Tuesday, June 11, 2019

You Are the Person You Are Becoming


the view from my door
 
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So today I would like to talk about hope.
     
     But first we have to get there.  
     
The most harmful lie they ever tell young artists is that rejection isn’t personal. That’s a lie and the people who say it know it’s a lie and live every day with the reality of it being a lie and yet they say it anyway, sending the same bad advice forward generation after generation into the meat grinder attrition of working life as an artist, where every second breath is another rejection. Why do they say it? I don’t know. Never made any sense to me. 
     
Because of course it’s personal. It can never be anything other than personal since there really shouldn’t be anything of any value left besides the work. If there is, that’s a problem. I should know. Don’t waste my time with anything less than everything, and I won’t yours. Because I’m a critic. And there’s no way to ever separate the art from the artist. 
     
Why would you want to? That’s the best part. 
     
You are going to be dead in one hundred years. What of your life will be remembered in that time? If you found a description of your life in a future textbook would you find yourself a hero or a villain? 
     
The sky is grey and the sky has been grey for weeks. I’m sneezing all the damn time.          
     
Every rejection hits harder than the last, and that’s the truth, until each progressive rejection hits with the cumulative force of every previous rejection. That’s the truth, and it’s going to remain the truth so long as you put enough of yourself into your work to matter. It’ll only stop hurting when you stop caring and when you sop caring there’s a hole right there in the ground you can crawl into. 
     
It’s not personal? Of course it’s personal. We only get one life, there is no immortal soul ready to cart ourselves off for either an eternal reward or eternal recurrence, it’s just sacks of meat that wheeze and hump a while before falling over sore one morning, so there’s really a lot less reason not to go hard on the paint twenty four seven than you may think. 
     
I called up to the dispensary in Redding, and was honestly surprised that they answered after two rings. Don’t know what I had expected. My question was, do you still exist? To which the answer immediately came, oh yeah, the fire was miles away.
     
Turns out the fires had already been that far north two years ago. The area around the town was still bare so they were safe from this round. Every freeway overpass between here and there is covered with banners urging support for first responders in general and firefighters in specific.
    
As of this writing I have been living with my parents for just over fifteen months. I don’t know how long I was planning on living here when I moved in – I honestly was in no shape to even consider the question. I landed in Vina like a meteor, which means in this instance a massive explosion when I landed which buried me under five feet of dirt. I was still hot to the touch for a long time after I fell. Molten. 
     
I didn’t know how fast I was going until I wasn’t going anymore.
     
I just turned thirty-eight. That’s a pretty normal age for a lot of things, but maybe not so great for continuing your second puberty. Changing the hormonal balance of your body, even when it’s completely desired and completely awesome, is still hard and traumatic. We literally do go through a kind of second puberty as our bodies react to the infusion of proper hormones for the very first time in our lives. In practice this means we get a few random years where we act like teenagers again, which isn’t as fun as it sounds if you consider it’s all the worst parts of being a teenager – all the physiological stuff that goes along with “growing and changing bodies,” etc – only without the luxury of being a kid and not having to pay taxes or vote. So yeah: mood swings, weird reactions to temperature shifts, crying at the drop of a hat, sweating in new and interesting ways . . . all there, all wonderful, all fun. 
     
For their sins my parents, both long past the point in their lives where they reasonably believed they would ever have to spend any time around teenagers again, have had to essentially raise a teenage girl in her late thirties. 
     
It’s the evening of April 30th, 2016 – 950 days ago as of this writing, a strangely round number plucked from the ether to mark a nonexistent milestone. Two and a half years of change and turmoil, both on a personal and a world-historical scale – the world was so different then. I was, too.  
     
And maybe that’s what we’re here to talk about today. 
     
Because I’ve been putting this off – these words, this essay, the climax of a strange and difficult book that could only have been written in the throes of a most strange and difficult time. It’s time to move on, to write about something else for a while, to think other thoughts – and I’ve been unwilling to acknowledge that, on some level, because I’ve known that I couldn’t move on until I was done. Until I’d actually finished what I’d started, whether I knew it or not, with “One Hundred and Sixty Four Days.” 
     
The time has come to stop talking about myself so much, for the very simple reason that I’m not so molten anymore. The die has been cast. 
     
I lied to myself for so long, in the most hurtful and self-defeating ways possible. It’s been a hard thing to begin the process of rebuilding trust with myself – which seems like a strange sentence to write, but it’s more or less an accurate description of the process. I lied to myself about that, and I lied to myself about so many other things. I lied in ways that hurt myself and other people as well. 
     
