city of Albuquerque has been inundated by shootings of unarmed men by police, culminating in protests throughout the spring and even an attempted citizen’s arrest of the police chief. But like Freedom Summer’s murders, the events in Ferguson in the last week may serve as a catalyst for a reckoning long overdue in contemporary America. The question is certainly not limited to one of race, though race plays a key role. And it is not, in my opinion, limited to police, though police play a key role. The question, as I see it, is whether America will persist in being a culture of might-makes-right, where putting on a uniform of an established gun-wielding force in the United States gives one the privilege to do whatever one wants with impunity, or whether we will take a step back from this ledge of uniformed despotism and acknowledge that people are people, on equal footing, and that not wearing a uniform, much less being of a racial minority without a uniform, does not constitute being a “bad guy”.
What jarred me about Senator McCaskill’s quotation at the top of this piece when I heard it on NPR was not what has jarred so many people about the events of Ferguson, namely that the police have come out in full military regalia, thrown tear gas, shot at protestors, and are using military surplus gear. What jarred me is that she was describing our military operations in other countries as situations where other people are “assumed to be the bad guys”. This should be obvious, of course, if I think about how military operations work, but the fact is that the people of Kabul and Baghdad, let alone more far-flung remote towns in Afghanistan and Iraq, have faced what Ferguson is facing on a daily basis. When we see Ferguson on TV, we relate naturally to the people of Missouri and are horrified, but when we see Fallujah on TV, we relate to the American soldiers doing the perpetrating. We cling to this notion that somehow the people of Fallujah would greet these same standoffish fully uniformed agents of death as “liberators” or at least friends with a helping hand (like all the National Guard propaganda tells us), even though the evidence is overwhelming that this is the most fearsome, intimidating, and unfriendly stance that one set of humans could take toward another. Advancing on people or cities in riot gear with guns drawn somehow does not convince the targeted group that you are their friends. And yet failure to comply with their wishes and demands is met with violence and the underlying assumption that this violence is somehow “deserved” because compliance was offered as an option.
This is actually basically the definition of a Police State. Or, if you prefer, the state that Voldemort would construct as he attempts to during the brief moments he believes that Harry Potter is actually dead in the final book in the series. “Now is the time to declare yourself,” he says in the movie version. “Come forward and join us. Or die.” And you can see in the faces of the remaining defenders of Hogwarts the kind of defeated resignation they’re adopting, the exhaustion and fear that confronts this choice. Neville Longbottom offers a rousing speech about how Harry Potter is just one martyr among many and doesn’t signal the defeat of the movement, but we never get to see how that message would sink in without Harry’s apparent and immediate resurrection. Now we can look at this as an obvious metaphor because the dark hooded cloaks of the Death Eaters (and, well, the name Death Eaters) invert or understanding of order and what is right, demonstrating clearly that the Death Eaters are like Nazis, or that allegedly rare combination of power and wrongness. But what if Voldemort’s troops were dressed as American police officers? American military? Are the principles espoused actually that different?
Oh yes, yes, we have a Constitution and “rule of law” and sham elections and all that. But enforcement is kind of required to make any of that meaningful. After all, the Jim Crow South was a democracy. For that matter, so was Nazi Germany, at least for a while. Democracies carefully crafted to keep the less desirable parts of society on the bottom, just as modern America is. Does it really matter if disinterest and apathy or outright blocking are the means of prevention? We have plenty of both built into our current democratic structures. And when the choice of party is between one corporate sell-out and another, it really doesn’t matter whether you can vote at all. What matters, as in any might-makes-right society, is who carries the guns and who can get away with using them without consequence. And if you have a uniform on, that’s you. You can shoot unarmed people and wait for the “internal investigation” to clear you of wrongdoing, with all files sealed for another half-century until the next Freedom Summer. You can commit atrocities in foreign countries knowing that your nation has refused to submit to international law and treaties purely so they can keep you and your commanding officers out of The Hague. All for the love of power, the supremacy of this country, and the “safety” of its citizens. But not all of its citizens, of course. Not the poor, not the minorities, not the undesirables. Just the ones with the money and power to buy protection and expect their privileged lifestyle to continue at the expense of everyone else.
In his now-famous short essay “Just Asking“, David Foster Wallace examined the frightening implications of a country six years after September 11th, less than a year before he would take his own life on September 12, 2008. His conclusive sentences are explosively powerful and necessary for any serious American to consider at this juncture:
Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?
The safety that the police and military of this country allegedly protect is completely illusory. No one had to fear for their lives or safety because Michael Brown was on the streets of Ferguson, any more than Saddam Hussein’s mythical weapons of mass-destruction were pointed at American cities. But both, like all declared enemies of the United States, were met with overwhelming force, as is the hallmark of a might-makes-right demonstration. Brown was not shot once in the leg to prevent him from harming officers. He was shot six times, including once in the head, which killed him immediately. How is it that we’ve come to live in a state where we think the citizenry is safer for having police officers shoot to kill unarmed individuals? Why is the training that people should be shot so many times?
The only answer to these questions is that we live in a society that still believes, fervently, in good guys and bad guys, just like Senator McCaskill said. Her issue wasn’t with this characterization of the world or even our society, but with lumping peaceful protestors in with the bad guys. And just as the Death Eaters wear black cloaks and look dark and menacing, our society has institutionally trained us to associate Black with fear, death, and antagonism. Local news and campus police reports barrage us with the message that young Black men are coming for our stuff, our health, our lives, our precious safety. And thus it is little wonder that the people who are told they are Right to put on the uniform of the Good Guys are all too willing to gun down the Bad Guys when they are abroad in the land.
In Mississippi in 1964, it was the uniform of the Ku Klux Klan, all white and all that implies, that the people put on and told themselves they were the good guys. And I am not saying that all police officers and military members of the United States might as well be in the KKK. But I am saying that the process of putting on a uniform to absolve you of your sins, transform you into a white knight, and hide your identity, is eerily similar. If it were up to the Ferguson Police Department, they still would not have released the name of Michael Brown’s shooter. Just like in the sixties, many of the police in Ferguson were hiding their badge numbers to avoid responsibility during recent crackdowns.
And people behave badly when they don’t think they’re going to be held accountable. We don’t need to rehash another sixties throwback, the Stanford Prison Experiment, to make this clear. When people act with the authority of their superior state, when they are agents of an institution rather than human people, they will do unspeakable things in the name of whatever order has imbued them with that apparent authority. And the results are terrifying and on display.
But the problem is that we attribute rationality to the side with the uniform and chaotic irrationality to anyone who stands in their way. This hearkens back to the ongoing discussion of reasons that I brought up in my last post. Anyone who is an “enemy of the state” must have no reason whatsoever for their actions because we are Right and they are Wrong. But of course people do have reasons, even for committing crimes (if in fact they are committing crimes, which most of the minorities gunned down by police of late have not been). They have reasons and we need to examine those and think about them and make changes based on what is really going on.
There are two conversations that I think we need to have in the wake of Ferguson:
1. Why do we live in a society where people feel so unsafe?
America, as a society, enjoys more material wealth and access than pretty much anywhere, ever. This is grossly unequally distributed for no particularly good reasons beyond greed and the laziness/selfishness of those at the top. Strangely, dangling incredible wealth and power in front of a bunch of people denied it for arbitrary reasons will upset those people. We have also constructed this society entirely on the basis of wealth and power meaning everything in the society and being the only determinants of a person’s value and worth, to themselves and others. On top of this, the requirement of having wealth extends to people literally having no food to eat and no roof over their head if they fail to accumulate it. The collective pressure this creates on people arbitrarily denied and/or placed at the bottom is overwhelming.
On top of this, we have gargantuan corporate interests designed to play on fear and rake money away from the wealthy and powerful by capitalizing, literally, on this fear. We have a security industry that is absolutely ballooning right now, not just in home security, but in private security forces everywhere that put on their own little corporate uniform and go intimidate their respective “bad guys” wherever they may crop up. We have a prison-industrial complex demanding a requisite number of bad guys (the ones who survive their shootings) to lock away and guard and intimidate for a requisite number of years, with more prisons to build to keep them away. America imprisons 44% more people than China, despite having 25% of the population and 0% of its Police State reputation, at least in our own eyes. Those numbers don’t look stark enough. We have 144% of China’s prisoners and China has 400% of our population. One quarter of the world’s prisoners are imprisoned in this country, but we have only 5% of the world’s population.
And part of our fear can probably be attributed to the good old institutional conservatism that comes with perceiving you have more to lose than you do to gain. It is precisely our wealth and power and privilege that makes us so afraid and makes us want to shoot and lock up anyone who would take our stuff, because who wouldn’t want our stuff, because we’re so great? So not only do the few people who would commit crimes probably have good sound structural reasons for doing so, defying the myth of “dangerous people” who would just commit crimes regardless, but our sense of fear is grossly inflated in comparison to the threat and danger that’s out there. But we keep passing harsher laws with harsher sentences to assuage our sense of burgeoning fear, but it’s really just feeding the insatiable monster of corporate fear and imprisonment that is making some of the highest profits in the land.
The distinction, by the way, between fear of safety from domestic crime and that from international terrorism, really starts to break down here. The only key distinction is that there is so much less of a threat from international terrorism and thus that threat is even more obviously grossly exaggerated. But the entire dynamic between people profiting off inflating our fears and us paying corporations for the illusion of safety pretty much works for both, right down to the overt racism of who we’re trained to fear and there being actual reasons for whatever limited threat there might be, etc.
2. Why does race continue to be the way people in this country, especially in authority, sort other people?
I know there’s a lot that sociologists or anthropologists might say here about this being innate to who we are and “hard-wired” into our fabric as people, but if we’re going to go there, rape and murder and urinating in the woods are equally deeply ingrained and yet we aspire to stop doing those things too. The whole point of society and human progress is to overcome the barbarity of human nature, so don’t tell me we can’t beat this one.
Race isn’t even real. It’s a racist white person’s view of how people look, which is how we can get “Asian” as a race representing the most diverse and largest continent in the world as a whole, but “Hispanic” is a race of white people that look a little darker than the other white people. So why does this busted sorting mechanism still hold so much thrall over how our authorities behave?
I don’t have a lot of answers for fixing this one, but I do know it pervades all institutions and, ultimately, all individuals. As individuals, I think we need to stop utilizing race as a descriptor in as many situations as we can, stop talking about it like it’s real except where we need to (as in identifying racism). Even things that are supposedly empowering, like talking about the “Black experience”, serve to make race more real and especially to make sweeping stereotypes and generalizations which are the root of racism in the first place. I am not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t discuss all aspects of prejudice and racism and problem that we can identify, but I think we need to get away from using this as a sort criterion in places where we can. And I know there are people who will think this is my White Privilege talking and that Whites can afford to not talk about race, but others can’t, but I think you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying. I’m saying that we should stop talking about other people primarily by their race. If it is helpful to you to identify with a race and talk about that experience in terms of that, fine. But other people shouldn’t be putting that on you and should stop as much as possible.
Part of the problem is that people, especially police, use race as their first sort criterion. And lots of people do it in casual conversation about people as well, though far more in New Jersey than they did in the Bay Area, I’ve noticed. And once you start describing someone by race first, even if it’s just as a way of separating them in a crowd, then all kinds of assumptions and stereotypes and garbage follow. And you’re not thinking about that person as an individual, but as a group. And not a group with actual characteristics, but literally a racists’ grouping of that group and everything that entails. And this makes things worse. Quadruply so when it’s in the context of reporting crimes or possible suspects of same.
And this gets into the institutional issues. And this is a really thorny problem. I think it would be better, holistically, if the SAT didn’t ask people their racial information. That said, doing so is considered the only way to catch institutional racism within the SAT. Most places where racial data is collected in the United States are using that to try to track issues of racism and racial inequality. But that process itself engenders more institutional racism. It is helpful to know that Black and Latino citizens are far more likely to be unemployed in our economy than Whites. However, this data itself is creating racist assumptions and understandings in our collective understanding of these artificial groups. And this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle throughout our institutions. Which is exactly how Ferguson can be happening fifty years after Freedom Summer and Freedom Summer happened one-hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
We need to track racial data to know that minorities are convicted and imprisoned at a vastly higher rate than Whites and this is likely because of racism. But this same data tells us that minorities commit far more crimes and thus justifies racial profiling in Police Departments all over the country, which creates Ferguson. And the only thing that I can identify for sure in all this is that talking about race like it’s real and not like it’s a social construct primarily used to justify racism is a big part of the problem.
Which is not to say that people can’t still identify with the parts of themselves that matter to them and their actual experience. Please don’t misunderstand me. It might be very important to a person we label as Black that they are of African descent and that their ancestors were slaves who were freed and all sorts of other things that we currently identify with the “Black experience”. But the race is just a way of saying “White people think you’re Black”. Which is helpful in discussing racism, which is perceptual, but not helpful in discussing the individual’s identity, which may have a long history of national origin and culture that they choose to embrace or not.
I think that element of choice is part of what’s essential. No one chooses race. And no one chooses their ancestry, either, but one can choose what’s important to their identity about it.
This becomes clearer, I think, when looking at mistaken racial identity. My debate team that I just coached had all sorts of people whose racial identity was wrongly identified all the time. A Dominican who was always perceived to be Black, Indians who were always seen as Hispanic, and so on. And in this, when people are looking at race, you are not your actual identity. You are your perceived identity, because that’s all race is, how someone looks. Functionally, those people were their mistaken race. And in a debate league, they may have time to correct the misunderstanding and identify their actual background. But in a dark alley facing police, no amount of clarification is going to do any good. They are what they are perceived to be and if the police are racist, by training or persuasion, then that’s that.
Even if you disagree with me vehemently and think that race as it is constructed can some day be a force for good, I think we can agree that a conversation about revamping how race is dealt with and seen in this country is necessary. And while I am uncertain as to the precise prescription for fixing this issue, I know it starts with that.
In the meantime, the buses of protesters will continue to roll toward Missouri as they did fifty years ago toward Mississippi. And Obama and the one Black police officer they can find to read prepared statements will continue to blame the protesters for causing a ruckus and being upset about the state of things, continue to advocate for law and order. But as long as law and order means putting on a uniform and believing you are a Good Guy out there to hunt down Bad Guys, then this kind of awfulness is going to continue. Only people dealing with people, flaws and all, working together, can solve this crisis. Hiding behind a uniform, an institution, a set of beliefs about your superiority, is only going to lead to more deaths.
My friend Ariel isn’t on Facebook. Thus she was inevitably confused by my portrayal of a lot of the Robin Williams reactions in Wednesday’s post about suicide. To her mind, there weren’t a lot of people trying to stifle discussions of suicide and its real causes and she pointed me instead to this New Yorker article, their currently most popular online feature.
Of course, this article opens up a whole related but slightly different can of worms in the way people talk about suicide. Andrew Solomon takes the opportunity to use his piece to gently lampoon the notion that one could even have a reason for killing themselves. Consistently using quotation marks around the word “reason”, he states that an effort to explain why people take this very conscious, deliberate, and permanent act “seems to bring logic to the illogic of self-termination.” He takes as given that no one could have a reason, good or otherwise, for this action, and concludes the paragraph saying “as, indeed, most people who kill themselves have little ‘reason’ other than depression (unipolar or bipolar), which is at the base of most suicide.”
Not only is a lot of this exactly what I was railing against in my prior post, but it smacks of the insidious way that the US media talks about terrorism and other acts they find abhorrent, unrelatable, and thus, they conclude, must be inexplicable. I wrote about this in the context of coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings last year:
“This is why acts of terror are chronically called ’senseless,’ ‘insane,’ ‘unfathomable,’ and other similar words. You may mistake all these synonyms for just being characterizations of duress and grief, but they are far more insidious than that. These words are carefully chosen to illustrate that the only cause for terrorism is not misused anger or understandable, if abhorrent, desire to stand up and kill for what someone thinks is right, but total incomprehensible craziness. Even though the news also begrudgingly (though decreasingly) reports our many actual crimes against humanity abroad (Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, drone strikes, civilian casualties, military rapes, etc.). Even though we use the exact same means as the terrorists in killing other people, often innocent people, for a broader self-interested cause. When we do it, it’s righteous. When someone else does it, we can’t even think about why.”
-18 July 2013
What Solomon clearly fails to see is how insulting this perspective is on suicide and how demeaning it is to those wrestling with it. He clearly should understand this. He says “Suicide is not a casual behavior; for all that it may entail impulsivity, it is also a profound and momentous step for which many people don’t have the force of will.” And he goes on to praise Robin Williams as intelligent and brilliant, at least via inference, without the slightest understanding that he is saying Williams’ most momentous decision of his life was made, literally, without thinking. That he could not possibly have had a reason.
