Tell Me I’m Wrong

Tell Me I’m Wrong

I like it.

I do. It’s new – maybe a few years that I’ve had positive reactions to being accurately corrected – but it feels so good when I do. It actually gives me a physical rush. Maybe rush isn’t the right word. It’s like a piney breeze softly winding through my body. It feels like freedom.

When I find out I don’t know shit…

I don’t know why, but it feels like Freeeeeeeeeedom

(thank you for the only upbeat popular songs of 2021, Mr. Batiste)

Oh, don’t think it’s always been this way. It definitively ain’t. I’m one of those people who has had a lifelong embarrassment of showing ignorance. Not any ignorance: I allowed myself some realms of detached unknowing. Mostly in realms I didn’t care about. You could tease me relentlessly about never having seen a full Star Trek episode or most forms of etiquette or different cuts of meat or fantasy novels and I’d laugh it off. But for a shockingly, shockingly broad swath of topics, not knowing something churned up not interest, but shame. Even some things I didn’t give two shits about, like the names of different kinds of rocks. I’d still feel stupid because I know we covered that at some point in grade school. So I should know it. Different kinds of architecture? Never studied it, but I know educated people often do, so I should know it. Damn near every event in history, every geographic location, every word in Spanish, every philosopher, every person who ever accomplished anything noteworthy, every non-obscure scientific theory.

Everyone who shares this affliction has their own unique backstory, I’m sure. As a child I was shamed and sometimes psychologically tortured for hours if I failed to define a word correctly or adequately explain why a race riot somewhere in Asia was noteworthy. And it wasn’t just facts or intellectual prowess I was expected to excel in, but physical activities as well. If I didn’t rapidly learn how to hit a tennis ball without lobbing it over the fence or catch a baseball thrown with some velocity at my face, I was met with anger and heaping gobs of disappointment. Is it any wonder I mournfully sat out softball while my BFA class got to know each other on the field my freshman year in college? Or wouldn’t partake in any new activity until I had already practiced on my own beforehand? There was also a fun little twist in that my abuser often accused me of “pretending not to know.” I really wonder where the hell he got that one. What kind of masochist did he think I was, to invite hours of soul-crushing confusion and barely contained violence just for fun?

Weirdly, or not, I have treated myself with much the same bad logic. I put a slightly different spin on it: knowing that I don’t know an answer, I’m clearly not faking it, so at least I don’t have that bullshit to contend with. Instead I see my ignorance as a personal failure. For someone who considers herself logical, it really doesn’t make any more sense than my dad’s accusation. If I don’t remember something from high school, did I choose to forget it? Obviously not, so how can I blame myself? More things are forgotten than remembered by every person, every day. And even more things are never acknowledged in the first place. We’d be unable to function in society otherwise. Perhaps I didn’t study hard enough, but considering the overwhelming mass of things I expect myself to remember, “enough” is an unreachable goal. Many crucial facts are things I didn’t even learn in class, things that might have been casually referenced in passing. If I had worked to commit to memory every stupid tidbit I’m expected to know, I wouldn’t have lived a life.

What if my ignorance is, Buddha forbid, just plain old stupidity? I certainly can’t blame myself for that. And if I am intellectually stunted, I’ve done remarkably well for myself.

Why does knowing things even matter? What wisdom or insight or empathy or connection is gained simply by carrying oodles of items around in your head? What real knowing comes of it?

Of course, if talking oneself out of bad habits were enough to erase them, we’d all be a whole lot healthier. My intro was an optimistic exaggeration. There are still too many areas or scenarios in which I feel that shame creeping in, and one of them will be put to the test yet again for the umpteenth time next week. I’m taking a Spanish class for the first time since 2019, and as much as I love the language, relish speaking it, and crave fluency, practice has always been an opportunity for me to start waving that flag of self-loathing. I can rationalize my way out of the wise analysis of previous paragraphs with the simple fact that I have been studying Spanish off and on for decades, so obviously I should know it perfectly by now. I will also be participating in an Mindfulness Intensive program during part of the semester, so I’m hoping that will help me process any fucked-up feelings I’m experiencing.

The irony (so often with the irony) is that I may be right about my language expectations. It is entirely possible that someone who has been studying as long as I would know the language at least comfortably, if not fluently. According to language experts, the main reason I haven’t gotten there is because I don’t spend nearly enough time actually interacting with people in Spanish. And why? Because I’m afraid of being wrong. You see here, that old Buddhist mantra creeping in – you can’t really love others until you can love yourself. Our fears create the scenarios we fear.

Alan Watts, apropos of I don’t know what, once said that the Japanese in Japan were generally excellent English speakers, but an Englishman had to get them drunk to hear them talk because they were too afraid of embarrassing themselves to try when they were sober. I empathize, mis amigos. Your culture of shame is far vaster than my culture of one, but I feel you.

