Showing Up

One thing I have done to try to improve my situation and specifically my mood and mental health, is that I have begun meditating.

It’s something I’ve thought about doing for years, but stupidly, never thought to actually try. Well, no, I tried a time or two; I asked my wife, who has practiced meditation for years (She’s not strictly a Buddhist, but her philosophy and mindset are often — let’s call it Buddhist-adjacent) how to do it; she tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t take the step of actually having her guide me through the practice, I just wanted instructions so I could do it on my own. And she tried, but it’s hard to work just from someone’s description of meditation, so it never really came together for me. Also, I am very aware that I don’t have much time during the average day: my work day is from 8:00-4:20 (And isn’t it amazing that my high school chose 4:20 as a significant time during the day, as the time when the students need to go home; it’s surely only a matter of time until they decide that each class should be 69 minutes long, and then every middle school boy there will be lost), and my commute is about 45-60 minutes depending on traffic and who’s driving for my carpool; then I need to do the usuals around the house — I tend to get the groceries and wash the dishes because my wife does the cooking; I usually feed the dogs and take them for walks, because she cares for the birds and the tortoise– and so on. I don’t need to list the daily tasks to help you understand why my day is full. But there is the extra factor that teaching means you work at home as well as at school, and also that the work is never done. So literally any time I have a choice about what to do, one voice in my head (sometimes soft, sometimes very loud) says “Maybe you should grade something.” And then because I’m a writer, which is also a task that requires a tremendous amount of time, another voice says “Maybe you should write something.”

All of which is to say that I have struggled to set time aside for something as seemingly unnecessary as sitting quietly with my eyes closed for ten or twenty minutes, trying to empty my head. Surely I should be grading. Or writing. Or vacuuming.

But then this year, my already-full head got over-full. Might have happened with the pandemic; might have happened with buying a house this past spring; might have happened with various health crises and concerns happening to my parents and my wife’s parents. What has always been “a lot” in my head finally became “too much.” I cried out for help, on Twitter, as it happened, and a very kind fellow teacher recommended a meditation app called Headspace, with the extremely strong recommendation that the app is free for teachers. He said it helped him deal with stress, and maybe I should give it a try.

So I gave it a try.

And I liked it.

Now, it has not solved my problems; clearly, since writing these blogs is another attempt to deal with the issues I’m facing. Headspace focuses on what is called “Mindfulness meditation,” which is essentially trying to be present in the moment and fully aware of where you are and what you are feeling, without judging or thinking about the moment or where you are and what you are feeling. And maybe that’s how all meditation works; I dunno. But this meditation is mostly about emptying your mind while focusing on your breathing.

I’m proud to say that I’m good at breathing. I sort of always have been; I’ve been a singer all my life, so I’ve got pretty good breath control and lung capacity. I lost much of that when I became a smoker during my senior year of high school, and for the subsequent 19 years when I kept my pack-a-day cigarette habit; but I gave up smoking better than ten years ago, now, so my breath is back — and seriously, that does make me proud.

But I SUCK at emptying my head.

That’s oversimplifying it, because the idea is not really to empty your head; it is to step back from your thoughts, observing and acknowledging them as they arise, and then letting them go without getting caught up in them. So the thoughts come, as thoughts always do; but they don’t stay, because you don’t stay with them. I like that concept, because it makes much more sense and feels much more realistic than my original misunderstanding of meditation, which was that you were to control your mind so completely that it doesn’t think anything beyond “Ommmmmmmmm.” (And again, not an expert, so maybe that is exactly what Zen meditation, for instance, is supposed to do; but I doubt it. Because I can’t really picture that kind of thought control being possible.)

Regardless, though, I still suck at it.

I think too much. Particularly, for me, I think of scenarios and then imagine myself in them. In those scenarios, I mostly interact with other people who I am also imagining, usually my mental versions of real people I have to, or should, talk to for one reason or another. I plan out conversations, imagine the responses I would get, and then consider ways to reply to them. Sometimes they are pleasant conversations I would like to have — I might think about talking to my wife about dinner plans, for instance — but much more often they are things I am somewhat anxious about, or angry about. I think a lot about what I will say to my students, and also about what I should have said to them but didn’t say. And because I’m picturing whole scenarios and conversations, I get caught up in the thoughts much too easily. I don’t simply observe the thoughts, acknowledge them, and let them go; I grab them and hold on tight. I swallow them whole — or maybe I let them swallow me.

Point is, I can sit quietly, breath deeply, still my body; but then I sit there and think about the same bullshit I’m always thinking about. And in this last year, especially, that bullshit has become extremely stressful.

I took a walk with my dogs this morning. A long walk, which is one of my favorite things to do on the weekends, when I have time. Usually I like to listen to podcasts; that’s been how I get my news, and also how I work slowly on improving my understanding of philosophy and a few other subjects I’m especially interested in. But this morning, I stopped the podcast after no more than a minute, because I had to think about that one class.

All teachers know that one class. (Though one of the especially difficult things about teaching is that that one class changes over the course of a school year, as the students come and go, or as the year progresses and their attitudes and demeanors shift.) Mine is currently my last period sophomore English class. I don’t want to get into details, but we’ve reached the point where something has to change. And I spent the walk thinking about that. The whole time. I went through three different ways I could handle the situation, three different attitudes I could present to the students; each one with an imagined speech I would give to them on Monday.

So that’s what I mean. I get caught up in the thoughts, think about them too much, and I lose time that I should be spending relaxing and enjoying myself — which is something I very much need to do in order to reduce my stress and discontent. I’ve always done it, always gotten caught up in overthinking; but it’s worse now both because there are more things bothering me, and because I’m struggling to deal with being bothered; it takes me longer to work through the problems in my head. Often I can’t work through them.

Though I am proud to say I have come up with a solution for the class, one that I like, and I feel ready for Monday. Which is good because it means I won’t keep thinking about the same issue every time I go to sleep, and every time I wake up. When I do that, lately (another thing I’ve always done, lay in bed overthinking and imagining scenarios), I’ve tried to follow my meditation practice: focus on breathing, relax my body, let the thoughts go.

I can’t do it. Too busy thinking. And also, I suck at meditating, so I don’t really commit to relaxing into meditation, because my insomniac brain doesn’t believe it will help. By which I mean, I don’t believe it will help, because I am my insomniac brain, and I have not yet learned to trust and believe in my meditation. Because I suck at it. Can’t stop thinking, and getting caught up in my thoughts.

You know what, though? I’m still doing it. I’m still meditating. Almost every day.

And I like it.

I like taking that ten minutes or so for myself. I really like being quiet for that time. I like making a commitment, every day, to trying to do something good for me and my mood and my mental health. I like breathing deeply (Maybe I mentioned that I’m quite good at breathing) and I like trying to relax and let go. Even if I suck at it.

I think it’s helping — though again, it clearly isn’t enough on its own to make me feel good all the time — but more importantly, as the guides on the Headspace app keep telling me, it’s not about being successful, or reaching a certain goal or achievement; it’s not about judging the success or failure of my meditation practice. It’s about practicing. It’s about showing up every day, taking the time, making the commitment. And they keep assuring me, if I keep doing it, eventually I will get better at it.

We’ll see.

But the whole point about showing up, taking the time, making the commitment? That’s true. I know it from — well, everything.

I know it from teaching, because I know one of the most important things I can do for my students is show up for them, every day or as close to it as I can manage, and willing to work to help them, or as close to that as I can manage. One of the worst things I can do to them is give up on them. One of the most frustrating things about teaching is that they give up on me. Quickly. Repeatedly. En masse. But my job is still to show up for them. Which I do. But it’s hard. And getting harder. But still, I take the time, I make the commitment; and it works. If nothing else, my students almost universally respect me as a teacher, and that’s why.

I know this also from my marriage. My wife is amazing, but also, we’ve been together for more than a quarter-century (and HOLY SHIT I just realized that), and that means not everything is or has been perfect, and that means work. But we haven’t drifted apart, or lost our deep connection, because both of us show up for each other, and keep showing up for each other. Every day.

I know it from writing, because I know that writing requires me to try to keep writing, as much as I can, as often as I can. That one’s tougher, because I don’t see the rewards from it. But I do see some rewards, because I know that my writing now is better than it used to be. And it’s not because I took a class, or apprenticed myself to a mentor; it’s not because I had an epiphany, and it’s not because I met the Devil at a crossroads at midnight and sold my soul. It’s just because I keep doing it. I keep trying, I keep putting in the time and the effort.

I keep showing up.

And things get better.

So that’s what I’m hoping for with meditation.

And with everything else.

Not Much. But Something.

I’ve led a pretty charmed life. Part of me wants to feel bad about that, because I know many people who have had a much rougher time than I have, and it’s not fair; but also, it’s not my fault. I don’t think I take advantage of my advantages and privileges too much — though that doubt tells me I do it to some extent. That’s okay; I’m not perfect and don’t have to be. But with the advantages I’ve had, growing up as a white male American, with middle-upper class parents, blessed with good health and so on, I’ve been able to do pretty much everything I’ve wanted to do, other than the wilder dreams like owning my own island or becoming a space pirate and whatnot. I went to college, graduated basically debt-free, immediately gained middle-class employment as a teacher, which I’ve kept for over twenty years now — and it turns out I’m good at it, too. I have a wonderful marriage and the family of pets and no children that I’ve always wanted. I’ve been able to write a handful of pretty good books, and there will be more to come.

So why do I need help?

Partly it’s that all the privilege in the world, and all the luck, too, doesn’t actually keep me safe from troubles. It certainly shields me from many difficulties that others have to deal with on top of the troubles that I have; but the fact that I have it easier doesn’t mean I have it easy. Stress doesn’t go away just because other people have more stress. Not even if you’re aware that other people have more stress. I suppose I could try to live with more gratitude, keep counting my blessings and focusing on the positive; but when I try that, the problems keep coming back up, no matter how much I turn my focus away from them. In fact, I think that the good luck and the privilege and the blessings I do have make it harder for me to realize that I need help. They certainly make it harder to recognize this fact. Not that I’m bemoaning the white man’s burden, oh isn’t it hard to not be a victim in a world full of victims; I don’t think that about other people nor about myself. But whenever I feel troubled, I tell myself something along the lines of “What the hell are you bitching about? Look at how hard other people have it! You have all the advantages, who are you to complain?!”

But even when that works (And it usually doesn’t, because there’s a certain amount of schadenfreude in the idea that I should feel better because other people are suffering more than me; and also, comparing your life to others’ lives isn’t a good idea no matter who has the better situation), it doesn’t make the problems go away any more than gratitude does. The stress and difficulty and anxiety and sadness are still there.

