Why?

The one question I ask more than any other is: Why?

I’ve done this to my students so much they get sick of me. “Why do you think that? Why do you think the author thinks that? Why does that evidence show what you think it does? Why do you think this is important?” I can keep going for an entire class period, really. And one of my favorite responses is when they try to turn it around on me, and start asking me “Why” over and over again: partly because I can usually answer the question for as long as they want to keep asking it (Well, almost: when they’re doing it to be perverse and mess with me, they ask “Why” without listening to the answers, and they’ll just keep asking it, and snickering, for as long as I let them, so I’ll cut it off after four or five repetitions. But if they’re actually listening, I’ll keep talking. Actually, that’s true all the time, and not just in my classroom.), which pleases the obnoxious competitive side of me, and partly because when they ask me “Why,” and I tell them my reasons — I often have the answer already in hand, especially if they’re questioning something like “Why are we reading this”; and when I don’t have the answer in hand, I can usually think quick enough, and speak confusingly enough (I just came across the word “obscurantist” to describe someone who intentionally obfuscates the meaning of things, and I aspire to it), to answer the question several times in a row — it helps me to figure out my reasons. I think best when I am putting thoughts into words; if I just try to think, without speaking or writing what I am thinking, I am too easily distracted by too many thoughts: what I’m doing right then, or seeing or hearing or feeling;  what I have to do, what I should be doing instead of whatever I’m doing, and so on.

I ask this question so much, and appreciate the answers no matter where or who they come from, because I like thinking about why. I think reasons are mysterious, and mystifying. I think we have them for almost everything we do, but we hardly ever know what our own reasons are. Think about that: it’s not that our actions are meaningless or purposeless; it’s that we have some fundamental disconnect between the determination of those meanings and purposes, and the actions themselves. Why is there this disconnect? Maybe because the same is true of the world around us: there are reasons and purposes for everything. There are reasons why trees exist, why the sky is blue, why scratching your back is satisfying; and purposes for electric fans and floors and nose hair. Sometimes one, either a reason or a purpose, exists without the other; sometimes they are one and the same: the reason something exists is to achieve a purpose. But  — and this is the important point — we don’t usually know what those reasons and purposes are. I mean, I sort of know why trees exist, but what about the tree outside my window? Was that one planted when my neighborhood was built? Or was it here before, and they chose not to tear it down when they built these houses? If it happened naturally, why did that tree thrive when other seedlings perished? If it was planned by the developer, why was that species of tree chosen? If it was planted as a seedling, why was that particular seedling picked out of all the others?

These reasons exist; but we don’t, and usually can’t (and maybe shouldn’t) know them. It’s maybe different with purposes, because we can deduce them pretty specifically based on evidence and logic: the tree across the way, if it was planted by a person with a purpose, is placed  to cast shade on a house, and it is an evergreen so it doesn’t drop leaves that need to be raked; I don’t know much about trees, but if we say it’s a pine, or a spruce, then maybe that would tell us if it was picked because it was cheap, or because it would grow fast, or because it would thrive in the Tucson heat. And so on. We mostly know what people want, and what they need, so we can sort of reverse engineer a lot of their choices, figure out the purpose of things that said humans have built or manipulated.

I’ve maybe made a distinction (and maybe lost it already) that doesn’t work well, in talking about reasons and purposes as if they are different things. I’m thinking of a reason as an explanation of how something came to be, the cause and effect that describes its origins; a purpose is here the justifications for a thing that exists, the goals behind the choices that led to its creation. A purpose, of course, requires a will and consciousness to make choices and have goals, and then the ability to cause something to be created. The reason for something can be just that purpose, especially if we think about things that exist as including simple actions: I made coffee this morning because I wanted to drink it. Then we can get into the reasons why coffee exists and why it came to be the thing I wanted to drink. And then, maybe I have larger purposes for wanting to drink coffee, things like wanting energy and focus, wanting to get things done that may require caffeine; if it’s something simple like “I like coffee and how it makes me feel” then I would argue there’s not a purpose for that coffee, but there is a reason.

I would also like to point out that my reasons for drinking coffee, my purposes if I have those, are probably not very interesting. Honestly, it’s a trio of reasons, only one of them purposeful: one, I don’t sleep well and am usually tired in the mornings, but I have to get up early because I have to walk my dogs before it gets hot, so I need caffeine to counteract my tiredness (Also I’m addicted to it, so I need coffee to keep myself from going through withdrawal, and to satisfy my psychological craving); two, I like the taste of coffee and am pleased by my reputation as a coffee drinker; three, I want to use my morning time to accomplish things, and coffee helps me do that. None of those are terribly interesting — though also, even those mundane things, when we get into the honest reasons and purposes, can lead to interesting conversations: why do I like my reputation as a coffee drinker? What does that mean to me? Why don’t I sleep well, and why do I use caffeine to deal with that, instead of solving the issues that ruin my rest?

See what can come of asking Why?

With human beings, I would argue that there are reasons why we exist, both as a species and as individuals, but not necessarily purpose. (I will note that people who believe in a God who created us think that there is a purpose for our existence — though again, we may not know that purpose. I’m not going to argue either way on that one. Not now, at least.)  What’s fascinating and unique about us as a species, because we are the only animal that can reason, is that we can find or create our own purpose, and thus redefine ourselves and our very existence. That’s amazing: that we can change who and what we are, by changing our Why. By turning reasons into purposes. And then past that, taking up something that was created for one purpose, or even no purpose, and finding a new purpose for it, one that serves our own goals regardless of whether or not that thing still serves its original purpose. What’s even more amazing is that we can take bad and terrible and evil things, and turn them into good things, or at least the causes of good things, by finding a positive purpose even in our suffering. As a minor example, I read constantly and ravenously when I was a child, because I was shy and awkward and therefore lonely and bored; books saved me from all of that. But now that I am a writer and an English teacher, that childhood spent reading has been turned to a valuable purpose. Two, really, because I have different purposes in those two pursuits, my vocation and my avocation. Though sometimes they serve the same purpose: because of course our purposes change, especially with those actions which we do continuously, repeatedly, and also always affirmatively: every day I go to work, I choose to continue teaching, and I have to choose, over and over again, how I will teach. As with my writing.

