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.

Good Food, Good Meat, Good God, Let’s Eat!

merry and pippin

Food: it’s what’s for dinner. And breakfast, and lunch. Supper. Second breakfast. Elevenses. Afternoon tea. Dessert!

I suspect we can all relate to the hobbits from The Lord of the Rings. They think in a way that we consider acceptable: they love home, and peace and quiet, and friends and family, and food. (Also beer and smoking a “pipeweed” that seems not to be tobacco, exactly… But those are less commonly accepted habits. Still not the worst habits to have, though.) J.R.R. Tolkien used these qualities to make the hobbits relatable because that served to present part of his message to his audience: he wanted people to understand that single individuals, even the smallest and least significant people, can change the world, if they act with courage and honor and loyalty. Not a subtle man, he made the “smallest” literal, and the evil the hobbits fought against as monstrous and demonic as he possibly could. Subtle or not, though, he was right on the money with his ideas on how his audience would feel about the hobbits; and Peter Jackson, bless his heart, was able to capture the same feeling in the movies. And right at the heart of that affection we all feel for the hobbits is food. They love it, we love it. Even when we’re a bit stupid about it, such as when Merry and Pippin steal from Farmer Maggot, or when Sam joins the other two in cooking at night on the side of Weathertop, broadcasting their location to the Nazgul. Of course they don’t think about the consequences of getting or making food: they’re hungry. As someone who has eaten garbage like weeks-old bagels, month-old popcorn, and years-old candy, I can relate.

But the more impressive task that Tolkien and Jackson both tried to accomplish, and I think did accomplish, is creating sympathy for another character who is not cute, who is not friendly, who is not relatable (at least not in the same way), and who does not eat sausages and tomatoes and nice crispy bacon and, most famously, PO-TAY-TOES like a hobbit: Gollum.

Gollum is everything the hobbits are not: he is disgusting to look at, with his stringy hair and his stringy body that he twists into impossible postures, with his broken teeth and twisted features, with his disturbing voice and mannerisms. He is selfish where the hobbits are generous, untrustworthy where they are loyal — evil where they are good. Most importantly, Gollum eats disgusting things, when he eats at all. His preferred meal is fish, which he likes “raw and wrrrrrrrriggling,” as he tells Sam Gamgee. There is more than one moment when Gollum is shown eating fish in a particularly animalistic and disgusting way; one scene that sticks with me is when the film is showing the origins of Gollum, and gives us a slow-motion close-up of Gollum’s rotten teeth sinking into a whole, raw fish, with water — or saliva? Maybe just slime? Which is the most disgusting? — bursting out of it, oozing over his discolored lips and gums. Gives me the cold shivers every time.

Which is, of course, the intent. We are supposed to be disgusted and appalled and horrified by Gollum, first viscerally, and then as the story reaches its climax in Mount Doom, morally and spiritually. But that is not so that we can hate Gollum, because Gollum is not the villain: Gollum is the victim. We are meant to pity Gollum. Gandalf, who knows all, points this out to Frodo in the Mines of Moria: 

Frodo: ‘It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance.’
Gandalf: ‘Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.’

And, indeed, it does: when Frodo falls victim to the same corruption that twisted Gollum, it is Gollum’s own corruption that saves the day, that leads to the destruction of the Ring, and Gollum’s own destruction. And it is those same rotten teeth, his willingness to eat what should not be eaten, that allows him to take the evil away from Frodo, while sparing Frodo’s life: by biting off Frodo’s ring finger, Gollum saves him from sharing in Gollum’s fate. If Bilbo had not pitied Gollum, if Frodo had not repeated that same generous response to the vile Gollum and also spared Gollum’s life as Bilbo had done — and if Gollum had not been willing to eat (or at least bite) part of Frodo — then Gollum would not have made it to Mount Doom and taken the Ring, and not only would Frodo have been lost, but the world might have been lost as well, since the Nazgul were at that moment winging their way to the volcano to retrieve their master’s property.

The Nazgûl Returning to Mount Doom | Warrior, The hobbit, Doom

We are to feel sorry for Gollum, who was destroyed by the corruption of the true villain, Sauron and his Ring of Power (Another un-subtle symbol, which simply represents: power. The power that corrupts.). It is not Gollum’s fault that the Ring destroyed him, and so we should not hate him for that; we should pity him for being destroyed. Tolkien gives us some help with that, through the depiction of Smeagol, the hobbit that Gollum once was (and all the associations with the beloved hobbits that come with that history), and the depiction of the beloved character Bilbo’s similar corruption, particularly the moment in Rivendell when he tries to take the Ring from Frodo, and in Peter Jackson’s movie, Bilbo’s face for a moment takes on Gollum’s features (Notice the teeth).