A lot of it is because of teaching. It’s a stressful job to begin with, which I’ve written about at length and don’t need to rehash here; but realize that the essential task of the job is too abstract to ever feel confident about, yet everyone involved expects tangible results; and that everyone’s life touches or is touched by education, which means EVERYONE has an opinion about it, and that it is genuinely very important; and that my personality is not at all suited to teaching, even though my skills and abilities are — and I think you can see why it’s often troubling for me. I care quite a lot about doing it well; it’s hard for me to do it well; it’s impossible to know if I’m doing it well; a lot of people are watching to make sure I’m doing it well; many people think I am not doing it well, and they let me know. That’s a lot to deal with.

Now add the pandemic.

So I have been suffering. That’s the truth. Not as much as some people, but enough for me to feel it, enough for me to lose sleep, and question everything I should feel confident about (and question everything else twice), and fall occasionally into pretty deep emotional holes. Enough for me to lose my temper too often, over things that should not bother me. Enough for me to lose hope, and to feel like there’s no chance for success or improvement in the future. I won’t say I’ve been depressed, or anxious, because I have had ample experience with other people going through those specific difficulties, and mine are not the same; but a semblance of it, a shadow of it — yes. And frankly, it has sucked.

And at the same time, I hate saying that, hate saying that I’ve been suffering, because it seems to make light of other people who have it worse. But ignoring what I feel would be making light of my feelings, and that’s not fair, either. To some extent I feel some of that “MEN DON’T CRY! BE STRONG!” kind of ethos, but not very hard; I’m not very manly, and never have been, and I don’t give a shit. But I do care about other people, usually more than myself. Because it’s easier to deal with their problems than mine, of course; but that’s another thing that has become clear to me in the last eighteen months, and which helped precipitate this blog: it’s not feeling that way any more. I don’t want to help other people more than myself. I want to help myself.

Without making light of what I’m dealing with, I know that I don’t need a lot. I don’t need medication; my emotional turmoil has never yet been overwhelming. It has never kept me from going forward, from doing what I need to do — though it has sometimes kept me from what I want to do, which is why I haven’t been writing enough in the last year-plus. I am not as sure that I don’t need therapy. I don’t think I do. I admit there is some comparing there, because I know people in therapy, and they have it worse than me, which does make me say to myself, “Come on, you’re not that bad off.” There’s also the fact that I was in therapy for six years when I was a child, and though the experience has faded with the years, I remember that it didn’t seem to help anything other than the psychiatrist’s income. So I don’t think I’m at that point. I want to talk to someone, but I’m too private for that, most of the time.

So here I am. Writing these vague, rambling puddles of thought-drool.

I think it’s helping. It’s hard for me to say; I’m not very good at reading my own emotions. Not sure if that’s another aspect of the “MEN DON’T CRY!” piece of my psyche, or if it is the result of trauma that is more serious than I think it is, or if I’m just emotionally pretty stupid. All possibilities, and I have no idea how I would distinguish between them — which is also how I feel about distinguishing sadness from worry from anger from depression from — I dunno. But like I said, things tend to become more clear for me when I can write about them, so I’m going to keep trying.

Because I need something. Not much. But something.

Starting Something

I need something. I’m not sure what.

I need a lot of things, of course, which confuses the issue. I need more money, I need more time, I need more certainty. Definitely the last one, since I’m here hemming and hawing from the first line of this. Maybe that’s the thing I need most.

Okay: as a teacher and a writer, my usual habit (and, arguably, my job) is to take a position with certainty and then invite people to either agree with me or to knock me off it. So let me change gears here, and see if that makes this better.

I need to talk. Which, because I’m an introvert, means I need to write. I think that means I need an audience to read what I write, but thinking of you all doing that immediately makes me feel bad: I don’t want to waste your time reading my maudlin meanderings, especially not when I’m not actually suffering that badly, certainly not compared to other people. I haven’t lost my job, or my home, or any loved ones or friends. Well, no, I lost friends, but only because we stopped talking, not because they’ve died; surely that’s not as bad a loss. And it might have been my fault that I lost them, which means I don’t get to feel sad about it, right?

The point remains that I don’t have any great, soul-rending grief to get off my chest. Which I am grateful for. I also don’t have any particular insight into — well, anything, really; and I’m realizing, right now as I write this, that that’s the problem. I haven’t been writing blogs — or much of anything else — because I don’t have any answers. I have become acutely aware in the last year or so that I don’t have any answers, that I don’t know what’s best or what’s right, that I don’t know how to make things better. I’ve thought about writing posts on things that occur to me, but every time, I run up against this: I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t know which direction to point in. I’m like a signpost that’s been knocked down, and now I don’t know which road is which, or where to tell people to go.

But maybe that’s a better place to be, rather than thinking I know the answers. Being humbled is no fun: but there are lots of people who have recommended humility; maybe that’s what I’ve needed.

I don’t know. But I do know that I need to talk, to write. And while I have a journal, it doesn’t feel like enough; writing in it instantly feels like I’m keeping secrets, like I’m hiding things away. Partly because there are secret things that I need to hide away, mistakes and failings that I am not ready or not able to confess; I do write about those in my journal. But that doesn’t help, not at all. And I need help.

This probably sounds more desperate and despondent than I actually am (Though I realize I’ve said that a few times of late, so maybe I’m fooling myself and I actually am pretty despondent); I’ve seen real despair and desperate need, and I’m not at that point. But also, if we don’t look for the help we need before we get to that point, then eventually we all get there. I would rather not, so I’m going to try for the help I need now.

So I’m writing. And I feel bad about it, which is why I’m so apologetic and guilt-ridden. But I am actually confident that I need to do this, while I am deeply uncertain that this is a good thing for anyone else but me. Thus I am going to say this: you don’t need to read this. There are probably not great insights coming at the end. This is not my area of expertise, this whole self-care/therapeutic/wellness world, so I’m not going to be able to give advice, nor offer a catalog of options. I’m doing this for me, because I think I need to. Things make more sense to me when I write about them. Writing feels more honest and more important, more legitimate, maybe, when I write for an audience, even if it is only a theoretical one. So I’m going to write about what I’m feeling and what I’m dealing with. I expect that I will be fumbling around a lot, and sounding mostly like an idiot; I expect that these posts will be rambling and kinda pointless. So I want to warn you away from reading them.

But also, I am hoping that being open and honest about what I’m feeling and what I’m dealing with may be helpful. It’s not a special story; I’m just a regular person going through what I presume are pretty normal feelings. But because of that, it may be a more universal story. It may be easier to relate to. And that may help.

So that’s the reason I’m willing to share this on this blog. I need to, and I can envision an audience that would be glad to hear what I have to say. If that’s not you, that’s okay; I’m pretty used to not having much of an audience for my writing. It’s one of the things that confuses and frustrates me, and just makes it that much harder to move forward. Hopefully, this will help me get past some of that block.

Hopefully, this will make me feel better.

I need something that will.

The Court of Public Opinion

George Floyd's mother was not there, but he used her as a sacred invocation
I want to open with this because I don’t want to center the discussion on me or on my erstwhile opponent in this debate: the real focus here is on the police murder of George Floyd. Rest in peace, sir.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I don’t like Ben Shapiro.

It’s not hard to understand why: he is deeply conservative and I am liberal; I believe in the value of real argument and he’s the definition of a sophist; I strive to be honest and a rational intellectual (Meaning someone who uses reason and thought to discern and communicate truth; I’m not necessarily trying to be seen as super-smart and therefore an authority — though I admit I wouldn’t mind being seen as super-smart), and he’s a manipulative liar who hides behind the trappings of pseudo-intellectualism (meaning he is trying to be seen as super-smart and therefore an authority, regardless of the actual merits of his position — and I think he is intelligent enough to know what he’s doing and why, which implies that he is either deeply cynical or tragically self-deluded).

Basically, he’s a stinky poopoo head. Just know that going in.

As a brief aside, let me address the likely counterjab from any Shapiro fans who happen to be reading this: no, I don’t hate Shapiro because he’s a conservative; I have deep respect for many conservatives. No, I’m not simply jealous; I freely admit I would love to have Shapiro’s platform, his fame and money and success, but frankly, I could get it the same way he did, the same way Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh and Steven Crowder did: I could loudly proclaim myself a prophet of outrage and amplify conservative grudges, and use my skills as a writer and a speaker to build a following. As to whether or not I dislike Ben Shapiro simply because he’s right and he proves my liberal ideas wrong, I’ll let this argument address that.

The argument I want to address specifically is this one:

I want to take this slowly: because one of Shapiro’s signature techniques is talking fast and overwhelming his opponents with words that have the appearance of sound, logical arguments. So, right from the beginning: his main claim here, as presented by the title of the video and the first 13 seconds, is that the real reason Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in the killing of George Floyd was because he had already been convicted in the court of public opinion of being a racist. He expands this in the following 45 seconds by describing Chauvin as “emblematic of an American system of racism,” and uses as evidence the claim that if you asked Americans today if Derek Chauvin was a racist, Shapiro guarantees that a majority of Americans would say yes.

I don’t want to spend too much time exposing Shapiro’s logical failings; the fact that he is a poor debater who wins with sophistry is an issue I have with him and not the central problem with this argument. But it is necessary to identify the places where his argument shifts, because one of the most common manipulations of a discussion is changing the topic, or changing the focus, or changing the argument. We all know it: one of the classic cliches is that arguments between spouses start out with one problem, but then turn into an argument about whose turn it is to do the dishes.

Shapiro does this here. Whether or not Derek Chauvin is personally a racist has nothing at all to do with whether or not he is emblematic of an American system of racism. Whether he is a racist or an emblem of racism has nothing at all to do with whether the majority of Americans perceive him as a racist. And none of that has anything to do with whether or not he is guilty of the murder of George Floyd. Again, because Shapiro is a sophist, he doesn’t seem to argue here that Chauvin was innocent of murder; he argues that Chauvin was unfairly convicted of racism, and simply implies that this unfair conviction of Chauvin for the “crime” (Shapiro’s description) of racism was the “real” reason Chauvin was convicted of murder. He also says, between about 1:00 and 1:30, that America was convicted of being racist because of this one “data point,” Chauvin killing George Floyd; he seems to be implying that America has also been unfairly convicted of that crime of racism, because the conviction of the country was dependent on the conviction of Chauvin for racism, and that conviction was unfair, and also convicting the entire nation because of this one crime is also unfair. Not the conviction for the crime of murder, again, but Chauvin’s conviction for the crime of racism. Which was unfair because it was never brought up in court, never alleged, and never proven, as he says, strongly, several times in this video.