I have come up with a procedure that would get rid of all these self-positioned and self-perpetuating obstacles: just detach the identity from the emotion. Because it’s not the embarrassment that kills you, it’s the shame – it’s the attachment of the embarrassment to one’s sense of self that creates the shame. I deal with this whenever I try to get White people to talk about race and racism, and it does get frustrating. At times I just want to shake them and say, “your ignorance is not your fault/you didn’t choose to be raised under White supremacy/you’re not doing anyone any good by hiding from it/ you can make things better for yourself and others if you just open up, allow yourself to be wrong, and grow.” And of course, I recognize that I am in the same boat, just on a different river.

So I am not there yet. But feeling that freedom of openness, of detaching my mistakes from my identity, of just letting them be and moving on, should make it easier to welcome that liberation with my Big Enemy of the language I should know. We’ll see. I’ll keep you in the loop.

How to Be Nice to Yourself (at 1/2 century)

How to Be Nice to Yourself (at 1/2 century)

When The Guy asked what I wanted for my 50th birthday, I didn’t have much of an answer. My big plans for a trip and a party with my contemporaries from college had dissipated with the contagion many months before.

“oh, nothing really. I mean, be nice to me, but that’s about it.”

As if this was a special request. As if he isn’t typically nice to me. What did I even mean by that? Maybe that I’d get a pass for anything shitty I did that week? I’m usually pretty nice, too – to the extent that I’m capable, so what was I actually asking for? What unpleasant scenario had a decent chance of evolving?

The person I need a pass from is me.  

Hitting five-oh during COVID sucks, as far as birthdays go, as it has for so many millions of folks and many of my closest friends. So I kind of grumpily, snottily want to say Fuck It to the day. But I also want a chance to enjoy and appreciate this ultimately passive but still noteworthy achievement, so I decided to give myself the year to celebrate.

And what does that mean?

Again, the only answer I could find was “be nice to myself,” which rounds us back to

What does that mean?

Lots of folks take birthdays, holidays, vacations as a time to indulge themselves: eat, drink, smoke, fuck whatever they want, without “guilt” and that’s all fine & can be fun, but what is framed as a gift to oneself is often one you’d rather return. Drinking too much, eating too much, random sex, thoughtless purchases can all make you feel shitty. How is making yourself feel shitty an act of kindness? Or is it an act of niceness? Is there a difference?

I won’t dig into etymology here, but most of us recognize a pretty clear difference between nice and kind when it comes to other people. Nice is performative; kind is helpful. Nice takes little or no effort; kind may require something of you. Nice is habitual; kind is thoughtful. But when it comes to ourselves, I think it’s sometimes harder to distinguish. We associate indulgence with pleasure, even though the pleasure is so often fleeting, and the pain long-lasting. I’m not against fucking up and going overboard every once in a while, and I am actually thankful for the regret that keeps me from doing it much. I’m also not advising against a modicum of ridiculousness if it doesn’t seriously damage yourself or someone else. Rigidity is for the enlightened or unhappy few. But where is the kindness in those acts? Where is the love, baby?

How can I actually be Kind to myself for a year?

I am the only person calling me lazy or selfish or weak or thoughtless or disappointing or unworthy or simply inadequate. Others may think it, certainly, but if so, it’s hidden enough that I couldn’t identify who those folks are. That leaves me. I am the only one turning a perfectly pleasant day into a missed opportunity to save the world, an indulgent avoidance of important learning, a wasted chance to become better, stronger, faster – The Six-Million Dollar middle-aged woman. If I really want to be good to myself, I have to stop that.

Stopping the running critique seems selfish. Stopping seems privileged. Stopping seems immoral. I’ve managed to turn my fairly generic childhood psychological abuse into a moral compass: the words that have formed the voice in my head – others’ fucked up ideas – morphed into a sadistic, abnegating nun disguised as a conscience. Or perhaps it has turned itself into that in an effort to stay relevant. Our egos are infinitely clever in that way. Regardless, it’s much harder to recognize a critical voice as destructive and abusive if it’s saying things you know to be true – I am privileged, I do want to do more, I will feel better if I give more, participating is the way I want to live, I don’t want to “waste time.”

It’s not the message itself that’s destructive, it’s the judgment. Oh, and the way the message is delivered. When I have my dog tell me I suck in her weird, Cartman-like voice, that’s just not cool. Even as I write this, there is a voice in my head saying, “you’re just looking for a way out … all the talk about self-criticism being destructive is just created by lazy people who can’t hack it … being mean to yourself is motivating!” But I do actually trust science, and I trust my own negative reaction to “shoulding all over myself,” and I’m ready to try something different.

I suppose it’s a kind of behavioral therapy. I haven’t been able to work on my self-forgiveness and kindness from the inside out, so we’re going from the outside in.

For now that means that whenever I say something mean to or mean about myself, I’m going to stop and correct it. Or say something nice about myself. Or something sappy like, “I am enough.” Ugh. Haven’t worked out the details yet. I’m also getting rid of the word “should” in relation to the way I live my life and replacing it with “could.” None of this sounds easy. I’ll need help, so if you know me, please point out when I’m doing it. The Guy’s pretty good at calling me out on this bullshit, but I’m going to further empower him as well.