Why didn't Bilbo become a creature like Gollum? - Movies & TV Stack Exchange

But for the most part, Tolkien makes it very, very difficult to pity Gollum, because he is disgusting, because he is contemptuous, because he is vile. And that’s the point: the people who most deserve and need our pity are the people who are most difficult to pity. They are the ones we find disgusting, contemptuous, even vile. Though Tolkien understands our struggle, and gives us a voice through Sam Gamgee and his hatred of Gollum (and the mini-victories Sam wins when he is proven right by Gollum’s betrayal, and when he gets to beat up Gollum, on three separate occasions), he insists that we find it in ourselves to sympathize with the creature: because that is what is required to defeat evil. Pity for those who are hardest to pity is the only way for good to win. Everything the hobbits are is necessary: their courage and generosity and loyalty, even their smallness, are all vital as well; but the pity for the unpitiable is the last requirement. We must find the way to treat Gollum with dignity and respect, no matter what. We must.

Another author, another story, that makes the same argument, and makes it, if anything, even more difficult, is Franz Kafka’s classic story The Metamorphosis. In it, the relatable and even admirable human Gregor Samsa becomes a disgusting, contemptible, vile creature, generally depicted as an insect, but only named as “ein ungeheuer Ungeziefer,” an unclean vermin that is “unfit for sacrifice.” Essentially, something that is too disgusting to eat, if we take sacrifice as the ancients did, in the sense that the sacrifice provides food for the gods. And just like J.R.R. Tolkien, Kafka insists that the reader pity this unpitiable man: that we find a way to see him as a man, as worthy of our sympathy and our love, no matter what.

The Metamorphosis: Kafka, Franz: 9781600964220: Amazon.com: Books

Just as Gollum is introduced to us first as the creature, and only later as Smeagol the hobbit, Gregor is transformed into his monstrous self in the novel’s very first sentence: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin (“ein ungeheuer Ungeziefer,” that is).” No explanation for this transformation is ever given, or even guessed at; Gregor himself spends that first morning worrying about being late to work, and how his family will survive if he loses his job — a real question, as Gregor is the only wage-earner for his family of four. But still, one would think that the most prominent thought in the mind of a person who just turned into a cockroach would be something along the lines of “Hey — I just turned into a cockroach. Wonder how that happened?” That is not Gregor’s main thought, and part of the reason Kafka wrote him that way has to be so that he remains relatable, even while he is apparently in the body of an insect: here’s a man who wakes up annoyed because he slept through his alarm, and because he has to go to work; who doesn’t like his job, and doesn’t feel fulfilled. Just like so many of us. He just also happens to be an unclean vermin, for some reason or other.  

Regardless of what happened or how it happened, the important fact in the story is that Gregor is now disgusting. He is unacceptable. When he emerges from his room, the other people — or perhaps I should just say “the people” — react with horror and revulsion:

He had first to slowly turn himself around one of the double doors, and he had to do it very carefully if he did not want to fall flat on his back before entering the room. He was still occupied with this difficult movement, unable to pay attention to anything else, when he heard the chief clerk exclaim a loud “Oh!”, which sounded like the soughing of the wind. Now he also saw him – he was the nearest to the door – his hand pressed against his open mouth and slowly retreating as if driven by a steady and invisible force. Gregor’s mother, her hair still dishevelled from bed despite the chief clerk’s being there, looked at his father. Then she unfolded her arms, took two steps forward towards Gregor and sank down onto the floor into her skirts that spread themselves out around her as her head disappeared down onto her breast. His father looked hostile, and clenched his fists as if wanting to knock Gregor back into his room. Then he looked uncertainly round the living room, covered his eyes with his hands and wept so that his powerful chest shook.

The chief clerk (come to Gregor’s home from his employer to see why Gregor had not arrived at work on time, and to be honest, I find that much more bothersome than the giant insect) shows a gesture of disgust and nausea; Gregor’s mother faints, his father weeps. Perhaps this is not exactly what the audience does when we first see Gollum — but imagine how Gollum’s family would have reacted to him.

