Thursday, December 22, 2016

Why "The Christmas Shoes" don't fit

Many of you likely remember that back in Ye Olde MySpace circa 2005, there was a bulletin feature. The bulletins were very much like Facebook statuses, but with one difference: you had to click on a hyperlink, in the form of a title, to read them. This sometimes tricked you into reading annoying chain mail. It was clickbait of the mid 2000s.

One of the varieties of chain mail was a saccharine, poorly written story meant to elicit strong feelings. There were multiple ones, but they usually followed this formula. I’m inventing this one, but they all sounded like:

Once a boy n his girlfriend were sitting @ a park. The gurl asked, “Do u like me???”

The boy said no.
The girl asked, “Do you want me?”
The boy said no.
The girl asked, “Do u want to be with me now??”
The boy said no.

The gurl ran off crying and on her way home she was hit by a car an died!!! Later, her bf stood @ her grave with tears in his eyes and said, “I said I didn’t like u because I meant that I LOVE you. I said I didn’t want u becuz I meant that I NEED you. And I said I don’t want 2 b with you now, because I want to b with u FOREVER. But now it’s too late.”

Friends, never be afraid to tell people how you feel!!! Repost if u cried.”

This was generally followed by a string of hearts and sad face emoticons.

In its defense, this was probably written by a twelve-year-old. And it was probably most often reposted by twelve-year-olds. But, to me, the song “Christmas Shoes” meets the same level of emotional depth. This becomes especially apparent as it’s played nonstop on the radio and in shopping centers throughout the holiday season.
If you like it, I don’t look down on you for it. This is not a diatribe against you. But please allow me to explain my aversion.

Some of you may be thinking, “It’s about the true meaning of Christmas, which is giving to people! It’s about an impoverished boy with a terminally ill mother. How could that not move you?”

And that’s the problem. The implication, if not the direct response, from so many of the fans I’ve known is that you are fundamentally heartless if you’re unmoved by the narrative. That if you dislike the song, you must hate Christmas! And poor people! And children with terminally ill mothers! And Jesus! And shoes!

The reactions of the audience may not be the fault of the songwriters, but I believe the creators use aggressive tactics to shake out a response. This is how.

Manipulation within fiction is not inherently bad. When you choose to engage with fiction—whether through novels, illustrations, or songs that tell stories—you are, on a certain level, consenting to be emotionally manipulated. This does not mean deceived and lied to. This doesn’t mean being harmed. Rather, it means being purposefully made to feel things. But in that process, you want a nudge and not a shove.

The most skilled storytellers are ones who don’t let you know you’re being manipulated. You want to feel like you’re listening to a song, not being played as the instrument. The best puppeteers don’t let you see the strings. You want to feel, but to believe you have arrived at those reactions yourself. It feels patronizing to be made into a marionette, thrust clumsily around the stage by your own heartstrings.

What the songwriters and singers have done with “Christmas Shoes” is hit you over the head with a sentimental mallet. They start off the song with that little twinkly instrument that sounds like someone waving a fairy wand, to insinuate something magical will happen. They describe the boy as looking as visibly forlorn as possible, and then comes the gut punch: His mother’s dying and he just wants to buy her a pair of pretty shoes so she can look beautiful if she “meets Jesus tonight.” And he can’t afford the shoes, so the charitable narrator buys them for him at the end. It culminates with a sad sounding child singing the chorus, in case a Southern-accented vocalist evoking images of ‘Murica’s heartland isn’t enough. This is along the same vein as Hallmark cards and Nicholas Sparks novels. My husband described it as “a musical Thomas Kinkade painting.”

Aside from the maudlin quality, and the blunt force coercion, it looks on the surface like a critique of consumer culture. Everyone is going out and spending money, but this boy teaches the narrator the true meaning of Christmas by being so generous that it changes his outlook on life. This little child has nothing, but he’s breaking the bank to buy nice shoes for his mother so she can feel beautiful before she dies. At face value it looks like it flies in the face of materialism. But upon closer examination, it actually promotes it. This is why.

First, it pushes the idea that in order to be considered adequately poor to receive help, you must look as shabby as possible. The boy has torn clothes and his body is filthy. He is visibly helpless. This reeks of a “trauma porn” narrative, where writers exploit others’ pain in order to peddle inspiration.

The child does not want his mother to look as deprived as himself. He doesn’t want her to be denied lovely material things just because she’s poor. This is fair and it makes sense. But the plot line of this song plays into the very same moral it purports to defy: the idea of buying gifts you cannot afford to prove your love to others. That’s why this boy is so noble and selfless, because that’s what he’s trying to do. Also, since he’s a child, you wonder where he got the cash. He’s probably trying to buy his parent a present with her own limited money—not that he would likely have other options. That’s why the kindly adult who meets him in line decides to intervene and cover the cost himself.

The second factor that rings an alarm is not simply that she wants to feel beautiful, but that she wants to look pretty for Jesus in case she imminently dies. The song was originally written and performed by a Christian band, but it contradicts Christian values to imply that you need to be aesthetically pleasing to Jesus. That he is impressed with appearances and may turn you away if you don’t look fancy. This idea can be used to coerce people into buying things they can’t afford. If you want an example of how this manifests in real life, look at all the money people feel pressured to spend on expensive church clothes. I don't see this entirely as the fault of one song; the song is a symptom.

I understand this can all be seen as overanalyzing, and that sometimes a pair of shoes is just a pair of shoes. But songwriters, musicians, and producers place a great deal of thought and analysis into what they create. Nothing included in the final product is an accident.

I’m not immune to enjoying cheesy music. My playlists include an Avril Lavigne song and a massive Goo Goo Dolls catalog. But I do maintain that there’s a difference between emotional manipulation and emotional pressure, and “Christmas Shoes” stamps audiences under its soles with the latter.



Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How "edgy" kids become Neo Nazis, and how they can stop