But reason is behind everything we do in this life, including the decision to end that of our own or others. The increasing narrative abroad in the land seems to be that acts we don’t like should be branded as done without reason so as to disregard them and discredit their doers. No wonder mass-murderers are feeling compelled to leave multi-hundred-page manifestos before they go on shooting rampages and suicide bombers film videos of themselves making explanations. It’s almost like they wouldn’t do these things without the reasons that they find very compelling for doing them. Not only does saying that there can’t possibly be a reason ignore the blatant truth of reality, but it causes us to fail to engage with things that harm society in any way that could lead to fixing them. If the only thing we can do in the face of mass-shootings or terrorism or suicide is to throw up our hands and go “oh, people without reason, guess they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do!”, then we might as well not try to solve or do anything at all.
Which seems, recurrently, to be the point of the way so many people are talking about suicide and why I had tangible suggestions for those actually dealing with it in my last post. Because so many of the people writing about suicide have no earthly idea what contemplating it is actually like, people approach it like a rabid three-headed chinchilla that can’t be tamed but some professional must somehow be able to deal with, maybe, but gosh, that’s so illogical. And Mr. Solomon demonstrates his poor understanding profoundly, with this trite and pathetic conclusion: “Williams’s suicide demonstrates that none of us is immune. If you could be Robin Williams and still want to kill yourself, then all of us are prone to the same terrifying vulnerability.” No, sir. The way you write about suicide shows that you are thoroughly immune. Which is great, good for you. Now please stop talking about this so that people who actually struggle can speak about the actual experience and what it really feels like.
I am not criticizing my friend Ariel for sending me this article, but I also know that she and I are on opposite sides of the cup-fullness debate. And I think this article may help a lot of people who have no preliminary comprehension of suicidalism feel like they are getting an understanding of the phenomenon. But it is wrong-headed to say that rational, intelligent, suffering people have no reasons for the choice they make as though depression were some kind of Imperius Curse that just forced them to have no alternative. Thousands of suicidal people who don’t die every day are proof that there is a choice and thousands of suicide notes are proof that there are reasons.
I’m curious whether Mr. Solomon wrote his piece before or after the revelation that Robin Williams was facing a Parkinson’s diagnosis on top of his other struggles and had years of slow degeneration to look forward to. I wonder if that meets his “reason” criterion or if we could learn that Williams was terminal and experiencing massive trauma in every single nerve-ending and Solomon would still brazenly trudge on in the belief that self-termination is always the ultimate proof that people can act without reasons.
I’ve been trying to think of a way to tie this issue to the Ferguson, Missouri question and how people are discussing it, but I don’t think I can really get there. I’m honestly exhausted with defending the notion that suicidal people may have good reasons to be sad, upset, and yes, even consider ending their own lives. I would like to talk about happier topics, like the Mariners’ possible playoff run and more intricacies of New Orleans, but my anger about how people are discussing this topic is having trouble subsiding.
The reason that I want to understand is why people feel so much better if they can just say that something is totally unreasonable. Maybe it’s coming from a debate background where everything is on the table and anything can be defended in one way or another that makes this notion so alien to me, but the idea that one can just dismiss out-of-hand the idea that another person has reasons for what they’re doing is the definition of unobservant behavior to me. You may not like the reasons and the reasons may not make perfect sense or even be right. But there are reasons for everything a person does. It’s kind of what defines a person.
But I guess if we’re all allegedly just materialist machines, then the mainstream belief is that thought and reason don’t exist at all. There’s only the machine, whose goal is survival and procreation, and it is either working as intended or broken. And any action that interferes with the goal is defined as being broken, so please make sure you go to the mechanic to get tuned up if you’re broken! You may think this is an oversimplification, but it’s a lot like what the logic of this mentality sounds like to me. And it should scare you if you believe in free will or non-conformity or even just a notion of basic personal liberties, at least a little. People are people, not machines. Hopelessly more complicated and always acting with reasons. You don’t have to like the reasons or agree with them, but it is so doggone demeaning to say they aren’t there.
“And when the guy said, ‘Well, do you ever get depressed?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sometimes I get sad.’ I mean, you can’t watch news for more than three seconds and go, ‘Oh, this is depressing.’ And then immediately, all of a sudden, they branded me manic-depressive. I was like, ‘Um, that’s clinical? I’m not that.’ Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh, yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh, yeah.”
-Robin Williams, Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, 2006
The way people talk about suicide in this country infuriates me. Because most of it is very much a way of not talking about it. People treat suicide like it’s ultra-contagious ebola, that it is unspeakable, unthinkable, and that even discussing it without a biohazard suit on will somehow create a wave of copycat suicides and an epidemic and therefore we should just zip our lips and praise the person who just “died” (not, never ever, “killed themselves”, even though that’s what actually happened) and ignore the gargantuan elephant busting down the walls of the room that the person in question just chose to publicly end their own lives as a statement. If the monks in Vietnam had lit themselves on fire in 2014, the bylines would just talk about their clinical depression and how it’s really sad we couldn’t have shipped more therapists into Vietnam along with our napalm, but gosh they did some good praying before they died.
I am really angry.*
*I know this is an emotion and it’s a strong one and also a negative one, and therefore I probably have several clinical things wrong with me that require pharmaceuticals to pacify me, but buckle up kids, because we’re going to talk about emotions like they are real.
Before Robin Williams killed himself earlier this week, I posted this on Facebook about roughly the same issue:
“Reading David Foster Wallace always makes me think deeply about what it means to be a person and the importance of imposing that question on daily life. Which I would imagine would be a legacy he’d be immensely proud to be known for. That said, it drives me utterly crazy that book jackets and flaps insist on the perversely simple ‘He died in 2008′ to explain his current absence from the world. It’s as though he were hit by a helicopter crossing the street or something equally hapless and mundane, not that he’d made a deliberate choice. I suspect he’d be equally bothered.”
-26 July 2014
And while a lot of people echoed the sentiment and agreed that there should be more open discussion of this, some people complained that suicide gets “fetishized” which seemed to me akin to the idea that we should censor the information of people’s suicides, its methods, any note or parting thoughts they left. And while I agree that some people are fascinated by suicide and its details for the wrong reason, the same is true about pretty much everything bad that ever happens in the world. But failing to talk about anything bad ever, while it may be the ultimate direction of our media, is not yet the norm, and of course stifles a conversation about, y’know, how to make things better.
Suicide is complicated. It’s icky, it makes people feel bad, and it is completely unrelatable for those who don’t experience suicidalism. I have to believe that the main reason suicide and its details are such a third-rail for so many is that it is so completely alien to the average person that they truly believe thinking about it or talking about it will give it to them, like ebola, and that something they find abhorrent and scary and awful will just infect them if they read about it or do anything other than say “blah blah blah I can’t hear you, please go talk to a professional”. But it is precisely this attitude about suicide and this shunting it off to the side that prevents the actually suicidal from feeling like they have a place to go or an outlet for talking about suicidalism the way they want to.
Indeed, this post from the Washington Post has been getting a lot of social media traction and includes the line “Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion,” attributed to Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and, I promise, someone who has never wrestled personally with being suicidal. This line so fundamentally misunderstands the suicidal mentality that it would make your head spin, and does. For the suicidal, it is always an option. The issue is keeping it at bay long enough to delay it until the option doesn’t feel as wildly present anymore.
Like alcoholism, suicidalism is always present for the suicidal. You never get over it completely, it never fails to be an option. It’s just not something you want as much in the better times, something you can keep at bay. But no alcoholic ever thinks of a beer as not an option, much less does someone sharing “gosh, I want a beer” on social media constitute a clear and present danger to their sobriety. (If it does, they are completely and totally hosed in their efforts to stay sober in the United States of America.) And while I might personally say that a campaign to ban alcohol advertising everywhere to support alcoholics recovering would be a good step, no one else in the world would agree with me. It would be as ludicrous as Ms. Moutier’s statement should be considered.
True, not everyone, especially not vulnerable young teenagers first wrestling with the idea of being suicidal, has developed their strategies and coping mechanisms and ways to survive suicidalism. They are more vulnerable, susceptible, and prone to influence, like teenagers everywhere. But what kind of message does it send them to say that we shouldn’t talk about Robin Williams’ death as a suicide, shouldn’t mention how he did it, shouldn’t even deal with anything other than his wonderful career and “mental health issues”? Which, I’m sorry, but is a codeword for Feelings Which Shall Not Be Named. It’s a way of saying the only person you should ever begin to discuss your extreme feelings with is your therapist, because only they have the proper biohazard suit to deal with this ebola you are suffering from.
Yeah, that sounds like a really reassuring recipe for scared and vulnerable young teens wrestling with suicidalism. You have your hour a week with a trained professional to discuss those feelings. Otherwise, your feelings are invisible to us, kind of scary, and will be ignored even though it’s obvious they are impacting prominent people in our society in a profound way.
It would be like displaying the 9/11 footage and talking about United and American’s great track-record of safety and that anyone with concerns about how the planes came to end up in the buildings should discuss it with a local building engineer of their choosing. Anything else might inspire other people to crash planes into buildings!
When I was working at Rutgers, I would discuss the nature of suicidal feelings with some students struggling with same. I was later admonished against this by the administration that was trying to use some controversial aspects of my coaching as a way of ending the debate program that they felt was not a good use of money, as supported by the betrayal of my Assistant Coach at the time. One of the many reasons that I decided to quit my job was that it was very hard to imagine how I could continue to do it effectively without being able to discuss emotions and feelings and sometimes, yes, even suicidal thoughts, with the students who I’d spend forty to sixty hours a week working with. The attitude of the university and its official policy was that such thoughts and feelings were to be immediately referred to crisis staff, whose only role was to whisk the students off campus and into seclusion fast enough so that they would not become a negative statistic for the university. There has been a lot of public discussion lately about how university policies around suicide are actually encouraging and promoting the feeling of life-collapse for those already vulnerable to harming themselves. That somehow removing someone from their support and community, calling them a failure, and telling them to stay away until they get better is exactly the recipe for getting someone already suicidal to be even more serious about that effort. But universities, as a general rule, don’t institutionally care about these people and their ultimate fate. They care about liability and responsibility and our society says that no one can blame them if it didn’t happen “on their watch”, even if they were entirely the precipitating cause of an eventual suicide.
But something that I would discuss with people included my own personal strategies for surviving 24 years and counting as a suicidal person. I don’t know if these things are taught by therapists or not because I’ve never seen one, primarily in the last few years for fear of being locked up, shocked, and/or medicated against my will. Unfortunately our society sees these outcomes as ultimately best and once that ball starts rolling, it’s impossible to stop if you took the first step of your own free will. And sorry, but my free will is more important to me than being deemed “healthy” by a jury of this society’s standards.
Here are things they don’t discuss in these prissy little articles telling you to say that Robin Williams merely “died” and it was “unfortunate”:
1. You are more vulnerable to an impulsive suicide than a planned one. Planning takes time and effort. Set the bar and standards high for your suicide so that it will take longer to plan and you will have more time to talk yourself out of it. Don’t settle for something quick and mundane, no matter how much you’re hurting. When you are suicidal, you are also depressed and exhausted, have low energy, and the effort of doing something elaborate will be overwhelming and you will sleep instead and tomorrow might be better.
2. Hide your knives. Hide the utensils if necessary. Don’t leave anything dangerous lying around. You will of course know where you hid these things, but those extra few seconds of rummaging may be life-saving and critical. Again, it takes effort, which you tend not to have the energy for in the worst times. Put as many little barriers between yourself and something impulsive as possible. Stay back from ledges. Do not stand on the edge of train platforms, even when you’re doing better.
3. Set a very high bar for your suicide note. It is the last thing you will ever leave on this planet. It must be the best thing ever. It must say everything possible to everyone. Does this seem hard? Does this require a lot of planning? Might it not be better to deliver some of these messages in person? Good, wait till tomorrow and go talk to those people, tell them what you have to say in person. Keep revising the note. It’s not really perfect yet, is it? Maybe next week.
4. Take risks. Big ones. Keep in mind that suicide will prevent all of your other options, ever. If you’re willing to go there, you should be willing to do everything short of that. This includes running away, disappearing, renaming yourself, taking out all of your savings, if applicable, (or debt if not) and going on the trip you always dreamed of. If you’re really that suicidal, start treating yourself like a terminal cancer patient. Get all you can out of the next few days and weeks. You’ll probably find something fun or enjoyable or livable or good in there. Give yourself a chance to be happy after all you’ve been through. Even if it’s just for a few days. You’ll be glad you did, even if you ultimately make the same choice, but odds are that it will lead you down a different path that’s more livable.
5. It is okay to be sad. Everyone is sad. If you are not sad in this world the way it is structured, you are a nincompoop. This does not mean there isn’t joy in the world, or elation, or things to look forward to. But the people who aren’t sad, frankly, aren’t paying attention. Look at how people treat each other. Look at the wars and the famines and the plagues and the poverty. Look at it! But here’s the thing. You can’t just stew in your room about these things. Go talk to someone about it. If they just don’t want to go there and think about sad things, who needs them? Find someone who can take it. Everyone is truly sad about these things and the ones who aren’t are just in denial. Sadness does not mean you have a fucking disease. It means you have your eyes open in a place with real horror in it every day. But the horror only continues if everyone who sees the horror leaves. Your ability to actually see it gives you an obligation to do something about it to make it better. If everyone did that, the world would have wayyy less horror. So go talk to someone about it. Even if you have zero energy to do anything about it right now, talking to someone and feeling that sadness together will make you both feel a little less alone.
6. What do you like? Is there a new thing of that coming out soon? Books, movies, video games? I bet you can’t really wait till the next big one of those comes out. Wouldn’t it be sad if that were the best thing ever and you missed it? I know it’s a long painful time to wait. Why don’t you spend all of your time before then reading/watching movies/playing video games? Yes, all of it. All of it. You could! If you’re not going to live at all, if you’re really willing to go there, shouldn’t you be willing to just do the one thing you enjoy doing 100% of the time first? It beats the crap out of dying.
7. What if your best friend/mother/favorite celebrity killed themselves? Wouldn’t you feel awful about that? Wouldn’t you feel personally rejected and like there must have been something you could have done to help? Now, do you really want to put your loved ones through that? Really and truly? Even if you think some of them deserve that, do all of them? Even if you think no one in the world cares about you at all, is that really true? Really? Find the one person who might be an exception and tell them how you’re feeling and how much you need them. If you don’t, they will spend the rest of their life wishing that you had and that will be on you that you made them feel that way.
Now, many of these may not work for you. I’m sure some of them sound trite or trivial or stupid. But every single one of the above strategies has prevented me from killing myself at least once in the last 24 years. Every one. And in case you don’t think I have enough cred in this department since it’s been 24 years since I made a serious effort, I’ll tell you a little story. Last fall, under immense suffering and a confluence of seemingly ruinous events, I banged my head into a plaster wall, hard, eight times in a row. It was the back of my head, sure, because I was hedging a little, but I gave myself a concussion and have had floaters in both eyes since about a month after the incident. There’s a particularly bad one in my right eye that gives me more headaches than I used to have, especially when I read a lot, one of the things I truly love doing.
I get mad at myself every day for doing this, especially when the floaters are really prominent (there are better days and worse days). And it fuels my anger-spiral and my self-hate and all the things I wrestle with. These things are not a fucking disease, but they are the realities of living on this planet and having feelings and experiences that are not always cheery. Robin Williams did not have a disease, he was a person, complicated, feeling, compassionate, with a deep understanding and fear of the human condition.
And maybe if he’d lived in a society that made it more okay to talk about those things, to reach out to others (not just “professional experts”), one that didn’t shun and shunt suicidalism off to the corner and call depression ebola, he’d still be with us today. Your silencing of this discussion is killing people. And it’s not okay.
My floaters have given me another little strategy, another thing to be upset about. Even though they’ve diminished my quality of life, they are a reminder that acting on my suicidal feelings does harm to me and that I’d rather live most days without harm. So it’s made the consequences a little more real. And that’s a good reminder.
Every time a celebrity kills themselves, it’s a little totem of the same thing. It’s a reminder that we need to talk about feelings and emotions and the state of our world and work to improve all of them. Not in our biohazard suits, but raw, openly, laid bare, with all our thoughts, feelings, and real experiences on the table. If we were all just real and open and honest with each other about our darkest hours, we’d all realize how un-alone we truly are.
When I worked at Glide in San Francisco, I worked with an intern from Germany on a project about the nature of Glide as an institution. It was a special project for the then CEO, newly hired, who wanted to study why Glide as an entity was so resistant to change and data despite being so effective at providing help for the poor and homeless of the city. The metaphor my co-worker came up with was a unicorn, which stood in for the mystical Glide culture that pervaded everyone’s image of Glide as a place and an institution in the community. Which is not to say that Glide isn’t a truly magical place, but that the image everyone had in their mind was that this more deeply magical than perhaps was real. And it came down to this unicorn that needed to be protected and sheltered, when it should actually be running free through the streets of the Tenderloin.