This is what I mean about shifting the argument, and why I call Shapiro a sophist. He’s saying that racism was the reason for Chauvin’s conviction, and in almost the same breath (I don’t know if it was the same breath because I’m not sure that Ben Shapiro breathes: it is genuinely impressive how many words he can get out in a minute, without ever seeming to pause. Sorry; off-topic.) he states that race was never brought up in the trial. How on Earth is the lack of evidence supposed to serve as evidence? It’s not: his evidence is that “we all know” that Chauvin’s conviction was for racism, not for murder. His evidence is that if you asked Americans if Chauvin is a racist, the majority would say that he is. Or at least, Shapiro says (in fact he guarantees) that the majority of Americans would say that Chauvin is a racist.

What Shapiro is really relying on here is the resentment in his audience — generally a white conservative audience — about being called a racist. His audience doesn’t like to be called racist when there is not crystal clear evidence of racist action and intention presented: evidence that would meet the standard in a court of law. That is, unless you can point to the Nazi tattoo on my forehead, and the sworn statement I signed that my Nazi tattoo represents my genuine conviction that the white race is supreme, AND my conviction in a court of law for a hate crime committed in pursuance of the achievement of those white supremacist views — then it is not fair to call me a racist. And since that is his audience’s definition of a racist, calling someone a racist who does not have all of that evidence of racism is deeply offensive. Of course it is: who would want to be accused of that kind of atrocity?

This is, by the way, one of the central conflicts in our society, and it is a subject I will keep coming back to again and again: we have never had a real national conversation about what the word “racism” means, about what it is to be racist. We have not had that conversation because too many people, like Ben Shapiro and also like a much greater number of people on the left, garner too much political power out of misusing accusations of racism, which is easier if they don’t carefully define their terms. It is also much easier to continue maintaining a racist society if the definition of racism is unclear.

Shapiro points out that the evidence of Chauvin’s racism is the death of George Floyd. He says (About 1:00) that is not evidence of racism, it is evidence of a bad cop, of bad police procedure, of recklessness; it is not evidence of racism. But what is his evidence of this claim? That racism was never brought up in the court during Chauvin’s trial. As I said, the charge of racism can only be proven with evidence presented in a court of law: not in the “court of public opinion.” And in another amazing piece of sophistry, starting about 1:45, he says “Let us be real about this,” and then goes on to describe how the presentation of evidence to the public would have shifted public opinion, and therefore the verdict. He says that if the bodycam footage had broken at the same time as the video captured by Darnella Frazier, and if all of the evidence had been presented, and there had not been “20 million people in the streets declaring that America was systemically racist and that this case was and that this case was a case of racism” then it is “highly doubtful” to Ben Shapiro that the jury would have convicted Chauvin of murder.

I honestly don’t know if Chauvin is guilty of murder. I watched the video, and I saw the bodycam footage. I recognize that Shapiro is arguing here that the bodycam footage starts earlier, and shows the struggle between Mr. Floyd and the police before the officers put Mr. Floyd on the ground and before Chauvin knelt on him, and therefore it shows justification (Shapiro is alleging) for the use of force because Mr. Floyd was resisting arrest and so on, whereas the video that helped make this case so famous just starts with Chauvin applying force without giving us the justification for that force, and therefore prejudiced people against Chauvin. I did not see the extended footage as justification. I thought it showed that the police, who probably should not have been called in the first place (I don’t think passing a counterfeit $20 is evidence of criminal action requiring a police response), should not have approached a man in his car, unaware that he had been reported for passing a counterfeit $20, from out of his line of sight, startling him, scaring him and provoking an agitated response, and then using that response to justify pointing a gun at him, scaring him further and provoking an even more agitated response, and then continuously escalating the interaction until it becomes an argument about how much force is required to restrain someone who is resisting being restrained. In fact, I think the extended footage implicated the three other officers in the murder. Not because I know in my liberal heart that Derek Chauvin is racist, but because I don’t presume that George Floyd was a threat, as the police clearly did, and I don’t think that violence is justified in ending a threat, and certainly, without a question, the use of force should end when the resistance ends. If Mr. Floyd was fighting or running away, force might have been called for — but as soon as he stopped fighting, the use of force should have ended. Period. Not gone on for nine and a half minutes. Did the police see Mr. Floyd as a threat because of his race? Was his race the reason why the store’s owner called the police on him for passing a counterfeit $20? I think the answer is definitely yes, but I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that the full footage does not clearly, undeniably sway public opinion towards vindicating Chauvin’s actions, because it doesn’t exonerate Chauvin for me. Though I recognize that other people disagree with me, and think his actions were justified. I see Shapiro’s point, that the full footage might have moved people differently than just the witness’s video did; the death of Ma’Khia Bryant seems to be showing that: but that is a question of how you can move (or manipulate) public opinion, not an argument for how you can find the truth in this case: which is why this extraordinary sophistry. Just watching the videos does not prove Chauvin’s guilt or innocence, which is why I say I can’t know for sure if he was guilty or not.

But this I can say for sure: the best evidence that I know, on either side, is that 12 American citizens, after hearing weeks of evidence and argument, found Chauvin guilty on three counts including second degree murder. Shapiro has not one single argument here that is better or more reliable than that verdict. Nor do I. So I will accept that verdict as the answer, over the doubts of one Ben Shapiro. I suspect that Shapiro, who is in fact incredibly intelligent and both educated and experienced, having graduated from Harvard Law and worked as an attorney before going full time into conservative punditry, also recognizes that he does not have one single argument that is better or more reliable than that verdict. But he doesn’t say that, because he is a sophist and a manipulative pseudo-intellectual who profits from stoking the flames of outrage and partisan division, and convincing his white conservative audience that Chauvin is not guilty of racism, and therefore neither are they, and that the accusation of racism is much worse than the actual murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, because that false accusation of racism caused the wrongful conviction of Chauvin for murder, when at best he was just a bad cop following bad police procedure and acting recklessly. And why those three descriptors, Shapiro’s own, should not be sufficient to show that the killing was in fact murder is beyond me: clearly those reasons, which were presented in the trial and supported by video evidence and expert testimony, were sufficient to make the jury convict Derek Chauvin of murder.

Of course, because Ben Shapiro is a sophist and a manipulative pseudo-intellectual who profits from stoking the flames of outrage and partisan division, he builds from his claim (presented without evidence beyond his own opinion and “what we all know to be true,”) into greater assumptions and accusations, namely that this case has been entirely political, that it has been used by Democrats to build the narrative that America is racist. Again, not to get too deep into flaws in the argument and logical fallacies and such, because the focus here is simply that Ben Shapiro is wrong, but I have to revel in the towering house of cards he has built here: starting with (1) Derek Chauvin was innocent of murder; then (2) Chauvin was convicted because the public decided he was racist, along with (2B) The public would not have decided Chauvin was racist if they had seen George Floyd resisting arrest and being visibly agitated. Then you have (3) Because it was not proven in the court that Chauvin was racist, Chauvin was therefore not racist; (4) America was accused of racism because Chauvin was accused of racism, while simultaneously, (-4) Chauvin was accused of racism because America is and was and has been accused of racism; then (5) since Chauvin is not racist, America is not racist — and also (-5) since America is not racist, Chauvin is not racist — and then (6) the Democrats have taken up this issue because they use false accusations of racism for political gain. All assumptions, many of them contradictory and even absurd on their face, yet we’re just supposed to accept them as true (Because Shapiro’s audience does accept them as true, I would guess). As an example of this, Shapiro, starting at 3:28, begins talking about Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, who gave a statement about Chauvin’s conviction in which he compared his brother to Emmett Till. Shapiro gets very exercised about this, taking offense on behalf of Emmett Till’s family — and also revealing his (Shapiro’s) additional faulty reasoning for the justification of George Floyd’s death — but there are several problems with this. One is that he gets some of the details of Emmett Till’s murder wrong, but I don’t want to nitpick; I’m only pointing that out because if you want to get self-righteous about the truth, you should present the whole truth. The big problem is that he argues that the analogy is wrong because the circumstances surrounding the death of Till and the death of George Floyd were entirely different, and therefore it is a bad analogy intended to make the murder of George Floyd as tragic and abominably racist as was the murder of Emmett Till. And therefore, of course, the murder of George Floyd was not as tragic and abominably racist as the murder of Emmett Till.

But here’s the thing: that is not the analogy that is being made.

Frankly, I’m not going to speak for Philonise Floyd. His brother was killed, the murderer was convicted; Mr. Floyd is welcome to say whatever the hell he wants in the aftermath of that tragedy. He can say that his brother was the Second Coming, or the greatest American since Abraham Lincoln, or that he was cooler than Napoleon Dynamite: none of that is evidence of any of the accusations that Shapiro makes about the Democratic party using Floyd’s murder to make political hay. (I will say that Shapiro does not directly criticize Mr. Floyd: he rather goes after the more famous men standing in support of Mr. Floyd, namely Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Ben Crump — who, weirdly, I guess have to name as the head of George Floyd’s family’s legal team, which one would think could be the explanation for Mr. Crump’s presence at Philonice Floyd’s press conference, rather than the political agenda Shapiro seems to ascribe to him. Shapiro calls them all racebaiters, of course without any evidence whatsoever, allowing that ad hominem attack to support his house-of-cards assumptions about the political agenda being expressed here.)

But others have made the same connection between Emmett Till and George Floyd, so let me address that: the argument has not generally been that Floyd was murdered in the same way that Till was. Nobody has made that claim, other than Till’s cousin, Ollie Gordon, who did say that she felt the same way watching the video of Floyd’s murder as she did when her cousin was lynched. The point that has been made repeatedly is that Till’s murder, and even more importantly, his mother Mamie Till’s decision to publicize the horrifying details of her son’s murder, with an open casket funeral and published pictures of his wounds, galvanized the civil rights movement and helped bring about the changes the movement wrought over the ten years after the 14-year-old was killed; similarly, George Floyd’s murder, which was not unique but was certainly more publicized than most similar murders, galvanized the protests that happened in 2020, and may lead to some changes — potentially including the conviction of Derek Chauvin. And that is a reasonable analogy; but it does support the idea that the country is in fact racist, which is why Shapiro has to argue against it.

In the process of arguing against it, Shapiro does go after George Floyd: he describes Emmett Till with a list of negatives, all of which are points Shapiro wants to make about George Floyd. He says that Emmett Till was not someone passing counterfeit bills, that he was not a repeat drug offender, that he was not a repeat criminal who had done jail time, that Till did not hold up a pregnant woman at gun point and rob her house while her kid was in the house. And perhaps the most important point (though it is not the most emotionally manipulative point), Till did not resist arrest. Of course: none of these things matter in the slightest. George Floyd was not killed because he was a repeat drug offender, nor because he was high when the police detained him. He was not killed because he had a criminal record. He was not killed because he was passing counterfeit bills (There is no evidence, of course, that he even knew that he was passing counterfeit bills). He was, and this is the crucial point, not killed because he was resisting arrest.