            Last night I saw photos of swastikas that had been spray painted onto Wilbur Cross High School’s athletic complex, accompanied by the (misspelled) word “Trump.” This happened in the same town where I went to high school and college. It wasn’t surprising, but unnerving to see so close to home. No one knows who did it. This could be the work of committed Neo Nazis, and an unsettling indication that they’re operating in Connecticut. However, I have a strong inkling that it was the work of wannabe-edgy kids who thought it would be a funny prank.
            The latter would not, in any way, be excusable. But here on the left, some of us have a tendency to say that everyone drawing swastikas is the same. While not justifying the behavior, I think it’s helpful to examine the different motives so we can dismantle its foundation, wherever it comes from.
            I believe there are two groups of people defacing public property with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti. One group consists of adult Neo Nazis who are dedicated, zealous, and possibly physically violent. The other group consists of a distinct subset of nihilistic young people who want to be rebels. The second demographic can easily grow into the first. 
            I was one of those teenagers. I personally didn't do all of the following things, but this was our general demeanor: We were the kids who called others “sheeple.” Our attitude was, “Caring about stuff isn’t cool. Nothing really matters, and committing yourself to ideals is lame” (not acknowledging that spray painting graffiti or spending hours trolling online forums is commitment). We generally saw efforts to be culturally sensitive as self-righteous “political correctness,” and thought it was disingenuous. That being said, we didn’t consider ourselves the traditionally conservative right. We disliked patriotism, Christianity, police, and the military, but our reasons differed from why many liberals may distrust those institutions. Our objections were based on resentment of authority and disdain for anything impassioned. Back in the early 2000s, we hated Bush just as much as we liked Eric Cartman. We didn’t think homosexuality was immoral, but we thought it was funny to call straight people "fags" as a general term for "annoying person." And we saw this mentality as unique and independent, despite the fact that popular TV shows and entire lines of merchandize catered to us. 
            An ironic aspect was that while many of us tried to echo Nietzsche, we fundamentally misunderstood what he was about. Nietzsche may have believed life to be meaningless, but not worthless. He thought we could ascribe our own meanings. He may have stared into the abyss, but he didn’t romanticize it.
            Although these kids scoff at enthusiastic ideals, they can be recruited into the Alt-Right if convinced that it’s countercultural and will offend the perceived rigid morality of the left. It appeals to their bitterness, as they see themselves as dispassionate but deny that bitterness is emotional. It appeals to their hatred of the more authoritarian branches of the left. In order to make any headway with this young crowd, we have to acknowledge that such a type of authoritarianism exists. It’s not the majority of liberals, but it does manifest in those who promote heavy censorship and want people arrested for expressing regressive beliefs. It exists in those who defend Communist dictators (whether or not they view them as true Communists), and those who think it’s useless to be liberal unless you’re radicalized. The Alt-Right reaches out to people with resentments of those things, and molds them from cynics to ardent zealots.
            While I was never a KKK or Neo Nazi sympathizer, I was certainly a cynic. I thought being offended was worse than being offensive. I thought it made me look tough to flippantly joke about suicide, self-mutilation, and rape, namely because those things had impacted my life. At the same time, this demeanor was something I aspired to more than something I actually was. In my eyes, it was armor more so than a weapon, although in practice it was both. It was a defense against trauma and severe depression, but the “nothing matters” stance made my depression a lot worse.
            At that point in life I would occasionally see swastikas drawn on walls, usually accompanied by pentagrams and a hastily scrawled “Hail Satan.” I never did this myself, but I didn’t take it seriously. It seemed like a parody. I regarded Nazis as equally alien and mythical as Satan. Some of the offenders who defaced walls with these symbols probably saw it the same way. While the "edgy" kids' brand of so-called humor and graffiti mimics that of self-proclaimed Nazis, I think this is the difference: People who define themselves as Nazis and are adamant about that cause are more likely to commit physical violence and to run for public office so they can enforce those ideas. People who see it as a joke are behaving terribly, but it may be easier to change their minds.
            One person who didn’t see this as a parody was my grandmother, Kiki, a child of Russian immigrants who came to the US to escape pogroms. She was not a Holocaust survivor, but she was a survivor of the Holocaust era. This happened in her most formative years. Kiki remembered that when news of the Holocaust first broke out, many Americans disbelieved it. They thought it was a paranoid conspiracy theory or a grand-scale tasteless joke. Then the photos and the interviews came out. Then the survivors started talking.
            My grandpa, Harold, recalled that many of the WWII servicemen didn’t consider their fight a noble defense of the Jews. A great deal were anti-Semitic themselves. When he first joined the Air Force at seventeen, an interviewer asked if he would defend the United States no matter what. He responded with “Not if it becomes fascist,” and was given two weeks of extra training for that answer. As a Depression-era Jew, he couldn’t afford the na├»ve jingoism that the government and media were selling.
            When I was very small, Kiki told me, “If somebody ever asks you what your religion is, never say that you’re Jewish. They will hate you for it, and they can put you on a list.” At the time, I thought that sounded crazy. Growing up, I was sometimes called a Jew as an insult. It used to just confuse me because it seemed so outdated, and because I didn’t even observe the religion. But to an anti-Semite, simply having Jewish heritage is enough to label you an enemy. I was largely ignorant about oppression because although I was recognized as Jewish, I was also white and upper middle class.
            Back in high school, Kiki and I had discussed affirmative action. I thought it was unnecessary, believing that systemic racism no longer existed. Kiki told me it was a way to level the playing field. She had witnessed so much discrimination toward other races during her youth that it was impossible for her to think that would disappear over one lifetime. She relayed stories of competition and hierarchies. Some of the Jewish people she’d known had ostracized other races because they wanted a group to socially one-up. They saw it in terms like, “We’re Jewish, but at least we’re not black.” Others were afraid to socially engage with other targeted groups because they didn’t want to be further persecuted by proxy. Kiki always hated this, and said that pitting marginalized groups against one another was one of the worst crimes of the elite. She believed all disenfranchised people should support each other. I didn’t know the concept at the time, but she was talking about intersectionality.
            Kiki and Harold influenced me more than they knew. I disagreed throughout my childhood and adolescence, but came around to their way of thinking in later years. I decided to make an effort to listen to the experiences of marginalized people, rather than dismiss their concerns as paranoia. I took classes on the intersections of gender, race, and class. My beliefs are not perfect, but I’m learning and unlearning. The things my grandparents said have been confirmed time and time again. In the wake of a Trump presidency, their words continue to resonate.
            After moving to Milford in 2008, I noticed anti-Semitic graffiti in the train station bathroom. Someone had written “Fuck Jews.” I took out a Sharpie and added, “Consensually.” Another time I was in a local diner and overheard a slew of teenagers making loud, bigoted jokes. One of them shouted out, “Yo, let’s get a bunch of Jews and throw them in a gas chamber and make them fuck each other in the ass!” I called out, “You’d like that, motherfuhrers.” They didn’t get the joke. Sometimes it works to deflect the situation with humor, to show how absurd the bigotry is. Other times, different approaches are in order.
            The kids in the diner seemed a lot farther gone than nihilistic. But kids who are nihilistic can change. Essentially, they are at a crossroad. They can be steered in the direction of passion; either the kind that’s progressive or that leaves a legacy of damage. To grow, they need to learn that opposing bigotry is subversive. They have to see that oppression is real and not an expression of tongue-in-cheek irony. They need to know people of the groups that are affected. They can grow by reading history and knowing it’s not restricted to the past. And they need to know that even if they believe ignorant things now, they’re not a hopeless case.
          Life, after all, isn’t pointless. Even Nietzsche didn’t think so.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bart Simpson as an overlooked prodigy

The Simpsons defined a lot of my identity as a kid because it was the only show my family watched. There were brief periods I’d dabble in a Disney show, and we all liked The Critic, but The Simpsons was the only consistent television media—at least up through middle school. They’d taped every episode since I was two. To a large extent, I looked at the world through a Simpsons lens instead of looking at The Simpsons through a world lens. That was because I was too young to know much outside it. It introduced me to bands and plays and films and books that were referenced throughout the episodes. My siblings were the same way. In elementary school, my sister used to draw our family as Simpsons characters.

While the show was hilarious, it had a lot of poignant elements. Wasted potential was a recurring theme.