The issue is this: Glide became what it is (revolutionary, radically inclusive, a church without walls, a life-changing place) by taking risks, sometimes risking everything. This was easy to do at first because Glide was young and had nothing to lose. Glide was just an aging Methodist church in a decaying neighborhood when Cecil Williams arrived in the sixties and he had a vision that he was able to put into practice because he was totally unafraid of the consequences or the risks. This kind of fearless abandon is the heart of the unicorn, it was what was so downright inspiring about the early years of Glide, and it is what spawned such radical and amazing change and possibility.
But here’s the problem. The more success that this methodology encountered, the more success there was to build on within Glide as an institution. Over time, Glide was no longer just the fringe radical group that accepted gays and fed everyone. It acquired powerful friends like Maya Angelou and the Clintons and Warren Buffett. It acquired donors by the thousands, volunteers by greater thousands. It got government contracts, grants, and a certain institutional entrenchment that meant Glide suddenly had things to lose and thus to protect. No longer could Glide risk everything so freely because there was nothing to lose. Now there was influence and ability to lose, with thousands of San Franciscans relying on the services Glide could provide that was made possible in large part by these key connections and assets.
This success, this accumulation of power and influence and assets, this process makes institutions more conservative. And what the intern and I identified and proposed is that there is a tipping point where the component parts of the institution (staff) believe there is more to be potentially lost from the future than gained, and at or around that tipping point is when an institution goes from being idealistic and radical to protectionist and conservative. And the grand irony at Glide is that what everyone most wanted to protect was the mythical unicorn of Glide culture, whose every aspect was non-conformity, radicalism, inclusivity, and risk-taking. In other words, what everyone wanted to hunker down and preserve was the exact opposite of the attitude of hunkering down and preserving. And thus we presented our findings to an all-staff (or maybe all-manager?) meeting and started to put about a plan where Glide could both preserve its radicalism but become fluid and idealistic as it had always been and everyone always wanted.
I post this little vignette not to publicize somewhat internal information about Glide, an institution that I believe in fully and you should support, but because since doing this study in 2008, I have found the lessons of this understanding to be true about almost every institution everywhere. And not just institutions, perhaps, but people. It is complete cliche that the young are idealistic radicals and the old are cynical conservatives, but no one really analyzes why this is the case other than the shorthand that age creates conservatism. The older conservatives would argue this is because experience teaches you that conservatism is correct, but I think the flaw in this reasoning is obvious from the above. It’s not age itself, but the process of accumulating things that one fears losing. This is why the rich are more conservative than the poor, because they have more to lose. The entire spectrum of idealism can be measured by whether one fears the future more or finds it offering more hope. And that, in turn, is based entirely on what one feels one has to lose.
This is also why children are, in general, so wide-eyed and optimistic and idealistic. The future is where everything sits for children and, as a rule, even if they have things they don’t appreciate them fully because they can’t contrast it with the concept of not having them (unless, of course, they’ve experienced many different qualities of life over the course of their few years). Teenagers especially find the future and the immediate present to be vibrant with radiating possibility and freedom and thus take the most radicalism on. And by the time people are settled with jobs and relationships, suddenly the future looks like it’s coming for their stability more than offering more possibility. Doubly so if there are debts like student loans and mortgages to be paid.
Thus the challenge of the would-be idealist, the person who aspires to be King or Gandhi and reach much older age with idealism fully intact, is to be willing to take risks and not feel like there is much to be lost even if there are material things or stability to be lost in actuality. This, I suppose, is the heart of bravery and fearlessness, to act as though there’s nothing to lose even if there is, and is certainly what King and Gandhi called on from themselves and their supporters. Of course the lesson of those individuals precisely is that there is, indeed, everything to be lost, one’s own future time on this planet is completely at risk from behaving this way, yet both lived for years with the assassin’s bullet as a fully formed threat in the future and proceeded heedlessly and to great and wonderful effect.
Our society is a raging torrent of influences to get us to be more conservative, to fear the future, to hunker, bunker, and protect. The entire world of advertising, arguably the most powerful, constant, and influential voice in our world, tells us to fear this, that, or the other, and that only a product or service they are selling will mitigate the impending doom. Our news-media is a disaster-hound, teaching us to fear hurricanes and gunmen and people who don’t look like us who are coming for our stuff and our lives and our livelihoods. Our government, especially in the United States, is in endless paranoia about things being taken from a country the envisions itself as having absolute power, influence, and dominance, and thus absolutely everything possible to lose. This is why 9/11 can spawn the Patriot Act and war without end, because we are so darn afraid of losing anything that we flail hopelessly at the rest of the world for even thinking it could take anything from us, no matter how small that something is or overreactive our lashing out.
But there’s a reason that we idealize childhood, that being young is associated with joy and hope and the way we aspire to see the world. It’s because the world of the young is full of possibility and hope and a future that looks bright, whether or not it actually proves to be. Deep down, this is the way we all seek to live, the way we all know we should be living. We all have dreams that we’ve wanted to sacrifice for at some point. And it’s harder when the things we’re hunkering and bunkering to protect are marriages and children and the house with the white picket fence we’ve just agreed to pay off for three decades. And 100% risk is not for everyone. But I think examining your own calculus of more-to-gain or more-to-lose from the future is a great guidepost to looking at your own idealism and getting back to a place where the future is pregnant with possibility, not portentous with loss.
Certainly the institutions in which we interact, work, and play could learn a lot from this. But that starts with each of us being idealistic enough to take those chances and inspire others to do the same. Only then are we really living, are we really free, and are our unicorns real.
The city of New Orleans belongs to the trees. In the rollicking residential neighborhoods of gaslamps and pillars, porches and endlessly long thin houses, the trees grow big as the houses themselves, mighty roots the size of trees in other lands pushing and pulling at the sidewalk, casting aside concrete slabs like so much paper in the wind. In other cities, men with backhoes would come and hack at the living wood, tamp it down, corral it, make it bend to human will so the sidewalk could lie flat and even and safe for wheels and half-drunk tourists. Not so here. Here the humans put up cautionary hands, accept their place in the hierarchy, allow the trees to sprawl as God intended, make adjustments, trip over cracks in the pavement and dip their tires down low to accommodate.
The only battle of significance ever fought here was after the war in which it played a role had officially ended. The city is the largest in the world to sit below sea level, a fact painfully raised by the 2005 hurricane that conspired with human neglect to nearly destroy the place. The largest celebration of the year honors the last day of bliss before forty days of restraint and self-reflection, one final bacchanalian death throe before the calm of the days that follow.
In most civilized parts of the world, the humans there try to control the land they’re on, to shape it and alter it so it conforms to their vision of existence. Here there is a sense of acquiescence, of acknowledgment of forces beyond control, be they trees that shape the roadways or ghosts that shape the past. The lights flicker and dance, the revelers do the same, the low-lying lands give off the feeling that one is already underwater, drowning, going down fast, and it’s time to let go. The symbol of the city is a long-dead flower of a long-dead monarchy in a country whose influence over the city ended, directly, two centuries ago. There is a palpable feeling sometimes, in the heat and humidity of an August afternoon, that we might all be dead already, that we are living out the memories of our lives as they once were, some sort of haunted mansion planet that people can only come to visit and see through crystal balls or lettered boards or Geiger-style counters in the basement frost.
Of course there are people doing the hard work of restoration. One sees it everywhere, taking buildings that may not have been working or at least glorious since The Storm and mulching the front lawn, repainting the pillars, replacing the windows. There are workers everywhere in this part of the city where we’ve settled, sweating through their shirts and pointing to various detail work for the wealthy families come to reclaim their patch of heaven. So it is everywhere in a nation such as ours, even in the fabled lands below the waterline. Here I feel none of the defiance of New Jersey, though, or even Boston. It’s more of a humble effort in the face of the inevitable. “How do we ever survive this life?” I asked myself in a fit of despair the other day. Then I started giggling, almost uncontrollably.
The joke is that we don’t.
The first month I lived in New Jersey, Fish and I went to see Counting Crows play at the Borgata and then stayed up most all of the night playing poker. I wrote about it here, at the time. The month I moved away, we did the same thing. It’s just one of those things. Like the only PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans on Earth outside of the southern US being in Highland Park, New Jersey when I moved there and closing the month I move to New Orleans. It’s enough to make you a solipsist, or at least to be very focused with one’s own life, something Counting Crows shows always have a way of doing, as I’ve talked about recently in the wake of a just earlier show.
There’s a theory I have sometimes, that I think about more than I’d care to, about life as Contract Bridge. It’s a version of solipsism and probably something that just missed inclusion in The Best of All Possible Worlds but might even make a decent sequel if that book were up for that sort of thing. In any event, the idea doesn’t necessitate solipsism, though it certainly implies it or a warped expanded kind of meta-solipsism. The idea is that there are a million of each of us out there, living on parallel worlds, and we’re all basically playing our own individual video games of our own lives, but it’s being scored and at the end you get compared to the other versions of yourself out there. I use this notion to both berate and reassure myself, the idea that there is a Storey Clayton abroad in some far-flung galaxy who took exactly the opportunities I had and is a renowned and well-regarded author with several books that are even now changing his society. Or hell, just a Storey Clayton who was able to not have a marriage taken from him. That would be neat. It’s not always a way of lamenting my fate, it’s at least half the time a way of trying to kick my own rear into gear and remind myself how much potential and opportunity I’ve truly had, which only occasionally slips into a reminder of how pathetically I’ve squandered it.
The circumstances of August 2009 were so vastly different than June 2014 that they don’t even seem like the same planet. But we kept making references to the earlier time, overlooking things like spending the day seeing “500 Days of Summer” earlier that weekend, how significant I found that movie at the time without being able to envision any portends of my own impending doom (reason: there weren’t any portends). We didn’t wait as long in line this time and weren’t quite as close, but the show itself was so much better for the lack of accompanying bands going crazy. The Toad opener was awesome, especially being able to get to see “Something’s Always Wrong”, Fish’s old them song, live with him. And “Windmills” again, which always kills me. The lead singer of Toad kept referencing how crazy it was that the band had broken up 16 years ago and you could feel this kind of reference to the idea that Counting Crows had been together the whole time and what could have been for him and then. You got the feeling that the decade and a half felt like a wasted blur to him. I haven’t seen their VH1 special (if applicable) and don’t know what demons, chemical or otherwise, he may have spent the last few years wrestling with, but I could really relate to the implied sentiment. Of course, one goes to Counting Crows shows to relate with what’s on stage, whether it works or not. That’s just what you do. Hearing him say “We’re hear to sing songs about sad people so you don’t have to,” made me boggle that I’d never heard Adam Duritz drop a line like that.
It would be a fitting epigraph for half my own fiction. Or maybe all of it. There’s always more novels to come.
Fish had sort of promised Madeleine and/or himself that we wouldn’t stay out quite as late this time, but we’d gotten a hotel room in anticipation of breaking that pledge and break it we did. Fish had perhaps his best night of his life on the poker table and then I went to show him Revel before they close it. For the uninformed, it’s a casino that was built to be high-end, 1% style that started building in 2008, which is every bit the disaster you’d expect it to be. By the time they opened it in 2012, it was already bleeding money from every drain. The state owns it now, functionally, and is probably shutting it down in September unless they can find someone to buy it. It’s one of the most beautiful places to gamble I’ve ever seen (I’ve been seeing a lot lately) and the poker room was perhaps my favorite, a place where I always made money and spent one really fun weekend when they’d just opened sipping luxury coffee and scooping some pretty big pots. The poker room closed a while ago, shortly after I cashed in a tournament there, but the rest of the floor is still really beautiful if you can avoid eye contact with the suicidally depressed employees. Revel convinced thousands of people with great casino jobs in NJ and Philly to quit to come to the only place anyone was supposed to be playing after 2012. But the place was bankrupt less than a year after opening and it’s almost all over. We put five bucks on three numbers of a roulette wheel, hit one of them, played a couple more rounds, and walked away with even more of the state of New Jersey’s money.
Then we ran out to the beach to watch the sun rise and take in all the things people feel on beaches when it’s way past bedtime. (Yes, CC played “A Long December,” and there’s all that baggage out there too.) The sands of time, the tides of time, the significance of half a decade spent in a state that I’ve always hated (and it’s grown on me, but only in terms of a few people and really just RUDU, to be honest… even Rutgers as a whole did next to nothing to endear me to the institution), a state that’s made me suffer more concretely than any other by a long shot. The relief and exultation I feel to be leaving the physical state of New Jersey, even despite missing RUDU and access to Philly and AC, is constantly palpable even now, a month and a half after departure. I don’t really believe in curses, but I do believe that significance is infused in time and space, even if it’s only in how we think it makes us feel. Good God.
Since getting here to New Orleans (and playing poker a lot, which is my trial job for now… so far, so good, and yes, I’m monitoring it closely so don’t panic), a lot of people have been talking about Atlantic City like it’s in hospice care. And to be sure, casinos are drying up left and right. Not just Revel, but Alex’s favorite, Showboat, itself something New Orleans themed in New Jersey, is slated to close in September, even though it’s still turning a profit. Pennsylvania just passed NJ as second state in the country for gambling revenues and explains a lot of why AC is falling apart… the Philadelphia market and I-95 corridor now have alternatives that don’t require burning as much $3.50 a gallon gas. Honestly, I just tell people these days that the Mob couldn’t shut down competition forever and I think that explains AC’s demise as much as anything. There’s a lot of grand metaphors to be made about how much America has turned to gambling in the last decade as a balm for its problems and I should honestly be the last to complain given my new attempted livelihood and its enabling, but it does feel like the habit of a country in decline. But then we’ve always been a nation of get-rich-quick and when the bootstraps snap in our hands, I guess the craps table looks as enticing as anything else.
Before I left, a lot of people expressed concern at the proverbial crosshairs I was putting myself into by moving to New Orleans, what with the crime and especially the flooding and the hurricanes. I hastened to point out to them that in the time I lived in New Jersey, New Brunswick got hit with two hurricanes while New Orleans experienced zero. Yes, the specter of Katrina looms large over everything here, but the larger point is that you can spend your whole life running from certain things and planning for certain others. You don’t have any more control over your life than you do over how those dice land. It sure feels like you do because you threw them, but really you’re just facing a series of decisions with very limited information and the best of hopes and intentions but no real power. It should be liberating in a way, though it doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of doing the best with the very limited control you do have. You need to savor what you’ve got. But in the end, it’s the sun and the tides and the seven billion other people who are running this show, not you.
I’ve been struggling with how to write about the past and the present now that I’m ensconced, sort of, in New Orleans. It’s complicated by the fact that the move still isn’t settled here and I don’t know how to talk about that and am not sure I really even want to, at least for now. But there were so many experiences along the way that I was too busy and overwhelmed to discuss, the move (never ever use All-in-One Moving, ever, people), the trip to Orlando and the Georgia beaches where we watched a sea turtle lay eggs and crawl back to the water, everything that’s happened in the city of the fleur-de-lis. And maybe these are best discussed in reflection. One sure as heck doesn’t know how to describe waiting eight hours in a line for an amusement park ride while that’s happening. But it feels crazy to be posting a Counting Crows setlist five weeks in arrears. Or it would if I didn’t spend every morning singing “Cover Up the Sun” to myself in anticipation of the new album now less than a month away.
I will probably never again visit an Atlantic City that looks like the one I spent a decent amount of time in during my five-year tenure in New Jersey. But that’s okay, change is the only constant. All these “New”s are attached to these cities and states to remind us of that. Someday maybe I’ll take a tour of only the olds, hit Mexico and Jersey and Brunswick and York and Orleans. All places, save Mexico I guess, trumped by their newer bigger better counterparts. Before we all hit the tables and gambled away our fortunes. You do remember that’s what happened in 2008, don’t you?
This underwater city seems like as good a place as any to hole up for now. If the apocalypse hit, everyone would help each other out. They’ve done it before. That’s enough change for me today.
God, I didn’t even really talk about the show as much as I wanted. That’s what happens when you let it sit for five weeks. It was a short but powerful set. And they even played Mr. Jones, sparing me the ability to rant about one-song-fans for another few months, though I tell you the rant is pretty sweet. I sure wasn’t expecting that, but I was expecting “Potter” somehow right after “Earthquake Driver”, which I want to put on the record would be the Crows’ biggest hit in years and years on the charts if they release it as a single. Instead, it seems like they’re releasing the 9-minute “Palisades Park” first, which seems to show that now 50-year-old Duritz likes his current touring regimen and is done with big-time fame, even if they did just sign with Capitol. The song does sound like a stream-of-consciousness hybrid of his favorite themes of the last few years. Ah well, we all just want to be understood. That’s what this particular video game/life is about.