So you ask yourself – what else did I lie about? If I was lying to myself about something so big as my gender, well, what about . . . well, fill in the blank. Turns out I was. That was hard cheese, I must admit. If we’re being honest. There was a solid year and a half where it seemed like not a month went by without some kind of shattering revelation about past behavior or symptoms. Turns out I was in pretty bad shape right in plain sight for years. It’s a miracle I’m still alive.
     
I was raised to abhor hypocrisy. 
     
My parents told me when I was very young that the President of the United States was a bad man who did not deserve my respect even if I was required to express obeisance in public. They did not tell me to believe in God or to obey any priest – they taught me to detest organized religion and to greet any overt expression of faith with healthy suspicion. I was however alienated from “movement” atheism very early by what I saw as a kind of insecurity at the heart of any intellectual project predicated solely on rejection. I never believed in God because the idea never once made sense to me, not because I discovered it was cool when I was 17. 
     
Growing up meant being disappointed with everyone my age, even smart kids, for uncritically accepting what they were told about politics and religion by their parents. I think I even worried about the hypocrisy of that position, but I told myself then and now that I agree with my parents because they can sit down and explain to me (as they did periodically when I was a kid) policy differences in terms that both made sense and also – this is most important! – jibed with my understanding of objective reality. They told me to listen and made me read the newspaper and watch the news, and I did these things even when I hated it because (my parents never said explicitly but advertised every day through their own actions) it was our responsibility as citizens, especially given that we were rare liberals who lived in otherwise very conservative rural areas.   
     
They didn’t tell me to vote Democratic because my family voted Democratic. They voted Democratic because they weren’t greedy authoritarians and since I decided very early that was no greedy authoritarian either, I would naturally vote for the party that at the very least represented institutional triage against the aggressively anti-human agenda of the greedy authoritarians who walked among us and smiled and pretended to be friendly neighbors but who, I suspected, would actually rat out my parents for smoking weed and get hard when the jackboots arrived. 
     
That last part is actually quite important, because I also recognized from a young age that there was something partly erotic and partly pathetic in the desire to be a cop and push people around. My mom worked with cops, they weren’t good people. She was wary of and around them and trained me to be as well, from a young age. 
     
Although my parents didn’t normally talk about it in moralistic terms, they essentially told me from a young age that we were ruled by hypocrites and mediocrities who gained their offices either through lying or theft. Evil men who used their offices to multiply the evils of the world beyond number. Worse, our own side was ineffectual on a good day, and positively reactionary on most. 
     
How is it possible to have any respect for a politics, for a populace, for a country,that can exalt men who used their lives to spread and extend the sum total of human misery? How many far-right coups and fascist dictatorships does one country have to sponsor before enough people see that our own blood and treasure have consistently been suborned as cudgels against any government to the left of Pinochet since literally the moment the guns ceased in the Great War? Certainly before that as well, even if Communism hadn’t yet assumed its place as the great bugbear. 
     
America has to undercut socialism everywhere because all it would take for the jig to be up from coast to coast is a critical mass of people in this country seeing how great it is that Cuba still has bees. They know it, “they” in this case being anyone who still remembers 1932 as the year America went Red, and why they start ginning up the extra spicy racism and bigotry whenever the grift starts to wear threadbare, which is oh that’s right every time all the time. 
     
There’s no fixing the rot short of pulling up all the floorboards and starting again from the foundations. 
     
I exhale and seasons pass. The shadows between the trees grow short up and down the orchard. 
     
It’s the evening of April 30th, 2016 – 1,025 days ago as of this writing. The Carr Fire in Redding, CA to which I alluded a couple pages back, began on July 23, 2018. Flames from the Camp Fire which destroyed Paradise, CA beginning on November 8, 2018 could be seen from my house on the farm. 
     
Why, you may be asking, have I picked up and put down this same essay so many times over the last half-year . . . almost stubbornly refusing to return to it even after it became obvious that my inability to return to this essay meant every other thing had become delayed?
     
So what’s really going on here. 
     
People don’t understand mental illness. People who write about mental illness for TV and movies don’t often seem to have any real frame of reference for mental illness - or, if they do, its a sympathy borne of seeing the suffering of others, based in personal experience and therefore holy writ. 
     
It's usually neither excessively dangerous nor excessive combustible, merely excessively distressing. It’s not fun. There’s little in all of pop culture that grates on my nerves more than the reflexive portrayal of mentally ill characters as art damaged martyrs of some kind - rife throughout even stories that I like. 
     
You want to know what being crazy is like? For me at least? I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out how to explain and I think I finally came through:
     
Imagine one day if every clock in your house lost an hour. Every night at 10:59:59 when the clock is set to click over to 11:00 PM it skips an hour and goes directly to 12:00 AM. And it’s not just the clocks, you see, well, time works differently in your house. There are only 23 hours in the day in your house. 
     
Except . . . you don’t really know when that happens. It just does. 
     