It’s worth a try. I’ll let y’all know how it goes.

How to Do Nothing – A Sort of Book Review

How to Do Nothing – A Sort of Book Review

I have so much to say about this book that I haven’t been able to write anything at all (well, that and the cast (#2!) on my wrist have been complementary barriers).

I loved this book and needed it. In the same way that A Field Guide to Getting Lost found me when I had left all my friends, gotten divorced, moved to a new city, and was underemployed; How to Do Nothing was kind enough to come out in paperback after I signed up for a year-long Socially Engaged Buddhism course, and had kicked off an effort to reframe my life through a lens of conscious, compassionate behavior, rather than the political chaos, urgency, and lonely echo-chambering of 2020.

Jenny Odell’s work isn’t long, but it’s quite expansive – a feature that some readers have found wacky, incoherent, or exhausting (good old Goodreads), while also hitting many of 2020’s best of lists. I won’t malign its detractors, I understand where they’re coming from, but I would also posit that her wide-ranging topics are cohesive under the banners of anti-capitalism and mindfulness.

I’m sure many of you like Capitalism, or parts of it. I see some benefits, too, but Capitalism is built on competition, production, and growth, which are generally weakened by communal support, contentment, and “doing nothing”. Advertising appeals to jealousy, self-loathing, and unhappiness; social media appeals to all those plus loneliness and binary thinking. I feel those brief moments of satisfaction when I jump in to endorse a fiery political opinion on Facebook, quickly followed by a physical grossness, much the same spike and dip I feel when eating refined sugar, which I’m also minimizing these days.  For me, it’s essentially an excess of reaction – my critical mind is overwhelmed with judgement of every post I scroll past. Right or wrong? Genuine or performative? Good person or bad? I could give you a long list of Buddhish explanations of why this is generally unhelpful to our and humanity’s development and happiness, but the clearest deterrent for me is the feeling in my gut. I don’t know if I’d be aware of it if I hadn’t been meditating for over a decade, and maybe that’s why so many of us remained hooked on not only social media, but self-righteousness, anger, and judgment. The addictive nature of those behaviors in turn make it difficult to step away from them, stop, and center ourselves in the world, so the spiral into anxiety, conformity, and misery continues unabated.

If I had to sum Jenny Odell’s book into two words (and since I’ve just set that standard, I now do), I’d go with Mindfulness and Curiosity, in that order, though it’s more simultaneous in practice. All conscious change starts with awareness – whether that’s of a habit we don’t like, or a goal we want to reach. The greater the awareness, the more likely the change will stick. This is why people put reminders of diet motivations on the fridge, or download apps that check in on them. Our brains will always revert to the easiest, more immediately satisfying, most habitual thing if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing and why. It’s the simplest and hardest thing in the world, because we’re modern humans wired for a short, constantly life-threatening existence that simply doesn’t apply to the vast majority of us anymore, and the imbalance makes us miserable. I do like the idea of Attention over what many perceive as the more ethereal mindfulness. It implies something more active. Odell’s subtitle is Resisting the Attention Economy, but it’s more an act of engagement than resistance, and a real, volitional something instead of nothing. By choosing to direct our attention to things that are outside of the economy, that do not generate wealth or power, we engage in an act of revolution.

I honestly found the whole idea ridiculously exciting.

She doesn’t end with attention, though. Attention is also a starting point for a better world (my squishy words, not hers). If we paid attention, would we know our neighbors? Would we change our jobs? Would we check our email every ten minutes? Would we keep stumbling through our lives, zombie-like, if we recognized how many other options were out there? Odell has a background in visual art, which I definitively do not, and her examples of disruptive art in the world were excellent windows into something I’ve been thinking about a lot – the life-sucking power of habit and conformity. Two examples: in the Twin Cities a few years back, some entity placed giant picture frames in strategic locations in the State & National Parks. It was framed (ha) as a photo opportunity – a way to get Instagram-obsessed youngsters to notice the great outdoors, I suppose, but in a more general sense it was marking out these non-productive spaces as worthy of notice. The beauty of nature which a lot of us seek to create in our own home with giant posters or representative paintings are actually all around us for free whenever we direct our attention towards it, but we are such creatures of goal-oriented habit, that we don’t notice them unless we recreate the style of the recreation and bring the picture frame to the source of the picture. Humans are hilarious.