Lisa is presented as a genius daughter living in an intellectually stifling environment. She lives in a setting where education is scorned by her dad, brother, and peers. She’s an incredibly gifted achiever, but suffers anxiety and depression. Even people who want to encourage her, such as Marge, can’t relate to her on the same wavelength. Her teacher doesn’t appreciate her gifts. We know Lisa will be abundantly successful in the future, but she first has to power through loneliness and an uninspiring social landscape.

As the show progresses, we see that Bart is also highly intelligent. His teachers assume otherwise because he is an underachiever. One of the saddest and most eye-opening episodes was “Lisa’s Sax.” It shows the memory of Bart starting kindergarten in 1990, excited and hopeful. He begins to show signs of academic struggle, which seem to be due to a learning disability. (Evidence throughout the show points to ADHD and dyslexia. He can comprehend the ideas he reads, but has trouble visually processing the words. When he tries to read them aloud and organize them, they get all jumbled up. He also is hyperactive and distractable.) The teachers pick up on his difficulties, but they don’t try to guide him. They act as though it’s his fault. As a small child, his spirits are dashed and he starts to resent everything academic—especially the school administration. He develops a hardline anti-authority stance. Bart realizes he can gain popularity by being a wiseass, so he latches onto that. He yearns for the approval of the cool (bad) kids and tries hard to fit in. The rebelliousness is a powerful defense. He can act as though his academic struggles are a choice. He can pretend he had rejected school, rather than vice versa. Bart was a smart kid with several learning disabilities who slipped through the cracks. He was also overlooked because Lisa was clearly a prodigy. Her intelligence was just more academically inclined.

Bart’s brilliance shows up in his mischief. He orchestrates complex, well thought out pranks. He’s impressively motivated and organized—he just uses those gifts in ways that are not productive. Bart is not a mean person. He wants to be popular, but isn’t a bully. His empathy for social outcasts is expressed in his friendship with Milhouse, and his attempt to take Martin under his wing to show him how to be cool. Bart’s pranks take on a “fuck the establishment” stance and he targets those in power. There are times when he develops sympathy for authority figures when he realizes they’re human. Any time he does something that genuinely hurts somebody, like getting Mr. Skinner fired or writing mock love letters to Mrs. Krabapple under a false identity, he feels terrible and tries to set things right.

I actually believe that Bart and Lisa are equally brilliant; they’re just in divergent directions. Some disagree because of “Bart the Genius,” the episode in which he’s sent to a gifted school and fails the accelerated program. Fans argue that if he was truly intelligent, he would have succeeded there. I see it differently. Bart had the potential to grasp that curriculum, but he lacked the external resources. He had never been exposed to the type of concepts and vocabulary or even the social culture that the genius kids were already immersed in. They lived in an insular world. He could have understood it if he’d had prior exposure. It’s like going into a foreign country where everyone speaks a language you don’t know. You could understand the ideas they’re expressing if the words were familiar. The ideas aren’t a barrier; the means of expressing them is. One could counter that Bart had been exposed to that type of intellectualism through Lisa, and so he was just naturally incapable. But I think he willfully ignored things Lisa could have taught him, because he associated academia with strife.

Homer is another factor limiting Bart’s ambition and instilling distrust of authority. This is, essentially, because Homer is abusive to Bart. He constantly berates him and makes him feel like a failure. He chases Bart around the house and even chokes him as punishment. Bart rebels against Homer, but also tries to impress him. He’s an abused child who longs for the approval of the parent who hurts him. Homer wants Bart to succeed at school, yet is dismissive of anything broad-minded. Bart responds by resisting Homer’s pressure to succeed, while also mimicking Homer’s scorn for intellectualism in order to relate to him. Bart adopts Homer’s resentment of authority. He additionally distrusts authority because Homer himself cannot be relied upon.

Whenever Bart and Lisa team up together, they are a remarkable force. They are counterparts, filling in each other’s weaknesses and enhancing one another’s strengths. Lisa does the analytical work, while Bart helps to organize and rile people up. He’s the charismatic agitator. Episodes that show their futures usually depict two possible paths. In both, Lisa is invariably successful. But Bart could go in one of two ways. In some scenarios, adult Bart is emotionally stunted and desperately dependent on Lisa. In others, he’s overcome his obstacles and is working alongside her, on her level. They are equally self-actualized and happy. Even though they’re fictional characters, I want so much to see him self-actualized. I want him to have the future where he’s a chief justice of the Supreme Court and looks back on his past with amusement. Lisa has her struggles, but we know she will succeed no matter what. She thrives as soon as she’s in a more stimulating environment, and even thrives without it—although with a lot of emotional turmoil. From what I’ve seen, Lisa is just as anti-establishment as Bart. The difference is that she resolves to beat the system by replacing it.

Bart and Lisa bicker a lot, but in the end, they are each other’s greatest allies. Both of them are characters who are, to a large extent, alone. Lisa doesn’t have friends. Bart has Milhouse, but Milhouse is more of a follower than a friend on equal wavelength. Lisa and Bart are really each other’s best friends—and, possibly, their only true friends at their point in life. They understand each other’s standpoints. They understand each other's pain. And, in the end, they each help the other achieve what seemed impossible on their own. They’ll never grow up on the show. But if the Simpsons universe ever seemed as real to you as it did to me, you’ve probably imagined their future lives and saw them become the best versions of themselves. They’re parallel, both when they suffer and succeed.

***

I have more to say on this subject, especially relating to Homer and Marge. More will be written soon.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Spaces Between Tolerance, Authoritarianism, and Complacency

One statement I hear a lot is that it’s healthy to let people into your life who see the world completely opposite from you. The idea is that you can learn from each other. While that can be true, it varies from situation to situation. Depending upon what your worldviews are, there are times in which that can be harmful—or at least frustratingly pointless.

There’s a theory that if people on the left create “echo chambers,” then those on the right are limited to doing the same by default, because we deprive them of our perspective. (I’m not strictly dividing everyone into two camps. There are those who identify as neither conservative nor liberal, although I do think most lean at least slightly more toward one than the other.) But entering into a friendship with someone for the purpose of trying to change them can be dishonest—no matter where your beliefs stand. It's reminiscent of a religious person befriending an atheist just to “save” them. It’s also not as if there are a great deal of conservative people who want to be friends with liberals and we are callously rejecting them.

I can be friends with someone who differs from me on some fundamental topics, but not if they’re diametrically opposed in nearly every way. People of different ideologies can be friends, but it can be draining to communicate with someone whose moral values are the polar opposite of yours. Particularly if you belong to a disenfranchised group which they believe should not exist. It’s tiring and painful to have to repeatedly defend your humanity. You get enough of that from the world; you don’t need that from friends. It creates problems to keep somebody around who wants to change everything about you.