George Floyd was killed because Derek Chauvin murdered him. As was proven in a court of law.

Now, I do have to point out again that Shapiro doesn’t actually say that Chauvin did not commit murder; he said that he doubted a jury would convict Chauvin of murder had it not been for the court of public opinion convicting Chauvin of racism. I don’t agree, clearly, but I will say there is some argument to be made that the jurors were swayed by the events of last summer, and by the protestors showing up in great numbers outside the courthouse throughout Chauvin’s trial. It may be that the jurors convicted because they were afraid that there would be riots if they acquitted Chauvin. That may be true, though of course it may not be; there is just as much reason to think that the jury, or at least some members of the jury, would acquit in defiance of that pressure, would even seek out the violence that may have followed an acquittal. It is extremely likely that some members of the jury would fear the consequences that might have come, that still might come, from the police because Derek Chauvin was convicted. In any case, it is not true that the jury convicted Chauvin only because of the accusation of racism. Since, as Shapiro states, race was never brought up in the trial, the only way the jury could have convicted based solely on the accusation of racism would be if they came in with that idea already in their heads, that they were prejudiced against Chauvin and no amount of evidence would ever sway them. But since 46% of Republicans and 25% of independents think it was the wrong verdict, based on the same public opinion evidence that Shapiro claims is the reason for the conviction, it’s far more likely that, if public opinion actually held such sway over the minds of the jurors, some of the jury would have voted to acquit. It’s practically impossible that the jury would be all Democrats (Also, 10% of Democrats think it was the wrong verdict, so at least one juror on an all-blue jury would have thought that, statistically speaking), and hard to believe that Republicans would overcome their prejudices while Democrats would not, based on the same evidence. One pro-police Republican voting to acquit would have led to a hung jury and a mistrial, and that has historically been exactly what happened in even the most egregious cases of police violence. Instead all twelve jurors, some of them likely sympathetic to pro-police ideas if not personally in support of them, all of them surely feeling pressure from conservative friends and neighbors as much as from liberal friends and neighbors, voted to convict. On all three counts.

Because Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. As was proven in a court of law. Without race being brought up once.

Now: is America racist? Was Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd emblematic of that systemic racism? Might the video, the case, the public response both from 20 million people on the streets and from politicians and political pundits, all potentially have had, or will have in the future, an impact on the racism in this country?

The answer to those questions is the same as the answer to this one: Is Ben Shapiro a sophist and an annoying twerp?

A Prune in the Shade

So my wife and I bought a house this week, and this weekend has been busy with cleaning and moving. I haven’t had time to write. But on Friday, I did start writing something: a short dramatic scene as an example for my AP Lit class, who were assigned a similar scene, one or two characters, which would show the student’s opinion of the characters in Lorraine Hansberry’s brilliant play A Raisin in the Sun, which we just finished reading. And for the first time in a few months — since before we started looking for a house, I think — I got caught up in the writing. And I’m actually quite pleased with the result. Even though the title is lame.

You don’t need to know Hansberry’s play to understand, though this will make more sense with Raisin as the background. Hopefully you will enjoy, regardless, my portrait of myself as an unmarried author living in the 1950’s in the apartment below the five Youngers, on the day they move out of the building.

Theoden “Crankyass” Humphrey lives alone in a small apartment on Chicago’s South Side. Well, not alone: he shares the small space with his Maine Coon cat, The Witch King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgul (familiarly called Angmar) and also with the noises from the occupants of the apartment above his: the Younger family. The apartment is dark and filled to the brim with books, piled on shelves lining the walls, mounded in haphazard stacks all over the  floor. The kitchen is neat and well-kept, with a massive apparatus that appears to be part still, part uranium enrichment device, taking up a large portion of the counter space. There is also a desk in the background covered with papers and pens and a typewriter. A single small window, open, lets in weak sunlight; in the square of light, in a great, heavy ceramic planter, is a large and thriving ponytail palm. 

Front and center there is a pair of large, overstuffed wingback chairs, with a small table between them; one of the chairs is occupied by Crankyass, a late-middle-age man with glasses and a graying beard and a permanent scowl. The other is occupied by Angmar, a glorious avatar of feline fluffiness and royal indifference. As the scene starts, Crankyass is talking out loud, equally to Angmar and to the apartment; Angmar is sleeping. His tail occasionally twitches. There is a certain amount of noise coming from above, footsteps, voices, the sound of heavy objects dragging along the floor, being picked up and put down again; at intervals the footsteps descend the staircase outside the apartment’s front door. The noise is constant, but never very loud.

Crankyass: (Looking up at the ceiling and scowling) Jesus Christ, what the hell are they doing up there? Sounds like the goddamn firebombing of Dresden. Or maybe a troupe of drunken elephants practicing their tap dance routine. 

Angmar: (twitch)

Crankyass: Every day they’re up there making noise, stomping around yelling at each other. Do they think they’re the only ones in the world? The only people in this apartment building? How about a little consideration for their neighbors?

Angmar: (twitch)

Crankyass: At least for the poor guy who lives one level lower down in this Hell-building. Sorry — (gestures placatingly towards Angmar) The poor guys. Plural. 

Angmar: (twitch)

Crankyass: I mean, we all have to live together here, in this devil-infested Hell above ground, in this… inverted Abyss. (He is pleased with the phrase, and grabs a notebook and pencil from the table between the chairs, writing it down while repeating it to himself under his breath. He closes the notebook and replaces it, and then scowls as the footsteps come down the stairs, this time accompanied by voices giving directions: “Careful! Watch that corner! Hold on, let me — okay go!”)  We all have to face the same problems, the same torments from the same grinning demons with their pitchforks and whips. We should at least try not to get on each others’ nerves, right? Isn’t that the responsibility of people who have to live with other people, to not make it worse for everybody else who has to live here?

Angmar: (twitch)

Crankyass: (Grabbing up a broom that was previously hidden behind stacks of books, he pokes it up vigorously, reaching the low ceiling without standing, and thumps it several times. A small shower of dust falls, but the noises above continue. He puts the broom down.) HEY! Stop all that racket! My cat is sleeping!

Angmar: (twitch)

Crankyass: (shaking his head) Can’t believe how inconsiderate people are. Inconsiderate and irresponsible. And the Youngers are nice, too — well, mostly. That kid’s annoying, of course. Just like any kid. Running up and down the staircase like his ass is on fire and his head is catching, stomping on every step, shaking my walls like a train passing by! 

A train passes by at this moment, on the El tracks outside; the walls shake, the window rattles; Angmar lifts his head and hisses, though the sound is lost in the racket from the train. The noise is clearly far louder than the footsteps going up and down the stairs. When the train rumbles off into the distance, Crankyass continues.

Crankyass: And do you know what I saw him doing last week? Poking a rat! A DEAD rat! Not bad enough he has to pollute my peace and quiet with his noise, he’s got to bring the Bubonic plague in here!

At this moment a rat appears, climbs atop a stack of books, looks around, and then casually departs. Angmar notices. He does not move.

Crankyass: (He also notices the rat. He also does not react to it, merely looks at Angmar not reacting. He sighs.) I guess that kid’s not too bad. Never breaks anything or throws rocks or crap like that. He’s always polite when I see him outside. Doesn’t treat me like a leper, either, like most people around here do. (His scowl deepens.) Not that I don’t understand. Not with people like that prick Lindner walking around here, making every other white person look bad. Did I tell you about him, Angmar? (Angmar lays his head down again and closes his eyes. In truth Crankyass did tell the cat about that prick Lindner, but of course that wouldn’t stop him from telling the story again.) I ran into him this morning. Snotty bastard from the suburbs, of course. Wearing a suit like he invented them. Walking around here with his nose wrinkled like there’s a bad smell. (He pauses, sniffs deeply, and his scowl deepens. He gets up and goes to the enormous contraption in the kitchen and begins turning wheels, opening valves, moving beakers about. He adds water from a clear glass bottle, and some kind of powder. A rumbling begins, then turns to a gurgling, then a whistle. Crankyass collects something from the inner bowels of the machine, and then pours it into a mug: the machine is a coffeemaker. Crankyass inhales deeply from the steam rising from the mug, and sighs in satisfaction. He turns and rants more at Angmar, now shaking an admonitory finger.)  Though of course he was polite to me. Part of the tribe, right? Us whitefolks got to stick together. Hell. He probably thought I was the landlord, come here to throw some more of these decent, hardworking folks out because they lost their jobs and can’t pay the goddamn rent. (He turns and spits contemptuously into the sink, then takes a new mouthful of coffee and swishes it around as if to wash out the taste of Lindner’s presumptions.) It’s people like that who cause the trouble, I’ll tell you that. Cause all our troubles. Turn this neighborhood into a slum, trap people here — and then act like it’s our fault that the building is falling apart, infested with rats and cockroaches, like there’s anything the renters could do — like it’s not the goddamn owner’s goddamn responsibility to take care of his property! Ohhh, he’s fast enough to bring down a world of hurt on an “irresponsible tenant” who damages his property — (He grabs the broom and pokes at the ceiling once more, harder this time, bringing down a flurry of plaster particles) — but anything that results from his neglect of that same property? Not a problem, it seems! (He throws the broom down, slams a kitchen cabinet door. Then he sags, and slowly returns to his chair with his steaming mug of coffee. He sits and scowls for a minute.) No sense of responsibility, that’s the problem. These people, they know their rights, they demand their perquisites, God forbid anyone say no to them when they want something — but they act like they don’t have to give anything back. Not even basic human decency. Consideration for others. (He scowls more, sips coffee.)

Angmar: (twitch)

A voice is heard above, a man’s voice, loud and penetrating, but the words are unclear.

Crankyass: (Looking up, listening. He puts the mug down, and then speaks to the ceiling.) He’s like that. Walter Lee. He wants what he wants, and it doesn’t matter how it affects anyone else. He comes first, and that’s the end of it. If there’s anything he has to give to other people, it’s just gonna trickle down from him when his happiness is overflowing. No sense of responsibility. 

Angmar: (twitch)

Crankyass: Too bad, too. He’s got a nice kid. Good wife, too — probably why their kid is decent. That Ruth’s a peach. Hardworking, sweet, knows how to tell a joke and how to laugh when one’s told. (His eyes grow dreamy) She’s pretty as hell, too. (Sips his coffee, then shakes his head. The dreaminess leaves him.) No idea how she puts up with that guy sometimes. Especially when he’s been drinking — good Lord, he even grabs me and throws out his big plans to get rich and important when he’s got a few shots in him. (Snorts a laugh) Jesus Christ, a liquor store. And why would you bring it up to me? Like I’m an investor. Like I’ve got money. Man, do you see where I live? Same place you do, but one floor farther away from the penthouse? (He breaks up and snorts a laugh on the last word.) How much do you think I make from these books I write? Do you think I’d stay here if I had anyplace else to go?