Example two: B & I stopped at a coffee shop in an outlet mall on our way out of town last year, and as I was walking back to the car, sun bright and delicious blended matcha in hand, I had an impulse to pirouette. I didn’t, and subjected Ben to a philosophical theory on conformity and oppression when I closed the door. I was focused on racism at the time (as I often am), and interpreted in part as the dominance of a repressed White European culture (particularly the Scandinavian influence here) that sees any act that might call attention to yourself or disrupt norms as morally questionable. I still believe that, and believe it manifests in a racist way, since many cultures would embrace physical outbursts of joy, etc. But Odell calls attention to another aspect of nonconforming behaviors: they wake people up. We can make an hour’s drive from work everyday and remember none of it, but if we narrowly avoid an accident, those moments are emblazoned on our memories, and our actions at the time are present and fully conscious. Trauma certainly wakes us up, but a simple act of nonconformity, of creativity, of whimsy can do the same. Acts of disruption become acts of love, an invitation to stop and be in the world at that moment. As much as we shun this behavior in others (even being the only person in the movie theatre laughing at the dark comedy can be isolating), we also crave it. I would also argue that we need it, that unless we shake up the quotidian we don’t even see the maze we’re trapped in, and without recognizing it, we’ll never break out. Let me call back to White Supremacy for a moment and point out that pretty much everything that is considered “normal” in the US is a White cultural norm, so allowing these standards to remain unchallenged is itself a racist act. Who knows what other options are out there? I can feel my muscles relax just thinking about it.

So, less of a book review than a mulling over mainstream society, but I have to credit Odell for helping me explore and articulate it. If you’re looking for a how to get off social media, this isn’t what you want. If you want some ideas on how to consciously craft a better life for yourself and your people, I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

Bros Before Everything

I had a bit of a freakout last week. Maybe that’s not the right word. Crisis? That seems to involve decision-making. Breakdown? Nah, I could still function. Normal reaction to the world in all its horror? Yes, that’s it.

I had finally read an article I had set aside for months – about femicide in Mexico. I was too devastated and revolted to sleep after reading the details of the gang rape, mutilation, and murder of a preteen girl when I last picked it up, a few months back. But this was broad daylight, and it seemed important. I topped that off with a piece about the Police unions in Vanity Fair’s Breonna Taylor issue. I can’t even remember the other unmentionables of that day, but let’s throw in a few additions from the last week – another gang rape of a young Dalit woman in India, ICE officers taking children from their fathers in the Immigration Nation documentary, Muslims beaten to death and scapegoated in India, every Trump rally, even college fraternities flagrantly flouting social distancing rules.

It’s all about the Bros.

Groups of guys – especially groups of young, rich White guys – have often scared and disgusted me. I was the the obnoxious, goth freshman girl screaming Fuck the Greeks! on Fraternity Row every alcohol-induced chance I got. I’ve always been ready to stereotype, but despite my aversion, I have underestimated the power and danger of the Bro group. It’s more than toxic masculinity: it’s blind obedience that is the threat. Toxic masculinity may guide the group ethos, but without Bro loyalty, it would have no following.

Fraternities are an obvious example, but they’re just a play-acting version of military brotherhood, which is perhaps an attempt to imitate the group cohesion actually necessary when fighting predators and hunting for food back in the “back when” times. I am utterly ignorant in the ways of military life, so Hedges’ book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning was enlightening not only on the individual addiction to the life-threatening energy of war, but for his widely accepted assertion that soldiers overwhelmingly fight not out of a sense of mission, or nationalism, or ideology, or even fear; but out of love for their brothers in arms, friendships formed out of abuse and stress and isolation and absolute interdependence. One could argue that without that brotherhood, and the psychological tactics that create and enforce it, there would be little war at all. These guys (and women) don’t have time to evaluate the justness of the battle; they’re worried about protecting their buddies. It’s admirable and terrifying. What wouldn’t they do to protect their fellow soldiers? Protection doesn’t stop when the bullets stop: the brain doesn’t work that way. If you are loyal to your bunkmate in battle, you’re also loyal when he drunkenly beats up a civilian in a bar, or rapes someone, unless your attachment to the people or standard under threat is stronger than your attachment to your bro. Bro group masterminds work hard to ensure that doesn’t happen.

It is hard for a person like me to fathom a method to the madness of gang rapes and mutilations in Mexico. I can see some twisted logic in physically demonstrating the price of noncompliance to the enemy, but the gruesomeness of it is still beyond me. A journalist intimate with these monstrosities said in the Harper’s article that bonds are formed through complicity, and criminal groups create complicity through crime. “When it’s a femicide, when corpses are mutilated, it doesn’t have so much to do with her. It’s a message between them, within the band. It’s something symbolic, done to the body of a woman.” The brutality is the point, and the less human, the less sympathetic the “other,” whatever that other is, the easier it is to remain loyal to the group. Toxic masculinity objectifies the women, but again that is just a small part of it. The groups are bonded through their collective horrific acts; they are all complicit and they all share in each other’s blame and unspoken shame. No one is turning on or turning in anyone else.