I have found that knowing why I teach, why I write, makes those choices easier. And that’s why I want to ask that question, and why I want to discuss it with my students and with my readers: so that they — you — can make choices as well, and achieve your purposes while helping me achieve mine. I forget my reasons sometimes, and lose them sometimes, and that makes it harder to keep choosing to do the same things. I wanted to be a successful novelist by the time I was 25; didn’t even come close. I realized that was actually a pretty dumb purpose for writing, because of the essentially randomly chosen age deadline, so moving past that reason wasn’t too hard. But twenty years later, I’m still not a famous novelist; (Notice how I changed that term, from “successful” to “famous?” I didn’t, not when I wrote these sentences; but I decided to add something, and looked back to see where the best place was to add it, and I realized what I did. This is also, I think, how we get confused about our purposes –or maybe it represents that confusion, that I haven’t defined well what “success” means, that I didn’t do that when I was 25. And maybe that’s why it didn’t happen, or at least why it didn’t hurt me much when it didn’t happen.)  and I’ve also realized, in learning more about what life is like for people who are successful and famous novelists, that maybe I don’t want to be that.

That’s fine. But then, why do I write? Why should I write?

On some level I have a reason now: I am a word guy, as I said; I think best when I put thoughts into words and sentences. And there are plenty of explanations for why I am this way, some interesting, some not. But I think we are not defined by our reasons. We are defined by our purposes. (Unless we don’t have a purpose, in which case we are defined by our reasons.)

So what’s my purpose? Why do I do what I do?

This piece actually started as  some kind of explanation for a thing I’ve started doing: I’ve started reading philosophy. Well, I guess I didn’t start; I’ve been reading philosophy for a very long time. Starting, I guess, with Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which I read in high school; I took a couple of philosophy classes in college, and I’ve been reading Bertrand Russell for quite a while, mostly because Ray Bradbury mentioned him in Fahrenheit 451, which I’ve read so many times that I got curious about who this Russell guy was — and then when my wife and I lived in Oregon, we made regular trips to Portland to go to Powell’s City of Books, I used to go wander through the FIVE FLOORS THAT COVER A FULL CITY BLOCK in search of things to buy and read, and Russell’s books of essays were short, and cheap. And interesting.

But I haven’t ever read philosophy purposefully: it’s interesting, and sometimes useful, but mostly I have had reasons but no definite goal with it. A couple of years ago, I started reading philosophy for a purpose, but I didn’t like the purpose, so I didn’t keep it up; the purpose was reinvigorated once or twice more, but never sustained the pursuit, so I kept dropping it.

I guess I’m looking for a sustainable purpose now. I’ve found another tool to help me with reading philosophy, because unlike Bertrand Russell, who was an amazing wordsmith, most philosophers are actually crappy writers. Well, I don’t know if it’s “most,” but it definitely seems a trend. I got a general philosophy book from my local Tucson used book store (Bookman’s, and they’re great — but they’re no Powell’s. I miss Powell’s.) and the writing is awful. But I found a podcast that explains the basics of philosophy, and it is both extremely easy to follow and understand, and also interesting–and, I’ve found, thought-provoking. So that makes me want to keep reading philosophy, and even read more; every episode I listen to makes me want to read more philosophy, because the show (It’s Philosophize This, with Stephen West) covers a new philosopher every episode, and so I keep adding to the list of books I want to read.

It’s a big list now. And, I’m afraid, it will be a hard list to get through. Hard to get through even one of those books, probably.

So is it worth doing? It’s a lot of time and energy I’m looking to dedicate to this. At this point, my reason for doing this is mostly — curiosity. And that’s probably not enough of a reason.

I tried  to explain my reasons to my wife the other day, and she pointed out that the reason I was giving, which I mostly made up on the spot, really just trying to figure out why I was doing it by putting it into words — it was a bad reason. I came to my blog here intending to work out a better reason why I want to do this difficult thing, why I want to spend my time on it; instead I have now been talking about why I want to ask why, for better than 2000 words.

(I hated those commercials, by the way. Even when they were first on, before I had read any philosophy or ever really thought about Why in any serious way. Why ask why? You just fucking asked it in the question, goddammit. Stupid Bud Dry. What the hell kind of product is that, anyway. Stupid name. Stupid beer.)

But you know what? I think that is the answer. I think that’s the reason, and the purpose, for reading philosophy. Because I love to ask why. Because I want to know why. And maybe the best way to figure out why, all my whys is — philosophy.

I’ll let you know what I figure out.

What are we fighting for?

HONK FER FREEDUM

Coronavirus: the US resistance to a continued lockdown

I want to understand the argument.

I don’t. And it’s vital that we understand the argument, even if we don’t agree with it; agreement is not necessary, compromise can be reached, solutions can be found even if we don’t agree.

But if we don’t understand? Then what do we do?

“We believe that the state governor has gone beyond his constitutional authority in shutting down businesses and ordering people to stay at home,” organiser Tyler Miller tells me from the grounds of the state capitol.

In mid-March Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced an emergency proclamation mirroring many issued around the world; closing restaurants and bars and banning large gatherings.

But protestors say that was unconstitutional.

“The state constitution says that the right of the people to peaceably assemble shall never be abridged. We believe that the (emergency coronavirus) proclamations that the governor here ordered violate that,” Mr Miller says.

Mr Miller said he was not protesting against the recommendations from the public health bodies and respected the need to ‘flatten the curve’.

“I even self-quarantined for 14 days back at the very beginning of this myself, when I had an illness that mirrored some of the symptoms,” he says.

“The fact I am protesting does not mean I think it is a good idea to have gatherings, I just believe that the government has no authority to prohibit them.”

Throughout the crisis, Mr Miller has also been able to continue his work as an engineering technician with the navy.

He says the thing that has angered him is what he feels it is an un-American overreach of power by the Democratic governor of Washington.

I don’t understand that argument.