Angmar: (twitch)

Crankyass: (Nods as if the cat has made a valid point.) Okay, no, you’re right, I could go somewhere else. Don’t have to stay in Chicago, after all. I could probably buy a whole lake up north with what I pay in rent here. Might be nice, actually. 

Angmar: (twitch)

Crankyass: But I like it here. I like Chicago. I like the South Side. I like the building, honestly. Nice people here. (There are voices from upstairs again, but then they cut off and only one person speaks: it is Mama. Crankyass nods.) Lena Younger. She’s enough reason for someone to live here all by herself. When I moved in, it was the Youngers who greeted me, welcomed me. Lena cooked for me. Damn good cooking, too. (Pause, sip of coffee.) I didn’t think too much of her man. Walter Senior. But he told me I could ask them if I needed anything. Man. If I need anything from them. Pause) That guy worked his ass off. Drank too much when he wasn’t working, and got mean when he drank — but damn, did he work. (Looks at Angmar) How did he manage to have those two lazy-ass, spoiled kids? (He blinks, then looks chagrined) Three kids. Only two now. (Sighs)

Angmar: (twitch)

Crankyass: No, you’re right, Beneatha’s fine. She’s not lazy. Bright kid. Her, I can have a conversation with, at least. A real one. No idea how she came out of these goddamn schools, I’ll tell you that. It wasn’t Chicago Public that gave her what she’s got in her head. But Walter Lee — you know, he’s about the opposite of what his father was. Walter’s not bad to be around, not even when he’s been drinking; pretty funny, pretty friendly. Says some stupid things, sometimes. But he’s not mean. Big Walter was mean. But Walter Lee, he doesn’t know how to treat his wife, and whatever else Big Walter was, he was a family man. And his boy can’t stand to do an honest day’s work. 

Angmar: (twitch)

Crankyass: (Laughs) All right, you’re right: nobody in this here apartment works hard either. But then I don’t have a family to be responsible for. (Pause, finishes coffee. Looks around the apartment) And it’s a different thing to work hard when you’ve got a shit job like Walter’s got. (Picks up a book, flips the cover back, closes it again) He’s no dummy either — I remember him when he was Travis’s age. In fact, they were a lot alike. Walter’s mom was a peach then, too. (Suddenly a memory strikes him) Good Lord, Lena Younger’s peach pie! (It is a memory worth spending time with, and he does. Then he shakes his head, gets up and returns to the massive coffee maker, once again running it through its paces; this time he also opens the icebox and removes fixings for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; he scarfs it down while the machine rattles and howls and steams, and as he finishes his last bite, he has coffee to wash it down. He once more returns to his chair with a full mug.)

Angmar: (He has raised his head when the icebox opens, and watched carefully; when the peanut butter and jelly came out, he lay down again; one can feel his disappointment. When Crankyass returns to the chair, Angmar does not deign to acknowledge him.)

Crankyass: Hey. (His tone is different, and Angmar responds instantly, sitting up and looking attentive. Crankyass reveals a full sardine in his hand, and reaches over to present it to the cat, who takes the fish with alacrity but without fawning thanks. He eats. Crankyass goes on with his ramblings.) Hard to say if Walter Lee put himself where he is. I say he doesn’t work hard, but who would want to work hard in that job? And for what reward? To work himself to death like Big Walter did? Walter Lee’s smart enough to have learned that lesson from his father, sure enough. He’s not much of a family man, I say, but. Easy for me to talk about having family to be responsible for when all I’ve got is the world’s laziest cat. (He pauses and glares, obviously bitter about the rat.)

Angmar: (twitch)

Crankyass: (Shaking his head and moving on) So is it Walter’s fault that he’s got a wife and a kid? Is that a fault? Was it a decision he made? Seems to me like people just fall in love — especially with a good woman like Ruth — but is that the same as choosing to be responsible for a family? Is it even a conscious choice? I maybe chose not to have a family — but maybe I didn’t have the same need for one. If you take one opportunity — say, falling in love with a good woman — does that make you responsible for the family that follows? Do you choose family when you choose love? And if not — are you responsible for that family when it does come?  Are you responsible for family you didn’t choose, just because it’s family? (He stops, considers, and then pulls out his notebook and writes for a few minutes while Angmar finishes his fish and then cleans his paws and ruff.)

Crankyass: (Reading from the notebook, occasionally scratching out a phrase and then rewriting it as he speaks.) Responsibility. The ability to respond, to give to someone something they ask for. And if you’re responsible, you respond, if you are able. Doesn’t matter if it’s fair, doesn’t matter if you have needs of your own; if you’re able, you respond. That’s it. That’s what it means to be responsible. That’s what it means to have family. To have friends. To love. To be human. (Pause; he writes for a minute more, and then continues.) If you have people you love, you should pay attention to their needs, so that they don’t need to ask with words. They can ask with need. They can ask with sorrow. They can ask with hope, or with desperation. They can ask by giving: what they give to others, they need for themselves. (Pause, sip of coffee; erases a word) But nobody can give all the time, nobody can respond to everything that other people need. Other people need more than one person has to give. The only way you can possibly survive being responsible for another is if you have other people being responsible for you, in exchange. You give to them, they have to give back to you: otherwise you’ll — you’ll give away your life.

He stops, puts the notebook down. Angmar rises, steps grandly down from his chair, crosses to Crankyass’s chair, and places himself in Crankyass’s lap. Crankyass smiles, all of the scowl disappearing for the first time, and pets and strokes the cat, who purrs loudly and comfortably. Then Angmar’s head comes up, his eyes open: the rat has returned. The cat begins to move; Crankyass recognizes the shift in mood and lifts his hands clear away from the cat: The Lord of the Nazgul moves slowly off the human’s lap — and then like lightning, he pounces, disappearing behind stacks of books; there is a brief squeal, it is cut off, and then Angmar returns, bearing a freshly killed rat. Crankyass rises, smiling broadly now, and goes to the fridge; he quickly fixes a plate of sardines, and trades the plate for the dead rat, which he puts in a bag and rolls the top down before putting it into the garbage can; he moves the garbage can over beside the door, to be taken out to the alley and disposed of later. Angmar eats his reward, nobly allowing a brief stroke from Crankyass in passing.

Crankyass: (Looking at the ceiling above, then turning towards the footsteps now coming back up the staircase outside his door; the voices of a man and a young boy can be heard in playful banter from the stairs. Blues music descends from the apartment above, though the sounds of objects moving do not stop.) Hmm. Think maybe I’ll drop in on the Youngers. See how Lena’s doing. Make sure that ass Lindner isn’t bothering them. (Pause, looks at Angmar, who has finished his fish and has now jumped up to the sill of the open window.) Maybe I’ll ask Walter if he wants to get a drink sometime. 

Angmar disappears through the window. Crankyass opens the door to the apartment — and the hallway outside is blocked by movers carrying out a large couch. Crankyass is taken aback: his mouth drops open, then snaps closed; he looks up at the ceiling, sags briefly — then laughter is heard from upstairs, several women, the sound joyous, harmonious. Crankyass smiles. Once the stairway is clear, he goes out to the stairs and climbs up, moving quickly, energetically. From the stairs his voice is heard:

Crankyass: Lena! I didn’t know you all were moving! Anything I can do to help?

But wut ’bout mah RAHTS??

Got this image from this blog, which says the same things I’m saying, but nicer, and almost a year ago.

All right. I have something to say.

I have several things to say, actually. And I suspect that once I start saying them, even more will bubble up to the surface, like noxious gases from the bottom of the primordial swamp (Or hey, maybe like the scintillant bubbles in effervescing champagne; I probably should shift out of the habit of being maximally dark and depressing. See, there’s another thing I should write about, breaking free of the morass and floating to the surface and freedom, blpblpblpblppPOP!), and soon enough I will have once again exhausted either my readership or my store of ideas. But right now, those things are stacking up, taller and taller, and the ones at the bottom are being squished. Time to Jenga them out of the pile and set them up in their own little spaces.

It’s time to blog.

The first thing I have to say is actually something I’ve said several times already, in various arguments around social media; another reason for me to get back into writing these things. (Yet another reason is that I just said “thing” three times in one sentence: I’ve let my edge get dull, methinks.) You see, I’ve been arguing a lot. It hasn’t gone well. I’ve already destroyed one acquaintanceship (Terrible word. There needs to be another word for the relationship you have with people online who are on your Friends list on Facebook. This guy was not my friend, but I knew him, and we had common interests and values in some areas. So what is that? Normally I’d say acquaintance, or something more specific like coworker or neighbor or my local witch doctor; but what is that when it’s someone on social media? “Mutuals” is a term I appreciate from Twitter and Instagram, meaning someone you follow who follows you; but that doesn’t apply to Facebook. Oop – lost the thread. See? I really do have too much to say. I’m picturing these parentheses as the thin curved walls of the bubbles as they rise up from the depths of my poor swampy head.) and pissed off I don’t know how many people; and so far as I can tell, I have changed zero minds. I know it’s because of the way I’ve been debating these things. Not things, sorry: these issues. The details of it should wait for another post, because I’m too far along the tangent now, but the point is, I realized some time ago that, rather than engage in acrimonious debates with individuals on social media, I should take their topics, and write about them here, where I can make the points I want. The arguments just make people mad. Really, I don’t have them to change minds; I have them because I want to speak my piece, to say what I think – and this is the right place to do that.

I know that the people I have been arguing with, the people who are, in a word, wrong, will not come and read these blogs; but the point is that I haven’t been convincing my opponents anyway, so the arguments have been a waste of time and energy and have produced little more than anger and bitterness, and probably only solidified people in their (wrong) opinions. But maybe if I write a post about the issue, and present my ideas here, people who are interested will read the piece, and maybe spread it in conversation or on social media, and hopefully people will be able to gain some information? Or some inspiration? Or some alleviation of their own turmoil? And maybe that will make a difference.

Enough of my borborygmus. (Hell yes, it’s a word.) Let’s get to the topic.

The question for today is this: do I have a right to not wear a mask?

I know, it probably seems like a dumb question. Because really: who cares if I have a right to not wear a mask? It’s the reasonable and decent thing to do; why would anyone want to not wear a mask during a pandemic? Heck, there are people who love the masks, who have decided to continue wearing them even after the pandemic is over, and bless those people.