Unfortunately policing, a career with the stated intent of serving the public, often follows the same rules of soldiers under fire, street gangs, and mafias. Reports from cops released from, or on the margins of, the Blue brotherhood describe a community in which everyone who is not on the team is characterized as an enemy often a deadly enemy, and Backing the Blue takes precedence over everything else, including laws and morality. If that isn’t enough to ensure allegiance, forced participation in illegal activities has sometimes been used to coerce silence as well. This kind of cult mentality is what compels 57 police officers in Buffalo, NY to resign from the emergency response team when 2 members are suspended from policing duties after actively causing a brain injury in an unarmed 75-year-old peace activist. Why exactly they resigned is debatable, but the sequence of events is clear. Brotherhood that blindly swears allegiance to the belief that cops can do no wrong creates a police force that terrorizes cities, particularly poor people and people of color in cities. Again, the racism is just a part of it (given, a seminal part of it). The culture of us against them, and the refusal to point the finger at another brother (who may be a sister, who may be Black) is essential to creating an unjust system.

This brings up another aspect of the Bro cult philosophy: it usually involves victimhood. The idea that you are under threat (true in war; true if you’ve picked a fight with a rival gang) is a weird part of this macho, aggressive psychology. There’s far more incentive to defend your compadres if you are all being attacked. So fraternities say their first amendment rights are threatened if they’re penalized for throwing parties during a quarantine. And police feel the need to proclaim Blue Lives Matter, even though police and related law enforcement jobs are, with fire fighters, the only professions in which the killing of a member automatically generates a capital felony charge. Blue lives clearly matter in our legal system. I’m not opposed to that. But qualified immunity means the lives of those killed by police routinely don’t matter. Bro groups use their power to make themselves appear victimized, thus strengthening group loyalty and empowering themselves further.

The protectorate of Bros exists to provide a united front against anything that questions their power, so that they can do what they want without concern for the consequences. If Bros have power, if they have enough power, the only thing that can take them down is the defection of a Bro.

How do you keep a Bro from defecting? By crafting intimate bonds that are far stronger than any discomfort with any bro’s objectionable action; by making the group esoteric, hard to get into, ultimately fully accepting of each member in all his eccentricities, and an essential part of his life. Even better, by involving him in something so criminal or shameful that he puts himself at risk if he chooses conscience over loyalty and betrays the Bros. Some Bro groups, like cults, encourage or insist upon the detachment of their members from outside friends or family, even sacrificing all their worldly possessions, so that they lose everything if they lose the group. Standing up can be dangerous. There are usually punishments. You may be mocked, you may be called stupid, a traitor, a deserter, a rat. You may even put your life or freedom at risk. Look at Serpico. You will probably be gaslighted; you will be told that what you think is true is actually false; that what you think it moral is actually evil. The people who say this may even believe it, which makes it harder to challenge them. I don’t have an easy answer for avoiding groupthink, but inasmuch as I have succeeded, I can attribute it to independent study, meditation, an obsession with logic, and compassion. We’d probably do well to pay more attention to whistleblowers.

The fact is, we all become Bros at one time or another. We don’t even have to be forced into it. We excuse members of our own political parties for doing things that we would find unforgivable on the other side. We say our friend is just joking when she says something that we would call out as racist in our enemies. The fact is our brains (yes, all brains) work really, really fucking hard and are always looking for ways to make life easier for us. Thinking hard, thinking slow, burns calories. We are wired to conserve energy. If we can ally ourselves with a group that always knows what’s right and what’s wrong, that makes living more efficient and convenient. Your brotherhood may even be right some of the time, or most of the time. It may be an activist organization with the best intentions, but any group can be swept away by its own passions or power. Good groups need their members to keep them current and flexible and compassionate and transparent. Allegiance should never be blind – to our country, our party, our religion, our friends, not even our actual brothers. Trust is nice, but vigilance is essential to democracy.

The one thing Trump rewards is loyalty. For me, that’s reason enough to question its value.

On Wasps and Wild Theories

On Wasps and Wild Theories

In early August I was stung on the back of my left thigh while I was biking. I don’t know whether it was the type of wasp or the fast-pumping blood as I quickly pedaled the remaining 40 minutes home to sign on for a work meeting, but my whole upper leg swelled a hot, angry, itchy red that tightened my muscles for days and just fully receded earlier this week.

Yesterday, as we were walking down the middle of the street in a residential section of sleepy Alexandria, I got stung again. On the back of my left thigh, inches from the last stabbing. And I was, again, MINDING MY OWN FUCKING BUSINESS, WASP!

Pain can send you to weird places. The first place I went was Angryland, but the first place most unpleasant experiences take me is Angryland. It’s my home away from home, but it’s abusive, and years of meditation have helped me to pack up and get the hell out of there quickly under most circumstances. I felt like I was clear of the place within a minute of the searing pain kicking in, but really I was still kicking rocks out on the grounds, quickly transitioned from pure anger to angry fear. Why was this happening to me? I joked to my partner that the first stinger had planted a homing device in my thigh that was beckoning nearby wasps. He asked if I had recently bought a 5G phone. But I really was thinking similar thoughts, and the joke was an attempt to hide what I knew was irrational. Self-pity pumped through me with the next wave of sharp pain. Why me? What had I done to deserve this? Nothing, I knew. That was ridiculous. (I refuse to buy into that privileged Buddhist line of thinking.) But I still found myself looking for a reason, a rationale.