28 June 2014
The Borgata – Atlantic City, New Jersey
with Toad the Wet Sprocket
Round Here (Palisades Park alt)
Untitled (Love Song)
Richard Manuel is Dead
Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby
A Long December
Cover Up the Sun
Rain King (Oh Susanna alt)
Holiday in Spain
Alex Zhao, former debater from the University of Chicago, was the first to take up the mantle of refuting yesterday’s post on what I would (and did) call the irrationality of atheism. So consider this part two of what may be a series. I will not reprint the response in full, since you can read it here. But I will engage with the bulk of his argumentation and sometimes quote it.
Zhao (as I will refer to him hereinafter, since half of APDA’s alumni are named Alex and most people online call him Zhao anyway) makes three fundamental arguments:
(1) Storey refuses to clearly define “God”
(2) Storey misunderstands what a hypothesis is
(3) Storey is seeing patterns because he wants to believe
Let’s take them in turn.
(1) Storey refuses to clearly define “God”
This is the argument I probably find most frustrating from Zhao. He is basically asking me to put forward an entire holistic theology in a blog post that engages with the idea that people ought not be sneering knee-jerk atheists who believe that their perspective is more rational than that of believers. I would love to do this and it is in fact one of my five to seven outstanding book projects that I am toying with working on. However, it is a book and not a blog post and would probably be the product of at least three to six months of diligent work. So I’m sorry that I cannot fully flesh out the God that I see evidence for in our universe, which we can both refer to rigidly as the Benevolently Sorrowful God (BSG, if you like) that I referenced last time.
Zhao extra-frustratingly goes on to try to pigeonhole me into some version of the Christian God because I didn’t say “Allah” and I didn’t call God unnameable, about which conceptual frustrations I have recently posted. Let me be clear: I do not believe in the Christian depiction of God or the divinity of Jesus, etc. I do not privilege those versions of God. I believe that the entire point of God is to have a personal relationship with God that most organized religions seem to tacitly or overtly interfere with. Again, my entire definition of God is a book at least, maybe a series. It’s something I think deeply and thoroughly about, but have not crystallized all of my thinking about into a readable version, yet.
So let’s give Zhao some credit with his frustration and say I should make more of an effort to define terms. I will acquiesce to a standard tri-omni God because it gives us something to talk about and is pretty approximately close to what I believe. And here Zhao’s refutation is interesting and meaningful, because he extrapolates my argument to say that a “higher power” running a simulation including us could include “Vulcans from Star Trek” or “Jedi’s from Star Trek” [sic] and so on. Fair enough. My argument may be equally good for Vulcans and for God. But here’s the thing: if our universe is created by an entity that controls everything therein, it is meaningfully synchronous with the concept we attribute to God relative to our own existence. Nothing, for example, prevents there from being a nested series of universes and Gods that control subsequent universes by (a) creating them, (b) overseeing them, and (c) possibly judging them in any number of conceivable ways. Now we can have theological arguments about where that puts us vis a vis this God concept, but an entity that creates and oversees our entire universe looks a lot more like God than it does like atheism, logically speaking.
Even Zhao himself says: “It may perhaps be reasonable to leap from these two premises to a higher power: it does not therefore follow that Storey’s god exists.”
Again, my argument here is that you should be open, logically, to the idea of God. I’m not trying to convert you to the BSG or my vision of God – that would be what my future book would be for. If you’re willing to concede that there’s a higher power that could have created the universe, then much of my work is done.
Which brings us to:
(2) Storey misunderstands what a hypothesis is
This is easily dispatched. Zhao simply restates that simulation is a hypothesis, not a theory, and that as such it has not gained universal traction among scientists, is speculative, and may not be true. Sure. I agree. My argument is if/then… if you are willing to seriously entertain the simulation hypothesis, you must also then logically seriously entertain God. If you think the simulation hypothesis is baloney, then this half of the argument is not for you, as I believe I made relatively clear. I still find it weird that the simulation hypothesis is getting so much play in the popular consciousness and no one is circling it back around to God conceptually, which is why I spent a lot of time on this argument. But by all means, I’m aware that the simulation hypothesis has way less traction overall than the Big Bang Theory, which is why I made the latter half of my post too. So:
(3) Storey is seeing patterns because he wants to believe
This is a critique I’m getting all over the place these days and I find it intellectually insulting, but it seems to be popular for people to throw at anyone’s belief in something that is not science, even though science starts out with a premise and then tests those results, just like any other belief pattern. It just feels like this cynical cop-out that people paste onto anyone believing differently than they do: you must want to believe so much that you find patterns that aren’t there and only take the evidence you want to take! (This recently came up in a discussion of the merit of Myers-Briggs tests on Facebook and again my experience was just labelled as something that must be confirmation bias. By this logic, reality is confirmation bias and we should all retreat to solipsism.)
But in the main of this argument, Zhao completely punts my challenge to explain how everything came from nothing in less than a fraction of a second. Instead, he just says “the Big Bang is almost certainly imperfect at this time, and thus probably is a poor basis for belief in a god,” which is a surprisingly humble statement about a Scientific Fact, which I like to see. But if it’s a poor basis for a belief in God, isn’t it also a poor basis for a belief in not-God, or science, or anything else we believe about the universe? People who ardently believe in everything contemporary science tells them do not go around much saying that we poorly understand evolution or genetics or the origins of the universe and thus let’s not worry about the conclusions reached by these beliefs. I would be a lot less defensive and upset with them if they did. Rather, the typical experience is the sneering superiority I referenced before, the underlying idea that “my beliefs are logical and yours are crazy” that inspired the original post’s tone in the first place.
But then Zhao says something interesting:
It would be as if Storey saw a wasp’s nest, realized it was intricately designed, and then demanded to know why people didn’t seriously entertain the possibility that humans made them all as homes for wasps.
But here’s the thing: wasp’s nests are made by some intelligent being! I actually think Zhao has put forward there what I would consider a pretty good argument for vegetarianism (not that a lot of people eat wasps specifically, but you get the idea), which is that wasps have a sophisticated intelligence capable of creativity. This does nothing to propound the idea that there are things which were made by nothing intelligent. It merely says one type of intelligence created something rather than another. Okay, fair enough. The fundamental premise is sound.
But that’s not even the main point – I do believe that many things about the design of the universe, most specifically that there are fundamental, discoverable, and provable laws that remain consistent throughout time and space (y’know, science) that indicate intelligence and forethought behind them. No matter. That’s not the essence of the issue here. My issue is another if/then: if you believe in the Big Bang, then it indicates God far more than not-God. There is nothing we find anywhere else in the universe or the world of science where all-matter is instantly created from no-matter. This description is very much like the description of God creating things and very much unlike any description found in the rest of science. If science’s best working description for the origin of the universe is that all-matter instantly came from no-matter, doesn’t that seem to imply a creation of some type? And if not, why/how did it happen? Zhao makes no effort to engage with the fundamental question except to say that now he may be doubting the Big Bang because we don’t have all the answers about it yet.
Zhao postscripts that he is an atheist who is open to the possibility of God, which already puts him ahead of a lot of the people I was implicitly refuting in my original post. But he doesn’t really explain anything of what evidence or indications he specifically puts forth to lean toward atheism, just that his holistic judgment is that atheism is more likely than God. Which is fine, because he chooses certain premises to focus on and then draw conclusions from those premises and form his belief set. We all do this, it’s called thinking. But this is a far more humble and nuanced atheism than most scientific atheism, which seems to assert that atheism is Rational and God is Irrational. I will be happy if most people conclude from my post that both are, fundamentally, based on chosen premises and thus not wholly Rational in the way that science/atheism tends to claim. This was my conclusion of my original post. At the end of the day, we are all making choices about what to believe based on decisions to, say, trust our senses or believe what the person next to us is saying. And that puts all beliefs on more or less a parallel footing. The only arguments that we can ever logically make from that are if/then arguments. If premise x is true, then conclusion y follows. And I would posit there is absolutely no irrefutable premise.
So my point in calling atheism irrational is saying that there are premises which most atheists would seem to accept, and the conclusion leans more toward God than atheism, so ardent atheism seems irrational. But an equally important point is that everything we believe is if/then, and your ifs are not necessarily any better than mine. Believing that you don’t have any ifs which are refutable is perhaps the biggest irrationality of all.
Atheism is the prevailing theory of the universe among most intellectuals below a certain age in this country. Many people are ardent atheists, while others acknowledge at least a passing uncertainty, but the avowed belief in God is increasingly becoming categorized in the same general box as those who believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and perhaps that they have personally been kidnapped by aliens upwards of ten distinct times. All of this is done with the same sneering elitism and assumption of universality and correctness with which many intellectuals approach many issues in their life, be it the superiority of certain academic institutions or the idea, say, that people of all races should be treated equally or some other (actual) standard accepted fact.
Much of my source for this understanding of how people behave and think is, of course, the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) community, a place where I spent the formative bulk of my time in my own undergraduate college years and then the last five years of somewhat less formative but somehow no less meaningful or tumultuous time. This is the most unabashedly and thoroughly intellectual community in the United States that exists currently (I will take on all challengers to this mantle, but not spend time doing so in this post) and also among the most sneering… intellectuality and elitism are so intertwined in contemporary America that it makes one almost want to be stupid sometimes just to be unapologetically kind and/or human. And while there are some theists on APDA, they are often ridiculed and scorned, either directly or by association, and the running assumption is that anyone with a shred of skill or talent at debate is of course an atheist, which I ran into in my own personal experience, especially during my recent coaching stint at Rutgers where people would start discussions all the time from the premise that I’m an atheist and would look so puzzled when I corrected them with my actual belief set. One person in such a discussion actually said “But you’re smart!” as, to him, a complete rebuttal to my stated belief in God.
This state of belief and proliferation of atheism as (pun/allusion very much intended) Gospel truth among purveyors of and adherents to logic is, in my opinion, appalling. It is also largely inexcusable for people who actually want to hold a mirror of methodology and logic to their own beliefs which is, near as I can tell, the complete goal of the examined life and logical process in the first place. I would contend that it comes from the same oft-ridiculed place of knee-jerk assumption that is so maligned when it is found among believers. People hear that scientists/respected authorities don’t believe in God, so they don’t either, more or less full stop. Surely some people examine it more than this, some much more, but I don’t think people get a lot further than taking issue with some particular doctrines of specific religions, usually those they have encountered most in their personal lives. Obviously the phenomenon of “person is raised in religion, person has disillusory moment with specific doctrine/person/aspect of religion, person writes off religion wholly as concept” is so common and frequent as to be an almost universal trope of my generation. I had my own religious falling-out when I realized in Catholic mass in seventh grade (Catholic school – I was raised very loosely Episcopalian with salt and alternative theories) that the cross was a method of execution and that if Jesus had been shot, the symbol of Christianity would be a gun, and that there was Something Very Wrong Here and I had to leave the church, both physically at the moment and more metaphorically in the long-term. But to jump from that moment to atheism would be, in my perspective, like having one scientific experiment fail in a chemistry class and then believe that everything ever written or spoken in human history was a deliberate lie.
So let’s address the actual evidence that’s out there, since the idea of God is so often decried as unprovable and irrational and insane. Because science is doing its damnedest to prove and propose the possibility if not the certainty of God and basically no one is paying attention and I find it really irksome.
There are two key issues I’d like to focus on in this post, though there are numerous other proofs of God and aspects of theism that I personally see abroad in the land, so to speak. But the two most obvious and frustrating issues are those that come from the cutting edge of science itself. I’m sure a third would come from the Higgs boson if I understood better what said boson really is or is about (NB: I know that people who like science hate that it’s nicknamed the “God particle” and say it has nothing to do with God. I also suspect that this is because people who like science consider themselves more allergic to the notion of God than EpiPen-wielding children are to bees or peanuts.). Maybe someday. But the two issues that I find glaringly obvious are (1) the simulation hypothesis and (2) the Big Bang.
Nick Bostrom is famous for first seriously proposing the idea that we’re all living in a simulation in a modern scientific-academic context. Of course the idea dates back to Descartes’ brain in a vat and Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream ages before that and the fact remains that for all our invention, intellectual/philosophical thought probably hasn’t progressed during most/all of what we consider human history.
(Brief aside: my friend Michael a month or so ago was discussing a passage in the Odyssey that he loves about Odysseus wailing like one of his victims and that in this moment he seems to be learning compassion for his enemies and realizing that they bleed as he does and that this is beautiful art. I retorted, crankily, that this realization made me suicidal because in 2014 we are no closer as a society or people anywhere to that understanding and we could easily look at all time since ancient Greece as wasted wheel-spinning. Michael was understandably put off and said “okay, Homer makes you want to kill yourself”. This was before the recent re-eruption of Israel/Palestine War number 86,000 roughly reminded me of my own point. We are not making any progress as a species whatsoever.)
In any case, we now have Scientific (TM) backing for something that philosophers and intellectuals have always feared/suspected/wondered about, namely that reality is illusory and perhaps itself a self-defeating concept and that some other force is behind what we see to be true. Bostrom’s paper caused a firestorm in the scientific community and now we have news/media outlets regularly publishing the idea that there’s between a 20-50% chance this is all a simulation. Very serious scientists are now even developing new tests to see if we’re all simulated. And everyone seems to at least be taking this idea seriously until it is concretely disproven somehow.
Yet despite all this recent fervor for the idea that super human intelligence has created simulations and possibly even nested simulations that actually explain what we perceive as reality, no one seems to be making the logical leap (or tiny step, I would argue) that super-human intelligence could be capable of same. In other words, we are somehow capable of imagining and seriously logically engaging with the idea that clones of ourselves could create this reality, but that no one else could. This is, in a word, short-sighted. That’s probably the kindest word I could come up with for it.
At the point where we are willing to put lofty double-digit percentages on the chance that everything we are and see and sense is fabricated as some sort of simulation, the idea that something like God is behind that simulation seems so obvious that it almost defies the suggestion. At the very least, we should be creative enough to imagine that entities far more capable and intelligent that current humans (remember how much progress we’ve made since ancient China and/or Greece) are behind the one-way glass of our simulated existence. At the point where we’re being deliberately simulated, almost anything on the other side of that mirrored wall becomes akin to God in a way that’s meaningful and powerful, and yet there are no serious academic articles a la Bostrom putting God back in the discussion of our everyday life. Somehow we find it realistic and comforting to believe that a 4th grader in Earth-prime could be making us as a science project, but not that someone slightly smarter than a 4th-grader is conducting this as a test of moral progress? Are we really that self-obsessed?
The only viable explanation I can find for this is the same that I find endemic to almost all aspects of atheism: hubris. The atheist, as a general rule, finds it impossible to imagine an intelligence that is more developed or sophisticated than the contemporary Earth human. It places itself at the very pinnacle of the universal food chain, something that one would think at least takes some sort of hit in reference to the idea of a simulated reality when we are not yet, in 2014, capable of creating such seamlessly simulated realities ourselves. But they still put an Earth human behind that glass because it is so hard to admit that Earth humans may be riding the universe’s very short bus indeed compared to what else is out there, let alone what is behind that glass. Given the extreme vastness of the universe, it seems obvious to me that the intelligence of whatever’s behind the glass if we are a simulation is so great as to be worthy of reverence and arguably worship on face. Granted, the cynical among us must entertain the idea that the force is value-neutral or malevolent, and the divorce between intelligence and morality is all the rage these days, but I think there’s plenty of additional evidence abroad in the land for realizing that benevolence is very much a part of the universe’s agenda, in addition to an unending sadness/disappointment at what we, both collectively and individually, manage to squander in terms of opportunity/potential.
In any case, I’m not looking to convince you today that the Benevolently Sorrowful God I feel I interact with (not Uniquely or Specially, mind, but as a normal everyday human being) exists. I’m looking merely to convince you that it is wholly rational to believe in God or at least the possibility of God and that, as such, Sneering Obvious Atheism is irrational.
If you disagree with this premise still, I would ask you to explain how you can simultaneously (a) entertain the realistic possibility of the simulation hypothesis and (b) entirely disregard the possibility that God or similar is behind the proverbial curtain of said simulation.
I have long disabled comments on this webpage because, well, read Internet comments anywhere, but I will entertain and rebut any serious explanations of the above. email@example.com
And you might not really take the simulation hypothesis seriously, which would be totally fine. But if you don’t, I bet you believe in the Big Bang. So the next part of this post is for you.
Before the US media had decided that Israel/Palestine War 86,000 deserved all/most of your attention, there was a lot in the US media made of the recent discovery of “proof” of the Big Bang, manifest through the sighting of gravitational waves that are consistent with the inflation model of the universe stemming from said Bang. I only vaguely understand the precise science of things like, say this, but the upshot is that the Big Bang looks all kinds of correct as an Origin Story for our universe, which is so vast as to be utterly beyond incomprehensible to human understanding.