A few years ago, I had a sort-of friend who was one of the most conservative people I’ve ever known. I wouldn’t comment on his page—I had unfollowed him—but he would comment on almost everything I posted. He would often become condescending and sarcastic. Other times he claimed to want a dialogue. But there was never a point in which he seemed to be considering my point of view. He just listened for the sake of trying to pick apart my argument, having already decided to reject it. I did the same with him, so I was partly responsible for that. Most of the conversations consisted of us talking at each other, talking to ourselves, and trying to persuade the other. I got tired of him telling me I had no right to reproductive rights, that people of my sexual orientation have an “agenda,” and that people with disabilities are acting entitled when we want the legal right to aid and accommodations. I was called too emotional when I couldn’t speak with detachment about such issues which profoundly affect my life. That kind of communication isn't productive. A friend is not a person who expects you to jump through hoops to prove you deserve rights. In such discussions, each participant acts as though they have valuable new information to offer. But the truth is that I’ve already heard everything he had to say. I grew up in a home that relied almost exclusively on Fox News. I know conservative social Darwinist arguments back to front. My left-wing worldview isn’t due to a lack of exposure to anything else, and neither is his conservatism. We both chose the approaches we preferred.

When you believe that certain opinions reflect an overall status quo, then a perspective no longer seems like a lone opinion. Some opinions don’t exist in a vacuum. Even if a person with a bigoted belief holds no particular power, their hate is part of a larger trend. That’s why I think an individual viewpoint makes at least a slight difference to our culture.

That being said, I will always support freedom of speech—even if the thoughts being vocalized are abhorrent. Most people who share my perspective seem to agree on that. But unfortunately, within some social justice circles, there is support for a type of legal censorship that concerns me. Voicing some concerns about social justice culture isn’t disloyal to the culture in itself. It’s important for critique to come from within, because it will be expressed with more knowledge of and respect for the community. Otherwise all the criticisms will be from social conservatives.

I have heard a few far leftists reject capital punishment in all other forms, except when used against anti-leftists. Maybe they are unusual, but I have heard similar thoughts from some others on the far left: that people should be arrested for writing conservative blogs. That anyone at a right-wing protest should be imprisoned. It’s unsettling that those who hold this perspective see no difference between supporting a legal right to free speech, and supporting the speech itself. Sometimes these same people will say in an argument, “I’m not limiting your free speech. You legally say what you want, but that doesn’t shield you from social consequences and I’m not obligated to provide you a platform.” That argument is entirely right, but it becomes weakened if the one using it wants others to be arrested for what they say.

If somebody goes to jail or faces other legal repercussions for expressing specific viewpoints, that doesn’t always change their stance. They might be less public about it, but their beliefs could be further cemented by a newfound martyr complex. Most people don’t want to renounce their opinions after being made to suffer for them, because they don’t want to think they suffered pointlessly. Facing legal punishment will fire up their supporters, and could garner sympathy they wouldn't have otherwise had. Also, forcefully removing a person’s public platform (such as a blog) could bring their rhetoric into the private sphere and allow it to operate and spread unseen. When someone has a verbal outlet, it allows them to blow off steam, and they may lose motivation to take physical action. Pull that out from under them, and that hatred could manifest physically—even more so than it already does.

I fully support the ban of violent threats and the willful spread of slander if it is provably untrue (for example, it should be illegal for a school to teach its students that the Holocaust was a hoax or for a person to burn a cross on somebody’s lawn). But some types of hate speech are subjective. If hate speech is defined as anything perceived as insulting or anything that makes a person feel threatened, then we could be censored for telling a person that what they said was racist. We know that’s not a hateful or threatening thing to say. But if they take it as such, then we could be penalized. There's also a difference between saying "I hate X person or group" and "I think we should kill X person or group." I hate certain members of our government, but I'm not going to go bomb the Senate. When one says "I think that person should be killed," that would be crossing a line because it could be interpreted as inciting violence.

I wonder how these limitations on speech would be enacted. If it involved the government monitoring conversations and instructing people to report on family members and friends, that would be a great violation of privacy. It wouldn't just affect bigots; it would affect everybody.

This is why, if I say that someone should stop expressing certain ideas, I don’t mean the government should silence them. I mean they should make the personal choice to do so. I’m more in support of providing counter-voices and counter arguments than removing the original source. Of offering more dissenting voices, rather than removing the voice they’re speaking against.

A common criticism of liberalism is, “You preach tolerance, but you don’t tolerate people you think are bigoted.” They are right that if you promote the tolerance of all viewpoints, then it’s inconsistent to not tolerate certain ones. That’s why I try to promote anti-white supremacy and anti-misogyny and anti-LGBT phobia, rather than a blanket form of tolerance. It follows this reasoning: I respect your right to have an opinion and your legal right to voice it, but I don’t have to respect the opinion itself.

Not all opinions are respectable. “Different races shouldn’t mix” isn't a respectable opinion. “Women should have no bodily autonomy” isn't a respectable opinion. “Federal laws should be based on religious scripture” isn't a respectable opinion. Legally allowable, yes. But that doesn’t mean it should be legally affirmed or socially encouraged. (An example of legal affirmation: I mean a business owner can believe that homosexuality is wrong, but they shouldn’t be permitted to refuse gay customers.)

I’ll talk to someone who has an overall worldview that disturbs me. I’ll explain to them why I see things differently, but I won’t have a close relationship with them.

Maybe all of this makes me politically intolerant, but not politically radical. I’m all right with occupying that space.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The intimacy of Photoshop

There's a strange sense of intimacy in Photoshopping a person--not to change their appearance, but to remove smudges or scratches from the picture's surface. It feels like you're grooming them through real touch, even though you're only clicking on pixels. This can feel odd if you're fixing up a photo featuring someone you haven't seen in years, no longer have a relationship with, or have never met. There's a certain thrill in digitally primping someone you wish you had known, like a famous person or historical figure.

It's hard to divorce two-dimensional images of people from their tangible forms. For that reason, it's also eerie to find a photo of someone who is no longer alive and look into their eyes, even though they were alive in the picture. It's confusing to read a distraught message from a friend while seeing the userpic of their grinning face.

Time is never static, but photos give us the illusion of that. They really do seem to store an unchanging facet of a person. And maybe many of us present two-dimensional versions of ourselves in real life, because it feels safer than showing our fuller and unretouched selves.

The splitting of selves

Whether you still are defensive about something you’ve done in the past, or you feel objective enough to acknowledge the wrong of it without self-disgust, depends on how disconnected you are from that version of yourself. It depends on if it’s actually a past version of you. The transitory point is shame, when you no longer defend what you once said/did but are still not comfortable acknowledging it. That’s like when an amoeba is at the mid-point of separating from itself but is not yet two distinct bodies. Once you become a different version of yourself, you can look at some past actions with regret but not shame because it’s like observing someone else altogether.

Then again, that might be another self-deluding defense mechanism. I’m not really sure either way.