There is a simpler argument, which is just that people are getting desperate: the country has been shut down in places for more than a month now, and people are facing another rent payment, another car payment, on May 1st, this coming Friday. I understand that desperation, that anxiety; I understand and (mainly) support the desire to let government officials know that you need and demand action. I think it’s a mistake to violate social distancing guidelines, and there are people in the article above and others I have seen who say things like “I have a strong immune system, I take care of myself,” who I think are somewhere between ignorant and idiotic: ignorant if they don’t know that Covid-19 has killed young and healthy people as well as older, sicker people; idiotic if they believe unfounded statements (Mostly from conservative “news” sources) that the novel coronavirus is no worse than the flu.

(This may be too harsh: this is an interesting article about how we are wired to be intuitive, and so underestimate the evidence that comes from outside our experience. I know I was telling my students in March that any shutdown of schools would only last a couple of weeks and would certainly not affect their graduation. On the other hand, I am not saying the same thing now, because I have learned better; I’m not sure why these people haven’t, but my two options above are certainly possibilities.

(Also, this ad popped up in that same article about people being too optimistic. Lol.

Screenshot (6)

(If you believe not only that a miracle stretch relieves years of back pain, but also that chiropractors are stunned by it, AND that chiropractors are the authority whose stunning represents a medical breakthrough, then you are unquestionably in this overly-optimistic bunch.)

But while I understand and sympathize with people who are desperate to get back to work and pay their bills, and I believe (and am infuriated) that the federal government has once again bailed out large corporations with deep political donation pockets and left average citizens to twist in the wind, I don’t understand the other argument. The freedom argument.

I don’t think it’s a reasonable argument.

Listen. I worry about government overreach. I won’t say I’m learned in history, but I know about the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and I know some things about the rise of the various authoritarian dictatorships that plagued the 20th century. I have hated the USA PATRIOT Act since it was imposed on us, during the paranoid jingoist nationalist fervor that swept the country after 9/11 and swept us into a neverending war. I know that it gets renewed every time it comes up because the government doesn’t like to give away power that it has seized. Because of that experience, I have been pointing out to my friends who argue against the lockdowns that the thing we need to worry about is the powers the government arrogates to itself after the crisis: the new regulations and limitations, and invasions of citizens’ rights, that follow a partial return to normalcy, and that are intended to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. We have to watch out for the permanent changes, or for the attempts, often subtle and underhanded, to make temporary changes permanent.

I don’t doubt those will happen. I think the first attempt will be by President Trump, when he decides to make his temporary limit on immigration permanent.

But see, I think that because Mr. Trump has a long history of a clearly established position to end immigration. I think that because I have read reports that Trump’s anti-immigration advisors have talked about this pause into something more long lasting. Because this article quotes DHS acting secretary, Chad Wolf, as saying to Fox News that

his agency will soon recommend a move to limit temporary work visas as well.

“That is something that the department has been looking at for the past several months, so we are well underway and look forward to presenting to the President those recommendations for additional steps,” said Wolf.

So there’s your government overreach, as part of an established pattern of behavior, aiming at known long-term targets. After the fact. Once the danger has passed. The current actions are not government overreach: they are government responding as government should to a crisis. The stay-at-home orders were issued during a crisis, and in line with scientific facts and the advice of experts. This is exactly when, and exactly why, people’s rights can and should be limited. We have the right to protest, but if you decided to walk into a burning building in order to protest the fire, people would stop you: and they would be right to. We have the right to freedom of speech, and of assembly, but you cannot gather with an army and plan the destruction of the United States: the right is to peaceably assemble, and free speech does not include sedition or criminal conspiracy. Individual rights are not limitless, not under any circumstances; even the most libertarian of us would state clearly that one person’s rights cannot be permitted to infringe on another’s, that your right to swing your fist stops where my nose begins. And of course individual rights are limited in an emergency, because the free exercise of one’s rights puts others into danger.

This is what government is for: to protect people from danger. Now, if you want to argue that the coronavirus is not that dangerous, then you’re in the wrong place. Start with this.

Then read this.

Then read this.

Then read this. 

(Especially that last one; it’s about the infectiousness of the coronavirus. And lest you think that the infectiousness of Covid-19 is lower than SARS or MERS, both of which caused fewer problems and killed fewer people, go back and read those other articles again, and then also pay attention to this quote from that last article:

“An R0 value of 1 means the average person who gets that disease will transmit it to one other person; in that case, the disease is spreading at a stable rate. An R0 of more than 1 means the disease spreads exponentially.”

And then read this essay about exponential growth.

Okay? Okay.

As I said, the government has the right and the responsibility to limit individual freedoms in response to a crisis, in order to protect the people from that crisis. (I’m aware that some people don’t agree with this: some because they don’t think the coronavirus is a crisis, and if you still think that, go back and read the above articles, but this time with your eyes open; and some because they think that nothing should ever limit individual rights under any circumstances: my above examples of protesting inside a burning building, or convening an army to overthrow the US government, are just fine, for them. I will be writing another blog about that. I’ll let you know when it’s done. The important thing is that, while I don’t agree with that argument, I understand it.) I think, though, that the basic argument behind the protests, the reason that President Trump tweeted support for people trying to “liberate” the states that have both lockdown orders and Democratic governors, is that the government is not trying to protect people from the crisis: the government is trying to control people. To take away their freedom. that’s the argument I don’t understand.

(I am also not going to write here about the elephant in the room, namely the upcoming election and the similarities — remarked on in the BBC article I linked first — between the anti-lockdown protests and Trump rallies. People who are going to the rallies just to support President Trump are certainly not reading this, and are not worth the time to put forward an argument. President Trump is probably trying to use the rallies as a way to hype his base up for the election, but he also said that he thinks Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is opening his state too soon, so I’m not going to jump on Trump today. We’ll see what happens tomorrow. Also: I understand this argument.)

But here’s the thing with tyranny: it makes sense. There is reason behind it.

That’s what’s missing from the freedom argument of the protests.

Break it down. Think it through. Okay, the government — pardon me, the govment (Read this article that I wish I wrote) — limits people’s rights to assemble and move freely, to run a business and participate in the free market economy. Because they want to establish tyrannical control over the free people of these United States.