But there are millions of people, several of them on my Facebook feed, who hate the masks, hate the restrictions, and REALLY hate the vaccine (I hate to say this, but I’m going to need to write, again, about why vaccines are good and anti-vaxxers are bad. I apologize in advance. But that’s not this post, so let’s let that one sit down in the swamp for a little longer. Down in the toxic murk, where anti-vaxxers come from and where they belong.), and if you talk to them about all of this, at some point they will say “The government shouldn’t get to tell me what to do, where to go, whether or not I should wear a mask or put chemicals in my body. What about my rights?!?!”

That’s what I want to address first. What about my rights? Do I, in fact, have the right to not wear a mask? Do I have the right to keep my business open, which means the government does not have the right to shut me down for purposes of quarantine? Do I have the right to refuse a vaccine?

First, let me say that rights are slippery buggers. I don’t fully understand them, and I won’t pretend to. There is a long and complicated – and fascinating, and important – debate about what a right is and why we have them and which ones we have. So while I have an opinion about this issue of the right to not wear a mask, I freely admit that there may be and probably are factors that I have not considered; I may be wrong. If I am wrong, I invite correction. But here we go with my opinion.

The simple answer is no. I do not have the right to not wear a mask. Not a natural right, nor a moral right. Not an inalienable right, and not a legal right. The Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Magna Carta, the Bible – none of them say anything about your right to a bare bottom half of your face. A law or regulation requiring you to wear a mask is not a violation of your rights.

Because what would be the basis for it? Again, rights are complicated things and nobody has an incontestable definition of what they are and where they come from, but essentially, the three main sources of rights are: our identity as individual rational human beings; the laws of society and the social contract; and God. God, so far as I know, has not decreed that humans don’t need to wear masks (Indeed, the Abrahamic God seems to be more in favor of covered faces than not). The laws of society are exactly the ones that people are arguing about, because they mostly mandate masks, and the social contract is the main focus of the rest of this writing – and it also probably mandates masks. Our identity as individual rational human beings is the source, according to John Locke among others, of our right to life, liberty, and property; most of the Constitutionally-enumerated rights derive from this. We have the right to speech because we have individual thoughts and opinions, and the free expression of those is a recognition of the value of our individual thoughts and opinions. We have the right to bear arms essentially as a means of self-defense and protection of our continued existence – because I can only exist as an individual rational human being if I’m alive, and my ability to defend myself is a protection of and a recognition of that essential right to exist. My ability to choose my own destiny implies the right to do so, and that’s why I can’t be wrongfully imprisoned. And so on.

But there’s no right to not put cloth on my face. It is not a necessary condition of my individuality. It is not a reflection of a defining characteristic of my reasoning mind. It is not even an inherent preference: in cold weather, most people prefer to cover up their faces as much as they can get away with. When I was a kid in Massachusetts, my favorite piece of winter clothing was a ski mask. And not because I liked robbing banks: because it kept me warm.

There are exceptions, of course, which we all know about (mostly because smug twerps have used them as the basis for false claims to avoid following the guidelines and restrictions) – someone with a phobia or a health condition that might prevent them from safely wearing a mask has a right to refuse to wear a mask, because there is a right to life and to the prevention of bodily harm; nobody has the right to hurt me, nor to force me to hurt myself, in a preventable way. But masks are generally harmless, so we’re going to stipulate those (rare!) occasions where people can’t wear masks with the general statement that people who can’t wear masks are obligated to try to find an alternative that does work for them, that achieves the same purpose as a mask but does not cause harm. And regardless of whether or not someone can wear a mask, the essential obligation of mask-wearing remains.

So let’s get to that. Because while I don’t have a specific right to refuse to wear a mask, that doesn’t mean I should be forced to wear a mask for no reason: the presumption for any question of rights and obligations should be that the individual has every right unless there is a reason to restrict it; that is, all things being equal, I have the right to wear a mask, to not wear a mask, to wear 25 masks stacked on top of one another, to wear a Michael Myers mask while I drive around – I should be free to do whatever the heck I want provided it does not harm anyone else or infringe on any other rights. (The Michael Myers thing is probably an infringement on people’s general well-being. But I think it gets the Humor Exception. Different topic.) What I said above generally holds true: my ability to choose my destiny implies a right to actually do that, to make my own choices and live as I wish to. Every action or inaction should be presumed to fall under my general right to liberty and personal sovereignty – unless it is shown to have an impact on others. If it has an impact on others, then it becomes a question.

The question here is does my not wearing a mask affect other people? And the answer is yes. My breathing, my talking, my sneezing and coughing, without a mask on, has direct and tangible impacts on other people: I can spread a virus to them. It’s provable, it’s known – it’s common sense, really; we’ve all been spat on by close talkers, all been sneezed or coughed on by people who didn’t cover their mouths, all been asphyxiated by the bad breath or our fellow human beings. We all know that a bare mouth and nose in a public space has an impact on other people. As soon as we learned the germ theory of disease, and the properties of viruses, this impact became more clear. Honestly, it’s not clear to me that any of us should ever go without masks: even without Covid-19 as the main reason, we still give each other colds and flus and a dozen other infections simply through bare breathing; maybe face coverings should be universal.

The question then becomes one of burden. Is it reasonable to ask me to wear a mask to protect other people from my spit-propelled infectoids? Is it more reasonable to ask other people to avoid those infectoids? Is the means of prevention a greater burden than the risk of said infectoids getting on with their infecting of other people? If they do get infectionalized (Sorry – like I said, it’s been too long since I wrote, and it’s like a peat bog inside this brain of mine.), does the potential harm they might suffer outweigh the burden on me of prevention? Because again, while there is no enumerated, defined right to not wear a mask, the presumption should be that someone who doesn’t want to wear a mask doesn’t have to wear a mask; individual liberty should be first and foremost in our minds, all the time.

I’m actually going to leave those questions alone for now. Because they are determined by specific circumstances. Basically, the answer is that wearing a cloth mask when I am out in public, in enclosed spaces, within six feet or so of other people, is a lesser burden than the risk of infecting someone with Covid-19. So I should wear a mask during this pandemic. I don’t know if it’s a lesser burden than the risk of infecting someone with the flu; it may be. It is interesting to realize that a generation or so from now, mask-wearing may not even feel like a burden; it may just be the norm, and this whole debate will just be silly. But my topic here is a right: do I have a right to not wear a mask? I do not.

The same argument applies to social distancing, to handwashing, to avoiding handshakes and hugs and so on. It applies to weddings and funerals, to in-person classes and live sporting events. It applies to keeping your business open and serving customers during a pandemic. All of it comes down to the same thing: you are presumed to have the right to do whatever the heck you want with your time and your property; you have control over your own destiny – unless and until it impacts others. All of those activities and preferences, for in-person church, for birthday parties, for holiday gatherings with family, for traveling in planes, trains, and automobiles: all of them create a risk of spreading Covid-19 to others. None of them are necessary for an individual’s continued existence. None of them are rights. I do not have a right to have a wedding or a birthday party or a funeral in the manner and at the time and place of my choosing. All things being equal, I should be presumed to have the liberty to choose my wedding and my funeral arrangements; but not all things are equal during a pandemic. I can still be an individual rational human being without seeing other people in large groups in enclosed spaces without masks and closer than six feet.

There is some question of work: the right to work and to derive an income from work is a right we have, as it is both an expression of our rational selves and a necessity for the continuation of life; there has to be some negotiating around that conflict. If, for instance, society can provide me with an income sufficient to keep me alive and essentially free, then that would compensate for the loss of my ability to work as a waiter or a bartender, for instance. Or if my work can move online, as my job teaching high school English did, then that means I can continue the necessary parts of my human existence, without imposing a risk on other humans that might prevent them from continuing their existence. I do not have a right to make my income however I want. I do not have a right to do my job only in the way I want to do it. I do not, unfortunately, have the right to keep open the business I worked my entire life to create. It breaks my heart to say it, but it’s true: my entrepreneurship, my blood sweat and tears, my lifelong dream – I don’t have a right to any of those. I have a right to exist, and to work to continue my existence. I don’t have a right to thrive: and if my thriving puts other people at risk, as it might during a pandemic, then I don’t get to thrive while putting an undue burden of risk on other people.

Put it this way: if I had a right to keep open my beloved mom-and-pop store, what would that mean if my business failed? If another mom-and-pop store opened right next door to mine, which had lower prices and a better product? Would I have the right to take some of their money? Would I have a right to force customers to come to my store? Would I have a right to demand taxpayer money from the government? Or what if my store caught on fire? What if there was a hurricane, or an earthquake? If I had insurance, then I would get the coverage I paid for – but you don’t need insurance to get your rights, you just get those. And there is, sadly, no right to have my dreams come true, or to keep them from being taken away by a pandemic.

All I have is a right not to have my life taken away because somebody doesn’t feel like wearing a mask.

The last thing I’ll say about this is that anyone who claims to have a right to not wear a mask, or to get a vaccine: you do have that right. You can choose to say no to masks and vaccines. It just means you can’t be around people. At all. If you are willing to quarantine yourself in such a way that you have no risk of spreading the virus to anyone, then you have the freedom to do whatever you wish in terms of refusing masks and vaccines: because your choices will not have any impact on other people, and so your individual freedom prevails. But if you want to live in society, then you have to help society live. That free choice, to be a part of society or to leave society, is the final protector of your individual rights. Again, it is a complicated choice, because not everyone can survive separate from society, and a choice that leads inevitably to my death is no choice at all; society has some responsibility to provide for my continued existence if I can’t have that existence outside of society; that’s why society has a responsibility to provide a minimum income, basic needs, to all members of the society who cannot provide it for themselves. And our particular society does not do a very good job of that. But that’s a topic for another day.

For today, wear your mask. And if you can, get the vaccine.

Do what’s right.

Do I need a point?

Harry Nilsson's "The Point" LIVE

Still woke up too early, which is obnoxious because I spent enough time yesterday thinking, and talking to my wife, that I calmed down, and cheered up. (Is it indicative, do you think, that we use directional words to describe moods? Up and down? In and out? You spin me right round, baby, right round, like a record turning right round round round? Indicative, that is, because all directional words are relative: up is only up from my perspective; from someone’s perspective in, say, Japan, my up is their down. Or their sideways.) But the fact that I woke up too early even though I wasn’t upset should be a clear marker of the truth of the matter:

I’m not in control.

I don’t get to decide how long I sleep; I sleep as long as I need to sleep, and then I wake up. When I need more sleep, I will go back to sleep. It’s not something I can improve: it is what it is. I can try to remove the things that get in the way of my sleep — a new mattress would be swell, but mainly, I should drink less coffee and have less stress — but it’s still going to have the same result: I will sleep as much as I need to, and then I will wake up. Feeling not entirely rested, feeling less than ideal. Because that’s how it works, even though I might want to make it work differently, because I can’t change things that are not in my power.

I’m not in control.