Maybe sometimes if you’re very careful you can see some of the telltale signs but often only in hindsight. Otherwise you’re just sitting around minding your own business and suddenly something happens that makes you realize, oh shit, my clock is off -but you don’t know when it happened, how long ago, or if anyone has noticed you doing something that implied you somehow had lost an hour. How would people even process something so weirdly specific as that? No one else is walking around losing hours, most people don’t even seem to be aware of the possibility that it’s a thing that could happen, so trying to explain it just gets you looked at funny. Or worse. 
     
When the people around you see weird effects without understanding the cause,the end result is the unclassifiable weird shit just gets stapled to your forehead. 
     
So you don’t talk to anyone about it. You try to take as many cues regarding time and clocks (if you’re still following the analogy) as you can from the people around you. And doing that, being forced to police not just your every word and deed but the every word and deed of others for some kind of sign that you do not, in fact have three heads but just are having a little trouble keeping track of the time . . . 
     
After a while the complications, small at first, stack up. It’s just a little trouble keeping track of time, you think. But everyone depends on clocks, so everyone who interacts on any level knows that there’s something off even if they may not have the words to articulate it. In time you just don’t leave the house any more than necessary. 
     
What is being crazy like? It’s like walking around with white knuckles from trying trying so hard to hold onto your shit. It’s not fun to lose your grip. It’s not fun to realize you lost an hour and don’t know whether it was a day a week or a month ago. It’s not fun to be undependable, and to realize it’s not actually a value judgment but an accurate description of your reliability.
     
It’s not that I can’t tell the difference between real and unreal. It’s that my brain misfires and makes it harder to pluck signal from noise. The campaign against treasonous thoughts makes us double agents against our every impulse.
     
So it’s not so fun. I am bipolar and it shades every single interaction I have with another human being whether I am cycling or stone sober, to a degree I’d say is more vexing even than gender. The degree to which my ability to get through the day unencumbered by hassle has a lot more to do with me keeping my composure than anything else.  
     
Sometimes I resent people because I don’t know how to ask for help, and it’s the worst feeling in the world. I’m sorry. 
     
This is the grand roaring climax of the book that I started writing specifically because I wanted to write a sequel to Tomorrow Is Always The Best Day Of My Life and I have to admit it’s sat unfinished for months - the book itself just a few more pieces away from completion, every other project in my life sliding well past the point of late, all because I was tripped up on a single project (and probably not the one that most people are really waiting on, either.)
     
(But James is, so thank you for that.)
     
Are you expecting some kind of surprise ending? Some kind of symmetrical return to the suspense of that very first essay whose shadow I’ve been laboring under for years now? There is none. Perhaps I expected to find one myself. Perhaps I was trying to will into being some kind of extrinsic disruption to the new status quo of my daily life -
     
But nothing is coming. Nothing is going to save me from this but myself. And nothing is going to work until I understand the problem. Until I confront the problem. 
     
What is the problem?
     
More than anything else the root of all my problems can be found in my unwillingness to accept what it means that I am mentally ill. The resistance, reluctance, flat-out denial to acknowledge that for two and a half decades certainly wasn’t the only factor involved in my problems regarding gender, sex, my family, career, and relationships - but at the core of each of those separate and distinct categories lie my attempts to suppress basically everything about myself that didn’t work. And for much of my life it didn’t really feel like much was working. 
     
So that’s why I spend my days walking around in a perpetual state of shock, seemingly - I always was, but I was also constantly disassociating by pretending to be another person altogether who just thought about dying all the dang time whether he wanted to admit it or not. 
     
It’s a hard thing to come to grips with, that - your previous self having been nothing but a jumble of disassociated trauma and repetitive habits. I didn’t like the person I used to be, but he wasn’t even really a person. He was just me making myself miserable by pretending to be everything I wasn’t. 
     
And that has to do with being bipolar, that has to do with being trans and queer, that has to do with a lot of other stuff I won’t even talk about here. Everything you ever knew was a lie. Every damn thing. 
     
I know some of this is familiar material. There’s a fair amount I’ve left out. You’re just reading an essay, whether you’re reading it online or in a book someday down the line. I choose to give you a lot but it’s what I choose to give, to share. What I don’t, I don’t.  
     
Here’s another nugget to share: 
     
A few months ago I was sitting with my mom in her office, listening to her talk about genealogy. Now, spoiler alert, I have no interest whatsoever in genealogy. I suppose there are a number of reasons for that. I don’t really have any large extended family that I’ve very close with, for one, so the idea of lots of people being related to me is not something that I think about very often. I do know that parts of my family have been in this country for longer than there has been a country, and that means a lot of branches in the family tree leading to a lot of places. 
     