Now one of atheists’ favorite games is to make fun of God-based Origin Stories, such as, e.g. Genesis, wherein God is so ridiculously powerful that it takes just seven days to form a world and one of those isn’t even busy! Of course, here is the prevailing scientific understanding of how long it took the entire universe (functionally infinitely larger than Earth) to form from literally nothing:
If you’re scoring at home, some of the relevant time markers there are one-one-hundredth of a second and three minutes. According to this rationally proven prevailing scientific understanding of the universe, everything necessary to build our universe was inevitably underway one-one-hundredth of a second after there was literally nothing there before. And, at that time, while expanding, the universe was roughly 85% of its current size with all the matter it would need to form, well, everything.
One-one-hundredth of a second. Or, if you prefer, three minutes, when the nuclear fusion had finished and all the matter set to, I guess, cool for the next few hundred-thousand years.
Two key questions arise from this. (1) Why is it rational to believe it took three minutes or less to create everything in the universe, but irrational to believe it took six days to create the world? and (2) Why/how did the Big Bang happen?
(2) makes people crazy. I have never encountered someone who has a good reaction to that one. It is where all of science, for its claims to proof and obsession with replicability and ultimate complete understanding, gets its spade turned, hard. And so science leaves us with this unsettling idea that it is crazy to believe there is intelligence or deliberate thought behind the formation of the universe, but wholly rational and consistent with understanding to believe that nothing became something in a period of time so short that it is unimaginable to human feeling. And not just something, but the building blocks for EVERYTHING. To insert God into that creation process, that something-from-nothing hypothesis, is ruled straight out by people who have no alternative explanation and find the whole question of explaining it tiresome. This is the height of irrationality and uncuriousness. But it seems bizarre to conclude that one should devote their life to discovering minute details of this process of ultimate creation, but take zero interest in what may have caused it.
Look, I’m not defending Genesis specifically or the people who run around saying dinosaur bones are in the Earth to test our faith and fool us into following Satan. I don’t believe in Hell or the Bible’s specific Origin Story (though I think the metaphor of this quick creation dovetails impossibly nicely with current theories of actual creation, which is the whole point of this half of the post, QED) or the Garden or the ribcage or any of that. But it is so weird that God is so quickly dismissed by people whose best and tested explanation is that everything came from nothing in a hundredth of a second. Look at that graph. Look at that expansion and that timeline. It’s like watching a firework and saying that no one shot it in the air and there was no intent behind the explosion, but one second there was sky and the next second there was color and sound everywhere and who cares why. Really? Really??
Look, I’m not saying you have to believe in God. Nothing I’ve offered here proves a divine intelligence is behind these things. But I think you have to conclude that being sure there’s no God is poppycock. It is intellectual absenteeism to care about the Big Bang and then abdicate the question of how or why it happened. And everything-from-nothing-in-no-time looks more like God and Creationism than it looks like anything else at all. Every scientific method and explanation we have looks at all matter coming from nothing in zero time and rails against that, demanding some sort of source or force or deeper reason. It breaks all the rules. So the closer we get to proving that this model is an accurate depiction of how we got here, the closer we get to having to face something that looks an awful lot like God.
Again, I’m more than open to refutations. With permission, I will reprint an rebut them in the coming months if anyone’s interested in having this debate out more thoroughly. Or just summarize and rebut them if you don’t want that kind of pressure. I am genuinely curious about the mind of an atheist and how it grapples with these possibilities, realities, and understandings. I may have missed something or lots of somethings. But ultimately, I just don’t think it’s rational to look at the way the universe seems to be shaped, have started, and may possibly have started, and to be sure that there’s no God behind it. And at the point where atheism is irrational, then its sneering superiority to belief falls away and we can agree that we’re all just choosing premises we like and running with them rather than some of us thinking and others of us not.
So a lot has been made lately of Facebook putting an overly positive spin on things, shifting our perspective and making us seem and act happier than we actually are.
I think this is true, but largely for a much simpler reason than people are saying. It’s because of the “Like” button.
Here’s the thing. We like likes. They make us feel affirmed. They make us think that people are out there in the void, listening, taking us seriously. Most importantly, they bridge the divide of desperately lonely souls, making us feel that others empathize with our experience.
As such, consciously or no, we construct our posts on Facebook to cultivate likes. And thus we are uncomfortable posting anything phrased in such a way that someone would be hesitant to “like” it. If it would seem wrong or sick or weird or sad to like something, we alter the phrasing to be positive or silver-lining-y enough to gather likes.
I noticed this mostly when reading posts about people dying. People discuss the deaths of their loved ones, friends, people in Israel or Gaza, and they were gathering likes! This seems wrong, right? Who likes someone else’s beloved or cared-for dying? Isn’t that horrible?
But time and again, I would notice that people would find a Polyannaish closing thought or silver lining or positive little thing to say that would make a like not only un-reprehensible, but actually the appropriate response.
I don’t know what the fix is. Certainly a Dislike button would increase Facebook’s death toll decently and make it a far less pleasant and more ostracizing place to be. But I almost think there should be an “I Feel This” button that can express empathy or support without actually feeling positive about the sentiment expressed. Because that enables a full range of real human emotions, not just the parts of ourselves that are most obviously likable.
Cross-posted (of course) on Facebook.
He sits out on the high rickety wood porch, consuming pages like nutrients long missing from his diet. The movers, the cleaners, the gas company, everybody’s late, everybody’s nice. Except the moving truck driver from Astoria, Queens. Of course. He’s both the latest and meanest of them all.
People smoke too much and drink too often and constantly use endearments that sound like sexual harassment. They wink often and smile easily and take their time walking the sidewalks. The air is somewhere between a gas and a solid most of the time the sun’s out, surrounding with presence more than evading with absence like one might be used to.
The clouds start to gather, dark and thin, wispy strands like wand emanation from a fantasy world. They combine, swirl, lower, gain heft and weight and presence. Then there’s a flash, the world set alight, and a faint rumble, and the sky bursts open on this bold hard cue. Within minutes, there are pools of churning water at every curb and corner and the flashes and cracks are performing a grand orchestral opera that puts fireworks to shame. It is several minutes before the water becomes sufficiently dense on the porch to threaten the pages themselves and send him inside.
The streetcar sounds its bell and rolls along roads like they were designed for something other than pollution. Tired children are lifted off the boards and onto laps while excited tourists hang half their weight out the window and crane to see statues, balconies, flags of the fleur-de-lis. The conductor pulls a lever and we turn into the busy intersection, there are echoes of a hillside on the edge of the Tenderloin and a time before most of us were born.
The best a nomad can hope for is something that feels like home.
After watching Russia fall into a heart-breaking and eliminating draw against Algeria, I did at least acknowledge the quality of the story that would be coming up, which would be a rematch between Germany and Algeria, offering the latter team possible revenge for the 1982 arranged German win against Austria that prompted a good bit of my post two days ago suggesting how to keep the 3rd group match competitive. However, that match should not be happening. Germany is the 6th best group winner in an abnormally competitive field (four teams went 3-0-0, which is highly unusual) and Algeria is the 5th best runner-up. They are both getting easier draw than they deserve.
Here’s the bracket as it stands in real life for the elimination games in the 2014 World Cup, starting Saturday:
But that’s nothing like what it should be. As I predicted in my earlier post, the Netherlands and Mexico are both being treated extremely unfairly, though I didn’t know then that they’d each be literally the best of their set of teams and getting the worst possible draw they could face. This is why random grouping is inferior to a seeding system.
For reference, here is how the 16 elimination rounders (on APDA, we’d call them octofinalists) fared through group play:
Yeah, I hate to break it to you new soccer fans, but the US isn’t all that good.
So here’s what the bracket should look like under my new system:
I broke the Germany/Brazil tie (the teams have the exact same stats overall) on how much they won their group by, setting up a Brazil-Chile match-up in real life and what’s most fair.
When we look at the comparison, here’s the teams that got lucky in reality and those who got remarkably unlucky:
Greece (+7) – it probably doesn’t matter that much, because Greece had a -2 goal differential and only got through because of a dubious call in extra time in their last game, but Greece should be getting walloped by Netherlands (the best group winner) and instead drew the worst group winner, Costa Rica. Who will still wallop them.
Costa Rica (+6) – now I’m rooting for Costa Rica and they impressed in a difficult group, but they are objectively the weakest group winner. They should be facing the best runner-up (Mexico), but instead get the second-worst (Greece). For what it’s worth, their second-round match-up would be the same (#1 Netherlands), so that’s reasonable.
France (+3) – France gets Nigeria when they should be getting Uruguay. All that means at this point is that they won’t be getting bitten, though FIFA ensured that it is decidedly less likely that anyone gets bitten playing Uruguay any time soon. In any case, this will probably actually be a close match even though France should be getting an even bigger challenge.
Nigeria (+3) – Nigeria should be facing Colombia and they instead get France. Colombia would probably mow them down, and like I said, I think they have a chance against France.
Germany (+2) – not a huge deal, because Germany is likely to destroy either Switzerland or Algeria, but they should have the harder match-up after not doing all that well in their admittedly difficult group. Though they should be getting mighty #3 Argentina in the second round, but instead get #5 France.
Netherlands (-7) – the top team in the draw may be out in the first round because they’re facing the best goal-keeper and a team that very nearly won a group with the host country in it.
Mexico (-7) – the best runner-up has drawn the toughest team in the draw that rolled through its group. Whoever wins this game is going a long way, but this game is a mighty injustice for both of these teams.
Argentina (-3) – Argentina should be getting the bye that is the United States (sorry folks, it’s kinda true). Instead, they have to deal with Switzerland, who still isn’t prepared to win a knockout game in the heat of Brazil.
Colombia (-3) – Colombia should be getting Nigeria, but instead will be facing Uruguay. This would be a really tough break if Uruguay still had their star player, but they don’t, so Colombia should still have little trouble going through.
Not only does that Netherlands/Mexico match stand out like crazy (yes, I’m going to keep harping on this), but the second-round looming match between Argentina and Belgium pits two teams that went 3-0-0 in their group and should rightfully both make the semifinals. Admittedly Argentina would probably choose Belgium over Germany, but Belgium would definitely pick the France-Uruguay winner over Argentina and they should have that more fair match-up.
I’ve come up with two objections to this improved system that are reasonable, but neither of them do I find sufficient to be deal-breaking. One is that the schedule would be problematic, because we’d need to add off-days between group play and elimination play to ensure that each team had enough time off. And consequently, we might have some teams who play in the later elimination games have a really long rest if they were in group A or B. I still think overall fairness of who you draw as your opponents and the avoidance of any possible rigging are of higher value than a precise amount of time off, however.
My friend Frese came up with the other objection, namely that Group G and H could really set their match-up because they’d know exactly where every other team would stand. Again, I think this compares pretty favorably to every team already knowing that because of the randomness that currently sets the elimination rounds. But I also question whether anyone would choose to be a runner-up instead of a group winner because they prefer the first-round match-up they’d get. After all, this system ensures they’d get a much harder second-round match-up in that case, so they’re unlikely to tank their seed because of the long-term implications.
I’m open to other objections, but I think they all pale in comparison to what Dutch and Mexican fans have to face on June 29th.
Now back to packing.
I, like many sports fans, have been following the 2014 World Cup, though I share some misgivings about it as an institution (as do most conscious people). Clearly rotational hosting is both exciting and fun and showcases parts of the world that most of the developed globe doesn’t normally pay attention to, but it also extracts money from those least able to pay for it for stadiums that will sit dormant for decades and to line the pockets of the plutocrats that sit atop that particular society. This all also applies to the Olympics, which are great fun and give an outlet for nationalism that does not involve drone strikes. There’s a lot to ponder on whether the nationalism ginned up during world sporting events is actually a facilitator of dangerous jingoism or a kind of methadone for it – certainly the long-term likelihood is the latter and we should someday be fighting wars on the sports field if we still seem unable to resolve our differences through discussion. But then I see how people from the US get about their soccer team and it makes me just want to burn all the flags of every country. It kind of amazes me that our nation is still seeking validation.
In any event, this post will be driving by these political concerns which I think are important and going straight to the heart of how the World Cup playoffs are done. I didn’t used to like football/soccer very much and found it boring, but then playing FIFA video games taught me the complex strategy innate to the game and I realized that about 70 minutes of any given match are exciting, rather than three. And then, of course, I was hooked. I also have this weird thing where I specifically really like sports when the teams are nations because I like flags and other countries, even though the nationalism clearly embodied by this spirit makes me queasy. An unresolved paradox, but one that I usually set aside now to watch the World Cup or the Olympics.
I actually, parenthetically, did a pretty good review of my evolution with the so-called beautiful game last World Cup summer, in which I expressed excitement about an upcoming World Cup in Africa and Emily being in Liberia…. oops. Though I did, prophetically, conclude with the line “Anyone’s guess about where I’ll be in 2014 is as good as mine. Probably better.” I don’t think anyone will be bringing in their odds-laden tickets to exchange for a payout on that one anytime soon.
But here’s the point. The way the World Cup does playoffs is broken. You could argue that the way they do the whole Group staging is problematic to begin with, since they just make pots of countries and disperse them, but I actually think the status quo system of dividing teams for groups is pretty solid. If you’re not familiar, they make a “pot” of the top seven teams in the world, plus the host country, then three roughly regional pots for regional diversity, and each group is comprised of a random draw of one team from each of these pots. Given that part of the goal of the World Cup is mixing teams from diverse regions and this system prevents the top seven from facing each other in the first round (top eight this year since Brazil is hosting and is top-eight), I think it’s pretty viable as a system. Yes, every year someone gets anointed as the “Group of Death”, which, frankly, this year was probably not the USA’s group, but the one with Uruguay, Italy, England, and Costa Rica. Which Costa Rica, the only country therein not ranked in the top ten in the world, is assured to advance from, having beaten two prior champions. So the group thing clearly seems to work out.
The biggest problem with the World Cup draw is that the third game is often fixed. Okay, perhaps not fixed, but there are outcomes that are short of going all-out and trying to win that are favorable to a team. A team that knows it’s through to the next round might rest its starters. Two teams facing who both need a mere draw to advance might not fight it out that hard. In past years, there was overt fixing and agreements between teams to produce a certain result that would be mutually agreeable. In some instances, teams have even punted to really bad teams so that their knockout-stage competition will be weaker when they themselves are already guaranteed to go through. FIFA has recently instated a policy wherein the third-day games in each group will be played simultaneously to try to mitigate some of this problem, but not all of these adjustments depend on knowing the result of the other game. There has been rampant speculation in the US media, for example, that Germany and the US, helmed by a German coach, will agree to draw so that both teams can go through. Even the fact that people can discuss this openly, whether or not it happens, is a severe flaw in the system.
The problem is that there’s not much to play for beyond going through and especially nothing to play for beyond winning the group. This is because in the knockout stage, your opponent is merely someone else who went through from another group. Each first place team gets a second place team and that’s it. Even if this means, for example, that Mexico, a team that mightily impressed the world by collecting 7 of a possible 9 points from their group and drawing against Brazil in Brazil, just happens to get the Netherlands, defending finalists who crushed their opposition with all 9 points and a goal-differential of 10-3. Clearly this is a bad system.
There’s an obvious solution: seeding the playoff bracket. Instead of just putting A-1 against B-2 and B-1 against A-2, FIFA should rank the eight group winners as though they were all in the same group (i.e. points, then goal differential) and do the same with the eight runners-up. Then you pit the top group winner against the bottom runner-up, the bottom group-winner against the top runner-up, and so on and resolve the bracket like any normal sports playoff. Thus, every team will be directly incentivized to win every match by the maximum score, just as they are in the first two matches and every knockout stage match. The third group game is this bizarre competitive anomaly that at best gets people to play more weakly than they should and at worst creates actual rigging that cheats some teams out of the chance to go through.
We can’t run through an example of what this would look like for 2014 yet, since only two groups are finished, but I promise you that the horrifying Netherlands-Mexico match in the round of 16 would be delayed to a much later stage where it’s deserved. But we can take the example of 2010, which should be a good illustration:
I broke the one tie (South Korea/Slovakia) on how many goals were scored total, which is the prescribed method in the World Cup.