The catch 22 of confidence

I loved what Michelle Obama had to say in her interview with Oprah last month at the United State of Women summit (http://tinyurl.com/gmt6ysd). The positivity she exudes is inspiring. She made so many salient points about motivation, the role of men, and responsibility for ourselves and others that I can’t pick anything specific to applaud. Her whole outlook shines. I’d recommend reading the interview, but there is one part I somewhat differ on:

…That goes back to knowing who you are. And I think as women and young girls, we have to invest that time in getting to understand who we are and liking who we are. Because I like me. I’ve liked me for a very long time. So for a long time I’ve had a very good relationship with myself…And we like—we all like ourselves in here. But you’ve got to work to get to that place. And if you’re going out into the world as a professional and you don’t know who you are, you don’t know what you want, you don’t know how much you’re worth, then you have to be brave. And then you have to count on the kindness and goodness of others to bestow that goodness on you when you should be working to get it on your own. Because you deserve it.”

She was talking about this in the context of the professional world. But in an overall sense, I’d say the process of women developing confidence is more involved than just deciding to like ourselves. I’m sure the First Lady understands this. As a black woman, she’s familiar with intersections of adversity. Unfortunately, though, self-help/positivity culture tends to overlook more complex causes which need more layered solutions. They tend to offer Michelle Obama’s suggestions, but without her background knowledge. Their advice lacks her context.

It’s easier to learn to like yourself if you don’t have major internal limitations. It comes more naturally if you’re smart, able-bodied, a good problem solver, attractive, and socially at ease—all of which Michelle Obama is. She certainly grew up with other roadblocks which her advantages didn’t cancel out. She worked tirelessly for what she has. At the same time, she was at a good starting point in other ways. It’s difficult to feel good about yourself if you don’t have those qualities or haven’t accomplished things you’re satisfied with. If you have a lot of achievements valued by others and you are the only one dissatisfied with them, then that is a confidence issue. But if society doesn’t value what you’ve done, at least not enough for it to gain recognition, then it’s hard to develop self-worth. Confidence is a catch 22. It has to develop from the inside out to manifest in accomplishments. Simultaneously, it has to come from outside in to flourish internally. Ms. Obama says that if you can’t be confident, then you have to be brave. I think it’s difficult to be brave if you’re not already self-assured, and not at a place in your life where you can afford risks.

Confidence for women is often difficult because we are undermined externally in so many ways. This isn’t to say there are no difficulties specific to men. There are, but a great deal of women’s constraints are related to physical safety. Being at risk of assault and violence in public will leave you with a fragile sense of security that can lower confidence. Ms. Obama is doubtlessly aware of this. However, it’s often not taken into account by others who tell women to learn to love ourselves.

There are a lot of factors that play into shaky confidence. While liking oneself is a good goal, it can’t be the starting point because that in itself has prerequisites and there are societal problems to be addressed in the process. It’s a worthy goal for people to find ways to be confident even if they’re not as gifted and capable as Michelle Obama. I’m not sure how to do that yet. I don’t like to lay out a problem without offering a solution, but I honestly have no idea how to resolve this. I need to believe it’s possible, though, in order to retain hope.

I’ll let others know when I figure it out. It can be done; it’s just more than a one-step process. In the meantime, we can learn from the First Lady’s approach to life. She has so many wonderful things to say.

The Nazi room

Some friends have said that they regret using Facebook because it makes them like their peers less. That someone they would probably like in person becomes someone they can’t stand because of the opinions they post. I understand this sentiment, and at times I can relate to it. But at the same time, it’s hard to believe that somebody’s defining beliefs and overall worldview would never be expressed face to face if you know them well enough. And if they are hiding certain values, I’m not sure I’d rather be unaware of what those values are.

In the past, I have written that there is no single “true” self. People are multifaceted, and we can be kinder and more complicated than our belief systems. I don’t believe that a human necessarily has only one set of values; they can have several at odds with one another. But even if their values aren’t a neatly matching set, others can still feel alienated by a particular belief they have—even with the awareness that it isn’t their only belief. I know I will distance myself from a person if they express specific beliefs, just as I know I’m not exempt from alienating others with mine.

The internet is a paradoxical place. It’s a space where humans are bolder and more confrontational about expressing themselves, and at the same time more cautious if their words are for public consumption. It’s a place where individuals can perform a one-dimensional version of themselves, and where they can also share sides of their psyche that are not usually seen. It’s a meeting ground where people dismiss each other more readily because it’s easier to see a human as a set of pixels or an algorithm, but people also might offer each other more time. Because the online world is us, an outgrowth of both space and time.

Just as the internet is people and the internet is a place, people are places. Some are homes. Some are locations we think are homes, but turn out to be stops along the way. Some are havens we visit routinely, but where we don’t ultimately live. That’s why I think of a personality as a house. Some houses have consistent themes throughout. Those homes are cozy and predictable. Some prefer that, others find it dull. Some houses are neat and affable in the rooms that are meant for showcasing, but complete chaos in the private quarters. And others don’t hide their mess.

This is the type of home I’d find most disconcerting: The social, guest-receiving rooms are open and embracing. The living room contains an MLK poster and books about environmentalism and civil rights. Then, somewhere tucked far down a hallway, there’s a study full of KKK propaganda and Nazi memorabilia. The resident is flustered upon guests discovering it, but insists it’s “not a racist thing.” They say they have no problem with (X minority group), they just “don’t want them in their country.” (So what does “having no problem with them” mean? Not objecting to their basic existence, provided that existence occurs far away and they never have to inhabit the same space?) The person who owns and maintains this house may not see the space dedicated to bigotry as their “true” room. They may see it as just one coexisting with all the others, no more of a core space than anywhere else. They may even like to have minority friends in the house; just not in that area. But the guests who liked the main quarters won’t feel comfortable there anymore, and it would be especially scary if the house was a place where they’d regularly enjoyed spending time.

That figurative house is who some people are. Some may not actually be aware that they contain that specific room. Others might know about it but blame others for putting the contents inside, not acknowledging that they choose to hold onto those things. And I know my definition of welcoming is subjective; some would feel a lot more embraced in the bigotry room than in the main socially presented areas. But that is how I see it, and I think the internet provides a window into rooms that might not otherwise be seen—even by those who live in the house. The difference lies in whether or not the homeowner justifies that room; whether they respond to its discovery by more carefully hiding the contents, by bringing them out into the open, or by trying to renovate.

The trickster archetype

Two famous characters which seem to share certain parallels are Joker and the Cheshire Cat. It's not just because they both wear unnatural, unsettling grins on their faces. It's because they both represent order vs. chaos, but in different ways.
The Cheshire Cat acts as a guide among chaos, providing advice and order at times--although he's capricious and only helps when he feels like it. Rather than good or bad, he seems neutral and mainly motivated by his own whims for amusement.
In the Batman universe, Joker is also motivated by his own amusement and says perplexing things. But he wants to upend order and create chaos, which is somewhat the opposite of Cheshire Cat. The latter tries to provide balance between the two, whereas Joker just wants to destroy.
Also, both follow a motif of what they, in their own words, call "madness." They're products of their environments and arguably both well-adjusted to their surroundings, even if others would see them as nonsensical or erratic. It reminds me of the aphorism that it's no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society. The Joker has found a definite means of survival, living purely at the expense of others. He's sustained himself, but not in a way that could ever be seen as healthy. The Cheshire Cat seems better adapted because he accepts the inevitable disorder but tempers it with organization, and he's far less malevolent.