Why?

I understand that the government has taken on, for most of the people who support these protests, the aura of Darth Sidious and the Sith: evil just for the sake of evil; power hungry just for the sake of power. But, see, that’s a character from a movie franchise, and it’s not a realistic one. I admit, if the Democratic governors were trying to raise a clone army from a mysterious source; or they were trying to corrupt a Jedi knight with incredible power but terrible self-control, then I would see the danger.

Why would the Democrats, or the government in general, want to lock people inside? I saw someone argue that the Democrats exaggerated the danger of Covid-19 in order to justify the lockdown expressly so they could destroy Trump’s economy, because that’s the only way they could beat him in the next election.

Come on.

(An argument I have seen but will not be rebutting is that Andrew Cuomo of New York exaggerated the need for ventilators so he could get…a huge excess of ventilators. Sure. As you do. He’s going to put them in one huge room and then go swimming in them like Scrooge McDuck. Swimming through the ventilators.)

First of all, there’s no way that an economy ruined by Democrats would be pinned on Trump. Trump is already positioning himself to argue that it was the Democrats who did the harm in this crisis. (Elephant in the room…) If this is provably true, if Covid-19 is really not that bad and the Democrats have exaggerated the danger, we’ll know it before November, and this Dem gambit will fail. Secondly, and more important, if they ruin the economy, they not only have no hope of winning the next election, but they lose access to the money. If  the Democrats, or the government in general, are corrupt,  they want money. Money does not come from enforcing a stay-at-home order. We are all losing money, including the government. I know they are flinging money around like it’s meaningless paper (…), but there is a limit to that because at some point the economy will actually collapse, and the more they spend now the closer that outcome gets: and why would anyone in power want that? To destroy the economy that underpins the entire system they are ostensibly seeking to control? Nonsense. There are people who want the government and the entire society to collapse, but they are not the ones in power: they are the ones without power. That’s why they want the system to collapse, because they don’t currently gain from it. The ones in the system, the Democrats in Washington and the state capitals, very much want this current system to survive, even if they are corrupt, because this system is how those corrupt people get what they want. The corrupt actions the Democrats take (And yes, many Democrats are corrupt; not all of them or only them, but yes they are.) are clearly intended to increase their wealth and their ability to stay in their current positions so they can continue increasing their wealth. That’s why we still don’t have term limits or meaningful campaign finance reform. Nobody wants to make the money go away, least of all corrupt Washington politicians.

So what’s the reasoning? Because the Democrats are secretly anti-American communists? Okay, let me try to address the idea of Dems seeking power for power’s sake; I still think that sounds like the Sith, but sure, let’s imagine that they are simply evil and that’s their reasoning. Communists, or anyone trying to overthrow the government, would be trying to seize the reins of power. They would be going after the sources of power, trying to control those so they could then get the next source of power, and so on; it’s like Risk. You conquer territory that lets you conquer more territory. You don’t just act arbitrarily, you seek the means of control. In this country, the means of control are (in no particular order): violence and force; the ballot; information; and money.

Which of those things are the Sith-Democrats gaining through the lockdown? Not money; I already talked about that. (Sure, the government is giving money to corporations, who paid the politicians. But those corporations make more money in an open economy. The same goes for people arguing that the government is trying to make people dependent on government handouts rather than their own paychecks: the money will run out if the economy doesn’t open. then the system collapses and the people in power lose.) Greater control over information? If there are secret things going on that we can’t see because we’re all staying home, then I take all of this back and apologize; let me know if the clone army executes order 66, or the Final Order fleet rises from Exegol. Otherwise the press has not seemed limited by the lockdown, and I don’t really see how it would be; limiting reporters’ physical movements seems a loser’s gamble in a world of the Internet and drones with cameras. The ballot? I mean, we’ll see when the election comes, but at the moment, the lockdown seems to play more into Republican hands because it limits voters’ access to the ballot box, which tends to favor conservative politicians.

Does the lockdown give the government more ability to commit violence, more ability to use force against the people? I honestly can’t see how. I mean, I guess they could be trying to force us to obey so we get more used to obeying, so that the next time they give us an irrational and arbitrary order, we’ll obey just because that’s what we do now. But if that were the case, they wouldn’t be using Covid-19 as their cover. Because that gives us a reason, and that means they’ll need to have another reason, as good as this one, to support their next attempt to tell us to stay home: that progression only works with weaker and weaker justifications. Using a global pandemic is not a weak justification; quite the opposite. (And notice that even this one isn’t working…)  Read 1984: O’Brien wants Winston to not only tell him he sees five fingers, he wants him to actually see five fingers; and that’s the only reason Winston gets for the months of torture he undergoes. He is very intentionally not given a reason to obey Big Brother: he just has to do it, or else he suffers. In this case, if we don’t obey, it’s not that we suffer the wrath of the government — it’s that we get sick. (And this is true.) If you want to create a totalitarian state, you need to create loyalty to the state without reason: loyalty to the state based on an emergency doesn’t cut it. Because the loyalty ends when the emergency does.

Now: if this lockdown turns out to continue past when the virus disappears. Or if the virus doesn’t disappear, either because the press is controlled and doesn’t report the true numbers of the disease (And I know people think that is happening, but I’m talking about the press saying there are thousands of cases when there are none, not the medical authorities miscounting the thousands of cases that are in existence; if anything we are undercounting the actual cases, and we all know it.), or because the government takes actions that continue the spread of the coronavirus (I mean, maybe tweeting support for protests that seem to be increasing the chances of the disease spreading would qualify as that?). Then I will agree that this is an attempt to establish tyranny. But you see what the actually despotic actions are there? Enforcing control over freedom of movement when there is no crisis. Controlling the press. Actually using biological warfare, directly or indirectly, against the people. Those are tyrannical actions.

Asking people to stay home is not tyranny. It’s concern. Even if you think it is unfounded concern, I don’t see any reasonable way to argue that it is anything other than concern.

But you know what really concerns me?