As the story goes on, Gregor is given a number of traits that show him first as inhuman — from the rest of that first paragraph, which includes: “He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections”, and, “His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked” — and then as disgusting, when, at the height of his strangeness, he starts crawling over the walls and ceiling, which habit is detected because “he had, after all, left traces of the adhesive from his feet as he crawled about.” Gregor makes us most uncomfortable, seems the most alien, when he presses himself against a framed picture on his wall to keep his family from taking it away from him, for which we are given the strangely inappropriate description “He hurried up onto the picture and pressed himself against its glass, it held him firmly and felt good on his hot belly. This picture at least, now totally covered by Gregor, would certainly be taken away by no-one.” His mother collapses in a faint after seeing “the enormous brown patch against the flowers of the wallpaper.” Gregor has been reduced to a stain, a patch of dirt; still, he is so upsetting that his mother can’t bear to look at him even though she loves him and has hope that he will somehow return to his former state — a redemption that Gollum is also offered through the recovery of his Smeagol personality, though of course, Smeagol is physically no less disgusting than Gollum, and his short time onscreen is soon ended when the Gollum-self returns and takes over once more, and for all his remaining time.

But never is Gregor so disgusting as when he eats. Gregor is first given food after his first shocking emergence; he is driven back into his room by his father, who actually wounds Gregor (and gives us the rather upsetting description “One side of his body lifted itself, he lay at an angle in the doorway, one flank scraped on the white door and was painfully injured, leaving vile brown flecks on it, soon he was stuck fast and would not have been able to move at all by himself, the little legs along one side hung quivering in the air while those on the other side were pressed painfully against the ground.” Nonetheless his father is pitiless: “Then his father gave him a hefty shove from behind which released him from where he was held and sent him flying, and heavily bleeding, deep into his room.”), and it is not until late that evening that Gregor’s sister, Grete, tries to reach out to her brother with food.

Her first attempt is bread soaked in milk, a common food for children and invalids, and one of Gregor’s favorites. At least it used to be.

By the door there was a dish filled with sweetened milk with little pieces of white bread floating in it. He was so pleased he almost laughed, as he was even hungrier than he had been that morning, and immediately dipped his head into the milk, nearly covering his eyes with it. But he soon drew his head back again in disappointment; not only did the pain in his tender left side make it difficult to eat the food – he was only able to eat if his whole body worked together as a snuffling whole – but the milk did not taste at all nice. Milk like this was normally his favourite drink, and his sister had certainly left it there for him because of that, but he turned, almost against his own will, away from the dish and crawled back into the centre of the room.

Shoving his face into the milk up to his eyes is not a great image; but it almost has a silliness to it that makes it acceptable, even close to funny. Not so Grete’s second attempt to provide for her brother (after she first disposes of the uneaten milquetoast, “using a rag, not her bare hands”):

In order to test his taste, she brought him a whole selection of things, all spread out on an old newspaper. There were old, half-rotten vegetables; bones from the evening meal, covered in white sauce that had gone hard; a few raisins and almonds; some cheese that Gregor had declared inedible two days before; a dry roll and some bread spread with butter and salt. As well as all that she had poured some water into the dish, which had probably been permanently set aside for Gregor’s use, and placed it beside them.

One attempt to offer Gregor his favorite food; and then it’s straight to garbage. But it seems to have been a good choice, as Gregor finally digs in:

“Am I less sensitive than I used to be, then?”, he thought, and was already sucking greedily at the cheese which had immediately, almost compellingly, attracted him much more than the other foods on the newspaper. Quickly one after another, his eyes watering with pleasure, he consumed the cheese, the vegetables and the sauce; the fresh foods, on the other hand, he didn’t like at all, and even dragged the things he did want to eat a little way away from them because he couldn’t stand the smell.

Once more, the leftovers are, for Grete, untouchable — corrupted:

“[H]is sister unselfconsciously took a broom and swept up the left-overs, mixing them in with the food he had not even touched at all as if it could not be used any more. She quickly dropped it all into a bin, closed it with its wooden lid, and carried everything out.”