Hipsters in Ugg boots

I wonder how many things that aren't currently "cool" to enjoy will become cool once they're vintage. My theory is that a lot of vintage stuff is only cool because enough time has passed for people to forget why they originally disliked them. Then when it becomes too generic the second time, it gets abandoned because it's no longer ironic.

Prediction: In another twenty years (because it has to be at least twenty), hipsters will be wearing Ugg boots and listening to Bieber.

My inner emo child is showing

Watched Blink 182's new video for "Bored to Death" and am currently torn in two directions like a Stretch Armstrong doll. The song is repetitive and the lyric "Life is too short to last long" is one of those maddening statements that's clearly meant to sound profound, but really is just self-defining (it's like saying "Fire's too hot to be cold"). But at the same time, damned if the scene of the angsty punk boy scratching messages into his desk and his bleach-haired girlfriend jumping around listening to oversized headphones and them skating in the parking lot doesn't leave my early 2000s mallcore heart screaming. I'm surprised I didn't combust into a cloud of AIM icons featuring Sally the Ragdoll and skulls with little pink bows on top.
I’ll start out by saying that the recent cop killings are deplorable. People should not have to fear being murdered because of their jobs. When an officer is shot in vengeance after they did something unconscionable—such as Jackie Neal of San Antonio, who was shot after raping a woman on the job—I have to admit there’s a certain sense of compensation. But that doesn’t mean vigilante justice is right or that killing is an acceptable response, especially when other cops are being shot for another’s offense. So I’m sorry to hear about what happened in Baton Rouge, as well as what happened in Dallas. 

That being said, it's a dangerous assumption to claim that if a person is critical of police officers in general, or simply outspoken against police brutality, or even professedly anti-cop, that it means they must want the police to be murdered. There are people I can’t stand, cop and non-cop alike, but that doesn’t mean I want them killed. I might be petty and wish any number of irritations upon them. I might want them to spill hot coffee on their lap or never find a parking space or only ever step on Legos when they’re barefoot. I might hope they get fired or dumped or face failure, but I don’t wish for them to die. That may not be healthy or mature of me. However, it’s not the same as condoning murder. 

To respond to criticisms of police with “Then you want all cops to die!” is to smother any dissenting opinion. Because then the person is not discussing their actual grievances with the police force or with police brutality; they’re stuck defending their right to voice those thoughts and assuring others that they’re not saying cops should be massacred. Some cops and police supporters might genuinely believe that to criticize a cop is to sign their death warrant, but others use this as a red herring.

Unfortunately, I have heard some on my side of the issue celebrating the murder of cops. I’ve seen statements like “No tears for dead cops,” which sounds more like a command than a personal sentiment. This disturbs me. But that perspective is not the norm coming from those who speak out against police brutality. Most have the mindset of, “We don’t want you to be killed. We want you to stop killing people.” Some have pointed out that if you believe being against police brutality is the same as being anti-cop, it’s like saying objection to child abuse makes you anti-parent.

I’ve heard the argument that speaking against the actions of specific police officers stirs up anti-cop hatred that leads to them getting murdered. The argument can be paraphrased as, “You understand that anti-gay hate speech leads to gay people getting murdered, but you don’t acknowledge the same about cops.” This would make sense, except that criticizing police brutality and racial profiling doesn’t amount to hate speech, and the people who target LGBT people often do so because they literally believe that "God" commanded them to.

It is true that hatred of some groups leads to them being killed, but that mainly happens to oppressed populations. For example, there are individual gay people who hate heterosexuals due to years of oppression, but gay people aren’t shooting up straight clubs in Orlando. There are women who hate men, but there’s no pandemic of women slaughtering men simply for being male (and there are examples of the reverse situation. Elliot Rodger and the Montreal massacre of 1989 are two examples). Police aren’t an oppressed class. They sometimes do get intentionally killed simply for the job they have, and that is horrific. That’s inexcusable. But while the ones who are murdered are in no way at fault for their own deaths, they chose the job with awareness of the risks. Being a police officer is a choice. Race, gender, and sexual orientation are not.

A peaceful protest is still a protest.

When somebody says, "I'm all for peaceful protests, but why do they have to block highways/interrupt airport services/have marches/boycott things/perform sit-ins??", then they do not know what "peaceful" or "protest" really means.

A peaceful protest doesn't mean the participants are quiet and docile. It doesn't mean they won't do or say anything that will make others feel uncomfortable. That's why it's a protest: It's an act of dissent meant to catch the public eye, and that has to be accomplished by disruption. That's how the status quo is challenged. "Peaceful" just means they're not going to murder, batter, or sexually assault anyone in the process. And a lot of people who complain about acts of public interruption, such as highway blockades, will also complain about protests that are fairly sedentary and self-contained, such as Occupy. Their issue isn't that they want protests to be "peaceful." They just don't want any to exist.

The Pokemon cult

When I was out catching Jigglypuffs at West Haven beach today, I passed by a public prayer circle and swore I heard one of them include the word "Pokemon".

Theories:
1) They were praying to catch more Pokemon
2) They have formed a religion around the Pokemon and were praying to a Squirtle
3) One of them may have been lamenting that "All these people are finding Pokemon, but can't find Jesus!" (In which case, I'd inform them you can catch him at Level 20.)

Future nostalgia

If you're bored or sad, it can help to remind yourself of all the things that have been developed/invented in your lifetime which you've gotten so immersed in that you wonder how you possibly could have ever gone without. Think of how many more will come to exist in your future, and then you will look forward to things you're not even aware of yet. The best part of that is you don't miss those aspects or agonize over not having them, since you don't yet know what they are--you just know they'll be a great surprise. And if you can imagine them, you can make them.


Responsibilities

Continuously confused by the narrative that poor people "have no responsibilities". It probably derives from the idea that those living in poverty are naturally irresponsible, and therefore must not have things to be responsible for. Two thoughts: 1) Irresponsible people, by definition, actually have responsibilities. Being irresponsible means evading the ones you do have. 2.) Navigating one's way through poverty actually involves a lot of effort and work to survive. Many work multiple jobs. Many have kids and other relatives they need to attend to. And if you're on government assistance--which is frequently judged as the pinnacle of irresponsibility--there is a great deal of effort involved in both attaining and continuing to collect it. You have to show up to appointments and present armloads of files and wade through seemingly endless paperwork. If anyone's initial response is "Well, what if they put all that effort into trying to find a job?", please know those things are not mutually exclusive. The majority of benefits recipients are employed. Additionally, the common perception of those on welfare living in luxury doesn't even make sense. Saying poverty is privilege is like saying water is dry.

If anything, people with the least amount of responsibilities are rich ones living off an inheritance.

What defines something as childish?

I'm curious about why certain tastes and activities are considered "childish". Things like Harry Potter or Pokemon or board games or video games or cartoons are often called childish because they appeal to kids, but it doesn't really make sense to exclusively label them "a kid thing," since a lot of adults enjoy them. Maybe an entertainment product is considered childish if it was designed and marketed specifically with kids in mind. But all the same, it was invented and developed by adults who may have been thinking of what they would still enjoy if they were socially permitted.