People are acting based on this argument. This argument that doesn’t seem to have any real rational basis. It honestly seems to be just “You can’t tell us what to do. Not even if it’s in my best interest.” Rebellion for rebellion’s sake. Cowboy shit. Cowboy shit that has no particular goal, no particular target; it’s just people wanting to act like cowboys. Rebels. March and wave flags. That doesn’t make any sense: but people are still doing it.

The fact that I can’t figure out the argument doesn’t concern me as much as the fact that people seem willing to act even though they don’t understand why they are acting. That’s irrational.

I don’t know how to argue with irrational people.

Even worse, I don’t know how to live in the same country with them.

People say this country is founded on the rule of law, or on the Constitution, or even on the will of God; none of that is true. It was founded on reason. The argument for the Constitution and the rule of law is reasonable, it is rational; it makes sense. The way the Constitution sets up our government is rational, every aspect of it. Hundreds of reasonable people argued — argued! Gave reasons and explanations! Appealing to the intellect of their opponents! — for years to write it. Some of the arguments were wrong, and some of the beliefs were wrong; the people making the Constitution were imperfect, and had some bad reasons, which should give way to better reasons over time — but that’s the system they set up, one in which better arguments, better reasons, will win out over worse ones. It’s all founded on reason.

The country can live through any danger, even the coronavirus. But it can’t live through the death of reason.

That’s what scares me. That’s why I want to understand, because if I can understand, I know that my opponents, even if they are wrong, are still listening to reason, and that means there’s hope.

I hope I can understand.

Academics about the Pandemic

Sometimes it’s said so well that I don’t need to say a thing.

My Random Thoughts

It has been a rollercoaster.

Correction. It is a rollercoaster. My life, that is.

I have spoken to a few people who have echoed similar words: “I’ve stopped watching the news.”

I can understand that because it’s hard to see the word “coronavirus or COVID-19” run across the television screen day and night with the numbers splattered for us to count how many people have died in a specific week. I, too, have stopped watching the national news because my anxiety rises.

man in gray sweater covering his face with face mask Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Oh, but don’t let me get started on Trump’s idiotic comments during his daily briefings! He is not a doctor, nor is he a leader. What were his last comments? Something about “ingesting disinfectant…”

And the world rolls its eyes and sinks into a more profound depression.

I have nightmares too. I wake up in the middle of the night, my heart…

View original post 391 more words

Salute

It’s hard being a teacher.

I had a committee meeting today. (That’s right, even a deadly global pandemic can’t stop committee meetings.) And it came up, more than once, how hard the teachers at my school are working; because, you see, we’re doing distance learning. My school is — lucky? prescient? — enough to have 1:1 Chromebooks, so in theory, we should be able to reach all of our students with new curriculum.

Heh. I thought it would be easy. And in some ways it is: I don’t have to dress fancy (Though I will say, albeit without judgment of others who make different choices, that I do wear pants every day), I don’t have to drive to school and home, I don’t have to be away from my wife and my dogs and all of my creature comforts. As a lifelong struggler with bashful kidneys and public restrooms, it is a great relief to be able to use MY bathroom in between classes.

But teaching online, it turns out, is goddamn hard. It’s a mental shift, and not an easy one, and so it makes me doubt all of my choices, choices that in class I would be confident in. I’ve been doing this long enough and I have enough ability and knowledge to think that I do it well; but the signals that I’m doing it well, which I’m used to getting from my students, are completely missing. And so, for that matter, are about half of my students; because they may have access to the curriculum, but that doesn’t mean they want it, or can actually show up and take advantage of it. So I just don’t know. Is it working? Is it not? Should I change? Today, for instance: one of my usual central methods is to get input from my students. I give them options about what they want to do next when we finish a unit; I ask them if they have any questions or topics they’d like to ask about or discuss before we get to the work I want to give them. I don’t assign them due dates, I ask them how long they think they’ll need to do something, and I let them decide when they want to turn it in. Today my AP Language class finished early, and so I asked them what they wanted to do: get some new material, or end class.

They couldn’t tell me. Two students said they were fine either way; two others said if we ended early they’d be bored, but that they didn’t really want to do new work, either. And the rest of them said — nothing. Nothing at all. For fifteen minutes. I’m used to students not wanting to make decisions; they prefer when I tell them what to do. It’s a lot easier and they don’t have to take responsibility for the decisions. That’s why I make them do it, of course. But usually they come around to the fact that they have to make some kind of decision,  take some responsibility, and then they do it. But today? Nope. They just sat there. I have no idea what to do with that. It makes it very hard to keep trying to figure it out and do it.

So that’s what came up in the meeting: that the teachers are all working as hard as we can. My principal said that hopefully, after all of this, more people will have an appreciation for what teachers do, and maybe so. Though my immediate knee-jerk reaction was to scoff at the idea; teachers have always worked this hard, and people that haven’t gotten that yet aren’t going to. But hey, since there are many, many parents who are trying to fill teachers’ shoes, maybe I’m wrong; maybe they will have a better idea. I’ll tell you, though, our problem as teachers has not usually been that parents don’t appreciate our abilities and efforts: it’s the people above us that are the bigger problem, and I don’t think that’s going to change. But maybe. Hopefully.

The reason I’m not sure that things will change is because this isn’t a simple shift of teaching responsibilities onto homeschooling parents. If everything else was normal, and parents just had to step into teachers’ shoes (Or again, it’s not really parents; though it’s nice to think that there are many, many administrators and school board members and state education department bureaucrats and elected representatives who suddenly have to teach their kids, and I appreciate that thought very, very much), then maybe the sudden increase in the difficulty of dealing with their kids would help to make the point. But that’s not what’s happening here. The world is on fire: all of us are trying to do our best while also running around trying to beat out the flames with our bare, scorched hands  and feet. Parents aren’t just homeschooling their kids, they’re also dealing with working from home, or not working, and all the financial worries that come with that; along with the health worries; and they are also dealing with their kids as kids, not just as students. It’s too much. Now, teachers are doing the same, as all of us are — I’m trying to teach while also worrying about everything from my every cough, to the health and wellbeing of my loved ones, to the long term financial impact of this; because my world’s on fire, too — but the point is, the hell that we’re all going through is not likely, I believe, to translate into, “Man, that teaching thing is hard!” I think the lesson we will all learn is “EVERYTHING ABOUT THAT WAS ABSOLUTE HELL.”