I caught myself before I’d gone too far down that path, because I recognized something I’ve long criticized in others: the imposition of a simple, but false logic on a series of random events. It’s that kind of thinking that both leads individuals to believe that their god chose them because they happened to survive a catastrophic event or two, or that the US is teeming with “reverse racism” because a BIPOC person was chosen over a White guy for a job or two. It is the kind of thinking that leads QAnon followers to find meaning in everything from the Trump’s lies to Trump’s ties. They’re scared, they feel vulnerable, and they want to believe there is order to the universe, even to the point of inventing more chaos (Democrats eating children?) upon which order will be imposed.

I am susceptible to this kind of thinking. Beyond the universal human predilection for pattern-seeking as a way to simplify life and save energy, I spent years dissecting works of literature for themes, metaphors, patterns. I am an analyst as much as I am anything. But I have to accept the likely fallacy of any of my assumptions, and the impact of that failure is far more consequential in life than in the study of 20th century American literature. I have to ground myself in the facts as I can reasonably verify them and find some sources I can trust to deliver those facts to me. Otherwise, it’s too easy to dissolve into despair and cynicism. Whether that’s justified or not, it’s not the way I want to live, because it leaves me isolated, helpless, or both.

So. I was stung by two waspy things in more or less the same spot within 3 weeks of each other. It’s weird, but it isn’t supernatural or unprecedented. It’s just hot and itchy and sucky. Like some other things, and not like many different things.

Climate Concern or Clever Self-Loathing?

mr yuckI understand Climate Depression; I’ve definitely sunk into it a few times this year. (The More You Know!) But what haunts me far more frequently is Climate Anxiety. It manifests as a pair of equally insidious Mxs. (plural for Mx.) Yuck-type parasites that sit on my shoulders, choking off any organic action, shouting contradictory half-remembered rules before every eco-related decision I make, and squeezing out any space reserved for the mythical good angel, who would tells me that I am okay. Well, eco-decisions can’t happen more than a couple times a day, right? Oh ho ho, if only you were right. You see, the indomitable bond of too much climate knowledge and too much self-criticism is far more powerful than either one alone, hamfisting its way into my consciousness in countless ways. For example:

You should go work out so you don’t get depressed

  • but that just burns more calories, so you eat more food
  • and leave a bigger footprint
    • jesus, are you kidding? what good are you when you’re depressed?
    • what good am I when I’m not depressed?
    • well, for one thing, you’re less likely to eat chocolate picked by enslaved children in Africa and shipped half way around the world for your pleasure
      • you know, the world’s running out of chocolate: do you need the chocolate? doesn’t someone need that chocolate more than you?
    • fine, I’ll go to the gym
      • you’d better bike
      • I’m going to bike
        • yeah, but you were going to go to the hardware store later; maybe you should go to the gym on the way; it will save time so you can get more accomplished today
        • too bad you’re not a real environmentalist – then you’d find a way to haul that lawnmower home on your bike
          • *sigh*
          • fine, I’ll drive; but it’s only on the way if I go to the other hardware store
            • is that one farther? then you’re contributing more CO2
            • yeah, but doesn’t the closer one engage in more unethical practices?
          • Shut up! I’m biking!
            • good
            • yes
            • even though you’ll use the time it eats up as an excuse to get less done today
          • My bike bag’s filled with crap
            • careful what you do with it!
            • what kind of crap? recyclable? compostable?
              • some kind of plastic
                • recycle it! Wash it out first.
                • No, don’t! That wastes water.
                • you have to wash it so it’s not tainted
                • is this even recyclable anyway?
              • there’s food in it…
              • COMPOST IT!
              • damn, you waste a lot of food; you should be ashamed of that
                • I am
                • not enough to stop doing it
              • but what about the plastic? what’s the number on it?
              • can you even read it? your eyes are terrible. probably because of all the sugar you eat; sugar’s destroying the swamplands, you know
            • Fuck it. Just throw it all in the garbage. The world’s ending anyway.

… leaving the door open for climate depression.

So that’s about 5 minutes of my life. Not every day. No… every day, but not always that bad, or maybe it will only happen 5 times a day. But on days like yesterday and today, when (hormones? low iron? gray skies?) I am walking that fence between depression and functionality, there’s barely time to regroup between episodes. I can literally do no right, so it’s difficult to do anything without a looming sense of doom.

This is despite knowing that most of the things I agonize over have little impact on the climate. Little enough to be functionally zero. And that on the flipside, the incessant agonizing itself can be debilitating, preventing me from making any decision, let alone an ostensibly “good” one, and injecting a cloud of fear into everything I do, climate-related or not.