Certain types of entertainment are seen as kid stuff, but still acceptable for adults to partake in (Star Wars and comic books, for example). I wonder what makes some things more socially accepted as crossovers, while others are seen as exclusively the domain of kids. Maybe nostalgia is a factor. Because Star Wars has existed since the '70s, adults regard it as "acceptable" entertainment because it reminds them of their pasts. It also has a lot of philosophical/intellectual merit, as does Harry Potter, so that could be grasped as a reason to give it a pass for grown people.

There's also often an overlap between nerd culture and things that are judged as childish. Fantasy, sci fi, gaming, cosplay. But many of those things are increasingly embraced by adults, and the appeal is generally understood even by those who don't engage in them. This is part of the process of nerd culture moving to the mainstream.

Whenever a new entertainment trend pops up that relates to nerd culture, a lot of people denounce it as childish until gradually, it just comes to be seen as geeky (whether the person uses that term in a disparaging, affectionate, or neutral sense). I hope that will be the case with Pokemon Go. I hear a lot of surly sentiments along the lines of "I don't play because I'm an adult and I have responsibilities!" It's ridiculous to assume all adults who like the game have no responsibilities; many use it as a fun escape in their down time. Everyone who makes that complaint has a hobby, but they don't consider their own leisure activities to be immature. So it doesn't follow that every non-utilitarian act is seen as childish. I think it has to do with initial knee-jerk reactions to nerd culture. I hope to see this game assimilated into the menu of hobbies that are treated as valid for all ages.

Blank spaces

Comic characters can't see the blank spaces between panels as they travel from one to another. If they could, they'd realize that's the space where they have the freedom to draw themselves.

Punching Poseidon

If you can, at least once in your life, punch Poseidon.

When the tide is tall and choppy, curling into water cliffs, charge into the waves. They'll pummel you with salty fists. Stand against them at first. They will start thrashing you. Let them. Let them sweep and scrape you across the shore. Dig your hands and feet into the sand. Be seaweed, rooted down, swaying with the current. Let the foaming mouth swallow and spew you out. Then, when it thinks it's quelled you, run at the waves again. Crash in. Tangle. Switch between boxing with the water and dancing with it. Seize the frothing joy.

The ocean will learn it can move you, but can't claim you. You both belong to yourselves, and will always battle it out or carry each other. You'll return to each other in tides.

Embryonic

Being in the ocean is one of the most soothing experiences. It guides you back to an embryonic lull and stirs with primordial echoes. The danger is that it's indiscriminately nurturing. It cradles you while sustaining your predators. The security and the perils are very much like gestation, because nothing is both as welcoming and dangerous as becoming alive.

Vulnerability as a pejorative

I may have figured out why “Tumblr” is often used as a disparaging adjective (calling a person “so Tumblr”, etc). It’s not just because of associations with far-left politics—although, despite the common perception, it’s not exclusively so. There are Tumblr pages and communities all over the ideological spectrum. The popular contempt for the website also may be because it’s an outlet for emotional first-person confessionals. That kind of vulnerability gets sneered at. Some entries may sound kind of exaggerated or theatrical, but I think what it really boils down to is that the genuinely heartfelt narratives make a lot of people uncomfortable. Readers don’t want to be raw, so they don’t like seeing others that way. That reaction is a kind of non-empathetic empathy.

Such self-expression is dismissed as juvenile because the expectation is that adults talk “rationally” about work and money while teenagers talk about feelings. And honestly, I’m tired of that norm for adults.

There is something about openness that makes some see you as a receptacle. If you’re open, the jaded people want to reach into your space and either drain your substance or replace it with their own. I think there need to be communities where people can talk sincerely with friends or strangers or just a blank page, siphoning off their thoughts into the reflective a.m. hours. Tumblr isn’t perfect, but I’m glad it serves that need for so many.

Economy of obsoletism

I often hear that most jobs will be replaced by robots or mechanical functions someday, and my first thought was that might be a lot more money and effort than continuing to employ people. It would be expensive to create, install, and maintain all that machinery. Mike said the initial cost would be high but that it wouldn't expensive in the long run. That might be true. In that case, the majority of human jobs would be based on building and installing the technology, until machines can do that too. Once that happens, I wonder if there would be a financial meltdown or if the need for humans to have jobs would be obsolete--in the same way we see outdated technology as obsolete? And if that's the case, would we reconfigure our entire foundation of economics? Would there even be a purpose for money anymore?

Crosses and crossroads

When I was about sixteen, somebody from school asked me, “Why do you wear a cross all the time if you’re not Christian?” I can’t remember my exact answer, but it was something like “Contrast.” I saw it as an ironic juxtaposition against a punk or goth-y outfit, and at that age, I didn’t grasp the callousness of using others’ revered symbols as accessorized playthings. But there was another reason behind it that I couldn’t yet articulate.

It was also because it’s a symbol of torture, both in its literal sense and in what the Church had done to many over the centuries, and I was very angsty at the time. Maybe the macabre element wasn’t all that contrasted with my black clothes and skull emblems. But it was also a symbol of rebirth and hope—not hope within a religious context, but in a general sense.

I’ve been fascinated by Christianity’s various forms throughout my life and had a visceral love/hate response to it since early childhood. I don’t talk a lot about the Christian chapter of my early twenties, partly because it may be hard for others to understand and partly because I don’t have much to say about it anymore. (I call it a chapter and not a “phase” because it wasn’t just a fad to me; an accessory cast off easily as a crucifix necklace. It was deeply felt at the time.) 

I don’t call myself Christian anymore, and have not for years, for a few different reasons. One, because I neither see the Bible as a guidebook nor as divinely inspired. Two, because my social values don’t match the mainstream evangelical community’s at all. And three, because the word literally means “little Christ,” and I cannot with any humility compare myself to Jesus.

Although I no longer identify as Christian, I don’t regret that period. For me, it was a stepping stone to liberalism. Raised within secular political conservatism, it was an easy transition to Christianity because the religious right has co-opted the religion and painted their approach to it as the only true north. But within it, I saw social issues in a whole new light. I began to care about people I used to dismiss as lazy or entitled. It was a stopgap to the philosophy I now try to live by. I don’t do it perfectly by any means, and am still learning. But I’ll always be grateful to the more progressive side of Christianity for showing me a path I’d previously only heard of, and had never tried to walk until that time.

From June: Alarm clock haiku

Woke up thinking of an alarm clock haiku:

Over-ripe time fruit
Explodes, splattering loud noise
Onto the morning.

(Side note: I'm actually pretty glad that real fruit doesn't explode. Dream logic, though.)

From June: "You Ripped the Colors Out of Me"

(Explanation--I've been feeling progressively worse the past month and this afternoon I stayed in bed for four hours and did nothing. But then I wrote this and really want to get back on track.)

Spectrum: A Letter to Severe Depression

You ripped the colors out of me
Plunged your hand into my chest
Yanked out a fistful of rainbow,
beams of light
Left me split open, dripping grey
You took my red ambition
Rockets and capes, flight forward
Never a stop sign in sight
You took my orange fruits of labor
My yellow tipsy buzz from
sipping on the sun
(now I can only taste the burn)
You took my purple prose
Leaving only black and blues
Battered hues
and
A ghostly trace of green
Envy for another time
A more colorful self.