I also have to say that the toughest thing about teaching is not something that homeschooling  parents have to deal with, at least not in the same way. The toughest thing about this very difficult job of mine is going through some tough situation, an ugly class, a troubled or troubling student, and you deal with that, and it takes a lot out of you: and then the bell rings, and they leave — and a new group of students comes in. And in three to five minutes, you need to put away everything you were just feeling and dealing with, and be mentally and emotionally ready to teach the new group, because of course they had nothing to do with whatever just happened; they can’t lose out on their education just because that last class was awful. That’s the hardest thing. That, and starting over again with the terrible class/student/whatever the next day — and the next, and the next, and the next, for the entire school year. I know how trying children can be, and of course they’re even worse with their parents; but you love your kids. I like my students just fine, but I don’t love them. I just have to put up with them. Day after day after day. And keep trying to teach them, regardless.

And you know what? Sometimes I get those same kids back the next year. And the next.

So no, I don’t think that people will have much of a new appreciation for teachers after this — though I genuinely hope we will have a greater appreciation for a functioning government and leaders who understand their role and who carry out their responsibilities — but that doesn’t matter. Teachers will be fine. We’ll be so happy to be back in our classrooms that for at least a year after this, we probably won’t even complain very much — and believe me, that will be a big change, because the only thing teachers love more than our job and our students is bitching about our job and our students. We’ll be okay.

But there’s someone else who is being forgotten in all of this. Someone who is struggling just as much as the rest of us, though for the most part, we aren’t noticing. Some people notice, of course, and some even acknowledge the difficulty; but mostly, we’re treating them more like game pieces that we move around the board. Or maybe livestock, which we feed and water, groom and shelter; but never ask how they’re feeling about all of this.

The students.

As I said, teachers are struggling, but so is everyone else, and with the same things; parents are struggling, workers are struggling, everyone is struggling: and so are our kids. They have all the same worries, all the same fears, all the same guilts and frustrations. They also have no idea how to handle any of this. They don’t know if anything they’re doing is the right thing, and they have no idea who to ask, or what to do with the answers even if they got them. They may not understand all of the financial implications, depending on their age and awareness; but they certainly understand that their parents are worried about things, and that there’s danger, and while they may have the shelter of ignorance and innocence, they have absolutely no power to affect anything, no control, no opportunity to even try and make things better for themselves and the people they love.

As much as I may be struggling with online learning, my students are having an even harder time of it: and just like me, they are afraid for their health, and for their loved ones, and for the world around them that is on fire, and they can’t escape and they can’t put it out.

And yet they’re trying. Just as hard as me, and probably harder, in most cases. Sure, half of my students are not coming to my online discussions or doing the readings I’m sending them; but half of them are. Despite all of their worries and troubles. They’re still showing up, and still trying to pay attention, and learn. Think about that. Think about trying to follow along with a literary novel right now. I don’t know about you, but I can’t pay attention to anything for longer than about 45 minutes, let alone six weeks. And math? Freaking math?! People are supposed to be learning calculus right now? Now?! It’s insane. It’s impossible. I could barely get past my own problems to learn anything when I was in high school, and I had a comfortable, sheltered, privileged life, with a complete lack of the world being on fire.

And yet they’re trying. I have students writing essays. Good ones. Listening to me reading a novel, and asking questions, and raising points of interest, making observations. Good ones. They’re showing up every day — and when they can’t, they email me and apologize because their internet was down, or because their parents needed their help at the family business that day, or because they slept until noon because they were up worrying until 5am.

Sure, they had trouble today making a decision about whether they wanted to end class or keep going, but that’s because making a decision when your entire soul is one giant Rube Goldberg anxiety machine is almost impossible: I shouldn’t even have asked them to do it. I should have known how hard it would be for them to take responsibility for even a small choice like that, when they have so much to worry about already. They couldn’t do it. Not their fault. Just showing up today was enough. I want them to know that I am pleased with them for that, and proud of them for what they have done over the last four weeks.

My students are amazing. They are hard working  and dedicated, and they are talented and brilliant. All of in spite of what they have lost, and what they are losing, and what they are risking, and what burdens they are having to shoulder, right alongside the rest of us: helping with childcare, and with paying bills, and with taking care of their loved ones and keeping people’s spirits up, and trying to figure out what the hell they can do, what they should do, to make things better, now or in the future. They are doing all of that: and they are doing their assignments. They are inspiring. I am so very grateful to them, and so very proud to know them.

That’s what I want people to learn from this, and to remember after this is all over. That as hard  as it is and has been on us, it is as hard if not harder on these kids, who have fewer defenses and adaptations to difficulties, but who are still, still, doing their best. Let’s try to do our best for them, too.

Around Tucson

I’ve been walking my dogs extra, lately. And also looking around a little bit more.

Here’s some of what I’ve seen.

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Glass bottle flower

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Three metal butterflies on the stanchions around a butterfly mosaic on a roundabout

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Street Monarchs

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Beautiful motorcycle (Sorry about the picture) with a sock monkey on it

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These negative mosaic metal grates (Zoom in)

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Ironwork airplane sculpture carport (And a cool car under it)

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And, of course, this castle. Round turrets in back

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Front and south side

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Front. You can see the turret straight back.

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Front and north side

Losing Spoons

Sorry I haven’t been posting regularly. See, writing a blog, even a short one about happy things, costs me some number of productivity spoons; and I find that I have fewer productivity spoons left to me these days.

(By the way: if you’re not aware of spoon theory, here’s a visual. Read more here.)

This has been a shift for me, because I don’t normally run out of spoons. Well, I do, but I have a lot to spend, most days. I spend a lot of them at work, but I can still usually do a few things in the evening; I can go to the gym; I can go to the grocery store and make dinner; I can sometimes do a task for school, like set up a lesson for the next day. I can almost always get something written even on a school night, if it’s not one of the times in the school year when I’m burnt and exhausted and hate everything. And on the weekends, I can usually spend the entire time working, on grading, or chores, or my writing.