I don’t like when that gets used as a therapeutic argument: you’re upset about things, but you should just remember that you’re not in control, and let it go. It’s true, yes — but it doesn’t do a damn thing to make me feel better. Like the argument that other people feel the same way: I don’t think I’m unique, I don’t think I’m weird — or at least not terminally weird. Knowing that other people feel the same way doesn’t really change how I feel. It sort of makes me feel less stupid, which is comforting; but I mean, if I’m being upset over stupid things (say, things that are out of my control), knowing that other people get upset about those things makes me feel a little better — until I realize that those other people are just being stupid, too, when they get upset about things that are out of their control.

Old Man Yells at Cloud | Know Your Meme
Best possible example of getting mad at things that are out of our control.

But while the thought that things are not in my control, and therefore I shouldn’t get upset about them, doesn’t make me feel better in the moment, it does help me work on what I need to do to make sure — or at least make it more likely — that I won’t get that upset again over similar things. Because it’s true: getting upset over things that not in one’s control is a waste of time and energy. It is far better to accept the truth and move on, to things you can change or simply to more pleasurable thoughts and experiences.

So the truth is, in my opinion, that life does not have a point. So getting upset over things being pointless is useless: because everything is like that. Everything is pointless. Well, that is, everything is pointless in a specific kind of way: there is no external, eternal, absolute point. (Theists and those who believe God has a plan for us are welcome to disagree.) The universe was not created for a reason, to accomplish a specific goal; life was not created for a reason, to accomplish a specific goal. We are, in a cosmic sense, pointless: random. Just a thing that happens to exist. We as individual humans are the same: I was not created to fulfill a specific destiny; I was created by circumstances. I just happened.

But here’s the rub: if I was not created for a specific purpose — then I am free to find my own purpose. To create a purpose for my existence. And part of me says, “Yeah, but why is something that you made up of any value? I mean, if people can just go around picking their own destinies, then who cares what destiny one person picks? I could just say my purpose in life is to eat Cheez-Its.”

Right. Exactly right. That’s the freedom of being an individual who is not part of a greater cosmic pattern. (Again, theists are welcome to disagree, but then, you all have your own comforting truth to keep in mind, which is that God has a plan for you.) I am free to decide that my purpose in life, the point of my existence, is to eat Cheez-Its. Which is great, because I happen to love Cheez-Its. I was just eating them last night. I shouldn’t have been, they gave me heartburn; but hey, I couldn’t not eat Cheez-Its — Cheez-Its are my destiny.

it is useless to resist it is your destiny - Darth Vader Power Dark Side |  Meme Generator

Of course, the price of having the freedom to choose is that you have to live with your choices: and you have to live with knowing that you made those choices. I got heartburn from my Cheez-Its. I don’t get enough sleep partly because I drink too much coffee. I work in a profession that doesn’t have any immediate, tangible evidence of my success: and I am dumb enough that I am skeptical of the evidence I do have of my success, like when other people tell me I’m a good teacher who made a difference in someone’s life, my immediate gut reaction is “Pfff.”

So this is the point: understanding that I am not in control of most things in life, that I am not in control of this nation’s political circumstances, that I am not in control of the pandemic, that I am not in control of the ravages inflicted on us by late-stage capitalism, that I am not in control of the passing of time, that I am not in control of my students and how much they choose to get out of my class; is not comforting. It is not easy to accept. But it is necessary to accept: because it is the truth. When I have those existential crises that make me question what the point is, I need to remember that there is something — several things, actually, but one that is directly relevant in these moments — that I am in control of: and that is deciding for myself what the point of my life is. What my purpose is. What is my reason for being. And if I choose wisely, I will have something challenging to live up to; and if I can manage to do that, I will have reason to be proud of myself. Which will, hopefully, make me happy and satisfied, and not likely to wake up in an existential crisis.

That’s the point.

Pointless

Woke up too early this morning. No reason: that perfectly awful combination of not quite tired enough, not quite comfortable enough, not quite relaxed enough. So I guess there is a reason, or rather, several reasons.

I also started thinking about my life. Pretty natural, I think, for the first of the year. Transitions like this, especially ones that get hyped as much as the end of this godawful 2020, always makes us think about our lives: take stock, consider what we’ve accomplished, think about what we still want to do.

But see, when I wake up early, when I don’t get enough sleep, I’m instantly about a millimeter away from depression, and about a nanometer away from anger. I wish that wasn’t true: I wish I was constantly floating on a cloud of equanimity, accepting things as they come, aware of what truly matters and that the small irritations of the day, and even the large suffering of the world, is not it. Buddha-like, Christ-like, Snoop Dogg-like. The fact that I am never that calm always makes me feel like I’m failing. Because I think about this stuff, I read books about it, about philosophy, about the meaning of life, about the purpose of me, and I frequently come to decisions and determinations: this is what I should be doing. Yes. I write blogs about those things, try to weave them into my teaching, write stories or novels that use them as themes.

And then I wake up early and freak out because I have to go back to work next week.

That’s no big deal, understand: I’m good at my job — I have a job that I got to keep all through the pandemic and the quarantine, despite my job being paid for by the government that is so badly broken, funded by the taxpayers who are so badly broke, despite my job’s essential task having been voided by the virus because I can’t watch over (Usually I say “babysit” but I’m feeling magnanimous in my obsolescence; since I can’t do the thing any more, I might as well make it seem important) — and because everything to do with my job is so fucked right now, none of it actually matters. I realize all of that. I’m very grateful that I still have work, still have a paycheck (At the same time I hate that I have to be grateful for the opportunity to beat myself to death with frustration, to slowly flense myself with papercuts, just so I can buy food and shelter from other people without skin, all of us looking enviously over at Scrooge McDuck who’s swimming around in an indoor pool filled with rectangular skin-flaps, skin stripped off of desperate people, turned over to banks and bosses, cleaned and tanned and neatly edged, printed with “In God We Trust.”). I was just thinking the other day: this is why I took this job, why I went into teaching in the first place. I never cared about passing on knowledge or affecting change for the future (though I think about that now, especially when I wake up early), and of course I knew it wouldn’t make me a bucket full of money or make me famous. But I knew that it would always be there, that I would always have a job: and here’s the proof. Even when the school building is closed, and we all know how stupid and useless online instruction is, I’m still doing it, still working and getting paid to work. I can’t afford a new car or a big house (or a swimming pool filled with green-tinged epidermis bills), but I can pay the rent on my 2/1 townhouse and pay the upkeep and insurance on my 2011 Kia.

So what if my job is stressful? So is everyone else’s, and it’s worlds better than the stress of unemployment, grinding poverty, looming homelessness, slow starvation. And I get to have two weeks off for Christmas; a friend of mine just worked a full shift yesterday, on what should be a holiday — but we’ve got to keep peeling that skin. Mr. McDuck just added a hot tub.

I know all this. I know I should be happy and thankful for what I have, feel less bothered by things since there are so many more terrible things that could be bothering me.

I’m still bothered. Which means I’ve failed to actually understand what I supposedly know. I know I shouldn’t be upset, but I am. I know I shouldn’t worry about things I can’t change, but I do. I know things will work out for the best, that I’ll make the most I can of what opportunities I have. I still feel hopeless.

I still feel like it’s all pointless.

Okay, Now What?

So we won.

The knowledge hasn’t trickled down yet to the sewer underneath the swamp, where Trump lurks, where he festers and spreads like an antibiotic-resistant infection (I wonder if, in classic supervillain style, he unintentionally revealed his secret weakness: what if the only way to defeat him permanently is to inject him with bleach? [NOTE TO THOSE WHO ARE UNFAMILIAR WITH MY WRITING AND PHILOSOPHY: That was ironic; I am a pacifist. Please don’t actually try, or plan, to inject the President with bleach. Not even when he is the ex-President. (NOTE TO THE SECRET SERVICE: I know, I shouldn’t suggest harming the President of the United States. I still think it’s a funny joke, so I’m leaving it. I wouldn’t worry too much about the people who read this trying to actually pull it off. And if they somehow managed it, hey, now you can relax and stop feeling all that conflicted guilt and irritation from trying to preserve the life of a pustulent boil on the ass of America. [NOTE TO THE SUPER-SECRET CABAL WITHIN THE SECRET SERVICE THAT HAS BEEN SECRETLY PLOTTING TO REMOVE TRUMP SO YOU ALL CAN PROTECT SOMEONE YOU ACTUALLY RESPECT AGAIN: Try bleach. (Note to my students and fellow grammar/syntax nerds: this is my favorite part of nesting parentheticals like this:)])]), but it’s true. We won. We got past this hurdle.

So now what?

I’ve been seeing and hearing all kinds of advice about not giving up. Continuing the fight. Now is the time, activists say, to turn that anti-Trump fervor into fervor for new causes, to keep the same energy moving forward into the next fight for change and progress. I heard it on Pod Save the People this week (If you don’t know it, this is a weekly news commentary podcast with a focus on people of color and social justice, very well done and interesting and human — sometimes a leeetle too woke for me, but I still recommend it), I saw it on this Twitter thread shared by a friend on Facebook; I feel like I’ve seen this everywhere. Now, whenever I see something like this, the bottom falls out of my stomach; so I may be noticing this sort of thing more, rather than seeing it a whole lot, but it feels like I’ve seen it a whole lot, and I don’t like it.

Because I don’t think I can do that. I am spent. I am drained. If somebody wants me to turn my anti-Trump energy towards a new focus, the bad news is that I don’t have any of it left. The good news is that I am quite willing to move to the next focus, the next fight. I don’t believe this is the end of the issue; the victory we’ve won is incredibly important, like saving the country important — but it’s not the last victory we need to win. I get that. I am with that. I am onboard.

I just don’t have it in me to fight. Not right now. I feel bad about it, but that is the truth. I’m close to my edge. I have of late had bouts of depression and despondency that I have never experienced in my life before now. I struggle with things that should be easy, my patience is gone, I can’t sleep, I’m not writing or reading much right now. Pretty much everything is wrong.

Not everything: my wife is still my perfect partner, and I love her deliriously. My pets are delightful. My friends are fun and supportive. All these things bring me at least some joy, every day and every week and every month. And though it doesn’t necessarily bring me joy, I do have a job and a reliable income, which gives me a sense of security that millions of people — billions of people — are lacking. I am grateful for all of those things. But still, pretty much everything else is wrong, and so:

I need to stop fighting.

I recognize that it is a privilege that I can talk about not fighting; because my life and my freedom is not at risk. It is somewhat at risk because we are living through a pandemic and the situation is deteriorating; I am at a bit higher risk than some because I work for a school that insists on staying open and having students and teachers in person in the classroom every day. But also, I am healthy and I have insurance — and I am not wedded either to glorified ignorance nor superstition, so I listen to the warnings and take reasonable precautions — so the risk is as minimal as I can make it. It’s easier for me to step back from fighting for police reform or environmental action or to protect reproductive rights than it is for people who are at risk from those dangers.