So this creates the following bracket:
For the purposes of comparison, here’s what the actual 2010 World Cup did with these 16 teams:
While the changes may not be obvious in all places (the two most exciting first-round games, Germany vs. England and Spain vs. Portugal, are actually intact!), the rubber really hits the road in the second knockout round. For example, real-life Germany vs. Argentina pitted the #5 seed vs. the #1, a matchup worthy of the semifinals, but happened in the quarters (and Argentina got trounced). Top-ranked Argentina deserved a much easier draw in the quarters, for example the winner of US/Japan. Similarly, the real quarters matched #2 Netherlands against #4 Brazil, surely creating a too-early exit for Brazil. Now, granted, the new quarterfinals create the blockbuster match of Brazil vs. Germany, but at least that’s the kind of #4/#5 matchup that we’re used to seeing as close and exciting in a quarterfinal. And #2 Netherlands can go on to get an easier draw, namely the winner of Paraguay/Chile.
Here we also see that Spain’s road to the Cup last year relied a bit more on luck than just pure skill. Maybe they would have beaten every team in last year’s knockout stage, but rather than drawing more deserved #3 Uruguay in the quarters and #2 Netherlands in the semis (their actual finals opponent), they instead got to face #7 Paraguay and #5 Germany, respectively. Not that Germany is some kind of pushover, but still. Having easier draw might have made it easier for them to have enough left to win it all by the time they faced the Netherlands.
Surely these matchups are just as exciting, but without the sheer injustice of things like this year’s Netherlands/Mexico match will be for whichever team gets eliminated therein. And more importantly, they prevent the greater injustice of collusion or strategic resting by teams that have no incentive to try to collect 9 points and maximum goal-differential. More competitive and contested games make life better for everyone – the teams, the fans, the nations. Why wouldn’t we do this?
I’m overdue to head back north, racing for the direction where things should be wrapped up tight in a nice little bow, or at least packed up in cardboard and covered over with tape. Progress on the move has been slow and steady and not fast enough and I’m facing the very real possibility of having to cancel some of my farewells so that I can ensure the movers have stuff to actually take with them, since I’m not enacting the Bonfire Plan for the move to New Orleans. In the meantime, I’ve spent another weekend in Atlanta for so many good reasons, one of which was the first of two opportunities this week to see Counting Crows.
I feel like Counting Crows show posts for me should already come preloaded with the emotional ramifications, baggage, and impact of all prior such shows. Lord knows you can find a lot of that background information already in here (just pop “Counting Crows” into the Search function on the sidebar and see what happens). But there’s a reason that “Awareness is never enough – it must always be wonder” is a seminal phrase in my life, a watchword for my experience of the divine, and a clickable tag/category in this here blog format. Because it’s true.
I should be getting coffee and on the road for ten hours soon, so I don’t really have time to do the full concert justice. Suffice it to say that they opened with a classic 10-minute “Round Here”, went on to do one of their better covers from the recent cover album, and then Adam announced to the crowd that he had written a song for me.
Okay, not really. But kinda really.
I’ve been trying to find the lyrics online to prove to you that I’m not making this up. But listening to “Cover Up the Sun” for the first time in my life brought back exactly the same chill that “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” did on the pre-release quasi-illicit MP3 back in Waltham so many eons ago. But (remember the phrase!) even more so. Way more so. The song includes the lyric “When I left California, I was 29 years old, and the world just spun me round.” Which, okay, maybe that’s something Adam Duritz and I inadvertently have in common, though I’d never quite put it together before, but sure. But when the next lines are “Now I just watch Louisiana scroll across the window pane, and I’m facing the direction I am bound”, well, it’s enough to make a solipsist of the best of us.
Yeah, the song is about leaving the west and moving to New Orleans. There’s only a couple of references to the New York City area just thrown in for fun.
Of course I am not the only person who feels this way about Counting Crows or their lyrics or their shows. The magic of the band, as I’ve said repeatedly here, is being able to gather together thousands of people for whom the songs were written and feel the absolute power of people belting along to songs that are about them and to share that experience with everyone else who feels the same way and yet somehow have none of the charm of the song being about them reduced by the shared gathering. If anything, it’s enhanced. It’s perhaps in these moments that we get closest to the Jewish idea of God (although I note the irony of that statement in print, because I’d have to cross out the o for it to really be Jewish, but I’m not gonna because I find the idea of an unnameable God so distasteful, no offense dear Jewish people), with the re-convergence of all our divided split light, that we are all the same in our unique brightness and by coming back together, we can drown out the sun.
There were a couple more covers than I would have chosen for the set (I could probably go without “Friend of the Devil” for the rest of my CC life, though the intro to it this time ’round was hilarious) and I’ve probably never cried less at one of their shows, though this is largely because I am happy, both in the moment and with the visible trajectory of the near future. But it was also a summer set of joy and energy and just the right amount of bitterness to recognize the year just ended. And while none of the other new songs quite lived up to the power of that first one, they all sound at least intriguing and at most like future sources of wonder.
Maybe Counting Crows shows are well written horoscopes, online quizzes, or tarot card readings, that we can find our own meaning in the deeply expressed emotion of Duritz and friends bleeding out on stage. You can take the cynical road if you want to and I’ve never lately begrudged anyone the cynical road. But at the risk of being the sucker who falls for the seventeenth time, I prefer a deeper, more fundamental explanation. In a recent debate round for a summer exhibition tournament, I explained how free will is compatible with a tri-omni vision of God, how I believe we are all offered free will as the ultimate sign of respect and love. Much of my third novel is about exploring this concept as well. And yet, somehow, there always seems to be room for this incredible sense of everything working out, coming together, being for a reason. I don’t think it’s absolute or as powerful as free will, since refugees routinely starve to death in diseased camps after watching their families die, but the feeling of a benevolent net from the universe is palpable. Maybe it’s first-world privilege, which was on display at an other-worldly level in the Chastain Park Amphitheatre in Atlanta last night, but maybe it’s just our best burning bush, coming to you live on a perfectly-lit stage.
The rant about people leaving CC shows complaining that he didn’t play “Mr. Jones” will have to wait till after Atlantic City.
22 June 2014
Chastain Park Amphitheatre – Atlanta, GA
with Toad the Wet Sprocket and Daniel and the Lion
new songs in italics
Round Here (Private Archipelago alt)
Untitled (Love Song)
Cover Up the Sun
St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream
Recovering the Satellites
Like Teenage Gravity
God of Ocean Tides
Friend of the Devil
Big Yellow Taxi
A Long December
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Rain King (Oh Susanna alt)
Holiday in Spain
Moving is difficult. It’s not refugee-camp difficult or even traumatic-crisis difficult, which actually distinguishes it from a lot of this year, which has been harder. But it’s one of those things where the work is long and sloggy and contrasts highly with the ability to see the mission which is to go to a new place and have fun and exciting new adventures. There is nothing new-adventuresy about the process of taking all your accumulated junk and carefully nestling it in cardboard cubes so someone else can drive it across the country. It’s tiresome, exhausting, makes you question why you’re not a would-be monk with a penchant for arson, and, lately, kicks up enough dust to give me marginal respiratory problems (I’m going to the hardware store for a mask and goggles later this morning).
But, you might think, it’s worth it for the sentimental stuff. After all, who keeps all this garbage if it’s literally just a burden in every sense of the word? Surely the reason for keeping things is their reminder of past days of halcyon, times that shimmer in memory with an emotional gleam. Oh, this is when I got that. Oh, here’s the book I read when. And no doubt, there is some of that in my process. Ticket stubs from when Alex and I went to Tennessee on our first real trip together. Books from all ages. My turtle collection, though it’s been bound in the same plastic wrap in plastic tub from the last move (I know, I know). Debate cases from two different eras.
That is a mug, gifted to me circa 2002, bearing a statement that was true at the time.
Why have I kept it? What on Earth would possess me to go through my divorce and hold on to a cheesy undergraduate keepsake that was a half-joke at the time (we had friends who would seriously gift such items in part as the Ivy status symbols they were intended to be and that sentiment was not one we shared)? Why would I go to the trouble of keeping it, separating it from the mugs for daily use, and bunging it away to serve as a little land-mine for myself a year and a half later when it would spring on me, unsuspecting, while packing for the next move?
Pondering this question quickly gets me down a certain rabbit hole. Emily’s mother and I were standing in a dusty makeshift market in Monrovia in July 2010 at the conclusion of an absurd tour scheduled for us by a wife who couldn’t be bothered to take a minute off from work for her husband flying out to try to save their marriage. And the reality of suggesting some little trinket or souvenir immediately soured on Em’s mom’s tongue when she mentioned it, but the words were already out in the air, nearly as insensitive as the daily drivel of her offspring. She attempted a retraction, some quick sort of recognition that maybe I didn’t want to remember being here. As though that were an option.
She said “Maybe you don’t want a souvenir of Liberia.”
And I said, immediately, having thought about it for three seconds, “Everything I own is a souvenir of Liberia.”
To her credit, she started crying.
But it’s true, or it was true at the time. I revisited this seminal phrase, if not the precipitating incident, in a blog post fifteen months later, one that makes my webpage the only Google hit for the full-quotes search of said sentence. And while I do not expect that uniqueness to change, the reality of the statement has certainly diminished over time. I’ve lived and accumulated and not everything is a painful reminder of being married for seven years and suddenly having that revoked as though it had never happened. I’ve developed a relationship that I’m really excited about, excited enough to be the partial basis of a move several states away that necessitates all this packing in the first place. One that will surely make some people find this post itself to be unseemly and regressive, as though people become one dimensional when past hurts they feel are only a secondary aspect of their personality and not primary. I’ve even cut off communication, for three years, one month, and seventeen days, and counting, pretending that the object of my affection and ire is dead to try to find some semblance of peace. The illusion doesn’t hold, obviously, merely from blocking Facebook and asking friends not to inform me of her whereabouts (the emotional lift of knowing when she had left Princeton was tangible when I passed those haunted exits on Route 1). But the inability to interact with her cruel indifference has been a profound relief, one that tempers me every time I consider lifting the blockade.
And it’s the contrast between that cruel indifference of a woman trying to justify an affair as the first non-mistake of her life, a liquid personality who’d found a new solid container in which to imbue all her hopes and fears and immediately adapt to (thank you Ben Brandzel) and the mug that made me keep the damn thing in the first place. The mug is solid, physical, and literally bears writing which conveys the message she so viciously denied. You are loved. This feeling is real and shared and is worth proclaiming.
The idea that this mug is necessary to understand this message is patently absurd. I have, for example, our wedding rings. A DVD of the wedding ceremony in which she professes her love and undying commitment. And these items, no doubt, are landmines too, laying in wait as I sift through the sedimentary levels of papers of the last few years. But there’s something about this mug that is so unabashed and simple that it seems to give me the solace I crave and, simultaneously, fuel the rage I still have unresolved. And its roots are no doubt in a deeper past. After all, we are always fighting the last war.
When the person I used to call PLB betrayed me (it’s honestly just easier to continue using this moniker because it’s been a reference point here and among friends for decades, though most of my issues with this person have been resolved, though I still strongly question her ongoing judgment for, in part, other reasons), the most painful part (or maybe the most painful tied with the assumption that I couldn’t forgive her for lying) was that she denied that the feelings had ever been meaningful. Despite her last spoken words to me for years being “I still love you and we’re still getting married,” she told everyone at our high school who would listen that we’d broken up long before those words were said and that our relationship had been typical casual teenage fare in which she’d never emotionally invested. In short, I was a fool and an idiot and carrying on about nothing. And over time, it was this denial of feelings that outraged me so greatly, compelled me to routinely spit on the object I saw in front of me that reminded me of what cruel denial she was engaging in (her car), made me so untrusting of people in my future when they said that they felt something real.
And in October 2010, as I was scraping along rock-bottom and had nothing to lose, I saw PLB for the first time in fourteen years and she acknowledged the wrong she’d done, fully and completely, and gave me a solace I wasn’t even fully aware I needed. The irony of this timing will never be lost on me. But she said that her feelings had been genuine, that despite all the lies and uncertainty of everything else in her life, she had meant the promises she’d made to me. We were not just young kids fooling around. We were really feeling something real.
Somehow, this stupid inane trivial mug conveys that message to me, stands in counter to a person for whom making such an admission would crush her identity and make her narrative of tilting ever-upward in progress a sham. I have never understood the people who break up or get divorced (there is a difference, and people referring to divorces as “break-ups” is now a lifetime pet-peeve) saying “we really love each other, but timing/circumstances/life just didn’t work out,” but of late I envied them because they depart with a huge satisfaction of knowing that they didn’t feel and strive and love in vain. It is the feeling of standing out alone on the rock, of being the idiot who thought a marriage meant something when the other person is so callous and thinks and professes that the marriage is just obviously tissue-paper, that makes me want to hold up this mug and say “You lie! You loved me. Even if you won’t admit it, I know.”
I know, intellectually, that the evidence that she loved me is overwhelming. And I know that all her cruelty is just a series of defense mechanisms, the armor she embraced so she wouldn’t have to face the pain she was causing. Any third-grader with a two-bit interest in psychology could tell me that and they’d be right. I know. I know. But emotionally, it doesn’t make it any less damaging. Not one bit. Which is deeply unfortunate and prompts all this exposition.
And I hasten to add that all this obsession herein about the mug and the marriage does not undercut what I’m feeling about my current relationship and the future whose theme decorates this blog and most of my thoughts that are not angst about the mundane struggles of the moving process. I know that most people prefer to have an uncomplicated emotional perspective, whatever their feelings might be about the past, that it’s easier to disregard and diminish past loves in favor of the future so that one’s feelings about that future can appear uncomplicated. But this is dishonest and untrue, and I suspect not just for me. And I had a realization fairly early in my relationship with Alex and told her the next day, namely that if Emily came back and knocked on the door and begged for another chance, I would have to turn her away and say that I had new commitments and would have to see those through first and that if they never waned, she would never get that chance. It was a big moment, huge, and Alex sincerely told me she never expected it, let alone that quickly. So let’s not take anything away from the present with all this about the past.
But the past is real. That’s the whole point. It really happened and no amount of defensive denial is going to change that.
I’m going to discard the mug. Donate it, I guess, to Goodwill or someone, let someone use it in the absence of any emotional resonance or past feeling. It can be one of those discordant images of objects in the possession of the poor, like the T-shirts worn by homeless in the Tenderloin celebrating some tech conference that utterly failed to draw its expected audience. Or that proclaim the championship of a team that never won it, though those more often head to Africa where they are less likely to spur a confused reaction. The image of an Ivy trophy sitting in a thrift shop is almost as satisfying as one of Emily sincerely apologizing and admitting that the time we spent together actually meant something to her.
Besides, I have this post now. I have the image and all the thoughts that flow from it. Maybe I should do this with every sentimental object in my life. Make it a study, an object lesson, then let it go, send it on its way of being a metaphor for something meaningful rather than a collection of solid atoms I have to hold and transport. Everything in my life could be a mandala. And while my Dad’s voice in my head notes the possibility of an EMP or a paradigm shift that destroys our electronic virtual world, the Internet is generally perceived to be pretty permanent. Or sufficiently so for this life. Maybe this is a model for how to get rid of everything, to pack light, to meet the goal of getting everything down to a backpack.
But no matter what we own, we all have a lot to carry.
It’s been quite a week.
I would like to be poetic and hip and write one of those rambly but ultimately reflective and incisive posts that I aspire to write nearly every time I sit down at this screen. But I have a weird mix of energy and productivity and what (for lack of a better way of putting it) I would call morningness that actually debilitates the more loquacious and important post. When I wake up in the morning and want to be awake, my brain is trained for the pragmatic, the practical, the mathematical, the straightforward. This is why I do basically all of my fiction writing at night, when my brain has entered a state far different and more creative. Not everyone sees the morning this way, but I think it makes sense. The brain hasn’t had time to fog up and adjust to the more lyrical side of life… it’s about procuring food and sustaining itself and getting from point A to point B in the morning. And while I really prefer to be in the hazier more creative state all the time, the morningness certainly serves its purposes well, like in today’s dealing with bank accounts and furniture and all manner of practicalities innate to the moving process.
So this will mostly be about basic updates, the kind of things I want to chronicle but may not be in the mood to chronicle poetically.
I will be moving to New Orleans, officially. I know there was some equivocation before, but signing a lease and putting down a deposit is about as definitive as things get in my life, so that appears to be that. Alex and I will be living in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans for at least the next year and very probably the one after that. No, I still haven’t settled on what I’m doing yet, but I couldn’t be much more excited to head to the city after spending a whirlwind 60 hours there.
I spent most of the time there with dear friends Ariel & Michael who’ve seen me near my best and at my absolute worst in a decade and a half of friendship (with Ariel at least). They are erstwhile New Orleanians who’d not been back since they traveled there to marry. I got to join them in Audubon Park, location of their nuptials, as well as all over the city as they remembered it fondly and frequently and compared it to itself both before and after Katrina. It may be the last time I see them before they are parents and this brief visit was full of things to tell their child, not least of which was a visit to pick up a sign bearing her future name.