Life’s a lot easier when you don’t have a chronic disease or the weight of mental health concerns.

But my usual easy productivity has not been with me for the last month. Now I have to count my spoons.

It’s remarkable, and I wasn’t prepared for it. I really thought I would be able to do extra things: I thought I would be able to get extra writing done, since I don’t have to spend as much time at work; I thought I would be able to provide extra emotional support to my friends and family — and my students. The first week or two I was throwing around offers to help in any way I could; I suppose I’m lucky that nobody really took me up on it, because if I had had to spend my energy doing extra tasks for others, I’m not sure what I would have had to drop. I was angry with myself for the first couple of weeks: why was I so tired? And if I was so tired, why wasn’t I sleeping? Why wasn’t I getting more things done?

It didn’t really dawn on me at first that the answers were in some of the questions, and all I had to do was put the pieces together: I am tired because I’m not sleeping, and because everything I do — everything — is harder. I’m not sleeping for the same reason that everything is harder: because I am constantly afraid, constantly anxious, constantly trying to find something to do to solve the problem — and constantly aware that I cannot solve this problem. And of course, the more I worry, the less I sleep, and then I have less energy to do things, including worry, but worrying is never the thing I let go of in order to do other stuff: I worry first, and then whatever energy I have left over goes to my job and my daily tasks. I spend more energy getting mad at myself for not getting more done during the day, and because I’m tired and on edge, and I struggle with my temper, I am constantly getting mad at anything and everything around me. And then I feel bad because my family has to walk on eggshells around me so that I don’t snap at them. And there’s some more energy spent, and even less accomplished.

I get it now, I understand; I’m still not dealing with it well, though. I still get angry with myself for not doing more. It’s weird: somehow I still feel pressure to use this extra free time before it runs out, like I find myself thinking that I should do more writing or record more podcasts before the quarantine is over and I have to start going out and doing things more. Like this is a vacation.

But that’s not what this is. This is a natural disaster.

I’ve been through a few of those: a hurricane and more than one blizzard in Massachusetts; a wildfire in California; a flood in Oregon. None of them on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or Maria, or the Loma Prieta or Northridge earthquakes. But they were bad enough to show me what a natural disaster feels like: you watch things fall apart that you had always counted on; you watch danger arise from a direction and in a way that you never expected; you watch that danger come for you, or for those you love: and there’s nothing you can do. Except realize what you are about to lose. And realize you have no idea what to do if and when you lose it, how you will get it back, how you will live without it.

That’s what this is. Covid-19 has taken away things we never expected to lose, and we are in danger of losing even more, if we haven’t already lost everything. And I am aware of how lucky I am to be able to say that I have not lost everything. I see people on social media who have, and I can’t — no, I was going to say I can’t imagine what that would feel like; but I can imagine. That’s a lot of what I do during the day. I imagine what I could lose, and how it would feel, and what I would do about it. And every time I think about, what if I lose someone I love, or what if I lose my job and my home, I realize: there’s nothing I could do about it. I assume I’d adapt and survive, I assume I’d be able to ask for and receive some help; but I don’t know. I just don’t know. I know I couldn’t fix the problem, couldn’t recover the loss. I know I’d be devastated. I don’t know how I’d deal with it. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to. I worry about all of it.

That’s why I can’t get much writing done. Not even happy little blogs: because it turns out that I need to feel happy before I can post happy things; or at least, I need to be close enough to happy to recognize what would be a good happy thing to post. I can write things that  I’m not actually feeling in the moment, but when I try to think up a good topic, or when I try to pick a good link to share, if I’m feeling down or exhausted or angry or afraid, nothing seems like a good idea. Which I also get mad at myself for, by the way. So that’s fun.

This is what it feels like to have to count your spoons. To have a chronic illness, or a mental health condition like anxiety or depression. It feels like nothing works right. And I suspect that you always feel like it’s your fault, like if you could only deal with it better, be smarter, more thoughtful and aware and organized, then everything would be better. Though maybe people who deal with this all the time are smarter about it than I am, maybe they know that they can’t blame themselves for something that’s outside of their control. All I know is that that thought doesn’t help me. Knowing that I can’t do anything about it doesn’t keep me from worrying about it. About anything. Knowing that it’s not my fault doesn’t keep me from getting angry at myself.

I even have that little annoying thing that clearly isn’t the main issue, but keeps popping up and irritating me, because it’s kind of a pain and it’s clearly connected to the larger problems, so when the little irritation pops into my consciousness, it makes me think of the bigger issues, which sets me on edge; at the same time, I can’t believe I also have to deal with that little fucking thing that just won’t go away. I have eczema, you see. On my hands. They itch. And then the skin dries out, and splits, and hurts. And itches more. It’s made worse by repeated hand washing, and by stress, so. Fucking annoying. I feel bad bitching about it, because people are dealing with things that are a thousand times worse, but that only makes it more irritating, because goddammit, my hands itch, and maybe I should be Zen enough to rise above it, but I can’t, and I feel lame and I wish I could just make it stop but I can’t control anything but I can still worry about it.

And around and around we go. Using up our spoons. And getting nothing done.

This wasn’t even the blog I was going to write; I was going to write about my students. And part of me thinks I should add that right here, right now, make the point I was actually going to make; but you know what? I don’t want to spend the spoons. I need to call my dad, and I want to maybe record a chapter of the book I’m reading to my students for their distance learning English class. So I think I will stop here, and write about my students tomorrow. Or maybe the next day.

I’m grateful, honestly, that I’ve had this experience, because I think I get it now, what it is like to have to count your spoons. I’ve been able to sympathize with the people I know who have to do it, but I could never empathize. Now I think I can. But I also realize: if this disaster, and the weight of the worry that I’ve been carrying around for a month now, have reduced my formerly unlimited number of spoons to some number I have to count: what has it done to people who had to count their spoons in the first place?