Another trend continues as well: that Gregor is not to be seen. His first attempt to emerge from his room is met with horror and violence (And perhaps it is unimportant, but since my topic is food, that first time his mother faints, she falls onto the breakfast table and knocks over the coffee pot; Gregor, in response, “could not help himself snapping in the air with his jaws at the sight of the flow of coffee.” So maybe it is not a matter of his new self being incapable of eating proper human food.), and immediately afterwards, the doors that had locked the family out of Gregor’s room are now locked to keep him in what has become his prison. Even there, Gregor finds a hiding place for whenever his sister, and then later his mother or the cleaning woman, come into his room: he goes under the couch, and lest they spy even a small part of him, he takes the sheet from his bed and drapes it over the couch as a privacy curtain. Gregor’s safe space gets smaller and smaller. Whenever he does emerge from it, he suffers terribly: after his mother faints when she sees the large brown patch on the wall, Grete leaves the room to get smelling salts, and Gregor, horrified at what he has caused, follows her: he startles her, and she drops a bottle of medicine, cutting Gregor’s face with a shard of glass and splashing caustic liquid on him, as well. She then rushes back into the room and locks Gregor out — the usurpation of Gregor’s once-secure space is now complete  — and Gregor, panicking, crawls all over the walls and ceiling in one of his most insect-like moments, and then collapses — atop the dining table. It’s hard to know if the point here is that Gregor is at maximum visibility, and therefore at his most unacceptable, or if Kafka is making explicit what is only implied: that Gregor himself, while he may now be an unclean vermin unworthy of sacrifice, has up until now been sacrificed — devoured — by his family, who have lived off of his work and his suffering, who have absorbed his kindness and generosity without giving any in return. Perhaps Gregor transforms into an unclean vermin as a defense mechanism: they alienate and abuse him, but at least they no longer consume him.

Whatever the meaning of Gregor’s collapse atop the dining table, the real danger in this moment comes home with Gregor’s father. The proud patriarch had been fading away, his authority reduced along with his income, his power apparently transferring to his son when Gregor became the sole breadwinner. He still had influence: it is he who decides that breakfast should be extensive: “The washing up from breakfast lay on the table; there was so much of it because, for Gregor’s father, breakfast was the most important meal of the day and he would stretch it out for several hours as he sat reading a number of different newspapers.” (Is it petty to note that breakfast is a meal Gregor, who wakes at 4am to get a 5am train to work, is sure to miss every day?) and much of the family’s daily life revolves around him; but he himself had grown weaker. Not any more. As his son becomes incapacitated, the elder Samsa regains his former power, and now when he arrives home, Grete runs to him for help in this crisis, and the father goes to deal with his son:

He took his cap, with its gold monogram from, probably, some bank, and threw it in an arc right across the room onto the sofa, put his hands in his trouser pockets, pushing back the bottom of his long uniform coat, and, with look of determination, walked towards Gregor. He probably did not even know himself what he had in mind, but nonetheless lifted his feet unusually high. Gregor was amazed at the enormous size of the soles of his boots, but wasted no time with that – he knew full well, right from the first day of his new life, that his father thought it necessary to always be extremely strict with him.

That last sentence is questionable, at least where Gregor ascribes his father’s strictness to his new situation post-metamorphosis; after all, this is our first introduction to Gregor’s father:

[S]oon his father came knocking at one of the side doors, gently, but with his fist. “Gregor, Gregor”, he called, “what’s wrong?” And after a short while he called again with a warning deepness in his voice: “Gregor! Gregor!” At the other side door his sister came plaintively: “Gregor? Aren’t you well? Do you need anything?” Gregor answered to both sides: “I’m ready, now”, making an effort to remove all the strangeness from his voice by enunciating very carefully and putting long pauses between each, individual word. His father went back to his breakfast…

Note, again, the father’s real priority. This scene shows us that Gregor’s words are apparently incomprehensible to other people, so his father seems not to get an answer to his question; but having delivered a warning and heard some kind of response, his work is complete and he goes back to his food. Now, in the later scene, Mr. Samsa is once again not interested in what Gregor has to say, why he is where he is; he just wants to put him back where he belongs. It is impossible to miss his attitude towards his insect son in the way he lifts his feet so high, as if preparing to stomp the bug flat (The first time he chased Gregor back into his room, he did it with a folded newspaper; another anti-bug strategy, it seems.).

But he does not, in fact, stomp on Gregor: instead he attacks his son in a particularly unusual way: with food.