Walking through the French Quarter at night not only made me giddy at how lucky I am to be moving to New Orleans, but reminded me how big an impact New Orleans Square in Disneyland had on my imagination as a young child. Ariel, Michael, and I talked a bit about influences on children and the extent to which parents can control them, an increasingly relevant concern for many of my friends as they all start to procreate. I think I am constantly amazed at something rarely discussed in person but often captured in fiction, the little inadvertent magic that happens to young children without design or motive as they encounter unexpected beauty or captivation in the world. Many influences can be traced to parental or societal direction, but others come trailing in on the whim of a particularly good day or a very memorable scene that strikes a young person’s fancy just so without clear explication. The results are often more powerful than all the deliberate guidance in the world. I have always adored Disneyland and New Orleans Square has always been my favorite stop therein and a bit of the French Quarter at night (more secluded, less Bourbony) hinted or overtly referenced the calm fireflies of the opening waters of Pirates of the Caribbean, the long shadows of intriguing homes of the Haunted Mansion, or the raucous bravado of the rest of the former ride.
It is rare that we get to reinhabit what felt magical in our childhood and live it even more robustly than the first whispered promise of unseen delight. I do believe this hope is why most of us have children. To be able to live this way, or even to imagine doing so, makes me so grateful and even more excited.
Okay, maybe there’ll be a little poetry in this post after all.
Of course, there’s also the concern with something like this that it will quickly become pedestrian. And by that, I don’t mean prone to walking, which this entire week was, because that was awesome. I walked more than 5 miles the first day in New Orleans, traipsing around from lovely to horrendous to so-so apartments and back again, ducking around the streetcar line that is sadly being repaired in long stretches and replaced by bus. It was hot and humid and exhausting and wonderful and got my mind in just the right setting as walking extensively always does. No, my fear is that like Sarah once said about living in the Grand Canyon, that one will become used to the most beautiful place on Earth, to lose an appreciation for it as it becomes the normal setting for existence. I think this is part of why I’m being careful about employment or commitments of time just yet as I head for Louisiana. I want to be sure that I keep the magic and excitement involved in the decisions that I make, that I can keep that fresh joyous feeling about life for a long time to come. It not only makes the days fuller and richer, but it preserves an amount of hope I haven’t felt in some time. I can’t remember the last time I felt I had chosen where I was and what I was doing, fully. And even here, terms were dictated by Alex’s employment and other forces. But I am finally digging out from under the oppressive weight of Emily’s decisions and the fallout therefrom. I’m doing something on my own terms and it tastes like liberation.
And a little bit, perhaps, like veggie gumbo. Something I still have yet to see outside of Anaheim. Though I might just see it in Orlando next, coincidentally my stopover city on my return flight from NOLA, since the plan involves a stop in that city’s various attractions between Atlanta and the new home.
The visit also entailed a trip to Atlanta to see Alex and whale sharks and the world of Coca-Cola. The Georgia Aquarium continues to be the most impressive in the world and probably my favorite… I could probably spend open till close staring at the largest tank in the world (the one that houses the whale sharks). A late discovery that they do have cuttlefish (Alex’s favorite and easily the most underrated fish in the sea) meant a lot of extra time and a brief audition of Alex as the ambassador from one species to the next as family after family tried to figure out why we were so obsessed.
Alex is living at Georgia Tech for the month of June and being back on that campus brought a nice round of memories up as well, even if my visit to see Jake there was relatively brief back in the day. Revisiting some of these cities reminds me how excited I am to see Austin, by far the city in America I’m most excited to visit that I never have to date. With the quantity of friends there and its proximity to Louisiana, I have no doubt it will be a new home away from home in the coming years.
This post was going to be part of Quick Updates and it now is too long for that and the rest of my morningness is probably better spent on the mundane tasks of moving on which I am already behind, though starting to catch up quickly. There will be plenty of time to weigh in on the political developments of recent days (including Iraq, the war that keeps on giving) and sports (the World Cup! The Mariners in playoff position!). But it will all have to wait. I must go and do, now that the future is taking a little more shape, a little more color.
We’ll start with yellow.
“I’ve been known to say that I live much of my life as though I can assume that some archivist will eventually come in and take an interest in my old papers. Granted, that archivist may just be an older me at some point, but I still see a paper discarded as a grave tragedy.”
-my post on this page, 28 April 2010
Hi, I’m Storey and I’m a pack-rat.
As mentioned yesterday, I’m moving soon. And besides seeing friends and thinking deeply about the nature of transition and being, that means confronting the unsettling reality of my materialism. The truth of the matter is that while I aspire to not be materialistic and I kind of disdain the acquisition of stuff, I feel an overbearing attachment to almost everything I’ve accumulated. Not just papers, as mentioned in the quote up top, but pretty much everything.
Part of this stems from the belief that I will someday be a known novelist and thus all of my papers will be interesting to archivists who want to understand the roots of my writing better. I am aware that this sounds fairly egotistical, but then, as I discussed once with debaters on a long car ride back from somewhere north (I remember Henry and Jasmeet were novices, so it was some time ago), writing is a slightly egotistical pursuit – one has to believe that one has something worthy of convincing others, worthy of saying to people, worthy of their time and attention. (Incidentally, this is part of why my writing took such a hit in the wake of the divorce – such a rejection is about the most crushing thing one can face to the idea that one has worth in the world or advice worth giving.)
But I have to admit that I found an eerie familiarity in a This American Life piece on Andy Warhol’s “time capsules” that I heard while sanding luminarias in the run-up to last Christmas Eve. In brief, he boxed 621 of these “time capsules” full of personal junk and passed it off as “art”. While the veneer is that Warhol was once again doing something transcendentally original and avant garde and before his time, the reality is decidedly more pedestrian and human.
“[His assistant] suggested to Andy that rather than viewing the boring old cardboard packing boxes as just ways to transport his stuff from one place to the next, he should think of them as time capsules. It was exactly the kind of trick you resort to when your kids won’t eat their vegetables by making a chore into a game. And it worked. Big time… He’d found the perfect outlet for his hoarding impulses. Instead of having to throw anything away ever again, he could just stick that thing into a box and call it art.”
-Starlee Kine, This American Life Episode 514
One of the problems with debaters is that we are notoriously good at justifying things. Anything. It’s even an exercise I have people do when they’re coming up in debate. Some people call it “defending the indefensible” but my version is called a Two-Minute Drill where you have to talk, no matter what, for two solid minutes on a pre-determined stance that absolutely no one would agree with. People get good at this in debate, to the point where if they lose sight of their moral compass or never had much of a functioning one to begin with, they can become truly effective awful people. More on this later (not today).
So I’m good at telling myself, every time it’s time to pick up, pack up, and move, why I have two land-line telephones or five ethernet cables or that string of Christmas lights that would probably work if I switched out the one bulb with that one from the set of extras. Why I have my entire archive of papers from Glide (multiple boxes) that I was going to use to put together a non-profiteer portfolio for possible use in future hires, but that has remained taped shut through two moves and possibly counting, depending on whether I can just get the gumption to get rid of it already, or significantly pare it down. Why I have a Gamecube that Fish and I bought a decade ago that I haven’t hooked up in seven years.
My first inclination when I make these embarrassing revelations about myself and have to confront them is to get red-faced and hot-necked and have my eyes water up a little and try to forget this knowledge. My second, better, inclination is to talk about it on a public website so maybe there’s a chance I will have to face it head-on, fully, and, you know, do something about it.
My Dad has spoken to me a lot lately about what he calls the “Depression mentality” wherein those who lived through the Great Depression in America all became hoarders out of a survival instinct that stemmed from an era when nothing was taken for granted. He cites it to contrast with what he sees as the contemporary sense of entitlement that those in my generation and younger carry, the disposability of an era when shortages aren’t real and durable goods, while perhaps not actually durable, are cheap and plentiful. And while I can see the point that he’s making sometimes, I think that somehow I inherited the Depression mentality straight from my grandparents. Part of it, I know, is an inborn frugality whose precise roots I can’t trace that I’ve only recently (probably post-divorce) been able to shake off enough to have a little fun and relax about money. But once I’ve plunked down money for something, I have a really hard time letting go of it, especially if the resale value is paltry in comparison to what was paid upfront. I don’t really care that much about money in the day-to-day, but confronting taking a heavy loss on an item or its purchase being wasted just seems intolerable to me for reasons I can’t fully grasp.
And some of the stuff, or a lot of it, carries a sentimental burden. I’m a more emotional and feeling person than most and was raised from a young age to anthropomorphize objects of all sorts (my mother was raised on “crying peas,” but pretty much every appliance in our household was capable of speech). There’s the box of photos that I’m sure no one would begrudge (though some might prefer to organize). There’s allllllll of the books. All of them. Which is an issue I revisit frequently. I care deeply about the books I buy, even though most of them are used to begin with, and keeping all of them like a little memory of everything I’ve read. I love the look and feel and heft of books and the feel they give when reading them and I am truly one of those people who believes this process can never ever be replaced by screens no matter how many trees it costs, even though I know there’s probably something wrong with that sentiment. But. But. When I really examine how often I’m going back to these books, it’s a little uncertain, a little fishy. I’m not a re-reader at all… I can count on two hands the number of books I’ve read even a second time. It just feels like opportunity cost to me in a world where I’ll never read a fraction of what I want to. So, why keep them all?
I have this fantasy I’ve long harbored around the idea of having a child or maybe even children someday and having a library, shelves and shelves floor-to-ceiling, all with ramshackle uneven copies of books in the editions that I read along my journey. And my not-yet-sleepy 12-year-old comes bounding into the library where I am typing away on my umpteenth novel and shyly asks if we can pick out a book together. And as we peruse the shelves for new discoveries, I tell stories of where the book came from and the layout of the bookstore or the friend who gave me that copy and what life used to be. And later, as I tuck the child in after they’ve long since fallen asleep, I slide a gentle bookmark into the place where they’ve sandwiched their index finger, look at the old worn pages and my child and feel that everything has been for a reason.
I spend an inordinate time thinking about this future, doubly so for someone who is still quite uncertain about the desire to have children and how good a father they might make. For one thing, I should probably first learn how to throw something out before I try to raise someone else to make decisions on this planet, no?
(Brief Pascal’s wagery aside: Hi, future child! I’m really glad I had you! Isn’t it crazy that we invented the Internet so you can read about all your father’s insecurities at an age when I probably am unsure if you should even have a computer yet? Love you!)
I think the deepest roots of all this accidental materialism come from a really fundamental irony. Namely, that my discomfort with throwing things away is rooted in the idea of a deeper discomfort with the notion of waste. It’s bad enough, it goes in my mind, that we have to have stuff at all or that I am often convinced to buy it. But to get it and then no longer have use for it, to fill the landfill with items whose purchase could have bought food for hungry people who were dying, this is unforgivable. But instead of make use of it or do anything purposeful, I pay still more to lug it around from one state to another, replacing one guilt with a slightly shallower one. It’s actually kind of sick when you think about it.
Wow, I just really figured that out when typing this thing out. The values of writing in an unbridled and on-the-fly fashion never cease to impress. Huh.
So, yeah, I’m carting around a lot of stuff I’ll never use so I don’t have to feel even worse for having never used it. When I think about it like that, it makes me a lot more optimistic that I will actually get out some trash bags tomorrow, or at least spend some time on EBay (there’s till a market for used land-line phones, right?).
And then there’s the in-between stuff, the occasional-use stuff, that’s harder to discern. Tabling for a moment the notion of whether I will someday have a great library of well-loved books to proffer to my offspring (and whether they will even read non-digital books), what of infrequently played board games? Papers of some greater significance than work archives but still uncertain use (e.g. movie ticket stubs, cards, ballgame tickets, scribbled concert setlists)? Halloween decorations that I decided to collect at some point because of a love of the holiday but barely manage the organization to actually utilize? Cheap but replaceable pots and pans?
And then there’s all the stuff that most people would probably not think twice about parting with that I feel most tied to. Old T-shirts of fondly recalled events or places. Oldish stuffed animals, somewhere between the oldest and most loved (obvious keepers) and the newest and most relevant (hey, I have a lot of stuffed animals, okay?). Did I mention books? Because there are a lot of books.
There’s a point in this process, every move, when I decide that I’m going to create a great pile in the yard and have a bonfire and that I will feel this immense liberation at seeing the last few items smolder and turn to ash that will override the pangs of remorseful sadness and loss that would no doubt accompany. But an hour spent lingering on certain books, stuffed animals, and photos convinces me this isn’t a realistic option. So too, of course, the need to not live in an empty box in polite society. The desire to have furniture on which to plop and tables on which to set things and dressers and hampers and dishes. Modern life is all about the stuff, even for those who don’t like stuff. You need stuff to function, you’re constantly interacting with it. So even the bonfire just means a big bill is coming as you replace it with more stuff. Cue the horrible guilt about waste.
So what is to be done? How do I navigate the relatively few days I have to convert this sprawling apartment into a neat row of folded, taped cardboard squares? Having not made it big yet, the Andy Warhol option is regrettably out. And the shed in the backyard looks a little too flammable for my more pyrotechnic plans. Finding the right balance in the middle, to find just the right blend of freedom, sentimentality, wastelessness, frugality, and reasonability is something I must face on my own. Unless, of course, I can interest you in a used ethernet cable.
You may have noticed a burst of color around here. If you haven’t noticed said burst of color, hit the “refresh” button on your browser.
Ah, there we go.
I’m moving to New Orleans in a little over a month. My girlfriend, Alex, and I are heading there so that she can Teach for America. We both acknowledge that there are some things TFA could do better for the way our society is headed overall, but she wants to be a teacher and this seems like an easy way to test that desire and do so in an awesome new place.
I will be leaving my job coaching debate at Rutgers, one that I have unofficially done for 5 full years and officially done for three and a half. I could not possibly be more conflicted about this decision. In fact, I was so conflicted that despite announcing to the team that I would be leaving at the Senior Banquet on May 7th, I did not officially submit my resignation letter until about an hour ago. And I still am kind of in a shocked awe of that decision. I actually decided to leave. I have loved almost everything about coaching the Rutgers team and watching their incredible hard work, dedication, and perseverance pay off in untold unpredicted ways, culminating in this year’s trip to the National Championship Finals. And yet there have been challenges, as there are with any pursuit, and I’m starting to feel restless, as I always do after 5 years anywhere. Anywhere, much less New Jersey.
My relationship with this state is weird and circuitous. I can honestly stay that no state has brought me more overall pain during my time here, but almost none have brought me more joy. I never would have predicted that I would spend so long living here, but I wrote two books, coached for five years, lost a marriage, and started another quite serious relationship. But I’m not here to just tick off milestones and put New Jersey in perspective. It will be a long time before I can fully do that.
Perhaps the better thing, as suggested by the glaring colors and header of this blog as of today, is to look forward to Louisiana. I’m not sure what I’ll do there, but I have lots of ideas. I will probably start out focusing a little bit on poker, since that’s been going really well lately and I hear it can be done as a job. But I’m considering very seriously doing more with writing, with this webpage, and possibly getting back into non-profits. I might take a job in a coffee shop or library to get involved in the community and support some creative pursuits. I might work at Tulane, doing something vaguely administrative. I think I’m done with debate for a while and I’d like my nights and weekends back, but that can always change… someone in Alex’s TFA cohort apparently went to my high school and started the Tulane debate team, which apparently will be seeking to join APDA next year. You can’t make real life up.
It is too strange, early, and overwhelming to contextualize all this transition, except that it feels right. RUDU is poised to be a self-sustaining force for the foreseeable future of APDA at this stage, with two National Finalists returning and a ton of talent convincing the administration to maintain its commitment to the team. My work there could continue, but is largely done. The five-year bells for a location in the back of my head are jangling hard. I have always been fascinated by New Orleans and even have a novel plot set there where I could do some of this alleged “research” I sometimes hear things about. Maybe I’ll finally manage to go on a ghost tour, or even start running them. I think my visions of New Orleans were long defined by its Square in Disneyland, easily the most random but enthralling part of the plastic kingdom. I mean, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and veggie gumbo? I think New Orleans Square might be the only place I’d be more excited to move than the actual city itself.
I will be doing a small tour of the eastern seaboard before I head out to make sure I see those I’m going to miss most before I go. I’ve contacted most folks about this, but please feel free to e-mail so we can hang out before I go. I’m also going to be heading down to the Maryland summer tournament on June 14th as sort of a last goodbye to APDA. Even though it won’t be a last anything, of course, because are we ever really done with APDA? I have every intention of showing up to a tournament or two next year to judge and see RUDU again and get back in the world that has been a bigger part of my life than any other single community.