Because when it comes down to it, it’s not about climate. It’s about self-loathing. There’s a theory (which has worked for me) that a lot of back pain is psychosomatic – real pain created by your brain to distract you from difficult feelings. It manifests as back pain because your brain is an avid trend-follower, and knows that lots and lots of people have back pain, and the sources are often inscrutable and cures unsuccessful, so it creates back pain. My brain is doing something similar, and gadblessit, it’s trying sooo hard to protect me. Just as it used to do with my back pain. But instead of throwing a blanket of physical pain over me to distract me from anger and sadness, it’s trying to make me perfect so that I will be lovable. It’s not about the environment. Eco-morality is a convenient rubric by which to judge and critique and guide and advise me into becoming a good and worthwhile person.

I know this, too. But there’s knowing and there’s knowing, right? I’m going on vacation in a few days, and I was thinking of trying to take a vacation from Mxs. Yuck as well. To see if I might be happier, more productive, ultimately better if I refuse to indulge the voices that are trying to make me better. I’m thinking about it, but it’s hard because the Yucks are almost always right. What right have I, a middle class American White woman, to stop worrying about ethics for a week?

  • But, Z, you’re just making yourself miserable. What good does that do the world?
    • What good does abandoning morality do the world?
  • You couldn’t abandon morality if you tried.
    • But that’s because of Mr/s Yuck.
  • No, it’s not. You have to trust that it’s in you.

Trusting yourself. Another thing the Sloathed (for self-loathed: I’m trying to get this trending: hah? haah?) suck at.

What would it take for me to unplug the voices and let it all go for a week? Massive amounts of mind-altering substances? Positive reinforcement? Will the world survive if I stop yelling at myself? Of course it will, but I still feel nauseated just thinking about it.

 

 

 

Listamania

top 10I struggle with lists. Two of my best friends love lists. They try to get me to make my ranked lists and compare them to their ranked lists. Top five movies of all time. Top ten novels. Three best fruits.

BEST. FRUITS.

Lists are hard for me because I take them too seriously. The most recent challenge was contributing my list of 10 to the top 893 songs of the aughts. (Our indie music station is at 89.3 on the dial.) Specifically, the Essential songs. Meaningless. Is it the songs that most move me? The “objectively” best songs? The songs that are most musically representative of the era? Most lyrically aughtian? Should I cover the broadest range of music? Of performer types? It was too much. I think I wound up with a tidbit of each of those descriptions, and after several hours of analysis typed it up quickly and sent it in. Regretting all the breathtaking great songs I left out.

Some of you addicts are drooling to hear my list now. I get it. I would be, too. I truly don’t remember what was on it, but I know I included Amanda Palmer, Missy Elliot, TuNeYaRds, Elliott Smith, Lizzo, Rufus Wainwright, Kanye, and Sufjan Stevens. Sorry to disappoint.

But it’s not just making lists that’s hard; it’s the addictive yet disturbing assessment of the lists of others. I judge others according to how their lists compare to mine, judge myself by how my list compares to theirs, and judge their lists on a scale of my esteem for their creator. A song can theoretically drop a few clicks in my worst of list if someone I artistically respect makes a good argument for it, but I’m more likely to think less of a person for liking something I loathe.

Lists! The easiest clickbait on the internet. Top 10 most gruesome ways to die this year! Top 10 ugliest child stars! Why do we love them so much? It’s not just the thrill of having strong opinions about something insignificant. It seems to fall into that realm of human specialty: categorization. It’s one of our greatest strengths as a species. Evolution has blessed us with exceptional categorization skills. Safe and dangerous, while often ill-defined, are clearly important to survival. I’m sure if I weren’t rushing to finish this I could come up with a handful of others, and most of the unnecessary ones are at least innocuous. The ones that concern me are when we create a list based on a narrow set of characteristics, then label the list with a much broader title, then believe that title and apply those characteristics to the items we’ve decided to put in that list.

What am I talking about? I think my generalizations are no longer serving me.

You smile and say hello every morning. You tell me I have a wonderful dog. My dog likes you. I put you in the “nice” category. You mow my lawn after I break my leg and I upgrade you to “good.” Now that you’re in the good category, everything you do is colored by that label. The longer you stay in the good category, the harder it is to get booted from it. You say something that might be sexist and I attribute it to your age. You say something that might be racist and I attribute it to your homogenous surroundings. You say you’re a Republican and I have to wrestle with cognitive dissonance. Because Republican = Bad.

This has been brewing in my brain for a long time, and I’m not going to tackle it all here, but when we categorize people – good or bad; Democrat or Republican – we do it to make things easier on ourselves. And it somewhat necessary. For fuck’s sake, we can’t be expected to make a decision on the righteousness of every policy. We choose a side and trust that they’re making the right decision. We categorize people as good or bad so we don’t have to reassess them every time we meet. But “good guys” have gotten away with literal and figurative murder because we let the category define the individual, instead of taking the person’s actions on their own merit or lack thereof. Democrats have done horrible things. Republicans are sometimes right. We are so wedded to our lists that pulling a well-established someone or something out of one is worse than pulling teeth. It makes us question our ideology, our judgment, our perceptions. It’s horrifying. And liberating. And probably necessary.