[T]hen, right beside him, lightly tossed, something flew down and rolled in front of him. It was an apple; then another one immediately flew at him; Gregor froze in shock; there was no longer any point in running as his father had decided to bombard him. He had filled his pockets with fruit from the bowl on the sideboard and now, without even taking the time for careful aim, threw one apple after another. These little, red apples rolled about on the floor, knocking into each other as if they had electric motors. An apple thrown without much force glanced against Gregor’s back and slid off without doing any harm. Another one however, immediately following it, hit squarely and lodged in his back; Gregor wanted to drag himself away, as if he could remove the surprising, the incredible pain by changing his position; but he felt as if nailed to the spot and spread himself out, all his senses in confusion.

The most interesting element here is the description of the apples “knocking into each other as if they had electric motors.” It’s hard to know what to make of that. Perhaps the apples represent the essence of the modern, industrial era, nature turned into machinery, turned hollow and cold and efficient — and, of course, inedible. Gregor clearly doesn’t belong in the world of industry, with his reluctance to work himself to death, his general indifference to the conspicuous consumption that signals wealth and prosperity, his anxiety where his pugnacious arrogance should be, the arrogance of a man of business: a man like the chief clerk, and like his father. Gregor is far too apologetic, far too concerned with other people’s happiness, far too willing to sacrifice himself; perhaps that is why he is seen, and sees himself, as something unworthy. It almost feels as though the apples have the right attitude: bustling about, bumping into each other, constantly on the go; they become weapons so easily, turned against one another, against a harmless innocent — because whatever else Gregor may be, unclean, unworthy, unacceptable, he is also harmless. Maybe he is too much like the actual fruit, too little like what they become in his father’s hands.

Then again, if we may see mechanical, electrical fruit, turned from sustenance into a weapon, as corrupt, then perhaps the one whom the fruit represent is not Gregor: but his father. Perhaps this is another depiction of the idea that Tolkien represented with a magic ring: power corrupts. 

After this, the Samsas reach an uneasy sort of truce, with the family paying less and less attention to Gregor, and he, in turn, having a bit more freedom, as they open his doors so that he can observe the family. But he observes them turn even further away from him, focusing in more and more on the father, whose self-centered willingness to be coddled, to be the center of attention, lets him allow his wife and daughter to  literally carry him to bed every night. The family also, more interested in money and in presenting a proper appearance to outsiders, allow those outsiders in, in the form of three renters who move into a spare room in the flat; these three now become yet another focus for the family’s attention and desire to please, yet another person (Because they are clearly a single unit, like a Greek chorus of citizens) who can stand between Gregor and any care his family might offer. Gregor’s sister and mother cook for the renters: they give Gregor more garbage to eat, spending less and less time thinking about whether Gregor is happy and his needs are met, cleaning apathetically and indifferently, clearing away his leftovers without caring if he ate or not. Gregor, roused at last to anger by his treatment at the hands of his family, wishes to return to eating human food, at least as a symbol of his value (though notice that this is only at some times; at other times, in other moods, he still, still, wishes to look after his family):

Other times he was not at all in the mood to look after his family, he was filled with simple rage about the lack of attention he was shown, and although he could think of nothing he would have wanted, he made plans of how he could get into the pantry where he could take all the things he was entitled to, even if he was not hungry.

Garbage, in fact, comes to define Gregor, and his space eventually becomes a storeroom, and then simply a rubbish heap: 

They had got into the habit of putting things into this room that they had no room for anywhere else…many things had become superfluous which, although they could not be sold, the family did not wish to discard. All these things found their way into Gregor’s room. The dustbins from the kitchen found their way in there too. The charwoman was always in a hurry, and anything she couldn’t use for the time being she would just chuck in there. He, fortunately, would usually see no more than the object and the hand that held it. The woman most likely meant to fetch the things back out again when she had time and the opportunity, or to throw everything out in one go, but what actually happened was that they were left where they landed when they had first been thrown unless Gregor made his way through the junk and moved it somewhere else.

Their indifference and neglect seems to drain Gregor’s energy, and he becomes more and more inert — though perhaps it is because of his injury, which is never dealt with; but whatever the reason, the result is that Gregor stops eating, though he never stops wanting to eat, particularly when he sees how well his family feeds their lodgers:

The gentlemen stood as one, and mumbled something into their beards. Then, once they were alone, they ate in near perfect silence. It seemed remarkable to Gregor that above all the various noises of eating their chewing teeth could still be heard, as if they had wanted to show Gregor that you need teeth in order to eat and it was not possible to perform anything with jaws that are toothless however nice they might be. “I’d like to eat something”, said Gregor anxiously, “but not anything like they’re eating. They do feed themselves. And here I am, dying!”