Art fights

I recently thought of a really funny fight that my brother and I had when he was about seven years old and I was nine. He was chasing me, so I locked myself in the bathroom and was taunting him from the inside.

Then a piece of paper and pencil were slipped to me under the door. It was a drawing of me being chased by bees.
I flipped it over and, in response, drew him dropping an ice cream cone and crying.
He got another piece of paper and drew me stubbing my toe.
In turn, I drew him surrounded by stink lines.

We kept this going wordlessly for a few minutes, each drawing images of each other that were either unflattering or depicted the other in an unpleasant scenario. It culminated in him drawing a picture of Bart Simpson mooning me, and then we both burst out laughing and I unlocked the door.

This is how siblings fought back in the mid '90s, in a house where everyone drew and religiously watched The Simpsons. And I still have that last drawing.

Stretch

There's something calming about long shadows stretched across chain link fences and sidewalks. Maybe because it shows that even a flat facsimile of you can wrap itself around many surfaces at once and reach across the daylight. If you don't have the energy at the moment, it will fill in for you until you do.

Road maps II

Wires and veins and road maps are all similar visually, and linked in concept. Technology connects people as part of a larger body and is the highway we travel together.

Road maps

All my veins are road maps
Leading back to you.
You three: the vessels that once carried me
Now in vessels
Pulsating with paint and
never-dried ink.
All branch into heart and lungs
Coloring outside the lines of time
Filling in the space
between breaths.

Imaginary seats

Today I was on the swing at the park and a 6-year-old girl was on the blue swing next to me. She got off it for a moment, pushed the empty swing, and told me, "I'm pushing nobody!"

I said, "You're pushing an invisible person."

She answered, "Well, I have an imaginary friend named Mickey, so let's say I'm pushing him."

Over the next few minutes, I guess Mickey became a little more real to her. Another girl from her kindergarten class came by and wanted that empty blue swing, but Morgan (the first girl) said, "No, Mickey's on it!"

They started to bicker. I offered my swing, but the other little girl specifically wanted "Mickey's". So I looked at the empty plastic seat and said, "Mickey, I think this girl wants a turn. Can you let her have it for a minute?"

Morgan immediately eased up and said, "Okay!". She and her invisible friend pushed the other girl together, and they both intermittently conversed with "Mickey."

I think it can help to meet little kids where they are. As funny as it is that she wanted her imaginary friend to stay on the swing, it wouldn't have worked to tell her Mickey wasn't real. Sometimes it's most effective to cooperate with their make-believe scenario and solve problems within it.

(Pictured: Mickey on the blue swing.)

Distrust of finite objects

For a while, I've had a theory that people tend to be suspicious of something that holds a lot of information if they can't see the entirety of where that information is stored. It's why I prefer physical books to eBooks or Kindle; I like to see all the pages together. It also seems to be why Arthur Weasley told Ginny in the second Harry Potter book, "Don't trust something that thinks if you can't see where it keeps its brain."

This may also extend, partly, to why so many humans are distrustful of one another. Among other reasons, it may be because we know that people have whole worlds of thoughts contained within a finite body part, and we can't see the thoughts from the outside.
From what I've noticed, white supremacists often have conflicted feelings about Jewish people. On one hand, they're quick to stereotype and ostracize them. On the other, they love using the Jewish community as an example of white people being oppressed based on race (never mind the fact that Jewish people were oppressed for being Jewish, not for being white, and were even considered an ethnic minority as a means to justify the persecution. Also, they were attacked by other white Europeans, not POC). Additionally, racists often assume that all Muslims are anti-Jewish and will cling to that as an Islamophobic stereotype, even if they themselves feel hostile toward Jewish people.

Another factor I've noticed is how they will either say that race isn't the same as nationality/religion or that it is, depending on whether that will further the "white people are oppressed" narrative. This is a pattern that occurs often:

Person: "White people are targeted. Look at what happened to the Irish and the Jews!"

Then the same person will rail against affirmative action, calling it "racism against whites." When told that Irish and Jewish scholarships exist and benefit a lot of white people, they'll backtrack and say, "Well, that doesn't count because those benefits are based on nationality/religion, not race."

Blather, rinse, repeat.

Mood music

I don’t usually listen to purely instrumental music because I find lyrics more relatable. But at the same time, I can see why instrumental might be even more relatable because instead of including a storyline that might be specific, it encompasses a mood that can be tailored to even more situations.

From June

When my aunt Mary was in her early twenties, she wrote this description of her parents in a journal: “Kiki and Harold: A mass of confused frustration, or a kind of breakfast-out bargain kids who love to get up early! Their house is full of their kids, dogs, and their guests for wok or spaghetti dinners. Their house has so much flea market stuff, but they know that you can always add another addition to their mass of life.”

I’ve never heard a truer description of my grandparents. Kiki, Harold, and Mary were a trifecta of my young life, of my whole childhood. And now all three of them are dead.

I never met a person who disliked Kiki, but she was always my inner litmus test. If anybody didn’t like her, I knew I couldn’t like them.

When thinking of my grandma, I think of her love of African and Native American art. I think of the way she made jewelry and collected thousands of beads. I think of how she was the first woman in her family to go to college—and then went on to be a part of the school board, to become an art teacher, and to start her own business with her husband. I think of her Yiddish profanity, including an expression that literally translates to “Go shit in the ocean,” and an ancient curse of “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits!” I think of how she built an enormous house out of wood and stone while pregnant. And I think of her as a violin virtuoso, and the day when, at 90 years old, she picked up a violin for the first time in decades and realized to her dismay that she could not play anymore.

Kiki’s dementia was especially difficult for her because she was used to being the family matriarch. She was used to always being in charge, and her whole life was defined by giving care to others. So when she was in the position of needing care, it distressed her. After Harold passed on in September, she started saying she wanted to go home. Even when she was at her house, she’d tug on the doorknob and start crying, begging her children to take her home. This was heartbreaking, and my husband had an astute insight about it. He thinks that even though her senility prevented her from processing Harold’s death, she understood something was missing. And so with her husband gone, it didn’t feel like home anymore.

Even in severe dementia, her will was astounding. In the hospice, she managed to live for over two weeks with no food or liquids. Most people can only live that way a few days.

Today, shortly before she passed away, her five surviving children gathered together at a beach by the hospice. They wrote her name in huge letters in the sand with a big heart and all danced around her name, shouting it into the sky and yelling, “You’re free!” When they returned to her room, she was still. She’d passed right as they were “releasing” her.

My aunts and uncles are going to donate her brain to the medical community in order to contribute to dementia research, and to learn more about the type she had. It makes perfect, harmonious sense that they would perform a spiritual ritual while also contributing to science. And I know that’s exactly what Kiki would want, because it means she can help people even in death.

Harold, Kiki, and Mary: you are my blood, my trio, my history. And for the rest of my life, you’ll show up in my Technicolor dreams.