That makes me feel bad, that I can allow myself to step back from the fight while others can’t: but that guilt doesn’t give me the energy or the wherewithal or the resources to fight. It just makes me feel bad, which adds to my current emotional burden.

(And if anyone reading this is thinking, “Pssh, get out of your feelings, Snowflake” — I mean, considering my writing and position and my probable audience, it seems very unlikely that anyone is; but I think there may be some people who still subscribe to the image of men hitching up their gunbelts and soldiering on, because I still think that, a lot of the time — let’s recognize that all the strong silent men of the past drank and smoked themselves to death by age 65. So let’s be clear about what actually works and what we think sounds like it should work, maybe, but really doesn’t. “Sucking it up” is fine when you’ve stubbed your toe. Sucking up your looming despair just makes everything worse.)

I don’t mean to whine (And again, my probable audience probably doesn’t see this as whining, but I watched Westerns when I was a kid, so I feel the need to address this) because I also realize that there are people who are having a much harder time with the same issues I’m having right now, the stress and anxiety and depression, which for others is compounded by other and greater dangers and problems, problems that I don’t have. I want to do two things: I want to be honest about how I feel, as that is the healthiest thing for me to do for myself; and I want to let other people who may feel the same way know that they are not alone.

If you are exhausted, you are not alone.

If you want to join the fight, to keep fighting, to do the right as you see the right, you are not alone.

But if you just can’t do it right now, you are not alone.

So that’s where I am. I want to do a lot of things. I want to write to politicians and urge them to do the right thing. I want to join organizations and show up and participate — and I suspect that my writing skills could actually prove an asset to those fighting for the causes I believe in. I don’t want to join phone banks or knock on doors or fundraise, but I want to want to do those things, and if things were different I’d do them whether I really wanted to or not. I want to donate lots and lots of money to lots and lots of causes.

But instead, I’m going to stop fighting. I’m going to take care of myself.

It sounds stupid to me (Again, trying to be honest, and I grew up watching Westerns, and also wonderfully chauvinistic and hypermasculine shows like Buck Rodgers or The A-Team — and, yes, The Dukes of Hazzard, too) because I don’t fit into a category of people who have problems and need care. I’m a healthy straight white American male with an upper-middle class upbringing: I should be fine. I’m afraid to take care of myself, too, because there are others who rely on me, and it feels to me like I can’t take time for myself without leaving them hanging, and I don’t want to do that: it feels like I’m compounding my — what, my negligence? My dereliction of duty? What is it when a teacher doesn’t take care of his students, when a husband doesn’t take care of his wife, when a pet-papa doesn’t take care of his sweet little 60-pound Boxer-mix princess? When a liberal/progressive doesn’t take part in the fight for social justice and a functioning democracy? It’s my sin, right? My wrongdoing? After all, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. If you’re not part of the problem then you’re part of the solution. All those memes about the German people allowing the rise of the Nazi Reich, the passage in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” when he talks about how the listless superficial support of white liberals is a greater danger than the vigorous opposition of white racists; how can I stop fighting in the face of all that? How can I do nothing right now? However tired I am, surely there is something else I can do? However upset I am, however anxious and depressed, surely there is something I can do? And people are full of advice: if you can’t march in protest, then join a phone bank, write letters, donate donate donate. Take action. Don’t lose the momentum. Don’t stop.

Enough. I must stop listening to these idiotic voices in my head telling me to ignore how I feel and press on forever. They are not telling me the truth. They are not the voices that matter to me, not the people who I care about and who care about me; all of those people tell me to take care of myself, to take it easy, to not put myself under too much stress. Another moment of honest truth: my wife tells me this all the time, and my friend and fellow teacher Lisa; but they are the only ones because I never talk about how I feel to anyone else. Anyone asks me how my day is, and I say it’s — fine. Doing good, I say. Sometimes, with my students, with my parents, I will share that I am not in truth doing that great, but I also immediately get angry and defensive about it, or I breeze right through and change the subject, and don’t allow anyone else to sympathize with me or tell me that it’s okay to not be okay. It is also true that my parents make me feel bad for feeling bad, and my students respond to my sorrow with their own sorrows rather than sympathy for mine; when they do that I feel the need to sympathize with their sorrows, which is hard and draining, and just makes me feel more hopeless and helpless, and also bad for feeling that way; so there’s not a whole lot of impetus to be honest about my current state, most of the time. So I’m usually not. But I want to be, and that’s why I’m doing this, and ignoring the discomfort I feel in writing an entire blog this long about how I don’t feel very good right now.

I don’t feel very good right now, and that’s why I’m writing this, and why I’m not writing much of anything else. That’s the truth.

Here are some other truths:

I spend too much time on social media, particularly arguing on social media. I shouldn’t do it, because the people I’m arguing with are never going to change their minds because of anything I say. I do think there is value in pushing back against ignorant or dangerous or harmful ideas; and I recognize there is some audience reading those arguments on social media who may be more thoughtful and may get something out of my arguments more than my actual opponent will; but it is draining. I spend time on social media because it feels easy and it feels like relaxation — I see memes and laugh, I see videos of cute animals and smile, I see that my friends share my likes and dislikes, my passions and skepticisms, and I feel connected — but I spend a fair amount of that time trawling for arguments, and then continuously going back and arguing again and again and again. I suspect I do this because I am not doing other and more important things, but it’s not a replacement for good and useful action: it’s a waste of time and my limited resources, and a source of unnecessary and unproductive frustration. So I need to stop. That’s the truth.

Being a high school teacher is both very stressful and draining, and also very important; it feels like a copout to say I don’t spend more time fighting for the causes I want to fight for because I spend all my time fighting to make my students less ignorant, but it’s also true: it is a fight, and I fight it hard, every day. They don’t like to read, they don’t like to write, they don’t want to do work, they don’t know how to relate to and understand other people; every day I try to help them do all of those things better, and also understand why they should do all those things, and I try to find reasons that are specific and personal to them. All of that takes energy and passion, and hope and determination, and confidence and faith that what I am doing is the right thing. Meanwhile my school and my society seem bound and determined to tell me that it is not the right thing, determined to get in the way of my and my students’ success: and so I have to fight them, too, have to keep them from shifting my priorities and effort away from what matters, have to avoid the pitfalls and traps they set for me, have to discern when they are genuinely trying to help and when they are just trying to look good at the expense of the real work. All of that takes effort, too. I spend that effort every day.

I think it is vitally important that we recognize that none of us have it easy: that all of us are fighting in our own lives for our own success, every day; taking on other causes is already dipping into our reserves, taking from our reservoir of strength and hope and resolve what may not be there to take for much longer.

We all fight in our own ways, and with our own capacities. I will not be joining phone banks or door-knocking because I am an introvert, and what’s worse, I’m an introvert in an extrovert’s job, so I have to use up all of my socializing energy just to get through my day. If I was still a janitor (And I frequently ask myself why I am not still a janitor — but the reason is because what I do now is important) then maybe I could participate more; but I’m not. If I was an extrovert then I would be happy to go out and talk to people about causes I believe in; but I’m not. If I was rich I would give all kinds of money away; but good grief, I am most assuredly not. And many if not most of the people out there who tell me, who tell us, to fight and keep fighting are not in situations like mine. They may, as I said, be closer to the issues, in more danger because of the problems than I am in; but that doesn’t mean they have jobs as hard as mine is, or proclivities as unsuited to organizing and rallying as mine are. Wishing it was different, or even just pondering what it would be like if it were different, is a waste of time and energy: this is the situation. This is the truth. I’m not lying to myself, and it’s not a dodge or a copout: I am an introvert, and I work very hard at being a teacher, and I am tired. And I need to take care of myself, no matter how stupid or guilty it might make me feel to say that, because if I use up everything I have, if I fail, if I fall: then — and only then — will I be letting down those I love, and those who love me.

And my sweet little 60-pound Boxer mix princess needs her daddy.

So what’s next?

You need to think about what’s next. Think seriously, think truthfully. Think what needs to be done, yes — but also think about what you need, and what you are capable of. If you are ready to start the next round, then get in there and start fighting, keep fighting. If you have to pause to take a deep breath, then do it: breathe as deeply as you can. Keep breathing. If you have to take a few hours for a meal and a glass of wine and a bath and a nap, then do all of that. And do it again next week. If you need a few days for a vacation, or for a retreat and a rest, then do that. If you don’t know what you need or how long you need — and in my case, I do not; part of my struggle with this is that this struggle is new to me, has never been like this, has never been this hard before, and so I do not know what to do, I do not have a ready answer for what is really wrong with me or how to deal with it — then don’t try to decide in advance what you need or how long it will take to take care of yourself. Just take care of yourself until you feel better. Just do that.

Take care of yourself. For me. And I will take care of myself. For you.

Be well.

Step by Step

Tomorrow’s a big day. And if you have work to do today and tomorrow, then thank you, and know that I support you. Go get ‘em.

Remember, though, that change doesn’t happen overnight. The events and influences that got us here didn’t arrive yesterday, and they won’t disappear tomorrow.

Things change incrementally. And there are two things we all have to keep in mind because of that.

First thing: don’t expect everything to be different all at once. No matter how momentous tomorrow may seem, remember that tomorrow is not change: tomorrow is an opportunity to move one step closer to change, or to move one step further away — which probably just means standing where you are, unmoving. Tomorrow may turn out that way: standing in place. No change. But whether that happens or not, it won’t make a big difference; not tomorrow. Tomorrow plus the next day plus the next day plus the next hundred days, the next thousand — those will make a big difference. That’s when we’ll see change. If we look back a thousand days ago, things appear very different from now: but only because we’ve made a thousand choices, taken a thousand steps. No one step is going to move us very far. Not even tomorrow.

So stay patient. Don’t give up hope, and don’t fool yourself into expecting more than a single step.

And the second thing is, if you want to make change, great change, momentous change — or if you want to ensure that there is no change in the things you want to conserve, if you want to fight off all those who want to push you off of the ground where you stand — then you must be persistent. Patient, as real change takes time; and persistent, because though it takes time, still you need to take that step, tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. If you want to take a thousand steps, then you need to fight every single day for a thousand days. You need to fight against the people who don’t want to take any steps, and the people who want to stop after a hundred steps, and the people who want to take a thousand or a hundred steps in a different direction.

You need to fight all of them. Every day. For every step. And the more often you win, the harder they will fight.

Persistence is the key. Never give up until you get where you want. And if you can’t keep fighting, find allies, and help them take one more step than you, and then another step after that. No step is all-important. But every step is important.

Let’s take the next step in the right direction. Please.