And the scariest thing of all is: what if this doesn’t stop? I mean, that’s what it’s like to have a chronic illness: you have to recognize that the situation will, or at least may, be permanent. You’ll always have to count your spoons, forever. I  won’t have to face that, at least not with the current pandemic; it may take a year for things to get back to normal-ish, but there will be a vaccine, and things will improve; I don’t know how long the economic damage will last, but I know it won’t be forever. But for some people, the changes  wrought by this disaster will be permanent. And maybe they will be for me, too. Or if that doesn’t happen with this disaster, maybe it will happen with a future one. At some point, I will have to face and deal with a permanent loss, a reduction in my capacities and abilities, a change in my life, that will never get better. And then another one, and then another one.

I think, between now and then, and using what I have learned and what I am going through now, I have to learn to accept that loss, that reduction, that change, and keep going forward with what I have left to me. I’m sure I can do it; I know everybody does. We deal with loss for as long as we live. I hope I am learning how. I hope the learning helps.

Seasoning

My students are arguing again, as we do every spring — even if we’re doing it on Zoom and Google Docs. Today we had a (very capable and funny) argument in favor of winter as the better season over summer. I didn’t get a volunteer  to respond to it, so I challenged all of them to write their own response. Here’s mine.

 

 

What’s the best season?

Hmm. Tough call. Because there’s something in every season that is good: winter is the best because cold is better than hot, because fresh snowfall is pristinely, sparklingly beautiful, because the clothes are more fun to wear, and because the holidays are better. But spring is the best because everything comes to life and bursts in bright colors as the last gray, crusty snow melts away, because the new music and new books start to come out hoping to be the big summer thing, because the sports world is exploding with NBA and NHL finals and the start of the baseball and soccer seasons and NFL Draft Day, and because Easter has the best candy (because Cadbury is the best candy in all the world AND I WILL DIE ON THIS HILL AND TAKE ALL OF YOU WITH ME). But summer is clearly better than any other season for one simple reason: no school. Vacations and long lazy days, ice cream and iced coffee and watermelon and swimming to break the heat, summer concerts and blockbuster movies – and, while we’re talking about this stuff, let me point out that scientists expect summer will help break the Covid-19 pandemic, because viruses tend to spread more in winter as people are trapped inside in close quarters with each other, so summer is the healthiest time, and I think we could all use that right now. But then autumn comes in with fall foliage and crisp winds, monsoons and rainy days indoors and the return of cool nights, Thanksgiving and Halloween, the World Series and the World Cup and the start of all the other sports, and the final death of allergy season, hurricane season, and wildfire season.

You know what? I can’t choose. I could make an argument for, or against, any season. I’ve lived in four major regions in my life, and they all had their best season: here in Tucson it’s clearly winter that shines, because the weather is perfect; in California spring is the greenest and best time; in Oregon summer is the only time that doesn’t suck; and in Massachusetts, autumn is the most beautiful season of all. And also, Tucson summers are sun-baked hell, Oregon winters are gray-skied muddy hell, Massachusetts springtime is schizophrenic weather hell where I’ve literally worn a t-shirt one day and had school canceled for snow the next, and California fall is – actually, it’s still not that bad. Though autumn is usually when the whole state catches on fire.

I’ve loved every season, and dreaded every season. In fact, every season has something to look forward to, and something we can’t wait to escape. Every season has something we hope to cut short and something we hope to stretch out. Every season has good weather and bad weather, good events and bad events, improvements and declines…

I got it. I know what the answer is.

The best season is – change.

Every season is best when it’s new. And every one gets terrible before it finally gets dragged away, kicking and screaming, by the heroic arrival of the new season. The seasons, all of them, are too long, and give us too much of a good thing. (Even Cadbury crème eggs. I fully admit I have too many of them. Though the answer there is to stock up while they’re available, and then space them out as long as possible. I’ve made them last until the New Year.) Every season is made better by its contrast to the other seasons.

And this is true no matter where you are. Here in Tucson, summer is best right when it starts, right when school gets out and the real death heat hasn’t started yet; and it’s best then because we’re so sick of school, and we’re not yet tired of the heat. Autumn is best when the rains wash the pollen and dust out of the air, and the death heat finally breaks; and before psychopaths make us want to set the world on fire before we have to listen to ONE MORE CHRISTMAS CAROL or HEAR ONE MORE ARGUMENT ABOUT HOW HALLOWEEN IS THE BEST HOLIDAY or see ONE MORE MEME ABOUT GODDAMN PUMPKIN SPICE. (You know who you are, all of you.) Winter is best because we’re ready for the holidays and the cool weather, which comes right at the start of winter; but by February, we’re tired of being cold, and of having the flu, and we’re ready for spring and t-shirt time. Spring is – well, this has not been a good spring, so it doesn’t work too well to argue for the positive aspects of spring right now; spring is clearly Coronavirus season, and there ain’t nothing good about that. But normally spring is a relief, until it gets to be too much, and we just can’t wait for summer to start. I could do the same thing with every place that I have lived: I have longed for every new season to start, been relieved and happy when it finally gets here – and then grown tired of it and hoped for yet another new season to save me from the current one.

I think the real answer is this: the future is better than the past, and change is better than stasis. Even if we are traditionalists – and I love watching the same Christmas movies every year, and every last day of school I blast “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper as I drive away from work for the last time, and I will dress as a pirate for every Halloween for the rest of my life if I can – we still prefer looking forward to when that happy tradition can come around again, and we are sad when it passes and we have to look back on it. So the best thing we can do is look forward to what is coming, and the worst thing we can do is look back on what has hung around too long.

The best season is the next one. And I can’t wait.

PETS!

Here are all the videos I couldn’t share before.

This is Roxie wagging her tail. Unfortunately, her snoot gets in the way.

Here’s Toni giving Neo his watermelon:

This is Neo yawning (With a cameo by Samwise)

This is Samwise having puppy dreams:

Duncan getting a nice skritchy — and then biting me a little.

Is it weird that this actually makes me want a strawberry? And a napkin for the tortoise?

Finally, here’s Roxie again, snoozing away.