My ancestors who were involved in the colonization and settlement of this country were not good people. I can make this blanket assertion for the simple reason that they were involved in the colonization and settlement of this country. 
     
So my mom is telling me about something or other she read in the historical record, a massacre of Native Americans accompanied by acts of barbarity so foul that I will not recount them here. Reprehensible acts, monstrous acts, committed to the historical record in the name of my ancestors on one branch or another. 
     
I didn’t want to know that. There’s a part of me that wishes I still didn’t know that. This is part of why I am against genealogy in the first place: the men and women who committed those atrocities should not be remembered.
     
But, my mom says, we must remember. And she is correct. 
     
This nugget surfaces in my memory a bit later, during the extended national mourning which follows the death of the 41st President, George H. W. Bush. A man held up by all sides of the national media as a paragon of patriotic virtue and honor. It must be noted that this praise was especially fulsome and fatuous as a direct rebuke to the current occupant of the office. But considering just how many of Trump’s policies are direct extensions or extrapolations of the elder Bush, it’s notable that most of what people seemed to be lamenting was a lack of performative tact animating the same greedy authoritarianism.    
     
Because here’s the four one one fam, things aren’t “getting” bad, things have been bad, and while they’ve been bad for some people for a hell of a lot longer than others, almost everyone is feeling the heat now.
     
I’ve never known the prosperity my parents knew, growing up in the middle years of the twentieth century. Even the spotty, unequally distributed prosperity that “just” meant more schools were funded and more roads were patched. At least in the white parts of town. My parents watched in horror as their generation lurched harder to the right with every election. They started voting for tax cuts in 1978 in California, and those cuts had to start coming from somewhere: in the decade and change I spent in the California public school system growing up, I saw the system decline in direct proportion to the amount of money it was receiving. 
     
There’s no secret. You don’t need to convene a blue ribbon panel. If you want good schools you pay for them. (You can’t test your way out of austerity: it’s just a way of acknowledging the hoops are smaller and covered in sparking naphtha that burns when the kids leap through.) Same with roads, bridges, hospitals. People decided they didn’t want to pay for shit without realizing it was going to have to come out of somewhere, and it ended up coming out of their quality of life. And when quality of life declines and people get squeezed they turn to crime. Instead of spending what money they have on schools that cash goes to cops.
     
You notice how this is a self-fulfilling prophecy? If you want to create an authoritarian police state, just index education spending to property taxes and wait two generations.
     
So, my friends, I am here today to tell you: we are not entering a period of crisis. The crisis has been here for a long time. 
     
We have been here all along. As long as I have been alive.
     
I promised hope. It’s coming. Real hope, at least from my perspective.       
     
As of this writing I have been living with my parents for just over twenty-one months. I had no idea how long I would be here when I arrived. I knew I needed some time to work on stuff. I didn’t know how much stuff that meant. 
     
I didn’t know my mom would get sick and have to have a hip replacement, with a shoulder replacement in the cards for later this year. Didn’t know my dad was experiencing a long decline based on health issues we still don’t completely understand. We live in anticipation of diagnoses. 
     
What did I really need to work on - I mean, when I say, “work on stuff,” what did I mean by stuff? Well . . . hnh. 
     
You read “Delaware,” right? That was a shock, from my perspective. How odd to get the news regarding your mental health only in hindsight, when examining the handiwork of an extended depressive episode. How else would you describe that? Like hearing the announcement of the demise of the Great God Pan via the wind. Like figuring out I’d lost an hour a day for a month and hadn't realized it.
     
And then I rebounded from that, wrote a couple books, had a very productive first and second quarters of the year. I mean, I wrote two fantasy books in three months! That’s pretty impressive by any measure.
     
Summer was good. You can chart my output throughout the year and I’m puttering along fine until September. The month of my birthday, which, frankly, has traditionally been second only to February in terms of its tendency to attract personal calamity like flies to particularly odoriferous shit. I wrote a column while I was melting down, you can go back and read it yourself - “Hey, it’s a Column About Wolverine” was literally the product of me losing my shit and trying to wring some meaning out of a pile of old Wolverine comics Tucker sent me. You should know that for some reason I was thinking about T. S. Eliot a lot when I wrote it. 
     
It wasn’t a good week for the world, y’know. I already wasn’t doing so great by late September but it was the last weekend of the month, just a couple days, after my birthday. Coincidentally the week of Brett Kavanagh’s confirmation hearings. Also the weekend one of those climate reports was released. I don’t remember. They all blend together after a while, even if you’re paying attention. Especially if you’re paying attention. 
     
Have you ever had a panic attack? They come in all shapes and sizes, at least for me. There’s a bit of hyperventilation in the parking lot - that’s not an uncommon occurrence. Neither is debilitating anxiety. Kind of an omnipresence. 
     