Gregor wants to eat because to eat means that he has been provided with food: in his case, because he cannot provide it for himself, it shows that he is cared for, that he is valued enough, to be fed. Of course: providing food for another is one of our most basic gifts, one of our most symbolic acts to show that we accept another, value another, enough to give them what they need to live. Sharing food is creating a connection, not only through the gift of a necessity (which means the giver must sacrifice some of their own necessary sustenance, an act of altruism that defines our survival strategy as a social animal rather than as a pure individual), but through the recognition that you and I eat the same thing. It is no accident that Gollum is incapable of eating the food that sustains Frodo and Sam; since Tolkien had a strong pro-Elf bias, it is a symbol of Gollum’s corruption and impurity that everything Elvish is anathema to him, including the lembas and Sam’s rope, which burns his skin. But this is our sign that Gollum is not good at his heart, that he is dangerous: he won’t eat the food. Indeed, it is food that Gollum uses to betray Sam and corrupt Frodo, who is already being corrupted by the Ring: as they climb the Black Stair towards Shelob’s cave, Gollum throws away the hobbits’ remaining food and then blames Sam, saying Sam ate it rather than share it with Frodo. This (false) betrayal of their partnership pushes Frodo to turn on Sam and send him away, because the way out of a man’s heart is also through his stomach.

Doubly true of hobbits.

Food is one of our defining characteristics, one of the clearest cultural markers; and thus, also, it is one way we separate ourselves from others: what we eat, versus what they eat. And in this case, it is more than simply a matter of different tastes: Gregor is given items that his family no longer recognizes as food. It is waste, it is refuse.

And we are what we eat.

So Gregor is not properly fed, and so he does not eat. He grows weaker and weaker, suffering more and more pain and exhaustion. Finally, Gregor himself becomes little more than garbage:

[H]e was covered in the dust that lay everywhere in his room and flew up at the slightest movement; he carried threads, hairs, and remains of food about on his back and sides; he was much too indifferent to everything now to lay on his back and wipe himself on the carpet like he had used to do several times a day.

And then at last, mercifully, he dies. He makes one last attempt to come out of his room and connect to his family, when Grete puts on a violin concert for the renters, and Gregor is enchanted by the music; but he is spotted, and the renters use the opportunity to reject the Samsa family entirely, declaring that they will be moving out and they will not be paying any rent, due to the shocking imposition of having had to live in the same apartment as that thing. Grete turns on her brother, now calling Gregor “it” and saying, “It’s got to go!” Gregor returns, one last time, to his room, and is locked in for the last time.

“What now, then?”, Gregor asked himself as he looked round in the darkness. He soon made the discovery that he could no longer move at all. This was no surprise to him, it seemed rather that being able to actually move around on those spindly little legs until then was unnatural. He also felt relatively comfortable. It is true that his entire body was aching, but the pain seemed to be slowly getting weaker and weaker and would finally disappear altogether. He could already hardly feel the decayed apple in his back or the inflamed area around it, which was entirely covered in white dust. He thought back of his family with emotion and love. If it was possible, he felt that he must go away even more strongly than his sister. He remained in this state of empty and peaceful rumination until he heard the clock tower strike three in the morning. He watched as it slowly began to get light everywhere outside the window too. Then, without his willing it, his head sank down completely, and his last breath flowed weakly from his nostrils.

In the end, Gregor is quite literally thrown away by the charwoman who had been filling his room with garbage. And when he is gone, the family is at last free, and happy. Happy ending! Hooray!

But of course it isn’t a happy ending. That would only be possible if the heroes of the story were the Samsa family, and the villain were Gregor, the monstrous insect who ruins their lives, but who they are eventually freed of, to live out the rest of their lives in bliss.  Of course that’s not it: the message of the story, the point Kafka is making, is not that the family would have been better off without Gregor; nor that terrible freak occurrences, such as the spontaneous transformation of a man into an insect, lead to terrible outcomes. 

The point is this:

No-one dared to remove the apple lodged in Gregor’s flesh, so it remained there as a visible reminder of his injury. He had suffered it there for more than a month, and his condition seemed serious enough to remind even his father that Gregor, despite his current sad and revolting form, was a family member who could not be treated as an enemy. On the contrary, as a family there was a duty to swallow any revulsion for him and to be patient, just to be patient.