I think one of the reasons I’m so reluctant to make lists is because I know how committed I am to them. What if I’m wrong? What if Jason Isbell is more worthy than Rufus Wainwright? I have to be willing to make that switch if I’m proven wrong. Rufus will forgive me. Or, more likely, he will flamboyantly not care.

 

Sitting in the Shit

headAnd sometimes you just have to accept that you’re in a bad place, and try not to spread it around. The compulsion is to try to justify it with the things you’ve failed at, the ways you feel you’re not supported by your partner or community, the demands of your job, the horrors of the government, your kids, climate change. It is all of that and none of it, but addressing any of it while in this state is downright dangerous. You can justify anything – any outburst, any insult, any rebellion – but that’s just because you’re clever, not because you’re right. And the outcome of any reactive interaction in this state will likely hurt you or someone else.

So maybe you bike it out, or drive around yelling with songs on the radio, or have a few drinks or some weed, or play video games for hours, or watch a pointless film, or ideally, just sit with it and meditate; but don’t blame it on anyone, including yourself. If you decide that anyone’s actions can significantly worsen your wellbeing, you’re reinforcing the idea that you have no choice in how you react to the world, and if you believe that, then why bother meditating, anyway? If you decide that, well, this one time it really was Joe’s fault, or Trump’s fault, or my fault, then you will also feel compelled to keep defending that position, which again reinforces the idea of your own passivity.

It is as much everyone’s fault as it is anyone’s fault, and as much no one’s fault as anyone’s. You are constantly touched by everything you interact with, but that touch doesn’t have to knock you down, and it doesn’t force you to push back. If you make up some excuse for the present state, it’s just going to prolong it. Accept the shit, try not to say too much, and know that, like everything, it will change. The less you attach to it, the easier it is, and the sooner you’ll move past it.

Now you’re going to publish this piece, have a shot of cucumber vodka, and quietly watch Game of Thrones with the partner and the dog. Then sleep. And see where you are tomorrow.

Prescription: The End of the World

elephants climateThere’s a theory that one of the reasons humans are so depressed and anxious is because life is too easy. We are animals, and animal subconscious is primarily consumed with 3 duties:

  1. keep from getting killed
  2. keep from starving to death
  3. keep your species alive

Evolution and our awesome brains, whatever other neat directions they may have pushed our species, haven’t moved us beyond these primary concerns. Nowadays most of us (let’s make this “us” middle class white people; whites are also the biggest US consumers of anti-depressants) don’t have to worry about 1 & 2 on a daily basis. (3 will have to be its own blog post.) The theory is that we are hard wired to be on the alert for threats and scarcity, so when they doesn’t exist, our brains help us create them with anxiety and depression. Similarly, allergies are your body reacting to a threat that doesn’t exist in a way that hurts you (making a poison out of a peanut), and also rarely happen in countries where bodily threats like malaria and intestinal worms are real and the immune system is kept occupied.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the harmful tendencies of the brain and how to negotiate with them. I formulated this particular negotiation because I’ve been tasked with creating some Climate Change content for a State Fair exhibit. Here’s a question:

What if we really, truly internalized the threat of climate change?

What if we woke up every day and calculated how every action we took increased or decreased our risk of decimating humanity? What if we did that every moment? What if our every action was a conscious meditation on fossil fuel reduction or carbon capture or community education? What if we lived our lives on a scalding planet the way Robert Redford does on a sinking ship in All is Lost? Have you seen it? I’m not the only person who had this experience: after watching the film, for a too short period of time, every physical thing I did felt deliberate and important; every dish washed, every door opened, every piece of clothing placed in the laundry felt glutted with meaning.

What if we could live every day like that? Would it give our restless brains something to do? Could we stop being anxious and depressed about nothing in particular and focus that energy on the survival of the species? Do you think this Anti-Depressant Marketing idea might get people to give a shit? CLIMATE COMPULSION FOR MENTAL HEALTH!

I have my doubts about getting this past the MN State Fair committee.

Unlearning the Lines

The_Memphis_Blues_4I am a lyrics junky. I know lyrics. Not just beloved lyrics, either. I know the lyrics of hundreds of songs I actively avoid, and probably twice as many that evoke not a single emotion. I’m guessing this takes up about 5% of my working brain.

I am also hard-wired with lyrics that are totally fuckin wrong. It’s happened more than once that after blithely, boldly singing along with a song for decades, one day, for whatever reason, I stop and actually pay attention to the song I’m accompanying, instead of getting wrapped up in the drama of my own (private) performance. Listening to the song with adult ears, I realize I’ve had it wrong this whole time. And now that I think about it, my version made no sense at all, whereas the actual lyrics were really pretty clear and sometimes disappointingly banal. Continue reading “Unlearning the Lines”