But the morning after that week I woke in the middle of a restless night. I reached to the hope I keep in reserve for just these moments and found nothing.
     
I should probably mention at this point that I was listening to a lot of Broken Social Scene.  Their discography is surprisingly deep and very wide. But also quite sad. There’s a song on their 2017 album Hug of Thunder - well, the whole album is about this feeling, but the final song really touches on it, you know . . . that whole “it’s the end of the world so I got the blues” feeling. 
     
Maybe you’ve had it. 
     
So there I am, one moment my heart is racing, my breathing grows shallow, my thoughts start to cluster like clotted blood around a cut. And I get up, I’m panicking, even if it’s just my parents I need to talk to someone - but there’s no one there, it’s the middle of the night. I can’t even remember why the house was dark. That weekend the news was bad, that’s all I need to remember. 
     
The one thing I wanted for my birthday was some AirPods, which I’m actually still wearing right now. I use them every day for multiple hours. It meant when I fell in the foyer right outside my room in the middle of the night, fainted dead away with my body both heavy and cold and on fire into a pile of random shit stacked up right outside my doorway, I didn’t rip the cord out and break my headphones, no, I just had Broken Social Scene blasting “Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse” the whole damn time -

The truth, the truth,
That fabulous lie, 
I’m tired of smiling 
While you constantly die.

- a song about the end of the world to soundtrack my panic attack over the end of the world. It screams and seethes. I wish I was exaggerating, but probably listening to Broken Social Scene over and over again while you’re depressed isn’t the healthiest thing.  
     
Because here’s the thing about hope. Hope doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a continuum with fear. Hope only blossoms in the shadow of possible loss. That week, of all weeks, bore me down. What a way to celebrate your birthday - confirming not only that the ruling class in the country still consists of men and women whose moral standing strains to reach the hallowed heights of “troglodyte,” but that in their oafish and hectoring villainy they would prefer a world burnt to cinders to one in which they posses one iota less power. 
     
We have no national honor. The fool who sits on the throne now just makes it all the more obvious. The situation in that regard hasn’t really changed, however. You just weren’t paying attention. 
     
That fateful early morning panic attack set me back weeks. Deflated me. Then after few more weeks have passed, as if on cue, the hills above Chico, CA catch fire. The Camp Fire that consumed the town of Paradise was about thirty miles away, more or less. As the crow flies.  
     
It’s late, well dark out. I’m standing in the bathroom without the light on, staring out the window. Thirty miles away and I can still see the columns of flame rising into the night. 
     
Thirty miles was a safe distance - inasmuch as any distance can be considered safe these days. It’s mostly farmland between there and here, and also the small matter of the town of Chico. But it was close enough that, had the wind shifted, we would almost certainly have been advised to evacuate. As it is, the wind was blowing away from us for the duration of the fire. 
     
We got lucky in that respect, but we were still close enough that, wind or no, the air stung and stunk. We coughed. 
     
Do you want to know what I thought in that moment? What went through my mind as I stood transfixed by the fire, far away but not far enough not to be seen from my home? 
     
I’ve killed us all. 
     
The battery went out that week in the car. Under normal circumstances hardly the end of the world, easily fixed with the help of a friend or a tow-truck. The circumstances behind the dead battery, however, related back in some way to the previously discussed clock-is-missing-an-hour phenomena.        
     
Under normal circumstances these things aren’t the biggest deal. You’ve done it, I’m sure. Everyone has. For reasons both spectacular and quotidian. But when I do stuff like that, all I see is a hundred different flashing red lights telling me that something has gone critically wrong. 
     
That’s where the game comes in. I mean, that’s what the book is about, right? It all comes back to that game. The real purposes of the game are multiple but all trace back in some way to my mental health. I use the game  to keep track of my mood, and regulate my circadian rhythms by forcing me to have at least one regular activity that follows a normal clock. 
     
If I mess up and forget to sign up for a Raid or another Guild activity, it’s a sign for me that something is going on in my brain and that I need to listen to the warning signs. In the three years I’ve been playing this game that has proven a remarkably astute predictor of my behavior. When everything is going well I don’t miss a step and my performance is remarkably consistent. When I miss something in the game it often means I’ve missed a step somewhere else. 
     
The game has at times been the single strongest factor keeping me out of the mental hospital. Because since I’ve registered I’ve never missed a day, you see. If I go into the hospital, they take my phone away. So I stay on the straight and narrow, even through periods when I probably could have used the help . . .
     
Of course, I stress, we were safe from the fire. There was a whole city between us and it. But it was just . . . close enough that, as I say, had the wind been different things could have changed very quickly. I had that initial thought, I’ve killed us all, because my completely innocent fuck-up just happened to coincide with the one time there was even a snowball’s chance in hell of us needing to evacuate the farm. 
     