There is still a tiny chance we end up in Finland next year, actually. And a still tinier chance that we end up in a third, indeterminate, place. But with Alex in training to teach in New Orleans as we speak and time passing just as quickly as ever, this seems like as good a time as any to call it. So there you go. Or, rather, here I go. Again.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
-Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
There is a place at Glide called the Maya Angelou Room. It’s warm and cozy and the perfect place for stormy summer San Francisco days, a place with plush green couches and a well-worn table and pictures of Maya herself and long-suffering people who have come through Glide’s doors seeking salvation, or at least a meal. It has wide windows looking out on the desolation row below, looking out onto the meal line and the pigeons and the occasional shouting or shoving that define the Tenderloin.
Here, why don’t you look at a picture to see what I mean:
We would have meetings in that room, serious ones or birthday celebrations, or planning for the next big project or visit. It’s a locked room much of the time, unlike most at Glide, with Vicky running around hectically with keys to open up one of the hidden little sacred spaces in the ramshackle earthquake-prone building at 330 Ellis. The room is the center of the internship program at Glide, where new fresh-faced students from surrounding universities come to learn about how non-profiteering is done, with hard work, sweat, love, and sometimes frustration.
I never met Maya Angelou, an apparently fairly frequent visitor to Glide and one of its most ardent supporters. Her room, though, felt like I’d imagine talking to her would have been. Somehow warm and simultaneously austere, comforting and reassuring but not immune to conflict and confrontation of the truth. I have no idea if she had a role in designing it or if it was simply named in her honor, but I’m sure she sat a spell there at least once and probably appreciated it. Maybe it inspired a poem or evoked a memory. I always felt like writing when I was in that space.
There’s a lot I have to write. At some point, I’m going to have to come forward with some untold stories that are burning a hole in my keyboard, stories of pain and betrayal and institutional failure and all the old tropes that seem to be a big part of what life is about on this planet. I don’t believe in battles between good and evil, but I do believe staunchly that there are people out there who want you to believe that life is just garbage. That it’s always been garbage and always will be, so why don’t you go out and get yours, whatever the cost. As I told some of my debaters recently, what keeps me going is the importance of not letting the message that life is garbage win. Life is hard, grueling, and filled with misdeeds. But it is more, far more than garbage. Maya knew it, and her life was way harder than mine will ever be. Glide knows it, every day, and inspires those whose lives are harder than Maya’s.
But life, as we are reminded in the ensuing online debates from recent events, is also not a battle over martyrdom, over whose pain is biggest or whose obstacles are greatest. It is, perhaps, an effort to see who can come the farthest through such setbacks that we all must face and try to bear. The most-quoted Angelou line of the time since her death and perhaps of all-time is this one:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I think the ability to make people feel better, more positive, more hopeful, more understanding of each other and the life that we are trying to lead, that’s perhaps the greatest aspiration any of us can have. We all want to change the world, even if it’s only for the lowliest of reasons, but changing how people feel about going through this arduous journey is probably far nobler and more important. And the only way to find out how that’s going is to constantly communicate with those people, to engage, to offer stories of one’s own as illustrations for what could maybe be reached in the future.
Angelou was masterful at this. Through the spinning of words, in poetry and prose, she could keep people hanging on a thread and make her hard hard life relatable to anyone, inspiring to everyone. She was one of the first people I read in high school who made me realize that childhood was something stripped from many people, who alerted me to the fact that lives like those lived by the children of Seneca Center, where I would later work, existed. She reminded me of the power of a simple honest story and how it could resonate, reverberate, ripple into the memory and actions of others.
As I stand on the precipice of another transition, another move, another series of goodbyes already in progress, I think back to the foggy environs of Glide’s second floor, to the cavernous echoes of the neighboring sanctuary, to the peeling tile and hearty smiles of the last place I toiled. I miss you already, though I haven’t even left. In missing the last thing, I am missing now and missing things yet unmet. A full heart is a heavy one, and there is much to be grateful for about that, even if it feels like sorrow. Benevolent sorrow, but sorrow nonetheless.
Maybe I’m just trying to live up to one final quote from Maya:
“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
There are some more detailed posts in the work since I’ve decided I’m going to re-energize this blog and start posting again, but I think it’s time for a quick continuation of our series on the misreporting of unemployment. (The latest in the series was in December 2013.
Before everyone became obsessed with the latest US mass-shooter, there was this big groundswell of celebration that the unemployment problem has finally been fixed in America as reported unemployment crashed in April to 6.3%, from 6.7%.
And yet those just graduating from college and facing the new job market don’t seem to have it any easier. People still talk in hushed tones about how this “recovery” seems sluggish and iffy even though the numbers have normalized to nearly pre-2008 levels and the stock market has gone through the stratosphere.
So what gives? Is there anything to this story that unemployment is starting to recede so greatly?
The good news is that unemployment in March 2014 was at its lowest level in four and a half years, since August 2009. That is no small thing. It seems there is some actual movement in the economy!
The bad news, of course, is that unemployment that month was still, uh, 11.99%. Or 1.99% higher than the highest reported rate of the whole “Great Recession”. That was in October 2009, when real unemployment was 12.69%.
Yeah, we just set a nearly five-year record low. At exactly 0.7% lower than the perceived height of unemployment during the Recession.
You can read past posts in this series to get an understanding of the rationale for the “Real Unemployment” figure, but it includes those who have left the workforce and are thus left out of American unemployment figures. People who have any sort of employment, even if it’s only a couple hours a week, are still included as employed. The only difference is that my Real Unemployment figure counts those who were in the labor force before the Great Recession as in the labor force now, based on a reasonable healthy-employment figure of percentage of the population in the labor force.
There’s more bad news, of course. As you can see on that chart, unemployment actually ticked up in April, to 12.17%, from that epically low 11.99%. Only a modest 0.18% rise, but that’s a big difference in the story from a 0.4% decline that was reported. And that 0.68% jump in the Reporting Gap led to an all-time high in that figure, of 5.87%.
As you can see, the reporting gap was actually declining all of 2014 before last month’s surge, with the reported figures closing in on the actual figures somewhat. Of course, this “closing in” is pretty relative, given that we are rapidly approaching the point where the under-reporting of unemployment eclipses the total figure for unemployment itself. Or, put another way, the point where more than half those unemployed in the US are not considered to be so by the official figures. With the reporting gap at 5.87% and reported unemployment at 6.3%, this very real tipping point seems reachable by year’s end.
I’ve discussed a lot how crazy this phenomenon makes people feel and how the surge in reporting gap mirrors that made in the stock market during the same period, so I won’t repeat myself more. Just wanted to give an update on where we stand and how insidious it is that people think April was a banner month for employment when it actually reflected regression.
Consider how differently people would be treating questions of employment, income inequality, and capitalism if they publicly discussed the fact that, from BLS’ own statistics and an understanding of what the labor force means, unemployment has been at 12% (if you’re willing to grant me 11.99% as 12%) or above since August 2009.
Every time there’s a mass-shooting or -killing in America, which is roughly constantly these days, there is a groundswell of effort to claim the event as political leverage for or against some particular cause that those behind it attribute to the source of the violence. This is a natural human reaction to tragedy and one that, unlike many people who observe this trend, I don’t dislike. People say that it’s about the guns or it’s about mental health or it’s about a lack of security or it’s about bullying or it’s about hopelessness or it’s about video games or, in the latest instance, it’s about misogyny.
All of these people are right, at least to an extent. There are tens of little causes that contribute to each one of these killing sprees that the United States churns out and it’s worth examining each one to try to see what could have been done to prevent any given incident. Tragedy is bad enough for people to experience, individually or collectively, but it is totally wasted if we fail to try to mine it for lessons about our past and future and ways we can change the shape of society to save lives and prevent similar future trauma. We are hard-wired to do this as an evolutionary species and we should embrace this reaction to tragedy as it prompts us to have hope in the midst of heartache.
Most of the time, however, we focus on entirely the wrong thing. The voices advocating conciliation after 9/11 were drowned out by those who said it was a lack of security that had caused the incident, not a policy that uniformly oppressed and incited people in foreign lands. And I think the entire emphasis on mental health in the wake of so many of these recent shootings is a bit naive, implying that somehow there is a regimen of mandated screenings we can pursue that will remove all potentially uncorked people from walking the streets ever again. The gun question is certainly relevant, but seems also to fall a bit short of the boat when it must be acknowledged that illegal guns are nearly as plentiful in this state as legal ones. And certainly arming the populous to replace mass-shootings with daily shoot-outs at the OK Mall seems a little short-sighted, especially in light of the recent sprees by police in my native Albuquerque and other cities that have embraced a culture of shooting first and obfuscating questions later.
The issue has always struck me as a little more fundamental than guns specifically, though I agree we certainly have a gun problem in this country. It’s about a culture and society that routinely honors and glorifies violence and, more damningly, specifically advocates violence as a solution to problems. Finland does not have a significant problem with mass-shootings, despite the fact that plenty of people are toting firearms up to Lappland to slaughter reindeer. Anders Breivik aside, this problem doesn’t seem to frequently plague the rest of Europe either. And despite their poverty and desperation, no developing nations not ensconced in civil war seem to be frequently beset by marauding young men taking arms against a sea of troubles and massacring their friends and neighbors.
America is not the only country that fights wars, has a military, or advocates killing for your country. I am often criticized for failing to see this, for failing to throw just as many proverbial stones at all the other nations who seek to subjugate the rest of the world with firearms and explosives as I do at my native land. However, the fact that America spends as much on its military as the next nine largest military spenders combined seems to indicate that we have a bit of a disproportionate issue. Nowhere else is violence so frequently lauded as the answer or is more energy, effort, money, and time expended to train people to use violence to solve the society’s perceived problems.
But more pivotally, violence is the only universal coherent explanation for what is wrong with all these mass-shootings. The biggest problem with the shootings is that they kill and injure people. That may seem like a really juvenile or mundane statement, but it is also transparently true and I think it’s a little profound. We can argue that if we had better mental health services or banned violent video games or washed racism or sexism out of our society that these incidents would be less likely. And maybe they would. But nothing would actually eliminate all of them other than getting rid of the urge and/or willingness to do violence. It is not the content of the message or frustration or even the precise means and weaponry that is problematic about killing sprees. It is the killing.
The fact that this is not the starting point of widespread discussions of this unending series of killings indicates just precisely how far down the rabbit hole of presumption of violence we really are. No one would question on a national talk show why Elliot Rodger would choose violence as his method of expression in this circumstance, because of course people take out their actions in the form of violence. No one turns the lens on how pervasive violence is in our societal values and our advocacy because it’s just a given that violence is necessary and honorable most of the time. People see these killings not as innate perversions of humanity by invoking violence, but merely a misuse of the tool of violence since everyone else who uses it is a “hero”.
I’m not trying to say that Elliot Rodger was a prime candidate for pacifism. I am more than familiar with the critique of my viewpoint as impractical in a world where wars are so common and the desire to damage the bodies of others is seen as innate to our nature. However, saying that these shootings are not, most fundamentally, about violence clearly seems to miss the point. Without violence, these would be uncomfortable screaming matches or maybe even fringey protests or blog posts, not tragedies that leave tens dead and hundreds more lives shattered in pain and loss. To defeat the rise of mass-killings and prevent them in the future, we really only have one option of what to try to limit, which is violence itself.
And since we can’t eliminate violence by imprisoning everyone and isolating them entirely from each other (or at least we probably shouldn’t), we have to try to convince people that violence is not the answer to their challenges. Which seems to start first and foremost at the top, with setting a new precedent for how the country is going to resolve differences with its rivals. And while I’m glad we didn’t invade Ukraine in the recent spring unrest, we still are a long long way from resolving our differences with others peacefully. And rarely is that more obvious than during Memorial Day, as especially augmented by the unending stream of enforced patriotism surrounding public events thereon, ranging from camouflage-style uniforms on the baseball diamond to jingoistic graveside speeches. Whatever you may think about some past wars in American history and those who fought them (I recognize that few of you are zealous pacifists like me), it is impossible to ignore that modern patriotism and militarism are manifest to convince vulnerable young men and women to kill in wars of convenience for economic imperialism. Even if you believe the “heroes of World War II” actually “died for your freedom”, that memory is being warped into an excuse for de facto drafting the poor and would-be noble of our nation into oppressive attacks on the innocent children of other countries.
Kind of like the oppressive attacks on the innocent children of our country.
I’m not saying, either, that if all displays of jingoistic militarism went away tomorrow that all the Elliot Rodgers of the world would too. But I think there’s a high correlation between the existence of both and that the causal links are strong and possibly measurable. (A future version of this post may try to track incidents like this on a graph.) I don’t think Rodger came up with the idea that violence was the best expression of his rage on his own. I think it was something he was taught, something inculcated in him by a number of influential and powerful sources from a young age, something we are raising people to believe in a society whose ode to bombs bursting in air begins each important event within it.
I also want to address the proximate cause du jour that so many are citing for the latest mass-shooting. It neither bears having its own post on the subject nor does it really dovetail perfectly with my above point, so I’m just awkwardly throwing up that dividing line and starting over on this subject. There’s been a lot of discussion of Facebook along the lines of this Guardian article, blaming the killings in Isla Vista on misogyny and the idea that he was entitled to female companionship.
While there’s no doubt that Rodger was a sexist, a misogynist, and a terrible human being, there’s something to be said for the idea that the article above and its ilk are a slight misinterpretation of the facts. I don’t think Rodger was upset because he was taught that he should be able to just have any woman who he wanted and that no one should ever reject him. Rather, I think he was frustrated with being a chronically lonely person in a society that promotes sex and sexuality, with being unable to connect with people when so many others around him were making so many connections, to feel like his college experience, when “everyone” is hooking up and getting it on, was punctuated by the worst time of his life, not the best.
This is in no way meant to justify or explain his actions. I have already done the explanation above that violence is the core issue. But I think that not enough is done in general in our society to examine how we treat the lonely and socially isolated. These people are not necessarily mentally ill, even if we set aside the fact that our culture slaps a “disorder” on top of anything that makes us uncomfortable or seems hard to explain or is different. And these people may have really unsavory aspects that prevent them from connecting with people, like being sexist or racist or jerks. But the hard part of this whole question is that there are honestly just some people who are lonely for things that are not fatal character flaws. They simply aren’t attractive, or are weird, or try too hard, or are socially inept. These sometimes fester over time and become larger problems that manifest in resentment and morph into sexism or being a jerk, but the characteristics themselves are often just unfortunate problems that don’t have an easy solution.
I’m not saying anyone is entitled to the company of their preferred gender of choice or to a relationship, per se. But doesn’t it seem like everyone should be able to experience companionship if they want to? Doesn’t it seem cosmically unfair if some people are just too hopelessly weird or awkward or unattractive to avoid eternal loneliness? And this does not obligate any one person or group to do anything about it… relationships are the most intensely personal, important, and choice-based thing in someone’s life – they are entirely up to the person and no one should be a martyr for someone else not being lonely. But what do we do with people who see a world that worships togetherness and romantic and sexual contact and can simply never have it on a meaningful level? This is not something that is easily washed away by saying they did something to deserve this loneliness. All too often, they didn’t. They just are on their own through no fault of their own.
Again, I stress that this is not Elliot Rodger’s story, almost certainly, but he’s enough like someone in this story that it’s worth discussing this conundrum. The person who provides the best example of this kind of phenomenon isn’t a person at all, but a fictional half-blood wizard, namely Severus Snape. Lauded as perhaps the most complicated, developed and intriguing character in the Harry Potter series, if not all millennial literature, Snape provides us with vast insight into what it means to be lonely and unable to do anything about it. And while his story is the more typical trope of unrequited love for one specific person, I see in Snape aspects of the modern lonely high school and college students who go without any connections and would be happy with a number of different possible people as long as they had someone to love, cherish, and connect with.
Snape is weird, vaguely unkempt, and deeply unattractive. And while his resentment of the bullying James Potter and the cool kids who get the girls leads him down a dark path toward revenge and elitism, Snape is not innately a sexist or a misogynist or a hater of any kind. He’s just a victim of losing the genetic lottery and being unable to make himself normal enough to fit in. His is the story of countless young people (disproportionately men, probably, because of the shape of our society, but not exclusively by any stretch) and their isolation is something we don’t like to talk about, think about, or even admit because of its deep unfairness. No one in America ever likes to admit defeat or the unfixability of anything, but the idea that some people are just doomed to loneliness by the nature of who they are and the choices that others will make about them is devastating. And while this conclusion may not be entirely true in an absolute sense, this country, like all countries, will continue to produce loners and outcasts.
Only by looking at these people head-on and trying to give them other things in life to be excited about and other ways to find connection and meaning can we have a hope of limiting the unfairness of their unfortunate circumstances. I won’t go so far as to say that this kind of active engagement will prevent mass-shootings, because we’ve discussed the only real way to do that, but it might just bring people off the ledge from believing that so little in their life matters that they can throw it away and, worse, use it as a platform for ending others.