Kafka says here, outright, how Gregor should be treated: insect or not (And I believe he is not, that he does not actually transform, but merely sees himself as his family sees him, as unworthy, as contemptible, as a monster: as inhuman. But I think that no matter how much he may feel like an ungeheuer Ungeziefer, he remains, both in his essence and in his actual physical form, human. Notice the original cover image, which does not show a bug.), incapable of earning money or not, he is a member of this family, and he should be treated with patience, and kindness. Instead, the family attacks him, harms him, refuses to feed or care for him, locks him away from them, and then ignores him in his pain and suffering, his sadness and loneliness, until he dies; and then they are relieved to be rid of him. I think it is especially telling that Kafka says “no one dared” to remove the apple from Gregor’s back; whether they are too disgusted by Gregor’s appearance, or too afraid to stand in opposition to his father’s will, they are ungenerous cowards. They are not the heroes of this fairy tale. They are the villains.

All people, all of us, have a share of this duty to all others who do not actively treat us as enemies: to treat others with kindness, to swallow any revulsion we may feel, no matter how monstrous they may be, and to be patient, just be patient. (And my God, what a small and simple request: only for patience. And my God, how we fail to give it.) Gregor shows us the right way, when, even as he is dying from his family’s neglect and violence, he thinks of them with empathy and love. While they let him be thrown away, first when he is alive, and then when he is dead. They do treat him as an enemy: and he loves them to his last breath. 

I think it is clear, then, who in this story is truly human — and who is garbage. 

But no: I can’t say that. Didn’t I just say that our duty as humans is to be patient with each other, to ignore the revulsion we may feel for those who act differently, look differently than we would want them to, and to treat them, even the most monstrous, with kindness and love — or at least with patience? Aren’t we all members of one extended family, really, considering how very much we have in common with each other, in comparison to how little we have in common with everything else in the universe? After all, we all breathe the same air, we all walk the same Earth — we all eat the same food. 

I do not want to be like Gollum: he is a murderer. I don’t even want to be like Bilbo, who wants the Ring more than he can admit to himself, though at least Bilbo doesn’t attack Frodo and bite his finger off in order to get the Ring. I admit that I don’t want to be like Gregor, either; I pity him, in his suffering, in his contempt for himself, in his attachment to a family who doesn’t deserve him. Most of all, though, I do not want to be like the Samsa family; and so I will be patient with them. I will resist the temptation to turn away in disgust. I will treat them as fellow humans. As my family.

Though I’m not sharing any of my food with them.

Seinfeld - NO SOUP FOR YOU! - The Soup Nazi | Facebook

Take a Break

I said Don’t stop. I said Don’t give up. I meant it.

But also: you need to relax. Actively relax, and do something nice for yourself.

Take a day off. Can you take a day off? Then do it. Do it now: if you were saving a day off, now is the time. It is a rainy day. You need some time to yourself.

If you can’t take a day off, then set aside some time. Play a game. Play with someone fun: play with your kids, or your partner, or a friend. Play something silly, and don’t play to win. Play for fun.

It’s Halloween on Saturday. Get a costume. Dress up. Make something to wear. Make it silly. Sit around in it and watch TV and make cookies, take pictures and walk around your neighborhood in your costume. Wave to people who drive by.

Do what you want to do, not what you need to do.

Don’t wait. Do it now. Do it tomorrow.

Keep Going. Don’t Stop.

Hey: do me a favor.

Don’t give up.

It’s tough, I know. Tough for me, too. So very tempting to just let it all go. Just say “Forget it.” There’s too much to deal with, and too little that we can do to deal with it.

That’s pretty much why I haven’t been writing. I can’t find the confidence, can’t find the belief in myself and the value of my writing, to commit the time and energy to it, when there are so many other things I need to spend time on — and so many more things that take my energy away from me, that drain my faith and my hope. So many voices whispering in my ear, telling me to just– stop.

But.

This is not a sprint. It’s not a one-shot. Nothing is. Ever. You never get only one chance. Maybe only one chance at a specific target on a specific occasion; but there’s always another occasion, another target, and though it isn’t the same, it is as good.

So you never give up.

Ever.

Certainly not now.

And not next Tuesday: nor in the days following. Whether we win or we lose, don’t stop. Just don’t stop. Keep pushing until we have what we want, what we need. If we keep going, we’ll make it. We’ll do it.

You can do it.

I believe in you.

Keep going.