Me, my parents, four cats and a very surly Great Dane. It would be a tight fit in the Subaru. 
     
Now . . . 
     
It’s the evening of April 30th, 2016 – 1,126 days ago as of this writing. Three years have passed. It’s time to move on. 
     
It’s almost June and so I’ve almost been out on the farm now for two years. Somehow I find myself once again in the position of having to finish up a number of outstanding projects before an early July deadline predicated on travel. Suddenly things are real and changing. Life works again, haltingly. 
     
Boom. Just like that. 
    
I couldn’t finish this book for the longest time because I knew that this book - this essay- encompassed an entire era of my life that I couldn’t move on from until I felt I was ready. The molten feeling that made every day sick and jarring is gone now, replaced with something softer and cooler and more certain. And these words and feelings have been piling up for months, waiting for me to be able to put them all in a little boat and cast them out on the lake for Viking funeral. 
     
I promised you hope. 
     
The hope I have to give is predicated on the assumption that it hasn’t just gotten bad. You need to believe me that the moral rot has been set in, septic, and gangrenous for generation upon generation already. What we’re living through at this moment in time are not the beginning stages of an ahistorical reactionary movement but the logical endpoint of a situation that has been building for decades. Since before I was born and since before you were born, too, no matter when you were born. 
     
Because you can’t go forward in a state of denial. Nothing good comes from lying to yourself about any of this. 
     
I’ve had to wait my whole life for people around me to wake up to the absolute ethical emergency of living complicit in this country. For all that I’ve changed and grown - and I have in so many ways - I have known the sorry state of the world because my parents told me the sorry state of the world. And they’re not special. There are lots and lots of people out there, all across the country, who know this stuff. They’re certainly not all exotic marginalized people like myself: some of them probably drive Subarus and shop at the Trader Joe’s in your town, maybe have one of those “Coexist” bumper stickers where every letter is a different religious icon.   
     
My parents told me that the President was a terrible person not just because of his politics, but because of the rotten character that the rotten politics implied. You either hear the bit about the President laughing about AIDS victims in the 80s and react with something like horror or you don’t. And if you don’t, if you hear that and maybe even shake your head but still, ultimately, believe that those are the kind of individual peccadilloes that you can forgive on a professional basis, well, is it any surprise that you voted for the next guy, the one who oversaw the spread of fascism in Latin America throughout the sixties and seventies with all the zeal of a gardener patiently cultivating  a bumper crop of corpse flowers? The current “crisis” at our own southern border is just the natural consequences of our official centuries-old government policy of destabilizing every government in the hemisphere that doesn’t kowtow to the fascist oligarchy that very openly runs our country.
     
The exaltation of despicable men as honorable only encourages the openly despicable to believe they, too, can launder their dishonor through public acclaim. 
     
Here’s the hope: you see it. 
     
My politics have not changed. I’ve always called Republicans greedy authoritarians. My understanding of the whys and wherefores, and my own personal complicity, has, changed, grown, and evolved over my entire lifetime, but I still believe that what my parents told me about how the world worked, in terms of who has power and who doesn’t, and who likes using that power and who doesn’t, is basically true. And I used to be the lefty outlier in a group of generally liberal friends and acquaintances. But now all my generally and genially liberal friends have gotten pushed further and further left. Even the ones with houses and cars are scared shitless. 
     
The ones without houses and cars are ready to riot.
     
The numbers are on our side. The numbers have always been on our side, but they lucked into the trick of figuring out that people would let you rob them blind in exchange for a paying a pittance less at tax time. Any qualms on our merry way to armageddon dismissed with a hearty and condescending down-home “there you go again!”And they tricked generations into thinking they could sweep every problem under the rug, and fix every outstanding problem by creating new problems, with the long-term goal of ravaging the economy badly enough to allow for the reimposition of some form of serfdom. That’s always been the end goal: the erosion of liberal democracy, the return to serfdom. Written about freely by far-right economists who no one reads but right wing billionaires and the >squints< large majority of the economic establishment funded by same. 
     
All of which is complete ahistorical twaddle, of course. Makes sense, sure, if you get hit in the head by an angry mule and forget everything you know about the last, oh,thousand years of human history. The only question as how far down the road to hell these destructive nincompoops would be allowed to drag the species before we rose up en masse. The answer: pretty damn far? 
     
But the endgame was always obscured, as not even the poltroons of the “intellectual dark web” could figure the proper hand-jive to obfuscate the chafe of the manacle. They’re all either grifters or fools, most likely both. Heidegger was a fool who thought fascists actually gave a shit about philosophical grounding, when it was all always justification and obfuscation to mask the fact that people get high from hurting other people, and leaders who can promise people the right to hurt others without consequence have historically been richly rewarded by the kind of people who have no compunctions about weaponizing the grievances of the populace against their natural enemies among the dispossessed.  
     
So now here we are at the endgame, and Rupert Murdoch is 88 years young, Tick tick tick, bitch. 
     
There’s more of us than there are of them, and more people see it now than at any time in my life. They impoverished a generation, giving them no reason to defend a morally cancerous and profoundly unequal prosperity that will forever be closed to them and their children. It’s as simple and profound as that. 
     
Now: I should be dead.If you’ve been paying attention so far, you know this. I fell into a self-destructive spiral that only ended when I heard a stentorian voice from beyond give me a kick in the ass. Sometimes you don’t see how bad it is until it’s too late.
     
Thankfully I heard it almost too late. Because when the universe gave me a binary choice between living and dying, well, I decided I didn’t much like the idea of dying. But since our world is what it is, the decision to live is also a commitment to fight. I don’t have much choice in the matter. 
     
You don’t, either. Much as I hate having to present anyone with a binary decision, this one’s pretty simple: do you want to live or do you want to die? Because if you want to live, from this moment forward you must fight. 
     
The reason why people need to hit rock bottom before they can make real change in their lives is that we need incentive. If we can possibly weasel out of doing something hard, we’re going to weasel out. We’re only going to do it if the alternative is even worse. It’s hard to summon the strength to change the world if you can’t feel the hot breath of the Grim Reaper on the back of your neck. I promise you, I understand that.  
     
So you ask me why rejection is personal? I’ll tell you why rejection is personal. Because I should be dead, motherfucker
     
know how good I am. I don’t take seriously the condescending judgment of people young enough to have been my students. Contrariwise, I take every rejection personally because I pity them, just like I pity each and every witless stripling out there who passes on my work sight unseen - because I know it’s sight unseen. I know when someone hasn’t read my work and hasn’t, because the people who have usually thank me afterwards.  
     
Does that sound boastful? Prideful? So fuckin be. It’s the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Nineteen and there is absolutely no margin whatsoever in humility. Nope, when I decided to live,whether I knew it or not, I was making the decision to finally and definitively throw over all my harmful baggage and carefully cultivated denial. 
     
And here I am, over three years later. Everything’s different. Everything that could be fixed or discarded has been. The garage has been cleaned. I’m hardly perfect, but I’m not molten anymore. I’m solid as hell. 
     
The universe gave me a choice: life or death. I chose life. I chose to eat thunder and piss lightning, motherfucker. Now, to the universe, I offer another binary choice: either round me up and put me in a FEMA camp for all the weirdo queer freaks or make me rich and famous. One or the fucking other. Tick tick tick, bitch. 
     
Do you want to live? Then join me, here, in the glare of broad daylight, we’ve got a federal government paralyzed by obeisance to aberrant pathology and a world on fire outside your window. It’s not just now bad, it’s always been bad, but sometimes you haven’t so much minded the face of imperial decline. 
     
And now you see. Hope isn’t blind optimism. Hope can only exist in the presence of doubt. So of course I acknowledge the possibility of failure. But somehow I’m still here. I didn’t want to die, so I didn’t. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.                   
I spent part of a recent drive up to Oregon thinking through the final stages of this essay - this same essay that has existed in incompletion for so long, dragging like an anchor behind every movement I’ve made for six months. It’s taken a while to make all the pieces fit.
     
The earliest incarnations of this book that existed in my head were much more heavy on The National. There’s still a little bit about them in the middle part of the book, a mention of Sleep Well Beast, but the earliest preplanning for this book involved lots and lots of High Violet. Like everything else The National have ever done, its melancholy music for grown-up thoughts. Because it’s got a couple teaspoons more bombast than, say, its understated follow-up Trouble Will Find Me, it made a pretty substantial impact in the wider culture, “pretty substantial” being a relative term for any rock band or record in the twenty-first century.
     
High Violet,because of that aforementioned bombast, is also a really good driving record. Which explains why I was listening to it in the car on the way up to Oregon, to meet a couple friends I’d known for years but never actually met. That’s the way things work now. Rock music is a low-key thing and all your friends live on the other side of the world. 
     
It was my first significant trip away from the farm since the trip to San Francisco for the surgery, last year, which was hardly a “fun” trip from anyone’s perspective. On the other end of the Oregon trip there’s another doctor’s appointment waiting. This will be the appointment where the doctor confirms a tentative diagnosis of Parkinson’s for my father, words which actually go some ways towards deflating tension in the household by removing the element of unknown dread hanging over every proceeding. Once it’s a real thing, you can take pills for it, joke about it. Live with it. 
     
It’s hard to live in anticipation. I blinked my eyes and two years passed, here out on the almond farm, two years which crawled by in the living but in hindsight seem a strange and discrete interlude. I’m still here, but there’s a future. Isn’t that a kick in the head - right when our own future as a country and as a species couldn’t look more dire, I find faith in my own future?                  
     
There’s that pesky ‘hope’ again - there’s no guarantee that any of this is going to go well. But we go on anyway, borne ceaselessly, etc. 
     
So there I was, on the road to Oregon in the springtime, listening to The National. Wondering if it was finally time to move on. Get going with the rest of my life. Not that I didn’t want to. Wanting to move on and being able to push yourself through the door are two completely different things. 
     
Maybe someday I’ll write something more substantial about High Violet. Maybe not. It’s an album layered over with personal significance. I first heard it with my ex, We listened to it a lot together. But I also listened to it a lot on my own. I gave a copy to my parents and they listened a lot, too. They caught that weird documentary the singer’s brother made about the band and have liked them ever since.
     
So this isn’t really about High Violet as an album so much as High Violet as a process, as a purgative. The kind of thing you put on the stereo when it’s time to make serious thoughts about the world and you want the guns to lay down suppressive fire.          
     
What it’s about, more specifically, is the next to last song on the album, “England.” It’s not an obscure track, you’ve possibly heard it in the background of a movie or TV show. Also a bit of a stomper, building from a hush to a scream by the end of its five and a half minute running time. It feels longer, it feels more epic than five and a half minutes, but that’s a testament to how much punch the band can summon when they really roar. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like the National since they started having their music played in movies, it’s probably not your favorite. 
     
The song is about - and here I am, still recovering from grad school, wondering just how much I need to show my work in order to be able to tell you what a song is about. I don’t need to go through word by word. You can take my word for it, the song is about being lonely, and specifically the feeling of loneliness that accompanies being in love with someone on the other side of the world. A lonely situation under any circumstances, and especially so after you know the bond has been definitively severed. 
     
From the low rumble of the opening thump to the tremendous howling yawp of the song’s final moment, it reenacts that bloody haze of wounded loneliness and isolation - an isolation, as the song points out in the closing refrain, that isn’t lessened by being surrounded by other people. The line that gets me every time is “you must be somewhere in London / You must be loving your life in the rain,” because that’s when you know that he’s not talking to anyone, or not anyone who’s talking back. You must be in London, he reckons, loving whatever life you have now, but he doesn’t know. Not like you talk anymore. That’s the point.
     
But the sting eventually fades. That’s also the point. 
     
After a while you remember that the old hurts never stop hurting completely, you just eventually realize them ill-fitting and out-of-fashion. Maybe once and again you can take an old suit of clothing out for a spin, but making a habit of it earns you a certain kind of reputation. 
     
There is hope even in failure, for those who can see it. In the space of a heartbeat a single fanned spark smuggled from the wreckage can find once again the courage of a bonfire.
     
This essay took a while to write because it was about change, and I knew deep down that I couldn’t finish it until I understood what that meant. And for so long as I tried to force it there was no hope. But soon after returning home from Oregon I realized that I wanted to be done with the essay not just because it was frustratingly outstanding, but because there was actually other stuff that needed to be done,and this was beginning to hold up the rest of the show. It was time to get on with it. 
     
I mean, it’s not like you couldn’t see the metaphor there, if you really wanted to and I couldn’t stop you. 
     
Before I came to the farm I was worried that a retreat to rural isolation might be a retreat from the current moment. But the hills are on fire. There’s no retreat because there’s nowhere to retreat to. That’s also the point. 
     
Thoreau had his beans and I have my game, a different kind of farming but perhaps not that different, for our purposes. The orchard breathes in and out with the afternoon. Trucks carry boxes of walnuts and almonds from these branches to processing and shipping facilities in the region which, in turn, ship across the planet. Maybe you, dear reader, have eaten a salad topped with walnuts grown just a few yards from my sleeping head. 
     
We’re all in this together, now, you and me and everyone else. 
     
I look down again at the metal and glass box in my hand, a galaxy of zeroes and ones spinning pirouettes in the infinitesimal darkness. This matters, too, because of course games matter, and stories, and songs, and sitcoms and sports. It all matters, it’s all important. It’s all important until it isn’t. 
     
And one day you step out of the shower and catch yourself in the mirror and realize in a stroke the fullness of the chasm between now and then. Changes once molten and erratic have smoothed and cooled. Like the crack of a whip across the eyes you are the person you are becoming.

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Galaxy of Zeroes



If This Goes On I, IIIIIIVV

The Bad News Bears Go to Dantooine 12, 3, 4, 5


You Are the Person You Are Becoming 
Just Another Star Wars Essay


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